Aparna Shekar Roy, 30, national brand and field marketing manager at Red Bull India, left her former job at Marico Ltd and went backpacking through South America in 2008. For the Ninja—short for No-Income-No-Job-Aparna, the sobriquet she’s adopted on her travel blog, Backpacking Ninja (www.backpackingninja.com)—the 11-month adventure was as much about exploring fabled lands as reliving childhood tales. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why did you choose South America?
My dad used to travel to South American destinations, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, and Cuba, on work. I was exposed to Samba music, Pele and Maracuja juice before I even knew where they came from. So when I decided to take a year off, South America was the natural choice. It took a year to plan, six years to gather the money, and a lot of stuff happened out of plan, but it was worth it.
What are the most special memories?
I went to the Atacama desert in northern Chile. I took the overland route and got off at the border with Bolivia. I had lost my wallet in Peru and was travelling with limited money. I couldn’t change Bolivian currency in Chile, and my credit card was blocked. I couldn’t afford squad bikes or sand boards, so I did the cheap version of the Atacama dunes, took a local bus and walked across the very hot desert. Once I was on a high enough dune, I jumped off and rolled in the sands. Because I couldn’t afford a guide, I didn’t know what time of day you should do this, and went late evening. The wind was blowing hard enough to whip up a small sandstorm. It was quite scary, but luckily the road wasn’t far away and I had a scarf with which I covered my face.
Music therapy: (clockwise from top) Artists playing the berimbaus,a single-string instrument, during a capoeira session;jamming with friends at an informal barbecue and the Che Guevara museum.Photographs courtesy Aparna Shekar Roy
I had only $12 (around R550) to spend in Atacama, so I had to stay in a cheap hostel and leave after two days, taking a 24-hour bus ride to Santiago.
In Argentina, I visited the Che Guevara museum. Everyone knows about his famous bike ride—The Motorcycle Diaries— but before that, he did two bicycle trips. What amuses me is that so many people wear his T-shirts and aren’t even aware of his journey. The house concentrates more on his education, and understanding his life stories. Apart from being a political revolutionary, he was also a traveller, something I could relate to.
I ate the local food, which meant turning carnivorous. I’m okay with all the different meats on offer—beef, chicken, lamb and pork—but there are problems even then. In Argentinian barbecues, they cook every part of the animal... so I avoided anything I couldn’t recognize. And I studied capoeira in Brazil.
I had become addicted to capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, four years ago. Capoeira is probably the only martial art that’s performed to music. It was created in Brazil by African slaves. Because of the music, and the minimal contact between the players, people sometimes think it’s a dance form. It’s not.
There are capoeira instructors across the world these days. I first came across it in Mumbai, but studying it in Brazil exposed me to the roots and allowed me to meet and learn from some of the masters.
What’s the one thing you’ve done on the trip that you wouldn’t have done here?
During the Rio Carnival, I lived on the streets for almost a week, dancing all day and night, wearing ridiculous costumes, and drinking beer. The beer drinking has an inevitable outcome. With the bars overflowing with people, peeing in the overused toilets was not an option. That’s where miracle product Xixi Feliz, or Happy Pee, comes in. It’s a funnel made out of 300 GSM art card, which was being given away by a lady in exchange for beer.It has simple instructions on how to place it between your legs, and pee standing up while in public. If you’re shy, just drink until you lose your inhibitions.
A backpacker or a regular tourist… what would you rather be?
An out-of-money backpacker any day. My philosophy is that less is more, whether it’s money or baggage. I’ve had the most amazing experiences when I’ve travelled on a shoestring budget.
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