With a recent Thomson Reuters survey deeming India to be the most unsafe country for women, it is well-known truth that women are constantly bargaining and negotiating with the idea of reclaiming spaces around us (both public and private) with an impending sense of danger looming over our heads. What happens then, when three young women choose to see their country on their own terms, and yet primarily relying on the kindness of strangers?

Ishika, Heena and Sukanya, are the people behind the recently-released ‘The Hello Project’, a documentary-series on three women hitchhiking to Goa from Mumbai on a budget of Rs 100 a day. Sukanya Sharma says it was a random conversation between Heena and her at their workplace which led to this idea.

She adds in good humour, “Now this may be a strange fun fact, but walking is an activity that we thoroughly enjoy. So we thought we’d make this Goa trip interesting, and walk all the way to Goa! We then soon realised that we’d probably be out of jobs by then, so our next idea was then to hitchhike!”

At first, she thought it was just one of those plans you make with friends that never actually fall in place, but Heena made it official by sending an email to her and extending the invitation to her friend Ishika, whom Sukanya did not know at that time. They gave themselves a deadline to make the trip happen, and before they knew it, her random whim to go to Goa for the first time became a whole adventure story!

Walking is an activity that we thoroughly enjoy. So we thought we’d make this Goa trip interesting, and walk all the way to Goa! We then soon realised that we’d probably be out of jobs by then, so our next idea was then to hitchhike! – Sukanya Sharma

Sukanya specifically remembers calling her mother first to tell her she was going to hitchhike to Goa. She had lived away from home for some years by then, “And I’m happy to say that my parents give me enough freedom to make my own decisions, (and even mistakes). When I called my mother I recall her persuading me to take more friends with me! “Beta, zyada log honge toh safe hoga…” My father just laughed initially because he thought I was joking, but then was surprisingly very excited by this idea. Even my grandfather squealed at the idea of us not staying in hotel rooms but our tent.”

The group realised, after many conversations with people around them, that their main challenge would not be their budget, or logistics, but safety. That was the only topic of discussion. Sukanya admits that it was a bit exhausting to try to reassure others and then themselves that they’d be safe. But they planned logistics, and had a rough route to their everyday destinations, and had mapped out local police stations and community centres, in case they needed help.

She explains, “When we actually went out on the road and started interacting with these strangers, we realised all we really had to do was come out of our shell, break our assumptions, and simply have a conversation. A ‘hello’ has incredible energy, and synergy to bind people around us, and we often forget its force.

Painting a bad picture is so convenient for us that we forget to make an effort to really get out there and experience the truth. While we aren’t suggesting that everyone go out there unprepared, but we did realise that it’s important to push boundaries so we can grow and understand the world better. “Stranger is danger,” is coaxed into our mindset since we’re born, and at some point, we need to challenge this and see for ourselves. What would we be without our curiosity?”

A ‘hello’ has incredible energy, and synergy to bind people around us, and we often forget its force.

While their initial intention was just to capture their experience, and let the footage speak for itself, Sukanya thinks they realised that it was important to also add a voice to this series; considering the kind of conversation it had initiated in their immediate circle of friends and family. If it weren’t for their conviction, the trip would never have been possible. The idea just seemed so ridiculous to everyone that in her head it absolutely had to manifest to prove a point.

“There are many times where we (read: women) miss out on an opportunity of fun, and adventure simply because of some social norms which are limiting. A regular travel itinerary involves exploration, adventure, fun more than it involves just constantly having to look over your shoulder, worrying if we are safe or not. That shouldn’t be the centre of the discussion, but unfortunately, that becomes it. With the documentary, we want to tell the women in India that the world is a big place, and if we don’t give ourselves that chance to explore it, who really will?

We need to step out. We need to get out of our comfort zone. And sometimes we need to challenge our own thoughts to be able to move forward. Getting some good news today is such a rare occasion that we’ve convinced ourselves to live in fear. We also make the mistake of creating our own bubble, shutting ourselves in and creating a reality that we find most comfortable to accept…but what happens when we move past this illusion? This is a conversation we want women to have. The next time you hold yourself back from getting on the adventure bandwagon, don’t let others’ opinion derail your journey. If you’re convinced, there’s nothing that can shake your beliefs,” she asserts.

I’m not too sure what else kept us motivated but just the fact that we made a commitment to ourselves and we couldn’t back out. What’s a better motivation than honouring your own word? We weren’t ready to disappoint ourselves.

Having said that, the trip was not without its challenges. The last day, the three women did get lost and were stranded somewhere near Tarkarli, ahead of Malvan. They had no food, barely enough water, and it was excruciatingly hot. Having walked about 17 or so km along the beach, they thought they’d never be able to reach their destination for the day, but they did not give up. It was also extremely helpful that all three of them kept pushing each other to not lose hope or energy.

“Sometimes when you’re travelling alone, giving yourself that pep talk 24 by 7 becomes exhausting, but here we could switch those roles and that was comforting.

I’m not too sure what else kept us motivated but just the fact that we made a commitment to ourselves and we couldn’t back out. What’s a better motivation than honouring your own word? We weren’t ready to disappoint ourselves,” says Sukanya.

The group is still in touch most of the people they met on the journey. Sukanya feels that it’s fascinating how a simple conversation can open so many doors!

“They shower us with blessings each year on festivals, and sometimes give us updates on their lives…When you are on an unplanned journey as this, it is easy to get carried away and take a detour. It seemed like such a good life! Literally living on the road, mingling with strangers, getting to know communities and stories, being surprised every day, challenging your perceptions every day. It’s a big world out there, and honestly limiting ourselves to our bubble is the biggest mistake we can make! So yes, we definitely are planning to do more such trips in the future. I’d ask you guys to stay tuned!”

Picture Credit: Sukanya Sharma

Also Read: A Truly Brilliant Idea Heralds Change: Creative Whiz Tista Sen

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