It was a chilly September afternoon in the mountains near Thimphu, and Ritu Goyal Harish was overjoyed to see a yak. Along with one hiking partner and a trekking staff of five, the Pune-based Indian journalist was on a five-day grueling trek up the steep, wild Himalayan slopes in the kingdom nation of Bhutan. It had been four days and they had not spotted a single another soul – not even an animal, forget humans. They just had the unimaginable beauty, wilderness and silence of the mountain for a company, sleeping in tents, conserving water and food, and putting one step above other on the arduous terrain. “The sight of that yak was the most amazing thing for us just then,” laughs the 43-year-old mother of two in recollection.
Pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone is something of a habit for Ritu. A north Indian brought up in Kerala, she moved to Delhi in the early 1990s to complete her graduation in English Literature from Delhi University. She then proceeded to tie the knot with her boyfriend, whom she is still married to 22 years later, became an investigative journalist, served as a judge in a consumer court, and raised two children while shifting bases every few years with her Naval engineer husband. Meanwhile, she continued to conquer mountains, sometimes taking a break from hiking in favor of biking up instead.
“I’ve come a long way from the person I used to be 20 years ago,” says Ritu, who has been part of the adjunct faculty at Pune’s Symbiosis University since 2010, where she teaches news reporting, feature writing and media ethics. Her love for traveling off the beaten path has, however, taken her on a new sort of adventure altogether lately, that of launching her own startup Ease India Travel offering tours she has personally curated and conceptualised.
It all began in 2012 when Ritu’s husband Harish was posted on an assignment abroad, and Ritu needed a break from bringing up the kids singlehandedly. She took off on an unplanned tour of Bhutan and ended up falling in love with the country. “They call it the happiest place on earth, and it’s addictive,” she smiles. She went again, and again. Each time, she discovered surprising new places, made new connections and came back with a sense of wanting more.
Ritu then began traveling across India, notably the Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh and parts of Kerala and Coorg in southern India, and wrote about her journeys on her travel blog. Her friends and acquaintances started asking her for suggestions for places to stay and things to do. She informally organised trips for them and went along, using her local contacts to arrange little details that she knew would charm them – picnics by the river, a special piece of music, a particular kind of bottled pickle. Like herself, her tour partners were mostly working professionals looking for a break from their routine lives. They cherished the unusual break and the personal touch. Soon traveling took up a greater part of her life than journalism. Ritu was making almost eight trips a year besides her two fixed tours to Bhutan. She decided to take the plunge: to make her passion her profession.
She registered Ease India Travel as a company, and soon discovered she had a knack for entrepreneurship, a legacy of her business family. She became a specialist those looking to go to Bhutan or select locations in India on a curated holiday found her company to be their best choice. So did solo travelers who did not really want to be alone for the duration of their holiday and who were open to new experiences off the usual tourist radar. A majority of them were women looking to let loose and have a good time, without judgment or regret. “Even though we have done some pretty wild things by conventional standards, their personal safety is assured,” says Ritu in her affable, friendly way. It’s no wonder that most of them end up becoming good friends and keep in touch even years after their trips with her.
Everything is so minutely customised for each traveller that Ritu’s teenage daughter Oorja, who interns with her, was surprised to know her mum never says ‘no’ to any request – from the kind of room someone wants, to having a bike available outside the airport in case they’re into that sort of thing, to special requests for their favourite beverage, and flexible dates. “For this reason, I can’t offer straight-off-the-shelf packages online,” says Ritu, who only designs tours after detailed conversations with her clients on the phone. The former journalist, of course, notes everything carefully! It’s not just a business responsibility; it’s also her genuine knack for human connection
that keeps Ritu devoted to the details. That, and an opportunity to get her boots on and take off to the hills again