I am invited for a tête-à-tête with Meher Heroyce Moos at South Bombay’s plush Oberoi hotel, a favourite among foreign tourists visiting India on business or pleasure. As we wait by the elevator, 71-year old Meher telling me how she and Vikram Oberoi go back a long way, we are joined by a couple who seem to be visiting from Europe. Without so much as a second of deliberation, Meher stretches out her hand in her usual gregarious manner, and asks them where they are visiting from. They say they are from the Czech Republic.
“Oh, how I loved the Pivo during my stay in the Czech Republic!”
And just like that, the ice is broken. By the fifth floor, the three had swapped notes on the exquisite landscapes of Poland, and by the thirteenth, she was narrating to her captivated audience, the story of the time she was invited by the government of Poland to work for them as an ambassador.
“If I had accepted the invitation from that country, I would have made 179 other enemies!” she says.
I take a moment to process how effortlessly this exchange transpired. She not only struck up, but grippingly held a conversation with two complete strangers from another country, and managed to do so by making references to their homeland’s culture and using local anecdotes. The couple may have felt at ease during that brief elevator ride, reassured perhaps that they haven’t stumbled all that far from home, and Meher walked away making yet another friend from yet another country. I enviously imagine how easy it must be for her to relate to just about anyone, after having travelled extensively to a staggering 181 countries.
“I have always been fearless, I have a lot of confidence,” she tells me, and there’s no reason not to believe her.
A young Meher’s first stride towards what would go on to become her very reason for existing, was when she became an air hostess with Air India in 1965 at the age of 20. She would fly the Nairobi – Japan –New York route for seven years, after which she went on to become ground staff.
But Meher had been bitten by the travel bug. Her flair for exploration, coupled with her outgoing nature, ensured that she would go on to make the most of this passion.
The next leg of her expedition was when she joined the Tourism department, and was deployed to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, to promote Buddhism to countries in the Far East.
Her journeys took her to Thailand, where she met an important Buddhist Thai King’s sister. She was even fortunate enough to not only be blessed by, but also interact with the Dalai Lama in Dharmashala.
She participated in the conceptualisation and institution of the Buddhist trail. It was projects like these that Meher had a natural talent for, that kept weaving together adventure after adventure. She has shot and showcased films on India in foreign lands, teamed up with Zubin Mehta, written books on India, organised a lot of festivals, and even conducted Familiarization or FAM tours.
Some of the stints she looks back on fondly was a posting to Italy for four years, which brought with it opportunities to open up central European havens like Cyprus, Bulgaria, Malta, and Yugoslavia to Indians, even as the tourism mindset back home hardly evolved beyond the US and the UK.
The year 1977 was when she pulled out all the stops. After a chance encounter with Swedish-American explorer Lars-Eric Lindblad, a dramatic turn of events involving a leaky cauldron on a plane, a very difficultly procured visa, and a ship caught just in the nick of time, she became the first Indian woman to reach the uninhabited hostile continent of Antarctica.
“My ideology is to go where nobody has ever been, and do what nobody has ever done.”
She even spent six months travelling to 35 countries in Africa, which she says, is not for the weak-willed.
“Africa is for any traveller who has the guts and the interest, and is not looking for Gucci and Prada.”
True to her belief, she spent a whole day in Sinai with the Bedouins, and two nights with the pygmies, which she says was a life-affirming experience. “One single incident explains the difference in the way of life of the pygmies- they send their children to school in the very first week of chicken pox!”
“My whole life has been one big unbelievable dream. I thank the Lord for giving me the privilege of seeing and sharing the wide spectrum of our miraculous world. I never fail to acknowledge my enormous gratitude to my late parents, Dolly and Heroyce Moos, who, in spite of me being their only child, never stopped me from going into the remotest corners of the world, simply because they trusted me and knew my enormous personal courage and confidence.”
Every trip for her would hold unique prospects, and she would never restrict herself to a single travel style. On some trips, the arts and crafts of the place would draw her in. “I would pick up little trinkets of all the places I would travel to. MP’s brass jewellery, exquisite Katha work, terracotta, glass and wool jewellery, and Yemen’s Jewish silver jewellery at a souk there have been some of my best finds.”
The necklace she was wearing, a dainty little pendant and earring set bearing the brightest colours of the spectrum, is from a Hopi Indian exhibition from the Grand Canyon, she says.
Some trips bring out her deepest desires to learn and expand her knowledge, like her 1975 trip to Mongolia. As an anthropologist, she loved tracing the move of the Mongoloid race from Alaska to Russia to the Far East.
But the one common theme running through this is that Meher is an unbridled force of nature and she follows her instincts. “I didn’t know the word apprehensive. When I was posted in Delhi, which is a city I love dearly, even more than Bombay, people would go, ‘Oh poor dear!’ and I would say to them, ‘You see how I turn it around!’”
As a solo traveler, people have often spelled out the number one fear on anyone’s mind when it comes to the idea of a woman exploring a foreign land alone- safety.
“People ask me if I was afraid or assaulted. I tell them, when I am in someone else’s land, I keep my head and eyes to the ground and respect their culture. I study their history, so I do not just go there like an ignorant beast. That’s how I win their hearts.”
On all of her trips, Meher prefers putting up in youth hostels. She enjoys the company of foreigners during her stays, and cherishes the opportunity it holds to exchange notes on culture and swap travel bucket lists.
And yet more daring than her itineraries, are her culinary exploits.
“My passion is food. I have eaten everything that creeps and crawls across the earth.”
If you have the stomach for it, read on… She’s devoured snakes in Cameroon, Africa, over 12 varieties of deer and antelope, and zebra; ants and wasps from the local bazaar in Mizoram; horse and donkey in Bologna, Italy; delicacies like fresh green worms off insect carts in Thailand; a white-tailed ptarmigan and pheasant in Rovaniemi in the Arctic circle of Finland; and deadly baby piranhas in South America. She has also drunk the sap of the Berioska tree in Siberia… the list is goes on, and while it may be mouth-watering to some, it is mindboggling to others!
Some of her favorite places:
Closer home, she has travelled the length and breadth of our own wonderland. “We have beautiful sanctuaries in our country – from Ranthambore in Rajashthan to Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh and from Periyar in Kerala to Kazhiranga and Manas in Assam; from Dachigam in Srinagar to Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. Our temple towns in Tamil Nadu, the ancient kingdoms of Vijaynagar in Hampi, the serenity of tracing Buddha’s place of birth in Lumbini to his death in Koshinagar, and the breathtaking beauty of the deserts in Rajasthan and the whole of Kutch…” These she says, have been some of her most exciting journeys.
Her message to all adventure seekers:
“Remember…be courteous and respectful towards citizens in your manner of clothes, speech, and action. Do not make fun of their customs and practices that you have had the misfortune of not knowing enough about, for we too have savageries like child sacrifice. Go without suspicion, and with eagerness of learning, and share your culture with them, too, and you will be the finest traveler ever!
With a measly list of 25 countries that she is yet to bury her flag into, there are no prizes for guessing where you would find Meher next week. She plans to take one of the greatest Rail Journeys of the world, and have an astronomer show her the greatest constellations.
Just another day in Meher Heroyce Moos’s life – a life spectacularly well spent.