“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” -Virginia Woolf
When you look at Meher Moos, affectionately called “Magellan” Moos, you see an elegant 72-year-old woman with rosy cheeks, salt-and-pepper hair and gentle wrinkles that gather when she smiles. What you cannot see is that these wrinkles have many a story to tell – stories accumulated over 50 years of travelling to a staggering 180 countries.
For more than five decades, Meher has been on a never-ending adventure across the world, travelling far and wide in a quest to quench her wanderlust. Here’s the amazing story of this truly incredible woman!
Born and brought up in Maharashtra, Meher did her schooling from St. Joseph’s Convent in Panchgani. After that, she completed her BA (Hons.) from Sophia College, followed by LLB from the Government Law College in Bombay (now Mumbai). In 1965, at the young age of 21, she joined Air India as an air hostess.
Back then, it was a different era. The world was polarised by the Cold War, South Africa was under apartheid and India was still finding its feet after Independence. Telephones were yet to go mainstream, and letters were still the preferred mode of communication. At such a time, for an Indian woman to choose to travel abroad on her own was no mean feat.
What helped was that Meher was doing it for a living, and she had supportive parents. As a flight attendant with Air India, she would spend the next seven years flying on the Nairobi- Japan-New York route. During this time, her thirst for travel grew stronger.
In 1972, Meher was transferred to the ground staff team, but the travel enthusiast chose to join the tourism department of the airlines. Her new assignment was to promote the Buddhist tourism circuit in India to countries in East Asia, and for this, she was deployed to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.
While Meher’s job did take her places, she wanted to travel more, especially to offbeat places. However, it was not easy to just take off and travel across the world. One of the main hindrances she faced was financing her expeditions. Meher came from a middle-class family and the income from her job was what funded her trips.
She also needed the time to travel without having to leave her job. So, she started saving up money, as well as her leave quota. In fact, she would avoid taking any vacations for years and then expend her saved leaves on long trips. She often took loans to fund her trips too. Complementary or discounted tickets from Air India, where she worked for seven years as an air hostess and later became a senior tourism official, along with sponsorship, helped her immensely in financing her travels.
Meher credits her restless soul and travelling spirit to her parents who allowed her, their only child, to go to no-man’s lands. “My father was an enormous dreamer and he believed I could do anything I want because of my confidence and courage,” she reveals.
This passion for travel, paired with an intense curiosity about life and people, took Meher to isolated and inaccessible areas of the world where only, perhaps, National Geographic or Discovery would venture.
At a time when Indian vacations abroad were limited to Europe and North America, Meher was living with the Pygmies in Congo, camping on Easter Islands and hiking through the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea (home to headhunting tribes).
From the wilderness of Amazonian rainforests to the tropical beauty of Caribbean Islands, Meher soaked in the wonder of them all. She spent a whole day with the Bedouins in the Sinai desert, wondered through the ancient ruins of Macchu Picchu in Peru and trekked up to a smouldering volcano in Vanuatu, a tiny island in South Pacific Ocean. She has been on to 35 countries of Africa on a five-month solitary exploration and followed Marco Polo’s trail across Central Asia, through Samarkhand and Bokhara into Siberia, Mongolia and the vast Gobi desert.
In 1972, Meher made her way to the Arctic circle before spending time in the three Laplands of Scandinavia. She hiked across the Sahara desert into the fabled Timbuktu, following the Livingstone trail across Africa. In Bolivia, she sailed across Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. In Afghanistan, she climbed up to the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas, years before the Taliban blew them up. She has even stood on the Equator at Quito, the capital of Ecuador, with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern.
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The list of unusual and exotic places Meher has been to in the world is staggeringly long: most of the mountain chains of the world, Andes, Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, the Alps, Atlas, Himalayas; the remotest islands of Indonesia, Melanesia and Polynesia; across all oceans and several rivers, the Amazon, Congo, Zambesi, Mississippi, Yangtse, Ganges; to all the Gulf countries and the Middle East; across the International Dateline in Tonga; and, up to the shores of Easter Island.
However, one of her most treasured experiences is her expedition to the South Pole, Antarctica, in 1976. This trip was the result of a happy but unexpected event. A chance meeting with renowned Swedish-American explorer, Lars Eric Lindblad, in Africa translated into an invitation to join his team on board his ship to Antarctica. At that time, Africa was in the grip of political turmoil and Meher found it very difficult to get her visa and passport stamped.
Somehow, Meher managed to get this done but the plane that was meant to take her to Madagascar (where the expedition would begin) developed a hydraulic leak. She had to change her plans yet again and eventually caught up with the ship at Cape Town to begin a journey she would never forget.
And, thus, Meher Moos became the first Indian woman to go to Antarctica.
Closer home, Meher has travelled the length and breadth of India. From stark deserts to towering mountains, from verdant sanctuaries to ancient temple towns, she has covered all the states and union territories of India. These, she says, have been some of her most exciting journeys.
As for her advice to travellers who would like to follow her example, Meher says that it is important to do detailed research about the places you are going to visit. She also adds that travellers should remember to be courteous and respectful towards the citizens, the culture and customs of the place you are visiting.
“Go without suspicion, and with eagerness of learning, and share your culture with them, too, and you will be the finest traveler ever!” says the spectacularly well-travelled lady.
Over the years, Meher has written innumerable travelogues in leading journals and has conducted informative audio-visual shows all over India and abroad for various educational institutions. She is now looking forward to creating books for children.
“Children should be encouraged and motivated to travel, they should be given the initiative,” she says.
If there is another passion that Meher has that would, perhaps, rival her love for travelling, it is to do with food. And cooking and eating. She is not just a gourmet, or a talented cook, but is a foodie with extremely adventurous and daring taste buds. She has eaten and knows in absolute detail the main delicacies, native fruits and vegetables of all the 180 counties she has visited.
These include foods that even the most die-hard gourmets would baulk at trying. Like insects from the bark of trees in the River Amazon in Peru; monkey brain, mongoose, ant-eater and python in Cameroon; ostrich in South Africa; reindeer and snow-fed ptarmigan in Lapland; red worms in guacamole sauce, grasshoppers, crickets in Mexico; crocodile in Papua New Guinea; large field rats in Nigeria and more. She also loves to cook, though her expertise is limited to Parsi and European cuisines, and she detests desserts, because she cannot make them!
Traveller, foodie and perhaps one of India’s most unusual persons, Meher “Magellan” Moos now plans to take some of the greatest rail journeys of the world, have an astronomer show her the greatest constellations and cover the measly list of 25 countries that she is yet to bury her flag into. At 72, her eyesight is poor, hearing weak and she is afflicted by spinal problems but this amazing lady is undeterred.
“My ideology has always been to go where nobody has ever been, do what nobody has ever done and never be afraid to ask,” signs off Meher, whose several passports (she has 18 of them!) are thick enough to pass off as paperback tomes.