Don’t you miss the beginning of quarantine? Baking banana bread, making dalgona coffee, playing Ludo online and catching up on all the web series on our lists?
Now it feels like we're all just dead inside, with no eagerness to create, bake, write or learn new skills anymore.
However, while things may have been monotonous for most of us, that's not the case for Maria Soomro, an ex-banker and a full-time backpacker, hitchhiker and trekker by passion.
After spending years in a bank cabin, Maria realized her calling couldn’t be found behind the screen. She resigned from her job to follow her dreams and soon found out that her heart is on the road.
Beginning of the hitchhiking journey
Just before the lockdown began, Maria packed her bags from Karachi to come to Islamabad and began a journey for the mountains. What sets her apart from the rest?
Unlike most travellers, she has been hitchhiking (travel by getting free lifts in passing vehicles) across Pakistan.
Although intimidating and challenging at times, Maria gets a high from hitchhiking.
“Traveling is an indescribable experience in itself but hitchhiking is a life-changing experience that makes you find yourself. You get to meet interesting people from diverse backgrounds who share their life stories with you when you open up to them. At the same time, you save money on transportation while having an exciting and unpredictable travel adventure," she told Dawn Images.
One wonders how Maria got the courage to leave home - but five years of traveling with groups had given her enough courage and confidence to venture out on her own this time.
Convincing her parents was the first challenge she encountered.
“They had confidence in me but they were worried about what other people would say and it took a little convincing for them to let me go," she added.
Another major challenge awaited Maria when she reached Islamabad. “Just when I was about to leave the capital, the lockdown was enforced and I was stuck there exploring surrounding areas like Bani Gala, Barakahu, Shadrah, Chattar and Padhana Village.”
Maria waited till the lockdown eased and ventured up north. She hitchhiked to Nathia Gali and then Miranjani, Mushkpuri, Mingora in Swat to Dir, Chitral and Kalash. She then hitchhiked all the way to the Rakaposhi Base Camp, Astore, Rama Lake, Bulan, Gorikot, Tarishing, Rupal Valley and Nangaparbat Base Camp.
How does Maria ensure safety?
“Hitchhiking is not as risky as most people believe. if you avoid traveling after sunset, it's safe. I have met some of the kindest Pakistanis during my hitchhiking adventures and have never faced difficulties but it’s important to listen to your intuition that will help you stay away from trouble,” revealed Maria.
When asked how she ensures her safety, she mentioned that besides trusting her gut feeling, she makes sure she has downloaded offline maps with her and keeps a knife with her at all times.
Maria’s mode of transportation depends on what’s available – cars, wagons, rickshaws, jeeps, even tractors. She makes do with whatever she finds on the road.
“I always initiate conversations to know the person and if I feel uncomfortable, I just ask them to stop at some petrol station. Whenever I sit in a vehicle, I send my live location to any trustworthy friend of mine with vehicle details,” she added.
The thrill, network and kindness that comes with it
When asked if she was ever scared, Maria told Images that in her earlier travels, she once took a lift from truck coming back to Karachi from Hyderabad with a friend.
“That’s when I realised hitchhiking is not something everyone wants to do; it's crazy waiting on the road for free rides so I decided to challenge myself and pushed my limits to do something different. Pakistani people are so supportive and they find my travels and stories interesting. I have made hundreds of connections during my adventures and all of them are now in touch with me on social media,” she said.
For Maria, hitchhiking is simple and easy. She stands on the road and faces the direction of incoming cars, extends her thumb (a sign of hitchhiking) and people notice.
“There are very few chances that you’ll meet people going to your final destination so you always need to make more stops for your destination. I check maps and ask them about my final destination, if no then I complete my journey by making more stops to reach destination," she told us.
Sometimes people find it weird that she’s standing on the road. Others think she doesn’t have money to travel. Once, a guy came and gave her 1000 rupees thinking she needs money.
Another time, she requested to hitchhike on a local wagon from Mastuj to Laspur but there was no space in it.
“The people on the wagon made space for me. One guy stood throughout to make room for me," she recalls.
It’s this kindness that makes Maria go on for months with a small backpack and a few essentials that include a flash light, knife, sleeping bag, tent and mattress, comfortable shoes and markers and cardboard to write the name of destinations one wants a lift for.
Dream come true
Hitchhiking across Pakistan has not only been a dream come true for Maria but has also given her the confidence to dream bigger. Currently, she is in Astore, hitchhiking towards Skardu and exploring small valleys and villages crossing Deosai Plains - but once she’s done, she wants to go all the way to Iran when the border opens.
The journey has changed Maria in more ways than one.
“For me, traveling is an act of self-discovery. When you're in contact with different cultures, religions, places and people, you start to understand better how you think and who you are. The more you travel, the more you realise that there's no such thing as right or wrong. It's just the way you perceive things and everyone has a different perception”.
Hitchhiking and traveling solo around the country has also made Maria register that anything is possible.
“I'm the only girl from my family who's traveling and exploring all alone and breaking stereotypes. My aim is to encourage and motivate girls, particularly those from a Sindhi background."
Being on the road also helped Maria understand that change doesn’t come overnight. “It takes time, effort and focus but once you set your mind to it, nothing is impossible”.
Next time you begin to feel monotonous whipping some coffee, baking banana bread or taking an hour-long course, remind yourself of Maria and her daring journey hitchhiking across the country exploring some of the most beautiful valleys and towns in Pakistan - maybe she inspires you to do the same!