Lately, there’s been a lot of debate around whether travelling really has the power to change you – to question your beliefs, to throw you out of your comfort zone, to challenge your notions of the world, to mould you into a different person. Most of us like to believe it does.
But if I’m completely honest, my first fifteen or so trips as a young adult didn’t do much for me. Sure, I had some great holidays. But that’s exactly what they were – an escape from my regular life. I didn’t want them to challenge or mould me. So I stayed in resorts with the best deals, hung out with friends, drank and stuck to familiar food. I didn’t bother seeking experiential accommodations, having deep conversations with locals or tracing the journey of my food.
So when we ask if travelling can change us, we should really be asking, do we want our travels to change – or challenge – us?
If the answer is yes, I believe this list of long weekend trips out of Mumbai is a starting point. Over the course of my travels in India, these are environmentally and/or socially committed experiences that compelled me to rethink the way I travel – and live:
Maachli Farmstay: for pristine beaches
Where: Malvan Coast, Maharashtra
I fondly remember waking up to birdsong and a gentle breeze in my handcrafted cottage, reading Tolstoy in my balcony that opened up to cashew, beetle nut and coconut plantations, bathing with water out of a copper bucket (such a forgotten luxury), and feasting on delectable Maharashtrian food, cooked with home-grown or locally sourced ingredients. Even more fondly, I remember driving and hiking to pristine beaches all along the Malvan coast – soft sands, flanked by forested mountains, covered with palm trees, not another soul in sight. But the lovingly family-run Maachli Farmstay is not just about the untouched Malvan coast… it is about visualizing what the coastline of Goa must’ve looked like twenty or so years ago, and why we need to tread lightly as travellers.
Getting there: Take an overnight bus or train, or fly to Goa from Mumbai. Along the scenic coastal route from Goa, Maachli is about a 3 hour drive away.
Hideout Farm: for foodies and animal lovers
Where: Vikramgad, Maharashtra
Hideout Farm is one family’s labor of love, who have toiled for years to convert a barren, rocky wasteland a couple of hours outside of Mumbai, into a gorgeous organic farm with alfonso mango trees, pineapple bushes and a kitchen garden full of herbs and salad leaves. Starry night skies, thought-provoking conversations and an ‘away from it all’ feeling aside, farm-to-table food – plant-based, oil-free, sugar-free and spanning Maharashtrian to fusion dishes – is at the core of the Hideout experience. As you nibble on what might be the most delicious pesto salad you’ve tasted in your life, or drink cold coffee that contains neither milk nor coffee, your notions of food, veganism, health and the environment are bound to evolve.
Getting there: State buses ply the route from Thane to Zadapoli village in the mornings. By car or taxi, Hideout Farm is about a two hour drive.
Malji Ka Kamra: for India’s incredible heritage
Where: Churu, Rajasthan
It is one thing to visit a royal fort in Rajasthan, quite another to rest your head under a hand-painted ceiling in an opulent haveli – with Rajput, Mughal and Venetian influences – built in the early 1900s by a wealthy merchant. The forgotten town of Churu in the Shekhawati region is a reminder of India’s incredible heritage – and its lost opportunities at heritage tourism – with ornate havelis whose plant-based paintings tell interesting stories of a bygone era (there’s even one of Jesus smoking up!) and whose architectural finesse (some have as many as 1100 stunning windows and doors) is fascinating. And you only need to go a few kilometers outside Churu town for brilliant desert sunsets and starry night skies!
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Delhi, from where Churu is a quick 4-hour train ride away. Malji Ka Kamra – a restored 20th century haveli to host travellers – has literally brought tourism to forgotten Churu.
Interiors of Goa: for culture seekers
Many people swear off Goa, since its beaches are overrun with shacks, tourists and waste, and I totally get that. But the real Goa lives away from the beaches, amidst the rice paddies and forests and old Portuguese-era houses – and although things are changing fast, we can still steal a glimpse into the susagade way of life, ride a bike along the lush green paddies and pristine backwaters, and feast on authentic Goan food (no, Brittos doesn’t count). And as we ditch the coast for the interiors and get into the Goa state of mind, it is sure to dawn on us how our travel choices impact how we experience the places we visit.
Also see: Road Tripping in Rural Maharashtra
Purushwadi: for a million fireflies
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
Imagine if you will: Thousands of stars in the dark night sky above; the valley below lit up with flashing Christmas lights – the mating signals of millions of fireflies! Just as the rains begin, fireflies descend upon Purushwadi, a charming fishing village in the Sahyadri mountains, and put on a show unlike any other for human eyes.
I was surprised to learn that until the 1980s, posh areas like Bandra in Mumbai were nothing but rice paddies and palm trees, and you could see shimmering stars in the night sky. The light pollution in our cities and towns is the worst enemy of stargazing – and turns out, also of fireflies, for light from human sources confuses their mating patterns and messes with their reproduction process. A night in Purushwadi was enough to make me question: is light indeed the greatest invention or an unnecessary evil?
Getting there: Purushwadi is about a 4-5 hour drive from Mumbai; it’s possible to get pretty far with the Mumbai local train. Grassroutes Journeys offers community-based tourism in Purushwadi.
Mangalajodi: for birding enthusiasts
Where: Chilika Lake, Odisha
On a warm spring morning, I glided along silently on a rustic, wooden row boat on the gentle waters of Chilika Lake. The sun rose amid the clouds, migratory birds played along the shores, my guide spoke of how the marshland of Mangalajodi is different from the open Chilika Lake. Beautiful though it was, it was no ordinary boat ride, and Mangalajodi is no ordinary village – over tens of years, Mangalajodi has transformed from a village of notorious bird poachers to a village of bird conservationists; indeed, my guide and boatman were former poachers! The number of migratory birds in the village marshlands has grown from 5,000 to 3,00,000 per year, proving that no feat of human transformation is impossible.
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar, from where Mangalajodi is an easy 2 hour drive. Stay at the community-run Mangalajodi Ecotourism to get an insight into the transformation of the village.
Dehna: for monsoon love and village life
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
People often say that travel broadens our mind – and it surely can when the place in question is an obscure little Maharashtrian village, just three hours from bustling Mumbai. Speaking to the village youth can put into perspective our life of privilege – access to good education, learning English at an early age, work opportunities online and offline. As you walk along the rice paddies and hike in the Sahyadris, indulge in the warm hospitality of local families, live a day in the shoes of a rice farmer and gaze at the starry skies by night, think of how it was by a mere twist of fate that we were born in a life of privilege. Chances are, you’ll change the way you interact with those less privileged, right from your house help to the server at the cafe you frequent.
Getting there: Dehna is an easy three hour drive from Mumbai. Grassroutes Journeys has developed community-based tourism in the village and organizes trips and stays in tents or homestays.
Devrai Art Village: for artistic inspiration
Where: Off Panchgani, Maharashtra
Mahabeshwar and Panchgani mostly evoke images of chaotic construction and sunset points overrun with obnoxious tourists. Until you find Devrai Art Village, an artistic accommodation and project that helps Naxal-affected families relocate to Panchgani and revive the lost Dhokra Art from the Bastar region as a source of livelihood. The art village has also been attempting to map forgotten trails in the Western Ghats that were first charted out by the British; trails that will have you hike in old forests and overgrown wilderness and deposit you at the edge of cliffs with stellar views of the valley below – and make sure the only images Panchgani evokes in you are of stunning natural beauty.
Getting there: Volvo buses from Mumbai take 6-7 hours to reach Panchgani; it is also possible to take a train part of the way, or drive. Read more about the lost art and lost trails at Devrai Art Village.
What are your favorite long weekend escapes from Mumbai?
I was hosted at some of the above places, and paid for the others on my own. I only recommend experiences I’ve truly loved!