What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack. Read More
It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More
I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More
It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!
For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.
Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.
Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.
The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food, education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.
I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.
The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.
I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.
And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?
Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.
These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More
I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.
A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.
An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.
A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.
A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.
A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.
A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.
The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.
A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.
An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.
So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.
You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.
Read more about my adventures in Turkey.
As a digital nomad, I’ve always been on the lookout for the perfect city to transit through – a city with good connectivity, affordable accommodation and incredible vegan food. After many misses, I’m convinced that Bangkok checks all those boxes.
Having transited through the city thrice in the last six months – and indulged in mouthwatering local and international vegan food – I feel compelled to share my recommendations.
Take my list of the best vegan and vegetarian-friendly cafes and restaurants around Bangkok, and indulge your taste buds in the city’s thriving vegan food scene:
Here’s a confession: Every now and then, while transiting through Bangkok, I make sure I stay a night or two just so I can eat at Veganarie Concept. Many vegans describe the food as “vegan food porn” and I agree. The enormous menu features a wide range of healthy and indulgent smoothies, burgers, wraps, pasta, Thai food, bowls and a huge choice of mouth-watering desserts – all vegan. I always try to go there hungry, so I can eat as much as possible! If you’re on the fence about going vegan because you love your comfort food, I highly recommend giving Veganarie Concept a shot.
My favourites are their dark chocolate and chocolate and mint smoothies, pulled BBQ burger (made with pulled mushroom and vegan mayo), avocado toast, pesto pasta with marinated soy chunks and chocolate smoothie bowl. For dessert, I love their decadent chocolate cakes. My mouth is watering thinking of the food even as I type this 😉
Vegan tip: I’ve also tried their wraps and Thai food, and wasn’t as impressed as with the other dishes.
Join my food adventures on my new vegan Instagram account: @nomadicvegan
On a hot Bangkok afternoon, after being disappointed to miss the lunch hours of the place I had planned to eat at, I walked into Im Chan – a hole in the wall joint just off the main Sukhumvit road. I ordered the morning glory and Chinese kale stir fries off the limited vegetarian options on the menu and explained that I didn’t eat fish or oyster sauce – only soya sauce. The food was surprisingly delicious, and I polished off both dishes with rice and two coconut waters! I’ve heard that many local food joints use MSG in the food; I’m not sure if Im Chan does, for it was lost in translation.
Vegan tip: I rely on a smell test to tell if my food contains fish / oyster sauce while in Thailand. The food at Im Chan passed, though none of the dishes are labelled vegan or vegetarian.
Also read: Going Back to the Places We Love
Bonita Cafe and Social Club
I’m a sucker for a good vegan sandwich, and when I spotted a vegan club sandwich while browsing the menu of the all vegan Bonita Cafe and Social Club, I knew I had to make the longish journey from Sukhumvit to try it. The location is pretty obscure, which is probably why the cafe was quite empty – and that’s a pity because the food was amazing! The huge club sandwich came stuffed with layers of vegan egg (made from tofu), vegan mayo, avocados and veggies, and I could only finish half of it.
The owner is a Japanese guy who, even at the age of 40+ (my guess), runs ultra marathons of over 100 miles – and has been vegan for 8-9 years!
Vegan tip: Come hungry; the sandwich packs in a great deal of protein!
Also read: Not Your Typical Travel Guide to Taiwan
While waiting for my clothes to be washed at a nearby coin laundry, I was killing time wandering about the food hall of Em Quartier Mall in Sukhumvit when I stumbled upon Açai Story, that offers – you guessed it – Acai berry smoothie bowls with the most delicious flavours and toppings! I couldn’t help indulging in a second breakfast with the Sunshine bowl – with an Acai berry base, topped with mangoes, goji berry, raw cacao, pumpkin seeds and more. Despite the initial brain freeze, the bowl was absolutely delicious, healthy and fulfilling!
Vegan tip: All the bowls on offer are vegan by default; the stall is located near the escalators going down to the food hall at Em Quartier Mall.
May Veggie Home
While looking for a vegan-friendly Thai restaurant in the Sukhumvit area in Bangkok, I found May Veggie Home on Happy Cow. This vegetarian restaurant was already packed with people when I showed up for an early dinner – and unlike many local Thai food places, they don’t use MSG.
On my own, I polished off two big dishes of stir-friend morning glory with tofu and stir-fried sunflower sprouts with mushroom, accompanied by brown rice. The food wasn’t as incredible as some I had in Chiang Mai, but I left pretty satisfied.
Vegan tip: Their vegan ice creams looked tempting, but I ran out of space!
Din Tai Fung
My love affair with the Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung began way back in Singapore when I first tried their steamed vegetarian dumplings. I’ve even been lucky enough to eat at the super popular original Din Tai Fung in a small shop house in Taiwan… and never miss the chance to gobble up some dumplings at their outlet in Bangkok.
The options for vegans / vegetarians are limited, but I absolutely love the steamed vegetarian dumplings. The steamed vegetable buns and steamed truffle mushroom dumplings are good too – and their lemongrass juice is not to be missed!
Vegan tip: Mix your own soya sauce and vinegar to dip the dumplings. The chilli paste sometimes contains shrimp – check with the server, and if that’s the case, ask for cut chilli on the side to mix in your dip.
When my local Airbnb hosts told me they love the food at the all-vegan Broccoli Revolution in Bangkok, despite being hard core meat eaters, I had to give it a try. I loved their ambiance, off the main road but with huge glass walls and lots of greenery within.
I tried the avocado bruschetta – which dipped in a sweetish sauce and topped with nuts – was quite different from what I expected but it sure grew on me. The green curry Buddha bowl, with quinoa and veggies, was very filling. And among their wide range of sorbets, I tried and was delighted by the chocolate flavour.
Vegan tip: Come here at your leisure; a great cafe to chill out, read or work on your laptop.
Also read: Authentic Goan Food to Try in North Goa
It’s pretty rare to find an Ethiopian restaurant outside of Ethiopia, so when I stumbled upon one in Bangkok, I just had to try it. It is tucked away in a random alley off Nana BTS station, not very innovative with its name “Ethiopian Restaurant”, and the ambiance feels a bit shady at first. But once I stepped in, I found both the staff and the patrons – mostly Ethiopians living in Bangkok – to be rather friendly.
I ordered the beyayenetu – the fasting meal combo – and was delighted to eat injera (a crepe made of teff) with shiro (chickpeas), lentils and veggies again, though it was way too big for me to polish off alone!
Vegan tip: The beyayenetu (fasting platter) is always vegan. Other vegan / vegetarian options include a la carte versions of the chickpeas, lentils and veggies. I recommend trying shiro if you only want to try one thing.
Also read: An Experiential Guide to New York City
Veganerie Dessert Stall
While looking for a quick snack, I was delighted to find a food stall that exclusively sells Veganarie Desserts – just outside the Gourmet Market in Em Quartier Mall. I sampled the chocolate cake again, the banana muffin and the chocolate chip cookies, and loved them all.
Vegan tip: Good for a quick takeaway!
Find Veganarie Dessert Stall on: HappyCow
Late night vegan / vegetarian friendly restaurant in Bangkok:
It’s been thrice now that I’ve landed in Bangkok late at night, when most eating joints are closed. Luckily, Pratunam Seafood, located just opposite Ramada Hotel, is open until 3 am daily, is a reliable option – and even though it is primarily a seafood joint, it does a wicked vegan/vegetarian green curry!
Vegan tip: The staff is well-versed with vegetarian food, but there’s no harm in reminding them that you don’t eat fish or oyster sauce.
Vegan / vegetarian friendly restaurant at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok:
As much as I love the vegan food options in Bangkok, I hate the average food choices at Suvarnabhumi Airport. After several bad meals, I’ve finally found a good Pad Thai at Mango Tree, located near the D Gates.
The menu labels it as a J Pad Thai (J means Buddhist vegetarian, without meat, fish sauce or seafood). The default version comes with egg, but unlike most other airport restaurants, the staff is able and willing to customise it without egg. My vegan noodles were perfectly cooked, a little spicy and delicious with crushed peanuts and bean sprouts. They also offer J fried rice with vegetables.
Also read: Turkish Food: A Vegetarian’s Delight
Bonus: Vegan cosmetics / toiletries in Bangkok
Since I turned vegan, I’ve been pretty shocked to learn that many of our daily toiletries – shower gels, shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers – contain cruel animal products like honey, bee wax and gelatin, or worse, are still tested on animals.
While in Bangkok, I was happy to buy products at the British-owned Boots Pharmacy which has several branches across the city. The Boots N7 Botanical range is vegan and so labelled, and features a wide range of products from hair serum to make-up, though on the expensive side. Other than that, like many modern pharmacies these days, Boots also sells the Original Source shower gel – vegan, affordable and a great product; I love their lavender and mint & tea tree shower gels.
Vegan / vegetarian places in Bangkok I’m yet to try:
Rasayana Retreat: Offers raw vegan pizzas, zoodles and desserts, and cold-pressed juices.
Ariya Organic Cafe: Serves up organic sushi, salads and desserts.
Resources for vegan / vegetarian food across Thailand:
CHIANG MAI: Mostly Amelie – The Complete Chiang Mai Vegan Food Guide
BANGKOK: Vegan Food Quest – Vegan Guide to Bangkok
KOH PHANGAN: Vomad – The Most Delicious Vegan Guide to Koh Phangan
PHUKET: The Veggie Passport – The Best Vegetarian/Vegan Food in Phuket
What is the best vegan / vegetarian food you’ve had in Bangkok? Which of the above would you most like to try?
When I first met Niuma (Mariyam Niuma), she was renting a small house on a local island in the Maldives, spending her days surfing in the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. As she spoke of her laidback life, I began yearning to live out my hideaway island dream too.
We were at the World Travel Writers Conference in the Maldives, where I was speaking on a travel panel about storytelling. We stole a few moments to chat about our recent adventures and the similar battles we had fought at home to chase our dream of travelling the world.
But I never truly understood her battles until I spent a couple of weeks living in a small guesthouse on Maalhos, a local Maldivian island, a few months later. Unlike “resort islands” – private islands occupied by a tourist resort – local islands offer an intimate glimpse into daily life in the Maldives. It was on Maalhos that I realized that most Maldivian women, including young girls, are expected to fully cover up their bodies even under the hot tropical sun; that their ambitions are often limited to becoming teachers, though most of them only end up fulfilling the duties of a wife; that even though the pristine blue ocean is in their backyard, they are shy (and often not permitted) to join the boys and men to learn to swim, surf, snorkel or dive.
So I had to meet Niuma again – the first female solo traveller, couchsurfer and female surf photographer from the Maldives – over drinks in Male, speak to her about her unconventional life of travel and share her inspiring story with you:
An adventurous soul:
Niuma’s love affair with the ocean began as a little kid, when on long ferry rides from Male to her father’s island village, she imagined herself as a mermaid! She has travelled solo across Southeast Asia, crewed a sailboat from Malaysia to Thailand, taken surf lessons in Morocco, crossed 96 islands on foot in the Maldives and honed her surf photography skills to become Maldives’ first female surf photographer.
When I reached out to her for this story, she was sailing on a 45-foot catamaran on a two day adventure from the Maldives to India!
Funding her travels: Work, save, travel, repeat:
Her tryst with travel began in 2004, when she won return tickets to Colombo on Emirates. She was so stoked by the win that she decided to fight her fears and go solo to Sri Lanka. She loved it, and eventually saved enough money to move to Sri Lanka for college, where she began experimenting with Couchsurfing on her travels – becoming the first Couchsurfer from the Maldives!
Upon returning home, she scored short-term work gigs of six months to a year – with NGOs, environmental organisations and high-end resorts – and saved up what she earned to travel in between. She took courses in surfing and diving, and invested in professional gear for surf photography. This paved the way for her to live at surf spots in Pondicherry, Morocco, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where she would learn surfing in exchange for her work as a photographer – and gradually begin earning a living as a surf guide and surf photographer.
Challenging societal conventions:
Try to get out of your comfort zone as much as possible. Try many things and fail many times. Try to identify your why. ~ Niuma
Back when she first travelled out of the Maldives, Niuma said she felt like she somehow attracted people who supported her dreams. But the more she travelled, the more she realised how different she was; everyone she grew up with was getting married and having babies and doing ‘normal’ things.
Apart from the burden that society placed on her, being in the surf industry and working as a surf photographer and guide, came with many challenges. She didn’t feel accepted in the local community for a long time. But her work built her reputation, and gradually people warmed up to the idea of supporting a Maldivian woman who was making it on her own.
On fears/challenges and conquering them:
I think it all comes down to our fears. After I moved out of home in 2011, I realised that I carried around a lot of fears – about relationships, failures, living on my own, society’s expectations – all which I had to face and let go. ~ Niuma
Niuma had been wanting to dive and surf since she was a kid, but it was only at age 28 that she learnt how to swim! She couldn’t let her eye glasses get in the way of her dream, so she saved up for a laser surgery.
She pushed her comfort zone to finally learn surfing at 32, despite the fear of getting injured in a foreign country as she travelled on her own. But going for a wave felt incredibly liberating to her, even if she got injured while surfing in Morocco and had to nurse herself back to health.
Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears
Her message for those who have a dream:
Niuma: “Why do you want a certain thing in life? I want a life of adventure because it makes me feel alive instead of just living a life where you get up to go to work and that’s it, or you go on a holiday once a year and that’s it. There is a whole world out there, full of amazing experiences. Make connections, learn new skills on the internet (so many free resources), ask questions from people who are doing it. It doesn’t take a lot of money to follow your dream. You just need to put in a little effort and chase it proactively. Save up and start small. Your confidence will build for bigger things.
Make a list of things you want to do in life and tick them off one by one because one day you will wake up and wonder why you haven’t done anything with your life. Do something towards your dream today.”
Also read: Solo Travel: To Go or Not To Go?
Blog Announcement: A new series featuring solo travellers from across Asia
Back in 2011, when I first began to travel solo, it felt like a lonely space. I wondered if I was the only one crazy enough to venture out on my own – especially as a 20-something Indian woman. But over time, I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with solo travellers from around the world, but especially from Asia. Yet in the online travel arena, non-white solo travellers continue to be a minority.
In this new monthly blog series, I hope to share with you inspiring stories of solo travellers from across Asia, especially women. Growing up in protective families and a conservative society, our battles are different, yet not impossible to fight.
If you know of solo travellers from Asian countries who, in their own ways, are challenging societal norms and choosing an unconventional life, please connect us!
Have you ever gone on a solo trip? Why or why not?
Inspiring solo travel posts you should read:
India Untravelled: These 7 Indian Women Travel Solo, and You Can Too
A Dangerous Business: 18 Travel Bloggers With Different Perspectives to Follow in 2018
Thanks to Mariyam Niuma and Remya Padmadas for their inputs.
I dreamed of visiting Japan for a long time. I devoured stories of Tokyo’s quirky contrasts, streets lined with cherry blossom and indulgent toilets from friends who had been there, and of Samurais and Geishas from movies and books I had read. But when I finally landed in Tokyo, it struck me that I had no idea what travelling in Japan would be like.
Over the last four weeks, I’ve come to realize that Japan is not one of those places you can understand virtually. It is a country you need to witness, breathe, experience and feel for yourself. To convince you that Japan is worth visiting, I can only give you a glimpse of this layered, complex, intriguing part of the world… for this is a country where:
You step into the future in a high speed Shinkansen (bullet train)
With a bento box – prepared daily for train travellers – to feast on along the way
To relive the past (circa 756 AD) at intriguing fire rituals at Shinto shrines
And feel hopeful gazing at “Ume” – Japanese plum trees – in bloom, signifying the end of winter…
Here you learn to sleep on futons, on woven tatami mats in traditional Japanese rooms
Which are dedicatedly cleaned by their owners from 10 am to 4 pm daily!
Your days begin in toilets with heated seats, deodorant, music and oscillating bidets
And culminate in Onsens (public Japanese baths) fed by mineral-rich hot springs – after shedding ALL your clothes and inhibitions
So rejuvenating that even snow monkeys come down from the Japanese Alps in winter for onsen…
In Hiroshima, your heart breaks at the horrors mankind has inflicted on earth
The atomic bomb of 1945 raised the entire city to the ground; only this dome-roofed building remained.
Then you hit the countryside and marvel at what the earth has given mankind
And forget all about mankind in the dreamy moss forests on Yakushima Island…
You can seek out Japanese style izakayas (neighbourhood bars) for the finest sake
Indulge in incredible Japanese food – even as a vegan
As long as you know how to ask for it 😉
Learn the art of macrobiotic Japanese cooking that balances yin and yang
Boost your energy at vending machines on literally every street corner
(They even dispense hot green tea!)
Look out for a red line at the bottom, which indicates hot.
You can indulge your sweet tooth in mochi
Made of soybean; exotic flavors include horse chestnut, matcha, red bean, ume and sakura.
Without fully realizing the passion and precision it was originally made with
And taste Matcha green tea in a traditional tea ceremony in a temple or secret tea room
Not knowing these tea ceremonies began as peaceful meeting spaces for the Samurai
If you’re lucky, you could wield a 200-year-old Wakizashi or Katana (Samurai swords)
And even try mastering the art of Samurai swordsmanship!
On the rural countryside, where the average age can be close to 80
You can lose yourself amid ancient cedar forests
And traditional architecture that has survived the test of time
Forgetting that a modern, fast-paced city like Tokyo exists
When spring arrives and the “Sakura” – cherry blossom – are in full bloom
You’ll forget you’re still on the same earth…
And even though Japanese / Kanji is difficult to learn
(Learn Arigatou gozaimas: thank you very much)
The thing you’ll remember most fondly is the warmth and politeness of the Japanese people, and their willingness to help no matter what 💚
What are your reasons to visit Japan?
*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with Japan Tourism. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine!
More blog posts about travelling in Japan:
In Search of Murakami’s Japan
Japan Tourist Visa for Indians: Requirements and Tips
Secrets Behind Some of Japan’s Most Intriguing Traditions
As I boarded my flight to Japan earlier this month, the familiar anxiety and excitement of travelling solo to an unknown country overwhelmed my senses. I thought of the first time I had faced the world alone. The year was 2009, and I was in Hong Kong for a job interview; with my flight covered by the company and no other commitments, it made sense to extend my stay for a few days and explore a bit of the city. In those days, I still relied on my family’s approval to make such decisions, and luckily, they agreed on the condition that I would stay with some family friends.
I had no agenda for those three or four days in Hong Kong. I vaguely remember walking along the waterfront by myself and taking the ropeway to a giant Buddha statue. I also summoned the courage to hike in the mountains surrounding the city. But the thing that remains etched in my memory is how starry-eyed I felt watching the world go by in a country unknown to me. How disoriented I felt trying to figure out directions and explain food preferences in a language unknown to me. How human I felt to smile at a stranger – who’s life, upbringing, color and perspective were completely different from mine – and have the smile returned.
Those sentiments often come rushing back on my solo adventures, even all these years later.
So when Lufthansa India reached out to me about their new campaign, asking people what makes them travel and love the world, I felt compelled to pen all my reasons for travelling solo:
Exploring the world has made me challenge societal norms I’ve grown up with
Perhaps you know that I grew up in a small town in India. A regular upbringing and schooling, with average ambitions to become an engineer or banker. I lucked out with a chance to study abroad in Singapore. A regular college, with average ambitions to score a well-paying corporate job.
But it wasn’t until I began to travel – to take off during long weekends and annual leaves from work – that I slowly began to realise that I didn’t have to do what everyone else was doing. That I could define my own “normal”. And so, with time, I quit my 9-5 job, stopped living in a big city, gave up having a home to go back to, rebelled against the idea of marriage and refuse to have children on an overpopulated earth. It doesn’t matter that I’m young, Indian or a woman. The world – or what I’ve explored of it – has taught me that it doesn’t matter where we come from, the only thing that matters is where we are headed.
I’ve learnt to stop judging strangers by their appearance
In 2012, when I was invited for a cultural exchange program to Bahrain, many people filled my mind with scary thoughts. About life in the Middle East, the way women are treated and how locals can look down upon a woman travelling by herself. There is no doubt that women have battles to fight in the region (as we do in India), but no one ever told me that the people of Bahrain – women and men – are some of the friendliest I’ll ever meet. I got rides with strangers without even putting my thumb out; many let me in to their homes and lives; some even showed me their favourite parts of the country. It was in Bahrain that I first pledged never again to judge people by what they wear, what religion they practice or the color of their skin.
Since then, I’ve learnt that the world is full of people different from you and me – and when we embrace those differences with an open mind, we go from being citizens of one country to that of a shared planet. A planet that is as much home to the primitive forest tribes of Odisha in eastern India as it is to the Welsh folk of Great Britain.
My comfort zone has expanded in the most unexpected of ways
I’m penning this post after a rejuvenating evening at an undersea onsen on a remote island in Japan. For the uninitiated, an onsen is a Japanese public bath with hot water from natural hot springs, where only nude bathing is allowed. Some onsens are separated by gender and some are mixed – and well, I’ve tried both on my current trip in Japan!
To be honest, I said no to a lot of things in my pre-travel days. I was afraid to push myself, challenge cultural norms that society imposes on us, question values I was brought up with and go beyond what felt familiar.
But the more I travel, the more I learn to face fears that hide deep within me. And facing these fears has led me to some of my life’s most beautiful experiences – like fighting my solo travel anxieties to board a flight to Central America, getting over the fear of falling and injuring myself while attempting to ski in Switzerland, and well, getting over my notions of nudity and being comfortable enough with my body to soak in a hot bath filled with naked women and men as part of Japan’s onsen culture.
So although I can’t quite pen down why I travel, I can tell you that I love the world because even after all these years of exploring it, it never ceases to surprise, challenge and excite me.
And you, why do you love the world?
Inspiring reads from other solo travel blogs:
Solo Traveler: Why travel solo? 12 reasons and a personal note
Adventurous Kate: Why travel safety is different for women (and solo travellers)
Breathe Dream Go: Why you should travel overseas even if you’re scared
Hidden from the outside world until the late 1800s, the Japanese culture has evolved independently over centuries. An enigma for curious travellers. Day by day, I’m peeling through the many layers of this fascinating country.
Behold, some of the secrets I’ve gleaned through conversations with Japanese people and my own independent explorations across Japan so far:
Mount Fuji: Why do the Japanese worship the mountain?
Respectfully called Fuji-san, what is the Japanese tradition that makes locals worship this spectacular mountain?
Mount Fuji is not just one of Japan’s iconic mountains, it is also revered by the Japanese people as a sacred mountain. Surprisingly, I learnt that Fuji-san is not the only mountain that is worshipped in Japan. So are all the other mountains, trees, rocks and rivers. It stems from Shintoism – the original animist Japanese faith – in which elements of nature are worshipped as “gods”, with Shinto Shrines often dedicated to them. Sounds exactly like my kind of faith <3
World’s fanciest toilets: Why the fuss?
I’ve been spending way too much time marvelling at the toilets in Japan. Why are they so high tech?
Toilets across Japan – from business hotels to traditional ryokans to train stations – are special. So far, I’ve tried oscillating bidets, air driers, temperature-controlled seats and auto seat lifters! And I’ve been curious as to why the Japanese people are so innovative about their toilet technology.
One theory suggests that Japanese culture expects an individual to always be social. From sharing meals to public baths to communal Sakura viewing, people hardly ever get private time to introspect – except in the bathroom. So voila, the toilets are a sanctuary; extremely comfortable and futuristic 😉
Also read: Quirky Things About Turkey
Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony: Why so secret?
We manoeuvred our way behind the bustling streets and sprawling skyscrapers of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza neighbourhood, to an obscure alleyway. Then crawled through a tiny door into a non-descript tea room for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Why so secret?
Turns out, Chanoyu – the traditional Japanese Matcha Tea Ceremony – began as a peaceful meeting space for the Japanese Samurai of yore. The obscure location of tea rooms ensured their meetings could be kept secret, and the tiny entrances prevented them from carrying their swords inside. At the tea ceremony, Takeda-san, our tea master asked us to cleanse our hands and heart before bending through a small door to enter the sacred tea room – by humbly bending on all fours, we all became equals.
Back in the day, all tea masters were male. These days, the tea rituals remain the same, but many women train to become tea masters too; ours had been at it for 35 years.
I tried the traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Ginza Chazen in Tokyo. Cost: 3500 Yen (~INR 2100 / USD 35). Reservation required.
Fortune Telling: What if you get bad fortune?
If you visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto Shrine anywhere in Japan, chances are you’ll see a sacred tree or wooden bars covered with tied papers. These are not wishes, these are symbols of bad fortune!
Fortune telling works through lucky draw at temples and shrines around Japan. For 100 Yen (honour system) I could shake a box, pick out a stick with a number on it and find the fortune paper with the corresponding number. The fortune is written entirely in Japanese – and when translated, it predicted “half luck” for me. Better than bad luck, but not as good as good luck! The detailed prediction sounded pretty depressing, so like thousands of others, I tied off my “bad fortune” to the temple’s sacred tree in an attempt to ward it off! Japanese people often carry their good fortune in their wallet or purse.
Also read: Life Lessons from 2 Years of Travelling
The land of salaried men in suits: Was Japan always so hardworking?
We’ve all heard of the hard-working Japanese people, the strict corporate culture and long working hours. But has Japan always been this way?
Indeed, in the chaotic frenzy of Tokyo city, it is hard to ignore the ubiquitous salaried businessmen in suits. So in a conversation with a 65-year-old Japanese man, I had to ask if this was linked to the Japanese culture or the ageing population?
I learnt that before Japan’s Meiji period, the locals were more carefree. But when economic development was prioritised under the Meiji rule (circa 1800s), a culture of hardwork was instilled in people. “If I don’t work really hard, even at 65, I feel like I’m not doing my best…,” he said candidly. But the younger generation seems to feel differently – and according to him, the laidback way of life is likely to return in a few decades.
Onsens (Japanese baths): How did Snow Monkeys discover them?
In the Jigokudani Park in the Southern Japanese Alps, Japanese macaques (popularly called Snow Monkeys) bathe in the hot springs in winter, just like humans!
Legend has it that a few decades ago, a baby Japanese macaque jumped, by mistake, into an onsen (Japanese public bath with hot water from hot springs) at an inn in the Japanese Alps. It must’ve been pretty darn relaxing, for many of his tribe members started hitting the onsen for baths!
Years later, when the Jigokudani Park was established to resolve a man-macaque conflict, an onsen was created for the macaques. Every winter, they come down from the cold cliffs to bathe in the hot springs, fascinating scientists and researchers from around the world. What a sight!
The Jigokudani park is located in the Kanto region of Japan and can be reached with an easy half-hour hike.
Truth be told, Japan is unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Every corner, every rock, every shrine, every flower has a deeper story. As I continue my surreal journey into rural Japan, I hope to learn more about the evolution of Japanese traditions, the secret life of geishas and spring fire rituals that have survived over centuries. Perhaps even join some Japanese friends for hanami (sakura viewing), as the stunning cherry trees promise to blossom soon!
Have you learnt the secrets to any fascinating Japanese traditions? Or is there one you’re curious about?
*Note: I spent my first week in Japan on a travel blogging campaign with Japan National Tourism Organization. Opinions on this blog are always my own.
Interesting posts about Japan on other travel blogs:
Uncornered Market: From Remote Control Toilets to Konbinis: Japan First Impressions
Green Global Travel: Japan Photos: 15 Pictures from a Dream Come True
Until 2016, scoring a Japan visa on an Indian passport was a tedious process. You had to show an invitation letter from a sponsor in Japan, and from what I’ve heard, visa applications were lengthy and often rejected.
Good news! Although Japan still doesn’t offer visa on arrival for Indians, it is now possible for Indian citizens to apply for a Japan tourist visa without a local sponsor. The Japan visa requirements for Indians have become pretty straightforward, with typically a processing period of 4 working days at VFS Japan – the official visa application centre for the Japan Embassy in India.
I recently scored a single-entry Japan visa on my Indian passport, that allows me to stay in the country for 30 days. I was given upto 2.5 months from the application date to use it. Here are the requirements and step-by-step process for Indian citizens to get a Japan visa:
Find the Japan Visa VFS Centre closest to your passport address
Although my passport address is that of Dehradun, I’ve managed to score a Schengen Visa from VFS centres in Mumbai and Goa multiple times. I hate going to Delhi, so I confidently tried to file my visa application at VFS Japan in Mumbai too. But no matter how much I pleaded, they just wouldn’t bend their rules. They gave me two choices: Either produce a concrete address proof for my residence in Mumbai (only an electricity bill or property papers in my name, or in that of my relatives / landlord were acceptable). Or apply in Delhi. I didn’t have a choice but to go to Delhi, where the process was seamless.
See the entire list of VFS Japan Centres in India.
Post your Japan visa application through specific Blue Dart centres
A handful of second-tier cities now have designated Blue Dart centres, from where you can courier your Japan visa application. The processing time is two days longer, and you must send your documents exactly as stated on the VFS website – remember there’s no bending of rules ;-))
Download the visa application form on the VFS Japan website
The visa application form for Japan is pretty short, but make sure you fill all the sections. Under the guarantor / reference in Japan section, fill the address and contact details of your first accommodation in Japan.
Fill the Japan visa form online, then save print and sign it. Or download and print the form first, then fill and sign.
Get a passport photo of the specified size (2×2 inches)
Unlike other embassies, the Japanese embassy and therefore the Japan VFS centre are very specific about the kind of passport photo you need. It must be 2×2 inches – unlike any other passport size photos – and your face should be clearly visible. Luckily the VFS Centres in Mumbai and Delhi have a photo booth and I was able to get mine clicked the required way immediately; it costs more than doing it outside though.
Read about the exact photo specifications for a Japan visa.
Write a simple cover letter, including your trip itinerary clearly
The cover letter is an important part of the Japan visa application. You need to include your travel dates for Japan and why you’re going to the country. Highlight your trip itinerary clearly. I also included names of major countries I hold visas to, or have in the past, including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. This always strengthens your visa application, especially as an Indian passport holder.
Show confirmed flight and hotel bookings
There’s no getting around this; I had to show confirmed hotel bookings at the time of applying for my visa when I hadn’t even started planning my trip! As always, booking.com came to my rescue – I looked for accommodations that offered free cancellation, and better yet, didn’t need a credit card to be booked.
I showed a confirmed return flight ticket. If your dates are open, you could try looking for a flight that offers full refund upon cancellation and book it with a credit card.
Get your financial documents in order
As with most other visa applications for Indian passport holders, you need to show your recent 3-month bank statements, last year’s income tax return and any other supporting financial documents.
My bank balance is usually pretty low, so I make it a point to include my fixed deposit summary, or ask a friend to temporary lend me money in my account 😉 For an expensive country like Japan, I would aim to show a balance of 1-2 lakhs in my account, plus savings.
If applying for a multiple-entry Japan visa, include ITRs for 3 years
The Japan visa fee for Indian citizens is only INR 440 (plus service charge by VFS Japan), both for a single and multiple entry visa. However, when trying to apply for a multiple-entry visa, I was told at VFS Japan (it’s not mentioned on their website) that I needed to submit 3 years of income tax returns to be eligible for a multiple-entry visa! This makes sense if you plan to pop by to South Korea nearby.
You don’t need an appointment at VFS Japan
You don’t need an appointment to file your Japan visa application at the VFS Japan centre. But note that they don’t allow any electronic devices – camera, laptop, battery packs etc – inside. I could take in my phone, but they told me to keep it off.
It’s best to carry only your documents and phone – both for submission and collection – to avoid any security hassle. Unfortunately there seemed to be nowhere to store your belongings at the VFS Centre.
Track your application online
You can opt for your passport to be couriered to your address, but I always prefer to collect it in person if I can. Either way, you can track your Japan visa application online. Mine was ready for collection on the 4th working day, including the day of submission at VFS Japan in Delhi. Good luck with yours!
Immigration at Tokyo Airport
Entering Japan with my single-entry tourist visa was a breeze! I was asked no questions by the immigration officer before being stamped in. However, during check-in, my airline did ask for my return flight ticket. It’s a good idea to keep that and your first hotel booking handy.
Got any other tips or experiences with an Indian passport and a Japan visa?
For more information about the Japan Visa application, please refer to FAQs on the VFS Japan website. If you have specific questions about the Japan visa process for Indians, you can contact VFS Japan or Japan Embassy by phone or email.
Bookmark these tips for tourist visas for Indian citizens:
- Requirements for a US tourist (B1) visa for Indians
- Tips to get a Canada tourist visa on an Indian passport
- How to score a Schengen visa to travel in Europe
- Is it worth getting an E-visa for Georgia with the recent deporting of Indians at Tbilisi Airport?
Thinking of travelling to Japan? Read my blog posts so far:
Why Travelling in Japan is Like Nowhere Else in the World
Secrets Behind Japan’s Most Intriguing Traditions
Don’t you think it would be wonderful to get rid of everything and everybody and just go some place where you don’t know a soul?
~ Haruki Murakami
It was 2012 and I was on a long train ride along the Rocky Mountains in Canada. In the backdrop of the dramatic scenery outside my window, I savoured every word of Norwegian Wood, my first book by Haruki Marukami – a celebrated Japanese author. I remember laughing and crying many times on that train ride, my emotions surging with those of Murakami’s characters (Also read: Unlikely Books to Inspire You to Travel).
Through his books, I’ve walked along the bright deserted streets of Tokyo in the wee hours of the morning; drunk craft beer on a warm summer day in the city’s upscale Ginza neighbourhood; indulged in intellectual conversations at a jazz bar in Shinjuku; sampled ramen in a traditional Japanese ryokan; and sipped whiskey by the fireplace, listening to music on an old vinyl record player, on a snowy day in Hokkaido.
Through his books, of which A Wild Sheep Chase and Sputnik Sweetheart are two of my favourites, I’ve felt grow in me a mysterious yearning for Japan. An indescribable feeling, despite never having set foot in the country.
After dreaming of Japan for years, I’m finally heading there… in search of Murakami’s Japan, but also my own.
My plan for Japan
I arrive in Tokyo on March 5th; I’ll spend my first week exploring the Kantō region and the Japanese Alps on the mainland of Honshu – on assignment for the Japan National Tourism Organization, along with a handful of bloggers from around the world. We’ll be sampling some of Japan’s finest whiskeys at the foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake, seeking out “Ume” – Japanese plum blossom – in Akima, sneaking a peek at snow monkeys that descend from the cold cliffs to the Valley of Yokoyu River to bathe in the onsens (hot springs!) in winter, and indulging in the intriguing local cuisine, including unique Buddhist vegetarian fare.
You can follow our adventures with #UndiscoveredJapan and #VisitJapan on social media.
Over the following two weeks, I plan to explore the lesser-known island of Kyushu; this promises to be a region of extraordinary natural beauty, including active volcanoes, remote calderas, open grasslands and somewhat strange, nearly uninhabited forest islands.
And I’m still figuring out where to go on my own in the last week – perhaps catch the onset of sakura – cherry blossom – along the temples and forests of Kyoto prefecture; or meditate at a Zen Buddhist retreat in a mountain shrine; or lose track of time in a remote little village in Hokkaido…(Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel)
If you’ve been to Japan, I’d love to hear your recommendations on unique places to stay, interesting experiences off the tourist track and any vegan survival tips!
Oh, and if you happen to know Murakami-san, I would love an introduction 😉 Arigatou Gozaimasu.
I sometimes think that people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface every once in a while.
~ Haruki Murakami
What would you most like to read about from my month-long Japan trip?
*Note: I’ll be spending my first week exploring Japan on assignment for Japan National Tourism Organization. Opinions on this blog are always my own.
Featured image: Keromi Keroyama (cc)
[UPDATE] I had a fab time in Japan. My blog posts so far:
Why Travelling in Japan is Like Nowhere Else in the World
Japan Tourist Visa for Indians: Requirements and Tips
Secrets Behind Japan’s Most Intriguing Traditions
Being constantly on the road, my perspectives about life and death are also constantly evolving.
In Honduras, among the Garifuna people, I learnt to view death as a celebration; in Uttarakhand, I experienced the joy of living away from man but close to nature. Autumn in New York let me view death through the lens of fall colors; Jordan helped me rediscover our original nomadic way of life.
So I suppose I walked in through the open wooden doors of Wat Suan Dok – a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand – looking for a theological perspective on existential questions about life and death. Every afternoon, the university housed at Wat Suan Dok welcomes curious travellers for a “Monk Chat” – to interact with Buddhist monks for a short while, who in turn, get a chance to practice their English.
The monks I chatted with, most of them novices and not yet committed to a lifetime of monkhood, were a mixed bunch. One had grown up in Chiang Mai , another on the surrounding countryside, one in Nepal – who happily chatted in Hindi, another in neighboring Laos. Most of them seemed to be in their late twenties or early thirties, and had been asked by their family to study Buddhism.
My mind flooded with questions as I sat there, among the orange-robed monks of Wat Suan Dok. But the day before the “Monk Chat”, I also asked my readers – over on Instagram – if you had any burning questions you wanted me to ask them.
Here are all the pearls of wisdom I gathered from my hour-long conversation with the monks:
Does our ambition disconnect us from living in the moment?
After brief pleasantries with the four monks, I delved right in. As someone who often struggles with the fire of ambition within, I was relieved to hear the answer.
According to the monks, our ambition keeps us on our path, pushing us towards our goals. But the key is to not let those ambitions consume us. How? Don’t make yourself or other people miserable in the process. Detach yourself from the end goal, and focus on the happiness that the journey gives you. It’s okay if you don’t achieve something in this lifetime.
Many Buddhist monks and nuns for instance, aspire to attain the roles of scholars, and ultimately enlightenment. But the only way to inch forward towards those life-consuming goals is to not become obsessed with them.
How do I accept circumstances I can’t control?
One word – gratitude. We need to dwell on the good things in our past and present, and be thankful for them. When we realise how much we have to be thankful for, circumstances beyond our control become easier to accept.
Speaking of his own life, one monk shared how he often fretted in his late teenage years about getting married, finding a good wife and raising his children. But after he followed his parents’ will and began studying Buddhism, he had a change of heart. Everyday, he began to dwell on the things he was grateful for and the more he did that, the less he fretted about the future.
Also read: Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29
What is your biggest fear?
As we spoke about living more in the present and dwelling less on the future, I wondered what about the future he feared, if anything.
Loss of people close to him, he confessed, perhaps like the rest of us. Such sentiments transcend philosophy, religion, language and borders, and make us all human.
How can I begin the journey of finding my purpose on earth?
If you’ve been reading my blog (and especially my rants) for a while, you probably know I’m often plagued by existential questions about my nomadic journey’s purpose. So this was a pertinent question… and deep within, I think I already knew the answer.
Many Buddhists believe that our purpose on earth is to alleviate the suffering of others. Monks aspire to this through their teachings and prayers, but as regular people, you and I can do our little bit too.
How? Be respectful towards the people we interact with daily – the house help, security guards, drivers, cleaners, servers; it’s just a twist of fate that they have much less privileged lives than us. Contribute to organisations that you believe are truly making a difference – either with your money, or with your time and skills.
Here are more ideas on good things we can do in 2018.
What about the suffering of animals? Do you believe in veganism?
The devout vegan I’m turning into, I had to ask 😉
But like most Buddhist monasteries and nunneries I’ve spent time visiting, the answer remained the same (and to me, unconvincing). Since monks rely on other people for donations, they accept everything given to them.
Unconvincing, because in most rural parts of the world, meat is more expensive to buy – and comes at the cost and suffering of an animal. History books have said that Buddha introduced the concept of vegetarianism in India, but it appears that his message was somehow lost in Buddhism’s spread to other parts of Asia.
Is it fate or free will that controls our life?
A heavy question, but I found the answer to be a near epiphany!
As per Buddhist teachings, how we’ve lived our lives upto today create our present and future circumstances. So our current choices determine our future fate.
Even though I’m acquainted with the concept of karma through Hinduism, I always felt it a bit off that our deeds in our past life, of which there is no scientific proof yet, determine our circumstances in our current life. But even if we assume that we are put on earth and into our current circumstances by fate, I would like to believe that we can mould our future by our present actions and thoughts.
There are so many ugly things happening around the world. Should I feel guilty about having a good life?
This question was sort of lost in translation. But from what I gathered, it helps to detach ourselves from both the good and the ugly things, and focus on ways we can make a difference.
Why are we scared of death?
Every time I hear about the death of someone young, who only lived half a life, I think of my own mortality and it scares me. So I decided to question why.
The monks suggest that we are familiar with life; we think about it all the time and we know what to expect, so we do not fear it. But death is unfamiliar. We drive away thoughts of it, we discourage discussions about it. And the idea of anything unfamiliar is scary.
We need to begin training our minds about death by dwelling upon it everyday. We can think of it as the beginning of another life, not the end of this one. Or we can think of it as a great mystery. But as long we keep thinking about it, we’ll find it easier to accept when it knocks on our door.
What are your burning questions about life, death and detachment? What perspectives have you found on your travels?
I guess I was only one or two years old – a crying little toddler – when I must have first felt a yearning for Switzerland. My family was invited to Geneva for a wedding celebration, and I can’t blame my parents for not wanting to miss the opportunity to travel to what was an exotic part of the world in the late eighties. So they left me in the care of my aunt, and crossed the seas with my elder brother in tow.
As I grew up, I don’t think all those Bollywood flicks made me crave a trip to Switzerland as much as the stories my family related for several years after their return. The Swiss Alps are magical, they said. Swiss trains are the best in the world, they said. Switzerland is such an expensive country, they said.
Growing up in a middle income family in small town India in the 90s, I brushed aside my secret dream of travelling to Switzerland someday. I locked it away in my mind and forgot all about it.
The years passed. My life turned around as a travel blogger and I travelled across the Alps from Germany to Slovenia.
But it wasn’t until this winter that the dream to explore Switzerland resurfaced in me – when Swiss International Air lines (SWISS) reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in travelling on assignment to Switzerland, to try skiing for the first time in the Swiss Alps. HELL YES!
My first ski experience near Wengen
One of my goals in 2018 is to learn something new and different every month – and January became about fighting my fears to get on the ski slopes for the first time! I’ve heard about some scary first time skiing experiences, and felt my heart pounding by the time our train pulled into Kleine Scheidegg, where our ski school was located. Luckily, my instructor Isi was incredibly patient as I slowly learnt to keep my balance, control my speed and hang on to a rope to go up the slope. Once I got a hang of it, it was exhilarating to whizz down the (nursery) slope, splashing snow in the process, surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the Swiss Alps.
I later learnt that most locals start learning to ski at the ages of two and three, and indeed saw mere toddlers ski proficiently on big, steep slopes! But hey, we can’t let our age or fear stop us.
I highly recommend the ski school at Kleine Scheidegg. A 2 hour private ski lesson for 2 costs 190 CHF (INR 13,000).
Living in a fairytale house with a Swiss family
At the end of the assignment, I decided to extend my stay and experience a bit of the Swiss countryside on my own. In my search for an authentic (yet vegan-friendly) experience, I landed up in the dreamy 80-year-old wooden home of a Swiss family, close to stunning hiking trails in the Swiss Alps yet only 1.5 hours by train from Zurich. As luck would have it, it rained and snowed with strong winds throughout my stay; I even got stuck in a snow blizzard while hiking!
But that didn’t take away from my experience… I loved watching snowflakes fly all around me from my wooden balcony, and more often, from the warmth of my cosy, traditional room. In the evenings, my host family’s toddlers would get on some makeshift boards and slide down the snow – skiiers and snowboarders in the making! And I feasted of some of the most delicious vegan food from their kitchen – including vegan rosti, carob brownies and almond cheese pizzas.
Carob (not chocolate!) brownies at my vegan Swiss B&B.
Sonnmatt Bergpension & Gesundheitszentrum is a family-run, vegan/vegetarian B&B on the Swiss countryside; rooms start at 63 CHF (INR 4,300) per night, meals are 10 CHF (INR 680) each.
Flying business class on SWISS
Even though I only spent ten days in Switzerland, I felt like my journey began even earlier than I arrived – thanks to my SWISS flight. I felt my wanderlust surge as I peeped out from my window and saw the snow-covered Swiss Alps and Caucasus Mountains below us, from the comfort of my spacious business class seat with an in-built massager… and felt the same adrenalin later on in Wengen, as we watched an Air Show with a Swiss plane fly precariously close to the Alps.
Cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet above earth, I got plenty of work done in my “up in the air” office, took a power nap on my full flat bed and resisted the temptation to indulge in Swiss chocolates and cheese – glad I had pre-ordered a vegan meal.
I was lucky enough to get the coveted single seats on business class each way. They are reserved for Senator Club members, but open up 24 hours before the flight. I also loved that on the SWISS website, I could ask to be checked in automatically when the online check-in window opened and receive my boarding pass over email – saving myself the last minute scramble.
Jungfrau region: A romantic winter dream
Thanks to nearly 80 Bollywood movies shot across Switzerland, the alpine meadows, rolling valleys and imposing mountains of the Jungfrau region are hardly unfamiliar to us in India – though from what I’ve heard, they get pretty crowded in the summer. But in winter, these mountains wear a thick coat of white. Tiny Alpine villages with wooden houses are often shrouded by the morning mist. Even in several layers of warm clothes, the wind chill often numbed our faces, so we seeked the warmth of an old cafe and following our Swiss friends, the strange combination of vodka and herbal tea! With only a handful of other tourists, I felt like these mountains were ours to brave.
One chilly evening, I remember walking amid the stone graves of the charming cemetery at Lauterbrunnen – a small valley surrounded by high mountains – thinking that death is a lot like winter; scary from a distance, but perhaps beautiful when you get closer and embrace it.
In the Jungfrau region, I most enjoyed the small village of Grindelwald, especially First, a gorgeous cliff walk. I’ve heard Murren is beautiful too, but that will have to wait till next time.
Do you dream of visiting Switzerland some day?
A few days ago, I got chatting with a friend who’s getting married soon. She seemed excited and nervous about the approaching wedding day, but lamented that her family and spouse were about to spend the better part of their savings – a mind-boggling 60 lakh rupees (~100,000$) – for a not-so-big wedding in a big Indian city.
That means she probably won’t have any money to travel in 2018. Hopefully by 2019, they’ll settle down in a new rented apartment and will be able to take atleast one holiday. Where should they go, she asked me curiously.
I couldn’t find the words to tell her this, but it’s lingering in my mind, so I’m going to tell you: don’t put off your travel dreams in 2018. Here’s why:
Are you spending your money on what fulfills you?
I recently found myself walking the aisles of a fancy mall in Bangkok, looking to buy a winter jacket for my upcoming trip to Switzerland – where I’ll be trying skiing for the first time in the Alps! As I walked past shop after shop selling trendy clothes, footwear, accessories, cosmetics and electronics, I was consumed by a materialistic urge to buy whatever I could afford.
As someone who has studied marketing at university and been associated with the industry for over eight years, I’ve been privy to what goes behind those subtle marketing messages. Right from the latest fashion trends, to upgrading your electronic gadgets, to throwing a lavish wedding, to buying a diamond ring worth three months of your salary (seriously, that’s a thing now!) – marketing agencies understand how to make us crave material possessions. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do these possessions really fulfil us?
If you ask me, it’s not the contents of my bags (or everything I owned until four years ago) that has ever filled me with joy. It is chatting with Buddhist monks about life and detachment in a remote Thai temple, feasting on a traditional beyayenetu platter at a local eatery in Ethiopia and hiking by myself in the snow-covered German Alps. And money can buy those experiences if we choose to spend it on the things that matter.
The world is changing fast
Back in 2012, I won an adventure trip to the remote Socotra island with alien-like plant life in Yemen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to buy a flight ticket to Yemen then, and postponed my trip indefinitely. An ugly war has taken over Yemen since, nearly destroying the country and access to Socotra. It’s heartbreaking.
Back in 2014, I considered spending a month on the island of Dominica, labelled the ‘Caribbean’s nature island’ and said to be one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. But I dropped the idea, thinking I could do it a few years later. Recently, a massive hurricane has nearly destroyed the country and its entire rainforest. As it tries to rebuild itself slowly, it seems like things will never be the same.
I’m not trying to say that we need to go everywhere right now. But civil unrest, natural disasters and the surge of tourists in countries that have recently opened to outsiders are making our dream destinations change quickly. If you can afford to travel somewhere meaningfully this year, do it.
The road tends to give you perspective
It is one thing to stay at home, work where you’ve always worked, hang out with friends you’ve always known, do the things you’ve always done. But if you want to grow as a person, the road can give you plenty of perspective. Living with a Mayan family in Guatemala, sipping tea with a Bedouin family in their makeshift tent in Jordan and mingling with Odisha’s tribes in their markets, taught me more about life than any classes at university or conversations with intelligent people back home.
And being on the road, owning only what I can carry with me, has made me realize that we need little to get by comfortably in life.
You don’t have to wait for someone’s approval or company
Even as a twenty-something Indian girl, if I had waited for someone to give me “permission” to travel or for someone else’s company, I would never have had half my adventures. My first solo trip to Spiti unleashed something in me – the desire to spend my days exploring new horizons and a deep appreciation for my own company. Some of my fondest solo travel memories include hitchhiking in Bahrain, cycling across the Eastern Ghats (mountain range) of India and hiking in the Ecuadorian Andes – and those memories wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t gone it alone.
But if you’re apprehensive to give solo travel a try, there are plenty of other ways: join a group trip, visit a friend in another part of the world, or try to relocate to a new country. Ultimately it’s about conquering your fears and taking the leap.
People are the same everywhere, despite what we read in the media
I hate how much negativity is bred into us by what we read in the news. Everywhere I’ve travelled, the world feels completely different to what we’ve been told. Hanging out with Syrian refugees in Germany, chatting with an Iraqi designer in Italy, living in a tiny village in Honduras – labelled the most violent place on earth – and smoking shisha with a Saudi guy in Bahrain has taught me that most people are the same everywhere: warm, beautiful, insecure, friendly… just like you and me.
Life is short and unpredictable
I hate to break it to you, but life doesn’t care that you plan to follow your dreams in a couple of years. In 2017, I was shocked and heartbroken to lose two young and inspiring blogger friends to a road accident and disease. My heart goes out to their loved ones, but it doesn’t mean that we should live our lives in fear. It means that life is fragile, that we take too much for granted, that along with planning for the future, we need to live our present in a way that fulfils us.
That we need to seize every day we’re lucky to experience in our lifetime. Carpe diem.