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.
The half moon casts a haunting glow on the imposing Sahyadri mountains, as a thousand stars shimmer in the skies above. Surrounded by vast dry grasslands and red volcanic earth, I’m reminded a bit of the desert-like landscapes of Baja California and Jordan. As Mohan, our village guide, leads us up a hill for stargazing close to midnight, a soulful tune echoes from the valley below – a lady from a tribal hamlet is singing sufi-like ballads, upholding the adivasi traditions of acoustic singing at weddings, which hasn’t yet been replaced by jarring Bollywood music on a loud speaker!
The music puts me in a trance as I gaze spellbound at the rugged Sahyadris, trying to forget that the same morning, I was manoeuvring through traffic and pollution on the busy streets of Mumbai. If it wasn’t for the Vodafone Farmer BnB initiative, in collaboration with Grassroutes Journeys‘ community tourism model, this small, remote village in Maharashtra might never have found its way to India’s travel map.
On our way down the hill to our tents in Dehna village, Mohan suddenly stops next to a dry field. There, he says, one of the spots where thousands of fireflies light up the valley every monsoon. Now at the beginning of a scorching summer, it’s hard to imagine that this dry landscape will burst into lush greenery when it rains, the mango trees will be laden with fruits, and fireflies will send lightening-like waves to their mates, creating natural fireworks. But I know the magic will happen, for two years ago, I witnessed it myself in Purushwadi, a small village on the other side of the same mountains.
By the time we wake up, the village folk of Dehna have already set about their chores: women filling their pots with water from the hand pump, shepherds taking their goats and cows up the hill, old women drinking tea in their front yard. Yet no one is in a hurry; in a mix of Hindi, broken Marathi, smiles and sign language, conversations and invitations for tea are aplenty.
With no irrigation or water source for a second crop of rice, the farmers must be pretty idle these days, I wonder aloud, when we stroll through the village with Mohan. He invites me into a friend’s house to see for myself. The lady of the house, lean though she is, is seated on the mud floor, pounding rice with a wooden pestle. Hard work? I ask. She invites me to see for myself. So together we sit on the mud floor, pounding rice, then de-husking and grinding it. Though she far surpasses me in both strength and stamina, we feel like a team by the time the bhakri (rice roti) is on the chulha.
I’ve had delectable Maharashtrian meals of homegrown veggies and bhakri in neighbouring homes, but that morning of back-breaking work makes me realise how much we take the food on our plate for granted.
Mohan laughs when I point out how the women seem to do all the work and the men just eat. But even as a young man, he’s had his struggles. As a kid, he loved English classes in the local village school because the teacher, instead of teaching English, told the kids stories in Marathi; years later, he realises how many opportunities learning English could have opened up for him. Post school, he enrolled in the nearest skills training institute, only to be spending 3 hours on the bus each way. Graduate he did, but there were no jobs to be found, so he came back to Dehna.
Still, he’s learnt to make the most of life, grateful for the opportunities that have come his way – like working as a guide with Grassroutes Journeys, to share with travellers from around India and the world, a slice of life in rural Maharashtra.
Thanks to a model of responsible tourism where every family in Dehna benefits from hosting city-weary travellers in the village – through homestays, home-cooked meals, farming activities and guiding – Mohan and others his age can find respectable employment right at home.
Back on the hill, standing under a Mahua tree, as I watch my last sunset in Dehna, time seems to stand still. No matter what our personal lives are like, spending even a few days disconnected from technology, embracing the genuine warmth of village folk and tracing the journey of our food from farm to table, can make us question why we choose to spend our whole lives dealing with the chaos and pollution of our cities when the countryside lies just beyond.
Dehna, Maharashtra: Travel tips
Best time to visit Dehna: The rainy season (late July to early September) for the lush greenery, mangoes, fireflies and a thousand waterfalls! Or winter (late October to early March) for warm winter days and starry nights.
How to reach Dehna from Mumbai: I loved our 3 hour road trip from Bandra to Dehna; after Thane, the drive amid the Western Ghats (Sahyadri) is just beautiful! The directions on Google Maps are spot on.
Where to stay in Dehna: Simple tents with shared western-style washrooms nearby have been set up at the edge of the village. You can also opt for a homestay with a village family. Get in touch here.
How have your countryside travels shaped you?
I was hosted in Dehna by Vodafone and Grassroutes Journeys, as part of the Farmer BnB initiative. Can’t wait to go back in the monsoons!
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I know that title is making you think I’m only a year away from the big bad thirty.
I’m thinking that too.
In my mind though, I still feel like that 23-year-old girl at the edge of something. Equally confused about what I want to do with my life. Equally restless. A drifter.
You’d think that my life of travel has revealed some deep answers. That I have the mysteries of happiness or existence somewhat figured out. That my head is not a giant mess of what ifs and what will bes. Truth be told, this life of travel is really a path of questions.
But this is not that post.
Even though I unnoticeably flipped my life calendar to 29 a few weeks ago, the little voices within me wouldn’t go unnoticed. This is what they had to say:
On the ‘wow’ feeling
People often ask me if after all these years of traveling, I find myself less amazed by the wonders of the world. Of course, wandering amid the German Alps in winter, or the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, or the endless tea plantations of Himachal could wow anyone. But my heart still skips a beat for the simple things: a solitary sunset, the earthy aroma of a pine forest, the warmth of an unlikely friendship. Till that ‘wow’ feeling doesn’t fade away, I feel like I’ll continue my traveling ways.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
My first reaction is to flee at the idea of committing to something – a long term project, a place I’ve come to love, an image of the future – for fear that it might bind me down and clip my wings, or that I might get bored and restless and ridden with guilt for not seeing it through. But when I look back, I realize I’ve unknowingly stuck around with things that matter to me. Blogging, veganism, a relationship. So in the last of my twenties, I feel like I’m on my way to get rid of this commitment phobia, focus on meaningful long-term work… and (hopefully) see it through.
Also read: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Me
You must think I’m crazy to have been laying out alone under a starry sky on a farm in Maharashtra, as the world celebrated the beginning of 2017. Or outright weird for having turned 29 surrounded by the snowclad Dhauladhar range in Himachal, without a word to my hosts. I guess that inexplicable desire to revel in one’s own company doesn’t feature on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the ones who feel it too, know that it is real. For the ones who don’t, I’m okay with being the crazy, strange one.
When I reconnected with my college housemate after a long time, she from the ‘thirties club’ and me from the ‘almost thirty club’, realized we’re both living the same mantra these days: Accept and move on. Our paths might be different, but this feeling that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world around us, is the same. I’ve spent many sleepless nights contemplating my rebellious, socially inept, escapist ways, and wondering why my folks more people aren’t wired that way. But I have to accept that just like my wiring is not anyone else’s business, no one’s wiring is mine. Accept and move on.
Also read: 10 Life Lessons From 2 Years of Travelling
An intense feeling of gratitude washed over me as I lay inebriated during an Ayahuasca ceremony, deep in the Amazonian forests of Ecuador – and became a recurrent theme in the months that followed. These days, I often look back at my journey so far in amazement, and marvel at how the universe conspired, in the best and worst of times, to help me shape the life I aspired to.
And so even if my existential dilemmas often leave me drowning, I’ve learnt to swim to the surface with gratitude. I am incredibly lucky for the cards I’ve been dealt, and more importantly, the hand I’ve been able to play. I feel more grateful now than ever, for my rebellious side, the philosophies I’ve come to believe in, the horizons I’ve woken up to, and the people I’ve shared them with.
Any pearls of wisdom for this 29-year-old?
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Peeking through my large window at the snow-capped German Alps, magically bathed in the gentle rays of the midday winter sun, I felt like I was in a futuristic fairytale – for there I sat in a full flat bed, my legs stretched out, a glass of fine white wine on my side, Woody Allen’s Café Society playing on my personal big screen, tweeting from 38,000 feet above earth using superfast wifi!
As someone aptly commented on my Facebook page, just a few decades ago, such an experience was the stuff of our wildest dreams. Atleast for a digital nomad like me.
On board the first long-haul Lufthansa A350 flight from Munich to Delhi, I forgot everything an 8-hour long flight is supposed to be. Here’s why:
Choosing my in-flight entertainment even before I boarded
You know when you get on a plane and while away the first half hour browsing through the movie selection, reading the brief descriptions, and wondering what to watch? Lufthansa A350’s Companion App syncs with the in-flight entertainment system on the route you’re going to fly, six weeks before you fly, and lets you save your favourites. Thanks to recommendations by awesome tweeps, I already knew I was going to watch Café Society and Azhar (based on the Indian cricketer) on board.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
Mood lighting to reduce jet lag
I have to confess I fell in love with the Lufthansa A350 even before I boarded, for I unexpectedly ran into a co-passenger – a German student who did his PhD thesis on the impact of lights on reducing jet lag. Lufthansa used his research to design 24 LED mood lights on board the new A350, that adjust to the bio-rhythm of the passengers. The lights changed from a gentle blue to a soft orange to shades in between, based on the boarding time, lunch, sleep, dinner and landing. I felt pretty zen by the time we touched down around midnight in Delhi!
The relaxed ‘movie lounge’ feeling on business class
I woke up from an afternoon nap on my full flat seat bed somewhere above Afghanistan, and settled in to rewatch a Bollywood flick (Ye Jawaani Hai Deewani) with a drink and pack of nuts from the self-service business class area. With my noise-cancelling headphones on and Ranbir Kapoor inspiring some serious wanderlust on the big screen, I forgot that I was on a plane until the captain’s announcement paused it for a while! I think I enjoyed the movie a whole lot more than I did the first time, either because of that relaxed movie lounge feeling up in the air… or because I didn’t make it to the cringe-worthy ending 😉
Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears
Gourmet meals prepared by Leela Palace chefs
Ever since I turned vegan and got stood up twice with no special meal on board long flights (despite pre-ordering it), I always carry some back-up vegan food so I don’t starve. That was the plan for this flight too, except that this time, in keeping with the crazy developments of 2017, the Deutsche Bahn train got delayed and rerouted. It took me double the time I had estimated to reach Munich airport, leaving no time to pack something for the journey. I’m glad that happened, because they had gourmet meals on board, prepared by chefs from the Leela Group; my elderly co-passenger, who was from Delhi but lived in Toronto, described her meal as “elegant”, possibly the highest compliment for airplane food.
Fastest wifi ever at 38,000 feet!
My eyes used to light up whenever I boarded a long flight and saw the Wifi symbol on board – until I realized that despite being paid, inflight wifi is usually slow and patchy. When I read that the new broadband technology on the Lufthansa A350, that also supports the Companion app, offers superfast, uninterrupted Wifi, I had to try it – for I tend to be a lot more productive up in the air than on earth. And fast it was, so fast that I could upload huge attachments in minutes and get some long-pending work done without distractions.
Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?
The most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies
I am often consumed with guilt for the number of flights I take, for it is the biggest contributor to my carbon footprint. So while I love the innovative technologies that made my 8-hour journey so relaxed and productive, what I love more is that the Lufthansa A350 is the most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies right now – it consumes 25% less fuel, produces 25% less carbon emissions, and has a 50% lower noise ‘footprint’ than similar aircrafts. Indeed, my productivity and that movie lounge feeling were heightened because I could barely hear the roar of the engines on board.
There was a time when my flying choices were based on getting from point A to point B in the fastest or cheapest way possible. That quickly began to take away the joy of flying. I now think about how productive (both in terms of work done and movies watched) I’ll be on board, how I can offset my carbon footprint, and how tired my body and mind will feel when I land at my destination.
To be honest though, on the world’s most modern aircraft – the Lufthansa A350 – the journey itself felt like the destination.
Win flights to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350!
Put on your thinking hat, take a creative picture of the number 350, and enter this contest by Lufthansa India to win return flights from Delhi to Munich on the new Lufthansa A350. Contest ends
Feb 28th March 3rd, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here, and don’t forget to tweet me from 38,000 feet if you win!
Have you flown (or dream of flying) the Lufthansa A350?
I was invited as a travel blogger to fly on Lufthansa A350’s maiden flight from Munich to Delhi. Lucky me!
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“I don’t mind the household work – cooking, cleaning, kids… but my soul is made for walking in these mountains.”
Binoculars dangling from her shoulder, sports shoes on her feet and a backpack slung over her traditional salwar kameez, Pushpa walked uphill with the ease of a mountain woman as I huffed and puffed along. But unlike most mountain women in India, she makes part of her living from her love for walking – as a female hiking guide in Sarmoli, a picturesque mountain village in the Munsiyari district of Uttarakhand.
We began that morning by hitching a ride on an army jeep, and were now walking along the mountain ridges of Thamari Kund, like eagles swooping over tiny villages dotting the deep valley below, layers of snow-capped mountains stretched out before us. By the time we left the blossoming rhododendron and old teak forests, and made tea on a quiet hill, we were deep in conversation about the state of the mountains and our own lives. Much like long lost friends.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe such a place exists in India.
I was soaking up spring in New York after an adventurous month in the Ecuadorian Andes, and plotting my return to India. My heart craved the Himalayas and the warmth of its village folk, and I felt ready to finally make the 11-hour journey from Kathgodam to Munsiyari in Kumaon. Having heard about Malika, an avid mountaineer, and her work in setting up the Sarmoli village homestays, I called her to see if I could linger a while in those mountains.
That’s when she first told me about their annual summer ritual – the weeklong Himal Kalasutra festival where the locals of Sarmoli come together to run a marathon with an altitude gain of 8000 feet over 20km (gulp!) and go birdwatching. That year, 2016, would include a week of meditative yoga and an introductory digital workshop by Wikipedia. The festival was geared towards the locals, but travellers (and I) were more than welcome to join.
Now, I’ve spent my fair share of time in little Kumaoni villages and witnessed the hardships borne by locals. Collecting firewood, walking long distances to go to school or the nearest health center, social issues. Where is there time to train for a marathon, or look for endemic birds, or wrap their head around Wikipedia?
My time in Sarmoli toppled my notion of India’s rural-urban divide. In the last few years, I had made my peace with the idea that most traditional ways of life in rural Indian communities will die out with the younger generations – and we can’t begrudge them that, for each of us seek “modern” comforts and easier lives, and it’s only fair that they should too.
But Malika – and Theo and Ram – who now call Sarmoli home, have a simple philosophy: Share valuable ideas of the urban world with the locals – the importance of fitness, flavors from international cuisines, and slowly, the online world. At the same time, encourage them to keep the wisdom of the traditional world – preserve their mountain spring water sources, be proud of their language, retain their innate hospitality towards outsiders. It’s okay if the youngsters in the village want to move away for work, but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.
And I witnessed that philosophy in action everyday.
I sat in on meetings of the Sarmoli women’s sangathan (self help group), as they discussed everything from the summer festival logistics, to helping more village women set up homestays, to their personal marathon goals (for the routes they were to run are everyday work routes in these parts). I joined them to experiment with planting tomatoes, brinjals and bhang seeds in an innovative new polyhouse. I followed them to the local magistrate’s office to revolt against a state trekking initiative that threatened their spring water sources – and saw them achieve success in getting the trekking group to camp at an alternate location and promise to carry their non-disposable waste back. I heard (and witnessed) heartbreaking stories of domestic violence faced by women from the region, and how the sangathan has been instrumental in supporting and empowering them to start new lives.
But even as they dealt with serious issues personally and as a group, juggling the hats of homestay hosts, entrepreneurs, guides, activists and homemakers, there was never a day without laughter, playful teasing and gratitude for the lighter moments.
When the summer festivities began, I was amazed to see half the village in tadasana (tree pose) during the yoga workshop, joined them to cook pasta with wild oregano over an open fire, and bade goodbye to a massive turnout of runners on marathon day.
The coolest mountain village in India? I think so.
When I heard of the Wikipedia workshop, I had a crazy dream of leveraging Instagram to encourage the locals of Sarmoli to share their stories directly with the world. Turned out, it wasn’t so crazy after all. With a basic Instagram tutorial, followed by photography tips from a fellow traveller, the locals now run their own Instagram channel – @VoicesofMunsiari – documenting their lives, mountains, seasons and stories in their own voices.
I expected the interest to die away gradually, but the account has not only grown in reach and engagement, it has also grown in storytelling and photography – despite access to only basic smartphones and English. One of their photos was even featured on Huffington Post India!
So it’s time to take it to the next level.
Upgrading your smartphone?
Currently, only a handful of locals have (basic) smartphones to take pictures and use the Instagram app. We are now crowd sourcing smartphones with good quality cameras, so we can get more locals on board this community channel and enable them to share snippets of their lives in the Himalayas too.
If you, your family or friends have a spare phone or plan to upgrade to a new one, consider contributing it to this initiative? In return, mountain love on your Instagram feed is a promise. Email me at email@example.com if you’d like to contribute.
Update (March 20th 2017): Thanks for your contributions and help with logistics so far! We have 7 smartphones pledged, and hope to meet our target of 10 soon. See below for updates on the Photography + Instagram workshop.
Photography + Instagram Workshop
Dates: 8th – 11th May, 2017
Good news! Based on the response from you awesome folk, we will be conducting a 4 day Photography + Instagram workshop in and around Sarmoli, that will conclude in an Insta Walk on the late afternoon of 11th May. The workshop is open to all; please arrange your transport and accommodation at Sarmoli homestays directly. Drop me a note if you’d like to volunteer to help during the workshop; we could use all the hands and heads we can get.
Our hunt for a smartphone photographer – who’d like to spend four days (or longer) in this gorgeous part of the mountains, sharing their art and skills with some budding local photographers – is still on. We’re looking for someone who is comfortable with Hindi and a wide range of smartphones. Please note that since this is an attempt to nurture a new generation of rural Himalayan storytellers, the photographer will need to cover his/her own transport and accommodation expenses. Good karma is on the cards, of course. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your portfolio or Instagram handle if you are interested.
If the workshop goes well, the crazy dream is to organize a small photo exhibition, and use the funds to support a new outdoor education program in the village. Hopefully, it turns out to be a not-so-crazy dream after all.
Any cool ideas on how we can further leverage Sarmoli’s photography & Instagram potential?
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The thought of traveling in Europe fills my head with such dreamy images – colorful towns with cobbled streets, ageless cities in the backdrop of the Alps, the smell of fresh breads at local patisseries, people-watching at charming little cafes – that it often masks the pain of applying for a Schengen visa.
Unlike tourist visas for the US and Canada, Schengen visas for Indians tend to be issued for a much shorter duration. Given my frequent trips to Europe, I’ve scored 8 Schengen visas so far, and only twice have I managed a 1-year multiple entry visa; the other visas have lasted the exact duration of my travels. But I haven’t let that stop me from exploring this unique part of the world!
8 successful applications later, I know the Schengen Visa application process for Indians like the back of my hand. Take my tips and tricks, and make your Europe travel dreams come true:
The basics: What’s a Schengen visa and which countries in Europe does it cover
The Schengen Agreement is a treaty signed by several European countries to allow free movement across their borders. As travellers, that means a single Schengen Visa gives us access to most of Europe, without having to apply for individual visas. Armed with my Schengen visa, I’ve never had to think twice about taking a train on a whim from France to Netherlands to Austria.
The Schengen visa allows entry into 26 countries in Europe, including Scandinavia, Iceland and most of the Balkan countries. Even though Croatia and Romania are not part of the Schengen zone, Indian passport holders get visa on arrival in both with a valid Schengen visa.
Which Schengen country’s embassy should you apply to
Where you file your Schengen visa application depends on your travel plans within Europe. Here’s the order of consideration:
- Apply for your Schengen visa at the embassy of the country you plan to spend the maximum number of days in.
- If you’re going to spend equal number of days in some countries, apply at the embassy of the country you plan to land in.
If your plans are open and flexible, it’s a good idea to go with the latter and let your accommodation bookings reflect that. Once your score your Schengen visa, you can enter from and travel freely in any part of the Schengen zone.
Get an appointment with VFS (or BLS for Spain)
Once you’ve figured out which country’s embassy you’ll be applying to, find its corresponding VFS website (for instance, VFS Germany, VFS France, VFS Netherlands) and book an appointment at your nearest centre. There was a time in India when applying for a Schengen visa meant queuing at the embassy all night long, but VFS Global (the official visa application and processing service) has made the whole process much more efficient.
I’ve applied for most of my Schengen visas at the German consulate, so I always book an appointment with VFS Germany; you need to register as a new user, go to ‘Schedule Appointment’, and find a date and time that suits you. Remember that you either need to apply at the VFS Centre that’s closest to the address on your passport, or show address proof of your residence in another part of the country. In my case, my passport address is of Dehradun, so I am required to apply at VFS Germany in Delhi.
[Update: Applications for a Schengen visa from Spain are now processed by BLS, not VFS. The process is pretty much the same; see details here]
The Schengen visa form and checklist for a short-term tourist visit
Fill the Schengen visa form online (here for VFS Germany), save it to see any errors pop up in red, then hit print and save the form as a PDF. When you print it, make sure the barcodes on the last page are clearly visible.
Look for the short-term tourist visa checklist on the relevant VFS website, and start gathering your documents. The checklist is similar for most Schengen countries, and includes your bank statements, income tax returns, travel insurance, and confirmed flight and accommodation bookings.
Flight and accommodation bookings
This is the tricky part; in order to make a successful Schengen visa application, you need show confirmed flight and accommodation bookings for your entire duration of travel. Even though it’s a bit of a risk, I usually book my actual flights before I apply for the visa; the safer option is to make a fully refundable booking on your credit card, and cancel and rebook a cheaper flight once you receive your visa.
For accommodations, I’ve been using booking.com to book hotels that can be cancelled till much later without a fee. However, lately I’ve heard that some non-European embassies have stopped accepting booking.com for visa applications. One (tedious) way around this is to contact hotels/B&Bs directly for a reservation and stall the payment till after you receive your visa.
How to make a strong Schengen visa application as a freelancer
As a self-employed freelancer/blogger, I can neither produce a no-objection letter from my employer nor salary slips. In order to make a stronger case, I do the following:
- Write a cover letter addressed to the visa officer, clearly explaining my work as a travel blogger, outlining some of the countries I’ve travelled to in the past (the US, UK, Australia and Canada carry good weight), and my intentions of visiting Europe.
- Attach copies of my past Schengen visas and valid US/UK/Canada visas.
- Attach my visiting card to establish credibility.
- Include an invitation letter from any tourism board or company I intend to collaborate with.
The idea is to show that you don’t intend to stay in Europe longer than your planned travel dates.
Schengen visa fee and what to expect at the VFS appointment
The visa fee includes both the embassy see and the VFS fee; at VFS Germany, this comes to almost INR 6,000 – and is similar for other Schengen countries. When I last visited VFS Germany in Mumbai in January 2017, I was able to pay by card, but also told that most VFS counters only accept cash or demand draft.
You are allowed to enter VFS only 15 minutes before your appointment time, and it’s a good idea to do that because you still have to get a queue number inside. A VFS official will check your documents, and if it’s your first visa application, your fingerprints will be taken. The application processing time varies based on the embassy you’re applying to; I’ve been lucky enough to receive my passport back within 2-3 days from VFS Germany even though the official processing time is 15 days.
You can choose to collect your passport at VFS with the receipt and a copy of your ID, or to have it sent it by courier to your address. I prefer the former just to minimize the possibility of it getting lost in transit.
Come with me virtually to Bavaria
I’m excited to share that this time around, I managed to score a one-year Schengen visa and plan to do a big trip to the Balkans this summer. But this week, I’m hopping over to Bavaria, invited by Lufthansa to experience their first A350 flight to India from Munich on 11th February! I hear this plane comes with bigger screens, more leg room, 12 mood lightings… and is 50% more energy efficient than other planes in the same category. Before I board that flight, I’ve decided to spend a few days out in the Bavarian Alps, in search of a dreamy winter wonderland.
Bonus: Win a trip to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350!
Contest Alert: Lufthansa is giving away 2 return flight tickets from Delhi to Munich to celebrate the launch of their new A350 plane. Unleash your creativity, photograph the number 350 and complete the sentence “This 350 is special because…” to enter the contest. The contest ends Feb 28th, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here. Good luck!
Applying for a US Visa? See my tips.
Need a Canada Visa? See my tips.
Traveling to Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Cambodia? Get an e-visa.
Feature image by mendhak; creative commons.
In the silence of the forest, I can hear my own heart beating. Beating fast. Somewhere in the distance, two shining eyes are moving swiftly, looking for prey. Deeper in the wilderness, a village that has been abandoned by all but five people, is keeping vigil for wild boars and porcupines who threaten their crops. With the night jar’s call for company and leopards and other wild animals lurking outside, I tuck in to sleep in one of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary’s only four private estates, dating back to 1856 – refurbished by its young heirs with solar energy for power, an organic farm for most of its produce, and legendary stories that have been handed down through the generations.
Long ago, when I adopted a nomadic life, I imagined that traveling responsibly – conscious of my impact on the local people and the environment – meant slumming it out. That if I made this choice, I’d be staying in rustic places and sacrificing urban comforts.
Years later, I know that it is possible to travel sustainably while indulging in luxury and adventure in offbeat corners of the globe. Behold, my favorite eco-luxury accommodations around the world that are incredible travel experiences and committed to the planet:
Bali Eco Stay: Bali, Indonesia
I dropped my not very original ‘Eat Pray Love’ plan of staying in Ubud for a month – because what was presumably a sleepy little village of rice farmers is now overflowing with tourists, traffic and villas, with only some sad patches of rice paddies. It wasn’t until we landed at Bali Eco Stay in Tabanan, that I found the Bali of my dreams – vast, endless rice fields; village folk who believe in karma and don’t lock their doors; mountain spring water that tastes better than bottled water.
On the southern slopes of Mount Batukaru, we spent some dreamy days hiking in solitude along rice terraces and cacao plantations, feasting on delicious, organic farm-to-table Balinese food, and spotting fireflies late into the night. Oh, and we had a private waterfall all to ourselves, that also powers 60% of the lodge through clean hydro-electric power!
The bungalows at Bali Eco Stay are built by local craftsmen using recycled timbre. The lodge has its own permaculture garden and organic rice paddies, runs a garbage collection program in 3 local villages, and trains and employs staff from the surrounding villages. Read more about their environmental efforts here.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
Grand Oak Manor: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, India
Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary was kind of born at Grand Oak Manor. The story goes like this: Henry Ramsay, the British Commissioner to Kumaon in the mid 1800s, bought this estate for his own house, and a few other pieces of land for his friends. Then he declared the forest a protected area, where no one has been allowed to buy land or build since. Staying with my friends Shikha and Sindhu – the young heirs of Grand Oak Manor – in their eco-friendly estate, with stellar glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas from the terrace and traditional Kumaoni dishes that are rare to find even in Kumaon, hiking with a local guide to the friendly forest villages of Binsar, and being surrounded by nothing but dense forest, was incredibly therapeutic.
Grand Oak Manor is largely powered by solar energy, grows most of its own produce, and trains and hires staff from the villages of Kumaon. They also offer multi-day village walks near Binsar, with overnight stays at traditional Kumaoni homestays run by village families.
Black Sheep Inn: Andes, Ecuador
Winding along the Ecuadorean Andes in the back of a milk truck, we felt like we had reached the end of civilization when we dropped off in Chugchilan – a remote outpost at over 10,000 feet, where you truly feel it’s just you and the mountains! We hiked along precarious, panoramic ridges and along the crater of the stunning Quilotoa Lake, hung out with local shepherds in the mountain meadows and shared moments with the native llamas at Black Sheep Inn, and felt blissfully disconnected from the modern world.
Black Sheep Inn literally brought tourism – and employment opportunities through it – to Chugchilan. The lodge is powered by solar and wind energy, has a zero waste policy (and has introduced waste recycling in Chugchilan), and its dry-decomposting toilets are actually fun to use! Read more about their eco initiatives here.
Also read: Soul Searching in the Ecuadorian Andes
Forsyth Lodge: Satpura National Park, India
I’ve experienced my fair share of wildlife lodges around Central India, but my recent stay at Forsyth Lodge in the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve surpassed them all. Built by a naturalist who also played an instrumental role in bringing a conservation-focussed model of tourism to Satpura National Park, the lodge’s earthy luxury and locally inspired architecture drew me right in. Our days were spent walking, cycling, canoeing and on day/night drives in tiger, leopard and sloth bear territory, but a bigger highlight were the nights – drinking ‘mahua-tinis’ (a local brew made from mahua flowers) under incredibly starry night skies, in the company of the lodge’s passionate naturalists and their stories of the wild.
Forsyth Lodge has used only 10% of their land for building, and has worked over the years to transform the barren acres with indigenous trees and shrubs. Much of their produce is sourced from local farmers and most support staff are trained and employed from the surrounding villages. Read more about their initiatives here.
Also read: Wildlife Tourism: Are We Saving the Tiger?
Limalimo Lodge: Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
One of my fondest memories of Ethiopia is hiking in the dramatic Simien Mountains, spotting gelada monkeys and white-headed ravens, sharing homemade beer and injera with locals in their round eucalyptus houses on the rural countryside – thanks to Limalimo Lodge, which is bringing sustainable tourism to the remote Limalimo village. I long to go back and sip tea at the edge of the escarpment on which the lodge is perched, and seek solitude amid the rugged cliffs in this fascinating country.
Limalimo Lodge has been built using rammed earth and other local, eco-sensitive building techniques. Waste water is reused, solar energy powers part of the lodge, and the local community is closely involved. Read more about their responsible initiatives here.
Also read: My First Impressions of Ethiopia
Tsermang Eco Camp: Ladakh, India
It breaks my heart to see how Leh has succumbed to trash and traffic, thanks to irresponsible mass tourism. But on the outskirts of the city, in the backdrop of the Stok Kangri peak, is an environmentally-conscious oasis called Tsermang, set up by Frenchman Laurige. It was my first stop in Ladakh, and I remember acclimatising to the altitude with tea on the shores of the pristine Indus River, hanging out in the picturesque Ladakhi village next door, and appreciating how water needs to be conserved in this cold mountain desert.
Tsermang Eco Camp is a summer-only camp, with no permanent building materials. From the bedsheets to the food, almost everything is locally and organically sourced, and the luxurious bathroom has been designed with water conservation in mind.
Gal Oya Lodge: Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka
The moment I read about wild elephants who swim from island to island in a river in Gal Oya National Park, I knew I had to get myself there. And that isn’t even the only fascinating reason to visit this remote part of eastern Sri Lanka. Meeting the last generation of the indigenous Vedda people, who grew up in caves deep in the forest and can smell the presence of an elephant in the wind, was an experience I can never forget. All thanks to Gal Oya Lodge for putting this forgotten national park on the map of Sri Lanka!
Gal Oya Lodge hired some of the park’s most notorious poachers as their staff; not only do they know the forests (and the movement of other poachers) better than anyone else, they also act as the park’s guardians since their living now depends on it. A brilliant attempt to protect wild Asian elephants.
Lakshman Sagar: Rajasthan, India
My first tryst with eco-luxury in India was at Lakshman Sagar, and I became a convert. Away from the touristy bits of Rajasthan, this restored 19th century hunting lodge uses the zero kilometer concept to source everything from building materials to interior design, from the surrounding villages of Pali – and yet is indulgently luxurious. I remember being awed by the big rock pool, precariously carved out of a single rock, indulging in traditional Rajasthani food, hiking in the rocky terrain of the Aravalis, and watching wild peacocks dance from the roof of what was once the zenana (women’s quarter).
Lakshman Sagar keeps the 19th century heritage of Rajasthan intact, while its lavish cottages have been sustainably built using locally sourced wood, stone and mud, and the zero kilometer philosophy. Learn more about the architecture here.
Feynan Eco lodge: Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan
It is one thing to meet the suave new generation Bedouins in the Wadi Rum, quite another to be hosted by traditional nomads deep in the stark, barren Dana Biosphere Reserve. Sleeping on the roof of Feynan Ecolodge under the Milky Way and learning how the incredibly starry skies remain a compass for these nomads, sipping tea in the temporary
tent home of a Bedouin family, and cooling off under serendipitous waterfalls in remote canyons are some of my fondest memories of Jordan.
Feynan Ecolodge is run entirely by the local Bedouin community, bringing employment opportunities to the remote Wadi Finan and helping conserve local traditions and the Bedouin way of life.
Are any of these eco-lodges on your bucket list? Which others have you discovered on your travels?
I was hosted at some of the eco-lodges above and paid for the others myself. I only recommend places I’ve truly loved!
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Green Global Travel: What is an Eco Lodge? A Guide to ‘Green’ Accommodations
Charlie on Travel: 7 Simple Ways to Travel Responsibly
“I don’t have a diary, I don’t write things into a diary. I imprint myself into the sky and when the sunlight shines brightly, I can stand under the sun’s rays and everything I have imprinted of myself into the sky, I will begin to see again, feel again, remember. And when the wind begins to blow, it blows the details over my face, and I remember everything I left in the sky and see new things being born. I am unwritten.” ~C. JoyBell C.
I’m going to remember 2016 as the year I imprinted myself into the sky. I fought my nocturnal ways to be awake for more sunrises; I lay under more starry, moonlit, thunderous night skies than I ever have before. And sunsets became my daily dose of inspiration.
With my annual round up this year, I want to remind you (and myself) to slow down and savor some of life’s simplest joys!
The last sunrise: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
I witnessed many beautiful sunrises during my month-long stay on Lake Atitlan, but the last one really blew me away. My bags were packed and I was ready to go, waiting impatiently for the first ferry to make an early morning bus, when the sky burst into the most magnificent pink and orange colors!
Releasing 2-hour-old turtles into the Pacific Ocean: Baja California, Mexico
Holding a newborn Olive Ridley turtle on my palm, placing it on the golden sands, and watching it scramble towards the setting sun into the vast Pacific Ocean – that’s a sunset I’ll never forget.
Night adventures with my nun friends: Nyerma, Ladakh
I finally learnt to photograph night skies this year – starting with my ‘home’ with my nun friends in Ladakh. I was so excited about my first Milky Way photo, that I ran to show it to them – and they ran out excited to see what this ‘thing’ in the sky was! Lots of laughter and a big photo shoot happened that night, and even if most photos are blurry, my memory of it certainly isn’t.
Clouds rolling into my sunrise: Phu Chi Fa, Thailand
I trudged up with a friend to one of Northern Thailand’s highest peaks to see the sunrise. But we got caught in a massive, merciless rain, without rain gear or warm clothes. We shivered under a tree for what felt like an eternity, and when the rain finally stopped, gorgeous clouds rolled in below us and made our morning!
That ‘home’ feeling at sunset: Baños, Ecuador
Sometimes, the best things happen when you lose your way at sunset. I had been hiking alone in the countryside near Baños, got quite lost, and ended up taking a very long way home. Enroute, I fell in love with this beautiful, abandoned house in the golden hue of the setting sun.
A pind, a rooftop, a charpai: Gunopur, Punjab
I was looking for a cheap way to get from Southeast Asia to India last month, and I found a 9000 rupees flight on Scoot, from Singapore to Amritsar! I got on it, marvelled at the Golden Temple, and made my way to a little pind near Gurdaspur. I expected mustard fields and heartwarming conversations, but lying on my roof at Punjabiyat, under a thousand stars was a sweet surprise.
Read: From Punjab, With Love
The sunrise that lifted the veil of the forest fires: Sarmoli, Uttarakhand
Early May was a depressing time to be in Uttarakhand – seeing miles of pine forests on fire on the otherwise verdant hills of Kumaon. The haze reached all the way to Munsiyari and hid the gorgeous snow-capped mountains for a week. Then one morning, I woke up with the first rays of the sun pouring through my window and saw that the veil had been lifted! A surreal feeling.
A shared sunset: Odenwald, Germany
I had a rather packed trip through the Hessen region of Germany this September, but one evening, while driving with a newfound friend along the forests and wildflowers of Odenwald, we pulled up on a hill, laid out a blanket and caught a breathtaking sunset over stories of how she began living in a hippie commune.
The Milky Way on the other side of the world: Wales, UK
North Wales was my biggest surprise this year – a region with spectacular rugged mountains, vast meadows and more sheep than people! On the shores of Lake Vyrnwy, after adventurous days of surfing and mountain biking, I was ready to rest my tired feet, but when I shut the lights, I was surprised to see a million stars (and the Milky Way) twinkling outside my window. Who needs sleep with such a gorgeous night sky?
A fisherman in my sunrise: Mauritius
I only spent a couple of days on Mauritius’ east coast, and had to force myself out of bed to keep my vow to be awake for atleast one sunrise in every country I visit (being a late riser sucks like that). The sun’s colors scattered in the dark clouds above the Indian Ocean, just as a fisherman set out on his boat… it was like the universe had conspired to make it a perfect wake up call!
An “End of the world” sunset: Munduk, Indonesia
I’ve heard way too many people dismiss the rain and clouds as bad weather; I even found a score of article on “bad weather photography”! Having grown up with plenty of sun in a tropical country like India, rainy, thunderous, misty weather is my favorite kind. I got exactly that at the coolest infinity pool I’ve swum in this year, at Munduk Moding in Bali.
A resolution for more starry nights: Vikramgad, Maharashtra
My Southeast Asia plan kind of fell through, and I found myself without an abode on New Year’s Eve (again). As luck would have it, I connected with Hideout Farm on Twitter and fell for their promise of “vegan, starry starry nights”. This little sanctuary is one couple’s work to transform barren, rocky acres of land into a flourishing fruit forest and organic farm. Every night, sometimes with newfound friends and sometimes in solitude, I lay out under the vast open sky… and when the calendar turned to 2017, I pledged to fill my year with more starry nights and shooting stars!
Thanks for joining me virtually on my adventures in 2016! Big hugs x
Where were your most memorable sunrises, sunsets and night skies in 2016?
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On a warm summer day, with the cool breeze rustling my hair and a sense of fascination in my eyes, I cycled under a canopy of trees along the River Maine, crossing skaters, runners and stand-up paddle boarders. The cycling track gradually led us through Frankfurt’s old town, past hip skateboarding parks and fancy new skyscrapers, to giant sequoia trees and charming old bridges.
Before I landed in Frankfurt for the first time in 2013, I expected to yawn myself to sleep in this well-known financial hub. But five short trips later, I’ve discovered that Frankfurt is like a hipster wearing a business suit.
Take my list of fun and offbeat things to do, and let Frankfurt show you its cooler side too!
Take a ride on a ‘Velotaxi’
It is one thing to ride a bicycle or get somewhere by taxi, but quite another to get on an electric bicycle that has been refitted like a trishaw (cycle rickshaw) – aka a Velotaxi! A testimony to both, Frankfurt’s growing alternative scene and its commitment to being eco-friendly, Velotaxis whizz along the streets of Old Town, fast enough to get around efficiently, yet with enough time to embrace that modern and medeival architectural contrast that makes the city so unique. I took a short ride on one, and the driver, who happened to be a globetrotter on a break, shared some fascinating stories of how these streets have changed since his childhood!
You can hail a Velotaxi off the street, call one in advance, or even book a short city tour on the Velotaxi website.
Stay in the dreamy villa of an influential banking family
An unexpected way I could (dreamily) relate to the ‘financial hub’ status of Frankfurt, is staying in the charming Villa Kennedy, once the home of the Speyers, one of the city’s most influential banking families. The old part of the villa is a glimpse into their lavish, artsy lifestyle; they loved music and often held concerts at home! I love that the now boutique hotel retains the traditional charm and architecture; my room overlooked a sunny courtyard where live music from a private event gave me a glimpse of what the Speyer family concerts in the days of yore must’ve felt like.
Have a drink at a traditional apple wine house
It wasn’t until my #NotJustBeer trip to Germany that I learnt that Frankfurt is Germany’s original hub of apple wine. One legend suggests that the city folk tried hard to grow Riesling grapes like the rest of the Hessen region, but they always caught some fungus, resulting in a bad harvest. Disappointed, many took to fermenting home-grown apples to make apple wine, instead of buying Riesling from their neighbours. Across the River Maine in Sachsenhausen, Zur Buchscheer is a family-run wine house that has been serving homemade apple wine since 1876!
See a list of other apple wine taverns in Frankfurt here. If you find the wine too strong, try “Apfelwein mit wasser”, diluted with water.
Celebrate a quirky local festival
Coming from India, my notion of a festival is very, very different from Germany. In Frankfurt, I’ve joined local friends to celebrate everything from apple wine (Apple Wine Festival) to museums (Museum Embankment Festival) to the red light district (Bahnofsviertel) to traditional Christmas Markets. I love the way people from all walks of life take to the streets to drink wine/beer and make merry all night long – a glimpse into the cultural diversity and quirky soul of Frankfurt. And the fireworks… I’ll let the picture do the talking.
Explore the city on two wheels
If you ask me, the only way to feel intimate with a big city is to discover its by-lanes on a bicycle. But as a short-term visitor, renting a bike without signing up for a tour or paying a big deposit isn’t always easy. Trust Germany to have it figured out – Call a Bike is an app that allows you find bikes for rent near you, drop them off anywhere you like in the city, and pay (1 euro for half hour) through the app. My favorite cycling route is along the River Maine, and I would someday like to ride the 75km green corridor on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
Go vegan for a day
I’ve met so many people in the last year of traveling as a vegan, who want to experiment with veganism too but just don’t know where to begin. I think a vegan-friendly city like Frankfurt is a great start. You can go armed with the Happy Cow app, which maps out vegan-friendly eateries near your location, or just keep an eye out for places that advertise a vegan option; I’ve had some delicious vegan burgers, organic plates and Middle Eastern food in Frankfurt out of pure serendipity. Despite the meat-dominated local cuisine, many of my German friends have adopted a plant-based diet, so Frankfurt is a great place to bond with fellow vegans too.
Also read: Quirky Ways to Discover Madrid
Get a bird’s eye view over Frankfurt
Not exactly offbeat, but I love the rooftop of the Main Tower, 56 floors high, for a panoramic 360 degree view over Frankfurt; two trips up there made me appreciate how green this city is, and how much of its traditional architecture has been restored.
You can buy a ticket for the observation deck of Main Tower online; it costs 6.50 Euros per person.
Meet the city’s only traditional potter
I’ve discovered something unexpected on each trip to Frankfurt, and this time, it was meeting Monika Maurer, Frankfurt’s only traditional potter who uses her wheel and kiln to create and burn bembels – traditional vessels used to serve apple wine! She is affectionately called “bembelina”, and in a single evening, I saw several locals drop by the store to buy bembels and apple wine cups, with names and messages painted on them – definitely Frankfurt’s most popular souvenir.
Toepferei Maurer, the family-run pottery workshop and store is located on Wall Street in Sachsenhausen.
What would you add? And what’s on your Frankfurt wishlist?
I wrote this post as part of the #DiscoverHessen campaign with Hessen Tourism. Some of my experiences in the city were hosted, while I paid for the others myself. I only recommend what I really love.
Featured image by Kiefer.
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The more I’ve travelled in the past 5 years, the more I’ve wondered if I’ll ever find my perfect place as a digital nomad. That to me, is a place with incredible natural beauty, good wifi, far enough from civilization yet with a diversity of food that keeps my tastebuds salivating, culturally immersive. There is also that indescribable factor, that feeling of being there, not wanting to be elsewhere. For a restless soul like mine, that feeling is rare.
I first lay eyes on Lake Atitlan in 2014, on my first trip to Guatemala. Even on a rainy evening, as my bags and I got drenched on the ferry along choppy waters, I gaped wide-eyed at the three volcanoes – San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman – that imposingly and protectively loom over the lake.
I spent a blissful week in my eagle’s nest, a solar-powered studio in San Marcos La Laguna, detached from civilization and observing life in my little Mayan village, playing basketball with Mayan boys and girls, hiking in the surrounding mountains (Also read: Awe-Inspiring yet Affordable Airbnbs in Central America).
I promised to be back like I always do, but I had no idea if I’d follow through.
Then this year, after two months of whirlwind travels – exploring the Hessen region in Germany, discovering my adventurous side in North Wales, and indulging in vegan goodness in New York – I needed a place to slow down and catch up on work and life. When my friend suggested Central America, I closed my eyes and saw myself on the shores of Lake Atitlan again.
The perfect vacation rental, a French-built loft near San Marcos La Laguna was written in our stars. It usually gets sold out months in advance, but we managed to score it a day in advance! Every morning when I woke up, I opened the windows and felt like I had just started dreaming.
I kept my promise to be awake for more sunrises, and Lake Atitlan kept delighting me with bright red and orange skies, fishermen setting up nets in the golden morning light, and the active volcano Mount Fuego erupting far in the horizon. And when the day got warmer, we jumped into the lake and swam in the clear waters – the perfect wake up call.
In the inspiring volcanic backdrop, I had my most productive month this year; writing, blogging, pitching, finishing half-baked ideas, dreaming up new projects. I know many people scorn when they see a laptop in an incredible backdrop, but for me, this inspiration is what keeps my long-term travel lifestyle alive and sustainable.
We soaked up the indigenous Mayan culture in San Marcos La Laguna, hiked along the gorgeous cliffside route from Jabalito to Santa Cruz, kayaked in the lake on a cloudy morning, took Spanish lessons and found the coolest football field in the world!
I indulged my vegan tastebuds in local Guatemalan food – beans, tortillas, guacamole, rice… but it was hunting for local ingredients to cook at home that I loved more. In Jabalito, buying basil to make pesto had the local vegetable seller running to his backyard to cut us some fresh leaves. Once in San Marcos la Laguna, when the local vendor ran out of fresh mint, a Mayan neighbor who was admiring their wild forest mushrooms, invited us to get some from her organic garden! I nearly perfected the art of making hummus and moutabal at home… little joys of being a nomadic vegan.
The rewards of our daily hikes were panoramic views over Lake Atitlan and vegan cacao drinks. I found myself taken in with the magical realism of the lake: getting around the lake only by public boats and hiking; celebrating the Mayan Goddess of chocolate Ixcacao; making offerings of rum, cigarettes and chocolates to Saint Maximon!
Evenings were for Moza/Gallo beers and magical sunsets. When night fell, lightening storms and thunderous clouds rolled towards the lake, as stars danced in the dark skies.
The month flew by, and for once in my life, I wasn’t dreaming of lands further away. I wanted to stay, I wanted to wake up to those volcanoes again, I wanted to jump into that lake again, I wanted to stay. But alas the loft we were staying in wasn’t available, which I took as a sign of other lands and people calling. I picked up pieces of my ailing heart, and like an old lover who I know will wait for me, I said goodbye to my beloved Lake Atitlan. The time is not right to stay today, but it will be someday.
As I waited for the ferry to transport me back to the outside world, the skies and waters burst into the colors of love; the last sunrise. For now.
Lake Atitlan: Travel Tips
How to get to Lake Atitlan: Guatemala City has the closest airport. Spend a few days in the charming Spanish colonial town of Antigua nearby, then take a shuttle bus (3-4 hours) to Panajachel or San Marcos / San Pedro, depending on which is closer to the village you are staying in. It costs 15$ per person.
Visa for Guatemala: Guatemala offers visa-free entry for Indian passport holders. I got stamped in for 90 days, no questions asked! (Also see: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport As I Travel Around the World)
Which village to stay in on Lake Atitlan: Several small Mayan villages are scattered along the shores of the lake. I love San Marcos La Laguna for its tranquility, spectacular views on the lake, an intimate glimpse of the Mayan culture and plenty of cafes and yoga options. I also love the stuck-in-time feeling of Jaibalito. It’s easy to get around between villages on the public lancha (boat) that runs frequently during the day.
When to go: I’ve travelled twice to Lake Atitlan between September and November, and love that time of the year for its cool weather, occasional rain and incredible sunsets / sunrises.
I’ll be writing a more detailed guide on Lake Atitlan and Guatemala soon!
Have you found a place that feels like your place on earth? What kind of place is it?
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On a pristine beach in Baja California Sur, Mexico, I watched in admiration as hundreds of newborn turtles crawled towards the roaring Pacific Ocean. About two months ago, their mothers laid nests on the beach and a team of conservationists protected them from dogs, coyotes and poachers. Two hours ago, several babies hatched, and in the golden light of the setting sun, rather fearlessly made their way into the big waves.
My heart broke for them at first.
The waves looked fierce and unforgiving. And whether each turtle felt ready or not, it got swept away into the ocean. They are on their own now. No one to teach them how to keep afloat, where to find food or how to save themselves from becoming food.
Then it struck me that this is nature at its wildest. That even though only 1 in 100 turtles are estimated to survive, the ones who do will live up to 50 years, return to this very beach to lay their own eggs, and continue this natural way of parenting.
In the human world, we have it much easier. Most of us don’t have to look for food or struggle to survive from the moment we arrive on earth. Most of us reading this, have had a somewhat cushy childhood, pampered by you. You spent your precious time, affection and money educating us, and didn’t shove us into the deep end to fend for ourselves. And we are deeply grateful for that.
But something perplexes me very much.
Ever since I started travel blogging over 5 years ago, there’s a question that repeatedly pops up in my inbox. It is some version of this: “How do I convince my parents to let me travel?”
Very often, this question comes from young Indians like myself – financially independent, capable of making their own decisions, wanting to discover the world. Whether the individual is female or male, 28 or 48, living independently or not, the question remains. “How can I convince my parents to let me travel?”
I recognize that strong family bonds are deeply ingrained in us in India. I’ve travelled to countries like Ecuador and Italy, where families are equally closely knit. I’ve seen adults weep inconsolably at the bus station in Turkey when a “kid” leaves home to go to work in a town two hours away! I’ve felt that bond in many homes around the world, from Guatemala to Georgia. But there is one thing that sets us, Indians, apart. Nowhere else in the world have I seen, or heard of, parents making decisions for their children after they turn 18, or atleast after they start making a living.
And there is an intrinsic problem with that, especially when it comes to the way you view travel.
I know there was a time when travel was considered a luxury, an escape from everyday life; it was expensive, borders were closed, visas were difficult. But times have changed and how!
In this world that seems to be fearful of “foreigners”, where all that we read about in the media breeds fear and hatred, it is more important now than ever to travel. Because a school textbook can’t describe the heartwarming hospitality of a traditional Muslim family in Jordan, or the proud and light-hearted spirit of Ethiopians, or the egalitarian way of life in Central America. Fancy degrees might sound good to your friends, but real learning happens when you’re stranded in a country you know nothing about, not even the language, and a kind stranger goes far out of his way to help you. Even death – or the fear of it – acquires new perspective on the road.
No, travel is not a break from life. It is education in its truest, purest form. We need now, more than ever, for people to travel out of their comfort zones, to discover life beyond the cities and cubicles, to open up their world, to chase their dreams. We need less bankers and engineers, and more artists, musicians, writers, travellers, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, dreamers.
Luckily for our generation, there are many opportunities to stray away from the conventional path – opportunities that can open doors for your “kids” only if you let them spend more time on the football field, or in the dance hall, or dreaming up stories, or doing the things they love… time away from their cram-and-regurgitate school work.
I found the inspiration to pen this open letter when Lufthansa reached out to me about one such opportunity – to support India’s young footballers. In partnership with Paul Breitner, the German football legend, they invited school kids for a unique football masterclass. Following this, Bayern Munich will run an under-16 football tournament, and Lufthansa will fly 10 of the best players to play at the FC Bayern Youth Cup world finals in Munich in 2017! Imagine what doors this can open for a budding sportsperson.
And although I speak of travel and sports here, I can’t help but extrapolate my plea to life itself.
Let their happiness, over how much they earn, where they work, and who they end up with, define yours. Let your “kids”, whether 28 or 48, choose their own paths and find their bliss; don’t try to fulfil your dreams through them, encourage them to be dreamers instead. Let them make their mistakes and learn from them. Let them wade into the ocean, learn to float on their own, and find adventures that make life a little bit more fulfilling. This one life is not meant to be spent in the captivity of a job or a partner they don’t truly love.
At 28 years old and having built a (financially-sustainable) life I genuinely love, I can tell you that it wasn’t homework, scoring 90% in school, making it to a decent college or anything in between that helped me chart this path. It was putting myself out there, using whatever money I could save to travel, taking risks, and believing in myself even when no one else did. It involved a fair few battles at home which I believe were worth fighting. But my inbox is testimony that not everyone wants to fight for the independence that is a given in most countries outside of India.
Set your kids free, dear parent. Let them spread their wings, let the wind carry them to lands far away. Because when they come home, I promise you, you’ll be proud of the people they’ve become.
Do you aspire to pursue an unconventional path in life? What’s stopping you?
I wrote this post in collaboration with Lufthansa. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always my own.
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