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?
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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.
Last night, I had a dream. I was sitting in the main square of Amman, the capital of Jordan, listening in fascination to an elderly man playing the oud (a musical instrument commonly used in Persian / Arabic music) to no particular audience. Genetu, a friend from the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, joined me for a while, then insisted that we go on a short hike near his village (in Ethiopia of course). So we did, and as we huffed up a cliff, I spotted a giraffe in the distance… in what seemed like the bush in South Africa!
By the time I woke up from such a surreal yet vivid dream, I was filled with a yearning for the places of my past.
Every time I look at a world map – and I’ve been looking at one pretty often since I discovered Trover, a social network for travellers to share hidden gems from around the globe – there are certain places that jump out at me; places where I see a past version of me. I can almost hear my indigenous Quechua friend explaining how a famous waterfall in Ecuador is actually alive, smell the apple-scented smoke from a shisha in the vastness of the Wadi Rum, and feel the crisp air as I cycle in the Slovenian Alps.
As Pascal Mercier once wrote: We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
So this post is dedicated to all the countries I need to go back to and find parts of me I left behind… (see my entire list of Places I’d Love To Go Back To on Trover; it’s geotagged to all my favorite spots in each country). These countries are the ones that, thankfully, make me feel like even though I don’t belong anywhere in particular, I belong everywhere:
You know that giraffe I dreamt about in the South African bush? It wasn’t entirely a figment of my dreams; I first saw it, most unexpectedly, from the window of my lodge at a game reserve near Johannesburg, munching on leaves right in my backyard. Amazed, I ran out and we gazed into each other’s eyes a while… then I saw his family (presumably) join him for what seemed like their evening snack 😉
South Africa was love at first sight. The impossible beauty of mist-engulfed Table Mountain, wild ostriches and African penguins near Cape Town, unexpected friendships in the township of Mamelodi, road tripping along the stunning Swatberg mountains… there is just so much I need to go back for!
Living for a couple of weeks in the last house in one of the last villages (before the border of Russia) in the Caucasus Mountains, I think I lost track of time and the outside world. As temperatures dropped, the leaves turned a delicate yellow, red and orange; the apples in the neighbours’ front yards ripened to a juicy red; and everyone came out of their homes to dig out potatoes from their fields. Then one morning, I woke up to snowflakes falling gently on the vast mountains, and everything around me was enveloped in white – surreal and breathtaking!
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I first fell in love with Georgia in 2014; I thought this trip would give me some closure, but as I hiked past mountain villages forgotten by time, felt drawn in by a remote monastery with a priest vowed to silence, and stood longingly at Georgia’s border with South Ossetia, I knew my affair with the Caucasus was far from over.
See: Dreaming of Georgia (my geotagged collection of the country’s best kept secrets on Trover)
Life as a digital nomad is not always easy. Sometimes payments don’t arrive on time, sometimes words fail me, sometimes I just question my entire lifestyle. On days like that, I close my eyes and transport myself to the shores of Lake Atitlan. That feeling of jumping early morning into the clear blue waters, in the backdrop of three stunning volcanoes, as fishing canoes row along… that feeling reassures me that I’ll be okay. I’ll have to be, because sooner than later, I have to make my way back to what feels like my place on earth.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina was never really on my Europe wishlist; to me, it was merely the country with a hard-to-pronounce last name, until I met a Bosnian couple on the Croatian countryside, and spent four straight hours chatting with them about everything from Bosnia’s painful civil war to the similarity between Slavic and Sanskrit languages. Their warmth and generosity convinced me to drop all my plans and travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
And so I did, even if impulsively and short on time. The night I arrived, I was in a somewhat disoriented state of mind as I quietly ate dinner in a small cafe by River Una. A middle-aged man sat next to me, and started telling me about the sad state of employment in the country… then offered to pay for my dinner which I had finished before we got chatting! Despite a language barrier, I struck up many unexpected friendships, heard heartbreaking stories of the war, and discovered magnificent waterfalls, rivers and hiking trails – without a sign or another soul around.
I yearn to go back, before it’s pristine beauty and friendly locals put it prominently on Europe’s tourism map.
My first trip to Ethiopia didn’t quite turn out the way I expected it to. I didn’t budget right, I didn’t do enough travel research, and despite having grown up in India, I wasn’t ready to confront the economic disparities. Yet I have some fond memories of the time I spent there – the local boys I hiked with in the impossibly beautiful Simien Mountains; the lady I broke injera and chugged homemade fermented barley beer with, in her round rammed-earth home; the priest (and part-time guide) I explored the underground churches of Lalibela with… and all the beyayenetus (fasting food platters) I relished.
I like to think I’m a more mature traveller now, and long to go back to spend time learning about the fascinating way of life of the tribes in the south and journey to the Danakil Depression – the hottest place on earth.
I recently set the world record for the shortest stay in the Maldives – 24 hours! It so happened that my flights couldn’t be organized as planned, and I already had an onward one. So I arrived in the late evening, kissed the turquoise waters with my eyes, spoke at the World Travel Writers Conference, and left. I promised to go back someday, but that promise slipped to the back of my mind.
If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you probably know I’m having a tough time deciding where to travel next, somewhere it’s not too cold, somewhere not too far from India. But last week, while browsing travel discoveries on Trover, I stumbled upon a picture of bioluminescent plankton on a beach in the Maldives… and impulsively booked a (super cheap) one-way flight with my partner to Male! My Maldives wishlist has grown since, to include SUPing, ecolodges with conservation programs and snorkeling with whale sharks and manta rays. Hopefully we’ll find an affordable guesthouse or Airbnb and live out the island dream.
See: All my Maldives’ finds (so far) on Trover
I still look back at my month in Ecuador with wonder and awe. Hiking solo amid the breathtaking beauty of the majestic Andes, on little-known trails, without another soul in sight and without a hint of fear for my safety, felt meditative and incredibly liberating. Hearing stories of living waterfalls and extinct creatures from my Quechua host family, while feasting on quinoa and oatmeal soups (I learnt that their diet has traditionally been vegan) transported me to a world I hadn’t traversed before. Then deep in the Amazon rainforest, I had a near life-changing experience that I’m not entirely ready to post about yet… perhaps because I left behind a part of me that I can only find when I go back.
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Which places around the world would you love to go back to someday?
Note: I’m collaborating all month with Trover to share cool contests and hidden gems from around the world!
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“Asian openbills were the most delicious,” he said. Sun-burnt face, shy smile, eyes fixed at the adult storks far in the distance.
I looked at him with some incredulity. We’ve been so attuned to thinking that it’s ‘normal’ to eat some animals and not others, that it felt strange to hear my birding guide confess his favorite meal was a rare bird.
It was my second morning in the state of Odisha (previously called Orissa) on India’s east coast, and I was gliding along silently on a rustic, wooden row boat on the gentle waters of Chilika Lake – India’s, and Asia’s, largest brackish water lake.
On that warm spring day, I had expected to acquaint myself with the wild flying beauties in the marshlands of Mangalajodi, the largest village on the shores of Chilika. But by the time the sun was setting above the wetlands, now alive with bird chatter, I had discovered the most hopeful story of wildlife conservation in India:
Mangalajodi: Once a village of bird poachers
“It was easy. We caught them in a net and twisted their necks. Or we poisoned the small fish in the wetlands, and when the birds ate them, they died a quick death.”
I was trying hard not to gasp at my guide’s words. And harder, trying not to imagine black godwits and wood sandpipers, with twisted necks, ready to be cooked.
Until over a decade ago, the primary livelihood of nearly a hundred families in Mangalajodi was based on killing, selling and eating birds – many of them migratory, from far flung parts of the world like Siberia.
“In those days, you could go to a dhaba and order a godwit for dinner, just like you’d order tandoori chicken now.”
Over the years, the migratory birds that flew to the marshlands of Mangalajodi in winter instinctively sensed the danger, and their population gradually declined. The lack of awareness and alternate livelihood opportunities earned the local bird poachers and their village a shameful reputation, one that would gradually inspire an incredible transformation.
The transformation of Mangalajodi
I remember chatting with an elderly man on a rainy afternoon in Mangalajodi, as we both took shelter under a tree. Even though he had been a fisherman all his life, he took pride in talking about the transformation of his village.
“Earlier when people heard I was from Mangalajodi, they thought I was a thief. They called us a village of thieves. But their view has changed. Now when they hear I am from Mangalajodi, they respect me. People from all around the world come to our village to see our migratory guests.”
Legend has it that the transformation of Mangalajodi began with one man’s repentance. That man was Nanda Kishore Bhujbal from the surrounding Tangi region, and he was overcome with guilt the first time he shot an Egret with an airgun – almost a coming of age ritual in these parts.
He decided to personally renounce poaching and stood up to the most notorious poachers in the area, once even at knife point, ultimately creating the Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (a bird protection collective), which was the beginning of a long, painful transformation in the village. The year was 1997 – and the challenge wasn’t just about changing mindsets, but offering sustainable alternative livelihoods. Enter the concept of eco-tourism, facilitated by an organisation called Indian Grameen Services.
Bhujbal’s persistence gradually won over the rest of the poachers, and in a local temple, they pledged against killing their winged guests. Several organizations (including Wild Orissa and Royal Bank of Scotland) joined hands to train the poachers to become birding guides, impart basic English skills and equip them with the ways of the hospitality industry.
It all made sense on the marshlands as we rowed along, as my guide rattled off the names of migratory birds and related stories of their breeding and feeding habits – the poachers knew their prey so well, it only made sense that they would make excellent guides! And indeed, twenty years later, the guide and boatman I was sailing down Chilika Lake with, were both ex-poachers.
85 families in Mangalajodi make their living through tourism now. By day, they work as birding guides, boatmen and hospitality staff. By night, they patrol the marshlands for any illegal poaching, since protecting the birds is their primary source of livelihood.
“But it’s not just about our livelihoods. These migratory birds, who come from far off corners of the world to our marshlands, are our guests. We have to protect our guests.”
The birds have noticed the transformation in Mangalajodi too: over the years, the migratory bird population has grown from 5,000 to 3,00,000 per year!
Although the transformation of Mangalajodi’s infamous poachers is remarkable, only a short walk around the area made me realize that issues like poverty, sanitation and open defecation continue to plague the village.
But as we rowed away on our wooden canoe, deep into the marshlands, and I observed my ex-poacher guide and boatman intently spotting birds, it struck me that if there is one place that gives me hope that no change is impossible, it is Mangalajodi.
Mangalajodi: Travel tips
How to reach Mangalajodi: Take a flight to Bhubaneshwar, from where Mangalajodi is an easy 2 hour drive.
Where to stay in Mangalajodi: Stay at the community-run Mangalajodi Ecotourism Campus to get an insight into the transformation of the village. The facilities are pretty basic, but the food is delicious and the conversations thought-provoking.
Best time to visit Mangalajodi / Chilika Lake: November to February is the best season to see migratory birds.
A note on speciesism: The idea that we shouldn’t discriminate based on species, puts in perspective Mangalajodi’s attempt to stop the poaching of birds for food, but not fishing. While 85 families in the village now earn their livelihood through tourism, nearly 750 families continue to rely on the waters of Chilika Lake to kill, catch, sell and eat fish. Why are we so attuned to thinking that it’s ‘normal’ to eat some animals and not others?
Have you come across any inspiring stories of wildlife conservation in India?
Featured image: Aditya Bhattacharjee
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I have a confession: I ate way TOO many potatoes on the Austrian countryside. Potatoes in all forms – fried, roasted, pan fried into a patty, cut into wedges, barbecued. Even a whole boiled unpeeled potato showed up on my “special” vegan platter at some point.
As much I as I loved hiking, mountain biking and canyoning in the Tirolean mountains (Austrian Alps), it was only when I reached the pretty mountain city of Salzburg that my vegan taste buds fell in love with Austria!
Behold, my favorite restaurants and cafes to eat vegan or vegetarian food in Salzburg, including traditional Austrian food. And some vegan survival tips for the Austrian countryside:
Where to eat in Salzburg: Best vegan and vegetarian restaurants
GustaV: Salzburg’s first and only entirely vegan restaurant, which came into existence after a successful crowdfunding campaign! It’s easy to feel the love with which the owner Denise and her staff run the cafe and prepare the food – sustainable, organic and delicious.
I was tempted to try everything on the menu – vegan breakfast options like french toast and tofu scramble, daily specials featuring regional Austrian dishes, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, herbal teas and a changing selection of desserts. My favorites were the vegan version of the traditional Tyrolian dumplings – savory, wheat-based, paired with sautéed red cabbage; the chimi churi sandwich – soft, fluffy vegan bread stuffed with hummus, eggplant and other veggies; hot chocolate made with almond milk; and the mango coconut smoothie.
The cozy, artsy, cafe-like ambiance and the outdoor sun-kissed patio are both great to spend a day over good food, a good book and people watching. I visited GustaV twice, and was amazed to see it packed on both occasions. Make a reservation if you’re in a group.
Address: Wolf-Dietrich-Strasse 33, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Tue-Fri: 10am-7pm; Sat: 9am-6pm; Sun-Mon: Closed
Green Garden: I was sold at the idea of over 25 flavors of vegan ice creams in the summer at the cozy Green Garden coffee shop; I loved the only one I tried on that warm autumn night – chocolate ice cream, sweetened with a natural plant-based sugar.
Unfortunately I only had space for dessert that night, but I can’t wait to go back to the Green Garden restaurant next door and try the vegan burger, the crispy eggplant sticks with smoked tahini and the interesting selection of vegan wines! The menu is entirely vegetarian, and features a fair few distinctly-marked vegan dishes. I heard from the lovely owner Julia, that many Austrians are choosing to reduce their meat consumption, and the crowded restaurant was proof – make a reservation, especially for a weekend dinner.
Address: Nonntaler Haupstr 16, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Tue-Fri: 12-2 pm, 5:30-9:00 pm; Sun-Mon: Closed
The Heart of Joy: I was glad to find this all-vegetarian restaurant – that focusses on organic, local products – for a heart Sunday brunch before I left the city. In the sunny outdoor area, I feasted on a tofu-seitan-veggies-mustard sandwich and a coconut chia drink, resisting the temptation to try the vegan chocolate muffin. Vegan dishes are clearly marked on the menu, and include vegan butter, vegan ham, vegan desserts and plant-based milk.
Address: Franz-Josef-Strasse 3, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Thur: 8am-7pm; Fri-Sun: 8am-8:30pm; Open on holidays
Other vegan-friendly restaurants / cafes in Salzburg I’d like to try:
- Vitalbistro Leichtsinn: A small bistro with a daily changing menu featuring vegan and vegetarian dishes. See their website for the menu on your day of visit.
Organic vegan-friendly supermarkets in Salzburg
Denn’s Biomarkt: I loved browsing through the aisles at Denn’s Biomarkt in Salzburg, which feature all kinds of breads, desserts, tofu, cereals, plant-based milks, cheeses, dips, chocolates, energy bars and even toiletries and cosmetics – the vegan ones clearly labelled with a V, so you don’t have to strain your eyes reading every label! The bakery section has a vegan sandwich and dessert options for a quick take away.
Address: Sterneckstraße 31, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Fri: 8:30 am – 7 pm; Sat: 8 am – 6 pm; Sun: closed
Mayreder’s Reformhaus: This organic, natural foods store seems to have branches across Germany and Austria, and is handy to buy health drinks, vegan, whole-grain and gluten-free products, herbal teas and natural cosmetics.
Address: Universitätsplatz 13, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Fri: 9 am – 6 pm; Sat: 9 am – 3 pm; Sun: Closed
Spar Supermarket: Conveniently located at the Salzburg hauptbahnof (train station) and open till 11 pm everyday. Besides a selection of vegan groceries, they have a selection of fresh, healthy, vegan sandwiches and salads for a quick takeaway.
Address: Salzburg hauptbahnof, Austria
Timings: Mon-Sat: 6 am – 11 pm; Sun: 8 am – 11 pm
Traditional Austrian food that is (or can be made) vegan
- Krautsalat: A cold cabbage salad dressed with vinegar. Healthy and tasty as an appetiser. Mostly vegan.
- Sauerkraut: A fermented boiled cabbage salad, usually served warm. Mostly vegan.
- Tiroler Gröstl: A local favorite in the Austrian Alps, the gröstl is a dish of pan-fried potatoes and onions, typically served with bacon and egg. You can ask for a vegan version without the latter two, and with other seasonal veggies.
- Pizza: I had a yummy pizza without cheese; tastes great with fresh flavorful veggies.
- Almdudler: Bottled lemonade made with wild mountain herbs; the most popular local drink in Tyrol (after coke!)
- Almradler: Almdudler + beer; can’t go wrong with that.
Vegan survival tips: Austrian countryside
I’ll say it one more time: I ate far too many potatoes on the Austrian countryside. Here’s what I would do differently to be a happier vegan in Austria:
- Get an Airbnb with a kitchen: A good way to save money, eat healthy and cook what you want. As a vegan traveller, I always try to get myself a well-equipped kitchen. Sign up with my referral to get 18$ off your first stay.
- Find an organic grocery store near you: Farmers markets and supermarkets with organic sections are pretty common even on the countryside; ask locals for recommendations. Good ingredients = good food.
- Use HappyCow: The HappyCow app maps out places with vegan and vegetarian options near your location; my food bible!
- Call ahead if you can: It always helps to prepare the restaurant staff about your dietary needs beforehand, and assess if they are accommodating. You’ll definitely find a vegan salad, or ahem, potatoes, but depending on how much notice you give, you might just be in for a more indulgent treat.
- Carry energy / protein bars: For dire times, or while hiking, I swear by protein bars for some instant energy.
The Austrian countryside is not the easiest for a vegan traveller, but with some planning, you can have satisfying meals. And if the going gets tough, pop by to Salzburg or Vienna to indulge your vegan tastebuds!
Have you had any interesting vegan food experiences in Austria? How do you manage your vegan or vegetarian diet on the road?
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I began reminiscing about my four years as a nomad on the treacherous yet breathtaking drive to Spiti. Although Bolivia holds the title for the world’s most dangerous road, the route to Spiti in the Trans Himalayas must rank pretty close. As the Chandra River gushed along and sometimes across the “road”, it struck me just how magnificent and fragile life is. One moment, I was awestruck by the rugged beauty of the snow-peaked Himalayas; the next, I was clutching my seat, hearing the tyres screech, watching the gearbox fly uncontrollably in all directions, holding on to dear life as the driver braked just in time for our shared taxi to stop right on the edge of the fierce Chandra River.
I suppose that journey from Manali to Spiti kind of sums up the last four years for me. Breathtaking on most days, treacherous on some. On the road, and within.
I still remember, with some clarity, that dull, starless night on the roof of my rented Delhi apartment, when my soul craved more adventure. That night, I decided to give up living at a permanent address, sold most of my belongings and made the road my only home.
Four years later, at twenty-nine, the road is still my home. And my only belongings weigh around twenty kilograms, snugly packed into the two bags I always carry. These are some musings over four homeless years of life as a digital nomad:
Nomadism is a state of mind
When I first went location independent, I used to tell people with some pride that I don’t live anywhere in particular. I secretly loved the surprise and awe when they tried to imagine what my life must be like. But over the years, nomadism became my normal; it was my turn to feel surprised and awe when I imagined what it must be like for someone to live in the same place all their lives.
These days, I think the feeling of belonging nowhere, and by virtue of that, belonging everywhere, is just a mindset. We are conditioned to think – by society and by the false security of our comfort zone – that the familiar place where we lay our feet and rest our heads is home. But the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve realized that home is the feeling of becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, just like friendship is the feeling of getting to know someone unknown. And when national borders become meaningless, you feel as much at home in the rugged mountains of Spiti as you do in the home of a Mayan family in Guatemala as you do in the vast desert under the vast night sky in Jordan… and that’s how home stops becoming a place and becomes a feeling.
The 80-20 rule still holds true
I first devised my 80-20 rule in my early twenties. I had just started working full-time at the Singapore Tourism Board, and was struggling to maintain the work – life – travel balance. I have to confess that now that I work for myself, the struggle to find that balance is even more real: travelling is my work, my life and my “me time”… and vice-versa.
Over the years, I’ve heard of and witnessed enough untimely deaths and unfulfilled lives, to remind me to follow my 80-20 rule(s) more now than ever. The idea is to spend 80% of my time with 20% of the people – and on 20% of the work – that matter to me most. Even if that makes my life seem self-centred and irresponsible to some, I know it’s the only one I’ve got.
Using influence to drive positive change
There came a time last year when I felt like my hedonistic travel chase was leaving me feeling empty and unfulfilled. Even with my continued focus on writing about sustainable travel in an experiential and nearly disguised way, it seemed to me that the road had given me far more than I had given back. So I found myself a blank
slate notebook, and started plotting the confluence of what I loved doing, what I believe I’m good at and the causes I truly care about.
From that confluence emerged @voicesofMunsiari in 2015/16 – India’s first Instagram channel run entirely by the rural village communities of Munsiari (Uttarakhand) – empowering storytellers in remote Himalayan villages to share their life stories directly with the world, despite language and connectivity barriers.
And this year, I made my way back to Spiti, to work on a menace that is plaguing our society: plastic bottles. We began conversations with local businesses on the harmful effects of plastic and safe, eco-friendly alternatives, and built a lifesize art installation of discarded plastic bottles to encourage travellers to pledge against them. We will continue working to spread awareness online, hoping to see a sizeable reduction in the use of plastic bottles in Spiti in 2018, and ultimately aspire to make Spiti and the high Himalayas a plastic bottle-free zone.
In my keynote speech at the SoDelhi Confluence, I used the stage to urge budding bloggers – travel, fashion, food and everything in between – to think beyond just commercial success, and ask what else we can use our “influence” for. That’s something I see becoming my mantra in the days to come.
I love not man the less…
The longer I stay on the road, the clearer I become about the kind of people I want to interact with. Things like hypocrisy, petty jealousies, lack of respect for someone from a lower socio-economic background, even meaningless small talk, turn me off. Sometimes I worry I’ve become quite incapable of forging real relationships – and even more, that I’m okay with it.
On my part, I’ve pissed off enough people, friends and family included, who can’t stop questioning my way of life. My choice not to stay in one place. My choice never to get married (I do say never like I mean it). My choice never to have children.
Meryl Streep Portuguese author José Micard Teixeira, “I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me. I have no patience for cynicism, excessive criticism and demands of any nature. I lost the will to please those who do not like me, to love those who do not love me and to smile at those who do not want to smile at me. I no longer spend a single minute on those who lie or want to manipulate. I decided not to coexist anymore with pretence, hypocrisy, dishonesty and cheap praise.”
Getting off the emotional rollercoaster
I can’t say when I started transitioning from my emotional rollercoaster towards stoicism, but I did notice it recently – and with some pride. I travelled 25 hours non-stop from Spiti, 12 in a shared taxi on the treacherous “road” to Manali, then 13 in an overnight bus to Delhi – to make it in time for a flight to the Maldives where I was to relax for a week, then speak at a travel conference. I saw myself lying under a palm tree on an empty beach, the sound of the crashing waves in my ears, the gentle blue color of the water stretching into the horizon… and somehow survived that arduous journey.
But just as the bus pulled into Delhi, I got an email saying my flight couldn’t be arranged as planned. A year or two ago, I would’ve pulled out my hair, bawled my guts out and yelled angrily at the organisers. But even in my exhausted state, I just sighed, decided to treat myself to an indulgent night’s stay in Delhi, and figure things out. Ultimately, I spent 24 hours in the Maldives speaking at a panel on storytelling at the World Travel Writers Conference – and perhaps set the record for the shortest stay ever on these gorgeous islands!
The point is, I didn’t pull my hair or bawl my guts out. Because I’m slowly but surely coming to accept that shit happens. On the road, at home, in life. We’ve got to take it in our stride and move on… because the road, home and life would be so darn boring if shit didn’t happen.
My (secret) life goal was to survive till 30, but…
Now that I’m circling thirty, I feel greedy about living life. In retrospect, I feel like I spent much of my teens bordering depression, plagued by an inexplicable meaninglessness no matter how normal my life seemed to outsiders. I gave myself time till 30… that notorious age that seems so out of reach when you’re in your teens and twenties. I’m glad I did, because I can’t imagine leaving this planet without having hiked solo in the breathtaking Ecuadorian Andes, or finding my paradise halfway across the globe in Guatemala, or feeling wild and free in the wild Caucasus.
Besides, as my friend often says, we’ll be dead for so long…
A big hug and thanks to each of you for joining my adventures virtually! What’s life looking like for you these days?
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As a travel blogger constantly on the lookout for authentic experiences, I often wonder if the romance of travelling to Europe is somewhat fading away. The internet is saturated with travel recommendations, and even places that promise to be offbeat have succumbed to the masses. It’s no wonder that the residents of places like Venice, Mallorca and Barcelona are protesting against the mass influx of tourists.
I was conflicted about extending my stay in Europe on a few trips in the past, but my recent travels in Slovenia, Germany, Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, made me realize that Europe – as anywhere else in the world – is a continent with many layers and many untold stories. Stories that even seasoned travellers often overlook.
If you ask me, the key to unravelling some of its layers is spending time getting to know the locals, many of who opened up their homes (and hearts) to me: the Slovenian family who invited me to join their traditional Sunday lunch with herbs and veggies sourced from their organic garden; the architect couple who asked me to join them on a roadtrip to their favorite spots along Istrian Croatia and showed me the forests where they collect wild asparagus and mushrooms; the Bosnian friend who broke down at the memory of his brother’s death in the war and lamented about the struggles of unemployment in Bosnia… then insisted on paying for my dinner.
Staying with local hosts in Airbnbs across the European countryside has made me shed some of my pre-conceived notions of Europe – and afforded me a chance to experience the traditional way of life, discover interesting neighbourhood hangouts, sample delicious local, organic food, and cycle amid pristine natural beauty.
Not on Airbnb yet? Sign up with my referral to get 18$ off your first stay.
Based on the last four years of travelling, these are my favorite experiential Airbnbs in Italy, Germany, Austria, Georgia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia – many of them under 100 Euros a night:
Burmesterhaus: Berchtesgaden, Germany
Originally built in the 1860s with a view of the stunning Bavarian Alps, Burmesterhaus has been aesthetically restored by a Finnish couple who now call these mountains home. I quickly fell in love with the modern penthouse on the top floor with a view of the snow-hooded Mount Watzmann, and enjoyed hiking through Berchtesgaden National Park, home to surreal alpine lakes and tiny, picturesque villages. But what I loved more was chatting with my host Marketta, on cold winter evenings, in the charming, cozy library, over a cup of tea, hearing stories of life (and how it’s changed) in this unique part of Germany.
US$ 72 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/3535971
Wine Cellar Fabrka: Ljubljana, Slovenia
One of the coolest beds I’ve slept in this year – in a wine barrel in the basement of a 300-year-old building in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia! This creative apartment, designed to look like a wine cellar, is furnished with old wine artefacts and even contains a draught wine tap at the side of the bed – you know, just incase you get thirsty at night 😉 Jokes aside, my hostess Jolanda gave me some rather unique tips to explore Ljubljana and rural Slovenia.
US$ 60 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/9807927
Apartment Pina: Motovun, Croatia
I spent my first four hours in Croatia chatting with Olja and Milan over wine like old friends do. My Bosnian hosts call the Istrian hill town of Motovun home – and their warmth convinced me to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina the following week! As architects with a special interest in restoring old buildings, Olja and Milan have transformed their traditional stone house, which is atleast 400 years old, into the most charming apartment while retaining the antique elements of the house. I spent many afternoons sitting by the window above the cobblestoned streets, listening to Mozart on the record-player, and writing or reading or thinking.
Somewhat stranded without a car, they invited me for a road trip to nearby villages, showing me places that feature in their everyday life – the olive farmer from who they collect freshly harvested olive oil, the forests where they go to pick wild asparagus, and their favourite restaurant with a stunning view of the Istrian countryside, with olive groves stretching to the horizon!
US$ 68 (INR ) ; airbnb.com/rooms/3143421
Pile dwelling: Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia and Herzegovina
If I’m completely honest, I was a bit wary of venturing solo into the countryside of Bosnia and Herzegovina after some of the things I read online – like it’s advisable to not stray off the beaten path for there are still many undiscovered land mines from the war. Luckily for me, my sweet host family in the lesser known town of Bosanska Krupa – home to the unique Una River with river islands scattered all along its length – alleviated all my fears. I loved my traditional handmade wooden hut, built on stilts like an old fishing hut, complete with a traditional water mill to power it. Even more, I loved hiking along the emerald blue river, discovering hidden waterfalls and wildflower meadows with my Bosnian hostess; she spoke little English and I spoke little Bosnian, but sometimes you don’t need words to forge a friendship.
US$ 48 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/4759024
Alpegg Chalets: Tyrol, Austria
Some experiences are worth splurging on. Like the traditionally built wooden chalet overlooking the snow-covered Kitzbuehlen Alps on one side and Europe’s largest dry coral reef on the other, with a private sauna and organic garden. Over dinner, almdudler (a popular Austrian drink made of lemon and wild mountain herbs) and casual banter with my Tirolean hosts Corrine and Rolando, I felt less like a guest and more like an old friend. On my last evening, after jumping and swimming in Alpine waterfalls that were 8 degrees cold, I sat in the hot sauna with a view of the Alps and only one thought in my head: this is what real luxury is like – eco-friendly, traditional and experiential.
US$ 369 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/11295892
Terra e Pane: Umbria, Italy
When I found myself with a free week in Berlin and craving Italian food, I impulsively landed up at Terra e Pane, the home of an Italian artist deep on the countryside of Umbria. Living in the artistically built wood and glass home, surrounded by ancient olive trees, my mind attuned to the laidback Italian way of life. My host Enrico invited me to join his friends for a traditional Sunday brunch in a 500-year-old stone mansion, where we ate pizzas fired up in a traditional stone oven, and even took a group siesta under the olive trees. You can’t get more Italian than that, can you?
US$ 31 (INR ) ; airbnb.com/rooms/1069516
Chalet Bohinj: Bohinj Lake, Slovenia
Living in the last traditional wooden house, in the last village on Bohinjska (Bohinj Lake), surrounded by nothing but rugged mountains and dense forests, felt like living away from civilization itself, somewhere at the edge of the world. By day, we hiked in the alpine scenery and around the pristine Bohinj Lake (much quieter and less touristy than Lake Bled); by night, we lit a fire in the wooden stove to keep warm, played classical Slovenian music on the radio, slept in the cozy wooden attic and felt like we were living in a Murakami novel.
US$ 128 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/305772
Khatuna’s loft: Tbilisi, Georgia
Have you ever fallen in love with a place so much that your feet feel less itchy? That happened to me in Tbilisi, thanks to the loft we found on Airbnb. Aesthetic, homely and spacious, the windows opened up to the mountains and the ravine of the River Vere; upstairs, in the attic, was a collection of old books that I spent hours browsing through. I felt so at home in the loft that it was hard to tear myself away and head into the stunning countryside – the kind of place any digital nomad or long term traveller would love calling home for a while.
US$ 40 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/6771985
Hermann & Dorothea’s home: Munich, Germany
It is one thing to drink beer alongside other tourists in Munich, quite another to share beer and life stories under the July sunshine in the garden of your local Bavarian hosts. Hermann and Dorothea welcomed us to their home in Vaterstetten, a typical Munich residential neighborhood, like family, and invited my friend to join them for a delicious vegan brunch with their Syrian refugee friends, while I was away for work in the city. I loved staying in the wooden attic, done up with artefacts from their own travels (of which India features prominently), with a skylight window overlooking the green neighbourhood – and hearing stories of their work in theatre with refugees.
US$ 48 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/412440
Apartma Šavli: Soča Valley, Slovenia
On the last leg of my Slovenia trip, I found myself in Magozd, a little Alpine village home to only 70 people! In the backdrop of the magnificent Mt Krn, I joined my host family for their traditional Sunday lunch, crashed their weekly run to the community farm in Triglav National Park and hiked lesser-known trails along the popular Soča River. On his day off, my host Tonin invited me on a trip through the Soča Valley, and showed me the rivers that remind him of his childhood, old hanging wooden bridges that few outsiders have discovered, and the ever-changing mountains he grew up hiking in.
US$ 73 (INR ) per night ; airbnb.com/rooms/14659624
See all my favorite Airbnbs in one place, on my “Europe like a local” wishlist.
Which of these Airbnbs would you most like to stay in? Have you stayed at any cool, unique Airbnbs in Europe?
*I wrote this post in collaboration with Airbnb. As you know, I only recommend places I’ve truly loved.
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Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about sustainable tourism.
That trip changed my life.
The destination was Spiti and the organisation I volunteered with was Spiti Ecosphere.
Back to Spiti after 6 years!
Six years later, in August this year, when I finally decided to go back, it felt like life had come full circle. I had only one agenda in mind: to give back in what little way I could, to the place that changed how I perceive local communities, travel choices, and my own beliefs. My decision to return was sparked by a conversation with Ishita – the founder of Spiti Ecosphere – who lamented how much Spiti has changed over the years, and the dire need to raise more awareness of responsible travel in Spiti.
I nearly cried when the shared taxi deposited us in Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti. The town that I remembered with only a couple of shops and guesthouses, a handful of travellers, and nothing but the barren mountains all around, has changed beyond recognition, taken over by chaotic concrete construction and shops and tourists.
The issues this environmentally-sensitive Himalayan region is dealing with are too many to summarise in one post. However, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere, astro-photographer Saurabh Narang, artist Michael Hickenberg, Instagrammer Aakash Ranison and fellow travellers passing through Spiti, we decided to focus on one big issue: plastic bottles.
Shocking facts about plastic bottled water in Spiti
- Based on a very conservative number of tourist arrivals, it is estimated that 3,00,000+ plastic bottles are dumped in Spiti every season.
- Imagine the irony of drinking bottled “Himalayan” water packaged in the plains and transported to the Himalayas, instead of drinking real (filtered) Himalayan water in Spiti!
- On the arduous journey from the plains, usually Punjab, to Spiti, the exposure to heat often causes bottles to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – a chemical known to cause cancer – into the bottled water.
- Bottled water is known to have less oxygen than groundwater, and in a high altitude region like Spiti, you need all the oxygen you can get.
- Even if discarded bottles are thrown in a dustbin, they typically end up in a dumping ground adjacent to the Spiti River. They take a minimum of 500 years to degrade, but no one knows exactly how long yet.
- If reused by locals, these one-time use bottles leach harmful chemicals into the liquids stored in the bottle. The nearest recycling centre is ~500 kilometres away in Punjab.
- If burnt or buried, the bottles release harmful chemicals into the air, groundwater or soil, ultimately landing in the local food or water. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalance and other serious ailments.
To discourage the use of plastic bottles, we worked on three levels:
Local businesses in Spiti: Without safe alternatives to bottled water, it would be impossible to discourage their usage. So we began the conversation with hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza to install water filters and sell BPA-free water bottles that can be reused, as well as bottles fitted with a filter, like LifeStraw. Ecosphere is now working on a comprehensive map of Kaza, mapping out all water refilling stations across town – and we hope to replicate the efforts in major tourism destinations like Losar and Tabo. Through offline Google Maps, travel blogs and physical maps, we aim to make this map accessible to every traveller who visits Spiti in 2018.
Local community in Spiti: Turns out, most locals in Spiti have been reusing plastic water or fizzy drink bottles to store milk, araakh (the local liquor) and water. In a meeting with Kaza’s women’s self-help group, we shared studies that reveal how harmful chemicals leech from the bottles into the liquids over time – and showcased it with a live demonstration of an empty bottle exposed briefly to the heat of a candle. Try it yourself, to see how it melts and fumes. Pregnancy and heart problems, cancer and other diseases are on the rise in rural Spiti, and this could well be a contributing reason. The alternative for locals is simple – stainless steel containers to store liquids, available locally.
Travellers visiting Spiti (and the Himalayas in general): Lack of awareness among travellers visiting Spiti – both about the health / environmental damage caused by plastic bottled water and the option of drinking filtered Himalayan water – results in 3,00,000+ bottles dumped on the riverbed every season, and that number will only grow with the surge of tourism. So we came up with an idea…
The “I Love Spiti” installation
The idea occurred to me on the shared taxi ride from Manali to Spiti. We were awaiting our turn as each vehicle ahead of us tried to manoeuvre the stream flowing past the road. Outside, I could see mounds of trash along the river bed. Just then, a fellow passenger opened a candy bar and threw the plastic wrapper right out of the window! It angered me and my other co-passengers, and we started explaining to him why he should keep his trash in his pocket till he finds a dustbin.
If you keep throwing wrappers like this, there’ll be no mountains left. All we’ll have are mountains of plastic. And as I told him that, it struck me that we should create exactly that – an artwork of a mountain of plastic to illustrate what we are doing to our mountains.
The artwork idea emerged into a lifesize “I Love Spiti” installation after a discussion with Spiti Ecosphere. All around the world, people take photographs with “I Love New York” and “I Love Amsterdam”. We decided to join the bandwagon, except that our “I Love Spiti” is made entirely of discarded plastic bottles, that we gathered from across Kaza and even retrieved from the dumping ground! The heart alone is made of 300+ bottles, and everyone who takes a photo with the installation pledges to say no to plastic bottled water, atleast while in Spiti.
Michael Hickenberg, an artist from Australia, played an integral role in shaping the installation. It is an amalgamation of the creativity, sweat and physical hardwork of locals and fellow travellers, many of who just happened to see us work on it while passing through Kaza!
The installation can be found near the Kaza gate (near Rangrik Bridge, on the way to/from Kee Monastery); it’ll be dismantled at the end of October 2017 for the harsh winter and reinstalled in June 2018.
InstaMeet at 12,000+ feet in Kaza
When I heard that the Worldwide InstaMeet was taking place from 8th to 10th September, I knew right away that we had to do one in Kaza, probably the highest InstaMeet in the world – and my first one as a host. Even at 12,000+ feet in this remote Himalayan town, we had a roomful of locals and travellers, and a thought-provoking discussion around responsible travel and how to eliminate plastic bottled water from Spiti.
At the InstaMeet, my fellow traveller and photographer Saurabh showcased a video he shot around Kaza, interviewing locals on how the town has changed, and travellers on the use of plastic bottles. Then we piled into the cars / camper trucks of locals, headed down to the installation spot, and had the King of Spiti (yes!) unveil it.
It so happened that the local politician and his convoy were driving past as we were photographing the installation, and they stopped by to pledge off plastic bottles themselves! How often do you get to say that your InstaMeet was crashed by a local politician? 😉
Even though our shitty internet connection in Spiti didn’t let us post on Instagram in real time, we were really grateful for the support of fellow Instagrammers who had travelled to Spiti in the past, and supported our campaign real-time with #IloveSpiti.
The road ahead
This is just the beginning. By next season, we hope to have a sizeable number of hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza equipped with water filters and filter-fitted bottles, the groundwater in Spiti tested for minerals, a comprehensive map of Kaza marking out all water refill stations, cute signs made with discarded plastic bottles indicating water refill stations, and posters that reveal shocking facts about plastic bottled water. If you plan to travel to Spiti, consider volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere to help accomplish these objectives.
How can you help as a traveller visiting Spiti
- Take a photo with the installation and pledge to say NO to plastic bottled water in Spiti. As of now, you can refill your bottles with safe, filtered drinking water at Taste of Spiti, Sol Cafe, Hotel Deyzor, Zostel and Delek House in Kaza. Most homestays in the upper villages of Spiti also have water filters.
- Before you book your tour, hotel, homestay or guesthouse in Spiti, ask in what ways they contribute to environmental conservation in Spiti. The best way to make businesses care is to demand it as their potential customers.
- Volunteer with Spiti Ecosphere – in Spiti or virtually – to take this project to the next level.
- Carry your non-biodegradable waste back from Spiti, and dispose it in a big city where some form of waste management or recycling is in place. For me, doing this puts in perspective how much plastic waste I generate, and inspires me to consume less plastic-wrapped junk food!
- Encourage your fellow travellers to do all of the above.
I’m hardly an optimist, but even as we overcame apathy from locals, travellers and commercial establishments in Spiti and faced some setbacks, I still felt like everything we do as individuals counts. Every less plastic bottle used and disposed counts. Every voice discouraging their usage counts. Every blog post that urges travellers to switch to eco-friendly alternatives counts. Every responsible travel choice counts.
Do you use plastic bottled water when you travel? What alternatives have you found? Any bright ideas to take the “I Love Spiti” campaign to the next level?
If you have interesting ideas for environment-focussed travel campaigns, drop me a note!
Why long term travel is more like real life and less like Instagram
How responsible tourism can challenge patriarchy in India
Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan village where locals run their own Instagram channel
Lately, there’s been a lot of debate around whether travelling really has the power to change you – to question your beliefs, to throw you out of your comfort zone, to challenge your notions of the world, to mould you into a different person. Most of us like to believe it does.
But if I’m completely honest, my first fifteen or so trips as a young adult didn’t do much for me. Sure, I had some great holidays. But that’s exactly what they were – an escape from my regular life. I didn’t want them to challenge or mould me. So I stayed in resorts with the best deals, hung out with friends, drank and stuck to familiar food. I didn’t bother seeking experiential accommodations, having deep conversations with locals or tracing the journey of my food.
So when we ask if travelling can change us, we should really be asking, do we want our travels to change – or challenge – us?
If the answer is yes, I believe this list of long weekend trips out of Mumbai is a starting point. Over the course of my travels in India, these are environmentally and/or socially committed experiences that compelled me to rethink the way I travel – and live:
Maachli Farmstay: for pristine beaches
Where: Malvan Coast, Maharashtra
I fondly remember waking up to birdsong and a gentle breeze in my handcrafted cottage, reading Tolstoy in my balcony that opened up to cashew, beetle nut and coconut plantations, bathing with water out of a copper bucket (such a forgotten luxury), and feasting on delectable Maharashtrian food, cooked with home-grown or locally sourced ingredients. Even more fondly, I remember driving and hiking to pristine beaches all along the Malvan coast – soft sands, flanked by forested mountains, covered with palm trees, not another soul in sight. But the lovingly family-run Maachli Farmstay is not just about the untouched Malvan coast… it is about visualizing what the coastline of Goa must’ve looked like twenty or so years ago, and why we need to tread lightly as travellers.
Getting there: Take an overnight bus or train, or fly to Goa from Mumbai. Along the scenic coastal route from Goa, Maachli is about a 3 hour drive away.
Hideout Farm: for foodies and animal lovers
Where: Vikramgad, Maharashtra
Hideout Farm is one family’s labor of love, who have toiled for years to convert a barren, rocky wasteland a couple of hours outside of Mumbai, into a gorgeous organic farm with alfonso mango trees, pineapple bushes and a kitchen garden full of herbs and salad leaves. Starry night skies, thought-provoking conversations and an ‘away from it all’ feeling aside, farm-to-table food – plant-based, oil-free, sugar-free and spanning Maharashtrian to fusion dishes – is at the core of the Hideout experience. As you nibble on what might be the most delicious pesto salad you’ve tasted in your life, or drink cold coffee that contains neither milk nor coffee, your notions of food, veganism, health and the environment are bound to evolve.
Getting there: State buses ply the route from Thane to Zadapoli village in the mornings. By car or taxi, Hideout Farm is about a two hour drive.
Malji Ka Kamra: for India’s incredible heritage
Where: Churu, Rajasthan
It is one thing to visit a royal fort in Rajasthan, quite another to rest your head under a hand-painted ceiling in an opulent haveli – with Rajput, Mughal and Venetian influences – built in the early 1900s by a wealthy merchant. The forgotten town of Churu in the Shekhawati region is a reminder of India’s incredible heritage – and its lost opportunities at heritage tourism – with ornate havelis whose plant-based paintings tell interesting stories of a bygone era (there’s even one of Jesus smoking up!) and whose architectural finesse (some have as many as 1100 stunning windows and doors) is fascinating. And you only need to go a few kilometers outside Churu town for brilliant desert sunsets and starry night skies!
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Delhi, from where Churu is a quick 4-hour train ride away. Malji Ka Kamra – a restored 20th century haveli to host travellers – has literally brought tourism to forgotten Churu.
Interiors of Goa: for culture seekers
Many people swear off Goa, since its beaches are overrun with shacks, tourists and waste, and I totally get that. But the real Goa lives away from the beaches, amidst the rice paddies and forests and old Portuguese-era houses – and although things are changing fast, we can still steal a glimpse into the susagade way of life, ride a bike along the lush green paddies and pristine backwaters, and feast on authentic Goan food (no, Brittos doesn’t count). And as we ditch the coast for the interiors and get into the Goa state of mind, it is sure to dawn on us how our travel choices impact how we experience the places we visit.
Also see: Road Tripping in Rural Maharashtra
Purushwadi: for a million fireflies
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
Imagine if you will: Thousands of stars in the dark night sky above; the valley below lit up with flashing Christmas lights – the mating signals of millions of fireflies! Just as the rains begin, fireflies descend upon Purushwadi, a charming fishing village in the Sahyadri mountains, and put on a show unlike any other for human eyes.
I was surprised to learn that until the 1980s, posh areas like Bandra in Mumbai were nothing but rice paddies and palm trees, and you could see shimmering stars in the night sky. The light pollution in our cities and towns is the worst enemy of stargazing – and turns out, also of fireflies, for light from human sources confuses their mating patterns and messes with their reproduction process. A night in Purushwadi was enough to make me question: is light indeed the greatest invention or an unnecessary evil?
Getting there: Purushwadi is about a 4-5 hour drive from Mumbai; it’s possible to get pretty far with the Mumbai local train. Grassroutes Journeys offers community-based tourism in Purushwadi.
Mangalajodi: for birding enthusiasts
Where: Chilika Lake, Odisha
On a warm spring morning, I glided along silently on a rustic, wooden row boat on the gentle waters of Chilika Lake. The sun rose amid the clouds, migratory birds played along the shores, my guide spoke of how the marshland of Mangalajodi is different from the open Chilika Lake. Beautiful though it was, it was no ordinary boat ride, and Mangalajodi is no ordinary village – over tens of years, Mangalajodi has transformed from a village of notorious bird poachers to a village of bird conservationists; indeed, my guide and boatman were former poachers! The number of migratory birds in the village marshlands has grown from 5,000 to 3,00,000 per year, proving that no feat of human transformation is impossible.
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar, from where Mangalajodi is an easy 2 hour drive. Stay at the community-run Mangalajodi Ecotourism to get an insight into the transformation of the village.
Dehna: for monsoon love and village life
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
People often say that travel broadens our mind – and it surely can when the place in question is an obscure little Maharashtrian village, just three hours from bustling Mumbai. Speaking to the village youth can put into perspective our life of privilege – access to good education, learning English at an early age, work opportunities online and offline. As you walk along the rice paddies and hike in the Sahyadris, indulge in the warm hospitality of local families, live a day in the shoes of a rice farmer and gaze at the starry skies by night, think of how it was by a mere twist of fate that we were born in a life of privilege. Chances are, you’ll change the way you interact with those less privileged, right from your house help to the server at the cafe you frequent.
Getting there: Dehna is an easy three hour drive from Mumbai. Grassroutes Journeys has developed community-based tourism in the village and organizes trips and stays in tents or homestays.
Devrai Art Village: for artistic inspiration
Where: Off Panchgani, Maharashtra
Mahabeshwar and Panchgani mostly evoke images of chaotic construction and sunset points overrun with obnoxious tourists. Until you find Devrai Art Village, an artistic accommodation and project that helps Naxal-affected families relocate to Panchgani and revive the lost Dhokra Art from the Bastar region as a source of livelihood. The art village has also been attempting to map forgotten trails in the Western Ghats that were first charted out by the British; trails that will have you hike in old forests and overgrown wilderness and deposit you at the edge of cliffs with stellar views of the valley below – and make sure the only images Panchgani evokes in you are of stunning natural beauty.
Getting there: Volvo buses from Mumbai take 6-7 hours to reach Panchgani; it is also possible to take a train part of the way, or drive. Read more about the lost art and lost trails at Devrai Art Village.
What are your favorite long weekend escapes from Mumbai?
I was hosted at some of the above places, and paid for the others on my own. I only recommend experiences I’ve truly loved!
The forest is so silent that I can only hear the rustle of the sal leaves under our feet. The white, barren ghost tree holds my gaze awhile. The sun’s golden rays shine through the tree’s branches, as the forest sleepily awakens. Our naturalist and guide are deep in discussion about the previous day’s unexpected bear sighting. They suddenly stop in mid-conversation, for the distinct sound of a sambar deer’s alarm call has broken the unusual silence of the forest. A predator – most likely a tiger, bear or leopard – is in the vicinity. As we head in the direction of the deer’s call, langurs chime from the trees above, their cough-like alarm call giving me goosebumps.
Perhaps you have been on a safari in an Indian national park, and felt the hair-raising excitement of being on a predator chase? I felt it too, except mine was laced with a tinge of cold fear.
Because we weren’t in a jeep as we drew nearer to the alarm calls. We were on foot… with only a stick and pepper spray to protect us from a potential predator in the forests of Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh!
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the protected national parks, tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries of India in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand – including Panna, Bandavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Tadoba and Jim Corbett. But in Satpura National Park, while staying at the environmentally-conscious Forsyth Lodge, I fell even more in love with the forests, the rivers, the sunsets, the hills, the stories, and starry, starry night skies.
Here are all the reasons Satpura National Park is unlike any other I’ve been to:
Floating in the mist: Canoe safari on Denwa River
As an orange ball of fire rose from the misty horizon, we floated along silently, the stroke of each paddle taking us further from the roar of jeeps and the chatter of people. The Denwa River, perhaps fierce and free-flowing once, meandered gently after being dammed several kilometres from here. On its shores played snipes and wagtails, and grazed wild boars, oblivious to the three figures on our rustic canoe.
I’ve always associated early mornings in Madhya Pradesh’s national parks with the rumbling of jeeps, but to see and hear the forest wake up without feeling like an intruder, was my kind of safari.
Also read: Stories from the wild: Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
Footsteps in the forest: Walking in Satpura Tiger Reserve
As we followed the alarm calls of sambar deer and langurs on foot, I shuddered at the idea of sharing the ground with a tiger, leopard or bear. The four of us – my friend and I, and our naturalist and guide, barely took a breath in those few minutes which felt like an eternity, as we tip-toed closer to the dense foliage which seemed to be the sight of the commotion. Adrenalin rushed through my body and goosebumps covered my arms, as we quietly speculated what the predator could be.
Then just as suddenly as the alarm calls had started, they stopped, even as I imagined hoarse breathing piercing my ears. Too bad we were no tigers, for a bunch of jeeps and their curious spectators were gawking and flashing their shiny cameras at us when we emerged from the forest to cross the nearby jeep trail!
Also read: Wildlife tourism: Are we saving the tiger?
On two wheels: Cycling in the buffer zone
It is one thing to walk in the safe company of a naturalist and guide, quite another to be one of two lost souls cycling through the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve. We crossed blooming yellow mustard fields, carried our bikes across a dry riverbed (presumably having lost our way), and cycled on the edge of a deep gorge, with no plan B if we came face to face with a big cat. Oh, the thrill! Luckily for us, the wilderness was alive with chirping, and the only eyes that met ours were those of eagle owls, camouflaged in the bushes.
Pachmarhi: Madhya Pradesh’s only hill station
I couldn’t shake off the idea of Panchmarhi, a hill town tucked away in the vast Satpura National Park, and jumped at the chance of driving there with my naturalist from Forsyth Lodge, two hours from Satpura Tiger Reserve. Those winding roads, dense sal forests and British-era churches made me forget that I’m still in Central India. Away from the characterless town, we hiked with a renowned local guide to secret panoramic sunset spots, a hill with almost a dozen vulture nests (viewed from a safe distance across a gorge), and spotted the rare tree shrews.
The biggest surprise – driving at night to an open field to see a million twinkling stars in the night sky above us… and spotting a civet running into the bushes as we drove back!
Jeep safari: The wild things of Satpura National Park
With much anticipation, we took the public boat across the Denwa River and hopped on to a forest jeep on the other side – because those forest trails, brimming with activity on the ground and up in the air, never fail to get my adrenalin racing. A mugger crocodile basking in the sunshine on the banks of a pond with its mouth wide open; a wild gaur with a one day old calf; a giant squirrel playing in the branches of a tree; magnificent birds (my memory always fails me on names); a jungle cat in the bushes; a sloth bear casually nibbling on grass and crossing the path before us, and another one wandering further into the wilderness… oh, can I go back to the forests of Satpura already?
Confession: I feel sorry for those who miss out on the wild ways of the forest by only being interested in spotting a tiger.
Starry nights and mahua drinks: Forsyth Lodge
I can still close my eyes and walk by the light of dimly lit lanterns, my head turned skywards as stars begin to appear everywhere above me. I can still hear stories from Greek Mythology, of Orion and Artemis, as we decipher constellations in the dark skies. I can still taste mahua – a local liquor brewed from mahua flowers (the sloth bear’s fav) – as we talk about the day’s sightings with the naturalists and fellow travellers. Those pre-dinner drinks and starry skies on the rooftop of Forsyth Lodge… I can’t wait to go back someday!
Look out for my upcoming Instagram contest to win a stay at Forsyth Lodge!
Satpura National Park: Travel tips
How to reach: The nearest airport to Satpura National Park is in Bhopal, from where the park is a 3-4 hours drive. It’s worthwhile stopping at the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Bhimbhetka Rock Shelters – enroute.
Where to stay: I absolutely loved my stay at Forsyth Lodge, located in the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve. The lodge was set up by a naturalist who has been instrumental in bringing a conservation-focussed model of tourism to Satpura. The huts are built with mud and slate in local architectural style – minimalistic yet luxurious – and only 10% of the total land has been used for building. The remaining barren acres are being transformed with indigenous trees and shrubs. Most of the produce is sourced from local farmers… a special shoutout to the chefs for some incredible vegan food and desserts (inform them of food preferences beforehand).
When to go: Like most national parks in India, Satpura is closed from July to September for the rainy season.
Have you been to Satpura National Park? Which national parks in Central India do you love most?
I was hosted in Satpura by Forsyth Lodge; lucky me!
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Even as I left the Slovenian Alps with a heavy heart, I was thrilled to set foot in Croatia, a country that has been been on my travel radar for a long time. I knew that June, the time of my visit, would be a busy month even if not as crowded as August and September. So I did some last minute research, and decided to start my journey in the Istrian Peninsula, assured by several travel blogs that it was “offbeat” and I’d be sure to beat the crowds. Maybe at their time of writing, it was.
I was delighted that first evening, for I spent the first three hours in a hilltop village in inland Istria, chatting with my hosts over tea and wine. Their home was over 300 years old, traditional stone walls and a rustic slate roof on the outside, beautifully refurbished from within. That night, I walked along the cobblestoned streets to the top of the town, past old stone homes adorned with colorful flowers. Under the moonlit sky, in the silence of the night, breathing air that smelt like jasmine, I indeed fell in love with Istrian Croatia.
Unfortunately, its reality hit me the next morning. I slept past the chirping of birds, but was woken up by loud voices crossing my window every now and then. When I went to the kitchen to make myself some tea, a couple of tourists were peeping in through the glass door. Day trippers!
The old-world charm of this village, with only 305 residents, was drowned by the callousness of visitors who only seemed to care about their photos and getting drunk, almost running over the locals in their rental cars, never realizing that they were intruding into someone’s sleepy neighborhood and life. My hosts assured me that the number of daytrippers now was not nearly as bad as in the peak summer season, and joked about how the village residents, their homes and their kitchens must be curious, unfamiliar sights for tourists.
Is travel blogging ruining “offbeat” places?
Where does travel blogging picture in all of this, you might ask. So let me paint you a scenario, a very plausible one, one that is possibly playing out in many places around the world. Blogger X visits a charming village, the one with only 305 residents, and writes about it in the hope that a few more people will experience it, and the locals in turn, will benefit from tourism. Convinced by blogger X, blogger Y lands up there with a few more discerning travelers, and reiterates its worthiness of a visit. Some content creator out there, scouting the web for an SEO-driven list of offbeat places in Europe, stumbles upon the blogs of X and Y. His well-researched list is ripped off by other lists, as often happens. A tour company notices the growing interest in the village, and puts it on their bus tour itinerary. Bam, the hordes of tourists arrive…
Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous in thinking that a travel blog can trigger a chain reaction over the years, or am I? After all, a quick search for offbeat Croatia (as opposed to picking a place that next to nothing is written about online, as I usually do) is what led me to the village of 305 people in Istria.
So what’s the point of travel blogging?
If you’re on the same page, you’re probably thinking that an easy solution is that travel bloggers like me should never write about their “offbeat” finds. But as my social media followers often remind me, isn’t it part of my job to disclose the exact location of my stories and photos, so others can choose to experience my finds over ‘tourist traps’?
I’ve dwelt on this dilemma for a long time. But walking on those cobblestoned streets in Istria (mostly at sunrise and late at night), it occurred to me that no, perhaps that isn’t the role a travel blogger is supposed to play. The way I see it now, my work as a travel blogger should inspire my readers to think of travel differently – to reconsider their travel choices, to seek local encounters, to carve out their own journey. It’s the reason I never have, and never will, give you a three day itinerary to “do” a destination. That’s not how I aspire for my readers to experience somewhere I’ve been and loved.
Is writing about responsible travel ideas enough?
On the flip side of my dilemma, I’ve often found solace in knowing that when I recommend specific locations, they are usually accompanied by suggestions of environmentally and socially conscious accommodations. Yet, I often get messages from my readers and followers who visited a location based on my recommendation – but chose to experience it in a way that makes me cringe and regret writing about it at all. The point is, I, or another responsible travel blogger, can only plant ideas. We can’t stop the callousness of those who travel just to get the right selfie or drink themselves silly or don’t care about building any real connections with a place and its people.
How can a travel blogger strike the right balance?
The truth is, I don’t know. It’s the reason why I’ve struggled to write a word on this blog in almost a month. The reason why I’ve consciously limited my social media posts about my current (annual) monsoon escapade in Goa, because as much as I’d love for my conscious, aware, nature-loving readers to experience my finds, I’m wary, very wary, of how much Goa has changed in the span of the four monsoons I’ve spent here – and would hate to unintentionally accelerate that negative change.
Maybe this is the travel blogger’s version of a mid-life crisis. And I intend to deal with it by focusing more on inspiring stories from the road…
Got any words of wisdom for this conflicted travel blogger?
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Last month, I boarded a late night flight to Munich in unusual company – with a bunch of 15-16 year olds, flying internationally for the first time in their lives. My initial apprehension of travelling with “kids” was quickly washed over by their fascination for things I’ve started taking for granted in my nomadic life. Things like watching movies while floating 37,000 feet above earth, observing locals hanging out in Munich’s charming beer gardens, and connecting with people from around the globe even if our cultures, accents and appearances are entirely different.
Travelling with the junior Indian football team for the FC Bayern Youth World Cup on assignment for Lufthansa, was not only a revelation in terms of how the road can influence young minds, but also a reminder of what it is like to be sixteen and feel both, the yearning to see the world and the hopelessness that you must put your dreams on hold till much later in life.
So this post is dedicated to the boys I travelled with, who in their own quiet ways, shared with me their dream of travelling to lands far away. And to young adults everywhere who aspire to experience far off corners of the world… this is all the advice I wish someone had given me when I was sixteen:
I often look back upon my teenage years and marvel at the amount of time I spent doing nothing in particular. Don’t get me wrong; I mostly had fun in my little bubble of school gossip, competitive studying, basketball and teenage crushes. But I never got more imaginative; even when I got access to my first computer and a dial-up connection sometime in my teens, I only ever used it for chatting on MSN Messenger and Orkut (gulp ;-)). I secretly harbored dreams of visiting Mexico someday and loved Enrique’s music (don’t judge me!), but it never occurred to me to use the internet to learn Spanish. Or watch films or read books about far off places in the world. I would have loved a headstart, because as you go to college and become financially independent, those seemingly vast reserves of time deplete pretty quickly.
So even if you don’t afford to travel yet, do it virtually. Pick a country you’d love to see someday and use Duolingo or Youtube tutorials to learn its language. Watch movies from different parts of the globe on Netflix. Take a free course on Coursera on a travel subject that really interests you (anything from Buddhism to Greek Mythology). Imagine how cool it’ll be when you are able to travel to some of these dream places, and immerse deeper in them because of your virtual connections!
Work part time
The more I’ve travelled, the more it’s struck me that my native country, India, is one of the only countries in the world where we expect our parents to support us financially even after we finish high school or turn 18. And that’s probably a big reason why we don’t travel right after high school or college – because why should our parents pay for that too?
On my part, when I went for my bachelor’s degree to Singapore at 17, I had a big student loan that covered most of my college and living expenses. While I studied, I picked up part time work as a teaching assistant, did three internships during the summer holidays and even wrote for a couple of obscure websites. Whatever little I earned, I saved it for low budget trips with college friends around Southeast Asia – my first taste of independent travel.
Want to travel when you are 16, 18, 20 or any other age? Get a job. I know many parents tend to be against part time jobs when you are young, but look online. Cut down all that time you spend on Facebook and Whatsapp, and learn a skill like video editing, social media management or coding, create a simple portfolio of your work, and write to small companies with your work samples. You’ll earn some money to travel, and experiment with work you could do professionally in the future… win-win!
PS: I’m often on the lookout for creative individuals who can help me with video editing and social media projects. Email me with your portfolio if you are interested.
Keep an eye out for travel opportunities
The one thing I regret about my college days was that I never took the opportunity to do a study exchange semester in another country. I saved money for it, dreamed about spending four months studying in Canada (randomly), but ultimately got lazy, nervous, too stuck in my comfort zone. I did travel to Canada much later in life, but it’s different when you’re a student; I can’t fathom how it could’ve changed my perspective. But life is too short for regrets, so I’ll say this:
Don’t get too cozy in your comfort zone. Keep your eyes and ears open, and try to grab any kind of travel opportunities that come your way. Anything from the football world cup that enabled ten boys from across India to travel to Munich, to writing scholarships, to travel contests. Follow brands in your field of interest on Instagram, join Facebook and Google groups that share such opportunities, and don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t make it.
Look for courses and internships that involve traveling
In a country where most people tend to look upon travel as merely a holiday, it helps to have a “reason” to visit or live somewhere else. I’ve met plenty of people who did long or short courses in subjects like social entrepreneurship, travel journalism and anthropology – which had them do field work in interesting parts of the world. If you plan to intern, look for opportunities in a place other than where you live, so you can get work experience, pocket money and a chance to satisfy your itchy feet at the same time.
Depending on what you’re studying, you could look at organisations like Aiesec, which offer international internships; join Facebook groups that share unique opportunities from around the world (like Youth Opportunities); and dig deep on google to find others like you who added travel to their life at a young age. The point is to plunge into the endless pool of information online and find the opportunities you need.
Explore your own country
Many countries I’ve explored around the world (especially India) offer incredible diversity – culturally, culinarily, lingually and in landscapes – and much of it is undiscovered, affordable and full of kind souls. So this excuse that travelling is too expensive, or too time consuming, or too unsafe, needs to be thrown out the window. I was 23 when I did my first solo trip – on a budget of 20,000 rupees for a month. I was afraid to break out of my shell, connect with locals and fellow travellers, and open my mind to unexpected adventures. It was a steep learning curve, but I learned to train my instinct and free my mind of much of the fear of solo travelling.
So if you’re really itching to travel and manage to save a little bit of money, pick a place in your own country, do some research and travel with an open mind… you’ll always wonder why you waited so long!
Travel to see relatives or family friends in cool places
I know, I know; who wants to go visit family in the name of travel, right? But when you’re young and crunched for funds, this is one way to get some support from your family and travel on the cheap. I remember the time I flew to Hong Kong for a job interview right after college (I didn’t get it), and reluctantly agreed to stay with my mom’s friends’ family so I could spend a few extra days exploring the country. They turned out to be very cool people; I went on a memorable hike into the surrounding mountains with them, and got my first taste of solo travel, yet with someone to fall back on.
So leverage the Indian mindset of finding relatives and distant friends, in some cool parts of the country or the world, and travel on a budget yet safely enough that your parents feel comfortable.
Chill… you have your whole life to chase your dream!
I know this is the last thing you want to hear when you’re a teenager and raring to go, but hey, you have your whole life to chase your dream to travel (or whatever it is that you want to do). Work on your skills, deepen your understanding of your options, take baby steps whenever you can, stay patient… but no matter what happens, don’t buy into the world’s greatest lie:
[The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho]
“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the little boy asks.
The old man replies, “It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
Over to you, what advice would you give your younger self?
Thanks to Lufthansa India for the opportunity to travel to Germany for the FC Bayern Youth Cup, and be reminded of what it’s like to be young and penniless!