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Snapshots from Romania!

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.

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Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim Travel Blog: Exploring the Lost Kingdom.

In this Sikkim travel blog, come with me virtually on a Sikkim trip to discover the secret treasures of the last kingdom to be annexed to India in 1975.

Sikkim travel blog

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!

Also read my Gangtok travel blog: Eat, Pray, Love: Offbeat Things to do in Gangtok (including where to find Sikkim traditional food and best Sikkim hotels)

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Sikkim travel blog | A glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga. Photo: Jakub Michankow

Sikkim India, truly off the beaten path

Places like these can’t be found on a Sikkim travel map. Trying to find my footing down a path of lose pebbles, I had asked two school kids where the narrow, winding path would take us. They enthusiastically decided to lead the way in a direction where the coarse mountain paths turned into a bed of flowers, with bright red rhododendrons blooming along the slopes. 

The path culminated in a cliff, from where we would get the first glimpse in two weeks of our Sikkim travel itinerary, of the spectacular snow-clad Himalayas!

Also read: Hiking from Darjeeling to Sikkim

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Sikkim nature | Rhododendrons in bloom.

Sikkim natural beauty, like no other

We spent our days in West Sikkim hiking to remote monasteries and villages, marveling at the isolation in which Sikkim people choose to live and pray in these parts.

In most mountain regions in India, village homes are clustered together and their farms further away. But locals in Sikkim build spacious homes surrounded by fields, often a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest neighbor.

Also read: The Mystical Ways of Arunachal Pradesh’s Galo Tribe

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Visit Sikkim to feel the tranquility in these stones.

Sikkim culture and fulfilment

For the most part, we let the chants of Om mani padme hum and the fluttering Tibetan prayer flags guide us. But one afternoon, we trudged up a particularly steep forest path with a local Sikkim guide. Trekked for an hour across the mountain, to reach a private monastery built by a Lepcha family in the solitude of the Himalayas.

Unlike many temples, there were no donation boxes or information about the founders, who had spent years carrying each stone up the tiring paths. And it is people with the same conviction, who aren’t looking for anything but peace, that perhaps feel fulfilled here.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: Motorcycle Adventures, Tribal Life and a Lingering Sadness

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Sikkim historical places | On an isolated hill in West Sikkim, a beautiful old monastery.

Shared taxis for a real Sikkim adventure

Sikkim road journeys often took us on steep, narrow, mucky and broken roads.

On a treacherous journey up to Dzongu in North Sikkim, our taxi taxi threatened to roll back down a slope multiple times and we hurriedly joined the locals in taking turns to push it up. 

Shared taxis are the fabric of life in Sikkim (the most used Sikkim transport), where no public buses ply the rough mountain roads. There are no timetables or location routes. Yet everything from people to documents to bottles of fresh brews efficiently get transported from one end of Sikkim state to another. 

Local encounters on the Sikkim Darjeeling trip

It was in a shared taxi ride to Mangan that we met Joon, a civil engineer who went out of his way to help us get permits for Dzongu at the district magistrate’s office on election day. He introduced us as old friends to the officer in charge, and helped us secure documents to hasten the process.

In the village of Dzongu, we met the Lepcha people, who have passionately protested the damming of the Teesta River. To them, the elements of nature – the river, the mountains, the forests – are sacred.

Our host family even chided me for asking if the vegetables they grow are organic, because there should be no such thing as ‘organic Sikkim’. That is the only way of farming they’ve known. Much before the world gave food without chemicals a fancy name.

Also read: Sustainable Living Ideas to Embrace as we Emerge Into a New “Normal”

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Sikkim blog travel | The mountains echo with hums of Om Mani Padme Hum.

Sikkim: State of India, forgotten kingdom

On our way out of the state, I observed in fascination, the point where the Rangeet River from Darjeeling joins the mighty Teesta. Each charts a different journey through the mountains. Yet at one point, the Rangeet flows into the Teesta, and the colors of its waters, the intensity of its flow, and its humble origins are quickly forgotten.

And so it is with Sikkim, the lost kingdom. The last state to be annexed to India in 1975.

PLAN YOUR SIKKIM ITINERARY

Sikkim wikitravel | Sikkim tourism | Sikkim tripadvisor | Sikkim trekking (and why it’s never too late to go on your first trek).

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Sikkim trip blog | Confluence of the Rangeet River with the Teesta.

How is your Sikkim travel plan shaping up? What else would you like to read about in my next Sikkim blog post?

Also read:

15 Responsible Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

Awe-Inspiring Uttarakhand Homestays to Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

A Traveller’s Guide to Gujarat’s Best Kept Secrets

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Discovering Life in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

My early explorations through the Garhwal Himalayas, exploring local life and unique Uttarakhand homestays along the way.

I had never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace.

So I finally decided to find out. I made my way up from Rishikesh, 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 from the Garhwal Himalayas tell you their stories. Then share some recommendations of beautiful Uttarakhand homestays to truly experience life in these mountains:

Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas

By the river Ganga, I sat down and read

On the shores of the river in Rishikesh, I tried to imagine how this fercious river must have risen to take down parts of the higher mountains.

Rishikesh photos, ganga photos, rishikesh beach, rainforest house rishikesh

Wifi and work at Rainforest House in Rishikesh

With the Ganga roaring below. A cosy hideout half an hour out of Rishikesh, surrounded by the tranquility of the forest.

Rainforest house Rishikesh, rishikesh homestay

First glimpse of the Garhwal Himalayas

On my journey from Rishikesh towards Uttarkashi. These naturally-terraced mountains, lush green with charming little villages, are nothing like I’ve seen before!

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga

In the Garhwal Himalayas, a hike up from the picturesque village of Kuflon near Uttarkashi.

Asi Ganga Uttarkashi, Garhwal Himalayas, kuflon homestay

Catching up on life

Pristine landscapes, a good book and not another soul in sight.

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Meeting Garhwali people in Kuflon, among them an endearing 80+ year old couple

She was 11 and he 17 when they got married. They witnessed the grounds shake and the waters rise during the floods. Ganga Singh and his wife still choose to live without electricity (with only a solar lamp), away from their kids, and have much laughter in their lives despite the challenges. Makes you realize how little you need to be happy!

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Villages in the Garhwal Himalayas

These are small close-knit communities, where everyone knows everyone else and the village gossip. The village of Kuflon, for instance, is home to only 8-9 families, and in times of tragedy, they look out for each other.

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Sampling locally grown Garhwali food

Like fern, which grows wild in the forest, takes a trained eye to identify, and tastes delicious!

Garhwal food, Uttarakhand food, garhwali food

Kuflon Basics: My favorite hideout in the Garhwal Himalayas

A perfect hideout set up by a couple who gave up their corporate jobs in the cities for the solitude of the Himalayas. They were in Dehradun when the floods hit, and couldn’t make it home for a month and a half because the bridge leading here got washed away.

Kuflon, Kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

Hanging out by the river

With a yoga instructor and new-found friend, I made my way down the road from Kuflon to the Asi Ganga. We marvelled at the sheer intensity of the river that shook the foundation of the might Himalayas. Flash foods have been common in these parts for a long time, but irresponsible pilgrimage tourism has certainly taken its toll on these mountains.

Ganga photos, Garhwal Ganga, garhwal himalayas

A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration

Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!

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The pristine Ganga on the way to Mussoorie

The winding mountain roads, both via Rishikesh and Mussoorie, were rebuilt in most parts and work was in progress in the remaining rough patches.

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

My next abode: A unique homestay in Mussoorie

The eco-friendly La Villa Bethany has been restored to its original glory by a sweet couple who quit their corporate jobs in Delhi to call these mountains home. This unique Mussoorie homestay sustains itself almost completely with rainwater harvesting, solar energy and organic farming. It’s the conviction of people like these that gives me faith that our mountains will survive.

La villa bethany, mussoorie homestay

A note on the Uttarakhand floods

The floods of 2013 washed away much in these pretty villages and valleys. While the damages are still visible, most of the roads and major bridges have been rebuilt and are safe for travelling. The locals are slowly rebuilding their lives. The best time to travel into Garhwal is now, when tourism can really help restore the local village economies.

Also read: Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Run Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel!

How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas

The nearest airport is in Dehradun. The best way to travel from Dehradun / Rishikesh / Mussoorie to Uttarkashi is by the Vishwanath Seva semi-deluxe bus. It’s a non-AC bus with rickety seats, but that’s part of the experience!

Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas

As we explore the majestic mountains of Uttarakhand, it’s important to be mindful of the impact of our travels on the locals communities and the fragile ecology. One way to give back is to stay at local homestays. These not only offer a deeper experience of the region but are also socially conscious and environmentally responsible.

Some of my favorite Uttarakhand homestays from these early explorations in the Garhwal Himalayas:

Kuflon Basics (Kuflon homestay)

At an elevation of 5000 feet, the last house in the green little village of Kulfon is Kuflon Basics. Here travellers are hosted by Anil and Sree, who left behind their lives in the city to build this eco-friendly refuge.

I spent my days hiking, dipping in the natural water pools, on the stargazing rock, chatting up Garhwali folk in the village and practicing yoga. The huts at Kuflon Basics are aesthethically built with local materials to naturally keep warm in the cold winter. Drinking water comes straight from the glacial river and waste management is in place at this Kuflon homestay.

La Villa Bethany (Mussoorie homestay)

La Villa Bethany is probably Mussoorie’s only self-sustainable home! It comes with an old-world charm, homely rooms, recipes from across the country and hosts who immediately make you feel like long lost friends.

Much of the wood and stone used for refurbishing the house has been recycled. Rainwater harvesting and solar power ensure that the luxury afforded by this Mussoorie homestay comes at a low cost to the environment.

Rainforest House (Rishikesh homestay)

I looked long and hard for a cosy abode that would let me enjoy the river in Rishikesh without the crowds. And Rainforest House – about half an hour from the main town – was my answer. It was once a homestay, but feels more like a guesthouse / B&B now. Still, it’s location by the roaring river, surrounded by greenery, and the outdoor cafe space were just perfect to chill out for a couple of days.

Also read: An Eco-Friendly Homestay in Bhimtal and Other Hidden Treasures

What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?

ALSO SEE:

In Photos: Majuli Island, Assam
In Photos: Jaisalmer in The Monsoons
In Photos: Bhap Village, Rajasthan

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World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2

What a WWII Polish Refugee Taught me About “Hindustan”.

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.

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

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.

polish refugees India, Jam Saheb, Jamnagar Maharaja, Nawanagar Maharaja, World war 2 India

The Polish kids with Jam Saheb. Photo courtesy: Sainik School, Balachadi, Jamnagar.

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?

World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2, Polish refugees in India

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

***

I googled Karol’s story later and found a documentary called A Little Poland in India, that has documented the lives of some of the Poles in India. Also this story written on New York Times.

***

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Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!

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Thar desert, Rajasthan India, sand dunes india

My 13 “Incredible India” Moments in 2013.

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

Safranbolu turkey, shivya nath

Dear Turkey: My Million Reasons to Visit You.

Why visit Turkey? Over a month of exploring the country, I met the sweetest locals and formed amazing friendships, despite no common language between us.

Dear Turkey,

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.

Also read: 10 Travel Tips for Your First Trip to Turkey

black sea coast, Amasra, karadeniz
Why visit Turkey | Sunflower fields along the Karadeniz countryside.

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.

Also read: Mauritius is Not Just About The Seas You Sail, But Also the People You Meet Ashore

boztepe hill, ordu
Why visit Turkey | Inviting entrance to a family home on Boztepe Hill, near Ordu in Turkey.

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 we impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzon 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, my backpack and my friend 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.

Also read: Romania, You Can Fool the World With Your Smiles But Not With Your Heart

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Why visit Turkey | With my Turkish friends in Ordu, a small coastal town in Turkey.

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.

Also read: What the Kumaoni People of Uttarakhand Taught Me About Life

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Turkish women, turkish customs, why visit turkey
Why visit Turkey | With my Turkish teacher friend in a small village in Kapadokya (Cappadocia).

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.

What are your reasons to visit Turkey?

shivya nath, indian travel blogger, sustainable travel writer india

How the Pandemic Changed My Perspective on Life.

One morning, I stood at the beach, soaking up the warm winter sun after a refreshing swim. Every few moments, a wave would roll in and pull away the sand from under my feet, no matter how tightly I tried to hold on to it. Gradually, I conceded to the waves and stopped resisting.

I think that feeling kind of sums up life during the pandemic. I suppose we each tried to maintain some illusion of control over our lives, travels, work and other plans, but ultimately had no choice but to let go.

As a long term traveller and travel writer, it has been two mentally and financially challenging years. Yet I’m immensely grateful that my family and friends are in good health, and those who did succumb to Covid-19 have recovered. I know not everyone has been so lucky. If you’ve suffered, or lost a loved one, I hope you’ll find the strength to get through this difficult time. My heart is with you.

In the midst of this storm, I’ve been learning to readjust my sails. As I tried to stay afloat, some bittersweet realizations dawned on me. Lessons that I perhaps overlooked during the past decade of a (digitally) nomadic existence:

I’m not really a global citizen

My idea of “home” as a digital nomad was never a place, but a feeling.

For a long time, I’ve fooled myself into thinking that I’m a world citizen. I might be equipped with a weak passport, but in my mind, I belonged as much in Tbilisi and New York, as say Mumbai. When I dreamt of “home”, I conjured up images of Thai food, Urdu poetry, conversations with Iranian friends and my writing spot overlooking three volcanoes in Guatemala

But when the pandemic hit, most countries closed their borders to outsiders, shattering my illusion.

Turns out, I’m just who my navy blue Indian passport says I am – the citizen of a developing country with a multitude of challenges that I can’t escape from. Of course, I share that status with 1.3 billion people, and feel very aware of my privilege.

But the stark difference between my freewheeling mind and the constraint of physical borders has still been a sobering realization. 

Also read: What’s the Future of Travel Blogging When Nobody’s Travelling

Despite all the sh*t India throws at you, it is one incredible country

In June 2020, when domestic flights finally resumed after a 3-month national lockdown, my partner and I reunited in Goa, the only state that would allow us entry with panchayat permissions, Covid testing and institutional quarantine. I had no idea then, that we’d still be here (on and off) 18 months later – the longest I’ve spent in one place since I embraced a nomadic life in 2013!

But even after all these months – and having visited every monsoon for the past many years – I’m STILL discovering Goa!

This time, in an attempt to avoid being in the vicinity of people, we ended up discovering majestic, nameless, sign-less waterfalls. Hiked in landscapes that could have been plucked out of the African bush. Witnessed majestic sunrises and sunsets. Kayaked in riverine backwaters, spotting fierce-looking crocodiles amidst the mangroves. Connected with local zero waste suppliers, organic farmers and home chefs to complement our (mostly lacking) culinary skills. And serendipitously found fragments of Goa’s past that have mostly been eroded with time.

Living long term in India, with its myriad challenges of erratic water, electricity and internet supply, and hard to comprehend local politics, has not been easy. But that a tiny state like Goa can continue to surprise me after all this time is a testimony to just how incredible India truly is.

Also read: How to Embrace Sustainable Tourism in India

Don’t call me a travel “influencer”, please!

Dear Instagram, your algorithm is ruining travel!

I’ve often heard seasoned photographers and writers complain how the internet and smartphones have bastardized their professions. On the other hand, I’ve long thought of myself as a digital being. My blog helped me carve out my niche in the world and allowed me to make a living on the go, while social media helped me find my wings.

But the exploding Instagram influencer phenomenon has changed that feeling.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen hordes of travel Instagrammers and Youtubers pass through Goa. Once while hiking along the coast, I saw something jarringly colorful in a cave far below. I zoomed in with my camera to spot a woman in a bright red gown and a man in a suit, posing in front of a photography crew capturing this “candid” moment. Stroll along any popular or ‘offbeat’ beach at sunset and you’ll find plenty of Insta-hubbies contorting themselves in strange ways to capture bikini-clad women in rather strange poses. Drive past the infamous Parra road with palm trees and paddies on either side, made popular by the Bollywood movie ’Dear Zindagi’, and you’ll find traffic obstructions caused by dudes with slick hair and clean-shaven chests, posing in the middle of the road!

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against dresses, bikinis or slick hair, but that these staged photographs will circulate on Instagram with deep quotes on Goa’s susegade life or how travelling can change you, ruffles my feathers.

One of my goals for 2022 is to shed the “influencer” label I carry by virtue of having a readership on Instagram, because there’s nothing I now detest more.

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

Time is one big continuous cloth

Time really goes on and on, and the seasons always change. (Autumn in Kashmir).

I vividly remember the evening India went into its first 21-day lockdown. I was visiting my folks in Dehradun and 3 weeks sounded like an infinite stretch of time, considering I rarely stayed longer than a week on a single visit. But in the panic and chaos that ensued, the traveller in me took over and convinced me: this too shall pass.

This is the mantra I’ve followed many times in the past decade, especially in challenging times – in my early travel days when my bank balance would often hover around triple digits. During painfully long and uncomfortable journeys. When I landed up alone somewhere so remote and daunting that the butterflies in my tummy would just not stop flittering.

In one of my favorite Murakami books, A Wild Sheep Chase, he writes, “Time really is one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.”

As we shuffled from one lockdown to another, and then into a state of semi-unlock limbo, I tried to cut out pieces of time for kayaking, poetry and baking, hoping to make life more palatable. But in reality, it flowed on and on, and here we are, at the start of 2022. What a triumph!

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home During the Pandemic

I’m a bit of an outsider everywhere

An outsider, always trying to look in.

During the peak of the Hindu–Muslim disharmony before partition, my great grandparents found themselves compelled to pack their belongings overnight, abandon their home in what is now Pakistan, and move to Amritsar. Then at the peak of the Sikh agitation in the late 80s, my parents and grandparents yet again packed up their lives in Punjab and moved to Dehradun. I was in the womb then…

When people ask me where I’m from, Dehradun – where I was born and brought up – is the easy answer. But in reality, I feel like quite an outsider in my home state of Uttarakhand, as I do in Punjab, and as I presumably would in Pakistan – if my passport ever allowed me to travel there.

Punjabi blood flows through my veins. I write and dream in English. I feel an inexplicable connection to Iran. My heart yearns for the idea of India. And I suppose, through all my travels, bits and pieces of me are scattered in many parts of our physical world.

In the words of the poet Nida Fazli, whose work has been a source of immense solace during the pandemic:

Waqt ke saath hai mitti ka safar sadiyon se

Kisko malum, kahan ke hain, kidhar ke hum hain

(The soil has been journeying with time for many centuries

Who knows, where we’re from, or where we belong…)

What’s life been like for you during the pandemic? What would you like to read more about on my blog in 2022?

wellness retreat in india

SwaSwara: An Eco-Conscious Wellness Retreat in India for Yoga, Creative Food and Vitamin Sea.

As wellness tourism in India grows, so does the hunt for an environmentally conscious wellness retreat in India. Raising the bar for wellness resorts in India, SwaSwara – on the shores of Om Beach in Karnataka – is not just ideal for yoga, meditation, hiking and detoxing, but also offers sustainable, mindful luxury.

Over several months of seeking refuge from the pandemic in Goa, I gradually made peace with the indefinite pause on my travelling life. Bit by bit, I explored more of my own backyard, discovering secret waterfalls, incredible hikes, timeless Goan villages and still pristine parts of the otherwise Instagrammed coast.

I was pretty unsure of how I felt about longer distance travel, but when CGH Earth reached out to me with an invitation to drive down 4 hours to SwaSwara – a wellness retreat in India naturally set up for social distancing, on the shores of Om Beach in Gokarna, I got tempted.

Masked up, hands constantly sanitized and windows open for ventilation, we drove under the warm blue skies, along rice paddies and coconut plantations, and felt a forgotten travel high crossing over into Karnataka!

SwaSwara – Perhaps the most unique, eco-friendly wellness retreat in India!

A wellness retreat in India to feel intimate with nature

As we settled into our partially open air Konkan-style cottage, built with traditional laterite and thatched roof, with bulbuls fluttering about the young guava tree within, I suddenly realized how much I needed a detox retreat in India to recharge my batteries from the chaos, shock and anxiety of the past year.

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home During the Pandemic

Sunrise and pranayama on “meditation hill”

Spiritual retreat in India: Pranayama with a magical view.

At 6:00 am, I followed the light of my phone torch up a narrow path through the wilderness, to a deck perched on the hill – for a guided pranayama (breath control) session. When I began, I could hear the waves in my ears but see nothing in the dark. Halfway through, I could feel the first rays of the sun on my face. By the time I opened my eyes, now feeling wide awake, the sun was peeking above the mountain, filling the sky and the sea with a warm, magical orange glow.

I woke up before sunrise on all four mornings to make the most of my mindfulness retreat in India, and slowly began to experience the deep peace and soulful beauty of the world around me – feelings that have evaded me since the pandemic began in 2020.

Also read: Sustainable Living Ideas to Embrace in the New “Normal

Forest bathing

I vividly remember that March evening in 2020, when India’s first lockdown was announced. My dad had the television volume turned up, while I continued working in my room. The words boomed out of the speakers and blasted in my ears: lockdown, 21 days, no public transport, stay home.

As my world, like that of everyone I know, began to catapult, I suddenly had only one image in my mind. A forest, the scattered rays of the sun, deep breaths, silence. Every night for the first few weeks, I dreamt of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese tradition of “forest bathing”.

The image gradually faded away from my mind, until I found myself standing by a 400-year-old banyan tree at the far end of SwaSwara, its spectacular roots spread out like the many arms of a superhuman being! I joined a naturalist to explore the forested acres, learn about the symbiotic relationship between wild ants and wild fig trees, spot the rare yellow headed bulbul and Tickell’s blue flycatcher, hear hornbill stories and identify wild geranium berries.

Also read: Why Travelling in Japan is Like Nowhere Else in the World

Healthy, gourmet, vegan-friendly delights (who knew you could find such a health retreat in India?!)

Having indulged my tastebuds as a vegan across India for over 5 years, I couldn’t quite believe the kind of wellness food on offer at SwaSwara. It’s an innovative mix of traditional and fusion food, but also oil-free, refined sugar-free, gluten-free and dairy-free on request!

The set menu for each meal was accompanied by a wellness menu, featuring delights like amaranth smoothies, millet dosa, seeds bread with herbed cashew cheese, steamed Korean baos, pineapple pancakes, broccoli and sunflower seeds steak, beetroot brownies, chocolate mousse and traditional thalis inspired by Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I later learnt that SHARAN, founded by Dr Nandita Shah, holds two 21-day luxury wellness India retreats at SwaSwara annually! No wonder it often ranks among the best wellness resorts in India.

I left with the inspiration to pursue the healthier whole food plant-based path myself – and can already feel a physical difference in my body.

Also read: How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Everywhere You Go

Hiking to hidden beaches

Who knew there’d be a fitness retreat in India with all this Vitamin Sea?

On an early morning, as the waves of the Arabian Sea roared, we hiked up the hill beyond our doorstep, walked through the forest and scrambled up boulders to reach the pristine “Half moon” and “Paradise” beaches. This is where the hippies once lived, but unfortunately parts of the trail are now littered with trash and the tiny Paradise Beach overrun with too many shacks and camping paraphernalia.

Still, as the sun rose from behind the hill on Half Moon beach, bathing the water in its warm morning light, I could see the magic of giving up everything and living in nature’s embrace for a while…

Also read: Moonlit Cycling, Poetry and Other Meaningful Things to do in Fort Kochi

Wellness yoga and meditation (the best yoga retreat in India I’ve experienced so far!)

The hunt for a soulful meditation yoga retreat in India ends here.

Even though I’ve been practising yoga regularly over the past year with the help of YouTube videos, I was quite amazed how much of a difference in-person classes with a brilliant instructor made! In an airy studio at SwaSwara, to the sweet chirping of birds, we practiced (an improvised form of) ashtanga yoga twice a day, with posture variations I’ve never experienced in past yoga classes – perfect for both an advanced or beginners yoga retreat in India.

I’ve been procrastinating the pursuit of meditation all through this long pause, but finally found the mental conviction to try some basic mediation and Yoga Nidra (lying down meditation) while at SwaSwara.

I don’t know about you, but at this time of uncertainty, a deep inner journey sounds like the only viable one – and those few days at SwaSwara were the push I desperately needed to enroll in a meditation retreat in India someday.

Also read: Responsible Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

Working from home

I had no idea how much I needed a mental health retreat in India.

As a travel writer and digital nomad, I’ve been working from “home” for over a decade. But it took me a pandemic to realise that it was the constantly changing horizons that kept my creative juices flowing. In the past few months, I’ve sorely missed my outdoor offices and struggled with long bouts of writers block.

I didn’t intend to work over the four days we spent at SwaSwara, but as I sat on the balcony, gazing out at a large lake where mongoose and paradise flycatchers occasionally popped by for a sip or catch, words began to flow through my veins again!

Back in the day, offering wellness holidays in India, SwaSwara used to restrict the use of WiFi to the library. But recognizing the need to enable ‘work from home’ staycations in the new “normal”, they currently offer Airtel dongles, and Airtel 4G connectivity is available throughout the retreat.

Also read: Work from Home Tips from Someone Who’s Been Doing it for Nearly a Decade

Wellness clinic and Ayurvedic spa

Can’t wait to try this Ayurveda and wellness spa in India someday.

SwaSwara is home to what is believed to be one of the best wellness clinics in India, where consultation with an Ayurveda doctor precedes any Ayurvedic therapy. I chose to sit it out to be extra cautious on my trip, but hope to try it next time!

Art therapy

Not cut out for an artist retreat in India, but the release was much needed.

As someone scarred for life by the incessant discouragement of her art teacher in school, I was hesitant to try art therapy offered by the resident artist at SwaSwara. But I’m so glad I fought my inhibitions.

I might still be terrible at drawing, painting and related pursuits, but meditating on an image and expressing it on paper with oil pastel crayons offered a release I didn’t know I needed. I left the session feeling determined to express in colors more often.

Also read: Offbeat Kerala: 11 Travel Experiences to Inspire the Artist in You

Low environmental footprint – raising the bar for the best wellness retreats in India

One of the rainwater harvesting lakes at SwaSwara – that truly make this luxury yoga retreat in India stand out.

I suppose this long pause has given all of us time to reflect on the many ways we’re consciously or ignorantly assaulting nature. Travelling can have a high transport, electricity, food and water footprint, but SwaSwara, despite the luxuries it offers, is designed to minimize it, giving wellness in India a new dimension.

Besides its protected wilderness, this rejuvenation retreat in India is home to three large manmade lakes – part of a rainwater harvesting project which caters to 100% of its water needs! All waste water is filtered and recycled for irrigation, used to grow seasonal vegetables, herbs, leafy greens and even rice, and all food waste is segregated and composted. This is a no single-use plastic zone, where drinking water is served in glass bottles from their in-house RO plant and natural toiletries are provided in cute ceramic containers. Meals are prepared fresh to order, with no meat and plenty of vegan options, ensuring a low environmental footprint on the food front too!

If you ask me, every wellness resort in India must follow these responsible tourism practices. A wellness destination in India should focus as much on our personal well-being as travellers as the well-being of the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Also read: Can Luxury Travel be Sustainable?

Left this magical spot full of inspiration for the year ahead.

After four days of living not just close to but in inspiring harmony with nature at SwaSwara – embarking on a unique inner, physical and culinary journey – I felt a renewed sense of mental peace, creativity and hope. That no matter what the months ahead have in store for us, we’ll be okay.

Have you considered wellness tourism in India or experienced any wellness resorts in India? Do you dream of visiting SwaSwara someday?

*Note: I wrote this post as part of my collaboration with CGH Earth to promote wellness travel in India. As you know, opinions on this blog are always my own.

*Precautions being taken at SwaSwara: Spread out over many acres of wilderness, the independent cottages are naturally geared towards social distancing. Rooms are partially open air, while the lobby and two restaurants on site are well-ventilated. All shared areas are thoroughly sanitized and the staff encouraged to wear masks indoors. Safety protocols laid out by WHO, industry experts and the government are being followed closely.

Shop at These Zero Waste Stores in India to Cut Your Plastic Footprint.

Zero waste stores in India – from Dehradun to Chennai – can help us ditch single-use plastic in everyday groceries. At a time of lockdowns and social distancing, many online zero waste stores have popped up to offer plastic-free deliveries too!

Guest post by Aishwarya Muralidhar (with inputs)

My zero waste journey started after reading the book Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn. Although the book isn’t exactly about the zero waste lifestyle, it urged me to rethink my relationship with the things I bought. Soon after, I started working for a zero waste brand and began to understand the life cycle of the things we buy.

However, as someone who lives on the outskirts of Bangalore, I don’t have access to many of the zero waste options that the city has to offer. Reusing what I have, refusing unnecessary plastic and mindful shopping have been my go-to practices.

Zero waste stores in India: The concept

zero waste stores india
Zero waste stores in India are making a low impact lifestyle easier. Photo: 7 to 9 Green Store, Kochi.

The concept of a zero waste lifestyle isn’t new in India. Many of us might remember how our parents or grandparents frequented local kirana stores with steel dabbas in tow. The reusable dabbas eliminated the need for packaging, and we’d have flours and spices for weeks!

But things are a little different now.

Most of us frequent supermarkets or just buy essentials online. It’s convenient, saves us a bunch of time and often gives us a good deal – but it comes at a huge cost to the environment.

With many kirana stores now stocking groceries and grains in plastic too, ‘zero waste stores’ – stores that receive, stock and sell all their supplies without any plastic packaging – have sprung up to fill the gap.

Organic groceries, reusable cloth diapers and nappies, herbs and spices from tribal cooperatives, cleaning products, farm-to-table produce, kitchen essentials, healthy snacks – it’s now possible to buy all this and more without single-use plastic!

Also read: How Rejection Helped Fuel My Journey Towards Conscious Living

Zero waste stores by city

The zero waste movement is slowly gaining momentum in India. A slew of bulk shops, refill stores, zero waste essential shops and sustainable living brands have popped up, both online and as physical retail spaces.

zero waste concept in india
High time we re-embrace the zero waste concept in India.

Bangalore

Green Mantra, Bangalore

We cut the plastic packaging at the source level to prevent plastic from going to the landfill.”

It’s been exciting to witness the evolution of zero waste stores in Bangalore, where Green Mantra, located in Marathahalli, carries package-free, preservatives-free groceries, and offers home-refills of spices, baked goods and even dosa batter! Their home refill model makes going zero waste that much easier.

Founded by Debayani, Prachee and Shikha, their collective love for the environment pushed them to start Green Mantra and spread the message of a simple, affordable, accessible, eco-friendly lifestyle.

Adrish Zero Waste, Bangalore

The newest of Adrish outlets, this store has everything you need to go zero waste with your purchases. Be sure to take your reusable cloth bags / containers to stock up on groceries, plastic free!

Chennai

EcoIndian Zero Waste Store, Chennai

“It was difficult to convince our customers to carry their own bags and containers in the beginning. But we’ve built a small positive community who care about nature over the past few years.”

Founded by childhood friends Prem Antony and Pradeep Kumar, EcoIndian started out as an organic grocery store, but pivoted to a zero waste model after the plastic ban in Chennai. They stock everything from regular groceries and pasta to dips and snacks in reusable glass bottles or compostable paper packaging – inspiring many in the city to shop more consciously.

Darjeeling

Tieedi Zero Waste Store, Darjeeling

Our products are either sourced locally from our local artists, craftspeople, farmers or from people with similar sustainable goals from outside our region.”

Tieedi has sown the seeds of a zero waste movement in Darjeeling – with two zero waste stores, and a collaboration with several cafes to set up zero waste corners! 

Founded by Utsow Pradhan, Tieedi began with offering waste management solutions to revive the air, water and soil in and around Darjeeling. After launching home and community composting solutions, Tieedi set out to tackle the dry waste crisis. Over the years, many volunteers joined to promote a lifestyle where no waste is generated at all – and Tieedi forest has now grown into a small community of people who stay and work there. They also work actively on permaculture projects and naturally cooling dwellings.

Dehradun

Assav Organics, Dehradun

As soldiers, we’ve defended the motherland. Now we need to defend Mother Earth by creating a sustainable world.”

Started by Lt Col Arvind Rawat (retd) and co, Assav Organics has ushered in a new phase of the conscious consumption movement in Dehradun. Col Arvind’s journey as an organic farmer gradually led him to set up the first zero waste store in Dehradun, in Nehru Colony. He sources certified organic grains, pulses, spices, herbs, oils and other essentials from farms across the country in traditional ringal (hill bamboo) baskets – available for sale in paper bags or your own containers.

Also read: Sustainable Living Ideas to Embrace in the New Normal

assav organics, zero waste store dehradun
Grains and groceries stores in ringal baskets at Assav Organics. Photo: Shivya Nath

Delhi

Adrish Zero Waste, Delhi

“We dream of a day when plastic-free items won’t be considered an alternative but the regular way to shop.”

The search for plastic-free, eco-friendly, organic products took friends Akshay Agarwal and Gajendra Choudhary to remote parts of India – and led to India’s first zero waste grocery store chain. Adrish became the first zero waste store in Delhi, offering groceries and produce sourced directly from 9000+ farmers!

They also stock toys, home decor, cleaning products and skincare essentials – all packed in plastic-free, reusable and compostable packaging. Going zero waste at home couldn’t be easier.

Goa

Green Chokrees, Goa

We first started living in Goa nearly 15 years back, when the quaint village of Siolim had only 1 ATM machine and everyone shopped at the old-fashioned, loose-grain store near the church, where things were packed for you, either in newspaper or brown paper bags.

Goa has been leading India’s vegan movement, so it’s no surprise that an eco-friendly, zero-waste lifestyle is sought after here too. Green Chokrees is the brainchild of chokrees Jasmin Jagada and Nivedita Magar, who source mostly certified organic groceries from across India – and retail them in paper bags, glass jars and your own containers from a cozy space in a charming Goan-Portuguese home.

Besides everyday groceries and essentials, look out for products handcrafted by local entrepreneurs – kombucha, vegan cheeses, nut butters and more!

Eco Posro, Goa

Started by two Goan chokraas Jonah and Elridge, Eco Posro is the first zero waste store in Goa (“posro” means small local shop in Konkani). Inspired into action by the plastic waste overtaking Goa’s pristine beauty, the two friends set out to offer locally / regionally sourced alternatives to daily essentials like plastic bottles, groceries, spices, cooking oils, cleaning agents and fresh produce.

Bringing your own containers is encouraged, though reusable glass jars, paper bags and cloth bags are available.

zero waste blogs
Will zero waste generation ever become the norm?

Gurgaon

For Earth’s Sake, Gurgaon

“Indians are slowly getting used to the switch to a sustainable lifestyle and every time a consumer decides to change their habits, it feels like a personal victory!”

Founded by brother-sister duo Vidur Mayor and Dr. Vidushi Mayor, their zero waste journey started with a trip to Kashmir. They were taken aback when they found mounds of waste strewn about this ‘Paradise on Earth’. They initiated a cleanup, but the experience lingered on in their minds, compelling them to find a solution for our country’s gigantic waste problem. Thus was born For Earth’s Sake, the first zero waste store in Gurgaon!

Their bestsellers include bamboo cutlery sets, bamboo fibre cups (to replace disposable cups) and eco-friendly personal hygiene products. You can also pop into their meat-free cafe, which offers three different menus based on the season. The cafe’s supply chain is zero single-use plastic too!

Also read: I Love Spiti: A Campaign to Save Spiti Valley from Single Use Plastic

Hyderabad

Zero Waste Eco-Store, Hyderabad

Zero Waste Eco-Store, the first zero waste store in Hyderabad is located in Secunderabad, with a treasure trove of 150 plastic-free products. Expect to find daily kitchen essentials (dried fruits, cold-pressed cooking oils and organic groceries), handmade soaps and shampoo powders, and even traditional coffee and tea. Carry your own bags or buy their cloth potlis!

Adrish Zero Waste Store, Hyderabad

Shocked at the amount of plastic created by our daily lifestyle, the founders of Adrish pledged to make zero waste shopping easier across India – and have gradually expanded to several cities, including Hyderabad.

Also read: Minimalism – and a Rush to Fill the Void

zero waste goa, eco posro goa
Organic produce, groceries in paper bags and floor cleaner in an old monk bottle, delivered by Eco Posro. Photo: Shivya Nath

Jaipur

Speak Earth, Jaipur

“When we were younger, we shopped at local parchun shops, where everything from oil to flour and pulses were picked up in steel dabbas. The idea of a modern zero waste store occurred to us while shopping at a large retail store where everything was packaged in plastic.”

Speak Earth is a pioneer of the zero waste movement in Jaipur, and works on the BYOC (Bring Your Own Container) model – inspired by the local bulk stores and steel dabbas of yore!

Founders and friends, Ankita Sharma and Sourabh Sharma, did extensive research (for nearly two years!) before opening up shop just two months ago. Their huge variety of offerings include daily groceries, cleaning essentials, beauty products and cooking ware. The store also houses a cafe with fresh cold-pressed juices and organic smoothies.

Through their zero waste store and cafe, they aim to spread the word about the BYOC concept and educate Jaipur’s residents about the harmful effects of plastic packaging and chemical preservatives.

Kochi

7 to 9 Green Store, Kochi

We’ve had an outstanding show of support and are currently working on a franchise model. I’m looking forward to supporting others who want to start their own zero waste stores.

After returning home from an inspiring trip to London in 2016, founder Bittu John took it upon himself to convert his family-owned grocery store into the first zero waste store in Kochi and all of Kerala! It took him nearly 2 years to figure out the logistics – but the store now enables conscious shopping with plastic-free groceries, organic cleaning products and more.

With all the wisdom gleaned on his own journey, Bittu now hopes to support others who want to be at the forefront of Kochi’s plastic free shopping revolution – both shoppers and potential store owners!

Kolkata

Kolkata Zero Waste Bazaar, Kolkata

“Mindless consumption is the root cause of all our problems – be it in our lives or on our planet.”

A chance discussion with a friend, on the garbage lining the streets of India, is what got Lata Bhatia – the founder of Kolkata Zero Waste Bazaar, West Bengal and Eastern India’s first zero waste store – thinking about sustainability. A special needs teacher by profession, Lata found her calling towards building a more sustainable world in her late 50s! But once she started unpacking issues of waste segregation, composting, single-use plastic, etc., there was no going back.

At Kolkata Zero Waste Bazaar, located in New Alipore, you can find locally-sourced organic skincare and beauty products, stationery items, and spices and other groceries. Their most popular products include organic cleansing bars, body butters, tooth powders, non-toxic detergents and cleaners, and terracotta kitchenware from Mitti Cool. Besides being a brick-and-mortar store, it is also a sustainability hub and a community space. Prior to the pandemic, they hosted talks, meetups and debates showcasing the stories of local social impact entrepreneurs and mental health support groups discussing topics like climate-anxiety. 

Mumbai

Vnya, Mumbai

“Our organic journey started with sourcing alternatives for our four legged furry boy Leo, and grew into a passion for making clean eating accessible for all.”

After spending most of her professional life in advertising, promoting products she didn’t believe in, Supriya founded Vnya, a zero-waste organic grocery store based in Juhu. Expect to find groceries curated from across the country – Pahadi naurangi dal, buransh (rhododendron) squash, hemp oil and more! 

Vnya not only also encourages people to carry their own containers for refills, but also to drop off any dry waste every Monday at their store. With the help of local waste collectors, they segregate that waste and recycle it, hence keeping waste away from landfills and empowering local waste collectors. They actively support segregation and composting – at home, societies, events and shoots.

Adrish Zero Waste, Mumbai

Yes, Adrish again! The quaint Adrish outlet in Andheri West is the first zero waste store in Mumbai – stocking farm-to-shelf groceries and essentials without single-use plastic packaging. Shipping options are available without plastic too.

Online zero waste stores in India

While there are many niche zero waste brands out there, online zero waste stores in India tend to curate and aggregate these as a one-stop conscious living solution.

zero waste lifestyle india
What the message of any zero waste campaign should be!

ONEarth

“Most people want to live more sustainably, but don’t do so because of a lack of options.

Nitika Sonkhiya quit her corporate career to start a truly unique zero waste brand that makes products largely from three ingredients: bamboo, coconut coir and coconut shells!

ONEarth is a one-of-a-kind artisan-first brand and online zero waste store that offers a range of personal care products, kitchen essentials, yoga accessories, and home and office supplies. They also carry beautifully handcrafted handbags and purses made from jute and kauna grass.

Conscience Nook

“Our aim is to make plastic-free living the norm. To advocate that sustainable living is for everyone.”

Founded by college friends Shreyas Narain and Vanya Gangwar amidst the pandemic in 2020, Conscience Nook aims to make the switch to a plastic free life fun and easy. Their mission is to deliver sustainable, eco-friendly, durable products to your home, whichever nook of the country you might be in.

When bringing a new product on board, they make sure that the product is ethically sourced, sustainable and 100% plastic free. They go a few steps further by supporting local businesses and ensuring that their vendors align with their eco-friendly vision as well as promise transparency in how they they operate.

Conscience Nook’s wide variety of zero waste options come creatively packed in compostable kraft and cardboard material. Expect to find an expansive range of personal care products, home and kitchen ware, and sustainable stationery.

Also read: Can We Stay Safe Yet Reduce Single Use Plastic During the Pandemic?

conscience nook, online zero waste stores india
The best zero waste brands delivered without plastic across India. Photo: Conscience Nook.

Bare Necessities

“One of the many joys of transitioning to a low waste lifestyle is the simplicity and sense of mindfulness it brings to all that we do.”

Sahar Mansoor, the founder of Bare Necessities, thinks of herself as an accidental entrepreneur. Overwhelmed by our country’s garbage problem, she felt compelled to do something for the environment – and the health and social justice issues associated with it.

Like other zero waste stores, Bare Necessities offers everything from upcycled bags to sustainable body care and home essentials (check out their cool collapsible steel tumbler!). But it goes many steps further.

Bare Necessities’ starter kits are designed to make travel, homecare and dental needs more sustainable. It offers a program to return and recycle glass jars, as well as refill them physically in Bangalore. And it offers several educational programs and corporate workshops to make a low impact lifestyle more accessible.

Brown Living

“For us, real impact is when consumers use sustainable products – not just buy them.”

Chaitsi Ahuja embarked on her zero waste journey after feeling overwhelmed by the plastic crisis. That eventually led her to founding The Brown Living – an online marketplace that hopes to convince millennials and Gen Z to become conscious consumers without compromising convenience.

The Brown Living team has developed a detailed framework to assess new products, giving equal attention to the source, method, packaging, life & beyond, and aesthetic.

From bamboo-cotton earbuds and upcycled scrunchies to vegan travel gear and sustainable gift boxes, The Brown Living offers a wide variety of zero waste options for everyday needs. They have a strict plastic free shipping policy and their shipping boxes are upcycled or reused.

Also read: What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba

the brown living, zero waste products india
The Brown Living framework to choose zero waste products. Photo: The Brown Living.

Going Zero

“We are building a strong community who can put the planet first when it comes to business. We personally test all products that we bring onboard and also conduct random visits to manufacturing sites to ensure they’re complying with our plastic free policy.

Social science teacher and environmentalist Sagar Singh co-founded Going Zero in 2021, with blockchain marketing professional, Naman Sharma. Their team of environmentally conscious millennials work remotely across the country, rallying to reduce resource wastage.

With innovative products like edible cutlery and coconut shell jugs, Going Zero offers a fun collection of zero waste alternatives – many of which are vegan, cruelty-free and chemical-free.

Ullisu Store

“The biggest challenge of being a zero waste business? Balancing the awareness that we should buy only what we need while still being a business that needs to sell.”

When Mrudula Joshi began sharing her zero waste journey on Instagram, she realized that many of her followers relied on her recommendations. That eventually inspired her to start Ullisu Store – an online marketplace where she curates personally vetted zero waste alternatives, and encourages buyers to appreciate the little imperfections in natural products.

Look for reusable wax strips, gardening essentials, plastic-free rakhis, a travel-friendly tea diffuser and other self-care and home care products that can collectively reduce our impact on the planet.

Some zero waste products in India worth trying

From kitchen products to zero waste beauty, homegrown Indian brands are changing the way we shop – with plastic-free, cruelty-free, vegan and conscious alternatives.

almitra sustainables, zero waste cleaning products
Innovative zero waste cleaning products like coconut fibre brooms. Photo: Almitra Sustainables.

Zero waste essentials

Menstrual cups

Tampons, pads and panty liners, along with their packaging and individual wrapping, generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year. With each female using an average of eight pads per menstrual cycle, more than 12 billion sanitary pads are disposed off every year in India. A menstrual cup is the perfect green alternative.

Check out Boondh, Sirona, The Womans Company or Shecup to find the right one for you.

Bumpadum

Have a little one at home? Bumpadum offers reusable cloth diapers and nappies in many sizes, so you can go zero waste easily.

Zero waste cleaning products

Almitra Sustainables

Have you ever looked at your living space and felt guilty about all the plastic lining the shelves? Almitra Sustainables makes it easy to switch to plastic-free daily essentials, including innovative zero waste alternatives to common household items like coconut fibre sweeping brooms, upcycled wooden soap dishes, natural loofahs and even reusable coconut cutlery.

Coco Custo

A plastic-free laundry detergent that’s 100% non-toxic and biodegradable is no longer a distant dream. Coco Custo makes natural vegan detergents that come in tins, and offers a refill program that allows us to to buy detergent in compostable refill packets from the second purchase onwards!

Zero waste clothes

Yes, it is possible to shop zero waste while looking for clothes. Try buying from slow, sustainable fashion brands that are transparent about where their clothes come from and how they’re made.

Some favorites include:

No Nasties

They use 100% organic cotton and animal-friendly inks.

Pomogrenade

They upcycle clothes from waste material (dead stock) from factories.

Kosha

They offer a repair shop so you can make your winter clothes last for the longest time possible!

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

nature masons, plastic free soaps india
So many reasons to switch to plastic-free soaps made from natural ingredients. Photo: Nature Masons.

Zero waste beauty

Cosmetics and beauty products can be tricky when it comes to packaging. But some homegrown ones not only use natural, clean ingredients, they also offer zero-waste bars and return programs to keep their plastic footprint low.

Scentora

Scentora has everything from handmade and vegan perfume bars to conditioning shampoo bars and lip scrubs – shipped without plastic across India. The bars are plastic-free, while the glass jars can be returned for sterilizing and reuse.

Nature Masons

Nature Masons has a range of natural deodorant options to choose from, along with a tempting range of soap, shampoo and conditioner bars. Their aluminum containers can be returned for shopping credits – which are then passed on to a verified recycler.

Zero waste gifts

Wild Berry Organics

“Our biggest joy is to meet entrepreneurs from the environmentally conscious tribe, while introducing organic and eco-friendly brands to as many people as we can.”

The love for food and nature inspired Niharika to launch Wild berry Organics – an online, plastic-free store that specializes in green gifting. She personally curates tried and tested organic and sustainable brands, and works with up and coming entrepreneurs to receive products in bulk.

Innovative gifting options include seed calendars, upcycled badges and even kombucha. Fresh food and beverages are only delivered within Hyderabad – a good excuse to visit the city!

Other tips to shop low waste 

Going low waste doesn’t mean that we have to clean out our entire kitchen or bathroom and make room for sustainable products!

The idea of the zero waste movement is to reduce what we throw out. That means using what we have for the longest time possible, then replacing it with a greener alternative.

Also read: 5 Easy Steps to Reduce Single Use Plastic – On Your Travels and in Everyday Life

zero waste bulk shopping
Reason enough to ditch supermarkets and embrace zero waste bulk shopping.

If you’re like me and want to embrace the zero waste lifestyle, but don’t always have access to zero waste stores, here are a few easy steps to reduce your waste:

Shop at local farmers’ markets

Buying local, seasonal produce directly from farmers and small businesses is perhaps the easiest way to go zero waste. Many cities, from Mumbai to Dehradun, host weekly organic farmers’ markets – take your own bags and encourage farmers to sell without plastic packaging!

BYOB

Ever traveled with a reusable bottle? Or gone to the store with your own bags in tow? Then you already have a few zero waste habits under your belt.

1,60,000 plastic bags are used worldwide per second. On average, a plastic bag is used for just 12 minutes and then thrown away. By bringing our own cloth or jute bag while shopping, we can help prevent all that plastic from entering our oceans and landfills.

It’s also important to note that most zero waste stores pack purchases in paper bags. Although biodegradable, paper bags require four times more energy than plastic bags to manufacture – so must either be avoided or atleast reused.

Bulk up

Buying in bulk saves money – but it also reduces packaging waste. Five 1 kg packets of lentils for instance, generate sizably more waste than one 5 kg packet. Sounds small, but it adds up over the years.

Inspiring zero waste accounts on Instagram

Adrish zero waste
Farm to shelf organic produce at Adrish. Photo: Adrish zero waste.

@zerowasteadda

Pankti is a zero waste practitioner and a slow fashion advocate. She shares easy zero waste swaps, composting tips and upcycling ideas.

@ullisu.official

Mrudula, the founder of the online zero waste store Ullisu, offers a realistic glimpse into the zero waste lifestyle, featuring trash-free snack ideas, homemade bio enzymes and other cool tips to reduce everyday waste. Her Map Project maps out bulk stores and plastic-free shops across India!

@conscious_chokri

Mehndi’s honest approach to low waste cooking, natural hair care and everyday zero waste dilemmas is inspiration to keep doing our bit, no matter the challenges.

@nayana_premnath

Eco youtuber Nayana shares DIY hacks for low impact living, low waste shopping and veganism. Her profile is proof that embracing the zero waste path doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.

@_parth.bhasin

A climate change activist and zero waste enthusiast, Parth uses humor to create awareness. A pick me up whenever I feel down about my zero waste efforts!

Your questions about going zero waste in India

onearth, online zero waste stores india
Coconut shell waste turned into gorgeous coconut shell holders at ONEarth! Photos: ONEarth.

Do you have any zero waste beginner tips?

Take it slow.

Aiming to go low / zero waste at once can seem overwhelming, but we don’t have to change our lifestyle overnight. Start by making small changes like buying from online zero waste stores or carrying your own bags whenever you go shopping.

What are some easy zero waste swaps?

  • Refuse plastic straws, use-and-throw utensils and plastic bags.
  • Switch to a bamboo toothbrush and soap & shampoo bars.
  • Try a menstrual cup or washable cloth pads.
  • Carry reusable bags on a grocery run.
  • Buy from zero waste stores instead of supermarkets.
  • Follow Instagram accounts / join Facebook groups for zero waste inspiration in your city.

Is it possible to go zero waste on a budget?

Of course! The 5 Rs: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, Repurpose and Rot can help you go zero waste with very little.

Reuse the things that you have. Yes, this means your plastic containers too.

Reduce what you buy – really think about your purchases and whether or not you need them.

Recycle your waste as much as possible – that can be done by returning it to those who sent it, sending it to a recycling plant or making ecobricks.

See if you can Repurpose the things that you’re throwing away. For example, old clothes can be turned into a throw pillow!

And compost (Rot) your organic waste from your kitchen.

Why is zero waste important?

It is estimated that India generates nearly 5.58 million tons (5500 billion kgs!) of single-use plastic in a year – made from fossil fuels and meant to be used only once!

We’re drowning in plastic, literally

A startling 91% of plastic produced thus far, has not been recycled. It either remains as litter around the country, releases harmful gases in landfills or lands up in the ocean.

Microplastics have been found on the shorelines of all continents (including Antarctica), spotted in the deepest trenches of our oceans, and even found in the rain!

Every time we choose plastic wrapped veggies, buy groceries in packaging material or accept a single-use plastic bag, we contribute to this crisis.

The ‘use and throw’ culture is hurting our health and our planet’s

Chances are, your grandmom saved and used everything for the longest time possible. But our generation, raised with plastic cutlery and disposable coffee cups, doesn’t think twice about disposing things after using them for just a few minutes.

Once dumped, these single-use plastic products take hundreds of years to disintegrate, often leaching into our groundwater, soil and oceans. Ultimately, they enter our bodies – and have even been found in the placenta of unborn babies!

It’s a way to save money!

If you’ve tried to shop sustainably or been to a zero waste store, you might be feeling a little perplexed right now. Aren’t zero waste alternatives more expensive? At first glance, it might seem so.

But any well-crafted zero waste alternative is made to be durable, so it can safely be reused multiple times. That means it will last much longer than its cheaper, disposable counterpart – and be more cost effective in the long run.

Doesn’t India already follow a zero waste culture?

The concept of zero waste living isn’t new to us Indians. From going to Sunday bazaars for groceries that had little to no packaging and DIY beauty routines that were passed down through generations, to water-conserving bucket baths, we’ve long lived zero waste.

But things have changed with the generations. With more disposable income, we’ve become less cautious of what we buy and throw.

Do you aspire to a zero waste lifestyle? Which are your favorite zero waste stores in India?

About the guest author:

​Aishwarya hopes to leave the world a little better than it is and spends her time working for causes that change lives. Both the human and animal kind. From teaching, writing and a little bit of design, she loves donning new hats when it comes to work. She hopes to expand her repertoire to pitch in her two cents to help our tiny blue dot as much as possible. Connect with her on Linkedin.

What No One Tells You About Being a Vegan Muslim.

Some Muslims think it’s un-Islamic to be vegetarian or vegan. And some vegans have an anti-Muslim sentiment. So what’s it really like to be a vegan Muslim?

Guest post by Nina Ahmedow

I was just 12 years old when I first tried to turn vegetarian. The idea of killing animals for meat broke my heart, so as I approached my teen years, I decided not to eat them. But after just a few months, my mother told me I was no longer allowed to be vegetarian. She never explained why, but I suppose it was due to the fact that at the time, there was not a lot of information about eating healthy as a vegetarian.

At 18, I made my second attempt towards turning vegetarian. This time, it was a step-by-step process. I cut out red meat, then poultry, and finally fish and seafood. Even though the first time I had tried to be vegetarian for mainly ethical reasons, the second time I was more concerned about the health benefits of cutting out dead animals from my diet.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What it Means for my Travel Lifestyle

At 18, I was 100% sure I’d never go vegan. Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

As I was making the switch, I remember there was a girl in my school who was vegan. At 18, I was 100% sure that I’d never go vegan. After all, it was too “extreme” – plus, there were a lot of people at my school who lived on farms and assured me that “cows needed to be milked” and that “free-range eggs are worse than eggs from caged hens.” It seems bizarre now that I look back on it.

For many years, I continued my life as a vegetarian. But the more information became available, the more I thought about going vegan.

Finally, when I found out that male chicks were shredded alive in the egg industry, I turned lacto-vegetarian. Trying to cut out dairy proved more difficult as milk and cheese were such a huge part of my diet.

Also read: 11 Practical Tips to Ease Your Transition Into a Vegan Lifestyle

I tried to go vegetarian at 12, then at 18. And turned vegan in just a few weeks! Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

I grew up in Germany, but upon moving to Greece, I found it much more difficult to be vegetarian so I started eating eggs again. But as luck would have it, I also lived across from Greece’s only vegan business at the time – a vegan mini market. For years, I was too afraid to enter the shop, although I was desperate to find things like tofu which are readily available in German supermarkets but a rare find in Greece. Somehow, I felt that entering that vegan shop would force me to re-evaluate my choices.

When I finally did go inside, I turned fully vegan in just a few weeks. My religion didn’t play a role at the time since the Muslim community in Athens where I live is mainly comprised of refugees. Given that the city’s first actual mosque only opened this year, I wasn’t attending any events and didn’t have much contact with other Muslims at the time.

Gradually however, I realized that there are many contradictions and confusions when it comes to being a vegan Muslim.

Also read: Lemons and Luggage: Being Vegan in Greece: A Local’s Honest Guide

Some Muslims think that it’s un-Islamic to be vegetarian or vegan

The fear of taking something which is halal (allowed), and making it haram (forbidden), makes many Muslims hesitant to forego animal products.

Kushari – Egypt’s national dish made with pasta, rice and lentils! Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

“It’s haram not to eat meat.”

I still remember my friend’s words like she uttered them yesterday. I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I said nothing. But when I looked back on this moment later, I played out a conversation where I asked what made her say that. Was it because she associated vegetarianism with Hinduism?

This specific friend is half-Indian, half-Pakistani. Her father was born to Hindu parents but had become Muslim to marry her mother. Had he gone from being vegetarian to eating meat in the process? Perhaps that’s why she thought it was haram not to eat meat.

Many Muslim cultures around the world center their diets around meat – a result of industrialization and an increase in wealth. It often seems like only poor people don’t eat meat as frequently.

While it’s true that eating certain animals is permissible in Islam, it isn’t mandatory. Many traditional scholars have issued a fatwa supporting this, some of which can be found here. Yet the fear of taking something which is halal (allowed), and making it haram (forbidden), makes many Muslims hesitant to forego animal products.

Also read: How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Anywhere in the World

But veganism and Islam don’t necessarily contradict each other

According to a hadith (saying of the Prophet), a man told the Prophet: “Messenger of Allah, I was going to slaughter a sheep and then I felt sorry for it [or “sorry for the sheep I was going to slaughter”]. Muhammad said twice, “Since you showed mercy to the sheep, Allah will show mercy to you.”

Izmir Kofte at the all-vegan Lime Bistro in Athens. Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

We know that the early Muslims rarely ate meat, and the meat they ate obviously wasn’t a product of factory farming. The excessive consumption of animal products has a proven association with animal cruelty, climate change, greenhouse gases, loss of habitat, species extinction, water shortage, and world hunger.

If the only argument in defense of a non-vegan lifestyle is that it’s allowed according to the Qur’an, it falls short with regards to the reality of the world we live in. Many people don’t know this, but Islamic law is actually quite flexible and open to new interpretations. When realities change, application of laws does, too.

Most Muslims today wouldn’t defend slavery although it was practiced in the early days of Islam. In fact, slavery was not specifically outlawed by the Qur’an although it is clear that it is discouraged. Nonetheless, Islamic scholars have since come to a consensus that slavery is un-Islamic. Clearly, something can be theoretically permissible but not desirable.

So why do we feel differently about the consumption of animal products? The strict halal regulations state that an animal should not see another animal being slaughtered, and that an animal should not be in distress when being killed. These are clear indications that veganism actually makes a lot more sense from an Islamic point of view.

Muslims who defend halal meat often don’t bother to look behind the label. Make no mistake, modern animal agriculture, whether it operates with halal certification or not, is a far cry from what was practiced by early Muslim communities. Playing a recorded prayer to thousands of animals does not make halal meat any less cruel.

On Eid al-Adha, the biggest Muslim holiday, millions of animals around the world are slaughtered and much of the meat is then distributed to those in need. Ironically, nobody considers how many more people we could feed if we focused on plant-based foods (10 billion, according to one study). By defending the continued consumption of animal-derived foods, we are indirectly responsible for other people’s hunger.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Being Vegan in Japan

While some Muslims have an anti-vegan sentiment, some vegans have an anti-Muslim sentiment too

Muslims are not above criticism, but I can’t help but feel that the criticism against Muslims is one that feeds into the stereotype of Muslims being inherently cruel.

Millions of lambs are slaughtered on Easter. Photo by Sam Carter (Unsplash).

In Islam, as in Judaism, the correct method for slaughtering is highly regulated. But to outsiders, it often appears more cruel than the methods common in industrialized countries. For one, the animal should not be unconscious. People protest against halal or kosher meat, then happily turn around to eat their meat burgers (because hey, the animal was stunned before being slaughtered).

But I’ve also seen the subject being discussed in vegan Facebook groups where the “barbaric” Muslim tradition is pointed out particularly.

The same thing happens each year on Eid al-Adha, the biggest Muslim holiday. Sadly, on this day, millions of animals are slaughtered by Muslims. But this tradition gets a lot more attention in vegan discussion forums than, for example, Orthodox Easter where hundreds of thousands of lambs are killed every year.

Muslims are not above criticism, but I can’t help but feel that the criticism against Muslims is one that feeds into the stereotype of Muslims as being inherently cruel. In other cases, the traditions (Easter, Thanksgiving) are separated from the people.

Also read: Try These Cafes and Restaurants for Divine Food in Auroville

Simultaneously being vegan and Muslim can be frustrating

The reality is that it can feel alienating to belong to two groups that seem to be opposed to each other.

Sweet potato kumpir – Turkish style baked potatoes. Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

It’s annoying when Muslims say it’s un-Islamic to be vegan. And it’s as annoying when vegans say Muslims are barbaric. It’s 2021 and other people’s narrow perspectives shouldn’t bother anyone. But the reality is that it can feel alienating to belong to two groups that seem to be opposed to each other. Asking for vegan food at a community iftar (breaking the fast during Ramadan) could lead to criticism. And so could “outing” yourself as a Muslim in a vegan group.

But at times like these, it’s important to remember that we are not vegan for ourselves or for other people’s opinions. We are vegan for the animals who deserve to live a life without cruelty.

Also read: Guardian: Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history

Many dishes served at religious Muslim holidays are accidentally vegan or can be customized

İmambayıldı (eggplant in olive oil stuffed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes) is one of my all-time favorite dishes ever since I was a child – and it’s traditionally always vegan.

Dolma. Photo by eat kubba (Pexels).

On my journey as a vegan Muslim, I’ve realized that there are several accidentally vegan dishes in different Muslim cultures and religious holidays. For example, desserts like lokum (Turkish delight, a sweet confection made of starch, sugar and often nuts) and helva (a confection made with semolina or tahini) are usually vegan, although it’s always best to double-check due to the many different varieties and recipes. Even something as indulgent as kadıngöbeği (doughnuts) is often vegan or can easily be veganized.

In terms of savory dishes that I grew up with, sarma (stuffed grape or cabbage leaves) and other types of dolma (stuffed vegetables) have vegan varieties, even though for holidays, people often focus on the meat versions (meatless sarma is often known as “fake” sarma).

One of my all-time favorite dishes ever since I was a child is İmambayıldı (eggplant in olive oil stuffed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes) – it’s traditionally always vegan. As is the hearty white bean soup my father used to make.

Also read: Lemons and Luggage: 30 Amazing Vegan Ramadan Recipes from the Muslim World

There might be a connection between Sufism and veganism

“I have existence and I value it so much

So have all the beings on earth and they too, try to preserve it

Then, how can I kill even the tiniest creature

Just to satiate my palate?”

~ Mevlana, aka Rumi

Whirling dervishes. Photo: Diaz (CC / Wikipedia).

I recently happened to watch a video on Emperor Akbar, and it mentioned that he tried to go vegetarian. He described vegetarian food as “Sufi food.”

Curious, I looked into this a little bit and found a few sites talking about how many Sufis are vegetarian and that during retreats, veganism is often encouraged. There’s an account of Rabia (a Sufi mystic) being surrounded by animals, all of who left when another Sufi appeared. When asked why they stay with her and flee from him, Rabia asked him what he had eaten. Upon hearing that he had eaten onions fried in fat, she replied that it was normal for the animals to flee from someone who eats their fat.

Rumi’s words, ‘Ye’k dez charinda-ul-insaan rish’h’aaz’ (Look at all animals as you look at humans), fill my heart with happiness, especially as I’ve been looking more deeply into Sufism since the pandemic.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Turned Vegan

It’s heartening to see that many Muslims are choosing the vegan path

Even people like me, who never thought they could go vegan, can end up transitioning eventually!

Exploring Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

Showing empathy to other living beings should not be restricted to any particular faith or lack thereof. It’s no surprise then that the world is changing and becoming more vegan – and so are Muslims!

To be honest, it still surprises me that it took me so many years to go vegan, when the final switch was so easy. But maybe it means that the right time can come very unexpectedly, and even people like me, who never thought they could go vegan, can end up transitioning eventually!

If you’re on the fence, here are some resources worth checking out:

Online resources

  • The Vegan Muslim Initiative: An educational project founded by two vegan Muslims who hope to inspire fellow Muslims to choose the compassionate road.
  • Animals in Islam: A site that examines halal living and animal rights in the context of Islam.

Further reading

Have you considered turning vegan? How do you think your religion supports or challenges it?

If you’d like to contribute a guest post to The Shooting Star, please see guidelines here.

About the guest author:

Nina is a travel content creator who has travelled to more than 20 countries on three continents. Born and raised in Germany but currently living in Greece, she loves exploring the world through vegan food. She is the voice behind Lemons and Luggage, a travel blog dedicated to vegan and responsible travel. You can follow Nina on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.

The Shooting Star Diaries: The Dark Side of Being a Digital Nomad During a Pandemic.

The Shooting Star Diaries is a new series to reflect on the quarter that was, recommend offbeat books and films, showcase new eco-friendly / vegan-friendly finds, share stories I’ve enjoyed writing… and check in on you! Welcome to the June 2021 edition.

As I write this post, I’m mentally preparing myself to move to our eighth rental since March 2020.

You read that right. We’ve moved eight times over the last 15 months – in the midst of a goddamn pandemic!

Admittedly a couple of these moves were out of choice. Like in June last year, when my partner and I – stuck in different corners of the universe – decided to move to Goa, the only Indian state that would take us in back then. Or in March this year, when life finally seemed to be normalizing, we took a leap of faith to move to the middle of nowhere in the Garhwal Himalayas.

But in between, we found ourselves living in what we jokingly called “the jail,” got chased out by inconsiderate owners, and lived in a place where the wash basin was inconspicuously missing from the bathroom! And don’t even get me started about rentals with mouldy walls, dated furniture and design so unaesthetic, it hurts the eye. Hopefully, it’s a case of eighth time lucky.

One of my favorite abodes in Goa, but not without its challenges!

I’ve long believed that we’re a product of our choices.

I, for one, chose freedom over the stability of a long lease or ownership, and flexibility over the security of a full-time job – and was secretly proud of my choices. But when the pandemic hit, these choices became the bane of my nomadic existence!

In my story on The Dark Reality of Not Having a Home During the Pandemic on Journeys, I delve into all the unexpected challenges and deep introspection that have plagued my life over the past 15 months.

Books and films I recommend

The best way to travel these days – through books and films!

The Raja of Harsil

I’ve heard much about the British-led exploitation of Uttarakhand’s forests, but never knew the history or extent of it. Through the life story of “Pahari Wilson,” a runaway Englishman who married two Garhwali women and settled in Harsil, investigative journalist Robert Hutchison recreates life in Garhwal in the 1800s. A delightful read, if somewhat painful to think of the wilderness we’ve lost.

Born to run

A fascinating book about the Tarahumara, an obscure indigenous tribe in Mexico, considered the world’s greatest ultra-runners! At a time of no travel, this book by Christopher McDougall took me virtually to the most inaccessible reaches of Chihuahua, a state I had eyed longingly on the map while in Mexico.

A Billion Color Story

A charming Hinglish film based on the young son of a Hindu-Muslim couple who quit their high-flying jobs and moved home to India to chase the dream of making a film. Available on Netflix.

Compliance

A bizarre, bizarre film based on a true story that played out multiple times in fast food chains across the US. Available on Prime Video.

On the basis of sex

The true story of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg and her early battles for gender equality. Gives me hope that one person (supported by others) indeed has the power to change an entire system! Available on Prime Video.

Stuff I’m loving

Dehradun finally gets its first zero waste store!

Kokoatrait chocolate

Turns out, we’ve been eating chocolate all wrong!  Nitin and Poonam Chordia – India’s first certified “chocolate tasters” (yes that certification exists!) – have developed vegan-friendly dark chocolates with Indian cacao that are a sensory experience.

They include a cute note on how to taste it (a bit like wine) – and instead of the regular packaging, the chocolate comes in a wrapper made of upcycled cotton and cacao husk, in a thick aluminum foil that can be reused. They also do a lot more in a bid to be sustainable – see my Conscious Vibes video about it.

Assav Organics – A zero waste store in Dehradun, finally!

Every time I visit my folks in Dehradun, I’m so excited to see how the valley’s evolving despite being plagued by traffic and chaotic construction. The latest jewel in its crown is a zero waste store set up by ex-armyman Colonel Arvind, that sells certified organic groceries sourced from across India. Take your own containers or get them in paper bags.

Break of Dawn

From founder Pardita Mascarenhas’ kitchen, Break of Dawn delivers fresh homemade vegan feta cheese and almond milk (I’m mad about the rose flavor) at doorsteps across Mumbai – at the break of dawn! Over almost six years of being vegan, I’ve tried many vegan milks and cheeses – and Pardita’s raise all benchmarks. Lucky you, Mumbai.

Stories I loved writing

responsible travel tips
In search of mountain villages that haven’t (and hopefully) won’t make it to the ‘gram!

Minimalism – And a Rush to Fill the Void

When I first began working full time and earning a sizeable salary, I experienced a constant urge to buy the next great thing to feel fulfilled. On the road, I slowly learnt to fight and block out that urge.

But the absence of travelling has created a void in my life, and my mind has begun to find other tangible ways to fill it.

In Search of a Forgotten Family Member in Myanmar

During my solo land voyage from Thailand to India via Myanmar, I unexpectedly found myself on a different kind of journey – searching for a long lost family member in Yangon!

Truly Breathtaking Mountain Villages You Won’t Spot on the ‘Gram

When things get better (and they will!), escape to these idyllic getaways in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh for a workation, hike or detox.

My Home Behind the Patient Mountains

In Iran, I came to realize that what I felt within me was a deep ache of being separated from a people, land, culture and identity that felt part of my own. As though I wasn’t an outsider at all. I was merely coming home…

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Latest video

For World Environment Day 2021, I imagined that our Planet Earth is calling us humans… my latest video is an interpretation of her message.

How’re you doing 15 months into the pandemic? What kept you busy in June? What stories, books, films, videos and finds did you enjoy during the month?

explore rural india

Explore Rural India and Meet Inspiring Storytellers… Without Leaving Home!

A few months ago, I embarked on an unexpected journey to explore rural India.

I walked precariously on a centuries-old hanging wooden bridge (only 5 remain to this day!) that connect the most remote villages of Ladakh’s Zanskar Valley. Witnessed the intimate love stories of four generations of women in a remote Uttarakhand village. Joined the ancient tradition of worshipping wild tigers in rural Maharashtra. Walked several kilometers in Kerala’s Wayanad district with a 63-year-old “walking library” who delivers books to those who love to read but have no access. Learnt how the tribal culture in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills is helping preserve local biodiversity. And tried lost ancient superfoods with a 70+ year old Himachali couple…

All without stepping out!

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home During the Pandemic

Can we really explore rural India without leaving home?

A rare sight in Goa. Explore rural India – from the comfort and safety of home.

Exactly a year ago, I was pacing up and down my terrace in Dehradun, feeling deeply concerned about how India’s tourism industry – especially community based tourism in India – was going to survive the pandemic-induced lockdown. I longingly recalled many heartwarming moments I had shared with homestay hosts, guides, dhaba owners, craftspeople, natural medicine practitioners, musicians, local environmentalists and others over the past decade, on my quest to explore India beyond the beaten path.

Even though my income as a travel writer had dropped to zero, I had the privilege to dip into my savings and pivot into new digital opportunities, while sheltering at home. On the other hand, despite growing access to smartphones and the internet, the lack of digital skills and tailored opportunities in rural areas in India held people back.

This context sparked the idea of Voices of Rural India.

Read on Journeys: Organic, Compassionate and Sustainable: The Himalayan Village That Time Forgot

Voices of Rural India: Leveraging community based tourism in India to upgrade digital storytelling skills among rural communities

In August 2020, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat in Uttarakhand, and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to launch a not-for-profit digital initiative: Voices of Rural India.

We’ve been working towards revolutionizing digital storytelling in India by bringing stories from rural storytellers across the country – from Spiti to Kerala – in their own voices.

In the short-term, Voices of Rural India is creating a revenue stream for remote communities through digital journalism. In the long run, it aims to develop digital storytelling skills at the grassroots level, along with becoming a repository of local culture and knowledge, documented in local voices.

For the rest of us stuck at home, this is a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the words, photos and videos of the very people we travel to meet. Personally, it has grown my post-covid bucket list to include some inspiring, amazing villages in India!

Our team has grown to include Namrata Shah, a travel buff who quit the corporate world to explore new avenues, and many passionate volunteers to support us with editing, publishing, social media, SEO, creating training materials, managing our whatsapp group and more.

If you’d like to volunteer with Voices of Rural India, please see current opportunities here.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

A successor of @VoicesofMunsiari: India’s first Instagram channel to be run entirely by a village community

Remember the Himalayan village where locals run marathons and their own Instagram channel?

Back in 2016, when I spent a month in Sarmoli, I was surprised to discover that this remote village in Uttarakhand comes together every summer to go birdwatching, practice yoga and run high altitude marathons! That’s when the idea of @voicesofmunsiari came about – an Instagram channel that would be run collectively by the village folk, sharing their everyday lives with the outside world. In subsequent years, we organized a smartphone collection drive through my blog, as well as a photography and Instagram workshop in Sarmoli village.  

@voicesofmunsiari, which was purely driven by the passion of local creators, convinced us of the untapped talent and the need to create more digital storytelling opportunities.

When it gradually became obvious that rural tourism is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, Voices of Rural India was born – more ambitious in scope, with funding from the Digital Empowerment Foundation to pay storytellers directly in their bank account for every story published.

Now, as the second wave rages across the country, this time not even sparing remote places in India, the threat to lives and livelihoods feels even more real than before, compelling us to continue our mission with renewed fervor.

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: Travel Companies Changing the Way We Experience India

Missing rural tourism in India? Experience village life in India, virtually

Rural life in India – currently out of bounds. Photo: Spiti Ecosphere.

Voices of Rural India is currently working with rural communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya and Gujarat, through on-ground community-based tourism organisations: Global Himalayan Expedition, Spiti Ecosphere, Himalayan Ecotourism, Kabani, Himalayan Ark, Grassroutes Journeys and Cherish Expeditions – all glowing examples of rural tourism in India.

The storytellers are typically guides, homestay hosts, people involved in tourism, and youth and women from the community – and through our intensive storytelling process, we hope they can come to proudly own their heritage, traditions, culture, food and connection with nature.

Also read: Responsible Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

Old village houses in India. Photo: Himalayan Ecotourism
  • The Walking Library: In the hilly Mothakkara village in Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
  • The Forbidden Forests of Meghalaya: A social worker from Meghalaya’s Chiringmagre village shares how ancient traditions and tribal culture help preserve a patch of pristine biodiversity in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills.
  • Why the People of Spiti Eat Stones: One of the few remaining amchis of Spiti Valley sheds light on the challenges of his practice and the miracle stones still used as a treatment.

Over 40 stories so far, the themes on Voices of Rural India span everything from the age-old traditions, to the architecture of old village houses in India, to women empowerment in rural India, to lost Himalayan superfoods, to the challenges of conservation and development in rural India, to how Indian village life has changed over the decades.

In recent months, we’ve partnered with ThePrint and Outlook Traveller’s Responsible Tourism initiative, so you can also read selected stories by VoRI storytellers on these websites!

We’re humbled to see Voices of Rural India featured on The Times of India, The Hindu, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, FirstPost, Outlook Traveller, YourStory, Homegrown and other publications. And immensely grateful for all your support.

Stay home, stay safe and continue to explore rural India… virtually.

Have you met inspiring storytellers on your travels in rural India?

PS: Hope you and your loved ones around the world are safe and well. If you’re battling India’s second wave, I’ve found Twitter to be immensely helpful in supporting people looking for oxygen, beds, plasma etc. If your appeal needs amplification, please tag / DM me on Twitter @shivya.

If you’d like to support India’s second wave battle, please consider contributing to verified organizations in India in their selfless relief work here and here.

Stay safe, stay sane, and know that we’ll get through this.

Subscribe to my new storytelling project, “Journeys” – exclusive stories delivered to your inbox once a week: India | International

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Also read:

I Love Spiti: A Campaign to Save Spiti Valley from Single Use Plastic

Awe-Inspiring Uttarakhand Homestays: Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

How an Entire Village Transformed from Poaching Birds to Protecting Them

Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What “Happiness” Means to Them.

The Bhutan happiness index has intrigued me for a long time. So I tried to figure out what happiness means to its people.

Is this indescribable feeling happiness? I wondered as my partner and I hiked through the blue pine forests of Bhutan’s Haa Valley. Up gentle hills we walked, alive with the scent of rain from the night before. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind. White and pink wildflowers dotted the landscape.

I had landed up in Bhutan last autumn to speak about my book at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. And found myself immediately drawn to the old world charm, neighbourhood forests, mountains, traditional architecture, people, food and slow life of the capital city Thimphu.

Perhaps like everyone else, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the idea of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Is Bhutan really the happiest country in the world, I found myself wondering. Will I be able to glean the secret to happiness while I’m there?

Over nearly a month of traversing the magical beauty of Bhutan, I ended up meeting local writers, entrepreneurs, travellers, farmers, thinkers and dreamers. Some were fleeting encounters, some easy friendships. To some, I couldn’t help but pose the question, what is happiness anyway?

As we stay home and introspect life during this global lockdown, I’m finding solace in their answers:

Happiness is having a purpose in life (and the Bhutan happiness index is not a literal measure)

bhutan and happiness, bhutan gross national happiness, bhutan happiness
Bhutan happiness index – a development indicator, not a literal measure.

I was in complete awe of Sonam Pelden – a Forbes 30 under 30 tech entrepreneur – as she spoke about Bhutan’s evolving digital landscape at Mountain Echoes. I felt her enthusiasm for the digital world back when I worked in Singapore, but perhaps I’ve lost some of it to cynicism along the way.

Chatting with her though, I first learnt how Bhutan actually calculates its Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). Unlike popular perception, the GNH is not a literal measure of happiness or even emotional contentment. It assesses changes in 33 indicators through surveys with randomly selected households. Parameters include psychological well-being, education, health, governance, ecological resilience and standard of living. This ultimately gives a glimpse of whether people are moving from the “unhappy” end of the spectrum towards the “deeply happy” end. But more than that, it helps create a development road-map targeting low-performing parameters.

Sonam says candidly, “The narrative put forth by popular media propagates the notion of a naïve blissful nation – albeit enticing – where tribes of smiling people are constantly gripped in song and dance. This is a dangerous half-fiction which needs to be fought on all fronts. It incubates anti-intellectualism and a sense of entitlement, and perhaps even more troublesomely, manages to distort how Bhutanese people perceive themselves. There is so much more than smiling and dancing to Gross National Happiness – and we need to push that forward!”

Personally for her, “the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of usefulness. Ultimately being useful and having a purpose in life – i.e adding value to my community and to myself makes me feel more fulfilled, more alive – all the things we associate happiness with.”

On the other hand, “being happy implies permanence – it implies you have completed all your prerequisites and now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy forever. You have retired from the everyday roller coaster of emotions to simply revel in your happiness.

And this is why I have a problem with Bhutan being dubbed as the happiest place on earth.”

Also read: Unexpected Friendships in the Dominican Republic

Happiness is a mindset

bhutan happiness, bhutan happiness index, bhutan and happiness
With Tashi, chatting about Bhutan, happiness and life.

“I’m too smart to be sitting at home,” Tashi said, only half joking. She aced her studies, but life had different plans for her. Back in the early 90s, much like in India, women in Bhutan were expected to marry early, as per the wishes of their parents.

But that didn’t stop her from becoming an entrepreneur. She refurbished her 80-year-old house in the remote Ura village of Bumthang Valley and opened it up to travellers seeking a taste of rural life. That’s how we met.

As a passionate and forward-thinking farmer, she was chosen among a handful to travel to Austria and learn from organic farmers across the country! When she returned, they even helped her build a stone oven to practice bread making – the only one of its kind in all of Bhutan.

In her cosy kitchen, we gathered one night to drink homemade ara – a fermented (and potent) local rice brew. Chatting about life in Bumthang and her adventures in Austria, I couldn’t help but wonder what she made of happiness.

“To me, happiness is something we set our minds to. No matter how hard life gets, it is about being able to take it easy, think in positive ways, and just feel satisfied with what we have,” she explained.

Indeed, it’s easy to complain about the cards we’ve been dealt by life. But perhaps the only way to pursue happiness is to choose how we play the hand.

Also read: What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life

Happiness is seeking inspiration on the road

At the Mountain Echoes festival, I was delighted to share the stage with Tshering Denkar – Bhutan’s first solo female traveller and travel blogger. Her passion to get off the beaten track in Bhutan, hitchhike to remote parts of the country, connect with indigenous communities and bring their stories to the world is infectious.

We ended up hiking in the forests of Thimphu together. And that’s when I learnt that she was invited to meet His Majesty The Fifth King of Bhutan after he read her blog! He commended her for her fearless travels and curiosity about her own land. Indeed, her blog inspired us to travel all the way to Haa Valley. And her stories of the remote eastern corners of Bhutan make me long to return to the country.

“Happiness to me is Bhutan’s offbeat trails and unexplored places. It is seeing how people in far-flung regions, even without basic necessities, seem content with their lives. It is about becoming a part of other cultures and traditions on my sojourns. Happiness to me is Bhutan itself,” says Denkar.

As a fellow traveller, I think I get it. Being on the road often makes me feel close to the illusive, inexplicable feeling of happiness.

Also read: Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Who Travels the World Solo – On a Wheelchair!

Happiness is an inside job

paro taktsang, tiger's nest hike
Hiking up to the famous Paro Taktsang.

As a vegan traveller, I was amazed to learn that Bhutan has no slaughterhouses! Consciously harming sentient beings is considered out of line with the Buddhist principle of compassion. Ironically though, Bhutan imports meat from India…

The quest to understand Bhutan’s complex relationship with animals led me to Yangso. The pioneer of Bhutan’s small but passionate vegan movement and founder of the country’s first vegan club. Through her, I discovered vegan-friendly local brands and connected with other Bhutanese vegans. We ended up hosting a meetup in Thimphu and swapped stories of vegan, eco-friendly and minimalist living. Her passionate advocacy for animal rights in a country whose national dish is ema datshi (cheese and chillies), left me inspired. So I had to ask Yangso what happiness meant to her.

“Happiness to me is an inside job. I maybe in the most peaceful and happiest country in the world, but to me happiness is a state of mind. It is embracing the present moment. It is acceptance. It is patience. It is knowing that my existence matters,” she said.

That inside job is not always easy. But I know for a fact that to the billions of animals suffering out there, her existence matters. And hopefully, her patience will pay off.

Also read: On Life and Contentment: A Conversation With Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Happiness is giving back

mountain echoes literary festival, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
With Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother. Wish I’d asked her the Bhutan happiness question!

At the end of our panel, Denkar, Pem C (the founder of Bhutan’s first lifestyle magazine) and I had the great honour of being invited to chat with Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. I would only later learn how rare that honour was!

For someone who inspires so much awe and respect among the Bhutanese, I was surprised to hear her open up about her youthful adventures before she embarked on a different journey as one of the Queens to the visionary Fourth King of Bhutan. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask her about happiness, but her eyes lit up as she spoke about her foundation, Tarayana.

She travelled across Bhutan, to far-flung villages, trying to grasp the challenges of rural living. And set up the Tarayana Foundation to support sustainable development and vocational livelihoods on the remote countryside. Green technologies are at the core of these projects – including micro hydro power projects in off-grid villages, bio sand water filtration, dry composting toilets and solar dryers for food preservation.

It sounds to me like happiness might just be about making a difference in the lives of those less privileged than us, in whatever way we can.

What do you think of the Bhutan happiness index? What does happiness mean to you?

bhutan happiness, bhutan and happiness, bhutan happiest country, bhutan happiness index
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Can Luxury Travel be Sustainable? What I Learnt Staying at Spice Village, Thekkady.

Sustainable luxury travel sounds like an oxymoron, but it doesn’t have to be. One sustainable luxury hotel in Kerala is showing the way.

As a travel writer, I’ve had the chance to sample many high-end accommodations and luxury wildlife lodges. Despite the comfort and pampering, I’ve often left feeling conflicted about their enormous environmental footprint.

Those cards floating about in the rooms, saying they care about the environment and wouldn’t want to wash sheets and towels everyday, that’s mostly greenwashing.

Also read: Sustainable Travel Tips for Authentic, Meaningful Experiences on the Road

Sustainable luxury travel – the idea that high-end comfort can coexist with sustainable practices.

What is sustainable luxury travel anyway?

Simply put, it is the idea that high-end comfort can coexist with eco-friendly, socially-conscious, low-impact tourism practices.

Is luxury travel in India sustainable?

Unfortunately, most luxury hotels in India tend to generate huge amounts of single-use plastic trash through bottled water and toiletries. Many don’t bother to segregate their waste, contributing to landfill and ocean dumps. And the carbon emissions generated by their indiscriminate use of electricity, air-conditioned rooms and food imported from around the world are significant. Sustainable tourism examples in the luxury space are only a handful.

As someone who tends to gravitate towards small, eco-friendly homestays, I suppose I’ve often looked at luxury travel in India – and elsewhere – with a critical eye. But that changed when I visited Spice Village in Thekkady last year. Here’s why:

The cozy huts at Spice Village are thatched and cooled naturally with dried elephant grass

Grown and harvested with the support of the forest department. It helps create a fire line to control the spread of forest fires.

Located just across the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady

Perfect for an early morning walk in the forest with a local guide and ranger. We saw a tiger kill on ours 😮

The art of natural cooling was once practiced by the local Mannan tribe – but nearly forgotten

Until Spice Village decided to recreate their traditional architecture, eliminating the need for an air conditioner even on hot, sunny days! The thatch has to be replaced every alternate year, creating employment and continued practice for local tribesmen who have unfortunately replaced their own thatched roofs with concrete.

Nearly 75% of all electricity at Spice Village comes from solar energy

Used for powering the rooms and huge boilers for hot water. Instead of storing the excess energy in batteries, it is channeled to the grid for debit at night and in the monsoon months.

After estimating that the resort discards 45,000 plastic mineral water bottles annually, they installed their own RO filtration and bottling plant

Filtration is done via reverse osmosis, then bio dynamization adds mineral back to the water. Drinking water is now served only in glass bottles – perhaps the first hotel of this size in India to do so!

Instead of single-use plastic, toiletries are available in cute, reusable ceramic jars, along with paper-wrapped handmade soaps

All waste is segregated and sent for recycling, composted for manure or made into biogas for cooking

According to an estimate by Spice Village, 250-400 kg of food waste is composted annually, using vermi composting and micro organism composting. Do other big hotels send that much or more unsegregated waste into landfills?

Rainwater harvesting and a well on site supports almost all water needs

All sewage generated by the resort is recycled, converted into odorless waste water and used to irrigate the organic garden

Building a circular system from rainwater to waste water to organic produce to compost for manure and biogas for cooking.

Old newspapers and magazines are recycled in-house into handmade paper, and used for stationary

I was blown away by the handmade paper unit, where travellers can try their hand at making recycled paper! This handmade paper is used for guest registration, scribble pads in the rooms and the outer layer of pens (though the refill is still plastic).

Much of the furniture is handcrafted from recycled pine wood

Over 50% of staff is employed locally, from the towns and villages of Idukki district

Photographed here is Baby with his wife, who oversees sourcing from local entrepreneurs.

And many everyday supplies are sourced from rural entrepreneurs

I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes and meet some entrepreneurs who supply reusable cloth bags, dustbin liners, paapad (poppadum) and candles. Hearing about their journey, from joining Kerala’s Responsible Tourism Mission training, to setting up their own small business, to supplying in bulk to Spice Village and gradually scaling up, was incredibly inspiring.

One of the two restaurants at Spice Village serves seasonal food sourced ONLY within 50 miles!

The in-house organic farm grows all kinds of herbs and leafy greens, while women in nearby villages supply pesticide-free veggies from their kitchen gardens. The chefs actually climb trees in the backyard for truly farm-to-table meals! I only wish there was a greater focus on vegan food, given the high footprint of meat, seafood and dairy.

After the lockdown, Spice Village has been reopening slowly – 40 out of 52 rooms are now open with serious covid-safety measures in place

Spread out over 12 acres of forest and spice plantation, the huts are naturally geared towards social distancing. Rooms are thoroughly sanitized and the staff encouraged to wear masks indoors. Safety protocols laid out by WHO, industry experts and the government are being followed closely.

While international travel remains a distant dream, so many incredible, less-explored, eco-friendly, socially-inclusive gems await in our own backyard in India…

Tourism – whether its family luxury travel or solo luxury travel – if done right, can help protect the local way of life, create respectable employment opportunities and positively impact the environment. Spice Village is showing the way!

Have you experienced sustainable luxury travel in India or elsewhere? Is Spice Village on your bucket list?

*Note: I was hosted by CGH Earth at Spice Village. Lucky me!

Also read:

What India (and the World) Can Learn From Sustainable Tourism in Kerala

Can Responsible Tourism Challenge Patriarchy in India?

An Eco-Conscious Wellness Retreat in India for Yoga, Creative Food and Vitamin Sea

Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies are Changing the Way We Experience India

For more sustainable ways to travel, sustainable luxury hotels, sustainable adventure travel and other sustainable travel ideas, check out this collection.

Meet the Indian Solo Traveller Who Quit His Job, Set Out for His Dream Trip in 2020 and Got Locked Down in Colombia!

While browsing through my Instagram DMs a few months ago, there was one that really jumped out at me. The world had been catapulted into a global pandemic and borders were shut, and Saurabh Gupta aka @anindiantraveler – a solo backpacker from Mumbai – found himself stuck on the other side of the globe, in Colombia!

In February 2020, after working, saving up and quitting his job of many years, he finally embarked on his dream solo trip to South America. But just a month into his travels, he found himself locked down indefinitely at a hostel in Medellin, far far away from the familiarity of home – an adventure no one could’ve anticipated.

Masked up! Saurabh exploring Medellin during the lockdown.

I got chatting at length with Saurabh about his decision to quit his full time job, his past travels, what took him to South America and how he spent 6 months locked down in Colombia. Gear up for a fascinating, inspiring story.

Follow Saurabh’s travel adventures on his blog, and connect with him on InstagramTwitter and Facebook

The green, graffiti-filled neighborhood of Envigado in Medellin.

An introvert banker turns full time solo traveller

“World cinema introduced me to so many different cultures, people, languages, regions and landscapes. At one point I wanted to experience them in real life. So I decided to travel solo.” ~ Saurabh Gupta

For much of his life, Saurabh had felt stuck in a loop. Work, office, home, repeat. As an introvert, he found refuge in world cinema, especially films by the likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Satyajit Ray, which induced in him a desire to explore the world out there.

Like many fellow Indians, he was in awe of the western world, but when he travelled to Western Europe and the US, he felt a bit underwhelmed. It was in Central Asia that he hitchhiked for the first time, and felt a strong draw to the unique culture and hospitality of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

This trip gradually nudged him to quit his banking work of more than a decade, sell the outsourcing sales agency he ran with his older brother, and travel and write full time. As a budget traveller, Saurabh says he tries to hitchhike, couch-surf, volunteer and cook whenever possible. His savings and investments pay for his basic costs.

After he quit in late 2019, he spent two months exploring East Africa – seeking out mountain gorillas and hiking to a crater lake in Rwanda, exploring the beaches and wildlife of Kenya, and volunteering at a coffee farm and reforestation project in Uganda. His travels then took him to Northeast India, where he trekked in the Dzukou valley and explored Manipur and Mizoram among the other seven sisters.

Gradually, he began dreaming of travelling without a set itinerary, without a return date. Little did he know that the future was going to offer literally that.

Also read: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Quit My Job to Travel

Taking his itchy feet to Mizoram.

Setting out on his dream trip to South America… in late Feb 2020!

“I wanted to travel extensively across South America for atleast a year. It was supposed to be my longest trip… which it still is, but under completely different circumstances!” ~ Saurabh Gupta

Saurabh had put off travelling to South America for a long time, constrained by time and finances. After much planning, he finally boarded a flight to Colombia on 19th Feb 2020. He dreamt of journeying from the northernmost to the southernmost point of South America, going with the flow along the way to let people and places mold his plans.

But 2020 of course, had its own agenda…

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home During the Pandemic

Comuna 13 in Medellin.

Getting locked down in Colombia for 6 months

“I had travelled solo to four continents but never lived in a foreign country, nor did I intend to. But the universe had different plans for me.” ~ Saurabh Gupta

Saurabh explored northern Colombia for about a month, where he attended the Barranquilla’s Carnival – the second largest in the world, travelled to Punta Gallinas – the nothernmost point of South America, saw sand dunes along the stunning beaches etc. Then he took an overnight bus from Cartagena to Medellin. As he began exploring the city, he noticed that many attractions were closing down. It was mid-March and most people were not taking the coronavirus news too seriously.

After a few days in Medellin though, news suddenly broke out that almost the entire world was going into lockdown – Medellin, Colombia, South America, India. Saurabh anticipated that it would be a short term state of affairs, and decided to stay on in Medellin to avoid buying a highly overpriced ticket back to India. In the meantime, airports, schools, colleges, offices, shops, malls, transportation, everything shut – and Medellin went quiet.

During the initial lockdown, he could only step out twice in 10 days to stock up on groceries or use the ATM, monitored by the last digit of the cedula (the Colombian National ID card) or the passport number. He was staying in a budget hostel at the time, and rather enjoyed the experience of hanging out and cooking with travellers from across the continent.

But as he lost hope of returning home or travelling again, frustration gradually set in. To keep his spirits up, he decided to change hostels and neighborhoods.

Also read: 6 Months, 6 Countries: Epic Memories from Central America

After a meditation session in Mexico!

Discovering slow travel and creative pursuits

“I used to think and laugh about the fact that I quit my work of so many years because I didn’t want to be stuck in one place for my whole life. But ironically, I felt stuck again even though I was travelling.” ~ Saurabh Gupta

Colombia had one of the world’s longest lockdowns – 6 entire months! Over the course of this time, Saurabh moved 3 hostels, 2 Airbnb rentals and undertook a 3-week stint volunteering in exchange for stay and food. He lived in several different neighborhoods in Medellin, of which his favorite was Envigado, quiet and close to the mountains, waterfalls, nature walks and parks. The houses and infrastructure there reminded him of his childhood in Panchkula.

Once he set his mind to spending his energy on positive pursuits, he immersed himself in learning Spanish, which he could practice everyday with native speakers. He got better at cooking, practiced salsa, took to Spanish music and signed up for an online writing course. When the restrictions eased up a bit, he would go out on long walks, bicycle rides and hikes, often covering 15-20km a day, sometimes solo and sometimes with resident friends. He met many new people and shared meals, cooking recipes, dance steps, music and long conversations – and perhaps that’s what kept him going in dismal times.

During the fifth month of his lockdown life in Medellin, Saurabh even got invited to a local radio show, where the RJ quizzed him about Medellin, India and his time in lockdown!

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

Street music in Medellin after the lockdown was lifted.

The end of the lockdown, finally

“I don’t feel disheartened now. I’m glad I had the experience of living in a foreign country under strange circumstances – something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.” ~ Saurabh Gupta

Saurabh had been in touch with the Indian embassy all this while, and at some point, was seriously contemplating returning back to India. The evacuation flights however, were priced rather high, and he had also begun to feel a sense of belonging in Medellin.

By now, he would walk several hours everyday, listening to Spanish music, discovering different parts of the city. On one such walk, he recalls, he went to La Sierra – labelled one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. There, he met a guy who instantly recognized that he was from India and invited him home for a cup of coffee and oblea (a local sweet). Having worked in the Middle East and made Indian friends, he was delighted to see Saurabh in his neighborhood.

Despite having an Indian passport, Saurabh’s US tourist visa allowed him to stay in Colombia for upto 6 months – and the Colombian government eased up visa restrictions during the lockdown too.

When the lockdown finally ended in Colombia in September 2020, he explored a bit more of the country. A couple of weeks ago, in February 2021, he eventually boarded a flight from Mexico to India – one whole year after his departure.

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

Exploring Colombia after the lockdown!

Words of wisdom for those whose travel dreams were shattered by the pandemic

Saurabh: “After I started travelling full time, strange things have happened with me again and again. I went to Kashmir with my brother and had to return early because of the suspension of Article 370. Then during my solo trip to East Africa, I had to return early to India to attend to an urgent family matter. When I travelled solo to Northeast India, I wanted to explore all states but had to cut my trip short due to the CAA/NRC protests. And now the lockdown during my Colombia trip…

2020 has been really challenging for most of us, but it has taught me that with an adventurous mindset and a positive attitude towards people and life, we can make the most of even such unpredictable times. My lockdown story is an apt example!”

Read Saurabh’s month-by-month lockdown story on his blog and connect with him on Instagram for long term travel inspiration!

All photos in this post belong to Saurabh, used with permission.

May the adventures continue…

What’s your lockdown story, and how did this time affect your travel dreams? What have you learnt from it?

This post is part of my “Solo Travellers from Asia” Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways, yet are typically underrepresented in the travel space. 

If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!

Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Travelling the World Solo – On a Wheelchair

Meet the Bhutanese Blogger and Solo Traveller Unearthing Bhutan’s Best Kept Secrets

Meet the Indian Software Engineer Who Quit His Job to Climb Mount Everest – But Not How You’d Imagine!

Meet the First Solo Female Traveller from the Maldives