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One Year of Travelling Without a Home.

What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack. Read More

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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: The Lost Kingdom.

On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More

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In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas a Year After The Uttarakhand Floods.

I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More

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.

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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.

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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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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

My Million Reasons to Visit Turkey.

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.

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.

Turkey black sea, turkey countryside, turkey, turkey country, turkey small towns, Amasra

Sunflower fields along the Karadeniz countryside.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

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 I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food

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.

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Turkish women, turkish customs

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.

Read more about my adventures in Turkey.

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Bombay to Barcelona: How Travelling Inspired an Indian Street Kid to Chase an Impossible Dream.

Tucked away on a quiet street in Andheri, Bombay to Barcelona Library Café – with its charming décor, a diverse collection of books and an eclectic fusion menu – could be just another café in Mumbai. But it isn’t.

As I entered through the wood and glass door, asked for a minced mushroom vada pao and set up my “office” for the day, I remembered my conversation with Dilip D’Souza – renowned author, travel writer and friend – that first led me here. That conversation was about a boy called Amin Sheikh, and his story is one of the most heartwarming stories I’m ever going to hear. It goes like this:

bombay to barcelona library cafe, andheri cafes, amin sheikh

Cafe vibes at Bombay to Barcelona.

Like thousands of kids in India, Amin was born in a slum and made to work long, hard hours in a tea shop when the rest of us were toddlers in school. One day, a set of tea glasses slipped from his tiny hands and broke, and anticipating the thrashing that awaited him both at work and at home, he decided to run away.

Dadar Railway Station became his adopted home. He begged and polished shoes, learnt to scavenge for food out of garbage cans, and slept on the platform or in the streets. Everything bad you can imagine on India’s streets, happened to him, even as he hardened up and learnt to fend for himself.

A few years later, an orphanage called Snehasadan took him in, and gave him shelter and another chance at life. When he grew up, he met Eustace Fernandez – Dilip’s friend and neighbor and the brain behind the advertising phenomenon, the Amul Girl. Amin started doing odd chores around Eustace’s house, acted as a chaffeur to Eustace’s friends from India and abroad when they came to the city, and saw a glimpse of the glamorous life in Mumbai.

That’s when a second turning point happened in Amin’s life. He received perhaps the world’s most generous birthday gift from Eustace – a trip to Barcelona!

After his first-ever flight and international trip to Barcelona, Amin returned to Mumbai with newfound dreams and determination: to write his autobiography and use the funds it generated to start a cafe – a safe space that offers employment and food for those grew up on the streets like him. As it probably sounds to the rest of us, Dilip confessed that it sounded like a nearly impossible dream.

But one day, Amin surprised him with the first draft of his book – “Life is life. I am because of you.” The entire draft was written in capital letters, for Amin has had next to no formal education. Dilip’s family helped him through the editing process, and soon, Amin had self-published his book and started selling it at traffic signals in Mumbai. The book didn’t receive much attention in India, but word spread to Spain and France and the book was translated to Spanish and French. It even made it to the front page of the national newspaper in Malta!

life is life i am because of you, inspiring indian authors, inspiring books by indians

Amin’s book – Life is life, I am because of you.

I almost teared up reading Amin’s book, for his story is the story of so many kids we ignore every day on India’s streets. The chottus (little boys) who wash dishes in roadside dhabas (food stalls), the girls who beg for money outside posh restaurants in big cities, the kids who try to sell books and tea on railway stations. One part of the book that particularly remains with me is Amin’s first trip to Spain; he writes about how incredible it felt to see a construction worker in his work clothes and a white collar office employee in a business suit share food on the same table… something you’d rarely ever witness in India, a country stuck in its notions of class, money and caste.

In late 2016, with the proceeds from his book sales in Europe, Amin started his cafe – Bombay to Barcelona in Andheri East – and it currently holds the top spot on Tripadvisor! The boys and girls who run the cafe grew up on the streets too, and meeting them, I felt like I already know them from the characters in his book.

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Symbolic tea kettle lights at Bombay to Barcelona.

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Writing with a side of hummus and lemongrass juice.

A few weeks ago, I sat chatting with Amin under the creative tea cup lights, sipping lemongrass tea fresh from the cafe’s own mini organic garden. I had to ask him, would we still be sitting here had he never travelled to Spain?

Without a second’s hesitation, he nodded no, explaining, “that trip opened my eyes to possibilities I could have never imagined.”

bombay to barcelona, mumbai cafes, amin sheikh

Mini organic garden in the cafe’s outdoor area.

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Practical Information

The book: Life is life. I am because of you.

The book documents Amin’s journey as a street kid in a simple, innocent and objective way, and puts our own life and attitude in perspective. A book that every Indian must read.

You can buy the e-book on Amin’s website or a hard copy by emailing him at amindreamsteam@gmail.com (shipped India-wide). Copies are also available at the cafe.

The cafe: Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe

If you happen to live in or visit Mumbai, spare an afternoon for a trip to Andheri East (location on google maps), not just because of the incredible story behind the cafe, but also because it’s a quaint little spot to have a meal and drinks inspired by Bombay and Barcelona (think eclectic tapas and vada pao). See upcoming events at the cafe on their Facebook page.

Have you met someone who made you think differently about everyday life?

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Featured image by Rajarshi Mitra.

Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram.

In 2013, when I went location independent and started travelling indefinitely without a home, Instagram was still in its infancy. Thank heavens.

Although I had dreamy notions of what my life of long term travel might look like, I had somewhat realistic expectations of the challenges of a digital nomad: financial sustainability, the constant goodbyes, long stretches of poor wifi. Unlike my current Instagram feed, my head wasn’t exploding with perfect images of myself in a perfectly flowing dress on a perfect day in a perfectly isolated backdrop…

Every time I look at a sky full of stars, I know that the darkness within each of us is a thing of beauty too 👀 . . On a dark, lonely night in Pachmarhi – Madhya Pradesh's only "hill station", I found myself under an incredible night sky with a naturalist from @forsythlodge and a local guide from Pachmarhi. The three of us, lost souls in our own ways, stood there watching the crescent moon set behind the hills, spotting shooting stars, deciphering constellations and the rustling in the bushes beyond (this is tiger / leopard territory after all!), and sharing stories about the skies and the forests 🌏 . . Then a police jeep showed up and demanded to know what two guys and a girl were doing out there in the darkness 😯 This photo became our savior, as we tried to explain we're out stargazing and that's only possible in complete darkness. They left us with a warning to "do this stars thing quickly and leave" 🐾 . . Oh India, under a sky full of stars, your darkness is a thing of beauty too 😉

A post shared by Shivya Nath (@shivya) on

Don’t get me wrong. I love Instagram. In fact, I just made my 1000th post and will be celebrating the 30,000 followers milestone soon with some cool travel giveaways. I love sharing meaningful experiences about life on the road with my readers, learning from the photography style of fellow Instagrammers, and the general feeling of wanderlust whenever I open the app.

Yet I cringe every time I scroll through my feed. Because the depiction of long term travel on Instagram often tends to be far, far removed from reality. Here’s how:

The longer you travel, the more you look for deeper connections

When you’ve been on the road long enough, the thrill of superficial traveling – jumping into a taxi to see the five most popular sights in your time-bound itinerary – fades away. You stop caring about whether people judge you for skipping Venice to spend a week discovering Italy from the lens of a local artist, or for skipping the “must see” sunrise of Alishan (Taiwan) with scores of other tourists and their selfie sticks to spend a lazy morning in the mist-clad tea plantations of Fenqihu. You try to slow down and have real conversations with people, because it is serendipitous encounters on the road that keep you going.

However, instead of inspiring deeper connections and understanding of the places we travel to, Instagram often only inspires dreamy landscape shots, minus the stories behind them… and that sometimes gets on my nerves.

Also read: One Year of Travelling Without a Home

fenqihu taiwan, alishan sea of clouds

A rare sea of clouds in Fenqihu, Taiwan.

There are no perfect days on the road

Just like life. Ask any long term traveller, and they’ll tell you stories of miserable bus rides, bad food days, the nostalgia of a place that has changed for the worse, accommodation nightmares, stressful bank balance days… or even just days when you feel your life is too meaningless to get out of bed. But these little travel truths often get lost behind the facade of glamorous travel photos, and make the life of a perpetual traveller seem a little too perfect.

I’m not saying that Instagram should become a place to vent, nor should anyone with the privilege and opportunity to travel be ungrateful for it. But it’s important to keep it real, because a life of travel is nowhere as perfect as it can seem on Instagram.

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

How far should one go to get the perfect travel picture?

This has been a debate since pre-digital days, but I feel like Instagram has taken it to a whole new level. Is it okay to photograph someone with a beautiful face, without so much as building a personal connection with them? Is it okay to ask the owners to empty out their cafe so you can get a perfectly romantic shot? Is it okay to photoshop photos of cloudy days to look bright and sunny?

What about wearing a gorgeous dress and makeup and heels on a hike, or in a remote Himalayan village, or in the Amazon Rainforest… because your Instagram photos matter more than your comfort or the local sentiment? What about asking a tourism board for an exclusive tour of a popular place, so you can get (unrealistically) perfect photos without the usual crowds?

It keeps me asking, how much is too much? And doesn’t it beat the impulsive, unpredictable, imperfect charm of life on the road?

Also read: Simple Ways I’ve Changed to Travel More Responsibly

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When real places are photoshopped, even surreal places make you wonder if they are photoshopped. Not photoshopped – Zanzibar.

Work-life balance as a digital nomad isn’t easy

Using technology to make a living on the go is hard work. Travel bloggers, social media influencers, photographers and coders I’ve met along the way all bear witness to that fact, my own journey included. These dreamy jobs may have the potential to take someone out of the cubicle and put them on the road to adventure, but they don’t come easy, certainly not as easy as they can seem on Instagram – quit your job, pack up, go.

Behind the enviable social media personas of digital nomads are years of struggle to make ends meet financially and get noticed in the online world. And even when they ‘make it’, this life is one of discipline, the kind that often requires you to meet deadlines even in the most blissful of places. Personally, it’s a life I choose, battle for and love everyday (well, almost), but I hate that Instagram photos often reduce it to sheer luck.

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

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Self-imposed deadlines with a view in Guatemala!

Popular “Instagrammable” places are seldom what they seem

It took me a while to realize that what you see on Instagram is often not what you get when you really travel. That first happened when I stumbled upon a photo of the famous ‘end of the world’ swing in Baños, Ecuador – the photo of a guy swinging in the stunning backdrop of Tungurahua Volcano as it spurted out lava. It seemed like one of those places where it’d just be you and the wilderness. But when I reached there after 3 hours of hiking, I was shocked to see scores of people lining up to take photos on that swing! No isolation, no feeling of wilderness, no ‘end of the world’ charm. Yet when their photos go on Instagram, I could be fooled again.

I decided not to wait in the queue (like, seriously?) and started a dejected hike back. When I got lost as I always do, I got chatting with a local who referred to the swing as an ‘Instagram phenomenon’ – it was once isolated and hard to find, but a picture on Instagram made it viral and turned it into a picnic spot. Inspired, many locals had attempted to set up similar swings, and he pointed me in the direction of one, where only the owner’s kids were swinging. Seeing me linger around, they invited me to get into the makeshift harness (for unlike the famous swing with a slope below, this one is quite a fall!) and feel the adrenaline. But I digress…

This goes for many of the world’s Instagram hotspots – the Pulpit Rock in Norway and the infinity pool at Hierve el Agua in Mexico for example. Those perfectly composed shots cut off, sometimes even photoshop, all the other tourists and selfie snappers, creating an impression of a place that is at best, untrue. And that often leads to over-commercialization of places, and in general, unrealistic expectations of travel.

Also read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

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Behind the scenes of that ‘end of world swing’ in Baños, Ecuador.

It’s not a happiness competition

After over 3 years of being location independent, I can tell you that long term travel isn’t about proving a point, or making someone jealous, or scoring a few more likes on Instagram. It’s about finding your bliss – your travel style, your life philosophy, your perspective. It’s about keeping yourself afloat in an ocean where not every fish matters.

It’s about being true to yourself, even if the number of likes on your photos suffer. And we need more of that on Instagram.

Andes ecuador, banos ecuador, instagram travel accounts

Finding my bliss in the Andes.

Over to you, how has Instagram influenced your notions of long term travel?

Connect with me on Instagram @shivya to travel with me virtually… I promise to attempt to keep it real.

Crater Lakes, Cycling and Cactus Tacos: Quirky Ways to Experience Mexico.

At dusk, as we walked along the cobbled streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a picturesque Mexican town, we caught a faint magical tune coming from a residential neighbourhood. Following it along the town’s back alleys under a Pied Piper like spell, we half-expected to arrive at a concert hall or art gallery. Imagine our amazement when we found the source of the music to be a decrepit bakery, where a middle-aged man in an apron, presumably the baker, was playing the violin with not a single person in sight. Sitting on a ledge across the street, feeling heady from the effects of the evening’s first mezcal (an agave liquor native to Mexico) and the baker’s virtuoso performance, I wondered what took me so long to get to Mexico!

Almost every day since we walked across the Guatemalan border, past no man’s land, into Mexico, I felt fascinated by the musical bent and creative energy of the locals, by traditional Mexican dishes that bear no resemblance to the beans-and-burrito type of ‘Mexican’ food found elsewhere, and by how underrated the country’s natural beauty is.

Take my list of offbeat places to visit and fun things to do in Mexico, and let the country surprise you too:

Release Olive Ridley sea turtles: Todos Santos

I remember standing under an orange sky on the beach in Todos Santos, with the cutest little thing in a coconut shell on my palm – a two hours old Olive Ridley sea turtle, that had just broken out of its shell. Along with other curious travellers and local volunteers, I placed my turtle on the sand, and saw hundreds of these tiny creatures crawl towards the water and disappear into the waves of the Pacific Ocean!

In order to protect these endangered turtles from poaching by humans, dogs and coyotes, local conservationists look after the eggs from the time the mother lays them (and leaves), until they hatch. The survival rates are pretty low, but the conservationist I spoke to seemed confident that females who survive till adulthood will come back to the same beach to lay their eggs.

Turtle releases usually happen every evening around sunset on the beach at Todos Santos (Baja California Sur), roughly from November to February. Ask a local to check if it’s happening when you visit. We stayed at La Bohemia in the quirky town of Todos Santos. I highly recommend renting a scooter or car to get around.

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Explore the countryside of Chiapas on a bicycle

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Cycling amid the dense forests of Chiapas.

One of my fondest memories of Mexico is pedaling along the cobbled streets and colorful houses of San Cristobal de Las Casas, past small vegetable farms, into dense pine and mahogany forests on the outskirts of town. We stopped at ancient caves to admire stalactites, found left-over paraphernalia from a recent Shamanic ceremony deep in the wilderness, and ate wild berries with our teacher-turned-entrepreneur bicycle guide. A slow, eco-friendly way to explore life in Chiapas!

We loved our bicycle excursion with Tierra Adventures, located on a quiet street in San Cristobal de Las Casas. You can pick a trail depending on your fitness and time. I also loved staying at Nuik B&B, a refurbished colonial house in a residential neighborhood in San Cristobal, and eating at Delicias Naturales.

Also read: Isla De Ometepe: Where the Streets Have No Name

Mexico’s best-kept secret: Nevado de Toluca

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Nevado de Toluca: My private wonderland!

Imagine my joy when I stumbled upon a random mention online about an extinct volcano with two pristine crater lakes, less than a couple of hours from Mexico City! Nevado de Toluca, the fourth tallest peak in Mexico, seemed too good to be true, and it was – easy to access, stunning hikes around the crater lakes (El Sol and La Luna – the sun and the moon), snow-clad peaks and hardly any tourists. The kind of place that inspires poetry.

We stayed the night at Fiesta Inn in Toluca City (Mexico State), from where it is easy to hire a taxi to drive the rugged 45 kilometers to Nevado de Toluca. It is possible to drive in from Mexico City if you leave super early, although I loved the local character of Toluca and the thin-crust pizza and local craft beers at Bistro Mecha.

Also read: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: The Feeling That I’ve Found My Place on Earth

Try Nopales (cactus) tacos!

Mexico vegan food, san cristobal de las casas food

Street food in San Cristobal de Las Casas.

The food in Mexico was nothing like I expected; nothing Tex-Mex (burritos-quesadillas) about it, no beans and plantains like in Central America. The first thing I fell in love with were nopales (cactus) tacos – thornless strips of grilled cactii on a taco, piled on with spicy salsas! I tried some vegan moles (sauces) in Oaxaca, made with ground chiles, cacao and sesame, feasted on street soy and mushroom tacos in San Cristobal de Las Casas, and loved the Mexican version of enchiladas in Todos Santos… but nothing felt as exotic as nopales tacos, especially after hiking and driving through cactii-infused scenery in Baja California.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan and What It Means For My Travel Lifestyle

Slow down in a typical Mexican village: San Agustin Etla

san augustin etla, oaxaca airbnb, oaxaca places to visit

The colors of a typical Mexican village.

It is one thing to explore night life and street food in Mexico City, quite another to spend a week in a little mountain village on the countryside of Oaxaca. Daily public greetings and announcements – about weddings, festivals and village news – echoed through the valley at 7am, our wake-up call. Old antique cars and collectivos (shared taxis) plied the streets. Little comedors (eateries) served up tacos and chilaquiles. Weekends were filled with street processions, music and organic farmer markets. On the rooftop, I watched the dramatic supermoon rise behind the mountains as a neighbour soulfully played the banjo.

We stayed in ‘The Box’, an Airbnb in San Agustin Etla. Although beautifully furnished, it did feel a bit closed up (like a box!). The experience of staying in San Agustin Etla itself though, was memorable. Sign up on Airbnb to get 15$ off your first stay!

Also read: 10 Awe-Inspiring (yet affordable) Airbnbs in Central America

See a frozen waterfall: Hierve el Agua

hierve el agua, natural wonders of mexico, places to visit in mexico

Look closely, the water isn’t flowing!

Out on the countryside of Oaxaca, natural minerals in fresh water springs have deposited on cliffs over thousands of years, creating the appearance of cascading waterfalls! It felt surreal to observe them and realize that the waterfalls are actually frozen, or “petrified” as some say. A manmade infinity pool over one of the cliffs tends to get more attention on Instagram, but ditch the crowds and hike one of the short trails up the mountain, to find a quiet spot and feel the timelessness of the natural wonder that is Hierve el Agua.

We took the shared public collectivo to reach Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City. For detailed directions, see here.

Also read: An Experiential Travel Guide to New York City

Take a road-trip along the stark desert scenery: Baja California Sur

Baja california Sur, road trip mexico, mexico travel blog

The Mexico of my dreams.

During our time in Baja California Sur, we rented a car and drove for miles along the dry cactus-strewn desert scenery that is so synonymous with Mexico, and probably the inspiration for so many Antonio Banderas movies. It was incredible to see small towns blend into the stark wilderness, catch glimpses of the calm blue waters in the Gulf of California, and watch dramatic sunsets over the roaring Pacific Ocean, on white sand beaches flanked by gentle hills.

Then one night, we ditched the car for a scooter and rode through the desert under thousands of stars, singing on a dark desert highway, the cool wind in my hair…

Nevado de toluca, things to do in mexico, mexico off the beaten path

Happiness is a pristine crater lake at Nevado de Toluca ❤

What would you most like to do in Mexico? And any offbeat experiences to add to this list?

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Recommended reads:

Vegetarian Survival Guide to Mexico
Life in San Agustin Etla, Mexico

Dehna: Slow life, Starry Skies and The Sahyadris… A Perfect Escape From Mumbai!

The half moon casts a haunting glow on the imposing Sahyadri mountains, as a thousand stars shimmer in the skies above. Surrounded by vast dry grasslands and red volcanic earth, I’m reminded a bit of the desert-like landscapes of Baja California and Jordan. As Mohan, our village guide, leads us up a hill for stargazing close to midnight, a soulful tune echoes from the valley below – a lady from a tribal hamlet is singing sufi-like ballads, upholding the adivasi traditions of acoustic singing at weddings, which hasn’t yet been replaced by jarring Bollywood music on a loud speaker!

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Starry skies on a moonlit night in Dehna.

The music puts me in a trance as I gaze spellbound at the rugged Sahyadris, trying to forget that the same morning, I was manoeuvring through traffic and pollution on the busy streets of Mumbai. If it wasn’t for the Vodafone Farmer BnB initiative, in collaboration with Grassroutes Journeys‘ community tourism model, this small, remote village in Maharashtra might never have found its way to India’s travel map.

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Village life in the backdrop of the Sahyadris.

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Dehna village, just 3 hours drive from Mumbai!

On our way down the hill to our tents in Dehna village, Mohan suddenly stops next to a dry field. There, he says, one of the spots where thousands of fireflies light up the valley every monsoon. Now at the beginning of a scorching summer, it’s hard to imagine that this dry landscape will burst into lush greenery when it rains, the mango trees will be laden with fruits, and fireflies will send lightening-like waves to their mates, creating natural fireworks. But I know the magic will happen, for two years ago, I witnessed it myself in Purushwadi, a small village on the other side of the same mountains.

By the time we wake up, the village folk of Dehna have already set about their chores: women filling their pots with water from the hand pump, shepherds taking their goats and cows up the hill, old women drinking tea in their front yard. Yet no one is in a hurry; in a mix of Hindi, broken Marathi, smiles and sign language, conversations and invitations for tea are aplenty.

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

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The day begins in Dehna village.

With no irrigation or water source for a second crop of rice, the farmers must be pretty idle these days, I wonder aloud, when we stroll through the village with Mohan. He invites me into a friend’s house to see for myself. The lady of the house, lean though she is, is seated on the mud floor, pounding rice with a wooden pestle. Hard work? I ask. She invites me to see for myself. So together we sit on the mud floor, pounding rice, then de-husking and grinding it. Though she far surpasses me in both strength and stamina, we feel like a team by the time the bhakri (rice roti) is on the chulha.

I’ve had delectable Maharashtrian meals of homegrown veggies and bhakri in neighbouring homes, but that morning of back-breaking work makes me realise how much we take the food on our plate for granted.

Also read: The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers

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Grinding rice together.

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The art of the bhakri.

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Bhakri with homegrown veggies and rice – yum!

Mohan laughs when I point out how the women seem to do all the work and the men just eat. But even as a young man, he’s had his struggles. As a kid, he loved English classes in the local village school because the teacher, instead of teaching English, told the kids stories in Marathi; years later, he realises how many opportunities learning English could have opened up for him. Post school, he enrolled in the nearest skills training institute, only to be spending 3 hours on the bus each way. Graduate he did, but there were no jobs to be found, so he came back to Dehna.

Still, he’s learnt to make the most of life, grateful for the opportunities that have come his way – like working as a guide with Grassroutes Journeys, to share with travellers from around India and the world, a slice of life in rural Maharashtra.

Also read: Heartwarming and Heartbreaking: Living With the Nuns of Ladakh

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Blissfully away from it all in rural Maharashtra.

Dehna, short trips from mumbai

What afternoon naps in Dehna are like 😉

Thanks to a model of responsible tourism where every family in Dehna benefits from hosting city-weary travellers in the village – through homestays, home-cooked meals, farming activities and guiding – Mohan and others his age can find respectable employment right at home.

Back on the hill, standing under a Mahua tree, as I watch my last sunset in Dehna, time seems to stand still. No matter what our personal lives are like, spending even a few days disconnected from technology, embracing the genuine warmth of village folk and tracing the journey of our food from farm to table, can make us question why we choose to spend our whole lives dealing with the chaos and pollution of our cities when the countryside lies just beyond.

dehna maharashtra, rural maharashtra, sustainable tourism in India, grassroutes journeys

The last sunset under a Mahua tree.

Dehna, Maharashtra: Travel tips

Best time to visit Dehna: The rainy season (late July to early September) for the lush greenery, mangoes, fireflies and a thousand waterfalls! Or winter (late October to early March) for warm winter days and starry nights.

How to reach Dehna from Mumbai: I loved our 3 hour road trip from Bandra to Dehna; after Thane, the drive amid the Western Ghats (Sahyadri) is just beautiful! The directions on Google Maps are spot on.

Where to stay in Dehna: Simple tents with shared western-style washrooms nearby have been set up at the edge of the village. You can also opt for a homestay with a village family. Get in touch here.

How have your countryside travels shaped you?

 I was hosted in Dehna by Vodafone and Grassroutes Journeys, as part of the Farmer BnB initiative. Can’t wait to go back in the monsoons!

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Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29.

I know that title is making you think I’m only a year away from the big bad thirty.

I’m thinking that too.

In my mind though, I still feel like that 23-year-old girl at the edge of something. Equally confused about what I want to do with my life. Equally restless. A drifter.

You’d think that my life of travel has revealed some deep answers. That I have the mysteries of happiness or existence somewhat figured out. That my head is not a giant mess of what ifs and what will bes. Truth be told, this life of travel is really a path of questions.

But this is not that post.

Even though I unnoticeably flipped my life calendar to 29 a few weeks ago, the little voices within me wouldn’t go unnoticed. This is what they had to say:

On the ‘wow’ feeling

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That ‘wow’ feeling in Zanzibar.

People often ask me if after all these years of traveling, I find myself less amazed by the wonders of the world. Of course, wandering amid the German Alps in winter, or the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, or the endless tea plantations of Himachal could wow anyone. But my heart still skips a beat for the simple things: a solitary sunset, the earthy aroma of a pine forest, the warmth of an unlikely friendship. Till that ‘wow’ feeling doesn’t fade away, I feel like I’ll continue my traveling ways.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

On commitment

munduk moding bali

Committing to seeking indulgent responsible travel experiences; Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali.

My first reaction is to flee at the idea of committing to something – a long term project, a place I’ve come to love, an image of the future – for fear that it might bind me down and clip my wings, or that I might get bored and restless and ridden with guilt for not seeing it through. But when I look back, I realize I’ve unknowingly stuck around with things that matter to me. Blogging, veganism, a relationship. So in the last of my twenties, I feel like I’m on my way to get rid of this commitment phobia, focus on meaningful long-term work… and (hopefully) see it through.

Also read: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Me

On solitude

Palampur, lodge at wah, dhauladhar range

Solitude in the tea plantations near the Lodge at Wah, Palampur.

You must think I’m crazy to have been laying out alone under a starry sky on a farm in Maharashtra, as the world celebrated the beginning of 2017. Or outright weird for having turned 29 surrounded by the snowclad Dhauladhar range in Himachal, without a word to my hosts. I guess that inexplicable desire to revel in one’s own company doesn’t feature on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the ones who feel it too, know that it is real. For the ones who don’t, I’m okay with being the crazy, strange one.

Also read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

On acceptance

Guatemala sunrise, lake atitlan sunrise

Focussing on things that matter, like the wonders of a sunrise in Guatemala!

When I reconnected with my college housemate after a long time, she from the ‘thirties club’ and me from the ‘almost thirty club’, realized we’re both living the same mantra these days: Accept and move on. Our paths might be different, but this feeling that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world around us, is the same. I’ve spent many sleepless nights contemplating my rebellious, socially inept, escapist ways, and wondering why my folks more people aren’t wired that way. But I have to accept that just like my wiring is not anyone else’s business, no one’s wiring is mine. Accept and move on.

Also read: 10 Life Lessons From 2 Years of Travelling

On gratitude

German alps, berchtesgaden national park

Grateful for moments like these: Berchtesgaden, Germany.

An intense feeling of gratitude washed over  me as I lay inebriated during an Ayahuasca ceremony, deep in the Amazonian forests of Ecuador – and became a recurrent theme in the months that followed. These days, I often look back at my journey so far in amazement, and marvel at how the universe conspired, in the best and worst of times, to help me shape the life I aspired to.

And so even if my existential dilemmas often leave me drowning, I’ve learnt to swim to the surface with gratitude. I am incredibly lucky for the cards I’ve been dealt, and more importantly, the hand I’ve been able to play. I feel more grateful now than ever, for my rebellious side, the philosophies I’ve come to believe in, the horizons I’ve woken up to, and the people I’ve shared them with.

Any pearls of wisdom for this 29-year-old?

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Flying the World’s Most Modern Aircraft – Lufthansa A350.

Peeking through my large window at the snow-capped German Alps, magically bathed in the gentle rays of the midday winter sun, I felt like I was in a futuristic fairytale – for there I sat in a full flat bed, my legs stretched out, a glass of fine white wine on my side, Woody Allen’s Café Society playing on my personal big screen, tweeting from 38,000 feet above earth using superfast wifi!

Lufthansa A350, munich to delhi lufthansa, german alps

The German Alps from my big window.

As someone aptly commented on my Facebook page, just a few decades ago, such an experience was the stuff of our wildest dreams. Atleast for a digital nomad like me.

On board the first long-haul Lufthansa A350 flight from Munich to Delhi, I forgot everything an 8-hour long flight is supposed to be. Here’s why:

Choosing my in-flight entertainment even before I boarded 

Lufthansa A350, lufthansa meals, lufthansa business class

Watching Cafe Society with a gourmet meal on business class.

You know when you get on a plane and while away the first half hour browsing through the movie selection, reading the brief descriptions, and wondering what to watch? Lufthansa A350’s Companion App syncs with the in-flight entertainment system on the route you’re going to fly, six weeks before you fly, and lets you save your favourites. Thanks to recommendations by awesome tweeps, I already knew I was going to watch Café Society and Azhar (based on the Indian cricketer) on board.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

Mood lighting to reduce jet lag

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Feeling zen on the A350.

I have to confess I fell in love with the Lufthansa A350 even before I boarded, for I unexpectedly ran into a co-passenger – a German student who did his PhD thesis on the impact of lights on reducing jet lag. Lufthansa used his research to design 24 LED mood lights on board the new A350, that adjust to the bio-rhythm of the passengers. The lights changed from a gentle blue to a soft orange to shades in between, based on the boarding time, lunch, sleep, dinner and landing. I felt pretty zen by the time we touched down around midnight in Delhi!

Also read: First Time to Germany? Practical Tips to Plan Your Travels

The relaxed ‘movie lounge’ feeling on business class

Lufthansa review, A350 features, Lufthansa new business class

Ranbir Kapoor and a healthy (vegan) salad.

I woke up from an afternoon nap on my full flat seat bed somewhere above Afghanistan, and settled in to rewatch a Bollywood flick (Ye Jawaani Hai Deewani) with a drink and pack of nuts from the self-service business class area. With my noise-cancelling headphones on and Ranbir Kapoor inspiring some serious wanderlust on the big screen, I forgot that I was on a plane until the captain’s announcement paused it for a while! I think I enjoyed the movie a whole lot more than I did the first time, either because of that relaxed movie lounge feeling up in the air… or because I didn’t make it to the cringe-worthy ending 😉

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Gourmet meals prepared by Leela Palace chefs

Lufthansa A350, A350 features, Lufthansa review

Special goodies on board to celebrate the maiden A350 flight.

Ever since I turned vegan and got stood up twice with no special meal on board long flights (despite pre-ordering it), I always carry some back-up vegan food so I don’t starve. That was the plan for this flight too, except that this time, in keeping with the crazy developments of 2017, the Deutsche Bahn train got delayed and rerouted. It took me double the time I had estimated to reach Munich airport, leaving no time to pack something for the journey. I’m glad that happened, because they had gourmet meals on board, prepared by chefs from the Leela Group; my elderly co-passenger, who was from Delhi but lived in Toronto, described her meal as “elegant”, possibly the highest compliment for airplane food.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What it Means For My Travel Lifestyle

Fastest wifi ever at 38,000 feet!

Lufthansa A350, A350 features, Lufthansa business class

Noise cancelling headphones and work mode on.

My eyes used to light up whenever I boarded a long flight and saw the Wifi symbol on board – until I realized that despite being paid, inflight wifi is usually slow and patchy. When I read that the new broadband technology on the Lufthansa A350, that also supports the Companion app, offers superfast, uninterrupted Wifi, I had to try it – for I tend to be a lot more productive up in the air than on earth. And fast it was, so fast that I could upload huge attachments in minutes and get some long-pending work done without distractions.

Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?

The most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies

eco friendly airlines, lufthansa A350, lufthansa reviews

Ready to take off on the Lufthansa A350.

I am often consumed with guilt for the number of flights I take, for it is the biggest contributor to my carbon footprint. So while I love the innovative technologies that made my 8-hour journey so relaxed and productive, what I love more is that the Lufthansa A350 is the most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies right now – it consumes 25% less fuel, produces 25% less carbon emissions, and has a 50% lower noise ‘footprint’ than similar aircrafts. Indeed, my productivity and that movie lounge feeling were heightened because I could barely hear the roar of the engines on board.

Also read: Simple Ways I’ve Changed to Travel More Responsibly

Lufthansa review, Lufthansa blog, Lufthansa A350

A glimpse of Delhi’s city lights while landing.

There was a time when my flying choices were based on getting from point A to point B in the fastest or cheapest way possible. That quickly began to take away the joy of flying. I now think about how productive (both in terms of work done and movies watched) I’ll be on board, how I can offset my carbon footprint, and how tired my body and mind will feel when I land at my destination.

To be honest though, on the world’s most modern aircraft – the Lufthansa A350 – the journey itself felt like the destination.

Win flights to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350!

Lufthansa premium economy, lufthansa A350 seats, lufthansa review

Premium economy seats on the A350 – spacious and bigger screens too!

Put on your thinking hat, take a creative picture of the number 350, and enter this contest by Lufthansa India to win return flights from Delhi to Munich on the new Lufthansa A350. Contest ends Feb 28th March 3rd, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here, and don’t forget to tweet me from 38,000 feet if you win!

Have you flown (or dream of flying) the Lufthansa A350?

I was invited as a travel blogger to fly on Lufthansa A350’s maiden flight from Munich to Delhi. Lucky me!

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

“I don’t mind the household work – cooking, cleaning, kids… but my soul is made for walking in these mountains.”

Binoculars dangling from her shoulder, sports shoes on her feet and a backpack slung over her traditional salwar kameez, Pushpa walked uphill with the ease of a mountain woman as I huffed and puffed along. But unlike most mountain women in India, she makes part of her living from her love for walking – as a female hiking guide in Sarmoli, a picturesque mountain village in the Munsiyari district of Uttarakhand.

female guides india, sarmoli uttarakhand, uttarakhand offbeat

Taking a break on our hike.

We began that morning by hitching a ride on an army jeep, and were now walking along the mountain ridges of Thamari Kund, like eagles swooping over tiny villages dotting the deep valley below, layers of snow-capped mountains stretched out before us. By the time we left the blossoming rhododendron and old teak forests, and made tea on a quiet hill, we were deep in conversation about the state of the mountains and our own lives. Much like long lost friends.

***

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe such a place exists in India.

I was soaking up spring in New York after an adventurous month in the Ecuadorian Andes, and plotting my return to India. My heart craved the Himalayas and the warmth of its village folk, and I felt ready to finally make the 11-hour journey from Kathgodam to Munsiyari in Kumaon. Having heard about Malika, an avid mountaineer, and her work in setting up the Sarmoli village homestays, I called her to see if I could linger a while in those mountains.

That’s when she first told me about their annual summer ritual – the weeklong Himal Kalasutra festival where the locals of Sarmoli come together to run a marathon with an altitude gain of 8000 feet over 20km (gulp!) and go birdwatching. That year, 2016, would include a week of meditative yoga and an introductory digital workshop by Wikipedia. The festival was geared towards the locals, but travellers (and I) were more than welcome to join.

Munsiyari uttarakhand, sarmoli homestays, rural life in India

Life or something like it, in Sarmoli.

Now, I’ve spent my fair share of time in little Kumaoni villages and witnessed the hardships borne by locals. Collecting firewood, walking long distances to go to school or the nearest health center, social issues. Where is there time to train for a marathon, or look for endemic birds, or wrap their head around Wikipedia?

***

My time in Sarmoli toppled my notion of India’s rural-urban divide. In the last few years, I had made my peace with the idea that most traditional ways of life in rural Indian communities will die out with the younger generations – and we can’t begrudge them that, for each of us seek “modern” comforts and easier lives, and it’s only fair that they should too.

But Malika – and Theo and Ram – who now call Sarmoli home, have a simple philosophy: Share valuable ideas of the urban world with the locals – the importance of fitness, flavors from international cuisines, and slowly, the online world. At the same time, encourage them to keep the wisdom of the traditional world – preserve their mountain spring water sources, be proud of their language, retain their innate hospitality towards outsiders. It’s okay if the youngsters in the village want to move away for work, but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.

farming life india, himalayan people, Sarmoli uttarakhand

Farming potatoes.

And I witnessed that philosophy in action everyday.

I sat in on meetings of the Sarmoli women’s sangathan (self help group), as they discussed everything from the summer festival logistics, to helping more village women set up homestays, to their personal marathon goals (for the routes they were to run are everyday work routes in these parts). I joined them to experiment with planting tomatoes, brinjals and bhang seeds in an innovative new polyhouse. I followed them to the local magistrate’s office to revolt against a state trekking initiative that threatened their spring water sources – and saw them achieve success in getting the trekking group to camp at an alternate location and promise to carry their non-disposable waste back. I heard (and witnessed) heartbreaking stories of domestic violence faced by women from the region, and how the sangathan has been instrumental in supporting and empowering them to start new lives.

But even as they dealt with serious issues personally and as a group, juggling the hats of homestay hosts, entrepreneurs, guides, activists and homemakers, there was never a day without laughter, playful teasing and gratitude for the lighter moments.

digital nomad India, Shivya Nath, travel bloggers india

My outdoor “office” in Sarmoli ❤

Sarmoli uttarakhand, himal kalasutra festival, himalayan villages

The village gathers under the deodar tree to discuss the festival logistics.

When the summer festivities began, I was amazed to see half the village in tadasana (tree pose) during the yoga workshop, joined them to cook pasta with wild oregano over an open fire, and bade goodbye to a massive turnout of runners on marathon day.

The coolest mountain village in India? I think so.

rural life in India

Cooking pasta in a handi on an open fire!

Sarmoli uttarakhand, munsiyari uttarakhand, sarmoli homestays

Can’t get tired of that view of the mountains.

Sarmoli festival, sarmoli homestays, munsiyari uttarakhand, uttarakhand offbeat

Day 1 of the yoga workshop in Sarmoli!

Instagram: @VoicesofMunsiari

When I heard of the Wikipedia workshop, I had a crazy dream of leveraging Instagram to encourage the locals of Sarmoli to share their stories directly with the world. Turned out, it wasn’t so crazy after all. With a basic Instagram tutorial, followed by photography tips from a fellow traveller, the locals now run their own Instagram channel – @VoicesofMunsiari – documenting their lives, mountains, seasons and stories in their own voices.

I expected the interest to die away gradually, but the account has not only grown in reach and engagement, it has also grown in storytelling and photography – despite access to only basic smartphones and English. One of their photos was even featured on Huffington Post India!

So it’s time to take it to the next level.

Upgrading your smartphone?

Currently, only a handful of locals have (basic) smartphones to take pictures and use the Instagram app. We are now crowd sourcing smartphones with good quality cameras, so we can get more locals on board this community channel and enable them to share snippets of their lives in the Himalayas too.

If you, your family or friends have a spare phone or plan to upgrade to a new one, consider contributing it to this initiative? In return, mountain love on your Instagram feed is a promise. Email me at shivyanath@gmail.com if you’d like to contribute.

Update (March 20th 2017): Thanks for your contributions and help with logistics so far! We have 7 smartphones pledged, and hope to meet our target of 10 soon. See below for updates on the Photography + Instagram workshop.

Sarmoli uttarakhand, Munsiyari, Himalayan villages

A glimpse of everyday life in Sarmoli.

Photography + Instagram Workshop

Dates: 8th – 11th May, 2017

Good news! Based on the response from you awesome folk, we will be conducting a 4 day Photography + Instagram workshop in and around Sarmoli, that will conclude in an Insta Walk on the late afternoon of 11th May. The workshop is open to all; please arrange your transport and accommodation at Sarmoli homestays directly. Drop me a note if you’d like to volunteer to help during the workshop; we could use all the hands and heads we can get.

Our hunt for a smartphone photographer – who’d like to spend four days (or longer) in this gorgeous part of the mountains, sharing their art and skills with some budding local photographers – is still on. We’re looking for someone who is comfortable with Hindi and a wide range of smartphones. Please note that since this is an attempt to nurture a new generation of rural Himalayan storytellers, the photographer will need to cover his/her own transport and accommodation expenses. Good karma is on the cards, of course. Please send me an email at shivyanath@gmail.com with your portfolio or Instagram handle if you are interested.

If the workshop goes well, the crazy dream is to organize a small photo exhibition, and use the funds to support a new outdoor education program in the village. Hopefully, it turns out to be a not-so-crazy dream after all.

Our little project is now featured on Times of IndiaConde Nast Traveller, Homegrown, The Better India and Business Insider!

Any cool ideas on how we can further leverage Sarmoli’s photography & Instagram potential?

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Also read:

How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

Secret Hideouts in Uttarakhand to Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

 My Alternative Travel Guide to Goa

How to Score a Schengen Visa on an Indian Passport. 

The thought of traveling in Europe fills my head with such dreamy images – colorful towns with cobbled streets, ageless cities in the backdrop of the Alps, the smell of fresh breads at local patisseries, people-watching at charming little cafes – that it often masks the pain of applying for a Schengen visa.

Unlike tourist visas for the US and Canada, Schengen visas for Indians tend to be issued for a much shorter duration. Given my frequent trips to Europe, I’ve scored 8 Schengen visas so far, and only twice have I managed a 1-year multiple entry visa; the other visas have lasted the exact duration of my travels. But I haven’t let that stop me from exploring this unique part of the world!

montenegro, europe visa for indian, schengen visa for indians

Montenegro… someday! Photo by Trish Hartmann; creative commons.

8 successful applications later, I know the Schengen Visa application process for Indians like the back of my hand. Take my tips and tricks, and make your Europe travel dreams come true:

The basics: What’s a Schengen visa and which countries in Europe does it cover

The Schengen Agreement is a treaty signed by several European countries to allow free movement across their borders. As travellers, that means a single Schengen Visa gives us access to most of Europe, without having to apply for individual visas. Armed with my Schengen visa, I’ve never had to think twice about taking a train on a whim from France to Netherlands to Austria.

The Schengen visa allows entry into 26 countries in Europe, including Scandinavia, Iceland and most of the Balkan countries. Even though Croatia and Romania are not part of the Schengen zone, Indian passport holders get visa on arrival in both with a valid Schengen visa.

Which Schengen country’s embassy should you apply to

Where you file your Schengen visa application depends on your travel plans within Europe. Here’s the order of consideration:

  • Apply for your Schengen visa at the embassy of the country you plan to spend the maximum number of days in.
  • If you’re going to spend equal number of days in some countries, apply at the embassy of the country you plan to land in.

If your plans are open and flexible, it’s a good idea to go with the latter and let your accommodation bookings reflect that. Once your score your Schengen visa, you can enter from and travel freely in any part of the Schengen zone.

shivya nath, georgia travel, schengen visa for indians

Longing for a border-less, visa-less world!

Get an appointment with VFS (or BLS for Spain)

Once you’ve figured out which country’s embassy you’ll be applying to, find its corresponding VFS website (for instance, VFS Germany, VFS France, VFS Netherlands) and book an appointment at your nearest centre. There was a time in India when applying for a Schengen visa meant queuing at the embassy all night long, but VFS Global (the official visa application and processing service) has made the whole process much more efficient.

I’ve applied for most of my Schengen visas at the German consulate, so I always book an appointment with VFS Germany; you need to register as a new user, go to ‘Schedule Appointment’, and find a date and time that suits you. Remember that you either need to apply at the VFS Centre that’s closest to the address on your passport, or show address proof of your residence in another part of the country. In my case, my passport address is of Dehradun, so I am required to apply at VFS Germany in Delhi.

[Update: Applications for a Schengen visa from Spain are now processed by BLS, not VFS. The process is pretty much the same; see details here]

The Schengen visa form and checklist for a short-term tourist visit

Fill the Schengen visa form online (here for VFS Germany), save it to see any errors pop up in red, then hit print and save the form as a PDF. When you print it, make sure the barcodes on the last page are clearly visible.

Look for the short-term tourist visa checklist on the relevant VFS website, and start gathering your documents. The checklist is similar for most Schengen countries, and includes your bank statements, income tax returns, travel insurance, and confirmed flight and accommodation bookings.

Flight and accommodation bookings

This is the tricky part; in order to make a successful Schengen visa application, you need show confirmed flight and accommodation bookings for your entire duration of travel. Even though it’s a bit of a risk, I usually book my actual flights before I apply for the visa; the safer option is to make a fully refundable booking on your credit card, and cancel and rebook a cheaper flight once you receive your visa.

For accommodations, I’ve been using booking.com to book hotels that can be cancelled till much later without a fee. However, lately I’ve heard that some non-European embassies have stopped accepting booking.com for visa applications. One (tedious) way around this is to contact hotels/B&Bs directly for a reservation and stall the payment till after you receive your visa.

Annecy france, schengen visa for india, europe visa for indian

The beginning of my love affair with small town Europe – in Annecy, France.

How to make a strong Schengen visa application as a freelancer

As a self-employed freelancer/blogger, I can neither produce a no-objection letter from my employer nor salary slips. In order to make a stronger case, I do the following:

  • Write a cover letter addressed to the visa officer, clearly explaining my work as a travel blogger, outlining some of the countries I’ve travelled to in the past (the US, UK, Australia and Canada carry good weight), and my intentions of visiting Europe.
  • Attach copies of my past Schengen visas and valid US/UK/Canada visas.
  • Attach my visiting card to establish credibility.
  • Include an invitation letter from any tourism board or company I intend to collaborate with.

The idea is to show that you don’t intend to stay in Europe longer than your planned travel dates.

Schengen visa fee and what to expect at the VFS appointment 

The visa fee includes both the embassy see and the VFS fee; at VFS Germany, this comes to almost INR 6,000 – and is similar for other Schengen countries. When I last visited VFS Germany in Mumbai in January 2017, I was able to pay by card, but also told that most VFS counters only accept cash or demand draft.

You are allowed to enter VFS only 15 minutes before your appointment time, and it’s a good idea to do that because you still have to get a queue number inside. A VFS official will check your documents, and if it’s your first visa application, your fingerprints will be taken. The application processing time varies based on the embassy you’re applying to; I’ve been lucky enough to receive my passport back within 2-3 days from VFS Germany even though the official processing time is 15 days.

You can choose to collect your passport at VFS with the receipt and a copy of your ID, or to have it sent it by courier to your address. I prefer the former just to minimize the possibility of it getting lost in transit.

Come with me virtually to Bavaria

I’m excited to share that this time around, I managed to score a one-year Schengen visa and plan to do a big trip to the Balkans this summer. But this week, I’m hopping over to Bavaria, invited by Lufthansa to experience their first A350 flight to India from Munich on 11th February! I hear this plane comes with bigger screens, more leg room, 12 mood lightings… and is 50% more energy efficient than other planes in the same category. Before I board that flight, I’ve decided to spend a few days out in the Bavarian Alps, in search of a dreamy winter wonderland.

bavaria winter, germany winter, schengen visa indians

My dream of winter in Bavaria. Photo by Marco Cortese; creative commons.

Bonus: Win a trip to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350! 

Contest Alert: Lufthansa is giving away 2 return flight tickets from Delhi to Munich to celebrate the launch of their new A350 plane. Unleash your creativity, photograph the number 350 and complete the sentence “This 350 is special because…” to enter the contest. The contest ends Feb 28th, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here. Good luck!

Join my winter adventures in Bavaria live on InstagramFacebook and Twitter! See you from the other side.

Applying for a US Visa? See my tips.

Need a Canada Visa? See my tips.

Traveling to Turkey, Sri Lanka, Vietnam or Cambodia? Get an e-visa.

Feature image by mendhak; creative commons.

10 Incredible Eco Lodges Around the World: Indulge Yourself and Save the Planet.

In the silence of the forest, I can hear my own heart beating. Beating fast. Somewhere in the distance, two shining eyes are moving swiftly, looking for prey. Deeper in the wilderness, a village that has been abandoned by all but five people, is keeping vigil for wild boars and porcupines who threaten their crops. With the night jar’s call for company and leopards and other wild animals lurking outside, I tuck in to sleep in one of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary’s only four private estates, dating back to 1856 – refurbished by its young heirs with solar energy for power, an organic farm for most of its produce, and legendary stories that have been handed down through the generations.

Long ago, when I adopted a nomadic life, I imagined that traveling responsibly – conscious of my impact on the local people and the environment – meant slumming it out. That if I made this choice, I’d be staying in rustic places and sacrificing urban comforts.

black sheep inn ecuador, ecuador eco lodge, quilotoa lake

Hiking along Quilotoa Lake near Black Sheep Inn, Ecuador.

Years later, I know that it is possible to travel sustainably while indulging in luxury and adventure in offbeat corners of the globe. Behold, my favorite eco-luxury accommodations around the world that are incredible travel experiences and committed to the planet:

Bali Eco Stay: Bali, Indonesia

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My private waterfall at Bali Eco Stay!

I dropped my not very original ‘Eat Pray Love’ plan of staying in Ubud for a month – because what was presumably a sleepy little village of rice farmers is now overflowing with tourists, traffic and villas, with only some sad patches of rice paddies. It wasn’t until we landed at Bali Eco Stay in Tabanan, that I found the Bali of my dreams – vast, endless rice fields; village folk who believe in karma and don’t lock their doors; mountain spring water that tastes better than bottled water.

On the southern slopes of Mount Batukaru, we spent some dreamy days hiking in solitude along rice terraces and cacao plantations, feasting on delicious, organic farm-to-table Balinese food, and spotting fireflies late into the night. Oh, and we had a private waterfall all to ourselves, that also powers 60% of the lodge through clean hydro-electric power!

The bungalows at Bali Eco Stay are built by local craftsmen using recycled timbre. The lodge has its own permaculture garden and organic rice paddies, runs a garbage collection program in 3 local villages, and trains and employs staff from the surrounding villages. Read more about their environmental efforts here.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

Grand Oak Manor: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, India

Grand oak manor binsar, binsar wildlife sanctuary, uttarakhand accommodation

The estate at twilight. Photo via Grand Oak Manor.

Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary was kind of born at Grand Oak Manor. The story goes like this: Henry Ramsay, the British Commissioner to Kumaon in the mid 1800s, bought this estate for his own house, and a few other pieces of land for his friends. Then he declared the forest a protected area, where no one has been allowed to buy land or build since. Staying with my friends Shikha and Sindhu – the young heirs of Grand Oak Manor – in their eco-friendly estate, with stellar glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas from the terrace and traditional Kumaoni dishes that are rare to find even in Kumaon, hiking with a local guide to the friendly forest villages of Binsar, and being surrounded by nothing but dense forest, was incredibly therapeutic.

Grand Oak Manor is largely powered by solar energy, grows most of its own produce, and trains and hires staff from the villages of Kumaon. They also offer multi-day village walks near Binsar, with overnight stays at traditional Kumaoni homestays run by village families.

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

Black Sheep Inn: Andes, Ecuador

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‘End of civilization’ kind of feeling at Black Sheep Inn.

Winding along the Ecuadorean Andes in the back of a milk truck, we felt like we had reached the end of civilization when we dropped off in Chugchilan – a remote outpost at over 10,000 feet, where you truly feel it’s just you and the mountains! We hiked along precarious, panoramic ridges and along the crater of the stunning Quilotoa Lake, hung out with local shepherds in the mountain meadows and shared moments with the native llamas at Black Sheep Inn, and felt blissfully disconnected from the modern world.

Black Sheep Inn literally brought tourism – and employment opportunities through it – to Chugchilan. The lodge is powered by solar and wind energy, has a zero waste policy (and has introduced waste recycling in Chugchilan), and its dry-decomposting toilets are actually fun to use! Read more about their eco initiatives here.

Also read: Soul Searching in the Ecuadorian Andes

Forsyth Lodge: Satpura National Park, India

Forsyth lodge, Satpura ecolodge, Satpura national park

“Home” under the stars at Forsyth Lodge.

I’ve experienced my fair share of wildlife lodges around Central India, but my recent stay at Forsyth Lodge in the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve surpassed them all. Built by a naturalist who also played an instrumental role in bringing a conservation-focussed model of tourism to Satpura National Park, the lodge’s earthy luxury and locally inspired architecture drew me right in. Our days were spent walking, cycling, canoeing and on day/night drives in tiger, leopard and sloth bear territory, but a bigger highlight were the nights – drinking ‘mahua-tinis’ (a local brew made from mahua flowers) under incredibly starry night skies, in the company of the lodge’s passionate naturalists and their stories of the wild.

Forsyth Lodge has used only 10% of their land for building, and has worked over the years to transform the barren acres with indigenous trees and shrubs. Much of their produce is sourced from local farmers and most support staff are trained and employed from the surrounding villages. Read more about their initiatives here.

Also read: Wildlife Tourism: Are We Saving the Tiger?

Limalimo Lodge: Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

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View of the Simien Mountains during breakfast. Photo via Limalimo Lodge.

One of my fondest memories of Ethiopia is hiking in the dramatic Simien Mountains, spotting gelada monkeys and white-headed ravens, sharing homemade beer and injera with locals in their round eucalyptus houses on the rural countryside – thanks to Limalimo Lodge, which is bringing sustainable tourism to the remote Limalimo village. I long to go back and sip tea at the edge of the escarpment on which the lodge is perched, and seek solitude amid the rugged cliffs in this fascinating country.

Limalimo Lodge has been built using rammed earth and other local, eco-sensitive building techniques. Waste water is reused, solar energy powers part of the lodge, and the local community is closely involved. Read more about their responsible initiatives here.

Also read: My First Impressions of Ethiopia

Tsermang Eco Camp: Ladakh, India

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The Ladakhi village next door.

It breaks my heart to see how Leh has succumbed to trash and traffic, thanks to irresponsible mass tourism. But on the outskirts of the city, in the backdrop of the Stok Kangri peak, is an environmentally-conscious oasis called Tsermang, set up by Frenchman Laurige. It was my first stop in Ladakh, and I remember acclimatising to the altitude with tea on the shores of the pristine Indus River, hanging out in the picturesque Ladakhi village next door, and appreciating how water needs to be conserved in this cold mountain desert.

Tsermang Eco Camp is a summer-only camp, with no permanent building materials. From the bedsheets to the food, almost everything is locally and organically sourced, and the luxurious bathroom has been designed with water conservation in mind.  

Also read: Simple Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Ladakh

Gal Oya Lodge: Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka

gal oya lodge, gal oya national park, sri lanka offbeat

Lost in time at Gal Oya Lodge.

The moment I read about wild elephants who swim from island to island in a river in Gal Oya National Park, I knew I had to get myself there. And that isn’t even the only fascinating reason to visit this remote part of eastern Sri Lanka. Meeting the last generation of the indigenous Vedda people, who grew up in caves deep in the forest and can smell the presence of an elephant in the wind, was an experience I can never forget. All thanks to Gal Oya Lodge for putting this forgotten national park on the map of Sri Lanka!

Gal Oya Lodge hired some of the park’s most notorious poachers as their staff; not only do they know the forests (and the movement of other poachers) better than anyone else, they also act as the park’s guardians since their living now depends on it. A brilliant attempt to protect wild Asian elephants. 

Also read: The Last Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka

Lakshman Sagar: Rajasthan, India

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My private plunge pool at Lakshman Sagar!

My first tryst with eco-luxury in India was at Lakshman Sagar, and I became a convert. Away from the touristy bits of Rajasthan, this restored 19th century hunting lodge uses the zero kilometer concept to source everything from building materials to interior design, from the surrounding villages of Pali – and yet is indulgently luxurious. I remember being awed by the big rock pool, precariously carved out of a single rock, indulging in traditional Rajasthani food, hiking in the rocky terrain of the Aravalis, and watching wild peacocks dance from the roof of what was once the zenana (women’s quarter).

Lakshman Sagar keeps the 19th century heritage of Rajasthan intact, while its lavish cottages have been sustainably built using locally sourced wood, stone and mud, and the zero kilometer philosophy. Learn more about the architecture here.

Also see: Why Lakshman Sagar Should Be on Your Bucket List

Feynan Eco lodge: Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan

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Far from civilization at Feynan. Photo via Feynan Ecolodge.

It is one thing to meet the suave new generation Bedouins in the Wadi Rum, quite another to be hosted by traditional nomads deep in the stark, barren Dana Biosphere Reserve. Sleeping on the roof of Feynan Ecolodge under the Milky Way and learning how the incredibly starry skies remain a compass for these nomads, sipping tea in the temporary tent home of a Bedouin family, and cooling off under serendipitous waterfalls in remote canyons are some of my fondest memories of Jordan.

Feynan Ecolodge is run entirely by the local Bedouin community, bringing employment opportunities to the remote Wadi Finan and helping conserve local traditions and the Bedouin way of life.

Are any of these eco-lodges on your bucket list? Which others have you discovered on your travels?

I was hosted at some of the eco-lodges above and paid for the others myself. I only recommend places I’ve truly loved!

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Recommended reads

Green Global Travel: What is an Eco Lodge? A Guide to ‘Green’ Accommodations

Charlie on Travel: 7 Simple Ways to Travel Responsibly

My Most Memorable Sunrises, Sunsets and Night Skies of 2016.

“I don’t have a diary, I don’t write things into a diary. I imprint myself into the sky and when the sunlight shines brightly, I can stand under the sun’s rays and everything I have imprinted of myself into the sky, I will begin to see again, feel again, remember. And when the wind begins to blow, it blows the details over my face, and I remember everything I left in the sky and see new things being born. I am unwritten.” ~C. JoyBell C.

I’m going to remember 2016 as the year I imprinted myself into the sky. I fought my nocturnal ways to be awake for more sunrises; I lay under more starry, moonlit, thunderous night skies than I ever have before. And sunsets became my daily dose of inspiration.

With my annual round up this year, I want to remind you (and myself) to slow down and savor some of life’s simplest joys!

The last sunrise: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

I witnessed many beautiful sunrises during my month-long stay on Lake Atitlan, but the last one really blew me away. My bags were packed and I was ready to go, waiting impatiently for the first ferry to make an early morning bus, when the sky burst into the most magnificent pink and orange colors!

 Read: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: The Feeling That I’ve Found My Place on Earth

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Releasing 2-hour-old turtles into the Pacific Ocean: Baja California, Mexico

Holding a newborn Olive Ridley turtle on my palm, placing it on the golden sands, and watching it scramble towards the setting sun into the vast Pacific Ocean – that’s a sunset I’ll never forget.

Read: An Open Letter to Indian Parents: Let Your “Kids” Travel

turtle release mexico, baja california mexico, mexico travel blogs

Night adventures with my nun friends: Nyerma, Ladakh

I finally learnt to photograph night skies this year – starting with my ‘home’ with my nun friends in Ladakh. I was so excited about my first Milky Way photo, that I ran to show it to them – and they ran out excited to see what this ‘thing’ in the sky was! Lots of laughter and a big photo shoot happened that night, and even if most photos are blurry, my memory of it certainly isn’t.

Read: Heartwarming and Heartbreaking: Living With the Nuns of Ladakh

ladakh night sky, stargazing india, nunnery ladakh

Clouds rolling into my sunrise: Phu Chi Fa, Thailand

I trudged up with a friend to one of Northern Thailand’s highest peaks to see the sunrise. But we got caught in a massive, merciless rain, without rain gear or warm clothes. We shivered under a tree for what felt like an eternity, and when the rain finally stopped, gorgeous clouds rolled in below us and made our morning!

Read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport As I Travel Around the Globe

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That ‘home’ feeling at sunset: Baños, Ecuador

Sometimes, the best things happen when you lose your way at sunset. I had been hiking alone in the countryside near Baños, got quite lost, and ended up taking a very long way home. Enroute, I fell in love with this beautiful, abandoned house in the golden hue of the setting sun.

Read: Soul Searching in the Ecuadorian Andes

banos ecuador, ecuador travel blogs

A pind, a rooftop, a charpai: Gunopur, Punjab

I was looking for a cheap way to get from Southeast Asia to India last month, and I found a 9000 rupees flight on Scoot, from Singapore to Amritsar! I got on it, marvelled at the Golden Temple, and made my way to a little pind near Gurdaspur. I expected mustard fields and heartwarming conversations, but lying on my roof at Punjabiyat, under a thousand stars was a sweet surprise.

Read: From Punjab, With Love

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The sunrise that lifted the veil of the forest fires: Sarmoli, Uttarakhand

Early May was a depressing time to be in Uttarakhand – seeing miles of pine forests on fire on the otherwise verdant hills of Kumaon. The haze reached all the way to Munsiyari and hid the gorgeous snow-capped mountains for a week. Then one morning, I woke up with the first rays of the sun pouring through my window and saw that the veil had been lifted! A surreal feeling.

Read: How Responsible Tourism Can Challenge Patriarchy in India

munsiyari uttarakhand, sarmoli uttarakhand, uttarakhand travel blogs

A shared sunset: Odenwald, Germany

I had a rather packed trip through the Hessen region of Germany this September, but one evening, while driving with a newfound friend along the forests and wildflowers of Odenwald, we pulled up on a hill, laid out a blanket and caught a breathtaking sunset over stories of how she began living in a hippie commune.

Read: A Journey to a Special Place From Our Storybook Days

odenwald germany, germany travel blogs, odenwald

The Milky Way on the other side of the world: Wales, UK

North Wales was my biggest surprise this year – a region with spectacular rugged mountains, vast meadows and more sheep than people! On the shores of Lake Vyrnwy, after adventurous days of surfing and mountain biking, I was ready to rest my tired feet, but when I shut the lights, I was surprised to see a million stars (and the Milky Way) twinkling outside my window. Who needs sleep with such a gorgeous night sky?

Read: Why North Wales Blew My Mind

laky vyrnwy, north wales travel blog, stargazing UK

A fisherman in my sunrise: Mauritius

I only spent a couple of days on Mauritius’ east coast, and had to force myself out of bed to keep my vow to be awake for atleast one sunrise in every country I visit (being a late riser sucks like that). The sun’s colors scattered in the dark clouds above the Indian Ocean, just as a fisherman set out on his boat… it was like the universe had conspired to make it a perfect wake up call!

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

Mauritius sunrise, Mauritius travel blogs, Mauritius east coast

An “End of the world” sunset: Munduk, Indonesia

I’ve heard way too many people dismiss the rain and clouds as bad weather; I even found a score of article on “bad weather photography”! Having grown up with plenty of sun in a tropical country like India, rainy, thunderous, misty weather is my favorite kind. I got exactly that at the coolest infinity pool I’ve swum in this year, at Munduk Moding in Bali.

Read: Easy Ways to Take Awesome Photos When You Travel Solo

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A resolution for more starry nights: Vikramgad, Maharashtra

My Southeast Asia plan kind of fell through, and I found myself without an abode on New Year’s Eve (again). As luck would have it, I connected with Hideout Farm on Twitter and fell for their promise of “vegan, starry starry nights”. This little sanctuary is one couple’s work to transform barren, rocky acres of land into a flourishing fruit forest and organic farm. Every night, sometimes with newfound friends and sometimes in solitude, I lay out under the vast open sky… and when the calendar turned to 2017, I pledged to fill my year with more starry nights and shooting stars!

Read: Road Tripping in Rural Maharashtra

hideout farm maharashtra, mumbai offbeat weekend getaways, india stargazing

Thanks for joining me virtually on my adventures in 2016! Big hugs x

Where were your most memorable sunrises, sunsets and night skies in 2016?

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