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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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villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages

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.

kuflon, kuflon basics

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!

villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages, garhwal himalayas, garhwali people

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?

Moonlit Cycling, Poetry and Other Meaningful Things to do in Fort Kochi.

There are plenty of generic lists of things to do in Fort Kochi out there. But you could look beyond popular places to visit in Fort Kochi and instead, connect with locals over music, poetry and cleaning up Fort Kochi beach, spot humpback dolphins, try yoga, discover traditional food and unique cafes in Fort Kochi, and more!

This post is part of my series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.

It wasn’t love at first sight when I first visited Fort Kochi some 8 years ago. Merely passing through the city, perhaps the riot of sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed my senses.

But on a trip at the beginning of last year, I took it slow, discovered many unusual things to do in Fort Kochi and overcame the initial sensory overload. Indulging my taste buds in the fusion of hipster cafes and traditional thalis, cycling along the quaint by-lanes and aroma-filled streets of Mattancherry, and connecting with locals over music, poetry and art, I felt my every sense indulged.

Also read: What India and the World Can Learn from Sustainable Tourism in Kerala

things to do in fort kochi, pepper house fort kochi
Things to do in Fort Kochi: Discover old houses and lost stories.

⁣⁣I must admit though, that the more I went beyond the regular places to see in Fort Kochi checklists, the more I felt an ache about the city’s lost potential. If some streets were turned into walking-only streets, the old houses of Jew town better preserved and all Fort Kochi hotels compelled to build in the heritage architectural style, we could have a most unique living heritage destination!

Nonetheless, nostalgic tales from the days of the city’s ancient trading past continue to live on here, and we must wade through many layers to find them.

Meaningful things to do in Fort Kochi

Behold, some of my favorite discoveries, unique places to eat in Fort Kochi and Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path:

Try plant-based food and yoga at Loving Earth Cafe – one of the best cafes in Fort Kochi

loving earth cafe fort kochi, vegan food fort kochi
Couldn’t get enough to the Yum Hum toasts at Loving Earth.

There are plenty of Fort Kochi cafes to choose from, but after nearly a month of living in a stunning little village in Tamil Nadu, I wanted creative, clean, healthy food to pamper my taste buds. Just an hour after arriving, even before I began to explore Fort Kochi, I found my way to Loving Earth Cafe – a gorgeous space with a tropical decor, warm vibe and innovative plant-based menu that immediately lured me in.

The refreshing “Mint my day” smoothie, yum-hum (hummus and home-baked focaccia) toasts and the fudgy chocolate chunk brownies were just the comfort food I needed.

At a time when ethical, environmental and health concerns are making many people reconsider their dietary choices, indulging in a meal at Loving Earth is testimony to the fact that food without animal products doesn’t have to be boring! Infact, I found the food so much more creative than other cafes in the vicinity (especially the popular Kashi Art Cafe Fort Kochi), that I went back multiple times.

Our search for yoga classes in Fort Kochi even led us to their cozy little upstairs studio for an afternoon of intense yet rejuvenating hatha yoga.

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

Cruise on a boat made in the original Brunton boatyard – and if you’re lucky, you might spot Indian Humpback Dolphins in Fort Kochi!

Spotting humpback dolphins in the Arabian Sea!

Back when Fort Kochi was a bustling trading settlement, it was home to a heritage boat building site called Brunton Boatyard. CGH Earth – which now runs one of the most unique hotels at Fort Kochi on this site – managed to get back a boat built there nearly 81 years ago, retired from service in the Lakshadweep islands, and refurbished it for a sunset cruise!

On board this historic vessel, we set sail on the Arabian Sea, where a school of wild Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins swam just metres away from our boat, as the golden light of the setting sun danced on the waves. Threatened by overfishing and habitat changes, the numbers of these gentle giants have dwindled over the years, so spotting them in the waters off Fort Kochi gave us a glimpse of what we stand to lose.

As we drifted along small coastal villages, Brahmini Kites spread their massive wings above and swerved in the breeze. The iconic (and now symbolic) fishing nets of Fort Kochi made me feel like I was in a time warp.

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

Help clean up Fort Kochi beach every Saturday

fort kochi beach, beach cleanup fort kochi
Sunset at Fort Kochi beach.

Some four years ago, local residents, including Fort Kochi hotel and homestay owners, came together to clean up their beach. They gradually established the Clean Fort Kochi Foundation, and clean-ups happen every Saturday now.

Joining a beach cleanup drive might not feature on a regular traveller’s agenda during a stay in Fort Kochi, but given that we’re definitely going to relish a sunset or three on the beach, it definitely should be. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s ecosystem, connect with locals and question our own consumption.

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

Indulge in a true blue organic Kerala thali at The Village – one of the best restaurants in Fort Kochi

the village fort kochi
The sumptuous vegan thali at The Village.

I might never have stumbled upon The Village, given the wide (and confusing) variety of places to eat in Fort Kochi, had it not been recommended by a newfound friend, Krithika – who moved to Fort Kochi a while ago and runs a boutique travel company called The Wander Bug.

Run by two friendly Malayali brothers, this rustic eatery serves up the most delicious, wholesome, organic Kerala thalis, whipped up with locally sourced ingredients and traditional family recipes. Many delights on offer can be customized without animal products, and there’s usually even a daily special vegan dessert on offer. What better way to support a local business while delighting your taste buds?

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

Go cycling in Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky

Explore Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky – one of the few cycling friendly cities in India.

I can still sniff the humid sea air and see the moon peeping out from behind the clouds in the vast skies above. On quiet nights, instead of wondering what to do in Fort Kochi, we borrowed bicycles from our hotel, zoomed into a map of Fort Kochi and cycled under the spectacular umbrella-like canopies of ancient rain trees.

Past colorful little cafes and boutique shops we rode, along the coast we rode, to the empty beaches with the moonlight crashing into the waves. What a feeling!

Also read: Get Off the Beaten Path With My Gujarat Travel Guide

Keep an evening for open mic poetry, music, art and clay oven pizzas at David Hall Fort Kochi

david hall pizza
The vegan pizza at David Hall; yum!

There are plenty of art galleries and old structures all around, but at David Hall, the history of Fort Kochi seems to come alive. Tucked away amid the rain trees, this 17th century Dutch bungalow has been restored into an art gallery that showcases the work of both local artists and international art inspired by Kerala. We were lucky to catch a block painting art exhibition, beautifully depicting local life in the city and the pace at which it’s changing.

David Hall is one of the few places in Fort Kochi where every evening, local and visiting musicians and poets gather together for an open mic – a cosy venue for some creative inspiration and intimate culture swap, worth ditching other bars in Fort Kochi for! And while you’re at it, give their clay oven-baked cashew cheese vegan pizza a try – DELICIOUS.

Also read: Things to do in Kasaragod to Refresh Your Connection with Nature

Stay in a time warp at Brunton Boatyard – possibly the best hotel in Fort Kochi

The heritage-style facade of Brunton Boatyard.

When I first arrived at Brunton Boatyard, I was convinced it was atleast a 100 years old. The intricate wooden ceilings with Dutch and Portuguese influences. The “pankhas” – once manually worked by a “pankhawala” to keep it cool. The tea lounge reminiscent of the British era. The arched walls and windows. The old school switchboards. It felt stuck in time…

Much to my surprise, it turned out that it was built only about twenty years ago, by a Swiss architect who specializes in the old architecture of Fort Kochi. It is located on the site of the original Brunton boatyard though! ⁣⁣

⁣⁣⁣Besides being an ode to the local architecture, Brunton Boatyard practices rainwater harvesting and is a single use plastic-free zone. They have their own bottling plant to serve up drinking water in glass bottles and offer natural toiletries in ceramic bottles. The eco-friendly practices clubbed with a laidback luxurious experience makes it one of the best places to stay in Fort Kochi. Now open with limited inventory in the new “normal”, they seem to be exercising every safety caution to host travellers.

Also read: 10 Incredible Eco Lodges Around the World: Indulge Yourself and Spare the Planet

For Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path, explore little-known villages and backwaters with a local

Kerala backwaters
The magical morning light on the backwaters. Photo: Simply CVR

I sorely wish I had planned to spend atleast one more day in Fort Kochi, for the idea of cycling beyond the beaten path caught my fancy. As part of the Art of Bicycle Trips, a Kerala local offers a half day trip exploring the coastal villages, rice paddies, organic farms and pristine backwaters just beyond.

Having explored the outskirts of Bangalore on one of their cycling trips, I imagine this one too would’ve taken me to a palm-fringed, traffic-free, tourist-free side of Kochi. Atleast I have an excuse to return.

Also read: God’s Own Island by the Kasaragod Backwaters

Your questions about Fort Kochi

Best time to visit Fort Kochi

fort kochi sunset
The timeless Fort Kochi sunsets.

I visited Fort Kochi in the second half of February, and even though the afternoons were hot and sultry, the early mornings and evenings were wonderfully cool. The winter months from November to February are ideal for exploring this tropical nook of Kerala. 

Avoid the busy Kochi-Muziris Biennale (an international art festival) dates – which attract big crowds and a hike in accommodation prices – unless of course you’re an art aficionado. 

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

Best place to stay in Fort Kochi

The heritage style architecture of Brunton Boatyard; notice the “pankhas” on the side!

When deciding where to stay in Fort Kochi, think about the experience you’re after – and your budget of course. On my first trip, I was strapped for cash and stayed at a low budget homestay. On a work assignment this time, I was lucky to be hosted by CGH Earth. I hope to discover and share more eco-conscious hideouts on future trips.

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

Best restaurant in Fort Kochi

breath cafe
A Japanese bowl at Breath Cafe.

There’s no dearth of good restaurants in Fort Kochi, but some of my favourites are:

  • The Village for their Kerala thali.
  • Loving Earth Cafe for smoothies, smoothie bowls, Buddha bowls and vegan desserts.
  • David Hall for wood-fired pizza.
  • Breath Cafe for smoothies and Japanese food.

I hope to try the food at Veda Wellness and Aruvi Nature Life on my next trip!

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

Shopping in Fort Kochi

kalpa organic store
Shopping in Fort Kochi for organic goodies and superfoods. Photo: Kalpa.

As someone who aspires to minimalism, I rarely shop on my travels, but I was delighted to stumble upon Kalpa – an organic health store that stocks local grains, artisan chocolates, all kinds of superfoods, handmade soaps and more. It’s located right next to The Village restaurant. 

Jew Street also has a treasure trove of stores with unique antiques from the times gone by.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

Things to do in Fort Kochi at night

kathakali
A mesmerizing Kathakali performance in Kerala.
  • Cycle along the quiet lanes of Fort Kochi. Follow the coastal road from Brunton Boatyard via St Francis Church and Fort Kochi beach to the Salafi Masjid, and pedal back through the quaint by-lanes.
  • Attend open mic for music, poetry and wood-fired pizzas at David Hall at 6 pm every evening.
  • Catch Kathakali at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
  • Keep a lookout for local music and art festivals at the promenade. We serendipitously arrived in Fort Kochi on the evening of a traditional dance festival and caught a stunning Theyyam act.

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

Other unique places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry

mattancherry
Street art in Fort Kochi.

I need to plan a third trip to leisurely explore the wonders of Jew Town. If the Fort Kochi synagogue is anything to go by, four centuries of history linger beyond the off-putting traffic and sellers that now line its streets. I’ve heard of some restoration initiatives in the area, and sure hope some of Kerala’s unique heritage can be salvaged before it’s too late.

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

Getting to and around Fort Kochi

cycling fort kochi
Morning cycling in Fort Kochi.

Bike rental in Fort Kochi

Most hotels and accommodations offer a bike rent in Fort Kochi – and even if they don’t have their own bikes, they can definitely arrange one for you. Ask ahead of time.

You can also get in touch with BLive to do one of their e-bike trips.

Fort Kochi ferry

For the price of a few rupees, you can hop on to the Fort Kochi ferry to Ernakulam, Vyleen or Willingdon Island – a great budget way to experience the water and the local life around.

Airport to Fort Kochi / Ernakulam to Fort Kochi

Last I heard, multiple air-conditioned buses now ply from Kochi Airport to Fort Kochi. It’s best to arrive during the day and ask at the information desk. It’s also possible to take the ferry part of the way to cut down the travel time.

Cherai Beach to Fort Kochi

On my first trip to Fort Kochi, we did the long drive on a scooter to Cherai Beach, to be somewhat disappointed by our destination. I hear it’s a lot more popular now, and don’t particularly recommend it.

things to do in fort kochi
PIN this post for a future trip!

What are some interesting things to do in Fort Kochi you’ve discovered on your trip? What are you most looking forward to?

*Note: I travelled to Fort Kochi on assignment for CGH Earth. As you know, opinions on this blog are always my own.

Try These Cafes and Restaurants in Auroville for Divine Food!

A collection of organic farms, silent meals, and unique cafes and restaurants in Auroville – including the best restaurants in Pondicherry nearby – to indulge your tastebuds.

Guest post by Vinita Contractor

This post is part of a series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.

I first travelled to Auroville on a quick day trip from Chennai some 20 years ago, and was surprised to discover this land of possibilities. With my ecological and spiritual bent of mind, it felt like a place so within reach, yet rare to find.

Over the years, I’ve been back in Auroville to volunteer at Sadhana Forest, take a course on raw food and explore the township on a family vacation. Its natural, organic and sustainable farming revolution has led to an explosion of cafes and restaurants in Auroville that are healthy yet soul-satisfying.

Also read: A Slow Travel Guide to Auroville

bread & chocolate auroville, best restaurants in auroville, cafes in auroville
Smoothie bowl at one of the best cafes and restaurants in Auroville. Photo: Bread & Chocolate.

Whether you’re staying in Auroville, visiting Auroville for a short trip, volunteering in Auroville or just spending a day in Auroville, these are my favorite restaurants and cafes in Auroville:

Best restaurants in Auroville

Maiyam Past Food Restaurant

maiyam auroville, restaurants in auroville
The divine set lunch at Maiyam. Photo: Vinita Contractor.

What first struck me about Maiyam was the signage outside. It read “past food”. 

For a second I thought it was a typo, as we are so accustomed to hearing about fast food. But then I realized that this is a special place that serves up traditional South Indian / Dravidian fare, made fresh in small batches.

Maiyam has an earthy feel from the moment you enter. The low seating, chattais (woven mats) on the floor and solid wood furniture give it a very warm, homely vibe, with lots of character. The shelves lining the restaurant are stocked with organic, heirloom varieties of grains and legumes, jaggery, pickles and natural products.

The menu changes every day, with set meals for lunch and dinner, and a small range of homemade snacks. I’ve tried their thinai (foxtail millet), knolkol (turnip), thoran (dry seasonal dish), kozhambu (tamarind based curry) and other dry and curried vegetable preparations, with lightly spiced chutneys and mango pickle. This wholesome, authentic and delicious meal is best rounded up with ragi laddoos for dessert. I even indulged in a rare cup of coffee with coconut milk (without having to customize it), flavored with their melt-in-the-mouth, caramel-like jaggery!

Most of the food is accidentally vegan, but it’s best to double check before ordering. I absolutely loved everything I’ve eaten at Maiyam, and if I ever stay in Auroville long term, this would become my frequent lunch spot.

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

Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant

satchitananda auroville
Raw delights at Satchitananda. Photo: Vinita Contractor.

Tucked away in a quiet pocket of Auroville is the Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant, started by Anandi Vaithialingam. Having been around for almost a decade and known for their commitment to healthy, clean eating, it is considered an institution among those who live in Auroville.

Everything served here is raw, but don’t let that put you off. The set lunch menu, which includes delights like flax seed crackers, tomato rasam, sprouts salad, wraps and patties, raw sabzis, vegan cheesecake and homemade kombucha, is freshly made, and I could actually sense and perceive its aliveness. It’s neither heavy on spice nor salt, so I could enjoy the taste of each ingredient and experience a fullness I could never imagine from food that isn’t cooked!

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time learning from Anandi in her kitchen, and also to see the Kottakarai Organic Food Processing Unit (KOFPU) next door which she set up. That is where much of the packaged health food like kombucha, herbal teas etc. are prepared and supplied all over Auroville and many other cities in India.

Also read: Auroville: Utopia or Something Like It

Sakura Sushi

sakura sushi
Sushi madness at Sakura Sushi. Photo: Vinita Contractor.

The first thing that struck me about Sakura Sushi is the huge mural on the side wall of the restaurant, which shows an old Indian woman, nose ring et al, eating sushi with chopsticks.

Inside this cozy little place is an open kitchen, where you can watch sushi rolls being prepared fresh and feast on them with your eyes first.

I thoroughly enjoyed the cucumber avocado spring onion sushi, grilled marinated capsicum maki, tempeh in teriyaki sauce nigiri, and the red beans with fermented cabbage, among the many vegan options.

The owner Arun used to be a chef in Germany, and has truly introduced a slice of Japan in Auroville. His wife stocks ferments, dips, dressings and desserts at the restaurant. Don’t forget to pick up something healthy for later.

Also read: The Ultimate Vegan Travel Guide to Japan

Best cafes in Auroville

Neem Tree Eatery

neem tree eatery
Chocolate heaven! Photo: Neem Tree Eatery.

This lovely home-style outdoor café near the Auroville Library, is built with exposed redbricks which are so quintessentially Auroville.

I loved sitting under the lovely neem tree to enjoy the fare at this quaint cafe – perfect to while away an afternoon instead of rushing to figure things to do in Auroville. The open kitchen allows a chance to chat with the local staff too.

The menu at the Neem Tree Eatery is pretty varied. Juices, South Indian fare, international food, mini meals, sandwiches, beverages and desserts – all very fresh and reasonably priced. I’ve indulged in the ragi dosa, red rice puttu, mixed veg parathas, appams and vegan chocolate cake, and my favorite might just be the indulgent chocolate dosa!

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

Bread & Chocolate

bread and chocolate
Smoothie bowl at Bread & Chocolate – YUM! Photo: Vinita Contractor.

If you’re a fan of Indian raw cacao, the Auroville-based brand Mason & Co is no stranger. Bread & Chocolate is their hugely popular cafe in Auroville, so much so that you could be looking at long waiting periods over the weekend – and for good reason!

Their delicately crafted sourdough sandwiches, especially the summertime tartine with oven roasted tomatoes, marinated onions, vegan cream cheese, microgreens and basil pesto is a winner. My sons couldn’t get enough of their homemade vegan ice creams, especially the chocolate orange!

I have pretty much tried everything on the menu – and love everything about it: the portion sizes, the food plating aesthetics, the high quality ingredients and of course, the food itself. I dream of the Miss Saigon Abundance bowl, the breakfast board, the Elvis and the Cocoa Granola!

Don’t leave without a glimpse of their separate take away section, where homemade chocolates are available per piece; the almond praline is divine!

Also read: 15 Awesome Mumbai Hangouts, Green Corners and Cosy Cafes

Dreamers Café Auroville

dreamers cafe auroville
Afternoon gazing. Photo: Dreamers Cafe.

Chances are, you’ll wind up at the visitors centre, looking for places to visit in Auroville. Stop by at the busy and popular Dreamers Cafe if you manage to find a table. My family and I spent a lovely afternoon there, gazing at people walking by, while enjoying our succulent smoked tofu sandwiches and refreshing lemonade.

Also read: Indulge Yourself at These Vegan Restaurants in Bangkok

The Right Path Cafe

right path cafe
Too many pizza choices! Photo: The Right Path Cafe.

Just a few metres away from Dreamers Cafe is the Right Path Café – with the largest selection of thin-crust vegan pizzas in all of Auroville (it could give Tanto Pizzeria Auroville a run for its money)!

Think vegan cheese, along with a large range of international and Indianized options. Who knew having too many choices of pizza can be a problem?!

Unique Auroville Food Experiences: Organic farms, health stores and silent meals

Solitude Farm

solitude farm auroville, volunteering in auroville
The lunch thali at Solitude Farm is the real deal! Photo: Vinita Contractor.

Krishna McKenzie’s Solitude Farm is based on permaculture, where homegrown organic produce is used to create delightful, wholesome food. Farm to table in the true sense!

Their lunch thali is the real deal. A complete winner for a person like me who loves simple, healthy food, in the natural setting of a farm.

I especially loved the interesting mix of greens used in the salad – ‘chicken spinach’, sweet potato leaves, guava leaves; so refreshing and different from the usual salad leaves like lettuce and arugula.

If you’re thinking of volunteering in Auroville, opportunities are available for those who’d like to learn more about permaculture and sustainable living. If you already live / work in Auroville, Solitude Farm offers a weekly farm produce subscription!

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

Goyo

goyo auroville
Korean Bibimbap during the silent meal. Photo: Goyo.

For me, Goyo has been the most unique dining experience ever!

We pre-booked a meal, then went on something like a treasure hunt to look for the place. Along the way, we met a few others seeking to experience it too.

We were served a welcome Korean green tea, while sitting on rocks and logs under a beautiful tree. Then led to the main dining area – aesthetic, soothing and eclectic, all at once.

The community table was laid out with Auroville earthern ware, and the hostess settled us in. She then explained the concept of a “silent meal” and shared some words for us to ponder on while we eat.

The meal was laid out on the table and everyone served themselves. We savoured the meal in blissful silence. The unexpected riot of tastes, the ambience and the music playing in the background all made for a truly unforgettable experience.

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

Energy Home

energy home auroville
Raw idli, upma and chutney at Energy Home. Photo: Vinita Contractor.

Energy Home serves raw health food and doubles up as a health-conscious store. Their shelves and walls are filled with health powders, medicated / essential oils, crystals, and natural and organic products. I spent hours pouring over the many things this gem of a place has gathered.

For breakfast, I tried the raw idli and raw upma – which definitely take time to grow on you. The winner was a herbal drink with 9 different leaves and herbs, and for that alone, I can definitely recommend a visit to this family-run place.

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

Vegan desserts in Auroville

Gelato factory

gelato factory
Gelato madness! Photo: Gelato Factory.

Gelato Factory was like heaven for my kids (and me!) with an array of 18 vegan ice cream flavours to choose from! Think hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate orange, stracciatella, sorbets – served up in vegan ice cream cones.

Even though on holiday, we made sure we had lots of fruits, salads and wholesome food through the day – so an ice cream a day is permissible, right? We went there every single day on our five-day family trip!

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

Other places to eat in Auroville

There are plenty of other interesting, vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants in Auroville, which are very well known and never fail to please. Each is unique in its own way, symbolizes the philosophy behind Auroville and serves incredible food. Some of these include:

Naturellement Auroville

Try the Moroccan chickpeas tagine, smoked tofu burger, fruit sorbets and coconut carrot cake at Naturellement.

Marc’s café

The menu at Marc’s Cafe consists of an extensive coffee list, and includes sandwiches, juices and smoothies. I liked their vegan biscotti and balmadi coffee.

La Terrace Café

The hummus plate, marinated mushroom salad and vegan chocolate ice cream at La Terrace Cafe are worth a try!

The Solar Kitchen

Serves only lunch, needs to be booked a day in advance and offers simple meals made by volunteers, that change every day. Only the Auroville card is accepted here.

Well Café

The homemade bean burgers, falafels, hummus, salad – everything on the Mediterranean menu at Well Cafe is to die for. They also work to empower women from nearby villages and retail upcycled, handmade accessories.

Also read: 6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi

Best restaurants in Pondicherry

Vegan Zeals

vegan zeals, restaurants in pondicherry
Sweet delights in Pondicherry. Photo: Vegan Zeals.

Vegan Zeals is Pondicherry’s first all-vegan restaurant, which serves everything hearty, from pasta to noodles to parathas and varieties of rice. I tried their vegan zeals veggie pizza and mushroom stragonoff, and while the food could’ve been better, it was lovely to attend a movie screening there over a light snack.

Surguru

surguru, best food pondicherry
The South Indian thali! Photo: Surguru

Surguru’s South Indian thali, with several dry and curry preparations, as well as a la carte tiffin dishes are finger-licking good. Vegan options are not marked, but once you explain your dietary preference to the staff, they will happily omit any dishes that are not suitable.

Earth Story

earth story pondicherry
An organic, vegan chain across Southern India. Photo: Earth Story.

Earth Story is a popular store selling organic and sustainable products, and has outlets in several parts of Southern India now, with the most recent one in Pondicherry. Housed within the Vegan Zeals restaurant, you can grab Papa Cream’s creamy vegan ice cream, smoked tofu by Aurosoya, oat and cashew milk by GoodMylk and many other vegan delights.

What are your favorite Auroville food spots? Which of the above would you most like to try?

*Cover image: Maiyam Past Food.

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

About the guest author:

Vinita Contractor is a holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach, traveller and free spirit, who believes in conscious living and simple eating. She founded The Leaf E-academy with an aim to make healthy cooking accessible to everyone. She believes in making mindful choices as they impact our planet, other sentient beings and our own health. Her Youtube channel offers plant-based recipes, easy-to-make substitutes for dairy, and useful tips and inspiration for those looking to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. Connect with her on: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube

The Good, Bad and Not-So-Ugly of 2020.

I have no doubt that a few years from now, we’ll look back at 2020 as a bad dream or something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s been labelled the darkest year in recent times – but as with all bleak years, this one came to an end too.

Our ancestors braved famines, world wars and pandemics, and their travails make ours seem relatively mild in comparison. They couldn’t fall back on Netflix, food deliveries or Zoom calls for support or distraction!

I’m sure we all have our stories of survival though. Being stranded away from loved ones, coping with mental health challenges, juggling household chores with fulltime jobs, dealing with a loss of income, or worse, dealing with Covid-19 itself. If you’ve lost someone, or are struggling to cope, I truly hope you’ll find the strength to face this difficult time. Know that our lifeboats might be different, but we’re all sailing through the same storm.

When I first sat down to write my annual reflections post, only the difficult moments of 2020 surfaced. I had to carefully reminisce through each month to find some uplifting moments, and hope to hang on to them as we move into 2021.

THE GOOD

Beginning the year in Lesotho and Kruger!

Not not for no reason that Lesotho is called “Kingdom in the sky”!

It feels surreal to recall that just at the beginning of 2020, my partner and I were hiking amid the magnificent mountains and waterfalls of Lesotho – a small, stunning country in Southern Africa, home to the friendly Basotho people and the complicated Sesotho language! From there, we drove down to the great wilderness of Kruger National Park in South Africa, for a self-drive safari among hyenas, African lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras!

Our time in South Africa was incredible in many different ways, but I think of it even more fondly now since it was my last international adventure before the world was catapulted into this new “normal”.

Also read: How We *Almost* Got Stranded in No Man’s Land at the Lesotho-South Africa Border

A renewed connection with my hometown

Winter in this garden after a long time!

Since I moved out of Dehradun at age 17, I’ve rarely been back for longer than a week or two at a stretch. Much of the Dehradun of my childhood has been swallowed up by traffic and concrete, so shorter, more frequent visits to see my folks have become the sweet spot.

When India went into a 21-day lockdown, which gradually got extended to 3 months, I decided not to try to rebel, accepting that the universe wanted me there. With all this time in hand, I re-bonded with my folks over baking and table tennis, somewhat revived our vegetable garden, finally got my folks on board to segregate our waste, connected with a group of organic farmers and even found a couple of secluded hiking spots with a friend!

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

Co-founding Voices of Rural India

Real stories from remote corners of the country – now on Voices of Rural India.

Starting in March 2020, I watched in slow motion as the majority of my work as a travel writer came to a standstill. After some delayed payments, I was left with no choice but to dip into my savings. It’s been a tough year for the travel industry, but even more so for rural communities across India who can’t look to the digital world for alternate opportunities.

So, during the lockdown, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, Sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to create such an opportunity.

Voices of Rural India is a curated platform that hosts stories by rural storytellers – typically guides, homestay hosts and other members of the community, especially women – in their own voices, and pays a fee directly in their bank account for every story accepted for publishing. Through this initiative, we aim to build digital storytelling skills, create an alternate source of livelihoods and preserve indigenous knowledge that is slowly disappearing.

For the rest of us, at a time of no travel, I hope VoRI becomes a channel to discover remote corners of India from the comfort of our homes.

Some of my favorite stories on Voices of Rural India so far:

  • The Walking Library, by Radhamani K.P: 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 Disappearing Craft of Likhai, by Trilok Singh Rana: A guide from Shankhdhura village visually documents the intricate craft of wood carving in Uttarakhand, once found in villages across Kumaon.

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

Winning “best communicator” at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards (India)

Humbled and honored to receive this.

My journey towards becoming an advocate for responsible, meaningful and environmentally-friendly travel began way back in 2011, when I took a sabbatical from my full-time job in Singapore to volunteer-travel with Spiti Ecosphere, a grassroots responsible travel enterprise in the Indian Himalayas.
⁣⁣⁣⁣
⁣⁣Focusing on storytelling, in a way that compels readers to think about responsible travel without necessarily using the word ‘responsible’, has often been challenging. As I continue to grapple with my travel, life and writing choices, it sure feels reassuring to think that some of India’s leading conservationists, editors and thinkers (who were part of the jury) believe in my work and its impact. Thank you, World Travel Market and Outlook Traveller, for this honor at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards India 2020!

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

Learning to cook and bake, finally!

Vegan nutella made by yours truly!

As a nomadic vegan, my culinary skills were limited to simple smoothies, hummus and avocado on toast. Then the pandemic hit, and I had to transition from eating out most of the time to eating in entirely!

My taste buds soon began to crave Mexican burritos, red rice idlis, Thai stir-fries, Guatemalan beans and rice, Georgian badrijani nigwitz, vegan chocolate cookies and oat muffins – and there was only one way to satisfy them: Learning to cook and bake myself.

I now own a small oven, have bookmarked many easy and delicious vegan recipes, stay in touch with local organic farmer groups in Goa for seasonal produce and constantly surprise myself by whipping up edible food 😉

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

Audio book release of The Shooting Star

This release made me an audio book convert too!

Over two years since its release, I still receive messages from people who’ve recently read my book – amazing me at the longevity of those pages. In 2020, my publisher, Penguin Random House, surprised me with an email saying that The Shooting Star was going to be released as an audio book, read by Karen D’Souza!

I’m now on the lookout for a Hindi translator and a local language publisher, so the book can begin to transcend domestic language barriers. If you know one, please connect us.

Also read: What No One Tells You About Publishing a Book in India

Launching “Journeys” – exclusive stories for a niche audience

Now penning stories from my travels and life I’ve never told before.

In December 2020, I launched “Journeys” by The Shooting Star – offering my loyal readers exclusive, subscription-based stories, delivered to their inbox once a week. These are stories I’ve never told before – secret finds, confessions I’d rather not share publicly, practical tips to grow in different spheres of life and a more intimate glimpse of my personal journey.

It took some serious contemplation to move into this direction, one that I hope will gradually allow me to become less dependent on social media and brand collaborations – and focus entirely on writing meaningful stories. I’m thrilled to share that early bird subscriptions ran out within two weeks of its launch and there’s been a steady stream of subscribers since.

Most popular stories on Journeys so far:

Also read: How I Lost My Way as a Travel Writer

Pandemic life in Goa, which never stops surprising!

Magical evenings in Goa.

I’ve now spent eight monsoons and one winter in Goa – and still continue to discover all kinds of secrets lurking around in its rivers, backwaters, islands, hills and villages! Confined to one place over the past seven months, I put on my explorer’s hat and discovered places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.

Despite all the challenges of living long term in India, Goa constantly reminds me just why this country is so damn incredible – and helps keep my wanderlust alive <3

THE BAD & UGLY

The worst the travel industry has ever seen…

It’s going to a long road to recovery.

Most of us think of travelling as a luxury or frivolous extra in life – and I suppose in some ways it is. But it is also a source of livelihood for 1 in 10 people globally – and many others indirectly. I’ve been in touch with female mountain guides who’ve had to resort to manual construction work during the pandemic, the owners of some of my favourite cafes and restaurants who’ve shut down temporarily or permanently since travellers were their primary audience, and plenty of family-run, environmentally-conscious homestays who’ve lost their only source of income.

Being part of the travel industry for the past decade as a travel writer, and before that as a digital media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, it stings pretty bad to think of all the turmoil 2020 brought with it – with no perceivable end in sight. It’s going to be a long, hard road to recovery.

Living long term in India

Miss my outdoor offices in other parts of the world.

Someone recently tweeted, living in India is like an extreme sport. That indeed sums up our past 7 months in Goa – it’s been thrilling, uplifting and draining in equal measure. We’ve had to move ‘homes’ four times for different reasons and constantly been plagued by erratic internet, electricity and water supply. This rant stinks of absolute privilege, I know, but that fact makes me feel even more helpless.

Truth is, India is perhaps one of the least suited countries for digital nomads. You can’t book an Airbnb, show up and expect to plug and play. Each place comes with its own laundry list of issues, and any half-decent accommodation costs an arm and a leg. I sorely miss the standard of living we could afford in other middle-income countries like Thailand, Georgia or even Guatemala.

As we look to move towards the mountains in the summer, I just hope the universe will conspire to reveal an unexpectedly perfect place to call home for 4-6 months!

What about the future?

A million questions on my mind, but determined to make the most of 2021.

Friends from Europe and the US seem quite confident about resuming their travels by the spring or summer, but I have serious doubts. Even though the vaccination process in India is now underway, it’ll take forever to vaccinate a country of 1.3 billion people. Besides, we don’t know if vaccination means we can shed our masks, stop social distancing, hop on to public transport without fear of spreading the virus and be accepted by local communities again.

Besides the usual visa restrictions for Indians, will we need to travel with a vaccine passport to resume international travel? What vaccines will qualify for such a passport? What about new strains emerging in many parts of the world? Will we need to quarantine for 14 days after every flight? And even if we miraculously manage to tackle covid in 2021, what about the looming threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, water crises and other zoonotic diseases?

As much as I’m determined to make the most of 2021 no matter what life throws my way, the traveller in me longs to return home. Back on the road.

What are some 2020 moments you hope to remember – and what are you most looking forward to in 2021?

Reflections on earlier years:

Highs and Lows of 2019 – and What I’m Looking Forward to in 2020

Highs and Lows of 2018 – and Aspirations for 2019

17 Incredible Travel and Life Moments in 2017

My Most Memorable Sunrises, Sunsets and Night Skies of 2016

My 15 Most Memorable Moments of 2015

How I Lost My Way as a Travel Writer…

Ever since I emerged from my “writing cave” after working on my first book, I’ve felt a deep void within. The publishing journey was challenging, fulfilling and joyful in equal measures – and consumed so much of me. After the initial excitement of the book launch, my soul started to feel inexplicably restless.

I suppose I did try to satiate it with some epic adventures in Myanmar, Iran, Bhutan and South Africa last year. Then the pandemic hit, and left me no choice but to hang up my travel boots.

Also read: What No One Tells You About Publishing a Book in India

Contemplating the beauty and fragility of life in Tajikistan.

A new era of travel blogging

I thought this could be just the pause I needed. I would re-focus my attention on this travel blog that I’ve nurtured over so many years but recently neglected. Unfortunately, travel blogging has changed much over time. It has become much less about experiences, and much more about Google rankings.

Every time I sat down to write about a misadventure in Nicaragua that could’ve been my last, or how solo travel can make or break a relationship, I wondered, would anyone search for this? Does this story have the potential to appear on Google’s first page?

Also read: How Croatia Compelled Me to Rethink Travel Blogging

The current state of travel blogging has left me distracted and uninspired.

An ethical dilemma

Even if the story did stand a chance of making it to Google’s first page, I felt conflicted about whether to write about “hidden” places in such a public space. I mean, we’ve all seen the downfall of once-pristine places, especially in the Instagram era.

I shudder to think how a remote high altitude desert like Spiti or the sleepy interiors of Goa have changed in the past few years – with trash, traffic and overtourism adversely impacting local people and biodiversity.

Yet I sorely miss the joy of writing about low-key discoveries on my travels, for a smaller group of readers with a stronger bent towards responsible travel.

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

The sleepy interiors of Goa.

Drying up income

When India began to open up a few months ago, I took an ethical stance not to travel or promote travelling during the pandemic. I’m taking a cue from rural communities who’ve chosen to keep their borders closed despite the loss of livelihoods, and the growing discontentment among locals in places where the wearing of masks and social distancing rules are largely ignored by tourists.

With borders closed, all my international collaborations are on hold indefinitely. I’m choosing to say no to domestic airline and hotel collaborations that require me to travel. As a passionate advocate of veganism and sustainability, I continue to say no to lifestyle brands that test on animals or represent fast fashion. And I’ve long taken a stance against filling my blog with annoying ads.

That means in the past few months, except for the odd partnership, all my income has dried up.

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The money has dried up but the words are flowing freely (mostly)!

So what now?

Now that I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, I’ve gradually realized that somewhere along the way, I forgot the very reasons why I first pursued travel writing.

I dreamt of bringing stories from the road that had rarely been told before. Stories that inspired unconventional ways of thinking. Stories that offered a glimpse of unfamiliar worlds.

Instead, I’ve been keeping many epic finds, unexpected encounters and life-defining moments on the road, to myself – because they don’t belong on Google, Instagram or any public space.

But I think I’ve finally found a new direction…

In search of a new direction…

Introducing “Journeys” by The Shooting Star

I’ve spent the past few months contemplating how I can continue writing about places, people and finds that’ve deeply impacted me – without the risk of subjecting them to irresponsible travel or constantly worrying about search engine and social media algorithms.

Thus was born the idea of “Journeys” – exclusive, paid stories delivered to your inbox once a week.

My goal is to slowly reach a niche set of readers with a similar bent of mind, who yearn for places that don’t come with Instagram hashtags or google searches, seek to pursue the unconventional in life, and are genuinely curious about the world beyond what can be depicted in a pretty photo.

Upcoming stories on Journeys:

I’m excited to share that I’ve already penned down the first four “Journeys” – to be delivered to you weekly. These aren’t stories that you’ll find in my book or on this blog.

What it’s like to travel as an unmarried couple in India and elsewhere – Some shocking and amusing episodes. This story is already live; read it here.

Secret hideouts in India to rejuvenate your pandemic-weary soul – I reached out to some of my favorite accommodations naturally set up for social distancing, and included only those who are taking enough safety precautions.

When I dream of the wild, I dream of… – If there’s only one national park you visit in your lifetime, let it be this one.

The little big things that have shaped my writing journey – Practical writing tips and some confessions from a bestselling author (yours truly ;-)).

Travel, life and a lot more lined up on Journeys.

How much does a subscription cost?

To be completely honest, I’ve gone back and forth several times over the idea of introducing paid stories, but focus group interviews with some long-time readers of The Shooting Star convinced me to take the plunge.

I’ve tried to keep subscription rates low, with early bird rates and annual discounts. Monthly subscriptions are equivalent to the cost of a nice coffee or meal. Annual subscriptions give you two months free!

First 100 subscribers: ₹250 / ~3$ per month

101 – 1000 subscribers: ₹350 / ~5$ per month

1000+ subscribers: ₹500 / ~7$ per month

Annual subscription: Save 2 months cost!

I know that the internet is full of free travel content. Yet I hope that through “Journeys”, I can continue to add unique value to your life and travel choices.

A new journey for me, and I hope, for you too.

What about this blog and my social media channels?

I’ve been meaning to invite guest writers with inspiring stories to this blog for a long time, and am finally getting around to doing so.

Earlier this year, Parita Bhansali wrote an insightful guide to sustainable fashion in India. Coming soon, are recommendations on Auroville’s coolest cafes by Vinita Contractor, and insights on what it’s like to be a vegan Muslim by Nina Ahmedow. I’m excited to move into a largely editorial role on this blog with occasional posts written by me.

I’ll continue to engage with you on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, but perhaps at a reduced frequency than I currently do. I hope Journeys will take away the need to channel an income through constant engagement on social media – and allow me to build deeper connections with long term readers.

A time of reflection – and finally, a new direction.

A word of gratitude

At this time of isolation, the world has felt out of reach and nudged me to examine many of my life choices. My attempts at travel writing, as I can see now, took a direction I never anticipated. Yet you’ve stood by me, continued to read my posts here and on Instagram, and sent many heartfelt messages and emails over the years. For that, I’m forever grateful.

As I embark on what feels like a new chapter of my virtual life, I hope to continue taking you to faraway places, both geographically and within. I hope you’ll join me on these “Journeys”. There’ll be no flowing dresses, I promise 😉

What do you think of the new direction I’m moving towards? What would you most like to read about on “Journeys”?

7 Years of Travelling Without a Home – and Then a Pandemic.

What’s it like to chain myself to one place after 7 years on the road?

It feels like yesterday when I was hiking up the moonscapes of Qeshm Island in Iran at sunset. Or falling off the map on a motorcycle adventure in the remote tribal Chin state of Myanmar. Or feeling awe-inspired at the electric ‘ghetto sessions’ in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa‘s largest townships.

When I look back at my life of long term travel, there is one thing in common. It all feels surreal.

And in a very different way, that’s my dominant feeling during this pandemic too!

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

long term travel
My surreal life of long term travel: Jumping into a lake in Guatemala at sunrise!

Since this strange period of our lives began, many of you have reached out to me, curious about what it’s been like to hang up my travel boots indefinitely. After nearly seven years of long term travel and living out of two bags, what’s it like to chain myself to one place for the foreseeable future?

In this post, I try to lay bare my heart, reflecting on this time of shock, struggle, acceptance, disappointment, anger, gratitude and hope.

With a home nowhere, I suddenly had nowhere to go!

long-term travel, goa kayaking
In a strange turn of events, we now (temporarily) own a kayak!

Back in 2013, I gave up my rented apartment and sold most of my belongings. In the years since, I’ve felt at home in many places around the world but not put down roots anywhere.

Having no possessions and no commitment to a single place felt liberating on many levels… until I found myself in lockdown!

As luck would have it, an unexpected turn of events made me abandon a multi-day trek from tribal Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh. I ended up taking a flight to Dehradun to see my folks for a few days, and figure out where I could slow travel next to hide out the brewing coronavirus fears.

In those few days, my universe, like that of many others, overturned. WHO declared it a pandemic, India went into a stringent lockdown, state and international borders shut down indefinitely. Suddenly, I had nowhere to go.

That few days visit turned into 3 months. And in retrospect, I’m so glad I got to spend that quality time with my folks – something I haven’t done since I moved out for college at seventeen! Unfortunately though, my partner was stranded in a different part of the world during the lockdown. Perhaps because the geographical separation wasn’t out of choice this time, it stung pretty bad.

When domestic movement gradually resumed, we went through a ton of passes and paperwork, Covid tests and institutional quarantine. And took a leap of faith to move to a small Goan village for the foreseeable future.

We now call an old trading shop turned studio “home”, own a kayak and a small oven, and wake up to hornbill and peacock cries!

Also read: What’s it Like to Travel Solo When You’re in a Relationship

Roots or wings – aka is long term travel still for me?

high tatras slovakia
To travel long term is to know the world, slowly, deeply. Hiking solo in Slovakia.

To tell you the truth, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to stay in one place again. To have a small backyard when I can grow my greens, to own more than what fits in two bags. Have constant access to a kitchen and experiment with vegan recipes. Build a consistent supply chain of organic, seasonal, zero waste produce. And not have to decide every couple of months, where next?

After the initial shock of the lockdown, I realized that I had no choice now but to experience “the other side” of life.

So I threw myself right into it. Started growing my own herbs and microgreens. Experimented with vegan baking. Got connected with a group of local organic farmers. Tried to throw myself into writing, books and music. Binge-watched movies and shows.

At first, it felt nice to have a schedule and all this time on my hand. But the days quickly started merging into one another. They felt familiar, comfortable and predictable.

Waking up to the same horizon every day eventually became monotonous. I began to miss the rush of long land journeys, the magic of fleeting encounters on the road and the anonymity of being a new “me” in a new place.

Turns out, the reason I never found a place ‘perfect’ enough to lay down roots was because I was never actually looking for one.

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

Ironically, long term travelling prepared me for a time of no travel

slow travel tamil nadu
Long term traveling, full of unexpected offices and lessons. This one in Tamil Nadu.

It seems like those challenging times on the road – the border interrogation in Nicaragua, getting mugged in Costa Rica, getting stalked in Ethiopia, breaking my phone on the first day of my solo adventures in Ecuador – unexpectedly prepared me to adapt, no matter what life throws along the way.

The pandemic is definitely one such curve ball.

At first, I was naive enough to think it’ll be behind us soon. But now, I don’t see myself travelling far before a vaccine is available, which could be several months or even a year from now.

Even though I’m young, healthy and outside the vulnerable age group, studies have found long term health implications for those who contract the virus. I also feel an acute responsibility towards rural communities in India with little access to healthcare, and can’t bear the thought of carrying the virus to them.

The initial months were tough, both professionally and personally. I had a few delayed payments trickling in which helped cover my expenses. But all travel assignments were put on hold, leaving the future uncertain.

Surprisingly however, I quickly moved through phases of denial, shock, anger and disappointment, into acceptance.

As an introvert, minimalist and someone who’s been working from home for nearly a decade, the obvious challenges of lockdown living were easy for me.

But I’ve been working towards making this lockdown life more palatable. Moving closer to nature, cycling, kayaking, photographing feathered creatures, researching more about wildlife conservation challenges and learning to cook!

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining My Digital Nomad Lifestyle

The privilege of travel, and life itself

himachal pradesh monsoon
The realization that to travel, and travel long-term, is a privilege. Monsoon in Himachal Pradesh.

Hailing from India, privilege is often a tricky subject.

On the one hand, I often compare my lack of privilege to western bloggers / freelancers with powerful passports, social security and financial support during the pandemic.

On the other hand, I feel very aware of my access to good education in India (among other things we take for granted), that ultimately helped carve this digital nomad life for me.

This pandemic though, has given me much more perspective.

It has led me to the harsh acceptance that I’m not an essential worker, my soft skills weren’t of much use in a crisis, and travel – even the responsible kind – isn’t as resilient as once thought. We (me and most people reading this) are lucky enough to work online and shelter ourselves from the pandemic.

But despite the increasing penetration of smartphones, rural communities associated with travel have been hit really hard during this time.

This gaping urban-rural divide led to a new passion project, Voices of Rural India – perhaps India’s first curated platform for rural storytellers!

The goal is to build digital storytelling skills in rural India while creating an alternate source of income. And in this time of no travel, it’s a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the stories of the very people we travel to meet.

We’re looking for passionate volunteers to join us to support Voices of Rural India. If that’s you, please get in touch!

The art of traveling long term vs the growing frustration of a weak passport

digital nomad
How to travel long-term? Ditch that Indian passport 😉

Travelling with an Indian passport has always been painful. I hate the heaps of documentation, the long wait to get a visa, stringent application processes, a defined duration of stay etc.

But in the current times, as someone who thinks of herself as a global citizen, I feel even more caged with closed borders and no tourist visas.

Countries like Georgia and Estonia have recently launched a “digital nomad visa” that would be ideal for someone like me who wants to stay longer and work on the go. But unfortunately, India is not one of the 95 countries eligible to apply. SIGH.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport as I Travel the Globe

“What about the future?”

long term travel checklist
Thinking of the future as an adventure. In the Lake District in the UK.

There was a time when anxiety about the future used to gnaw at me from the inside.

But over many years on the road, with neither a constant income nor a constant home, I’ve gradually learnt to let go.

The future is just that – distant, unpredictable. We need to nurture it, yes. But not at the cost of living fully today.

This life of long term travel has taught me to think of the future as just another adventure. And perhaps that’s what we need most right now. Cherish the little joys that today brings, and not dwell too much on the future. Whatever it brings, it’ll be an adventure for sure.

Also read: How Travelling Changed My Perspective on Getting Married and Having Kids

A life of no regret

Long term travel tips
Fleeting encounters on the road. Newfound friends in Iran.

Some people say I was too young to quit my corporate job at 23. If I stayed on a few more years, I could’ve amassed more wealth and experience.

Some say this digital nomad lifestyle is unsustainable. I need to own a house, I need to own things.

In a way, this unprecedented crisis has challenged everything about my life philosophy in the past seven years.

I don’t own a house or a car, and until a few months ago, I didn’t even own any cooking equipment. I’ve long believed in the shared economy to find homes and rides around the world. Covid came as a total shock to my existence.

But in the middle of a damn pandemic that has shattered many travel and life plans, I feel so grateful about the choices I’ve made.

I’m glad I didn’t put off my dream of slow travelling the world on my own terms. I’m grateful I didn’t build a bucket list to tick off only once I retired.

In the coming years, in a world wrought by climate change, intensive animal agriculture, single use plastic and irresponsible travel, we will face a whole new set of challenges. I’ll continue to contribute to this planet in whatever ways I can, but…

I can say with confidence, having tried it over the past six months, that living in one place is just not for me. I belong on the road, always moving, wild and free.

What’s this lockdown period been like for you? Where did you spend it, and what’s your most important realization from it? Do you think a life of long-term travel is for you?

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silhouette of woman holding hat in blue and gray nebula

The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India.

Sustainable fashion India: With upcycled, fair-trade, organic, ethical and eco-friendly alternatives, homegrown brands are making a real fashion statement.

Guest post by Parita Bhansali

“Never buy anything that’s less than fabulous. Then you’ll wear it over and over again!”

I often remember the words of Carrie Bradshaw’s character in Sex and the City before I buy something. She might not have meant it that way, but for me, it represents everything sustainable fashion in India is about.

The on-going Covid-19 crisis has made many of us pause and introspect about our impact on the planet. With the minimization of human consumption across the globe, nature seems to be healing and the air seems to be cleaner. We know we need to act now to save this planet we call home.

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

no planet b, save the planet
Why embrace sustainable fashion in India? There is no Planet B. Photo by Sean O.

Sustainable fashion India: An introduction

What does fashion, the clothes we buy and the brands we support with our money have to do with any of this?

Turns out, the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s annual carbon emissions – 5 times that of flying! It’s also one of the most polluting, water-intensive and waste-generating industries.

That’s exactly why I decided to write this massive guide to sustainable fashion India. This is how we can reduce our individual impact on the planet, one piece of clothing at a time.

What is slow, sustainable fashion anyway

sustainable fashion in india, sustainable fashion brands in India
PIN this sustainable fashion India guide for future reference!

As the names suggest, fast and slow fashion refer to the pace at which you change / update your wardrobe.

Do you impulsively buy new clothes that are environmentally harmful, water intensive, exploit humans, abuse animals and have a small shelf life?

Or do you consciously invest in clothing brands that are mindful of the resources they use, refrain from using animal products, pay fair wages and last a lifetime?

Broadly speaking, sustainable fashion refers to clothes and products that:

  • Are made from eco-friendly or recycled fabrics.
  • Use organic (chemical-free, pesticide-free) materials and dyes.
  • Employ fair trade practices – no forced labor, no child labor, reasonable working hours and fair pay.
  • Refrain from using materials, inks and other ingredients derived from animals, and say no to animal testing.

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

What’s wrong with fast fashion

mindful living
We need to reduce our individual footprint on this planet we love. Photo by Monika Geble.

Fast fashion uses up excessive natural resources

  • Every year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the water consumption needs of 5 million people!
  • 150 million trees are cut and turned into fabric every year, through land clearing and plant pulps.
  • Every year, disposed off clothes result in half a million tons of plastic microfibers in the ocean – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. These microfibers are spreading through the food chain and are probably in our bodies now.

With the rise of online shopping, more fast fashion brands setting up shop in India and the constant pressure to keep up with fashion trends, India is already on its way to embracing fast fashion – at great cost to the environment.

Slow fashion in India can reduce our individual carbon footprint

Only 15% of our clothes are recycled or donated. Even those gradually land up in landfills where they slowly release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change. That’s a strong reason to embrace sustainable fashion in India.

Humans and animals are exploited to cater to our fashion demands

  • Even though child labor has been declining, the International Labor Organisation estimates that 170 million children worldwide are still forced into labor – many of them manufacturing textiles and garments for big international brands.
  • Leather is made from the skin of various animals: Oxen, cows, alligators, ostriches, snakes, even kangaroos. Unlike popular perception, leather is not simply a by-product of the meat industry. It is an industry in itself – one that makes billions of dollars by cleverly convincing consumers that they want to wear the skin of a dead animal or carry it on their arms!
  • The wool industry has been in the spotlight for aggressively shearing wool off sheep, goats (cashmere) and rabbits (angora wool), often leading to open wounds, pain and trauma to the animals. These animals ultimately land up in slaughter.
  • A single silk saree involves the death of 10,000+ silk worms – by smoking their cocoons or boiling them alive – even before they can mature into those pretty silk moths. According to the Higg Index, silk consumes more water and emits more greenhouse gases than most common textiles like polyester, viscose and cotton.

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

Sustainable fashion India: How to make better choices

sustainable clothing india
Sustainable fashion India: There’s an urgency to switch to mindful brands. Photo by Sara Kurfeß.

Given the obvious urgency to switch to more eco-friendly, ethical and conscious fashion, here are some ways I’ve learnt to embrace sustainable fashion in India:

Ask before buying

Do I REALLY need that dress? Am I adding to my non-biodegradable cosmetic collection? Am I using hair products tested on animals?

Before I buy anything, I do some quick research. Brands do reply to queries. I hit them up on their Instagram pages, drop them an email or call them.

Recently, I was curious about Sugar Cosmetics, so I both googled and called them – and was surprised to learn that their products are cruelty free (not tested on animals). I recently dropped a message on Chumbak’s Instagram page asking about their accessories, and learnt that their belts and watches are made from animal leather.

Invest in eco-friendly, organic, cruelty free brands in India

For me, buying less means being able to invest more in better alternatives:

  • Look for clothes made of organic cotton. Check for labels from the Better Cotton Initiative, to ensure less water and chemical dyes.
  • Replace your cotton clothes with eco-friendly natural fabrics like hemp and bamboo. Cotton is water-intensive and depletes the soil, while hemp produces twice as much fiber per acre, uses less water and enriches the soil. Itshemp aggregates all hemp products available across India!
  • Purchase accessories, bags, shoes and belts made of faux (fake) leather. These days, innovative brands are making leather products from cork, upcycled flowers, hemp and even pineapple leaves!
  • Choose personal care and cosmetic products like shampoo, lipstick, kajal, mosquito repellent, toothpaste etc that contain no animal ingredients (vegan) and haven’t been tested on animals (cruelty free). China has made it mandatory to test all products sold there on animals – so any brand that sells in China is unfortunately not cruelty free. Look out for the cruelty free label to identify products.
  • Most colored cosmetics use ingredients like red carmine dye made from beetles, lanolin from the glands of wool-bearing animals, keratin from the horns and claws of reptiles, fish or birds, and silk protein from silkworms boiled alive! Opt for natural, vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics instead.
  • Use toiletries and cosmetics free from plastic. Replace plastic bottles with soap, shampoo and conditioner bars – easier to carry while travelling too.

Identify ethical fashion brands

I’ve been using the “Good on You” app – which rates brands based on their impact on humans, animals and the environment. It doesn’t feature Indian brands, but can be useful for international ones or while shopping abroad. It also has brilliant content about sustainability, ethical sourcing, vegan fashion etc.

Embrace slow fashion in India

  • Instead of impulsively buying something new, choose to invest in clothing that has creatively been upcycled. Refash and Bodements exclusively stock clothes upcycled from pre-loved garments!
  • Buy from zero waste brands like WeAreLabeless and Adah by Leesha, that use every bit of scrap fabric and plastic to create something new, sending nothing to the bin.
  • Upcycle sarees you or your family own. LataSita converts sarees into beautiful dresses and other designer clothing. Mishcat Co recycles sarees into artisan carpets!
  • Let your friends visit your wardrobe. Asking your friends to mix and match your clothes can give you a new pair from a different point of view!
  • Donate clothes in good condition to old age homes, orphanages and anyone who needs them. Some retail companies like H&M ask you to exchange your old cloths for points/new buys.

Also read: How I Fit All My Possessions in Two Bags as I Travel the World

Affordable sustainable clothing India

Even as fast fashion is taking over the country, several brands offer clothing that is not only creative but also homegrown, upcycled, fair-trade, organic, ethical and eco-friendly. Now that’s a real fashion statement!

Hoomanwear

Hoomanwear is India’s first – and perhaps only – causewear brand, which donates over 30% of all profits to organisations involved in meaningful work. Founder Harshil Vora is a passionate vegan, and all their t-shirts, crop tops and hoodies are plant-based (less than 5% synthetic fibers) and customizable with different vibes. They are made only on demand (zero waste), use certified sustainable inks, are free of animal ingredients and delivered in recycled pizza boxes or cloth bags!

Check out The Shooting Star travel-inspired collection in collaboration with Hoomanwear!

Maati

Maati, founded by Neha Kabra, works with a community in Rajasthan to create unique clothing with traditional Indian printing techniques. A part of the fabric is upcycled, the dyes and print colours are borrowed from nature (not animals) and the packaging is plastic-free. 

PANI Swimwear

I was surprised to learn that most swimsuits leach microfibers into the ocean. And amazed to discover PANI Swimwear, founded by Leila, an international development professional from Mauritius who now calls Mumbai home. PANI makes body-positive swimsuits catered to a wide range of body types, designed from recycled fishing nets! Unfortunately the microfiber leaching persists with these, but atleast they’re part of a circular economy until something better comes along.

No Nasties

No Nasties is Goa’s first organic clothing brand and a pioneer of sustainable fashion in India, founded by Apurva Kothari. They use organic cotton seeds on fair trade farms. Synthetic pesticides and GMOs are a strict no. The entire seeds to clothes process is eco-friendly and ethical, right down to the inks being used (made without any animal ingredients).

no nasties
Wearing a skirt from No Nasties – affordable sustainable clothing India. Photo: Parita Bhansali.

Increscent

Founded by Kamakshi Singh with the goal of being affordable, Increscent offers vintage clothing (dresses, tops, skirts etc), crafted in small batches by a community in Rajasthan. 60% of the fabrics they use are recycled from the dead stock of various export houses!

Brown Boy

22-year-old Prateek Kayan quit his banking job in New York to start one of the few fashion brands exclusively for men, based out of Kolkata. Brown Boy is all about organic, fair trade cotton and animal-friendly printing – creating sustainable t-shirts in India alongside other smart casuals.

Renge

Founded by animal lover Sheena Uppal, Renge sources surplus fabric from warehouses to produce unique, limited edition designs for women. Proceeds from Renge are also used to support animal sanctuaries in India.

Hemp Kari

The latest addition to India’s growing hemp movement is the homegrown brand Hemp Kari. They offer natural hemp-based fabrics with traditional hand embroidery done by local artisans in Lucknow and nearby villages. The tops are delivered in plastic-free packaging, and use tags / labels made of hemp paper.

Also read: The Shooting Star Collection: Travel Inspired Clothing for a Cause

High-end sustainable fashion brands in India

Ka Sha

Karishma Shahani Khan created a clothing line from plastic gunny sacks, old chandeliers and second-hand sneakers while studying in London. Now based out of Pune, her Ka Sha label explores natural fabrics and works closely with artisans across the country. Her zero waste “Heart to Haat” collection focuses on upcycling discarded clothing.

Nicobar

Nicobar is the slow fashion brainchild of Simran Lal and Raul Rai, inspired by tropical living. They’re bigger than most brands mentioned in this guide, with physical stores across the country. That only means more responsibility.

Their core line uses only organic cotton, along with natural fabrics like bamboo. Their woolen collection uses recycled wool, and the kidswear is made entirely from leftover fabric. Most of their products come in plastic free packaging.

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

Eco-friendly winter clothing

Himalayan Blooms

Bangalore resident Pratibha Krishnaiah quit her corporate job to work as a Youth for India fellow in rural Uttarakhand. After the fellowship, she decided to stay on in the remote village of Kheti Khan, and began Himalayan Blooms – a social enterprise that seeks to create financial independence for local women. Using acrylic yarn and cotton (no wool), they hand-knit the most gorgeous ponchos, sweaters, scarfs and neck warmers – available for India wide delivery right from the heart of the Himalayas!

Save the Duck

Save the Duck is an American brand that specializes in animal-free, high tech winter wear. Their jackets are made from recycled plastic bottles and hoodies from recycled fishing nets. And yet their winter collection is warm enough to successfully put a vegan mountaineer on Mount Everest!

Unfortunately India doesn’t yet to seem to have its own ethical and eco-friendly winter sports brand. Wool and down feather-free jackets are available at Decathlon, made with polyester or other synthetic materials, but not exactly eco-friendly.

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

Ethical, vegan and cruelty free cosmetics in India

It is shocking that several animal ingredients are hidden away in our daily toiletries and cosmetics. Some of these include: Honey, the food of bees. Beeswax, derived by destroying their painstakingly created combs used to house their young and store honey. Gelatin, extracted from the skins, bones and tissues of animals.

In 2020, despite being well-versed with what works on the human skin and scalp, some (big) brands like Maybelline, Estee Lauder and Clinique still test on animals!

Here are some sustainable beauty brands in India that support local entrepreneurs, source ethical ingredients and do not test on animals:

Disguise Cosmetics

Disguise Cosmetics is an Indian brand which believes in setting an honest, ethical and pocket-friendly beauty standard for our skin. All their cosmetics are free from animal oils, fats, pigments, secretions and proteins. Their matte lipsticks and all-day gel kajals are all the rage!

The Switch Fix

I cannot stress how much I love this brand. The Switch Fix is everything I could wish for: No plastic, no palm oil, cruelty-free, vegan, plant-based, water-saving and non-polluting!

From shampoo bars (no spill, no issues while checking in, last up to 50 washes) to bamboo toothbrushes, they have all our personal care needs covered.

Plum Goodness

Homegrown brand Plum offers a wide range of vegan and paraben-free hair, face, body and skincare products. They also recycle your empty plum plastic bottles with a gift voucher of Rs 50 for future use!

Veganology

A young brand nurtured with love and compassion, Veganology uses essential oils to create moisturizing soap bars, body butters, lip balms and even a vegan, chemical-free talcum powder.

FAE

FAE, which stands for Free And Equal, is an Indian start-up trying to challenge conventional, biased notions of beauty. Their wide range of lipsticks is vegan, cruelty-free and paraben-free.

 sustainable fashion brands in india
The real fashion statement.

Kay by Katrina

India’s first celebrity cosmetic brand Kay was launched last year by Katrina Kaif – and it’s reported to be vegan and cruelty-free! She said she wanted to create products that would spark a vegan cosmetics revolution in India – and I think she’s on her way.  

Colorbar

Colorbar is India’s third largest cosmetic brand. It is cruelty free, with a wide range of vegan products, well-labelled on the website.

Khadi Essentials

The homegrown Khadi Essentials brand is based on the principles of Ayurveda. Most of their personal care products are vegan, cruelty-free and paraben free.

Lotus Herbals

Lotus Herbals is hardly a stranger to Indian consumers. This local brand commits to nature’s wealth in tandem with being compassionate to all. No chemicals, nothing synthetic, no animal ingredients and no animal testing.

Himalaya

Back in the early 1900s, Mr Manal was travelling in Myanmar (then Burma), when he stumbled upon locals feeding the roots of a local herb to calm a herd of agitated elephants. His curiosity led him to start a revolution out of Dehradun in 1934, to develop all-natural personal care resources based on Ayurveda, science and nature. Himalaya continues to be a game changer for sustainable living everywhere! The Himalaya toothpaste and wide range of products make it much easier to be vegan in India and elsewhere.

Vicco

I guess we all remember the Vicco Vajradanti commercial from our childhood in India! Sounds old school, but Vicco is actually a pioneer of vegan and natural products in the country.

The Body Shop

British brand, The Body Shop, pioneered the cruelty free movement but some of their products still contain animal ingredients like milk, honey, beeswax, etc. The vegan products are well-labelled though. They mostly come in plastic but The Body Shop has recently started an initiative to engage women in local communities to make recycled bottles.

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

Sustainable fashion bloggers India

View this post on Instagram

Ya local textile fanatic found a new fashion fiber: Ramie 🌾⁣ ⁣ #Ramie is one of the oldest fiber crops, having been used for at least 6,000 years. It’s older than cotton and uses less water to grow. It’s very similar to linen, looks like silk, and even more absorbent than cotton— all while being incredibly easy to naturally dye because it’s so highly absorbent. ⁣ ⁣ In the words of @AjaBarber, “Now is a great time to remind you that the fashion industry is quietly keeping the fossil fuel industry plugging along. Polyester, spandex, Lycra, acrylic… are all synthetic fibers made from fossil fuels.⁣”⁣ ⁣ Sustainable fashion isn’t about reinventing the wheel, it’s about returning to ancestral + indigenous wisdom— especially when it comes to fashion fibers + fabrics. ⁣ ⁣ Historically, fashion fibers used to be grown locally and often used to be byproducts of food production— whereas now, over 60% of fashion is synthetic. @fibershed_ is one of my favorite leaders in the “farm-to-closet” movement, which challenges people to think locally + regeneratively when it comes to fashion.⁣ ⁣ [dress via @savannahmorrowthelabel in ramie, naturally dyed]

A post shared by ADITI MAYER • ADIMAY.com (@aditimayer) on

A couple of bloggers / Instagrammers you can take inspiration from, as you learn about ethical, fair-trade, cruelty free and sustainable fashion in India:

Anya Gupta

Anya Gupta is a fashion and lifestyle influencer who makes DIY products like detergent, toothpaste etc look uber cool! And damn, her clothing and cosmetics recommendations are super inspiring.

Aditi Mayer

Aditi Mayer is all about sustainable fashion and social justice – two topics that rarely meet each other. Her profile focuses on South Asian fashion, and is one of the rare ones that deeply explore ethics and eco-friendly living.

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

Your questions

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Own experiences, not things. Photo by Henry Gillis

Thanks for sharing your questions around sustainable fashion. Those not directly answered in the post above are included below.

If you have more questions, please ask them in the comments to this post.

What are some unique sustainable fashion brands in Mumbai?

Some sustainable fashion brands born in Mumbai include Nicobar, Inaaya and Co, and Bhumika & Jyoti.

What does ethical clothing mean?

“Ethical” encapsulates anything that is kind to people, animals and the environment. Typically, ethical clothing is made with natural materials like organic cotton, hemp or bamboo. The artisans involved in crafting it work in respectable working conditions and are paid fairly. No animals are harmed in the making of the products, neither by making use of animal-derived ingredients nor by testing on animals.

Where to find eco-friendly clothing in Pune?

Pune’s homegrown sustainable labels include the Ka Sha boutique and Outliers Clothing Co.

Bangalore’s SwapStitched clothes swap events are one of a kind!

Bangalore’s sustainable fashion options include House of Primes, Ethic Attic and Kaiyare.

Do you think about slow, eco-friendly fashion? What steps have you taken (or will take) towards it? What are your favorite sustainable fashion brands in India?

*Note: This article does not endorse or represent any of the brands mentioned. Views and opinions are entirely the author’s own.

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

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PIN this guide to make better fashion choices.

About the guest author:

Parita Bhansali is a curious traveller and a corporate sales professional. She has loved animals since she was a child and gradually turned vegan after reading about the inhumane treatment of voiceless animals to satiate human greed. After a brief stint at Loreal, she began transitioning towards environmentally conscious and animal friendly products. She believes there is loads to be done to protect her only home – Planet Earth. Connect with her on: Pinterest Blog Instagram YouTube Twitter 

chhattisgarh tribes

Ideas of Love and Life from the Tribes of Chhattisgarh.

Ideas I gathered on sexual freedom, relationships, food and sustainability, while spending time with the tribes of Chhattisgarh.

Woh log peeche chhooth gaye (they got left behind).”

They have a special status because [economic] development didn’t reach them.

These were words I heard again and again in Chhattisgarh, referring to the many indigenous tribes in the state.

Many of them traditionally lived in mud and bamboo houses in the forest. Often cultivating a small patch of land, burning it and moving every few years. Many wore nothing but a rag around their waste, multiple tattoos, combs in their hair and handmade ornaments. They lived off the land, worshipped nature, practiced animist rituals and survived on minimal possessions. The forest and local healers catered to their medical needs.

And yet, they are considered backward because money and modern comforts hold little importance in their off-the-grid lives.

Also read: The Last Surviving Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka

bastar haat, chhattisgarh haat, tribal markets chhattisgarh
Many conversations were lost in translation at the local haats but laughter knows no language.

I was lucky to spend a couple of weeks with the amazing folks from Bastar Tribal Homestay and Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat – who work closely with the tribes of Chhattisgarh. That gave me a chance to meet and engage with tribal elders, craftsmen, healers, cattle herders, anganwadi teachers and social workers.

Here are some life lessons I gleaned from the various tribes of Chhattisgarh:

The freedom to experiment with sexuality and choose a life partner in a ‘ghotul’

chhattisgarh tribes, bastar tribes, chhattisgarh travel
Together for so long that they’ve forgotten how long.

“The message of the ghotul—that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitality and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love—and its physical expression—is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian.”

So wrote Verrier Elwin of the controversial ghotul of the Muria and Gond tribes in Central India. His insightful books, written from his perspective as an anthropologist and ethnologist, document tribal life and customs that are slowly being eroded.

One such custom is that of the ghotul – a sort of commune that functions after nightfall, whose members are young (unmarried) teenagers. Legend has it that the first of its kind was built by their celebrated ancestor Lingo.

Within its physical confines, the members are taught both, the social responsibilities of the tribe: music, dance, respecting elders, tribal traditions, bonding over natural brews, cooking. And the individual, consensual exploration of one’s sexuality, with one or multiple partners, with or without emotional attachment. Most importantly, without judgement.

On the other hand, in the regressive contemporary society of India, even public displays of affection – let alone pre-marital sex – are considered taboo.

Many families will disown their daughters for choosing to be in a consensual relationship. But wouldn’t hesitate to forcibly marry them off to a complete stranger, whose demands she must pander to even on their first night together.

Although ghotuls were an essential part of life for the Muriya and Gond tribes of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, many have been shut down on suspicion of naxal activities. Others have fallen prey to the influences of ‘modern’ society, ‘urban’ education and religion.

I was amused to read a Gond social worker report that in one ghotul, the evening now begins with a recitation of the gayatri mantra!

Perhaps it’s time to look past our dogmatic religions, whatever they may be, and learn from the so called ‘backward’ people, the original dwellers of this land.

I’m sure we can learn a thing or three about social interaction, sexual freedom, gender equality and the right to choose who to love.

Also read: How Travelling Changed My Perspective on Getting Married and Having Kids

A farm-to-table diet featuring millets, moringa, mahua and more superfoods

corn, gond village, bastar
Corns adorn the ceiling in traditional Gond houses.

Long before the green revolution transformed indigenous diets in India, the tribes of Chhattisgarh cultivated and consumed foods that are now globally recognized as superfoods.

In a village of the Baiga tribe in the Kawardha region, cut off from the road by a river, I met a woman brewing mahua liquor under a stunning old mahua tree. It was just after breakfast, but she insisted I try it. With a spoon carved from wood, she poured some into a leaf folded into a cup – a hot, bitter, woody taste that I never quite acquired!

Although mahua is blamed for alcoholism among the tribes now, it was once dried and made into mahua rotis or laddoos – packed with abundant energy!

From various elders in Bastar and Kawardha, I gathered that the traditional diet once consisted of kodo millet, moringa and legumes – all high on the nutritional quotient.

In the local haats (tribal markets), I saw root veggies like alookanda, varieties of beans, and snacks made with pumpkin – none of which I could recognize from our regular diets. In the harsh summer, instead of water, many tribes drink paich – a nutritious drink made by soaking rice or millet.

At a Gond village home, we feasted on kandul lentils – grown in the forest. Once cultivated, they are dried, packed up in sihadi leaves, stitched together with sihadi ropes and can last upto two years!

On a hike, we spotted chidchidi, the seeds of which have a hallucinogenic effect that convinces your mind that you’re not hungry for days.

Unfortunately like in most of India, the indigenous diet of Central India too is fast being replaced by rice and wheat. Leading to malnutrition, poor growth among children and health complications among adults.

As we aspire to healthier lifestyles, perhaps the tribes of Chhattisgarh could help us dig out the sustainable superfoods they once embraced.

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

A rational approach to live-in relationships, ‘dowry’ and divorce

tribes of chhattisgarh, chhattisgarh culture, bastar
A ring for every wedding attended; a rough gauge of age among some tribes of Chhattisgarh!

When it comes to marriage, the ideas of compulsion and dowry drive me crazy.

In India, people in their late twenties and early thirties are considered ticking time-bombs who must not miss the marriage window.

It’s bad enough that married women are expected to dissociate from their house / family and join their husband’s. As an earning member of the family, or even as a member who contributes to household chores, that’s a loss to the woman’s family. But in our grand patriarchal scheme of things, it’s the woman’s family that must also pay dowry to the man’s – for taking their “burden” off.

Make no mistake, the practice of dowry, though now illegal, continues in urban and rural India. Modern, forward-thinking families in the cities may refrain from using the term itself, but many still expect the woman to bring with her expensive household “gifts”.

I’ve witnessed that first-hand twice in my extended family.

On the other hand, the tribes of Chhattisgarh who seemingly “got left behind” in the race for modernity, possess far more practical views on relationships.

It’s socially acceptable – and infact the norm in many communities – for a couple to live together without formally being married. If they are driven by love and compatible with each other, what’s the need for a formal ceremony, a legal document or a dedicated celebration to endorse their commitment?

When a couple does decide to marry, the “dowry” works in reverse. Since the woman’s family is losing an earning / contributing member, the man’s must compensate their loss – usually by footing the bill of the celebration or with the much-desired Mahua liquor.

In the Baiga tribe, the rules of divorce are simple too. First, it’s socially understandable for a couple to choose that they no longer want to be together. Second, if the woman initiates the separation, her new companion must compensate the old one for the expenses he bore for the wedding or Mahua.

Practical, honest and not two-faced like our “modern” society, right?

Also read: Can Responsible Tourism in India Challenge Patriarchy?

If we take the cow’s milk, what will happen to the calf?

paich, indigenous food india
Instead of milk or water, people drink paich – made by soaking rice or millet in water.

I vividly remember the first conversation I had with my host from Bastar Tribal Homestay when I met him at the bus stop, after a long ride from Raipur.

Over the phone, I had mentioned to him that I don’t consume any animal products. Now even before we made small talk, he told me that the tribes of Chhattisgarh don’t consume milk either!

Why? It’s never been part of their diet. Even though they rear cows to get manure (cow dung) for their fields, they have no idea how to separate them from the calves and take their milk. They worry that if they took the cow’s milk, what would happen to the calf?

Turned out, my host had worked with the veterinary department in the past, on a scheme to distribute cows to poor households in Bastar, hoping they would earn money off the milk. The scheme failed badly, for no one knew how to or was willing to milk the cows!

This is easy to observe in the tribal haats too, where I didn’t spot a single product made of milk.

The tribes that were once nomadic hunter-gatherers still hunt and consume meat. Goats and other animals are still sacrificed at their festivals. Infact, even human sacrifices were common till after India’s independence. Rumor has it that unwelcome visitors in the area were often captured and sacrificed!

In the “modern” world, we’ve moved towards horrific ways of raising, mass producing, enslaving and genetically altering animals for meat, milk and eggs. But I felt reassured that atleast India’s ancient wisdom recognizes that a cow’s milk is for her calf, just like a human mother’s milk is for her baby.

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

A sustainable life through nomadism, barefoot living and upcycling

bastar travel, gond people, chhattisgarh people
A glimpse of life in a Gond village deep in the forests of Bastar.

Minimalism, zero waste, upcycling and detoxing have become buzzwords globally. But for the tribes of Chhattisgarh, they’ve long been a way of life.

My hosts at Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat shared an intriguing story of a local shaman. While staying at his house with some of their guests, the shaman advised that the guests be dropped off to an airport and my hosts return home immediately, abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur for a couple of days. An earthquake was on its way, the shaman said.

My hosts brushed him off, but somehow ended up abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur anyway.

Surprisingly enough, the earthquake shook the earth just as the shaman had predicted. They rushed back to his house to ask how he knew. The shaman pointed to his bare feet, and said the earth had told him.

We can discredit ancient ways of connecting with nature, but the truth is we are constantly chasing them in fancier ways. We burn big holes in our pockets at detox retreats where we can walk barefoot and feel connected to earth.

My host often joked that for many tribes, “the forest is mother, the tiger is brother!” For centuries, they’ve lived off the forest, cultivating small patches of land, then burning it and moving on, giving it a chance to heal back into a forest. Even as hunters, they hunted for survival, not for the pleasure of taste.

In Bastar, I spent an afternoon observing craftsmen who specialise in bell metal crafts, passed down from one generation to another. Designated “other backward castes”, I was surprised to learn that these craftsmen upcycle used metal (from kitchen ware, appliances etc) in a long painstaking process, to create incredible ornaments.

Natural upcycling is common in everyday life too. The sargi shrub is used to brush teeth, its leaves to make plates and its seeds to wash clothes. Beds are made from strong sihadi ropes. And gulal for holi is made by boiling flame of the forest flowers!

Instead of reinventing the entire wheel in practicing urban sustainability, we’d be better off learning from our not-so-backward past.

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

A village can raise a kid, literally

bastar people, bastar tribes, gond tribe bastar, gond tribe
Sometimes it really takes a village to raise a kid.

In India (and perhaps elsewhere), when couples have problems in their marital life, having a kid is often recommended as the solution. In a separation or divorce situation, society looks down upon the parents, especially the mother, for raising their child in a “broken” home.

Unfortunately, the toxicity of many home environments slips notice.

Which is why, I was amazed to hear from my hosts in Kawardha how the Baiga tribe of Chhattisgarh sorts out such complex situations without legal recourse.

If a couple with a kid choose to separate, the woman has the first right to decide if she wants to raise the kid. If she decides that single parenthood isn’t for her, the man gets to choose if it’s for him.

If neither parent wants to take on the responsibility, the community assigns a guardian to raise the child until the age of fifteen, with the rest of the village chipping in. More importantly, the woman can choose to leave without any stigma.

Perhaps as parents, you’d think that’s a bit brutal. But who’s to say that a child raised in a toxic household, by a parent who doesn’t feel up to the task, will have a better life than one raised with love by an entire village?

Have you gathered any fascinating ideas of love and life on your travels?

tribes of chhattisgarh, chhattisgarh tribes, chhattisgarh travel
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Can We Stay Safe Yet Reduce Single Use Plastic During the Pandemic?

Can we stay home and stay safe, yet reduce single use plastic during the pandemic? Choices, alternatives and demanding change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has penetrated every aspect of our lives.

As much as I hate to write or even admit it, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. We’re still far from a vaccine, and even when it does arrive, distribution around the world could take a long time.

In the meantime, we must continue to try keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. That means we should use a mask and sanitizer, wash our hands frequently, practice social distancing, avoid touching our face and not go out to crowded spaces except when absolutely necessary.

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

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Can we stay safe yet reduce single use plastic during the pandemic?

Unfortunately though, that also means we need to find creative and safe ways to reduce single use plastic.

Personal protective gear – masks, hand sanitizers, surface disinfectant bottles – are typically non-biodegradable. Staying at home means more deliveries, e-commerce and food takeaways, which often come in non-recyclable plastic. Perhaps we’re discarding a lot of things we would’ve normally re-used, out of the worry that the virus might be lurking around on all surfaces.

As we gear up to face the pandemic for the long haul and adapt to life in the new normal, a single use plastic catastrophe might silently be brewing.

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

How has the pandemic impacted single use plastic products and our consumption?

I guess we only need to look at our personal consumption to guess the anwer.

Discarded plastic masks are already washing up on Hong Kong’s beaches. In the US, single use plastic usage is estimated to have gone up by a whopping 250-300%. Athens has reported a 150% increase in the amount of plastic in the general waste stream.

And in India, where waste management is already a huge issue, the fight against single use plastic has taken a backseat.

In the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the world has lost the momentum we gained over the past couple of years to reduce single use plastic. Plastic bans and alternatives have been rolled back.

Infact, plastic lobbyists are claiming that single use plastic is a hero in the new normal!

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

Are there problems with single use plastic, and are they important to consider while we’re in a pandemic?

I’m sure we haven’t forgotten the disturbing visuals of corals covered in single use plastic, turtles choked to death by plastic straws stuck in their nostrils and dead whales found with tonnes of plastic waste in their stomach.

Single use plastic has long been a global crisis. But it’s more important now than ever to reduce single use plastic, for three main reasons:

  • Biomedical waste that washes up on beaches or into the oceans can easily be mistaken as food. Fish, turtles, dolphins and other marine animals can choke on gloves, get entangled in the elastic bands of masks and get injured by face shields. With all this plastic filling their stomachs, they can starve to death.
  • Many recycling plants have been shut down over fears of the virus spreading through infected surfaces. That means what little plastic did get recycled / upcycled is now ending up in the landfill or being swept away into the ocean. It’ll leach into our groundwater and soil, and enter the food chain. Scientists are researching what that really means for our health.
  • Plastic pollution disproportionately affects low income countries with poor disposal facilities. Much of the west’s plastic waste used to go to China, and is now being sent to other countries in Southeast Asia. Even in rich countries, waste tends to be dealt with in poorer neighborhoods, causing public health problems. When incinerated, low grade plastic releases micro particles that have been linked to cancer. When sent to landfill, it often leaches into the groundwater. So yes, plastic pollution is very much a social justice issue.

Also read: 5 Easy Steps Towards Plastic Free Living

So, can we go about reducing single use plastic during the pandemic?

Given that health and safety trump all else right now, here are some things worth noting:

  • A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Covid-19 stays on plastic and stainless steel for 2-3 days, on cardboard for upto 24 hours and on copper for 4 hours.
  • According to the WHO, using a mask, frequently washing hands, social distancing and not touching the face are the most effective preventive measures. Surface disinfection with 70-90% alcohol is effective.
  • The WHO doesn’t recommend using gloves in public spaces.

In the early days of the pandemic, I decided that personal safety trumped my single use plastic consumption. In just a few weeks, the amount of plastic waste I was disposing became alarming.

So I spent a lot of time researching safe alternatives, and creative hacks to keep my single use plastic consumption as low as possible:

Alternatives to single use plastic: Use reusable multi-layered cloth masks instead of use-and-throw ones.

cloth masks, reduce single use plastic, plastic pandemic
Prevent a plastic pandemic by opting for cloth masks. Photo by Vera Davidova.

Masks are important for our collective safety, but that doesn’t mean we need plastic masks that come out of plastic covers.

According to the WHO, the CDC and Johns Hopkins University, those of us not interacting directly with positive or suspected positive people (i.e doctors, nurses etc), are safe enough using non-medical cloth masks. N95 and surgical masks are use-and-throw masks made of non-biodegradable plastic – taking upto 450 years to degrade! Instead, we can opt for multi-layered cloth masks, which can be washed and reused.

I bought a set of five cloth masks from Pulkar – an organisation in Dehradun that supports women’s livelihoods. I find cloth masks far more breathable, comfortable (instead of elastic bands around the ears, they have to be tied behind), stylish and affordable.

After each use, I sanitize and quarantine them for upto 48 hours (the virus is expected to survive on cloth fabric about as long as cardboard). And when I’m doing my laundry, toss them into the washing machine.

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home

It may not be entirely possible to stop single use plastic, but opt for eco-friendly e-commerce sellers who don’t wrap everything in plastic.

eco friendly ecommerce
Ways to eliminate single use plastic: Choosing eco-friendly e-commerce. Photo by Markus Spiske.

I think I’ve lost some of my sanity constantly outraging at Amazon and Urban Platter deliveries that arrive smothered in plastic for no good reason. I mean, why do non-breakable things like a pressure cooker whistle, a pan and even a pillow need to be wrapped in plastic?!

I limit using e-commerce for exactly this reason (aside from usually being somewhere too remote to receive deliveries and having no permanent address to receive them either). But now, in the midst of a pandemic with disrupted supply chains, closed shops and safety concerns, e-commerce is very much a part of my life.

Over time though, I’ve learnt to identify sellers that are conscious about not using single-use plastic:

Search for eco-friendly products

We needed a bunch of air tight containers so I searched for eco-friendly storage containers and zeroed in on the Star Work glass jars. Their products had great reviews and emphasized being environmentally friendly. And sure enough, despite being made of glass, the jars were delivered without any single-use plastic!

On the other hand, the couple of things I ordered from Amazon Basics came wrapped in layers of plastic despite being non-breakable. Ugh.

Now whenever we need anything, I use “eco” or “eco friendly” as a suffix while searching for it to identify plastic-free sellers.

Read reviews that mention the packaging

When I’m unable to find any eco-friendly sellers, I check if the reviews mention packaging – either while generally reading reviews or by doing a quick Ctrl+F search.

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

Banning single use plastic is a huge policy challenge, but leaving public feedback for sellers (both positive and negative) can pave the way.

plastic pandemic
Ways to stop single use plastic: Name and shame brands that don’t change their packaging. Photo by Marc Newberry.

I know it sounds like one more thing to do. But unless brands and sellers hear that we value plastic packaging free products and deliveries, they’re unlikely to make any changes.

Every time I receive an order, I try to leave public feedback on the e-commerce platform mentioning the packaging. Praising it if it is single-use plastic free. And highlighting the unnecessary use of plastic, which is more often the case.

Amazon has the option of seller feedback as well as product review. The former seems to be private feedback, though it does impact rankings on Amazon. I try to fill in both.

If enough of us do this, my hope is that Amazon will take notice and include a feature to rank packaging. Perhaps even a way to filter products with eco-friendly packaging!

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What Happiness Means to Them

Say a firm no to single use plastic bags. Insist that informal home deliveries are single-use plastic free and return the packaging immediately.

eco friendly delivery
Easy ways to reduce single use plastic: Get home deliveries in returnable containers / packaging. Photo by Misky.

I’ve switched from frequenting organic farmers’ markets wherever in the world I am, to ordering vegetables and fruits on whatsapp from local farmers or shops that stock their produce. Given that social distancing is hard at supermarkets and grocery stores, it’s prudent to have things delivered at home as much as possible.

That has one negative side effect though – plastic bags.

When I place an order, I always insist that they not be delivered in plastic bags. Thatched baskets, cardboard boxes and cloth bags are all good alternatives. In any case, I try to immediately empty the products into my own containers and return the packaging to (hopefully) be re-used.

This is also a great way of ensuring that I have the least possible interaction with a surface that might have been touched by multiple hands and possibly be carrying the virus. If I accept the packaging, I’d have to find a way of discarding it – increasing both, my exposure and trash.

Also read: Why I Switched to a Menstrual Cup – and How You Can Too

Ways to avoid single use plastic: Carry a washable cloth bag and reusable containers for takeaway.

single use plastic alternatives, plastic free living
Alternatives to single use plastics in everyday life and on my travels.

As India and the world slowly start to open up and emerge into a new “normal”, I’ve been thinking of how I can be both safe and environmentally-friendly.

I’ve been carrying reusable cloth bags for several years, and I think they’re our best bet now during the pandemic. Carrying my own bag means I don’t have to expose myself to plastic bags that have passed through multiple hands, on which the virus can survive for 2-3 days! Instead, I get home, empty my cloth bag and wash it with soap and water.

I’ve decided that no matter how much I crave diverse food during the pandemic, I’ll only ever order from places that deliver in eco-friendly packaging. In Hyderabad for instance, Le Terrassen Cafe has been using non-plastic single use cutlery and glass bottles. In Goa, Saraya has initiated a daily meal plan where lunch is delivered in returnable steel tiffins.

When I really want food from elsewhere – a slice of indulgent vegan chocolate cafe for instance – I will continue to carry my own resuable container. Again, relatively safer, washable and an easy way to practice single use plastic reduction.

Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips for More Fulfilling Experiences on the Road

Reducing single use plastic at home: Choose a “wash, quarantine and reuse” routine rather than an open and throw routine

washing hands
Know your single use plastic facts during the pandemic and get rid of the open and throw routine. Photo by Nathan Dumlao.

When I heard that the virus can survive upto 72 hours on plastic surfaces, my first instinct was to open every plastic bag of grocery (unfortunately I didn’t have access to an organic zero waste store), empty it into a container and toss the plastic bag into the bin.

But each time I did that, I felt horrified. Especially when the bag was a resealable bag that I would normally have re-used.

I then read safety recommendations by North Carolina State University, and was relieved to learn that it’s okay to re-use bags as long as they are cleaned and disinfected.

Now, instead of the ‘open and throw’ routine, I wash the outside of any plastic bag that enters the house, dry it and store it in a cupboard. Empty the contents in a container when needed. Sanitize it again if I’m feeling extra paranoid, quarantine it for a few days further and re-use it.

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

Experiment, make and grow more at home

Some of us have a lot more time at hand with no social outings and travelling on the cards. I’ve been finding some solace in the kitchen, as well as in growing vegetables, herbs and microgreens.

I never imagined that someone like me, with a marked lack of cooking ability, could bake a good loaf of bread. After a disastrous first time, it turned out surprisingly easy and tasty!

I look to Minimalist Baker, Vegan Richa and A Sweet Alternative for inspiration for easy vegan recipes. A simple google search is a good starting point too.

It’s been fulfilling to make, bake and grow my own. I’m not only reducing single use plastic at home but also consuming more home-grown, organic, chemical-free food.

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

Read about single use plastic facts, segregate waste and consider eco-bricking

I know I’ve been talking about segregating waste far too often on my blog and Instagram. But I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that the vast majority of us still doesn’t choose to segregate!

All it takes is two separate bins for wet and dry waste. The wet waste can be composted, even if you live in an apartment (consider the Eco Bin). Dry waste should ideally go to a recycling facility. Else it can be given away to a local ragpicker who is likely to salvage as much as possible. Further segregating dry waste into glass bottles, cartons etc can make processing of the waste easier.

Unfortunately though, single-use plastic is such low grade plastic that it can’t be recycled. If burnt, it releases toxic chemicals. If sent to landfill, it ultimately leaches into the groundwater or lands up in the ocean. The best solution so far – besides reducing consumption of course – might be to create ecobricks. Then pool them together with a community of people and build any needed structure.

Also read: Quarantine Recycling: Staying green under quarantine

What else can we do?

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Demand bigger changes to create a world with no single use plastic in our oceans. Photo by Javardh.

Advocate for policy change

Even though the fight against single-use plastic looks pretty dismal during this pandemic, I feel hopeful about the possibility of policy action since it’s already happening in Thailand. In Bangkok, an awareness campaign to segregate waste is already underway, along with setting up of public collection points for plastic waste to be recycled.

Can this happen in India? A single use plastic ban *almost* came into force in India last year, but didn’t.

With a combination of aware, conscious, motivated citizens demanding action from local, state and central governments, better waste management and stricter regulations for single use plastic are absolutely possible.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

Ask e-commerce platforms to introduce a packaging rating and filter

We don’t need to look further than E-commerce websites for examples of single use plastics. It’s time to collectively ask platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and Urban Platter to change their packaging and introduce a feature to rate the eco-friendliness of sellers and products.

A filter to sort products by planet-friendly packaging could make it easier to identify brands that care about reducing plastic waste. A rating system can allow consumers to easily share feedback.

The best way to do this is using social media, and tagging your local e-commerce providers.

Also read: Inspiring Indian Using Social Media to Drive Positive Change

Shudder to think of the plastic pandemic brewing in 2020. Photo by Anshu A.

According to UN Environment, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, the WWF estimates that the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles are dumped into the water every MINUTE.

That’s in an average year. I shudder to think what 2020 means for the oceans, marine life, groundwater and our own health.

Have you noticed changes in your plastic consumption during the pandemic? What steps are you taking / going to take to reduce single use plastic?

bhutan solo travel, bhutanese blogger, layap bhutan, western bhutan

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

Meet Tshering Denkar, an intreprid solo female traveller and Bhutanese blogger, documenting her Bhutan solo travel adventures.

I was in awe of Tshering Denkar even before I met her.

I first read her travel blog – Denkar’s Getaway – after receiving an invitation to share the stage with her at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan. She had spent the past couple of years travelling solo across the length and breath of her own country. Hiking, hitch-hiking and living with indigenous communities in remote mountain hamlets!

Travelling is never about the labels. But being Bhutan’s first solo female traveller and the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel space is a pretty big deal.

I mean, scan through global travel writing archives – or even articles about travelling in Bhutan – and tell me how many voices of intrepid female South Asian travellers can you find?

In Thimphu, I finally met Denkar – full of energy, excitement and humor – and despite being an introvert myself, we immediately connected through our mutual love for the road. Her travel stories eventually led us to Haa Valley and plans to explore the remote eastern provinces someday.

While hiking with Denkar in the mountains of Thimphu, I learnt how the King of Bhutan reads her travel blog and even invited her to meet him! He encouraged her to keep exploring the wonders of Bhutan, and inspire more Bhutanese people to explore their own country.

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan and What Happiness Means to Them

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Bhutanese blogger Tshering Denkar trying to hitchhike!

An unexpected journey

Prior to becoming a full time traveller, I was teaching in a prison in Thailand. One day, an inmate asked me, “Teacher, how is the world outside?” ~ Denkar

Denkar’s journey towards becoming a travel blogger and vlogger started in the most unlikely of places – a prison.

She travelled to Thailand to volunteer as an English teacher, and ended up staying longer to pursue further studies. While volunteering, she got the opportunity to teach at a prison in the Phitsanulok province in northern Thailand.

One day, an inmate asked her a question that would compel her to re-evaluate her life choices. How is the world outside? she wanted to know.

Denkar says she was haunted by that question, and slowly began to cherish the things she had always taken for granted. The freedom to be outdoors, explore, travel, meet new people and have interesting experiences.

She ended up backpacking across Southeast Asia, then decided to explore her own home country, Bhutan! For the past two years, she’s been travelling solo, living with locals across the many dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan.

Check out Denkar’s adventures on her blog, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube channel.

Also read: From panic to positive living: The pandemic in Bhutan by Denkar

merak, eastern highlands
Denkar, the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel space, with her host in Merak (Bhutan’s eastern highlands).

Bhutan solo travel

Dance to your own music and let the world blend into your tune. ~ Denkar

Denkar vividly recalls her first solo trip in 2018.

She bade goodbye to apprehensive friends as she boarded a local bus to Phobjika valley – alone, with a one way ticket! She was on a tight budget, and had made up her mind to hitchhike and couch surf if she needed to.

As the bus winded along the gorgeous green mountains, she felt herself connecting with the wanderer within. She quickly made new friends, felt determined to chart her own path and ended up staying longer than planned.

And she hasn’t looked back since. Phobjika became the first of many, many solo travel adventures across Bhutan. Seeking refuge wherever she found it, connecting with locals and going deeper wherever she went.

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Funding her adventures and becoming the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel industry

My greatest achievement is that people understand what I do now! ~ Denkar

Like most South Asian parents, Denkar’s were worried about her financial well-being. The idea of spending hours behind a laptop at home or being paid to travel is still pretty alien in this part of the world.

Denkar’s father wanted her to work as a civil servant after she returned to Bhutan with a masters degree from Thailand. But she knew she wanted to do something different. She never saw herself fitting into a traditional work environment.

So she set out to prove that she could make a living from travel blogging / vlogging. She’d be the first of her kind in Bhutan!

And she did it. Her primary source of income is content writing. She also partners with like-minded brands on her travels.

She says her parents are now obsessed with her travel stories and offbeat adventures across the country!

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining my Digital Nomad Lifestyle

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Bhutan solo travel | Denkar at the magnificent twin waterfall in Panbang.

Social stereotypes and hitchhiking in Bhutan

Denkar has hitchhiked to the remotest of villages in Bhutan on trucks and boleros! As in the rest of the world, hitch-hiking is considered a big NO for Bhutanese woman.

But when Denkar began fighting the social stereotype and putting her faith in strangers, she learnt that hitchhiking in Bhutan is safe as long as you keep your wits about you. She has hitched rides with mountain porters, truck drivers and students. Some bought her lunch. Some shared their deepest secrets with her. Many probably drew inspiration from her fearless ways.

Also read: An Open Letter to Parents: Let Your “Kids” Travel

tshering denkar, denkars getaway
Bhutan solo travel | The joy of winter.

Offbeat Bhutan solo travel recommendations

Explore Panbang in one of Bhutan’s most remote districts​

Until a couple of decades ago, little was known about Panbang in Bhutan’s Zhemgang Dzongkhag, close to Manas National Park in India. Despite some recent development, the locals still live in thatched bamboo and grass roof houses, believe in shamans and drink tongba (fermented millet brew)!

Trek to Nuptsonapata in Haa Valley

Denkar says one of her all-time favorite treks in Bhutan was to Nuptsonapata in Haa Valley. Arduous though it was, it was filled with lush mountains, wildflowers, rare white poppies, an encounter with nomadic shepherds and an emerald lake!

Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips to Change the Way You Experience the World

Nuptsonpata trek, bhutanese blogger
Denkar on the trek to Nuptsonpata, documenting Bhutan solo travel.

Meeting the King of Bhutan as the first Bhutanese blogger / vlogger!

Besides being recognized as Bhutan’s first travel blogger, Denkar says being invited to meet the King of Bhutan in 2019 was her life’s greatest honor.

“We need to breathe Bhutan,” he told her. He spoke about the beauty of Bhutan and the need for Bhutanese people to explore more of their own country. Denkar says it was then that it really struck her. Her journey as a blogger could make a difference in the way her own people (along with those outside) saw Bhutan.

She pledged to the King that she would travel far and beyond to bring fascinating stories about Bhutan to the world.

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

bhutanese blogger, solo travel bhutan, bhutan travel blog, solo trip to bhutan
At Royal Highland Festival, Bhutanese blogger Denkar wearing ‘Thukhanja’ and ‘zem’ of Layap women.

Advice for women who want to follow their solo travel dreams

Denkar: “I believe if you travel solo far and long enough, you will meet your true self. My only advice is stop being a couch potato, wishing ‘if only’ your life was like that of someone you follow online.

If you feel you want to go out there and experience the world, do what it takes. Make the emotional commitment, carve your own path, get ready for some sacrifices and prove to yourself and those around you that you can do it.

Go be the author of your own story.”

Also read: Unusual Solo Travel Destinations to Feed Your Adventurous Spirit

bhutanese blogger, laya bhutan, solo travel bhutan, tshering denkar, bhutan travel blog
Bhutanese blogger | Waking up to snow in Laya.

How did you find the courage to take your first solo trip? Or what’s stopping you? Do you follow any Bhutanese blogger?

This post is part of my Solo Travellers Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on solo travellers from across Asia. Courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways yet 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 First Solo Female Traveller from the Maldives

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

Thanks to Tshering Denkar and Remya Padmadas for their inputs.

lesotho, lesotho travel

How We *Almost* Got Stranded at the South Africa – Lesotho Border.

Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa? We nearly got stranded while crossing the South Africa Lesotho border at Maseru’s Pioneer gate!

We rang in 2020 in a remote village in Lesotho, hanging out with its Basotho people and trying to pick up a few words in their Sesotho language!

I have to confess I knew so little about the country of Lesotho before spotting it on Google Maps. After nearly 2.5 months of being a digital nomad in Cape Town, the road was beckoning again. Besides, room prices and tourism had begun to peak across South Africa as we entered the busy Christmas-New Year period.

So we applied for a single-entry e-visa for Lesotho and got an approval within 2 days. Arranged a Lesotho driving permit, booked an overnight bus from Cape Town to Bloemfontein (the closest South African city to Lesotho), picked up a rental car from Bloemfontein and drove into Lesotho. An insanely beautiful country, nicknamed the “Kingdom in the Sky” because it has the highest lowest point in the world! ⁣

The plan was to spend the holiday season in Lesotho. Then use our multiple-entry visa to return to South Africa. We’d drive all the way to Kruger National Park and spend a week there. And just before our South Africa visa expired, return our rental car in Johannesburg and board a flight to India.

We had our documents and visas in order. The plan was foolproof. Or so we thought.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on my Indian Passport as I Travel the World

lesotho rondavel, lesotho travel, travelling to lesotho from south africa, south africa lesotho border
Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | Our rondavel at Semonkong Lodge in Lesotho.

Entering Lesotho: The South Africa Lesotho border

After a 1.5 hour drive from Bloemfontein, we arrived at the Van Rooyen bridge – one of the border checkposts to enter Lesotho.

Crossing was a cake-walk: Park the car on the South African side, get an exit stamp and drive across. Then park the car on the Lesotho side, get an entry stamp, pay 40 Rand for the car and drive through. No questions asked, no documents (other than the Lesotho e-visa) checked.

Also read: How I’m Financially Sustaining my Digital Nomad Lifestyle

malealea lodge lesotho, lesotho female hiking guide, lesotho hiking
South Africa Lesotho border | Hiking with a female guide in Lesotho.

Exiting Lesotho: The Lesotho South Africa border⁣

After nearly 10 days of living in traditional rondavels (round houses), hiking with a local female guide, spotting rainbows, gazing at starry night skies and trying the local sorghum beer, we bade goodbye to Lesotho.

This time, we drove via Maseru (the capital of Lesotho) to the Pioneer gate to re-enter South Africa. Followed the cars at the border to a drive-through exit immigration, where we got stamped out of Lesotho. Handed over the exit vehicle stamp and got onto Maseru Bridge leading to South Africa.

Our car crawled along Maseru Bridge in a massive traffic jam. Alongside, droves of people walked across the border. It felt like a mass exodus from Lesotho to South Africa just like I’d imagine happens at the Mexico-US border.

We finally hit the South African immigration, and things started going downhill…

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

south africa lesotho border, travelling to lesotho from south africa
Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | The spectacular drive!

Asked to go back to Lesotho despite a multiple-entry visa for South Africa

We joined the long immigration queue to re-enter South Africa. Sweating in the heat, crawling forward bit by bit, we had no idea what awaited us at the counter.

My partner and I submitted our passports together to the South African immigration officer.

He quickly scanned and stamped mine. But when it came to my partner’s passport, he started going over each page. Finally, slowly, he looked up and asked, where is your South Africa visa?

Of course it was right there, covering an entire page in the passport. Exactly the same as mine. A multiple entry visa that granted us multiple entries into South Africa. Valid for 3 months. Valid for entry before a date in October.

That’s the date he pointed to, saying the visa had already expired! But you see, we had already entered South Africa (the first time) before the said date. Having done that, the visa allowed us multiple entries over 3 months. We showed him our original entry stamp and tried to explain the situation.

But he told us, quite condescendingly, that we must go back to Lesotho and apply for a new South Africa visa.

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

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South Africa Lesotho border | On a hike in the Western Cape.

Our options

To be honest, we didn’t have many options:

  • We couldn’t go back to Lesotho because we had a single-entry visa and had just been stamped out. A new e-visa would take atleast 2 days to come through.
  • Even if we could enter Lesotho, the South African embassy most likely wouldn’t allow us – Indian passport holders – to apply for a new visa. Visa conditions dictate that we apply in our country of residence.
  • We worried about our upcoming plans in South Africa. The rented car to be returned in Johannesburg in a week. The rather expensive accommodation booked in Kruger National Park. And the two flight tickets to India.

Our only option was to beg this unreasonable man to stamp us in, or remain in no man’s land!

Acknowledging our lack of options, we asked the visa officer if we could speak to his supervisor. That enraged him, but he left his cubicle with our passports as we followed him.

But instead of going into the adjacent immigration building, he stopped to show our passports to a man who seemed to us like a security guard! His uniform was different, and he was carrying takeaway food. Still we tried to plead our case with him, but the two men rudely told us to shut up. Then with an air of finality, they firmly told us that our visas had indeed expired.

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

Finally, a helpful officer

By now, we were seething with anger.

We stood outside in the hot sun, discussing, debating what to do. The weird thing was the officer had already stamped my passport but refused to return it to me. One option would’ve been for me to enter South Africa alone and plead our case at the nearest Indian embassy. Atleast there were some cans of emergency vegan food lying around in the car – incase one or both of us had to spend the night in this godforsaken no man’s land without our passports!

Seeing us standing around for the next hour, a female officer stepped out of the immigration building to ask if we had been helped. It seemed like she already knew why we were waiting.

Finally she led us to a senior immigration officer, this time a real one, with a formal uniform and name tag. He patiently heard us out, walked us to our original visa officer’s counter, went over our passports, determined that our multiple entry visa holds and stamped my partner’s passport.

As he returned our beloved passports – stamped and ready to go – he laughed and said, “Where are the rupees?”

Also read: Bittersweet Feelings in South Africa’s Mamelodi Township

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Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | Sunset at Milnerton beach.

On hindsight, what really happened

Crossing the border back into South Africa was such a relief! We cursed and laughed and thanked our stars.

But as we pieced together the previous few hours, some things stood out:

  • We seemed to be the only tourists in that day’s immigration queue. Most were either Lesotho or South African citizens with residence visas. That perhaps made us easy scapegoats to make a quick buck.
  • It was quite unlikely that the original visa officer was confused about our multiple-entry visa. After all, he stamped my passport – with exactly the same visa – without much thought.
  • If he really meant for us to go back to Lesotho, why did he hold on to our passports?
  • “Where are the rupees?” Does that explain his motivation?!

That was, no doubt, one crazy border crossing experience. But to be honest, after spending 70+ days in lockdown, I would go back in a jiffy even to that crazy day at the South Africa Lesotho border 😉

Have you had any unexpected visa encounters on your travels?

south africa lesotho border, travelling to lesotho from south africa
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