What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack. Read More
It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More
I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More
It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!
For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.
Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.
Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.
The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food, education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.
I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.
The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.
I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.
And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?
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It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.
These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More
I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.
A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.
An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.
A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.
A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.
A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.
A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.
The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.
A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.
An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.
So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.
You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.
Read more about my adventures in Turkey.
Even as I left the Slovenian Alps with a heavy heart, I was thrilled to set foot in Croatia, a country that has been been on my travel radar for a long time. I knew that June, the time of my visit, would be a busy month even if not as crowded as August and September. So I did some last minute research, and decided to start my journey in the Istrian Peninsula, assured by several travel blogs that it was “offbeat” and I’d be sure to beat the crowds. Maybe at their time of writing, it was.
I was delighted that first evening, for I spent the first three hours in a hilltop village in inland Istria, chatting with my hosts over tea and wine. Their home was over 300 years old, traditional stone walls and a rustic slate roof on the outside, beautifully refurbished from within. That night, I walked along the cobblestoned streets to the top of the town, past old stone homes adorned with colorful flowers. Under the moonlit sky, in the silence of the night, breathing air that smelt like jasmine, I indeed fell in love with Istrian Croatia.
Unfortunately, its reality hit me the next morning. I slept past the chirping of birds, but was woken up by loud voices crossing my window every now and then. When I went to the kitchen to make myself some tea, a couple of tourists were peeping in through the glass door. Day trippers!
The old-world charm of this village, with only 305 residents, was drowned by the callousness of visitors who only seemed to care about their photos and getting drunk, almost running over the locals in their rental cars, never realizing that they were intruding into someone’s sleepy neighborhood and life. My hosts assured me that the number of daytrippers now was not nearly as bad as in the peak summer season, and joked about how the village residents, their homes and their kitchens must be curious, unfamiliar sights for tourists.
Is travel blogging ruining “offbeat” places?
Where does travel blogging picture in all of this, you might ask. So let me paint you a scenario, a very plausible one, one that is possibly playing out in many places around the world. Blogger X visits a charming village, the one with only 305 residents, and writes about it in the hope that a few more people will experience it, and the locals in turn, will benefit from tourism. Convinced by blogger X, blogger Y lands up there with a few more discerning travelers, and reiterates its worthiness of a visit. Some content creator out there, scouting the web for an SEO-driven list of offbeat places in Europe, stumbles upon the blogs of X and Y. His well-researched list is ripped off by other lists, as often happens. A tour company notices the growing interest in the village, and puts it on their bus tour itinerary. Bam, the hordes of tourists arrive…
Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous in thinking that a travel blog can trigger a chain reaction over the years, or am I? After all, a quick search for offbeat Croatia (as opposed to picking a place that next to nothing is written about online, as I usually do) is what led me to the village of 305 people in Istria.
So what’s the point of travel blogging?
If you’re on the same page, you’re probably thinking that an easy solution is that travel bloggers like me should never write about their “offbeat” finds. But as my social media followers often remind me, isn’t it part of my job to disclose the exact location of my stories and photos, so others can choose to experience my finds over ‘tourist traps’?
I’ve dwelt on this dilemma for a long time. But walking on those cobblestoned streets in Istria (mostly at sunrise and late at night), it occurred to me that no, perhaps that isn’t the role a travel blogger is supposed to play. The way I see it now, my work as a travel blogger should inspire my readers to think of travel differently – to reconsider their travel choices, to seek local encounters, to carve out their own journey. It’s the reason I never have, and never will, give you a three day itinerary to “do” a destination. That’s not how I aspire for my readers to experience somewhere I’ve been and loved.
Is writing about responsible travel ideas enough?
On the flip side of my dilemma, I’ve often found solace in knowing that when I recommend specific locations, they are usually accompanied by suggestions of environmentally and socially conscious accommodations. Yet, I often get messages from my readers and followers who visited a location based on my recommendation – but chose to experience it in a way that makes me cringe and regret writing about it at all. The point is, I, or another responsible travel blogger, can only plant ideas. We can’t stop the callousness of those who travel just to get the right selfie or drink themselves silly or don’t care about building any real connections with a place and its people.
How can a travel blogger strike the right balance?
The truth is, I don’t know. It’s the reason why I’ve struggled to write a word on this blog in almost a month. The reason why I’ve consciously limited my social media posts about my current (annual) monsoon escapade in Goa, because as much as I’d love for my conscious, aware, nature-loving readers to experience my finds, I’m wary, very wary, of how much Goa has changed in the span of the four monsoons I’ve spent here – and would hate to unintentionally accelerate that negative change.
Maybe this is the travel blogger’s version of a mid-life crisis. And I intend to deal with it by focusing more on inspiring stories from the road…
Got any words of wisdom for this conflicted travel blogger?
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Last month, I boarded a late night flight to Munich in unusual company – with a bunch of 15-16 year olds, flying internationally for the first time in their lives. My initial apprehension of travelling with “kids” was quickly washed over by their fascination for things I’ve started taking for granted in my nomadic life. Things like watching movies while floating 37,000 feet above earth, observing locals hanging out in Munich’s charming beer gardens, and connecting with people from around the globe even if our cultures, accents and appearances are entirely different.
Travelling with the junior Indian football team for the FC Bayern Youth World Cup on assignment for Lufthansa, was not only a revelation in terms of how the road can influence young minds, but also a reminder of what it is like to be sixteen and feel both, the yearning to see the world and the hopelessness that you must put your dreams on hold till much later in life.
So this post is dedicated to the boys I travelled with, who in their own quiet ways, shared with me their dream of travelling to lands far away. And to young adults everywhere who aspire to experience far off corners of the world… this is all the advice I wish someone had given me when I was sixteen:
I often look back upon my teenage years and marvel at the amount of time I spent doing nothing in particular. Don’t get me wrong; I mostly had fun in my little bubble of school gossip, competitive studying, basketball and teenage crushes. But I never got more imaginative; even when I got access to my first computer and a dial-up connection sometime in my teens, I only ever used it for chatting on MSN Messenger and Orkut (gulp ;-)). I secretly harbored dreams of visiting Mexico someday and loved Enrique’s music (don’t judge me!), but it never occurred to me to use the internet to learn Spanish. Or watch films or read books about far off places in the world. I would have loved a headstart, because as you go to college and become financially independent, those seemingly vast reserves of time deplete pretty quickly.
So even if you don’t afford to travel yet, do it virtually. Pick a country you’d love to see someday and use Duolingo or Youtube tutorials to learn its language. Watch movies from different parts of the globe on Netflix. Take a free course on Coursera on a travel subject that really interests you (anything from Buddhism to Greek Mythology). Imagine how cool it’ll be when you are able to travel to some of these dream places, and immerse deeper in them because of your virtual connections!
Work part time
The more I’ve travelled, the more it’s struck me that my native country, India, is one of the only countries in the world where we expect our parents to support us financially even after we finish high school or turn 18. And that’s probably a big reason why we don’t travel right after high school or college – because why should our parents pay for that too?
On my part, when I went for my bachelor’s degree to Singapore at 17, I had a big student loan that covered most of my college and living expenses. While I studied, I picked up part time work as a teaching assistant, did three internships during the summer holidays and even wrote for a couple of obscure websites. Whatever little I earned, I saved it for low budget trips with college friends around Southeast Asia – my first taste of independent travel.
Want to travel when you are 16, 18, 20 or any other age? Get a job. I know many parents tend to be against part time jobs when you are young, but look online. Cut down all that time you spend on Facebook and Whatsapp, and learn a skill like video editing, social media management or coding, create a simple portfolio of your work, and write to small companies with your work samples. You’ll earn some money to travel, and experiment with work you could do professionally in the future… win-win!
PS: I’m often on the lookout for creative individuals who can help me with video editing and social media projects. Email me with your portfolio if you are interested.
Keep an eye out for travel opportunities
The one thing I regret about my college days was that I never took the opportunity to do a study exchange semester in another country. I saved money for it, dreamed about spending four months studying in Canada (randomly), but ultimately got lazy, nervous, too stuck in my comfort zone. I did travel to Canada much later in life, but it’s different when you’re a student; I can’t fathom how it could’ve changed my perspective. But life is too short for regrets, so I’ll say this:
Don’t get too cozy in your comfort zone. Keep your eyes and ears open, and try to grab any kind of travel opportunities that come your way. Anything from the football world cup that enabled ten boys from across India to travel to Munich, to writing scholarships, to travel contests. Follow brands in your field of interest on Instagram, join Facebook and Google groups that share such opportunities, and don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t make it.
Look for courses and internships that involve traveling
In a country where most people tend to look upon travel as merely a holiday, it helps to have a “reason” to visit or live somewhere else. I’ve met plenty of people who did long or short courses in subjects like social entrepreneurship, travel journalism and anthropology – which had them do field work in interesting parts of the world. If you plan to intern, look for opportunities in a place other than where you live, so you can get work experience, pocket money and a chance to satisfy your itchy feet at the same time.
Depending on what you’re studying, you could look at organisations like Aiesec, which offer international internships; join Facebook groups that share unique opportunities from around the world (like Youth Opportunities); and dig deep on google to find others like you who added travel to their life at a young age. The point is to plunge into the endless pool of information online and find the opportunities you need.
Explore your own country
Many countries I’ve explored around the world (especially India) offer incredible diversity – culturally, culinarily, lingually and in landscapes – and much of it is undiscovered, affordable and full of kind souls. So this excuse that travelling is too expensive, or too time consuming, or too unsafe, needs to be thrown out the window. I was 23 when I did my first solo trip – on a budget of 20,000 rupees for a month. I was afraid to break out of my shell, connect with locals and fellow travellers, and open my mind to unexpected adventures. It was a steep learning curve, but I learned to train my instinct and free my mind of much of the fear of solo travelling.
So if you’re really itching to travel and manage to save a little bit of money, pick a place in your own country, do some research and travel with an open mind… you’ll always wonder why you waited so long!
Travel to see relatives or family friends in cool places
I know, I know; who wants to go visit family in the name of travel, right? But when you’re young and crunched for funds, this is one way to get some support from your family and travel on the cheap. I remember the time I flew to Hong Kong for a job interview right after college (I didn’t get it), and reluctantly agreed to stay with my mom’s friends’ family so I could spend a few extra days exploring the country. They turned out to be very cool people; I went on a memorable hike into the surrounding mountains with them, and got my first taste of solo travel, yet with someone to fall back on.
So leverage the Indian mindset of finding relatives and distant friends, in some cool parts of the country or the world, and travel on a budget yet safely enough that your parents feel comfortable.
Chill… you have your whole life to chase your dream!
I know this is the last thing you want to hear when you’re a teenager and raring to go, but hey, you have your whole life to chase your dream to travel (or whatever it is that you want to do). Work on your skills, deepen your understanding of your options, take baby steps whenever you can, stay patient… but no matter what happens, don’t buy into the world’s greatest lie:
[The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho]
“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the little boy asks.
The old man replies, “It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
Over to you, what advice would you give your younger self?
Thanks to Lufthansa India for the opportunity to travel to Germany for the FC Bayern Youth Cup, and be reminded of what it’s like to be young and penniless!
The mist rolled in as we drove on the winding road, engulfing the tea plantations, the cherry blossoms, the road, the mountains and even the darkness, casting a magical kind of aura that my Taiwanese host – a tea farmer – maneuvered expertly despite zero visibility. But we weren’t driving to the bamboo groves in the middle of the night for the mist. On that dark, foggy night, we were looking for fireflies that come to Fengchihu in spring, and light up the forests like blinking Christmas lights.
To tell you the truth, I knew nothing about Taiwan except stinky tofu – a dish I once had a smelly encounter with in Singapore – that has acquired something of a national status. I decided to join a friend to travel there simply because I found a cheap flight and could get visa on arrival with my US visa. Even as we landed in Taipei, a city with industrial buildings, dense forests and a charming cafe culture, I had no idea that we were going to cycle down a dramatic gorge, share a meal with an aboriginal family (short of monkey brains!) and get lucky enough to see the season’s first cherry blossoms.
This blog post is less of a travel guide to Taiwan, and more of a collection of serendipitous, unique, offbeat experiences that became the recipe for one incredible trip:
Cycle the Taroko Gorge
I was a little intimidated as we piled into a car with mountain bikes and drove halfway up the dramatic Taroko Gorge, but adrenalin took over the moment I got on the bike. We trudged up along the incredible cliff-side scenery, then whizzed downhill through dimly lit winding tunnels, under precariously cut mountains hanging over the road (reminding me of the high Himalayan roads), past dense forests with centuries old Buddhist temples, down to the Liwu river gushing with the intensity of my adrenalin. Plenty of tour buses do ‘sightseeing day trips’ along the Taroko Gorge, but experiencing its wild side on two wheels was pure exhilaration.
Most accommodations near Taroko Gorge offer mountain bikes (check before booking). The initial part of the ride is steep and not too exciting, so it’s a good idea to start early, get dropped midway and make stops while cycling along the well-marked trail. The stops I loved most were the unnamed, unpopular ones, with old hanging bridges across the gorge leading to old Buddhist temples or dense forests. Take a train from Taipei to Taroko Gorge.
Experience life with an aboriginal Truku family
History suggests that when China became a communist nation back in 1949, many people fled to nearby Taiwan, then a small island with a small indigenous population of Trukus scattered on the eastern side. So even though the majority of Taiwan is culturally representative of mainland China, the descendants of the Trukus keep much of their aboroginal culture, cuisine and way of life alive – and we were lucky enough to experience it first hand, in an Airbnb that was built entirely by hand by our host Truku family!
In their living room, we found the head of a goat, the blood still fresh from the hunt, learnt to smash bamboo sticks on a stone to get the sticky rice out for dinner, and saw a glimpse of the forests where their grandparents once lived. In my traditional Truku (vegan) dinner, I tasted purple yam quoted with rice flour, cabbage and bean curd rolls, some sort of leaf fried in rice flour (and cut into the shape of a fish!), sautéed crispy tofu, baby corn steamed with the leaves, a soup made with wild leaves and plants (literally, it had nothing else, not even salt or pepper). The other guests, who didn’t opt for vegan/vegetarian, could hardly palate their wild boar meat and gooey mambo fish… and midway through the meal, our Truku host showed up with his rifle. “Monkey very good”, he said… “to eat”. Luckily he hadn’t been able to shoot one in time for dinner!
We stayed with a Truku family through Airbnb (managed by their daughter who speaks a bit of English), and communicated mostly through sign language and Google translate. Their home is located in a picturesque little village called Xiulin, not far from Taroko Gorge, and a short drive from Xincheng train station. I could have easily spent a week exploring this mountain neighborhood, but a short trip combined with cycling Taroko Gorge was fun too.
Sign up on Airbnb with my referral to get 15$ off your first stay.
Feast on vegan (Buddhist vegetarian) food
I was surprised to learn that a considerable part of the Taiwanese population eat only Buddhist vegatarian food – no meat, no seafood, no eggs, no onions or garlic (similar to Jain food in India). And considering dairy doesn’t feature much in the cuisine anyway, Buddhist vegetarian is also vegan and easily available.
However, I have to confess I had mixed food experiences in Taiwan. I loved the spicy, herb-infused, Sichuan influenced flavors on the eastern part of the island, dominated by the aboriginal people. Even at small roadside shacks, I feasted on local food like sesame paste noodles and stir fry made with tofu, mushroom or other veggies. But in the western part of the country, I struggled, not because I couldn’t find anything vegan but because the food felt somewhat flavorless. Many times, I had to force myself to eat bland boiled or steamed leaves, and on one unlucky occasion, I ate some sort of fermented tofu (not as fermented as stinky tofu) that my body had a hellish time trying to digest.
Taipei, though, turned out to be a vegan paradise! We spent most of our two days in the city eating, and I even ran into friends who flew in from Hong Kong over the weekend just to eat. Steamed veggie dumplings at the original Din Tai Fung shophouse, Sichuan style leeks and tofu at the late night Fifi Tea House, cheesy vegan pizzas at Tofunia, power smoothies and fusion burritos atAbout Animals… I’m salivating even as I type this.
I was sad to miss out on this vegan-friendly stay and night market sojourn in Taipei… next time!
Feel the magic of a million fireflies!
To stand there, in the bamboo groves of Fengchihu, on a dark, foggy night, and watch thousands of fireflies twinkle and send lightwaves… there are some feelings no photos or words can capture, you just have to travel for them.
I was surprised to learn that adult fireflies, the ones with the glowing light, live only for 10-15 days… but it takes them almost a year to grow from egg to larva to pupa to an adult. Their biggest enemy? Manmade lights. Because the male finds and attracts the female to reproduce by sending lightwaves.
We did a night walk with our hosts at TianYi homestay in Fenchihu. I appreciated their responsible approach to observing the fireflies – we were given dim lanterns, and asked to keep silent and avoid flash photography / LED lights on electronic devices. Take a train to Chiayi station, then a bus to Fenchihu.
Also read: Secret Ways to Experience Singapore
Get lost amid cherry blossoms
Most people flock to Japan for the cherry blossom season, but we got lucky in Taiwan. The cherry trees bloom only for 2 weeks in a year, and with the weather patterns all haywire, we had no idea of the status even when we impulsively got on the train and bus to Fenchihu.
We spent our days walking around old cypress forests and abandoned railway lines in Alishan, surrounded by cherry blossoms in shades of white, pink and magenta. In retrospect though, the selfie-snapping crowds definitely took away from the experience. Next time, I would plan better and try to get to a further away mountain for a real wilderness feeling.
Explore the East Rift Valley on two wheels
After cycling the Taroko Gorge, we couldn’t wait to get on bicycles again, and Taiwan’s East Rift Valley – with the dramatic Eastern Coastal Mountain Range on one side and the roaring Pacific Ocean on the other – is perfect for a mix of cycling trails, cafes tucked away into the mountains, black sand beaches and lush rice paddies. We chose to spend lazy, do nothing days in our artsy apartment, but you can also choose to cycle one of the longer trails.
I loved our independent house in a little village off Dulan, an Airbnb designed by a young Taiwanese artist using light and color in a unique and soothing way. It was an easy walk into town for food, and down to the Pacific coast. Take a train to Dulan, then a bus to Donghe.
Also read: 7 Epic (yet affordable) Airbnbs in Sri Lanka
Live on a tea farm
In search of cherry blossoms, we impulsively booked TianYi homestay in Fenchihu – and it turned out to be an experience in itself. Surrounded by mist-clad tea plantations, this was the home of a small-scale tea farmer, where we spent our days sampling local oolong teas in elaborate tea ceremonies, sleeping in a wooden cabin, and hearing stories (from their son, who spoke good English) of life in these mountains. Then one morning, we woke up to a rare sea of clouds engulfing the valley below; I’ve never seen anything like it.
Since we booked TianYi homestay last minute, we took the bus all the way to Fenchihu town, only to hitch a ride back towards the main road. The nearest bus stop is at Seven Eleven; ask the hosts to pick you up from there.
Getting around by public transport in Taiwan
Taiwan has a great train system – comfortable even for long distances, affordable and scenic. We travelled in April and comfortably got train and bus tickets on the spot, including the High Speed Rail.
- Taipei Airport to Taipei City: The Airport MRT started in Taipei only in March 2017 and many hotels / B&Bs are still unaware of it. There is a dedicated terminal at Taipei Main Station, where express check-in for some flights is also possible. The trains run frequently, take about 40 minutes to the airport, are much more efficient than the airport bus to the city, and much cheaper than taxis.
- Bullet trains (High Speed Rail): Taiwan’s High Speed Rail mostly runs from Taipei towards the western part of the country, and is an experience in itself, covering distances in almost half the time of normal trains. Regular train stations don’t sell High Speed Rail tickets (and even seemed to discourage us from buying them); HSR stations are located separately, but there’s usually a shuttle bus connecting the two.
Vegan / vegetarian food in Taiwan
Taipei has plenty of choices for vegan/vegetarian food and staff at nearly all restaurants/cafes speak some English. But on the countryside, it is really important to be able to communicate what you eat and what you don’t. Google translate rules! Mandarin is a tricky language, and I was only able to get my pronunciation right on the last couple of days… however, showing a translated message on my phone always worked. Since dairy is not a big part of Taiwanese cuisine, most vegetarian food is also vegan.
Wifi in Taiwan
Imagine my joy when I heard that the entire island nation of Taiwan is connected by public wifi! Indeed, you can register for a free tourist wifi at the information counter at the airport (when you step out after collecting your bags), and use it at all railway and MRT stations. Most accommodations and eateries offer free wifi as well.
Weather and what to pack for Taiwan
We were lucky to have mostly cloudy, partly rainy weather in Taiwan in April, which made for cool days and chilly nights, especially in the mountains – layers work best in such weather. Clear days tend to have very strong sun, so carry sun protection, including sun hats, sunscreen and shades.
Have you been to Taiwan? What were your favorite travel experiences?
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Tucked away on a quiet street in Andheri, Bombay to Barcelona Library Café – with its charming décor, a diverse collection of books and an eclectic fusion menu – could be just another café in Mumbai. But it isn’t.
As I entered through the wood and glass door, asked for a minced mushroom vada pao and set up my “office” for the day, I remembered my conversation with Dilip D’Souza – renowned author, travel writer and friend – that first led me here. That conversation was about a boy called Amin Sheikh, and his story is one of the most heartwarming stories I’m ever going to hear. It goes like this:
Like thousands of kids in India, Amin was born in a slum and made to work long, hard hours in a tea shop when the rest of us were toddlers in school. One day, a set of tea glasses slipped from his tiny hands and broke, and anticipating the thrashing that awaited him both at work and at home, he decided to run away.
Dadar Railway Station became his adopted home. He begged and polished shoes, learnt to scavenge for food out of garbage cans, and slept on the platform or in the streets. Everything bad you can imagine on India’s streets, happened to him, even as he hardened up and learnt to fend for himself.
A few years later, an orphanage called Snehasadan took him in, and gave him shelter and another chance at life. When he grew up, he met Eustace Fernandez – Dilip’s friend and neighbor and the brain behind the advertising phenomenon, the Amul Girl. Amin started doing odd chores around Eustace’s house, acted as a chaffeur to Eustace’s friends from India and abroad when they came to the city, and saw a glimpse of the glamorous life in Mumbai.
That’s when a second turning point happened in Amin’s life. He received perhaps the world’s most generous birthday gift from Eustace – a trip to Barcelona!
After his first-ever flight and international trip to Barcelona, Amin returned to Mumbai with newfound dreams and determination: to write his autobiography and use the funds it generated to start a cafe – a safe space that offers employment and food for those grew up on the streets like him. As it probably sounds to the rest of us, Dilip confessed that it sounded like a nearly impossible dream.
But one day, Amin surprised him with the first draft of his book – “Life is life. I am because of you.” The entire draft was written in capital letters, for Amin has had next to no formal education. Dilip’s family helped him through the editing process, and soon, Amin had self-published his book and started selling it at traffic signals in Mumbai. The book didn’t receive much attention in India, but word spread to Spain and France and the book was translated to Spanish and French. It even made it to the front page of the national newspaper in Malta!
I almost teared up reading Amin’s book, for his story is the story of so many kids we ignore every day on India’s streets. The chottus (little boys) who wash dishes in roadside dhabas (food stalls), the girls who beg for money outside posh restaurants in big cities, the kids who try to sell books and tea on railway stations. One part of the book that particularly remains with me is Amin’s first trip to Spain; he writes about how incredible it felt to see a construction worker in his work clothes and a white collar office employee in a business suit share food on the same table… something you’d rarely ever witness in India, a country stuck in its notions of class, money and caste.
In late 2016, with the proceeds from his book sales in Europe, Amin started his cafe – Bombay to Barcelona in Andheri East – and it currently holds the top spot on Tripadvisor! The boys and girls who run the cafe grew up on the streets too, and meeting them, I felt like I already know them from the characters in his book.
A few weeks ago, I sat chatting with Amin under the creative tea cup lights, sipping lemongrass tea fresh from the cafe’s own mini organic garden. I had to ask him, would we still be sitting here had he never travelled to Spain?
Without a second’s hesitation, he nodded no, explaining, “that trip opened my eyes to possibilities I could have never imagined.”
The book: Life is life. I am because of you.
The book documents Amin’s journey as a street kid in a simple, innocent and objective way, and puts our own life and attitude in perspective. A book that every Indian must read.
The cafe: Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe
If you happen to live in or visit Mumbai, spare an afternoon for a trip to Andheri East (location on google maps), not just because of the incredible story behind the cafe, but also because it’s a quaint little spot to have a meal and drinks inspired by Bombay and Barcelona (think eclectic tapas and vada pao). See upcoming events at the cafe on their Facebook page.
Have you met someone who made you think differently about everyday life?
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Featured image by Rajarshi Mitra.
In 2013, when I went location independent and started travelling indefinitely without a home, Instagram was still in its infancy. Thank heavens.
Although I had dreamy notions of what my life of long term travel might look like, I had somewhat realistic expectations of the challenges of a digital nomad: financial sustainability, the constant goodbyes, long stretches of poor wifi. Unlike my current Instagram feed, my head wasn’t exploding with perfect images of myself in a perfectly flowing dress on a perfect day in a perfectly isolated backdrop…
Every time I look at a sky full of stars, I know that the darkness within each of us is a thing of beauty too 👀 . . On a dark, lonely night in Pachmarhi – Madhya Pradesh's only "hill station", I found myself under an incredible night sky with a naturalist from @forsythlodge and a local guide from Pachmarhi. The three of us, lost souls in our own ways, stood there watching the crescent moon set behind the hills, spotting shooting stars, deciphering constellations and the rustling in the bushes beyond (this is tiger / leopard territory after all!), and sharing stories about the skies and the forests 🌏 . . Then a police jeep showed up and demanded to know what two guys and a girl were doing out there in the darkness 😯 This photo became our savior, as we tried to explain we're out stargazing and that's only possible in complete darkness. They left us with a warning to "do this stars thing quickly and leave" 🐾 . . Oh India, under a sky full of stars, your darkness is a thing of beauty too 😉
Don’t get me wrong. I love Instagram. In fact, I just made my 1000th post and will be celebrating the 30,000 followers milestone soon with some cool travel giveaways. I love sharing meaningful experiences about life on the road with my readers, learning from the photography style of fellow Instagrammers, and the general feeling of wanderlust whenever I open the app.
Yet I cringe every time I scroll through my feed. Because the depiction of long term travel on Instagram often tends to be far, far removed from reality. Here’s how:
The longer you travel, the more you look for deeper connections
When you’ve been on the road long enough, the thrill of superficial traveling – jumping into a taxi to see the five most popular sights in your time-bound itinerary – fades away. You stop caring about whether people judge you for skipping Venice to spend a week discovering Italy from the lens of a local artist, or for skipping the “must see” sunrise of Alishan (Taiwan) with scores of other tourists and their selfie sticks to spend a lazy morning in the mist-clad tea plantations of Fenqihu. You try to slow down and have real conversations with people, because it is serendipitous encounters on the road that keep you going.
However, instead of inspiring deeper connections and understanding of the places we travel to, Instagram often only inspires dreamy landscape shots, minus the stories behind them… and that sometimes gets on my nerves.
Also read: One Year of Travelling Without a Home
There are no perfect days on the road
Just like life. Ask any long term traveller, and they’ll tell you stories of miserable bus rides, bad food days, the nostalgia of a place that has changed for the worse, accommodation nightmares, stressful bank balance days… or even just days when you feel your life is too meaningless to get out of bed. But these little travel truths often get lost behind the facade of glamorous travel photos, and make the life of a perpetual traveller seem a little too perfect.
I’m not saying that Instagram should become a place to vent, nor should anyone with the privilege and opportunity to travel be ungrateful for it. But it’s important to keep it real, because a life of travel is nowhere as perfect as it can seem on Instagram.
Travel with someone who wakes you up at 6 am, because it looks like a good morning to jump in the lake! 😂 . . That's me, plunging into the cool waters of Lake Atitlan this morning, in the shadow of Volcan San Pedro 👊 . . As much as I love solo travel, it's refreshing to be in the company of someone who pushes me out of my comfort zone. Who's that person for you? Tag them in the comments 👇 . . #theshootingstar #guatemala #dayofthegirl #girlhero
How far should one go to get the perfect travel picture?
This has been a debate since pre-digital days, but I feel like Instagram has taken it to a whole new level. Is it okay to photograph someone with a beautiful face, without so much as building a personal connection with them? Is it okay to ask the owners to empty out their cafe so you can get a perfectly romantic shot? Is it okay to photoshop photos of cloudy days to look bright and sunny?
What about wearing a gorgeous dress and makeup and heels on a hike, or in a remote Himalayan village, or in the Amazon Rainforest… because your Instagram photos matter more than your comfort or the local sentiment? What about asking a tourism board for an exclusive tour of a popular place, so you can get (unrealistically) perfect photos without the usual crowds?
It keeps me asking, how much is too much? And doesn’t it beat the impulsive, unpredictable, imperfect charm of life on the road?
Work-life balance as a digital nomad isn’t easy
Using technology to make a living on the go is hard work. Travel bloggers, social media influencers, photographers and coders I’ve met along the way all bear witness to that fact, my own journey included. These dreamy jobs may have the potential to take someone out of the cubicle and put them on the road to adventure, but they don’t come easy, certainly not as easy as they can seem on Instagram – quit your job, pack up, go.
Behind the enviable social media personas of digital nomads are years of struggle to make ends meet financially and get noticed in the online world. And even when they ‘make it’, this life is one of discipline, the kind that often requires you to meet deadlines even in the most blissful of places. Personally, it’s a life I choose, battle for and love everyday (well, almost), but I hate that Instagram photos often reduce it to sheer luck.
Popular “Instagrammable” places are seldom what they seem
It took me a while to realize that what you see on Instagram is often not what you get when you really travel. That first happened when I stumbled upon a photo of the famous ‘end of the world’ swing in Baños, Ecuador – the photo of a guy swinging in the stunning backdrop of Tungurahua Volcano as it spurted out lava. It seemed like one of those places where it’d just be you and the wilderness. But when I reached there after 3 hours of hiking, I was shocked to see scores of people lining up to take photos on that swing! No isolation, no feeling of wilderness, no ‘end of the world’ charm. Yet when their photos go on Instagram, I could be fooled again.
I decided not to wait in the queue (like, seriously?) and started a dejected hike back. When I got lost as I always do, I got chatting with a local who referred to the swing as an ‘Instagram phenomenon’ – it was once isolated and hard to find, but a picture on Instagram made it viral and turned it into a picnic spot. Inspired, many locals had attempted to set up similar swings, and he pointed me in the direction of one, where only the owner’s kids were swinging. Seeing me linger around, they invited me to get into the makeshift harness (for unlike the famous swing with a slope below, this one is quite a fall!) and feel the adrenaline. But I digress…
This goes for many of the world’s Instagram hotspots – the Pulpit Rock in Norway and the infinity pool at Hierve el Agua in Mexico for example. Those perfectly composed shots cut off, sometimes even photoshop, all the other tourists and selfie snappers, creating an impression of a place that is at best, untrue. And that often leads to over-commercialization of places, and in general, unrealistic expectations of travel.
It’s not a happiness competition
After over 3 years of being location independent, I can tell you that long term travel isn’t about proving a point, or making someone jealous, or scoring a few more likes on Instagram. It’s about finding your bliss – your travel style, your life philosophy, your perspective. It’s about keeping yourself afloat in an ocean where not every fish matters.
It’s about being true to yourself, even if the number of likes on your photos suffer. And we need more of that on Instagram.
Over to you, how has Instagram influenced your notions of long term travel?
Connect with me on Instagram @shivya to travel with me virtually… I promise to attempt to keep it real.
At dusk, as we walked along the cobbled streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a picturesque Mexican town, we caught a faint magical tune coming from a residential neighbourhood. Following it along the town’s back alleys under a Pied Piper like spell, we half-expected to arrive at a concert hall or art gallery. Imagine our amazement when we found the source of the music to be a decrepit bakery, where a middle-aged man in an apron, presumably the baker, was playing the violin with not a single person in sight. Sitting on a ledge across the street, feeling heady from the effects of the evening’s first mezcal (an agave liquor native to Mexico) and the baker’s virtuoso performance, I wondered what took me so long to get to Mexico!
Almost every day since we walked across the Guatemalan border, past no man’s land, into Mexico, I felt fascinated by the musical bent and creative energy of the locals, by traditional Mexican dishes that bear no resemblance to the beans-and-burrito type of ‘Mexican’ food found elsewhere, and by how underrated the country’s natural beauty is.
Take my list of offbeat places to visit and fun things to do in Mexico, and let the country surprise you too:
Release Olive Ridley sea turtles: Todos Santos
I remember standing under an orange sky on the beach in Todos Santos, with the cutest little thing in a coconut shell on my palm – a two hours old Olive Ridley sea turtle, that had just broken out of its shell. Along with other curious travellers and local volunteers, I placed my turtle on the sand, and saw hundreds of these tiny creatures crawl towards the water and disappear into the waves of the Pacific Ocean!
In order to protect these endangered turtles from poaching by humans, dogs and coyotes, local conservationists look after the eggs from the time the mother lays them (and leaves), until they hatch. The survival rates are pretty low, but the conservationist I spoke to seemed confident that females who survive till adulthood will come back to the same beach to lay their eggs.
Turtle releases usually happen every evening around sunset on the beach at Todos Santos (Baja California Sur), roughly from November to February. Ask a local to check if it’s happening when you visit. We stayed at La Bohemia in the quirky town of Todos Santos. I highly recommend renting a scooter or car to get around.
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Explore the countryside of Chiapas on a bicycle
One of my fondest memories of Mexico is pedaling along the cobbled streets and colorful houses of San Cristobal de Las Casas, past small vegetable farms, into dense pine and mahogany forests on the outskirts of town. We stopped at ancient caves to admire stalactites, found left-over paraphernalia from a recent Shamanic ceremony deep in the wilderness, and ate wild berries with our teacher-turned-entrepreneur bicycle guide. A slow, eco-friendly way to explore life in Chiapas!
We loved our bicycle excursion with Tierra Adventures, located on a quiet street in San Cristobal de Las Casas. You can pick a trail depending on your fitness and time. I also loved staying at Nuik B&B, a refurbished colonial house in a residential neighborhood in San Cristobal, and eating at Delicias Naturales.
Mexico’s best-kept secret: Nevado de Toluca
Imagine my joy when I stumbled upon a random mention online about an extinct volcano with two pristine crater lakes, less than a couple of hours from Mexico City! Nevado de Toluca, the fourth tallest peak in Mexico, seemed too good to be true, and it was – easy to access, stunning hikes around the crater lakes (El Sol and La Luna – the sun and the moon), snow-clad peaks and hardly any tourists. The kind of place that inspires poetry.
We stayed the night at Fiesta Inn in Toluca City (Mexico State), from where it is easy to hire a taxi to drive the rugged 45 kilometers to Nevado de Toluca. It is possible to drive in from Mexico City if you leave super early, although I loved the local character of Toluca and the thin-crust pizza and local craft beers at Bistro Mecha.
Try Nopales (cactus) tacos!
The food in Mexico was nothing like I expected; nothing Tex-Mex (burritos-quesadillas) about it, no beans and plantains like in Central America. The first thing I fell in love with were nopales (cactus) tacos – thornless strips of grilled cactii on a taco, piled on with spicy salsas! I tried some vegan moles (sauces) in Oaxaca, made with ground chiles, cacao and sesame, feasted on street soy and mushroom tacos in San Cristobal de Las Casas, and loved the Mexican version of enchiladas in Todos Santos… but nothing felt as exotic as nopales tacos, especially after hiking and driving through cactii-infused scenery in Baja California.
Slow down in a typical Mexican village: San Agustin Etla
It is one thing to explore night life and street food in Mexico City, quite another to spend a week in a little mountain village on the countryside of Oaxaca. Daily public greetings and announcements – about weddings, festivals and village news – echoed through the valley at 7am, our wake-up call. Old antique cars and collectivos (shared taxis) plied the streets. Little comedors (eateries) served up tacos and chilaquiles. Weekends were filled with street processions, music and organic farmer markets. On the rooftop, I watched the dramatic supermoon rise behind the mountains as a neighbour soulfully played the banjo.
We stayed in ‘The Box’, an Airbnb in San Agustin Etla. Although beautifully furnished, it did feel a bit closed up (like a box!). The experience of staying in San Agustin Etla itself though, was memorable. Sign up on Airbnb to get 15$ off your first stay!
See a frozen waterfall: Hierve el Agua
Out on the countryside of Oaxaca, natural minerals in fresh water springs have deposited on cliffs over thousands of years, creating the appearance of cascading waterfalls! It felt surreal to observe them and realize that the waterfalls are actually frozen, or “petrified” as some say. A manmade infinity pool over one of the cliffs tends to get more attention on Instagram, but ditch the crowds and hike one of the short trails up the mountain, to find a quiet spot and feel the timelessness of the natural wonder that is Hierve el Agua.
We took the shared public collectivo to reach Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City. For detailed directions, see here.
Take a road-trip along the stark desert scenery: Baja California Sur
During our time in Baja California Sur, we rented a car and drove for miles along the dry cactus-strewn desert scenery that is so synonymous with Mexico, and probably the inspiration for so many Antonio Banderas movies. It was incredible to see small towns blend into the stark wilderness, catch glimpses of the calm blue waters in the Gulf of California, and watch dramatic sunsets over the roaring Pacific Ocean, on white sand beaches flanked by gentle hills.
Then one night, we ditched the car for a scooter and rode through the desert under thousands of stars, singing on a dark desert highway, the cool wind in my hair…
What would you most like to do in Mexico? And any offbeat experiences to add to this list?
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The half moon casts a haunting glow on the imposing Sahyadri mountains, as a thousand stars shimmer in the skies above. Surrounded by vast dry grasslands and red volcanic earth, I’m reminded a bit of the desert-like landscapes of Baja California and Jordan. As Mohan, our village guide, leads us up a hill for stargazing close to midnight, a soulful tune echoes from the valley below – a lady from a tribal hamlet is singing sufi-like ballads, upholding the adivasi traditions of acoustic singing at weddings, which hasn’t yet been replaced by jarring Bollywood music on a loud speaker!
The music puts me in a trance as I gaze spellbound at the rugged Sahyadris, trying to forget that the same morning, I was manoeuvring through traffic and pollution on the busy streets of Mumbai. If it wasn’t for the Vodafone Farmer BnB initiative, in collaboration with Grassroutes Journeys‘ community tourism model, this small, remote village in Maharashtra might never have found its way to India’s travel map.
On our way down the hill to our tents in Dehna village, Mohan suddenly stops next to a dry field. There, he says, one of the spots where thousands of fireflies light up the valley every monsoon. Now at the beginning of a scorching summer, it’s hard to imagine that this dry landscape will burst into lush greenery when it rains, the mango trees will be laden with fruits, and fireflies will send lightening-like waves to their mates, creating natural fireworks. But I know the magic will happen, for two years ago, I witnessed it myself in Purushwadi, a small village on the other side of the same mountains.
By the time we wake up, the village folk of Dehna have already set about their chores: women filling their pots with water from the hand pump, shepherds taking their goats and cows up the hill, old women drinking tea in their front yard. Yet no one is in a hurry; in a mix of Hindi, broken Marathi, smiles and sign language, conversations and invitations for tea are aplenty.
With no irrigation or water source for a second crop of rice, the farmers must be pretty idle these days, I wonder aloud, when we stroll through the village with Mohan. He invites me into a friend’s house to see for myself. The lady of the house, lean though she is, is seated on the mud floor, pounding rice with a wooden pestle. Hard work? I ask. She invites me to see for myself. So together we sit on the mud floor, pounding rice, then de-husking and grinding it. Though she far surpasses me in both strength and stamina, we feel like a team by the time the bhakri (rice roti) is on the chulha.
I’ve had delectable Maharashtrian meals of homegrown veggies and bhakri in neighbouring homes, but that morning of back-breaking work makes me realise how much we take the food on our plate for granted.
Mohan laughs when I point out how the women seem to do all the work and the men just eat. But even as a young man, he’s had his struggles. As a kid, he loved English classes in the local village school because the teacher, instead of teaching English, told the kids stories in Marathi; years later, he realises how many opportunities learning English could have opened up for him. Post school, he enrolled in the nearest skills training institute, only to be spending 3 hours on the bus each way. Graduate he did, but there were no jobs to be found, so he came back to Dehna.
Still, he’s learnt to make the most of life, grateful for the opportunities that have come his way – like working as a guide with Grassroutes Journeys, to share with travellers from around India and the world, a slice of life in rural Maharashtra.
Thanks to a model of responsible tourism where every family in Dehna benefits from hosting city-weary travellers in the village – through homestays, home-cooked meals, farming activities and guiding – Mohan and others his age can find respectable employment right at home.
Back on the hill, standing under a Mahua tree, as I watch my last sunset in Dehna, time seems to stand still. No matter what our personal lives are like, spending even a few days disconnected from technology, embracing the genuine warmth of village folk and tracing the journey of our food from farm to table, can make us question why we choose to spend our whole lives dealing with the chaos and pollution of our cities when the countryside lies just beyond.
Dehna, Maharashtra: Travel tips
Best time to visit Dehna: The rainy season (late July to early September) for the lush greenery, mangoes, fireflies and a thousand waterfalls! Or winter (late October to early March) for warm winter days and starry nights.
How to reach Dehna from Mumbai: I loved our 3 hour road trip from Bandra to Dehna; after Thane, the drive amid the Western Ghats (Sahyadri) is just beautiful! The directions on Google Maps are spot on.
Where to stay in Dehna: Simple tents with shared western-style washrooms nearby have been set up at the edge of the village. You can also opt for a homestay with a village family. Get in touch here.
How have your countryside travels shaped you?
I was hosted in Dehna by Vodafone and Grassroutes Journeys, as part of the Farmer BnB initiative. Can’t wait to go back in the monsoons!
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I know that title is making you think I’m only a year away from the big bad thirty.
I’m thinking that too.
In my mind though, I still feel like that 23-year-old girl at the edge of something. Equally confused about what I want to do with my life. Equally restless. A drifter.
You’d think that my life of travel has revealed some deep answers. That I have the mysteries of happiness or existence somewhat figured out. That my head is not a giant mess of what ifs and what will bes. Truth be told, this life of travel is really a path of questions.
But this is not that post.
Even though I unnoticeably flipped my life calendar to 29 a few weeks ago, the little voices within me wouldn’t go unnoticed. This is what they had to say:
On the ‘wow’ feeling
People often ask me if after all these years of traveling, I find myself less amazed by the wonders of the world. Of course, wandering amid the German Alps in winter, or the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, or the endless tea plantations of Himachal could wow anyone. But my heart still skips a beat for the simple things: a solitary sunset, the earthy aroma of a pine forest, the warmth of an unlikely friendship. Till that ‘wow’ feeling doesn’t fade away, I feel like I’ll continue my traveling ways.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
My first reaction is to flee at the idea of committing to something – a long term project, a place I’ve come to love, an image of the future – for fear that it might bind me down and clip my wings, or that I might get bored and restless and ridden with guilt for not seeing it through. But when I look back, I realize I’ve unknowingly stuck around with things that matter to me. Blogging, veganism, a relationship. So in the last of my twenties, I feel like I’m on my way to get rid of this commitment phobia, focus on meaningful long-term work… and (hopefully) see it through.
Also read: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Me
You must think I’m crazy to have been laying out alone under a starry sky on a farm in Maharashtra, as the world celebrated the beginning of 2017. Or outright weird for having turned 29 surrounded by the snowclad Dhauladhar range in Himachal, without a word to my hosts. I guess that inexplicable desire to revel in one’s own company doesn’t feature on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the ones who feel it too, know that it is real. For the ones who don’t, I’m okay with being the crazy, strange one.
When I reconnected with my college housemate after a long time, she from the ‘thirties club’ and me from the ‘almost thirty club’, realized we’re both living the same mantra these days: Accept and move on. Our paths might be different, but this feeling that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world around us, is the same. I’ve spent many sleepless nights contemplating my rebellious, socially inept, escapist ways, and wondering why my folks more people aren’t wired that way. But I have to accept that just like my wiring is not anyone else’s business, no one’s wiring is mine. Accept and move on.
Also read: 10 Life Lessons From 2 Years of Travelling
An intense feeling of gratitude washed over me as I lay inebriated during an Ayahuasca ceremony, deep in the Amazonian forests of Ecuador – and became a recurrent theme in the months that followed. These days, I often look back at my journey so far in amazement, and marvel at how the universe conspired, in the best and worst of times, to help me shape the life I aspired to.
And so even if my existential dilemmas often leave me drowning, I’ve learnt to swim to the surface with gratitude. I am incredibly lucky for the cards I’ve been dealt, and more importantly, the hand I’ve been able to play. I feel more grateful now than ever, for my rebellious side, the philosophies I’ve come to believe in, the horizons I’ve woken up to, and the people I’ve shared them with.
Any pearls of wisdom for this 29-year-old?
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Peeking through my large window at the snow-capped German Alps, magically bathed in the gentle rays of the midday winter sun, I felt like I was in a futuristic fairytale – for there I sat in a full flat bed, my legs stretched out, a glass of fine white wine on my side, Woody Allen’s Café Society playing on my personal big screen, tweeting from 38,000 feet above earth using superfast wifi!
As someone aptly commented on my Facebook page, just a few decades ago, such an experience was the stuff of our wildest dreams. Atleast for a digital nomad like me.
On board the first long-haul Lufthansa A350 flight from Munich to Delhi, I forgot everything an 8-hour long flight is supposed to be. Here’s why:
Choosing my in-flight entertainment even before I boarded
You know when you get on a plane and while away the first half hour browsing through the movie selection, reading the brief descriptions, and wondering what to watch? Lufthansa A350’s Companion App syncs with the in-flight entertainment system on the route you’re going to fly, six weeks before you fly, and lets you save your favourites. Thanks to recommendations by awesome tweeps, I already knew I was going to watch Café Society and Azhar (based on the Indian cricketer) on board.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
Mood lighting to reduce jet lag
I have to confess I fell in love with the Lufthansa A350 even before I boarded, for I unexpectedly ran into a co-passenger – a German student who did his PhD thesis on the impact of lights on reducing jet lag. Lufthansa used his research to design 24 LED mood lights on board the new A350, that adjust to the bio-rhythm of the passengers. The lights changed from a gentle blue to a soft orange to shades in between, based on the boarding time, lunch, sleep, dinner and landing. I felt pretty zen by the time we touched down around midnight in Delhi!
The relaxed ‘movie lounge’ feeling on business class
I woke up from an afternoon nap on my full flat seat bed somewhere above Afghanistan, and settled in to rewatch a Bollywood flick (Ye Jawaani Hai Deewani) with a drink and pack of nuts from the self-service business class area. With my noise-cancelling headphones on and Ranbir Kapoor inspiring some serious wanderlust on the big screen, I forgot that I was on a plane until the captain’s announcement paused it for a while! I think I enjoyed the movie a whole lot more than I did the first time, either because of that relaxed movie lounge feeling up in the air… or because I didn’t make it to the cringe-worthy ending 😉
Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears
Gourmet meals prepared by Leela Palace chefs
Ever since I turned vegan and got stood up twice with no special meal on board long flights (despite pre-ordering it), I always carry some back-up vegan food so I don’t starve. That was the plan for this flight too, except that this time, in keeping with the crazy developments of 2017, the Deutsche Bahn train got delayed and rerouted. It took me double the time I had estimated to reach Munich airport, leaving no time to pack something for the journey. I’m glad that happened, because they had gourmet meals on board, prepared by chefs from the Leela Group; my elderly co-passenger, who was from Delhi but lived in Toronto, described her meal as “elegant”, possibly the highest compliment for airplane food.
Fastest wifi ever at 38,000 feet!
My eyes used to light up whenever I boarded a long flight and saw the Wifi symbol on board – until I realized that despite being paid, inflight wifi is usually slow and patchy. When I read that the new broadband technology on the Lufthansa A350, that also supports the Companion app, offers superfast, uninterrupted Wifi, I had to try it – for I tend to be a lot more productive up in the air than on earth. And fast it was, so fast that I could upload huge attachments in minutes and get some long-pending work done without distractions.
Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?
The most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies
I am often consumed with guilt for the number of flights I take, for it is the biggest contributor to my carbon footprint. So while I love the innovative technologies that made my 8-hour journey so relaxed and productive, what I love more is that the Lufthansa A350 is the most eco-friendly long-haul plane in our skies right now – it consumes 25% less fuel, produces 25% less carbon emissions, and has a 50% lower noise ‘footprint’ than similar aircrafts. Indeed, my productivity and that movie lounge feeling were heightened because I could barely hear the roar of the engines on board.
There was a time when my flying choices were based on getting from point A to point B in the fastest or cheapest way possible. That quickly began to take away the joy of flying. I now think about how productive (both in terms of work done and movies watched) I’ll be on board, how I can offset my carbon footprint, and how tired my body and mind will feel when I land at my destination.
To be honest though, on the world’s most modern aircraft – the Lufthansa A350 – the journey itself felt like the destination.
Win flights to Germany on the new Lufthansa A350!
Put on your thinking hat, take a creative picture of the number 350, and enter this contest by Lufthansa India to win return flights from Delhi to Munich on the new Lufthansa A350. Contest ends
Feb 28th March 3rd, 2017. Read the terms and conditions here, and don’t forget to tweet me from 38,000 feet if you win!
Have you flown (or dream of flying) the Lufthansa A350?
I was invited as a travel blogger to fly on Lufthansa A350’s maiden flight from Munich to Delhi. Lucky me!
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“I don’t mind the household work – cooking, cleaning, kids… but my soul is made for walking in these mountains.”
Binoculars dangling from her shoulder, sports shoes on her feet and a backpack slung over her traditional salwar kameez, Pushpa walked uphill with the ease of a mountain woman as I huffed and puffed along. But unlike most mountain women in India, she makes part of her living from her love for walking – as a female hiking guide in Sarmoli, a picturesque mountain village in the Munsiyari district of Uttarakhand.
We began that morning by hitching a ride on an army jeep, and were now walking along the mountain ridges of Thamari Kund, like eagles swooping over tiny villages dotting the deep valley below, layers of snow-capped mountains stretched out before us. By the time we left the blossoming rhododendron and old teak forests, and made tea on a quiet hill, we were deep in conversation about the state of the mountains and our own lives. Much like long lost friends.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe such a place exists in India.
I was soaking up spring in New York after an adventurous month in the Ecuadorian Andes, and plotting my return to India. My heart craved the Himalayas and the warmth of its village folk, and I felt ready to finally make the 11-hour journey from Kathgodam to Munsiyari in Kumaon. Having heard about Malika, an avid mountaineer, and her work in setting up the Sarmoli village homestays, I called her to see if I could linger a while in those mountains.
That’s when she first told me about their annual summer ritual – the weeklong Himal Kalasutra festival where the locals of Sarmoli come together to run a marathon with an altitude gain of 8000 feet over 20km (gulp!) and go birdwatching. That year, 2016, would include a week of meditative yoga and an introductory digital workshop by Wikipedia. The festival was geared towards the locals, but travellers (and I) were more than welcome to join.
Now, I’ve spent my fair share of time in little Kumaoni villages and witnessed the hardships borne by locals. Collecting firewood, walking long distances to go to school or the nearest health center, social issues. Where is there time to train for a marathon, or look for endemic birds, or wrap their head around Wikipedia?
My time in Sarmoli toppled my notion of India’s rural-urban divide. In the last few years, I had made my peace with the idea that most traditional ways of life in rural Indian communities will die out with the younger generations – and we can’t begrudge them that, for each of us seek “modern” comforts and easier lives, and it’s only fair that they should too.
But Malika – and Theo and Ram – who now call Sarmoli home, have a simple philosophy: Share valuable ideas of the urban world with the locals – the importance of fitness, flavors from international cuisines, and slowly, the online world. At the same time, encourage them to keep the wisdom of the traditional world – preserve their mountain spring water sources, be proud of their language, retain their innate hospitality towards outsiders. It’s okay if the youngsters in the village want to move away for work, but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.
And I witnessed that philosophy in action everyday.
I sat in on meetings of the Sarmoli women’s sangathan (self help group), as they discussed everything from the summer festival logistics, to helping more village women set up homestays, to their personal marathon goals (for the routes they were to run are everyday work routes in these parts). I joined them to experiment with planting tomatoes, brinjals and bhang seeds in an innovative new polyhouse. I followed them to the local magistrate’s office to revolt against a state trekking initiative that threatened their spring water sources – and saw them achieve success in getting the trekking group to camp at an alternate location and promise to carry their non-disposable waste back. I heard (and witnessed) heartbreaking stories of domestic violence faced by women from the region, and how the sangathan has been instrumental in supporting and empowering them to start new lives.
But even as they dealt with serious issues personally and as a group, juggling the hats of homestay hosts, entrepreneurs, guides, activists and homemakers, there was never a day without laughter, playful teasing and gratitude for the lighter moments.
When the summer festivities began, I was amazed to see half the village in tadasana (tree pose) during the yoga workshop, joined them to cook pasta with wild oregano over an open fire, and bade goodbye to a massive turnout of runners on marathon day.
The coolest mountain village in India? I think so.
When I heard of the Wikipedia workshop, I had a crazy dream of leveraging Instagram to encourage the locals of Sarmoli to share their stories directly with the world. Turned out, it wasn’t so crazy after all. With a basic Instagram tutorial, followed by photography tips from a fellow traveller, the locals now run their own Instagram channel – @VoicesofMunsiari – documenting their lives, mountains, seasons and stories in their own voices.
I expected the interest to die away gradually, but the account has not only grown in reach and engagement, it has also grown in storytelling and photography – despite access to only basic smartphones and English. One of their photos was even featured on Huffington Post India!
So it’s time to take it to the next level.
Upgrading your smartphone?
Currently, only a handful of locals have (basic) smartphones to take pictures and use the Instagram app. We are now crowd sourcing smartphones with good quality cameras, so we can get more locals on board this community channel and enable them to share snippets of their lives in the Himalayas too.
If you, your family or friends have a spare phone or plan to upgrade to a new one, consider contributing it to this initiative? In return, mountain love on your Instagram feed is a promise. Email me at email@example.com if you’d like to contribute.
Update (March 20th 2017): Thanks for your contributions and help with logistics so far! We have 7 smartphones pledged, and hope to meet our target of 10 soon. See below for updates on the Photography + Instagram workshop.
Photography + Instagram Workshop
Dates: 8th – 11th May, 2017
Good news! Based on the response from you awesome folk, we will be conducting a 4 day Photography + Instagram workshop in and around Sarmoli, that will conclude in an Insta Walk on the late afternoon of 11th May. The workshop is open to all; please arrange your transport and accommodation at Sarmoli homestays directly. Drop me a note if you’d like to volunteer to help during the workshop; we could use all the hands and heads we can get.
Our hunt for a smartphone photographer – who’d like to spend four days (or longer) in this gorgeous part of the mountains, sharing their art and skills with some budding local photographers – is still on. We’re looking for someone who is comfortable with Hindi and a wide range of smartphones. Please note that since this is an attempt to nurture a new generation of rural Himalayan storytellers, the photographer will need to cover his/her own transport and accommodation expenses. Good karma is on the cards, of course. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your portfolio or Instagram handle if you are interested.
If the workshop goes well, the crazy dream is to organize a small photo exhibition, and use the funds to support a new outdoor education program in the village. Hopefully, it turns out to be a not-so-crazy dream after all.
Any cool ideas on how we can further leverage Sarmoli’s photography & Instagram potential?
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