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?
Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!
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.
Six years ago, I set out on my first solo trip in India. The destination was a barren, high altitude mountain desert in the Trans-Himalayas, and my mission was to volunteer and learn about sustainable tourism.
That trip changed my life.
The destination was Spiti and the organisation I volunteered with was Spiti Ecosphere.
Back to Spiti after 6 years!
Six years later, in August this year, when I finally decided to go back, it felt like life had come full circle. I had only one agenda in mind: to give back in what little way I could, to the place that changed how I perceive local communities, travel choices, and my own beliefs. My decision to return was sparked by a conversation with Ishita – the founder of Spiti Ecosphere – who lamented how much Spiti has changed over the years, and the dire need to raise more awareness of responsible travel in Spiti.
I nearly cried when the shared taxi deposited us in Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti. The town that I remembered with only a couple of shops and guesthouses, a handful of travellers, and nothing but the barren mountains all around, has changed beyond recognition, taken over by chaotic concrete construction and shops and tourists.
The issues this environmentally-sensitive Himalayan region is dealing with are too many to summarise in one post. However, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere, astro-photographer Saurabh Narang, artist Michael Hickenberg, Instagrammer Aakash Ranison and fellow travellers passing through Spiti, we decided to focus on one big issue: plastic bottles.
Shocking facts about plastic bottled water in Spiti
- Based on a very conservative number of tourist arrivals, it is estimated that 3,00,000+ plastic bottles are dumped in Spiti every season.
- Imagine the irony of drinking bottled “Himalayan” water packaged in the plains and transported to the Himalayas, instead of drinking real (filtered) Himalayan water in Spiti!
- On the arduous journey from the plains, usually Punjab, to Spiti, the exposure to heat often causes bottles to leach BPA (Bisphenol A) – a chemical known to cause cancer – into the bottled water.
- Bottled water is known to have less oxygen than groundwater, and in a high altitude region like Spiti, you need all the oxygen you can get.
- Even if discarded bottles are thrown in a dustbin, they typically end up in a dumping ground adjacent to the Spiti River. They take a minimum of 500 years to degrade, but no one knows exactly how long yet.
- If reused by locals, these one-time use bottles leach harmful chemicals into the liquids stored in the bottle. The nearest recycling centre is ~500 kilometres away in Punjab.
- If burnt or buried, the bottles release harmful chemicals into the air, groundwater or soil, ultimately landing in the local food or water. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, heart disease, hormonal imbalance and other serious ailments.
To discourage the use of plastic bottles, we worked on three levels:
Local businesses in Spiti: Without safe alternatives to bottled water, it would be impossible to discourage their usage. So we began the conversation with hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza to install water filters and sell BPA-free water bottles that can be reused, as well as bottles fitted with a filter, like LifeStraw. Ecosphere is now working on a comprehensive map of Kaza, mapping out all water refilling stations across town – and we hope to replicate the efforts in major tourism destinations like Losar and Tabo. Through offline Google Maps, travel blogs and physical maps, we aim to make this map accessible to every traveller who visits Spiti in 2018.
Local community in Spiti: Turns out, most locals in Spiti have been reusing plastic water or fizzy drink bottles to store milk, araakh (the local liquor) and water. In a meeting with Kaza’s women’s self-help group, we shared studies that reveal how harmful chemicals leech from the bottles into the liquids over time – and showcased it with a live demonstration of an empty bottle exposed briefly to the heat of a candle. Try it yourself, to see how it melts and fumes. Pregnancy and heart problems, cancer and other diseases are on the rise in rural Spiti, and this could well be a contributing reason. The alternative for locals is simple – stainless steel containers to store liquids, available locally.
Travellers visiting Spiti (and the Himalayas in general): Lack of awareness among travellers visiting Spiti – both about the health / environmental damage caused by plastic bottled water and the option of drinking filtered Himalayan water – results in 3,00,000+ bottles dumped on the riverbed every season, and that number will only grow with the surge of tourism. So we came up with an idea…
The “I Love Spiti” installation
The idea occurred to me on the shared taxi ride from Manali to Spiti. We were awaiting our turn as each vehicle ahead of us tried to manoeuvre the stream flowing past the road. Outside, I could see mounds of trash along the river bed. Just then, a fellow passenger opened a candy bar and threw the plastic wrapper right out of the window! It angered me and my other co-passengers, and we started explaining to him why he should keep his trash in his pocket till he finds a dustbin.
If you keep throwing wrappers like this, there’ll be no mountains left. All we’ll have are mountains of plastic. And as I told him that, it struck me that we should create exactly that – an artwork of a mountain of plastic to illustrate what we are doing to our mountains.
The artwork idea emerged into a lifesize “I Love Spiti” installation after a discussion with Spiti Ecosphere. All around the world, people take photographs with “I Love New York” and “I Love Amsterdam”. We decided to join the bandwagon, except that our “I Love Spiti” is made entirely of discarded plastic bottles, that we gathered from across Kaza and even retrieved from the dumping ground! The heart alone is made of 300+ bottles, and everyone who takes a photo with the installation pledges to say no to plastic bottled water, atleast while in Spiti.
Michael Hickenberg, an artist from Australia, played an integral role in shaping the installation. It is an amalgamation of the creativity, sweat and physical hardwork of locals and fellow travellers, many of who just happened to see us work on it while passing through Kaza!
The installation can be found near the Kaza gate (near Rangrik Bridge, on the way to/from Kee Monastery); it’ll be dismantled at the end of October 2017 for the harsh winter and reinstalled in June 2018.
InstaMeet at 12,000+ feet in Kaza
When I heard that the Worldwide InstaMeet was taking place from 8th to 10th September, I knew right away that we had to do one in Kaza, probably the highest InstaMeet in the world – and my first one as a host. Even at 12,000+ feet in this remote Himalayan town, we had a roomful of locals and travellers, and a thought-provoking discussion around responsible travel and how to eliminate plastic bottled water from Spiti.
At the InstaMeet, my fellow traveller and photographer Saurabh showcased a video he shot around Kaza, interviewing locals on how the town has changed, and travellers on the use of plastic bottles. Then we piled into the cars / camper trucks of locals, headed down to the installation spot, and had the King of Spiti (yes!) unveil it.
It so happened that the local politician and his convoy were driving past as we were photographing the installation, and they stopped by to pledge off plastic bottles themselves! How often do you get to say that your InstaMeet was crashed by a local politician? 😉
Even though our shitty internet connection in Spiti didn’t let us post on Instagram in real time, we were really grateful for the support of fellow Instagrammers who had travelled to Spiti in the past, and supported our campaign real-time with #IloveSpiti.
The road ahead
This is just the beginning. By next season, we hope to have a sizeable number of hotels, restaurants and cafes across Kaza equipped with water filters and filter-fitted bottles, the groundwater in Spiti tested for minerals, a comprehensive map of Kaza marking out all water refill stations, cute signs made with discarded plastic bottles indicating water refill stations, and posters that reveal shocking facts about plastic bottled water. If you plan to travel to Spiti, consider volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere to help accomplish these objectives.
How can you help as a traveller visiting Spiti
- Take a photo with the installation and pledge to say NO to plastic bottled water in Spiti. As of now, you can refill your bottles with safe, filtered drinking water at Taste of Spiti, Sol Cafe, Hotel Deyzor, Zostel and Delek House in Kaza. Most homestays in the upper villages of Spiti also have water filters.
- Before you book your tour, hotel, homestay or guesthouse in Spiti, ask in what ways they contribute to environmental conservation in Spiti. The best way to make businesses care is to demand it as their potential customers.
- Volunteer with Spiti Ecosphere – in Spiti or virtually – to take this project to the next level.
- Carry your non-biodegradable waste back from Spiti, and dispose it in a big city where some form of waste management or recycling is in place. For me, doing this puts in perspective how much plastic waste I generate, and inspires me to consume less plastic-wrapped junk food!
- Encourage your fellow travellers to do all of the above.
I’m hardly an optimist, but even as we overcame apathy from locals, travellers and commercial establishments in Spiti and faced some setbacks, I still felt like everything we do as individuals counts. Every less plastic bottle used and disposed counts. Every voice discouraging their usage counts. Every blog post that urges travellers to switch to eco-friendly alternatives counts. Every responsible travel choice counts.
Do you use plastic bottled water when you travel? What alternatives have you found? Any bright ideas to take the “I Love Spiti” campaign to the next level?
If you have interesting ideas for environment-focussed travel campaigns, drop me a note!
Why long term travel is more like real life and less like Instagram
How responsible tourism can challenge patriarchy in India
Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan village where locals run their own Instagram channel
Lately, there’s been a lot of debate around whether travelling really has the power to change you – to question your beliefs, to throw you out of your comfort zone, to challenge your notions of the world, to mould you into a different person. Most of us like to believe it does.
But if I’m completely honest, my first fifteen or so trips as a young adult didn’t do much for me. Sure, I had some great holidays. But that’s exactly what they were – an escape from my regular life. I didn’t want them to challenge or mould me. So I stayed in resorts with the best deals, hung out with friends, drank and stuck to familiar food. I didn’t bother seeking experiential accommodations, having deep conversations with locals or tracing the journey of my food.
So when we ask if travelling can change us, we should really be asking, do we want our travels to change – or challenge – us?
If the answer is yes, I believe this list of long weekend trips out of Mumbai is a starting point. Over the course of my travels in India, these are environmentally and/or socially committed experiences that compelled me to rethink the way I travel – and live:
Maachli Farmstay: for pristine beaches
Where: Malvan Coast, Maharashtra
I fondly remember waking up to birdsong and a gentle breeze in my handcrafted cottage, reading Tolstoy in my balcony that opened up to cashew, beetle nut and coconut plantations, bathing with water out of a copper bucket (such a forgotten luxury), and feasting on delectable Maharashtrian food, cooked with home-grown or locally sourced ingredients. Even more fondly, I remember driving and hiking to pristine beaches all along the Malvan coast – soft sands, flanked by forested mountains, covered with palm trees, not another soul in sight. But the lovingly family-run Maachli Farmstay is not just about the untouched Malvan coast… it is about visualizing what the coastline of Goa must’ve looked like twenty or so years ago, and why we need to tread lightly as travellers.
Getting there: Take an overnight bus or train, or fly to Goa from Mumbai. Along the scenic coastal route from Goa, Maachli is about a 3 hour drive away.
Hideout Farm: for foodies and animal lovers
Where: Vikramgad, Maharashtra
Hideout Farm is one family’s labor of love, who have toiled for years to convert a barren, rocky wasteland a couple of hours outside of Mumbai, into a gorgeous organic farm with alfonso mango trees, pineapple bushes and a kitchen garden full of herbs and salad leaves. Starry night skies, thought-provoking conversations and an ‘away from it all’ feeling aside, farm-to-table food – plant-based, oil-free, sugar-free and spanning Maharashtrian to fusion dishes – is at the core of the Hideout experience. As you nibble on what might be the most delicious pesto salad you’ve tasted in your life, or drink cold coffee that contains neither milk nor coffee, your notions of food, veganism, health and the environment are bound to evolve.
Getting there: State buses ply the route from Thane to Zadapoli village in the mornings. By car or taxi, Hideout Farm is about a two hour drive.
Malji Ka Kamra: for India’s incredible heritage
Where: Churu, Rajasthan
It is one thing to visit a royal fort in Rajasthan, quite another to rest your head under a hand-painted ceiling in an opulent haveli – with Rajput, Mughal and Venetian influences – built in the early 1900s by a wealthy merchant. The forgotten town of Churu in the Shekhawati region is a reminder of India’s incredible heritage – and its lost opportunities at heritage tourism – with ornate havelis whose plant-based paintings tell interesting stories of a bygone era (there’s even one of Jesus smoking up!) and whose architectural finesse (some have as many as 1100 stunning windows and doors) is fascinating. And you only need to go a few kilometers outside Churu town for brilliant desert sunsets and starry night skies!
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Delhi, from where Churu is a quick 4-hour train ride away. Malji Ka Kamra – a restored 20th century haveli to host travellers – has literally brought tourism to forgotten Churu.
Interiors of Goa: for culture seekers
Many people swear off Goa, since its beaches are overrun with shacks, tourists and waste, and I totally get that. But the real Goa lives away from the beaches, amidst the rice paddies and forests and old Portuguese-era houses – and although things are changing fast, we can still steal a glimpse into the susagade way of life, ride a bike along the lush green paddies and pristine backwaters, and feast on authentic Goan food (no, Brittos doesn’t count). And as we ditch the coast for the interiors and get into the Goa state of mind, it is sure to dawn on us how our travel choices impact how we experience the places we visit.
Also see: Road Tripping in Rural Maharashtra
Purushwadi: for a million fireflies
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
Imagine if you will: Thousands of stars in the dark night sky above; the valley below lit up with flashing Christmas lights – the mating signals of millions of fireflies! Just as the rains begin, fireflies descend upon Purushwadi, a charming fishing village in the Sahyadri mountains, and put on a show unlike any other for human eyes.
I was surprised to learn that until the 1980s, posh areas like Bandra in Mumbai were nothing but rice paddies and palm trees, and you could see shimmering stars in the night sky. The light pollution in our cities and towns is the worst enemy of stargazing – and turns out, also of fireflies, for light from human sources confuses their mating patterns and messes with their reproduction process. A night in Purushwadi was enough to make me question: is light indeed the greatest invention or an unnecessary evil?
Getting there: Purushwadi is about a 4-5 hour drive from Mumbai; it’s possible to get pretty far with the Mumbai local train. Grassroutes Journeys offers community-based tourism in Purushwadi.
Mangalajodi: for birding enthusiasts
Where: Chilika Lake, Odisha
On a warm spring morning, I glided along silently on a rustic, wooden row boat on the gentle waters of Chilika Lake. The sun rose amid the clouds, migratory birds played along the shores, my guide spoke of how the marshland of Mangalajodi is different from the open Chilika Lake. Beautiful though it was, it was no ordinary boat ride, and Mangalajodi is no ordinary village – over tens of years, Mangalajodi has transformed from a village of notorious bird poachers to a village of bird conservationists; indeed, my guide and boatman were former poachers! The number of migratory birds in the village marshlands has grown from 5,000 to 3,00,000 per year, proving that no feat of human transformation is impossible.
Getting there: Take a flight from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar, from where Mangalajodi is an easy 2 hour drive. Stay at the community-run Mangalajodi Ecotourism to get an insight into the transformation of the village.
Dehna: for monsoon love and village life
Where: Sahyadris, Maharashtra
People often say that travel broadens our mind – and it surely can when the place in question is an obscure little Maharashtrian village, just three hours from bustling Mumbai. Speaking to the village youth can put into perspective our life of privilege – access to good education, learning English at an early age, work opportunities online and offline. As you walk along the rice paddies and hike in the Sahyadris, indulge in the warm hospitality of local families, live a day in the shoes of a rice farmer and gaze at the starry skies by night, think of how it was by a mere twist of fate that we were born in a life of privilege. Chances are, you’ll change the way you interact with those less privileged, right from your house help to the server at the cafe you frequent.
Getting there: Dehna is an easy three hour drive from Mumbai. Grassroutes Journeys has developed community-based tourism in the village and organizes trips and stays in tents or homestays.
Devrai Art Village: for artistic inspiration
Where: Off Panchgani, Maharashtra
Mahabeshwar and Panchgani mostly evoke images of chaotic construction and sunset points overrun with obnoxious tourists. Until you find Devrai Art Village, an artistic accommodation and project that helps Naxal-affected families relocate to Panchgani and revive the lost Dhokra Art from the Bastar region as a source of livelihood. The art village has also been attempting to map forgotten trails in the Western Ghats that were first charted out by the British; trails that will have you hike in old forests and overgrown wilderness and deposit you at the edge of cliffs with stellar views of the valley below – and make sure the only images Panchgani evokes in you are of stunning natural beauty.
Getting there: Volvo buses from Mumbai take 6-7 hours to reach Panchgani; it is also possible to take a train part of the way, or drive. Read more about the lost art and lost trails at Devrai Art Village.
What are your favorite long weekend escapes from Mumbai?
I was hosted at some of the above places, and paid for the others on my own. I only recommend experiences I’ve truly loved!
The forest is so silent that I can only hear the rustle of the sal leaves under our feet. The white, barren ghost tree holds my gaze awhile. The sun’s golden rays shine through the tree’s branches, as the forest sleepily awakens. Our naturalist and guide are deep in discussion about the previous day’s unexpected bear sighting. They suddenly stop in mid-conversation, for the distinct sound of a sambar deer’s alarm call has broken the unusual silence of the forest. A predator – most likely a tiger, bear or leopard – is in the vicinity. As we head in the direction of the deer’s call, langurs chime from the trees above, their cough-like alarm call giving me goosebumps.
Perhaps you have been on a safari in an Indian national park, and felt the hair-raising excitement of being on a predator chase? I felt it too, except mine was laced with a tinge of cold fear.
Because we weren’t in a jeep as we drew nearer to the alarm calls. We were on foot… with only a stick and pepper spray to protect us from a potential predator in the forests of Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh!
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the protected national parks, tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries of India in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand – including Panna, Bandavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Tadoba and Jim Corbett. But in Satpura National Park, while staying at the environmentally-conscious Forsyth Lodge, I fell even more in love with the forests, the rivers, the sunsets, the hills, the stories, and starry, starry night skies.
Here are all the reasons Satpura National Park is unlike any other I’ve been to:
Floating in the mist: Canoe safari on Denwa River
As an orange ball of fire rose from the misty horizon, we floated along silently, the stroke of each paddle taking us further from the roar of jeeps and the chatter of people. The Denwa River, perhaps fierce and free-flowing once, meandered gently after being dammed several kilometres from here. On its shores played snipes and wagtails, and grazed wild boars, oblivious to the three figures on our rustic canoe.
I’ve always associated early mornings in Madhya Pradesh’s national parks with the rumbling of jeeps, but to see and hear the forest wake up without feeling like an intruder, was my kind of safari.
Also read: Stories from the wild: Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
Footsteps in the forest: Walking in Satpura Tiger Reserve
As we followed the alarm calls of sambar deer and langurs on foot, I shuddered at the idea of sharing the ground with a tiger, leopard or bear. The four of us – my friend and I, and our naturalist and guide, barely took a breath in those few minutes which felt like an eternity, as we tip-toed closer to the dense foliage which seemed to be the sight of the commotion. Adrenalin rushed through my body and goosebumps covered my arms, as we quietly speculated what the predator could be.
Then just as suddenly as the alarm calls had started, they stopped, even as I imagined hoarse breathing piercing my ears. Too bad we were no tigers, for a bunch of jeeps and their curious spectators were gawking and flashing their shiny cameras at us when we emerged from the forest to cross the nearby jeep trail!
Also read: Wildlife tourism: Are we saving the tiger?
On two wheels: Cycling in the buffer zone
It is one thing to walk in the safe company of a naturalist and guide, quite another to be one of two lost souls cycling through the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve. We crossed blooming yellow mustard fields, carried our bikes across a dry riverbed (presumably having lost our way), and cycled on the edge of a deep gorge, with no plan B if we came face to face with a big cat. Oh, the thrill! Luckily for us, the wilderness was alive with chirping, and the only eyes that met ours were those of eagle owls, camouflaged in the bushes.
Pachmarhi: Madhya Pradesh’s only hill station
I couldn’t shake off the idea of Panchmarhi, a hill town tucked away in the vast Satpura National Park, and jumped at the chance of driving there with my naturalist from Forsyth Lodge, two hours from Satpura Tiger Reserve. Those winding roads, dense sal forests and British-era churches made me forget that I’m still in Central India. Away from the characterless town, we hiked with a renowned local guide to secret panoramic sunset spots, a hill with almost a dozen vulture nests (viewed from a safe distance across a gorge), and spotted the rare tree shrews.
The biggest surprise – driving at night to an open field to see a million twinkling stars in the night sky above us… and spotting a civet running into the bushes as we drove back!
Jeep safari: The wild things of Satpura National Park
With much anticipation, we took the public boat across the Denwa River and hopped on to a forest jeep on the other side – because those forest trails, brimming with activity on the ground and up in the air, never fail to get my adrenalin racing. A mugger crocodile basking in the sunshine on the banks of a pond with its mouth wide open; a wild gaur with a one day old calf; a giant squirrel playing in the branches of a tree; magnificent birds (my memory always fails me on names); a jungle cat in the bushes; a sloth bear casually nibbling on grass and crossing the path before us, and another one wandering further into the wilderness… oh, can I go back to the forests of Satpura already?
Confession: I feel sorry for those who miss out on the wild ways of the forest by only being interested in spotting a tiger.
Starry nights and mahua drinks: Forsyth Lodge
I can still close my eyes and walk by the light of dimly lit lanterns, my head turned skywards as stars begin to appear everywhere above me. I can still hear stories from Greek Mythology, of Orion and Artemis, as we decipher constellations in the dark skies. I can still taste mahua – a local liquor brewed from mahua flowers (the sloth bear’s fav) – as we talk about the day’s sightings with the naturalists and fellow travellers. Those pre-dinner drinks and starry skies on the rooftop of Forsyth Lodge… I can’t wait to go back someday!
Look out for my upcoming Instagram contest to win a stay at Forsyth Lodge!
Satpura National Park: Travel tips
How to reach: The nearest airport to Satpura National Park is in Bhopal, from where the park is a 3-4 hours drive. It’s worthwhile stopping at the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Bhimbhetka Rock Shelters – enroute.
Where to stay: I absolutely loved my stay at Forsyth Lodge, located in the buffer zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve. The lodge was set up by a naturalist who has been instrumental in bringing a conservation-focussed model of tourism to Satpura. The huts are built with mud and slate in local architectural style – minimalistic yet luxurious – and only 10% of the total land has been used for building. The remaining barren acres are being transformed with indigenous trees and shrubs. Most of the produce is sourced from local farmers… a special shoutout to the chefs for some incredible vegan food and desserts (inform them of food preferences beforehand).
When to go: Like most national parks in India, Satpura is closed from July to September for the rainy season.
Have you been to Satpura National Park? Which national parks in Central India do you love most?
I was hosted in Satpura by Forsyth Lodge; lucky me!
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Even as I left the Slovenian Alps with a heavy heart, I was thrilled to set foot in Croatia, a country that has been been on my travel radar for a long time. I knew that June, the time of my visit, would be a busy month even if not as crowded as August and September. So I did some last minute research, and decided to start my journey in the Istrian Peninsula, assured by several travel blogs that it was “offbeat” and I’d be sure to beat the crowds. Maybe at their time of writing, it was.
I was delighted that first evening, for I spent the first three hours in a hilltop village in inland Istria, chatting with my hosts over tea and wine. Their home was over 300 years old, traditional stone walls and a rustic slate roof on the outside, beautifully refurbished from within. That night, I walked along the cobblestoned streets to the top of the town, past old stone homes adorned with colorful flowers. Under the moonlit sky, in the silence of the night, breathing air that smelt like jasmine, I indeed fell in love with Istrian Croatia.
Unfortunately, its reality hit me the next morning. I slept past the chirping of birds, but was woken up by loud voices crossing my window every now and then. When I went to the kitchen to make myself some tea, a couple of tourists were peeping in through the glass door. Day trippers!
The old-world charm of this village, with only 305 residents, was drowned by the callousness of visitors who only seemed to care about their photos and getting drunk, almost running over the locals in their rental cars, never realizing that they were intruding into someone’s sleepy neighborhood and life. My hosts assured me that the number of daytrippers now was not nearly as bad as in the peak summer season, and joked about how the village residents, their homes and their kitchens must be curious, unfamiliar sights for tourists.
Is travel blogging ruining “offbeat” places?
Where does travel blogging picture in all of this, you might ask. So let me paint you a scenario, a very plausible one, one that is possibly playing out in many places around the world. Blogger X visits a charming village, the one with only 305 residents, and writes about it in the hope that a few more people will experience it, and the locals in turn, will benefit from tourism. Convinced by blogger X, blogger Y lands up there with a few more discerning travelers, and reiterates its worthiness of a visit. Some content creator out there, scouting the web for an SEO-driven list of offbeat places in Europe, stumbles upon the blogs of X and Y. His well-researched list is ripped off by other lists, as often happens. A tour company notices the growing interest in the village, and puts it on their bus tour itinerary. Bam, the hordes of tourists arrive…
Perhaps I’m being too presumptuous in thinking that a travel blog can trigger a chain reaction over the years, or am I? After all, a quick search for offbeat Croatia (as opposed to picking a place that next to nothing is written about online, as I usually do) is what led me to the village of 305 people in Istria.
So what’s the point of travel blogging?
If you’re on the same page, you’re probably thinking that an easy solution is that travel bloggers like me should never write about their “offbeat” finds. But as my social media followers often remind me, isn’t it part of my job to disclose the exact location of my stories and photos, so others can choose to experience my finds over ‘tourist traps’?
I’ve dwelt on this dilemma for a long time. But walking on those cobblestoned streets in Istria (mostly at sunrise and late at night), it occurred to me that no, perhaps that isn’t the role a travel blogger is supposed to play. The way I see it now, my work as a travel blogger should inspire my readers to think of travel differently – to reconsider their travel choices, to seek local encounters, to carve out their own journey. It’s the reason I never have, and never will, give you a three day itinerary to “do” a destination. That’s not how I aspire for my readers to experience somewhere I’ve been and loved.
Is writing about responsible travel ideas enough?
On the flip side of my dilemma, I’ve often found solace in knowing that when I recommend specific locations, they are usually accompanied by suggestions of environmentally and socially conscious accommodations. Yet, I often get messages from my readers and followers who visited a location based on my recommendation – but chose to experience it in a way that makes me cringe and regret writing about it at all. The point is, I, or another responsible travel blogger, can only plant ideas. We can’t stop the callousness of those who travel just to get the right selfie or drink themselves silly or don’t care about building any real connections with a place and its people.
How can a travel blogger strike the right balance?
The truth is, I don’t know. It’s the reason why I’ve struggled to write a word on this blog in almost a month. The reason why I’ve consciously limited my social media posts about my current (annual) monsoon escapade in Goa, because as much as I’d love for my conscious, aware, nature-loving readers to experience my finds, I’m wary, very wary, of how much Goa has changed in the span of the four monsoons I’ve spent here – and would hate to unintentionally accelerate that negative change.
Maybe this is the travel blogger’s version of a mid-life crisis. And I intend to deal with it by focusing more on inspiring stories from the road…
Got any words of wisdom for this conflicted travel blogger?
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Last month, I boarded a late night flight to Munich in unusual company – with a bunch of 15-16 year olds, flying internationally for the first time in their lives. My initial apprehension of travelling with “kids” was quickly washed over by their fascination for things I’ve started taking for granted in my nomadic life. Things like watching movies while floating 37,000 feet above earth, observing locals hanging out in Munich’s charming beer gardens, and connecting with people from around the globe even if our cultures, accents and appearances are entirely different.
Travelling with the junior Indian football team for the FC Bayern Youth World Cup on assignment for Lufthansa, was not only a revelation in terms of how the road can influence young minds, but also a reminder of what it is like to be sixteen and feel both, the yearning to see the world and the hopelessness that you must put your dreams on hold till much later in life.
So this post is dedicated to the boys I travelled with, who in their own quiet ways, shared with me their dream of travelling to lands far away. And to young adults everywhere who aspire to experience far off corners of the world… this is all the advice I wish someone had given me when I was sixteen:
I often look back upon my teenage years and marvel at the amount of time I spent doing nothing in particular. Don’t get me wrong; I mostly had fun in my little bubble of school gossip, competitive studying, basketball and teenage crushes. But I never got more imaginative; even when I got access to my first computer and a dial-up connection sometime in my teens, I only ever used it for chatting on MSN Messenger and Orkut (gulp ;-)). I secretly harbored dreams of visiting Mexico someday and loved Enrique’s music (don’t judge me!), but it never occurred to me to use the internet to learn Spanish. Or watch films or read books about far off places in the world. I would have loved a headstart, because as you go to college and become financially independent, those seemingly vast reserves of time deplete pretty quickly.
So even if you don’t afford to travel yet, do it virtually. Pick a country you’d love to see someday and use Duolingo or Youtube tutorials to learn its language. Watch movies from different parts of the globe on Netflix. Take a free course on Coursera on a travel subject that really interests you (anything from Buddhism to Greek Mythology). Imagine how cool it’ll be when you are able to travel to some of these dream places, and immerse deeper in them because of your virtual connections!
Work part time
The more I’ve travelled, the more it’s struck me that my native country, India, is one of the only countries in the world where we expect our parents to support us financially even after we finish high school or turn 18. And that’s probably a big reason why we don’t travel right after high school or college – because why should our parents pay for that too?
On my part, when I went for my bachelor’s degree to Singapore at 17, I had a big student loan that covered most of my college and living expenses. While I studied, I picked up part time work as a teaching assistant, did three internships during the summer holidays and even wrote for a couple of obscure websites. Whatever little I earned, I saved it for low budget trips with college friends around Southeast Asia – my first taste of independent travel.
Want to travel when you are 16, 18, 20 or any other age? Get a job. I know many parents tend to be against part time jobs when you are young, but look online. Cut down all that time you spend on Facebook and Whatsapp, and learn a skill like video editing, social media management or coding, create a simple portfolio of your work, and write to small companies with your work samples. You’ll earn some money to travel, and experiment with work you could do professionally in the future… win-win!
PS: I’m often on the lookout for creative individuals who can help me with video editing and social media projects. Email me with your portfolio if you are interested.
Keep an eye out for travel opportunities
The one thing I regret about my college days was that I never took the opportunity to do a study exchange semester in another country. I saved money for it, dreamed about spending four months studying in Canada (randomly), but ultimately got lazy, nervous, too stuck in my comfort zone. I did travel to Canada much later in life, but it’s different when you’re a student; I can’t fathom how it could’ve changed my perspective. But life is too short for regrets, so I’ll say this:
Don’t get too cozy in your comfort zone. Keep your eyes and ears open, and try to grab any kind of travel opportunities that come your way. Anything from the football world cup that enabled ten boys from across India to travel to Munich, to writing scholarships, to travel contests. Follow brands in your field of interest on Instagram, join Facebook and Google groups that share such opportunities, and don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t make it.
Look for courses and internships that involve traveling
In a country where most people tend to look upon travel as merely a holiday, it helps to have a “reason” to visit or live somewhere else. I’ve met plenty of people who did long or short courses in subjects like social entrepreneurship, travel journalism and anthropology – which had them do field work in interesting parts of the world. If you plan to intern, look for opportunities in a place other than where you live, so you can get work experience, pocket money and a chance to satisfy your itchy feet at the same time.
Depending on what you’re studying, you could look at organisations like Aiesec, which offer international internships; join Facebook groups that share unique opportunities from around the world (like Youth Opportunities); and dig deep on google to find others like you who added travel to their life at a young age. The point is to plunge into the endless pool of information online and find the opportunities you need.
Explore your own country
Many countries I’ve explored around the world (especially India) offer incredible diversity – culturally, culinarily, lingually and in landscapes – and much of it is undiscovered, affordable and full of kind souls. So this excuse that travelling is too expensive, or too time consuming, or too unsafe, needs to be thrown out the window. I was 23 when I did my first solo trip – on a budget of 20,000 rupees for a month. I was afraid to break out of my shell, connect with locals and fellow travellers, and open my mind to unexpected adventures. It was a steep learning curve, but I learned to train my instinct and free my mind of much of the fear of solo travelling.
So if you’re really itching to travel and manage to save a little bit of money, pick a place in your own country, do some research and travel with an open mind… you’ll always wonder why you waited so long!
Travel to see relatives or family friends in cool places
I know, I know; who wants to go visit family in the name of travel, right? But when you’re young and crunched for funds, this is one way to get some support from your family and travel on the cheap. I remember the time I flew to Hong Kong for a job interview right after college (I didn’t get it), and reluctantly agreed to stay with my mom’s friends’ family so I could spend a few extra days exploring the country. They turned out to be very cool people; I went on a memorable hike into the surrounding mountains with them, and got my first taste of solo travel, yet with someone to fall back on.
So leverage the Indian mindset of finding relatives and distant friends, in some cool parts of the country or the world, and travel on a budget yet safely enough that your parents feel comfortable.
Chill… you have your whole life to chase your dream!
I know this is the last thing you want to hear when you’re a teenager and raring to go, but hey, you have your whole life to chase your dream to travel (or whatever it is that you want to do). Work on your skills, deepen your understanding of your options, take baby steps whenever you can, stay patient… but no matter what happens, don’t buy into the world’s greatest lie:
[The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho]
“What is the world’s greatest lie?” the little boy asks.
The old man replies, “It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
Over to you, what advice would you give your younger self?
Thanks to Lufthansa India for the opportunity to travel to Germany for the FC Bayern Youth Cup, and be reminded of what it’s like to be young and penniless!
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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