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Romania photos, Brasov photos, Brasov Romania

Snapshots from Romania!

It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.

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Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim Travel Blog: Exploring the Lost Kingdom.

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

Sikkim travel blog

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

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

sikkim travel, sikkim trip, mount kanchendzonga sikkim, west sikkim, sikkim photos
Sikkim travel blog | A glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga. Photo: Jakub Michankow

Sikkim India, truly off the beaten path

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

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

Also read: Hiking from Darjeeling to Sikkim

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Sikkim nature | Rhododendrons in bloom.

Sikkim natural beauty, like no other

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

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

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

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Visit Sikkim to feel the tranquility in these stones.

Sikkim culture and fulfilment

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

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

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

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

Shared taxis for a real Sikkim adventure

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

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

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

Local encounters on the Sikkim Darjeeling trip

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

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

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

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

Sikkim monastery, sikkim travel blog, sikkim trip, sikkim travel blog, west sikkim, sikkim trek
Sikkim blog travel | The mountains echo with hums of Om Mani Padme Hum.

Sikkim: State of India, forgotten kingdom

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

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

PLAN YOUR SIKKIM ITINERARY

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

rangeet river, teesta river
Sikkim trip blog | Confluence of the Rangeet River with the Teesta.

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

Also read:

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

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

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

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villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages

Discovering Life in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

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

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

So I finally decided to find out. I made my way up from Rishikesh, to the villages beyond Uttarkashi and down via Mussoorie. Transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013.

I’ll let these pictures from the Garhwal Himalayas tell you their stories. Then share some recommendations of beautiful Uttarakhand homestays to truly experience life in these mountains:

Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas

By the river Ganga, I sat down and read

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

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

Wifi and work at Rainforest House in Rishikesh

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

Rainforest house Rishikesh, rishikesh homestay

First glimpse of the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga

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

Asi Ganga Uttarkashi, Garhwal Himalayas, kuflon homestay

Catching up on life

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

kuflon, kuflon basics

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

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

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

Villages in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

kuflon, garhwal himalayas, garhwal uttarakhand, uttarakhand homestays

Sampling locally grown Garhwali food

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

Garhwal food, Uttarakhand food, garhwali food

Kuflon Basics: My favorite hideout in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Kuflon, Kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

Hanging out by the river

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

Ganga photos, Garhwal Ganga, garhwal himalayas

A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration

Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!

kuflon, kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

The pristine Ganga on the way to Mussoorie

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

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

My next abode: A unique homestay in Mussoorie

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

La villa bethany, mussoorie homestay

A note on the Uttarakhand floods

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

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

How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

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

Kuflon Basics (Kuflon homestay)

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

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

La Villa Bethany (Mussoorie homestay)

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

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

Rainforest House (Rishikesh homestay)

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

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

What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?

ALSO SEE:

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

garhwal himalayas, kuflon homestay, mussoorie homestay, garhwali people
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World war 2 stories, World war 2 survivors, India in world war 2

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

It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!

For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.

Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.

The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food,  education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.

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

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

I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu,  father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.

For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.

The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.

I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.

And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?

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

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

***

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

***

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Thar desert, Rajasthan India, sand dunes india

My 13 “Incredible India” Moments in 2013.

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.

These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More

Safranbolu turkey, shivya nath

Dear Turkey: My Million Reasons to Visit You.

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

Dear Turkey,

I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.

A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.

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

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

An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.

A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.

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

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

A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.

A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.

A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where we impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzon without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe. Then ferried me, my backpack and my friend in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.

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

Turkey people, Turkish culture, Ordu Turkey, turkish customs, turkish food, why visit turkey
Why visit Turkey | With my Turkish friends in Ordu, a small coastal town in Turkey.

The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.

A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.

An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.

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

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

So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.

You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.

What are your reasons to visit Turkey?

visiting kashmir

What No One Tells You About Visiting Kashmir.

Two weeks before we set out for Kashmir, some heartbreaking targeted killings had disrupted peace in the valley. Worried about whether it would be safe to travel, we contemplated cancelling our long-awaited trip.

To help decide, I sent a message to our Airbnb hostess in Srinagar, asking about the situation on the ground. She replied, quite astutely, that there’s trouble everywhere but only in Kashmir is it constantly reported in the media.

Others I reached out to in Kashmir had similar advice. So we decided to take a leap of faith and arrived in Srinagar on a nippy autumn evening.

I’m glad we did, because over nearly a month, I came to realise that there is more to Kashmir than both – the overly negative one-sided media narrative of “trouble,” and the overly positive one-sided traveller narrative of “jannat” (heaven):

There are many layers to Kashmir

dal lake kashmir
Visiting Kashmir must involve slowly peeling back its many layers.

On our second day in Kashmir, we drove to the outskirts of Srinagar with a local friend. He turned off the main road into a by-lane, and drove into a desolate, abandoned military compound, with only barbed wires and no sign of human activity.

As my heart skipped a beat while he parked, I began to hear the faint strains of a guitar pour out of a Stalinist-style nondescript barrack. It turned out that we had arrived at one of Kashmir’s only music academies, run by singer duo Irfan-Bilal! Over the next few hours, we heard aspiring young musicians play the ancient rhubarb, and women from far-off reaches of Kashmir play the guitar to Sufi rhythms. The school is bringing about a renaissance of devotional Sufi music by making it more appealing to the youth – who have seen years of turmoil in the valley.

Every single day in Kashmir, we peeled back layer after layer, of Kashmiri history, culture, music, nature and politics – realizing how little actually makes it to mainstream news channels and travel blogs.

Also read: Should Travel Bloggers and Influencers Voice Their Political Opinions?

Fear, not hope, is the dominant emotion

hazrat bal srinagar
For ordinary Kashmiris, life is very different than for us travellers.

Having read much about Kashmir, I went in fully prepared to expect military and police presence everywhere. But to see armed officers in bunkers and bushes across Srinagar and other populated towns, patrolling the streets at all hours, often stopping young men on bikes and scooters, is unnerving to say the least.

On a day trip from Srinagar, we had to squeeze our car next to a roadblock as an unexpected convoy of military vehicles whizzed past us. Hoping to create more space for them, our friend took advantage of a short gap between vehicles to squeeze further on the left. But an armed military guard across the road noticed, came to our window, and started scolding him aggressively. He tried to explain, but that only made it worse, so he apologised profusely, fear etched across his otherwise calm face.

Everyone has a story of their relatives, friends or neighbors being picked up over the past three decades. So it’s no surprise that for the ordinary Kashmiri, fear reigns supreme. I met businessmen, students, artists, farmers, guides – and left with the feeling that fear, not hope, is the overriding emotion that drives their decisions.

Also read: Sustainable Travel Companies Changing the Way We Experience India

Yet there is warmth in most hearts for travellers – no matter where you’re from

During the saffron harvest, a sweet elderly woman offered us some of her flowers.

We had some animated discussions with locals about the relationship between Kashmir and India.

And yet, despite the complexity of emotions that Kashmiris feel towards the country, we were received with incredible warmth as Indian travellers. So many people, from cab drivers to Gujjar families, invited us home to stay or have a cup of kahwa. Acquaintances turned friends went far out of their way to connect us with interesting locals, drove us to places off the beaten track and treated us to sumptuous vegan meals! A local we met on Dal Lake messaged me everyday to ask after my well being while I was in Kashmir.

If there’s anywhere on Earth I’ve felt the same soul connection as Iran, it is here, it is here, it is here.

Also read: Why You Should Drop Everything and Travel to Iran now

But unfortunately not all tourism is the same

For our first 10 days, we pretty much managed to shield ourselves from domestic tourism in Kashmir by virtue of the places we picked to stay and explore. I constantly heard from folks in the sustainable tourism space in Kashmir about the unwieldy crowds and the challenges of overtourism, but began to wonder where all the tourists were.

Then finally, we landed bang in the middle of them, in Gulmarg. I expected a stunning, quiet, pristine spot, but what we encountered were endless queues of tourists lining up to take a gondola into the higher reaches to witness snow (so long that we ultimately sold our tickets and found other hiking trails). We faced constant harassment from guides looking to make a quick buck, got annoyed at boisterous selfie-snappers, and felt heartbroken for puny ponies being ridden by visitors who were perfectly capable of walking.

That’s when I realized that this is likely the only side of Kashmir that many travellers get to experience. The fear bred by media channels compels them to travel like an island, in taxies or tour buses, on the Gulmarg – Pahalgam – Sonamarg route, hardly interacting with everyday life in the valley, and therefore leaving with the same skewed perspective.

And that’s a shame because travelling is supposed to broaden our worldview and challenge our pre-conceived notions of a place and its people.

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

Autumn in Kashmir is like poetry

autumn kashmir
‘I will die in autumn in Kashmir‘ ~ Agha Shahid Ali.

We spent many a quiet, contemplative afternoon in Srinagar – walking, reading or picnicking under 400-year-old chinar trees, watching their leaves slowly turn from green to orange and red as autumn settled in.

Under the turning chinars, Kashmiri women and men go about their lives in pherans (traditional overdress), carrying a burning kangri (a basket full of burning embers to keep warm) underneath. University students linger after class, chatting or playing cricket amid the chinars. Older men gather at pyends (raised platforms) to smoke hookah.

In forests surrounding the city, old Kashmiri willows and walnut groves turn bright yellow, giving the landscape a surreal glow.

With it, autumn brings the feeling that no matter how permanent things seem, the times will change, the colors will turn. That’s my hope for Kashmir too.

chile stories

To Chile, With Love.

Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

Dear Chile,

Before I landed within your borders, I had heard many people wax eloquent about the beauty of your mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. And no doubt, I was awed by their beauty too.

But I had no idea that it would be the beauty of your people that would really overwhelm me.

While quarantining in a drab hotel room in Santiago, the nurse who came for one of many precautionary Covid tests, told me that quarantine could be really isolating, gave me his card and told me to call him if I felt like I was losing my mind.

On my birthday – spent in quarantine on Robinson Crusoe Island – a passionate diver baked me the most delicious vegan chocolate cake, without ever even having met me!

A young conservationist from the island shared with me the profound responsibility she feels to protect the island’s fragile, rare, endemic ecosystem – and her dream to travel solo someday too.

Robinson crusoe island

Many, many islanders shared their life stories with me, but one let me in to a dark, personal part of his life. To bear witness to someone’s journey, on the other side of the world, in a language that isn’t my own, is perhaps the most humbling part of travel.

Creativity and art flow in many people’s blood across the island and continental Chile, but a long time resident invited me time and again into his idyllic home, poetic world, art collection and fascinating stories. Every conversation made me want to learn more Spanish, so we could have more profound discussions.

Knowing how hard it was to find lunch on the island – with most restaurants closed during the pandemic and shops usually out of basic supplies – a sweet island family often invited me to share their family meals: garbanzo (chickpea stew), lentejas (lentils cooked Chilean style), stirfried veggies with rice, vegan desserts and much more.

When a big boat arrived with much-awaited supplies on the island, I naïvely showed up at the local shop to buy a bunch of Chilean avocados – not knowing that wait times to buy produce on ‘boat days’ could be as long 4 hours, as people bought kilos of vegetables and fruits to last until the next boat! A friendly fisherman noticed my amazement, offered to get me some avocados during his turn, and wouldn’t even let me pay for them.

Artisans, guides and many associated with tourism shared with me their dream of a self-sustainable island – the seeds of which we tried to sow through the Work for Humankind project enabled by Lenovo and Island Conservation.

Most evenings on the island, I showed up at the community Basketball court on the island to play this sport I love so much, but have hardly had a chance to play since university. The local players always invited me to join them, reminding me of Basketball friendships I’ve missed all along.

Photo: Riccardo Sai @signorsai

In an intensely personal conversation, an islander laid bare his soul, speaking at length about how the massive tsunami in 2010 had impacted his family, the professional challenges he’d faced, and the deep love he felt for his island.

A skeptical fisherman told me that this “vegan thing” was all marketing, and asked me how something like chocolate could be made without milk? I recounted my time with the Bribris – Costa Rica’s cacao farmers – and pulled out a vegan chocolate for him to try. A few days later, when I ran into him again, he gifted me a dairy-free chocolate from the local health food store!

Even as someone who almost always chooses memories over souvenirs, I felt so lucky to be gifted a personalized, rare coral negro (black coral, broken by the waves), creatively shaped and polished into a stunning star – to represent The Shooting Star – by two local divers.

Many, many islanders – and those who’d made the island home – invited us over for dinner, birthdays, game nights, Pisco Sours and movies.

Of all the people who lovingly fed us on the island, one went out of his way to experiment with gourmet vegan meals for me – among them, a garbanzo curry, veggies-based ceviche, his signature hummus (which I still dream about), and even a protein-packed box of lentils-rice for an overnight trek.

A local journalist invited me to join the island’s whatsapp group – the backbone of communication on the island. Thanks to her, I’m still plugged into all that’s happening locally – from basketball games to music sessions to the archipelago’s journey to become a special territory in Chile.

A biologist involved in conservation efforts on the island gifted me a copy of his book, signed with a powerful message that has inspired me to pursue conservation storytelling seriously.

A passionate islander and diver confessed to me his fear that the arrival of high speed internet – important though it is – might destroy the island’s precious sense of community. Is there anywhere in the world that has been able to strike a balance?

Photo: Callum Thompson @adventure_cal

On my second last night, when it finally dawned on me that my time on the island was up, a father and son invited us to a rocky Pacific beach to watch the full moon rise from behind the mountains. As I lay on the rocks and watched the moon fill the sky and ocean with its magical light, I knew I’d never be the same again.

After arriving back on mainland Chile, I was eager to get away from Santiago to Patagonia as soon as possible – but the damned SKY airlines website just wouldn’t accept any of my cards to book a domestic flight. Helpless, I asked the receptionist at my hotel if there was a travel agency nearby that could help me. She found one several kilometers away, but recognizing the inconvenience, went far beyond her call of duty to book it with her personal debit card and let me pay her in cash.

After two months of not being able to thread my brows, I hopelessly walked around the backlanes of Santiago, looking for Google Maps listings that didn’t exist. Finally, at a salon I enquired, the owner left her shop and walked me to a dilapidated underground shopping centre 10 minutes away, where one woman specialized in it.

For reasons unknown, I could never get a local SIM card – neither Movistar nor Entel – to work on my phone in Santiago. But from the staff at local cafes, to passersby on the street, to co-passengers in shared transport, no one hesitated to share their personal hotspot with me.

My heart ached for Robinson Crusoe Island even when I arrived in crazy beautiful Patagonia. But it found temporary respite when I got a ride with someone who shared with me his heartwarming quest to find his soulmate and his infectious zest for life – despite all the difficult cards life had dealt him.

A few days later, I met his wife, shared much laughter over breakfast at their favorite cafe, and spotted the ostrich-like wild rhea, condors and the Chilean flamingo on a drive! We parted with a promise that I’d stay with them whenever I came back to Patagonia.

While offering recommendations for my trip to Patagonia, a ranger on Robinson Crusoe Island asked me to go to Queulat National Park – a special place on earth – and give his buddy a big hug. It sounded like an impossible ask, but I really did find his buddy and shared a conversation like we too had been friends for a long time.

queulat national park

At the only Airbnb I stayed at in Chile, my hostesses at Refugio Macales invited me to their favorite waterfall hike in an enchanted forest, for a delightful family lunch and even on a mission to rescue two abandoned pups! Spending time with them reminded me of all the wonderful souls I’ve been lucky enough to meet while travelling solo.

With no public transport in Patagonia’s Aysen region, I serendipitously ended up joining an all women’s group for a hike, and met some inspiring Chilean solo travellers and mother-daughter duos. After a day of heartwarming conversations, many gave me their whatsapp numbers and urged me to contact them if I needed anything at all while in Chile.

I went into panic mode when the only hospital that could do an RTPCR test on a Sunday in Coyhaique told me that it would involve a few hours of wait time – and upto 4 days to receive my test results. I needed it to board a domestic flight the next day, to be able to catch my (rather expensive) flight back to India the following day! The receptionist sympathized with my situation, moved me up the list for a test and convinced the lab to expedite my result. Just like that.

After a long, tiring day of hiking in the windy Patagonian terrain, I nibbled at my food at Patagonia Camp, thinking of what folks on Robinson Crusoe Island must be upto – and if I could sustain some of those precious friendships despite the growing distance and time between us. Unsure, I gazed at the starry skies a while, and slowly walked back to my yurt. On my bed lay a note, along with a stack of dark chocolate. De la familia Marenostrum, it said, as my eyes brimmed with tears. My island friends had figured my location from my Instagram stories, called the camp, and arranged this surprise. Oh my heart.

Have you been to Chile, or unexpectedly left your heart in another part of the world?

*Note: I was invited to Robinson Crusoe as part of the Work for Humankind project with Lenovo and Island Conservation. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter to follow my adventures.

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Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

Robinson Crusoe Island

Why Robinson Crusoe Island Might Just Be the Most Unique Place on Earth.

Quién no conoce el bosque chileno, no conoce este planeta. De aquellas tierras, de aquel barro, de aquel silencio, he salido yo a andar, a cantar por el mundo.

Those who do not know the Chilean forests, do not know this planet. From those lands, from that soil, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing for the world.

Pablo Neruda’s words echoed in my mind as I began experiencing the breathtaking landscapes and biodiversity of Robinson Crusoe Island (earlier called Mas a Tierra), nearly 700 km off the coast of Chile in South America.

Over the past decade, I’ve been lucky enough to slow travel through many unique places around the world. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the month I spent on Robinson Crusoe Island, learning about its endemic species, grasping the challenges of conservation, bonding with the local community and working on sustainability initiatives. Here’s why:

No humans had set foot on Robinson Crusoe Island (Chile) until 500 years ago

A Spanish sailor first arrived arrived here in 1574 – and the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, to which the island belongs, is named after him.

Robinson Crusoe Island chile, Robinson crusoe island
Photo: Callum Thompson @Adventure_cal

So the island’s endemic forests, plants, marine animals and birds evolved in isolation

Many species are only found here in the entire world!

Juan Fernandez Fur Seals

Getting to Robinson Crusoe Isla involves an adventurous journey on a tiny 6-seater plane – not for the faint hearted!

Only 4 people + 2 pilots can fly the 700 kilometers at one time – and only when the weather is just perfect for landing on the short, narrow strip that is the Robinson Crusoe Island airport. Before the pandemic, it was also possible to take a boat over 4 days.

flights to robinson crusoe island chile
Photo: Callum Thompson

The endemic Juan Fernandez Fur Seals greet you at the airport jetty

Declared extinct in the 1800s, a few seal pups were found in a cave in the 1960s. The island community decided to protect them, and the Chilean government finally declared their hunting (mostly by American ships) illegal. Their population has bounced back beautifully in recent decades!

And the boat ride to San Juan Bautista – the island’s only inhabited village – is reminiscent of a scene from Jurassic Park

San juan bautista

Only a 1000 odd locals call the island home

As per the 2017 census, the official Robinson Crusoe Island population is 976!

San juan bautista, robinson crusoe chile

Yet life here is bustling with community activities

Think basketball and football tournaments, hikes for women, triathlons, swimming in the ocean on a full moon night, entrepreneur fairs etc!

plazoleta el yunque

Even though 97% of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago is a protected national park

tres puntas, juan fernandez archipelago, robinson crusoe images
Photo: Callum Thompson

Humans have left a huge footprint on the island

Villagra, robinson crusoe island, robinson crusoe pictures

Invasive species introduced hundreds of years ago

Including rats, rabbits, goats, cows, horses, dogs and cauti (feral cats) – and plants like mora (blackberry), maqui and murtiya.

island conservation chile

Have been crowding out the slow-growing endemic forests

endemic forest chile, juan fernandez chile, robinson crusoe chile
Photo: Callum Thompson

Making it one of the most endangered places on earth

Juan fernandez biodiversity
Photo: Callum Thompson

Less than 500 Juan Fernandez Firecrown humming birds remain here in the wild

Found only on Robinson Crusoe island in the entire world.

And the last remaining Dendroseris Neriifolia tree in the world!

Dendroseris Neriifolia
Photo: Callum Thompson

But Island Conservation, CONAF (Chile’s forest department), Oikonos and other local organisations have been working to eradicate invasive species

The only way to protect the endemic forests and rare species of the island is to eliminate the invasive species – a painful task in every way.

Island conservation, robinson crusoe, juan fernandez
Photo: Callum Thompson

Aided by Lenovo’s smart technology

That enables checking camera traps on the go.

Lenovo work for humankind
Photo: Callum Thompson

Which also allowed me to work remotely

Journaling and documenting the conservation work on my Lenovo Tab 11 Pro.

Lenovo Tab 11 Pro
Photo: Callum Thompson

And initiate new projects with the community as part of the #workforhumankind initiative

Including a pilot community farming project, and a proposal to aid the island’s transition from diesel-generated electricity to solar power.

community farming robinson crusoe, work for humankind
Photo: Callum Thompson

Over a month, I experienced the stark, dramatic landscapes across the island

Tourism on Robinson Crusoe Island has officially been on pause during the pandemic though.

Isla robinson crusoe, mas a tierra

Built beautiful friendships with the island community

robinson crusoe island people

Came face to face with the reality of conservation, climate change and species extinction

species extinction juan fernandez
Photo: Callum Thompson

Witnessed the most magical mornings and moon rises

robinson crusoe island

And found immense inspiration, hope and gratitude to protect the species we’re lucky to share this planet with.

Do you dream of visiting a place as remote as Isla Robinson Crusoe?

*Note: I was invited to Robinson Crusoe as part of the Work for Humankind project with Lenovo and Island Conservation. What an honor!

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter to follow my travel adventures around the world!

ALSO READ:

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

What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba

What It’s Like to Travel Solo When You’re in a Relationship

Turning 34 in Quarantine in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The plan sounded quite alright. Upon landing in Chile, I would spend five nights in quarantine in Valparaiso and four on the island – and be let out just before my 34th birthday, to embrace the spectacular beauty and connect with the remote island community of Robinson Crusoe Island.

But plans never work like they’re supposed to, do they?

Our tiny plane from mainland Chile to Robinson Crusoe Island got rescheduled three times. Each time, disappointed and desperate, I retreated to an extended, isolating quarantine in Room 1217 – where the walls felt like they would close in on me and swallow me whole any moment.

Also read: Enroute to One of the World’s Remotest Island

Sunsets in Room 1217 in Valparaiso – just half an hour from where the poet Pablo Nerudo once lived!

When the stars finally aligned, I was surprised to be dropped off at a navy airstrip in the wilderness of Santiago, the capital city of Chile! A tiny six-seater plane waited to carry four of us, along with two pilots, who proudly told us that that plane has been flying since the 1970s, manufactured some 50 years ago. Its scratched windows and broken air conditioning ducts were evidence.

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

Landing on Robinson Crusoe Island on the tiny six-seater plane!

I soon learnt that things had been quite lax until a few years ago when a famous Chilean actor died in a plane crash on his way to the island. Safety became of the utmost concern thereafter – and I’m so glad we waited for just the right weather conditions!

At low altitude above the Pacific Ocean, we flew for about two hours, hearts partly in our mouths. Descending past mist-engulfed hills and roaring waters, we landed on a narrow airstrip plucked out of the moon, surrounded by desolate landscapes streaked orange and brown.

Around the small airport jetty where we waited to board the boat to San Juan Bautista – the only inhabited village on the island – hundreds of seals swam and pranced about in the water. The choppy boat ride took us past Jurassic Park-esque scenery, finally depositing us ashore for four days of island quarantine.

Also read: Guanaja: Sshh… A Secret in the Caribbean

Airport jetty to catch the boat to San Juan Bautista.
First glimpse of the only inhabited village on Robinson Crusoe Island – home for a month!

But little did I know what was still in store…

On our fifth morning on the island, we headed out to the small village hospital for our fourth covid test of the trip. For the first time, I saw the only street of our village, the Lenovo technology hub where we’d have access to high speed wifi, and the family-run restaurant from where our food was catered. The air smelt like the ocean; the ocean shone a brilliant blue like the sky.

Our squad of four, who’d shared the disappointment of flight delays and thrill of boarding that tiny plane, bustled with excitement as we awaited the rapid test results. But as the clouds covered the sun and the wind started blowing hard, the room suddenly turned gloomy. The island nurse announced, quite ominously, that one person had tested positive – and as close contacts, the rest of us would have to quarantine for three more nights! An ambulance awaited outside the hospital to ferry us back the few hundred meters – and as news got around, the entire island went into a voluntary lockdown for 24 hours.

As I retreated back to my cozy wooden studio, overlooking the now silvery-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, the sun cast a strange halo on the wind-swept cliffs that rose up from the water. My eyes welled up with tears, as I craved to connect with my partner but had no internet to do so.

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

My cabaña in Isla Pacifico Ecolodge (earlier called Mas a Tierra Lodge) on Robinson Crusoe Island.

Not prepared for another 3 nights of isolation, I paced up and down the ten paces of my room, wondering why I’d accepted this assignment in the first place and brought a quarantine birthday upon me. After two years of the pandemic, I felt so far out of my comfort zone and so detached from the road, that I could no longer recollect why I travelled at all. Was the road ever really that magical?

Weepy-eyed, with a deep sense of isolation, I decided to take an afternoon nap – but soon got awakened by someone calling out my name. I wearily opened my door, and was shocked to see a group of islanders and some from our WFH work squad gathered in the garden beyond the terrace. These people I’d never met before had baked me an incredible vegan chocolate cake, carried a guitar, and burst into cumpleaños feliz, happy birthday <3

Also read: How the Pandemic Changed My Perspective on Life

Reflections on turning 34

The truth is that at 34, I’m having a hard time trying to find the 23-year-old me who first began penning this blog. She lived for the road, wouldn’t think twice about saying yes to a journey to the other side of the globe, and never dwelled enough on the future.

There might still be roads left in my shoes, but my feet are weary of where they tread and the trail they leave behind. Some might call it climate anxiety, but I think of it as impact anxiety. I constantly wonder about the impact of my travels – and existence – on this planet I’m lucky to call home… and even enrolled in a course to use scientific tools to be able to calculate it via a Life Cycle Assessment (more on that later).

Also read: Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29

No longer the 23-year-old I used to be. Photo: @adventure_cal

The pandemic, in all its weird and twisted ways, has me convinced that I can no longer just be a messenger – author, travel writer, blogger, Instagrammer, what have you.

To that end, I’ve now begun consulting an international travel company to assess the life cycle impact of their trips, figure out how to minimize their carbon emissions and ecosystem impact, and develop insetting projects to get to carbon neutral (or negative). I’m also contributing to a climate adaptation research project with tourism resilience at its core, and here on Robinson Crusoe over the coming month, I hope to engage with the island community in building a sustainable tourism destination.

A 20-something girl set out to defy societal expectations by travelling solo, living out of two bags as a digital nomad, challenging conventions of marriage and kids, and questioning the deeper purpose of travel. At 34, I feel ready to shed her skin and find new unknowns to tread.

I’ve spent the entire pandemic oscillating between feeling rootless, and feeling ready to restart my digital nomad life. But each time I wonder if the lure of the road is finally fading, it whips out its magic wand and casts its spell on me.

One thing is for sure though: At 34, I’m no longer just a girl who travels.

Never the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.

*Cover photo: @adventure_cal

ALSO READ:

Why Robinson Crusoe Island Might Just be the Most Unique Place on Earth

To Chile, With Love

Enroute to One of the World’s Remotest Islands!

I groggily opened my eyes after 8 straight hours of sleep, confused about my whereabouts. As I shifted in my seat and unintentionally touched a button, the screen in front of me turned on. A tiny plane charted its course across an animated globe, slowly zooming into South America, settling just a little north of Antarctica in Chile!

In a few minutes, the first rays of sunlight penetrated the darkness outside my window, revealing layers of dramatic, snow-dusted, desolate mountains – possibly the Andes of the Atacama Desert. As we began our descent, a sea of clouds hung below us, with stunning glimpses of lakes and hills bathed in the pink hues of sunrise.

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

My destination!

As we touched down, it suddenly hit me that I was really on my way to one of the world’s remotest islands – Isla Robinson Crusoe (originally called Mas a Tierra – “Closer to earth”), 700 kilometers off the coast of Chile, home to only 800+ people!

Conservation & Remote Work on Isla Robinson Crusoe, Chile

When Lenovo first reached out to me via The Better India about their #WorkforHumankind project, I never imagined I’d really be on my way to Chile a couple of months later.

As part of the project, Lenovo has set up a smart technology hub to offer (relatively) fast internet access to the otherwise isolated island community. The technology would simultaneously support Island Conservation‘s work to protect endangered species on the island.

As a travel writer and someone who’s begun dabbling in sustainable tourism consulting, I’d live on the island for a month. Part of my time would be spent engaging with the local community on sustainable tourism on the island and supporting Island Conservation’s work – while also documenting it. And the Lenovo workspace on the island would allow me to continue working remotely.

I furiously googled the island but found little about it online. All I know is that in the 1700s, it was home to a stranded sailor whose life is believed to have inspired the Robinson Crusoe novel.

Once shortlisted for the role, I had to undergo a psychometric test and interview to see if I could handle living on an island so remote!

And finally here I am, typing this while in quarantine in Valparaiso, just half an hour from where the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once lived.

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

Travelling internationally during a pandemic

Flying over the Andes in the Atacama Desert <3

If I’m completely honest, the idea of travelling alone to the other side of the globe after such a long hiatus was nerve-racking.

While navigating the world on an Indian passport has always been challenging, doing so during a pandemic, with vague travel and vaccine restrictions, was next level crazy!

And in the midst of a climate crisis, I constantly questioned whether it was worth the emissions of such a long journey.

Choosing to fly KLM

I was given the option of a few different airlines flying via Europe to Santiago, but my choice of KLM was easy. I not only love their flying experience but also appreciate that they remain one of the most sustainability-minded airlines in the skies.

Since I last flew with them in 2019, they’ve continued to remain in the top 3 on the Dow Jones Airlines Sustainability Index. All their flights out of Amsterdam, including mine, now use a small percentage of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which is hopefully the future of all aviation.

As per my Climate Action Plan (more on that soon), I’ll be calculating and offsetting emissions for all flights I choose to take this year, especially this long one to Chile. Lenovo also has plans to offset the overall environmental impact of our project.

Oh, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a bamboo toothbrush in my in-flight amenities kit – probably a first for an international airline! There’s still a way to go to reduce single-use plastic on board, but I have a feeling they’ll be among the first to get close to zero waste.

Also read: Shop at These Zero Waste Stores in India to Cut Your Plastic Footprint

Travelling to Chile on an Indian passport

Good news: Since 2019, Chile allows Indian passport holders with a valid US visa to enter the country visa-free. With my US visa, I breezed through immigration, stamped in for 90 days!

Chile Mobility Pass

It’s mandatory to be vaccinated for Covid-19 with two doses (and after six months, a booster dose) to enter Chile.

Vaccines not taken in Chile must be validated, after which a Mobility Pass is issued for use across Chile. This can take upto 30 days. My Covishield (Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine was validated in 3-4 days though.

The testing nightmare

My pre-departure RTPCR test – to be taken 72 hours before flying – was the stuff of nightmares! I had given my sample at the Metropolis lab in Goa before leaving for Mumbai, and 6 hours before departure, still didn’t receive my results. The lab guy eventually stopped answering my calls.

In panic, we made a mad dash to the international airport in Mumbai, where makeshift labs offer rapid antigen (results in 1-2 hours) and “rapid” RTPCR tests (results in upto 2 hours). I gave my samples for both, then heard from someone that only a few airlines accept these. What a shame it would be to miss the journey of a lifetime because of a delayed test result.

Ultimately, the Metropolis customer care connected me with someone in Panjim – a kind soul who was on her way out from work, but after some begging, decided to stay on and help me out. My sample had already been processed (negative) and only the report needed to be prepared. I received it 4 hours before flying; PHEW!

Lesson learnt: If flying internationally, do tests at two labs before departure, so atleast one arrives on time.

Chile Affidavit

48 hours before flying to Chile, an affidavit must be filled with the results of the RTPCR test and a copy of the travel insurance.

The affidavit was the first thing to be checked when I landed at Chile airport.

Testing and quarantine on arrival

Although immigration at Chile airport was a breeze, it took almost two hours with long queues, health document checks and a (rather brutal) RTPCR test at the airport.

Official restrictions in Chile need incoming travellers to quarantine only until the results of the test, but our Work for Humankind team has to be in strict quarantine for almost 9 days – partly in Valparaiso, and partly on the island – and undergo constant testing. Which is fair since we’ll be travelling to such a remote island with only 800 odd people!

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

Join me, virtually

valparaiso
My quarantine life in Valparaiso, Chile.

In some ways, this feels like I’m restarting my digital nomad life after a two year hiatus. Thanks to Lenovo, I’m now travelling with the super light and handy Lenovo Tab P11 Pro – which doubles as a tablet and laptop, and works with a finger, pen or keyboard! I haven’t used an Android phone in a long time, but I’m excited to try out the Motorola Edge 20 Pro – with 5x zoom and 30 hours battery life.

In other ways, it feels like a new era of travel – one in which I only accept assignments that can truly be transformative, not just for me but also for environmental conservation and the local community.

If all goes to plan – and the weather permits our small, low-flying plane to take off and embark on the turbulent 700km journey – I’ll arrive on Isla Robinson Crusoe over the weekend. Four more days in quarantine, then I promise to share glimpses of my island life here on the blog and on Instagram (especially stories!), as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

See you from the other side?

chile quarantine
Quarantine sunsets <3

*Note: I’m travelling to Isla Robinson Crusoe in partnership with Lenovo and Island Conservation. Lucky me!

PS: I’m hiring! The Social Media Assistant position in my team is vacant again, and I’m looking for someone passionate about sustainability and social media to fill it.

If that’s you, see details here.

ALSO READ:

Why Robinson Crusoe Island Might Just be the Most Unique Place on Earth

Turning 34 in Quarantine in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

To Chile, With Love

shivya nath, indian travel blogger, sustainable travel writer india

How the Pandemic Changed My Perspective on Life.

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

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

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

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

I’m not really a global citizen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: How to Embrace Sustainable Tourism in India

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

Dear Instagram, your algorithm is ruining travel!

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

But the exploding Instagram influencer phenomenon has changed that feeling.

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

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

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

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

Time is one big continuous cloth

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a bit of an outsider everywhere

An outsider, always trying to look in.

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

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

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

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

Waqt ke saath hai mitti ka safar sadiyon se

Kisko malum, kahan ke hain, kidhar ke hum hain

(The soil has been journeying with time for many centuries

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

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

wellness retreat in india

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wellness retreat in India to feel intimate with nature

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

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

Sunrise and pranayama on “meditation hill”

Spiritual retreat in India: Pranayama with a magical view.

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

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

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

Forest bathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking to hidden beaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working from home

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

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

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

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

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

Wellness clinic and Ayurvedic spa

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

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

Art therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: Can Luxury Travel be Sustainable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post by Aishwarya Muralidhar (with inputs)

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

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

Zero waste stores in India: The concept

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

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

But things are a little different now.

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

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

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

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

Zero waste stores by city

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

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

Bangalore

Green Mantra, Bangalore

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

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

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

Adrish Zero Waste, Bangalore

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

Chennai

EcoIndian Zero Waste Store, Chennai

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

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

Darjeeling

Tieedi Zero Waste Store, Darjeeling

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

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

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

Dehradun

Assav Organics, Dehradun

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

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

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

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

Delhi

Adrish Zero Waste, Delhi

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

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

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

Goa

Green Chokrees, Goa

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

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

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

Eco Posro, Goa

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

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

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

Gurgaon

For Earth’s Sake, Gurgaon

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

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

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

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

Hyderabad

Zero Waste Eco-Store, Hyderabad

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

Adrish Zero Waste Store, Hyderabad

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

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

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

Jaipur

Speak Earth, Jaipur

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

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

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

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

Kochi

7 to 9 Green Store, Kochi

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

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

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

Kolkata

Kolkata Zero Waste Bazaar, Kolkata

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

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

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

Mumbai

Vnya, Mumbai

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

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

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

Adrish Zero Waste, Mumbai

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

Online zero waste stores in India

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

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

ONEarth

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

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

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

Conscience Nook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bare Necessities

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

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

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

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

Brown Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Zero

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

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

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

Ullisu Store

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

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

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

Some zero waste products in India worth trying

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

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

Zero waste essentials

Menstrual cups

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

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

Bumpadum

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

Zero waste cleaning products

Almitra Sustainables

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

Coco Custo

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

Zero waste clothes

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

Some favorites include:

No Nasties

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

Pomogrenade

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

Kosha

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

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

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

Zero waste beauty

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

Scentora

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

Nature Masons

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

Zero waste gifts

Wild Berry Organics

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

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

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

Other tips to shop low waste 

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

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

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

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

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

Shop at local farmers’ markets

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

BYOB

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

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

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

Bulk up

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

Inspiring zero waste accounts on Instagram

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

@zerowasteadda

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

@ullisu.official

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

@conscious_chokri

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

@nayana_premnath

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

@_parth.bhasin

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

Your questions about going zero waste in India

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

Do you have any zero waste beginner tips?

Take it slow.

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

What are some easy zero waste swaps?

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

Is it possible to go zero waste on a budget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is zero waste important?

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

We’re drowning in plastic, literally

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a way to save money!

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

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

Doesn’t India already follow a zero waste culture?

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

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

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

About the guest author:

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

What No One Tells You About Being a Vegan Muslim.

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

Guest post by Nina Ahmedow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s haram not to eat meat.”

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

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

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

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

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

But veganism and Islam don’t necessarily contradict each other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Being Vegan in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simultaneously being vegan and Muslim can be frustrating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dolma. Photo by eat kubba (Pexels).

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

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

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

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

There might be a connection between Sufism and veganism

“I have existence and I value it so much

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

Then, how can I kill even the tiniest creature

Just to satiate my palate?”

~ Mevlana, aka Rumi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Nina Ahmedow.

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

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

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

Online resources

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

Further reading

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

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

About the guest author:

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