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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
How is your Sikkim travel plan shaping up? What else would you like to read about in my next Sikkim blog post?
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
- A note on the Uttarakhand floods
- How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas
- Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas
- What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?
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.
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.
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!
Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga
In the Garhwal Himalayas, a hike up from the picturesque village of Kuflon near Uttarkashi.
Catching up on life
Pristine landscapes, a good book and not another soul in sight.
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 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.
Sampling locally grown Garhwali food
Like fern, which grows wild in the forest, takes a trained eye to identify, and tastes delicious!
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.
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.
A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration
Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!
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.
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.
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.
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.
What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?
It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!
For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.
Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.
Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.
The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food, education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.
I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.
The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.
I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.
And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?
Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.
These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More
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.
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
An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.
A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.
A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.
A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.
A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where 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.
The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.
A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.
An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.
So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.
You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.
What are your reasons to visit Turkey?
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
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!
- Zero waste stores in India: The concept
- Zero waste stores by city
- Tieedi Zero Waste Store, Darjeeling
- Assav Organics, Dehradun
- Adrish Zero Waste, Delhi
- Green Chokrees, Goa
- Eco Posro, Goa
- Online zero waste stores in India
- Some zero waste products in India worth trying
- Other tips to shop low waste
- Inspiring zero waste accounts on Instagram
- Your questions about going zero waste in India
- Which are your favorite zero waste stores in India?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
Zero waste essentials
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.
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
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.
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:
They use 100% organic cotton and animal-friendly inks.
They upcycle clothes from waste material (dead stock) from factories.
They offer a repair shop so you can make your winter clothes last for the longest time possible!
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 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 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.
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!
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.
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
Pankti is a zero waste practitioner and a slow fashion advocate. She shares easy zero waste swaps, composting tips and upcycling ideas.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The fear of taking something which is halal (allowed), and making it haram (forbidden), makes many Muslims hesitant to forego animal products.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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:
- 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.
- Guardian: You are what you Eid: Ramadan for vegans
- Lemons and Luggage: 29 Delicious Quick Iftar Recipes
- Vegan Recipes from the Middle East by Parvin Razavi
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.
The Shooting Star Diaries is a new series to reflect on the quarter that was, recommend offbeat books and films, showcase new eco-friendly / vegan-friendly finds, share stories I’ve enjoyed writing… and check in on you! Welcome to the June 2021 edition.
As I write this post, I’m mentally preparing myself to move to our eighth rental since March 2020.
You read that right. We’ve moved eight times over the last 15 months – in the midst of a goddamn pandemic!
Admittedly a couple of these moves were out of choice. Like in June last year, when my partner and I – stuck in different corners of the universe – decided to move to Goa, the only Indian state that would take us in back then. Or in March this year, when life finally seemed to be normalizing, we took a leap of faith to move to the middle of nowhere in the Garhwal Himalayas.
But in between, we found ourselves living in what we jokingly called “the jail,” got chased out by inconsiderate owners, and lived in a place where the wash basin was inconspicuously missing from the bathroom! And don’t even get me started about rentals with mouldy walls, dated furniture and design so unaesthetic, it hurts the eye. Hopefully, it’s a case of eighth time lucky.
I’ve long believed that we’re a product of our choices.
I, for one, chose freedom over the stability of a long lease or ownership, and flexibility over the security of a full-time job – and was secretly proud of my choices. But when the pandemic hit, these choices became the bane of my nomadic existence!
In my story on The Dark Reality of Not Having a Home During the Pandemic on Journeys, I delve into all the unexpected challenges and deep introspection that have plagued my life over the past 15 months.
Books and films I recommend
I’ve heard much about the British-led exploitation of Uttarakhand’s forests, but never knew the history or extent of it. Through the life story of “Pahari Wilson,” a runaway Englishman who married two Garhwali women and settled in Harsil, investigative journalist Robert Hutchison recreates life in Garhwal in the 1800s. A delightful read, if somewhat painful to think of the wilderness we’ve lost.
A fascinating book about the Tarahumara, an obscure indigenous tribe in Mexico, considered the world’s greatest ultra-runners! At a time of no travel, this book by Christopher McDougall took me virtually to the most inaccessible reaches of Chihuahua, a state I had eyed longingly on the map while in Mexico.
A charming Hinglish film based on the young son of a Hindu-Muslim couple who quit their high-flying jobs and moved home to India to chase the dream of making a film. Available on Netflix.
A bizarre, bizarre film based on a true story that played out multiple times in fast food chains across the US. Available on Prime Video.
The true story of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg and her early battles for gender equality. Gives me hope that one person (supported by others) indeed has the power to change an entire system! Available on Prime Video.
Stuff I’m loving
Turns out, we’ve been eating chocolate all wrong! Nitin and Poonam Chordia – India’s first certified “chocolate tasters” (yes that certification exists!) – have developed vegan-friendly dark chocolates with Indian cacao that are a sensory experience.
They include a cute note on how to taste it (a bit like wine) – and instead of the regular packaging, the chocolate comes in a wrapper made of upcycled cotton and cacao husk, in a thick aluminum foil that can be reused. They also do a lot more in a bid to be sustainable – see my Conscious Vibes video about it.
Assav Organics – A zero waste store in Dehradun, finally!
Every time I visit my folks in Dehradun, I’m so excited to see how the valley’s evolving despite being plagued by traffic and chaotic construction. The latest jewel in its crown is a zero waste store set up by ex-armyman Colonel Arvind, that sells certified organic groceries sourced from across India. Take your own containers or get them in paper bags.
From founder Pardita Mascarenhas’ kitchen, Break of Dawn delivers fresh homemade vegan feta cheese and almond milk (I’m mad about the rose flavor) at doorsteps across Mumbai – at the break of dawn! Over almost six years of being vegan, I’ve tried many vegan milks and cheeses – and Pardita’s raise all benchmarks. Lucky you, Mumbai.
Stories I loved writing
When I first began working full time and earning a sizeable salary, I experienced a constant urge to buy the next great thing to feel fulfilled. On the road, I slowly learnt to fight and block out that urge.
But the absence of travelling has created a void in my life, and my mind has begun to find other tangible ways to fill it.
During my solo land voyage from Thailand to India via Myanmar, I unexpectedly found myself on a different kind of journey – searching for a long lost family member in Yangon!
When things get better (and they will!), escape to these idyllic getaways in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh for a workation, hike or detox.
In Iran, I came to realize that what I felt within me was a deep ache of being separated from a people, land, culture and identity that felt part of my own. As though I wasn’t an outsider at all. I was merely coming home…
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Social media stuff you may have missed
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For World Environment Day 2021, I imagined that our Planet Earth is calling us humans… my latest video is an interpretation of her message.
How’re you doing 15 months into the pandemic? What kept you busy in June? What stories, books, films, videos and finds did you enjoy during the month?
A few months ago, I embarked on an unexpected journey to explore rural India. I walked precariously on a centuries-old hanging wooden bridge (only 5 remain to this day!) that connect the most remote villages of Ladakh’s Zanskar Valley. Witnessed the intimate love stories of four generations of women in a remote Uttarakhand village. Joined the ancient tradition of worshipping wild tigers in rural Maharashtra. Walked several kilometers in Kerala’s Wayanad district with a 63-year-old “walking library” who delivers books to those who love to read but have no access. Learnt how the tribal culture in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills is helping preserve local biodiversity. And tried lost ancient superfoods with a 70+ year old Himachali couple…
All without stepping out!
Can we really explore rural India without leaving home?
Exactly a year ago, I was pacing up and down my terrace in Dehradun, feeling deeply concerned about how India’s tourism industry – especially community based tourism in India – was going to survive the pandemic-induced lockdown. I longingly recalled many heartwarming moments I had shared with homestay hosts, guides, dhaba owners, craftspeople, natural medicine practitioners, musicians, local environmentalists and others over the past decade, on my quest to explore India beyond the beaten path.
Even though my income as a travel writer had dropped to zero, I had the privilege to dip into my savings and pivot into new digital opportunities, while sheltering at home. On the other hand, despite growing access to smartphones and the internet, the lack of digital skills and tailored opportunities in rural areas in India held people back.
This context sparked the idea of Voices of Rural India.
Voices of Rural India: Leveraging community based tourism in India to upgrade digital storytelling skills among rural communities
In August 2020, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat in Uttarakhand, and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to launch a not-for-profit digital initiative: Voices of Rural India.
We’ve been working towards revolutionizing digital storytelling in India by bringing stories from rural storytellers across the country – from Spiti to Kerala – in their own voices.
In the short-term, Voices of Rural India is creating a revenue stream for remote communities through digital journalism. In the long run, it aims to develop digital storytelling skills at the grassroots level, along with becoming a repository of local culture and knowledge, documented in local voices.
For the rest of us stuck at home, this is a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the words, photos and videos of the very people we travel to meet. Personally, it has grown my post-covid bucket list to include some inspiring, amazing villages in India!
Our team has grown to include Namrata Shah, a travel buff who quit the corporate world to explore new avenues, and many passionate volunteers to support us with editing, publishing, social media, SEO, creating training materials, managing our whatsapp group and more.
If you’d like to volunteer with Voices of Rural India, please see current opportunities here.
A successor of @VoicesofMunsiari: India’s first Instagram channel to be run entirely by a village community
Back in 2016, when I spent a month in Sarmoli, I was surprised to discover that this remote village in Uttarakhand comes together every summer to go birdwatching, practice yoga and run high altitude marathons! That’s when the idea of @voicesofmunsiari came about – an Instagram channel that would be run collectively by the village folk, sharing their everyday lives with the outside world. In subsequent years, we organized a smartphone collection drive through my blog, as well as a photography and Instagram workshop in Sarmoli village.
@voicesofmunsiari, which was purely driven by the passion of local creators, convinced us of the untapped talent and the need to create more digital storytelling opportunities.
When it gradually became obvious that rural tourism is unlikely to recover in the foreseeable future, Voices of Rural India was born – more ambitious in scope, with funding from the Digital Empowerment Foundation to pay storytellers directly in their bank account for every story published.
Now, as the second wave rages across the country, this time not even sparing remote places in India, the threat to lives and livelihoods feels even more real than before, compelling us to continue our mission with renewed fervor.
Missing rural tourism in India? Experience village life in India, virtually
Voices of Rural India is currently working with rural communities in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya and Gujarat, through on-ground community-based tourism organisations: Global Himalayan Expedition, Spiti Ecosphere, Himalayan Ecotourism, Kabani, Himalayan Ark, Grassroutes Journeys and Cherish Expeditions – all glowing examples of rural tourism in India.
The storytellers are typically guides, homestay hosts, people involved in tourism, and youth and women from the community – and through our intensive storytelling process, we hope they can come to proudly own their heritage, traditions, culture, food and connection with nature.
Popular stories on Voices of Rural India
- The Walking Library: In the hilly Mothakkara village in Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
- How Love Has Changed Over Four Generations: A brave, young woman, who married for love two decades ago, writes about pride and prejudice, and love, in the mountains near Munsiari.
- What Can Two Imaginative Minds Create With Wild Grass and a Thorny Tree? A teacher from Maharashtra’s Purushwadi village visually documents the craftsmenship of two brothers, who use wild grass, a thorny tree and their imagination to create sustainable vessels, vases, ornaments and more.
- One Ladakhi Girl’s Journey from Darkness to Light: A young girl from Sumda Chenmo, a remote village in Ladakh’s Markha region, shares her journey from growing up in a village without electricity to solar-electrifying 50+ such villages.
- The Forbidden Forests of Meghalaya: A social worker from Meghalaya’s Chiringmagre village shares how ancient traditions and tribal culture help preserve a patch of pristine biodiversity in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills.
- Why the People of Spiti Eat Stones: One of the few remaining amchis of Spiti Valley sheds light on the challenges of his practice and the miracle stones still used as a treatment.
Over 40 stories so far, the themes on Voices of Rural India span everything from the age-old traditions, to the architecture of old village houses in India, to women empowerment in rural India, to lost Himalayan superfoods, to the challenges of conservation and development in rural India, to how Indian village life has changed over the decades.
We’re humbled to see Voices of Rural India featured on The Times of India, The Hindu, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, FirstPost, Outlook Traveller, YourStory, Homegrown and other publications. And immensely grateful for all your support.
Stay home, stay safe and continue to explore rural India… virtually.
Have you met inspiring storytellers on your travels in rural India?
PS: Hope you and your loved ones around the world are safe and well. If you’re battling India’s second wave, I’ve found Twitter to be immensely helpful in supporting people looking for oxygen, beds, plasma etc. If your appeal needs amplification, please tag / DM me on Twitter @shivya.
Stay safe, stay sane, and know that we’ll get through this.
Sustainable luxury travel sounds like an oxymoron, but it doesn’t have to be. One sustainable luxury hotel in Kerala is showing the way.
As a travel writer, I’ve had the chance to sample many high-end accommodations and luxury wildlife lodges. Despite the comfort and pampering, I’ve often left feeling conflicted about their enormous environmental footprint.
Those cards floating about in the rooms, saying they care about the environment and wouldn’t want to wash sheets and towels everyday, that’s mostly greenwashing.
What is sustainable luxury travel anyway?
Simply put, it is the idea that high-end comfort can coexist with eco-friendly, socially-conscious, low-impact tourism practices.
Is luxury travel in India sustainable?
Unfortunately, most luxury hotels in India tend to generate huge amounts of single-use plastic trash through bottled water and toiletries. Many don’t bother to segregate their waste, contributing to landfill and ocean dumps. And the carbon emissions generated by their indiscriminate use of electricity, air-conditioned rooms and food imported from around the world are significant. Sustainable tourism examples in the luxury space are only a handful.
As someone who tends to gravitate towards small, eco-friendly homestays, I suppose I’ve often looked at luxury travel in India – and elsewhere – with a critical eye. But that changed when I visited Spice Village in Thekkady last year. Here’s why:
The cozy huts at Spice Village are thatched and cooled naturally with dried elephant grass
Grown and harvested with the support of the forest department. It helps create a fire line to control the spread of forest fires.
Located just across the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady
Perfect for an early morning walk in the forest with a local guide and ranger. We saw a tiger kill on ours 😮
The art of natural cooling was once practiced by the local Mannan tribe – but nearly forgotten
Until Spice Village decided to recreate their traditional architecture, eliminating the need for an air conditioner even on hot, sunny days! The thatch has to be replaced every alternate year, creating employment and continued practice for local tribesmen who have unfortunately replaced their own thatched roofs with concrete.
Nearly 75% of all electricity at Spice Village comes from solar energy
Used for powering the rooms and huge boilers for hot water. Instead of storing the excess energy in batteries, it is channeled to the grid for debit at night and in the monsoon months.
After estimating that the resort discards 45,000 plastic mineral water bottles annually, they installed their own RO filtration and bottling plant
Filtration is done via reverse osmosis, then bio dynamization adds mineral back to the water. Drinking water is now served only in glass bottles – perhaps the first hotel of this size in India to do so!
Instead of single-use plastic, toiletries are available in cute, reusable ceramic jars, along with paper-wrapped handmade soaps
All waste is segregated and sent for recycling, composted for manure or made into biogas for cooking
According to an estimate by Spice Village, 250-400 kg of food waste is composted annually, using vermi composting and micro organism composting. Do other big hotels send that much or more unsegregated waste into landfills?
Rainwater harvesting and a well on site supports almost all water needs
All sewage generated by the resort is recycled, converted into odorless waste water and used to irrigate the organic garden
Building a circular system from rainwater to waste water to organic produce to compost for manure and biogas for cooking.
Old newspapers and magazines are recycled in-house into handmade paper, and used for stationary
I was blown away by the handmade paper unit, where travellers can try their hand at making recycled paper! This handmade paper is used for guest registration, scribble pads in the rooms and the outer layer of pens (though the refill is still plastic).
Much of the furniture is handcrafted from recycled pine wood
Over 50% of staff is employed locally, from the towns and villages of Idukki district
Photographed here is Baby with his wife, who oversees sourcing from local entrepreneurs.
And many everyday supplies are sourced from rural entrepreneurs
I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes and meet some entrepreneurs who supply reusable cloth bags, dustbin liners, paapad (poppadum) and candles. Hearing about their journey, from joining Kerala’s Responsible Tourism Mission training, to setting up their own small business, to supplying in bulk to Spice Village and gradually scaling up, was incredibly inspiring.
One of the two restaurants at Spice Village serves seasonal food sourced ONLY within 50 miles!
The in-house organic farm grows all kinds of herbs and leafy greens, while women in nearby villages supply pesticide-free veggies from their kitchen gardens. The chefs actually climb trees in the backyard for truly farm-to-table meals! I only wish there was a greater focus on vegan food, given the high footprint of meat, seafood and dairy.
After the lockdown, Spice Village has been reopening slowly – 40 out of 52 rooms are now open with serious covid-safety measures in place
Spread out over 12 acres of forest and spice plantation, the huts are naturally geared towards social distancing. Rooms 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.
While international travel remains a distant dream, so many incredible, less-explored, eco-friendly, socially-inclusive gems await in our own backyard in India…
Tourism – whether its family luxury travel or solo luxury travel – if done right, can help protect the local way of life, create respectable employment opportunities and positively impact the environment. Spice Village is showing the way!
Have you experienced sustainable luxury travel in India or elsewhere? Is Spice Village on your bucket list?
*Note: I was hosted by CGH Earth at Spice Village. Lucky me!
For more sustainable ways to travel, sustainable luxury hotels, sustainable adventure travel and other sustainable travel ideas, check out this collection.
While browsing through my Instagram DMs a few months ago, there was one that really jumped out at me. The world had been catapulted into a global pandemic and borders were shut, and Saurabh Gupta aka @anindiantraveler – a solo backpacker from Mumbai – found himself stuck on the other side of the globe, in Colombia!
In February 2020, after working, saving up and quitting his job of many years, he finally embarked on his dream solo trip to South America. But just a month into his travels, he found himself locked down indefinitely at a hostel in Medellin, far far away from the familiarity of home – an adventure no one could’ve anticipated.
I got chatting at length with Saurabh about his decision to quit his full time job, his past travels, what took him to South America and how he spent 6 months locked down in Colombia. Gear up for a fascinating, inspiring story.
An introvert banker turns full time solo traveller
“World cinema introduced me to so many different cultures, people, languages, regions and landscapes. At one point I wanted to experience them in real life. So I decided to travel solo.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
For much of his life, Saurabh had felt stuck in a loop. Work, office, home, repeat. As an introvert, he found refuge in world cinema, especially films by the likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Satyajit Ray, which induced in him a desire to explore the world out there.
Like many fellow Indians, he was in awe of the western world, but when he travelled to Western Europe and the US, he felt a bit underwhelmed. It was in Central Asia that he hitchhiked for the first time, and felt a strong draw to the unique culture and hospitality of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
This trip gradually nudged him to quit his banking work of more than a decade, sell the outsourcing sales agency he ran with his older brother, and travel and write full time. As a budget traveller, Saurabh says he tries to hitchhike, couch-surf, volunteer and cook whenever possible. His savings and investments pay for his basic costs.
After he quit in late 2019, he spent two months exploring East Africa – seeking out mountain gorillas and hiking to a crater lake in Rwanda, exploring the beaches and wildlife of Kenya, and volunteering at a coffee farm and reforestation project in Uganda. His travels then took him to Northeast India, where he trekked in the Dzukou valley and explored Manipur and Mizoram among the other seven sisters.
Gradually, he began dreaming of travelling without a set itinerary, without a return date. Little did he know that the future was going to offer literally that.
Setting out on his dream trip to South America… in late Feb 2020!
“I wanted to travel extensively across South America for atleast a year. It was supposed to be my longest trip… which it still is, but under completely different circumstances!” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had put off travelling to South America for a long time, constrained by time and finances. After much planning, he finally boarded a flight to Colombia on 19th Feb 2020. He dreamt of journeying from the northernmost to the southernmost point of South America, going with the flow along the way to let people and places mold his plans.
But 2020 of course, had its own agenda…
Getting locked down in Colombia for 6 months
“I had travelled solo to four continents but never lived in a foreign country, nor did I intend to. But the universe had different plans for me.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh explored northern Colombia for about a month, where he attended the Barranquilla’s Carnival – the second largest in the world, travelled to Punta Gallinas – the nothernmost point of South America, saw sand dunes along the stunning beaches etc. Then he took an overnight bus from Cartagena to Medellin. As he began exploring the city, he noticed that many attractions were closing down. It was mid-March and most people were not taking the coronavirus news too seriously.
After a few days in Medellin though, news suddenly broke out that almost the entire world was going into lockdown – Medellin, Colombia, South America, India. Saurabh anticipated that it would be a short term state of affairs, and decided to stay on in Medellin to avoid buying a highly overpriced ticket back to India. In the meantime, airports, schools, colleges, offices, shops, malls, transportation, everything shut – and Medellin went quiet.
During the initial lockdown, he could only step out twice in 10 days to stock up on groceries or use the ATM, monitored by the last digit of the cedula (the Colombian National ID card) or the passport number. He was staying in a budget hostel at the time, and rather enjoyed the experience of hanging out and cooking with travellers from across the continent.
But as he lost hope of returning home or travelling again, frustration gradually set in. To keep his spirits up, he decided to change hostels and neighborhoods.
Discovering slow travel and creative pursuits
“I used to think and laugh about the fact that I quit my work of so many years because I didn’t want to be stuck in one place for my whole life. But ironically, I felt stuck again even though I was travelling.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Colombia had one of the world’s longest lockdowns – 6 entire months! Over the course of this time, Saurabh moved 3 hostels, 2 Airbnb rentals and undertook a 3-week stint volunteering in exchange for stay and food. He lived in several different neighborhoods in Medellin, of which his favorite was Envigado, quiet and close to the mountains, waterfalls, nature walks and parks. The houses and infrastructure there reminded him of his childhood in Panchkula.
Once he set his mind to spending his energy on positive pursuits, he immersed himself in learning Spanish, which he could practice everyday with native speakers. He got better at cooking, practiced salsa, took to Spanish music and signed up for an online writing course. When the restrictions eased up a bit, he would go out on long walks, bicycle rides and hikes, often covering 15-20km a day, sometimes solo and sometimes with resident friends. He met many new people and shared meals, cooking recipes, dance steps, music and long conversations – and perhaps that’s what kept him going in dismal times.
During the fifth month of his lockdown life in Medellin, Saurabh even got invited to a local radio show, where the RJ quizzed him about Medellin, India and his time in lockdown!
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
The end of the lockdown, finally
“I don’t feel disheartened now. I’m glad I had the experience of living in a foreign country under strange circumstances – something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had been in touch with the Indian embassy all this while, and at some point, was seriously contemplating returning back to India. The evacuation flights however, were priced rather high, and he had also begun to feel a sense of belonging in Medellin.
By now, he would walk several hours everyday, listening to Spanish music, discovering different parts of the city. On one such walk, he recalls, he went to La Sierra – labelled one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. There, he met a guy who instantly recognized that he was from India and invited him home for a cup of coffee and oblea (a local sweet). Having worked in the Middle East and made Indian friends, he was delighted to see Saurabh in his neighborhood.
Despite having an Indian passport, Saurabh’s US tourist visa allowed him to stay in Colombia for upto 6 months – and the Colombian government eased up visa restrictions during the lockdown too.
When the lockdown finally ended in Colombia in September 2020, he explored a bit more of the country. A couple of weeks ago, in February 2021, he eventually boarded a flight from Mexico to India – one whole year after his departure.
Words of wisdom for those whose travel dreams were shattered by the pandemic
Saurabh: “After I started travelling full time, strange things have happened with me again and again. I went to Kashmir with my brother and had to return early because of the suspension of Article 370. Then during my solo trip to East Africa, I had to return early to India to attend to an urgent family matter. When I travelled solo to Northeast India, I wanted to explore all states but had to cut my trip short due to the CAA/NRC protests. And now the lockdown during my Colombia trip…
2020 has been really challenging for most of us, but it has taught me that with an adventurous mindset and a positive attitude towards people and life, we can make the most of even such unpredictable times. My lockdown story is an apt example!”
All photos in this post belong to Saurabh, used with permission.
What’s your lockdown story, and how did this time affect your travel dreams? What have you learnt from it?
This post is part of my “Solo Travellers from Asia” Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways, yet are typically underrepresented in the travel space.
If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!
Other posts from this solo travel series
There are plenty of generic lists of things to do in Fort Kochi out there. But you could look beyond popular places to visit in Fort Kochi and instead, connect with locals over music, poetry and cleaning up Fort Kochi beach, spot humpback dolphins, try yoga, discover traditional food and unique cafes in Fort Kochi, and more!
This post is part of my series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.
It wasn’t love at first sight when I first visited Fort Kochi some 8 years ago. Merely passing through the city, perhaps the riot of sights, sounds and smells overwhelmed my senses.
But on a trip at the beginning of last year, I took it slow, discovered many unusual things to do in Fort Kochi and overcame the initial sensory overload. Indulging my taste buds in the fusion of hipster cafes and traditional thalis, cycling along the quaint by-lanes and aroma-filled streets of Mattancherry, and connecting with locals over music, poetry and art, I felt my every sense indulged.
I must admit though, that the more I went beyond the regular places to see in Fort Kochi checklists, the more I felt an ache about the city’s lost potential. If some streets were turned into walking-only streets, the old houses of Jew town better preserved and all Fort Kochi hotels compelled to build in the heritage architectural style, we could have a most unique living heritage destination!
Nonetheless, nostalgic tales from the days of the city’s ancient trading past continue to live on here, and we must wade through many layers to find them.
Meaningful things to do in Fort Kochi
Behold, some of my favorite discoveries, unique places to eat in Fort Kochi and Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path:
- Meaningful things to do in Fort Kochi
- Try plant-based food and yoga at Loving Earth Cafe
- Cruise on a boat made in the original Brunton boatyard
- Help clean up Fort Kochi beach every Saturday
- Indulge in a true blue organic Kerala thali at The Village
- Go cycling in Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky
- Keep an evening for open mic poetry, music, art and clay oven pizzas at David Hall Fort Kochi
- Stay in a time warp at Brunton Boatyard
- Explore the villages and backwaters beyond with a local
- Your questions about Fort Kochi
- Best time to visit Fort Kochi
- Best place to stay in Fort Kochi
- Best restaurant in Fort Kochi
- Shopping in Fort Kochi
- Things to do in Fort Kochi at night
- Other unique places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry
- Getting to and around Fort Kochi
- What are some interesting things to do in Fort Kochi you’ve discovered on your trip? What are you most looking forward to?
Try plant-based food and yoga at Loving Earth Cafe – one of the best cafes in Fort Kochi
There are plenty of Fort Kochi cafes to choose from, but after nearly a month of living in a stunning little village in Tamil Nadu, I wanted creative, clean, healthy food to pamper my taste buds. Just an hour after arriving, even before I began to explore Fort Kochi, I found my way to Loving Earth Cafe – a gorgeous space with a tropical decor, warm vibe and innovative plant-based menu that immediately lured me in.
The refreshing “Mint my day” smoothie, yum-hum (hummus and home-baked focaccia) toasts and the fudgy chocolate chunk brownies were just the comfort food I needed.
At a time when ethical, environmental and health concerns are making many people reconsider their dietary choices, indulging in a meal at Loving Earth is testimony to the fact that food without animal products doesn’t have to be boring! Infact, I found the food so much more creative than other cafes in the vicinity (especially the popular Kashi Art Cafe Fort Kochi), that I went back multiple times.
Our search for yoga classes in Fort Kochi even led us to their cozy little upstairs studio for an afternoon of intense yet rejuvenating hatha yoga.
Cruise on a boat made in the original Brunton boatyard – and if you’re lucky, you might spot Indian Humpback Dolphins in Fort Kochi!
Back when Fort Kochi was a bustling trading settlement, it was home to a heritage boat building site called Brunton Boatyard. CGH Earth – which now runs one of the most unique hotels at Fort Kochi on this site – managed to get back a boat built there nearly 81 years ago, retired from service in the Lakshadweep islands, and refurbished it for a sunset cruise!
On board this historic vessel, we set sail on the Arabian Sea, where a school of wild Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins swam just metres away from our boat, as the golden light of the setting sun danced on the waves. Threatened by overfishing and habitat changes, the numbers of these gentle giants have dwindled over the years, so spotting them in the waters off Fort Kochi gave us a glimpse of what we stand to lose.
As we drifted along small coastal villages, Brahmini Kites spread their massive wings above and swerved in the breeze. The iconic (and now symbolic) fishing nets of Fort Kochi made me feel like I was in a time warp.
Help clean up Fort Kochi beach every Saturday
Some four years ago, local residents, including Fort Kochi hotel and homestay owners, came together to clean up their beach. They gradually established the Clean Fort Kochi Foundation, and clean-ups happen every Saturday now.
Joining a beach cleanup drive might not feature on a regular traveller’s agenda during a stay in Fort Kochi, but given that we’re definitely going to relish a sunset or three on the beach, it definitely should be. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s ecosystem, connect with locals and question our own consumption.
Indulge in a true blue organic Kerala thali at The Village – one of the best restaurants in Fort Kochi
I might never have stumbled upon The Village, given the wide (and confusing) variety of places to eat in Fort Kochi, had it not been recommended by a newfound friend, Krithika – who moved to Fort Kochi a while ago and runs a boutique travel company called The Wander Bug.
Run by two friendly Malayali brothers, this rustic eatery serves up the most delicious, wholesome, organic Kerala thalis, whipped up with locally sourced ingredients and traditional family recipes. Many delights on offer can be customized without animal products, and there’s usually even a daily special vegan dessert on offer. What better way to support a local business while delighting your taste buds?
Go cycling in Fort Kochi under the moonlit sky
I can still sniff the humid sea air and see the moon peeping out from behind the clouds in the vast skies above. On quiet nights, instead of wondering what to do in Fort Kochi, we borrowed bicycles from our hotel, zoomed into a map of Fort Kochi and cycled under the spectacular umbrella-like canopies of ancient rain trees.
Past colorful little cafes and boutique shops we rode, along the coast we rode, to the empty beaches with the moonlight crashing into the waves. What a feeling!
Keep an evening for open mic poetry, music, art and clay oven pizzas at David Hall Fort Kochi
There are plenty of art galleries and old structures all around, but at David Hall, the history of Fort Kochi seems to come alive. Tucked away amid the rain trees, this 17th century Dutch bungalow has been restored into an art gallery that showcases the work of both local artists and international art inspired by Kerala. We were lucky to catch a block painting art exhibition, beautifully depicting local life in the city and the pace at which it’s changing.
David Hall is one of the few places in Fort Kochi where every evening, local and visiting musicians and poets gather together for an open mic – a cosy venue for some creative inspiration and intimate culture swap, worth ditching other bars in Fort Kochi for! And while you’re at it, give their clay oven-baked cashew cheese vegan pizza a try – DELICIOUS.
Stay in a time warp at Brunton Boatyard – possibly the best hotel in Fort Kochi
When I first arrived at Brunton Boatyard, I was convinced it was atleast a 100 years old. The intricate wooden ceilings with Dutch and Portuguese influences. The “pankhas” – once manually worked by a “pankhawala” to keep it cool. The tea lounge reminiscent of the British era. The arched walls and windows. The old school switchboards. It felt stuck in time…
Much to my surprise, it turned out that it was built only about twenty years ago, by a Swiss architect who specializes in the old architecture of Fort Kochi. It is located on the site of the original Brunton boatyard though!
Besides being an ode to the local architecture, Brunton Boatyard practices rainwater harvesting and is a single use plastic-free zone. They have their own bottling plant to serve up drinking water in glass bottles and offer natural toiletries in ceramic bottles. The eco-friendly practices clubbed with a laidback luxurious experience makes it one of the best places to stay in Fort Kochi. Now open with limited inventory in the new “normal”, they seem to be exercising every safety caution to host travellers.
For Fort Kochi attractions beyond the beaten path, explore little-known villages and backwaters with a local
I sorely wish I had planned to spend atleast one more day in Fort Kochi, for the idea of cycling beyond the beaten path caught my fancy. As part of the Art of Bicycle Trips, a Kerala local offers a half day trip exploring the coastal villages, rice paddies, organic farms and pristine backwaters just beyond.
Having explored the outskirts of Bangalore on one of their cycling trips, I imagine this one too would’ve taken me to a palm-fringed, traffic-free, tourist-free side of Kochi. Atleast I have an excuse to return.
Also read: God’s Own Island by the Kasaragod Backwaters
Your questions about Fort Kochi
Best time to visit Fort Kochi
I visited Fort Kochi in the second half of February, and even though the afternoons were hot and sultry, the early mornings and evenings were wonderfully cool. The winter months from November to February are ideal for exploring this tropical nook of Kerala.
Avoid the busy Kochi-Muziris Biennale (an international art festival) dates – which attract big crowds and a hike in accommodation prices – unless of course you’re an art aficionado.
Best place to stay in Fort Kochi
When deciding where to stay in Fort Kochi, think about the experience you’re after – and your budget of course. On my first trip, I was strapped for cash and stayed at a low budget homestay. On a work assignment this time, I was lucky to be hosted by CGH Earth. I hope to discover and share more eco-conscious hideouts on future trips.
Best restaurant in Fort Kochi
There’s no dearth of good restaurants in Fort Kochi, but some of my favourites are:
- The Village for their Kerala thali.
- Loving Earth Cafe for smoothies, smoothie bowls, Buddha bowls and vegan desserts.
- David Hall for wood-fired pizza.
- Breath Cafe for smoothies and Japanese food.
I hope to try the food at Veda Wellness and Aruvi Nature Life on my next trip!
Shopping in Fort Kochi
As someone who aspires to minimalism, I rarely shop on my travels, but I was delighted to stumble upon Kalpa – an organic health store that stocks local grains, artisan chocolates, all kinds of superfoods, handmade soaps and more. It’s located right next to The Village restaurant.
Jew Street also has a treasure trove of stores with unique antiques from the times gone by.
Things to do in Fort Kochi at night
- Cycle along the quiet lanes of Fort Kochi. Follow the coastal road from Brunton Boatyard via St Francis Church and Fort Kochi beach to the Salafi Masjid, and pedal back through the quaint by-lanes.
- Attend open mic for music, poetry and wood-fired pizzas at David Hall at 6 pm every evening.
- Catch Kathakali at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
- Keep a lookout for local music and art festivals at the promenade. We serendipitously arrived in Fort Kochi on the evening of a traditional dance festival and caught a stunning Theyyam act.
Other unique places to visit in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry
I need to plan a third trip to leisurely explore the wonders of Jew Town. If the Fort Kochi synagogue is anything to go by, four centuries of history linger beyond the off-putting traffic and sellers that now line its streets. I’ve heard of some restoration initiatives in the area, and sure hope some of Kerala’s unique heritage can be salvaged before it’s too late.
Getting to and around Fort Kochi
Bike rental in Fort Kochi
Most hotels and accommodations offer a bike rent in Fort Kochi – and even if they don’t have their own bikes, they can definitely arrange one for you. Ask ahead of time.
You can also get in touch with BLive to do one of their e-bike trips.
Fort Kochi ferry
For the price of a few rupees, you can hop on to the Fort Kochi ferry to Ernakulam, Vyleen or Willingdon Island – a great budget way to experience the water and the local life around.
Airport to Fort Kochi / Ernakulam to Fort Kochi
Last I heard, multiple air-conditioned buses now ply from Kochi Airport to Fort Kochi. It’s best to arrive during the day and ask at the information desk. It’s also possible to take the ferry part of the way to cut down the travel time.
Cherai Beach to Fort Kochi
On my first trip to Fort Kochi, we did the long drive on a scooter to Cherai Beach, to be somewhat disappointed by our destination. I hear it’s a lot more popular now, and don’t particularly recommend it.
What are some interesting things to do in Fort Kochi you’ve discovered on your trip? What are you most looking forward to?
*Note: I travelled to Fort Kochi on assignment for CGH Earth. As you know, opinions on this blog are always my own.
A collection of organic farms, silent meals, and unique cafes and restaurants in Auroville – including the best restaurants in Pondicherry nearby – to indulge your tastebuds.
Guest post by Vinita Contractor
This post is part of a series to discover India and the world more mindfully in the new “normal”. Please see my detailed safety tips while travelling and recommendations for socially distanced hideouts.
I first travelled to Auroville on a quick day trip from Chennai some 20 years ago, and was surprised to discover this land of possibilities. With my ecological and spiritual bent of mind, it felt like a place so within reach, yet rare to find.
Over the years, I’ve been back in Auroville to volunteer at Sadhana Forest, take a course on raw food and explore the township on a family vacation. Its natural, organic and sustainable farming revolution has led to an explosion of cafes and restaurants in Auroville that are healthy yet soul-satisfying.
Also read: A Slow Travel Guide to Auroville
Whether you’re staying in Auroville, visiting Auroville for a short trip, volunteering in Auroville or just spending a day in Auroville, these are my favorite restaurants and cafes in Auroville:
- Best restaurants in Auroville
- Best cafes in Auroville
- Unique Auroville food experiences
- Vegan desserts in Auroville
- Other places to eat in Auroville
- Best restaurants in Pondicherry
- What are your favorite Auroville food spots? Which of the above would you most like to try?
Best restaurants in Auroville
Maiyam Past Food Restaurant
What first struck me about Maiyam was the signage outside. It read “past food”.
For a second I thought it was a typo, as we are so accustomed to hearing about fast food. But then I realized that this is a special place that serves up traditional South Indian / Dravidian fare, made fresh in small batches.
Maiyam has an earthy feel from the moment you enter. The low seating, chattais (woven mats) on the floor and solid wood furniture give it a very warm, homely vibe, with lots of character. The shelves lining the restaurant are stocked with organic, heirloom varieties of grains and legumes, jaggery, pickles and natural products.
The menu changes every day, with set meals for lunch and dinner, and a small range of homemade snacks. I’ve tried their thinai (foxtail millet), knolkol (turnip), thoran (dry seasonal dish), kozhambu (tamarind based curry) and other dry and curried vegetable preparations, with lightly spiced chutneys and mango pickle. This wholesome, authentic and delicious meal is best rounded up with ragi laddoos for dessert. I even indulged in a rare cup of coffee with coconut milk (without having to customize it), flavored with their melt-in-the-mouth, caramel-like jaggery!
Most of the food is accidentally vegan, but it’s best to double check before ordering. I absolutely loved everything I’ve eaten at Maiyam, and if I ever stay in Auroville long term, this would become my frequent lunch spot.
Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant
Tucked away in a quiet pocket of Auroville is the Satchitananda Raw Food Restaurant, started by Anandi Vaithialingam. Having been around for almost a decade and known for their commitment to healthy, clean eating, it is considered an institution among those who live in Auroville.
Everything served here is raw, but don’t let that put you off. The set lunch menu, which includes delights like flax seed crackers, tomato rasam, sprouts salad, wraps and patties, raw sabzis, vegan cheesecake and homemade kombucha, is freshly made, and I could actually sense and perceive its aliveness. It’s neither heavy on spice nor salt, so I could enjoy the taste of each ingredient and experience a fullness I could never imagine from food that isn’t cooked!
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time learning from Anandi in her kitchen, and also to see the Kottakarai Organic Food Processing Unit (KOFPU) next door which she set up. That is where much of the packaged health food like kombucha, herbal teas etc. are prepared and supplied all over Auroville and many other cities in India.
Also read: Auroville: Utopia or Something Like It
The first thing that struck me about Sakura Sushi is the huge mural on the side wall of the restaurant, which shows an old Indian woman, nose ring et al, eating sushi with chopsticks.
Inside this cozy little place is an open kitchen, where you can watch sushi rolls being prepared fresh and feast on them with your eyes first.
I thoroughly enjoyed the cucumber avocado spring onion sushi, grilled marinated capsicum maki, tempeh in teriyaki sauce nigiri, and the red beans with fermented cabbage, among the many vegan options.
The owner Arun used to be a chef in Germany, and has truly introduced a slice of Japan in Auroville. His wife stocks ferments, dips, dressings and desserts at the restaurant. Don’t forget to pick up something healthy for later.
Also read: The Ultimate Vegan Travel Guide to Japan
Best cafes in Auroville
Neem Tree Eatery
This lovely home-style outdoor café near the Auroville Library, is built with exposed redbricks which are so quintessentially Auroville.
I loved sitting under the lovely neem tree to enjoy the fare at this quaint cafe – perfect to while away an afternoon instead of rushing to figure things to do in Auroville. The open kitchen allows a chance to chat with the local staff too.
The menu at the Neem Tree Eatery is pretty varied. Juices, South Indian fare, international food, mini meals, sandwiches, beverages and desserts – all very fresh and reasonably priced. I’ve indulged in the ragi dosa, red rice puttu, mixed veg parathas, appams and vegan chocolate cake, and my favorite might just be the indulgent chocolate dosa!
Bread & Chocolate
If you’re a fan of Indian raw cacao, the Auroville-based brand Mason & Co is no stranger. Bread & Chocolate is their hugely popular cafe in Auroville, so much so that you could be looking at long waiting periods over the weekend – and for good reason!
Their delicately crafted sourdough sandwiches, especially the summertime tartine with oven roasted tomatoes, marinated onions, vegan cream cheese, microgreens and basil pesto is a winner. My sons couldn’t get enough of their homemade vegan ice creams, especially the chocolate orange!
I have pretty much tried everything on the menu – and love everything about it: the portion sizes, the food plating aesthetics, the high quality ingredients and of course, the food itself. I dream of the Miss Saigon Abundance bowl, the breakfast board, the Elvis and the Cocoa Granola!
Don’t leave without a glimpse of their separate take away section, where homemade chocolates are available per piece; the almond praline is divine!
Dreamers Café Auroville
Chances are, you’ll wind up at the visitors centre, looking for places to visit in Auroville. Stop by at the busy and popular Dreamers Cafe if you manage to find a table. My family and I spent a lovely afternoon there, gazing at people walking by, while enjoying our succulent smoked tofu sandwiches and refreshing lemonade.
The Right Path Cafe
Just a few metres away from Dreamers Cafe is the Right Path Café – with the largest selection of thin-crust vegan pizzas in all of Auroville (it could give Tanto Pizzeria Auroville a run for its money)!
Think vegan cheese, along with a large range of international and Indianized options. Who knew having too many choices of pizza can be a problem?!
Unique Auroville Food Experiences: Organic farms, health stores and silent meals
Krishna McKenzie’s Solitude Farm is based on permaculture, where homegrown organic produce is used to create delightful, wholesome food. Farm to table in the true sense!
Their lunch thali is the real deal. A complete winner for a person like me who loves simple, healthy food, in the natural setting of a farm.
I especially loved the interesting mix of greens used in the salad – ‘chicken spinach’, sweet potato leaves, guava leaves; so refreshing and different from the usual salad leaves like lettuce and arugula.
If you’re thinking of volunteering in Auroville, opportunities are available for those who’d like to learn more about permaculture and sustainable living. If you already live / work in Auroville, Solitude Farm offers a weekly farm produce subscription!
For me, Goyo has been the most unique dining experience ever!
We pre-booked a meal, then went on something like a treasure hunt to look for the place. Along the way, we met a few others seeking to experience it too.
We were served a welcome Korean green tea, while sitting on rocks and logs under a beautiful tree. Then led to the main dining area – aesthetic, soothing and eclectic, all at once.
The community table was laid out with Auroville earthern ware, and the hostess settled us in. She then explained the concept of a “silent meal” and shared some words for us to ponder on while we eat.
The meal was laid out on the table and everyone served themselves. We savoured the meal in blissful silence. The unexpected riot of tastes, the ambience and the music playing in the background all made for a truly unforgettable experience.
Energy Home serves raw health food and doubles up as a health-conscious store. Their shelves and walls are filled with health powders, medicated / essential oils, crystals, and natural and organic products. I spent hours pouring over the many things this gem of a place has gathered.
For breakfast, I tried the raw idli and raw upma – which definitely take time to grow on you. The winner was a herbal drink with 9 different leaves and herbs, and for that alone, I can definitely recommend a visit to this family-run place.
Vegan desserts in Auroville
Gelato Factory was like heaven for my kids (and me!) with an array of 18 vegan ice cream flavours to choose from! Think hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate orange, stracciatella, sorbets – served up in vegan ice cream cones.
Even though on holiday, we made sure we had lots of fruits, salads and wholesome food through the day – so an ice cream a day is permissible, right? We went there every single day on our five-day family trip!
Other places to eat in Auroville
There are plenty of other interesting, vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants in Auroville, which are very well known and never fail to please. Each is unique in its own way, symbolizes the philosophy behind Auroville and serves incredible food. Some of these include:
Try the Moroccan chickpeas tagine, smoked tofu burger, fruit sorbets and coconut carrot cake at Naturellement.
The menu at Marc’s Cafe consists of an extensive coffee list, and includes sandwiches, juices and smoothies. I liked their vegan biscotti and balmadi coffee.
La Terrace Café
The hummus plate, marinated mushroom salad and vegan chocolate ice cream at La Terrace Cafe are worth a try!
The Solar Kitchen
Serves only lunch, needs to be booked a day in advance and offers simple meals made by volunteers, that change every day. Only the Auroville card is accepted here.
The homemade bean burgers, falafels, hummus, salad – everything on the Mediterranean menu at Well Cafe is to die for. They also work to empower women from nearby villages and retail upcycled, handmade accessories.
Also read: 6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi
Best restaurants in Pondicherry
Vegan Zeals is Pondicherry’s first all-vegan restaurant, which serves everything hearty, from pasta to noodles to parathas and varieties of rice. I tried their vegan zeals veggie pizza and mushroom stragonoff, and while the food could’ve been better, it was lovely to attend a movie screening there over a light snack.
Surguru’s South Indian thali, with several dry and curry preparations, as well as a la carte tiffin dishes are finger-licking good. Vegan options are not marked, but once you explain your dietary preference to the staff, they will happily omit any dishes that are not suitable.
Earth Story is a popular store selling organic and sustainable products, and has outlets in several parts of Southern India now, with the most recent one in Pondicherry. Housed within the Vegan Zeals restaurant, you can grab Papa Cream’s creamy vegan ice cream, smoked tofu by Aurosoya, oat and cashew milk by GoodMylk and many other vegan delights.
What are your favorite Auroville food spots? Which of the above would you most like to try?
*Cover image: Maiyam Past Food.
If you’d like to contribute a guest post to The Shooting Star, please see guidelines here.
About the guest author:
Vinita Contractor is a holistic nutrition and lifestyle coach, traveller and free spirit, who believes in conscious living and simple eating. She founded The Leaf E-academy with an aim to make healthy cooking accessible to everyone. She believes in making mindful choices as they impact our planet, other sentient beings and our own health. Her Youtube channel offers plant-based recipes, easy-to-make substitutes for dairy, and useful tips and inspiration for those looking to transition to a plant-based lifestyle. Connect with her on: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Youtube
I have no doubt that a few years from now, we’ll look back at 2020 as a bad dream or something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s been labelled the darkest year in recent times – but as with all bleak years, this one came to an end too.
Our ancestors braved famines, world wars and pandemics, and their travails make ours seem relatively mild in comparison. They couldn’t fall back on Netflix, food deliveries or Zoom calls for support or distraction!
I’m sure we all have our stories of survival though. Being stranded away from loved ones, coping with mental health challenges, juggling household chores with fulltime jobs, dealing with a loss of income, or worse, dealing with Covid-19 itself. If you’ve lost someone, or are struggling to cope, I truly hope you’ll find the strength to face this difficult time. Know that our lifeboats might be different, but we’re all sailing through the same storm.
When I first sat down to write my annual reflections post, only the difficult moments of 2020 surfaced. I had to carefully reminisce through each month to find some uplifting moments, and hope to hang on to them as we move into 2021.
Beginning the year in Lesotho and Kruger!
It feels surreal to recall that just at the beginning of 2020, my partner and I were hiking amid the magnificent mountains and waterfalls of Lesotho – a small, stunning country in Southern Africa, home to the friendly Basotho people and the complicated Sesotho language! From there, we drove down to the great wilderness of Kruger National Park in South Africa, for a self-drive safari among hyenas, African lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras!
Our time in South Africa was incredible in many different ways, but I think of it even more fondly now since it was my last international adventure before the world was catapulted into this new “normal”.
A renewed connection with my hometown
Since I moved out of Dehradun at age 17, I’ve rarely been back for longer than a week or two at a stretch. Much of the Dehradun of my childhood has been swallowed up by traffic and concrete, so shorter, more frequent visits to see my folks have become the sweet spot.
When India went into a 21-day lockdown, which gradually got extended to 3 months, I decided not to try to rebel, accepting that the universe wanted me there. With all this time in hand, I re-bonded with my folks over baking and table tennis, somewhat revived our vegetable garden, finally got my folks on board to segregate our waste, connected with a group of organic farmers and even found a couple of secluded hiking spots with a friend!
Co-founding Voices of Rural India
Starting in March 2020, I watched in slow motion as the majority of my work as a travel writer came to a standstill. After some delayed payments, I was left with no choice but to dip into my savings. It’s been a tough year for the travel industry, but even more so for rural communities across India who can’t look to the digital world for alternate opportunities.
So, during the lockdown, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, Sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to create such an opportunity.
Voices of Rural India is a curated platform that hosts stories by rural storytellers – typically guides, homestay hosts and other members of the community, especially women – in their own voices, and pays a fee directly in their bank account for every story accepted for publishing. Through this initiative, we aim to build digital storytelling skills, create an alternate source of livelihoods and preserve indigenous knowledge that is slowly disappearing.
For the rest of us, at a time of no travel, I hope VoRI becomes a channel to discover remote corners of India from the comfort of our homes.
Some of my favorite stories on Voices of Rural India so far:
- The Walking Library, by Radhamani K.P: In Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
- The Disappearing Craft of Likhai, by Trilok Singh Rana: A guide from Shankhdhura village visually documents the intricate craft of wood carving in Uttarakhand, once found in villages across Kumaon.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map, by Bhagwan Singh Rana: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
Winning “best communicator” at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards (India)
My journey towards becoming an advocate for responsible, meaningful and environmentally-friendly travel began way back in 2011, when I took a sabbatical from my full-time job in Singapore to volunteer-travel with Spiti Ecosphere, a grassroots responsible travel enterprise in the Indian Himalayas.
Focusing on storytelling, in a way that compels readers to think about responsible travel without necessarily using the word ‘responsible’, has often been challenging. As I continue to grapple with my travel, life and writing choices, it sure feels reassuring to think that some of India’s leading conservationists, editors and thinkers (who were part of the jury) believe in my work and its impact. Thank you, World Travel Market and Outlook Traveller, for this honor at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards India 2020!
Learning to cook and bake, finally!
As a nomadic vegan, my culinary skills were limited to simple smoothies, hummus and avocado on toast. Then the pandemic hit, and I had to transition from eating out most of the time to eating in entirely!
My taste buds soon began to crave Mexican burritos, red rice idlis, Thai stir-fries, Guatemalan beans and rice, Georgian badrijani nigwitz, vegan chocolate cookies and oat muffins – and there was only one way to satisfy them: Learning to cook and bake myself.
I now own a small oven, have bookmarked many easy and delicious vegan recipes, stay in touch with local organic farmer groups in Goa for seasonal produce and constantly surprise myself by whipping up edible food 😉
Audio book release of The Shooting Star
Over two years since its release, I still receive messages from people who’ve recently read my book – amazing me at the longevity of those pages. In 2020, my publisher, Penguin Random House, surprised me with an email saying that The Shooting Star was going to be released as an audio book, read by Karen D’Souza!
I’m now on the lookout for a Hindi translator and a local language publisher, so the book can begin to transcend domestic language barriers. If you know one, please connect us.
Launching “Journeys” – exclusive stories for a niche audience
In December 2020, I launched “Journeys” by The Shooting Star – offering my loyal readers exclusive, subscription-based stories, delivered to their inbox once a week. These are stories I’ve never told before – secret finds, confessions I’d rather not share publicly, practical tips to grow in different spheres of life and a more intimate glimpse of my personal journey.
It took some serious contemplation to move into this direction, one that I hope will gradually allow me to become less dependent on social media and brand collaborations – and focus entirely on writing meaningful stories. I’m thrilled to share that early bird subscriptions ran out within two weeks of its launch and there’s been a steady stream of subscribers since.
Most popular stories on Journeys so far:
Also read: How I Lost My Way as a Travel Writer
Pandemic life in Goa, which never stops surprising!
I’ve now spent eight monsoons and one winter in Goa – and still continue to discover all kinds of secrets lurking around in its rivers, backwaters, islands, hills and villages! Confined to one place over the past seven months, I put on my explorer’s hat and discovered places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.
Despite all the challenges of living long term in India, Goa constantly reminds me just why this country is so damn incredible – and helps keep my wanderlust alive <3
THE BAD & UGLY
The worst the travel industry has ever seen…
Most of us think of travelling as a luxury or frivolous extra in life – and I suppose in some ways it is. But it is also a source of livelihood for 1 in 10 people globally – and many others indirectly. I’ve been in touch with female mountain guides who’ve had to resort to manual construction work during the pandemic, the owners of some of my favourite cafes and restaurants who’ve shut down temporarily or permanently since travellers were their primary audience, and plenty of family-run, environmentally-conscious homestays who’ve lost their only source of income.
Being part of the travel industry for the past decade as a travel writer, and before that as a digital media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, it stings pretty bad to think of all the turmoil 2020 brought with it – with no perceivable end in sight. It’s going to be a long, hard road to recovery.
Living long term in India
Someone recently tweeted, living in India is like an extreme sport. That indeed sums up our past 7 months in Goa – it’s been thrilling, uplifting and draining in equal measure. We’ve had to move ‘homes’ four times for different reasons and constantly been plagued by erratic internet, electricity and water supply. This rant stinks of absolute privilege, I know, but that fact makes me feel even more helpless.
Truth is, India is perhaps one of the least suited countries for digital nomads. You can’t book an Airbnb, show up and expect to plug and play. Each place comes with its own laundry list of issues, and any half-decent accommodation costs an arm and a leg. I sorely miss the standard of living we could afford in other middle-income countries like Thailand, Georgia or even Guatemala.
As we look to move towards the mountains in the summer, I just hope the universe will conspire to reveal an unexpectedly perfect place to call home for 4-6 months!
What about the future?
Friends from Europe and the US seem quite confident about resuming their travels by the spring or summer, but I have serious doubts. Even though the vaccination process in India is now underway, it’ll take forever to vaccinate a country of 1.3 billion people. Besides, we don’t know if vaccination means we can shed our masks, stop social distancing, hop on to public transport without fear of spreading the virus and be accepted by local communities again.
Besides the usual visa restrictions for Indians, will we need to travel with a vaccine passport to resume international travel? What vaccines will qualify for such a passport? What about new strains emerging in many parts of the world? Will we need to quarantine for 14 days after every flight? And even if we miraculously manage to tackle covid in 2021, what about the looming threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, water crises and other zoonotic diseases?
As much as I’m determined to make the most of 2021 no matter what life throws my way, the traveller in me longs to return home. Back on the road.
What are some 2020 moments you hope to remember – and what are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Reflections on earlier years:
Ever since I emerged from my “writing cave” after working on my first book, I’ve felt a deep void within. The publishing journey was challenging, fulfilling and joyful in equal measures – and consumed so much of me. After the initial excitement of the book launch, my soul started to feel inexplicably restless.
I suppose I did try to satiate it with some epic adventures in Myanmar, Iran, Bhutan and South Africa last year. Then the pandemic hit, and left me no choice but to hang up my travel boots.
A new era of travel blogging
I thought this could be just the pause I needed. I would re-focus my attention on this travel blog that I’ve nurtured over so many years but recently neglected. Unfortunately, travel blogging has changed much over time. It has become much less about experiences, and much more about Google rankings.
Every time I sat down to write about a misadventure in Nicaragua that could’ve been my last, or how solo travel can make or break a relationship, I wondered, would anyone search for this? Does this story have the potential to appear on Google’s first page?
An ethical dilemma
Even if the story did stand a chance of making it to Google’s first page, I felt conflicted about whether to write about “hidden” places in such a public space. I mean, we’ve all seen the downfall of once-pristine places, especially in the Instagram era.
I shudder to think how a remote high altitude desert like Spiti or the sleepy interiors of Goa have changed in the past few years – with trash, traffic and overtourism adversely impacting local people and biodiversity.
Yet I sorely miss the joy of writing about low-key discoveries on my travels, for a smaller group of readers with a stronger bent towards responsible travel.
Drying up income
When India began to open up a few months ago, I took an ethical stance not to travel or promote travelling during the pandemic. I’m taking a cue from rural communities who’ve chosen to keep their borders closed despite the loss of livelihoods, and the growing discontentment among locals in places where the wearing of masks and social distancing rules are largely ignored by tourists.
With borders closed, all my international collaborations are on hold indefinitely. I’m choosing to say no to domestic airline and hotel collaborations that require me to travel. As a passionate advocate of veganism and sustainability, I continue to say no to lifestyle brands that test on animals or represent fast fashion. And I’ve long taken a stance against filling my blog with annoying ads.
That means in the past few months, except for the odd partnership, all my income has dried up.
So what now?
Now that I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, I’ve gradually realized that somewhere along the way, I forgot the very reasons why I first pursued travel writing.
I dreamt of bringing stories from the road that had rarely been told before. Stories that inspired unconventional ways of thinking. Stories that offered a glimpse of unfamiliar worlds.
Instead, I’ve been keeping many epic finds, unexpected encounters and life-defining moments on the road, to myself – because they don’t belong on Google, Instagram or any public space.
But I think I’ve finally found a new direction…
Introducing “Journeys” by The Shooting Star
I’ve spent the past few months contemplating how I can continue writing about places, people and finds that’ve deeply impacted me – without the risk of subjecting them to irresponsible travel or constantly worrying about search engine and social media algorithms.
Thus was born the idea of “Journeys” – exclusive, paid stories delivered to your inbox once a week.
My goal is to slowly reach a niche set of readers with a similar bent of mind, who yearn for places that don’t come with Instagram hashtags or google searches, seek to pursue the unconventional in life, and are genuinely curious about the world beyond what can be depicted in a pretty photo.
Sample stories on Journeys:
I’m excited to share that I’ve already penned down the first four “Journeys” – to be delivered to you weekly. These aren’t stories that you’ll find in my book or on this blog.
What it’s like to travel as an unmarried couple in India and elsewhere – Some shocking and amusing episodes. This story is already live; read it here.
Secret hideouts in India to rejuvenate your pandemic-weary soul – I reached out to some of my favorite accommodations naturally set up for social distancing, and included only those who are taking enough safety precautions.
Can you keep a secret in Goa? Actually, can you keep 5 – Places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.
The little big things that have shaped my writing journey – Practical writing tips and some confessions from a bestselling author (yours truly ;-)).
How much does a subscription cost?
To be completely honest, I’ve gone back and forth several times over the idea of introducing paid stories, but focus group interviews with some long-time readers of The Shooting Star convinced me to take the plunge.
I’ve tried to keep subscription rates low, with early bird rates and annual discounts. Monthly subscriptions are equivalent to the cost of a nice coffee or meal. Annual subscriptions give you two months free!
First 100 subscribers: ₹250 / ~3$ per month [Sorry, all gone!]
101 – 1000 subscribers: ₹350 / ~5$ per month
1000+ subscribers: ₹500 / ~7$ per month
Annual subscription: Save 2 months cost!
I know that the internet is full of free travel content. Yet I hope that through “Journeys”, I can continue to add unique value to your life and travel choices.
What about this blog and my social media channels?
I’ve been meaning to invite guest writers with inspiring stories to this blog for a long time, and am finally getting around to doing so.
Earlier this year, Parita Bhansali wrote an insightful guide to sustainable fashion in India. Coming soon, are recommendations on Auroville’s coolest cafes by Vinita Contractor, and insights on what it’s like to be a vegan Muslim by Nina Ahmedow. I’m excited to move into a largely editorial role on this blog with occasional posts written by me.
I’ll continue to engage with you on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, but perhaps at a reduced frequency than I currently do. I hope Journeys will take away the need to channel an income through constant engagement on social media – and allow me to build deeper connections with long term readers.
A word of gratitude
At this time of isolation, the world has felt out of reach and nudged me to examine many of my life choices. My attempts at travel writing, as I can see now, took a direction I never anticipated. Yet you’ve stood by me, continued to read my posts here and on Instagram, and sent many heartfelt messages and emails over the years. For that, I’m forever grateful.
As I embark on what feels like a new chapter of my virtual life, I hope to continue taking you to faraway places, both geographically and within. I hope you’ll join me on these “Journeys”. There’ll be no flowing dresses, I promise 😉