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The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India.

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

Guest post by Parita Bhansali (with inputs)

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

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

Sustainable fashion, India: An introduction

sunset at a beach with pristine blue water
Why embrace sustainable fashion in India? There is no Planet B. Photo by Sean O.

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

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

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

What is slow, sustainable fashion anyway

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

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

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

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

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PIN this sustainable fashion India guide for future reference!

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

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

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

What’s wrong with fast fashion

sustainable living in the moutains
We need to reduce our individual footprint on this planet we love. Photo by Monika Geble.

Fast fashion uses up excessive natural resources

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

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

Slow fashion in India can reduce our individual carbon footprint

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

Humans and animals are exploited to cater to our fashion demands

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

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

How to make sustainable fashion choices in India

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

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

Ask before buying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identify ethical fashion brands

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

Embrace slow fashion in India

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

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

Affordable sustainable clothing in India

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

No Nasties

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

Pomogrenade

Pomogrenade was founded by Madhulika Umapathy and Aiswarya Kutty with the mission of reducing the amount of fabric that lands up in Indian landfills. Their comfy, daily wear dresses, tops, shorts, belts and men’s shirts are all made from surplus cotton fabric and natural dyes, by a fair trade production house and disadvantaged communities in Bangalore.

To really close the loop, they go the extra mile by taking back any pre-loved (used) Pomogrenade clothing, and in exchange, offer a coupon for future buys on their website!

Maati

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

Hoomanwear

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

PANI Swimwear

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

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

Increscent

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

Renge

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

Hemp Kari

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

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

High-end sustainable fashion brands in India

Ka Sha

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

Nicobar

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

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

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

Eco-friendly winter clothing

Kosha

The brainchild of mountaineer Yuktie Jhangiani Verma, Kosha is a truly forward-thinking homegrown winter-wear brand, based on the principles of slow fashion, mindful travel and sustainability. Kosha’s animal-friendly #NoLeatherNoFeather range features organic bamboo cotton (made from bamboo fibre) sweatshirts and joggers, and parkas, jackets and pullovers free from wool and down feathers – that can sustain temperatures upto -20 degrees!

Unlike many fast fashion brands that need clothes to be constantly replaced, Kosha prides itself in durable clothing and offers a repair shop to mend tears, zippers and hoods! Scrap fabric, reusable boxes and drawstring backpacks are used for packaging and delivery,

Himalayan Blooms

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

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

Ethical, vegan and cruelty free cosmetics in India

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

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

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

Disguise Cosmetics

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

The Switch Fix

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

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

Plum Goodness

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

Veganology

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

FAE

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

 sustainable fashion brands in india
The real fashion statement.

Kay by Katrina

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

Colorbar

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

Khadi Essentials

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

Lotus Herbals

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

Himalaya

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

Vicco

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

The Body Shop

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

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

Sustainable fashion bloggers in India

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

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

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

Anya Gupta

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

Aditi Mayer

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

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

Your questions

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Own experiences, not things. Photo by Henry Gillis

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

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

What are some unique sustainable fashion brands in Mumbai?

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

What does ethical clothing mean?

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

Where to find eco-friendly clothing in Pune?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PIN this guide to make better fashion choices.

About the guest author:

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

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Snapshots from Romania!

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

Read More

Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim Travel Blog: Exploring the Lost Kingdom.

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

Sikkim travel blog

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

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

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Sikkim travel blog | A glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga. Photo: Jakub Michankow

Sikkim India, truly off the beaten path

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

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

Also read: Hiking from Darjeeling to Sikkim

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Sikkim nature | Rhododendrons in bloom.

Sikkim natural beauty, like no other

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

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

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

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Visit Sikkim to feel the tranquility in these stones.

Sikkim culture and fulfilment

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

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

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

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

Shared taxis for a real Sikkim adventure

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

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

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

Local encounters on the Sikkim Darjeeling trip

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

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

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

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

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Sikkim blog travel | The mountains echo with hums of Om Mani Padme Hum.

Sikkim: State of India, forgotten kingdom

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

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

PLAN YOUR SIKKIM ITINERARY

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

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Sikkim trip blog | Confluence of the Rangeet River with the Teesta.

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

Also read:

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

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

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

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PIN my Sikkim travel blogs!
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Discovering Life in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

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

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

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

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

Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas

By the river Ganga, I sat down and read

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

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

Wifi and work at Rainforest House in Rishikesh

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

Rainforest house Rishikesh, rishikesh homestay

First glimpse of the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga

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

Asi Ganga Uttarkashi, Garhwal Himalayas, kuflon homestay

Catching up on life

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

kuflon, kuflon basics

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

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

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Villages in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

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Sampling locally grown Garhwali food

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

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Kuflon Basics: My favorite hideout in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Kuflon, Kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

Hanging out by the river

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

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A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration

Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!

kuflon, kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

The pristine Ganga on the way to Mussoorie

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

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

My next abode: A unique homestay in Mussoorie

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

La villa bethany, mussoorie homestay

A note on the Uttarakhand floods

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

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

How to reach the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Eco-friendly homestays in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

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

Kuflon Basics (Kuflon homestay)

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

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

La Villa Bethany (Mussoorie homestay)

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

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

Rainforest House (Rishikesh homestay)

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

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

What are your impressions of the Garhwal Himalayas?

ALSO SEE:

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

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

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

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

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

Linger Longer vineyard, Willunga, Mclaren Vale

Sipping wine at Linger Longer Vineyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Karol and Rosemary, in their house in Willunga.

***

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

***

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Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!

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Thar desert, Rajasthan India, sand dunes india

My 13 “Incredible India” Moments in 2013.

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

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

Safranbolu turkey, shivya nath

Dear Turkey: My Million Reasons to Visit You.

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

Dear Turkey,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your reasons to visit Turkey?

Why I’m No Longer Travelling Full Time.

For a long time, I’ve wandered the world in search of the perfect place to call home.

But subconsciously, I’ve always waited for places to reveal their imperfections, and push me away. Chiang Mai got too busy, Guatemala was too far, New York was too expensive, Uttarakhand lacked an international flavor, Tbilisi’s visa norms had become too random, and so on.

Deep down, I guess I knew that a perfect place does not exist. But leaving one meant seeking another, and then another.

Even as I felt increasingly guilty of my flying footprint, I tried to continue my life of long term travel by substituting frequent flying with adventurous land journeys. In the years before the pandemic, I travelled overland from the Persian Gulf via the South of Iran to Armenia. Used public transport to cross land borders across Central America, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. And spent weeks travelling from Thailand via Myanmar to India to speak at a responsible tourism summit.

Then of course, the pandemic hit, and left me no choice but to stow away my bags and travel aspirations. Gradually, as the world returned to “normal,” I thought I could seek my old life too. But when I got back on the road, I realized that nothing was the same. I had changed, my professional dreams had changed, my personal aspirations had changed, the road had changed, and travelling itself had changed too.

After seven years of living out of two bags (and whiling away two years of being grounded), I feel ready to pursue a different kind of life. Here’s why I’m no longer travelling full time – and what that means for my professional and personal life:

Contentment in a slower life

kayaking in goa in the monsoon
Never imagined my life in Goa could be an impetus to stop travelling full time!

My partner and I have been frequenting Goa for many monsoons – but we always let its imperfections gradually push us out.

When we moved to Goa during the pandemic, it was a move of circumstance, not choice. But something shifted between then and now. Goa gradually showed us a slower life we didn’t know we could fall deeply in love with.

We live an earthy life in the midst of nature, close to a beach with some of the world’s most magical sunsets. Weekends are for hiking in the mist-laden ghats, or kayaking in the mangroves, or swimming in remote waterfalls. Our supply chains are all set up – organic produce from farms across Goa and India, deliveries from zero waste stores (we’re spoilt for a choice of not one but three!), and a ton of incredible vegan choices from home chefs, vegan kitchens and eateries. There are beach workouts, hammock mornings, musical nights, yoga classes, working from cozy cafés, and plenty of like-minded souls to socialize with.

While travelling in Europe earlier this year, I constantly dreamt about this life in Goa! Though compounded by many other factors, this has been my biggest impetus to swap my nomadic life for a slower one.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

The environmental footprint of travel

reducing carbon footprint by flying lesser
As someone who travels a lot – both professionally and personally – I feel incredibly guilty of my flying footprint.

It’s no secret that the world is getting pretty f*cked. 2022 alone has witnessed a record number of extreme weather events – heatwaves across Europe, floods across Southeast Asia, avalanches in Uttarakhand, and so much more.

It has been pretty sobering to go back to school, and learn to calculate the carbon emissions and ecosystem impact of the choices we make – collectively and individually. With the numbers in my head, I can no longer justify a life of long term travel where flying is almost a necessity. Visa ending, fly out. Seasons changing, fly out. No work opportunities, fly out. Difficult land borders, fly out. Nowhere to go back to, fly out.

I’ve justified some of this flying by the potential impact writing about local responsible travel experiences can have – but in all honesty, I’m hardly able to buy my own argument.

I don’t think I can give up flying altogether. My income relies entirely on travelling (though I’m trying to pivot, atleast partially), and I’d still love to travel once in a while for personal fulfillment. But now that I’m no longer pursuing full time travel, I’m already flying a lot less – and hope to cut it down further in the coming years.

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

Instagram and the purpose of travel

experiences while travelling the world full time
Grateful that I’ve been travelling for sometime, and had a chance to experience the world before Instagram.

If you know me, you probably know that I’ve long shared a hate-love relationship with Instagram.

On the one hand, it has pushed me to explore meaningful storytelling through short form videos, narrative captions and photography, and allowed me to build a tight-knit community of like-minded travellers, some of who have turned into great friends in real life. It has given me opportunities beyond what I could have imagined, and helped increase my income many-fold in the last few years.

But on the other hand, I hate what it has turned travel into. I cringe every time I see travel reels that objectify places, and photography that merely uses the destination as a backdrop. And we’ve all seen the impact of Instagram play out real time on communities and natural landscapes across the world.

In the last few months, the cringe factor of Instagram has been so high that it has put me off travel in a strange sort of way. I’m constantly asking that if by being somewhere, and writing about it, am I just an equal part of the problem?

Also read: What I’ve Learnt About Growing Organically on Instagram

A new professional journey with Climate Conscious Travel

trekking in the mountains leaving the traveller transformed
I like travelling because it has the potential to transform our worldview, but I can no longer ignore all the negative impacts of travel.

In recent weeks, when I’ve mentioned to friends and family that I’m no longer travelling full time, their first question is, but how can you continue to be a travel writer?

Luckily, even before I decided to do away with my digital nomad life, I had already set myself in a new direction.

I’ve been really fortunate for all the travel opportunities that’ve came my way. I’ve stayed at some of the world’s most incredible eco-lodges and spent time at some exemplary community tourism initiatives. But the more I write about sustainable tourism, the more aware I become of the long journey that lies ahead of the tourism industry to become truly sustainable. Besides, in the midst of a climate emergency, climate action, awareness and resilience are the need of the hour – yet far from the agenda of most tourism destinations and businesses.

I realized I could no longer wait around for things to be better, so I could write about them – though there’s value in calling out what needs to change, and some of my colleagues in the travel writing space are doing it brilliantly.

So I went back to school and began to reskill – and realized I could play a role in accelerating the change, atleast in some small capacity. I’ve been consulting a tourism business on calculating and reducing their carbon emissions, and designing community based offsets for carbon neutral trips. I’m co-creating a sustainable tourism storytelling project with a European partner. And there is other exciting work in the pipeline.

I recently decided to formalize some of this work in the form of Climate Conscious Travel – which works with businesses and destinations to develop sustainable tourism solutions that centre communities, conservation and climate action.

I’m still trying to find the balance between travel writing and Climate Conscious Travel, and sometimes feel overwhelmed juggling the two. But I’m looking forward to all the possibilities that are emerging.

An evolved slow travel dream

meaningful slow travel
I hope to balance meaningful work with a slower life in the coming months and years.

What does all this mean for my travels – both professionally and personally?

In the short term, I’ll still continue to travel for meaningful assignments and speaking opportunities – and club them with short trips that support responsible tourism businesses and community initiatives. I hope to slow travel once every few months, though the frequency will be a lot less than before.

What I dream of now, is being able to live in a place not for a few months at a time, but a few years. That would give me enough time to build a sense of community, meaningful connections with locals, and supply chains for organic, zero waste, vegan food – while keeping my footprint low, and savoring a slower life.

I know that with an Indian passport, that might just be a far-fetched dream. Either way, I’m excited to see how this journey shapes up.

How are you feeling about travelling these days?

Japan cherry blossom, japan visa for indian, japan visa requirements for Indian citizens

Japan Tourist Visa for Indians: How I Scored a One Month Visa.

Applying for a visa sucks. In this post, I simplify the Japan tourist visa for Indians. Including Japan visa requirements for Indian citizens, Japan visa fees for Indian passport holders, where to apply for a Japan visa in India and whether it’s possible to get a Japan visa on arrival for Indians.

Until 2016, scoring a Japan visa on an Indian passport was a tedious process. You had to show an invitation letter from a sponsor in Japan, and from what I’ve heard, visa applications were lengthy and often rejected.

Is it easy to get Japan tourist visa for Indian citizens now (in 2022)?

Good news! Although Japan still doesn’t offer visas on arrival for Indians, it is now possible for Indian citizens to apply for a Japan tourist visa without a local sponsor. The Japan visa requirements for Indians have become pretty straightforward, with typically a processing period of 4 working days at VFS Japan – the official visa application centre for the Japan Embassy in India.

My personal experience with scoring a Japan tourist visa from India

I scored a single-entry Japan visa on my Indian passport, which allows me to stay in the country for 30 days. I was given upto 2.5 months from the application date to use it.

Here are the requirements and step-by-step process for a Japan tourist visa for Indians:

Step #1: Find the Japan Visa VFS Centre closest to your passport address

Do Indians need a visa for Japan? Yes. All applications are to be made via VFS Japan.

Although my passport address is that of Dehradun, I’ve managed to score a Schengen Visa from VFS centres in Mumbai and Goa multiple times. I hate going to Delhi, so I confidently tried to file my visa application at VFS Japan in Mumbai too. But no matter how much I pleaded, they just wouldn’t bend their rules.

They gave me two choices: Either produce a concrete address proof for my residence in Mumbai (only an electricity bill or property papers in my name, or in that of my relatives / landlord were acceptable). Or apply in Delhi. I didn’t have a choice but to go to Delhi, where the process was seamless.

See the entire list of VFS Japan Centres in India.

 Step #2 (if #1 doesn’t work): Post your Japan visa application through specific Blue Dart centres

A handful of second-tier cities now have designated Blue Dart centres, from where you can courier your Japan visa application. The processing time is two days longer, and you must send your documents exactly as stated on the VFS website – remember you won’t get your India to Japan visa if you don’t follow the rules!

For the Japan tourist visa from India, check the Japan visa Blue Dart centres and postal guidelines

Step #3: Download the Japan tourist visa application form on the VFS Japan website

The visa application form for Japan is pretty short, but make sure you fill all the sections. Under the guarantor / reference in Japan section, fill the address and contact details of your first accommodation in Japan.

Fill the Japan visa form online, then save, print and sign it. Or download and print the form first, then fill and sign.

Step #4: Japan Visa Photo Requirements

Unlike other embassies, the Japanese embassy and therefore the Japan VFS centre are very specific about the kind of passport photo you need. It must be 2×2 inches – unlike any other passport size photos – and your face should be clearly visible. Luckily the VFS Centres in Mumbai and Delhi have a photo booth and I was able to get mine clicked the required way immediately; it costs more than doing it outside though.

Read about the exact photo specifications for a Japan visa.

Step #5: Clearly write a simple cover letter, including your trip itinerary

The cover letter is an important part of the Japan visa application. You need to include your travel dates for Japan and why you’re going to the country. Highlight your trip itinerary clearly. I also included names of major countries I hold visas to, or have in the past, including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. This always strengthens your visa application, especially as an Indian passport holder.

Step #6: Show confirmed flight and hotel bookings

There’s no getting around this; I had to show confirmed hotel bookings at the time of applying for my visa when I hadn’t even started planning my trip! As always, booking.com came to my rescue – I looked for accommodations that offered free cancellation, and better yet, didn’t need a credit card to be booked.

I showed a confirmed return flight ticket. If your dates are open, you could try looking for a flight that offers full refund upon cancellation and book it with a credit card.

Step #7: Get your financial documents in order

As with most other visa applications for Indian passport holders, you need to show your recent 3-month bank statements, last year’s income tax return and any other supporting financial documents.

My bank balance is usually pretty low, so I make it a point to include my fixed deposit summary, or ask a friend to temporarily lend me money in my account 😉 For an expensive country like Japan, I would aim to show a balance of 1-2 lakhs in my account, plus savings.

Also read: How I’m Funding my Japan Trip – and My Travels Around the World

Summing up the process for getting a Japan tourist visa

  • Find a VFS centre close to your home 
  • Download the application form from the VFS or apply online on the website: Apply here
  • Ensure you have a valid passport (6 months or more to expire)
  • Get two passport size photos as per the specification given above
  • Write a cover letter describing your itinerary
  • Show proof of air tickets and hotel bookings
  • Show proof of sufficient fund 
  • Pay the visa fees based on the type of visa you have applied for
  • Book an appointment for submitting the application
  • Track the application – and voila, if all the documents are valid you should receive the visa within 5-7 working days

Other things to note

Pay the Japan visa fees in Indian Rupees

The Japan tourist visa fees in Indian rupees is only INR 550 (plus service charge by VFS Japan), both for a single and multiple entry visa.

If applying for a multiple-entry Japan visa, include ITRs for 3 years

When trying to apply for a multiple-entry visa, I was told at VFS Japan (it’s not mentioned on their website) that I needed to submit 3 years of income tax returns to be eligible for a multiple-entry visa! This makes sense if you plan to pop by to South Korea nearby.

You don’t need an appointment to apply for a Japan tourist visa for Indians at VFS Japan

You don’t need an appointment to file your Japan visa application at the VFS Japan centre. But note that they don’t allow any electronic devices – camera, laptop, battery packs etc – inside. I could take in my phone, but they told me to keep it off.

It’s best to carry only your documents and phone – both for submission and collection – to avoid any security hassle. Unfortunately there seemed to be nowhere to store your belongings at the VFS Centre.

See the complete document checklist for your Japan visa application.

You can track your application online

You can opt for your passport to be couriered to your address, but I always prefer to collect it in person if I can. Either way, you can track your Japan visa application online. The Japan visa processing time – India is typically 3 working days.

Mine was ready for collection on the 4th working day, including the day of submission at VFS Japan in Delhi. Good luck with yours!

Immigration at Tokyo Airport

Entering Japan with my single-entry tourist visa was a breeze! I was asked no questions by the immigration officer before being stamped in. However, during check-in, my airline did ask for my return flight ticket. It’s a good idea to keep that and your first hotel booking handy.

For more information about the Japan Visa application, please refer to FAQs on the VFS Japan website. If you have specific questions about the Japan visa process for Indians, you can contact VFS Japan or Japan Embassy by phone or email.

FAQs about Japan tourist visa for Indians

Is Japan giving tourist visas now?

Japan has re-opened its borders effective from 11th Oct’22, so yes, we can plan a trip to Japan again!

How much does the Japan visa cost for Indians?

Online resources suggest many different visa fees, but  a single entry or multiple entry tourist visa fees is only Rs 550. See the latest fee on the VFS website here.

How much bank balance is required for a Japan tourist visa?

As mentioned above, I would suggest showing bank balance of anywhere between 1-2 lakhs.

Got any other tips to apply for a Japan tourist visa for Indians?

Tips for other tourist visas for Indian citizens

Requirements for a US tourist (B1) visa for Indians

Tips to get a Canada tourist visa on an Indian passport

How to score a Schengen visa to travel in Europe

Is it worth getting an E-visa for Georgia with the deporting of Indians at Tbilisi Airport?

Tips to plan a trip to Japan

Things to Know Before Travelling to Japan for the First Time

In Search of Murakami’s Japan

Why Travelling in Japan is Like Nowhere Else in the World

Secrets Behind Some of Japan’s Most Intriguing Traditions

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth It? A Guide to Bullet Train Travel in Japan

The Ultimate Vegan Guide to Japan

How My Japan Trip Changed My Impression of Japanese People

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An Insider’s Guide to the Best Vegan Restaurants in Goa in 2022.

As a foodie, I’m always on the lookout for vegan, healthy, organic, ethically-sourced, ideally gluten free, world-inspired food. Goa is perhaps the only place in India where that’s not too much to ask for!

Over the past 10 years of visiting, and the past 2 years of living here, I’ve delightfully witnessed an explosion of vegan restaurants in Goa.

I’ve also learnt that Goa’s own Saraswat cuisine has traditionally been vegan-friendly – and features a delicious range of local dishes and flavors.

Best vegan restaurants in Goa – My current top 4

Since I began frequenting Goa in the monsoon way back in 2013, I’ve fallen in love with many cozy cafes, hole-in-the-wall thali joints, and fine(r) dining spots. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a vegan in Goa is that there’s an ever-growing choice of places to try.

vegan food in goa
An explosion of vegan restaurants in Goa.

Cantine Indienne – Palolem, South Goa (all vegan)

Cantine Indienne is a rustic, entirely vegan, farm-to-table, values-oriented cafe in Palolem. The food is so delicious that we *almost* moved to South Goa just to be able to eat there all the time!

The French-Tamil owners, Manon and Satish, grow organic oyster mushrooms in their backyard (yes!), and serve up delicious, homemade thalis featuring an eclectic take on the flavors of Tanjore. Think pesserattu (green mung dosa), beetroot curry, oyster mushroom pickles, wild spinach and horsegram stir fry, and even crunchy oyster mushroom ‘wings!’ My mouth’s watering just typing this.

Instagram: Cantine Indienne

Tien – Vagator, North Goa

Sushi spots are popping up all over Goa, but none can compete with Tien – the second outlet by sushi chef Abhishek Thakkar.

He recently revamped the sushi menu to experiment with salad sushis – and OMFG, they are incredible! I never imagined I’d like rocket leaves in my sushi, but I could go back every week to devour the Magic Mushroom maki roll.

There are only 2 vegan sushis on the menu, and a third one – an avocado, edamame roll can be made vegan on request.

Instagram: Tien

The Alternative – Mandrem, North Goa (all vegan)

In a beautifully restored Goan house and garden, The Alternative is a plant-based cafe with a wide range of comfort foods – homemade kombucha, Middle Eastern and Mexican bowls, beetroot hummus salad, open sandwiches on homemade bread, a poi toastie with vegan cheese, and the most incredible dark chocolate ice cream made from sweet potatoes! Owner Jasneet is equally passionate about the garden out front, growing fresh mint, basil and salad leaves for a farm-to-table indulgence.

Chef Arev also offers a raw vegan menu at the cafe, with rarely found delights like sun-dried coconut tacos, cauliflower wraps and raw cakes.

[Temporarily closed for the monsoon season]

Also Read: Offbeat experiences in Goa

Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia – Raia, South Goa

The extraordinary Goan chef Fernando dug out some of Goa’s oldest recipes and secrets for his kitchen. Unfortunately, he passed away but his legacy lives on in this old Portuguese house, mostly frequented by locals. The huge vegan / vegetarian Goan selection reassures me that traditional Goan food isn’t only about seafood or meat.

My favorite is the ambade curry (made with hog plum or mango if in season), with a side of the sweetish sanna bread. Oh so good.

Website: Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia

Vegan Restaurants in North Goa

Besides my evolving top ones, here are some vegan restaurants in North Goa (or vegan-friendly ones) that I love:

best places for having vegan dessert in goa
Spoilt for choice of vegan desserts at some places in Goa!

Bodhi Greens – Ashwem (all vegan)

Chef Varun, the founder of Bodhi Greens, started out as an animal rights activist but soon felt that one of the best ways to introduce people to veganism is to create access to incredible vegan food. I’m glad he did, because with outlets in Ladakh, Dharamsala and Goa, he is definitely busting the myth that vegan food is boring.

Bodhi Greens in Ashwem is the chef’s cozy home terrace, with an elaborate vegan kitchen. The Buddha bowl – with panko-crusted tofu, avocado tahini dip, and veggies in a cashew-peanut sauce – is one of the best I’ve had! I also love their thin-crust teriyaki tempeh pizza, and baked beetroot and kidney bean burger burrito.

With so many innovative options on the menu and such hearty portions, I’ve never made it to dessert. Their raw cakes are definitely calling out to me though.

Instagram: Bodhi Greens

Vanakkam – Morjim

Finally a place for foodies to seek an authentic taste of South Indian food in Goa! After an evening of working out, we often feast on ragi puttu with kadala curry (millets and black chickpeas), crispy dosa with homemade chutneys, and soft masala idlis. Such joy.

Also Read: Joys of slow travelling through Goa

The local table – Candolim

This small, rustic, easy-to-miss joint in Candolim lives up to its name. We dropped by for an early breakfast of patal bhaji (typically white or black chickpeas in a spicy coconut-based gravy) and pao. I hope to try their veg thali soon!

Website: The local table

Izumi – Assagao

A sister outlet of the one in Mumbai and the latest Japanese haunt in Assagao, Izumi’s partially outdoor location in a Goan-Portuguese house is breathtaking. And so is the food, with clearly labelled vegan options. I love their miso soup and seaweed salad, though for sushi, I’d pick Tien anyday.

The Rice Mill – Morjim

Jazz with a side of Goan-style kidney beans or a grilled eggplant poi is why I love The Rice Mill, a neighborhood cafe and bar set in an old rice mill in Morjim.

Instagram: The Rice Mill

Ankita’s Classic – Pernem

Some of my favorite thali joints in Goa have either shut down (Wood’s Inn) or lost their authenticity (Vinayak’s). But Ankita’s Classic, despite its random, faraway location in Pernem, remains a classic. It is packed with locals at mealtimes, so be prepared to wait around a bit.

Their veg thali is mostly vegan (ask for it without curd or the dessert), and comes with seasonal veggies, curries, rice and kokum. Mighty satisfying.

Website: Ankita’s Classic

Sakana – Anjuna

Sakana offers a calming, semi-outdoor, diner-style vibe with an authentic Japanese menu. My go-to order is a wakame seaweed salad, with a veg set consisting of a miso soup, teriyaki tofu (check which tofu dish can be prepared without honey), rice and salad. Pair it with a Japanese whiskey from their unique bar selection!

Sappadu – Assagao

An eclectic combination of Tamil and Gujarati food, served up on banana leaves on a floor seating! I’ve only been for their pop-up meal back when it wasn’t a full-fledged restaurant, but can’t wait to try it again.

Voltaire – Closed 🙁

I was shattered to hear that Voltaire, one of my favorite Goan food joints off the Reis Margos Fort, shut down during the pandemic. And decided to include it in this list just as an ode to the best uddamethi I’ve had in Goa, served up with a local bread une, and seasonal urakh (a local cashew brew, more flavorful and less potent than fenny).

Vegan restaurants in Panjim

vegan friendly restaurants in goa
A raw vegan wrap by Chef Arev at The Alternative.

Mum’s Kitchen

Mum’s Kitchen is one of my favorite vegan eats in Goa, with traditional Saraswat dishes that can otherwise be hard to find. I highly recommend trying their uddamethi (a sweet and sour curry made with lentils, fenugreek and seasonal mango or plums), tamde bhaji (a flavorful amaranth preparation) with sanna. Avoid their Assagao outlet – it seems like a franchise and isn’t half as good as the original in Panjim.

Website: Mum’s kitchen

Gourmestan (a good choice for gluten free restaurants in Goa)

Panjim doesn’t have a ton of vegan-friendly places, but Gourmestan, a new addition to the city’s food scene, is worth a try. Vegan dishes are well-marked. I enjoyed their smoothies, tofu akuri on sourdough, and hummus and roasted bell peppers sandwich. It’s also one of the few places (somewhere between a restaurant and a cafe) to grab vegan and gluten free focaccia and burger buns in Goa!

Instagram: Gourmestan

Vegan restaurants in South Goa

vegan or vegetarial thali in goa
A hearty thali with solkadhi, at Ankita’s Classic.

Cantine Indienne – Palolem (all vegan)

As mentioned above, Catine Indienne remains one of my favorite places to eat, not just in South Goa but all of Goa!

Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia – Raia

For authentic Goan food in South Goa, look no further. There’s usually live music on weekends and a nostalgic Goan vibe that can only be found in a few places now.

Best Vegan Cafes in Goa

having vegan dark chocolate in a vegan cafe in goa
Vegan dark chocolate ice cream and work at The Alternative!

Earth Mama – Anjuna (all vegan)

I love my daily green and fruit smoothies, but Earth Mama’s smoothies are something else! Indulgent, creamy, decadent, well-worth putting up with the Anjuna crowds for. I love their cacao and berry smoothies, and their open-face chickpea mayo and two-bean hummus toast.

Instagram: Earth Mama

Bibhitaki – Palolem (among the best vegan cafes in South Goa)

Meaning “fearless of disease” in its ancient Ayurvedic translation, Bibhitaki is an all-vegan cafe that offers healthy-ish comfort food with an Ayurvedic twist. The ice cream-like tropical smoothie bowl is perfect to ward off the afternoon heat, the Mexican bhel is an indulgent take on nachos, and the hearty Mexican and Japanese Buddha bowls are immensely satisfying.

Instagram: Bibhitaki

Hoop’s Coffee – Morjim

I guess I was first drawn to Hoop’s Coffee by its charming, minimalist cafe vibe. And totally taken by surprise to see only waffles on the menu – with a vegan option! Plus vegan desserts and the option of coconut, almond and soy milk for coffee and hot chocolate.

Over the months, I landed up at Hoops many times, seeking a quiet, creative space to work from with a hot cuppa, tucking into vegan waffles made with oats and wheat and topped with peanut butter and maple syrup, and just to while away a breezy evening with a book.

(These days, the road in front is dug up and a bit of a mess though).

Instagram: Hoop’s Coffee

Bloom and Brew – Assagao

We drove past it many times, until the board finally caught our attention! I immediately fell in love with their minimalist decor, with floor cushions for seating, desks for co-working, and a menu with a ton of vegan options. The portions are small but delish, especially the Middle Eastern toast and ‘for the love of burrito.’ It’s one of the only places in Goa that serves up air-fried sweet potato fries – and I’m eyeing their vegan black bean brownie!

Instagram: Bloom and Brew

vegan cafe in goa
The hipster vibe at Bloom & Brew.

The Mill – Palolem

Not to be confused with The Rice Mill in Morjim (featured above), The Mill in Palolem is a stunning cafe set within a Goan house, with multiple areas to chill, work from, and feast on some indulgent smoothies, smoothie bowls and burgers.

Website: The Mill

Gratitude cafe – Anjuna (all vegan)

I frequented Gratitude Cafe during the pandemic, and loved its courtyard vibe in a refurbished Portuguese house in a quiet part of Anjuna. The founder Jeet quit his cushy job in Canada, and moved to Goa in search of a slower life. This is his attempt to offer comfort food while bringing together Goa’s growing vegan community!

The menu feels inspired by Bean Me Up – Goa’s OG vegan hub – but the vibe is quite different. I’ve spent breezy afternoons there with my laptop or book, indulging in everything from vegan pancakes served with a berries compote and whipped cashew cream, to their take on the Vietnamese Bahn Mi, to the flourless dark chocolate mousse cake.

Website: Gratitude Cafe

Okapi Vegan Kitchen – Moira (all vegan)

Gone are the days when there was nothing and nowhere vegan to eat in the Aldona-Moira area. Okapi has revolutionized the vegan and social scene in the quiet village of Quitla, with its setting in a gorgeous Goan house. Their homely thali with daily specials is worth a try!

Instagram: Okapi Vegan Kitchen

Saraya – Porvorim

I’ve been frequenting Saraya for years, and love their thin crust, mud oven pizzas on gluten free or sourdough base. They make inhouse cashew and tahini cheeses for vegan pizzas (ask for these vegan options, and make sure it’s not the stretchy dairy cheese), topped with vegan pesto, seasonal veggies and some farm-to-table produce from their inhouse garden.

Instagram: Saraya

Bean Me Up – Vagator (all vegan)

Bean Me Up is not just a vegan cafe in Goa, it’s an institution – and one of the oldest, most successful vegan spots in all of India. It offers a laidback ambiance under tree canopies, and a vast selection of comfort vegan food. It also remains open all day, every day, with no usual siesta hours!

Worth trying are Bean Me Up’s acai berry smoothie bowl, cheesy vegan nachos, succulent black bean burger (though its consistency can vary quite a bit), tempeh tacos, Mexican Buddha bowl, and the melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate mousse.

Website: Bean Me Up

authentic vegetarian/vegan food in goa
A soul-satisfying Tamil meal at Sappadu.

Bonus! The first entirely vegan store in Goa: Gras – Assagao

Thanks to Instagram, I was excited to step into the newly opened Gras – Goa’s first all vegan store. Aparna, the passionate vegan founder, makes fresh cashew-oat milk, vegan butter, and soft and stretchy vegan cheeses (sans preservatives) on order, under the brand name Saorsa.

She also stocks a curated selection of vegan products that are otherwise hard to find in Goa, like the dates-sweetened Benalato ice cream!

What are your favorite vegan spots in Goa? What are you most excited to try?

Alternative travel guide to Goa

This Month, 11 Years Ago, I Quit My Full-Time Job to Travel.

Are you going to quit? My boss asked, intuitive as ever.

I hesitated for a moment. It wasn’t so much the organization I felt indebted to, as this man sitting in front of me who wasn’t just my supervisor but a mentor, friend and idol.

Yes, I somehow mumbled. I’m sorry.

What are you going to do then?

Move back to India, try to work with a non-profit, maybe travel.

We had big plans for you here.

I know… In my head: I hope the universe does too.

vaeroy island view point
A journey that began way before “quit job to travel the world” became the trend it is today!

Quitting my job to travel: The dream vs reality

Exactly 11 years later, here I am. Typing these words on a breezy afternoon, from a minimalistic house in a lush Goan neighborhood. Gazing at the surrounding greenery from my work desk, I spot a furry mongoose scurrying away into the wilderness. After a morning of wild swimming in an abandoned quarry, I’m tempted to tuck in for an afternoon siesta.

As peacock cries echo in the far distance, I wonder if these were the big plans I had dreamt about when I quit my corporate job in Singapore all those years ago.

When Facebook reminded me of this 11 year quit-o-versary, it simultaneously showed me a glimpse of the life I had left behind. As I scrolled through my feed, I saw pictures of university friends who have risen the ranks in their corporate careers, purchased or rented fancy condos, acquired the coveted Singapore citizenship, and popped a baby or two!

11 years later, would I swap my life with the one I left behind?

Also read: The Story of How I Quit My Job to Travel

Life is a great adventure or nothing

robinson crusoe island images
Always in search of life’s great adventures.

The previous afternoon, while on a long bicycle ride along a sleepy Goan village, we came to a particularly challenging uphill.

As I huffed and puffed up on low gear, I simultaneously tried to take in the changing landscape around me – rolling grasslands, ancient mangroves, and paddies flooded by the relentless rain. Finally emerging at the top of the hill, I felt both exhilarated and exhausted, and psyched to continue the ride.

That bicycle ride sort of sums up the past decade.

Since I quit my job as a social media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, life has been quite an adventure. I’ve been on a financial rollercoaster, while simultaneously savoring epic experiences around the world. It’s been a mostly exhilarating and sometimes exhausting journey. While I’m psyched to continue the ride, I feel like I’m at a crossroads and this time, I’m eyeing a different path.

Also read: 10 Life Lessons from 2 Years of Travelling

I fear falling, but what if I fly?

patagonia scenic road view
How to quit your job and travel? Know that beyond fear, there’s freedom waiting for you.

I always thought it was the fear of failure that would drive me to make my life choices work. I dreaded pleasing the ones waiting to say, I told you so.

But in reality, it was the taste of freedom that pushed me to persevere.

I first tasted it while volunteer travelling with Spiti Ecosphere. Here was an organization based in the breathtaking Trans-Himalayan region, rooted in environmental and social impact, while financially sustaining their work.

It was everything I wanted to do too. Pursue work that gave me a sense of purpose, allowed me to travel far and wide, and meet my expenses. I dreamt about becoming my own boss, so I could spend Mondays hiking up mountains and happily burn the midnight oil on Fridays.

Turned out, on this quest for freedom, I needed to become a tough boss! I had to prove to myself that I had the discipline to make it – as a freelance writer, blogger, social media consultant, Instagrammer, speaker, author, and most recently, sustainable tourism consultant. I learnt to hustle, accept rejection, compromise, compete, collaborate and fight back.

Each time I tried something new and feared I was falling, I found refuge in poetess Erin Hansons’s words:

“There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask “What if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?”

Also read: How I Managed to Pay of 26000$ of Student Loan: Candid Tips for Freelancers and Travel Bloggers

Feeling “not rich enough”

kashmir breakfast by the river
Forever grateful for the experiences this life of travel has afforded me.

At first, I was naïve enough to work for free for large companies, in exchange for the promise of ‘exposure.’ I learnt the hard way that exposure would never pay my bills or help me build the kind of future I wanted.

So even though I dropped out of the corporate rat race, I adapted my learnings from my past life. Gradually, as my income grew, so did my expenses and ambitions. I hired my first employee, then the second, and soon, I began dreaming of building up a content empire. That’s when I happened to hear a talk by Nomadic Matt – the envy of all travel bloggers – who runs such an empire. In a candid revelation, he confessed that he’s become the very thing he walked away from! With tens of employees and targets every month, his empire functions very much like a corporate.

That jolted me back to my drawing board. Am I too becoming what I walked away from? I began asking myself.

In the years that followed, I tried to make just enough money to travel comfortably, while also being able to support local businesses, work on meaningful projects, and pay more for sustainable experiences and products.

I’ve long lost the aspiration to be rich, but for the first time in a long time, the pandemic has made me feel ‘not rich enough.’ If I had the kind of money many of my peers do, I would’ve liked to buy land, plant a native forest, grow my own food, and build an upcycled house powered by renewables!

But who knows, maybe if I did have that kind of money, I’d be a totally different me with totally different dreams.

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

Reimagining the next decade

south goa ocean cliff
Contemplating life and this decade.

Over the years, I found some sort of purpose in the transient high of the feeling of freedom and the joy of pursuing work I loved, while sustaining myself financially.

But when the pandemic crushed both, fulfilment began to elude me.

After many months of introspection, I’m slowly beginning to reimagine what this decade might look like for me.

I foresee delegating a lot more to a small team of brilliant people who can continue the work I began 11 years ago (no content empire though, thank you).

I’ve begun to invest in expanding my knowledge and skills, so I can work with tourism businesses and destinations to achieve much-needed sustainability, animal welfare and climate action goals.

While the internal pursuit continues at its own pace, I hope to chase fulfilment by pursuing impactful work of a different kind.

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

Is it worth taking a year off work to travel, or altogether quitting your job to travel?

quit job to travel
In the age of Instagram, travel feels more like a performance than a deeply personal act.

I often receive Instagram DMs and emails from folks who’ve read my book or follow my blog. Should they quit their job to travel the world? They want to know.

I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I feel like I owe everything – from my journey towards minimalism to my choice to go vegan – to the road. If there’s a better teacher, we haven’t yet crossed paths.

But on the other, travel today is so different from 11, or 5, or even 3 years ago. Revenge travel, overtourism and climate change are realities we must face. And as my friend over at BreatheDreamGo recently pointed out, in the age of Instagram, travel feels more like a performance than a deeply personal act.

Ultimately, the question we must ask instead is, can we bend the Instagram trend, eke out a living travelling in a way that truly fulfills us, and leave a positive impact on the places and people we meet along the way?

What’s your current status of freedom, financial sustenance and fulfilment like?

Also read:

How to Quit Your Job and Travel the World?

How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport As I Travel Around the Globe

How to Earn Money While Travelling

switzerland cycling

The Swiss Alps on an E-bike: 385 Km, 7 Alpine Passes, 6 Days!

I must confess that after spending a month living on Robinson Crusoe Island earlier this year, I was convinced I could never be “wowed” by my travels again.

I experienced weeks of intense withdrawal symptoms, spent days not wanting to get out of a four-walled room, missed deadlines, and reached out to a therapist to try to figure out how I could claw my way back into the real world. Her advice didn’t help, but the universe found me a way.

Route 1291: E-biking through the heart of Switzerland!

Route 1291 switzerland
E-biking in Switzerland: The future of sustainable travel?

I’d already said no to two potential travel assignments, unexcited by the prospect of a meaningless trip and more flying emissions.

But Switzerland Tourism had a unique proposition for me: My partner and I would try out one of the country’s newest sustainable tourism offerings – Route 1291, a 7 day e-biking adventure across the magnificent Swiss Alps!

Having experienced a bit of wintry Switzerland a few years ago, and tried short distance e-biking in Austria and Goa, I knew the two would make an epic combination. But I could never guess just how epic.

Also read: What Indian Cities Can Learn About Green Tourism from Copenhagen

E-biking up the Swiss Alps: A test of sustainable mobility and our own endurance

switzerland ebiking, flyer ebikes
In love with the Flyer ebikes, made in Switzerland.

After the initial excitement of being invited on our first “Swisstainable” self-guided, multi-day cycling trip, I was pretty damn nervous about our ability to cycle 50-80 km daily and pedal up some of Switzerland’s highest Alpine passes.

But as the journey began, I quickly realized that every drop of sweat and every sore muscle would be worth the reward – rugged karst mountain scenery, turquoise blue lakes, idyllic Swiss villages, mist-clad peaks, ancient churches, gushing rivers and streams, meadows bursting with wildflowers.

Besides, our Swiss-made Flyer ebikes were just brilliant, with upto 100 km battery life in eco mode – making this long distance cycling trip challenging but quite doable on a moderate fitness level.

Looking back, it’s hard to put in words the feeling of climbing up hair pin bends (thank heavens it was an e-bike!) to high mountain passes, flying down long downhills in the cool Alpine breeze, and pedaling from destination to destination without any motorized transport.

Also read: The Epic Land Journey from Thailand to India via Myanmar

Switzerland’s awe-inspiring network of e-biking (cycling) trails

cycling trails switzerland
Views like this all along Switzerland’s ebiking trails!

I’ve experienced the cycling-friendly streets of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and read about cycling-only highways in Korea. But the Swiss Mobility Network came as a complete surprise. This network of cycling / hiking trails, with no or minimal motorized transport, winds across the country and its majestic landscapes, creating a haven for cyclists.

Route 1291 clubs the best of different cycling trails across Switzerland – and has been curated by Eurotrek such that no two days feel the same. Our circular loop started in Lucerne, climbed up to Andermatt and Meiringen, passed through Sorenburg, then winded into the ‘wild west’ of Entlebuch and Sursee, before taking us back to Lucerne.

The landscape kept changing from dramatic mountain panoramas to lakeside villages to rolling meadows to wheat and maize fields to stark karst mountains to gushing rivers to glaciers to farming villages with no paved roads to protected forests. Despite the low I hit after Robinson Crusoe, I’ve probably never uttered “wow” so many times in a week!

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

Taking slow travel to the next level

To me, slow travel has always meant connecting deeper and staying longer (mentally if not physically). But long distance e-biking introduced me to a whole other dimension of slow travel.

I experienced every slope, every curve, every bump on the road. I could tell how the air changes from the meadows to the fields to the forests to the high mountains. I could feel the isolation of remote mountain villages but also their bond with nature.

Unlike hiking and regular cycling, we were able to cover much longer distances (50-80 kms daily on average, with average elevation gains of 1200-1700m) and experience a stunning range of natural landscapes, living traditions and architectural styles around Switzerland. I don’t think I could’ve known this country so intimately any other way!

Also read: To Chile, With Love

A win for sustainable tourism

Ebiking along such landscapes feels like a dream in retrospect.

Ebikes are the most eco-friendly mode of transport, especially with a clean grid

  • With zero tail pipe emissions and zero PM 2.5 emissions from the tyres, e-bikes are the most eco-friendly modes of long-ish distance transport right now.
  • We had to charge our e-bike batteries every night, but the grid in Switzerland is pretty clean. Electricity mainly comes from hydro (59.9%) and nuclear (33.5%), with only 2.3% from fossil fuels.

But some detrimental impact must be acknowledged

  • Depending on the process, mining lithium ion for batteries can contaminate groundwater and be environmentally destructive.
  • Our luggage was (almost magically) transported from one place to the next by Eurotrek – either using public transport or grouped with other luggage in a car, so there were still some emissions involved.

All in all though, I can’t think of a better way to travel – experiencing a place slowly, deeply, while keeping our environmental footprint low.

Also read: Can Responsible Tourism in India Challenge Patriarchy?

Practical tips for e-biking in Switzerland

switzerland cycling
Invest in a pair of cycling shots to prevent a very sore butt 😉

How to organize a self-guided ebiking trip in Switzerland

Our trip was organized by Eurotrek, an active holidays company based in Switzerland. Their route maps and descriptions were extremely helpful for a first-time self-guided trip across Switzerland. And we really appreciated their luggage transport service!

How to find the way: Signposting, Swiss Mobility App, Google maps

We found the Swiss Mobility app (Schweiz Mobil) a bit hard to navigate, but the trails are brilliantly signposted all along. With some help from google maps, we never got too lost.

How to prevent a sore butt while cycling!

Long distance cycling can lead to a very sore butt. I bought a pair of padded cycling shots from Decathlon, and though not eco-friendly, they were a life saver, especially over 7 continuous days of cycling. I hope to use them for all future cycling trips.

What’s it like being vegan in remote Switzerland

With a traditional diet that largely consists of meat, cheese and potatoes, Switzerland isn’t exactly vegan-friendly. But even in the remotest countryside, I hardly ate any potatoes! Many restaurants and cafes offered atleast one vegan option (think vegan rosti, gnocchi, burgers, pasta, salads and curries with Southeast Asian flavors). We even found a local veggie cafe along the route, worth a 20 km detour for a lentil Buddha Bowl and vegan ice cream 😉 As always, the HappyCow app was my go-to source for recommendations.

Cost of a 6-day e-biking adventure in Switzerland

Costs for the Route 1291 start at CHF 2700 for two. Summer is a great time to cycle, with cool weather and warm sun – though heat waves are becoming more common everywhere. The cycling route is pretty offbeat and we hardly encountered any crowds!

Have you been to Switzerland or tried e-biking? Do you dream of e-biking in the Swiss Alps?

*Note: I’m so grateful to Switzerland Tourism for hosting us on this adventure – and turning what seemed like a crazy proposition just a few weeks ago, into an unforgettable memory!

visiting kashmir

What No One Tells You About Visiting Kashmir.

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

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

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

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

There are many layers to Kashmir

a scenic photo of a shikara in dal lake kashmir
Visiting Kashmir must involve slowly peeling back its many layers.

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

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

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

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

Fear, not hope, is the dominant emotion

life in kashmir
For ordinary Kashmiris, life is very different than for us travellers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But unfortunately not all tourism is the same

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn in Kashmir is like poetry

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

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

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

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

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

chile stories

To Chile, With Love.

Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

Dear Chile,

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

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

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

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

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

Robinson crusoe island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Riccardo Sai @signorsai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Callum Thompson @adventure_cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

queulat national park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

Robinson Crusoe Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many species are only found here in the entire world!

Juan Fernandez Fur Seals

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

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

flights to robinson crusoe island chile
Photo: Callum Thompson

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

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

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

San juan bautista

Only a 1000 odd locals call the island home

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

San juan bautista, robinson crusoe chile

Yet life here is bustling with community activities

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

plazoleta el yunque

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

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

Humans have left a huge footprint on the island

Villagra, robinson crusoe island, robinson crusoe pictures

Invasive species introduced hundreds of years ago

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

island conservation chile

Have been crowding out the slow-growing endemic forests

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

Making it one of the most endangered places on earth

Juan fernandez biodiversity
Photo: Callum Thompson

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

Found only on Robinson Crusoe island in the entire world.

And the last remaining Dendroseris Neriifolia tree in the world!

Dendroseris Neriifolia
Photo: Callum Thompson

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

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

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

Aided by Lenovo’s smart technology

That enables checking camera traps on the go.

Lenovo work for humankind
Photo: Callum Thompson

Which also allowed me to work remotely

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

Lenovo Tab 11 Pro
Photo: Callum Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

Isla robinson crusoe, mas a tierra

Built beautiful friendships with the island community

robinson crusoe island people

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

species extinction juan fernandez
Photo: Callum Thompson

Witnessed the most magical mornings and moon rises

robinson crusoe island

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

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

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

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

ALSO READ:

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Enroute to One of the World’s Remotest Islands

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

What I Learnt Volunteering on a Remote Island in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But little did I know what was still in store…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: How the Pandemic Changed My Perspective on Life

Reflections on turning 34

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

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

Also read: Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Cover photo: @adventure_cal

ALSO READ:

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

To Chile, With Love

Enroute to One of the World’s Remotest Islands!

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

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

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

My destination!

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

Conservation & Remote Work on Isla Robinson Crusoe, Chile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling internationally during a pandemic

Flying over the Andes in the Atacama Desert <3

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

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

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

Choosing to fly KLM

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling to Chile on an Indian passport

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

Chile Mobility Pass

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

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

The testing nightmare

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

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

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

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

Chile Affidavit

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

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

Testing and quarantine on arrival

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

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

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

Join me, virtually

valparaiso
My quarantine life in Valparaiso, Chile.

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

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

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

See you from the other side?

chile quarantine
Quarantine sunsets <3

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

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

If that’s you, see details here.

ALSO READ:

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

Turning 34 in Quarantine in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

To Chile, With Love