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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.

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Sikkim blogs, west Sikkim, Sikkim himalayas

Sikkim Travel Blog: Exploring the Lost Kingdom.

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

Sikkim travel blog

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

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

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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”

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

Sikkim: State of India, forgotten kingdom

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

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

PLAN YOUR SIKKIM ITINERARY

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

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

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

Also read:

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

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

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

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villages India, Garhwal village, Uttarakhand villages

Discovering Life in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

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

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

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

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

Photos from the Garhwal Himalayas

By the river Ganga, I sat down and read

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

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

Wifi and work at Rainforest House in Rishikesh

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

Rainforest house Rishikesh, rishikesh homestay

First glimpse of the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Garhwal Himalayas, Uttarakhand Himalayas

Freshwater pools made by the Asi Ganga

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

Asi Ganga Uttarkashi, Garhwal Himalayas, kuflon homestay

Catching up on life

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

kuflon, kuflon basics

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

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

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

Villages in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

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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!

Garhwal food, Uttarakhand food, garhwali food

Kuflon Basics: My favorite hideout in the Garhwal Himalayas

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

Kuflon, Kuflon basics, kuflon homestay

Hanging out by the river

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

Ganga photos, Garhwal Ganga, garhwal himalayas

A blank canvas and the Garhwal Himalayas for inspiration

Here words almost flow faster than thoughts!

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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

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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.

***

Join The Shooting Star on FacebookTwitter and Instagram for more incredible stories from around the world.

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?

Nearly 7 Years of Travelling Without a Home – and Then Life in Lockdown.

What’s it like to chain myself to one place after 7 years of long term travel?

It feels like yesterday when I was hiking up the moonscapes of Qeshm Island in Iran at sunset. Or falling off the map on a motorcycle adventure in the remote tribal Chin state of Myanmar. Or feeling awe-inspired at the electric ‘ghetto sessions’ in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa‘s largest townships.

When I look back at my life of long term travel, there is one thing in common. It all feels surreal.

And in a very different way, that’s my dominant feeling during this pandemic too!

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

long term travel
My surreal life of long term travel: Jumping into a lake in Guatemala at sunrise!

Since this strange period of our lives began, many of you have reached out to me, curious about what it’s been like to hang up my travel boots indefinitely. After nearly seven years of long term travel and living out of two bags, what’s it like to chain myself to one place for the foreseeable future?

In this post, I try to lay bare my heart, reflecting on this time of shock, struggle, acceptance, disappointment, anger, gratitude and hope.

With a home nowhere, I suddenly had nowhere to go!

long-term travel, goa kayaking
In a strange turn of events, we now (temporarily) own a kayak!

Back in 2013, I gave up my rented apartment and sold most of my belongings. In the years since, I’ve felt at home in many places around the world but not put down roots anywhere.

Having no possessions and no commitment to a single place felt liberating on many levels… until I found myself in lockdown!

As luck would have it, an unexpected turn of events made me abandon a multi-day trek from tribal Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh. I ended up taking a flight to Dehradun to see my folks for a few days, and figure out where I could slow travel next to hide out the brewing coronavirus fears.

In those few days, my universe, like that of many others, overturned. WHO declared it a pandemic, India went into a stringent lockdown, state and international borders shut down indefinitely. Suddenly, I had nowhere to go.

That few days visit turned into 3 months. And in retrospect, I’m so glad I got to spend that quality time with my folks – something I haven’t done since I moved out for college at seventeen! Unfortunately though, my partner was stranded in a different part of the world during the lockdown. Perhaps because the geographical separation wasn’t out of choice this time, it stung pretty bad.

When domestic movement gradually resumed, we went through a ton of passes and paperwork, Covid tests and institutional quarantine. And took a leap of faith to move to a small Goan village for the foreseeable future.

We now call an old trading shop turned studio “home”, own a kayak and a small oven, and wake up to hornbill and peacock cries!

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

Roots or wings – aka is long term travel still for me?

high tatras slovakia
To travel long term is to know the world, slowly, deeply. Hiking solo in Slovakia.

To tell you the truth, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to stay in one place again. To have a small backyard when I can grow my greens, to own more than what fits in two bags. Have constant access to a kitchen and experiment with vegan recipes. Build a consistent supply chain of organic, seasonal, zero waste produce. And not have to decide every couple of months, where next?

After the initial shock of the lockdown, I realized that I had no choice now but to experience “the other side” of life.

So I threw myself right into it. Started growing my own herbs and microgreens. Experimented with vegan baking. Got connected with a group of local organic farmers. Tried to throw myself into writing, books and music. Binge-watched movies and shows.

At first, it felt nice to have a schedule and all this time on my hand. But the days quickly started merging into one another. They felt familiar, comfortable and predictable.

Waking up to the same horizon every day eventually became monotonous. I began to miss the rush of long land journeys, the magic of fleeting encounters on the road and the anonymity of being a new “me” in a new place.

Turns out, the reason I never found a place ‘perfect’ enough to lay down roots was because I was never actually looking for one.

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

Ironically, long term travelling prepared me for a time of no travel

slow travel tamil nadu
Long term traveling, full of unexpected offices and lessons. This one in Tamil Nadu.

It seems like those challenging times on the road – the border interrogation in Nicaragua, getting mugged in Costa Rica, getting stalked in Ethiopia, breaking my phone on the first day of my solo adventures in Ecuador – unexpectedly prepared me to adapt, no matter what life throws along the way.

The pandemic is definitely one such curve ball.

At first, I was naive enough to think it’ll be behind us soon. But now, I don’t see myself travelling far before a vaccine is available, which could be several months or even a year from now.

Even though I’m young, healthy and outside the vulnerable age group, studies have found long term health implications for those who contract the virus. I also feel an acute responsibility towards rural communities in India with little access to healthcare, and can’t bear the thought of carrying the virus to them.

The initial months were tough, both professionally and personally. I had a few delayed payments trickling in which helped cover my expenses. But all travel assignments were put on hold, leaving the future uncertain.

Surprisingly however, I quickly moved through phases of denial, shock, anger and disappointment, into acceptance.

As an introvert, minimalist and someone who’s been working from home for nearly a decade, the obvious challenges of lockdown living were easy for me.

But I’ve been working towards making this lockdown life more palatable. Moving closer to nature, cycling, kayaking, photographing feathered creatures, researching more about wildlife conservation challenges and learning to cook!

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

The privilege of travel, and life itself

himachal pradesh monsoon
The realization that to travel, and travel long-term, is a privilege. Monsoon in Himachal Pradesh.

Hailing from India, privilege is often a tricky subject.

On the one hand, I often compare my lack of privilege to western bloggers / freelancers with powerful passports, social security and financial support during the pandemic.

On the other hand, I feel very aware of my access to good education in India (among other things we take for granted), that ultimately helped carve this digital nomad life for me.

This pandemic though, has given me much more perspective.

It has led me to the harsh acceptance that I’m not an essential worker, my soft skills weren’t of much use in a crisis, and travel – even the responsible kind – isn’t as resilient as once thought. We (me and most people reading this) are lucky enough to work online and shelter ourselves from the pandemic.

But despite the increasing penetration of smartphones, rural communities associated with travel have been hit really hard during this time.

This gaping urban-rural divide led to a new passion project, Voices of Rural India – perhaps India’s first curated platform for rural storytellers!

The goal is to build digital storytelling skills in rural India while creating an alternate source of income. And in this time of no travel, it’s a chance to explore remote corners of India virtually, through the stories of the very people we travel to meet.

We’re looking for passionate volunteers to join us to support Voices of Rural India. If that’s you, please get in touch!

The art of traveling long term vs the growing frustration of a weak passport

digital nomad
How to travel long-term? Ditch that Indian passport 😉

Travelling with an Indian passport has always been painful. I hate the heaps of documentation, the long wait to get a visa, stringent application processes, a defined duration of stay etc.

But in the current times, as someone who thinks of herself as a global citizen, I feel even more caged with closed borders and no tourist visas.

Countries like Georgia and Estonia have recently launched a “digital nomad visa” that would be ideal for someone like me who wants to stay longer and work on the go. But unfortunately, India is not one of the 95 countries eligible to apply. SIGH.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport as I Travel the Globe

“What about the future?”

long term travel checklist
Thinking of the future as an adventure. In the Lake District in the UK.

There was a time when anxiety about the future used to gnaw at me from the inside.

But over many years on the road, with neither a constant income nor a constant home, I’ve gradually learnt to let go.

The future is just that – distant, unpredictable. We need to nurture it, yes. But not at the cost of living fully today.

This life of long term travel has taught me to think of the future as just another adventure. And perhaps that’s what we need most right now. Cherish the little joys that today brings, and not dwell too much on the future. Whatever it brings, it’ll be an adventure for sure.

Also read: How Travelling Changed My Perspective on Getting Married and Having Kids

A life of no regret

Long term travel tips
Fleeting encounters on the road. Newfound friends in Iran.

Some people say I was too young to quit my corporate job at 23. If I stayed on a few more years, I could’ve amassed more wealth and experience.

Some say this digital nomad lifestyle is unsustainable. I need to own a house, I need to own things.

In a way, this unprecedented crisis has challenged everything about my life philosophy in the past seven years.

I don’t own a house or a car, and until a few months ago, I didn’t even own any cooking equipment. I’ve long believed in the shared economy to find homes and rides around the world. Covid came as a total shock to my existence.

But in the middle of a damn pandemic that has shattered many travel and life plans, I feel so grateful about the choices I’ve made.

I’m glad I didn’t put off my dream of slow travelling the world on my own terms. I’m grateful I didn’t build a bucket list to tick off only once I retired.

In the coming years, in a world wrought by climate change, intensive animal agriculture, single use plastic and irresponsible travel, we will face a whole new set of challenges. I’ll continue to contribute to this planet in whatever ways I can, but…

I can say with confidence, having tried it over the past six months, that living in one place is just not for me. I belong on the road, always moving, wild and free.

What’s this lockdown period been like for you? Where did you spend it, and what’s your most important realization from it? Do you think a life of long-term travel is for you?

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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

“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.

The on-going Covid-19 crisis has made many of us pause and introspect about our impact on the planet. With the minimization of human consumption across the globe, nature seems to be healing and the air seems to be cleaner. We know we need to act now to save this planet we call home.

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

no planet b, save the planet
Why embrace sustainable fashion in India? There is no Planet B. Photo by Sean O.

Sustainable fashion India: An introduction

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

sustainable fashion in india, sustainable fashion brands in India
PIN this sustainable fashion India guide for future reference!

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?

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

mindful living
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

Sustainable fashion India: How to make better choices

sustainable clothing 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 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!

Hoomanwear

Hoomanwear is India’s first – and perhaps only – causewear brand, which donates atleast 15% 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!

Check out The Shooting Star travel-inspired collection in collaboration with Hoomanwear!

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. 

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.

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).

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

Increscent

Founded by 24-year-old Anya Gupta, Increscent offers affordable 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!

Brown Boy

22-year-old Prateek Kayan quit his banking job in New York to start one of the few fashion brands exclusively for men, based out of Kolkata. Brown Boy is all about organic, fair trade cotton and animal-friendly printing – creating sustainable t-shirts in India alongside other smart casuals.

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

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 acrylic yarn and 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!

Save the Duck

Save the Duck is an American brand that specializes in animal-free, high tech winter wear. Their jackets are made from recycled plastic bottles and hoodies from recycled fishing nets. And yet their winter collection is warm enough to successfully put a vegan mountaineer on Mount Everest!

Unfortunately India doesn’t yet to seem to have its own ethical and eco-friendly winter sports brand. Wool and down feather-free jackets are available at Decathlon, made with polyester or other synthetic materials, but not exactly eco-friendly.

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 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 

chhattisgarh tribes

Ideas of Love and Life from the Tribes of Chhattisgarh.

Ideas I gathered on sexual freedom, relationships, food and sustainability, while spending time with the tribes of Chhattisgarh.

Woh log peeche chhooth gaye (they got left behind).”

They have a special status because [economic] development didn’t reach them.

These were words I heard again and again in Chhattisgarh, referring to the many indigenous tribes in the state.

Many of them traditionally lived in mud and bamboo houses in the forest. Often cultivating a small patch of land, burning it and moving every few years. Many wore nothing but a rag around their waste, multiple tattoos, combs in their hair and handmade ornaments. They lived off the land, worshipped nature, practiced animist rituals and survived on minimal possessions. The forest and local healers catered to their medical needs.

And yet, they are considered backward because money and modern comforts hold little importance in their off-the-grid lives.

Also read: The Last Surviving Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka

bastar haat, chhattisgarh haat, tribal markets chhattisgarh
Many conversations were lost in translation at the local haats but laughter knows no language.

I was lucky to spend a couple of weeks with the amazing folks from Bastar Tribal Homestay and Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat – who work closely with the tribes of Chhattisgarh. That gave me a chance to meet and engage with tribal elders, craftsmen, healers, cattle herders, anganwadi teachers and social workers.

Here are some life lessons I gleaned from the various tribes of Chhattisgarh:

The freedom to experiment with sexuality and choose a life partner in a ‘ghotul’

chhattisgarh tribes, bastar tribes, chhattisgarh travel
Together for so long that they’ve forgotten how long.

“The message of the ghotul—that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitality and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love—and its physical expression—is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian.”

So wrote Verrier Elwin of the controversial ghotul of the Muria and Gond tribes in Central India. His insightful books, written from his perspective as an anthropologist and ethnologist, document tribal life and customs that are slowly being eroded.

One such custom is that of the ghotul – a sort of commune that functions after nightfall, whose members are young (unmarried) teenagers. Legend has it that the first of its kind was built by their celebrated ancestor Lingo.

Within its physical confines, the members are taught both, the social responsibilities of the tribe: music, dance, respecting elders, tribal traditions, bonding over natural brews, cooking. And the individual, consensual exploration of one’s sexuality, with one or multiple partners, with or without emotional attachment. Most importantly, without judgement.

On the other hand, in the regressive contemporary society of India, even public displays of affection – let alone pre-marital sex – are considered taboo.

Many families will disown their daughters for choosing to be in a consensual relationship. But wouldn’t hesitate to forcibly marry them off to a complete stranger, whose demands she must pander to even on their first night together.

Although ghotuls were an essential part of life for the Muriya and Gond tribes of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, many have been shut down on suspicion of naxal activities. Others have fallen prey to the influences of ‘modern’ society, ‘urban’ education and religion.

I was amused to read a Gond social worker report that in one ghotul, the evening now begins with a recitation of the gayatri mantra!

Perhaps it’s time to look past our dogmatic religions, whatever they may be, and learn from the so called ‘backward’ people, the original dwellers of this land.

I’m sure we can learn a thing or three about social interaction, sexual freedom, gender equality and the right to choose who to love.

Also read: How Travelling Changed My Perspective on Getting Married and Having Kids

A farm-to-table diet featuring millets, moringa, mahua and more superfoods

corn, gond village, bastar
Corns adorn the ceiling in traditional Gond houses.

Long before the green revolution transformed indigenous diets in India, the tribes of Chhattisgarh cultivated and consumed foods that are now globally recognized as superfoods.

In a village of the Baiga tribe in the Kawardha region, cut off from the road by a river, I met a woman brewing mahua liquor under a stunning old mahua tree. It was just after breakfast, but she insisted I try it. With a spoon carved from wood, she poured some into a leaf folded into a cup – a hot, bitter, woody taste that I never quite acquired!

Although mahua is blamed for alcoholism among the tribes now, it was once dried and made into mahua rotis or laddoos – packed with abundant energy!

From various elders in Bastar and Kawardha, I gathered that the traditional diet once consisted of kodo millet, moringa and legumes – all high on the nutritional quotient.

In the local haats (tribal markets), I saw root veggies like alookanda, varieties of beans, and snacks made with pumpkin – none of which I could recognize from our regular diets. In the harsh summer, instead of water, many tribes drink paich – a nutritious drink made by soaking rice or millet.

At a Gond village home, we feasted on kandul lentils – grown in the forest. Once cultivated, they are dried, packed up in sihadi leaves, stitched together with sihadi ropes and can last upto two years!

On a hike, we spotted chidchidi, the seeds of which have a hallucinogenic effect that convinces your mind that you’re not hungry for days.

Unfortunately like in most of India, the indigenous diet of Central India too is fast being replaced by rice and wheat. Leading to malnutrition, poor growth among children and health complications among adults.

As we aspire to healthier lifestyles, perhaps the tribes of Chhattisgarh could help us dig out the sustainable superfoods they once embraced.

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

A rational approach to live-in relationships, ‘dowry’ and divorce

tribes of chhattisgarh, chhattisgarh culture, bastar
A ring for every wedding attended; a rough gauge of age among some tribes of Chhattisgarh!

When it comes to marriage, the ideas of compulsion and dowry drive me crazy.

In India, people in their late twenties and early thirties are considered ticking time-bombs who must not miss the marriage window.

It’s bad enough that married women are expected to dissociate from their house / family and join their husband’s. As an earning member of the family, or even as a member who contributes to household chores, that’s a loss to the woman’s family. But in our grand patriarchal scheme of things, it’s the woman’s family that must also pay dowry to the man’s – for taking their “burden” off.

Make no mistake, the practice of dowry, though now illegal, continues in urban and rural India. Modern, forward-thinking families in the cities may refrain from using the term itself, but many still expect the woman to bring with her expensive household “gifts”.

I’ve witnessed that first-hand twice in my extended family.

On the other hand, the tribes of Chhattisgarh who seemingly “got left behind” in the race for modernity, possess far more practical views on relationships.

It’s socially acceptable – and infact the norm in many communities – for a couple to live together without formally being married. If they are driven by love and compatible with each other, what’s the need for a formal ceremony, a legal document or a dedicated celebration to endorse their commitment?

When a couple does decide to marry, the “dowry” works in reverse. Since the woman’s family is losing an earning / contributing member, the man’s must compensate their loss – usually by footing the bill of the celebration or with the much-desired Mahua liquor.

In the Baiga tribe, the rules of divorce are simple too. First, it’s socially understandable for a couple to choose that they no longer want to be together. Second, if the woman initiates the separation, her new companion must compensate the old one for the expenses he bore for the wedding or Mahua.

Practical, honest and not two-faced like our “modern” society, right?

Also read: Can Responsible Tourism in India Challenge Patriarchy?

If we take the cow’s milk, what will happen to the calf?

paich, indigenous food india
Instead of milk or water, people drink paich – made by soaking rice or millet in water.

I vividly remember the first conversation I had with my host from Bastar Tribal Homestay when I met him at the bus stop, after a long ride from Raipur.

Over the phone, I had mentioned to him that I don’t consume any animal products. Now even before we made small talk, he told me that the tribes of Chhattisgarh don’t consume milk either!

Why? It’s never been part of their diet. Even though they rear cows to get manure (cow dung) for their fields, they have no idea how to separate them from the calves and take their milk. They worry that if they took the cow’s milk, what would happen to the calf?

Turned out, my host had worked with the veterinary department in the past, on a scheme to distribute cows to poor households in Bastar, hoping they would earn money off the milk. The scheme failed badly, for no one knew how to or was willing to milk the cows!

This is easy to observe in the tribal haats too, where I didn’t spot a single product made of milk.

The tribes that were once nomadic hunter-gatherers still hunt and consume meat. Goats and other animals are still sacrificed at their festivals. Infact, even human sacrifices were common till after India’s independence. Rumor has it that unwelcome visitors in the area were often captured and sacrificed!

In the “modern” world, we’ve moved towards horrific ways of raising, mass producing, enslaving and genetically altering animals for meat, milk and eggs. But I felt reassured that atleast India’s ancient wisdom recognizes that a cow’s milk is for her calf, just like a human mother’s milk is for her baby.

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

A sustainable life through nomadism, barefoot living and upcycling

bastar travel, gond people, chhattisgarh people
A glimpse of life in a Gond village deep in the forests of Bastar.

Minimalism, zero waste, upcycling and detoxing have become buzzwords globally. But for the tribes of Chhattisgarh, they’ve long been a way of life.

My hosts at Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat shared an intriguing story of a local shaman. While staying at his house with some of their guests, the shaman advised that the guests be dropped off to an airport and my hosts return home immediately, abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur for a couple of days. An earthquake was on its way, the shaman said.

My hosts brushed him off, but somehow ended up abandoning their plans to stay in Raipur anyway.

Surprisingly enough, the earthquake shook the earth just as the shaman had predicted. They rushed back to his house to ask how he knew. The shaman pointed to his bare feet, and said the earth had told him.

We can discredit ancient ways of connecting with nature, but the truth is we are constantly chasing them in fancier ways. We burn big holes in our pockets at detox retreats where we can walk barefoot and feel connected to earth.

My host often joked that for many tribes, “the forest is mother, the tiger is brother!” For centuries, they’ve lived off the forest, cultivating small patches of land, then burning it and moving on, giving it a chance to heal back into a forest. Even as hunters, they hunted for survival, not for the pleasure of taste.

In Bastar, I spent an afternoon observing craftsmen who specialise in bell metal crafts, passed down from one generation to another. Designated “other backward castes”, I was surprised to learn that these craftsmen upcycle used metal (from kitchen ware, appliances etc) in a long painstaking process, to create incredible ornaments.

Natural upcycling is common in everyday life too. The sargi shrub is used to brush teeth, its leaves to make plates and its seeds to wash clothes. Beds are made from strong sihadi ropes. And gulal for holi is made by boiling flame of the forest flowers!

Instead of reinventing the entire wheel in practicing urban sustainability, we’d be better off learning from our not-so-backward past.

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

A village can raise a kid, literally

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Sometimes it really takes a village to raise a kid.

In India (and perhaps elsewhere), when couples have problems in their marital life, having a kid is often recommended as the solution. In a separation or divorce situation, society looks down upon the parents, especially the mother, for raising their child in a “broken” home.

Unfortunately, the toxicity of many home environments slips notice.

Which is why, I was amazed to hear from my hosts in Kawardha how the Baiga tribe of Chhattisgarh sorts out such complex situations without legal recourse.

If a couple with a kid choose to separate, the woman has the first right to decide if she wants to raise the kid. If she decides that single parenthood isn’t for her, the man gets to choose if it’s for him.

If neither parent wants to take on the responsibility, the community assigns a guardian to raise the child until the age of fifteen, with the rest of the village chipping in. More importantly, the woman can choose to leave without any stigma.

Perhaps as parents, you’d think that’s a bit brutal. But who’s to say that a child raised in a toxic household, by a parent who doesn’t feel up to the task, will have a better life than one raised with love by an entire village?

Have you gathered any fascinating ideas of love and life on your travels?

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

Can we stay home and stay safe, yet reduce single use plastic during the pandemic? Choices, alternatives and demanding change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has penetrated every aspect of our lives.

As much as I hate to write or even admit it, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. We’re still far from a vaccine, and even when it does arrive, distribution around the world could take a long time.

In the meantime, we must continue to try keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. That means we should use a mask and sanitizer, wash our hands frequently, practice social distancing, avoid touching our face and not go out to crowded spaces except when absolutely necessary.

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

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Can we stay safe yet reduce single use plastic during the pandemic?

Unfortunately though, that also means we need to find creative and safe ways to reduce single use plastic.

Personal protective gear – masks, hand sanitizers, surface disinfectant bottles – are typically non-biodegradable. Staying at home means more deliveries, e-commerce and food takeaways, which often come in non-recyclable plastic. Perhaps we’re discarding a lot of things we would’ve normally re-used, out of the worry that the virus might be lurking around on all surfaces.

As we gear up to face the pandemic for the long haul and adapt to life in the new normal, a single use plastic catastrophe might silently be brewing.

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

How has the pandemic impacted single use plastic products and our consumption?

I guess we only need to look at our personal consumption to guess the anwer.

Discarded plastic masks are already washing up on Hong Kong’s beaches. In the US, single use plastic usage is estimated to have gone up by a whopping 250-300%. Athens has reported a 150% increase in the amount of plastic in the general waste stream.

And in India, where waste management is already a huge issue, the fight against single use plastic has taken a backseat.

In the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the world has lost the momentum we gained over the past couple of years to reduce single use plastic. Plastic bans and alternatives have been rolled back.

Infact, plastic lobbyists are claiming that single use plastic is a hero in the new normal!

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

Are there problems with single use plastic, and are they important to consider while we’re in a pandemic?

I’m sure we haven’t forgotten the disturbing visuals of corals covered in single use plastic, turtles choked to death by plastic straws stuck in their nostrils and dead whales found with tonnes of plastic waste in their stomach.

Single use plastic has long been a global crisis. But it’s more important now than ever to reduce single use plastic, for three main reasons:

  • Biomedical waste that washes up on beaches or into the oceans can easily be mistaken as food. Fish, turtles, dolphins and other marine animals can choke on gloves, get entangled in the elastic bands of masks and get injured by face shields. With all this plastic filling their stomachs, they can starve to death.
  • Many recycling plants have been shut down over fears of the virus spreading through infected surfaces. That means what little plastic did get recycled / upcycled is now ending up in the landfill or being swept away into the ocean. It’ll leach into our groundwater and soil, and enter the food chain. Scientists are researching what that really means for our health.
  • Plastic pollution disproportionately affects low income countries with poor disposal facilities. Much of the west’s plastic waste used to go to China, and is now being sent to other countries in Southeast Asia. Even in rich countries, waste tends to be dealt with in poorer neighborhoods, causing public health problems. When incinerated, low grade plastic releases micro particles that have been linked to cancer. When sent to landfill, it often leaches into the groundwater. So yes, plastic pollution is very much a social justice issue.

Also read: 5 Easy Steps Towards Plastic Free Living

So, can we go about reducing single use plastic during the pandemic?

Given that health and safety trump all else right now, here are some things worth noting:

  • A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Covid-19 stays on plastic and stainless steel for 2-3 days, on cardboard for upto 24 hours and on copper for 4 hours.
  • According to the WHO, using a mask, frequently washing hands, social distancing and not touching the face are the most effective preventive measures. Surface disinfection with 70-90% alcohol is effective.
  • The WHO doesn’t recommend using gloves in public spaces.

In the early days of the pandemic, I decided that personal safety trumped my single use plastic consumption. In just a few weeks, the amount of plastic waste I was disposing became alarming.

So I spent a lot of time researching safe alternatives, and creative hacks to keep my single use plastic consumption as low as possible:

Alternatives to single use plastic: Use reusable multi-layered cloth masks instead of use-and-throw ones.

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Prevent a plastic pandemic by opting for cloth masks. Photo by Vera Davidova.

Masks are important for our collective safety, but that doesn’t mean we need plastic masks that come out of plastic covers.

According to the WHO, the CDC and Johns Hopkins University, those of us not interacting directly with positive or suspected positive people (i.e doctors, nurses etc), are safe enough using non-medical cloth masks. N95 and surgical masks are use-and-throw masks made of non-biodegradable plastic – taking upto 450 years to degrade! Instead, we can opt for multi-layered cloth masks, which can be washed and reused.

I bought a set of five cloth masks from Pulkar – an organisation in Dehradun that supports women’s livelihoods. I find cloth masks far more breathable, comfortable (instead of elastic bands around the ears, they have to be tied behind), stylish and affordable.

After each use, I sanitize and quarantine them for upto 48 hours (the virus is expected to survive on cloth fabric about as long as cardboard). And when I’m doing my laundry, toss them into the washing machine.

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home

It may not be entirely possible to stop single use plastic, but opt for eco-friendly e-commerce sellers who don’t wrap everything in plastic.

eco friendly ecommerce
Ways to eliminate single use plastic: Choosing eco-friendly e-commerce. Photo by Markus Spiske.

I think I’ve lost some of my sanity constantly outraging at Amazon and Urban Platter deliveries that arrive smothered in plastic for no good reason. I mean, why do non-breakable things like a pressure cooker whistle, a pan and even a pillow need to be wrapped in plastic?!

I limit using e-commerce for exactly this reason (aside from usually being somewhere too remote to receive deliveries and having no permanent address to receive them either). But now, in the midst of a pandemic with disrupted supply chains, closed shops and safety concerns, e-commerce is very much a part of my life.

Over time though, I’ve learnt to identify sellers that are conscious about not using single-use plastic:

Search for eco-friendly products

We needed a bunch of air tight containers so I searched for eco-friendly storage containers and zeroed in on the Star Work glass jars. Their products had great reviews and emphasized being environmentally friendly. And sure enough, despite being made of glass, the jars were delivered without any single-use plastic!

On the other hand, the couple of things I ordered from Amazon Basics came wrapped in layers of plastic despite being non-breakable. Ugh.

Now whenever we need anything, I use “eco” or “eco friendly” as a suffix while searching for it to identify plastic-free sellers.

Read reviews that mention the packaging

When I’m unable to find any eco-friendly sellers, I check if the reviews mention packaging – either while generally reading reviews or by doing a quick Ctrl+F search.

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

Banning single use plastic is a huge policy challenge, but leaving public feedback for sellers (both positive and negative) can pave the way.

plastic pandemic
Ways to stop single use plastic: Name and shame brands that don’t change their packaging. Photo by Marc Newberry.

I know it sounds like one more thing to do. But unless brands and sellers hear that we value plastic packaging free products and deliveries, they’re unlikely to make any changes.

Every time I receive an order, I try to leave public feedback on the e-commerce platform mentioning the packaging. Praising it if it is single-use plastic free. And highlighting the unnecessary use of plastic, which is more often the case.

Amazon has the option of seller feedback as well as product review. The former seems to be private feedback, though it does impact rankings on Amazon. I try to fill in both.

If enough of us do this, my hope is that Amazon will take notice and include a feature to rank packaging. Perhaps even a way to filter products with eco-friendly packaging!

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What Happiness Means to Them

Say a firm no to single use plastic bags. Insist that informal home deliveries are single-use plastic free and return the packaging immediately.

eco friendly delivery
Easy ways to reduce single use plastic: Get home deliveries in returnable containers / packaging. Photo by Misky.

I’ve switched from frequenting organic farmers’ markets wherever in the world I am, to ordering vegetables and fruits on whatsapp from local farmers or shops that stock their produce. Given that social distancing is hard at supermarkets and grocery stores, it’s prudent to have things delivered at home as much as possible.

That has one negative side effect though – plastic bags.

When I place an order, I always insist that they not be delivered in plastic bags. Thatched baskets, cardboard boxes and cloth bags are all good alternatives. In any case, I try to immediately empty the products into my own containers and return the packaging to (hopefully) be re-used.

This is also a great way of ensuring that I have the least possible interaction with a surface that might have been touched by multiple hands and possibly be carrying the virus. If I accept the packaging, I’d have to find a way of discarding it – increasing both, my exposure and trash.

Also read: Why I Switched to a Menstrual Cup – and How You Can Too

Ways to avoid single use plastic: Carry a washable cloth bag and reusable containers for takeaway.

single use plastic alternatives, plastic free living
Alternatives to single use plastics in everyday life and on my travels.

As India and the world slowly start to open up and emerge into a new “normal”, I’ve been thinking of how I can be both safe and environmentally-friendly.

I’ve been carrying reusable cloth bags for several years, and I think they’re our best bet now during the pandemic. Carrying my own bag means I don’t have to expose myself to plastic bags that have passed through multiple hands, on which the virus can survive for 2-3 days! Instead, I get home, empty my cloth bag and wash it with soap and water.

I’ve decided that no matter how much I crave diverse food during the pandemic, I’ll only ever order from places that deliver in eco-friendly packaging. In Hyderabad for instance, Le Terrassen Cafe has been using non-plastic single use cutlery and glass bottles. In Goa, Saraya has initiated a daily meal plan where lunch is delivered in returnable steel tiffins.

When I really want food from elsewhere – a slice of indulgent vegan chocolate cafe for instance – I will continue to carry my own resuable container. Again, relatively safer, washable and an easy way to practice single use plastic reduction.

Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips for More Fulfilling Experiences on the Road

Reducing single use plastic at home: Choose a “wash, quarantine and reuse” routine rather than an open and throw routine

washing hands
Know your single use plastic facts during the pandemic and get rid of the open and throw routine. Photo by Nathan Dumlao.

When I heard that the virus can survive upto 72 hours on plastic surfaces, my first instinct was to open every plastic bag of grocery (unfortunately I didn’t have access to an organic zero waste store), empty it into a container and toss the plastic bag into the bin.

But each time I did that, I felt horrified. Especially when the bag was a resealable bag that I would normally have re-used.

I then read safety recommendations by North Carolina State University, and was relieved to learn that it’s okay to re-use bags as long as they are cleaned and disinfected.

Now, instead of the ‘open and throw’ routine, I wash the outside of any plastic bag that enters the house, dry it and store it in a cupboard. Empty the contents in a container when needed. Sanitize it again if I’m feeling extra paranoid, quarantine it for a few days further and re-use it.

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

Experiment, make and grow more at home

Some of us have a lot more time at hand with no social outings and travelling on the cards. I’ve been finding some solace in the kitchen, as well as in growing vegetables, herbs and microgreens.

I never imagined that someone like me, with a marked lack of cooking ability, could bake a good loaf of bread. After a disastrous first time, it turned out surprisingly easy and tasty!

I look to Minimalist Baker, Vegan Richa and A Sweet Alternative for inspiration for easy vegan recipes. A simple google search is a good starting point too.

It’s been fulfilling to make, bake and grow my own. I’m not only reducing single use plastic at home but also consuming more home-grown, organic, chemical-free food.

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

Read about single use plastic facts, segregate waste and consider eco-bricking

I know I’ve been talking about segregating waste far too often on my blog and Instagram. But I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that the vast majority of us still doesn’t choose to segregate!

All it takes is two separate bins for wet and dry waste. The wet waste can be composted, even if you live in an apartment (consider the Eco Bin). Dry waste should ideally go to a recycling facility. Else it can be given away to a local ragpicker who is likely to salvage as much as possible. Further segregating dry waste into glass bottles, cartons etc can make processing of the waste easier.

Unfortunately though, single-use plastic is such low grade plastic that it can’t be recycled. If burnt, it releases toxic chemicals. If sent to landfill, it ultimately leaches into the groundwater or lands up in the ocean. The best solution so far – besides reducing consumption of course – might be to create ecobricks. Then pool them together with a community of people and build any needed structure.

Also read: Quarantine Recycling: Staying green under quarantine

What else can we do?

plastic oceans, plastic pandemic, reduce single use plastic
Demand bigger changes to create a world with no single use plastic in our oceans. Photo by Javardh.

Advocate for policy change

Even though the fight against single-use plastic looks pretty dismal during this pandemic, I feel hopeful about the possibility of policy action since it’s already happening in Thailand. In Bangkok, an awareness campaign to segregate waste is already underway, along with setting up of public collection points for plastic waste to be recycled.

Can this happen in India? A single use plastic ban *almost* came into force in India last year, but didn’t.

With a combination of aware, conscious, motivated citizens demanding action from local, state and central governments, better waste management and stricter regulations for single use plastic are absolutely possible.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

Ask e-commerce platforms to introduce a packaging rating and filter

We don’t need to look further than E-commerce websites for examples of single use plastics. It’s time to collectively ask platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and Urban Platter to change their packaging and introduce a feature to rate the eco-friendliness of sellers and products.

A filter to sort products by planet-friendly packaging could make it easier to identify brands that care about reducing plastic waste. A rating system can allow consumers to easily share feedback.

The best way to do this is using social media, and tagging your local e-commerce providers.

Also read: Inspiring Indian Using Social Media to Drive Positive Change

Shudder to think of the plastic pandemic brewing in 2020. Photo by Anshu A.

According to UN Environment, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, the WWF estimates that the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles are dumped into the water every MINUTE.

That’s in an average year. I shudder to think what 2020 means for the oceans, marine life, groundwater and our own health.

Have you noticed changes in your plastic consumption during the pandemic? What steps are you taking / going to take to reduce single use plastic?

bhutan solo travel, bhutanese blogger, layap bhutan, western bhutan

Meet the Bhutanese Blogger and Solo Traveller Unearthing Bhutan’s Best Kept Secrets.

Meet Tshering Denkar, an intreprid solo female traveller and Bhutanese blogger, documenting her Bhutan solo travel adventures.

I was in awe of Tshering Denkar even before I met her.

I first read her travel blog – Denkar’s Getaway – after receiving an invitation to share the stage with her at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan. She had spent the past couple of years travelling solo across the length and breath of her own country. Hiking, hitch-hiking and living with indigenous communities in remote mountain hamlets!

Travelling is never about the labels. But being Bhutan’s first solo female traveller and the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel space is a pretty big deal.

I mean, scan through global travel writing archives – or even articles about travelling in Bhutan – and tell me how many voices of intrepid female South Asian travellers can you find?

In Thimphu, I finally met Denkar – full of energy, excitement and humor – and despite being an introvert myself, we immediately connected through our mutual love for the road. Her travel stories eventually led us to Haa Valley and plans to explore the remote eastern provinces someday.

While hiking with Denkar in the mountains of Thimphu, I learnt how the King of Bhutan reads her travel blog and even invited her to meet him! He encouraged her to keep exploring the wonders of Bhutan, and inspire more Bhutanese people to explore their own country.

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan and What Happiness Means to Them

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Bhutanese blogger Tshering Denkar trying to hitchhike!

An unexpected journey

Prior to becoming a full time traveller, I was teaching in a prison in Thailand. One day, an inmate asked me, “Teacher, how is the world outside?” ~ Denkar

Denkar’s journey towards becoming a travel blogger and vlogger started in the most unlikely of places – a prison.

She travelled to Thailand to volunteer as an English teacher, and ended up staying longer to pursue further studies. While volunteering, she got the opportunity to teach at a prison in the Phitsanulok province in northern Thailand.

One day, an inmate asked her a question that would compel her to re-evaluate her life choices. How is the world outside? she wanted to know.

Denkar says she was haunted by that question, and slowly began to cherish the things she had always taken for granted. The freedom to be outdoors, explore, travel, meet new people and have interesting experiences.

She ended up backpacking across Southeast Asia, then decided to explore her own home country, Bhutan! For the past two years, she’s been travelling solo, living with locals across the many dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan.

Check out Denkar’s adventures on her blog, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube channel.

Also read: From panic to positive living: The pandemic in Bhutan by Denkar

merak, eastern highlands
Denkar, the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel space, with her host in Merak (Bhutan’s eastern highlands).

Bhutan solo travel

Dance to your own music and let the world blend into your tune. ~ Denkar

Denkar vividly recalls her first solo trip in 2018.

She bade goodbye to apprehensive friends as she boarded a local bus to Phobjika valley – alone, with a one way ticket! She was on a tight budget, and had made up her mind to hitchhike and couch surf if she needed to.

As the bus winded along the gorgeous green mountains, she felt herself connecting with the wanderer within. She quickly made new friends, felt determined to chart her own path and ended up staying longer than planned.

And she hasn’t looked back since. Phobjika became the first of many, many solo travel adventures across Bhutan. Seeking refuge wherever she found it, connecting with locals and going deeper wherever she went.

Also read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Funding her adventures and becoming the first Bhutanese blogger in the travel industry

My greatest achievement is that people understand what I do now! ~ Denkar

Like most South Asian parents, Denkar’s were worried about her financial well-being. The idea of spending hours behind a laptop at home or being paid to travel is still pretty alien in this part of the world.

Denkar’s father wanted her to work as a civil servant after she returned to Bhutan with a masters degree from Thailand. But she knew she wanted to do something different. She never saw herself fitting into a traditional work environment.

So she set out to prove that she could make a living from travel blogging / vlogging. She’d be the first of her kind in Bhutan!

And she did it. Her primary source of income is content writing. She also partners with like-minded brands on her travels.

She says her parents are now obsessed with her travel stories and offbeat adventures across the country!

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

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Bhutan solo travel | Denkar at the magnificent twin waterfall in Panbang.

Social stereotypes and hitchhiking in Bhutan

Denkar has hitchhiked to the remotest of villages in Bhutan on trucks and boleros! As in the rest of the world, hitch-hiking is considered a big NO for Bhutanese woman.

But when Denkar began fighting the social stereotype and putting her faith in strangers, she learnt that hitchhiking in Bhutan is safe as long as you keep your wits about you. She has hitched rides with mountain porters, truck drivers and students. Some bought her lunch. Some shared their deepest secrets with her. Many probably drew inspiration from her fearless ways.

Also read: An Open Letter to Parents: Let Your “Kids” Travel

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Bhutan solo travel | The joy of winter.

Offbeat Bhutan solo travel recommendations

Explore Panbang in one of Bhutan’s most remote districts​

Until a couple of decades ago, little was known about Panbang in Bhutan’s Zhemgang Dzongkhag, close to Manas National Park in India. Despite some recent development, the locals still live in thatched bamboo and grass roof houses, believe in shamans and drink tongba (fermented millet brew)!

Trek to Nuptsonapata in Haa Valley

Denkar says one of her all-time favorite treks in Bhutan was to Nuptsonapata in Haa Valley. Arduous though it was, it was filled with lush mountains, wildflowers, rare white poppies, an encounter with nomadic shepherds and an emerald lake!

Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips to Change the Way You Experience the World

Nuptsonpata trek, bhutanese blogger
Denkar on the trek to Nuptsonpata, documenting Bhutan solo travel.

Meeting the King of Bhutan as the first Bhutanese blogger / vlogger!

Besides being recognized as Bhutan’s first travel blogger, Denkar says being invited to meet the King of Bhutan in 2019 was her life’s greatest honor.

“We need to breathe Bhutan,” he told her. He spoke about the beauty of Bhutan and the need for Bhutanese people to explore more of their own country. Denkar says it was then that it really struck her. Her journey as a blogger could make a difference in the way her own people (along with those outside) saw Bhutan.

She pledged to the King that she would travel far and beyond to bring fascinating stories about Bhutan to the world.

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

bhutanese blogger, solo travel bhutan, bhutan travel blog, solo trip to bhutan
At Royal Highland Festival, Bhutanese blogger Denkar wearing ‘Thukhanja’ and ‘zem’ of Layap women.

Advice for women who want to follow their solo travel dreams

Denkar: “I believe if you travel solo far and long enough, you will meet your true self. My only advice is stop being a couch potato, wishing ‘if only’ your life was like that of someone you follow online.

If you feel you want to go out there and experience the world, do what it takes. Make the emotional commitment, carve your own path, get ready for some sacrifices and prove to yourself and those around you that you can do it.

Go be the author of your own story.”

Also read: Unusual Solo Travel Destinations to Feed Your Adventurous Spirit

bhutanese blogger, laya bhutan, solo travel bhutan, tshering denkar, bhutan travel blog
Bhutanese blogger | Waking up to snow in Laya.

How did you find the courage to take your first solo trip? Or what’s stopping you? Do you follow any Bhutanese blogger?

This post is part of my Solo Travellers Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on solo travellers from across Asia. Courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways yet typically underrepresented in the travel space. 

If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!

Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Travelling the World Solo – On a Wheelchair.

Meet the First Solo Female Traveller from the Maldives

Meet the Indian Software Engineer Who Quit His Job to Climb Mount Everest – But Not How You’d Imagine

Thanks to Tshering Denkar and Remya Padmadas for their inputs.

lesotho, lesotho travel

How We *Almost* Got Stranded at the South Africa – Lesotho Border.

Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa? We nearly got stranded while crossing the South Africa Lesotho border at Maseru’s Pioneer gate!

We rang in 2020 in a remote village in Lesotho, hanging out with its Basotho people and trying to pick up a few words in their Sesotho language!

I have to confess I knew so little about the country of Lesotho before spotting it on Google Maps. After nearly 2.5 months of being a digital nomad in Cape Town, the road was beckoning again. Besides, room prices and tourism had begun to peak across South Africa as we entered the busy Christmas-New Year period.

So we applied for a single-entry e-visa for Lesotho and got an approval within 2 days. Arranged a Lesotho driving permit, booked an overnight bus from Cape Town to Bloemfontein (the closest South African city to Lesotho), picked up a rental car from Bloemfontein and drove into Lesotho. An insanely beautiful country, nicknamed the “Kingdom in the Sky” because it has the highest lowest point in the world! ⁣

The plan was to spend the holiday season in Lesotho. Then use our multiple-entry visa to return to South Africa. We’d drive all the way to Kruger National Park and spend a week there. And just before our South Africa visa expired, return our rental car in Johannesburg and board a flight to India.

We had our documents and visas in order. The plan was foolproof. Or so we thought.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on my Indian Passport as I Travel the World

lesotho rondavel, lesotho travel, travelling to lesotho from south africa, south africa lesotho border
Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | Our rondavel at Semonkong Lodge in Lesotho.

Entering Lesotho: The South Africa Lesotho border

After a 1.5 hour drive from Bloemfontein, we arrived at the Van Rooyen bridge – one of the border checkposts to enter Lesotho.

Crossing was a cake-walk: Park the car on the South African side, get an exit stamp and drive across. Then park the car on the Lesotho side, get an entry stamp, pay 40 Rand for the car and drive through. No questions asked, no documents (other than the Lesotho e-visa) checked.

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

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South Africa Lesotho border | Hiking with a female guide in Lesotho.

Exiting Lesotho: The Lesotho South Africa border⁣

After nearly 10 days of living in traditional rondavels (round houses), hiking with a local female guide, spotting rainbows, gazing at starry night skies and trying the local sorghum beer, we bade goodbye to Lesotho.

This time, we drove via Maseru (the capital of Lesotho) to the Pioneer gate to re-enter South Africa. Followed the cars at the border to a drive-through exit immigration, where we got stamped out of Lesotho. Handed over the exit vehicle stamp and got onto Maseru Bridge leading to South Africa.

Our car crawled along Maseru Bridge in a massive traffic jam. Alongside, droves of people walked across the border. It felt like a mass exodus from Lesotho to South Africa just like I’d imagine happens at the Mexico-US border.

We finally hit the South African immigration, and things started going downhill…

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

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Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | The spectacular drive!

Asked to go back to Lesotho despite a multiple-entry visa for South Africa

We joined the long immigration queue to re-enter South Africa. Sweating in the heat, crawling forward bit by bit, we had no idea what awaited us at the counter.

My partner and I submitted our passports together to the South African immigration officer.

He quickly scanned and stamped mine. But when it came to my partner’s passport, he started going over each page. Finally, slowly, he looked up and asked, where is your South Africa visa?

Of course it was right there, covering an entire page in the passport. Exactly the same as mine. A multiple entry visa that granted us multiple entries into South Africa. Valid for 3 months. Valid for entry before a date in October.

That’s the date he pointed to, saying the visa had already expired! But you see, we had already entered South Africa (the first time) before the said date. Having done that, the visa allowed us multiple entries over 3 months. We showed him our original entry stamp and tried to explain the situation.

But he told us, quite condescendingly, that we must go back to Lesotho and apply for a new South Africa visa.

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

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South Africa Lesotho border | On a hike in the Western Cape.

Our options

To be honest, we didn’t have many options:

  • We couldn’t go back to Lesotho because we had a single-entry visa and had just been stamped out. A new e-visa would take atleast 2 days to come through.
  • Even if we could enter Lesotho, the South African embassy most likely wouldn’t allow us – Indian passport holders – to apply for a new visa. Visa conditions dictate that we apply in our country of residence.
  • We worried about our upcoming plans in South Africa. The rented car to be returned in Johannesburg in a week. The rather expensive accommodation booked in Kruger National Park. And the two flight tickets to India.

Our only option was to beg this unreasonable man to stamp us in, or remain in no man’s land!

Acknowledging our lack of options, we asked the visa officer if we could speak to his supervisor. That enraged him, but he left his cubicle with our passports as we followed him.

But instead of going into the adjacent immigration building, he stopped to show our passports to a man who seemed to us like a security guard! His uniform was different, and he was carrying takeaway food. Still we tried to plead our case with him, but the two men rudely told us to shut up. Then with an air of finality, they firmly told us that our visas had indeed expired.

Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home

Finally, a helpful officer

By now, we were seething with anger.

We stood outside in the hot sun, discussing, debating what to do. The weird thing was the officer had already stamped my passport but refused to return it to me. One option would’ve been for me to enter South Africa alone and plead our case at the nearest Indian embassy. Atleast there were some cans of emergency vegan food lying around in the car – incase one or both of us had to spend the night in this godforsaken no man’s land without our passports!

Seeing us standing around for the next hour, a female officer stepped out of the immigration building to ask if we had been helped. It seemed like she already knew why we were waiting.

Finally she led us to a senior immigration officer, this time a real one, with a formal uniform and name tag. He patiently heard us out, walked us to our original visa officer’s counter, went over our passports, determined that our multiple entry visa holds and stamped my partner’s passport.

As he returned our beloved passports – stamped and ready to go – he laughed and said, “Where are the rupees?”

Also read: Bittersweet Feelings in South Africa’s Mamelodi Township

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Travelling to Lesotho from South Africa | Sunset at Milnerton beach.

On hindsight, what really happened

Crossing the border back into South Africa was such a relief! We cursed and laughed and thanked our stars.

But as we pieced together the previous few hours, some things stood out:

  • We seemed to be the only tourists in that day’s immigration queue. Most were either Lesotho or South African citizens with residence visas. That perhaps made us easy scapegoats to make a quick buck.
  • It was quite unlikely that the original visa officer was confused about our multiple-entry visa. After all, he stamped my passport – with exactly the same visa – without much thought.
  • If he really meant for us to go back to Lesotho, why did he hold on to our passports?
  • “Where are the rupees?” Does that explain his motivation?!

That was, no doubt, one crazy border crossing experience. But to be honest, after spending 70+ days in lockdown, I would go back in a jiffy even to that crazy day at the South Africa Lesotho border 😉

Have you had any unexpected visa encounters on your travels?

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Sustainable Living Ideas to Embrace as we Emerge Into a New “Normal”.

In the midst of a pandemic, all roads seem to point towards a life that is more mindful and compassionate. Some easy sustainable living ideas to get started.

The past 50+ days of lockdown living have been an emotional roller coaster.

I’ve felt a deep longing to be in the midst of nature. The forests, the mountains, the sea, I’ve craved them all. This longing made me realize that I never fully appreciated the freedom (and privilege) to experience the incredible beauty of our world. It equally made me dwell on my environmental footprint as an inhabitant of a shared planet.

In the midst of a pandemic linked to deforestation, biodiversity loss and intensive animal farming, all roads seem to point towards embracing sustainable living ideas that are kinder towards the planet and the beings we share it with.

sustainable living ideas
Embracing sustainable living ideas can help protect the beauty of this incredible planet.

Will adopting sustainable living ideas at an individual level make a difference in the big picture?

We only need to look at the past for inspiration. Many social and political transformations came about as a result of mass movements that began with individual awareness and personal choices. The more invested we become in sustainable living as individuals, the more likely we are to drive change as a society.

For those of us not directly affected by the on-going crisis, this slowdown can be a chance to make small but lasting changes towards a sustainable way of life.

Sustainable living tips to get started:

1. Begin your journey towards minimalism – one of the most important green living ideas

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Sustainable lifestyle ideas | Living out of 2 bags since 2013.

I know Marie Kondo is all the rage these days, but minimalism isn’t a new trend. It’s simply the idea of consuming mindfully. Owning less, buying less, having fewer material attachments.

In fact, most people in India and elsewhere lived minimalist lives before the days of television and social media. Before marketing, ads and influencers started telling us that we want more than we need.

How I ended up living out of 2 bags

Back in 2013, when I was contemplating a life of long term travel, I had cupboards, drawers and bags full of things I didn’t really need.

So I spent a few days taking stock of everything I owned. I gave away most of my clothes, shoes, books, appliances and assorted possessions to anyone who could use them. Gradually I gave up the apartment itself, and have been living out of two bags since.

Why minimalism – and how it can ensure sustainable living at home

Over the years, it’s felt mentally liberating to shed the weight of my material attachments. I know now, that my contentment has nothing to do with trips to a shopping mall or the latest fashion trend.

Harmless though it seems, fast fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet. So I’ve pledged that whenever I acquire something new, it will be recycled or upcycled, support a local cause and/or be environmentally sustainable.

Also read: The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Fashion in India

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Quotes on sustainable living – PIN me!

Minimalist sustainable living practices

  • Think about how much you really need: Use this time at home to re-evaluate what you really need. Perhaps you’re comfortable with a few sets of clothes and shoes. Perhaps your office regime demands more. Perhaps you’re too attached to some books but can consider swapping others, or donating them to a library. You could lay out all your things, and objectively assess what you must keep and what can go.
  • Start slow: It’s great to be excited by sustainable living examples, but slow down a bit. We’d do more harm than good by getting rid of things we think we don’t need, only to buy them again later. In my case, while downsizing my possessions, I stored some backup stuff in the boot of a friend’s car. A while later, when he had to sell that car, I rummaged through it again to find a couple of essentials I’d been missing. You could similarly store some things to reconsider after a few months.
  • Notice the inner changes: As you embark on a sustainable lifestyle journey to buy and own less, notice how your needs and wants change internally. Personally, I feel a lot less attached to what I still own and rarely ever crave material things. It’s pretty amazing.

Documentaries and books on sustainable living, especially minimalism

  • Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things: Made by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus – the two guys who essentially made ‘minimalism’ a mainstream idea circa 2016. This America-centered documentary explores the American dream and materialism in western societies – but is pretty relevant to urban Indian lives.
  • The True Cost: A documentary about the true cost of fast fashion and why we need to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle.
  • Essential Zen Habits – Mastering the art of change, briefly: Essential Zen habits by Micronesian writer, runner and vegan Leo Bautata, on the art of embracing change, has been on my wishlist for a while.
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: As someone who hasn’t really had a ‘home’ in a long time, I don’t exactly relate to Japanese author and much-loved organizing consultant Marie Kondo. But I know a few whose lives her book has changed!

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

2. Segregate, compost, reduce and recycle your waste

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Examples of sustainable living – Compost your waste. Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash.

A few years ago, I visited a state-of-the-art waste management plant in Goa. At the conveyor belt, I saw workers sorting out recyclables from all kinds of waste. Curry covered boxes, plastic in all forms, rotting vegetables, tattered clothes, umbrellas, muck covered toys, even rotting carcasses! It is sickening that a fellow human should have to dig through all our waste just because we refuse to segregate it.

Since this is a semi-private waste plant, workers are given protective coats, gloves, a face mask and health insurance. But most ragpickers and informal waste workers (in India and other developing countries) have access to none of this.

Visiting that plant and meeting workers who once lived off the public dumping ground made me realize that the least we can do to adopt a sustainable lifestyle is to deal with our waste more mindfully.

I now consciously look for Airbnbs / homestays that segregate and compost their waste. As far as possible, I try to reduce my waste by avoiding things that come in single-use plastic, thereby reducing my junk food intake. And no matter where in the world I am, I keep my eyes and ears peeled for recycling spots to give my recyclable waste.

While in Cape Town, I decided to experiment with a month of being zero waste on the road – not easy but not impossible. I’ll be writing about that zero waste challenge soon.

How to segregate and compost waste

The conversation about waste seldom makes it to our living rooms. No wonder, my folks put up so much resistance against the simple act of segregating waste. But now that I’m locked down with them, they’ve finally relented!

The process is really simple. All you need to do is use two bins instead of one. All wet waste (food waste, soiled plain paper and anything biodegradable) goes into one. All dry waste into another.

For the wet waste, dig a pit in your backyard if you have one. Discard the wet waste in it once or twice a day, and cover with an equal amount of dry leaves.

If you live in an apartment, get yourself an Eco Bin, which allows easy and hygienic disposal of wet waste. In a few weeks, you’ll have compost to grow your own vegetables! See this comprehensive pit composting guide if you have a backyard or these indoor composting options.

The dry waste should ideally be sent to a recycling facility. Figure out if there’s a collection service or center in your vicinity. If not, perhaps you could arrange for community collection, to be sent to the nearest facility every week or month. Alternatively, discuss with your local ragpickers what they are able to salvage and try to find solutions to the remaining waste.

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PIN this reminder for urban sustainable living.

Tips for low waste and sustainable living at home

  • Assess all your waste and find creative solutions: Consciously keeping track of all your dry waste for a few days can be eye-opening. Then it’s time to find creative ways of reducing it. Can you refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle or find alternatives to it? It’s how I switched from shower gel and shampoo bottles to bars, started making my own snacks and began sourcing plastic-free energy bars made on order.
  • Get your house members on board: If you share your space with family or friends, it’s important to get their buy-in atleast for segregation if not a sustainable lifestyle entirely. Involving my folks in the ideation process (what to use to collect wet waste etc) helped. To ensure that the waste isn’t mixed up, I created a “dry waste” sign next to the regular dustbin as a reminder.
  • Consider a community garden for collective composting: While in Cape Town, we lived in a studio with a small balcony. Since we weren’t staying long enough, it didn’t feel worthwhile investing in an eco bin to make compost. So I got in touch with a community garden nearby, who were happy for us to drop off our wet waste every couple of days to be composted. If we had stayed long enough, we would’ve bought our produce there. Win-win!

Plastic free eco living ideas

  • Buy produce directly from farmers: Many towns and cities around the world have farmers markets, where farmers directly sell their produce without plastic packaging. Sharan’s organic farmer markets in Mumbai every Sunday, Dehradun’s Wednesday organic market, Cape Town’s weekend markets and Thailand’s Thursday stalls are just some of the places I’ve bought my produce in the past few years! It ensures a fair price to farmers and fresh organic produce that I can carry in my own cloth bags.
  • Shop at zero waste stores / supermarkets that sell produce in bulk: Pretty much everything we consume – from lentils to nuts to detergent – comes in plastic packaging. While in Cape Town, I was delighted to find two zero waste stores, so I could buy essential grains, legumes etc in my own jars or bags. In Georgia, the Carrefour store sold everything from pasta to rice in bulk. In India, Chennai, Gurgaon and Goa have organic zero waste stores, while some kirana stores still sell in bulk.
  • Make your own plastic-free alternatives: Instead of unhealthy store-bought snacks, I’ve been trying to make namkeens with mixed seeds and easy raw chocolate brownies at home. Instead of sugary store-bought beverages, I drink fresh juice and make my own iced tea. A sustainable lifestyle should ideally be healthier too.
  • Reuse plastic creatively: Many people grow plants in discarded plastic bottles. Eco bricks – pet bottles densely packed with single-use plastic – are all the rage now and can ultimately be used to erect sturdy structures.

Also read: Plastic Free Living: 5 Steps to Embrace Single-Use Plastic Alternatives

3. Switch to a menstrual cup – one of the best sustainable living products out there!

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Examples of sustainable living – a menstrual cup!

I have to confess that the idea of inserting a menstrual cup in my vagina felt so scary that even after I bought one, I shied away from trying it for three whole months!

For the uninitiated, a menstrual cup is an eco friendly alternative to pads and tampons. The cups is made of health grade silicon, and inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. Now that I’ve been using one for over a year, I can tell you it’s hygienic, safe and super comfortable!

The best time to experiment with a menstrual cup is when you’re staying home and have easy access to a comfortable bathroom – i.e. this lockdown!

Why I switched to a menstrual cup

My conviction to switch to a menstrual cup came while volunteering on a remote island in Cuba. I was surprised to spot single-use plastic on the seabed that wasn’t even available on the island! Those stunning corals and marine life were co-existing with plastic bags, shampoo bottles, straws and what not.

I had switched to “biodegradable pads” by that time, but further research revealed that they degrade only when discarded and composted separately. I couldn’t do that on the road, nor could I live with myself for sending 10-15 plastic pads to the landfill or ocean every month.

Tips to use a menstrual cup

  • Sterilize the cup: Basically just put it in boiling water before and after your period each month. That ensures any bacteria on the surface is killed.
  • Try different folds and positions to insert it: It took me a few periods to figure out how to get the cup in. I watched Youtube videos, read extensively about our inner structure and experimented with a bunch of different folds and positions. When I finally figured it out, I realized it doesn’t hurt. AT ALL!
  • Use your pelvic muscles to remove it: I worried myself silly thinking of how I’d remove it when I finally managed to get it in. The relieving part is that it can’t get lost inside 😉 I learnt to use my pelvic muscles and breath to push it down a bit, then squeeze it between my fingers and pull it out.

Why a menstrual cup is among the most brilliant ideas for sustainable living

  • An eco-friendly alternative: A menstrual cup can be used for upto 10 years with care – easily saving 1800+ single-use pads as trash. Definitely a worthwhile alternative for a more sustainable lifestyle.
  • Easy to use and clean once you figure it out: The only other zero waste menstrual product is a cloth pad. It works like a regular pad, but needs to be washed after every use, which can be a pain. On the other hand, after the initial mental and physical challenges of figuring out a menstrual cup, it is super easy to use, maintain and carry.
  • Physical activities are easier with a menstrual cup: I find it way easier to hike, swim, do yoga and other physical activities while wearing my cup. My biggest fear is that I’ll forget it’s inside!
  • A long term investment: Considering that a menstrual cup can be used for a good few years, it works out way cheaper than pads in the long run. Both financially and environmentally.

I love my Lena Cup (bought on Amazon US while travelling in that part of the world) and absolutely recommend it.

My cup-verted friends recommend the SheCupCupvert Cup, Boondh Cup and Rustic Art Cup in India. I highly recommend buying cloth pads as a backup for low flow days. There are several options on Amazon India and Amazon US. A set of 4 suffices for me.

Also read: My Detailed Guide on How to Use a Menstrual Cup, With All Your Questions Answered

4. Creatively reuse and recycle what you already have

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Sustainable living projects – Making upcycled handmade paper in Kerala.

I’ve often found it hard to focus during this lockdown, with all the negativity and indefiniteness playing on my mind. But perhaps it’s the perfect time to unleash our creative spirit to do things it’s otherwise hard to find time for.

In February this year, I met small-scale entrepreneurs across Kerala who benefit indirectly from tourism through vocational jobs. I learnt how to upcycle old newspapers into artisan handmade paper. A sweet couple demonstrated how they recycle used candle wax to make creative candle designs. A tea planter turned tailor has been making cloth bags from old clothes so people can stop using single-use plastic bags.

In South Africa, I learnt how to make trendy wallets from used tetra boxes! In Myanmar, I met a women’s collective who upcycle used coffee and other plastic packets into cool bookmarks and lamp shades.

On my closed women-only Facebook group, one creative soul bought discarded wood from a ragpicker to make a cool sofa. Another made a hip bookshelf with old drawers!

Why reuse and recycle

I sometimes read about people making a move towards slow fashion and a plastic-free sustainable lifestyle by buying new “minimalism-friendly” things as they discard everything else.

And I get it, it’s tempting to buy that multi-purpose scarf thing on Instagram that can be worn 10 different ways. Or to throw out all plastic jars and buy a new set of glass jars to feel good about ourselves.

But here’s the thing. Sustainability and minimalism are pointless pursuits if we’re creating all this trash, or craving the next trendy minimal wear. We need to use what we’ve already got – for the maximum amount of time we can.

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Quotes on sustainable living – PIN this!

How to reuse and recycle during the lockdown

Limited access to non-essentials during the lockdown is the perfect opportunity to get creative. Google has tons of DIY ideas for whatever you need and how to make it based on what you already have at home.

After a long hiatus, I feel ready to acquire a new dress. So I’m trying to remodel my current one into a skirt, and upcycle one of my mom’s old sarees into a dress. We’ll see how the experiment goes 😉

In the next few weeks, my notebook will run out of pages, so I’m going to try making handmade paper. It’ll be hard to replenish my shampoo and conditioner bars, so I’ll try to make a version at home. Many of my friends are making their own cloth masks and sanitizers. The possibilities are endless!

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

5. Embrace a compassion-driven lifestyle

Have you been wondering how the hell life went from being business as usual to this scary, bizarre lockdown situation?

Scientists pretty much agree that the source of the COVID-19 outbreak was a wet market in Wuhan, China. Hens, fish, snakes, birds, porcupines, pangolin, even wolf pups are sold there – to be cooked and eaten. The virus likely came from bats, and was possibly transmitted by a snake, pangolin or chicken, into humans (pangolin is the prime suspect). That makes it a zoonotic disease, one that spread from animals to humans.

Similarly Ebola, SARS, bird flu, nipah etc are all infectious outbreaks that began in bats, but spread to humans through hunting, pig farms, poultry farms and animal markets. Deforestation, biodiversity loss and closer interaction with wild animals helped create the perfect breeding grounds.

There’s been a rise in the spread of infectious diseases in the last 50 years. Our population has grown. But also we have more livestock since 1960 than the last 10,000 years of domestication combined! As we use more animals – for trade, farming, food etc – we increase the probability of cross-species transmission of infectious diseases. Dr Gauden Galea, WHO Representative, China, said in an interview with CNN: “As long as people eat meat, there is going to be some risk of infection.”

It’s not yet well understood how exactly zoonotic diseases work, but I guess it’s pretty clear that they are rooted in the abuse and misuse of animals and their habitats.⠀⁣⁣ ⠀⁣⁣

So perhaps this lockdown is a good time to find our inner compassion to stop abusing animals and nature, and reduce the danger to our own lives?

Why turn vegan (or consume less animal products)

  • The animal suffering: Being vegan is simply a pledge to stop exploiting animals – to the greatest extent possible. ⁣⁣⁣That means not using animals for their meat, eggs, milk etc. Not separating them from their babies or castrating them. Not buying products made of leather, silk, wool and down feather. Not using toiletries and cosmetics tested on animals. Not supporting zoos, not riding animals, not using them to carry our loads. Not supporting the pet industry. ⁣⁣If it involves an animal, first google to see what it entails.
  • The environmental impact of animal based food: A whopping one-third of the world’s freshwater is currently used to produce animal foods, including meat and dairy. Nearly 80% of all agricultural land is used for livestock. 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions – and 12% of those in India – are attributed to raising animals for food (in comparison, flying contributes 2% of global emissions). Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the U.S., China, the European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world!
  • The health benefits of plant-based food: Vegan diets haven’t been studied long, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that meat and milk are associated with cholesterol, heart disease and blood pressure. I’ve met people of various age groups in India, Iran and Germany who’ve reversed diabetes, thyroid and other health conditions by switching to a whole foods plant based lifestyle.

Tips on sustainable living through food (or how to turn vegan at your own pace)

  • Research and work out your motivation: Considering that food is an integral part of our daily life, experimenting with being vegan – even for the duration of the lockdown – is a choice that will stare you in the face everyday. So the first step should be to read articles and books, and watch documentaries and videos to firm up your motivation. I even did some primary research by living with small-scale cattle farmers in the Himalayas and visiting free-range dairy farms, sheep rearing facilities, animal rescue sanctuaries and horse riding estates. I’ve learnt to ask tough questions and gathered some shocking answers.
  • Transition at your own pace and look online for alternative recipes: Depending on how sustainable lifestyle changes work for you, you might want to take it slow or do it overnight. Maybe start with a firm decision to not buy anything that contains animal products – including groceries and cosmetics. Maybe start with cooking one vegan meal a day. If you feel the need for vegan alternatives to milk, butter, cheese etc, a simple google search will reveal a ton of easy recipes.
  • Figure out how to get your nutrition on a vegan diet: This lockdown is a good time to embrace vegan food that is also local, seasonal and healthy. Most basic Indian food can easily be veganized without ghee, paneer, butter etc. Leafy greens, seasonal veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, lentils, chickpeas, beans etc are ready available. Start with this guide by the NHS to figure out nutritional needs. Note that most people – vegan or not – are deficient in Vitamin B12 and D3, so consider supplements.
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Inspiration to turn vegan – PIN this post.

Inspiring documentaries and books about veganism

  • Animal intimacies: Written by anthropologist Radhika Govindarajan, Animal Intimacies is a book about farming and mountain life in Uttarakhand. Written from the social perspective of small scale farmers but an insight into the life of domesticated hill animals as well. I found myself tearing up reading it.
  • For a moment of taste: An in-depth expose of what happens to animals commonly used for meat, eggs and dairy foods in India, written by investigative researcher Poorva Joshipura. I just ordered my copy.
  • Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows: A book by social psychologist Melanie Joy on the psychology of eating meat.
  • Earthlings: An intimate look at how humans have used animals for economic gains. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. Earthlings might be hard to watch, but if you feel like turning it off, remember that we’re literally paying to make it happen.
  • Cowspiracy: The first documentary to introduce the environmental impact of animal-based food to a mass audience. Must watch if you’re interested in pursuing a sustainable lifestyle.

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

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

6. Grow your own microgreens and other food

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Need a sustainable living plans? Start with growing your own produce. My microgreens start to sprout.

Nothing’s given me as much joy in this lockdown as growing my own microgreens! We’ve all likely sampled microgreens – those little plants with a couple of leaves that often appear with a starter or dish at a cafe or restaurant.

But I was first introduced to their amazing nutritional content at The Sunshine Food Co in Cape Town. The owner Elisha fell in love with farming microgreens, and now offers the most badass vegan activated charcoal burgers I’ve ever had.

So I read up, watched a couple of videos and drew inspiration from Instagram to experiment with growing my own. In reused takeaway containers filled with soil, I sowed mustard, urad dal and basil seeds. And was amazed that with little effort, they grew beautifully in a couple of weeks! I added them to my smoothies and sandwiches.

I then managed to get okra, bitter gourd and black eyed pea (lobia) seeds from an organic farmer, though those will take a while to grow.

The joy of growing your own food and self sustainable living

This lockdown has left many of us craving to reconnect with earth, and growing our own food is a therapeutic way of doing that. It also allows us to be more self-sustainable in an uncertain future.

Besides, it’s rather reassuring to consume something home-grown, that you know hasn’t been infiltrated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. And I can swear it teaches us to value the hardwork of our farmers enough to never negotiate for their produce again!

Practical tips to grow produce at home

  • Know that we can grow stuff no matter where we live: Whether we have a backyard garden, a rooftop or just a window, it’s possibly to grow atleast some of our own food. Grow herbs in the garden, transform a terrace into an urban rooftop farm or try soil-less farming with hydroponics.
  • Microgreens are the easiest and quickest to grow: Even though I’ve spent time living at / near organic farms and learnt a lot in theory, I never end up staying long enough to see the seeds reach the table. That’s part of the reason I love microgreens. They’re easy to grow, adaptable to most weather conditions and packed with nutrition. But most importantly, they can be harvested within 2-3 weeks!
  • Keep it organic: My folks, like many others, thought ‘organic’ is a myth. But since I’m here a while, I started getting produce delivered from local organic farmers. Everything from desi tomatoes to peaches to lemons taste so much more flavorful that even my folks are noticing the difference. As you grow things, keep it simple – natural, pesticide free and chemical free. You’re sure to grow into this sustainable lifestyle and notice the difference in taste.

Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home

7. Catch up on the health of the planet

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Sustainable lifestyle ideas | Thinking of better times, in Mauritius.

I know these are overwhelming, unprecedented times. I have good days and bad each week. I feel angry, helpless, sad, guilty and a whole other gamut of emotions.

But this is also a time of introspection. A chance to learn more about this genius planet of ours without stepping out. An opportunity to chase a deeper understanding of the relationship of our species with nature, man-animal conflict, climate change, social justice, animal rights and impactful ways to pursue a sustainable lifestyle.

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Why is sustainable living important? PIN this post.

Unlike pandemics of the past, we’re lucky to have virtual access to the world through Netflix, zoom, webinars, lives, kindle and other technology. Tune into a sustainable living documentary, pick up sustainable living books and follow sustainable living blogs.

Perhaps the greatest favor we can do ourselves is to treat this “great pause” as a chance to unlearn, rethink and realign our lives. In a way that is personally gratifying but also reduces our impact on the natural world around us.

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What Happiness Means to Them

Have you committed to any sustainable living ideas during the lockdown? What do you plan to try?

I’m now accepting guest posts on my blog on responsible travel and green living. If you’d like to contribute a story, please see my guidelines here.

If you’re a sustainability-minded rebel struggling with your life choices, join my closed women-only Facebook group.

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Chhattisgarh: Tribal Life, Motorcycle Adventures and a Lingering Sadness.

Dreaming of Chhattisgarh travel in the distant, post-lockdown future? In my first Chhattisgarh travel blog post, a glimpse of my solo adventures and why I *almost* fell in love. 

I bade goodbye to Chhattisgarh with bittersweet feelings. Over nearly two weeks in the state (well before the lockdown), I rode pillion through eerily quiet sal forests late at night, with barren white ghost trees shimmering under the moonlit sky. Took a poop under a jackfruit tree with a cobra in the vicinity! And crossed flowing rivers to reach remote tribal settlements, as both my adrenaline and curiosity surged.

While travelling through Bastar and Kawardha, I lived in an off-grid village of the Gond tribe deep in the forest. In this demarcated Naxal territory, I joined my host family around a fire, trying to decipher the complexities and misconceptions of tribal life.

With hastily shut eyes and an aching heart, I witnessed a goat sacrifice in the traditional festival of the Dhurwa tribe. Rumor has it that back in the day, humans were sacrificed at their forest altars. Apparently clueless outsiders who overstayed their welcome!

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

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Chhattisgarh travel | A Dhurwa man decks up a tiger idol near the sacrifice altar.

In a traditional healer’s hut, alongside medicinal herbs, I was shocked to discover worn-out bird feet and pangolin shells (gathered years ago), still used to heal people. In obscure villages, I met artists and craftsmen, working with bell metal and bamboo crafts – their extraordinary lives and rare skills mocked by the tag of “other backward classes”.

With no toilets in remote tribal villages, I relieved myself under a jackfruit tree. On the short walk back to my host family’s house, I was shocked to spot an Indian cobra, lying lifeless on the path. Possibly the fallen prey of an eagle.

Also read: Solo Travel Moments That Left Me Scared Shitless

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Chhattisgarh travel | My guides were sure it’s a cobra, but a reader suggests it’s a copper head trinket. Do you know?

In a local haat (tribal market), I drank landa – homemade fermented rice brew with a nutty texture – in a tendu leaf cup. Under a grand old mahua tree, I met a sweet Baiga family fermenting mahua liquor in a boiling pot. They wouldn’t let me leave without tasting some delicious hot potent brew in a leaf cup, even though it was just after breakfast.

I met women of the Baiga tribe who still tattoo their foreheads, arms and legs. In semi-permanent mud houses they live, sharing the land with bears, leopards, tigers and other creatures of the forest.

And perhaps I’ll never forget that evening, when in the twilight hours, the sudden rush of freedom gripped me as I stood under the torrential spray of the gushing Teerathgarh waterfall! If someone had told me that I’d be 50+ days into an indefinite lockdown as I type this, I would’ve savored that rush just a little longer.

Also read: Offbeat, Incredible and Sustainable: These Travel Companies are Changing the Way You Experience India

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Chhattisgarh travel blog | A man sells chillies at a local haat in Bastar.
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Chhattisgarh travel blog | Landa in a tendu leaf cup at a local haat.

And yet, I felt a deep sadness as I spent time with the tribes of Chhattisgarh.

The old rituals, the traditional way of wearing clothes and hair, social interactions in the forest and the tribal haats have fallen prey to the influences of “modernity” and religion. The once nutritional diet of millets and superfoods – like kodo, moringa and mahua – has been replaced by rice and daal, leading to malnutrition. An abundance of indigenous knowledge about the forest and the sustainable, zero-waste use of its resources is on the brink of extinction.

The shift towards ‘modern’ habitat conservation techniques has alienated the very communities that have protected this land for centuries. Many tribal communities have had their connection with the forest severed.

Also read: Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What Happiness Means to Them

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Chhattisgarh travel | A Gond boy carries freshly harvested banana in Bastar.
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Chhattisgarh travel | A scenic village in Kawardha.

As I lived with tribal families, broke bread with a shaman under the stars and heard stories of socially progressive customs, I had one lingering thought. That the current generation of tribal elders is our last chance to retain India’s ancient indigenous knowledge to live sustainably with nature. Their children, who still have the forest in their blood, could easily be trained as naturalists, guides and conservationists, instead of just being a source of menial labor.

Instead of labeling them as ‘backward’ people, we need to acknowledge the centuries of wisdom they’ve gathered from living in harmony with the land.

As we move “forward” in a world wrought with materialistic greed and environmental degradation – especially in the midst of a pandemic linked to biodiversity loss – travelling in Chhattisgarh was a reminder of what we stand to lose along the way. 

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

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Chhattisgarh travel | Dusk at Teerathgarh waterfall, minutes before standing under the spray!

Chhattisgarh travel info

I explored Bastar with Bastar Tribal Homestay and Unexplored Bastar, and Kawardha with Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat. They’re all committed to responsible travel in Chhattisgarh. I’ll be sharing more about them in other Chhattisgarh travel blog posts, coming soon.

Have you travelled to Chhattisgarh or is it on your wishlist for the distant future? What would you like to read in my next Chhattisgarh travel blog?

ALSO READ:

Ideas of Love and Life from the Tribes of Chhattisgarh

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

What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life

My Alternative Travel Guide to Goa

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Things To Do in Kasaragod to Refresh Your Connection With Nature.

Away from the crowds of South Kerala, pristine moments and things to do in Kasaragod in North Kerala. Featured image: Marieke Weller (Unsplash).

I landed up in Kasaragod on my quest to discover Kerala beyond the beaten path. As I swam in the Kasaragod backwaters (they are that clean!), kayaked amid pristine mangroves and learnt how terribly skilled I am at rowing a round coracle boat, I quickly fell in love.

If you make your way to North Kerala – and you absolutely SHOULD – set aside a few days for some unique things to do in Kasaragod to re-establish your connection with nature:

Watch the sunset over a unique estuary made by the Arabian Sea

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Sunset over the Arabic Sea. Photo: JANUPRASAD.

Even though it was some eight years ago, on my first solo trip to Kerala, I still vividly remember that magical sunset. A boat maneuvered the pristine Kasaragod backwaters and deposited us on a sandy strip of land. On one side, the waves of the Arabian Sea roared. On the other, the backwaters gently flowed. We walked along, splashing in the waves, dipping our feet in the warm water.

And just as a the sun was about to sink below the horizon, we stood at what felt like the edge of the world. The Arabian Sea hugged the backwaters.

Turns out, the estuary on the Kasaragod backwaters is actually man-made. It was created by rice farmers who hoped to channel out the excess monsoon water from their fields into the Arabian Sea. But as nature would have it, the water level rose several times more during high tide, claiming the entirety of their paddies.

Also read: What India (and the World) Can Learn from Sustainable Tourism in Kerala

Kayak among mangroves and appreciate their role in the natural ecosystem (one of the most unique things to do in Kasaragod)

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Kayaking in a mangrove. Pic: Ivana Cajina

Mangroves are nature’s bridge between land forests and aquatic ecosystems. These trees and shrubs grow in salty terrain. They serve as breeding and feeding grounds for marine life, recycle nutrients and help prevent soil erosion. They tend to provide protection to coastal communities against cyclones and tsunamis. And are estimated to absorb more CO2 than most forests!

But most of all, they are some of earth’s most unique creations. With their roots above water, they’re a sight to behold and a paradise for birdwatching. As you kayak among the mangroves of Kasaragod, notice the beautifully meditative feeling of silently drifting along.

Unfortunately, 40% of mangrove forests on India’s west coast have fallen prey to urbanisation and shrimp farming. Something to dwell upon as you row.

Also read: My Alternative Travel Guide to Goa

Row a coracle boat under the moonlit sky

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Try to row a coracle boat. Photo: Alka Jha

I’ll never get over my fascination with those round coracle boats. Traditionally made of interwoven bamboo, used by fishermen in southern India. They look easy enough to row, but each time I try my hand at one, I go round and round in circles!

And so it was on the Padanna backwaters of Kasaragod. Under a half moon and a fairly dark sky shimmering with stars, I rowed a coracle boat as little fish jumped around me, shining in the moonlight. What a feeling!

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

Catch a Theyyam performance in the land where it was born

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Catch a Theyyam performance. Photo: Manyu Varma

Although the ancient storytelling artform of Theyyam can be witnessed across Kerala now, it was here that it began some 1000+ years ago (some say in the neolithic times!). Through extravagant face art, costumes and headgear coupled with awe-inspiring ritual dance, theyyam evokes the tribal spirits of the ancestors that once called this land home.

Every winter, the temples and some homes of Kasaragod come alive with the awe-inspiring Theyyam ritual. The practice is passed down from elders in each family – and many artists begin learning in their pre-teen days to perfect the act.

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

Swim in the Kasaragod backwaters

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Swim in the Kasaragod backwaters. Photo by Marieke Weller on Unsplash.

Sounds like no big deal. But the Kasaragod backwaters are perhaps the only ones in Kerala clean enough (and devoid of houseboats) for a refreshing dip. The sand below is soft and solitude is a given. Look up to see soaring eagles or keen kingfishers eyeing their prey. Hear the rustling of the palms. After all, it’s these little joys that live in on our travel memories.

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

Rejuvenate at an eco-friendly retreat on perhaps Kerala’s most spectacular island (one of my fav things to do in Kasaragod)

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Stay on Kerala’s most spectacular island.

Until I arrived at Oyster Opera, I only saw houseboats when I imagined Kerala’s backwaters. But this eco-friendly retreat, set up by the visionary Gul Mohamed, added a new dimension to the backwaters for me.

On this stunning island, surrounded by the breezy waters and swaying palms, local materials have been used to recreate traditional architecture with creature comforts. Think laterite stone huts, red tiled roofs, even a floating thatched hut. Feast your eyes and tastebuds on incredible local food – easily catered for vegan travellers. Then get ready for some hammock, swimming or beach bumming time!

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

Feel like a cast-away at a beach between the backwaters and the Arabian Sea

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Things to do in Kasaragod | Image: J A N U P R A S A D on Unsplash.

People often claim that North Kerala has some of the best beaches. Though the beaches in Kasaragod might not make my favorites, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to have high tea surrounded by palm trees. As the Arabian Sea gushes nearby and the backwaters serenade me.

Luckily, many of Kasaragod’s beaches are still deserted. Unknown to the beer-drinking, loud music-playing herds of tourists. Which is why I’ll refrain from naming them here. So when you land up on one, you can feel like a cast-away too!

Also read: A Traveller’s Guide to Gujarat’s Best Kept Secrets

Have you discovered any unique things to do in Kasaragod?

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Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What Happiness Means to Them.

The Bhutan happiness index has intrigued me for a long time. So I tried to figure out what happiness means to its people.

Is this indescribable feeling happiness? I wondered as my partner and I hiked through the blue pine forests of Bhutan’s Haa Valley. Up gentle hills we walked, alive with the scent of rain from the night before. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind. White and pink wildflowers dotted the landscape.

I had landed up in Bhutan last autumn to speak about my book at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. And found myself immediately drawn to the old world charm, neighbourhood forests, mountains, traditional architecture, people, food and slow life of the capital city Thimphu.

Perhaps like everyone else, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the idea of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Is Bhutan really the happiest country in the world, I found myself wondering. Will I be able to glean the secret to happiness while I’m there?

Over nearly a month of traversing the magical beauty of Bhutan, I ended up meeting local writers, entrepreneurs, travellers, farmers, thinkers and dreamers. Some were fleeting encounters, some easy friendships. To some, I couldn’t help but pose the question, what is happiness anyway?

As we stay home and introspect life during this global lockdown, I’m finding solace in their answers:

Happiness is having a purpose in life (and the Bhutan happiness index is not a literal measure)

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Bhutan happiness index – a development indicator, not a literal measure.

I was in complete awe of Sonam Pelden – a Forbes 30 under 30 tech entrepreneur – as she spoke about Bhutan’s evolving digital landscape at Mountain Echoes. I felt her enthusiasm for the digital world back when I worked in Singapore, but perhaps I’ve lost some of it to cynicism along the way.

Chatting with her though, I first learnt how Bhutan actually calculates its Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). Unlike popular perception, the GNH is not a literal measure of happiness or even emotional contentment. It assesses changes in 33 indicators through surveys with randomly selected households. Parameters include psychological well-being, education, health, governance, ecological resilience and standard of living. This ultimately gives a glimpse of whether people are moving from the “unhappy” end of the spectrum towards the “deeply happy” end. But more than that, it helps create a development road-map targeting low-performing parameters.

Sonam says candidly, “The narrative put forth by popular media propagates the notion of a naïve blissful nation – albeit enticing – where tribes of smiling people are constantly gripped in song and dance. This is a dangerous half-fiction which needs to be fought on all fronts. It incubates anti-intellectualism and a sense of entitlement, and perhaps even more troublesomely, manages to distort how Bhutanese people perceive themselves. There is so much more than smiling and dancing to Gross National Happiness – and we need to push that forward!”

Personally for her, “the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of usefulness. Ultimately being useful and having a purpose in life – i.e adding value to my community and to myself makes me feel more fulfilled, more alive – all the things we associate happiness with.”

On the other hand, “being happy implies permanence – it implies you have completed all your prerequisites and now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy forever. You have retired from the everyday roller coaster of emotions to simply revel in your happiness.

And this is why I have a problem with Bhutan being dubbed as the happiest place on earth.”

Also read: Unexpected Friendships in the Dominican Republic

Happiness is a mindset

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With Tashi, chatting about Bhutan, happiness and life.

“I’m too smart to be sitting at home,” Tashi said, only half joking. She aced her studies, but life had different plans for her. Back in the early 90s, much like in India, women in Bhutan were expected to marry early, as per the wishes of their parents.

But that didn’t stop her from becoming an entrepreneur. She refurbished her 80-year-old house in the remote Ura village of Bumthang Valley and opened it up to travellers seeking a taste of rural life. That’s how we met.

As a passionate and forward-thinking farmer, she was chosen among a handful to travel to Austria and learn from organic farmers across the country! When she returned, they even helped her build a stone oven to practice bread making – the only one of its kind in all of Bhutan.

In her cosy kitchen, we gathered one night to drink homemade ara – a fermented (and potent) local rice brew. Chatting about life in Bumthang and her adventures in Austria, I couldn’t help but wonder what she made of happiness.

“To me, happiness is something we set our minds to. No matter how hard life gets, it is about being able to take it easy, think in positive ways, and just feel satisfied with what we have,” she explained.

Indeed, it’s easy to complain about the cards we’ve been dealt by life. But perhaps the only way to pursue happiness is to choose how we play the hand.

Also read: What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life

Happiness is seeking inspiration on the road

At the Mountain Echoes festival, I was delighted to share the stage with Tshering Denkar – Bhutan’s first solo female traveller and travel blogger. Her passion to get off the beaten track in Bhutan, hitchhike to remote parts of the country, connect with indigenous communities and bring their stories to the world is infectious.

We ended up hiking in the forests of Thimphu together. And that’s when I learnt that she was invited to meet His Majesty The Fifth King of Bhutan after he read her blog! He commended her for her fearless travels and curiosity about her own land. Indeed, her blog inspired us to travel all the way to Haa Valley. And her stories of the remote eastern corners of Bhutan make me long to return to the country.

“Happiness to me is Bhutan’s offbeat trails and unexplored places. It is seeing how people in far-flung regions, even without basic necessities, seem content with their lives. It is about becoming a part of other cultures and traditions on my sojourns. Happiness to me is Bhutan itself,” says Denkar.

As a fellow traveller, I think I get it. Being on the road often makes me feel close to the illusive, inexplicable feeling of happiness.

Also read: Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Who Travels the World Solo – On a Wheelchair!

Happiness is an inside job

paro taktsang, tiger's nest hike
Hiking up to the famous Paro Taktsang.

As a vegan traveller, I was amazed to learn that Bhutan has no slaughterhouses! Consciously harming sentient beings is considered out of line with the Buddhist principle of compassion. Ironically though, Bhutan imports meat from India…

The quest to understand Bhutan’s complex relationship with animals led me to Yangso. The pioneer of Bhutan’s small but passionate vegan movement and founder of the country’s first vegan club. Through her, I discovered vegan-friendly local brands and connected with other Bhutanese vegans. We ended up hosting a meetup in Thimphu and swapped stories of vegan, eco-friendly and minimalist living. Her passionate advocacy for animal rights in a country whose national dish is ema datshi (cheese and chillies), left me inspired. So I had to ask Yangso what happiness meant to her.

“Happiness to me is an inside job. I maybe in the most peaceful and happiest country in the world, but to me happiness is a state of mind. It is embracing the present moment. It is acceptance. It is patience. It is knowing that my existence matters,” she said.

That inside job is not always easy. But I know for a fact that to the billions of animals suffering out there, her existence matters. And hopefully, her patience will pay off.

Also read: On Life and Contentment: A Conversation With Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Happiness is giving back

mountain echoes literary festival, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
With Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother. Wish I’d asked her the Bhutan happiness question!

At the end of our panel, Denkar, Pem C (the founder of Bhutan’s first lifestyle magazine) and I had the great honour of being invited to chat with Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. I would only later learn how rare that honour was!

For someone who inspires so much awe and respect among the Bhutanese, I was surprised to hear her open up about her youthful adventures before she embarked on a different journey as one of the Queens to the visionary Fourth King of Bhutan. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask her about happiness, but her eyes lit up as she spoke about her foundation, Tarayana.

She travelled across Bhutan, to far-flung villages, trying to grasp the challenges of rural living. And set up the Tarayana Foundation to support sustainable development and vocational livelihoods on the remote countryside. Green technologies are at the core of these projects – including micro hydro power projects in off-grid villages, bio sand water filtration, dry composting toilets and solar dryers for food preservation.

It sounds to me like happiness might just be about making a difference in the lives of those less privileged than us, in whatever way we can.

What do you think of the Bhutan happiness index? What does happiness mean to you?

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