What’s life without a little adventure? I asked myself a little over a year ago. I had been living a semi-nomadic life since I quit my corporate job in 2011, with a base in Delhi and an insatiable wanderlust. On the twenty-fifth day of August 2013, as I sat on the roof of my shabby Delhi apartment, staring at the dark starless sky, my heart filled with an unknown melancholy and my spirit craved more adventure. And just like that, I let go off my apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some for a winter’s day (thank god!), and set out with my backpack. Read More
It all began one night, when a friend and I sat staring at the world map. I had landed a fat assignment and finally reached my savings goal for a long overdue trip out of India. After turning down many drab international 3-4 day FAM trips that offered nothing immersive or even remotely exciting, I craved a mix of the east and the west, interesting food and the chance to experience a culture I knew little about. Romania seemed to tick all the boxes. Flights were booked, visa hurdles painfully crossed, and off we went. Into a world that continues to delight and surprise me.
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga. Read More
I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories. Read More
It’s a lazy summer afternoon in Fleurieu Peninsula’s wine country of South Australia. Cycling along the trail of an old railway track, we are surrounded by lush vineyards stretching into the horizon. Every few kilometres, a family-owned winery lures us in, to taste some of the finest Shiraz in the world. We chat with the friendly wine makers, satisfy our hunger pangs at organic cafes, and make our way past signboards that ask us to watch out for kangaroos and koalas!
For our tired feet and drowsy minds, a cosy abode at Linger Longer Vineyard awaits us. We’ve whiled away our evenings here sipping wine on the patio, watching the sun set upon the vineyards at our doorstep. Just as we’re settling in that evening, our hosts invite us for a glass of wine in the main house. They have just returned from a 3-week vacation in India, and in all honesty, I feel a little guilty thinking of the extent of touting and chaos my land must’ve offered them while pristine beauty welcomed me to theirs.
Rosemary pours us a glass of their in-house 2006 Shiraz, while Karol, her husband interrogates us about India, with a tough demeanour I can’t put my finger on. When I ask him, a little shyly, about his own trip, he describes the places he visited, mentioning names like Jamnagar and Kolhapur. I’m unable to fathom why anyone would travel there; the only reason I know of Jamnagar is because it lies enroute to Diu from Ahmedabad.
Before I get a chance to question him, he says everyone in India thought he was a foreigner in the country, and we must too. But, hum hain Hindustani, with a wistful longing he confesses, Jamnagar ka maharaja hamara bapu (I am Indian, the king of Jamnagar is my father). By the time we’re finishing our first glass, he has told us the most incredible story I might ever hear.
The year was 1940, the world was at war. Karol, then a child of six, was one among many Polish kids to be sent to a gulag (labor camp) in Siberia, in the southern Artic in Russia. Karol and his family managed to escape, but he got separated from his mother and siblings. Going back to Poland wasn’t an option, so he journeyed alone, walking and riding on trains and trucks, through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Persia, all the way to Gujarat in India. Jam Saheb, the then king of Nawanagar (now called Jamnagar), who later became the Indian ambassador to the UN, took him in, together with 500 other impoverished Polish children. He gave them shelter, food, education in a fine school (St Mary’s in Mount Abu, complete with a Polish-speaking teacher), and a place to call home.
I can hear Karol’s voice soften, as he tells us what Jam Saheb had told the kids when they arrived. Do not consider yourself orphans, he had said. You are now Nawnagaris and I am Bapu, father of all the people of Nawanagar, so also yours.
For four years, from 1942 to 1946, 500 Polish kids lived in Balachadi in Jamnagar, under the personal protection of the Maharaja, when no other country was ready to take them. When the war ended, they were sent on a train to England, to start new lives. Karol remembers being on the train the night Gandhi was assassinated. It was in England that he would meet his wife Rosemary, and together they would move to Australia.
The Poles in India have been meeting every year since, swapping life stories and reminiscing about the time they spent in Jamnagar. Rosemary tells us they have all gone on to lead successful lives. She laments though, that the Polish kids are growing old, and this incredible story will soon be lost in time.
I often feel that there are many things we haven’t done right as a country. But in one magnanimous act of kindness, at a time when the rest of the world was on a killing spree, “Hindustan” gave 500 innocent kids a second chance at life.
And what are the odds that of all the vineyards in South Australia, we would find shelter at Karol’s and Rosemary’s?
Any contributions to my travel fund (in kind or otherwise) will be highly appreciated!
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions.
These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country. Read More
I left you with a heavy heart, etched with the magnanimity of your people.
A kind lady in the small town of Safranbolu opened her doors to me on a late rainy afternoon, to feed my vegetarian self a special meal of Peruhi (Turkish pasta) and Pasta (cake in Turkish) prepared for a family gathering.
An old man from a bakery in Ordu gave me a ride in his truck to the town’s chocolate factory, after I walked five kilometers and stumbled into his shop for directions for the remaining three.
A family living in an isolated hut on Boztepe Hill invited me in for a meal of home grown aubergine.
A blacksmith who found me admiring his creations invited me in for çay and proclaimed his eternal love for Hindistan even though he had never been there.
A young otel (hotel) owner in Cide went out of her way to ensure that I boarded the right connecting buses to my next destination without losing money or time.
A cafe owner in the small town of Ordu, where I impulsively got off the bus on my way to Trabzone without a hotel booking or so much as a google search, treated me to delicious Turkish coffee made with a secret family recipe, then ferried me and my backpack in his car to a lovely boutique hotel which I couldn’t have located myself without speaking Turkish, let aside get the negotiated price he got me.
The airport guy at Istanbul airport who ferries goods gave me a chocolate seeing me struggling to find small change to make a phone call.
A restaurant manager offered me a whirlwind tour of Guzelyurt after I decided his restaurant was too pricey for me to eat there.
An English teacher in a small village in Kapadokya confided in me on how much she misses her mother and told me everything I know about the Turkish education system.
So many people offered me rides to my destinations along the Black Sea, indulged me in conversations without much of a common language (after first trying to converse in Arabic), and treated me to Turkish tea at the drop of a hat.
You were good to me, Turkey, and I want to come back. Your people are one of my million reasons.
Read more about my adventures in Turkey.
I guess I was only one or two years old – a crying little toddler – when I must have first felt a yearning for Switzerland. My family was invited to Geneva for a wedding celebration, and I can’t blame my parents for not wanting to miss the opportunity to travel to what was an exotic part of the world in the late eighties. So they left me in the care of my aunt, and crossed the seas with my elder brother in tow.
As I grew up, I don’t think all those Bollywood flicks made me crave a trip to Switzerland as much as the stories my family related for several years after their return. The Swiss Alps are magical, they said. Swiss trains are the best in the world, they said. Switzerland is such an expensive country, they said.
Growing up in a middle income family in small town India in the 90s, I brushed aside my secret dream of travelling to Switzerland someday. I locked it away in my mind and forgot all about it.
The years passed. My life turned around as a travel blogger and I travelled across the Alps from Germany to Slovenia.
But it wasn’t until this winter that the dream to explore Switzerland resurfaced in me – when Swiss International Air lines (SWISS) reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in travelling on assignment to Switzerland, to try skiing for the first time in the Swiss Alps. HELL YES!
My first ski experience near Wengen
One of my goals in 2018 is to learn something new and different every month – and January became about fighting my fears to get on the ski slopes for the first time! I’ve heard about some scary first time skiing experiences, and felt my heart pounding by the time our train pulled into Kleine Scheidegg, where our ski school was located. Luckily, my instructor Isi was incredibly patient as I slowly learnt to keep my balance, control my speed and hang on to a rope to go up the slope. Once I got a hang of it, it was exhilarating to whizz down the (nursery) slope, splashing snow in the process, surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the Swiss Alps.
I later learnt that most locals start learning to ski at the ages of two and three, and indeed saw mere toddlers ski proficiently on big, steep slopes! But hey, we can’t let our age or fear stop us.
I highly recommend the ski school at Kleine Scheidegg. A 2 hour private ski lesson for 2 costs 190 CHF (INR 13,000).
Living in a fairytale house with a Swiss family
At the end of the assignment, I decided to extend my stay and experience a bit of the Swiss countryside on my own. In my search for an authentic (yet vegan-friendly) experience, I landed up in the dreamy 80-year-old wooden home of a Swiss family, close to stunning hiking trails in the Swiss Alps yet only 1.5 hours by train from Zurich. As luck would have it, it rained and snowed with strong winds throughout my stay; I even got stuck in a snow blizzard while hiking!
But that didn’t take away from my experience… I loved watching snowflakes fly all around me from my wooden balcony, and more often, from the warmth of my cosy, traditional room. In the evenings, my host family’s toddlers would get on some makeshift boards and slide down the snow – skiiers and snowboarders in the making! And I feasted of some of the most delicious vegan food from their kitchen – including vegan rosti, carob brownies and almond cheese pizzas.
Carob (not chocolate!) brownies at my vegan Swiss B&B.
Sonnmatt Bergpension & Gesundheitszentrum is a family-run, vegan/vegetarian B&B on the Swiss countryside; rooms start at 63 CHF (INR 4,300) per night, meals are 10 CHF (INR 680) each.
Flying business class on SWISS
Even though I only spent ten days in Switzerland, I felt like my journey began even earlier than I arrived – thanks to my SWISS flight. I felt my wanderlust surge as I peeped out from my window and saw the snow-covered Swiss Alps and Caucasus Mountains below us, from the comfort of my spacious business class seat with an in-built massager… and felt the same adrenalin later on in Wengen, as we watched an Air Show with a Swiss plane fly precariously close to the Alps.
Cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet above earth, I got plenty of work done in my “up in the air” office, took a power nap on my full flat bed and resisted the temptation to indulge in Swiss chocolates and cheese – glad I had pre-ordered a vegan meal.
I was lucky enough to get the coveted single seats on business class each way. They are reserved for Senator Club members, but open up 24 hours before the flight. I also loved that on the SWISS website, I could ask to be checked in automatically when the online check-in window opened and receive my boarding pass over email – saving myself the last minute scramble.
Jungfrau region: A romantic winter dream
Thanks to nearly 80 Bollywood movies shot across Switzerland, the alpine meadows, rolling valleys and imposing mountains of the Jungfrau region are hardly unfamiliar to us in India – though from what I’ve heard, they get pretty crowded in the summer. But in winter, these mountains wear a thick coat of white. Tiny Alpine villages with wooden houses are often shrouded by the morning mist. Even in several layers of warm clothes, the wind chill often numbed our faces, so we seeked the warmth of an old cafe and following our Swiss friends, the strange combination of vodka and herbal tea! With only a handful of other tourists, I felt like these mountains were ours to brave.
One chilly evening, I remember walking amid the stone graves of the charming cemetery at Lauterbrunnen – a small valley surrounded by high mountains – thinking that death is a lot like winter; scary from a distance, but perhaps beautiful when you get closer and embrace it.
In the Jungfrau region, I most enjoyed the small village of Grindelwald, especially First, a gorgeous cliff walk. I’ve heard Murren is beautiful too, but that will have to wait till next time.
Do you dream of visiting Switzerland some day?
A few days ago, I got chatting with a friend who’s getting married soon. She seemed excited and nervous about the approaching wedding day, but lamented that her family and spouse were about to spend the better part of their savings – a mind-boggling 60 lakh rupees (~100,000$) – for a not-so-big wedding in a big Indian city.
That means she probably won’t have any money to travel in 2018. Hopefully by 2019, they’ll settle down in a new rented apartment and will be able to take atleast one holiday. Where should they go, she asked me curiously.
I couldn’t find the words to tell her this, but it’s lingering in my mind, so I’m going to tell you: don’t put off your travel dreams in 2018. Here’s why:
Are you spending your money on what fulfills you?
I recently found myself walking the aisles of a fancy mall in Bangkok, looking to buy a winter jacket for my upcoming trip to Switzerland – where I’ll be trying skiing for the first time in the Alps! As I walked past shop after shop selling trendy clothes, footwear, accessories, cosmetics and electronics, I was consumed by a materialistic urge to buy whatever I could afford.
As someone who has studied marketing at university and been associated with the industry for over eight years, I’ve been privy to what goes behind those subtle marketing messages. Right from the latest fashion trends, to upgrading your electronic gadgets, to throwing a lavish wedding, to buying a diamond ring worth three months of your salary (seriously, that’s a thing now!) – marketing agencies understand how to make us crave material possessions. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do these possessions really fulfil us?
If you ask me, it’s not the contents of my bags (or everything I owned until four years ago) that has ever filled me with joy. It is chatting with Buddhist monks about life and detachment in a remote Thai temple, feasting on a traditional beyayenetu platter at a local eatery in Ethiopia and hiking by myself in the snow-covered German Alps. And money can buy those experiences if we choose to spend it on the things that matter.
The world is changing fast
Back in 2012, I won an adventure trip to the remote Socotra island with alien-like plant life in Yemen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to buy a flight ticket to Yemen then, and postponed my trip indefinitely. An ugly war has taken over Yemen since, nearly destroying the country and access to Socotra. It’s heartbreaking.
Back in 2014, I considered spending a month on the island of Dominica, labelled the ‘Caribbean’s nature island’ and said to be one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. But I dropped the idea, thinking I could do it a few years later. Recently, a massive hurricane has nearly destroyed the country and its entire rainforest. As it tries to rebuild itself slowly, it seems like things will never be the same.
I’m not trying to say that we need to go everywhere right now. But civil unrest, natural disasters and the surge of tourists in countries that have recently opened to outsiders are making our dream destinations change quickly. If you can afford to travel somewhere meaningfully this year, do it.
The road tends to give you perspective
It is one thing to stay at home, work where you’ve always worked, hang out with friends you’ve always known, do the things you’ve always done. But if you want to grow as a person, the road can give you plenty of perspective. Living with a Mayan family in Guatemala, sipping tea with a Bedouin family in their makeshift tent in Jordan and mingling with Odisha’s tribes in their markets, taught me more about life than any classes at university or conversations with intelligent people back home.
And being on the road, owning only what I can carry with me, has made me realize that we need little to get by comfortably in life.
You don’t have to wait for someone’s approval or company
Even as a twenty-something Indian girl, if I had waited for someone to give me “permission” to travel or for someone else’s company, I would never have had half my adventures. My first solo trip to Spiti unleashed something in me – the desire to spend my days exploring new horizons and a deep appreciation for my own company. Some of my fondest solo travel memories include hitchhiking in Bahrain, cycling across the Eastern Ghats (mountain range) of India and hiking in the Ecuadorian Andes – and those memories wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t gone it alone.
But if you’re apprehensive to give solo travel a try, there are plenty of other ways: join a group trip, visit a friend in another part of the world, or try to relocate to a new country. Ultimately it’s about conquering your fears and taking the leap.
People are the same everywhere, despite what we read in the media
I hate how much negativity is bred into us by what we read in the news. Everywhere I’ve travelled, the world feels completely different to what we’ve been told. Hanging out with Syrian refugees in Germany, chatting with an Iraqi designer in Italy, living in a tiny village in Honduras – labelled the most violent place on earth – and smoking shisha with a Saudi guy in Bahrain has taught me that most people are the same everywhere: warm, beautiful, insecure, friendly… just like you and me.
Life is short and unpredictable
I hate to break it to you, but life doesn’t care that you plan to follow your dreams in a couple of years. In 2017, I was shocked and heartbroken to lose two young and inspiring blogger friends to a road accident and disease. My heart goes out to their loved ones, but it doesn’t mean that we should live our lives in fear. It means that life is fragile, that we take too much for granted, that along with planning for the future, we need to live our present in a way that fulfils us.
That we need to seize every day we’re lucky to experience in our lifetime. Carpe diem.
What are your travel dreams for 2018?
I stood on a parapet watching in awe, surrounded by people as they cheered and counted down to the New Year. Almost everyone had lit their paper lanterns by now, and as the clock ticked to midnight and firecrackers went off in the sky, we released our lanterns with a feeling of joy that’s difficult to put into words. As the lanterns drifted away into the sky, creating the illusion of a thousand twinkling stars, I felt like parts of my past, and all the fears and challenges of 2017, had drifted away too. A surreal feeling.
Behold, a glimpse of the magic of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, Thailand:
In the past three years, I’ve rung in the New Year in the strangest of ways – in 2016, laying out alone under a canopy of trees in rural Maharashtra, trying to see the stars from the gaps in between; in 2015, falling asleep before midnight in Sri Lanka; in 2014, in the visa-on-arrival queue in Bangkok after my Dubai plans fell through!
So as I stood in a Buddhist temple, holding my first paper lantern (thanks to this post I stumbled upon), waiting to let it go (usually takes 3-4 minutes after you set alight the waxy thing below), I knew this is finally going to be a New Year’s Eve to remember.
Legend has it that the first paper lantern was built and released by a Chinese military man in the third century, with a message asking for help against an enemy that had surrounded their platoon!
These days, in Thailand, many locals believe that releasing a lantern will release their worries and fears, while I’ve heard that for Buddhist monks, the release tends to get them closer to the path of enlightenment.
They say the Yee Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai sees many more people and lanterns, but surrounded by the crowds at Tha Phae Gate, that was hard to believe!
As my lantern slowly drifted away into the sky, it made me feel like I was letting go… of the materialistic things I’ve been holding on to, ugly memories of the past and 2017 itself.
Then the sky filled with a thousand lanterns and wishes, making me forget that I usually can’t stand crowded, noisy places. As I gazed up at the lanterns, an indescribable feeling washed over me.
Video: The magic of New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai!
I made a short video trying to capture that feeling, of watching thousands of lanterns drift away in the dark night sky. Wish you an enchanting 2018!
Practical Tips: Celebrating New Year in Chiang Mai
Where to celebrate: Tha Phae Gate in the old city of Chiang Mai is the centre of the celebrations. People start gathering from 7 pm onwards, till past midnight. If you arrive early, go to some of the nearby Buddhist temples (follow the direction of the lanterns floating in the sky) to release your first paper lantern amid Buddhist chanting.
Where to buy sky paper lanterns: These can be bought at the Buddhist temples, or from vendors at Tha Phae Gate. In 2017, they cost 40-60 Baht.
Environmental impact of paper lanterns: The lanterns are primarily made of rice paper, and have a thin wire below on which is attached a small piece of wax, to be set alight to release the lantern. Hot air created by the flames pushes the lantern up in the air. The paper is biodegradable; the wire is presumably not. According to the Guardian, sky lanterns have been banned in Vietnam.
What’s been your most memorable New Year’s Eve?
Featured image: John Shedrick (CC)
I’m not really in the mood to pen this post. One moment, I’m in the Slovenian Alps, cycling and hiking amid pristine alpine meadows, it’s the middle of the year, there’s so much I want to experience, there’s so much more I need to write about. The next moment, it’s December and my social media timelines are filled with holiday messages. Where did the time fly?
2017 has been a strange year for me as a travel blogger. This year, I struggled to write even a couple of blog posts every month, not because of a lack of stories or time, but because of the way the travel blogging (and social media) landscape is evolving. Attention spans are shorter, quality content is harder to come by and it feels like everyone is trying to sell the same travel narrative and perfect instagram shots, without a deeper connection to a destination.
So this year, I began experimenting with other things. I accepted speaking gigs to inspire people to pursue alternate lifestyle choices, spoke on topics close to my heart and tried to connect directly with my audience. I worked on environmental / community-based projects I feel passionate about, in Spiti and Sarmoli in India. And I tried to get more involved with the worldwide vegan movement.
Yet I literally had to scroll through my Instagram posts to realise what I got upto all year. Turns out, quite a bit:
Featured on the cover of National Geographic Traveller India magazine!
Back in April, while I was living out my Alpine dream in Slovenia, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveller India magazine reached out to me for a story for their special anniversary issue dedicated not to a place, but to the traveller. I was looking forward to seeing it in print, but was taken by surprise when I saw my name on the cover, in the revered company of inspirational travellers like Pico Iyer, Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murthy. The surprise soon turned to gratitude, for all the encouragement and support I’ve received on this journey.
Read my story for Nat Geo: My Home Has No Address
The year’s first snowfall in a tiny village in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia
What’s that feeling when you go to sleep admiring how the autumn leaves are turning red, yellow and orange all over the valley… and wake up with snowflakes dancing all around you? Yeah, I haven’t found a word for it either. But I remember my heart fluttering as I stepped into my balcony with a hot cup of tea, and put out my hand to catch a falling snowflake. Walking along the cobblestoned alleys of our picturesque little village in the dramatic Caucasus Mountains felt like living through the most dreamy chapter of a storybook. It was the only time in the year I had the illusive feeling of being home.
Spotting a humpback whale in the Maldives
We set out on the tiny fishing boat of our host at Madi Finolhu Guesthouse in the Maldives, to snorkel with the illusive manta rays and whale sharks… but were taken aback when a humpback whale surfaced near our fishing boat instead! Apparently they migrate from the Arabian Gulf at the beginning of winter, crossing the Maldives on their 200+ kilometre long journey, and we were lucky enough to spot one just as it surfaced out of the ocean. I’ve never seen anything so huge; our host was genuinely worried it might overturn our boat!
(I was too stunned to get a picture, so the video above is a glimpse of snorkelling with turtles in the Indian Ocean).
“I Love Spiti” – An initiative against plastic bottled water in Spiti
I’ve dreamt so often of going back to Spiti – a region that changed everything I knew about the world and myself. Finally in 2017, I travelled back with a purpose – to create awareness against the mindless consumption of bottled water by a growing number of tourists in Spiti, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere and fellow volunteers. We worked with the local tourism industry to offer alternatives like filtered water, and built a life-size installation – “I Love Spiti” – entirely with discarded plastic bottles, so travellers can pledge against their use. Hopefully, 2018 will witness less plastic bottles discarded into the dumping ground next to Spiti River.
Jumping off a cliff into glacial water – canyoning in the Austrian Alps
I contemplated life for an entire minute before deciding to jump off a cliff into the glacial pool of a waterfall – freezing cold in the end of September. Canyoning in the Austrian Alps – rappelling down waterfalls, sliding down rocks, swimming in glacial water – was one wild adventure!
Solo trek to Jhandi – Uttarakhand’s highest peak in the lesser Himalayas
I’ve never really been on a popular trek in India, simply because I can’t stand hiking in a noisy group. Luckily, you don’t need a group, or even a guide, to hike up to Nag Tibba, and further up to Jhandi, Uttarakhand’s highest peak in the lesser Himalayan region with majestic views on the snow-capped Himalayas. So I had to give it a shot. Although I was on the verge of turning back twice and got lost a bunch of times, I eventually made it and lay on the peak, in the warm sun, all by myself.
An Instagram and Photography workshop in Sarmoli
@voicesofmunsiari began as a humble Instagram account in 2016 but developed its own wings in 2017. It got featured as India’s first Instagram account to be run entirely by a village community by several leading publications including The Times of India and Conde Nast Traveller. In Sarmoli’s annual summer festival, we decided to take it to the next level with crowdsourced smartphones (thanks to everyone who contributed!) and a Photography and Instagram workshop, during which we were joined by Bangalore-based photographer Jayashree Ramaswamy. Most of the attendees were women, and I had so much fun sharing what I’ve learnt about Instagram over the years, and playing impromptu games (including a treasure hunt) with the curious audience.
Perseid and Geminid – two meteor showers in one year
If you follow me on social media, you know how much I love stargazing. So each time I read about a meteor shower, I desperately look for a place with dark skies to catch it. That’s also one of the reasons why I’ve strived so hard to build a nomadic life.
But this year, I almost didn’t see a meteor shower because of how last-minute and ill-planned my travels are… except that the universe conspired to make me see two – the Perseid Meteor Shower lying on a charpoy (cot) in the Thar Desert near Churu and the Geminid Meteor Shower in northern Thailand! The feeling of laying under the dark sky, witnessing multiple large greenish / blue meteors dash through the sky, is just indescribable.
Cycling in the Slovenian Alps
Before I went to Slovenia, I had only seen dreamy images of Lake Bled all over Instagram. I was rather underwhelmed by how touristy, commercial and built-up the lake really is. But it was further into the heart of the Slovenian Alps that I found true love! Every other day, we’d get on our mountain bikes and cycle amid the most dreamy, breathtaking Alpine scenery; think glistening blue glacial lakes, meadows filled with wildflowers, dramatic peaks all around us and not another soul in sight.
India’s biggest vegan festival in Mumbai
It’s been over two years since I turned vegan and stopped consuming animal products as far as possible… and since then, I’ve found the road to be somewhat lonely as far as my food choices go. In far off corners of Georgia and Latin America, I’ve wondered if I’m the only crazy one to have no cheese on my mchadi (corn bread) or tortillas. Luckily, I found my tribe in Mumbai this year, where the vegan movement is growing so big that in November, they hosted India’s biggest vegan festival. There were over a hundred vegan businesses selling everything from homemade desserts to almond cheese to even soy tandoori kebabs! There were inspiring talks, cooking demos, even an ethical fashion show. It was exactly what I needed to reinstill faith in my choice to go vegan.
Millions of fireflies in Taiwan
For the second time in my life (the first was in Purushwadi, Maharashtra years ago), on a dark night, I found myself surrounded by millions of fireflies – in a bamboo forest in Taiwan! As they sent beams of light to each other and our group silently looked on, a most magical feeling washed over me.
Friendships without a common language in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Even though I only spent a handful of days in an obscure town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was surprised by how warm and friendly the people are. From heartbreaking stories of the civil war to personal anecdotes, locals went out of their way to communicate with me despite no common language between us. Then I went on a long hike with my Bosnian hostess to a stunning blue river and a nameless waterfall, and we chatted late into the evening about our lives, joking how we managed to say everything with only 10 common words between us. It’s true, the language you speak doesn’t always matter.
Keynote speaker at the SoDelhi Confluence – “Blogging: A powerful tool for social change”
In 2017, I finally broke out of my shell and tried to conquer my public speaking fears. In January alone, I did four speaking gigs – on following your passion at a corporate event by ICICI, on responsible travel at the Nat Geo Travel Meetup, on how travel bloggers can work with tourism boards at Mumbai Travel Massive and on travel writing at the Parnassus Literature Festival. I accepted several more speaking invites through the year, but the highlight was delivering a keynote at the SoDelhi Confluence – a select gathering of bloggers and influencers from across India. While most speakers and panelists spoke about earning money through blogging, I tried to challenge the audience to think differently and channel our influence for social and environmental causes.
See the full video of my keynote: Blogging: A powerful tool for social change
The ‘Uttarakhand’ feeling in Goat Village
Just 3 hours from my hometown Dehradun, which increasingly feels overrun with traffic and construction, Goat Village is the kind of oasis I’ve dreamt of in Uttarakhand. This initiative aims to preserve the micro-culture of Himalayan farmers, especially those abandoning their farms in pursuit of city dreams. It is reviving organic farming and finding a market for superfoods like amaranth that often grow wild in the villages of Garhwal. I was ecstatic to be surrounded by wild chamomile flowers, eat a millet-based diet, live in a traditional Kumaoni house with urban amenities and snack on soybeans at tea time!
Hanging out with Odisha’s Munda and Bonda tribes
Just when I thought I knew India, I landed up in Odisha and it changed everything I thought I knew. I fell in love with the misty sunrises, cycling amid the dense mountain forests, endless mango orchards and the dramatic scenery of Koraput. But most of all, I fell in love with the ancient tribal way of life of the Mundas in the east and the Bondas in the south. They appeared much more progressive than us urban folk, in terms of the clothes they wear (or choose not to), the food they eat and their relationships. I remember drinking handiya (homemade fermented rice beer) with the Munda women as they socialised in the tribal haats (markets) – a rarity in India – and can’t wait to write all about it.
A digital nomad in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I might be a few years too late in doing the digital nomad thing in Chiang Mai, but after our plans to spend the end of the year in Oman fell through, Thailand seemed the only viable (affordable) option in busy December. I’m glad our plans fell through, because I’m totally in love with my abode on a private plantation outside the city, a ten minute bicycle ride into the mountains and ancient Buddhist temples. And the region is heavenly for vegan food, both Thai and international cuisines.
A surprise I can’t divulge yet…
Life overwhelms you in the most unexpected of ways. Something most unexpected happened this year but I haven’t yet found the words to share it with you… perhaps next year!
Leaving you with a little video that will (hopefully) inspire your 2018!
Your turn, what were your most incredible travel / life moments of 2017?
Perched on a mountain overlooking Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, is a prominent statue of the ‘Mother of Georgia’. In one hand, she holds a cup of wine, and in the other, a sword. The wine is to welcome friends; the sword is to deter enemies.
Four years ago, when I first travelled there on my humble navy blue Indian passport, I immediately felt welcomed like a friend. When cabbies heard I was from India, they would sing me Raj Kapoor songs from old Bollywood movies. In Racha, I drank whiskey shots with my host family for breakfast, in celebration of being their first ever Indian guest. Deep in the Caucasus Mountains, despite no common language between us, I made soul connections with local priests on a vow of silence.
Then something happened.
Easier Georgia visa for Indian citizens
Four years ago, in order to get a visa to enter Georgia on my Indian passport, I had to spend a few frustrating hours outside the small compound of the Georgian embassy in Delhi. Sweating in the oppressive Delhi summer heat, my only fellow applicants were two farmers from Punjab, hoping to buy agricultural land in Georgia and start a new life.
When I finally spoke to the visa officer, it took some convincing to be granted a month-long visa. But I was ecstatic to receive it and be on my way.
Things have changed drastically since. While I was still in the country, Georgia relaxed its visa rules and granted entry to Indians with a valid (and used) visa to the US, UK or the Schengen zone of Europe.
Then in 2015, Georgia opened up an e-visa option for Indian passport holders.
You no longer have to wait in the sweltering heat outside the Georgian embassy in Delhi, nor have the coveted US or UK visa on your passport to enter Georgia. All it takes is an online visa application. But…
Indians with e-visa are being denied entry into Georgia
I was shocked when I first heard it. Months ago, a solo traveller from Mumbai posted on Facebook how she had been deported from Tbilisi airport back to India, despite an e-visa and valid documents (accommodation, return flight ticket and bank statements). She described the immigration officials as rude and unwilling to listen.
Her report was soon followed by others – all Indian passport holders on e-visa, deported without reason.
In fact, when I travelled back to Georgia in November 2017 and started sharing my stories on Instagram, multiple travellers messaged me to share how they had been deported from the airport and had their travel plans shattered.
Growing anti-Indian sentiment in Georgia
I’ve often felt some sort of racist undercurrents against Indians in countries frequented by Indian travellers. I hate it, but I do understand why the stereotype exists. Some Indian travellers tend to be overly demanding and disrespectful of the local culture. I felt those undercurrents even on my first day in Tbilisi this year – unlike my first trip in the country.
During my time in Georgia, I tried to get to the root of the problem. I heard from locals (and in the local news) how farmers from India have rapidly been buying agricultural land and putting Georgian farmers out of business. I also heard about the surge of Indian travellers into the country since e-visa began, some of whom were illegally transiting through Georgia to enter the EU.
But it wasn’t until I was leaving, at the airport immigration, that it became obvious. The immigration officer was friendly at first, but his expressions changed when he saw “India” on my passport. He began asking me questions, like why I would spend a month in Georgia, who gets a one month holiday, my itinerary in the country… I found such interrogation at EXIT immigration strange. It left a bittersweet taste.
It seems to me that immigration officials at Tbilisi airport have been specifically asked to investigate Indian travellers. Every country’s visa rules state that immigration officers have the final say in letting you into their country… and in Georgia they haven’t hesitated in using it to deport travellers.
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
Is it still worth travelling to Georgia?
To tell you the truth, I’ve hated typing this post. Despite the negative undercurrents in some interactions, I love Georgia. It’s a gorgeous country, with mountain towns right out of a postcard, warm-hearted locals, delicious (and plenty of vegan) food, a feeling of abundance (think juicy red apples in every front yard in the fall), fascinating legends and a growing alternative food and music scene in Tbilisi.
The tourism infrastructure is comparable to the rest of Europe, at a third of the prices. And for a country where tourism is growing rapidly, I’ve hardly ever encountered a tout or felt cheated.
To tell you the truth, I can’t wait to go back.
How to ensure you’ll be able to enter Georgia on an Indian passport
Forget about entering with an e-visa. A record number of Indian travellers have been deported from Tbilisi this year, and immigration officials are not inclined to honour the e-visa. It isn’t worth risking your flight costs, hotel bookings or work leave. Besides, it might shatter your Caucasus dream.
Use the alternate option to enter Georgia – a valid and used visa for the US, UK or Europe (Schengen) on your Indian passport.
While entering the country, the immigration official looked at my passport with some concern at first. But as he flipped through and saw my US visa, he relaxed. No more questions asked, no documents checked.
I know it sucks on many levels, it sounds unwelcoming, it seems tedious. But what can I say, it’s worth the hassle if you want to experience the breathtaking beauty of Georgia and its people.
Would you consider travelling to Georgia despite the visa hassle? How do you deal with visas on the Indian passport?
I often wonder what makes a travel experience truly unforgettable. Take my recent trip to Georgia (the country) for instance. When our plans to travel to the remote Tusheti region got snowed on, we decided to visit a forgotten protected reserve near Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan and the Dagestan province of Russia. I was recovering from a flu, and even on a sunny day, wrapped up in layers and a warm hat.
“Cold?” Otto, our potbellied, jolly Georgian host asked me. I solemnly nodded.
He turned to search for something in the shelves of his outdoor kitchen shed. I tried to tell him I had already taken medicine, but he wouldn’t stop.
He finally found what he was looking for. A bottle of homemade chacha – a strong plum liquor ubiquitous in Georgian households.
“Chacha very good,” he said, even as I resisted it at first. Then we cheered to India, Georgia, family, religion (even if mine is atheism) and good health, and downed shot after shot.
I guess the flu, hiking to the waterfalls in the protected reserve, my friend’s tumble into a glacial river and all the homemade jams we ate for breakfast will gradually fade away in my memory. But I’ll never forget sitting in that little shed by the garden, surrounded by grape and plum vines, the warm sunlight pouring in through cracks in the tin roof, drinking chacha with Otto.
So if you ask me, the most unforgettable travel experiences are the ones that push us beyond our comfort zone, happen outside of planned itineraries and immerse us in the local way of life. And for that reason, I’ve sworn by Airbnb in my last three years of traveling.
Here are all my tips and tricks on how to find the perfect Airbnb when you travel:
Think about the kind of experience you’re looking for
The thing about traveling is, one size doesn’t fit all. I might love spending time in an obscure little village deep in the mountains and you might love the vibrant night life of a city. I might love slow days with no plans and you might love road tripping from town to town. The good news is that accommodations on Airbnb tend to offer a rather vast range of experiences – from swanky apartments with a kitchen (ideal for a long stay), to a homely room with a local family (great for local insights), to a unique mountain lodge that is an experience unto itself.
Before I even start looking at Airbnb, I think about what kind of place I’m keen to stay at. If I’m merely passing through a city, I prefer to stay centrally and don’t care much to find a host who’d be very involved. On the other hand, if I’m slow travelling through, let’s say small-town Italy, I’d look for a quiet place with beautiful surroundings, ideally with a host who would be open to conversations and sharing a glimpse of the local life. Before you begin your research, take a moment to think about what you really want from your trip.
Browse on the Airbnb map
Typically when you search for a destination on Airbnb, the most reviewed accommodations show up on the first few pages. Unexpected gems can often remain buried on further pages. To get around this, I use the map feature that accompanies accommodation search. By checking a box under the map, I ensure that search results change in real time as I move or zoom into the map.
On my Sri Lanka trip last year, I knew I wanted to stay in the hill country, yet not in the busy town of Kandy. So I zoomed into the map, but away from the cluster of Airbnbs in Kandy, till I found one isolated Airbnb on the shores of the magnificent Victoria Lake – it turned out to be one of the most stunning Airbnb experiences I’ve had yet. On the other hand, while looking for an Airbnb in Colombo, I had no idea which part of the city I wanted to stay in. So I moved the map around, looking for green areas not too far from the city centre, and ultimately found College House in a neighborhood I had never heard of before.
The point is, the map feature allows you to find Airbnbs away from the tourist action (or in the middle of it, if that’s your thing), and often in small towns and villages that might not be on your radar otherwise.
Use filters to shortlist accommodations
Just like the map feature, filters make it much easier to find your perfect Airbnb experience. During a typical search, I choose the following filters:
- Entire place or private room. I’m not one for sharing a room, like ever.
- Wireless internet. Because, digital nomad 😉
- Kitchen, if I intend to stay longer than a week.
- Superhost, just to get an idea of the top-rated accommodations at my destination.
I almost always use the price filter too, but I usually keep the upper range 10-15% higher than my actual budget, since it’s often possible to get a discount on weekly and monthly prices, off-season travel and solo occupancy.
Read reviews of past travellers
Once I’ve shortlisted 5-10 accommodations, based on the kind of experience I’m looking for, location on the map, amenities and price filters, I start reading the accommodation and host description, and looking at photos. Over the years though, I’ve learnt to take photos with a pinch of salt – they often tend to be edited for perfect light. I try to ignore artistic photos, and analyze instead how spacious the room looks, whether the surrounding area offers natural beauty, and most importantly, if the bathroom looks clean and modern enough. The last thing I want on my travels, is to pay to stay in a dingy room with a filthy bathroom – which has happened by the way.
But what I rely on most are the reviews of past travellers. I look at what aspects of a place most reviews tend to praise – the hospitality of the host, the location, the surroundings or the room/apartment itself – and assess if those are the ones most important for me. I pay close attention to anything negative, especially if it concerns cleanliness.
Read: My Worst Travel Memories
Manage expectations with your host
I think the best part about Airbnb, as compared to other accommodation websites, is that you can have a conversation with your host before you book. I always do that, asking questions that are unanswered in the description, like whether I’ll be able to get around without a car, my options for food (and the availability of vegan food), if there are hiking or cycling trails and other activities to keep me busy for a while, and if the internet usually works well. Asking such questions also gives the host an idea of what I’m looking for from my stay, and such discussions have often led to hosts going out of their way to create experiences for me.
On the Croatian countryside for instance, I stayed at an Airbnb with little public transport connectivity. My hosts not only picked me up from the train station, but also invited me on their day off to show me their favorite spots along the Istrian peninsula!
Remember you’re not in a hotel; be a mindful guest
Time and again, my Airbnb hosts have gone beyond a business relationship to invite me into their lives. Many of them became good friends over the course of my stay, some invited me to come back and stay as a personal guest, others I still keep in touch with and hope to see again. But these relationships are always a two-way street.
When I arrive at an Airbnb, I remind myself that I’m not in a hotel but in someone’s house. If the host is up for it and I haven’t had a very long journey, I try to keep my first hour or so for a get-to-know-each-other conversation. These conversations often reveal amazing personal stories and great recommendations in their neighborhood. I keep myself open to tea or meal invites, or join my host for a day out, but never try to impose on their lives. I try to be accommodating, ask politely for anything I need (just like I would in a friend’s or relative’s house), and make sure I adhere to the house rules and keep my space clean. Little gestures go a long way.
Over the course of my travels, I’ve realized that most Airbnb hosts are not in it just for the money. They are people like you and me, who love to travel and share their part of the world with those passing through.
Leave an honest review
I’ve heard some travellers say they feel frustrated with Airbnb because the reviews sometimes seem too positive – travellers are worried about hurting the hosts’ sentiments after building a personal connection with them. I understand their frustration, and believe it’s up to each of us to keep the Airbnb spirit alive – by being honest.
On my part, I ensure that my Airbnb reviews are as helpful as possible, without being too flowery or brutal. I highlight aspects of the place I loved, and those I believe could’ve been better. Genuine feedback can enable hosts to offer better experiences, and manage expectations for future travellers.
After all, we have to rely on each other, the travel community, to discover travel experiences that are truly unforgettable.
Do you use Airbnb on your travels? Any tips on how to find the perfect place to stay?
I wrote this post in collaboration with Airbnb India. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, sign up with my referral link to get 18$ off your first stay, and use it to find local experiences the world over.
Last night, I had a dream. I was sitting in the main square of Amman, the capital of Jordan, listening in fascination to an elderly man playing the oud (a musical instrument commonly used in Persian / Arabic music) to no particular audience. Genetu, a friend from the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, joined me for a while, then insisted that we go on a short hike near his village (in Ethiopia of course). So we did, and as we huffed up a cliff, I spotted a giraffe in the distance… in what seemed like the bush in South Africa!
By the time I woke up from such a surreal yet vivid dream, I was filled with a yearning for the places of my past.
Every time I look at a world map – and I’ve been looking at one pretty often since I discovered Trover, a social network for travellers to share hidden gems from around the globe – there are certain places that jump out at me; places where I see a past version of me. I can almost hear my indigenous Quechua friend explaining how a famous waterfall in Ecuador is actually alive, smell the apple-scented smoke from a shisha in the vastness of the Wadi Rum, and feel the crisp air as I cycle in the Slovenian Alps.
As Pascal Mercier once wrote: We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
So this post is dedicated to all the countries I need to go back to and find parts of me I left behind… (see my entire list of Places I’d Love To Go Back To on Trover; it’s geotagged to all my favorite spots in each country). These countries are the ones that, thankfully, make me feel like even though I don’t belong anywhere in particular, I belong everywhere:
You know that giraffe I dreamt about in the South African bush? It wasn’t entirely a figment of my dreams; I first saw it, most unexpectedly, from the window of my lodge at a game reserve near Johannesburg, munching on leaves right in my backyard. Amazed, I ran out and we gazed into each other’s eyes a while… then I saw his family (presumably) join him for what seemed like their evening snack 😉
South Africa was love at first sight. The impossible beauty of mist-engulfed Table Mountain, wild ostriches and African penguins near Cape Town, unexpected friendships in the township of Mamelodi, road tripping along the stunning Swatberg mountains… there is just so much I need to go back for!
Living for a couple of weeks in the last house in one of the last villages (before the border of Russia) in the Caucasus Mountains, I think I lost track of time and the outside world. As temperatures dropped, the leaves turned a delicate yellow, red and orange; the apples in the neighbours’ front yards ripened to a juicy red; and everyone came out of their homes to dig out potatoes from their fields. Then one morning, I woke up to snowflakes falling gently on the vast mountains, and everything around me was enveloped in white – surreal and breathtaking!
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I first fell in love with Georgia in 2014; I thought this trip would give me some closure, but as I hiked past mountain villages forgotten by time, felt drawn in by a remote monastery with a priest vowed to silence, and stood longingly at Georgia’s border with South Ossetia, I knew my affair with the Caucasus was far from over.
See: Dreaming of Georgia (my geotagged collection of the country’s best kept secrets on Trover)
Life as a digital nomad is not always easy. Sometimes payments don’t arrive on time, sometimes words fail me, sometimes I just question my entire lifestyle. On days like that, I close my eyes and transport myself to the shores of Lake Atitlan. That feeling of jumping early morning into the clear blue waters, in the backdrop of three stunning volcanoes, as fishing canoes row along… that feeling reassures me that I’ll be okay. I’ll have to be, because sooner than later, I have to make my way back to what feels like my place on earth.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina was never really on my Europe wishlist; to me, it was merely the country with a hard-to-pronounce last name, until I met a Bosnian couple on the Croatian countryside, and spent four straight hours chatting with them about everything from Bosnia’s painful civil war to the similarity between Slavic and Sanskrit languages. Their warmth and generosity convinced me to drop all my plans and travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
And so I did, even if impulsively and short on time. The night I arrived, I was in a somewhat disoriented state of mind as I quietly ate dinner in a small cafe by River Una. A middle-aged man sat next to me, and started telling me about the sad state of employment in the country… then offered to pay for my dinner which I had finished before we got chatting! Despite a language barrier, I struck up many unexpected friendships, heard heartbreaking stories of the war, and discovered magnificent waterfalls, rivers and hiking trails – without a sign or another soul around.
I yearn to go back, before it’s pristine beauty and friendly locals put it prominently on Europe’s tourism map.
My first trip to Ethiopia didn’t quite turn out the way I expected it to. I didn’t budget right, I didn’t do enough travel research, and despite having grown up in India, I wasn’t ready to confront the economic disparities. Yet I have some fond memories of the time I spent there – the local boys I hiked with in the impossibly beautiful Simien Mountains; the lady I broke injera and chugged homemade fermented barley beer with, in her round rammed-earth home; the priest (and part-time guide) I explored the underground churches of Lalibela with… and all the beyayenetus (fasting food platters) I relished.
I like to think I’m a more mature traveller now, and long to go back to spend time learning about the fascinating way of life of the tribes in the south and journey to the Danakil Depression – the hottest place on earth.
I recently set the world record for the shortest stay in the Maldives – 24 hours! It so happened that my flights couldn’t be organized as planned, and I already had an onward one. So I arrived in the late evening, kissed the turquoise waters with my eyes, spoke at the World Travel Writers Conference, and left. I promised to go back someday, but that promise slipped to the back of my mind.
If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you probably know I’m having a tough time deciding where to travel next, somewhere it’s not too cold, somewhere not too far from India. But last week, while browsing travel discoveries on Trover, I stumbled upon a picture of bioluminescent plankton on a beach in the Maldives… and impulsively booked a (super cheap) one-way flight with my partner to Male! My Maldives wishlist has grown since, to include SUPing, ecolodges with conservation programs and snorkeling with whale sharks and manta rays. Hopefully we’ll find an affordable guesthouse or Airbnb and live out the island dream.
See: All my Maldives’ finds (so far) on Trover
I still look back at my month in Ecuador with wonder and awe. Hiking solo amid the breathtaking beauty of the majestic Andes, on little-known trails, without another soul in sight and without a hint of fear for my safety, felt meditative and incredibly liberating. Hearing stories of living waterfalls and extinct creatures from my Quechua host family, while feasting on quinoa and oatmeal soups (I learnt that their diet has traditionally been vegan) transported me to a world I hadn’t traversed before. Then deep in the Amazon rainforest, I had a near life-changing experience that I’m not entirely ready to post about yet… perhaps because I left behind a part of me that I can only find when I go back.
Win 1500$ to travel!
Heads up: Trover is running a cool contest, giving away a 1500$ Expedia travel prize to one lucky winner. All you have to do is sign up on Trover, and share your favorite desserts / sweet treats from around the world with #SweetSpot – enter now!
Contest ends Nov 27th. See the terms and conditions here. Good luck!
Which places around the world would you love to go back to someday?
Note: I’m collaborating all month with Trover to share cool contests and hidden gems from around the world!
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“Asian openbills were the most delicious,” he said. Sun-burnt face, shy smile, eyes fixed at the adult storks far in the distance.
I looked at him with some incredulity. We’ve been so attuned to thinking that it’s ‘normal’ to eat some animals and not others, that it felt strange to hear my birding guide confess his favorite meal was a rare bird.
It was my second morning in the state of Odisha (previously called Orissa) on India’s east coast, and I was gliding along silently on a rustic, wooden row boat on the gentle waters of Chilika Lake – India’s, and Asia’s, largest brackish water lake.
On that warm spring day, I had expected to acquaint myself with the wild flying beauties in the marshlands of Mangalajodi, the largest village on the shores of Chilika. But by the time the sun was setting above the wetlands, now alive with bird chatter, I had discovered the most hopeful story of wildlife conservation in India:
Mangalajodi: Once a village of bird poachers
“It was easy. We caught them in a net and twisted their necks. Or we poisoned the small fish in the wetlands, and when the birds ate them, they died a quick death.”
I was trying hard not to gasp at my guide’s words. And harder, trying not to imagine black godwits and wood sandpipers, with twisted necks, ready to be cooked.
Until over a decade ago, the primary livelihood of nearly a hundred families in Mangalajodi was based on killing, selling and eating birds – many of them migratory, from far flung parts of the world like Siberia.
“In those days, you could go to a dhaba and order a godwit for dinner, just like you’d order tandoori chicken now.”
Over the years, the migratory birds that flew to the marshlands of Mangalajodi in winter instinctively sensed the danger, and their population gradually declined. The lack of awareness and alternate livelihood opportunities earned the local bird poachers and their village a shameful reputation, one that would gradually inspire an incredible transformation.
The transformation of Mangalajodi
I remember chatting with an elderly man on a rainy afternoon in Mangalajodi, as we both took shelter under a tree. Even though he had been a fisherman all his life, he took pride in talking about the transformation of his village.
“Earlier when people heard I was from Mangalajodi, they thought I was a thief. They called us a village of thieves. But their view has changed. Now when they hear I am from Mangalajodi, they respect me. People from all around the world come to our village to see our migratory guests.”
Legend has it that the transformation of Mangalajodi began with one man’s repentance. That man was Nanda Kishore Bhujbal from the surrounding Tangi region, and he was overcome with guilt the first time he shot an Egret with an airgun – almost a coming of age ritual in these parts.
He decided to personally renounce poaching and stood up to the most notorious poachers in the area, once even at knife point, ultimately creating the Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (a bird protection collective), which was the beginning of a long, painful transformation in the village. The year was 1997 – and the challenge wasn’t just about changing mindsets, but offering sustainable alternative livelihoods. Enter the concept of eco-tourism, facilitated by an organisation called Indian Grameen Services.
Bhujbal’s persistence gradually won over the rest of the poachers, and in a local temple, they pledged against killing their winged guests. Several organizations (including Wild Orissa and Royal Bank of Scotland) joined hands to train the poachers to become birding guides, impart basic English skills and equip them with the ways of the hospitality industry.
It all made sense on the marshlands as we rowed along, as my guide rattled off the names of migratory birds and related stories of their breeding and feeding habits – the poachers knew their prey so well, it only made sense that they would make excellent guides! And indeed, twenty years later, the guide and boatman I was sailing down Chilika Lake with, were both ex-poachers.
85 families in Mangalajodi make their living through tourism now. By day, they work as birding guides, boatmen and hospitality staff. By night, they patrol the marshlands for any illegal poaching, since protecting the birds is their primary source of livelihood.
“But it’s not just about our livelihoods. These migratory birds, who come from far off corners of the world to our marshlands, are our guests. We have to protect our guests.”
The birds have noticed the transformation in Mangalajodi too: over the years, the migratory bird population has grown from 5,000 to 3,00,000 per year!
Although the transformation of Mangalajodi’s infamous poachers is remarkable, only a short walk around the area made me realize that issues like poverty, sanitation and open defecation continue to plague the village.
But as we rowed away on our wooden canoe, deep into the marshlands, and I observed my ex-poacher guide and boatman intently spotting birds, it struck me that if there is one place that gives me hope that no change is impossible, it is Mangalajodi.
Mangalajodi: Travel tips
How to reach Mangalajodi: Take a flight to Bhubaneshwar, from where Mangalajodi is an easy 2 hour drive.
Where to stay in Mangalajodi: Stay at the community-run Mangalajodi Ecotourism Campus to get an insight into the transformation of the village. The facilities are pretty basic, but the food is delicious and the conversations thought-provoking.
Best time to visit Mangalajodi / Chilika Lake: November to February is the best season to see migratory birds.
A note on speciesism: The idea that we shouldn’t discriminate based on species, puts in perspective Mangalajodi’s attempt to stop the poaching of birds for food, but not fishing. While 85 families in the village now earn their livelihood through tourism, nearly 750 families continue to rely on the waters of Chilika Lake to kill, catch, sell and eat fish. Why are we so attuned to thinking that it’s ‘normal’ to eat some animals and not others?
Have you come across any inspiring stories of wildlife conservation in India?
Featured image: Aditya Bhattacharjee
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I have a confession: I ate way TOO many potatoes on the Austrian countryside. Potatoes in all forms – fried, roasted, pan fried into a patty, cut into wedges, barbecued. Even a whole boiled unpeeled potato showed up on my “special” vegan platter at some point.
As much I as I loved hiking, mountain biking and canyoning in the Tirolean mountains (Austrian Alps), it was only when I reached the pretty mountain city of Salzburg that my vegan taste buds fell in love with Austria!
Behold, my favorite restaurants and cafes to eat vegan or vegetarian food in Salzburg, including traditional Austrian food. And some vegan survival tips for the Austrian countryside:
Where to eat in Salzburg: Best vegan and vegetarian restaurants
GustaV: Salzburg’s first and only entirely vegan restaurant, which came into existence after a successful crowdfunding campaign! It’s easy to feel the love with which the owner Denise and her staff run the cafe and prepare the food – sustainable, organic and delicious.
I was tempted to try everything on the menu – vegan breakfast options like french toast and tofu scramble, daily specials featuring regional Austrian dishes, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, herbal teas and a changing selection of desserts. My favorites were the vegan version of the traditional Tyrolian dumplings – savory, wheat-based, paired with sautéed red cabbage; the chimi churi sandwich – soft, fluffy vegan bread stuffed with hummus, eggplant and other veggies; hot chocolate made with almond milk; and the mango coconut smoothie.
The cozy, artsy, cafe-like ambiance and the outdoor sun-kissed patio are both great to spend a day over good food, a good book and people watching. I visited GustaV twice, and was amazed to see it packed on both occasions. Make a reservation if you’re in a group.
Address: Wolf-Dietrich-Strasse 33, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Tue-Fri: 10am-7pm; Sat: 9am-6pm; Sun-Mon: Closed
Green Garden: I was sold at the idea of over 25 flavors of vegan ice creams in the summer at the cozy Green Garden coffee shop; I loved the only one I tried on that warm autumn night – chocolate ice cream, sweetened with a natural plant-based sugar.
Unfortunately I only had space for dessert that night, but I can’t wait to go back to the Green Garden restaurant next door and try the vegan burger, the crispy eggplant sticks with smoked tahini and the interesting selection of vegan wines! The menu is entirely vegetarian, and features a fair few distinctly-marked vegan dishes. I heard from the lovely owner Julia, that many Austrians are choosing to reduce their meat consumption, and the crowded restaurant was proof – make a reservation, especially for a weekend dinner.
Address: Nonntaler Haupstr 16, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Tue-Fri: 12-2 pm, 5:30-9:00 pm; Sun-Mon: Closed
The Heart of Joy: I was glad to find this all-vegetarian restaurant – that focusses on organic, local products – for a heart Sunday brunch before I left the city. In the sunny outdoor area, I feasted on a tofu-seitan-veggies-mustard sandwich and a coconut chia drink, resisting the temptation to try the vegan chocolate muffin. Vegan dishes are clearly marked on the menu, and include vegan butter, vegan ham, vegan desserts and plant-based milk.
Address: Franz-Josef-Strasse 3, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Thur: 8am-7pm; Fri-Sun: 8am-8:30pm; Open on holidays
Other vegan-friendly restaurants / cafes in Salzburg I’d like to try:
- Vitalbistro Leichtsinn: A small bistro with a daily changing menu featuring vegan and vegetarian dishes. See their website for the menu on your day of visit.
Organic vegan-friendly supermarkets in Salzburg
Denn’s Biomarkt: I loved browsing through the aisles at Denn’s Biomarkt in Salzburg, which feature all kinds of breads, desserts, tofu, cereals, plant-based milks, cheeses, dips, chocolates, energy bars and even toiletries and cosmetics – the vegan ones clearly labelled with a V, so you don’t have to strain your eyes reading every label! The bakery section has a vegan sandwich and dessert options for a quick take away.
Address: Sterneckstraße 31, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Fri: 8:30 am – 7 pm; Sat: 8 am – 6 pm; Sun: closed
Mayreder’s Reformhaus: This organic, natural foods store seems to have branches across Germany and Austria, and is handy to buy health drinks, vegan, whole-grain and gluten-free products, herbal teas and natural cosmetics.
Address: Universitätsplatz 13, Salzburg, Austria
Timings: Mon-Fri: 9 am – 6 pm; Sat: 9 am – 3 pm; Sun: Closed
Spar Supermarket: Conveniently located at the Salzburg hauptbahnof (train station) and open till 11 pm everyday. Besides a selection of vegan groceries, they have a selection of fresh, healthy, vegan sandwiches and salads for a quick takeaway.
Address: Salzburg hauptbahnof, Austria
Timings: Mon-Sat: 6 am – 11 pm; Sun: 8 am – 11 pm
Traditional Austrian food that is (or can be made) vegan
- Krautsalat: A cold cabbage salad dressed with vinegar. Healthy and tasty as an appetiser. Mostly vegan.
- Sauerkraut: A fermented boiled cabbage salad, usually served warm. Mostly vegan.
- Tiroler Gröstl: A local favorite in the Austrian Alps, the gröstl is a dish of pan-fried potatoes and onions, typically served with bacon and egg. You can ask for a vegan version without the latter two, and with other seasonal veggies.
- Pizza: I had a yummy pizza without cheese; tastes great with fresh flavorful veggies.
- Almdudler: Bottled lemonade made with wild mountain herbs; the most popular local drink in Tyrol (after coke!)
- Almradler: Almdudler + beer; can’t go wrong with that.
Vegan survival tips: Austrian countryside
I’ll say it one more time: I ate far too many potatoes on the Austrian countryside. Here’s what I would do differently to be a happier vegan in Austria:
- Get an Airbnb with a kitchen: A good way to save money, eat healthy and cook what you want. As a vegan traveller, I always try to get myself a well-equipped kitchen. Sign up with my referral to get 18$ off your first stay.
- Find an organic grocery store near you: Farmers markets and supermarkets with organic sections are pretty common even on the countryside; ask locals for recommendations. Good ingredients = good food.
- Use HappyCow: The HappyCow app maps out places with vegan and vegetarian options near your location; my food bible!
- Call ahead if you can: It always helps to prepare the restaurant staff about your dietary needs beforehand, and assess if they are accommodating. You’ll definitely find a vegan salad, or ahem, potatoes, but depending on how much notice you give, you might just be in for a more indulgent treat.
- Carry energy / protein bars: For dire times, or while hiking, I swear by protein bars for some instant energy.
The Austrian countryside is not the easiest for a vegan traveller, but with some planning, you can have satisfying meals. And if the going gets tough, pop by to Salzburg or Vienna to indulge your vegan tastebuds!
Have you had any interesting vegan food experiences in Austria? How do you manage your vegan or vegetarian diet on the road?
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I began reminiscing about my four years as a nomad on the treacherous yet breathtaking drive to Spiti. Although Bolivia holds the title for the world’s most dangerous road, the route to Spiti in the Trans Himalayas must rank pretty close. As the Chandra River gushed along and sometimes across the “road”, it struck me just how magnificent and fragile life is. One moment, I was awestruck by the rugged beauty of the snow-peaked Himalayas; the next, I was clutching my seat, hearing the tyres screech, watching the gearbox fly uncontrollably in all directions, holding on to dear life as the driver braked just in time for our shared taxi to stop right on the edge of the fierce Chandra River.
I suppose that journey from Manali to Spiti kind of sums up the last four years for me. Breathtaking on most days, treacherous on some. On the road, and within.
I still remember, with some clarity, that dull, starless night on the roof of my rented Delhi apartment, when my soul craved more adventure. That night, I decided to give up living at a permanent address, sold most of my belongings and made the road my only home.
Four years later, at twenty-nine, the road is still my home. And my only belongings weigh around twenty kilograms, snugly packed into the two bags I always carry. These are some musings over four homeless years of life as a digital nomad:
Nomadism is a state of mind
When I first went location independent, I used to tell people with some pride that I don’t live anywhere in particular. I secretly loved the surprise and awe when they tried to imagine what my life must be like. But over the years, nomadism became my normal; it was my turn to feel surprised and awe when I imagined what it must be like for someone to live in the same place all their lives.
These days, I think the feeling of belonging nowhere, and by virtue of that, belonging everywhere, is just a mindset. We are conditioned to think – by society and by the false security of our comfort zone – that the familiar place where we lay our feet and rest our heads is home. But the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve realized that home is the feeling of becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, just like friendship is the feeling of getting to know someone unknown. And when national borders become meaningless, you feel as much at home in the rugged mountains of Spiti as you do in the home of a Mayan family in Guatemala as you do in the vast desert under the vast night sky in Jordan… and that’s how home stops becoming a place and becomes a feeling.
The 80-20 rule still holds true
I first devised my 80-20 rule in my early twenties. I had just started working full-time at the Singapore Tourism Board, and was struggling to maintain the work – life – travel balance. I have to confess that now that I work for myself, the struggle to find that balance is even more real: travelling is my work, my life and my “me time”… and vice-versa.
Over the years, I’ve heard of and witnessed enough untimely deaths and unfulfilled lives, to remind me to follow my 80-20 rule(s) more now than ever. The idea is to spend 80% of my time with 20% of the people – and on 20% of the work – that matter to me most. Even if that makes my life seem self-centred and irresponsible to some, I know it’s the only one I’ve got.
Using influence to drive positive change
There came a time last year when I felt like my hedonistic travel chase was leaving me feeling empty and unfulfilled. Even with my continued focus on writing about sustainable travel in an experiential and nearly disguised way, it seemed to me that the road had given me far more than I had given back. So I found myself a blank
slate notebook, and started plotting the confluence of what I loved doing, what I believe I’m good at and the causes I truly care about.
From that confluence emerged @voicesofMunsiari in 2015/16 – India’s first Instagram channel run entirely by the rural village communities of Munsiari (Uttarakhand) – empowering storytellers in remote Himalayan villages to share their life stories directly with the world, despite language and connectivity barriers.
And this year, I made my way back to Spiti, to work on a menace that is plaguing our society: plastic bottles. We began conversations with local businesses on the harmful effects of plastic and safe, eco-friendly alternatives, and built a lifesize art installation of discarded plastic bottles to encourage travellers to pledge against them. We will continue working to spread awareness online, hoping to see a sizeable reduction in the use of plastic bottles in Spiti in 2018, and ultimately aspire to make Spiti and the high Himalayas a plastic bottle-free zone.
In my keynote speech at the SoDelhi Confluence, I used the stage to urge budding bloggers – travel, fashion, food and everything in between – to think beyond just commercial success, and ask what else we can use our “influence” for. That’s something I see becoming my mantra in the days to come.
I love not man the less…
The longer I stay on the road, the clearer I become about the kind of people I want to interact with. Things like hypocrisy, petty jealousies, lack of respect for someone from a lower socio-economic background, even meaningless small talk, turn me off. Sometimes I worry I’ve become quite incapable of forging real relationships – and even more, that I’m okay with it.
On my part, I’ve pissed off enough people, friends and family included, who can’t stop questioning my way of life. My choice not to stay in one place. My choice never to get married (I do say never like I mean it). My choice never to have children.
Meryl Streep Portuguese author José Micard Teixeira, “I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me. I have no patience for cynicism, excessive criticism and demands of any nature. I lost the will to please those who do not like me, to love those who do not love me and to smile at those who do not want to smile at me. I no longer spend a single minute on those who lie or want to manipulate. I decided not to coexist anymore with pretence, hypocrisy, dishonesty and cheap praise.”
Getting off the emotional rollercoaster
I can’t say when I started transitioning from my emotional rollercoaster towards stoicism, but I did notice it recently – and with some pride. I travelled 25 hours non-stop from Spiti, 12 in a shared taxi on the treacherous “road” to Manali, then 13 in an overnight bus to Delhi – to make it in time for a flight to the Maldives where I was to relax for a week, then speak at a travel conference. I saw myself lying under a palm tree on an empty beach, the sound of the crashing waves in my ears, the gentle blue color of the water stretching into the horizon… and somehow survived that arduous journey.
But just as the bus pulled into Delhi, I got an email saying my flight couldn’t be arranged as planned. A year or two ago, I would’ve pulled out my hair, bawled my guts out and yelled angrily at the organisers. But even in my exhausted state, I just sighed, decided to treat myself to an indulgent night’s stay in Delhi, and figure things out. Ultimately, I spent 24 hours in the Maldives speaking at a panel on storytelling at the World Travel Writers Conference – and perhaps set the record for the shortest stay ever on these gorgeous islands!
The point is, I didn’t pull my hair or bawl my guts out. Because I’m slowly but surely coming to accept that shit happens. On the road, at home, in life. We’ve got to take it in our stride and move on… because the road, home and life would be so darn boring if shit didn’t happen.
My (secret) life goal was to survive till 30, but…
Now that I’m circling thirty, I feel greedy about living life. In retrospect, I feel like I spent much of my teens bordering depression, plagued by an inexplicable meaninglessness no matter how normal my life seemed to outsiders. I gave myself time till 30… that notorious age that seems so out of reach when you’re in your teens and twenties. I’m glad I did, because I can’t imagine leaving this planet without having hiked solo in the breathtaking Ecuadorian Andes, or finding my paradise halfway across the globe in Guatemala, or feeling wild and free in the wild Caucasus.
Besides, as my friend often says, we’ll be dead for so long…
A big hug and thanks to each of you for joining my adventures virtually! What’s life looking like for you these days?
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