I have no doubt that a few years from now, we’ll look back at 2020 as a bad dream or something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s been labelled the darkest year in recent times – but as with all bleak years, this one came to an end too.
Our ancestors braved famines, world wars and pandemics, and their travails make ours seem relatively mild in comparison. They couldn’t fall back on Netflix, food deliveries or Zoom calls for support or distraction!
I’m sure we all have our stories of survival though. Being stranded away from loved ones, coping with mental health challenges, juggling household chores with fulltime jobs, dealing with a loss of income, or worse, dealing with Covid-19 itself. If you’ve lost someone, or are struggling to cope, I truly hope you’ll find the strength to face this difficult time. Know that our lifeboats might be different, but we’re all sailing through the same storm.
When I first sat down to write my annual reflections post, only the difficult moments of 2020 surfaced. I had to carefully reminisce through each month to find some uplifting moments, and hope to hang on to them as we move into 2021.
Beginning the year in Lesotho and Kruger!
It feels surreal to recall that just at the beginning of 2020, my partner and I were hiking amid the magnificent mountains and waterfalls of Lesotho – a small, stunning country in Southern Africa, home to the friendly Basotho people and the complicated Sesotho language! From there, we drove down to the great wilderness of Kruger National Park in South Africa, for a self-drive safari among hyenas, African lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras!
Our time in South Africa was incredible in many different ways, but I think of it even more fondly now since it was my last international adventure before the world was catapulted into this new “normal”.
A renewed connection with my hometown
Since I moved out of Dehradun at age 17, I’ve rarely been back for longer than a week or two at a stretch. Much of the Dehradun of my childhood has been swallowed up by traffic and concrete, so shorter, more frequent visits to see my folks have become the sweet spot.
When India went into a 21-day lockdown, which gradually got extended to 3 months, I decided not to try to rebel, accepting that the universe wanted me there. With all this time in hand, I re-bonded with my folks over baking and table tennis, somewhat revived our vegetable garden, finally got my folks on board to segregate our waste, connected with a group of organic farmers and even found a couple of secluded hiking spots with a friend!
Co-founding Voices of Rural India
Starting in March 2020, I watched in slow motion as the majority of my work as a travel writer came to a standstill. After some delayed payments, I was left with no choice but to dip into my savings. It’s been a tough year for the travel industry, but even more so for rural communities across India who can’t look to the digital world for alternate opportunities.
So, during the lockdown, I joined hands with Malika Virdi, Sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat and Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to create such an opportunity.
Voices of Rural India is a curated platform that hosts stories by rural storytellers – typically guides, homestay hosts and other members of the community, especially women – in their own voices, and pays a fee directly in their bank account for every story accepted for publishing. Through this initiative, we aim to build digital storytelling skills, create an alternate source of livelihoods and preserve indigenous knowledge that is slowly disappearing.
For the rest of us, at a time of no travel, I hope VoRI becomes a channel to discover remote corners of India from the comfort of our homes.
Some of my favorite stories on Voices of Rural India so far:
- The Walking Library, by Radhamani K.P: In Kerala’s Wayanad district, a 63-year-old woman walks several kilometers every day for those who love to read but have no easy access to books.
- The Disappearing Craft of Likhai, by Trilok Singh Rana: A guide from Shankhdhura village visually documents the intricate craft of wood carving in Uttarakhand, once found in villages across Kumaon.
- How One Man’s Conviction Put Jibhi Valley on the World Tourism Map, by Bhagwan Singh Rana: An ex-army man’s inspiring and amusing journey of grit, passion and dedication to introduce Jibhi Valley to tourism.
Winning “best communicator” at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards (India)
My journey towards becoming an advocate for responsible, meaningful and environmentally-friendly travel began way back in 2011, when I took a sabbatical from my full-time job in Singapore to volunteer-travel with Spiti Ecosphere, a grassroots responsible travel enterprise in the Indian Himalayas.
Focusing on storytelling, in a way that compels readers to think about responsible travel without necessarily using the word ‘responsible’, has often been challenging. As I continue to grapple with my travel, life and writing choices, it sure feels reassuring to think that some of India’s leading conservationists, editors and thinkers (who were part of the jury) believe in my work and its impact. Thank you, World Travel Market and Outlook Traveller, for this honor at the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards India 2020!
Learning to cook and bake, finally!
As a nomadic vegan, my culinary skills were limited to simple smoothies, hummus and avocado on toast. Then the pandemic hit, and I had to transition from eating out most of the time to eating in entirely!
My taste buds soon began to crave Mexican burritos, red rice idlis, Thai stir-fries, Guatemalan beans and rice, Georgian badrijani nigwitz, vegan chocolate cookies and oat muffins – and there was only one way to satisfy them: Learning to cook and bake myself.
I now own a small oven, have bookmarked many easy and delicious vegan recipes, stay in touch with local organic farmer groups in Goa for seasonal produce and constantly surprise myself by whipping up edible food 😉
Audio book release of The Shooting Star
Over two years since its release, I still receive messages from people who’ve recently read my book – amazing me at the longevity of those pages. In 2020, my publisher, Penguin Random House, surprised me with an email saying that The Shooting Star was going to be released as an audio book, read by Karen D’Souza!
I’m now on the lookout for a Hindi translator and a local language publisher, so the book can begin to transcend domestic language barriers. If you know one, please connect us.
Launching “Journeys” – exclusive stories for a niche audience
In December 2020, I launched “Journeys” by The Shooting Star – offering my loyal readers exclusive, subscription-based stories, delivered to their inbox once a week. These are stories I’ve never told before – secret finds, confessions I’d rather not share publicly, practical tips to grow in different spheres of life and a more intimate glimpse of my personal journey.
It took some serious contemplation to move into this direction, one that I hope will gradually allow me to become less dependent on social media and brand collaborations – and focus entirely on writing meaningful stories. I’m thrilled to share that early bird subscriptions ran out within two weeks of its launch and there’s been a steady stream of subscribers since.
Most popular stories on Journeys so far:
Also read: How I Lost My Way as a Travel Writer
Pandemic life in Goa, which never stops surprising!
I’ve now spent eight monsoons and one winter in Goa – and still continue to discover all kinds of secrets lurking around in its rivers, backwaters, islands, hills and villages! Confined to one place over the past seven months, I put on my explorer’s hat and discovered places so un-Goa-like, that I often felt like I had arrived in a different state or country.
Despite all the challenges of living long term in India, Goa constantly reminds me just why this country is so damn incredible – and helps keep my wanderlust alive <3
THE BAD & UGLY
The worst the travel industry has ever seen…
Most of us think of travelling as a luxury or frivolous extra in life – and I suppose in some ways it is. But it is also a source of livelihood for 1 in 10 people globally – and many others indirectly. I’ve been in touch with female mountain guides who’ve had to resort to manual construction work during the pandemic, the owners of some of my favourite cafes and restaurants who’ve shut down temporarily or permanently since travellers were their primary audience, and plenty of family-run, environmentally-conscious homestays who’ve lost their only source of income.
Being part of the travel industry for the past decade as a travel writer, and before that as a digital media strategist at the Singapore Tourism Board, it stings pretty bad to think of all the turmoil 2020 brought with it – with no perceivable end in sight. It’s going to be a long, hard road to recovery.
Living long term in India
Someone recently tweeted, living in India is like an extreme sport. That indeed sums up our past 7 months in Goa – it’s been thrilling, uplifting and draining in equal measure. We’ve had to move ‘homes’ four times for different reasons and constantly been plagued by erratic internet, electricity and water supply. This rant stinks of absolute privilege, I know, but that fact makes me feel even more helpless.
Truth is, India is perhaps one of the least suited countries for digital nomads. You can’t book an Airbnb, show up and expect to plug and play. Each place comes with its own laundry list of issues, and any half-decent accommodation costs an arm and a leg. I sorely miss the standard of living we could afford in other middle-income countries like Thailand, Georgia or even Guatemala.
As we look to move towards the mountains in the summer, I just hope the universe will conspire to reveal an unexpectedly perfect place to call home for 4-6 months!
What about the future?
Friends from Europe and the US seem quite confident about resuming their travels by the spring or summer, but I have serious doubts. Even though the vaccination process in India is now underway, it’ll take forever to vaccinate a country of 1.3 billion people. Besides, we don’t know if vaccination means we can shed our masks, stop social distancing, hop on to public transport without fear of spreading the virus and be accepted by local communities again.
Besides the usual visa restrictions for Indians, will we need to travel with a vaccine passport to resume international travel? What vaccines will qualify for such a passport? What about new strains emerging in many parts of the world? Will we need to quarantine for 14 days after every flight? And even if we miraculously manage to tackle covid in 2021, what about the looming threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, water crises and other zoonotic diseases?
As much as I’m determined to make the most of 2021 no matter what life throws my way, the traveller in me longs to return home. Back on the road.
What are some 2020 moments you hope to remember – and what are you most looking forward to in 2021?
Reflections on earlier years: