The Spirit Of Wild Travel

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 10, October 2022

By Shatakshi Gawade

As I wrapped myself up in woollens in my city home in Pune (Maharashtra), I was reminded of the bone-chilling cold of the spectacular Gurudongmar Lake in the high reaches of Sikkim, and also the warmth with which the homestay owner welcomed me. That single memory jump-started my nostalgia and, with my fingers hovering over my keyboard, I was transported to the night when the Manganiyar of Rajasthan performed their transcendental music as we, famished volunteers, ate a home-cooked meal with them. And then to the forests of Ranthambhore, to the first time I saw a tiger in the wild.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat the rush of turning a bend on the towering Himalaya, exhausted but in awe of the immense landscape, or even the rush of simply being out in nature – primal, open, just being.

Fortunately for us, many organisations and individuals curate programmes that create the opportunity to experience the true colours of a new place – the biodiversity, the landscape, the people, the magic. The bunch of humans on the following pages represent such conscious and exploratory travel options. But this is only a miniature primer; there are so many inspiring people and places out there.

So, what will your next adventure be?

Hands, head, heart – travel version
Voluntourism: Operation Groundswell, Evelyn Murray (Communications Team Member)

Our programmes are a mix of adventure, meaningful service, and hands-on learning. The three pillars that make up every programme at Operation Groundswell (OG) are cultural literacy, environmental stewardship, and an examination of power and privilege.

For instance, our upcoming animal conservation programme in Cambodia is an opportunity for participants to volunteer at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, an ecotourism project that provides an alternative approach to elephant care, rehabilitation, and conservation. Our programme in Thailand will take participants to an organic farm, and help them develop a critical perspective on food production and consumption.

Through all our programmes, we aim to provide high-value, intimate, immersive, and educational travel experiences that tangibly affect the lives of the communities we visit and live in. We want to nurture the next generation of leaders to think globally and act locally, with financially accessible experiences that blend ethical travel, guided exploration, educational programming, local immersion, a group focus, and adventure.

The seed for OG was planted in 2006 when we saw the contrasting beauty and poverty of Accra, Ghana. We were seeking answers to pressing questions – is voluntourism helping or hurting what people call ‘the developing world’? Is there a way for visitors to contribute positively to local initiatives while also thinking critically about international development?

We learned that projects were much more likely to succeed if they were carried out in collaboration with the community. So, our programmes don’t just plop a volunteer into a project they know little about. Instead, we take a learning-first approach.

Tel.: 1-888-422-0164

Bangkok’s floating markets represent the local culture and cuisine of Thailand. A must-visit if one wants to experience daily life with the locals. Photo: Public domain/Wayne S. Grazio.

Living interconnectedly
Educational tourism: Journeys With Meaning, Vinod Sreedhar (Founder)

We focus on one primary theme at Journeys With Meaning – everything is interconnected. This helps us explore climate change, systems thinking, ecology, environmental economics, and sustainable solutions like green architecture, conservation best practices, and responsible travel, among others.

This theme is as crucial today as it was 20 years ago, when I first went backpacking across India and encountered a range of environmental and social issues from which, I realised, I was deeply disconnected due to my sheltered, urban upbringing. I saw the need for a platform through which other youth could discover these issues, and that is how Journeys With Meaning was born in 2007.

Through our trips, we visit and learn from communities and programmes in Ladakh, Assam and Meghalaya, the Sundarbans, Goa, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and the Andamans. Our participants meet people successfully working on real-life environmental and social challenges caused by climate change. The trips are deeply immersive and experiential in design. Our activities include farming, building with earth, skill exchanges, and workshops on systems thinking, among others. In learning from local communities and through these activities, our participants see myriad possibilities to contribute  towards sustainability, conservation, and biodiversity protection.

Travel with Journeys With Meaning isn’t a one-way experience  – it is exchange-based. While we learn from local communities, we share the hidden side of globalisation that subsumes traditional ways of life more appropriate for the region. Our trips bridge the disconnects between humans and nature, different human cultures, head and heart, and our actions and their consequences.

Tel.: +91 85302 52288 (Work Whatsapp)

Trips hosted by Journeys With Meaning are deeply immersive. Local communities inspire participants to see the various possibilities of contributing to sustainability, conservation, and biodiversity protection. They create a bridge between humans and nature, and our actions and their consequences. Photo Courtesy: Journeys With Meaning.

Slow travel for slow fashion
Handicraft tourism: Treasured Holidays, Radhika Naware (Founder)

Treasured Holidays is a gateway to the gorgeous world of artisans. I tend to say ‘we’ or ‘our’ while talking about this work simply because it is a combined effort by the artisans and me.

The Craft and Textile trails introduce participants to Manipur’s Meitei community for their hand-wovens and handicrafts; the Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of Odisha such as Bonda, Gadaba, and Baiga of Chhattisgarh for handmade jewellery; and the Rabari of Kutchh for their embroidery. It’s like we interact with ‘human libraries’. We learn block printing in Rajasthan, Ajrakh in Gujarat, needlework from the Lambadi in Karnataka, and many more crafts. We also have trails in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

Handicrafts and handweaving, by their very nature, are ‘slow fashion’. These pieces last many years and are made with natural fibre, so sustainability and green fashion apply anyway. Our trails inspire thoughtful shopping.

The group visits the artisans’ houses, which are treasure troves. The artisans share motivating anecdotes and unheard stories, and we experience the science behind each craft form at their workshops. The artisans always speak with pride and passion. We also visit museums, interact with revivalists, organise homestays, and ensure local delicacies for meals. While travelling, we minimise our footprint by simple acts such as carrying our bottles, not leaving our trash behind, and zero cloth wastage from the bags we use for branding.

At the core of it, we want to contribute positively to the conservation of cultural heritage through meaningful connections with local artisans. We want people to learn the science behind ancient crafts.

Tel.: 9370649304
Facebook: Treasured Holidays

The culmination of a steep mountain climb, a quiet jungle safari, or a dusty road to meet, interact and learn from local communities often leaves visitors with awe, enchantment and inspiration. Is it because it’s the most primal, open, simple state of being? Photo: Public Domain/Hendrik Terbeck.

A home for turtles, and enthusiasts
Homestays: Velas Turtle Festival, Vishwas Katdare (Bhau) and Mohan Upadhyay

People visit Velas beach (Maharashtra) for the endangered olive ridley turtle hatchlings. The experience is enhanced by the authentic homestays available in the village. The Turtle Festival has information sessions, film screenings, and guides. The village can accommodate about 325 people. Homestays are run under the village’s Kasav Mitra Mandal; a part of the earnings is used for turtle conservation materials, such as signboards.

But we (the community) weren’t enthusiastic about tourism when it started in 2006 and didn’t think anyone would visit a remote village. Vishwas Katdare (Bhau) describes their journey:

“We (conservation NGO Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra) had been working on turtle conservation in the area since 2003. At our insistence, two families agreed to host visitors. To everyone’s surprise, 156 people turned up, and some literally slept in the front yard! All discomforts were forgotten when they saw turtle hatchlings vigorously making their way to the ocean the following day. Maharashtra witnessed this miracle for the first time. Eventually, the community was on board with the homestay plan.

The turtle and its hatchlings are most important. We told people clearly that turtles would not wait; we would plan according to nature’s schedule. The Forest Department supported our turtle conservation efforts. In 2014, the community took over homestay management from Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra.”

Mohan adds, “People understand biodiversity after spending time with Bhau. If we conserve biodiversity, people will visit throughout the year. We have rejected suggestions for water sports, sand bikes, and hotels. If the beach is protected, turtles will come, and only then can we have homestays. We are now thinking of conservation in a holistic sense.”

Tel.: +91 89837 67388
Website: Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra

Visitors join the colourful Tarpa dance, a harvest folk dance of the Warli, Kokna and Koli tribes of Maharashtra. The Tarpa, around which this dance revolves, is a wind instrument made of a whole dried gourd with a flute-like bamboo. Photo Courtesy: Treasured Holidays.

For the love of forest… food
Farms: Kalsubai Agro Eco Tourism, Nilima Jorwar (Founder)

The Kalsubai Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary and Harishchandragad Fort in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra are surrounded by tribal and farming villages. When we began working as the farmers’ collective ‘Kalasubai Millets and Traditional Foods’, I realised local tribal food is quite different from mainstream food.

We now take visitors to the farm, show them the precious seed banks, and we also have millet and forest food festivals. This exposure and knowledge create a bridge between urban and rural people. I want everyone visiting this area to learn about the local communities, their sustainable farming practices, and their food heritage.

Visitors are introduced to local and forest food through traditional dishes made of millets and ranbhajya (vegetables from the forest). Forests can become a food source because ranbhajya remain fresh despite monsoonal vagaries, which are destroying crops.

We also conduct youth camps – Nisarg Sanvad (Conversations with Nature) – which include farm visits, birdwatching, nature walks, trekking, and night camps. We show young people how food is connected to nature – if you pollute or destroy biodiversity, you are losing what could have been your sustainable food source.

Agritourism is also creating a market for farmers and motivating them to keep growing indigenous varieties. When locals saw the demand for forest food, they stopped cutting those trees.

In this kind of travel, there is mutual learning. People from different backgrounds can form meaningful relationships. I want visitors to realise that farming is hard, and farmers provide ecological services to us. I want to inspire participants to take responsibility for conserving nature, and the pristine spaces they are visiting.

Tel.: 9423785436

The community at Velas is committed to protecting olive ridley turtles and has consistently shielded their nesting habitats from disturbances like lights, concrete roads, water sports, and even hotels. Photo Courtesy: Mohan Upadhyay.

A natural challenge
Adventure: Green Earth Adventures, Kedar Gogte (Founder)

Nature is the best teacher and one can learn the most from it by physically being surrounded by it. That is why Green Earth Adventures creates programmes which help our clients immerse themselves in nature and adventure!

We have cycle tours in rural India, Southeast Asia, and Europe; trekking in the Himalaya, Western Ghats, Nepal, Africa, and Southeast Asia; wildlife safaris in India and Africa; and cultural tours in India and Southeast Asia.

Along with adventure, we focus on sharing knowledge with our clients about the varied ecosystems we visit – from Himalayan, riverine to forests. They learn about local flora and fauna, their conservation, and how to be part of sustainable tourism. Wherever possible, we choose homestays, which provide an income to the local community and allow our clients to experience local life.

We encourage first-timers to borrow instead of buying equipment until they decide whether they will do those activities regularly enough to have their own gear. All our clients always carry their own reusable water bottles and on treks, we disallow disposable cutlery. Littering is, of course, an absolute no-no. We advise our clients to neither take anything from nature nor leave anything in it.

More people are travelling now, which is bringing them closer to nature. But at the same time,  it also puts a lot of stress on fragile ecosystems, especially because awareness is low among travellers and organisers.

Travel is never out of budget as long as one is ready to experience local life. It’s all about changing the mindset, which I am glad to say is happening around us.

Tel.: +91 9850896145/8411814990

The first flight of the J&K bird fest!
Bird festivals: Prof. Dr. Parvish Pandya (Director, Science and Conservation, Sanctuary Nature Foundation (SNF))

Most tourists know Jammu and Kashmir for its natural beauty. Very few visit the region for its rich birdlife. Birdwatchers and scientists have found that locals are often oblivious to this diversity. When Saurabh Sawant (Consultant, Projects, SNF), and I visited Kashmir three years ago to conduct an ornithology course, the volunteers were fascinated by what they learnt, and that one didn’t even need a science background to delve into the topic. This was when it struck me – why not involve Kashmiris in awareness programmes and bird walks, and create opportunities for birding?

Nadeem Qadri, Project Head, J&K, SNF and Executive Director, Wildlife Conservation Fund, J&K, Saurabh and I came up with the idea of the bird festival in Jammu and Kashmir. The goal is to involve locals and develop birdwatching, not just as a hobby, but as a livelihood. We gave a proposal to the Jammu and Kashmir government, and soon, the tourism department was involved too.

The Jammu and Kashmir Bird Festival is on October 6, 7 and 8, 2022. We will focus on the involvement and awareness of locals through talks, birding sessions by famous birders from across India, displays, workshops, drawing and painting competitions in schools, and bird photography competitions in colleges.

People are generally attracted to birding, not because of science, but because of stories. We want to showcase birds in culture; art, theatre, music, dance and drama are part of the festival.

We hope the festival will prompt travel operators to increase the involvement of local birders, and introduce birdwatching as an adventure activity. And of course, we want to regularly organise the Jammu and Kashmir Bird Festival!

Nadeem Qadri
Tel.: 9906780356

Shatakshi Gawade, ​Assistant Editor at SNF, is a journalist, researcher, and communication consultant. She focuses on environmental issues. She has worked with mainstream media, as a freelancer, and with civil society organisations that focus on nature, culture, and human rights.

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