Category Archives: Responsible Travel

Shining A Light On Chef Massimo Bottura

Read about Chef Massimo Bottura’s ventures and find out more about the hosted experience in Emilia-Romagna through the eyes of Massimo Bottura.

Light isn’t just a feature of chef Massimo Bottura’s restaurants, it is an essential element in all his projects, from his avant-garde culinary art through his fight on food waste and his work to uncover the invisible potential of others.

When Massimo Bottura launched his most recent Refettorio (refectory) in Rio de Janeiro, his experience was gruelling.

“When you shine a light, bad people don’t like it. We had a couple of times where they came and put guns to our heads and stole computers and telephones, so we knew we were in the right place, but we were open every night.”

It is typical of Bottura’s personal philosophy to link culture, food and human gesture and it has led to a remarkable style of cuisine: one where intense personal experiences are related to meaningful global movements.

Chef Bottura’s take on the Refettorio concept as a communal dining space that brings people together for group meals and gatherings is perfect, although not always harmonious, blend of these three elements.

Bottura’s team brought light and beauty, music and food to communities, and slowly the negative people and behaviours disappeared.

Through his “Food For Soul” non-profit organisation, Bottura brought many Refettorios to various places around the world, 11 and counting with each as a centre of good food, sharing and culture, always targeting a place in need of rejuvenation and restoration.

Massimo Bottura is a major ingredient of this success. His commitment to the power of culture to transform blighted spaces is like a spotlight – it illuminates the problem and focuses on the solution.

It is a clear-headed understanding of the need to build community at the human level, one individual gesture at a time. That’s why Massimo cooks.

Whether he is at a Massimo Bottura restaurant, working with a team that outnumbers the diners two to one, or at one of his Refettorios, cooking with other volunteer chefs for hundreds of people… He brings the same acute attention to the quality of the food, the experience of dining, and the role of culture in teaching, uniting and sharing.

The idea started in Expo 2015 in Milan, to make a unique kind of gesture about Italy’s greatest export: its hospitality.

The plan was to create a kitchen in which some of the world’s greatest chefs would be invited to cook alongside him for the city’s homeless, using food deemed unsuitable for sale in supermarkets, making a statement about waste, and about taste.

That’s how his first came to be — Refettorio Ambrosiano — based in Greco, one of Milan’s poorest districts, serving food to the homeless, disadvantaged and refugees.

“It hasn’t been easy at the beginning”, Bottura says. “The first Refettorio was unpopular with many local residents. Protesters even marched against the idea.” But slowly Bottura won them over. He began by creating utility and beauty in the form of 14 refectory tables, each created by a leading Italian designer.

At first, his unimpressed customers ate fast and left faster, but the transcendent nature of sharing began to lighten their fears. Within months they were staying longer, laughing more and even commenting on the quality of food being served to them, requesting less soup and more pasta!

This is Bottura’s vision in action – social gestures that create a collective spirit. This is the vision that drives him to play football with refugee teens outside the Refettorio or create recipes for his local cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano.

It causes him to invest in modern art that he hopes will help his diners decode the messages contained in the unique Massimo Bottura recipes, many of which dissect the essential features of famous dishes and reconstruct them in exciting new ways that Bottura describes as “we break things, we rebuild things”.

It might be a dish, a blank space on a wall or an empty building in a ghetto, but regardless, Bottura shines a light on what was, what is, and invites us to join him in what could be – something better than the past, built on the experience of the present.

Find out more about the Hosted Experience with Massimo Bottura by Satopia Travel, which specialises in unique experiences led by world-class hosts.

This virtual event is part of the Dare to Dream series of virtual experiences, free and open to the public events organised by Satopia Travel, with world thought-leaders as they talk about how travel helps to make a difference in the world and they remind us why we all must keep travelling and continue to dream.

3 Sustainable Travel Tips To Make The World A Better Place

In my eyes, travel is one of the most important things we can do to better ourselves.

Not only do you see amazing monuments and meet colourful people, you learn different ways of overcoming issues and grow as an individual.

As a traveller, I’ve always tried to support the local community I was visiting, However, it wasn’t until I ventured to Asia did I fully see the importance of sustainable travel.

Phi Phi Island, Thailand

From supporting local companies that give back to the community to just making a positive impact with everyone you meet, sustainable travel is fulfilling and much easier than a lot of travellers think.

Here are 3 ways to travel more sustainably so you can change people and the environment and yourself for the better.

  1. Book a tour with a sustainable travel company

I get it. Travel can be expensive and a sustainable tour only costs more.

But when you meet your local hiking guide or scuba diving instructor, I personally love to know they are paid a decent wage for guiding me for a day or two.

For example, during my time in northern Vietnam, I booked an overnight tour through the cascading rice terraces around SaPa. When I travelled through SaPa, only two trekking companies were known to give back to the locals in the area – SaPa O’Chau and SaPa Sisters.

SaPa Trek, Vietnam

I eventually settled on SaPa O’Chau and even though their guided trek was a little more expensive I was assured the extra money goes straight to the guides and owners of the homestay.

As soon as I met my guide Xuan (pronounced ‘swan’) I was so glad I knew she was getting paid well. It made me feel like a better traveller.

Hiking in SaPa, Vietnam

Xuan doubled as my homestay owner, and not only did her family cook for our small group of four hikers, a comfortable bed for a good night’s rest was provided.

If I contributed to many companies in the area that possibly pay their employees an unfair wage for guiding a trek all day, I would’ve felt terrible. Let alone interacting with her wonderful family.

Sustainable travel is incredibly important to the locals who depend on the industry to survive. However, travelling responsibly comes in many other forms.

  1. Book a tour guide with a company that cares for the environment

Travel is amazing because it’s able to bring so many people together from different cultures and walks of life.

Learning about not only the local area but your fellow travellers as well. Protecting our environment so others can enjoy the beauty we sometimes take for granted.

Once again, Asia opened my eyes to the importance of education and action when it comes to the environment.

Growing up in Australia I always had a profound respect for the oceans and the marine life within it. When I travelled through Asia it became obvious the same environmental concerns were not present.

Education is such an important aspect of environmental protection. I saw many locals toss empty water bottles into rivers as if it were the bin.

For the most part, it’s not knowing that the plastic bottles take so long to decompose. That’s why I love supporting companies who not only educate why preservation is important but also initiate beach and ocean clean-up days.

In 2018 I visited Thailand to learn how to scuba dive, it was every bit as amazing as I hoped.

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island, Thailand

While some beaches are incredibly beautiful, with clear waters and golden sands, if you explore a little further it’s not hard to see one where all the rubbish piles up.

From hundreds of flip flops and water bottles to Styrofoam and toothbrushes. It can be hard to stomach.

After diving, my love for the water only grew and I put a decent amount of effort into researching companies that care for the ocean. I found Princess Divers on Phi Phi Island.

With great guides and stunning underwater scenery to work with, I loved diving with them. However, it was their love for protecting the water that made them my sole recommendation for diving on Phi Phi Island.

Not only do they organize a regular clean-up of the beaches in the area, but the education they provide about the ocean is also second to none.

From identifying unique marine life and how to respect their environment to choosing products, like sunscreen, that don’t negatively affect the ocean and marine life within it.

  1. Make a positive impact with everyone you encounter

Travelling sustainably and ethical comes in many forms. Just engaging with a local or another traveller can be an easy way to enrich travel experiences.

Hanoi is one city where a simple conversation can help a local more than you might think. Every weekend, the small park around Thap Rua closes the busy streets and families flock to play games and talk.

Hanoi at night, Vietnam

Many young kids and university students will spark conversations with tourists to practise their English. It’s even part of some university courses to practise their English with travellers.

Not only does engaging with locals help them, but it also makes travel more fulfilling for you as you learn more about local ways of life.

Fulfilling travel doesn’t need to expensive and engaging with the locals is an amazing way to get more from your time on the road without spending a dime!

Travel is my favourite thing to do. Full stop.

Making sure you leave a positive impact on every place you visit not only helps you evolve into a more satisfied traveller, but the effect of choosing ethically-minded companies and even just interacting with locals can also create such a profound change to people and the environment.

This is why travel is such an important thing for all of us to do.

43 Facts About Indian Travellers That Will Surprise And Intrigue You

Most people who have dealt with Indian travellers will have realised that we’re not the best of tourists. We’re cheap and can be uncouth, but as far as the Indian tourist’s behaviour is concerned, we’re hardly the world’s worst tourists.

No, the award for the worst-behaved tourists goes to… domestic tourists.

However, things are changing in India, and Indians seem to be getting more adventurous and generous with their travel budgets.

As this article in Forbes notes:

Encouraged by its pace-setting 7% GDP global growth rate, rising personal income levels and changing lifestyles, huge middle class as well as the availability of low-cost air fares and diverse travel packages, India is rapidly becoming one of the fastest growing outbound travel markets in the world, second only to China.

Here are some facts that will thrill and delight tour operators who deal with Indian tourists.

  1. At present, around 25 million tourists from India travel abroad.
  2. Outbound Travel from India is growing at 15-18 per cent annually.
  3. India will account for 50 million outbound tourists by 2020.
  4. 31 per cent of Indian tourists were willing to spend over Rs 50,000 on a trip.
  5. Total outbound spending will cross the $28 billion mark in 2020.
  6. India has 28 million passport holders, all of whom are potential travellers.
  7. By 2030, the value of India’s business travel market is expected to reach $93 billion.
  8. When travelling abroad, Indian tourists are among the world’s highest-spending globetrotters. Their spending power has been estimated to be four times that of the Chinese and Japanese.
  9. The average Indian traveller spends $1,200 per visit as compared with Americans who spend about $700, and Brits who spend $500.

These are compelling statistics, so if you haven’t been targeting Indian tourists so far, perhaps it’s time to do it now. To learn what Indians want from their travel experiences, keep reading.

What Are Indian Travellers Looking For?

  1. The top rated reason Indian travellers take a vacation is to rejuvenate, followed closely by spending quality time with family and taking time away from city life.
  2. 40 per cent of all outbound trips by Indians are for business purposes, leisure, visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and others account for 20 per cent.
  3. City tours and shopping are the most preferred activities across domestic and international locations. Three in four travellers exploring new destinations and over 60% of honeymooners, too, chose city tours as their most preferred activity.
  4. Adventure travellers ranked water sports as a favourite, with a large share picking water sports and scuba diving.
  5. Indians said they liked to buy food and drink items at airports. While designer clothes and jewellery are a close second for women, male travellers said they liked buying perfumes or colognes from airport stores.
  6. Over half give high priority to the availability of restaurants and cafes when picking a new destination to visit.
  7. Festivals are new travel days with the most popular travel weekends being Maha Shivratri, Holika Dahan and Good Friday.
  8. While the preferred choice of accommodation remained budget hotels, Indians want to spend more on experiences and exploration of the destination as well as shopping, food, and drink.

Tip: Indians are price-conscious when it comes to accommodation, but will spend on shopping and food. Plan your tours to cater to these preferences. Plan your marketing campaigns around festivals and major holidays, like Diwali.

More Indians Are Travelling Sustainably

Surprise, surprise! Indians are some of the most mindful and environmentally conscious travellers out there. (yes, I’m surprised, too)

There are always exceptions, and to visit India would make it seem like we’re not the most civic-minded people in our own country. But the facts below can’t be denied.

  1. Around 97 per cent of Indian travellers want to travel sustainably in 2018 with 88 per cent of them willing to pay a premium.
  2. While 73 per cent of current Indian travellers always or often opt for sustainable travel, around 32 per cent are willing to pay at least 15 per cent more to ensure as low an impact on the environment as possible.
  3. The sustainable activities most enjoyed by Indians during vacations are buying locally made products instead of mass-produced tourist souvenirs, using public transport instead of a taxi and to find a local restaurant that only uses local ingredients.
  4. Indians also like skipping tourist highlights in favour of less busy and often more rewarding sights and opt for a place to stay that is a certified eco-accommodation over a traditional hotel
  5. Most Indians were motivated by impressive natural sights, including rainforests, coral reefs, among others.
  6. About 72 per cent also felt motivated by the positive effect sustainable tourism had on local people.

Tip: Include more eco-friendly options in your tour packages. Eco-lodges and homestays are a great option for the price-conscious Indian traveller, especially those that give back to the community. Avoid elephant rides and cruel animal attractions, and promote sustainable practices. For example, providing reusable water bottles with your logo is a cheap way to promote sustainability and get free branding to boot.

Indians Are Family Travellers

  1. Indians are the most family-oriented globally and prefer destinations that offer fun activities for all.
  2. Sixty-four per cent of Indians feel the availability of family fun activities are the most important factor when choosing a holiday destination
  3. Visits to amusement parks and boat rides are high on priority among international travellers.

Tip: As an Indian, I know that many Indian couples like to travel with parents and kids in tow. Provide a multi-generational experience and include activities (not necessarily together) that are enjoyable for seniors as well as youngsters, and your tours will be a favourite with Indian travellers.

What Are Indian Travellers’ Favourite Destinations?

Indians love to explore places of historical and cultural significance. They also love to shop and eat out.

  1. When deciding on a destination for holiday, Indian travellers cited scenic beauty, convenient place to travel to, and affordability as their top factors.
  2. Travellers from India also said they will choose destinations based on historical landmarks and great shopping choices.
  3. Up to 97% of Indian respondents said they’d travel within the country for their spiritual needs.
  4. Beaches and hills topped the list, catching the fancy of approximately a third of all vacationers.
  5. Beach destinations like Goa, Mumbai, Port Blair and Kochi are a popular option for weekend getaways.
  6. Goa, Delhi and Kerala were the most popular domestic destinations among Indian travellers.
  7. Globally, Indian travellers are most likely to travel to Dubai, Thailand and Singapore.
  8. Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok are ranked as the three most popular international destinations for weekend getaways in 2018.
  9. Four in 10 were most likely to choose foreign destinations for their honeymoons.
  10. Four out of the top five destinations for honeymooners were countries in southeast Asia, with Indonesia leading the pack.
  11. Europe commands an estimated market share of about 20 per cent of all Indian outbound departures.
  12. 24 per cent of Indian holiday-makers picked Paris as the top dream destination in Europe followed by London.
  13. While 41 per cent picked Oxford Street as the top shopping destination in London, 30 per cent said they would go for malls for discounted luxury goods.

Tip: Make sure your tour options include restaurants that serve vegetarian or vegan food since many Indians do not eat meat.

How Do Domestic Tourists Get Around?

  1. The bus is the most common mode of transport for India’s domestic tourists. This is true in both rural and urban areas. It accounts for 33.5% of travel in urban areas and 49.9% in rural areas.
  2. Trains and hired transport are the two other major modes of transport in both areas.
  3. Air travel is limited to 1.9% for urban and 0.1% for rural travel.

Tip: I don’t see this changing anytime soon since paying airfare for an entire family can cost a small fortune. However, Indians love a discount or two. They also love perks, like upgrades to business travel. Throw in some freebies and you might get more to take the bait.

Indian Travellers & Timeshares

  1. Indians are warming up towards timeshares.
  2. Timeshare owners are typically married 45 to 65-year olds. They have kids who are more than 6 years.
  3. They generally have their own business, have a monthly income of more than Rs 76,000 to more than 1 lakh.
  4. They start planning almost 1- 4 months in advance and prefer going on group tours.

Tip: As a single mom, I’ve been staying in timeshares for almost all of my kid’s childhood. They’re family-friendly and provide safe accommodation for single moms travelling solo or with kids. They also provide free, in-house entertainment options that parents like me love. Consider these demographics when you promote your timeshare offering.

References:

  1. India will account for 50 million outbound tourists by 2020: Report
  2. How India Has Become A Booming Supplier Of Outbound Tourists
  3. Global Travel Suppliers Eye India’s Outbound Tourism Market
  4. 97% Indians travellers eye ‘sustainable’ tourism in 2018: Survey
  5. Indians, most family-oriented travellers: survey
  6. Indian travel enthusiasts prefer foreign shores for long weekend getaways
  7. For love or for god: Why Indians travel
  8. How India travels
  9. Indians are warming up towards the timesharing vacation trend, study reveals

International Travel Bloggers And Media Conference (ITBMC) In Kathmandu

The International Travel Bloggers & Media Conference (ITBMC) in Kathmandu, was the second day of The Himalayan Travel Mart 2018, held on 2nd June, 2018 in Kathmandu, at the Soaltee Crowne Plaza Kathmandu.

It was a platform for travel bloggers to network, learn and meet travel experts from Nepal. It was also to understand the challenges that Nepal faces in marketing its tourist products and sustainably scaling up tourism to the stated goal of Five Million Visitors in 2030.

Some of the presentations at the ITBMC were very good. There was a lot of learning and sharing of information, as well as discussions on the role of bloggers as influencers.

Tim Leffel’s presentation on brand storytelling

The list of speakers included:

Travel writer, Tim Leffel’s presentation on “Building a brand based on storytelling” was fantastic. He introduced us to the Periodic Table of Storytelling.

Tim Teffel introduces us to the Periodic Table of Storytelling

He also gave us tips for travel storytelling and showed us this creative and award-winning example of how to tell a good travel story, called “The Man At The End Of The World.” Brilliant stuff!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyi84lHWXOk

Mariellen Ward’s presentation, “My Journey to becoming a Mindful Traveller,” was thought-provoking as she talked about eco-tourism and responsible tourism.

Mariellen Ward discusses eco-tourism

Nischal Dua’s presentation, “Digital Nomads – Travel and Work as a Lifestyle” offered tips to Nepal’s travel experts on how to transform their country into a haven for digital nomads who love mountains more than beaches.

Nischal Dua’s presentation on Digital Nomads

Keith Jenkins’ presentation, “How influencers can show value to industry” offered valuable tips to help travel bloggers work better with the tourism industry providers.

Keith Jenkins on how travel bloggers can create value for the industry

He also provided examples of successful travel influencer campaigns.

Keith Jenkins provides examples of successful travel influencer campaigns

Adding a bit of glamour to the proceedings was Nepal’s very own Miss Universe, Nagma Shrestha, who showed us how Nepal’s beauty queens are promoting the cause of tourism.

The first Miss Universe Nepal adds glamour

The evening after the ITBMC, we were invited to a gala dinner accompanied by lively Nepali folk dances at Hotel Annapurna, Kathmandu.

Since I was leaving for home the next day, I said my goodbyes to the friends I had made during my visit to Nepal and promised to keep in touch. Goodbye, Nepal. I hope to see you again at the HTM 2019.

Kathmandu, Bhaktapur And Panauti: My FAM Tour Of Nepal For #HTM2018

The lightning flashed and crackled outside the window. I was flying Nepal Airlines flight RA 202 into Kathmandu and we were caught in a thunderstorm.

A massive rain cloud was shooting forks of lighting as large and scary as Thor’s Mjolnir. It was an electrical party in the sky with the clouds all around us providing their own personal laser light show.

A lightning storm is an orchestra of electricity that I like to call “God’s Own Theatre,” and being in the middle of one, up in the air, is the closest I’ll ever come to having a religious experience.

It was exciting and scary all at once and I felt a twinge of disappointment when the pilot announced that the weather was clearing. The plane lurched and shook as we began our bumpy descent. The lights of Kathmandu twinkled below like diamonds strewn carelessly on a bolt of black velvet.

For me, the descent is the scariest part of the flight and I can’t relax till tire hits tarmac, the brakes come on and the flaps open up. Our crew had navigated us safely through a thunderstorm and I was grateful.

From the exhilarating flight into Kathmandu to the FAM Tour and the International Travel Bloggers & Media Conference (ITBMC), my hosted trip to Nepal to attend the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018 was an experience to cherish.

Here’s a photo I took from the plane of the moon rising above the tail of the plane. Like the song Bad Moon Rising, it did bring us plenty of lightning, but unlike the song, we survived and reached safely.

Like the song Bad Moon Rising, the moon brought us plenty of lightning

When I reached Kathmandu airport, I was welcomed by a bunch of the nicest young people – hotel management students who are part of the PATA Nepal Student Chapter.

They gave me the traditional Nepali welcome by placing a silk scarf around my shoulders. As we chatted, we found we had something in common – our love of Comic-Con and Marvel movies.

Nepal is very much like India

One of my big surprises was finding that Nepal is very much like India – from the language to the culture, and even the food. Nepali women are voracious consumers of Indian soap operas and Bollywood movies, so they can also understand and speak Hindi.

The Nepali language is not very hard for Indians to understand and the script is the same script we use (Devnagiri) so we can read it easily, even if we don’t understand all of it.

But one thing that shocked even me, an Indian, were these Medusa-like wires hanging over the streets of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

Medusa-like wires hanging over the streets of Kathmandu

For the life of me, I have never seen anything like this in India and I think the Nepal government needs to clean this up and put them underground as soon as possible if they want to be seen as a modern nation.

And while they’re at it, can they please clean up Kathmandu’s air pollution? It was quite disturbing to see so many people wearing face masks.

Staying at the Traditional Comfort Hotel in Kathmandu

PATA Nepal arranged for my fellow-delegates and me to stay in the Traditional Comfort Hotel in Kathmandu.

Buddha welcomes us at the entrance of the hotel
Newari design and wood carvings

The rooms were very comfortable and the Wifi was excellent. I loved the Newari designs and wood carvings in the lobby, a result of employing local artisans in the design and construction of the hotel.

Traditional Newari motifs decorate the pillars
Angled ankhi-jyaal windows that cast geometric shadows

The breakfast was pretty good too. I tried out some traditional beans from Lukla, a place in north-eastern Nepal.

Traditional beans from Lukla for breakfast

I also love it when a hotel employs responsible environmental practices like using glass bottles, instead of plastic bottles, to provide drinking water in the rooms.

I love it when a hotel uses glass bottles instead of plastic

A Whirlwind Tour Of Kathmandu And Bhaktapur’s Attractions

Over the next couple of days, we visited a few of Kathmandu’s many attractions – the Great Boudha Stupa, the Pashupatinath Temple, the Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square and Thamel, Kathmandu’s touristy shopping centre, along with our tour guides from PATA Nepal Chapter, Mr Badri Nepal and Ms Sushila Kumari Baral.

Uma Maheshwara temple
The Great Boudha Stupa

Mr Badri’s explanations of Nepal’s culture, religious ethos and community life left us spellbound. But my favourite part of the tour was watching and photographing the animals – pigeons, dogs, goats and monkeys – that live in the shrines.

Pigeons, Pigeons everywhere
Brownie Rinpoche catching flies
Cute spaniel in Bhaktapur Durbar square
Mountain goat precariously perched on a temple ledge

As an art lover, I also loved the colours and sophistication of the elaborate Tibetan Thangka paintings – Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.

Painters creating exquisite Tibetan Thangka paintings

We also visited Nepal’s cultural city, Bhaktapur, and Patan Durbar Square, a centre for fine arts. I could have spent all day photographing the exquisite wood carvings, idols and sculptures in Patan’s Tibetan Buddhist ‘Golden Temple’ (Hiranya Varna Mahavir).

Exquisite wood carvings in Patan’s Golden Temple
Deities in Patan Golden Temple

I really wish I could have spent more time taking photographs, but we were in a mixed group consisting of travel agents, travel writers and a videographer (who went off by himself to take videos), and every time I stopped to take photos, I would get left behind.

Buddhist ceremony in Patan Golden Temple
My fellow-travellers and me on our FAM Tour of Kathmandu

As a huge Marvel fan, I was also thrilled to discover that both, the Pashupatinath Temple and Patan Durbar Square were locations for shooting Kamar Taj in Marvel’s Dr Strange movie.

Kamar Taj from Dr Strange?

In 2015, Nepal was hit by the devastating Gorkha earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000. Many of its ancient temples and historical structures were damaged in this earthquake, some beyond repair.

Scenes of devastation in Kathmandu

Three years later, scenes like this one are still common and the country is slowly and painfully rebuilding and repairing many of these historical structures.

Rehabilitation of historical buildings in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square

However, there are many that were undamaged or only lightly damaged and these are definitely worth exploring. I will post a detailed blog of our Kathmandu tour soon.

Our Community Homestay in Panauti Village

After our tour, we were scheduled to stay at a community homestay at Panauti Village, around 1.5 hours from Kathmandu. We were all welcomed at the Community Hall by a group of women in bright red sarees who greeted us with garlands and vermillion tikkas.

Being welcomed by the women Homestay owners of Panauti

My German friend, Katrin and I opted to stay together at the Homestay of a lovely lady called Sabita, who has a house at the top of a small hillock. We found our accommodations very comfortable and our hostess was a wonderful cook.

Getting to know our hostess, Sabita and her daughter, Monika

Panauti, situated at the confluence of the two rivers Rosi and Punyamati, has been regarded as an important religious site since very early times.

The confluence of two rivers in Panauti

We visited the Indreshwar temple, one of the largest and tallest pagoda style temples in Nepal. It was originally built over a lingam in 1294, making it the oldest surviving temple of Nepal.

Indreshwar temple in Panauti
Some more scenes from Panauti museum and town

In the evening, after our tour of Panauti, splashing through the small village roads that had been turned into slush by the rains, we helped our hostess make aloo parathas for dinner.

Helping our hostess prepare aloo parathas for dinner

We also learned about her life and about CommunityHomestay.com, an organisation that is helping women in Nepal empower themselves by earning an income hosting travellers in their homes.

Read more: How Community Homestays Are Empowering Women In Nepal

The next day, on the way back to Kathmandu, the rains played havoc with our plans to visit the Namobuddha Monastery by turning the roads into a swamp. Afraid that our bus would get stuck in the mud, we turned back and returned to Kathmandu without seeing the shrine.

Road turned to slush on the way to Namobuddha Monastery

The same evening we were treated to an authentic Nepali Dinner Reception at the  Bhojan Griha restaurant, a 150-year-old heritage building which housed the late Royal Priest of the King of Nepal.

It was hosted by Mr Bharat Basnet, founder of The Explore Nepal group. We tried the local rice wine (potent stuff!) and the food was prepared from local organic sources grown on their own farm.

Nepali rice wine was served in these little cups

My favourite dish was a delicately-flavoured mushroom preparation whose name I didn’t get. Our food experience was enhanced by folk dances of Nepal performed vigorously by local dancers.

In the next few posts, I discuss the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018, that began the day after our hosted dinner. More detailed posts coming on Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Panauti, too. Subscribe to receive them in your inbox.
Also read:

Walking With Elephants: A Visit To Wildlife SOS In Mathura

I could smell the musty scent of the red earth. There was no breeze and it was a few hours before sunset. With every step that Maya and Phoolkali took, small fragments of earth flew up leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

The dust settled on my clothes, my skin, my hair. I walked beside Maya, patting her trunk with the palm of my hand as gently as I could.

She was tall and statuesque, one of the most friendly and photogenic elephants at the Wildlife SOS’ Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC) in Mathura.

My child, Elijah, flanked her other side, feeding her bananas every few steps or so. At one point, Maya stepped off the path as if intending to go a different way. Elijah gently guided her back, tempting her with her favourite treats.

“A mahout-in-training,” proclaimed the mahout who accompanied and filmed us while walking backwards, which was quite a feat.

Phoolkali, the other elephant, was a few steps behind us. We walked for almost an hour. The ellies needed their evening exercise. It was tiring, yet exhilarating.

It was nothing less than a privilege and humbling, to have walked beside these majestic beings and connected with them in a way that not many humans get to experience.

A connection that was natural, not forced. Born of mutual respect, not pain or fear. In an environment where they were loved and cherished, by people who had rescued them from horrific circumstances and given them the care they deserved.

No more would they have to take humans on rides, suffer undignified performances in a circus, be prodded with bullhooks, imprisoned in chains, or forced to stand in solitary confinement, deprived of the company of other friendly elephants, living their lives in pain and neglect.

At the ECCC, their physical and emotional scars can heal at last. They are lovingly bathed, fed their favourite treats, smell the sweet scent of freedom, and enjoy the company of a herd of friendly elephants in huge pens (to keep them from wandering off to the human settlements nearby).

https://youtu.be/4F2-FlWs5UE

They can sleep on the soft earth, play in a pool built just for them and live a life of comfort and dignity.

Why I Wanted To Visit Wildlife SOS

I first heard about the organisation when I watched its co-founder, Kartick Satyanaran’s TED Talk on how Wildlife SOS launched and successfully implemented a campaign to rescue every “dancing” bear in India.

 

I grew up in India at a time when we would, quite often, see dancing bears on the roads and never think twice about how much torture and suffering they must have endured becoming a source of entertainment for us ignorant humans.

So, I was touched by the efforts that Wildlife SOS had made to put an end to this cruel, centuries-old practice. Even better, they achieved this without punishing the practitioners – the Kalandar community – and instead, helped them find alternative sources of livelihood via the Kalandar Rehabilitation Program.

I started donating a small amount to Wildlife SOS every month – my way of assuaging the guilt I felt about the cruelty with which my species had treated these blameless creatures for centuries.

I remember visiting circuses that exhibited wild animals as a child and felt ashamed of it, even though I was a child and knew no better at the time.

According to The Dodo, there are some 3,500 captive elephants in India and the majority of them are used for elephant rides by Western tourists.

They are kept in deplorable conditions: Walking on hot, tar roads. Trained with spiked chains and “ankush” (bullhooks). No veterinary care. Dehydration, cracked feet and abscesses. Being shackled for long periods in the heat.

But, when you know better, you do better. In the internet era, there’s no excuse for ignorance. Animal cruelty is a complete no-no today.

We’re part of a more aware and enlightened society than that of our grandparents, and it’s up to us to undo some of the damage and the cruel practices that continue till today in some parts of the world. If you love elephants, refuse to ride them or watch them perform.

Getting To The ECCC

It was in November 2016 that we visited the ECCC at Mathura, about 57 kilometres from Agra. As a visitor, Wildlife SOS can help arrange transport to and from Agra, as long as you let them know in advance.

Reaching the ECCC in Mathura

Of course, you must pay for it. As a charitable organisation, they cannot offer freebies. They also provide accommodation in Agra, but I learned that only after I’d booked my trip.

At the ECCC, visitors get to meet the elephants, learn their stories and the circumstances they were rescued from, help with bathing them and, like we did, accompany them on their evening walk.

When I followed Wildlife SOS on Facebook, I read about their efforts to rescue every circus elephant in India, and to create a “Field Of Dreams.”

This large swathe of land nearby has a wide river flowing through it and is surrounded by thickets and trees where every elephant can roam freely and live in as natural an environment as possible. But the funding to purchase the land is lacking.

Meeting The Elephants

As we entered and signed in, we could see the elephants in their enclosures. I had known the names they were given – Suzy, Sita, Rhea, Peanut, Coconut, Lakhi, Asha, Raju – from the posts on the Wildlife SOS Facebook page. They already felt like familiar friends, but I was going to get to know them better.

From the left – Suzy, Peanut, Lakhi, Asha, sleeping Coconut

We met Chanchal, who was rescued in June 2012, after she got into a terrible road accident in Noida.  She was severely injured with bruises on her body and a cut on her right knee.  She was unable to bend one knee possibly due to a ligament tear.

Initially, she would keep to herself and wouldn’t even interact with the other elephants. It took her approximately a year to get over her traumatic experience as a begging elephant and get comfortable with her new found freedom.

Chanchal getting a bath

Chanchal means “mischievous” and she certainly lives up to her name with her daily antics, winning hearts every day.  Around 21 years old, she loves playing in the water and spends a lot of time throwing mud on herself.

Over the years, she has formed a close bond with another Ellie called Bijli and together they enjoy munching on fruits and treats and going on long walks around the centre. While we were watching the mahouts lovingly bathe and scrub down Chanchal, Maya came up to inspect me with her trunk.

Maya was rescued in November 2010, from a circus where she was forced to work for entertainment and then chained at the end of the day. When she first arrived at ECCC, Maya was really underfed and withdrawn. Possibly the most heart-warming part of Maya’s recovery was her socialization with Phoolkali.

Today, 42-year old Maya is a happy and healthy elephant, enjoying her new life of freedom. She has a peaceful demeanour that can put anyone near her at ease and is best friends with the equally regal Phoolkali.

Maya is a tall, friendly and beautiful elephant.

We also met Sita, who was rescued in November 2015 after nearly five decades in captivity. She was riddled with severe and chronic ailments, such as painfully damaged footpads and cuticles with severe abscesses, and to make it worse, had severe psychological trauma.

Sita was nearly 60 years old and her pitiable condition was a testament to her years of mishandling and improper care.

Sita suffered a fracture during her time in captivity

Her preliminary veterinary assessment on arrival at ECCC showed that she was suffering from a condition known as ankylosis in the joints of both her forelimbs, one of which had incurred a fracture during her time in captivity, and that had never been allowed to heal.

Because of these problems, she was not able to lie down and rest properly in more than a year. At the ECCC, Sita had a chance to ease the stress on her legs by lounging in the pool and getting regular pedicures and foot care. When we met her, she was enjoying a foot bath with epsom salts and intensive treatment for her feet.

In April 2017, Sita passed away. I was glad to have met her and known that she received the love and care she so deserved in her senior years.

Most of the elephants we saw, in fact, had severe injuries when they came to the ECCC, and were still being treated for all sorts of problems, the most common being abscesses in their feet after being forced to stand on hard ground without any rest for long periods, or from walking on hot, tar roads.

We also met Rhea, a former circus elephant who was trapped along with Sita and another elephant called Mia, under miserable conditions – a sisterhood strengthened only further by their shared experiences of pain. They were reunited at the ECCC in April 2016, and Rhea began her journey to recovery.

54-year old Rhea was riddled with ailments. Her feet were in atrocious conditions, with deep painful cracks running through her swollen soles. Her nails were cracked and her cuticles overgrown, evidence of the neglect she had been subjected to all those years.

Rhea was reunited with Sita and Mia at the ECCC

In the days since her rescue, Rhea’s spirit won the hearts of everyone at ECCC, and she slowly began making friends with her keepers and the other elephants. She is especially fond of her neighbours, Maya and Phoolkali, and often stands squeaking at them while eating her meal of green fodder.

But the ellies that stole my heart were Peanut and Coconut, the babies of the “nut herd”, who we caught munching on their sugarcane.

The babies of the herd – Peanut (Left) and Coconut (Right)

In April 2015, Wildlife SOS rescued four elephants from a circus in Maharashtra. Called Macadamia, Walnut, Coconut and Peanut, the “nut herd” had suffered for years as performing elephants.

When they were not being exploited for the amusement of the circus audience, they were made to spend long hours standing in filth and restrained painfully by tight ropes around their legs.

Today, 8-year old Peanut and 14-year old Coconut have made remarkable progress. Both of them are absolute delights to watch as they follow the other big elephants around the facility, occasionally poking at them playfully with their trunks.

https://youtu.be/XUbKKpDyd7w

They are part of Asha’s adoptive herd and, being the youngest, received immense love and care from the older elephants. Peanut loves keeping everyone on their toes with her energy and excitement. She runs around, tosses about her tyre and spends hours playing in the pool.

Coconut spends her time gorging on delicious fruit treats, playing with hanging enrichments feeders, going on long walks and lounging in her pool with Peanut.

The Agra Bear Rescue Facility

After a rewarding afternoon watching the mahouts bathe and feed the elephants, we visited Wildlife SOS’s  Agra Bear Rescue Facility, the largest Sloth Bear Rescue Facility in the world.

Sloth Bear sleeping peacefully in the shade

Established in 1999, it currently houses around 200 sloth bears, and other species of wildlife, in large forested enclosures with ponds and shady trees. You can contact Wildlife SOS for a personal guided experience at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility.

Right now Wildlife SOS has over 20 elephants, 300 bears, and 30 leopards that depend on them every day. Having donors gives them the confidence to know that they can feed them and meet their medical needs well into the future. You can donate to Wildlife SOS and support their work.

Volunteering With Wildlife SOS

If you volunteer with Wildlife SOS, you’ll have the unique opportunity to work alongside these incredible animals and the people who care for them.

You’ll get to spend a few days enjoying the opportunity to put up hammocks and enrichments for the bears, visit with the elephants, and help with their feeding or with giving them a bath.

In addition, you’ll get to stay in a beautiful area of the sanctuary and the fees you pay for your stay and accommodation go directly to the Centre, providing a critical source of funding for future work.

Imagine the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to make a positive impact on their lives. What more could a responsible tourist ask for?

Find out who else offers ethical elephant experiences in Asia.

 

Destination Agonda Beach: A Backpackers Paradise In Goa

A panoramic view of Agonda Beach in Canacona, South Goa

I first went to Agonda beach in 1991, when there was not a soul or shack on the beach. At the time, I was studying at Goa University at Taleigao Plateau, doing a Masters in Marine Biotechnology.

I was staying in the hostel at the University campus and set out for Palolem beach in Canacona with a bunch of other hostelites and a local, Raju, who became a close friend of mine (he passed away a year ago, bless his soul).

He was a baker who lived near St. Inez church in Panjim and loved being our tour guide, showing us new places and restaurants to the detriment of his own business (and the chagrin of his doting parents).

Via Palolem En Route To Agonda

We were planning to spend the night with a friend of Raju’s at Palolem, so we took the bus to Margao and caught another bus to Canacona bus stand. From there we walked to Palolem, where Raju’s friends, the Gaitondes lived. Long walks were no challenge to us young girls, charged up with the eagerness of youth and the desire to explore.

Goa University Hostelites, on Palolem Beach in 1991

As this was in December, the Gaitonde’s Palolem Tent Resort was full. So we had to adjust our expectations for decent lodging. A few of the girls slept at the Gaitonde’s home, while the more adventurous ones, I included, settled for a changing tent on the beach, where we shivered on the cold December sands.

Posing on Palolem beach – Land Ahoy! That’s me in Raju’s oversized leather jacket.

In 1991, Palolem was not yet overrun by tourists. And Agonda, 12 kilometres away, was completely undiscovered. The next morning, we hired a bunch of cycles and set out for Agonda.

We had to cycle over steep, hill climbs, sometimes preferring to get off and walk instead. A few hours later, we reached this pristine beach with nary a shack in sight. The only habitation was the fishing village nearby.

Agonda Beach is between Cola and Palolem beach in Canacona, Goa

After a few delightful hours spent at this unspoiled paradise, we set off back for Palolem and then took a bus back to our hostel. The next day, our bodies ached from all the cycling, but we made some warm, fun memories that have served me well until today.

My second visit to Agonda was many years later when there was just a single shack on the beach. In the last couple of years, I have gone there almost every New Year’s Eve.

My doggie, Simba, playing on Agonda Beach years ago

Agonda Today: A Haven For Backpackers

On my third visit, a couple of years ago, I found that the place had changed tremendously with lots of options for lodging and boarding. Thankfully, there are no five-star hotels there just yet – just basic beach resorts, homestays or rooms let out by locals and many excellent restaurants and eateries on the beach.

So many little resorts at Agonda Beach

One of my favourite beach restaurants is Agonda Sunset, run by a bunch of friendly and really sweet Nepali guys. The food here was tasty and reasonably priced. My favourite dish was the chicken schnitzel and I enjoyed whiling away the evening sipping on the ginger honey lemon tea.

Chicken schnitzel, my favourite dish at Agonda Sunset
Love the Ginger Lemon Honey tea too

Every time I visit, I look for accommodation within walking distance of this beach shack. In 2015, when we were in Goa for a family reunion, I stayed at Wave On Waves, which is just opposite Agonda Sunset.

Wave On Waves opposite my favourite beach shack Agonda Sunset

If you’re willing to shell out more for authentic Italian food, try La Dolce Vita, for its Italian pizzas made in a wood-fired oven. I found them too pricey and didn’t much care for them.

Try La Dolce Vita for authentic Italian cuisine
Pizza at La Dolce Vita

If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll love the fact that Agonda is awash with Wifi connections. No matter where you stay – in the little resorts, homestays and the beach shacks – you can settle down and log on to the internet, and even get some work done if you’re so inclined.

Imagine working with a view like this…

The one thing you won’t get here is a pharmacist, so carry all your medicines when you go, because you’re unlikely to get anything except Himalaya Herbal products, and the nearest town’s an hour’s drive away.

Despite all this development, this South Goa beach is still one of the most peaceful, picturesque and relaxing beaches in Goa, far away from the madness of North Goa beaches like Baga, Calangute and Anjuna.

I would even recommend it over Palolem, which is now too commercial for my liking. It seems to be quite popular with foreign tourists and backpackers, and the Indian tourists are mostly families.

I took a boat trip in this little fishing vessel

Only once did we see a bunch of Indian guys behaving obnoxiously with a couple of foreign women in the water, upon which a local came along, reproached them and promptly kicked them out. Otherwise, it’s relatively free of the obnoxious and badly-behaved tourists you find on North Goan beaches.

The water is clean and clear, and the swimming is great here. The large waves also make it a haven for surfers. I highly recommend the dolphin watching trips which also take you on an excursion to secret beaches – Butterfly Beach and Honeymoon beach – that can only be reached by boat.

You can see why it’s called Butterfly Beach

I took a boat trip from Agonda to see the secret beaches, situated between Palolem and Agonda. On the way, there were some interesting rock formations like Turtle Rock. The secret beaches are tiny, isolated and quite charming, and this is a trip worth taking if you’re staying at Agonda.

No prizes for guessing why it’s called Turtle Rock

I actually hesitated to write this destination review about Agonda beach, Goa, because so few people know about this South Goa beach, and I loathe the idea of more people discovering it (especially the obnoxious tourists).

Luckily most of the party-goers prefer to stay in North Goa where the party scene is, so I head in the opposite direction, to South Goa. The beaches are better, the water is cleaner and the people are better behaved.

The sunsets at Agonda are sublime

If you do go to Agonda, please be a responsible tourist and let it remain lovely and peaceful. If you’re looking to party or want a rocking nightlife, stay north of the Mandovi. Don’t come here and screw it up for the rest of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlgwPfmPXcY

Update: Agonda beach was voted #1 among the Top 25 Beaches in India & Asia and #18 among the World’s Top 25 Beaches in TripAdvisor’s 2018 Traveller’s Choice Awards. Damn! Here come the tourist hordes.  🙁

All photos (except the Google Map) are © Priya Florence Shah.