Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Strange Places Feel Like Home

Two months ago, I had this momentous epiphany that I should be giving up the apartment, my belongings, a stable base and live out of a backpack. I gave my two months notice to the house owner, packed up my stuff and made plans to call the road home. And the first place I wanted to go back to, as a nomad, was a strange place that was never comfortable, always had great adventures in store for me and felt like another planet to someone who comes from the land of bright tropical sunshine - Ladakh!

Leh Palace in Winter
Leh Palace, glowing on a winter morning
I always thought, as a wandering soul at heart, I would never want to call one place home. But here in Ladakh, every single time I arrive, I feel at home. Including last month’s journey, I’ve been here five times already - thrice in summers and twice in winters! I returned this time thinking I’ll be back again coming summer. I often wonder, how is it that a place can call out to me again and again, and again?

But what makes a place feel like home? 
Familiarity? Probably. 
Novelty? Certainly not!

The first time I arrived in Ladakh, it was like novelty hit me in the gut and assaulted my senses ceaselessly. I never knew Himalayas were so dry, muddy and so majestic. The oxygen deprivation was a completely new sensation altogether and the proximity to sky-high mountains was inexplicably nostalgic - having grown up in plains, those were memories probably from my past life.

It was here in these mountains that I first experienced freedom in its purest form. Sitting on the banks of a solitary Pangong, then untainted by the consumerist hogwash, I felt like I arrived at the end of the world. Except for a handful of vehicles, the disastrous human touch was delightfully absent and the untarnished natural beauty of the blue lake was mine and only mine to savour. It’s been 7 years since I first set foot in this enchanted land, I’ve seen the place change over the years - from blissful desolateness to pitiful commercialization. I’ve seen the place grow, I’ve explored it’s nooks and corners - I’ve gone from the marshlands of Chushul to the tribes of Dah Hanu, reached scintillating heights of Stok Kangri to freezing depths of Chadar. I’ve followed the trail of a Snow Leopard and watched dozens of Kiangs(Wild Asses) run amok across the cold desert. Every time I’m here, a sense of belonging and a rush of familiarity washes me over. 

Flowers around Hemis Monastery
Flowers on the way to Hemis Monastery
I do not live here, but I see a friendly face on every corner. I did not grow up here, but there’s always someone who recognizes me here. I do not belong here, but my body adjusts perfectly fine to the high altitudes & freezing temperatures here. My mind - it takes flight here! There is something in these hills that reminds me of a place called home, that was never mine to begin with. 

Last January, when I was worried sick about walking on Chadar(it’s a frozen river for god’s sake, which can break anytime!), I completed the trek without any incident. Our guide said, this was a rare occurance that we finished the trek without any weather related trouble or the need to wade barefoot through freezing waters. This year, when I went back, Ladakh welcomed me with a warm heart in the dead of winter by showing me its colorful festival welcoming summers! Feels like Ladakh takes care of me, always. 

Dosmoche Festival
Dosmoche Festival, marking the beginning of summer
How many times have we made silent promises that we’ll be back somewhere and how many times have we actually gone back? With Ladakh, I go back every single time I make that promise. I’ve been to thousand other places since my journey started at Ladakh and till today Ladakh is one of the very few places that truly feels like home - oxygen deprivation, lack of greenery and freezing temperatures notwithstanding! Sometimes the strangest of places feel like home and perhaps the magic lies exactly in not knowing why. 

Ladakh is my strange beloved place I can call home, what’s yours?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

You don't have to Quit your Job to Travel! Here's why.

With all the “How I quit my job to Travel” stories (mine included) floating around in the web world, it might be easy to think that quitting job is the only possible way to travel. But that’s a far cry from reality and definitely not a pre-requisite to travel the world!

Camping in the Steppes of Mongolia
I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list! - Susan Sontag 

Quitting your full time job sounds like a fancy proposition but the hard truth is it is not as glamorous as it sounds. There’s the possibility of a lot of travel but there’s a lot of work involved as well. You have the freedom but you don’t have the luxury of a big chunk of disposable income anymore. In the end, it’s all about making a choice.

Both the situations have their pros and cons. I have travelled a lot over the past few years – with a job in hand and without one over the past few months. I have experienced both sides of the coin and certainly have missed few things from my cubicle days. The thing is, when most of us quit our jobs to travel, we find another work. Travel is not an escape from work and it isn’t supposed to be.

So, unless you have found another way to make money and pay your bills, traveling with a job in hand can actually be quite amazing. With some good planning, you can travel a lot! I once met a German guy who worked as a teacher, a profession that gave him enough long vacations (summer, winter, Christmas etc) during which he used to travel to many countries every single year. And every few years, he used to find work in a different country allowing him to explore that part of the world while he was posted there. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Here’s the story of another friend who goes on crazy adventures across the world and he does it all with the help of his corporate job and some kickass planning. As we speak, he’s already making plans to overland across Central Asia and visit one of the least visited places, Socotra Island this year. In the last 2 years, he’s been on the Trans-Siberian journey, wreck-dived in Bali, ice-dived in Russia, went on the highest and longest train journey in the world from China to Tibet and visited about 20 odd countries.

Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth!
Anshul Chaurasia tells you why having a job to travel the world is just as awesome.

Being in a full time job and managing travel is very much possible. The easier way to understand is to take this up job as the source of funds and travel as the main passion. Secondly one needs to be very proactive in planning. Just like managers plan projects months in advance and have a pipeline, one can plan their travel well in advance. I have nothing against impromptu vacations, but things like international travel, cheap airfare deals, and visa issues are handled well if you have proper timeline. Think, three-four week long holidays abroad/in India as big projects that need planning and small weekend holidays as ad-hoc deliverables that need shorter planning. Also saving up money becomes easier when you have a timeline - book tickets in first month, hotels next month, visas as early as the specific consulate allows, and the Forex in the month you would be travelling. Also informing at one's employer 3-4 months before the travel helps since managers can manage dependencies easily then. This becomes a major hurdle for last minute holidays.

For example I planned a trip to Bali more than a year in advance as I got Bangalore - Bali return fares for as low as 8000 INR in an AirAsia sale. Also be a big hound for cheap airfares deals, once that is done rest of the things can be taken care of easily.

It would be wrong if I don't accept that the thought to quit my current job and do something more conducive to travel industry - like a writer, scuba trainer etc has not come in my mind. But then a stable well paying job gives one the luxury to plan costly destinations, borrow money from people since you can return them next month, use credit cards without much thought, and above all a stable revenue stream is hard to give up.

I did try a short 2.5 months trip this year, which spanned 26,000 Kms of overland travel across Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and Nepal and was able to get Leave of Absence from office (unpaid, naturally). But the peace of mind one gets because there is a job waiting back cannot be compared to if I had to quit and search another job after coming back. Best part is that I told them the real reason and after much convincing they were in support of it.

I think this if fine as travel does a lot of broadening of one's perspectives and if their parents can fund their travel I would say they should definitely try it for few months at least. In west, many people do it taking student loans after college end. But then getting a job makes one value every single rupee earned and then one becomes a conscious traveler as they are spending their own hard-earned money.

The mantra is don’t think your job will be the driving force in your life, you would have to find that force yourself. If travel is that force, then use whatever fuel you can get to keep it running.

So, there it is! Don’t think quitting your job is the only way to travel. Despite the fact that I love the freedom of not having a desk job, I won’t be able to take any big adventures at this moment. I will not sugarcoat it. I do not make that kind of money anymore. And I do not regret it either. I made that choice because along with travel, I also wanted to change my career. However, if you love your job or have other commitments or have money and time at your current job, there's no need to quit to travel! Keep the money and travel well. In the end it’s all about using the resources available to you in the best possible way to travel.

Have you thought of quitting your job to travel?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Inside Scoop on How Awesome my Life has been since I Quit my Job (& exciting news)

Quite frankly, much of it sucked!
(Well not entirely, but you'll know what I mean after you've read this post. 
Somewhere in the Steppes of Mongolia
With great power comes great responsibility and that's what has happened to me. I finally earned my freedom last year but as always with many good things, it was easier to achieve freedom than holding on to it! During the last few months I learned it requires a lot of self discipline to make freelancing work for you. And as it turns out, the queen of procrastination(me) wasn't ready to change her languorous ways despite the lure of an adventurous future. I won't elaborate on the practicalities of freelance life here, that's for another day but safe to say, it's twice as tough and half as glamorous.

When I was working in a full time corporate job, I used to wake up at 5 in the morning and file stories or pitch ideas before heading to work. I used to hole myself up in my home office over weekends working over ideas, stories and images. I thought if I could do so well with a full time job at hand, I imagined the moment I quit I would pick up new publications to write for and type thousands of words and process Gigabytes of images.

In reality, all I did was watch many of the epic TV series I missed out over the past years where I traveled or slogged to get my foot into travel writing industry. I had resisted the temptation for so long, to watch Game of Thrones or Sherlock even as my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with spoilers and praises day after day. But in the first few days after I quit where I found myself waking up to days with so set agenda and full of "free" time, all my resolution shattered into pieces. I missed out on pop culture for way too long that I binge-watched series to my heart's content. I watched Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Homeland, House of Cards, Castle and several hundred reruns of F.R.I.E.N.D.S in the last 6 months. I took delightful afternoon naps on cold winter days of Bangalore. I woke up in no hurry, enjoyed several cups of instant coffee(I make horrible coffee btw) and thanked my stars a million times that I have escaped the wretched Bangalore Traffic!

While I don't entirely regret lazing around(after 7 years of corporate life, I think I deserve 6 months of doing nothing), it hurts that I wasn't at least half as productive as I wanted to be. Work and travel wise, it was good. I traveled a lot in the 6 months since I quit (Bhutan, Mongolia, Macao, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand, Sahyadris, Punjab, Western Ghats). I broke into dream publications and have been writing feature stories for leading magazines but I know I haven't even scratched the surface - of neither my ability nor the stories locked up in my mind. I haven't even started working on Mongolia stories yet or pictures and it's been 4 months since I got back!

I got so comfortable returning to my home in Bangalore that I passed up on many opportunities. Renting a place even after I quit didn't make sense considering I wanted to be a nomad in first place, but this was a new low. I preferred to stay here instead of chasing new adventures. That was the trigger that jolted me out of my slothful stupor, something was definitely going wrong. I found myself waiting for opportunities rather than creating them. And that's when I decided enough is enough. I now need to shake things up a bit and get out of this comfortable shell I've created for myself in Bangalore. I needed to move away from the distractions of lightning quick & unlimited internet. When the internet is so limited in hinterlands where I plan to be, I'm sure I'll be focussed on finishing the work at hand and shutting down the laptop because *slow internet*.  It's time to move far out of my comfort zone because we all know where magic happens!

To that end, I am finally moving out of Bangalore - a backpack, a laptop and my camera in tow, I will now be calling the road home! Come February, I will be embarking on this new adventure and I don't know where I'm heading yet. I know this will make me very very uncomfortable but I've collected/sold most stories from the trips that scared the shit out of me. If this decision is making me nervous, it's a good thing. The fear and uncertainty will keep me on my toes and push me to do much more than I am currently doing. And worst case scenario, if I continue to be just as lazy, I might as well be lazy in a place with a view! ;)
My New Year resolution is to be more adventurous, climb more mountains, spend more time outdoors and return to the kind of crazy trips that drew you all to my blog to begin with. 2015 will be year where I'll happily embrace discomfort in return for an epic story. 
What's your resolution for 2015?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

To the far East, In the Land of Rising Sun - Arunachal Pradesh

Quick! What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think Arunachal?
Is it Tawang? It is Madhuri Lake/Jung Falls? Or is it Sela Pass? (Tell me in the comments)

My memory always served me exactly those places whenever I thought of Arunachal, thanks to the numerous & hackneyed lists that have inundated our virtual world. I knew there had to be more, much more to Arunachal, unexplored and exotic but I just didn't know what that might be. So when I saw images of long bamboo bridges spanning across clear green rivers, mountains covered in lush greenery instead of ugly gashes of development and small villages entirely comprised of thatched roofs houses set high on mountain slopes, I knew I was onto something exotic here.

Arunachal Pradesh
Arunachal - Land of Rising Sun
And Arunachal didn't disappoint, not even a teensy bit! I traveled to this remote corner, mere 29kms from China border, where you'd hardly find any other travellers (notice how I didn't say tourists. Yep, a tourist would never find his way here). I traveled with a responsible tourism company called Kipepeo which places heavy emphasis on local and authentic travel experiences, on a 10 day trip called Magical Mechuka. Here's a glimpse of how Arunachal stole my heart and reinforced my belief that there's no place as exotic as Northeast in India!

Those exotic forests and the endless mountains!

My first foray into Northeast was Nagaland. Having heard so much about this area's natural beauty and indigenous people, I had imagined a land full of undisturbed forests and colorful people. The latter didn't disappoint, but the forests I had come to envision didn't exist. Instead of dense impenetrable forests, barren mountain slopes full of ravaged agricultural land welcomed me. Only a year later in Meghalaya, when I totally went off the beaten path, I found those hidden protected forests that I had dreamt of.

But here in Arunachal, the moment we crossed the Assam border at Likabali into West Siang District, it was clear this large state shelters untouched jungles full of creepers and giant trees. Over the next few days, we barely had mobile signal(even bsnl doesn't work fully) and it was nothing but a delight to be in the lap of pristine wilderness. The view like that of the image below was a common sight - lush greenery, winding rivers and endless mountains!

Arunachal Pradesh
Endless mountains and dense forests of Arunachal
Then there are villages, tiny villages sitting pretty on the mountain slopes surrounded by this dense greenery. The entire villages would only have thatched roof houses built traditionally on stilts. There are no roads to reach these villages, you'd have to hike. The views surrounding them would be breathtaking, needless to say. The village boundaries would be marked by wooden fences complete with dreamcatchers sort of hoops to keep the evil out. In those pretty villages, live such naughty kids playing in the mud and running with the wind.

Arunachal Pradesh
Children goofing around in an Adi Minyong Village
Arunachal, is blessed!

100 % Natural and Organic Living

In the heart of Arunachal Pradesh, we spent few days in and around a little town called Along situated on the banks of a meandering Siom River. Around this town were resplendent hills scattered with picturesque villages of the Adi Minyong Tribe. One afternoon, after hiking to several of their villages we arrived at a field for a traditional lunch of the Adi tribe. Seated on cane stools, we had fish and rice cooked in bamboo hollows, served on banana leaves. The chutney was a mix of ground red chilli and ginger. We drank the local rice wine, Apong, served in the bamboo hollows as seen in the picture below. All of this, while we sat around a the fire (yeah, it gets cold & dark soon in NE) in the middle of a field surrounded by a ring of mountains! This was by far, the most organic and sustainably sourced/cooked meal I ever had. 

Arunachal Pradesh
Apong, a local rice wine that tastes sweet and is delicious. Served in Bamboo hollows.
Oranges grow in abundance in West Siang district. There were orange orchards everywhere and we could practically pluck a fruit from the tree almost anywhere we wanted. Over the 10 days, we ODed on these all-natural, chemical-free, delicious citrus fruit. It's a different kind of high, eating a fruit straight from the orchard. And many of the bridges in remote Arunachal are still old school and incredibly fun! We found ourselves walking on a super shaky bamboo bridge spanning a quarter of a kilometer over Siang River near Along. The walk on this bridge was as adventurous as it was marvellous.

Orange orchards are everywhere in West Siang District. (Left) The 250m wide hanging bamboo bridge connecting Pangin village to Along side over Siang River.(Right)
At the end of it, I couldn't help but marvel at the Adi Minyong Tribe's resourceful and sustainable lifestyle that has evolved over centuries perhaps. 

Gate-crashing a local wedding and getting drunk on local liquor

One of those travel situations that can happen only when your lucky stars perfectly align happened to us on this trip in Mechuka. We stalked a bride, gate crashed their wedding yet we were welcomed with open arms and warm smiles. They kept serving local Millet Beer and refused to let our cups go empty. The wedding itself was quite fascinating, and we were given full access to the intimate prayers and customs of their traditional wedding.

Arunachal Pradesh
Welcome party, groom's side. That's Millet beer in the tray.
Earlier that day, while visiting a local village, few of us saw a group of women in traditional attire standing by the roadside to welcome a party. When we inquired, we were told they are the groom's side and are waiting for the bride to arrive. As soon as we heard this, we pestered our local guide to arrange for us to get invited to the wedding. After finding out the bride's location, we rushed towards her village only to encounter the wedding convoy on the way. We chased the wedding party, overtook them and reached the women standing on the roadside hoping to score an invitation. The trick worked, we were invited to be part of their celebrations!

Arunachal Pradesh
Wedding ritual of the Memba Tribe of Mechuka
It was an unplanned event and took up most of our day but we were more than happy to be part of a stranger's wedding and get high on the millet beer, talk about authentic local experience!

Raging rivers and roaring cascades

When you have such dense forests and such deep valleys, raging rivers and roaring cascades are a given! We had the pleasure of following the Siom River from Along all the way up to its source in Mechuka, where it is called Yargyap Chu. The road always snaked along with the river because of which gorgeous views were abound, forcing me to stop several hundred times to take pictures. On the last day, here at Pangin, we sat at the edge of a cliff watching the Siom River(right) meet the mighty Siang River(left) that goes on to become the super mighty Brahmaputra downstream.

Arunachal Pradesh
Where Siom meets Siang, at Pangin in West Siang District
The mountain sides along the entire route from Along to Mechuka were lined with several waterfalls, some falling gently in several steps from great heights into the valley below and some gushing through the rock faces only to half disappear into thin air. Either way, it was pleasurable company to have. But the biggest and baddest of all had to be this Siko Dido Falls, few kilometers before Mechuka. What you see in the picture was exactly half of the entire height of the falls, and the mist that rose from the forceful drop was so cold that it was hard for me to take a steady picture even; I was shivering!

Arunachal Pradesh
Siko Dido Waterfalls!
Back again on the Bramhaputra
We started our journey into this wild land by crossing over the monster of a river, Bramhaputra. My excitement was hardly contained as I was about to set foot into yet another state of the unexplored Seven Sisters. Rarely do expectations which you have built up in your mind match reality, but that's the thing about Arunachal. It's not a regular place. It's a special place where nature gods still thrive and our only hope is it continues to be so. For such pristine wilderness is hard to come by! As we crossed over Brahmaputra after 10 days to return to reality, the skies turned pensive reflecting my own thoughts - marveling at how exotic northeast truly is yet sad that it would take me ages to explore this enchanted land.

Arunachal Pradesh
Crossing the Brahmaputra on a stormy day

So why do I recommend Kipepeo?
Firstly, I support the company's ideology - sustainable tourism and community development by involvement. Plus, I like it that Kipepeo works in an ignored part of the country that has so much potential, northeast! Over the 10 days we spent in Arunachal, we always had a local guide with us which worked well for both of us. Especially in a place as remote as Arunachal, this was a game-changer. We gatecrashed local wedding, learnt about spies sent to Tibet and had our fill of Apong and warm Adi hospitality - none of this would've been possible without the local connections. 

Secondly, Piran, the founder of Kipepeo has been working and traveling extensively in North East since his early volunteering experience here that gave birth to the idea of this company. He knows the place very well and if not, he has enough contacts who can help him with such offbeat/exploratory visits. 

Have a look at the 2015 Calendar and you'll be spoilt for choices! No really, go have a look. 
Join their Facebook page for heads-up on future events. 

Note: This trip was sponsored by Kipepeo but as always, opinions are mine!

More Adventures from Northeast:
MeghalayaGoing Offbeat in Meghalaya & Learning Interesting Things
NagalandKonyaks - The tattooed Headhunters of Nagaland

The Epic Indian Landscapes 2015 Calendar Sale is still on, extended it due to the excellent response(Dear readers, Thank you for this!). Take a look and order your copy if you like what you see! :) 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Epic Indian Landscapes - 2015 Calendar

12 epic images from remote corners that showcase the incredible variety and beauty of Indian Landscapes!
(Sale closed) 
From the dense jungles of Meghalaya to the salt flats of Rann of Kutch and from Aquamarine Glacial Lakes of Himalayas to winding rivers through Western Ghats, this calendar features some of my best work. To maximize viewing pleasure, I opted to print them big - in A4 and A3 sizes.

So where are the epic images? Here!
(Click on the image to enlarge)

Ready to order now?

For lack of a better eCommerce solution, I'm selling the calendars as an event through doAttend. You'll buy the calendar as a ticket but good news is it supports all modes of payment - Credit Card, Debit Card and Net Banking. Pay the amount, enter your shipping details and you'll have a bright new calendar headed your way in few days. The packages will be shipped in last week of December.

Place your order here : 

(For Sample design & International Shipping see below)

If you love Indian Landscapes as much as I do, or have a serious case of wanderlust, I think you'll enjoy this. Besides, it'll brighten up your workspace and hopefully your day! :)

A4 size, 11" x 8" Desktop Calendar (Sample)
Price - Rs. 950/- 

A3 size, 16" x 11" Hanging Wall Calendar (Sample)
Price -Rs. 1250/-

Free shipping, anywhere in India.
Printed on FSC Certified High Quality Paper, sourced responsibly and sustainably.
Read more on FSC Certification here

Now you know what was my secret to maintaining sanity and keeping myself motivated back when I was working in a cubicle! ;) (6 months ago, I quit!) I used to print one every year using my pictures and it was my escape into wonderland during the dreary office hours. The pictures either reminded me of adventures that were had or of adventures waiting to happen.

If any you amazing people have a corporate offer, do drop me a mail to discuss. As a freelancer with no steady income, I'll be happy beyond belief to get a bulk order! :)

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