Twenty seven-year-old advertising professional Dhwani Ganjawala took a six-month sabbatical in 2014. With no plans or itineraries in place, she went with the proverbial flow. That involved backpacking across Europe, sometimes sleeping on beaches and in cars, trying her hand at organic farming in the Cotswolds, England, and living among villagers in Maharashtra. After the exhilarating experience, she couldn’t imagine going back to her old job or living a humdrum life. So she quit.
This year, Ganjawala launched Take That Sabbatical — a travel and experiential service — and declared herself its ‘chief wanderer’. Whether your holidays span a mere five days or go up to six months, Take That Sabbatical will have it arranged. Its trips, divided into categories — mind, body and spirit — include cycling trails in Rajasthan, kitesurfing in Rameswaram, and kayaking on the Ganges.
And it is not the only service offering travellers a slice of local culture over a five-days-six-nights travel deal. Companies such as Caribou Drift, Journeys with Meaning, Grassroutes Journeys and White Collar Hippie all promise trips that will transform you as a person. After all, you aren’t checking into a hotel, or walking around with a Lonely Planet guide and ticking places off a list. Instead, you are more likely to stay in a bamboo hut in rural Assam, and participate in the local rituals and festivals of the Mishing tribe. Or set out on a photo trail of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, during Holi. Or go fishing with the locals in Malvan.
Attempting to cross a stream (Photo: Journeys with Meaning)
The founders of these companies are all avid travellers themselves, and want to share their passion and way of travel with others. Vikrant Chheda, co-founder of White Collar Hippie, says, “My aim is to create trips which help the youth explore within as they explore the world around them in a fun way…. They can widen their perspectives and shed their inhibitions. The idea is to have them step out of their comfort zone through nature and adventure.”
The changing face of travel
People today actively want to be travellers, as opposed to tourists. Clicking selfies in front of a monument is still part of the agenda, but mere sightseeing isn’t good enough. The trend is shifting away from the ‘see’ to the ‘do’. No longer content with just visiting a place not on the tourist map, travellers want to experience the local life. And if travel is all about meeting new people and getting acquainted with the nuances of a different culture, experiential trips tick all the boxes.
While the trend is gaining wider popularity now, it was started by backpackers, travel bloggers, photographers, or just anyone travelling without a strict itinerary. Popular bloggers Savi Munjal and Vidit Taneja of Bruised Passports definitely belong to that list, and talk about offbeat ways to see the world. They cherish a memory from a trip spent off-roading in Rajasthan, in December 2014. “We visited a few Bishnoi villages near Jodhpur. We spoke to the villagers, visited local schools and ate with the kids. Meeting these kids, who walk over 5km every day in the scorching desert heat just to attend school, was a humbling experience. Experiential travel makes one value what one has in life,” Munjal says.
Travellers enjoy a camel ride in Ladakh (Photo: White Collar Hippie)
Exposure to the stories and photos of such travellers via the internet inspires others to do the same. So there are people now who take the same kind of joy in spotting a rare flower, or cycling down to a lake hidden amidst the mountains. Yet, not all of us travel as a profession, or can afford to make all these discoveries ourselves. So we don’t mind if someone tailors such experiences for us. “Often, people are looking for something more purposeful in their lives rather than being an insignificant cog in a giant wheel,” says Vinod Sreedhar, founder of Journeys with Meaning.
Take That Sabbatical’s clientele typically comprises people who have been working for a few years at decently paying jobs, saved enough money, achieved a certain level of success and then feel the need to do more with their life.
Homestays have steadily gained popularity over the last few years. It’s hardly surprising, since they offer the perfect introduction to local life in places where you couldn’t get a fancy hotel even if you wanted one. Rishad Saam Mehta, author of Hot Tea Across India, recalls a special memory from his numerous journeys: “I once camped in Pahalgam (Jammu and Kashmir) and was trying to cook a meal when a nomadic shepherd came up to me and offered to help. He introduced me to his family camped close by. They took me out on lovely walks, which no guidebook mentioned.”
Cycle down the world’s highest motorable road, Khardung La, Ladakh (Photo: Journeys With Meaning)
The newfangled travel companies are tapping into the readily hospitable nature of Indians. So, you, the traveller, can get an authentic exposure to local lifestyles, while the villager makes some money. “Opening up their homes to complete strangers doesn’t need much convincing. You’d be surprised as to how warm, welcoming and open people are in the remotest corners of India,” shares Mayank Soni, co-founder of Caribou Drift. Be it the remote Miyar Valley in Himachal Pradesh or the Lolab Valley in Kashmir or the border village of Gurez, locals have opened up their doors to travellers.
Grassroutes Journeys also works closely with NGOs in villages to gain the trust of the local communities. This sensitisation is important, since travel companies are responsible for the traveller. Before offering an experience, they spend a significant amount of their time in villages, getting to know the people, and undertaking orientation and exposure programmes. Once the villagers are convinced, they procure permissions from the Gram Panchayat, and every household of the village or hamlet. “We improve livelihoods through hospitality services. We help the village communities set up their villages as tourism destinations which they own, manage and run,” shares Inir Pinheiro, founder, Grassroutes Journeys.
Dwarfed by the magnificent Tso Moriri (or Lake Moriri Tibetan) (Photo: Journeys With Meaning)
But taking a group of potentially raucous tourists into a quiet tribal village can be fraught with dangers. A cultural misunderstanding, a loud party or the plain old problem of littering are things that have to be avoided. So most companies arrange for an orientation session for the travellers so that they don’t inadvertently offend the local communities. In regions like Spiti and Miyar, Himachal Pradesh, where locals lead hard lives because access to the rest of the country is cut off for six months in winter, travellers are requested not to be too exacting of the hosts. Photographs can be a sensitive issue too, so the click-happy traveller is advised to be judicious. Soni shares that while most communities in the North-east do not mind their women being photographed, you need to seek permission in the Konkan region and in Kashmir.
That said, most hosts are accommodating of their guests’ preferences, within reason, of course. So if you go requesting non-vegetarian meals during a holy month (such as Shravan), or during certain festivals, the request is likely to be turned down. Of course, you cannot have tourists without some bizarre requests. “Clients have often asked the villagers to show them places where ghosts allegedly live, or where tigers have been found. The villagers don’t know how to respond to them,” Pinheiro says.
Grassroutes Journeys helps village communities set up their villages as tourism destinations which they own, manage and run (Photo: Grassroutes Journeys)
Chef and author Anthony Bourdain, in his book, The Nasty Bits, interpreted travel as something that "isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. The journey changes you; it should change you". This very tenet is embodied by experiential travel, in the way it offers a blend of adventure, culture and nature. As Sreedhar puts it, these journeys are about "learning experiences through the medium of travel".
(Photos courtesy: Caribou Drift, Journeys with Meaning, Grassroutes Journeys, White Collar Hippie, Take That Sabbatical)
Learning a new skill (Photo: Grassroutes Journeys)
Live a day in the life of a farmer — tend to farms and cook your meal from scratch (Photo: Grassroutes Journeys)
Homestays offer the perfect introduction to local life (Photo: Grassroutes Journeys)
Locals from Spiti, Himachal Pradesh (Photo: Caribou Drift)
In Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, where locals lead hard lives, travellers are requested not to be too exacting of the hosts (Photo: Caribou Drift)
Cycling trails in Rajasthan (Photo: Take That Sabbatical)