As you read this, Mahek Shahani, a partner at the handbag label Princesse K, is probably running around like a maniac, packing for her long-held dream: a trip to Argentina and Peru. The 25-year-old Mumbaikar will leave in a few days to put a Latin-American spin on the Spanish she's been learning in Mumbai, and also to twirl and twist, Buenos Aires street-style, in less formal versions of the Latin ballroom dances she's also been learning. Because for Shahani, Argentina means more than just a holiday. It's meant to be a learning experience too - literally.
"Peru will be more of a backpacking holiday, but in Argentina, I've signed up for classes in Spanish - I want to learn a new aspect of the language - and classes in social dancing," says Shahani, bubbling over with excitement. "The tango originated in Argentina; I want to dance it the way they do. So I'm also staying at a tango-themed hotel. Aside from the dÃ©cor, it also organises classes and workshops."
Like Shahani, all across the country, a new kind of traveller is emerging. This person is usually in his 20s or early 30s; she usually thinks of travel as more about doing and participating than merely seeing; he is usually curious about other cultures and ways of living; she usually wants to take herself out of her comfort zone and see what else she can find out about herself; he knows what he's interested in and looking for and goes all out to focus on that on his travels; she would commit suicide if you called her a tourist and not a traveller - that's after killing you first.
We've said 'usually' a lot in the paragraph above. That's because it's impossible to generalise and say that everyone thinks of travel like this these days. But enough people (usually committed travellers themselves) have noticed that travel seems to have acquired a new dimension in the last few years, and these people have responded by putting their money, effort and time where their beliefs are.
So in the last few years, a huge variety of small travel companies have come up, catering to the new traveller. Which means that, these days, you could take off to the Himalayas not only to trek, raft or mountain climb, but also to star gaze, accompanied by someone who'll make the skies meaningful for you. Or you could whizz into the jungles not only to track big cats, but also to watch swarms of fireflies dance. Or... anything. You could do on your holiday anything you desire, whether you're travelling alone, travelling with friends, or travelling with family, whether you've got money to burn or you're more broke than a mirror that's fallen off the wall.
The key word, however, is 'do'. Because the new traveller isn't interested only in seeing. She or he wants to make travel an experience of some sort, so outside exploration also turns into an inward journey.
"As a kid, I only went on package holidays with my parents," says 26-year-old Smriti Ahuja who works on social projects and is a co-founder of Absent With/out Leave (AWOL), a venture that encourages young people to travel across the country, living only on R1,000 a week - inclusive of everything. "Even now, my parents prefer that kind of holiday. But I get no sense of place from a package tour, so I began to travel on my own."
Ahuja has backpacked in India and abroad, and prefers to go places with minimal planning - she'd rather just arrive somewhere and take things from there. It's a great way to really get to know a place, she says, because you have to find your own way around and so you notice everything.
That's the thinking behind AWOL, which she set up together with 25-year-old social entrepreneur Keith Menon, also a relentless traveller who likes to take off around the country, living on as little as possible to experience a way of life that is out of the ordinary for the middle class.
AWOL is not a travel company. In fact, it's another of Menon's social concerns (Menon is also a co-founder of the eco-awareness campaign, Batti Bandh). Low budget travel, they believe, can be therapeutic, and so every month, AWOL plans to equip two young travellers suffering from quarterlife crises with R1,000 a week, a laptop and Internet connection and a mobile phone, so they can take off for three months, explore any part of the country they like and blog about it as they go.
"Living on a small budget really takes you to another place," says Menon. "You have to get out of yourself and ask other people for help - ask for lifts, ask for a place to stay, ask for advice. You have to survive with what you've got, and if you've spent all you've got already, then you have to get by somehow. If you manage to get by, then you know something more about yourself than you probably did when you set off." Knowing something about yourself is precisely what drives 25-year-old Akshai Narian, a former corporate executive who now works with the Teach for India foundation in Delhi, to travel. In fact, it was all his introspective travel - including volunteering at the Osho Ashram in Pune rather than signing up for a 'work as meditation' course, and staying at Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, that inspired Narain to give up the corporate life and seek another way of living.
"Like most people, I travelled as a child with my parents who were complete opposites in what they wanted from a holiday," says Narain. "On our vacations my mother would insist on going to all the tourist spots and my father would say, 'we're here to relax' and not want to move out of the hotel. Over time, I realised that neither of these extremes suited me. If I'm going out, it's because I want to know about the place I'm in. I should experience the place in a way that makes me understand myself. And that's how I started my kind of travel."
In his first year of college, Narian revisited a small hill town he'd earlier gone to with his parents. He went alone and stayed for 10 days. "I just roamed around and let things soak in," he says. "It was the first time I was really on my own, and I learned about the real world. Wandering around an unfamiliar environment, I also understood my own familiar environment, things about my life that I hadn't valued earlier. It made me go back home with a greater sense of belonging."
Party, Party, Party
Travel however, is as much about personality as anything else is, and so the low-budget life isn't attractive to everyone. Certainly not to Sohil Modi, owner of a textiles business, who usually travels abroad and enjoys adventure sports, but who was intrigued enough by the premise of the brand new travel company, Trips Gone Crazy, to sign up with his fiancÃ©e and two other couples for a party holiday.
"It seems interesting to go on a holiday that's not about regular sightseeing, but about nightlife and clubbing," says Modi. "We'll be going to Barcelona and Ibiza. In Barcelona, people usually go and see the famous church, but that's not why we'll be there."
Trips Gone Crazy was co-founded by young Mumbai-based businessmen Akhilesh Lakhotia and Chirag Khandelwal, both of whom went to college in the UK and were very taken by a nightlife scene that included vacations to places like Ibiza only for the clubbing.
"Youngsters in the West usually have a party holiday once a year, and we saw a big market for that in India," says Khandelwal. Adds Lakhotia, "The concept of clubbing is opening up here - lots of international DJs perform in India, there are festivals like Sunburn and performances at live music places like Blue Frog. People are very aware of world music, and know who the best DJs are. So why not go to a place like Ibiza, where the world's best DJs play at massive clubs which are the best in the world?"
Trips Gone Crazy's first trip is taking off next