As we celebrate World Earth Day on April 22, meet some inspiring eco-warriors who give back to earth through friendly tourism practices.
“You can't leave this place till you plant a sapling in our organic garden.”
“This is the solar panel that heated your bath water this morning.”
“We don't have a swimming pool. But kids love splashing at this pump, before it goes on to water our fields.”
“All this lovely art on the walls was made with sticks and leaves and stones — by the tribals who live close by!”
“Jana used to be a poacher's son. Now he's a Forest Guard.”
I love travel. And lately I find that travel loves me too.
That's because I have discovered a remarkable group of people that lives, breathes and practises responsible tourism.
Those statements above are from my diary when I am out at work — a travel writer who reviews only eco-friendly places all over India (www. traveltocare.com). And I can't think of a more enriching way to fulfil my wanderlust. Not to mention, show the way to other travel-obsessed people like me who look for new experiences to fill their life, yet hate the waste of the earth's resources to make them happen. People who love waking up in charming new places, but hate the hi-rise concrete boxes and standardised ‘multi-cuisines' of any five-star city hotel; people who love the word ‘traveller' and hate the word ‘tourist'.
In a nutshell (organically grown!), responsible tourism is simply about giving back, with plenty of love and care, to the precious land, to the special heritage of that place, to the talents of the local people and the enhancement of their livelihood. It is tourism with a conscience; a desire to respect the very wonders that make us leave our moorings to see new, faraway places. To make travellers not just feel good, but dogood.
The best part of following this belief is: travel has become way more fun, way more enriching than it used to be. I am constantly amazed that each part of India can make the humble baingan taste so different — what's more, the cooks are willing to share recipes with me, right on their wood-fired mud stove! I am awestruck watching the immense patience that goes into weaving a Pochampalli shawl, and I know I will forever appreciate and treasure anything made in handloom. I chat with a young Madhya Pradeshi teenager showing me fresh tiger pug-marks inside a Kanha reserve, and feel such satisfaction that my tourism money has given him a steady occupation. I take pictures of an organic garden in Pollachi, filled with lush fruit trees, and seek out the smiling Tamil thotakaran(gardener) who explains how his compost pit keeps the soil enriched. I buy a charming toy crocodile at a Oriya village fair, made with straw and coloured beads — and find my grand-nephew way more excited than when I gave him an expensive racing car.
Lot more personal
Suddenly travel has become for me more earthy, more tactile, with so much soul.
In each of these fabulous hotels — and it could be a heritage palace, a secluded forest lodge, a beachside spa or even a cosy home-stay — I have personally interacted with owners who are deeply committed to the concept of socially responsible tourism. I am amazed by the hard work to make it all happen, but it seems so worth it when it's a passion that rubs off on the guest. What these owners run are not fancy hotels or faceless halts placed at touristy spots: they are personal encounters with inspired living that leave a deep impression…and that impression is not a carbon footprint.
Here are a few “eco-warriors” that could leave you too a changed person…
A bullock-cart driving license?
Eight-year-old Arnav excitedly showed me that he now had a license for a huge vehicle that consumes no petrol! I was walking around Our Native Village on the outskirts of Bangalore, and had earlier seen a laughing gang of urban kids piling on to a bullock cart for a ride around the charming village-style property. Siva, the cart driver had allowed the children turns at holding the reins, teaching them how to make right and left turns, with a lesson thrown in on how the cart itself had been scientifically designed to be kind to the back of the animal. At the end of the ride, Siva had solemnly handed out colourfully designed ‘licences' to each happy child making this a holiday experience they would talk about for life. Especially with kite-flying, gilli-danda, and even milking a cow filling the rest of their day!
C.B. Ram Kumar and his family who run this unique eco-retreat believe in a hotel concept that is 100 per cent self-sustaining — and that's why I could see all forms of alternative energy sources being used here: solar panels, windmills, even gobar gas to heat water in the bathrooms. A ‘natural swimming pool' that used no chlorine but plant-life to keep it clean. A herbal garden that was a walk-through lesson in nature cures. But most important of all, Ram Kumar's family spent time walking around with guests, explaining how the land they stood on was actually benefiting by their visit, how they had used up so little of nature's resources during their stay. And particularly to the parents' joy, showed them a side to childhood pleasures that involved no TV, video games, or fast-food!
From the World Bank to a higher world
I had never eaten softer, more melt-in-the-mouth chappatis. And what was this divine bhang ki chutneythat I was dipping my chappatisinto? My host Piyush Kumar gave me the recipe — and it was more than just mixing pure Himalayan air into every dish! Sitting at Dunagiri Nature Retreat, Piyush told me about quitting a plum job at the World Bank, to another ‘plum' job: growing organic fruits and vegetables and hosting travellers in this tiny piece of paradise in Uttarakhand. With the majestic Himalayan range to gaze at out of his workplace, rather than the glassy high rises of Washington in his previous life!
But when I went to the kitchen to pick up a secret or two from the cook, Gopal, an incredible sight greeted me. What a kitchen! A tiny space transformed by Piyush's engineering ingenuity to make natural light flow in through tiny pieces of eco-friendly coloured material — a clever way of making the stone stairway going up to my room above, a source to let in natural light. Here was a story I was going to share with the next eco-friendly stop on my itinerary; because one thing I've found is that an eco-aware hotelier is always looking for new ideas to give back to the good earth.
Three bags full
It was a hill trek with many interruptions. Not just to exclaim at the sparkling Satal lake that suddenly came into view on that hill at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand. My sister and I were stopping every now and then to bend down and fill a bag each of us was carrying — with plastic covers, sweet foils, chips packets and even glass bottles. This was our host Bindu Sethi's way of do-gooding even while she enhanced our nature walk up the hill near her eco-friendly hotel Fisherman's Lodge, with enjoyable botanical lessons. When we came back to her cosy lodge , we had three huge bags bursting with trash — but had left behind a cleaner hillside for another nature lover to enjoy. Not to mention, a hill that would breathe better, without plastics choking its surface.
I dare say even the sight of us picking up stuff sent a message out to a noisy group we saw entering the hill area with bags of chip packets in their hands. Bindu and her husband Bunty were simply passing on the passion they felt for their beautiful hometown on to anyone they encountered. By sheer example.
Eager to find out more about environmentally friendly places to holiday in? Log on to www.traveltocare.com, and search for detailed reviews and tips about each of the places mentioned. And have an inspiring holiday!
Eco-friendly hotels practise:
Strict water/waste management
Alternative and sustainable energy resources
Preservation of local cultures/employment opportunities
Building with local materials, re-cycling