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From Goa to Iran, the joys and benefits of slow travel

This writer stayed with a three-generational Goan family and met the last cave dwellers of Sri Lanka. Slow travel leaves a lighter footprint, she says

Spending time in Goa often teaches people the value of the slow life.
Spending time in Goa often teaches people the value of the slow life. (Courtesy Shivya Nath)

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I never meant to travel slow. Back in 2013, having quit my full-time job, given up my rented apartment, sold most of my belongings and embraced a nomadic life, I was filled with an insatiable desire to go everywhere, experience everything.

But after a few months of hopping from one place to another, I felt worn out. So I spent several weeks at Cancio’s House, the homestead of a three-generational Goan family, deep in north Goa. It was here that I first discovered the real joy of travel—not bound by time, an itinerary, or the peer pressure to pack in all possible sights.

I shared conversations, meals and outings with my host family. Raquel’s kitchen was my first real introduction to Goan cuisine, with delights like ambade, a coconut-based preparation of hog plums; tamdi bhaji, a stir-fry of homegrown red amaranth leaves; and patoleo, a dessert made with rice, coconut and jaggery, steamed in a turmeric leaf. Roberto, her husband, invited me to discover a side of Goa I never knew existed: kayaking in the backwaters near their village, spotting a mugger crocodile sunbathing amidst the mangroves and visiting one of Goa’s last surviving stone-oven bakeries. Maria, his mother, regaled me with stories of times gone by.

Also Read: 'You are from Goa? How lucky!' A Goan returns, plays tourist

I spent leisurely days reading by the window as the rain poured down, drove my bike along the lush green interiors to old chapels and forgotten forts, slipped into Goa’s afternoon siesta routine, and gradually began to grasp the idea of a susegad life—relaxed, laid-back, contented.

By the time I left, I was convinced travelling slowly, deliberately—not as a dimension of time but as a mindset—was the only way to experience a place and connect with its people. In a world ravaged by a pandemic and the climate crisis, it also allows us to leave a lighter footprint. In 2019, Indians took 1.8 billion domestic trips, a number expected to surge in 2022 with “revenge travel”. Places like Manali, Leh, Nainital and Goa are crumbling under tourism, which is taking a toll on their heritage architecture, water reserves, culture and natural resources. The more I travel, though, the more I realise that travel is not merely about visiting and seeing. It is as much about being present, connecting with a landscape, challenging our world view, learning from the local way of doing, understanding the footprint of our choices and allowing ourselves to embark on an inner journey. Travelling itself has helped shaped my travel choices.

Lessons from a solo land journey: As a travel writer, I have long been guilty of taking several flights a year. In 2019, I pledged to change that by spending more time in one region and choosing land travel if I could. That led to my first solo land journey, from northern Thailand, through Myanmar, to Manipur. Over a fortnight, I took many buses, drove an electric bike, kayaked on rice paddies, took a canoe and hiked. My route was filled with karst mountains, misty sunrises, ancient temples, rhododendron forests and insightful conversations on the Rohingya crisis. Along the way, I connected with Uncharted Horizons, an environmentally conscious travel outfit, and went on a hair-raising motorbike adventure through the mountainous Chin state, meeting a generation of tribal folk whose settlements aren’t on Google Maps.

I am convinced that long land journeys are infinitely more adventurous than hopping on a plane—and better for the planet.

Lessons from a coral reef restoration project in Cuba: Cocodrilo is a remote, forgotten fishing village on the remote, forgotten island of Isla de la Juventud in Cuba. I spent a few days there volunteering at a coral reef restoration project launched by IOI Adventures, an intercultural outreach initiative, in collaboration with local divers. Separated from the outside world by a dense forest and the Caribbean Sea, with a population of just 320, the only shop on Cocodrilo sold local rum in a glass bottle, shampoo sachets, rice and beans, and the Cuban version of Coca-Cola. Yet when we snorkelled and free-dived into its deep blue waters, I was shocked to see the seabed littered with plastic straws, internationally branded beer cans and shampoo bottles, and menstrual pads. I will never forget the sight.

It turns out only 9% of single-use plastic is recycled globally. The rest is landfilled, burnt or dumped into the sea. Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. I have long said no to single-use plastic bottled water and swapped personal care essentials for more sustainable options. Since Cuba, though, I have been seeking out zero-waste stores to buy plastic-free groceries and produce.

An overland journey through Thailand and Myanmar is more adventurous than hopping on to a plane.
An overland journey through Thailand and Myanmar is more adventurous than hopping on to a plane. (Courtesy Shivya Nath)

Lessons from the “Million Fireflies Festival” in Maharashtra: When I first began travelling, I often thought of it as something I did only for myself—to fill my cup with experiences, to broaden my perspective. But along the way, I learnt travelling isn’t meant to be a one-way street.

In rural Maharashtra, I visited the villages of Purushwadi and Dehna, where Grassroutes Journeys, a travel-focused social enterprise, has developed a model where the entire village reaps the benefits of tourism through home-stays, farm-to-table meals, guiding and seasonal activities. At the onset of the monsoon, thousands of fireflies descend upon the Sajada trees surrounding the villages for their mating season. Their population has been declining rapidly due to deforestation and light pollution.

The “Million Fireflies Festival” created by Grassroutes links the conservation of fireflies to local livelihoods. Forever etched in memory is the night I sat under twinkling stars as the earth began to glow with the flashing lights of millions of fireflies—the memory constantly reminds me my travel choices don’t impact me alone.

Lessons from three generations of a vegan family in Iran: I grew up in a butter-chicken-loving, lassi-guzzling Punjabi family but gave up eating meat and seafood as a teenager after a visit to a butchery. Almost a decade later, I learnt about the animal abuse involved in procuring milk, eggs and honey, and lifestyle products like leather, silk and fur. Then, while browsing Instagram, I happened to stumble upon Iran Vegan Travel, a network of vegan Iranians who have opened up their homes (and lives) to travellers.

The next thing I knew, we were sitting cross-legged in the living area of a Persian home in Tabriz, breaking warm barbari bread with a family with three generations of vegans. Parviz and Nargis were inspired to turn vegan by their spiritual guru’s commitment to compassionate living; his mother did so when she reversed her diabetic condition through plant-based food and their daughter, when she learnt about the lives of domesticated animals.

We indulged in Persian delights rarely available outside homes. On sunny mornings, we would drive to stunning areas hidden from travellers—including an ancient village where people still live in cave houses. While contemplating a vegan lifestyle, I had wondered if I would have to give up my nomadic life. Instead, the common love for food and animals has helped me build lasting friendships and unearth culinary secrets around the world.

Lessons from the last cave dwellers of Sri Lanka: Travelling responsibly need not mean roughing it out. A few years ago, in search of Sri Lanka’s Vedda people, who can track elephants by the scent in the wind, I ended up at the Gal Oya Lodge, a luxurious refuge built with local materials in a private 20-acre forest in the vicinity of Gal Oya National Park. As I followed a Vedda chief to the cave that was his childhood home, and went on a boat safari on Senanayake Samudraya to spot wild elephants that have taught themselves to swim from one island to another, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the wonders I have experienced while trying to choose better—and without necessarily eschewing luxury.

Lessons from a hike in Lesotho: An overland trip—a mix of buses and driving—saw us ringing in 2020 in the hill village of Malealea in Lesotho, hanging out with its Basotho people. At a time when many young people are leaving their villages to seek work in South Africa, the Malealea Lodge has developed rural tourism in a way that creates varied livelihood opportunities—female guides, village bands who create their own upcycled instruments from discarded household goods, the local choir, the village brewer.... Chatting with Marefilou, a young guide,I discovered similarities in our childhoods—hers in Malealea and mine in Dehradun. I couldn’t help asking what prompted her to train as a guide. “I love these mountains and meeting new people,” she said, “and if it wasn’t for this, I would have to leave my village and work somewhere else.”

That kind of sums up what “sustainable travel” means to me— an attempt to connect deeply with a destination, while also creating a positive impact on the people that call it home and this planet we all call home.

Shivya Nath runs the travel blog The Shooting Star and has authored a travel memoir.

Also Read: Why are increasing numbers of Indians turning vegan?

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