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My Room at the Hotel Ibis: The Royal Rajasthani room

Hotels in Aerocity Delhi are much more than convenient

For the past couple of years, I kept hearing about Aerocity hotels near Delhi international airport. But it wasn’t until fellow travel blogger Lakshmi Sharath visited that I started to understand that hotels in Aerocity Delhi are far above and beyond what I expected from an airport hotel. It was my personal experience of staying in Aerocity, and being hosted by Accor Hotels Ibis brand, that opened my eyes to the value of this place.

I always find leaving India hard. I feel very connected to India and suffer from withdrawal pangs. It’s also a bit of an ordeal to pack up. Plus, there’s the long flight or flights home. But this year, I did it right. I spent the last week in Delhi, at my home-away-from home Prakash Kutir. The wonderful family who runs it are kind enough to store my luggage — three big suitcases of clothes, books, and other stuff accumulated over the past 12 years of travel to India.

My last night was spent at the Hotel Ibis in Aerocity, near Delhi’s international airport. I had never experienced Aerocity, and knew very little about it. But it turned out to be an extremely convenient, stress-reducing, and eye opening experience and I’m so glad I took the effort to explore it.

One of the many outdoor pools in Aerocity, Delhi

If you don’t know, Aerocity is a development just a 10-minute drive to T3, Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi (and also close to T1, the domestic terminal). The development includes hotels in almost every price range — from the affordable Hotel Ibis to the luxury Pullman Hotel to the very grand Rosate House — plus a Delhi metro station and shopping malls. It’s like a mini-city for travellers.

Quinoa salad at Pluck, Pullman Hotel

The thing that surprised me most is the hotels are not your usual soulless airport hotels. They are destinations unto themselves with gourmet restaurants, gin bars, rooftop swimming pools, gyms, screening rooms, presidential suites, runway views, posh lounges, and much more. I was truly gobsmacked a couple of times as Hotel Ibis rooms division manager Abhilash Kumar gave me an Aerocity tour that literally took four hours – but included a fresh and delicious lunch at Pullman’s Pluck restaurant.

I did not expect such a range of experiences and so much sophistication. The three hotels that really stood out for me are Rosate House, the Pullman, and Andaz Delhi. There are some other good hotels at Aerocity, but these three are the knock-outs. Rosate House has a gorgeous Indian restaurant, a chic rooftop pool with a runway view, and a deluxe screening room, but it was the suites that really did it for me. The presidential suite was especially glam, with silver walls, a giant bathroom, and its own pool. Area general manager Kush Kapoor gave us a full tour of the property and told us Ranveer Singh, Akshay Kumar, and Aamir Khan have stayed in the suite.

Ranveer Singh slept here! The presidential suite at the Roseate House

The Pullman, too, is a very stylish, luxurious property with a chic lounge and a great restaurant, Pluck, that serves Asian-fusion dishes and lots of super healthy choices. This hotel has a large courtyard that features a swimming pool and private club. I loved the rain theme in the lobby, with thousands of glass rain drops hanging from the ceiling. And the rooms are equally luxurious and comfortable, some with incredible runway views.

A lounge at the Pullman

The Andaz felt like a breath of fresh air. Super stylish, hip, and with an open concept lobby, the décor and cuisine blends traditional Delhi and Indian touches to create a very modern and unique fusion style.

I enjoyed my stay at budget conscious Ibis Hotel, and especially the My Room concept. There are seven themed rooms at the Ibis, including Bollywood, English Vintage, and Spiderman, and I was lucky enough to stay in the Royal Rajasthani room. The rooms are all created by employees, who are given a budget to design the rooms based on their interests and passions.

“I welcome you to My Room, a royal suite where luxury meets Ibis,” proclaimed the letter from creator Rajini Bisht, posted to the wall. “Inspired by India’s rich culture and heritage, each piece of art and decor in this room has been hand crafted by me to transport you to the times when royal families ruled the country.”

My Room at the Hotel Ibis: The Royal Rajasthani room

I loved my royal Rajasthani room, that made me feel like a princess. Even better, the Hotel Ibis let me keep my  room until I had to leave for the airport at 8:30 pm, and I have never felt so relaxed leaving India.

I also really enjoyed the ground floor restaurant Spice IT, at Ibis Hotel, a bright and colourful place that actually serves tasty, spicy, and authentic Indian cuisine. They also specialize in healthy food, and have chai on tap. The restaurant is open 24/7 and has a stylish outdoor lounge. The night I was there a sudden and inexplicable rain storm hit the city, and I was able to sit outside, protected by a pavilion, in the rain. It was a Bollywood moment, and I suppose a suitable last night in India.

Thanks so to Abhilash Kumar, Sachin Gosain, Pramod Maurya, and Avinash Datt Upadhyay from Ibis, Vikram Rajoria and Kriti Malhotra from Pullman/Novotel (these hotels are connected at Aerocity), Varun Balwani from Andaz, and Kush Kapoor from Roseate House for the tour. And a special thanks to the very warm and helpful staff of Spice IT for making sure all my meals were gluten free.

Pluck is the Pullman Hotel’s premier restaurant

But of course Aerocity’s salient feature is convenience. With a metro station that connects Aerocity to the airport and to downtown Delhi, plus numerous methods to take you the 10-minute drive to the airport — avoiding Delhi’s stressful traffic — you can’t beat it for convenience.

Then, to top off this smooth exit, Air Canada upgraded my ticket to Business Class at the gate. Which is a bit like winning the lottery when you have a 14-hour flight ahead of you. Kudos to Air Canada. I flew their Premium Economy over to India, and Business Class home, both on the 787 Dreamliner. Amazing plane, and excellent service that rivals any of the other top airlines I’ve flown. And, as it’s a direct flight, it shaves several hours off flights that stop in Europe. Yup, Air Canada will be my ride from now on. Here’s my Air Canada review.

So now with a direct Air Canada flight between Toronto and Delhi, and the convenience – and also luxury! – of Aerocity, I feel that the distance between my two favourite countries has actually shrunk. I cannot recommend Aerocity enough if you have a layover, or need a hotel near the airport for any reason. You could even potentially stay here and visit downtown Delhi by metro.

The Andaz Hotel at Aerocity Delhi is colourful and locally themed

NOTE: Thanks so much to Accor Hotels for hosting me at the Hotel Ibis and to Air Canada for a complimentary upgrade. If you enjoyed this post, you can….

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Namo Buddha and Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery

A multi-day, low altitude Nepal trekking tour

If trekking in Nepal is on your radar, but images of hikers sweating their way up steep ascents and over high altitude passes puts you off, there is an answer. There are much easier multi-day treks, at lower altitudes and with cushier accommodation, available throughout Nepal that still offer stunning views of the Himalayas, friendly people, travel adventure, exposure to a rich culture, and the beauty of the great outdoors.

Like many travellers, I was mostly aware of Nepal as one of the world’s best trekking destinations. Trekking in Nepal is on many people’s travel bucket lists, and treks to Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna circuit are legendary, and attract many Himalayan hikers. But I wanted to start with a shorter, and lower altitude trek.

I went to Nepal with Better Places Travel, a responsible travel company that arranges custom tours and travel services in a number of countries, including Nepal. My itinerary included several days in Patan, one day in Thamel, Kathmandu and a short, low-altitude Nepal trekking tour in the Kathmandu Valley. I was both there for both trekking in Nepal and also to visit Nepal tourist places.

Swayambhunath Stupa, Kathamandu, Nepal

Like most travellers to Nepal, I started my journey in Kathmandu. I stayed in both Patan and Thamel, so I was able to get a feel for the city from two different vantage points. In Patan, I stayed at Swotha Traditional Homes, a small inn that I absolutely loved. Patan is a city just south of Kathmandu, known for heritage buildings, a centre for Newari culture, and a thriving local artisan’s community. It was badly damaged by the 2015 earthquake, but is rebuilding.

Swotha Traditional Homes is in a red-brick and wood-trimmed heritage building that is more than 90 years old. But it has been stylishly and artfully updated to make it attractive and comfortable for modern travellers – while not losing any of the charm or significance of the original structure.

I liked my room immediately, and found it charming, warm, and spacious. Sun streamed in through four floor-to-ceiling shuttered windows and cast the wooden trim, polished stone floor, and raw cotton curtains and bedspreads with a warm glow. With only seven rooms, Swotha Traditional Homes is a small and cosy place, but it has everything a traveller could need. The location, right in the heart of Patan between Patan Durbar Square and the Golden Temple, is also ideal. You can walk most of Patan right from there.

The indoor/outdoor dining room at Swotha Traditional Homes

After a few blissful days at Swotha Traditional Homes, I left on a three-day Nepal trekking tour in the Kathmandu Valley. I met my guide Chuda Mainari and our porter Rupesh Lama and together we took a bus from the Kathmandu central bus stand. We could have taken a taxi, but to save money, experience local life, and reduce our consumption, we decided on the bus.

We left Kathmandu at about 9 am and were well out of the city by 10:30 am. After passing a few large towns, we changed buses at Panauti, where we felt we had left the city far behind.  We noticed the air was noticeably fresher – a bit cooler and a lot cleaner – and the pace of life seemed to slow down, while the vistas opened up. From the bus, we could see the white peaks of the Everest range silhouetted against the bright blue sky.

After bumping along a dirt road for about 20 minutes, we got off the bus at Kopasi and started walking. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge and immediately entered a pine forest. For the next hour or two, we walked alongside farmer’s fields and up mountain tracks until we reached the village of Balthali.

Vew of Kathmandu Valley from Balthali Resort

Like most Nepali villages, the people of Balthali subsist largely on agriculture. We saw people working in potato, mustard, and rice fields around the village, and saw how they live closely with their animals – chickens, cows, goats, and buffalo. Balthali was hit by the April 2015 earthquake, and many homes were damaged, but luckily no one was killed. We saw several new houses, in various stages of completion – and the new houses are a lot bigger and more modern than those they replaced.

From Balthali village, we hiked up a steep hill, to get to Balthali Village Resort. This sprawling resort is enviably located on a hill with great views, and is a popular stop for trekkers and families. While the original resort is about 20 years old, some newer room blocks are fresher and built to offer panoramic views. My room had two windows facing west, and an entire glass wall facing towards the snow-capped mountains, plus a small patio. It was amazing to wake up and see the mountain views Nepal is famous for without even getting out of bed.

Balthali Village Resort has several outdoor and indoor dining options, depending on the weather. The food is simple and basic, but very fresh. I saw a man delivering a big bundle of fresh, organic mustard leaves from the village in the afternoon, and ate them sautéed that evening at dinner. Rice, dal, chicken curry and a very yummy dessert – apple fritters cooked in custard powder – rounded out dinner.

View from Balthali Resport

After dinner, I stood on the edge of the property and peered into the darkness. I saw scattered lights glittering across the mountains around me, and stars above glittering in the pitch-black sky. The boundary between heaven and earth seemed to dissolve for a moment and I felt a flickering of joy inside. It was the joy of the moment, the joy of existence. No need for anything else.

For so many years I chased a symbolic star around India. I had an idea that I was looking for something and that the star signaled I was on the right path. This star, and this search, made life meaningful and worthwhile to me, and helped me get through some of the worst times. I was floundering and I had hung all my hopes, dreams, and reasons to live on this search for meaning. But in this moment, the magic of the Himalayan foothills shone down on me, and I realized I am not searching anymore. Life is made up of significant moments. That’s it. There is no “there.” There is here. Here is now. If you miss the eternity in the flicker of a star, you will never find it.

As I wrote this in bed in Balthali, I could hear the strains of local music coming up from the village below. Plaintive voices singing to melodies that sounded a bit Indian to my untrained ear. A flute traced ornate oriental patterns in the air, and the female voice was high-pitched and sweet. Maybe Krishna and Radha were singing love songs to each other.

My guide Chuda jumping for joy as we trek in the Kathmandu Valley

The next morning, the sun came up to the right of my panoramic view, and the white peaks appeared like ghosts lined up against the horizon. They didn’t seem real, they seemed more like apparitions floating across the skyline, presiding over the villages splashed across the face of the foothills. It was an enthralling site to wake up to, completely mesmerizing. I kept looking away and looking back, surprised they were still there as the sun made its ascent.

After a hearty breakfast, which we ate outdoors as the sun warmed the air, we left at 9 am for our trek to Namo Buddha. It was a bit arduous for me, but for a more seasoned hiker in better shape, it would not be that difficult. It was more than twice as long as the one from Kopasi to Balthali, at four hours, and required two very steep ascents up sizable hills, plus a hot and very dusty walk along a dirt road.

As we got closer, we could see the prayer flags of Namo Buddha covering the hill just below the monastery. I kept those prayer flags in site as I huffed and puffed my way up the steep hill. Finally, we reached the top where a large and elaborate Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, is located.

Millions of prayer flags cover the hillsides up to Namo Buddha

Namo Buddha is a sacred mountain, revered by Buddhists. It is said that Buddha, in a previous life as a prince, encountered a starving tigress here, with three small cubs. Out of compassion, he gave his life to feed the tiger and cubs. Henceforth, Namo Buddha is known to be a place of great compassion.

The views from Namo Buddha, which is at a higher elevation than Balthali (1,800 metres), are stunning. When we arrived, we could see a long range of white-capped Himalayas, before the afternoon haze set in. The air here was a bit cooler too, and a fresh breeze kept the many prayer flags briskly flapping. Along with the experience of visiting the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I really did feel I was in the Himalayas.

The monastery has a guest house for visitors, and many trekkers stay there. The rooms are simple but comfortable, and the bathroom is shared. You can eat a simple meal with the monks (momos and Tibetan tea) or buy meals at a café near the guest house. The monastery also offers education, nutritious meals, and, potentially, a vocation as a monk to hundreds of underprivileged local boys. Watching them in their red robes – identical to those worn by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama – they seemed like fit, healthy, and typically playful boys.

Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery at Namo Buddha

The highlight of staying at Namo Buddha was joining the monks for prayers, which they do in the temple twice a day, 6 am and 6 pm. We sat on rug-covered benches at the back and watched the young monks recite their prayers to the accompaniment of loud vibrating gongs, bellowing conch shells and shimmering cymbals. The sound resembles a celestial thunderstorm. It’s a sound I associate with the Himalayas, and it always makes my spine shiver.

In the large room where prayers are held, virtually every surface is covered with brightly coloured silk, red-and-gold wood carvings, Thangka paintings, and other elaborate and ornate designs. The walls are covered in fantastic murals, Oriental scenes of celestial kings, blue multi-armed demons, and beautiful women playing stringed instruments and floating among opulent clouds. It is a sumptuous room designed to look and sound like a heavenly abode and to impress you into thinking higher thoughts.

On our last morning, I woke just before dawn to take photos of the sunrise from the rooftop of the guest house, and to take in deep draughts of the fresh, clean, mountain air. It’s absolutely pristine, and just as valuable as the billion-rupee view.

Namo Buddha Resort is an idyllic village in the Himalayas

Then we began to walk down the road from the monastery, stopping for breakfast at nearby Namo Buddha Resort. Ideally situated on a hilltop with great panoramic views, Namo Buddha Resort is a very special place. Created by a German couple about 10 years ago, the resort is more like a small, charming village – virtually out of a fairy tale. Cobblestone paths lead through gardens bursting with colourful flowers that sway in the Himalayan breeze. Houses of various sizes, made of wood and plastered brick, with slate roofs, verandahs, and shuttered windows, are scattered throughout the property, offering 15 rooms in total. Inside, the rooms are cosy and décor is of Nepali origin, including woven bedspreads and drapes and hand-made tiles in the washrooms.

The centre of the resort is the dining building, with indoor and outdoor seating areas, and even a slightly whimsical rooftop, created during earthquake repairs. Next door is the kitchen building, which is impressively spacious, seems much more like a European kitchen and features a wood burning stove, an ice cream maker, a massive fridge, an espresso machine, and many other cutting-edge amenities. Needless to say, the vegetarian food that comes out of the kitchen – some of it grown in vegetable gardens on the property – is fresh, artful, and delicious.

Owner Ingrid Schneider gave me a tour. She was proud to proclaim they do not use plastic water bottles at all – instead they refill glass wine bottles and place them on all the tables and in the rooms.

Stopping to rest during our Kathmandu Valley trek

After breakfast we walked for about 30 minutes along a new road that’s in the process of being built until we flagged down a local bus. We jammed ourselves in, standing with others in the centre aisle, as we careened down a winding mountain road. A bus change at Dhulikhel and we were on our way back to Kathmandu.

The entire trip back to bustling Kathmandu took just over two hours, which isn’t long at all, but it seemed like a different world. The peace and beauty of rural Nepal is a treasure, and you don’t have to travel far to find it. A multi-day, low altitude trek in the Kathmandu Valley is a great option for those with time constraints or who want a less arduous Himalayan trekking experience.

My final stop was where it all began. The Kathmandu Guest House is one of those iconic hotels, legendary for both its place in local history and folklore, and for the people who have stayed there. Celebrating 50 years in 2018, it opened in Thamel in 1968 when the area was just farmer’s fields. The Thamel we know today, as the tourist hub of Kathmandu, grew up around the Kathmandu Guest House, and this was the place many writers, explorers, mountaineers, and celebrities stayed.

Entrance to Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel

Throughout the public areas, the Kathmandu Guest House pays homage to its many famous guests, with plaques and even a walk of fame. The Beatles Café honours the fab four, and a suite is named after Japanese mountaineer Yuichiro Miura, who summited Everest at the age of 80. Writer Peter Matthiessen wrote The Snow Leopard in the garden, and the Wheelers reviewed it in the first Lonely Planet. More than a hotel, the Kathmandu Guest House is living history.

As I travelled around Kathmandu, and in the Kathmandu Valley, I started to learn about other communities in Nepal. Though only about 10% of Nepalis are Buddhist, and the majority are Hindu, Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepali seem to effortlessly meld. You might see elements of Buddhism at a Hindu temple, and elements of Hinduism at a Buddhist shrine, for example. There’s even a ceremony where people are paired with someone from one of the other religions in Nepal – to bond, and learn about each other’s customs and traditions.

After only a week in Nepal, I had just enough time to scratch the surface of the culture and learn a little about the patchwork quilt of ethnicities that make up the unique nature of this Himalayan country.

More resources

You can find out more about trekking in Nepal from this site, Great Himalayan Trails.

And to read up on Nepal, lots of great articles in Inside Himalayas, an online magazine.

In the lovely, serene garden of Kathmandu Guest House

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This is a guest post by Sarah Pittard of SoloMomTakesFlight about an African wildlife safari she took with her family.

AS A CHILD, I dreamt of a trip to Africa. I would wait with anticipation for the monthly issue of National Geographic to arrive with a thump on our doorstep. I wanted to feel the sun on the Serengeti and witness elephants who roamed free. When I became a mother, I knew that I wanted my children to see Africa before they were teens. This is a quick look at what we experienced and how to plan a similar African safari vacation.

African Safari Tours

The first step in planning an African safari with children is to find a tour provider that caters specifically to families. After reviewing several tour itineraries, we chose to explore Kenya with Intrepid Travel. The primary factor in our decision was that you needed to have children to book the tour. We wanted to enjoy our African safari tour and not worry about slowing down an adult-centred tour with things like snack time and bathroom stops.

Before departing, I had very high expectations of our tour. Concerns regarding safety and camping tempered my excitement but only slightly. What I didn’t anticipate was how my children would view theAfrican safari tour and Kenya with such an innocent and open perspective.

Photo of Zebra in Kenya, Africa by Sarah Pittard

The good and bad about an African safari

Touching down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi is an experience unlike any other. Within minutes of leaving the terminal, it is possible to see giraffes roaming through Nairobi National Park.

As we made our way into Nairobi, it became apparent that this is a land unlike any other. I didn’t know whether to look at the window or watch my kids whose expressions were different from any I had ever seen on their faces. They impressed everyone on the tour as they devoured meals of goat and curry dissimilar from anything I had ever prepared at home.

Photo by Sarah Pittard

While our tour was an incredible experience, some moments struck me as both educational and disheartening. During our time spent with Masai warriors, it became apparent that the male-dominated culture held no respect for our five-year daughter. While the Masai warriors catered to our seven-year-old son, it was hard to watch our daughter’s questions go unanswered. After spending two days with the Warriors, they did warm a little to our daughter. Still, her experience with the Masai left our daughter with a small taste of how gender discrimination still exists in regions of Kenya.

All in all, Kenya with children is an unforgettable experience. Our chef, driver and tour guide from Intrepid Travel formed an incredible team who joined us in the evening and regaled us with tales of growing up in Africa. Each morning before departing our campgrounds, we always gave the kids time just to be kids. Though they never met a single child they could communicate with in English, the languages of play and laughter proved universal. From children living in national parks that shared toys made of plastic bottles to the Masai children who taught them how to throw weapons, these moments are those we still cherish.

Photo of elephants in Kenya, Africa by Sarah PittardNote

PHOTO CREDIT: Lion photo above was taken by Maggy Meyer. I bought this image from Shutterstock and fell in love with her work. If you enjoyed this post, you can….

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The view from my bedroom window in South Delhi

Home-away-from-home in Delhi

In India, I live in a nice residential neighbourhood in South Delhi. It is surrounded by one of the major ‘ring’ roads of Delhi to the south and a huge park and sports complex to the north.

Here are some pictures I’ve taken, to give you a slice of South Delhi life.

I woke up very early and walked out on to the huge, white marble terrace. To my left, the sun was rising, a giant fiery red-orange ball against a hazy dove-grey sky; while to my right the pale white moon glowed softly at almost exactly the same level. It was one of those unexpected moments of sublime beauty that I’ve come too expect from India.

The sunrise picture below and the moon setting picture, left, were taken virtually at the same time.

With these pics, I think it makes it very clear how the sun and the moon came to represent very different things to early mythologists — the fiery sun representing the active, male principle; and the pale, cool sun representing the passive, female principle.

This apartment features a massive white terrace, four floors above street level. It is an oasis, and the family spends a lot of time out there, drinking tea, being together and playing with the children. Several times each day, the pigeons are fed. I love this picture, below, because I feel it epitomizes the Hindu ideal of living in harmony with nature.

I went for a long walk to, and through, the Asian Games Sports complex, where the Commonwealth Games will be held, and snapped this classic pic of boys playing cricket. This game is being played at a posh club, but you can see these spontaneous games all over India — in empty fields, abandoned lots, wherever they can find space.

Below are two picutres taken right outside the door of the bulding. Note the ancient-looking iron, filled with hot coals, the dhobi-wallah is using to iron on the side of the street. The fruit seller is selling  to one of the house servants, the boy in red — the fruit in India is delicious, fresh and tasty.

This is my favourite taxi driver, Gurim Singh (spelling?), below. The first time I came to India, more than 10 years ago, I didn’t know how things worked and I made lots of mistakes! (Still do…) I called a taxi from the nearby taxi stand, and after I got home, I “mistakenly” asked him to wait. I had no idea he was still sitting there until an hour later when my boyfriend looked over the terrace and saw him. My friend went downstairs and paid him for the waiting time, and I was so embarrassed I never wanted to face him again. But over the years, we have become friends and he often drives me to Sivananda yoga centre, which is hard to find. The other day, I was coming out of a beauty salon that’s about a kilometre away and he saw me and said, “I will drive you home,” which I really appreciated as I had just had a pedicure! He wouldn’t take any money; it was meant simply as a kind gesture. He made me feel, well, at home!

Ganesh

All over India, there are an an uncountable number of shrines and temples, from the simplest roadside offering to enormous complexes that take all day to tour. This beautiful silver Ganesh, for example, was nestled in the roots of a tree by the side of the road that leads from my house to the Asian Games park. India is a pluralisitc, secular democracy in theory, but in practise it is largely Hindu, and it is usually Hindu gods and goddesses you see all over the cities, towns, villages and countryside. Hindus venerate nature, and sometimes it seems that almost every inch of the country is a sacred place.

Finally, I went shopping one day this week near Qutb Minar, one of the prime tourist attractions in Delhi. I snapped this pic, below, from the shopping centre across the street. The Delhi sky often turns pink as dust blows in from the red Rajasthan desert, and it is often hazy and foggy, too, especially in winter. I think I became enchanted with Delhi initially the day I visited Qutb Minar for the first time, shortly after arriving in India in December 2005. I was there at dusk, and the sky turned pink, bathing the ancient tombs and tower in fairy tale ambience. This was the moment I felt I had finally arrived in India, a long cherished dream; and the moment I began to fall in love, too. The love affair continues…

Qutb Minar on a pink-fog day

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Woman learning to be a solar engineer at Barefoot College. Photo credit: Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar.

How responsible tourism can help lead women empowerment in India

A guest post by Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar of The Folk Tales, an award-winning responsible tourism company operating in India.

From my solo travel experiences in India, I have always noticed that women play a major role in tourism. But often it goes unnoticed because of its very nature. For example, in the case of community-run, responsible tourism projects in villages, women tend to take up the roles of cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. These chores are of great importance in running a homestay, but do not get the required recognition. While women get the roles of decision making in household chores, they seldom get the same role outside. Which is why we need women empowerment in India.

According to a study by UNWTO, women make up majority of the tourism workforce in this world, irrespective of the geographical region.

It was a pleasant surprise when I visited Barefoot College in Tiloniya village, Rajasthan, which was founded by Bunker Roy in the year 1972. Women from more than 70 developing nations — from South Asia, Middle East, Latin America, and Africa — are trained as solar engineers over a six-month course. Every year, more than 50 women participate in this course, which is led by female teachers from the local villages. The goal is to use time tested village wisdom and knowledge to evolve village-based solutions in the areas of solar power, waste paper recycling, and rain water harvesting.

After completing the course, women have gone back to their villages in Afghanistan, for example, and electrified the houses for the first time. Barefoot College is creating success stories.

“I have only studied till class six. I don’t know how to read and write. But we teach women how to design circuit boards for solar lanterns,” a proud but humble female teacher told me as she kept one eye fixed on her students. I could clearly see how grounded and settled she was as a teacher and as a decision maker in leading the course for students.

Woman cooking in a village homestay, Rajasthan. Photo credit: Mariellen Ward

Taking a day tour to Barefoot College

Day tours to Barefoot College are available for people and students who would like to see the campus and learn more about what they do. You will get an orientation of the college and the projects that help empower and teach women and children. The introduction of these tours have opened up a plethora of opportunities for the exchange of ideas between the community and the visitors.

Although Barefoot College is not entirely dependent on tourism for funds, the additional funds through responsible tourism provides opportunities for projects like night schools for children and conservation of indigenous plants of Rajasthan.

Barefoot College keeps alive the primary focus: Women first.

I stayed for two days in the guest house on the campus of Barefoot College. It was a small, clean, and cozy place that runs entirely on solar power. Highly energetic Brijesh Mishra showed me the campus, crafts centre, solar engineer training centre, waste paper recycling unit, and puppet centre.

On the street in Bikaner with women and girls of Rajasthan. Photo credit: Mariellen Ward.

How they achieve women empowerment in India

Prashant, a volunteer at Barefoot College told me that Bunker Roy bought old UN reports and recycled the paper to make puppets and dolls that are now used to teach aspects like cleanliness, education, and human rights in villages of Rajasthan — where it is better to communicate through visual cues.

Many people who started working at Barefoot College as children have now grown old. But they are still content and very committed to their work. I call this a real example of retention of talent within the village.

During my visit to Barefoot College, my belief in the ability of responsible tourism to help in the empowerment of women in India was reinforced — though it cannot be executed in isolation. It is just one pillar of the many required for the sustainable development of humanity and for women empowerment in India.

In 2015, the United Nations, along with the participating nations, adopted 17 Goals for Sustainable Development. Goal number five is about Gender Equality through various actions, one of which is active involvement of women in decision making in the responsible tourism sector.

Women of Rajasthan. Photo credit: Mariellen Ward.

A shift to responsible tourism

There is a gradual but visible shift in the way people are travelling now. I clearly see that the new trends in travel are about reaching out to cultures, nature, traditions, and to the local people. This is not entirely achievable without active involvement of women in responsible tourism. Involving women corresponds to helping them in employment, promoting fair market for local goods produced in cottage industry, and in eliminating any discrimination.

India is a diverse country, which is mostly noted for its patriarchal society where men are in authority over most aspects of society. Rajasthan finds a special mention when we talk about a society with strong patriarchal roots in India. Barefoot College is not only a shining example of gender equality in Rajasthan, but also a guiding light for many such possible projects in other parts of India.

I believe that amidst all the negativity projected by media, examples like that of Barefoot College need to be brought forth through responsible tourism.

How to reach Barefoot College: Tiloniya is approximately 14 kilometres from Kishangarh and 50 kilometres from Ajmer in Rajasthan. Superfast trains going to Ajmer stop briefly at Kishangarh from where you can either take a private taxi or a government bus to Tiloniya.

Women in India. Photo credit: Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar

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Tiger in Kanha National Park. Photo Courtesy Singinawa Jungle Lodge.

All you need to know about going on tiger safari in Kanha National Park, India — plus best Kanha hotels and lodges

MANY PEOPLE ASK ME what my favourite place in India is. Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is at the top of the list. Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s website summarizes it quite succinctly: The largest park with the biggest cats. The only problem with this description is that it leaves out the magic.

To me, there is almost no greater adventure than waiting in an open jeep, in the pre-dawn gloom, for the Kanha National Park gates to open, and then driving into the sal forest as the golden light of dawn illuminates the primeval scene. The air is filled with the songs of a myriad brilliant birds as herds of graceful spotted deer and regal Barasingha graze in the rolling meadows. Meanwhile, lurking silently in the shadows …a flash of stripes, a roar, power and poetry in feline form … the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger.

Tiger on the road in Kanha National Park. Photo Courtesy Singinawa

Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh

There is much, much more to see, do, enjoy, and explore in Kanha National Park (or any national park in Madhya Pradesh) than hunt for tigers. But the moment the guide or naturalist picks up the scent — a pugmark on the road or an animal’s alarm call — the chase is on. And it’s incredibly exciting. The jeep driver makes an educated guess as to where the tiger will appear and heads in that direction. You never know what will happen, and many times the tiger does not appear. And it doesn’t matter. It’s still amazing to be in such a beautiful place, a pristine environment for animals and wildlife, where they run free in a protected environment.

But when a tiger does appear, you will feel a sense of euphoria that is unexplainable and unmistakable. Even the guides and naturalists, who see tigers every week, feel it. The tiger simply electrifies the forest. When a tiger appears, every animal becomes alert. Deer, jackals, monkeys, and other animals track the tiger’s movements and sound alarms, not only for their own kind, but for all. No matter how much stealth she uses, the tiger is never out of view, never unseen. She is always watched by the eyes of the forest. Also, tigers are territorial and hunt and move about in a predictable range. The well-trained guides and naturalists know the tigers in Kanha National Park, and know their movements and whereabouts.

And this is the reason that tiger safaris in India are so exciting, and so often result in success. Within a protected area, criss-crossed with roads, they roam free. In a place like Kanha National Park, that is extremely well managed, the tiger, as the apex predator, has an abundance of food – primarily deer and wild pigs.

Barasingha deer in Kanha National Park. Photo Courtesy Harpreet Dhillon.

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Golden hued mist on the meadows during early morning drive in Kanha

Getting to Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park is open from October 16 to the end of June. It closes for the summer / monsoon season. You always stand a decent chance to see tigers in Kanha, but the best time is March to June, when it gets hot and the tigers (and other animals) are forced to the waterholes.

Kanha is one of the most popular parks in India, and in peak season it books up completely. Booking your safari, tour, and/or lodge visit about three months in advance, or more, is highly recommended.

At 940 square kilometres in the core zone, and 1,009 square kilometres including the buffer zone, Kanha is the largest park in Central India. The park occupies a large forested area in the southern part of Madhya Pradesh, near Mandla. It is quite near the very centre of India, Nagpur, and within driving distance of three other major tiger reserves: Satpura, Pench, and Bandhavgarh. Many people do a one or two-week tour and visit several parks.

There is no airport or train station nearby. You can fly into Jabalpur if you’re staying near Katia Gate (Kanha Earth Lodge, Kipling Camp); and Raipur if you’re staying near Mukki Gate (Singinawa, Bagh Villas). Then it’s a four- or five-hour car drive. The buses are slow and uncomfortable, and there’s no train (yet), so a pricey car drive / taxi is hard to avoid.

If you book with one of the lodges that I’m reviewing here, they can help arrange your transportation, too, and book your jeep safaris. If you come on the Tiger Safari Tour with me, Pugdundee Safaris takes care of all your transportation and drives.

Golden sun slants through the trees in Kanha during morning game drive

What to expect from a wildlife safari in Kanha National Park

There are many reasons as to why Kanha is such a sensational park. One is that parts of this park have been a wildlife sanctuary since 1933. In 1955, about 300 square kilometres was declared a national park. And in 1973, 940 square kilometres became one of India’s original nine Project Tiger Reserves.

Kanha is located in the Satpura range of the Maikal hills, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. There are four main types of vegetation: moist deciduous forest, dry deciduous forest, valley meadow, and dadar meadow. Sal trees dominate the moist deciduous forest, giving Kanha its special character.

Here is information about seasonal temperatures in Kanha, from the Madhya Pradesh Tourism website: “The winter months (November to early March) are cool and dry, with the day temperature rarely going above a comfortable 32°C, and the night temperature dipping as low as 2°C with occasional frost. The summer months (March to mid-June) are hot and dry, with temperatures ranging from 42°C in the day to 20°C at night. The park is closed to visitors once the monsoon breaks in mid to late June. The Park reopens again on 16th October.”

Friends relaxing together in Kanha. Photo courtesy Harpreet Dhillon.

Not all of Kanha’s core zone are open to tourism. In fact, only a percentage is. There are two gates, Katia/Kisli and Mukki, and five zones: Katia, Kanha, Kisli, Mukki, and Serrai.

When you book a jeep safari, you will enter the park in a Maruti Gypsy (a jeep-like open vehicle) along with a driver (who may also be a naturalist) and a maximum of four other people. At the park gate, a government certified guide will join your vehicle, and tell you which zone you are assigned to.

There are two wildlife safaris in Kanha National Park each day, morning and afternoon. The park is closed on Wednesday afternoon, which is market day in Katia.

  • The morning drive starts about 6 am, and you can spend five hours in the park. You have to be out the gate by 11 a.m.
  • The afternoon drive starts at 3 p.m. and lasts 3 hours. You have to be out the gate by 6 p.m.

Please be mindful of the park rules, which are posted at the gate. They are meant to protect the animals and ask visitors to be mindful of noise, to not take anything from the park, etc.

Wild pig in Kanha National Park. Photo Courtesy Singinawa

Animal and bird life

Kanha is a great park because of the profusion of birds and animals that thrive there. And of course the tigers.

There are at least 60 adult tigers in Kanha, as given on the 2010 census. Since that time, there have been many litters of cubs, too, and the population is increasing. Kanha is considered a great place to spot tigers because the density is good. There are many people who keep a close eye on the tigers, and know them by sight, and you can follow along and learn all about them from several resources, including:

  • Tiger Nation
  • Pugdundee Safaris blog
  • On Facebook, you can search for groups like Tigers of Kanha and Tigers of Central India, which are updated almost daily with tiger activity.

On every drive to the park, you will never be disappointed – even if you don’t see a tiger. There are herds of spotted deer and Barasingha, troupes of langur monkeys, packs of wild dogs and golden jackals – 22 species of mammals in all. Plus, gaur, wild pigs, and jungle cats. Kanha is the only place where you can see the magnificent Barasingha swamp deer in the wild: the park’s captive breeding program brought them back from the brink of extinction.

Bird, glorious birds

Approximately 300 hundred bird species and 120 butterfly species. Birders especially love Kanha.

There are hundreds of bird species in Kanha National Park. Photo Courtesy Singinawa

I kept a running list of birds I spotted at Kanha – 66 in total. These are just a few:

  • Red junglefowl
    Indian peafowl
    Lesser whistling duck
    Cotton pygmy goose
    Rufous woodpecker
    Lesser goldenback
    Shikra
    Great egret
    Brown-headed barbet
    Malabar pied hornbill
    Indian roller
    White-throated kingfisher
    Green bee-eater
    Jungle owlet
    Little grebe
    Black stork
    Oriental turtle dove
    Indian thick-knee
    Yellow-wattled lapwing
    Oriental honey buzzard
    Grey headed fish eagle
    Red-headed vultureCrested serpent eagle
    Rufous treepie
    Scarlet minivet
    Greater racket-tailed drongo

But don’t be disappointed if you don’t see a tiger. Kanha is a beautiful park. The sal and bamboo forests are cool and dark. The meadows are sunny and replete with the tall grasses that many animals feed on. Flowering trees and shrubs burst into bloom at different times of the year. And the seasons bring changes, from the lushness of the monsoon to the dryness of late winter.

To see some of the many birds and animals in Kanha, check out my Wildlife in Kanha National Park: Photo Essay

Sambar, plus barking, spotted and barasingha deer are plentiful in Kanha

What to pack for your wildlife safari

You always stand a decent chance to see tigers in Kanha, but the best time is March to June, when it gets hot and the tigers (and other animals) are forced to the waterholes. From November to February, it can be very cool – even cold – in the park, especially for the morning drive. You will need to wear layers of clothing, and take it off as the day heats up.

Light coloured, neutral clothing – in shades of white, beige, khaki, pale green – are the best, as they don’t distract the animals. A sun hat and bandana are always recommended. It can be very dusty, and you may want to cover your mouth and nose with the bandana. I also recommend taking a water bottle, tissue paper, and hand disinfectant. Toilet facilities are not always up to par, though they are better at Kanha than any other park I’ve seen.

Lodges like Pugdundee, Singinawa and Bagh Villas supply breakfast, which you eat at a breakfast point in the park, so there is no need to bring your own food when you stay and book your safaris with these lodges. On cold mornings, they also provide you with blankets and even hot water bottles – it can be chilly in the morning from November to February, though very warm and pleasant in the afternoon.

My writing spot at Kipling Camp, Kanha

Kanha National Park hotels, lodges, camps

There are lots of places to stay near Kanha National Park. Many lodges, guest houses and hotels are located, in every price range, near Katia Gate. And there’s another concentration near Mukki Gate. Here, I am reviewing four, and I truly believe they are four of the best that Kanha has to offer. I made a special effort to stay in all four places. (I also know I am missing a couple of great places, so perhaps I will add them once I get a chance to experience them.)

Kanha Earth Lodge. Photo courtesy Pugdundee Safaris

Kanha Earth Lodge, Kanha National Park, Katia Gate

Kanha Earth Lodge is the premier lodge of Pugdundee Safaris. It’s architecturally stunning, constructed of natural materials like wood and stone, and blends beautifully into the environment. Accommodation is in 12 spacious villas, and the lodge also has a pool and several outdoor dining areas. Like all Pugdundee Safaris lodges, they treat guests to all kinds of special experiences and surprises such as field dinners, and outings to local villages and the sunset point.

The lodge is located about a 30-minute drive from Katia Gate, far from the commercial activity the park attracts. Guests can walk with Pugdundee naturalists in the surrounding forest, which is alive with bird and animal life; or cycle to nearby villages.

Kanha Earth Lodge has won many awards for sustainable and responsible practices, such as giving guests a reusable bottle and providing water refilling stations. There are so many great reasons to stay at a Pugdundee Safaris lodge, but number one is the naturalists. When you stay with Pugdundee, you are escorted into the park with one of their top-notch, outstanding and English-speaking naturalists.

You can read much more about Pugdundee Safaris Lodges here: Home base for tiger safaris in India.

A comfortable bungalow at Kipling Camp, Kana

Kipling Camp, Kanha National Park, Katia Gate

Kipling Camp was established in 1982, it was one of the first wildlife camps in India, and it’s also the closest lodge to Katia Gate. In fact, it’s so close, it’s in the buffer zone – and tigers and leopards are known to cross the property. The lodge has a relaxed, genteel atmosphere, which somehow seems to be in perfect harmony with the environment and the tiger safari culture. Not a surprise: it’s owned by well-known tiger conservationist Belinda Wright and her family, and it has retained the charm of a bygone era. This is the kind of place that makes people exclaim, “Don’t change a thing!” I concur. It’s perfect.

Accommodation is in small bungalows, simple and comfortable. In mine, I found a perfect spot to situate my writing desk on the verandah, facing the sal forest and towards the park gate. Here, I could watch spotted deer nibbling at the grasses, and easily imagine a big cat walking the boundary … and in fact, sometimes they do.

The open-air lodge building has a sitting room, a dining area, and a small library. The evenings when Ms. Wright is in residence can be very lively, with card games, and visitors who exchange tall tales of the forest that keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Learning how to ski in Canada helped Sofie overcome more fears than she ever expected Guest post by Sofie of WonderfulWanderings. Part of my Transformative Travel Tales series.

I’D NEVER BEEN SKIING, not even as a child. I even stayed home from a week-long school trip to the snow because I didn’t want to learn how to ski. I was terrified of it.

It wasn’t so much the sliding on snow that scared me, but the mountains and the lifts you have to take to get up those mountains.

You see, I have a terrible fear of heights.

When I had to stand on the kitchen table as a kid so that my mom could shorten my pants, I used to get dizzy.

The first time learning how to ski

I still remember the first time I realized I was afraid of heights. I was about seven or eight and I was on a weekend trip with my parents. We’d planned on visiting a castle, but to get there you had to take a cable car that ran upwards along the hill the castle was based on. The cable car was made entirely out of glass so that you could see through the bottom.

I don’t remember getting in anymore, but I do remember screaming all the way up. I still see myself hurdled against my father (or was it my mother?), crying so hard I thought I was going to choke. I was terrified and it was a fear that stuck with me throughout the years.

My dad has it too, so I kind of blame him.

When we went to see the movie King Kong together we had to sit in the front row because it was so crowded. You know the moment King Kong climbs up on the Empire State Building and the camera looks down to show you how high up he is? We both got sick. Not kidding you.

So that’s why I never went skiing. Just the idea of hanging in one of those cable cars along a mountain side… No, I couldn’t take it.

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That didn’t change when I met my snowboarding boyfriend. If it were up to him we’d move to the mountains and he’d snowboard all day long. Luckily he didn’t mind keeping his snowboard vacations as “trips with the guys” and so during the first seven years that we were together, I never followed him to the snow.

And then it happened.

An offer I couldn’t refuse

As a travel blogger, I sometimes get invited to places I never dreamed of going. Like Canada. And then, one day we  were invited by a ski resort in Canada to test out their slopes and winter activities.

I knew I couldn’t say no to this. This wasn’t a trip to the Swiss Alps. We could be going to Canada!

It seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to finally find out why Boyfriend loved the snow and the mountains as much as he did and, as a good girlfriend, I felt like I couldn’t let that slip.

Already dreaming of conquering Canadian slopes, Boyfriend wholeheartedly agreed and so that was that. We were going to do winter sports in Canada.

Wait, what?

In the mountains of Canada

I didn’t want to torture myself, so I planned for us to spend four days in Quebec City before we headed to the ski resort. That way I could get used to the cold and snow before tackling the slopes.

Luckily, we had such a great time in Quebec that when the time came to go skiing, I was up for it. Besides, I had a private teacher to myself for an entire hour and surely he wouldn’t take a total newbie like me up to the mountains, right?

Class started where I’d hoped it would start: on the baby slope. It was a piece of almost flat snow terrain, just hilly enough to teach you the very basics of skiing: slowing down and turning.

I slid down and to my own great surprise felt quite calm, in control even. It only took me two runs on the baby slope and my teacher Paul already took me up the children’s slope. Oh yeah!

Getting onto the children’s slope wasn’t hard at all. There was a magic carpet that you just had to slid on with your skis or snowboard and it would take you all the way up the hill (“all the way” being like 100 metres). From there the run down was a bit more hilly, but still very short and not high at all.

We worked on my technique and I learned how to properly zigzag to slow down as I descended the hill. I also learned to place my weight on the right leg and to switch my weight whenever I turned.

This was going great!

A little too great, even, because all of a sudden Paul pointed to the cable cars. “I’m taking you up,” he said.

What? That hadn’t been the plan!

Don’t they have a magic carpet going up the mountain? Like, all the way up?
They didn’t.

Could I do this?

Part of me was scared like hell, but another part of me was proud that I’d gotten the hang of skiing so quickly and wanted to move on to learn more.

To my relief the cable cars were those kind of bubbles that close entirely and I strategically chose a seat facing up the mountain, so that I wouldn’t have to look into the descending abyss.

As I felt the cable car being pulled upwards, butterflies started flying around my stomach. I tried to keep the conversation with Paul going, mentioning about 10 times how beautiful it was up there.

If only the car would stop mid-air.

It didn’t.

Vertigo, me and the mountain

Safely on top of the mountain I felt like I’d just conquered the world. Not only had I skied, I’d also taken a cable car!

That wasn’t all though, I still had to get down the mountain.

Paul took me along the easiest slope and off we went. I felt like I was going so fast, but of course I was a snail in comparison to the other people there.

Still, I managed to get down without falling once.

What a win!

I couldn’t wait to tell Boyfriend all about this. He’d been off snowboarding the expert slopes while I had my class. And while I was happy not to have him look on while I was learning, I kind of felt sorry now that he hadn’t seen me in action.

There would still be time for that though, as there was another day of skiing planned for me at another mountain. A guide would take us around the mountain, but for my sake we decided to stick to the family slope.

There was just one problem: to get to the top of this slope you needed to take a chair lift. That’s right, no cosy, enclosed cable car, but an open chair lift.

When we waited in line to get on, I started feeling nauseous again. For me, this was something of another level. This was why I’d never gone skiing.

Our guide, Melissa, took my sticks so I wouldn’t have to worry about them while we were up I the air. Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve even remembered I had sticks if she hadn’t taken them from me. I was so focused on not wanting to be scared.

In hindsight, it wasn’t that bad. I mean, I’d expected to completely freeze, get hysterical, or point-blank refuse to get on the chair lift.

Instead, apart from that irrational fear in my stomach, I was pretty fine.

The hardest part was the end, when you have to lift the protective bar that’s in front of you before you reach the lift station to make sure that you’ll get out of the chairs on time.

But the feeling I had afterwards? Wow.

In a few days time I’d learned to ski, I’d taken a cable car and I’d taken a chair lift. Multiple times even!

When I was standing on top of that mountain, the chair lifts behind me, I felt invincible for a moment.

I still have a fear of heights and I know that the lifts I took weren’t located as high above the ground as the ones in France or Italy are (thanks for pointing that out, Boyfriend), but I still felt like I’d accomplished something great. And from that moment on I have not let my fears hold me back anymore.

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Me in Bateshwar, India 2016

Find out the number one thing I’ve learned from 12 years of female solo travel in India Planning a solo trip in India? Or elsewhere? Read on the find out the number one thing I’ve learned — my top tip — for taking a solo trip in India, or travelling alone anywhere, for that matter.

Female solo travel India. These are four words that many women might feel daunted to put together. I’ve been travelling alone in India for more then three years over the past 12 years, and writing a solo female travel blog the entire time. Here’s my story and the number one thing I’ve learned. Plus, scroll down to meet 20 kickass female solo travellers!

On December 5, 2005, I arrived in Delhi to begin a six-month solo trip in India. I had never done anything like this before. Never back-packed, never went on a long journey alone, never been to India — or indeed anywhere like India. (Is there anywhere like India?) If you want to know what would make me undertake this bold step, you can read My Story or Quit my Job to Travel.

For the past 12 years, I’ve spent well more than three years largely travelling alone in India. I’ve also travelled to other countries such as Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Bhutan, and Ireland. Most of my travels are solo. Over the years, I’ve been interviewed countless times about being a solo female traveller and ESPECIALLY about being a solo female traveller in India. My Top Tips for Women Travelling in India has probably been seen by millions of people because it’s been syndicated by some huge traffic travel sites.

I think it’s safe to say, I’ve learned a lot about travel, about myself, about India, and about being a solo female traveller in India. And, after a recent discussion in a girls travel Facebook group about how to handle harassment, I want to offer what is perhaps the most important tip to solo female travellers in India and everywhere else. Here it is:

It’s okay to be rude.

In the girls travel Facebook group, a young woman posted that she was in an uncomfortable situation in Udaipur, India. A man came and sat at her table, and was coming on strong to her, invading her space, and making her feel uncomfortable. She said she didn’t know what to do to get out of the situation as she didn’t want to appear rude. Many women commented on the post, and the comments were divided. Some advocated for avoiding confrontation and not appearing rude (eg have a friend call you!). And some felt that rudeness was not only acceptable in this situation, but required.

I am firmly in the “be rude, get up and walk away” camp.

It’s okay to be rude when someone (let’s face it, usually a man) invades your space. It’s okay to be rude when someone makes inappropriate remarks. It’s okay to be rude when your gut instinct — your intuition — tells you something is off. It’s okay to be rude when someone is following you. It’s okay to be rude when someone is making you feel uncomfortable.

Basically, it’s okay to be rude whenever you feel the situation demands it.

On the street in Bikaner, hanging out with the girls, October 2017

Girls and women are taught to be polite, conciliatory, and kind, and told “don’t rock the boat.” We’re made to feel bad, even humiliated, when someone says or does something inappropriate, when we are sexually harassed, even when we’re abused and raped. We’re made to feel responsible, as if we are to blame, for a man’s bad behaviour. It could be our dress, or being out late, or travelling alone. Somehow, we are made to feel ashamed when it is his behaviour that is shameful.

But here’s the thing. If we don’t kick back, if we don’t stand up and say “NO,” if we don’t let these guys know, in no uncertain terms, that their creepy behaviour is NOT OKAY, we are subtly condoning it. We are creating a situation in which we are allowing it to continue. In which the next girl who comes along will also be treated with disrespect or worse.

We are NOT responsible for a man’s behaviour, but we ARE responsible for how we respond to it.

We are not victims. We are powerful. But: Society doesn’t want women to be powerful — which is why there is so much oppression in the first place.

Overcoming inner fear, insecurity, and timidity is a necessary step to becoming a solo female traveller, in my opinion. We do not possess the physical strength of a man, but we possess something just as powerful: We possess gut instinct. Women’s intuition.

I strongly urge young women, solo female travellers, and every other girl or woman reading this to LISTEN to your intuition. If you think something is off, it probably is. Trust yourself, trust your rising anger. Anger is a protective emotion. Use it.

If you don’t feel comfortable with a confrontation, walk away. Ask for help. Overcome any resistance you may have to reaching out for help if you feel it’s needed.

Waiting for the super moon to rise over Hampi, November 2016

One time, walking in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I was followed by a man. I caught up to a family group and walked with them until he gave up and walked away. Another time in India, I was a bit nervous about hailing one of the autos waiting outside the hotel. I asked the front desk manager to help me, and he hailed an auto from a driver he knew. I have found people to be really helpful when I ask them for assistance in these situations.

If we don’t speak up, they don’t know it’s inappropriate.”

Very recently, I was walking happily on a beach in Kerala, India enjoying the warmth of the ocean breeze, the sound of the waves, the sight of the birds frolicking in the surf. As I walked past a man who had just been swimming, he motioned to me. He asked me if I wanted a massage and made the movements of a massage with his hands. Instantly my euphoric feelings crumbled. The man, who was from one of the Gulf states, was staying at the same resort as me. Later, at breakfast, I told his older friend (turned out, he was his uncle) what happened. The uncle was concerned and seemed to believe me, but also defended his nephew by saying he doesn’t know English, and he’s not that kind of man. Nevertheless, he spoke with his nephew and shortly afterwards the nephew (the man who propositioned me) came to my table and apologized. I said thank you. I feel I did the right thing as this man will now think twice about propositioning women like this in future. If we don’t speak up, they don’t know it’s inappropriate.

In the midst of millions at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, April 2010

Staying safe in India

In India, and probably other countries too, being polite can sometimes be construed as consent. The culture is hierarchical, patriarchal, and traditional, and roles are more fixed than in the west. If you are too polite to service workers — like auto drivers, waiters, touts, travel agents, sales people, etc. — they might get the wrong impression. And this is doubly true if someone is bothering you.

I’m Canadian, a country of people known for politeness. I’ve had to overcome ingrained politeness to move around comfortably in India. I ignore a lot of people on the street, from beggars to auto drivers. And if someone is bothering me, I am very quick to snap, “Jao!” at them (which means “go away” in Hindi).

This same social structure will help you, however, should someone be harassing you in public. If you are in trouble, you can call out for help. Aunties and uncles will rally around you, and chase the “badmash” away. Social shaming really works in India. So don’t be afraid to call for help, and call out your abuser, if you are in a situation (like a train or bus or busy market) where you feel that good people will come to your rescue.

Becoming confident as a female solo traveller

I’ve travelled solo in India for literally years, since I was 45 in 2005. And in all this time, I’ve only had a couple of uncomfortable situations. I had my breast grabbed by a passerby when I was on a cycle rickshaw in Old Delhi on my first trip. I had a creepy guy follow me in Colaba, Mumbai. I saw a creepy guy watching my at the train station in Ahmedabad and went and stood with two policemen until he left. I’ve been stared at countless times, and no doubt had some lewd remarks passed. I’ve had men not talk to me or listen to me, because they prefer to talk to other men. I’ve definitely felt and experienced the patriarchal nature of Indian society.

But I’ve had worse things happen to me in USA and Canada. When I was younger. I think the reason I’ve haven’t been hassled that much in India is because I’m older, and less of a target. Partially because of my age, but also because I probably look like I won’t take shit.

Lest you think I was lucky to have been born this confident, let me tell you: this has been a hard-won achievement. In fact, I was wracked with anxiety, depression, and insecurity for most of my life. It took intense therapy, dedication to yoga, and years of solo travel to make me the (relatively) confident person I am today.

Caution, yes. Fear, no.

I urge women to travel with confidence — and it does take time to build. Start within your comfort zone. Build it up. Starting your solo travels, as a young woman, in India may or may not be a good idea. India is not easy, it’s not for everyone. Yes, I started here. But I was older, ready, and I really felt called to India.

I don’t think anyone should be afraid to travel in India. If you are, don’t do it. I am often misquoted and misunderstood on this point. I feel the media has created a lot of fear around women travelling alone, especially in India. Fear and sensationalism sell.

But I don’t think fear is a positive emotion. I think fear attracts negative people and experiences. Many studies have shown that men who assault women look for signs of vulnerability. If you stride with confidence, and let a man know when he’s crossed a boundary, you are giving a clear signal: Don’t mess with me.

Travel with caution, yes. A million times yes. Read My Top Tips for Women Travelling in India. I practise cautious, safe travel strategies every day. There is no guarantee that if you do all the “right things” – wear conservative, Indian clothing, follow cultural norms, use safe travel strategies, and stay alert and confident – that nothing bad will happen to you. But based on my experience, I think it does mitigate risk.

Personally, I have found travelling in India to be the most rewarding adventure of my life. I know I have an affinity for the culture here, and perhaps my attitude plays a part. I am open and trusting, I like India and Indians, and I feel happy and privileged to be here. I have always approached India with the attitude of a seeker, which essentially means I try and accept everything that happens as a life lesson. And I always stay alert to my surroundings, and use my razor-sharp instincts — honed from years of use — to keep me safe.

What about you? What do you think? Do you have any safety tips for women? Do you have any stories of when you spoke up in an uncomfortable situation? Join the discussion on the Breathedreamgo Facebook page here. Tips for solo female travel in India
  1. Read my Top Tips for Women Travelling in India
  2. Use a local SIM card. You can get one right at the airport when you land in Delhi or Mumbai. I recommend Airtel, Vodafone or Jio.
  3. Buy travel insurance.
  4. Learn self defense. Check out this inspiring post from Alice of Teacake Travels about how she defended herself when sexually assaulted in India.
20 Solo female travellers in India, in pictures

Janice Soderholm

Janice Soderholm

This photo is from Fall 2017 travelling on my own to India and then meeting up with a DMC. These women were such fun and so wanted a pic with me.  Travelling in India is special. It is not always easy but the challenge is what brings me back again and again. Transforming how I view everyday living happens best in India. No where else in the world have I learned to appreciate EVERYTHING and at the same time realize how  most things I think are important really are not.  OmJV. Website YogaTravels.

Kelly Campbell

Kelly Campbell

I run Experience the Village and take women all over India on adventures, sight seeing trips, and visits to our partner projects in Kolkata. I often arrive before the group or stay longer and continue traveling to discover more of India each time. The photo is from Shantiniketan where we have a community based tourism program and hotel

Lillie Marshall

Lillie Marshall

As a teacher, my schedule was such that I could only spend one week in India. People told me, “That won’t be worth it — wait until you can go longer,” but I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them! India was, indeed, incredible. My saying is, “There’s never a perfect time to take a trip. Just go when you can, or you may never go at all!” During that week in New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra, I took over 4,000 photos, and when I got home, I wrote over 30 articles about India, which meant I was able to re-live the experience and research more in depth over the 2 years it took me to write it all up. I am clear that I’ve only scratched the very edge of the surface of India, and need to go back soon to learn and explore more, but I am so thankful that I was able to see what I did, even for a week! Website is AroundTheWorldL.

Reena Tory

Reena Tory

Reena Tory is Chief Experience Officer of Mantra Wild Adventures, a boutique travel company specializing in wilderness and cultural safaris to the Indian subcontinent for solo travellers, couples and small groups, supporting local community initiatives and tiger conservation. “I absolutely love school kids and somehow I get asked to be photographed with them. On this occasion, atRaj Ghat in 2010, I was nearly trampled on and then their teacher armed with a stick came to break up the commotion. It was all in fun and we had a blast!”

Lola Mendez

Lola Méndez

Lola Méndez is a full-time traveler sharing her adventures on Miss Filatelista. She travels to develop her own worldview and recently spent six months exploring India. She’s passionate about sustainable travel she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities.

Stephanie Huff

Stephanie Huff

Steph is a Canadian traveller and the founder of The Pink Backpack travel blog, where she writes about solo adventure travel. In 2015, Steph traveled through India on her own, making her way from Kerala up to Himachal Pradesh over the course of three months.

Kathy

Kathy, Walkabout Wanderer

Kathy is the face behind Walkabout Wanderer, a blog in solo female adventure travel. In 2008 she went from package holidays to travelling solo around the world. She fell in love with India and has travelled there five times. This photo was taken whilst touring Kerala, in a tea plantation in..

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The Air Canada Dreamliner

Flights to India: Review of Premium Economy on direct flight from Toronto to Delhi & assessment of Dreamliner

If you’re looking for air tickets to India, or more information on flights to India, check out the Air Canada flights I am reviewing in this post. I’m also assessing the sustainability of air travel and the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) plane. Plus, scroll down for my top long-haul flight tips.

Arriving in India, from Canada, is always disorienting. The combination of long haul travel, exhaustion, jet lag, and of course the massive cultural difference makes it a shock to the system. I always try and mitigate these effects by choosing the best flights to India, drinking a lot of water, sleeping as much as possible on the plane, and relaxing in Delhi for at least three days before I start travelling or making plans.

So, I was really excited and curious about experiencing the Air Canada flights, and flying from Toronto to Delhi direct for the first time on the Air Canada Direct to Delhi on the Dreamliner flight. Air Canada had (inexplicably) stopped flying to India for about 10 years, so I was thrilled when they brought in direct flights. The Toronto-Delhi direct flights started in 2016 and they fly every day.

Air Canada gave me a complimentary air ticket to try out the new Premium Economy Class on the Direct to Delhi Dreamliner. As you can imagine, I’ve had many flights to India. I’ve been lucky to get upgrades to fly Business Class several times to India on different airlines, and I’ve flown Economy Class several times too, so I was very curious about the difference.

Air Canada Premium Economy cabin

Air Canada flights to India in Premium Economy: My review

Whether or not you feel Premium Economy is value-for-money will depend on how you feel about space and comfort. I found it to be much, much more comfortable than economy. The seats are really big and there’s lots of leg room and even a divider between seats. Someone remarked that Premium Economy is similar to what Business Class used to be like. I also like the small cabin, only 21 seats. I found it easy to sleep on the plane – with the help of a great neck pillow – and managed to get in about six hours. The seats recline more than Economy, but not flat like Business Class.

There are two washrooms, and they are most spacious and nicest washrooms I’ve ever seen on a plane. I thought these washrooms were just for Premium Economy, but on my flight, one was shared with Economy and one was supposed to be for Business Class (but I snuck into this one several times). If you want to avoid washroom lineups, book a seat on the right-hand side of the plane. I had checked SeatGuru, and following their advice, booked the last row so I could fully recline my seat without bothering anyone.

Air Canada Premium Economy seat

A nice perk of flying Premium Economy is that meals are served using proper plates and cutlery, like in Business Class. No plastic or throwaway materials. The service is good and there are more food options. In fact, I found the flight attendants to be incredibly friendly and helpful. However, I can’t give the Indian food option very high marks. It was actually more like fusion Canadian-Indian food, and rather tasteless compared to authentic Indian food. I noticed that a very large proportion of passengers were Indian, so I can only wonder what they thought of the food. I would strongly suggest that Air Canada up their game in this department. But it was my only disappointment with this flight, so I really shouldn’t complain.

There are several other benefits to booking Premium Economy that really help make a long flight more bearable when you’re looking at air tickets to India. You can check in at the Business and First Class counter, which is a separate section at Toronto Pearson International Airport with very short lineups, and you get priority tags on your luggage. Unfortunately, though, you don’t get access to the Maple Leaf Lounge – which is an exceptionally good lounge at Pearson.

Finally, even though the flight left Toronto a bit late, it made up time and we actually landed early in Dehli. It honestly seemed like a dream, to get on a very comfortable plane (more on the Dreamliner below) in Toronto and land in Delhi without stopping. I also appreciate the scheduling. You leave Toronto at a reasonable time (early evening) and arrive mid-evening in Delhi. I got to my homestay just in time to unwind and go to bed at my usual time – which really helped to mitigate the jet lag.

Two thumbs up and (almost) full marks for the Air Canada Direct to Delhi flight and Premium Economy. Aside from bland food, it was a great flight.

For suggestions on visiting Delhi, please read:

Air Canada’s Premium and Business Class checkin counter at Toronto Pearson Airport

My top 6 long haul flight tips
  1. Refillable bottle. Drink as much water as possible: I have experimented with this and found it to be true: The more water I drink, the better I will feel after landing. I feel certain that when I manage to drink upwards of four litres of water on my flights from Canada to India (that range from 13 to 16 hours in the sky), I suffer less jet lag. I bring my own refillable bottles and fill them at the airport, and then I ask the flight attendants to refill them often.
  2. A neck pillow. I used to think that people carrying around neck pillows in airports were wimps. Not anymore. Happily, I won one, and found it helped me sleep and greatly reduced my usual post-flight neck ache.
  3. Compression socks or stockings. I decided to buy a pair for this flight as I was almost 13 hours in the air. I found my legs felt better and were not swollen.
  4. Noise cancelling earphones. These can help you sleep, as well as make movies and music more enjoyable.
  5. Overnight bag. I always pack a small bag with things like moisturizer, lip balm, travel size toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs, eye mask, cosy socks. My luxury item is a small spray bottle of flower water for spritzing my face. Makes me feel instantly cooler and moister.
  6. Asian (Indian) Vegetarian meal. I joined a discussion on Facebook about what specialty meals people order and I was surprised to discover a LOT of people order the Asian / Indian Vegetarian meal. It really does often seem to be the most tasty.

Air Canada Premium Economy seatback

The Dreamliner and sustainability

I never thought I would become an airplane geek. I was really exciting about flying to India on Air Canada’s direct to Delhi on a Dreamliner flight because I have never flown direct to India before. At about 13 hours, flying direct shaves about four hours off my usual route, which includes a touch-down in Europe. I anticipated this would make the trip less tiring, and maybe even cut down on the effects of jet lag.

And while all this is true, I discovered something even better: the 787-9 Dreamliner itself. It was my first time flying this machine, and it really is a marvel – a big step forward in airplane design and efficiency. I honestly noticed the differences, and then started asking about the plane. I noticed first that the air didn’t seem as dry, and the plane seemed quieter – both observations turned out to be true. Then I started noticing all kinds of details like big windows that become tinted at the touch of a button, very spacious washrooms, charging ports on the back of each seat. And on and on.

As someone who is concerned about my carbon footprint and travelling responsibly and sustainably, I talked to a couple of experts and also did some research on this plane. I discovered that by flying direct I cut down on emissions, and that the Dreamliner is a more fuel-efficient plane than earlier generations.

This is important because global air travel produces approximately two per cent of the total man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Air Canada estimates: “Fuel usage and maintenance costs for a Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) aircraft to be approximately 20 per cent less than that of the Boeing 767-300ER that it will replace, based on Air Canada’s operations.”

According to Air Canada: “The single-most important factor in reducing GHG emissions has been the continuous improvement in aircraft and aircraft engine efficiency. According to IATA, since the first commercial jet aircraft began regular service, CO2 efficiency has improved by some 80 per cent per passenger kilometer; today’s aircraft are 75 per cent quieter than those manufactured 50 years ago; and levels of carbon monoxide have come down by 50 per cent and unburned hydrocarbons and smoke by around 90 per cent. Air Canada has kept pace with these developments with an ongoing fleet renewal program that includes plans to have 37 Boeing 787 Dreamliners in its fleet by 2019.”

Air travel is carbon intensive, but fuel efficiency helps, and so does flying direct.

Experts weigh in on air travel sustainability

I asked Rachel Dodds, owner of Sustaining Tourism and Professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada for her thoughts on air travel.

“Air travel is hugely carbon intensive, but fuel efficiency helps,” Rachel Dodds said. “Flying direct rather than with multiple stops is more efficient, and those operators that tow their planes to the gate reduce fuel as planes consume more fuel on the ground than in the air. There is a whole debate on offsetting. I would offer it as an alternative option, but not the be all-and-end-all. Some companies are credible, but some aren’t … so I have my reservations.”

Travel contributes around 5-6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 2% from aviation.” Vicky Smith

I also talked to Vicki Smith about air travel. Vicky Smith has worked in travel for more than 20 years, witnessing first-hand the negative impacts mass-market, profit-focused tourism has on beloved people and places. She has been an impassioned champion of sustainable tourism for more than 10 years, and now runs the transformative tourism start-up Earth Changers.

“People say aviation is the elephant in the room, but I’ve heard it discussed at sustainable tourism conferences for years. The problem is there is no real solution yet so it appears as silence and inaction, and so it gets a bad rep. We need transparent talk about it for greater awareness, perspective and consumer action: Travel contributes around 5-6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 2% from aviation.”

That’s not to say we don’t need to do address it, especially as travel growth is showing no signs of abating. Until we have alternative energy planes, consumers are free to take responsibility for reducing their own consumption footprint rather than looking to others to appease guilt.”

We each have the responsibility to gauge our own actions and inactions, and whether and how we want to address the environmental crisis. I choose to take one long-haul, return flight per year from Canada to India, and to do it as efficiently as possible. I stay for six months in India (and six at home in Canada). I’m trying to do my part by becoming informed and making responsible choices, whenever possible. By flying direct on the Dreamliner, I feel I am making the best possible choice available at this time.

Sheraton Gateway Hotel at Toronto Pearson Airport, Terminal 3

Sheraton Gateway Hotel

Thanks also to the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Toronto International Airport for my overnight stay before boarding the Air Canada flight to India. The hotel is directly connected to Terminal 3, which makes it incredibly stress-free for catching an early morning flight, a long-haul flight, or when transferring in Toronto. And when they mean directly connected, they mean you can walk out the door of the hotel, along a pedestrian bridge, and into the terminal in about five minutes.

I was upgraded to a Club Room with a view of the runway – for a passionate traveller like myself, I found the scene very exciting. I loved watching the planes take off and land, ha. Made me feel like a kid.

Sheraton Gateway Hotel club room, at Toronto Pearson Airport

I also loved the handy Club lounge, which offers a complimentary breakfast in the morning, and hors d’oeuvres in the evening. They also offer a full range of business supplies and services, for business travellers.

The Sheraton Gateway is a full service hotel, with bars, restaurants a fitness centre and pool, meeting rooms and even winter coat and boot storage for travellers heading to warmer climates. Highly recommend for taking the stress out of your flight and booking in here.

And to get to the hotel, and Toronto Pearson Airport, I took the UP Express. This high-speed train connects the airport to downtown Toronto in 25 minutes, and is (now) very affordably priced. Again, I found taking the UP Express really reduced stress as the journey is so quick and the schedule so frequent (every 15 minutes).

NOTE: I was hosted by the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, and by Air Canada, to experience the hotel and the direct flight to India. But as always, my opinions are my own, and the needs of my readers are my first priority.

The immigration counters at Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi

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For this Wildlife Canada post, we’re going to see Polar Bears Churchill

Guest post by Claudia Laroye.

EVEN THOUGH I’VE LIVED in Canada for most of my life, the size and scale of the second-largest country in the world continues to amaze me. That feeling of awe was never more apparent than during a recent trip to see polar bears in Churchill. Churchill is a place that elicits feelings of excitement from anyone who’s heard of this remote place in Manitoba, Canada, on the western shore of Hudson Bay.

I was practically giddy with anticipation as we descended into Churchill on a bright, clear day in mid-August, with summer temperatures still in the air. The flat, boreal forest of scrubby pine trees was dotted with glistening ponds of water, too many to count. The expanse of legendary Hudson Bay lay just to the east, its shoreline a few kilometers from our home for the next five days, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). An amazing place for wildlife Canada enthusiasts.

We were embarking upon a learning holiday that fit perfectly within one of my travel mantras, to be ever curious (the other mantra involves the restorative power of daily gelato). Through most of my adventures, I try to understand a place or culture on a deeper level: to be curious and learn about the world, in order to broaden my perspective and become a better traveller.

A polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Photo credit: Claudia Laroye.

The polar bears Churchill experience

The citizen scientist experience at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is perfectly suited to the curious-minded traveller, those seeking a transformative travel experience who want to know the how and the why. There is nothing like seeing magnificent creatures in the wild in Churchill, roaming the muskeg and playing in their natural habitat. Enjoying this opportunity while learning from scientists and knowledgeable guides in this subarctic home of polar bears and breeding beluga whales is certainly bucket list worthy, and it’s in reach of anyone with the resources and interest to do so.

Wildlife Canada: At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is an independent, non-profit research and education facility located 23 kilometres (14 miles) east of Churchill, Manitoba, where the northern reach of the boreal forest meets the southern extent of arctic tundra. Founded in 1976, the mission of the CNSC is to understand and sustain the north. Scientists from all over Canada travel here to study arctic animals and wildlife like belugas, polar bears and foxes, plants like crocus, reindeer lichen, the variety of berries, and the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights.

CNSC offers five to seven day Learning Vacations to intrepid travellers on a year-round basis. The busiest season is Polar Bear Season, from October to November. The Lords of the Arctic camp showcases the polar bears as they congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their chief food source, the ringed seal. The darkness of February is the best time of year for those seeking the magic of the Northern Lights, though you can see them year-round if conditions are right. In summer, the Wild Planet course showcases the sub-arctic tundra and boreal forest through daily hikes, as well as the region’s stunning animal life, including kayaking alongside breeding beluga whales.

The Centre can accommodate 84 guests in comfortable, dormitory-style shared accommodation. Meals are included in the stay, and the quality of the food is the surprising secret bonus of the Centre. I shared my room with a naturalist from Washington State. Many of our fellow travellers were keen to embrace a learning holiday as part of their individual desire to learn more about Canada, particularly in its 150th year, and discover the natural world in the north.

As part of our Wild Planet course orientation, it was necessary to attend a briefing that included tips on how to stay safe in polar bear country. This included not venturing out on one’s own without an armed bear monitor. Post-dinner walks were definitely out. While our lead guide James had never had to fire his powerful 22-gauge shotgun, we did hear cracker shells (fired to frighten a roaming bear) on one memorable occasion. It resulted in a 29-year old female bear being pursued through downtown Churchill, darted, and transported to spend 30 days in the Polar Bear Holding Facility. Whenever we went out on our daily hikes, even near the CNSC buildings, our two guides were armed. Car doors and homes are always left unlocked so that in cases of polar bear alert, people can duck into the nearest shelter or home.

Twin Lakes hike rest stop. Photo credit: Claudia Laroye.

Wild Planet Learning Vacation

The mid-summer Wild Planet course showcases the sub-arctic tundra and boreal forest, as well as the region’s stunning animal life. Each day is filled with hikes and excursions that get participants up close and personal with Churchill’s wilderness and its human history.

The CNSC is on the former site of a rocket range property and launch pad facility that was run by NASA the Canadian National Research Council. For over twenty years, staff launched rockets for atmospheric tests in study of the aurora borealis.

A hike from the main CNSC facility to nearby Ramsey Lake took us past the launch buildings, which remain as ghostly relics, the tallest items in the landscape. The lake was busy with birds of prey such as bald eagles, as well as parasitic jaegers, Pacific Loons and a flock of white tundra swans. The soft muskeg along the trail made for an easy hike on the legs. The springy surface sits upon permafrost in this sub-arctic zone. However, as with so many climate changes, the nature of permafrost is changing as well.

On our Twin Lakes hike, we stopped to pick small, tasty wild blueberries that grew everywhere along the trail. They were a better find than the more bitter-tasting black crowberries. The variety of lichen in the boreal forest was incredible, from light-coloured reindeer lichen to bight orange elegant starburst variety, and the edible but not-so-appetizing rock tripe lichen.

Sloop Cove and Prince of Wales Fort

The European history of Churchill is tied to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and its exploration of the area on behalf of England in the 17th century. Though it didn’t own the land, the Company began establishing forts for the purposes of trading furs, specifically beaver pelts that were made into fashionable top hats. Sloop Cove was the small port on the Churchill River where HBC men would tie their ships. Many left graffiti markings in the soft granite stone from that time period as well. We traced the Company’s footsteps from the Cove to Prince of Wales Fort, now a Parks Canada site, which sits at the mouth of the Churchill River. The Fort took 40 years to build, and was never quite finished before the French partially destroyed it in 1782.

Spotting the Northern Lights

If conditions permit, you can see the Aurora in the summertime, though you’ll have to set your alarm clock. It’s worth getting up at 12:30 AM to walk up the spiral staircase of the Centre’s Aurora Dome for a 360 degree view of the night sky. I spotted some strange cloud formations at that early hour, and headed outside on the upper viewing deck in time to view the green light begin to shimmer and change shape above my head. It wasn’t the full-on light show that might appear on a cold winter night in February, but still, the Aurora! This was an incredible natural display that was well worth getting up for.

Kayaking with SeaNorth. Photo credit: Claudia Laroye.

Kayaking with Beluga Whales

The subarctic in summer is the playground of the breeding beluga whale. Thousands of belugas and their calves congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River, growing big on kapelin before heading north to the Arctic and Lancaster Sound for winter. Their white backs are easy to spot from shore, accompanied by the grey forms of younger whales. On a cool grey morning, we paddled out past the abandoned Churchill Port in our Sea North kayaks to enjoy a truly playful encounter with these gentle sea creatures.

Belugas were very active in the surprisingly warm river, and loved the bubbles created by my kayak paddles. Absolutely no touching is allowed, of course. The feeling that comes when a beluga swims within one foot of you, or bumps your kayak from underneath is incredible. It leaves you simply awestruck and even a bit paralyzed. The opportunity to sit and contemplate such wild beauty in its own natural habitat is rare, and humbling. It reinforces the important message that humans are connected to the natural world, something we tend to forget at times.

Polar bear mural. Photo credit: Claudia Laroye.

Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans

Wild Planet includes human activities in its course curriculum too. In June 2017, the Pangeaseed Foundation’s Sea Walls project brought public artists from around the world to paint more than 16 colourful, large-scale murals in and around Churchill. The Foundation’s mission is to raise awareness through ARTivism about the world’s oceans and its animals, including polar bears which are considered marine mammals. One of the most unique murals is on “Miss Piggy,” a well intact plane that crashed near the town’s airport. The plane gets her name from her rumored cargo of snacks and junk food.

The murals bring fresh life to many buildings in Churchill, which is currently struggling with the loss of weekly rail service due to spring flood damage to the rail line, the town’s only ground link to the south. Churchill has essentially become a fly-in community for most of the year, and that has impacted affordable access and tourism to the region.

The remoteness of this place gives it an end-of-the-earth feeling. Though you’re not even above the Arctic Circle, you are most certainly in the North. And the North is an incredibly special place. It took me 40+ years to get here and realize that, but now like so many explorers and visitors before me, I’m gripped by its landscape, history, and the delicate balance of nature that exists in a difficult environment. And there’s no better way to dive deep into understanding this place then by channeling the inner scientist at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

The Boreal Forest. Photo credit: Claudia Laroye.

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