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A new venture in Nagaland encourages tourists to combine conservation and a holiday.
For Piran Elavia it has been such a long journey - to be measured not just geographically but also in terms of emotional spaces and experiences. Once an IT professional who worked at a frenetic pace in Mumbai, he now frequents the remote regions of the North-East where he enables tourists to stand and stare at the brilliant butterflies of Manas National Park. In Arunachal Pradesh he gives city goers the opportunity of ratcheting up adrenalin levels by rafting along the Siang river negotiating Class IV rapids and undertaking exploratory treks to remote tribal villages deep in the forest. Or else he simply invites people to enjoy the unique charms of walking across the eco bridges of Cherrapunji created over several years by planting ficus trees on both banks until the roots grow and entwine themselves around bamboo to form an amazingly sturdy link. Like these bridges, Elavia's venture, Kipepeo (a Swahili word meaning butterfly ) is also a model that seeks connections between visitors and the local populations, between livelihood demands and the need to protect the environment so that travel becomes a mutually rewarding experience for both visitor and host. This model, which is based on the premise that tourism must be the happy face of conservation, involves local communities and utilises homestays, local porters, cooks and guides as part of the venture. Local produce and locally available renewable resources are used. Part of the profit generated from the income of tours is invested in social activities like conservation, educational development and sanitation.
The idea for such a journey began when Elavia, increasingly frustrated with his job, decided to take a sabbatical and travel in the North East which had always held a certain mystique in his imagination. "For six months I tried to learn more of the region's history, culture and diversity. The media tended to cover the North East through the prism of insurgency and armed struggles. I wanted the whole picture and thought it would be good to actually live among communities in the region. "
He then decided to chuck his job, much to his family's horror, and work as a volunteer in the Bodo heartlands, near the Manas National Park in Assam. Elavia was assigned the task of introducing the wired world to children in a local school and the staff of the organisation. For the first few days it was tough going. "I found it a totally different ball game from the maniacal ways of the corporate world. Meal timings were irregular. Things were not very organised. I realised planning and drawing up schedules was futile. I learnt to bring about a more fluid approach to my job and to be continuously innovative when working with the children. "
Besides providing totally different experiences, his new home, Lwkhi Bazaar, also triggered the U-turn in his career. It was the huge varieties of winged beauties of this region that captivated him and provided an impetus for his travel venture. Whilst studying and documenting 180 species he referred to naturalist Isaac Kehimkar's book on butterflies and learnt about a community enterprise in Kenya (also named Kipepeo) which successfully bridges the divide between conservation and livelihood needs of the people. "I was convinced it could be replicated in the North East which has an amazing diversity in both cultures and environment, " he says. From this chrysalis his very own Kipepeo took flight.
"People ask 'why North East' and I tell them how its remoteness from the outside world enabled so many pristine and unique cultures in the independent principalities to be preserved. Original practices still flourish and the rich biodiversity has not been greatly affected, " says Elavia. He plans itineraries and provides services for fixed departure and customised tours by utilising his links with the various communities he has worked with or visited in the North East.
Many people have reservations about the North East because of preconceived notions but these disappear after an interaction with the people. Says Elavia, "For two years I've conducted trips to Nagaland during the Hornbill festival and my guests have been amazed by the hospitality of the various Naga tribes. One group that visited the Manas National Park was moved by the way the local Bodo community was protecting the forest with a high degree of dedication. " For Nandakishore Padmanabhan, a professional in the marketing field who lives in Pune, it was this very approach that proved to be the USP of his trek to the Yambong valley in Sikkim under Kipepeo. "I really loved the idea that local populations could benefit from such socio tourism. What was endearing was the warmth with which we were greeted. I bonded so well with the youths working as our cook or porters. It was the small things they did like enabling you to charge your cell phone using their solar battery panels that made the difference. "
A few lines from what he calls his poetic musings encapsulate his experiences: Have you? Pitched tents in the only clearing amidst clouds and rhododendrons and felt like you've owned the best piece of real estate... Have you? Spotted rare Griffon Vultures riding aircurrents in harmonic precision and finally understood the meaning of synchronicity... Have you? Journeyed with a bunch of strangers and managed to extend your family...
Smruti Desai, an instructional designer from Mumbai in her early 30s, found that homestays in Kohima and in Khonoma enabled her to understand and strike a rapport with the people, something that ordinary tourists fail to do. "In Kohima, the seven-year-old daughter of our host got so friendly that she accompanied us to a shadow play. In Mukokchung we went to see women weavers. There was this girl who was weaving special motifs in the traditional shawl to commemorate the centenary of the coming of Christianity to Nagaland. I realised what the work entailed when I saw how her thighs were red from constantly rolling the threads. I bought the shawl even though it was expensive because I could appreciate the craftsmanship and labour. " Desai had gone on a one-off whim. "I thought it would be nice to tell people 'Oh I've been to Nagaland. ' But now I'm longing to go again. "
COMING UP. . .
THE GRAND SIANG RAFTING ADVENTURE |
24 Feb-4 Mar, 2012 (10 days/9 nights)
COST PER PERSON |
Rs. 53, 250 (Ex Guwahati)
GARO HILLS NATURE TRIP |
4 Mar-11 Mar, 2012 (8 days/7 nights)
25 Mar - 1 Apr, 2012 (8 days/7 nights)
COST PER PERSON |
Rs. 17, 000 (Ex Guwahati)
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