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THE CULTURE TRAIL
For Santosh Kumar, hell is idlis and dosas in Ladakh and tender coconut water in Kutch. The founder of Get Off Ur Ass, a passionate traveller himself, hates the idea of homogeneous tourism. "Big corporations have invested heavily in the industry. Unfortunately they are driven by the volume game. Today there are more deals offered than unique high quality experiences, which is not good for a fragile destination. It degrades the value of its culture, " says Santosh.
Get Off Ur Ass specialises in the quirky. Later this year for instance there will be a visit to coastal Karnataka to watch 'kambala', the traditional buffalo race. Also lined up is a journey to the Galapagos islands made famous by Darwin's finches. Then there are climbing trips to the Valley of Flowers, Khatling glacier, Marsal Tal trek, Har ki Dun, Pindari and Kafni glaciers;river rafting expeditions down the Kameng river in Arunachal Pradesh and photography tours through Nagaland.
Santosh worked with the adventure travel company Kali 02, now called Southern River Adventures, as a river and tour guide before setting up Get Off Ur Ass almost a decade ago. Interestingly, the venture started out as a store that sold outdoors gear. "In the process, people started enquiring about tours. Being a field guy I was able to advise and offer guidance. Over time I put together trips to places that I had travelled to. It slowly gathered momentum and we grew from there on, " says Santosh.
Santosh thinks there is enough space in the Indian travel industry for smaller, entrepreneurial travel outfits. "As the traveller becomes more aware, he or she is consciously looking out for operators who can offer unique experiences, " he adds.
LEADING THE (BACK)PACK
As travellers, Yogi and Suchna Shah hated it when they were being herded around in group tours that take in 10 European cities in seven days and serve 100 per cent pure vegetarian food. They also noticed how easily American and European youngsters backpacked around the world. Why couldn't the adventurous Indian do the same with a little help?
"We tried to look for companies that would help us travel like that and get a feel of local flavour and culture, but there were none. We started The Backpacker Co five years ago to bridge this demand, " says Yogi Shah. Suchna was then a cabin attendant with Singapore Airlines while Yogi was working in his family-run logistics company.
"The Backpacker Co and the travel sector as a whole have evolved quite a bit over the years. When we began, people were sceptical about travelling alone and felt that backpacking was about living on bread and water, " says Shah. What has changed today is that many travellers don't want sanitised experiences. "They are looking to head out to different locations and travel like locals using public transport, " says Shah. "Many are not backpackers but 'flashpackers' - essentially, backpackers with a bigger budget but those who still want immersion travel. "
The Backpacker Co is willing to be fixed or flexible. Although it is group travel of a sort, the groups are small with not more than 10 people in each. They mostly use public transport and accommodation is usually at hostels. "Typically, our groups are a mix of single travellers, friends and couples, all coming from various professional backgrounds, " says Shah. Womenonly trips are surprisingly popular, and The Backpacker Co has even branded them as 'Girlfriend Getaways'.
The Shahs have recently launched The Villa Escape, a new company that helps people plan villa vacations in countries such as Italy, France Spain and in Bali, Indonesia. "It caters to travellers who have travelled to the metros and now are looking for a slower experience. They want cooking lessons, wine tastings, olive picking etc.
THE UNHURRIED MAN'S GUIDE
For Chirag Bhandari, co-founder of HighonTravel (HoT), travelling is not so much about seeing a new place as immersing yourself in it. He believes that tourists evolve into travellers when they start being intrigued by the people, culture, food and craft of their destinations.
"HighOnTravel promotes slow travel in India emphasising on correlating travel with an experience, " says Bhandari, the 30-something founder and CEO of the company. A chemical engineer from IIT Bombay, Bhandari started HoT after trainee stints in Fortune 500 companies and working as a management consultant with co-founder Rakesh Verma, a design architect, in July 2011.
HoT specialises in finding unique and unusual places to stay in locations across India - Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Coorg, Kerala, Sikkim and Rajasthan. It lists over 500 homestays and guest houses in 200 destinations, and also offers local experiences and walks. This could mean a walk in Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, a kite flying experience in Lucknow, a walk through Kumartuli in Kolkata or a cuisine trail in Jodhpur. Of course, this kind of experience appeals only to evolved travellers - those who don't expect fivestar room service in a Kerala home or complain about a bug in a Coorg plantation cottage.
'BOOK' A VACATION
Remember Will Thacker in Notting Hill, the cute, bumbling bookseller played by Hugh Grant? What impressed many passionate travellers about the movie was not that a star (Julia Roberts) falls in love with Thacker but that he owned a bookstore dedicated to travel books. In Indian bookstores, they rued, travel books take up about one-hundredth the space dedicated to, say, teen vampire novels.
Aashish Gupta of Yellowleg. com is trying to change all that with his online resource devoted to global travel literature. The website is divided by geography into sections ranging from Africa to Antarctica, and stocks guidebooks in all shapes and sizes - from Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to those from less wellknown publishers such as Bradt and Fodor's. Yellowleg sources books from local wholesalers/distributors, publishers, online bookstores abroad, and sometimes directly from the authors. The inventory has been put together to include interesting travelogues and fiction featuring a certain destination - for instance, the section on central Africa includes books like Congo Journey by Redmond O' Hanlon and Tim Butcher's Blood River.
While mainstream online booksellers usually take more than a week to deliver travel guides and books, Yellowleg's takes three business days. "Besides, we make it easier for customers to find the right book - our collection is highly selective and only the best books are listed, so they don't need to spend time doing research on what to buy. We also sell used books, giving customers a better deal, " Gupta asserts.
Once the website had taken off, Gupta realised there were still some people who don't have the time or inclination to do all the research themselves, but still want to travel independently. So Yellowleg started the Travel Ninjas service, which gives people access to an elite panel of destination experts who can help them plan their trips.
MUSIC FOR THE ROAD
'The Great Gig in the Sky' is not just a phenomenally popular song by Pink Floyd, it's also what a new and exciting travel company calls its freshest idea. Jumpstart India, started by three ex-students from Wilson College, Mumbai, has made quite a name for itself in Mumbai music circles for taking music and music fans outdoors.
For its own version of the great gig in the sky, Jumpstart fixes a date with a musician and invites fans and weekend tourists to travel with him/her to a picturesque locale. In the past, singers and musicians such as Swanand Kirkire, Caraleisa Monteiro, Nikhil D'Souza and Sidd Coutto have been a part of the Great Gig idea. Jumpstart favours acoustic and melodybased artists, and avoids anyone who's "too loud" so as not to disturb the natural silences of their chosen outdoors venue.
"It's a relaxed atmosphere for the musician as well as the listeners. The performers are under no pressure to sing wellknown or crowd-pleasing songs, " says Ryan Thomas, one of the founders of Jumpstart along with Akul Tripathi and Dhiren Talpade.
Thomas is a musician himself with contacts in the music industry and most of the gigs that have taken place till now have been with musicians he knows well or who are friends of friends. Coming up is a gig with playback singer and vocal arranger Clinton Cerejo, who has worked with the likes of A R Rahman.
It may be fewer than 10 performances old, but The Great Gig has managed to get its own eponymously named TV show on the channel Big CBS Spark. The first episode was aired on March 30 this year, and the year-long show will be divided into three seasons of four episodes each, airing on a prime-time slot on Fridays.
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