During Navratri, many are killing it at garba but others take a different route and go on a trip. And while everyone has a great story, very few end up with an honest and authentic travel experience. Today, we’re introducing you to an old tradition turned new buzzword – #responsibletravel.
42- year-old Poonam Rawat Hanhe runs Fernweh Fair Travel- Uplifting Communities, a women-led NGO that curates rural and responsible travel experiences and brings sustainable development to the local community.
This article is a part of the campaign ‘9 mindful women entrepreneurs who are building a healthy future’. Each day, we’ll feature an inspiring entrepreneur and her journey towards a more sustainable future.
I have never lived in one place for more than 3 years
I’m originally from Pokhri in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand but I’ve never lived in one place for more than 3 years. My father was an army officer so we moved a lot and I guess this is where I caught the travel bug. During my early teens, in Delhi, most of my friends preferred to party than travel so I would go off on my own. I remember taking a trip to Rajasthan alone at 14 and it took a lot of fighting to convince my parents. Luckily, they supported my decision and gave me the confidence to be strong and Independent. Since then, I’ve done lots of solo trips and especially enjoyed trekking to remote places, untouched by people. The enriching experiences and the things I learnt while travelling, have made me who I am today.
Once I turned 20, I moved to Paris – my first overseas destination. While working in international logistics, I started living in different countries. The best way to discover the world is to see the real soul of a country and you cannot do that on a one week holiday.
You need to go to the grassroots, the villages and meet the locals rather than hanging out in touristy spots. So every 3 three years, I’d look at the map and say next country – Australia or Thailand or the Netherlands and I would move there. I speak 7 languages and also have a home in Germany with my husband and 2 kids. But we keep moving and the only place I constantly go back to is Uttarakhand.
We started a women’s shelter to help local women, but soon realised we needed something more
Growing up, summers were in Uttarakhand and since I was 12, I’d teach English to the local children. I’ve always had this strong inclination for helping others. Perhaps, I get it from my father who was a very kind and helpful person. In 2003, he passed away and my mother stayed back in Gopeshwar, Chamoli in Uttarakhand at that time. That’s when we noticed the pitiful state of women in the area, especially young widows whose lives were much worse. We wanted to do something about it, so my mother, sister and I pooled in most of our savings to open a shelter for underprivileged women, next to our house.
Once a 22 yr old pregnant widow, came to our doorstep, completely helpless. She wanted our help but couldn’t leave her village and come live in the shelter. This situation really struck me and I started doing research on the women of this area. The potent, local liquor has contributed significantly to domestic violence and the death of many young men here. This raises the number of young widows who aren’t allowed to remarry and spend the rest of their lives, chained to their in-laws. In this area, it’s common to see women working on the streets and men sitting on the side, playing cards. Many of these young widows are also at risk of abuse from their brother-in-law or father-in-law.
I realized that running a shelter is not a solution, especially when many of these women aren’t allowed to leave their homes. This is when I decided to put both my passions together – authentic, transformational travelling and helping people to uplift the community. It took us 5 years to create various experiences, home-stays and to convince communities to be a part of the travel program.
Rural areas are full of authentic stories and real people.
Our valley is a beautiful place where nature is at her most stunning. It’s not too far from Badrinath and the Valley of Flowers but we’re still relatively unknown. I strived to combine this beauty with our culture.
Rural areas are full of authentic stories and real people. Their stories and experiences are very touching and you learn something new each time. So about 3 years back, we curated these travel experiences under a non profit – Bachan Charitable Trust Samiti and launched Fernweh-Fair travel. Our NGO works on developing rural tourism.
We also decided to make a beautiful homestay for our guests called Peaches and Pears Himalayan Home-stay. I was there, building this property from scratch because I was very particular about it being high-end yet authentic. This year, we were awarded by Outlook Travellers Responsible Tourism as one of the top 5 homestays in India. My mother and 4 other women are currently running the homestay.
Our most popular theme is an immersion of culture and nature
We customize our program for each guest and I mostly do my business B2B. We are a small team hence it is difficult to handle individual clients for our travel experiences. We design tour packages as per the client’s requirement and the duration of stay. We have many themes and the guests have to select them anything that interests them like culinary experience, permaculture, photography, adventure, handicraft, teaching experience, etc. This is also an area for bird watching. Our most popular theme is an immersion of culture and nature as we have beautiful and unexplored trek spots near us. So, in all our programs, we try and keep one activity per day to involve as many locals as possible.
85% of people working in FFT are local women, the rest of them are from underprivileged family units. Women are involved in many roles throughout the program and in the running of our home-stay . Our adventure programs like camping or high altitude trekking are led by a crew of women. Foreigners dressed in adventure gear find it very amusing and encouraging to see the local women effortlessly trek in chappals and saree. Another way women are involved is as a village host. For example, our group is welcomed at the house of a local woman. They spend the day talking to her family or eating a meal there. To spell out the impact, if there is a group of 10 people who eat at this widow’s house, she stands to earn enough money to sustain her for 3 months. Our guests are usually encouraged to be as generous as possible.
As part of one experience, our guests engage with the local school to teach them something. Whether its dance or origami, children are always excited to meet new people and learn about different cultures.
In our area, handicrafts are made by the locals who fall under the SC and ST caste, who are still stigmatized.
Our program is inclusive of all of them. This has caused some of the community members to be unhappy with me but if giving someone respect makes you lose people then, so be it. We do handicraft days with our guests at our craftsmen’s villages. They learn the complete art of basket making right from where it comes, preparing, cutting and flattening the bamboo until it’s put under the sun. They learn the actual process of weaving and making the fruit basket.
Many of our guests end up buying from the craftsmen directly who sell their goods at a minimum cost, but we encourage them to offer a reasonable price like Rs. 300 instead of Rs. 100. Since my guests are predominantly foreigners, it’s affordable and this way we empower both sides.
Responsible travel means being respectful towards environmental and social responsibilities
We do a pre-interview of our guests which include a list of do’s and don’ts before coming here. As it’s an intercultural experience, we want all parties to be respectful of the other. We tell guests to wear a kurta when they visit villages. For us, it’s very important that the villagers don’t feel disrespected and when the locals see our guests trying to engage with the culture, they are more welcoming.
Sustainability is a big part of what we do. Every year we have different cleaning expeditions and when we go trekking, we collect garbage when we return. Last November, we did Tungnath trek and it was snowing so lots of tourists had come in the valley. 10 of us were collecting garbage and I took a chance and started talking to everyone about our drive. By the time we came down, 50 people brought 60 huge garbage bags!
We also take our local kids on planting drives. Our mission is to involve as many locals as possible because they make a real difference in sustaining the environment. Our valley is very clean and pollution-free and we want to keep it like that. Permaculture is a big part of who we are.
We are building a community development centre and a retreat following permaculture and natural building techniques.
I am a permaculturist and natural builder. I was 16 when I discovered this place in the valley, near a river, in Koteshwar, Mandal that was full of citrus fruits, oranges and lemon. And I’ve been dreaming of this place, ever since. Last year I bought some property here and now we are building a community development centre and a retreat following permaculture and natural building techniques. The property will be built with stone, lime and mud. These are houses that can breathe; It will be cool in summer and warm in winter.
We have an excellent team working with me in building the farm. We will also start conducting permaculture courses in our retreat. The community development centre will bring in more channels of employment and experiences. It’s going to involve women from 9 closeby villages who’ll create handmade lotions and soaps from the fallen blossoms that would otherwise get withered. They have a beautiful fragrance; in fact there is a special tree, Bhimal, whose bark, when soaked in water, can be used as a natural shampoo. These will be the kind of products we provide in our home-stay.
2 months ago, we started building a food forest on a small piece of land here. A food forest is a forest from which you will be able to get food, year round. It is mostly fruits and veggies, berries, herbs and roots. The idea is, once planted; the forest will keep growing and producing naturally. As of now, we’ve all pitched in and planted 17 different kinds of plants
Leading a self sufficient life is the key
Through permaculture, we’re developing methods to recycle waste water from our homestay and use it in our gardens rather than polluting the river. The best part is that we are mostly self-sufficient and aim to become completely independent of the municipal council or government. All of this is thanks to the knowledge I have gathered during my extensive travel experiences and that is why travel is so essential.
Come with an open heart and let travel experiences change you.
Travelling for me is about going back to the roots and having an immersive and transformational experience. Rural life gives you just that, when you’re away from technology, malls and other distractions. Travelling to untouched places and spending time with locals will let you make friends for life and it has the power to change you. Immerse yourself while interacting with locals, have a meal or a cup of tea. Most importantly, be totally open when you travel and let these experiences come to you. Come with an open heart and mind and absorb the local flavour. Be respectful to the locals, in fact try to be a local.
I am excited that slowly the field of responsible tourism is gathering the right kind of attention. Last month, ATTA and Adventure Angels recognized our work for women empowerment in the travel line. I was invited to Sweden to present the project and I met many possible partners. We are also nominated as one of the top 7 for socially responsible tourism initiatives in TO DO Awards 2020. It is very encouraging when people recognize these kinds of projects without any pull or connections. We are attracting the right kind of travellers and hope that soon everyone endorses such experiences.
My conversation with Poonam led to a lot of joy, laughter and hope for a bright future. She believes that travel and nature are two transformative elements that, when combined, create magic. Her work is challenging and fulfilling and we could stand to have a little more of that in our lives. Poonam is always looking for volunteers, to apply or just read about her venture visit www.fernweh-travel.com
A content curator of visuals and words who is constantly on the move. I believe life is all about allowing the new experiences to nurture you and help you grow. A playwright and an actor. A curious traveler who wants to meet new people and create meaningful stories. @Karpiayli