Travel Sustainably | INDIA | How I Tried To Travel Responsibly
Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This edition reviews new things I tried when I travelled to INDIA – whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do.
- 1 The Journey to Sustainable Travel
- 2 Travel fails: Carbon offsetting regrets
- 3 Serendipitous Opportunities to Travel Sustainably
- 4 Sustainability Discoveries: Honourable Mention
The Journey to Sustainable Travel
The India portion of my milestone Nepal/India trip, was a little less well planned. Since it came second, and I found fewer resources online to guide my choices in the same way as for Nepal, I winged it most of the time.
Nonetheless, there were two things that I intended to keep up all through Nepal, and into the India phase of the journey. And then, there were two other things, that I intended to accomplish, specifically for India.
[See this article for how I did in the Nepal portion: Travel Sustainably | Nepal | How I Tried to Travel Responsibly.]
Complete the travel without using any plastic bottled water – even in India!
How: The stimulus for me finally buying a portable mini water filter, was actually the Annapurna trek that I planned to do in Nepal. However, since the technology for the filter should work to render pretty much any water supply potable, I thought I would do a radical thing, and test it against the water supply that foreign travellers are most afraid of – India’s.
How it went: It turned out that even without a filter, I didn’t really need to buy bottled water. Both hostels plus the hotel I stayed at, provided potable water refill stations or a daily supply of water in a thermos. Unlike in Nepal, where you typically had to pay for refills, in India it was free. I guess when everybody is concerned about water, people have made solutions.
However, because I wanted to test out the filter, I ignored the refill stations and filled my water bottles with filtered water from the bathroom tap. Even in Lucknow, where the water had a slight odour and was not completely clear.
Aside from one issue in Sarnath which I attribute towards breaking my street food rules (seriously, do not eat from the street unless the food is piping hot), I had no digestion issues throughout 10 days in India, drinking and brushing my teeth using self-filtered bathroom water in budget accommodation locations.
Downsides: A little bit of upfront investment in the tool. Of the filtration-type solutions, at the time I was shopping online, the Sawyer Mini Filter was the best deal.
Do again? Totally part of my standard travel kit!
Avoid accepting single-use containers
How: While sightseeing, I intended to bring along my new collapsible bowl, in case I needed to take away snacks and leftovers during the day.
How it went: I had mixed success this time. I was most successful using it to pack light snacks and leftovers for the train journeys. I was less successful with restaurant leftovers because the bowl was sometimes too small and I only had one. So if the dish was composed of a few things (flatbread + curry, for example), I couldn’t separate them. Plus, since there was often a language barrier, I could not communicate overly specific instructions. I also failed to ask for the street food in Sarnath to be served in my bowl – resulting in some styrofoam waste.
On the other hand though, it wasn’t as bad as it would have been in, say, Southeast Asia. In many locations, the default container is something compostible/ biodegradable. I was served a fried snack in Varanasi’s Underground Cafe in a tiny leaf bowl. And my maruku breakfast on the way to the ghats was neatly packed in a cone of newspaper.
I also encountered the most interesting single-use container in Varanasi – clay cups for the lassi! After using it, it just gets smashed into a tub. Presumably they go back to the clayworks to be turned into new cups? I’m not sure about the overall sustainability score for that one. It’s recyclable, and I guess supports the clay industry in a closed-loop fashion?
Downsides: The main downside to making this a habit, is surprisingly a social one. While it is fairly doable (over time) to make it a solo travel habit, it’s harder when you’re in a group, for example on a hostel tour. It’s hard when you’re the only one. Open to suggestions for how best to manage this.
Do again? I will keep trying to get better at making this a habit. But, there are definitely a couple of obstacles to think about for next time.
Travel by train
How: My India plans involved me travelling across the length of Uttar Pradesh. Although I have a sustainability and personal bias for train travel, for one reason or another I tend not to actually take this option when I’m travelling. However, I was determined that my India travel should happen by train. After all, if I’m in a country where the railways form the backbone of public travel, and I still can’t manage to plan my trip to take advantage of this, what am I doing?
How it went: I travelled entirely on Second Class AC tickets, following the advice of friends. The sleeper trains on this class are perfectly comfortable, if somewhat basic. There is a curtain, a light blanket and pillow. The coach was not too packed with people, and the toilets were clean. Absolutely value for money. Considering how many people are transported by the trains, it has to be way more sustainable than road transport, even if the trains are driven by fossil fuel.
Downsides: A regular commuting train can get quite crowded even at Second Class AC, if it’s the last train. My experience taking the last Taj Express train out from Agra saw a lot of people getting on all of the cars without tickets. They will let you have your seat, so it’s not that a big deal for a short journey.
Also, if you’re trying to get tickets from Delhi train station (the only station where I tried), you have to pass through people trying to scam you, before reaching the International Tourist Bureau.
Do again? Some countries are easier to do by train than others. Where this is the case, it is definitely worthwhile to take the extra time to plan it out.
Buy local whenever possible, and favour the greater need
How: India is one of those countries where a sustainable traveller should pause to think about how to spend tourism dollars to maximise benefit to the host country, as well as avoid harm (e.g. accidentally joining unethical slum tours or animal tourism). I was not a high value tourist on this trip, since I would be travelling mostly on a budget. So it was even more important that I make my choices count.
How it went: Buying local is not a difficult thing to do in India – it is a very local economy. I guess the main choice that I made during my trip, that can be considered a conscious choice, was city transport. I ended up choosing mostly cycle or auto rickshaws to get around. Although it is arguably a more nerve-racking choice, surprisingly it worked out well enough, even in Lucknow. The cycle rickshaws were a non-fossil fuel option. And both seemed to be the segment in greater financial need.
Downsides: I guess the rickshaw is a less safe vehicle. Nonetheless, the slow traffic in Indian cities mitigates this a little bit.
Do again? Already a travel habit – but it will always be a situational thing.
Travel fails: Carbon offsetting regrets
I made one rookie mistake that caused me to have to carbon offset more flights than I planned. When planning my itinerary, I thought I might figure out how to travel from Kathmandu to Varanasi by land.
It was only in Nepal that I realised I could not do this, because my tourist visa to India was an e-visa. There are only a selected entry points where this visa can be processed, most of them airports. So I had to book a flight at the last minute, realised that I couldn’t fly from Kathmandu to Varanasi directly, and had to book two flights – I had to transit in Delhi to get to Varanasi! My flight home was going to be from Delhi!
And I couldn’t switch my Uttar Pradesh itinerary the other way around, because my friend in India had already booked the train tickets for me!
Serendipitous Opportunities to Travel Sustainably
While there are things you can prepare from the outset to travel sustainably, don’t forget to keep an open mind when you have arrived. Sometimes, you come across opportunities that you didn’t know about, and could not have planned for.
In Lucknow, I stumbled upon a very interesting cafe.
What happened: After being dropped off at Ambedkar Park in Lucknow, I was not feeling inclined to go inside the park. So I decided to wander around the area instead. While trying to look for the J.P. Narayan museum, I came across an interesting sign on a wall.
‘Sheroes’ Hangout‘, it read. ‘Cafe and Reach-out Centre Run by Acid Attack Survivors’.
It was lunchtime anyway. So of course I followed the signage, and became a customer. It was a welcome haven from the bustle of Lucknow. The cafe was quiet and pleasant. It had a mixed menu of local Indian and Western-style vegetarian light meals.
*Acid throwing as a form of violent assault is something you hear about, especially in news stories coming from South Asia. Although not exclusively so, it is commonly used as a means of revenge against women, because of the facial disfigurement effect and consequent loss of social value.
Sustainability Discoveries: Honourable Mention
Part of the value of travel is to widen your perspective and see the different ways that people do the same things or solve the same problems. While in Delhi, I found one unexpected thing interesting.
The Delhi Metro
I was halfway through my time in Delhi, before I discovered the Delhi Metro. In fact, there was a station right opposite my hostel, under my nose, and I didn’t see it. I was seriously gobsmacked when a fellow backpacker pointed it out. (There’s a what? Where?)
In fact there are convenient stations all over Delhi for the Metro. It’s just that the signage takes a bit of getting used to, since the stations are usually underground and not apparent from above.
The difference is night and day. Up above is dusty and noisy and hectic. Below, it’s organised and clean and modern and efficient. It really felt like the epitome of the two Indias – the one carried forward through the ages with its chaos and unruliness, and the modern engineered one that’s trying its best to exert order into the chaos! There are also women-only cars, marked by pink flowers on the platform.
The Metro is very cheap and easy to use. Certainly much cheaper than any of the aboveground transport options, while being much more pleasant. Way cheaper than train systems in my own country or any other country I’ve been to.
The Metro system goes all the way to the airport as well, so that was how I got to the airport for my flight home.
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