Sustainable in INDIA | An Honest Review of My Travel
Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This first edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in 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.
- Planning Sustainable Travel to India
- 1. Travel across Uttar Pradesh without consuming any plastic bottled water
- 2. Avoid accepting single-use containers
- 3. Travel across north India by train
- 4. Buy local whenever possible
- Teja on the Horizon
- Fails: Sustainable Travel Regrets in India
- Sustainable Travel Discoveries: Honourable Mentions in India
- Carbon offsetting information to Delhi, India
Planning Sustainable Travel to India
When I went to Nepal, I decided to travel across Uttar Pradesh in India to see the Taj Mahal afterwards. Since it was not the primary reason for the trip, I gave it less attention when I did my planning. In any case, I didn’t find online resources on sustainable travel in north India for independent travellers. So, unlike for Nepal, I winged it.
That said, there were two things that I planned to do throughout my time in Nepal, which I planned to maintain to be more sustainable in India. In addition, there were two other things that I planned, specifically to see how much sustainability value I can maximise while on solo independent travel. Here’s how that turned out!
1. Travel across Uttar Pradesh without consuming any plastic bottled water
Is water safe to drink in Uttar Pradesh?
No. For various reasons, water quality in many regions of India is inconsistent. So, even a generally sustainable traveller might cave on this point, and drink bottled water while in India. But on this trip, I decided to take a risk.
That’s because I had bought a portable mini water filter to go trekking in Nepal. Outdoor tech has really come a long way these days. The filter is really light and compact, and filters water to potable levels comparable to municipal treatment standards. So I figured, what better place to test that, than in north India?
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.
How reliable is a portable water filter?
However, to complete the experiment, I ignored the refill stations. Even in Lucknow, where the water was not completely clear.
Aside from one issue in Sarnath (which is really because I broke my street food rules), I had no gastrointestinal issues throughout 10 days in north India, drinking and brushing my teeth using self-filtered bathroom water in budget accommodation locations.
I’d say that a portable water filter is reliable enough, to travel in India without using any plastic bottled water.
What were the additional benefits of traveling with a water filter?
The need to spend money for drinking water drops to nil. Additionally, the filter is so convenient to use (filters two medium size water bottles in less than 10 minutes), that it is actually even more convenient than going out to find a place that sells bottled water. However, this benefit is less meaningful than in Nepal, because free filtered water is more common at accommodations.
Are there any downsides to using a water filter?
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.
Would I do this again?
This potable water filter is now part of my standard travel kit. The only time I’d leave it behind is if I’m going on short trips to urban places where I know for sure I can drink tap water.
2. Avoid accepting single-use containers
How difficult is it to avoid single-use food containers in India?
While sightseeing, I brought along my new collapsible bowl, in case I needed to take away snacks and leftovers during the day. But I discovered, in India, it works better the other way around.
Avoiding single-use food containers in India is easier when you packed your food beforehand. 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. In addition, since there was often a language barrier, I could not communicate overly specific instructions.
I also forgot to ask for the street food in Sarnath to be served in my bowl, resulting in some styrofoam waste.
Takeaway containers in India are not so very unsustainable
On the other hand, it wasn’t as bad as it would have been in, say, Southeast Asia. In many locations, the standard container is something compostible/ biodegradable. In Varanasi, the Underground Cafe served fried snacks 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 discovered a very interesting single-use container in Varanasi: clay cups for the lassi! After using it, customers just smash it to pieces in a tub. Presumably they go back to the clayworks where they become material for new cups? I’m not sure about the overall sustainability score for that one. It seems a waste, but it’s circular.
Are there any downsides to packing food in your own containers?
The basic downside is that you would need access to clean water to wash them between uses. But this is not a big problem, if you happen to also be carrying a portable water filter (and some kind of detergent).
The other downside I discovered while in India, which hinders making this a habit, is a social one. While it is fairly doable (over time) to make this a solo travel habit, it’s harder when you’re in a group. It’s awkward when you’re the only one with a reusable food container. Open to suggestions for how best to manage this.
Would I do this again?
For backpacking travel, yes. However, if I’m on city travel or other more short-term conventional trips, I’d just eat in. I guess I’d just leave the leftovers if I’m with other people.
3. Travel across north India by train
How can I lower my travel carbon footprint in India?
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? Besides, even when powered by fossil fuels, it is among the lowest carbon footprint transportation options.
So – with the help of online resources and Indian friends – I arranged for my movements across north India to happen by train. 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. The coach was not too packed with people, and the toilets were clean.
What were the additional benefits of travelling by train in India?
Anyone planning to travel to India should consider travelling between destinations by train. Aside from being the most sustainable travel option, the Indian railways are iconic. Absolutely recommend it, especially if your interest is being around many people.
Are there any downsides to travelling India by train?
A regular commuting train can get quite crowded. This is true even with seats booked, for example if it happens to be the last train. My experience taking the last Taj Express from Agra saw a lot of people getting on all of the cars without tickets. If you have a booking, though, they’d get out of your seat.
Would I travel in India by train 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. If booking tickets as a foreigner gets easier in the future, I’d do this again.
4. Buy local whenever possible
India is one of those countries where I would pause to think about how to spend tourism dollars to deliver the most benefit. A basic sustainable tourism principle is to maximise benefit (e.g. spending local), and avoid unsustainable practices (e.g. accidentally joining unethical slum tours or animal tourism). I was not a high value tourist on this trip, as a budget traveller. So it was even more important that I make my choices count.
Buying local is an easy sustainable habit in India – it is a very local economy. I guess the main choice I made that can be considered a conscious choice, was city transport. I chose cycle or auto rickshaws to get around (the cycle rickshaws were a non-fossil fuel option). Compared to other hired vehicles, hiring either one seemed to go to people with greater need.
What were the additional benefits of hiring rickshaws?
I think it was a more interesting way to see a city. You can’t, for example, lean out to do a double take on goats paraded for sale on a road divider from an air-conditioned taxi. Although it is arguably a more nerve-racking choice, surprisingly it worked out well enough, even in Lucknow.
Are there any downsides to hiring rickshaws?
I guess the rickshaw is a less safe vehicle. Nonetheless, the slow traffic in Indian cities mitigates this a little bit.
Would I do this again?
Spending local is already my travel habit, but what that means will always be situational.
Fails: Sustainable Travel Regrets in India
This wouldn’t be a complete and honest review if I didn’t mention where I fell short. There was one sustainable travel fail that stuck most prominently in my mind.
My carbon footprint could easily have been smaller
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 could 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 selected entry points where this visa can be processed, most of them airports. The land border between Nepal and India cannot do it.
So I had to book a flight at the last minute. Then I 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!
In theory I could do my Uttar Pradesh travel the other way around, i.e. change my homebound flight to depart from Varanasi instead of Delhi. But I couldn’t, because my friend in India had already booked the train tickets for me, and the trip went the other way.
It wasn’t that much more to offset the extra flight, but I could have done better.
Sustainable Travel Discoveries: Honourable Mentions in India
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 to be more sustainable that you didn’t know about, and could not have planned for.
In Lucknow, I stumbled upon a very interesting cafe.
1. Sheroes’ Hangout
After being dropped off at Ambedkar Park in Lucknow, I didn’t feeling like going 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 I followed the signage, and became a customer.
Sheroes’ Hangout 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.
2. The Delhi Metro
I’m embarrassed to confess that I was halfway through my time in Delhi, before I discovered the Delhi Metro. In fact, there was a station opposite my hostel, right under my nose, and I didn’t see it. I was gobsmacked when a fellow backpacker pointed it out. There’s a what? Where?
In fact, there are convenient Metro stations all over Delhi. It’s just that the signage takes a bit of getting used to before you’d notice them, since the stations are usually underground and not apparent from above.
When you go underground, 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 – one carried forward through the ages with its chaos and unruliness, and a modern engineered one that’s trying its best to exert order into the chaos!
The Metro is very cheap and easy to use. Certainly much cheaper than any of the aboveground transport options, while being much more pleasant. There are also women-only cars, marked by pink flowers on the platform.
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.
Carbon offsetting information to Delhi, India
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,114 lbs CO2e. It costs about $16 to offset this.
On this trip I travelled to Delhi from Varanasi by train. The train travel portion produces carbon emissions of approximately 133 lbs CO2e. It doesn’t even cost $1 to offset this.
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