About To Depart To The Arctic, Geethu Mohandas Calls Out Sexism During Selection Stages
- IWB Post
- February 15, 2020
Who doesn’t like being on top of the world? Geethu Mohandas gushes with excitement when I congratulate her on her commendable feat. The first woman to be voted for an expedition to the Arctic organized by the Fjallraven Polar team, Geethu is definitely on top of the world and will soon quite literally be there.
A travel enthusiast Geethu is not an aimless vagabond exploring the wonderlands at a whim. She, in fact, is a staunch believer in sustainable and responsible tourism, an idea that might have helped her garner votes and appreciation during the fiercely competitive Fjallraven polar selection.
In 1997, Fjallraven Polar began the initiative of an all-expenses-paid trip to the Arctic. It enables a team of 20 ordinary people (yes, like us!) to explore the Arctic and survive in its extreme conditions. A jury selects 10 members, the public votes the other 10 in each region. Geethu received the highest votes from her region, but the journey wasn’t easy. From cyber-bullying and online spamming to gender jabs, Geethu found herself the winner after Fjallraven disqualified the first two positions. But as Geethu points out, the bullying only gave her more power because she knew that even if she failed more women would definitely participate and learn about the program going forward.
The spirit to conquer challenges and find fulfilling ways to emerge as a true winner are perhaps Geethu’s strengths. However, while talking to her, I also realized that her biggest strength lay in her ability to be humble, grounded and extremely aware of making her travel life transcend beyond mere tourism to being able to actually make a difference. Not often do you find people finding a connection between menstrual hygiene and nature camps or making seed pens while camping out. But Geethu’s innovative ideas about responsible travel go even further. Founder of Let’s go for a camp, Geethu organizes nature camps that are reminiscent of her school day camps. Her innovative, yet innocently simplistic approach makes her camps and her kind of travel a refreshing change from the commercialized tourist-hopping destinations.
With a childhood dream of traveling to space, Kalpana Chawla remains Geethu’s idol. In fact, that is why she chose to become a hardware design engineer, in the hope that maybe someday her study might help her reach space. And as much as space allures her, so does the peak of Everest. Yet, the conservationist within her has given up the dream of climbing Everest because of ‘heavy traffic and high pollution’. From the giggling enthusiasm of wanting to explore the universe to the stoic empowerment of making women independent travelers and to the matured nuances of responsible tourism, Geethu Mohandas seems like every person, ordinary woman with ambitious dreams. The only difference is that she has the capability and sensibility to make them true, one of which she is on the verge of fulfilling at the end of March when she will skate off to the Arctic.
First of all congratulations on becoming the first Indian woman to be selected for the Arctic expedition by Fjallraven Polar. How did you hear about this expedition and why or what motivated you to apply for it?
Geethu: I heard about the expedition from Niyog Krishna, the first Indian to go to the Arctic with the Fjallraven Polar team. He is from Kerala and from his campaigns, I got to know that there is this opportunity for normal people like us to reach Polar. From then onwards, I kept searching about it. Then last year my friend Babu Sager got selected and helped me with the details.
You are, of course, excited about the expedition but what are the challenges that you think you will be facing there and how are you preparing yourself for them?
Geethu: Physical fitness is the most important thing because the climate and terrain is not similar to ours and the temperature can be -35 degree Celsius. There will be heavy winds so our bodies will need to be strong to overcome all of this. I have been a trekker but I need to do more exercises, basically cardio, yoga, etc. I don’t have a specialist trainer but I am keeping one-two hours for exercising every day and doing yoga because breathing exercises are important for this kind of expedition. For food, I am trying to control the intake of oily food, fries, and all. So I am trying to make my body adapt, even things like no hot water bath!
Why do you think you got the highest votes? What did you bring into your application or video that you think made it work in your favor?
Geethu: I am a traveler and I travel a lot. I see traveling from a perspective of responsible tourism that is being responsible for nature. All my traveling is regarding conservation, too. I mentioned the same thing in the video which I uploaded in the application form and the write-up. I want the next generation to see the same things we see today. Till now I have read about the Arctic in books but now I am going to see it and I can convey to the people in India about climate change because we are a part of global warming.
Your start-up Let’s go for a camp has a unique concept of making the traveling experience eco and culturally friendly. Tell us a bit about it.
Geethu: Let’s go for a camp started in 2016 when I came to Bangalore. I was working and weekends were free and I didn’t know what to do. I am not a party or city kind of person. Initially, I started traveling alone to the places near Bangalore where I could come back in a day, small treks, like Shivagange, Shimoga, and I used to go myself. In my school days, we used to go for nature camps in Kerala as nature education was part of the curriculum. So NGOs were conducting nature camps in association with the Forest Department in the forests. And it was not only treks or sightseeing but there were games, activities, etc. From that camp onwards, I did many camps with the NGO named One Earth One Life, in Malayalam called Ore Bhoomi Ore Jeevan that was a life-changing moment for me. It taught me how to travel. So when I was in Bangalore I thought that I could organize nature camps the way I had in my school days. I got a lot of inquiries from social media and finally, I had people from different parts of India, such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Kolkata, and Gujarat. It was a mind-blowing experience.
We also have different categories of camps. There is a particular category called mother and kid only as well as women only camps that came under Srishti. Here we started promoting the menstrual cup, and more than 1000 women had switched to it. We are now adding seed pens, teaching them how to use paper pens and fill them with seeds so even after throwing it away a plant grows.
You mentioned that you had faced cyberbullying, online harassment, spamming and were also offered money to withdraw your name. How did it affect your spirits? Do you find racial or gender undertones in this bullying?
Geethu: It was not racial, but gender issues did come up. Like many people thought that this year also from India a man would go, they did not think a woman ever could. My position was third in the world but Fjallraven disqualified the first and second candidates. The first and second ranks in the World Position were Indians, whose fans bullied me. That one month was hell for me. Any place I posted, they would spam me from fake ids. I didn’t complain but the online harassment was extreme. I was surprised because I thought with travelers there would be no discrimination, there would be no gender difference, no barriers, no boundaries. In fact, I got a messenger call from a person telling me to withdraw the application and they were ready to give me money. That made me really angry! I told him now if I win or lose I will definitely be in the competition till the end. So I don’t know why people were doing this but that gave me more power. I knew that even if I fail this year, next year definitely more women will come. They will look for expeditions that instill confidence and that way I am sure I am the winner because many women did call me and asked me how I applied.
On this note, any advice for women travelers?
Geethu: Women have so many constraints created by society, so traveling is tough for a woman. To break those constraints, nobody can help you unless you decide. The fire needs to come from within you. Because once you travel you will get confidence. I tell every woman traveling with me to never be in the comfort zone. People who come with me as part of Srishti for travel, I tell them to book their own tickets. I tell them the name of the bus but ask them to book themselves. I also tell them that they should not depend on anyone. This is the most important message I want to give women.
What are your suggestions regarding travel safety?
Geethu: Before you plan something, you need to read and get a good idea about the place. For me, the entire travel happens in my mind before I actually travel. Another thing is to always talk to the people who you are traveling with. Even if you are alone, there are co-passengers and people around. Talk to them in a friendly way, talk to the driver, conductor. Everyone likes talking but women are very uncomfortable to talk to people around so that needs to change. We have to develop our communication for our own safety.
It is often said traveling teaches you a lot. How do you think traveling has helped you evolve into a better and more responsible person?
Geethu: I feel as you travel more and more, you become more down to earth. There are people and places that you need to see. Be it history, geography, religion, you get a clear idea of all of them when you travel. What we read in books or on social media are different from when you actually go and experience a place. While traveling you think about life, happiness, and people. For me, my entire thought process, learning, everything is through traveling.
Besides the Arctic what are some of the other dream destinations on your bucket list?
Geethu: I want to see Pompei which is in the valley of Vesuvius. Because of a volcanic eruption, the complete village came under the ashes. Some years back they started excavating and found people in the exact position before the ashes fell. Then the Nazca pictures are lines drawn on land and no one knows who did it. They can only be seen from aerial views. Also Annapurna in Nepal, I have read about it in geography and history, it is a very famous and difficult trek. Two years back, I stayed in the valley of Annapurna and that view is still in my mind and from that day onwards I decided that I will once go there. Honestly, there are so many places. I am also currently studying environmental and sustainable development as a part-time course and basically when I read about a place I want to go there.
Geethu ends by saying, that if she could she would love to travel to all the 196 countries of the world. But then adds with a peal of quirky laughter that maybe she should try and find a sponsor for the same.
Well, we wish her luck and hope her travel bug refuses to rest. And for the polar expedition to the Arctic, may she pave the way for a whole generation of future women to take the plunge into extreme, yet sustainable and responsible travel.