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Jayati Godhawat

IWB Blogger

Vandana Recalls Lighting Up The Lives Of Ladakhis Through Solar Power

  • IWB Post
  •  February 24, 2018


What’s travel for you? Luxury, leisure, exploring the wilderness, or food? Well, each one of us has our own unique perspective for travel, but, each one would agree to one thing: ‘To travel is to live!’

A travel company based in Hyderabad, Offbeat Tracks, is encouraging people to take up experiential travel. Founder of Offbeat Tracks, Vandana Vijay, is a traveler herself and as an army man’s daughter, she has lived in many cities across the country.

Having spent many years of her life in Jammu and Kashmir, she grew up with a hope to do something for the rural communities there.

“My family and I are travelers by heart. My first visit to Ladakh was in 2011, and since then, I’m in awe of the place. In 2013, I started working in Facebook’s office in Hyderabad and for three years that I worked there, I traveled extensively,” Vandana tells me.Offbeat Tracks

“I closely observed the shift of people’s interest in travel. They didn’t want to be tourists. People wanted to travel and see the real India, experience the local way of life here. And, our country is so culturally and aesthetically rich, but, we don’t promote it right.”

Hence, she started Offbeat Tracks, last year, in 2016, with a twin aim of promoting rural eco-tourism which in turn would result in rural micro entrepreneurship amongst our rural and semi urban service providers thereby providing them an alternative source of income and a better means of life.Vandana Vijay

What’s more?

Last year itself, Vandana undertook a noble initiative of solar energy electrification in one of the remote villages of Ladakh, Takmachik.

Together with 14 students from California visited the village and provided electricity to 10 houses which were totally off the grid due to their geographical location, i.e., they were around 2-3km trek away from the main village area, hence, had no access to electricity.Offbeat Tracks

“After my first trip in 2011, I have visited Ladakh multiple times. Also, I was working with many NGOs as a volunteer and in one such project, we had to do an extensive analysis in Ladakh villages about the quality of life, their issues, etc. It was then that I really understood the struggle of the people in these remote areas. These scattered houses have no electricity and their mud houses are pitch-black at night. For lighting, they use kerosene due to which so much of soot is produced that it is hazardous to their health. In the morning, not only their entire house but even their faces turn black due to the soot,” she recalls.

Having observed the abundant sunlight that the entire area gets, Vandana came up with the idea to use solar power to light up these houses. Therefore, she collaborated with a California-based group, Lighting for Literacy and proposed a ‘Service-based Retreat Program’ to them. The program offered the students a chance to experience the local way of life and included various activities like trekking, Yoga, meditation, etc., and in return, they would build micro-solar units for 10 houses. Interestingly, the solar electrification was carried out by 14 middle-school students from California, along with Vandana.

Talking about the challenges that she faced during the project, Vandana says that the biggest hurdle was the logistics.Offbeat Tracks

“These solar batteries and equipment weight over 100kgs, but from the US to India, they were transported without any issues. However, we had to take this flight from Delhi to Leh, and at the last moment, the authorities refused to carry these batteries in the flight. A few people had to stay back and figure a way out to get these batteries to the village, while the remaining flew to Leh and arranged for temporary batteries to get the work going. It took 7 days by road to get the batteries to the destination. So, these logistical hassles and poor infrastructure are one of the most difficult things to manage during such travels.”

“Of course, this experience has led us to come up with creative ways to solve such problems for our future projects as this project is just a beginning for us,” she adds.

Later, revealing the highlight of their entire trip, Vandana says, “Living in the village with 10 host families who opened not only their homes but their hearts, is a memory that’ll stay with us all, forever and ever. It’s just amazing to see how much they care and how welcoming they are.”

She also confides in me how one member each from the host family came forward to carry the solar batteries on their back to the designated houses which were distanced at 2km trek from the main village.Offbeat Tracks

“I still remember the day we reached the village. They had arranged a welcoming celebration for us where they were all dressed in traditional Ladakhi dresses and the meal, too, was prepared from the local produce and had a variety of authentic Ladakhi dishes,” sighs Vandana.

I ask her how they celebrated after they installed the solar units to which Vandana smiles and says, “I don’t know if you’ll call it a celebration, but, when we were done with the work, we asked the owners of each of those houses to switch on and switch off the light. The smile on their faces and the light in their eyes were so touching that it seemed like a fitting celebration.”Vandana Vijay

Then, I fire some quick questions to her about her travel experiences and more and trust me, her answers make me want to leave everything, pack my bags, and go exploring the world.

Share your different travel experiences:

a) Happiest: It has to be this Ladakh one and our Nagaland trip. In Nagaland too, we stayed with the local families and also got a chance to attend the Hornbill festival, their biggest annual festival. We also met the oldest female in the village who was 108-year-old at the time. She told us tales about how she has outlived two world wars and how they had to hide in the forests when the Japanese troops invaded their village, etc. It was one memorable travel experience!

 b) Scary: Oh it has to be my Sikkim trip. I was traveling alone and took a taxi from Gangtok to North Sikkim. However, we got stuck midway due to landslides and heavy rains. There was nowhere to go and the entire area was jammed with vehicles. I put on my boots and took my backpack and decided to find a shelter on foot. However, there was nothing there and I had to contact a few people I knew in the army to provide me directions and shelter for a night. One night I stayed in a makeshift shelter I made in the middle of nowhere and one night I stayed at the Army’s quarters. Even my taxi driver who promised to come for me later decided to ditch me. Only after two days, I could reach back to Gangtok all by myself.

 c) Insta-Perfect: *laughs* Again, I think it has to be Ladakh! The monasteries, the landscapes, the mountains, everything is so picture-perfect!Vandana Vijay

 Suggest one offbeat destination for the following:

a) Kids: So, if you want to introduce your kids to adventure, trekking, and rural life, Nagaland is the best choice. It’s not commercial and the mountains there are also not very high.

 b) Newlyweds: Bhutan! It’s so beautiful and naturally rich. Also, contrary to the popular belief that Bhutan is only about meditation, it has pretty happening nightlife, at least in its capital city, Thimphu and also in Paro.

 c) Solo Women: Meghalaya

 d) Elderly: I would suggest Assam as the roads and infrastructure are comparatively better than the rest of the North-East. They also have such beautiful tea-gardens and old colonial bungalows. It’s just a perfect getaway for relaxation.

 Share with us the biggest learning from your rural travel experience.Offbeat Tracks

I think it has to be the way rural people have adapted their lifestyle according to their surrounding environment and not the other way round like us, the urban crowd. All their lifestyle choices, even their sanitary practices are modified to suit the surroundings and are so eco-friendly.

How can we all also contribute to rural welfare through our travels?

There are two things to consider in it. As an urban person, we just want some time out from the hustle-bustle of the city life and I think rural travel is the best way to do it. It’s perfect and relaxing to all the senses. In fact, it’s a great way to introduce your children to their roots as they have completely lost touch with it. It will give financial incentive to the rural population thereby providing them a better means to live. However, another important thing to understand here is to not disrupt their way of life. Please, it’s very important to educate yourself and be considerate of their surroundings. Do not litter or use plastic as they might not have means to dispose it off like we have in the urban setting.

What’s the biggest thing people miss while planning their trips?Vandana Vijay

Oh! Most people have this checklist of places that they want to cover when they travel. They don’t take out the time to explore and savor their surroundings. Please get out of your comfort zone and be a little more flexible. The local food and people are the essence of any travel and so invest your time in exploring these, instead of mindlessly covering the “tourist” spots.

Who’s your favorite travel buddy?

Ahh, I’m a solo traveler, mostly! So, I think my favorite travel buddy has to be the people whom I meet during my travels.

P.S. To know more about Offbeat Tracks and their unique travel packages, visit their website here.

Photos Source: Vandana Vijay

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