My 2017 solo trip to the Himalayas during my college break offered me various perspectives and worldviews that my city upbringing could never offer. This trip exposed me to ‘slow-living’ communities in symbiosis with their immediate environment and still deeply rooted in humanity and community-centric values.
As a result, I skipped my graduation day to set off on a gap year trip across the country. I mostly did the typical low-budget backpacking routes around that time — staying in hostels, doing a couple of organised treks (Everest Base Camp, Kanchenjunga Base Camp, etc) and a couple of volunteering gigs (teaching English to monks in a Buddhist Monastery in Sikkim). I was hoping for this ‘gap year’ trip to satiate me enough to get back into the rat race, but it never happened. On the contrary, I got more addicted to travelling.
I tried various entrepreneurial gigs to fuel this addiction like vlogging in 2018-19. Running a homestay in 2020, freelance travel writing projects and so on but nothing stuck. I also went through many phases as a traveller.
These changes did bring about several challenges. I remember being frequently interrogated by the cops in 2019 while straying off into remote Chinese villages not accustomed to having any travellers let alone an Indian one, getting frostbitten in Nepal (2019), navigating veganism in Vietnam(2019), getting caught up in landslides and minor earthquakes in Northeast India and motorbiking from Bengaluru to Sikkim to Bhutan without any prior riding experience(2018).
These challenges however are trivial when compared to the mental hurdles that come with long-term solo travel – intermittent bouts of imposter syndrome while starting something new, career-related anxiety and loneliness. In retrospect, they make for good stories and opportunities to grow. I now find myself easily adapting to socio-geological environments that used to be out of my comfort zone and have become more comfortable enjoying my own company.
Experiencing slow travel
I found my calling in slow travel and mindful exploration. Here one intentionally spends more time in one location, completely immersing themselves in its local culture, communities and surrounding landscape instead of covering too many locations to check off bucket lists. Part of the reason why I’m content not having visited too many countries.
I take my inspiration for travel not from Instagrammers or vloggers but documentaries. Explorers such as Levison Wood (Walking the Nile, Walking the Himalayas) and Adnan Sarwar (BBC Dangerous Borders) are some of my idols whose documentaries have made me change the way I perceive exploration. I now approach exploration the same way a filmmaker would approach their film or a musician would approach their song — as an art form. Exploration like any other art form takes a certain level of intrinsic motivation, hard work and an unexplainable, irrational desire to go someplace remote.
As a result, I carved out a new career path for myself in 2021 of travel experience curation. I realised that what I was experiencing during my weeks to months-long stay in remote corners of the country was far beyond the scope of what a packaged tour or a backpacking trail or a luxury resort could offer.
Moreover, not everyone has the luxury of time or the bandwidth to spend weeks or months in remote villages. That’s when I decided to bridge the gap through my passion project — Map My Stories. Here, I curate mindful and immersive journeys inspired by my explorations. Experiences from my long-term explorations are tailored into concise, interactive itineraries.
The itineraries are designed in a way to not only engage with but also support local communities and offer a well-balanced mix of everything from culture to nature to adventure. My itineraries are more about ‘doing’ than ‘seeing’. In my recent curated journey across Sikkim that lasted six days—which I named ‘Kongchen Lyang’ (meaning ‘The Abode of the Kanchenjunga in the Sikkimese Lepcha dialect’)—we woke up to amazing mountain views and learnt the monastic arts from a local artist while renovating a portion of a 19th-century Buddhist monastery.
We were taught to make bamboo souvenirs by a local artisan, jammed with indigenous musicians, went caving, swam in natural pools and river beaches, went foraging and learnt to brew local beer as well. Books from local writers are bought and gifted to my clients. I also try to add a climate justice element to my itineraries by arranging insightful interactions with local activists, scholars, conservationists and environmentalists. This journey had a life-altering impact on my clients, some of whom are still dealing with post-travel blues.
Through Map My Stories I curate customised journeys. All the experiences that I’ve gone through are thematically arranged on my website into different catalogues from which travellers can hand-pick experiences they’d like to try after which I facilitate their journey accordingly.
Some of my trips include an immersive experience of indigenous Sikkim and another is a dive into Sikkim’s royal heritage.
Yet another package includes an offbeat trip to Arunachal, where I’ve collaborated with the Idu Mishmi community of Arunachal’s Dibang Valley to introduce and normalise sustainable tourism in the valley.
Another offbeat adventure tour across Ladakh is inspired by my travels through the region.
Now and then, depending on the season, I form groups of like-minded travellers and organise fixed departures once a month for 6-10 days. However, I’m selective about who gets to join the group. I choose responsible travellers with an inclination towards sustainability/conservation/arts/academia, etc.
This October, I will be leading a group of like-minded female travellers through Arunachal for ‘Into The Dibang’ where we will be taught to build bamboo rafts and camp near the Indo-China Border among other experiential activities.
A group journey may cost anywhere around Rs 26,000 to Rs 30,000, depending on the group size and location and the group capacity doesn’t exceed more than six members.
In trying to be more sustainable, locations are kept secret and not revealed to protect them from over-tourism and shallow tourism (a kind of tourism-driven solely by the need to take photos for social media). Apart from curation services, I also offer personalised consultancy for those wanting to chart out an offbeat journey of their own. I hope to map out more such thematic journeys across India and the world.
Map my stories is a community-centric, immersive travel experience curation project hoping to be a part of sustainable travel solutions.
Those interested can contact Shreyas on his website or his Instagram handle @mapmystories.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)