It’s hard to ignore the itch to travel. With the world still locking and unlocking at an unsure pace with the threat of Coronavirus still looming large on all of us, this might be a good time to re-examine the way we travel. Emphasis on health and safety will be the new normal in travel for some time to come and we hope that people will explore more opportunities to leave less negative impact on destinations.
In the northern section of India, the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakand attract a lot of travellers each year. According to a tourism survey of Himachal Pradesh between April 2011 and March 2012, the state received 1,23,29,907 domestic travellers alone. Yet, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are among the most visited ones for their manageable temperatures and affordability.
The impact of such great numbers of travellers is borne squarely by the sensitive ecosystem. In 2018, due to severe water shortage in parts of Himachal Pradesh, the state requested tourists to cancel their visits. In the past years, people have been posting images of plastic wrappers and dumps of large amounts of waste on hill sides and water bodies.
It was the start of a new year, 2020. A close friend decided to make a birthday trip to Rakkar and Dharamshala with me. I had started my environment friendly lifestyle and did not want the holiday to be at the cost of the mountains and its people. That is how our plan of attempting a zero waste trip came to be. If we failed to be zero waste, we could use the lessons for our future trips.
I had imagined that the plan would be a difficult one to stick by and we would have to be mindful of our choices all the way. We travelled to Dharamshala on a public transit bus for which we booked the tickets online. We did not print the tickets and used the online receipt as proof. The Himachal State Road Transport Service was our travelling companion throughout the local travel. The only glitch, the local buses were not always on time and late evening journeys were often cancelled. We discovered another great way, that we already enjoyed quite a lot, walking. The joy of witnessing snowfall during a walk with my friend remains one of my favourite memories of the trip.
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The only time we had to get a cab was when we had reached Dharamshala, too early in the morning. There were no buses available to move ahead to our destination, Rakkar.
We were so committed to our zero waste plan, that we completely avoided the Maggi trap as it did not make sense to be eating packed, non-nutritious food when we had access to healthy, locally produced homemade options. The roadside stalls were our respite and the ‘Rice- Dal’ and ‘Rice-Chicken’ combinations were satisfying.
We had carried our own coffee mugs and planned to put them to good use with regular stops for roadside tea, but we never had to use them as all shops had glass tumblers for tea. Along with this, we would buy the biscuits and knick knacks kept in the glass jars at tea stalls. We always carried a food box, in case we wanted to get anything packed. The only time we used it was to buy bakery biscuits for our hosts (as gratitude for their hospitality).
Another area of concern while packing for the trip were toiletries. I had switched to handmade non-toxic products a few months back and was carrying the smaller easy-to-carry versions. My tooth-cleaning powder is made from burnt rice and wheat husk, salt and clove oil (Umikkari), soap and shampoo were replaced by a mix of Chickpea and turmeric powder. My hair oil was bought directly from an oil mill in a reused bottle. And, I had shifted from inorganic sanitary pads to a menstrual cup.
My friend, however, had not made the shift as yet. This resulted in the waste we ended up creating during the trip – soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Also adding to our waste was moisturiser, a small pack we had to purchase from a local shop. Although, I was able to use the almond oil as a moisturiser as well.
We had not carried any alternative for detergents and so, our gracious hosts provided us with detergent from their stock.
On the whole, we avoided using anything that would be counted as waste once used. We carried our own food case, coffee mug, cloth bags and kerchiefs.
Zero waste living had also driven me into exploring minimalism. We avoided buying any local fabrics, clothes or souvenirs. We would have supported the local economy by shopping for souvenirs but we chose not to, as we are planning to live out of single bags and we would rather collect memories and gift skills to the local economy.
The tickets from buses, Norbulingka monastery and food bills were brought back with us to Delhi. I generally write notes or bill accounts on receipts that are printed on one side.
The total tangible wasted products at the end of the trip were – packaging of the moisturiser, tissue used instead of earbuds and one soiled tissue paper. On my accord, the mere use of a menstrual cup for my three day stay there, kept almost 12 sanitary pads out of the landfills of the state. At the same time, the use of washing powder added to the toxic foam pollution of the waterways.
The trip was a stepping stone to a stronger resolve in having more environmentally conscious journeys. The idea of a ‘zero waste trip’ seems like a distant dream to me unless I choose to travel on a bicycle. Till then, the small victory of convincing a friend or a stranger towards simple eco-friendly lifestyle changes while travelling is satisfying enough.
– Text and photographs by Saumya John