Q & A with Mr. Saurabh Agrawal, CEO and Director of Chinkara Journeys, based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India. "Offering culturally sensitive tours and eco-friendly wildlife tours in Central India."
HOW MANY YEARS HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE TOURISM BUSINESS?
I have been in the tourism field since 2003; I was working with several international tourism companies. Once I got together with a few like-minded people, we started our own company in 2013.
Chinkara Journeys combines the knowledge and enthusiasm of its team - we are all long-devoted to the wildlife, tribal people, and the culture of this region of India.
THE MONTH OF OCTOBER IS JUST AHEAD, AND WITH THAT COMES THE BEGINNING OF THE POST-MONSOON SEASON. IS THAT THE BEST SEASON TO VISIT INDIA?
Yes, it is one of the best seasons to visit India. The tiger reserves and national parks are open again after being closed for 4 months of the monsoon season. Many festivals happen during this time of the year as well. Navrati and Dussera are some of the major Indian festivals. Dussera in particular is celebrated locally in a different way than the rest of India. Bastar is in the tribal region of central India, and it is a 100-day celebration where tribes representing a diverse community participate in hundreds of their traditional attire. It is unarguably the longest festival of the world.
Mumbai, New Dehli, Goa, and Jaipur have been popular tourist destinations for decades. This is what tourists think of when they picture India. In reality, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Most tourism companies, both inside and outside of India, include those destinations in their "must-see" itineraries, and in the end sometimes they are overrun with tourists.
The outside world does not give much attention to central India, except for a few destinations. This was our inspiration in creating Chinkara Journeys. Our tours are culturally-sensitive and eco-friendly with respect to people and wildlife and history. We include both popular and lesser-known destinations in our tours. Central India is considered the geographic heart of India. It comprises of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha (formerly Orissa) with a vast area of open spaces and a relatively sparse population.
The Maikal Hills, Bastar, and eastern Odisha are home to Baiga, Gond, Maria, Dhurwa, Kondh, and Paraja tribal peoples whose natural way of life remains an enticing counterpoint to the stresses and strains of the modern 21st century.
The rock shelter paintings of Bhimbetka tell of a rich anthropological past. There are the world-famous Kanha and Bandhavgarh national parks, and the Chilika Lake wetlands is the home of many bird species. These remote areas still contain exceptional concentrations of wildlife perhaps including the extant wild populations of the Royal Bengal tiger.
WHICH COUNTRIES DO YOUR GUESTS COME FROM?
They come from all over the world, but the majority come from the UK, Australia, and Singapore.
Not really. Our tours are diversified based on interest and personal preference. For example, for guests who choose a walking or cycling tour, or wish to experience village life, they do not visit the tiger reserves.
However, when guests choose a wildlife tour, or a private custom-made tour with a wildlife aspect to it, then, yes, they generally do want to see tigers because they are such charismatic animals, and it is exciting to see them in the wild.
We try our best to get good sightings, but it is never guaranteed. Tigers are elusive creatures, and we do not work outside of our responsible travel policies. However, we do enlist the help of wildlife specialists along with good park guides and naturalists who are master trackers and extremely knowledgeable about animal behavior. By the end of our tours, we are often successful when it comes to spotting tigers.
WHAT ANIMALS ARE COMMONLY SEEN IN THE NATURE PARKS?
The most common are the Sambhar deer, Muntjac (barking deer), jackal, guar (Indian bison), playful languars, and macaques monkeys. Barasingha (swamp deer) are also common to this region.
Sometimes you can also spot these animals: Asiatic wild dogs, the civet cat, wild boar, mongoose, giant squirrels, porcupines, the Indian flying fox (a species of bat), the four-horned antelope, and python snakes.
SOME OF YOUR TOURS INVOLVE WALKING, BICYCLE RIDING, AND CAMPING OUTDOORS. BESIDES FRESH AIR AND EXCERCISE, WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CHOOSING THESE TOURS?
We place a high value on slow travel and local knowledge. With these tours, you get the benefit of a local guide who gives you the most authentic experience possible. These guides are local farmers and herdsmen. They know the best routes and also the medicinal properties of each plant and tree. They also know whether it is worth a diversion from the path in order to see a leopard's footprint, or to bypass a local village in the midst of a private ceremony, or to drop in on a baby-welcoming party where the presence of extra guests is acceptable. On these trips, real relationships and understanding can be established between local hosts and guests. This is not possible when we travel by car on a fixed route that does not allow for spontaneous side trips.
Another big plus is that on these less-traveled dirt paths - away from busy paved roads - it is possible to see birds and sometimes other wildlife too.
SOME OF YOUR TOURS INCLUDE HOME STAYS IN SMALL VILLAGES. WHAT ARE THE RULES OF ETIQUETTE? SHOULD GUESTS BRING A SMALL GIFT INTO THESE HOMES? OR IS IT BETTER TO LEAVE A DONATION FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE ENTIRE VILLAGE?
While it is not mandatory to bring a gift, we do encourage guests to bring small but useful presents, such as a jumper or shawl for the children (it can get bitterly cold at night during the winter). For longer stays, it is appreciated if you can bring along some fresh fruits and vegetables. It is said that 50% of India's people do not even eat one fully-balanced meal a day.
It is also important to keep in mind that in these rural villages water and electricity are sometimes in short supply. We do educate incoming guests of what to expect and guidelines of how to behave responsibly so that extra burdens are not put upon the local villagers. If someone needs a special diet or has some other requirement, we can usually make proper arrangements if they give us that information well in advance.
Indian cuisine is as rich in variety as the country itself. There is a wide variety of incredibly delicious choices from curried vegetables, rice, lentils, to chutneys, flatbreads, fresh cottage cheese and fruits, to endless sweets.
India is a great place to travel if you are vegetarian because the majority of its population is also vegetarian. However, their carnivore cousins will not go hungry! Almost every part of India has its signature non-veg dish which is complimented by vivid and delicate regional flavors. If you are on a special or restricted diet, just give us advance notice so that we can accommodate you.
We believe that food is a major part of the travel experience, and so we try our very best to make sure that our guests get to try authentic dishes with flavors and aromas rarely found in Indian restaurants outside of India.
Women travelers are safe in India. Mostly it is a matter of common sense. Women are advised to cover exposed flesh as much as possible, especially when visiting religious sites or traveling in remote rural areas. It is a good idea to pack a scarf or shawl so that you can cover your head and shoulders as necessary. Your legs should be covered with at least a knee-length trouser.
For everyone: hats or caps are strongly recommended to protect from the strong sun rays, and you must have a good pair of strong walking shoes. Having insect repellent handy is also a good idea.
AT THE END OF THEIR TOURS, WHAT DO GUESTS SAY WAS THEIR BIGGEST SURPRISE?
This completely varies from person to person. For some people seeing a wild tiger for the first time is the biggest experience in their life. For others, spending time in an indigenous community meeting villagers and learning about their culture was the highlight of their trip. Still others are surprised and delighted when a dinner is created just for them right in the middle of the jungle!
IN YOUR OPINION, HOW CAN TRAVELERS LEAVE A LIGHTER CARBON FOOTPRINT?
A responsible travel policy is only as good as the people who commit to it. Travelers should look for companies that support their local environment, economy, and societies. Those that employ local people and give back to the community. Those that utilize small family owned restaurants and inns instead of big corporate places. Those that make an effort to reduce waste and environmental impact by repairing and recycling.
ANYTHING NEW COMING UP FOR CHINKARA JOURNEYS IN 2016?
For next season we will include specialized birding tours and short tiger tours. We are always open to improving our services and tour offerings
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