Earth-friendly fashion, food and travel

Last week was Earth Day. I usually don’t pay much attention to such “days” because most of them are mere eyewash, but Earth Day got me thinking. Can I really make a difference in building a better future for a greener planet?

I assessed my passions (fashion, food and travel) and I figured- sure, I can make an impact, and quickly sat down to make a rough list. At the end of an hour, I re-read the list and scratched out a few unfeasible ideas. But a handful of practical and pragmatic earth-friendly ideas survived. An inner voice said, “Hey, this can work!” So I decided to take the list public and share it with you all.

Here goes:

Fashion

Biba kurtas

Shop within a limit. And I don’t mean your credit card limit. Plan your shopping and decide what you need to buy before you head to the mall. Even with just a dozen tops and half a dozen pants, you can be trendy and stylish. Sure, end of season sales are tempting and a wonderful excuse to buy the orange top or pink dress on your wishlist, but do you really need Blouse No. 52 in your wardrobe? Instead, do a thorough wardrobe cleanse over a long weekend, then only add new clothes and accessories to replace an older one that’s worn out.

Recycle and reuse. I’ve been hearing this mantra for years now, but never followed it. Late 2014, I reused my mom’s wedding dupatta with a new ensemble and made a modern-looking blouse to match her traditional sari, I realized that this formula works. You can transform a large silk scarf into a top or stitch neutral-coloured sari blouses to wear with well-preserved saris. Besides, you get bragging rights to declare, “I’m wearing vintage!”

pink dupatta

Buy locally-made clothes. Here’s how the supply chain of most fast fashion brands (like Zara) usually work: Clothes are manufactured in Country A, then sent to home country and dispatched around the world. Or the garments are shipped directly to warehouses or stores in Countries B, C, D and so on. Working on tight deadlines and short turnaround times, manufacturers often dispatch the merchandise via air. With hundreds of manufacturers and dozens of countries, you can imagine the amount of emissions a single brand’s business could generate. A simple thumb rule (broad generalization): the shorter the distance a garment travels, the more planet-friendly it is likely to be in terms of emissions. Buying clothes made in another part of the world may often be the easier (read: cheaper) option, but do try to opt for a local brand when possible. India has dozens of clothing and accessories brands that source and manufacture locally. “Made in India” seems appealing, doesn’t it?

Buy good quality clothes and accessories. You bought a cute pair of chappals from Linking Road and a stylish cotton kurta from Lajpat market for a steal. Both get worn out in a few months. And so you want to buy new chappals and another cotton kurta. Instead, how about you pay a bit more and buy chappals and a kurta that last longer? This way you generate less waste and save money in the long run. Think of each purchase as an investment of sorts, and calculate the returns in terms of how long it will make you happy. True, better quality may often mean more strain on your wallet, but when you’re buying fewer clothes and shopping less often, the extra bucks you spend are actually working to save you money in the future.

Food

Fresh local produce Chaing Mai Thailand

Eat local produce as much as you can. Of course, that’s not always possible. You don’t get great India-made feta or miso paste, but local fruits and vegetables are always the freshest and have travelled much shorter distances to reach you. Besides, seasonal fruits and vegetables are often delicious. So, if you have a choice, buy local.

Carry your own shopping bag. A cloth or jute bag or locally made basket is super handy in the market. My granny had gifted my mom couple of hand-woven baskets several years ago which she still uses. Myanmar has some lovely woven baskets as well, and I’ve bought not one, but two of them!

Use cloth instead of plastic and paper. Replace kitchen tissue with cloth towels to dry pots, pans and plates in the kitchen, or wipe your hands. There are some “highly absorbent” options which you can use for several days before throwing them for a wash. (Yes, I use just such a towel!). And oh, I prefer to use a handkerchief instead of paper tissue.

Reuse (yes, again!). I saw bamboo straws in Cambodia, and regret not buying them. They were reusable and very cute! Conscious foodies often carry reusable cutlery such as forks and chopsticks instead of using the disposable ones found in takeaway joints or fast food restaurants.

Travel

Boat ride Copenhagen

Use public transport. This one’s a no-brainer. And besides, if you’re using a local bus or public ferry you’ll get a better feel of local life. Better still, cycle around town.

Carry a reusable water bottle. Invest in a sturdy good-sized water bottle. In several countries, you can fill up your bottle with tap water (especially across Europe) or from a water dispenser in airports or malls. I carry my reusable water bottle all the time- when I’m going shopping or to a movie, so I’m not tempted to buy water or cold drinks, usually sold in paper cups, tin cans or plastic bottles. Besides reducing possible wastage, I avoid the extra calories in cold drinks. 🙂

Avoid takeaway. Takeaway meals are usually packed in plastic bags and cutlery, thermocol boxes and disposable plastic boxes for sauces etc. Instead, try to relax and enjoy your meal at the restaurant. You’ll savour the food experience a lot more.

Indian thali food

Book online. And don’t print your ticket, if it isn’t required. Save it on your phone or tablet instead. There are several museums, airlines, theatres, trains and other touristy places that don’t need a paper ticket. We once travelled in an overnight train from Rome to Palermo with the ticket on our iPad without a problem. And when I booked a ticket on the IRCTC website from Vapi to Mumbai, all the TT asked for was my ID proof. Most hotels are fine with electronic booking vouchers as well.

Carry e-copies. When my mother and I first travelled abroad in the late 1990s, we were advised to carry multiple copies of our passports, visas and tickets in case something went wrong. Now we save the scanned copies of our documents on email and in our phone’s photo gallery, so it’s accessible even without an internet connection. Do the same. Save paper and ink!

Stay earth-friendly and chic!

Myanmar’s beauty secret

Walking through the streets of Yangon, I see painted faces. Not the kind smiling down from giant signboards advertising vitamin supplements, but real people faces. Painted. Women young and old, little boys and girls and (some) men sport the paint like it’s part of them, as natural as wearing clothes or applying moisturiser. In the sundrenched streets, in the bustling wet market, at the airconditioned supermarket, in packed buses, I see cheeks and foreheads sporting circles and streaks of ochre, like a sort of war paint.

Myanmar girl in Thanaka

This “war paint” is thanaka or thanakha (pronounced tuh-naa-kaa), and it functions as a potent weapon to protect Myanmar people from the harsh sun.

Myanmar folk believe thanaka is a wonderful antidote to the harmful effects of too much sun. It keeps their skin de-tanned, safe and non-greasy.

Made from the bark of the wood apple tree that grows across Myanmar, thanaka paste has a gentle fragrance that vaguely reminds me of Indian sandalwood. Market vendors sell chopped pieces of thanaka bark at different prices, based on size. You choose your bark, take it home, and pound it into a paste with some water in a special grinder called kyout pin (pronounced chow-pi-ye).

Here’s the bark I spotted in my neighbourhood wet market (Hledan Zei):

Wood apple or thanaka bark Myanmar

And this is the grinder (kyout pin, picture courtesy Myat Su San)

Thanaka grinder Myanmar

If you don’t own the grinder (like me) or don’t know how to make the paste, you buy ready thanaka paste from the supermarket (like me). It’s less effective than home-made thanaka but still works, according to this experiential feature in Myanmar Times.

Thanaka in Yangon supermarket

Thanaka in Myanmar supermarket

Take some paste with a spatula or fingers, apply on your cheeks and voila! You’re ready to soak up the sun. You can also apply thanaka on your forehead, arms or any body part exposed to the sun. Some artistic Myanmar moms paint flowers on their daughters’ cheeks with thanaka. So cute!

Thanaka can stay on all day, but I’ve only used it for short periods of time, and my skin feels radiant, soft, bright and fresh after washing it off. Most importantly, I don’t get a post-sun headache and my skin feels cool when I’m in the sun. So yes, I believe it works. And the nearly blemish-free, bright skin I’ve seen on most Myanmar people is proof enough for me.

When people ask me what thanaka is, I say it’s sunblock, sunscreen, gentle exfoliator, face pack, cream, all rolled into one. You only need to try it to feel its magic!

Sunday Street Stories: Mumbai’s Big Ben

On a hazy winter-like day in Mumbai, as busy officegoers crossed the maidan (grounds) at Churchgate, the Rajabai  clock tower rises conspicuously high above the crowds, the coconut trees and 20th century buildings.

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Inspired by London’s Big Ben, the clock tower was built in the Venetian-Gothic style in the 1870s. Financed by stock broker Premchand Roychand and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, Rajabai Clock Tower in the Mumbai University campus has been one of my favourite buildings in the city. With its quiet Gothic elegance, the tower is a reminder that the city’s heritage are treasures that can last centuries, if only we care for them.

Location: Churchgate, Mumbai
Date: January 29, 2016
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s skaters

In my first weekend in Yangon last June, I was on my way to the mall supermarket for groceries when we passed the Hledan bridge (more like an overpass). Under the bridge were a bunch of young men on roller skates and skate boards. I was fascinated, having seen skateboarding only in some Hollywood movies.

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A few months ago, the skaters were  campaigning for a dedicated skate park. With crowdsourced funding, the park will soon be built in Yangon. Till then, skaters and skateboarders come to the overpass to practise and learn. A fun way to spend an evening.

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Picture taken on: December 4, 2015
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Berlin’s “ruined” church

When I visited Berlin a year and a half ago, I headed to Kurfurstendamm to shop. As the stores’ window displays tempted me, my eyes fell on a strange church across the street. It looked around a century old and the spire seemed ripped off.

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Despite the construction work going on, there were no signs of fixing the spire. I wondered, why would the technically-perfect Germans allow a church to stay in its damaged state?

It took me some time to find the answer. This church (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), built in the 1890s was partly destroyed by an air bombing in 1943. In the 1950s, restoration plans were developed but the public and  powers that be decided to keep the ruined tower as a reminder of the futility of war. Instead, a new building was constructed near the original. The result: this hexagonal building by architect Egon Eiermann.

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Pictures taken on: June 1, 2014
Location: Berlin, Germany
Device: Google Nexus 5

My favourite shopping streets in Europe

Also read: Awesome shopping streets in Asia.

Strøget, Copenhagen (Denmark)

A gorgeous street in Copenhagen, but alas, the shops close by 7 pm and the prices are outrageous for tourists on non-European salaries. Strøget is one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe, and is lined with popular high street stores like Topshop, Zara, H&M and some local brands. There’s also a giant Lego store (yay!). The summer of 2014, Strøget was buzzing with tourists and locals enjoying the atmosphere, sipping coffee at outdoor cafes, and just strolling about. I especially enjoyed the walk on cobblestoned streets and checking out the heritage buildings, still in excellent condition.

Shopping Stroget in Copenhagen

Stroget shopping Copenhagen

Taksim Square, Istanbul (Turkey)

Back in 2010 when I visited Turkey, the famous Taksim Square was THE PLACE to be on a Saturday night. Crowded even in the day, the place came alive on weekend evenings, with thousands of people partying, shopping and grabbing a bite well past midnight. The streets off the square became a no-car zone, dozens of food and souvenir vendors set up shop and the “party” began. The atmosphere was pulsating with high energy, and I felt like I’d just had two Red Bulls. After a quick pizza, I made my way through the packed streets to go shopping, spending at least an hour at the multi-storeyed Mango store. The best part—shops were open till midnight!

PS- Due to the changing political situation in Turkey, I’m not sure if the late-night shopping continues.

Kurfürstendamm, Berlin (Germany)

Who would’ve thought that the staid German capital would have such wonderful shopping! Kurfürstendamm (quite a mouthful no?) is the center of most tourist activities in Berlin and a great place to shop. The street has all the high street brands you could name- Zara, Diesel, Uniqlo, H&M, Pull & Bear… you get the idea. I shopped till I dropped at Pull & Bear, and got a great leopard print backpack from Zara for just €10. I also bought kitchen appliances at the German department store KaDeWe, which was stocked with unbelievable appliances in the German aesthetic: clean design and high-tech precision. Also the souvenir shops are worth checking out for cool tees, shot glasses and Berlin messenger bags that look great and are easy on the pocket.

Berlin Kufustendamm shopping

La Rambla, Barcelona (Spain)

Being in Spain, you expect to see local fashion brands at every corner. And well, they are! In and around the 1.2 kilometre-long La Rambla, you have the choice of the world’s best-known fashion and beauty brands, and you will never want to stop. I shopped at Zara, Mango, H&M, Bershka, The Body Shop, Shana… This was in 2011, and the Euro was not as frightfully expensive as it is today. At the Plaza Catalunya end of the street (north end), there’s the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés, where I bought Bobbi Brown makeup and tons of accessories. El Corte Inglés is a quintessential part of the Spanish life and each store is different from the others. It’s a must-visit anywhere in the country.

Barcelona shopping La Rambla

Barcelona shopping La Rambla artists

Sunday Street Stories: Nay Pyi Taw’s golden pagoda

All Myanmar cities and towns have at least one pagoda worth a visit. Now Nay Pyi Taw may be the ghost capital of Myanmar, but the military has made sure there’s a fantastic pagoda there.

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The Uppatasanti Pagoda is built on the lines of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, but with an open hall within for prayer. There are Buddha idols in the centre and marble carvings around the inner circumference depicting scenes from Buddha’s life. And then there are the magnificent carvings and texts on the inner dome.

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With this stunning place of worship and 16-lane highways, clearly no stone was left unturned to make the Myanmar capital as grand as possible.

Date: October 31, 2015
Location: Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Living in an art gallery

There’s something about Chiang Mai. This Thai hill town seems to have me in its grip. When I visited Chiang Mai with my mom last December, I didn’t know I’d be back a year later. There were no omens or portents, just the nagging feeling that I hadn’t explored the city well enough. Call it fate, call it provident, but yes, I was back mid-December 2015. And this trip was completely different from my earlier one a year ago. I lived in another part of Chiang Mai, and as a result, I got the opportunity to explore the artsy side of the city: I stayed in an art gallery just off Nimmanhaemin Road.

No, I mean hotel.

Oops, I mean an art hotel.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai

Art Mai Gallery Hotel houses an art gallery on the ground floor, but the art is not restricted to exhibition space- it’s everywhere… on the walls, in the corridors, and oh, in the guest rooms too. And the artsy touches are everywhere.

As you’ve guessed it, this recently-opened hotel is paradise for art lovers. From the painting exhibition on the ground floor to the art-themed rooms, you will see paintings by Thai artists at every corner you turn. I must say, this is such an enterprising way to promote Thai art to people from around the world.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai

The hotel’s décor was in the vein of industrial minimalism. See these exposed pipes and the shades-of-grey colour scheme?

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai

The decorative accents blend in perfectly with this look. Like this side table.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai

But much as we’d like to, we can’t really sleep and shower in an exhibition. So we were assigned a room on the second floor.

Review of Art Mai Gallery Hotel art rooms

Each floor in the hotel has a different art theme, and we got nude art:

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai nude art painting

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai room painting

Then there was this cute easel. To which S said, “Why does it say P-O-D?”

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai art easel

And I said, “It’s an illustration, see? They’ve drawn two eyes. They want us to draw a face around it, or a cartoon or whatever we want.” It’s an art hotel after all. I didn’t have the courage to express my (non-existing) artistic side, but it got me thinking about learning drawing again. (Maybe a 2016 resolution?).

The industrial theme continued in the room, like this old-looking desk and “aging” bathroom tiles look too, with some hints of modern design.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai desk in room

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai bathroom

Anyhoo, a hotel is not just about art. So we had a large comfy bed, big screen TV (which we unfortunately didn’t have time to watch), a kettle station, mini fridge etc. Pretty much the standard stuff. My favourite amenity? The powerful shower. 😀 And my favourite service? The evening snackie the housekeeping lady left on my bed. 😀

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai bathroom shower

As for food, the hotel restaurant Jarid may seem a bit on the smaller side, but they put up a good breakfast spread, making the most of the buffet table space and using cute chalkboard-style placards for dish names.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai Jarid restaurant

There were the usual suspects of cereal, breads, fruits, potatoes, Thai staples like rice, noodles, soup and we could ask for our choice of freshly-cooked eggs. The food was freshly cooked, packed with flavour and a very satisfying start to the day.

Hotel Art Mai Gallery Chiang Mai breakfast

Just what the doctor ordered before an action-packed day in Chiang Mai- trekking, river rafting, visiting the 3D museum, shopping and exploring the boutique stores around Nimmanhaemin.

Chiang Mai 3d museum giant foot

I’d stay in this hotel again if I could: tres chic, great location (in the heart of the hip part of town) and fabulous art.

To know more about Art Mai Gallery Hotel, visit the hotel website.

Sunday Street Stories: Chocolate sandwich, anyone?

Mumbai’s food vendors are an innovative lot. Their street-side inventions and adaptations of local dishes would perhaps put MasterChef contestants to shame. The latest surprise they’ve sprung is the chocolate sandwich.

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This vendor at Nariman Point tried hard to sell me a chocolate sandwich. Besides putting the chocolate-y condiments on display, he tried to entice me by rattling off the ingredients in the sandwich- Nutella spread, chocolate flakes and Hershey’s syrup. Very, very tempting but I had to give this one a skip. Too sinful for me!

Location: Nariman Point, Mumbai
Date: November 16, 2015
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Chiang Mai’s arty district

Chiang Mai, located in Northern Thailand, may not be a beach destination like Phuket or Krabi, but it’s developing into quite a cultural hotspot. Nimmanhemin Road is the city’s chic quarter, with art galleries, decor stores, indie boutiques and, of course, a vibrant night life. This building had an attractive facade.

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And another building round the corner that housed a cafe (Mango Tango) had a very creative form of advertising their location.

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If you’re in Chiang Mai, don’t forget to visit Nimmanhemin Road and explore the sois (lanes) that lead to spas, cafes and restaurants. There’s so much to see!

Pictures taken on: December 11, 2015
Location: Nimmanhemin Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Device: Google Nexus 5