When I began thinking about a Love Kerala, all roads led to Gopi and his pioneering experiential travel company, Blue Yonder. I was constantly told that to fall in love with the real Kerala you need to meet Gopi. He and I finally met in Kochi in 2018, just a few weeks after floods had ravaged much of Kerala. I witnessed first-hand how Gopi combines his skills in disaster management with responsible tourism. We visited the devastated weaving village of Chendamangalam and learnt about the fundraising Chekutty dolls being made from the waste fabric. We then explored the Ernakulam district to learn about the unique Pokkali rice initiative where multiple stakeholders are engaged to preserve an indigenous organic rice and in doing so supplement farmers income via tourism and also provide food security during emergencies. During our adventure together I began to see how he was delivering on his mission of “Creating better places for people to live and to visit”.
Our conversation took place In July 2020 during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
What were you just thinking of?
The Blue Mountains and the importance of creating resilient communities and destinations.
What are you doing for the rest of today?
I have been living up in the mountain district of Wayanad in North Kerala (after I moved from Fort Kochi). I live in the middle of a wild plantation and my life here revolves around three rescue dogs, Ambour, Gingee and Rosy. Compared to Kochi, where they had to be kept on leash and had limited strolls, here they have acres of plantation and tea estates to run around and be on their own. Together we regularly go out for long runs and trek for kilometres where we don’t see another soul. This was true even before Covid-19. My small attempt to be self-sufficient, at least when it came to the vegetables I consume,has been very handy during the lock down. This afternoon I am going to complete a fence, which will protect the newly planted plantains from wild boars.
How ‘real’ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know any one personally who has contracted the virus?
For me, Covid-19 is more like the tigers in Sundarbans in West Bengal. Through stories and anecdotes, you know tigers exist. You see the pugmark on land and even on trees. But even after spending a week in the area you might not actually see them.
Until now Kerala has seen 25 deaths, which is an impressive number for this densely populated state, home to 35 million people. For the first two and a half months there was only three deaths, meaning Kerala had one of the lowest mortality rates not just in the country but in the world.
Most of the positive cases I have come across are amongst friends in the travel industry in Europe and USA. It’s only recently that I came to know about another friend in Delhi who wrote a note about her experience of being Covid-19 positive.
I also hear about a lot of cases thanks to friends in the medical profession. I have a niece who’s on an active Covid-19 duty. She is a doctor recently recruited by the Kerala State Government to join the new Covid Hospital in Kasargod district. With more non-resident Malayalees returning back from containment zones in other states and countries, the virus is real and near, and I fear the situation will change with more repatriation flights and trains arriving into Kerala.
If your own health and that of your family/friends is ok; then what is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
The pandemic has not created much of a change in my lifestyle. Living remote and living alone became just an extension of a lifestyle that the world ended up accepting thanks to declared lockdown. The past year I have been on sabbatical to think out how we work on Resilient Destinations; linking tourism, development and the humanitarian sector. The world has moved from an extreme over tourism in many places to zero tourism and yes, this has caused enormous uncertainties in the future of tourism and the hospitality business.
What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
I think it's a little too early to talk about a post pandemic phase. Though due to economic compulsions the world over, markets and economies are opening up partially, my guess is that we are still in the early stages of this pandemic. Reports are coming from Europe to China that the next wave is forcing many to close down once again. We are yet to figure out the kind of animal that Covid-19 is. More than a post pandemic scenario, I think we should be talking more about how to live with Covid-19, for a while, till a mass-produced, affordable vaccine is in place.
Until the time a vaccine is found, the work from home community within India may be attracted to small farmsteads and authentic small properties. A place with good internet access, that facilitates meaningful experiences within Covid-19 protocols of social/physical distances, will see some chance of survival in the immediate future.
Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
Personally, and professionally, I am seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity for furthering the need for an inward journey. This is an opportunity to learn to live with limited resources, explore possibilities of self-sufficiency and attain self-discipline. This is also the time for the travel industry to redesign their products into more meaningful and transformational experiences.
Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with?
One of the impacts of this Covid-19 for me personally is the realisation that the State (across the world) has an option to move into a welfare mode by creating the right ecosystem. Our state has shown that governance with compassion and empathy is possible and Kerala is now becoming a role model for the rest of India. Our state is not at all rich, in fact our GDP is ridiculously small compared to an equal size, populated country in the west. However, thoughtful actions; ensuring that no one will be left behind,is making a huge difference. Kerala has ensured that every family is receiving food provisions, delivered at our doors during the lock down. Our public distribution systems are working overtime and more than 300,000 community volunteers are working with the State Government to run and manage community kitchens, literally in every village, to ensure that no one goes hungry. For a state with few million migrant labourers, the fact that more than 95% decided to stay in Kerala instead of travelling to their villages in distant parts of India during the lockdown shows how Kerala has transformed into a compassionate state. The intervention of our civil society and the State Government in addressing Covid-19 has left us with positivity. The kind of positivity that the world is presently desperately looking for. Overall, I think that Kerala has proved itself to be a destination that takes care of its own people and that will make it even more of a destination to explore when people can travel again.
What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
I have reached a stage in my life, where I am content about being in one place.Going deeper into what makes the place where I am makes me happy.
If I was to choose one place that I would like to travel, it would be the remote (non-motorable) mountain village of Breswana in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We kick-started an education and community project in partnership with Haji Public School and the NGOSaura Mandala in 2018 and yet it remains incomplete as we became immersed locally in Kerala with the Nipah Virus, and the severe floods. Our goal is to work closely with the community to provide supplementary sources of income via sustainable tourism. We plan to co-create experiences and also train locals to be storyteller guides and work with the community to create local products We want the traveller to have a transformative experience as well as supporting these organisationsto bring high-quality education, internet connectivity and renewable energy into this stunningly beautiful Himalayan region. I really believe this will give me more meaning to my life. Not many people or communities have touched me so deeply.
What are you finding inspiring now?
Person: Kerala's Health Minister K K Shailaja Teacher.
Book: Currently re-reading 'The Legends of Khazakh' by O.V Vijayan
Film: A Malayalam movie called ‘Virus’ by Aashique Abu (about how Kerala fought the Nipah Virus in 2018).
What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
Seeing a tuk tuk driver ordering a tea and taking it to his mouth, realising he has not taken his mask off :)
If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organisation/initiative that could do with the support?
One of the most vulnerable communities that have been badly affected by Covid-19 are artists. All performances have been stopped across the country, impacting a wide variety of artists including dancers, musicians, instrument makers and sound technicians, who are employed for festivals and at temples. The artists have lost all their income and there is no safety net for them. Some of us have been trying to raise funds by auctioning our art works and the proceeds are distributed amongst artist communities. I would recommend people support The Sumanasa Foundation, which is an initiative lead by TM Krishna, the famous vocalist and rights activist. Sumanasa has created a Covid fund to support artists during these unprecedented times. Donations can be made here: sumanasafoundation.org/supporting-marginalized-artists-donate/
If you would like contact Gopi via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via WhatsApp+91 9047523960