Who doesn’t like to be at the top of the world? Geethu Mohandas raves with excitement when I congratulate her on her laudable performance. Geethu is the first woman to be chosen for an Arctic expedition organized by the Fjallraven Polar team. It is definitely at the top of the world and will literally be there soon.
A travel lover Geethu is not an aimless vagabond who whimsically explores the wonderland. In fact, she firmly believes in sustainable and responsible tourism, an idea that may have helped her gain votes and recognition in the highly competitive polar selection in Fjallraven.
In 1997, Fjallraven Polar launched the trip to the Arctic where all costs were paid. It enables a team of 20 normal people (yes, like us!) To explore the Arctic and survive in extreme conditions. A jury selects 10 members, the public chooses the other 10 in each region. Geethu received the highest votes from her region, but the journey was not easy. From cyber bullying and online spam to gender jabs, Geethu was the winner after Fjallraven disqualified the first two positions. But, as Geethu emphasizes, the bullying only gave her more power because she knew that even if she failed, more women would definitely participate and learn about the future program.
The spirit of mastering challenges and finding fulfilling ways to be a true winner may be Geethu’s strengths. When I spoke to her, however, I also realized that her greatest strength was her ability to be humble, grounded, and extremely aware that her travel life goes beyond tourism to actually make a difference. Not often you will find people who find a connection between menstrual hygiene and nature camps or who make sperm sticks. However, Geethu’s innovative ideas for responsible travel go even further. Founder of Let’s go campGeethu organizes nature camps that are reminiscent of their school day camps. Their innovative but innocently simple approach makes their camps and their way of traveling a refreshing change from the commercialized tourist destinations.
With a childhood dream of traveling into space, Kalpana Chawla Geethus remains an idol. For this reason, she decided to become a hardware designer, hoping that her studies might one day help reach space. And as much as space seduces you, so does the summit of Everest. Nevertheless, the conservationist gave up her dream of climbing Everest because of “heavy traffic and high pollution”. Geethu Mohandas seems like everyone, an ordinary woman with ambitious dreams, from the giggling enthusiasm to explore the universe, to the stoic empowerment to make women independent travelers, to the sophisticated nuances of responsible tourism. The only difference is that she has the ability and sensitivity to make it come true. One of them is about to meet it in late March when it expires in the Arctic.
First of all, congratulations on being the first Indian woman chosen by Fjallraven Polar for the Arctic expedition. How did you find out about this expedition and why or what motivated you to apply for it?
Geethu: I heard about the expedition from Niyog Krishna, the first Indian to go to the Arctic with the Fjallraven Polar team. He comes from Kerala and through his campaigns I learned that there is an opportunity for ordinary people like us to reach Polar. From then on I kept looking for it. Last year my friend Babu Sager was selected and helped me with the details.
Of course you are happy about the expedition, but what challenges do you think you are facing and how are you preparing for it?
Geethu: Physical fitness is the most important thing because the climate and terrain are not similar to ours and the temperature can be -35 degrees Celsius. There will be strong winds, so our bodies have to be strong to overcome all of this. I was a trekker, but I need to do more exercises, basically cardio, yoga, etc. I don’t have a specialty trainer, but I think an hour or two for daily training and yoga because breathing exercises are important for this kind of expedition. When I eat, I try to control the intake of greasy food, fries and everything. So I try to adjust my body, even things like no hot water bath!
Why do you think you got the highest votes? What did you bring into your application or video that you think worked in your favor?
Geethu: I am a traveler and I travel a lot. I see travel from a perspective of responsible tourism that is responsible for nature. All my trips are also about nature conservation. I mentioned the same thing in the video I uploaded in the application form and description. I want the next generation to see the same things that we see today. So far I have read books on the Arctic, but now I will see them and I can convey climate change to the people of India because we are part of global warming.
Your start-up Let’s go camp has a unique concept to make the travel experience environmentally friendly and culturally friendly. Tell us something about it.
Geethu: Let’s go camp started in 2016 when I came to Bangalore. I worked and the weekends were free and I didn’t know what to do. I am not a party or city person. In the beginning I started traveling alone to the places near Bangalore where I could come back in one day, little hikes like Shivagange, Shimoga, and I went myself. During my school days we visited nature camps in Kerala because nature education was part of the curriculum was. In cooperation with the forest authority, NGOs conducted nature camps in the forests. And it was not just hiking or sightseeing, there were also games, activities, etc. From this camp onwards, I ran many camps with the NGO mentioned One earth, one life, called in Malayalam Ore Bhoomi Ore Jeevan It was a life changing moment for me. It taught me to travel. When I was in Bangalore, I thought I could organize nature camps the way I had in school. I got a lot of requests from social media and finally I had people from different parts of India like Rajasthan, Haryana, Kolkata and Gujarat. It was a breathtaking experience.
We also have different categories of bearings. There is a specific category called only mother and child as well as Only women Camps that came under Srishti. This is where we started promoting the menstrual cup, and more than 1,000 women switched to it. We are now adding seed sticks, teaching them how to use paper sticks and filling them with seeds so that a plant grows even after being thrown away.
You mentioned that you were exposed to cyberbullying, online harassment, and spam, and that you were also offered money to withdraw your name. How did that affect your mood? Do you find racist or gendered undertones in this bullying?
Geethu: It wasn’t racist, but there were gender issues. Like many people thought that a man would leave India this year, they didn’t think a woman could ever. My position was third in the world, but Fjallraven disqualified the first and second candidates. The first and second places in the world position were Indians, whose fans bullied me. That one month was hell for me. Every time I posted, they spammed me with fake IDs. I didn’t complain, but the online harassment was extreme. I was surprised because I thought that there would be no discrimination between travelers, no gender difference, no barriers, no limits. In fact, I got a messenger call from someone telling me to withdraw the application and they were ready to give me money. That really made me angry! I told him now that if I win or lose I will definitely be in the competition to the end. So I don’t know why people did it, but it gave me more strength. I knew that even if I fail this year, more women will definitely come next year. They will look for expeditions that build trust, and in this way I am sure that I am the winner because a lot of women called me and asked how I applied.
In this sense, any advice for female travelers?
Geethu: Women have so many restrictions caused by society that traveling is difficult for a woman. To overcome these limitations, no one can help you unless you decide. The fire must come from you. Because as soon as you travel, you will get confidence. I tell every woman who travels with me that she should never be in the comfort zone. People traveling with me as part of Srishti, I tell them to book their own tickets. I tell them the name of the bus, but ask them to book themselves. I also tell them that they shouldn’t be dependent on anyone. This is the main message I want to give women.
What are your travel security suggestions?
Geethu: Before you plan anything, you need to read and get a good idea of the place. For me, the whole trip happens in my head before I actually travel. Another thing is to always talk to the people you travel with. Even if you are alone, fellow travelers and people are nearby. Talk to them kindly, talk to the driver, the conductor. Everyone likes to talk, but women feel very uncomfortable talking to people around them, so this has to change. We have to develop our communication for our own security.
It is often said that travel teaches you a lot. How did traveling help you develop into a better and more responsible person?
Geethu: I feel as you travel more and more you become more down to earth. There are people and places you have to see. Be it history, geography, religion, when traveling you get a clear idea of everything. What we read in books or on social media differs from when you actually experience a place. When you travel, think about life, happiness and people. For me, my entire thought process is learning, everything through travel.
Besides the Arctic, what are some of the other dream destinations on your bucket list?
Geethu: I want to see Pompeii, which is located in the valley of Vesuvius. Due to a volcanic eruption, the entire village fell under the ashes. A few years ago they started digging out and found people in the exact position before the ashes fell. Then the Nazca pictures are lines drawn on land and no one knows who did it. They can only be seen from the air. Annapurna in Nepal too, I read about it in geography and history, it is a very famous and difficult hike. Two years ago I stayed in the Annapurna Valley and I still remember that view and from that day on I decided to go there someday. To be honest, there are so many places. I am also currently studying environment and sustainable development as a part-time course and basically when I read about a place I want to go to.
Geethu concludes by saying that if she could, she would like to travel to all 196 countries in the world. But then, with a quirky laugh, she adds that maybe she should try to find a sponsor for it.
Well, we wish her the best of luck and hope that her travel fever refuses to rest. And for the polar expedition to the Arctic, may she pave the way for a whole generation of future women to take the plunge into extreme, but sustainable and responsible travel.
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