Sophie is the funny, warm, passionate and kind woman behind Holidays in Rural India. With a love for the country she spends half her life traveling, discovering wonderful new experiences and hotels, that is palpable. She is fluent in Hindi which opens doors and conversations with locals which most foreigners are not lucky enough to be privvy to, but through her tours and the deep and meaningful connections Sophie has with the people of India, she has made this possible for all her guests who travel with her to her beloved India. Here are her 15 Questions in 5 Minutes:
1. Who you are (naturally!)
Grumpy old feminist, India-phile, Franco-phile; at my happiest either walking or running alone in the hills, or sat around a table with a bunch of lovely friends eating wonderful food and drinking too much wine.
2. What inspired you to create your business?
Twelve years ago l met John Ash, founder of Green Gondwana, possibly the first inbound tour operator in Chhattisgarh. We became dear friends almost overnight and I was lucky enough to have an intense and wonderful friendship with him, that was cut tragically short by his death in 2008. The remaining members of the Green Gondwana team asked me to take on his company after he died, which I did. It in fact became too complicated to run it from the UK while my daughter was still at school, but my own business, Holidays in Rural India, which I established four year ago, is a direct result of my experience running GG and then helping another former employee of John’s set up his travel business. I’ve been travelling in India since I was 19 (over thirty years) and having returned to university more than a decade ago to study Hindi, my relationship with India has deepened significantly. I LOVE sharing with people the side of India many foreigners do not see. Foreigners’ perceptions of India can be really warped by poor press, or a lousy Golden Triangle trip; it’s wonderful spending time in villages and introducing foreigners to some of the most welcoming, open hearted people I’ve ever met.
3. An anecdote which epitomizes your India?
So many many instances of kindness (and kindness is what epitomises ‘my’ India). Here’s just one: I’d run a race in the Rann of Kutch – 25 km across the desert, an amazing early morning experience, though fairly gruelling. When I finished I showered and changed but couldn’t face the heavy paratha and aloo bhaji on offer for post-run breakfast so I picked up my medal and hopped in the rickshaw with the lovely driver Ganibhai sent by Khurshed from The Bhuj House (btw go to the Bhuj House if you haven’t yet). We were headed back to Bhuj via some villages and Ganibhai watched me slip rapidly from high as a kite on my post-run adrenaline rush, to crabby old bint who was being snappy and miserable. He’d suggested stopping for breakfast at several points and I’d said I wasn’t hungry (it was late morning, I’d had a snack at 6 am and then must have burned about 1500 calories running, so ho hum to that). When we reached the NGO we were visiting we found it wasn’t yet open and sweet Ganibhai, who was continuing to be delightful to me despite my appalling grumps, said we’d have tea while we waited. Seeing a steaming pot of milky chai (my idea of hell) I said it wasn’t possible as I couldn’t drink milk and that I’d be fine with some water. Ganibhai simply but firmly told me to sit on a plastic chair that he planted by a low wall next to the chai stall, a little bit distant from the men sitting within, but nicely in the shade. Five minutes later he emerged with a glass of sweet BLACK tea (very heaven). ‘DRINK’ he commanded, and slipped away again. Another couple of minutes passed and he returned with three little newspaper packages which he opened out on the wall: a glorious bundle of various farsan. Sweet and salty fried snacks, easy to eat, high in calories, perfect food for someone who didn’t know her blood sugar was through the floor and was being a serious pain in the arse. ‘EAT’ he ordered. And we ate, and ate, and ate! Needless to say the only time he got cross with me was when I tried to pay for the tea and snacks. That’s my India.
4. One thing that you can’t live without?
Black coffee so strong you can stand your spoon up in it. I travel everywhere with a bag of Lavazza and have just invested in a tiny little travel kettle so I won’t have to fall on my knees and BEG the pantry car chaps to get me a thermos of hot water on Indian trains in the morning.
5. One thing that you hate?
Dishonesty. (And milky tea/coffee!)
6. If you could change one thing about India what would it be?
It’s current divisive and destructive government. I’m well aware that India is not the only country in the world with this problem.
7. Who is your greatest inspiration?
Katie Alcott, founder of FRANK Water.
8. What is your favourite quote?
Enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink; enjoy yourself it’s later than you think. The years go by as quickly as a wink, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
(you have to sing it!)
9. I have noticed huge changes in India over the last few years but what is the biggest change you have noticed in India over the last 10 years?
I’m going to go for a positive one here, and that’s the rising hum of young women’s voices. I see women from villages to big cities, in their behaviour in life, and (where they have access) on social media, rising up and shouting about what they believe in: women choosing careers over early marriage, divorce over awful marriages, women protesting about access to affordable and sustainable menstrual products, women standing up for one another in this regard, women with privilege choosing low paid social jobs that help other women.
10. What do you think are the biggest challenges India faces over the next ten years?
Halting the destruction of its environment. India has suffered one of the worst heatwaves in history this year and yet central government has just given permission for 170,000 hectares of forest in Chhattisgarh to be cut down for a coal mine.
11. Which is the destination at the top of your bucket list?
At the moment: Vanghat, near Corbett National Park.
12. What is the one place you visited that you have NO desire to return to?
Oh most places have some redeeming feature or person; but I found Matheran pretty depressing re-visiting it after a twenty year gap.
13. Book or Movie?
14. Just for fun! I am doing a survey to find India’s most popular breakfast, what is yours?
Chulha and tomato chutney. Cooked by Nanuk (from Bhoramdeo), over a smoky wood fired, and eaten in the company of his little daughter Tanu and her naughty brothers Tarun and Ritesh
15. In retrospect, what is the one thing you wish you could have told your 20 year-old self?
It’ll get better. Every decade is easier and more fun than the one that preceded it; even if awful things happen you have the strength to tough it out and appreciate the good times all the more.