Based out of Chennai, India’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, Shetty is currently on an extended sabbatical from her interior design practice and has been running the blog The Urge To Wander since 2012. Here, she talks about how Covid-19 has impacted her travels and what she’s been up to at home.
How does a day under lockdown in Chennai usually unfold?
Cooking and eating seems to be the anchor around which our lives revolve. It feels like we’ve turned the clock back by decades. Cook. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. That cycle is interspersed with work and a bit of reading and grabbing some fresh air on our communal roof terrace in the evenings.
My husband Ravi and I have ventured out exactly three times in the past three months. We were in self-imposed quarantine on our return from Chile in mid-March, which was extended by our city corporation to 28 days. Then the lockdowns followed in quick succession. We had just about decided to drive down to the beach every evening, even if it was just to sit in our car and enjoy the breeze, when this last lockdown was announced. We’ll try again when the restrictions are relaxed in a few days. But staying indoors at the height of our summer hasn’t necessarily been a punishment—Ravi likes to say Chennai has three seasons: hot, hotter, and hell!
If you could be locked down anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
Off the top of my head … New Zealand!
Realistically, I’d pick the Nilgiri hills in western Tamil Nadu. We lived on a tea plantation there for nearly a decade and couldn’t wait to “escape” to the big city. For the first time in all these years I am regretting that decision. If I have to be house-bound I would rather be in a little cottage up in those hills, being able to go on long walks and enjoying nature and wildlife.
What do you think the role of a travel blogger should be during this unprecedented time?
The way we travel will change. Not just the health and safety aspects but also the value of travel will, I hope, take precedence over mindless posing for the ’gram. Ideally, we should collectively be working toward creating avenues for meaningful and sustainable travel. But that’s too broad a generalization and I haven’t really found concrete answers to how I can contribute. One idea is to compile lists of sustainable local outfits and promote them through blogs and via social media. Giving back to local communities, especially to those dependent exclusively on tourism, has got to be top priority.
Are there traditional recipes you’ve been rediscovering in the kitchen, or new hobbies you’ve taken up since lockdowns were first imposed?
I participated in food drives along with a group of friends to feed as many of the migrant workers—who had been rendered destitute overnight—as we could in our limited capacities. Apart from that I’ve mostly been in a state of limbo.
My life revolved around travel. Having started traveling late in life, Ravi and I thought we had five good years, at most, to see as much of the world as we possibly could. Anything more would be bonus, we told ourselves. To have two of those years taken away and have nothing to plan for in the foreseeable future has left me rudderless. Being acutely aware of the privilege that allows me that regret amid the extreme hardships being experienced by so many around me does not make it less real.
So, what am I doing with my time? Polishing the heck out of my blog! I’m setting up brand-new resource and guide pages and hoping I’ll have added some value with “cornerstone” content by the time people are ready to travel again. Right now, it feels like the next best thing to planning new itineraries.
I’ve also been revisiting some traditional recipes from my hometown of Mangalore on India’s west coast. One current favorite—at the other end of the spectrum from our elaborate ground coconut recipes—is what is called kodhel in the Tulu language: just chopped vegetables (usually raw banana or okra) cooked in tamarind water with salt, turmeric, and some jaggery for balance and then seasoned with whole mustard seeds, red chili, crushed whole garlic, curry leaves, and lots of chili powder all fried quickly in coconut oil. It’s served over steaming rice along with fried fish; basic peasant fare that I didn’t care for much growing up but am finding comfort in now.
Another super-easy egg stir-fry is a simpler accompaniment. Fry loads of crushed garlic and chopped onions in oil until just turning brown. Break eggs into it. Sprinkle turmeric, salt, and chili powder. Flip over and scramble roughly. Then add lots—as much as a large cupful for four eggs—of grated coconut mixed with salt and chili powder to taste and stir till heated through.
Perhaps it’s time for me to switch to food blogging—Easy Recipes for Lazy Cooks!
What TV shows or books do you recommend for a dose of virtual travel?
I recently finished reading three excellent books. The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec is the story of an Englishwoman’s quest for ancient recipes that leads her to Iran and romance. She offers fascinating insights into Iran’s traditional cuisine and the complexities of a cross-cultural relationship in that conservative land. In a Sunburned Country is a witty and informative account of Bill Bryson’s travels through Australia. Alexandra Brosh’s Hyperbole And A Half isn’t about travel, but her hilarious, moving, whimsically illustrated stories about depression and life’s mishaps will have you laughing away your quarantine blues.
Given the current situation, when do you think Tamil Nadu—and India as a whole—will be in the clear?
We don’t seem to have even peaked yet and we seem unable to contain the spread within our larger cities. The way we are going, I think it might take until November or December for any considerable drop in numbers. I do hope I’m proved wrong.
You had to cut short your recent trip to Chile to get home before borders were closed and flights suspended en masse. How did you come to that decision? And what was the situation like in Chile at the time?
That was a close call!
Chile just had a handful of cases in late February and early March, and those were mostly travellers who were under observation. So there was a singular absence of panic throughout our journey across Patagonia and especially on Easter Island, which was completely clear.
We had planned an easy first day in San Pedro de Atacama in order to acclimatize to the altitude. That’s the reason I logged in to Twitter that evening and happened to read a friend’s Tweet highlighting a government advisory that mandated compulsory quarantine, starting March 13, for travellers returning from Schengen countries.
We were flying British Airways and London was not on the list, so I fleetingly considered sitting it out and returning as per schedule four days later. Then we decided to check how bad things were in the U.K. and that was when panic hit us. We realized it was a matter of time before the U.K. went on the list. I contacted British Airways on Twitter and they very kindly rescheduled our tickets by midnight at no additional cost!
We flew back to Santiago the next evening—we did manage one excursion up to the highland lakes at dawn—and caught our flight home the day after. BA does not fly daily from Santiago.
Chile, whose numbers had doubled to 155 in under a week, closed its borders on the 16th, the date of our original scheduled departure and just a day after we arrived home! India followed two days later.
What trips were you originally planning to take later this year?
Ravi had done more than his usual share of travel last year and was planning to sit it out after Chile. I was scheduled to return to Puglia and Matera in southern Italy for a week starting May 28 with a small group of women travelers. It was supposed to be the soft launch of The Urge To Wander Journeys, a trial run before I made a public announcement.
The tour was bookended by a couple of days by myself in Paris and a solo week in Salzburg. In September, I was supposed to finally make it to the United States. The plan was to spend a week in New York with my grandson, work in some time with my sister in New Hampshire, and then find a way to fit in New Orleans somehow.
Recently you’ve focused on long-haul destinations—Germany, Romania, Iceland, and Chile—but Covid-19 is set to change that. What places and countries closer to home are you hoping to visit in the near future?
Indonesia, if international travel opens up fully. My wish list is long thanks to the evocative accounts of blogger friends like Bama of What an Amazing World. I’d be happy if I could fit in Borobudur, Prambanan, some of the lesser temple ruins of Central Java, a bit of Flores and Tana Toraja in Sulawesi on a longish first trip. Have been fascinated by the painted Tongkonan houses ever since I read Bama’s posts about Tana Toraja.
But I think road trips will be the norm for a while … we’ll probably focus on South India. I’ve been meaning to revisit some of the Jain temples in Moodbidri and Karkala, close to Mangalore. There is so much of Karnataka and Kerala that I have yet to explore. We meant to get to them when we were done with the long-haul destinations on our wish list. This will be as good a time as any.