The World is a Small Place: Tag Along with the Baral sisters of Sikkim

At Travel Cafe and Tagalong hostel, the day begins with five people hustling it all the way. On an extremely cold and rainy day, when Gangtok town slips under warm mink blankets and duvets the Tagalong family is in full commotion. Inside the cafe, the scene begins at the kitchen counter where Manisha is vigorously kneading dough to bake buns, while Lakpa is stationed next to her chopping vegetables for the set menu dishes. Adjacent to the counter on a long table and bench, Bhavana and Pallavi are settled working on their computers writing and curating photographs, the scene finally progresses to the bakery counter where Santaman is getting the coffee machine ready.

Apart from humans, there are little things that contribute to the warmth inside the Cafe. Incandescent bulbs hang suspended from the criss-crossing cacophony of jute ropes across the ceiling spilling golden light in the interior, large rectangular blackboards occupy walls with scribbles of the menu and messages, stickers from around the world invade the otherwise vacant central pillar. Musicians will lay their eyes on the stray ukulele and the guitar placed comfortably next to each other. Foodies will follow the aroma of the rum and raisin cake. The smell of freshly baked carrot cake and buns constantly roam the cafe filling it with warm feelings. It only gets better and cosier in the bunk beds above Travel cafe at Sikkim’s first backpackers hostel.

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TagAlong Backpackers Hostek, Gangtok

The Baral sisters namely, Manisha and Bhavana, are both bakers, craftswomen, travel enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, businesswomen, writers, housekeepers, tour guides… the list simply goes on for the two hustlers! While they are the jacks of all trades and co-owners of TagAlong venture, deep down they are truly wanderers constantly exploring the route in-between their aspirations and destinations. “I wanted to work at a place where I can have diverse and multiple job roles and responsibilities.” says Bhavna, co-founder of TagAlong, along-with her sister Manisha. The adventure began in their childhood from the time the two sisters got used to hiking for hours to their ancestral place. Since then, there has been no looking back. TagAlong was finally born back in 2016 in their adult-lives when Manisha returned home having finished her Adventure Tourism course in New Zealand and soon Bhavana followed after quitting her job as a software engineer in Delhi.

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The Baral Sisters in commotion, from left; Manisha Baral and Bhavna Baral

For the Baral sisters travelling is beyond just visiting a certain place. Here is a confession they made: “If we had the time in the world, we’d be slow-travelling”. Bhavna’s thirst for slow travelling took her to Tosh in Himachal Pradesh where she found a home in a family-run homestay. She has maintained in close relations with them ever since. Manisha and Bhavna are embodiments of the idea that travelling truly is an immersive art experience.  “You can be a lazy traveller or an energetic one, but at the end of the day it is all about submerging oneself in the local experiences, growing, learning good things and building long-term relationships”. In its true sense, the TagAlong family are essentially a network of humans who believe that travelling makes one question the universal idea of home and whether it should necessarily be the place one takes birth or grows up in, home is truly where you store pieces of your heart. Backpackers from around the world are trotting the globe looking for such experiences because it is therapeutic, fills one with positivity and curiosity about exploring the world. It makes life worthwhile. Many backpackers travel with their work looking for friendly spaces where one may always be on-the-move sustainably. Seeing the lack of backpacker-friendly spaces in Sikkim, the Baral sisters decided to take the initiative to fill the missing gaps and begin TagAlong to connect the dots in the Northeast.

TagAlong currently has three verticals:

  1. Travel: where the focus is on collaborating and curating unique local experiences that value and benefit travellers, locals and the environment
  2. Hostel: where the focus is on engaging with travellers and creating a space for their interaction with each other and locals in Gangtok which is something hotels do not provide
  3. Cafe: where the focus is on everything and anything. It usually involves experiments with food and events. The aim is to be cozy, comfortable and happy.

TagAlong Travel organises trips to off-beat locations in the most off-beat ways such as cycling, trekking and homestay-hopping! Ride the Silk is one such cycling tour of a few days that ventures through the iconic silk trade route running through East Sikkim. TagAlong, independently and also in collaboration at times, takes travellers to experience local festivals such as Pang Lhabsol in Lachen and the Dambuk Orange Festival in Arunachal Pradesh. The West Sikkim Sojourn is yet another experience curated for those interested to learn about and from places and people in West Sikkim while also enjoying the thrill to simply visit these unexplored locations.

 

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TagAlong venturing the old silk route during ‘Ride the Silk’

When asked about the backpacking scene in Sikkim and the Northeast, the sisters feel there has been a big increase in young Indian backpackers. Indians from the plains are curious about the Northeast and the diverse mountain cultures. “All people need is a good space and wifi and they’ll come settle down with their works. In between they go around for experiences in villages such as Dzongu, Khecheopalri amongst others” says Manisha. West Sikkim offers a very backpacker friendly environment where it is very convenient to travel solo or in small groups. In West Sikkim, every village seems to offer their own unique adventure for travellers with a vast array of remote homestays. For backpackers the experience begins on their seat in shared sumo taxis where they are able to engage with locals: an experience very well narrated in Sikkimese writer Chetan Raj Shrestha’s novella, An Open and Shut Case, where a foreigner makes a memorable trip to Pelling, West Sikkim in a shared taxi while deciphering the meaning of the Nepali folk song Resham Firiri with co-passengers. Backpackers and slow travellers value places for the way they exist which takes us to the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. They are curious about local history, narratives and biodiversity. There are enriching lessons and values hidden for everyone from around the world in local experiences… it only takes someone who values it for the lessons to be decoded.

However going by the flow of the world, excessive emphasis on commercialised tourism can pose threat to such crucial experiences. According to the Baral sisters and their experience “there is so much natural beauty in Sikkim. It has such stunning scenarios, stories and history hence there should be emphasis given on interpretation. If somebody goes to Kaluk, neither the travellers ask about the origins of the name of the village nor is there any information available about it” In Sikkim, travelling is not yet to do with learning about the history and the present. Places in general should be beyond just taking photographs in popular sightseeing locations, therefore interpretation is a major gap in the travelling scene in the Northeast. On this note, we asked them about their vision for the tourism scene in Sikkim and this was their collective response:

“If I had to reshuffle the entire scene, I would focus on sustainable and eco-friendly tourism and activities. Exploring better trekking destinations both short and long would benefit villages and travellers. We must pin them down and develop them by creating facilities and systems to improve accessibility and also to prevent over exploitation. Having small things in place such as signs, phone directories, interpretation, directions and proper local guides is important. We are halfway there as the guides are there, the spots are there and so are a few homesteads here and there. It is simply a matter of bringing all of them under one umbrella. Let information be connected more easily. Perfect information and regulation of rates related to renting vehicles etc… systems and organisation are required. If the system is in place, Sikkim can be marketed as an eco-friendly trekking destination.”

Back in the hostel and cafe which is their personal and work space, The Baral sisters have been taking small conscious steps to encourage eco-friendly practices. The initiative to reduce and segregate waste generated from the hostel and cafe are shining examples of their environmental consciousness. Hostel dwellers and staff are all sensitised to follow the zero waste norms. Additionally, the family of five seem to be happy exploring and experimenting with new things everyday. The spirit of learning to do everything from scratch which is a family learning from the sisters has seemingly infected other members of TagAlong such as Lakpa, Santaman and Pallavi. Learning from each other, Lakpa, Pallavi and Santaman are also now experts at hustling it all the way. For them few of the biggest takeaways from TagAlong has been learning how to cook, bake, design, write and speak a new language.

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Carrot Cake at Travel Cafe

At TagAlong, the spirit is kept alive by being humble, grounded and good to others. While everyday brings a different struggle, it is upon us to do the right thing and keeping negative energy away. Travel Cafe and TagAlong hostel is a space that harbours good energy and sets the air with warm memories and doing so responsibly without causing harm to the environment and the future.

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The TagAlong Family From Left to Right; Pallavi, Bhavna, Santanam, Lakpa, Manisha
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Travel Cafe, Making the world a smaller place with the Baral sisters

Written by Animesh Gautam

Photos by TagAlong

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