The rise of female adventure tour guides

Did you know that at least 60% of the global tourism workforce is female, despite the fact that just 23% of board members in the industry are women? And there’s one corner of tourism where women are particularly underrepresented, especially when it comes to female tour guides: adventure travel.

According to adventure tour operator Untamed Borders, just 3% of accredited international mountain guides are women, and in countries where women’s educational opportunities and cultural expectations are limited, women are much more likely to take on lower-paid cleaning and clerical roles than guiding roles. These are the women that keep the world of travel turning – and are most likely to have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But change is in the air.

The three following women, hailing from rural regions of Afghanistan, India and Morocco, represent the green shoots of a cultural shift towards women taking adventure tour guiding roles in global regions where this is unheard of. It’s partly down to the diversification work of companies such as Intrepid Travel, Responsible Travel, GAdventures and Untamed Borders, which are all committed to employing and training more female adventure travel guides.

The solo female travel trend has been growing in popularity in recent years, with Google Trends reporting a 131% rise in interest in 2019. Female-only tours from operators like Intrepid and SmarTours are providing more opportunities for female tour guides than ever before, some in conservative destinations such as Iran, Morocco, Nepal and Jordan, as well as experiences exclusively for women, for their guests. This could mean kohl beauty treatments in Jordan or trying on traditional wedding clothes in Morocco: the world of women that’s not accessible to men in those countries.

“Representation is a fundamental component of achieving equality and access to opportunities,” says Jenna Howieson, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at Skyscanner. “That’s why it’s so important to empower and celebrate the incredible women working in the tourism and tour guide industry. Through training and working as tour guides, women have access to financial autonomy and a well-respected job that connects them to the rest of the world. I hope that tour operators and those working in the travel industry will continue to connect with, amplify and empower even more female tour guides in the future.”

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of the women breaking the mould in the world of adventure guiding.

The first female guide in Morocco’s Aït Bouguemez valley: Chama

Credit: Liz Seabrook
Credit: Liz Seabrook

In the High Atlas Mountains, the serene Aït Bouguemez valley is home to many striking things: the towering summit of Morocco’s third-highest mountain, the M’Goun Massif; the rose-coloured, sleepy city of Azilal; indigenous Berber tribes; and a plucky young tour guide making it her mission to break down barriers wherever she goes.

“People say that women can’t do this job,” says Chama Ouammi. “They say it’s too hard for women to hike 20 kilometres, to carry heavy bags, to walk under the sun for more than four or five hours. Women are only to stay in the house, raising children, cleaning and cooking. But I’m opposed to that because women can do everything that men can do, there’s no difference between us. This is why I took the opportunity to go out of my village: to be a good example for ladies in Morocco and to challenge the obstacles of my society.”

Some of those obstacles were very close to home. After studying computer management, Chama began working as a freelance tour guide in Marrakesh before being headhunted by Intrepid Travel to be one of their first female tour guides on their Moroccan women’s expeditions. The company had lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue some 100 new tour guide licenses to women, on passing a two-part licensing exam, which Chama benefitted from in 2018. But on qualifying, her uncle made it clear that tour guiding was not a path he approved of for his niece.

“My uncle said you can’t do this job, it’s only for men,” she says. “He said, if I had this job I wouldn’t be able to marry in the future, and people would judge me for travelling with different drivers and men. But he was jealous that I am the first female and youngest guide from my region.”

Luckily, Chama’s parents supported her ambitions and respected her wish to opt out of arranged marriage. It’s this support that not only has given Chama the confidence to boldly follow her career path, but has infused that path with such joy and grace. She’s aware of her good fortune: in rural Morocco, over 70% of women are illiterate and arranged marriage, as young as 13 or 14 for girls, is common, typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework.

“My parents are very smart and always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she says. “There are ladies in the Berber villages who are very clever, but they can’t finish their studies because no one can support them. I’m happy because I have good, open-minded parents.”

Now working as a freelance tour guide for several tour operators all over Morocco, including Intrepid, Chama gets the most out of the women-only tours that she guides. Speaking five languages and with a warmth that would make any visitor feel welcome, she embodies a kind of joyful, cross-cultural exchange that sometimes, in more conservative societies, is often only accessible between women.

“I really like working with just women because I can talk about anything, and they can too,” she says. “We can stay without headscarves. We can dance together, we can laugh together, in a way that you can’t do when men are there.

“It’s a very real cultural experience, from beginning to end. Some things are only for women.”

The first indigenous female tour guide from northern India: Jangu

Jangu High res4.jpg

India’s West Bengal state encompasses a dizzying range of landscapes, stretching from the tropical mangroves of the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, passing tea fields and plantations along the way. It’s in these foothills that one woman has made history – by becoming the first woman in her indigenous Lepcha tribe to work as a mountain tour guide.

“This path came naturally to me, because I’ve been trekking since childhood and I have knowledge of this area,” says Jangu Lepcha. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by the Himalayas, rivers, forests and birds. All of this motivates me. I’ve wanted to do something like this since my childhood.”

Jangu’s main profession is developing and promoting homestays to tourists visiting her home village of Pedong and the surrounding area. She works as an ad hoc guide for guests travelling to the northern regions of West Bengal, responding to a gap she spotted in the market for a female, English-speaking guide. Capitalising on her lifelong love of nature, she first developed an interest in eco-tourism – and her business concept – while working on a tourism project in Siliguri (three hours’ drive south of Pedong).

“I realised that I could promote and conserve my own rich Lepcha culture through eco-tourism,” she says. “My father always instructed us in our culture and tradition, so I grew up very close to my indigenous culture. We have a unique way of living. The way we dress, our food identity, living habits, architecture.”

But working as a female tour guide was such a novel concept in her community, that Jangu set herself up as a self-employed guide and homestay consultant without even telling her family about her ambitions.

“I don’t know if they would have supported me initially, because I did it completely alone,” she says. “They knew I was into tourism but they didn’t know the passion I had. When I finally told them, they had different expectations – but now they understand and are proud of me.”

The Lepcha tribe, reliant on agriculture, river fishing and foraging medicinal plants from the region’s forests, had different expectations for Jangu, too. But her work has already made an impact on the community’s mindset.

“When I started working in tourism, my people didn’t know what a homestay was and were reluctant to have visitors,” she says. “But since I’ve helped them, homestays and tourism here are becoming very popular.”

It’s just as well, because Jangu is about to launch the project of her dreams: Miknaon, a wellness-oriented homestay in Pedong, due to open in October 2021.

“Being a Lepcha in this region, we own land from our ancestors,” she says. “I want to invite guests from all over the world, be their guide, let them come here to eat good food, do activities, yoga, hiking and be healthy. This is my future goal.”

Afghanistan’s first female tour guide: Fatima

You never know when inspiration might strike. When Fatima was eight years old, she was working as a shepherd – just like many children in the Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province. This mountainous area in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, relies primarily on agriculture, with families working the same land that Genghis Khan’s Mongol army grazed its horses on, in the early 13th century.

Credit: Untamed Borders
Credit: Untamed Borders

“It may be a little strange to many readers, but running on those high hills after animals was when I was first introduced to guiding and leading a group,” says Fatima (whose surname is omitted for safety reasons). “It was a tough experience, but guiding so many sheep and cows to find their food and enjoy life was a pleasure, too.”

But a long journey lay ahead before Fatima would lead her first group of tourists in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, for adventure tourism operator Untamed Borders in 2020. Age 23 now, she was lucky to receive an education as a child. Designated the least-developed country in the world by the UN, Afghanistan is a challenging place to grow up female: women’s employment opportunities and literacy rates are low, with 2.7 million girls out of school in 2018.

“My family permitted me to participate at a school whose roof was the scorching sun, seats were hot sand, and that most girls were strictly forbidden to attend,” Fatima remembers. “Luckily, I learned basic reading and writing.” It was this foundation that allowed her to continue her education, including English classes from charitable organisations, until it led her to undertaking a journalism and communications degree from Herat university. She caught the attention of Untamed Borders via her posts about Afghan history on a Facebook travel diary group, and led her first tour in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic disrupting trips to Herat.

Fatima’s two sisters followed a more traditional path. They were both married by age 15 and never learned to read or write. And when Fatima first told her parents her plans to become a tour guide, they were firmly against the idea. “I’ll never forget the eyes that looked at me strangely, the people that said, ‘you’re a girl and can’t do it’, or ‘it’s too dangerous’. But no one can stop me from doing what I love,” she says. “What is more beautiful than giving insights into the history, culture, food and traditions of my country?”

But as the first Afghan woman to do the job, no one was more aware of the difficulties ahead than Fatima.

“Before I started my career as a female guide, I often read tourism sites that would discourage women to travel in Afghanistan,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘if it’s dangerous to visit Afghanistan as a tourist woman, how is it possible to be a woman tour guide?’ This was very upsetting to me.

“Then I realised that I am the one who has to create this safe space. Tourist women are role models of courage and change. Women tourists matter, and as a woman tour guide, I matter too.”

In the future, Fatima aims to use her qualifications to work as a professional journalist as well as a guide, while uplifting women along the way. “My next plan is to establish a tourism organisation for empowering female tour guides,” she says. “I am the first female tour guide, but I don’t want to be the last. Afghanistan needs new guiding leaders with new perspectives, who have open minds and open hearts. This need is more crucial for Afghan women. I will do my best to be an agent of change and inspiration for individuals facing similar challenges that I faced as a tour guide and woman journalist.”


Free wheeling: in Karachi, Pakistan, cycling becomes joyful feminist protest

It’s 6am on a Sunday morning in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, when a rare sight emerges through hazily sunlit alleyways. A group of 25 girls and women – mostly teenagers under the age of 16, others up to 45 years old – carefully weave, on matching red bicycles, between the potholes, motorbikes and rickshaws of the inner-city Lyari district. Headscarves tucked under helmets and in single file through narrow streets, the women are on their way to Custom House Karachi, a grand, Colonial-era landmark that’s a two-hour trundle from their home district, and the endpoint of their weekly bike ride. As the cyclists navigate the uneven roads, men gawp and make comments. But the girls have practised comebacks.

Their journey began at Lyari’s Girls Café, a community centre supported by Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes, which has funded girls’ boxing, football and computer classes there since 2017. Local photographer Zulekha Dawood, who volunteers as a social mobiliser at the café, decided to start a bicycle club there in February 2018 after watching groups of boys cycling in the area and remembering hypocrisies from her own upbringing. “When I was a child, my brother and I used to ride bicycles in the streets of Lyari,” she recalls. “But when I turned 16 my mother told me to concentrate on my studies, and cooking, stitching and other things that were better for a girl’s future.” Pakistan is a traditionalist country: following the country’s independence from colonial British rule in 1947, its internal policies became increasingly conservative, in a post-colonial political backlash that somewhat played out in the social control over women and their participation in public space.

Dawood had joined the Girls Café in 2017 to teach Lyari-based girls the skills to help them find employment, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to empower them to cycle, too. In Karachi, mobility and transport is a particularly gendered issue. Counting 15 million citizens, it’s the seventh-largest city in the world and Pakistan’s economic hub – meaning that what was once a fishing village has evolved into a frenetic, polluted metropolis, where commuter bus routes offer limited services and cramped conditions that compromise the safety of women in public. Sexual harassment on public transport is common, and those who don’t get the bus are usually either forced to walk long distances, take expensive rickshaws or rely on male relatives to get to work or school. In low-income areas, like Lyari, many don’t have access to a car. All this has made some girls dream of their own means of transport – and a bike fits the bill. “Cycling is a healthy and environmentally friendly activity,” says Dawood. “Our purpose is to create a cycling trend.”

A trend is, in fact, emerging around the city – often seeing Karachi residents pick up bikes for the first time since childhood. Weekend mornings are gradually being populated by mixed-gender cyclist groups, such as GG Riders, the environmentally minded Critical Mass Karachi and via initiatives at the city’s NED University. There have even been a handful of women’s cycling groups in the city’s wealthier, leafy suburbs, although women on bikes are generally a rare sight. But conservative, religious attitudes and economic difficulties in Lyari conspire to make cycling riskier for Dawood and her crew.

“Lyari went through a lot of conflict over the last couple of decades,” says Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences. Much of her research has focused on Lyari, which until around 2014 was classified as a ‘no-go zone’ due to gang violence. “While social activities were greatly restricted during the years of conflict, the last few years have seen a gradual renewal of the vibrant cultural life that previously characterised Lyari, including the emergence of spaces catering to women and girls, particularly for sports.

“Lyari’s Girls Café is in an area where the Kutchi community live, who migrated from what is now Indian Gujarat. Even though Lyari is a multi-ethnic area that’s actually known for being fairly liberal, the Kutchi community is very conservative about women and girls’ mobility.”

Dawood held seven months’ worth of indoor bike lessons to her initial group of 7 to 9 girls, who learnt from girls whose brothers had taught them to ride, before they ventured into the streets (now, more than 70 girls are involved, although the numbers dropped during the Coronavirus pandemic). She’s since created a route from Lyari to Custom House that avoids major roads and the local religious madrassa school, and sets off early enough to avoid the crowds of men that have previously heckled or catcalled them.

“So many people frown at us, don’t support us or appreciate us,” says Najmunnisa Allahdad, a 16-year-old medical student who joined the cycling group with her sister and mother. “If our cycling group passes them, they say many bad words, they point at us and say cycling is for boys and girls should stay at home. First it intimidated me, but my parents support and motivate me. My mum cycles with us, because she says that if I’m alone, people will point their finger at me, but if she’s there, she can be the one to answer to them.”

In some instances, cycling can be actively dangerous for women. “When we started our bike club, people threw stones at us,” says Dawood. In January 2019, a cycle rally for transgender and women’s rights in Peshawar (northern Pakistan) had to be cancelled after threats from local religious groups. But generally, the risks for women are more related to social acceptance. Most of the girls that ride bikes with Lyari’s Girls Café have their less-conservative parents’ blessing, but some sneak out and cycle behind their relatives’ backs. And it’s not just local men who take issue with them cycling. “Many girls my age say cycling is wrong, and judge us,” says Allahdad.

So, what is it about a woman cycling in Pakistan that is so controversial?

“Generally, women’s mobility in Pakistan in quite restricted, especially when it comes to what’s seen as non-essential movement,” says Kirmani. “You see girls and women going to school, work, the hospital or the market, but girls going out to exercise or just have fun is not considered to be acceptable – getting on a bike is seen as frivolous. It’s linked to anxieties about sexuality and women’s bodies representing the honour of the family. If a girl is seen to be out of control, it’s seen as a shame or failure for the family.”

It’s also no coincidence that most of the girls cycling at Lyari’s Girls Café are young teenagers. “As girls get closer to the age of marriage, their parents start getting concerned about keeping them at home,” says Kirmani, echoing Dawood’s personal experience. “After marriage, female in-laws often take girls out of the public sphere, force them to leave their jobs and keep them busy with domestic tasks. There’s a lot more scrutiny on their movements.” This extends to other parts of women’s social lives: it’s often frowned-upon for girls to have social media accounts and mobile phones, too.

It’s this cultural mindset that limits women to domestic spaces, and that another group of activists in Karachi seeks to dismantle: Girls at Dhabas. Inspired by a famous book by Indian academics, Why Loiter?, the feminist collective went viral on social media for posting pictures of themselves at normally male-dominated dhaba tea stalls. Like with Dawood’s cycling club, the women behind Girls at Dhabas use everyday acts of transgression to not just claim public spaces as their own, but to have fun doing it. They ran a #FeministMapathon social media campaign last year, which encouraged women in Pakistan to lounge in the park, explore new neighbourhoods or sit at tea stands, all in the name of mixing protest with fun. In 2016, the group began a country-wide, annual bike ride called Girls on Bikes, in response to an incident in Lahore, where a woman was harassed and injured while riding her bicycle. The rally was supported by Full Throttle Pakistan, a bicycle shop in Karachi that rented out bikes and helmets.

“Having fun can be a feminist act,” says Kirmani. “And cycling has taken on symbolic significance in Pakistan. It seems to symbolise freedom, joy, excitement and adventure more than other kinds of physical activities. Older women reminisce about a time when you’d see women cycling a lot more, in the 50s and 60s. It seems to have a place in popular imagination.”

According to Dawood, it’s not yet possible for girls to ride unaccompanied as a means of transport. Most of the riders at Lyari’s Girls Café don’t have access to their own bicycles, and there’s safety in numbers if they cycle as a group. But it’s her dream to normalise the image of a woman on a bike, so that in the future it will become a tool for liberating women’s mobility.

“I hope in the future we will see all the girls of Karachi cycling in place of public transport,” Dawood says. “Even if other people here don’t accept cycling as a sport, they should at least accept it for exercising and for looking after the environment. We want to make it part of our culture.”

Perhaps she’s already made steps in that direction.

“The more you see women cycling, and just being outside for fun and enjoyment, the more normal it will become,” says Kirmani. “It will change perceptions of what public space should look like and disturb the idea of women only belonging in the private sphere. I’m sure Lyari’s Girls Café has already made changes in that way.”

For girls like Allahdad, it’s worth pushing the boundaries of social acceptability to experience the freedom and independence that riding a bike can bring.

“It makes me feel free, to have your own transport, passing the traffic and feeling so strong,” she says. “I hope in the future all parents support their daughters to cycle. It’s my wish that many, many girls will join us and go to university, college and school with their own bicycle.”


This alcohol-free spirit promises to give you all the good bits of booze – and none of the bad

Cast your mind back to a time when you could go on a night out.

You’d start with a G&T or a glass of bubbles as you put on your mascara. Then, drinks out at a bar: a couple of cocktails or pints of lager. It could easily end up with Jagers on the dancefloor, or tequila shots at an afterparty – and most likely, a nauseous train journey to work the next morning, or a full English fry-up to kick off a Saturday on the sofa.

Alcohol is ingrained into the way that we socialise. 82% of British adults drink alcohol regularly and our obsession with ‘the pub’ made itself painfully clear as lockdowns came and went – alongside trips to the local boozer – throughout 2020.

Yet there’s growing cultural awareness about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol Change UK reports a steady rise in non-drinkers between the ages of 16 and 24, and the non-profit predicted that 6.5 million people would take part in Dry January this month. That’s up from 3.9 million in 2020, and just 4,000 when the concept launched in 2013.

However, many of us have scrapped Dry January as we struggle with the latest UK lockdown. YouGov figures found that a third of people pledging to stay off booze this month had given up in the first week, and Waitrose beer sales were up 49% after week one of lockdown.

For many of us, to give up alcohol under lockdown is to lose one of the remaining small pleasures getting us through it. But the British public is caught in an arm wrestle between the knowledge that alcohol is harmful – in 2019, alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK had reached an annual peak of 1.26 million – and the fact that drinking it is so pervasive in our society. For many, it’s also very enjoyable.

There’s a solution to all this.

What if we told you that you could enjoy all the positive effects of alcohol, but end up with no hangover or damage to your health?

It sounds like something from a sci-fi, but a drink like this has been invented. You can buy it online right now.

Sentia Spirits is the brainchild of David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. Once a government drugs advisor, Nutt was sacked in 2009 for highlighting the hypocrisy of drug policy in the UK. Famously, he presented evidence that alcohol is more harmful to society than heroin or crack.

‘Alcohol is the most harmful drug in the UK,’ says Nutt, now.

‘It’s the most common drug that we encounter causing damage to people, in every branch of medicine. As a doctor and scientist, my life’s work has been trying to reduce the damage of alcohol – and this is a way of doing it.’

The science behind Sentia

Sentia is a non-alcoholic drink made of a licensed, ‘Botanical GABAergic Blend’ from Nutt’s team at GABA Labs.

There are other botanical drinks on the market – like Three Spirit Drinks, which uses ingredients like cacao and lion’s mane for mood-boosting, energising effects. Not to mention the slew of non-alcoholic beers, wines and spirits already flooding the market.  

But Sentia does much more than mimic the taste and texture of an alcoholic spirit: it actually gets you tipsy. The magic recipe has been developed from decades of scientific research into the way that alcohol affects the brain.

‘Sentia is the first drink to replicate the pro-social effects of alcohol, by targeting the brain system that mediates them,’ says Nutt.

‘It started in 1980 when I was doing my PhD. I discovered an antidote to alcohol and thought, this is amazing – you could take it at the end of a night out, get sober and find your way home.

‘But my professor said, what’s the point of that? Isn’t the alcohol still going to be killing your liver? And won’t people just drink more?

‘Nevertheless, it was the first step into discovering how alcohol works in your brain.

‘The main calming transmitter in your brain is called GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid]. Alcohol enhances GABA, which is why it relaxes you and makes you more convivial.

‘Over the last 40 years or so we’ve been working to understand the GABA system in the brain. It turns out it’s a very sophisticated system with multiple parts, and alcohol stimulates them all. We’re trying to stimulate the good effects of alcohol, without the bad.’

This research has branched into two directions. The long-term project is the invention of a synthesised, alcohol-alternative molecule. Then there’s Sentia: the herbal alternative, which took the past two years to create.

‘Hopefully it’ll raise enough money to fund the more expensive, chemistry part,’ says Nutt.

‘We’re in the process of raising funds to take the molecules through safety testing, so they can become foodstuffs ingredients in a few years’ time, but that costs millions of pounds.

‘So to raise that money and develop the concept, we started looking for botanical ingredients that would work in a similar way to GABA. We identified four plants that in combination, and with uptake enhancers, produced this effect.

‘All the ingredients are either foods or food additives, so they’re covered by safety standards already.’

The herbal combination is top secret for now, but I wanted to get my hands on a bottle.

What’s drinking Sentia like?

In a glass, bell-jar-style bottle, Sentia looks like a boutique gin or whisky – and at £30 for a 50cl bottle, the price tag more-or-less matches that description. It’s a rich magenta in colour, complementing its lavender label and pouring out thick and juice-like.

It doesn’t have a strong smell – just a hint of botanicals. Neat, over three cubes of ice, its full flavour comes through: a strong, herbaceous first taste, followed by sweetness, then a clove-like aftertaste. It’s a bit like mulled wine. Add tonic water or lemonade and it becomes a sweet and tangy aperitif, bold enough in flavour and texture to easily hold up against any other mixed drink I might rustle up from the cupboard.

After one glass, I feel just like I would after a gin and tonic (my usual go-to). My cheeks are slightly flushed and I’m definitely more relaxed. After a second, I’m a bit giggly and chatty. How far can I take this, I wonder? I drink a third, then a fourth, but the sensation doesn’t progress much further. Unlike with alcohol, you can’t get beyond that initial tipsy feeling.

‘We want you to get a good effect that plateaus,’ says Nutt, confirming that it’s not possible to get wasted on Sentia.

‘The effects might last longer, but it’s not poisoning the body in the same way that alcohol does.’

Could you drink Sentia as a designated driver, or underage, or pregnant?

‘We suggest over 18s only and have no data for pregnancy or breastfeeding yet,’ says Nutt.

And while there’s no evidence of impairment with Sentia, the team won’t recommend it for designated drivers as people might be affected by it differently.

On the plus side, Sentia’s been found to improve sleep in some people and you don’t get the munchies – which means no more 3am kebabs. Plus, I woke up the next morning feeling entirely hangover-free, which would not have been the case had I swapped those Sentia measures for vodka.

The future of drinking?

Post-lockdown, it might not be long before you spot Sentia in delis, specialist drinks shops or behind the bar at high-end cocktail spots (not least at Pulp, a bar that Nutt co-owns in Ealing). Going forward, the range of flavours or effects could expand, or it could enter the world of mixology, especially if a clear-liquid version is made available. All are in the works at GABA Labs.

It’s safe to say there’s a market for all this. In 2020, 11 new non-alcoholic spirit brands launched in the UK market, making a grand total of 42. As fewer millennials choose to drink alcohol, the market for alternatives is growing drastically, including variations from big drinks brands like Gordon’s and Martini. It’s similar to Big Tobacco’s investment in e-cigarettes, or the backing of the meat industry for vegan mock meats.

‘Let’s face it, the drinks industry has known for hundreds of years that alcohol is not very good for your body,’ says Nutt.

‘Now that the rest of the world has wisened up to that, it would make a lot of sense for them to have drinks like this as part of their portfolio. I suspect many alcohol companies will want to join us. It makes commercial sense.’

There’s still a place for recreating comforting classics with non-alcoholic spirits. Gordon’s deliciously juniper-infused 0.0% spirit went on the market just before Christmas, and – like Seedlip – it shows that a grown-up, treaty drink doesn’t have to involve booze.

But these drinks will always be missing something.

‘80% of adults drink alcohol,’ says Nutt.

‘Why? Because they enjoy the sensation. For most people, many of their pleasant social interactions have occurred alongside alcohol.

‘All we’re trying to do is give them something that will do what they want, but with very, very reduced risks of harm.’

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sensation of alcohol, and GABA Labs is certainly not trying to replace alcohol for good. But an actual alcohol alternative, that makes Dry January fun? I’ll drink to that.

Original post:


Are psychedelic drugs the future of treating mental illness?

For many of us, the words MDMA, ketamine and magic mushrooms mean party drugs, illicit substances or a throwback to the swinging sixties.

But these stereotypes mask the truth: pychedelic drugs are on their way to becoming official treatments for mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, addiction, and anxiety.

In January 2021, the UK’s first medical psychedelic clinic is due to open in Bristol, run by Awakn – an organisation working to integrate psychedelic medicine into mainstream mental healthcare. The clinic will offer ketamine-assisted psychedelic psychotherapy, which is legal as ketamine is medically licensed as an anaesthetic.

Alongside that service (which has the capacity to treat 30-40 people each month), the clinic will offer training for psychedelic therapists and undertake psychedelic research into MDMA and psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms), which are not currently legal for use in psychotherapy.

Meanwhile, on December 17, Britain’s first psychedelic healthcare fund launched by venture capitalist Neo Kuma Ventures. The fund has already attracted millions of pounds in investment into psychedelic medicines to treat unmet needs in mental healthcare.

Interest in psychedelic healthcare is growing globally, particularly in the US. In November 2020, the state of Oregon voted to legalise psilocybin for therapeutic use, kickstarting a two-year process of working out protocols for offering psychedelic psychotherapy as a mainstream treatment by 2022. It also separately voted to decriminalise possession of small amounts of all drugs.

‘While we’ve done much of the research into psychedelic psychotherapy in Britain, the US is clearly ahead of us,’ says David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and the UK’s leading voice on drug reform.

‘They’re also way ahead of us with cannabis.

‘While in the UK the government controls everything, America’s devolved healthcare means that the liberated, sensible states can vote for these changes.’

The concept of psychedelic drugs being used to treat mental health conditions hasn’t yet entered mainstream consciousness, but the evidence for its benefits is striking. A study by Dr Ben Sessa, who leads the scientific team at the new Awakn clinic alongside Professor Nutt, found that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is hugely effective in treating alcohol addiction, so often rooted in past trauma.

MDMA and psilocybin are illegal, schedule 1 substances, meaning that a Home Office licence is required for their production, possession or supply. While this complicates research projects in this field, it’s legal to use these drugs in clinical trials, despite them being illegal to prescribe outside of a trial and for recreational use.

London-based mental healthcare company COMPASS is currently undertaking the largest global clinical trial for psilocybin therapy to treat depression, recruiting 216 patients across 21 sites in Europe, the US and Canada.

‘If it’s approved, it gets into the system and is proved to be safe and effective for treating depression,’ says Tracy Yeung, Chief Communications Officer at COMPASS Pathways.

‘We’re generating the evidence that can be used to get into national health systems. At the moment, we’re in the stage of rigorous clinical trials to show that this treatment works, to give people the confidence to eventually use them as clinical therapy.

‘There are 100 million people in the world with treatment-resistant depression – that’s a huge number. It’s a huge economic burden and burden on society and it’s unfair that so many people currently don’t have any options.’

According to Professor Nutt, the ‘war on drugs’ that’s been waging since the 70s is responsible for this burden, by setting back the research into psychedelic medical treatments, and preventing adequate treatments by at least 50 years.

‘There is no country in the world where synthetic psychedelics are legal,’ he says. ‘This has caused about a million excess deaths a year, due to the failures of being able to access medication.’

What about cannabis?                           

In 2018, cannabis was legalised for medical use in the UK. But two years on, half of Brits are unaware of the law change, and access to the treatment remains low.

‘You need to be a specialist doctor to prescribe medical cannabis, and we only have about 40 of those specialists across the country,’ says Professor Nutt, who is also currently leading Project Twenty21, an audit aiming to enrol 20,000 patients being prescribed medical cannabis to produce more research on its efficacy.

‘The plan with Project Twenty21 is to gather data to show that doctors prescribing medical cannabis get good results.’

Cannabis is proven an effective treatment for pain disorder, PTSD, anxiety, addiction, depression, multiple sclerosis, Tourette’s syndrome and epilepsy. A study released by Professor Nutt’s team this week shows that medical cannabis can reduce seizures in patients with severe epilepsy by 97%. But even with these staggering figures, it remains unlikely for a patient to be prescribed medical cannabis by the NHS.  

Why might psychedelics be effective for treating mental health conditions?

Traditional treatments for mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD include talking therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and antidepressants such as SSRIs. But these therapies treat the symptoms of mental health conditions, rather than addressing their cause – which is often rooted in trauma, ranging from childhood abuse to PTSD in soldiers returning from conflict.

‘I like psychedelics because I don’t like psychiatric drugs,’ says Dr Sessa, who believes that MDMA could be the mental healthcare equivalent of antibiotics in terms of its groundbreaking efficacy.

‘We’ve got a huge backlog of chronic, lifelong mental disorder that we treat with maintenance therapy. SSRIs and mood stabilisers just paper over the cracks. Psychedelic psychotherapy is the best pharmacology we have to treat these disorders.

‘Psychiatry has painted itself into a corner where we don’t talk about ‘cure’, and I don’t think that’s good enough. Other branches of medicine wouldn’t accept the poor outcomes we accept in psychiatry. It’s like breaking your ankle and being prescribed paracetamol for the rest of your life.

‘But with psychedelics, we can take a person in their 20s or 30s with a history of severe childhood abuse and a severe mental disorder like PTSD, and we can completely cure them and send them on their way.

‘It’s a radical new paradigm shift for mental health.’

It’s important to note that introducing psychedelic psychotherapies could save the NHS a serious amount of money. A study by MAPS in the USA found that if public healthcare payers or private insurers made MDMA-assisted psychotherapy available to just 1,000 patients, healthcare costs would be reduced by $103.2million over 30 years.

How does a psychedelic therapy session go down?

All psychotherapists experimenting with psychedelic treatments are quick to remind us that taking these drugs in a clinical setting is nothing like experimenting with them recreationally. In medical MDMA and psilocybin trials, as well as with ketamine-assisted therapy at Awakn’s upcoming Bristol clinic, psychedelics are administered periodically during a weeks-long course of psychotherapy.

‘It’s not at all just taking some psilocybin at home,’ says Yeung.

‘It’s combined with psychological support from a specially trained therapist, in a special clinic. Before you go for your administration session you have preparatory sessions to explain what you’ll go through.

‘On the day of the experience, you take your psilocybin, you lie on a bed with eye shades on and listen to a carefully curated playlist, and sit with the therapists who will be there throughout the whole experience to support you. Then afterwards you’ll speak to the therapist about the experience.’

Dr Sessa also points out that while ketamine-assisted therapy already exists to treat depression, the Awakn clinic will be the UK’s first to use it alongside psychotherapy.

‘In 99% of ketamine clinics around the world, the psychedelic aspect is seen as an annoying side effect. The patient gets hooked up to a drip for a couple of hours and lies there with no interaction with anyone.

‘In our clinic, the patients are essentially on a seven-week course of regular psychotherapy, in which they take ketamine on four occasions and have psychotherapy during the ketamine sessions.’

MDMA and psilocybin therapy sessions can last for six to eight hours – a full day of treatment – while ketamine is faster-acting, and lasts up to 90 minutes in a therapeutic session. After your treatment, you’ll take a couple of hours’ recovery time before heading home.

The bottom line

The NHS’s reluctance to prescribe medical cannabis reflects the UK’s drug prohibition laws at large. This approach prolongs the process of helping patients with treatment-resistant mental health disorders.

‘Drug policy is connected to our work,’ says Dr Sessa.

‘Prohibition relies on a substance being dangerous. But you undermine the dangerous aspect of a drug if a doctor is prescribing it.

‘Our prohibition drug laws in the UK have been entirely ineffective at their job, which was to control these substances. After 50 years of prohibition, drugs haven’t gone away.

‘In fact, far more people are using psychedelics now than they were in the 60s.’

And as long as medical access to psychedelics are illegal, people will self-administer them from the black market – sometimes to treat their own mental health concerns.

‘I was in talking therapies for nearly two decades, and it was gruelling,’ says Laura How, a therapist and counsellor near Bristol.

‘I experienced an abusive childhood and for people who have experienced complex trauma, I’m not sure if talking therapy is always enough.

‘I took antidepressants, but they didn’t work. But when I started taking psilocybin, I stopped getting long periods of depression. I started to feel lighter and lighter, after feeling heavy my whole life.’


Modern Woman

How can we create a menopause-positive culture in the UK?

Almost any post-menopausal woman will tell you that hot flushes are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to symptoms of the menopause. What’s perhaps more surprising is the likelihood that she will have experienced workplace discrimination, and perhaps even stepped back from her career, as a result.

In August 2020, the British Medical Association (BMA) released the results of a study that gave pause for thought to women in the medical world, and beyond. Out of 2,000 female doctors surveyed, a huge 90 per cent reported that menopausal symptoms – insomnia, fatigue and anxiety, as well as hot flushes – had affected their working lives. A third wanted more flexible workplaces than they had and 47 per cent did not feel comfortable discussing the impact of the menopause on their work with their manager, despite wanting to do so.

The consequence?

“Women may be permanently stepping back from senior positions in medicine – a key cause of the gender pay gap,” Dr Helena McKeown, BMA representative body chair, told the Guardian. “And the health service may be losing highly experienced staff because of inflexibility and lack of support during a relatively short phase of life.”

Supporting senior women should be a priority within the NHS, whose workforce is 77 per cent female, although just 46 per cent of senior management roles are held by women. Currently, 60 per cent of junior doctors are women, who will one day progress to senior roles. And it comes at a time when female NHS staff are reporting record levels of stress and exhaustion at work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the results of the BMA survey point to a far bigger picture of discrimination experienced by women in all corners of the workforce as they go through menopausal symptoms.

Menopause in the workplace

A survey by not-for-profit healthcare provider Nuffield Health reveals that 72 per cent of female workers experiencing menopausal symptoms feel unsupported at work, with one in 10 considering quitting their job. A staggering 90 per cent feel unable to talk to a manager or colleague about the impact of their symptoms on their ability to work, although one in five have had to take time off work. What’s behind this level of miscommunication?

“People don’t know the basics of menopause, the symptoms, or even when it can happen,” says Lauren Chiren, who experienced early menopause while working a senior role in financial services. She’s now the founder of Women of a Certain Stage, which runs personal coaching and corporate training around the menopause. “If you’re not on your A game in finance, you’re out. I’d have palpitations in meetings with directors, gripping the edge of my chair and zoning out. I ended up thinking I had early onset dementia, in my early 40s.”

For Chiren, as for all the other women interviewed for this piece, there’s a lack of education surrounding the menopause which means that even women in the midst of its symptoms might not be aware what they’re experiencing. In fact, the Nuffield Health study shows that 45 per cent of women fail to recognise they’re experiencing menopausal symptoms when they first develop.

“I honestly thought I had Alzheimer’s, or cancer,” ex-journalist Siobhan Daniels tells me. “I went through this period of having a cotton wool head.” Daniels was working in the newsroom at BBC South East television at the time, where she felt unsupported by her colleagues when she eventually found out that she was menopausal.

“My boss was such a bully,” she remembers. “Being menopausal was seen as a weakness. When I tried to broach the subject in the workplace, it was like they thought it was disgusting, even though it had a detrimental impact on me. I nearly left my job early.”

Media specialist Louise Raven* did leave her job early, when the lack of support from her team and HR department meant that her symptoms of early menopause (at age 38) became unmanageable at work.

“It was October and I was sweating so profusely in the office,” she says. “I asked HR if I could sit by the window to manage my temperature, and was told in no uncertain terms, no. I’d been told I couldn’t have children and it was really upsetting, and then I couldn’t even have a doctors’ appointment without problems from HR, while the other ladies who had children would always have mornings off or four-day weeks. I was shocked at the lack of empathy. I ended up taking voluntary redundancy.”

It’s uncommon for workplaces to have support systems in place for women experiencing the menopause. According to research from diversity and inclusion consultancy Shine4Women, 90 per cent of women say their workplace didn’t offer any kind of support for this stage – despite the fact that flexibility is often more readily offered for other reasons, such as childcare and pregnancy, and small adjustments in the workplace (like sitting near a window, for starters) can make a big difference.

“It comes down to simple things,” says Diane Danzebrink, a psychotherapist, menopause expert and wellbeing consultant. “Getting the right medical support at the right time, being able to confidently approach your organisation knowing they will support you, access to flexible working. Simple adjustments in the workplace, like adequate support for your mental wellbeing, perhaps a quiet space you can use, appointing a menopause champion. Basically, creating a supportive culture.”

The problems getting support from the GP

Workplaces must bring in menopause-friendly policies to support their female employees. But in order for women to know when and how make use of them, they need to have received the right medical support from the GP. Often, the more severe menopausal symptoms that one in four women experience – anxiety, palpitations, depression – are misdiagnosed. One quarter of menopausal women who seek help from a GP aren’t told about the possibility of the symptoms being menopause.

“When I ended up in A&E with menopausal palpitations, the doctor asked if I’d done coke,” one woman tells me on Twitter. It echoes the experiences of menopause publicly shared by American TV personality Oprah, who was monitored by cardiologists as a result of her hormonal palpitations. “We looked for the most dire explanation – heart disease – instead of the most likely,” she wrote. For Danzebrink, who – unbelievably – wasn’t prescribed hormone replacement therapy after a total abdominal hysterectomy, things hit rock bottom: “I started to wonder if life like this was worth living.”

“So many of my friends were prescribed antidepressants instead of HRT,” says Daniels, who swears by EstroGel patches for dealing with aches, sweats and anxiety. “And many are being told by predominantly male doctors that they don’t need it.”

Even when women are identified as menopausal by their GP, they’re often not made aware of the full range of treatment available to them. While the NHS guidelines ‘do not suggest that all, or even most, women with menopausal symptoms should be prescribed HRT’, there’s growing evidence that it can significantly improve a woman’s quality of life – yet a third of women surveyed by Nuffield Health weren’t made aware of HRT by their GP. Of those that were, a third were told it was unsuitable for them.

“Increasingly the evidence shows appropriate HRT to be suitable for many women, with far less risks than previously thought,” says Dr Annie Evans, menopause specialist at Nuffield Health Bristol Hospital. “It is an absolute tragedy that large numbers of women are getting no help at all.” The widespread shortage of HRT patches last year illustrated a fact pointed out to me by senior speciality emergency doctor Dr Cathy Paget: “HRT is not considered a key medicine.”

The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown, thanks to a number of factors identified by menopause coach and activist Kate Usher. “Stress is difficult to biologically manage during the menopause, and stress exacerbates many symptoms,” she tells me. “While most symptoms are easier to manage at home, the pressure to be present and effective due to concerns over job retention, increases stress levels. Isolation can be difficult at the best of times, however with anxiety, depression and panic attacks being extremely common menopause symptoms, it can be catastrophic. And access to healthcare during this period has been difficult and patchy.”

There’s also evidence that ethnicity and socioeconomic circumstances can play a part in worsening a menopausal experience. The US’s Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), which began in 1996, shows that Black and Latina women reach menopause two years earlier than white women, and are more likely to experience hot flushes and night sweats for longer. “My educated guess is that a lot of the differences have their basis in lifestyle, SES (socioeconomic status), and other stressors such as systemic racism and their long-term consequences,” said University of Colorado School of Medicine professor Dr Nanette Santoro to heath site EndocrineWeb.

What’s going wrong?

When 51 per cent of the population will experience menopause, why is it so routinely missed by GPs?

“In the UK, doctors only have mandatory training in menopause so a lot haven’t heard of it in 20 years,” says Shine4Women co-founder Anna Baréz-Brown. “A 65-year-old male GP doesn’t have menopause in mind.”

“We know from many recently qualified GPs that they had little or no menopause training at all,” adds Danzebrink. “It’s because until the 80s, there was very little pressure for women to be included in medical research. We’ve only ever had two women head up the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. And over the last 30 or 40 years we’ve since an exponential rise in women over 50 in the workplace, so menopause in the workplace is more common now – but society hasn’t caught up.

“Women are referred to cardiologists for heart palpitations, rheumatologists for joint pain, psychiatrists for mental health conditions which are actually to do with changing levels of hormones. The fact is we’re not teaching our medical professionals about this life stage. And our GPs are under horrible pressure. We need to make their job easier by giving them the right education, so when a woman who’s experiencing peri-menopause walks in, they can treat her how she deserves to be treated and it’ll probably save six or seven appointments in the diary.”

Which brings us back to the BMA’s study. Senior female doctors leaving their roles could do even more harm than widening the gender pay gap. There will be fewer woman GPs that have first-hand experience of the menopause and therefore, until GP training on the menopause improves, are able to easily diagnose it in patients.

“If even our medical professionals are struggling to get help, what hope does the public have?” asks Danzebrink. “When there are so few women in senior positions, you don’t get the value of their experience for younger colleagues. It also doesn’t make financial sense for any organisation to lose a team member they’ve spent all that time training and supporting.”

The good news is that over the last few years, women and organisations have begun speaking up about the menopause and its impact on women’s lives, including at work. “In the five years since I started speaking out about this publicly, we’ve seen more unions creating menopause policies, we’ve had menopause debated in the Houses of Parliament, we’ve seen a government report about menopause in the workplace,” says Danzebrink. She’s also played a part in getting menopause on the school curriculum in England, which begins this term. And despite the BMA study’s findings, some NHS staff report a gradual culture shift.

“When I first joined Southampton hospital, I remember saying breaks are for wimps,” laughs Dr Paget. “That’s changed completely. There’s been a big awareness in emergency medicine that it’s a really tough industry, and pressures are increasing. And I’ve been able to renegotiate my contract and work less antisocial hours to help with my menopausal symptoms.”

The expertise of someone like Dr Paget on the team is invaluable. “I say, always bring a menopausal women into a meeting for her amazing perspective,” concludes Baréz-Brown. “An older, wiser counsel. Losing a woman like that in a business is not great. And that’s why businesses should do more to support them.”


*name changed for anonymity

Modern Woman

Three indigenous female entrepreneurs making waves in North America

Nearly half (44 per cent) of women-owned businesses in the US are controlled by minority women, and across North America, indigenous entrepreneurship is on the up.

Last autumn, the Canadian government invested $2 billion in a new Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) that seeks to double the number of women-owned businesses there by 2025, while funds to support indigenous women have never been more widely available. 

But there’s an even more pressing reason to pay attention to the innovation of the world’s indigenous peoples: their territories are home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. As we fight a global pandemic and face climate change, it’s more important than ever to learn from indigenous communities how to rebalance our relationship with the environment.

To mark the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August), we meet three indigenous entrepreneurs making an impact in North America – on their chosen industries, and on their native communities.

Harvesting Native American flavour: Melinda Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha (USA)

For big city dwellers, kombucha is as commonplace as smashed avocado on toast. The fermented, sparkling tea has been homebrewed globally for centuries but just recently became a hipster household name, as a healthy alternative to soda. In the USA, kombucha sales increased 12-fold between 2014 and 2017, when the industry was worth US$600,000.

But while shelves in LA, New York City and Portland, Oregon – which reportedly buys 78 times more kombucha than the rest of the country – were stacked with the stuff, that wasn’t the case in the tiny town of Hoyt, Kansas. Yet one woman there was in dire need of some fermented magic.

“I was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness about 10 years ago,” says Melinda Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha. “I started looking at ways to heal with food, instead of being on a lot of medication. I learned about kombucha, but at that time I could only get one brand.”

Williamson – a single mother who had just moved back to her native Kansas from Oklahoma, with her daughter – vowed to make her own, launching Morning Light Kombucha in 2016. But it was part of a bigger plan: to start a company that would directly support her Native American community, part of the Potawatomi tribe.

“I knew I wanted my business to be focused on sustainability, to create those conversations in our community,” she says. “And I wanted to source locally and forage for ingredients.”

Producing small batches of kombucha of up to just 55 gallons, Williamson gathers wild berries and flowers from her tribe’s local reservation to create some 100 all-natural kombucha flavours, which are then sold at several Kansas locations in refillable bottles. “I go out with my family and harvest,” says Williamson. “If I’m harvesting flowers I’ll dry them, if it’s fruits then I’ll clean them and freeze them, locking in the nutrients until I’m ready to use them. I work with farmers and only harvest what I need – it’s important that I have a small footprint.”

Sustainability is a key driving force for Williamson, who recycles and composts nearly 100 per cent of Morning Light’s brewing waste. But the world’s only indigenous kombucha brand – recognised by the USDA as part of American Indian Foods – is drawing the attention of bigger brands at food shows, offering an opportunity to expand.

“My goal was always to offer something local, not to see my product on the shelf at the grocery store,” admits Williamson. “But I’m blown away by how many tribal businesses are interested in my product. I would love to create speciality lines that are specific to tribes, whether that’s with roasted blue corn, camomile, lavender or prickly pear.” In the meantime, she’s been launching a recyclable canned line of kombucha, and using proceeds to fund local youth basketball and trips to pipeline protests in North Dakota. However she decides to scale up, her Potawatomi heritage will be at the fore.

Upcycling sustainable threads: Amy Yeung, founder of Orenda Tribe (USA)

For many in the fashion industry, designing for brands like Puma and Reebok sounds like a dream come true. New Mexico-based fashion designer Amy Yeung spent the majority of her career travelling the world, working for its biggest activewear brands – but decided to drop her career as it reached its height.

“I was raising my daughter alone, and had a moment when I realised I couldn’t do this job and be a good mother,” she says. “I was trying to raise my kid to be a conscious citizen but my career in fast fashion was filling up landfills, just to create wealth for companies without any heart. I started working on sustainable, small-batch projects, doing production in downtown LA rather than in China, working with brands that were willing to slow down and do things differently. And I also started Orenda Tribe.”

Since 2015, Yeung’s fashion company has ‘soulfully upcycled and reimagined vintage clothing’ – a process close to her heart, as it’s a hobby she’s always shared with her daughter. “She’s grown up understanding that all things have a special energy and are to be cherished,” says Yeung. “My daughter was basically the creative director, as she did everything with me. If you scroll back on Instagram, she’s the model in all the photos. It was a love project for us.” That love radiates through the products they create: rainbow tie-dyed jeans; vintage dresses stitched in primary colours; earth-coloured bead necklaces strung with juniper seeds nibbled clean by insects.

But the advent of Orenda Tribe coincided with another love project for Yeung – the rediscovery of her Native American roots. Born into Navajo Nation but adopted out to a non-native family, Yeung reconnected with her birth mother in her 30s and started to gradually reintegrate into the tribe.

“It’s where I was always supposed to be, but it took me a long time to get home,” she says. “I’ve only been physically living on ancestral lands for a year. I’m like a toddler, learning the language, the protocol, our culture. It’s a road that I have ahead of me as long as I live.”

As she travels that road, Yeung invests her expertise and the success of Orenda Tribe in the local Navajo community, by selling the work of other indigenous designers via her platform and collaborating with local talent. “Our youth are so expansively creative,” she says. “There are so many young creatives amplifying indigenous voices. It gives me so much hope for the future.”

Photo Credit: Pierre Manning

Yeung’s optimism flies in the face of the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on her community. Between March and July 2020, she repurposed her skills to produce 80,000 masks for frontline workers, from fabric donated by her former clients, like Nike and Patagonia, and fundraised for 47,000 food and supply kits for every child in Navajo Nation. But as the world reels from the pandemic, Yeung can see an opportunity for positive change.

“We’re going to see so many indigenous brands, designers and creatives thrive in this new situation,” she says. “People don’t want to go to malls or stores anymore. We’re buying things on our phones and having them brought to us, and designers can sell whatever they want on social media. And do you really want to buy from H&M when you could buy from a young designer on Navajo Nation? The way things used to be, all based on greed and wealth, is crumbling. We want to surround ourselves with things made with heart.”

Flying high: Teara Fraser, founder & CEO of Iskwew Air (Canada)

When she was 30 years old, Teara Fraser spent her savings on going travelling for the first time. In Botswana, she sat in a small aircraft and felt her heart race as it swooped over the green swamps of the Okavango Delta. “The pilot was telling us the stories of the land, the trees, and the animals, and I thought – this guy has the coolest job ever,” says Fraser.

Two weeks later, she went skydiving. Almost 20 years later, Fraser can remember everything about that moment. “I can smell it, see it, tell you how I wanted to touch everything on the dashboard and know what it did,” she recalls. “I said to myself, I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to fly airplanes.”

It was easier said than done. As a single mother with two children, no post-secondary education and no knowledge about the aviation industry, Fraser had some odds stacked against her. But within a year, she had a commercial pilot’s license.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” she laughed. But it launched her career in aviation and gave her a business idea – to start a small aircraft service for indigenous tourism in her native Canada. “As a Métis woman, I want everything I do to be in service of community and indigenous peoples,” says Fraser. “And that’s something I can help with: connecting indigenous tourism partners and bringing travellers to more remote, smaller strips.”

The business didn’t take off for 10 years. Fraser eventually launched her airline in October 2019, naming it Iskwew Air (‘Iskwew’ means ‘woman’ in Cree language, nodding to her identity as an indigenous matriarch and as an antidote to the male-dominated aviation industry) and starting things off with a blessing ceremony at Vancouver International Airport, from the territory’s Musqueam tribe. But little did she know that an even greater challenge was around the corner.

“I like a challenge, but an airline startup during a global pandemic? Not ideal,” she says. “Pre-COVID, indigenous tourism was the fastest-growing aspect of tourism in Canada. People are looking for meaningful, authentic experiences that are connected to the people and the land. But it’s important that’s done in a really sustainable way, led by indigenous people, in communities that choose it for themselves.”

Iskwew Air has kept operational throughout the pandemic, transporting essential supplies and cargo to indigenous, remote communities. And Fraser is poised to pour her energy into indigenous tourism again once communities are ready to welcome visitors. When it’s safe, it won’t be a moment too soon.

“Indigenous people have so much wisdom that the world desperately needs,” says Fraser. “What’s beautiful is that the pandemic is connecting us in a collective experience worldwide. It gives us the opportunity to understand what’s possible, as indigenous peoples have done for time immemorial. This is an invitation from the world to do things differently and rebuild systems that are in better service to all people and the land.”


DJ Orawan is leading Bangkok’s drum’n’bass awakening

Red lasers cut between the tiny upstairs club’s black walls, illuminating a crowd that jostles for a view of the two figures stepping up to the decks. The floor is sticky with beer spilt during the last deep-roller set; the air dense with humidity and cigarette smoke. Bringing the mic to her mauve-painted lips is Gene Kasidit – a transgender singer who’s legendary in Bangkok’s thriving queer scene, and Thai music royalty thanks to her success heading up electro-pop band Futon.

Kasidit wears a silk leopard-print robe, rockabilly sunglasses and an indescribable headpiece of geometric plastic diamonds. By her side on the Pioneer turntables is a petite figure in black headphones and a chunky silver necklace that bears the word ‘BassClef’. Kasidit, as well as the crowd of around 150 – half Thai, half western expats – have come to electronic music venue Safe Room to worship heavy basslines at Bangkok’s only regular drum and bass rave. And none would be here without this DJ.

Orawan Suppasupphawat, founder of BassClef, spins a backing track as Kasidit premiers two drum ‘n’ bass songs – her first toe-dip into the genre. Then the lights dim as DJ Orawan launches into a high-energy headline set, switching gracefully between jump up crowd-pleasers like Macky Gee’s ‘Tour’, and the dirty basslines of Chase & Status’ ‘Program’ and Break’s ‘Keepin it Raw’.

Thailand has dabbled in drum ‘n’ bass since jungle was first played at 90s Full Moon parties on Ko Pha-ngan. Yet it’s rarely broken out of the Western tourist scene into local club culture, which favours K pop and EDM. “I heard jungle for the first time at a Full Moon party in 1999, when I was 19,” says the now-40-year-old Orawan. “I fell in love with it. The beat was different to a 4/4 beat, you didn’t know how to dance to it but you could still groove along.”

Back in Bangkok, Orawan started digging into the UK drum ‘n’ bass scene via burnt CDs sold from bootleg record stores on backpacker stretch Khao San road. The tourist district was the only place she could find records by Fabio & GrooveriderLTJ Bukem and Goldie, who became her introduction to the sound. But it was in New Zealand, where she moved a couple of years later to study audio engineering, that Orawan taught herself to mix and found her niche in the bass music scene.

Orawan built her reputation with a monthly residency at Auckland’s Fu Bar, while also returning to Bangkok every year where she was booked by Dubway Sessions, one of Bangkok’s first drum ‘n’ bass promoters. These nights, which started in 2008, were the brainchild of DJ Dragon – one of the first Thai DJs to play the genre, and who is on the bill at tonight’s BassClef show.

After 14 years deep in the Auckland scene, Orawan arrived back in Bangkok as it was on the cusp of its first drum ‘n’ bass movement. She took a job as head of marketing for Bed Supperclub, where British promoter Dave Milligan ran parties each Thursday night. Over six years he booked international acts like Diplo and Fatboy Slim, plus the likes of DJ Hype and Marky. Orawan would spin supporting sets for the drum ‘n’ bass acts, until the club shut down in 2015.

By this time, she’d also been part of monthly drum ‘n’ bass night Phatfunk with Jeremy Guessoum and Ashley Williams – DJs who bring dark, deep rollers to tonight’s line-up, too – and BassClef, which she started in 2013 to represent all bass-driven music. It’s one of a kind in a city whose nightlife leaps straight from streetside bars to the commercial sheen of mainstream clubs.

“It’s easy to find EDM, house, hip hop and generic pop on a night out in Bangkok,” says BassClef regular Craig Coppack, a Brit who now lives in Thailand. He sips a Singha and tells me how a slower pace drew him to Thailand, but the drum ‘n’ bass family kept him there. “What you struggle to find here is deep, dirty basslines, especially from artists like Sub Zero, Benny Page, LTJ Bukem, Fabio & Grooverider and Shabba D & Skibadee.”

Orawan has managed to attract each of these names through word of mouth. While the scene’s not established enough to pay them the fees they’d expect from UK shows, the DJs come here for the welcome from Bangkok’s bassheads, and to play across Southeast Asia: Orawan works with Asian promoters Defused Mood in Hanoi, and Unchained in Shenzhen, making a compact regional tour.

In Bangkok’s earliest bass-heavy days, Bed Supperclub’s drum ‘n’ bass sessions exposed the UK sound to a new generation of bass-hungry Thai ravers – one of whom was a quiet, indie kid called Wongsakorn Tharonnitiwong, who now goes by his DJ name Black Rain. Orawan remembers seeing him at the front row of every one of her shows. She took him under her wing – he calls her ‘mum’ – and now employs him at both BassClef and W Bangkok, where she works as music curator.

“I would go to the club with a fake Korean passport when I was 16,” reveals the now-25-year old Black Rain, soft-spoken behind Clark Kent-style glasses and dressed all in black. “I’m the youngest DJ in BassClef and I can see the scene picking up. People take notice of the big names, we just need more consistency from Thai DJs in between.” Black Rain is helping to provide that, tonight laying down an intelligent set back-to-back with Instinct (Phatfunk’s own Ashley Williams) that weaves between dark neurofunk and upbeat classics.

All agree that until Milligan’s nights ended five years ago, Bangkok’s underground bass scene was mostly driven by expats. Drum ‘n’ bass never features on Thai radio and Netsky reportedly lost the crowd at last year’s Songkran festival, in Bangkok, by playing a drum ‘n’ bass track. But over the past two years (after taking a break from music while having her son, now five years old) Orawan’s relentless promotion of her event and local DJs has created a cultural shift.

Thai regulars make up the front line of the dancefloor, gun fingers jabbing over the decks, skanking in chunky trainers and miniskirts. The dance is easily 50 per cent female – something that’s less common in London, where male-heavy moshpits take over the heavier jump-up nights.

“More Thai people are starting to know drum ‘n’ bass because of Orawan, always promoting it on Facebook and Instagram,” says Tanat Laonooncha, her kohl-rimmed eyes expressive from behind a mint-green surgical mask (we’re raving in the early stages of fears about coronavirus, and tonight turns out to be the final party before a four month break for lockdown). “I don’t see many Thai boys at drum ‘n’ bass shows, but there are always lots of Thai girls. They come with foreigner boyfriends and then they like it. I discovered it through my friend from the Czech Republic.”

One of Bangkok’s few dubstep promoters, a Bangkok native of Gujurati descent, discovered the genre at a SubDub night while at university in Leeds. “Everything I thought about music changed that night,” 23-year-old Kishan Vedia remembers. “I was like Jesus, I didn’t even know music could go that loud.” He now runs the monthly Oriental Sub Sessions, expanding Bangkok’s bass-driven offerings to dubstep in a parallel attempt to bring more Thai locals to the scene.

“It’s hard to push music if you don’t have local talent,” he says. “And we don’t have the precedent of rave culture. But I am starting to see more Thai people at drum ‘n’ bass nights, and even more so reggae, as they recently legalised medical marijuana here and it’s impacting the mindset towards reggae culture. From there we can start to build the scene to dub, then to dubstep.”

Orawan plans to appeal to the younger generation by playing the long game. She’ll keep booking international acts when she gets the opportunity, and bigging up the local community in between – whether that’s via up-and-coming musical talent, charities (this night raises almost 30,000 baht for local organisation Sirisaro), or her cousin Nud – BassClef’s own accountant, doorman and sound engineer.

“If more locals have a chance to come and experience the vibe, we can get them hooked,” Orawan smiles. By the looks of tonight, her plan is starting to work.

BassClef was recently back in action post-lockdown with the Disinfected party, follow BassClef on Facebook

Modern Woman

Does regular sex spell career success?

We know that sex is good for us – physically, mentally and spiritually. But research is starting to show that a healthy sex life can positively influence our careers, too.

The small Swedish town of Övertorneå isn’t used to global headlines. That is, it wasn’t until February 2017 – when town councillor Per-Erik Muskos made a proposal that shocked the ageing, rural population, and the international media with it.

Muskos believes that Swedes should be given an hour-long, paid break from work each week, to dedicate to going home and having sex with their partners. For the politician, couples don’t have enough time together, and ‘there are studies that show sex is healthy’. He saw no reason why the other town officials wouldn’t go for it.

Muskos was wrong about that: the Övertorneå town council voted against his proposal. But he was right to mention the magnitude of studies that show the health benefits of an active sex life. It’s proven that sexual activity and orgasms improve fitness, strengthen immunity and release the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which lowers anxiety and raises energy levels.

But studies also suggest that there’s another added bonus to an active sex life: workplace success. Research conducted at the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and Oregon State University found that couples having more sex at home experienced increased motivation and job satisfaction at work. Perhaps Muskos was onto something after all.

For the 2017 study, four researchers tracked the behaviour of 159 married employees for two weeks, asking them to fill in a daily diary charting sexual activity and rating workplace enjoyment. “We found that when employees engaged in sex at home, they reported increased positive affect at work the following day,” they report. “And daily work-to-family strain-based conflict significantly reduced the likelihood of engaging in sex at home that evening.”

According to the findings, then, a satisfying sex life works in full circle with a fulfilling work life. Getting it on one night means an improved performance at work the next day – yet having a crappy day at the office means you’ll likely be feeling less than horny by the time you’re back home with your partner.

Sexuality as part of the bigger picture

For American sexologist Logan Levkoff, PhD, this makes total sense.

“There is no question that happiness and fulfilment in your romantic and sexuality identity play a role in your physical and emotional productivity,” she says. “We tend to think of sexual health and fulfilment as not a necessity, but it’s an important, critical part of who we are holistically. It relates to our physical and spiritual wellbeing – our self-confidence or stress. And we bring all those things into the workplace with us.”

There are flaws in the study. You don’t have to be in a committed, monogamous marriage to have a healthy sex life – “people can be sexually and emotionally fulfilled and not interested in having a particular partner”, clarifies Levkoff – but it turns out the researchers purposefully limited their study to married couples because they, statistically speaking, have more sex than singletons.

Shocked? Don’t be. Despite the assumed prevalence of ‘hook-up culture’ brought upon us by dating apps like Grindr, BARE Dating or Tinder – which has an estimated 57 million users worldwide – millennials in the USA and Europe are having less sex than the previous GenX generation. “Americans born in the 80s and 90s [are] more likely to report having no sexual partners as adults compared to GenX’ers born in the 60s and 70s,” claims psychologist Jean Twenge in a 2016 study by San Diego State University.

Could this decline in sexual activity negatively impact millennials’ success at work? One study, published earlier this month, seems to suggest so.

“Men with lower income and with part-time or no employment [are] more likely to be sexually inactive,” claim researchers from Indiana University, who looked at the sex lives of 18-44-year-olds in the USA from 2000-2018. “Approximately one in three men aged 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year.”

Which came first – sexual inactivity or unemployment? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, and perhaps irrelevant to ask. But if the Indiana University study proves anything, it’s that Levkoff’s reading of the situation is accurate: sexual confidence goes hand-in-hand with career confidence. “Our voice, our self-confidence or stress… all those things are impacted by our sexual lives and lack thereof,” she says.

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made social contact harder and left so many in unstable financial circumstances, is likely to mean even less sex for Western millennials – as well as fewer economic opportunities.

The impact of tech

The worldwide lockdown has also increased use of dating apps among single people, with Tinder recording its highest-ever number of swipes on 29 March (3 billion). While some daters are enjoying more meaningful exchanges on apps and a lower stigma associated with using them, the pandemic has made online dating more central to 21st-century dating than ever – and it’s here to stay. Research by American platform has found that while its users are keen to get back to dating, 60 per cent of those questioned will be cautiously easing back into in-person dating in the wake of the experience.

Levkoff believes that dating apps have a lot to answer for when it comes to the declining sex lives of millennials – which in turn can have a knock-on effect in the workplace.

“We have created a culture around sex and technology and intimacy, where being vulnerable is a really scary thing,” she explains. “And when we have outlets for sexual pleasure that aren’t fraught with vulnerability, we don’t necessarily seek it out with another person. But that inability to speak candidly, being awkward and owning it? Those are really important skills. And when we’re unsure of our voice, think about how that affects us in business.”

Exploring your kinks

Dating apps have their downsides, but the prevalence of the internet in our daily lives has dramatically opened the door to an industry that was once the preserve of phone boxes and public bathroom walls: the sex industry. And within that world, there’s a service that’s traditionally been seen to cater to high-flying businessmen, looking for an antidote to their pressured workdays. If there’s a correlation between sexual fulfilment and workplace success, then can visiting a dominatrix be seen as a career investment?

“There’s a stereotype that men who see dominatrixes are of a certain age group, businessmen and lawyers, but that’s a misconception,” says Mistress Adreena Angela, a dominatrix and sex workers’ activist in London. “That was probably true in the past, but now there’s such a huge variety. But there is definitely a correlation between people who have power in the outside world, and submission.”

Mistress Adreena confirms that clients can experience greater workplace success following their sessions with her – “I have a guy who comes on his lunchbreak, then returns to work with more of a spring in his step”, she laughs – but credits it to the personal satisfaction that can be gained from exploring your sexuality head on.

“I have one client in regular chastity,” she reveals. “He does a month at a time where he can’t have sex or masturbate, and it retrains his mind. He’s so much more focused on work when he’s in chastity – he says there’s a noticeable improvement.”

Wait. Can taking sex completely out of the equation help performance at work, too?

“It’s not exactly that,” decides Mistress Adreena. “He’s still dealing with his sexuality, just not through orgasms. If you’re addressing your sexuality, you’re in a much healthier headspace – rather than being sexually frustrated or feeling shame. Psychologically, you’ll be in a better place to work.”

There’s no doubt that the relationship between sex and the rest of your life is complex and intertwined. A sudden uptick in career success can leave you too tired to dedicate sufficient time to your partner and to sex; while pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood and menopause can all greatly impact your sex and work life. “Before I had a child I was shagging like mad and working on my career,” one mum tells us. “Now I’ve not had sex for six years and I’m unemployed, rather than being in a full-time, permanent job.”

From the bedroom to the boardroom

Owning your sexuality seems to be beneficial, both in your personal and work life. And if sex is fundamental to our overall wellbeing – as argued by Levkoff, plus countless doctors and psychologists producing research on the subject – it only follows that hang-ups in the bedroom could trickle into the boardroom.

“No matter where we live, and regardless of religious or ethnic culture, we all get messages about what is ‘acceptable’ sexually. About how we’re supposed to act and feel fulfilled. When we don’t have that, it trickles down,” says Levkoff. “If you don’t feel worthy of love, respect, attention and having your voice heard, it’s impossible not to carry that into your work. That will definitely impact your business.”

Love, respect and attention? They’re three things that everybody deserves. We don’t need any more convincing.

easyJet Traveller

Estonian food: inspired by the dark arts

In 2003, Chef René Redzepi opened Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that made headlines for its artfully plated morsels of seasonal, sustainable ingredients (at eyewatering prices). But, while Redzepi’s New Nordic style held the spotlight, winning the World’s Best Restaurant accolade four times between 2010 and 2014, a quieter food revolution was brewing across the Baltic Sea.

Estonia’s capital city Tallinn now has a fine-dining scene to compete with Copenhagen’s, thanks to a new generation of chefs seeking a homegrown culinary identity – via lake fish, foraged herbs, fermented berries and wild game from the forests that cover 90% of the country. Centuries-long occupation by neighbouring powers, including the Nazi and Soviet rulers of the 20th century, left Estonians with an amalgamated diet of sauerkraut, chicken kiev and herring. But the New Nordic food revolution in Denmark mirrored the way rural Estonians had always eaten, regardless of governing bodies. In recent years, those traditions of fermenting, smoking, foraging and hunting have been brought out of the woodwork – after decades, if not centuries, of neglect.

On 28 and 29 May, the Bocuse d’Or chef championships take place in Tallinn, marking the city’s initiation onto the culinary world stage. Here are the five restaurants that are pioneering the new wave of Estonian cooking, and the five sets of ingredients that have come to define their tastes.

From black garlic to billy goats, it’s a wild ride.

Foraged mushrooms at NOA Chef’s Hall

Named the number-one Baltic restaurant by the current White Guide to Nordic dining, this space – a 15-minute drive out of Tallinn proper – overlooks the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows and sets the scene for Estonia’s most ambitious fusion food. Head chef Orm Oja was born the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

“The Danes invented Nordic cuisine when they started fermenting and foraging, but we had never lost sight of that culture in Estonia. When the Soviet era ended, there was a new freedom for chefs wanting to express themselves,” Oja says. “We forage. Even my little sister knows everything about mushrooms.”

Black garlic chocolate and smoking pine at Restoran Ö

In Tallinn city centre, one passionate and patriotic chef brings to the capital the flavours of the cold sea, dark forests, clean air and black soil of his native Saaremaa Island, off the west coast of Estonia.

“I only use 100% Estonian ingredients,” says Martin Meikas, whose experimental dishes use smoking pine cones to evoke the scent of the forest, and infuse chocolate with native black garlic. “I’m influenced by the history of our country, doing lots of fermenting and smoking. After the end of the Soviet Union, it was all, ‘Let’s make pasta, pizza, then fine dining, then street food’. Now we’ve done everything and everyone has calmed down, we’re going back to our roots.”

Summer berries (in winter) at Põhjaka Manor

This renovated manor house, an hour’s drive from Tallinn, was inspired by the Italian tradition of rural farmhouse restaurants, but has distinctly Estonian features. The cellar is packed with jars of preserved jams and pickles; outside, sheep graze and chickens scratch the ground between the herb garden and vegetable patch. In a small onsite distillery, gins are infused with rowan berries and sea buckthorn.

“In Estonia, we say we only have three months of bad skiing weather each year,” laughs co-owner Mart Metsallik. “It’s logical to cook seasonally and Estonians have always made preserves for the winter from things that are fresh in the summer. In fact, the Soviet times helped preserve that tradition, because we had nothing in the shops from the outside world.”

Rye bread at Leib

The highlight of this leafy spot on the edge of Tallinn Old Town isn’t its wonderfully fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, but its namesake: the black rye bread that comes with every dish and translates as leib. It’s the one constant in the everchanging seasonal menu.

“Rye bread has fed Estonians for nearly 10 centuries, which is why we proudly call it our national food,” says head chef Janno Lepik. “There are two kinds of black bread today. One of them is a sour rye bread, like ours, which is flavoured with different spices and seeds, and has a sour taste thanks to the fermented leaven. The other kind is considerably darker and sweeter in taste, which is due to the added sugar and malt.”

Whole goat’s head at Juur

All exposed brickwork and rustic ceramics, the swish dining room at Juur wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen – and head chef Kaido Metsa shares Danish trailblazer Rene Redzepi’s focus on the local and the sustainable, sourcing 90% of his ingredients from his own kitchen garden and the surrounding farms and forests. His signature dish comes from a nearby goat’s milk farm, for example.

“The male goats were useless to them,” says Metsa. “It doesn’t make sense to only use the best cuts of the animal when we have world hunger. I buy the male goats’ heads and we serve them with a story.”


Original junglists: walking with India’s Pardhi tribe

In the valley, thick bamboo sticks shoot up around us from the earthy undergrowth. Their vivid-green leaves lace into a natural parasol that shades us from the midday sun, as we crouch down to inspect the ground for animal tracks. Badda points out a faint scuff in the dirt, almost invisible to the untrained eye, and follows its direction to a nearby tree. The gnarled trunk is covered with fresh scratch marks.

“A leopard was just here,” he whispers, running his palm over the rough indents. Sure enough, he finds a fragment of a claw, not much bigger than a fingernail, embedded in the bark. As we move on and begin a steep climb up a forested, rocky hill, a not-too-distant, alien sound – somewhere between a roar, a howl and a bark – ricochets between the surrounding gorge’s rocky walls. I can tell from the knowing smiles of my companions that it’s the sound of a wild, big cat, of the unmistakable golden and black-spotted variety. Badda puts his hands to his mouth and imitates the roar, calling back through the trees, pitch perfect.

I’m on a day-long trek through the jungles of Panna National Park, a protected area of India’s eastern Madhya Pradesh state. The 1600sqkm reserve draws visitors for one valuable reason: its native big cats. And although I’ve found myself within prowling-distance of a leopard, I’ve got my eye on an even bigger prize. Tigers roam this landscape, and one community here knows how to track them like none other.

The indigenous Pardhi (meaning ‘hunting’) tribe, Badda among them, has lived nomadically in this area for five centuries, its people sustaining themselves through foraging and hunting wild boar, birds and other animals. Their unique skill is an uncanny ability to mimick animal calls. If anyone could help me navigate these backwaters and plains – and fend off the sloth bears, snakes, big cats and hyenas along the way – it would be these guys.

Badda is one of 16 Pardhi people to be involved with the Walk with the Pardhis expeditions, which are run from Pashan Garh lodge – a luxury-safari outpost of the Taj Hotels brand, and the starting point for our day. The project was launched in 2018 by Taj Safaris, wildlife conservation programme Last Wilderness Foundation and the Indian government’s Panna Forest Department, and has expanded to other hotels in the Panna region since. No longer able to support themselves by hunting in the protected national park, the once-nomadic tribe (communities of which are found all over India) now use their unparalleled tracking talents to offer guests an immersive wilderness experience, via Taj Safaris’ training programme.

The morning of our walk starts before sunrise. Over a steaming cup of chai tea, I sign a mildly worrying waiver – one that absolves the hotel from blame if I fall victim to the ‘real risk of bodily harm by dangerous animals’. As I do so, the hotel’s on-site naturalist, Dipu Kumar, races into the room to tell me that a tiger was just seen stalking through the lodge site. It’s the second time in four days. We rush outside to see deep paw prints pressed into the sandy forest floor, just metres from where we were sitting. Hearts pounding, we agree that it’s time to meet up with the Pardhis.

By the time we reach the meeting point, on a dusty road dotted with small settlements in the outer ‘buffer’ boundary of Panna Tiger Reserve, the sun is high enough to hit the tips of the treetops with shafts of golden light. We set off through a sandy plain, heading towards the cavernous Ranipur gorge, which we’ll climb down before entering the jungle proper and scaling the Jumanji-size peak by sundown. A walk is generally escorted by five or six Pardhi people – today we’ve got Badda, Batal, Reshna and Lallarsi, all with the surname Pardhi – but we’re also joined by the Taj Safaris area manager Nagendra Hada and Bhavna Menon, programme manager of Last Wilderness Foundation, which facilitates Pardhi community outreach.

We’ve been walking for just a few minutes before Badda begins to point out signs of wildlife, big and small: hours-old hyena tracks, identifiable by their garlic clove-shaped claws; the teeny paw prints of field mice; a caterpillar trail that resembles a miniscule tyre track. Batal points out medicinal plants that have been used by the Pardhis for centuries – the community is still reliant on ancient herbal remedies and witch doctors.

We chew on Ketha leaves, a herbal mouth freshener that tastes like aniseed, and run our fingers through the leaves of a Mahua tree, whose pink flower petals can be dried and crushed into the favoured local hooch. Lallarsi strips the red bark off an Ajun tree, to be ground into a tea that treats high blood pressure. Batal rubs Lantana leaves – a natural antiseptic that can be wrapped on wounds – between his palms, releasing a green juice that’s powerful enough to remedy scorpion stings and soothe boils. “You can also put this in your ear to treat tooth problems,” he advises, “but only on Wednesdays.”

The morning is quickly whiled away like this and before we know it it’s time to prepare lunch, by a jade-green river in the middle of the gorge. Water buffalo laze around us, electric-blue kingfishers swoop overhead and a family of langoon monkeys watch with interest as the Pardhis boil rice in fresh river water and crush gooseberries and coriander into chutney on a large, flat rock.

As we wait, I’m treated to a demonstration of Pardhi animal calls. Lallarsi roars like a jackal and barks like a monkey, to everyone’s hilarity, before imitating mating calls between a peacock and a peahen with Badda. Batal whistles to a partridge perched on a nearby branch – which tweets in reply – before performing the guttural, threatening growl of a tiger. He reveals that the very ground we’re sitting on was the site of a tiger poaching in 2000 – a hunt that he was party to. In fact, all the Pardhi men present have hunted tigers in the past.

They didn’t have many other options. The hunting tribe has been exiled from mainstream Indian society throughout history, notably by British colonial officials, who labelled them a ‘criminal tribe’ in 1871 due to their outlawed existence in the bush – despite exploiting their tracking skills to help them trophy hunt. The tribe was denotified of this label in 1952, but decades of demonisation had made their reputation hard to shift.

Unaccepted by local communities and cut off from the benefits of education and fixed settlements, the nomads continued to support themselves in the only way they knew: by hunting, this time for increasingly valuable species, as a domestic and international appetite for trophy hunting – despite it being illegal in India since the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – grew in the second half of the 20th century. By no means were the Pardhis the only hunters in Panna, but they were especially good at it, luring tigers into traps with their imitation calls. Tiger numbers dwindled from 23,000 at the time of Indian Independence, before which only British officials and Maharajas were allowed to hunt, to 1,100 by 2006. This was also thanks to habitat loss, from extensive deforestation and the building of human settlements.

“In 2008, the WWF declared tigers extinct in Panna,” says Hada, “and the Pardhis were blamed. Yes, they were involved. But in the last 70 years of independence in India, what had we done for them? We didn’t provide them with education or jobs. People do what they can to survive.”

Batal was the first of his Pardhi community to give up hunting, in 2008, when – convinced by the Forest Department – he became a community advocate for a different way of life. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Last Wilderness Foundation, which had built schools for Pardhi children in the Panna region and hostels for more permanent accommodation. The foundation employed Batal and his wife there to teach the youngsters how to brush their teeth, cut their nails and generally prepare themselves for a life and education in mainstream society. They convinced their whole community to stop hunting for good, which won Batal’s wife a lifetime wildlife award from Sanctuary magazine.

“They’re embarrassed about their past,” says Menon, who’s been managing the Pardhi community outreach programme for nine years. “But we don’t want them to be ashamed of who they are.” The foundation began skills training programmes in the hostels in 2015 and recruited walking guides for Taj Safaris two years later. Now, five families are entirely supported by the Taj programme, and last year, the first Pardhi women were trained up. Reshna, the youngest in our group, was the first girl in her community to leave and work elsewhere. Dressed in crisp khaki safari wear, she’s been trained as a naturalist and now works in a sister lodge in Kahna Tiger Reserve, an eight-hour drive south of Panna and her family. It was revolutionary for the community and has had a huge social impact.

“Reshna’s confidence has really improved,” Menon says. “It’s a big deal that girls like her don’t have to rely on men anymore.” Nomadic life is rare among the Pardhis now, who have settled in villages. But while the older generation worry that the tribe’s heritage will be forgotten, Menon explains that the Walk with the Pardhis programme is actually re-teaching the younger generation the tracking skills that might have been otherwise lost.

After a lunch of lentil daal and slow-cooked potatoes, peas and tomatoes, served on stitched-together banyan leaves with bonfire-baked roti bread, we enter the denser part of the jungle. We pass dark caves that are known leopard dens, see their scratch marks and hear their roars. The path between the trees gets steeper, rockier, more difficult to discern – but the Pardhis know the way. We scramble up rocks and slash through the thicket, squeezing through a narrow crevice that opens up onto a jaw-dropping view of the gorge below.

Our Pardhi guides’ wives are waiting with baskets full of dried spices and rice for our evening meal. We sip on chai as they cook and sing folk songs; melodic, haunting odes to the dramatic landscape around us. The dipping sun casts golden-peach hues as we light lanterns and bonfires and settle in for the evening. “Who needs a five-star hotel?” asks Hada, reclining back to gaze at the twinkling canopy emerging from the night sky. “We’ve got 1,000 stars right here.”

Back in bed at the safari lodge, I lie in the pitch black and listen. Putting my new, Pardhi-style tracking skills to the test, I pick up the rustle of sandy-coloured palm squirrels on the roof and the snouts of wild boars rootling in the undergrowth. So far, so peaceful. Then, I hear a distant, panic-stricken series of barks. It’s a family of langoon monkeys, warning of approaching danger. It’s followed by the honk of a sambar deer, prey to the biggest cat of all, and one that’s eluded us all day.

No tigers have been poached in Panna since 2008, when eight were reintroduced from other national parks. Today, India has an estimated 3,967 tigers and the reserve is home to 55 of them, in large part thanks to the Last Wilderness Foundation’s work to reintegrate the Pardhis into mainstream Indian society. “When tigers, tribes and tourists come together, the future for tigers – and people – is bright,” Hada had told me earlier.

As the monkeys’ calls grow more frenzied, I hear a distant, guttural roar. It’s indistinguishable from the sounds made by Batal and Badda, but there’s no mistaking the animal that made it. With the Pardhis on the tigers’ side, I feel confident that this sound will resonate through these jungles for a long time to come.

The Telegraph

Trundling through Europe on the overnight jazz train to Berlin

Deep in the Dutch countryside, the vintage train trundles past windmill-dotted hay fields and canals stacked with state-of-the-art houseboats. Cyclists stop to watch as the burgundy carriages roll between level crossings, slow enough for the lilting sound of a saxophone solo to lazily drift through the open windows and into the late-June breeze. On board, the Ntjam Rosie Quartet croons out soulful RnB, while a packed-together audience sips on two-euro beers and sways to the rhythm of steel tyres and bongos, languid in the golden-hour heat.

Having departed Rotterdam at sunset, the first Jazz Night Express is in full swing. Travelling overnight to Berlin via Amsterdam, it hosts an eclectic lineup of jazz acts to play back-to-back en route. Engineer and rail travel enthusiast Chris Engelsman is the idea, which took two years to plan and incorporates sleeper cars, two live music carriages, an area for book readings and talks, and a restaurant. Hiring out a rickety, 1980s train to reinvent the magic of old-school travel, Engelsman calls it a ‘jazz festival with a night train message’. In partnership with Rotterdam-based jazz festival North Sea Round Town, the Express links the Dutch music capital with one of the world’s hottest jazz cities.

“The rhythm of jazz and the train goes well together,” explains Engelsman. “I’ve always loved night trains. When I was growing up, every day the Nord Express would pass my house on its way to St Petersburg. But the last night train in Holland was cancelled by 2016 because the railways were focusing on high-speed trains. It was such a pity, because there’s still a demand for them.”

If anything, that demand is increasing. Summer 2019 has been characterised by both sweltering heatwaves (one of which we’re in the midst of on the Jazz Night Express, which arrives in Berlin to the tune of 38 degrees Celcius) and flygskam, a Swedish movement meaning ‘flight shame’ that has translations in German, Dutch and Finnish. Europeans are considering the impact of their holidays on the environment – a train from London to Edinburgh produces 87% fewer CO2 emissions than a flight – and rail travel is skyrocketing as a result.

While the majority are Dutch and German, there’s a great deal of Swedish passengers on the Jazz Night Express, as well as a handful from the UK, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. In a surprisingly age-diverse mix, gaggles of friends lounge on retro-blue banquettes beside older couples and young families. With the windows down and the farmland-scented air rushing through carriages swaying to brass and percussion, our 12-hour trundle to Berlin feels like the epitome of slow travel.

Night creeps in over a Great American Songbook set by the Thijs Nissen Trio and I make my way to the retro dining car, all bright-blue curtains and varnished tables. It’s three courses for 59 euros – including wine that’s topped up whenever your back is turned – and surprisingly gourmet. The first course, under the name ‘Miles Davis’ on the menu, is a sharing platter of steak tartare, chipotle chicken and smoked salmon; the ‘New Orleans’ main course is beef bavette or asparagus and polenta tart; and the ‘Saxophone’ dessert is a pineapple pannacotta impaled by a shard of tempered dark chocolate.

The one-hour dinner slots have drastically run over. By the end of the final serving, it’s gone midnight – and the music is due to come to a close at half past. But all scheduling is thrown out the window in the party carriage, where DJ Maestro (founder of online radio station Jazz De Ville) is spinning funk, house and soul. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the train’s stop-off cities, this crowd is here to party. Reserves of cheap beer are starting to run low as we move onto gin and tonics, dancing ever-more wildly as the train gathers speed into the early hours of the morning. Disco ball spinning, the dance floor lurches from side to side as we meander through northern Germany. We briefly pull in at Bad Bentheim and Hanover, and passengers spill onto the platform to smoke cigarettes and swing each other around in the balmy night air, before the doors slam shut and we hop aboard to visit the bar again.

When the train creaks to a halt at Berlin Zoo, at 7.30am on the dot, I’ve had three hours sleep. We drag our bags off the train and blink blearily at the bustling station. New-found friends exchange hugs and contact details as the train staff and musicians prepare for a sleepier train ride back to Rotterdam.

“We have several ideas for the future, in addition to another Jazz Night Express in July 2020,” grins Engelsman, elated from the night’s success. “We’re considering a Jazz Night Train to Copenhagen, an Oktoberfest edition to Munich, a party train to Eurovision in The Netherlands.” While the passengers are enthralled by the night train’s romanticism, the musicians loved it too – “it was up close and personal, like playing a living room set,” singer Ntjam Rosie tells me – and the first edition even caught the eye of the Dutch national rail network, who hosted an on-board talk on the future of the night train. Meanwhile, Austria’s ÖBB and the Swedish government have both announced plans to invest in night trains. Perhaps the golden years of Europe’s night trains aren’t behind us after all – and you can count on Engelsman to be at the forefront of the new movement.

The next edition of Jazz Night Express runs on 3 July from Rotterdam to Berlin. Tickets cost 159 euros one way and 189 euros return.


The butchers and cheesemongers behind the plant-based revolution

Under shiny glass bell jars on the counter, mould-ripened camembert sits beside slabs of orange-hued cheddar. The east London shop has all the hallmarks of a traditional cheesemonger, from its walls lined with refrigerators to its lightly pungent scent. But there’s one major difference. Look closer at the labels and the camembert is spelt ‘Shamembert’; the blue-veined gorgonzola is labelled ‘Veganzola’. La Fauxmagerie is Europe’s first vegan cheesemonger, and no dairy has gone into the making of any of its products.

Veganism has gone mainstream in Western countries over the last few years, as proven by the surging popularity of plant-based meat replacements like The Impossible Burger and alternative milks made from soya, oat and coconut. While these are becoming increasingly accessible in the mass market, a new wave of artisan makers are on the rise, appropriating traditionally meat- and dairy-based industries for a more environmentally conscious age.

At kebab shop Vöner in Berlin – the city with the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey – traditional-style doner ‘meat’ is made with wheat protein and served with classic pita bread and tahini. Plant-based ‘butcher’ shop No Bones sells protein-based ‘cuts’ in Sao Paolo, while Australia’s first vegan charcuterie shop, Suzy Spoon’s, opened in Sydney in November. The trend has inevitably swept the United States, with plant-based butchers thriving in MinnesotaCalifornia and North Carolina, to name a few.

What’s unusual is that many of the most successful of these innovators have roots in dairy or meat farming. One of La Fauxmagerie’s initial suppliers, Sumear Safdar-Robins, worked as a dairy cheesemaker near Bristol, UK, before deciding to apply the same traditional cheese-making skills to produce dairy-free cheese.

Amsterdam-based vegan cheesemaker Bran Vanstone – who blends nuts and tofu into versions of gorgonzola, ricotta and parmesan – spent every school holiday as a child working on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Devon, south-west England. It was that in-depth knowledge of the industry and its products – rather than a backlash against the dairy industry itself – that was the base his vegan cheese business, Willicroft, which he launched in 2018.

Cheesed off

But there’s been backlash from the other side. Though largely small-batch and independent, many plant-based producers come under fire from the farming industries to which they’re providing alternatives. La Fauxmagerie’s launch in 2018 courted controversy when dairy farmers sent the vegan cheesemonger a letter, claiming that using the word ‘cheese’ for dairy-free products went against EU legislation. But their attack didn’t dissuade co-owner Charlotte Stevens.

“We consider our products cheese,” she says. “Cheese is fermented fat, and our cheeses are made with the same probiotic and bacterial cultures used to make dairy cheese. It’s just that the fat we use comes from nuts and soybeans. But the white exterior of the Shamembert is exactly the same mould that grows on a camembert, aged in the same cave environment.”

Thanks to the shared process, the Shamembert’s flavour and texture is impressively close to that of its dairy inspiration, particularly when baked. Its almond and shea butter base, infused with truffle oil and begging to be dunked into with crusty bread, melts into the same shiny goo as a Normandy camembert.

Far from undermining the work of traditional farmers or converting everybody to veganism, Stevens is simply keen to provide a viable vegan alternative for cheese-loving flexitarians who are concerned about the environmental impact of agriculture.

“No one wants to attack farmers, but we can’t really escape the fact that animal agriculture is a big contributor to soil erosion and climate change,” she says. “When I became a vegan due to dairy intolerance, I didn’t feel like I could have a dinner party and put a supermarket vegan cheese on a cheeseboard. But with these artisan products, I can. If we can get 20% of every cheeseboard in the country to have a vegan option, we’ve done our job.”

Netherlands-based Jaap Korteweg has even bolder ambitions. A ninth-generation cattle farmer, he decided to become a vegetarian when he witnessed the mass culling of livestock during the swine fever and mad cow disease epidemics of the late 90s. He opened a butcher’s shop in The Hague as The Vegetarian Butcher, followed by a pop-up restaurant called De Vleesh Lobby (‘The Meat Lobby’), before creating a supermarket-ready range of vegetarian ‘meats’ made in a factory. The line was recently acquired by Unilever. His masterplan? To become the world’s biggest butcher – meat and plant-based combined.

“Factory farming is not sustainable,” he says. “We use the animals as machines. Welfare isn’t important and we eat too much meat for our health. The only reason we eat meat is because we like it.” With the help of chefs, scientists and other farming professionals, he set out to create realistic meat substitutes to rival the real thing. His What the Cluck ‘chicken’ pieces, Unbelievaballs ‘meatballs’ and vegetarian Holy Cow Burgers were all showcased at a vegetarian pop-up at nose-to-tail butcher’s shop Hill & Szrok, in east London last autumn. It wasn’t the only meat-centric business to try out plant proteins in the capital: Smithfield Market, the UK’s largest meat market, began selling vegan burgers shortly after, for the first time in its 800-year history.

Looking to the future

Despite some pushback from the old guard of meat production, all converts to plant-based alternatives agree that the current global culture of intensive farming can’t go on. Countless studies back up their argument: recent research by the journal Science shows that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, yet currently, 86% of all land mammals are either livestock or humans. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of mass extinction of wildlife globally.

“Plant-based meat is seven times more sustainable than beef in terms of land, energy use and water,” claims Korteweg. So what’s next? Stevens believes that EU subsidies for meat and dairy farming will eventually have to come to an end, making the cost of meat skyrocket. As a consequence, plant-based alternatives will come into focus and become more financially accessible.

“Technology wise, vegan artisan products are currently being made by a couple of people doing experiments on a small-batch basis,” she says. “With investment, this would easily scale up. People worry about vegan products because the Amazon is being deforested for soy farms as well as cattle farms. But 80% of that soy goes towards animal feed. Now, soy is grown in the Netherlands and the first UK farm has just started to grow it.” It’s a sign of things to come: experts predict that by 2040, most ‘meat’ will either be lab-grown or plant-based, rather than produced by animals.

Ever ahead of the curve, Korteweg’s got a madcap idea up his sleeve. “I have a plan to make a cow from stainless steel, with four stomachs,” he grins. “I’ll make milk and cheese from grass – without using cows, but using the same process. I hope that within five years it’ll be on the market.”

If anything can be learnt from the ninth-generation farmer, it’s that farming – and humanity – is ever-adaptable. Seeking out these veggie innovators on your travels, whether in Berlin, Sydney or Minneapolis, is a great way to see how food culture is evolving across the globe – and to have a taste of things to come.