Of travel tales and inspiration

A heart-to-heart with Ajay Jain, author and founder of Kunzum Travel Café, where he speaks about his endless love for writing, travel, and everything in between!
Ajay jain, founder of kunzum travel café. Image: courtesy ajay jain.
Ajay Jain, founder of Kunzum Travel Café. Image: Courtesy Ajay Jain.

Before anything else, Ajay Jain considers himself a storyteller. But the founder of the popular Kunzum Travel Café is many things, be it an entrepreneur, a full-time traveller, a passionate photographer or a dedicated blogger. Located in Hauz Khas, the café is a hub for intrepid travellers, where you get to indulge in conversations over hot coffee and pay what you like. Currently, under revamp, the cafe will soon reopen in January 2022, along with two more brand new outlets — one in Delhi and another in Gurugram. Having travelled to the farthest corners of the world for close to two decades now, the road-trip lover shares his inspiring journey with us.

Traveller, writer, photographer, experience curator, and the owner of Kunzum — you have donned many hats over the years. Tell us about your journey.

I was going nowhere in life, so I decided to go everywhere. Yes, that’s right. My personal and professional lives were both in the doldrums, and I needed to get away. So I took to travel — and largely focussed on road trips across the Indian subcontinent.

But I could not do it mindlessly. I needed a purpose and some kind of motivation. Since I had been trained as a journalist, I hit the road to capture the experiences photographically and through the written word. I was driven (pun intended) to write books — but I also published on blogs, social media, and traditional media.

My first trip as a professional travel writer took me to Kunzum La (pass) in the high-altitude desert valley of Spiti in the Himalayas. Standing on that desolate spot, I knew I had found the path I was looking for. Since then, the only time I have looked back has been to reverse my car!

The café is a hub for keen travellers and has a library where you can skim through travel books and documentation. As an author, jain has written 11 books so far. Image: courtesy ajay jain.
The café is a hub for keen travellers and has a library where you can skim through travel books and documentation. As an author, Jain has written 11 books so far. Image: Courtesy Ajay Jain.

What prompted you to start the famous Kunzum Travel Café?

Initially, the space came up as a gallery for my photographic art. Sales were modest, and I needed to drive footfalls — and thus, the idea of the Kunzum Travel Café (happened). A space with no entry or exit barriers, a community or a face-to-Facebook for travellers. We introduced the concept of pay-what-you-like for the coffee, offered free Wi-Fi, a library to read at, an art corner, and opened the place for events. We figured that if we got visitors, we would sell more of my prints and books. It is another matter that the idea and the brand took a life of its own, surprising and delighting us to no end.

Having written 11 books and over 50 e-books so far, what drives your inspiration to write and be a public speaker at book clubs?

I am a writer first — and shall always strive to improve this craft and increase my readership. Everything else I do is secondary to this. I get visions for the books I write, and once I see them, an invisible force drives me till I finish writing. The creative process is a high that cannot be matched by anything else for me.

I, thus, define myself as a storyteller. I have delivered talks not just in India but across the globe. The in-person engagement is a different feeling altogether — and no technology can come even close to it. While I am sharing my experiences and learnings through books and talks, I am also absorbing those of my audiences. And that is highly enriching and elevating.

Jain believes in exchanging views and stories with his audiences. Image: courtesy ajay jain.
Jain believes in exchanging views and stories with his audiences. Image: Courtesy Ajay Jain.

Let’s talk about #GreenDioxide. How is this initiative of yours helping the world?

#GreenDioxide is a metaphor for adopting a sustainable lifestyle, urging people to emit GO2 effectively by leading environmentally-friendly lives to counter CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we emit. For instance, if you cut down on consumer purchases, you have effectively emitted GO2.

This is actually a concept I developed about 15 years back but have been inconsistent about promoting it. I should not have been. Because the situation of our planet has deteriorated exponentially in this time. My intent is to spread the “green” word, so more and more people bring necessary changes in their lifestyles in a way that makes a real difference. Not easy, but if each one of us does not do their bit, we are not too far from destroying the only home that we have got. It may sound clichéd, but we need to keep talking about this issue and doing the right thing.

Responsible travel is what people are seeking today. In your opinion, how can one travel responsibly without actually spoiling the luxury aspect of a vacation?

My friends in the travel industry do not like me for saying this, but responsible travel is an oxymoron — including the luxury end of the market. There is no one in the industry who is even close to offering truly sustainable options. The industry thus needs to stop using such terms because it’s misleading. They should get on with their business but not delude themselves and their clients into believing they are contributing to a larger cause. As long as there is mass eco travel in this world, we will continue to strip our cultural and natural heritage away.

A fun musical soiree at the café. Image: courtesy ajay jain.
A fun musical soiree at the café. Image: Courtesy Ajay Jain.

How important is a strong social media presence today in your line of work? Any tips for aspiring travel bloggers/influencers?

It is a necessary evil. If I had a choice, I would go off the distractions of social media, but it is too important to reach out to my target audiences. Nothing comes close to it today, not even the biggest of newspapers and television networks. But there is a key to making it work for you: relevance. Stay focussed on what you want to communicate, and stick to your line. Don’t mix it with personal stuff or the inane.

While I can talk the whole day on tips for aspiring travel bloggers and influencers, here’s the most important part: there are too many bloggers out there, and too much is being covered. You need to stand out. And you can only do that if you capture stories that delight. Think from the point of view of your audience. What is it that they would like to read about? Even if you are covering the over-reported Taj Mahal, dig out information and anecdotes that would surprise. And share a way to experience the monument in ways others usually don’t Remember: your key constituency is your audience. You have to stay true to them. Never compromise on quality or your credibility.

Suggested read: Responsible tourism: Are you travelling the right way?

How about a quick rapid fire to know Ajay Jain better! Tell us about…

  • Your most memorable trip in India

The most incredible road trip on the planet: from Kashmir to Kibithu (the easternmost motorable point in Arunachal Pradesh), covering the entire span of the Himalayas, including Nepal and Bhutan.

  • 5 things you can’t imagine travelling without

Coffee, cameras with all lenses, fresh bed linen and towels for times I have to check into terrible hotels, drinking water, and extra cash — I picked these things because most of my journeys are road trips in my own car.

Jain says he would love to go back to arunachal pradesh. Image: courtesy ajay jain.
Jain says he would love to go back to Arunachal Pradesh. Image: Courtesy Ajay Jain.
  • Your dream vacation destination

I can go back to Ladakh and Northeast India any number of times. And to the wilds of Africa when talking of overseas destinations. Specifically, I want to go on a tour covering Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, Rwanda, Zambia, and South Africa.

  • 3 offbeat locations in India you’d love to visit again

Ladakh (it was quite offbeat when I last travelled to it even if it sounds mainstream now), the Northeast India especially Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, and deeper into Karnataka away from the popular places.

  • 3 offbeat international trips that you absolutely loved

Jordan and Israel (counting these as one trip), Kenya, and Argentina.

  • 1 dish from your favourite cuisine and where to have it

Warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam with a pot of tea to go with it. You can only get it in the UK, especially in smaller towns of the Cotswolds, the Lake District, and places away from the big cities.

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