Far from the madding crowd, up in the sky
Anybody who's heard of Kamshet has likely heard of this entrepreneur couple already. For this otherwise sleepy Maharashtra village owes much of its recent fame as a paragliding and adventure sports hub to Sanjay and Astrid Rao, and to their enterprise of love. No two ways about that.
Meet them in person and you know just why. It is impossible to come away without getting infected by their enthusiasm and passion.
And their story is worth going over, again and again. No two ways about that either.
Sanjay graduated in engineering from MIT, Manipal in 1989 and worked for a year with Zenith computers, Mumbai, concentrating on hardware repairs. In 1990, he took up a marketing assignment in Dubai with Jumbo Electronics. However, it was an expensive city and being a social animal he usually ran out of money by the 20th of each month. So he decided to quit and returned to India with the equivalent of $1,000 in savings. He invested the money in stocks and it surprisingly yielded a return 25-30 times the investment. With a vague idea in his mind, Sanjay used the money to buy land in Kamshet, off Lonavala, in 1991-92.
He met Astrid at a party in Mumbai and the two hit it off well from the start. Astrid, who had grown up in Bandra, in suburban Mumbai, worked in advertising/ film production.
Around this time, an aged trader from Bangalore had placed an ad in newspapers for someone from Mumbai to liaise with his customers (Tata Chemicals, ACC, etc). The man was in the import of commodities from China and Sanjay worked for him for about four years. Come 95, however, and he was fed up with the job and asking himself where his career was going.
In 1996, the couple decided to get married. Astrid was working all the while.
Later that year, they were blessed with a son and Sanjay suddenly found himself thinking about the future - what next.
Just then an engineer friend who was holidaying in Goa called him up and asked if he and his friends could come and stay in his small outhouse in Kamshet for a while. Sanjay agreed to play host. The group included a Canadian and a Korean who were into paragliding big time.
This was to be his first engagement with the sport. Over the next few days, he ended up doing several tandem flights with his friends, and wanted more. However, his friends said he couldn't fly on his own without proper training. Bowled over by the sport as he was by then, Sanjay would have none of it. He offered his friends a barter they couldn't refuse - they could stay with him in Kamshet for as long as they wanted and their boarding and lodging was on him, but in return they had to teach him paragliding.
His life had turned a new chapter.
But little did he realise then that his passion would blossom one day into India's leading paragliding school and his small abode in Kamshet become a world destination for adventure sport enthusiasts.
Some friends in the media came over and wrote an article about paragliding. And before long, people were queuing up in Kamshet, wanting to learn how to fly.
However, there was no money for equipment as all his money had been spent and the investments in the stock market had gone under because of the scams, etc.
His sister chipped in with some money, so he could buy the equipments. He started training people in right earnest in 1997. The first batch had two students; the second five; the third 20 and so on.
In 98, barely six months after starting, he launched a website, placing Kamshet on the world paragliding map.
Still, the first seven years were very hand-to-mouth. What he earned barely covered the costs. And there was a family to feed, too.
But he was determined to take forward a pursuit he loved and saw possibilities in. There was no turning back now. Besides, with his last engineering job years behind, he sure couldn't hope to be taken seriously in the job market, quips Sanjay.
His perseverance gradually started paying off.
Business grew as he started expanding the scope of his activities beyond teaching paragliding, to trekking, mountaineering, nature walks etc. Among other things, he offers Corporate Outbound Programmes and has also started holding Summer Camps for children and intends to turn this into a full-fledged activity.
More recently, he has started a Facebook Group Nirvana Adventures - Paragliding INDIA and also spread the idea by word of mouth. His group has started attracting 150 + people a month, many of them pilots from around the world.
A rough break-up of the customers would be as follows:
60% - Paragliding
20% - Pilots
10% - Non-paragliding activity
10% - Corporates (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Leading Indian Banks, no less!)
Today, the majority of students are Indian, but that was hardly the case a few years ago. The benefits are for all to see - where an Elementary Paragliding Pilot course could take 5 months to complete in Europe due to weather constraints it takes an average of 5 days here. Clearly, for those who have finished their Paragliding Courses and want to gain airtime, there is no place better.
Astrid has been more than a supportive partner, a virtual pillar of support all this while. When the going was tough and Sanjay was slowly carving out his niche in Kamshet, she stayed put in Mumbai, working and bringing up their baby, almost single-handedly. And since things have started improving, she has devoted herself full time into the enterprise and encourages Sanjay to take on bigger challenges.
Some years ago, Astrid had written an article about this business. The write-up, titled "Circus in the Sky", won her a consolation prize. Since then, she manages all content, making sure the good word spreads. She also writes the weekly flying blog on Nirvana Adventures paragliding activities Nirvana Blog
And with so much happening, the local population couldn't be oblivious to the welcome changes this couple was ushering into their lives, could they? After all who would have given this remote hilly tract a chance such as this?
Today, Sanjay counts among his assets a 15-man army led by two generals who love to get their hands dirty, a small guesthouse called 'Native Place' that Astrid runs and a whole lot of supportive locals who partake of the spoils in the form of employees, shops, transportation, plumbing, etc.
Infrastructure such as roads, medical amenities and communication are still a concern, but things are looking up all right.
Nirvana Adventures is sure living up to its name. After all, flying down the cliff tops like a bird in flight, scanning the landscape below in a detached, holistic way does amount to deliverance from worldly urgencies and mortal worries in some ways, doesn't it?
But, why call the guesthouse Native Place ? Well, Astrid had grown up in Mumbai, but unlike her friends had no "native place" to go to during vacations. This is like making up for lost time, and making sure those without a native place like her don't lose out on one.
Did someone say "divine?"