Skillstourism — how this Australian couple is striving to put Mysore on the craft map of the worldJubin Mehta
“We’re not here to take over the world or create some dent in the universe,” Varis Lux tells me over a phone call we got on to discuss Slow Tech and his explorations with Skillstourism. An ex-navy personnel, Varis has travelled the world and had come to India as a traveller many years ago, marking the beginning of his fascination with the crafts that exist in the country.
Time flowed and a lot of water passed under the bridge. The navy takes a toll on the human body and mind, whichever country you represent. Varis moved on from the navy and there was a period of unemployment when he and his wife Catherine started thinking about life and the things they could do in the future. The idea of working with the body and nurturing the innate human desire of creating something with the hands resonated with them, planting the seed for Skillstourism.
Catherine’s longtime experience as a travel agent and her understanding of hospitality management helped the couple merge their skill sets to build the initiative. “Our combined dream is to provide an escape plan that is reproducible by happy dreamers everywhere, people wanting to leave their gridlocked lives behind and proceed towards their full potential as human beings, citizens of the planet, and in sync with their inner creator,” believe the duo. They say that one of the ways to make this happen is to start by making something with your hands and then make it a livelihood.
Tryst with India
"I started dreaming about a sort of skills training boot camp, where anybody could get away from it all and just for a short time have a break and concentrate on learning a skill — a holiday, actually," says Varis. Accordingly, he came up with the motto Travel * Learn * Create. Meanwhile, Catherine was diligently working away as a travel agent, witnessing the rise of adventure tourism and the explosion of all kinds of niche holidays.
"People were asking for things like helping out in an elephant orphanage in Thailand, or travelling overland in home-stays in Mongolia. People wanted to have more connected, immersive, and conscious holidays. They were not satisfied just with sightseeing and taking photos; they wanted to become involved with their head and their heart," says Catherine. This hunt led them to India in 2013 and here, they saw people making stuff on a daily basis. So much handwork was going on! “We were overwhelmed by the multitude of sincere and humble people taking pride in making things from the simplest bucket to the most ornate puja-mantap,” says Varis. This was when the realisation that this was the India they want to show their Western friends dawned upon them…
Another thrilling discovery was that upcycling is a part of life in India. “We saw that old oil cans were flattened and made into steel trunks, rebar was being made into horseshoes, waste wood was being cut into slivers and shapes and formed into beautiful paintings. So many people back home are interested in how to practically reduce consumption,” says Varis. The duo saw great opportunities in India and zeroed in on Mysore as their base owing to its rich heritage and good weather.
Skills + tourism = a more fulfilling holiday
“All we have to do is connect the traveller with the artisan, and learning with leisure. The big thing was that this was something more than any instructable video on the net could deliver — this was real training in a real workshop, holding real tools, with a real instructor,” says Varis about their initiative.Be it yoga, cooking, metalworking, textiles or anything else, the duo started designing eight, 12, and 24-day packages of daily crafts in the morning and activities in the afternoons or evenings. Weekends would be free to do some sightseeing further afield or just relax.
Registered in Australia and in the process of formally setting up shop in India as well, Skillstourism has been operating since early 2016. Their philosophy is that creativity is the essence of being human. Everything falls into place when we are making beautiful things for the pleasure of others or our own selves, or practical things that help others, or even playful things to amuse others. This helps us to become balanced, personally as well as on a community level. In terms of the traction, the initiative is only picking up and travellers are coming onboard to see what Skillstourism has to offer.
An outside perspective
Skillstourism is an interesting play on how the world of automation is shaping up. The world of manufacturing and other sectors as well are quickly moving towards centralisation. In a future where most things will be automated, what will humans do? For the core of humankind, work on the self is very important and initiatives like Skillstourism are thinking on these lines.
When we speak of India as a whole, an automated world seems like a distant possibility as even basic needs are not being taken care of. Cities are crumbling under the weight of urbanisation but capitalistic pressures still force India to move to make smarter cities instead of smarter villages. Amidst all the euphoria of ‘development’ in the traditional sense, it is good to have alternative voices.
As of now, there are a lot of foreigners from western countries coming to India to set up conscious initiatives, which is understandable considering they have seen the effects of rapid capitalism. A lot of Indians are also realising the flipside and are moving in a more conscious direction where we keep a check on growth at all times. Skillstourism is one of the representatives of this conscious voice which points towards taking things slow and being conscious of our actions.