'I feel my mind opening up': Jewellery designer Cathy Pope on travel to India
Cathy Pope was so eager to leave New Zealand when borders reopened that she booked the first flights she could out of the country.
“I was literally at the gate when borders opened,” says the jewellery designer, who made headlines when Jacinda Ardern wore her pieces to public engagements.
With New Zealand riding its Omicron wave, Pope wanted to “escape the hysteria” for the place that has long reawakened her senses and rekindled her creativity.
“India is the sort of place that knocks your senses around and I felt I was really missing that after being in New Zealand,” she says. “Everything is very safe here and it’s a bit of a haven, which I’m grateful for. But I find life there both humbling and inspiring. It can be heartbreaking as well, but it definitely stirs up my senses, and I think that’s where a lot of my creativity comes from. It activates parts of your brain that aren’t activated at home.”
Before the pandemic, Pope made an annual pilgrimage to Rajasthan capital Jaipur, where she works with local jewellers to produce her trademark gemstone pieces. A pink-tinted blend of old and new where ornate regal buildings look down on streets crowded with buses, motorbikes, rickshaws and the odd camel, the “Pink City” was named a World Heritage Site in 2019, partly for its jewellery and artisanal traditions.
Basing herself in the city, she combines business with pleasure, sandwiching long stints at the factory where her jewellery is made with trips to other parts of the country.
Pope at the golden cenotaphs of Bada Bagh, Jaisalmer.
Less than a year before she left on her most recent trip, New Zealand had placed a temporary ban on flights from India in a bid to curb the rising number of travellers testing positive for Covid-19 at the border. India was battling a massive resurgence of the virus at the time but, by March 2022, things had calmed down and Pope didn’t have any qualms about travelling there.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” she says. “I was really excited. Omicron was just starting in New Zealand, but it had passed over there, so I knew it was going to be a bit more relaxed.”
Still, Covid-related travel restrictions made the journey stressful. With no direct flights to India, Pope flew via Sydney, where she discovered at the airport check-in counter that her five-year e-visa had expired. She missed her flight and had to apply for a new one, which fortunately came though quickly, but a new 30-day limit on stays meant she had to shorten her trip by 12 days.
Once in India though, Pope didn’t have any problems.
“I didn’t experience any anxiety about catching Covid, and luckily didn’t. I was surprised by how vigilant people were at wearing masks. But life was just carrying on as normal, which was refreshing.”
Pope typically travels to India solo, appreciating the time and space it gives her to think, but on this trip she explored northern and southern sections of the country with a Jaipur-based friend and tour guide named Raju Meena.
Pope says her most recent trip to India was less stress than those in pre-Covid days.
Arriving in Delhi, she caught a sleeper bus - “much more comfortable than I ever imagined” - to Jaipur, where she caught up with her jewellery makers and met her textile manufacturer for the first time (she is branching out into homeware).
From there, she and Meena headed south to Kerala, where coconut palm-fringed beaches give way to backwaters plied by elegant houseboats, tea and spice plantations, and wildlife reserves home to elephants and the odd tiger.
A night on a houseboat spent exploring the waterways of Alleppey was followed by a drive up a section of the state’s nearly 600km coastline to Varkala, where palm-covered red cliffs tumble down to the Arabian Sea.
“Less refined and polished than Goa, Varkalas’ roaring ocean was the hottest I’d experienced and felt like 30 degrees,” she says.
After returning to Jaipur for the ancient Hindu Festival of Holi - which “came alive with colour and joy as everyone put the worries of the world aside and coloured powder filled the city” - they headed for the Thar desert on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, where the sun-baked sandstone of the ancient fort has earned it the nickname “Golden City”.
“We joined a small group of people from France and Australia and had a magical evening riding camels and roaring through the slippery sand of the desert in jeeps,” she says. “The evening was spent watching and then joining in with traditional dancers before falling asleep in luxurious tents. Jaiselmer is one of India's few forts where people live and work and business thrives. It was fascinating to explore on foot and we topped it off with a sunset boat cruise on the lake.”
Pope on a wildlife safari in Jaisalmer.
Exploring the crumbling domed tombs of Bada Bagh, built in memory of Rajasthan royalty, and the thirteenth-century village of Kuldhara was followed by a wildlife safari on which they spotted two leopards.
“One was a scary two metres from us, and no, the jeeps didn’t have covers. The next morning was spent on another sunrise safari watching crocodiles and camels, and we saw a baby leopard cub perched on a rock.”
The highlight of the trip was the time they spent in the pine-scented foothills of the Himalayas, not far from the Dalai Lama’s residence in McLeod Ganj.
“Dharamakot is a quaint small village positioned on the upper side of the area and the fresh air, quiet and groovy cafes and walking spots were just what I needed.”
While already well-acquainted with Jaipur, she discovered a new side to the city with Meena, who took her and Kiwi fashion designer friend Jason Lingard to produce and flower markets, the village of Amer and on “an incredible street food tour through Raja Park.
“Evenings under canopies and moonlight at Bar Palladio are essential in Jaipur, as is tasting home cooked curry by a local Jaipurite.,” she says. “The heat was intense at 42 degrees and our delicate New Zealand sinuses were struggling with the pollution at this stage, but luckily for me the heat was dry and I prefer the heat to cold.”
In many ways, the trip was easier than the ones she did in pre-Covid days thanks, in large part, to travelling with a tour guide. As much as she loves travelling solo, having Meena by her side took the hassle out of organising transport and activities and left her feeling far less susceptible to scams.
Pope has expanded her business interests in India, branching out into textiles.
On previous trips, Pope says she was “tricked a lot”, often feeling as though she must look “like a walking ATM machine.”
“It makes a big difference if you can have someone do the organising for you because in India everything is complicated. It's the sort of country where things often don't go according to plan, and if you're a really rigid, organised person it will drive you bonkers. You have to surrender to the chaos, but that’s kind of where the magic lies. Sometimes that’s where you have the most amazing experiences. But you do have to have your wits about you.”
Technology has also made travelling in India a very different experience to what it was when she first visited after her business’ launch about a decade ago. Rideshare app Uber has done away with the need for “stressful” rickshaws, and the widespread use of Google Pay makes handing over your credit card unnecessary.
She still finds bargaining a challenge, but finds it satisfying to push herself outside her comfort zone.
“In New Zealand, it's a bit insulting if you bargain and there it's insulting if you don't. So you need to make that shift in your personality to adapt to the culture.”
Pope feels grateful to have been able to explore the country while there are relatively few tourists, and has already planned another visit for August. While she says it takes her time to come down from the sensory overload of each visit, she’s too hooked to give it up.
“Travel has always been my way of shaking up my senses. It transports me to places that ignite sleepy spaces in my mind, and I can literally feel it as it happens. Physically being in India influences my approach to design, and as soon as I arrive I feel my mind opening up. It’s where many of my ideas take shape. For me, it’s an invigorating and essential way to function.”