Location independent

Updated on: Oct 17, 2014
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A traveller and writer trades her home and belongings for a life on the road and nowhere to return to

A nomadic life on the road, without a home to go back to, was never my plan. But like all good things, the universe led me to it. Over three years ago, I took the plunge to quit my cubicle-bound life in Singapore, saying goodbye to a comfortable corporate job that indulged me but didn’t quite fulfil me. I longed for unplanned adventures in places I had only read about in geography textbooks. Using Delhi as a base for two years, I fed my wanderlust, entered the realm of professional travel blogging, broke into national and international travel publications and co-founded my own responsible travel start-up, India Untravelled (we connect travellers with offbeat and sustainable travel initiatives). By August 2013, a semi-nomadic life had become part of my comfort zone; I had outgrown my need for city living and my work as a freelancer had gained credibility. So in another leap of faith, I gave up my shabby Delhi apartment, sold most of my belongings, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car (and later at a relative’s place), and hit the road with my backpack, indefinitely.

For one year, I have moved, uninhibitedly, like a bird with wings but no nest, soaring into the skies, swooping down on parts of the world that beckoned me. I can’t help but laugh when I think about how much I fretted over packing my backpack when I was ready to leave — I needed it to last me months (maybe years), through summer and winter, in the mountains and by the beach, in remote villages in India and fast-paced cities halfway across the globe. Truth be told, one week into my new life, I couldn’t even fathom what I had owned to fill those cupboards. I shed many of my belongings along the way; when you’re running to catch the only train into a town you’ve never heard of before, nothing on your shoulders can be important enough to weigh you down.

If my first few weeks on the road made me realise the futility of trading experiences for new possessions (because most of us make that trade-off regularly), the next few taught me to get rid of the baggage that slows us down the most: the one we carry internally. I learnt that people everywhere, from simple village folk in Turkey to city-dwellers in Canada, are grappling with the same insecurities — finding love, feeling accepted by society, making a family work and so forth. We allow jealousy, judgement and hatred, often fuelled by society or the media, to lead us before accepting that the grass is greener for someone else. But really, we alone are responsible for what we do with our lives. So what if I’ve been raised in a conventional, protective, small-town family in Dehradun? By not giving up on my dreams, experimenting with my skills and fighting the battles that come my way, I’m making a choice every day.

When I look back on my nomadic journey, I find that the first one-and-a-half months were nothing short of exhilarating; I woke up to the possibility of new adventures every day, found enough time and concentration to work and write, and drew inspiration from the smallest acts of kindness (of which there were, and continue to be, many). But towards the end of the second month, I started to grow weary, like a soul without a compass, wandering aimlessly with no end in sight and nowhere to go back to. I couldn’t see myself going back to the life I had left behind, nor could I keep up with the constant moving and fleeting interactions on the road. My funds had started to dip, my work-life balance was going for a toss, and I was forever drifting in and out of internet connectivity — a nightmare for any digital nomad.

That’s when it happened. Goa Tourism invited me for a trip to write about ‘offbeat’ Goa, and during my research, I stumbled upon a Goan-Portuguese homestay in the interiors of a sleepy village that offered my tired soul everything it needed to recover — meaningful interactions, stable WiFi (the things we take for granted in our citified lives!), delicious food and a chance to slow down, appreciate the local way of life, and slowly but deeply fall in love. I had discovered the secret to sustaining my journey, both financially and emotionally — Slow Travel.

I no longer move at breakneck speed to discover a place for a day or two, having made peace with the fact that I won’t be able to see everything in this lifetime. I travel slow, linger longer, stay in homestays, write, cycle, volunteer, adapt to the local way of life, indulge in the quirks of local cuisine, and move beyond acquaintances to make friends. Staying awhile in the utopia that is Auroville, the mountain villages of Kumaon, the northern countryside of Thailand, at a nunnery in Ladakh and in the wine country of South Australia has led me to experiences I couldn’t have had in passing. In Australia, for instance, I ended up meeting and staying with a World War II Polish refugee, who had been given protection by a maharaja in Gujarat during his formative years after he escaped from a concentration camp in Siberia, and when the rest of the world had closed its doors. I continue to carry a part of these places and unanticipated encounters in me, and often traverse them in the crevices of my mind when the going gets tough.

Sometime between the fourth and fifth months, a nomadic lifestyle became a way of life for me. I no longer thought about what I had left behind or what it would be like to have a home to unpack in. I no longer craved a familiar café to while away my days in (compare that to the charm of people-watching at a café where no one knows you) or the comfort zone of familiar food (Maggi Masala cravings notwithstanding). I no longer felt excited delving into my philosophies when people asked me where I live or what I do. In fact, the standard responses — “you are really lucky”, “wish we could do that” — started to tire me out. I had begun to realise that there’s nothing brave or courageous about the plunge I’ve taken; it’s merely about priorities. It is not a steady income, a posh apartment or an extravagant lifestyle in a foreign city (I’ve experimented with all that in Singapore) that excites me, but the thought of not knowing which part of the world I might end up in a week or month from now. Anyone who desires to experience the world the way I do can make it happen — with a lot of determination (because a lot of people will tell you it’s foolish), some financial planning (because you need to make money on the go), and a bit of luck.

The question that comes my way most often though, is that of safety as a single female traveller. Over years of solo travelling within and outside India, I have found a few things that work for me: firstly, I avoid crowded, touristy places and travel off the beaten path in small countryside villages, where everyone knows everyone else, and when you’re a visitor, you can be sure that a hundred eyes will look out for you. Secondly, I choose homestays or family-run establishments over drab hotels. It helps me get to know a region better, make lasting connections with locals, and have a host I can trust (I read plenty of reviews and research thoroughly beforehand). Thirdly, as much as I trust that the world is a good place, I carry an electric taser; I’ve never had to use it in over three years of travelling.

When I travel with a male friend, the only difference I find is that people tend to go further out of their way to look out for me when I’m alone. I have hitch-hiked in the high Himalayas of Ladakh, in the Maramures region of Romania, along the Black Sea coast in Turkey, and in Bahrain, and barring a few questionable characters, I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers in countless places. So much so, I seldom miss the friends I’m always leaving behind.

When I first set out, I told myself that if I could live out of a backpack for six months, I would consider this a ‘successful’ experiment. But after the first few weeks, I lost track of time and stopped counting how long I had been on the road. My days have their ups and downs, and if ever the latter significantly outnumber the former, or if I simply grow out of the sense of liberation this journey fills me with, I will have no qualms in finding a home to go back to (deciding ‘where’ might be the bigger challenge, really).

The way I’m choosing to live might seem impractical and reckless at first. If you can set aside that notion, think about this: as children, we are taught to dream about the possibilities of where life might take us. But the moment we become adults, we are expected to work hard at a job we don’t necessarily like, get an MBA, get married and ‘settle down’. When I challenged that way of thinking, and gave up the security of a monthly paycheque and a familiar bed for a nomadic life that constantly pushes my boundaries, I felt like an outcast in my newfound freedom. Then I met a fisherman in Mauritius who chose not to work in a high-paying monotonous factory job like his friends. Fishing liberated him from the dependence on money for food, and he loved the sea.

: Many people imagine that long-term travel is like one big holiday. While that is sometimes true, the road always has its ups and downs and chances are, you won’t be able to afford any kind of luxury. So first, try taking a sabbatical from work and travelling for a month or two with a realistic long-term budget, and see if it works for you. If you can’t get enough of the adventures (the good and the not-so-good), you know you want this.

: While many prefer to save for a few years and travel for a while, sustaining yourself on the go gives you more freedom to choose how and where you’d like to travel. Find the meeting point of your skills and interests, and a way to sell it. If it can be done virtually, you’ve hit your goldmine.

: Speaking of marketable skills, use your current job as a testing bed. Move to a role that can hone your skills, add to your credibility and build your network. You have the space to fail and start over, because you’ll still get your paycheque every month.

: It’s never too early or too late, and you can never save enough money. Set a deadline, cut down major expenses, save everything you can, and mentally prepare yourself for the challenges ahead.

: Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? If you spend a few months on the road and it doesn’t work out — financially, emotionally or circumstantially — your old life will be waiting and you’ll have had enough stories to fill a lifetime. I’m not saying throw caution to the wind, but if travel is what you really want to do, give the road a shot.

( Shivya Nath is location independent and currently travelling in Guatemala. She blogs at > )

Follow Shivya on Twitter >@shivya

Published on October 17, 2014

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