The Shooting Star is a blog by Shivya Nath. At age 23 (in 2011), she quit her corporate job to travel the world. She lives a nomadic life, seeks adventures off the beaten path, and works on the go to fund her travels. The Shooting Star is the home of all her travels.
In the second post of my Solo Traveller Series – which showcases the journey of solo travellers, especially solo female travellers, from India and other parts of Asia – I’m excited to introduce Parvinder Chawla, a Mumbai local and wheelchair traveller who isn’t afraid to travel the world solo. This post shares the challenges and joys of wheelchair travel, highlights destinations friendly towards wheelchair travellers and offers travel advice for disabled travellers and travel inspiration for all solo travellers. Read the first post of this Solo Traveller Series here.
It was pure serendipity that I landed up in Parvinder Chawla’s house on a rainy Mumbai night. When last minute plans took me to the city, I searched desperately for any available Airbnb in Bandra and booked the spare room in Parvinder’s house – not knowing that I was going to stumble upon her incredibly courageous story.
Her baby face, her infectious laugh and her warm welcome put me at ease immediately. She too, loves travelling, seeking out new cultures, putting herself out of her comfort zone, trusting in the kindness of strangers halfway across the world. There’s one difference though – she’s on a wheelchair and her body movement is restricted.
Parvinder on the countryside of England.
Even around her own house, I noticed that she could only walk a few steps before having to sit or lie down – this acute sense of tiredness in her limbs makes her use a wheelchair most of the time. She had to muster up the energy to chat with me late into the night, and the bed and toilet seat were positioned unusually high to make it easier for her to get on and off easily. It’s hard enough for us, average travellers, to find the courage to travel alone. So as I sat there, hearing about her adventures – paragliding in Taiwan, travelling alone in China, zip-lining in Ecuador – I could only imagine the courage it must take her to board a flight, wheelchair in tow, to an unknown part of the world, confident of having a good time all by herself.
In her thirties and beyond, she’s explored 18 countries across 6 continents – many of them solo. And when I reached out to her for this story, she was setting off on her most challenging journey yet – a month-long solo backpacking trip across Europe, with no fixed plans and no pre-booked accommodations!
Parvinder (Pammu) recalls her childhood and early teen years as happy, bubbly, and exciting. She was an active kid and loved the outdoors – skating and swimming; playing hockey, cricket and badminton; going for picnics and hikes. At age fifteen though, she started to develop rheumatoid arthritis and experience pain in her arms and knees. By age twenty-one, the pain had worsened and she had to use a wheelchair to move around.
She recalls being very ill by the time she finished college; she couldn’t move her limbs at all. Perhaps it was sheer willpower that got her through this difficult time, perhaps the unfulfilled passion of travelling and living life on her own terms.
“At some point, I felt I could do it and then there was no stopping me. That’s when all my adventures began.” ~ Parvinder
In her late twenties, in a situation where most people would give up and surrender to living miserably, Parvinder began to dream of travelling the world – despite being confined to her (then manual) wheelchair.
Her friends invited her to join them on a trip to Jammu and Kashmir, and along with a helper, off she went – her second time away from Punjab and Mumbai, her two homes (the first time was to London, when she went to meet someone she had gotten to know on jeevansathi.com; he turned to be a fraud, but that’s a story you have to wait for her to blog about!). She was immediately bitten by the travel bug and impulsively decided to book a trip to Mauritius with a tour company – alone, yet part of a group with other travellers. She then travelled to Malaysia with a single friend, gradually building the confidence to travel by herself.
Her first solo trip happened on impulse – when she decided to fly to Bali from Malaysia, all alone! She recalls staying in a basic hotel, taking a one-day tour of Bali, then exploring alone on her wheelchair – asking kind strangers to help her off the chair or up steps.
“I figured out I was happier when I was travelling alone. Because when I’m on my wheelchair, I have no limitations.” ~ Parvinder
Like many of us, Parvinder initially thought she’d love to travel with her family and friends. But with time, she got tired of waiting for someone else’s company – and figured out she was happier travelling on her own. Her (now automatic) wheelchair gives her the flexibility of “walking” long distances without feeling tired; it’s easier to make plans on her own time; she always finds kind people when she needs help; and ends up meeting and talking to more people when she’s alone.
In China for instance, Parvinder says she was rather surprised to discover that much like India, trains, buses and metros were not geared towards wheelchair passengers. Often when she asked passers-by to help give her a push up a steep ramp, they declined – possibly because they didn’t understand what she was saying. That changed on a disappointing afternoon outside the metro station, when she was having no luck figuring out how to get to her train. A lady – headed hurriedly in the opposite direction – luckily understood some English and helped Parvinder, not only to the entrance on the other side of the street, but until they met the metro staff so she could explain where Parvinder needed to go!
Besides support from her family, Parvinder’s dabbled in several projects to fund her travels: from working in a call centre to fund her trip to Mauritius, to babysitting, to running a catering service. Her Airbnb in Mumbai is also a steady source of income – and travel inspiration!
Her family initially worried about her safety and expenses while undertaking trips by herself. But as time went by and they began to see how happy she was following her dreams, they set aside their worries and started to cheer her on. They also chipped in by contacting friends and distant relatives in places she travelled to, so she could feel at home right away. Her cousin aptly nicknamed her “globetrotter”.
The challenges of being a solo wheelchair traveller
Parvinder exploring Seoul, Korea.
“There’s nothing you can prepare for, especially when you’re on the move. You have to have that confidence, that attitude of fearlessness.” ~ Parvinder
For an average traveller, it’s easy to stay in a hostel, hotel or Airbnb, run after a bus, squeeze into an elevator, make lunch plans with a fellow traveller or take a local tour. But she has so many other things to consider – the height of the bed, whether the washroom door is wide enough for a wheelchair, if an attraction can be accessed with a ramp, if a bus driver will help her on board, for instance. That doesn’t deter her though; she finds ways and tools for whatever she needs to make her day-to-day goals easier, and with time, she’s become better at travel planning. She says she also draws strength from chanting and spirituality.
Many countries around the world – like Australia, Dubai and the US – are wheelchair-friendly and that makes life easier. But in India – where travel infrastructure, public toilets, wheelchair access and safety are all major concerns for travellers with special needs – she prefers to travel with a friend, and usually contacts her accommodation in advance to find a local to help her along the way.
I receive messages every day from fellow dreamers who want to travel solo but are too afraid to take the plunge. Too scared, too unsure, too bogged down by what-ifs. When I shared that with Parvinder, she quickly dismissed these thoughts, as though fear didn’t exist in her dictionary.
Australia – one of the world’s most wheelchair-friendly countries. Photo: Chris Phutully (CC)
“Just keep the fear away. You need to have an open mind to feel free and have new experiences. Go out. Feel alive. You will die one day, so why take so much stress? There’s so much to see, so much to experience. Just go out there and do it.” ~ Parvinder
On the metro in Australia – which Parvinder has found to be one of the world’s most wheelchair-friendly countries – she met another woman on a wheelchair, a local who confessed she only ever did the route to her aunt’s house and back, and who was really surprised (and inspired) by Parvinder’s journey. The two have kept in touch, and who knows, might even meet again somewhere in the world one day.
“I no longer care what happens, I just take things as they come.” ~ Parvinder
Parvinder believes that travelling has made her a more confident person – transforming her from being so ill that she couldn’t move her limbs to mustering up the courage to go wheelchair-backpacking across Europe alone. She is content being single and appreciates the freedom to spend money on things that make her happy. Her mantra is to enjoy life, no matter the odds, and she feels..
Travelling to Denmark and looking for alternative things to do in Copenhagen? I tried to explore Copenhagen beyond the usual sightseeing and travel advice, and put together this list of the best things to do in Copenhagen. I hope my Copenhagen travel tips – featuring all the fun things to do in Copenhagen and how to explore the city like a local – will make you love the city too!
There are few cities in the world I’ve loved like I loved Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. The capital of all that is cool, eco-friendly and eclectic.
This is a city with more bicycles than cars on the streets; with streets that belong in the museum of modern art; with cute little bicycle traffic lights; with foot rails at bicycle traffic lights to rest your feet! This is a city where no one lives more than 8 minutes away from a green space; where cemeteries are as much for the living as for the dead; where the government has committed to all public transport vehicles being electric by 2020.
Copenhagen – Alive and beautiful in spring!
Flying direct on Air India, from the mind-boggling chaos of Delhi, Copenhagen felt too quiet at first. Too empty. Too sanitised. But getting on a bicycle, like every other local, changed the way I experienced it.
There are plenty of popular things to do around here – visit the museum of modern art, hang out at Nyhavn (the new harbor), take a boat cruise along the canals, catch a panorama of the city from the Round Tower…
But if you really want to get off the tourist trail, take my list of alternative, offbeat things to do in the city and fall in love with it like I did:
Chill along the sand dunes and windmills of Amager Strandpark
Cycling amid the stark dunes and wilderness of Amager Strandpark.
Cycling nearly an hour out of the city, towards the coast of Copenhagen, past colourful little settlements, watching planes landing at the airport nearby, we landed up most unexpectedly at Amager Strandpark (or Amager Beach Park). The low sandy dunes, with wild bushes swaying in the wind and windmills spinning hypnotically along the coast, made me feel like we had arrived in the Scandinavia of yore – where man was yet to settle.
That’s exactly what made me fall in love with Copenhagen – one minute, we were grabbing vegan food at a trendy cafe in town; the other, we were cycling along sandy dunes with nothing but the sound of the waves in our ears and the cool northern wind on our faces.
Tip: In early spring, we only shared Amager Strandpark with a couple of runners and dog-walkers, but rumour has it that it gets busier in the summer, and even plays host to eclectic music concerts!
Under the cherry blossom canopy at Bispebjerg Cemetery.
I totally lucked out with catching the spectacular Japanese cherry trees in bloom a second time this year – across Copenhagen, in the third week of April (the first time was in Japan, where the sakura blossomed a few weeks earlier than predicted). At Bispebjerg Cemetery, a fifteen minute bicycle ride from the city centre, the cherry path, with cherry trees on either side, their flowers forming a canopy over the walking path, is truly a spectacle to behold – but also packed with people out to see this rare phenomenon. The good news is, many parks, gardens and walking paths throughout the city are planted with sakura trees, making the entire city feel alive in spring!
Tip: If you want to enjoy the most prominent sakura blossom sans the crowds, head to Bispebjerg Cemetery or the Little Mermaid Statue early morning.
Ride the Cykelslangen, connecting the old and new harbors of Copenhagen
The Cykelslangen – aka Bicycle Snake – in Copenhagen!
I’ve heard that half the world is jealous of Copenhagen’s cycling bridges, but I had no idea why – or even what a “cycling bridge” really was. Turns out, over 60% of Copenhagen locals cycle to work, and trendy cycling bridges have been designed to connect the harbors better and shorten work commutes! The Cykelslangen – also called the Bicycle Snake – is one such bridge, and I can’t quite express in words the joy of riding our bicycles over it one balmy afternoon, with the water flowing below us.
The Circle Bridge, designed in circles by a Danish-Icelandic artist, who is said to believe that the bridge shouldn’t just connect point A to B but also give the cyclist or pedestrian space to slow down and take in the gorgeous surroundings, like the Black Diamond (a public library in the glass facade of which the water shimmers) too. Well, mission accomplished. I rode across the bridge twice, totally enamoured by the design.
Tip: If you’re short on time, curious to find local spots or not confident cycling by yourself, consider taking a bicycle tour with Copenhagen Cool, set up by a cool Copenhagen local!
Sample local (and vegan) food at Torvehallerne Food Hall
Strolling around in Torvehallerne food hall.
Tivoli Food Hall is pretty popular among visitors to Copenhagen, but from what I hear, also pretty overpriced. On the suggestion of a local, we ended up for lunch (twice) at Torvehallerne Food Hall – split into two glass-walled halls, with an eclectic city ambiance, all kinds of cooked and raw food for sale, and packed with locals, expats and travellers.
While one of the halls focusses mostly on fish, I loved the food options in the other one – where I got an incredible avocado-hummus-pesto sandwich at Vita Boost and a skinny vegan raw cacao mousse at Fresh Market. Other vegan options included falafel and hummus sandwiches, salads and healthy vegan desserts.
Skinny (vegan) chocolate mousse at Torvehallerne food hall!
Tip: Pack your food at Torvehallerne, cross the street behind and enjoy it at the urban picnic spot (with stairs and benches to lounge on) in the warm sun.
Of all things I expected to be doing in Copenhagen, I hardly expected to be cycling on a nearly empty cycling track along the cobalt blue coast and idyllic countryside of northern Copenhagen, just forty minutes from downtown. Bellevue Beach is a long white sand beach, flanked by an old lighthouse and at the time of our visit, dramatic clouds in the vast skies above. At nearly 5 degrees celcius, the water was too cold for a dip, but come summer (and for the more hardcore ones, come winter), I hear locals plunge in, then warm up at a temporary sauna set up within a container! Copenhagen’s quirky like that.
Loose yourself in the night sky at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium
Another world – 3D movies at the Copenhagen Planetarium.
You can probably tell by the name of this blog how much I love the night sky! So on a rainy evening, we made our way to Tycho Brahe Planetarium, to catch some astronomy exhibits, a short but stunning 3D film about our galaxy and a Nat Geo documentary about the invisible things that happen around us. For those few hours, I felt transported into a different world – a world we’re surrounded by but often forget to notice. If you want to renew your love for our planet, or inspire yourself or your kids to think of the future differently, spare a few hours for the Copenhagen planetarium – I promise it’ll be a day well spent.
Tip: Entry to the Tycho Brahe Planetarium is free with the Copenhagen Card. Movies cost extra, but are totally worth it. The movies are in Danish but English translation is offered through headphone; carry your own or you’ll have to buy a pair. See the movie schedule here.
There are many ways to experience India. You can stay in a generic hotel or backpacker hostel, hire a car for sightseeing, have casual interactions with people working in the hospitality industry, take some colourful photos and call it a trip.
The real India though – the India that inspires and humbles, the India that is artistic yet genuine, the India that is simultaneously incredible and heartbreaking – takes a little effort to find.
Inspiring and humbling – the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand.
Although I grew up in this country, it’s only in the last five years of travelling that I’ve discovered a more unique way to experience it. Away from the chaotic tourist towns and pages of the usual guidebooks, I’ve interacted intimately with an India that has put everything I know about life in perspective.
And much of this India, I’ve found by travelling with – or seeking suggestions from – sustainable tourism companies across the country, run by inspiring individuals, in fair partnership with local communities and conscious of their impact on the local environment.
If you seek to experience India (and give back to it) meaningfully, consider travelling with these responsible travel companies:
Locations: Nag Tibba (near Mussoorie), Kanatal and Raithal (near Uttarkashi) in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand
Goat Village, Uttarakhand: Why Our Travel Choices Matter - YouTube
Who knew that tiny obscure mountain villages in Uttarakhand, cradled by the snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas, are home to some of the world’s most expensive and wanted superfoods? Think amaranth, goji berries and foxtail millet, among others.
And yet mountain dwellers are abandoning their farmlands for basic jobs in cities – unaware of the value of these superfoods. Out of this tragic situation was born Green People, an organisation that aims to encourage the reverse migration of farmers – by creating supply chains for the superfoods they can grow, and more importantly, by instilling pride in them for their unique culture and way of life. To facilitate the latter, Green People has set up “Goat Villages” – rustic ecolodges – near Nag Tibba, Kanatal and Uttarkashi in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. They’ve hired locals, trained them in hospitality at luxury resorts and entrusted them with independently hosting travellers from around the world, in aesthetically built Garhwali-style houses.
I’ve spent a week each at the Goat Villages near Nag Tibba and Uttarkashi – blissfully away from civilisation, electricity and technology – for some of my most rejuvenating and inspiring escapes amid the wild beauty of these mountains. The locations are spectacular, the local interactions heartwarming and the food – amaranth porridge, mandava-tofu sandwiches, Hersil rajma, barnyard millet to name a few – will make you rethink your organic and local choices.
The superfoods grown in the Garhwal Himalayas are being sold by Green People under the brand name “Bakri Chaap” in supermarkets in big cities across India. Isn’t it ironic that while we’ve taken to consuming quinoa and couscous – which travel from halfway across the world – we’re mostly unaware of the delicious, nutritional food that grows in our own backyard?
Blown away by the eco-luxury at Evolve Back, Kabini.
I learnt early on in my travels that it is possible for an accommodation to be incredibly luxurious and environmentally responsible at the same time. But I didn’t realise to what extent, until I spent time at Evolve Back – a chain of eco-luxury resorts across Karnataka.
Evolve Back Coorg (previously called Orange County) was perhaps the first of its kind in India – a sprawling 300-acre coffee plantation, interspersed with grand silver oak trees and plantation-style bungalows – built in local red brick and thatched or tiled roofs – to pamper travellers yet immerse them in the wild ways of nature. Each bungalow is fitted with RO water filters, eliminating the need for plastic bottled water; in other ways too, the plantation (and other Evolve Back properties) are pretty much plastic-free zones.
Rainwater is harvested and its consumption in each cottage digitally monitored; wind electricity is generated at another site and fed into the state’s electricity grid; all waste is either composted or recycled; education in local schools is supported and monitored. And it is perhaps India’s only hotel chain to have an entire team dedicated to responsible travel.
Yet, these sustainability initiatives are not the only reason to indulge in an Evolve Back experience. In Kabini, I was enchanted by majestic sunsets and high tea under an old fig tree; river and forest safaris with passionate naturalists who made me fall in love with India’s fascinating forests; a meal selection dedicated to sumptuous organic and locally grown food; and night skies that shimmered endlessly with stars.
And although I haven’t personally travelled to Evolve Back Hampi yet, I hear it is styled after the royal extravagance of the ancient Vijayanagar Empire…
Across the small mountain villages of Munsiyari tehsil, the social enterprise Himalayan Ark has aided local women to set up homestays, some in old and charming Kumaoni houses, others in aspirational homes with large glass windows overlooking the mountains. The warmth of the experience remains the same across the homestays though. Although most women in rural India seldom have land ownership rights or independent incomes to run their households, Himalayan Ark’s approach has enabled the women of Munsiyari to directly earn revenues from their homestays, and to step out of the kitchen to train as trekking and birdwatching guides.
Himalayan Ark also offers mountain treks and expeditions, employing local guides, sourcing local produce and offering eco-conscious insights into this relatively undiscovered region. In May every year, the unique Himal Kalasutra festival brings out a different side of this region – featuring high altitude marathons, yoga workshops, photography workshops, birdwatching, celebration of the indigenous cuisine and a traditional carnival. Unlike most fusion mountain festivals, it is organised by locals and attended by locals, but discerning travellers are welcome to join!
Celebrating Mopin with the Galo tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.
The northeastern states of India are full of fascinating, unexplored, uncharted territory, and while tourism is still in its nascent stage, it is incumbent upon us travellers to ensure that it isn’t spoiled the same way as India’s scenic but garbage-filled hill stations. Consider Kipepeo, an organisation that partners with local homestays to offer trips (and custom tours) in the most natural way possible.
On my first trip with them, our group wandered off the usual Arunachal Pradesh map and landed up in a village of the Galo tribe to celebrate their indigenous Mopin festival. Amid Shamanic chanting, hypnotic local dances and being offered rats for dinner at a village gathering (gulp), I felt like I had skipped a few decades and gone back to the India of yore – a most intriguing world!
A new friend in a tribal village in Odisha’s Koraput region.
The fascinating tribal world of Odisha is threatened by many challenges: interference by local authorities, pressure on the youth to ‘modernise’, decreasing forest cover, and most of all, insensitive tourists wanting to photograph local tribes without learning a thing about their culture or way of life.
I was happy to resolve my internal conflict – between discovering a fascinating culture and irresponsible travel – when I stumbled upon Desia Ecotourism, a company founded by a local of eastern Odisha with a keen interest in the tribal culture of the southern Koraput region. Our modes of exploration included cycling through mango orchards to nearby tribal villages and riding pillion on motorbikes to further ones; our interactions with local tribes at their weekly haats (tribal markets) felt genuine and unobtrusive; and living at Desia Ecolodge, run largely by a mix of local tribes, made me feel at home in such a different part of the world.
As a New York Times story recently expounded, sustainable travel is as much about environmental impact as it is about being inclusive and respectful of local communities.
Locations: Purushwadi, Dehna and Walvanda – Maharashtra
Dehna, Maharashtra: A farm to table experience near Mumbai. - YouTube
I remember wandering about the quiet streets of Purushwadi, a village in rural Maharashtra, on a dark moonless night, watching millions of fireflies communicate with potential partners through light beams, magically lighting up the earth in perfect symphony with thousands of stars in the skies above.
There was a time when locals, unaware of this beautiful phenomenon, didn’t hesitate to kill (or at best, ignore) fireflies that came to their village to mate every monsoon.
But using a unique business model where the local community is an equal partner in tourism, Grassroute Journeys has co-created the “Million Fireflies Festival” and other humbling travel experiences across rural Maharashtra. Besides playing an active role in protecting their luminescent visitors, the locals are now able to supplement their erratic agricultural incomes by hosting travellers in their homes (or in tents), and keep their traditional way of farming and life alive.
Volunteer-travelling for a month with Spiti Ecosphere in the high altitude Spiti Valley, back in 2011, was my earliest introduction to responsible travel. It was the first time I learnt about community-run homestays and how tourism can supplement meagre farming incomes, how the money we spend on travel could be used to light up someone’s home with solar energy, and how different our travel experiences can be when we stay with locals and interact closely with their culture, food and way of life.
Spiti Ecosphere believes in an equal emphasis on the planet, people and profits – and after all these years, I’ve realised that this is the only way for a tourism organisation to be truly sustainable.
As for my experience – volunteering with them, exploring those stark barren mountains, lying under millions of stars at night, spending time with monks and nuns, it changed everything I thought I wanted from my own life. It made me quit my job at the Singapore Tourism Board, and gradually paved the way to this blog where I try to write about the joy of travelling meaningfully.
A solo Nangiar Koothu performance in central Kerala.
I thought I had already explored pretty ‘offbeat’ parts of Kerala independently – until I went on a journey with The Blue Yonder, a social enterprise started by a Kerala local, to learn about how the River Nila has inspired life along its shores. We met local musicians and artisans – some of who are the last in a lost generation of artists keeping a dying tradition or craft alive; we ended up watching a soul-stirring, solo Nangiar Koothu performance alongside village locals; and even felt entranced by an Oracle, supposedly possessed by the local deity.
During my travels with The Blue Yonder, I began to perceive our impact on local communities differently. Many organisations only compensate the locals we meet along the way for the services they offer – mainly homestays and guides. But TBY professes a different philosophy – valuing (and hence compensating) the time that local artisans spend interacting with us as travellers, answering our many questions and being photographed by us. And if we really think about it, that is exactly how us urban creative people (aka freelancers) want to be treated too.
Over six years ago, when I quit my 9-to-5 corporate job in Singapore, I tried not to dwell upon the 26,000$ student debt hanging above my head. In order to finance my college education in Singapore, I had taken a massive loan, and had until 2030 to pay it off.
Yet there I was, quitting a well-paying steady job to experiment with a life of travel, freelancing and blogging. The day I sent in my resignation, I promised myself two things:
One, that I would do what it takes to earn enough money to pay my loan instalments – a minimum of 200$ per month. I wouldn’t borrow money or dig into my backup savings as far as I could help it.
Two, that if by age 35, I still hadn’t paid it off, I would swallow my dreams, head back into the corporate world and work my butt off to repay the loan.
Although I broke my first promise a couple of times by digging into my savings, I didn’t have to wait till 35 to reconsider the second one (phew). In 2017, over six years after quitting my full time job, I managed to pay off the entire goddamn loan – while freelancing, blogging and travelling around the world.
Here are some lessons I learnt along the way; candid tips that I hope will give perspective to fellow freelancers and travel bloggers in similarly challenging times:
1) Believe in yourself and stop working for peanuts
Learning along the way in my outdoor offices – this one in Coorg.
When I first began freelancing, I was writing travel stories for as little as 500 rupees (less than 10$). I had no contacts in the industry, no idea of freelancing rates and no confidence in myself to deliver a decent travel piece. But with time, I built each of these.
Once my travel writing portfolio expanded to include BBC Travel and National Geographic Traveller, I decided to walk away from work that neither excites me nor compensates me enough to be worth my time and effort. Unfortunately there are no standard industry rates for freelancers / travel bloggers, so my formula is simple: for how long can a piece of work fund my travels? My goal is to earn a month’s worth of expenses for a week’s worth of work. It’s a personal thing and must evolve with the quality of work.
Many freelancers complain about poor rates, but end up accepting the same gigs anyway. We’re certain to lose some opportunities when we hold our ground in a negotiation, but it’s the only way to seek out better paying opportunities, deliver higher quality work and strike a satisfying work-travel / life balance.
2) We only get a few chances: Professionalism matters more than we think
Life of a digital nomad – in the Bavarian Alps.
I remember the months I could barely scrape up enough money to pay my monthly loan instalments. I remember sleepless nights of pitching and sending proposals, not knowing where my next assignment might come from.
So when I scored a 3-month social media and writing gig, I knew I had to do everything to keep it. Working virtually, I learnt early on the importance of being professional and timely in my communication, deliverables and deadlines. So what if I was a one-woman show with my own blog and social media to manage, simultaneous work deadlines and an insatiable wanderlust? I gradually managed to turn two short gigs into year-long projects that steadily enabled me to increase my monthly loan repayments.
I’ve heard companies lament how they’ve burnt their hands with freelancers, and tourism boards disappointed by bloggers who don’t deliver on their promises. Remember that it’s a small industry and word gets around fast. Right from the first email and deadline, we’re being judged on our professionalism. And cliched though it sounds, under-promising and over-delivering is always a good mantra to hold yourself to.
Spending on experiences that matter… but saving too.
Like every freelancer and travel blogger, I hate late payments from clients, but I secretly think of them as forced savings. I’m pretty casual about spending what I earn on travelling, so it takes no time for my account to go from six digits to three – and the only way I survive is through forced savings.
In my corporate days in Singapore, a portion of my salary was deducted and transferred into a provident fund account. After I quit, I tried to keep that habit – transferring 30-40% of what I earned on a big project into a fixed deposit or second savings account. Ultimately, all that saved money helped me pay off the last big chunk of my loan at one go – phew.
4) Stop feeling insecure about losing a free trip to another blogger/freelancer
Inspiration to create inspiring travel content.
I came face to face with a dilemma that every travel blogger (and these days, Instagrammer) faces at some point: to accept a free press trip to somewhere exotic, or not. Back in 2011, at my first travel blogging conference outside India, I was surprised to learn that some prominent travel bloggers were charging a fee to join press trips. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Besides the fact that creating truly inspiring travel content online is a time and effort intensive job, it also leads to direct revenue for the brand or tourism board involved – and I know because many of my readers write to me to say my stories from a destination made them travel there.
I’ve been part of multiple blogging trips now where it’s turned out that I’m one of the only ones getting paid – and not necessarily because my content is better or my reach greater, but because I’m willing to walk away. I’ve also been dropped from many campaigns because I’ve walked away in a negotiation – and I think that’s okay.
Truth is, if we are confident we create innovative content and influence our readers’ decisions, we need to realise and monetise the value of our work.
I started travel blogging for two reasons: One, I didn’t want to forget the incredible stories and small acts of kindness I came across on the road. And two, I wanted to encourage my readers to think differently about life and travel. The only way I can continue doing both is by staying true to myself – and there are plenty of dilemmas every day.
I struggle to stuff my blogposts with keywords that google wants; I struggle to write posts that people search for (like how to do Europe in 5 days – sorry, no one can “do” Europe in 5 days); I struggle to promote things that I don’t genuinely believe in (no thank you L’Oréal, I can’t support animal testing).
And so be it. I tell myself that the offers will come and go, the money will come and go, but my writing will stay. This blog will stay. And (hopefully) you guys, my readers, will stay… and that’s what matters. Because without my audience, my blog is nothing.
6) Let’s not try to be superheroes: Learn to delegate
Doing the digital nomad thing in Chiang Mai.
The biggest lesson I learnt from running my travel startup India Untravelled, was to delegate to the right people. It’s something I still struggle with, but I’ve been learning – to split my work (and pay) with other freelancers when my plate is too full, and to gradually grow my team at The Shooting Star. By delegating things that need fresh eyes, are time-consuming and just don’t interest me (hello, google analytics), I’ve been able to free space and time for things I care about and to work on passion projects.
By investing in talented individuals, I’m not only looking at my own work with a fresh lens, but also learning more about running a business, diversifying my income sources and gaining plenty of “me-time” along the way.
Ignore the naysayers – that’s the best advice I got when I first took the plunge to quit my job. Maybe I’d make it somewhere in life, maybe I wouldn’t; maybe I’d be able to pay off my loan before 35, maybe I wouldn’t. But the worst thing I could do is fill my mind with all the doubts people had about my choices.
I’ve come to believe that our lives are often a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more positively we think of the future, the better it tends to be. And even if the future isn’t going to be that great, why ruin our present with negative thoughts?
All those years ago, the idea of paying a huge loan through an unsteady freelancing and travel blogging income seemed rather impractical, but I convinced myself that I’ll find a way. After all, what fun is a practical life with no big dreams and no impossible challenges to overcome?
Here’s a confession: Before I set out for Japan, I carried a lot of preconceived notions about the country. Based on the movie Lost in Translation, I wondered if Tokyo would be too chaotic and overwhelming; if I would struggle to adjust to the unique culture and connect with the seemingly rigid locals. Based on blogs I had read, I anticipated spending a fortune on food and mainly eating out of supermarkets. Based on conversations in Facebook groups, I imagined I might starve as a vegan. Based on quirky stories I read online, I foresaw waiting at the airport luggage belt to see that my bags had been thoroughly cleaned by the airport staff!
Quirky Japan – where people carry their teddy friends to see sakura!
In this digital world, our minds are flooded with impressions created by others. Some of them turn out to be true, many of them don’t – and that was the case with Japan too.
Personally, I think that’s the beauty of travelling – it helps us break stereotypes, challenge popular perspectives and form our own impressions. And that’s exactly why to me, Lufthansa’s campaign – “Say yes to the world” – is so meaningful.
Time and again, little acts of kindness during my four weeks in Japan made me see the country in a totally different light than I initially expected:
The night before I set out for Japan, I serendipitously ran into Katsuyama san – the owner of Bonita Cafe and Social Club in Bangkok. He had moved to Thailand from Japan several years ago, and is a passionate vegan himself! When I shared my apprehension of travelling as a vegan in Japan, he immediately opened his laptop and spent a good fifteen minutes typing out a personal (and polite) note in Kanji (the complex Japanese script), explaining what I could and couldn’t eat. His note gave me confidence, but more than that, his instinct to help without a second thought assured me that I’d be just fine in his country.
The orderly chaos of Tokyo’s subway intimidated me at first; will I like this country? I wondered as I dragged my bag among multitudes of people rushing to their stations. At the obscure metro station closest to my ryokan, there was no elevator or escalator going up… so I slowly began lugging my bag up, when an elderly businessman, dressed in the ubiquitous navy blue suit and in a rush, stopped and gave me a hand. How could I not like that country?
A Japanese friend contemplates Ume, the plum blossom.
While on assignment for Japan Tourism, as I visited my first few Shinto Shrines, my mind was filled with questions about Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous faith. These days, Shintoism and Buddhism co-exist in Japan more as a way of life than deep teachings to contemplate. But observing my curiosity and unable to answer my numerous questions, my guide called a friend who still holds Shinto purification rituals and patiently translated our conversation – just so my curiosity could be quelled.
On the train from Osaka to Kyoto, I was tired after a long day out and quite annoyed to find no empty seats. So I just stood there blankly, when a random conversation broke out with Chizu san, a young public health student who was standing next to me. We spoke of Japan and her studies, and when she heard my name, she immediately made a connection to Shiva – the angry blue god she had seen in her mother’s book of gods from around the world! Oh, and her name Chizu means a thousand presents from god.
In the small town of Aso on Kyushu island, where we spent nearly a week exploring its stark volcanic landscapes, our hostess Tamo san (of Guest House Asora) invited and drove us to a local festival at the neighborhood Shinto shrine. To the sound of hypnotic drum beats, the priests rather fearlessly swung fire-lit haystacks around their heads, then invited the public to do the same. It looked pretty intimidating, so I stood in a corner watching the show from a safe distance… when Tamo san got me a stack of hay, led me by hand to where it was to be lit, and left me no option but to start swinging it. And I’m so glad she did, because it was incredibly fun and totally had my adrenaline racing!
Teruyuki san, in a secret forest with yellow wildflowers.
I landed up in an obscure little village of 30 people on the Kansai countryside, hoping to visit a village where three local women, each over 90 years, still ride motorbikes! Unfortunately the road to their village is under repair and I didn’t get permission to visit. Sensing my disappointment, my host Teruyuki san (of Satoyama Guest House Couture) asked me to hop into his car and drove me to his favourite, secret spots on the countryside – a 7th century wooden Buddhist temple, a 1000-year-old horse chestnut tree, a cedar forest where wild yellow flowers bloom like fire at the onset of spring. Thanks to him, I got to experience far more of the Kansai countryside than I could have hoped.
At a guesthouse in Tokyo, our local host was amused when I explained my vegan lifestyle… but when I woke up, he had experimented with a vegan breakfast feast just for me: tofu steak and miso soup with seaweed dashi! Yum. And he was so impressed with his experiment that he decided to officially include a vegan option in his breakfast menu.
I remember staring longingly at the departures screen at Haneda Airport in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago. Destinations familiar and unknown filled me with a wistfulness that was at once, familiar and unknown.
I wanted as much to stay longer in Japan as to hop on a flight to South Korea, Cairo or Scandinavia. I wanted as much to walk the chaotic streets of Bangkok as to inhale deeply the scent of the pine trees in the Himalayas. And yet, I could only choose to board one flight, to land only in one place…
Lost in the mountains of Uttarakhand.
There’s a Danish word for it: Onism – the quiet frustration of being stuck in one body, that can only inhabit one place at a time; the realisation that one’s lifetime is too short to experience everything in the world.
It is the embodiment of questions that never stop plaguing some of us:
“All the billions of doors you had to close in order to take a single step forward. All the things you haven’t done and may never get around to doing; all the risks that may or may not have been real; all the destinations you didn’t buy a ticket to; all the lights you see in the distance that you can only wonder about; all the alternate histories you narrowly avoided; all the fantasies that stay dormant inside your head; everything you’re giving up, to be where you are right now…”
~ Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
Onism: The Awareness of How Little of the World You'll Experience - YouTube
So although I love the longing for faraway places, I am slowly accepting that no matter how much I travel, there will always be blank spaces on my map. The only way I can stop them from plaguing me is to be where I am with all my heart.
One such longing, and one such blank space is Scandinavia. So when Copenhagen Tourism reached out to me, I knew I had to take myself there with all my heart.
We must choose only one place to land…
This week, I will surrender to the unknown rush of a new destination – Copenhagen, perhaps the coolest capital city in Europe! I hope to experience the unique design and architecture of the city, learn from its commitment to urban sustainability, and if I’m lucky, feel hygge, ordinary moments that feel inexplicably cosy and special. Never having travelled to Denmark or Scandinavia before, I can’t wait to try vegan Nordic food and cycling-friendly highways!
I’ll spend another few days in the region (not sure where yet; any ideas?), before boarding a long flight to a place so familiar, it almost feels like I’m going home… Guatemala! Colombia, Peru and California are potentially on the cards too, but I’m in no rush to fill the blank spaces on my map.
How do you feel about onism and the blank spaces on your map?
And do you have any recommendations for cool, lesser-known things to do in Copenhagen, and vegan-friendly places I shouldn’t miss?
*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with Wonderful Copenhagen. Opinions on this blog are always my own.
When I first met Niuma (Mariyam Niuma), she was renting a small house on a local island in the Maldives, spending her days surfing in the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. As she spoke of her laidback life, I began yearning to live out my hideaway island dream too.
We were at the World Travel Writers Conference in the Maldives, where I was speaking on a travel panel about storytelling. We stole a few moments to chat about our recent adventures and the similar battles we had fought at home to chase our dream of travelling the world.
But I never truly understood her battles until I spent a couple of weeks living in a small guesthouse on Maalhos, a local Maldivian island, a few months later. Unlike “resort islands” – private islands occupied by a tourist resort – local islands offer an intimate glimpse into daily life in the Maldives. It was on Maalhos that I realized that most Maldivian women, including young girls, are expected to fully cover up their bodies even under the hot tropical sun; that their ambitions are often limited to becoming teachers, though most of them only end up fulfilling the duties of a wife; that even though the pristine blue ocean is in their backyard, they are shy (and often not permitted) to join the boys and men to learn to swim, surf, snorkel or dive.
Where she feels most connected – the Indian Ocean! Photo: Mariyam Niuma
So I had to meet Niuma again – the first female solo traveller, couchsurfer and female surf photographer from the Maldives – over drinks in Male, speak to her about her unconventional life of travel and share her inspiring story with you:
An adventurous soul:
Niuma’s love affair with the ocean began as a little kid, when on long ferry rides from Male to her father’s island village, she imagined herself as a mermaid! She has travelled solo across Southeast Asia, crewed a sailboat from Malaysia to Thailand, taken surf lessons in Morocco, crossed 96 islands on foot in the Maldives and honed her surf photography skills to become Maldives’ first female surf photographer.
When I reached out to her for this story, she was sailing on a 45-foot catamaran on a two day adventure from the Maldives to India!
Sailing to India on a catamaran! Photo: Mariyam Niuma
Funding her travels: Work, save, travel, repeat:
Her tryst with travel began in 2004, when she won return tickets to Colombo on Emirates. She was so stoked by the win that she decided to fight her fears and go solo to Sri Lanka. She loved it, and eventually saved enough money to move to Sri Lanka for college, where she began experimenting with Couchsurfing on her travels – becoming the first Couchsurfer from the Maldives!
Upon returning home, she scored short-term work gigs of six months to a year – with NGOs, environmental organisations and high-end resorts – and saved up what she earned to travel in between. She took courses in surfing and diving, and invested in professional gear for surf photography. This paved the way for her to live at surf spots in Pondicherry, Morocco, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where she would learn surfing in exchange for her work as a photographer – and gradually begin earning a living as a surf guide and surf photographer.
Try to get out of your comfort zone as much as possible. Try many things and fail many times. Try to identify your why. ~ Niuma
Back when she first travelled out of the Maldives, Niuma said she felt like she somehow attracted people who supported her dreams. But the more she travelled, the more she realised how different she was; everyone she grew up with was getting married and having babies and doing ‘normal’ things.
Apart from the burden that society placed on her, being in the surf industry and working as a surf photographer and guide, came with many challenges. She didn’t feel accepted in the local community for a long time. But her work built her reputation, and gradually people warmed up to the idea of supporting a Maldivian woman who was making it on her own.
I think it all comes down to our fears. After I moved out of home in 2011, I realised that I carried around a lot of fears – about relationships, failures, living on my own, society’s expectations – all which I had to face and let go. ~ Niuma
Niuma had been wanting to dive and surf since she was a kid, but it was only at age 28 that she learnt how to swim! She couldn’t let her eye glasses get in the way of her dream, so she saved up for a laser surgery.
She pushed her comfort zone to finally learn surfing at 32, despite the fear of getting injured in a foreign country as she travelled on her own. But going for a wave felt incredibly liberating to her, even if she got injured while surfing in Morocco and had to nurse herself back to health.
Niuma: “Why do you want a certain thing in life? I want a life of adventure because it makes me feel alive instead of just living a life where you get up to go to work and that’s it, or you go on a holiday once a year and that’s it. There is a whole world out there, full of amazing experiences. Make connections, learn new skills on the internet (so many free resources), ask questions from people who are doing it. It doesn’t take a lot of money to follow your dream. You just need to put in a little effort and chase it proactively. Save up and start small. Your confidence will build for bigger things.
Make a list of things you want to do in life and tick them off one by one because one day you will wake up and wonder why you haven’t done anything with your life. Do something towards your dream today.”
Niuma exploring her home island in Laamu, where it all started. Photo: Mariyam Niuma
Blog Announcement: A new series featuring solo travellers from across Asia
Back in 2011, when I first began to travel solo, it felt like a lonely space. I wondered if I was the only one crazy enough to venture out on my own – especially as a 20-something Indian woman. But over time, I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with solo travellers from around the world, but especially from Asia. Yet in the online travel arena, non-white solo travellers continue to be a minority.
In this new monthly blog series, I hope to share with you inspiring stories of solo travellers from across Asia, especially women. Growing up in protective families and a conservative society, our battles are different, yet not impossible to fight.
If you know of solo travellers from Asian countries who, in their own ways, are challenging societal norms and choosing an unconventional life, please connect us!
My island hideaway in Maalhos, Maldives.
Have you ever gone on a solo trip? Why or why not?
As I boarded my flight to Japan earlier this month, the familiar anxiety and excitement of travelling solo to an unknown country overwhelmed my senses. I thought of the first time I had faced the world alone. The year was 2009, and I was in Hong Kong for a job interview; with my flight covered by the company and no other commitments, it made sense to extend my stay for a few days and explore a bit of the city. In those days, I still relied on my family’s approval to make such decisions, and luckily, they agreed on the condition that I would stay with some family friends.
I had no agenda for those three or four days in Hong Kong. I vaguely remember walking along the waterfront by myself and taking the ropeway to a giant Buddha statue. I also summoned the courage to hike in the mountains surrounding the city. But the thing that remains etched in my memory is how starry-eyed I felt watching the world go by in a country unknown to me. How disoriented I felt trying to figure out directions and explain food preferences in a language unknown to me. How human I felt to smile at a stranger – who’s life, upbringing, color and perspective were completely different from mine – and have the smile returned.
Those sentiments often come rushing back on my solo adventures, even all these years later.
Exploring the world has made me challenge societal norms I’ve grown up with
On a trip with friends to Genting Highlands, Malaysia.
Perhaps you know that I grew up in a small town in India. A regular upbringing and schooling, with average ambitions to become an engineer or banker. I lucked out with a chance to study abroad in Singapore. A regular college, with average ambitions to score a well-paying corporate job.
But it wasn’t until I began to travel – to take off during long weekends and annual leaves from work – that I slowly began to realise that I didn’t have to do what everyone else was doing. That I could define my own “normal”. And so, with time, I quit my 9-5 job, stopped living in a big city, gave up having a home to go back to, rebelled against the idea of marriage and refuse to have children on an overpopulated earth. It doesn’t matter that I’m young, Indian or a woman. The world – or what I’ve explored of it – has taught me that it doesn’t matter where we come from, the only thing that matters is where we are headed.
I’ve learnt to stop judging strangers by their appearance
Living with a Jordanian family on the rural countryside.
In 2012, when I was invited for a cultural exchange program to Bahrain, many people filled my mind with scary thoughts. About life in the Middle East, the way women are treated and how locals can look down upon a woman travelling by herself. There is no doubt that women have battles to fight in the region (as we do in India), but no one ever told me that the people of Bahrain – women and men – are some of the friendliest I’ll ever meet. I got rides with strangers without even putting my thumb out; many let me in to their homes and lives; some even showed me their favourite parts of the country. It was in Bahrain that I first pledged never again to judge people by what they wear, what religion they practice or the color of their skin.
Since then, I’ve learnt that the world is full of people different from you and me – and when we embrace those differences with an open mind, we go from being citizens of one country to that of a shared planet. A planet that is as much home to the primitive forest tribes of Odisha in eastern India as it is to the Welsh folk of Great Britain.
My comfort zone has expanded in the most unexpected of ways
Contemplating my comfort zone in the Swiss Alps.
I’m penning this post after a rejuvenating evening at an undersea onsen on a remote island in Japan. For the uninitiated, an onsen is a Japanese public bath with hot water from natural hot springs, where only nude bathing is allowed. Some onsens are separated by gender and some are mixed – and well, I’ve tried both on my current trip in Japan!
To be honest, I said no to a lot of things in my pre-travel days. I was afraid to push myself, challenge cultural norms that society imposes on us, question values I was brought up with and go beyond what felt familiar.