Venkat and I still haven’t met. Yes, that’s true and despite that I feel really connected with this fellow traveler. I think that must have to do with the fact that we have a few things in common. Like him I have lived most of my life in Navi Mumbai(or New Bombay). Secondly, much like him, I was born in a South Indian family. But most importantly, we both quit our corporate careers and completely embraced a life of travel close to our thirties.
Our friend Venkat started traveling when it was not quite a ‘thing’ in India. Also interestingly, he has chosen slow or expat travel like his teaching experience in Vietnam. This is where I felt that many of us could learn from Venkat. Because if you go by what you get to read on social media, it may seem that creating travel content(meaning being a BLOGGER) is the only way to travel long-term. Not everyone can be a great writer, or photographer or social media influencer. So, does that mean that you cannot earn while you travel or while exploring new lands? Definitely not.
Venkat taught English in Vietnam. Be like Venkat. Learn how.
1. Venkat, I know that you have been a nomad for more than a few years now. It all started with a bike trip, right? Tell us more about the becoming of a long term traveller.
It all started with a bike trip. Yes, in a way. But the beginnings of my travels lay in my graduation days. My friends and I used to bunk college and ride our bikes to somewhere in the Western Ghats, climb a hill and be back before the sunset and our parents had no idea about our adventures. Cut to a few years later when all of us were employed, we decided to ride along the Konkan coast all the way till Goa before turning back. That trip was a huge success and the next year – 2009, we decided to go to Leh, which was followed by one more group ride to Ladakh in 2010. In 2011, I wanted to ride to Leh again. By this time my friends were either tired of going to Leh or were beginning to have other commitments like girlfriends, engagements and what not. So I thought “To hell with them. I’ll go alone.” I went on a 3-week solo trip – spent 2 of those in remote villages of Zanskar valley and a week in Leh. I still wonder why people don’t spend much longer than a day or two in between or after their trips to Pangong Tso or Nubra Valley (On a separate note, Ladakh is so much more that the ‘3 Idiots-wala Lake” and “Highest (Questionable) Motorable Road” in the world.) A week after returning from the trip, I went to my boss and said “Hey! Can we talk?” He knew about my love for travel, treks and bike rides and smiled as he replied, “Let’s go have a cutting” I served my entire notice period and some more because I didn’t want to miss out on my yearly bonus by leaving a couple of weeks early and finally walked out of the cubicle life on 30th Dec 2011.
I think it was the right time to quit. I had worked in managerial positions for close to 7 years by then. So I knew I had enough experience to fall back on if things didn’t work out. I had enough money in the bank and the rest of my family was financial independent. I didn’t even have any loans or EMIs to take care of every month. So money or the lack of it, which is the biggest deterrent for people wanting to pursue long-term travel wasn’t an issue for me. And one thing led to another from there on and here I am.
When I felt like a celeb in remote villages of Zanskar
2. You also got a training certification and had a brief stint in Delhi. And from there you went to Thailand and later settled in Vietnam for a while. What was the motivation and tell us a little more about that time?
I have always been interested in teaching. Even when I was younger I always had this thing in mind, that a certain point of time in my life I want to be a teacher. Maybe when 35, maybe 45, maybe when 50. But I wanted to spend some time in the classroom on the other side of the desk. So while wandering around India on a motorbike I learned that a lot of people each English in various places across the world and travel thus enabling themselves to be long-term travellers. I got myself certified for CELTA which a type of Teaching English as Foreign Language certification and then even moved to Delhi for a few months. But the freelance gigs that came my way were more of the corporate training, soft-skills development, report writing types. It didn’t excite me much and so I packed my stuff and moved back home before heading to Thailand where I had heard there were many vacancies for teaching English at schools. I spent two months trying to find that perfect job but if the school was right, the pay was crap. If the pay was good, the city was boring. So I didn’t take up any of the offers that came my way and went to Vietnam, It was the same story even in Vietnam until I landed in Ha Noi.
Hanoi stole my heart and I loved the city immensely and immediately and in 2-3 weeks, I also had an offer from a school there. The pay was great, the kids were adorable and work was around 12-15 hours a week leaving me enough time to try various things. At first, I thought I’d give myself 6 months. More than a year and a half later as I was leaving, my heart broke as the immigration officer put the exit stamp on my passport.
3. There is an interview of yours on another blog about teaching English as a non-native in Vietnam. Can you briefly tell us how did you make it happen?
From my research, I found that the way to find a teaching assignment in Vietnam was to land up there and be in the country for a while. My first stop was in Ho Chi Minh city where I spent 3 weeks. On my third day in the city and the country, I printed set of cover letters and resumes, mapped all the schools/language centres in 5 km radius, walked to those schools, and asked to see the managers at those centres and handed out a copy my resume. Also, I kept an eye on the expat groups of HCMC on Facebook and sent my application wherever I could. Within a week to ten days I had a few offers, but somehow, I didn’t like Saigon as a city. From then on, I followed the same routine in Dalat, Hoi An, Hue and finally in Ha Noi. I would’ve loved to get a gig in Da Lat or Hoi An, but being small towns there were hardly any opportunities.
As I mentioned earlier it was in Ha Noi that everything fell into place. It was almost 6 months after I left India with a purpose to find work and live abroad. But then, hey persistence always pays, right?
With my university kids (students) in ‘Nam
4. What are the three tips you would give anyone who wants to teach English in south-east Asia?
First and the most important is do it for the love of teaching. If you’re just looking for adventure, travel, cheap drinks and parties, stay away from teaching. There are a lot of other ways to make those happen without taking up teaching English as a way to do that. Being a teacher is a huge responsibility and you need to understand that your actions are going to impact a lot of eager to learn minds. Don’t play with those.
The next would be to get your ass here. If you think you’ll apply for a job from the comfort of your home and people will be ready for you with a red carpet at the airport, it’s not going to happen. It’s a cultural thing I guess. Employers and recruiters, especially in Thailand & Vietnam, like to see you in person before they offer you a job. It is different for South Korea, Taiwan or Japan, but they follow a different recruitment policy altogether because most of the jobs there have strict governmental procedures to follow at the time of application itself.
And finally, be flexible. Things are not going to be as smooth as back home. Learn to adapt to the culture and situations. There may be days when you prepare a fantastic lesson with interactive computer-based content only to find that there is no computer in the classroom. Or 5 mins before your class begins you’re told that you have to teach a class other than what you were originally supposed to because your fellow teacher did not turn up. At times the classes might bomb for no fault of yours. Take it in your stride instead of blaming your workplace management or teachers and see how you can do better the next time
5. We have heard that Hanoi is a great city. Share some of your memorable experiences from the city maybe?
This question makes me terribly nostalgic. There are so many memories that it’s hard to choose a few. However, I’ll try.
First of all was this fantastic bunch of housemates that I had. They were from all over the planet but the way we gelled together and had so much fun is something I can’t describe. The friendships, the house parties, the meals we cooked and ate together, the talks we shared. I could just go on and on.
My kids (students) were another life-changing experience. I never liked little kids. But a month into my teaching, I ended up falling love with each and every cute little monster in my classroom. At the same time were my high school kids who addressed me as Mr G and made me laugh with their silly jokes and antics and watched Youtube videos with me! And my university kids who took me to so many little places in Ha Noi and downed so many glasses of Bia hoi.
My Vietnamese teachers, my Ukulele club, the staff at the numerous cafes I visited, the vegetable and fruit ladies in the market, throughout the day there was always someone great to meet or fun to do.
6. What are the three words in which you would describe Vietnam?
It’s hard for me to describe a country as incredible as Vietnam in 3 words, but personally, I’d say “Life-changing experience”
7. Is motorbiking still a passion or have you left your two-wheeler days behind?
Oh yes, I still love going on motorbiking trips. Even it’s a day trip. In fact in Vietnam, I made a number of short trips from Hanoi almost every other weekend. Motorbiking in the north of Vietnam is one of the best travel experiences of my time there.
Besides Vietnam, every country that I go I see of there’s an opportunity to rent and ride motorbikes around and more often than not I’ve been able to do so. Like riding around north Thailand for a couple of days. Or on my recent trip to Cambodia as well, I rented a bike in Kampot and went all around the countryside.
8. Which other countries have you been to and which one is your favourite?
Although it’s been quite a while since I started travelling full time, there haven’t been as many countries or places in my last. I think that’s because I mostly focus on staying put in one place for a long time and before moving on to the next. For example I spent two months in Thailand but hardly spent a day in Bangkok in my time there, leave alone visiting the islands in the south. Similarly it took me 3 months for me to get from Saigon to Hanoi in Vietnam.
Besides the above, I recently went to Cambodia for a month, was in Myanmar for a month in Dec 2015 and spent 3 weeks in Malaysia in 2014.
9. Has being a long term traveller changed you? If yes, how?
Oh yes, certainly. And a lot. If I have to sum it all up. I have to say that I’m more relaxed. I’ve become a calmer person and I’ve stopped thinking too much about the future which I used to do a lot. My family and friends will also tell you that, I’m no longer the guy who’d get angry for no reason at all and throw a big tantrum like a 5-year-old child.
I’ve also come to value each day as it comes. Since the time I started travelling full time, I don’t remember a single day where I woke and wasn’t excited about the day to come. And most importantly I’ve come to enjoy little pleasures in life like reading a book by the beach or sitting in a cafe and just watching people and the world go by.
Cliche as it may sound, but I’m almost a totally new person as compared to what I was, say 6-8 years ago.
10. What are the three positives of leading a life of travel? Share some anecdotes if possible.
Firstly, it changes your way of looking at things. You begin to think or realize what is important to you and what is not. You stop focussing on things that don’t matter and thus eliminating stress from your day to day life. You keep yourself away from the daily rat race that is being played back home and learn to relax and just do things that make you happy. You begin to realise that your happines is your responsibility and therefore you should work towards it.
Also, you learn so many new things and experience such wide range of emotions on a daily basis. That makes you a sensitive person. You’re now more empathic towards situations, people and experiences and instead of judging you become more understanding. You have enough time to spend building relationships with people, experiencing a culture at a deeper level, check out off the beaten places. I booked at guest house in Hoi An for a night and ended up staying two weeks at the same guest house. I made great friends with the owner and his wife. And after a few days they started inviting me for lunch or dinner with them, teach me how to cook some Vietnamese dishes and in exchange I showed them how to make a decent curry.
And finally, long term travel is cheaper and less stressful than a short vacation. When you average out, over a long term, you end up spending less money and having more fun when travelling for an extended period of time. For instance, let’s say you’re going on a trip to Sri Lanka. Let’s assume a return ticket is Rs 20000. Now if you’re going there just for 5 days you’re spending 4K a day just on flight tickets. But if you go for a month, it’s about Rs 700 a day. Similarly when you travel longer at a place you have enough time to check out different places where things might be cheaper. Be it food, accommodation or something else. For e.g. in 2014, I spent 3 months in Vietnam spending a total of Rs 90000 including flights, visa, food, accommodation and everything in between.
11. What are the downsides of long-term travel?
Having to say goodbye every now and then is the worst part. In a period of the 18 months that I was in the house in Hanoi, I said goodbye to 13 of my housemates. And all of them were very close friends of mine. And that was just the housemates. There were innumerable people that I met not just in Ha Noi but also in all my travels in the last 5 years. It’s actually exhausting the process of meeting so many great individuals, sharing meals, memories and dreams and having to say goodbye. In fact, at times, you don’t even have a chance to say goodbye. You meet someone at your guesthouse or hostel and have a great chat with them and the next morning they’re gone. At times you don’t even know their name,
Besides that, there are people back home that you end up missing. Especially on important occasions like festivals, birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve lost a count of how many engagements, weddings, child births that I’ve missed and it was incredibly painful.
Early travel somewhere in the Western Ghats
12. Would you recommend a long term trip to others and why? If not, then why?
Without any doubt yes! Going on a sabbatical, gap year or whatever you may want to call it does help you develop in a way no training or reading self-help books can. You learn to take each day as it comes and if there are some challenges you have no other way but to face them. And once you’ve faced them you don’t have time to dwell on them too much because you’re already on to the next thing.
For e.g. when I first went to Thailand and as happens, there were times I was rejected at interviews. As I walked out of one such interview, one of the staff at the school came running after me and told me there were vacancies at another school in the neighbourhood. I went there handed my resume and was told to do a demo lessen then and there itself with 10 mins to prepare. The class was a bunch of 5-year-old kids. It went well and I was accepted. I didn’t take up the offer for some other reasons though. But still, you never know what door is going to be banged shut on your face and from where an opportunity will knock.
Also is the fact that you get to meet so many people and you don’t know how they’ll end up becoming a part of your life in the future. Case in point, a friend I met in a dorm in Thailand, is today the most inspirational person in my life. Just because one of us said hi to the other and spent the next couple of hours talking about everything and nothing. Another friend I met there ended up being my housemate a year later and another year down the line, we worked at the same place.
And finally, it makes you humble as a person. When you see all these places, meet so many people, share so many stories and experiences you start realising that how much of the stuff going on in your life or mind is so pointless. How your education, titles, status, or problems don’t matter at all. There was this Vietnamese guy sitting next to me on a bus and he started speaking to me in broken English. After a while when the bus stopped he bought me a coffee. We continued talking after we got on the bus again and he started telling me about his family. His father who was in the US for a short trip had passed away the previous night and he was on his way to ancestral home to prepare for the last rites, he explained. I was speechless. Before getting off at his stop, he gave me his number and asked me to call him after a couple of weeks, if I was still in town and that he’d take me around for dinner and beer. What do you say to a a thing like that???
13. Share some of your future plans – travel wise 🙂
I don’t have any dates set but I’m planning to go to Europe this year to meet my friends and hopefully do a roadtrip there. Bhutan is another place that I’ve been wanting to go for a very long time. So hopefully there. And I wanna go trekking in Nepal. So keeping my fingers crossed.
For now, I’m actually looking at ways to manage my finances to make those happen.
When I looked like a Mexican drug lord!
14. Last question – what does long term travel mean to you in one line?
I think long term travel has now became a way of life for me. Hopefully, it will be that way in the future as well.