It was Eccentrips’ second ‘Travel Longer For Lesser’ workshop, and it was to be in Bangalore. After a relative easy run in Mumbai, Bangalore was presenting a few challenges, especially to get a girl who had traveled long term and was in the city around the Christmas weekend. That is when someone suggested Namita Kulkarni’s name, it started with a phone call and we actually ended up speaking together at two venues about long term travel.
Namita, how and when were you bitten by the travel bug? Did Yoga have to play a role in it in anyway?
Yes, my first solo trip was for a month-long Yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh and Netala, a Himalayan village in 2013, with the Sivananda Ashram. That trip showed me that travel is well worth all the trouble, even with 5 a.m. alarms and just two meals a day for an entire month. But as someone who went to 8 different schools in almost as many cities/towns growing up, travel was never not a part of my life. It was always a ‘when’, never an ‘if’. Even in law college, I threw myself into tedious inter-college competitions with the ulterior motive of free travel to various cities, using stopovers as an excuse to explore more places. Always curious about new places and how I might adapt in each. Like a spinning top, the momentum just kept me going well into adulthood.
Always looking for the next adventure
You’ve been to quite a few places…Bali, Italy, Mauritius, Bolivia…are there any I am missing out? Could you tell us three of your most memorable experiences from these trips? Good, bad, ugly whatever they may be…
Yes I’ve been to about 10 other countries, but the numbers are far less important than the memories. Slovenia in June last year was absolute heaven, no exaggeration. I remember getting off the bus, walking to Lake Bohinj and going into beyond-all-expletives shock at the sheer beauty of the place.
And in 2015 hiking up a rocky trail to a waterfall in upper Bir (a town in Himachal) with six girls I’d met a few days ago, all younger than me. Many slippery rocks, steep turns, boulders and tangled trees later we found a lovely waterfall. And had it all to ourselves for a good few hours. Between all the \excited shrieking, screaming and jumping in those chilling waters, I marvelled at how unreal and life-affirming it felt – that a group of women could enjoy this level of freedom in a public space in a deeply patriarchal country like ours. Not a soul around to diminish/control/impede us while we seized the day. No wonder it’s a favourite memory.
In Italy’s Lake District last year I loved exploring the small towns where Google Maps tells you ‘no routes found’ and the ginseng coffee is next level. And so are the Italian men who don’t let a language barrier come in the way of striking up a funny conversation. More on Italy here.
At Lake Bohinj, ‘blaming it on my gypsy soul’
You have also been to Dubai for work. How was that different from just traveling and is an expat experience equally valuable?
Experiences are as valuable as the lessons we take from them, so in that sense it was a valuable experience for me. And I’m sure Dubai has a lot to offer the interested traveller, but it wasn’t fun for me. The work culture at the Yoga company I was working at was highly exploitative and felt more like a cult than a company. With an alleged ‘guru’ selling ‘weight loss’ while himself being overweight. I quit after about 6 months of hoping things would improve, and almost went into a depression at 25 because of the experience. While I was there I did try to make the best of a bad situation. Such as taking a test dive at a scuba-dive center there, and visiting the Atlantis on my last day. Teaching a 9-year-old boy who had recovered from Leukemia is another memory I look back on fondly. He was one bright spark, smarter than most people I met there. I did make a couple of great friends in my 6 months there, and I learned a lot about the kind of life/people/work I don’t want, so that’s the bright side. So yes, it was highly unlike all my other travel experiences. Teaching about 7 Yoga classes a day from 6 a.m. most days and dealing with frustrated co-workers is hardly a fun travel experience J That said, I’m sure there are great expat experiences to be had in most parts of the world, as long as you’re working with people you can trust and doing work that you believe in.
I remember you talking about the experience at the Bolivian immigration. Can you revisit that and share as to what keeps you motivated to continue to have this lifestyle despite its challenges?
Yes that was in 2014. I’d landed at La Paz in the world’s highest international airport around 7 p.m. and I knew no one in the country. And the elderly man whose job it was to stamp my visa-on-arrival at the airport was simply in no mood to acknowledge me. The second he opened my passport and read out my nationality, he went ‘Indian?! No visa!’, slamming shut my passport and shoving it aside. Looking at me like I was way too unexpected a visitor who had no business being there. The way one might look at a zoo animal on the loose. I had all the necessary paperwork and documents, a US visa stamp, a yellow-fever vaccination, even an email from the Bolivian Embassy in India confirming that I would get my visa on arrival in Bolivia. Summoning all the basic Spanish I knew back then, I asked him to help me. The broken Spanish made him consider the idea that he could actually care about this fellow human here, so he assigned someone to help me. A long line and 50 USD later I was back at the counter with this guy. Twenty questions followed and I seemed to still not be making the cut. Then came the clincher – ‘What is your occupation?’ ‘Yoga teacher’ I said. Somehow this caused in him such an explosion of pure joy, he even busted out some karate chops from inside his cubicle. ‘JOGAA!’ he shouted as he held his hands in a chop mid-air for me to appreciate. ‘Exacto!!’ I agreed vehemently, assuring him that was exactly what I do for a living back home. The next second came the much-awaited stamp on my passport, and I walked out thanking Yoga for its far-reaching unexpected benefits!
Getting some Yoga at one of those ‘no-routes-found’ corners of Italy. As one of my teachers loves to say: When you stretch your body, don’t contract your brain!
Everyone’s idea and learnings from long term travel are different. What is your perfect/time tested idea of a long term trip (that you like)?
Getting under the skin of the place is what I like to go for. Places scoring high on nature and low on urbanization. I’m glad to plan my life and travels in a way that I can take my time with such places. With a lot of walking, getting lost, snacking and conversations thrown in, and a lot of plans and presumptions thrown out. Making new friends and socializing is great, but I need a little getting lost in nature to shake off my urban trappings. In a hilly Italian town called Cittiglio I walked more in one day than I might have walked all month back home, but all the insane greenery and water bursting from above and below had me recharged enough to do it all over again in another town the very same day. I love the way nature takes us from smartphone-dependent life forms to intensely alive wilderness-loving human beings in the span of one hike.
At Chiang Dao caves, Thailand. Not missing the Wi-fi!
Has long term travel changed you in any way? If yes, how? And is it something that you recommend to others?
My longer trips have made me way more grounded, introspective and a lot less impatient. It has definitely given my gratitude muscle a workout, because long term travel makes you appreciate the little things you take for granted back home and the big things you wouldn’t even have imagined in your wildest dreams had you stayed home.
Longer travel is something I completely recommend to others, especially in a world as divided as ours. Travel has shown me that people within the same race/gender/nationality can be vastly more different from each other than people from different races/genders/nationalities. So boxing people into these broad categories no longer makes sense to me.
And getting steeped in a culture alien to you makes you look at life from a whole new vantage point. Where your name is a funny sound, your appearance outlandish and your food habits downright weird (I’m a vegetarian who gets a lot of unsolicited sympathy), you are less likely to presume things and more willing to learn. And to feel like a whole new version of you that you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. To me, it’s not travel unless I step outside my own understood boundaries of who I am. Because if I was going to remain the exact same person, I might as well have stayed home and saved myself all the trouble.
There’s a lot to get high on in nature, more so at Thailand’s highest spot!
Now coming to Yoga. Is Yoga and travel inter-linked for you? Was it a conscious decision to sort of bring these two lifestyles together or did it just evolve over a period of time..tell us more about this
For me they are definitely interlinked. My Yoga practice makes me a better traveller and my travels make me a better Yoga student and teacher. Whenever I’ve hit a wall in my Yoga practice, travel has helped me climb it and vice versa. I can’t help but notice the many commonalities between Yoga and travel – both expand your sense of possibilities and your idea of who you are. Both teach you to be present and not miss the moment, both encourage you to get the hell out of your comfort zone. And what I love most is that both necessitate a willingness to fall flat on one’s face at some point.
In fact, I’m hosting a Yoga for travel workshop in Bangalore on 25th March where I’ll be delving into more on this. Details here.
My Yoga journey began at 16, on a trip to Kanyakumari with some relatives. We happened to visit the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. I chanced upon a simple Yoga book there and picked it up for 30 Rs. That began a daily home practice for me, which then later led me to regular Yoga classes in my vicinity. So it was travel that led me to Yoga and now it’s only fair that I travel to teach, learn and celebrate Yoga.
Do you think more people can bring together their passion for one skill and travel together? If yes, what would be your tips on making that happen?
Oh yes, I think that’s probably the best way to plan your travels. Following your own unmarked trail instead of the beaten paths. The world is more than big enough to accommodate and even celebrate all kinds of skills and creativity. So a skill you’re excited about can be a great North star, otherwise one look at the world map can pull you in so many opposite directions and have you feeling lost before you even set out. I would say start small and start wherever you are at with whatever little resources you have. Explore all the opportunities around you for using your particular skill set. If you have quality, sincerity and diligence on your side, you will create opportunities instead of waiting for them. Whether it’s a mainstream skill or something off-beat, if it excites you on a deep level then there’s something worth exploring there. It will lead you to your tribe if nothing else.
My entire family was against my decision to pursue Yoga as a career after a law degree and a gold medal, but I rebelled, moved out and became a Yoga teacher as best as I knew how. Back in 2010, it was the Siberia of career options and not the ‘cool’ globally popular profession it is now. I’m beginning to teach online classes this month and if all goes well I can work and travel from anywhere with an internet connection. So you never know where your skills might take you unless you follow their lead.
At Monkey Forest, Ubud. He got aggressive pretty soon and landed my name in the Monkey Bite Register, where I entered my name and nationality right below Ukraine and New Zealand. I knew I would do my country proud someday!
Travel isn’t exactly cheap, right? What kind of discipline or lifestyle have you adopted to ensure that travel remains an important part of your life? Are there any specific tips you’d like to share with us?
I wish I could claim a minimalist grow-my-own-food daughter-of-the-soil type of lifestyle but I have miles to go before I get there. Right now, I can just credit my basic financial intelligence and not being another mindless consumer. Respecting money is important. As a freelancing Yoga teacher and writer I don’t have a fixed pay cheque so I’m glad to be conscious about my spending. Valuing experiences over things already simplifies so much of your financial decisions. I have a regular studio gig and enough personal training clients so I don’t need to pinch pennies thankfully but I do make sure there is value-for-money before I spend. I value my intelligence way too much to spend hard-earned money on labels/appearances. The big fancy handbags/clothes/shoes shops just make me feel like a mindless consumer so I look for simpler stores when I need something. My handbag cost me all of Rs 300, made by physically challenged kids at Umang, an NGO I keep recommending people buy from. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who spend massively on appearances (status symbols, big labels, weddings, jewellery, etc.) and then ask me how on earth I afford to travel. I talk more about this in my blogpost here.
I keep an eye out for great travel deals and book flights many months in advance to get better deals, and I look for the kind of accommodation where I can make myself a meal every now and then instead of eating out every single time. Otherwise food is often my biggest expense on long trips. I use a handheld filter so I never have to spend on water. My Achilles heel when it comes to spending is books, but that’s a vice I wouldn’t change for anything. Books are their own kind of travel, aren’t they?
We all understand that traveling solo can be a more challenging for women than for men. Have you had any unpleasant experiences on the road? If yes, would you still suggest that more Indian women travel solo?
At Bolivia’s Salt Flats: Yay! I got my Bolivian visa after only 2 hours, 20 questions, lots of drama and 50 USD!
Yes to both. For sure I’ve had unpleasant experiences from men on the road, but that’s equally true when I’m not travelling. Unfortunately we live in a patriarchy that so often rewards men for being the attackers and punishes women for being the victims. So one is more than likely to run into low lives whether or not one ‘travels’. But that doesn’t stop me from living my life, so why should I let it stop me from travelling? I was 12 and getting home from a coaching class the first time I was sexually harassed and I couldn’t comprehend why this man was following me in his car and calling me weird things. All in broad daylight in a residential area. In Bali a couple years ago a guy on a bike tried to snatch my handbag late one night as I was walking back to my guesthouse. But I’m enough of an Indian woman to be hyper-alert in public spaces and I’d heard of these bag-snatching incidents a few days ago. So I shifted my bag to the non-street-facing shoulder seconds before he tried to snatch it. He caught the shoulder strap of my top but I yelled and he zoomed off. He stopped his bike further down the street and turned his helmeted head back to look at me. I kept yelling at him so I guess he decided I was too high-maintenance a victim and rode off. That was a close call, so I took extra precautions after that.
So as wonderful as the world may be to explore, it has its dangers laid out for us. A couple years ago I took a few Krav Maga lessons to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. As a martial art designed to help the physically smaller person take down a bigger opponent, a few moves in your skill set will make you so much more confident. Also, it helps you give off that ‘I’m-a-badass-bitch-so-don’t-even-think-about-it’ vibe wherever you go. And God knows that’s a vibe women could use more of J
Also, I strongly feel that the world being way more unsafe for women than it is for men is not a ‘women’s issue’ that only women need to find a way around. It is everybody’s problem because we don’t live in separate watertight compartments. Men who care will do their bit to clean up the mess instead of adding to it, and not just run away from their responsibility by saying ‘not all men’. At the very least, don’t sit back and enjoy female objectification while claiming to ‘respect’ women and wanting their safety. If you’re entertained instead of appalled by female objectification, your mindset is a huge part of the problem. I’ve known many men who happily consume/share female objectification in various forms and then wish me ‘safe travels’. I hope that changes someday and we have more men waking up and doing their bit instead of being mute spectators.
Yellow pants for the win! Keeping an eye on the road proved quite a challenge here, with the wide open views all around, and I had possibly my most picturesque fall ever somewhere in these hilly roads of Old Leh
As a female solo traveler, are there any tips you would like to share with others who have aspirations similar to yours?
- Know that ‘Solo female traveller’ is not a new specimen by any stretch. Women have been exploring the world on their own for centuries, as this TED video points out in all of 4 minutes, and we have it so much simpler than these women back then.
The world is a dangerous place yes, but that’s as true in your own neighbourhood as anywhere else. There isn’t a guarantee of ‘safety’ anywhere. But as I see it, the dangers/hurdles I face and fight through as an Indian woman everyday (street sexual harassment, attacks on women for being women, female objectification, deep-seated and normalized misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, you get the drift) aren’t any smaller than the dangers that travel exposes me to. I felt safer on an Indonesian party island full of variously (even ingeniously) intoxicated strangers from everywhere (Gili Trawangan, you have my heart) than I do in broad daylight in our biggest cities. So yes, if you do want to travel, not having company better not be the reason holding you back. I talk more about this here.
- Don’t wait for external validation, society’s permission slip or a honeymoon package to chase your travel dreams. Take a few steps everyday towards your travel dreams by saving money (every bit counts), getting to your best health, finding what truly inspires you and keeping that alive.
- Financial Intelligence: I’m no expert but even being a beginner on this has been hugely empowering. Read the best books you can get your hands on to empower yourself with financial intelligence and talk to people who know more than you on the subject.
- Also, never look lost and always look like you have a destination right ahead whenever you’re out and about. Have an exit/emergency strategy wherever you go and have at least one friend know your whereabouts.
Okay, lets end on a fun note. Tell us 2-3 funny/weird experiences from your travels.
Being mistaken for a cycle thief in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. A miscommunication led to a cycle chase on the puddled mud paths of that vehicle-free island. I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my defence, I was just taking the cycle for a test-ride before renting it. If I’d known enough Bahasa, I would’ve loved to ask him if we could do that again sometime.
A serious cake-fight that broke out in our common volunteer kitchen in Mauritius, between a Chinese and a Brazilian volunteer which ended with cake on every possible surface, even the ceiling. We had a tough time cleaning up later. The lone Indian had wanted to play peacemaker, but this was too good a fight to break. Some things are better than world peace.
On a walk through Netala (a Himalayan village), the villagers suggested that my firang friends marry their sons, within minutes of meeting them. One minute we were asking for directions, the next they were warmly inviting us over for lunch, and before we could decide on lunch they suggested a few marriages. Further proof that getting strangers married off to each other is a cherished national hobby reaching even the remotest corners of the country.
Last question – in one line what does long term travel mean to you?
Following your excitement and curiosity while learning to trust life and oneself more and more along the way.
Namita Kulkarni is a Yoga teacher and traveller who loves the challenges and thrills of solo travel on small budgets to distant lands. Having taught Yoga in 4 countries over 7 years, she runs the popular travel & Yoga blog Radically Ever After, ranked as one of the top 50 Yoga blogs to follow in 2017 and one of the top 5 solo women travel blogs.