Abhilash and I have never met but his adventures have interested me for a long time now. Right from the countries he has visited to the way he has explored them is pretty awe-inspiring. He has been to several off beat places like Brunei, Timor Leste, Vanuatu and Bhutan and has even backpacked the Maldives! It was an absolute delight to interview Abhi, an avid traveller and skilled biker, as an Eccentripper. In this interview he talks about how it is not absolutely necessary to leave your corporate job to travel, you can do both with a bit of a balancing act. His plan is to go into long term travelling full time end of the year. Find out how…
Abhi, we know that you have been a nomad for a few years now. Tell us more about the becoming of a long term traveller.
I was a late bloomer, as I did not have the means to travel when I was younger. I did visit some countries in my early and mid-20s, but that was only for studies/work. It was only at the age of 27 that I discovered I have a true passion for travel, photography and travel writing. I was working in the Philippines at that point, and my local Pinoy friends started introducing me to different islands every weekend (Philippines has 7107 islands). And I slowly realised that I was hooked with the travel bug.
Around this time, I also started hosting travellers on the platform called CouchSurfing. Haha, my mom might say that CouchSurfing spoiled me. Because through this platform, I was introduced to people who have been travelling for years, not months. I started learning from them the nuances of how to travel long-term, how to manage costs, how to interact with people of different cultures, how to handle visa hurdles and even how to earn during travelling. I started implementing these life hacks into my travels, but felt incomplete. Because these guys were travelling for years, while I was only taking vacations that ranged from 3 days to a week.
So, at the age of 30, I quit my decent office job in Singapore to become a long-term traveller. Many of my friends say that I gave in to the dark side, but this was the best decision that I have ever taken! J It lasted for 15 months, and I have never learnt so much or enjoyed more in my life. (Although due to some health/financial issues, I did have to pause the long-term travel life last year and get back to a job, but I am ready to get back to it again hopefully by the end of this year.)
I am like a little kid every time I see a new place. This is Halong bay in Vietnam.
You mention on your blog “I have to follow a very budget-oriented travel plan, by using resources like CouchSurfing, hitchhiking etc.” How has that experience been like?
CouchSurfing has always been the best thing to happen to me for my travels. Before I became a long-term traveller, I hosted nearly 200 people in my home, and almost all of them became really good friends of mine. And when I started travelling, I was ready to become the guest. For one, often I did not even have to request a couch in most cities I went to, because I already HAD a friend there who I met through CouchSurfing.
CouchSurfing is a reference-based system. If you are a rank newcomer, you will find it difficult to get a couch, because people will not trust you easily. So, hosting helped me. By the time I started becoming a long-term traveller, I had over 200 positive references from people who I hosted before, and that made it easier for a new host to trust me.
Hitchhiking on the other hand, is funny in Europe. I’ve found that it is easier to hitchhike in countries like Turkey and Balkans, than the West. The west is more developed, but they also have a fear of the unknown. In the east, they don’t care! If you stand at the side for a little while, there will always be somebody who stops and invites you in.
- Do not hitchhike in the winter. Been there, done that. Not fun waiting in the cold for a ride.
- Do not hitch on a highway. Try to find a gas-station and hitch there.
Tried to hitchhike in Turkey during the winter. The cold made me give up in 30 minutes.
Any particular incidents that somehow changed your perspective on life and convinced you to get on the road full time?
One meeting that surely changed my life, was hosting a 65-year old CouchSurfer named Wendy. 5 years before I met her, Wendy and her husband had decided to leave their retired lives and travel the world on a boat. Yeah, they were sailing around on a boat! Every time they dock somewhere, Wendy takes some time off to explore the land. I wanted to find out more about her travels, and what she shared to me completely surprised me. At the age of 20, she had drove from London to India. This was before the age of social media, internet etc. If she had done that trip now, she would have been an internet celebrity. It was only very recently that she even had a Facebook account. I was inspired by her genuine love for long-term travel.
We see that you’re based out of Singapore now, at least till your next travel. Could you share some of your memorable experiences from the city maybe?
Singapore has a bad reputation for being a strict, boring and expensive place. I love meeting people to prove that this is not true. If you know enough about the local scene, you can have fun in Singapore without spending too much. And there are plenty of activities to do, if you know the right people. My favourite activity in Singapore would be visiting the Siloso beach in Sentosa island. This is almost a weekly ritual for me nowadays, and I keep taking my friends there too!
What are the three tips you would like to give to enthusiastic newbie bikers?
1) Start small. First do small trips, and then gather courage for long ones. Many people rush into long biking trips without enough experience, and that is a recipe for disaster.
2) Riding safer is riding longer. When I started biking, I used to ride super-fast and crazy. The odds of getting into an accident will always catch up with you in this case.
3) Pick up pillion passengers whenever you can. The biggest enemy of long-distance motorbike riding, is actually solitude. But meeting people along the way, even if you are giving them a lift for only a few kilometres, helps to break the monotony a little bit.
Gave a lift. Ended up getting a picture.
If you had three words to describe biking and your love for it?
No return dates.
You mention that its not the easiest travelling with an Indian passport. Any trip suggestions for Indian passport holders?
Yeah, travelling with an Indian passport is quite challenging. But that is what makes it more fun. I do have a few tips I can give in this regard.
- There are plenty of countries where we don’t require an advance visa. Start small and easy with these countries, and once your passport has a few country stamps, you will find that applying for the visa of any developed country, is not so difficult.
- Once you have exhausted the list above, you can also look at countries where we can get our visa through electronic system (E-visa). There are quite a few countries that do this too.
- Once your passport has a few entry stamps, a visa application for US or EU is quite easy. Fresh passports (with no travel stamps yet), do face a little hurdle. And once you are ready to apply for a visa, I recommend going to the US first. Why? Because US visa gives you the credibility to apply for any other visa in the world and can even be used as substitute visas in some countries.
Any destination that you’re dying to bike through?
Mongolia and the Patagonia region of Argentina. Actually, I am going on a 10-day bike tour through Mongolia in August, and should be riding through South America next year. Cant wait for both!
How did you overcome monetary limitations, societal pressure etc to travel long term when you had just started.
Oh boy, this is going to be hard! For the monetary limitations, I have always been single and my finances have been channelled towards one purpose: travelling. I don’t have any other possessions (except a motorbike), no debts/loans/credit cards etc. Even when I am working – like right now – I ensure that I save away some money every month. Luckily for us, most Indian banks (I bank with HDFC) lets you practice something called ‘term-laddering’. This is where you break your money in small chunks and convert to fixed deposits, which mature on different dates. That is very difficult when you decide to quit working and start travelling. You just need to time your expenses so that payments are due only when there is a fixed deposit getting mature.
About societal pressure, we know how tough it is to explain to our immediate society, i.e, our family about our lifestyle choices. At the beginning, my mother was simply not able to understand that I was just going to travel for ever. It took me a while to explain to her, and I hope she gets it now. The rest of the society has never bothered me anyways. I know people – including my childhood friends – who have different expectations and have tried to advise me multiple times, but I usually hear it in one ear and throw it out of the other.
What are the three positives of leading a life of travel? Share some anecdotes if possible.
a) Has to be the education. I have learnt more in the last few years of travelling, than I have learnt my entire life in school. Especially, life-skills. I am quite fitness-conscious and one of my initial challenges for travelling, was that I would miss the gym. Eventually, I learnt that I can make any place a gym, if I was willing to use my 20 KG backpack the right way!
b) Believe it or not, travelling actually helped me to get a job when I needed it. Most organisations nowadays need people who are well-aware of global business situations, and that is something no B-school can give you. I was able to use my travelling experience as a bonus for my last job interview!
c) When you lead a life travelling, I think you end up seeing the beautiful nature of people all over the world. I have been lucky to meet some amazing people during my travel; those who helped me in a place that was new to me, despite my thinking that it was dangerous for me to be there. Two examples that I can think of.
The making of Kava.
I was in Port villa, Vanuatu, and wanted to see the locals make a drink called Kava (it’s a narcotic drink). It’s legal there, so I asked around the locals, and they directed me to a place where they make Kava. My first impression when I reached there, was that this was a big mistake. The place was a little shady, and I was the only foreigner there. And these guys worked with huge blades. So, I sat through the process in a little bit of paranoia. Eventually, when the kava juice was all ready, they offered it to me. 2 cups later, we were all best friends!
The end result.
I met some Bedouins in Jordan, who invited me to stay in a cave. I was reluctant, but I gave it a go. It turns out, the cave was deep in the desert and if I wanted to come back to civilisation on my own, I would have definitely been lost in the desert. At first, the thought scared me, as I was completely at the mercy of people I had met just a while ago. But then, as the evening got on, the Bedouins turned out to be amazingly hospitable people! We cooked, had some drinks, and they even allowed me to sleep outside the cave (because I wanted to see the stars). It was, without a doubt, the best sleep I ever had!
With the bedouins of Jordan
What are the downsides of long term travel?
Definitely, it is the feeling of loneliness that hits you once every few months. When you are travelling for a year or more, there will be plenty of times that you are completely on your own. And sometimes that loneliness could last for weeks or months. And there will come a moment when you will feel super-lonely, and you want to give up everything and just go back to the comfort of your home and your family. I had such phases at least 2 or 3 times during my travels. Each time, I tell myself that it is just a phase and will pass soon.
Would you recommend a long term trip to others and why? If not, then why?
I would recommend a long-term trip to all Indians! Primarily, because we definitely need to come out of our comfort zone and experience the world, to understand cultures different from our own and appreciate them for what they are. One feedback that I often get from my friends in India is that my travels have made me too ‘international’. I don’t think so. I think my travels have made me an Indian who understands international cultures pretty well.
We are all lost children. We just need guidance. Street art in Mauritius.
If you had to describe long term travel in one line.
Do it once, and let it change your life.
Even with a job in Singapore you continue to travel to many places, regularly. How do you manage that, both financially and getting free time.
I was getting this question so much, I even had to write a blogpost about it once! But the key thing, is travel planning. If I decided to book last minute tickets to visit a place, I would definitely be broke. So, I plan things very early. Most of my trips are booked, and leaves are applied, at least 4 months in advance. Even on such vacation travels, I tend to travel very cheap, so that I can travel more in a year.
What’s next on the map?
I have Mongolia in August and Azerbaijan in October. And by early 2018, I am planning to get back on my bike to do 2 rides that I have been planning for ages – a K2K ride in India (Kanyakumari to Kibithoo), which is from the southernmost point of the country to the easternmost point of the country. And doing the Che Guevara trail (motorcycle diaries) in South America. And hopefully next year I will explore a little bit of Africa too, which is one continent that I haven’t visited properly yet.
Abhi is a traveller, photographer and blogger who dreams of completely abstaining from a corporate life, and has decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. Through his stints in long-term travels, he has been to 78 countries so far, and hopes to become the youngest Indian to visit every single country in the world. He loves motorbiking too, and so far has rode in nearly every country of south and South-East Asia, including a solo trip from Kerala to Nepal and Bhutan.