Theme: The Art to Hustle
Topic: How to travel the world at the drop of a hat!
When I was a teacher in South and Central America, i.e. Venezuela and Costa Rica, at the beginning of every new batch, even before I learned their names, I always asked my students what their dreams were, if they had a passion. Over 90% of them told me their biggest dream was to travel the world. And I am not exaggerating here. I could count on a single hand, how many students in a class did not want to travel. Almost everyone I asked told me about the same dream.
“My big dream is to travel the world." They all said So what’s stopping you?” I would ask them. “But teacher I don’t have the money.” One said “I will travel after I retire.” Another said “I am saving money to travel in future.” Another said “I am building a house so no money to travel now.” Yet another said Then I asked, “are you building a house or are you building your dreams?” “I am building my dream house, teacher!” was the reply.
You see, people spend so much money in building this huge dream house then they get caged within its 4 walls and the adventure of life ends there. The rest of their lives they become a slave to that house, maintaining it, cleaning it, grooming it, furnishing it, revamping it, re-furnishing it, and most importantly showing it off to their social network! Yes okay you can get a house for yourself, but how much space does one need to live? I know people who build mansions then they keep most rooms in the house locked, because there aren’t enough people to live in it! And most people do the same when it comes to traveling. They try to plan and secure every aspect of their trips, so much that there is little or no room left for adventure or any real exploration of life. And if something goes out of plan, they fret and fume, instead of enjoying the experience.
Yes everybody wants to travel, especially today’s youth and old! During my travels across the world, I realized the most common dream of humanity is to travel the world! But most traveling is boiled down to seeing a few well-known touristic spots, taking pictures and posting on facebook, once again to show off, just like that grand house they built! People take up tour packages, insurances to secure their trips, stay in hotels, and execute a well-planned out itinerary. But really have they travelled? Yes they have seen a lot of places but they have not really known any of those places. Because real traveling has nothing to do with any of that! It only begins at the end of our comfort zone. I have been to nearly 30 countries, lived in 8 countries across 5 continents and what I discovered about traveling and the real-life education it provides has nothing to do with the way we are educated in schools or taught how to behave in society. You have not really traveled until you have lived with the local people, eaten their food and spoken their dialects, tried on their culture and customs for size, attended religious or traditional functions with them, worn their costumes or perceived life through their shoes.
The one thing that stops most people from traveling is money. But traveling is never about money. I have spent years on the road, with what money, what savings to bank on? Nil. I never even had enough for the tickets. Nonetheless, those were my best days, my most cherished adventures, my fondest memories: eating poorly, sleeping on hammocks, building tents or backpacking, not comprehending local dialects, communicating through gestures and symbols, depending on others for my survival, using currencies that were mere paper to me, befriending strangers, adopting strange traditions, breaking cultural barriers, treading lonely street corners hoping I wouldn’t get mugged, getting robbed, putting my faith to test again and again, and after all of it I discovered a totally new person within me, metamorphosed by all the treasures of the heart I had amassed over time and space; I changed countries, cities, continents, like people changed clothes. You see traveling is not about money as much as it is a matter of will. There are two things you need in order to travel, to adventure, to really explore the world you were born into: tenacity and audacity.
Well I was not always a traveler. I was an ordinary girl, coming from a conservative culture in Kolkata with ordinary desires, no big dreams really. But one day all that changed for me. It was at my University, when I was learning German as a minor, I had the chance to interact with a lot of German students who had come on exchange programs at my University in Singapore. I remember, one day, one German guy told me he had bought a map of Myanmar.
“Today I bought a map of Myanmar” “Myanmar? You mean Burma?” I asked him intrigued. “Why do you have a map of Burma?” “I am going there on vacation”, he said “On vacation? To Burma? Who are you going with?” “Alone” Alone? For how long? “3 weeks”. “Do you know anyone there? I mean are you going to visit someone there?” “No, none at all”.
I was dumbfounded. I could not imagine how anyone could go just with a map to an unknown land, among unknown people, not for 3 days but 3 whole weeks and expect to have a good time. What would he find there? What kind of adventure is that? I wondered. When he came back from Burma and showed me pictures from his trip, I was flabbergasted. Instead of showing me pictures of touristic spots, he was showing me pictures of people, of strangers who invited him to their house and shared their culture and food with him that he felt at home in a strange land! I wanted to know how someone could travel like that and come back with so many real-life tales to tell. The following semester holidays, I asked him:
“So where are you going this time?” “Indonesia” “For how long?” “2 months” “Wow, that’s long! Alone?” “Yes!”
Once again when he came back and sent me pictures from his trip, I was amazed. One of those pictures was of him standing atop of an active volcano! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was awed by it all. I too wanted to experience it. I too wanted to travel the world and know how it felt to make strangers my friends, to make a strange land my home. That was when I created a dream: It was to see a real volcano with my own naked eyes! Little did I know then that 5 years, 5 continents and several latitudes and longitudes later, I would get the chance to behold a real volcano with my own eyes, but on another side of the planet, and that my dream of years would come to fruition! Here is a picture of me flying on the ashes of Volcan Irazu, my first volcano sight in Central America. It is a dormant volcano.
And here is another picture of me swimming in the crater lake of an extinct volcano, Cerro Chato in Costa Rica.
So how did it all happen? Sitting in Singapore, pursuing a career in Computer Science I could never even imagine that one day I would live the life of a nomad, a homeless girl! But when you have a dream so intense and vivid, you are bound to encounter opportunities towards its fulfillment. You see, I was probably going to live an ordinary life doing a boring corporate job, coding all day and night in a small cubicle at some big corporation, making lots of bucks, but never really knowing the deeper yearnings of my soul. But I believe my desire to experience something different, something beyond what my University education provided, something out there that I did not know what, was so strong that it manifested in the most magnificent way for me.
I started venturing out small. Every semester when new exchange students came to our University, I befriended them in my hostel or at my classes, and whenever they made travel plans I tried to join them. I did some backpacking across a couple of countries in Asia with them, then I was ready to play the bigger game. You know, if you have the courage to dream, then the Universe always meets you half way. My first trip outside of Asia was a prize won. I was awarded an all-expense paid trip to Europe after writing an essay and getting selected for a symposium. And when I got back from Europe, I had already caught the travel bug. I joined a student exchange organization at my University which provided opportunities to students and graduates to do internships in foreign countries. And that’s how I traversed some more continents. During those foreign internships, I always met other people from other countries who were also on different exchange or volunteer programs, and whenever we had opportunities or days off work, we came together and traveled in groups. We found the cheapest deals. We backpacked. We hiked and built tents. We hired cars together and did road trips. And we had all the fun. We made bonfires and danced around it. We went snorkeling in the deep seas, climbed down waterfalls canyoning, went river rafting, hiked up flt top mountains called tepuys, dived from rocks and waterfalls, climbed up volcanoes, slept on hammocks, built our own tents, drank from spring waters and watched crystal formations in mountains, did long road trips, ventured the amazonian jungles, shared culture and exchanged food, cooked in groups, and so much more.
Honestly, you will be amazed at just how little money one needs in order to travel like that. I can’t even remember how much money I spent where. Doing foreign internships that paid very little to interns, if I could do all of this, then I know I spent peanuts on these adventures but created the best memories of my life. And doing this kind of traveling is not difficult at all. The easiest way is to join some kind of organization, groups, volunteer or exchange programs that take you to a foreign land or provide travel opportunities. Then once you are there, you can explore in groups with like-minded people or on your own. There are many such organizations worldwide that offer these kinds of programs to students and adults.
Many people have apprehensions about this kind of traveling, what about racism, discrimination, cultural or language barriers, travel safety?
Racism: I honestly feel racism is created in our minds, but in reality it doesn’t exist. It is your approach that makes people decide how they want to treat you. Do you keep to your tribe, do you criticize other cultures, races, religions or do you have the courage to create meaningful connections with strangers? I have traveled to so many countries across the world but I have not experienced discrimination or racism anywhere. Not once! In fact, everywhere people were really interested in getting to know me, hanging out with me, learning about my culture, no matter what race, culture, color or religion they were from. I experienced the opposite of discrimination! Blacks, whites, browns, yellows, greys or whatever other skin colors exist, were all equally welcoming of me everywhere. How is that possible, if racism exists?
Cross culture: culture creates variety, adds color to our existence. But people sometimes mistakenly think that somehow their culture is superior to another’s. Well, it is the same with culture as with racism. These are just concepts in our heads, but if you don’t let the differences bother you so much, you will not encounter discrimination on your path. If you are open to learning, you will grow.
Language barrier: One thing I realized, that if you even try, just try to speak the language of another country, one word, two words, five words, people will be extra friendly with you. I remember when I was in Germany, I used to speak in broken German, excruciatingly stringing a few words together to make a grammatically incorrect sentence, and people were like, “oh look at this little Indian girl trying to speak our language” and all their barriers melted. It was the same in Latin America with Spanish or any other culture for that matter.
Safety: no amount of law or punishment can make this world a safer place. Real security is within you. It comes from a place of deep inner knowing that you are safe and you will be. Always try to travel with no valuables on you. And still if you feel scared, in your mind surround yourself with white light and program it to protect you in dire circumstances, should one arise in the first place. It works, believe you me! I have lived in some of the most dangerous places of the world and came back alive, unhurt, unscratched.
You will learn how to manage your expenses, travel on low budgets yet have the best time of your lives. I or someone else doesn’t have to teach you these things. You will learn all by yourself, how to stay healthy and safe while traveling/living abroad, how to navigate across multi-cultural boundaries, how to be a confident traveler, how to be language smart, how to travel at the drop of a hat, travel cheap & have a ball! You will connect with strangers. You will create quick inventions to save the day, those unconscious witticisms, hilarious epiphanies about life, intimate childlike revelations of yourself in honest, funny, sometimes pathetic imaginings, exciting play of fanciful imagination, of lively curiosity, cheerful and bubbly, of the need to know, to find out, to seem wise beyond the years… and these will bring immense pleasure to your soul.
So here are some of my best travel tips:
- Travel light: do not carry those heavy suitcases. Take the bare minimum and that is enough
- Backpack: Nothing like traveling long distances with just a backpack that contains everything you need but nothing you greed.
- Build tents: the fun of building your own tent by the seaside and spending the night listening to waves crashing onto the rocks is a miracle
- Travel in groups: this is best to do when you have a low budget
- Travel solo: this is important if you want to know yourself in experience. You take it all in, the good, the bad, the ugly, process them in your own heart, learn, evolve and grow adding more dimensions of reality to your existence.
- Take up exchange/volunteer programs or foreign internships: there are many programs and exchange organizations like AIESEC, that can provide the skeleton for you, and the rest you can manage on your own.
- Couchsurfing: live in people’s houses when you travel, share with them. Most times this is free or paying very little in exchange for the warmth of someone’s home. Maybe you can buy them lunch in return for a free night’s stay. There are reliable websites where you can register for this.
- Airbnb & youth hostels: if you really want to know other cultures and people, these are other options to interact with locals, tourists, foreigners or stay in their houses for much less than what you would pay in hotels.
- Mitfahrgelegenheit & uber pool: travel in shared cars and save money on local transport.
- Trust in the unknown: have faith in the goodness of life and you will be rewarded generously by life.
- Have no fear: believe you are okay and you will be; the only real security is within you.
- Potluck: you can pool in food, each person in a group buying something and cooking together. It’s so much fun and cost-effective!!!
- Get invited to people’s houses: during your work, you can befriend colleagues and work partners who can invite you to their houses, show you their culture and feed you delicious homecooked meals.
- Wear their clothes: it is always so much fun to wear local costumes and attend local events. You get all the attention, as a foreigner in a native garment! Much more than what you would get on facebook! Haha
- Attend religious or traditional functions: this one really opens your mind. Do this not to buy into other’s religions, traditions or belief systems, but to understand how your own religion, tradition and belief system is just one way of thinking and there are others who think differently and that is okay.
- Make merry: never forget to cherish each experience for that moment will never return
- Have passion: passion is everything. Passion defines you. If you have no passion, then don’t do it.
- Go the distance: A street corner in Berlin has more stories to tell than what your entire life can teach you. Just go. Don’t stop. Don’t second guess. Don’t pause. If you look for opportunities, opportunities will present themselves to you.
I firmly believe if more people could travel like this, there will be little or no room in our world for religious wars, racial discrimination, cultural hatred, dysfunctional belief systems or judgement in our societies, because you will see the futility of it all! You will see that your culture is just one culture, one way to look at life, but not the absolute truth or the only way. Someone in Asia believes this, someone in America believes that, someone in Africa believes something else. Do you know that in Africa men pay dowry to marry women? Do you know that in Latin America there is no concept of shaming a woman’s body whereas in Asia if a woman exposes her body she is considered to be of loose character? While in a rich oil producing country like Nigeria people literally live in darkness with almost 20 out of 24 hours a day of no electricity, in yet another oil producing country like Venezuela you can fill a whole car tank with less than what a bottle of water costs. You will notice opposite things and you will marvel at life’s idiosyncrasies. You will find out that sometimes nonsense makes the best sense, You will discover that what is right in one culture, is wrong is another. What is polite in one country is rude in another country. What is respectful in one region is disrespectful in another region. What you think is good, another thinks bad. You may lose your grapple of reality, not knowing what to believe anymore, how to behave appropriately. Sometimes you won’t know right from wrong, good from bad, and that is okay. Sometimes you may feel alone, that nobody understands you, a feeling that you do not belong, because others are still holding on so strongly to their cultural beliefs while you have seen so many different cultures that you know inherently, none of it is real. We are all making it up, all the way! As you get a bite size of all cultures, races, religions, ethnicities, backgrounds, your world view will expand to hold more of reality in it, a grander truth, a bigger picture about humanity! It is all just different lifestyles, different belief systems and cultures. One is not necessarily better or worse than another. Just different. And that creates variety. You will see that your god, your belief, your religion is just one of many thought system, and that there are others with their definitions of god, their faith, their culture, their religion, their tradition, and everyone is right in their own perspective. At the end of the day, none of it matters really! You will see that what is going on within you is going on inside everyone else. You will start understanding yourself; the storm inside your soul will suddenly start speaking to you. You will not let culture define you, rather you will define culture, create new cultures should the old be dysfunctional. You will develop more tolerance and love for humanity. You will break molds, shift paradigms and transcend mindsets.
Thus, you will be living your dreams literally. And you will have the courage to chase butterflies, even believing that one day you will catch them. You will see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And wise as you have become from all these travels, you will have already reaped a lot of gold, rich with the kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with the information you acquire from textbooks or YouTube videos. Because you will have your own experiences as your teacher, your knowledge applied has now become wisdom. Above all you will become fearless, fearless enough to fly! You naturally want to do things that will serve the world at a bigger level than just be content with a 9-6 job. Sitting in Singapore, I never imagined I would be a globetrotter one day if not for that fateful encounter with the German guy! My life is unrecognizable today. And I feel this larger destiny calling me to live out a grander vision of humanity.
Grandma’s “leche” story: I end with a hilarious anecdote from my first days in Latin America. When I first went to South America, I did not even know “hello” in Spanish. So I lived with an old couple in Venezuela, who I fondly called the abuelos. Abuelo in Spanish means Grandpa and abuela, grandma. I lived in their house and they loved me like their own daughter. Abuela cooked for me every day. She made sure I would never go hungry. And she always left food for me when I returned from work at nights, past 10pm. I remember at the beginning of my stay in their house, one night when I got home there was no food on the dining table. Abuela had already gone to bed upstairs. She heard me enter the house through the front gate and started shouting my name, Baisakhi! Baisakhi! I rushed upstairs to her bedroom; she told me something in Spanish I did not understand. But she kept repeating one word: leche, leche, leche! “Whatever that means”, I thought to myself. I did not want to bother her at that hour so I kept nodding my head, uttering: si, si, si… as if I understood. By then I had learnt that “si” meant yes! Abuela was satisfied and went back to sleep. I went downstairs and looked for this food called “leche” everywhere. I knew if it was food grandma had left for me, I would surely find it. So I looked on the kitchen counter, checked the fridge, the gas stove, the dining table again, but I could not find anywhere this food called leche. I was tired and went to bed hungry that night. Early next morning abuela barged into my room while I was still asleep. She woke me up and angrily demanded why I hadn’t eaten “leche” the previous night. So she found out I went to bed empty stomach! I did not know what to say. I just shrugged my shoulders and uttered, leche??” indicating, I did not understand its meaning. She grabbed my hand and dragged me downstairs. Then she opened a closet below the kitchen counter and showed me a tin can with milk powder in it. She pointed at it and said “leche”. Next to it was a plastic container of cornflakes. Oh, so she was asking me to eat cornflakes with milk last night as she had had guests over and cooked food had finished! Finally it all dawned on me in a very comical way that leche was milk. That’s how I learned Spanish. As abuela chattered, she wanted me to listen to her. At times, she even stopped to check if I had understood. If I didn’t, I simply nodded my head saying “si” indicating that I understood so she wouldn’t cross-question me. Although abuela was very smart; she always knew when I was lying! But it was a white lie, so she pardoned me in my non-understanding and loved me nevertheless.
You see I am not a homeless girl. Because I have a home in every country I lived. Maybe that is why I always felt building a house is not as most important as traveling the world.
Go the distance!
SOA 90.4 Radio Interview:
Posing with my poster:
Stills from the TEDxSOAUniversity event in Bhubaneswar at the Siksha o’ Anusandhan University, 13 January 2019 on the topic: How to travel the world at the drop of a hat!
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at ted.com/tedx.
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13 January 2019, Sunday, SUM Annex, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India by Siksha O’ Anusandhan (SOA) University.