I began reminiscing about my four years as a nomad on the treacherous yet breathtaking drive to Spiti. Although Bolivia holds the title for the world’s most dangerous road, the route to Spiti in the Trans Himalayas must rank pretty close. As the Chandra River gushed along and sometimes across the “road”, it struck me just how magnificent and fragile life is. One moment, I was awestruck by the rugged beauty of the snow-peaked Himalayas; the next, I was clutching my seat, hearing the tyres screech, watching the gearbox fly uncontrollably in all directions, holding on to dear life as the driver braked just in time for our shared taxi to stop right on the edge of the fierce Chandra River.
I suppose that journey from Manali to Spiti kind of sums up the last four years for me. Breathtaking on most days, treacherous on some. On the road, and within.
I still remember, with some clarity, that dull, starless night on the roof of my rented Delhi apartment, when my soul craved more adventure. That night, I decided to give up living at a permanent address, sold most of my belongings and made the road my only home.
Four years later, at twenty-nine, the road is still my home. And my only belongings weigh around twenty kilograms, snugly packed into the two bags I always carry. These are some musings over four homeless years of life as a digital nomad:
Nomadism is a state of mind
When I first went location independent, I used to tell people with some pride that I don’t live anywhere in particular. I secretly loved the surprise and awe when they tried to imagine what my life must be like. But over the years, nomadism became my normal; it was my turn to feel surprised and awe when I imagined what it must be like for someone to live in the same place all their lives.
These days, I think the feeling of belonging nowhere, and by virtue of that, belonging everywhere, is just a mindset. We are conditioned to think – by society and by the false security of our comfort zone – that the familiar place where we lay our feet and rest our heads is home. But the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve realized that home is the feeling of becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, just like friendship is the feeling of getting to know someone unknown. And when national borders become meaningless, you feel as much at home in the rugged mountains of Spiti as you do in the home of a Mayan family in Guatemala as you do in the vast desert under the vast night sky in Jordan… and that’s how home stops becoming a place and becomes a feeling.
The 80-20 rule still holds true
I first devised my 80-20 rule in my early twenties. I had just started working full-time at the Singapore Tourism Board, and was struggling to maintain the work – life – travel balance. I have to confess that now that I work for myself, the struggle to find that balance is even more real: travelling is my work, my life and my “me time”… and vice-versa.
Over the years, I’ve heard of and witnessed enough untimely deaths and unfulfilled lives, to remind me to follow my 80-20 rule(s) more now than ever. The idea is to spend 80% of my time with 20% of the people – and on 20% of the work – that matter to me most. Even if that makes my life seem self-centred and irresponsible to some, I know it’s the only one I’ve got.
Using influence to drive positive change
There came a time last year when I felt like my hedonistic travel chase was leaving me feeling empty and unfulfilled. Even with my continued focus on writing about sustainable travel in an experiential and nearly disguised way, it seemed to me that the road had given me far more than I had given back. So I found myself a blank
slate notebook, and started plotting the confluence of what I loved doing, what I believe I’m good at and the causes I truly care about.
From that confluence emerged @voicesofMunsiari in 2015/16 – India’s first Instagram channel run entirely by the rural village communities of Munsiari (Uttarakhand) – empowering storytellers in remote Himalayan villages to share their life stories directly with the world, despite language and connectivity barriers.
And this year, I made my way back to Spiti, to work on a menace that is plaguing our society: plastic bottles. We began conversations with local businesses on the harmful effects of plastic and safe, eco-friendly alternatives, and built a lifesize art installation of discarded plastic bottles to encourage travellers to pledge against them. We will continue working to spread awareness online, hoping to see a sizeable reduction in the use of plastic bottles in Spiti in 2018, and ultimately aspire to make Spiti and the high Himalayas a plastic bottle-free zone.
In my keynote speech at the SoDelhi Confluence, I used the stage to urge budding bloggers – travel, fashion, food and everything in between – to think beyond just commercial success, and ask what else we can use our “influence” for. That’s something I see becoming my mantra in the days to come.
I love not man the less…
The longer I stay on the road, the clearer I become about the kind of people I want to interact with. Things like hypocrisy, petty jealousies, lack of respect for someone from a lower socio-economic background, even meaningless small talk, turn me off. Sometimes I worry I’ve become quite incapable of forging real relationships – and even more, that I’m okay with it.
On my part, I’ve pissed off enough people, friends and family included, who can’t stop questioning my way of life. My choice not to stay in one place. My choice never to get married (I do say never like I mean it). My choice never to have children.
Meryl Streep Portuguese author José Micard Teixeira, “I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me. I have no patience for cynicism, excessive criticism and demands of any nature. I lost the will to please those who do not like me, to love those who do not love me and to smile at those who do not want to smile at me. I no longer spend a single minute on those who lie or want to manipulate. I decided not to coexist anymore with pretence, hypocrisy, dishonesty and cheap praise.”
Getting off the emotional rollercoaster
I can’t say when I started transitioning from my emotional rollercoaster towards stoicism, but I did notice it recently – and with some pride. I travelled 25 hours non-stop from Spiti, 12 in a shared taxi on the treacherous “road” to Manali, then 13 in an overnight bus to Delhi – to make it in time for a flight to the Maldives where I was to relax for a week, then speak at a travel conference. I saw myself lying under a palm tree on an empty beach, the sound of the crashing waves in my ears, the gentle blue color of the water stretching into the horizon… and somehow survived that arduous journey.
But just as the bus pulled into Delhi, I got an email saying my flight couldn’t be arranged as planned. A year or two ago, I would’ve pulled out my hair, bawled my guts out and yelled angrily at the organisers. But even in my exhausted state, I just sighed, decided to treat myself to an indulgent night’s stay in Delhi, and figure things out. Ultimately, I spent 24 hours in the Maldives speaking at a panel on storytelling at the World Travel Writers Conference – and perhaps set the record for the shortest stay ever on these gorgeous islands!
The point is, I didn’t pull my hair or bawl my guts out. Because I’m slowly but surely coming to accept that shit happens. On the road, at home, in life. We’ve got to take it in our stride and move on… because the road, home and life would be so darn boring if shit didn’t happen.
My (secret) life goal was to survive till 30, but…
Now that I’m circling thirty, I feel greedy about living life. In retrospect, I feel like I spent much of my teens bordering depression, plagued by an inexplicable meaninglessness no matter how normal my life seemed to outsiders. I gave myself time till 30… that notorious age that seems so out of reach when you’re in your teens and twenties. I’m glad I did, because I can’t imagine leaving this planet without having hiked solo in the breathtaking Ecuadorian Andes, or finding my paradise halfway across the globe in Guatemala, or feeling wild and free in the wild Caucasus.
Besides, as my friend often says, we’ll be dead for so long…
A big hug and thanks to each of you for joining my adventures virtually! What’s life looking like for you these days?
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