A few days ago, I sat in the balcony of our abode in Bhutan, watching the mist roll into the mountains. Below, in the neighbour’s house, stood two trees laden with juicy red apples. On a nearby hill stood an ancient monastery, its meditative chants wafting through the air. Purple and blue butterflies flittered about. Sipping hypericum tea, made from a local flower, I wondered how this came to be my life.
Sliding down memory lane, some unforgettable moments stood out. Apart from the usual suspects like quitting my job and moving back to India, I reminisced about the unexpected ones. A weird mix of silliness, luck, stubbornness and downright irrationality. In retrospect, these unexpected episodes were equally important in shaping my journey as a travel writer:
I took a talking camera on my first travel blogging assignment in India!
I remember quitting my full time job in Singapore in 2011 and moving back to India with secret dreams of making it as a travel writer – though I never expected to make a living out of it. I blogged and tweeted about my travels with zest, and my excitement knew no bounds when a few months in, India’s veteran travel blogger, Lakshmi Sharath, invited me to my first ever travel blogging assignment – to cover Club Mahindra in Jim Corbett National Park in India.
It was the first time that a company sponsored my travels, and at short notice, the only gadget I had with me was my pink, talking Sanyo camera (a gift from my brother)! Among professional photographers with their fancy DSLRs and tripods, mine emitted a high-pitched noise asking the subject to “smile” before taking a photo. It became the butt of many jokes, and I got rid of it as soon as I accumulated enough money to buy a “serious” looking camera 😉
Also read: So You Want to Start a Travel Blog?
I stalked a marketing manager on Linkedin and got invited to my first international FAM trip
As a newbie travel blogger working day and night to create unique content, grow my engagement and reach, and build an active audience, I felt utterly disappointed (jealous?) every time there was an international press trip and all the same Indian bloggers were invited. Why wasn’t I getting invited? So in a rage of fit one evening, I began to stalk the marketing team of a tourism board on Linkedin, hoping to figure out who these decision-makers were.
What happened next blew my mind. Linkedin lets you see who’s viewed your profile recently, so later that night, I received a message from one of the people I’d stalked, asking if I’d be interested in joining a press trip (my first international one) to Spain! Hell yes. WHAT CRAZY LUCK.
Also read: Confessions of an Indian Travel Blogger
Someone called my writing “average and boring”
I vividly remember that warm afternoon in 2011, when I forwarded a travel blog post to a friend. Back in those days, this blog was merely a place for me to vent and share random life musings. I was toying with the idea of rejigging it into a travel blog, and sharing my travel pieces with anyone who showed the slightest interest in reading them (if you’re a blogger, you know how hard the early days of finding readers are!).
Never in a thousand years did I expect the feedback I received: that my writing was average, boring and unexciting. I shed a tear or three, then went back to the piece with my most critical eye and admitted to myself that the “I went there, I did this” style of writing is boring indeed. In retrospect, that one critique changed everything. It pushed me to read more, experiment with my words and try to find my own unique voice – something I continue to do to this day.
It’s not easy to find someone who will tell us to our face that our work sucks. But that person is a keeper. It’s the only way to push forward and get better at what we do.
At my first international conference, I was shocked to discover that travel bloggers get paid for everything I was doing for free
I landed up at TBEX Canada, my first international travel blogging conference, thinking that with the many international press trips in my kitty, I had already made it. Imagine my shock when I learnt that many international travel bloggers were getting paid for everything I was doing for free – going on press trips, creating content for travel brands and promoting them on social media. It all made sense, considering that we were generating real revenue for these tourism boards and brands. I left in awe, ready to believe that my beloved blog could become a potential source of income.
When I got back to India and started asking PR companies and tourism boards for a blogging fee, everyone thought I had lost my mind. Many bloggers said it would never work in India. Some even considered it unethical. Tired of working for free, especially knowing how the industry had evolved abroad, I sent out some pretty harsh emails and got blacklisted by some agencies.
After many rejections, I felt vindicated when one forward-thinking brand agreed to pay me. Trembling with joy, I asked for a mere 500$ for an international press trip despite promising many deliverables – but hey, it was a start. The travel blogging industry in India evolved gradually, and most professional travel bloggers now expect to be paid for such work.
Also read: Learning to Walk Away
When I over-promised, couldn’t deliver and got into a sticky situation
Back in the day, it was common for bloggers to be coerced into writing about a press trip for publications – and the naive blogger that I was, I agreed to the demand of a resort in Mauritius to feature them in a story in India’s biggest newspaper. Unfortunately, upon my return, I realised that no prominent media publications were interested in carrying yet another story about sea, sun and sand in Mauritius. I had many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to meet this promise, cursing myself for over-promising.
In the meantime, I was running a contest for my readers to win a stay at this resort, but just as I was about to announce the winner, they told me they wouldn’t honor my contest until the publication carried the story! I was livid and helpless, too broke to repay them for the trip and felt stupid for not thinking through my decisions. Ultimately we reached a compromise and I decided never again to promise coverage on a platform I don’t control.
At a farm in India, forced to learn about sustainbility for the first time!
Back in 2012, we started India Untravelled to connect rural tourism initiatives with travellers seeking authentic experiences in India. “Sustainable living” was mostly an unknown idea to me then. Scouting for potential destinations, we landed up at an organic farm in rural Rajasthan, hoping to catch some rest after a long, tiring journey. Instead, our host, a burly, firm man, made us sit in his open balcony and aggressively quizzed us about organic farming, sustainable travel and zero waste. It was like being back in school, without having done your homework! We sneakily googled some answers and faltered through others – relieved when he finally stopped the grilling and gave us a long lecture instead. Phew.
In retrospect though, that chastening encounter set me on a journey to explore more conscious and eco-friendly choices and eventually become an advocate for sustainable tourism.
A café brochure that changed everything
While waiting for a table to become available at Peace Food Cafe in New York City, a brochure in the waiting space caught my eye. Among other things, it had gruesome photos and facts about dairy farming and eggs. I had turned vegetarian a decade ago in protest against animal cruelty, but never saw anything wrong with consuming milk, eggs and honey, or lifestyle products like leather, silk and wool. Hell, I didn’t even know I was waiting at an all-vegan cafe!
That was the first time I learnt about the concept of veganism – though it would be nearly a year later, after a shocking incident in Nicaragua, that I would actually make the transition towards veganism. Who knew a random brochure in a cafe could literally change my life?
A cover story that gradually led to my book
I remember staying up all night to work on a story on my digital nomad life for The Hindu. As often happens with deadlines, I procrastinated all week, only to lose precious sleep at the eleventh hour. I cursed everything under the sun as I banged away at my keyboard, drinking iced tea to keep my brain from getting foggy. I thought many times about giving up, making a lame excuse to the editor and tucking in for the night. But somehow I kept going, and as the sun rose, finally turned in the story, convinced that this writing thing wasn’t working for me.
When it got published a few days later, I was surprised to hear from the editor of a prominent literary publishing house, asking if I’d be interested in writing a book about my journey! Although flattered by his email, I dismissed the idea of ever penning a book. I mean, I could barely pen that article.
A few years later, I feverishly started working on a travel memoir, determined to publish it before I hit thirty. It turns out, convincing a good publisher in India to even look at your work (unless you’re a well known celeb), is even harder than writing a book. Luckily, the person who had written to me all that time ago, made some generous introductions that ultimately led me to a book deal with Penguin – and my first book, The Shooting Star, got published in 2018!
Also read: Reflections on Life, Travel and Turning 29
As a tiny, bright rainbow appeared in the valley across my balcony in Bhutan, I couldn’t help but think it’s not always the big decisions that shape our lives. It’s often the stupid, tiny, laughable ones.
Your turn, what’s a secret about travel blogging or travelling you haven’t told anyone yet?
Order a copy of my bestselling book, The Shooting Star.