While browsing through my Instagram DMs a few months ago, there was one that really jumped out at me. The world had been catapulted into a global pandemic and borders were shut, and Saurabh Gupta aka @anindiantraveler – a solo backpacker from Mumbai – found himself stuck on the other side of the globe, in Colombia!
In February 2020, after working, saving up and quitting his job of many years, he finally embarked on his dream solo trip to South America. But just a month into his travels, he found himself locked down indefinitely at a hostel in Medellin, far far away from the familiarity of home – an adventure no one could’ve anticipated.
I got chatting at length with Saurabh about his decision to quit his full time job, his past travels, what took him to South America and how he spent 6 months locked down in Colombia. Gear up for a fascinating, inspiring story.
An introvert banker turns full time solo traveller
“World cinema introduced me to so many different cultures, people, languages, regions and landscapes. At one point I wanted to experience them in real life. So I decided to travel solo.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
For much of his life, Saurabh had felt stuck in a loop. Work, office, home, repeat. As an introvert, he found refuge in world cinema, especially films by the likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Satyajit Ray, which induced in him a desire to explore the world out there.
Like many fellow Indians, he was in awe of the western world, but when he travelled to Western Europe and the US, he felt a bit underwhelmed. It was in Central Asia that he hitchhiked for the first time, and felt a strong draw to the unique culture and hospitality of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
This trip gradually nudged him to quit his banking work of more than a decade, sell the outsourcing sales agency he ran with his older brother, and travel and write full time. As a budget traveller, Saurabh says he tries to hitchhike, couch-surf, volunteer and cook whenever possible. His savings and investments pay for his basic costs.
After he quit in late 2019, he spent two months exploring East Africa – seeking out mountain gorillas and hiking to a crater lake in Rwanda, exploring the beaches and wildlife of Kenya, and volunteering at a coffee farm and reforestation project in Uganda. His travels then took him to Northeast India, where he trekked in the Dzukou valley and explored Manipur and Mizoram among the other seven sisters.
Gradually, he began dreaming of travelling without a set itinerary, without a return date. Little did he know that the future was going to offer literally that.
Setting out on his dream trip to South America… in late Feb 2020!
“I wanted to travel extensively across South America for atleast a year. It was supposed to be my longest trip… which it still is, but under completely different circumstances!” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had put off travelling to South America for a long time, constrained by time and finances. After much planning, he finally boarded a flight to Colombia on 19th Feb 2020. He dreamt of journeying from the northernmost to the southernmost point of South America, going with the flow along the way to let people and places mold his plans.
But 2020 of course, had its own agenda…
Getting locked down in Colombia for 6 months
“I had travelled solo to four continents but never lived in a foreign country, nor did I intend to. But the universe had different plans for me.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh explored northern Colombia for about a month, where he attended the Barranquilla’s Carnival – the second largest in the world, travelled to Punta Gallinas – the nothernmost point of South America, saw sand dunes along the stunning beaches etc. Then he took an overnight bus from Cartagena to Medellin. As he began exploring the city, he noticed that many attractions were closing down. It was mid-March and most people were not taking the coronavirus news too seriously.
After a few days in Medellin though, news suddenly broke out that almost the entire world was going into lockdown – Medellin, Colombia, South America, India. Saurabh anticipated that it would be a short term state of affairs, and decided to stay on in Medellin to avoid buying a highly overpriced ticket back to India. In the meantime, airports, schools, colleges, offices, shops, malls, transportation, everything shut – and Medellin went quiet.
During the initial lockdown, he could only step out twice in 10 days to stock up on groceries or use the ATM, monitored by the last digit of the cedula (the Colombian National ID card) or the passport number. He was staying in a budget hostel at the time, and rather enjoyed the experience of hanging out and cooking with travellers from across the continent.
But as he lost hope of returning home or travelling again, frustration gradually set in. To keep his spirits up, he decided to change hostels and neighborhoods.
Discovering slow travel and creative pursuits
“I used to think and laugh about the fact that I quit my work of so many years because I didn’t want to be stuck in one place for my whole life. But ironically, I felt stuck again even though I was travelling.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Colombia had one of the world’s longest lockdowns – 6 entire months! Over the course of this time, Saurabh moved 3 hostels, 2 Airbnb rentals and undertook a 3-week stint volunteering in exchange for stay and food. He lived in several different neighborhoods in Medellin, of which his favorite was Envigado, quiet and close to the mountains, waterfalls, nature walks and parks. The houses and infrastructure there reminded him of his childhood in Panchkula.
Once he set his mind to spending his energy on positive pursuits, he immersed himself in learning Spanish, which he could practice everyday with native speakers. He got better at cooking, practiced salsa, took to Spanish music and signed up for an online writing course. When the restrictions eased up a bit, he would go out on long walks, bicycle rides and hikes, often covering 15-20km a day, sometimes solo and sometimes with resident friends. He met many new people and shared meals, cooking recipes, dance steps, music and long conversations – and perhaps that’s what kept him going in dismal times.
During the fifth month of his lockdown life in Medellin, Saurabh even got invited to a local radio show, where the RJ quizzed him about Medellin, India and his time in lockdown!
Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel
The end of the lockdown, finally
“I don’t feel disheartened now. I’m glad I had the experience of living in a foreign country under strange circumstances – something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.” ~ Saurabh Gupta
Saurabh had been in touch with the Indian embassy all this while, and at some point, was seriously contemplating returning back to India. The evacuation flights however, were priced rather high, and he had also begun to feel a sense of belonging in Medellin.
By now, he would walk several hours everyday, listening to Spanish music, discovering different parts of the city. On one such walk, he recalls, he went to La Sierra – labelled one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin. There, he met a guy who instantly recognized that he was from India and invited him home for a cup of coffee and oblea (a local sweet). Having worked in the Middle East and made Indian friends, he was delighted to see Saurabh in his neighborhood.
Despite having an Indian passport, Saurabh’s US tourist visa allowed him to stay in Colombia for upto 6 months – and the Colombian government eased up visa restrictions during the lockdown too.
When the lockdown finally ended in Colombia in September 2020, he explored a bit more of the country. A couple of weeks ago, in February 2021, he eventually boarded a flight from Mexico to India – one whole year after his departure.
Words of wisdom for those whose travel dreams were shattered by the pandemic
Saurabh: “After I started travelling full time, strange things have happened with me again and again. I went to Kashmir with my brother and had to return early because of the suspension of Article 370. Then during my solo trip to East Africa, I had to return early to India to attend to an urgent family matter. When I travelled solo to Northeast India, I wanted to explore all states but had to cut my trip short due to the CAA/NRC protests. And now the lockdown during my Colombia trip…
2020 has been really challenging for most of us, but it has taught me that with an adventurous mindset and a positive attitude towards people and life, we can make the most of even such unpredictable times. My lockdown story is an apt example!”
All photos in this post belong to Saurabh, used with permission.
What’s your lockdown story, and how did this time affect your travel dreams? What have you learnt from it?
This post is part of my “Solo Travellers from Asia” Series – which aims to shed the spotlight on courageous souls who are challenging conventions in their own fierce ways, yet are typically underrepresented in the travel space.
If you’ve met inspiring solo travellers from Asia who I could consider featuring in this series, please connect us!