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QZ&A

How an Indian woman travels the world—in spite of her passport

By Maria Thomas

The annual Henley Passport Index reveals which country has the most powerful travel document in the world. And each year, India doesn’t even crack the top 50.

In 2018, the country ranked 81 out of 106 nations. Though that is up six ranks from last year, visa-free travel for Indian passport-holders is still possible to only 60 nations. In comparison, Japan, which topped the list, has visa-free access to a staggering 190 countries.

This hasn’t stopped millions of Indians from travelling, of course. Still, the expensive, time-consuming process of procuring visas often stands in the way of impulsive trips or living the “digital nomad” life the way a privileged few from the West can.

A less powerful passport hasn’t stopped the Indian travel blogger Shivya Nath. In 2011, at the age of 23, Nath gave up a comfortable and well-paid job to explore India and the rest of the world. She’s managed to visit over 50 countries, documenting her experiences in the remote rainforests of Ecuador and the mountains of Ethiopia on her blog, The Shooting Star.

In her new book, named after the blog and published by Penguin Random House India, Nath writes about her travels around the world, and how she slowly began giving up her possessions to live a truly nomadic life. She doesn’t hide the challenges though, especially the pressure of going against the grain as a woman from small-town India.

In an email interview with Quartz, Nath explained the value of being an Indian travel writer, and how exactly she overcomes the “pain of travelling with an Indian passport.”

Edited excerpts:

What is it like being an Indian travel writer? What would you say you bring to travel writing as an Indian writer?

While it’s true that travel writing has historically been the prerogative of white men, the world feels saturated with that perspective now. Especially in developing countries with growing incomes, there is a hunger for new voices—and I think that’s where Indian travel writers fit in. For someone like me who started out in the digital age, I’ve been able to find ample space and a keen audience for the kind of travel writing—experiential and focussed on responsible travel—I believe I offer.

While some Indian travel writing has already transcended borders and race, more of it will continue to do so when we stop trying to confine ourselves to the historically defined rules and conventions of travel writing.

As an Indian writer, it’s imperative for me to acknowledge the privilege of being able to travel the world on my terms, as a way of life. Being mindful of that privilege and having my roots in middle-income, small-town Indian upbringing allows me to engage, perhaps more deeply, with local communities around the world, especially in countries that are still under the tourist radar. At the same time, I see myself as a world citizen—capable of shaping my own perspective of the world, largely uninfluenced by those (especially the white men) who’ve experienced it before me.

How do you figure out where you want to go, how do you make it happen, and what do you first do when you get there? 

I don’t have a set process while deciding where I want to go next; some important variables include:

  • My financial situation at the time of the decision (as a location independent travel blogger, my income varies substantially from month to month).
  • Ease of access with an Indian passport (I hate applying for visas!).
  • Whether I’m looking to explore several parts of a country or slow down in a single place.
  • The weather (the cooler, the better).

Financially, I make it happen by prioritising travel over all else; I’ve rarely shopped in the past five years, simply because all I own has to fit in my two bags! I seldom spend on partying or other leisure expenses associated with city living. I literally use everything I earn to satiate my wanderlust.

In terms of research and planning, I’m always on the lookout for places that are relatively unknown—the less I can read about them online, the better. Once I’ve shortlisted some locations, I try to find accommodations run by locals—typically Airbnbs or homestays—that let me experience a destination deeply. Then I show up, and figure out the rest along the way.

What I do when I get there varies greatly by location. In my favourite village in Guatemala for instance, I would jump into a lake flanked by three volcanoes; in a city like Tbilisi (in Georgia) on the other hand, I would walk the streets until the aroma of freshly baked shoti (Georgian bread) lures me into a local restaurant.

Can you tell me about your experience of living this nomadic life as a person with a comparatively less convenient passport?

I can’t really sugarcoat the pain of travelling with an Indian passport—but what I can say is, it would be really sad to let it stop us from experiencing the world. Despite having no permanent home or salaried job, I’ve managed to travel to over 50 countries—and have written this detailed blog post about how I manage visas on my Indian passport.

Some quick tips:

  • Currently, 60 countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to Indians. Some of these are remote Pacific islands, but some are our next door neighbours!
  • Having a valid US visa enables visa-free access to many countries, including most of Central America.

The biggest challenge of travelling with an Indian passport—especially as a digital nomad—is that I can’t show up at an airport, pick a destination and go. I’ve been subjected to “random” security checks many times, even been interrogated halfway across the world by immigration officials who just can’t fathom why a brown-skinned girl could be travelling by herself.

On the bright side though, perhaps no one appreciates the little joys like those of us from developing nations—the little joys of getting a visa stamped on our passport after a lengthy documentation process, receiving a visa just in time for a flight and the thrill when another country opens up visa on arrival for our country.

Have things changed since you first started travelling extensively? Do you see more women striking out on their own?

I can’t say if things have changed or I have. People around the world are still curious and concerned when they meet a woman travelling alone, but perhaps I’ve become more immune to that curiosity over the years. In fact, I try to see it as an opportunity to talk about the patriarchal mindsets that often drives this curiosity.

I definitely feel more women—especially South Asian—are striking out on their own now and challenging conventions in their own ways. In the past year alone, I’ve met the first female surfer from the Maldives, an Indian lady who’s been travelling solo on her wheelchair, and women who’ve been bitten by the solo travel bug in their sixties! The percentage might be small, but it feels like a wave of change is on its way.

Feature image by Ana_Cotta on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.