She quit her job to live life off the beaten track
Shivya Nath, author of ‘The Shooting Star’, talks about life as a digital nomad, sustainable travel and packing light
Shivya Nath is charting her own path. In 2011, she quit her corporate job with the Singapore Tourism Board at the age of 23 to explore the world. One of her early travel experiences was as a volunteer traveller in Spiti. Over time, she has travelled to remote villages in the country as well as the far corners of the world, helping local communities, learning local languages and understanding immersive travel. In 2013, she had given up her home and sold her possessions, apart from those which fit in a rucksack and a small backpack. A bona fide nomad, she journeyed on a road that circled outside the normative values of society, leading not only to the farthest continents but also into her own self. Apart from giving her a plethora of stories, her experiences have shown her the value of sustainable travel. She has been documenting her journeys on her blog, The Shooting Star. Over the years it has garnered an ever-growing number of followers, won awards and become one of India’s leading travel blogs. Nath has also used her learnings on the road to become a consultant who helps companies, initiatives and individuals to encourage responsible tourism and give back to local communities across the world.
However, it is not always easy living this life of adventure as it is defined by things like an unstable income, the occasional dangers of travelling alone as a young woman and the uncertainty of finding a roof over your head or a vegan meal. Yet, Nath has never let these things faze her and has bartered knowledge and labour in return for food and shelter, and defied unsafe encounters with grit and good sense. As a vegan, she has learnt about the various possibilities of a plant-based diet that exist in cuisines across the world. For Nath, life goals are created everyday on the open road— under a canopy of stars on a rooftop in the Little Rann of Kutch, on a hike around a crater lake in Ecuador, in a Buddhist nunnery in Ladakh or in rural Punjab. Earlier this year, Nath published her first book, The Shooting Star: A Girl, Her Backpack And The World, which describes her life so far—the stories of the places she has travelled to and the friends she made along the way. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What would you define as the turning point that made you choose this life over a corporate career?
I think my turning point was a two- month unpaid sabbatical from my corporate job, part of which I spent volunteer-travelling by myself in the Indian Himalaya. That was my first conscious solo trip, and the first time I hiked and hitch-hiked by myself. I witnessed millions of stars, swapped life stories with Buddhist monks and nuns who often lived in solitude, and learnt about how our travel choices impact local communities and the environment. It made me realize that there is so much more to life than chasing money and the corporate ladder—and began seeking a different way of life.
From the organized structures of a 9-5 job to life on the open road, what were the rules that you set for yourself?
I think one of my reasons for wanting to break away from a 9-5 job was to live a life without rules set by society. So I never attempted to build a disciplined schedule for myself. What I attempted to do was to feel so committed towards everything I did—either driven by the stories I wanted to tell or by the need to earn enough to fund my upcoming travels—that I’d wake up in the morning and sleep at night determined to do what needed to be done. There is no doubt that the life of a digital nomad needs determination and some discipline to work without organized structures—and I felt I thrived in it, not just because it was the only way to make my new life work but also because I felt (and still do) so passionately about my work.
What does organization and order mean to you within the context of the life that you have chosen?
To be honest, they don’t hold much significance for me. I find routines and structures uninspiring. I’ve begun to thrive in the chaos and unpredictability of this life. It all feels like one big adventure, and I’ve learnt not to take my troubles too seriously.
People think that you live a dream life, but what are the realities?
Many people think that people like me, digital nomads, who travel the world and work on the go, don’t have to work hard, don’t face the lows of life, don’t have bad days. And those perfect photos on Instagram do us no favours. The truth is, life on the road is just like real life. You have to work hard and smart to sustain it financially and emotionally. You have to fight societal pressure to buckle in and get a “real job” or “settle down”. You evolve so differently from the social circles of your past that it’s hard to fit in. And yet, I continue choosing this life because it’s the only way I can imagine living. It’s my version of normal.
What are the biggest challenges of working without an office?
A few years ago, I found myself in Ladakh with almost no connectivity and a deadline I could not miss. I remember working furiously on my laptop on the steps of a Buddhist monastery, close to where I was staying. Then, I had to beg a small restaurant to let me use their personal (and painfully slow) internet connection to send an email! Some other unlikely places from where I’ve sent in work assignments include remote Himalayan villages, the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica, an obscure Mayan village in Guatemala, the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, the hill country of Sri Lanka—and even a remote island in Japan!
Tell us a bit about the idea of travelling light?
We sometimes get so used to carrying the emotional and physical burdens of our relationships and possessions, that we fail to realize how we’re crumbling under their weight. Once it dawned on me that I didn’t need to cling to my relationships, I slowly started letting them go; the ones that were strong enough withstood the separation and the ones that did not probably were not worth the weight anyway. This emotional independence has made space for fleeting connections around the world—the power of which we often underestimate. Travelling light, literally, has been easier. What it took was getting rid of much of what I owned—simply because I could live without it. Now my life’s possessions fit within two bags and I seldom feel the need to own more.
Is the best kind of travel planned down to the last detail or completely unplanned?
I think that varies from person to person. For me, it’s somewhere midway. I pour in a lot of research and thought into which part of a country I want to spend time in, and looking for accommodations (homestays/Airbnbs) that give me a chance to interact closely with locals. Other than that, I like to arrive without much of an idea of what my days will look like or a checklist of activities I want to get through. This way of travel ensures I get a sense of the local culture, yet stay impulsive enough.
What goes into your survival kit?
I wouldn’t leave home without my iPhone (with a local sim, google maps, camera) and I also carry an electric taser for my peace of mind (luckily I’ve never had to use it so far).
Your go-to websites/apps to navigate a new place
Airbnb, Google Maps, Google Translate, HappyCow (to find vegan food options) and Instagram.
What is your takeaway from living life off the beaten track?
That we don’t need to fit into the moulds society has defined for us. That it’s okay to break away and live in a way that inspires and fulfils because after all, we have only one life. I feel like I’m the sum total of my battles and triumphs, successes and failures over the past many years.
What is your plan for 2019?
I want to continue promoting meaningful and sustainable tourism—not just because it’s the need of the hour but also a more immersive way to experience the world. I also plan to continue advocating for veganism, because the animal cruelty involved in our food and lifestyle feels unbearable for me.
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