In India, travel has either been considered an expensive hobby or a ridiculous waste of time. Like many others, if you think full-time travel is unattainable and quietly shut your wanderlust silent, you should take some time out to know Miss Walking Shoes, Leena Bansal.
Leena is an Indian girl on a crazy self-funded round-the-world trip, covering 32 countries across the globe. Here are snippets of my conversation with her.
Hi! I'm so inspired by you. How did your journey begin?
I quit my job in April 2014 and since then I am on the journey of my life. I have travelled to 32 countries across three continents since then. This includes some extensive travel in India.
As far as I can remember, I have always wanted to see the world. I travelled overseas for the first time when I was 19 and found travelling to be too expensive and my dream unaffordable. The only way I figured I would be able to do it was by studying hard, getting a high paying job and then travelling.
I started working as an advertising professional and was quite happy with it until I did my first backpacking trip to Singapore and Malaysia in 2011. There I was introduced to backpacking lifestyle and I met many long-term travellers. I realised that if one can cut on little luxuries, travelling around the world is not exactly out of budget. I started saving and finally, last year, I quit my job to travel around the world solo. All my travels are self-funded and self-organised.
What was your first breakaway trip? Was it difficult?
For doing Masters, I moved to Ahmedabad. It was lot safer as compared to Delhi and so I started travelling alone and in all directions. The breakaway trip was the first backpacking trip to SE Asia. It was then that I realised that international travel on budget is possible.
It was not very difficult. I have travelled solo in India and even though most people might not agree, I have found travelling in the country quite safe. I have made my way from border villages to disputed areas without much trouble. I used to read lot of travel blogs and most of them suggested that India was one of the more complex countries to travel in. So if one could travel in the country, the rest of the world would be a cakewalk.
Tell me about your first travel memory
After watching the Vicco Vajradanti ad, I was after my parents to take me to a place where I could pluck an apple from a tree and eat while they tried to convince me that I can have an apple anywhere. And even as a little girl, I insisted that sitting in a valley and eating a freshly plucked apple would be an out of the world experience. Finally when I went to Kinnaur, I plucked an apple from someone’s farm and believe me, it was the sweetest thing I have ever tasted in my life. I can feel that sweetness as I tell you this.
How does the self-funding happen?
I stay with my parents so I do not have any lodging/food expenses. Plus I was working on good salary. All I had to do was to cut my unnecessary expenses. I was always buying clothes and shoes so once I decided to do this RTW trip, I stopped shopping altogether. I also did a few freelancing projects. The problem with self-funding the trip is it takes too long. Sometimes I would feel that I’m spending my best years in saving money when I should be travelling.
While I was travelling, I was on a budget using overland transportation within a continent, shared rooms with unknown travellers in the dormitories (YES!! Queen style), and cooked my meals whenever possible. You will find it interesting that I’m a vegetarian and I managed to stay that way all this while.
As an Indian girl, what challenges did you face?
The biggest challenge was convincing my family. I had already travelled solo many times so it wasn't that they were concerned about my safety or had reservations of whether I would be able to pull it off all by myself. It was more about why I need to do this, isn’t a year too long, what would I gain through these travels, was it worth all the hard-earned money and what will happen in case of an emergency.
I had no conclusive answers to any of that. But they got convinced nonetheless.
Any episode that stands out in particular?
There were crazier experiences like getting stuck at French - Spanish border crossing at midnight with no place to sleep, finding a green pit viper (venomous snake) wrapped around my leg in 4000 islands, a wall fan breaking on my head in Phnom Penh, chasing a guy who stole my camera lens in Split (in case you want to know, he managed to run away with it) - too many incidents to tell.
Another episode is from Myanmar, a country considered one of the most dangerous countries to travel (I totally disagree) and I found myself stuck in a highway outside the city Yangon. To escape the traffic jam, the taxi driver suggested that he can drop me at a place from where the bus passes - turns out to be a shady corner on the highway.
Only those who have ever visited this country would know how scary, dark and deserted it gets at night. For 1.5 hours, not even a person passed from that place. I did not know the language nor had a phone on me. I wanted to walk back to the city but I could not figure out a way and definitely did not want to crawl into restricted area so I decided to spend my night on the roadside.
Then I spotted a couple on a bicycle, I stopped them and showed them my ticket. I gestured to them that I'm in a problem but it seemed they did not understand what I was trying to tell them, and so they left. After 40 minutes or something, they came back and the lady was waving her phone at me. They called the number on my ticket and waited with me for another hour. They left only after I finally boarded the bus. I think they went all the way to get phone or top up just to help me.
And this is just one of the experiences. I have experienced so much of generosity and kindness from strangers. Every time I got into some trouble, there was always someone who came by to help. My travels have reaffirmed that there is more good in the world than bad.
Indian society and immense competition at work often pose many hindrances.
You can't please everyone. The only people whose opinions matter were of my family. So once they were convinced, I didn't have to worry about society.
About workplace competition, I feel there is only as much as you think. Everyone has a reputation at work. Your bosses, colleagues and clients already know your work. And if you are good, you are irreplaceable. As a matter of fact, I feel there are immense opportunities in India but always the lack of a right candidate. I am confident about my strengths and so I was never afraid to take a year - long break. In fact, my boss/colleagues were the ones who convinced me to start a blog and were always sending me encouraging emails.
Do you think your one year of travel will affect your work life?
First of all, I do not feel that my year-long travel break will hamper my chances of finding/keeping up work. In fact, I believe that travel is what makes me stand out from others. Long term and solo travels adds a lot of tangible and intangible values to person’s personality. All this makes a person responsible and confident. One also learns a lot about budgeting, planning and managing the resources. Such travels add to the worldview and makes one aware of different perspectives.
With an extensive travel experience, I feel more comfortable working in cross cultural teams. I have managed to travel through countries where people did not speak English and so I have learned to use verbal and non-verbal communication to overcome language and cultural barriers. I feel these experiences will add much to my work-life.
Do you think Indians should slow down and travel more?
Well. I feel more Indians are travelling these days. So the question is not why they should travel but how they should travel.
In India, we don't give travel its due credit. Travel these days is about fancy Facebook pictures, check -ins, tour packages and what can be called “good times.” For most of us, it is an escape or a break from the mundane and so most of us indulge in travel that leaves little room for learning and change.
In its truest form, travel is the best type of education. It makes one open to new possibilities and ideas. Living in the midst of local population and having sincere interaction with the local people goes a long way in making you aware, learn and unlearn many deep-seated notions. If living on five-star amenities, wild parties, expensive drinks and visiting everything beautiful is your idea of travel, then these travels will not teach you much. Even if you stay for years, you will come back home probably as the same person, with same outlook.
If I have to suggest, I would first recommend people to negotiate longer vacation. And to never limit your travel to just sightseeing and visiting famous places, I highly recommend getting your hands dirty and doing some kind of volunteering. For instance, I taught English in Laos and Thailand, made adult education modules, taught cooking, worked in elephant farms and paddy fields. These were the jobs I got only because I cared to ask people if they need assistance. I would also highly recommend solo travels for travelling in groups, leave little room for sincere interaction with locals and travelling without itineraries and to-do lists to experience serendipity and lucky encounters.
Future travel plans?
The plan is to travel to all countries in the world and if possible outer space too.
This Globetrotter girl is an inspiration for all who wish to travel far and travel more. Her crazy self-funded trip has answered countless questions for us and revealed an inside story of long term travel.
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