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Welcome back to Viewpoints! This series profiles women travelers whose backgrounds are often overlooked by the general narrative, including traveling with a disability, traveling while overweight, and traveling as a person of color.
Today we’re talking with Shivya Nath of The Shooting Star, an inspirational solo female traveler from India. Many westerners don’t realize how difficult it is to travel on an Indian passport, but Shivya is leading the way in showing travelers from developing countries how to travel more easily and often.
AK: Thanks for being here, Shivya! First off, tell me about yourself and your travels.
SN: I’m a full-time travel blogger and digital nomad, and recently published my first book! I grew up in a small town at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, and didn’t really catch the travel bug until my early twenties. I went to university in Singapore and landed a well-paying corporate job, but began to feel a strange longing for the world beyond so I took a two-month unpaid sabbatical from work, and spent it exploring Europe with a friend and volunteer travelling solo in a cold mountain desert in India.
Those two months put my life in perspective — and in 2011, at age 23, I quit my only full-time corporate job. Two years later, I gave up my home, sold most of my belongings and embraced a nomadic life.
I like to travel slow, often solo and seek meaningful local experiences around the world.
Many travelers from western countries are shocked that Indian travelers need to secure visas to destinations like Europe and the US before their trips. What’s that like and how do you prepare?
In short, it sucks. ?
It means I can’t book a flight last minute, pick up my bags, and board a plane to most countries around the world. It means an insane amount of paperwork and a chunk of money and time in an attempt to score a visa, despite the many stamps on my well-worn passport. But worst of all, it means that I can’t embark on long, impulsive trips to far-off corners of the world since most visas unfortunately need to be filed in India.
While travelling in Central America, for instance, I found a great flight deal to Peru — but when I tried to apply for a visa at the Peruvian embassy in Mexico, I was told to go back to India (only on the other side of the world) and apply there!
The good news is that more countries are opening up visa on arrival and e-visa for Indian passport holders. Having a long-term US visa on my passport also means I can enter some countries around the world visa-free. It sucks that the color of my passport restricts me from feeding my wanderlust sometimes, but I refuse to use that as an excuse to give up on my travel dreams.
Indian parents are known for being strict and conservative. How does your family feel about your travel lifestyle?
That’s not far from the truth, but luckily, attitudes towards Indian female travellers are slowly changing. I had a fair few battles at home when I first announced that I was going to travel solo; my parents were apprehensive about my safety, especially as a young Indian girl raised in a protective family (like most girls in India).
The constant fear about female safety in India bred by the media (as opposed to being balanced with inspiring stories and solutions) can weigh heavily on anyone who hasn’t been on the road long enough — so I do understand why Indian parents feel so protective.
Over the years though, my family has somewhat made peace with my travel lifestyle. Over the years, I’ve also realised that I don’t have to disclose very accurate details of how, where or who I’m travelling with — as long as I feel well-researched and well-prepared!
Many Indian women feel more comfortable traveling solo outside India than within India. How do you feel about traveling in India?
There’s no doubt that travelling solo in many countries outside India is less challenging than travelling solo within India. You have to brace poor travel infrastructure and be vigilant of your safety at most times.
However, having explored India and other parts of the world alone — off and on — over the past seven years, I think there is nowhere in the world like this country. Once you get away from the notorious tourist circuit of India, there is incredible beauty and warmth to be discovered. Much like Europe, each state in India has its own natural gems, culture, language, cuisine, traditions and way of life.
Personally, I find the countryside in India safe, hospitable and welcoming — and worth going the extra mile to brace the challenges of traveling solo in India.
What destinations are especially good for travelers from developing countries, who may have lower travel budgets and difficulty getting visas?
Southeast Asia is an obvious first. Most travellers from developing countries, including Indians, have easy visa access to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam — and these countries are cheap enough no matter how weak your country’s currency is.
India and Sri Lanka offer easy visa access now and can be done on the cheap — with an incredible diversity of experiences.
My personal favorite is Central America — specifically Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. With a valid US visa, these countries offer visa-free access for most passports, are cheap to travel in and are still quite under the tourist radar — making them exciting destinations to explore.
Travel blogging is dominated by travelers from developed countries — primarily North America, Europe, and Australia. Who are some bloggers from India whom you recommend reading?
The travel blogging scene in India has been evolving and there are many worthwhile blogs worth following. Beyond the “top 10” lists, I recommend checking out:
Beyond the Wall by Divya and Vikas
reDiscovery Project by Ambika and Hoshner
Truly Nomadly by Sharanya Iyer
What is your advice for people from developing countries who want to travel internationally?
Our passport, weak currency and the societal expectations we grow up with often make it hard to chase our travel dreams. Chase them anyway.
Slow travel in countries that offer easy visas. Save money instead of splurging it on obsolete social conventions (hint: do you really need a big fat wedding?). Club travelling with work, volunteering or study opportunities in other parts of the world. And don’t forget to explore your own region!
What is your advice for women considering traveling to India for the first time?
1) Look beyond the tourist circuit. I know it’s tempting to visit the most well-known places in India, but unfortunately many of these are poorly maintained, extremely chaotic and full of people who want to fleece foreigners.
On the other hand, visiting places under the radar can offer you a much more authentic and incredible experience of the “real” India. If you love nature and the outdoors, consider Uttarakhand. If you seek to interact with India’s ancient tribal culture, look at Odisha. If you want to go off the beaten track in a rugged way, consider Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.
2) Choose homestays. Instead of staying in a hotel, guesthouse or hostel, consider staying in a family-run homestay. The options range from budget to luxury, and Airbnb and Tripadvisor are reliable sources of reviews. Staying in a homestay will let you interact closely with locals, understand cultural nuances and make sure you always have a host to look out for you.
3) Go responsibly. I highly recommend travelling with these sustainable tourism companies that can help you experience India beyond the guidebooks, in a way that is inclusive of local communities and conscious of the environment — and ensure that your travels are more authentic, mindful and meaningful.
What types of destinations inspire you as a traveler?
I’m a countryside person — and enjoy destinations that allow me to slow down amid natural beauty and interact respectfully with the local culture, yet allow access to basic urban comforts and satisfying vegan food.
Which destinations rank among your favorites?
That’s always tough to answer! I absolutely love Georgia (the country), Guatemala, Ethiopia (especially for the food) and my home country India.
What is your favorite safety tip to pass on to female travelers?
Get yourself an electric taser! Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but having easy access to it when you find yourself in a sticky situation could be a life saver — and way more efficient than a pepper spray or pocket knife I believe. Plus it can make you feel more confident about being on your own…and pretty badass. I bought mine on Amazon.