I wrote this piece with sweet nostalgia in the backdrop of the dramatic Kamnik-Savinja Alps, in the remote Slovenian valley of Logarska Dolina. It’s home to only 30 families. Surrounded by wild dandelions, and purple, pink and yellow wildflowers, my “home” in this part of the world was Lenar Farm, the working farmstead of a Slovenian family that first opened its doors to guests in 1931. Unfortunately when World War II struck, the entire farm was burnt down in 1944. But the family picked up the pieces. The four cousins split the sizeable acres and my host family rebuilt theirs in traditional architectural style—wooden attics for sleeping and wood-burning stoves to keep warm in winter. They reopened for tourism in the 1960s, and today the space is full of septa-tinted memories. The old photos around the house filled me up with a strange wistful longing; there was even one of the grandparents with Tito, the ex-Yugoslavian president.
In the weeks I spent there, I hiked and cycled amid breathtaking panoramas of the Alps. Through conversations with neighbouring locals, I visualised Slovenia’s transformation from a socialist to a capitalist country. I spotted shooting stars and the Milky Way in the dark night skies, and swapped life stories with my host family. One evening, I joined them in planting chives, a variety of mint called melissa and a local variant of the cabbage, in their little garden. As we were planting these, a friend of my host’s father, a former forest official, brought in the news that the rare Lady’s Slipper Orchid had just started blooming in the forest. Excited, we left for the forest to look for it, for this is believed to be Europe’s biggest native orchid and blooms only for one week every year. Back in 2010, on the verge of extinction in Britain, the Lady’s Slipper Orchid was even subjected to police protection and a fine of upto £5,000 (approx. Rs 4,16,260) for being cut. In those weeks, I felt as if I was living in a fairy tale; a vivid Alpine dream.
This dream began four years ago.
I clearly remember that night, in August 2013, when I sat on the roof of the shabby Delhi barsaati (house with an open rooftop) I had rented. As I stared at the hazy, starless sky, my heart filled with a strange melancholy. It had been two years since I had quit my full-time job as a social media strategist in Singapore and returned to India. All I aspired was to lead a semi-nomadic life as a freelance travel writer and blogger. That night though, I felt strangely unfulfilled. My spirit craved more adventure and freedom. The high I felt on my frequent travels always left me feeling glum on my return to Delhi, even though it had nothing to do with the city itself. It was actually the nagging feeling of constantly coming back to the same place, paying rent, thinking about the things I owned and drifting along in a humdrum existence. As I began questioning this average way of life on that average Delhi night, a realisation dawned on me.
And just like that, with a strange sense of liberation, I decided to leave my Delhi apartment, sell most of my belongings, store some in the boot of a friend’s car (for a rainy day), and start calling the road home.
Released from the shackles of a place to return to, I travelled with a renewed feeling of freedom, looking only forward, carrying no baggage of the places I came from, moving as much within as with my feet. On some days I felt like a soul without a compass, on other days I was an uncontained spirit. When I felt the strain of saying goodbye to places and people I had come to love, too often and too soon, I discovered the joy of slow travel. No longer a fleeting crush on a gorgeous location, travelling became all about fostering a deeper relationship with a place, its people and its food, and the memories it left me with. This altered travel philosophy led me to slow down in Aldona, a sleepy Goan village away from the touristy beaches; steep myself in the Mayan way of life in a dreamy lakeside house in Guatemala; cycle across the countryside of northern Thailand; and introspect about Buddhist teachings with young nuns in Ladakh.
The longer I stayed on the road, the more I realised how my travels can directly impact the environment and local communities. I saw with my own eyes how tourism has eroded entire cultures and ecosystems. If I was not going to stop travelling, I had to change my travel philosophy yet again. This realisation made me seek out more responsible travel experiences and in turn, helped me connect with locals around the world in more authentic, immersive and adventurous ways. This new search had me manouever rapids on a wooden canoe to reach the forests of the Bribris—the isolated, indigenous cacao growers of Costa Rica. It made me venture solo into the fascinating tribal world of the Mundas and Bondas in Odisha. And in June this year, I landed up on the Slovenian farmstead. When I had first packed my home into a backpack and decided to hit the road indefinitely, I wondered, as much as those around me, how long it would take me to crave a “normal life” again. A couple of years into my location-independent lifestyle, I realised that a different country every few months, a different bed every few weeks and a different way of life every now and then, is my new definition of normal. When others find my normal strange, I remind them of our ancient ancestors. Nomadism was the only way of life they knew before materialistic wants compelled them to settle down in one place.
Today, even as wedding announcements crowd my Facebook timeline, my own updates are a reflection of how far off corners of the globe have become my neighbourhood. Yet it was on Facebook that I stumbled upon the incredible story of Jason Lewis, a British man who travelled the globe for 13 years without any mechanised means of transport, only cycling, kayaking, rollerblading and walking. Upon his return to the U.K., he wrote in his book, Dark Waters, “if you go away for too long, there’s really no coming back. You can’t fit back in.”
The more I travelled, the more I realised there is no coming back. Having lived in the traditional home of a Romanian family; having celebrated Mopin, the annual harvest festival of Arunachal Pradesh’s Galo tribe; having revelled in Sunday brunch with an Italian family in their 500-year-old Umbrian home; and having played basketball with the Mayan folk of Guatemala—descendants of the ancient Mayan civilisation that created the end-of-the-world scare with their calendar in 2012—I couldn’t fathom living any other way.
And then, just when I thought I had found stability in my nomadic life—financially, emotionally and philosophically—a chicken bus ride in the often overlooked Central American country of Nicaragua shook my very foundation. But that’s how it is with the road; it jolts you when you least expect it to. I no longer remember what our destination was. All I remember was that the chicken bus, called so because people are crammed in like chickens, was more crowded than usual. It was New Year’s Eve and locals were returning home to the rural countryside. An elderly Nicaraguan lady entered the bus and placed her sack next to my feet. I felt something inside it move. I shot her a look but she ignored it. So, I politely asked her in Spanish to move it away from my feet. She picked up the bag, but it kept grazing against my shoulder. And then suddenly, something poked me. As I turned to my left, I was horrified to see three squeaking chicks gasping for air.
This incident stayed with me. The next time I stepped into a kitchen to make an omelette, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I started reading up on eggs. I was heartbroken to learn about the cruelty that dairy farming entails. I slipped into a dark hole upon realising what I had been eating all this while, even though I had turned vegetarian more than a decade ago.
Thereon, began my vegan journey. One that has me striving to eliminate animal cruelty in all its unimaginable forms, from my diet and life. Being a vegan nomad might sound difficult, but the universe has somewhat magically led me to places where my vegan lifestyle has not only been welcomed, but also influenced my hosts and fellow travellers to broaden their perspective on compassionate living.
Along the way, I have made some unexpected discoveries too. Living with the indigenous Quichua people in Ecuador, I discovered that their traditional diet was vegan until the Spanish conquered them and introduced dairy. In Ethiopia, I was delighted to learn that locals follow an Orthodox form of Christianity and “give up” all animal products for almost 200 days in a year. Closer home, I have met native tribes in Odisha and Maharashtra who consume no dairy. Not even in tea, because they believe that a cow’s milk belongs to the calf.
The concept of travelling the world without a home base is hardly unknown in the West. But as an Indian, with my notorious passport and its visa restrictions, and without social security, substantial family inheritance or the experiences of any fellow Indians to fall back on, it comes with a different set of challenges.
Even as the road gently moulds me, somewhere deep within, I’ve felt a longing. When I brace my ailing heart to say goodbye to a place I’ve come to love, when I’m filled with adrenalin by the uncertainty of where this journey will take me next, when the soles of my feet hurt from days of travelling, when I feel my feet itch from being in the same place too long; on days good and bad, warm and cold, happy and sad, I’ve felt a quiet longing for “home”.
I was 17 when I left Dehradun, the sleepy valley I grew up in. I didn’t know it then, but that was as close as I might ever get to the illusive feeling of being home. I don’t long for the homes I have left behind but perhaps I long merely for the idea of one. Imagine my joy then when I met someone in Wales who introduced me to a Welsh word (with no direct translation in English) that exactly encapsulated this feeling. The word was hiraeth, a sense of homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
As a professional travel blogger, my unquenchable thirst for travel did derail offline relationships. I have had to miss momentous occasions. WhatsApp calls from halfway around the world are not nearly the same as catching up for everyday banter in a café. And although I’ve been lucky enough to foster friendships on the road, I’m also always saying goodbyes. While I’ve been able to walk away from the pressure of “settling down” and getting a “real job”, my parents still struggle with what it is that I really do. Until a few months ago, they still asked me when my holiday will finally end so I could get serious about life. I don’t blame them.
Like anyone who wants to see the world, I’ve dreamt of seeing all of it. Lingering on a little longer, a little deeper in places like South Australia, Mauritius, Turkey and Uttarakhand has allowed me to observe the little whimsies of life beyond just a shallow peek. I am slowly coming to accept that I can’t experience everything in this lifetime. But what I can, I will try to experience deeply.
In this journey, I often find inspiration in the words of poets and authors. Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson is one of them. He wrote in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
At 23, when I quit my full-time job to travel on my own terms, I didn’t quite understand what Stevenson meant when he said he travels for travel’s sake. On the other hand, I wanted to travel for the sake of contemplating life with Tibetan monks, hiking in the majestic Andes and discovering fascinating traditions across rural India. But after four years of calling the road home, I have gradually inched closer to Stevenson’s state of mind. Even as I wrap up my time in the Slovenian Alps (we did find the Lady’s Slipper Orchid after all), I am plotting dreams of slow-travelling in Kargil and Iran. I want to continue to experience life in far off corners of the world, feel the humbling power of nature’s greatest wonders and explore dimensions of my own solitude. Yet in the bigger picture, I’m no longer yearning to find my perfect place or get to anywhere in particular. The great affair is to move.
Shivya Nath quit her corporate job for a nomadic life over three years ago. She has hitchhiked through northern Romania, lived in a nunnery in Ladakh and boarded down a volcano in Nicaragua. She tweets as @shivya.