Europe often makes the list of every traveller around the world. The snowy mountains, lush grasslands, breathtaking architecture and delicious food, Europe has got it all. Akshaya SN, an aerospace engineer from Kerala experiences all that this amazing continent has to offer. Talking to her about her experiences, learnings and plans makes me want to buy a ticket and see all there is.
If it weren’t for the COVID-19, where would you be right now?
Around Europe, the situation caused by COVID-19 was not as bad as compared to the other parts of the world. I was in lockdown from March to May 2020, when I spent most of my time working, cooking, exercising and catching up on Netflix shows. I had many trips planned for the year. I was supposed to go to New York to visit my best friend, whom I haven’t seen in three years. I also had plans to come to India, as it was my mom’s birthday. So, I am a little upset as these plans got hindered. However, I am fortunate that inter-country travel is allowed in Europe. I have visited Austria a couple of times in the last few months. I have been doing a lot of physical activities, like hiking. So, while my travel plans were interrupted by the pandemic, I have been keeping busy by spending time hopping from one mountain to another.
What inspired you to be a traveller?
Ever since I was a child, I used to get fascinated by planes and thinking about travelling. I used to travel with my family during my childhood, but that was a completely different experience as compared to travelling solo. My inspiration to see the world was never to search for my soul or become a better person; it was to explore the world. I enjoyed the idea of experiencing different cultures, food and places. I love meeting new people and learning about their stories; that is what makes me excited to travel. I don’t have a bucket list of places I want to visit; I want to see the whole world and experience all there is to. After finishing my education in Singapore, I moved to Europe. The idea always was to go from one place to another. Also, I like to travel to places like a local. I’ll go to one place over and over again to experience everything. For example, I went to Italy five time in these last years, and it was just a beautiful experience.
You have been travelling and blogging for the last four years simultaneously with being an aerospace engineer. How do you manage these two aspects of your life?
It is hard to manage a full-time job and travelling. A lot of people assume that I travel and not do anything else. When I came to Germany, I was a student employee. Hence, I had to work only for a couple of days a week. So, I used to take a bus from the station on a Friday evening, reach the place, book a hostel for Saturday night, look around and then was back by Monday morning. I travelled like this through my student employment. This method also helped me save some money. But once I got a full-time job, it became a little harder to manage because expectations increased. To travel now, I work for a couple of hours extra during the week, so I can take Friday off and go someplace on the weekend. Other than this, I have 30 paid vacation days; I reserve half of them when I visit India and rest I use to visit different places.
If you have to define what travelling makes you feel, how would you describe it?
Exhilarating. Travelling makes me happy; I feel satisfied when I am out. I love my job and my professional career, but when I’m travelling and exploring new places, I feel alive. When I take night buses, usually it is the time when people are getting into their beds. But I am putting together my bag to go somewhere new, that feeling gives me a rush. For example, when I went to Lithuania, a group of men approached me with a confused face, wondering where I was from as I looked different. People were genuinely interested in learning about me and where I come from. It is fun when different people, cultures and languages come together; this is very exciting for me.
You mostly travel solo. What challenges have you faced?
Initially, when I moved to Germany, I used to travel with a friend. However, after some time he got busy, and we couldn’t travel together anymore. But I loved going to different places, so I started travelling by myself. In the beginning, I was terrified, because growing up in India, we are raised in a very protective environment. When I was planning my first solo trip, I didn’t tell my parents. I told them after I came back, and my dad was proud of me. He is not very vocally appreciative, so it was a big deal when he said that he was proud. I am usually not a planner; I lean more toward figuring things out on the go. But for my first solo trip to Italy, I planned extensively. I had backup plans for my back up plan. It was intimidating, but the experience was incredible. I met a girl from Paraguay in the hostel I was staying, and we became such good friends that she gave me a keychain that her grandmother made for her. It was a wonderful trip. In general, yes, there are things like the safety that women have to deal with no matter where we are. But in Europe, things are comparatively better. So, even with challenges, I love travelling, and it makes me feel great.
How do you get the inspiration to visit a new place? How long does it take for you to plan and organise a trip?
I do not have a book or a list of places that I want to see. When I first came to Europe, I had a vague list of places I would want to visit like, Paris and Venice, but after that, I did not have a plan. Also, as a budget traveller, I had to be careful about picking places. In Germany, there are budget flights that can be as cheap as 10-20€ one-way. So, I look at the flights on those websites, and whichever is the cheapest I book those flights. Sometimes, when I know commute to a particular place can be expensive, I book tickets for a random weekend couple of months in advance. If I could make it, then it is a trip, and if not, then it is just 30-40€. Like, I had booked tickets to Montenegro way in advance for 40€, but the week I was supposed to go, I was sick and had a major deadline at work. So, I hustled during the week to finish up my work and then took the trip. These trips sometimes work and sometimes do not, but I enjoy it. All the other planning, like accommodation and buses, I do two days before the trip. I have a small Post-it notes with my packing list that I made years ago, which I refer to and 30-litre bags to fill all that in.
When visiting a new place, what all do you “have to” do?
I don’t do a lot of research about the place beforehand, because I am not really into museums and monuments. I enjoy hikes and walking from one place to another, looking at people and their culture. Usually, I pick up a map from the hostel I am staying at and start walking. One time in Italy, I walked for like 25 km in a day. Although, if that is not an option, I do read up some travel blog about the place, so I can know what I can do the next day. Also, while I am travelling, I have endless energy, I am up by dawn and ready for exploring the place.
Do you collect anything from different places you visit?
I like collecting currency from different places. Though most countries in Europe use the Euro, still I like to collect notes and coins whenever I can. Other than this, I also send postcards to my friends from the place I am in. Sometimes, if I am travelling with someone, we’ll give each other postcards there itself. It is a dumb activity, but I enjoy it. I also collect fridge magnets for mom; she likes that. In the beginning, I forgot to get magnets from some places, and she was a little disappointed.
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to anyone, what are your plans when this havoc is resolved?
Once all this resolves, I really want to go home. After that, I want to visit Turkey; it has been on my mind for a while. I also want to explore New Zealand. Other trips I want to take is to Australia, I think it will be fun to go for a month-long camping trip with a friend, but that seems a little far in the future right now. I want to go everywhere. I can’t list the places I want to visit; I want to map the entire world.
You have visited 34 beautiful countries across the world. Of those 34, which is the most memorable trip you ever took?
I have so many memories, but the only one that has really left a mark on me was in Verona, Italy. I was heading to the bus station to commute back to Munich, and I had some time before catching my bus. So, I sat in a McDonalds, and I was sitting there to pass the time and use their Wi-Fi. I ordered some stuff so that I could sit there. After a while, I left for the station and, as I was walking, I noticed an old man staring at me and gesturing something that I couldn’t understand. At first, I got a little scared and started walking fast towards the station. He followed me for a while and then stopped. I turned back after a while, and looked, that man was scrounging the trash can for food. It shook me. I walked towards him and opened that small McDonalds bag and asked him to take whatever he wants. He took some food, smiled and said, “Grazie Mille” (thank you so much). I saw him eat for a while and left. I know that this didn’t change the world, but it gave me a sense of content. I have travelled quite a lot, and in all those travels, this memory will always be very precious for me.
Take us through how your online community of travellers grew with you in all these years. How do you engage with them? How do you wish to inspire them?
When I started my Instagram account or the blog, the idea was never to monetize it. I know many people are interested in making money from it, which is fair, but that wasn’t my plan. I started my blog and Instagram account to journal my travels. I never thought that this many people would be interested. But now that there is a sizable audience, yes, I do feel that I have a responsibility to give back to them. It is nice to see people enjoying my journey, and I have become a better photographer because of this. I always reply to people asking me about different places or opinions about a city on Instagram. I am also trying to create helpful travel blogs that people can access for free, and maybe that can be useful to them. I also travel to a lot of lesser-known places, so I want my community to have access to the information about these hidden gems of Europe.
Travelling is an expensive passion; do you have any advice on new travellers to explore a city without breaking the bank?
I am a budget traveller myself. When I am travelling, I know that I will not spend a lot of time in my room, so I usually book hostels. Although this can change with the future, I don’t know for sure. The only advice I can give to people interested in travelling is don’t just stick to monuments and touristy places. For example, when people visit Paris, they think that only Eiffel Tower and Louvre are all to see. But, Paris is a beautiful city beyond that. Get to know the culture and people, talk to them and take away a part of the place along with you. Other than this, my advice to everyone is to print your tickets. I am aware that we are in a technological age, but a hard copy of your tickets is important. Once I was in Slovakia, and my phone died with my tickets on it. It became hard to manage my travel back. And lastly, carry cash. In Europe, a lot of local and small places doesn’t accept cards, so one must have some hard money on hand. Also, keep your cash in multiple locations in your bag, just in case you get robbed!