Today I have something delightful in store for the travel-loving readers of Indspire Me. I’m in conversation with 33 year old Abhilash Surendran, who has made it his personal mission to become the youngest Indian ever to have travelled all over the world. Considering the numerous difficulties most of us have to face even while applying for something as simple as a tourist visa to the UK, you can imagine how much this man must love travel if he hardly bats an eyelid in the face of miles of red-tapism. So without further ado, let’s dive into the interview and find out what makes him tick.
1. Please tell the readers of Indspire Me a little bit about yourself and your background Abhilash.
This sounds like a clichéd introduction, but my name is Abhilash Surendran. Or as my family and friends have been calling me from childhood, Abhi. I was born in a little town called Mahe, which is part of the Mahe District, one of the four districts that make up the Union Territory of Pondicherry. A unique thing about Mahe is that it is surrounded on all sides by the state of Kerala. So, we share all our cultural traits with Kerala. We speak Malayalam, enjoy our spicy food, and celebrate Onam, Vishu, and possess an all-encompassing love for Royal Enfield and heady alcohol. But despite all this, technically, we are not Keralites. I grew up in Oman – thanks to the Middle-east connection that most families in Kerala have.
2. How did the idea of travelling the world first strike you?
I moved in my mid-20’s to Philippines, where I lived and worked for 5 years, doing transition management for BPO companies. Around this time, thanks to all the beautiful islands that Philippines has (it has 7,107 islands, and I would have seen less than 70), I became addicted to 3 things that are integral to my life right now: travelling, writing and photography. I started exploring South East Asia first, taking Vacations from my job, and eventually moving to another management job in Singapore. Since then, I have been maximizing my vacations and travelling around the world, thanks to the many flight connections available from Singapore.
Somewhere down the line, I realized that vacation travel was like an incomplete love affair. I was bound by time, leaves, money, and the conventional notion of being a ‘vacationer’, versus being a true traveler. So, I took a plunge and decided to quit my job around mid-2014, and travel for a year. Luckily for me, the year stretched to 15 months. I was able to backpack, hitchhike and couchsurf my way through Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Qatar, UAE, and almost the entire continent of Europe. And during the midst of it all, I managed to ride a motorbike from Kerala, to Nepal. And since I made it that far, I decided to continue to Bhutan, and finished in Kolkata. I would have gone to Bangladesh too, if it wasn’t for the complicated paperwork to bring my motorbike into the country.
I am now back in Singapore, and continue taking my vacations. As of writing this interview, I have been to 74 sovereign nations, and I already have my flights booked for the next four. But I am also saving money to ensure that I take another long-break. Since one year was quite easy, hopefully the next one should last me at least two to three years.
3. I would love to know about your most memorable travel experience.
I can’t think of one, but many! Some of them are:
a. Attending the carnival in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Did not go to the touristy sambadrome, but went to the blocos (street parties) and celebrated with the locals, like a local.
b. Riding a motorbike around countries many countries: Dominican republic (Exploring the beaches near Punta Cana), Laos (exploring the bolaven plateau) and in Timor Leste, where I could ride and visit some villages which have never seen a tourist! And of course, riding a motorbike through 12000 kms in India, Nepal and Bhutan alone.
c. I love road-trips, and did multiple road-trips in Europe (unfortunately, I was not the one driving). From London to Birmingham. From Zurich to Amsterdam, via countries like Liechtenstein and Luxembourgh. From Barcelona to Andorra.
d. I also love festivals, and huge crowds. Some of the festivals that I consider myself lucky to have seen include: Kumbhmela (Nashik, 2015), Galungan festival (Bali), Carnival (Brazil), Canal gay pride festival (Amsterdam), Thaipusam (Singapore), Panagbenga and Masskara (both in the Philippines).
But definitely, my favorite moments of travelling, is the people I meet. Especially through the travel platform called couchsurfing. One incident that comes to mind immediately, is staying with the desert Bedouins of Jordan, who actually let me sleep in their cave! Or read this link to figure how I had 3 of my best travel experiences, all in the same day in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
4. Have you faced any issues in getting visas for travel, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Of course. Like any Indian traveler, visas are a huge problem for me. So, I have a few tips to overcome them:
a. Get a US visa. If you have to apply for many countries, it is best that you first make a trip to the United States, and get a US visa for that. The US visa has many advantages. For one, it lets other developed countries (like EU, Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc.), that you have already been vetted by the US, which has a very stringent visa policy. So, once you get a US visa, you will find that the other visas get simpler.
b. Look for countries which accept substitute visas. There are plenty of countries which accept the US or EU visa as a substitute visa, such as most countries in Eastern Europe and even Turkey.
c. Look for countries, where we don’t need a visa at all, or we can get the visa online. Of course, this list is not so attractive to some Indians, because it includes mostly those countries which are not developed. But I have to say I had some of my best travel experiences when travelling through these countries. For e.g: Vanuautu, Fiji, Mauritius, Seychelles, or even closer to home, Srilanka, Bhutan and Nepal.
5. Thanks so much for sharing these very useful tips! I’m curious to know how your family has family reacted to your frequent travels. Are they supportive?
Haha.. Of course, my family is as conservative as any other Indian family. Since the age of 27, they have been asking me the usual fare that parents asks their children in India: When are you buying a house? A car? When are you getting married? For God’s sake, when are you having children? Why are you wasting all your money on travelling like this?
It was not an easy problem to handle. I have had to explain to them, that my priorities are not the same as their generation, or even most people in my generation. I would rather spend my money on collecting memories and experiences, than collecting stuff. They are not fully supportive yet, but at least, I am happy. They don’t stop me anymore from what I want to do. They have taken a neutral stance, and are hopeful that I will change my priorities as I age.
5. What is the next goal on your horizon after 40?
I would like to ideally retire completely from any corporate job by the age of 40, or latest by 45. I have never believed in amassing wealth, or getting richer, so I am sure that my concept of retirement is different from most people in India. I would like to settle down with my books and a small writing space, somewhere near some beach. I would like to just focus on writing until old age comes knocking on my door, and it is time to say goodbye. My only wish is to have written something meaningful by then.
6. Please share a message with all the Indians who are dreaming of travelling overseas, but don’t believe that they can actually do it.
I think when most Indians talk about travelling overseas, they dream of the developed world. I am happy to have visited the developed countries, but I started backpacking in Asia, especially the the developing part of Asia like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the South East Asia region. I recommend that all Indians start travelling in India first, expand their senses, and then start exploring Asia. Once you have gained considerable ‘travel awareness’, and you are confident that you are able to interact with multiple cultures seamlessly, then you will automatically develop the confidence to venture into the developed world.
Secondly, nothing comes easily. You need to constantly plan on your travels – everything from cost, flights, visas, accommodations etc. – and keep fine-tuning your plans. Try to become a traveller, instead of a vacationer. There is a huge difference between the two. Follow established travellers from India, and read their stories about how they overcame their travel barrier. I am only a small fish in the sea, there are plenty of more experienced travellers than me in India. But if you have to, do give my blog a read on how you can also travel like me.