When you are traveling alone, you met interesting people on the road. Nithin Coca is one such person. We first met in a hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2006. We found out that we were taking the same night train to Thessaloniki, Greece. During the train ride we chatted more about our travels; and he’s among the first person who introduced me to Couchsurfing, that added a new element to my travel.
We kept in touch sporadically with emails. And finally met up again in 2013. By then he’s an accomplished writer and had just self-published his first book, a travel memoir. So I decided to have a chat with him about his travel and his book.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your background. (i.e. where you came from, ethnicity, study, etc.)
N: Travel has been in my blood pretty much from when I was born. In fact, when I was just two months old, my mom took me, to the other side of the world from my birthplace in California to India to meet her family. I like to joke that I was infected with the travel bug right then, and, 30 years later, it shows no sign of receding. It also may be why, since I was very young I’ve always been able to see the big picture, to understand that there was a world beyond the confines of my school ground. It was a good thing – when I was bullied, or struggled to make friends, instead of looking inward and blaming myself, I looked outward at the larger world. That was what led me to study global issues in University – so I can better understand the world that I was traveling.
Q: What was life like before you set out to travel?
N: I was just finishing my undergraduate coursework in Los Angeles, California, and, unlike my peers, not looking for a job. I wasn’t ready. A seed had been planted by a friend a few months earlier, when he proposed the idea of a trip around the world. That was all I wanted to do. To many of my friends and colleagues, I was making a fatal mistake that year. I was ignoring the advice of career counselors, recruiters, and most (but thankfully, not my) parents. Why not wait and save money with a real job first? Work for a few years and then travel? But I was set – I’d met too many people in my life who put of their dreams for later, and then, never followed them. My dream was travel and I was going to do it now.
Q: What was the motivation for you to go travel?
N: I had the opportunity – no student debt, no relationship, and lots of time. Moreover, it seemed like the best way for a young man like me to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. I had no idea what type of career I wanted, and even a few months in an office job before departing was torturous enough. I had begun to read other people’s life stories, as a way to figure out what path to follow, and found a common pattern. Gandhi, Kennedy, and many other world-changers were, before they became famous, world travelers. Travel helped they understand the world that they would then try to change. Why not me?
Q: Tell us briefly about your journey, and what you did (work? volunteer?) in your travel?
N: I started off with a vague plan, a lot of maps, and a one-way ticket to Italy, where my brother was currently studying abroad. Instead of plans I had ideas, hopes, expectations, and dreams. In Europe, traveling with high school friends, I followed the traditional path – partying, giant festivals – and found it unfulfilling. So I enrolled in volunteer programs in Nepal and Thailand, broke away from my friends, and, as my title states, began traveling more softly and quietly. Observing, learning, and integrating, while in Southeast Asia. I backpacked, I Couchsurfed, I trekked, stayed with families, slept on countless night buses and trains, and slowly discovered the purpose that I was seeking.
Q: How did you support yourself?
N: Mostly drawing on saved money from working before the trip, and a little bit from writing, but as I quickly learned, writing is a hard business to break into. Moreover, as I can clearly see now, I wasn’t very good at it back then. I ended up going into debt towards the end of my trip, but it was manageable, and paid off within a year of being home.
Q: What are some of the highlights of this journey?
N: Too many to mention, but a few that play prominent roles in my book.
– Meeting a Bangladeshi taxi driver in Abu Dhabi who gave me Bengali Chai on the way to the airport while showing me photos of his family. I soon learned that he hadn’t ever seen his youngest son, and was working illegally for little money to support his entire family back home. Despite going around the world, I knew that what I was doing didn’t match his courage and love for his family. [http://memoir.nithincoca.com/experiencing-courage/]
– My student, Bine, an incredibly friendly boy who had just lost his mother but gave me the gift I’ll most treasure from the trip. [http://memoir.nithincoca.com/genuine-heart/]
– Volunteering in Isaan, Thailand, where, surrounding by friendly locals, I began to, for the first time in my life, take on a true leadership role and stop being a follower.
Q: Any low points?
N: Many. One of the things I really try to show in my book is that long-term travel isn’t a long vacation. Travel is hard work, filled with many joys and unforgettable experiences but just as many lonely evenings or mini-disasters. That is also what makes long term travel a worthwhile experience. In my book, one of the toughest challenges I face is when I become disillusioned while traveling with my high school friends, when all the festivals we go to never seem to meet the expectations I had. Travel seems to have lost its magic, the road is not filled with pure joy as I had once hoped. It takes a long time for me to break out of this spell, including breaking off from my friends and exploring the rest of the world on my own, for myself. [http://memoir.nithincoca.com/intelude-escape/]
Q: How has that journey changed your life?
N: I wanted travel to change me – to lead me to my future. Of course, travel itself can’t do that, it’s what you do while on the road that really matters. And, most importantly, what you take home from travel and how you live your life. One of the most surprising things is how much travel has helped my career. I put my trip on my resume and often referred to it in interviews after I returned home. Who would have thought that having to communicate with people from different cultures in different languages would help dealing with challenging people in rural Iowa while working on the Obama campaign? Or that stories about volunteering in Nepal and Thailand would help me standout in interviews? But the real lesson here is that travel is what you make it. I choose to volunteer, to learn about local cultures and history. If you just choose to party, drink, stick to a narrow backpacker tale and only speak in English, I doubt you’ll gain much for travel or that it’ll change your life.
Q: What did you do after that? Did you experience a post long-term-travel depression?
N: I had two big fears when traveling. The lesser one was that being back home in the United States would be boring and depressing. But the greater fear was exactly the opposite – that I would quickly resettle back into my old routine and forget the lessons of my trip. In my book, this fear is characterized by my former supervisor, Scott, who lives a boring, routine life – bringing the exact same lunch to work everyday, a job he has had for a decade. But, once, Scott himself traveled long-term in Southeast Asia. [http://memoir.nithincoca.com/change/] So when I neared the end of my trip, I resolved not to return to my old life but to move forward as a better person. To seek new opportunities, new friends, and a new way of living. To incorporate some of the lessons of travel – openness, hospitality, and exploration – into my life. Some of what I did reflect your own posts on exploring Sarawak and discovering some of the diversity in your own backyard – I did that in my hometown of Kansas City (often alone as my friends showed little interest in joining me to explore backwards and downtrodden neighborhoods). In the end, I didn’t experience much post-travel depression precisely because travel to me wasn’t an escape from life, but a pathway towards my future dreams, both here, and abroad. In many ways, I never stopped traveling.
Q: What are you doing now?
N: Today, that line between “home” and “abroad” has become even more blurry. After two years working for social causes in the US, I went to grad school in International Affairs and, in the past four years, have worked on projects in South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, and Malaysia. It is strange to now go back to some of the same countries that I visited seven or eight years ago, but not as a backpacker but as a professional working on challenging social issues. At the same time, it was travel that opened the door to these opportunities. But, as I show in the book, only after I slowed down and let travel change me. Travel has truly become part of my life.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book?
N: I’ve been an aspiring writer since I was in middle school, having started many, many books. But, not once had I ever finished something. I vowed even before embarking on my trip that I would write a book about my travels, for the simple reason that I felt that I had a story to tell. I had no idea, then, that it would take me nearly two years of writing just to figure out what that story was. I wanted the book to be a physical memento of my trip. It ended up being even more powerful – through writing it I learned more about myself, the trip, and the lessons from travel.
Q: What are your hopes for the book?
N: My goal was to finish it! Now, more than anything, I hope that the people who read it find it inspiring and thoughtful, and that it motivates them to pursue meaningful, long-term travel. Even if it inspires just one person to change their path in life, that is already an incredible accomplishment for me!
If you find Nithin’s story interesting and would like to read more, you can purchase his book Here