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Friday, February 26, 2021

Somalia, Ethiopia, Syria… this travel vlogger from Hisar has an unusual bucket list of most dangerous places on Earth

From spending a day with one the world’s ‘most dangerous tribes’ in Southern Ethiopia, to finding himself in the midst of deadly riots in Lebanon — he has spent the last two years documenting his unusual and often risky adventures, amassing millions of views and a loyal fan base along the way.

Written by Rahel Philipose | Vasco |
Updated: February 23, 2021 10:35:42 am
Somalia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Germany — he has spent the last few years knocking a host of countries off his bucket list. (Photo credits: Paramvir Beniwal)

Paramvir Singh Beniwal is not your average travel vlogger. While social media is inundated with travel influencers lounging by crystal blue swimming pools on all-expenses-paid luxury vacations, the 24-year-old YouTuber has carved a niche for himself by doing just the opposite. From spending a day with one the world’s ‘most dangerous tribes’ in Southern Ethiopia, to finding himself in the midst of deadly riots in Lebanon — he has spent the last two years documenting his unusual and often risky adventures, amassing millions of views and a loyal fan base along the way. 

Paramvir Singh Beniwal’s YouTube DP

When he started his channel in 2017, Beniwal knew he did not want to document cookie-cutter vacations to tourist magnets like Paris or the Maldives. A quick scan of YouTube was enough for him to realise that had been done to death. “I saw videos of people travelling to places like Malaysia and Thailand. That’s what most Indian travel bloggers do. But going to these countries is hardly challenging,” Beniwal tells the indianexpress.com. 

“I realised I’ve travelled more than some of these people and I also happen to be younger than them. I thought, why don’t I do this too,” he recalled. He traces his love for travel back to a brief stint in Turkey during his first year at Hindu College in New Delhi. What started off as a six-week volunteer programme in the coastal town of Antalya quickly turned into his first tryst with solo travel.

“I came back and my thoughts and perspectives on life, culture, and religion had changed a lot,” he says. 

Born and raised in Hisar, Haryana, Beniwal’s early memories of travel were of the occasional family vacation, which were almost always limited to North India. But after his first trip abroad, there was no looking back. Somalia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Germany — he has spent the last few years knocking a host of countries off his bucket list. In fact, the YouTuber spoke to the indianexpress.com from his hotel room in Beirut, Lebanon, where he has been holed up since the country first announced a strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown late last year, prompting a series of violent anti-government protests. 

In 2018, Beniwal visited the Hamer tribe in Ethiopia’s Omo valley.

Beniwal’s nonstandard approach to travel coupled with a signature relatable boy-next-door quality, has helped him standout in the otherwise over-saturated world of travel content. There is no pretence and he does not shy away from showing the less glamorous parts of his extreme vacations.

“When you look at most influencers, you will see that they generally post content from fancy restaurants and luxury hotels or share pictures of themselves partying in Europe. The average Indian viewer will not relate to this,” he explains.

“Instead, when I travel I try to show things that they can relate to — for instance, how I’m able to eat on a budget. I try to only buy from local vendors. My focus is always to get in touch with locals and to visit the smallest towns and villages.” 

Soon after graduating from college in 2018, the YouTuber spent months scouring the Internet to find “weird and unique” places that Indian tourists wouldn’t otherwise visit. He finally settled on Ethiopia after he read about the Mursi tribe that resides in the southern region of the country and is believed to be one of the most aggressive ethnic groups in the world.

Until then, his journey on the video-sharing platform was far from smooth sailing. Earlier videos he had shared about his experience visiting Kazakhstan and Russia were not well received. “I posted three or four videos, but nobody watched them,” he said. 

Realising that he would have to tweak his strategy to make it on YouTube, he started to share videos about the basics of traveling abroad. From applying for a visa to optimising suitcase space — he covered a wide range of topics in a series of detailed explainer videos. His FAQ-style videos, primarily in Hindi, soon started to gain popularity. 

Beniwal at a camp site in Kuznechnoye, Russia.

But it was his trip to Ethiopia that put his channel on the map, Beniwal says. Accompanied by two of his cousins, he spent his first 14 days in the country being jostled on every possible mode of public transport as they explored the length and breadth of the African nation. 

“There were some nights when we ran out of money and didn’t have enough to pay for our hotel. We even spent a couple of nights on the sidewalk,” he remembers.

“Everyone was always staring at us, there were mosquitos everywhere and it was freezing cold. But honestly, I was enjoying myself.” 

His efforts eventually paid off. Within a few months, his Ethiopia videos were garnering hundreds of thousands of views and his subscriber count started to steadily grow. One video in particular, a 28-minute documentary about his experience meeting the Mursi tribe, went viral and was viewed nearly 4 million times. 

“People started noticing me. I remember going for a haircut after my video got popular and the barber was watching it,” he says.

Soon, he began earning enough money from his videos to cover the cost of his international adventures himself. “I was able to recover the money I had borrowed from my father for all the trips I had already taken. But he never asked me to return it. He told me to use it for my future travels.” 

But what makes Beniwal choose the off-beat locations that he does? Apart from the obvious adrenaline rush, he says his aim is to show his audience that no country or community is as bad or as dangerous as the media may lead you to believe.

“The media portrays some countries in a negative light because of international politics,” he says. “Most of the people you meet in these countries are really good people. Even in Somalia, everyone was so hospitable. Probably the most hospitable people I have ever met.” 

Last year, just as his numbers were starting to pick up online, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a strict nationwide lockdown to rein in the growing coronavirus pandemic. Beniwal spent nearly a year at home in Hisar, reconnecting with friends and family. Not one to waste time, he even started learning new languages for when he could start traveling again in December. 

By the time borders finally started to reopen, Beniwal had already decided next travel destination — Syria. He had just about managed to jump through never-ending bureaucratic hoops to secure a visa to visit the war-torn country, when its borders were closed for tourists yet again after a sudden spate of coronavirus infections.

But Beniwal is not deterred by obstacles. After a brief stop-over at home in India, he plans to get back on the road again. His next destinations? Brazil, Togo, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran. 

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