The truth about traveling

I remember renting a car with a friend back in January 2011, and driving down the western coast of Morocco with a group of travelers who hitched a ride with us back to Marrakech. A bootleg Bob Marley CD was playing over the speakers, slightly drowned out by the sound of wind running through my hair as we sang along to the music, our laughter and voices mingling with the crash of white crested waves breaking against endlessly rocky shores. That was my first taste of it; the start of a lifelong addiction to waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day would bring … and despite those risks, not caring at all.

You may have noticed I haven’t been as engaged with social media the more I’ve continued into my travels. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) I’ve changed cities every 2 days since the beginning of October and therefore haven’t had much time and 2) I’ve forgotten about the need to feel validation online through other people witnessing my experiences. It’d be hypocritical of me to act like that was never a motive before, but I’m posting now because I also believe in the good stories can do, by being open and honest and sharing thoughts that come from the innermost part of one’s self.

Bear this in mind: what I post online is never meant to encourage any type of comparison to other peoples’ choices or situations, especially mine. I hate the notion that sharing my stories would ever make someone feel bad in anyway. Maybe that is absolutely presumptuous to say, but I remember what it was like sitting at the other end of a screen for 2 years, constantly comparing myself to other peoples’ highlight reels because of what I read online.

Here’s the truth about traveling: it isn’t always great. There’s the constant worry of what you have to do next, what place you need to be, how much money needs to be exchanged, the anxiety of meeting new people over and over again, sometimes being stranded, struggling with language barriers, and most importantly, trying not to feel lonely. Traveling the way I’ve chosen to is definitely not for everyone, and that’s totally okay. But I feel motivated to share my experiences to encourage anyone who’s ever thought about it — even in the slightest — to take that risk and really go for it. Because as hard as it can be, out of everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing has ever beat the exhilaration of travel. And don’t do it for the likes, don’t do it to say you’ve been there – do it to learn about yourself, do it to learn about the world, do it to learn that regardless of the different languages someone speaks, or where they grew up, or the things they believe, every person on this earth is just like you, searching for happiness and meaning in who they are, even under circumstances you may not begin to fathom.

In the end, everyone I’ve ever met in my life has stayed with me, a fond memory like a flash of color or burst of warmth that I hold close to my chest like a worn out trinket. Even more so now as I tumble through life like a chopped off piece of planetary dust with no trajectory, I juggle between feeling both the greatest fear and truest happiness that I’ve ever experienced in my life. So to anyone who even managed to read all this, I wanted you to know that wherever you are in the world or in your life, you are not alone. I feel just the same as you, and regardless of the lack of confidence in the choices we make, we’ll get through it together.

Photo courtesy of @joenagraphy; on the speedboat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

My time in northern Thailand

Hey friends! Made a short video documenting my time in Chiang Mai, Pai, and the Elephant Nature Park during my time in northern Thailand (I had a lot of time to kill on that 10hr bus ride to Bangkok). Forewarning: it’s literally just 5 minutes of my goober face, but it features some awesome cameos by amazing people that I met during my travels 🙂

The beauty of Pai and the camaraderie of travel

It’s easy to say that Pai is beautiful. And it really is, ridiculously so. The world appears in saturated colors: lime green rice paddies, outlined in brown grass and planted in perfectly spaced rounded curves. Rolling viridian mountains in every direction, blanketed by thick baby powder white clouds. Driving through winding, poorly paved roads, sunlight peaking through head tall grass, the paths seem to stretch on forever with the promise of some unknown exotic adventure, so trivial and yet so enticing for a lone traveler like me.

I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Pai, each day characterized by its own wayward adventure. On the morning of my first day, a group of rebellious Thai boys taught me how to jump into a waterfall. My friend Lori and I made the dangerous drive to a remote hot spring, and both managed to fall off our motorbikes while trying to complete the journey in the rain. I walked away with a cut foot and some road burn, and her with a slight concussion. Needless to the say the experience bonded us in a way that we won’t soon forget, and while slightly traumatized we were able to laugh it off later over some bloody bandages and beer.

The second day I joined a few other friends from the hostel to go driving around town, and we had an epic day that consisted of visiting more waterfalls, playing card games under abandoned bamboo awnings to wait out the rain, eating the most delicious sweet potatoes and tamarind paste at a free organic farm, and taking photos on the treacherous slopes of a giant orange canyon.

That night, every single person at the hostel headed out to a nearby bar, and under the shrouded warmth of glowing rainbow colored lamps and pillowed bamboo balconies, we laid out drinking and laughing into the hazy hours of the early morning. I even commandeered the DJ table and played some of my favorite songs, dancing in fairy circles between groups of friends, feeling appropriately whimsical, calm, and wonderfully incandescent.

What I loved most about Pai were the people I met there, and the conversations we had about travel. This is the conundrum of conscientious travel: no matter how much fun I have, there is always a slight feeling of guilt in the back of my head knowing that my pleasure is dependent on the work of local Thais, who quite literally make their livelihood off my being there for fun. But at the same time, and maybe this is something special about northern Thailand as I would say the same about Chiang Mai, the mutual beneficiality of tourism (this is a made up word, I know) works in proper balance so that tourists are respectful and are actually there to take in the culture, and local natives are happy to share it with us, with the added importance of economic compensation.

If you’re going to come here, or anywhere in the world really, you should always treat the people who live there with dignity and respect. I shouldn’t even have to tell you that, but it’s quite sad that not everyone who travels considers this common sense. I dread visiting the south, as I’ve heard from many people that it’s quite different due to the more party oriented atmosphere, but I’ll just have to see for myself come January when I make my way there.

There is a camaraderie in backpacker traveler that everyone should experience once in their life. The familiarity of conversation, of repetitive questions asking, “Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been?” and being able to talk like old friends without even knowing each others’ names. I was insanely lucky to meet such a great group of people in Pai. Writers, journalists, teachers, doctors, even the occasional arrogant investment banker — colorful characters and wonderful people from different parts of the world that come together to create an intersection of perspectives, humor, and very different opinions. There is a serendipity to those connections as well, as the dynamic between groups of friends and lone travelers meshed rather effortlessly that week, and I wouldn’t have experienced any of it had I not been at the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.

I had the option of staying a bit longer in Pai, but in the end thought better of it. There is a famous Argentinian chef named Francis Mallman, who says that once two people have learned and grown all that they can together, that is the time they should separate. Maybe it’s because I’m too sentimental to let go of people in my life, so rather, I find myself feeling that way about the places I go. On my last night in Pai, I remember looking out over a balcony at all the friends I’d made in the span of 3 days, smiling as a group broke out in laughter over an inside joke from the other night, music quietly wafting in from the second floor above clouds of smoke and the sound of pool balls cracking. I realized how undeniably happy and at ease I felt. Sadly, that’s also how I knew it was time to move on.

The strange hypocrisy of traveling is that you crave familiarity, but hate feeling too comfortable. Pai was definitely all it promised to be and more. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I won’t forget the friends I made there (who I plan on seeing again in the not too distant future), and the memories I made. Either way, I have the bug bites and motorbike scars to remind me for the rest of my life.

The benefits of solitary travel

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Today, I bit the bullet and decided to rent a motorbike since I was tired of spending money on taxis or being forced to walk (though within the confines of the city it’s certainly manageable). Upon realizing I had no idea what I was doing when demoing how to ride the bike, the woman at the rental shop proceeded to give me an impromptu motorcycle driving lesson behind the store. Small children getting out of school giggled as I proceeded to over pull the clutch several times, much to the horror of the poor woman helping me. “Slowly! Slowly!” she’d cry while holding the rear of my bike. Eventually we were able to ride around the block, with her sitting behind me, hands on my wrist to show me how to slowly pull the clutch.

Despite giving her a few heart attacks (myself included), I got the hang of it rather quickly, and made the drive to Doi Suthep temple halfway up the mountain. The intense stress and copious amounts of sweat were all worth it for this view.

Solitary travel isn’t for everyone. After living in Kuala Lumpur for 10 days with friends at my side, moving around by myself felt a bit lonely at first. But I’ve already lost count of how many kind locals have stepped in to help my day along, whether it was the woman at the shop, or the other woman who stopped her taxi to ask if I needed directions, the guy who reminded me my bike wouldn’t start without putting up the stand, the other dudes at the temple who helped me lock my bike, and the other guy who helped me put petrol in when I couldn’t figure out the latch (if you can’t tell I’m a bit hopeless when left to my own devices) — all willing to help with a huge smile that I never have a problem reciprocating in turn.

The thing about traveling alone is that it teaches you one of the most important lessons about being human: always be kind. I’m constantly reminded of what it means to fall in love with strangers, and why those moments you share together, regardless of how brief, are true testaments of what is beautiful about being human.

Kuala Lumpur: the city of mud, beauty, and perpetual conflict

In the early morning I awoke to the crack of thunder and calls to morning prayer. Sing song voices echoed above lush tree tops. I could feel my sticky sweat skin peel from the bedsheets as I sat up to peer out the window. All I could see was a haze ridden skyline, punctuated by flashes of lightening in a rainless storm. The truth is, Malaysia is both beautiful and unforgiving, in every sense of the word. 

My time in Kuala Lumpur has been characterized by the overwhelming weather, amazing conversation, and even more amazing food. I’ve had the luxury of staying with a good friend of mine named Kim, who I met a few years back. I can’t emphasize enough how much of a privilege it’s been experiencing and learning to understand Malaysian culture, as well as the city of KL, through her eyes.

It is a city of fascinating contradictions; Kuala Lumpur directly translates into “the city of mud”, and yet rather than being made from mud, the city and the greater area around it has evolved into an immensely vast collection of ridiculously tall housing developments. Anytime we moved across the city, I could perpetually see a skyline of towering concrete buildings, some impressively modern and new, others marred by age and dilapidation. Amongst the endless number of spiraling condos, tower cranes, and unfinished steel skeletons, I was always keenly aware of the humidity, the abundantly beautiful tropical flora, and the number of mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples scattered across the city.

Real estate is hardly regulated here, so corporations are constantly capitalizing on their ability to build new housing developments, despite the fact that many poor Malaysians cannot afford to live there. I commiserated with Kim on a similar issue happening back home in the Bay Area. Unsurprisingly we were able to find parallels in our experiences within our respective societies, which became a running theme throughout my time in Malaysia.

Being a woman in Malaysia is not easy. In Kim’s case, being a Chinese woman in Malaysia is especially not easy. Despite making up a significant portion of the population in Malaysia — with historical presence as far back the the 14th century when Perankan Chinese settled in the Malaysian Peninsular — Chinese citizens, as well as Indian citizens, are still labeled as “immigrants” and not considered truly Malaysian.

These type of xenophobic sentiments are not unique to Malaysia of course (see: Donald Trump), but unlike America, explicitly racist policies are sanctioned by the government to favor those of Malay descent. This means that positions of power in corporations, politics, and academia are relegated to Malays, while the generally upper-middle class Chinese-Malaysians have carved a place for themselves as entrepreneurs and business owners. Indian-Malaysians, most of Tamil descent, make up the smallest portion of the population, however their cultural presence is heavily apparent in the amount of Indian cuisine and flashes of Hindu influence easily visible throughout the country.

Despite these distinctions, all three groups live together in what can only be described as strange, discordant harmony. Everyone lives together in close proximity within the same neighborhoods, going to the same malls and cinemas and parks. However Muslim Malays avoid Chinese restaurants that serve pork, which are so numerous, there were maybe 3-4 every square mile; quotas in school for the number of students per ethnic group make it so many Chinese and Indian students are forced to attend private institutions rather than public ones. Rising tides of Islamic conservatism, like religious conservatism in every country, has led to xenophobia and the rejection of progressive cultural values, such as LGBT acceptance. Which leads to the conundrum that Kim and those like her experience, of being a racial minority who is an “immigrant” despite having grown up in Malaysia and living there almost all her life.

On the flip side of being a racial minority, Kim’s girlfriend Sara is ethnically Malay and comes from a traditional Muslim family. Her life is the definition of living dual identities if there ever was one: to her family she is a devout Muslim girl who wears her hijab everyday, while in her normal life she is a Chinese food eating, bisexual in a relationship with a woman. These dueling aspects of her identity are not easy to reconcile, but at the same time, they also don’t define her entire sense of self either.

You might think it’s strange that I’m making it a point to share all this knowledge, including details about my friends personal lives, but that’s because I want to give those of you unfamiliar with the country’s cultural and political dynamics an idea of what it means to live here as a young person, trying to survive and find happiness in the exact same way we do back home.

Because despite the structural differences, we still do all the same things: hang out over boba, attend poetry open mics, complain about patriarchy (hehe), and engage in awesome karaoke sessions — although I will say this is probably the first and only time I’ll be hanging out with people who can sing songs in Mandarin, Malay, Indonesian, Hindi, Japanese, and English — which really says a lot about how multicultural everyone is here, despite living under a government that tries to exacerbate their differences.

Struggling to establish a sense of identity is a universal experience, and unfortunately something else I found to be universal is dealing with bullshit political corruption. If you’ve paid attention to international news at all in the past week, you may have noticed that Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak is embroiled in a corruption scandal involving 2.6 billion missing ringgit (close to $600 million dollars), which was deposited into his personal account. Many of the spoken word performances I saw while in Malaysia expressed collective anger at this corruption, especially the recent 6% GST tax that’s been pressed on struggling Malaysians to supplement the economy. However instead of focusing the blame on corrupt politicians, the government capitalizes on xenophobia against non-Muslims to push the blame for increased wealth disparity on Chinese-Malaysians … You could substitute the GOP, white Republicans, and Hispanic immigrants, and that sentence would play out nearly the exact same way.

But enough about the bad stuff. Even if their government is shitty, and racism and xenophobia are in a lot of ways deeply engrained in society (like somewhere else I know coughAMERICAcough), the resilience of the people I met far outshone any negative aspects of my time there.

And despite the incessant haze, I had a great time eating all over the city, attending poetry events, going to night markets, and meeting tons of amazing, like-minded people who love talking politics, films, and again food, time and time again. Here are some photo highlights; just a few of the unforgettable moments I experienced over my 10 days there.

An amazing poet I met named Melizarani T. Selva performing at an open mic my first night in Kuala Lumpur.
Another amazing performer by the name of Illya Sumanto performing a poem about a urban legend regarding a female Malaysian vampire, with a feminist twist.
Chinatown in the heart of Kuala Lumpur
Wandering in a butterfly garden.
A view of the city skyline from Thean Hou temple, to get an idea of how intense the haze was while I was in KL.
A view of Thean Hou Temple.
Standing outside a traditionally built Malaysian home outside the National Museum.
The last photo I took in Kuala Lumpur, wandering around the markets in Little India before heading home for the night.

preamble to adventure

It’s a hazy Tuesday afternoon, and I’m sitting alone at my friend’s apartment a few miles outside of Kuala Lumpur. It’s been a few days, and now that the dust has settled a bit, I find myself contemplating thoughts that have been brewing in my head for quite some time.

For a long time, I’ve been meaning to write an explanation for what I’m doing here. In the weeks leading up to this trip, a lot of people had asked me why I had decided to fly to the other side of the world, virtually for no real reason other than “to travel,” — a simple answer amongst the litany of other generic responses that always seemed to suffice.

“To travel.”

And as cliché as it is to ask, really, what does that even mean? For the longest time, going as far back as to when this trip was just a faint glimmer of an idea in my head, I had thought about how I would write about it. What did I want to say, and did anything I have to say matter?

Like every other twenty-something these days, I had bit of an identity crisis after college ended. Or to be more accurate, am having an identity crisis, as said crisis is still very much ongoing. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to go back to school, and my attempts at navigating the professional world — which, consisted mostly of reading job descriptions and writing resume bullet points — felt more like a death sentence to my creativity than an opportunity at personal growth. Being a lost millennial is a huge cliché, and it’s one that I’ll proudly own up to. And the thing is, everyone goes through it, mine just happened to manifest itself as a one-way ticket to a country I’ve never been before.

In an effort not to wax philosophical, or divulge too much about my own insecurities, I’ll keep this shorter than I originally planned. I think these days, we all spend too much of our time basing a sense of self-worth on external validation — from friends, from lovers, from careers, and from strangers on the internet — because let’s face it, we live in such a highly connected world now, that social media has created a duality of identity. Often I’m not too sure whether it enriches or diminishes the quality of my life.

I spent a really long time resenting myself for not living up to some archetype of a person I had built up in my head over the years. And that’s scary to admit, let alone writing it down here for other people to read. The scarier truth is not knowing if I’m doing all this to solve my problems, or to simply run away from them. But I suppose that’s the beauty of taking risks, of taking the leap without knowing if you’re going to land on your feet.

And I’m not here to offer some bullshit mantra about quitting your job to travel the world — #wanderlust, #blahblahblah — because frankly that whole phenomena of perfectly composed bikini shots on white sand beaches makes me want to bang my head into a wall. More than anything, the only real goal I have in mind as I travel from city to city and country to country, is to try my best to understand each place I go and to share the lives and experiences of the people who live there. I find myself hating travel for its ability to exploit the lives of people who survive off its industry, and also love it for its ability to connect people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and languages that may have otherwise never crossed paths. There’s no doubt that I’m going to enjoy myself, but I also thoroughly believe the benefits of travel should not be restricted to oneself, but to the places and people you encounter along the way.

To be honest I don’t know what I’m expecting to find. I am beyond privileged to have parents that support me 100%, regardless of how terrified they were when I first told them I was quitting my job to fly across the world by myself. I have friends that love and support my crazy decisions, strengthening my confidence when I couldn’t do it for myself.

Trusting your own decisions is easier said than done, but I’d like to think I’m learning to take the ugliest parts of myself (the bitterness, the self-consciousness, and the insecurities) and trying to turn them into something positive. The hope, I suppose, is that doing so will allow me to grow into the best version of myself, whoever that person may be.

If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in life it’s this: never confuse vacation for travel, and never confuse validation from other people as a form of self love.

For those of you even taking the time to read this, all I can say is thank you, and that I hope you continue following my writing as I start this indefinite journey, wherever it may take me.