It’s been a while since I’ve last written anything, but at long last, I’m planning to take a vagabonding trip from May through October, covering (hypothetically) SE Asia, southern Europe/the Balkans, and parts of Africa.
The itinerary and the budget are merely shadow outlines, but as I sit here at the Frankfurt Airport typing, I will aim to spend May/June/July in Asia; late July/mid August in Europe; and September in Africa.
As some friends have recently asked me to post about how to do a trip like this, what to bring and how much it would cost, I will carefully detail expenses, infrastructure and recommendations along the way.
I happened to find myself in Chicago over the last week as part of the wedding of one of my oldest and best friends (shout out, Holly), and serendipitously it was the opening weekend of Mulberry Child on PBS across the country (U.S). It is Asian Heritage Month after all, and well, we’re Asian.
And as chubby as I might look in the film (one of my friends unceremoniously asked me after the screening it if I had lost 30 pounds since production), I’m so grateful that PBS took a leap of faith to support our story and believed in its universality. The trailer is available here.
I thank you all for your kind words and support, and am always be happy to answer any questions or hear your feedback. Your willingness to share our story and our trailer would be very much appreciated as well.
For those who know me: I believe three very simple things;
1) Change is good
2) Nothing is that scary
3) There are good people everywhere
I look forward to knowing more good people out there.
I never really envisioned this as a potential reality. Had you asked me six months before, I may have told you I’d seen myself as a South American vagabond tossed to the winds of fortune by now. Yet six months later–eight and a half years I made that first fate move to Paris–I find myself a resident of Germany about to embark on an unforeseen adventure of an indefinite variety.
I have a job to do, of course, and I feel again invigorated by the possibilities of opportunity. I no longer feel trapped; the world is a simultaneously large and tiny place. I don’t know how long I’ll go next… But the world ahead looks full of promises and light. At 27, I had felt my heart aging. Now, 28 doesn’t feel so old anymore.
I love the romance and unpredictability that the road offers. The whole life it beckons. Sure it’s not always business lounges or coups de champagne, but it’s the whiff of everything new and a different sun just around the next horizon that keeps the mind fresh.
I know that people say that you can’t predict what will happen in life. Sure, the little things you can control—what, your career progression or next move perhaps—but inevitably the unpredictability of life happens when you get hit by a car on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and it irreparably changes your world forever.
But I beg to differ; you can predict life. You can see yourself three years from now, living in this house, working at that job, living with this man. It can be exactly how you’d imagined it; I could predict three years before that I’d be living in this house, working at this job, although perhaps not living with this man…
I see the predictability seeping like irreconcilable dread all around me. For me, it exists in mediocre marriages because society expected it, or perhaps after five years, a ring was simply the next logical step. I see it as the trade-off between a life of passion and a life of easy comfort. It lies in the life where hours are passed for cheap entertainment over the deep emotions that move the core. It exists in the caverns of lost dreams and ambitions.
I think back to the old poems that we were forced to memorize as children. Robert Frost, John McCrae… and then Langston Hughes, whose poem reverberates through my skull as I ponder where to take my life next—if I’m willing to choose freefall—or whether to move at all from this allegory of Plato’s cave….
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
At 17, I made a promise to myself that I would live each day to its fullest.
Of course, at 17, it was mostly a fun promise aggregating to partying until 2 a.m., going to swim practice at 7, working my summer job, and repeating the cycle seven days a week.
For me, it had always meant squeezing the most life out of every possible day, like wringing a wet shirt until there was not a droplet left. I wanted to know that if there were no tomorrow, I couldn’t have fit one more thing into any day that I had lived.
As I got older, the circle of friends, partying and laughter never ceased, but the days of swim team and summer jobs gave way to a grown-up career, cocktails I could actually afford to buy and spontaneous travel. Life got better; I felt alive. Every day and every night felt alight with the opportunity to experience something unexpected.
I don’t know when or why things seemed to shift, but suddenly the excitement, the new and the fresh seemed to fade. And the nights filled with surprises became almost expected. To be discluded was disappointing, but to have another night out had simply became that: another night out. The career became predictable with its laddered steps stretched forth. Another trip; another place, and I became preoccupied with the fear that the colors of a new location would soon start to blend with the familiar and somehow be less bright. When did the days start to feel like they were filed with cheap thrills to amuse myself, as I slowly waited for the ribbon of time to pass by.
It had never been like that before.
No, my life had always been lived with perpetual fear of death, of an eternal unconsciousness. Falling into the abyss and not knowing if I would ever emerge from the wormhole—that was my motivation for living. That there would never be enough time to do all the things I wanted to do. That I would sit on my deathbed with the regret that I didn’t pursue a dream that I had wanted so dearly.
I think this is the feeling of the mind numbing to shallow pursuits. It’s the same image I conjure of lazy afternoon cocktails to alleviate boredom for the lack of anything better to do. No visceral passion. No desperation for success. This is the allegory of Plato’s cave where life is comfortable, and indeed there is a couch, a nice TV, and all your friends are there. It’s easy and stable, and never what I wanted of life.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful about an easy transition in adulthood. I’ve been lucky to have this life that so many dream of, that I had once dreamed of. But I am not them, and they are not me.
I arrived in Istanbul in relatively steamy heat. The hot summer sun even at 4:30 seems to penetrate everything.
With 4 hours to go prior to my flight to CDG (yes, it’s wonderful to overshoot your destination by more than three hours only to turn back a few hours later).
But, because Star Alliance Gold affords you access to ALL the international lounges, I found myself at the end of the hall in the magical Turkish Airlines lounge, fully equipped with a movie theater, Playstations, a child’s play corner, tons of cush seating, a fully functional espresso bar with desserts, two fully stocked beverage kingdoms, two chefs on hand, and copious amounts of pizzas, dishes and treats. Of course, free wifi is a given.
If this place was open 24 hours, I may never get a hotel. Why did I never come here before?!
In a world of competing priorities, choices like wandering the globe or having a high-flying career seem pit against one-another. Can we proverbially “have it all” or does growing up mean giving up on youthful dreams of wanderlust and acquiescing to an annual trip to a forgettable beach?
I believe that fostering a career and seeing the world is possible with balance, desire and some smart planning for the parameters of constraint–generally time off and disposable income. Last month, I wrote about how to maximize time; for part II, I’ll address how to make money work harder for you:
Practice destination agnosticism: Being destination agnostic pays dividends; being destination and time agnostic pays back double. Flexibility on where to go (there’s a lot of the world to see!) will allow for capitalizing on the lowest air fares during time periods dictated by the airlines. On the flip side, having dates and places set in stone allows for very limited possibilities of finding the best deal. What does this look like done right? Try $500 round-trip to Turkey, $880 to Tanzania, $540 to Belize, or $950 to Johannesburg.
Despite airline consolidations and generally rising prices, there are still good deals to be sought via the travel search engines. My personal favorite is Kayak’s Explorefunctionality, which allows users to pull up a map and set parameters for the highest price that they’d be willing to pay for a ticket to any place in the world at any given time.
Ask for advice, but do your own diligence: I write a bit about shoestring travel, although I believe piece of wisdom applies to all types of travel. In three words, if you don’t want to overpay: DO.YOUR.DILIGENCE.
Walk into conversations with tour operators, concierge services, even hostel desks, with an understanding of how much things should cost. With tools like TripAdvisor, travel forums (i.e. Thorn Tree Travel), social media, and this amazing resource called “the Google,” preliminary research is easy enough. Don’t expect others to have your best (financial) interest in mind.
Then leave the conversation to do additional diligence on the ground, which may include talking to other tour operators in town and other travelers. Then make a decision based on cost and level of quality.
Not subscribing to this once had me swindled for $500 in the Sahara. But, doing this right meant paying $600 for safari in Tanzania instead of the $1,500+ advertised “best” price online (details here), and the $5,000 others advised it might cost. Do your own due diligence.
Don’t be afraid to do it yourself: For inexperienced travelers, researching the intricacies of bus routes, hostels, or even trip itineraries may seem intimidating, but online tools and third-party reviews have not only made research easy, but transparent and socially accountable. I often start with a guide book to map a general route within a particular country or region; follow up with online research and reviews; and book only my first night or two to leave room for local recommendations and itinerary changes.
To me, the “great deals” to South Africa that include airfare, some all-inclusive tour and group transportation are not only not the best deals (I can generally do the itinerary at least 25% less), but also cheapen the travel experience. Don’t forget that although tour operators can leverage volume to lower some costs, they are businesses with overhead that need to run a profit. Their value-added service may be worth something but at a detriment to your budget and flexibility. Plus, there’s nothing cooler than getting off a tour bus with thirty other schmucks with cameras strapped around their necks.
Get some loyalty: Airline loyalty that is. Sticking to a single alliance (Star Alliance, One World, Sky Team), will help create value out of the airline tickets that you’re already buying. Most will grant roundtrip domestic tickets for about 20,000-25,000 award miles, and international tickets starting at 35,000 (to Central America from the U.S.) Acquiring status will speed up the accrual rate: 1Ks with United, for example, earn double award miles for each mile flown. Credit cards are also a great way to rack up free tickets, although I recommend using a card with points over one that accrues reward miles? Why? When you buy a ticket with credit card points, you still receive reward and elite-qualifying miles that can be applied to airline status and more rewards. Accruing miles just means you’ll spend miles and cuts the fun of double-dipping. I personally use the Citi Premier Pass Elite, which gives you a point for every mile you fly. The point is, if you’re going to spend the money, you should get something back for it.
Calculate ROI on mileage tickets: Consider when it’s really worth it to spend the miles. If a flight to California cost $400 or 25,000 miles, I may choose to spend the cash because the trip gives me 5,500 award miles back (I’m a Premier Gold). You can save the award miles for a time that is really worth your money, like last year, when I flew to Patagonia over Christmas/New Year’s using just 40,000 miles instead of spending $2,500.
Seeing the world is possible even early in a career, when money can be even more squeezed than time. By being smart with a dollar and creating the most out of allotted time off, regular travel can morph from a dream into a reality.
Seeing the world can feel like an impossible feat, as it always seems that those who have time don’t have money, and those who have money don’t have time. Particularly in uncertain economic times, the priority of keeping a steady job tends to supersede the savory qualities of travel. We rationalize that you can’t have it all, and when push comes to shove, better to survive than enjoy.
Of course, there are the professions that integrate a fair amount of both–consulting, business development and private equity, to name a few. But, if you find yourself more limited to cubicle (or if your work travel is directed to the likes of Tuscaloosa or Cincinnati), is it still possible?
I’ve spent the past six years developing my career and averaging between four to six international trips a year for pleasure–without breaking the bank or exceeding my paid-time-off limits. I can say, with certainty, yes. How? In this first article, I’ll address maximizing time:
Take all your vacation days: According to Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey, after Asian countries, Americans are among the worst at depriving themselves of allotted vacation days. “Twelve days of paid-time-off? Thanks sir, but I’d prefer to take 10.” Silly, right? Take advantage of all your days; that’s why you negotiated them.
Make time work for you: There are pockets of time a year when companies give you freebie days off. The obvious ones: holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the slightly less obvious ones, like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Barring family obligations or traditions, these pockets provide the best return-on-investment for time. Aside from this, too often, people discount shorter one-day holidays that still provide an added value–take President’s Day, MLK or Pulaski Day (if you work for the City of Chicago). Taking four days of PTO during these periods still provide nine days net of vacation time.
Consider your destination time zone: I currently live in Chicago, and as much as I love Asia and Europe, when it comes to traveling over an abridged time period (e.g. two days wrapped around each side of a weekend), it is much wiser to fly south. Why?
Time zones are close. The time difference between Chicago, Central and South America is only a few hours apart in most cases; in Central, there is no difference. Therefore, my body does not need to adjust and shift to a seven-hour time change that can leave me sluggish for half of an already short trip.
Overnight flights use time efficiently. Many flights to South American countries from Colombia to Chile to Argentina to Brazil have red-eyes that depart from Houston, Miami or Fort Lauderdale (trying to be One World and Star Alliance agnostic here) around midnight and land in the morning. I’m an easy one to consume a glass of wine and sleep on the plane. It’s so simple: fall asleep in Houston; wake up in Rio.
Know your commodity. Don’t put money first when time should come first: A piece of travel advice I always give is to know your commodity. For most, this is either time or money. Assuming employment is the default, time should generally be the priority commodity. Don’t skimp on a $70 plane ride for a $20 bus in Tanzania just because the 10 hours of time you inherently “trade” can significantly impact what activities you can do. The bus ride may prevent you from going on safari for an extra day or keep you overnight in the capital city because you’ve missed the last ferry to Zanzibar. Actual cost is more than dollars.
Do your research: Research is ultimately the key to success to both preventing stupid, time-costly mistakes and squeezing the most out of a day. Going to Patagonia in South American summer (peak season) means that rental cars may not be available for a few days when you book them on the fly, particularly if you are a silly American who can only drive automatic vehicles (me). An overnight bus from Santiago north to San Pedro de Atacama can save you the loss of a day in transit. Taking the time to understand infrastructure challenges and possibilities prior to taking a trip has the potential to save a precious day.
Negotiate work flexibility: I personally believe that the age of the 9-5 is over. I can’t remember the last time I actually worked from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Some of my best thinking happens in shower; I fall asleep with my laptop in bed mid-email; and sometimes the conversations and experiences I have abroad inextricably affect my passion for my job. Most people are afraid to ask about flexibility: Can I do some assignments while I’m not physically in the office? Can I work remotely on Fridays? I personally believe in a world of hyper-transparency, and being honest about your personal desires can help identify points of intersection between what you–and your company–want. Retention of good employees is, after all, a corporate priority. But you won’t get anything until you ask.
There are many ways to stretch time, both on utilizing vacation days and maximizing each day on the ground. It takes just a few insights to help make time work for you. Next up: stretching a budget.
I woke up this morning, wrapped around in my (lovely) hotel sheets, in a moderate panic. When the sun sets tonight, I will have lived my last day of 27.
I’d become familiar with this panic over the past few months—the kind anxiety that’s been bolstered by my general unease from feeling old and under-accomplished. I’d never felt anything other than right where I should be—starting a career, having an incredible amount of fun—and yet, and yet… this year, I’ve been feeling disappointed in myself.
How quickly that insecurity and doubt casts shadows on a year well-spent. I was almost punishing myself, questioning in the darkness: “What have you done in the past year? How have you changed your life from the year before? Are you getting stagnant, risk averse?”
The mind forgets yesterday when it falls into a psychological slump. Because I as I padded through the gray haze, I started thinking through the things I experienced last year. And as I began physically listing, it dawned these 12 months were, in fact, not a wasted, lost or stagnant year, but rather an incredible year. What was 27? The year that I:
Broke my Chicago festival virginity
Made some new lifelong friends
Saw the craziness of Bermuda at Cup Match
Survived Burning Man duststorms
Completed the Guatemala/Belize circuit I’ve wanted to do since we skipped it in 2010 (Cyn)
Drove a dodgy car through all of Central Patagonia
Hiked for 2031282 hours in Patagonia
Got serious about writing
Started a business with my best friend
Found out how deep that friendship ran
Joined the +acumen board
Had the best Groove Cruise ever
Launched a website
Made it to the crazy Balkans
Broke my Couchsurfing virginity
Got closer to my parents
Made it to WMC #3
Got into Ultra for free
Hopped four cities in China in close quarters with my parents (and lived)
Became a travel expert and writer
Became a paid blogger
Saw two of my best friends get engaged
This year, I’ve feared that my spirit was turning older, and its flame for life slightly less bright. I felt like I was losing the fight, acquiescing to what a moderate and safe adulthood should look like, and it terrified me. I felt like perhaps the Second Law of Thermodynamics had taken over.
But no, as I actually look over the past year and relive the colors, tastes, smells, laughs and memories, I remember that it—like every other year—is an incredible year to be alive. And I’m only so lucky to embark on the next one. More surefooted. More secure. More ready to face the incredible opportunities that rise with tomorrow’s sun.
When I awake, I instinctively look at the clock. The one that sits overhead is broken. 4:35. It’s perpetually 4:35.
I am back in Changchun after three years. I had arrived at the airport after a grueling travel session, spanning 1 ½ hours Chicago to Vancouver; 13 ½ Vancouver to Beijing; and another 1 ½ to finally get here. Whisked away by my Mom, stepdad and Tao Ge, my second aunt’s son, we whiz through the dark streets.
The air is damp and thick with the light smell of smoke, as Mom explains that is a mix of the heavy construction and the season—farmers are burning the stalks in their fields for planting season.
People still burn fields?
It’s nearly 10 when we arrive at the apartment complex—the one that my Grandma and fourth aunt’s family had moved into back in 2007: one of the then most chic in Changchun. In true Chinese style, Grandma already has her helper frying flour patties, and re-heating zhou and vegetables for me to eat.
“Child must be hungry,” she says, wrapping me in a thick hug in her fuzzy red sweater.
My things are promptly whisked into a bedroom.
Just our luck, Mom says, they have exactly two extra rooms. She and my stepfather are sleeping in the extra room in fourth aunt’s condo two stories above, and I’m sleeping here in Grandma’s guest room.
It’s my Grandfather’s old room of course. He has been gone nearly five years now. I still remember coming back in 2007 and 2008, when he had sat in his chair smoking cigarettes and crouching over the small TV, body frailer by the year. You go to hug him and pay your respects. He smiles a bit and hums up the energy from within to shout out your name in enthusiastic exuberance.
And then it’s back to the TV, back to his writing, back to his cigarette. What did we have to talk about anyway? And his ears, growing increasingly deaf, wouldn’t hear my awkwardly loud and deliberately spaced words in limited vocabulary anyway. You’d smile a bit. Give him another hug and retreat—no idea what might be swirling within his mind.
And now the image of him sitting in the chair is frozen in time through Mulberry Child. I’d seen it dozens of times, the scene they replayed from 2008 with my grandfather waving in front of the TV, taking a brief moment from watching the Games. It was when Mom had visited with a video camera when we knew—we all knew—the end was coming. I remember sitting in this house and knowing that this would be the last time I saw my Grandfather—family, and yet so distant from me—alive. That I would be an ocean away when he left us. And I was. In Las Vegas. An ocean away a month later when breathed his last.
The room has been converted, although in the center of the top shelf, there is a portrait of my Grandfather, perhaps in his 60s, with a shock of white hair and slightly smiling, looking dignified, proud and shining from within. Around him, there are family photos, of their kids when they were young—my aunts and uncles—photos throughout the year of when the family got together, all in terrible outfits. Despite the years, they still all pose like an old Chinese photograph—parents in the front, sitting regally—children and grandchildren all about. In some, Mom has terrible farmer tan lines on her arms and gigantic coke-bottle glasses. Those were from the 90s; it didn’t make sense why she had coke bottle glasses.
4:35. 4:35. The time seems to taunt me. The way that time kind of stands still in this room. And my grandfather is immortalized.