Lessons I Learned While Solo Backpacking Abroad

Lessons I Learned While Solo Backpacking Abroad

 

Context

Instead of attending my 6th semester at UC Berkeley. I decided to take a semester off to travel abroad. I have had whims of this nature every spring semester now since I’ve entered Berkeley. My freshman spring I did rejection therapy. My sophomore spring I decided to hit the gym. However, this year my sporadic nature came early. By mid-way of my Fall semester, I’ve already yearned to do something new. I’ve highlighted some of the reasons in a personal note I wrote in November.

I started my journey in Taiwan. I went with two of my best friends. We explored Taiwan for 10 days before my friends headed back. I went to South Korea next, followed by Japan, taking a brief stop in Hong Kong, explored Southwestern China, journeyed through Vietnam, took a pit stop in Singapore, and eventually returned to Taiwan to relax for two weeks before heading back home. Besides Taiwan, all portions of my travel were solo backpacking, which meant I kept all my belongings in a 55 liter backpack. I stayed in hostels through the duration of the trip and booked transportation on the road. I made friends on the road but spent a large portion of my time alone. Now that my 111 days worth of traveling across Asia is over, here are some reflective points I came across.

Lesson #0: No one knows that you’re gone

Nor do most people care. I wasn’t intentionally being secretive about my plans. I told my travel plans to friends who asked what I was doing that semester. Yet, I still had many friends assume that I’ve been in Berkeley all semester now that I’m back.

People move on, and everyone has their own lives. It’s not to say that I’m unfriending every person who didn’t realize I was away. It’s just that it’s too selfish to expect everyone to be thinking about you all the time and miss you when you’re gone. A lot of things have changed while I was gone, and the world moves on without you. I’ve stayed in touch with a few friends from back home, and that’s been heartwarming to keep in touch. But even they have their own lives, and it would be self-torture to miss me this whole time. Sorry Anna Kendrick, you won’t be missing me when I’m gone.

After all, I didn’t intend on traveling to impress my friends or anyone. Traveling was a choice I made for myself.

“You climb to the top of the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” – David McCullough Jr.

Lesson #1: Tourist attractions get boring really quick.

I remember taking a trip to Kyoto. I had purchased a one week rail pass that granted me access to all the high speed rails of Japan. I was hellbent on making the most of it, so I decided to explore 5 cities in that one week. I had allocated 2 days in Kyoto. For those of you who don’t know, Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan. It has all the fancy temples and museums and monuments that are iconic to Japanese history.

I only had 2 days. If I don’t do these “must-do’s” now, I wouldn’t know when my next chance will be! So I rushed through everything. 2 hours for each attraction, with a shortest-path route from each temple to the next.

Except after the 3rd temple, it all felt extremely boring. Temples merge. Sceneries become dull, and I felt largely disappointed in every subsequent temple visit. In fact, my highlight of the two days there was meeting and conversing with a man feeding stray kittens next to the river when I got lost. 

My point isn’t necessary to avoid tourist attractions. I’d say I would have mitigated the boredom had I had someone explain some history to me. I realized through my journey that I really do like history. These visits would have been more enjoyable had someone explain the narratives behind them. Most plaques on the displays don’t do the history justice. Lots of context is needed. I’ve read many wikipedia pages in museums just to scratch the surface of what is really going on. 

My other point really is that short term travel is very different from long term travel. When you have a week to explore Taiwan, it’s what a lot of Chinese call “Hurricane traveling.” You’re like a hurricane, and you’re just trying to get everywhere at once, and all you’re left with is a mess, and exhaustion. Trying to do short term travels for long term vacations is just unsustainable.

Lesson #2: Take pictures of people, not places

“Take pictures of people, not places” was an advice I read somewhere, perhaps Reddit or Quora. I was thought it was true, but never really understand it until I started getting lonely. Solo-traveling is a lonely experience, especially for my first solo-destination — South Korea. I met an English teacher in Korea who phrases it best. “In South Korea, being single is a fate worse than death.” 

I felt so too. There’s a lot of social stigma for being in public places by yourself. I didn’t see anyone who wandered on the streets by themselves except me. Couples are easily spotted with their matching outfits. Good luck eating Korean barbecue by yourself. I got lonely and homesick real quick.

So, I spent most of my free time going to language exchange cafes to meet folks. And it was super fun. It might have even been the highlight of my trip in Korea. I feel like I understand cultural composition better through the people rather than scenes. After all, the best memories I want to photographs are those with the people I meet.

Lesson #3: The way into people’s hearts …

I know my travel companions tend to make fun of me for my travel preferences (I’m looking at you Alice Yuan). I’m always saying “I want to meet locals! I want to talk to folks!”. It’s a personal truism I learned for myself. I love people, and I believe it’s the best way to understand a place’s culture by meeting natives from the place. You would be surprised how easy it is to feel at home abroad. Just talk to some of the bros you meet on the road. Their idea of travel is to go a city, visit tourist attractions during the day, and party at expat bars at night. Hence, you could spend all your travel time never truly feeling like you’re experiencing a new world. Natives also tend to stay away from the tourist-y area, as they have their own lives far removed from the tourism industry. So, actually it’s pretty natural to get a packaged experience in a country abroad if you stick to the usual routes and places.

I’ve seen a few patterns that might get you more exposure to meeting local people.

Common Language

From my experience the easiest ways to connect with natives abroad is through common language, common interests, generosity, and children. Common language is by far the most immersive in meeting a wide-spectrum of folks. I’d had my fair-share of amazing conversations meeting individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China since I was able to speak Mandarin. It was harder to have those conversation with citizens from other countries. I’m sure there are equally interesting folks in other countries that would have made good conversational partners had I had the ability to speak fluently with them.

Common Interests

Another way to connect with folks abroad is through common interests. I’ve managed to befriend children in China and Vietnam by playing street soccer with them. I’ve performed a few magic tricks for strangers I meet, as well as play frisbee once or twice. Most excitingly, I have had gone swing dancing in every country I’ve visited. And it’s been nothing short of amazing every time. I meet other dancers, have a good time, and often they’ll invite me to get food with them after the dance! One day in Tokyo, I was figuring out what to do on a Friday night. I searched up TripAdvisor for activities since I was a tourist and knew squat about real travel. I found the top activity on the site. Tokyo Pub Crawl was one of the top activities that interested me. A mere $20 meant that you get to visit 3 bars in the scene, meet other cool travelers and locals, and ultimately, have an amazing time. The reviews didn’t disagree either. 5 star ratings had all claimed they had an amazing time. Unfortunately, I later found out that there was a swing dance event the same time as the pub crawl. I had to make a tough decision.

I ended up being an idiot and going to the pub crawl. Massive sausage fest, not to mention the pub is littered with other expats. I’ve met 2 Japanese salarymen there, every else out there seemed too bro-y for me (only interested in the opposite sex, generic small talk topics, etc). The music was too loud to make good conversations, and it was crowded. Fuck, after the first bar I decided to cut my losses and travel to go swing dancing. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my travels. The crowd was super friendly, and everyone was so nice to me. It was mainly Japanese natives, with a live Japanese band. It was at a bar, so there were drinks too. Everyone was excited to talk to me when they found out I wasn’t from here. I made conversation, danced with folks, and the gender ratio wasn’t shit! A couple even announced their engagement at the event! There was a jam and lots of happy Japanese folks in the room. Everyone dressed up very well. Easily one of my best nights while traveling :) Traveling has made me very, very glad I learned to swing dance. I really want to get better at swing now! I told all the folks I met that I would go back to dance with them.

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Swing dancing in Tokyo

Bring your hobbies, your talents. They’ll no doubt draw people to you, or bring you to the people. I met a few folks with similar mindsets to want to engage with people. Some would bring a ukulele and play on the street until someone strikes a conversations. I’ve seen magicians perform street magic to meet local folks. If you like design, go to a design meetup, or find a Facebook group that has your interests. Find your people!

Generosity

I feel so manipulative because I feels like this works 100% of the time. If I have food on hand, I try to share it with those around me. I found out that no one usually takes my offer, but ends up talking to me. It has lead to some great friendships.

Generosity really tears down any barriers folks have from talking to you, whether it’s food you give to the homeless, or helping an old lady carry her basket up the stairs. I met a traveler in Japan who has told me “If you look for it, you’ll always be able to find ways to give.” He swears it’s the best way he’s gotten over the language or hostility barrier.

Children

Children are the easiest folk to talk to when I travel. They don’t care if you don’t speak English, or look creepy, as long you help them build a sandcastle, or play a game with them. Their limited vocabulary matches mine, and they’re easily entertained. I let them play with my iPhone, and sometimes I teach them how to take selfies. If parents see you get along with kids, they’ll feel at ease to talk to you too. Pets work too, but unfortunately I’m not so hot around pets. I like kids more.

Lesson #4: Always look for ways to give

I met a traveler in Fukuoka, Japan. He’s one of the only people I met during my journey who I would call a real vagabond. His biggest theme while traveling is to find ways to give back. “If you seek help, you will always find someone willing to help you. Similarly, if you’re looking for ways to give, you’ll always find people who need help.” I decided to try to follow his advice for the rest of my trip, and I’d have to say, spending time and money helping others has been some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

 In terms of charity, though, I never give out money. It’s just a policy of mine to prevent myself from thinking they’ll put the money into misuse. I also find ways to give to others without being asked. It makes me feel more comfortable and more proactive about my actions. Often, I hand out my leftovers to beggars. Once, I bought some mangoes to eat at my hostel, but decided to give them to a mother and her child who were in rags.

I believe escaping self-referential happiness has increased my capacity for love. I remember back in Berkeley I’ve had conversations about deep relationships like kids or marriage. Someone said having kids or a spouse is like having your heart leave your body and now running around having its own thoughts. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable with that thought. I can barely control my own emotions and circumstances to make myself content, why should I spend time to think for others?

 

Because I think it’s worth it. Thinking for others made me worry for others. It made me think for others and feel their pain and suffering and their circumstances, which is often not very bright for most folks I meet in Asia. But I also get to share their positive experiences too! I feel genuinely happy when good things happen to good people, even if I personally wouldn’t consider those accomplishments particularly shiny or worthy of celebration. That’s the nice thing. I’m a largely pessimistic and jaded person when it comes to what people do, but when I like someone, I couldn’t care less what they do or what they accomplish. I just become happy when they’re happy. And most folks I meet are happier than me.

Lesson #5: Hostels > Hotels

I was a big fan of AirBnb. Their sleek interface caught me off guard when I first used it, and of course, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences when I booked through the site. However, it completely robbed me of the opportunities to meet other travelers. I meet lots of interesting folks at the hostels, and we always share stories and experiences together. A common day while travel would be to wake up and eat breakfast at the hostel, and make friendly conversations with folks at the table. We would figure our respective itineraries to see if anything overlaps. If things align and there’s rapport, we usually head out together.

I love one-day travel dates. It’s basically spending your day with another person while wandering around the city. You make small talk, understand each other’s background and culture, and share a unique experience together in a foreign land. I learn so much about European modern culture by all the Europeans I meet abroad. I try to convince every travel I meet to go to Taiwan (see lesson #19). My general curiosity is how folks go about traveling and living their lives. I wanted to see what they do to maximize their experience abroad.

Besides the lack of privacy, most hostels are very clean, safe, and modern. You won’t be disappointed!

Lesson #6: Talk to other people before they talk to you

Someone I met once told me about the kinds of people he meets in India. “Either they want to scam you or they want to be your best friend.” I agree with his sentiment, even applied in places like Vietnam. As a general rule of thumb, if people approach and talk to me, I have a stronger suspicion than if I directly approach them. How I statistically understand it is that most people are good, so you picking a random person in a crowd will be a 1% probability that you pick a scammer. But out of all the people who talk to you, there’s probably a larger than 1% probability that they are a bad guy. 100% of bad guys talk to you, whereas maybe at most 5-10% of all the good people will talk to you. Add all those people together, and the chances that out of a random person you pick who talks to you, the chances that they are not good-doer is probably a lot more than 1%. Hence, I try to talk to people. Plus, there’s always something to say. Say whatever comes to mind.

Lesson #7: You spend a lot of time alone

You spend a lot of time alone. After all, you’re on this journey by yourself (I presume). You become pretty comfortable being alone for long periods of time. Independence is a skill I would say is useful, you spend a lot of time with yourself.

You get a lot of time to reflect. Or not. Honestly reflection didn’t necessarily entail actual thinking or progress. I usually have philosophical thoughts in the form of conversation or debate, as then I can strengthen the way I express my thoughts and values. But since traveling, there have been some things I started to build intuition for without knowing exactly what it is or what I accomplished. Some say it’s a waste of time or that I’m spacing out. Even I would sometimes say so myself. But really I felt more at peace with myself.

Lesson #8: Bring a habit with you

One of the things I missed most while I was gone was having some sense of direction. Of course, that’s partially intended. I had left my daily routine to experience new lifestyles. However, at one point my life felt very directionless in my day-to-day itinerary. In a lifestyle where there are no constant, it helps to have some small routine you cling on to. For some folks it’s that they exercise abroad, for others they read before they sleep. Some bring some kind of project to work on with them. I believe it really helps when you do long term travel to have some structure.

Lesson #9: Stay longer in each place

Next time, I would probably pick fewer locations and stay at each one a bit longer. I make a lot of friends during my travels, but many of them I don’t meet up with them more than once. It’s quite sad sometimes to think about it. Relationships can only go so far with a one day experience. I tend to have shallower relationships abroad, no matter how much I try to fix it. 

Backpacking long term is also exhausting. Just imagine every day you have to pack your stuff, travel to a different location, find a hostel, and unpack. Travel fatigue got to me real bad while I was trekking Vietnam. I’m suppose to “travel” Vietnam in 3 weeks (that’s how long my visa lasted). I bused everywhere, and never stayed at a place longer than 3 days. It was exhausting trying to catch the next bus or to visit all the attractions. At one point in Dalat, Vietnam, I stayed 4 days just to rest and avoid any tourist attractions. I would wander the city at day, maybe lounge at a cafe, and head back to my hostel to make small conversations with other travelers. It was nice, and I relax and not constantly thinking “What should I do right now? Where should I go?”.

 My longest stay was at Taiwan during my last 2 weeks of my travel, and that lifestyle was more than pleasant, and probably more sustainable. I wouldn’t consider myself bumming around that time. I took things much slower and enjoyed things more thoroughly. On top of that, I met some amazing group of friends in Taiwan. And because I was able to stay longer (2 weeks is the longest I ever stayed in any city), I was able to spend lots of quality time with the folks I met there. No doubt if I stayed for a month in Taipei (or anywhere for that matter) I would have an amazing time and meet interesting people.

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Friends I made in Taipei!

Taipei love!

Lesson #10: Explore subcultures, not culture

When I was visiting China and converse with folks, I would ask them questions like “What’s it like living in China?”. Many of them didn’t particularly like the question, since it implied culture was uniform and identical throughout China. Similarly, generic questions like “What is Korea’s dating culture like?” has sparked equally broad answers. It feels impossible to grasp what a country’s “culture” is like without diving into a subculture, since each place is too diverse of a place to have a satisfactory summary of what it’s like in each place. Just like how Californian culture is a subset of American culture, Berkeley culture is a subset of California culture, etc. 

Knowing American culture doesn’t cover the breadth and depth of culture that it has to offer, so spend more time and effort getting into the subcultures. I spent a couple of days in Akihabara, Tokyo being absorbed and fascinated by the arcade gamers who dwell there and their habits and tendencies. Trying to paint a stereotypical Tokyo perspective wouldn’t have done those Otakus (Japanese social shut ins) justice on what Tokyo is really like. To understand the big picture, you have to piece together bits and pieces of smaller communities that constitute the whole city.

Lesson #11: The simple life

As happiness expert Dan Gilbert would claim, people are poor judges of what makes them happy, and I certain believe that’s true. Especially when I think I figured out the formula to long term happiness, I find myself at a loss pretty quickly. A met a few folks and had a few experiences that brings some interesting points on this topic of discussion:

  • I met a girl in China whom I had a few philosophical debates with. I could speak decent Chinese so conversations flowed pretty naturally for me. As much as I would like to call her a simpleton, she largely drew similar values in philosophies in life as me. Often over-analyzing a particular thought process would result in her telling me “Doesn’t thinking that way make you tired?”. I would say not really, since constantly thinking has been a particularly rigid habit of mine. But it doesn’t usually doesn’t resolve much. She just does things that make her happy, and that’s something I try to emulate. We would eat at a restaurant, and she would say stuff like “Wow! This food is amazing! I’m so happy I’m able to eat three delicious meals a day!”. Yes, I never thought about that. Simple things we take for granted sometimes bring us the most joy. Afterwards, I told her that one of the favorite feelings in the world is peeing after having to hold it in for a long time. She tells me I’m gross. I think it’s one of the easiest ways to feel happy. I think it’s gratitude at its finest.
  • I met a 74 year old lady who sells bottled drinks at the top of Moon Mountain in Yangshuo, China. She would genially ask you if you want water as she sits on one of steps with a straw cushion that is probably less than half a centimeter meter thick. Not many folks visit Moon Mountain, as I don’t meet many folks on my one hour hike upwards. I’m sure it ain’t easy being the only vendor on top of this mountain, especially since I imagine it involves a lot of time sitting here alone by herself, and hiking the mountain every day (she takes 2 hours to hike every day, taking breaks along the way). Anyways I made conversation with her and she was nothing short of senile and bubbly. I don’t feel happier because I pity her lifestyle. I genuinely envy her for her attitude to be smiling all the time. This is what Chinese folks call “poor happy.”
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  • I never realized how little I needed to get by with while abroad. I brought two sets of clothes for my entire trip, and it has served me more than well. I didn’t even have to acquire any of those special backpacker gears like ultra-light jackets or hiking boots. All I really needed was the clothes I wear, and my laptop. It was nice knowing exactly what you’re going to wear the next day — whatever you aren’t wearing on you right now.
  • Call me old, but some days I just like enjoying good weather by taking a walk outside. It usually comes with feelings of gratitude, nostalgia, or general awe of the world.

 

Lesson #12: Traveling is largely independent of where you are

When I came back to Berkeley, lots of friends would ask me “James! You’ve been to so many different places during your travels. Which country/city was your favorite place?”. I don’t want to sound completely above geographic location, but the biggest distinction between my experiences was largely due to the people I met or my travel style. For example, one of my favorite experiences happened in Fukuoka, Japan. I took the trip to Fukuoka for no other reason besides that it was close and I wanted to say I went, but the place itself was pretty lackluster. It felt just like shopping malls and sidewalks. I actually called the day early to head back to my hostel, but there I met someone who took me to a local bar (a random one just right next to the hostel). I ended up having one of the best times of my life singing karaoke with middle aged folks at a bar. Lovely folks. Had I not met this man or gone to the bar, I would have left Fukuoka telling all my friends how boring and lackluster the place was.

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A quote that I read from Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel summarizes the wisdom nicely (I’m paraphrasing here):

“I have two friends who have a policy that they wouldn’t leave a place until they start having fun. Now they’re both stuck in Brisbane” – Rough Guide

Lesson #13: Good traveling takes practice, and you get better at it

As a corollary to the previous lesson, I also have increasingly positive experience with each subsequent destination I went to. Of course, it’s possible that countries really do rank in the order of which I travel (sorry Korea), but I think it was largely in part of my travel style.

I did not enjoy Korea as much as I think I could have, I believe I made a few debacles that took away from my experiences, including:

  • I booked a private room on Airbnb, which was more expensive and less social, so I didn’t get to meet any other travelers
  • I went shopping too often
  • I didn’t talk to enough people
  • I only went social dancing once when it should have been every night
  • I should have explored other cities in Korea

And other stuff. I get slightly better at everything with each subsequent destination. It takes practice, and you get better and searching for positive experiences as you do it more often. I know for sure I haven’t learned enough about traveling to seriously consider myself a traveler, but I know now there’s a way to get better. Through experience.

Lesson #14: It sometimes feels like you’ve been traveling with one person the whole time

I realized how hippy I sounded when I came to this realization myself. I did have the sensation at some point that everyone was connected in this universe by some mystic force. The thing is I move around so often that I start traveling with a large array of individuals. I would spend at most a couple days with each person before having to say goodbye and part ways. This has happened so many times that often instead of starting a relationship over from strangers with a new travel partner, I implicitly carry over the previous relationship I’ve had. It has worked well for me simply because other travelers are comfortable with the friendliness.

Lesson #15: Holy f*ck am I happy to be me

Seriously, I have several attributes that make me stand out when I travel:

  • I’m usually the youngest, since most of the folks I meet are mid 20’s to early 30’s. I get a lot of “I wish I traveled when I was younger” or general things meant for precocious kids.
  • I’m also usually the only Asian traveler. Most folks I meet are white. My guess is Asians tend to feel more responsibility and duty towards their career and finances and taking care of their families. My family is happy and well, and I am grateful for that.
  • Largely financially independent. Most travelers I meet are traveling in between jobs or have much shorter time to travel than me. Some are looking for jobs abroad, and some are between jobs. Some folks try to save money while traveling, and have to consider costs when abroad.
  • I love the jobs I held. Lots of folks traveled because they’re between jobs, and sometimes that’s because they hated the desk jobs they had. Seriously soul killing. I’m glad even when I could be completely career focused in this point of my life, I took semester to travel.
  • American citizen. Sometimes I implore folks to visit me in California, but as ____ they aren’t as open to travel to other countries. For example, Chinese citizens have very strict visa restrictions when visiting other countries.
  • I love how I grew up learning Mandarin and English. Everyone think Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages in the world, and I agree. It’s just so cool to meet other people who are practicing tones in Chinese, when it feels so natural to me.
  • I consider my background special as a Taiwanese-American. I generally have interesting things to say or at least tidbits of knowledge I share with everyone I meet. I’m not a bad conversationalist.

Consider this some serious bragging or some self-reflective gratitude, but I am happy with the circumstances I find myself. I consider myself more than fortunate.

As a silver-lining, I meet plenty of travelers who also live content lives. They have more than mediocre lives back home, but at some point in their lives they decided to move abroad and teach English. Seriously, that gig abroad is lucrative. Not just financially, but for almost everyone, it has enriched their lives. I never met any English teacher abroad who didn’t like their jobs, and I’ve met quite a few abroad.

Lesson #16: I love Taiwan!

I like to joke to my friends that I went to Taiwan to collect bits and pieces of my childhood. Rightfully so, since I had spent a large portion of my childhood in Taiwan and Shanghai (~7-8 years cumulative). There are things that I encounter there that bring crazy bring up crazy amounts of nostalgia. “Oh! I used to eat this all the time!”. “Whoa! I’ve been here before!”. “I remember you!”. “I’ve heard this song before!”. I fricking love Taiwan! My dad has told me, “Do you know what the most beautiful scenery in Taiwan is? The people.”

Completely biased opinion — Taiwan is my favorite place to be. Here’s why: 

  • It has amazing cheap food. Korean food is about 1.5x the price of Taiwan, and Japanese food is about 2x the price. More importantly, they seem to do every cuisine justice. I’ve eaten delicious Korean barbecue and Japanese Teppenyaki in Taiwan. Taiwanese food itself is a delicacy as well, since you simply cannot eat everything that a night market has to offer. Multiple trips are required to even attempt to try all the “must-eats.”
  • Customer service is so good. On par with Japan. It’s partially/largely due to the fact that Taiwan was once under Japanese occupation for 50 years, with large amounts of Japanese culture and values instilled into the population here. Nonetheless, I’ve had amazing customer service here out, from the street vendor grandma who asked me how my food is to the barista who was genuinely apologetic for making me wait a minute while she was making coffee for another customer. One time my cousin invite me my two friends Alice and Dylan to hotpot. The waiters and waitresses there are trained that every time they interact with you, whether it’s to take your order, give you food, or help you pick up your dropped chopsticks, to have to give you a 90 degree bow. Holy crap! They must throw out their backs doing that on shifts. Even the manager bows.
  • People are super friendly and nice. It’s a very nice and delicate balance that Taiwanese folks have striked very well between the politeness of the Japanese with the unashamed upfront-ness you encounter in China and Hong Kong. I’ve had experiences with folks walk with you to your destination, or old grandmas approach me when I look lost.
  • It’s a super safe country. I could bike back to my hostel at 3AM and not feel any worry about muggers on the streets. There are always people on the streets and the place doesn’t feel dangerous at all. People feel completely at ease here.
  • If you want Chinese culture, go to Taiwan, not China. Many of the folks I met China agree. A large portion of ancient Chinese culture has been destroyed by Mao Zedong, and often what you find in Chinese cities these days mark a new Chinese culture, very often devoid of ancient traditions and values. I don’t think you see that kind of cultural destruction in Taiwan. A lot of tradition is still practiced there.
  • Compact. You can take a day trip to the mountains and come back at night. There’s the high speed rail that runs the western perimeter of Taiwan and the normal railway that runs the eastern perimeter. West side Taiwan is largely urbanized, whereas you can see very beautiful landscapes on the east side.
  • Taiwanese history is quite interesting. It’s worth taking a visit to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, which holds more Chinese artifacts that the Beijing National Palace museum. Have a friendly discussion with any local over the history of Taiwan and they’ll bound to tell some cool things you never knew about Taiwan, including why Taiwan is called “Republic of China” whereas China is called “People’s Republic of China.”

 

I’m very proud to say I’m Taiwanese. I definitely feel more in touch with my cultural background after my trip.

Lesson #17: The Curse of the Traveler

If you haven’t heard of The Curse of the Traveler, now is a good time to read about it. Now that I’m back in the bay, I’m already starting to miss bits and pieces of lifestyle from the places I’ve been to. I loved the idyllic lifestyle Vietnam had to offer. I craved the expansive nature of China. I miss all the friends I met in Taiwan. Food everywhere.

It also wasn’t easy to convey travel sentiments properly to your friends back home. All I can do is resort to generic terms like “cool” and “awesome.” I do seriously wish my friends were there to experience the things I did, but they weren’t. Thoughts like this seriously make me reflect how connected yet alone we are in the world. Traveling is happiness tinged with nostalgia and some loneliness.

Lesson #18: You had to be there

My final thoughts, as cliche as they’re supposed to be, are “you have to be there.” Travel advice doesn’t pass on to individuals well besides pointing out what to look out for. Your old world looks a lot smaller from the outside.

Let me know if you want to meet up. I’m happy to share more about my experiences or give advice to folks who want to do similar things.

Suggested Reading:
Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel – Rolf Potts

The Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World – Doug Lansky

2 thoughts on “Lessons I Learned While Solo Backpacking Abroad

  1. loved it James!!!! always a nice read.

  2. Hello James, I have always wanted to do what you have done: to go on a trip abroad by myself and experience the culture of different worlds first-hand. Your story really inspires me and I hope to have such an amazing/lackluster experience as you have as well. I enjoyed reading about the snippets of your journey through South to East Asia and your enthusiasm to meet and befriend new people. As someone who is on the more shy side, I am amazed to see how many people you met on your trip. Reading through your lessons, it’s as if I was there journeying with you, in fact, you seem like a wonderful person to travel with. Next time you take a semester or break off to travel, I hope you will travel with friends, they will surely appreciate your company.

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