In the age of travel blogs, Tripadvisor and budget airlines, solo travel has never been easier. Advice on how to take your first trip abroad is now just a mouse or a swipe away. You no longer have to spend time in bookstores trying to memorize pages from the Lonely Planet guidebooks or hunt down that elusive family member for a chat, just because that uncle or aunt once backpacked Europe in the 70’s. Traveling tips and hacks are longer rare. Brick-and-mortar travel agencies are slowly becoming irrelevant in the digital age.
The Long Story Of How I Started Roaming The World With Only 400 USD
HI, I’M YING AND I’M A TRAVELHOLIC!
I’m 32 years old and have lived out of a suitcase for the past 6 years. For many Malaysians, this is a dream come true. Whenever I upload photos of my travel, friends would comment wistfully that they wish they could do what I did.
Questions like ‘Where are you now?’ would come first, followed by ‘Dammit, Ying! How do you do it?’ and then ‘Argh, how do you afford to travel so much? I hate you.‘
Perhaps, people who don’t know me very well think that my travels are sponsored by my rich and generous dad, or by a handsome sum of inheritance that a relative left or that I have a tree that grows money stashed somewhere in my closet. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), that’s not the case.
IS IT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY?
Yes and no.
You need some money to travel but you don’t need much to start off. My secret weapons were my sheer determination to see my dream through, a lot of effort and a bit of luck. Once little hesitant steps were taken, the idea that I had anything to lose no longer applied. My confidence grew, my leaps got bolder and at some point, I literally threw off the bowlines and sailed away from the safe harbour to explore as Mark Twain has wisely preached.
In 2005, like any other starry-eyed youngster, I yearned for adventures after I graduated from university. I harboured the dream to wander and to write stories from the road. It didn’t matter where and it didn’t include the amount of countries; all I wanted to do was to emulate the humble beginnings of George Orwell when he wrote Down and Under in London and Paris.
I was hopelessly ordinary, wishing that I had an extraordinary life. Mum passed away when I was 18 years old. Her death left me with a sense of urgency to live. To pursue my dreams or whatever I wanted out of life before it’s too late. Everyone has an expiration date.
However, it didn’t sound possible then, when I have an empty bank account laughing back at me. So I bought myself a pair of heels and a briefcase and went to work in PR. I had an exciting professional life but the wanderlust in me never dimmed. In fact, it blazed, danced and roared as I worked late into the nights, churning out press releases. To cope with the feverish restlessness, I read Vagabonding in bookshops and memorised the tips taught in those pages.
When I had a little more in my bank account (only 400 USD but still better than nothing) than when I started, I did the only crazy thing I can think of: quit my job to travel.
THE FIRST SOLO BACKPACKING TRIP
I don’t know how Marco Polo or Ibn Batutta did it, but I couldn’t have done much without the Internet. After going online, bombarding Thorn Tree Forums and backpackers from all over the world with my questions, I found a way to volunteer in a village in Myanmar for free. I was to help out in an English school set up by this visionary Swedish bloke and its organsing team that included an Argentinean yogi monk, two American travellers, a gutsy Australian girl and a shy Kiwi. Mainly, two of the American travellers, read my email, told me to come over and welcomed me with open arms. They put me up in their very simple apartment where I slept on the moth-eaten mattress and under the mosquito net, FOR FREE. The apartment had no fans and sometimes, no clean running water. We stayed next to the train station and due to the constant noise, I slept through a bomb explosion once. I learned that true travelling means living simply and like the locals.
I made my 400 USD stretch for two months. And as Kika and Hibickina wrote in Off The Map , pay a lot and you get an expensive life, take what’s free and you have freedom. I was penniless but I was happy. Poverty has taught me a few things: compassion, humility, gratitude and mindfulness. People offered me food, accommodation, money and support. When I was down to my very last cents, I went officially high on life.
With my heart thumping and my cheeks flushed with anticipation, I went back to Kuala Lumpur to work again, this time as a creative writer for a magazine. I was thrilled by the fact that it was THAT simple to leave and travel. I acted on impulse and my folly rewarded me with the knowledge that you don’t need to be rich or be some kind of genius to hit the road. I knew I would heed the words of George Monbiot , learn enough from my job, save a little more and take off before I start getting caught up in routines and habits. I forsaw a future of constant change but a life lived well, brimming with possibilities and growth.
It was a future with a lot of potential.
HOW COUCHSURFING AND THE UNIVERSE HELPED
7 months later, with RM 4000 (1290 USD), I’d set off to explore Indochina. The slow journey spanned for 6 months, where I took in sights and sounds of Malaysian neighbouring countries, in small sips, hungrily but gently. In my tattered jeans, grimy t-shirts and a not-too-heavy backpack, I slept soundly in strangers’ couches or 3 USD a night dorm beds, I met a slew of travellers and bonded with those who shared similar travelling philosophy and most of all, through the CouchSurfing network. I met one particular hero who not just believed in me but also loaned me some money.
Steve is an American wanderer who taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) around the world. We hung out a few times and he simply told me that I could do the same. It was a particular hard thing to hear because this crazy dude wouldn’t listen to my laments of how crappy my Malaysian passport was and how earning Ringgit wouldn’t get me anywhere, or how my Chinese facial features wouldn’t get me a TEFL job in Japan or Korea, etc. He told me that I could either complain while sitting on my ass the whole day or do something about it. That had shut me up and I told him that I wish I could do something about it. He then proceeded to give me more information about TEFL as a career and more importantly, how to do it on a cruise ship.
That sweet gig, teaching English on a cruise ship* (Note: the Crew Lecturer position now no longer exists. It has evolved into a Training position instead ) was EVERYONE’S DREAM JOB. Imagine-working and travelling at a same time-who would complain? I jumped at it, and applied and guess what: I got rejected.
I did what every traveller would do after that-I wandered some more. I was a little forlorn and almost beaten but not completely. I was chagrin that I didn’t win the dream job lottery but I was no defeatist so I bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam-which was strange because my savings were in an appalling state. The loan that Steve gave me was diminishing but I’d heard that Spain and Italy were good places to look for TEFL jobs so I thought I’d go visit Teun and Steff, two good friends that I had met during my travels, in Amsterdam, before heading south.
THE DARKEST HOUR IS BEFORE DAWN
In Amsterdam, I was well fed and taken care of but panic crept in every time I looked at my bank account’s balance. I had sent many emails to schools in Spain and Italy but had no positive responses. Some told me that I didn’t have enough experience; some told me that I didn’t have the right passport or origins; and some were skeptical of my skills. € 500 trickled away to € 100- it was only a matter of time before I had to take up a dishwashing job. I didn’t see it as a menial task, but I just thought I wouldn’t be very good at dishwashing. Did I imagine that I’d end up at that point: skint and have no clue what the future holds? The good thing was, I was still surrounded by good friends and I knew they would continue to put a shelter over my head regardless of my situation.
One fine day, the golden email found its way to my inbox: the cruise ship company that had initially rejected my application was wondering if I was still keen on the Crew Lecturer position offered. I found myself hyperventilating at the miraculous prospect and set off for Genoa, Italy where the interview was held.
Needless to stay, my poverty status changed after I was hired. Within 2 weeks, I found myself marvelling at how the universe had scooped me out of the rut and put me in paradise, all within perfect timing. Any day later, I’d have flown home, with my head bowed in shame.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER? (NOT QUITE)
Living and working on the cruise ship weren’t easy but each time I finished a contract, my savings flourished and the story bank filled to brim with all sorts of tales and misadventures onboard. With the money saved up from each contract, it allowed me to travel further and longer.
THE TAKE AWAY LESSONS FROM THE GODDAMN LONG STORY
- Travelling doesn’t require a huge capital. Start stretching your legs and stride across the border with what you’ve got. Baby steps will lead to giant strides.
- While money isn’t THE main thing, it is STILL something to get you started. However, money doesn’t save by itself. If you really want to travel, you’ll have to learn to save. It takes a lot of determination at first, to keep what you earn and not burn them carelessly on stuff that brings you instant gratification.
- Have confidence in the Universe/the Divine/God/Allah, etc. KNOW that things will work out and fall into place. Just do your part and take the initiative to take that first step. The rest will follow.
- Don’t sightsee but wander. Sure, we all have a bucket list of destinations that we should see and experience before we die, but sometimes you just can’t afford them all. Instead of paying a great deal to see the award-winning museums and expensive monuments, take a walk through the alleys, markets and parks instead. They are mostly free and offer a more honest reality of a country. There is so much to learn from the locals who are not paid to tell you the best of what the country has to offer. They will offer you a greater perspective. Also, the best adventures come when you’re not seeking them.
- CouchSurf when you can- I can’t emphasize this enough. I wouldn’t have travelled this far if it wasn’t for the locals and travellers that I’ve met through CouchSurfing. They all played an important part in my growth as a traveller. They have nourished and supported my dreams; they gave me hope when I thought there weren’t any; their friendship are infallible and their generosity boundless. Granted these days, there have been complaints and concerns about the network but apart from the caution that you should practise while looking for hosts, I’d say it’s still pretty worthwhile to check it out. Afterall, I’m still here, aren’t I?