One morning, I’m flicking over one of the weekly shopping brochures. It is from a furniture store not too far away and a reasonable sized wardrobe caught my eyes. We’ve been looking for a wardrobe for a while now but due to our uncertainty over where we’ll be living in the future, we’ve been putting off the need to purchase one. But still, our makeshift wardrobes are now bursting at its seams. Out of sheer practicality, our situation is actually dire.
But my typical backpacker self thought instead: Do I need it? Would I die without it? Would my life change if I get one? Old habits die hard.
I’ve adopted this line of thinking for most of my time as a nomad. Buying large and expensive things fire off all sorts of cautionary alarms in me. What if I need to up and move again? What am I going to do with it? That’s why, up to this point in life, I’ve never had many possessions. And my need for a variety of clothes and accessories were minimal, so I never had to get a wardrobe. Ever.
I hope this postcard finds you well. It’s been a while since we last heard from each other. If there was Internet in Heaven, you might have probably read here that I’d quit my job to travel the world. Don’t worry, before you get yourself too worried, yes—I’m still in one piece despite having travelled to more than 65 countries.
And no, dad didn’t sponsor me. How could he have afforded to? He had only saved up enough to allow me to finish my degree in an Australian university. I am eternally grateful to him for doing so but I had a hard time persuading him that the world has more to offer than a regular pay cheque. He couldn’t have understood my intentions then but now, I’m glad that he has come to grudgingly accept that I would never be quite the regular Malaysian girl next door.
Did you imagine the start of your travels to be somewhat like this?
A regular family is eating dinner quietly, when all of a sudden, the youngest of the family, the mousiest of the lot, suddenly drops her fork with a clatter, announces to her parents that she’s going to globetrot, her parents cheer and then, the next thing you know, she’s wandering into the heart of Patagonia, with a backpack and saucepans clanging on the side.
Yes, you did and worse of all, you truly believed in that little story that you’d made up. You haven’t started your travels because you’re waiting for that one-size-fit-all-sure-fire-formula that will turn you from an ordinary being into an extraordinary adventurer. While waiting for this formula to drop from the sky, you thought perhaps it’ll be just be easier to travel vicariously through your favourite travel blogs.
I unscrewed the large metallic screws that held my cabin’s porthole tight and looked out. The real threat of Somalian pirates has passed-we’re free to enjoy the transient but majestic ocean vistas once again. Looking out from Deck 3, the ocean appears close; occasionally a whiplash of water would graze the surface of the porthole. The night was jet-black, the horizons indistinguishable except for the lash, swash and slosh of the waves against the vessel, illuminated by the neon on the promenade deck. I pressed my face against the porthole, unable to take my eyes off the constant motion of the ocean and thought, “I never want to stop wandering.”
What exactly is this insatiable wanderlust that has urged me to throw myself into the maelstrom of romance and ‘consummation’ of far-flung lands? I am not an explorer, a historian nor even an avid tourist, yet consumed with a certain kind of restlessness, I had packed my bags and had set out for the unknown.
The Long Story Of How I Started Roaming The World With Only 400 USD
In Amsterdam, 2007.
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
A 5-hour ride from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet
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
CouchSurfing around the world
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
I was well-taken care of by friends that I met while travelling, in Amsterdam.
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)
Anchoring near Mykonos, Greece
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.
Colleagues from the ship
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?
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One of the most frequently-asked-questions on my blog is: How did I find jobs in Australia? Was it easy for me to find one? Did it pay well?
There are a thousand ways to land a job in Down Under but I can only share with you whatever I know from job hunting in Melbourne. My knowledge can be limited and the lessons that I’ve gathered from my experiences may not apply to everyone but let me tell you that it was an easy and painless process: I got a job in 4 days.
On the 2nd of July at 1.05 am, I am playing cards on the dirty pavement outside the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur with two other fellow CouchSurfers Marcus and Stefano while waiting and sitting in line.
There are about 38 other Malaysians ahead of us, starting with the first girl sitting on a foldable chair, closest to the iron wrung entrance of the High Commission. While we may look like refugees to a passerby, huddling in front of an institution that may promise sanctuary and asylum, we are actually more like a bandwagon of bedraggled aspiring travellers, camping out so that we can secure ourselves a spot of opportunity: our only chance to apply for the Australian Work and Holiday visa for the year 2012.