Last week marked the official halfway point of my four-month trip, so I thought I'd share a few reflections about my trip so far, and what it's like to travel solo as a female out here in our crazy (but basically pretty non-crazy) world. I'm numbering this because it's going to be long and I figured your eyeballs will want some way to break up the words.
1. Internet is not going to work well in some places, and it is going to make you crazy
You are going to have blazingly fast Wifi in some places, and, in others, Wifi that makes you want to throw your iPad out the window in frustration. DO NOT THROW YOUR IPAD OUT THE WINDOW. (I am writing this to remind myself next time I want to hurl my iPad out the window in a Wifi-less rage.)
2. I miss working. And, more amazingly, I miss advertising
I don't really miss my old job, but after four weeks on the road, I realized that I do in fact miss advertising. When I left, I thought, maybe I should do something else with my life, like work in a Cambodian orphangage or write clickbait travel articles or grow dreadlocks and make coconut smoothies on a beach. It turns out, while I am enjoying being out in the world and having the opportunity to see and learn many new things, I miss the mental stimulation of advertision. Specifically advertising work and, even more specifically, being a copywriter. (I can't believe I just wrote "I miss advertising," but some people find things like sado-masochism and Thai massage enjoyable, so I guess anything is possible.) Believe it or not, I am really excited to get back and hopefully find some freelance work that gives me the chance to brainstorm new concepts, produce some work, write some scripts, crank out headlines.
3. Americans don't get enough vacation
This I knew before I left, but travelling for two months really drives it home. Do we always need super long "finding ourselves" sojourns out there in world? Not necessarily. But it's a big planet, and if you want to see it and understand more than your own backyard, you're going to need more than two weeks a year. Why? For starters, it takes a while to get places from the U.S. (my flight to Hong Kong was 15 hours), and zipping through a country's highlight reel in 10 jet-lagged days is not really sufficient to get a feel for a place. Sure, you might have a few cool experiences and snap photos of all the right stuff, but beyond amping up your Instagram account, it's hard to peel back the layers of a place and see how it operates. Combined with the fact that as a human you're also going to have other things in life that will require you to take days off work (weddings, reunions, camping trips, ski weekends, needing days to recover from the grind of 65-hour workweeks, etc.) ten to fifteen days is really abysmal. (Yes, I know some people have twenty to thirty, but it seems like the more vacation days you have, the less you can use them -- you're too high up the ladder to take any kind of meaningful leave.) What's more, for those of us working in advertising or other creative professions, we need that time to go off and actually really unplug, disconnect, and refill the well with real life things and not Buzzfeed listicles. Maybe it's different if you're a banker or a lawyer -- maybe just getting out to your boat in the Hamptons once a year is enough -- but for a creative industry, it's sad that advertising folk aren't encouraged to do more far-flung travel that gets us out there in the world to see how, you know, people in different parts of the world actually live. We're an industry based on human truth and insight, and we need to spend time participating in life outside our comfort zones to do that.
Also, after all this time off, I'm going to be really fired up to work hard when I get back -- isn't that a good thing? (Cut to me batting my eyelashes at prospective employers.)
4. Two months is a long time to travel
Four months will be even longer. Some days I wonder if I should have left for a shorter period of time, if I would have felt pressure to see and do more with a tighter time frame. Some days it feels overwhelming, like I'll never see anyone back home again. Other days I'm in the flow and already dreaming about other places to see one day (Trans-Siberian Rail trip, anyone?)
5. Two months is a long time to travel solo
Solo travelling has its ups and downs. On one hand, it's rad to decide "I want to eat a mall tonight and no one can stop me!" On the other hand, arriving in a new country and having no one to talk about it with can be depressing and isolating. Sure, you can make new friends, but there are days you just want to be around people who already "get you." People you know make you laugh, or get your jokes, or want to talk about the unique manifestation of Communism in Vietnam or complain about how there's always water on the toilet from the shower mounted over it or share the experience of dining on a candle-lit beach gazing out at the Gulf of Thailand. The good side to being alone is you're forced to get to know whoever comes your way, or be forced into a life of total solitude. The bad side is, sometimes you don't really like whoever you're forced into spending time with, or you're in self-imposed solitude and sick of hitting refresh on Twitter for entertainment.
6. There are good days and bad days
Yeah, just like in regular life. Because travel, even though you're in unfamiliar territory, is still regular life -- it's just someone else's. Travel isn't a magical solution to your life's problems, because travel is filled with its own set of problems -- hotel rooms that don't live up to your expectations (or TripAdvisor photos), buses that break down, hostel roommates who keep you up all night, mean restaurant owners, lost-in-translation moments, scam artists, lonely days, lame tourist attractions. Travel isn't just one glorious brochure, one endless photo shoot of one attractive destination after another, it's also frustrating plane delays, cramped buses, unexpected trains stops, maps that don't make sense, horrible food, overpriced tours, rip-offs, bad travel advice, or taking the wrong cargo boat and having to climb a hill to hopefully encounter a stranger on a motorbike who can give you a lift to your homesay. That being said, it's still an incredible experience, and every day I'm out here "on the road," I remember that the point of travle is really about learning and experiencing a new place and culture, not just accumulating a series of pretty pictures to show off on Facebook.
7. Keep moving
When I got to Otres Beach in Cambodia, I did something I hadn't done in a very long time: slow down. I literally lay on a chair by the beach and listened to the waves crashing against the shore and watched butterflies lazily dance by in the sky together. As I kicked back, I became acutely aware of my breath rising and falling in my chest, of the wind softly grazing my hair, of the clouds gently shifting and unfurling from one fantastic shape to another, of the sun slowly, slowly dipping down closer and closer to the horizon. What does slowing down have to do with "keep moving"? Well, the more I observed the rhythm of the earth, the more I became acutely aware that all of life is motion, movement. Inertia goes against the natural order of things. As a philosophy for travel, it's meant that yes, when in doubt (if a situation seems unsafe or unsavory), just keep moving. It's also meant trying to be physically active every day -- to try to go on treks and hikes, swim in the hotel pools, walk around town for hours, etc. But more importantly, I've found I'm happier not dwelling in one place for too long. 2 nights or 3 nights has been good for a place, it keeps the momentum forward.
8. Go slow
Seriously, pay attention to the slippery tiles and the uneven pavement and that motorbike trying to run you over and the 3-foot-rain gutter filled with stagnant water. No one wants you to get hurt. Also you have no idea how to say "take me to the hospital" in Vietnamese.
9. I miss home
In addition to missing working, this trip has affirmed that I love where I live (San Francisco) and I love the people that I know there. I'm lucky that this includes my awesome parents and sister, a plethora of people I know from growing up, college, past jobs, boarding school, ad school, and other friends. I miss cold weather and burritos. I miss San Francisco (although I have not missed hearing the incessant hype about the tech boom, nor discussing which amazing bar is now closing because our city has become over run with lame tech robots/walking ATMs who can spew forth cash wads like Puff Daddy). I miss being cold. I miss the crisp ocean air. I miss watching the cargo ships come in and out of the Bay from my kitchen window. I miss cooking. I miss the fog horn. I miss burritos. Oh, how I miss burritos.
10. This is the best thing I've ever done for myself
Despite the homesickness and the bouts of loneliness and the occasional overwhelming Oh-my-gawd-I-quit-my-job-and-have-no-idea-how-to-fill-four-months-by-myself-wandering-around-Southeast-Asia panic, this is the best thing I've ever done for myself. Yes, I'm extremely fortunate that I've been able to travel a lot already in my life, and live abroad in Europe more than once. This wasn't my first long sojourn (I backpacked in Eastern Europe for 2.5 months in 2001), and it wasn't my first alone (after doing my TEFL in Barcelona in 2003, I spent six weeks travelling from the south of France to Croatia), but it had been a long time since having one. The first trip was made possible by a generous gift of airline miles from my folks and a gift from my uncle; the second was made possibly by saving money from my first job and some of the remaining money from my uncle. In the years that passed, I accrued a substantial amount of student loan debt, which I spent the subsequent nine years paying off while working in some demanding advertising jobs in NYC, Boston and San Francisco. This trip in some ways is the treat to myself for all those years of hard work and discipline, sometimes duking it out in some pretty miserable situations because I knew I had to make rent and loan payments.
And as I sit here, watching the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Thailand glitter in the late afternoon sun, watching the sun approach the horizon from Haad Salad beach in Koh Pha Ngan, I have the same thought I have every day: I am so lucky. I can't believe I worked so hard and saved enough to be here.
Part of the motivation for the trip -- and the reason I was OK with travelling solo -- is I wanted to see the world and I didn't want to wait for the stars to align with the perfect partner (read: boyfriend or husband) to go to the places I wanted to see. (That was the inspiration, also, for my trip to Kyrgyzstan.) And as I savor each day of the trip, I realize I might never be able to make a solo trip like this again. Who knows what life has in store? I would like to get married, have kids, continue to work in the zoo-of-insanity-politics-fun-and-chaos-also-known-as-advertising, maybe even buy a house. And I would like to continuing seeing the world -- hopefully with the right partner by my side. But I'll always know that I had the opportunity to see the world once, on my terms, with my hard-earned money, spending it my way. And I'll know, despite the loneliness and struggles, that it was worth it.
11. I should have brought a selfie stick
Just kidding! Nobody should have a selfie stick.