Merry Christmas indeed!

Today I walked into a restaurant for dinner. I usually make it a point to sit with others who are also dining alone (perks of travelling alone; or bane) and today my dining partner was Scott, from Atlanta, Georgia.

“Would you like me to join you?” I asked, just in case (some people do prefer reading a book over their meal instead).

“Sure, definitely, most welcome!” he replied.

“After all, why should anyone dine alone when it’s Christmas, eh!” I said, jokingly.

Scott’s wife was just around the corner uploading their pictures to their blog: Jaunts Around The World. She wasn’t hungry so he was left to his own devices, which happened to be dining at The Lemon Tree, here in Pokhara, Nepal. [Very, very good, by the way. Had a super tender and juicy mushroom brandy steak! 5 stars!]

They both quit their jobs, sold off all their stuff, booked their flights (when they still had an income, very smart), packed their backpacks, and left what was once home to spend a year hiking in many countries around the world. They’ve just completed the Everest Base Camp (EBC) and Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) treks, and are headed to India next.

We talked about wanderlust and job markets and living out of a suitcase. We talked about travel plans and life goals and friends back home. We talked about money, earning it, raising it. It was a really lovely evening over some really delicious steak.

And then it was time for him to leave. He got up and said, “It was really very nice meeting you. Enjoy the rest of your journeys! And Merry Christmas!” He paid up for his share, and was very quickly out the door. Don’t want to keep the wifey waiting, I surmised with a chuckle.

A few minutes later when I had finished my meal and my tea, I got up and went to the cashier’s to pay for my share. “Pay?” the cashier and waiter both said at the same time. “No need to pay. That man already paid for you.”

“Whut!” And I stood there feeling like an idiot, and feeling extraordinarily touched. Touched by the gift of kindness and generosity. I’m glad people like that still exist in this world. Merry Christmas indeed, Scott! Wherever you are: Thank you!!!


The Helpless Colony


At the start of this year I resolved to do more volunteering. So in October 2013, I signed up to do a month of volunteer work serving at an orphanage in rural Nepal. I wasn’t able to do a month because I fell seriously sick, but I’m glad I got to do it still. It was definitely a life-changing experience, like what they all say.

The job description: Get the kids ready for school, walk them to school, fetch them from school, cook for them, help them with schoolwork, sit with them, spend time with them… While I was trying to do that, I realised they could do all that on their own. This little three-storey home in the middle of nowhere functioned exceptionally well, especially considering there were 15 children, and just one mummy – Mummy Nanu Rai.

They don’t need any ‘help’, really. The older kids take good care of the little ones, and Mummy makes sure everything runs well and most importantly, that all the children are loved. My being there felt not only redundant; it felt more like I was paying for a homestay experience, barging into their lives, than actually trying to make a difference.

In fact, let’s face it – there’s no way I can peel potatoes with a knife faster than they can , and I’m probably consuming way more food and electricity than I’m paying for. Exactly what good does that do? It didn’t feel right. I wanted to do more.

When a friend asked me, “Are you volunteering at an orphanage?” I replied: “Well, in the name of volunteering, but really I’m hanging out with a bunch of really awesome kids.” Kids who are respectful, jovial, exuberant, filial, who do their chores without one word of complaint, who love learning and take their studies very seriously, who have big ambitions, who help each other, who love their brothers and sisters dearly, who love Mummy dearly. And yet, still kids, who like playing with toys and cards, who like watching television, who like listening to One Direction.

These are children whose parents might have passed away, or one parent might have remarried and not wanted them around, whose parent might be an alcoholic, whose parent might have gone medically insane, or whose older siblings have to fend for themselves aren’t able to care for them. Mummy takes them all in, no questions asked, and loves them all, just like her own children.

And these are children who, when asked what they’d like to be when they grow up, tell me: A doctor, a nurse, an office worker, a farmer, a teacher, a policewoman, a mechanical engineer, a software engineer, an army officer, a pilot… And they know that if they work hard and put their minds to it, that, despite their impoverished background, they can succeed.

And yet, when you ask them what makes them the most happy, the one answer that I keep hearing over and over again has nothing to do with careers or making money; it’s “My family. My brothers and sisters here.” It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.

It wasn’t at all The Helpless Colony, it was more like The Happiness Colony. It was impossible not to be affected by their joyful nature. I felt so happy and blessed that they accepted me into their home and showered me with affection, more than I could ever give in return. Stepping in there meant opening your eyes to smiles, your ears to laughter, and your heart to love – love from all the members of this large family.

I come from a city where people need a national campaign to get families to eat together once a year. Here, everyone cooks together, sits together (even if it’s on the cold stone floor), enjoys their meals together and banters together.

Sure, they are poor. When I bought potato chips and offered them to the children, one little boy savoured half his portion slowly one chip at a time, and then kept the other half in his pocket to savour later in school. “When was the last time you ate potato chips?” I asked. “Last year, last month, last week?” He shook his head. “Never,” he said softly.

In the course of being there there were very obvious ways I thought I could help. Ahh, they need more storybooks, a potato peeler, some toys and games that aren’t broken or missing pieces, clothes that maybe actually fit them, new footwear, jackets (winter was coming) – and all these things aren’t even expensive to us.

But then I realised, that’s not really what they need. They’re okay with having no toys – they have each other for company and entertainment. They’re okay with no hot water, no flushing system, or eating the same rice with dhal for every single meal for every single day of their lives. At least they have some running water, at least they have the occasional electricity. Because they have so little, everything becomes so much more meaningful; they’re so grateful for what they do have. Of course, if we could give them more, that would be great. But at the end of the day, they don’t need fancy potato peelers. They need to go to school. They need to be taken care of.

Fact is, Mummy needs money to maintain the home. There’s house rental, electricity and utility bills, food (very very simple food), and school fees. Not to mention textbooks, uniforms, writing materials etc. Where that money comes from still remains a huge mystery to me. Somehow, between this volunteer programme and going door-to-door asking for donations, Mummy finds a way to scrape through every month.

But here’s the thing. I found out that of the money I paid to be there, a large portion of which was supposed to go to the orphanage hosting me i.e. them, they ultimately only receive a measly 5-10% of it! The money they get, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t even cover the cost of me staying there! This made me epic mad. You want to know that you’re doing some good. You don’t want to wonder where the money is going to. Beyond feeling cheated and disgusted, my next thought was this: So what can I really do?

I’d like to find a long-term solution to help them out. I’d like to figure out some kind of sustainable plan that will bring them money in the long-run, but without selling the kids out by making them work, because the whole objective is to ensure they can focus on school and become even more amazing people in the future. If any of you have any suggestions, please share them with me.

In the meantime however, here’s what I can do. #10 on my list (of 30 things to do in the 365 days before I turn 30) is Climb something. #20 is Volunteer. I’m gonna try and combine these two together, and Climb For Charity. I’ll be braving the Nepali winter cold and testing my lack of physical fitness on a mountain trek, so please show your support for my cause by donating freely. All proceeds will go directly to The Helpless Colony.

Unlike other donation programmes, I’m not looking to buy them fancy new things. I just want to make sure they can continue going to school and getting the education they deserve. Please help me help them by donating here.

On behalf of Mummy Nanu Rai, and the wonderful kids Sushila Pariyar, Ujjwal Rai, Alisha Rai, Alisha Budhathoki, Shrijana Panday, Kumar Rokaya, Kavita Tamang, Suroj Nepali, Tara Tamang, Bhim Tamang, Pabin Basel, Manju Basnet, Utsaav Rai and Kabir Tamang, I thank you for your kind generosity and love.

30 in 365 to 30

Yep. It’s time to admit it. I’m old. I never thought I’d be old. When I was 14, we had a trainee teacher come in and he was 25. Whoa, I thought, that’s crazy old. I wondered what I would be like at 25, and found it unimaginable; just too far-fetched.

Today I turn 29 (whaddya know, there is life after 25 after all!). Yep, just one away from the big three-oh. I think the main things I’ve been dreading about this day are that 1) my online dating profile will automatically change my age to 29, the age which reeks of desperation (some women have this internal deadline to get hitched by 30), and 2) I won’t be able to say “I’m only 28” anymore, because “I’m only 29” just sounds ridiculous. (It’s already hurt me enough I have to check a whole new check box in survey forms now.)

Okay, okay, I know I’m probably the one that’s being ridiculous. All of my friends have successfully celebrated their 29th birthdays and no one seemed to be making a big deal out of it except me, always the late baby of the bunch.

But as always, being probably also the most drama one of the bunch, I just had to go read all those “Absolutely Must Do Before You’re 30” lists splattered all over the internet. I figured I’d just steal a couple of points from here and there and use it as my own list. This proved to be a little more difficult than I thought, considering stuff like “Go on a road trip”, “Travel alone for once”, “Try meditation class”, “Make friends with a random stranger”, “Hook up with someone at a music festival”, “Swim with sharks”, and stuff like that, I’ve already done.

For some of the other stuff, well, I’m not that interested in growing a plant, am not around enough to have a dog, and I can’t quite skip (some rather important) steps and decide to have a baby.

Still, I intend to use the next 365 days before I turn 30 to the fullest. So I’m compiling my own list from scratch, with stuff that’s really important to me and only me. I thought maybe I’d do 10 (nobody wants to read so much anyway), but I decided I’d challenge myself. 30 in 365 to 30. Wish me luck!

1. Declutter
I know. I’ve tried to do this for years. YEARS! This time it will happen. Anyone want to volunteer to help me? I will pay by the hour. The JD is simple: Just sit next to me and watch me clear stuff. Prod me if I’m taking too long being sentimental while going through old stuff. Cough loudly when you catch me trying to hold on to things that are very clearly junk. Offer to take things off me so I will feel my items are going to good hands and not the trash.

2. Set up a home
I’ve been living in the same place for a while, and it was once a home, but since then, it became just a place to stay, and of late, a place to unpack and re-pack my backpack for the next trip. I’ll admit it: I’d like to come home to something out of an IKEA catalogue.

3. Throw a housewarming party
This will force me to do #1 and #2, because otherwise, you guys ain’t gonna have no place to sit.

4. Meet up with friends more
One thing about being away so much, is I really come to miss my friends. Facebook just doesn’t cut it; I crave human interaction. ME. WANT. FRIENDS. *nom nom nom nom* (Oh wait, friends are friends, not food.)

5. Save money
This part’s gonna be hard being funemployed now, but when I do go back to work, I want to continue my habit of living minimally the way I did before this big trip, and save as much as I possibly can without having to resort to surviving on bread and water every day – and still having a social life.

6. Cook for friends
I’d like to cook more. And I’d like to meet up with friends more. And I’d like to save money more. This seems to be the best way to do all of the above!

7. Sleep early
This is a toughie. It happened for a while in very rural Nepal where everyone sleeps by 9pm and wakes up at 5am. When I’m back home I seem to sleep at 5am and wake up at 1pm instead. That’s absolutely dreadful. Time to force myself to be more responsible about my body getting the rest it needs.

8. Wake up in the morning
See #7. I need to establish a morning routine. Wake up, wash up, shower, have breakfast, read news, that kinda thing.

9. Get in shape
My weight has been fluctuating like a bunny on acid while travelling. These days, where I can get a delicious authentic Italian lasagne for 5 bucks, it’s hard to say no to good food. I’d like to have some time to get this in order, meaning eat healthily and get active. Like run. Even if it bores me to death.

10. Climb something
While we’re on the topic of getting active. Maybe not quite Everest, but maybe a little peak. Just a teensy tiny little one?

11. Defy gravity
For a while. Maybe skydive, maybe paraglide, maybe zipline. Just not bungee-jump. Anything but bungee-jump.

12. Celebrate something somewhere else
Well, today’s my birthday, and I’m in Pokhara. Check. Also, upcoming Christmas and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s will be on the road too. Check, check and check! One down, 29 more to go.

13. Go to something big somewhere else
Like Burning Man, or Carnival, or Comic-Con, or Oktoberfest, or Songkran, or Rang de Holi. Something, somewhere.

14. Visit friends in other countries
What’s better than travelling with friends? Visiting friends who live overseas. Not only will I get to spend time with people I’ve not seen in a long time, I’ll also get to experience their lives and their culture and their loved ones.

15. Travel with someone special
Yeah, like, you know. Someone special. I’m not gonna define this term. The looser it is, the higher the probability I will fulfill this. You know you are all special to me, right? [gives self points for trying]

16. Date somebody
For real. ‘Nuff said.

17. Define my rulebook
Sadly, I’m not 18 anymore. I need to have some rules to govern my own life by. I need a rulebook. With rules and regulations and no-can-do’s and I-will-not-tolerate’s. Mama’s gotta realise she’s growing up. [insert sad face]

18. Appoint some guardians in my life
Nobody can do it alone. I’m gonna need a few really good friends whom I can rely on to knock some sense into me when they think I need it. They are the people I’m gonna trust to keep me on track.

19. Go to church
Not necessarily a particular church, and not regularly. I mean just go every now and then to remind myself that I am here because of God’s love and to be humbled by it, and renew my resolution to continually strive to become a better person.

20. Volunteer
Actually this should read: Do some work that solely benefits others. I feel like ‘volunteering’ these days has become more about what we can get out of it (personal satisfaction, sense of accomplishment that you’re doing good) than actually helping others. I want to volunteer my time, effort, expertise, whatever I can, doing things to help others.

21. Take a course
It’s time to go back to school! It’s been a year since I last was enrolled in a school, and frankly, this entire year has felt kinda funny-weird. Like something’s missing. I’m itching to learn.

22. Learn to play a musical instrument
I’m bad at this. There’s a reason why I’ve never been able to learn to play the guitar, piano or even the recorder. But I know it will only serve to make my songwriting so much better. I can take the entire year to start to learn, right? I don’t have to be good at it before I’m 30… *twiddles thumbs* Okay, that’s it, I’m throwing in there “And/or sing”. I’ll either learn to play something, or take up vocal lessons.

23. Learn a new dance
When people ask me what kind of dance I do, I say, “Bollywood, exotic, K-pop, ballet, Zumba…” and people follow with, “Salsa? Bachata? Ballroom?” And I go, “Er, no.” I’ve never done any partner dances before. I don’t know why. Maybe because I prefer to use dance as a means of expressing myself on my own, and not so much with somebody else. It’s a personal thing. Maybe we should change that. Or maybe, I should try something else entirely, like pole.

24. Upload my portfolio
I do good work. Not comparing myself to others and feeling discouraged, I think I do good work. And the world should know I am capable of doing good work. I really should stop putting this off.

25. Make name cards
I meet so many people all the time, it’s a little embarrassing I don’t have name cards. Yeah they might be a bitch to carry around especially while travelling, but gosh are they useful! I’ve received quite a few on my trips and it’s nice to be able to stay in touch (especially if you can’t add each other on Facebook right away). Also, this goes hand in hand with #20 and #24. Having a list of things I can do on the name cards will open me up to opportunities in which I can do good work to help others.

26. Read a book
Yes, I am ashamed to admit that I have not read a book in god-knows-how-long. Partially because words on a page can never hold my attention long enough (except when I’m writing them, the hypocrisy!). But I think it’s mainly because I haven’t been reading the right books that interest me enough. I think I’ve found a genre I like now, and I’ve also purchased a Kindle, so I hope to be reading a lot more this year. At least ONE book.

27. Write a book
It doesn’t have to be published. I’ve just always wanted to write a book. I’ve known long ago that writing books isn’t really my thing. I hate descriptive text, like a whole paragraph on how quaint the square in Prague is, or just exactly what tinge of orange-brown the autumn was, and frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Also, my vocabulary isn’t good enough. I don’t know 54 ways of saying “he said”. But you know what? If Erika Leonard could do it, then I think I can.

28. Get certified to teach something
I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I don’t think making a mid-career switch to becoming a full-fledge teacher is in the pipeline, so maybe I’ll start small. But at least, it’s a start.

29. Share knowledge with others
I don’t claim to know a lot. But I can say I have a fair amount of life experience. I’ve learnt many, many lessons in life. And I know I have something to say. And I know I’d like to share what I know with others. I will find a way to do this. Or hey, there’s always this blog.

30. Hug more

An Everest Affair

“I don’t think you’ll see anything if you do the hike tomorrow. The sky’s nothing but a blurry fog right now,” she said, looking out the window.

“Yeah, that’s why I’ll go the day after tomorrow,” he replied, cheer in his voice, “When the clouds will be gone and the sun will be up again! Well, hopefully this is the truth, otherwise I would have to climb Everest to see the Himalayas, and that is a bit too much, I think.”

She laughed. “I can tell you that is a BAD idea. Take it from someone who almost died on Everest.”

His gaze lingered upon her a second more, softer now, and then he whispered, “You almost died. That’s crazy.”

Bursting into giggles of amusement she strode over and wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind. “Better appreciate me then,” she teased.

“Ohhhh,” he said, feigning a frown and nodding solemnly, “appreciation has.”

She chuckled. “But, many?”

He turned his bemused face towards her, eyes dancing. “How DOES one count them?”

“In kisses,” she whispered seductively into his ear before kissing it lightly, and giggling again.

“I see…” he said, turning suddenly and grabbing her by her waist, those two words the last that were uttered that night.

10 Ways to Meet People at a Hostel

Yes. I’m back in Nepal. Wasn’t terribly looking forward to it – gotten so lazy spending a whole two weeks in Sg, but coming back feels like home – at least Elbrus does. “Welcome back!” the owner, Khem, said, with a big hug ready for me. “Welcome home, you mean,” I replied. Travelling alone can get pretty lonely, but thankfully I’ve got to meet so many wonderful people here at Elbrus Home, I figured it’s only appropriate I did a “10 Ways to Meet People at a Hostel”. At least, it’s worked for me. ;P

1. Have breakfast when others are
If it’s noisy downstairs, there’s likely lots of people having breakfast. The more crowded it is, the better. Look for tables with 2 or 3 people (if it’s 4 to a table), so you can say “Hey guys, do you mind if I join you?” (P.S. Pick the table with the cutest guys if you can.) If you’re at a table by yourself, don’t hesitate to invite the next person who comes down for breakfast to join you, especially if they’re alone too. Everyone appreciates a kind gesture like that.

2. Check the place out when you just check in
Walk around and scout where the common areas are, so you know where people “hang out”. It could be a common living area, or it could be a rooftop garden – if you peep in and there are people there, just say “Hey guys, I just got here and I’m checking the place out. This looks like a great place to chill!” You’ll likely get an invitation to join them (if they’re not an elitist bunch and/or you don’t look like a troll.)

3. Ask for a dorm instead of a private room
Clearly this works for budget reasons as well, but sleeping in a dorm almost always guarantees you’ll meet one other person at least. Specify you don’t mind a mixed dorm, otherwise hostel owners try and give girls girls-only rooms (Where’s the fun in that? Kidding.).

4. Hang around in the mornings and at night
That’s when people are usually deciding what to do, so if you can get into a conversation, you’ll likely be able to join in on their plans as well. Useful for lazy planners like me! Get roped in on day plans like exploring the city together, or night plans like which bars and clubs have the best 1-for-1 offers during happy hours.

5. Carry a Lonely Planet around
If you’re sitting somewhere with a Lonely Planet guide, it’s likely at some point someone’s gonna ask you what it says about some place they’re planning to check out. Or – be the one that asks the someone who’s got the guide.

6. Go through your photos in public
Sit somewhere conspicuous and go through the pictures you took the day before. Someone’s bound to notice them and either ask where that was (if they haven’t been), or start talking about their experience (if they have). This usually works better if you have awesome photography skills (I don’t, but can lah.).

7. Don’t stay in your room
Whatever you want to do, it’s probably better (and nicer) to do it outside than stuck in your little cubic hole. Read, write in your journal, or charge your phone or laptop in the common area instead of your room. (Say the power point in your room doesn’t work if you need to – I’ve also gotten invites to use the power points in others’ rooms so this really works on more than one level, if you know what I mean.) If you’re using your phone or laptop, use it while it’s charging here too. Or – use the public shared computer if there is one. Ask people for wifi passwords instead of asking the owners or looking around for signs (even if that makes you look dumb).

8. Remember who’s staying there too
Look around and make a mental note of who’s also staying at the hostel. If it’s a small town or city, chances are you’ll bump into them at a restaurant, night market, place of interest… and you can say, “Hey, aren’t you staying at (hostel name) too?” People usually like bumping into people from the same hostel because it means company walking back together (especially at night, and especially good if you’re a solo female traveller like me.)

9. Hang around just before lunch and dinner times
Likely people are just back from a half day or full day tour and are freshening up to go out for a meal. Ask if they have any recommendations. They’ll likely say they were planning to check such-and-such place out. A shameless “Oh yeah? That sounds lovely!” will usually get you an invite.

10. Keep your eyes and ears open
There’ll be questions that you’ll be able to provide answers to (especially if you’ve spent a few days there already). There’ll be people knocking at the door of the hostel at the eleventh hour that you can suggest bunking in with you if there’s an extra bed in your room (this makes it easier on the owners too so they don’t have to scratch their head wondering who they can disturb at that hour). There’ll be people interested in checking out places you might be interested in too so you can go check them out together. There’ll be people interested in checking out places that sound so much cooler than what you were planning, so just drop your plans and go with theirs already. And there’ll be people who will find you gorgeous, attractive, funny, witty, and a blast to be with. Spend days and hours on end with them. *wink*

10 Luxuries Even Backpackers Must Have

When you’re backpacking, you’re supposed to travel as light as possible. Backpacking has made me stronger – I can carry about 30kg on me – but you just can’t enjoy yourself as much when you’re weighed down like that. Unfortunately, I’m very much a flashpacker and there are just some things I simply cannot do without. To budget backpackers, these must seem like luxuries – but luxuries I exhort everyone to consider investing in and packing in because they can make all the difference!

1. Neck Pillow

I can’t stress this enough. It’s not for business class tourists. In fact, it’s especially for weary travelers! Get the proper kind that’s light enough to carry around but also firm and dense enough to actually support your neck well that your head stays on it comfortably, and doesn’t drop into your neighbour’s lap. Whether it’s a seven-hour flight, 13-hour train journey or 24-hour bus ride, you’ll be thanking the heavens you brought this. Travelling is tiring business, especially if you change locations every 2-3 days like I do. One of the worst feelings is feeling cooped up on moving transportation and not being able to take a refreshing nap, but instead constantly having your head fall joltingly in all sorts of directions. You’re also less likely to get a busted up neck when it’s nicely held in place with a sort of brace.

2. Good Shoes

I am torn whether my Timberlands or my Crocs are the best purchase I have ever made. Neither of them were cheap, costing about a hundred bucks per pair. And me being as budget-conscious as I usually am, these purchases took a whole lot of consideration. But on all my trips I am constantly being thankful that I decided to invest in good shoes.

Packers (flash, back or trashpackers) will invariably always end up walking a lot; there’s no tourist bus to hop on to after checking out a place of interest. There will be a million steps to climb (I think I counted 2000 at one particular climb), hills to conquer, kilometers to traverse to get to the nearest bus station, or you might suddenly find yourself trekking in knee-deep snow. Thank god for my rain-resistant, anti-fatigue, sole-cushioning, ankle-hugging Timberlands.

Or, you might find yourself kayaking, canoeing, rafting, crossing rivers, exploring waterfalls, cave-tubing, whatever that might mean stepping on little stones or climbing big slippery rocks. Water shoes do what flip flops never will – keep you protected, stay on, not break at the worst times etc. And having water shoes means that you’ll be able to change into dry shoes. Always a good idea.

In particular, I must sing praises for the Duet Busy Day Skimmer. Unlike the early Crocs that were made of the same material all throughout, this design’s flexible, stretchy top means no more weird sores and blisters from friction or misfitting. They’ll accommodate your feet even if one’s a little wider or fatter or bigger than the other. They’re easy to slip-on, slip-off, but they fit snugly and will stay on your feet even when you’re swimming or floating down a river. The sturdy base means stepping on sharp objects in the water won’t hurt your feet, and will even cushion your step when walking on hard ground. Plus, pack them toe to heel, bases outwards, and put a rubber band on them, and they pack smaller than a sandwich.

You’re on your feet for hours and hours on end each day, trust me, it’s worth it.

3. Good Backpack

Your items are going to weigh like bags of rice on your back. And you’re going to be carrying them for long periods of time. While walking. Or hiking. Or climbing. Or crossing borders. You definitely want a good backpack. Some things you might want to consider:

Lightweight material – Always check the weight of the bag itself before you even put anything in. If it’s already 3kg, that’s 3kg of dead weight that’s unnecessary. I’ve personally found Osprey to generally carry the lightest backpacks in their collection, but I think there are other brands that are now introducing bags in more lightweight materials too. I still do find Deuter a little on the heavy side though.

Expandable space – Yes you’ll end up with more stuff along the way or coming back than when you first started off. Make sure you don’t start with a full pack and that there’s still room for all those things. Not only does that mean perhaps getting a larger capacity pack, but being able to tighten the straps when you leave and then loosen them when you need to create more storage space. Some packs come with a +10 that you can utilise if you need it or stuff it away if you don’t. Note though, some companies sell their bags as 45+10, while some are just 55 but already inclusive of the +10. Decide and see what works better for you.

Zipper entrance – Backpacks with only a drawstring top will be a bitch to work with. If you’re moving from dorm to dorm to dorm, staying at different hostels every night, that’s a lot of packing and unpacking going on, and having to pull stuff out of just the top is crazy annoying. Having at least a zip at the bottom helps a lot, but even better if you can find a pack that has a zip all the way around or on its side, so that’s less digging, saving you time and energy.

Compartments – Some packs allow you to create compartments within the pack, which are useful for things like separating shoes and clothes, or if you’re lazy like me, dirty clothes and clean clothes. Or you could also use it to differentiate summer and winter clothes.

Harness – This is probably the less thought about point but in my opinion the most important. The trick to why people use backpacks lies largely in its harness. Contrary to the term “backpacking”, you don’t actually carry the pack on your back. Most of the weight goes onto your hips, not your shoulders. In fact, the pack should be carried far away from your shoulders instead of hugging your back. So when shopping for a backpack, make sure you put some heavy stuff in the backpack to test this out. With it on your back, lean slightly forward, push the backpack up until you can clip the harness over your waist, then stand up and let it fall naturally to your hips. You should feel the pressure being exerted downwards on your hips, and almost nothing on your shoulders at all. If you’re not feeling this, you need to find the right backpack to fit your frame. If done right, a 10kg backpack will easily feel like a 1kg weight on you.

4. Good Swimwear

If you’re just going to wear a bikini and parade on the beach while working on your tan, who cares. But if you’re packing one set for a long trip and plan to do some adventure activities, then invest in a good one. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but just opt for halter tops with buckle clasps over your usual string bikinis. The last thing you want happening is having them fall off halfway. Also, you might have to take a bus to get to your destination, so clasps lay flat against your back instead of a knotted bunch that’s just really uncomfortable. That also makes it a better choice under a wet suit.

A good quality bikini will also provide the sufficient support you need in case you’re engaging in sports or rough and tough activities. Or even for everyday use when everything else is in the laundry.

5. Waterproof/Shockproof Camera

Water sporting, biking, sandboarding, horseriding – whatever it is you plan to do, if you’re going to be active, take a camera that can keep up with you. Then secure it on a lanyard. You’ll want your hands and wrists free, you won’t have pockets, but you still want it close to you so you don’t miss those great in-action shots.

They’re not that great in terms of photo quality as compared to even your usual point-and-shoot cams, so yes, you’ll probably need to bring this as an additional camera, but hey, they can boldly go where no PnS has gone before.

6. Power Bar / Chocolate

On some days you’re going to be hungry, famished even, and you’ll be on some mountain somewhere with nothing for miles. Always, always have a bar on you. They’re small and not hard to pack, and you don’t have to be too kiasu and pack 10 of them. Just make sure you always have at least one or two in your day pack. It could make all the difference between fainting on the side of a mountain road… or not.

7. Hair Dryer

I know, I know, this is where it starts to get a little frivolous. It was my thought too – I’m more concerned about finding a place to sleep for the night and where to get my next meal than I will be about my hair! But consider this: There will be times you might reach a certain destination at night, and you badly need to shower and wash your hair after a long day’s journey. But you really shouldn’t sleep with wet hair (I think old wives’ tales say you’ll either get sick or go mad, I forget which one exactly but neither sound ideal), or it’s too freezing cold to leave your hair wet like that. Ta-dah! Hair dryer to the rescue.

Also, I’ve found it incredibly, incredibly useful to be able to dry my underwear or socks in countries where it’s simple too cold and wet for them to dry normally overnight. And, bonus, if you’re feeling really, really cold, just plug it in and warm yourself up.

8. Wet Wipes

Multi-purpose little things. You know they’re useful in plentiful ways. But especially in countries where sanitation isn’t quite what you’re used to, they’re great for cleaning your hands after (I have an issue with using hand gel; it feels like I’m just smearing it all over further). And in countries where it’s too cold to take a shower, well, wipe away, jose. If you get the kind that are gentle on skin, you can double them up as makeup removers as well. I use them to wipe my neck pillow because it gets around but I want to know it’s clean when I’m going to put my face on it. The list goes on, I’m sure you’ll find a multitude of uses for them. You can get 2 packs of 40 pieces each for just $2 at Daiso, so it’s more a weight issue than cost, but I’m sure their usefulness will more than make up for the burden.

9. Makeup / Nail Polish

I used to think, well, I was just going to go au natural. After all, I’m roughing it out. Who cares how I look? Well, the camera, for one. I don’t want to look like shit in all my amazing holiday pictures! But also, I’ve found that it’s more about how you feel inside than how you look outside. Sometimes you’ll feel homesick or miserable or lonely, and having lovely bright nail polish just makes you feel a tad better about yourself. Don’t ask me why, I’m still waiting for someone to do a correlation study on this topic. But I swear it must be scientific.

I’ve never been that crazy about makeup, but I’ve noticed that female travellers do put in some effort, whether with eyeshadow or lipstick. It just adds that little colour to our faces so we don’t look deathly pale. It’s also quite nice to meet new people with your best face forward and feeling confident than rather than insecure.

And it’s a fact that people are more drawn to people they find attractive or who look good. If you look decently pleasant, there’s a better chance you’ll find buddies to hang out with or explore the city with. And if you’re terrible at reading maps, this is always an advantage.

10. Cute Dress

Yes, you’re not a true backpacker until you’ve worn hipster elephant print pants with hiking boots. (Or at least this is what I was told.) And that’s fine for travelling, walking around, exploring, hiking, whatever. Until you get invited to join a bunch of people for a night out at a jazz festival. Or a Christmas party. Or a birthday celebration. Or a goodbye gig. Or some dancing. Or – and I really like this one – a date. Just pack at least one cute dress. Your awesome night will thank you for it.

10 Myths About Passion I’d Love To Debunk

Following a talk by Learn Love Laugh’s ( Nino Gruettke, my mind would not put down this topic of passion. Passion is everywhere, and yet, there are millions of articles and books about “finding your passion” because it’s apparently crazy elusive to the majority of people.

I’ve heard so many people say – and I used to be guilty of this as well – “I just can’t figure out what my passion is.” That was me falling into the trap of letting others define what passion is, or should be, to me. Passion, like happiness, is something you have to define on your own. The beauty of passion is that you can’t compare or judge or measure it the way you do success. It is exactly that reason why following your passions will almost definitely make you happy. And don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where everyone has become so used to comparing, judging and measuring everything, that they inevitably start comparing, judging and measuring passion as well. The following are things that friends have told me about themselves or things that people have told me over the years, well-intentioned, I’m sure, but discouraging nonetheless, and ultimately, false to me. At least, this is what I think.

1. It’s so hard to find

It’s not hard to find something you’re passionate about. It just means what you love, what makes you happy, what brings you joy. Heck, if watching TV makes you happy, then there’s a passion! And if nothing you’re currently doing is making you happy, then well, try everything. You won’t know if you like archery, ikebana or binge-eating M&Ms until you try it.

2. It’s not passion unless it’s obvious

If you’re passionate about something it means that you will be over the top with it. It means that you will harp on it to no end, you will wear it on your sleeve, you will from hereon out be known as “the guy/girl who… {insert passion here}”.

Passion can be subtle. You don’t have to shout it from the mountain top. It can be something you do at home. It can be as subtle as collecting bottle caps in a tin that nobody will ever get to see. And still, your eyes light up every time you find one at a coffee shop or on the street, and you’ll dust it off and happily put it in your pocket.

3. It’s not passion unless it’s often

If you’re passionate about something it means you will do it often. When was the last time I took dance lessons? Probably in three or four months. Does it mean I don’t love to dance? That I’m not passionate about it? Then why does my body move involuntarily whenever music starts to play?

Frequency, or the regularity of which you engage in a certain activity, does not equate to passion. So many kids get forced by their parents to go to piano lessons and swimming lessons and who-knows-what lessons I-don’t-know-how-many-times-a-week; it doesn’t mean they’re passionate about it.

Conversely, just because you like doing something doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it all the time. That’s because there are a lot more things to do in life than just that one thing!

4. It’s no point if you’re not gonna be good at it

I’m not sure if this is an Asian mindset, of not “wasting time” on something you’re not good at, but I’ve also read some articles online that suggests it’s perhaps a #firstworldproblem – there’s a theory that if you don’t already have a natural aptitude towards something, no matter how much you practice, you’re never going to be good at it, and therefore you should just give up.

I’m alright believing in the first bit. I will never be good at basketball. Or any sport with balls (yes including 8-ball or 9-pound ball-rolling), for that matter. Fine, so be it. But I have huge beef with that last line “and therefore you should just give up.” What if I like tennis but suck at it but don’t mind picking up balls half the time and am comfortable with the fact I will never be the next Nadal or Williams? What if it just makes me happy?

5. Passion should lead to success

Again, they’ve said, why do it if it’s not going to get you anywhere? Why dance if you’re not going to take exams and get certificates and join competitions or perform for people? Hell, yes, in fact, why do anything at all if it’s not for show!

Passion doesn’t have to lead you anywhere. It’s not a means to an end. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Doing something with success in mind is not necessarily passion.

Something Nino said really stuck with me: “You can be taught a life lesson in a great lecture but score badly in the exam.” If we’re hung up on society’s matrix of measuring success, we’ll miss out on all those amazing lessons and moments in life.

If people start noticing you and appreciating what you do, then great, it’s a bonus. But ultimately, what it’s about is enjoying every moment, living in that moment, and that moment only, and for no other reason than you love it and it makes you happy.

Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you have to become recognised for it. And heck, just because you’ve been putting your heart and soul into something for a long time doesn’t mean that you deserve more recognition than the next guy.

And stop comparing and measuring your passions with someone else’s passions! It’s not a race!

6. You have too many passions

For a society that loves having MORE of everything, it’s funny they should have a problem with this. But yes, it’s something I’ve been told – that I have too many passions.

It’s not passion unless you’re focused on one particular thing and keep doing only that and getting good at it until you become successful at it. That’s like a summary of what everyone seems to think passion is.

I’d like to think having many things I’m passionate about just makes me an overall more passionate person. And I’d like to think that’s not a bad thing! If every hot shower, sound of rain or good book can make me happy, all the better, no?

I don’t think there is such a thing as having too many passions. Some passions I may want to pursue in more detail, refining knowledge and skills and even taking it to further levels. Some passions I simply like to indulge in every now and then when the mood hits me. Some passions bring a smile when the memory of it surfaces. *shrugs* Why should it matter?

7. You have to stick to it

Apparently once you find your passion you should stick to it until the day you die. It’s true that one should never attempt to live a life without passion. You could quote everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Passion rebuilds the world… it makes all things alive and significant.” to Oprah Winfrey, “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” Passion is what makes life worth living.

But you can find one passion, love it for a while, let it drive you and excite you and lead you to new experiences and challenges and shape you and mould you and grow you as a person and teach you lessons in life, and then let it go, and move on to something else. It’s alright. And you can keep doing this for as long as you both shall live. You and your passion for passions. It’s legal in most states.

8. You should be able to make money from it

It’s true some people are lucky enough to be able to do what they love for a living. If that’s something you’d like to do, sure, you could seek ways in order to make that happen for you. But sometimes it’s nice leaving what you love to your free time outside of work and not making it work itself.

But no, I get it. The idea is that if you’re passionate about something you will pursue it with a bloodthirsty vengeance and become so terribly good at it that people will have no choice but to throw money at you for it {insert shut up and take my money meme here}.

If that’s what you want, fine, go for it! But think about it from another point of view (and I use Nino’s example here because I really liked it) – if you were a student deciding what elective or major to choose, and you knew that one would lead to a job that paid you $10/hour but you would enjoy the classes and the assignments and would learn a lot from the professor, whereas the other would earn you $20/hour but you’d have to struggle to even stay awake in the classes and you knew you’d hate every minute of the homework, which would you choose?

Sometimes in life we have to realise that it’s not all about money, despite what society tries to tell us or force us to believe.

When I was choosing a degree programme, there were many factors to consider. But the one thing I went with was how much I would love each class. (Sure, the professors could affect this, but I’m talking more about the content.) And so I would scour through every module description until I found a programme that had most of the modules I wanted to take simply because they were subjects I was personally or professionally interested in, or knew I would enjoy. Yes, with my grades, I could have gone to a “better” university. (Again, this is ranking that society imposes on us.) But why should the prestige of the university “brand” affect my decision more than the knowledge I will gain and the enjoyment of each lesson? Does it mean I am lesser received by employers now because of my less prestigious qualifications and ultimately will earn less money? Unfortunately, yes. But did I thoroughly enjoy my university education and learn a lot from it? Hell yes.

And now (well, not exactly right now NOW), I am grateful every day to have a job that I am passionate about. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t pay as well as I could probably be earning if I was doing something similar out there in the industry. And sometimes it gets to me, just realising my alternative earning power makes it seem my capabilities are not being recognised here.

But that’s far from the truth. Perhaps I’m not monetarily being compensated according to outside standards, but let me ask you this then – if you could have a job that makes you wake up every morning excited to go to work, where you can’t wait to brainstorm with colleagues, where you get to produce satisfying work, where you can challenge yourself, where you feel inspired to do more than what’s necessary, where you constantly have it on your mind wondering how you can improve things, where you can have a whole lot of fun, where it generates so many laughs a day your laff-o-meter gets jammed, where you start missing work once you’re away – how much would you pay for that?

9. But people say…

We lose happiness when we let others dictate the kind of lives we should be leading. Why let that happen with what we’re passionate about? If I had let any of those people saying all the above get to me, I would have stopped dancing, cooking, painting, writing, singing etc a long time ago just because I neither excel in these things nor can always find the time to do them. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring me joy when I do do them.

It’s too easy to “compare”and “measure” passions today, especially with this deadly tool called Facebook. Just scrolling up and down your newsfeed has enough ammo to severely sink your confidence and blow up your insecurities. Stop it! If you need to, block people who like feeding their own egos, unsubscribe from their “news”, or just log onto Facebook less.

YOU define your passion.

10. My passion is out there somewhere

Everyone’s always looking for passion. Most times they’re looking outside, trying to find it in some unexplored, unchartered territory. And that’s great. I’m all for that. Try everything. EVERYTHING.

But don’t forget to look inside too. It might seem surprising, but you can find it in what you already do. Don’t forget that we tend to do what we love naturally, and you just need to become a little more self-aware and notice what it is that brings you joy. Being aware of these things makes it easier for you to continue in the things that make you happy and stop the things that make you unhappy.

I quote Nino one more time when he says, “Happiness involves responsibility and diligence.” If you don’t put your own happiness in your own hands, then you’re leaving it up to everyone else to do it for you. Good luck with that. ☠

Success VS Passion (Notes from a talk by Nino Gruettke)


I love how spontaneous life can be sometimes. I’m on a one-year sabbatical, and the one day I decide to pop back into the office, my boss needs me to retrieve some emails for an audit, and I happen to click on an old email in my inbox about a talk, which so happens to be taking place on that very day, in about 10 minutes. The topic? About being happy. Well, why not!

And so it was thanks to that brush of serendipity that I got to sit in as Nino Gruettke of Learn Love Laugh ( stressed the importance of making your passions the source of your happiness instead of striving for success as is measured by others.

Why? Because success is defined by others. It is always a comparison. There is always a standard, a benchmark, a quota. It is a recognition that is given to you by others, and if they can give it to you, they can also just as easily take it away. People start with passion, he said, and probably only 1 out of 10 make it to the media. Suddenly everybody knows about them, people want to know how to become like them. Does it make the other 9 less happy doing what they love?

Unfortunately, happiness today seems to be measured more by success than anything else. Everything has become a comparison. Society has taught us hierarchies even in the brands we use. Somehow, we know to favour an Audi over a Toyota, to “graduate” from Coach to Gucci, to “aim” for an IWC instead of cherishing that good old Casio. I use a brand of toothpaste called Close Up because it costs $2 for a large tube – how many of us only use Darlie or Colgate and not because it tastes great?

The difference between success and passion, he mentioned, is akin to driving your ferrari along Orchard Road on a weekend, versus driving your ferrari on the open road just by yourself – is it a statement, or something that brings you joy because you are a motoring enthusiast who truly appreciates the precision engineering and technical capabilities of the car?

If you think about it, really, what makes us unhappy is when we think we’re failing. When we don’t have the things we think we should have. When we stress ourselves trying to achieve something we think we must achieve. When success is out of reach. Seriously? Why do we do these things to ourselves? Why are we willingly making ourselves unhappy?

I love when he read out Robert F. Kennedy’s quote from his 1968 address: “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

What happened to doing things we loved for no other reason than because we love them?

Go with passion, he said. Always go with passion.

Read more: 10 Myths About Passion I’d Love to Debunk

10 Ways Travelling Has Changed Me

1. Me, Myself and I

I’ve always hated being left on my own, being alone. I attribute this to being an only child, and knowing too well what it’s like to have to go through life with nothing else other than your own headspace. Also since I never really knew my parents until they stopped working (and by then I was 16), I’ve also grown up with some abandonment issues I really need to abandon. It’s also hard to be by myself when I’m mostly struggling with ADHD and being an off-the-charts extrovert, meaning I need interaction with people in order to recharge my battery pack.

The first time I travelled alone, I thought to myself, Why on earth would anyone want to do this?! I was bored out of my mind, restless, fidgety, frustrated, on the edge of going mad. I was one person in a dorm full of 136 people and had never felt so alienated in my life. I started thinking too much, and becoming overwhelmed with this dam of thoughts like a hell threatening to break loose. It’s the same reason why I resist so much with diving. Being stuck underwater with only my mind, my breathing and no way to talk to anyone is probably Level 13 of Hell for me. (Still, I conquered this, yay me! But more on this later.)

And so it took a much, much longer time for me to even get comfortable with myself. But then you discover peace. You discover the tranquility of a book and a cup of tea in a garden. You start becoming more aware of how things make you think and feel, how things change you, your mindset, your person. You start discovering your true likes and dislikes, and you learn to accept them. You find out you have certain limits, and start challenging yourself to push the boundaries, to test yourself further, and you create new limits you never thought possible. You grow.

And growing is a tiring, time-consuming thing. No more being restless for me now.


2. Free & Easy

I’ve travelled extensively with my parents growing up, and my mother is an organised freak of nature. She whips up detailed itineraries before embarking on trips, so detailed you always know which road to be on, what time the next train will come, the next rest stop you can get pies at – and even how much it’ll cost. She never believed in doing tour packages (thank god!), but even her “Free & Easy” is never really free, or easy. There’s still a very set plan to follow, just that it’s her plan.

So when I started travelling as an adult, my itineraries were say, 33 pages long, with annexes of maps and routes and tables. And that’s just for a one-week trip. PDF of course, let’s not kill trees while we’re out killing people’s minds with information overload. I don’t know if you could call me an outright control freak, but I do freak out when I don’t have control sometimes. It’s not so much that I need to control others or the way things go in general, but I do need to feel at least that I’m the one in charge of my own destiny, and assured that I have options in any given situation. And when I have sufficiently Google Earth-ed enough to know exactly what all 57 shops are along George Street, only then I’ll feel safe and warm in my unfuzzy plans.

Of course at some point I started rebelling against myself and threw it all out. And I do mean ALL OF IT. I booked flights on a whim only because the airline was having a sale and I happened to have the $99 in the bank needed for a one-way. I simply refused to read up on destinations, leaving my mind to wonder about each place with nere a Google image to fall back on. I left Lonely Planets lonely on the shelves of the bookstore. I wandered streets not knowing even at 7pm where I was going to sleep that night. I sent Couchsurfing requests at the last minute and met up with who-knows-who as long as they had left a phone number in my inbox.

And the adventures I’ve been on. It’s taken me off-key drunk singing in dark, smoky karaoke bars, jumping off tree branches into blue lagoons, canoeing down jungle rivers past crocodiles at dawn, doing mass aerobics along the Mekong at sunset, dancing with the locals to Chinese propaganda songs in Lhasa’s Liberation Square, standing in a courtyard looking up as the Kumari Devi looked down at me with all the innocence of a child and the weight of a veiled soul.

You just never know, when you go with the flow.


3. People, People Who Need People

Travel is many things to many people. For me, I love exciting new places, adventures, thrills, activities, experiences… But really what touches me most, what changes me, and what ultimately stays with me, are the people, the relationships and friendships we make, the bonds, the ties, the experiences we create and share together, the things we learn from each other, the feelings that exist within me long after we’ve parted ways.

It hit me one night on the road that it’s easy to meet great company to hang out and have fun with, but much more rare to spend time with really genuine people who really care, and that I’ve been tremendously lucky to have been able to meet so many, many such wonderful people.

It’s the friend who holds an oxygen canister to your face when you can’t breathe. It’s the friend who bundles you in a blanket when you’re freezing to death. It’s the friend who listens to the stories of your sad relationships and tells you you’re an amazing person who deserves more. It’s the friend who stands by you in a dirty rural hospital with needles lying everywhere and who says, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna let them stick anything into you.”

A friend of mine calls these “nomadic friendships”, friendships formed for a certain purpose, at a certain destination, or over a certain time. Sometimes we’ll never see or hear from each other ever again, but that’s okay. We had our time. We did our thing. We lived in that moment, and we’ll always have those memories.


4. Why, Hello, Stranger!

I never knew that standing in the middle of a hallway wondering whether or not to wash my dirty, unwashed 2-day old hair, could lead to a conversation with a random stranger, could lead to a 3-hour lunch, could lead to a full-fledged Hollywood romance styled 5-minute long kiss goodbye at airport gates as faceless extras swarm around the tightly embraced protagonists. (In a film, of course, my hair would have definitely been washed and styled properly and maybe even blowing in the wind thanks to a fan below.)

Romance is a big part of travel, especially if you’re travelling alone. The idea that I could meet my Prince Charming in some exotic land far, far away (not a Shrek reference) and we’ll ride off on a white steed together (more like ride on more planes alone trying to make a long-distance relationship work) piques more than my interest. Till then of course, sharing romantic moments with Prince Charming proxies will do fine too. I will most certainly not say No to flirty conversations and laughter over wine over Italian on a rooftop garden on a chilly autumn evening.

Every time I’ve started thinking, Great, I’ll never meet a nice guy with whom I can enjoy a real connection, Life, and Travel, kinda has thrown me one. Meeting such wonderful people reminds me that there will be more chances and more opportunities to meet even more wonderful people, and that, somewhere in the crowd, he’s there waiting for me. I just haven’t met him yet.


5. School of Hard Knocks

When you’re backpacking, you’re pretty much at Life’s mercy. You’ll miss trains. You’ll find yourself sleeping on staircase landings. You’ll struggle with trying to converse with locals who don’t understand a word of English. You’ll run out of money, breath, underwear, dignity, you name it. You’ll also be at the mercy of your 20kg backpack, which constantly threatens to crush you to a pulp, especially when you try to pick it up.

I’ve found myself in certain precarious situations; in one I actually prepared myself to face the probability that I wasn’t going to make it out of there or live to see another day. But I realised one thing – I never gave up or broke down or let it get to me. I always kept my spirits up. You kinda have to. Perhaps to Darwin, survival of the fittest was a purely physical thing, but in this day and age, mental fitness seems even more crucial.

Travelling, especially backpacking, or lower than that, what I call trashpacking, takes you totally out of your comfort zone and almost always ends up being a lesson in humility. You can’t avoid it – you will go through shit. But the shit will always make you tougher, stronger, and better able to cope and to handle whatever more shit will come your way. What doesn’t kill you and all that, right?

You sort of get to a point where, you’ve been through so much that nothing gets you down anymore. Problems become challenges, you’re alright accepting any difficult situation, you’ll push yourself to new limits, and you become so grateful for what you do have when you have it. And that kind of gratitude doesn’t come easily to most, especially if you’ve never been in want.

But like I’ve learnt (the hard way, of course), you become very grateful for two hands (and modern sanitation) when you have to eat with your right and… go with your left.


6. Facing Fears

I read somewhere that if your travels don’t make you scared, then you’re not travelling right. Oh, trust me, there were plenty of times I was scared, so I must have been doing it right!

Diving for the first time was scary. Being trapped under a glass ceiling (at least that’s what it felt like to me) felt suffocatingly claustrophobic, and I don’t usually have an issue with enclosed spaces (made even more ironic by the fact that there’s nothing but vast, immense space in the ocean). Having to consciously breathe made me extremely aware like never before of the consequences of not doing so. Having to be by myself, not being able to talk to anyone, made me feel like my head was going to explode, and that’s something no amount of equalizing could ever make me feel better!

Being suspended freely from a height and swung over a gushing waterfall sounds exciting probably only to those who do not suffer from acrophobia. Swimming with whale sharks sounds really cool until you actually descend into the water and suddenly find your tiny self surrounded by these 8-metre long giants. Gentle as they are, they’re still ginormous! That said, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever got to do, and that feeling of awe at their majesty will stay with me for a long while.

There’s always going to be something we’re scared of. It’s now or never, baby. Just say yes. I know it’s scary. Just do it anyways.


7. Back to Basics

Backpacking has been extremely refreshing for me because I’ve never subscribed to the materialistic lifestyle that seems prevalent everywhere today. Going to places where shopping malls are not the main attraction has largely brought me much relief.

But there have been many other ways in which I have had to adjust to “the simpler life”. Surviving 3 months with 3 underwear, for example. Learning the fine art of being able to turn on a cold shower and walking into it at the exact same time so that you can avoid that initial shock to your body because your brain is so unfocused it doesn’t realise just what you’re doing. Going a week without bathing because it’s either smelling like a hobo or risking hypothermia. Using bar soap (‘Nuff said.).

The first time I met other female travellers who didn’t pluck their eyebrows, shave their pits or legs, or use falsies, I felt the heavens open and a chorus of angels start to sing. Okay, fine, some grooming is important. But society is overtly obsessed with beauty and too many girls and women subject themselves to trials and tribulations just to look beautiful the way society will have it. [insert ‘wrong answer’ gameshow buzzer here – “TNEH!”] Being able to step away from that and love ourselves and have fun and enjoy experiences apart from worrying about how we looked – girls should be sent for such camps, I swear.

That said, I’m not anti-girly. I will paint my nails and wear makeup on while travelling (because it’s nice to meet people with your best face forward). You just learn to live with half scrapped off varnish and using maybe 5 products instead of your usual 50. (This was my attempt at sarcasm since that’s a lot of products, but as memory has it, some makeup tutorials on YouTube tell me this might not be the stretch I thought it would be!)


8. Living With Less

Sometimes I really wonder why there’s so much junk in my house when really, I’m completely capable of living out of a suitcase (make that backpack). When I started travelling, I also issued myself the challenge of living as simply as I could. Having to wear the same clothes over and over again (something new to me, I usually have at least 3-4 months’ worth of clothes so I don’t have to re-wear something often) really put the spotlight on the importance of getting good, functional, practical but still stylish clothes. Often a few good pieces are more important than having loads of cheaper clothes.

So I think I’m really going to pack up my life down to a few suitcases and just live that way. Being surrounded by too much junk is bad for my health. Also, it makes it much easier to suddenly pack up and travel or move to another country or skip town with the next A&F model you meet.

When I first decided to start travelling at the beginning of this year, I quickly realised I also had to start saving up money to do it. That meant really cutting down on expenses and putting away most of my salary. That meant not buying anything. And I mean anything. Nothing. Zilch. It also meant meeting up with friends less and trying not to go out as much as possible because outside, money flowing out seems to be an irreversible osmosis process. It took a lot of sacrifice, determination, and TV watching, but it sure helped me save $12,000 in 6 months.

That may sound like a lot, but really when you start travelling, money shrinks. A flight here, an adventure tour there, a couple of nights you feel you need an ensuite, and that’s it. You pretty much can’t shop at all, which is fine because I’d much rather spend my money on experiences than on items, but it means you really have to live with what you’ve got. The good thing about backpacking is basically you’re kinda forced to adopt a strict NO BUYING policy since you can’t buy anything along the way at all because you don’t have space for it.


9. What Matters Most

Yep, you start to realise what matters most to you. For some people it means missing home and family and they can’t wait to get back to them. For me it made me realise that I miss home and family only when I’m away and that I should stay away longer.

I discovered how much I longed for peace, how much I longed for a slower pace of life with time to sit on the grass and have a picnic of cheese and crackers, or sit in a large armchair with a good book and some ginger beer (or Dr Pepper). It also made me acutely aware that the reason why I’ve always felt so out of place is because culturally, I’m just very different than most people here. It’s spurred me to find a little nook in this crazy world that I can truly call home.


10. To Everything, Turn Turn Turn

There is a season for everything. When Solomon penned these words, he was offering personal spirituality as the real meaning to life even when all other things had failed to provide meaning. But without getting religion involved, the meaning is simple: Everything changes. Life is full of ups and down and goods and bads. Change is a constant.

So enjoy the moment. Milk every experience for what it’s worth. Suck the gravy out of the buah keluak of life.

And since life is so short, start saying less No and more Yes. To everything. Say Yes to riding elephants bareback into waterfalls and to climbing caves while drunk on Chardonnay. Say Yes to crossing rivers on horseback and to surfing sand dunes. Say Yes to jumping onto the next bus not knowing where it goes and feeling excited about where it might take you. Just say Yes. I have. Now you.