December 13 2020
On travel and change.
Coconut on the beach in Bali, Indonesia
A few months back, two friends and I were discussing which hobbies had the most pretentious communities over coffee. I lazily chose audio- and vinophiles, based off of stereotypes I’d seen online but never actually met in person (as one does).
His opinion—in my words—is that he finds it obnoxious when people claim travel to be life-changing, specifically when gatekeeping the experience by claiming that other can’t understand. We all know this stereotype: a well-off student that spent spring break in a developing country, only to return with elephant pants and a true understanding of the world (and, yet again, I haven’t met this person in real life).
This conversation irked me a bit, as I felt some agreement with the person in this stereotype from my own travels a year prior. While I obviously dislike that anyone would gatekeep others, especially on the grounds of having gone on a vacation, I do find it hard to communicate my experience to those who haven’t had a similar experience.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about why I went and how I’ve changed because of it. I have come to realize that this trip, and the months surrounding it, were a major inflection point in my life.
Traveler’s Palm in a temple in Bangkok, Thailand
Growing up, I dedicated an inordinate amount of time to video gaming. From as early as I can remember, I was mashing buttons on controllers and banging on keyboards to explore virtual worlds.
Of all the systems I played on, though, perhaps no console better embodied a single, specific era of my life than the Xbox 360. This was that uncomfortable age from middle school into high school that we call puberty. I would spend every moment I could outside of school playing on my 360, and the hours during talking games. It would be fair to say my life was dominated, at least in part, by this device.
A few years earlier, my love for video games had impassioned me to become a game developer. I started tinkering with game programming and immediately fell in love with 3d rendering. As I had no opportunities at school to learn about computers, I self-studied what I could. It would turn out that this obsession is what would push me through college and to where I am today.
Getting into my major in college required a lot of work, but my drive to become a graphics programmer got me through. It was an amazing feeling to know that I could spend my time at school learning about all of the intricacies of computing. Outside of class and homework, I would continue my studies, often going on multiple-day side project benders. Coming out the other end, I barely recognized reality and had no semblance of my circadian rhythm left. This was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.
Eventually I managed to land an internship, and then a fulltime job, doing graphics work on the Xbox One’s 360 emulator. I got to help re-ship some of the same titles that I had spent so much time playing years earlier. This was everything I had always wanted in my work.
As I had landed my dream job, I of course no longer knew what I wanted to do with my life. Less than two years out of college I found myself burning out. Up to this point, I had always had long term plans—without them, I found myself being worn down on a metaphorical treadmill.
I had reached the so-called “quarter-life crisis” that so many of my generation seem to be dealing with. My entire life previously was always defined by achieving the next step towards the goal of getting a good job. With this goal accomplished, now what? I’d never had so much freedom in my life and I didn’t know what to do with it.
The working world was a shock to me, as I did not internalize that coding was only one part, albeit important, of what software engineering was all about. The most important part is actually about shipping a product, not making perfect code. Academic best practices are not always followed. The team and work were amazing, but my idealism mismatched with reality eventually burned me out anyway. I got to spend every day working on the same games I loved back when I played Xbox 360 every day after school, and yet I somehow lost my passion for the work.
Towards the end of my time there, I had begun regularly fantasizing about just leaving my life behind to travel the world. I probably would never have even considered it if not for two conflating factors materializing it. The first, that I had just acquired my passport within the last year (to attend SIGGRAPH, which was amazing). The second, that a coworker was planning his own backpacking trip. This made my own trip seem within reach.
I considered a couple of options and eventually settled on starting in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has been backpacked so extensively, that no matter what “off the beaten path” route you try to take, you’ll still be on yet another beaten path. While I always like to be different, this seemed like a case where it might be nice to not add more difficulty on top of something with a lot of other unknowns.
Incense in a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Over the course of my trip, I bounced around 7 different countries. Sometimes I was all by myself, and other times I traveled with friends from back home or new ones I met along the way. Some days were crammed with visits to temples and points of interest, while others slowly meandered between meals. There was something incredibly freeing about knowing that “wasting” a day isn’t something you can really do when you have all the time in the world.
I have great memories of being a tourist while backpacking. I spent days in Singapore in the beautiful art and history museums there. I became SCUBA certified in the coral reefs of south Thailand. I visited so many beautiful temples I lost count. I bathed and fed elephants at a no-ride sanctuary. I saw a robot-themed theater show in Japan.
However, I very much knew what I was getting into in the general sense of the above. There are a myriad of blog posts (this one not exempt) recapping trips to Asia. Instead I think it was really the numerous little things and their constancy which differentiated it from watching things on a travel show or reading a post on Reddit. The mundane smells, tastes and feelings are what really make travel.
I wasn’t aware of the Muslim population of Southern Thailand, nor the country-wide ban on alcohol in the lead up to an election. Nor the sheer number of Italian restaurants on the side of a national park full of dense jungle. I, sadly, got to see first-hand how palm oil was decimating the wild jungles. I’ll especially never forget getting to my hotel in Bali only to be told I had to stay inside all day to observe Nyepi. Nor nights of sweating through my sheets or uncontrollable shakes I thought might be Malaria.
It wasn’t until I went to Southeast Asia that I could really start to place all of the countries on the map and understand how their histories intertwined. I had no idea previously about Singapore’s history as a British colony or its exclusion from Malaysia. Later, sitting by the Balinese shore, reading about Polynesia really made me feel how far away a place can really be.
However, it would be deceptive for me to omit the negatives. I think it’s hard to argue that travel backpacking isn’t a consumptive experience. I bought expensive, polluting flights to faraway places and I lived off of $1 beers and $3 noodles, while having no responsibilities or income. I spent most of my time with English-speaking Westerners, expecting to get by on English and pointing. It seemed a majority of the backpackers I met were Europeans on break or gap years.
It’s important to be cognizant of this “privilege-differential” that is being taken advantage of when we go backpacking, but that doesn’t preclude our ability to learn and grow from it. I think it’s actually worse to treat it as nothing but a cheap party destination, so long as you aren’t other-ing the locals as part of some pseudo-spiritual experience.
I can’t say I went into backpacking with a singular goal; instead it was more about exploration, both in the sense of the real world and my inner self. I hoped I would come back with a better idea of what I wanted to do with my life, and that I would learn to be more outgoing and comfortable with uncertainty. I think this is why I romanticized about boarding a plane to a distant country, as unprepared as possible, and just finding my way on the fly. I did go into this trip knowing there was an end in sight: I had to be back in the US within three months for a friend’s wedding.
I have generally tried to stomp out or avoid all uncertainty and risk from my life, perhaps as means of maintaining control. As such I tried to avoid overpreparing for this trip, but it’s always a challenge to change your habits. I avoided finding lodging until the last minute to get comfortable with uncertainty, and had no idea which countries I would end up in from week to week. By the end of my trip, I was flying to foreign cities without lodgings and just walking into hostels to find a bed.
I spent way too much time planning and buying things for my trip, only to find out that they weren’t necessary. Having gone now, I would probably pack half of what I had. The embodiment of this problem was my UV water filter; while assuredly great for some niche use case I have never experienced, I always had easy access to bottled water. I never used the filter.
I’ve always been an incredibly shy person, so interacting with new people is an immense challenge even to this day. I had to work up the courage to talk to strangers. As it turns out, backpackers are a very friendly and welcoming group. I would end up befriending a wide variety of people, many of whom I would explore cities, or even travel long distances, with. It’s great to still see what they’ve gotten up to on Instagram since.
I can’t say I’ve suddenly become a social butterfly, but backpacking really does provide the perfect practice for meeting new people. Everyone is going through the same experience of being in a foreign place. Nearly everyone is traveling solo or with few friends. Everyone is looking to meet people. And best of all, you regularly move to new destinations to get a fresh start. This makes social practice easy, fun, low-pressure and low-stakes. Remember that, presumably, you can’t just leave your work team or class every week after each social faux pas. When backpacking, you can!
The hard part of conveying how you change from travel is that others can’t see or feel your internal state. Instead, they just see you as a black box and compare your future actions against your past. If these are relatively similar, or the change is gradual over a long period of time, people won’t realized that it has happened.
We all expect people to act in certain ways we’ve known them to, so its odd when they don’t. While I was on the other side of the Earth jetting around, my friends and family were just getting through two months of work. The vast difference in the amount and diversity of experiences is a weird feeling, as people will act like you’ve barely been gone.
Scooters on Ko Lanta Yai, Thailand
Did nights of heavy drinking in the jungle fundamentally change me? No. Of course not.
Instead, I will tell you that travel is a catalyst. It is not life-changing in-and-of-itself, but it changes one’s environment in the most literal way possible. This drastic change of environment acts to counteract classical conditioning.
I had many problems and questions, both known and unknown, going into my journey. Getting away from my troubles, both physically and mentally, I could better unpack how I felt and what I wanted. Having essentially as much time as I wanted let me take things at my own pace, taking the pressure off trying to find solutions, or more problems. It’s taken longer than the trip itself to unpack everything, but it let me get away for long enough to start better understanding myself.
At the end of all this, my feeling is that I did change a lot thanks to travel. Everyone has their own path, though; travel just happened to have a huge impact on me. I would absolutely recommend it to others, as long as they understand that it isn’t actually guaranteeing anything more than moving yourself from one location to another.