Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?

You’ll never hear a solo traveller tell you anything but how wonderful, life-changing and liberating it is to travel alone. It’s all true, you’ll learn your biggest lessons in love, life and the beautiful planet we share. You’ll change as a person and your very core will be strengthened. You’ll never depend on another, you will be the true master of your own destiny. Meeting new people will become a daily occurrence and that will quickly teach you never to settle for less. You will establish your tribe, a mixture of old friends and new. Initially you’ll let all kinds of weird and wonderful people into your life but you’ll quickly learn to be discerning about who sticks around.

This magic starts to evolve from day one, the moment you take your first flight, bus journey or boat to a faraway land alone. Each and every day you navigate the globe as a solo wanderer you’ll learn so much, not only about others but about yourself too. …

You’ll start to realise how often people chat about nothing at all. Yeah sure traveller small talk exists and usually begins with: ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where have you been?’, ‘Where are you going?’. These questions are asked every single day but the answers open up whole new worlds of possibility and understanding. Each response kicks open doorways to dreams and inspiration. …

Living out of a bag for extended periods of time became a way of life. Not having anyone to impress or keep up appearances for is liberating. Solo travel strips you of your need to present yourself as a perfectly polished human as you quickly learn it’s what lies beneath that counts. …

You’ll get into conversations about your future and instead of mortgages and careers your dreams will be a list of countries. A whole world of opportunities out there and a backpack that looks so rejected lying dormant on your bedroom floor.

For you’ve been bitten by the bug of the solo travel/wanderlust variety. Try as you might to conform you will never see settling in a conventional life as a viable option now. Your only solution is to find someone wild and free to run with you.

It’s now the new year and no matter how stressful or saddening 2016 proved for many, the year will soon pass into the realm of memory.  On New Year’s Eve, I failed to make any high-flying, hard-drinking plans befitting a proper red-blooded American 23-year-old.  I ended up going to see Rogue One in the 4D theater, meeting old friends and new for dinner at our favorite neighborhood Mexican joint, going for beer, noraebang, and then heading home at a respectable time of 1am.

We were at our second-dinner location enjoying chimaek, chicken and beer, as the clocks (time measured by all of our iPhones, of course) struck 12, when I took my dad’s customary position on every New Year’s meal.  As children, we dreaded the annual interrogation as to our New Year’s resolutions.  Because, you see, my father is a businessman, so we have been raised on a steady diet of business rhetoric our whole lives.  Your New Year’s goal cannot just be a single to-do item or even a list of places to go.  It must be a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based.  (My official goal, “become a ‘real adult,'” which is really one really big nebulous goal broken into smaller and more specific items for improvement, does not really meet these standards. But i digress.)  The other friends shared their goals, various as the people who keep them, but then new friend Brendan’s turn came.  He sat in shock.  There were literally no goals to be made.  Nothing to interest this man in this whole wide world, save finishing out the teaching contract and returning to Canada for a life of indolence and comfort.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to want the comforts of home and family.  We all do, to some extent.  But when wanting those things is only due to a lack of conviction in your interests, it becomes too hollow and sad for my liking.  Imagine having enough money to go anywhere in this world.  No ties or responsibilities.  You can pursue any interest that you possibly could imagine.  No place calling out to you, asking you to explore and learn.  This was heartbreaking to me, and nothing the other friends at the table could persuade him otherwise.

I like staying at home as much as the next guy.  I’m quite the homebody.  But this lack of interest in learning and discovering new things just rang so hollow and untrue to me.  It seems to me that I’ve been travelling my whole life.  “Even now, I am travelling,” as my one student’s mom wrote in her Speech Festival speech.  Whether it’s small adventures like runs or walks or bike rides, or flying to Korea or Australia, I don’t believe that staying sequestered in your safe space is wiser or better.

There are some universally agreed-upon things that travel is good for: you learn so much about yourself and about how you interact with others. You use the new cultures you are experiencing as a foil to examine your home country.  You become more empathetic.  You learn to improvise.  You learn to crop your life and the things you hold precious into a small and manageable size so that it can be folded and crammed into a pack and tossed on a plane at a moment’s notice.

We all agree on these things.  But how you “get there,” or the travelling experience, is deeply personal to each person.  As an example, I offer an anecdote from my childhood: when I was younger, my family would go on bike rides, strapping the bikes onto the car and prepared with snacks, maps, GPS tracker, water bottles, anything we might need.  We would often stop at a local elementary school where they couldn’t charge you for parking and head out onto the rail trail.  The fall leaves would filter the sunlight overhead and the crunching of leaves under your bike came loud in your ears when nobody was talking.  It’s sometimes hard to talk and bike, especially when you’re racing for dominance against your younger brother.  If we reached something of interest, like a gathering of rocks jutting out into the river where you could eat the snack and bathe your tired feet, or a little roadside stand selling ice cream, or a waterfall that was too far to jump on but close enough to look at, we would stop and “smell the roses.”  There was no agenda.  Nobody would be mad if we didn’t reach the promised 20-mile out-and-back.  Fast forward a few years.  My younger brother is training for a running of the locally famous C&O Canal trail, 335 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC, with his boy scout troop.  We went on a training ride with the troop one day, scheduled to make a 40-mile-total ride that day.  The scouts were young and fit and I hadn’t been on bike in a while, not to mention my bike couldn’t shift to more than 60% of the gears (it was a cheaply made bike and probably almost 8 years old at the time), so they naturally left my mom and I in the dust.  The scouts would plan to rest every 10 miles, no stopping for quaint little interesting things along the way.  I was puttering along and a bee stung me on my leg.  However, it not only stung me but got stuck in my bike shorts stinger-first so continued to sting me as I’m crying and trying not to fall off my bike.  My mom eventually turned around to see what the commotion was and we ended up stopping at a lovely farmer’s market for iced coffee while I literally took the ice from my coffee to nurse the bee sting.  The moral of the story?  Stop and smell the roses is probably the best way to travel.

The aim of this anecdote is that I know too many people for whom travel is not cultural discovery and joy and wonder (as it should be, in my opinion) but more of a clinical search for Instagram opportunities.  It is all too easy to fall into the mode of to-do lists, where a city can be dissected into its most sparklingly Instagrammable sights and activities, and you forget to actually experience things.  Call me too Hufflepuff or whatever, but I would trade ten days packed full with the city’s “must-see sights” for just one day at a really cool cafe with cool atmosphere or a cool view.  The checklist philosophy of travel is more exhausting than it’s worth, and it doesn’t quite give you a real sense of the personality of the place you’re living in or visiting (after all, if all you’re doing is the famous places, all crowded tourist destinations kind of bleed together after some time).

This entry’s working title is “Two Travellers,” mainly for those two contrasting travel philosophies, but also for my trip to Hong Kong over Christmas, with me and coworker Jenn.  How many travellers?  Two travellers.

Our plans were nebulous and theoretical at best.  Jenn is famously attached to her boyfriend so I really doubted that the plans would actually materialize.  This will come as no surprise to anyone, but it’s harder to plan a trip with two people than just one.  But we managed, mostly due to strenuous bugging on Jenn’s side because I am bad at planning ahead for things other than hostels and plane tickets.  Luckily we shared a common philosophy about going to Hong Kong: in essence, eat everything and we don’t care about much else.

Korea doesn’t do Christmas.  There are no special deals or restaurants and not much decoration, so it doesn’t feel much like Christmas.  It was not even cold enough, really, to warrant a holiday-like feeling.  We left on Christmas day for Hong Kong.  The hardest part of the trip was just finding the airport shuttle bus, which was actually ridiculously easy.  Jenn prided herself on arriving makeup-free, which is my perpetual state except for extraordinary circumstances.

Arriving in Hong Kong, we got spicy, peanutty dan-dan noodles and the typical iced milk tea/coffee blend which is apparently famous in Hong Kong, all without leaving the airport.  It was pretty awesome.  We got on the train with little trouble, but then getting off the airport train in Kowloon, we seemed to be trapped in a giant crater formed by towering shiny apartment buildings, no egress except for motor vehicles.  While the walking distance to our hostel was not that far, we had to duck down underground again to take a more circuitous route to get to our “neighborhood,” Tsim Sha Sui.  Jenn was hell-bent on finding certain snacks she remembered aunts bringing her in her youth, so it seemed like we visited about a thousand snack shops and convenience stores.  We didn’t find much, and mostly discovered that there were so many Korean stores and Korean tourists that it was like we never left Seoul.  At the end of the evening, we found the Temple Street Night Market quite by accident.  There, they sell anything from dog beds to dildos, but our favorite find was fridge magnets with sassy sayings in Chinese and English, my favorite of which was “From far distance you look like rainbow, from near you look like a big potato.”  We got fried noodles and a big bottle of beer at some outdoor eatery, but our favorite part of the late-night dinner was the roasted peanuts, which were just the right amount of salty and nearly impossible to pick up with your chopsticks.

On the Monday of the trip we ventured out to the Hong Kong Wetland Park.  Neither aquariums nor HK Disneyland held any fascination for us, but the wetland park was just the right combination of scenic and informative.  We had Hong Kong’s version of Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, and diner-style noodles with fried eggs and pork on top.  It was quite bizarre.  The wetland park was cool in the way that Ilsan lake park is just relaxing enough as an easy getaway in the middle of the city.  We loved watching the mud skippers dash between holes in the mud and the little crabs running away from our shadows.  I would hope that the English teachers in Hong Kong get to take their classes there on field trip days.  After that, we attempted to see the harborside Avenue of Stars, which sucked because it was under renovation.  Much of what we saw was under renovation at that time, as it’s the “dead of winter” in Hong Kong, although it did not seem nearly as cold as Seoul.  We got Din Tai Fung for lunch, trying all of the interesting little dishes there as is traditional.  I’m obsessed with the xiaolongbao, soup dumplings, so I got them every time the opportunity arose.  We walked back from there… and while it’s not far on a map, we got kind of quite lost and went in a very roundabout way.  In lieu of dinner, we ended up drinking our drinks and eating Cheetos in the temple courtyard (the temple after which the night market is named), where lots of old men are playing mahjong, smoking, telling stories, or taking naps.

Our hostel was very basic, mostly just a place to rest our heads, not like the comparatively swanky ones I slept in in Japan.  The first night we had a pair of nightmare roommates whose phones were constantly ringing full-volume, zipping and unzipping bags and crinkling plastic bags, and talking on the phone at ungodly hours of the morning.  For two days, we had no roommates, and then more people came into the hostel nearing the next weekend.  But the concierges did give good recommendations for the most part, as well as good advice as to how to get around.

On Tuesday we tried out Hong Kong McDonald’s, as both Jenn and I have an interest in comparing the different restaurants across different countries.  I had a really bizarre salmon burger and iced milk tea, but not completely complaining.  We headed off to Central Station which is on the main Hong Kong Island.  We headed to the Piers, from which you might be able to take the famous Star Ferry, but we didn’t do that.  We walked along, taking in the fresh air, appreciating the soaring shiny skyscrapers and the ferris wheel.  We walked through Tamar Park, which is a delightful park and made me sorely regret not bringing running gear with me.  We walked from Central through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, which is kind of quite far.  Along the way we saw amazing old trees growing out of unlikely places and under an overpass on our way (although we didn’t identify this until later), we saw little old ladies whacking sheets of paper with shoes.  We thought it might be them fixing jewelry or testing the shoes?  Turns out, you write your enemies’ names on the paper, or make specific ill-wishes and get the old ladies to “beat” the curses into your enemies, like some kind of cool old voodoo.  I couldn’t have found this intentionally but we came across this gathering quite by accident.  We got Starbucks, because I am irreparably addicted to caffeine, and I was delighted to find that the “shot green tea latte” that had been discontinued in Korea continued on as the “espresso matcha fusion” in Hong Kong.  We got DimDimSum for lunch somewhere near Wan Chai.  At Causeway Bay, we took the train back to Central and headed up to the Midlevel Escalators, the longest and most famous stretch of escalators in the world.  It was kind of fun riding up and seeing all the cool restaurants that we passed by, and we ended up using them as a tool later to discover where to eat dinner one night.  Australia before and now Korea have taught me that you can only gain from looking down each alley because there are bound to be cool restaurants and cafes or at least cool graffiti everywhere you look.  Not so with Hong Kong.  It was depressing.  But we did not get off to stop at any of the places in the Midlevels because we thought, surely, there were awesome cafes or restaurants or views to be had at the top.

Not so, dear readers.  There is nothing at the top of the Midlevels.  Hugest letdown of my life.  We headed  back to the Temple Street Night Market for dinner (you will notice a pattern with this one… we never skipped a single night at this market), where we picked up fruit juices with exotic toppings such as “bird’s nest” and “hamar jelly,” with questionable health benefits, if any.  I was dying of hunger (Jenn had grabbed some of the HK-famous egg waffles on the way), so we eventually found dan-dan noodles, xiaolongbao, and iced coffee for me to eat at around 11pm.  Sometimes coffee doesn’t agree with me, and this was one of those nights.  I stayed up late into the night, and at the insistence over text message of my best friend from back home decided to experiment with Hong Kong tinder.  Guess what?  Tinder only sets me up with Korean guys, even those studying in or visiting Hong Kong, apparently.

On Wednesday we headed, after eating delightful toasts from a breakfast restaurant called Toastbox, to Lantau Island (this is also the island where the airport is, but that was not our aim).  We took a cable car, which was really awesome as it was a glass-bottom.  I do not get scared of heights so it was fascinating to watch the scenery pass by underfoot, especially watching the scattering of people on hiking trails beneath us.  At the top, we headed to the Tian Tan Buddha, otherwise known as the “Big Buddha.”  On the path are scores of cows just mulling about and asking to be photographed.  It really has the air of religious pilgrimage even though it’s not really used for that purpose anymore and is really way more about the selfie these days.  The buddha is amazing, of course, but I think it’s the walk that is really neat, approaching along with the thousands of other pilgrims and having to walk the stairs up to the top.  The Path of Wisdom is another high-billed attraction, but it’s kind of lost on those who don’t speak Chinese, and that it’s less meditation walk and more selfie opportunity for visitors.

The more interesting part of the short hike to the Path of Wisdom was signs for the Tea Garden Restaurant.  We kept seeing them and, as we were both starving, we wondered where this famous-sounding restaurant was.  Turns out, we passed it on the way, it was an abandoned and disheveled structure with trees growing through the windows.  I thought it was a good metaphor for Hong Kong, really.  There’s much that’s new and shiny, but other things are crumbling and old.  When it’s not deemed worth saving, they just let nature take its course.  We bought incense sticks at the monastery and lit them.  The courtyard was smoky and looked kind of graveyard-like with all the sticks stuck in the ashes of previous visitors.  The Po-Lin Monastery is like many temples I’ve seen thus far, but off to the side, they had a restaurant.  Jenn and I bought fried noodles, tea, moon cakes, and mango jellies there, eagerly devouring them in the outdoor tables.  It had become much colder so we were ravenous but also kind of eager to return to warmth.  For dinner, we were recommended by the hostel front desk girl to get hot pot at the “Supreme” restaurant (its resemblance to the streetwear brand led to too many jokes), but it proved to be wayyyyy super spicy for me and I wasn’t able to eat much.  I hunted for coffee by myself this time, eventually locating some Starbucks where I had a beautiful pomegranate mocha and fell right asleep.

We got in a fight the next morning.  Basically, perpetually single me bristles at being bragged at about how a w e s o m e it is to be in a relationship.  We’re both at fault, but I wrote two affirmations on the subject: 1) I am a full, unique, and important person on my own and do not necessarily need a significant other to matter or be of interest in this world.  On the opposite side: 2) I should not begrudge others’ happiness even when it seems to undercut my own.

Basically, during most trips you’re likely to clash with your travel companions.  It just happens with some companions faster than others.  Thursday, our final full day, was the day we had planned to hike the Dragon’s Back.  We took a bus to the hike among with scores of other foreigners like ourselves.  The Dragon’s Back is as crowded as any urban Seoul trail, with nice views but not wonderful views.  Nevertheless, it gives you both decent city views and also a sense that Hong Kong is, indeed, an island and there are beaches and small town-vibes to be had somewhere.  Jenn became enamored with finding quartz stones to bring back home, but most of them were too sharp or too big to transport.  We took a minibus back, but as I was the last person on the bus, I ended up sitting on a little leather settee right next to the driver.  As he terrifyingly whipped around the hairpin turns and I held on for dear life, I was only slightly comforted by the scent of the jasmine diffuser and tinny trot music emanating from the radio.

We were deposited back in the Shuen Wan markets, where we got bizarre spiral-cut pineapple, steamed buns that looked like little peachy butts, and eventually were hungry enough to stumble upon a restaurant called Hainan South where we both got fantastic Malay curry and lattes.  We attempted to take the tram up to Victoria Peak.  It was too crowded so we vowed to return the next day.  We headed to Hong Kong Park, where we attempted to go to the outdoor aviary.  Closed for the day.  My favorite part of the park was actually the Olympic Plaza, which had fallen into disrepair but was actually being renovated for some new purpose, and the viewing tower from which you could see the tai-chi plaza and meditation garden.  We also attempted to go to the Hong Kong Visual Arts center?  Also closed for the day.  After crushing defeat, we returned to the Midlevels again, with food and coffee in mind, and ended up finding Michelin-starred beef noodles and iced coffee at a fascinating cafe called Maison, serving different coffees, teas, and juices named after various world cities.  After walking around the piers and watching the fiercely red junk boats sailing a while, we headed “home.”

On Friday, our plane was  not until later, so we woke up early, packed our bags, shuttled ourselves and our stuff to Central and put the bags in lockers, then headed up to the tram to Victoria Peak.  If you arrive early, you can walk right on, especially with the “Octopus Card” which is your transit card in Hong Kong (much like the T-Money card in Seoul.)  The views from the top are stunning.  It was a nice wrap-up to the trip, seeing the city that we had traversed end-to-end on foot and by train.  Hong Kong seems big, but in reality it’s much smaller than Seoul.  It’s easy to manage and navigate with absolutely no Chinese ability.  It is an interesting blend of super new and high-tech and crumbling old buildings and stately old trees.  Ultimately, as with Japan, I was glad to return home to Seoul.

I’m sitting here wondering which new places I’ll get to explore in 2017.  I hope it’s a lot.  But more than sheer number, I hope that I can learn and grow as much as possible in the new year.

A toast to quality over quantity when travelling is involved.

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