What 3 Months Abroad Has Taught Me
My name is Seth.
I’m into adventures just like the one reading this. Now before I go on, I think an adventurous person is often misconstrued as someone who travels everywhere, climbs a mountain every day, and probably has a “Wanderlust” tattoo on his/her wrist. I don’t really think so. An adventure can really be defined as just a different experience, good or bad, and we should obviously be running at them. I say “good or bad,” because climbing a tall building late at night with your best friend will teach you something just like the night spent in jail afterward for trespassing. A deluxe two-in-one adventure package! That being said, I want to talk about what I learned during my 3 months on the other side of the world, rather than just cool fun times I had. Conquering this trip solo was the best experience of my life, and that certainly isn’t just because I had loads of fun. Shit happened. Let’s start in Australia.
The plan was to stay in the land down unda’ for the entire three months in a home with locals. I’d surf every day, get a part-time job in a coffee shop, and have plenty of money to buy whatever I needed! Lesson 1: plans change. I had a few homes to choose from, so I bought a couple nights in a hostel, buying time to check each home out beforehand in order to choose the perfect home to spend my getaway. My one-way ticket brought me to St. Kilda, a hipster little beach town just outside of Melbourne. Fast-forward 2 hours after landing and I’m…cold? I’m also searching for an open bank so that I can exchange my US dollars in order to pay for my room key deposit/towel I forgot to pack/power-converter because apparently every power-outlet in the world is not the same? Oh and why are the banks not open? Because it was the weekend for the AFL (Australian Football League) finals. Duh. So here I am standing in my dorm room needing a shower, wondering how I’m even going to eat food. A wtf moment to say the least. So I talked to a local. ATMs can convert it all for you. Noice. Fast-forward two more hours, and I’m freshly showered in the lobby of my hostel drinking aussie beers with my new friends Jake and India from the UK. That’s the hostel life in a nutshell. For those who don’t know, a hostel is like a cheap hotel except you’re sharing EVERYTHING with like-minded travelers from all over the world. I was so hooked. I never looked at the homes. Life in a hostel was packed-full of adventure opportunities. One day I spent hours at the beach with a Columbian girl I met at breakfast. Another day I met some English guys playing poker in the room next door, which led to a day of soccer, which also led to lifelong homies that I’ll be meeting with again soon. Shout out to Rory and Bez. Although hostel life was good, I took a break from it when I met some fellow Americans, Max and Lucius. After exploring the city of Melbourne for a few days with these guys, they offered me a spot on their road trip through the Great Ocean Road. A full week of camping along the southern coast of Australia, running into wildlife everywhere (cockatoos, kangaroos, koalas, etc.), along with a couple of good buddies is hard to beat. I quickly learned to relax when things don’t go as planned. All of the best moments I had seemed to come out of nowhere, or after a time when I thought things were bad. Another example of this happened when I was forced to change rooms. Annoying. Then I arrive in my new room and now I’m playing guitar with an Irish guy singing Mr. Brightside. I specifically remember looking around one night when we were camping near the coast. Sun had just gone down, I was eating tuna fish mac n cheese using the plastic lid of a Pringles can as a spoon substitute, and us dudes were just chillin’, crackin’ jokes, and listening to groovy music. This would have never happened had I stayed in a home. I decided to live in the moment from there on out, focusing on seizing adventure opportunities rather than planning out everything. The best decision I had made. My lifestyle became this mysterious roller coaster. I was completely chill with the not-knowing of where it’d take me. All I really had to do was just be down for it. So when my college friend, currently teaching in Vietnam (a cheaper country), brought about an idea of me flying there so we could travel the Ho Chi Minh trail, down was really all I could be.
Of the 4 countries I visited, I experienced the most in Vietnam. I met my good buddy Clifton in Ho Chi Minh, arguably the busiest city the country has to offer. I was mesmerized and in a whole new world. There were hundreds of motorbikes everywhere I looked with each driver and passenger masked from the polluted air. Crossing the street looks like a death sentence, although you quickly realize that the traffic in Vietnam has this kind of beautiful flow despite its messy clutter. There are no rules it seemed. No attention paid to the painted lines or traffic lights. Getting where you need to be was a constant lookout for the next thing to avoid and the next window to shoot through. The Vietnamese stared intensely and street salesmen were persistent to foreigners, assuming we had loads of money. They would offer things as assorted as transportation, cocaine, sex, or a cute beady peace bracelet. “Oh, you just the jack of all trades, huh” –Clifton. Most buildings held up to 4 businesses, each stacked on top of each other. You might see a massage parlor above a coffee shop above a knock-off shoe store above a nightclub. The toilet paper in the bathrooms was actually a sprayer identical to what us Americans use to rinse dishes. Clifton and I were diving into this culture all the time. We traveled by night train, stopping in a new city every couple of days, and with each cultural difference came a new experience. We joined in on street games with locals. We indulged in unusual fruits. We partied on the beaches of Hoi An and Nha Trang. We got $8 tattoos from a couple guys on the street. We experienced massages, heh. Anyway, life was a lot of fun. Many of our days came with, what I call, look-around-moments. You know these moments. They’re the moments when you realize where you’re at and what your doing and who you’re with are so damn special that you look around for a sec and kind of take it all in. Watching a still sunrise with a significant other, being on stage doing what you love, playing cards with your family laughing around a kitchen table, can easily be classified as such. As great as these moments were, they also came with devastating moments. For example, one night a dude robbed me after he gave me a ride home on his motorbike. My money was getting pretty slim as it was, and this guy took a lot. Very rough night. Luckily I had a little side job writing online, but I needed to start accumulating more if I was going to have future adventures and a flight ticket home. That was the first night I had lost my cool. I remember sitting on my bunk and I was completely down. I was upset that I was becoming broke, but I was more upset that I was upset about it. Here I am traveling on the other side of the world with a best bud and I couldn’t even enjoy myself. I felt like a sucker who had not only been stripped of my money but my independence. I eventually got over it, of course. Things could be worse. I kept telling myself that maybe this guy had important things to pay for, like a really sick kid or something. I also kept telling myself to do something about it, and that this was just part of the adventure. I researched teaching English, but I was shut down when I realized I needed a certificate and experience. Oh well. Fast-forward a week and I was exposed to the magical world of cover teaching. Clifton told me about a Facebook group he had heard about called Hanoi Cover Teachers, and I figured it was worth a shot. This Facebook group was basically certified teachers who would post their classes if they couldn’t make it. The first post I read said something like “Need someone to cover my class tonight 6-7:30 pm. Ages 4-7. Near Tay Ho. Message for details.” It was 5 pm already and Tay Ho was about a 45-minute ride on a motorbike. But I messaged him, curious to see what it would take. “Do you still need someone?” I asked. He responded almost immediately with “Yes. Thank you so much. You will receive the lesson plan on arrival and they will pay you downstairs after. Here’s the address. Thanks again.” My heart sank. Out of fear, I told him I was a little far and wouldn’t have time to dress nice, thinking that might be a way out. He said “No worries, I wear shorts sometimes.” Wow, okay. But wait why did I want a way out? This is awesome. But wait it’s because I don’t have experience. What happens if I freeze in front of these kids? What if I can’t calm them down? How can I even teach if I don’t know Vietnamese? Either way, I knew I’d be mad at myself if I backed out, so I called the Grab (Vietnam Uber). My head was spinning the whole way, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. But at the same time, I was livin’. Like what a rush to be on a motorbike flying through traffic to go teach a group of Vietnamese children my native language. I arrive at the wrong place. My driver doesn’t speak English so he’s just staring at me waiting for his pay. I show him the address again, and he points at a dark alley and shrugs his shoulders. Sick. So I start walking through this alley to what I think is the address. I walk into a home, and a woman comes out of the kitchen shouting Vietnamese and she’s giving me the “shoo-ing” motion. Oops. I keep walking to find a pile of shoes at the house next door. I was afraid again, knowing this was the right place. A man shouted, “you teach for Ritchie?” I said, “yep.” He pointed upstairs. I walk into the first room I see, and 19 kids go completely nuts. It was clear that they don’t see 6’4 shaggy-haired white guys very often. Not really having a plan, I just started teaching them pronunciation. Things like colors, body parts, clothes, objects around the room, etc. I wrote every name on the board and gave each kid a tally mark and a high five when they’d answer correctly. Eventually the pointing dude downstairs came in and gave me a lesson plan to teach them and I taught them phrases like “go to bed” or “walk the dog.” I finished, collected my pay of 800,000 dong (like $34), and I was on cloud nine. I’ll never in my life forget the feeling. I felt so fearless. So fired up about life. Being able to get through to these kids and teach them something important while also having fun, I was constantly wondering what else I could do. More importantly, I looked back on my days of stress and was reminded to make peace with problems. Bad things will happen, man. And as simple as it is, it’s really what you make of it. Amazing times and amazing things learned in Vietnam. We continued to have fun. I picked up more classes, sometimes full weeks, and I had the time of my life, while bringing in enough money to keep going. Clifton and I bid our farewells after a wild month, and I hopped on a bus to Cambodia.
I left Vietnam at 6 am and headed for the Cambodian border. I really wanted to see Thailand, but I decided to at least do something in Cambodia since it’s on the way. So of course I went to Siem Reap, the city that holds one of the most ancient wonders of the world, Angkor Wat. On the way, I quickly realized that foreign backpackers don’t take the bus. Barely anyone spoke English. I’m the only white guy. I chose the bus because 1. It was cheap. 2. I figured I could see more riding through the country as opposed to just flying to the main city. I was correct. Once we got past the whole border procedure, I saw kids swimming neck-deep in muddy water, houses on stilts, 18-wheelers with kids riding on the top of them, etc. Cambodia was a beautiful wasteland. Bright beige dirt roads, green fields as far as you can see with tropical trees and some trash in the mix. I loved seeing crazy things from the bus window, but we made a stop in the middle of the night that I’ll never forget. I had been seeing Cambodia for hours but now I got my first feel for it. We made the stop around 2 am to use the “restroom”. I got off the bus to see a small rest stop in the midst of a few random palm trees. Through the smoky air, I saw a shirtless man burning a big pile of plastic, about 10-15 stray dogs lying around, naked children running around playing, along with some holes for us to pee in. I was very out of my element. I remember thinking about my small college town that I had come from and how it compares to what my eyes were witnessing. I think I spun around probably 5 times just looking at all the different things going on. I loved it, however I couldn’t help but think if something happened, no one would ever know about it. I’m just a foreign guy with a backpack that no one can understand. Although I loved the discomfort, I was really happy to arrive to my hostel in Siem Reap and have a beer with English-speaking foreigners my age. During my 4 days in Cambodia, I went to a pool party with some new friends; I ate a snake on the street, checked out the local markets, and (most importantly) biked through the incredible city of temples. This was what people came to Siem Reap to experience so I set aside an entire day for Angkor Wat. Most tourists pay for a tuk tuk (think of it like a motorbike wagon) to take them through the temples, but I had the whole day, so I decided to rent a 4-dollar bike and go nuts. And oh my gosh. That day was without a doubt my most exciting adventure. I felt like a little kid again, except I wasn’t exploring my small-town neighborhood in Texas. I was biking though a rain forest on my own in a totally new country, making stops at temples that were built almost 900 years ago. I took the backroads to avoid tourists, and I ended up going through little Cambodian villages where families were just living their lives. So cool. I also ran into plenty of wild monkeys that would just pop out of the trees. As I got deeper into the trees, it started to rain. I was about to seek shelter and wait for it to pass, but I remembered that it was hot as hell and how fun it would be to ride through. By the end, my feet were muddy, I was soaked, and man I was on top of the world. I learned something from this, and it’s that I’m really all I need. Don’t get me wrong, people are my favorite thing just like the next person, but what I mean is that I was able to enjoy the hell out of my time there without having to make new friends, without Clifton. I made it with my own ideas, my own observations as well as my own moves, and it turned out amazing. It’s something I’ll be taking with me to the states, the place where I wouldn’t eat alone in fear of looking like a loser. I liked Cambodia. It was an incredible time and an incredible pit stop en route to the wonderful city of Bangkok.
In 2009, I asked my parents if my new friend from Thailand could live with us for 10 months, and they were down. My friend, New, was an exchange student at my high school and by the end of those 10 months we were basically brothers. I hadn’t seen him in years, so I figured I would reach out. I thought “how cool would it be if I could meet him in his home country for a beer or something?” When I asked if he might want to link up, he offered to host me through my entire 9 days in Thailand. Wow. I obviously said yes. I’ve always wanted to meet his family. I realized they were pretty excited to meet me, too. When I hopped off another interesting bus ride, they all welcomed me with open arms and started carrying all my stuff, asking me what I’d like for dinner. They were easily the best hosts I’ve ever had in my life. I was actually becoming overwhelmed by it after a while. This family took me to all the best places to eat. They showed me all of the beautiful temples of Bangkok. They did my laundry. They would even prepare my toothbrush every night and morning. When I’d wake up and come down stairs in the morning, the mother would get this “oh wow he’s up” look and she’d rush into the kitchen and start preparing fruit for me. Traveling alone for months prior, I wasn’t at all used to this treatment. I told New to tell his parents (who spoke no English) that as much as I appreciate everything, they don’t have to go through all of this. I’m an easy dude. He translated from them that they were so thankful that we took him into our family that it was the least they could do. Just when I thought they were doing too much for me, they had already planned a 3-day trip to the beach a few hours away when they’d heard I was coming, which was an unbelievable time. However, they had trouble understanding why I didn’t want them to buy me stuff and take me to all the touristy spots. I finally had New explain to them that I really just wanted to just tag along on what they’d be doing if I wasn’t there. And so that’s what we did. I went to the gym with them in the morning. We would all watch movies together. I even got a weekly foot massage with the mom and sisters hahaha. With New, it was like nothing had changed. 9 years in between us and we were immediately making jokes and picking up where we left off. While New went to work every day, I grew close with his two goofy sisters. Within a few days, we were all giving random hugs, scaring each other when approaching a corner, and teaching new things about our native languages. I loved getting to know this family. Of all the things I was able to experience, my favorite part was a family gathering in a less fortunate area in Bangkok. We walked through graffiti alleys, passed many salesmen, and finally made it to the home of New’s aunt and uncle. I dropped my shoes at the door, went in to wash my feet off, and talked with them through New’s translating. A look-around moment for sure. I’m sitting there surrounded by this family, some Thai show on the television. New’s father was buying lotto tickets to support the uncle’s business. New’s mother was passing out dumplings, and I was scoring points with the aunt as I guessed her age incorrectly. A lot of laughs were shared. I was part of a real Thailand family. An amazing experience I never planned for that the world somehow gave to me. It taught me so much about us humans. I observed so much from this family’s lifestyle and realized that they think and live totally and completely differently than I do…yet they’re humans. Happy humans. And they feel the same emotions, and they love the same way I do. I was an alien to them and I was able to feel kindness from these people that I could barely communicate with verbally. In a world of judgment and pre-conceived notions, I could see clear as day that we really are all the same. Thailand will always be a part of me and despite a difficult goodbye at the airport, I was so thankful for the perfect ending to my trip.
I went home to a new niece and a new nephew who came just a few days after my landing. I also made it to Christmas, and my good friend’s wedding. Congrats to Taylor and Chase. As you can see, the adventure didn’t stop. And frankly, I’ve decided that it’s never going to.