A Look Back at 2016: Life Lessons from Backpacking

It’s now been over a month since landing back in my home country of Canada, after eleven full months of being without a home, of living with just a backpack, and of never staying in one place more than a few weeks.

Since then, friends, family, and people I barely know have approached me with questions such as these:

Was it worth it? What was your favorite place (or favorite part)?  When are you going back? How much did it cost? What’s next? 

Now, here is my (perhaps feeble) attempt to sum up everything I’ve learned during those eleven months as well as answer all of the above questions in one, somewhat long, blog post.

A Look Back at 2016
One of the beautiful doors of the Blue Mansion in Penang, Malaysia.

Q1: Wow! You were away for 11 months? What did you do all day? Didn’t you ever get lonely, being by yourself for so long?

It can be difficult to understand why certain people would want to be away from their home country for such a long period of time with no particular ‘goal’ in mind. And while it’s true that many backpackers embrace the party lifestyle, others need a different kind of purpose to fuel their trip. For me, my blog soon became my sense of purpose while I was away. I set goals for myself, connected with other bloggers, and worked on it like I would a full time job (when I could, which wasn’t always easy). Because of this, I didn’t feel like I was just wasting my time while I was away. Although I should probably clarify that the sole act of traveling shouldn’t be considered as ‘wasting time’. I was amazed at how much some of my fellow travelers saw and did in so little time (compared to me, a relatively risk-averse and ‘take-your-time’ kind of traveler).

Some of the friendliest bunch I’ve met on my travels, at the Surfers House hostel in Canggu, Bali
As for the lonely part, the answer is yes! I did get lonely on certain bouts of my trip that I did solo. Traveling solo is a different experience for everyone, and for me, being the introverted person I am, it definitely had it’s fair share of ups and downs. It’s inevitable that, traveling solo for an extended period of time, there will be a day or two when there is just yourself for company. By the end of my trip however, I felt confident enough that being on my own wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it had felt at the start. Every day was an adventure. I loved being able to choose who I wanted to travel with, and who I didn’t want to travel with. I had the freedom to stay in one place as long (or as short) as I wanted, and to make a schedule unique to my needs. I also met way, way more people when I traveled solo than when I was traveling with my significant other. (I may not have mentioned this before, but my total time traveling solo during my 11 months away is around 5 months solo, 6 months with my significant other).

That being said, there are certain upsides to traveling with your significant others as well, and I could probably devote an entire blog post to the pros and cons of each. But let’s leave that for another time ;).

Me and Pascal at the Boh Tea Plantations in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

It goes without saying that by traveling solo you are much more open to new experiences and trying new things. I went on a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Marble Mountain on the back of a motorbike with an Englishman I had just met in a complete downpour. It may not have been the smartest decision in hindsight, and I ended up taking a taxi back by myself due to my fear of not making it back alive (the downpour had turned into a flash flood) but I don’t regret it for a second, and that day is now firmly entrenched in my memory!

Q2: What was your favorite part (or place)?

It’s hard to choose just one thing out of the entire 11 months, as each experience is so different and unique. Buuuut, if I had to choose … here are my top three!

  1. Hiking up to the summit of Mount Rinjani at 3,726 masl over 3 days. This was incredibly challenging physically but one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done!
  2. WWOOFing in Russell, New Zealand. The people we met there were some of the nicest and most generous I have ever met, and the location was uh-mazing.
  3. My 10 day silent meditation course in Lumbini, Nepal. This one even tops Mount Rinjani for being one of the most difficult yet rewarding things I have done, and makes me realize how much the human body is capable of accomplishing!

Overall, it was the people I met (rather than the things I saw) that made my trip so unforgettable. Traveling opens your eyes to see just how many kind and generous souls are out there, especially when you’re in a somewhat vulnerable position of being in a new and unknown country.

Q3: So, what’s next?

After 11 straight months of living out of my backpack, I am more than ready to take it easy for the next while. And as much as I believe that it’s a good thing to get out of your comfort zone and change up your routine, I can’t wait to get back to working at a regular 9-5 job on a fixed schedule. While I won’t say exactly what’s coming up in this next year (I like to keep things a surprise), I can say that it will be filled with lots of hiking in the great outdoors and knitting, two of my favorite things.

Summit of Mount Rinjani, Indonesia
I have a feeling 2017 will be filled with even more amazing experiences of knitting in places as beautiful as the summit of Mount Rinjani, in Indonesia.
I also want to delve further into the design side of knitting. I managed to publish one free pattern on Ravelry this year, but expect to find several more patterns designed by me in 2017!

Diyi Mittens by Wooly Ventures
This picture was taken after I had just published my first pattern – it felt so good to have it finished!

Q4: How much did it cost you to travel for 11 months?

Many people deny themselves the luxury of long term travel by telling themselves they could never afford it. The truth is, it can be extremely affordable to travel long term, especially if you are able to rent out your house while you are away to provide some sort of basic income.

All in all, I spent roughly $14,000 USD during my 11 months away, including airfare, which also included a trip back to Canada to be a bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding! I consider myself to be a “moderate” budgeter. For example, I was somewhere between the backpackers who don’t blink an eye at spending $6 USD on a fancy eggs benny breakfast in Bali and those who chose to eat boiled potatoes instead to save a few bucks! I didn’t completely deprive myself of certain luxuries, but I definitely didn’t go all out either. The most influencing factor in how much I spent on my travels wasn’t the country I was in, but the amount of volunteer work I did in each country. Eliminating daily expenses such as accommodation and food through volunteering saves you a ton of money for long term travel.

Me and Pascal with Ch’ng, a good friend whom we had met through working at a hostel in Penang, Malaysia via HelpX.
Websites such as WWOOF.net, HelpX, Workaway and Worldpackers allow you to volunteer your services in exchange for free accommodation, and in some cases, free food as well. Not only that, but volunteering for an extended period of time in one location versus hopping from place teaches you more about the culture of the place you are in. I spent practically nothing in Malaysia (working the reception at a hostel) and in Thailand (tutoring a 9 year old Thai boy) because of this, and also met some of the most interesting and generous people on my trip.

New Zealand and Hong Kong were also expensive choices for the budget backpacker, and I could probably have saved over a few thousand dollars by choosing to forgo them as well, or by using Couchsurfing to lower my accommodation costs.

All of this talk about money brings me to my next topic …

Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer

To quote a certain cliché line, travel really is the one thing you buy that makes you richer. This couldn’t have been more true in my case. Let’s rewind a few years back. I had been working at the same consulting firm for almost two years, and had started work straight after five years of torturous, painful, engineering school where I didn’t have much of a life (just to give you an idea, I didn’t even have time to knit. That’s how bad it was. True story.). My original plan had been to take a gap year once finished with university to go and travel, but my sensible nature told me to pay off my student loans instead. So although I began working, that idea, that dream of taking off for up to a year to explore the unknown, stuck with me. And once the opportunity arose for me to leave my career and take a trip around the world, I jumped.

Knitter at summit of Mount Rinjani
At the top of Mount Rinjani, 3726 masl. Freezing but happy I brought my half finished scarf along to keep me warm!
I believe that we are mainly a product of our environments. Our perspective on the world is primarily shaped by the people who surround us, our income levels, the newspaper we read (or don’t read), etc. And although living in one place for a longer period of time gives us a chance to build something bigger, to form lasting connections with the people around us, and create a comfortable lifestyle, it can also remove our ability to emphasize with people coming from a different background than ourselves. It’s easy to become caught up in your day-to-day routine.

Your morning coffee, followed by the same car ride (or bus ride) to work, followed by the same meetings, coworkers, and office gossip, before returning home, rushing to make dinner, then slumping down on the couch to watch your favorite Netflix T.V. series. And repeat. By repeating the same tasks over and over again through a period of days, months, and years, our brain quickly turns onto autopilot. The days, months and years, then all merge together in one big ‘blurb’, with the only things really sticking out in our memory being certain milestones, such as our first day at school, that promotion, the day we quit our job…

And then, bam.

 Entering a new country can be overwhelming, particularly if even the language is different. People look at us and treat us differently. We are now considered, ‘the outsider’. All of these new experiences, caused by being in a completely new environment can influence our perspective and way of thinking. Why is this important? We live in a multicultural world. Returning home we might be more understanding of certain problems other ‘outsiders’ might face upon arrival in Canada. Learning to sit  on toilets rather than squat on them. The proper way to use a fork. Spitting (or not spitting) in public. Traveling forces us to open our eyes and realize the sheer amount of nuances unique to each culture, as well as emphasize with those forced to adapt to our own. It promotes tolerance and understanding of others.

And that, I think, makes travel, well worth saving up for.

Happy New Year everyone!