This week I’ve decided to do something a bit different and interview one of my longtime friends who is far more well-traveled than I, Dylan Waller. He’s spent a good chunk of the last few years in Southeast Asia, and I’ve asked him about his adventures there, as well as a few things to do with traveling in general.
Spartan Wanderer: Why did you start traveling?
Dylan Waller: Traveling was something that my parents valued, and they wanted to make sure that we were exposed to as many things as possible since we came from a really small town. They took us on vacations to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica when I was in middle school. They wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck in a small town, and didn’t realize the full magnitude of the effect that these trips had on us. As a result of this, I am planning to live and work abroad for at least three more years, and most likely for the indefinite future.
SW: You’re very lucky to have cool parents that aren’t afraid to venture outside of Rockingham County, NC. What made you choose Southeast Asia when you began traveling on your own?
DW: Everything started with India, which led me to continue exploring southeast Asia. When I was a sophomore in college I received an email about a new study abroad program in India, and discovered that they were giving out grants. I had this strong gut feeling about it and went through with it, which led to an amazing semester in Bangalore, India. I was determined to go back to visit after I graduated, and also wanted to continue travelling and working abroad. After I graduated from Appalachian, I returned to India to do an internship for an NGO, volunteer teach, and travel across the country to visit some friends. I knew that I would have to leave India and stay out of the country for 2 months because of my visa, so I went on a summer study program with my college to Vietnam and Thailand. I loved those areas just as much, and decided to stay, teach, and continue travelling.
SW: It sounds like you came down with the bug pretty hard. Did you have any preconceptions that were proven wrong?
DW: I did not expect to get sucked in as much as I did. I thought I would go there, study for a semester, have an amazing time, and then return home, business as usual. Everyone tries to prepare you for all the shocks you will experience when travelling someplace new, but no one focuses on the challenge of reverse culture shock experienced when returning home. I never thought I would be more successful thriving in another country than in my home country. I may or may not continue to travel and live in other countries the rest of my life, but the fact I am strongly considering and pursuing it now proves that travelling has been “life changing.”
SW: What is the craziest thing you’ve seen or heard of in your travels?
DW: I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam talking to some backpackers about their visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they saw the Killing Fields. I had heard beforehand that it was possible to arrange to shoot cows if you had enough money. One of the backpackers told me he was approached and asked if he would like to shoot a cow, with an added shocking twist. After he refused to shoot the cow, the man whispered “how about a person?”. Apparently, families can sell off their sick or disabled members to be shot by tourists in the Killing Fields. Pretty much anything is possible in Asia if you have money, and unfortunately things like this result.
SW: That is pretty shocking. I think that’s what Hostel was based on actually. In an effort to save the mood, what was the best, most fulfilling moment you’ve had abroad?
DW: I have always loved living and thriving in rural areas of Southeast Asia, as they are the most challenging and rewarding, and provide the deepest form of cultural immersion. I’d have to say my most fulfilling moment was staying in Manipur, India, where I volunteered at Northeastern Children’s Home, spending time teaching English and music to kids from the school and orphanage. The strong concept of community there was extraordinary, and I was blessed to be able to experience it and take part in it through feasts, weddings, and ceremonies for people who passed away in the village.
SW: Obvious follow-up question: what was your most miserable experience?
DW: Teaching English in Hohhot, China. This was one of the first times, after having spent over a year travelling in Asia, that I moved somewhere new and did not thrive. I decided to teach kindergarten, and soon realized that this job was not for me, and also that I was locked into a contract for the semester. I taught at six different schools, which meant that some days I could spend 4-6 hours commuting (some days I spent more time commuting than teaching). I was in a large city, and sometimes I would go for a walk in the park to try to discover the peace I felt in the rural parts of Southeast Asia, only to have my thoughts interrupted with “Gangnam Style” blaring from a local shop’s speakers. I stuck it out for four months, started to enjoy things more towards the end, and got to take an amazing trip to Mongolia after my contract was done. China wasn’t my cup of tea, but I am still very open to giving it a second shot.
SW: So of all things, “Gangnam Style” still isn’t banned in China. What made you decide to start teaching English abroad?
DW: Money! I knew that I wanted to stay in Southeast Asia for as long as possible, and this seemed like the easiest way to do it. I completed a 80-hour online TESOL course before leaving the United States and then spent 6 weeks volunteering as an English teacher in India to make sure it was something I would actually enjoy doing. There’s something very empowering about knowing you can pick a random country in the world, show up, and have a job.
SW: That is empowering, and I wish more people knew that it is possible, no matter how rooted they are in their current life in the US. So, how do the kids in Asia compare to the kids in America?
DW: The kids that I have taught in Asia have more respect for teachers. That’s not to say that they are always perfectly disciplined, but the respect is there. When the teacher enters a classroom in India, all of the students stand up and say “ Good Morning Sir”. There is a similar routine that takes place in Thailand and can not be avoided. Most of my jobs threw me around between different schools and I never stayed with a single class long enough to really start to understand the students.
SW: Big surprise. It seems like kids anywhere else in the world value education more than our little ingrates. Any embarrassing moments in front of all those kids?
DW: I was on my way to teach kindergarten at the worst of the six schools I taught at, when I recieved a text from my teacher assistant that she was going to be very late because the buses were running late. So, I showed up to teach a class of 30 students on my own, and they all just went crazy on me. They were running around the room, grabbing and hitting my guitar, knocking over chairs, etc. I chased them around the room, yelled, and finally got class started, although it was still a little bit chaotic. I was faced with the same situation a month later, and the class was absolutely perfect, in fact it was one of my favorite classes of the semester. That’s the consistency you get with kindergarten.
SW: Yeah, kindergarten is fun. I think any type of biological clock I have has been set back a few years since becoming a TA. Completely unrelated; what is one piece of gear you’d never travel anywhere without?
DW: Quick-drying boxers and shirts. I spent a week hiking on the AT (Appalachian Trail) with Seth, and discovered that my biggest mistake was bringing cotten. Since then, whenever I hike, camp, or travel I always wear quick dry boxers and shirts. In addition to being an obvious better choice of attire for Southeast Asia, they also allow you to minimize your possessions.
SW: You’ve mentioned a few of your interesting methods regarding personal health and well-being in the past. Is Southeast Asia as scary and disease-ridden as we think it is?
DW: I don’t think so. I have always drank the water, ate street food, and not taken malaria medication when travelling in Southeast Asia. I have never had anything serious happen to me. I usually get extremely sick when initially arriving, and then after that I am free to eat or drink anything I want without suffering any consequences. People in India always joked with me and told me that if I got sick in India and ate all of the crazy street food like they do, then I will not get sick anywhere else in the world. A year after leaving India, the worst illness I have encountered has been in the United States. I’m planning to go to Africa next, and that will be something that I can not approach with the same carefree attitude as I do in Asia, lest I actually get malaria or some crazy disease. I’ve always felt safe and have never been in a dangerous or threatening situation in Southeast Asia. I remember China and Thailand being extremely safe, and I always felt free to roam around the city at night. I’ve never had anything happen in India after spending a year there, but I have always been surrounded by local friends.
SW: You’re insane. But I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as we’re meant to believe it is, as with most things from abroad that are relayed to us collectively xenophobic Americans. What’s your favorite place you’ve been to? Why?
DW: I would have to say Muang Ngam, Thailand, although Rengkai, India is a close second. It’s one of the most peaceful places I’ve lived in, and one of the few places where I have been extremely content and had little or no desire to travel. I lived in a secluded, peaceful environment that was an hour away from two main cities, and I was right beside one of the local beaches. I thought I was the only foreigner in the area until one day I saw another foreigner riding his bike and yelling “farrang” (Thai for foreigner) at me. I am planning to live there again in a couple of months, and will hopefully be able to get a bike and explore the countryside.
SW: What’s the biggest DO you’d recommend to people traveling in that area? The biggest DON’T?
DW: My best advice is to find ways to stay in rural communities, and not to limit one’s Southeast Asia experience solely to backpacking. I think that the two go hand in a hand for gaining a holistic cultural experience, but I have personally found my time spent in rural areas to be more valuable. Simply moving from country to country in short spans of time, only visiting the major cities doesn’t fully cut it. I have just finished reading Gregory David Roberts’ novel, Shantaram, and I think this quote sums it up:
“Every city in the world has a village in it’s heart. You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village.”
If possible, try to study in the country, work there, and then use this as leverage for other travelling opportunities. I started out in India studying for a semester, and this provided me with a volunteer teaching position in a village and an internship with an NGO. If this isn’t possible, then check out volunteer programs that provide cheaper alternatives than backpacking and allow. Unfortunately, many volunteer programs charge ridiculous fees, although there are a few volunteer programs that charge little to no fees, and may even provide you with food and/or housing. Two of the best volunteer programs that I know of are WWOOF for organic farming and Goodwill Globetrotting which contains a network of NGO’s looking for volunteers.
Try to get the most out of every country, and stay as long as possible. I pride myself off of recently maxing out my passport, but take even more pride in the opportunities I had to stay in rural areas for extended amounts of time. The two days I spent in Siem, Cambodia were pretty amazing, but the year I spent in Southern and Northeastern India was bar none.
When I hopped on a plane nine months ago for a working summer in Iceland, I never in a million billion years expected to return in love. I definitely wasn’t searching for it at the time, nor was I planning to for a long while. Actually, I had probably climbed so far up Mount Cynicism as to believe true love didn’t exist. Single and traveling sort of go hand in hand, anyway.
Kate was on my trail team, and at first I thought she was going to be that annoying vegetarian hipster from London. It’s okay; she thought I was going to be annoying as well, because I’m American of course. We overcame these early judgements and quickly found ourselves working together nearly every day, spending an increasing amount of our free time together, and eventually we had a tent for sleeping and a tent for storage.
We have different passports, a fact that established parting ways as a hard certainty that we knew we would eventually have to confront. When we did leave each other at Keflavík Airport, it was excruciating, but not the end. We knew that much.
My default position on pretty much anything is skepticism and cynicism, and my private reaction to anyone telling me they were in a long-distance relationship in the past tended to be “we’ll see how long that lasts.” However, my situation was, of course, different from everyone else’s once I found myself in the same position.
I can’t express how fucking hard the first couple of weeks apart were. There was plenty of staring through the raindrops in my window, reading way too much into certain songs, and starting every sentence with “that reminds me of when me and Kate…” Many thanks to all of my friends for putting up with that last one.
But since then, I’ve been to London, and in a week’s time Kate will be here in North Carolina. After having only spent two weeks together out of 7 months apart, we’re still going strong. How? How do two people separated by an ocean stay romantically involved for that long? It’s definitely not easy, but I have five tips for anyone that may be in a similar boat:
1. Use technology
Gone are the days of sending passenger pigeons back and forth with letters written on parchment, the occasional word smudged by a teardrop. Good riddance. The 21st century is here, and its offerings are better. Skype, or any other video calling software has been absolutely indispensable. Sure, argue the thought that goes into an actual letter, which is all well and good, but face to face communication trumps anything out there. If you didn’t know, using your provider’s plan to text someone in another country can be really expensive. That’s where WhatsApp comes in. It’s a free text service that will only cost as much data as you use it for, and completely free over WiFi. I don’t know where we’d be right now without these services.
2. Have something to look forward to
This is almost crucial to a long-distance relationship’s survival. Make plans together. Know when your next meeting is going to be. Some semblance of certainty in the near future will hold your sanity together. Whenever we get down, we’ll chat about the next time we’re going to see each other, where we’ll hike, eat, etc. Having that date in the future is like a time machine. I guess it’s a shitty one since you’re actually living out all of the time in between to get to it, but it does seem to make the time go faster. Uncertainty just makes it drag on.
3. Make the most of time together
The short moments that you can spend together should be filled with things you enjoy doing together. Make a list. But don’t make it too structured; just being together, doing nothing is great too. Do everything you can to make a lasting memory together while not feeling the pressure to have a flawless few days to yourselves. It is a bit surreal to transition from talking to a computer to talking to a flesh and blood person. Nothing’s wrong; it’s okay if you have to adjust to it.
3. Be as involved as possible
Don’t let the ocean between you make you seem that distant to your lover. Be as involved in their life as you can. Ask about work, their day, personal battles and victories, and let them unload on you. You can’t hold each other but you can find the right words for your significant other that will encourage them and remind them why they decided to enter this painfully awesome contract with you.
It’s easier to make new memories when you’re together, but when that’s impossible, take time to reflect on good times. If either one of you keeps a journal, find some special moments that you decided to record. It will definitely get you laughing and chatting together about the past while encouraging you to look forward to the future at the same time. Remind yourselves why you’re doing this very difficult thing that you sometimes classify as a slow form of torture.
5. Keep busy
A long-distance relationship can be really depressing if you let it be. Sure, I thought “I can’t believe she’s not here” and variations thereof for a week or two after we were apart. It’s a fact you just have to eventually own up to rather than pitifully dwelling on it and moping about. Thinking it over and over again will not make it less true, and if you can’t stop thinking about it, then you need to keep yourself busy. Write, play music, hike; do whatever you enjoy doing. Be productive, be happy, and don’t get sucked into a black hole of depression because you will be pulling your significant other down with you.
If It’s Love
Kate and I don’t like using the term “long-distance relationship” to describe what we have, although that is what it is by definition. Technicalities aside, we have reached a dynamic that is stress-free and natural, something we both agree that we’ve always had since Iceland. It’s simple, it’s fulfilling, it’s love, and it’s just right. So as cheesy as it sounds, if it’s the right person, it might not be so hard to survive a long-distance relationship.
Well there you have it. I never thought I’d post a relationship advice column here, but I feel that it’s pretty relevant considering I met Kate travelling, we hold different passports, and she’ll probably be a big part of whatever I do in the future. And also I wish someone had told me all of the above things right from the beginning, so I hope this helps anyone out there that might be in a similar situation now or in the future.
My transatlantic lover will be coming to North Carolina from London next week. Not excited at all. I’ll be showing her the metropolitan culture of Greensboro, the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and some very cultured areas in the backwoods (easy, just follow the Confederate flags!). I can’t wait to see how her London eyes will see this place that’s so full of things that I’ve loved and hated for many years. Who knows, she might have a few things to say about it here. Wink.
I’m going to get sciency for a bit, but hang in there; I promise it’s a good metaphor. Homeostasis is the ability of our bodies to maintain equilibrium. It keeps our temperature regulated, makes sure our immune system kills the right things, and so many other functions that I can’t begin to bore you with and describe inaccurately. Basically, it keeps us in a normal state of functioning and being, physiologically, and in some ways, psychologically.
Currently, scratch that, since I’ve been in Sweden, I’ve ultimately failed at maintaining homeostasis within my life. I am typically very neat and well organized. My room and work area is spotless, my files are perfectly nested in a well organized hierarchy of folders on my Mac, my inbox is cleaned out everyday, and I have lists of everything I need to do, both for work and everyday life.
Apparently this makes me boring to some, but it’s how I function, achieve homeostasis, and is ultimately the source of my productivity. All of that has been out the window for some time now.
As of now, I’m back too my well-organized self. Everything is in its place. But I can’t remember the last time I let things careen out of control like this. I put off my school work for most of the semester, took on too many responsibilities without realizing the monster I was creating for myself, and of course, partied like a rock star. I began by devoting too much time to my social life and ended with myself entrenched in my apartment pulling a series of all-nighters while neglecting things in my personal life. Suffice it to say, it sucked, and I’m still recovering from it.
It’s a learning exercise. I’m traveling, living somewhere else, adapting to a new environment, and planning to do it again, multiple times. Of course, I must be productive and make money in order for this to be a sustainable way of life. And it would be helpful to have the ability to adapt to any environment with a creative and working mentality. To achieve that, homeostasis must be maintained. But how? Obviously my first attempt was not a desirable result, but I think I have gleaned a few things from the experience worth sharing, so here they are.
1. Maintain Self-Control - The student life I have experienced in Lund is like nothing I have known before. Every night there is something to do and often times I’m choosing between three different events on a weekend night. There’s a lot of room to just go bonkers, basically. Although I’m very for making the most of experiencing and enjoying a new country, it’s important not to take advantage of that mentality in order to justify buying up the bar every night. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a trust-fund, you will have responsibilities no matter where you are in the world. Be conscientious, address what is important, and punctuate it with fun and adventure.
2. Explore New Opportunities Carefully - If you don’t know how to network effectively, simply spend time abroad. You already have a network where you’ve been living. It’s just been such a long and natural process that we sometimes don’t recognize the effort. When you go somewhere new, you start from scratch. However, you meet people with the same interests no matter what language they speak, and new and exciting opportunities will quickly accumulate in your lap. It’s a tricky situation. We naturally want to jump at something in another country because we can establish a presence there. Thing is, responsibilities take time, and that’s an international fact. Weigh what is truly important before acting in order to capitalize on your time more efficiently and enjoyably.
3. Organization Enables Focus - It is an impossible feat for me to be able to focus and work in a cluttered environment. It seems like common sense that a cluttered desk can be distracting and hinder progress, but it’s just one of those things that we say we’ll deal with later. Luckily, when we live a mobile lifestyle it’s easier to square everything away because we have less stuff. The toughest part is getting organized mentally and developing a new routine when almost every time you take a stroll outside your door it guarantees a new experience. Organize your stuff, organize your thoughts, and just establish a firm home base before going crazy. When its time to work, there will be less to cloud your focus.
The more you know, right? I had to make some mistakes to learn these few things, even though they seem completely obvious laid out in front of me. It’s all part of the journey. Well, I’m currently on sabbatical in Iceland, which I will write about later. Now I’m feeling lazy and can’t think of a clever way to wrap this up, and I will indulge in every lazy urge while I’m here. Kind of contradictory to this whole post of getting into equilibrium while you’re traveling. A sabbatical is a bit special though, and I’ll be writing about why you should take one for my next post.
Something that you might should at least attempt before you go to another country, is to learn some of the language. I don’t understand how people hop on a jet and go, completely ignorant of the local vernacular. It’s the American way, I guess.
In an effort to not be dumb and deaf when I arrive in Sweden, I’ve been learning Swedish for a few weeks now. Deaf and dumb may be a slight exaggeration, considering that over 89% of the population speaks English. But I do not want to use that as a crutch.
It’s a challenge for sure. While it is a myth that Swedish is almost as difficult as Mandarin to learn, it’s definitely the hardest of the Germanic languages. The pronunciation is made difficult by an acute-grave accent pattern. If you’re like me, you are probably wondering what the hell that means.
Basically the English language declines in tone for every syllable we speak. That’s the grave accent. Unless you’re that annoying person that speaks in an upward inflection like you’re constantly asking a question. However, in Swedish, the first syllable is a grave accent like in English, but the second syllable is acute and goes up in tone. Every syllable in the word after the second has a grave accent.
This is probably where we Americans come up with the funny stereotype that Swedes sound like “dingen durgen dorgen.” It’s not funny anymore. It’s hard, and the joke’s on me, because I know I would sound ridiculous to a Swede right now. But hopefully I will be able to hold basic conversations when I get there, and possibly fulfill my pipe dreams of having something close to fluency when I leave. I’m probably going to be living with a Swede, so it’s not impossible! Maybe I’ll give an update on my Swedish progress later.
Swedish is hard as hell.
I can actually read a good deal now, and since I’ve been in Iceland and can’t understand anything, I’ve realized that my comprehension of what people were saying is pretty nice as well. My pronunciation? Terrible. I try though, knowing I will never improve if I don’t.
Trying to speak another language where that language is the native tongue is scary. I always have trouble doubting my ability, and sometimes at the last moment I spoke in English because I didn’t have enough courage to even give Swedish a try.
This is one reason why I had the utmost respect for the international students, who were having conversations and even giving full presentations in English. I knew how much courage it took just to say one word.
So what can I say to you about speaking in tongues…
1. Find a Class - A formal class is by far the best way to build a strong foundation for learning another language. Aside from the actual learning, you have other people in the class to help you and hold you accountable. This is where expensive language programs like Rosetta Stone fall short. There’s no social pressure. If you get frustrated you can just walk away from the computer and watch TV. You have to endure the class no matter how well or poorly you are doing for a certain amount of time.
2. Supplemental Material - In addition to taking a class, it would be wise to supplement your formal learning with a free software program and some books. I started using Byki a couple of months before heading to Sweden. It’s a flashcard-style program that has recordings of native speakers pronouncing the words, and is completely free. I also browsed my local used bookstore and found a book on beginners Swedish for only $2. Niceee.
3. Practice - You can’t really retain anything you’re learning unless you put it into practice. Start working on pronunciation when you’re alone, and then build some courage to use a few key phrases in public. I was lucky enough to make several Swedish friends, so I had opportunities to practice with a native speaker in a stress free environment.
4. Be Confident - You’re not a native speaker, obviously, of the language you are learning, so you will make a million mistakes. Remain confident, and ask whoever you’re speaking to if they can correct you (if they speak English). I assure you the citizens of the country you’re visiting will just appreciate the fact you’re making an effort, no matter how many mistakes you make. Keep trying, and realize that they might just feel the same way when speaking English to you.
You can’t get rock-hard abs in 30 days, nor will you get rich in just five easy steps. There is also no get-fluent-quick scheme for learning a new language. It requires determination, practice, and patience. I’m far from being even mildly adept in Swedish, but I know that it is a skill I will continue to work on, whether I return or not. (Spoiler Alert: I probably will.)
Exchanging words in a different tongue with someone is a beautiful experience. Even something as simple as saying hi how are you. It’s well worth the frustration and sometimes embarrassment (fun to look back and laugh on though). I encourage everyone travelling in the new year to at least attempt to learn their destination’s tongue, and prepare for some cultural exchange.
A small amount of people reading this probably remember me mentioning on my last blog that I would be starting a new one focusing on minimalism and travel. Well, here it is. It took a while, and I spent the majority of that time trying to figure out what in the hell I wanted to do.
I had my eureka moment just last week as I explored Tumblr’s features for, admittedly, the first time. It was exactly what I was looking for. I love WordPress, but its content management has become increasingly complicated (to me, anyway), and would be much better suited for creating a new website for my freelance design work.
Tumblr embraces the “stream of consciousness” style of blogging that I’d like to employ as I travel, and is appropriately geared to a minimalist mindset. I’m afraid I put too much stock into what other minimalist bloggers are doing, and that clouded my judgment of what I truly wanted to do. After realizing that was a stupid mentality, I arrived here, at the avenues of Taking Action and Productivity. Technicalities aside…
Spartan Wanderer. A peculiar title, maybe? Am I going to adorn golden briefs and a crimson cape and melodramatically kick people into dark abysses as I travel? I’m afraid not, however interesting that may be to read about.
Most minimalists or people with minimalist tendencies have probably been accused of being Spartan. Dictionary.com defines the adjective as being “sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere.” This term probably arrived in modern English in reference to the simple lives of ancient Spartan soldiers away from home, or more specifically, the rite of passage known as Krypteia in which Spartan boys at the age of eighteen were sent into the wilderness with only a knife for a prolonged period of time. And so through the years it has become a synonym for “minimalist.”
While being “simple, frugal, or austere” I will also be in a constant state of motion. My first and very imminent journey will be to Lund, Sweden, where I will be living for 5 months as I study at Lund University. This will be a true test of my limits of simplicity as Sweden is a very expensive country to live in.
Not long ago I read about some students in Stockholm that couldn’t find affordable housing and ended up living in tents! That actually sounds pretty fun and I’m not ruling it out, as my campus housing is not guaranteed, heh.
My only goal right now is to post something substantial once a week, with an emphasis on travelling lightly. Sometimes I will just write an article relating to minimalism in general, for your metaphysical and philosophical travels (deep stuff). Additionally, I will include one post per month reviewing a piece of gear that I’ve found handy in my journeying. One thing that I will never do is give advice on or review something that I haven’t tried myself.
So there it is, the obligatory introductory post! Let’s all watch and see what kind of trouble I can get myself into. To stay updated, you can subscribe to my RSS through Feedburner, or you can follow me on Google+. I’m always open for suggestions, or to just sit down for a cup of coffee. Happy trails!