From Backpacker to Expat: A Year in Travel

It’s safe to say that this year has been the craziest of my life.  Last year at this time I was living the dream as a backpacker, doing things like island hopping around the Philippines, exploring ancient temples in Indonesia and eating my way through the culinary wonderland that is Malaysia.  It sounds perfect, but the reality is that there was always a sense of anxiety weighing me down.

When I set out to travel the world indefinitely in August 2013, it meant exactly that.  I didn’t know when or if I’d return to the United States.  I didn’t have a game plan for what to do when the money ran out.  I didn’t have a career or house or car to return to.

After being on the road for 10 months, real life was creeping up on me.  My bank account was dwindling to an uncomfortably low level, meaning I could only survive another few months on my backpacker’s budget.  Aaron, who had been applying for university jobs for months and month had yet to land a job.  Things were not looking good and I felt paralyzed about what to do about it.  All I knew was that we needed to figure something out very soon.

When Aaron received an offer to work at a university in Jakarta, Indonesia, we felt terrified, relieved and excited all at once.  We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we also knew it would be a life-changing experience.

A year ago at this time I had no idea what the next year would bring.  But I certainly didn’t expect that it would take me from Southeast Asia to South America, from being a backpacker to being an expat.  It just goes to show that you never know where life is going to lead next.

So in celebration of the past year – including all of its up and downs – here is a country-by-country glimpse into my 2014 travels:

1. Philippines

Camiguin, Philippines

On this very day last year I arrived on the tiny island of Camiguin, Philippines, where Aaron and I intended to spend a quiet New Year’s.  Little did we know just how seriously Filipinos take their holidays, so instead of spending the night just chilling out, we partied in true local fashion – by drinking rum, attending karaoke parties and watching homemade fireworks explode in the sky.  It was truly the best way to ring in the new year.

Bantayan Beach

The rest of our two weeks in the Philippines were spent motorbiking around Camiguin, touring Typhoon Haiyan’s devastating impact on the beautiful island of Bantayan and hanging out in malls (a favorite pastime in the Philippines) in Cebu City.

2. Malaysia

Petronas Towers - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The iconic Petronas Towers.

After finding a $15 promo ticket on AirAsia to fly from Cebu City to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia just sort of ended up getting tacked onto our Southeast Asia itinerary.  I honestly knew next to nothing about the country, but when we landed in KL I was more than impressed by the metropolitan city.  We spent days exploring the city, peering up at the iconic Petronas Towers and savoring KL’s amazing Chinese and Indian food.

Street art - Penang, Malaysia
It’s worth visiting Penang just to see all of its quirky street art.

Our three weeks in Malaysia took us to the food lover’s paradise that is Penang where we gorged ourselves on world-famous street food and sampled vegetarian delights from Indian samosas to Chinese-Buddhist mock meats and toured the city’s funky street art.  We motorbiked around Langkawi Island and ventured inland to the Cameron Highlands to enjoy its cool weather and stunning tea plantations.

3. Indonesia

Jakarta skyline - Indonesia
This is literally the only photo I took in Jakarta.

We started our journey off in the capital city of Jakarta where we spent five days sick in bed.  We did so little in Jakarta that I only took one photo.  Little did we know at the time that we’d be moving to Jakarta six months later.  Once we recovered from our illnesses, we traversed the island of Java, stopping off at the cultural capital of Yogakarta to do some temple hopping at the magnificent Borobudur and got duped into taking the worst tour ever of Mt. Bromo’s steaming crater.

Picturesque Borobudur - the largest Buddhist temple in the world.
Picturesque Borobudur – the largest Buddhist temple in the world.
Bromo collage
Thankfully some sweet backpacker loaned me her sweater.  Otherwise I would have froze!

We spent a few days getting wild and crazy in Kuta Beach, Bali’s hedonistic party town, before heading to the tiny island of Gili Trawangan.  This little sliver of paradise not only inspired my very first blog post but it’s the place where Aaron and I threw all caution to the wind and bought a one-way ticket to Colombia.

Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia
The picture-perfect beaches of Gili T.

Our last week in Indonesia happened to coincide with our anniversary, so we fled to the island of Nusa Lembongan.  After experiencing an anniversary from hell (think rats and really loud chanting), we recovered by motorbiking around the island and marveling at every stunning vista.

waves crashing onto cliffs

4. United States

Since Los Angeles is a popular gateway to South America, Aaron and I decided to allot a few weeks back in California to visit family and friends and do a bit of traveling in our home state. We went wine tasting in Aaron’s hometown of Ojai (one of my favorite places in the world) and ate our fill of burritos in my hometown of San Diego.

Wine tasting at The Ojai Vineyard with Aaron’s brothers.

Aaron and I took a road trip up the coast to Big Sur and camped for a few days in the blistering cold … well that’s how it felt after traveling in Southeast Asia for seven months.  We ended our time in California on a vacation with Aaron’s family to the coastal town of Cayucos, California, where we BBQ’d, played catch on the beach and had some good old-fashioned family bonding time.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur is absolutely stunning.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur is absolutely stunning.

5. Colombia

me and monserrate
An eagle’s eye view of Bogota.

We decided to kick off our first-ever trip to South American in Colombia.  What was supposed to be a brief layover in Bogotá turned into a week of falling head-over-heels in love with this highly underrated city.  I was pleasantly surprised by the city’s booming street art scene, amazing vegetarian restaurants and abundance of free activities.

bogota collage
Street art fans need to get to Bogota ASAP. This city has some awesome street art!

From there we ventured to Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground of Medellin where we watched hundreds of Colombians go absolutely crazy when their team won yet another World Cup match.

world cup celebration
Celebrating like only Colombians can – with spray foam and vuvuzelas.

We flew to the coast and rented an apartment in the Caribbean city of Cartagena.  We decided we would set up shop in our very own apartment, hunker down for a month and do some serious thinking about what we were doing with our lives.

old town 1
The walled city of colonial Cartagena.

I guess it worked because Aaron was offered a job in Jakarta after a few weeks.  With only three weeks to get to Indonesia, we had to cut our South American odyssey short and fly back to California.

6. United States

In a few fleeting weeks, Aaron and I squeezed in visits to family and friends up and down the California coast.  Knowing we wouldn’t be able to savor real Mexican food for the next year, we ate so many burritos in San Diego that I think I made my mom ill.  I took a million photos of my beloved cat, whom I knew I would miss desperately and went to as many Padres games as possible with my dad.

I miss this little guy so much!

We packed our bags and boarded a plane to Jakarta.

7. Indonesia

high rises

I’ve now lived in Jakarta for five months and it has been amazing and frustrating, eye-opening and humbling.

On the plus side we moved into an apartment – a luxury after living out of our backpacks for a year.  But the best part about living here is that I’ve been forced to come out of my shell.  In certain situations I tend to be a shy and anxious person, but because I’m alone most of the time I’ve been forced to be more independent and do things I never thought I would do.  I’ve learned to navigate this enormous city on my own, I’ve ridden on the back of a speeding ojek (motorcyle) dangerously weaving through Jakarta’s notorious traffic and even dabbled in solo travel.

My second solo trip to the rice terraces on Bali.

At times life has been unbearably trying and incredibly lonely.  Finding work in Indonesia is a ridiculously complex process.  And I’ve experienced more than a few freakouts, questioning what exactly I’m doing here.  I’ve endured a taxi ride from hell (actually I’ve had two now) and I’ve had a hard time wrapping my mind around living in a developing country.

7. Malaysia

street art - woman

Since moving here, I’ve been able to do a bit of traveling around Southeast Asia.  I need to go on visa runs every 60 days, so I took my first ever solo trip to Penang in September.  After a few days spent wandering the streets and finding amazing veggie eats, I realized that I actually enjoy traveling alone.  The experience has honesty opened up a world of possibilities for me.

8. Singapore

newton stall 1

My time in Singapore was an all-too-brief 24 hours, but it marked #28 on my “countries-visited” list and I loved every minute of it.  I mainly spent my time eating an absurd amount of Indian food, but I managed to glimpse the city’s colorful Haji Lane and the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel.  Not to mention I’ll be going back next month for yet another visa run.

Let’s break it down:

Countries visited: 6

Cities visited: 26

Continents visited: 3

Hotel rooms inhabited: 29

Tents pitched: 1

Plane rides: 13

Bus rides: 12

Ferry rides: 10

Countries moved to: 1

Days lived in Jakarta: 148

That’s my crazy year in a nutshell.  How did 2014 play out for you?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

21 thoughts on “From Backpacker to Expat: A Year in Travel

  1. What a great selection of countries and cities you visited. You did some amazing exploration of the Philippines and Indo I see, and 2 visits to the US as well! I might get back to Philippines next year and finally check out Bohol and the Cebu area. But 2014 was great for me, but I lost count of the cities I visited…mostly I just go back to ones I have been to anyway! I can’t get enough of the food! 😉
    Lee recently posted…Bali’s very own Borobudur

    1. Food is definitely a great reason to return to a city! I’m going to Singapore again next month and you better believe I’m going to revisit some of those amazing Indian restaurants 😉 Before I moved to Jakarta I spent two months traveling in the Philippines and then two months traveling in Indonesia. I feel lucky that I had that much time in both but I feel like I only scratched the surface in terms of places to travel. Both countries are just so massive and have so much to offer. I’d love to do A LOT more exploring in both!

  2. What a crazy and tumultuous year you’ve had, but bravo to you for having the courage and trust to fly by the seat of your pants through it all. :) People always think traveling is easy, but obviously, they’re talking about just “going on vacation.” True travellers know how challenging, difficult and rewarding it can be.

    I hope things smooth out for you in 2015 in the work department… and I know I’ve said it before, but you guys should really consider Korea. It’s NE Asia, so totally different vibe, but it’s just so easy. You’d be going from developing country to city of the future. Could be quite the transition. 😉
    Shelley recently posted…Our Top 7 Travel Moments of 2014

    1. It has been a crazy year, but it has by far been the most memorable and rewarding of my life. I hope 2015 goes more smoothly, but it’s me we’re talking about so I’ll just have to see how everything plays out 😉

      Aaron and I would love to go to Korea. If we find any job opportunities there we will jump on them for sure. Plus, both of us would love to finally visit or live in North Asia…we’ve never been outside of SE Asia, which is such a shame. We have a lot more exploring to do in Asia!

    1. Thanks Hannah! It has been a wild ride for sure. I can’t wait to see where this year takes you too. I think 2015 will be exciting for the both of us 😉

  3. Well I remember your early Gili and Nusa Lembongan posts very well as I devoured them before my trip! I really loved those islands! I think you’ve had a really exciting 2014 and hopefully 2015 will bring new job prospects and travel opportunities too (I’m sure it will!). Happy New Year!
    Joella in Beijing recently posted…Beijing Life, Lately

    1. Thanks Joella :) It feels like I wrote those posts so long ago! It’s hard to believe so much has happened in one year. I’m excited to see what 2015 will bring. I have no doubt that there will be some crazy twists and turns 😉 Happy New Year to you too!

  4. Living abroad really is a fickle mistress…lots of ups and downs but we’re guaranteed to look back on all these moments, even the trying ones, with smiles on our faces knowing we didn’t just settle for the status quo! It’s fun to see where the year has taken you, you’ve had some amazing experiences and a lot of growth, methinks! Congrats on a year well-lived and cheers to not having a goddamn thing figured out. What would be the fun in that?? x
    Leah recently posted…Friday Snapshots: The Metrocable to Parque Arví

    1. It’s a fickle mistress indeed! I suppose taking the road less traveled in life has me in a constant state of anxiety because I never know what’s going to come next. But, looking back, I’m so glad I’ve made the choice to travel long term and move to Jakarta because I would be so unhappy if I were still back in San Diego doing the same old thing. I have a feeling this year is going to be crazy. I honestly have no idea where I’ll be at the end of 2015. Here’s to not having our stuff figured out. It really is more fun this way :)

    1. It has definitely been an experience! It’s not always easy, but all the experiences I’ve had are so worth the hardships. Thank you for the kind words. Blogging has been one of the best decisions I made in 2014. I’ve truly relished starting to write again and meeting so many fellow bloggers has been so rewarding. Happy New Year and cheers to an amazing 2015 :)

  5. What an amazing year! I imagine being an expat will be totally different than being a traveler? Can’t wait to follow more of your adventures this year:)

  6. I love your blog! You’ve been to so many places that I still want to go to. Your 2014 seems to have been pretty interesting :-) I just saw your blog for the first time today. I’m gonna your blog to see what beautiful destinations you’ll go to this year!
    Marie recently posted…7 Things Namibia Taught Me

    1. Aw, thank you Marie! Welcome to the blog!! My year was definitely interesting and I’m sure 2015 will be even crazier. I’m thinking of going to Cambodia next…but I can’t make up my mind 😉

  7. Sounds like you really had a fantastic time in my home country (Philippines). Reminds me to revisit Camiguin and Bohol. I was there in 2010 and 2012 with friends. I laughed when I read the malling part. It is really the favorite past time of Filipinos especially in Manila.

    It is a dream of mine to visit California. I am contemplating whether I’m going to Bali next month or not.

    Btw, it’s my firs time here 😀 Happy New Year!
    Micamyx|Senyorita recently posted…Quirino Province Adventure Trip: Discovering the Undiscovered

    1. The Philippines is one of my favorite countries. I completely fell in love with it! Ha, the mall thing was so funny to me. And when I was in Cebu I spent a huge chunk of time eating in malls, going to the movies and just hanging out in them. Plus, I was there over Christmas so the malls were packed with shoppers.

      California is amazing. If you ever go try to make it up to Big Sur. It’s breathtakingly beautiful! Bali is really amazing too. I know I haven’t written the most positive reviews of places like Ubud and Kuta Beach, but most travelers LOVE Bali. Feel free to ask questions if you end up booking a trip there :) Happy New Year to you too!

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