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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We packed our bags and boarded a plane to Jakarta.
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.
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.
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.
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?