Picking Up a Hitchhiker

You Never Know What You'll Get - An Interview with Richard Decal

rtw-wednesday

Jenn Miller has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.

We pick up a lot of hitchhikers. The clean ones, the dirty ones, the ones that look like it’s the first time they’ve stuck their thumb out, and the ones who are clearly road worn and weary. They always have a story to tell, and without fail, they’re educational for our young people. Sometimes all we get out of a rider is tales of fantastic adventure. Other times we pick up a gem, and there is depth in addition to breadth in his journey. Every time we stop, it’s a crap shoot. Sometimes we win big. Richard was a win.

It was his hat that caught our eye. It takes a man of particular confidence to wear a hat like this one. A hat clearly chosen for its price and utilitarian nature. It identified him as a real traveler, one who’s more concerned with space and stretching a buck than fashion or what others think. Our kind of guy.

Richard hopped into the front seat of our camper with a big, grateful smile and sparkly eyes. We exchanged pleasantries and then settled in for a long ride together.

“So,” he asked, with genuine interest, “You guys meet traveling?”

Now that’s a question we haven’t been asked before, and we laughed hard.

“Ah, no. We met 20 years ago, on a whole ‘nother sort of trip, and those are our four kids back there!”

His eyes widened just a bit, he laughed too, and then it was my turn to ask the questions!

Settle into the front seat with us, you’ll have to listen with both ears to hear over the roar of our diesel engine as Richard Decal, 23, from Florida, picked up on the highway between Te Anau and Milford Sound, New Zealand, tells his tale:

Tell us your story: Who are you? What did you do? Where have you been? Inspire me!

Richard Decal at The Divide

I studied molecular biology, and after writing my honors thesis, facing my PhD, which is a five to six year project, I wanted to live a little. So I bought a one way ticket to China.

I’d never been to Asia. There were personal projects I wanted to work on that I hadn’t had the time to at uni because school was full on. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, didn’t know how to use chopsticks, knew nothing about the country or the culture, and that’s why I went: to jump into the deep end and overcome my ignorance.

People tell you your whole life that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to; you don’t really believe it until you go out there and meet people who are doing that exact thing, winging it and making it happen.

I’ve done all sorts of things I never thought I’d do. I’ve met all sorts of people doing interesting things and met people who have inspired me to do things I’d never have done, like cycle touring in Taiwan.

This trip has become more and more empowering for me. I’ve been inspired to tackle big projects even if they are outside my area of expertise. People tell you your whole life that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to; you don’t really believe it until you go out there and meet people who are doing that exact thing, winging it and making it happen. It has given me a big perspective that you don’t have to be an expert in all of these things to accomplish things. It’s a truism that I never believed until I traveled.

I’ve been on the road 1.5 years. So far I’ve been through China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos, Australia, and New Zealand.

What is the one thing you learned from travel you could never have learned in a classroom?

Hitching

I’ve had a few things race into my mind: At the risk of sounding like a new age hippie – just listening to my own body and being content in my own soul. I used to be very dependent on my family and friends, and I’ve learned to be alone, to like my own company, and at the same time, to be comfortable with people I’ve never met before; like getting in this car with you and not feeling anxious at any point. A few years ago that would have been alien to me. When I hitched from Perth to Brisbane, Australia, along the coast, I had to get comfortable with that.

I am much less connected to things than I was before I started traveling. I now know how to reach out and find camaraderie in the human race.

I’ve learned to trust in humanity a lot. I was never expecting the extreme hospitality I’ve experienced. People have just given me the keys to their car and house and invited me to raid their fridge. They’ve given me great adventures and feasted me. At first those experiences really made me uncomfortable, but what it’s taught me is how to receive a gift and how to give a gift. I am much less connected to things than I was before I started traveling. I now know how to reach out and find camaraderie in the human race. I am learning to take care of people, and to let other people take care of me. I’m learning how to reciprocate.

I’m learning how to interact socially. I’m a scientist; I was raised by older parents who were distrusting of humanity, and they don’t really teach social skills in science classes. I feel more human since I’ve been traveling.

How did your experience change your life upon returning to Florida?

Photographer

I haven’t returned yet. At the risk of sounding like a new age hippie, again, my grandpa gave me an SLR camera when I left, and I’ve really gotten into photography. Now when I’m traveling I’m always composing shots in my mind; it never really turns off. I notice things now. I have developed an appreciation for beauty and learned to savor my surroundings in a way that I never did. I’ve found an outlet for that creative pursuit in blogging and taking pictures. I think that’s one of the best gifts I’ve gotten from this trip is learning to look around me more and appreciate the little, mundane things: colours and even rainy days, with a ray of sunshine popping through the clouds.

I’ve learned to become more extroverted and reach out to people. Backpackers tend to be more spontaneous and will just start talking. There’s a global camaraderie that I’d like to take home with me, even into the work place with people who I might not have a vested interest in, necessarily.

I think we’d be a lot happier in our communities if we knew more about the people around us instead of living within our little shells. I plan to take that vision home with me.

The big thing that I’m trying to say is that traveling makes you more human, introduces you to people, and helps you to become less afraid. I’ve discovered that my natural state is to be inquisitive about others and open to that interaction. I think our communities should be a lot more like that, instead of just being friends with family and your immediate cliques, I think people should have much broader circles. I think we’d be a lot happier in our communities if we knew more about the people around us instead of living within our little shells. I plan to take that vision home with me.

What, in your opinion is the single greatest factor that keeps people from traveling?

Bike Taiwan

I think it’s kind of this miedoso (fearfulness in Spanish). I think people have become very good at coming up with excuses and not taking responsibility for their lives.

My friend said, “I wish I could afford to do that…”

To which I replied, “I’ve spent $400 since December. I haven’t paid for accommodation or transport, my main expense is food, and I mostly live off of rice and peanuts and chick peas. You learn how to be really resourceful.”

My friend responded, “I’m not as resourceful as you are.”

People think they need to be experts before they start [traveling]. They don’t. You’ll get in a few shitty situations, sure, but you’ll live and you’ll learn from it.

I responded, “I wasn’t resourceful when I got to China either. I could barely wipe my ass when I got to China, but I’ve learned. Also, as a scientist I like doing things like calculating the protein density of different foods per penny… chickpeas, really good! They fill you up! In China it didn’t matter; I was eating for thirty cents anyway!”

That bike trip I took in Taiwan, it took months before I did that because I kept making excuses. And yet you just put it out there, you do the work, and before you know it you’ve done it.

People think they need to be experts before they start [traveling]. They don’t. You’ll get in a few shitty situations, sure, but you’ll live and you’ll learn from it.

It’s mostly mental. When people come up with the excuses, you can shoot them down.

“I’m broke as hell.”

“I have no money.”

But you find a way. If it’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way. You don’t need to know how it’s going to work out before you start; that’s part of the fun.

What enabled you?

China

There’s not a very clean cut answer to that, really. When I was writing my thesis, I knew I wanted to take a break from academia. A Philippino friend of mine invited me to Philippines to do a SCUBA tour and hang with him. Long story short, he flaked out on it. So I just went to China on my own and planned to meet him in the Philippines, but that never happened. The trip just kept on getting longer and longer because I was enjoying myself. It was an external fluke. Someone invited me, and I thought it sounded like an awesome option, so I jumped at it.

 I didn’t want to get stuck in this rat race where I was just working to live, living to work. I actually saved money by going to China.

It was also a good point for a break. I was getting out of uni, I had no assets, I didn’t have a job or responsibilities, so it was the perfect time to sell my car and stuff and take off. A lot of people that I’ve met, when they started traveling, that’s how they started. They were made redundant in some way and just took off to travel, got addicted, and went on with it.

A lot of people reach a point in their lives where they need something new. It’s a great time to start traveling; when things didn’t go as planned and you need a break. Another thing that really helped was the economics of staying at home. I know a lot of brilliant people with college degrees, they sent out 100 applications and got one interview for selling ice cream or working the night shift at a hotel, shit work doing awful jobs. It’s a bad climate for going into the work force and a bad climate for doing my PhD, as funding is being cut for the NSA & related organizations. I didn’t want to get stuck in this rat race where I was just working to live, living to work. I actually saved money by going to China; I was living for about five dollars a day.

What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?

Map

Planning. I started following travel blogs before I left to try to figure out how it worked. It was really alien to me because as a scientist you plan everything. I was plan oriented. One common motif in all of these blogs is that you shouldn’t over plan things. You could have an idea, but if you have a rigid plan and you stick to it, you’ll miss opportunities because you’re gung-ho about the plan. They say that if you’re in a place, and you’re happy you should stay there and savor that place, that you’ll know when you’re done and ready to move on, and that’s true.

You could have an idea, but if you have a rigid plan and you stick to it, you’ll miss opportunities because you’re gung-ho about the plan.

I’ve learned to kind of go with the flow. I’ve learned to follow the connections that I make. That’s why I’ve renamed my blog to Brownian Travel… it’s a science joke… travel is like brownian movement, you know? How particles travel in fluid and bounce around randomly. My travel is like that, I get bounced around in life depending on how molecules move me in the world. That’s a huge thing to get over though, that need to know where you’re going, who you’re meeting, and what you’re doing.

Do you want to travel the world? Lost on where to start? Sign up today for Plan Your RTW Trip in 30 Days and start receiving email lesson plans tomorrow – it’s free!
Plan Your RTW Trip in 30 Days

Who did you meet on the road who changed your life? Tell us about that.

Oooh, good question! The first thing that came into my mind is pretty recent. I was traveling and living in a bus with a guy from Berlin who was an improv comedian. He was really spontaneous, very funny, witty, and off the cuff. He always dove in head first, and we got into all of these crazy situations. It was a lot of fun being around him, but there was this aspect of being an actor and having all of these different characters and hats.

It made me think of the Shakespearean quote “We’re all actors on a stage,” and it made me believe that. We all have these hats that we wear in different situations, and it made me realize that it’s cool to explore those hats and try them on and off and explore who we are. It was so much fun and was a great way to live life. I’m a very not spontaneous person, at least compared to him, and it really taught me to carpe diem - seize the day.

We all have these hats that we wear in different situations, and it made me realize that it’s cool to explore those hats and try them on and off and explore who we are.

He was really good at seeing opportunities. There are all these moments in life when a door opens and there’s a moment and I’d let it pass, think it was cool, but let it go. He didn’t do that. He would make shit happen. He was a facilitator of good things and would seize those moments. I thought that was really cool. When you meet these people, it’s really good I think, to emulate them and to take the steps towards growing more like them.

It gave me an existential crisis at first: “Wow, if I’m an actor and I have all these personas, then who is the real me? Do I have a real character? What am I?” I’m over it now though.

We both laughed, and we were still smiling when I asked the last question.

What are your plans moving forward?

Antarctica

There is just so much to do and not enough lifetime to do it. I kind of want to travel everywhere, so that’s a difficulty. I want to be everywhere at once and that’s not happening. I’ve always wanted to go to Antarctica, since I started watching too much David Attenbourough. I’ve had too many plans really. I want to go to Indonesia, South America, and hitch home, I want to do an American roadtrip. There are too many things I want to do, so I’m very split and not too commital about them. I also have different things tugging at me. I really want to get my PhD; I knew I was in trouble when I started pleasure reading journal articles. I really miss using my brain, and I think I have a good idea of how to reconcile my two passions, doing science and traveling. I have a plan. Getting my PhD is definitely on the radar.

To read more inspirational articles and interview with travelers, check out the following:

manifesto - options over possessions

Photo credits: tm-tm, US Air Force, William Cho, fortherock, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.





Leave a Comment