Such thoughts were too ambitious for a Malaysian girl possessed with fervent wanderlust. I didn’t have the luxury of knowledge nor enough funds to pool together. I’d just turned 23 years old and barely had $400USD to my name. I was spending most of my waking hours slaving away, writing advertorials and lifestyle articles at a small local magazine.
However, I had a taste of freedom after doing a 2-month volunteering stint in Myanmar, and I wanted more. Two months spent in a remote Burmese village, teaching and playing with local kids, had gone by fast, but so did my meager savings. Upon returning home, my conservative Malaysian Chinese Dad had asked me to be just like every other girl out there.
“Why can’t you just be normal and get a permanent job after graduation? Do you think money grow on trees?”
He’d treated my travels as projected confusion: that I was lost. He’d thought I was merely distracting myself and avoiding adulthood through my travels. He’d thought the Caucasian backpackers that I’d met during my trip to Myanmar had given me the wrong ideas.
In 2006, independent travel blogs were but a few, and even rarer were travel blogs written by Malaysians. I had trawled and scoured endlessly for Malaysian backpackers who could give me advice and hope, but found none. Every other website or guidebook that cluttered the bookstores’ shelves out there were catered for travelers from developed countries. A recommended shoestring budget was about $30USD a day, but I couldn’t even afford that.
Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding book had me convinced to travel the world on my own terms, but how the hell do I become a vagabond with a Malaysian passport and little cash? Potts did dedicate the second chapter of his book to “Earn Your Freedom,” but ironically, I couldn’t even afford his amazing book and had resorted to reading it at the bookstore till my calf muscles ached.
My present life now is a far cry from the one I had left from, in 2006.
I have since then, gone through 3 backpacks, 2 passports, 67 countries, and have lived on more than 3 continents.
How did my wanderlust diaries start then?
I had used CouchSurfing to stay mostly for free around the world. While not paying for accommodations was nice, the bigger secret to Couchsurfing is the people I met and the lessons they taught me.
Meeting Steve had changed my life.
CouchSurfing.org, at the time I first started using it, was still a niche website where only a gnarly few embraced its unconventional philosophy: a traveler could host another traveler or be hosted, meet a passing traveler for a drink, or find travel buddies through the website, without money involved and with a dab of risk. In Malaysia, there were less than 300 members. Undaunted, I’d signed up for the website. If I couldn’t go out there to see the world, I could at least have the world come to me.
That one seemingly insignificant step prompted the cogwheels to spin even more furiously, locking the dreams and circumstances into place. Travelers I’d met through the website—like the Italian motorcyclist who was riding around the world overland, the other American social worker who taught in Japan, the mad Malay guy who roamed around Europe with no money, the fearless German girl, the gigantic but Buddha-like Dutch wanderer—streamed into my life and gave me a crash course in life as a vagabond.
Cue Steve, the American English Teacher who has been roaming the world, teaching English for the past seven years with no intention of stopping.
“Pack your bags and leave,” Steve said. “It’s just that easy.” The American English Teacher, who I met via the CouchSurfing website about a week ago, was daring me to leave.
It was a humid night in Kuala Lumpur, but the sweltering heat didn’t bother us. Instead, we were both slowly devouring our soft-serve cones in a McDonalds somewhere in Chinatown while discussing travel. The evening had started off with us discussing Steve’s upcoming travel plans, but somehow, the conversation took another turn. The What if? questions started, and without knowing it, we fell into the dangerous trench where we debated about the possibility of me traveling around the world–like him.
“You think it’s that easy for a Malaysian? Going against my dad is one thing, but this—this is pure madness,” I retorted.
“You’ve always been a crazy, little one,” he said. “Besides, what is there to lose? You’d only lose if you sit on your ass here and whine. Injustice and restrictions, that’s just in your head.”
Steve was different from the other CouchSurfers I had met. Instead of simply entertaining me with tales of misadventures or allowing me to understand their cultural backgrounds better, Steve taught me how to travel. Perhaps he saw the potential of a wanderer and an aspiring English teacher in me – something I couldn’t have seen on my own. Or he saw me as another kindred spirit with different life circumstances. He must have thought that given the right guidance, I could take little steps to realizing my dreams.
The following weeks after that conversation at McDonalds, he started to open my eyes up to the possibility of long-term travel. Our initial banter about far-flung places and exotic cultures evolved into step-by-step guidelines to become a wanderer, and who knows, perhaps an English teacher, too. He would not hear of my excuses and my justifications of being unable to travel and teach English just because I’m a Malaysian.
“Oh, so you think the Koreans or Japanese would want to hire a Malaysian English teacher over an American?” I’d challenged.
“You speak far clearer and better English than most native speakers I’ve met on the road,” Steve said. “And if you don’t try, you’ll never know. Let them reject you but don’t you start rejecting yourself first.”
He would waive away my financial concerns and my need to control the future outcomes. Each time I got all freaked out about ways to support myself while traveling, he would challenge me to get creative. To him, the road rewards the resourceful. How you turn obstacles into potential lessons in life and survival skills is part and parcel of traveling.
Even after he’d left Kuala Lumpur, emails continued to fly back and forth between us. Like a true guru, he continued to coach me from afar. He’d email me articles to read, games to play in a classroom, lesson plans, and answer all the questions that I had.
Beyond just soothing my doubts and answering my incessant questions, he held me accountable to my dreams. Dreams have an expiration date – if you keep putting them off, they will grow stale. There was no turning back. The only way I could go was forward – to take that leap of faith and thrust myself out into the world. There was only one door to open, and once I turned the knob, more possibilities loomed ahead. I quit my job and bought a one-way train ticket from Butterworth to Bangkok.
I made my way slowly across South East Asia, taking in cities and countries, one at a time. I traveled mindfully and frugally. The only thing I had was time, and it was a genuine asset. There were no expectations of my time on the road; I only wanted to see how far I could go, so I took one step and then another. Each step I took revealed a different lesson, and each obstacle conquered became a private triumph.
Steve continuously supplied me with useful contacts and potential job opportunities. I applied for a few, got rejected for some, was considered for one or two. There was even that amazing opportunity to teach English on Costa Cruise Ships, to a multinational crew. It was that one golden ticket which I thought I had within grasp, only to be rejected a week later I’d applied.
Thankfully, I was no quitter, and Steve wasn’t either. His cheerleading efforts didn’t wane. What is one rejection in comparison to the hundreds of possibilities out there?
It wasn’t until I got to Amsterdam that I was suddenly confronted with a very real reality that I could be broke in a few weeks. 8 months had passed, and I was seeking refuge at a friend’s who I met earlier during my travels. Road exhaustion had also started to take its toll. I knew that I had to find a way to make money or I would be forced to go home.
It was then that a serendipitous moment occurred.
Just when I was about to cave in and pull myself out of the game, the recruiter for Costa Cruise Company asked if I was still interested in the position. If I could make my way down to Genova, Italy for an interview, I’d be considered for the teaching position. This time, they needed me urgently because apart from English, I could also communicate in Mandarin and Cantonese. It seemed like the Chinese crew members onboard spoke almost no English or Italian, making it hard for the management to instruct or guide.
I said yes, and I was hired on the spot.
None of these would have happened if I’d believed in my own excuses. None of these would have even remotely seemed possible if Steve didn’t point out these ‘obstacles’ and ‘problems’ were only in my head.
There were times when other native speakers were given priority for English Teaching Jobs, but by putting more effort and being more open, my chances were just as good as anyone else’s. It didn’t occur to me that if I’d truly wanted to compare, my Malaysian passport had allowed more international travel than a Thai’s or Cambodian’s.
My most important lesson here, learned on the road and reinforced by Steve, is that no dream is too big or too impossible to achieve if you truly open up yourself to the possibilities. Yes, it can be inconvenient. Yes, it can be a big hassle. But nothing will come out of judging, lamenting, and complaining.
If you could start owning dreams, hold yourself accountable to making it happen instead of waiting for something to drop on your lap, then by sheer tenacity and the way universal energy works, it will happen. And if all you need is just that gentle nudge and that little spark to fuel your courage, then seek out a friend who’s on the same path or someone who is already two steps ahead. Such a friend or mentor will empathize and guide you when you’re faced with an ordeal but will never let you back out of the journey that you had to take.
If you find yourself a friend or a community of like-minded people – just like how I found Steve and other CouchSurfers – then you’ve already taken that first step into making that grand adventure happen.
To read more from or about author Ying Tey, check out her author bio page.
Read more stories about how people have made their travel dreams come true:
- When You Fall Down, Keep on Walking
- Trading Divorce for Travel
- Read Jobs Are Overrated
- Escape the Rat Race
- Giving Up Everything Gave Me the World
- Challenge Yourself and Do Hard Things
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.