Travel doesn’t mean a resort, or going thousands of miles away. It is the willingness to go to someplace and listen, engage and interact. — Dominique
Travel is an incredible source of inspiration for Dominique, a 29-year-0ld African American woman who grew up in California and Hawaii. From a very young age, travel has been an exciting experience for Dominique, whose latest adventure was a solo exploration of Southeast Asia. Dominique’s love of travel is actually her love of learning — about people, their culture, triumphs, values, and delights. She has taken time to share her travel insight and experience while backpacking through Southeast Asia.
I remember being super excited to fly my first solo plane trip when I was four or five years old. This was back when flights offered full meals and toys to children, and that trip is one of my most memorable ones. So much has changed with travel since that first amazing trip, but my love for travel has only grown stronger.
Before I share the details of any of my travel experiences, I want to acknowledge that travel has been a privilege for me; it’s a privilege that has evolved from my priorities. I made the personal decision to go into planned debt, because I know I will work hard for the rest of my life. I don’t want to have any regrets about not doing what my spirit was called to do. Some people at my age own homes, have families and have great assets. I hope for those things one day but for now, rich life experiences have granted me so much joy and happiness that I wouldn’t take back the debt for anything.
Having sufficient time has also made it possible for me to travel. I was a grad student last year and hadn’t worked in a year. Time was an immense privilege for me, and combined with Visa, MasterCard and Sallie Mae loans, I was able to finance my trips while I was in school. I recognize not everyone who wants to travel has access to credit, so one way to travel is to be a tourist in your own city! See what the tourists see, take a Greyhound to the next city over.
Solo, Low-Budget Travel Basics
Packing is a travel basic, and over time I’ve learned how to pack for a solo, low-budget trip. I always travel with my backpack, which includes a small, nylon bag to use during the daytime. In that bag I pack hand sanitizer, a map, pen and a notebook, my phone or camera (or both), cash, directions back to my hostel in the local language (written by hostel staff) and tissue (not every place has toilet tissue). I can’t travel without three things: locks for my backpack, quick-dry clothing (I often have to wash clothes in the sink while on a backpacking trip) and moisturizer for my face (I spend a lot of time in the sun and it gets dry from the exposure). One thing I wish I could travel without is hair product!
I manage pretty well on a low budget. I’ve been staying at hostels most of the time, with a break at a budget hotel every few nights to get a good night’s sleep and to wash my clothes. I choose to hop around to different hostels in order to get a better feel for the cities I’m staying in. I “splurged” a couple of nights and stayed at hotels that cost $23-$25 USD per night.
One thing I love about travel is that there really is no “typical” day.
Traveling alone does have its challenges. Sleeping in large, dorm room style hostels with random men and women gives me anxiety at times, but I remind myself to chill out. Sometimes it would be nice to reflect or share with a friend, so I often capture a memory by quickly typing a message that I can send off to friends later. I also write a lot when I’m alone, it helps me to process.
I usually love to do what the locals do when I’m in their city. On shorter trips with limited time, I look up suggested tours on Trip Advisor and typically hire a driver to do my own thing. I’ll do research to give myself context beforehand, but I like to do temples and things like that alone so that I can pray. A new thing for me is cooking classes! Food is central to my life and by taking cooking classes, I’ve learned a lot about why and how ingredients are used, and that’s helped me to understand local culture.
In honor of any culture, my advice is to always bring something “nice” to wear when you travel. This seems simple and perhaps vain, but respectability politics is real. I’ve learned the value of a nice scarf and lipstick and how it can transform a look. I’ve also been treated better by locals in most countries when my shoulders are covered. I try to be mindful of the space I’m in and dress as the locals dress, and that has meant making an effort to look presentable.
Travel Mishaps — A Valuable Reminder
Perhaps the best example of this is a time I was traveling from Tokyo to visit friends in Sendai. I was running late to catch my bus when I realized my destination was pretty far away, so I decided to take a cab instead of the train. My gentle ojiisan (like a “grandpa”) driver, who didn’t speak English, was lost and confused and didn’t know how to get to the bus depot any better than I did. After stopping to ask for directions, we finally found the bus parking lot just four minutes before its departure time (and he charged me $105 USD for a 29-minute cab ride!).
There was no through gate, so I had to throw my 50-pound suitcase over an 8-foot gate, along with my laptop bag, purse, scarf and myself. By the time I had done all of this, I ran for the bus only to have it take off! I didn’t accept no for an answer. I ran out into oncoming traffic and hit the windows of the bus to get on. They said no. I hit the bus again, this time they crossed their arms over their chests and shook their heads. I stood on the corner for 5 minutes weeping then decided to turn around and ask the station for the schedule. The man yelled at me, didn’t speak English and locked all of the gates, with me inside. So I sat on the concrete crying with a dying phone, no wi-fi, no food, too few clothes on for the winter and no cash. A man appeared out of nowhere and offered to get me a hotel for the night and pay for my train ticket. He had been driving when he saw me run into traffic and his girlfriend told him to come help. He gave me 10,000 yen and spent $500 USD on a spacious hotel room. I hugged him and he awkwardly shook my hand. He didn’t want anything and didn’t speak much English.
An awful situation turned into something so surreal I don’t even know how to process it. And as far as returning to a place, I’ll always go back if I can! One bad experience doesn’t represent an entire country or population.
The Highlights of Southeast Asia
There’s a lot of beauty in Thailand — beautiful water, islands, elephants, temples and more — but the food is just divine! Bangkok street food is far superior to any Thai food I’ve ever had in the U.S. and it costs pennies in comparison. I also took a really fun cooking class where I learned Thai basics and staples. My heart, belly and pocket were happy. If you visit Thailand, you must see Big Buddha (Phuket), and the clear water of the Phi Phi Islands.
I loved the people of Cambodia! When I got on my first motorbike there, the driver said, “You black like us except different hair.” We laughed and laughed and I never stopped laughing until I started crying. The extreme poverty due to the after-effects of the war greatly impacted me. I appreciated learning directly from the men and women who went through war, and I did so at places like the war museum and by engaging in conversation with whoever spoke English. One woman, a masseuse, struggled for a year to buy her son new school shoes. It felt crazy for me to think about the significance of $10. I gave it to her and we cried together. I had many experiences like that in Cambodia. Here you must visit the temples because they’re awe inspiring. Also try the seafood amok, a very delicious Cambodian curry dish!
On my last day in Da Nang, Vietnam, I hired a driver to take me to Marble Mountain and Lady Buddha. While there I met Thum, an 80-90 something year-old woman whose hustle was selling incense to tourists for prayers at the temple. I bought a couple of packs for $1 USD each and gave her a pack to pray with me. I speak zero Vietnamese and she spoke zero English but in that moment, my small act of kindness towards her established trust and a relationship that didn’t need words. We prayed together, then she proceeded to help me climb through the nooks and crannies of the caves! She knew the area well and I had to have complete trust that she wasn’t leading me somewhere to be kidnapped. I never felt bad vibes from her; I only felt immense gratitude for her kindness and fun spirit.
In Vietnam, I traveled south to north (from Ho Chi Minh, through Da Nang, and up to Hanoi). My favorite things were the women’s museum and outdoor markets in Hanoi and Lady Buddha in Da Nang. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels, XO bike tour (a motorcycle tour with female guides) and AO show (about Vietnamese culture) were great!
Even though I’ve traveled a lot, I still experience culture shock. In Vietnam, a young girl came up to me and rubbed my arm. Initially, I thought there may have been a bug on me or something, but she was rubbing to see if my skin was dirty! I laughed it off and thought about it for hours later. Many people who are have lighter skin in Vietnam avoid the sun with sun masks, hats and jackets, and by working indoors. Those who work as street vendors and in the rice fields don’t have that option.
Culture shock can invite challenges of faith and will, which I recently experienced here while I was on Phi Phi Island in Thailand. I was attempting to see the sunrise at Koh Phi Phi Viewpoint. It was an intense solo adventure getting up a mountain, including a 4:30 am solo hike through a pitch black forest. Forty minutes into my hike, covered in sweat and mosquito bites, lost, bewildered and on the verge of having a traveler’s diarrhea accident, I happened upon a dark figure in the road that moved its head. I sat still for five minutes because I had no escape plan. I’m not spartan-like, and so I couldn’t scale a tree or sprint, and I couldn’t see because it was dark. My heart was beating and there was nowhere to hide. I slowly backed down the hill even though I was so close to seeing the sunrise on the viewpoint. I told God and Buddha that I really wanted to see it, and they provided a small man on a motorbike who accepted my extremely generous donation to take me back up the hill. As we whizzed past the figure I saw it was a harmless GOAT!
Going There to “Be” There
I am so full of adventures and stories, but what I appreciate most about travel is that it has cultivated in me a deep empathy and compassion for others. Each place I go, I love being quiet and simply listening, watching and being present somewhere. I try to learn about who colonized the country, war and how the people resisted, how they worship, how they party, how they eat and their cultural norms. Experiencing people in these ways is a reminder of my immense privilege. So many times I’ve heard people say, “You’re so lucky to be American.” I often align so closely with my black American identity that I put the “American” part to the side — and even that’s a privilege. But underneath it all is my passion for people and for discovery, and I believe that travel has made me a more cultured, knowledgeable and understanding person.