Written by: Xinen Chua
Growing up, I was just another Singaporean kid. Somewhere in between taking too many extracurricular classes and trying to stay ahead of the grading curve — there I was; relatively independent, slightly too headstrong for my own good at times, yet nothing too crazy (because you know, Singapore.)
Till I decided, 4 years into my professional career, that I was leaving our sunny shores to travel the world solo, for a year.
12 months. 365 days.
My first solo trip abroad
Back in 2012, I had a period of 5 weeks in between jobs. It was too last minute to get any of my friends to come along yet I didn’t want to let that precious time go to waste — I booked a flight that was on sale to Sydney, Australia.
What I didn’t know at that time — due to my lack of planning and trip preparation — I would be staying right in the heart of the city’s red light district, King’s Cross. The rest of my trip would be considered history but little did I know years later, I would constantly look back fondly on those three days I spent in the heart of Sydney’s King’s Cross.
With the first taste of solo travel lingering on even as I was back within the glass walled offices of the financial district, I was hooked. Like a junkie, I could not get enough of the world out there, nor could anyone understand my fervent addiction.
Three weeks a year wasn’t enough, I wanted more.
Saving money for my great escape
There was one problem. I neither had the time nor capital to just skip town on a whim. I was not a terrific planner but I knew I had to have a game plan for this great escape. Mainly, how to save enough money to sustain my crazy year abroad and how to convince my nearest and dearest they would not be seeing this beautiful mug for the next 12 months.
Long days in the office often left me drained and mopey but I could always comfort myself with whimsical images from Pinterest of my South American dreams.
Oh, the mountains I would climb and the cafés I would become a regular at. The hazy beach parties that would not be cut short at the thought of a 6am morning alarm. But long days also meant I did not have the time or energy to spend my hard earned dollar on material wants which translated into a healthy bank account over time. I squirrelled away little by little, trusting that instinct and circumstance would tell me when the right time was to bite the bullet.
Looking back, saving money was the easy part of this great escape.
Making the announcement
This was the hardest part, breaking the news to your inner circle and convincing them you will be okay on this millennial exploratory mission of sorts. Friends and colleagues-turned-friends were the easiest to get on board my ship. Some, excitedly encouraging, others wistfully dreaming of the same adventures. Then there were those who judged and commented from afar and told me I was taking my sweet life for granted. They could be right, but I didn’t need their approval nor explain myself to these so called acquaintances.
Family was slightly tougher. While I’ve always floated the idea of travelling for a year around dinner conversations and car rides, nobody actually took me seriously.
“Yes dear, in future when you have enough money and a stable career, you can think about it.” They said.
With no immediate plans to bail on that job which was enabling my travel fund, I left it as that. Till one evening in 2015, riding in the back of a cab at 9pm clutching a box of Japanese take away, which sadly was the only thing I had been looking forward to southwards of lunch. It was a moment of deja-vu, finding myself in this situation one too many times.
Cruising on the ECP homeward bound is such a beautiful ride, but one that will unfortunately always remind me of my 12 hour days in the office.
Setting a departure date
Being unapologetically Asian, living with my parents, they could see that I was visibly unhappy and stressed with the lack of a work-life-sleep balance. I don’t think it came as a rude shock when one exceptionally perfect weekend morning, I brought up the idea of travelling for a year again and put a date to it.
02 September 2015.
Preparing to field the questions
They knew I was serious this time, but they weren’t convinced I was going to be okay on my own for a year. There were so many questions.
What if I got lost?
What if I was raped or mugged?
What if I ran into any sort of trouble?
Pretty much all the what-ifs you can think of were thrown at me in rapid fire. I calmly referenced all my other solo trips around South East Asia which I had preciously carved out of my annual leave and stated this was merely an extension of that. Unfortunately, they were still indignantly unconvinced and by this time worrying up a dust storm as all parents would.
A girl? Travelling by herself? To South America?
That was the trifecta of danger according to the media, internet and other collective consensus.
But I was a woman on a mission.
My first, to assure the parents I would make it back to our sunny shores in one piece and not pieces. From starting a travel blog to log my adventures and whereabouts, to getting the bible of South America – Lonely Planet’s South America on a shoestring, to assuring and reassuring I would be in contact at all times over Whatsapp. I could not be more thankful of the technology we have in this day and age.
Travelling with a goal in mind
The second was to prove to my very own Asian/Singaporean community that I proudly represent while traversing countries, that long term solo female travel was possible. If to travel was your dream, you could definitely do it! I was wholly sick and tired of people telling me the multitude of dangers of being a woman alone overseas. Or why I was selfish being away from home for such a long time. Or even why I should be advancing my career and making babies instead of travelling! There wasn’t really anyone to look up to with respect to solo female travel within Singapore, or long term travel for that matter. So I figured it was time I paved my own way.
By the end of it all, it was abundantly clear that I was about to go on this trip of a lifetime. While my parents did eventually get on board, I wouldn’t say I was happy with the status of ‘reluctant permission and acceptance’ but it was better than none at all. I had expected that battle and I had won (kind of).
The unexpected inner struggle
What I did not expect, was the inner struggle I was about to face. I was my toughest critic, my worst enemy.
Although I have always been determined, independent and sure-footed, my inner demons definitely came out to party and were in fact excelling at their job of playing devil’s advocate.
The days after solidifying and announcing my decision to travel the world for a year seemed like a blur. In between handing in my official notice at work and telling people “yes it is true I am leaving without a job to travel”, I yo-yoed between moments of almost tangible clarity and downright chaos. Looking back, I would say the hardest part of travelling alone was in fact convincing myself that I was actually capable of this journey and the immense inertia it took to leave the comforts of home.
Not a single day went by without my inward questioning, “Is this what you really want?”, “What if you fail?”, “What if you hate that travel life?”.
What made it worse was that I could not relay these worries to my friends or family because it was my grave that I have dug, figuratively. I knew by heart the simple answer that would be their choral reply.
“Don’t go, just take a short holiday and come back – simple.”
The journey is challenging, but it is worth it
Nobody was going to assure me my safety or my ability in carrying a 14kg backpack all over South America. That was all on me, and rightfully so. All I could do was be as ready as I possibly could. Reading up on the countries I would go and the “dangerous places” to avoid. Not forgetting the constant remind to myself that I have done this before, multiple times in fact. Always returning home wanting more every single time.
I don’t think the worrying or second guesses ever stopped, but my reflexes to quash those uncertainties have become lighting fast. With that comes the quiet certainty and confidence that this was what I desired for so long. Standing at the gates of Changi International Airport, I am not going to say I even managed to fully convince myself of the certainty of my endeavours. I merely took the first step out of my comfort zone, believing in my own resilience and resourcefulness, hoping it would one day inspire another to have the courage do the same.
It has been the ride of my life (still is today), and it wasn’t till 8 months later that I set foot in my intended continent of South America, but that’s a whole other story. 17 months on, I am currently writing this from Tanzania, Africa and have come to accept that this year abroad has indeed taken on a life of its own. It’s also crazy to say that all this stemmed from mere self-belief, slight stubbornness a wee bit of preparation.
What happens to the worrying, you ask?
Oh my dear, the worrying doesn’t ever leave you. It just pops in occasionally like a good neighbour to keep you on your twinkly toes, your head in check and your resourcefulness on point.
Left behind a hedge fund job in 2015 for an adventure of a lifetime. Globetrotting writer, inspiring solo female travellers worldwide and a proudly educating people about Singapore everywhere she goes! Also unable to refuse nutella, allegedly. She can be found at www.koalatravelstheworld.com with more travel tales and fails.