I walk onto the jet bridge with an overwhelming feeling of defeat. It is the lowest I’ve felt in over a year, even in a year of particularly low lows: rejections from dream colleges, a bitter presidential election, permanent separations from friends from childhood and adolescence.
The scene—boarding a flight home after ten days in Colombia—is not supposed to be especially happy. Endings are never easy, and Medellín Airport at 1 a.m. is also not particularly uplifting. But I had imagined that any sadness would be of the nostalgic kind: longing for just a few more days of traveling and exploring, of leaving behind normal life. And even that, I had imagined, would be outweighed by many more positive sentiments: fulfillment, pride, confidence, growth. Such feelings are, after all, what we associate with travel, with seeing and experiencing the diverse parts of our world.
But walking onto the jet bridge, I only feel defeat, emptiness, disappointment. It is not supposed to end like this.
* * *
I don’t remember how I thought it was supposed to end, or if I ever even supposed that there would be an end. But I do remember that this story—this story that would end up spanning eleven months, ten countries, and just short of ninety thousand miles—began innocently, just like every other story with an utterly tragic ending. Its beginnings were so innocent, in fact, that they would never seem to foreshadow that things would end the way they did—with me on the brink of entering a lingering depression, thousands of miles away from home.
It began something like this.
In mid-August of 2015, just over a year and a half ago, I had been working in a neurology research lab for six weeks—most of my summer up to that point. Morale in the lab was low and dropping further every day; personally, each time one of my experiments failed—in other words, frequently—I would stare out the window at children playing in a nearby park and wonder why I chose to spend the summer holed up in a sterile research lab, with little to show for the time and effort I put in.
One day, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook during my lunch break, I saw a post shared by a friend about cheap flights to Amsterdam departing from our local airport. One set of dates lined up perfectly with my spring break the next year. I’m not sure what it was that spurred a sudden yearning to go to Amsterdam—perhaps my boredom with sitting in a research lab, perhaps envy that my friends and even my co-workers were instead taking exotic trips out of the country, perhaps a desire to mark the beginning of adulthood with something exciting. Spring break would fall two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. But I soon had an email from American Airlines in my inbox titled “E-Ticket Confirmation.”
For the twenty-four hours after I made the booking—the grace period in which I could cancel the reservation for free—my mind was consumed with justifying the purchase. Not so much to my parents, who have always encouraged independence as well as trusted me to use my own money responsibly, but to myself: who was I to spend hundreds of dollars on a trip to Europe? What would I even do there by myself?
My family never traveled very much, I remember reasoning. Eighteen years of life, and I’ve only been to two countries outside of the U.S. My justifications, of course, were grounded in an impregnable sense of entitlement—especially for a seventeen-year-old whose family had traveled more than most American families—but I quickly came to view the trip as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world and test my independence.
* * *
Eight months later, it is March 22, 2016—three days before spring break, but also the day that three coordinated suicide bombings take place in Brussels, Belgium.
At dinner, my parents voice their concerns about my trip for the first time. They bring up the terrorist attacks but also general safety issues; I calmly refute each of their anxieties and tell them that travel in western Europe is safe, that “we can’t let the terrorists win.” But I don’t share my own concerns about the trip, which center on the inherent loneliness of traveling solo.
* * *
“¿Qué planea hacer hoy?” one of my roommates in the hostel asks me. “What are you planning on doing today?”
“No sé. Creo que voy a explorar unos barrios de la ciudad,” I respond—“I’m not sure but I’m thinking of exploring some of the city’s neighborhoods.” “He oído que—”
“¿Quieres ir conmigo al museo del Louvre?” she interrupts before I can finish my sentence, asking me if I want to visit the Louvre with her. We had only met in the room the night before, exchanged a few words in Spanish—hushed so as to not wake the others sleeping in the room—but her invitation does not surprise me. A few days ago, before I arrived in Europe, I would have outright rejected the offer: who asks someone they barely know to spend the day with them? But soon after landing in Amsterdam I discovered the friendliness with which solo travelers are treated on the road. I easily strike up conversations in restaurants and bars, while waiting in lines, and even just passing people on the street. I spend several of my days exploring Amsterdam and Paris with other travelers I meet. In Paris, I spend my nights hanging out in the hostel with a group of high schoolers from Spain, hearing and telling stories and rebuffing their (frequent) pleas for me to buy them alcohol.
This camaraderie that I experience captivates me so much that the night before I fly home, when I buy stroopwafels—syrupy Dutch cookies—for my friends and my family, I buy extra to offer to my seatmates on the flight home, with the hope of perhaps sparking a conversation or two.
* * *
Soon after returning from Europe, I look for places to visit over my school’s extended Memorial Day break. Memorial Day is less than two months away, but I desperately want to relive my time in Europe—spend long evenings talking to new friends from far-off countries and unimaginable backgrounds, walk around exploring a foreign city’s museums and neighborhoods and idiosyncrasies for hours at a time, not have to think at all about normal life back in New Jersey. The “explore map” feature on Google Flights reveals an irresistibly cheap destination to fly to over the dates of my break: Guatemala. After spending a few hours researching the country—reading enough blog posts and forum topics to fight my preconceived understandings of Central America as completely unsafe—I book flights to Guatemala City.
Safety, of course, is not my only concern—even though the flights are cheap (less than what flights to Disney World typically cost), money is still money. But I easily justify the expenditure with the excuse that I’m “making up” for not having traveled much in the past, as well as the fact that I’m paying for everything with money I’ve worked hard for.
* * *
A few weeks later, near the end of my senior year of high school, I apply to a gap year program offered by the university I plan to attend. In the words of the program itself, it is a “tuition-free program that allows a select number of incoming freshmen to engage in nine months of University-sponsored service at one of five international locations…aiming to provide participants with greater international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context.”
Two words in the long description make the program instantly appealing to me: “tuition-free” and “international.” It is, in essence, an opportunity to travel through, live in, and become a part of some distant society. My parents are skeptical of the idea, but I incessantly try to convince them of the benefits of such an experience: “I’ll become more independent and self-sufficient and able to live in less comfortable environments,” “If eight days in Europe could alter my worldview, then one year in Brazil/Bolivia/China/India/Senegal would do so much more,” and so on.
On my application essay explaining why I want to devote a year to this program, I write about such benefits, about “independence” and “leaving my comfort zone” and “gaining cultural and socioeconomic perspectives.” I devote a couple paragraphs to discussing how sheltered I’ve always been, having lived in the same place for fourteen years — or my life entire, if one makes the faultless generalization that all of suburban New Jersey is the same. I talk about a quote from Walden, spew some bullshit about how this program will give me the same opportunity that Thoreau had at Walden Pond and look how nice that turned out.
* * *
I experience my first major travel screwup on the way to Guatemala.
In Mexico City, I find out that my connecting flight has been delayed, with its new arrival time into Guatemala City too late for me to catch any shuttles from the airport to my destination, Antigua, a town around an hour away. I decide to try and find someone on my flight who would share a taxi to Antigua; taking a taxi by myself would be unsafe, and staying overnight at the airport Crowne Plaza would be prohibitively expensive. I can speak decent Spanish, I reassure myself, so finding someone won’t be very difficult.
Thirty minutes before our new boarding time, I begin asking seated passengers if they would be willing to share a taxi to Antigua, but failed to find a single person even headed to Guatemala. It turns out that flights to Tijuana, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Guadalajara—and probably five other Aeroméxico destinations—are all boarding from the same bus gate in the next half hour. Nobody knows if it is their flight that’s boarding, so everyone just swarms the gate agent each time they hear an announcement.
It finally comes time for my flight to board, but I still have not found anyone heading to Antigua, much less someone willing to share a taxi. As I join the blob of people trying to get their boarding passes scanned, I realize that I now only have two options: either be stranded in a dangerous Central American city alone in the middle of the night, or absolutely embarrass myself now. I choose the latter, and begin screaming over the crowd: “¿Hay alguien que va a Antigua? ¡Antigua! ¡Antigua!”—“Is there anyone going to Antigua? Antigua! Antigua!”
I continue yelling for a few minutes, while the gate agent gives me dirtier and dirtier looks (I feel sorry for him, but I care more about not having to sleep on the sidewalk outside of Guatemala City Airport). Eventually, a lady makes her way over from the jet bridge with another woman in tow. I explain my situation—give her the sob story I have not yet had the chance to share—and she quickly tells me that the other lady, Betty, is from Antigua and would be happy to accompany me, and that I need not have any safety concerns because Betty is a lawyer and an important figure in the community. Relief sets in; I try to memorize Betty’s face as the crowd tears us apart.
A few hours later, at Guatemala City Airport, Betty and I meet just after customs. We exit the airport together; I give her a curious look when we pass the two or three waiting taxis. She points at a car nearby and tells me that her family drove here to pick her up. A girl slightly younger than me jumps out of the car with a dog in her arms; Betty introduces her to me as her daughter Andrea. Andrea warmly welcomes me to Guatemala and we shake hands; from her friendliness, it seems as if she thinks nothing of letting a possibly murderous stranger into her family’s car.
* * *
On a van journey leaving Antigua a few days later, an expatriate seated next to me introduces himself by bragging that it is his first time on a tourist shuttle, that before this he had entirely relied on chicken buses—converted American school buses used by the locals, with few comforts and even fewer safety standards. I ask him how long he has lived in the country, what brought him to Guatemala.
“I was doing some volunteering around here—I used to be a doctor in the States. Was only supposed to stay three or four days. It’s been four years. Just fell in love with the place. Gave up the practice back home and all. I’ve been telling everyone that I’ll spend the rest of my life here,” he explains. I tell him that I can’t imagine ever doing that, can’t imagine ever planning for a few days somewhere but staying for four years. Secretly, I wonder if I will ever be able to find a place like that.
Later, as we drive through the countryside, he begins to name and describe several of the small towns that we pass. I ask him how he knows about so many places in the middle of nowhere.
“I’ve come out to each of these towns a couple of times,” he replies.
“How does that work? Where do you even stay?”
“There’s no Airbnb out here, and probably not any place you’d call a hotel. But I just start looking around on the street, and there’s always been places to stay.”
“You’re not scared of staying at random places on the street? What if you get robbed? Bitten by bedbugs?”
“You just gotta be careful,” he says, laughing. “It’s a different way to travel, but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll feel pretty confident about it. It takes experience, that’s all.” I smile and nod along to what he says, even though I strongly doubt that I will ever be confident enough to travel like that.
After a few hours, we arrive at a small urban center called Sololá. The city brings on an uneasy sensation within me: incandescent orange streetlights warmly illuminate the avenues, children play near the main square, and people stroll around the streets eating and talking and laughing, but I feel an endless disconnect between the inside of the van and the city outside, an irreconcilable unfamiliarity between the foreigners passing through and the locals enjoying the night.
“It almost feels supernatural,” I say to the expat. “It looks like such a warm and lively place, but I feel like a complete outsider.”
“It’s a special place,” he answers. “Takes a while to get used to.”
“You’ve been here too?” I ask. The more he says, the more I envy him—envy his opportunity to have visited and experienced places off the beaten path, envy his ability to have shed his standing as an outsider and integrated himself into a new society.
“This is where I live,” he says, before quickly exiting into the dark and unfamiliar.
* * *
On board my flight back from Guatemala, a lady passing by in the aisle smiles at me and says “¡Hola! Good to see you again!” I rack my brain trying to think of how I know her before realizing that she was the one in Mexico City who had introduced me to her friend—and my savior—Betty. Before my mind can process the serendipity of this encounter, before I realize that our meeting once more can only be the work of divine providence, she is already several rows back.
I wait for her after landing to thank her once again, and we begin talking while waiting in line for passport control. She asks me about my travels, my family, my schooling, and tells me about her own life. Eventually the topic circles back to Betty; I ask how they know each other.
“Oh, we just met in Mexico City, in the airport,” she replies. “Truly kind woman, wasn’t she? And did you know that her son passed away a few weeks ago, too, not long before we all met each other? In a motorcycle crash. Extremely tragic.” My heart skips a beat the moment I hear this; my thoughts gravitate to how Betty could have possibly agreed to take a stranger into her car just days after the death of a child, likely with nothing on her mind but loss. I commit this episode to my memory as an instance of genuine, unconditional kindness that I will never forget—an experience to recount whenever I’m asked what travel has taught me about the world.
* * *
I find out soon after getting back that I am not accepted to the gap year program. The news saddens me more than any of the college rejections I received, likely because of how much value I’ve come to put on exploring the world.
I’m not ready for college, I think to myself. One year in India or Brazil or China—or anywhere really—would have done so much for me. My mind drifts to all of the opportunities I will miss out on, all of the benefits of the program that I had mentioned in my application: independence, perspective, adaptiveness, growth.
A line in the rejection email advises me to promptly reach out to one of my university’s deans if I plan to take a gap year by myself. I briefly think about the possibility but realize that it will never be more than a pipe dream: it’d be extremely expensive, and my parents would never support it anyway.
In the shower that night, I decide that I will take a sort of “gap year” anyway—by myself, and without putting off college for a year—by traveling during times off from college. After I dry off, I begin researching flights and destinations. Within a few days, I have confirmations in my email inbox for trips to Thailand and Vietnam over the first two breaks of freshman year.
* * *
I first began to develop doubts about travel—began to question the unqualified enthusiasm with which I had applied to the gap year program—during a twenty-hour overnight train ride in China, which I visit the summer before starting college. My most vivid memories of Chinese sleeper trains from past visits to the country, five and nine years prior, involved train cars filled with overactive children and ill-mannered nong min (literally “farmer” or “peasant,” but by and large how we refer to unpolished lower- or middle-class folk more generally). In those memories, there was always obnoxiously loud conversation, children running and jumping everywhere, the pervasive odor of hot and sour instant noodles, the shells of sunflower seeds spat onto chairs and tables and even the floor.
At the start of this more recent train ride, however, I could tell that circumstances had changed. The shrink-wrapped bowls of ramen and plastic pouches of sunflower seeds were still there, but the atmosphere was less jovial and less hearty, less communal and more private. The children who used to eagerly approach strangers in the train car were now glued to mobile phones; waving or even smiling at them was met by suspicious glares from their parents. Adults and teenagers were largely the same, uninterested in talking to or even acknowledging the presence of their fellow travelers. Gone were the times when six or seven middle-aged men would sit around a small table drinking baijiu—strong liquor—and engaging in laughter-filled conversation that would eventually include everyone sitting nearby. Now the environment had come to resemble something like a New York City commuter train. Things had become more civilized and more orderly, but there was no more culture, no more community, no more compassion.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to make conversation, I retreated to my upper-level bunk to watch movies downloaded on my phone, thinking only about how much I miss the nong min whose presence I used to hold so much contempt for.
* * *
The rest of my time in China leaves me feeling largely the same. Traveling through the country upends close to every positive conviction I have about travel, every uplifting impression of the world I had developed in Europe and Guatemala.
Looking back, I’m sure that the way in which I traveled deserved some blame: I spent more than two months in the country, long enough for even the most open-minded to develop disdain for a place, and many of the cities I visited to see relatives simply weren’t tourist destinations. But what frustrated me most about traveling through China—and I’m sure of this—was something external: the absolute lack of positive human interaction, with locals as well as with other travelers.
That I’m of Chinese descent and can speak the language fluently (if laughably) certainly played a part in this: I learned after a few days in the country to speak in English whenever asking strangers for favors, so as to garner the big-heartedness that is almost universally lavished on tourists everywhere in the world. But more problematic were certain patterns of behavior, certain side effects of the country’s modernization and embrace of neoliberalism—an incredible distrust of strangers, a consuming fixation with mobile phones—that made engaging with other people not worthwhile or downright impossible. Of course, I was not blameless: over time, my disheartening experiences made me less and less likely to try to begin conversations with strangers, essentially trapped in a tragic cycle of dejection and isolation.
* * *
One of my travel companions fumbles with a bag of marijuana we bought earlier in the day. She pinches some of it out and sprinkles it on the joint I’m rolling, explaining that I’ve added too little and “it’ll just burn faster than we can hit it.” By this time, we know that whatever we bought isn’t really cannabis—or at least, isn’t even remotely strong cannabis—but we keep rolling and smoking it anyway. We had bought the bag halfway through an eight-hour hike from an innocent elderly Chinese lady waiting by the side of the mostly empty trail, who sold us—probably her only customers for the whole day—the marijuana for only 40 renminbi, around six dollars.
Maybe it’s the novelty of those circumstances that keeps us rolling and smoking, or perhaps it’s just the tranquility of it all: we are sitting on the back porch of a guesthouse we have to ourselves, surrounded only by trees and mountains and silence. Our bodies are exhausted but we feel completely at ease; our minds think about nothing except the stories we tell each other and the beauty of our environment and what we want for breakfast the next morning. A summer breeze, the one named in what seems like every piece of classic Chinese poetry, cools us down as our stories become more solemn, as our joints burn to their ends.
This hour or so of absorbing unspoiled nature and hearing about each other’s lives and relishing our surroundings’ peacefulness is the highlight of my time in China (ironic, isn’t it, that there’s nothing Chinese about any of this). It’s the one experience that keeps me from completely discarding my once-unquestioned belief that travel is more than simply seeing interesting places.
It’s also the experience that came closest to never happening. Numerous factors made deciding to do the hike an extremely unappealing choice: summer, the region’s rainy season, is the most dangerous and least popular time to hike; the trail is long and lacks basic amenities; and so on. But it was my dismal experience traveling through China, in a spectacular feat of irony, that caused me to somehow end up on the trail anyway. Frustration developed with the country’s typical tourist attractions—temples, commercialized “traditional villages,” hikes that were little more than climbing stone steps, more temples—made me long for something unique, something off the beaten path. Giving up on trying to talk to locals and Chinese tourists led me to focus on interacting with other foreigners…and eventually to meet the three British girls with whom I would end up hiking. Revulsion towards the country’s overdeveloped cities sent me to the country’s rural interior, and once there, into the wilderness.
Near the end of our perfect evening on the porch, the British girls and I see the owner of the guesthouse approaching us. We prepare ourselves to hear him tell us to put away the joints. But he only says, “The stars are out and very bright tonight.” We look up—it is beautiful.
* * *
* * *
It’s a random Friday at the beginning of December; I’m in Havana. School is still in session, classes and extracurricular activities and social pursuits still in full swing, but for the weekend, I am thirteen hundred miles away. I had booked the trip a month before, on the morning of November 9, 2016, when everyone was in shock and campus was gloomier than a cancer ward and the front page of the Daily News said “HOUSE OF HORRORS” in big bold text overlaid on an apocalyptic photo of the White House with an upside-down American flag. I don’t remember if I was particularly fearful that Trump would fuck things up with Cuba, but his victory added to a general sense of urgency to visit the country—as travel restrictions were easing up, more and more tourists were visiting Cuba and irreversibly changing everything about it.
In Havana, I end up sleeping in a hostel with eight beds to a room. Only a month ago, after two miserable nights in Bangkok, I vowed never again to stay in a crowded dormitory, but the high prices of Havana’s other options compel me to do it once more. I tell myself that it’ll be a good social setting.
On my first night there, the hostel’s owner and a pair of drunk Europeans wave to me from the rooftop bar and invite me to come up and get drinks. “Sorry, I’m exhausted and really have to sleep, but tomorrow!” I yell back. Their facial reactions tell me they find the excuse terribly lame—it’s only 8:30 p.m.—but I convince myself of its validity: I slept less than five hours last night so I could catch my flight, and going to bed early will also let me get a longer morning run in tomorrow.
The next night, the trio calls for me again. I debate going up for a few moments—earnestly, I like to believe—before again deciding not to. I persuade myself that it’s not worth it—that I’m traveling on a limited budget with little room for drinks, and besides, I would also be wasting the ticket I had bought for a movie that night. My evening ends up consisting of a few minutes of conversation with some film students on study abroad before falling asleep halfway through Jackie. On the way home, I feel a twinge of guilt at having missed much of the movie, but remind myself that admission only cost eight cents.
On the third night—my last—I decide to walk up the narrow wooden stairs to the rooftop bar. The two Europeans are gone; it also seems that the party has died down, or perhaps was never as spectacular as it seemed from down below. An American from my room is at the bar, but I have little interest in hearing any more of his stories about his nighttime exploits, about his not being able to find his way back after one too many mojitos. I leave the hostel and end up at an ice cream parlor eating twenty-five-cent sundaes and talking to locals. They ask me how I find their city, their country, with genuine curiosity in their voices. I talk about Havana being full of contrasts and share a few encounters I had in the city and a few discoveries I made. My answers sound like something out of Condé Nast Traveler. I try to convince myself that the conversation is more meaningful than whatever could have transpired back at the hostel.
* * *
I visit Vietnam over winter break. In Saigon, the roads and traffic near where I stay make it impossible to run. I search the Internet for options, and stumble upon the Facebook page of a local running club. They’re meeting the next day, somewhere in the suburbs that’s a thirty-minute drive away. The idea of spending an hour on a motorbike taxi just to go for a run makes no sense to me, especially given how limited my time is, but I begin making plans to go anyway.
When I arrive, the members of the running club quickly expand their stretching circle to create a place for me. After a warmup jog, the group’s leader, an obnoxiously friendly Dutch expat named Marcel, announces the run’s different pace groups and describes the route. It is three days after New Year’s, so most of the thirty or so in attendance are newcomer “resolutioners” with little experience running, but Marcel makes a concerted effort to engage everyone in the group by offering hearty encouragement and adapting to their slower paces. The run itself is exhausting—Saigon’s temperatures are unbearable even in the late evening—but conversation with the other runners, or perhaps just their presence, keeps me pushing forward.
Afterwards, I eat dinner with Marcel and hear myself telling him that the past few hours were the most fun I’ve had in Saigon, maybe even in all of Vietnam. I thank him for providing such an amazing opportunity for running, conversation, and companionship—certainly worth the hour of travel time.
“This is why I love organizing this. This is what a group like this is for,” he responds. His words remind me of my running club at home—remind me that, back home, I have the same opportunity for running, conversation, and companionship every single day.
* * *
I begin keeping a journal while traveling in Vietnam, writing about my day every night before I go to sleep. The entries soon develop a monotony: some thoughts here and there on the cities I explore, the people I talk to, the good experiences, the bad experiences. Most nights I struggle to fill a page.
* * *
The perplexing layout of central Saigon’s alleyways hampers my search for a locally famous dessert shop. I pull out my phone to look for directions. A Tinder notification catches my eye, letting me know that someone has “super-liked” me and inviting me to “find out who!” “You just wasted a super like,” I say out loud, “unless you’re super interested in getting some exercise.” (I use the app, rather pathetically, to find people to run with when traveling.) I tap the notification anyway, my curiosity piqued.
Before my super-admirer is revealed, a different profile takes me by surprise. Someone named Michael. 18. Wesleyan University. His tagline says something about looking for somebody to explore with. I realize that he is basically another me: better looking, from Connecticut, and white, but basically me. I begin to smile at the good fortune of having finally found someone in Vietnam—on Tinder, no less—who shares my age and my language, someone who might even be a travel companion to take on Saigon with.
I swipe right. It’s a match. I immediately abandon my search for dessert—the craving for something sweet suddenly disappears, perhaps satisfied by the feeling of being desired—and begin messaging Michael. “Woah, another college freshman?” I write. Within a few minutes, he responds, “Yes!” with a grinning emoji; he soon tells me that he is also traveling alone. Our shared circumstances excite me—I tell myself that this match is worth all of the sexual propositions received on Tinder thus far (the best one came from a match who, after I invited her to go running, wrote back, “Do I get to pretend to fall and make it all cute and steamy like an ice skating lesson?”).
It being my second to last day in Vietnam, I soon invite Michael to visit a certain tourist attraction with me the next day. My offer is extremely forward, but I have little time left in Saigon—two days from now, I’ll be in the next city, seven hundred miles away. But my invitation is as vanilla as it gets, so I remain hopeful.
Michael does not respond to my message for the entirety of my remaining time in Saigon. A few days later, I have already left but check my messages anyway. He has unmatched with me. Perks of zipping around the world: not even enough time to connect with someone on Tinder.
* * *
My journey home from Vietnam involves a twelve-hour overnight layover in Singapore. The cheapest place to stay near the airport costs more than three times what I paid for my nicest accommodation in Vietnam, so I quickly decide to just suck it up and sleep in the terminal. In theory, this proposal is as good as any: year after year, Singapore’s Changi Airport has been voted the best airport in the world—its enormous, modern terminals contain everything a traveler might hope to find, including relaxation areas, movie theatres, and even gardens. Even if the airport isn’t conducive to sleeping, I remember reasoning, it’ll be fun to explore.
Come 1:30 a.m. during my overnight stay in Singapore, reality has fallen patently short of my expectations. I am walking aimlessly around the airport with my carry-on in tow, completely worn out and in search of nothing more than a place where I can fall asleep. By this time, the airport has taken on a rather dystopian aspect: its bright lights and flawless shopping-mall look now seem only hostile and depressing. The other travelers (I am not alone in my brilliant plan to save money by sleeping in an airport) look like shells of human beings.
I’m not quite sure why this experience is so disappointing to me. Maybe it’s the run I did earlier in the evening—there’s nothing like running ten miles through an airport to both tire you out and make even the most spectacular terminals seem utterly mundane. Maybe it’s the fact that none of the airport lounges I have access to are even remotely comfortable places to sleep. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that an airport, no matter how stunning or amenity-filled or well-regarded, is nothing more than an airport, a place designed to instill certain feelings but not one of being truly comfortable, of feeling truly at home.
I end up falling asleep sprawled across metal seats in an unoccupied area of one of the terminals. I’ll never do this again, I promise myself just before closing my eyes. I am not sure what I mean by “this,” but I know that it likely refers to something much larger than just sleeping in an airport.
Twenty-nine hours later, I finally return home. When my mother picks me up at the airport, the first words out of her mouth are a comment on how exhausted I look, how burned out I must be. I tell her “I’m so glad to be home”; both of us are touched by how genuine my statement is. I tell her that there is no feeling like that of being at home. I do not tell her that in four days I will once again be flying away.
* * *
I take the train back to college soon after returning home. My first night back on campus, I almost fall asleep without writing a journal entry. Back in Vietnam, I would have undoubtedly saved it for the next morning, but something spurs me to get out of bed, search through my luggage for my journal, and write.
Once I begin writing, I realize what it is that so compelled me to put off sleep: there are too many meaningful memories to save until the next morning. It is not a special day—rather ordinary, and probably even less memorable than usual, given our collective entrapment by upcoming due dates and final exams—but I feel more stimulated than I have in weeks: intellectually, socially, and emotionally.
I finally realize how different it must be to be on the road, how superficial and temporary everything is—finally realize that if a less-than-ordinary day at college gives me more to think about than a day spent exploring spectacular cities halfway around the world, then such a place, no matter how demanding or intimidating or lonely it can often be, is truly home.
I end up filling three and a half pages before finally passing out.
* * *
Four days after I return from Vietnam, I am once again in transit. Upon landing at my connecting airport, I realize that I have forgotten to tell my parents about my plans, completely unintentionally—the past few days were an endless haze of completing final projects and meeting friends I hadn’t seen since before winter break. I call my mom the moment I step into the terminal. The conversation is not going to be easy, I know, but I do not predict how difficult it will be.
She picks up on the first ring. I begin the conversation by telling her that I’m on my way to Peru.
“How long are you going for?” she asks, without a hint of surprise or hesitation in her voice. By now, it seems like none of my travel can shock her anymore—it has become almost routine for her to find out that her son is leaving in a few days for somewhere thousands of miles away, or that he has already left.
“But you have school,” she says, puzzled. I explain to her that it is currently “reading period” when everyone is busy completing term papers and studying for finals, but that I’ve basically already finished all of my work (I don’t tell her how miserable this feat was). I plead with her not to worry, assure her that I will be back four days before my one final exam, enough time to study.
“That’s not my worry,” she counters. “I think you’re really missing out, not being on campus.” I have no response; the point she raises is one I never considered. But I instantly realize the legitimacy of her concerns: my travelling has hit a critical point where it might actually be causing me to miss out on something worthwhile. My defense mechanisms lead me to argue with my mom that there’s nothing fun about reading period, but a feeling starts sinking into my heart that maybe I am missing out. I can tell that the next few days will be consumed with trying to justify this trip—trying to prove, to myself more than anyone else, that Lima and Cuzco and wherever else are worth missing out on whatever my friends are doing back home (writing essays and studying for exams, I hope).
“Who are you traveling with?” my mom asks after a bit of silence.
“By myself,” I respond, “like usual.” She asks the same question every time I tell her about travel plans. I’ve never been able to tell if she actually doesn’t know the answer or if she’s simply trying to not-so-subtly persuade me to travel with other people.
“Okay, it’s your life,” she says, resigned. “Just be safe. I love you.” Her resignation, her acceptance towards what she sees as a completely unsustainable lifestyle, causes me to break down in the airport—I turn my head down so the other passengers don’t see the tears dripping out of my eyes. Thankfully, the boarding call for my flight comes soon enough, taking my mind off my mother’s words.
After we take off, the sky quickly darkens and the cabin lights dim to match. It becomes hard to focus on the homework that I’m trying to finish (“basically already finished all of my work”); my mind wanders to thoughts about if this trip will really be worth it. At one point, it seems like every part of my body begs me to lie across the row of empty seats and just rest, but the 1 p.m. deadline for my homework the next day compels me to stay up anyway. I tell myself that it’ll be worth it when I wake up the next morning in a new city. At this point, I still believe it.
* * *
Back at school after I return from Peru, a friend I’m eating dinner with asks me how I can afford to travel so much. The question is one I’ve come to expect for a while now; as one student at my college recently wrote in an opinion piece examining our campus’s socioeconomic environment, “flights to different states or countries during one-week breaks suggest thousands in disposable income.”
“I’m an international drug lord,” I joke.
“You might be,” he replies, in a tone whose seriousness I can’t quite pin down. I consider explaining to him how cheap it can actually be to travel—describe the hundreds of thousands of airline miles and thousands of dollars of travel vouchers I’ve stockpiled—but I decide that it would be too unrealistic. International travel is seen by almost everyone as a luxury, but it doesn’t have to be; I desperately want to tell him—tell everyone who has been taken aback by my responses to “What’d you do over break?”—that I am fortunate to be able to spend hundreds of dollars on flights without having to worry about my family’s financial situation, that I am fortunate to not have to work for pay or take care of family members over break, but that I’m not wealthy or spoon-fed or wasteful, that traveling is for me what taking guitar lessons or enjoying Broadway shows are for other people. But I settle on just giving my friend the crude explanation.
“I go to pretty undeveloped places, so everything is cheap once you get there—like, a really nice dinner might only cost a few dollars,” I answer. “So it’s really only the flight that’s expensive, but my family has a decent amount of frequent flyer miles from credit cards and flying in the past and stuff like that.”
“So it’s like a cycle of flying and earning miles that you use to keep on flying? That’s crazy man!”
His remark about a cycle of flying instantly brings to my mind the film Up in the Air. The movie centers on Ryan Bingham, a corporate type obsessed with his top-tier frequent flyer status. A casual relationship with another frequent flyer causes him to begin questioning his fondness for life on the road, so much so that one day he flies to the woman’s house out of the blue, ready to abandon his lifestyle. She opens the door and he discovers that she has a family; she later tells him that they are her “real life.”
The film ends with him standing alone in an airport. We hear his voice-over: Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day, and tonight they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.
When I first saw Up in the Air in middle school, I was fascinated by its unknown world of airlines and airports and frequent flyer programs. But I had promised myself even then that I would never become Ryan Bingham.
* * *
On my flight to Colombia, the flight attendant takes my drink order but forgets to bring it three times. Having drunk absolutely nothing since waking up four hours before, I become more and more desperate each time he passes by with drinks or snacks or even blankets for my seatmates but nothing for me; his empty apologies do nothing to console me.
A half-hour later, he finally brings a can of Sprite. I barely have the heart to tell him that I had asked for seltzer; he apologizes and says, clearly irritated, that he’ll be right back. He soon brings not one but two cans of seltzer, and tells me about how he only just had the chance to look at the manifest, where he noticed my frequent flyer status. He apologizes again, addressing me with my last name this time, and spends what feels like an eternity thanking me for my loyalty in front of my seatmates. I feel vindicated, but decide that I would much rather be seltzer-less.
Later, as I’m waiting at the back of the plane to use the lavatory, the same flight attendant spots me, gets up from his jump seat, swings open the door to a beverage cart, and tells me to take my pick. “Beer, wine, liquor, anything!” I point at a mini bottle of Bacardi, ask for a can of Coke.
“This trip business or pleasure?” he asks.
“What business would I be doing?” I reply, with a laugh. He begins to tell me about how the tech industry in Bogotá is booming. I pay no attention; I can only think about how he mistook my answer for commentary on Colombia, and how he mistook me for Ryan Bingham.
* * *
The Lonely Planet guide to Colombia has this to say about Palomino, a beach town where I decide to spend a night: “It’s calm, clean, and so peaceful that the highlights of a day at Palomino are sunrise, sunset, and watching a passing flock of pelicans.” Lonely Planet guides almost universally tend to exaggerate how interesting places and attractions are, so for one to describe the highlights of Palomino as “sunrise, sunset, and watching a passing flock of pelicans” tells me that the place must be real fucking boring.
I go anyway, if only because I have no other options. I had intended to visit and sleep over in Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a national park frequently called Colombia’s crown jewel, but at the park gate found myself in front of several federales insistent on preventing anyone from entering the park, supposedly because the park had just begun a month-long closure at the request of local indigenous groups. After at least twenty minutes of verifying that this was really not a scam, I began to deliberate how I would spend the next two days. A Colombian family on vacation, in the same predicament as me, offered two recommendations: Taganga and Palomino, both small beach towns within an hour’s drive that at least partially emulated the atmosphere of Tayrona. The Lonely Planet description of Taganga—“a rather depressing place that looks in part like a bomb has hit it”—made deciding between the two a breeze.
On the bus to Palomino, several locals tell me that the town, unsurprisingly, is little more than a small strip of beach and a mile-long dirt road connecting it to the highway. This bit of knowledge does not trouble me—I am, in fact, pleased at the possibility that I might have finally ventured off the beaten track, finally found a place free of other tourists, a place to call my own. Somewhere like the mostly-deserted trek route I traveled with the three British girls in rural southwest China that was the highlight of my time in the country. Somewhere like the kind of places that the expat in Guatemala spoke about so highly.
In Palomino, on my walk from the bus drop-off on the highway to the beach, I quickly come to understand that the place is not even close to the tranquil, unassuming beach town I had imagined it to be. Signs that advertise lodging, food, and river tubing are mostly in English; at the largest hostel in town, there isn’t a single word of Spanish in any of the conversations I overhear. To think that I believed that I was original, that I wasn’t just another tourist, that I would relive that evening on the back porch of a remote guesthouse in rural southwest China.
After a few hours in town, I conclude that Palomino, in fact, might just be the antithesis of that unforgettable evening on the back porch of the remote guesthouse, though some Australians I meet on the beach do invite me to smoke some marijuana they bought.
* * *
“¿Por qué entraste de esta manera?” demand the police officers who have detained me, asking why I illegally entered Bogotá’s TransMilenio bus system without paying a fare.
“I’m in a rush to get to the airport and the entrance was too far!” I answer in English, knowing full well that the officers will have difficulty understanding what I say. “My flight’s leaving very soon, so I really have to go to the airport!”
I am tempted to fully explain myself in Spanish—explain that the walk from where I had been to the fare gate and back to the boarding area would have taken too long, that I was only trying to save time by climbing over a barrier into the boarding area—but I know that speaking English is my best defense in this situation, that doing so will cause the police officers to treat me as just another idiot gringo.
One of the officers asks for my identification as he begins to fill out what looks like a lengthy citation. I pretend to have a tough time understanding his request, only handing him a health insurance card after a few moments of feigned puzzlement. It’s a risky move that could land me in even more trouble or at least anger the police officers, but I have no time for him to write out a ticket—my flight is leaving in an hour.
The police officer looks at the card, flips it over, and looks at it again before asking me once more for my identification—“passaport,” he tries to clarify in English. After two or three minutes of back-and-forth, the police officers finally tell me that after searching me and my belongings, and escorting me to go pay the fare, they will let me go, even though they really should write me a ticket or even arrest me on the spot.
After what seems like the world’s longest frisk and the world’s slowest escort to the fare gate, I am on my way. I end up making my flight, but once I’m onboard I feel not relief at having arrived on time but guilt for having acted like the clueless tourists I’ve always despised. I spend the forty-five-minute plane ride thinking about how much I had come to love beautiful, modern, and diverse Bogotá. Thinking about how I had come to see the city as somewhere I could end up staying for four years, living out the story of that expat I met in Guatemala. But mostly thinking about how I fucked up that fantasy in my encounter with the police officers. Thinking about how easily I abandoned the possibility of ever fitting in, of no longer being a tourist to gape at and pity.
* * *
The sun is setting. Downtown Medellín begins once again its daily transformation from bustling center to desolate danger zone. The white-collar workers go home to the suburbs in the south; the vendors and laborers return to their northern barrios. Men and women seeking opportunity emerge onto the streets; the neon of the storefront casinos begins to illuminate the night.
I decide that it is high time for me to leave, not just the downtown area but the entire place; it is my last day in Colombia. The scene does not intimidate me, at least not with regard to fear—I walked around these same streets at 2 a.m. looking for my Airbnb when I first arrived—but I feel an overwhelming sense of unbelonging, the same feeling I had driving through warm and lively Sololá. I head to my accommodation to retrieve my luggage.
My host Julian is waiting for me there. “Buenas,” he says, “¿cómo te vas?” “How’s it going?” He asks me about my day, what my final impressions of Medellín are. I tell him about my experience visiting Santo Domingo Savio, a neighborhood up in the northern hills that was once the city’s poorest and most dangerous but was recently transformed by access to public transit. I describe the friendly encounters I had with the neighborhood’s inhabitants and extol the virtues of Medellín’s urban development programs. Julian smiles and nods, but I can sense that he does not take me very seriously, sees me only as an outsider who glimpsed a part of his city without really understanding anything. A frustration develops within me, not so much because of Julian’s dismissiveness but because I know that he is probably right. We say goodbye to each other and I make my way to catch my flight.
At the airport, the gate agent checking boarding passes asks me if I prefer English or Spanish. “Cualquier,” I answer—“whichever.” She chooses Spanish and begins to quickly utter some sort of rehearsed speech. Her words spew out too fast for me to understand. Only after a while do I realize it is a security profile— who packed my bags, who paid for my ticket. But it’s too late: she switches to English, and her facial expression makes clear that she’s thinking, “Oh look, another gringo who knows the words baño, taxi, empanada.” Her disappointment is a fitting end to the past few days, perfectly in line with all of the other encounters that have marked me as nothing more than a tourist, a gringo, an outsider.
I used to imagine that one day it would be different—that one day, having gained experience from traveling across Latin America and with decent spoken Spanish under my belt, I would feel some sense of belonging in a place like Medellín. But for all the travel I’ve done, travel has not helped me find a place in the world: it’s only shown me the one I’ve always had, in comfortable and promising suburban New Jersey. Travel has not led me to the kind of place described by the expat in Guatemala, somewhere I would end up falling in love with and staying for four years.
What travel has done is given me the ability and confidence to temporarily integrate myself into any society: I can use dysfunctional public transit without speaking the language, eat cheap local food without getting sick, and explore less-developed cities and countries without endangering myself. But to feel a genuine sense of belonging—travel can do nothing there. In short, in any corner of the world, travel has made me able to do everything a local can do, with one exception: I will never be able to feel truly at home.
While waiting to board, I decide to preemptively log my flight home into the website where I’ve recorded every flight I’ve taken in the past year. I usually save the task for after I’ve landed, but my mood compels me just to finish the chore—I want to think about nothing related to flying or airports or traveling once I’m at home. The website loads for a few seconds before returning updated statistics about my “FlightMemory” for the past eleven months.
Distance: 89,547 miles. Total Number of Flights: 44. Earth Circumnavigation: 3.60 times.
The numbers make it seem like some sort of accomplishment. If only it were. I try not to look at a different section on the page, but my eyes wander there anyway.
Flight Time: 182:05 hours. 7.6 days.
I try to fight the depression brought on by this statistic by forcing a chuckle at the irony of the website’s name: FlightMemory. What memories could I possibly have of a week spent on airplanes — two weeks, if you include time wasted in airports and getting to airports? Two weeks of my life that I let vanish into thin air.
Walking onto the jet bridge thinking about this reality, I feel utterly miserable—feel only defeat, emptiness, and disappointment. Was it all worth it? I wonder. It is certainly not the ending I hoped for. I feel inadequate. I feel like I’ve seen very little, and understood even less, of our incredible and incredibly complex world. I feel unchanged from the bored seventeen-year-old sitting in a sterile research lab two summers ago dreaming of Amsterdam. Ninety thousand miles have brought me nowhere.
But then again, I ask myself, what exactly did I hope for? Was all this travel supposed to satiate my wanderlust? Let others see me as worldly? Help me feel like I belong anywhere and with anyone? If any of these were my primary motivations, then it was all a sham: where I’ve been pales in comparison to where I haven’t, and my awareness of being an outsider has only increased. But if the meaning of travel is something else, then maybe my time on the road has changed me for the better.
Eleven months spent perpetually in transit obliterated my fears of ever becoming Ryan Bingham by showing me that I would never tolerate that kind of life and shaped my understanding of “home” as an old and cramped and perpetually unclean college dormitory.
Ten countries made me less sure of myself, eased my worries of running out of places to explore, and brought me back to the primary state—the bored seventeen-year-old sitting in a sterile research lab—of naïveté and unworldliness but also of excitement and possibility.
Ninety thousand miles made me more adventurous and sociable and self-sufficient, made clear that the most amazing place to spend four years is the one I’ve already found, and revealed that I am—and always will be—but a small speck on the surface of an insurmountably large and ever-fascinating planet Earth.
If the meaning of travel does not have to be to elevate us, if travel should not make us feel like conquerors of the world but only small and unimportant pieces in it, if travel need not make us more cultured or more interesting but simply more adaptable and more aware—then eleven months, ten countries, and ninety thousand miles did everything they were supposed to.
* * *
Onboard the plane, I recognize a flight attendant from my flight down, the one who gave me the Bacardi. He sees me, quickly glances at the manifest, and welcomes me back, again calling me by my last name. He pronounces it correctly this time, but the awkwardness of his formal address persists.
“Where are you going now?” he asks. “How many days?”
“Home,” I answer proudly, in the same way that I might once have said “Cuzco” or “Paris.”
“No,” he clarifies, “I meant your next destination.”
“I’m going home,” I tell him. “And I think I’m going to stay awhile.”
 The final list of places: The Netherlands. France. Guatemala. China. Hong Kong. Japan (very briefly). Thailand. Cuba. Vietnam. Peru. Colombia. Home. Home sweet home.