What I learned from 2 months of (almost) solo travel

Nikhil Thota
Sep 27, 2019 · 6 min read
taipei night market

Travel, like life, is a marathon and not a race
— somebody

Globalism, smartphones, and balance. These were my topics of musing and reflection during my summer travels. I spent almost 2 months, in between my college graduation at the University of Florida and full-time employment at Facebook, bouncing between Europe and Southeast Asia with just a backpack. This somewhat-solo trip was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and as I’ve settled into a stable groove here in San Francisco, I’d like to unpack some of the personal and more broad-reaching insights I’ve gleaned.

1. My personal level of privilege

One of the biggest things I realized was how much privilege one has from being a citizen of a country such as the USA. I saw the other side of this privilege briefly when I lived in India during my childhood. The vast majority of my relatives are still living in rather impoverished conditions, a stark contrast to my current life. My immediate family and I are now naturalized citizens, a title that has given benefit to employment, political rights, and land ownership. However, I don’t think I ever truly understood the deeper meaning of this designation.

If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’d like to get on my high horse and tell you what I think American (or any thriving nation) Privilege means.

  • The ability to badmouth our leaders without any real consequences. Under Lese-majeste, anyone in Thailand who defames, insults, or threatens the royal family will be subject to years in jail time. In fact, Thailand has even ordered Facebook to take down posts violating these laws!
  • Peace of mind when checking your bags on domestic flights — I had money stolen in Vietnam from a small pouch deep inside my huge Tortuga bag.
  • Not being discriminated against at a restaurant for speaking English. Okay this is a weird one — I attempted to order food at an outdoor stall in Singapore’s Little India in my jetlagged American English drawl but was rebuffed by the Tamil speaking owner. I even spoke Telugu (which is honestly kinda close!) and pointed at what I wanted but was still refused service.
  • Universally safe tap water. In the majority of the SE Asia countries I visited, the tap water had the mythical status of causing the dreadful traveler’s diarrhea for anyone who dared tempt fate.

One’s perspective is shaped by countless experiences from family, local culture, and circumstance. The things that stuck out in my mind were nothing more than humdrum reality to locals, being as memorable as weekend trips to the grocery store. Although these observations and experiences are wrapped in a thick layer of unpleasantness, they contain a warm, tasty filling of wisdom, which I am grateful to have tried.

2. Travel is honestly stressful and tiring if you’re not truly ballin’

If you’re like me and try to ball on a budget — and therefore unwilling to offload trip planning to a travel clerk / service, there are a large number of logistical things that go into the process of planning and executing on a trip such as flights, lodging, documentation, and gear — not to mention the unseen issues that emerge once on the road. These unattractive details are rarely mentioned, and this has resulted in a consumerist culture which has overly glamorized the idea of travel. Since 1995, direct receipts from tourism have almost TRIPLED to over $1.5 trillion with the industry itself being worth 10% of the global economy. This is great for economic growth as a whole, but such growth is putting a huge strain on popular spots like Antelope Canyon which has been occupied by Instagrammers willing to wait 2 hours for the iconic shot.

In China, travel has exploded and many of the world’s popular destinations are overrun by the comically large tour buses, selfie sticks, and frantic rush for the golden hour photo shoot. I am typically used to seeing other western travelers while abroad, so having the majority of fellow tourist sightings be Chinese travelers in these large groups was quite a shock to me. It was interesting seeing a different set of society be the primary drivers of the industry and showed me just how democratized the once luxury act of traveling has become.

  • One noteworthy tidbit I discovered was that even though the majority of tourists I saw were Chinese, only 8.7% of Chinese citizens have passports, with the number expected to double by 2020.

3. People around the world are more similar to you than you realize.

Global market penetration for consumer mobile devices is at its all-time peak, with around 4 billion unique owners of smartphones. The market is basically saturated and the smartphone ecosystem is now a platform that spreads viral content to all corners of the planet. This means that culture (mostly western) has been distributed throughout the world and is leading to a natural evolution in the way people view life outside their immediate bubble. Although every location has its own quirks brought about by factors ranging from its ecology to its imperial history, we are learning through direct perception via technology that all of humanity has the same basic needs and desires. Techno-globalism is a term that explains this recent phenomena wherein the spread of technology has enabled different societies to come together and form a unified human colossus to work together, utilizing this knowledge as the currency of choice.

As this trend continues, I think the world will tend more and more towards a unified reality in which amalgamated pop culture, distributed in bite sized amounts through our social platforms, will become the norm. Our subjective perceptions of reality will converge, as will our collective stories, leading to what could either be immense human progress or exacerbated global tensions. I think only time can tell.

4. Locals are AWESOME

Some of the kindest people I’ve met are locals who either hosted me or helped me during moments of crisis. After a motorcycle incident in Vietnam, I found myself at the mercy of an old couple who simultaneously laughed at the hubris of an American riding heedlessly along the treacherous dirt roads and provided me the medical care I needed at the moment. The lady washing my wounds with questionable water pointed at her elbow to reveal scarring and then smiled and said the word ‘motorbike’. I immediately felt better, knowing that I had gone through an unmistakable local rite of passage

That being said, these same locals are also trying to get their bread. I had not known true hustle until an innocent boat ride through the canals of Bangkok. As I reclined in my seat and pondered the apparent social stratification brought upon by the exploding tourism industry of Thailand, a smaller boat began to approach my เรือหางยาว (long-tail boat). I was slightly worried that this was an elaborate scam Thai pirates used to take advantage of overly trusting westerners, but my worry turned to confusion as I saw the smaller boat filled to the brim with local drink and snack options. The pirate insisted that I buy a drink for the thirsty driver of my boat, to which the driver agreed. They were in cahoots! Incredulous, I simply pulled out a hundred baht, purchased a bottle of coconut water, and went on my merry way.

With that, I am done with extensive travel for quite a while as my breath and bank account catch up. I hope to spend the next several months stepping into my professional career while spending my evenings and weekends working on myself and emptying my jar of writing ideas. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Mackenzie Patel, Spencer Chang, and Kenton Prescott

Nikhil Thota

Written by

learning and growing as fast as I can • engineer @facebook • https://nikhilthota.com

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