How to Make Traveling Human Again

Tim Chen
Published in
9 min readJan 25, 2015


I once heard from someone who has traveled to over 190 countries that “no one place is unique anymore.”

Because over time, the physical experiences blur together and the high from each new experience dwindles:

Motorcycling through the mountains in Chiang Mai feels just as spiritual as bamboo rafting down the Li Jiang River;

The adrenaline rush from riding Tram 28 in Lisbon is just as wild as running through Las Ramblas in Barcelona;

And the Conde-Nast-praised beaches in Koh Phi Phi yell “PARADISE HERE!” just as much as beaches in the Palawan Islands do.

Traveling then becomes nothing more than a “check-the-box” exercise.

Throughout my travels, I discovered that in order to overcome monotonous physical experiences and truly appreciate being in a new place, we need to interact with locals because they carry the soul of their land. Even the smallest of encounters could offer us a glimpse into their world and give us new perspective on new places, good or bad.

Doing so creates humanizing moments, which I define as moments when we feel an emotional bond with a stranger so strong that we are forced to seek meaning, and yet we will fail to do so. But it is precisely these paradoxical moments that will leave an emotional imprint on our travelogues.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

–Maya Angelou

Below are a few humanizing moments from my travels that left the strongest imprints, transcribed from my journal.

Manila, a Tale of Two Cities

There was a boy on the intersection of U.N. Avenue and Del Pilar. He couldn’t have been more than 4 years old. I saw him there, alone, sitting on a sidewalk encumbered with trash. He wore a dirty, torn and beaten gray tank top but was naked from the waist down.

He was homeless.

Homeless children in Manila; Credit: Flickr

The humid Manila weather was not kind, having left puddles from the thunderstorm last night untouched in pot holes that riddled the streets. There were numerous clouds hanging above but in that very moment, as I stared at the boy, the sun shone through and highlighted his hair — it wasn’t black, but a grayish-brown — perhaps due to lack of proper hygiene?

I was on my way to a Starbucks around the corner but I couldn’t help but gape at his plight. He didn’t notice. He was too preoccupied playing with a plastic bag.

What was so interesting about that bag?

He twisted it right, then left…then right…then left.

I had to know.

As I approached him, I could see that he wore the biggest grin on his face. A grin of pure happiness, bliss, or perhaps ignorance?

Didn’t he know he was living in poverty? Could he not see it? Could he not discern the appalling contrast between his world and mine?

No, in fact he was oblivious to it all — his surroundings didn’t bother him. His ignorance was his bliss.

Suddenly, he stood up and walked across the street to his family, which, from what I could tell, lived on the corner a block away from Starbucks. My heart sank.

Credit: Encountering Urbanization Manila

Manila is truly a tale of two cities — one inhabited by two types of denizens who are unable to converse with each other or understand each other, but share the same city. I couldn’t help but feel powerless. I could only wish him the best, knowing our worlds would never meet, before continuing towards Starbucks.

Tears and Triumph in Timor-Leste

His name was Tom. He was our jeep driver and the cousin of our hostel’s owner.

I was in Dili, Timor-Leste at the time and with a group of backpackers. Tom had driven us around the city the day before and invited us to attend his live gig that night at an upscale hotel on Avenida de Portugal, set awkwardly amidst the “up and coming” economic backdrop of Timor-Leste. Our group organizer obliged.

Dili, East Timor; Credit: Calvin Sun, Monsoon Diaries

Timor-Leste is a poor country: about 38% live below the international poverty line and 50% of its population is illiterate. It declared independence in 1975 after Portugal decolonized the country, but was promptly invaded by Indonesia. Indonesia’s brutal decades-long occupation destroyed Timor-Leste’s infrastructure and killed about 15–20% of the population. Timor-Leste finally became a sovereign state in 2002 under UN support, after the brutal 1991 Dili Massacre put the country’s plight on the world’s radar.

Santa Cruz Cemetary at the Dili Massacre; Credit; Calvin Sun, Monsoon Diaries

Tom looked to be in his mid-30s and had lived in Timor-Leste all his life, which meant he had lived through decades of fighting, and must have had friends and family die during the Indonesian occupation. We didn’t dare ask.

That night, our group was too busy drinking at a bar down the street to notice that it was midnight and we had missed Tom’s performance. From the outside, and from our privileged perspective, it seemed like a small issue. No biggie right? A small group of us decided to swing by to say hello. We arrived at the upscale hotel, poor excuse in hand, and caught Tom just as his band finished their live gig.

Tom the driver in green; Credit: Calvin Sun, Monsoon Diaries

“Hey! …Why didn’t you guys come? We just finished!”

For some reason, the tone in Tom’s voice and his words fell heavily on my ears. It seemed to carry pain of his country; as if he was hoping our showing (large groups of tourists are rare in Timor-Leste) would provide the large audience he wanted, and if only for one night, make Timor-Leste a more festive place. Perhaps it was the alcohol making the mood slightly depressing but I couldn’t shake that feeling of guilt.

We had failed Tom.

We sat down to grab drinks with him shortly thereafter and I had a brief moment to catch up with him.

What did he think about Timor-Leste, life, and the future?

He had hope. He was optimistic. He saw opportunities for economic growth in a country ravaged by war. His answers were steadfast and I could tell in his eyes he was convicted in this belief that over time, Timor-Leste will prosper.

What is it about the power of the human spirit, our will to survive and endure?

I could not relate. I could only nod in agreement.

The Beggar in Bangkok

If you asked me to describe him I could, very vividly.

I was in Bangkok’s Chinatown, in an alleyway eating street food with a friend. We were eating Thai street food over iced tea when I first heard it.

Jingle, jingle, jingle…

…jingle, jingle, jingle.

The sound of a few coins banging against each other in an old plastic Tupperware box. He was first at the table next to ours but was met with indifference and no sympathy. He moved onto ours.

Jingle, jingle, jingle.

No words. Only the universal sign of begging for change. I’m no novice to beggars, having encountered many throughout my travels. But as tough as it was for me to sit there, unnerved, it was difficult to discern a scam artist from someone actually in need. We ignored him and continued our meal.

Just another beggar.

As we wrapped up our meal, I teased my friend about wasting the tea we had ordered. He jabbed back, calling me a hypocrite for not finishing the tea in my cup. Fair enough. We laughed it off and paid the bill.

We walked not three steps away from the table when the beggar reemerged. He squeezed in between us and the table but this time didn’t ask for change. Instead, before the waiter could clear the table, the beggar picked up our tea bottle, poured it into my tea cup and chugged it.

It all happened so quickly.

Call me soft, call me naïve, call me whatever you want but in that specific moment, that act broke the barrier between us. That encounter was so raw — he wasn’t just a beggar in Bangkok. He was thirsty, he needed water, and he was human, just like me.

And in that split second…he was real.

Unfortunately not the same beggar; Credit: MilitaryPhotos

Under the street lamp light I could make out his features. He was old and his white hair topped off his tan, sun-beaten leathery skin. He wore a blue shirt but the back was torn off entirely from overuse. His back was hunched and he carried a cane in his other hand. I felt compelled to help out, but this time, not as a privileged individual, but as a fellow human.

I tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a few baht. As he turned towards me, I avoided eye contact — why? Was I…scared? Ashamed? I don’t know. I could only press my hands together and wish him the best of luck.

Bangkok Chinatown; Credit: Flickr; Embark

For the rest of the night, as my friend and I toured Chinatown, I couldn’t get that encounter out of my head.

Why was this time different?

Before we headed home, we caught a cab near the alleyway where we had dinner. As we drove by, I stared out into the alley, trying to find the beggar from earlier. He wasn’t there. I hope he is ok.

Entertaining kids in Bacau, Timor-Leste Credit: Calvin Sun, Monsoon Diaries

For many travelers, going to a new place has lost its glimmer. New places no longer excite or stimulate them. So how do we rediscover that initial moment of discomfort? How do we rekindle that feeling of wanderlust to make traveling human again?

By interacting with locals, we create these humanizing moments. These moments will confuse us and lead us to question their meaning but we won’t understand. And it’s this process — the interacting, questioning, and reflecting that adds emotional depth and makes traveling human again.

Thanks to Tom for editing.
Shout out to Calvin of
Monsoon Diaries, with which I had the pleasure to kick-start my SouthEast Asia travels!

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