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a year abroad in south korea

The Wide World: Traveling Outside Korea

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I made a calendar before I left for my winter vacation. Littered with notes in the margins about confirming flights, double checking bus schedules, and detailing directions to hostel addresses, I mapped out a two week excursion to three very different places: Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Sitting at my desk at school, looking at the creased page full of travel details, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what those two weeks would be like. And, as I sit here again behind my desk in South Korea, I can’t fathom how those two weeks held so many memorable miles, random bruises, pale misty mornings, blazing noon heatwaves, and cheap, delicious street food. My short time traveling over those two weeks took me on an incredible journey that felt like it spanned two months. Here’s some highlights of it.

BALI, INDONESIA

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My first stop was Bali, and I spent most of my time in Ubud, a small village known for its tight-knit community of artists. From the first sunrise, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the place was. The feel was different from any other place I’d been; wide, reflective expanses of rice paddies, clustered shops spilling colorfully dyed fabric into the streets, and tiny convenience stores stocked with weird “roasted corn” flavored snacks. Intricately carved doorways framed passages into worlds of snarling stone idols and meek worshipers. Lush green foliage all around reached upwards and outwards beyond my vision. And there were monkeys.

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Bali reminded me of the benefits of living simply, without the daily tether to technology or modern amenities. Yeah, the hostel was bug ridden, and yeah, the bathrooms left something to be desired, but those are the sacrifices you have to make in a place where the climate is warm year round. I had a similar experience when I went to my parents’ birthplace, Guyana, a few years ago. Swatting flies with your left hand and eating with your right becomes a habit. The day’s heat becomes expected, then a forgotten detail. While traveling, it’s important to realize early on that the only things you truly require at the end of the day are running water and a place to put your head down to sleep.

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However, one thing that I found not-so-pretty about Bali was the undercurrent of tension between the locals and tourists. Several times during my trip I felt like I was being swindled, and at one point I was, reluctantly paying an extra 200k Rupiah at the shore of Lombok for a boat back to Bali. Walking down the streets, you’re barraged by men asking you for taxis (“Taxi, yes?” “Please, taxi?”). Getting gypped on your fare is also a common thing. It was a little annoying, but this is what tourism has turned Bali into.

Those aren’t shells on the beach pictured above. In Kuta, on many parts of the beach there is nothing but garbage. High winds during that week caused even more of it to be scattered across the sand. Between the waste, Balinese men and women were bent over picking it up, making it look clean in front of the resorts. Upon seeing that, I thought about what the Balinese had to sacrifice as a small, developing third-world island with its reliance on the upsurge of tourism as one of its primary sources of income. What is being given up culturally to support the tourism industry? Kuta’s beachfront hosted the most western-styled shopping and restaurants I’ve seen in Bali, but it was an undeniably jarring sight. As locals struggle to keep Bali’s native culture alive, Starbucks thrusts its glass storefronts and designer coffee into the streetmarket – on the placard: “Something Familiar.”

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In all, Bali was a worthwhile first stop of the journey, and by seeing Ubud, Kuta, and Gili Trawagan I feel like I caught a good glimpse of it. A bit rough around the edges, but a true visual and cultural feast that I’m glad to have visited in my lifetime. I’ll walk with some bug spray in the future, though.

SINGAPORE

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Gleaming from the moment I stepped out of the plane, Singapore was the cleanest and most modern city I’ve ever visited. So clean that they don’t even sell chewing gum in the stores – only mints! Singapore held beauty of a different kind, this time manmade, with sharp architectural lines piercing through blue skies, quaint footbridges spanned over a calm river, and immaculate streets made lively by chattering, fashionable Singaporean women. If I could compare it to South Korea, I’d say that it’s even more clean and technologically advanced. And the people here are rich. I often saw businessmen with well-fitting suits having fancy riverside lunches, and overheard brokers giving stock advice over the phone in Chinatown. They were all so put-together that I found myself wanting to dress up a little bit too~ Let me take you through the sights:

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After my time in Bali, this place was different in every possible way. I stayed in a hostel in Clarke Quay, which is alongside the river that runs through the city. Although the hostel was pretty central and a few steps away from Chinatown, everything in Singapore is walkable so the location didn’t really matter. And, let me tell you, I walked. Four days was a perfect amount of time to really experience Singapore while maintaining my travel budget. I didn’t buy many souvenirs, but I bought a lot of food, desserts especially. (I must have brought back a few pounds as a souvenir…)

One day while sightseeing, I was stopped by a group of sprightly highschoolers on a field trip. They were interviewing tourists for their project, and with nothing urgent planned, I obliged. Their English was incredible! They had a very sweet accent, a little British sounding, with very clean pronunciation. I thought of my middle schoolers back in Korea and how heavy the Korean accent is through their English at times. I think the Singaporean students had such pleasant-sounding English because of how heavily immersed they are in English on a daily basis. Unlike Korea, Singapore utilizes English on everything, and it’s the primary mode of communication. In a modern, multicultural city, English is the bridge between cultures and the perfect interjection to squeeze into a bit of gossip – it was funny to hear people rapidly speak in another language, then fit in an, “I’m being soooo serious!” between.   

I also did a fair amount of art-looking while I was in Singapore thanks to its Biennial event happening between three large museums and various galleries. I devoted a day to hunting the art placed throughout the city and finding exclusively Singaporean pieces created by artists from across Asia. I enjoyed viewing shows of work produced by primarily Asian artists, and the exhibits did not disappoint. In fact, with my ticket I got a free audio tour! Fancy!

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Another thing I loved about Singapore was the shopping – I didn’t buy much, but to have so many venues to shop in, all at the same time…the urge to shop was infectious. And Singapore’s malls go on for days – I hopped from supermall to supermall, walking winding miles through the stores and floors, riding escalators into the stratosphere:

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People in Singapore were friendly, and I found myself smiling a lot as I walked around the well-designed public spaces, eating ice cream sandwiches (literally, they wrap a piece of bread around a slice of ice cream). I happened to travel alone for this leg of the trip, and with no one else to worry about I was able to do anything I wanted. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, and despite riding the Singapore Flyer solo next to a couple (awkward……), it was pretty fun. Hopefully one day when I’m a bit more financially stable I’ll pay Singapore another visit.

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CAMERON HIGHLANDS, MALAYSIA

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I was bent on seeing the landscape here after doing a few google searches and, my goodness, my eyes have never rested on a more beautiful sea of green yet. Cloaked in early morning fog, the mountainous landscape was made even more inviting and mysterious. I took an overnight bus from Singapore to the Highlands, and the journey took nine hours. As the bus climbed higher and higher towards the town of Tanah Rata, I grew more anxious of the bus’s shifting balance through narrow, winding mountain roads. Made it, though! Check out these views:

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The Highlands are known for its tea – all the plants you see here are tea trees, grown into short bushes, and pruned meticulously.

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Although the hostel was one of the worst I stayed in during the whole trip (no flushing toilets…), I only planned to spend a day and a night there so it wasn’t too bad. I toured several places that day, including the tea fields,  a small jungle, and a butterfly garden. The people there were so amiable, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the tea was amazing, so I was quite happy about this little stopover en route to Kuala Lumpur.

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

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This party city was one I wish I spent some more time in. Limited to two days, I did a fair amount of sightseeing while I was there, but I definitely could have used a few more days to really get a feel for the place. I stayed at an impressive (and clean!) hostel called Reggae Mansion, which had its own rooftop bar and a cool group of travelers filtering through. I booked a tour through the hostel and I was not disappointed. Here were some of the stops:

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The Batu Caves, pictured above, was one of my favorite stops. The climb to the top was a manageable 278 steps, and the view was worth the huffing and puffing. It was most interesting to see the amount of religions peacefully coexisting in KL, with temples, churches, and mosques situated close to one another in the city’s heart. I had a good time touring this city but regrettably I didn’t have much time to walk around it on my own.  Next time, I’ll stay a bit longer in KL…

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Next time.

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THE TRAVELER MENTALITY

On the Bali leg of my trip, when I came back from Gili Trawagan, I met a girl who had been traveling for six months, lived in Australia for two, and was going to fly home to Texas in a few days. We had a lively conversation on the bus ride into Denpasar, and when we got off she admitted that she didn’t have a place to stay. I offered to share my hotel room with her since it was a double, and we got along easily the whole time. I also didn’t mind halving my hotel and taxi costs. Since her flight was later than mine the following day, we both checked out, had breakfast together, and parted ways. It was only as we were saying our goodbyes that we realized we hadn’t even exchanged names.

After this trip I developed a sense of what it means to be a traveler. Suddenly, the things that seem pivotal to existence – human contact, shelter, solid plans – become inconsequential. So, too, were names. Travelers often didn’t exchange them because they weren’t necessary; nothing more than two human beings meeting, conversing, coexisting for a short time, and moving on. Yet at the same time, the conversations I shared with other travelers were about deeply personal things, such as our families and the directions our lives were taking us.

Things get streamlined – when all you have is the backpack on your back and some loose plans swimming in your head, conversations with others are less frivolous and more honest. It was about being real as one human to another human, about relating the core of the human experience (love, life, relationships, hardship, triumph) to others, and expressing who you are through just a few short exchanges. You trim out the idiosyncrasies of your own character to give them a framework of the personality behind the person. There is simply no time or reason to put on a front. When living around the same people day to day, we get so caught up with the desire to project an identity that’s well-accepted that we forget how simply we can let someone know what we’re about, and even more simply, how we can allow ourselves to be accepted for who we are.

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The people I met traveling, who had been traveling for months, knew how transient things were in life. I didn’t understand this at first, when I lamented the fact that I didn’t exchange any contact information with some people I met, but I soon realized that there was no point; they would be somewhere out there, far away, with no chance for us to meet again or build a friendship. It wasn’t necessarily a sad thing either, but rather…just a thing. You learn to appreciate the moments as you get them, and tuck them away somewhere in your mind so that one day you will smile about it. That is the true souvenir of a trip – not the little fridge magnets or moldy postcards, but those odd little serendipitous moments of meeting someone, having the most profound conversation you’ve ever had in your life, and then accepting that you’ll never see them again.

But such is travel; every nuance fascinates you. Sunrise and sunset suddenly become worthwhile to catch, cheap, simple food tastes like the best thing you’ve ever eaten, and you press on, walking just a bit further, even though you haven’t rested all day.

It also gives you a lot of time to think. As I listened to impromptu musical performances in Singapore’s Esplanade, and gazed out over the endless green of the Highlands, I thought about what was truly meaningful in my life. What do I want to accomplish with my time on this Earth? Instead of going into “existential crisis mode” as usual, I felt calmer about acknowledging that type of question. If I take life as I get it, and if I’m content and satisfied with what I’m doing, where I’m at, and where I’m going, I think I’m on the right path. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

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When I started this blog, I knew that the year ahead would allow me to explore more of the world than I’ve ever seen. However, I didn’t think that I’d find out so much more about myself in the process. With every new sight, I gained some kind of insight into my own life and how I wanted to lead it. I thought I had a good sense of what I was like and what my capabilities were before I left for Korea, but now I see myself as more positive, confident, self-accepting, and brave. I still wonder what kind of person I would have been if I didn’t decide to spend a year abroad. It’s bittersweet that I’m already halfway through, the time has passed so quickly.

As a result of traveling alone from country to country, relying on myself for food and shelter, confronting various challenges along the way, I feel as if nothing will phase me. I believed that living on my own in Korea would grant me the independence I desired, but this short trip gave me that and more. Sometimes I had a plan, sometimes I crossed my fingers, sometimes I went with the flow, but all the while I was certain that I’d make it through. There’s something to be said about letting go of all you know, of everything that makes you comfortable, of everyone familiar, and diving headfirst into the world. I made that dive half a year ago, and I have been cherishing every moment since then.

I hope that the next six months will continue to bring many opportunities to see and experience this truly vast world – I’m already planning the next trip.

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Author: Natasha

26, student of law but still a dreamer. currently living in chicago.

2 thoughts on “The Wide World: Traveling Outside Korea

  1. Absolutely loved the post. I have been to those countries and I think Singapore is my favourite. I also love Seoul! ;)

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