Vagabonding Case Study: Christine Kaaloa
Age: Never ask a girl her age after she crosses 40.
Hometown: Aiea, Hawaii
Quote: Your horizon is only as far as you can imagine it.
How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip?
When the U.S. went into recession in 2009, I decided it was a perfect time to take a gap year/s to live abroad and travel. I didn’t know how I’d find a job, that would allow me to do that, so I read interviews on the Vagabonding site about other travelers’ process.
We’re all trying to figure out how to make our travel dreams work and we all have the same questions of budget, getting around economically, how to make a living from traveling, etc… I was walking away from a freelance career as a television camerawoman and field producer, which I loved. But living abroad was just as much a part of my bucket list as working in TV. I was definitely looking for possible solutions. Eventually, I chose teaching ESL in Korea, as that ladder onward to another life.
How long were you on the road?
I taught in Korea for a year, traveling to different parts of the country each weekend, while visiting neighboring countries on during vacations. After my teaching gig ended, I backpacked for seven months.
I consider the rigors of living abroad as an expat similar to being on the road 24/7, but different, in terms of time. As an expat you need to adapt to daily culture shock and language barriers, to deepen your understanding of a country in order to survive it and incorporate all that into a workable lifestyle. You can’t leave when struggles with the culture, food or language rub you the wrong way. You have to make it work.
As a vegetarian with no former knowledge of Korean culture or the language, navigating everyday life was rewarding and exciting, but definitely not easy.
Where did you go?
Backpacking, I spent three months in India, then Southeast Asia and back to South Korea. Outside of a yoga teaching certification program I arranged for a month in India and knowing I wanted to eventually find work at a summer camp in Korea, I pretty much winged the rest of my plan.
Some folks plan for a long-term backpacking trip over the course of a year. I only had a few days. I didn’t even have enough time to freak out about that fact. I researched a couple of things about India the week before I left and hit the ground running. My itinerary was literally an open road.
What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey?
When I taught in Korea I was able to save somewhere well over $10,000, which became my travel fund. I felt like I got paid to travel and that payment funded further travels.
Did you work or volunteer on the road?
I did a couple of one-day volunteer stints in Dharamsala, teaching English to monks. That was fun. For work, I picked up a teaching gig at an English ‘musical’ summer camp in Korea, where I got to direct elementary Korean students to act, dance and sing in musicals I created. It was an incredibly demanding job, but one I enjoyed a lot.
Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite?
India and Thailand are all-time favorites. Both are highly diverse countries, with many things to see and foods I love. India can be challenging and raw and I love it. Thailand is easy-going, good natured and food is almost never on my mind until I hit this country .
Of newer countries I visited, I had good impressions of Cambodia and Bali felt culturally rich and intriguing to me . I feel it’s often overplayed as a resort destination, but overlooked as a culturally rich one, with unique customs and values. Both countries are places I’d want to return to explore more.
Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging?
Malaysia is a nice country, but I just wasn’t happening with it. It’s like a blind date, you don’t have much in common with.
Traveling long-term with a vegetarian, I started viewing places according to my ease with finding food. With some places, it can take me up to an hour looking for something I can eat. Either I was hitting bad restaurants or wasn’t able to find the type of street food I felt comfortable eating.
Which travel gear proved most useful? Least useful?
Two things I was glad I took with me– a hypoallergenic mattress cover (that I cut up to fit a twin bed) and my sleeping bag. The mattress cover was great to unroll on overnight trains or beds that felt sketchy. Those covers are made to keep out dust mites and allergens, so I trust them against bed bugs.
I was worried that taking my silk liner and a sleeping bag would be excessive. It wasn’t. I stayed in Dharamsala for a month and also visited Ladakh. Even though India was entering summer, some nights, even bundled in a scarf and jacket, under my silk liner, sleeping bag and guesthouse’s wool blanket, was not enough protection against the freeze. Those higher altitudes in India can have very wintery evenings!
Least useful was my travel towel. I quickly left it behind in a guesthouse, opting for a scarf and sarong, which dried quicker and had more purposes.
What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle?
The rewards are many. For me, it was realizing I can live a pretty fulfilling, organic existence, on very little. Armed with only the contents of my backpack as my sole possessions, being on the road taught me to be more resourceful, finding value in simplicity and that felt damn, liberating.
Crossing forty, I had friends, who had families, were buying cars, investing in homes and property. I totally get their concerns; living in the U.S. is not cheap. Materially, my friends had a lot, including large debts and stresses! I’m not the type of person, who can see myself living a nomadic lifestyle, I often wonder if I should be on that material road too. The simplicity and unfiltered freedom you experience by learning to rid yourself of additional baggage makes coming home a challenge.
What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle?
I won’t lie—at some point the constant moving and sense of homelessness, got to me. Without a visible goal, community or daily regimen, I had moments where I felt displaced, drifting … a tumbleweed.
Also, as a solo traveler, it’s easy to befriend the community of travelers passing through. You can share experiences and memories with them, but at some point, you realize everyone leaves and that the cumulative realization of that can feel lonely.
What lessons did you learn on the road?
Always have a sense of humor about your situation, good or bad. Experiencing a different environment or a foreign culture can be jolting and as travelers, it’s easy to express our upsets immediately and our judgements openly. The longer you travel, you realize it’s a large world out there and whatever challenges you experience, are slight compared to what its residents are living on a daily basis.
Another lesson is that your horizon is only as far as you can imagine it. I found many times, my biggest obstacle was my occasional lack of imagination. On the road, you discover many things are possible if you can envision them. Thus, not having a vision is what makes things impossible.
How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip?
At some point, winging my plans got easier and I got more confident as a travel survivalist. I began to plan less and to trust my resourcefulness for finding a guesthouse upon arrival. I started to feel like life was my dance partner and because I could trust myself to survive, I could trust what life threw at me, almost implicitly. I began to flow with situations and change. That’s one of the pearls of vagabonding.
If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be?
Your life will change and be ready for the fact, that when you return home, certain things won’t fit. You get used to living on the road and that adventure, its momentum and highs are hard to step off of. Also, the more you see and learn about different cultures, their struggles and economies, it changes your outlook and personal meaning of life.
Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure?
Take your time and allow yourself to rest at places for a while, if you need to feel grounded. Each day does not have to be “amazing”. It’s okay to allow yourself to have those occasionally boring days of just sleeping in
Many of us know how to survive short trips, more than we do long ones. It’s easy to get into the funk of treating your travel itinerary like a rifle range, knocking off as much as you can all at once. Pace yourself.
Lastly, just do it. I’m actually the last person I would’ve thought to have taken a 7 month backpacking trip with no plans or research. Once you jump, you’ll find a way to land on your feet and with feet in reality, everything is much more manageable.
When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey?
Vagabonding has made me more confident in knowing I can survive anywhere, even if imperfectly, so these days, due to my schedule and economy, I’ve been taking trips based on low cost last-minute flights. My next trip will be dependent upon the way the wind blows.