Vagabonding Case Study: Emile Baizel
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Quote: “Be open to anything. And you do that by not planning so much.”
How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip?
A friend of mine turned me onto the book after I had quit my job in early 2008 and was debating what to do next. The book inspired me to take a longer trip and I flew to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, something I had dreamt of doing for the past ten years, as well as trekking in the Sahara desert with just a camel and a guide.
After returning from this six week trip I realized that what I really wanted and needed to do was to continue finding adventures and traveling. I returned to San Francisco for a brief stint, moved out of my place, sold most of what I owned, and bought a one way ticket to India that fall. On this second trip I traveled for over 14 months.
How long were you on the road?
14 months. September 2008 through November 2009.
Where all did you go?
Spain, Morocco, India, Nepal, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Jordan, Syria
What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey?
I was a Product Manager at a software startup and had always saved money over the years in case I wanted to take time off at some point. My landlord also offered to buy me out of my lease since the apartment was rent controlled so that was a good wad of travel money. And once I became a pro at budget traveling I could make a dollar go a long way. I also earned $10 as an extra in a Bollywood film!
Did you work or volunteer on the road?
Yes. I lived at and volunteered for two months at the Happy Home Nepal orphanage outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. I helped the twenty children with their English and Math homework and also built the happyhomenepal.org website and improved their SEO, all to help with getting donations and raising awareness of the orphanage to other volunteers.
Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite?
Man this is tough. The Camino de Santiago was a very special trip for me. As far as places, the remote areas of the Indian Himalayas would have to be my favorite. The landscape and the Tibetan-influenced culture is like nothing I have seen or experienced anywhere else. Seeing how people live off the land in high altitudes is quite amazing. Nepal is a very close second. Warm people, beautiful temples and world class mountain trekking.
Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging?
Singapore. I was planning on staying a few days before continuing on to Australia, but I got bored after half a day. After coming from India and Nepal where everything is an adventure, Singapore felt so stiff and sterile. I left the following day. It seems like a comfortable place to live, but not so much for traveling.
Did any of your pre-trip worries or concerns come true? Did you run into any problems or obstacles that you hadn’t anticipated?
I had a couple of concerns. Getting gravely ill and being alone. I was worried about getting nasty stomach problems in India and aside from a few minor discomforts, I never got it bad. And I even swam in the Ganges in Varanasi and survived. I was also worried about being alone, and not meeting people. This couldn’t have been further from the reality. I met travelers in every village, town or city that I went to and in my first couple of weeks in India, made some great friends who I would travel with for a couple of months. A group I became very close with reunited at one of the guy’s weddings this spring in Mexico.
Which travel gear proved most useful? Least useful?
Most useful: Ziplock bags! So underrated yet so useful.
Least useful: most of the stuff I bought at sporting goods stores here in the U.S. I did a few long distance and challenging hikes in Nepal, including the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp. I brought everything that I needed for those hikes with me to Nepal, but that was a mistake as most of the items could be bought for much cheaper in Pokhara and Kathmandu. Specifically, boots and sleeping bags should be purchased in the U.S. Everything else should be bought in Nepal. And it helps their economy.
What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle?
Oh man, just that feeling of being alive!! It’s a feeling of adventure you simply can not replicate at home. At the start of my trip I was quite timid in terms of how I traveled. I planned everything well ahead, booked hotel rooms, reserved seats on buses. After about a month, I simply stopped planning ahead and just figured things out as I needed to. It gave me a lot more freedom and flexibility with where I went and how I got there.
As an example, I and a couple of other backpackers decided we would hitchhike across Cambodia instead of taking buses. There becomes a sort of ‘backpacking circuit’ in southeast Asia that is easy to fall into and we wanted to do something a bit different. We crossed the Laos border on foot and for a couple of hours it was not looking promising as no one was offering us a ride. But soon enough this long flatbed truck pulls up and in exchange for helping them roll some tree trunks onto the truck, they gave us a ride from the Laos border to Siem Reap. That was probably the ultimate ‘vagabonding’ experience for me. A year before that, sitting behind my desk in my office, I would not have thought in a million years I would be hitchhiking in Cambodia.
What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle?
You don’t always have a comfortable bed, or a clean, odor-free bathroom when you need it. That’s the reality. But you’ll get over it. The locals deal with it everyday. Although the one time that I had to run to the bathroom and realized I forgot to bring my toilet paper with me. That was not such a great moment.
I missed talking to friends and family, and also having my own kitchen. And good Mexican food. You just can’t find good Mexican food abroad.
What lessons did you learn on the road?
Be open to anything. And you do that by not planning so much. Have a general idea of where you want to go, but allow room for spontaneity in the journey. Also, comfortable and more expensive travel never equals more fun. It’s usually the opposite. Traveling in the General seating class on an overnight train in India is an unparalleled experience. There are people covering every square inch of the floor, and some guy is asleep resting his head on your knee while a chai vendor is making his way through the crowded car stepping over people while a guy sitting in the luggage rack above you is asking you if you could sponsor him to work in the U.S. because he’d be a really good doctor.
You also start to realize that what seems so important at home is not so important once you leave home. For example, where I live, in San Francisco, the media is always buzzing about Facebook and Twitter and when the next iPhone is coming out. When you’re hiking at 15,000 feet altitude in the Himalayas, people there are concerned with how much cow dung they can save up to keep their fires burning through the winter.
How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip?
For me, “vagabonding” meant doing things off the beaten path as much as I could. I began skipping the bigger cities in favor of a smaller village or a more remote destination I had heard about.
If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be?
Be diligent about journaling and taking pictures. I wrote pretty frequently but I wish I had kept a daily journal. So much happens day to day and you think you’ll never forget it. The big stories will always be in your mind but it’s the small details that can fade away. Taking lots of pictures, especially of people you encounter, helps with this too.
Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure?
Embrace the unknowns. As a first time long term traveler, there are so many questions you’ll have. Certainly do your research but don’t overdo it. You will meet other travelers who will share their experience and stories with you and those will inspire your next journey. Have a general sense of what you want to do (I’d like to volunteer, I’d like to learn surfing, I’d like to study Buddhism) and see where there are good places to do those things. Then your trip becomes the adventure you embark on to get to that place and then engaging in the activity you had set out to do.
When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey?
I’ve never been to South America and only visited parts of Central America. I’d like to take several months and ride my motorcycle from my home in San Francisco and travel across Central and South America to the southern most point of Chile.
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