I’m from Singapore. I live in an average house. I went to an average school. I worked in an average job. I had average dreams. In 2015, I quit my job, and embarked on my average trip.
I left Singapore on 6 March 2015 for a long awaited sabbatical, after 7 years of work. Over the past 365 days, I travelled mostly overland from Asia to Europe, through 25 countries and 50 cities, towns and islands.
The only time I felt like I was back in Singapore was when I finally reached London – the last pit stop on my trip – and walked into a mega mall, with luxury boutique shops lining the shiny marbled floor.
My experience as a shoestring backpacker was humbling. Over the past year, I spent about S$25,000, but I felt like I was rewarded with a million dollars; somewhere, someone, something over the 14,000km I traversed has made me a richer man.
I first felt humbled when I set foot in India, Chennai. It was a normal day, at a temperature of 42°C. I was keen to save 200 rupees (~S$4), so I embarked on a 2km walk with my 15kg backpack.
I was immediately overwhelmed by the heat, chaos and sights of poverty: Homeless people in dismal states of nourishment and physical handicap lived off the streets and fed off the slums; street vendors of various standards of hygiene control tried to keep flies and roaming cows away from their food; the ceaseless honking of rickshaws and tuktuks added to the cacophony of noises.
I felt a strong need remain in my sterile bubble, but I also felt compelled to soak up the experience as much as possible.
I walked through most of the cities that I visited in India, exploring the sights and observing the daily bustle. I travelled alone, but I had companions of all sorts: Rickshaw drivers who would follow me for a good 50-100 metres, offering to take me to my destination; locals would greet me with a stereotypical ‘你好’ (nihao), ‘konnichiwa’, or ‘annyeonghaseyo’ every two to five minutes; hordes of children would follow me with their hands stretched out.
India is not for the average traveler. All your senses are so engaged that you’ll find your privacy constantly being invaded: The sights are frequently unsettling; the noise pollution ear wrecking; the different smells perpetually infiltrating your nostrils.
I remember once eating my chocolate biscuit – a typical backpacker’s breakfast – when a kid of no more than seven years old asked me for money. His clothes were dirty, as were his hair and hands.
He was barefoot, skinny, and carrying his baby sibling in a cloth sling. A scene from Slumdog Millionaire inevitably played out in my head. I uncomfortably rejected his request, as with the thousands of others who approached me every few metres. I finished my biscuit, and used my spare change to buy myself a cup of hot chai.
An unusual weight set upon me as I drank my tea. Couldn’t I have helped this kid? Didn’t I have spare change that meant nothing to me, but everything to him? I was disturbed. I was cash rich, but I had a poor soul.
I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about issues of poverty: About national policies that are geared towards alleviating the social and economic problems facing India; about the lack of birth control methods, and the lack of maternal nutrition and clean water which leads to all unimaginable sorts of birth deformity.
By the time I left India, I learnt that being rich was more than just the numbers in my bank account; it was more accurately measured with how frequently I was in touch with my soul. I left with an enriched soul, a richer man than before.
Coming from Singapore, I often felt like I was time-traveling whenever I had my passport stamped at obscure land border customs. A joke we have back home is that if Singaporeans were to cross the causeway into Johor Bahru, we will be transported 10 years back in time.
I felt as if I had traveled as far back as 50 years in some of the countries I visited.
Each new land border I crossed expanded the boundaries of my mind with new perspectives. It was difficult for an average Singaporean like me to comprehend how somebody could possibly work for US$200-500/month for 50 years of his life?
Throughout my journey, I crossed paths with hundreds of amazing souls. I learnt that a person earning such a small amount can still lead a fulfilling and happy life.
My humble guesthouse owner in rural Laos; my Bhutanese tour guide who had little idea of what the outside world is like; my Pakistani couchsurfing host who proudly shared about his country and culture; the semi-drunk Georgian bus driver who didn’t give two hoots about his passengers –– they were the ones who taught me what it meant to feel rich. They showed me that there is more to life than money.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating a meagre salary; nor am I being cliche and saying that Singaporeans need to be more appreciative of what we have. I am advocating life as a journey worth traveling, the kind of travel that can potentially enrich your life.
It’s a life that I stumbled upon, somewhere between the mega malls of Singapore and London.
You can go about your daily grind with cash and credit cards in your wallet, but with little understanding of how small a life you are living in this large world.
To quit my job and take a sabbatical was a huge but rewarding decision. There is a richness in this world that no job can buy, but you can experience through a year of backpacking: Travelling makes you richer.