Cindy Chen: On travelling solo and gaining confidence along the way

Cindy Chen is a friend from my undergraduate days (#schucrew!). She’s currently on an amazing solo trip around the world, and I’ve found it so heartening to speak with her and learn about her adventures and emotional journey– I thought other people might find her story just as inspiring. Cindy was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself and her trip — this is a travel tale, from a different voice. 

Cindy Chen

Cindy Chen

1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your trip?

I grew up in Toronto, Canada and have lived there most of my life. I come from a Chinese immigrant family that never had much and still live quite modestly.  My parents taught me that the way to a happy life is achieving financial stability through hard work. But growing up in Western society, this worldview was quite narrow compared to what I and all of my peers were exposed to. Alas, I did end up following a rather safe path until now. Currently in my late twenties, I’m going through one of those “it’s-now-or-never-I-have-to-find-myself” phases. Being a fairly self-reflective and inquisitive person, one of my dreams has always been to do long-term travel. After graduating from business school and working in jobs that I didn’t particularly feel passionate about (especially in corporate cultures more focused on job titles and year-end bonuses than real results), I finally pulled the plug and quit my job. I’m certainly not saying travel is going to answer all of my questions; in fact, I think travel is just a process that enables one to dig deeper inside them self through experiences. I believe the person that comes out on the other side of a long trip all depends on how they absorb the new experiences and reflections internally.

2) What inspired you to take the leap and go on this journey? 

I mulled over this question for a good few minutes…to be honest, there wasn’t a particular “inspiration” so to speak that made me go on this journey. Not to sound super corny, but I’ve always known deep down that I wanted to do this. It was just a reality that was coming closer and closer to me as I grew older and felt a deeper connection to what my gut was telling me.  What did help me feel less afraid to take the leap are friends/people that I know who have done the same thing. My friend Carmen, for example, definitely set the bar for me when she did her ‘around-the-world’ trip. And throw in the plethora of online articles about “how-I-quit-my-job-to-travel” on social media and popular online forums, and a perfect storm of determination and courage brewed. Once the idea sparked, one thing lead to another, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at yoga teacher training courses abroad, volunteer opportunities, and workaway/WWOOFING opportunities. The trip started to take shape as I discovered that I wanted it to be a year of learning and doing new things that I’ve always wanted to do.

3) What has been the most challenging part of your trip so far? 

I’m in the fourth month of my journey and it has been incredible. I think that the challenges that come along the way are what make the journey so enriching. So far, the biggest challenge has been the physically demanding aspect of it (or maybe the emotional/mental parts just haven’t sunk in yet). Even though I’m travelling for a long time, I still managed to jam pack my schedule with so much to do and not enough rest days. Also, doing an intensive 200 hour yoga Teacher Training Course in one month, travelling through “rougher” parts of South Asia (i.e. India), and volunteering in Nepal clearing rubble sites for post-earthquake relief have all added up to a rather physically demanding trip. Still, I don’t regret a thing. 🙂 Were I to plan this trip again, I would do the same amount of stuff because I’ve loved it and my body is stronger because of it. Emotionally, I didn’t expect to miss home as much as I do, and I really missed home when I got sick. I dreamed about the congee my mom would make for me as I lay ill due to food poisoning in India. I also miss being able to talk to people that I’ve known for years and sharing my thoughts about the trip with them. It’s just not the same over sporadic Whatsapp calls. Mentally, I think my challenge is slowing down so I can begin the absorption process. There have been a handful of moments where tears have come rushing down out of nowhere and I’m happy and sad and awed by this world. I remember one time distinctly, while I was on the bus in Nepal going from Pokhara to Kathmandu and I was just bawling my eyes out while the beautiful view of the Himalayan mountain range was right outside my window. Luckily I was sitting alone so I sniffled happily in peace. 🙂

4) What has been the most rewarding part of your trip so far?

The most rewarding part has been meeting people and seeing/feeling/doing exactly what I want, when I want, and how I want. This is the kind of freedom I was searching for and travelling alone allows for it. It’s crazy to think that what I was afraid of before leaving for my trip has become one of the best parts of my trip. I’m so grateful to have been able to make real connections with people, whether it’s other world travellers I’ve met along the way or the kindest local people who have gone out of their way to help me. The generosity and kindness some of the people have shown has changed my perspective on the things I place value on. I have seen people with so little who are still so willing to share what they have. It’s really makes me think: what do I really need in life to be happy? Travelling with just a backpack has also been rewarding me with less stuff (a.k.a burden!) and fewer choices (meaning more time to explore, less time trying to pick an outfit!). Basically, simplicity is great and talking to strangers, even better. 🙂

5) Is there a piece of advice you can share, that you wish someone had shared with you before your journey?

Some general advice would be to have an open mind, stay hydrated, and give yourself time and space to explore, to think, to reflect. And for those of you who are still unsure about taking the leap to go on a journey, remember that there is nothing really safe/secure in this world. The biggest risk you’re taking is inaction because most people regret things they didn’t do, not things they did. 🙂

6) What are your top three travel essentials?

The handiest tool while travelling is definitely an unlocked smartphone. I’ve been buying a sim card everywhere I go and it’s saved me from getting lost and allowed me to make phone calls when I was stranded on the roadside with a dead ebike in Myanmar. 🙂 Also, load lots of podcasts onto the phone for long overnight buses/trains! TED radio hour, Freakonomics, and 99% Invisible are great. And a must-have app is “maps.me” – it’s the best offline map ever with pre-loaded landmarks!

Additionally, I would say a light scarf/sarong is a travel essential (for girls) because it is so versatile! You can use it to cover your shoulders or knees when going into religious monuments and it’s great for long bus/train rides as a blanket.

Finally, flip flops. So key. I use them to walk into hostel showers and they’re just super convenient to slip on and off while walking around in SE Asia.

7) We all have fears and experience doubt, but in our “Instagram society” we don’t often express these things. Has travelling alone helped you to confront any personal insecurities?

I had a great conversation with a few girls one afternoon while up in the mountains in Nepal. We were discussing what we’ve learned/are still learning on the trip. One common thing was that we were all learning how to be more secure and confident in who we are and our decisions. I never knew how little self-confidence I had until I started gaining it; I realized how afraid I used to be of doing things differently than everyone else, and also how afraid I was of missing out on stuff. I realized how much I doubted my own decisions even though these choices were the ones my gut was telling me to make, but I simply ignored my gut. Now travelling alone, I am able to see all of these things so much more clearly because I have the freedom to do whatever I want and this freedom requires confidence to sustain it. Through my trip I’ve learned that I am very capable of doing things on my own, making my own plans, and I’m also smart enough to make the right call (most of the time). I’m also going to give myself the space to make mistakes because it is only through making mistakes that I can learn from the experience and gain the confidence to keep going. Truthfully, I’m beginning to think that this is what this journey, not just travelling, but life, is all about.

You can follow Cindy’s adventure on Instagram at @wanderohwonder

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One thought on “Cindy Chen: On travelling solo and gaining confidence along the way

  1. Pingback: The Garden of Dreams | LANGUAGE of the PEOPLE

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