I trembled on stage as I gripped the handheld whiteboard scrawled with my answer to the tie-breaker question. My fellow sixth graders sat in the audience fidgeting in their seats with their fingers crossed, hoping I’d beat the other finalist, a fifth-grade savant. I’d written “Scotland,” but the correct response to which country is a former British penal colony was Australia. I was wrong. The other side burst into cheers filling the chapel of my tiny Jewish elementary school. I swallowed a lump in my throat as I shook hands with the ecstatic victor of Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School’s qualifying round for the 2002 National Geographic GeoBee.
The sting of defeat from that moment sticks with me today. However, it’s actually the lead-up to that story that’s far more important for me now. Fundamental to who I am as an adult is a former youth obsession with the names of states and countries along with myriad other world geography trivia. From as young as I can remember, I absorbed every factoid possible about places near and far.
A Childhood Rite
Fortunately, I practiced a helpful ritual every night as I anxiously awaited my mom to put my dinner on the table. Between kitchen-bound shouts of, “What’s for dinner?!,” I’d fervently dart my eyes back and forth over a placemat printed with a map of the US. The visual osmosis was so strong that I could doodle accurate borders of all 50 states from memory in class while tuning out redundant lessons on Hebrew vowel mark placement.
My associated fascination with planes probably made me an annoyingly precocious child on our flights to visit distant family. Before the days of rainbow spectrum terror alerts, my dad would always succumb to my pleas to visit the cockpit to get my metal “wings” pin from the pilot. And while in air, I’d fog up my seat’s ice-specked window with my chubby face pressed firmly against the glass at 35,000 feet. Between servings of peanuts and V8, my gaze was fixed downward at Earth’s vast surface while I imagined the sensation of gliding through a blanket of cotton candy clouds.
In my teens I was giddy to explore somewhere beyond the familiar (as exotic as Passover vacation seeing my relatives in Livingston, New Jersey could be). My wish was granted, and I visited Europe with my parents, eventually partaking in month-long, Spanish language immersion trips to Spain and Argentina with other high schoolers. Then, when I wasn’t ready to go to college immediately, I spent a formative gap year volunteering in Chile.
Latin America’s passion and alluring economic prospects made it my preferred region, and I was determined to become an expert. Consequently, I learned Portuguese, did a semester-long study abroad in Brazil, and kept returning to that dangerously seductive land. (If you’ve read this blog, you know what happened next.)
After a couple years of samba, acai, and starting a venture in one of the worst nations for business, I came to a crucial realization. I was static, an unwelcome requirement of running my enterprise there. At that pace, how was I ever going to reach those abstract corners of my childhood dinner placemat map?
Considering the constraints of human life expectancy and the mounting obligations that come with age, I decided now is the time to journey. Particularly, to go everywhere I want, I have to always be moving. The globe is too expansive for lingering anywhere too long. Yet, endeavoring to see everything is a futile pursuit.
Instead, I want to experience that which is uniquely extraordinary. Certainly there are lots of nice beaches in the world, but I’m only interested in the superlative beaches–the one with the whitest sand, or the sharpest cliffs, or the most entertaining monkey inhabitants. Likewise, there are many mystical temples, an abundance of exuberant festivals, and fancy restaurants in excess. I can’t, nor do I want to, experience them all.
Go East, Young Man
Did I close my eyes and spin a globe? No, I was very deliberate in picking a destination. I’ve just begun a year traveling most of the 19 countries in Southeast and then South Asia. Well, why there?
First of all, the region seems to be the cultural opposite of Latin America, where I became too comfortable after living there for three years from 2008 to 2014. Meaningful travel (not to be confused with vacation) should challenge you physically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Otherwise, how can I expect the experience to teach me anything? I know I’ll be uncomfortable here because I’ve never been to Asia until now, know few people here, don’t speak its languages and am ignorant of its history and culture.
This doesn’t mean I won’t spend some time doing the fun, touristy things, especially if they’re unique. Already in this first month spent in the Philippines: I learned to kitesurf, joined a five-day island-hopping boat expedition, and achieved Open Water diving certification while exploring Japanese shipwrecks from WWII at 80 feet below the surface.
Second, this region is very affordable to visit. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and other countries a backpacker can do a lot on a $50 daily budget. That’s necessary for me, so I can stretch my earnings from Brazil and still have enough of a cushion for whatever I do next. I’m confident I won’t break the bank by travel hacking (signing up for credit cards to get free airfare and accommodations), couchsurfing (both with friends and their friends as well as through Couchsurfing.com), and judiciously evaluating which activities to book and which to skip.
Third, exploring this region is key to my career aspirations. In broad terms, my interest is using innovative approaches to solve social and environmental problems. More specifically, I’m intrigued by scalable, for-profit models to improve the poor’s livelihoods and quality of life. As such, it’s fitting that Southeast and South Asia already have both lots of need for and activity toward those efforts. For example, India alone possesses 800 million people living on $2 a day or less, yet it’s also home to some of the most promising organizations serving that demographic.
My plan is to meet with such social enterprises to see their field operations in action. Simultaneously, I expect to have significant interactions these business’ customers and other poor people to better understand their reality from their perspective. This could take the form of organized tours offered by renowned development institutions such as Grameen and BRAC in Bangladesh. Alternatively, I could end up asking my tuk-tuk driver to sleep on the floor of his house, cook meals with his family, and play soccer with his kids.
I didn’t have anywhere to sleep tonight until a few hours ago, but had I constructed a regimented itinerary I’d have missed crashing the traditional, drunken wedding of a friend’s Lao colleague this weekend. Showing Lao grandmas how to Harlem Shake to Indochinese crooning in a village set beneath dramatic, limestone karsts isn’t an activity in any tour packages.
My point is that the structure of a trip itinerary would only constrict my open-ended travel goals. I want to be able to change directions on a whim, especially when so much of this region is unknowable through TripAdvisor reviews and Lonely Planet guides.
Ultimately, it’s premature to make any commitments so soon, but I envision this year leading to the connections, experience, and inspiration for starting another business. In the meantime, I’m just wandering.