Sandra’s Journey from Lithuania to Southeast Asia

Few months ago I discovered a nice article about an explorer named Sandra who travelled to Southeast Asia. She had a life experience that not many are brave enough to do. She quit her job, traveled alone and part of her trip spent volunteering in the Philippines. Unfortunately, article was in Lithuanian, so not many of us could have an access to her story. Thus, I decided to find her and ask is she could share her experience with us in English.

Last year I quit my job to travel the world. I spent six fantastic months in Southeast Asia and just a few months ago returned back home (Lithuania). The years of 2013 & 2014 was an exciting time filled with challenges and hard decisions which in the end rewarded me with joy, happiness and glory. The trip took almost seven months but it has added up to what could be the best of my life – for now.

I have tried many new things. Some have been hard, some full of wonder, but none of them boring. When traveling, you are exposed to overcome a lot of barriers: from geographic, time and climate to cultural and political. A constant change in the outside world surely impacts your inner changes. It forces you to slow down and improvise through each new day on the road. It awakens enthusiasm, attentiveness and interest in every slightest detail. It calls to make the most of the precious time we have on this earth. It did to me.

STATISTICS

In a nutshell:

  • Travelled 6 countries in 6 months
  • Travelled ~ 26.343 km in total, out of which [within SE Asia] by:
  • Plane: around ~ 15.723 km
  • Bus: ~6.665 km
  • Scooter: > 3.855 km

*excl. ferries/ boats/ yachts

travel-route-map 

As a woman, which country was most easy & safe to travel? SAFETY TIPS FOR WOMEN SOLO TRAVELERS. 

Is it safe for a woman to travel alone in the South East Asia? It’s far safer than media would have it appear, and with the proper planning and precautions, it can absolutely be safe and easy. I’d say there are only a few spots in the world map that could be easily regarded as safe for solo women travelers – and SE Asia would be at the TOP of that list. Why? If you have traveled extensively there, you’d know that for sure. For others – just book a ticket and go.

Of course, there are a lot of travel bloggers and a lot of safety rules, which if followed, helps to protect yourself from the danger you can get when traveling in any foreign country. First of the core – use common sense. Don’t be careless, don’t totally trust someone you just met, be aware at all times that you’re in a world very different from your own, inside a culture comprised of people who think and behave very differently than you are used to.

Dress modestly and behave respectfully. That’s the basics. They say there are certain countries in the world like India that necessitate greater caution for women travelers. I think this is a big misperception. You’d be surprised at what you’d find in common “safe” Western world destinations. However, the sad truth is that no matter how prepared you are, no matter how many precautions you take, sometimes bad things can happen. Just simply stay awake and make the right decisions as to keep safe.

Why Asia?

Besides the fact, that Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, I had always admired and been attracted to this part of the world. And of course – it’s one of those destinations that are safe enough for women to travel alone.

Was it hard to communicate with local people?

Not at all! I’ve found it really easy to communicate with locals. Sometimes it’s just a smile that leads to extraordinary conversations with ordinary people… Talk with people: as simple as that. Every person on the road has his/her story to tell. When you begin to travel and open up your eyes, you’ll start to see many things that conflict with your own cultural norms and the way you have been brought up.You are then forced to re-address your values, look at things or experiences without judging, get rid of your cultural baggage and change your perspective to the world.

For the purpose to get along well with locals, I think what you need to do is to lose up your home cultural baggage and open up yourself to every experience, different opportunities, different environment and different cultures. If you want to really feel the culture from inside out, not just to follow the well-known paths of tourists, the best way to do this is to spend some time living with local families. That’s something very exciting, interesting and fun to do. I chose to live with locals wherever was possible and was amazed by how hospitable, honest and friendly could be the acquaintances you meet on the road.

Did you plan your trip very well or was it “go with-a-flow”? Did you visit main attractions or places less traveled?

The whole concept of the trip was to get rid of any type of schedules, detailed plans, deadlines, graphics or other stuff that is associated with routine life… Forcing myself to slow down and improvise my way through each new day on the road was the best way to break out of the habits of home and start the amazing possibilities a journey promises. So to answer your question – no, I did not plan my trip at all. I bought a ticket to Bangkok, Thailand with no idea what’s going to be next and knew I had my budget prepared for more or less half-a-year in SE Asia. That’s it. Everything evolved on the road. It feels really good to be able to adjust your next destination or to postpone the scheduled trip for tomorrow wherever and whenever needed.

I like one sound phrase that describes exactly the way I travel/ live: “Two roads diverged in a wood. And I took the one less travelled by. That has made all the difference”. That’s the philosophy I choose. I always travel anywhere that sounds wacky or beautiful or interesting. Or anywhere that’s been recommended by an influential acquaintance met on the road.IMG_3640

 You traveled alone, but most of us know, that it’s very likely to meet other travelers on the road. Did you like the company or you chose to do things on your own?

We travelers have a lot in common – the eagerness to get out of the comfort zone, to see how is out there, that dive to explore the world. Always deliberating whether the grass is greener elsewhere… So when you meet another traveler that shares the same uncomfortable feeling of “estrangement” you understand you have so much in common – and that’s a good start for the dialogue. I met the uncountable number of people in those six months period while on the road, many of which were incredible people that may stay forever in my heart. Some of them made a great influence on my perception, broadened the horizons, closed some doors and opened the other ones. Some of them taught me very important lessons of life.

There was another bunch of people that see travelling as a way to escape from the problems of their own creation. Travel should not be an escape. There’s a big difference between wanting a change and needing to run away from a prison of your own making. The people I tried not to get too much in contact were those young crowds that take a golden gap year, use parent’s money without any responsibility and do not take a slightest interest into the culture and people where they travel. Travelling becomes a trendy stuff, so there are more and more people of that type on the road.

IMG_4405

Did you experience any cultural clash?

As I mentioned before, when traveling, you are exposed to overcome a lot of barriers: from geographic, time and climate to cultural and political. Every day you’re forced to face situations when you see many things that do not necessarily align with your own cultural norms and the way you have been brought up. But I do not call that cultural clash. It’s just our own cultural baggage that forces us to see things through our own lenses with a lot of judgment and disposition. However, there was couple of things that were surprisingly different from the western culture:

–       Different and conflicting religions under one roof: there are countries (like Thailand and Indonesia) in Southeast Asia where locals practice many different religions that in the other part of the world are fighting for their rights. Muslims, Buddhist, Christians and other preaching other religions can live in a modest and peaceful style.

–       Driving rules: driving there (especially in main cities of Vietnam) is all about keeping on a horn. You use to tell people you are there, not to tell them to get out of the way. So you go past a truck, you beep, you drive past pedestrians, you beep and – most importantly – you just drive along, you beep. Oh, and another important note: trucks and buses don’t care about other drivers, so you have to get out of their way if they want you to, because believe me they will win that argument. IMG_8242

How about the food? Could you name some favorite dishes?

Just a few to name from my favorite Asian cuisine:

Durian Fruit

Peanut Source with Vegetables/ Rice

Sweat Soy Source

Pad Thai and all other Thai dishes

Fried Rice

Mango Sticky Rice

Seafood, seafood, seafood – fresh, well made and super tasty

During your trip you did volunteering. WHAT was your experience?

Yes, part of my trip I spent volunteering in Bantayan Island, the Philippines – the island that was one of the most destroyed during Yolanda typhoon in the Philippines in Nov, 2013. Typhoon was the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land anywhere in the world and is estimated to have killed > than 10.000 people. I joined the team just a couple of months after the typhoon hit the island. Even though there was no emergency there at the time, there was the need for durable shelter for thousands (in Bantayan island only – > 14.000 households) of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

The organization I worked for Young Pioneer Disaster Response was based in disaster response area and was mainly involved in re-building community house, school rehabilitation programs to rebuild houses and schools on Bantayan Island by clearing debris, re-roofing, repairing electricity and etc.

We also worked closely with local schools in order to develop various educational programs – teaching kids hygienic norms, leading medical mission and improving English language skills. The experience I had has been something that gave me a lot of rewarding time, emotional hype and self-esteem of being able to help locals to survive after such a disaster. As we know, taking others’ interests into account not only helps them, it also helps us.

Sometimes people think compassion is only of help to others, while we get no benefit. This is a mistake. When you concern yourself with others, you naturally develop a sense of self-confidence. To help others takes courage and inner strength. Of course, it was emotionally very sensitive period.

Now you’re back home, have you planned your next trip?

It’s only a couple of months down the line – a bit too early to plan for the next big trip. There are a few trips in store and Asia will be at the top of the list for sure. Not sure where and when. I now enjoy “here and now” not really overthinking what future may unfold for me. I feel more settled into a rhythm of life back home. Although things were not as easy in first months as it is now.

You wouldn’t believe it, but out of all challenges that wait on the road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home. Not because it signals the end of all the fun and freedom, but because returning home after such a vivid experience overseas can be just weird and unsettling. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different. That’s what happened for me. I started to notice many things that I ignored before here in Lithuania. As once said:

 

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place as for the first time

That’s so true!

Really interesting thing is that once you go on the road you start observing yourself, your actions & reactions, start recovering and/ or discovering different parts of yourself, but once you come back home same process starts again…

TIPS FOR OTHER TRAVELERS:

✓  Follow your heart

✓  Be adventurous for every opportunity & take random experience

✓  Open yourself up to every avenue of experience

✓  Do something amazing: volunteer

✓  Live a modest, simple life on the road (lose your identity)

✓  Get rid of your own cultural baggage

✓  Lose yourself & find yourself on the road

✓  Be proactive: couch-surfing; local communities (social websites: couch-surfing, Facebook, Lithuanians abroad, etc.)

✓  Do NOT stop wondering, searching, analyzing

✓  “Take-it-easy”, “slow-down”, “show-your-cool-heart”

✓  Take a slightly different look at the same things at home

 

More about Sandra’s background:

Job: Investment Advisor for Investment Promotion Agency “Invest Lithuania”, agency that works with large international companies aiming to foster FDI in Lithuania.

Education: Master of Science in International Marketing & Management at ISM, Norwegian Business School

 Interview by M.Borgarbúi

 

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