Help Us Change the Face of Tech

As you’re probably aware, I work for a non-profit called Ada Developers Academy. We’re a tuition-free coding school in Seattle for adult women and gender-diverse people, dedicated to closing the gender gap in tech.

Help Me support Ada on Give Big

It’s early May, and that means it’s the time for Give Big, one of our biggest fundraising events of the year. If you’re not familiar, Give Big is an annual time of giving to support nonprofits creating real and meaningful change in Washington state. Give Big runs from April 15th-May 6th, and we have a goal of raising $80,000. This year we have a matching sponsorship from C2FO up to $27,000, meaning the impact of your donation will be doubled!

Covid-19 has put a spotlight on many of our systems’ economic and social weaknesses, and this virus will only widen the gap of those who are disproportionately marginalized in our society. Ada Developers Academy contributes to building a more resilient  economy by training people in underrepresented communities to become software engineers, giving them the opportunity to build toward more stable futures in careers with higher salaries, flexibility and paid benefits, which is especially critical in times of economic downturn like today.

A non-profit doesn’t function without community support. Please, if you are able, donate today through our Give Big page to help us change the face of tech and create a stronger, more resilient economy.

Note: if your company matches donations (e.g. Microsoft), you should go through their system instead.

Thank you.

Reading List

I did a lot of reading while I was on walkabout! Some of it was really good and I would highly recommend. Some of it came highly recommended and didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve divided the books into 4 categories: read-right-now, ought-to-read, read-if-you’re-into-it and skip. I’ll even do little summaries for the first category!

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham

My sister recommended this one to me to get pumped for Vietnam, and she nailed it. Pham’s memoir about bicycling through the country he fled as a child is funny, moving, and strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be an American, an immigrant and an outsider.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Rosling has identified a problem: most western readers, regardless of education or background, consistently overestimate how bad the world is. Whether it’s infant mortality, women’s education or AIDS infection rates, most places are doing much better than you think they are.

To address this problem Rosling presents a different framework for thinking about economic development (4 levels, each with a “dollars per day” level attached) to replace the tired “developing/developed” dichotomy, and presents 10 good habits to help you fight bad instincts and see through misleading data. Yes this book is about economics, but it’s also about you, dear Western reader, calling out your biases and misconceptions and identifying tools to overcome them.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (audiobook)

Noah’s autobiography is nothing short of brilliant. Noah is of course a comedian and the work is hilarious, but he’s also a storyteller. It’s the sort of book where you’re not sure whether the tears are from joy or sorrow. Plus he reads the audiobook, and does a tremendous job.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This one ended up on both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot summary didn’t pull me in: a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the 1917 revolution. But this isn’t really a plot book. It’s a character study, and Towles uses that character as a lens on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing settings in modern history, all to brilliant effect. A Gentleman in Moscow is witty, charming and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right ways, exactly as a gentleman should.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

Another B&B book. I’ve tried to summarize this book to a few people and ended up monologuing for half an hour, so we’ll see if I can do better here. Harari looks at humans from the ground up, starting with our basic biology and evolutionary history, and building that up piece by logical piece into how modern society developed. It’s interesting and insightful and quite well-written, and it doesn’t sugar-coat what we are or how we act. Plus the audiobook is read by this British fellow with an absolutely perfect accent for drawing you in and making you feel intellectual.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • I really wanted to put this one in the top category. Coates’ book about the realities of living as a black man in modern racist America is unquestionably something that every American should read, probably twice. It’s well-written, and insightful, and goodness is it relevant. You will definitely be a better person for reading this. The reason I didn’t bump it is because this is not a “read it any time” book. Coates’ book is a downer. It’s brutally honest and kind of bleak, and I believe that if you’re not in a place where you can handle that its impact will be lost. Maybe it will do more harm than good. My recommendation: listen to Trevor Noah’s autobiography first, that will kind of prime the pump, then tackle this.
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
  • Arkwright, by Allen Steele
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
  • Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching
  • The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb (yes all three of them)
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Read If You’re Into It

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
  • The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
  • The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll
  • The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
  • Human Acts, by Han Kang

Skip

  • Monkey, by Wu Cheng-en, translated by Arthur Waley
  • Upheaval, by Jared Diamond
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman

The Loss of Solitude

These events happened a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been debating whether or not to post them – they don’t cast me in a great light – but I think me in 30 years will appreciate the reminder.

If you’re a prospective employer reading this, your takeaway should be that I value honesty, candor and a growth mindset over the appearance of perfection (I get to dictate my readers’ takeaways, right?)

OK, on to our story.

It was a Friday morning, the last day before my Ikon pass stoped working over MLK weekend. The weather report the night before called for 5-7 inches of light, cold powder up in the canyons, perfect for snowboarding. I woke up early and hopped on the bus to Solitude, intending to finally get a powder day there. Boy did Solitude deliver!

It was a day for the songs! Deep powder on a soft base, endless refills from the still-falling snow, and barely anyone in the park. It seemed like as soon as one area would start to get tracked ski patrol would open up the next lift and we’d have a whole new set of slopes to play with. I spent the morning working my way gradually up the hill, going faster and faster, tackling faces I wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole the day before. “Cheater snow” they call it, the kind of day that makes you feel invincible.

I did have one gnarly crash in the morning. Riding fast down an unfamiliar face I let my nose drop and it caught, and I flipped right over the front of my board. I managed 2 or 3 cartwheels before landing sprawled in the snow. It was pretty frightening and I for sure sat there for a minute or two before hauling myself up, but thanks to the deep fluff I was completely unharmed. I rode down and hopped right back on the lift, sense of invincibility undiminished.

Fast-forward to about 11:30 AM. The Summit Express chair is now open, and it’s just as perfect as everything else that day. Off the main blue line down from the top there is a gate into an avalanche-controlled area containing a double-black run called the Cathedral Cirque. You traverse from the top of the chair around a gentle bowl to the gate, then traverse around a ridge to get to the Cirque itself, dropping in right under the lift. The gate’s open, I hit the traverse, drop the face, it’s legendary. I must do it again.

This time I mess up the initial traverse so I follow a track under the rope just below the gate. My momentum carries me pretty far before I have the chance to look around and realize the gate is closed. Crap! It must have just happened – it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes since I skied it, and I had seen people on the face when I was on the chair no more than 5 minutes before I ducked the rope.

Now I had a decision to make. Unstrap and backtrack to the gate, which is potentially dangerous (especially if the snow here is unstable) and definitely tedious? Or trust the route I was just on? Which is safer?

I went for it…

And there was a ski patrol guy just out of sight around the ridge.

The patroller was not happy to see me, and not at all interested in listening to my explanation. He confiscated my Ikon pass and when I asked whether it was for the whole season all he said was “maybe”.

Dang.

I skied down to the lodge feeling pretty sorry for myself – getting my Ikon pass burned is a season-ending mistake. And it was an honest mistake! I wasn’t blatantly flouting the rules, a closed av-control zone was the last place I wanted to be. I know that avalanches are serious business, and as a rule I don’t mess around with the back-country or closed off areas. In 20-odd years of snowboarding I never once set foot out of bounds, and the one time I do by accident I get nailed. The punishment didn’t fit the crime!

Boo hoo woe is me.

But as I ate lunch (boy was I hungry) and mulled it over with the help of a kind group chat, I started to see the other side. I was in a closed av-zone, by intention or not, and that’s an extremely bad place to be. Cold and alone suffocating on snow would be a truly terrible way to go out. Moreover, if I had triggered an avalanche I could have hurt not just myself but skiers on the run below me, or ski patrol trying to dig me out of precarious snow. Conditions change fast on the mountain, especially in a storm, and it is absolutely my responsibility to be aware of what’s been marked as unsafe.

Getting burned for the whole season still felt disproportionate, but I at least understood why the ski patroller was so pissed.

So I started making calls. First to the director of the ski patrol (I got his voice mail), apologizing profusely and asking what a confiscated pass actually meant. Then to the ticket office, the manager of the resort, even the Ikon help line, anyone who might be able to tell me whether my season was over. No one who I could get ahold of was able to tell me anything useful.

I also got to call my parents and tell them that there might be some disruption to their visit the following week.

I kept calling over the long weekend. I never got ahold of the Solitude ski patrol, but I eventually determined that while I was hot-listed (banned) at Solitude for an indeterminate amount of time probably not less than 2 weeks, the pass would still work at the other mountains in the region. Not ideal – Solitude is the only park with unlimited days on the Ikon pass and my remaining charges at Brighton and Snowbird weren’t quite enough to carry me through – but not season-ending. That plus cutting off the best powder day of my life at the waist and causing a bunch of emotional distress felt like a reasonable punishment for my bone-headed move.

I’ve certainly learned my lesson. In the weeks since I’ve tried to exercise much more caution about where I go and what I hit, and I now always eyeball the av-gates from afar before committing to a traverse. I had gotten cocky, and this check came at just the right moment to cool me down a bit. I’m just glad I didn’t get myself (or someone else) hurt.

Addendum:

Two weeks later one thing stands out as curious about the whole incident: I responded much more strongly to getting caught by ski patrol than I did to getting pulled over by the cops in Vietnam. Riding a motorcycle with neither license nor training is probably about comparable in danger and stupidity to skiing in a closed av-zone, so why did I feel real bad about one while I brushed off the other as “just part of the adventure”? A few theories stand out:

  • Quality of the enforcers: I see ski patrol as an incorruptible force of good interested only in my safety, while the Vietnamese cops were clearly more focused on taking bribes than on keeping the road safe.
  • Frequency of the crime: everyone in Vietnam drives like a madman and half the drivers are unlicensed, whereas very few people duck the rope into a closed av-zone at an American ski resort.
  • Impact of the consequence: in Vietnam I had many ways to get around and even getting deported wouldn’t end my trip, whereas a burned Ikon pass would either end my season or put me out several thousand dollars.
  • As an imperialist pig I believe myself above the laws of a puny third-world nation.
  • In Vietnam I got away with it, whereas in Utah I did not.

It’s probably some combination of all of those. I haven’t quite figured out what to do about it yet, but it’s interesting to think about.

Hello Salt Lake City

Thought I was done, huh? Nah. I’ve still got a month left before I return to work and I intend to continue documenting. I figure 60-year-old me will appreciate the effort.

I am spending January 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I have borrowed my parents’ Subaru Outback. On New Years Day, battling a predictable hangover (painful but not earthshattering), I drove southeast. WA-99 to I-90 to I-82 to I-84. One night in Boise, I-84, lunch in the town of Snowville (pop. 177). More I-84, all the way to the Great Salt Lake. Past it, actually – SLC is southeast of the lake itself, and I’m staying southeast of downtown in a suburb called Sandy, about as close as you can get to the resorts.

The drive out was beautiful. Steep rolling hills in Eastern Washington, endless snow-capped badlands in Northeast Oregon, Idaho and Utah, punctuated by abrupt river valleys and jagged snowy mountains. It’s hard to beat the austere beauty of a desolate winter landscape.

I’ve rented an AirBnB for the month. It’s the downstairs half of a 2-story house, converted into a large 2-bedroom apartment, maybe 1600 square feet. It’s a typical mid-range AirBnB – comfortable and nicely decorated but with a useless kitchen. Dull knives, minimal pots and pans, a fridge that opens the wrong way, not enough cupboard space. I’ve stayed in enough AirBnBs to know to bring my own knives but tonight I was prevented from baking a batch of cookies by a lack of baking sheets. (Edit: as I was writing this, another of Dave’s roommates came down with a couple of baking sheets. Guess I’m making [and sharing] cookies tomorrow.)

My host Dave and his roommates (one is named Tucker? Travis? something like that – I hope it’s Tucker so they can fight evil together) live upstairs. We have not ridden together, but I get the impression he is a far better snowboarder than I am. Today he gave me a tip about a hidden powder spot at Solitude that reliably provides fresh lines days after a snowstorm. It’s just a half-mile traverse from the top of the lift – no biggie, right? I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to follow the lead. He has also offered me a lift up the hill any day he’s going – apparently a friend recently bought a big cruiser van and operates a low-key co-op shuttle service from Sandy. That I will take him up on. I suspect that company will be an invaluable asset, particularly later in the month as the novelty of boarding every day wears off.

I’ve been reading Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, a memoir about his life as a surfer / journalist (but mostly surfer). It’s brilliant, witty, informed, critical but not cynical, the sort of book that you can’t help but see as a magnum opus, the culmination of not just a career but of a life well-lived. It’s the kind of book I’ll re-read in 10 years and get something completely different out of. Reading about chasing the perfect wave through the South Pacific also makes this the perfect transition piece between Southeast Asia and the American slopes.

There are more ski resorts around SLC than you can shake a stick at. However my range is limited by two factors. First I have an Ikon pass, which only gets me into a select number of resorts. And second I am a snowboarder, which means Alta and Deer Valley are off limits. Snobs. The takeaway is I have three obvious places to board: Solitude (unlimited), and Brighton and Snowbird (5 days each). Solitude is the clear home base. Fortunately it’s an incredible mountain.

Solitude is 15 miles from my AirBnB. FIFTEEN MILES – can you believe how close that is? You could walk it in a day! Though it’s an easy drive up the Big Cottonwood Canyon parking is expensive at $20 / vehicle. Fortunately the Utah Transit Authority runs a bus up the canyon every 15 minutes, and the 45-minute trip is free to Ikon pass holders. The route has a stop a 15-minute walk from where I’m staying. As far as I’m concerned the ski bus is the greatest thing since sliced bread – a cheap, reliable, no-worry-required way to get up the hill. Plus it’s green. But mostly I don’t have to drive.

The two days since I arrived I’ve spent riding at Solitude. They were both incredible. The snow on this random week in January is as good as anything we get back in Seattle, and I am assured it will keep on falling and stay soft even when it doesn’t.

A big storm dumped 16 inches on New Years Day, and Friday the 3rd (my first day) still had plenty of fresh available. Solitude has a single chair to the uppermost peak, Summit Express. To skier’s right is Solitude Canyon, the resort’s reliable single-black mainstay. To the left is Honeycomb canyon, an incredibly long valley crowned by a huge, broad bowl with about a thousand places to traverse to and drop in. It reminds me a little of Northway at Crystal, without the brutal ice sheet right above the lift line. Honeycomb is gorgeous but it’s often closed after a big storm until the avalanche crews have a chance to shoot their guns, and Friday was no exception. I spent the morning exploring tree runs and bombing down the couple of blue groomers on the Solitude side. Around noon I was riding the lift, chatting with my neighbors, starting to think about lunch, when we heard a cheer from the bottom. “I wonder if that means they’ve opened Honeycomb”. It did; they had. The rest of the day was nothing but milk and honey.

I am of course both rusty and out of condition, but even today (Saturday) the rustiness seemed less acute despite the tiredness of day 2. Like backpacking, I suspect that on day 3 my body will start to find its stride, and by day 4 I’ll have more stamina than I did on day 1. It’s cool how good us humans are at getting good at things. Tuesday is supposed to bring a medium-sized dump of fresh snow, and I expect that will be my opportunity to start flinging myself down the double-blacks again.

Christmas in Bali

Note: This post was originally written Dec 26, but I didn’t get around to formatting and adding pictures until Jan 1.

For the past 7 days, I have been exploring the beautiful island of Bali. Located just east of Java in the long Indonesian archipelago Bali is famous for perfect weather, white sand beaches, incredible surfing and scuba diving, rolling hills covered in splendid rice terraces, and a strong local arts scene. Almost exactly the same size as King County, Bali is also famous for tourism, hosting about 6 million tourists per year.

Spotted on the guesthouse’s bookshelf.

Not interested in the parties of Kuta, I immediately headed for the town of Ubud, two hours north of the airport and urban center at the southern tip of the island. Once a quiet village surrounded by nothing but rice terraces, Ubud is now a bustling town full of yoga studios, vegan restaurants and tiny little shops selling artsy junk to tourists. It’s quite pretty, and I could see how people can fall in love with the place. It’s also home to an incredible, never-ending traffic jam, the result of too many tourists and businesses trying to cram into a road network designed for a tiny farming village. Fortunately the town itself is very walkable.

Looking out over the rooftops of Ubud.

Part of my goal with Bali was to get some final relaxation in, soaking up the sun and the chill vibes for a few last precious days before heading back to the Big Dark. I attended yoga classes and got massages in the day, sipped a couple fancy cocktails and read my book each night before turning in early, and generally ate like a king. While not as cheap as, say, Vietnam, Bali is still quite affordable, and I generally had a delightful time.

Nasi campur, the iconic Indonesian dish.
Don’t worry it’s a paper straw.
Truly delightful ramen is a performance art.

But I wasn’t just a slug – I also did activities. I found a Discover Scuba Diving course on the Northeast coast, where a dive master teaches you the basics, then stays close by your side on a shallow dive to bail you out if you get into trouble. We visited the wreck of the USS Liberty, a cargo ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese in WWII, towed to the beach, then pushed out to sea by a lava flow in the 60s.

It was so cool! Getting used to the equipment was tricky – you really have to fight down the reflex to panic, and maintaining buoyancy is hard. But I got the hang of it pretty quick and started to really enjoy myself. There was coral and so many fish, and swimming through the wreck of the ship was amazing. I think that traveling somewhere tropical to get fully certified may be a future vacation.

For obvious reasons I did not take any photos diving, but we stopped at a nice viewpoint on the drive back.

I also climbed Mt. Agung, the highest mountain on Bali. It’ll be a while before I can get my next mountain hike in, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for just one more summit. I hired a guide and we began at midnight for a dawn summit, which we nailed. At just 3000 meters Agung is not nearly as tall as Kinabalu, but it’s isolated enough that it felt like the top of the world.

The guide had a timelapse camera that we played around with while waiting for the final ascent.

The ascent was long and steep but incredibly cool. Though it was clear above us, a thunderstorm was raging out over the ocean, lighting up the distant clouds again and again, silent but for a low rumble almost unrelated to the light. It made me think of something Murakami wrote – “A weather front was stalled out in the Pacific–like a lonely person, lost in thought, oblivious of time.”

The master at work.
The mountain’s shadow.
An offering to the mountain spirit.
The trail back down.
Bali’s mountains rival the Cascades for beauty.

On Christmas I hung out with a couple of women traveling together from Colorado who I met at the guesthouse. We hired a car and driver and went on a tour of various waterfalls and temples. Our original plan was to rent motorbikes, but the driver was so cheap and the Ubud traffic so ridiculous that we decided to spring for it. It made for a wonderfully relaxed day of sightseeing.

img_20191225_1515244602027953784916925-e1577944135596.jpg

In the evening we met up with some other guests and had a wonderful Christmas dinner together, then polished off a (small) bottle of surprisingly good Indonesian brandy back at the guesthouse. It was all I could ask of a Christmas away from home.

Bali is a weird place. It’s expensive (for the region), touristy and a bit pretentious. It’s also genuinely beautiful, and Ubud at least manages to retain that easy island feeling. I can’t say I fell in love with the place, but I enjoyed my last week in Asia.

And now I’m headed home. As I write this I sit in the Bali airport, awaiting a plane to Taipei and then another back to Seattle. The feeling is bittersweet. I have had a tremendous time traveling for the past three months but I’m also ready to sleep in my own bed, see all my people and be done living out of a 40-liter pack. I’m ready to have a computer again, and a kitchen. I’m even ready for winter, to not start sweating every time I walk outside, to have Jack Frost nip at my nose a little bit. To settle down for a while, to be used to where I am and not constantly have to make new friends.

Look out Seattle! I’m coming home!

Concrete Advice for Prospective Backpackers

I can’t believe my trip is almost over! I’ve been traveling for three months now, and I have learned a lot in the process. My goal with this post is to distill that experience into specific, useful advice, to help empower you all to go have an adventure of your own. Maybe I’ll even come meet you.

Planning

This is the number one thing I feel I’ve learned on this trip, so I’m going to put it first. Plan less, and plan in a way that is flexible.

I’m a planner by nature – I love the puzzle of doing research, figuring out how many days I need in this or that city, finding the most efficient route through a country, and sorting through all the permutations of planes, trains and automobiles. My instinct is to get everything lined up perfectly, just for the satisfaction of a job well done. Plus it’s exciting to research and daydream about a trip! The problem is, this approach leaves out two of the richest sources of information about a place: other travelers and your own experience.

Other travelers have up-to-the-minute information about what’s going on. Maybe something was unexpectedly incredible (Da Lat easy rider tour, audioguides for the genocide museums in Phnom Penh), or is unexpectedly closed (Railroad Street in Hanoi). Maybe some attraction was discovered by travel blogs 3 years ago, and now it’s overrun with tourists and they’ve quadrupled the price (Vietnam’s Golden Hands Bridge). Maybe they just had a great experience in some town that nobody’s heard of (Ko Ta Kiev). Maybe there’s a group forming to go do something interesting right now, and they invite you to join (Pai Canyon).

More important than any facts or stories about a place is the way you personally respond to it. Allowing your travel plans to adapt to what your heart tells you is essential for an enjoyable extended trip. Maybe you fall in love with a city and decide to extend your stay (Hoi An). Maybe you discover you love an activity way more than you expected, and you just have to do more (motorcycling through Vietnam). Either way, having too rigid of a schedule will leave you disappointed, stressed out or both as you try and fail to accommodate new things you’ve discovered.

The trick then is to plan enough in advance to put you at ease and to get excited, while leaving enough space to be flexible. Here are my concrete tips for traveling flexibly:

Before the trip

  • 6 months to a year in advance: secure time off. Step up your saving. Daydream, and maybe do a little research. Pester your friends about joining you for a chunk of your trip.
  • 2-ish months in advance: Research and book the coarse-grained details of your trip. This includes long international flights (better prices) and big anchor activities like the REI tour (likely to sell out). Make a list of countries you’d like to visit and check the visa requirements (Vietnam’s took forever). Figure out a rough budget. If friends are joining you, figure out where you’ll meet and make a rough plan of what you’ll do. Read travel blogs, take notes if that’s your thing, but don’t book anything yet. Maybe book a couple days in a hostel on either end of a big flight, but no more than that.

During the trip

  • Make sure you have a plan for getting internet on the go. Connectivity is key for a flexible, seat-of-the-pants travel style. 4G coverage is better in Southeast Asia than it is in the States, but only if you’re equipped for it. T-mobile has international coverage baked into the plan, or you can buy a sim card or mobile hotspot at most airports.
  • Book short flights no more than a week in advance, and ground transportation 2 days in advance. This is usually plenty of time to avoid sold out tickets, though there are exceptions. Holidays can wreak havoc here, and some routes (like the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai) consistently sell out early. Asking around at the hostel is your best bet for avoiding this.
  • Only book two days at a hostel at a time, and don’t book more than a few days in advance. You can always extend your stay if you want more time. I never once had trouble with hostels being sold out.
  • Book activities and tours through your hostel. They can usually book things the night before, and sometimes you’ll get a discount. Ask around in the common room to find out which ones are worth doing, and maybe to rustle up a posse to go with you.
  • Keep track of useful resources: booking websites, blogs, even questions to ask other Backpackers. Having a list will make it easier next time.

You learn much more about a place by going there than you ever will by reading a travel blog or book, and no travel blog can tell you how you will respond to a place. Leave enough space in your plan to be flexible and follow leads and you will have a happier, more relaxing trip.

Choosing Hostels

You may have noticed that the hostel came up several times in the previous section. That’s because your hostel is important! You’ll spend somewhere between 30-60% of your trip in the hostel, so hostel selection has an outsized impact on how much fun you have somewhere. While a good hostel will keep you well rested, well fed and in good company, a bad one will leave you cranky and lonely. But how to find the good ones?

First, know your hostel categories

  • Party hostels are exactly what they sound like. The crowd tends to be young and drunk, and scheduling an early morning activity is a bold move. Party hostels can be fun and they’re usually very cheap, but they tend to be less comfortable and clean. The stoner hostel is a subtype of the party hostel adapted for remote, beautiful locations like islands and jungles. A key nugget of wisdom is that you can party at a party hostel without staying there – just turn up at happy hour and start mingling.
  • Institutions are big, established, and efficient. Commonly found in big cities, they’re typified by huge dorms full of purpose-built sleeping capsules, solid dark materials, and soft ambient lighting. Though always clean and comfortable they can be a little soulless, and often lack the sorts of comfortable, intimate common areas that foster new friendships. Best chosen when you already have your plans in town figured out, or when in a city expensive enough that independent hostels can’t compete.
  • Independents are all the rest. These are the mom and pop shops, the comfortable-yet-personable, the artsy, the niche. These are the places where the staff mingles with the guests, and everybody knows each other’s names. Maybe the hosts live on site, and their young children are constantly underfoot. Maybe half the staff are other backpackers, “volunteering” for a week or a month in exchange for room and board. Maybe there’s a campfire every evening, or the owner mans the rooftop bar from 10 to midnight and will share a joint with anyone who asks. The furniture in the common room is mismatched and well-loved, the dorms are 2 or 3 bunk beds crammed into a tiny room, and you have to turn on the water heater 10 minutes before you shower. As you can probably tell, there is a special place in my heart for these scrappy little independent hostels, and they are my first choice whenever possible. In my opinion they are the best at doing what a hostel is supposed to do: giving travelers a temporary place to call home.

I look for hostels using the booking.com app. It’s a solid piece of software, and I’ve been quite happy with the results – enough that I’ve switched over from hostelworld. Their review system asks a series of questions and then aggregates the answers into a rating, which I think is more useful than just asking for stars, so I usually pay attention to the number as a good starting point. Here’s what I look for when I investigate a candidate.

  • Your three basics are clean, comfortable and secure. If any of those is missing, I’m out. Reviews are a great way to assess this.
  • Common rooms are key. The common room is where you meet fellow travelers, strike up conversations, pick up leads and make friends. I usually use the hostel’s photographs to assess this. What you’re looking for is a cozy, well-lit space with communal tables and cheap alcohol. This forces people together, making that initial breaking of the ice easier. Avoid hostels where the common room is a full bar serving customers other than guests, this makes casual conversation much harder.
  • Many of the best hostels will do a social happy hour – free beer 6:30-7 or something similar. This is a great way to get everyone together at the same time and facilitate conversation.
  • Free breakfast is nice, and can also be a good opportunity to meet people.

Take hostel recommendations from other travelers with a grain of salt – their needs, preferences and budget may be very different than yours. Always do your research.

Many hostels have private rooms in addition to the dorms. These are a cost-effective way to get a little privacy for a few days while retaining access to the common room. This can be an excellent place to recover from a bad hostel experience, or to get over a stomach bug or the flu.

Hostel prices will vary wildly from country to country and even city to city. In Tokyo a typical hostel was $30/night, in Seoul $25, Singapore $20, Bangkok $12, small town Thailand $8, and Vietnam $6 (dang Vietnam was cheap). Within any city you’re likely to see a range of prices, with institutions the most expensive, independents in the middle, and party hostels the cheapest.

Budget

Money sucks. It’s the root of all evil, right? But it’s also important not to run out of, especially if you’re thinking about not working for a few months and need to get back home at the end of it. So make a cup of coffee, get out your favorite spreadsheet program, and make sure everything lines up.

In the interest of prior art, here is my budget for this trip. 3 months is about 100 days, which both makes the math easy and gives me some buffer.

  • Roundtrip airfare between Seattle and Asia: $2000
  • Transportation within Asia: $1500
  • Lodging: $15/day, $1500 total
  • Food + booze: $30/day, $3000 total
  • Activities: $140/week, $2000 total

Since I’m way too lazy to itemize my transactions, these are approximate highball figures amortized over the whole trip. Note that this doesn’t cover expenses back home like rent, car payments, insurance, alimony, etc.

Not counting the REI tour (which hardly counts as backpacking), that works out to about $10k for 3 months. Not cheap, but not ridiculous. I also haven’t been pinching pennies – I’ll take a $125 flight over a $25 bus if it saves me 6 hours, I don’t shy away from expensive activities like canyoning or mountaineering, and I will always be willing to splurge on food (especially food tours). A serious budget traveler could probably shave another couple thousand off that number.

Travel Light

I would consider this good general life advice, but it’s especially important while backpacking. You will be carrying your entire life on your back. Make sure it fits.

Now, I’m not saying you’ll be carrying your full kit around with you all the time. I love hiking and even I have only had a few times where I yomped my loaded bag for more than a kilometer or two. But you’ll certainly carry it around airports, bus terminals and down the block when your cab drops you in the wrong place. Keep it easy to lift and you’ll thank yourself later.

I highly recommend a backpack over a roller bag. Broken sidewalks, escalators, and stepping up onto a bus are all difficult with a roller bag, but with a backpack you won’t think twice about it. I’m also a fan of using a bag that you can carry onto an airplane, because checked bags are expensive, slow and prone to getting lost. It’s so satisfying to step off the plane and saunter right past the crowds waiting at the baggage carousel.

Fully loaded without water, my 40 liter pack weighs about 10 kg (depending on how many snacks I’m carrying). This is a weight that’s comfortable to carry for a long time, and it’s also the cut off for carry-on luggage for many airlines.

So how do you get your weight down?

  • Plan on doing laundry frequently. Laundry is easy to do out here – you just hand it to the hostel owner and pay $1-2 per kg, and it comes back crisply folded the next day. I typically do a load once a week.
  • Find garments that can fill multiple roles. My pants are fancy synthetic quick-dry hiking pants, perfect for climbing a mountain or exploring a city, but they’re also darkly colored and fashionably cut enough that they sit comfortably under a button down shirt. My shorts double as swim trunks. My shoes are… well, you get the idea. Each of those covers for two or three garments, reducing the number I need to pack.
  • Use layers to your advantage. The obvious place for this is clothing – a lightweight wool shirt and a fleece sweater can together do the work of a big puffy jacket, especially if they team up with a rain shell to cut the wind. But it applies to the luggage itself as well. I have a small soft backpack that fits easily inside my big bag; in the airport I combine them for easy carrying, but on the plane they come apart and the big bag sits in the overhead bin. Finding clever ways to mix and match your gear is almost part of the fun.
  • Don’t be afraid to reuse things between washes. In a pinch, a quick rinse in the sink will work wonders. Besides, a certain level of grubbiness is expected of a backpacker!

Get Out of the City

I love cities. Seoul and Singapore were two of my favorite stops on this trip, and they can make excellent hubs for exploring an area. Cities are big and exciting, they have delicious cuisine and world-class entertainment, and they remind you that the world is getting smaller every day. Plus they’re usually way cheaper to fly into and out of.

But if cities remind us that the world is getting smaller, the countryside reminds us that it is still quite large. For a traveler, if you want to really see a place, to see sights and sounds and a way of life that is different than where you came from, it is essential to get out of the big cities. Small towns are where you get the best nature of course, but you’re also more likely to have an interesting cultural experience if you’re in a place where the locals are a little less multicultural. Find some interesting small town like Pai or Da Lat, then take trips out into the countryside.

Or even better, book a few nights at a homestay in some truly remote village. If you do a multi-day trek a village homestay is often included. If that’s not quite your jam I’ve heard that Facebook is the best way to find one on your own. It’s hard to find a more eye-opening experience than knocking back a glass of truly vile rice wine with a local and reminiscing about 5 years ago when the village didn’t have electricity yet.

Getting out of the city is a little more work, to be sure. Finding the right balance of planning in advance and winging it can be tricky. But in my opinion it’s totally worth it.

Ease Into It

Backpacking for an extended period is inconvenient. It’s logistically difficult. It’s a little scary. There’s a thousand good reasons not to, finances and career and pets and aging parents and a partner who’s not really interested in travel. And, not everyone likes extended travel. It would be frustrating to do all the work of putting your life on hold just to have a bad time once you’re there, especially if you can’t afford to come home early or have invested a big chunk of ego in the trip.

The thing is, backpacking doesn’t have to be an all or nothing experience. You can ease into it, try out portions and find what works for you.

Maybe you book two or three nights in a hostel as part of a larger vacation. Don’t plan those days too carefully, just show up in the common room and see what happens. Or maybe the next time you travel, challenge yourself to bring as small a bag as possible. You’d be surprised what you can get away without.

The next step is to backpack short-term. Yes, this is ok, and it’s still backpacking! Just because it’s not an epic months-long voyage doesn’t make it any less legit. 10 days or 2 weeks is small enough that if it doesn’t go well its not a big deal, and it’s much easier to put your life on hold for that amount of time. A short trip will build confidence, allowing you to get used to this different way of traveling and to start to see its benefits.

Then if you find you enjoy it and want to see more, you can start working on a bigger trip, confident that you know what you’re getting into.

And if you don’t find that lifestyle piquing your interest? That’s fine too. Traveling is a specific, expensive, time-consuming hobby, and if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle or its just not interesting to you, why force it?

Besides, someone has to stay home and read the travel blogs.

Singapore

I visited Singapore immediately after Brunei, and though the two have many obvious differences, I think the comparison is worth making. Both are tiny nations in Southeast Asia, each sharing a border with only Malaysia and the sea. Both are extremely wealthy and well-developed (the UN human development index lists Singapore and Brunei as first and second in the region). Both found the origin of their wealth in a unique geographical feature: Brunei its rich oil deposits, and Singapore its deep harbors and strategic position on the trade route between East Asia and South Asia / the Middle East. Both have strict, almost authoritarian governments, tolerated due to a cultural preference for collective harmony over individual liberties.

But that’s where the similarities end. Though they’re both physically tiny, Singapore’s 5.6 million residents outnumber Brunei’s 10-to-1. Where Brunei has a hereditary sultanate, Singapore has an elite planning committee full of the island nation’s best and brightest. Where Brunei is an Islamic theocracy, Singapore holds ethnic and religious diversity as one of its greatest strengths. And while oil and gas still account for 90% of Brunei’s GDP, modern Singapore boasts a remarkably broad economy including shipping, finance, oil refining, manufacturing and tech.

Ok enough economics, let’s talk impressions.

Singapore is awesome.

It’s sparkling clean. The streets are spotless, the sidewalks well-maintained, I don’t think I saw a single building that needed work. This is the only city in Southeast Asia where you can drink the water out of the tap.

The architecture is inspiring. They call it a “city in a garden”, and there’s greenery everywhere. The different neighborhoods are interesting and distinctive, each bringing something unique to the city.

Look at all that green!
The view from the top of the Marina Bay Sands on Singapore’s waterfront. The Sands is appropriately named – it lies entirely on reclaimed land, most of which is sand barged in from neighboring countries. In total Singapore has increased its size by a whopping 23% since independence. Don’t ask me how much this cocktail cost.

Singapore is also possibly the best planned and best funded place I have ever been. The city revolves around its residents, organizing them, empowering them, and keeping them safe. Every detail of the built environment seems carefully considered, deliberately chosen to serve a need in harmony with its neighbors. This is a city that’s not afraid to dream big, and clearly doesn’t have qualms about paying taxes. They also know how to do maintenance, keeping the infrastructure in good shape long after its initial construction.

The city gallery is a museum of the tools and techniques the Urban Redevelopment Authority uses to plan the city. For a nerd like me, who reads about economics for fun and has sunk countless hours into Cities Skylines, visiting was like a pig visiting mud.

And the food – oh, the food! Hawker centers full of incredible bites. Coffee shops, patisseries, the best egg tarts and curry puffs I’ve ever had. Restaurants for any budget, cheap local bars and exclusive cocktail lounges with no menus. You could do nothing but eat here for a month and never get bored.

Why yes, that is the manager of this fancy cocktail bar standing on the bar to make a toast.

It’s not without its problems, of course. Singapore is quite expensive, on par with other top tier cities like New York and London. This is especially apparent when compared to other places in the region – you could probably get a whole keg of Saigon beer for the price of a single Singapore Sling. The government has absolutely no tolerance for rule breakers (caning is still a thing), and Singapore has the biggest prison in Southeast Asia. The role and rights of immigrant laborers is another point of contention, and I’m sure a local could point out a dozen other issues that I missed entirely.

Yet the Singapore model clearly works. The city is beautiful, functional and clean. Its citizens are wealthy, healthy and happy. Its companies are powerful, and it’s economy is robust and steadily growing. From the outside, it seems the kind of place where if you work hard and follow the rules you’ll be well taken care of. It makes sense to me that the ruling party has won 60-70% of the votes in every election since they became independent in 1965 – what they’re doing works, and Singaporeans clearly agree.

Visiting Singapore is like visiting Star Trek’s vision of future earth for a few days.

I could totally see spending a few months here as a digital nomad, or even taking a job for a Singaporean firm and settling down. The city is absolutely a must-visit if you’re in the region.

Just make sure you budget for it.