As a student, I had never once wavered when it came down to booking the cheaper flight option with the oddest timings, or checking in to a dodgy hostel just because it cost so little per bunk bed. When you have lots of energy (and very little money), every budget option is a wonderful opportunity to experience something new.
I vaguely recall a hint of excitement when I had to sleep alone on the cold, hard floor tiles of London Gatwick airport after a midnight connecting flight. It didn’t take much convincing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime solo experience. After all, my next flight was only 7 hours away.
With a few other similar unique hardships, I truly felt like The Hardy Traveller, scoffing at others who can’t rough it out.
And then, I started work.
Before I knew it, I was quite a different traveller from when I was a student. Not better or worse, just… not the same. Here’s what I caught myself doing differently as a full-fledged OL during my travels:
1) I’m willing to pay for a shower and quick nap
This one shocked me the most when it happened. We had just arrived in our sleeper train from Sapa at 4am. The initial plan? Hang around at the railway station before visiting the city when it wakes up. Barely 5 min into it, my frail body started to scream for some clean, horizontal rest. We ended up checking in to a hotel for 4 hours.
It was one of the best decisions of the trip. After a warm shower and power nap, we got to enjoy the city so much better.
2) Things were always easier with “I’m a student”
One of the most common questions in life and on the road – “So what do you do?”
The locals always give a warmer smile when we’re “still studying”, as compared to “Oh, I’m a product manager at XXX”. When it comes to pricing, we are cut some slack. People are just less guarded and more open to share personal stories and best-kept secrets with young, zero-income souls.
I’m not sure how long I can play pretend though. Youth is precious indeed.
3) Coffee > Alcohol. Strangely.
I have always been a coffee fan since university days but it was only after starting work that coffee became a daily necessity. However, I never thought I’d crave so much for caffeine even on a well-rested, enjoyable holiday.
It was only until a recent trip in Sri Lanka that I realized how reliant on coffee I’ve grown. As a country famed for its tea hills, we actually had to specifically hunt for coffee powder in the local supermarket and carry a jar of nescafe powder around to warrant our caffeine fix.
On the contrary, I’d gladly skip my second pint of beer at the bar for an early rest.
4) There’s no need to see everything on the list
When I was a student, I was guilty of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. Even if I was super exhausted from a brimming itinerary, I would still insist on climbing that famous monument just to see how the view looks like from up there.
Now, I’d happily skip the second ‘highly recommended’ temple to spend more time at the first, or perhaps chill out with a book at a local café.
5) I take less pictures
Similarly, my FOMO led me to take lots of pictures so I could capture every moment and upload the perfect profile picture. When I look at my exchange photos today, I still can’t fathom why I had to pose with every single statue/fountain/tree.
6) I appreciate the little things in life more
The sense of entitlement that came with youth meant I took a lot of things for granted. A walk through the tanneries of Morocco simply translated into a ‘grossly stinky but authentic’ experience. It didn’t strike me until years later how harsh their working conditions actually were, having had to soak raw hides in pigeon droppings (mixed with acids and cow urines – just imagine the stench) to soften the tough leather.
Fast forward to a similar experience in East Java’s Ijen Crater, the sulphuric fumes were equally choking as we hiked into the volcano. Instead of complaining about the foul smell this time, I could only think about how back-breaking it must be for the sulphur miners to carry 80kg of sulphur slabs daily down the mountain – just so they can bring home the bacon.
Over time, I’ve learnt to count my blessings.
7) I’m more aware of opportunities
With newfound empathy and real-life working experience, opportunities and gaps in the market become more apparent. And I’m not just referring to importing electronics from Shenzhen or silk from Vietnam. Rather, the possibility of giving back and making the world a better place.
When we hiked Mt. Rinjani last year, many of the porters were wearing slippers or even barefoot up the mountain. “It’s expensive,” our guide had replied, when we asked why they didn’t wear any shoes. This gave us the idea of collecting old sports shoes from our circle of friends back in Singapore. It’s amazing how everyone readily donated their shoes – still in great condition – and shortly after, we shipped over two boxes to Indonesia (shipment charges courtesy of Singpost).
8) It’s never a real break once you start work
Lastly, school stops for real when the holidays start. Everyone restarts from ground 0 after classes resume. But we all know that work never stops when you’re on leave. You spend the before clearing as much as possible and let it pile up while you’re away so you go back feeling more hungover than ever. This is why it’s important to have a reliable cover and allow yourself to ‘restart from 0’ after you come back.
With the mentality of ‘work never ends’, travelling – it seems – slowly reduces into becoming a break from life as we step into the working world. But remember when you were young and wild and free? Travel was experiencing life itself, of exploration and discovery. So if you’re still a student, be glad. Go for your grad trip (here’s how to on a budget). Take it slow, appreciate the little things, give back.
For the working crowd, it’s tempting to just take a break from life but –
When was the last time you did something for the first time?