The Traveler from Southeast Asia

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


| This is the 441st story of Our Life Logs |

I come from a country in Southeast Asia. No, not the rich, everything-is-in-order Singapore; and no, not the land of Crazy Rich Asians. I come from the beautiful—yet struggling—country of Indonesia. I was born into a lower-middle class family in the late 1980s in a small town in West Java. Yes, like the coffee. In fact, Java is where a lot of coffee comes from. It is the densest island in the world. That being said, back to the story.

Even though we were lower-middle-class citizens, I couldn’t say that we lived in poverty. We could afford “luxuries” sometimes, making us more fortunate than most Indonesians. Not many Indonesian families had cars in the 1990s, but my dad managed to buy a used car for our family. We called our old clunker “Ferrari,” a self-deprecating joke at the fact that an old used car was all we could afford. That’s just how we were. My family taught me to not take the downsides of life too seriously, and that helped me grow into adulthood positive but realistic.

Regardless of our mediocre economic situation, my family emphasized the importance of education. I was given the “tiger parenting style” (a combination of cognitive learning and military-discipline training through physical punishment) growing up and was expected to aim to be the best in the class. The emphasis on education wasn’t all bad because it helped me attend a better boarding school that was located in a small town (one even smaller than my hometown) on Central Java.

I attended the dormitory-based high school for three years, and beyond intellectuality, the school taught me social empathy. To help us understand the life of low-class people, we were assigned to live like them for a week. I was once sent to live with a traditional farmer family, and another time sent to help a school for deaf people. That school laid a foundation for my personality, making me humble and appreciate the simple elements of life.

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In the mid-2000s, I entered university and a whole new life. By then, my family had begun shifting from lower-middle class into middle-class. Having more money at our disposal opened my chance at an ideal life, one where I could have a big house, a car, and all the food my heart desired. I found myself becoming less socially-sensitive and more materialistic.

I managed to graduate quickly without many difficulties and obtained an MBA. All the hard work and aggressive tiger parenting paid off, and I landed a job at the biggest corporation in Indonesia. By then, my entire vision had changed. I was no longer thinking realistically; I was dreaming big. I remember at my job interview, I was asked by the hiring manager:

“Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?”

I firmly answered, and it is seriously not dramatized, “Sitting in your seat, working until late while looking at the skyscrapers of Jakarta.”

I imagined myself as a senior manager with a tidy suit, and while I wasn’t sure whether I really knew what I was talking about, my confidence got me the job.

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I thrived in my career, and by the 2010s, I got a better job offer from an American IT company which was a huge achievement. To give you context, living in a developing country and being able to work for a multinational company is a dream that many people obsess over. Not only was the salary better, but the allowance and its working environment were incredible. Moving to this company, I could work from anywhere, have business lunches with clients at fancy places almost every day, and stay at four- and five-star hotels for business trips. I had less stress, more income, a better work-life balance, and a relatively comfortable life. I was living my professional dream…

I guess.

Yet, no matter how perfect it was, there was always a nagging thought in the back of my mind, a hole in my picture-perfect life that told me something was missing. I seemingly had it all but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I mean, after years of watching my parents struggle with bills and tuition as a child, I felt guilty for not finding contentment in where I was. I mean, my life was full of entertainment, luxury, and the best-of-the-best. Why didn’t I feel whole?

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To begin my search for the “something missing,” I turned to spirituality of all religions. That aspect fascinated me as a teenager, and I studied many religious readings to understand it all back then. Searching for my purpose, I turned to it once more, reading books, attending vipassana meditation classes taught by Theravadin monks and staying at Trappist monasteries to observe the complete silent in magnum silentium. I’m not claiming myself as a spiritual person. I am simply just a person who is drawn into this kind of stuff.

In reflection, I found myself getting back in touch with simplicity and humility, the basics that formed my childhood and teenage years. Eventually, my searching brought upon a realization. Visiting new places, meeting different people, and being immersed in other cultures was what I truly enjoyed about my job. I loved to mingle with the locals and explore the area. At the core, what I loved wasn’t the business; it was the chance to travel.

Outside of my job, I began to plan trips focused solely on exploration of new places. Some, I took with friends and others, I took alone, whatever my budget could handle. The first destination that I visited for a personal trip was the Karimunjawa Islands, a marine park in the north of Java. There, I had a moment of “eureka” as I was wrapped up in its tropical beauty. I found myself feeling a step closer to that “something” I’d been searching for.

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I continued traveling to new places and found that I enjoyed the humble simplicity of traveling alone compared to the fancy facilities when I had a business trip. I liked a trip without as much structure or luxuries. Those didn’t matter compared to the beauty of nature.

I decided to test this part of myself itching to get out during a business trip to Malaysia. I asked my boss if I could extend my stay by a week to do some exploring. After getting the green light, I stayed behind with only my bag and my desire to find my “something”—wherever it was hiding.

With a single backpack, I explored the country alone. Leaving my familiarity and seeking novelty, I became what Erik Cohen academically defines as a drifter. Among the mountains and wildlife, I felt free and at peace. I realized after my trip that travel was what would help me find the “something” I’d been searching for.

Of course, this pursuit would cost what I’d set my whole life up to achieve. I realized that in taking this risk, I would be giving up my plan of overlooking the skyscrapers of Jakarta after a long day in a successful position. The crossroads became a life I knew to be comfortable and a life of unknown. In my heart, there was only one answer which I would inevitably choose, be it a day from that moment, a year, or a decade. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn’t waste any more time.

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I made the choice to make travel an integral part of my life. After a couple months, I submitted a leave of absence so I could travel and return to work when I was ready. My boss surprisingly understood my situation and accepted it. And so, I was off to explore more of Southeast Asia! To do solo-travel, to encounter another culture, to try speaking their language correctly, to eat the local dishes, to take local transportation, to meet new friends along the trip, and to deal with local traders who wanted to rip me off. It was all so amazing and exciting for me, even the difficult parts.