I met Noel Lau back in 2005 in Leon, Spain while walking the Camino de Santiago. Since then I’ve traveled through the Middle East with him and joined him in Spain to teach English. In 2008 he left for South America. He’s currently in Colombia.
GN: So, you’ve been on the road more or less, away from you native Borneo for more than 5 years, is that right?
NL: I have been away for almost 6 years. I left home because I was feeling trapped and bored by my old life; I was working as the Training Manager of The Westin Hotel, (a 5 star international hotel) a good, well-paid job with lots of opportunity to advance and make a career for myself. I had a secured a comfortable life. But I wasn’t happy. Life felt like a routine and I was having an identical life as anybody else: education, career, car, house, retirement, etc. I wanted something more. I was longing for freedom and just wanted to get away. Ever since I was young, I had always wanted to travel so that was a chance to fulfill my dream.
I haven’t returned to Malaysia because I don’t really feel that it’s my home anymore. I went back for two weeks about three years ago to renew my passport and visit my family, but I felt like a stranger in my own home. This could be what you call “reverse culture shock”, but for me it is much deeper than that.
GN: I’ve dubbed you “International Nomad”. Does that fit you?
NL: I’m not sure whether I am worthy of that title. I didn’t set out to be a nomad or traveler. When I left my home, I thought I was just going to go to London to work. Then step by step, things happened and after all these years, I’m still on the road. I guess “nomad” is the best way to describe what I am doing. I have had a few temporary homes, where I based myself to work and save money, but the idea of having a permanent home and a career, is quite claustrophobic for me right now.
GN: So you just work and save up and then travel, then repeat? Where are some of the places you’ve done this?
NL: Yes, that’s right. When I come to a place that I like or when I am low on money, I stay and work there. And when I have saved enough I go on traveling again. I have lived in London, Madrid, Mendoza (Argentina) and now Medellin (Colombia). There are also other places where I stayed from a week to a month like Puerto Natales (Chile), Castro (Chiloe Island, Chile) and Cartagena (Colombia) where I worked for my keep, mainly because either I was too tired to move on right away or I like the place enough to stay that long.
GN: Where is the longest you’ve stayed any one place?
NL: I lived and worked in Madrid, Spain for 3 years. I stayed that long because I wanted to learn Spanish and I made some really good and close friends that made it difficult for me to leave. I really like Spain and have a great memory of my 3 years there.
GN: But you’re from Malaysia. Your father is ethnically Chinese and your mother native Bornean? You were raised Christian. Your passport says you’re Malaysian? How do you identify yourself?
NL: When you put it this way, it sounds weird but yes, those are correct. Though I still speak Chinese fluently and love Malaysian food and still can recite all the prayers of the church by heart, I don’t really identify myself with any of them anymore. When I left Malaysia, one of my aims was to find myself. Since I wasn’t happy with the kind of life that everybody wants and seeks, then there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. So I decided to embark on a journey of self discovery. Who am I? What do I want? All the social conditionings that I went through growing up in one particular society: are they changeable? And if so, are there limits to experiencing life? Through these years of being by myself and being in contact with so many different cultures and exposing myself to different ways of life and schools of thought, I have shed my old identity and embraced a new one. So now I don’t really fit into any box or stereotype. And I rather enjoy this freedom in identity.
GN: You mentioned you didn’t feel at home in Malaysia? Where do you feel most at home? Why?
NL: Of all the places I have been to, I think I feel most at home in Spain. I really like the culture and friendly people, the open-minded society and the country is diverse and beautiful. I had also grown to like the tapas culture, where you have a drink and eat some tapas while chatting with friends in the evening. That seems to me the best way to end a day, any kind of day.
GN: How many languages do you speak?
NL: I speak about 6 languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Malay, Cantonese and Taiwanese. I am also learning Portuguese. But at any given moment, I can only manage 3 fluently. For example, my Malay is really rusty after not speaking it in 6 years.
GN: Your favorite place or country? The least favorite? How about people…the most friendly or most hospitable? Were you ever turned off by a particular country or its people? Did they not treat you well?
NL: It’s really hard to name a favorite; I like different places or countries for different reasons. I really like Spain as a country to live and explore. I had a memorable and wonderful experience backpacking through the Middle-East. I also like the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of small countries like Belgium, The Netherlands and Austria. Also the beaches of Brazil and the otherworldly beauty of the Patagonia in South America are to die for. I don’t really have a least favorite place but I generally don’t like overly touristy places, or going to places in high season. The friendliest people I have encountered are the Brazilians and Colombians; some have really gone out of their way to help me. When I crossed from Bolivia to Brazil, I was a bit lost at the port because the immigration office wasn’t there. I went up to the police and asked for directions, and instead of pointing me the way he drove me all the way there. And here in Colombia, if you stop someone in the street for directions, they will spend the time needed to point you to in the right direction. No one is in too much of a rush to not help others.
GN: You are a budget traveler I know. What countries has your dollar (or Euro) gone the furthest?
NL: So far I think it was in Syria and Bolivia. I can’t remember what my budget in Syria was because that was more than 2 years ago. In Bolivia, I lived on 10 Euro a day, everything included, food, accommodation, transportation, etc
GN: Any travel tips…ways to experience a foreign culture better, see things differently, or save money?
NL: I think the first thing you have to do is to leave your guidebook in the hostel. Guidebooks are good for research and practical information, but once you are on the road, you should let your instinct guide you and try to get acquainted with locals. There are so many people traveling right now, that backpacking isn’t what it used to be. So, you meet other travelers in the hostel, restaurants, bars, etc. Everyone goes to the same place that the guidebooks dictate, so you don’t really get to experience the local culture, you see but a small portion of a country, merely there to take pictures. And you will have the same experience as other travelers that visit the same place. So, what’s so special about that? I try to speak to the locals, in buses, on the street, etc. I eat where the locals eat, and stay in hostels that aren’t in the guidebook; they are usually much cheaper. It can be risky, but that’s what travelling is about, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing life.
GN: Why does a life on the road appeal to you? Do you ever think you’ll settle in one spot? Will traveling always be a part of your life?
NL: I think what appeals to me about of a life on the road is the freedom. The kind of freedom I could never experience in any other way of life. I have no obligation to anyone except myself and most importantly I do not have to live up to anybody’s expectations. On top of that I get to see incredible sights and meet interesting people and characters along the way. I cannot say that I will go on like a nomad or travel for the rest of my life. I will do it as long as there is meaning in it and it brings me happiness and contentment more than any other way of life. But when the moment arrives that it doesn’t do it for me anymore, I need to have to courage to let go and change. That said, traveling will always be a part of my life because not only is it an enriching experience when you go out of your comfort zone and confront all kinds of experience, it’s also a lesson in humility and self discovery.
GN: You are in the midst of a South American trip. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done/seen so far.
NL: Yes, I have been here over 15 months now. I started in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, and spent about two months heading south through the coast of Brazil. Been to some small villages with beautiful and wild beaches, Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto, Curitiba and my favorite place in Brazil, Florianopolis. Then I went to the see the Iguazu falls and crossed into Argentina en-route to Uruguay. There I spent about 2 weeks seeing Montevideo, Punta del Diablo and Colonia de Sacramento. Took a boat across the Rio Plata to Argentina, where I spent sometime in Buenos Aires, Rosario, Puerto Madryn to see whales and penguins. I then headed to the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia to spend Christmas and New Year. I was trying to get a free ride working in the ships that go to Antarctica, but unfortunately there wasn’t any available. Then I went hiking and camping in the most beautiful national park I have ever seen, Torres del Paine, Chile. The beauty is so pristine as if untouched by humans. I then hitchhiked up the Carretera Austral, one of the world’s most isolated highways, exploring the mythical island of Chiloe, Puerto Pontt, Pucón, Valpariso and Santiago. After about two months in Chile, I went back to Argentina and spent three months working in a hostel in Mendoza. Then I met up with a friend and went to Bolivia, laboring through Bolivian highways and harsh travelling conditions for two months. But it was an incredible period when I visited Sucre, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Samaipata, Cochabamba, La Paz, Titicaca Lake, The Uyuni salt flat, Trinidad and Rurrenabaque. After which, I went back to Brazil to take 2 boat rides through the Amazon to get to Colombia. I then spent about 2 months in Cartagena working on the street, selling origamis and writing names in Chinese. Now I am in Medellin, Columbia.
GN: You are currently in Medellin, Colombia. What are you doing? What is so great about Colombia? And what everybody wants to know…is it safe for travelers?
NL: I am working as an English teacher in a language centre. I hope to stay for a while and to explore this country. Colombia is a really beautiful country: both the landscape as well as the people. The Colombians are the friendliest people I have met; they’re warm hearted and will go out of their way to help you. Yes, it is safe, as long as you don’t wander into the jungle or unmarked territory. The cities and towns are safe, of course there are areas to avoid, just like any other cities. Even travelling by bus at night is safe. So, the general rule is to stick to tourist route or talk to a friendly local who is always willing to give you any information you need.
GN: What after Colombia? You’ve never been to the U.S., any desire to go there?
NL: I have no idea what or where after Colombia, as I don’t really plan my life more than 1 month in advance. I do want to go to the U.S. because I have some good friends there. But unfortunately, with my current status, no permanent job nor home address, the U.S. immigration would never give me the visa to enter. So, I guess, I will have to put that on the back burner.
Noel Lau blogs at http://wander2nowhere.com