When I was eleven, I had the privilege of joining my cousins Dar and Teck on an international trip with their parents. We would go from Singapore to the US, onto Italy, then back home by way of Bombay. Traveling at such a young age planted a deep seed of wanderlust that would lead me to visit 60 countries on 5 continents later in life. It also taught me the importance of traveling far, traveling often, and traveling early.
Back in 1983 Singapore, taking a trip of that magnitude was a huge privilege. It was a big deal even to be on an airplane, much less traveling solo at age eleven. To make it even more significant, I was gone for three months, and my mother allowed me to miss those weeks of school, which was unheard of in Singapore. This really helped me to prioritize travel in my life going forward.
Coming to America
The journey was filled with ups and downs. It started with an excruciating 22-hour flight on Singapore Airlines, back in the days before iDevices. In-flight entertainment was practically non-existent at the time, and I was super impressed when they introduced a big screen to run a couple of shared movies.
Upon arrival at my destination in San Francisco, my aunt and uncle met me at the gate, and we made the hour-long drive to Los Altos. They lived in Silicon Valley, where my uncle worked. After settling in for a few days, my aunt enrolled me in a US elementary school, which was a strange new environment for me. I remember struggling with science, acing math, and being hopeless at American football.
I also remember an impressive haul of candy for my first Halloween ever.
Sometime in November, we left Los Altos on a one-way road trip. We traveled through Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Washington DC, New York City, Boston, Niagara Falls and Montreal, en route to Toronto. This was an epic roadtrip, to say the least.
There were many parts that were unpleasant, such as being stuck in a crammed car for more than ten hours each day, with no entertainment, no iAnything – nothing but my imagination. I couldn’t even read without getting motion sickness. Add to that sleeping in a different Motel 6 every night (they were no better than they are today). Still, there were moments of epic awesomeness that made it all worth it.
I loved checking out the Alamo in San Antonio.
I loved going to the Smithsonian Air Museum and touring the White House in Washington DC. Reagan was in office then.
I loved being at the top of the Empire State Building and visiting the original World Trade Center, staring up its stout steel beams. Watching it come tumbling down 20 years later, I thought back to that moment in time, standing at the base, taking this shot.
I also remember seeing my first real life boobs in a strip joint on Bourbon Street in New Orleans – I might have stared a little too long through the open doors.
I loved Niagara Falls, especially from the Canadian side.
When In Rome
From Toronto, it was off to Europe, for an entirely new adventure. In Italy, I loved visiting the Coliseum and feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, more properly called the Piazza San Marco.
I also learned something about myself – fine art was not my thing. All the fabulous art my aunt tried to expose to me in Italy, from the Sistine Chapel to various statues (including Michelangelo’s David), were lost on me. Art became something I decided not to pretend to appreciate just to feign being cultured.
When we returned from the trip, I knew wholeheartedly that I wanted to leave Singapore and live in the US. Even at eleven years old, traveling helped me see a future that looked quite different than it had before. New worlds were literally opened up to me, something that never would have happened if I hadn’t traveled. It’s amazing the adventures that are waiting to be explored, though many people stay in one place their whole lives.
I wouldn’t get the opportunity to visit the US again until eleven years later, as an exchange student at Purdue University in Indiana, and it would be another twelve years before I finally moved to the US permanently in 2006. It took me a long time, but I finally made it, and I think the eleven-year-old in my would be proud of me (and looking for Halloween candy).
Another benefit of having traveled early is the relationships I formed with my cousins. Dar was a sweetheart then and still is today. Teck was always bigger and stronger than me, almost as if he’d hit puberty shortly after birth. During the trip, he was generally a low-level bully and pain in the rear to his parents and the rest of us, but when he wasn’t careful, the niceness that was always in him would slip out.
Our time on that trip created strong bonds, and they are two of my favorite people to this day, as evidenced by this picture of Teck and I, taken almost forty years apart.
Traveling at such a young age instilled in me a sense of adventure, a wanderlust that would stay with me forever. It has shaped a lot of my life, allowed me to form stronger bonds with family, and even carried over into how I raise my own kids. We homeschool, in part to pass down this legacy of curiosity, and to explore this world of ours as a family.
No matter where you are in life, travel helps you discover more of yourself, and this amazing world we live in. It changes you on a deep level, and can lead to a greater understanding of humanity – something this world desperately needs right now.