When I first moved to Spain in 2015 for six months to study the Spanish language and culture, I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. It was my first time in Europe, my first time to travel alone, I was 22 years old and seriously naive, and on top of that, I barely spoke the language. But somehow based on my misguided knowledge of the country’s culture Spain was the obvious choice: sun, tapas, flamenco… how could anyone go wrong? In truth, all I knew for certain back then was that I wanted to be away from home for some time, to learn how to live independently, and to discover the European continent as best I could. Those six months turned out to change the course of my life forever. I learned so many things about life and myself and more important, the experience cemented my desire to travel as far and as often as I could. From one student on exchange to another, here are some tips to make your stay abroad one to truly remember.
1. Keep an open mindset
Your time abroad is an invaluable opportunity to immerse yourself completely in a culture that probably has very little to do with your own. Rid yourself of all inhibitions, stereotypes, and prejudices. The only way to gain a full experience abroad is to be entirely open to it. Do things that you’ve never done before, and more important, things you might not have the chance to experience back home. Eat cuisine from your host country so openly until you find yourself a favourite, go-to meal. Develop relationships with locals no matter how short-lived they might seem; it is through interacting with them that you can truly capture the essence of the place you temporarily call home. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised at each turn.
2. Stay organized
I know first-hand how difficult it is to stay on top of things when you’re out and about on every possible occasion. But also trust me when I tell you that it PAYS to be organized especially when you’re living alone in a foreign land. Take care of all the bureaucracy upon arrival, double up copies of all essential documents, keep track of all your expenses, and you’ll thank yourself later. Don’t merely consider your time abroad as the ultimate chance to let loose; instead, see it as the prime opportunity to be responsible and independent and you will grow so much as a person. On top of that, it will be so much easier to have fun and enjoy yourself without having to worry about whether or not your monthly credit card bill has been paid.
3. Learn basic life skills
Nothing compares to the feeling of gathering your first successful batch of laundry, of cooking your first full, edible meal, of cleaning your flat for the first time, of taking care of yourself the first time you get sick abroad. Living and studying in a foreign place changes you in such nuanced ways that you don’t even realize you’ve turned into an adult almost overnight. It is a rite of passage to be able to look after yourself for an extended period of time with zero casualties and minimal food spoilage involved. It is also an experience that anyone who studies abroad is automatically warranted.
4. Make new friends
I cannot begin to explain how making friends, with both locals and the people in the same program, of varying ages and professions, enriched my experience back in 2015 in ways I could have never imagined. It was truly comforting to have your own, little family in your home away from home, knowing that all of you were more or less going through the same experiences and sharing memories that will last a lifetime. And this is coming from someone who is extremely introverted. You will soon learn that these once-in-a-lifetime connections are invaluable and transcend both time and distance.
5. Travel. And Eat. A lot.
An unforgettable day trip with classmates to San Sebastian, Spain
I owe my semi-nomadic lifestyle now to my first study abroad experience. It broadened my horizons in unexpected ways and opened my eyes to how simultaneously big and small the world really is. I traveled across the European continent with an unrelenting sense of adventure that has had an immense impact on the rest of my life. I ate my way through all the countries and cities that I visited in such a short period of time. And I took bajillion photos that to this day never fail to put a smile on my face.
After all these years of travel, I can conclude that the best thing about venturing outside of one’s home is the overpowering sensation one gets every time he or she comes across a new place and decides that it has made it into the ever-growing list of favourites. It’s a feeling that is unlike any other. A close second is what follows: the consistent sentiment of nostalgia that one is enveloped in until the next visit to that place. I have been flying between my home in Asia and Europe frequently enough to develop a solid list of personal favourites that I believe any student on exchange (and on a budget) should definitely visit while studying abroad. These are not just cities with a lot of heart and character, but also a great amount of life enough to make any homesick student forget about home even for a short while.
1. Berlin, Germany
My favourite thing about the German capital city is that it is thriving with modern culture and yet extremely quiet and peaceful. It is an ideal place for those that, like me, appreciate art, history, and gastronomy. There are plenty of things to do, it’s almost impossible to get bored. Berlin’s rapid transit railway system, the U-bahn, is ridiculously efficient and easy to use, although I have found that most major sites are within walking distance. And it’s such a joy to just watch the Germans go about their daily business.
Don’t miss: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie
Eat and drink: German beer and sausages at a beer garden, Pretzels, Currywurst, Berliner
2. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
My memories of this place might be a bit hazy at best but to this day, I remember how being there made me feel: light and happy. Amsterdam is a place I can see myself living in because it is beautiful wherever you look; likewise, it is unassuming, quiet, and yet full of life. People are as incredibly friendly as they are disciplined and they imbibe a very laid-back vibe and evolved sense of existence without effort. My only frustration is that I still did not know how to ride a bike properly on my first visit (I know, HOW?) but I am sure it would have totally enriched my experience even more.
Don’t miss: Vondelpark, Anne Frank Museum, Van Gogh Museum, canals
Eat and drink: Stroopwafel, fresh seafood (Must try The Seafood Bar), Gouda cheese, “brownies”
3. Seville, Spain
The one city in Spain I can’t quite seem to get enough of is Seville. This place is the image we all have of Spain and more: sunny, warm, lively, fun. It is so rich in history that one can easily spend days wandering around the city only to learn about how it came to be. Its gastronomy cannot be rivaled (except perhaps by the Basques up north) and I can confidently say it is the true tapas capital of Spain. There are so many reasons to visit Seville (again and again) and I don’t think I will ever tire of going back.
Don’t miss: Alcazar, Cathedral, Giralda, Plaza de España, Triana, day trip to Italica
Eat and drink: Tapas all day every day, Paella, Chocolate con churros, Serranito, Cruzcampo cerveza
4. Lisbon, Portugal
Going as far west as Lisbon felt like reaching the end of the world, in the best way possible. The unique, “je ne sais quoi” vibe in the city made me fall in love with it instantly. It was like feeling as though I wasn’t in Europe anymore, or on Earth even. On top of that, Portuguese people have got to be some of the gentlest, nicest people on this planet and it reflects on their culture. They truly know how to live their lives and it is something worth watching and getting inspired by when studying abroad.
Don’t miss: Belem Tower, Alfama, Bairro Alto, Castelo de S. Jorge, day trip to Sintra
Eat and drink: Pastéis de nata, fresh seafood, Chicken piri piri, Gelato
5. Paris, France
I have been back in Paris multiple times since the first time I went there and for good reason: Paris is always a good idea. The versions of Paris that we see in photographs and films do not do justice to the true Paris there is. For a city as famous and busy as it is, it is peculiarly tranquil any time of the day but everyone you come across is like a living, moving work of art – dressed in fine clothes, eating fine food – it’s something to behold! Even the least glamorous nooks and crannies of the city are interestingly beautiful and uniquely Paris. There really is nothing quite like the City of Light.
Don’t miss: Tour Eiffel, Montmartre, Notre Dame, Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, Arc de Triomphe, River Seine
Eat and drink: Le Relais de L’Entrecot, Escargots, French breakfast (avec pain au chocolat), Soufflé
Ever since moving to Bilbao in October, I have found little luck and few opportunities when it comes to updating my travel blog. Every so often I urge myself to write; I firmly yet lovingly force myself to produce anything, even if it turns out to be of sub-par quality. For a while it truly seemed as though work and school had devoured me whole; at least until I realized I was yet again enveloped in a state not so alien to me after all.
The signs are consistent each time. First, I get excited about an upcoming trip and then I quickly remember all the others I have been on that have not, to this day, been given the attention they are due. Soon enough I catch myself visualizing the almost immeasurable amount of gigabytes in picture format that have yet to be sorted. On top of that, my own memory is noticeably slowing down and failing me more than ever. Likewise, it doesn’t help that these days all I ever think about when I actually have time to pause and reflect are potential topics for my presentation in Global Problems class.
Almost immediately after all of that comes the ever-predictable “I don’t want to travel for a while” period, usually coupled with an emotionally-charged rant about the “too harsh for my tropical Asian complexion” winter season. As soon as I recognize how familiar this scenario is, I find myself hopping on a plane again to yet another destination, coming back on a definite high, and ultimately starting the dreaded cycle again. Much to my dismay, it has, time and again, proven to be an assembly line of events that runs like clockwork.
When I am stuck in the in-between, the only remedy I have found effective so far is gratitude. Travel burn out and wanderlust are, more than anything, states of being that I should be most thankful for and feel privileged to undergo. Not everyone gets to experience either, let alone both, at least not in a manner that ultimately leaves them fulfilled. And yet I constantly find myself in this cycle which has, without a doubt, contributed the most to the amount of growth that I have gone through in the past three years of essentially and accidentally embodying the ways of a true digital nomad.
Perhaps I truly have come into my own as a travel blogger to even go through the motions of temporarily running out of steam as both a writer and a traveler. Although I am convinced that this blog probably deserves more attention than it is currently getting (from me), I also know that the tide will change and the cycle will sync and once again I will be able to express myself in ways that most likely (based on experience) only a three-month long vacation from life can warrant. But until that day comes, I hope this space, as well as the people that so willingly appreciate it, grows more and more patient with me as I seek to go out and see more of the world every chance I get.
After all, I am a traveler first and a blogger second.
Growing up, I never really thought I’d become the nomadic type. I had always felt that life back home was as good as it was going to get and I was completely fine with it. Then came an opportunity to live by myself in sunny Spain and did I cling to it for dear life. The rest, as they say, is history. Living abroad, however, is by no means a regular feat. Behind some of those (wander)lust-worthy photos I have shared on Instagram are desperately dreadful moments I would never wish upon anyone. Believe me when I say those are stories for another day.
In the not-so-distant past, whenever homesickness crept in undesirably like guys trying vainly to talk to me in a discoteca, no remedy proved better than countless packs of instant pancit canton. Nowadays it seems I have flown between the Philippines and Spain frequently enough to essentially get over that sensation and ultimately notice that in the last two years alone I have become a completely different person. So much has changed due to the sheer fact that I have divided my time as efficiently as possible between two places close to my heart, both of which I now consider home.
As I start yet another year in Spain, this time in the city of my dreams, I feel it is an opportune time to celebrate the culmination of my continued growth thus far, if that sentence even made sense. All other factors being equal, it seems living abroad has truly been the prime catalyst in this journey to self-transcendence.
1. I learned the true meaning of independence.
I don’t know about you but the feeling I got after graduating from college with honors doesn’t even compare to the one I got after gathering my first successful batch of laundry. In Spain I have never had anyone to hold my hand, which in turn makes accomplishing anything at all that much of a bigger deal. It was even trickier the first few months when I barely spoke the language. But I pulled through and never gave up. Now I am living in arguably one of the best cities in Europe and nothing makes me happier than doing my weekly groceries, preparing all of my daily meals, and cleaning my flat to no end.
2. I realized that the world is both big and small.
Travel upholds a reputation for opening and broadening horizons the world over. Living abroad adds to this a wholly different dimension. When you stay long enough in a place to know its nooks and crannies by heart, to speak not just the language of its people but also the language of its streets, you realize how oddly familiar and unfamiliar life there is as opposed to wherever you came from. You come to appreciate the similarities and the differences and that in order to maintain a nuanced balance, both should be present. Our lives are the same in the ways that they are different. That is an insight best formed from experience, especially when away from the comforts of home.
3. I appreciated the value of anonymity.
No sooner had I left Manila in October than I started to sense that I was, finally, once again a nobody. Despite the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb in Spain, what with my jet-black hair and accompanying soft features, I have always basked in my anonymity; something that for some reason I just cannot be warranted back home. Living in a place where everyone minded their own business is definitely something I was not accustomed to but could very well get used to. It is something that I seek in other ways every time I’m back in the Philippines (read: I usually stay off social media and just hang out in my room with my cat for the most part).
4. I became better at setting goals for myself.
Living abroad has allowed me to zero in on what’s truly important and focus entirely on my own personal growth and self-transcendence, which means I have been able to set realistic goals for myself without the influence of anyone or anything else. And it has been nothing short of incredible. The circumstances that have been made available to me have in turn allowed me to position myself on a creative plane where competition is an alien concept. As a result, the rate of my growth in the past two years has been exponential. Instead of sulking about the difficulties presented by living in a foreign country alone, I am excited by the challenges.
5. I accepted all the versions of myself that I have and will become.
With all the transformations that I have gone through in the last couple of years, it really isn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that I have seen myself in every state of being possible. The worst of the worst and the best of the best; I have been on both ends of the same spectrum. What I realized is that when you live abroad you are given an opportunity to curate a life that is completely your own. You can therefore either make the most out of it and grab every opportunity you can: learn a language; make lots of friends; travel to other places, or you can do the exact opposite: avoid using a language you don’t speak; don’t go out to meet new people; stay at home on every occasion. I can empathize with versions of myself that have been on either side of the fence and in fact strive to move swimmingly across the limits. Living abroad teaches you that there is no black and white; only grey areas perfect for growth.
I can still remember the first time I stepped on European soil like it was yesterday. After a relatively long but definitely comfortable flight via Singapore Airlines, I finally made my way to Barcelona, a city that to this day, possibly hundreds of cities later, remains a personal favourite. That day, despite my most vivid memory of it being how inadequately dressed I was for the cold (read: Spain is all sun and flamenco, they said), would mark the first of so many things for me. Not only was it the first day of my first six months living in Europe, it was also the first day of my dreams finally coming true.
Countless budget flights, bus rides, and train journeys later, it still feels surreal to realize that Europe has indeed become my second home. I have been to all four corners and yet have only seen mere glimpses of most of the continent. And naturally, I keep coming back for more.
Why Europe Travel Is Worth It
Europe really does look and feel like a dream; but one that anyone can very easily live out at that. The continent as a whole boasts a wide array of cultures and traditions that in my honest (and possibly biased) opinion only Asia can rival. And contrary to popular belief, Europe can actually rival Asia in terms of prices. I’ve never [actually] worked a day in my life and yet even I can afford to make it happen. To misquote the one and only Dragon, Dale Doback, “It’s all about who what you know”.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For Philippine passport holders, the biggest thing you’d have to worry about when planning a budget trip to Europe is obtaining a visa. Given that most of the countries to visit are members of the Schengen Area, a Schengen Visa is in order. This visa allows you to enter and exit the continent through any of the member states of the Schengen area, and thereby travel in its bounds, within the validity indicated and number of entries allowed. In addition, there are non-Schengen areas that can be visited with a valid Schengen visa and/or resident permit in a Schengen member state. For good measure, double-check with the specific country you want to visit (as was my experience inquiring with Croatia, they are very responsive). For instance, the United Kingdom, as with other non-Schengen territories, requires its own visa.
I don’t have any personal experience in obtaining tourist visas because each time I go to Europe I am required to apply for a student visa and then a resident permit which allows me to stay there throughout the duration of my program. In 2014, I applied for a short stay visa in the Spanish Embassy that was valid for around six months, which was the duration of my Junior Term Abroad program. When I returned to Spain in 2016, I applied for a long term visa under the Auxiliares de Conversación program, which expired in 90 days. This then required me to obtain a residence permit valid up until the last day of my program. I would say the easiest way to obtain a Schengen visa is to apply to the Embassy of the member state in which you will be traveling or staying the longest. It makes sense, especially in consideration of your itinerary. The process and requirements are the same across Schengen member states. Just make sure you follow them thoroughly and there should be no problem.
Budget on the other hand would largely depend on your itinerary and personal preferences. A lot of people are still surprised when they find out that Europe, if you choose the places correctly, could be a relatively cheap continent to visit. Prices of food, accommodation, and transportation are what the budget is usually comprised of. Staying in the Nordic states (e.g. Norway, Sweden, Denmark) would definitely be a lot more expensive than visiting the Southern countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, Greece). Eating and getting around in the East (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Turkey) is vastly cheaper compared to the West (e.g. France, Belgium, The Netherlands). Central Europe (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary) is basically at the midpoint in every aspect. Conveniently-located accommodation is getting cheaper by the day thanks to Airbnb, which has also become an experience in itself. And if you’ve ever seen the Hostel trilogy, well, don’t worry so much. I’ve had my fair share of youth hostel experiences in Europe and they have all been awesome.
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
As a native English speaker, I have never had a problem communicating anywhere in Europe. Well, it also helps that living in Spain has allowed me to be fully conversational in Spanish, studying French for five years has given me a conversant background for reading signs and understanding guides, and enrolling in an introductory German course back in college has equipped me with enough knowledge to order eine bratwurst. Europe is the continent in which my professed love for languages has bore the most fruit, so to speak.
What I love most about Europe, however, is how despite the geographical proximity of neighbouring countries, one can feel precisely at which point a border has been crossed due to an evident change not only in scenery but also in atmosphere. Europe is so rich in culture and history that wherever you go there is something new to be learned and to be tried.
The biggest lesson I have taken with me however is to never generalize a country based on its stereotypes. For instance, being based in Northern Spain, I’ve learned that the country isn’t always so warm and sunny and not everyone knows flamenco. Likewise, don’t expect everyone in Amsterdam to just be out smoking in the streets; there’s actually a very organized and strict system of coffeeshops for that, which impressed me very much. My experience there reminded me of when I visited Christiania in Copenhagen which gave me a new and inspired view of Denmark. And spending days by the Adriatic coast in my lonesome, I learned not only that the Balkans are no longer war-torn (hello, it’s 2017) but that the people there are some of the nicest I have ever come across.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, What to Do
Having experienced all four seasons in Europe, I would highly recommend traveling in the fall and avoiding summer at all costs. Fall weather is nice and pretty much everyone is back to school and/or work and so crowds tend to be smaller. Winter in Europe can also be a lovely experience (as long as you don’t have to brave the cold to go to school or work in the dark mornings, it’s all lovely). My experience in spring has been mixed and as unpredictable as the still transitioning weather. And summer brings on too many people, which is bad news for my social anxiety.
For first-time travelers to Europe I do not suggest going on whirlwind Eurotrips if you really want to get a solid feel of the places and not end up getting the first train back to your friends in Paris after a crazy last night out in Amsterdam (trust me, you don’t want to be like me). It’s easier to travel by region as well, this way you can take your time and take advantage of lower transportation costs. For the purposes of this post, I will be dividing the continent into five although each of them can still be broken down into even smaller regions.
North: I haven’t really been around the Northern part of Europe primarily because as a perpetual island girl, the cold is not really what I’m used to. I did however enjoy Copenhagen which proved to be a hip albeit expensive city. My wish is to visit the northernmost parts of the Nordic states, such as Norway and Iceland, specifically to see the Northern Lights before they dim out. Likewise, this region is probably not the first you’d want to visit if you’re on a budget.
West: I have the best memories in this part of Europe because I have always felt like this is where my personality and interests fit best. Although the weather is a bit colder and wetter and perhaps the food not as spectacular as in the south, Western Europe has a lot to offer. I particularly love France; although I can never get enough of Paris no matter how many times I have been, which does not seem to run out of sights even for multiple visits, I also intend to see its many cities and provinces. Belgium and the Netherlands are also personal favourites and really great places for young people to enjoy. Don’t miss out on the beer museums in Belgium and the seafood in the Netherlands. Prices here are almost as high as their neighbors in the North but definitely worth it.
South: If you’re into the more laid-back side of Europe, the South is definitely the place to be. Everything is cheaper down south. Everything seems slower, too. Spain and Portugal in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Italy are my top picks for travel because you really get your money’s worth wherever you go. One can easily spend months in Spain alone and not get bored. Breath-taking sceneries, perfect weather, and amazing food – especially if you’re coming from the North and West, you’d be shocked at how [relatively] cheap the prices are. Definitely the region to visit for budget travelers. Check out the tapas culture in the South of Spain and the pintxos, its northern counterpart. Gelato should not be missed anywhere in Italy as it is unlike any other in the rest of the world. And if you’ve found yourself all the way in Portugal, might as well overdose on their delicious custard tarts.
Center: This region for me stands out as the most beautiful in all of Europe, based on the number of audible gasps per square meter, even for a budget traveler. Filled with magical small towns and equally awe-inspiring capital cities, central Europe is the region for sight-seeing and Instagram-worthy snapshots. My favourites are definitely Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Switzerland. Dine in beer gardens wherever possible in Germany. Swiss Potato Rösti should find itself on your list of must-eats. Make a sidetrip to Salzburg and relive The Sound of Music wherever you go. The general rule is that the closer to the East you get, the cheaper the prices are so keep that in mind as you move along your map. It also helps that countries in this region have cultural and historical backgrounds in common.
East: As mentioned, it gets cheaper and cheaper the farther in the East you get, which is awesome because this part of Europe is another one that is rich in culture and history. I haven’t been around this region that much but I already like it based on what little I have seen. The Balkans are a great place to start not just due to the beautiful coastal area but also because it is relatively easy to navigate, and not to mention perfect for budget travel. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I particularly enjoyed visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia, which also allowed me to visit nearby cities in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
4. Tips & Tricks
Divide and conquer. Like I said, Europe is easier and more convenient to travel if you divide them up into regions or small trips. Doing it this way, you give yourself more breathing time for smaller cities you would have otherwise missed visiting only capital cities on a whirlwind. The real Europe, I would argue, is hidden in towns and villages. For instance, you can go on a two-week trip around the Balkans, a two-week trip around Southern Spain, a two-week trip around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire all on a budget. You name it.
Book tickets in advance or really late. I am a fan of both air and land travel so I don’t think I am the best person to advice against one or the other. They both have their pros and cons and in all honesty I have found that doing a combination of flights, trains, and busses is the most holistic way to get around anywhere in Europe. I will, however, urge you to book your tickets way in advance or really late to score cheap prices. For example, I booked a really cheap plane ticket to Copenhagen to see the Christmas markets way back in July. Similarly, I booked bus tickets to Andalucía about a week prior to my trip on a flash sale.
Don’t book roundtrip tickets. If you’re coming all the way from Manila like me, it’s a good idea to divide your inbound and outbound trips and book them separately. This way, you don’t have to go back to the same starting point just to go home. Another advantage of this is that ironically enough, with the flexibility, you can cover more ground and it forces you to keep going until you get to the end of your trip. It’s an experience! Also, what I like about this is that I get to try so many different airlines, so much so that I have a secret ranking of them in my head.
Free walking tours. I absolutely enjoy these ones especially when I travel alone. A quick Google search of “place + free walking tour” should direct you to tours with reviews; all you have to do is pick one and then show up. These tours are a great way to get an introduction to the city for only a couple of hours. My favourite walking tour is one conducted by an Australian guy in Prague. He was so entertaining that I felt as though I was in the city for weeks when really, I was only there a couple of nights.
It pays to be a student. Seriously, I don’t know how many perks and free stuff I have gotten due to my student status. I don’t even have an international student card. Often my student visa and school ID are enough when asked to present documentation for discounts. Also just being young in general (and young-looking, at that) is a good thing because you can save a lot of money (e.g. youth hostels, discounts on transport cards, people automatically assuming you’re a broke millennial). You’re only young once, relish in the moment!
Even at a very young age I was already exposed to different types of cuisine, thanks to my late father who probably had one of the best palates and definitely had the most adventurous attitude when it came to food. Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of my dad include him eating tuna sashimi while enjoying his San Miguel Pale Pilsen in the afternoons, him taking us to Tagaytay to eat real corned beef with cabbage, him stocking up on pickled and fermented vegetables from kimchi, to sauerkraut, and atsara, him preparing marshmallows and cutting up fruits for our Toblerone Swiss fondue at home, and him serving up my favorite Spanish tortilla when we have nothing else to eat for dinner.
While most kids around me lived off the classic hotdog and white rice combination (literally the most Filipino thing, ever… not going to lie, I was a big fan), I was having salmon sashimi as my preferred merienda at home and making pastrami sandwiches when hunger would strike at midnight.
This kind of upbringing that I am very grateful for definitely influenced the kind of traveler that I would then become. Whenever I travel, food and drink always take precedence over just about anything. A trip would not be complete without having tried something new and something typical of the place I was visiting. And more often than not, if I end up liking a dish or a drink, no matter how strange it is or how hard it is to find, I would have it as many times as humanly possible before I have to unfortunately leave.
While Filipino cooking still holds a very special place in my heart (Tofu Kare Kare is life), I have decided to come up with a definitive list of places worth traveling to, if only for the culinary experience. Here I outline my favorite food and cuisine, out of those I have had the privilege of trying thus far while on the road, all of which I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
All photos were compiled and taken from my two Instagram accounts (defunct and current), for anyone who might be wondering.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop gushing about how even the food you find in convenience stores and street stalls in Japan is so damn good. Get a couple of negitoroonigiri from Family Mart and you’re set. Try takoyaki and okonomiyaki from any of the stalls in Osaka, even the ones outside of Dotonbori, and see if you don’t fall in love. Eat at a random ramen stand or the vendo ones in Tokyo Station and you’re bound to have a good time either way. Don’t even get me started with the freshest chirashi bowls in Tsukiji Fish Market (with all the different types of tuna and salmon, my mouth is watering right now) and just Japanese beer in general. Kanpai!
Why do you think I chose to live in the Basque Country? If my dad were still alive, I’m sure he would pat me on the back for choosing to live in the region that holds the record for most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Imagine being surrounded by world-class pintxos wherever you go and relatively cheap but very good quality wine (shoutout to the Basque txakoli and all the good times we’ve had). We haven’t even reached the topic of paella yet which I believe deserves its own post. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but really, we all have to admit it: 100 Montaditos is basically a god-send.
3. Hong Kong
I cannot count how many times in my life I have paused, in times of distress and in times of lonesome (for fear of looking ridiculous), and tried to remember the distinct smell of roast duck that basically screams Hong Kong. From the street food down in Mong Kok to the noodles up in the Peak, Hong Kong offers an incredible culinary experience that is unlike any other. I will never forget the mismatched adventures of going all the way to Lan Kwai Fong in Central for classic milk tea and back to Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon for world-renowned dim sum and dumplings. Thank goodness Hong Kong is a mere 2-hour flight from Manila.
Whether it’s pizza in Rome, risotto in Venice, or steak in Florence, Italy does not seem to run out of timeless choices to offer. But my best memory would have to be that time I literally chased after my passion and rode my way across Italy by train to taste all the best gelato, also known as man’s greatest invention, that the country has to offer. I don’t even know how many times I ate ice cream in the span of one week, definitely several on some days, just so I could maximize my time there and the seemingly countless flavors that exist. I actually cannot wait to do it again.
I can still remember channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain and finding my way to The Lunch Lady by the Saigon river to try her world-famous phở like it was yesterday. Setting aside my pescatarian sensibilities for a moment, I wolfed down everything in that bowl of life because it was just so flavorful and so authentically Vietnamese. The rest of the time, if I wasn’t overdosing on Vietnamese coffee and bánh mì, I was desperately on the look out for gỏi cuốn and sugarcane juice. The best part was that my 23-year old self didn’t seem to be running out of money. What I would give to fly back there soon.
My memories of Belgium are definitely hazy and I have pints of delicious Belgian Hoegaardeen beer to thank for that. But the culinary experience was so vivid that to this day I haven’t forgotten the richness of Belgian chocolate, the sinfulness of Belgian waffles, and the deceptiveness of Belgian fries. I went to Belgium knowing practically nothing about the country, on a short weekend trip to meet up with friends, and went home a Belgian cuisine convert and a completely changed person, with boxes and boxes of truffles, of course.
I used to just marvel at photos of colorful floating markets on magazines and websites but when I finally visited one in Bangkok, I was not disappointed at all. In sampling endless plates of Thai pancakes, drinking glasses of Thai iced tea one after the other, gobbling down hot bowls of tom yum and cold servings of mango sticky rice, one realizes that Thai cuisine is the most faithful reflection of how rich and vibrant the country’s culture is. Not to mention the coconut ice cream, fresh fruit shakes, and pad thai to-go scattered all over Khao San Road. I wouldn’t mind getting lost in dark alleys again if it meant having these food in my life.
Imagine wandering aimlessly in Munich hoping to find a place where you could eat after a rather tiring train ride and then at the perfect moment of hunger stumbling upon the actual beer garden of your dreams. Such was my experience in Germany. To this day, I still question whether or not that experience was real because it turned out to be the best 20-euro meal I have ever had in Europe, if not just simply the best. Period. A wide selection of wurst and bier, sauerkraut, pretzels, and good vibes from amazing German people: this is the stuff dreams are made of.
It’s safe to assume that we all have that one friend who ventured abroad, probably got burned (in the many ways that one can get burned) on his or her first few months, decided to go back home to recover, and reflected on the experience from a perspective only the comforts of familiar territory can warrant. I’m that friend for my less than 200 Facebook friends who wondered, as I suddenly updated them with a silly photo of me chilling in HKIA, why on earth I was back in Asia so soon when I seemed to be having the time of my life in Europe.
Even before graduating from college I had already made plans to leave. Perhaps I left Manila too soon. It was a hard decision to make but wide-eyed and hopeful as I was, in the name of independence, I made it anyway. Now the tide has brought me back home indefinitely, and I figured this is the time to look back and make the most of the experience that left me with nothing to show for but a set of battle scars and a dire need for change. Here are the most important lessons I picked up immersing myself in a culture wildly different from my own, falling in and out of love multiple times in a few short months, and getting my first dose of reality after being sheltered far too long.
1. Things will inevitably get lost in translation.
It’s tricky enough to live in a country where the majority does not speak your mother tongue, let alone live and work in a region where they are adamant about promoting their own language, which has nothing to do with any other. Such was my experience in the Basque Country. At work, I was surrounded by people who would on occasion blurt out Basque phrases at me out of habit, because I happened to be the only non-Basque and non-Spanish speaking person in the whole school. After all, I was the English conversation assistant, what did they expect? Well, the experience sucked, but it also forced me to learn. I came to Spain with a meager B1 to B2 level of Spanish, enough to order pintxos on my own. I left the country being able to express all my frustrations about living there to native speakers themselves. And Basque? Let’s just say I tried but for now I’m convinced I have other things to learn in this lifetime.
2. Love hurts.
Man, oh man. I don’t even know where to begin! The thing I learned about love is that while it comes in many forms, it will always, at some point, hurt. That’s just how you know it was true. I fell in and out of love so many times in the span of eight months, I often wonder how my bruised up heart is still beating. I’m not just talking romantically here – I fell in love with work, with friends, with animals, with lifestyles, even with 100 Montaditos and bottomless pints of Radlers. Everything was as foreign to me as I was to them. I fell in love with everything and everyone new, with the feeling of being in love with them, with the feeling of falling out of love with them. As soon as I fell out of love it became hard to fight my first instinct, which is to simply love. When you have as much capacity for love as I do, it feels almost like breathing: if you stop, you die. That is why I was burned out: I gave and gave and gave for everyone around me to reach their own potential expecting nothing in return. But after this experience, I learned to always guard my heart – that way I can love right, starting with myself, and show it properly.
3. Home is where the heart is.
Strangely enough the last time I was ever homesick was also the first time. It was back in eighth grade when I went on a beach trip with new friends and felt completely out of place. I have since traveled to so many places without my family and even lived in Spain twice, but I never felt genuinely homesick again, not for even a second. What I did realize is that whenever I missed home while I was away, it was due to a longing for the good things I was lucky enough to have experienced. It was never a bad thing. In the first place, I left primarily to become more independent, both financially and emotionally, and came back having done exactly what I sought out to accomplish. It was just a matter of slowly realizing that home wasn’t as bad as I always painted it out to be; I only needed distance to come to terms with that fact. I know one day that I will have that same realization about Spain. The important thing is that now I know from experience that home is always where my heart presently is, wherever in the world that may be.
Would you honestly believe me if I told you I spent a total of PHP 25000 (around 500 USD as of writing) during a two-week trip from Vietnam through Cambodia to Thailand? How about how I recently spent less than PHP 25000 during a week-long stay in Croatia (with Dubrovnik as my home base to be precise), during which I also got to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro? Would you believe me if I told you I slept, ate, and lived like a modern-day princess regardless? The last part probably not, but amazing times were definitely had without having to break the bank nor sell my soul to the devil. Fulfilling budget travel is so possible; and I am living proof.
The key to a successful attempt at this godsend millennials refer to as budget travel a.k.a. being able to go out there without sacrificing the little things we need to distract ourselves when we’re not out there (read: “I want to travel because it sets my soul on fire… but I also want to have money for things that dull the pains of daily life such as bottles of cheap wine and cute things I don’t need but keep popping up on my Instagram feed. I guess whatever little amount of money I have isn’t going to spend itself”) is striking a balance between having rigid boundaries and going a little crazy. When you master getting the right mix, you’re in for a good time, every time.
Here are some travel hacks and tips that I, as a self-proclaimed seasoned budget traveler, would like to share with you, another soul who should be convinced that broadening one’s horizon does not have to come at such a great price, literally. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how exactly you can earn the money to travel but I can help you spend it. Heh. I mean, teach you ways to spend it. Or in the case of the last one, NOT spend it.
1. Plan ahead
I know, I know. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Well, guess what: if you know when exactly to be spontaneous and when exactly to plan ahead, you’re basically doing yourself a huge favour. One should learn how to at least think about the basics of a trip. I know it’s so tempting to just “yolo” (putting those in quotation marks makes me feel old), book a flight at the last minute, and play everything by ear. But hey guess what 2.0, you’re on a budget! You literally cannot afford to do that because of a financial constraint. Boo reality, always getting in the way of things.
Always remember that in budget travel, one must be flexible with the journey but stubborn about the destination. You are certain you want to go to Boracay during the Labor Day weekend? Well, maybe the best thing you can do is book your ticket and accommodation as far in advance as possible, and then go walwal (read: funny Filipino word for crazy) when you’re there. This will save you a lot of money and non-hangover induced headaches in the process.
2. Know your needs
We are all built differently. We are all built with different capacities with regards to tolerating different things. For instance, are you the type who prioritizes comfort over anything? Then maybe you should spend the bulk of your budget on accommodations that are not only conveniently and centrally-located but also don’t make you dread using the bathroom. Are you the type who places a lot of importance on privacy? Then maybe you should avoid hostels and shared spaces at all costs, especially if even just the thought of having any unnecessary interaction with other travelers is literally making you want to slit your own throat.
Or are you the type who doesn’t care about any of those mentioned above? Then great! Congratulations! You can literally stay anywhere which is very good news for your wallet because every penny counts. Let me rephrase that. Good news for your tummy because every extra penny saved should count towards your food and drink budget! The gist is this: know what you absolutely need out of and during a trip and don’t be cheap at all when it comes to that. In budget travel, everything else can suffer, relatively. Just don’t die. That’s not how millennials do it! Instead, just think about all the extra pints of Radlers you can have.
The best memories actually come in the form of being able to enter the Mezquita in Cordoba just to hear the afternoon mass (and cry in a corner), couchsurfing for the first time in a hip neighbourhood in Amsterdam to save a little cash (and spend it on some hash, okay just kidding, the joke was waiting to happen), getting randomly lost in a dark alley in Bangkok with your two best friends (this one was scary as hell but super funny), and spending one whole day around Dubrovnik with a friend you made at the hostel the night before (cue Taylor Swift’s Enchanted). These are the unforgettable experiences that don’t make it to your feed (or get linked to on your blog post) and that no amount of money can buy, figuratively because they are priceless and literally because they are free, which is especially important when you don’t necessarily have the money to spend in the first place.
In the last quarter of 2014, I unwittingly found myself in the most decisive crossroad in my life yet: I was 21, in my third year in university, and eager to go on a term abroad in Spain while my dad was 52, still young and healthy, when he suddenly passed away due to a heart attack.
Anyone who has experienced this particular kind of loss knows there are no words to adequately express the intensity of what follows. I was enveloped in guilt, anger, sadness, and just about any negative feeling in the full spectrum of human emotion. Somehow I was expected to stay strong through it all; to fake it until I made it.
But how could I even begin to feel excited about what I had dubbed “the trip of of a lifetime” when one of the few people I was eager to tell all about it was no longer? Not only had I lost one of the most important figures in my life, a person who loved me unconditionally and vice versa, but I had also lost myself in the process.
On the surface, moving to Europe for six months was the perfect excuse to heal and to find myself. How could grieving in winter and blossoming in spring be unattractive to anyone? Life, being the epitome of irony that it is, had granted me the opportunity to wallow in distractions and to run away from reality, so to speak. Nothing could have prepared me better for all that was to come than hopping on that plane to Barcelona.
What took place as I stepped foot on European soil was a kind of rebirth. I drowned in the darkness of my own sorrows and in the depths rediscovered the vitality of life. I was surrounded by scenery that was unlike anything I was used to back home. I was immersed in experiences I would have never in my life imagined finding myself in. I was even adding a fourth language to my arsenal. Every weekend I found myself in a different place. In half a year I had traveled to tens of countries around Europe and it didn’t matter one bit that I did most of it by myself.
For the first time, I was bitten by the travel bug. And I haven’t stopped traveling since.
When I got back to the Philippines, I was a completely different person. From going on familiar beach trips with friends from high school to backpacking through unfamiliar Indochina with friends from university: I seized every opportunity to pack my bags and just go. That burning desire to travel has also led me back here to Spain shortly after graduating: no longer as a student of Spanish, but this time as a teacher of English.
Despite all the difficult challenges and tragic events that I have had to weather thus far, I have never looked to travel as a mere outlet to escape life but rather as an earnest way for life not to escape me. I travel to all these places, both old and new, to live in the triviality of my worries and in the profundity of my adventures.
Instead of warranting me answers in life, travel has generated even more questions. At the time of writing, I find myself in yet another crossroad, perhaps a lot less rocky than the one I have just finished passing through but difficult to traverse just the same. Whether or not I stay in Spain for another year is up in the air. The past winter has shown me that home calls every three months or every time the temperature dropping below zero makes this island girl appreciate the humidity coupled with torrential rains back in the tropics, whichever comes sooner.
While travel is essentially about being in the present, it is also about being in a constant state of departure. This type of travel has made me appreciate home, realizing that it is also possible to have one in a corner of the world that is the complete opposite of where you come from. I have learned the hard way that missing what you are used to does not equal being miserable where you currently are. It just means you are striking the right balance between staying true to yourself and welcoming any change that may arise for the sake of your growth as a person.
Similarly, in spending the past couple of years living in and traveling between Europe and Asia I have accumulated memories to last a lifetime. From experiencing the joy of having the freshest fish in Tsukiji in both summer and winter to the bliss in enjoying chocolate con churros in Sol in fall and spring: these memories may be years and seasons apart but they are never the same experience. I may travel to the same places but I am a different person each time.
But more than giving me all these precious memories to look back on in the future and allowing me to meet all sorts of people along the way, travel has made me realize that my life in itself is a journey that continues to unfold with each delayed flight and each scenic train ride. Whether the story is set against the backdrop of the Basque mountain ranges or the busy streets of Manila, life continues to be an adventure.
And through it all, I never felt alone for I know my dad continues to keep a watchful eye on and is with me every step of the way.
When people commend me for being so ‘brave’ and ‘fearless’ for traveling solo to the most random cities imaginable, I usually just nod politely, fake a smile, and wonder to myself why what I am doing is a grand feat in everyone’s eyes. And then I go back to that same truth that plagues my daily existence: I look like I’m 12.
Here’s the thing: if a perpetually baby-faced, petite 24-year-old Asian girl, standing at almost five feet tall (I say almost because in my heart and in some official grown-up records I AM 5 feet tall despite what you might say) can travel solo from Manila to Barcelona (and back) with two maletas bigger than her and then eventually to countless cities in the European and Asian continents (thus far), then I don’t see why anyone else can’t.
Don’t be fooled, however. I have obviously had my fair share of stranger danger incidents (funny at times, but more often horrific) and travel anxiety/burnout episodes (more on the last two issues much later – yes, they exist, and no, they aren’t as elitist as they sound) but they obviously did not stop me from conquering some of the most fascinating and culturally-diverse continents in the world, with no other hand to hold but my own (#bitter – I never actually held hands with myself, that’s just weird).
While I absolutely love traveling with family and groups, I have developed a soft spot for going out there alone given that I have experienced some of my most unforgettable memories while doing so. Here are just SOME of the reasons why solo travel is ultimately worth it:
1. You get to do everything at your own pace.
You don’t have to wake up at 8 am to catch the winter sunrise in Pamplona if you would much rather sleep in and catch a later bus to the city. You don’t have to eat at that fancy hamburger restaurant in Lisbon if you would much rather share a hearty meal with your new friends at the hostel. The beauty in solo travel is that you can do whatever the bleep you want.
You are/should be the best company there ever is. You see, traveling is a lot like falling in love: you can’t expect someone to love you if you don’t love yourself (boom I be dropping some truth bombs like they’re Ecstasy tablets, omg what a distasteful joke, I’m sorry) in the same manner that you can’t expect to be the best travel buddy if you can’t even spend time traveling on your own.
2. You will always make new friends.
Here’s an unwritten rule in the world of solo travel: no one is actually completely alone. I can’t count how many new friends I have made on the road just by being in my lonesome. Ironic, isn’t it? When we meet people, no matter where they are from, whether or not a language barrier exists, regardless of it all, the world suddenly feels a little smaller. And that’s a great feeling – something that not all kinds of travel can warrant.
Whether it’s the American college student who took my photo in Segovia, the Korean high schooler who was lost in the same street as me in Seville, the Taiwanese backpacker who helped me buy metro tickets in Cologne, the Swiss lady who gave me two francs so I can use the toilet in Zurich, the French guy who talked to me in French the whole time I was in Lisbon, the Ecuadorian abuelo who told me to always respect myself and to never be in a hurry in life as he sat next to me on the bus to Madrid, or the Spanish tourist who said “Por fin, hemos llegado señorita” when he recognised me as the only twenty-something at the end of our 10-hour train ride to Santiago de Compostela – you will always make a new friend and will never feel alone.
3. You realise how interesting and unique you actually are.
How often are you really going to meet a Filipina who left the comforts of her own warm home to teach English in the Basque Country and to immerse herself in Spanish culture, who finished her degree in Economics because she wants to become a diplomat and/or a social entrepreneur to focus on education in the Philippines one day, and who considers travel (read: going to new places, picking up the language, immersing self in culture) as the ultimate, if not the only way of life there is. Not very often. Probably once in your life. If you’re lucky. No, it’s not being obnoxious – it’s realising that in solo travel, as in every other aspect of life, you are both your greatest investment and your greatest capital.
Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely NOT an extrovert who loves making friends. I usually hate people. I am an INFJ (emphasis on the Introvert and also, we make up around 1% of the human population – you can’t possibly be RARER than that). But when you’re on the road meeting new people, your quirky and unique traits will inevitably shine through. After all, we’re all interesting because we’re all different. They say you can be whoever you want to be when you’re traveling (even more so when you’re traveling alone) but why be anyone else when you can simply be yourself. This is the good part. Embrace it. Wallow in it, even.