What’s crazier than travelling Southeast Asia solo on a shoestring budget throughout November? Travelling Southeast Asia solo on a shoestring budget throughout November and writing 50,000 words of a book at the same time, that’s what.
Yup, this autumn I zig-zagged from Myanmar to Laos, Laos to Cambodia, Cambodia to Vietnam, and Vietnam to Bali, Indonesia. Oh, and I did NaNoWriMo at the same time.
What is NaNoWriMo, I hear some of you ask? NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. It’s essentially a creative concept and an online community, where each participant commits to writing 50,000 words of something. It’s usually a novel, but sometimes it’s something else like an autobiography, an essay, or a memoir. The idea is that the support of the other participants will help you achieve that goal.
I participated in my first NaNoWriMo last year because I’d heard such good things about its support system. Plus, it seemed like making a pledge to write 50,000 words and telling other people about it is a good way of holding you accountable (and it was). I ‘won’ my first NaNoWriMo just a couple of hours before midnight on 30th November 2015 because I like leaving things until the last minute.
However, the best thing about NaNoWriMo is the community. There are only a handful of us in Hong Kong, but it’s still a great opportunity to meet up with other writers and bounce ideas off each other, all while drinking coffee and complaining how our word counts stubbornly refuse to rise. The online forums are also a great place for sparking ideas, asking for help and just inspiring some creativity.
Basically, NaNoWriMo is totally awesome and you should totally do it if you want to write something, is what I’m saying.
So, when autumn came around this year and I found myself planning my trip around Southeast Asia, I was kind of sad because I really wanted to participate again. I knew I would be out of Hong Kong for the whole of November (in four different countries and thirteen different places within them, to be exact), and that I would probably be just a little bit busy.
Then a crazy little worm-thought wriggled into my brain:
What if I wrote 50,000 words and travelled a continent at the same time?
There’s a clue in the title of this blog, Page Traveller. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m an avid explorer of both real and fictional worlds.
It was too good of a challenge to resist.
Somewhere between leaving Hong Kong on 17th October and my flight back on 1st December, I was pretty sure I would do at least one or two interesting things worth writing about. Maybe I wouldn’t fill up 50,000 words with them, but I would try. At the very least, it would make for a good travel journal or memoir to read back through after my trip had finished.
I was already travelling and staying in Yangon, Myanmar, when I officially committed and signed myself up for my second year of NaNoWriMo. The website asked me for a title: I didn’t have one. The website asked me for a summary and an excerpt, which I didn’t have. The forums asked me who my characters were. Me? …I guess?
I didn’t tell anyone in case it didn’t work out.
I was two weeks into my trip when November started, so I was already picking up ideas. Little snippets of my previous travels were going to make appearances too. Suddenly, I had my first paragraph. Two paragraphs. Three. A page. Two. Four. Eight.
Surprisingly, I found far more time to write than I thought I would.
On the road, my natural routine was to sightsee or do some activity during the morning, sweat in the Southeast Asian heat, go on a desperate search for iced coffee around 11am, write over lunch to escape the hottest part of the day, continue being a tourist in the afternoon, watch the sunset somewhere pretty, eat dinner somewhere my guidebook recommended, return to my hostel and shower, then finally finish up with little bit more writing before I went to bed.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were more than a few obstacles:
- I thought I would be able to indulge in long stretches of writing while travelling between places, but it was hard to even get my laptop out of my bag on long jolting bus and taxi journeys, let alone balance it on my knees and type. Even on planes I couldn’t get into my writing zone. I was too uncomfortable and too paranoid that the person sat next to me was reading over my shoulder. However, staring out of windows on those journeys made for good daydreaming, bookspiration and kept writer’s block at bay.
- Then there was the plug adapter situation. I had one multi-adapter but my phone, kindle, laptop and portable charger almost always needed charging at the same time. I had to prioritise my phone and portable charger over my laptop because I needed my map app to get around and my phone camera to take pictures. Even then, that depended on the hostel dorm room’s number of power outlets and the country’s chosen shape of plug socket.
- And then there was Wifi. Some places had it, some places didn’t. In four different hostels on four separate occasions, the Wifi inexplicably disappeared for a day or two. I couldn’t back up, access the forums, join web write-ins or update my word count.
I occasionally got side-tracked writing other things too: this blog, actual commissioned web content, pitches to other websites and job applications.
More importantly, I also had a little bit of fun travelling! Fear not, I didn’t spend the whole of my time country-hopping behind a laptop screen!
However, it wasn’t until I did a bit of calculating upon reaching my final destination of Bali, Indonesia, that I realised that I would have to average 5,000 words a day to catch up. Woops.
Luckily, (I say ‘luckily’ even though it wasn’t lucky at all, but I have to think of a silver lining because it annoyed and upset me so much) it was then that I burnt my leg. Oh yes, one of those stereotypical backpacker scooter/motorbike burns on the inside of my right calf from hitting it off the exhaust pipe.
Even though I had read everywhere to never to swing your leg around to the right when getting on the scooter. Even though I had escaped riding on the back of scooters at all until this very part of my trip. Even though, on this very occasion, I had argued with the driver that I didn’t want to get on the back of his scooter. Sigh. But the guide didn’t speak much English and it was the only way I could go and see dolphins jumping through the waves off Lovina’s coast in the early morning sun.
The dolphins won.
So I got on the back of the scooter and got the burn. It’s a rite of passage. I’m a cliché, ok?
It was small, but painful enough that I noticed it all the time. It also blistered and peeled, leaving behind raw skin that nurses and doctors told me TO KEEP UNCOVERED, DRY AND CLEAN AT ALL COSTS OR ELSE IT WILL GET INFECTED (I feel like the capital letters are their emphasis rather than mine).
I had to give up snorkeling in Amed. I had to give up trekking around rice terraces in Ubud (I snuck a cheeky and ill-advised whitewater rafting trip in there instead, but shhh). And I had to give up the very thing I had come to Bali for – surf school.
On my last few days in Bali I rocked up to a beachside café, stared longingly out at the turquoise waves, and wrote. I wrote a lot, hitting the word count target at lunchtime on 30th November, the final day of my big backpacking trip. Despite being crazy busy, I had beat my time from last year!
Now comes the cheesy moral of the story. As I sat back in my chair, clicking the save icon on my laptop and gazing out at the ocean, I thought that maybe it was more than that.
More than 50,000 words.
This trip has probably been the most prolific writing period of my life to date. In the first blog that I published while I was on this trip, Here I Am Without A Cello, I talked about how travel is a great peeler of layers:
‘One of the reasons I love travel is because it challenges you. Not in the way you might think – negotiating a city you don’t know, grappling with foreign tongues and learning about different cultures (though those are all worthy and rewarding challenges too) – but in how it challenges who you are.
Essentially, who am I when removed from everything that I know? Away from friends and family, away from home, away from the creature comforts that I take for granted, away from my ‘cello’. When everything external is stripped away, who is left? What lies at the core of who I am?
And the glorious thing is that the answers are different every time.’
With that in mind, if I’ve learnt anything from this trip, it’s that I love to write. Like, really love to write. When all outside distractions are stripped away, when I have no commitments to attend to, when I experience something that I feel is significant, my first instinct is to write about it.
And that realisation is everything for me.
I felt guilty at first, like I was doing travel wrong. But then I started to feel how it was adding to my experience. How it was helping me reflect and create more vivid memories. I was writing a lot and I was enjoying it, and that was nothing to feel guilty about. I started to feel like a jigsaw piece that you’d tried squidging into the ‘sky’ section of a puzzle because it looked like it matched the colours, but it turned out that it fit seamlessly into the ocean section of the jigsaw instead. And I slipped it into place.
So here’s a toast to 50,000 words of a great travel souvenir from my backpacking trip, and my dual dreams of writing and traveling.
The two compliment each other very well, I think. Because doesn’t every good story take you on a journey? And, in the end, doesn’t every good journey make for a brilliant story?