While at a music festival in Seoul, South Korea earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Amber Wilson, a fellow American expatriate teaching English in East Asia. At the time, she was teaching in Korea, like I was back in China. We exchanged contact information, as expats often do, and I started following her adventures on Facebook. After seeing photo after photo of her travels, I soon realized that Amber was not just doing a gap year or getting a one-time abroad experience to make some extra cash, but that she was embracing a unique, nomadic lifestyle. I was intrigued, to say the least, and I asked if I could hear more about how and why and where. She was kind enough to meet with me and share her experiences.
Adele Laurie: What initially sparked your interest in travel?
Amber Wilson: I actually didn’t have a passport until I was about 19. I had been to Mexico with my family, and I had visited Amsterdam for a few weeks, but London was the first place I went on my own. I wanted to study abroad, but because I transferred, I decided not to. I found an internship in London after I graduated college. I was supposed to be there for six weeks, but I stayed for three months, when my visa expired.
How did you manage that? I know getting a visa to work in the UK can be difficult for Americans.
Yeah. Well, the company I worked for was actually great and willing to work with me, so after my original six weeks ended, they helped me make a schedule where I only worked a few days a week and the paid for my transit costs. So this way I had time to take extra trips around the UK while living in London.
What is the longest time you’ve spent living abroad in one place? And what’s the longest time you’ve spent actively backpacking or “on the road”?
One year in South Korea. And after that I did three months in Southeast Asia.
What did you do with all our stuff from Korea? How did you transition from living abroad to backpacking?
I sent a small suitcase full of clothes home with a friend’s parents who had come to visit. Then, I sent one big box and one small box by boat. IT takes two months, but it is really cheap. Around $30. If you send a small box through regular mail it costs about $80 [from Korea to the US].
How do you pack for being on the road for such a long time?
I have a 70 L backpacking bag. I had three pairs of shorts, some tank tops. In India you can’t show your knees and shoulders, so I had maxi dresses and scarves there.
What is the best travel hack you can give to beginner backpackers?
Roll everything. Separate everything. All T-shirts in one bag, shorts in one bag. It makes it easier to store and sort because you can easily find what you’re looking for. It gets rid of extra space. Also organize where you keep your toiletries. Pack what you use every day in one place. I also recommend Dr. Bronner’s all natural soap. You can use it to wash anything; clothes, hair, face, etc. It only takes like three drops to wash your whole body!
What are the biggest differences in your experience between being an expat living abroad somewhere for an extended amount of time and traveling to new places as a backpacker?
Living in one place is nice. It is nice to have visitors. One of my friends met up with me while backpacking, and she had never travelled anywhere before. It was hard because I couldn’t show her around since I don’t know those places. Even though I didn’t like Korea as much, I could have easily planned things. I could have shown her more and known the best ways to do something. Since we were not in Korea, I couldn’t show her around and it was more difficult to plan. She loved it though, everything worked out really well. She didn’t get sick. When you’re travelling you don’t do something every day. You can’t go out every night. You’ll be exhausted. I had my downtime, but when my friend was visiting, we had to do something every day. She was starting a nursing program and had limited time.
You mentioned she didn’t get sick. You’ve had a couple illnesses while being abroad. Tell me about that and has it affected your opinion on traveling?
Yeah, the last five days in India I was very sick with a stomach thing they call “Delhi belly.” When I returned to the states I had a fever and loss of appetite. We think it was Dengue fever. But I was in the US for treatment so I was lucky. It’s just part of travelling to me.
Of all the places you’ve been do you have a favorite? Was there any place you didn’t like?
India was my favorite because it’s so diverse. Vietnamese people are the friendliest, and the funniest things happened there. In India, everyone is trying to rip you off. In Vietnam, no one does. Cambodia was awesome, but I wasn’t there long enough. Thailand is my least favorite country for traveling. It’s so much more expensive [than other places in Southeast Asia], and it feels cheap to me. I don’t like how much they cater to tourists. It’s like a big party all the time. In Korea and other places, you’re out with foreigners. As a tourist, Korea is nice to visit; the nightlife is good, it’s clean, the food is good. In Hanoi (Vietnam) you go outside the city and it’s just Vietnamese people. In Thailand people are a commodity, and you can go visit and take pictures of the longneck people and it’s like a museum. In Vietnam, it’s like you take pictures of the Hmong people living their lives, and I would always ask fist if I could take pictures. In Cambodia there are lots of ads that read: “Children are not a commodity.” In Laos you can’t touch people’s heads because it takes away part of their soul. Travelers sometimes don’t have a respect for their culture, but the countries do. And I feel like Thailand exploits their people more than any other country.
What kind of funny stories do you have from Vietnam?
I tended to do homestays instead of hostels. I would seek out locals and ask if I could stay with them. I stayed with this Vietnamese family in a one room house. The walls were made of plywood and the ceiling wasn’t connected. They had no running water, they cooked over a fire pit, did the dishes in a garbage can they had cut in half and brought water from a well. Mu, one of the women who lived there, spoke English, but no one else did. They lived near Sapa, which is maybe 15 km away so they take you on motorbike to the house. Mu had gone to town to get another girl who wanted to stay with them, and she left me with Grandma, who speaks no English. All she can say is: “yes”, “no”, “OK”, and “more.” She had set a bowl of food in front of me. And I don’t know why, but at one point she just picked up my bowl and started feeding me with her hands, so I just left my mouth open. After I ate all I wanted to do was take a nap. But Grandma says, “OK” and hands me a scythe. So I follow her into the fields where there are all these Vietnamese women with babies strapped to their backs and bamboo woven baskets. And Grandma starts cutting these vines. So I start cutting these vines. (Later, I found out it was morning glory.) So I have a big pile of the vines I’ve cut. And Grandma comes over and starts going through the vines I’ve cut. Out of the whole thing she picks out one, throws the rest aside and says, “NO!” All the other women are laughing. I guess I wasn’t a good vine picker.
They also made “happy water”, which is rice wine. It’s kind of like Korean soju but stronger and better. It’s rude if you don’t drink the same amount as everyone else. They won’t take the next shot until you finish it.
They also had made a bong out of an Aquafina water bottle. The bong water was disgusting. Mu, the 7 month pregnant mom asked if I knew “Mary Anna. She’s like, “You smoke it. Here, I’ll show you: This is Mary Anna, we use it to make our clothes, but you can smoke it, too.”
Who takes all the amazing photos on your Instagram? What kind of camera do you use?
AW: I have the Chinese version of the Go Pro. You take the photos, but you can’t see them right away. It needs an app on your phone, so my phone always died. I also have a Samsung, and had friends take photos. Sometimes I would ask random people to take them. I use the app, Faded, and sometimes Photoshop editor mostly just to fix the lighting and enhance the colors a bit, but most of the photos are unedited. Most of them are also a one shot deal, but the henna one I had my friend take like 100!
What are your plans as far as the traveling schedule goes? Will you be nomadic forever or will you intersperse it with settling down at various points?
I’m not ready to live in the States again. I may be going to Australia. You can get a working holiday visa there. It is expensive to live, but you can make so much money. I want to work for two months and then travel for two months, work for four months, and then travel for seven months. I may make a trip to South America soon because they are going to close Machu Picchu Soon. I could do two weeks in Peru and two weeks in Brazil before going to Australia.
This article will be the first in a series that follows Amber as she lives a life that sets an example for others who want to break away from a traditional experience, truly embracing what we value here at Inkredibly. Check back in a few months as we catch up with her wherever she is next! If you are interested in following her yourself in addition to the Inkredibly series, check out her IG: ambermariewilson // wherethesidewalksend.
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