Before 2011 I really hadn’t travelled much, besides a trip to New York (the state) with a friend. However, I was always on the lookout for opportunities in college. In undergrad I quickly saw doing independent research as my way to be a badass around my department and a quick way to pad my resume with awesome skills that would make me really marketable for grad school or job searches. During my time at SIUE I applied to work in three different labs. Eventually I even started getting paid by an internal grant to work for a professor. The professor I worked for happened to be hosting a conference in China my senior year. Originally he was not going to let me take my work there and present, but I asked several times. So one day he called me into his office and said to me “Why do you really want to go to this conference?”. My reply was two fold. For 20% of it I really wanted to go to a big international conference as an undergraduate because I had an ego to sate, but the other 80% was “Because it’s China and how often do you get a chance to go there.” So it was agreed that I would take the present line of research with me to China and I would stay for 11 days (the conference was only 3). In his mind my professor could justify letting me go more easily if I also wanted to be a tourist, and lets be honest I wanted to see the country more than anything else.
So now it became time to “get money”. Which at the time I had very little. The internal grant I was on typically gave $400 for travel to conferences, because undergraduate usually went to local places and just had to pay gas to get there and accommodations. Though, when I told the grant coordinators about my opportunity they saw it as a way to capitalize on promoting the grant program. So an email was sent to the Provost of the school on my behalf. The Provost who also championed this program saw the utility of giving me double and pulled $800 from the budget. I needed $1200 to fly there. So now it was time to ask my home department for the rest. Biology also agreed that this was an amazing opportunity and they coughed up the other $400 provided that I follow through the grant program and wrote a summary for them when I returned. You see to a University $1200 is a drop in the bucket to get good PR material that their students basically generate for free by paying them for the opportunity to achieve. So I leveraged this opportunity to fly to China for free.
I was still an undergrad and as such I was not privy to having my rooms and food paid for while in China, but that’s ok. They were paying for the big part which was getting there. The plans to go to China were made a year in advance so I had time to save money, which I ended up taking $900 in pocket change to China. This was after I paid for my hotels and tours. Hotels were fairly cheap for me because I was also taking my girlfriend, at the time, with me and she covered half the cost. So to stay it was ~$50 a day. We both had part time jobs and were able to save up. Also keep in mind this was before I was big into using credit cards for sign up bonus’. Though the point here is that I worked really hard in undergrad and was presented with an awesome opportunity were I could leverage money to travel for pleasure as well.
I still remember how nervous I was. Not because I was leaving the country for the first time but because I was going to be giving my first speaking presentations in front of a group of professionals. In hindsight I should have been thinking more about what was going to happen when I arrived in China. The flight left at 6am from the airport. We arrived at the airport at 4am and once through security I proceeded to practice my presentation over 40 times in the terminal. I was in front of the American desk at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. There’s a lounge there with a baby grand piano. I set my laptop on the piano and stood in front of it giving the presentation out loud to the air. The lounge wasn’t open so luckily I didn’t have an audience. Eventually, it was time to board so I packed up my stuff and wheeled it onto the plane. I made the choice to only have a carry on for the entire 11 days and this proved to be a habit I would maintain until today, because I still refuse to check bags on airlines. I don’t see the point. If I could take 11 days worth of cloths as well as dress cloths in a carry on I will never need more than that. Little did I know that habit would translate back to my current travel hobby.
We flew United because they had the cheapest tickets into Pudong International Airport in Shanghai. I didn’t do much on the 14 hour flight. I came prepared with “Rome Total War” and it was my mission to conquer the Roman Empire in one fell swoop. I ended up achieving that goal during hour 12 after 2 naps and a movie. But what I remember most distinctly is that there was a distance monitor and map on the back of each seat that you could cycle through.
I also remember getting up several times throughout the flight just so I could look down. To this day when I tell people about the route the plane took over the north pole it surprises them. Even experienced travels. I’m not sure why, but here is proof that we flew close to the arctic circle and came down through Russia and Mongolia to end in China. I can also remember being really impressed that it was -60 F outside. I did in fact wear a coat the entire plane ride. The entire flight I was calm which surprised me. Even when we touched down in China it never really hit me that I was in a whole new world until I went through customs. Seeing signs in Chinese and being spoken to in broken English was when I realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
This trip was a whole new adventure in a world completely different from my own. These signs were the start of what would become the obsession I now have with seeing the world.
Stay tuned for the next post were I will discuss some of my first experiences in China including dealing with the language barrier for the first time and seeing a city without truly being able to communicate with anyone.