The wandering writer

Chu on a hike in New Zealand. – Pix courtesy of Jeffery Ong
Weaving with villagers in Tonga. – Pix courtesy of Jeffery Ong

MEI MEI CHU was only 18 when she went on a working holiday in the United States with her brother and spent four eye-opening months figuring out what travelling was all about. She was hit by the travel bug and got hooked ever since.

“There’s this itch in me to see more places and look for the next adventure,” the 26-year-old expressed.

From living with the orang asli in the forests of Terengganu, and volunteering for two months in Mauritius with AIESEC, to her nine month stint exploring New Zealand, Chu prefers travelling solo. However, this comes with big risks.

“The reality of travelling as a woman is that you’re a target to a lot of unkind men, to put it very nicely,” she reflected.

So it’s only natural that her parents worry whenever Chu announces her next getaway. But she makes it a point to be a responsible daughter and alert traveller by staying safe and connected.

“I’m just lucky to have the most supportive family in the world. And I think my parents are living vicariously through me as well,” she said.

Chu’s parents are just two of many who follow her blog, where she documents travel stories as a way to remember her experiences. That’s also how she got addicted to writing and landed her current job at an online platform dedicated to female travellers.

“The universe aligned my passion for travelling and writing,” she quipped.

I love learning. When I travel, I realise how little I know about the world and how sheltered I am. When I went to Sri Lanka, I saw fruits that I didn’t know exist, like wood apple. What on earth is a wood apple? In New Zealand, they have feijoas and tamarillos.

I was addicted to learning about other people, their country and culture, as well as the food they eat and grow. Another thing I love is meeting people and picking up stories along the way. You learn about their lives, and try to apply lessons in your own life.

What would you say to people who are afraid to travel solo?

You just have to be smart about it and know what you’re getting yourself into, especially women travellers. You have to recognise that danger can and will happen. When you read about horrible things that happen to travellers, you tend to think it only happens to someone else. But in the bigger scheme of things, you are someone else to someone else. So don’t brush off danger because it is real – you won’t realise it until it happens to you. Take calculated risks, do your research, and see what other women say from their experiences, whether it’s safe to go alone.

Can you share some tips on budget travelling?

It’s about making cheap choices. I believe that travelling is about learning about the place and local cultures. So I go to local cafes, restaurants, and hawker stalls by the street. I spend on experiences over accommodation because at the end of the day you’re just going to spend the night.

You can also volunteer your services for free food and accommodation. Part of how I was able to travel long-term in the United States, New Zealand and parts of Malaysia was that I worked while travelling. If I don’t have a visa that allows me to work for a wage, I would offer to help out in hostels or restaurants for a free room and meals. It’s great as I get to live in a beautiful location, and have a home and family for a little while.

What is your ultimate dream?

Before I went to New Zealand, my ultimate dream was to become a marine scientist on Pulau Sipadan and work with sea creatures because I’m obsessed with the ocean and marine animals. Or become a diving instructor and go diving every day or lie on the beach. But after New Zealand, I understand more about myself and who I want to be. So I’d say I want to write, specifically pieces that can impact communities and people, and for publications such as National Geographic, The Guardian and TIME Magazine. Then maybe one day I will retire on a beach.

TRIVIA

Favourite country (so far): Tonga.

Next stops: Iran and Bangladesh.

Most recent bucket list adventure: Swimming with humpback whales.

Travel must-haves: Notebook and pen.

More of her travel stories: www.meimeichu.com.