San Diego and How America's Finest Changed My Life

Friday, July 15, 2016

I was a New Yorker before I knew it. Born in Hong Kong and raised by the most uptight and protective parents, I am the typical Type A person. When it comes to traveling, I book my flight, arrange my accommodation, plan my trip and fill all the days at least two week before I take off. I get anxious if I don’t, as Type As do.

Summer after graduating from the Ohio State University, I had a few months off before the start of my job in New York City. I started looking for options within US where I could work for free in exchange for housing. That would allow me to travel while still keeping myself afloat.

The main site I looked for opportunities was Help Exchange. I knew I wanted to be near a beach, and I have enjoyed the handful of hostel experiences in Taiwan and Europe - those were the two criterias I looked for in my search. As it turns out, the majority of the results came back locating in San Diego.

Cruise with all volunteer staff for a staff party
I have never been to San Diego, and I have not been a big fan of SoCal because of my bad previous experiences in Los Angeles, so San Diego was not my ideal destination of choice. But I knew I had to take advantage of the summer of absolute freedom to try to do something I normally wouldn’t do. The next thing I knew, I committed to six weeks of volunteering at USA Hostels San Diego in exchange for housing.

I booked my flight and moved out of my apartment in Ohio two weeks later. Having no plans and no expectation of what the next six weeks of my life entails, I anxiously arrived in San Diego with two large suitcases containing all my life’s property. On the first night of my arrival, on a Wednesday night in June of 2014, I met Ian.

Now, Ian is a critical part of my story in San Diego.

Ian was the opposite of me. The only “planning” he did for the trip was buying his flight ticket from Indianapolis to San Diego. He had made a hotel reservation online beforehand, but once he arrived, he found out that he made the reservation for the wrong date. That’s how he ended up at USA Hostel, where I was arriving at.

Volunteer's Dormitory
Wednesday nights are bar crawl nights at the hostel. A staff from the hostel would lead the group of guests to a list of bars around the area. Ian and I connected on the fact that we both traveled from the Midwest. I found how he travels very intriguing - no plans, no agenda. He just walked around for 10+ miles that day with no specific destination in mind.So, on the night before he took off, when he had no plans where to stay and decided he was going to spend the night on the beach, out of curiosity and the mentality that I have nothing to lose, I followed.

Let me sidetrack for a minute and tell you some of the things I learned that night:

  • A June night is still freaking cold in California
  • IHOP doesn’t open 24/7 at all locations
  • Denny’s is not creepy at all at 4am
  • And the most important lesson: if you’re on the west coast, you can’t actually see the sunrise because you’ll be looking west if you’re facing the ocean. And the sun rises from the east, just making sure we all know that.
From the night I stayed on the beach before it got too cold
Some moment during that night on the beach (and then getting too cold so we decided to find shelter at Denny’s), I broke out of my comfort zone. All I had on me that night was a tank top, some very short shorts, a light cardigan, flip flop, my wallet and my phone. Normally, I would not even go to a beach without a beach towel and a bottle of water. And yet, I learned that night, that it is not the end of the world when you don’t plan. Just relax and go with the flow.

San Diego can turn even a city girl to hiking at Torrey Pines
It set the pace for me for the rest of my time in San Diego. I would have met volunteers from all over the world, where they had no data service on their cell phones outside of wifi zone, and we would meet each other on the beach “by the first pier after you get off the bus.” To be honest, I was extremely skeptical at first that I would find them, given the little information to locate them on a miles-long beach. However, time after time, technology has proven to be less dependent than I had expected, and “planning” seemed arbitrary in the sense.

Sure. Planning may be important when you are at a job, outlining projects for the next quarter and trying to justify your ROI. In the context of traveling, however, through my experience in San Diego - meeting Ian and working with other international volunteers - I have learned that “planning” might not necessarily mean your best interest. Sometimes, letting yourself go, giving yourself the freedom to not follow any agenda, might be the best thing you can do for yourself on the journey.

Ian & Mildred present day when Ian visited NYC
Mildred is a marketing girl in New York City trying to use the internet for something good. Travel is her daily motivation, and being a global citizen a lifelong journey. Find her on and Instagram/Twitter @favthingsnet.

You Might Also Like


Quote to Live By

"Not all those who wander are lost."
- J. R. R. Tolkien

Carpe Diem

carpe diem