Gillian Houston in Barcelona, Spain in July 2019
A few weeks ago, Gillian Houston was participating in a dive master internship in Cozumel, Mexico, before COVID-19 forced her to come home. Gillian was interning at Blue Magic Scuba in what was supposed to be a four-week dive program; however, she only made it to day three before she had to turn around and come back home to Virginia.
When I think of a world traveler, I think of Gillian Houston. Outside of the school year, I often times have trouble keeping track of what country Gillian is in! After all, Gillian has traveled to a whopping 41 countries in her short 22 years of life. As someone who has known Gillian for 18+ years, it's been inspiring to watch her travel the world and pursue her dreams.
Due to the fact that Gillian and I are both in quarantine, I'd thought I'd take the time to pick Gillian's brain about some of her favorite travel destinations of all time and learn about some of her travel hacks that she's learned over the years. Although we can't travel right now, we can certainly reminisce, right? I, for one, have definitely been feeling the travel bug lately.
So, without further ado, let's jump right into the interview. Be sure to have a pen and paper handy, because you are going to want to take notes!
Gillian at Krka Waterfalls, Croatia in July 2019
Q. So you've been to a total of 41 countries. What has been your all-time favorite trip so far?
A. That's really hard. I love South Korea. Koreans are so sweet. When I go to Korea, I walk down the street and get adopted by Koreans for the night! Literally, like on my first night, they were like, 'Oh, are you alone?' And I'm like, 'Yeah,' and they're like, 'Oh, come to dinner with us!' We hung with them every night. Yeah, I made so many nice friends there. They'll give you the shirt off their back.
Q. What was your craziest experience abroad?
A. It was definitely that night in Korea. It was my 20th birthday. I just got here the day before, so I didn't really know where I was in Seoul. I was in Hongik University area. Hongik University station was the closest subway. I found a club on the main drag. I didn't know how to get home. I got lost and I was trying to walk home. I had no money. I had like three bucks, and my phone died. It was raining and I literally stopped in the middle of the road and I was like, 'What am I going to do?' And then this little, like, Korean girl with an umbrella runs up to me. And she's like, 'Oh, do you need help or are you lost?' And she literally gets me a taxi, and I told her, I was like, 'I can literally go into my hostel room and get you money.'And she was like, 'No, Karma will get me.' And you know what her name was? Angel.
Q. Wow. So I know that you've been on a lot of solo trips in your lifetime. So, what advice would you give a female solo traveler specifically?
A. You gotta make friends. And stay in hostels. And if you're in Asia, you never get a shared hostel room. Because like when you go to, say Barcelona, I had a shared hostel room. And I met such cute French boys in my room. That was great. But when you go to Thailand, and you get a shared hostel room, it's 40-year-old men. When you go to Japan, I was in a shared six person room. I was the only female and I was 19. Yeah. It's not like they are scary, but it's gross. There are five guys using the bathroom, they are all in their underwear, they are just not clean. It's gross.
Q. So do you know of any other good travel hacks that people who don't travel as much or as often might not know about?
A. Don't take more than you can carry, easily. You have to be able to carry it for like, at least, I'd say like six miles at a time. You need two pairs of shoes: you need good walking shoes and you need comfortable shoes. Like I do Tevas, but they also double as shower shoes. You need shower shoes everywhere you go.
A. I've definitely made the mistake before of not packing shower shoes for hostels. How do you go about like picking your hostel?
A. Tripadvisor, always. Hostelworld.com is the best. They give you all of the photos you need. Real reviews. They'll tell you where the person is from, their gender and their age...because obviously, that's important.
Q. Have you ever found yourself in a really compromising situation besides what you talked about earlier in South Korea?
A. Well, I mean, I got all my money stolen in Cozumel.
Q. You told me about that. For those who don't know, when Gillian first landed in Cozumel, she went to take money out of an ATM machine and her bank information was compromised. Subsequently, her Facebook account was also hacked. It was a horrible situation. So what are your tips for handling cash while traveling?
A. You take a crazy amount of cash with you. But I mean, I never look like I would have a lot of money on me. And people ask me if that's dangerous, but you have a locker at every hostel and it's fine. The people in your hostel are not the people who are going to take your stuff—they're in the same boat as you. So, you should take extra money in case you want a cool tattoo (laughs), in case your bank card gets stolen, in case you get an emergency appendectomy.
Q. Yeah! Would you mind elaborating on that for those who are not familiar? This took place in Russia...
A. Yeah. Sometimes, sh*t happens when you travel. Sometimes, it's cash only for life-saving operations and you have to pay first. Even though you have a (ticking) clock before your appendix explodes, they need the money up front!
Q. Wow. What's the best hostel that you've ever stayed in?
A. So in Barcelona, I was at the Black Swan Hostel. It was incredible. The beds were so nice, you got curtains, charging stations, like places to put your own stuff. There were lockers underneath and you had your own personal light. Really nice—the beds were big, you got privacy.
Q. So what are some of your other favorite places that you have been?
A. Cambodia. I don't do hostels there, because that's not really a thing. But you get like a really nice room, breakfast included, balcony, for 30 bucks a night. So, that's where you can be treated like a king. In Cambodia, they love you. I mean, you are just treated like a king and queen...you just have fun and chat and they will teach you Cambodian and like tell you their life story. Or tell you all the relatives that were killed by Pol Pot, you know?
Q. Wow, that's intense. I'd like to go there someday. So, would you say you prefer traveling to Asia than, say, Europe?
A. No, it's just different. Like so so so so different. Like, inexplicably, different. It's just such as 180. But I mean yeah, people don't like or don't prefer crowded roads, lots of people hassling you or like trying to hustle you, you know what I mean? Whereas like, some people just want to walk around London and go to the museum, see old buildings.
Q. You're @ing my right now, right? Haha.
A. No, but like, I want to get lost in the markets. Like, I've been to the seafood markets and I like to see the types of weird things they sell in them. Also, I like to go for religious tourism. In Asia, it's the temples. That's the draw. The temples are new and old and they are still building them, because it's a way of life there. Then you go to like England and you go to old churches. But in Asia, they will use the infrastructure that we have today and they will create crazy, bright colored fish jumping out (of the water). I went to a three-headed elephant temple in Thailand. If you go to England, everything's f*cking gray. I mean, like, I'm not saying it's not cool, but it's not like Asia. It's crazy and they have flowers everywhere you go, you give them like 10 baht, and they give you a pack of incense. You put down incense for every Buddha you see in the temple or they give you flowers and you float them down the water. Yeah, it's super interactive, even if you're not Buddhist.
Q. So besides going back to Mexico to finish your internship, what's next on your travel bucket list?
Q. I want to go there, too. I loved Portugal.
A. And to go live in London for a year, hopefully (for grad school). If we survive the pandemic!
More photos from Gillian's adventures
Do you have a travel story or travel tips that you would like to share? I'd love to get your perspective on the blog. If you are interested, you can contact me here.