Welcome

Hello and welcome to “Aspie Nomad,” a new travel blog geared towards people with Asperger’s/autism and other forms of neurodiversity. It is intended to inspire such individuals to “shoot for the stars,” follow their dreams and defy any perceived limitations. It will also have many resources for solo/budget minded travelers and backpackers, as well as nature enthusiasts who are NOT on the autism spectrum. I will start posting more frequently in the summertime.

So; who am I? As I write this, I am a (soon to be) 35 year old expat, teacher, and travel enthusiast. I am from the USA (specifically the New York area) and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. That is the reason for the title of this blog, perhaps a first of it’s kind. The concept came about upon realizing that there were few, if any, travel/backpacking blogs geared towards neurodiverse individuals. I also believe that my story can be a source of hope to others. It has been a long ride. When I was initially classified autistic as a toddler (in the years before an Asperger’s diagnosis was common), my parents were told that I would most likely be unable to live independently.

Through years of education and remediation, I was able to defy expectations, graduate summa cum laude and earn a Master’s Degree at 23. Eventually, my path led me overseas. I have been living and teaching English in Korea (South; not North, just saying because I have been asked that so many times!) for six years. In late August of 2020, I will leave my job (it’s been a long and great ride) and embark on a backpacking journey that could span almost two years. I hope and plan for this adventure to take me around the world. However, I will start in Latin America. Already I have many videos, photos, and stories from various adventures and wildlife encounters that I hope to share with you. Despite how far I have come, I continue to face many of the stresses and challenges that individuals on the spectrum face, and I want to detail how these play out in my day to day life, past travels, and the adventure to come. Thank you for joining the ride.

a nomadic mind: why i unsubscribed…

On October 9-11, for a long weekend celebrating the proclamation of Hangeul (ν•œκΈ€), or the Korean alphabet, I (as I typically do nowadays) grabbed my binoculars and new camera. I went birdwatching in 3 spots. Migratory ducks, geese, raptors, and wading birds greeted me. On Sunday, after spotting an osprey close to home, I headed into town to buy some groceries. I walked up to my cottage, stopping and dropping my groceries to photograph four species of woodpecker in a late afternoon feeding frenzy. After the birds moved on, I made my way up to the cottage, messaging my coworker informing her that I was ready to receive her homemade fried rice when it was ready, leaving my door unlocked in case I drifted off. I took a warm shower. I changed back into my jogging pants and a light sweater. After that, I hopped into bed and did the one thing most people would never do in the COVID-19 era.

I terminated my Netflix subscription. I had not used it in months as it was. There was too much nature nearby for me to waste my time.

To be a Nomad is more than just a physical state. It is a state of mind. It is to go against the grain. It is to do the unexpected.

Social distancing is not an issue for me. I know who my true friends are. Many live across the world from me as is. Nor for that matter, is wearing a mask. Indeed, I wear more than that when I travel out of town to follow the migrants. However, Netflix, Zoom birthday parties, therapy, and online cooking classes cannot get me through the pandemic in pristine mental health. This is why I won’t take part in them. Only solitude in Mother Nature’s splendor and glory can.

A feeding grey headed woodpecker. Icheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. October 11, 2020. White backed, great spotted, and pygmy woodpecker also nearby.

A long billed plover. Icheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. October 11, 2020.

Travel without a passport? sorry; not for me.

On September 15, 2020, after six years of teaching in South Korea, I left and (using airline miles) flew one way to Vancouver, to embark on an 18 month backpacking trip that would take me all the way to Argentina and from there to Eastern Europe and Africa….

On March 11, 2020, just four after returning to Korea from an incredible winter vacation to Baja Sur, Mexico and the United States (for my first visit to see my family since 2017) that dream came to an abrupt halt. On that day, COVID-19 officially became a global pandemic. By the day’s end, I read that Tom Hanks had contracted the virus in Australia. Countries closed their borders. The world shut down. The denial was over. I knew on that day, and quickly accepted, that I would be in Korea for a seventh year (and, the way things are looking now, probably an eighth and a ninth as well πŸ™‚ It could be worse. Korea is an amazing country!)

Just a few days later, I started getting messages from backpacking sites that I had subscribed to in preparation for my now indefinitely delayed journey (indeed, on the advice of one of these sites, I had purchased a security belt with a hidden zipper in the unlikely but still very possible event of a mugging, which was not a waste, because I was able to put it to use in Mexico and South Africa). The messages were promoting “virtual travel.” The slogans were “travel without a passport” or “travel without leaving your room.”

I felt insulted, and instantly unsubscribed from all of my travel related mailing lists. Virtual travel, while it has its purpose, is for some people. It is not for me. Having seen great white sharks, lions, gray whales, and cape buffalo on TV and in the wild, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that seeing them from your living room is no substitute for seeing them in their natural environment. Likewise, seeing Machu Picchu and the Mayan ruins on a virtual tour is no substitute for the real thing. It would only make me feel even more upset than I already was. When I discussed this with a close friend, herself an avid traveler and science fiction author, she encapsulated my feelings with two simple words; “It hurts.” And, while I am incredibly grateful to have experienced the golden age of pre COVID travel (and, while travel plans should be the LEAST of anyone’s concerns right now), I am still human. Yes, it does (indeed) hurt.

More importantly, it is not a substitute for the livelihoods of the many friends and acquaintances I have made from within the travel community throughout the 22 countries on 5 continents that I had been privileged to have visited. Virtual travel can get others who have not traveled interested in traveling once it becomes possible (or, where it is possible a lot less burdensome) than it is now. The bottom line is that dive operators in places like Bali or Malaysia cannot count on virtual tours to survive. Nor can safari guides in Africa, for that matter. A lot of people who have visited these incredible places often forget (especially in the case of Bali, where I went to get my SCUBA certificate in 2018) that their dive guide might be living on less than two US dollars a day. With Indonesia’s borders closed, how are they supposed to feed their families?

So, for the time being, I am no longer a backpacker, but I am still a nomad. Hence, I am not going to be a COVID-era couch potato. Where the birds that visit Korea go, I go. Not online, but in person. Thus, as I have opted out of zoom birthday parties and Netflix marathons, I have also opted out of virtual tours of Machu Picchu (or anywhere else). Frankly, I have been so moody that outside work, I nearly opted out of socialization in general. And, when it becomes sensible to travel outside Korea again (which I believe will be years away) I probably will not go to the real Machu Picchu anyway. Apart from the overcrowding, it was every bit as upsetting to read that, pre-COVID, tourists were defecating on such sacred grounds. Hopefully, post-COVID travel will be a bit more responsible. In the meantime, I am planning to go on a flight around Christmas; not to Vancouver or Lima but to Korea’s Jeju Island, in search of migratory ducks and birds of prey. Korea, unlike other nations, has handled the pandemic relatively well and I at least feel safe in pursuing (some of) my dreams. Even now. My connection to nature will only deepen in the months and years to come.

When will we travel again?

I don’t know, but pandemic or not, there are no border restrictions on these fellows. They also don’t have to take a nasal swab before they fly. So, in an era where I can’t travel outside Korea as I once did, they are my connection to the world….Frankly, I am very jealous. Isn’t everybody…

Osprey; Icheon-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. September 30, 2020.

Black Faced spoonbills; Maehyang-ri. Hwaseong-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea (October 2, 2020)
Common Shelduck; Dongmak-gu, Incheon-si, South Korea (October 10, 2020)
No social distancing or masks for the Oystercatcher….

Awkward moment

I was spending so much time with black faced spoonbills that I was bound to see this happen… From Kanghwa do Island, Incheon. October 3, 2020…

On hope

With all the events going on in such an increasingly irrational and insane world, it can be hard to truly feel and express gratitude for the wonders around us every day, when we are forced apart from our family and friends and dreams. Even so, if you immerse yourself in nature and take the time to explore it, those wonders are often right in front of you.

Bull-headed shrike; a predatory passerine bird and one of four shrike species most commonly seen in Korea. Was not camera shy at all. The 83x zoom is a real game changer and proves that you can get good shots without breaking the bank to pay for a DSLR.

A new focus

Obviously, it has been awhile since I have posted. The past six months have been very much an up and down affair for me, as they have for just about everyone in the midst of the global pandemic. I can’t say that I have been at my most joyful or sociable as of late.

While COVID-19 has certainly put a damper of some of my immediate plans (one of those obviously being the 18 months of backpacking that I was planning), I consider myself very lucky to have experienced a golden age of international travel between 2014 and 2020. I also have a new teaching position that I enjoy, for it has breathed a lot of fresh life into me. Moreover, I also consider myself lucky because South Korea offers a lot more ecological and natural wonders than it often gets credit for.

Ten years ago, during a difficult time in the world (and personally), I turned to fishing. South Korea isn’t exactly brimming with river or sea monsters though. So, instead of fishing, I am turning to bird watching this time. So, as long as this pandemic continues as it has, that will be my main focus.

And so far, autumn migration HAS NOT disappointed….

Nor has my new Nikon P900S camera, which I got for a REAL good price (especially for a frugal fellow like myself)! At 83x zoom, it is a major upgrade from the 16x on my previous camera. I was a bit upset when my old camera stopped working. Not anymore. Enjoy the pics:

Avian Elegance (From September 27, 2020; Incheon Tidal Flats): Another endangered species, black faced spoonbill have fast become my favorite bird species in Korea. They migrate to the mainland, where they breed and feed from April until October. There are still some around as I write this. I see them every weekend, so I know these things πŸ™‚

A flock of greater white fronted goose at Paju, near the North Korean border. From October 9, 2020. There were thousands of white fronted and tundra bean goose that day.

Straight from the Grouse’s mouth

Found this guy yesterday, during six hours of bird watching close to home (walking distance!) in South Korea. Also found: Jays, Nuthatches, Flycatchers, Swallows, Sandpipers, Plovers, Stonechats, Siskins, Finches, Sparrowhawks, and Buntings. Maybe this male hazel grouse is wondering: “Why is Trump fighting the WHO, instead of the virus?” And with that, I take a month-long break from the news. Aspies (nomads and otherwise) are vulnerable to anxiety and depression, so it is a good preventative step.

nature’s quarantine

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU (AND THE REST OF THE WORLD) LEMONS, MAKE LEMONADE (AND LOOK FOR HAZEL GROUSE)!

In this uncertain and insane era, I have decided to do locally (by local I mean the county in Korea that I’ve called home for six mostly amazing years) what I was doing anyways pre COVID 19 (and what I do on my holidays outside Korea). I immersed myself in nature. Today was a banner day, as I was greeted by some of Northeast Asia’s most prized spring bird species. All within walking distance of my home. Enjoy!

It turns out that hazel grouse (κΏ©), an elusive species highly sought after by Korean birders, are QUITE COMMON on a mountain that is about a 20 minute walk from my home! I might just start looking for them pretty much every day. A male/female pair showed up and, while well camouflaged, the shuffling and rustling noises they make give them away pretty easily. As I am partial to many larger bird species, along with cranes (두루미) and Eurasian vultures (λ…μ†Œλ¦¬), these are becoming among my favorites!!!!!!!!!!

the new handshake

Today, an old man in my town (whose sauna is closed due to COVID 19) tried shaking my hand. I taught him the elbow bump, instead. Even after this pandemic goes away, I plan on saving the elbow bump to teach to future generations.

Khongor Sand Dunes, Mongolia

In early October of 2017, a long break for Korean Thanksgiving (or 좔석) allowed me to visit a country that had always fascinated me and captivated my imagination. After I booked the flight, I told my father, rather excitedly. Used to pictures of me fishing in Thailand, Malaysia, and Costa Rica, he exclaimed, perhaps understandably,

“MONGOLIA? WHAT THE (BLEEP) IS IN MONGOLIA!

Actually, I did NOT get to go fishing in Mongolia. For that, you have to visit the lakes and Taiga forests of the North, which I (sadly) did NOT have time for. However, what I did get was nine days in one of the most unique, compelling, and enthralling countries that I have ever been in, with seven of those days in the famed Gobi Desert. I was especially excited to see the flaming cliffs, because (like many a good aspie) I LOVE dinosaurs, and this was where Roy Chapman Andrews found some of the first dinosaur nests back in the 1920s.

Based on their color, I would say that the flaming cliffs are quite aptly named…Its hard to believe that 70-80 million years ago, protoceratops, velociraptor, oviraptor, and tarbosaurus wandered these lands. So, too, did the bizarre deinocheirus, which had 8 foot (2.5 METER) long arms and looked like a strange, 40-foot (12 meter) long CAMEL TURKEY!!!!!!!!!!!!

While the flaming cliffs DID NOT disappoint, it was another area altogether that was to REALLY steal the show for me. I should note that Mongolia is NOT for the faint of heart. The temperatures varied wildly, from around freezing up to 70 degrees F (20 something C) within the same day. The hurts we stayed in were usually quite cozy. The toilets….that’s another matter. The toughest part, though, was the driving. Next to China, Russia, and Kazakhstan Mongolia may look almost small but make no mistake. IT IS A VAST AND IMMENSE LAND BY ANY STANDARD! The drive between one site and another could take between 5 and 8 hours, and on unpaved roads, the bumps could be absolutely BRUTAL. And, for an individual on the spectrum like myself (at times) a little aggravating. Fortunately, our old, Soviet-made Jeep was up to the task and (thankfully) we had a spare tire.

After the driver changed the tire, the Khongor Sand Dunes, one of the most BREATHTAKING and SPECTACULAR landscapes I have ever been witness to lay before us. Our guide told us that (following a camel ride) we were going to take off our shoes and hike the 200 plus meter high sand dunes completely barefoot, using our hands for support as the incline got steeper. I am a seasoned hiker, and I have conquered many famous spots in the United States, South Korea, and New Zealand. The Khongor Dunes, however, truly humbled me. It has been nearly three years and I can still feel the tension and pain in my arms and legs, as if it were yesterday. From what I remember, it took me about 3 hours to get to the top. More than that, I will forever remember the fine, silky sand against my feet and the sunset that awaited us following our arduous, yet fulfilling journey.

In the era of COVID 19, aspiring travels are turning to digital tours of some of the world’s great destinations. While I have no objection to this, I myself will not be partaking in this. Instead, I will wait until a new normal is established and see the real thing. Regardless, I do not feel any virtual tour could do a place like the Gobi, and especially the Khongor Sand Dunes, justice. You really have to feel that sand running through your toes…

I will be posting more (including yurt pics) on more posts about my 2017 trip to the land that is Mongolia!

Footprints in the sand; Never before or since have I felt sand quite as FINE as the sands of Mongolia’s Khongor Dunes.
Although a bit (okay; very) touristy, I just had to do a camel ride.
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