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New York, New York

Columbia '14 | urbanite | foodie | explorer | aspiring ukulelist | wanderlust 

Thought Sketches



Backpacking Bonanza

Sarah Chang


At the request of a good friend who's planning to backpack in Europe, I've catalogued some tips and tricks that I used when I trekked through Europe for three months with one carry-on suitcase. It's everything I found useful or would have liked to know, and I hope it makes your trip a little more about the experience and a little less about logistics. 

How to pack:

This video shows you, literally, how to pack like a pro. Although I didn't discover this until afterwards, it would have made bulkiness so much easier. Alternatively, vacuum bags are magical. 

Before you leave: 

Download the metro/bus map apps for all the cities you're going to. There's nothing worse than trying to squint at a faraway map in a foreign language for the next stop on a crowded subway.

Download a currency converter app. Who would have thought your dollar would get you so far (or so little). If you're going through Europe, make sure you know which countries don't take the Euro (UK, Scandinavian countries, Czech Republic, Hungary, etc.)

Scan a copy of your passport and email it to yourself, just in case.

Get a Google Voice number before you leave so you can make/receive calls and texts abroad for free via your laptop or phone. Make sure you do this when you're still in the US since you can only sign up for the service with a US IP address.

I've found,, and to be reliable sources for booking. Anything above a 7.5 rating on is generally decent. Flights are often cheaper than taking the train, but add in transport time/costs. 

Figure out how to get from the airport/train station to your hotel and back for each of your stopping cities. This means knowing the bus/subway number and route stop names for your hotel. You should keep this with you. The rest of the trip can be planned at the hotel, but make sure you do this while you still have internet access, aka before you leave so you're not stuck unable to make international calls or load a map without data.

It’s nice to have a detailed itinerary of where you’re supposed to be in your phone that you can access without WiFi. It keeps everything in order, and you’re never scrambling for the exact time the train leaves. Here's a PDF screenshot that I carried with me:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 11.55.39 PM.png

What to bring:

If you're flying with budget airlines like Ryanair or easyJet, many of them only allow you one carry-on item. One. As in, if you have a suitcase already, you can't bring another backpack larger than a small purse. Solution: Pack a foldable backpack in your suitcase so you can repack necessary day gear without paying for another carry-on. 

Look at weight requirements. easyJet doesn't have one but Ryanair is adamant about weight restrictions, and you get slapped with a hefty overweight fee (something like €20 per kg). This was a godsend. 

Definitely bring a water bottle so you're not paying tourist fees for water. The Brita water filter bottle is great for most countries (probably not Morocco) for fill-ups throughout the day.  

Things to make life easier when you're there:

There’s no need to buy an international data plan. Simply load the Google map of the city before you leave the hotel, and you’ll have a fully functional map as you navigate within the city without WiFi. The GPS location tracker still works, and you’ll never get lost. I usually “star” my hotel on the map so it’s easy to locate.

If you need free WiFi, McDonalds and Burger King are your best bet. They're ubiquitous, (un)fortunately

If you're doing a short overnight trip and wear contacts, leave the contact solution bottle. Just fill your empty lens case with fresh solution so you can use it night of.

What to do, see, and eat:

Wikitravel will get you through anything. It's a great start to understand the history and customs, figure out how to get from the airport/train station to the city, make a list of which local foods are not to be missed, and know what to watch out for in terms of safety and staying away from sketchy neighborhoods. 

Don’t get caught in tourist trap restaurants. Find a few restaurants on TripAdvisor before you venture into the city and “star” them in Google maps. It’s good to have a few pre-researched options for every meal - sometimes restaurants close on random days or are too full for walk-ins, and you'll never be without options.

If you’re on a budget, make lunch the main meal of the day. There are usually good set lunch deals at most restaurants, especially in Prague. Picnics and farmers markets are also great options. If you're venturing into Scandinavia, staying at a hotel with free breakfast is essential. 

Via Wikitravel, find out the names of the major grocery stores nearby where you’re staying and pick up the next day's breakfast on the way back from a day out. 

Due diligence:

If you're flying with Ryanair, sometimes the airports they use can be remote and far from the main city airport (such as Luton, Stansted, Gatwick, versus London Heathrow). Make sure you check the airport code to see if the lower-priced plane ticket is worth the extra hassle and cost of transportation into the city. 

Do some Google searches on any sort of day/museum passes for the city. Some are rip-offs (London, excluding the 2 for 1 London Eye deals) while others save you so much time by bypassing lines (Paris Museum Pass). The Amsterdam one is wonderful if you like Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, etc. In general, do some research if you can skip lines by printing off tickets beforehand (Vatican Museum), or if you need to pre-book before showing up (Borghese Gallery). Almost all London museums are free. 

Check which days museums are closed! Especially in France, there's one day of the week when museums are not open. The Versailles Château is closed on Mondays, and Centre Pompidou is closed on Tuesdays.


That's all for now. Happy travels!


2014: Better Beginnings

Sarah Chang

I've never understood the phenomenon of New Year's Resolutions. Sure, I get that it's a chance to start afresh with a clean slate, but these ritualized promises have become synonymous with bulleting a list never to be unearthed beyond January. Read: People who are successful in achieving their resolution = 8%.

The problem with resolutions is not only that they are overly ambitious (lose 50 pounds, yay?), too vague (drink less, though what is "less"?), or highly specific (anything short of reaching that exact target feels like a failure), but that they fail to account for ingrained habits.

Furthermore, these resolutions don't connect to what happens after they've been accomplished. So you've managed to "become a better person"...then what?

If the result doesn't directly feed into a tangible, sudden gratification, then the driving motivation of that promising ideal doesn't seem that driving anymore.

Instead of creating concrete resolutions, I tend to get more value out of outlining a few general thoughts that inform my day-to-day approach, not define it. They're not new beginnings, just better ones.

Here are a few thoughts for 2014:

  • Focus on increasing precision. I’ve never identified with being purely detailed oriented and don't aspire to. I just finding thinking along broader visions and working on those ideals to be so much more interesting and fulfilling. Maybe it's a compensating mechanism for not sorting out small details, but I do acknowledge the benefits and need for precision. So much value comes from specificity - it’s a practiced skill that needs to be honed. I think part of the problem is that I associate "detailed oriented" with "time consuming", whereas it’s feasible to be both efficient and precise. In fact, the reason why efficiency is even possible is because there's already a high level of precision, reducing the need to double back and fix errors.

    Takeaway: No more rushing through things to get them done. Work on being more precise to increase quality and efficiency.
  • Be more in the moment for every interaction. There are so many distractions, everywhere. We're living in a swarm of other people's moments. Admittedly, this gets to me too, and there are just those days when I'm not listening as well as I should, and I'm responding as well as I could. But this is really selfish because these interactions are not one-sided. If we're going to expend time on the interaction or conversation at all, we owe it to others to be attentive and come up with thoughtful responses to what they’re saying. Or else, there’s little to be gained and much to be lost in terms of leaving a less than ideal impression.

    Takeaway: Consistently make a conscious effort to really engage in every exchange. 
  • Stop delaying, eat the frog. I'd like to work on getting past the dread of doing something I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s just replying to an email or asking somebody for something. But ask yourself: What's going to change between now and then? Often, it’s not even the thing itself but the accumulated emotion of reluctance that prevents me from making a start. As a workaround, I’ll try to ask myself what’s preventing me from doing it. If whatever that hesitation is can be solved with extra time, then I’ll allow myself to wait. But if theoretically a month could go by and I would be left with the same situation to tackle, then might as well start now.

    Takeaway: Look at what's the cause of hesitation. Often it's just prolonged reluctance that makes it seem worse than it really is.

  • Be more deliberate in choosing what I admire. Because there aren't too many things I'm easily impressed by or admire, I tend to very actively try to emulate the things or people I am impressed by and have deep respect for. What I admire, in turn, explicitly determines the way I think, the values I have, and what I aim for. If this is so, it's worth understanding why I admire X, Y, Z, and making sure that these are really the things I should look up to.

    Takeaway: Understand where motivations are coming from and be conscientious in choosing what you want to be influenced by.

  • Get better at talking about myself. I prefer talking about ideas to talking about myself, but the latter is an equally important skill to have. That is, when it's called for. In fact, in social psychology, it's termed self-disclosure, one of the primary ways to build trust and bond with others. I think it's something some people don't find very natural because other than making others laugh, there seems to be a lack of purpose in telling a story. Perhaps highlighting the takeaway to facts or stories I share will make it more obvious why I'm talking about them, and it would remove the layer of superficiality that comes with the territory of making oneself the primary topic of conversation. 

    Takeaway: There's value in breadth of conversation, even when it doesn't seem immediately applicable. It's these shared experiences that highlight relatability and become most memorable.
  • Stay in touch with people more. This one is simple. People are important - it's really not the place you live or what job you have, but the people you share these morsels of life with. Sometimes people who mean much to you drift in and out, and it's unfortunate we let them drift out so far. Maybe it's about being better at reciprocating and creating opportunities to connect rather than relying on spontaneous interactions. But either way, no effort is no excuse.

    Takeaway: Make a better effort to reach out to people who are losing touch, especially if geographic circumstance is to blame.


Here's to an improved 2014! Feel free to hold me to these. 


Seek to triumph, not to win

Sarah Chang

Our culture is so imbued with seeing winning as the ultimate objective.

Sports, negotiations, business deals, arguments. It's all about competition and emerging as the victor. 

But I'd like to make a distinction here and say that there isn't as much value in winning as in triumphing. 


Just look at the prepositions. When you win, you win "against". You're succeeding in something, but that something seems conquerable and in a comparable league. The connotation is lateral. You haven't outlived your circumstances, so to speak.  

But when you triumph, you triumph "over". Again, you're successful, but this time, there's a discernible direction of verticality. You're achieving despite the situation, and you've proved yourself against greater odds. Colored by a certain emotionality, adversity, and nobility, it feels much more powerful and fulfilling.

If we're simply looking to win, we're in the wrong game.

Let's aim higher and raise our bar. Instead of winning, let's seek to triumph.