Have you ever written a bucket list? A lot of people write them, but very people actually stick to them and achieve everything they hope to. Justine Ooi wrote one heck of a 30 before 30 bucket list and systematically set about doing whatever it took to cross off each and every one of the things listed on it.
Her list is honestly amazing and a lot of people would have been happy just to do one or two of the things on it, which is what makes her story even more interesting. When four of the things on her list weren’t possible, or were vetoed by her loving mum, Justine replaced them with something else equally impressive to achieve.
Justine’s bucket list story is incredible, but it’s when you find out more about her life story that you really understand how she came to be so full of adventure and it has a lot to do with her wonderful family. Hers really is one of the most interesting and completely inspiring travel stories I’ve come across. So, settle in and get ready to be blown away by Justine and her bucket list:
30 things to do before you’re 30
- Travel to at least 5 continents and 50 countries
- Live for at least 6 months in 5 different cities
- Significant Multi-day treks (Base Camp Everest, Mt Kilimanjaro)
- Go Base Jumping. Vetoed by my mum, so added.. Go Volcano boarding (Nicaragua)
- Go Bobsledding (Canada)
- Solo Skydive (A-License)
- Advanced Scuba Diving. As an asthmatic, I couldn’t get medical sign off, so I added.. Cliff jump 20 meters – Free-dive 20 meters (Guatemala – Panama)
- Class 5.5 White Water Rafting and River Board (The Zambezi River, Zambia/Zimbabwe)
- Shark cage diving off the coast of South Africa
- Ride in a Stunt Plane and Hot air balloon
- Learn to fly a Helicopter and a Micro-light
- Drive Dune Buggies in the Desert (Las Vegas)
- Paint a picture and hang it up. Not sure if Calligraphy is a picture, so added.. Ride a Unicycle across the Brooklyn bridge
- Learn how to juggle
- Shave your head. Second veto by mum, so added.. Learn how to Wakeboard, Kiteboard and Ski
- Compete in a Marathon and Ocean Swim Race
- Train at least 3 months of Muay Thai in Thailand, Kung Fu in China + Boxing in New York
- Get in the ring and have a fight
- Learn a creative skill (Make-up artist for 4 years)
- Take a class out of your element (Comparative Climate Law)
- Study a second language (Mandarin)
- Get a Masters degree – finishing with distinction average
- Start reading books (that aren’t textbooks! Do kids books count?)
- Start a business
- Volunteer/ be of significant help to someone
- Send parents on all expenses paid overseas holiday
- Get involved with a Charity/Raise money (Kidney Health Australia)
- Plant a heap of trees
- Hold a bird for a minute
- Go to the airport and take a random International flight going anywhere
Tell me about yourself.
Hi! My name is Justine. My father is Malaysian-Chinese. My mother is Irish. My fiancé is American. I am Australian, although my passport says I’m British, and I grew up in Brunei Darussalam. I studied in India. I’ve just left Easter Island. I’m in Santiago. I live in Vancouver. But my heart? Well, that’s still in Hong Kong.
I love traveling, meeting new people, adrenaline activities, baking cookies, and acoustic music. Give me a jar of Nutella and a spoon and I’ll be your friend for life. I have an irrational fear of fluttering birds. I’m a tomboy that loves playing with makeup. I can’t stand when people smoke when waiting in line. I’m almost always the first person to suggest drinking shots at a party (much to my demise). And, I don’t want to brag, but I’m the reining Connect Four champion of the Ooi household.
What first ignited your passion for travel?
People always talk about ‘catching the travel bug’ but for me, I’m fairly convinced I inherited it. It’s in my DNA! But if I had to say, there was definitely a period of time that I think changed my view on life. I had just turned 7 years old in 1992 and my family moved from Sydney, Australia to Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. From a Western, English-speaking, Catholic school, where I had a heap of friends to an Eastern, Malay-speaking, Chinese school in an Islamic country, where I had no friends. When I look back now, it was that sheer contrast and difference that I’ve come to love. This strange ability that travel has to change your whole perspective on life, no matter what age you are.
How do you feel when you travel/what does travel mean to you?
For me, travel means adventure and I don’t say that loosely. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia once said, “The word ‘adventure’ has just gotten overused. For me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.” I couldn’t agree more.
Throughout my years; I’ve been robbed, scammed, ended up in hospital, drugged, drank fake alcohol, given fake medication, been in sketchy fake taxi’s, suffered through both hypothermia and altitude sickness, hyperventilated, broken bones, gotten skin infections, been stung by jellyfish, nearly drowned, had a scary close call skydiving, taken anti-malaria medication that sent me crazy, and have been agonized by food poisoning more times than I care to count… There were even those days where I had to use my backpack as a pillow because I didn’t trust the other 23 people in the room. It’s through this long list of less than ideal conditions and distressing situations where, amidst all of the discomforts and scary moments, I also found occasions of absolute brilliance. Perhaps that sums up my take on life in general; you can’t have the incredible highs without the discouraging lows but it’s that roller-coaster of emotions that traveling gives you; that when you get off the ride, all you want to do is ride it again.
When did you first decide to put together a ‘before 30 bucket list’?
I moved to Hong Kong for my final semester of University when I was 20 years old. I remember thinking then about how time felt like it was moving so quickly, so I started writing down all the things I had done and achieved up until that point and then it seemed like a natural progression to start looking forward over the next 10 years.
What have been your favourite bucket-list items?
#17: Train Kung Fu in China
Traveling to the Shaolin School in the middle of China, on my own, at 21 years old having never trained Kung Fu was just such a unique experience. Up before sunrise, 6 days a week, 6-8hrs each day training weapons, forms, fighting, meditation and tai chi. Sleeping on wooden beds, utilizing the squat toilets so loved by Asian cultures, suffering through constant food poisoning, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, bruising my body, being forced to stretch into the splits, agonizing through torn muscles and broke bones, receiving no sympathy nor comfort, turning the lights out by 10pm. I remember disliking it a lot of the time and yet as soon as I walked out of those gates, I was so appreciative for having had that experience. Note* If you ever find yourself holding training pads for a short, thin, Shaolin Monk who weighs less than 40kgs and who looks like he couldn’t hurt a fly, brace yourself. He will literally kick you across the room!
#3: Trek to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal
Trekking for 12 days to Everest Base Camp isn’t physically tough but if you don’t or can’t keep yourself hydrated and/or suffer from altitude sickness, things can go from bad to worse very quickly. My sister Olivia had gotten sick and couldn’t keep any food or water down. We had stopped for lunch at about 13,000 feet and she started phasing in and out of consciousness. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is common but with symptoms like drowsiness, lethargy, nausea, and confusion, the great fear was that she may have had High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), where the brain swells with fluid and death can come within 24 hours. The choices were to either descend down the mountain to quickly get her to a lower altitude OR continue trekking up the mountain another 4 hours through dangerous crossings to the one mountain doctor and to the last location to get a helicopter evacuation. I felt like I was making a life or death decision. I decided to go up. To date, these were by far the most stressful 4 hours of my life!
As we arrived at the doctor’s shack, I was incredibly relieved to hear it wasn’t HACE but severe dehydration along with AMS. Olivia lay there lifeless for two days, having one IV after another administered. As she started to feel better and acclimatize, it started to dawn on me that we had come so far and were only two days away from the base. On the third day, I woke up and looked over to Olivia, still clearly exhausted she cracked a little cheeky smile and said, “let’s do this”! I know it sounds odd to have that as one of my “favourite experiences” but when we sat there staring across the Himalayas, it felt like such an incredible accomplishment to have made it and to have been there together.
How do you think this list has changed you?
Your twenties are such developmental years of your life, it’s hard to differentiate between what was the natural course of change and how the list specifically altered my path, but I suppose the three most notable differences would be; that my tolerance to uncertainty has increased, I have a much greater appreciation of what I do have in my life and, I have come to realize that I am more capable than I thought I was. I wouldn’t consider myself particularly great at anything (besides Connect Four of course) BUT, if you actively dedicate time/effort/resources to anything, you can do it! Ultimately, it just comes down to what you choose to do with your life. Sure (as my partner, Matt, reminds me) at 5’3” I may never be a professional basketball player but we’re all a lot more capable than we think we are.
Any plans to do another one?
Absolutely. However, this time I wanted some input from my family and friends. I asked them to come up with an item to put on the list that we could complete together at some point over the next 10 years. My little brother has just locked in going to Antarctica together. My father, a jungle trek in South East Asia that I’ve wanted to do since I was 7 years old. There I was getting a sense of what my new action-packed list would look like and my mum calls me, all excited she says, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! For your list, I would love to take you and your children to a Wiggles concert”. My mum. She makes me laugh.
How do you usually plan your travel?
I think it just depends on how much time and money you have. If you don’t have time but have money, planning is your best friend. If you do have time but don’t have money, you can usually cut costs by taking the less direct route. I love staying in pre-booked 5 star hotels but I also love the experience that comes from rocking up to a $5 hostel at 4am to see if they have space. Sometimes you need a holiday to relax and sometimes you need a trip to spice things up, so I would recommend for you to try all different types of travel. Number #30 on my list of 30 before 30 was to: Go to the airport and take a random International flight going anywhere. So sometimes you don’t even need to plan at all and you can just GO!
Do you have any money-saving tricks or tips?
If you’re not going to be spending much time in the hotel, don’t pay for a fancy one. Street food is the best! When bargaining, grab a friend and use the good cop/bad cop routine, works like a charm. And whilst longer, traveling by bus is far cheaper and a great way to see the countryside and meet the locals.
If you could choose your ultimate travel companion, past or present, who would it be?
My dad. Let’s just say, the apple does not fall far from the tree! Nearly a year ago my incredible mother gave my father a life-saving kidney. Thankfully, it was a great success but part of the recovery is no overseas travel for a year. He started the countdown when he was still on the hospital bed! I get a weekly update. He has this quote up on his office wall, that’s been there for as long as I can remember. It says, “A good life is better lived by doing things than by having things”. He’s my ultimate travel companion because he’s equally passionate and excitable. We live life by the same mantra but we also balance each other out, he teaches me about history and I push him out of his comfort zone. You can bet though, we’re both always thinking about our next meal!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and who was it from?
Every time before I leave for a trip my mum says, “Keep your wits about you”. I’ve found her words of wisdom resonating in my mind on many occasions. She is my voice of reason. If it weren’t for her, I would have definitely done plenty more stupid things over the years. Is it a good idea to jump off a 70-foot cliff if you don’t know if the water is deep enough? What would mum do?
What has been the hardest thing you’ve come up against in your travels and how did you overcome it?
There are the pretty obvious ones, sketchy scenarios throughout the years, trying to maintain a career, having enough money to travel etc. but if I think about it, the hardest thing in general about travel in my early 20’s was… heartache. Ah, that sounds so lame! But you’re young, your hormones are going crazy, emotions are so heightened and everything seems so important. I fell in love with this boy that didn’t own a passport and never wanted to leave his home. There I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro devastated that I had left him behind. The date my flight was booked for seemed to force an unnatural ending to most relationships.
Thankfully, as it turns out, if it’s the right relationship, there is no expiry date. Carrie Bradshaw said it best,
“Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with.” For the last 3 years, Matt and I have been on the same journey. Moving from city to city. He is my greatest adventure buddy. He was there to hold my hand as I was learning how to unicycle in Brooklyn, he was there diving with me to see the Great Whites off the coast of South Africa, he was there as my ring boy when I needed to make a stand against sexism at my first boxing fight, and hopefully he’ll be there when we tie the knot in January in Thailand.
In my later 20’s, it’s definitely being away from my family. Seeing my nephews and nieces grow up and knowing that I’ve chosen to be away. It’s hard. My dad has always said that, “everything in life comes at a cost”. And for me, that is by far, the greatest cost. But nothing is forever. I don’t see any place as permanent. Things change. You change. So, you just have to make the most of what you have while you have it.