By the numbers
Welp, we did it. We skipped winter. It was very satisfying to land in Munich – back in our home away from home – and see buds on the trees and daffodils on the ground where there’d only been brown leaves in November. As Nate’s cousins drove us from the airport and told tales of 15 inches of snow cover while we were gone, we snuck smug sideways glances at one another. For 133 days, just over 4 months, or a whole third of the year, we lived out of our bags. We traversed through 11 countries and 32 cities. Our bags were heavier (souvenirs!) and our bank accounts lighter (souvenirs!) as we crossed the threshold to our Augsburg home. We planned on staying here for a few weeks of R&R (&R): reflection, refocus, and bank account reprieve. Four months was just the microcosm of travel we needed to figure out both if and how we’d want to spend the remainder of our time abroad.
Probably the most frequently asked question we get from family and friends is, “Isn’t it exhausting to be traveling that long?” The answer is yes and no. First the yes. South East Asia wore us down. Besides constantly thinking about the logistics of how to get in and around the next country, lousy bus rides, continuous tummy rumbles from street food, getting lost in a hot, crowded city with all of our bags, being on constant alert to purse snatchers, and warding off salesmen every few feet, all chipped away at us. It didn’t help that we basically sprinted through seven countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia) in two and a half months. We rarely stayed in one spot more than three nights. We did slow down in New Zealand and Australia, but these two English-speaking countries presented their own challenges, well, challenge: they were hella expensive. C’mon, $26 a night for a hostel that would cost $6 in Cambodia? On a budget of trying to stay under $50 a day, it became hard to do much more than exist without running through all of our funds. If we tipped the scales on a hundred dollar day of jade carving, for example, we then had to skimp somewhere else to restore balance. This meant sleeping in a rental car for six nights and using sea shells as eating utensils like some sort of reverse Ariel gimmick (see photographic evidence below). So, yes, sleeping in a hatchback with every item of clothing on that you can find for warmth can bring on exhaustion and a fair bit of grumpiness.
Now for the no. Being grumpy, annoyed, and exhausted from time to time should be expected in life, traveling or otherwise. In my humble opinion, though, the downsides of travel are much more manageable, especially with two people. Between Nate and I, one of us always had just enough reserve of positivity to gently pull the other out of a downward stress spiral. We also both knew when to take down time and just chill in our hostel instead of forcing ourselves to go explore or when to treat ourselves to a restaurant instead of cooking. I guess, though, what really kept us from calling it and heading home were the overarching effects. Sure, travel is great for sprucing up an Instagram account (no seriously, go check out mine!), but seeing and documenting beautiful things is just the icing on the cake.
Relationship Bootcamp: Every couple should be forced to travel for four months together in all manner of conditions. So many people told us in ominous tones both before and during our travels, “Be careful. Trips like these break up couples.” While I’m happy to report we passed the test, I can see why people were compelled to warn us with intensely haunted looks in their eyes. There is nowhere to run in a situation like this. There is no hiding the real you from your significant other when you have to spend 16 days in a minivan together. He will know everything from the extents to which your sweet tooth can go, the truth about what you really think about his special recipe “slop”, to the triggers behind your anxiety and/or really bad gas. The honeymoon period definitely fades away with a quickness. You have two options when something goes awry: 1. Figure it out on your own, or 2. Figure it out together. The latter is difficult because it isn’t second nature. In the past, if I was feeling upset about something, I had options. I could call up a girlfriend, or treat the symptoms with the gym, retail therapy, or a Brownie Obsession from TGI Fridays. Since traveling doesn’t afford any of these luxuries, I had to rely on Nate. This is a horrible, vulnerable position to put yourself in, but the right guy or gal will put you to ease rather than add to the torment. Four months of 24/7 together will help you find out if this is true for your relationship or not.
Budget Smudget: Having a steady job with decent income had created some pretty bad spending habits in my life. My aforementioned penchant toward retail therapy did not mix well with a stressful job. I turned into an impulse buyer with a need for the latest style trends. Facebook ads had my number, too, showing me everything that I needed to have to look fierce. $200 flats made from recycled materials? Yes, please. Lulu Lemon shorts with zipper pocket feature? I definitely need those. $50 eyeshadow pallet? Obviously. I was on my way to starring in the next best-dressed hoarders reality TV show. Luckily, if there is a cure for this affliction, it’s quitting your job and carrying your wardrobe on your back for four months. I did plenty of backsliding, but it’s really, really hard to justify buying a brand new sweater when you only have room for the one you already have in your bag. Even in SE Asia where that sweater is only $6, every bit hurts without an income. Buyer’s remorse is amplified a thousand times because that $6 ain’t comin’ back. Travel has really helped me to reign in my spending by forcing me to track everything. I use Mint to track where every single penny goes. To help curb the need for fashion, I also downloaded an app called Your Closet (thanks Femme Fatale Telegram squad!) that lets me take photos of all my clothing and accessories so that I can remind myself that I don’t really need another scarf. Plus it has a fun “outfit” feature that allows me to play around with what I already have to make the old seem new.
Creative inspiration: It has been really, really wonderful to have space for a little more creativity in my life. While I used to spend probably 20-25% of my day reading work emails, I’m now spending that amount of time cooking new dishes, editing photos for my gallery, writing a blog, or planning DIY projects for when I return home. Travel is a great muse because it inherently places one inside stories, in front of awesome beauty, or around new perspectives. We were constantly running into interesting people. There was an Indian photographer we met in Australia who is riding his motorbike around the world writing a book about the stories behind the tattoos of the people he meets. We Couchsurfed with a Polish couple in Singapore who are blogging their way around the world in a refurbished ambulance. We floated around the canals of Bangkok with an American photographer who shoots underprivileged children in the abandoned buildings they use as playgrounds. There is a constant stream of inspiration from both the people you meet on the road and the road itself.
Career aspirations: It took the better part of the four months for me to realize that “funemployment” doesn’t have to equate to “throwing away all your career aspirations.” This is the hardwired American in me. Our culture values hard work, not some namby-pamby notion of finding oneself through a year or two of travel. Europeans and Australians encourage this romantic behavior, calling themselves “Wanderers” and “Nomads”; Americans have a different title: “Bum.”* Employers are highly suspicious of (air quote) gap years on resumes, especially mid-career gap years.** I suppose it makes the person under question appear undedicated, disloyal, and disconnected. Though Millennials are chipping away at the Baby Boomer notions of being a life-long company man, I really, really struggled with how to reconcile wanting to travel and be with the man I loved while at the same time ensuring employability in the career I loved upon my return. I could really only take action on the last condemning perception that I’m disconnected. I had to reinvent my identity as someone connected to the field but not connected to a big name employer. Turns out there is already a name for this: Consultant. I remember a British colleague of mine once telling me, “You know what you need to do in order to become a consultant? Call yourself a consultant.” Nice. Actually, I had experienced being a consultant before as an English Language Specialists for the US Department of State, but I was so busy with my work obligations, that I rarely got to dig deep into each context and develop principles for future freelance jobs. Now, I have two jobs coming up (Sri Lanka and Vietnam), and I’m so excited to dive in! To stay relevant in the interim, Nate helped me start up a podcast that allows me to interview professionals in my field, and I read the latest research and trends. I never had time to do these things when I had a 9-5, and in many ways the experience is as, if not more valuable. The time and space away from working alone is a great opportunity to reflect and realign one’s own career goals.
*To be fair, no American ever once called me a bum
**I did get questioned about this during a recent job interview
Renewed Faith in Humanity
The last big takeaway has to be how incredibly generous people can be. A man in Bangkok gave us his apartment to live in free of charge for 5 days while he was in another country. We’d not met previous to him handing over the keys. Our Airbnb host is Newcastle, Australia opened up her refrigerator and garden to us in response to me asking for directions to the nearest supermarket. Our Couchsurfing host in Malaysia took off half a day of work to drive us around Kuala Lumpur. A German man sharing Nate’s bunk in a New Zealand hostel gave us spare battery pack for charging phones when we asked if we could borrow his outlet adaptor. The list goes on…and this is just from complete strangers! Nate had never met the fellow podcaster who lived in Coffs Harbour, Australia, but Matt and his family opened up their home, car, and coffee machine to us for four days and drove us around to see the sites. Another friend Nate had just met through Couchsurfing in Scotland let us stay in his Zurich apartment for three days and treated us to homemade cocktails and meals! Incredible. The more we travel, the more we see. It’s like compounding interest, and we can’t wait to pay it forward.
So what’s the conclusion? We haven’t packed our bags to head back to the states just yet. Though we know we’re in for more struggles and homesickness, at the moment, we’re curious about what else we can discover about the world, humanity, and ourselves while we have this rare gift of time. We still feel like we’re on the right path, and hopefully we’ve learned some things from the first four months that will make the rest go a little smoother. Aka – stay in one place for at least 5 days, pack more pants with elastic waistbands, and don’t pack a cocktail dress – you don’t need it. With lighter bags and more confidence about not only the how, but the why of traveling, we wander forward.