6 Surprising Discoveries After 6 Months of Long-Term Travel
Discovery #1: Paradise Is Not What the Photos Suggest
In January 2022, it was the dead of winter in Chicago. After two long years of pandemic life, we still brought a mask with us whenever we left home.
It was in that context that I flipped open my laptop with an evil grin and shuffled through images of small beach towns along Brazil’s Ubatuba region and cottages in the bucolic mountains of Rio de Janeiro state. No one at my company knew I was contemplating this dramatic escape. It seemed that for a reasonable few grand a month, I could cheat my fate and live the dream.
I even thought, what the hell, why not stay in one of these places permanently if it suits us! My biggest surprise is how ambivalent I am about this notion after actually having visited these places. It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed our experiences. We have! And yet, there always seemed to be something that made us happy to move on — something that made us appreciate the boring convenience of home.
To illustrate, I thought it would be fun to share some of our most inviting travel pictures, and describe in the caption what the place is really like.
Discovery #2: Worldschooling is HARD
I know what you’re thinking. Of course it was going to be hard, you idiot!
But going in, I assumed we had a lot going for us. The kids were ahead. Our kindergartener was starting to read. Our third grader was ahead in math, getting into programming, and writing stories for fun.
Plus, not to toot our own horns, but their worldschool teachers are quite smart and have wide ranging proficiencies. I’m a civil engineer turned software product manager. I have a wide array of hobbies: baking, music, and home renovation, just to name a few. I like to read about modern physics. Liuan is a writer and has a masters degree in sociology. Between the two of us we speak four languages. We love discussing our passions with our kids. Dinner table discussions often become educational. I assumed the learning process would just work itself out naturally.
And, well, maybe it has. If I squint and look at the big picture, there are signs of success.
But the day to day has been anything but smooth. The kids HATE sitting down to study. The parents often have other things they’d rather do.
Those in the unschooling camp are probably tsk, tsk-ing that we are trying to coerce the learning process at all. But I don’t know any non-fictional kid that learns their times tables out of pure joy and curiosity.
This past week, we did two hours each morning five days straight. That seemed to renew our momentum. We’re feeling a bit more hopeful. But up until now, sessions have been inconsistent. Both school-age kids seem resistant to doing anything that requires mental strain. That includes a main educational goal of this trip, learning Spanish.
I think our biggest hurdle is trying to do it alone. The kids don’t see that their peers are struggling with reading and math too, so they get frustrated. Furthermore, there isn’t any peer-pressure motivating them to keep up.
None of us knows exactly where the bar should be set. For lack of a tangible standard, the kids lean toward taking the easiest path while the parents worry that they’re missing things and falling behind.
Discovery #3: A Year Isn’t Much Time
On the first morning that I woke up officially jobless, I blasted U2’s, “It’s a Beautiful Day” while house cleaning in preparation for our departure. Our spirits soared. A year seemed such a vast amount of time. Pure freedom. An open road. Overflowing with possibility.
At first we planned to spend half our year in Southeast Asia and half in South America. Later we decided just to focus on South America. Originally we saw “a year” as just a beginning, we would extend indefinitely as we pleased. But given how things are going with worldschooling (see gripes in the previous section), we are leaning heavily towards going home for the next school year.
Anyway, a year should have been enough to visit everywhere worth visiting on one continent, right? Not a chance. For every place we visit, we must choose to miss out on five more. In Brazil, we passed over the stunning Northeast and Bahia regions, Florianopolis, Curitiba, the coffee plantations in Minas Gerais, the Pantanal Nature Reserve and the Amazon rainforest. And that’s just Brazil.
Six months in, we’ve only visited three countries, and now we want to cover six more in the remaining months. Pressure’s on! Wait what?!? We’re taking a year-long vacation and we’re short on time?
It’s not just about the places we are skipping. We intentionally chose to dive deep in fewer places rather than check off a lengthy list. It’s also about all the seemingly reasonable expectations of what we thought we could accomplish. We thought we’d spend more time schooling. More time blogging. More time just resting. I thought I would take runs in the morning and meditate every day. I do neither.
I thought we would become enlightened. Or at least have a clear idea about what we wanted to do next. Sadly, with an end in sight, we still haven’t quite figured that out.
Discovery #4: An Exotic Lifestyle Quickly Becomes Normal
Get on a bus. Exchange some currency. Get a new SIM card. Visit novel and amazing sights. Get noticeably better at your second or third language. Pack it all up. Return the keys to your AirBnB. Return the car. Repeat.
Would you believe this becomes just as mundane as making your coffee in the morning and reporting to the office at 8? That’s not to say this life is boring or undesirable. We are physically active and outdoors far more than we were back home. And one advantage to our situation is that we can adjust our rhythm anytime we want.
But there are only so many ways you can realistically order your life. And eventually you just settle into the best or easiest one. And, once again, you struggle not to allow the days and weeks to pass by on autopilot.
Discovery #5: Two Pairs of T-Shirts, Pants and Undies Are Enough
To all those who thought I was total bonkers for bringing one backpack per family member, I declare myself vindicated.
In fact, even in that meager load, there were things I wish we hadn’t brought. We sent a box of stuff we didn’t need home with Liuan’s mother when she came and visited.
But honestly, I had my doubts. Would it become unbearable to have so little? My secret trapdoor was the knowledge that they do have stores in South America. It’s not like we were trekking across Antarctica. Buying a new suitcase and extra belongings would be trivial compared to the sum total of our travel expenses.
But there was never any need to resort to a big shopping spree. I’ve worn the same two shirts for six months straight and I am happier than I have ever been in my adult life. If any of you happen to visit us on our journey, I’ll probably send a few more items back with you.
Discovery #6: We Don’t Long for Home
I’ve spent considerable time living abroad before. There was the two month-long visits to China. I also lived in Mexico for three months while in college. In both cases, I longed to go home and resume life by the end of it. So what would happen, I wondered, over a much longer span?
Would the kids beg to go home? Would I miss my Breville espresso machine and the safety of my routine? Would Liuan become lonely without being face to face with her mom-friends?
It turns out that humans are very future-oriented animals. If returning home is on the immediate horizon, that’s where your heart will be. When it’s not, it’s not.
Even when the kids wake up to the most miserly Christmas present spread of their lives. Even when the frijoles hit the fan and we miss our ferry to Montevideo forcing us to trudge around with all our luggage scrounging for a plan B. Even when we repeatedly have to say tearful goodbyes to new friends.
This is our life. We are living it the way we want on our own terms. Our minds are constantly challenged and engaged by our surroundings and circumstances.
You might have gathered from the first four sections of this piece that we are having a bad time. But that just reflects some of the ways we were overly-optimismistic before we left. We thought the grass was not only greener on the other side, but weedless, always remained the perfect length, and didn’t stain the boys’ pants when they slid down those irresistible green rolling hills.
Despite all our “surprising discoveries” about long-term travel, everything is still happily going according to plan.