Trifecta Series Part I: Top 3 Benefits of Long-Term Travel
In the first part of my “Trifecta” series, I discuss the three things I’ve found most beneficial about our family gap year and long-term travel.
You may be wondering, after two months quitting my job and six weeks vagabonding in a foreign land, how are we faring? Are we loving it? Was it all a big mistake? Is it familial bliss? Are we homesick?
To answer those questions and open a window into our home-away-from-home life, I plan to write a series of “top three” posts I’m calling the Trifecta Series. I’ll cover things we miss most about home, top experiences, and the biggest surprises we’ve encountered on the road. Stay tuned.
On the whole, our gap year has been great so far. Despite some anxiety and trepidation in the lead-up to our big adventure, none of our fears have come to pass. Everybody is happy, engaged, and ready to see more.
So with that, here are the things I love most about our new life on the road.
1. Every Day is a New Opportunity
If you’re even a little bit cynical, you’re probably thinking you’ve seen that printed on a cheesy motivational poster hanging on the wall of your office’s conference room; the one with the stock photo of a soaring eagle. You probably sense that while that might be true on paper, it’s a load of crap from a practical point of view.
Most of us—at least this is how I felt—spend the majority of our daily ration of time and energy just trying not to get too far behind. There’s the job, the bills, the broken items around the house (especially with three little boys), food prep, relationships to maintain. The grass keeps growing. The dishes keep piling up. Retirement and twelve combined years of kids’ college payments loom in the not-so-distant future.
Once I’ve done everything I can do to keep all these plates spinning in the air, I’m left with barely an hour after the kids go to bed to reflect on life and potentially evaluate all those “new opportunities.” Yeah right. I usually stream a TV show, or more often, open a good book so I can disconnect from reality and maybe fall asleep at a decent hour.
But here on the road, it’s different. With no long-term commitments to attend to, we have the freedom to take each day as it comes. Don’t feel like we got enough time to journal and reflect? We build it into our routine. Feel a bit adrift? We dream up projects to work on. Spent too many days taking care of business? How about we spend the next few days at the beach?
There are days I go to bed disappointed with how things went until I remember that our life is a blank canvas. It’s like the classic Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. We can wake up the next day, rejigger our priorities, and make a fresh attempt at a perfect day. And given that we’ve set the long-term aside in favor of the here and now, we face no long-term consequences for failure.
I’m not saying that improving our lives back home is impossible. In fact, preparing for this sabbatical made me realize how moldable our lives truly are. But on the road, the stakes are lower. There is less inertia keeping us beholden to our prior commitments. There is more of an awareness of our power to start over.
This is our chance to practice leaving our ruts and following our inner compass.
2. I Sleep Like I Did in College
I can count on two fingers how many times I’ve had a bad night of sleep since I left home: once on the night before I started my new work gig, and once when a kid got sick.
Compare two crummy nights of sleep in six weeks to two crummy nights every week—and that’s after I had declared myself recovered from the worst of my insomnia—and you have nothing short of a miracle cure.
But unlike a miracle, the reason is no mystery. I get daily exercise hiking up steep mountain trails and crisscrossing rivers by leaping from one rock to another like one of the boys. My world is lit by natural sunlight and at dusk I witness the sun going down, which helps cue my circadian rhythm.
We’ve intentionally designed our lives to set aside and block out, at least temporarily, all the things that kept us anxious in our former life. The bills are auto-paid. We have friends at the ready to manage and maintain our house. That’s not to say issues don’t sometimes poke through our carefully constructed barrier (thank you, City of West Chicago home inspectors), but they don’t come at the rapid-fire rate they did in our former life.
The result? I sleep soundly to the white noise of the river a few steps outside our door. I no longer wake up several hours before I have to get up for work.
It’s just like the Jack Johnson song. We wake up slow, make banana pancakes, and pretend like it’s the weekend. Every day.
3. Time Moves Slower
To all of you back home, it may seem like we just left. To me, it feels like we’ve been gone for almost a year already. My old routine feels like another lifetime.
I expressed that sense of extended time to our eight-year-old son during one of our bedtime chitchats.
He’s eyes widened and he said, “Yeah!” He felt it too. He continued describing how in his former day-to-day school routine, he barely remembered what he did or what he ate. Here he felt more aware of the time passing.
They say time flies when you’re having fun. But I think time up and disappears when you’re on autopilot. You fail to keep a mental record when you are rushing through the same daily cycle of tasks. Newness and a sprinkle of danger have a way of activating our conscious awareness.
We stayed for one month in our first destination, Teresópolis, Brazil, and now we are midway through our month in Paraty. When we booked those stays, a month seemed like a short amount of time. Too short, we said, we’re only going to scratch the surface.
But we’ve experienced the opposite. After two weeks in a place we already feel at home. In Teresópolis, we made acquaintances, and even some friends that still call us. We have time to revisit favorite places and redo missed opportunities.
This experience of time as abundant comes as a welcome change. Before, it felt like we were hurtling through the months and years toward our eventual demise with little time to accomplish anything beyond survival. Here it feels like anything is possible. We have time to fail and time to do it over again.
Most importantly, we are experiencing our life and not just letting it slide by.
Some Honorable Mentions
You might wonder why I didn’t include in my top three more time with family, or all the literal and figurative mountaintop experiences we’ve had.
The fact is, I’m grateful for the time with family. Seeing the world is a great privilege and I try not to forget it. But family time and experiences were things I always had. And in some ways, having them all the time erodes the anticipation and specialness of those moments, even if they remain pleasant.
The real benefits of our sabbatical, I believe, are the aspects that allow us to extract more pleasure from those moments. On a physical level, getting enough sleep makes everything more enjoyable. Exercising our imagination and change muscles allow us to chart a better course. And heightened awareness allows us to savor each moment life gifts us.