On Love of Travel and Life Getting in the Way
For most of my adult life I’ve yearned to strike out on a years long, world-wide journey of discovery and life transformation. But life has a way of stringing you along with small delays.
Delays, Delays: Wanderlust Deferred
Two years ago, my wife, Liuan, and I decided we were going put life on hold and take a year or more to travel the world. This is not the first time we tossed around the idea. Early in our marriage we had the idea to save money and buy a boutique hostel or bed and breakfast somewhere in Latin America.
Going back further, when I was a recent grad, my plan was to pay down my modest school debt and then quit and work at an international school or teach English as a Second Language (ESL).
Life got in the way of all these dreams and intentions. My original plans fell by the wayside when I met my wife, who shares my wanderlust, but nonetheless ruled out any on the spot personal decisions to just pack up and leave. Early on, Liuan endured a several year stretch where she suffered chronic ankle pain. This made it difficult for her to walk and caused her a lot of anxiety.
Then we bought a one-bedroom condo and poured money and time into renovating it. Then we had our first son, Oliver. He was a poor sleeper and we certainly didn’t want to upend our lives while we were delirious with sleep depravation. Then we bought a five bedroom house, which needed years of renovation. We had a second son, Finley. An even worse sleeper than Oliver.
Each new development deferred our intention to travel by just a few more years. Then we had our third son, Miles—an “oopsie” baby (but still very welcome).
Some people travel long-term with very young children, even babies, and make it work. We just didn’t want to. None of our boys slept through the night until they were at least eighteen months. And then there was the hard fact that each new traveler nudged the financial bar even higher.
We’re Really Doing It… Really
The decision to travel we made in the spring of 2019 seemed starkly different. We are really going to do this thing.
While long-term travel—alternatively referred to as “mini-retirement” or “family gap year”—was always something we discussed, it become more real when some family friends of ours took the plunge. Together with our friends, we read and discussed Choose Life by Daniel Prince, a book about a family that left the daily grind and spent years traveling the world. We decided, “why not us?” and began ordering our lives around pulling it off.
We dared to believe that this time there would be no more obstacles on the horizon. If there were, we were determined to do it anyway! We started talking about it as a near-term eventuality. We planned, we made lists, projected savings. We made steady, tangible progress toward our goals. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
As of this writing, mid-spring of 2021, we have not yet started our long-term travel. We had initially targeted our departure date for summer 2021 (two months from now). We shifted our target departure date by a year, to the summer of 2022, hoping to be out of the woods with COVID by then.
A Brain Wired for Wanderlust
What motivates a person to choose nomadism over stability? What crossed wire in the brain makes a person leave behind friends, a pleasant home, and a stable, well-paid job for the uncertainties of vagabonding.
I can only speak for myself here. Others might give different and equally interesting answers to this.
But for me, I can trace the urge to explore to my earliest memories. In one instance, I rode my big wheel to the other side of the block and approached a car stopped at a red light with the windows open to chitchat with the strangers inside. I remember the stranger kindly playing along as I held forth with whatever small-talk I was capable of as a four-year-old. This is the kind of kid my poor mother had to deal with, and still does to this day.
Another time, around the same age, I left my room before dawn, took the keys to my dad’s van, and decided I was going to drive off and discover what was beyond Brookfield, Illinois. Fortunately for everyone involved, I wasn’t able to figure out which key unlocked the driver’s side door before my dad found me.
What compelled me then and what compels me now? It was never about running away from something. I have no reason to complain about cards I was dealt. It was never even about avoiding boredom. There are much easier ways to stay engaged.
The Virtues of Seeing the World
To me it is an innate preference for new experiences over the tried and true that drives my desire to travel. Experiences are like data points that help build a better mental model of how the world works, what makes human beings tick, what leads to human thriving and satisfaction, and where do I fit in this world. It helps me revise the distorted secondhand narrative I hold about rest of the world with real firsthand experience.
Traveling allows me to prove over and over to myself that “unknown” does not equal bad or dangerous. When traveling I’m consistently reminded that my prior secondhand knowledge of a place and actually seeing that place in the first person are are wildly divergent. It’s useful to be reminded of the vastness of what I don’t know.
Traveling presents the opportunity to stumble upon little gems. My wife and I once wandered into an ancient village improbably situated among modern high rise apartments in a Chinese city. Other hidden gems I’ve discovered: drinking the richest most delicious coffee I’ve ever tasted in the cloud forest of Costa Rica; feeling tension I didn’t know I had in my neck and shoulders release on a walk through the Colombian jungle; the hosts at a Tuscan bed and breakfast freely lending us their personal bikes and sending their dog with us on a day long excursion over Monte Pisano, and being amazed that the restaurants we visited treated the dog like a VIP.
Traveling reveals the different tradeoffs cultures make. What I thought was “the one and only way” turns out to be just one possible way with its own pros and cons. What is the right balance between individuality and community? Warmth and wariness? Safety and meaningful risk? Common good and personal freedom?
Seeing the world helps you discover how parochial your beliefs and preferences are. This may be uncomfortable for some, but for the seeker of truth it is necessary medicine.
Then there are the misadventures that make for good stories later. Like the time I lost my money and passport on an overnight bus in Mexico and a hostel owner let me work for a local wage so I could buy my meals until my mom could wire me money. Or the time I got off an overnight bus in a remote village in China thinking it was a bathroom stop, and luckily my wife was awake and made the bus driver wait for me. And now that I put those two examples in the same paragraph, I realize the common thread to all my travel mishaps is overnight buses… (strokes chin) interesting.
But why travel long term? Why not just take a vacation?
As you might have noticed I’ve already had some opportunities to travel. I’ve traveled internationally most years of my adult life, usually for two or three weeks at a time, sometimes up to a month. This while keeping the same job for fourteen years. It’s like having your cake and eating it. What more could a person want?
I think what I want is for my life to be an open book. I don’t want to have the road ahead paved until retirement.
Traveling long-term is different than the week-or-two vacation. It requires a different sense of time and space. When you travel for a week, time is scarce. Everything must be done fast and easy. You fly to the destination. You book everything in advance so as not to waste precious time. You hedge against any anticipated setback. Even on the most chill-centric vacation, the itinerary is tightly choreographed.
Full-time travel slows everything down. You become time rich.
Time for what? Fully engaging in a local community. Taking in the true distance between places and knowing all that lies between. Being able to wake up one morning and decide to do nothing. “But you are always doing something!”, I hear my seven-year-old, Oliver, correcting me. Fine! I want to be bored for once in my adult life and then have my most creative and authentic self spontaneously decide in the moment what I want to do instead of having it all planned out.
Spending quality time with my kids before they grow up is also a big motivation.
If I’m honest with myself, I might be slightly motivated by escape, contrary to my earlier claim. The routine, the cultural expectations, the script you are expected to follow can leave you wanting more. Or maybe less? In other words, it’s easy to allow the daily grind to take up your entire mental space and leave no room for reflection, for reconfiguring priorities, or trying to answer the question “what makes my life meaningful?”
There is a fine line between rooting yourself in a place and routine because you find purpose in it—because it offers you those small pleasures, and fits with your overall values—and feeling that you don’t have permission or a right to leave your post for a time. Can’t I fill one chapter of my life just reveling in the glory of being alive?
Maybe full-time travel is my way of saying that life is not a script that must be followed. We will always fall into habits and routines. I have no doubt this will happen even on our family gap year. But I won’t be afraid to experiment, take an offramp, try a side road, and make a leap of faith when it counts.
What are your reasons for long-term travel? If you are like us and haven’t yet taken the plunge, what holds you back? If you have ideas or experiences to share, please leave a comment below.