So you’ve decided to take a gap year after getting your degree, or maybe in between two jobs. You flew to Australia, New Zealand and/or South-East Asia to go backpacking for a couple of months. It was amazing, and you feel a strong need to travel again. Heck, you wouldn’t even mind traveling for a whole year. Or maybe two. Or even five! Sound familiar? It definitely does to me.
I was 24 and I had officially discovered traveling. My dream was to buy a single ticket to anywhere and to never return to The Netherlands again. Now, 5 years later, having traveled intensely for three 6+ month periods, my perception of the often heard “dream” of full-time travel has been shaped rigorously. It was about time for me to write this article.
Continuous travel as the ultimate goal
What does “full-time travel” really mean? To me, it meant staying on the road for as long as I could. Perhaps even forever! I would move from place to place, not staying in one place too long as it would inevitably get boring after a while. If I could live 6 months out of a backpack, then why not a year, or 2, or 5? Behold, my first misconception: continuous travel is the ultimate goal.
The first time I started doubting this theory was on my second longer-term trip, where I traveled from Alaska to Antarctica. The trip lasted 8 months and because of the large number of countries I planned to visit (16, mostly over land) I was traveling faster than usual. After about 6 months, with a trip to Antarctica still on the itinerary, I caught myself thinking: “I wish I could just crash on a couch for a couple of days with my mates”. I quickly discarded the feeling, deeming it to be absurd. Since, you know, “I was living the dream”, right?
Revelation 1: your mind gets tired after 6 months of intense travel
Continuous travel for 6+ months made me appreciate the beauty around me less. A bold statement, I know. Have you ever experienced the feeling of “I can’t see another temple!” or “oh, another waterfall?”. That’s what I’m talking about. When traveling becomes too much of a nagging routine, I feel that one should stop traveling for a while and regain their day-to-day appreciation. Or, alternatively, fly to a place that is the opposite of where you are. I guess you can have too much of a good thing.
So too long and too intense isn’t the holy grail. Then what is? Working and traveling simultaneously perhaps? To figure out how that would make me feel I took the opportunity of living in Sweden for a short period (2 months) while working for a Dutch digital agency. I visited my old friend Magnus, and joined his “Collective Sunshine”. All I needed to bring to Sweden was a laptop and some clothes, so that was pretty convenient.
A traveling slave of society
You probably have a friend that is allowed to travel for work. He or she is in China one week and in New York the other. The thing they usually don’t tell you is that “working abroad” often means sitting on a 13-hour flight and checking into a soul-less hotel on day one, having a full day of (boring) meetings and/or trainings on day two and flying back on the same flight the morning after. If you’re lucky you’ll get an extra day to walk around town like a zombie, but more often you’re expected in the local office again the day after, jetlag or not.
Revelation 2: when there is too much idle time, poisonous questions like “I’m living my dream, so why am I bored?” arise.
Then there’s freelance work. As I mentioned before, for a long time I thought that traveling and working at the same time would be my dream. I would build a couple of websites here and there and live like a king in a country with cheap currency. To give this a try, I moved to Sweden while working on a freelance assignment for a Dutch agency. “But Sweden and cheap currency don’t match!”, you might think. True, but in my case I didn’t have to pay rent and I had access to a fully-stocked kitchen and a nearby Lidl supermarket, which made my experience a lot cheaper.
Although I really enjoyed my time there and would definitely do it again, there were a couple of interesting findings on living abroad:
- When living abroad you will have to re-invent your daily routines. When are you most productive? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Will you eat healthy or binge on fast-food? When you’re working abroad, there’s an opportunity to review all your habits and create a structure that works best for you.
- You will have a lot of idle time, a lot of it alone (if you fly there solo). Does that drive you crazy or does it boost your level of concentration? When there is too much idle time, poisonous questions like “I’m living my dream, so why am I bored?” arise. The challenge is to fill in this idle time with things that excite you or teach you new skills. Since a lot of these things will cost ya, it’s good to have some cash for ‘excitement reasons’ on your bank account.
- Don’t think your life will be all fun and games when abroad, your boss can expect you to be available for most of the day for (remote) meetings or status updates.
- After finishing my initial freelance assignment things went a bit quiet, and anxiety started to kick in. Should I be looking for a new job? Combine this with the before mentioned poisonous idle time and you’ll end up with an underlying feeling of worry.
- Not a problem in my case, but I can imagine that a big time-zone difference can severely mess up your work/leisure balance.
- In your new home abroad the people around you will continue to live their own lives, with their own friends, errands and activities. If you’re lucky they’ll let you join some of them, but it’s a bit unfair to expect them to fill your time with social activities.
- Not all countries have great wifi, which can lead to endless frustration. Especially when your boss back home is a micromanager and expects daily status updates via Skype video calls. Nomadlist.com is a great resource for finding countries with just the right balance of living costs, wifi, weather and safety.
- You might be lucky enough to know a couple of people in the city you’re moving to, but mostly you’ll have to make new friends. Depending on the country, that can be quite the challenge. Think about it, where did you meet most of your friends? School? Through a mutual friend? At a course? You’d definitely have to put some extra effort in.
Why your friends and family matter
Although they might not always want to listen to all your travel stories, your friends and family are a constant factor while traveling. They are often the embodiment of “home”, living their lives in the surroundings you grew up. I was shocked to find that after my first 6 month trip away from home, where I traveled intensely through Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, not much at all has changed back home. A couple of new buildings, a couple of new friends of friends, but my close friends were still my close friends and my family was still my family, with all their quirks and habits. I, on the other side, felt like I’ve been warped 5 years into the future as I developed new skills, picked up new languages and made loads of new (intercontinental) friends.
Revelation 3: I was taking my best friends and my family (in this case my mum) for granted
That doesn’t mean traveling makes you a happier person per sé. Something I learnt from my travels it is that every person has their own way of trying to achieve happiness, and that there is no “good” or “bad” way. Quite often however I spot travelers putting themselves above people that haven’t traveled at all, or not as much as they did. Although I think this is a negative trend that deserves to be written about, I will save it for another article.
Back to the topic of friends and family. Somewhere on my third 6+ month trip I was overcome by a powerful feeling: I was taking my best friends and my family for granted (in this case my mum, since she was my only parent growing up). I assumed that they would always just be there, even if I didn’t really put much effort in to sustain the relationship. Honestly, it kind of threw me off. Then and there I made a promised to never take her for granted, and to make sure to let them know more often how much she means to me. The same counts for your friends: taking them for granted might backfire badly one day.
Ever tried to sustain a long-distance relationship? How did that work out? I’ve definitely heard a couple of successful stories (including my own), but also heard many stories of people growing apart after a while. I feel like making friends in foreign countries works in a similar fashion. When you travel socially (avoiding hotels and mass-tourism targeted tours) you are inevitably going to make new friends, or at least some people you wouldn’t mind seeing again. If you’re lucky they might come visit you in your home town, or you’ll be able to meet again on a trip abroad. If not, well, there’s always memories, photos and Facebook. I’ve even experienced the “friends on endorfine” syndrome (which I just made up).
When you meet someone while traveling your perception of the people you meet can be a bit skewed. The beautiful rainforest, the amazing street food you share or the loud hostel you spend a night in together might make you blind for the fact that the person you’re traveling with might be a bit of an asshole. Once you meet again back on your turf, that might suddenly become clear. Awkward…
Striking the perfect balance
After experimenting with different ways of traveling I have busted the bubble on a couple of my dreams. I’ve learnt that endless (continuous) travel and working while traveling isn’t what I should be aiming for. So what is the ideal situation I should strive? Two words: mindful travel. Now I’m not a spiritual person, and I don’t necessarily associate mindfulness with spine-wrecking yoga poses. To me, mindfulness is doing something that has your full attention. In terms of traveling it translates to eliminating any distractions from your “regular” life to focus fully on exploring the unknown. I’m talking phones, laptops, people you don’t want to talk to and doing work for work’s sake. Although I do travel with a phone, I make sure it’s a 1995 Nokia with a battery life of 7 days and a local sim-card (for emergencies), which pretty much eliminates any unwanted incoming phone calls. I also travel with a laptop, but only to store pictures, write articles or watch movies on excruciating 24+ hour bus rides. The imminent lack of internet facilities makes sure I won’t get stuck in the dreadful world of social media.
Revelation 4: I’ve learnt that endless (continuous) travel and working while traveling isn’t what I should be aiming for. So what is the ideal situation I should strive? Two words: mindful travel
To be able to strike the perfect balance, I will have to work intensely in my home town for a period of time to save up money. As I don’t have a wealthy family to fall back on, I have to hustle my way through with freelance assignments and office jobs. When you have a (financial) goal that will allow you to travel mindfully in the future, the burden of work suddenly becomes less heavy. The ideal situation for me would be to have the stability of a full-time job but the opportunity to take mini-retirements of 3-6 months every other year. Traveling truly gives you a fresh perspective on life and allows you to reset your mind to focus on the things you love and that excite you.
Everything is possible. Now what?
You wouldn’t believe the positive energy that was flowing through my veins after I’ve completed my trip from Alaska to Antarctica. It was the craziest thing I could think of a year before, and I simply set out the route and did it! Think of the possibilities! I could become an astronaut and travel into space, I could set up a board game cafe in a refurbished sea container (both are ideas that I’ve worked out on paper), or literally anything else! It took me a couple of months to realize that yes, there is a world of possibilities out there, but it also takes a bucketload of focus, hard work and/or money to achieve most of it. Slowly anxiety started creeping in again: what is the thing I want most? How do I start?
After starting up a couple of projects which failed I now know: there isn’t such a thing as a single magical goal that will make everything awesome. Life is about failing, learning from it and doing things better next time. You will have to embrace change and learn to appreciate the little things in life. It might take years, but if you truly develop this habit your level of happiness (however you might determine it) will rise. And in the end that’s all that really matters, right?