“Alright, let’s do it!”
“We’re doing it?!” I asked excited, surprised, not hesitant at all.
“Yep! Why not? Let’s do it. Let’s go. September 27, 2018. That’s our deadline.”
“Oh my god. We’re actually doing it.” I said, eyes lit, voice aghast.
“September 27th. We’re going to quit our jobs and travel the world!”
Thus we set a date for our around-the-world (RTW) trip. We would leave by our 5 year anniversary.
I have always wanted to travel the world and live abroad. When in the past I would meet someone who had studied or volunteered abroad or otherwise taken a gap year, I would exclaim, “How cool!” and ask all the details, my curiosity and fascination energized by the newness of the concept, which later turned to envy of something I never got to do.
Long-term travel never seemed to be an option for me. Growing up, my family passed as middle class only thanks to my parents’ growing credit card debt. In my community, taking a gap year after high school was unheard of. I never considered it because, well, no one was doing it and, more importantly, who would fund it? Most people I knew growing up weren’t moving out of the house for college and the only reason I did was because I got a full scholarship. It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned that some people took gap years and traveled before going to college. Simultaneously, I learned that studying abroad would cost a lot of money, which my scholarship would not cover. This, combined with my pivot from sociology to civil engineering just before sophomore year, meant I had no time to waste. Every semester including summer was precious as I knew my scholarship would not extend past four years, and it was my highest priority to graduate debt-free. Knowing the difficulties of living in money-scarcity, my driving force was to be financially self-sufficient.
Once I was sure that I would graduate within four years, my next opportunity for extended travel was after graduation. I didn’t want to take off after graduation with no return plans and have to move back in with my parents. Moving back in with my parents for me was not a particularly appealing option. I had to secure a job before graduation that would allow me to be financially independent upon my return. Then, I would set my start date as late as possible and plan a summer of travel. That was the plan, and it’s exactly what I did.
In hindsight, there were many opportunities to live abroad and fund my travels after college. I could have taught English, worked at a hostel, or signed up for another work exchange program to fund an indefinite period of travel. And, yes, I could have looked for a job upon my return and I probably would have found one. While a world of opportunities existed, I didn’t have the confidence that I could land a job without the constant support of my university career center, and I didn’t want to put my family in the position of having to support me if I ran out of money.
Just before graduation, I took out a student loan to fund my two months of travel before my signing bonus would kick in from my new job. And on June 5th, 2015, I set off with my backpack (a Tortuga that I nicknamed “Shelly”) and met my boyfriend, Nick, in Greece for the first leg of our adventure. We toured Greece and Italy with our Rick Steves guides in hand and visited all the classic tourist destinations. After our two weeks walking 10-20 miles a day, Nick flew back home, and I met up with my close college friend, Elizabeth.
The day Nick left, before meeting with Elizabeth, I was a wreck. I was terrified and lost; literally not knowing the language and exhausted from looking at maps all day every day for two weeks. I felt like I had no place to go and no place to be, even though I very clearly had to be at a certain train station at a certain time to get to a certain airport to wait an indefinite amount of time for the delayed flight to a new city where I’d have to navigate the public transportation yet again and look aimlessly for free wi-fi so I could download an offline map and once I have that wander the streets looking for my AirBnB or hostel. (An international data plan, Uber, and a guidebook would have made all of this much less exhausting, but I was a broke college student with a counted wad of money that I had to pay back and a rational fear of debt.)
Elizabeth and I backpacked around Spain for two weeks. We had the time of our lives. Then she went off to meet her girlfriend and, as planned, I traveled alone the rest of the trip, which was roughly a month.
Traveling alone came with its ups and downs. I enjoyed wandering through cities and neighborhoods at my leisure, popping into ice cream shops to ‘treat ma-self!’ and sitting down at cafes to muse and journal. I loved to sit down at a cafe on a busy street, order an espresso and just take it all in. It was also tiring. (Again, I could have made it a LOT easier on myself if I hadn’t lugged my backpack around everywhere and if I weren’t such a penny-pincher, but alas.) I visited Paris, London, Porto, and Copenhagen, and spent a little extra time in Spain visiting the land of my ancestors.
It was an adventure. I saw different parts of the world and different walks of life. I visited countless churches and museums and met many new people. When the end of July rolled around, I was tired. Tired of booking flights, and tired of looking at maps. Tired of pinching pennies and of hauling my carry-on sized backpack on my back. Tired of being sweaty and of wearing sandals in hostel showers. I was ready to settle down and to make a new home for myself. I was ready to start a job and to be a productive member of society. I was ready to build something. I was ready to work.
On August 3rd, 2015, I boarded a plane in Copenhagen and came home. Within the next week, I would take a mandatory drug test as required by my new job,¹ spend time with my family, pack up the car and drive myself to Houston for my first day as a working adult.
Thus began my version of corporate America. I started to drive twenty minutes to work, listen to some nifty podcasts, learn about natural gas transmission, build new pipelines, and get paid a sweet deal. I got into yoga (there was a Baptiste-style studio within walking distance of my apartment), hung out with Nick, who lived a short distance away, cooked, cleaned, all the staples of a modern life after college.
Life was good. Eventually, Nick and I moved in together. We lived in a nice part of town, with access to running trails and the most spectacular sunset views in the city. (We later moved into a skyscraper downtown, and I can still attest that our first apartment, had the best views Houston has to offer.)
I ardently believe that the struggle is not only real, it is necessary. By challenging us and pushing our limits, struggle keeps us engaged and motivates us. As humans, I believe we crave the struggle, whether in the form of a workout or a competitive game, because it compels us and kindles growth. Struggle gives us the opportunity to fail and gifts us the opportunity to succeed.
After a couple of years, our struggle was, well, pretty much nonexistent. The biggest challenge was efficiency, “How could we be more efficient with our money and time?” “We got this” becomes superfluous, ne, unnecessary, when things become all too..easy. Call it pompous or bored, I was pretty much coasting. My biggest struggle was that I was working a job that I didn’t see a future in for myself. I’d always wanted to work in renewable energy, and the opportunity hadn’t presented itself when I was a senior in college looking for jobs. Eventually, and after two years of working, I succeeded in landing a job in the field that I wanted to be in. I found my dream job.
Finally! I was in an industry that I love doing meaningful work that I love in a work environment that I loved, and I was in a deeply fulfilling and committed relationship with Nick. Nick was doing well at his job, though he found it less meaningful than I found mine. He got promoted, and we both found hobbies that we really enjoyed. We lived well and saved a lot of money thanks to Houston’s wonderfully low cost of living (and our knack for efficiency and thriftiness). We enjoyed amazing trips to Banff and Jasper National Parks, to the Grand Canyon; we backpacked in Rocky Mountain National Park, explored Mexico City several times, became familiar with Boston and NYC; we went wine tasting in Napa and took a multi-day kayaking expedition off the coast of British Columbia. We went to Disney World and took many other trips. We loved our lives and did I mention our apartment had the most spectacular view? And yet we got…
In me lies endless curiosity. One is about others’ lives. For nearly the extent of my adult life, I have been curious about the lives other people lead. At the age of six, after visiting my mom’s native country of Honduras I was questioning why I got to go to a school where kids freely threw their lunch away while the kids in the orphanages we visited didn’t have such luxury. It’s a bewilderment, almost maddening, to contemplate the number of different lives one could lead, all of this world’s different experiences, the number of lives one could have led. The number of lives one could still lead (with a few tweaks).
There are so many different paths out there. So many ways to live life. I am only here and living this way because of a particular set of circumstances coupled with my decisions during critical junctures of my life. If I had gone to that liberal arts school in New England, which I was deeply considering, would I have wound up where I am today? Would I have studied engineering? (They didn’t even have an undergraduate engineering degree, I would have had to undergone a five year program.) Would I have stuck to my gut and studied political science? Would I have had the same fascination with sociology and economics? Would I have felt the evolutionary pressure to ensure my long-term security and bequeathed to my brother’s admonition to major in something that will. get. me. a. job. as soon as I graduate? Would I have learned more about the Peace Corps and would I have applied? Would I have met enough people who were not studying engineering to have instilled the confidence in myself that I would be able to figure it out? That I could stand on my two feet, that I would be able to find a good job, a job that brings me joy and money, and that I could be successful even without an engineering degree or going through med school?²
So many could-haves nipped prematurely due to a lack of self-confidence or an ignorance of my options.
I’d like to think that had I chosen a different college, my life would be quite different. Perhaps there’d exist a semblance to my current life in terms of standard of living, hobbies, and, I don’t know, taste buds? I struggle to believe that a different version of me would settle for a lower quality of life or wouldn’t work out as much or wouldn’t be as adventurous with food or beyond. Still, my life would have been very different, which makes me think long and deep about the decisions I make today. If every decision is a choice against the road not taken, how do I make peace with not taking that road? Can I come back another day and choose the road not taken?
I think people largely refrain from asking such questions because they have other distractions in their lives that command their attention. I wouldn’t say many mothers spend much time pondering what their lives would be like if they hadn’t had babies. They’re likely too busy packing their kid’s bag, fixing dinner, or FINALLY having some time to relax and catch up on that Netflix show.
I, having no all-consuming responsibilities at the moment, alone have the luxury, ne, task, of pondering these questions, and I find them difficult and daunting. To think of the different worlds you can create for yourself, and the actions available to you to create that world. If you picture yourself living in Paris, walking to your neighborhood cafe for a Parisian petit dejeuner, the fluffy, flaky croissant of modest proportions (because these aren’t massive Texas-sized pastries) with a cafe au le, what would that life be like? Do you want it? What would you have to do to get there?
Perhaps you haven’t thought of life-altering courses of action as much as I have. But you have to understand, I was a COMPLETELY different person before I CHOSE to go to college (and specifically, an out-of-state college). Freshman year, I was much the same as I was in high school. Sophomore year, it all changed. It was when I met certain people and was exposed to different ways of life that I underwent a metamorphosis.
Which leads me to…
I was fortunate to be born in the United States and fortunate to have received a full scholarship to a top-tier university where I was fortunate enough to have the capability to graduate within four years with an engineering degree. What about that though means that I should stay?
There’s so much to see! So much to do! So many lives we could live and so many we can learn from! Why get comfortable now? Why allow ourselves to get accustomed to cushy incomes and luxury apartments?
Our plan was simple: to quit our jobs and travel using our savings for as long as time would permit or until we got tired of it. We would balance traveling with extended stays in different countries so that we could really absorb the culture.
Over the next many months, whenever friends would ask, “What are you up to?” we would respond with some form of, “Nick and I are quitting our jobs and traveling the world!” To which our friends would exclaim, “What!? That’s so cool!” followed by curiosity, “When/where are you going?”and the slightest bit of concern, “What about your jobs?”
Our general plan was to work our way down South America to Patagonia, then go to Asia and later Africa. We looked into international work exchange programs, like HelpX and WWOOF, as a way to reduce costs, get engrained in the local culture, learn a new skill, and give us something to do.³ We signed up with WorkAway and started reaching out to hosts about opportunities to work on sustainable farms. Given my passion for clean energy, I also looked into various volunteer opportunities installing solar photovoltaic systems.
That is how our planning began in October 2017, and at that moment, we placed ourselves on a timeline to see and do everything there was in Houston one last time.
In May 2017, as our apartment lease drew to a close and it came time to take action, we revisited our options. We could:
- Sell our things and travel the world.
- Sign a year long lease and delay option #1. Anything shorter than a year would be more expensive and, we’re thrifty remember?, it would not make sense to pay more than we need to.
- Buy property, because 3+ years of paying rent in a city like Houston seems like a waste.
“Now is the time,” we assured each other, “There will never be a better time.”
We own less assets now than we probably ever will. We haven’t bought a house so we don’t have a mortgage, and we share one car that is completely paid off. That and we fortunately don’t have student loans or pets — no obligations tying us down. We could sell the car along with the furniture from our cozy yet efficiently-furnished apartment,⁴ store some of our belongings at each of our parents’ houses, take some with us, and donate the rest.
Sticking to our original plan of leaving by September 27, 2018, Nick would have been at his company 3 years and been promoted to project manager with experience managing multi-million dollar projects. Meanwhile I, still relatively new to my job, would have been working for them for just over a year — obviously, not enough to be indispensable but long enough to make a good impression, learn about the industry, and make connections. Both of us hopeful that upon our return, we could secure a similar position without losing too much traction.
We would finally get to travel long-term, without having to squeeze in every tourist destination into a short two week window. We would learn about other cultures and learn new skills through extended stays and work exchanges. We would challenge ourselves to face our fears, to jump high and far and trust that we would land on our two feet, and to live by our word, to do what we’ve said we’ve always wanted to do.
“Now is the time. If we don’t go now, we might never.”
A few of our favorite pics from our travels:
I originally wrote this post on August 16, 2018, a month-and-a-half before our original deadline. As you may know, we chose to sign another lease and delay our trip by a year. The additional year gave us added confidence in our ability to return and to re-insert ourselves into the workforce, as well as extra funds for our travel. We also downsized to a smaller apartment, which encouraged us to go through our belongings and purge (a la Marie Kondo).
Now it is time, and we’re doing it! We’re taking off July 31st.
¹I had to take a drug test right after landing in my hometown. Before I went home from the airport, my parents dropped me off at a drug testing location, as my first job required a completed drug test before I started merely one week later.
²I am a firm believer in studying the subject that lights you up and makes you feel passion. While my engineering degree has served me well, and I am grateful for it, it was not my original intent.
³Today there exist numerous ways to travel the world with little money. Work exchange programs allow you to live on a farm or in a city in exchange for help weeding or harvesting or babysitting or anything else they may need. Sites today offer members access to literally a world of opportunities by connecting them with a variety of host profiles. With a membership fee, you can access the site and see contact info for hosts that you are interested in working for. There are plenty of blogs out there with tips on traveling the world with next to no money.
⁴Our furniture consists of the world’s comfiest couch, which I bought off Craig’s List; an ottoman and side table from World Market; 4 barstools and a ~$100 dining table from Target; my bed, which I got in high school and that my parents lovingly hauled from New Orleans to Houston when I moved into my first apartment after college; and a bookshelf and a dresser from Ikea. Our most expensive asset is likely the set of Cutco knives Nick’s mom got him after graduation.