Over a year ago I quit my job in Corporate America, sold almost all of my possessions, rented out my house, and set out with my backpack to fulfill a lifelong dream to explore the world. It’s now been 15 months since I left work to start my gap year and almost 13 months since I officially set out traveling but somehow it doesn’t feel that long at all.
Most of the time I forget to really think about what I’m doing or how different my choice is from most people back home. The people I meet on the road are like me. They’re from all different countries and walks of life and they’ve all decided to take a break from their lives to see the world. True, it’s less common for an American to do it and rarer still for an American that previously had an established career, but I still forget how unique my choice is until days like today come around.
Sometimes when I meet new people, like I did today, they’re on a different type of trip and are really intrigued by what I’m doing. I hear things like how inspiring I am, how brave, and how impressive. Yes, this is one of the best ways to make me uncomfortable! Inspiring is never something I thought I’d hear about myself and frankly I find it hard to believe.
So after being flattered and fully embarrassed yet again today, I decided it was time I really sat back and thought about the last year, how things have changed, and what the world may have in store for me next.
How Has Travel Changed Me?
Working in project management in my prior life, at the start of my trip I painstakingly drafted a plan of where I would spend my time and where I would go. I intended to see Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East in my one year traveling before heading back home to find a job and rejoin the American Dream.
It took about a month, maybe two, for me to finally let go of my project (travel) plan and to start enjoying my journey for the freeing experience it is. For anyone who knows me, it’s a large break from my norm to not have a pretty clear idea of where I’m going, the place I’m going to stay, what I’m going to do, etc. Yes, today when I decide I’m going to a city I just show up. I rarely book a hostel or hotel or even do much research on the area aside from learning what I need to know to intrigue me enough to visit. Most of the cities I’ve been to and some I’ve spent the most time in, weren’t even on my original travel plan. I can only imagine what a different experience this would have been if I’d held onto my security blanket (travel plan).
At home I was a master of many things, a perfectionist really, but the thing I had become best at was getting through. I don’t mean actually accomplishing anything, though I did plenty of that too. What I really mean is getting through the work week to the weekend, or getting through the weeks leading up to a vacation, or just getting through the day for a glass of wine and some TiVo. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed many parts of my life and my work but at the same time, I wasn’t fulfilled. I was always looking forward to something rather than enjoying the moments I was in.
That may be one of the biggest differences in my life more than a year later. While there’s a certain amount of planning and forward thinking in travel, it’s also difficult not to be in the moment experiencing the culture, food, people, and history all around you each and every day.
I also think traveling has made me more comfortable in my own skin. Before I left everyone kept telling me how much I’d learn about myself and grow. I don’t know that I’ve learned a lot more about me but I can say that I’ve become more comfortable being who I am. At home I think it’s easy to feel like you have to play a part. At work you need to be professional and interact just the right way. Socially there’s the pressure to dress well and to have nice things. If you see me these days, you’ll most commonly find me wearing ridiculously colored Andean pants that at home would land me on peopleofwalmart.com. I am meeting new people everyday where at home I could go months without ever meeting someone new. Some of it is the openness of travelers but it’s also my mindset being willing to approach anyone and start up a conversation where at home I might think twice.
So a year and ten countries later I haven’t become a drastically different person, but a more relaxed version of myself that no longer (for the most part) sweats the small stuff. I go with the flow more and expect to control less and I think that’s been a very healthy change for me.
Some of My Favorite Travel Experiences in Latin America
I’m asked all the time what has been my favorite place, country, or experience so after a year I’m going to address the questions….sort of. It’s really an impossible to question to answer like which one of your kids/pets do you love most. So rather than try to answer specifically I’m going to share some of the highlights that you might have missed along the way that I enjoyed most.
- Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
- Volcano Boarding the Cerro Negro in Nicaragua
- Visiting the jungle mountain Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico
- Hiking / Swimming over a mile into a Mayan burial cave in Belize
- Diving inside a shipwreck in Roatan, Honduras
- Watching baby sea turtles hatch and make their way into the ocean by the thousands in Nicaragua
- Diving the Great Blue Hole in Belize
- Riding through the crazy landscapes in Bolivia for 4 days to the Salar de Uyuni
- Learning the terrible history of the 30,000 people that disappeared in Argentina
- Mountain Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road
- Doing some mining in the Cerro Rico mines in Potosi, Bolivia
- Celebrating Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia – the oldest and longest Carnival celebration in the world
- Spending a week canoeing through the Amazon Rainforest
Where Will I Go From Here?
As you probably gathered by now, my gap year or career break is no longer a one year trip and in my 13 months I have only been to about half the places I had planned for the year. I found, as I traveled, I started moving slower and slower as the year went on, and I think that was a great decision, though not exactly a conscious one. Being somewhere a couple of days doesn’t really give you a feel for the place and doing quick stints in many cities will leave you with a blur of memories that you won’t be able to even sort through….not to mention moving more slowly is usually cheaper!
So a few months ago, I made the decision to keep going. I rented my house again (for two years this time!) and prepared to be away even longer. How long? With all honesty I can say I don’t know and for the first time in my life I don’t have a plan for what’s next. Instead of being terrified or panicky without a game plan, I actually feel great. That to me says I’m still making the right decision for me at this point in my life.
So what’s next? Well as I write this I’m sitting in the Galapagos Islands where I’ll be boarding an 8 day scuba diving cruise this week to dive some of the best sites in the world. Afterwards I plan to move onto Columbia and finally see the country every other traveler has been raving about. That’s about as far as I know for sure but I will probably sail from Columbia to Panama and then fly to Cuba before finally leaving my Latin America love for the wonders of Asia.
…..but don’t hold me to it!