Soon after landing in the U.S. after our nine-month trip around the world, Jona and I were standing on a busy street in Manhattan, when I realized that our lives would never be the same again. Rather than a dramatic shift taking place, it was a slow erosion of long-held beliefs, certainties and ego. One of the lessons you learn very quickly when you travel is how little you actually know about the world. No matter how much you’ve read or how many travel shows you’ve watched, or how well-traveled you are, life on the road is a humbling reminder of one’s place in relation to the world. We are small specks or blips on the radar of life. Our past doesn’t matter as much as our present or our future. Life has to be lived in the moment, as every problem is new and every decision is significant. Since our return, we have been peppered with questions about our experience, so I thought I should share our key insights.
The most valuable lesson we learned along the way is that people all around the world want the same things: a roof over their head, a job, their health and a sense of belonging to a community. We spent countless hours walking through neighborhoods, observing how the locals live their lives, watching (mostly) mothers walk their children to school and older folks tend to the community, while the hustle and bustle unfolds around them. Despite national differences, people manage to connect with each other as individuals, discovering their respective customs and similarities, while helping out when they can. Despite all the problems plaguing the world today, we returned home with a greater faith in humanity than when we left. Most people tend to be good, if given the chance. We couldn’t have completed our trip without the invaluable help of friends at home and the many, many strangers in faraway places who gave us a hand when we most needed it. We will always feel grateful for our experiences and committed to making the world a better place through closer connections between different people.
When we arrived back in the United States, one of my friends described my mindset as almost religious. Initially, I balked at the idea, but I soon came to realize that she was right: it is near-impossible to live “in the moment” for months on end, moving between cultures and hovering above the daily concerns of most people, without attaining a sense of zen-like detachment and seeing the common thread of our shared humanity. Ours was a pilgrimage of sorts, like a Buddhist “yatra,” where the spiritual journey is more important than the destination.
The untold truth about non-stop travel is that, after about three months, the novelty wears off and it no longer feels like a vacation; it feels like an adventure—both exciting and daunting. A sense of awe settles in, because you finally understand the enormity of the undertaking and its implications. A vacation is a trip that involves leaving and returning home. Long-term travel means that there is no home to which to return or to which to belong. When your physical home is gone, you have no choice but to focus on your mental home, your mind. Too much focus, though, can lead to an imbalance and increased worrying. Maintaining a healthy equilibrium between mind and body became paramount.
After four or five months, we found that we could pack and unpack with great ease, making ourselves at home wherever we happened to be staying. However, we also realized that we were on an emotional rollercoaster all the time. Nothing was stable, predictable or “normal” about our situation. We only had each other and we had to be careful about giving ourselves enough personal space, as we were together all the time. We managed to do this most of the time and came out of this experience with new-found respect for each other and a deeper bond than ever before. At the beginning of our relationship, I used to joke that Jona and I could have fun in a box. I now know that we can.
Most of the questions we have fielded relate to two aspects of our experience: the trip and the sabbatical. While the trip itself was incredible, I have to sing the praises of the sabbatical. This break or mid-career retirement—whatever you choose to call it—was the single best decision we made in the past few years. We feel focused, happy and rejuvenated. To borrow an Oprah expression, we enjoyed “the gift of time.” With no fixed routine or schedule, we fell into a pattern of sleeping soundly, waking early and eating breakfast together, then exploring whichever place we happened to be visiting that day. Sometimes we acted like locals and sometimes we joined the throngs of tourists. While we never really fit in with either group, we carved out a life and path for ourselves. We’re proud to have frittered away some of our hard-earned money on small businesses around the world. Sometimes, these transactions allowed us a glimpse inside a community or a family, or even behind a cultural curtain.
Watching people go about their daily lives and interacting with them was the biggest privilege of this trip. We would quietly observe the locals going about their business, as we tried to understand their reality and tell ourselves stories about their lives. People are endlessly fascinating. We realized that, as Americans, we always need to have all the answers and know what we’re doing all the time. To show otherwise is a sign of perceived weakness. Along the way, we learned to admit we didn’t always know what we were doing, be humble about our shortcomings and show a willingness to learn. As a result, when we were confronted with new situations, we would always take a minute to observe what people were doing before taking any actions. When you don’t speak the language, it helps to observe and listen first, then try to emulate the locals. This broke down some of the cultural barriers and helped us see the similarities between different groups of people. It turns out that many exchanges are plain ordinary; it’s just a matter of decoding their meaning: “Do you have a loyalty card?” “Would you like a bag?” “Is that for here or to go?”
While most of our adventures made us feel at ease in the many countries we visited, we enjoyed meeting and spending precious time with friends most of all. Starting with a serendipitous meeting with friends in Indonesia, we managed to reconnect with our extended family in Japan, India, Belgium, France and England. Some of these reunions were brief, but many of them were unhurried and we basked in the warmth of friendship so far from home.
The rest of the time, we discovered the countries we were visiting by walking (well over a thousand miles!), through streets and markets, and riding a bewildering mix of planes, trains, automobiles, buses, trams and ferries (and camels). We observed everything taking place at the street level, but also craned our necks to take in the astounding architecture around us. Museums were a constant source of fascination, as we came to understand the role of these institutions in presenting how countries perceive themselves and present themselves to the world. All told, we visited more than sixty museums, learning about our interconnected histories and gaining insights into current, as well as future global trends.
City dwellers dream of living untethered from their digital devices, somewhere as far away from the urban sprawl as possible. During our time on the road, we realized that we actually like people, cities and our creature comforts. As much as we love escaping to remote, rural locations for a break, we now know that we do not function well without an internet connection, a washing machine and the odd movie or television show.
Mostly, we stayed in Airbnb apartments, with some hotels sprinkled in along the way. The trick is to stay in Airbnb’s during long-term stays (enjoying weekly discounts) or hotels for short-term visits (avoiding Airbnb’s increasingly steep service charge and host cleaning fees). The best apartment was in Berlin; the worst was in Bangkok. This is not a reflection of the countries themselves, as we loved both Germany and Thailand, but rather the gamble of staying in a stranger’s home.
In nine months, we traveled through twenty-six countries on six continents, but it feels like we barely scratched the surface. Just look at the map of our trip, if you’re not convinced. Truthfully, we would do it all over again in exactly the same way. If there’s a next time, though, we will travel for three months and spend more time outside cities, in the countryside or by the sea. It was an incredible experience to visit some of the major cities of our era, but we now long for more remote, less crowded locations.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the world is becoming a much more homogeneous place. Mass tourism is growing every year, with more people experiencing other cultures (which is a good thing), while not necessarily immersing themselves in the other country’s customs (thus missing out on a richer experience). While we always tried to work with small local businesses, large groups of tourists tended to swoop in on buses and cruise ships provided by major corporations contracting with larger local businesses who can handle big groups. This has become a real phenomenon known as "overtourism." These groups disembark, go to the main attractions, take some photos, buy some gifts and then move on to the next item on their list. On the whole, tourists are not really adventurous, preferring packaged holidays with safe food choices and plenty of photo opportunities. While I respect everyone’s choices (after all, we are also part of the problem), I’m proud of the way we traveled, arranging our own travel, visas and accommodation, which meant plenty of interactions with local people, and eating local food from markets or supermarkets, with the occasional restaurant meal. There were challenging times, but it was a rewarding experience.
One of the main revelations during our time away was that everybody needs a home. We are no exception. Yet, we discovered that humans are adaptable creatures: we made every place we stayed in feel a bit like home. Initially, we enjoyed the disruption to our routines, as time took on a different quality, seeming slower and more luxurious. However, we soon realized that anything can become routine, even long-term travel. By the time we reached the eight-month mark, we were seasoned travelers who adapted to a new environment within a day, sometimes less. We also realized that routine is not a bad thing. The trick is to not allow it to become too repetitive or take too much for granted. Shake it up every once in a while.
While our trip lasted nine months, we’ve been on this adventure for close to two years now, first saving money and divesting ourselves of our belongings, then preparing and packing for the trip, before taking to the road. We returned to the United States in June and have been acclimatizing to the reality of being back. We are eager to resume our respective careers and settle into a new home, wherever that may be. We are determined to follow our passions and create a life that fits our renewed sense of energy and purpose. This may not be the easiest path, but we are still grateful for and humbled by our recent experiences. Ultimately, we realize how good it feels to be alive, right here, right now. We try to make the most of our situation and enjoy our time together. Yesterday is in the past and tomorrow is another adventure. Life is short. Make the most of it.