Three years ago today, Tony & I stepped onto a plane in LA and disembarked many hours later in Tokyo, Japan. It’s safe to say that things haven’t been the same since.
Prior to leaving, we had heard from others that our travels would change us, but we really had no way of anticipating what that would mean for us. As months turned into years and we met more and more fellow vagabonds, we discovered that there was really no one way to take a trip like the one we were on—à la Calvinball, you make the rules up as you go along. It’s up to each traveler to chart his or her own course and follow wherever it leads.
The only constant that I have found amongst the travelers we’ve met in the last three years, and certainly the thing we have found to continually be true, is that a trip like this always offers you clarity and answers… even if it’s to questions you didn’t know you were asking (or perhaps, haven’t realized you were asking!).
For many people who embark on an extended trip, the end result is overwhelmingly the same: At some point, travel loses its luster, the appeal of home grows irresistible, and their journey leads them full circle, back to the place they began. But these people are different now, and so they look on all the things they once took for granted with new-found appreciation and reverence. They crave a stationary existence with a fixed, permanent address and find comfort and joy in rediscovering routine. Most long-term travelers return to settle down into traditional jobs and buy homes and, as we have noticed with others in our age group, start a family. After a few months back, their lives look (at least from the outside) nearly identical to the ones they left in the first place. Perhaps every so often, they experience a pang of wanderlust and wistfulness for their traveling days, but by and large they are content to be still.
When you think about all the stories we are told about epic journeys, ones like The Hobbit or The Wizard of Oz, they all seem to end this way, with the heroes and heroines returning home.
But what if Dorothy had turned her back on Kansas, realizing that there’s no place like home, but maybe some places are even better? What if, like Frodo, you return to the Shire and realize your travels have changed you so much that you no longer fit? What happens to those of us who head out into the big, wide world and decide to stay there?
That question is what our third year of travels has seen us begin to deal with.
As it turns out, three years is a long time to wander the world. At this point in our “careers” as long-term travelers, most of the people whose travels served as our inspiration have returned home and hung up their backpacks. In fact, a LOT of people who have told us that we inspired them to travel have left on their own amazing adventures and returned home. It’s very hard for us to find people who have been traveling for this length of time, or longer. Surely these people exist (and if you follow any travel bloggers who have essentially transitioned to a permanent nomadic lifestyle, please share their details down in the comments!) and we certainly aren’t pioneers here, but I won’t pretend that there aren’t times when Tony & I feel like dinosaurs, the remnants of a dying breed. Sometimes I wonder if we’re weirdos who have failed to evolve, because we’re still in love with this whole travel thing. These other travelers had a dream of seeing the world, which they did, and then they moved on to a new goal. Shouldn’t we want a mortgage and a pension and to start having babies like 99% of the people we know? Shouldn’t we want to stop and move on to something else?
Because, of course, that was the plan. We always told people when we started on our journey that a huge reason we were taking our trip was to give us some time and space to figure out whether we wanted to live in Canada or the U.S. at the end of it all. In its way, the trip did give us an answer to that question, it just wasn’t one we were expecting or had ever considered: We didn’t want to live permanently in either country. We wanted to keep traveling.
We knew we wanted this with the same unshakeable certainty of those travelers who returned home craving their own bed and a couch and, well, roots. It felt like the right way for us to be living our lives. So, last year, we started seriously laying the groundwork that would allow us to do exactly that. Tony began offering graphic and website design services from the road, and I gradually transitioned into the world of digital marketing and advertising. We returned home last summer to reunite with our dogs (and our families…) and to really dig in and build our business and shore up our savings. Ironically, we began our third year of travels while at home, but our eyes were fixed on the horizon and we focused on getting back on the road again.
There’s an old piece of wisdom that says “Begin as you mean to go on,” and I think that applies pretty perfectly to our third year traveling. We began stationary, at home, and now—although we are celebrating this milestone over 5,000 km south of Toronto in Mexico—our travels are a mishmash of periods of staying still with spurts of nomadism mixed in. We’re on the cusp of five months in Mexico, the longest we’ve been in any one country (other than Canada or the U.S.) for a continuous period of time in the last 3 years, yet we’ve really only visited seven places during that time. These days, it’s rare for us to spend less than a month in any destination, and most days, you’ll find us working, and most of our exploring happens when we’re walking our dogs, or when we take a break for food. Larger expeditions get saved for the weekend. In many ways, life is not altogether dissimilar from what it would likely look like if we had moved back to the U.S. or Canada and settled down.
(Except there are way more tacos.)
Three years after setting out to travel, we’re still at it… but “it” doesn’t look the same for us now as before. Sometimes we travel so slowly, it probably doesn’t look like we’re traveling at all. We have more responsibilities now and things have shifted and shuffled about so that travel, while a motivator, is no longer all-consuming for us. Most people struggle to find a work/life balance, but for us, we’re seeking a work/life/travel balance; wouldn’t you know, this is no easier to establish when you throw a third thing into the mix and are also in a foreign country.
That said, although life may not have the carefree breeziness that it did when we started this adventure—after years of playing ants, we were excited to enjoy being a grasshopper for a while; now we’re ant-grasshopper hybrids—we are still happy and haven’t lost our enthusiasm for exploring the world. We honestly love the life we have built for ourselves and it’s exciting to know that rather than travel getting stale, we’re allowing ourselves—and our lifestyle—to adapt based on our current needs and have been able to shift to a more sustainable framework. Each year has brought with it new challenges and new lessons to learn but, thankfully, we’ve afforded ourselves the flexibility to roll with the punches and allow ourselves to grow into these changes. As with all journeys, some things that mattered most three years ago, barely register, while new concerns come into focus and gain priority.
Year Four: More Travel, More Tribes
During our long road trips through Mexico, we have been listening to a lot of podcasts. One of my favorites is Dear Sugar Radio led by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, who used to write an advice column of the same name for The Rumpus. I listen to episodes whenever I feel I’m being too hard on myself and need a little compassion in my life, and even though many of the situations are only tangentially related to me, I always feel they prompt deep introspection (and great discussion!) and I end up feeling like I’ve just left a great therapy session with deeper insight into myself and my humanity. One of the most recent episodes we listened to dealt with a woman with compulsive spending behaviors, and while Tony & I are now pros at living below our means, something Cheryl said during the podcast really resonated with me: They urged the letter writer to join Debtors Anonymous so that she could be surrounded by like-minded folks. “Find your tribe,” they told her, and I felt a light bulb switch on in my brain.
When we were in Asia, Tony and I were constantly crossing paths with people on extended trips, people who were blogging about their adventures just as we were, people who just innately got what we were about and where we were on our journey. In the last year, however, we’ve only met four other traveling couples, one of whom had just returned from their RTW trip. Most of the blogs I used to read at the start of our trip are no longer updated (or only very sporadically) or have transitioned into blogging about life after travel, often with an increased emphasis on the adventure parenthood. Obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but lately, I’ve been feeling a bit at sea, like our community from a year ago has crumbled. There was a fork in the road, and it seems like everyone took the other path. For the first time since leaving, I have felt very isolated at times this past year and like Tony was my only ally.
I’ve realized that I need to take the Sugars’ advice to heart, and in the spirit of the nomads that we are, rather than clinging to a time or a place that no longer exists, we have to pick up stakes and head out in search of our tribe once more.
During our month in Oaxaca (yet to be written about, I know…), we wound up crossing paths with a wonderful couple who have been traveling for about three years as well, and I can’t tell you how awesome it was to have friends on our wavelength for a few weeks. We had people to grab lunch with and to accompany us on road trips and share travel tips with, and it was so much fun. At a time when I was feeling existential angst regarding our place in an online community (and quite possibly the world), Jenny & Lewis came into our lives at exactly the right time.
As we embark on our fourth year of travel and continue to find our feet as full-fledged digital nomads, I want to focus not only on exploring the world, but also on finding our new tribe. We always talk about how meaningful the connections we form with locals are, but those are often fleeting because we rarely stick around long enough for anything but our online relationships to flourish (thank goodness for this blog and for Skype!).
So, we’re going to kick off year four trying something different: Having had a taste of Mexico now, we’ve decided to see what it’s like staying put in one place for more than a month. Enticed by our friends Sarah & Tyrhone, we’ve made our way all the way to the Yucatán, and are currently looking for apartments in Playa del Carmen where we’re hoping to spend the next six months. Yes, we’re looking forward to the incredible travel activities this area of Mexico offers—like ancient Mayan ruins, beautiful colonial cities, crystal clear cenotes, beautiful beaches, and incredible diving opportunities—but we’re also hoping that by putting down roots for a while, we can start building some new connections and reestablish ourselves in a community.
Who knows how the six months in one place will go for us: Perhaps we’ll love it, perhaps it will give us exactly what we need and we’ll feel ready to tackle something new at the end of it, or perhaps we’ll get itchy feet even earlier. There’s no way to know except to try, and after three years of bouncing around, we think we deserve the chance to find out!
Looking back on what we’ve seen and accomplished in the past three years, I’m incredibly proud and also so grateful. It may not be one that many others aspire to, but we’ve built a life for ourselves that is filled with adventure and happiness, and established a business that fulfills us and affords us great freedom. We have met amazing people, done incredible things that we never even dreamed possible when planning our trip (like hiking the Himalayas, driving a tuk tuk through Sri Lanka, riding a motorcycle the length of Vietnam, to name a few…), and injected our life anew with the joy and wonderment we had allowed to fade.
We’re also so grateful for all of our readers here at 20YH who have followed along on our adventures. If you’ve reached out through an email or left a comment here (or on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter): thank you! If you’ve had us design you a logo or had us build you a website, or referred a friend: thank you! And if all you’ve done is lurked and enjoyed the journey anonymously, we’re still glad you’re here, so: thank you! Your support has meant so much to us and the community that has developed here over the years has truly been invaluable. We’re so glad that no matter where life takes us, we have a tribe here that is ready and willing to tag along with us. We’re ecstatic to have you aboard as we tackle year four!