Six Month Check In: Jess

Six months ago, I left my home, my family, my dog, and the last remaining things I owned to travel.  

I was terrified and excited.

On the morning we left, Nate and I woke up at 4 a.m. in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house in the Atlanta suburbs.  After long days of last-minute planning and running around, we were going on very little sleep.  We rushed through showers, packed our final few things in our day bags and went downstairs to scarf down breakfast standing around the kitchen island with my parents.  My Dad drove us to the airport.  Our dog, Lily, hovered over our bags sleepy and confused.  My mom hugged us and cried.  

And just like that, we were off.

Six months later I’m sitting outside on the patio of an 18th century Tuscan farmhouse in Italy.  We’ve been to 10 countries on three continents.  We ate ceviche in Colombia and explored the once dangerous streets of Medellin.  We went to Spanish school and learned how to surf.  We hiked the Inca Trail to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu.  I flipped my bike on Death Road in Bolivia, had up-close encounters with elephants in Africa, camped in Botswana and Swaziland, climbed red dunes in Namibia.  

It’s been a pretty eventful first half.

It’s amazing to me that we’re already halfway through this trip.  I’m realizing now that before we left I couldn’t really wrap my mind around a full year of travel, so already this 6 months has felt longer than I expected the whole trip to feel.

On the flip side, I’m feeling my anxiety grow as we tip into the second half.  Like we’ve climbed a mountain and are sitting at the top and the next 6 months is all shadowy descent back to a desk job.  

I can already feel that anxious voice in my head repeating, “Enjoy it while you can, it’s going to be over soon…”  

I’ve talked before about the anxiety I deal with.  Several times this week I’ve woken up at 4 a.m. and sat awake in my bed for hours thinking of every possible bad thing that could go wrong from not being able to renew my license plate online to never being able to pay off my student loans.  (I think the student loans fear must be universal though :).  

It’s strange to both feel like I never want to go back and rejoin the working world and to simultaneously be so excited to buy our first house, to start a family, to put down real roots.  

We’ve been talking a lot about Denver and the kind of life we want when we return.  My only hope is that when the time comes to get on that plane and head back to the U.S., that I’ll be good and ready.  That I will have somehow gotten the travel bug out of my system and will be excited to return and get a job.  

We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ve put together some of the things I feel I’ve learned in this first six months of traveling the world:

I need way less than I thought I did.

I have one large backpack and one small daypack.  In it I have just 5 shirts, 2 dresses, 3 pairs of pants and 2 pairs of shorts.  I have adjusted to letting my hair air dry.  I go without nail polish, foundation, blush, face lotion and many other little things.  I’ve learned to appreciate things like bath mats, top sheets and air conditioning.  I’ve gotten really good at washing clothes in sinks and using a clothes line.  

In the end, I’m incredibly happy despite not having much.  Gone are the days of staring at my packed closet declaring I have nothing to wear.  Instead of missing all of the stuff I had back home, I’m more drawn to micro apartments and tiny houses and books about getting rid of stuff.  I don’t think my things were making me happy.  I think they were taking up a huge amount of my time and energy.  

When we get back, I hope we can resist the urge to acquire lots of stuff.

People are good.

In Lima with our generous host who let us stay with them for free!

In Lima with our generous host who let us stay with them for free!

On a coffee tour in Colombia, we met a couple from Idaho that had recently moved to Lima.  We chatted briefly (less than 5 minutes), and they said, “Hey, if you make it to Lima, look us up.  We have a spare bedroom.”  Despite my background fear that they were secretly trying to murder us, we emailed them a few months later when we got to Peru.  We stayed with them for four days, cooked meals with them, went out to a brewery in their neighborhood, and stayed in their beautiful spare bedroom… for free.  

This happened to us over and over and over on our trip.  Each time, I wondered, “Are we getting taken advantage of here?”  Each time I was proven wrong.  

Not ALL people are good all of the time, but the vast majority of people want to be helpful and don’t want to steal your money.

America is a powerful country.

A while back I wrote about Trump and the reactions we’ve been getting from people all over the world.  I continue to be impressed by how much influence our country has.  

Our hiking guide in Ecuador was well versed on our election process and our past presidents.  Our workaway host in Italy described the morning Obama got elected when she woke up before dawn (because of the time change) to watch, crying and wearing her “Yes We Can” Obama t-shirt.  I’ve been humbled by these conversations.  I can’t tell you a single time that I’ve rearranged my day to watch an Italian president get elected.  

While the effect isn’t always viewed positively, the rest of the world is pretty tuned into what America is up to.

I’m not using enough olive oil.

Making spinach ravioli from scratch with our Workaway host in Tuscany.

In Italy we’re staying and working at a cooking school, and our host uses a LOT of olive oil.  Like so much.  Way more than I’m used to using.  Granted, it’s amazing olive oil pressed from HER olives which she harvests every year from the 30 trees she has on her property.  She’s also a tiny wisp of a thing (as my mom would say), which goes to show that you can basically eat olive oil and mozzarella and pizza and pasta your whole life and not become a fatso.  Maybe another case against our American processed food?

Hiking at altitude is a slow process.

Hiking the Inca Trail in Peru

Hiking the Inca Trail in Peru

While we were lucky not to be affected by altitude sickness, we learned quickly that no matter how good of shape you’re in, elevation will slow you down.  When hiking the Inca Trail, I got used to going up 4 or 5 steps and then stopping to take a break.  In Cuenca I tried to go jogging (elevation is 8,000 feet), and it just didn’t work.  By the time we reached Cape Town at sea level, we were so happy for the break from elevation!

When driving on the “wrong” side of the road, focus on the center line.

It’s so weird and disorienting to drive on the wrong side of the car and road.  After a few days of white-knuckling it in Cape Town, a friend gave us the good advice to focus on the line in the center of the road.  That helped immensely as my natural tendency is to shift to the left until someone in the car anxiously notes that I’m actually no longer on the road but on the dirt shoulder heading off a cliff.  Good to know.

There are a million different ways to raise children.

Hanging out with our friends and their adorable triplets in Cape Town

Hanging out with our friends and their adorable triplets in Cape Town

Many times on this trip I’ve shaken my head, amazed and said, “Huh.  So there are really a lot of ways to live your life.”  

It seems so obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me.  Raising kids falls under this.  Back home I basically felt like there’s a pretty clear way to raise kids.  

Now that I’m traveling, I see so many other variations.  Kids that go to work in a store or shop with their parents.  Kids that know how to farm.  Kids that beg for money to support their parents.  Kids who grow up with a poisonous snake in their backyard and instead of calling animal control, the parents focus on teaching the kids not to touch it.  

In Bolivia we took a ferry out on Lake Titicaca and laughed when we noticed that a 9 year old was driving the boat.  He looked unfazed.  

Our 9-year-old Bolivian boat driver steering with his foot.

Our 9-year-old Bolivian boat driver steering with his foot.

In Cape Town we met a set of triplets growing up without any screens.  They knew more species of birds than I know as a grown up.  When I pointed to a little turtle stitched onto my purse and asked them what it was (thinking they’d say, “Turtle!”), they said, “Tiny tortoise.”  They’re not yet 2 years old.  

It’s comforting to see all the different ways that kids are taken care of.  All of the different ways people become parents.  It makes me feel less anxious about having and raising kids myself.

There are equally as many different ways to retire.

Cuenca, Ecuador, is not actually South America.  In reality, it’s a Canadian retirement community with a few Spanish speakers mixed in.  All over South America we met expats choosing different places to retire.  Most of the time it was the cheaper lifestyle that attracted them, but many retirees we met just wanted a slower pace of life, a different lifestyle altogether.  Many were traveling in their retirement, which gave me hope that we can still do things like this when we’re their age.  

Travel does not have to be expensive.

Biking in Tuscany where we stayed for free doing a Workaway.

Biking in Tuscany where we stayed for free doing a Workaway.

I think we’ve been duped into thinking we have to take lavish vacations.  Maybe it’s marketing around the travel industry, but it feels like everyone’s picture of a “real vacation” is lying on a beautiful beach with beautiful clothes sipping expensive drinks.  Like the girls that feel like they have to wear white hats and nautical-themed sun dresses everyday of their beautiful vacation.  

I’ve been on those vacations before, and I can tell you there are a lot of other ways to travel.  In Colombia we easily spent less than $100/day for two people, and we didn’t feel like we were roughing it.  Our daily budget for this year is $135/day for two people, and that’s allowed us to do and see a LOT, even in expensive places like Europe.  If you can give up the hotel stays and the private tour guides and the air conditioned airport transfers, you can see a lot of the world and spend a lot less.

My goal is not to avoid stress, but to be clear about the bigger things I want.

People seem amazed when we tell them about our trip.  They assume that we’re these free-thinking, young people who don’t ever worry about our careers or money or responsibilities.  The truth is, we think about those things all the time.  Taking a trip like this does not preclude us from everyday stress.  We still pay bills, check emails, talk about money, and think about our careers when we get home.  

The difference is, I never expected this type of trip to be easy.  

I expect to worry and have anxiety and wake up in the middle of the night wondering what the hell we’re doing.  The goal is not to never have concerns.  The goal is to be clear about what is important to us in this very precious life we have.  And these experiences- while sometimes challenging- are important to me.  

Travel mistakes just cost you time or money (or both).

Waiting in line at the bank in Peru to pay for Visas after FOUR visits to the Bolivian Consulate.

Waiting in line at the bank in Peru to pay for Visas after FOUR visits to the Bolivian Consulate.

In Bolivia we booked a boat tour out to a beautiful island called Isla del Sol in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca.  We bought our tickets and found our boat and got settled in for the 1.5 hour ride out.  When we arrived, we asked the boat driver what time we needed to return to the dock to get back to the city.  He replied simply that the boat doesn’t go back.  By some mistake, we’d gotten on the last one-way ride of the day.  As we looked around, we realized that everyone else had their full luggage and travel confirmations for hotels they’d booked.  We had nothing.  No clothes, no contact solution, not even enough money to rent a place if we had been able to stay overnight.  Our bags were happily stowed in our hotel back in town.  I got angry.  How could this have happened?  Our ticket said return at 6 p.m.  The boat driver replied in Spanish, “Es un problemo, pero no es mi problemo.”  Translation: This is a problem, but it’s not my problem.  

Nate is a great person to travel with because he’s like an emotional barometer.  While I start to freak out, Nate goes eerily calm.  He reminded me of the cardinal rule of travel mishaps: “They will only cost you time or money.  Luckily we have both.”  

In the end, we shelled out the extra $50 for the driver to take us back alone. I was frustrated about the mistake, but Nate was right.  It had cost us time (we didn’t get to see any of the island because we had to turn right around to get back) and money on top of the money we’d already spent booking the tour.  But no one got hurt.  Nothing terrible happened.  

The longer we travel and the more often these things happen, the more I’m learning to pay the money and shake it off.  There’s no use in letting it ruin the rest of a perfectly good day just because we made a mistake.