Our travel has officially been paused.
After two years and three months on the road, we are unstrapping our backpacks, swatting off the trail dust and hunkering down for an extended period of time in Kansas!
A lot has changed since we left our previous lives. I haven't used an alarm clock or cooked much in the last two years. I spend most of my time writing and managing two websites. Many days of hiking has left my face with so much sun damage that my former dermatologist should slap me. Instant coffee and box hair color form the foundation of my inner frugalista. Finally, I've completely lost my style game with cat cafe t-shirts and baggy shorts in heavy rotation.
I'm older, but not sure I'm any wiser.
Some things haven't changed. My beloved country is still a hot mess and I hope to be more involved on that front moving forward. Impressively (if I do say so myself), Perry and I have managed to stay together, despite having had more arguments in the last two years than the previous twelve. Being together 24/7 kinda threw that conflict-avoidance tendency out the window. I wrote about how we have been managing our long-term travel relationship, but expect pursuing separate interests and leaving the house during the week will be a nice change of pace for both of us!
Even though we've grown accustomed to living like savages, we are looking forward to several aspects of traditional American life, namely the gym and big-ass salads. I never dreamed I would be this excited to work out and eat raw spinach. We need it though, as health-wise we've had a bad stretch recently, suffering from maladies ranging from never-ending viruses (me) to two bouts of food poisoning (Perry).
Oh, yes, there is that pesky little matter called money. We will also be working on the financial fitness side of things by refilling ye olde travel coffers. Living on the road is definitely cheaper than 'normal' living (and I'm proud of our frugal ways), but it isn't free.
Kansas City, Kansas is where we will put down some roots, in the literal heartland where grain farming dominates the landscape, much like where I grew up in northern Minnesota. The metaphorical 'grounding' by settling in such a rural area is not lost on me, but have found the city to be really nice and a good size for us, with a decent variety of culture, sports and outdoor activities.
I’m also going back to my marketing roots with a job in the milling industry, which was my first role way-back-when, and the prospect of working with former colleagues and customers again is exciting. I’m anxious get back inside the food industry and apply what I’ve learned during my travels.
Now that we've stopped, I find myself overwhelmed with emotion looking back on it all. I feel like I've lived a lifetime in two years. From grand treks across Mongolia to quiet days with family in the US, I've learned that travel doesn't need to be epic to be memorable.
The End or The Beginning?
I've deliberately said 'pause' because this isn't the end of travel for us.
People have been curious about our stoppage and I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends, family and prospective employers asking if I can go back to a ‘normal’ lifestyle or if I have gotten travel ‘out of my system?’
Pardon the triteness, but travel is a mindset and not a task to be completed. If you have a hobby or passion, whether it’s cycling. sewing or politics, do you feel you are ‘done’ after finishing a ride, a quilt, or the latest election? Of course not, because life is always changing and there is so much more to see, do and discover.
To me, travel is a curiosity about the world- a yearning to know more about our collective history, people, food and cultures. It’s about being open to new experiences and being in the moment (ugh, the cliches!) but it also makes you question everything- why things are the way they are. I question my motives surrounding travel all the time. Was it truly to see places or just so I could post some cool pictures. Was it so I could keep pushing the 'I am unique and special' narrative which justifies my other non-traditional life choices?
Most decisions are complicated so it's probably a little bit of everything.
Whatever the case, I threw the whole exceptional thing out the window once I saw not just how many people are doing this travel thing, but doing it better, longer and cooler. I know you're not supposed to compare yourself to others, but we're pretty darn middle-of-the-road for travelers. Not super high flyers, nor extreme cheapies. Not adventure junkies or completely risk averse.
It doesn't matter, because once it's opened you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Counterintuitively, I've found that the more you travel, the bigger the world becomes, and I've added even more locations to my must-see list which will be the topic of a future blogpost.
Besides, what is a normal lifestyle anyway? There are so many ways of inhabiting this world and many of us are travelers even if we don't think we are. Sure, some people travel as a lifestyle, but what about all the people constantly on the road for work? You know this to be true if you have tried getting an airline upgrade lately. Some regularly change jobs that require moving. Others choose to move closer to a specific climate or family. Many people don’t stay in one place forever and that isn't considered abnormal.
Whatever your classification, being in one place can still offer plenty of insights and adventure if you have the 'travel mindset'. Even in Kansas.
As long as I'm up here on my platitude high horse, I'll throw out a few more of my key learnings from the last couple of years.
Traveler or Tourist? It's All Just Living
Travel is not magic, it's just life and like anyone's life, there were things I loved (having gobs of luxurious time, uncovering creativity, doing stuff in the middle of the day when it's not crowded, discovering local food) and things I hated (crappy beds, dirty showers, small coffee cups, no gym, tiring of local food). There were days that were beyond amazing, such as seeing many of my dream destinations and days that really sucked, like getting lost in the rain wearing heavy backpacks while trying to find our Airbnb. It's definitely not all rainbows and unicorns.
Just like regular life, our travel lifestyle changed over time. Initially, we approached new places like we were starving, gobbling up new experiences like there was no tomorrow. Eventually, we settled into a routine of simple living- working on projects and trying out one or two activities per week, primarily involving walking as this intersected us with local life and served as exercise.
We tried not to get too precious about the whole 'traveler vs tourist' distinction. Sometimes, we embraced the tourist scene and took tons of photos at sights like The Great Wall and Eiffel Tower. But we also skipped plenty of expensive tourist attractions in favor of our projects (chocolate milk and cat cafe reviews) and cheaper, local living. Sometimes we selected traditional travel destinations such as France, Thailand and Japan, and other times picked off-the-beaten path countries such as Mongolia, Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Comfort is Not the Goal
We are not meant to be comfortable 100% of the time. It's pretty tough to learn, change and grow without some form of discomfort. It's just the nature of life.
Being uncomfortable led to some of our best moments on the road. Not just physical discomfort (and I’ve slept on some of the hardest beds ever), but the emotional discomfort of not being in control and looking like a complete idiot, which I've found frequently results in memorable experiences and future travel knowledge.
- Embarrassment Won't Kill You: I can’t count how many times I felt like a dumbass trying to order food in a country where we don’t speak the language. The worst was trying Hot Pot for the first time in China. We didn't know how it worked or what to order which led to an awkward, prolonged conversation with the waiter that culminated in them tracking down a local with some English. Full story here. The takeaway is that the ability to laugh at ourselves helped get us through MANY embarrassing moments learning something new.
- Friends Are Just Around the Corner: It might feel awkward at first, but once the moment passes, you might just make a friend for life. Like the day we met a couple of Swedes in the lobby of our hostel in Dali, China going to hike the same trail. We both had the initial 'stranger shyness' but they ended up becoming our best friends on the road, meeting up in four different places since then. Making new friends from all over the world including China, Germany, Spain, Taiwan, Australia, Canada and the USA is something I'm so proud of, that I plan to write another article just so I can share these awesome stories.
- Say Yes, Be a Hero: A long-time germ-a-phobe, Perry won't share a glass with me, but he did share a bowl of homemade mare's milk vodka with a toothless Mongolian elder named Bor. He has also had to drink beer (which he hates) in the name of diplomatic relations and perform impromptu magic (which is very difficult without preparation) when the situation called for it making him consistently a 'yes' hero on the road and for which he deserves ALL THE ACCOLADES!
While our new day-to-day life probably won’t have that level of discomfort, I hope to bring that mindset into everyday situations. Except when I'm sleeping. Interestingly, we’ve slept in so many hard beds that our standard for comfort has changed dramatically. We picked out a mattress this week, and instead of the plush King we expected to buy, went with a firm Queen that the salesperson said she has only sold to people moving here from Asia.
Beautiful World, Beautiful People
For all the publicity being pumped into our collective consciousness, the world is a surprisingly un-scary place. Sure, there were parts of St. Petersburg (Russia) Manila, Mexico City and Belgrade (Serbia) that were a little sketch (to me) but I’ve almost always felt safe in foreign countries.
Even in those 'sketchy' places, we encountered some of the friendliest, most helpful people on the road. Like the time in Belgrade when we got lost in a neighborhood we shouldn’t have and stopped at a bar where a creepy dude with greasy hair and a knife scar across his face turned out to be the nicest guy ever, helping us figure out directions to the park we were looking for while sharing a beer and a few laughs. Full story here.
Or the elderly Japanese man that approached us outside a Kyoto temple to help with his book translation. Our ‘scam’ radar was initially going off, but it turns out this was the best place for him to encounter English speakers where he could ask detailed questions, such as the difference between the words undertaker and mortician (hint, one is more often used in Britain, the other in the US).
These instances proved to me that traveling the world with pre-conceived notions interferes with the good that is actually there, but taking a rose-colored glasses approach doesn’t work either, especially near an ATM or taxi stand! Travel (and life) isn’t a glossy magazine spread of picture perfect locations and 'authentic' experiences. Seeing people and places for what they are- unique, flawed and real- doesn’t make them any less genuine. Travel is too often glamorized and while many locations are far from glamorous, that doesn’t make them any less appealing.
Belgrade is a perfect example. Our first impression was that it wasn't a conventionally beautiful city, but after a few days, found our neighborhood very NYC-like- vibrant, full of culture and just plain cool.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
In the travel classic The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen talks about how looking for a particular something often obscures what is in front of you. He ponders how what you seek sometimes does not want to be found.
I found this to be particularly meaningful because my travels didn't exactly transform me or bestow the virtues I thought they would.
I didn't gain the patience or the elevated wisdom I was seeking but I did discover a treasure trove of gratitude and fearlessness. I'm grateful for all the places we visited, including the ones I didn't necessarily love, and the adventures, even the bad ones. I'm thankful I had the means and ability to do it.
As for being fearless? I didn't eliminate all my anxieties, but found an inner fortitude that's helped quiet them. Living frugally and working on accepting myself have made me less dependent on external forces like money, job title and approval of others.
I don't know that travel has necessarily made me a better person and I still don't possess a grand life purpose, but I'm proud that I had the nerve to do it, and that I tried to be completely truthful about my experiences, warts and all.
My body may need a rest, but my spirit is energized and ready for the next chapter.