It’s been approximately a year since I cleaned out my desk and deposited my last steady paycheck. Granted, I didn’t quit my job because I wanted to travel the world. I quit my job because I was sick. Hopeless in a hospital gown, I spent a beautiful day last May in the emergency room. A pen in my shaking hand as I signed an agreement handed to me by a Native American psychotherapist. The agreement was that I wouldn’t kill myself. I remember him saying, “If you die now, you’ll never see another rainbow, puppy, or tree.” I responded that I didn’t care. I was done.
I was wrong about rainbows and puppies and trees.
I was in the ER on several occasions for my autoimmune disease, Crohn’s, which had all but crippled me—both physically and mentally. It was the reason I couldn’t focus at work and the reason I was setting up camp, laying my cement foundation, at rock bottom. Fortunately, my family had other plans. The same week I quit my job, my parents took me to the University of Colorado’s highly acclaimed medical center. I saw one of the best doctors in the field of gastroenterology. He took a broken, 104-lb girl who had grown accustomed to fainting on a daily basis and gave her hope. In the form of a biologic. A $7,000-a-pop drug known as Remicade. The Rolls Royce of treatments. (Yes, I realize how lucky I am.)
The same month of my first infusion, I decided to go to Africa. I fought tooth and nail for it. My parents thought I was nuts. (Being on a biologic weakens my immune system so I’m not able to get live vaccines that are highly recommended, if not required, for visiting places like Africa.) I didn’t care. I had sacrificed a year of hiding my sickness and suffering in virtual silence. It was time to live. And time to make up for lost time.
In the following 10 months I don’t think I spent more than a week in one place. I packed my Kelty backpack and traveled to 5 continents. I went through time zones like Hugh Hefner goes through girlfriends. I slept in more than 20 countries, visiting some destinations more than once. They read like a where’s where of bucket lists. Turkey, Greece, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa, Iceland, Cambodia, Thailand, Ireland, France, Spain, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Italy, Croatia and Ethiopia. I should also count Jordan. Lord knows my layovers there were long enough.
As I look back on the past year, I’m grateful for the experiences. Still, I also can’t help but mourn for some things: realizations, missed milestones, delayed relationships, steady income and everything else that didn’t simmer on the back burner while I was out there trying to remember how to say “Hi” in the local language. All of these things went on without me. And they’ll go on without you too. So before you give your two weeks notice and dip into, or deplete, your savings to go travel the world, you may want to know what I’m mourning after a year of living your dream.
- I Miss Having Money – You can always make more money. But you can’t always make more memories. While the adage is true, memories don’t pay the bills. Have you ever heard of someone paying their car insurance with a story of a great road trip? I’m resourceful (some would say shameless) so I’ve found a way to use travel to put food on the table and keep my head in a bed, but for most people, it’s not possible to achieve peace of mind when you’re keeping track of every penny. I wish I had contributed to a 401k this past year, not missed a payment for the child I sponsor through Compassion International or had to ask my parents to front me the money to pay my cell phone roaming charges (in the hundreds).
- I Miss My Family – Growing up, my cousins, Rebecca and Rose, and I were inseparable. We went to the bathroom at the same time and even SHARED THE TOILET. In January, I missed Rebecca’s baby shower, the first among us girls, because I thought it would be more fun to be in Puerto Rico. In April, I was home for Easter, but I was too jetlagged from Thailand and focused on figuring out financing for my upcoming trip to Ethiopia that I wasn’t really present at our family gathering. In fact, I sat at my grandma’s house, on my computer, editing a paper on Iran, ISIS, Putin and every other wrong Western Civilization may be able to right. I can’t remember if we had turkey or ham. And I didn’t stay for dessert. I had to drive back to Billings to pack for another trip.
- I Miss My Friends – You can follow your friends on Facebook. You can call them on Whats App. You can even bring them on your travels with you (although the stars really have to be aligned for that to work out). What you can’t do, while you’re out traveling the world, is embrace your friends. You can’t share a bottle of wine while watching The Bachelor. You can’t offer to carpool to the game. You can’t notice their subtle suffering, or successes, and offer support or praise. And similarly, they don’t notice yours. Unless you put forth Herculean efforts, your relationships will stagnate, or worse, dissolve.
- I Know Things I’d Rather Not Know – When I lived in Nicaragua for a few months I used to laugh at the people who would say they wanted to experience the country like a local. My response was, “Do you really want to eat boiled bananas (because the good bananas are exported to the U.S.) mashed with rice and beans for three meals a day? Do you really want to sleep in the threshold of your doorway, praying for a cross breeze because you can’t afford AC or a fan? Do you really want to walk or ride the crowded, hot chicken buses to get from point a to point b because you can’t afford a car?” Some people can do it—bury the unsightly things they’ve seen in developing countries into the recesses of their minds—but I can’t. Some days I struggle to look at water without thinking of the barefoot Ethiopian kids who should have been in school, but instead, were carrying yellow plastic jugs of water (that probably weighed nearly as much as they did) from their village well to their house. I came home at Christmas and instead of being happy I was with my family who had bought me loads of presents, I was disgusted by the wrapping paper waste and the material things piled under our tree. I screamed at my mom, “Why do you have decorative soaps in the upstairs bathroom? SOAPS ARE MEANT TO BE USED, NOT DISPLAYED!”
- I’ve Lost More Faith in Humanity – Fact of life: humans tend to dwell on the bad things that happen to us. While I try to view the world as a benevolent place, this past year has introduced me to evils that I may never have experienced firsthand if I had stayed home. There was corruption and drugs in Mexico. Extreme poverty and violence in South Africa. The aftermath of genocide in Rwanda (an experience even more sobering and graphic than my visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside of Berlin). Sex trafficking in Thailand and Colombia. Misogyny in Turkey. Civil war sentiments in Bosnia and Croatia. And yes, my assault in Ethiopia. Of course I encountered genuinely good people in these places, but too often it’s the bad who occupy center stage in my mind. It’s easy to say, “Focus on the good, and forget the bad.” BUT when you’ve seen, in the flesh, the missing limbs of a woman attacked with a machete or hear your guide break down about how his father was murdered by Pol Pot because he spoke French or attend an acrobatic circus put on by street children whose flexible bodies were formerly sold for sex, it’s not so easy to erase the worst.
Either Way, You Have My Blessing
If you still want to quit your job and travel the world, go for it. Be prepared to feel a sense of loss, for the people and places you leave behind. Be prepared to feel a sense of longing, for that next passport stamp or bucket list check that is all too often an anticlimactic event we chase for the sake of saying we’ve done it. Don’t expect the trees in France to be any greener than the trees in Oregon. Don’t count on seeing a cheetah in the wild or tasting the best coffee ever in Colombia. Like the bananas, that shit is exported. Expect to be broken and rebuilt and then broken and rebuilt again. Expect the cycle to continue even as you touch down in a first world country. Expect to come home and not recognize it. Expect to be behind, financially, socially, physically and I pray this doesn’t happen to you, but spiritually.
Do I sound like a naysayer? Yes. But my experience has shown me, time after time, that mind over matter is a lie. Reality is the sticker shock when you go to buy a cappuccino in Iceland. It’s the scarred elephants paraded in front of you in Thailand. It’s the men in the bushes behind your private beach bungalow—hunting iguanas with machetes because it’s the only meat they can afford. It’s the signs in Bosnia warning you to live within the lines because there are still active landmines waiting to blow your leg off like the man who sold you a Made-In-China magnet on the main tourist drag.
My experience has also shown me, time after time, that reality can be good. It’s the Swedish expat in Turkey who takes in special needs children who were abandoned by their parents. It’s the Good Samaritan—whether that’s the staff in an Ethiopian hotel who take care of you at your worst or the islanders on Lake Nicaragua who let you hitch a ride in the back of their truck (as they haul heaps of rotting garbage) because you didn’t know buses don’t operate on Sundays. It’s the wildlife sanctuary on a Greek island, run by volunteers who pour their blood, sweat and tears into rehabilitating injured wildlife who will never be able to voice their thanks.
So go for it. Quit your job and travel the world.
Or don’t. Continue clocking in and clocking out. Save up those two weeks of vacation and genuinely appreciate them because those days are a novelty, not the norm. Watch the balances in your bank accounts grow and feel financially stable enough to make adult decisions. Be there for your friends’ weddings, your family’s holiday dinners and your dog’s first haircut. Get to know your neighbors, visit the national parks in your backyard and buy groceries in bulk because you know you’ll have time to finish them before they spoil. When wanderlust does comes creeping in, and it will, ask yourself if you’re ready for the repercussions. If you are, prepare to reap the rewards. Yes, there ARE worthwhile benefits! Why else do you think I’m writing this instead of filling out a job application?