When I left my job at a bulge-bracket investment bank and started this trip in early March, I went into it with a few expectations and more than a few unknowns.
Having spent several years doing the typical one-or-two-weeks-at-a-time vacations, I was ready to try something different. Friends warned that I might fall in love with the road and never want to return, and while I can't say I expected that to happen, I definitely didn't rule it out. I mean, when you sell just about everything you own and take off to backpack around the world, I don't think you can really rule anything out.
Now, I'm back in the US, preparing for the second leg of my journey - a forty-five day overland expedition through Africa and then a trip to Hawaii. With the first leg of my trip in the rear view mirror, I thought I'd share some of my observations and things I've learned from my first four and a half months on the road.
1 - There is no better way to feel alive. How many days have you had absolutely nothing to do and you spent them on the couch watching TV or playing video games ? How many days have you had eaten up by chores and errands ? This simply doesn't happen while you're backpacking. There's always something interesting to do, someplace new to go, and someone new to go there with. When you're stuck in a rut or mundane routine, much of the time it can feel like you're simply existing. There is no rut on the backpacker trail. You can do whatever you want, virtually every day. That is a rare and valuable plane of existence. It doesn't come along too often in life, and I can't recommend it strongly enough. It's a pretty unique feeling.
2 - Life on the road is generally pretty healthy. You're constantly active, you tend to eat less, and as long as you moderate the drinking, you're going to finish in better shape than you started (unless you're already a gym rat). I brought running shoes and tried to go for a run in most places I visited. This was a great decision. Not only did it help me get a feel for each new place, but it was often hilarious because in many parts of the world, people don't run for exercise. People in Asia and the Middle East often just stared at me like I was crazy.
3 - Your biggest time-suck is figuring out where to go and what to do next. The complete freedom you have comes hand-in-hand with a ton of decision-making. You can take recommendations from people you meet or from the internet, but at the end of the day, you have to decide what you're going to do. To anyone used to a routine, this is new and different and sometimes a little intimidating. But once you get used to it and get more efficient in making your decisions, you'll see it works quite well.
4 - Organized tours and unstructured backpacking both have their place. Winging it gives you complete freedom. If you don't like where you are or who you're with, you're free to adjust your sails and change direction. But if you're limited on time or in a country where traveling can be difficult, organized tours can be a great option. I have no doubt my experience in China would have been much worse without our amazing guide Michael. Just something as simple as using the train system to get from A to B would have been a nightmare.
Also, when someone else is shepherding the group and handling all the logistics, you have more of an opportunity to just soak in where you are and what you're doing. You're with the same group of people for an extended period of time, which helps you build more than just casual friendships. But at the same time, you're in your group, and your interaction with the locals is limited. Some of the most rewarding and interesting experiences I've had have been being out there on my own, interacting with the locals on their terms. There are positives and negatives to both. Which form of travel is right for you depends on several different variables, but neither is objectively better than the other.
5 - The world doesn't dislike Americans nearly as much as I thought. I fully expected to tell people I was Canadian half the time and be greeted with plenty of eye-rolling whenever I self-identified as an American. In reality, people were generally very welcoming once they knew I was American, often more so than when I said I was Canadian. This was almost entirely due to Obama's international popularity. Everyone loves him. When asked why, they usually have no idea, but they still feel strongly about it and are shocked to learn that he's not overwhelmingly popular in the US as well. You may like or dislike his policies, but on the subject of improving America's brand abroad, you have to give the guy credit. The world's perception of Americans is much better than I expected.
In addition to learning about the world, extended travel has a way of teaching you a lot about yourself. You learn to rely on yourself, to make decisions quickly with the best info available, and how to deal with situations you've never been in before, because that's pretty much what's happening all the time. Aside from all these things, there are two main lessons that life on the road taught me about myself.
6 - I've learned that I'm not a permanent nomad. When you're traveling, you meet people who spend years and years on the road, winding their way through odd jobs and work abroad programs. Some of those people left their old lives because personal or professional circumstances demanded a change, while others seem simply have it imprinted in their DNA. I'm neither. For every new friend that I make on the road, I'm reminded of the great relationships I have with friends and family back home. Being relatively disconnected from them all for four and a half months wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't enjoy it in the long term.
7 - I miss being productive more than I thought I would. Having challenges to overcome and goals to meet are parts of a job that you don't appreciate until you're without them for an extended period of time. And beyond that, it's fun to be good at something, even if it's your job. Writing this blog has been a mediocre substitute. It has been a really worthwhile project and will be an excellent record of what I've done, and hopefully it's inspired a few people to take trips of their own, but I am definitely unafraid of my return to the real world. That's the biggest fear I hear from other backpackers.
Perhaps it's because many of them are a little younger and have never had a real job, but I can't agree. I'm not ready to be done with my trip just yet, but look forward to the challenge of digging into a new career when I return.
The whole point of sharing my experiences on this trip is not just to have people say "oh wow, that's a nice picture you took!" I hope to open other young Americans' eyes, especially young people in finance who can feel a bit trapped by the career path, to the idea of career breaks and extended travel. I haven't yet proven that this works in today's world - I still have to get a decent job when I get back for good - but I'll be sharing that process with you as well. If you have any questions on how I've done what I've done so far, don't hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd be happy to offer any advice, perspective, or travel tips that you'd like.
That said, if you don't feel like reading the whole blog and want to get a quick sense of what I've been up to, check out my favorite photos from my travels here