Two years ago exactly from TODAY, James and I sat in an airplane at the Milwaukee airport watching workers spray the wings with de-icing agent… We were overcome by conflicting emotions as we realized we were about to leave everything familiar in our lives to embark on a year-long journey around the world. What we thought would be a year of visiting monuments and being world tourists turned out to be SO much more: it was a journey of self-discovery and joint-discovery as a couple. We faced extremely unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations and places; nursed each other through sicknesses, “travel depression,” and constant “life freakouts”; saw some of the most beautiful places that exist on earth, met amazing people who gave us worlds of joy and insight and taught us valuable lessons about life and survival; became experts in everything travel and transportation related; saw such wealth and poverty beyond our understanding, and faced the most extreme joys and sadnesses of our lives.
One year later (and exactly one year ago from today) we returned to the US to begin yet another challenging phase of life: acclimating back to “normal life” in the US. James and I have both been through SO much since our return mentally, emotionally, career-wise, and more… and have now had a bit of time to reflect on everything. Here in this post we would like to share with you our thoughts and conclusions about our year-long trip, the world, our lives, and the aftermath since we’ve returned to Los Angeles.
First, a quick recap of our year (spoiler alert: nothing too exciting or eventful has happened!): James and I moved to a cute 2 bedroom apartment on the Westside (just east of Santa Monica) back in May 2014, and our darling Sonny (dog) has adjusted well back into our lives… although we know he definitely misses being spoiled by my mom and sister’s attention and loving care! Sonny actually needs to get surgery on one of his hind legs to fix a torn ligament and knee problem, so that has been an all-consuming issue as of late. We haven’t done much traveling except for weddings and holidays, as we’ve been on “spending lockdown” and have been in save-save-save mode since our return.
James has been working on a variety of shows… First, a pilot for NBC Universal called Salvation, then a series called Rectify on the Sundance Channel, Red Band Society on FOX, and a new series called Complications for USA that will air this summer (click here for the trailer). He also found out just yesterday that he will be cutting a new pilot for CBS called Rush Hour (based on the 90s feature films starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan) with director Jon Turtletaub! It’s been a busy year, but the majority of his time has been spent in dark, windowless editing bays. A sharp contrast to the prior year…
As for me, I spent a good 5-6 months job hunting while I worked a few freelance jobs here and there along the way… and finally landed myself at “Stella Travel” in September as the graphic/web designer for FOUR different travel companies! The most well-known of the four are “Qantas Vacations” and “Islands in the Sun”. The company specializes in travel to the South Pacific, including Tahiti, Fiji, Cook Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia!… and I spend my days designing, updating and maintaining travel websites, landing pages, eblasts, flyers, and more! Quite a fitting job for me to combine my passions for design AND travel, eh? 🙂
ANYWAY… so that’s what we’ve been up to the past year… NOW, on to our round-the-world recap!
Things that surprised us:
I was surprised by how wealthy the United States is compared to other countries. I know that seems ignorant because I have had enough life experience to know that Americans are well off compared to the rest of the people in the world. However, when you travel on countless buses and trains and stare out the window at thousands of homes that would be considered modest on their best days, you realize just how fortunate you are to live in a country with so many opportunities and luxuries.
- I was surprised at how we found technology and advancements in the strangest places… including ON A MOVING BUS in Cambodia! Also, just because a country is considered more “first world” doesn’t mean they are necessarily advanced in technology. We found it astonishing that internet was seriously the WORST in Australia!!—In AUSTRALIA of all places! Any public WIFI spot or shared access was extremely SLOWWWWW or non-existent! I definitely didn’t expect that! (see funny video of us searching for $7 wifi in Tahiti here)
I was surprised by just how CHEAP you can travel in some places if you really do your research and avoid tourist traps. I cannot stress how amazing Southeast Asia is in regards to how cheap it is and everything it has to offer! With $1.00 plates of food and $20/night hostels, it really can’t be beat! Oh yea… and I was surprised that when we stayed at hostels in private rooms (in all countries), the rooms were almost always the equivalent of what you’d get at a standard hotel, but at around a fourth of the price!
Things we’ve learned about the world:
The majority of people in the world are good. In general, most of the individuals that I met (both travelers and locals) wanted to live fulfilling lives. They wanted to take care of themselves and their family and to save enough money to feel secure and enjoy life.
Also, the number one fear that I overcame on this trip was the fear of the unknown. I learned to be observant and cautious, but not to be afraid to experience what the people of the world had to offer me.
- I learned that children–no matter where they grow up or what their situation is– REALLY want to learn and grow, as much as you will allow them. After spending time volunteer teaching in a very run-down school in Kenya with only a few falling-apart books, chalkboard, and a couple notebooks, I was amazed and touched by how bright the kids were, how much they yearned to learn-learn-learn, and how fascinated they were by us, despite the extreme lack of school materials and instruction. (see a cool video of James teaching english in this Kenyan school here)
- Most people EVERYWHERE in the world are kind and have good intentions. They just want to be happy, healthy, and live a fruitful life with their loved ones and would help you in a moment if you asked. The media blows everything out of proportion and pretty much ONLY reports all the bad things that are happening in other countries, giving you this false sense of fear and negativism about many other countries and people around the world.
Something I kept observing, researching, and reading about during our travels was how people live their lives in third world countries (Cambodia, Vietnam, Tanzania, etc.) compared to people in first world countries (US, Europe, Australia, etc.) and although I could go on and on about all the differences, the MAIN thing I learned was that people in first world countries are typically, as a whole, more focused on opportunity, self-gain, and accomplishment… whereas people in third world countries consider family and health as their ONLY priorities and concerns in life. When we were volunteering in Vietnam, we asked one of the girls there if she had ever visited Cambodia (which borders Vietnam and wouldn’t be too difficult to travel to from where she lived) and she replied, “Well no… I would never travel because I need to save all my money so I can contribute to my family life…. And in case my mother or brother got sick.” Hmmm… yea, well don’t I feel sheepish now? *sigh*
Things we’ve learned about ourselves:
Before we left for the trip, BreAnn gave me this little decorative sign to set on my office desk that read, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” Before we began the trip, I was fairly consumed by my work. When you hyper-focus on your profession for so long, you begin to lose perspective on what is really important and what you really need to live a happy life. The little things that don’t go your way and make you the slightest bit uncomfortable seem overwhelming. However, once you are stranded in the rain somewhere in rural China with forty pounds of gear on your back and no sign of help from any of the locals, none of the problems you face at home seem as overwhelming upon your return. Traveling has taught me that I need very little to survive and, as a result, I now waste less of my resources and my time. I have learned to stress less and enjoy my life more as a result of our trip.
- I learned that I have more patience (on the road) than I realized. This one surprised James as well… as I’m often very impatient in every day “real life” and often get wrapped up in our world of instant satisfaction. However, once we were on the road and time really didn’t matter, I could easily spend hours waiting for a train and just enjoy the moment together people-watching, telling childhood stories, or chatting with the random fellow traveler sitting next to us.
- Once we finished a year of traveling, it was INSANELY CLEAR: I OVER-plan and OVER-research EVERYTHING to the ump-teenth degree… and drive myself (and James) crazy in the process. I know I’ve always been a VERY resourceful and thorough person (um.. just look at this blog and all the associated resources!), but it wasn’t until I had to constantly plan travel day-by-day-by-day for an entire year that I realized just how much I exhaust myself from this constant and never-ending process! Of course, because of these thorough research skills, we stayed safe, saved money, and had positive experiences most of the time, but looking back I wish we could have just “winged it” a LOT MORE in our travels, because then I wouldn’t have spent SO MUCH incredible time researching every city, every hotel, and every train/plane/automobile out there and could have enjoyed the ride a bit more!
- I also learned that I actually REALLY DO like the monotonous day-to-day routines of “normal life” and definitely thrive much better in this environment. Of course, during travels we made do with what we had and often enjoyed the excitement of what tomorrow would bring, but after awhile both James and I YEARNED for that “boring” day to day schedule that most full-time workers actually hate. Why? Because life is a bit easier (and less exhausting) when you know what’s coming up next in the schedule, or when you have a steady job and income, or you just instantly know things such as where the grocery store is or where your favorite low-cost sushi place is, and you don’t have to spend so much time every day—like you do while traveling—trying to figure everything out in a new city.
- One of the hardest personal discoveries I had to deal with during this trip was realizing just how guarded and closed off I’ve become over the years to new friendships/relationships. Somewhere between my past travels in Spain and the severed relationships I endured along that journey, I realized I began to become less warm and open and connected to new people I met. During these travels, I was constantly meeting and connecting with new friends day in and day out, investing great amounts of time and emotional effort in each and every relationship, just to realize in the end that I would probably never see or hear from 90% of them again in the future. These experiences subconsciously made me a bit more distant and less genuine when trying to connect with people in my life. And this, of course, makes traveling a bit difficult when you’re constantly meeting new people and acquaintances… which is ironic considering how desperately I wanted to establish new friendships and relationships on our year-long trip.
What struggles have we had since returning to the US?
Reverse culture shock would probably be the biggest struggle that I encountered upon my return and I am still struggling with it today. So many other countries have a culture where people work in order to have the means to live and enjoy their lives with friends and family. Much of the focus in my own country is to live in order to work and have professional and financial success be the measure of a happy life. Allow me to provide an example.
I had thousands of experiences and memories during our trip in 2013. As a result, I took a significant number of photos and videos and, subsequently, uploaded them to FaceBook. FaceBook has an application that uses an algorithm to create a slideshow at the end of each year called “Your Year in Review.” It found the photo that I posted which had the most likes/comments and used it as the cover photo for the album. Of course, the photo it chose was of BreAnn and I in the ocean in Thailand and was representative of the culmination of the adventure that she and I had together. (Shown to the right) The album itself was quite amazing as a whole and provided a snapshot into the highlights of an amazing year for us both.
Upon my return to the California, I was immediately hired to edit a television pilot for NBC Universal. In my line of work, the hours are long and stress levels are high… especially on a network pilot where there is a lot of money involved. However, this pilot was particularly challenging because we were working in by far the smallest editorial room ever. It was a glorified closet. I found it so comical that I posted a picture and it got a lot of likes/comments. The following twelve months were productive and successful from a professional standpoint, but I basically went from dark editing room to dark editing room and made very few memories outside of work. At the end of the year, I really had very few new experiences and even less photos. Thus, facebook chose the photo with the most likes/comments to be the cover for my album. (Shown to the right). *Sigh*
This was kind of a wake up call for me recently. Had I forgotten all of the lessons learned from my year of travel? Have I sunk back into my old habits and succumb to cultural pressures? Am I really living life to the fullest? These are questions that I am still struggling to answer…
- I am absolutely, completely “burnt out” since I’ve returned from the US and still struggle with the amount of effort it seems to take to plan ANYTHING! Upon our return to Los Angeles, I had to research buying a new car, then research new apartments, and then spent 5+ months researching and applying to over 150 jobs! Exhausting. Now I can hardly plan a social gathering or weekend getaway without wanting to just lay down and bury my head under a pillow. Nowadays, I often would rather spend a weekend relaxing and NOT having to plan anything at all! 🙂
I’ve also definitely struggled myself with reverse culture shock and trying to find the meaning of life. Traveling forces you to look at who you are as a person… how you react to things, how you solve (or don’t solve) problems, things you think you did wrong today and yesterday and two years ago, and much much more… travel is an accelerator which forces your own issues to bubble to the surface constantly. And once you really SEE yourself, you have limitless hours on planes, trains, buses, and just walking down the street to reflect and dissect it all. Oh yea, and this all happens concurrently during breathtaking moments of joy and excitements in spectacular places around the world. CONFUSING! Traveling also gives you a LOT of outlook on other people’s lifestyles and cultures, and gives you A TON of time to think about life and how you want to live it. THEN once you actually return back to your old country, culture, and old way of life, you suddenly feel a sense of emptiness, non-excitement, and confusion about what the meaning is behind it all and what your path should be going forward. It’s a difficult and perplexing road of ups and downs, as you also are completely starting your life over in a new apartment, new career, and with new social circles (if you can manage to find some.)
- One thing that drives me CRAZY being back in the US is the media telling you what THEY think should be important to Americans, and instilling FEAR inside us all about things that often aren’t all that terrifying. It’s seriously ridiculous, and we all eat it up! For example: Ebola… need I say more?
- I also struggle with hearing about people suing people for EVERYTHING in this country. OMFG… it boils my blood. Nowadays you can’t even bring a peanut butter sandwich into a grade school without somebody suing! I get that sometimes people or companies ARE at fault in some situations, but GEEZE… there’s SUCH a sense of entitlement, and it gets more ridiculous here as the days pass. What ever happened to “natural selection”??
- Trying to be social with new friends has also been quite a struggle for me since we’ve returned… and dealing with the sadness of feeling disconnected and/or excluded from social circles and events, simply because your lack of presence in the last year made people “used” to you being gone…
How have we changed?
Overall, I think I am a better human being. I am more caring and compassionate towards others than I was before I left for the trip. My soul is much quieter and I stress a lot less. On the road, I don’t drive in the fast lane and let the others pass now. Most importantly, I appreciate friends and family and the time that we get to spend together.
I’m much more grateful for anything and everything when it comes to material items. Some days I’ll flash back to places like China or Cambodia and remember how we carried our own soap and toilet paper around from hotel to hotel (because the hotels there don’t give you any), or times where we used a bucket of cold water and a scoop as a “shower”, or times when we used sweatshirts for pillows while a rat scurried around in our room… and then I think how GRATEFUL I am to have the everyday luxuries I have here at home that we all often take for granted.
- I have always been frugal, but after being on such a tight traveling budget for a year, I’ve tightened up the strings even more at home! Now I can barely spend ANY money on anything! Also, after seeing so much poverty around the world, I feel absolutely guilty and WASTEFUL to spend money on anything. Oh… I need to spend $100 on a parking ticket!??… Good lord, that’s the equivalent of a full time wage in Cambodia for THREE MONTHS!!
- Due to the not-wanting-to-spend-money and the not-wanting-to-plan-anything (see bulletpoint number one in the “struggles” section above) I hardly have the urge to travel anymore! Crazy, right!? Of course, I think about different places around the world and the US and I get excited at the thought of traveling to see them, but then I think about all the work of planning the trip and then lugging around a suitcase and I’m instantly like… Ummmm, no thanks! Guess I just need a little more time to get that passion back…
Would we do it again?
Well, that question is a bit ambiguous. Am I being asked, “Would I go back in time and tell my past self to go on a round-the-world trip?” or “Would I do it a second time in the future?” Yes, I would definitely go back in time and tell my past self to go on the trip. It was one of the most eye opening and fulfilling experiences of my life. Would I do another around-the-world trip again in the future? Hell to the no. I would only travel for three months at the most. After that, the yearning for stability and a familiar bed becomes too much to handle. However, having had that feeling of instability allowed me to better appreciate what I have now.
I agree completely with James… looking back to two years ago, I would DEFINITELY tell myself to go on the round-the-world trip!—and for anybody else thinking about doing a round-the-world trip to definitely follow those dreams! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will forever be grateful for, and we are SO fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience all those amazing places and people around the world!
Would I do it again NOW, today, or in the future? NO. I got my fill in, that’s for sure. But somewhere down the road I would love to spend a month or two in South America or Africa. Maybe three months TOPS… but that’s about it for me.
Advice we have for others:
- Travel is probably the BEST well-rounded education you could ever give yourself. Not only do you learn a LOT of street smarts (how to read a map, how to take public transportation, how to travel safe, who to trust and not to trust, etc.), but it’s also a history lesson, foreign language lesson, culinary lesson, sociology lesson (in dealing with getting along with other people as well as learning why/how people became the way they are simply because of the surroundings they grew up in), and a HUGE lesson in self-discovery.
- Be vigilant when traveling, but DON’T let the media or people’s opinions scare you away from exploring all those amazing places and countries out there! Do your research and follow your gut. We traveled to 17 countries in one year—many of them third world countries—and we (fortunately) were never robbed, attacked, bombed, or threatened… and you most often will ONLY hear of bad things going on in other countries instead of the good. If you lived in another country and constantly heard about all the American school shootings, mall shootings, car chases and more, would YOU want to come to the US? Probably not. Put that in perspective when you want to travel somewhere and people tell you that, “It’s too dangerous.” Chances are, it may not be all that bad.
- Travel does NOT have to break the bank… and hostels really aren’t all that bad. If I were to give you just ONE piece of advice regarding hotels, it is this: Private rooms in hostels are SO much cheaper than hotel rooms… and they can offer many of the same amenities for MUCH LESS than a hotel!
- THROW AWAY YOUR CLOCKS/WATCHES/PHONES! Stop tuning out and put your damn cellphone down. Once you spend an entire year away from phones and constant time schedules, you realize that life is much more enjoyable when you aren’t constantly watching the clock or checking your phone for messages. Spend time with family and friends and just ENJOY THE MOMENT.
I must have rewritten the opening sentence to answer this question about twenty times now. The truth is that I can’t say anything that will cause you to learn from my experience, stand up from your desk chair, and say, “I’m going to travel and push myself outside of my comfort zone because I see true value in that sort of experience.” The truth of the matter is that after reading all of the blogs and seeing all of the photos on BreAnn’s website, you can only understand maybe a tenth of the experience that I had on the trip and how it continues to impact my daily thoughts and actions. My only advice is to see the world and I don’t mean five star resorts on a secluded beach in Mexico. Challenge yourself. Go outside your comfort zone. The reward will be worth the effort.
And THAT is THAT!
I can’t believe a year has gone by… much less two years… but MAN, what an incredible couple years they have been!
Traveling can be like a drug… a rush of adrenaline, being whisked off to new and exciting places, yearning to see and smell the bright colors and aromas of food, and listening to the sounds of foreign language and music surrounding you… and when you close your eyes and take it all in, it seems to move in slow motion…
And now, as I close my eyes I am instantly transported back to the thousands of memories from that year of traveling: watching the northern lights combust and “smear” across the sky in Iceland, petting wild deer in Japan, chasing down rhinos and lions in the Serengeti, hiking the Great Wall of China, jumping off a bridge in Zambia… or sitting in a tiny rental car with James in South Africa, gasping in astonishment as we watched a herd of 25 elephants cross in front of us… and then I feel a sense of fulfillment and I just KNOW it was all worth it in the end.
What are your thoughts on all of this? Please share in the comments section below your thoughts and personal experiences in relation to what we’ve written.