Stranded at the Bolivian border with next to no money, no internet and severe flooding that prevented us from going anywhere, my husband and I took refuge in the only lodging available in the tiny border town: a bunk bed in a cold, leaky cinder-block building behind a family’s home.
To warm our bodies and our spirits, we ordered a hot meal and ate dinner alongside a German couple who were also stranded. They shared their wine and we shared our story about how embarrassingly unprepared we had been to cross from Chile into Bolivia. Without hesitation, they handed us the 150 U.S. dollars we desperately needed for my visa.
The next day, the skies cleared, as did our misfortune. I nearly danced as we crossed into Bolivia. Again without money, we hunkered down on the side of the road, hoping to get a ride with a passing motorist. As if on cue, a scruffy dog curled up at my feet, providing unexpected comfort during the wait. When we were eventually picked up, I left our last bit of food with our new companion.
This travel blunder is one of my fondest memories of the year my husband and I spent traveling the world. These situations – moments when all you can do is laugh and others when you discover the most tender parts of humanity – happened countless times. For me, they’re the best part about traveling.
By most standards, what we did is abnormal. Most 30-somethings wouldn’t quit their jobs (my husband had a full-time position in marketing; I was a freelance journalist with a contract gig) to traipse the globe for a year. But in my opinion, we shouldn’t be the exception. It’s common for people to make longtime commitments to focus on their education or their careers or their families. For the entirety of 2019, my husband and I focused on our souls, as cheesy as that sounds.
We ate food we’d never heard of, explored places we’d seen only on maps and said “why not” to almost every opportunity presented to us. We soaked in every sunset, opted for the scenic route and ordered another round when the conversation was good. We were truly present.
It’s an experience I can’t recommend enough, and it’s not as out of reach as you might think. Once you get over the mental hurdle of doing something society (or maybe just your family) doesn’t expect of you, the rest is as easy as getting on a plane.
Saving for the trip
Surprisingly, saving up the funds to travel was the easiest part of our preparations. First, you need a goal – a number highly dependent on how and where you plan to travel. After months of research and conversation, we decided on a goal of $50,000, which would allow a daily travel budget of $100, with an extra pot of money for some big excursions, e.g., a weeklong safari in Botswana and a multiday trek to summit Kilimanjaro. That may seem like a small daily budget, but in places such as Peru you can find a dorm bed at a hostel as low as $3, and in India you can sleep like a king for $20 a night. It took about four years to meet our goal while maintaining a lifestyle we were still happy with.
I’d recommend setting up an automatic monthly bank transfer to a special account, perhaps one at a different bank. Doing this will force you to take a hard look at your expenses and decide what you are willing to do without. We canceled our cable, ate out less frequently, went to fewer shows and concerts. But during the approximately four years we saved up, we still traveled; we went on several international trips and spent many weekends away with friends.
Preparing for departure
Though we saved for about four years, all of the preparation happened in the 12 months before our departure. This made for a pretty complex year, filled with a list of things to do before we hopped aboard our first flight.
Decide where to go: For me, saving money sounded difficult but ended up being easy. The opposite was true, however, for deciding where to go. We wanted to see it all! Our budget helped us make some decisions. Because we wanted to keep costs low, we largely skipped Europe, and, though they were high on our wish list, Japan and Australia. Neither of us had been to South America, so we chose to spend our first four months bopping around that continent. Our next stop, we decided, would be Africa; my husband and I met in South Africa in 2009 and hadn’t been back since. We planned to start at the tip of the continent and snake our way north before ending our year in Southeast Asia.
Do your research on visas and always bring U.S. cash: While most visas can be figured out as you go, some require advanced planning. For example, to go to Brazil and India, you should apply online about a month in advance, and a visa to visit China has to be secured while you’re physically in the United States. Our Bolivia border fiasco taught us one important lesson in traveling: The U.S. dollar is king. We eventually obtained more American currency, as it is required payment for several African visas. Many visas also require passport photos, so bring extras with you.
Get your banking in order: While saving for the trip, find a credit card that will earn you the most miles or points per dollar spent. Before we left for our year abroad, we had three credit cards, each loaded with 100,000 miles – enough for three pairs of ocean-hopping plane tickets. Also, set up your money in a bank that has no foreign transaction fees. Much of the world prefers dealing in cash; this way, you won’t get gouged with ATM fees.
Discard excess stuff: The question of what to do with all of our stuff was a tricky one. Using a storage unit would add a monthly cost to our travel budget, so we took a hard look at what we owned and Marie Kondo-ed our belongings. Luckily for us, both of our parents had room for a few items of furniture in their basement and a few dozen boxes in their garage. Buying a fire safe for our important documents also gave us some much-needed peace of mind.
Plan for the worst: This includes travel insurance, which acts as medical insurance and protects you for things like lost luggage and unexpected trips home, such as a family emergency. Visit a travel clinic before you go to get all the vaccines and medications you’ll need to stay as healthy as possible (we left the country with 360 malaria pills!). This sounds morbid, but I would also recommend making sure you have a will that is up to date.
Pack light: Packing will depend on your destination. Keep in mind that you can usually find anything you need on the road: We rented sleeping bags for our eight-day trek in Nepal, and I bought a pair of lightweight pants for dressing more conservatively in the predominantly Muslim countries. Items I wouldn’t leave home without include a clothesline, toothbrush cover, external battery and water filter.
On the road
The best part of traveling for an extended period is the freedom it allows to stay longer in places you like and get out of Dodge when you’re not feeling it. Being flexible will also make it less frustrating when things go sideways. Trust me: You will get sick and be forced to spend a few days lying low.
I highly recommend buying local SIM cards so you can make any kind of booking on the fly. Having the internet at your fingertips also allows you to download the local taxi apps, read restaurant reviews and quickly Google the proper tip for a Kilimanjaro porter. Travel blogs also help.
How to re-enter
The best way to help with the return to your “old” life is to have a plan in place before you leave. My husband and I had saved up a cushion for the few months it would take to find work again. We also had made plans to stay with my in-laws when we returned and had left a few boxes of clothes in some easy-to-access spots.
Be kind to yourself: It takes time to come down from having a fun new place to explore every day and exciting activities forever on the horizon. You won’t find work immediately, and you’ll have down days when you’ll daydream about watching wildlife on an African savanna or scootering from beach to beach on a Greek island. Pick yourself back up by doing things you missed while abroad: Hike your favorite trail, cook up the meal you missed the most or meet a friend for happy hour.
Don’t talk too much about your trip: People will say, “I want to hear about your trip,” but the hard truth is that most don’t really want to hear too much – less because they don’t care than because they can’t relate. Even starting off a sentence with “When we were in Turkey …” can make eyes roll.
Be open to change, and even living somewhere new: During your year of travel, you might learn something surprising about yourself. Maybe you’ll realize you’re a much happier person in sunny weather or that you can breathe more easily in the fresh mountain air of Nepal. My husband and I learned we could be happy many places, but that for now, we wanted to return to the beautiful corner of the world we call home. We do, however, plan to build our lives in a way that allows for more traveling – and more living in the present.
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