I Call This My Life
As my husband and I were contemplating taking a year off to travel, we read through dozens of blogs. Most were written by travelers who had taken similar journeys and shared their advice on everything from where to go and what to pack to how to travel as a couple. But the most thought-provoking post I read was titled something like “Why You Shouldn’t Quit Your Job and Travel the World.” The gist of it was that rather than spending time, money, and energy on a year of travel only to return to your same old life, you should focus on creating a life you don’t need to escape from.
Most thought-provoking post I read was titled “Why You Shouldn’t Quit Your Job and Travel the World.”
The author had a great point. Creating the life you want is difficult. The path of least resistance is to stick with the status quo, even if you know in your heart there’s something else out there.
His post made me think hard about why I wanted to go on this adventure, but I felt confident that it wasn’t about escaping my life. I was eager for the experience of travel itself and to have time to truly enjoy each destination instead of squeezing everything into a few days. It was an opportunity to do things I’d dreamed of: living abroad, practicing the foreign languages I had studied, and visiting a few places on my short list.
Still, I did hope that during our year on the road, I would come up with some ideas for what I wanted to do professionally that were a better fit and more satisfying than my career had been thus far.
Our travels kicked off with a 2-month summer road trip across the United States. We spent the fall in Europe, then went to Ecuador and the Galapagos for another 2 months. In the spring we made our way west to Japan via Hawaii.
My husband and I traveled slowly, with little or no advance planning. We chose a destination, rented a short-term apartment, and stayed until we felt like leaving. Our travel M.O. gave us plenty of time to explore, make friends, and experience a taste of local life in the places we visited.
I loved living in foreign cities as much as I thought I would, and I enjoyed “slow travel” more than swooping into a city, seeing the major tourist attractions, and moving on to the next destination. Suddenly I couldn’t picture visiting a city for less than 2 weeks and feeling as if I had even scratched the surface.
My husband and I discussed the idea of moving to a foreign city, or at least living there for part of the year, increasingly often. We met expats from all over the world who were doing it, and we learned that while there is a lot of paperwork and red tape in the countries we researched, getting a long-term visa is possible. In many cases, the cost of living would be significantly less than living in the United States.
We also met many people who happily led non-traditional lives that allowed them to travel, and my frame of reference for what was “normal” started to shift.
While I did not spend a lot of time focused on career planning during our year of travel and never figured out “the perfect job,” I reached the conclusion that I wanted a career that allowed me to be location-independent. Instead of thinking in terms of “what job could I find in XYZ city?” I realized that I want to have the flexibility to live anywhere—or to pick up and spend a few months in another country—and still be able to work. Travel is important to me, and I want it to be an integral part of my life, not something I squeeze in 1 or 2 weeks per year until I’m retired and have more flexibility. I also realized that the 9-to-5 corporate lifestyle is not the only way to live, and it’s not for me. Starting from my first job after college, I told myself that I couldn’t picture spending the rest of my life sitting at a desk, but 17 years into my career, I seemed to be heading in that direction.
I had been looking for a new job in the year or so leading up to our travel, but I was really only considering variations on the same theme. It was much more natural to think about incremental changes than a major geographic, industry, or lifestyle change.
Our year of travel helped me see that once you are removed from your routine and your comfort zone, it’s much easier to try new things and consider different ways of life. We set out with the intention of traveling for 12 months, then settling somewhere in the U.S., probably into a life similar to the one we left in Washington, DC. Instead, at the end of the year, we opted to spend 6 months in Japan so my husband could study Japanese (his late mother’s language). We liked Japan so much that we decided to settle here for a while, and we secured long-term residence.
Wrapped up in our life in DC a couple of years ago, the idea of moving to Japan would have seemed ludicrous. But once we weren’t tethered to a base and we realized what a fun challenge it is to experience life in other parts of the world, spending 6 months in Japan was a welcome continuation of our adventure.
Part of the value of travel, especially slow travel, when you have time to get to know people and make friends along the way, is that you start to see other lifestyles and people who are truly following their dreams. Among our friends and family in the U.S., taking a year off to travel was a radical move. But it was pretty mundane compared to the French couple we met in Ecuador who lived on their sailboat and were sailing to Tahiti the following week. We met other travelers who had been living abroad for years and found ways to make it work. Seeing people living the lifestyle you want is powerful, but it’s not a perspective you gain when everyone else around you has a 9-to-5.
The travel itself did not reveal exactly what that life should be, but it put me on a better path to figure it out.
I’m working on a couple of entrepreneurial ideas, but they are in their early stages. It could be a while before I make any significant income, let alone replace my pre-travel salary. Sometimes I think about going back to a “regular” job with a good salary and benefits. Explaining the long gap in my resume would be difficult, but not as difficult as starting something from scratch.
When the easier path of a regular job seems tempting, a conversation I had with a friend more than 15 years ago rings in my ears. My friend loved his work as a chemical engineer and looked forward to going to the office each day. He told me that he couldn’t figure out why people who don’t like their jobs stick around. As he put it, “you can’t spend all day doing something you don’t like, then go home, have a few hours of free time, and call that your life.”
It was an unfortunately accurate characterization of what I did at many points in my professional life, both before and after that conversation. I’ve thought about his words many times, and they remind me of the importance of being deliberate about how I spend my days.
And so I’m giving this location-independent thing a go. I know that I will feel much more proud of having created something—even if it doesn’t make me rich—than I would of making my way through the ranks at someone else’s company. Our year of travel was like hitting “reset” and giving me an opportunity to think about what was really important. So it’s true that I am seeking a new life after our year of travel. The travel itself did not reveal exactly what that life should be, but it put me on a better path to figure it out. In the meantime, I am enjoying the journey, and I am happy to call this my life.
About the Author
Stephanie Montague is a former management consultant who has been traveling the world with her husband since he retired from the U.S. Army in 2015. Her website, Poppin’ Smoke, is designed to encourage members of the U.S. military community to use their military retirement benefits to travel. Through the site, Stephanie shares everything she and her husband learned about slow travel, military space-available travel, and getting the most out of experiences abroad.