After 277 days since leaving our home and saying goodbye to life as we knew it, we are staring down the last 48 days until we move back. We have 2 more countries and 4 cities locked and loaded for the remaining time we will spend abroad. We are trying to pack in as much as we can, while still keeping up with work and school commitments. As we head towards the end, time appears to be moving at a much faster pace.
With our experience as digital nomads and living as a travelling family, we are able to judge the good times, evaluate the surprises and reflect on moments of melancholy. Another way to put it, what are the pro’s, con’s and pitfalls of long-term travel?
On the sunny side of life!
Travel is life-changing, as cliche as this sounds. This might be a familiar refrain on that theme, but it bears repeating. It should also be mentioned, the feeling of your life becoming something new and unexpected will not happen until after you are on the road. So, let us begin.
- Chasing the sun – we were located in mild climates during the course of our trip, either by the timing of the season or places which are always warm. This overall goal meant we had to change up our plans as we travelled in order to stay warm and we did not avoid long sleeve shirts, light jackets and needing a heater, all together – but we did not need coats or boots.
- Living like a local – was a privilege. While we did not live as a local everywhere we went, we stayed within a modest budget for our accommodations which replicated our home as best as we could. That meant we did not live right downtown or in posh hotels. We were always a little off the beaten path, forcing us to get out there and walk or take transit. The culture of a place was easier to understand when you live more simply. The food that real people eat was always found in the grocery stores and markets – what a culinary adventure!
- Communication is not always spoken – it can occur in many other ways. We managed, with a variety of tools to get by fairly well. We only had a few restaurant mishaps. 4 deserts each so we could taste everything and 2 jugs of sangria when we wanted glasses, come to mind most recently.
- Mastering the art of flexibility – has been more important than relying on an established routine. We each have had to learn to adapt to new surroundings very quickly. It has been vital to our success to adapt to slow internet speeds and all kinds of different working environments along the way.
- Strangers are quite helpful – if you just ask. By leaving our comfort zone behind and simply talking to strangers we realize that help is available in all kinds of places along the way. Tests needed to be supervised, skimboards were borrowed and surf lessons were given. We were invited to give a presentation to Spanish students and receive one in return. A tour of Barcelona or a dinner in Cape Town, kindnesses at every turn.
- The insider tips – are the best. Either these gems are bestowed or discovered, either way the experience is precious. Because we had had the time to travel more slowly than most, we have had opportunities to explore beyond the main tourist attractions.
- Slow travel – is the way to go. By not trying to pack too many stops into too short a time frame, we get the real deal. At least, more than most vacationers do. We are not rushed and stressed out by the perceived lack of time. We feel the days stretched out in front of us and enjoy whatever we happen to get up to, even if it does not tick off all the boxes from other people’s bucket lists.
- Gratitude – and other reflections will change your life. If you can be vulnerable and honest with yourself, away from the busyness, you will discover some significant truths deep in your soul. No-one who has travelled long-term comes back the same. It is too much time, breaking with all the nonsensical norms of life to not be changed. Not to mention the impact of actually seeing how many, many, many other people live.
- Connection – within our travelling family unit has been priceless. I had hoped for this and I will cherish the bonds we have created forever. Not just parents to teenagers, but the relationship to my husband is stronger than ever and I’ve witnessed my son and daughter grow together as siblings in a way that was not possible in the life we left behind.
Watch for the bumps in the road
It is not all rainbows and sunshine, I hate to break that to you. There are setbacks, mistakes and wrong turns, just like at home. However, when we travel we can give too much significance to this side of the equation, when it is just part of life, no matter which pillow your head rests on at night.
- Planning – is not for the faint of heart. Seriously, it is a good thing I have been professionally employed with planning as a key part of my job. Hours and hours of research, price checking and reading user generated comments only to discover that a certain rental was not even remotely liveable. A missed notation on the government website about birth certificates for South Africa causing a very expensive re-booking in Hong Kong. Things like that. No amount of planning can predict everything little thing.
- Rolling with it – is critical. Being flexible in the face of adversity. It is not every day or even every week, but when something happens, you can’t have a melt down. In our case, my kids were watching. But even if they were not with us, travel forces you to rely on your good manners, suppress the desire to yell at people and go with the flow. Truly, everything happens for a reason, the consular for the South African embassy in Hong Kong told us that. What is the reason? I have not figured that out yet!
- Packing up is challenging, I’m not going to lie. That goes for packing up our house, getting ready to leave, which took weeks. But also, every time we moved from place to place. Sometimes we had to jettison belongings because they put us overweight. Or we had to lug around a lot of stuff, which we accumulated for the overland portion of our trip. Getting everything into a car, along with all 4 of us was a constant concern wherever we went.
- Life will go on, back home. It is inevitable. Relationships will form and break apart. Babies will be born and loved ones might pass away. When we left it was with a heavy heart, thinking about my two 90 year old grandfathers. One of them took a turn for the worse and didn’t make it out of hospice. We are lucky to attend a graveside service upon returning home at the end of our trip.
- Snap chat is not face time. Our teenagers are not able to keep up their social lives in the same way, with social media as they would do if they had time to spend with people in real life. That has been a hard lesson for them, but their real friendships have been reinforced.
The long and winding road
While it may seem like everything in life can be put into a column titled either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I don’t think that is true. Some of what happens with long-term travel is a loss of such black and white thinking. Once you can embrace the shades of grey, life becomes far more enjoyable. In this category, I am including the aspects of travel that can’r be classified so easily and are more rewarding because of their shape shifting ability.
- Stress comes in many forms. While I embraced the novelty of leaving behind the pressure of a corporate job, my life was not free of tension. I mistakenly thought that all my worries were rooted in my work, but that turned out to be a misconception. What I can say for sure is that my attention turned to situations which were more immediate and critical in my personal life. The anxiety I felt when my kids were sick and being attended to by a doctor in Bali was more ‘real’ than the worry I had previously felt about a looming deadline.
- Long-term travel is not the same as a vacation. It is not. This fact is neither good or bad. But it takes adjustment for some people who are used to being on holidays once they set foot on an airplane to go somewhere. I have found a silver lining in this fact. I wonder how I can create a life which I don’t need a vacation from? Stay-tuned for more on that.
- Homesickness is ethereal. Sometimes we have moments of melancholy, but we can’t quite name or define it. What are we wishing for? Is it our home, the way it was? Or do we miss a feeling which we attach to our life back home? Are we wishing we could spend time with family and friends? All of that plays a part in what we miss about home. And then the feeling passes and we get on with our life on the road.
There is probably much more to be said on this topic and I may have more thoughts as we finish our trip and transition back home. Let us see. For now, we are still fully engaged with the sights, sounds, smells and experiences which tantalize our senses at every turn.
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