26 Aug 2018

Amy's Thoughts: How A Year Away Changed Me

I spent a lot of time crunching data to tell me what I felt about this year of traveling, where my favorite places were, how often I got sick, how many places we visited, and how much money we spent. Data can only take you so far though. When the data ends there is still a squishy bit full of feelings, fear, hopes, and regrets that are all twisted up and I’m still slowly sorting through as we head back to “real life”, whatever that means now.

Back in the Beginning

My Heart is Full

Traveling for a year has done a lot of things for me. I think the most striking so far is how much it has made me appreciate so many things and expanded my empathy.

I have come to appreciate the modern conveniences of life in a new and powerful way. Hand-washing our clothes for 6 months left me deeply in love with washing machines. Spending months at a time constantly trying to keep enough bottled water around has made me excited each time I turn on the tap and clean water that I could drink comes out. Taking far too many cold showers makes me appreciate even the worst hotel shower I’ve come across in the U.S. Going a year without peanut butter means I now plan to enjoy it daily and have several large jars in the cabinet as I type this.

While there were some things I really missed, I also learned how little it takes to make me happy. We lived in very small spaces with only the things we could carry in our backpacks and there were very few things I wished I had. We made dinner with random assortments of kitchen supplies using tiny ovens and mostly hand washing both our dishes and our clothes. I rotated through approximately 6 outfits at any time, sometimes fewer.

My go-to romper.

In Europe, I think I rotated between about four outfits for 3 months. When I wanted to “dress up” I applied a little mascara and if I wanted to be really fancy some red lipstick. Beyond that I didn’t wear make-up. I didn’t get my haircut for a year. I learned to appreciate how happy good books make me and how much a hike can raise my spirits.

Left: Our travel "washing machine" Middle: Drying clothes Right: Water for 5 days in Mauritius

On a more serious note, I spent a lot of time in the last year feeling fairly incompetent. More often than not I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know the customs and I stuck out like a sore thumb in many countries. It made me appreciate two things. First, the ease with which I navigate life at home. Making small talk with servers in restaurants feels like a gift now. I know how to pay to ride the bus. I know where I would go to buy something I need. The small things really add up when they are no longer mindless things that you breeze through.

Second, I am so impressed by immigrants who pick up their lives in a place they are comfortable and understand all those small things to come to the U.S. and start over. Most everywhere we went at least some people spoke English, and many places it was fairly common. Signs often included English translations. We had money to spend on having people show us around and explain things we didn’t understand. In the U.S. help is often much less accessible for foreigners. There was not a single international airport where multiple languages were used on every sign. If you come to the U.S. and you don’t speak English, good luck!

To me, anyone who struggles through the discomfort and actually builds a life; anyone who figures out how to get a business license or apply to school, to rent and apartment or how to navigate the overwhelming stores like Costco or Walmart is unbelievably impressive. Nate and I are well-educated and yet struggled with simple tasks like ordering food or finding allergy medicine. If anything, traveling has given me a much stronger appreciation for people who leave the comfort of home, without all the resources we had, to find something better for themselves and their families. It is even harder for them, and they don’t have the comfort of knowing they’ll be leaving in two weeks to try again somewhere else.

Travel Buddies

I also got to spend a year with my best friend - through good and bad. There aren’t many people I would be willing to be no more than 5 feet away from for a full year (minus the 12 days I was at my silent retreat in Thailand), much less spend some of that year horribly sick while stuck on buses or sharing tiny hotel rooms. By our rough calculations, we spent about 3 years worth of time together in 1 year. Yet, we didn’t run out of things to talk about and even though life traveling pushed us both in different ways on a daily basis, we only occasionally lost our tempers and it never lasted long when we did. I will always be grateful that I found someone who was not just willing but excited to cast off on this long, expensive, crazy journey with me.

Regrets

I actually have very few regrets about this trip. We were mostly healthy. We were safe and had no major incidents or accidents. We didn’t miss a single flight or train (though there was a close call in Rome).

Knowing what I know now, I would have skipped a few places (Mandalay and Paraty I’m looking at you). I wouldn’t have booked the cute B&B in Bangkok for the wrong dates or booked the wrong hotel in Yangon.

At the end of the day, I think we maximized our budget well and made sure we did all the things we really wanted to do, even if it meant cutting back other times. A part of me always thought this big plan would always stay just a plan. The fact that it turned out so very well has left me with few regrets and those I have are minor.

From our disappointing visits to Mandalay and Paraty.

Coming Home

At this point I’ve been home for a couple of weeks, though those weeks have been filled with weddings, bachelorettes, visits with family and friends, and way too many hours driving.

So far, the strangest things about being back home are:

  1. People - there are so many people to talk to all the time. Not just the family and friends we are staying with where we have long catch up session but also people at store and restaurants or on buses. I’ve mostly been talking to Nate for the last year and I feel like my conversation skills got a little rusty!
  2. Air conditioning - why we insist on keeping all our buildings at nearly arctic temperatures is really beyond me. It was an occasional struggle before but really blows my mind these days.
  3. Ice - I haven’t enjoyed ice in beverages since I spent a few years living in Austria. The mountain of ice floating in all my drinks still gives me pause (is the water safe?!) and then just gets on my nerves.
  4. Seeing my friends’ beautiful faces - unlike the air conditioning and ice, I have missed my friends terribly and getting to both see their faces and put my arms around them makes me so happy I feel like I could burst.
  5. Hot showers - regular, dependable, hot water with decent pressure is heavenly and should not be taken for granted.
  6. Real coffee - most of the world suffers drinking instant coffee. I don’t know how they have survived so long but I am so glad I no longer have to live that way.

One thing that I’ve become much more aware of traveling, seeing the beautiful bodies of water with styrofoam floating in it or the piles of plastic debris lining railroad tracks, is the impact of our choices and the highly disposable nature of so many of the things we use each day. It’s easy when you don’t have to see the trash in your lake or along your roads to assume it isn’t a problem but so many beautiful places will not be so beautiful for future generations if something doesn’t change soon. I want to try to reduce my footprint and the amount of trash, especially things that will take hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose, I generate. I want my children’s children to be able to see the Great Barrier Reef and feel the overwhelming joy I felt basking in its beauty. I’m gong to be a lot more aware of the choices I make going forward and how I can make better choices and support organizations that are dealing with these issues.

Left: Day 1 in Hawaii. Right: Day 347 in Reno.

What Comes Next

At this point, I have no idea. My plans haven’t worked out as I hoped so far but very soon Nate and I are going to move back to Washington, D.C. and at some point start working in policy and politics again.

So, we still have a lot of uncertainty in our lives. That’s okay though because I wouldn’t trade certainty for the past year of experiences. Plus, spending a year hopping from one new place to the next has made us much more confortable with uncertainty anyway.

I wish I could wrap this whole thing up in a nice neat bow but even the amount of reflection that brought me to this point is not nearly enough to fully process the past year. I’m interested to see how my feelings change over the next year as we settle back into a normal routine. Will I want to hit the road again or will I burn my backpack and my passport with it? Will I be abe to maintain my gratitude and appreciation of the small things when the minutiae of daily life builds up? I can’t wait to find out.

For now, that’s all folks. Thanks for following along on this crazy adventure.


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