It’s a romantic notion. Walk into the office one day, your desk already packed up and straightened from the night before, computer hard drive emptied, and you tell your boss you’re done. It’s not that you hate your job, or that you aren’t doing a good job. It’s just that you’ve realized you’re only young (or young-ish) once and you want to explore before it’s too late and all the responsibilities of being an adult (ie parenting) tie you to one spot. And you’re gone.
They say do what scares you the most and you’ll rarely regret it. (How can I do that when I’m scared of everything?) I should start jumping out of airplanes and sign up for that one-way trip to Mars. But, in reality, traveling the world for 3-6 months isn’t that crazy. People do it all the time. I’m looking at my life these days and thinking, what am I working for? Maybe it is just to save for a house and a family that may or may not come in the semi-near future. I don’t know. It might just be that I’m burnt out. That my best work only comes when I feel part of something that isn’t just a basic business but instead a challenge as part of a small team, a puzzle to figure out. But I’m getting to the point where I’m spent. Not on my job, per se, but on my career choice du jour.
But I digress… the point I was making is that at some point in the next 1-3 years I need to make a drastic change anyway to get myself on a career path in product management or user experience design. This may require going back to school for an MBA or masters degree, or it might just be getting a lucky break in a junior-level role at a company that doesn’t require engineering experience for product management. Or I just learn to code. Regardless, a drastic change is imminent. That could be at 31, 32, or 33. But, alas, that’s also the age I’m “supposed” to be having children. That’s a very drastic change in and of itself.
My goal now is to at least go to one new place for 2 weeks each year until I have kids. This year the plan is Thailand. I’m a bit of a workaholic so it’s hard to put down the computer and relax, but god I need it. I’m going with a friend who has committed to at least an 8 day trip in October. I’ve made a tentative agenda. All we need are our tickets and we’re gone. That’s what got me started thinking… it’s so easy to make a plan and be gone… how hard would it be to not come back?
The feeling of being alone in a foreign city is unforgettable, especially for someone like myself who grew up in a family that didn’t let her cross the main, slightly busy road that split her suburban development into two, despite her promise to look both ways and be extremely cautious. I’ve always loved traveling but in small doses. Traveling independently has never been my style. I attempted it once, after working a project in London one summer I visited a friend in Berlin, took a flight to Faro Portugal to see another friend, and spent exactly 24 hours on my own on a bus to Lisbon, and wandered around the city for a night and a day before heading home. Come to think of it, I also spent a night and day alone in Haifa, Israel, where I stayed at a hostel and wandered alone down a street at night trying to find a beach area only to give up and take a cab home after getting cat called one too many times for my own comfort.
I’ve discussed the possibility of doing the travel for a year thing with my boyfriend, but it doesn’t seem to make sense as he has not held a full time job yet and is just on the beginning of his career path at 31, while by the end of this year I should have a quarter million dollars, or near that, in overall investments and savings, and think this accomplishment deserves a bit of a break at 30 to reward myself for being semi frugal through my 20s. I’d like to get to $300k before doing this, but there’s never a really good time to just stop what you’re doing and spend money instead of earn (or at the best break even) for a year.
Money stretches reasonably far in Southeast Asia, and I’m fine sleeping in hostels as long as they aren’t infested with bugs or rapists. There’s this little itch in the back of my mind saying don’t come back. Just go. Do what scares you. Take as long as you need. Prepare yourself for true adulthood. Stop leeching on to inspiration, be your own inspiration. Be terrified. Live.
I dream of traveling through Malaysia, volunteering at an orangutan orphanage, then maybe heading out on a trek with a group I find, enjoying sunrises and sunsets and mosquito repellant. Or maybe spending time in Japan and experiencing a culture more sophisticated than American society, eating Sushi every day and drinking Sake every night. Or wandering the Great Wall of China by myself, just like I did when I took a train from Lisbon to hike Sintra’s Moorish Castle, only wishing I had someone else there with me to share in the excitement of being in a completely amazing place so rich with history and stories.
Only, when I looked around, there was no one there to share in my excitement… except a bunch of other tourists speaking a motley array of languages I didn’t understand. I found it was a struggle to enjoy anything for myself without having someone to share in the moment with. As I glanced around, I studied the stones under my feet, the view of the castle on the hill, the feeling that any moment if I were to fall to my death from the short jagged rocks keeping me from smashing into pieces in the wilderness below, I might be at peace with my fate.
Being alone for just 24 hours wore on me. I waited in line for a bus back to the train, and then, if memory serves me correct, attempted to wander up to the main castle in Lisbon, getting myself entirely lost in the narrow, winding, and steep city streets, only to arrive at my destination just as the castle park was closing. Apparently the castle in Lisbon, unlike in Prague, has closing hours.
So I found myself eating alone at a Portuguese restaurant, probably one designed for tourists, a few steps backwards down the street. Alone, I sat and listened to conversations, occasionally in English, and attempted to enjoy being by myself. I never could. I wanted more than anything to talk to the tourists who spoke words I understood, but I was too shy, to socially anxious to make contact. So I remained alone for the night, finishing up my meal — I have no recollection of what I ate on the entire trip to Europe outside of one plate of extremely fresh shrimp complete with eyes that I devoured on my first night in Faro, sucking the juices out of their poor little heads — and wandered back in the darkness down the city streets, afraid I’d be entirely lost for the evening and end up murdered in some alley. As I quickly paced down the cobblestone roads, it briefly crossed my mind the death in Sintra would have been tres more apropos for my desired melodramatic moment of mortality.
Somehow I found a tram, which, as I do with trams and buses in foreign cities, I get on, and allow them to take me to wherever they might take me, as long as I’m convinced there is a stop nearby that can get me efficiently back to where I started. It was a yellow tram, filled with drunk tourists and locals alike, pouring out, nearly tackling the driver by accident at each sudden stop. When the tram stopped near Rua do Norte, the most fun of the drunks got off, and this was my sign to step of the tram and follow them to their destination. It turned out that the tram had taken me to city center, and a hip little neighborhood filled with evening entertainment. Alone, I was too shy to go into a pub, so I wandered around and peered into store windows. I found an adorable cupcake bakery called Tease – The Rock and Roll Bakery which I immediately fell in love with, and was determined to marry after devouring the most incredible Nutella cupcake I had ever tasted. I made a decision then and there that while I could not marry a bakery if I was ever to be married I would need to identify a way to ship a hundred cupcakes from Portugal to my wedding venue. Oh, and another hundred for my guests.
With the taste of Nutella and soft, moist white cake lingering on my tongue I wandered back somehow to my hotel. The next day I believe I took a tourist bus around to ensure I got a good taste of not just cupcakes but also the city before heading back to the airport for my flight home. This day was more relaxing, I was more of a traditional tourist, I was exhausted from the stress of being alone, and got on and off the bus to explore a few museums and key sights. The daytime was less threatening, I enjoyed walking through the outdoor area before entering the Berardo Collection Museum, observing a very passionate dance class of those who clearly knew what they were doing and those who didn’t. The vibrance of life shook me far more violently than any painting I saw thereafter in the museum itself. The moment shot me back to the time I was on a ferry crossing the Adriatic from Croatia to Italy, bustling full of Italians who were loud, excited, and singing the whole way over, and I realized just how stale and sad American culture is in comparison to the vibrance of many cultures who aren’t ashamed to burst out into song and celebrate life.
It’s funny how moments like this are the ones I remember, as most of my life has faded into one big blur between beds. I know that in order to keep living, in order to stay out of depression, I must force myself into new experiences frequently enough to remember that I am, indeed, still alive. I must be careful, too, that the choices I make for these experiences are wise, it’s all too easy to fall prey to the lure of newness, to be entranced by the adrenaline rush of making a decision and failing to think through the consequences. Leaving a job to travel the world for a year may sound terrifying and exhilarating and maybe like the right thing to do, but when you’re earning $100,000 per year and you are approaching 30 and trying to save up for a family that you may or may not want to have, it may not be.
All I know, is if I’m going to do this, even for 3 months, it has to happen soon. Not today. Not in 2013. Possibly never. Or, I should listen to that voice in my heart that seems to always lead me to the right choices, no matter how wrong they may be, to learn more about myself, and to grow into the strong, confident woman that I thought I’d never be able to become, but who is, in fact, the woman who, deep down, I very well may be.