How 18 months of travel changed me

  • I’ve learnt that it’s okay (and sometimes a good thing) not to have a solid plan. I thought I’d know what career path I wanted to take after travelling – I don’t. I thought we’d follow a strict route when travelling – we didn’t. Sometimes getting lost leads you to the most interesting places, and feeling your way through can be best. Relinquishing control isn’t something that comes easily to me, but it’s something I try and live by more post-travels.
  • I’m more patient and slow-paced. Waiting hours for transport, waiting days for the rain to stop, spending 20+ hours on a bus, doing little in a day other than eat, read, walk around, and do laundry… Your success criteria slips, and time melts and slows. There were still rushes and stresses to make transport connections, fit everything into our one month visa etc. but when there wasn’t a rush on, those slow times became enjoyable, rather than a source of impatience.
  • I’ve conquered some fears. I used to be too scared of fish to snorkel, and too scared of the open sea to ride on a boat smaller than a ferry. Now I’ve spend two days out at choppy sea in monsoon season on tiny boats in the Philippines, and dived 20+ metres under the sea to come face to face with giant fish like sharks and rays, and I’m totally hooked.
  • I’m more comfortable outside of my comfort zone. We started travels fairly insulated, and we barely socialised at the start. After a while we’d happily approach / talk to other travellers, let down our barriers and forged close friendships pretty quickly. Similarly I became happier to talk to locals, barter for good prices (something I used to find incredibly awkward!), I attempted to learn a bit of every language, do more active stuff like trekking (I was previously definitely more of an ‘indoor’ girl!), and tried weirder food in more suspect-looking restaurants that I previously would’ve judged and avoided.
  • I’ve learnt to let things go more. Drunken fights, losing stuff, things breaking. The second half of our travels was definitely a more relaxed affair, and we learnt to let things go a bit more. We realised we’d rather look back and enjoy that time/experience/place rather than being hung up on something that ultimately didn’t matter much.
  • Learning to take the rough and the smooth. I realised that there will be tough days, things will go wrong, you will be frustrated and tired and occasionally sick of it all, but these times only make the good days better, and everything will pass.
  • I’ve learnt that me and Sam will probably be alright, and will stay together long term. We’ve smoothed out the edges of our relationship, tested it in every way possible, and learnt coping mechanisms that will stay with us for life. Even if things sometimes go wrong, those things are now firmly in perspective. Having an argument no longer terrifies me like in the tender first couple of years of dating, and often we’ll just laugh them off.
  • Becoming less vain is super liberating. Ditching make-up, sometimes going days without mirrors, not bothering with accessories, wearing just what’s clean, putting less effort into looks… gives you more time and energy to focus on the outside. Being happy to sit in an empty bar even if it’s uncool, a rough-around-the-edges local restaurant, walking around a bus terminal with no shoes on, no bra, wrapped in a shawl, because it’s comfier. Not caring feels good.
  • Without the constant background noise of work stress, concerns over living situation (where to live, cost of living etc.) and social calendar (with what I’m doing in the next month or so laid out in front of me) there’s more time for thoughts to wander, people-watch, and have conversations that could lead somewhere interesting (insider tips on what to do or a cultural backdrop to that place) I can already feel this slipping away now we’ve been back in the UK a little, and it’s sad. That familiar creeping stress is back!
  • I’ve become more attuned to who ‘my kind of people’ are, through hardened experience of meeting countless people across the 1.5 years – and have become more decisive about the who to gravitate towards.
  • It’s a cliché, but my eyes are now more opened to how other people live – not just being exposed to poverty, but also how simpler societies function so well by pulling together rather than competing, creating their own support network. An insight into different religions, and people living in extreme conditions like the Amazon River, on glaciers, in rice paddies, in the jungle or the desert, gives you a new perspective on home comforts.
  • I now know my priorities and values (at least for now) are in creating a more simplistic, happy life with less stress. I’ve seen that the happiest people aren’t the people who have the most, but those that have the most fun, that connect with each other, that take pleasure in the small things, that have control over their small business, their family, their home. Life is about people, connections, and freedom. I know now that I get most energy from people and exploration – and I want to keep these values central to how I live my life.
  • Living with less is freeing. Carrying your life in a rucksack and realising how little you need to be comfortable is really eye-opening, and I didn’t feel weighed down by all the possessions I’ve come back to and realised (in many cases) I don’t need at all. Now I just wish I hadn’t bought half my stuff in the first place!
  • I’ve got a far deeper appreciation for the world’s beauty and nature. I love being outside as much as possible now, and I’ve come back to the UK wanting to hike our hills, and dive Europe’s oceans. Being exposed to so much beauty on a daily basis feels like a surreal never-ending carousel of dream destinations (Galapagos springs to mind as a particularly surreal two weeks!) and this craving to see as much as possible will stay with me for life. Living in a city feels pretty stifling now.
  • I realised that people are generally good. Although we came across some scam artists and persistent hawkers, mostly people are genuinely happy to help you if you’re lost or in need of advice. Especially in smaller towns (rather than cities where tourists are commonplace) locals often want to chat or have a laugh with you. You’re a novelty to them. We came across countless maternal figures in hostels, in towns, looking out for us. Helpful strangers. And at the very least, it’s normally funny to chat with locals, even if they’re just taking the piss out of you!
  • I’ve learnt the power of delayed gratification and discipline, which is now helping me to save up all over again. By carefully controlling spend, and only indulging every so often, we learnt how easy it was to save money – and how far that money can go. Now, back in expensive London I wince at spending loads of money on lunch or beers and I see every £5 as a night (or two!) in a hostel in a dreamy location, so I watch my spend accordingly. I see my bank account as a big piggy bank, just waiting for the next opportunity to travel!
  • Related, but a lot of London living now looks a bit crazy from the outside. Choosing to spend £5 for a pint of beer and drink it standing up outside on the pavement, rather than drinking at home, or spending £5 on four cans of beer and sitting in a park – struck me as odd during the Summer we returned. Restaurants that charge £8 for avocado on toast, that probably costs about £1 to make at home. Fad cafes that serve grilled cheese sandwiches or fancy crisps / novelty breakfast cereal for a crazy price… the list goes on. After you’ve eaten amazing street food for less than £1, paying £10 for average Thai curry kind of stings.
  • And that’s without even mentioning the crazy costs of housing (buying or renting) in the capital. I get why we all have to be money-driven in London, because the cost of living is so high. This has a knock-on effect of feeling the stress of establishing a career path, getting promoted, pay rises, etc. This pressure creates a certain self-obsession, as it’s not just enough to earn money. Career is so important. I already feel more job-obsessed after 8 months back, and it’s a feeling I really dislike. But unfortunately, whilst we’re living in a city where you’re forced to spend a huge whack of your earnings on rent/a mortgage, it will remain top of mind.
  • I question more than before. Just because that’s what everyone’s doing, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This could stretch from what people do when travelling a country, to how people build and prioritise their lives back home.
  • My standards of living have dropped massively. I’ve spent nights sitting in the aisle of a bus, on broken seats, sleeping on train platforms or open-air ferries. I’ve spent months using ice cold bucket showers and squat toilets. Sleeping in a cheap single layer tent on a blanket using a lumpy rucksack as a pillow. Now, even though me and Sam are living with his parents with only our bedroom as private space, this feels like relative luxury!
  • Having LOTS of time to kill meant I had time to explore subjects and arts via podcasts and Spotify, that I’d never done before. Whether exploring a whole music genre, listening to Desert Island Discs with important cultural figures, or binging a whole season of Serial, travelling slow meant tons of time to indulge in the arts, without feeling pressured or guilty. I’ve noticed it’s a lot harder to focus on stressful commutes since, but maybe that’s just me!
  • I’ve become spoilt. I’ll be the first to admit it, travelling really does spoil you. Every day you spend working in an office will now (in your head) be a day you could be climbing a mountain, diving a coral reef, swinging in a hammock or exploring an ancient temple. You’ll know (forever) that you could be having a far better time, and spending far less money, on any given day of the year. You’ll probably be totally addicted to travelling, and getting out there again as soon as you can. This makes ‘real life’ a bit tough. Luckily we have amazing friends and family that make us happy to be in London, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about travelling every day now. I look back through our photos all the time. But this will only act to spur me on to our next adventure. Onwards and upwards!

Jumping on the minimalist bandwagon

There’s a big trend at the moment towards minimalist living and de-cluttering, with some people even paying ‘de-cluttering gurus’ to help them minimalise their lives. We got the chance to experience the benefits of living with less first-hand during our travels, and I have to say, it was super liberating. Carrying my whole life in a 60L backpack for a year and a half was the best proof (if I needed it) that most of my possessions aren’t really necessary. It’s amazing how little you need.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we learn the importance of base criteria (namely physiological needs, safety, and love/belonging) in order to ‘transcend’ into higher values like self-esteem and ultimately self-actualisation. Otherwise known as achieving our personal goals, whether that’s in career, parenthood, or something else entirely. This is a fascinating model for many reasons, and it goes far to explain why – if we just aim for success alone – we’re sometimes left feeling empty, dissatisfied or low.

What we learnt from travelling is that by minimalising our lives and only satisfying those crucial base needs – like food, water, shelter, sufficient money – we opened ourselves up to focus on feeling love and belonging. We simplified our criteria for happiness. We weren’t thinking about stuff, only people and places. Experiences. We forged connections through traveller friends, small daily interactions with locals, through standing in awe of places and experiences.

Life was simpler, because we were focussing on fulfilling those basic needs, without even thinking about spending money or energy on anything material. We couldn’t really carry much, and beyond a few souvenirs and practical purchases we were liberated from the myth that buying more and more stuff will somehow make us happier. When we bought a few jokey Christmas gifts for each other during our first Christmas together in the Philippines, we regretted it within a matter of weeks and ended up giving most of it away.

We learnt that those connections, those basic needs, are really all that matters. The energy, excitement and happiness we got from meeting people and connecting with places unrivalled anything I’d felt before. We came home to a room full of old artefacts from our previous lives, which almost seemed to mock us with how over-the-top and unnecessary they all were. Why did I have so many clothes? So many pairs of sunglasses? So much make-up? So many books and DVDs? It seemed like a museum full of things that didn’t really belong to me any more.

I started thinking about why I bought all this stuff in the first place, and it made me think of a quote from Don Draper in Mad Men, when he said: “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” I guess I’d bought all of this stuff as a way to feel like I was doing the right thing. Working 50-60 hour weeks was a good thing, because I could buy all these nice things that made me feel validated in what I was doing. I was also saving a lot of money with the eventual travel goal in mind, but I’d made these purchases too. Chasing more money to buy more things, be more frivolous. I’d feel myself rewarding particularly tough weeks and months at work with little shopping sprees or holidays, trying to keep myself motivated to work harder and harder.

But travelling made me realise that there’s another way. Work smarter, not harder, and save most of your earnings. No matter how much you earn, it’s possible to spend most of it by acquiring fancier tastes, and spending more frivolously. However, if you live super cheap, you can save a big chunk of your earnings which means you have to work less and either just enjoy life at home, or set off on travel adventures. These behaviours also mean whilst you’re away you can travel for longer in cheaper countries (if you so wish). It’s all about creating engrained behaviours, and enjoying saving money. It’s not for everyone!

Traditionally, earning a good wage was all about being able to provide for a family, but if the idea of starting a family isn’t for you (as I’m increasingly thinking), there are other ways to go, to minimalise your lifestyle.

If it’s possible to work in contracts / freelance in your chosen career, this is a way to earn (possibly bigger) money in a shorter time, or take some months off each year to free yourself up for adventures or passion projects (or just having fun!) the rest of the time. If you can scrape together the money to buy a small property, you can alternate between having a home you’re investing in, and hosting other travellers/renting it out, whilst you travel somewhere with cheaper living costs, and your mortgage pays itself off. We spent about a quarter of the money per month travelling (all-in) vs. what we would spend in a month in London – i.e. £500/month (all-in) vs. £2000+ to live in London. It’s far more financially achievable than you may think!

Having worked in marketing for 7+ years, I’ve seen the dark side of advertising and new product development. Creating need where none exists; over-selling products; manipulating consumers towards products or services that aren’t necessary, or even beneficial for them. Whether selling unhealthy food, placebo healthcare products, or credit cards, I’ve seen the ugly side of marketeers and their appetite to create need and brand worship for things that just aren’t necessary. I fall for this advertising all the time, as we all do, but it only pushes us into spending more, far more than we need to.

I’m not saying we all need to be monks that own nothing. But thinking harder about what we functionally need – rather than what we just want – has changed my thinking. Headphones to listen to music are needed; a food processor in my kitchen; new prescription sunglasses when my old ones break. ANOTHER dress, or pair of sandals, I probably don’t. I’m still weak and get drawn in by these purchases on occasion, but I’m trying my hardest to resist, and keep within a budget, selling old stuff when I can. I want to build a home with all the functional stuff I need, a few decorative things here and there, then STOP BUYING. If you buy quality for things that get most wear and tear (furnishings, shoes, coats) they tend to last a good few years, which is better for your bank balance and the environment too.

As Patricia Arquette’s character in the brilliant film Boyhood says in her 40s – ‘I spent the first half of my life acquiring all this stuff, now I’ll spend the second half of my life getting rid of it all’. Hopefully, I can just acquire less stuff to begin with so the stuff I own doesn’t start owning me.