Back in 2003, the first year this blog existed, I wrote a lengthy (for the blogging standards of the time) called “Why Travel Around the World?” Back then it was kind of a radical question. This was long before the 4-hour Work Week book, before the terms “location independent” and “digital nomads” had entered the public lexicon. Lots of Europeans, Australians, and Kiwis were taking year-long trips around the world, but when I did three of them of at least a year each, everyone on my USA home turf thought I was nuts.
While the idea has become more accepted, long-term travel is still seen by many Americans as lazy, foolish, or something you do when you can’t settle on a career. Back then on message boards, I would commonly read a post from some young woman who was struggling to save all she could for her trip of a lifetime, an around-the-world journey she had been planning for ages. She would be getting close to departure and instead of getting support and excitement from her friends and family, she would be getting lots of resistance instead. Her parents harped on her for “wasting all that money to go traveling,” and her friends give her grief for not going out on the town with them like she used to do.
The problem is, most people don’t get your long-term travel plans. And they never will. All those years of brainwashing, especially in our flawed education system, have defined their thinking for life. Coloring outside the lines seems like a radical idea.
Plus despite all the evidence that travel is good for our brain and good for our health, most Americans don’t value it nearly enough. When I wrote about this subject in 2003, the average number of vacation days taken by U.S. workers was around 9 days per year. As I write this in 2019, with the lowest unemployment rate in my lifetime, we are up to…10 days per year. It’s pitiful.
Most people in the workaholic, money-worshipping US of A don’t attach much importance to travel. It’s seen as something you do to “recharge your batteries” so you can get back to being a productive rat racer again. Then the workaholics retire and don’t know what to do with their time.
Contrast this with Europe, where anything less than four weeks off is reason to go on strike. Life’s too short, they argue, to not spend a good chunk of it truly enjoying yourself. We Americans go to the Caribbean or Mexico because we can get there, sit on the beach, and be back home in a week or less. The first time I went backpacking around the world, I met Dutch people in Southeast Asia who were doing six week tours through Thailand and Malaysia. Now that’s a vacation! They were (and still are) using their freedom to travel to the fullest.
I was lucky when my now-wife and I took off. We never got all that much grief from friends and family, especially when we managed to get employed overseas as English teachers and got “real jobs” pretty quickly once back in the US.
But what does someone taking off for a long-term trip tell those sleptical friends and family members?
First of all, accept that some people will never “get it.” They look at the rest of the world as a scary place to be avoided and wonder why anyone would want to leave the rabbit hole. (“I’ve heard some of the toilets are just a hole in the ground! My word!”)
Others can’t get past the fact that you’re stepping off the treadmill for a while. (“What are you going to do about those gaps in your resume? How can you leave a good job?”) For the rest, the ones with a more open mind, here are a few reasons for someone to go around the world in far more than 80 days.
1) You’ll learn far more from travel than you ever did at a university.
Remember the old days when people got a liberal arts education? They went to Oxford or Princeton to learn about history, politics, social studies, geography, religion, foreign languages, and economics. Well you’ll learn far more about all those things by traveling than you ever can in college.
Ask anyone in their 30’s how much they remember about these subjects from their university classes. “Not much” will usually sum it up. Now ask someone who has traveled around the world what they’ve learned about any country they have spent time in. After about an hour, you’ll probably tell them to shut up already.
You’ll get true education when you travel abroad.
2) You’ll be a hundred times more knowledgeable about world affairs.
Most “international affairs” experts and politicians you see on TV news shows wouldn’t know a Kurd from a Copt from a Kazakstani, but that won’t stop them from pontificating all day from their comfy armchair. When you’ve seen a country and its people at ground level, however, for weeks on end, you’ll know a lot more about how the world works than 99% of the people in your home town. You’ll know you’re only getting one side of the story from your home country’s media, if you’re even getting the story at all.
Unlike politicians that go on whirlwind “fact finding missions” or read briefs from their advisors, travel gives you a window into the truth. You see how people really live and hear what they really think. In 2019, it’s hard for anyone who has never been to the USA to understand the appeal of our angry orange liar-in-chief, for instance. Spend some time talking to uneducated people in rural America though, and you’ll get a lot of insights into his gullible base of support. Spend some time in Mexico and you’ll find that the vast majority of Mexicans have no desire to leave their home country. Only the most desperate or the ones who have family stateside want to go through the daunting effort to move there.
3) You’ll have a stronger appreciation of what you have when you travel around the world.
It sounds cliche, but people in rich countries do take what they’ve got for granted. Far too often, their life is a struggle to have more things and bigger things. But when you see how the majority of the world lives, just running hot water and central heating seem pretty darn luxurious. Not to mention a huge wardrobe of clothing, a car, and a well-stocked supermarket a few miles away.
Most Americans and Europeans don’t realize what a life lottery win it was to be born where they were. More than 700 million people around the world live on less than $2 a day. The average monthly salary in Nepal is less than $200. And you’re complaining that your cable service went out for an hour?
When you travel the world for a year and live out of a backpack, you start looking at your luck of birthplace in a whole different light. You realize you don’t need as many possessions as you thought to be happy. You tend to appreciate what you have more than someone who has never stepped out of their comfort zone.
4) You’ll see the world when you’re young enough to enjoy it, not when you’re old and need to be pampered.
Yes, you’ll have more money when you’re old and retired, if you don’t get killed by some random accident or disease in the meantime. But you’ll need to lug around all your medicine, you can’t be too far from a decent hospital, your hotel bed needs to very comfortable, and you won’t even want to think about taking a local bus. You’ll be in trouble in places where you can’t use a wheeled suitcase. You’ll start seeing those warnings about a place being tough for “those with limited mobility” and realize, “Oh no, that’s me now!”
And will the places you dream of going still be the same? Don’t forget that people used to tour around Afghanistan, take a vacation in Yemen, and plan adventure tours in Venezuela. They used to stay in fabulous hotels and eat great food in Cuba. Acapulco used to be glamorous and safe. The word “overtourism” didn’t exist—or need to—when I first visited Amsterdam’s canals, Machu Picchu, or the Grand Palace of Bangkok. If you wait another 30 years, what else will be forever changed?
5) You’ll develop the life skills that really matter in the working world.
When you look at what is taught in school and what employers say they really need, there’s a huge disconnect. The skills most valued in the real world, especially in business, are far different than the rote memory, testing, and obedience taught in classrooms. In today’s climate you need the ability to adapt, creativity, problem solving, the persistence and the patience to see a project through until the end. You need to be able to make decisions without knowing the full story, to make the best bad choice giving the data that’s available. You need to be able to negotiate, or sometimes plead, to get someone to do what you need them to do. You also need to be able to stick to a budget and control your finances.
How can you learn all these skills and practice them every week? While traveling around the world independently, on a budget. Spend a year doing that and you’ll be a dream hire afterwards for any savvy manager. Or you’ll be prepared to start your own business and make it a success.
The one question you’re almost sure to get is, “How can you afford to travel around the world if you’re not working?” Well that part’s easy. Save up some money then spend your time in The World’s Cheapest Destinations.