A Year of World Travel After Financial Independence, What We Have Learned

scuba-divingSomehow more than a year has passed since our adventures began.  We quit our jobs, sold our houses, got rid of most of our belongings, and hit the road.  We spent over five months in China and Thailand, two separate month-long road trips visiting over 14 national parks in the US, renovated a rental property, took short trips here and there, and relaxed at Ben’s parents place when we were in between. Now we are in Mexico to continue our “nomadic” lifestyle. We certainly learned a lot from the past year in terms of travel, and would love to share our thoughts with you.

You Got Time, Take it

Before our journeys began, I would read travel articles titled like “A year of travel, 30 Countries, 55 Cities, 101 exciting activities..” , and wonder , “oh, that sounds amazing!  I wish I could do that some day. What a great way to live”.  Now when I read such articles, I laugh, “what’s the hurry? Wouldn’t it be more fun to do it over 10 years, instead of 1?”.

When we were working, like most people, we made every minute count in whatever travel destination we were at, since we had to return to work once our vacation was over.  We had a similar mind-set when we just started traveling, even though we knew we had no end date.  On our first road trip last year, we tried to maximize our time, see everything, then quickly run to the next place.  Not only did this get old quick, we also got sightseeing overload! I remember at the end of the road trip, even lying on the beautiful beach in San Diego made Ben uncomfortable.

We slowly learned to take our time, set our own pace, and do only the things we are interested in. If we miss something, we know we can always go back sometime in the future. If not, let it be. The key is to maximize our enjoyment in each place, instead  the number of places we go. Last year, when we planned our China trip, we were thinking to travel to all the wonderful places in a short 5-month period; and this year, before we headed to Mexico, we said, no more than five cities over three months! Turns out, our current pace is just perfect!  What’s the hurry?

It is Your Trip, Make it Yours.

Wherever you go, someone has written their own “definitive guide”.  The top 10 can’t miss things to do in _____.  Are these guides useful?  Absolutely!  When I go to a new place, I tend to use TripAdvisor to check out the rankings of “Things to Do”, top restaurants, top tour guides, etc. It is a very good way for me to know what is in an area, what types of things I may enjoy, and which I can skip.

When we started our travel, we often followed these “must-do-checklists”. After all, if so many people loved doing it, we should do it too.  Luckily, it didn’t take us long to realize we should focus on the things that matter to us.  We love nature, scuba diving, architecture, food, and are not as interested with shops, art, museums, crowded places in general. Some people are big fans of festivals and local culture, but seems festivals with huge crowds gives Ben headaches.

Personally, I still feel the pressure to check the “must-do-checklists” when I visit a new place. Oh, everybody loves THAT restaurant, should I go? Oh, these shops have such fantastic local art, should I buy something?  Oh, everyone takes that trail, we must!   Truth be told, the most amazing scenes are usually something unexpected.

Expensive Or Cheap, It Really Depends

Travel costs money!  Unfortunately there is no way around it.  Accommodations, food, local attractions and excursions, few are free, yet the costs can vary a lot depending on what your interests and comfort levels are.  You may think traveling in Thailand for a month would be much cheaper than in the US, however our monthly costs in Thailand even without airline tickets was almost twice that of our month-long US road trip. Why?  Because we went scuba diving, did multiple excursions like zip-lining, petting tigers, riding elephants, and stayed in fancy hotels by the beach. On the other hand, on our US road-trips, we camped in National Parks, with the occasional Holiday Inn stay in between.  These are the perfect accommodations for us. Hiking is free, eating by a campfire is wonderful and relatively cheap, and craft beers are Ben’s favorites.

It takes time to figure out the optimal tradeoff between cost and personal enjoyment. If we were ten years younger we probably could travel in a developing country like China or Mexico for less than $1500 a month easily since we could sleep fine in any shit-hole hotel, and eat whatever is cheap.  Where to sleep and what to eat are much more important for us now. Age can certainly play a huge role on how much travel will cost.

So if you plan to travel and wonder how much it is going to cost, make a list of things that matter to you based on your own priorities, and search the price accordingly.  If you don’t know your level of necessary comfort, the best way is to try out the various options.  The younger you are, most likely, the more adaptable you probably are and the less money you probably have, thus the cheaper travel tends to win out.


Don’t Overpack! They Sell Shit There.

Oh, we were so overpacked when we started our 5-month China trip, I even feel a little bit ashamed to admit it here. We brought two big suitcases, one small carry on, one backpack, and a laptop bag! ( Granted we were carrying presents for the family in China. )  Now, we find that we pack less and less for each trip.

Ben used to worry the night before a big trip that he might forget his toothbrush or deodorant. Where did he think he was going?  The moon?  Unless we are moving to Antarctica for six months to do scientific research, there are going to be shops.  EVERYWHERE!  They might not have the brand we are used to, but we might discover something unknown that is actually better. We are traveling after all, trying new things should be part of it.

We are now getting so good at packing, knowing exactly what we should bring for upcoming trips, domestic or international. We can pack everything we need in less than 30 minutes for a two-month trip in one carry on.  Besides passports, wallets, and smartphones, there is really nothing else that matters that much. We don’t need both hiking shoes, running shoes, dress shoes, and flip flops. After all, we managed to attend a banquet in a cruise trip with hiking shoes. Am I going to avoid the occasional embarrassment by carrying things that we may or may not need? Heck No!  Let’s have thick skin versus a heavy suitcase….

Life Is Good, Don’t Complain

What traveling taught me most, is to realize how truly lucky I am, and to appreciate life more. This might sound cliche, but it is absolutely the best thing I learned in the past year.  I used to think that, if you are healthy and have at least an average IQ, yet you still fail in your life, it is your own problem.  I have thought my own hard work has brought me to where I am now in my life.  Traveling in various places, especially developing countries, has completely changed my view.

In China, wherever I go, I see people working so hard! It is a country that you need to constantly compete with thousands of people for almost everything. After all, there are over 1.3 billion people and the resources are limited. If your boss or clients call you at 10pm for something, you work to make them happy, otherwise, you may lose your job since someone else will be willing to work late. A 2000 square foot suburb house with a yard in a quiet neighborhood is easily affordable and available for a middle-class family in US.  In China, it will be a dream even if you make millions of dollars a year.

People who were born in the US, tend to take lots of things for granted and tend to complain about almost any minor discomfort in their life.  Drinkable water directly from the faucet, AC and heat available in any house, tons of quite city parks, clean bathrooms everywhere, big grocery stores with huge parking lots, wonderful national parks… The list goes on and on.  However, we are constantly bombarded with images of expensive cars, luxury houses, the latest fancy gadgets, dream vacations…  That makes us feel what we have is just not good enough, thus we complain, we want more, and we feel unhappy even though what we already have is the dream life wanted by billions of people in other countries.

I joked with Ben, that if he were born in China, he probably would be one of the men who works on the street and struggled to make ends meet, a meal at KFC might be too expensive. The decisive reason  he lives a good life in US, is it happens he was born in a middle-class white family in US.

So now when we complain about something, I quickly feel ashamed for the tiny things that I ACTUALLY complain, really, the room temperature is too hot because it is 75, not 73?!


Living With Parents, Sweet!

Since we sold our houses, we have used Ben’s parents place as our base when we have wanted to stay low-key while not traveling.  Ben’s parents are the sweetest parents in the whole planet. They provided space to store our remaining belongings,  and take care of us when we are around. They might not agree with our life choice, but  they have been very willing to have us there.

American culture seems to consider people living with their parents as unsuccessful, while in Chinese culture, living with parents is the norm. The great advantage of knowing both cultures is that I care little about what others might think when I make a decision about my own life. After all, people judge you most likely because they only know the “main stream” way to live, but why do you have to live the same as others if that doesn’t suit you?

Oops, this paragraph is supposed to show our appreciation to Ben’s parents, not about life choices. But, if you live with your parents and get along super well with them, please do continue!


Final Thoughts

I absolutely love traveling because I hate routine and stability. Yet, interestingly, Ben loves routine. He tries to set up his own routine wherever we go, otherwise, he is anxious. How long will we keep up this nomadic lifestyle? Will we find a place we absolutely love and settle down? Will we go back to work to make life more fulfilling?  These are the questions we are still looking for answers to.  One thing I know for sure though, it is a big world out there, and there are still a TON of places I want to see and things to do.  The unknown is still exciting, and we are still young enough to appreciate the unknowns!


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