It’s been more than 7 years since I was on an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. At the time, I wrote about how my life was in the hands of yet another bus driver. What I didn’t know was that I was developing a bad throat infection at the time. (Probably strep throat, but I never actually saw a doctor. I had a Z-pack with me and that helped me get better.) When we exited the bus around sunrise in Chiang Mai, I had a fever, chills, burning throat—the works. Reading what I wrote back then, I’m pretty proud of delirious Tara for what seems like clear thoughts. Kudos to you. (Or, for those in the know, tacos to you, kid.)
Now, at the end of 2019, I’m on a plane to Frankfurt. My life, and that of 100s of others, is in the hands of yet another pilot.
I’m in the middle seat. We are two hours in with five left to go. To my left, at the window, is Mike. We have the armrest up. To my right is a big, burly German man who has no respect for the middle seat. I see scratches and scabs on his right hand and wrist, very obviously not from a playful kitten. Tattoos spill out from under both his sleeves. We’re nudging each other with our elbows for the fucking armrest. Smart travelers know that it belongs to the middle seat first and foremost. This guy is not a smart, friendly traveler.
But I digress. What I really want to talk about is our last few weeks in DC. The weeks “wrapping up our lives,” as we’ve called it.
(Quick catchup for those who don’t know: From 2012-2013, Mike and I traveled for 14 months on savings alone. We did what’s called an RTW, or ‘round the world trip. We worked like hell and saved like hell to be able to do it. This time, we are not on a trip. We are struggling to figure out what to call this—a lifestyle change?—but it’s not a trip. We are choosing to slowly travel while working remotely. It’s what the mainstream media currently calls “digital nomads.”)
It can be really easy to romanticize what we’re doing—becoming digital nomads who slowly travel the world as we complete work at whatever time of day pleases us. But let’s take off the rose-colored glasses and qualify exactly what it took to get us here.
Honestly, back in 2012, not a lot of people were doing an RTW and we wanted to proselytize. We kept up social media and a blog (yes, this one) about our exploits on the road and even wrote a book about how we planned our trip to help others make the same leap. It was half humble brag and half keeping friends and family in the loop, but deep down, it was our way of normalizing our trip since there were definitely people who just didn’t understand our why.
After passively watching the travel community (and people living their #blessed “best lives” on social media) for the last decade, we know that reality versus Insta-reality almost never align. I want everyone to know what this current lifestyle change truly entailed.
For years, we worked long and hard to create a situation where we could feel comfortable (enough) quitting our very good and stable jobs. We built a strong base of freelance clients, working weekends and weekday nights after coming home from our full-time jobs, sometimes with the pressure of completing rush assignments we got earlier that morning or the night before.
Once we handed in our respective notices and put all our trust into our (admittedly unstable) freelance clients, we made the situation real to each other by saying out loud, “There’s no turning back now.”
Meanwhile, we were taking other actions and making decisions to actualize this digital nomad dream.
We handed in our notice but still had doctors appointments to go to and vaccinations to receive (especially before our employer-sponsored health insurance ended); lab results to worry about; legal documents to draft up and get notarized (hello, power of attorney and last will and testament!); an entire home of possessions to sell, donate, or throw away; family to spend time with; phone service, Internet and subscriptions to cancel; credit to freeze; insurance to buy; plane tickets to buy; accommodations to book; freelance assignments to work on; full-time jobs to show up for and make meaningful contributions to; a moment to breathe and relax without collapsing on the floor in order to breathe and relax (which did happen, by the way).
It’s strange to compare this experience to the last time we sold off everything and packed up our lives. I will tell you that it was actually more difficult and stressful the second time. Perhaps it has to do with getting older, settling in more, feeling a little more comfortable, possessing the desire to have a home that keeps safe the memories you made, items you purchased and gifts you were given. Uprooting all of this led me to multiple nervous breakdowns that I don’t remember having the first time. (Just one that I recall.)
My first nervous breakdown this time around occurred when we were packing a suitcase of clothes for a Christmas trip to Florida to visit family. I was putting socks in the outside pocket of a suitcase when Mike made a crack about me saving possessions anywhere I could. He thought I was stuffing items into a suitcase we were keeping in storage (i.e. my parents’ house).
I flipped out. I can only describe it as a nervous breakdown. I was mad, sad, defensive, and yelled at him, qualifying what I was doing. He realized I wasn’t doing what he thought and apologized. In that moment though, with stress levels past 10, the weight of all the pressure that had been building from every angle became too heavy, fracturing me and rushing out in any way it could.
(I had a couple more breakdowns along the way, which were more tears than screams, but I think you get the point.)
In the days leading up to our departure, everything was taking more time than it should have. When I went to transfer my phone service, it took about 2 hours instead of the expected 30 minutes. Prepping legal documents with a lawyer was somehow taking weeks instead of days. Clearing out cabinet after closet after cupboard felt never-ending.
When we finished packing and lifted our bags, we were worried they weighed more than the airline checked luggage limit of 50 pounds. We both unpacked and placed some things to the side as we repacked. That was tough to do. Those items we put to the side had originally “made the cut” to keep. Now it was too late to store them and they’d need to be thrown out or given away.
The morning we left, Mike transferred his phone service. You would think we learned a lesson from my experience. It took him probably 3 hours (though to be fair, he was transferring his number from a corporate account to a personal account and there were far more hurdles than we could have ever imagined).
Our friend Nagesh had offered to drive us the hour to Dulles Airport, which we gratefully accepted. It would give us time to catch up with him and remove the stress of taking public transportation.
At 1pm, Nagesh arrived on time to pick us up, but Mike was still frantically talking to Verizon. Ultimately, they said it could take 48-72 hours to complete the transfer. Eventually, he threw his hands in the air, “We have to go. We have to trust that it will work.” Then he ran down to a UPS store to mail his corporate phone back to the office.
Nagesh patiently waited for us. We piled into his car and were on the road by 1:45pm. For the first time in days, we sat back and could take a breath and relax without needing to continue a task a minute later. Everything would work out. Maybe not in the way we hoped, but if a phone number didn’t transfer, our world wouldn’t be shattered. If we should’ve packed another sweater, we could just buy one in Porto. If we regretted selling a thing, who cares? It’s just a thing.
As we arrived at the airport, the weight of our baggage still had us slightly worried. Would we have to toss even more stuff at the last minute? Spoiler: We have no idea if we were actually over the 50-pound weight limit. When we arrived at the baggage drop after waiting in line for 20 minutes, the airline representative had his foot on the scale. He didn’t lift it as I put my bag down. Same when Mike dropped his. The guy didn’t care one bit. Thanks, man! Sometimes the stress you impose on yourself doesn’t matter. Sometimes luck has a fat foot on the scale, helping you out.
I started writing this post when we were en route to Porto by way of Frankfurt. I am finishing this in Coimbra, our second stop in Portugal. Time and distance truly do make experiences seem less dramatic than they were in the moment, but I still feel that this move was very difficult to make. I just can’t completely qualify what it was that stressed me beyond my max during the couple weeks leading up to our departure.
If I dig deep, the only thing I can point to is that we started building another life together from scratch after our RTW, and I grew attached to all the things that makes your life your life. The meaningless water glasses you drink from daily but decided together to buy, that pair of comfy slippers you wear from time to time that you received as a gift, the cozy home you spent nearly every day in for the last 6-ish years that you called your own and will cherish even though it was small and could’ve used an upgrade in more ways than one. Nostalgia has a way of making the loss of any of these things more deeply felt than you would think until it they’re gone for good.
Plus, neither of us know for certain the next time we will see family and friends. When will we go back to the U.S.? Will someone meet us abroad? Will our next intercontinental flight be for a funeral? That last thought is sad and depressing, but certainly a reality. Anyone—anyone—could be gone tomorrow. Even us.
All those thoughts and experiences were part of the sacrifices in the end. Even the small home. We rented studio apartments since the time we moved in together—more than a decade ago—knowing that we didn’t want to stay in DC forever. “Let’s suck it up and stay here to save money so we can live the life we want later.” For anyone wondering why we lived in tiny apartments all those years, that’s why. This is why. Because I’m writing this from Portugal. And next month we’ll be in Cabo Verde. And after that we’ll be somewhere in Europe again.
That’s the life Mike and I want for ourselves. It’s not for everyone. In fact, I know it’s not for most people. But it’s for us, or so we think—and hope—it is. Now all we can do is move forward, not look back, and make the most of this
trip lifestyle change journey.