A friend once told me, “The best way to make God laugh is to make plans.”
Regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual path, the lesson inherent in this saying is fundamental, especially for those of us who enjoy the adventure and enlightenment that accompany travel and living abroad: while it is easy to fantasize about a life that forever accommodates wanderlust, for most of us, life after study abroad gets complicated, and it’s easy to feel like it has “gotten in the way” of even the best laid plans.
Wanderlust is something that is in my blood. It is part of who I am and part of who I hope to one day become. After my first grown-up stint living outside of the US, I came home with a sense of wonder, a new outlook on the world, and a keen urge to do it again. This is how I spent much of my 20s. From the time I graduated from college until landing in Fort Collins at 28, I moved, on average, every 3 to 9 months. I moved from city to city and job to job within the US and abroad. I was mobile and unattached and I followed my heart. I was also convinced that life would, and should, always be that way. I told myself that I would never live anywhere for an extended period of time and that whatever great love I found or career path I chose would simply have to facilitate my desire to see the world . . . all of it . . . in great detail.
But life happened, and all of these intentions suddenly seemed irrelevant. My husband is on a city fire department, a fabulous job for a number of reasons, but one with virtually zero mobility when it comes to residence. Though an anthropologist by training, my research interests happened to fall locally, and my nascent career is not especially lucrative. I have acquired a dog and a horse and friendships and an abundance of standing obligations, all of which are right here in Northern Colorado. All of this is to say that, perhaps for the first time, I have roots, roots that render international travel difficult and living abroad full of unwanted sacrifice.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself: international travel took a backseat to the rest of my life and when I did travel, I did so in ways that felt uncomfortable, ways that seemed to be a bad fit. Recognizing the importance of keeping international travel in my life, however, I soon set out to adapt my travel to my new needs, adjusting the way(s) I travel and my expectations about these experiences. These journeys are, of course, a continuing work in progress, but in the pages below, I share several shifts in thinking that have allowed me to ensure international travel remains a top priority in my life, even when life laughs at my plans.
1) Choose destination(s) strategically.
Do you have a region of the world that you’ve always imagined immersing yourself in? I did, and that region was French-speaking North Africa. But when I moved to Colorado and was no longer able to visit the area for months at a time, just getting there suddenly seemed unnecessarily long and expensive. While my heart still lights up when I visit Morocco or think about one day visiting Tunisia and Algeria, I have pushed myself to look to destinations a bit closer to home. From Colorado, we have brilliant access to Mexico as well as Central and even South America. Shorter travel times, direct/non-stop flights, and minimal time changes all make these destinations more accessible for vacations and even short language study or volunteering trips. Travel to these regions also gives me the chance to practice my fledgling Spanish, a far more practical language endeavor in my part of the country than maintaining my childhood French.
2) Revisit the same place over and over again.
I’m totally guilty of having that tick-list of places I want to visit in my life. But one of my favorite things about living abroad was always taking my sweet time to get to know a place. Hence the particularities of my vagabond aspirations – I wanted to live months or years in each place but keep moving along, a pattern that, I hoped, would allow me to learn from and even know a place while still feeding my hunger for novelty. But we could all probably stand to learn something from a group that’s been managing career/life/wanderlust for quite a while now – anthropologists. Many anthropologists focus on a region or even a single village or community. As such, they return to this place repeatedly throughout their careers, coming to know it as a home. While the idea of returning over and over again to the same location may seem limiting – but what about all the other great unknown/unseen places I want to visit? – it offers the considerable joy associated with “getting into” a culture; a similar joy to the one experienced when one can live there for a lengthier period.
3) Have patience and think retirement.
Retiring?! Who is even thinking about retiring? That’s how I’ve felt for much of my life, until recently, when I realized that, if well prepared for, this can just be another chapter in adventure. I’m sure we all know someone who has made frequent or even constant travel a priority once they are retired – I vividly remember getting postcards from my grandmother’s solo adventures in Alaska and Russia when I was in college. But what I’m learning from my own research on the topic is that there are also many options for living abroad in retirement. For example, I have one friend whose parents have spent much of their retired life in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea. Some countries even offer special “retirement” visas assuming you can demonstrate financial security. Personally, I have a hopeful eye set on Thailand. With a bit of preparation – understanding financial and visa requirements, visiting repeatedly throughout your life, starting now to learn the language – retiring abroad or setting yourself up to travel nonstop in retirement can be done. And while it may seem like it’s a long ways away, with any luck, you’ll have an awful lot of retirement years to fill with adventure.
4) It’s ok to be a “tourist.”
I know, it’s a dirty word. You travel. You live abroad. Being a tourist has all kinds of negative connotations that imply you are going somewhere for purely ethnocentric reasons, that you spend your time with other tourists, and that you don’t get any real sense of the culture. While I constantly struggle with this label myself, this doesn’t have to be the case. Being a tourist can be ok. You can focus on history, you can have fun, you can still appreciate a place as a tourist if you work to keep that open mind and open heart that allowed you to love your time spent living abroad. Use the tools you honed while living and studying in another culture to help you really explore a new one, even in a considerably shorter period of time. Short, well-planned, organized trips abroad don’t have to constitute all of your travel for the rest of your life, but if they’re what you can manage for now, they’re worth it, and they’ll keep your travel legs fit.
5) Travel alone.
When you’re on your own it can be easier to immerse yourself in your adventure and in the local culture, making even short trips more fulfilling. Solo travel is also a great way to practice language skills, focus on activities you want to engage in, meet locals and other travelers, and identify places you’d like to return to or eventually share with others. You don’t have to worry about pleasing your travel partner or stress about how they’re tolerating the lack of schedules, cramped conditions, shady roads, strange foods, etc. Solo travel keeps you brave and curious and confident and is an activity that tends to be more fun if you continue to do it – I find it far scarier to travel alone when I haven’t done it in a while. It also presents an amazing opportunity for reflection as you’re far more likely to spend an evening journaling or wake up early for rooftop yoga if you don’t have a buddy to chat or go out drinking with.
6) Travel with someone, strategically.
As life gets more complicated – read, you’re in a long-term relationship or all of your close friends live half a continent away or you only get to visit with your family once a year – so does traveling abroad. I’m often torn between visiting a good friend I haven’t seen in years and taking a trip to an exciting new locale. I may only have money to buy one extra roundtrip ticket this year, so do I add in a visit to the folks or hop down to Costa Rica? As much as I still love to travel, if they’re not with me, I know that I’ll miss my husband and dog terribly. So, although I am a huge advocate for traveling solo – especially for women – I also encourage you to travel with your friends, your family, and your love(s). Have you and a distant friend been trying to decide whose turn it is to visit whom? Why not meet up for a couple of weeks in Nicaragua? I have a good friend in Chicago who does this every couple of years with another friend who lives in California. They pick two weeks and a destination and travel together. I have another friend who goes to Mexico with her mother every year or two. She brings her young daughter and they have a multi-generation holiday. It scratches some of her wanderlust and is a great opportunity for family time, though, depending on your and your family’s travel needs, this may require some compromise. And travel with your partner. It’s a great way to share new experiences (go places neither of you has ever been) or to share a part of your past (bring him/her to your favorite place from when you studied/worked abroad).
7) Combine travel with activities you might otherwise spend time doing.
Especially as your life becomes more and more of a balancing act, it can be important to make the most of your time. For example, my husband and I often spend the summer months on rock-climbing adventures throughout Colorado and neighboring states. We combine climbing trips with visits to family and make it a priority to set time aside for this. With limited funds and vacation time, making climbing a priority has often meant putting international travel on the back-burner; and making international travel a priority often means letting climbing trips drift to the wayside. But this past February, we combined the two, and brought our gear to SE Asia. Not only did climbing in Thailand offer some wonderful, less trafficked opportunities – the best meal I ate in 3.5 weeks came from the small town of Mae On where we climbed at Crazy Horse Buttress – but in visiting the climbing mecca of Railay/Tonsai, we discovered a truly international community of climbers. Similar trips are guaranteed to happen as often as time and money will allow, and now that we know it can be done, it’s easier to make both climbing and international trips a priority!
At the end of the day, my friend was probably right: there isn’t really any surefire way to plan out your life to guarantee you’ll always be able to maintain the ability to travel endlessly or live abroad for years or even months on end. At the end of the day, life will always throw the unexpected your way and priorities may re-order themselves. But that doesn’t mean international travel can’t remain an important part of your life. With an open mind and a bit of determination, we can all continue to live in the world at large and to learn from life abroad.
Stacey McKenna is a writer, anthropologist, equine advocate, rock-climber, tattoo collector, and aspiring yogi. A long-time vagabond, Stacey has lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada. When not adventuring overseas, helping retiring racehorses find second careers, or tramping about with her husband and dog in the Western United States’ beautiful mountains and deserts, she writes about an array of issues related to travel, health, culture, human-animal relations, and social inequality. Though she has been living in Fort Collins, Colorado for over 7 years now,Stacey still considers herself a wanderer at heart.