4.24.2013

How I spent my entire 20's traveling

Camping in Wyoming, 2007
I've received so many emails from my readers on the topic of traveling, that I've lost count. The majority of my readers ask "how are you able to travel so much?" and "why/how are you living in Australia?". Hopefully, I'll answer your question(s) today. My goal of telling the story of my journey here is to communicate to those who romanticize traveling as carefree and easy, that unfortunately that's not always the case. It's kind of a long story (and although I shy away from being long-winded on this blog, it's happening today) so stick with me here....

I come from a very humble background. The best thing I believe my beautiful parents passed on to me while they were raising me, was teaching me how to be gracious in all circumstances. They intended it to be taken in a different way than I think I did, but it's shaped who I am today and my tolerance for situations I feel I've been able to handle in life. Now from an early age, I have always taken life by the horns and always been very independent. I can't quite put my finger on how I got to be this way. But I will have to regress again, and blame my up-bringing, specifically my dad (although I view this character trait of mine to be a positive attribute). My father has always had the philosophy, if you cant figure it out, work through it, go over it, or go around it. For all those visual learners out there- he would use the military reference of a brick wall, (since he was a U.S. Navy Seal) and say that navy seals would go over the wall, but marine corps would go through the wall (implying that it wasn't the best way and thus flatter himself as a Navy Seal). I always viewed myself as a person who could handle any wall, would go through it if I had to, and was launched into my 20's being described by my mother as "your father's daughter". 

That being said, I'm a very intense person, I believe in believing in something, following your dreams no matter what, and loving hard, really hard. Now I will get right down to it and say that I struggled financially through my undergrad. I grasped every which way I could for scholarships, majored in pre-med, and worked 2 full-time jobs during school, summers, and winter breaks to help pay for my tuition. That being said, I watched in horror as I got mostly B's due to my heavy work schedule during school, while my  fellow pre-med students got straight A's it seemed all around me. I became discouraged. What med school in their right mind would let in a B student?  Luckily, during my undergrad at Palm Beach Atlantic, I was blessed to meet some incredible people, and was required during my time there to have 45 hours of volunteer service per year. PBA had incredible trips planned to help us meet the volunteer requirement (my love of volunteer work officially started here), including a road-trip to inner-city Houston to assist with a local church doing outreach among the homeless. It was one of the best trips of my life. During my sophomore year, I crammed into a van for a 20-hr ride with 7 other people from South Florida to Texas. The people who went on that trip are what made the journey so fun. The 20-hr long van ride was not fun. When we got to Houston, we slept on the floor of an inner city church, with bars on the windows, listening to sirens all night long. It was in no way glamorous, but I was hooked. I fell in love with the people I met, the entire experience, and the journey. Needless to say, I was completely burned out on work and school when it came time to graduate with my BS in Molecular Biology. I wanted to find a way to continue traveling and volunteering long-term without having to pay anyone anything.

Fast forward to my graduation day, and insert accepted application to the Peace Corps. At the time of my graduation, I felt like I had worked my life away, had a beautiful shiny degree to show for it, but I wanted something more out of life than a job that paid me money. I was desperate for something more exciting more fulfilling. So I packed my bags, and with a very tearful goodbye to my mother at the airport, set off for Ghana. My experience living in that small fishing town in West Africa, working a science teacher with no running water (and bucket baths), was by far the best experience of my life. Having to regularly sift ants out of my pancake mix, endure bats squeaking around in my ceiling, experience life as a biology and physics teacher, hospitalized with cholera, accidentally exposed to rabies, mentoring young girls, traveling 5 hours to the nearest internet cafe, learning to be ok with washing my hair once a week, not to mention living in a remote rural village by myself- what's not to love? It was hands down, the hardest experience of my life. We had a very modest salary of $5 per day which was meant to give us the opportunity to live on the level of our community. I couldn't afford to buy phone cards to call my mom whenever I wanted. There were times, I was so lonely, my heart would literally ache. I missed my family, missed my friends weddings, lost touch with some great people, met some amazing friends, missed best friend's life events back home, was tormented at times by mosquitos, and fell very ill several times. It truly was (not to sound too corny) "the hardest job I'll ever love". I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. 
  
coaching girls soccer in my village

bug bitten legs

(large) cricket in my house in Africa

Moving back to the USA, I returned with a serious spirit of adventure, humbled by the poverty I had lived among, with a renewed sense of determination. My life had changed, and I can honestly say from this point on, I was a different person. A better version of the person I had always wanted to grow into. I got a job teaching marine science at a youth camp and moved to the Florida Keys. I literally googled "jobs with free room and board in Florida", the marine institute showed up in the search results, I applied, and was accepted. I lived with 5 other (awesome) girls on a dorm/houseboat and slept on a bunk bed. I shared a bathroom and shower with 300+ camp kids, not glamorous. I spent most of my time outside teaching, swimming, and riding bikes through mosquito infested mangroves. It was here I met the love of my life, fell in love, and met some of the most incredible people who I now call family. Although I was living rent-free and could eat all the camp food my heart desired, the job didn't pay enough to cover my student loans, which was the eventually reason I left this paradise. 




the view I woke up to every morning. Photo Credit: Megan Ennes

my temporary home/houseboat in the Florida Keys. Photo Credit: Megan Ennes


swimming lesson in the shark pond 

flat top boats we used to take kids on snorkeling classes to the reef. 
Photo Credit: Megan Ennes


teaching a nearshore ecology lesson 
with live lobsters the kids caught snorkeling

My husband and I decided to take a summer road trip and tour through some amazing places in the United States during that same year. I used my re-settling in allowance (which was very modest) Peace Corps gives you when you return (that you are supposed to use on rent and whatever for the first few months to get you on your feet once you return home). We drove from Wisconsin to Minnesota to South Dakota to Montana to Wyoming to Idaho to Utah to Nevada to Arizona to New Mexico to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and back to the Florida Keys where we were living at the time. We did the entire trip in one month by living, cooking, sleeping, and washing our clothes out of the back of his truck. This trip also included more bucket baths. We stayed in state and national parks the entire trip. I found a dreadlock in my hair at the end of the trip. oops. We spent our money only on gas and food and backpacking permits, but were flat broke at the end, and driving on fumes. 

Badlands, South Dakota

 Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

handsome buffalo

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming



middle of nowhere, out west somewhere in the summertime.


Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

Bear Lake, Idaho

My father was not happy. I was broke to start with. That resettling in allowance was intended to help me "get back on my feet". I felt that I was already on my feet. But I did what anyone would do, I searched for a job that paid a lot of money and found it- Wildlife biologist in the Mojave Desert. You can see a few photos from that here. Finally a job that paid, and pretty good! I was going over this "wall"! I hadn't had a job that paid me actual money since I waited tables in college and I desperately needed the money. The sacrifice? I worked as a surveyor walking 10+ miles per day in remote areas of the desert for 3 months, sleeping in the back of a truck (again), which also included more bucket baths. It was not easy money, but it was an amazing experience. The Mojave desert is a beautiful place. 

I was accepted a few months later to a Masters Program, and moved into an apartment. The apartment had hot running water which made me feel as though I had moved 10 steps up in the world!
I remember cherishing every hot shower during those first few months, feeling like it was too good to be true, and finally feeling clean after what seemed like years of camping. We also owned hardly anything to fill up an apartment. Looking back now, I laugh now that we used this box for almost a week as our dining table. Thank God my mother gave us those dishes you see in the photo. However, our entire bank accounts now went to paying rent and tuition- and there went our travel money. To spare you the long drawn out story, I was still able to continue traveling during my Masters program (hallelujah!) for research to Panama, Dominican Republic, Niger, and backpacked through West Africa. All of these trips were to volunteer for work and research in poor rural communities, and inexpensive for the most part. The experiences were amazing, but again, were not without sacrifices. And then, it happened. Years of traveling and volunteering finally started to make sense a few years ago. While pursuing my Masters in Public Health (which is a field I was born for), working several jobs in Tampa, I realized that I wanted to be a field Epidemiologist. A realization I would not have come to if I had started med-school immediately. I could finally get paid to do what I love AND travel? Exciting! Fast forward a few years, a random cruise to the Bahamas, random trips back to Africa, layovers in Paris and Germany, and a honeymoon in Mexico. We're now living in Australia. I left my job as an Epidemiologist in Florida (you can read more about that here) to move here for my husband's job. I can't tell you how excited we were for the opportunity to see this side of the world (I feel like I've been telling this Australia story for almost a year now and it's almost over). We've taken advantage of our time on this side of the world, and feel lucky to have taken backpacking trips while we were here to Tasmania, Queensland, New Zealand, and road-trip (our favorite type of traveling) along The Great Ocean Road. I'm still working in the field of Public Health and branching off in another direction altogether (you can read more about that here). We still travel cheap and live simple. We probably will always live our lives that way. I can't tell you how freeing it is to live simply and do what you love. It's the best feeling in the world. 


my husband cooking in a hostel in New Zealand.

So here's my advice:
I hope that your take-away message from my journey above is along the lines of this: Although I've been incredibly blessed to have traveled to some amazing places, there were a lot of sacrifices made along the way. There was always a constant underlying desire (by both my husband and I) to live a truly simple life. Be warned that this is a way of life that's constantly misunderstood. However, if you are willing to take an unconventional route, quit or delay your perfect career (if necessary), be poor, work or volunteer odd jobs, camp, couch surf, or stay in hostels, and prepared to make those "said" sacrifices along the way (I've spent countless hours sleeping on airport floors), then the I have news for you... the world is your oyster! If you have the time, you can go anywhere you want! It's incredibly rewarding. Don't let the unknown scare you.

Let me squash the common myth that you need money to travel. FALSE. You actually need to be willing to be ok with giving up opportunities to make a lot of money (as they steal your precious time). You need to be willing to embrace not having a lot of money and living a much simpler life. If you wait to save your money to travel, your travel will be extremely limited. If you choose to wait until you retire to travel, your travel will be extremely limited. 


If you are in your 20's, do not yet have children, I would encourage you to travel as much as you can. Pack a backpack, study abroad while you're in school, volunteer on an organic farm in Europe, teach in India, South Korea, or New Zealand, sign up for the Peace Corps, apply for Ameri-Corps. You have your entire life to have a career, full-time job, settle down to buy a house and have a family. Why rush it?

For those of you who are reading this who already have a family, or work full time, you can still travel. I have so many friends with children and full-time jobs who still travel to incredible places. Many own vans and pop-up campers. I look up to them. I want their life one day.

It's important to remember that your journey is your own. Never try to mimic someone else's journey that they've been on in life. If you are in a job that you hate or in a situation that you know is not right for you, you have the power to make changes in your life. I strongly believe that living a life without regret is merely a decision you make for yourself. Life is so short. Why would you live it any other way? 


in my living room in my village in Ghana