The other day a reader told me she had saved up for a gap-year of travel. She said that she hadn’t yet decided whether or not to do some remote contract work while traveling or not.
In my opinion, she was right to think decisively about the matter, because there are two very different types of travel she can experience. Traveling with a goal to work as you go is very different than taking a year off to collect incredible travel experiences.
Don’t get me wrong; one is not better and one is not worse…just different. Let’s look at how.
5 ways working-as-you-go travel is different than a gap year:
1.) You can move more quickly during a gap-year.
When you’re trying to work as you go, it’s very much like anyone else’s work life in that you’ll have work-days and off-days. Luckily, you can schedule the work days and off days according to your travel whims, but it often means doubling or even tripling the amount of time you would have ordinarily spent in a place, or just adopting a slow travel pattern in general. You don’t have to see less with the work-as-you-go travel pattern, but you will have to fit the sites into off-days, evenings, lunch-breaks, etc.
With a gap-year, you can let other travel preferences dictate how long you stay in any given destination. You can stay as long as it will take you to see all the sites you had your heart set to see, then move along!
2.) You need to pack more intentionally when working as you go.
When working as you go, you may need more technical supplies than a gap-year person might. If you’re working digitally, you’ll need a reliable laptop, possibly hard-drives. Perhaps you need a better or safer file-storage system. Not to mention if you appear for conference calls or Skype sessions, you may need work-appropriate attire.
For a gap-year, you might still want some sort of internet device, but it could be as simple as an iPod touch or an iPad. Not to mention your wardrobe will be more dictated by the weather than it is by professional expectations.
3.) Traveling with others is harder when you’re working as you go.
When working as you go, the need to spend time working can be hard for other travelers to understand. I can’t count how many times we’ve heard others say to us, “How often are you in [fill in the blank destination]? Just take the day off today and site-see with me!” It’s hard for other travelers to understand that working while you travel mostly requires as many, and sometimes more working hours as a stationary job would. Or it is hard for them to understand that your travel is sustained by the hours spent not site-seeing. So by saying no to the activities of the day, you are actually making it possible to say yes to the activities of another day.
Also the pace of a vacationer is different than the pace of a work-as-you-go-traveler, as mentioned in the first point. So when we have traveled with friends on their vacation time, we’ve gone at a faster pace than we’re used to and thus, we have needed to skip things. On our own time, we may spend 7 days in an area so that we can work for 5 of them and site-see for two. But with vacationing friends who only have so many vacation days, we may spend 3 days in a place, requiring us to fit site-seeing into evenings or lunch-breaks.
During a gap year, it is much easier to be flexible with your pace or site-seeing preferences. Therefore, it’s easier to travel with others and accommodate whatever pace they’re after. That is one of my favorite parts of gap-year styled travel. You can say yes to any excursion that suits your fancy or your budget without any kind of thought towards whether or not you should be working instead.
4.) How you choose a hotel changes.
When working as you go, your hotel decisions might need to include stricter preferences than gap-year travel. For instance we’ve talked about digital work a lot. Indeed, you may need to assure you’ve got a strong internet connection, free or affordable internet, and a space in which you can spend 8 hours working. Unfortunately this sometimes eliminates hostels as an option.
During a gap-year, you may be much more flexible when it comes to accommodation. In our gap-year travel we spent many more nights in hostels and homes-stays than we do now. We tried to find ways to access internet maybe once a week or so, but it was not something we felt we needed every day. Now, we fall behind in our work-load if we go more than a day without internet.
5.) During a gap-year that has a defined end, you may feel less pressure to stay connected with friends and family from home.
Working as you go often means that there is not necessarily an end in sight. For instance my husband and I are full-time travelers so there is no set-time for when we’ll “go back home.” Because of this, I feel a greater need to connect with home on a regular basis. I try to stay in touch with my family members ever week or two.
During our gap-year on the other hand, I had an idea of when we would be returning to our friends and family. This made me feel a little less discouraged by long gaps without communication. At that time Skype was our only option for calling home for free, but we rarely had strong enough internet connection for a good Skype call. But I was reassured by the thought that I could tell my family and friends all about my travel when we returned home at the end of the year.
Now we’ve discussed 5 ways in which gap-year travel and work-as-you-go travel are very different. But in the end, either style of travel is going to require money. Either money you’ve saved, or money you make as you go. How much money depends on how you want to travel and is going to be a little bit different for everyone. But if you want a ball-park figure of what your travel budget can be using miles and points to help buffer that cost, I recommend jumping over to my stats page to see exactly how much it costs for us to live nomadically.
Cost/day: $2 for adults, $1 for children
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened lately?
Today was our first outing since she’s been born. We went with grandma and grandpa to the Children’s Museum (Museo de los Ninos) in San Jose.
Describe a typical day:
We’re staying in the mountains of the Central Valley, with a gorgeous view of the ocean waaaay off in the distance. Grandma and grandpa have come to visit, for the birth of our sixth child.
Before she was born, we took a trip to the chocolate farm.
It’s been a couple of weeks since Saige Journee was born, so we’re ready for another (little) adventure — the Children’s Museum in San Jose, about 45 minutes away.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
Like: This is our second time living in Costa Rica. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful, friendly people, idealized in their most common saying, ‘Pura vida’ (pure life).
It’s a country with a lot to offer — mountains, beaches, cities, country. Living in the mountains, we’re not too far from all the conveniences of a major city.
The museum was wonderful. So much to see and do, and lots of learning — chemistry, biology, natural history and tons more. An old helicopter to explore, a ‘banana plantation’ to work, a big mouth with teeth chairs… a great time was had by all.
Dislike: The mountain roads from the house down to the city are windy… I feel a little nauseous.
Describe a challenge you faced:
There was some confusion about how to get to the museum, but after asking directions a couple of times, we found our way.
And we should have gone earlier in the day… we didn’t have enough time to see everything before the museum was closing up!
What new lesson did you learn?
Sometimes we put labels on countries — first world versus third world. But all countries have cities, towns and ‘states’ that are in varyied levels of development.
Culture, refinement and fantastic infrastructure can be found in many countries that are labeled ‘third world’.
And the worst internet we’ve found in our travels (so far) was in Homer, Alaska, USA — a ‘first world’ country.
Don’t be too quick to judge.
Staying put in Costa Rica, but we’re having a humble lunch at the home of a Nicaraguan friend.
Learn more about Worldschooling, Education and Funding Travel here.
“Since the end of the Cold War and the opening of the world for travel, tourism has become an important source of foreign exchange for the world’s poorest nations, often the only one. While tourism requires some infrastructure, from airfields to modern highways, it is less expensive than building factories. In theory, poor countries should be able to use the new revenue from the tourism industry to pay for the infrastructure whole raising standards of living and improving the environment. One hundred of the world’s poorest nations do earn up to 5 percent of their gross national product from foreign tourists who marvel at their exotic customs, buy suitcases of souvenirs and take innumerable photographs of stunning landscapes. * But just as tourism is capable of lifting a nation out of poverty, is it just as likely to pollute the environment, reduce standards of living for the poor because the profits go to international hotel chains and corrupt local elites (what is called leakage), and cater to the worst of tourism, including condemning children to the exploitation of sex tourism. Like any major industry, tourism has a serious downside, especially since tourism and travel is underestimated as a global powerhouse; its study and regulation is spotty at best. Tourism is one of those double-edged swords that may look like an easy way to earn desperately needed money but can ravage wilderness areas and undermine native cultures to fit into package tours: a fifteen-minute snippet of a ballet performed in Southern India; native handicrafts refashioned to fit oversized tourists. What is known is that tourism and travel is responsible for 5.3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and the degradation of nearly every tropical beach in the world.”
–Elizabeth Becker, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (2013)
“Last night while I lay thinking here, some WHAT IFS crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old WHAT IF song: WHAT IF I’m dumb in school? WHAT IF they’ve closed the swimming pool? WHAT IF I get beat up? WHAT IF there’s poison in my cup? WHAT IF I start to cry? WHAT IF I get sick and die? WHAT IF I flunk that test? WHAT IF green hair grows on my chest? WHAT IF nobody likes me? WHAT IF a bolt of lightning strikes me? WHAT IF I don’t grow talle? WHAT IF my head starts getting smaller? WHAT IF the fish won’t bite? WHAT IF the wind tears up my kite? WHAT IF they start a war? WHAT IF my parents get divorced? WHAT IF the bus is late? WHAT IF my teeth don’t grow in straight? WHAT IF I tear my pants? WHAT IF I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then the nighttime WHAT IFS strike again!”
–Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
My sister and I read this poem over and over again when we were little. Although at the time we felt it acknowledged some of the fears with which an eight and twelve year old might struggle, it seems to have a greater meaning than at first I thought. What if we don’t have enough money? What if we get rid of the apartment? What if we can’t find a storage unit? What if, what if, what if? No matter the age or stage in life, the ‘What Ifs’ have a way of striking. How do you quiet the whispers?
We’ve thought about and heard it all before-when is the right time to have kids, to get married, to change jobs? Seems most of us don’t have an exact date or time and often, the best answer is – ‘it’s never the right time’. The minute you buy a house, you’re offered a job transfer in a new city that you can’t pass up. Wait to take that much-desired journey to a far off land and there’s bound to be a travel warning to the exact place you planned on going. Trying to know when the ‘right’ time is to make that life change is never easy. Do you cannonball into the deep end or wade with trepidation at the top step in the shallow part of the pool? How on earth are any of us supposed to know when the time is just right?
After countless hours of negotiation with the voices both inside and out of my head, I can honestly say I have no idea when the time is right. But, I do think that when it is at the closest level of right for you, you’ll know. One of my best friends jumps into life. When she wanted to try life on a new coast it took her less than a day to make the decision. When that coast didn’t work out and an overseas offer arrived, she was gone within a week. She knew the instant she met her husband and married shortly after and has tackled other life decisions with continued intensity. Me, I’m the opposite. It took me till twenty-five to finally buy the gift my parents wanted to give me at twenty-one. I cried when I went off to university and although immensely excited, struggled with the idea of moving overseas. There were things I ‘needed’ to be able to make the leap, but after leaping once, twice and a third time my comfort zone has been blown open and the needs seem less and less. Everyone has his or her own process. Sometimes you’ll know deep in your toes that it’s right and other times ‘the right choice’ apprehensively knocks on your door and it takes quite awhile to hear it, answer it and let it in.
The process, decisions and choices are yours. Although, sometimes, life makes a few of those decisions for you but for those that are left to your own accord, listen to the message the world is sharing with you and leap when you’re as close to ready as you’ll ever get. John Lennon said, ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. Time doesn’t stand still and there are only so many do-overs in a lifetime. Find your do-over and take the plunge. Just because we don’t all openly embrace change, doesn’t mean it’s bad. When the signs of the universe finally become clear or as un-fuzzy as they can to you, do it…..the time is right.
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
Age: 39 and 40
Hometown: Ridderkerk, The Netherlands (small town near Rotterdam)
Quote: “Live the life you love, love the life you live!”
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” -
Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.
Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.
So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?
I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.
I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.
Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.
1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.
2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.
3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.
There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.
As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.
There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?
Hometown: Apeldoorn, the Netherlands
Quote: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” ~Lewis Caroll
It seems the nature of humanity to freeze a moment in time.
We remember a person, a place, an experience, as it was when we were last present with it. It is frozen, forever, in our minds; like the fading koda-chrome slides my parents took across the north of Africa forty odd years ago. We return to these places often, in our memories; the tastes, the smells, the sensations in our bodies as real as they were years ago. The characters remain eternally young. The buildings never deteriorate. The music in our minds never changes. Until, we return.
It’s a funny trick our minds play, allowing ourselves to remain fluid, to move forward, to constantly evolve, and yet expecting, somehow, that the places and people of our past experience remain the same. It takes a great deal of presence as a traveler, to remain conscious of this ongoing illusion, this magic trick that we play on ourselves. Returning is dangerous business.
There is a witchcraft in some places that weaves a web that continues to draw us back. When we return the spell is often broken and we find ourselves living in the past, wishing for people, or experiences, or a particular vibe that has come and gone. I’ll admit that there are place to which I refuse to return, simply because I love my illusion too much. The memories made on the first pass are so powerful that I wish to preserve them just as they are.
When we do choose to return, we must do so with an open hand, not grasping at what was past, an open heart, ready to receive what is new, and with open minds, allowing for the growth that has occurred in our absence. It isn’t fair, to a people, or a place, to expect it to remain locked in some eternal nostalgia that we’ve created around it. Of course it’s not the same; progress is the nature of things. Roads will replace foot paths, cell phones will be tucked inside native dresses. Nikes will replace woven sandals, electric lights crowd out the daily use of candles. It would be usurious of us to expect a place to exist at a lesser stage of technological development because it fills a particular emotional need or provides us with a sense of the exotic, or an escape from our real world.
The world changes, so do we. Just as a place will change in our absence, so does the person we bring back to the location. The eyes with which we see now are not the same as the lenses we experienced the spot the first time, or the last time, we attended it. It’s worth considering that for a while as we prepare to return.
My Dad and I had this chat four years ago, as we were settling into our favourite little spot on Lago de Atitlan, in Guatemala for the winter. We were returning for the first time, following a 10 month absence. He was returning for the first time after a 36 year absence.
“You can come, Dad,” I said across the crappy phone connection between ends of the continent, “But you can’t complain about how much it’s changed. It won’t be the same, but remember that for the children this is all it’s ever been, and they get to experience it in their own way, without our biases.”
I could hear him nodding his head in his office in our log home at the edge of the fall snow in Canada. And so, they came, the people who brought me to this lake for the first time in-utero just as the country was beginning to descend into a decades long civil war. It was as much of a joy to watch my parents rediscover the lago they’d long loved as it was to watch my children come alive to the Mayan culture for the first time.
This winter we’re back, all three generations of us. The lake has changed. The people have changed. The village we love the most has changed. We have changed. And yet, the magic remains, so long as we allow the world, and ourselves, to be as we really are.
“This is a truth about leaving the culture that raised you and crossing into another: We leave home with an arsenal of things we know about the place we’re going. There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we’re trying. What makes us blind is that we think we see.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)
The fluidity of travel is a double-edged blade. It’s one of the things I love most about it – that each day is different and you don’t know what to expect. It pulls you into the present, encouraging you to pay attention to everything going on around you, rather than going into auto-pilot mode.
We are beings of habit, though. Our brains are wired to develop patterns of behavior, so that we’re not constantly making decisions. It uses less energy and frees up our mental resources. So when I’m traveling for extended periods of time, I begin to miss the structured days, the habits, the rituals. I do take some of these with me on the road, just to make my life a little bit easier. For instance, I usually travel with protein powder and oatmeal, so that I can have a consistent meal to start off the day. It gives me a bit of respite – being able to wake up and not having to worry about what I’m going to eat for breakfast. Get centered into the day before I have to start make decisions. Then, after that – I take the day as it comes.
I also take a kettlebell around with me when I’m able. (Which usually means whenever I’m not traveling by plane.) Yes, I even carried one along for the 8,000 mile motorcycle trek that I took earlier this year. It was 25lbs of extra weight, but then I was also packing my podcast equipment – so I wasn’t traveling light. What I love about the kettlebell is that it’s versitile and allows me to keep fit when I’m on the road. Sure, there are a lot of body-weight exercises I could do, but just having that weight there with me is an extra bit of motivation. I can’t ignore it. Hell, if I’m going to lug it around, I *have* to put it to use.
While I’m traveling – that’s about all the ritual that I take with me. When I get home, though, I have deeper morning rituals that help me get the most out of the day. When I first get up, I take care of meditation, gratitude and meals. Meditation and gratitude are part of centering myself and taking a moment to recognize the things I should be grateful for. For meditation I’ve been testing out Headspace (an app) and for gratitude I’ve used the 5-minute Journal for over a year. After that I prepare my meals for the day (unless I’m going out). Admittedly, I’m a utilitarian eater – so I just don’t want to have to worry about those decisions when I’m hungry. I’ve also found that taking care of it at once means that I eat healthier, rather than just grabbing whatever is available.
I’ve been trying out a new framework for productivity and happiness each day. The morning ritual is a part, but only the first step. I’m going to stick with it for a few more weeks to see how it works out. If I find it useful, I’ll share.
So, out of curiosity, what morning rituals do you have?
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.