Lessons from Traveling Around the World After Seven Years on the Road

Lessons from Traveling Around the World: Reflections After Seven Years on the Road

Seven years ago today I strapped on a backpack and boarded a plane for six months of traveling around the world. I was exhausted from months of planning, but bursting with excitement that I was finally headed out to see the world. I was also terrified. Though I had traveled considerably in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, my overseas experience was limited to a few Caribbean jaunts, one trip to Thailand, and another to Spain. This time I would visit 15 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Oceana. At age 54, all alone, I set out with a laptop and a camera, determined to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer.

This was not a new dream for me. My passion for photography began at age 11, when my uncle gave me an old Leica camera. Not long afterward, someone gifted my father with a subscription to National Geographic. He never threw a single issue away; they mushroomed into teetering stacks in our front hall, where I sat cross-legged on the floor after school, devouring every word and imagining myself in the exotic places so vividly displayed in photos.

Portrait of terror - me at the airport in Charlotte, NC, waiting for the flight that would begin six months of traveling around the world

Portrait of terror – me at the airport in Charlotte, NC, waiting for the flight that would begin six months of traveling around the world

But life had other plans for me. As a 17-year old college dropout, I was desperate to leave my parents’ home. Faced with the necessity of earning a living, I accepted the first job offered to me, selling advertising at the Chicago Sun-Times. It paid well and started me on a long climb up the corporate ladder that would eventually lead to management positions in sales, marketing, real estate, and public relations. Though I enjoyed great success in my career, I was miserably unhappy and after more than three decades of corporate politics and stress, my health began to deteriorate. My bones ached from the inside out and my knees and hips screamed in protest whenever I climbed steps. Most frightening, I developed dyslexia and short term memory loss. Doctors were unable to find any specific cause, yet I grew weaker and more exhausted with every passing month.

Finally, five years after the onset of my symptoms, I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and put on massive doses of doxycycline, as I was allergic to all the other antibiotics normally used to treat Lyme. More than the disease itself, the medicine put me down. Bedridden for part of each week, I shuffled between bedroom and bathroom, avoiding the mirror that reflected a drawn, ashen gray face. I made an occasional appearance at work, where shocked looks on the faces of my co-workers confirmed how terrible I looked. Terrified that I would die before doing all the things I had dreamed of, I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue my true passions: travel, writing, and photography. A year later I kept that promise.

Though I had spent months researching and planning for traveling around the world, reality didn’t set in until I was sitting in Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Coffee turned to battery acid in my stomach as I pondered whether I had made the right decision. My family certainly didn’t think so, nor did most of my friends. I was abandoning a successful career and walking away from everything I had struggled to acquire – a beautiful waterfront home, new car, nice clothes, and a comfortable lifestyle – to wander the world, staying in hostels and budget guest houses. And why, oh why, had I decided to start the trip in Vietnam, a totally unfamiliar country where English was not widely spoken and Americans had only recently been welcome? I came of age during the Vietnam War and was vehemently opposed to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Those were the years of flower power and Haight Asbury and marches on Washington D.C. Of flag burning and mind-enhancing drugs and free love. We were going to save the world. Except we didn’t. Like most of my friends, I sold out for the allure of money and material things. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to begin this cathartic journey with a pilgrimage to the place that had shaped so much of my character and beliefs.

Intimidating traffic in Saigon was just one of the aspects of the culture that rattled me. And yes, that's a set of six dining room chairs being carried on a motorbike.

Intimidating traffic in Saigon was just one of the aspects of the culture that rattled me. And yes, that’s a set of six dining room chairs being carried on a motorbike.

Gulping down the bile rising to my Adam’s apple, I boarded the plane and hoped for the best. It was not smooth sailing. The first night I checked into my guest house and then went in search of an Internet cafe, eager to publish a story on my blog. By the time I returned some hours later, a metal door had been rolled down over the entrance. Panicked, I scanned the dark street that had earlier been a sea of teeming bodies; at this hour only a few suspicious-looking characters lurked in the shadows. Be calm, I said under my breath. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have to rent a room at another hotel and retrieve my belongings in the morning. Just as I was about to turn away, the owner of a tiny shop next door stepped out to close up for the night. Seeing my predicament, he hammered on the tinny door until the night watchman was roused and let me in.

In the popular Vietnamese seaside resort town of Nha Trang, I stayed at a more upscale hotel. The bus for my next destination left at 8 p.m. so on the day of departure I stored my luggage at the hotel and took a motorcycle tour. When I returned, all the unlocked compartments of my luggage had been rifled and my backup photo DVD’s stolen. Following uneventful visits to Hue, Hoi An, and Danang, I boarded a night bus for Hanoi that had no bathroom. Rather than stopping at a gas station or restaurant, the driver pulled over to the side of the road twice during the 12-hour drive. Men casually unzipped and urinated at the back of the bus while women wandered off into pitch black fields, lifted their skirts, and squatted to pee. I was wearing long trousers and I couldn’t shake the fear that a cobra might sink its fangs into my bare butt. I did not avail myself of the bathroom facilities that night. We rolled into Hanoi before dawn and rather than take us to the bus station, the driver stopped in the outskirts of town, where a horde of corrupt taxi drivers demanded exorbitant rates to take us the rest of the way into the city.

Nondescript stone building in Hanoi, Vietnam was the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton

Nondescript stone building in Hanoi, Vietnam was the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton

Hanoi was the most intimidating of all. Compared to vibrant, energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the capital city felt sinister. Men in black pajamas sat languidly on street corners, glaring at tourists. My hotel warned of youths on motorcycles who snatch phones from hands and backpacks off shoulders. I was repeatedly warned not to walk alone at night. Even during daylight hours, I felt I needed eyes in the back of my head. Still, I would not be thwarted. I set off on my own to visit the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious prison where Senator John McCain had been imprisoned. Deep within the old stone building I paused to read a signboard containing information in English. The display, titled “The American War,” stopped me in my tracks.

It should not have surprised me that Vietnamese do not refer to it as the Vietnam War, but that small fact set me reeling. In that instant, I understood that so much of who we are as a society is defined by our cultural frame of reference. I also intuitively realized that fearing others who we believe to be ‘different’ is a road map to misunderstanding, violence, and war. Our best potential for peace lies in getting to know one another as human beings. After all these years, Vietnam still held me in its magnetic sway. It had formed me as a teenager and now it would establish the raison d’etre for my blog. Since then, I have immersed into the cultures of 50 countries on six continents (Antarctica awaits), testing my theory that people the world over are more alike than different. My belief has only grown stronger. We may wear different clothes, eat different foods, practice different religions, and speak different languages, but at our core we all want the same things: a safe place to live, food on the table, clothes to wear, freedom, and a better life for our children.

My lessons from traveling around the world have been numerous and richly rewarding. I have learned that I am incredibly strong, flexible, and capable. No longer rattled when things go awry, I simply change directions and go with the flow. Though there are some countries that I would not visit at present (Afghanistan, Syria, parts of central Africa), I now know beyond a doubt that travel is not a dangerous profession. In retrospect, my discomfort in Vietnam seems foolish, as I recognize it was a function of utter unfamiliarity rather than jeopardy. Absolute strangers have helped me countless times, restoring my faith in humanity.

One of my most valuable lessons from traveling around the world - it doesn't require money to be happy

These Nepali girls know what we in the U.S. seem to have forgotten: that it doesn’t require money to be happy. It remains one of my most valuable lessons from traveling around the world.

Perhaps most importantly, I have come to believe that we in the Western world are too attached to material things. I must admit that after spending extended time in third world countries I always return to the U.S. filled with gratitude. Compared to emerging countries, the U.S. suffers precious little corruption and is blessed with untold freedoms. Our cities are clean and relatively safe. Our infrastructure is among the best in the world. I have wept over being able to flush toilet paper rather than dispose of it in a trash bin.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that our values have gone slightly astray. I was filled with shame recently when I overheard a woman in Chicago berate a grocery store clerk because her particular brand of cereal was out of stock. She had 100 others to choose from; people in most countries are lucky if they have two. We want big houses, shiny new cars, and overpriced brand-name clothing. But demanding the best of everything comes with a price: long work hours, high stress, short vacations, and ever-diminishing family time. I was as guilty as anyone. I had the big house and all the rest of it. Looking back, I now realize just how unimportant those things were. What matters, what truly matters, is our relationships with the people we love. On the occasion of my seven year anniversary of traveling, more than anything, I am grateful to have learned this lesson. And I thank each and every one of you for being with me on this journey of discovery.

80 Comments on “Lessons from Traveling Around the World: Reflections After Seven Years on the Road

  1. I stumbled upon this blog by mistake. Thank you for the great advice. I will be sure to bookmark your site for future use.

  2. Love this story..I felt very scared to step out and go to Asia, when I finally did, discovered how much I love travel..if I could afford it, I would travel all the time! Thanks for sharing..

    • I thing that travel, initially, is scary for everyone, Caroline. It was, even for me. But once you do it for a while, it become familiar and the fear goes away.

  3. Really good info. I appreciate your candor and the part about nearly being locked out on your first night! Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Mach, and hopefully my story provided you with some good travel advice/tips.

    • Thank you Arlyne! You have just officially made my day 🙂

  4. I come late to this because of lousy internet for a while. Of course, I love your story. I think I might have mentioned it before 🙂 I had two questions as I re-read it just now. One you’ve already answered in another comment – where do you think you may settle down if and when the time comes. The other is, why did you choose Vietnam as a starting point? It seems that you really threw yourself in at the deep end. Many (me included!) would choose to go somewhere where, perhaps the culture was a little more familiar for starters?

    • Hi Linda: Don’t know if I can give you a precise answer about the Vietnam selection. As I said in the article, I had a strong pull to go there because I grew up during the Vietnam War, however why I selected it as the first destination is beyond me. Maybe it meant adventure to me, and I’m all for an adventure. However, had I not done that, the entire tone of my blog might be very different. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason.

  5. Hi Barbara
    I find your story and your blog very inspiring.
    I am also a 50+ plus woman considering traveling.

    • Hi Nicole: I hope you decide to go – travel is a life-changing experience, and for the better, I believe.

  6. I love your blog. I love especially your insight that you don’t need money to be happy. I’m glad for you … having found your true calling in travel and photography.

  7. First, I would like to congratulate you. Very few secure the opportunity to learn while traveling. As a keen traveler myself, I’m not really averse to the idea of indulging in some fun with fellow travelers. But I need some loan time for meaningful introspection as well. I guess that’s from where my self-learning starts. I wish you many more enriching years on road.

  8. Great read. Love your writing. Was wondering in 20 yrs if you wanted to slow down a bit where would you call home? Have been traveling but seriously planning to move out of USA in next 5 yrs.

    • Oh, Adriana, that’s the $24 million question. I’ve been searching for years and sometimes don’t feel like I’m any closer than I was when I began. Thailand will probably be my choice for the winter months, however there is some political upheaval going on there that worries me slightly. I’ll also eventually find a place for the summer months, as I don’t particularly like fighting the high season crowds. I’m seriously thinking Bulgaria, however also want to check out Slovenia, Croatia, and Greece. I also like Mexico and would like to check out Colombia as well. So, the search goes on. Just means I have to keep traveling perpetually for a while 🙂

  9. What an uplifting story! I love to read stories of sucess and yours certainly is. I bet it was not easy to leave everyting and just go. I think more people should do that even me if I am honest. But here are always questions what if!?
    I see you are really close to my country. I am from Slovenia next to Italy. Did you visit us?

    • Thanks Bostjan – glad you liked my story. It was very difficult to leave everything and go. I thought about it for years before I had the courage to do so, and probably would not have done it at all if I hadn’t gotten very sick. That made me realize how short life is, and how I needed to find a way to be happy, even if it meant giving up most of my material possessions. If you dwell on the “what ifs” – like I did – you’ll never go. Slovenia and Croatia are both at the top of my wish list. Hopefully, I will get to visit soon.

      • You have to visit them. In Slovenia visit Lake Bled and Piran (at the coast) the most beautiful places…well there are others if you have time.

        • Totally agree with Bostjan. You have to visit Slovenia. It is so small country but yet so beautiful! At one time you are in mountains and in 2 hours you are on the coast.
          Love your story Barbara. I wish more people were like you!

        • I definitely will Bostjan. Both Slovenia and Croatia are at the top of my list.

        • Yes. You have to go to Bled, Barbara! I was there many years ago, and it is storybook gorgeous, and the people lovely!

          • It’s definitely high on my list, Linda. And the sooner the better.

  10. Hello! I just happened upon your blog this afternoon. What a wonderful story! And kudos to you for having the courage to do something even though you weren’t 20 years old. At 34, I feel like I’m already at an age where my friends feel defeated to stay in the life they are living even if it’s not really the life they want (or want anymore). Very inspiring. I just quit my job in 2013 to take a year off and do things that make me happy. I just started my “round the world” portion and am attempting to blog about it to share my experience with others. I felt the EXACT same way you did about the self-doubt and nervousness as I sat at the airport heading to Colombia. And it didn’t get off to a particularly smooth start! But just 1 month in and I’m already grateful that I’ve done it! Best of luck to you as you continue your journey!

    • So happy to hear that you forged ahead Katrina. Long-term travel will change you forever, in a good way, I think. Best of luck as you make your way around the globe.

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  12. Hi Barbara

    I think you had me at the title – 7 years on the road, unbelievable! I’m a bit of a nomad, lived in a bunch of different countries and cities but I’m still trying to get my head around the amount of travel you do. Love the photos.

    Cheers

    • Hi Angus: Had to laugh at your comment. It sort of sneaked up on me. Started out with an apartment, traveling part time; within two years I was traveling full time with no home base.

  13. What an uplifting story! I someday hope to travel – I just don’t know how I’m going to make enough money to do so. The fact that Vietnam does refer to the war as “The American War” really puts some things in perspective (I had no idea). Thank you so much for sharing!

    • You’re welcome, Cara. I hope you find a way to do some travel – it’s very educational, which is one of the things I like most about it.

  14. Congrats on 7 wonderful years! It sounds like you only became richer by leaving behind the big house, high-paying job, and the rest of your material things. Keep doing what you love and what is keeping you healthy and happy!

    • Hi Ali! You hit the nail on the head. I have less in the way of material possessions, but I am happier than I’ve ever been. So happy to count you as a friend.

  15. First of all, and most importantly, congratulations to your journey and to what you created; to echo many others above, it’s truly inspirational. Reading your thoughts is also helping to keep some of us focused, while still being in the beginning of journeys similar to yours. It’s quite an achievement finding the path in your life which seven years later took you to a place where people really listen to you, read your posts and feel that they learn something – about the world or maybe even about themselves. All this while you do what makes you happy. I know it’s hard work, we know how much energy it takes to keep a blog attractive – but also the reward it can bring.

    What strikes me with your story – and a few other similar ones – is the tendency to see the initial break-up from the old life as a temporary fix before going back to the “old”, while life almost always takes us somewhere totally different from what we thought we would return to. I don’t necessarily mean always geographically, but by changing the mindset, ending up following the heart traveling makes us different. And yes, values change with the goals and realisations are many: like the wrongly perceived value of money and realising values of real importance in life – just as you say it.

    • Thank you, Pal, for your very thoughtful comment. It’s true that we never really know where life will led us, but I’ve learned over the years to be open to the doors that open along the path. You’ve certainly made my day by suggesting that people “really listen to you, read your posts and feel that they learn something – about the world or maybe even about themselves.” That’s a lovely sentiment and I will treasure that thought.

  16. Great retrospective … coming back and observing our home country after traveling through the developing world really highlights how many of our daily gripes here are truly “First World Problems”!

  17. Inspiring read Barbara. Yes, it is amazing how travel can change a person for the better. I sometimes look back at my spoiled, entitled, self-centered antics from my past and cringe. Now I accept everyday with gratitude that I have grown, at least a little, past my previous egocentric self.

    • It’s all about the gratitude, isn’t it Jonathan? Thanks so much for your lovely comment.

  18. I can say that I salute you for being a brave traveller. Imagine at your age you can do that…Stay healthy and travel and write more.

    • Thanks Macky. I try to live healthy so I can keep on going. Fingers crossed I stay that way.

  19. Such a beautiful and inspiring post, Barbara. I love hearing why people change their career and how they turned to a life of travel and blogging. There are often so many similarities in people’s lives. Thanks for sharing your story so candidly, and glad you’ve found your happiness 🙂

    • What a nice comment Linda. So glad you enjoyed my story; hope you’ve found your happiness as well.

  20. Congrats on your inspiring story. I love reliving Vietnam – I went there in 1991 and it was truly unready for travelling visitors but I still recall the overwhelming generosity of spirit aftre emerging from such a grim history of war. Kepp up your wonderful writing (and come to Australia one day!!).

    • It really is interesting how Vietnam is so cathartic for many of us, isn’t it, Mark. Wish I’d seen it back when you did; it must have been twice as amazing. And you’ll definitely see me one of these days in Australia!

  21. This is a great post. I not only love your Vietnam story, but I admire your courageousness of continuing to travel after those initial setbacks. And I think you have probably more than made up for your working to survive with your trips. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

    • You are so welcome Erika. I love sharing my travels with my readers. Thanks for being a fan of my blog.

  22. “These Nepali girls know what we in the U.S. seem to have forgotten: that it doesn’t require money to be happy”, what a caption Jennifer ! Wish you many more interesting trips ahead. Keep discovering, rediscovering and basking ! All my best wishes !

  23. Barbara, your stories have inspired me for years now. Thank you!!! I am very happy to tell you that because of your inspiration I will be traveling on a mission trip for the first time. At 45, I will be going a bit south of Zimbabwe this May, because your never to old to pursue your dreams.

    • Thank you so much Lorraine. It makes me very happy that I’ve inspired you to travel, and to choose such a worthy trip for your first time around.

  24. Yours was one of the first travel blogs I discovered and found very relatable. My 20-something son, a travel blogger, is the one who convinced me to try my hand at travel blogging (“Mom, you like to travel and you like to write.”), but your site and those of a few other supportive Boomer travel bloggers showed me what that could look like. I’m fond of and follow many young bloggers, but you, and some others, showed me that our demographic brings the hard won perspective of those who have walked this planet for over 50 years. I hope you continue to Write on! I’ll be reading .

    • Suzanne, you have no idea how much your comment means to me. I get a lot of traffic from Google, but it’s the readers like you whom I most cherish. Thank you for your kind words, from the bottom of my heart, and wish you continued success with your blog,

  25. A lovely, heartfelt post Barbara and I applaud you. Your last paragraph reflects my concerns as well. Sometimes people are like this because they are really struggling to juggle their lives. Sometimes it is because they refuse to open their minds. Sad but true

    • Thank you, Michael, for taking time to leave a comment. My lifestyle is definitely not for everyone, but it suits me just fine, and I’ve never been happier than since I gave up most of my material possessions.

      • Thanks for sharing your experiences and your story of what it’s been like for the past 7 years…I have known of other people traveling solo, but thought it would be too dangerous..But you’ve shown it not to be…though your time in Vietnam was a bit scary at times I’d say…And I see you have found what I believe, that no matter where in the world you are, people are people, and have the same desires as we all do, having a decent place to live, enough food to eat, and nice neighbors, etc…That was the way God meant it to be on this earth…to enjoy this beautiful place he created just for man and not for just a few years, but “forever” as the Bible says in Psalm 37 and quoted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:5, without all the crime and corruption going on as it is right now, “the time of the end” of this system which will soon be gone and the “real life” can begin with Christ’s millennial reign from heaven over this earth…What a blessed day that will be Barbara.

        • Hi Nancy: Loved your comment: “no matter where in the world you are, people are people, and have the same desires as we all do, having a decent place to live, enough food to eat, and nice neighbors, etc.” It’s an absolute truth, and one you can;t possibly know until you visit many different cultures.

  26. Congratulations on 7 wonderful years! Travel certainly does give us perspective. Wishing you many more years of doing what you love.

  27. Wonderful Barbara you’er very inspiring .
    I’m so glade I found your site.
    Indeed I’m in the midst of making my decision to hit the road too you’er experience could be very helpful.

    • Hi Uzi. Thanks for your comment and best wishes with your upcoming travels.

  28. Add my “voice” to those above who are so grateful to you for your photos and your thoughtful posts. This is more information about your last seven years (and before!) than I knew, so I am glad to be caught up. It is always a good day when your post shows up in my Inbox – Thank You.

    Irene, still on the road.

    • Irene, the last line of your comment just made my day, “It is always a good day when your post shows up in my Inbox – Thank You.” I can’t think of a nicer thing that could be said to a writer. Thank YOU for being such a devoted reader.

  29. What a fantastic post – very insightful. Good on you for doing what you’re doing, and for seeing the changes that have come with it. Keep travelling! 🙂

    • Thanks Rebecca. I really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten over the years from my readers, each and every one of whom I cherish.

  30. What a journey, and you’re so right that travel makes us realise that happiness is not about accumulating more material things but about enjoying our good fortune in health, family and friendship

    • Hi Heather. So well put – one of the most positive aspects of doing what I do is getting to meet people like you!

    • I’ve never regretted it for an instant, Raul. I hope I can keep on traveling for many years to come.

    • Hi Steve: So glad I could be of help in some way. Travel, more than almost anything else, is a mind expanding activity.

    • Thanks so much Paula – means a lot coming from a friend and a reader. Hugs.

  31. You have such an inspiring story Barbara. Thank you for sharing. I love it when your photos pop up on my feed reader, they always make me smile!

  32. Bless your heart, Barbara — I do SO admire you for staying on the road for all of these years and informing your readers about the wonderful aspects of each country you travel to. But I had no idea that you had originally faced such dire health issues. Your out-of-the-box thinking about how to recover is admirable!

    We came OFF the road this past year to resettle in Australia and I miss our life in Europe every single day. But I’ve noticed that more and more of our little tribe of travel writers are beginning to do the same and set up a permanent headquarters or home once again.

    Not you, little Travel Queen! You’re still out there finding challenges and inspiring another whole generation of younger travel writers to be bold and jump off the corporate ladder if it isn’t making their hearts happy. Good for you!

    Many blessings to you on this special anniversary. May you have untold years of travel ahead!

    Deborah

  33. Great and so inspiring post, Barbara. You have learnt a lot of new things since you were 17 years old. From a scared girl you grew up into a successful traveler, blogger and story teller. You are my role model!

  34. Great post and I absolutely agree with everything you said. My longest full-time travel trip lasted “only” about 7 months but I couldn’t stop my itchy feet. After two years back in Germany and using every day off to travel, I quit my job a few weeks ago and will be travelling again from September on. And I don’t plan the time I’ll be away, it can be a year, it can be two, who knows as long as I enjoy my life, try jobs I’ve always wanted to give a try and hopefully can support other people in this world, I wanna do this. And I only agree with the materialism a lot of people find important here. I am selling or donating most of my stuff and do not have a problem with it. My mum said to me it’s ok when I store my stuff there but I don’t feel the urge to do so. I am ready to leave it behind for memories and experiences which value thousands of times more in my opinion.

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