Traveling the World vs. Vacation

by Pete Barba

Traveling for a year is not a vacation.  Yep, I said it.  To all of you, who are now thinking, “you ungrateful, entitled, spoiled brat”, hear me out.  This isn’t me complaining, this is just my truth about what it’s like to travel non-stop for a year.  It’s a perspective that not many others are lucky enough to experience, and I don’t take our blessings for granted.  At the same time, there’s some hard truths that are tough to know unless you’ve done this yourself.

Typically when you go on vacation for a week or two, there are two broad categories, relaxation or adventure.  Relaxing vacations are resorts and cruises, where you are pampered and the biggest decision is which entree you are going to have for dinner.  You don’t need to worry about language barriers, getting from place to place, or social norms, because you are surrounded by other tourists.  A relaxation vacation is just what you need when you go 1000 miles per hour for way too long and you just need to interrupt life to catch your breath.  They are crucial in our fast paced and demanding culture.  Adventure vacations come in many forms, such as cultural adventures, religious journeys, and adventure sports.  For me, these kinds of vacations, while not relaxing, help us escape our day to day grind and experience something new.  Trying new foods, climbing a mountain, visiting a monastery, and learning a new culture forces us outside our comfort zone.  No longer are we worried about the stresses of our home life, rather our mind focuses on how amazing the Pho is in Vietnam, or the magnificent sunrise from the top of Kilimanjaro.  While these vacations aren’t about mental or physician relaxation, they help restore our soul and give meaning to our lives.  Plus whatever discomfort, physical or mental, that you experience will disappear when you return home in a few short days.  

Traveling for a year isn’t like a relaxing vacation or a self limited adventure vacation.  Unless you have unlimited funds, staying at resorts or taking cruises for a year isn’t financially possible.  Plus for us it would violate the purpose of this trip, which is to immerse our family in different cultures, and see the world through a different lens.  This year abroad is more like an adventure type vacation but with one small but crucial difference; it doesn’t end in a week or two.  Returning to the comforting embrace of normality is half a world away and in the distant future.  

How hard could it be, you ask?  It’s hard, very hard.  Let me explain.

Autopilot – We take for granted, in our everyday lives, how much we do things on autopilot. Where is the grocery store?  Which side of the road do I drive on?  How do I say hello?  When I need an emotional pick me up, which friend do I reach out to? These are all things that we do automatically without thought.  After all, if we had to think about every little thing, we would never have time or mental energy to spare.  

For world travelers, those basic assumptions change every few days.  Just to buy milk, we need to think about the following:

  • Where is the grocery store?  Is it safe to walk there in this city?
  • Which side of the road do I drive on? Or if walking, do cars stop for pedestrians or am I just a moving target?
  • Is there a parking lot or do I park on the street?
  • Do I need to pay for parking?  How?
  • Do I need to give a deposit for the shopping cart?
  • What is the word for milk in this language?  
  • Which aisle has the milk?
  • In this country is the milk shelf stable or refrigerated?
  • What is the term for low fat milk?  Light, Trim, Reduced Fat, 1%, Diet….
  • How do I pay/check out?
  • Do I need my own bags?
  • How do I say hello and thank you to the clerk?
  • Do I need a club card to get the sale price?
  • How do I use the credit card machine?  Does it charge a fee?  Is there a PIN?  
  • Do I have to sign the receipt?  Do I need to give them my passport number?
  • Do I return the cart to the same location or does someone take it back for me?
  • How do I get home?
  • What’s the code to the apartment building?

That’s just buying milk.  Imagine getting to a new location and doing these first day tasks: go through immigration, get your cell phone to work, find your way to your Airbnb, buy groceries for a week, research activities and restaurants, find out which neighborhoods are safe to walk in and more.  All this within 4 hours of landing in a new country and repeating it 30 times in a year.  It’s mentally exhausting.  

I like to think that we are learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Our old, secure, normal lives have become a thing of the past.  We have reduced the number of “normal” things we do.  Starting the day with a shared coffee, going for a walk together each day, playing cards at dinner time, watching a common TV show at night, hugs and kisses at bedtime.  Those are our comforts, our crucial norms.  Everything that before was comfortable and common is gone.  Like a toddler learning to walk, talk and understand their environment, we are seeing everything from a new perspective.  It’s fun, terrifying, and exhausting all at the same time.

Family Matters – The other aspect of traveling for a year is your travel companions.  Right now, I can feel the collective thoughts of all of you saying “Pete, you idiot, shut up, this isn’t going to end well for you”.  But alas, I never learned to keep my mouth shut.  

I am blessed to be traveling with my amazing wife and great kids.  I have a near perfect family.  Kate is practically perfect, after all she is Mary Poppins.  Drew is a creative genius and a gentle soul.  Gwyn is a social genius and is one of the few people who can put me in my place.  I couldn’t be happier traveling with them.  But……

When they plan for astronauts to go on extended missions, like to the moon or mars, a big part of the preparation is making sure the team is balanced and even-headed.  We are not astronauts, and we would probably fail the psychological assessment.  They would never dream of sending two pre-teens for an extended space voyage, let alone a crazy middle aged man who likes to dream bigger than reality.  Yet here we are, orbiting the planet, largely alone, navigating places we have never been before, meeting cultures that are alien to us, all without knowing the language, the food, the location.  We are like Captain Kirk, without the cool spaceship and trained crew.  Wadi Rum and Singapore are our alien worlds with “new civilizations”.  Immigration officials are our Klingons.  When one of us breaks down, we can’t escape our family bubble; our hotel room is our Enterprise.  At home when our kids drive us crazy, we send them to school or to friends’ homes.  When Kate wants to kill me, she sends me off to work or the garage to give herself peace and quiet.  This year we are stuck with each other through good and bad.  Thankfully it’s been mostly good.

Longing for Home – On top of all of that, we deeply miss our friends, coworkers, and my patients.  In day to day life, we take for granted how important those relationships are to our well being until they are temporarily disrupted.  When you are gone for a week or two, you know that you will return and share your stories with your friends.  When you are gone for a year, those relationships are in limbo.  No matter how much you text, FaceTime, or email, it’s not the same as a hug from your bestie, or sitting around the fire pit enjoying food together.  There’s a reason Jesus had the Last Supper, communion is good for both the mind and the soul.  Those friendships are a huge part of what gives our lives meaning, purpose and contentment.  Without them, there is a void that can’t be filled, no matter how great the adventure or how perfect your traveling companions.  We yearn for the day when we can see your smiling faces and hear your stories of our time apart.

Old and new friends in the Netherlands 2022

Despite the longing for normality and friendship, I wouldn’t change a thing.  Yes, this trip is hard and exhausting.  More than once, we’ve had to take days completely off where we have locked ourselves in our rooms to just mentally unwind.  We’ve had fights.  We’ve had hurt feelings.  We’ve driven each other crazy.  We’ve all changed.  

Everything is Awesome – At the same time, this year is awesome in the truest sense of that grossly overused word.  We’ve eaten awesome food- the perfect baguette, the weird mopane worm, the yummy alpaca sausage.  We’ve seen awesome sights – Victoria Falls, the pyramids, Petra, the northern lights, volcanoes.  We’ve shared awesome adventures – paragliding in the Swiss Alps, horseback riding in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, zip lining in Africa, hiking the canyons of Petra.  We’ve experienced awesome cultures – the unbridled hospitality of Jordan, the indigenous culture of the Bolivian people, the generosity and practicality of the Dutch, and the deep understanding of the animals by the people in the Okavango Delta.  Life isn’t just good, life is awesome.

New Zealand 2023

For those who are lucky enough to take an extended time off, go for it, 100%!  Whether it is a month, 3 months, 6 months or 1 year away, it will change your life in so many positive ways you can’t begin to fathom.  At the same time, don’t go into it thinking it will be a vacation.  You will not be relaxed, refreshed, or rested, but you will be made whole in ways you never expected.  

Thanks for reading to the end.  Next up: Singapore!  Don’t forget to check out our past stories and subscribe for future articles as well.  Find us on Facebook and Instagram for bonus content!  Please note that any links or business names provided are for information only, we did not receive any compensation for our opinions or recommendations. As always, if you are planning a trip to any location we visit we are happy to provide more details and opinions, so feel free to contact us!

5 responses to “Traveling the World vs. Vacation”

  1. I think what you and your family have shared, and accomplished together, is incredible. I’m very close to taking that year and going on an adventure on my own. I’ve been dreaming of it all my life. Yes, they’ll be difficulties- I always take my own shopping bags, and ill hope a smile is universal hello thank you and anything else I fail to be able to say. Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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