One Year In – What I Have Learned

A few days ago, on April 24th, Jesse and I celebrated one year since the start of our adventure.  Taking time off work and traveling long term was something I have considered numerous times. I did a brief, month-long stint around Australia after grad school; thought about doing a year when I turned 30, but never quite had the guts to leave my job and the responsible life behind.  

And then I met Jesse.  We’d talked about this lofty goal from the beginning of our relationship.  At times, I was 100% serious; at other times, it was lip service to my wanderlust filled partner.  As our wedding approached, and talk of us taking an extended honeymoon got more and more real, I had to face a complicated question.  Was I serious, or was it something I just said to make Jesse happy? In theory, of course I wanted to do it. Who doesn’t want to quit their jobs to travel?  But the hardworking, proper, straight-laced only daughter of immigrants was terrified at the prospect of leaving a good job (and health insurance!) behind for an aimless life on the road.  Then, over the holiday season of 2017, as I was shopping for stocking stuffers for Jesse, I found myself in the Barnes & Noble on 86th and Lexington staring at the Lonely Planet’s guidebook to “The World”.  Knowing the implications, I grabbed it, wrapped it and put it in Jesse’s stocking (technically, under the tree because boy was that thing was heavy and bulky, but you get the point).

When you plan, you have time to enjoy a beer with the sunset!

With the decision behind us, the next thing to do was plan.  Jesse wanted to go without agenda, but as we started researching, we realized that in Africa that would be tricky to do.  So we worked with an amazing company called Drive Botswana that essentially planned out our entire agenda in Botswana and Namibia.  The planner in me felt good, relaxed. We then started to look towards Russia and knowing that the World Cup would eliminate the ability to be flexible, booked the entirety of our rooms and flights in order to avoid getting shut out by World Cup visitors.  I felt good – the planner in me was appeased through Russia, and the wanderer in Jesse had China to look forward to when it came to schedule-free travel.

What I didn’t realize was how years of going on mostly pre-planned and pre-organized trips would impact my ability to relax and enjoy myself.  Once we arrived in China, it hit me almost immediately. We were checked into our hotel in Beijing when I realized the gravity of it all. We had accomodations booked for two nights in Beijing and the following two nights in Xi’An, but nothing else.  Where would we go? What would we do? It was summer (August no less – peak travel time for the domestic tourist in China); what if places were sold out? What if we couldn’t get the trains we wanted? What if this perfect schedule I had crafted had to change or be altered???  I was starting to realize that I was not as good at wanderlust as I had initially thought. And this was only the beginning.

When you plan, you can take scenic bike rides around the world’s largest freshwater lake!

While Jesse and I had traveled several times before, this type of travel was very new for us.  All of our previous trips had been on a tighter time frame, situations in which you only have a few days here or there and opportunities to see and do things need to be maximized.  Because of the shortage of time, all previous trips had been planned pretty thoroughly so we could spend our time on vacation seeing things, not planning things, which suited me just fine.  But now, with nothing but time, things are planned less and less as we cruise along. The lack of planning was also starting to impact how I felt towards Jesse. His relaxed attitude frustrated me.  Didn’t he know that we needed to book something? Didn’t he know that things might sell out? Of course he did, but he just didn’t care. If it did, it did. If it didn’t, it didn’t. As he would often say: “Things will all sort themselves out in the end.  Relax….”

A couple of things came out of this discovery. 1)  apparently I was not as relaxed as I thought I was.  Whether it was always going on vacations that had been thought out and planned, or living a life in which every aspect from work to my social life was meticulously planned, I was discovering that I was not great at flying by the seat of my pants.  2) Jesse and I needed to learn how to talk through conflict. We’d been lucky enough in our relationship to never have any big fights that couldn’t be resolved, but this was different. This was me struggling to be happy and him not even close to understanding why. So what is a girl to do?

When you don’t plan, you get to spend the night with amazing puppies.

The first step towards me relaxing was not entirely by choice.  While in China, we went to Lijiang with the intention of hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Upon our arrival in Lijiang, we discovered that the gorge was closed due to landslides.  At our hostel in Lijiang, we met a group of travelers who, like us, had been intent on hiking the gorge but had to make do with something else, suggested we go on a different hike, one very much of the beaten path.  After some aggressive internet research, I discovered that none of the guesthouses recommended were on any website. Not shocking, considering we were going to a town very few people had heard of, but incredibly stressful for me.  What do you mean we can’t book ahead of time? What if there are no beds? What if we have to sleep on the street? We decided to forge ahead (me, trepidatiously) and Jesse had the distinct pleasure of listening to the above refrains repeated about once every hour as we got closer and closer to our destination.  I was filled with anxiety that even 7 hours of hiking couldn’t knock out of me. At last, we arrived at the town, a gorgeous little village nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, with Tibet just over the peaks we’d come face to face with.

When you don’t plan, you get incredible views of Himalayan foothills.

And you know what?  It was fine. The guesthouse we were interested in staying at not only had beds, but some of the best food we’d eaten, and lovely guests and hosts that we could chat with during our stay.  There was even ice cold craft beer waiting for us after our hikes. Everything was fine. We didn’t get eaten by wild animals, we didn’t get hypothermia from being forced to sleep on the street, and we didn’t get murdered by a lunatic recluse hiding in the mountains.  Not only was everything was fine, but it was one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. This was my first true experience of feeling joy and excitement at having not planned or booked anything in advance. It was also an exercise for Jesse and me to understand what the middle ground is between my need to plan and his desire to not.  

And here we are one year later.  I’m significantly more laid back (though ask Jesse and I still have a lot more work to do), and we’ve hopefully set up a foundation for our marriage to navigate conflict and disagreements.  We celebrated our feat with a few cocktails and a lovely dinner in Plovdiv. And as we sit in our hotel in Sofia, planning our road trip through Transylvania, I’m ok not securing a guest house in each town.  Not every day of that drive needs to have an activity or an accommodation attached to it. And you know what? Not only is it ok, but I’m actually looking forward to having no agenda for a little while.

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