My 5-Month RTW Trip Recap
“We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life -- those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.” - Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest
*ok so, blog hiatus over*
I feel like my life is sprinting by, whenever I pause long enough to think about it. Time is my greatest gift, and yet I can often find myself looking back and wishing I had spent it better or even wondering where and why I’ve misplaced it. One reason I’m so fond of travel is because of the way it introduces novelty and a sense of awe into human experience. Time expands in the presence of novelty and awe enriches it. Inevitably then, these last five months circling the globe have been wide and rich indeed.
When nothing was routine, the recognition of the date, or the day of week, or the season became less important. There was no rush hour, no race towards the weekend. No looming Monday threatened to steal Sunday’s peace. My focus then more easily became the here and now. With a heightened consciousness, the majority of my days on this journey felt expansive. At the very least, I was living in Inception dream level two. And yet, in this moment, in my weary, jet-lagged state of mind, it oddly enough feels like one enormous, exquisite blur. Now that it’s over, I can feel my memory working to condense and contain the last five months. My brain has made the switch back to some version of home and it’s already working to make meaning of it. It feels wildly surreal or like a beautiful dream that’s about to become fuzzy. I feel the weight of it everywhere - real, gritty, tangible - in the way that significant experiences slip under your skin and become part of you.
I will keep looking back on this period in the days, weeks, and years to come and I have no doubt that future versions of myself will uncover new truths as my vantage point pivots to hindsight. Like any meaningful experience in our lives, we process it when it first happens, but as time goes on the meaning can continue to evolve. New lessons present themselves. The memory may be the same, but how we come to understand it may develop and deepen.
Writing about this is necessary for a couple reasons. I will get asked, “How was your trip?” by the people of my life. From a practical standpoint, this blog will be a helpful attempt to give some answers to that simple, yet impossible question. More importantly though, writing is an essential part of reflection for me. Fragmented thoughts, memories, and lessons swirl around in my head and heart and the only way to make sense of it all is to patch them together with words as best I can.
It has been 141 days on the road. I can tell you that I do not know what to do with all the beautiful, challenging things I have seen, felt, and experienced. Returning to what I love with deeper gratitude is a start. There is always a little bit of disbelief mixed in with gratitude for me. I am entitled to none of this, yet I receive it still.
I did not go on this trip because I was tired of home, or restless and wanting an escape, or in need of finding something out in the world that could not be found right where I already was. We know that our heaviest baggage is unseen, and it too travels with us no matter how promising the destination that awaits. Travel for me isn’t about stepping away from my home and way of life. It’s about stepping towards a new place and observing someone else’s home and way of life. Travel is important because it brings perspective -- it changes the way we see, and the way we choose to see changes everything. More experience should foster greater compassion. You find beauty in diversity, and then again, in sameness -- because it’s beautiful how much we all feel the same.
For the last year and half especially, travel has been a huge investment of time, love, effort, and money for me. This trip has been an adventure, but it, and travel in general, is not the grand adventure of my life. When you travel, a lot gets put on hold and a lot of life back home passes by without you. It’s painful. I used to think that I had a limitless appetite for travel, but I’ve come to find that’s actually not the case. If given all the time and money in the world, I wouldn’t choose a nomadic way of life. Maybe that’s easier said after having had the privilege to test that assumption, but truthfully, it is less glamorous and romantic than it seems.
I imagine that most people would understand that long-term travel is nothing like a vacation, but just in case it needs to be said, I can assure you that traveling in this way is nothing like being away on vacation. I have taken solo vacations before but this felt entirely different. The constant grind of planning, researching, navigating, and moving was all-consuming and exhausting. When nothing runs on autopilot, every choice must be made deliberately. Doing the bulk of it all on my own was both a great freedom and chore. Ultimately, I found my personal limit for how long I can engage in this transient lifestyle. Travel too abides by the law of diminishing returns and I felt a sharp drop in value after about four months. Travel is absolutely worthwhile, but it tends to be mostly pleasure -- and pleasure is not joy. It has none of its substance. You miss investing in something consistent. You miss being known. You miss real community. It begins to weigh on you that you cannot show up fully in the lives of the people you love.
This change of heart caught me off guard. I had more places bookmarked, more days on my rail pass already paid for, and my next flight to Budapest already booked. A telling sign was that I felt no desire to board that plane (nothing against Budapest by the way, it’s incredible). I left with boundless enthusiasm, and then one day I simply had no strength or desire to keep moving. Travel is too much of a gift to treat it like a burden. In the same way that deciding on this trip came quickly, I knew in my gut again that it was time to return. It became clear to me that I had reached that state of burnout and decision fatigue that you hear reluctantly discussed on the well-worn backpacker trail. Go. Observe. Consume. Process. Repeat. And now, at last: Rest.
Assuming the average American vacation time of two weeks per year, I spent the equivalent of ten years of vacation time in one go. I feel very tired, but mostly, I feel very lucky. In twenty weeks, I traveled to three continents, thirteen countries, forty-one cities, and made a complete circle around the earth. Naturally, my camera roll and memory cards are bursting. The setting ranged from massive cities and rural countrysides to remote islands and mountain peaks. There were heat waves, hail, thunderstorms, plenty of rainbows, too much humidity, and a cyclone. I made my way by all manner of transportation: plane, train, bus, subway, tram, ferry, speed boat, car, motorcycle, bicycle, and my own two feet. There will be a time for hitchhiking and camels one day I hope. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I encountered a wild variety of mishaps big and small (another post for another time). And though I stuck fairly close to my original itinerary and timeline, not everything went to plan on my route. I did not intend to visit Dresden, Manchester, Paris, or Rome, yet there I went. I had hoped to visit Milford Sound, Melbourne, Dubrovnik, and Bled but I never made it to any of those places. I had days and destinations that I wish I could go back and erase or readjust, and others that I wish I could relive or might be content to never leave.
But all the logistics and destinations and course-corrections are just the background stuff. We know that the story is only as good as its characters, and the transformation that happens within. The magic of it all is in the people, and on a trip like this, there were hundreds. In the notebook I took along with me, I have pages of names written down. You don’t always exchange numbers or friend each other on social media or take photos while you’re caught in the moment. And that’s okay. But I don’t really believe in coincidences when it comes to people, so this was my simple way of holding on to the best parts. I’ve been asked if I brought home any souvenirs. Yes, these names. And the memories and perspective associated with them. It’s true that the never-ending hellos and goodbyes made everything better and harder at the same time. I wrestle with: What am I to do with all these glorious one-hour, one-day, or one-week friendships? What am I to do with cherished memories that I only share with strangers? What am I to do with my love for all these new people and places, knowing I may not return? The answer is not so hard. It looks mostly like that gratitude I hinted at earlier, with a little bit of heartache on the side.
I remain a huge proponent of travel, solo travel, and long-term solo travel. It’s a remarkable feeling to start each day full of possibility and with the health, freedom, time, and money to go just about anywhere I choose. Out there in the unknown, every day has its lesson. Some of those lessons were new, some were relearned, some were unexpected, and some were hard won. I got better at embracing, coping, laughing, and learning. God knows He gave me lots of practice. And that’s all we can really hope for I think, wherever we find ourselves. Time to practice the things that matter; things like patience and kindness and courage and love. I’m still a bit stunned at God’s grace in bringing me to this place of opportunity -- to have explored more of this wondrous planet, to have crossed paths with interesting people along the way, and to have had the chance to practice life with a renewed focus towards what He wants to teach me.
On the eve of my flight out in April, I asked my roommate Yvonne if we could hang out one last time and go grab tacos at a favorite spot of ours. While at dinner she asked me what I was most excited for. I took a minute to think. With most people I would have come up with a variety of other answers, but there, sitting in front of someone who knows me, while crying into my tacos, I found myself speaking to the heart of what really mattered. I said I was excited to read the bible and spend time with God. I felt that without the distractions of everyday life, without being buried in busy, that I would finally have time for God. I was tired of putting so many other things ahead of this all-important relationship, so here I was, clearing my calendar and dropping everything. I wanted to understand. I wanted this to be real.
Well, it turns out nothing changed -- at first. I can change the setting, but I was still the same person. My heart was still home to certain fears, doubts, and shortcomings. Running towards new places wasn’t enough, and I think God could tell it was a half-hearted surrender. If I’m being completely transparent, my plan was to jet around to incredible places filled with wonderful people and I was going to have fun and document it. I was going to let God make this the start of something beautiful in my life. As if God needed my permission, or my input. I had made this grand move, and yet I was still succumbing to endless distractions and pursuing the wrong things. Unsurprisingly, nothing had actually changed. I began to wonder if I had made the right choice in coming, if I had ever really heard God at all.
And then about two months into my travels, I found myself in a place I wasn’t expecting to be. I was hitting roadblock after roadblock and it wasn’t until everything started piling up in front of me that I finally found a way to be present. I realized I was so bad at waiting and choosing Him first, that God literally had to get me physically and mentally stuck on the other side of the world. Let me be clear: this is not about running away from any set of circumstances, it’s about running towards the life God wants to give you. The mountain and valley metaphor for faith will always be my favorite. I grew up surrounded by mountains and valleys and that landscape is mirrored in the geography of who I am. At the start of this trip, I thought I was meant to climb mountains, but instead God dropped me into a valley. A dark, desolate, and depressing one at that. I resisted, of course. I hated that I needed to be brought to this place in order to change. But change didn’t happen until I got quiet, until I got small in front of God. I’ve learned that no one makes themselves humble -- we cannot do it ourselves. We go to God and He makes us humble. People love to tell me that this round-the-world trip is an adventure of a lifetime, but it's not. I’m realizing the adventure of my lifetime will be going to God over and over and over to rest in His grace and let that change me.
Here’s THE thing: God is not interested in meeting my expectations, He’s interested in transformation. And when I finally began seeking God in the valley, I began to recognize Him in the people around me. He gives us people, our brothers and sisters, to teach us who He is, and because of that I see Him everywhere, and in everyone -- and that leaves me breathless.
I have always been someone that is driven by both emotion and logic. And to be honest, I struggle to understand anyone who doesn’t make room for both in their worldview. Give me your poetry and your research, your intuition and your intellect. Let’s welcome both faith and reason to the discussion, because some things are better expressed than explained. When God came up in conversations during this trip, I noticed that people want to have God explained to them. They want proof, and I get that, because I want that too. But I also get this sense that we want to be able to grasp God and His every movement. We question why life still looks the way it does if He is in fact real and fighting for us. We come to the question of God with lots of our own expectations of how He could show up for us, and if He would just meet us there, then we would at last believe. The truth is this: no human on earth will ever be fully equipped to tell you all of who God is. And that’s a good thing. It’s the best thing. It means we each get to wrestle with our questions and bring them to God -- we get to make faith our own. We were never meant to put our trust in a religion that feels rigid and restricting. We are meant to pursue a relationship with God that brings renewal and freedom. But here’s the thing -- God is not hiding from us. He hasn’t left us. I was hardly pursuing God on a daily basis at times, and yet I was getting upset and discouraged that He wasn’t showing up in the way I wanted. Picture this: all you do is ignore, yell at, or blame someone, you never listen to them, you never trust them, you always think you know better, and then you wonder why you have such a terrible relationship with them. And yet, that is exactly how we approach God sometimes.
Down in my metaphorical valley, I began to read the bible and listen to His word. And then I began to respond with prayer. We were having an open, two-way conversation for the first time in a long time. It’s a pretty disarming thing to be all kinds of awful towards someone and have them love you when you least deserve it. But by His grace, we were back to practicing the basics of any good relationship. Through Jesus’ life and through the stories of other people in the bible, God began to show me who He is again. Psalm 34:4 reminds me how simple it can be: “I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears.”
The bible to me is like one great treasure map leading me towards the heart of God. Not everything makes sense, just like how not everything in the story of my life makes sense. We may feel chaos, but the things of God are always in order. Life can be difficult, heartbreaking even, and good at the same time. We can still find peace in the not knowing, we can still have hope in what’s to come. Learning the traits of God is like discovering all the pieces of someone you’re falling in love with. It takes time and effort, but it’s a beautiful, intimate process. You begin to realize you could happily spend your whole life coming to know God and still have more to discover. That’s why He cannot be contained in the explanations of any one of us. As our creator, He has hardwired us for relationship, and we seek love, even if we’re unsure of where to find it. As a Christian, the way forward is clear: God is the love you are searching for. To know God you must seek Him first. Only then will we be equipped to play our roles in the love story He is writing.
I want to thank you for reading if you’ve made it this far. God has been so faithful and patient with me, and it is a joy to share about what He is teaching me. I feel a great need to sit across from my best people with gigantic cups of coffee and process all of this more fully. I am so glad that I can bury my nose in the bible and other books in non-Kindle form again and continue this journey. As I pick up where I left off here in California, I don’t have many answers. I will be taking things slowly. I am once again trusting that the next chapter holds some new kind of good.
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
- Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision
New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Scotland, Hungary, Italy
Cities + Regions Visited
NEW ZEALAND: Auckland, Coromandel, Rotorua, Taupo, Marlborough/Blenheim, Christchurch, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Queenstown // AUSTRALIA: Sydney, Blue Mountains, Byron Bay // INDONESIA: Kuta, Seminyak, Nusa Islands, Ubud // SPAIN: Arrasate, Laguardia, San Sebastián, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao, Granada, Córdoba, Sevilla, Ronda, Barcelona // PORTUGAL: Lisbon, Sintra, Porto // FRANCE: Paris // GERMANY: Heidelberg, Dresden // CZECH REPUBLIC: Prague // DENMARK: Copenhagen // ENGLAND: Manchester, London, Oxford // SCOTLAND: Edinburgh, Scottish Highlands // HUNGARY: Budapest // ITALY: Rome