Last year, we were asked by BBC Travel to share the story of how we — as a married couple — quit our jobs to travel the world. The editors asked that we focus on the decisions we made together and offer some tips and advice for traveling couples and others considering making the leap. They requested also that our perspective reflect not only the highs of our journey, but also some transparency on the struggles we’ve experienced along the way.
No small feat to squeeze these various charges into one piece, but I think we did.
In honor of relationships, in all manner of their evolution, we thought it fitting to share a personal story of ours for Valentine’s Day.
When people ask us, “What’s the most frightening thing you’ve done while traveling the world?”, they often expect a story from Iran, Kazakhstan or Rwanda. Yet while we have encountered plenty of challenges during our travels, many of which have been fodder for stories on our blog, our most difficult moment came before all that. It was when in 2006, as mid-career professionals, my wife and I handed in our resignation letters, setting aside the security of one life for the uncertain opportunities of another – together.
Both of us are American, but we were working in Prague at that time. Audrey, my wife, managed tax and legal issues for US media organisation Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I was a management consultant for the mobile phone provider Vodafone. After five years in Prague, and a combined 20 years of professional experience, we both had begun to feel as though our careers no longer challenged us. We needed a professional and creative re-boot.
Travelling together wasn’t new to us, having followed our simple 25-person wedding in Pienza, Italy with a five-month backpacking trip across Europe. But it was a trip to Thailand over Christmas 2004 that truly illuminated how we could make long-term travel a reality. Even though we could have budgeted for a pricier hotel, it was a 400 baht ($10) per night bungalow that brought us joy and satisfaction.
Back home, intrigued by the idea of acquiring life experiences over objects, we found other ways to adjust our spending habits. We cut back on items for our apartment, clothes and eating and drinking out. Our goal: to save up for a 12- to 18-month sabbatical that would let us both travel the world and develop skills that could transition us each into alternate professions – and into the next stage of our lives together.
The major mitigating factor? We are two people. When you act alone, you can just pick up and go. As a couple you must constantly communicate to make sure you’re still aligned in your goals and needs. It’s something we call “checking in”, a process we’d used somewhat informally in our daily lives, but now approached more deliberately given the major life decisions ahead of us. The decisive check-in happened one night as we sat together at the edge of our bed in Prague, probing possible reasons for making the leap – or not.
“Are we really ready to do this?” I asked.
“Well…maybe we can put it off just a little while longer?” Audrey responded, echoing my own ambivalence.
“But one year becomes five, five becomes 10. The next thing you know you are looking back and wondering ‘What if?’” I said. We looked at one another, knowing what we were about to do.
Granted, our decision seemed a little unhinged, especially to those close to us. Luckily, we had prior experience with the challenging conversations and puzzled looks, having set off five years earlier from San Francisco to Prague in the mid-winter – with no jobs lined up. It was a decision that perplexed our friends and family, but also satisfied the nagging curiosity that we both had.
And so in December 2006, two years after our fateful Thailand trip, we handed in our resignation letters, sold everything except what we could cram into our backpacks and departed with two one-way tickets to Bangkok.
Over the next eight years, we travelled the Silk Road overland from the Republic of Georgia to China, climbed to the top of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, took a 60-hour train from Iran to Istanbul, witnessed the sun rise over the salt flats in Bolivia, followed penguins in Antarctica, trekked in the Himalayas, tracked tigers in Bangladesh and were continually humbled by the prevailing kindness shown to us by people we met.
That one-year sabbatical? It became a new lifestyle – and it did lead to different professions.
Our website, Uncornered Market, began as a creative outlet for stories of adventure coupled with tales of places and people that aren’t usually represented in mainstream media. We began its development alongside Buddhist monks in internet cafes in Luang Prabang, Laos, and put the finishing touches on it somewhere in Battambang, Cambodia. The blog’s success has since led to various brand ambassador gigs, professional speaking engagements, freelance writing and photography assignments and digital consulting projects – all of which help fund our continued journeys.
Even so, the big question isn’t how we’ve made our finances and careers work. It’s how we’ve made our relationship work.
As American writer Alexandra Penney once said, “The ultimate test of a relationship is to disagree, but to hold hands.” We’d add, “…while traveling the world and running a business together”.
In some ways, we complement each other well while on the road. One of us often needs a little push from the other to get past fears and grow. In early 2007, for instance, Audrey was reluctant to visit Turkmenistan. She knew from her previous job that it could be a dangerous country where journalists were incarcerated; some even died in jail. I wanted to take the risk and see for ourselves. So we decided to leave the decision up to fate, resting on whether our visa applications were successful.
They were. On our ensuing cross-Caspian Sea ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan, Audrey, despite her initial concerns, was the one who started chatting with other passengers, using the Russian she had honed from both her previous job and two months of travel in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The next thing we knew, we had arrived, and were being plied with glasses of vodka and watermelon by Turkmen vacationers on the beach.
Another difficult challenge was our own expectations. Ditching what we called the “perfection narrative” of our relationship – the idea that marriages are supposed to be easy and ideal, when in fact they are full of bumps and hard work as you inch toward shared goals – was especially freeing. And travel helps. Wake up after a week without showering in Nepal’s Himalayas and you have a new appreciation for who the person next to you really is. Later that morning, when that unwashed partner makes it over a 5,400m mountain pass and motivates you to do the same, you might just find your heart brimming over with pride.
Still, sometimes we must withdraw to our inner selves to maintain a level of independence and reflection. Allowing and respecting this need is especially important when one or both partners happens to be an introvert, as I am. This is where the ability to create mental space, even in shared (and small) physical space, can be a relationship-saver. We might sit next to each other on a 17-hour bus ride without speaking for hours at a clip. We aren’t angry at one another; instead, we are creating the circumstances we need to reflect and regenerate for the next adventure.
And yes: there are occasions where we fight, sometimes to blow-out proportions. One of those times was in Buenos Aires, the night before Valentine’s Day 2010 – and while I don’t recall what we fought about, the argument ended with us each boarding separate buses, headed in opposite directions, in the middle of the night. The next morning we reconciled, reflected and even wrote a piece on how to travel the world together without killing each other.
Today, we’re often asked for our secrets to travel, relationships and life satisfaction. Our biggest tip? The greatest impressions on life’s highlight reel need not always be attached to a several thousand dollar “trip of a lifetime”, but can instead be found, say, in the eight euro bottle of wine that you share under a tree behind an old train station on the France-Switzerland border.
As a couple, meanwhile, our travels have provided us the opportunity to create a library of shared stories and life experiences. Our respect and appreciation of our differences has helped us grow together, not apart. But it’s important to remember that travelling and working together forces issues to the surface; work through them immediately, rather than letting them stew and simmer.
Oh, and if you board separate buses, make sure they eventually wind up in the same place.