Four Months Down - Reflections and Realizations (Weeks 17-18, Jan 21 and 28, 2019)
Updated: Mar 1, 2019
On February 1, we boarded a plane from London Gatwick to Marrakech Menara airport. It so happened that we had fevers and chesty coughs and runny noses and a propensity to fall asleep given the slightest opportunity, so we weren’t in a very celebratory mood -- but it marked a milestone. Our departure from Europe, yes, but also the four month mark of our trip. We landed in Rome on October 1, and have been on the go ever since.
I was recently speaking with someone who asked me what surprised me about the experience of traveling for this long. I reflected a a bit and realized there were three main things:
It’s not as hard as it sounds
Most of the things I thought I’d miss, I don’t. I don’t miss having more clothes to wear, and I forget to wear the jewelry I brought. Everywhere we’ve stayed (except rural Skye) has had a Carrefour or a Sainsbury’s Local or some such within a five minute walk of the apartment, and finding what we need for us and WP isn’t much harder than it was back in San Francisco.
I don’t really miss having a home or a home base. It takes about 48h for me to get used to a new apartment. Some are better than others, but all are totally fine. Little things like traveling with a pair of slippers make each place quickly feel like home.
WP gets a bit stressed on packing and travel days, but she adjusts quickly to a new place, and when she sees her pack n play, stuffed toys, and Barry the blankie waiting for her, she knows she has what she needs to sleep well.
The things I thought would wear on me from past “long” trips (of a few weeks) -- living out of a suitcase, relying on very few things -- don’t. We make a point to unpack, we cycle in new clothes for old regularly, and we travel with the equivalent of a medicine cabinet so we’re not scrambling when someone feels sick.
It’s way harder than it sounds
My favorite response when strangers find out what we’re doing is “Wow, you’re brave!” I love the idea of being brave. And it is in the moments when this is really, really hard that I realize they are right. It is a bit brave to leave everything familiar behind in pursuit of adventure, and it is brave to do it when you’re responsible for not only your own wellbeing but that of a pre-verbal early walker.
The things that are hard include the sheer relentlessness of everything being new. You really must pace yourself to be sure you can metabolize and thus appreciate the things you’re seeing and doing when you’re traveling for months on end, even when you stay in places for longer than you would on a typical vacation. So, no, we probably didn’t see the thing you thought we had to see in the place that we went even though we were there for a full week or more. And we just have to be okay with that.
The quantity of family time is also super intense. I can’t even comprehend the difference in how we would be spending this time if we were back in San Francisco. Mike and I would both be out of the house 50ish hours per week working while WP was at daycare or with a nanny. We’d spend a few hours in mornings and evenings together, and weekends would be family time -- that is, when we didn’t have adult plans. Instead all day every day is family time. With the exception of when we have visitors, we are basically our only friends (and WP is great but she has a ways to go to learn how to be a good friend).
(Side note: Because we left when WP was 8mo old and both of us left our jobs pretty quickly after she was born, the transition from this sort of free-flowing lifestyle to a typical two-working-parents lifestyle is my biggest apprehension about the end of this trip.)
Also it turns out that work provides a huge dose of routine in our lives that is really hard to recreate. Right now, our only regularity comes from WP’s schedule. She wakes, naps, and sleeps at about the same time every day. That provides a cadence. But otherwise, we’re on our own to structure our time, no shortcuts because we have to be in X place or someone is expecting Y. (Because I am working a bit, that is a small exception to this, but most of it is on my own time, outside of a few calls per week that I schedule in the evenings my time.) This is surprisingly taxing, and makes it easy for days to go by without accomplishing a particular goal (like writing this blog post!) because there are few forcing functions for how we spend our time.
All that said, probably one of the most striking things I’ve found...
It’s cheaper than I thought
Before we left, I read an article that said that if you want to be able to live this kind of modern nomadic lifestyle as a family of four, you need to be able to make about $60,000 per year. Between Mike’s policy job at Google and mine as CEO of a nonprofit, we were used to making substantially more than this and without a kid to support, so, despite this being a very respectable salary, I was very skeptical of how it would jive with our lifestyle expectations.
But after four months of travel in Europe, I have to say I think that estimate is not totally crazy. We definitely have not chosen the cheapest places (the folks in the article were in Southeast Asia), and we haven’t made the most conservative choices (if we’d stay put in one place we could achieve some economies of scale with rent), and we’ve been pretty liberal with the eating out and downright indulgent with the ordering in. So we’ve spent more than that $5,000/month estimate for three of four months (we did come under in October when we were in Rome the whole month). But I actually think if we wanted to prioritize it we could spend about $5,000/month and be relatively happy with the choices we were making.
Which just makes it seem so attainable and sustainable from a financial perspective for those who (like us) are lucky enough to have had jobs where we have been able to build up some savings such that we’re able to forgo a year of contributing to our savings. If you can cobble together a little consulting work, you can practically fund your trip. If you own your home and can rent it while you travel, you can practically fund your trip.
When we were planning the Morocco portion of our trip, I realized that many Airbnbs in Marrakech gave a 50% price discount for a monthly rental. Which means that it would cost the same to stay in a private riad for two weeks or four weeks. I feel like this principle tends to apply broadly with this trip. On a shorter trip, you’re eating out all day every day, trying to experience a place to the fullest. You’re seeing every site. We tend to do about the same amount in a week that we used to do in three days. And the rest of the time is spend eating eggs at home or going to a playground. So the added time doesn’t add much expense, and your price per night of lodging decreases with length of stay.
Which I guess is all to say -- what are you waiting for?