Note: This is a continuation from Part 1 of our story.
April 2012: How a book and a conversation changed our lives
I couldn't have known it then, but a fateful hospital nightshift would re-direct the course of our entire lives. A coworker spotted me researching online Masters degree programs, and inquired about what I was doing.
At this point, two years of work had passed me by. I had partaken in a brief volunteer nursing stint earlier that year in Nicaragua, Central America. This sparked the epiphany that I didn't want to work in a “normal” hospital the rest of my life – I much preferred working with little to no infrastructure, in a place where people were truly grateful for the simplest forms of care.
Despite this newly ignited passion, I didn't act on that desire for change. Instead, I continued to stick out a career I both loved and despised. I was teetering burnout, discontented, and feeling like I wasn't using my full potential. Over and over I thought, shouldn't I just be happy to do such humbling work each day?
In North America, the common cure for funks like these is not to drop your life and travel, but rather, go back to school and get another degree.
So there I sat, Googling away, looking for some university program to pacify my thirst for insight. My coworker glanced at my computer screen as I scrolled through online international public health programs. She told me she'd done a program like that in Australia, and emphasized that it was ideal to do in person where I'd meet students from around the world. “You gain a lot from hearing their experiences,” she explained.
A switch of intrigue was flipped in my mind. I peppered her with queries.
“Australia! Where did you live? Did you enjoy it? What was it like?”. On what was fortunately a quiet shift that night, I eagerly absorbed every last answer about this foreign place. By the light of morning when Ted picked me up, the idea had been planted: we had to go to Australia.
Given that Ted and I were then living a quite regimented, predictable life, we could not execute this dream without an articulate plan. Because at that time, nothing was scarier than a life without a blueprint.
And so the grand plan was this: I would study in Australia for one year while Ted would work there, and we'd then move back to Canada. It took a few weeks, but Ted warmed up to the idea. It was scary, but pursuable. Little did we know, a gentle twist of fate would rewrite those plans.
On a rather typical day off, I was partaking in a favourite North American pass time: online shopping. What other things could I buy to make our condo better resemble an IKEA show room? A new travel book with exotic places for my coffee table? Another foreign landscape to hang on our living room walls?
As I made my exit through Amazon's digital aisles, I realized I needed another $5 worth of items to obtain free shipping. Sifting through the “related” books of my shopping basket, I found Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-Term Travel by Rolf Potts. It had good reviews, sounded mildly interesting, so I dumped it in. A few days later, I read it cover to cover.
I couldn't have known it then, but this was the answer I'd been looking for and yet avoiding all at once. The clear-cut explanations to long-term travel were in my hands. Rolf's book provided practical answers to saving up for travel, curbing at-home spending, addressing what to do with your stuff when you're gone, and ultimately, largely inspired this blog.
All of my excuses and fears were suddenly naked and exposed. We could long-term travel. Part of me almost wished I hadn't read it, for from that moment on I knew – if we continued to travel far less than we wanted to, it would be no one else's fault but our own.
Swallowing that whopping raw dose of reality, a revised timeline formed in my mind. What if we sold all of our possessions, which could largely fund our travels, and backpack for six months before arriving in Australia? We were both quitting our jobs anyway, what difference would it make to do it sooner?
Ted was highly skeptical of my initial proposal to say the least. Selling all our possessions to travel? Everything? Even the TV? I'd yanked our cautious plan from beneath his feet. With a great deal of convincing, he read Rolf's book, and began digesting the proposition. With further research, reading, and sifting through travel blogs, we finally decided.
We can do this. We can long-term travel.
July 2012: Project de-clutter and uproot
It was time to stop waiting for that winning lottery ticket that was never going to fall into our laps. “In another life” was now officially a tired excuse to let our ambitions pass us by. We'd realized the true secret formula to travel, and it was this: actively making travel a priority in our lives.
Of course we needed money to make it happen. We knew that liquidating everything into cash would help tremendously. Fortunately for us, materialism had constructed an enormous physical mess around us over the years. That pile of crap was now travel funds waiting to be created.
First, we tackled the dreaded storage room. And by storage room, I mean an absolute sorting nightmare. That basement crate had become a dumping grounds for anything and everything we didn't want to deal with, ever over 2.5 years. Oh, that and the boxes stuffed with all my teenage and childhood belongings that my parents so promptly packed up for me during our honeymoon.
You know that feeling when you want to finally tackle that cluttered closet? It begins with a burst of energy to hammer through the tangled mess. If you're like me, you pull every item out to sort (because one at a time doesn't illustrate your utmost commitment). Then comes stage two. After a very short while of sorting, you stare at the overwhelming pile of crap, thinking, “sh*t, what have I done?!”
Well, the entire process of getting rid of everything went something like that. It always began with excitement, pumping wanderlust-inducing tunes through our portable speaker, sipping beers, and growing our “sell”, “store”, and “donate” piles. It would then progress into overwhelming fits of dismay, as the contents to be sorted infinitely grew. Ugh.
At least once per day for four months I felt like hurling every last thing we owned off our balcony. In the darkness of morning I'd wake up to the silhouettes of boxes as I prepared for my shifts at the hospital. The sight alone churned my stomach with dread.
But still we persisted. A combination of innate frugality and commitment to raise as much funds as possible to travel meant painfully sorting every last thing. We sifted through containers of old school work, CDs, at least fifty photo frames (agh), dozens of unused rolls of Christmas wrapping paper (whyyyyy!?), and an entire forest's worth of PAPER in the annoyingly diverse forms of receipts, tax files, report cards, and records. All of it was a painful conglomerate of important and unimportant things that had to be sorted one by one.
I remember the day I finally asked Ted if we could sell our futon – the very first big item to sell. Somehow getting rid of large furniture marked that this was indeed a definite thing, and not just some less drama-filled version of Hoarders.
“Okay,” he said with hesitant undertones, “post it”.
And so began the shrinkage of stuff from our lives. Painstakingly, we looked up the current price of every item, priced accordingly, then listed on every possible selling outlet (I've written a how-to on that process here). We tracked every transaction in an excel sheet to document the process of dumping our “old” lives. We were genuinely curious to see how far someone could get if they simply sold all their stuff, even if they began with nothing.
By the end of the summer that year, we'd done a fine job carefully selling in a paced momentum. The useless trinkets and house decor were first to go, and we still had plenty of time to sell the rest of our big items.
Or so we thought.
Then one day, straight out of absolute nowhere-land, our landlord informed us that we had to vacate our apartment. We'd been planning to stay until December, but she wanted us out three months early – the very next month. We later found out that this was so she could increase the rent by almost 30% to new tenants (yep, that's illegal).
Fighting was futile at this point – we were leaving anyway. Half-hearted phrases like “karma will get her” got us by, and we began selling the rest. Fast.
Kijiji, Craigslist, and Facebook “Garage Sale” albums propelled our sales. We built our house into a permanent shop, with every single item having a post-it note price attached to it. With each pick-up, we'd invite people up to see if they wanted anything else in our apartment. Most of the time, this ensured a few more items were bought.
Finally, miraculously, we got down to about a dozen things. The hollow apartment was now a skeleton of our former home. I took a picture of what remained – a pile of IKEA décor – and sent it to a friend who'd purchased many of our things. She bought the rest of it for $50. It was done.
$6,166 later, we were stunned. In the remaining week at home, we sold our car for another $5,000, bringing us to a grand total of over $11,166 CAD to fund our trip.
Though I'd read stories of people who'd sold their belongings to travel, doing it ourselves made it actually believable. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, “GUYS! If you just stop buying so much CRAP and sell your things, you can TRAVEL. You can REALLY do it!!!”.
We'd officially joined the cult of the possessionless. And we were hooked.
For those final few months, we significantly downsized our living space. We cut our rent by more than half, from $1,750 CAD (a bargain for Toronto) to $800 CAD. We found a listing on Craigslist to live 6 weeks in an apartment while a couple was off backpacking themselves. We spent the following 6 weeks in hostel-style home with a shared kitchen and bathroom, and then our remaining weeks in my parents basement.
None of this was glamourous. It did not feel like the movies. Sure, there was excitement, but the ever-present pang of fear and discomfort was always lurking.
I hated trying to sleep for night shifts while our housemates clanged pots and pans in the shared kitchen down the hall. I missed having a space to host our friends for dinner and drinks at any given time. But we continued onward, acknowledging that these were the not-so-cozy sacrifices that other travellers make. We kept our priority greater than creature comforts. That priority, was travel.
December 2012: Cutting ties
I delayed quitting my jobs as long as possible. The idea of submitting resignations paralyzed me with anxiety. North America just isn't a place that understands gap years or long-term travel. In my workplace especially, each holiday request and sick day submission was an utter inconvenience, often responded to with a request to shorten or delay a trip.
I'm not proud to say that I sent my resignation letter to my clinical manager via e-mail. I just couldn't articulate in person what I was doing, or why I was leaving. In such a prestigious workplace, my globetrotting ambitions felt as juvenile as asking to attend my favourite boy band concert. All I wanted to do was leave hassle-free.
When I did submit my resignation, I focused solely on the fact that I was going to Australia to obtain my Masters. In fact, I didn't even mention that I was tacking on months of travel before that. With much regret over my leaving, the university students I was teaching at my second job at least understood. My boss in the Emergency Department? Not so much.
Eventually it didn't matter – both of our final days at work came and went. Even in our last weeks in Canada, we kept our impending trip a secret. The inevitable judgment was the last thing we needed as we continually re-questioned if derailing our lives was a wise decision. Because as I've talked about before, when you decide to long-term travel, people will say things.
Even now, reminders of that persistent uncertainty aren't hard to recall. When we'd share our plans to backpack and live in Australia for a year, we'd often follow it with, “and then we'll come back!“. As if that somehow made our plans more normal, more grounded. In return, we'd get questions like, “then why are you selling your stuff? Why not keep it in storage for a year?“. I'd argue that it was insensible to pay for storage on items that would mostly depreciate in value.
True as all that was, when I dig deeper into what we were really doing, it was simply padding ourselves with the cushion of a false plan. A plan that would never happen.
And so we kept spewing those words, “we'll return, don't worry...”.
But even then, we were fairly certain we weren't ever coming back.
January 2013: The beginning
We began our six month backpacking venture on an icy January day in Toronto. Excitedly clutching our one-way tickets, we had no real plans other than a first week in Cartagena, Colombia. Just a blissfully open itinerary of six whole months. Back then, we believed we could conquer the world in that time. It's laughable now, but as prior two-week per year vacationers, that seemed plenty of time to see it all. Nothing could crash that high.
Our adventure began with us bussing our way through the dusty roads of South America. We trekked the Colombian jungle to ancient ruins, swam with enormous manta rays in Galapagos, hiked fluorescent glaciers in Patagonia, and felt the torrential downpour of the Iguazu Falls on our skin. We tasted crispy empanadas, sweet tropical fruit smoothies, and made an assortment of quirky friends from all over the globe.
All of it felt like a real adventure, so different from any of our prior trips.
Far too soon we were shocked by the amount of time that had gone by. With three months remaining until we needed to arrive in Australia for my studies, we decided to physically begin making our way Eastbound. We flew to Europe where we zipped through Spain, France, England, and Morocco. We slept beneath the star-filled skies of the Sahara, wandered the cobblestoned streets of Spanish medieval towns, and kissed atop the Eiffel Tower over an illuminated nighttime Paris.
The remaining six weeks of our 6-month trip were spent in Japan – single-handedly the most bizarre and captivating place we'd ever been, and still is to this day. Continually we'd grab each other's attention to point out a strange “isms”, ads, or food flavours. That final leg of the trip is one we'd later obsessively reminisce over for the next two years. To this day my brain has never been so tickled as it was in our time there, and it's one of the handful of places we've re-visited.
July 2013: A new life
Finally we boarded one last plane ride bound for Australia, our home for the next year. We were teeming with dreams and optimism. In return, Sydney greeted us with cranky grey skies and cold that bit our bones. It was winter. It was rainy. It was lonely.
The realities of our decision began to set in, and the high of the adventure promptly fizzled.
Our daydreams of arriving in our own apartment and hanging out with friends were smothered. We arrived friendless, with no apartment, and nothing but the 28-litre bags on our backs. I blubbered apologies to Ted through many tearful rambles in the late hours of those first few nights. I felt horrible for committing us to a year in a country we knew nothing about.
The first two weeks in Sydney were spent living in a dank studio in Sydney's most drug-fuelled neighbourhood. Inside the single room which functioned as an all-in-one kitchen, living room, and bedroom was a closet door taped shut with a note desperately pleading, “DO NOT OPEN”. That closet continually breathed a putrid stench of dirty laundry and rancid shoes throughout the apartment. To add injury to insult, the windows were stuck open, allowing in frigid winter air and the sounds of drug-fuelled screams at all hours of the night.
Frantically, we searched for our home-to-be – anywhere but there. First, we moved into a hostel where a teary-eyed me stammered an enormous “THANK YOU” to the desk staff who upgraded us to a private room for free (we must have looked quite deflated). After days of endless searching, we finally landed what would be our own apartment for the next year in Manly Beach.
Relief washed over us.
That new “home” lit a spark of optimism. The unit had ocean views and two generous-sized balconies. Albeit it was unfurnished, and with no blankets or furniture that first night, we dumped everything in our backpacks on us to keep warm. With no heating and paper-thin walls, the single-digit temps felt much colder than we'd ever expected. The warm and beautiful Sydney I'd imagined was shockingly different from anything we were experiencing.
Thankfully, a metamorphosis did occur. Sydney gradually revealed her infinite blue summer, and we emerged from our shells of self-pity. I actively scoped out ways to meet people, making my first friends by responding to an online ad for a local walking group. Slowly, we both planted roots. Sydney began to feel like home.
Funny enough, that sense of home developed further into an uncanny obsession with this once-foreign place. Enough so, in fact, that after our one-year visa expired, we spent the next year applying (and forking out thousands) to become permanent residents there. We don't know when we'll really settle our feet in one place as we're still indefinitely moving, but we are proud to call ourselves residents of somewhere that feels the most like home to us.
October 2015: The adventure continues
It's now been nearly three years since we traded all of our physical possessions for two 28-litre bags and stamp-hungry passports. Two of those years have been spent aimlessly wandering with no fixed home, and we are still currently nomadic. To say it's been indescribable is fully accurate – there just isn't a way to fully capture how travel has transformed our lives. But it most certainly has.
The fact that we so blindly followed a typical life path years ago terrifies me. Though we were each doing things we enjoyed, we were still suppressing a thousand other aspirations. We were drifting, ignoring any internal passions we had.
It is utterly cliché, but life is what you make it – and no one else is going make it great or amazing for you. At the end of the day, the only thing differentiating travellers, dreamers, and adventurers from you, is whether or not you'll decide to make travel your number one priority.
Once we believed we could travel, that we could be those people we so envied, we began doing everything in our power to make it happen. We no longer wanted to be jealous onlookers. We wanted to become travellers, we would make it happen, we did make it happen, and we haven't looked back since.
In a much, much longer-than-usual nutshell, that is our tale. I appreciate that it's easy to glaze over stories like ours, and think that that's all it ever can be – someone else's story. But I assure you, it doesn't have to be.
Without a smidgen of doubt, if travel is something you want to pursue, you can make it happen. If you're living vicariously through others' dreams while secretly wishing they were your own, stop. Don't wait around for the “right” time to travel – it will NEVER come knocking at your door. Ever.
As someone who's seen patients unexpectedly whisked through trauma doors, tried to pump a heartbeat back into the dying, and watched people pass into what's beyond this life, trust me – each day is a gift.
Now ask yourself – are you fully taking advantage of that?
Or is there still something you aren't chasing?
Let me be clear here: you do not need to drop your whole life and sell everything for an indefinite adventure like we did. If that's not your dream, that's okay! You just need to ask yourself with the utmost honesty, what are my passions, and how can I make them a priority in my life?
If you have travel aspirations big or small, for week-long trips or long-term adventures, we'd love to help you make it happen. We never did win that winning lotto ticket to travel, and you don't have to either. If you want to travel, do it. We promise you'll never regret it!
Thoughts or questions? Leave them below, we'd love to hear your two cents!