How to make our around the world trip more meaningful?
October 27, 2007 10:44 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I (Well traveled Americans both in our mid thirties) quit our jobs in the summer and have been traveling for the last 3 months on the first leg of a year long around the world (or as much of it as we could fit in) trip. So far everything has been great. We have seen incredible things and are having an overall wonderful time, but recently we have been feeling that something is missing.

What has got us down a bit is realizing that our days our pretty much filled with sightseeing, hanging out in cafes, occasional adventure activities and planning the next leg of the trip (the albatross that is always hanging over our heads). We both know how lucky we are to even have an opportunity like this and are by no means complaining, (hell it sure beats working for a year) but we can't imagine just keeping this status quo for the next 9 months. We feel that we need something else to make this time more rewarding and enriching...more of an experience of a lifetime, less of an extended vacation. Maybe we slow the pace down and pick a few places to live and get to know for 3-4 months rather than traveling so much. Or maybe volunteer somewhere...we don't know. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to use this opportunity more productively?
posted by funkyavocado to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think you are still in the working mindset, and are guilting yourselves into trying to make it a job, when really you need to relax and enjoy the time off without trying to achieve anything. Perhaps you just need a simpler goal, like keeping a blog of your travels (if you aren't already), but perhaps you promise yourself you will update it every day. Or make an effort to have a conversation with a local every day and learn something about real life in each country, rather than just seeing the tourist version. Aim to have a photo and interview with someone from each country you visit, something like that. That way you provide yourselves a goal which ties in with the idea of your year off, rather than trying to do too much. Have fun whatever you choose to do, I am jealous! :)
posted by Joh at 11:02 AM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maybe try some charity work in a less developed country?
posted by Octoparrot at 11:22 AM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I took my first trip to Paris, I was mystified at the behavior of the people at the Louvre, swarming around the Mona Lisa. People would fight their way to the front of the crowd, only to hold up a digital camera, snap a picture, and then move on. What were these people thinking? Were they just checking off a list (Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa, Notre Dame), and then when the list was done they could go home?

But I realized that it's very easy to start thinking this way. I think, even when you're relaxing at a cafe, in the back of your mind you know your time is limited. And you feel the pressure to use it well: you're in Egypt, you had better go see those pyramids! I think it takes some conscious effort to fight this.

As Joh said, spend some time getting to know locals. If you can safely do so, try to get lost, let go of your guide books and just see where the day takes you. I think living somewhere for a while is a great idea, and would help you get out of your mindset.
posted by CrunchyGods at 11:22 AM on October 27, 2007

My wife and I took a year off like this and breaking up the travel routine occasionally was nice. We were a bit surprised that finding volunteer work was not always the easiest - especially if we weren't fluent in the local language and couldn't commit to a long period of time. There are many places where you can pay to volunteer that make these sort of hassles worth the organization's time and those are the easiest opportunities to find. A couple of things that we did do to break up our routine were to take language classes and to pick a city and stay there for a couple of months. Anyway, enjoy the rest of your year!
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2007

I traveled (aimlessley & planlessly) twice for extended periods, once for 3 years in Europe, and once for 2 years in the US. I used to stay for as long as I feel anywhere I wanted, and it was very fulfilling.
Before I came to the states, I joined Servas, one of many friendship/travel organizations, and often met & stayed with local people when I arrived at an unknown destination. That definitely opened up very different activities & outlooks for my travels. I only did little "touristing" - mostly I interacted with new (and often very exciting) situations. It's not for everybody, and it worked well for a single person, but I highly recommend you checking into it.
posted by growabrain at 11:41 AM on October 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Start incorporating other things you always wanted to do, like painting, songwriting, the great american novel. Make it more than just seeing things, make it more about being who you wanted to be but didn't have the opportunity.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:43 AM on October 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Without some sort of non-sightseeing / relaxation plan, you're just a tourist. And while that's great for a few months, it becomes very tedious. I travel a lot - three to five months a year. I tend to structure it around some sort of educational thing. I've learned lots of languages that way, and of course a part of that is I get to meet lots of locals and like-minded foreigners, and aside from "class," I'm always doing things at night and weekends and experiencing all sorts of weirdness I never would otherwise. I have a heavier interest in some places than others (I love Eastern Europe and Central Asia) and some things more than others (give me language and music and good food and small villages), so I find things geared around all that. If I were you, I'd pick a place, learn the language and volunteer somewhere locally. It can all be set up on the internet, and you'll get a million suggestions if you ask here.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:03 PM on October 27, 2007

What is missing is friends. To find friends, use the internets.

There is plenty of informal volunteer work going on. Find your local food not bombs, critical mass shop, vegan restaurant. That is why the good Lord invented the internets. Post friend invites on local craigslists. Look for expat websites.

Blog your vacation. Learn to take better photographs - perhaps it's time to splurge on a new camera. Get to your next destination on foot. Cook more and eat better when you do eat out.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:08 PM on October 27, 2007

Oh, if you are in a church or political organisation or anything, look them up on the 'tubes and give a few an email/facebook/phone call.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:09 PM on October 27, 2007

Two words: slow travel.

They say "a week" but I would say a month. The problem with what you're doing is that you're sight seeing, which is exhausting and after the 300th new city, rather dull. So its nice to switch from being an observer to becoming a part of something that is still new and different and interesting.

The classic slow travel gig is rental in an Italian town with local cooking classes, but you can spin that bottle any number of ways.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:20 PM on October 27, 2007

Three things:

1. Take cooking lessons in some of the countries you visit.

2. When in Thailand, accredited by the government in Thai massage by a buddhist monk.

3. WWOOF gives you the opportunity of working on an organic farm just about anywhere in the world in exchange for either food, lodging or money.
posted by furtive at 12:28 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

How to make our around the world trip more meaningful?

Do it with bicycles and paddles?
posted by Chuckles at 12:28 PM on October 27, 2007

errr.. that should read: 2. When in Thailand, get accredited...
posted by furtive at 12:29 PM on October 27, 2007

You need to go out and get lost more. Seriously, get on a bus, ride it for thirty minutes and try to get back to your hotel. Strange, wonderful and unexpected things will happen every time you do.
posted by borkingchikapa at 12:46 PM on October 27, 2007

Step one: Pinpoint a country that you've visited (or would like to visit) and make a beeline to one of its larger cities. Then, study the language. Hard. Verb tables, idioms, vocab, the works. Don't wimp out and hire a teacher. Drive away the tourist blues with long hours of language immersion.

Step two: In the aforementioned country, now that you've got some basic speaking skills under your belt, trek to an out-of-the-way destination. By "out-of-the-way," I don't mean remote, uncharted wilderness. I mean off of the tourist map. You want an area in which people will run out of their houses and fall off their bicycles when you stroll down the street, out of surprise at seeing a foreigner.

Step three: Explore, explore, explore. Get to know the language, the people, the food. Rent a house in a village for a few weeks. Indulge in walks and hikes. Listen to the birds. Observe the change of the seasons and the flow of rural life. Become a different person.
posted by Gordion Knott at 1:01 PM on October 27, 2007

People are better than places. You need to meet people online in the target countries and plan to have meetups where you end up out wandering with locals or at local parties. You'll be the fascinating foreigners to them, they'll be that to you, and you'll avoid the same old tourist stuff with just the two of you, though you could still do anyway before or after the meetups.

Get names, addresses, and pictures of people you meet along the way so you can remember and write to the more interesting ones and maybe arrange to meet them again some day. Making a friend in a foreign city is much better than having simply been there. And if the friends you make are into something you want to do, maybe you can do a little of it with them. Meet X in Y to do Z together for a weekend.

Plan flexibility into your schedule, so you can stay an extra week in one spot and skip another.
posted by pracowity at 1:30 PM on October 27, 2007

Three months! I as in Chengdu at the time in my current trip around the world, when some Aussie told me about....

...the three month itch as it's called in travel circles. You'll get over it. I broke my 'itch' by creating a J2ME cellphone at the Hong Kong Central Library for one and a half months (I'm a computer programmer). The basic premise is like all of the previous posters have said: chill, and get intensely attached to one place and one thing. You can't be wayfaring strangers on a continual basis.

I'm watching the sun rise in Tokyo after a night spent talking to kids in halloween costumes talk about their their manicure school class and their English lessons in Vancouver. The wanderlust will come back.
posted by sleslie at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2007

Nthing people. You need to use couchsurfing, if you can where you're going, so that you are immediately meeting locals (who are interesting in meeting you). Hostels can be close to the same experience, and full of people doing much the same as you. Keep an eye out for couples, even ostensibly in tour groups, who you can meet and gang up with. Take the Rick Steves approach and avoid the well-traveled paths as much as possible. Eat in the local restaurants and talk to people at other tables. Hang out in your hotel lobby instead of your room so you can run into other travelers and swap stories.

Read Cycling for a Cause, the blog of a guy who bicycled from Alaska to Panama. He was raising money for charity, too, but the point is that every day became an adventure and he met many friends along the way.
posted by dhartung at 2:29 PM on October 27, 2007

You could spice up your visits to various places with some Experimental Travel.... good luck!
posted by so_necessary at 4:18 PM on October 27, 2007

dhartung is right in that you really need couchsurfing. I signed up six months ago and have already used it in five countries, from England to Togo, to either stay with people or just have someone to meet up and go around town with. It's so great to be able to come to appreciate a city the way people who live there do, and see the many facets that you don't see as an ordinary tourist.

Everyone I've met (so far!) has been a lot of fun, and really wants to meet other people and show why they love where they live. Because of couchsurfing I have a lot of great new memories in great places: playing frisbee at Les Invalides, eating Guyanese food from a little shack near Elephant and Castle, being the first foreigner in forever in a tiny Togolese village, all things that would never have happened on my own.
posted by whatzit at 4:59 PM on October 27, 2007

Stop planning so much. Get a map, pick a point and spend time getting there. Go to a place without reading everything in the guidebook. Print out a map from Google Maps and walk the entire thing, every single block and road. Note on your map every single structure (Mariella's Shoes, Fish by Francisco, private residence, dental surgery, Arco's Tires, abandoned building, etc.) Take pictures of every building, and when internet is available, add those pictures and notes to your google maps.
posted by santojulieta at 7:03 PM on October 27, 2007

Combine some other activity you enjoy with travel. If you like to paint, paint the places you visit. If you like kayaking, go kayaking. Knitting? Visit local yarn shops and knitting groups.

If you don't have anything that you do now, learn something new in the places you visit.
posted by yohko at 7:47 PM on October 27, 2007

Stay where you are and become part of the city. Don't leave until you get sick of it or feel irrepressibly moved to go somewhere else. Then go. Don't book a hotel room, don't make any plants, just go and see what happens when you get there, and stay for as long as you possibly can.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:57 AM on October 28, 2007

Lee and Sachi LeFever, two Americans, did just this and documented it at The World Is Not
posted by gen at 10:51 PM on November 7, 2007

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