How taking a year off to travel taught me to say ‘yes’
"I can take you, it is perfectly safe, don't you even worry boy, this is not a problem!"
These reassuring words were offered to me with a sly wink by a Mongolian soldier holding a machine gun on the back streets of Ulaan Baatar, uniform wrinkled, eyes wild with danger.
At the time it sounded dodgy as - I didn't want to be taken (Liam Neeson taught me that much at least), it seemed dangerous, I was worried, and I was anticipating every problem known to man.
But I said yes anyway. And I lived to tell the tale.
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My best friend Ben and I were sick of talking about it. For years we had wanted to escape the 9 to 5 of Sydney life and hit the road, but work, family, study, friends, girlfriends, season 18 of Survivor, had all kept us firmly planted in Australia. We had both been reading Kerouac and we were both going through a period of change in our lives and so finally we took the plunge. Soon we held a thick multi-sector round the world ticket, vague plans to traverse the world for 12 months, a healthy bank balance following a few solid years of saving, and an attitude that the world was too big to be left unexplored. I wasn't sure this would ever happen for us, it seemed to be one of those lofty dreams that never quite comes to fruition much like Lindsay Lohan getting another starring movie role. But the moons finally aligned for us and as we closed down our lives in Australia, joined the departures queue at Sydney Airport, and said our final goodbyes, we knew our lives would never be the same again.
It was a quiet plane ride, that first QANTAS flight to Bangkok. We were crossing off mental checklists, hoping we'd remembered everything, sad to be saying goodbye to our family and friends for so long, wondering if we'd made the right decision. But as soon as we landed, it was an immediate assault on the senses and we hit the ground running. I couldn't believe it had taken so long to get to this point. We had been talking about this for so long and now we had finally started the trip all our imaginary fears just melted away. Once we took that first step to actually buy the ticket, everything else just seemed to fall naturally into place. I couldn't believe we had waited so long for this. So rule number one was born. Buy the ticket - Take the ride!
Living in the moment
We were fast learners and quickly established what worked well for us. We booked the first night of accommodation whenever we were going to arrive at a new destination. There was no better feeling than arriving into a new city and immediately knowing where we were going. If we liked the hostel we had booked and the people there, we stayed longer. If we didn't, we only had one night to suffer and could find another one easily enough the next day. We didn't want to get too immersed in the backpacker scene so tried to get out of the hostels at night and visit local bars and restaurants and town squares and talk to locals and really get to know what made them and their culture tick. We aimed to say yes to every new opportunity that presented itself to us no matter how nervous it made us. We refused to get caught up in what was going on at home (the Swans really made the AFL final?) lest we distract ourselves from what was going on in front of us. And once every three weeks we'd book ourselves into a nice hotel to rest and unwind and repack in slight opulence. And we never went anywhere without a good pair of sunglasses, perfect for hiding that that Vanilla Vodka hangover.
Trusting a stranger in a foreign land
We danced the Black Moon Party in Thailand, overnight climbed Mount Fuji in Japan wearing only shorts, threw a stone into North Korea from the southern border to pay our respects, and scrambled across Tiger Leaping Gorge in southern China with gap-toothed grandmas. From there we boarded the Trans Siberian Railway in Beijing and undertook a mammoth four-week train journey all the way to Moscow, traversing Mongolia and Siberia in the process with feisty train mamas slapping our butts every chance they got. It was here we met the grinning Mongolian soldier with an offer too good to refuse. He was going to take us by jeep to an abandoned US military spy base deep in the Siberian desert and let us drive a disused army tank. It sounded like a suspiciously murdery offer, but old mate was good to his word and we shot up the desolate countryside from the safety of our Russian-made tank, knowing this experience would be added to our MCB experience list (Money Can't Buy)!
Everyone has a story
We spent an awesome three months circling Europe. We had benders in the nightclubs of Berlin, watched naked bridge jumping in Bosnia while eating dubious meat skewers, got invited to party on a superyacht in the Croatian Islands simply because we were carrying a guitar, took a random street dog on a subway ride in Italy, yodelled from the top of the Swiss Alps in skinny leg jeans, danced and made out with lederhosen-clad Germans in the Oktoberfest beer halls, developed a severe mushroom allergy in Amsterdam as the world melted away, almost got arrested in Poland until an unlikely distraction saved the day, and talked politics with local disaffected youth in an urban squat in Slovenia. And as the weather started to get cold, we said yes again and took an unplanned detour to the Middle East. And for all the danger and fear we are constantly fed about this part of the world from the mainstream media, we were blown away by the Jordanian, Egyptian, and Israeli people and how welcoming they were and open to discussing their stories. I grew more confident by the day as I started to realise the fears we hold in life are mostly imagined and the world is a much friendlier place than any of us could believe.
Travelling together for so long with a friend is daunting, you learn things you never wanted to learn and see things that can't be taken back (many of them toilet related). So Ben and I learned to take little 3-4 day breaks from each other to break out and explore on our own. This made the excitement of coming back together with new adventures to share so much more rewarding. And each night before we fell asleep, no matter how much we had fought or argued during the day, we ended the night in our dorm bunk beds each giving the other a random compliment, something unexpected from the day the other had done or said that we had noticed and thought was awesome. And receiving such a compliment on a frequent basis really set the tone for an amazing mutually shared experience. And who knew Ben appreciated my calves so much? I guess I've been working out.
When a missed flight is an opportunity
We spent Christmas Day surfing the breaks of Puerto Rico, New Year's Eve chucking dollar bills from a New York rooftop, and on Australia Day we threw a huge party on the beaches of Puerto Escondido in Mexico with the local horses invited too so we could re-enact scenes from The Last of the Mohicans. We couch surfed with some cowboys in Texas, saw LMFAO in a Vegas nightclub before they hit the big time, and received an unexpected 5-star hotel experience in the Dominican Republic due to a missed flight connection. All our friends from home came and rented an apartment with us in Salvador in Northern Brazil and we spent a week immersed in Carnivale there, dancing the night away as part of the street parade itself on the Erik Morillo and David Guetta blocos. As the sun slowly rose over the beach and parade route on the last day of this ultimate festival experience and we stumbled back through the heaving crowd towards the apartment together, delirious from lack of sleep and excess of Skol Beer, I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be.
On getting your mojo back
Travel can be tiring, it's not always easy and living in a constant state of uncertainty and flux can sometimes be as numbing as it is pleasurable. So when I got a last minute job offer to be the bartender at a beach hostel in Southern Brazil, I jumped at the opportunity to see out my trip this way and said yes one final time. Like a young Tom Cruise in Cocktail, I spent an amazing three months flipping drinks and perfecting my Caipirinha recipe by night and surfing by day while trying to improve my Spanish (difficult in Brazil), all at one of the best hostels in the world on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. There was nothing that could have helped me rediscover my mojo better and this unexpected job offer sent my travel experience to another stratosphere as I slowly immersed in the culture and began to feel like a local. This break from the road was just what I needed for one last final push through some more of South America which absolutely blew me away with its beauty and energy.
As our year away came to an end Ben and I were in a reflective mood, much like Sophie Monk at the end of every episode of The Bachelorette. We had done things we could never have imagined (and probably shouldn't have). We had met people we would never have met and learned about their culture and way of life first hand. We had gotten off the beaten path and seen some parts of the world that still remain hidden gems to this day. Most importantly, we had cemented our friendship and would always have this experience to look back on and the stories to share with our future children and grandchildren. We had been worried this career break would hurt our future prospects but surprisingly, the opposite happened. The confidence and empathy we had developed in our time away did nothing but invigorate our careers. Looking back, this round the world trip was 100% the best thing I have ever done.
Just say 'yes'
We didn't have enough money, we didn't have enough time, we didn't want to leave our friends and family and jobs, but it worked out. We said yes. And the only thing we regret is that we didn't say yes sooner. And we may be thinking of saying yes again soon (don't tell my boss). Nothing worthwhile was ever easy and it's a big, wide world out there ripe for exploration. So buy the ticket. Take the ride. And leave the details to look after themselves........
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