Kat & Mike at the Taj Mahal, IndiaChoosing to take a year-long career break with my husband, Mike, was one of the best things I have ever done.  When I reflect back on our decision-making process – on the conversations we had with friends and family; on the moments of anxiety and worry and concern – I can’t believe that I almost did not take that leap of faith.  There were highs – and there were definitely lows – but the 250-day trip affected me in ways that I never imagined, and caused me to forever change the direction of my life.

The struggles and joys of our journey revealed themselves from day one.  We touched down in New Zealand and, despite it being one of the most westernized countries we visited, felt immediately challenged, perhaps simply because of the newness of it all. We decided to rent a campervan and spend two weeks traversing the South Island; it was my inaugural camping experience and Mike’s first time driving a stick shift.

His jerky driving drove me to my first official meltdown.

We had been on the road for hours and were lost in treacherous, sheep-filled terrain.  The climax of our perilous ride was stalling for 30 minutes on the last hill before reaching our campsite (4 hours late).  After rolling backwards into oncoming traffic for the eighth time, I dramatically threw myself on the dashboard and, choking through tears, yelled: “We are going to die on this hill!” Mike, laid back as he is and surprised by my irrational outburst, just looked at me and laughed.

The experience obviously did not kill us, but it did set the stage for the months to come: from then on, we’d consistently be forced to face our greatest fears, push ourselves to our physical and mental limits, and renegotiate our comfort zones.

“In that moment, we learned that we had to rely upon each other to cope through the rough patches. We had to be each other’s ‘everything’.”

In Cambodia, for instance, Mike and I stayed with a host family and the physical conditions in their home almost broke me.   Our room was on the top floor and was unbearably stuffy and hot. I couldn’t sleep or think straight; the air was so thick and heavy that it felt like an oppressive object. I doubt I would have gotten through it without Mike. He searched (and found!) extra fans for our room, stayed up with me when sleep was impossible, and validated my concerns so I did not feel alone. 

In that moment, we learned that we had to rely upon each other to cope through the rough patches. We had to be each other’s “everything”.

Chobe River, Botswana

These challenges – worrisome and mentally and physically exhausting as they were – made the highs of our journey that much sweeter. Some of the best moments involved our volunteer projects: In dusty Kathmandu, Nepal we took a 2-hour bus ride each day to lend our business development skills to a nonprofit’s volunteer program; in Cambodia, we taught supplemental English to the most angelic, interested children I have ever encountered.  The struggles of my harsh living conditions seemed to melt away when I arrived at the site in Phnom Penh. The students would run to greet Mike and I, homework in hand, eager to play our next game of “Simon Says”.

I will also never forget how the Taj Mahal looked at sunset, or how powerfully alive the Victoria Falls sounded.  My mouth still begins to water if I smell cumin or lemongrass and I am instantly transported to some of my favorite meals. I smile when I think about our time living on a rural Ukranian farm, milking cows to make cheese.  All of these memories – the good and the bad – have impacted my life for the better, and for forever.

Taj Mahal, India

While it was incredibly difficult to think about returning home to Chicago, we always knew we had a looming deadline: a good friend’s wedding, nine months after the start of our journey. Our last stop was in Istanbul, and we toasted to our amazing adventure while sipping raki, dining on fresh seafood, and participating in the Turkish late-night revelry.

“…we refused to return home and act as if nothing had changed – in both our lives, and within us.”

Ironically, our transition home seemed to be as quick and seamless as our departure. We moved back into our condo (we had sublet it while we were gone), Mike was given the opportunity to return to his previous job, and we began to reconnect with family and friends. Grateful for the ease of it all, we were also sad.  Our adventure was over.

Weary of the dreadful “reverse culture shock” that so many people experience after long-term travel, we proactively tried to combat it. We wanted to try and find a way to incorporate our journey into our life so it didn’t feel like we were leaving its excitement or energy behind.  Moreover, we refused to return home and act as if nothing had changed – in both our lives, and within us. But what could we do that would feel meaningful – would keep the spirit of our experiences alive – but would also be realistic and feasible?

Yangshuo, China

Alas, we decided to launch Unearth the World, a social venture that can help others discover – and unearth – the places they travel to, just as we did. Because we had particularly positive volunteer experiences abroad, and because we saw those as integral to the success of our trip, we wanted to focus on pairing others with similar opportunities for meaningful service. Thus, through Unearth the World, travelers can connect with international non-profits to give back to communities while engaging in authentic and unique cultural immersion.

They, too, can move beyond everything and everyone they know,  set off on a trip of their own, and experience the transformative power of travel.

Kat and Mike’s Tips for Meaningful, Long-Term Travel:

  • Utilize sharing platforms for food and housing. This will help you save money and will increase your engagement with the locals (AirBnb and Meal Sharing are great options).
  • Keep some sort of journal – a blog; a diary – whatever works.  You will be amazed by how quickly you forget what you have done.
  • Try to get off the beaten path. Eat at restaurants packed with locals, strike up random conversations, or volunteer to contribute to the community.
  • While you don’t want to over plan there are a few things you should research before traveling to a particular country:  1. Basic history and culture; 2. Basic language (“Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank You”, and “Beautiful” are good words to start with); 3. Conversion rates.
  • Make an effort to keep in touch with friends, family, and even with work.  Although you may want to fully immerse and disconnect while you’re on your trip, you will eventually return home. You’ll want the people in your life to have a sense of your experiences. This will also lessen your reverse culture shock.
  • Know and accept the fact that travel is humbling.  Always begin with an open mind and remember to be flexible.