I woke up to an e-mail in my inbox marked ‘urgent’ from my boss. “Don’t go into the client’s office today, meet me downtown.” In that short sentence, I realized something was wrong.
Little did I know how much that one email would completely alter the course of my future. Within a few short weeks, the fallout took me from my office in suburban Denver to the jungles of Peru and completely altered my approach to travel, work, and life in general.
I’m a management consultant by trade. For the last year, I had been working for a client in my hometown of Denver, Colorado, helping them solve their most challenging problems. This was my job – and my day to day life as I knew it.
The project was slated to run for another year, but when I met my boss downtown it came crashing to an end. He shared the bad news. “The project has been cancelled.” We were in the middle of a multiyear project that we had already put significant time and dollar investments into. It never occurred to me that the project could be ended at any time with no notice.
With a particularly slow economy and no promising client projects on the horizon, I was in a dangerous position. Since I no longer had a client, I was on the corporate radar – which is a bad place to be. Stay on the radar too long and risk being laid off.
However, in discussing my predicament with some coworkers, I discovered a loophole: Take a vacation, stay off the radar. As long as I was eating into my paid time off, the company wouldn’t be as concerned with my client-less status.
Since starting my job, I hadn’t taken much vacation time – it was never a major priority. Because of this, I had accumulated six weeks of paid time off. Using this chunk of vacation days would buy me time, but it would be a risky strategy.
I had always wanted to travel internationally for an extended period of time, and now I had the opportunity. However, if the project outlook didn’t improve, I’d find myself in the exact same situation but with no vacation time to protect me.
Recognizing the unique opportunity of having no work commitments and a stockpile of vacation time, I decided to risk it and notified my company of my impending six week vacation. Sending the email was terrifying but also incredibly liberating. I had locked in a six week vacation – it was going to happen.
For many people (myself included) taking action and actually committing to travel can be the most difficult part. We’re inclined to make excuses for why we can’t travel, setting arbitrary financial goals or restrictions on ourselves. But one of the most important things to realize is that there is never a perfect time to travel – there will always be something to keep us at home. In my case, it was the fear of being in an even worse position upon returning from the trip.
Looking back, it wasn’t the 18 hour bus ride or the mysterious illness I contracted somewhere between Peru and Chile that were the most challenging aspects of my trip. It was overcoming the psychological fears associated with committing to the trip in the first place. But after I hit that ‘send’ button there was no turning back and I felt a certain freedom that I had never known before. All the worries of work seemed to melt away when I knew that in a few short days I’d be boarding a plane to a foreign country to start my adventure.
The trip was locked in, but before leaving I had a laundry list of tasks to complete. First and foremost, I had to decide where I was going. I tossed around ideas of a road trip through the US, hitting the banana pancake trail in Southeast Asia, or exploring the jungles, mountains, and beaches of South America.
Under normal circumstances, I would have checked out guidebooks from the library, poured over travel blogs, and called every one of my friends to solicit their input. But given my impending departure date, planning time was a luxury I didn’t have.
After (very briefly) debating the pros and cons of each destination, I settled on an itinerary that would take me through Peru, Chile, and Argentina. I booked a plane ticket that left only a few days later.
Looking back on it I can’t even recall my reasoning for choosing South America. I suppose you could call it a gut feeling. But even though my decision was rushed and based on (almost) no research, I don’t regret it at all.
In the past, I was notorious for over planning vacations. When I took a trip to Disney World as a kid, I created a detailed itinerary for my group that included which parks we’d be in on which days, which restaurants we’d eat at, and what shows we’d see. I even took into account the traffic patterns at the parks to ensure we wouldn’t be wasting our time standing in lines. Yes, I was that kid.
And yet here I was with a plane ticket to Lima, Peru and no clue of what I’d be doing once I got there. When I arrived in Lima, I had no plans. The only thing I knew for certain was that I’d be boarding a Cuzco bound plane a few days later.
This allowed me to discover the city in a way I never had with any other city before. I had no preconceptions. No checklist of ‘must see’ sites. No recommendations from friends. I wandered the city on my own terms, following my own whims. It was a refreshing way to experience Peru’s capital city.
I realized that on past vacations, I tried to experience my expectations of a place. I would bury myself in books trying to learn all I could about a destination. I’d find the must see sites and then try and check them all off in a frenzied, hectic race. With no presumptive notions, my experience in Lima was the exact opposite: relaxing, revealing, and surprising.
“You’re going alone?!?!?“
In the days preceding my trip, I was asked this question by almost everyone I talked to. Before booking the trip, it never occurred to me to ask anyone else to join me – I knew none of my friends could take six weeks off with little notice to their employers.
For some reason, traveling alone never seemed like a big deal to me; I figured I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. I’d be more receptive to making new friends, and I would challenge myself in ways that I never could traveling with a friend.
But many of my friends didn’t understand it. Their reservations eventually led to me doubting my own decision. In the sleepless nights before my departure I wondered; would I get lonely? Or more importantly, would I be safe? Why hadn’t I thought of these things before booking a non-refundable international plane ticket?
But there was no turning back and only one way to find out the answer to those questions. It turned out that traveling solo was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did I make plenty of friends on the road, but I’m still in contact with many of them today. If only I could show my skeptical friends back home the power of a hostel bar and a six pack of Quilmes.
In addition to meeting some great friends from all over the world, traveling solo helps one develop a greater sense of self-reliance. When traveling solo, we’re responsible for every decision we make. It’s up to us to get where we’re going, find suitable food and shelter, and keep ourselves entertained. We’re responsible for the situations we find ourselves in, and it’s up to us to make the most of it.
After six weeks spent exploring the ruins of Macchu Pichu, admiring the street art in Valparaiso, and consuming massive amounts of beef in Buenos Aires, I returned to Denver to find out whether or not my gamble at work had paid off. But no matter how the cards fell, I had no regrets about taking the vacation. The incredible experiences and friendships that came out of the trip were well worth it.
Thankfully, the outlook at work was considerably better when I returned. The market had picked up and there were several new client projects looking for help. Instead of trying to find any project with an available opening, I was in a position to choose from several different opportunities.
There was one in particular jumped out to me – it required a significant amount of traveling. My trip to South America had changed me. Even though I had just returned from a long trip, I was eager to hit the road again – and the prospect of earning frequent flyer miles didn’t sound bad either. I gladly accepted the role and boarded a plane for Atlanta the following Monday.
One year, 18 cities, and 10 states later I’m still traveling for work and loving every minute of it. Not only do I get to challenge myself at work by helping my clients, I get to challenge myself through travel as well. I’ve learned to adopt my travel style for business travel, experiencing places at night or early in the morning, and ensuring that I’m making the most of my travel opportunities.
Since that trip, travel has become my lifestyle and is now a major priority for me. Even though I spend four days out of every week traveling for work, I’m always looking for ways to expand my travel opportunities by taking weekend trips or planning how to use the generous amounts of vacation time my company provides.
Yet I still realize that at any moment a project can be canceled and my world can be turned upside down once again. And if that means I have to take off another month or two and head to Asia, I think that’s something I can live with.
BIO: John is a perpetual business traveler who now spends the majority of his life on the road meeting with clients all over the United States. Since he’s in the office for eight or nine hours everyday, he strives to make the most of every travel opportunity and shares his tips and tricks for doing so at his blog. Follow along at the Travel Rinse Repeat Travel Blog, on Twitter @TravelRinseRept, or on Facebook.
A Big thanks to John for contributing this inspirational travel story. If you have an experience in travel that changed your life, made you look at the world differently or an amazing moment that you want to share, please contact us for more details and we will email you right back.. You can also read more about submitting an article to this series at Calling All Writers, Share your Inspirational Travel Story