How My Wife and I Traveled Around The World For 6 Months
From July to December my wife and I were able to circumnavigate the globe.
Dates: July 2016 – Dec 2016
Countries: Kenya, Turkey, Japan, China, India, United States, Greece, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, England, Ghana, Morocco, Ecuador, Costa Rica.
15 countries. 6 months. 24 flights. 1 attempted coup. 1 funeral. 46 friends. Countless memories.
Our story is unique, as all good stories should be. We wanted to share it, not so that others would try and replicate it, but so that others would be inspired to go out and create their own.
Traveling has changed our lives. It has pushed us and grown us. It has united us in our marriage. It has forged new friendships and made old ones all the sweeter. It has opened our eyes. It has made us think deeply. It has challenged our emotions. It has shown us community. It has softened our hearts. It has strengthened our wills.
We want the same for you. And our hope is that some piece of our story will help you in yours.
First, a little about us:
My name is Sam and my wife is Alanna. I’m 29 and my wife just turned 27. I work as a Systems Administrator at a University and Alanna is a nurse at a local hospital. We both have had a decent amount of travel experience in our past and we knew that we wanted to continue to travel together.
Our goal was to quit our jobs before we wanted to start a family and take about 3 months to travel and backpack around the world.
We we not sure where, probably a little of Europe, then into Africa, and finish in Southeast Asia?
That sounded good to us.
It was a bold plan. A dreamers plan.
It’s a big gamble, leaving your job without a promise of it being there when you return. You lose that security blanket of a steady income. That’s why most people don’t do it I would think.
Some people just don’t like to travel and that is fine. But that’s not you. I know that because you’re reading this. Inside you know that there is a part of you that wants to travel. That wants to explore and adventure. To see the world. And we want to help you do that.
Here’s our story:
I work at a University that offers a unique study abroad program.
It is an Around-the-World semester in which students travel with professors to ten different countries over the course of a semester. They are living together, traveling together, serving together, and taking classes together. It is truly an amazing program.
Each class that you take is geared towards the country that you are currently in. Reading novels by famous authors from that country. Seeing local theatre performances. Working on your writing in a travel writing course.
The students and the staff also all give back by serving. We partner with local nonprofits and volunteer four days a week. This provides a significantly different approach to travel and understanding a culture than a traditional tourist may have or study abroad program may give.
Add into this your normal exploration of a new city, trying all of the new foods, meeting the local shop owners, all with 37 other people and you have yourself one heck of a trip.
Needless to say, this would be a dream scenario for Alanna and I. It would also us to literally travel around the world with an awesome group of people.
Right Place, Right Time
Sometimes you just end up being in the right place at the right time.
As the University was beginning to plan for the next Around-the-World trip they decided that they wanted a nurse to be on the trip. When you have that many people, traveling for that long, you end up with a fair amount of sickness and they reasoned that a nurse would be a great addition to the team.
Alanna, just so happens to be a nurse and the University knows that the two of us have a good amount of travel experience from previous trips both with the University and on our own. The University approached us and asked if we would be interested in helping to lead this trip. We immediately said yes, but later had to deal with doubts of whether this was the right decision for us.
Even with such an incredible, ideal scenario, that aligned with our goals of traveling, we still had doubts. After all, we wanted to start a family soon, and we both would have to leave our jobs with no promise of getting them back.
Once in a lifetime opportunity vs financial security…
It can be a tough call.
Our advice, take the once in a lifetime opportunity. Ten out of ten times would make the same choice. It is one of the best decisions we have ever made.
I share all of that to show that even in the best of situations, there were still doubts, and so don’t be surprised if doubts hit you as you are planning and dreaming, but also don’t let that deter you.
As you can imagine, it is no small task to put together a trip for 38 people going to 10 countries over the course of 5 months. The housing, the food, the plane tickets, the transportation, the classes, the service projects, the side trips, the finances, the visas, the immunizations. It is an incredible, beautiful, messy whirlwind of a time setting everything up.
About a year and a half of planning went into this trip.
We accepted the invitation to help lead the trip at the beginning of 2015. The trip itself was not leaving until August of 2016.
38 people ended up traveling together.
2 Graduate Assistants.
The planning is an experience in it’s own right. It’s like being a little kid and looking forward to Christmas. Kids are dreaming of the presents they will get, we are dreaming of the places we’ll go.
The anticipation for the adventures that are coming are sometimes better than the adventures themselves, but then as you travel you will find that new adventures arise, better than the ones than you could have planned for.
It took many hours, many nights, and many meetings to get everything planned. Each leader given different countries to set up and different responsibilities to take care of.
As we planned the country list changed, the contacts in the countries changed. You start with this clay ball of a dream and you begin to mold and shape it, parts falling off, other parts being added in, until you have finally crafted your trip. Sometimes, if I could, I would take that sculpture and put it in a nice glass case up on my mantle. Admiring the perfect trip.
But of course that will not do. It is one thing to plan the trip, and it is another to go on it.
The planned but untraveled trip may look nice, but it is like brand new car never taken out for a drive. It is the new ship sitting in the harbor. The car was meant to be driven, the ship sailed, and the trip traveled.
The First Trip
The Around-the-World trip started on Aug 1st. The month before in July, my wife and I took a different trip into Kenya and Turkey.
In my free time I help to run a nonprofit that works with street youth in Kenya. We try and make it over to Kenya once a year to visit the staff, kids, and community. When we can, we take people with us as well.
We figured we were already taking five months off, we may as well make it six.
We brought a team of 12 people including ourselves to Kenya. We volunteered in the slums, ate with the locals, and then we all went on a safari. It was a great trip. Kenya is always a great trip, mostly because of our friends there.
The Istanbul Incident
On our way back to the States we had a layover in Istanbul. We love Istanbul. It is probably my favorite city in the world. We had decided to extend our layover and spend a few days there before we made our way back home.
We got in, and spent the day finding our hostel, looking for food, and walking around the Sultanahmet District. After a long day and dinner we settled in for the night.
It was July 15th, 2016.
This would end up being one of the longest nights of our lives.
Right around midnight there was a knock on our door. It was our friend Kenny. He looked a bit tense.
I checked my phone and saw that I had numerous missed calls and text messages from family and friends back home.
“A coup is taking place right now,” The first words out of Kenny’s mouth.
It was a bit chaotic. Gunfire down the street. F-15’s buzzing the city. Worried families at home. Wild claims online. It was impossible to tell what was actually happening and what was not. The blessings and curses of Twitter.
I didn’t sleep the whole night. I just stayed up monitoring news sources on my computer. Listening to the calls of prayer, gunfire, and sonic booms. Contacting family back home assuring them we were okay. Looking for ways out of the country if it came to it. Our plan would have been to try and rent a car and drive to Greece because the airport had been shut down. Alanna somehow managed to get a little sleep by my side.
With the morning sun came peace. That following day we didn’t venture far from the hostel. We ate at the little restaurant across the street and bought water and snacks that we could keep in our room in case things flared up again.
There were pro-government parades and supporters walking and driving through the streets. The coup d’etat attempt had failed.
Getting home still proved to be a challenge as the US had denied flights originating from Turkey to enter the country. We went back and forth on finding new flights home and at the last minute the US lifted the ban and we were able to fly home.
The Around-the-World Trip Part 1
The time in Istanbul was an adventure, one we will never forget. After returning back home we had a little over a week and then we would begin the trip that we had been planning for the past year and a half.
On August 1st, 2016 the whole team had a send-off at the University. We piled in cars and drove up to LAX. Many hours later we arrived in Tokyo and then had three hours of trains and subways to get to our final destination, Hanno, Japan.
There are more stories and memories than I could possibly fit in this article and certainly more than you would want to read, but I will share a few that will give a feel for our trip.
We spent two weeks in Hanno. Volunteering at a local school, taking classes ourselves, exploring the town, taking trips into Tokyo, and getting to know the people that we would be traveling with for the next five months.
There is always a wonderful mix between the people you meet and the places you visit when you travel. The places are wonderful to see, but the people, both those you travel with and those you meet along the way, tend to make up the meat of your memories. Make sure to make appropriate time for both.
From Japan we flew into China. It took a few flights, but we ended up in Kunming. We would be here for two weeks, exploring, teaching English, studying, and taking a surprise weekend trip to Dali.
The Worst Call of My Life
Towards the end of our time in China we were helping the students get their visas for India. Due to some timing logistics we were unable to get the Indian visas before we left and had to do it while we traveled. We were left to contend with China’s Great Firewall and some slow internet as we got everyone their visas. I had been working on this for about 8 hours straight helping one student after another get their visa, it was close to 10 o’clock at night and I checked my phone.
I had missed calls from friends and messages saying “call right away, it’s an emergency.”
I called one of my friends back.
“I have terrible news. Tito was killed.”
My best friend from college Matt (affectionately known as Tito) was a special forces medic in the US army. He was stationed in Afghanistan. It was his second tour of duty. Alanna and I knew him and his wife well. Tito and I had gone to college together, traveled to Africa together, I was the best man in his wedding. We and all of the guys, our friends from college, had planned on one day living in the same town and having our families grow up together.
One phone call took away that dream.
It was heartbreaking.
After China, we narrowly made our flight to India, more visa issues.
While we were in India, we were volunteering with the Mother Teresa homes in Kolkata. We also happened to be there during Mother Teresa’s canonization, where she became Saint Teresa, which was pretty cool.
Alanna and I left the team half-way through India and made the long journey back to Seattle, Washington where Tito’s funeral was held. Friends from around the country came together.
It was the saddest trip of my life. I also wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The Around-the-World Trip Part 2
After the funeral Alanna and I started the long journey back to join up with the team. We would be meeting them in Athens, Greece, the next city on our trip.
Greece was wonderful and challenging. We were working with refugees, seeing historic sites, and studying world literature.
We had a mid-semester break after our two weeks in Athens and headed down to Santorini for a wonderful week of rest and relaxation.
Once we left Greece we spent some time in Vienna, Krakow, and Prague. We toured Auschwitz and salt mines. During this time we also spent about two weeks in a small town in the Czech Republic.
From there we stopped in London for about 4 days and as part of our Theatre course we saw a play each night we were there.
From London we changed gears completely and headed down to Ghana. We lived in rural Ghana for two weeks volunteering at a school and center for children. After we finished there we traveled down to Cape Coast and spent a long weekend on the ocean.
From Ghana we made our way up to Morocco spending time in Casablanca, Marrakech, and the Sahara.
We left Morocco and had a long journey to Ecuador. We stopped in New York City for 36 hours. We landed on Thanksgiving at about 5 PM. Families of the students traveled up to see us and hosted the most joy-filled Thanksgiving dinner I have ever been apart of.
After this brief stop we continued our journey to Ecuador through Colombia.
Ecuador was wonderful and we once again fell in love with the people there.
After Ecuador it was time for final exams and debrief in our final stop. Costa Rica. We had a little over a week on the beach in Costa Rica. We crammed into a small hostel that we were able to completely fill. The students studied and took exams. Then we shared memories and talked through the trip and what we had learned.
How We Made It Work?
Typically, for our travels to Kenya, I would just use vacation days. My work allows you to use half vacation days for a full day off if you are putting that time towards service. I can be serving for 2 days and only need to use 1 vacation day. This allows me to take the time in Kenya and not use my full year’s worth of paid time off.
For the Around-the-World trip, we took a gamble. My wife officially left her job. I was told that I would have to leave my job, I took a chance on saying that I was going in spite of this and they allowed me to go on the trip while keeping my job for me. It helped that I already was working at the University. My wife left her job on good terms and we were fortunate that she got her job back a month after we returned. I completely attribute this happening to the working relationship she had at her job before she left. She is a great nurse and she goes out of her way to do an exceptional job and build relationships with her coworkers.
Practical Lessons For You
1 – Check in to see what special benefits your company offers. Some places, like mine, will have bonuses for volunteering, others may have specific travel perks. You never know. Find out what your company offers, be creative, and take advantage of what is there.
2 – Put an emphasis on building up relationships with people that you work with. The only reason Alanna and I were able to do this trip was because of the people that we knew and their view of us. We were asked to go on the trip because of our connections at the University. We both were able to keep, or get back, our jobs because of the relationships that we had with our bosses and co-workers. Take time to invest in the people around you.
3 – Be willing to risk a little. Our families were hesitant of us going and we had to risk our jobs, but we would do it again 1,000 times over. You simply cannot replace the experience and the memories. Some people may be content playing it safe and leading a fairly normal life. That is not us. And if you are reading this, that is not you either.
I realize that I breezed through this trip. There were many, many great stories and memories left out, but I wanted to paint a picture of what could be. We lived a lifetime in a half year. We created more memories and more stories in that time than many people will make in a decade. And I don’t say that to brag, but to inspire.
This was an incredibly unique trip. It is not easily replicated, but you will have the opportunity to make your own unique trip and memories. And more than that, to make it a lifestyle.
The greatest part about this trip was not the travel, although that was very cool. The greatest part about the trip was the friendships and memories made.