Lessons Learned…

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Wow… what a journey it’s been! It’s dizzying for me to think back to almost two years ago when I was contemplating a departure from my comfortable, stable life.  I knew I wanted a change, there were a million places in the world I wanted to see and things I wanted to do, but I was overwhelmed by the infinite number of possibilities. I struggled with the “what now” question for months that summer, until that night at the silent disco benefit for planned parenthood where I met a guy who would expose me to the existence of the Infinity Expedition. (I’m realizing now that the name of the ship is only too perfect for my own exploration).  Less than a week later I would decide that I would join Infinity for a few months, venturing through the south pacific island countries of Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu.

One may say that my chance meeting of a person who just happened to be joining a sailboat that would later become my home was fate.  I love the idea of fate, (or even an unconscious “nudge”) but I think an openness to the possibilities around you every day is far more responsible for shaping a life.  And you won’t even get to hear about those possibilities if you’re not first connecting with other humans, especially those outside of your daily bubble if what you want in life is change.  Then when something piques your interest, take note.  In a minute of free time at the office the day after the benefit, I googled the Infinity Expedition, and I instantly fell in love with the community environment and mission. I also discovered that joining the ship would be very feasible financially, and a couple emails to Captain Clemens later determined it would work out logistically as well.  Too many times we shut ourselves down without even exploring the possibility, telling ourselves “it’s a long shot” or “it will never work” or “not me” … and with this outlook you’ll always be right. But if you give that interest a chance and believe in the ability for it to become YOUR reality, it just might. I feel the same way about my 6-month stint volunteering for Econia.  When meeting Albert and Meritxell, my interest in their company, mission and location was piqued, I did a little research and followed up, and low and behold it became my reality and an incredible learning experience. I think less of this as fate and more a testament to the power of openness – enabling you to connect with others, and ultimately connect with your own inner voice.

Listening to that voice and being open to turning your desires into reality becomes easier when you reinforce the possibility of success through practice.  And you get a daily myriad of practice when travelling alone.  After two months on the Infinity, I was ready to set off by myself in Vanuatu. The boat was mostly focusing on preparation for its journey north, but I had my own journey to set out on.  When you see the pretty Instagram pictures of far off places, you are spared the decision-making process and logistics of what it took to get to that vista. To be honest, after 20 months of travel, I am really looking forward to setting that number of daily decisions aside for a while.  I enjoy it, but it ultimately can hinder one’s ability to be present in the amazing place you’re in.  I already feel more at peace knowing that in two months, I have a home and master’s degree program waiting for me in Gunnison, Colorado.

That being said, I am so appreciative for this journey and the path it’s taken… a healthy mixture of the deep-dive into existing passions that I’d dreamed about, and experiences and locations that were never before on my radar.  I’d never sailed more than a day at a time before but had always been fascinated by the islands of the south pacific.  I then lived in the heart of my comfort zone, chasing snowstorms through western US and Canada, skiing my little heart out over months of powder days.  I volunteered at the SXSW music festival which I’d had on my Google calendar for about a decade.  I then spent the summer venturing around Europe, which had never been a goal of mine but made sense with pre-existing travel plans with friends, and it offered the ability to explore a vast array of cultures and landscapes all on one continent, mostly by public transportation.  There were plenty of days exploring metropolitan centers, taking in cultures through their history, architecture, food, art, music, and personal interaction, and days spent getting out of the cities by bike or campervan. I used my GPS app, Gaia, to guide me on solo treks through the Picos de Europa in Spain and through Norwegian fjords and glaciers.  I volunteered at a farm in the Portuguese countryside. I even got to share 3 weeks in Greece with Mom, experiencing the place where the modern city structure was developed, stunning Aegean islands through seas just as blue as the storybooks, and above all each other’s company throughout the journey.  By the end of the summer I knew I needed to bring more purpose to my upcoming adventures, and found the Himalayan Light Foundation in Nepal, offering the opportunity to combine hands-on experience installing solar power with a culture that lives and breathes interpersonal and natural connection – and of course an opportunity to trek the highest mountains in the world.  Upon leaving Nepal I had an apartment, car and a “job” waiting for me in rural Spain thanks to my encounter in Lisbon months before.  Through my research and work with them, I learned multitudes about what was going on in the world of environmental sustainability projects, reaffirming my dream job of managing these initiatives for companies and communities. I also had the weekends to take “daycations” through nearby cities and countrysides, and was lucky enough to have two sets of friends visiting at the end of my stay to cap off my stay with… first exploring around the region with my apartment as a home base, then venturing south via train and car through Andalucía.  Six months after returning to Spain, I was ready to go.  It was a great experience, but I knew my future did not lie in that location or company.  I’d applied to a couple jobs but didn’t quite feel experienced enough to land them, leading to my decision to return to school.  At first, I wasn’t even considering the US, but when I found WCU’s Master of Environmental Management program in Gunnison Colorado, my heart spoke up and told me that not only would it be a great educational experience but could potentially be the mountain community I’ve always wanted. But I still had a couple months before in-person classes started, and a country that I’ve wanted to live in for years – the perfect opportunity to move to Argentina for their fall/winter. It’s an opportunity to put my Spanish classes into daily execution (only Catalan was heard around small town Catalonia), live in a place I’ve always been fascinated by, and have a “stable” home for the summer class I’m taking remotely.  It’s late fall so I get to hike the mountains now with a dusting of snow and watch the transformation as the local ski hill turns white and the lifts start turning.  And in late July, I’ll pack up my Deuter backpack one last time (for now) and head back to Colorado.  As with the other steps along the way, the timing and destination feel natural, and I feel like this time of travelling has enabled me to truly listen to my own desires and needs.

People really seem to love “top X (number of things)” lists, so here’s my recount of the most powerful things I learned while travelling:

  • Listen to and trust your inner voice: As mentioned before, this is so powerful, both for every day decisions and big life ones.
  • Don’t stress over decisions: Goes along with number 1. If you listen to and trust your inner voice and check in that it makes sense rationally and for your goals, then #2 becomes a heck of a lot easier.  There’s a lot of information out there too if you’re assessing options, but at a certain point go with your gut and make moves. Because…
  • There are no “wrong” answers: If you’re doing what’s right for you at the time given everything you know, your decision cannot be “wrong”, it’s just different from the path that the other decision would have put you on.
  • Give yourself space and time: Our lives are so busy. Before I took this time off, I rarely did   I was fairly uncomfortable when I found myself on the boat with no way to get to shore and not a lot “to do”… but then I opened up the book “the subtle art of how not to give a fuck”, and within minutes the wheels in my head started spinning with things I wanted to prioritize in my own life and how to go about doing that.  Without space and time, we don’t give our inner voice the chance to speak up, and instead stay in the same routines without questioning them.
  • Let go of attachment: I “dated” two guys over the course of my year and a half of travels. I said the L word to both.  In particular, the first guy and I had a strong connection right off the bat, and even though we said we wouldn’t get involved it was apparent early on that it was going to happen anyways.  I knew for a while that he wasn’t in the emotional place to be in a relationship, but nevertheless I was crushed when he told me those exact words (over a bad wifi connection no less).  I came to realize that I was less in love with the person and our relationship and more in love with the idea of us being together and frankly the idea of spending a life with anyone.  And as luck would have it, the very next day I met the man of my dreams in a mountain refugio that was telling me I was his soul mate… In time I had to repeat the process (although not so painfully) of realizing our relationship for what it was and detaching from the idea of us.  More so, I needed to detach from the concept that having a partner and getting married is the key to my happiness. I still want a partner, for sure, but we should supplement each other’s already happy lives, not be reliant on one another for that.  I hope that now I can better identify a partner in the same emotional place, ready to contribute to a relationship but not needing it for happiness.
  • “Every little thing that you think that you need… I bet that you’ll be fine without it”: Spotify put this Peter Doran song in my “Discover Weekly” playlist one time, and it finds its way into my head on a regular (and very necessary) basis. Many times in my life I’ve found myself consumed by the need to have something that I didn’t or to just “change one thing”.  Guess what – the song is right about 99.9% of the time, and in many cases the need disappears after singing couple refrains out loud.
  • How to practice meditation and yoga for self-healing: Emotional breakdowns happen. Mine came when I was super alone in a hotel room in Spain when I hadn’t really “connected” with anyone in a couple days – and that’s when Phil “broke up” with me.  I lost it.  I could have called a friend, the time zones worked out to where it would have been a reasonable hour in Colorado, but instead I got online and found a couple guided meditations to talk me through it.  Through my frantic google search for meditations on “Letting go of someone”, I came to realize that my anxiety was triggered by attachment, and as hard as it was, I needed to learn that lesson on my own.  It was empowering to know that there are tools out there for addressing emotional anxiety that we can use on our own in a time of need.
  • Learning a Language is hard – but is so incredibly worth it. As mentioned, I’m learning Spanish.  I’ve been in Argentina for about a week and can communicate on a very basic level, especially one on one.  I think back to even a couple months ago and I’ve made so much progress.  But get me in a room with a bunch of native Spanish speakers and I can barely follow the conversation.  I have no hope of being “fluent” by the time I leave, but with regular practice and continued education I know I’ll get better, and the better I get, the more people in the world that I can now communicate with. Learn from. Help. And really, how incredible is that. “After” Spanish, I would love to further my pre-existing French core as well.
  • The US isn’t perfect – but we sure are fortunate. I feel insanely fortunate to be able to take this journey, or even quit my job in the first place.  For so many, just having a job that makes enough money to cover basic expenses is a struggle enough.  Our country(‘s president) is a big freaking asshole right now, but we still have to accept that we’ve got it good.  The societal drive that created the “most powerful country in the world” provided us with a breadth of opportunity unheard of in most of the world.  The problem is that our fortune has led to a greed that’s now out of control.  I believe that those of us who have ample money and time have the responsibility to 1) get our own country’s, or at least our local priorities back in check, and 2) provide opportunities to those not so fortunate, especially internationally. A little bit of volunteering and financial contribution can mean drastic improvement in the life of an individual not as lucky as you.
  • Don’t be scared. People are generally good.  And if they’re not, you’ll probably sense it – see #1.  But if you go through life closed off to everyone scared that they can’t be trusted, you’re missing out – connection is crucial to travel and learning about the life beyond your own.  To really connect with a place, you need to go beyond taking pretty pictures – you need to immerse yourself in it, talk to the people (see #8) and live their lives, not the path created to keep tourists comfortable. Eat the food, drink whatever they’re drinking, go where they go and do what they do.  And if you’re not sure, ask, they’ll probably tell you or take you there themselves.

I wrote that two months ago in a cabin in the Patagonian woods, right before starting a summer class of “light reading” (a book, multiple papers and articles with a 2 page written synopsis due weekly) that combined with my need to get out and play fully consumed my two months down there… So though I didn’t get the time to post it, I still agree with and appreciate these takeaways.  I’d love to hear your thoughts or questions, and am so ready and thankful to rejoin my Coloradan community! More accounts of the last two months in Argentina and Chile coming soon!


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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned…”

  1. Valeda,
    Good on you to take a chance on yourself and better on you for sharing your realizations with all of us. In 1998 (9 mos solo travel) I started my search and it so greatly benefited my outlook in the years ahead. The personal events involving the learning of and caring for terminally ill loved one consumed me from 2008 to 2010. But it was in that space and place where my human empathy and openness blossomed.

    Your messages of using solo travel as meditative space to enable openess, learning, reflection, time to listen to your inner voice, and connecting with people of different experiences and cultures to find the next adventure resonate deeply with my experiences over the last 9 years. While I’ve never taken 2 years, I have spent 2 months at a time journeying many times since 2010. In that place know that your understanding of the importance to love yourself in both partners at the beginning of a relationship is well founded. My life has changed greatly in many ways in the last 9 years. I’ve visited many places you have named, am married, and we have a son. While outwardly many of the appearances of my day to day life may seem routine, same employer since ’99, same house since ’04, etc. The learning and understandings gained from the those travels continue to guide me. New languages, new passions, and willingness to invest in people and communities only begets greater awareness, appreciation and love. I’ve made space in my daily living to listen and reflect for myself. For example I committed to learn to surf @ 40, and not only succeded in the 3 years since but also have incorporated 3x weekly dawn patrol sessions into my life. This new passion, gains stoke, allows for reflection between sets, gains natural harmony with the marine life, moon phases, tides, seasons and ocean moods. At the same time, I’m finished with “Me time” as my son is waking up and I can devote myself to the family as that aspect of life richly deserves dedication and is in turn greatly rewarded.

    In the end the end my message to you is that what you have taken the time to do now will not only benefit you in the present but also for a great many years to come wherever your journey takes you in the future. Friend, I hope we get to share a powder day again in the future. Written from a hotel room in Porto, Portugal en route to El Vandrell, Spain during a 24 day family trip through Barcelona, Tanier, Duoro,… -Constantinos

  2. All of this resonates with me so much. All of your adventures and all of our conversations was such an inspiration for me to take the leap! 🙂

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