We have been travelling outside of the good ol US of A for 4 months now, which is the longest we have been abroad. Our journey has taken us to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia, Nepal, India and Dubai so far. Up next is the Mongol Rally, the world’s greatest motoring adventure where we will drive a dumpy car from London to Mongolia to raise money for charity. Bring it on! But in the meantime, we did a little Q+A sesh to give you some insight what life is like for us on the road.
What has been your favorite part of the trip?
M: There has been some big highlights for me – swimming with whale sharks, trekking the Himalayas and surviving India. Recently I saw a quote that said “everyone thinks travel is about exclamation points, but travel is about the commas; the comma is where a culture and people express themselves”. As much as I have enjoyed the big, exciting highlights, I have also enjoyed experiencing simple, everyday parts of life in a foreign city.
J: Snorkeling with whale sharks in Maldives. Swimming alongside such massive creatures (over 30 feet long), in their natural environment, was a surreal experience!
What has been your favorite foods?
M: I was straight obsessed with hoppers in Sri Lanka, which are bowl shaped pancakes with crispy edges that are eaten with curries or sambals. I had the most mind blowing, flavorful foods in India! Tandoori Aloo was potato stuffed with…more potato (I know so original), but with mint chutney, it was to die for. Loved trying Thali platters, which serve foods for each of the 6 different flavors of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one plate. A perfect Indian meal is supposed to be a balance of each of these flavors. Also, masala tea tastes like Christmas in a cup! I am worried that food will taste bland when we get home, but my stomach will probably thank me.
J: The food we made in our cooking class in Malaysia was my favorite. We visited a market beforehand to pick up fresh local ingredients to use in our dishes. The market had fruits, vegetables and grains that I had never seen before.
Biggest cultural difference that you have experienced?
M: The “Indian head bobble” is so confusing! It’s a sideways head wobble and we still aren’t sure if it means yes or no. I had never considered before a world where nodding your head doesn’t necessarily mean “yes” and shaking your head doesn’t always mean “no”. Also, it was interesting being in Dubai during Ramadan. It was illegal to eat or drink in public from sunup to sundown, even for foreigners who were not fasting. We had to order takeaway and eat behind screens to avoid getting fined.
J: Maldives was an eye-opening experience. It’s a Muslim country and the women wore full body coverings, even to go swimming. Alcohol is illegal except for the resorts. Lounging on a tropical beach without a beer in my hand was a shock to my system.
What do you miss the most about home?
M: One thing that I totally took for granted and have missed the most is access to clean drinking water. Being able to fill up a water bottle from the tap, open your mouth in the shower and brush your teeth without bottled water was clutch. I also miss Larabars, queso from Qdoba, sushi and basically everything from Trader Joe’s. I miss having phone service, solid wifi and being in the same time zone as friends and family. I also miss reality TV, listening to Pandora (which I haven’t been able to access abroad) and recycling. Oh, and I already know I am going to miss the new season of Orange is the New Black.
J: I miss moderate temperatures, where you could go outside and not be drenched in sweat and overheated. Sidewalks. Fast internet. Burritos.
How have you changed from this experience?
M: I have completely readjusted my hygiene standards. Living in a foreign country, often with other travelers, has been an adjustment for sure. The good news is that I can pee in the bushes on the side of a road and give myself a baby wipe bath like a pro.
J: I’m not sure that I’ve changed all that much. At least not in any life-altering way. Traveling for this long has made me rethink my priorities and how I want to spend my time after returning home. Working in the corporate world before this trip I found myself getting caught up in the rat race and always thinking about the next promotion, wanting to make more money and probably spending too many hours in the office. That’s not to say I don’t want a successful career. This experience has made me realize that I want to spend more time doing things that I enjoy, like spending time with friends & family, getting outdoors and traveling to new places.
What place do you want to return to?
M: Maldives was incredible! Instead of the infamous over the water huts at the resort, we stayed on a local island and loved it. It was amazing to stand in the middle of the island and see the beach on both sides. To be completely surrounded by the vast, turquoise water really made me feel like an insignificant speck on this planet. I read that Maldives is actually sinking and would love to go back and visit again before its too late. I would also like to go back to Kuala Lumpur and do some diving up north.
J: I would like to see more of Malaysia. We had a short layover there and only spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur. I would like to go scuba diving on the Malay Peninsula and visit the national parks in Borneo to see the orangutans!
The most useless thing that you packed?
M: I actually packed magnetic eyelashes, which seems silly now. I packed makeup but haven’t been able to use it due to the fact its so hot it will just melt off my face. Travelling so much, carrying everything on my back, unpacking and packing every day, has really made me think about what I need. I have slowly been leaving things behind, like I left half of my socks in a “free shit” box at a hostel in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka.
J: I have carried a Garmin GPS for the last few months to use on our next adventure, the Mongol Rally. Turns out the maps are pretty pricey to load onto the GPS, so I am just going to use my phone. I also brought a mousepad, but dumped it in Colombo.
Something that you wished you would have packed?
M: Since we weren’t planning on going to the Maldives, I didn’t pack a swimsuit. It was near impossible finding a swimsuit in a Muslim country. And extra hard to find something that fit since everything was for tiny Asians and not big white women like me. Also wish I would have brought an umbrella and a waterproof backpack cover. After getting caught in a rainstorm while hiking the Himalayas, I learned how long it takes to dry out your backpack and would have happily invested in a backpack cover.
What has it been like being “fun-employed”?
M: I miss being productive, just sitting down at my computer and knocking through my to-do list. But I realize how stressful it was to keep up with work, graduate school and life back in Chicago. Right before I left, my fingernail actually fell off, most likely caused by stress. Happy to report its back – happy and healthy, along with all the others. The best part is that I get to hang with Jake all the time! Sometimes back in Chicago, I would tell him I missed him. Sounds ridiculous since we lived together, but I just felt like we never got to see each other. Although I am independent and love having my own things going on, its been awesome to hang with him. We have so much time to talk to each other now. We have talked about souls and outer space, career aspirations and goals, our go to karaoke songs and favorite movies. (P.S. his karaoke song is Chicken Fried, just in case you were wondering)
J: It has been the greatest. I don’t set an alarm, and basically every day is Saturday. Life isn’t always easy though and we still have to deal with stressful situations. It’s just a different set of problems than before. Like surviving in India when it’s 115 degrees and most of the food will debilitate you for weeks, or getting attacked by leeches during a rainstorm in the Himalayas in Nepal. My bank account isn’t such a big fan.
What have you learned travelling abroad?
M: Pack everything you think you need, and then cut it in half. Estimate your budget, and then double it.
J: People are a lot more similar to you than you think, even on the other side of the world.
Scariest thing you have done on this trip?
M: Doing a night dive in the Maldives! It was terrifying to jump overboard with my scuba gear and descend into the pitch-black, open water in the middle of the night, with only the light of the moon. Every fiber in my body was telling me not to do it, but I was still curious enough to go for it. Under the sea comes alive at night. There were some crazy freaky creatures that you can only see at night. Small glowing organisms squiggling through the water. The coral looked lit up and the sharks and sting rays were very active.
J: Sitting on the ledge of the nine arch bridge in Sri Lanka over 300 feet high as a train came barreling towards us and passed by only a few inches away.
How have you handled the budget?
M: Jake is my accountant, so I will let him answer this one. Taking into account what we were paying to live in downtown Chicago, we figured keeping our daily expenses below $50 a day, we were actually SAVING money by travelling. Well that’s my reasoning anyways. Although we love trying local foods, cooking ourselves saves time and money. Places where we have stayed few weeks or months we make sure to rent an Airbnb with a kitchen and do meals on our own. I have also found when you aren’t making any money, you are a lot more careful with how you spend it.
J: I tried keeping track of our expenses on a daily basis for awhile but eventually gave up. Now I just look at it from a monthly perspective. Madison and I are both pretty cost conscious, so we’re always doing things on the cheap or looking for deals. It’s definitely a balance between keeping costs down (we don’t have jobs after all) and also not missing out on worthwhile experiences. What’s the point of traveling halfway across the world to the Maldives if you can’t spend a little extra to swim with whale sharks?
Favorite thing about your travel buddy?
M: He is calm and analytical – the exact opposite of me. He packs light and can read a map like no one’s business. Jake discovered his hidden talent of teaching in Sri Lanka which was cool to watch him lead class. He is curious about local culture and history and loves to learn. He is the best travel buddy a girl can ask for!
J: I like my travel buddy so much I married her! My favorite thing is her negotiation skills. Everything is up for negotiation when spending money in Asia. I give up too easily and just give in, but she will hold her ground and go back and forth negotiating for as long as it takes! I also really appreciate her adventurous nature and willingness to try new (and possibly uncomfortable) things. Not every girl is willing to trek 10 hours a day in the Himalayas!
What are your top 3 travel hacks you have picked up?
M: #1 Download Passport Booth. This app lets you take a selfie and formats it as a passport sized photo that a lot of visa applications ask for. You can print it off at a 1-hour photo booth in Walgreens for less than a dollar and cut it to get 6 passport pics. If you ask Walgreens to do a passport photo, they will charge $12 for 2 photos. We also needed passport sized photos for international drivers license and permits for national parks in Nepal, always handy to have.
#2 If you are going somewhere in Asia, learn how to say “no…too much” in the local dialect. This will be absolute gold to whip out when you are haggling in a market.
#3 I ALWAYS stop at duty free in the airport, but I NEVER actually buy anything. I always get a spritz of some fancy perfume on a test strip and then stick it in my backpack next to my dirty laundry. Also find the tester face lotions and lather up before you turn into a raisin on that long-haul flight.
J: 1. When you’re looking for a place to eat, find one that doesn’t have English menus and is filled with mostly locals. The food is usually on point. My one exception is India, where this approach may have you hugging a toilet for weeks.
2. Sign up for a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee. I have Capital One Venture card but there are lots of others out there. Also, Charles Schwab has a checking account that reimburses for all ATM fees when you withdraw with your debit card. These charges aren’t a lot, but over time they add up!
3. Carry your luggage in a travel backpack instead of a roller bag. Whether you’re walking along cobblestone street in Europe or traversing the side of a mountain to find your homestay in Asia, it’s so much easier to maneuver with a backpack. Packing cubes will also make your life easier.
How do you stay entertained on long haul flights and bus rides?
M: Netflix download is where it’s at. My recently watched includes Monster, GLOW and The Good Place. I have also downloaded a shedload of podcasts for our road trip to Mongolia, including Rough Translation, Dirty John, This is Love and Criminal. Public service announcement – do yourself a favor and listen to S-town right now!
J: Usually I convince Madison to share the headphones and let me watch Netflix with her. Otherwise, I’ll catch up on some sleep or read a book.
Road trip jams
M: Post Malone’s album Beerbongs and Bentleys. Also, our Mongol Rally car has a CD player so we stocked up on some CD’s from the thrift shop to last us to Mongolia. Hopefully Tina Turner and Now 65 will keep us entertained on this 10,000 mile road trip.
J: R Kelly’s classic hit Bump n Grind on repeat. All day, every day.
Something you like to do in each city?
M: Buy a postcard. Jake and I have been collecting postcards for years. Each postcard is carefully selected with two requirements – #1 the image on the postcard has to be something we saw at that destination and #2 it has to say the name of the location, either city, state or country, on the front. We write on the back of the card what we did on the trip, places we visited, neighborhoods we liked or new food we tried. We put our postcards into albums to have out at our wedding and realized our collection is getting out of control!
J: Try the local beer, of course. Taking public transit is a great way to see the city and how local people live their daily lives. I also like doing a free walking tour to learn about the architecture, history and culture of the city.
Advice for someone interested in long term travel?
M: Just do it. There will always be a long list of reasons not to do it and the timing will never be just right. But you will regret it more if you never take the leap. It will be refreshing. It will change your entire outlook on life. Your patience will be tested at a chaotic train station in India on a sticky 115-degree afternoon. Your flexibility will be pushed to the limit navigating the unknown Sri Lankan roads in a three wheeled rikshaw. Your open-mindedness will be tried when you are handed a plate of scary looking local delicacies. It will be challenging and uncomfortable. It will be worth it. (P.S. please try your hardest to break the negative stereotype of arrogant, loud, disrespectful American tourists, future generations will thank you)
J: Echoing what Madison said, the biggest challenge is making the decision to do it. The best time is now. If you don’t do it now, then you probably never will. It can be scary leaving behind your career, friends & family and the comfort of home. All of those things will still be there when you get back, but the opportunity to travel long-term may disappear if you wait.