By Kent Zimmerman (Edu’80, MPubAd’90)
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to head out into the world without an agenda and just see where you go? Five years ago my wife Christine Zimmerman (Edu’80, MA’90) and I did just that. We quit our great jobs and headed out to explore the world without a timetable.
Like many Buffs who have spent time in Boulder, we had itchy feet and there was no doubt that experiencing other cultures and places would play a big part in our lives. In a window in Stockholm, we had read the words of Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” We had no desire to read only one page in any book of life and we were not interested in a destination as much as we were in the proverbial journey.
We thought it would take about a year…It’s now been more than five years, and we are still exploring. This year we will be living in Argentina, Bolivia, Italy, Ecuador and Latvia.
When we first started planning our crazy adventure, we couldn’t find anybody who had done anything quite as radical as quitting their jobs to head out on an unstructured adventure. We asked people who had taken “sabbaticals” about their experiences — almost everyone said that six months hadn’t been nearly enough. They were embarrassed to say that they had felt honored and cheated at the same time, honored that they had had an opportunity to do something that most people never get a chance to do, and cheated because they were pulled back in before they were ready. Having not had more than three consecutive weeks of vacation in my working life, the idea that six months wasn’t enough time was mind-boggling.
When we began our journey in the beginning of 2008, I wrote, “Christine and I have now been off 56 straight days, which is by far the single longest period of our adult lives. So far it feels like a long weekend.”
When was the last time you had eight weeks off? How about fifty-two? How about two hundred and fifty? Enough time to reset your dial and remember who you were and what it was you dreamed about back in the dorms at CU-Boulder before the 8 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule took over. Enough time to take a look at who you were, combine it with who you are and determine who you want to be in the future. I laugh now at the concept of being “off,” as, unless you are retired, it does not exist. The concept of owning your own time does exist, however, and that has been an offshoot of our adventures.
In the process, as is true of many others who head off chasing a dream, we have created a successful and fulfilling business that allows us to continue our romantic gypsy lives while paying the bills. Our overseas experiences inspired us to create a new type of travel: month long “soft immersion” programs focused on learning languages while living in a new culture with lots of support and fun. We spend our time discovering vibrant Boulder-like “college towns” in countries around the world and we bring groups of individuals from the U.S. and Canada to experience them and help them rediscover the energizing pure joy of learning and living in a brand new place.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this life abroad is watching how much of a life-changing effect we can have on others. Like the couple who went home after our program in Cuenca, Ecuador, sold their suburban house of 40 years, moved to downtown Chicago and now love being within walking distance of a whole new world of exciting things to do. Others who had never left the country before now join us around the world learning Spanish, Italian, an appreciation for wine…and wondering why it took them so long.
With our motto of an act of courage a day, we now keep in touch with hundreds of people who have joined us over the years and had a chance to taste the life we created for ourselves. Many now credit our programs with changes and epiphanies in their own lives, even if it’s as simple as realizing they really like living at home.
We compare ourselves more to farmers than road warriors, tending to the needs of our business with long-term goals, under our own rules, at the scale and scope we choose. Most importantly, we are free to determine the ebb and flow of our own days, weeks, months and years, knowing that we are doing something we love and are able to do it together.
Are you ready to head out as well? Here are seven steps to help you move from thinking about it…to actually walking out the door and doing it.
Step 1: Set a date. There is nothing like having a specific date to work from. We suggest you chose a date in the next two years, something doable but with enough sense of urgency that it pushes you to start filtering all decisions through that date.
Step 2: Figure out how much time you can afford to be gone. I once wrote an article for a magazine called International Living for people who were considering moving abroad. The focus was “6-3-6″ to break the big jump of a year away into smaller bites with the first trip being an exploratory six weeks, the second three months and the third six months. There is nothing wrong with coming home for a few weeks in the middle of your adventure. In fact it may be the best thing you can do.
Step 3: Choose a country and research a place in that country where you want to stay for six weeks to two months. During this time, don’t stay in a hotel or hostel. Rent an apartment instead. Apartments are far more comfortable and quickly make you a part of the culture rather than an observer (you have to take out your own trash). If you are going someplace that speaks a different language, contact a language school and let them help you find a place to live. Focus on what you want in an apartment and look only for that. For us it is always in the center of the city with a view. We never drive in foreign countries as we love discovering new places on foot and have found the face-to-face encounters of pedestrians are far more positive than those involving cars.
Step 4: Rather than buying a round-the-world ticket, set aside the money you would have spent on that ticket for use as you travel. Many people when thinking about such an adventure choose the 34 different countries that they are going visit during their year and never really get to see any of them. Don’t make that mistake. Land in one place long enough to feel like a local or stay long enough to feel proficient in the local language (about two months with language lessons each day). After you have settled in and have gotten to know the culture decide where you want to go next, if anywhere. The local options for travel once you are out of the U.S. are far greater than American carriers would have you believe.
Step 5: Determine how much you have to spend. Remember many of your biggest expenses are at home: the mortgage, insurance, car payments. In many countries around the world, you can live for much less than you can at home. In some ways this can make a difference in where you might want to go. When we first started we headed to Norway where we learned $100 bought a pizza and two beers. Our next destination was Ecuador where $100 bought us lunches for a month. Both were wonderful places, but Ecuador was a more satisfying experience. See how you can reduce or eliminate your expenses at home — sell the car, rent your house fully furnished, change your health insurance to a $5,000 deductible catastrophic care plan and get used to the idea that around the world, good, basic, affordable health care is a right, not a privilege.
Step 6: Decide what to do with your things. We were able to rent our house fully furnished to a couple and their son who took such good care of it that when we returned after three years to rent it again, it was like we had been away for a long weekend. Try to avoid paying hundreds of dollars each month to store things that aren’t worth the price of their storage. We now look at our “things” in terms of how much it costs to store them and a lot of stuff doesn’t pass the test. This is also the time to deal with a lot of practical issues such as studying more language, arranging to pay bills online, dealing with change of address forms, setting up websites, figuring out what will fit in one carry-on (yes, we travel with one carry-on each and you will too after a few weeks of dragging bags around).
Step 7: Figure out how not to burn your bridges. For us, Colorado will always be home and it is important to remember that someday we will be coming home. Make sure people want to see you succeed in your adventure and are happy to see you come back, not happy to see you leave. Always assume you will be making a second trip to wherever you are going. It will take the pressure off and allow you to enjoy a smaller but richer chunk of the world without feeling overwhelmed.
Most of all, always remember that your journey is your journey and as much as it will change your life, most people are interested in hearing about it for about ten minutes.
¡Hasta la proxima!