5 habits we left behind to travel the world (and never need to pick up again)

Apologies. An earlier version of this post went out last night to subscribers in error. Here’s what it should’ve said. ;) 

When we left home for our around the world trip, a lot of thought went into what we would/could carry with us. Our committment to having one suitcase each meant that we had to make serious decisions about what could come along for the trip. It was an exercise I’d reccomend anyone take – traveling or not.

traveling light-er

If you had to carry everything you needed with you for a year, how much of it could you live without?

In the end we were surprised at how little we missed on the road. Not once were we sorry we didn’t have another pair of shorts, curling iron or t-shirt. We used everything we brought with us and bought what we needed on the road at a tiny fraction of the price it would’ve cost us at home. (God Bless Cambodia! Long live Thailand! )

But when we got home the surprises continued. More than two months since our trip has ended, we still haven’t completely moved back into “regular life.” We’re trying to build a new normal and make purposeful decisions about what from the old-pre-world-travel life  makes it into the new one.

These five things don’t stand a chance:

1. Keeping an extra chest freezer in the basement: I grew up with one of these. It was always full. When we bought our house we got one too. Soon it too was chock full of food. Trips to Costco (and the bills from there) doubled. We had space to fill and we filled it. Often we’d discover food in the freezer in duplicate or triplicate because we’d forgotten it was there. We’d discover buckets of ice cream and meat so freezer burnt no one dared eat it. So we’d have to throw everything out only to start the hoarding all over again. No more. The freezer is going. Buh bye.

2. Living beyond our means: What feels like a lifetime ago I was a lawyer with a six figure salary.  I lived in that world for years and saw salaries climb ridiculously high for partners and associates around me. When I left the law, I left the money. People used to ask me if I missed it and I could honestly reply that I didn’t. What I had realized as a lawyer was that what is a $1 to a person struggling to get by is about $100 to someone with a six-figure income. The struggler may be non-chalant about spending a dollar for a treat on a break, I used to spend a $100 in a trip to Shoppers Drug Mart because I was bored. I’m not proud of it but it’s true. When I left the salary behind I continued to buy things to beat boredom: Mall visits just because, those Costco trips to fill the freezer, 3 instead of one because something was “a deal.” On the road, we had to think differently about money. What we had, had to get us through and when we began to see the real cost of things we were forever changed. Once you’ve bought a cute t-shirt for $2 it’s really hard to justify $35 + HST. We also realised because of how little we lived on – both financially and in our bags – that we had more at home than we needed. Seeing families struggling for food on much less money than we used to buy a shirt only strengthened our resolve. As we try now to sort through it all and only hold on to what we truly want and need, I’m even more glad we’ve left that habit of thoughtless spending behind.

conversations in Egypt

What if conversations meant something? What if we really wanted to learn from each other again?

3. Small Talk: When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation? I’ve found that so much of our time is spent filling time and space with words we don’t mean and questions we really don’t want the answers to –  and devaluing both at the same time. When we were on the road we would speak to people because we genuinely wanted to know them. Maybe we needed help, but more often we just wanted to better understand where we were and what people were like here. Conversations were straight-forward and direct (it had to be in countries where English wasn’t the first language) and the honesty was appreciated. “Where do you come from? Where are you going? Why are you here?” Back home the hardest adjustment has been not calling people out on conversations that really are filler. You don’t really want to talk about the weather do you? Let’s get real.

4. Place fear: At one point during my trip I came across a Facebook post listing 10 of the most dangerous places in the world for travel. The idea behind the list was that these were hot spots that should be avoided at all costs. Someone had forwarded it through the chains to my parents who quickly noted that we had already been to about half and then began having heart attacks when they realized that we were likely heading to several others with their grandchildren in tow. The article’s advice ranged from “If you see a protest in a city square don’t attend” to the ever helpful “stay out of public spaces.”  We need to stop it. There isn’t a country in the world you should be afraid of. Not. One. There are bad people everywhere. There are situations that are dangerous everywhere and should be avoided or approached with caution but ruling out Colombia or Kenya or Egypt  or anywhere else as a whole is as silly as ruling out Vancouver because there was a shooting in Toronto (or ruling out Toronto for that matter). Don’t fall for the headlines. Talk to locals, friends who’ve been and use common sense.

pyramids egypt

Danger lurking around every corner? I didn’t find it.

5. Celebrity TV: We’ve never been big TV watchers to begin with and traveling for a year meant we saw even less of it. The boys picked up stations as we went that introduced them to new cartoons in languages they didn’t understand but somehow could figure out. Ish and I stuck to downloaded movies, books and music. So the first time I came back into a part of the world where there was Celebrity TV it was jarring.  I know some of you love it so I don’t want to offend but my two cents? We waste way too much time on what Brad and Angelina are doing and how they’re doing it. Case in point? I was traveling through India and read on twitter that Oprah was in town. I mentioned it with excitement to my Udaipur guide. His reply? “Oprah who?” He had never heard of her. I’m not saying you can’t be curious, just suggesting we make sure we aren’t spending so much time watching their lives, that we forget to live ours.

What about you? If you had to go now, what would come with you? What would you find hardest to live without? Is it possible that’s exactly what you need to cut out in your life?

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{ 43 comments… add one }

KingsLife September 2, 2012, 11:37 AM

Superb! You’ve explained the perspective that you gain when you travel and it’s one of the reasons we have chosen to travel with our children. Even though they are 4 & 2 years old, it still leaves an impact on their lives and perspectives.

It is modeling and teaching them how to live conscientiously – deliberately – with passion and interest instead of distraction.

Before traveling, I too had the extra freezer – if you have the space you fill it, right? For what? Like we needed an 8 month supply of meat!

I applaud you for keeping the lessons you’ve learned on the road with you as you re-assimilate into your new normal.


Heather September 2, 2012, 12:36 PM

I had to laugh at the 8-month supply of meat comment! :) So glad you get what I’m trying to say.


Yukari Peerless September 2, 2012, 11:57 AM

What a great post Heather! My key word this year is “meaningful” and I agree with you wholeheartedly on everything you listed here. Right now I’m working as a community manager for a social network with social conscience…I’m going to share this post with them. Thanks.


Heather September 2, 2012, 12:35 PM

Thanks Yukari. And thanks for sharing it. I hope it’s helpful.


Alison Pentland September 2, 2012, 12:04 PM

Beautifully spoken. I had stuff in storage for 3 years when starting in a blended family. I recently took it all out and am now letting it go, including family heirlooms that I never thought I’d relinquish. Like you found during your travels, I’m trying to live authentically and fill my life with meaning not with stuff. As I age, I’m finding it easier! Thanks for sharing.


Heather September 2, 2012, 12:34 PM

Congrats to you Alison! It’s not easy to start. I feel lucky to have had the break and the experiences. The fact that we have to make conscious decisions to re-introduce things makes a huge difference.


Caitlin Kelly September 2, 2012, 1:55 PM

I love this post! Honest, helpful, so smart. Good for you for remaining so aware. Too often, we come home and fall back in thoughtless habits. One of reasons I so treasure time away is the fresh eye I always return with.


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:43 AM

Thanks Caitlin. There are still things I’m struggling with in terms of being home but then there are others that seem so clear (for me), you know? Glad I have this space among friends to work it out.


Carol Perehudoff September 2, 2012, 2:37 PM

I completely emptied out my storage closet this spring. I was going to go through it piece by piece, but got lazy and just threw out all the boxes without opening them. Since I hadn’t touched anything in there for over a year, it definitely wasn’t missed. (And going up two dress sizes and being unable to fit into anything in there anyway had NOTHING to do with it.) Now if I could only get rid of papers and clutter. What a great post, Heather.


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:41 AM

Ha! I did something similar before I left on the trip. We were packing things up and it got to a point where I just ditched whole boxes of things. It feels good doesn’t it? Clothing should be the easiest to get rid of and yet I found I was holding on to it too! There are things that don’t fit and then there are things that fit but should never be seen in the light of day again. The eighties were a bad, bad time. ;)


sarachi September 2, 2012, 2:52 PM

Thanks for the post and strong message here Heather, I often am shocked to witness how people live their life/spend their money here, but I guess until you see/experience things differently first hand, it’s hard for them to relate.

I also feel our society has gotten materialized so much in the last 20 years, that people tend to share what makes them look good from outside, not deep from inside; sometimes I do think social media makes it a bit worse.

Really hope at some points we can sit back and reflect, what is needed rather than wanted, in the greater scheme of things.


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:38 AM

Interesting comment re: social media Sara. It’s a good point. When we reduce conversations to 140 character soundbites do we reduce the potential for great conversation? I, like you, have met amazing people through social media but I do think the chatter on there (for me) is meant to be light and fun and more like walking into a room full of new people to interact with that I couldn’t necessarily do in another way. But the real conversations – the ones about life, death, love, pain, tough situations and incredible moments – still happen in real life for me. I love Twitter because it has brought incredible people into my life who I could then get to know deeper outside of it.


sarachi September 3, 2012, 9:13 AM

I love Twitter too, I wouldn’t have met some amazing people elsewhere, you being one of them :) It’s the efforts we put in after – same with everything we do, that thoughtful efforts to translate and build long lasting friendships, rather than small talk.

Oh well, as you can tell, I am a conversation killer online :)


Heather September 3, 2012, 5:33 PM

Not at all! Love where you’ve taken the conversation. It really makes me think about how we can transcend that online. Grateful to have met you online and off. :)


Bernadette September 2, 2012, 4:08 PM

One of the best articles from ou journey.


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:35 AM

Thanks Bernadette. It has been awesome to have you along for the ride.


Steven C Threndyle September 2, 2012, 5:15 PM

Great post, though our family just camped down in California for the past two weeks and my teens were obsessed with the 60 percent off back to school sales at the outlet malls in Oregon on the way back home (no sales tax, either!). Man, those Americans know how to put stuff on sale! (And they have awesome state and national parks, too… the perfect place for a family trip!)


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:34 AM

Thanks for the comment Steven. Oh, I’ve done the shopping trips in our day. And there is nothing wrong with finding a great deal. It’s the mindless spending I’m trying to let go of. Enjoy the sales.


Dexter Greenwood September 2, 2012, 11:05 PM

Too True Cuz!

It’s the “small talk” that I can’t get over. Everytime I come home I struggle to not “seem” superior. (I do not feel superior in any way, I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience some different things, but those things are external and by no means make me “special” or better than anybody else.) However, I can no longer communicate on the “small talk” level. I understand that it is a very intricate system of communication and that many things are said without having to be spoken. But having spent the majority of my adult life dealing with language barriers, I have found that direct speech is the most effective form of communication. Even if you are both speaking the same language.

Glad you’re settling back in… I’ll come home in the fall sometime, I’ll stop by and talk about the weather.
Give the crew my love.


Heather September 3, 2012, 6:32 AM

Dex! Can’t wait to see you. And we never talk weather so nice try. ;) I know what you meant about the efforts to not come off as sounding “superior” when what you really feel is “fortunate.” I’d add that I feel “awake.” Like stepping away from things allowed me a new perspective and that while I realize how fortunate I am to have had the luxury of that, I also feel this overwhelming obligation to share it so others can see it too. It’s hard to share the experience without offending some but then how do you share it? I hope I’m doing it in a way that is taken in the spirit it’s offered.


BusyMomofTwins September 4, 2012, 12:25 AM

I just posted a new link up Travel Tuesdays. Would love for you to include a link of your family’s travels.


Heather September 4, 2012, 3:40 AM

Thanks. I’ll find a post and attach it asap.


Katja Wulfers September 4, 2012, 11:20 AM

We travel light, and the kids bring no electronics. We bring one laptop, phone and camera and they occasionally use these in the evenings.
I like your comment about superfluous things and conversations. As I look around my own life there are things I could do without and should pare down.


Lianne Phillipson-Webb September 8, 2012, 8:33 AM

Fantastic thought provoking post Heather! I do have the basement freezer with too much in it and have had crazy purchasing times where I’ve bought way too much food to somehow comfort me. I get the ‘small talk’ it’s a tough one sometimes. I’ve become less tolerant to it and try to be having more meaningful conversations with friends. You’ve inspired me to purge. My closet space is small and filled with clothes that I don’t wear, so moving into fall I’m purging!


karengreeners September 8, 2012, 10:25 AM

Absolutely love this, Heather. I learned some of these lessons myself when I travelled the Middle East for a year, living on $6 a week and wearing the same 3 outfits in rotation. Nevertheless, my ‘needs’ swelled the longer I was back home, until, like you, we were living beyond our means in the city and not even enjoying our stuff or ourselves. So we chucked it all again, and here we are out in the country, living comfortably but simply, with no cable, more time outside, and no place to really spend our money anyway. It’s not perfect, but it feels so much better.


Heather September 8, 2012, 3:54 PM

I totally get it Karen. We keep talking about how big our house feels and how unused so much of it is. I’m not sure I’d do well as a country girl but the simple living definitely speaks to me. Glad you found a solution that works for your family.


Rebecca September 8, 2012, 10:55 AM

Wonderful post that’s making me take a good look at the excess in my life — and seriously rethink my decision to buy a chest freezer!


Heather September 8, 2012, 3:55 PM

Thanks. Here’s to smaller freezers and bigger lives.:)


soultravelers3 September 17, 2012, 8:27 PM

It’s amazing how travel changes you in so many ways isn’t it? Lovely post and I can relate.

We’ve been on a non-stop family world tour for 7 years now ( 44 countries on 5 continents on $23/day pp) and though we were frugal and lived below our means before going, we have come to know just how little one needs to be happy.

We still manage to live a VERY luxurious life ( more so than at home in California and we add to our retirement fund as we roam ) but we travel the world with just a carry-on each and still find we have too much stuff. ;)

Your year seemed to go by so fast ( 7 years has zipped by for us and I can’t believe my 5 year old is now 12). I hope you can keep the lessons learned.

This kind of trip changes one forever in a good way..so proud that you went for it! Funny that the lessons aren’t just about travel, eh? ;)


Heather September 18, 2012, 8:56 AM

I’ve followed your family’s adventures! Even before we set out I was impressed with the way you chose this lifestyle. The year was quick and yet so much slower than the pace of the few months since we’ve returned. I am forever changed…and grateful.


Nomadic Samuel September 17, 2012, 11:59 PM

Fantastic and inspiring post! I personally agree with your point of not living beyond your means. I’ve found that’s been one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced – becoming far less materialistic.


Heather September 18, 2012, 8:57 AM

Thank you! It’s easy to see why we should be less materialistic, but once you’ve made that decision it is also so easy to see how much of our lives focuses on getting more stuff. We’re working on it. Appreciate the comment and the share.


Anne September 18, 2012, 4:49 AM

Thanks for a great article. I agree that we also have too much stuff and we have been going through a process of divestment and restraining our spending for essentials only. And ours is partly due to only one of us working and also us saving for investment and our next trip!!


Heather September 18, 2012, 8:58 AM

Thanks Anne. And good luck!


SK March 15, 2013, 2:29 PM

This is really good. I’m planning to leave Toronto and live in Mexico and now working on what do I really need to take with me. It is an eye opener.


Leslie August 25, 2013, 9:41 AM

Thank you. Yes, I heard your interview on NPR this morning. The adventure we are taking is to send our 19 y.o. son to stay with his uncle in India until December. When I tell people about our son’s travel plans, there is a huge ‘wow factor’. We are Black American, so what is your brother/uncle doing in India (my impression). We are closed to so many opportunities. The experience for our child is out-of this-world. Thank you for sharing your experience. I will be sharing your blog. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!


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