THE STORY OF HOW YOU INSPIRED ME TO FOLLOW MY DREAMS
Note: Ben wrote a heartfelt letter to Liesel on our flight from Tahiti back to the US. After more than 7 months abroad and 10 months of full-time travel, he was a mixed bag of emotions about where we’d come from, what we’d done, and where we were going next. He wrote this for Liesel so that someday she would be able to read it and understand why we uprooted her stable, predictable life in California. It’s such an earnest and heart-felt version of our family story that we wanted to share it here, too. It’s a long read, so pour yourself a glass of wine or a beer and settle in to a comfy spot. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we loved creating it.
Hi Lulubug, It’s Doodah here. It’s March 25th, 2019 and I’m currently sitting next to you on a flight from Tahiti to San Francisco after 10 months of non-stop travel. I’m writing this letter to tell you a story. See, you’re far too young to remember everything that happened to bring me to this exact moment, but later in your life you might want to know more about this past year and how much of a positive impact you have had on me and your mom. Full warning, it’s a bit long, but the backstory is important on how we got here.
First, the most important thing I want to say is “I love you”. Hopefully you already feel that love coming at you 24/7 from me and your mom. The 2nd, and almost as important thing I want to say is “THANK YOU”. Thank you for being the last piece of the puzzle and the tipping point for me and your mom to follow our dreams. Here’s how it all went down…
Way way back in the ancient year of 2005, me and your mom met. We quickly fell in love, got engaged and married a couple years later. Ever since the day we met each other we loved traveling. Sometimes near, sometimes far, but it was something we did. The rush of planning, the new cultures, the exciting experiences and adventures were all something we felt was invaluable. It’s safe to say we spent our early days working extra hard in order just to have enough money to travel. We didn’t save a lot of money back then. If we had extra, we traveled. We would stretch our vacation days to the absolute max, often landing back home at midnight after 2 weeks in Europe, only to go back to work the very next morning at 7am. We were die-hard.
Fast forwarding a few years, our careers gained steam. We continued to work hard always dreaming of that next vacation, that new destination, that far off place that would take us mentally away from the daily grind back home. We began working even harder, saving more of our money and building a nest egg in addition to our annual travel budget. However, we knew something inside us didn’t feel right. You see, each time we would go away on a trip, we were so wound up and stressed from all the work to get to that point, that it would take us days to actually decompress and begin enjoying our time off. We often had our work email still on our phones, with the little red email notification number growing by the hour. We felt this odd relationship with our careers. On one hand, those careers gave us purpose, we used our brains and we often felt proud of our accomplishments, and to be honest, those careers are what paid for us to travel. But, on the other hand, those careers working corporate jobs were also slowly killing us inside. Our creativity waned and we lost sight of our true passions and drive in life.
As years went on, we realized this more clearly. We would return from a trip and have bad cases of “vacation blues”. Sure, this could be the feeling of missing the tropical beach, charming European town or adrenaline rush of skiing down some mountains. But, for us, it was more. It was a guttural feeling that we were just giving into this stupid cycle. It often made us sick to our stomach knowing that we had to fall back in the expected “norms” of society. I’m talking about the “American Dream” thought process. You go to school, start a job, get married, work your butt off, buy a house, raise a family and retire at 65. Because, then… THEN at 65, THEN you can spend the money you’ve saved. THEN you can travel the world! You’re free!!
None of this made sense to me and your mom. In our minds, there were a million reasons why traveling after retirement was not ideal. One (the most morbid of them all) is that we might not even be here at 65. Anything can happen; we’ve seen all too often that plans are dashed as retirement nears because one or both of the travel partners are too ill to travel. Secondly, travel often requires a bit of an adventurous spirit and sometimes physical ability to fully enjoy the experiences. As fit as I hope to be at 65, there are no guarantees that I’ll be ready for zip-lining the jungles of Costa Rica, hiking the bazillion sets of staircases in Dubrovnik or snorkeling with Manta Rays in Rangiroa. Needless to say, we had been grappling with how to handle these feelings about challenging the societal norms for careers and retirement. And, for me at least, I was beginning to fall out of love with what I was doing on a daily basis. Slowly, that feeling of purpose and pride in my accomplishments at work was collapsing. I could feel myself slacking, not giving as much as I should and becoming disengaged. Eventually, I was only holding on to that career because it was a financial safety net. I often thought about how if I had another chance, multiple degrees in Accounting would not be what I chose. But, I felt trapped.
Here’s where you come in… kind of. Your mom and I had been married for almost 7 years. We were in our early/mid 30s and ready to start a family. We had enjoyed the DINK life (double income, no kids) in San Francisco for 7 solid years as our careers continued the upward climb. We had vacationed to some beautiful places and had some amazing adventures along the way. We were ready for a new little friend to join the party. BUT, we had a good sized nest egg and still had this crazy yearning to give everything up and travel the world for a year. We had plenty of savings, and being only 2 adventurous adults, we could travel cheap, backpack around the world go wherever the wind took us. We could stay in hostels, challenge ourselves mentally and physically on some extreme adventures to some of the most far off places. It sounded great. What should we do? We had honestly battled this decision for over a year before we came up with this plan: Try getting pregnant for 1 year, and if nothing happens, we would quit our jobs and travel for a year. Great idea! So, in March of 2015 we started trying (we will spare you the fun details, you’re welcome). Months passed. More months passed. A couple doctor visits for tests passed. All good. More months passed. February 2016 came around (the last month of our deal to try for 1 year). I remember looking at your mom and saying “Well, are we really going to follow through and quit our jobs to travel next month?” Her face said it all. She had this mixed emotion where her eyes were really sad that we hadn’t been successful on the baby front, but her smile was a smirk that said “how awesome would that be??!?” 2 weeks later you showed up on the pregnancy test. Life decision crisis averted. We were elated that later in 2016 we would have a new buddy!
his is where we wish we could go back in time and redo things. As soon as we found out your mom was pregnant, we fell hard into the “American Dream” mentality. We gave up our SF rent-controlled apartment where we had lived for 7 years. That was an extremely tough day. We piled ALL of our life savings together and purchased a small home in the suburbs, converting my old 15-minute commute into an hour and 15 minute commute, each way. We traded in our fun-loving 2-door Jeep Wrangler for the more responsible 4 door SUV. We planned everything to a T. We were ready for you. In hindsight, we were so wrapped up in the joy of welcoming you to the world that we lost sight of how important some of those decisions would end up being in the long term. And, for the time being, any big travel plans were on hold. We had to work hard and keep the money coming in to make sure our family was financially secure. For me, I sucked it up and worked hard, although without passion, to make sure we were prepared for your arrival.
Hellooooooo Liesel! You showed up happy as can be in November 2016. We were parents. You were beautiful. Our world was complete. By the “American Dream” standard we had it all: an education, a solid career, a spouse, a baby, a house, nice car, 401k retirement plan. Everything on paper and on the outside looks perfect, right?
One of our biggest question marks before you arrived was travel. How would having a child impact our love and passion for traveling and experiencing the world? I’m sure it’s a question any parent with a love of travel has asked themselves. I’ll be honest. I was skeptical. I would often think that traveling as we knew it was over. In my head would often pity myself for how I’d never get to do certain things I wanted now that I had a child. I was a completely selfish jerk. I’m sorry. Luckily, those feelings inside only lasted until you were 3 months old. Your mom and I overlapped our family bonding leave and spent 10 days with you on the Big Island of Hawaii in March of 2017. Sure, we had already started some mini adventures as a family of three, like the 8 hour road trip to LA when you were 6 weeks old where we got a flat tire in the pouring rain. That was fun. But this trip was different. It was your first flight (and a rather long one at 5 hours). It was the first time testing the real vacation waters with you. How would you handle it? How would WE handle it? Would we even have any fun at all, or would our precious vacation days of the future all be wasted time? Long story short… you rocked it. And, all those skeptical feelings I had about traveling with a child were long gone. Yes, it was different. Yes, it was slower paced (which ironically we found out that we enjoyed). Yes, it was 100% worth every moment. That trip planted the seeds in your mom and I that traveling with you was not only possible but would be something that we craved just as much as traveling as a couple.
Back home, we quickly fell into a routine. You started day care and your mom’s job location changed, making the commute situation much worse. We now started realizing that as much money as we were making, we weren’t saving what we should. Our mortgage was expensive, daycare costs were astronomical (almost equal to our mortgage) and that feeling that we are working our lives away became hard to ignore. Here we are, living in a beautiful area, with a modest home, great jobs, only 1 car and barely saving anything. On top of that, we were never spending any time with you. We were paying someone else a ton of money to watch you, so we could work hard just to make that money that we hand over to them. We had long commutes. We were often frustrated and exhausted as we would pick you up from daycare which was not fair to you. We spent very little time with you on the weekday evenings before you went to bed, and we would start the cycle the next day… all over again. We longed for the weekend not only to try and hang out with you, but to try and recharge our own batteries. But, owning a house calls for work as well and that’s what the weekends were for. Things were not adding up and your mom and I started to come to a breaking point. All of that, combined with a job that I was not even in love with was a recipe for disaster. I felt trapped to continue working a passionless job just to keep this crazy cycle alive. It wasn’t healthy.
Finally, another vacation was in the works and we visited Hawaii again in October 2017. This time you were almost a year old. We spent a week on Maui and were able to align our vacation with Aunt Erin and Uncle Matt’s. It was lovely. This is where your mom and I really began to understand how great of a traveler and travel buddy you really were. Wheels were in motion. Nearly the entire trip we were brainstorming of how we could quit our SF lives and move to Hawaii, start a business and live happily ever after. We got home and instead of getting the vacation blues, we fought them. We fought them with optimism on how we could change our lives. We kept the dialogue alive. We had a fire in our belly to make huge life changes. We refused to let that fire die. Not this time. Sure, we had to get back into the routine that was killing us on the inside, but living that routine each day only fanned the flames higher. We needed a change. We were going to make it happen.
We went through tons of ideas. Idea 1: Move to Hawaii, start a beachside yoga service. We researched tourism statistics across the Hawaiian islands every spare second we had but came across some legality issues with the idea so we began morphing it into different variations. The next 10 ideas all involved Hawaii somehow, but we began to realize that taking you even further away from your grandparents and aunt/uncle in the Midwest was probably not the best idea for the long term. We know they miss you and want to be around you. We wanted them to be present in your life as well. Long-term, Hawaii was off the table.
So, if we’re ready to leave California, perhaps eventually settle in the Midwest, what do we do? We were not prepared to leave San Francisco after 10 years and move straight to Michigan. As much as we enjoyed growing up there, it’s likely not where we would move if it weren’t for our family living there. Nothing against Michigan, it’s beautiful, especially in the summer. But we are Californians at heart, and you actually are Californian. All of that aside, we knew it would be the right thing to do to move closer to family during this next chapter, but just not yet. Not right away. We began rehashing our old idea of a year of travel. Originally, we kind of laughed it off. Our old idea was adventurous, gritty, cheap and designed for 2 young people that were out to conquer the world. Not 2 new parents and baby. We began to get inspiration from other families on Instagram that were traveling the world. It was intriguing. How do they do it? Where do they make their money while traveling, or DO they make money while traveling? Where are they from? What drove them to do this? How long are they traveling? How did they take the leap? Eventually, this led us to make an internal, somewhat loose decision that we would travel for a year, but because we were nervous of losing your solid routine, we would only go to 3 places, but we would go to our 3 most favorite regions. We would spend 4 months at Lake Tahoe, 4 months in Europe (maybe Amsterdam as a base to explore) and 4 months in Hawaii. We began researching and quickly decided that it might be too expensive to do a whole 4 months in Europe AND Hawaii. After all, we would not be working. This year was for us. It would be to bond together, watch you grow, be there for you as parents and hopefully make some lifetime memories and impressions on you. Ideally, we would inflict the travel bug on you and create one heck of a traveler in you. Then… we got the call.
Our friend Andreas was living in Jakarta, Indonesia. We met Andi (or Randy Andi, story for another time) randomly at a bar on St. Patrick’s day 2012 , back when your mom and I were living it up in SF. He was a Swiss guy, a fellow finance nerd and an expat that had just moved to San Francisco earlier that week. He and I quickly became friends and I showed him around the city early on and he in turn showed me how to have fun again. OK, not really “again”, but he was a bit of a wild one and we had lots of fun times. A very long story short, after a year he continued his global rotation and moved to Jakarta. Back to October 2017. We were in full brainstorm mode on what to do with our lives and whether a year of travel was really in the cards. We knew that if we really wanted to stretch our potential year-long travel budget, we needed to go to Asia. Then the phone rang… It was Andreas telling us that he’s engaged to an Indonesian woman and he’s getting married in Bali, next October (2018). I clearly remember him saying, “So, you guys are of course invited, but it’s a long trip, and with Liesel…”. After that I don’t really remember what he said, because my head was already onto the next thought. “Well, Andi… guess what? We’re wide open”. I went on to tell him that nobody knew of our plans to quit and travel, not even our own parents. So, I swore him to secrecy because it would be months before we gave notice to quit our jobs, but we basically gave him a verbal confirmation that we would be at his wedding, in Bali, the following October. I remember getting off the phone and me and your mom looked at each other. We both had the biggest grins. We were really doing it!
The next couple months were a whirlwind of ideas, thoughts and plans. We knew that we were going back to Michigan in December and we needed to tell your grandparents what we were doing. We wanted to tell them face to face, because we knew there would be lots of confusion and questions as to why in the world we would quit everything we had worked so hard for. We still didn’t know how to explain our feelings very well. Sometimes even writing this letter I still don’t know how to explain how we felt and why we felt the way we did. But, one thing was clear. We wanted more time with you, wanted to explore and wanted this year “away” to better set ourselves up for the future. We wanted healthier minds, bodies and family relationships. We wanted to follow our passions. We only get 1 life and we wanted to make sure we didn’t just get sucked into our old routine and all of the sudden pop out at 65 and wonder where the heck our lives went. So, during Christmas 2017 we explained to each set of grandparents our thoughts and vague plans. The reactions were mixed. We did, strategically, make sure we mentioned the “moving back to the Midwest” part as part of the conversation. Without that, I think they may really have had a hard time with the whole “quit the job to travel, but not see them” piece. And, it was one of our plans to be closer anyway. I think some grandparents originally glossed over the quitting job, traveling piece and just focused on the moving back closer to them piece, which is fine. They missed us and we had lived away in California so long that they probably never thought we would actually move back to Michigan. Other grandparents focused on the fact that were quitting our corporate jobs and create something for ourselves, and that was most exciting to them. All in all, it went over relatively well.
When we returned home in January, we created a massive checklist and calendar. We knew we were starting our trip at Lake Tahoe, ideally in June, so we needed to back into a timeline in order to get everything prepared to leave San Francisco by then. The biggest and most challenging piece of the puzzle, which could have easily derailed our entire plan was selling the house that we had just bought only 18 months earlier. Everything depended on that because our life savings was wrapped into the house. It’s definitely hard to budget and plan a trip when you don’t know if you’re going to make, lose, or come out even on something as big as a home sale. So, we planned the best we could. I gave my notice to quit my job a few weeks earlier than your mom, and I ended up quitting in April 2018 (your mom quit the day before we left on the trip), which meant I had lots of packing, selling, donating and preparing for the home sale to do. We donated and sold almost all our things, including some of your toys. Don’t worry. Your toy box was WAY too big and we saved a bunch of them. But, we knew that if we were traveling for a year 1) we can only take so many toys and books with us and 2) those that we left behind would likely be outgrown by you when we return home. So, it made our toy purging decisions rather easy : ). Around this time, your mom and I also began our family Instagram account and Facebook page. We also started recording our journey on YouTube in our family vlogs. Over time during our family travels, you’ll see that our videos switched a bit from a family destination style video to some that feature less of what we did and more about giving tips to other potential travelers. After all, we gain so much inspiration from other families that we just wanted to share some of our own. A personal goal of mine is to go back through the thousands of photos and videos we took and to create individual destination videos for everywhere we’ve been together. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Another long story short, but after some stresses of offers falling through and a hiccup where our appraiser incorrectly appraised the house when WE bought it, our first house sold. Luckily it sold for right about what we had assumed and didn’t impact our travel budget much. With just a little more planning, preparing and 2 cross-country drives (by yours truly) to transport our remaining belongings to Michigan, we would be ready to embark on our journey.
The plan was set, but loose. We would spend 1 month in Lake Tahoe, 6 weeks in Michigan visiting with family, followed by a whirlwind international tour. One thing was sure. We would continue heading east from California and make a full loop around the globe. Paris would be our first international stop, and we would then take the train to Stuttgart, Germany where we would stay with our family that still lives there. We would use Germany as a base for 5 weeks but spend only about 3 of those weeks in Germany itself. We would hope to visit the French/German Border, Strasbourg, Colmar, etc. We also had Switzerland and Austria on the list. We knew we would be spending a week in the south of Spain in Seville and Cádiz as well as a week in Croatia near Dubrovnik. We would have a hard deadline to leave Europe in early October in order to attend that wedding in Bali we promised our friend Andi. We had no idea how much time we wanted to spend in Bali, or where we would go next. SE Asia was wide open, which for the Type A personalities that me and your mom are, made us nervous. But, that is what this trip was about. Pushing ourselves. Being uncomfortable. Understanding there are different ways to live, and fully embracing them and appreciating them. Ideas for SE Asia were Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Philippines. We weren’t sure about Australia. We had ideas about New Zealand and that Gigi and Grandpa might come out to visit us if we were there. And, then, we wanted to make sure we ended in Hawaii. That’s where all of this began. It was there, when you were 3 months old that led us to realize traveling with you was not only possible, but fun! And, it was there, right before you turned 1 year old, that we decided to stop dreading our current situation and make a change to truly live our lives and follow our passions. But, you probably know by now that we didn’t make it to Hawaii, did we?
So, there you are… sitting next to me in seat 25K on a flight from Papeete, Tahiti back to San Francisco. Of course, you’re being as cute as ever. You bounce between taking a nap and telling me all about the fruit you’re eating. You ramble on about your snorkel mask, sunset beach runs in AItutaki, playing with your new friend, Arya in Cambodia and seeing the real “baby shark” in Bora Bora. You ask when we’re going on a tuk tuk again, when you will see Kailen again and when the next “new house day” is. You tell me you love me so much and that mama is pretty.
Thank you for inspiring us. Whether you know it or not, you have changed our lives in more ways than just making us parents. You gave us that extra push we needed to actually follow our dreams. You gave us motivation to find a way to spend more time with you and to truly live with purpose, instead of just plodding away in our old routine. Essentially, you gave us our lives back. You made us realize what’s important in the world. It’s not money. It’s not career success. It’s living with no regrets. It’s living without fear of the unknown. It’s living with passion and purpose.
Thank you for being adaptable. We took you out of your comfy routine at home and threw the world at you. In 10 months you’ve been to 21 countries and 82 different cities and towns. You’ve been on 35 flights, 33 boats/ferries, 8 trains and 20 rental cars/scooters. And, perhaps the biggest “thank you” of them all: thank you for your adaptability when it came to sleeping. You’ve slept in 26 different airbnbs, 23 hotels and 1 campervan. We’ll never forget riding 3 on a scooter, the countless tuk tuk rides, the riding in the back of pickup trucks and the lack of car seats and seatbelts for the most part of 6 months. You’ve embraced the change in location often better than me and your mom.
Thank you for being adventurous. You’ve allowed us to adventure as a family and sometimes been the adventure yourself. You’re brave like no one I know. You’ve climbed temples with us, you’ve slid down waterfalls with me, you’ve had a monkey steal a shoe right off your foot, you’ve chased birds, crabs and fish. You’ve swum with sharks, sting rays and manta rays. You’ve hung out with kangaroos, koalas and parrots. You’ve made friends with kids from all over the world with ease. You’ve gone from just liking the water to a full on swimmer who holds her breathe for 10 seconds while trying to find fish. You’ve mastered stairs. You went from a toddler to a runner who would go forever if we let you. You’ve greeted every new person with a smile and open heart, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. You make us proud.
So, thank you. Thank you not only inspiring and empowering us to make these big life changes, but thank you for fully embracing it and enjoying it. You’ve also inspired me in another way. What we’re doing next has been on my mind. We have lots to plan and think about on how we develop a lifestyle that maintains the flexibility to travel, while also generating income and being closer to family. Yesterday, on our last day in Rangiroa I bought a website domain. I’m going to start a business and plan to use some of the video and photography skills I’ve developed on our trip. I promise I will pour all my energy into building this business so that we continue to have a lifestyle that allows us to spend time together as a family, while also letting us adventure together.
Alright Lulubug, that was a lot. Me and your mom love you to pieces. Please keep being you. Keep being brave. Keep being open minded. Keep being confident. Keep loving. As this flight gets close to landing, I’ll answer your question. The next “new house day”? It’s tonight, in our old hometown of San Francisco.