Chapter 9 – This is it, I’m traveling the world
I did it. I quit my job to travel the world for an undefined amount of time! I’m realising a dream that has been growing inside me since the day I set foot on Spanish soil for my exchange year as an undergraduate architecture student. After only one month in Valencia, on a rare wet September evening in 2012, I sat down and wrote this article, describing how starting over in a new place had opened my eyes for the endless possibilities our world has to offer. At the end of my year my closing notes stressed the fact that I had changed as a person and that I still stood behind everything I had written on that stormy Saturday in September several months earlier. Flying back to Belgium I knew that at some point in the near future I wanted to make the journey of a lifetime. Leave everything behind in search of personal growth, adventure and natural beauty. Satisfy my curiosity. Experience what raw, pure freedom looks like. See new places and meet new people on a day-to-day basis. Explore. Dream. Discover (thank you Mark Twain).
But as the expression goes, life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, and for me it wasn’t any different. I still had a year left at university and a master’s thesis to write. I snapped out of my dream and got on with normal life, interweaving it with travel whenever possible. I chose Maputo, capital of Mozambique, as the subject of my dissertation and subsequently spent 2 months doing field work in Southern Africa. An unforgettable experience in itself, it only fed my hunger to discover the rest of the world.
After graduating I was confronted with a hard choice: leaving everything behind to pursue my desire to travel, or start a two-year architecture internship, necessary to become a licensed architect. As I had virtually no financial means to travel the world indefinitely and because finding an internship was just the next logical step in my architectural education I went with the second option. I told myself I would first get my shit together and do the responsible thing, establishing a firm foundation in the career I want to pursue since I’m 14. To have something to return to when I’m done traveling, something I know will happen at some point. As a compromise I did spend a month and a half hitchhiking through a hot European summer and 3 months volunteering in Asia first though, combining my interest in architecture and travel by working with an ngo that used permaculture and sustainable architecture as a way to sensitise and educate local farming communities in the Philippines about the consequences of climate change.
2015 came along and I started my internship with a design firm in Antwerp. Two years passed by in a heartbeat and I loved my job, that allowed me to work on interesting projects surrounded by experienced and inspirational colleagues, while at the same time experiencing firsthand how to guide the complicated process of getting something built in the real world. I moved to Antwerp and found a shared house on walking distance from the office. I started to do my own laundry, pay taxes, take evening classes and make plans for the weekend. Little by little I felt myself settling down in this new city. But despite loving every aspect of my new working life the desire to travel kept bouncing around in my mind. I’d come home after work and spend entire evenings watching travel videos, reading travel blogs and researching routes and destinations. At some point I realised that I would never forgive myself for not pursuing this dream. “It’ll never be as easy as it is right now,” I told myself. The question if I was really going to do this became a question of “when am I going to do this?” Even if it would turn out to be a horrible, lonely experience and if I would realise that I had been in love with the idea of traveling instead of the actual act itself, at least I wouldn’t be thinking 10 or 20 or 50 years from now what would have happened had I made the jump.
After the end of my internship I stayed with the firm for a couple more months to be able to finish some of the projects I’d been working on. Finally I picked a date for my last day and informed my employer of my decision. I felt that if I wanted to do this for real, the time had come. I’d come to a crossroads where keeping my position as a junior architect would mean committing to an actual career, instead of a – slightly prolonged – internship. Postponing it any longer would somehow feel like postponing the rest of my life. I’ve been consciously avoiding things like serious relationships and long-term rent contracts out of fear to get too attached to people or places to an extent where it could compromise my travel plans, something I can’t and don’t want to keep doing forever. Despite my decision to leave I have realised over the past 3 years that working as an architect in Belgium is what I want to do in the future. I want to settle down at some point and I’m convinced that I will find the right girl to do it with, but I’m 26 now and still at the very start of the rest of my life. My career in architecture will probably last for the next 40 years. A year more or less will change little in that regard. And 26 is hardly too late to find the girl of my dreams. I have left my life behind in the best possible way to pick it back up whenever I return. I have some working experience and a decent portfolio now, so finding a new job should not be too hard. I have a supporting family and great friends that will be there when I decide to return. Maybe I even inspired some of them to not blindly rush into the settled-down serious life with pension funds and wedding plans just yet, but to take some time to figure out if that is actually what they want out of life.
My last day at work is 3,5 months ago now. A wedding invitation in Helsinki changed my original travel plan and I spent a wonderful month in Scandinavia because of it. When I got back home I started to prepare for the real deal. Apparently leaving the country without knowing when you’ll be back is a little less romantic than jumping in your convertible and driving away into the sunset. Eventually I did get my things in order and, looking back one last time to my beautiful city and old life, boarded the train that would catapult me into my enticing adventure.
I’m writing this on an overnight train from Bulgaria to Istanbul, 40 days after leaving home for southeastern Europe. I’ve crossed 10 countries so far, met what seems like half the population of Australia, volunteered on an organic farm and made it to the most eastern border of the European continent. I have a visa for Iran and a flight from Iran to Malaysia in the beginning of December. After that, only ideas. Discover Southeast Asia further for sure. Australia and New Zealand too, maybe. I left Belgium with the idea of staying away for a year, although that plan largely depends on the events, places and people that cross my path. If I get bored, lonely or satisfied with traveling I can and will just go back home and resume my life without regrets. If I have the time of my life a year might not be enough.
I’m realising a dream that has been several years in the making. I dared to dream big and have sacrificed everything that stood in the way of me and the realisation of that dream. The fact that I’ve done all that and that I’m on the road now means my trip has already succeeded. If I die tomorrow because of a reckless Turkish bus driver or a skydiving incident or an overdose of delicious Asian food, it will be doing something I have been passionate about for the better part of a decade. Regardless of what comes next I already accomplished what I set out to do.