If We Can Do It, So Can You with Johanna from Travel Eater

This week’s interview is with Johanna from Travel Eater, whose story is a little different to most. She isn’t taking a gap year, rather a ‘gap-rest-of-her-life’. She completely changed the way she lives, by swapping her life as a Government of Canada executive for almost full-time travel.

1. Why did you decide to take your grown up gap year/trip? Was it a difficult decision to make?

I’ve always dreamed of travelling and writing, and had thought that would be the life I pursued when I retired. But the universe gave me some pretty clear signals that I shouldn’t wait until I was 55: I had a burnout at work, my job was cut in a downsizing and I got divorced. So, life gave me lemons and I made … lemon pie!

2. What were other people’s reactions when you told them your plans?

People mostly think it is pretty neat that I’m spending the rest of my life travelling and writing.

Some people say they’re jealous/envious … and I know that it is said with good spirits. But it makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m happy if people say that what I’m doing is inspiring, that it is making them rethink what really makes them happy and helping them make changes in their lives. But I really don’t want to make people envious!

3. How long did your trip take and where did you go?

My first trip was a “test” solo five-week trip to Panama in May/June 2013 to make sure that I liked solo and longer term travel. And, as I write this, I’ve almost completed a six month solo trip to (mostly) Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is great — very easy travel, nice people, great food, good value for money. Oh, and have you seen the views?

Now I’m figuring out where my next major trip should be … Somewhere off-season and not too cold for September to December. Advice welcomed!

4. How did you finance your grown up gap year?

I’ve always been a saver, but giving up working for a life of travel takes more than just savings. I’m pretty lucky though; because my job was cut, I was able to negotiate a buy-out package from my employer. And as I no longer have a job to go to, I don’t need a house to live in, so I sold my house. I’ve invested this money carefully and am aiming to make it last until I can start collecting my pension.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have saved even more money. Now that I don’t have a house to put things in, I realise how many things I bought that I didn’t need (some I never even used!), and how sometimes I went shopping simply because I was bored. I would have a lot more money in the bank now had I adopted my “minimal stuff” approach decades earlier!

As far as working along the way: as a writer, I sell the occasional article, but that doesn’t amount to mountains of money. Even better, I’m now the contributing editor for an online magazine, LuxuryAndBoutiqueHotels.com. While I don’t get paid for this, I exchange publicity for a luxury or boutique hotel for a two night stay with them (see what I mean by lemon pie?!). These free stays reduce my travel costs, let me stay in some pretty wonderful places and, most importantly, give me the opportunity to gather great content to write about, which I would be doing anyway.

One of the best experiences I had was in Cambodia in February 2014. I stayed at the truly gorgeous Park Hyatt Siem Reap, but, even better, got to interview one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. The Park Hyatt has a significant community investment program and they set up a meeting for me with the Venerable Somnieng, a monk and co-founder of the Life and Hope Association. I was overwhelmed with his story and with what the Association is doing to help rebuild Cambodia after its traumatic past. If it weren’t for LuxuryAndBoutiqueHotels.com, I would not have had the opportunity to learn about and share his story.

5. Did you go alone or with family/friends?

I’m a solo traveller, although I spend parts of my trips visiting friends and family, and make great new friends along the way.

I love travelling solo – I can decide what I want to do and when and, best of all, no one complains when things don’t go according to plan! It is also much easier to do the hotel reviews as a solo traveller, as I’m less likely to look like someone on holiday just looking for a freebie.

But I’m happy to take the occasional trip with someone else, especially to places where being a solo female traveller can be difficult.

6. What is your travel style? (Ie. Budget hostels/Mid-range> hotels/Luxury travel – less is more, travelling slowly/pack in as much as possible)

I stay at a full range of places. The luxury and boutique places when I’m working and more value-oriented places when I’m on “vacation”.

My travel style is to stay in a city or region for about a month and try to get to know it beyond the surface. While I love discovering new places, I also love the feeling of walking through a city’s streets knowing exactly where I’m going, how much things will cost and the best places to get them, and having expats, locals and other travellers to chat with. And, best of all, the touts can tell when you’re comfortable and have been around for a while and they stop hassling you to buy from them!

I’ve also learned to approach travelling like life, rather than like a trip. It is very easy to get “templed out” if you do too much site seeing. So I balance work, exercise, sleep, being social, something cultural, something touristy and just hanging out.

7. Do you go for tours or do it alone?

I mostly go it alone. Sometimes I’ll book a dive trip or a cooking class or something in my first few days as it is a good way to meet people and get insights on my new location. I’ll chat with people in restaurants to see if they’re nice and have similar interests and want to team up for something. This was great in Panama as I had a relaxing day with a Spanish speaker, someone to share taxi costs and negotiations, and company for a wilderness walk I would be unlikely to do solo.

There’s only a few places where I’d do the organised group thing (North Korea, maybe India and China) and it would have to be with a company like my favourite travel agency, Trailfinders in Ottawa, where they really know their destinations well and they don’t treat you like sheep!

8. What is the best thing about taking a grown up gap year?

Just one best thing? That’s tough! But I suppose I’d say my health, both mental and physical. I’m happy, I sleep through the night again, I’m active and creative and I’ve lost over 20 pounds.

9. And were there any downsides?

I do miss family and friends that I can’t see as often. And there is decision fatigue – as a traveller, especially a solo one, there is little that is routine and you are constantly figuring out where to eat, sleep, go next and how to get there and what the real cost is. That can get tiring. But not nearly as tiring as getting up every morning in the snow to go to a job you no longer love!

10. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own grown up gap year?

Figure out what makes you happy and do that. Don’t live by other people’s expectations. You will have to make compromises, but only you know what you’re ok with giving up in order to live your dreams.

You can find more of Johanna’s writing and photographs on her blog or follow her on Twitter and Facebook and give her advice on where to go next.