Overlanding East Africa
At the end of my work term in Rwanda, I didn't have the chance to visit the Virunga Mountain Gorillas, which I had diligently saved up for, because the ministry that issued work permits held my passport until, and I only got it back the Friday before I left the country the next morning. I'll never know if it took 6 months to process my work permit or they just forgot. And, I was so young and was such a conditioned rule follower that it just had never occurred to me to go to the ministry and request it back sooner. So instead, after Rwanda, I joined an overlanding tour to Tanzania and Kenya, countries no. 20 and 21, and spent a mesmerizing time in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. And the best part: I happen to be there during mating season (what were the chances?!?) so it was quite a show!
After returning to Canada, the following 6 months was filled with soul-searching, deep depression, wondering how I had failed to be the best eldest son and white man I was supposed to be, since I had failed very short of the: husband, 2.5 kids, two-car garage, picket fence combo by age 25. No one ever knew because in my culture, we NEVER talk about these things. Luckily, an uncle who worked in tourism asked me to be a travel attendant for an elderly Asian couple. They didn't speak English and needed a care-taker, let's say. All my food and accommodation costs were covered, and I was paid $100/day on top of that. We went on a week long tour of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and DC.
They loooved me so much that they asked me to escort them again on a cruise to... Mexico, country no. 22. We spent a few days in L.A. and then boarded the cruise to Mexico. That was my first and last cruise, because I don't drink, I don't eat nearly enough to make the buffets worthwhile, and there's nothing culturally fascinating at sea.
But the thing that marked me most was how the grandma of that couple signed her visa forms with a cross, like X-marks-the-spot. When I opened her passport, that same cross was her signature. Dang, her husband didn't even teach her to sign her own name?!? That observation, of all things, was the key to unlocking my depression. It shifted me into a space of gratitude of remembering I can read, I can write, I have opportunities that I received AND created for myself.
Moving to New York City
So. I pulled up my big girl pants, did a ton of research on international career opportunities in New York and California, NAFTA visas, and lined up five interviews in five days in NYC. I got a job, a phone number, an apartment. I came back to Vancouver on day six and moved my life to New York City the next morning, on day seven. One girl, one suitcase, dropped in the middle of blitzing Times Square.
I'll never forget it: the blinding technicolor lights, the busy noise, the spinning, the booming, I was free. I was finally freeeee! Free from duty, obligation, identities I never wanted and never asked for. My friend Mayra, god am I ever so grateful, took me in for weeks on her futon until I was able to furnish my apartment. We met during my X-Files Scully fan days 6 years prior.
In fact, having her and Rosemary in NYC and no friends in California was a huge swaying factor in my choosing NYC. Fascinating, isn't it, the connections made, the seeds sewn, without us ever knowing what may come to fruition... or how... or when? The next year, the three of us went to Ecuador to retire Mayra's mom in the sun, and that was country no. 23.
R&R with United Nations Bestie
At my international dream job in New York City, I met one of my best, best friends. She's South Korean and worked a term at our organization. A year later, her UN career stationed her all over the world. She left NYC. So every year, we would choose a country between the two of us and meet for a week of R&R. The first one was Nepal, country no. 24. We intended to trek some of the Annapurna snow-capped mountains. We even booked our stay with Three Sisters, to support female trekking guides.
But once we arrived, sipped our mango lassi by the lake in Pokhara, and saw the ragged sunburnt faces of returning trekkers, we decided not to. Lol! Instead we explored the ancient city of Bhaktapur and the Chitwan National Park. I then flew home via India, country no. 25, to visit the Taj Mahal (a bucket list dream that didn't fit into my first around-the-world trip itinerary). I also met up with a friend I met through Doctors Without Borders when working out in California. So we never know how these connections points and lines cross paths again, it's fascinating!
What were the chances?!? Encounters
A year after that, I upgraded to an even dreamier dream job that paid much, much better. I worked up a reputation for mad e-community building skills and was sent to our Paris office to share my talent with the rest of the organization. Before Paris, I spent a week visiting a friend in Austria, country no. 26. She was my roommate way back in Rwanda. She used to be based in London but happened to have moved to Vienna during the same time I was there. Small world and what timing!
I then took a bus to Slovakia for a short solo trip, then another bus to Czech Republic to visit my tentmate during our Kenya/Tanzania overlanding trip. Talk about a completed connect world thanks to Skype, Facebook, and Gmail!! And thus countries no. 27 and 28, attained. And you know what, I still very much wasn't counting countries. I'll tell you when I started.
The following year, my South Korean best friend and I met in Cambodia, country no. 29, where she was stationed, and we travelled to Laos together, country no. 30. They were both such beautiful, such peaceful countries. I would have lived there forever if I didn't have to physically return to NYC for my job... which surely planted deep seeds for becoming a digital nomad, yeeeeears (even a decade) before that term even existed.
Back at work, my e-community and digital skills had spread even more and I was invited by our Swedish office (country no. 31) to build a community platform for them under a week, which I had achieved in the New York office. That was easy for me! Looking back, I probably shouldn't have worked that hard and worked myself up against the glass ceiling so fast, with no more up to go. But oh well. I couldn't perform subpar below my capabilities and talents.
With a jaunt to the paradise beaches of The Bahamas, country no. 32, where I swam with sharks. I was also sent to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, country no. 33, for a huge global project that I spearheaded. Tack on to that global meetup, I took a mini-vacation to Germany, country no. 34, to visit another friend from my X-files Scully fan days, whom I met a decade ago! I mean, talk about a butterfly flapping its wings!!! Some creative director created a sci-fi TV show and ten years later, I get to visit my friend in Germany thanks to it!!! Wow!
Since work, as a non-profit, couldn't raise our salaries, they generously offered continuing education funds and I sent myself to an international conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, country no. 35. I'm very, very surprised that I didn't tack on another European country before and after Denmark. After digging through my hard drive for photo timestamps, I realized that it's because I had friends' wedding in Montreal the following week and I was also moving to Hong Kong the week after that! Ah, that explains why I didn't tack on a European country.
Moving to Hong Kong
Once settled in Hong Kong, now as a consultant with UN clients, an ex and I went to Shanghai for the World Expo and to Beijing to walk the Great Wall of China for New Year's. I enjoyed some aspects of living in HK as an expat, but couldn't stand how people would only befriend you based on your net worth, bleh! When my relationship imploded (THANK AAAAAAAAALL THAT IS HOLY THAT I HAD THE CLAIRVOYANCE TO DODGE THAT BULLET!!!), I passed through Vancouver for 3 months... which turned into 5 years!
My calling as a coach had found me and I dove head first into entrepreneurship knowing it was the only way to be truly and fully free! Financially free, geographically free, time free, emotionally free, spiritually free, everything free.
About a year later, I took mini-vacations to Costa Rica, country no. 36, with another NYC bestie who was curious to know how I travel so gracefully. I also travelled to Nicaragua, country no. 37, to try surfing and travel-test a potential boyfriend. During business building, I also went to Peru and Bolivia with my high school best friend, who was working in Bolivia at the time. So the country counter climbed ever so organically and gradually to 39.
It was torture diverting money from my budding coaching business to travel and it was agonizing not to, all at the same time. There was tension to navigate and tough decisions to make. I didn't travel nearly as much as I would have loved to during those 2.5 years, but I had a big long-term vision of what I wanted to create that I was able to wisely balance cashflow vs travel.
The 4 Hour Work Week
A year and a half into business, I had successfully moulded my coaching business to be location independent. I went to Italy and Greece, without telling my clients because my low self-esteem had convinced me that I was a miserable ogre for using "their" money to enjoy myself (yeah, I know, our mind abuses us in horrid ways). Long story short, all went well, nobody died, I didn't die like my mind convinced me I would from shame. The opposite happened, my clients were even MORE inspired to liberate themselves from their businesses. I came home in one piece... plus a $125 roaming charge (damn you, Canadian mobile company!!). I quadruple-checked every single setting to avoid this, but it happened anyway. Small price to pay for having nailed the digital nomad beta-test!!!
I was now up to 41 countries and for the first time did a country count. I had no idea if the counter would be in the 20s, 50s, 60s...
Under the crushing weight of a perfectionist society, I repeated this experiment two more times traveling to Chile and Brazil, countries 42 and 43, to double-check and triple-check that I had ironed out all the systems, support staff, kinks of a digital nomad business AND life, not just business. I had! The glory of knowing and seeing I had mastered it!!! Looking back, I wasn't no longer afraid of what others thought of me, of the sheer bigness of my dreams, of my actually actualized potential, of being burnt at the stake if I got too big (like I had many times in this life and many past lives).
16 Countries in 16 Weeks
At the beginning of the next year, I noticed that September 2015 would be the 10th anniversary of my first around-the-world trip back in 2005. I thought, "How poetic would it be to do another one, on the exact anniversary date a decade later?" Until this point, my travels were gradual and organic, they happened as they happened. It wasn't until I met up with a bestie's cousin in Seattle and her jaw dropped when she heard that I'd been to 40+ countries, that I realized, "Wow, this is not nothing." To me, it was so gradual that it was no big deal, but I truly saw for the first time how big a deal it was.
A relationship completion was the liberating catalyst I needed to jet set off on my Exquisite Freedom Tour: 16 countries in 16 weeks to find my new home base, now that I could live anywhere. Remember, my 5 year stay in Vancouver was only supposed to be for 3 months. I owned a condo by the beach, I made a ton of residual income, I properly adulted. It's time to go, it's time to go be free and happy and joyful!
I planned this trip down to every microscopic detail. I had my virtual assistant research and enter into TripCase every terminal number, so I knew if I had to walk or run between flights, the foreign characters on bus windows from airport to Airbnb, every last detail. The trip without a hitch. I traveled from Japan, country no. 44, to South Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand (where I'd meet up with my Thai friend from Singaporean semester break 11 years ago), United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Portugal, Morocco, Spain, country no. 59, followed by trips to visit friends in NYC, Philadelphia, Minneapolis.
Sixteen stops turned into twenty stops, tallying country counter to 59. Everything went without a hitch... except for my baba who, even though happily retired, whistled in the garden, and seemingly healthy, suddenly passed away between the 3rd and 4th country of my tour. All my flights combined for 20 cities cost $5,500. Just the flight back alone to attend my dad's funeral alone cost $3,500. It showed me what an odd world we live in, where airlines don't give a rat's ass about you. And rightfully so! Their job is to get you from point A to point B safely and to make money. That's it. Caring about your grief or bank account is not in their job description or mission statement. It broke my heart further knowing millions couldn't say farewell to their loved ones because of visas, money, etc.
Continuing on my Exquisite Freedom Tour required every ounce of courage I've ever had, in the face of crushing criticism that I should this, I should that, I should stay and be the man of the house now, even though I've shouldered my family and been man of the house since I was 3! It opened my eyes to how filial piety is a dangerous and powerful cultural whip that people use to subjugate others into conformity. Sigh.
Continue to The Freedom Experiment • Part 3/3