If you could walk away from your life for a year, would you do it? Talk about a big decision. Where would you even go? Could you hack it by yourself for a year navigating various countries, currencies and languages? Do they have gluten-free food overseas? How serious is malaria, really? Okay, pause. Let’s be honest. I know exactly what you’re thinking: Who in their right mind, especially at 35, actually walks away from their life and commits to 365 days of living outside of their comfort zone?

Me. I did. And no amount of money could have paid for the lessons learned from my twenty countries, six continent deep extravaganza abroad. More importantly, you can’t put a price tag on finding your happiness again.

REASONS TO WALK AWAY FROM LIFE

During the fall of 2016, my life began descending into a downward spiral. One thing after another slowly consumed me and took some of the best parts of my spirit with it. Any amount of good vibes had peaced out, the heartache from a split earlier in the year wouldn’t release its death grip, and my job was chewing me up and spitting me out. For the first time in my life, I loathed getting out of bed in the morning. It took every ounce of energy to just get through the day, and I often wondered what I did to deserve this present state of misery. Day after day, my mind would wander to how I dig out, turn things around and find my happiness again. I was no longer a familiar version of myself, but I knew I needed to find her again. It wasn’t long before I decided I would quit watching reruns of this pitiful episode that was my life.

I wouldn’t dig out; I would walk away from all of it.  For one year.

REBUILDING FROM AFAR

I would rebuild my life from the opposite end of the world while soaking in whatever it was that life would offer me. I quit my job in Corporate America and vowed to travel with a new sense of optimism. I packed one suitcase, a carry on and my computer bag full of only things that one might need for a year abroad, including my sense of adventure and curiosity, and didn’t look back. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I might find, but I knew from here on out, I was free to do anything I wanted. These are my lessons learned from a year around the globe.

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT LIFE

You get one life. Live it well.
Real talk says I didn’t come all the way to Asia on a 52-hour itinerary to wallow in self-pity and be a passenger in my own life. The sun was shining, there was an 80-degree temperature difference between my first stop, Malaysia, and Minneapolis where I first boarded a plane. The food couldn’t have been better in there. (Minus the durian. Y’all know what I’m talking about?!)  I was determined to soak in the joy of every moment and everything new. The thing about life is that the same opportunities don’t always present themselves twice.  We don’t often get a redo, and the time to be present is the present moment. I refused to let these moments pass me by. Drive that damn tuk-tuk around Cambodia, take that beer bath in Prague, break the bank drinking the best wines in MendozaNo matter what you do, choose joy and happiness every time.

Less is more.
One of the first things I noticed when I got to Asia was how little the countries had and how simple everything was. The most apparent was, despite circumstances, how happy the cultures were. While living in Cambodia for a month, I found myself fortunate enough to do two things: 1) a homestay in the countryside of Kampot and 2) teach hip-hop dance at a non-profit, at-risk youth organization. The commonality to both experiences was that it doesn’t cost much, if anything, to be happy. The lady who lived in a “house” worth less than a few thousand dollars was happy with her home. The children I worked with were beyond thrilled to have an open space and music to dance to. They were happy. Both needed nothing more than shared meals, good company and love. Here I was months earlier worrying about how many outfits I had and if anyone would recognize my three outfit wardrobe. It’s not the material things that make us happy; it’s the memories we create and those we surround ourselves with that bring us the most happiness. Ten years from now, I won’t remember which shoes I brought with me to Asia, but I will remember the children’s enthusiasm and smiles while I taught them a dance routine in Cambodia.

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT LOVE

You….2.0.
The minute you touchdown in (insert any country here), you can be anyone you want to. No one knows you, and you don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations other than your own. There is no better time than now to love yourself. I found that over the course of my year, many of my likes, wants, needs and hopes changed. I changed. When you travel for an extended period of time, all preconceived notions about who you are go out the window. Welcome to you 2.0. I bet you didn’t even realize there was another version of you waiting for you to discover, right? You relearn yourself through new experiences, ones that only travel can teach you, and find yourself pushing your own boundaries and seizing new opportunities that maybe aren’t available to you at home. (Umm…crickets for an evening snack anyone?) Like or not, you will come back a different person, it’s impossible not to, and I bet it’s a version of yourself you’d like to meet.

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT ADVENTURE

You choose your own adventure.
What adventure looks like is different for each of us. To some, it’s leaving the state. To others, it’s climbing Machu Picchu. As it turned out, my year became a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure book as I worked to answer the question, “What comes next?” Aside from my many travel excursions, one of my biggest adventures was starting my own freelance marketing and wine pairing business.  It wasn’t until I stepped away from my fifteen-year career that I realized I am also a capable individual with many skills and talents that I never knew existed. Over the year, I came to realize just how adventurous self-growth and traveling down a road of new career endeavors can be – if you let it.

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT LIVING IN OTHER COUNTRIES

Everything will “wow” you.
Yes, you will be enamored with most everything you see.  After all, it is wanderlusty and new. You are more apt to be curious and pay attention to details, especially those things that stick out because they don’t seem “quite right” to someone who hasn’t experienced other countries’ cultural norms before. We’re talking five-year-old pro pickpocketers, ten-year-old motorcyclists and babies (helmetless, mind you) joyriding with their family of five on one scooter.  Your level of general awareness increases, and you begin to appreciate things you so often took for granted: access to drinkable water, ease of communication when getting your haircut (the last time I attempted to speak Serbian it sounded like I’d been at the bar for over eight hours) and safety when crossing the street (because Asia is a real-life game of Frogger, and some days you wonder if you’re going to make it out alive).

On the flip side of things, you will see some of the most breathtaking sunsets you’ve ever seen in your life. Mark my words, you will, at some point, ask yourself, “How is this my life?” as you’re sitting on the beautiful blue beaches of Santorini thinking about how it is you got here and feeling grateful for trusting yourself in making this move you were so scared to make months earlier. You did it, you got here – and dammit, you are experiencing a level of happiness you’ve never felt before. How is this even possible?

You. It always starts with you. With every choice comes a decision, one where you have the power to create change, for yourself or for others. You can always make more money, but you can’t buy more time, so live for today. As the saying goes, if you live life well the first time, you’ll never need a do-over.

Carin Skowronsky is a food and wine pairing writer and influencer who has a passion for elevating everyday meals. She knows how to add a little extra to a meal and has done so by creating pairing experiences across 20 countries and 6 continents throughout her 2017 year abroad. Wine glass in one hand, piece of cheese in the other, Carin is on a mission to bring you the best pairings from around the globe. Follow her food, wine and travel adventures on Pairs Well With… and via social media @carinaroundtheglobe, and feel free to reach out to her at pairswellwith@gmail.com.

Photo Credit: Cari Hill, Pedro del Nero, Jay Harrison

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