At age 20, I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S., aside from a quick couple hours crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders on family vacations. I was a college student focused on getting my business degree. Traveling internationally hadn't crossed my mind. Then it all changed, and it happened fast!
My first summer of college (2004), I decided I wanted to do something different. I wanted to challenge myself. I began working with Southwestern Advantage, selling educational books to families by working door-to-door. It wasn’t easy, in fact some days were tough, but it's what I learned that changed me. I learned how to run a business and it was the hard knock experience that built my perseverance and got me in the habit of setting goals for myself. That summer I won a trip to Costa Rica for sales performance. For the first time in my life, I needed a passport. While in Costa Rica, I saw a rainforest. And volcanoes. And incredible landscapes with beaches and small villages.
It felt worlds away and it made me wonder what other amazing places are out there.
That next fall, my family decided (for the first time ever) to travel to Europe. I continued to work hard over the summer to have the money to go on that trip. I met my goal and traveled to Spain where there were historic cathedrals and homes nestled along huge cliffs. Mountains and ocean extended as far as the eye could see. My family and I also ventured into the countries of Gibraltar and Morocco. I saw donkeys used as transportation and billboards attributing to the man of power. My perspective of the world was altering and I craved more of Europe.
Study Abroad in Cyprus
I had heard of students studying abroad and started looking into it for my junior year. I quickly decided on a program called Global Learning Semesters. Classmates and I traveled first to Cyprus, then to an additional 15 European countries while learning about the history and culture. We rode camels in Egypt, ate pizza in Italy, gazed at the twinkling Eiffel Tower, and bungee-jumped in Cyprus.
That semester abroad was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. When I returned home, I came across this quote: “The mark of a true traveler is someone who has experienced as many countries as their age.” Those words inspired me. I was 22 at the time and had traveled to 20 countries. I was continuing my summer business where we were encouraged to think big and set high goals. I knew this time in my early twenties would be easier to travel than when I got into 'the real world' of more responsibilities, so I set a goal to see 50 countries by age 25. I didn't know how much money I would need. I didn't know what countries I would see. All I knew was I had a passion and I wanted to live it out.
Taking the Fall Off in Europe
I was one credit shy from graduation, so in 2007 I decided to take the fall off to go back to Europe. Again, I worked long hours over the summer to create the money for a 66 day trip. I had never been abroad solo, so creating a route, finding accommodations, and getting around was all new to me. But my focus was on exploring and discovering new places, and the rest of the pieces seemed to fall into place.
I ended up visiting 18 countries in the U.K., Scandinavia, the Balkans, and most of Eastern Europe. Traveling solo definitely sharpened my problem solving skills with language barriers and foreign currencies. It was also amazing in that it created time for reflection, foresight and an adventuresome sabbatical.
Through Asia for 12 Weeks
In 2008, I graduated college. I was recruiting full time with Southwestern Advantage and planned to sell books again over the summer. My sister Kristin had also just graduated college and worked in the same business. We decided that fall would be the perfect time to take a sibling trip. The continent of Asia seemed worlds away with fascinating contrasts of big cities, ancient temples and gorgeous landscapes.
While working, we reminded ourselves that 'one day here will be one day of vacation in Asia'. If you think vacationing is always expensive, think again! Our 75-day trip cost us less than $5,000/ea. In beautiful parts of Asia, nice hotels are available at less than $10/night. It's a traveler's dream.
Our 12-week trip started in Tokyo and ended 3,000+ miles away in Singapore. We traveled by plane, overnight bus, and ferry. As we went along, we used a whiteboard to connect with locals and other travelers. It ended up being an amazing way to meet people and share laughs with strangers around the world.
Traveling as siblings made for plenty of great laughs. Everywhere we went, we stood at least a foot taller and far blonder than the average local. We were often asked if we were a Swedish couple! The adventures continued and we pushed each other to try new things. We both got scuba diving certified, rock climbed over deep waters, cliff jumped, spun fire and spear-fished. I even “got married” as part of a village tribe tradition in China!
Through Central America to #50
After returning to the states, I moved to Atlanta for a sales job in home improvement. It was an intense schedule working 6 days a week. Although I didn’t enjoy it, it allowed me to save a considerable amount of money for another big adventure. A local friend of mine, Andrew, had never been out of the country, so I saw this as the perfect opportunity for an epic backpacking trip!
We decided on Central America because it was close to home but with plenty of variety. We started in Cancun, Mexico and made our way through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and my 50th country, Nicaragua. It felt like I was coming full circle because we ended the trip in Costa Rica where the start of my travels began just five years prior (almost exactly to the week).
Crossing that 50th border felt amazing to accomplish what I set out to do. My eyes were opened to different ways of thinking and being, and I knew my passion for travel would always remain with me.
In that moment, I was reminded that it wasn’t about reaching that 50th destination, it was about the journey all along.