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Fast Personal Growth Through Slow Travel

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As I’m writing this post (four weeks before you’re reading it) we’ve been in Spain for over a month. Here are a few facts about our trip:

Image of the coastline and cathedral of Cadiz, Spain | The-Military-Guide.com
Cadiz’s cathedral and coastline.

Given those facts, I was simply looking forward to a few months of quality family time. We’d “get away” from our Oahu routine and chores. We’d revisit the Rota naval base and the surrounding area to see what’s changed in the last 30 years. We’d help our daughter settle in to her rental home. Perhaps we’d take a few trips around Spain together.

The last thing I expected from this trip is a burst of personal growth. Some of my friends might feel that mine peaked in the 1990s, and yet this trip has shown otherwise. I’m still learning that I can re-write my personal rulebook.

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I’m gettin’ pretty good at financial independence and retirement, but I can still do more with those skills. First is the epiphany that I should do more of these slow-travel trips. (All together now, “Well, duh.”) More travel might even lead to still more personal growth.

But it’s not just about travel. Let me share a couple thousand words with other nuggets of knowledge.

Parenting (or not)

I used to fantasize that when our daughter left home for college, we parents would shift from mere domestic authority figures to higher lifelong roles like “coach” or “mentor”. Our parenting days would gradually come to an end during the college years and we’d move on to an adult relationship. Of course you other empty-nester parents are now laughing and shaking your heads, but I bet that you guys had the same illusions when your teens finished high school.

The reality is that parenting is a lifetime sentence with no parole for good behavior. Whether you know it or not you’re always going to be your progeny’s role model, a touchstone, and the human they can turn to as a last resort. You’ve terminally infected your adult offspring with a pop-up video in their head, and it’s a highlights reel of your best and worst behavior.

You love these people for the way they are, not for the way you want them to be. While you may feel ready to change your relationship with your young adult, they may not see any reason to change it. You can behave any way you want, but your coaching & mentoring only happens when someone asks you for coaching & mentoring.

Another reality is that you won’t spend as much time with your young adult as you may have thought. (Intellectually, I knew this. Now I’ve verified it.) That’s the way it should be. They’re busy creating their own lives and they know where to find you when (“if”?) they need you. They’re also busy building their own team, and that includes their own coaches. You’re not going to get those regular phone calls or texts that you used to get during the school years. You might not make the cut for their new team, but you can always be the mascot cheering from the sidelines.

These are all very good signs that you’ve created an independent adult capable of making their own decisions. The pop-up video in their head tells them when to consult you.

From a military perspective, you have trained your relief. They’ve taken the watch, and they’ll call you if they have a question, but you are no longer in the duty section.

Most importantly, it’s not about you. It’s about them and their own lives. When you were their age, it’s just the way you wanted things to be.

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So where does this leave us parents? I’ve never understood empty-nester syndrome before, but now I can appreciate the temptation. When your young adults leave the nest, then once again your role is ending. You have to move toward something new instead of being “just” a parent (and, for many of us, a supreme authority figure). It’s the same as leaving the military or a bridge career and realizing that you’ll need a new identity– and a new set of interests. You can reminisce in the nostalgia, but don’t wallow in the self-pity. Mourn a little for the old version of you, and then set the empty-nester syndrome aside. You have a whole new life ahead of you.

“What day is this?”

When you’re in school or at work, you’re all too oriented to date & time. We joke about “Hump Day” and “TGIF” and “Sunday-night Syndrome”, but it’s just part of our ingrained cultural weekly shared misery routine.

You might have dealt with the “fog of work”, but now it becomes the “routine of retirement”. At first your kids will keep you tied to the school week, but when they move out then you’ll have trouble remembering whether it’s Wednesday or Thursday. You’ll forget that it’s a weekend until you make the mistake of going to Home Depot on a Saturday morning.

You’ll eventually develop a new weekly calendar in your head: Tuesday is trash day. Friday is green waste day (or is it recycle?!?) and on Saturday your neighbors are all running their yardwork power tools. (There’s no U.S. mail on Sundays.) You might add your own structure, like shaving your face on Monday & Thursday or going surfing every Tuesday & Friday.

When you travel, you lose that self-imposed structure! You’re in a new environment with new cues and few routines. You might adopt your host’s schedule when you’re visiting family or friends, but what if you’re renting an apartment? If you travel slowly then you eventually develop your own routine. Maybe you subscribe to a daily newspaper or you check off the days with a calendar. You still don’t have to wear a watch, but your cell phone displays the day and date as well as the time.

I enjoy the temporary dislocation– it’s a chance to impose a new order on our travel chaos. My spouse and I can rebuild our new routines all over again, and redesign the type of life we’d like to live. Early morning walks or pre-dinner ones? Both? Afternoons by the pool or indoors? Lunches out and dinners in, or only go out on weeknights? Stay up late and sleep in, or early to bed for early to rise?

Your new body

Slow travel is also a fantastic opportunity for new habits. When you were working, you probably spent most of your vacation doing the things you couldn’t really do during the workweek. You used to let loose and live a little! Unfortunately by the time you caught up on sleep (or hangovers), the vacation was over… and it was time to go back to work.

Now on travel when you’re living in a new place for weeks, you can build your new life. You’re eating new foods and trying new activities, so why not have fun with your health too? At home it’s really hard to give up your favorite snack, but when you’re traveling then you just stop buying that food. Now you can eat exotic fruits & veggies along with indulgent desserts and adult beverages. At home you might be “too busy” for exercise (no excuses!) but during extended travel you’ll want to work out. You’ll try different activities (and get better at them) and you’ll want to surf a new break. It’s easy to explore your destination when you know that you can relax for as many recovery days as you want.

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I had a surprising experience last week– my body began to adapt to winter weather. I’ve lived in Hawaii for over 25 years and I’ve lost almost all of my resistance to cold, but it apparently returns pretty quickly. (Thank goodness.) When we first arrived in Andalusia we were shivering in the 40-degree temperatures with long pants, heavy socks, and hoodies. We sucked down gallons of hot beverages. We went outdoors with heavy coats, gloves, and hats. At night we shivered under thick blankets.

After three weeks, though, we no longer felt as cold. The thermometer had the same numbers but we felt warmer. My fingers are no longer chilled, and I can unzip my hoodie. I don’t need a hat outdoors anymore, and most of the time I can go without gloves.

Your new brain

During slow travel, the most important exercises and changes are happening in your head. You’re out of your rut and exploring new paths. You’re absorbing new sights and new cultures. You’re having new experiences and seeing a new world!

The change could be as basic as a different city (or island) in your state, or it could be a foreign country. Familiar food tastes different or you might eat an entire new cuisine. You not only hear different accents but new languages. You might have to express yourself in those languages, too, even if it’s just a few dozen words of pidgin. Before my next trip I should spend more time with language programs or even hire a tutor for a few hours a week. I took years of French in high school and college, and those skills are still (mostly) there. My Spanglish is improving. Andalusian accents are very challenging– it’s like learning English from watching Monty Python movies and then living in Texas.

Another interesting experience is enjoying a low-information diet. At home, every morning I checked a half-dozen websites for news and local events. On travel, however, I’ve only been reading Hawaii headlines and an occasional article. I haven’t even tried to keep up with Spain’s news, let alone global events. I can use my browser’s bookmarks whenever I want to, but I haven’t been interested.

The gear

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little trouble we’ve had during this trip.

It took considerable thought to pack for 90 days, especially vitamins and contact lenses and medications. (Fortunately everyone has stayed healthy.) We also packed for two seasons but as usual, we brought too many clothes for “just in case”.

Managing finances on travel has been surprisingly easy: I’m doing less than ever before. I’ve put everything on automatic billpay. I’ve (over)paid our 2014 tax bill and applied for a filing extension. Instead of entering every financial transaction into Quicken and breaking them down by categories, I’m just going to total our ATM receipts and credit-card bills as “Travel”. With Space A flights and our daughter’s free lodging, this has been an incredibly cheap trip.

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Currencies and payments have been no problem. My USAA chip&PIN Mastercard is happily accepted everywhere (with a currency conversion fee) and my Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Visa is also good everywhere (with no conversion fees). The only no-fee ATM cards seem to be Capital One 360 (but they have no coverage in Andalusia) or a Schwab brokerage ATM card. (There are reimbursed ATM cards for active-duty military, but not for veterans.) I’ve made one trip to the Rota naval base Navy Federal Credit Union ATM and bought some more euros from my daughter, but the vast majority of this trip has used credit cards. We only spend cash for taxis and the occasional restaurant.

Postal mail has become more challenging. The USPS website only accepts a 30-day hold, but our mail carrier agreed to take care of us for 90 days. On our next extended trip I’ll use a service to collect, open, scan, and e-mail our mail. Or maybe I should just rent a P.O. box for a few months. However my spouse and I get very little mail (thanks to e-mail and Facebook) and our daughter finally has her new mailing address.

We’ve never been smartphone owners, and that needs to change. When we left America I shut off my LG Verizon (CDMA) clamshell cell phone and I’ve been using a Spanish Digimobil Samsung GSM clamshell. (The CDMA phone’s answering message tells callers to send us e-mail, and I check its voicemail a couple times a month.) After watching our daughter navigate Andalusia’s twisty roads and alleys with Google Maps on her iPhone (both driving and walking), I can see that my spouse and I should join the smartphone club. We’ll eventually buy an unlocked model (Craigslist?) with pay-as-you-go service (through T-Mobile but mostly WiFi). When we’re on travel, we’ll upgrade to monthly service. The Google Translate app is also essential for viewing signs or documents through the phone’s camera to learn the obscure foreign vocabulary.

I miss my peppy desktop PC and my 23″ monitor. I’ve traveled with an iPad2 since 2012, and it’s a great lightweight tool for consuming info. My spouse enjoys using her iPad3 for TV & movie websites. However the iPad is not so great for producing content, and when I switch apps or open new browser tabs then I spend a significant amount of time waiting for the screen to refresh. (Formatting blog posts and editing images is painful, and the WordPress iPad app is worse than using the WP site on Chrome or Safari. Notice how this post has few links and even fewer images?) The good news is that an iPad is a fantastic lightweight tool for distraction-free writing because you can’t hop among apps like a hypercaffeinated bunny. I’m writing well– as long as I don’t need to do a lot of formatting or publishing.

Speaking of writing, my head is expanding with new ideas. I’m working on the next book, and when I get back home then I can rearrange the outline (using Scrivener) to figure out the rest of the first draft. I have a couple new financial projects to tackle from home, and I’ll eventually write more blog posts about that. I’ll also have to look for another tablet (or even a full-blown notebook) that has the lightweight versatility of an iPad.

Future travel

Is this a new expat chapter in our lives, when we’re perpetually applying for visas and seeking house sitters?

It’s tempting, and we’ll do the research. We’re enjoying ourselves, but I won’t surf my favorite break until mid-April. (I plan to surf Cadiz this month, but it ain’t Hawaii.) There’s plenty to do on Oahu, and we haven’t even visited Molokai or Lanai yet. We can leave home anytime and go anywhere we want, yet there’s a lot to be said for a comfortable routine and tending home & yard. I also don’t want to rush about the world with a short-timer’s attitude. If we’re not living in a new place for at least a month then we’re moving too fast.

Today, we know that we’re coming back to Spain in late September for more slow travel. We’ll visit our daughter wherever she’s stationed over the next few years, especially if she’s in Japan. We’d like to do Bangkok and Chiang Mai again. Maybe I need to take my growing Spanglish skills to warm-water Latin American surfing spots.

We’ll try this a year at a time, and we’ll redesign our lives every few years!

(And yes, my daughter reads this blog. Sometimes she even agrees with me!)

[mybooktable author=”doug-nordman”]

Related articles:
Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Long-Term Travel
Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Hawaii Long-Term Travel
Book Review: Energize Your Retirement
The Frugal Effect

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