I was not raised to be a traveler. Growing up in my house in New Jersey my family struggled economically and we didn’t vacation often. My extended family lived in New York so there really wasn’t much in the way of family reunion-travel either. Before the age of 16 the entire geographic range that I had seen in my entire life extended from Danbury, Connecticut to Arlington, Virginia and as far west as Gettysburg, PA.
As an avid reader of history and literature, I learned about places all over the world that I wanted to see. I read, in Hemingway’s novels, stark and fascinating portraits of Paris, Italy and Spain. I read Shakespeare’s histories covering the interminable wars between England and France. My favorite two books as a child were “Go Saddle the Sea” and “Bridle the Wind” by Joan Aiken. Their protagonist, an orphan named Felix, runs away from his mother’s ancestral home in Spain to seek that of his father, a sailor from England. In the sequel Felix heads home but is wrecked on the coast of France by a storm and must find his way through the Pyrenees and Basque Country, all the while pursued by a demonically possessed monk. Set during the time of Napoleon, these books sketched pictures of jagged coastlines, wooded mountains and sun-drenched villages of red-tiled houses.
Before I ever set foot out of my country, I had seen a good cross-section of the world–in books. This article details how I was, though of modest means, able to make my obsession with travel into something of a reality and offers suggestions for other struggling travelers.
1. Save for a School Trip: My first international trip was a 10 day guided tour of France and England between my sophomore and junior years of high school. One day midway through Freshman year my History teacher announced that said trip would proceed the following summer and that all of her students were invited. After class I told her of my predicament and she recommended taking the brochure and talking it over with my parents. With my mother’s support I got a job at McDonald’s and began saving. I worked all summer and one or two days per week during the school year. I gave every check to my mother, who scrupulously saved the money for me. My parents chipped in as did my Grandfather and I was able to go on the trip. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The world that I found in Europe aroused my greatest fascination: the art, people, languages and cuisine reinforced my passion for more.
2. Major Achievements: As mercenary as it sounds, there are certain very special occasions when it becomes possible to get money from family that ordinarily would seem exorbitant. The first of these is during a Gap Year. A Gap Year is the year following graduation from high school, college or graduate school when many young people go backpacking. The trip is essentially a reward for a body of very good work. When I graduated college in 2005 my father gave me $4000 and my grandfather another $1000. Along with $2000 that I earned myself I was able to spend 75 days touring the continent of Europe from one end to the other. Although on a smaller scale, a honeymoon is another trip that you can usually get family to pay for. When my wife and I got married we were living overseas so we didn’t need housewares and had no place to put them. We created a honeymoon registry instead, through which our family and friends selected various outings and treats for us during our honeymoon.
3. Teaching English: English teaching is the one way that your average college-aged student can make a living in most quarters of the world. For most countries the big three requirements are a bachelor’s degree, teaching certificate (TEFL, TESOL or CELTA) and teaching experience. Any and all of these can be waived if a manager likes you. If you’re charismatic and clean cut many English schools will hire you in person. The real difficulty is balancing where you can legally get a job, which countries will pay well and how livable are they. The solution, in my opinion, is to err on the side of enjoyability and to pick a country that you can use as a base to visit many others. I chose Turkey because of its reputation for lax reputation, its own cultural allure, demand for my services and its proximity to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. For three years my wife and I lived in Turkey, saving plenty of money, living well and traveling to somewhere in or out of the country every three months or so.
4. Community Service: There are many programs like Americorps, the Peace Corps and Teach For America that will, as part of your service, house you in some foreign country or far away state where service is needed. My sister is an Americorps alumnus and through the program was stationed in South Carolina and Alabama. She also met interesting people from all over the country.
5. Military Service: While there is the whole issue of potentially having to fight, joining the Armed Services is a sure-fire way to see much of the world. Some of the men in my family only ever went anywhere in the army. My father saw Japan and Thailand. My step-father was stationed on the East German border. I’ve met service men stationed in Turkey. Service in Navy, in particular, seems to guarantee seeing large swathes of the globe.
6. Business Travel: Many white collar jobs require travel and if you are in a position of some importance, you will probably be doing some business traveling. There are other positions, however, that are attainable, profitable and conducive to travel. The most obvious would be work in the travel industry itself. Flight attendants and cruise workers literally travel for a living. Engineers, particularly in any petro-chemical industry, tend to be in demand the world over. I’ve known electrical engineers who’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia, Prudhoe Bay, Kyoto and Newark. Other skills include fluency in a foreign language, journalism or simply possession of dual citizenship. Many overseas jobs are only open to Americans who possess EU citizenship as well. That’s why I’ve been laboring to attain Italian citizenship for the better part of two years.
Do you remember the scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Baily is cheated out of his dreams? He’s all set to work through Europe when his father dies. He gives up his honeymoon money to stave off a bank run on the day of stock market crash in 1929. When you’re not traveling, it’s easy to feel a bit like George Baily-trapped. The truth is, however, that if you have the strong desire to see the world and the will to make it happen, it’s only a matter of time before you find your way somewhere. I did.