Ever wondered what would have happened if the life you dreamed of as a twenty-something actually became a reality?
Thanks to the pandemic, I found out.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t what I’d expected.
But let’s back up for a bit. Thanks to a combination of diligence and a healthy dose of luck, I managed to reach financial independence in 2016, at the age of 54. I began by taking a year off, hiking the Sinai and Appalachian Trails amid various other travels with a plan to transition into a life that was less self indulgent and more philanthropic.
By the time 2020 dawned, I was living in Timor Leste, an impoverished newly-independent southeast Asian country, working as a volunteer communications mentor at the pensions ministry (the floridly titled Ministériu Solidariedade Sosiál no Inkluzaun, which translates as the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion).
That came to an abrupt and chaotic end in March, when the spread of Covid-19 prompted a decision by the Australian Government to send home me and hundreds of other volunteers working in 38 countries. Then “Book a flight in the next two to three weeks” suddenly turned into “You have to leave NOW!”
A day later, I was in hotel quarantine in Australia.
And two weeks after that, I was released into the strange new pandemic world, with my range at first being 5km from my home in Brisbane then 50km then 150km and finally the entire state. It was clear I wasn’t going back to Timor Leste any time soon so I bought an old 4x4 and began traveling around Queensland.
It struck me that this was the life I’d dreamed of as a twenty-something, when I’d work for a few years and then travel for as long as I could with the savings I’d accumulated, ending up in a new country on the other side of the world where I’d restart the process. I really enjoyed my work as a journalist but I also always wondered what it would be like to have enough money to just travel forever.
And now I could.
At first it was great, like the start of any other extended trip. Except better in some ways because all the sites that were usually thronged with international tourists were deserted. At amazing places like Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, instead of having to book campsites months in advance I could just rock up on the day.
I headed up to Cape York, the northernmost tip of Australia and an adventure in itself to reach, then into the Outback, where the fences stopped and farms were the size of small countries.
All the state borders had been shut to inhibit the transmission of Covid 19 but early on, the border to the Northern Territory opened up and then, four months into my trip, Western Australia decided unexpectedly to let outsiders in. Soon after I entered WA, the border closed abruptly again and didn’t open again for another year.
Western Australia is big. Like really big. If it was its own country, it would be the tenth biggest in the world, smaller than Kazakhstan and knocking Algeria out of the top 10. And while it might seem to be mostly empty desert – on average the 2.7 million residents each have just under a square kilometer each to roam around in – the raw and elemental landscapes of the Kimberley and Pilbara regions were simply amazing and became my favorite part of Australia.
Six months into my trip I’d travelled about 30,000km and reached the south west corner of WA, where I realized my appetite for heading onwards had gradually been replaced by the worst possible mindset for any traveller: not really caring what was ahead.
My twenty-something idea of the perfect life was hitting reality. I’d thought a lot about exactly what was driving this – let’s just say solo outback travel provides plenty of opportunity for extended cogitation – and came up with what I was missing. (This only applies to me; your mileage may vary.) It could be distilled into three words:
Wandering around looking at new stuff, it turns out, wears a bit smooth after a while and I found I needed a greater sense of purpose to get out of bed in the morning. And although I shouldn’t need external events to calibrate my day, the reality was that I did. And after months of meeting new people and having exactly the same asinine conversations – “Where are you guys from? Which way are you heading? Have you been to X?” – I really wanted to be around people who I’d known for more than 10 minutes.
So I parked my 4x4 and started hiking, which I knew from previous long-distance ventures provided purpose, structure and community. Making quantifiable progress towards a tangible goal alongside others with a shared aspiration has a powerful bonding effect.
First there was the 130km Cape to Cape walk, followed by the 1,003km Bibbulmun Track.
That took three months, at the end of which the desire to resume touring in my 4x4 still hadn’t returned, so I ended up taking a job as an activity guide at an eco resort outside Broome in the Kimberley.
Taking guests fishing, sea kayaking, hiking and quaffing champagne while watching sunsets over the Indian ocean for the next three months finally rekindled my interest in normal travel.
I headed back to Queensland via 4x4 tracks through central Australia and began the process that eventually brought me back to Timor Leste on a new volunteering gig, working with a small Timorese-led NGO focussing on childhood malnutrition.
My sixty-something self’s idea of an ideal life bore little relation to the version envisaged by my twenty-something self, being less self indulgent and instead being influenced by all the unearned benefits in life I’d taken advantage of to reach financial independence. Particularly after working in the UAE, I felt an elemental need to use my advantages of education, experience and economics to help even the ledger a little with those who didn’t share the fortunate circumstances of my birth.
And once back in Dili, I began to realize that my life here had that sense of purpose I’d missed on my pandemic-prompted tour of Australia, as well as the structure of working in an organisation trying to avert the blight of malnutrition. And there was a strong community of people here so that I almost always recognize a familiar face on any social outing.
I hadn’t explicitly articulated what it was that made my life here work. Until I got to live the life my twenty-something self dreamed about.
Purpose. Structure. Community.
A note from Blair:
John is an old friend and was the first person I knew in real life who retired early. He reached financial independence and left Abu Dhabi around the same time that I began my FIRE journey. He has always been an inspiration in life: he started and ran the Abu Dhabi Alpine Club and helped many lost souls find adventure and connect with each other while he was here in the UAE. Last year he stopped by Abu Dhabi in between his travels and told me a shorter version of this story. I am grateful that he found the time to write it up as a blog post so I could share it with you.
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