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  • Rachel Denning

Why You Should Forgo the American Dream And Let Travel Transform Your Life

We had “arrived.” We had made it. We were living the American Dream. But was it everything we'd hoped it be?

Initially written for Bootsnall Travel in 2013. Especially poignant for me as we forgo the American Dream once more to set out again for more travel.


We had “arrived.” We had made it. We were living the American Dream.


We had the model home, fully furnished, with 6 inch baseboards and a home theater room.


We owned three cars, one of which was a Porsche. We had a large income…which also happened to equal lots of expenses, and lots of stress.

But that’s what it was about, right? Having the nice home and the fancy cars? That’s what made you a success.


Feeling stressed about paying all those bills, that was just a part of it.

At least that's what I believed while expecting our fourth child when we jetted off for a last-minute second-honeymoon to Playa del Carmen, Mexico.


I never suspected how that trip would forever change the rest of our lives.


LEAVING OUR LITTLE CORNER OF THE EARTH

Pregnant with our 4th on our second honeymoon in Mexico.


The incident was nothing special – except that we wandered off the tourist path and saw a glimpse of the real Mexico. My first experience as a mother in a place outside my home country.


At first it was scary – the graffiti, the unfinished buildings, the poor houses with dirt floors, the stray dogs, the litter.

We attended a local religious meeting, and I sat surrounded by the Mexican people – submerged in their language and their way of life – and something happened to me.


Growing up sheltered from diversity, for the first time I saw 'foreigners' as people, just like me, but different.


We spoke a different language, but we shared a common humanity -- we laughed and cried, loved, married and had children, and ultimately faced death.


In that moment, I knew my own children needed to have this experience. They couldn't grow up in the same little corner of the world all their lives.


As a family we needed to learn another language, experience a foreign way of living, and remove the prejudices that come as a byproduct of limited boundaries.

Returning to our hotel, I announced my plans to my husband.


"Let's move to a Spanish speaking country!" I told him.


He agreed without hesitation. (Previous to our marriage he'd spent two years living in Peru.) On our return home, immediate plans were made for our move abroad.

We rented out our model home, sold our model furniture, and liquidated our other real estate investments.


After our fourth child was born, we loaded up our little ones (our oldest 4 and our newest only 3 months old) in our fancy SUV to embark on a border crossing, reality-expanding adventure driving from the U.S. to Costa Rica, where we planned to make a new home.


CROSSING PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL BORDERS


Before leaving, we’d faced tremendous fear and uncertainty.


Would we get robbed? Plundered? Murdered? Would we be able to buy diapers? Is there even a road that goes all the way to Costa Rica?


Our world-view was so limited.


Along the way we discovered that 'third-world' (which we now call 'developing') countries actually had stores – normal ones like I was used to.


I also learned that not everyone living south of the border wanted to come to America. Most of them loved their country and enjoyed living there.

Five years after undertaking that initial voyage, as I sit in my rented home in Guatemala – a pit stop along our current expedition driving from Alaska to Argentina (now with five kids), I think about the two people who had those conversations so many years ago, and they seem like strangers to me.

Now we walk at night through the local neighborhoods to do our shopping at the local stores and markets and visit friends. There’s no fear of murder or plundering. Only greetings of Buena noche.

But it’s been a long road to get us from that prejudiced, bigoted, and narrow-minded view of men and things, to the broad, wholesome, charitable views we hold today – views that continue to expand. And they didn’t come by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all our lives.


TWO ROADS DIVERGED


We made it to Costa Rica, but we brought America with us. We kept up with the Jones’ (the other expats), shopped at the local HyperMas (owned by Walmart), and lived in a 6500 sq. ft. mansion.


The best of both worlds was available to us – the daily fascination of foreign living and exposure to a new language and culture, and the luxurious lifestyle. But it didn’t last.

With the economic collapse of 2007-2008, we lost our income. We held out as long as we could – even moved in with friends to save rent while starting a new business. We loathed the idea of going back to 'reality'.


But ultimately, the last of the money ran out and our new venture failed to produce. We sold what belongings we had to return to the United States for a job – the only other solution we could come up with at the time.

We went back with heads hung low. Given money by generous strangers, we rented a “lowly” 1100 sq. ft. apartment. We felt like failures and held on to the belief that to be successful we needed to earn lots of money and live in luxury.


Travel dreams were on some future horizon, but travel was something that happened with the extra money you had after you paid all your living expenses, right?

In the meantime, we looked at buying one of the dozens of newly built homes that sat vacant after the market collapse. My husband was offered a career making six figures. The idea was to follow the formula until we were back to making lots of money, and then we would be able to travel again.


But when it came down to actually committing to those things, we saw they were moving us further away from travel instead of closer to it.


And the career and nice homes no longer seemed as appealing as they once were. The lure of discovery, exploration, and reality expansion through travel and foreign living was becoming more and more attractive.


We didn’t have the freedom and income anymore to have the luxury and the travel – we had to make a choice.

Do we take the career, buy the house, and chase the American Dream once again? Or do we pursue a lifestyle of family travel, despite having no current income to fund it?

The logical choice was to take the career. We were a family of six. We needed to be responsible, to provide a stable home and income for our young children.

“We didn’t have the freedom and income anymore to have the luxury and the travel – we had to make a choice.”

But doing what was logical wasn’t what was in our hearts. Instead we were dreaming of the illogical and unreasonable – the impossible – traveling the world with our children; learning together from personal experiences; studying languages and cultures; encountering history and customs first-hand.


Why couldn’t we explore jungles, discover beaches, observe wildlife, learn other tongues, try new foods, examine ruins, and traverse continents? Why couldn’t that be the dream we pursue, the plan for raising and educating our kids (not to mention ourselves)?

Scraping together what funds we could, selling any other belongings of value (including my wedding ring), we chose the less traversed road.

We packed twelve suitcases, bought five one way tickets to the Dominican Republic (a place we’d never been before), and arrived site unseen to find a house to live.


AN ADDICTION TO PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION


We spent six incredible months learning a new way of life – simplifying, living with less, and living without. We washed our clothes by hand, did without hot water, and all slept in the same bedroom/loft of our 800 sq. ft. coconut-grove-nestled beach house. We had no phone, no internet, and had to walk to town to buy water and groceries.

We read lots of books, ate lots of coconut, and spent each sunset walking along the shore exploring tide pools. We called it our Walden. It was one of the best and most memorable times of our life.

Soon the money ran out, and we hadn’t yet figured out the location independent income. We went back to the States for employment once again.


“Really, it wasn’t about the travel. Travel was the tool, the method to the outcome. The real addiction was to the personal transformation that travel extracts from your mind and your soul.”

But travel had taught us new skills, new thought patterns, new approaches to life in general. It had also become a part of who we were, a positive addiction, and we couldn’t imagine our lives without it.


Really, it wasn’t about the travel. Travel was the tool, the method to the outcome. The real addiction was to the personal transformation that travel extracts from your mind and your soul.

It causes you to be uncomfortable, to step out of the familiar and into the unknown. It compels you to see with new eyes and to consider things you had never been aware of.

Travel, like a surgeon, opens you up – mind, heart, and soul – and removes preconceptions, biases, and small-mindedness. In its place it leaves a love for the world and all people; it also entrusts you with a larger understanding of our common humanity and the quandaries we share as a planet.


TRAVEL ISN'T ABOUT SEEING THE SITES. IT'S ABOUT SEARCHING YOUR SOUL.


On our second 'failure' and return to the States, traveling again wasn’t even a question. Every decision was made with the long term goal in mind – How will this help us be able to travel more? How will this give us more freedom to explore?


Asking these questions led us to India for five months, then back to the U.S., across it and Canada to Alaska (on the discovery that we were expecting our fifth child).


After that we began an overland trip with the intent of driving from Alaska to Argentina with our five kids.


Three years into that adventure we were expecting our 6th child.

Asking the right questions helped us to design our financial lifestyle with freedom in mind. No, taking that career position isn’t going to work for us. Starting that location dependent business is. We focused on building income streams that gave us options.


“Every decision was made with the long term goal in mind – How will this help us be able to travel more? How will this give us more freedom to explore?”

To us, travel has nothing to do with cruises and vacations. It’s not about staying at fancy hotels or taking a two-week holiday. (Although 13 years and seven kids later I appreciate those more, especially as a couples getaway.)


Travel is a way of life. It’s how we learn, develop ourselves, educate our children, expand our minds, and work on solving the world’s problems.  Traveling is as much a part of our makeup as the books we read and the food we eat. To suggest that we’ll stop traveling is like suggesting that we’ll stop eating, reading, or learning.

Travel is life, and life is travel. They’ve become intertwined, as inseparable as the branch and the root.


“Instead of repeating the same life experience every year for ten, twenty, or fifty years, travel can give us fifty life-changing encounters in one year.”


Some people think that travel is not for everybody, but the essence of travel is experiential expansion.


Instead of repeating the same life experience every year for ten, twenty, or fifty years, travel can give us fifty life-changing encounters in one year.


The result? Instead of reading only one page out of the world book, we’re given the opportunity of perusing a greater proportion of it, and exercising our human-ness, rather than suffering from soul atrophy.

Travel can and will transform your life if you let it.

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