When Calgarians Drop Everything To Travel the World
How Calgarians can spend more than half a year half a world away.
Illustrations by Samantha Lucy
Deb Cummings’ home has suffered for her love of travel.
“We socked away all our points and as much money as we could,” she says. “Even if you come to our house today, you will not find granite countertops or any kind of renovations, because they never happened.”
Instead of new counters, what you will find in her home are eclectic pieces like carvings from Thailand, tapestries from Rajasthan and a Masai beaded necklace, all on display.
The unusual decor owes its presence to a year-long trip Cummings and her family took in 2006 and 2007, when they “voluntoured” around the world, a journey that found them helping an eye clinic in Kenya one month, an elephant sanctuary in Thailand the next and an orphanage in India after that.
“We wanted to hopscotch across three or four different volunteer spots on different continents,” says Cummings of the trip she and her husband, Scott Lazenby, planned, partially to satisfy their wanderlust, and partially to make their children, Quinn and Siobhan, 10 and 14 at the time, global citizens.
A great escape, but not one that happens on a whim. How do you make sure your life, your work and your home are all squared away for your return? How do you prepare for a trip longer than most celebrity marriages?
For Cummings, when her job with Travel Alberta shifted focus, she took the opportunity to leave on good terms and take the trip for which her family had saved for years. Her husband was able to take a leave of absence from his workplace, assuring the family could return to one stable paycheque. Both children were provided with curriculums their schools would recognize, so their parents could home-school and reintegrate them into the school system without issue on their return.
Although they originally thought they’d rent out their West Hillhurst home to oil-and-gas companies looking for rental space, restrictive terms, including obligations to replace appliances in case they broke, meant they decided against it. “If our barbecue blew up or our 23-year-old TV stopped working, then we would have had to replace it,” says Cummings – not something they wanted to deal with from another continent.
By chance, Cummings learned through an acquaintance that the University of Calgary would be bringing in a professor from the Netherlands who’d need a place to stay. A few meetings later, the professor and his family agreed to rent Cummings’ home for the year.
Cummings’ family was not the only group of nomads to benefit from the timeliness of Dutch renters. Issa and Nita Breibish also rented their home to a family from the Netherlands through a corporate leasing company before setting out on a two-and-a-half-year motorcycle tour. For the Breibishes, the call to adventure sounded when the 2008 to 2010 economic crisis loomed over both their jobs, Issa losing his to layoffs and Nita quitting hers when her workplace started to struggle. Having always wanted to travel and with a shared love of motorcycles (they met at the MotoGP races in California), they decided to take the opportunity to motor around the globe together.
“We’d both been bringing it up over the past couple of years, kind of as a joke, hoping one person would run with it,” recalls Nita. Once the joke got serious, the pair sold everything they owned and plotted a journey that would see them travel through 37 countries on five continents, brave a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland and handle accusations of spying at a Moroccan border crossing when they refused to give up their GoPro cameras.
Despite these few harrowing events, they say the trip was an enjoyable, eye-opening experience. Though they’d planned their first few months in detail, their concerns about such an ambitious trip soon melted away once they found themselves in transit.
“All that stuff you stress about when you’re planning a trip like this, it all makes sense on the road,” says Issa. “Once you’re moving, it all works out.”
The length of their journey allowed them to stay in areas longer than most tourists, which meant locals were of more interest to them than attractions like art or architecture. “We get more excited about meeting people who want to share their perspective [of their city] with you,” says Issa. Interacting with natives, he says, provided a deeper sense of appreciation for a region, revealing parts of it they could never have found on their own.
When a town’s populace was reserved, the Breibishes felt there was something lacking to their stay there. “We’d end up seeing the ruins or the bridge,” says Nita, “but we’d feel kind of empty.”
This was a rare occurrence, however, as the clich about Canadians abroad held true for the pair; being from Canada lent them immediate familiarity with nearly everyone they met, with the exception of their fellow Canucks.
“The coldest people we’d meet were other Canadians, because then it came down to what city you were from,” says Nita.
City rivalries, it seems, transcend all geography. On meeting a mother and daughter from Montreal in Tunisia, the Breibishes were greeted with a reflexive sigh when they mentioned they were from Calgary. “In all fairness, the last thing you want to see when you’re on a trip is another Canadian,” says Issa.
For Wendy Peters, who spent more than six months travelling through nine countries this year, the world is full of good people, Canadian tourists notwithstanding.
“I travelled a lot when I was younger, but this was a really solidifying trip in meeting so many different people from so many backgrounds,” Peters says. “They want to share their local culture, they want to share something about themselves, they’re curious about where you come from.”
Her itinerary, which took her through Bangladesh, Indonesia, Australia (including Tasmania), France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and the United States, was a project 10 years in the making. Finally, realizing conditions were perfect for her dream trip, she gave her notice at work in November 2013 and was on a flight to South Asia by January.
Spending more than half a year away from home taught Peters a few tricks for better travel, such as keeping an eye trained on how others behave. When going through customs on a tour from Bali to Java, she and her travelling companion began taking their laptops out of their bags, as posters near the X-ray machines instructed them to do.
“We started to [take them out] and our guide asked us what we were doing: ‘Do you see anyone else taking their laptops out? You want everybody here to know that you have all these electronics?’ That was kind of an eye-opener, because we were so used to following instructions,” says Peters.
Other bits of advice she gives people looking to see the world are to invest in some odour-resistant merino wool clothing, to plan their budget ahead of time and, perhaps most importantly, to pace themselves.
“Most people are ‘go, go, go’ because you have a limited amount of time, but you can’t do that for six months straight,” says Peters. “You have to be more choosy with what you’re going to do.”
No matter your speed, travelling for months will eventually wear down even the most rugged of soles and a break will be in order. “At some point you need to take it all in, otherwise it feels like you’re just moving from place to place,” says Issa. “At the end of our time in Indonesia, we were quite ready for quiet.”
The good news is that, when returning from extended trips, coming back to a pre-travel life can be a discovery in itself. Even if a traveller’s hometown hasn’t changed, their perspectives most likely will have.
“[The trip] cemented our desire to own minimal things and not get bogged down,” says Craig Elder, who spent 10 months with his wife travelling through Africa, South America and Asia. “Seeing people get by and living happy lives with a lot less reinforces that you don’t need to have that much stuff.”
Elder, who quit his job as a market analyst with Canadian Pacific in order to travel, says the constant packing and unpacking every few days meant they never had time to spread out their things, which in turn made him better at keeping tidy than when he first left, “though my wife might tell you I’m still not very good,” he jokes.
If the ability to live simpler, neater lives isn’t enough of a draw, there are a number of benefits to visiting far-off destinations other than returning to the monastic life. One paper published in the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the effects of prolonged travel on German students. It found that those who’d been abroad for extended periods of time returned more agreeable, open and emotionally stable than their sedentary peers.
A June 2010 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people who were told to think about things they had learned from other cultures later demonstrated increased creativity, echoing the sentiments of Mark Twain in his travel book, The Innocents Abroad: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
No matter the reasons for planning an extended trip, the locations visited or the company kept, the one resounding piece of advice Cummings and every other world traveller offer to anyone considering seeing the world is simple: “Just go!”