Thoughts on Another Birthday and 1 Year of Travel

Aksu Zhabagly, Kazakhstan

Sally: “And, I’m gonna be forty.”

Harry: “When?”

Sally: “Someday.”

This scene from When Harry Met Sally has been playing on repeat in my head the last few days.

As I turn 36 today, I am suddenly closer to 40 than ever (and if you’re over 40 and reading this, go ahead and laugh – I know I get a chuckle when I read twenty-somethings freaking out about turning 30). For some reason, 36 just feels so much older than 35. At 36, I have now spent exactly half of my life as an adult, half of my life on my own.

Once upon a time, 30 seemed really old and really far away.

I had this idea of who I would be and what I would be doing at 30. I had a list from Glamour magazine of 30 things I should do before I turned 30 (I think I managed to check off about half). And then 30 came and went and nothing was how I thought it would be. I left my career as a lawyer. I met a guy who I thought was the one and he broke my heart. Friends who I thought would be friends for life suddenly disappeared.

I felt lost.

I started to dream of traveling.

And I worked to make that dream of taking a career break to travel a reality – a process that took years, not months. I gave up another career, I put my love life on hold, I alienated friends, I lost my cats, I sold everything.

And I planned and planned and planned. I researched and read endlessly about all of the places I wanted to visit. I drafted one itinerary after another and created detailed spreadsheets to track all of my spending. But I never really stopped to think about how it would actually BE.

How would it actually feel to be on the road, traveling on my own, for months on end?

Now that it has been a year, I can tell you this:

It doesn’t always feel real.

Sometimes, when I am staring out the window on a long bus ride or wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city, I just wonder:

Is this really me? Is this really my life?

Tallinn, Estonia

At times it just all feels surreal – like I am on the outside sneaking a peak at someone else’s life.

As I prepared to board the plane to fly to Helsinki, Finland a year ago today, I kept waiting for “it” to hit me. I was waiting for some deep realization to set in about what I was about to do. But it never really did.

I think it still hasn’t.

To be honest, I think sometimes I take it for granted.

I think that is one of the downfalls of creating this travel blog and becoming a part of the travel blogging community (yes, there is such a thing). I know so many others now who have taken a career break to travel or who travel full-time that I sometimes forget that this isn’t normal. I fail to appreciate the uniqueness of this experience. I don’t give myself credit for what I have accomplished. I look at my friends back home and I see engagements, marriages, babies and job promotions.

And I look at myself and I feel like I’ve been left behind.

I hoped this trip would help me reach a level of happiness and find a sense of purpose that has been missing in the past.  I have been waiting for this magic moment when the light bulb goes on and I think, “yes, it all makes sense now. This is what I want to do. This is what I am meant to do.”

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how traveling through Central Asia was like running a marathon. Training for and running a marathon is hard. It is challenging. It is not always fun (heck, it is hardly ever fun). You give up late nights out with your friends and you get up at the crack of dawn to run. You run through heat and humidity, wind and rain, snow and slush. But in the end, it’s worth it. The sense of accomplishment, the high of competing, the thrill of crossing the finish line. It makes it all worth it.

The same is true with long-term travel. It is not always fun. There are long travel days and delays and things that go wrong. You may find yourself scared, frustrated, lonely and physically and mentally exhausted beyond belief – not just traveling through Central Asia as in my previous post, but in any place at any time.

Like running a marathon, I want to believe that this year of travel has been worth it.

I traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I camped under the stars in Turkmenistan. I bonded with an amazing family in Tajikistan, drank cognac with a bunch of Georgians and improved my Russian tenfold. I visited places like Chernobyl and the Aral Sea and Lake Baikal.

And I met some incredible people – some who I will likely never encounter again and some who I hope will become lifelong friends.

I hope it is just a matter of time until it all starts to feel real, until I am able to process it all and the light bulb finally goes on.

In the meantime, I am going to try my best not to think about 40 looming around the corner.

I am going to try to just focus on how amazing year 36 was.


24 thoughts on “Thoughts on Another Birthday and 1 Year of Travel”

  1. Happy belated birthday, Katie! I totally get this post. On one hand, I always wanted to travel the world but it doesn’t always feel real now that we’re doing it. And I definitely feel left out and lonely. Friends have moved on and assume I’m living this fabulous life. But they only see what’s in photos and on our blog. They don’t see that I feel completely lost and lonely when I really do just need a friend to talk to.

  2. I’m one of those twenty-somethings thinking about turning 30! (I turn 26 in October, and yes, 26 definitely feels a lot older than 25!)

    I can relate to a lot of what you wrote here, though, Katie. Like… so much! The whole surreal feeling of making a travel dream a reality, especially. I didn’t travel as long as you, but even my 2-month trip to Europe feels that way. Now that I’m back home, it all feels very surreal – I find myself wondering frequently, “Did that actually happen?” “Did I really do that?”

    In my case, though, I know that the saving and planning and traveling was worth it. I know know that that’s exactly what I want to be doing at this point in my life. I hope the lightbulb (whatever it ends up being) goes on for you soon!

  3. I’m turning 37 in a few days and like you I feel the 40s coming shortly… But for me that’s a good feeling. Don’t you feel more liberate, more conscious, more independent? Suddenly you don’t fear anymore what others are gonna think about your decisions and dreams… It just doesn’t matter anymore. And you’re able to decide by your own what fit best for you. Do you feel it?
    You’re very special and while I’m still on that years-long travel planning phase I can’t help admiring your courage and determination!
    Keep going Kate! I need your thoughts and shares to keep planning!
    Happy B-day Kate!!

    1. LOL, thanks! That’s funny because I started following your blog precisely because we were the same age and you were doing what I wanted to do. 🙂

  4. Happy Birthday, Katie…

    Birthdays aside — and I cheerfully celebrate Chronological Enrichment at 62, and believe that everyone should learn something new every day — I think that you’ve hit on the difference between “Travel” and “Vacation.”

    “Vacation” is a short-term break in work that is either aggressive relaxation or a brief adventure. (Or, it could be a housecleaning or home-improvement project…)

    “Travel” is something else again, and during your year and with your blog you have added to the definition.

    Thanks for sharing.

    See you soon!


  5. HAPPY BIG B to tha DAY!!!

    I have a 6 months lead on you to reaching 40, let’s split the difference and holiday somewhere to celebrate/mourn? 🙂

    This…”I know so many others now who have taken time off to travel or who travel full-time that I sometimes forget that this isn’t normal. I fail to appreciate the uniqueness of this experience.”…I am SO guilty of. I do forget, sometimes, that the lives we lead are actually quite remarkable. Such is anything in life though, once you get used to it.

    You’ve had a kick-ass 36th year, to be sure! Here’s to many more!

    (And, to meeting STAN!) 🙂

    1. Thanks! How long are you guys in Canada for? Maybe I’ll swing up and pay a visit! 🙂

      Nice to hear I’m not the only one who forgets sometimes how unique this whole journey is.

  6. I’m 50, but I remember 36 as being a sad birthday – as I really couldn’t say I was “early 30s” anymore – and the pressure to have a relationship and breed was at it’s height.

    It get’s better on that score I can tell you – and as someone said about 50 is liberating, no more talk of babies to start of with LOL.

    It definitely gets easier to work out your own path as you get older, trust me on this one.

    BTW I have a partner, but never got around the kids, we leave for Burma in November, travel never gets old.

    1. Thanks Lissie. From comments I’ve heard from others, it sounds like I’m not alone in having a little issue with 36. 🙂

  7. Great post! Birthdays are weird, especially when we thought our lives would look different than they actually do. I can relate to the travel blogging community comment, how it makes you forget that what you’re doing isn’t actually normal and that it is pretty amazing. I never had that “wow I’m doing this” moment on my trip, and I still look back on it and think, did that really happen? Was it even a big deal at all? I also look at all my friends who are “moving forward” in their lives in ways I’m not, and it does feel like I’m being left behind, but then I have to remind myself I don’t want the same life. I don’t want that white picket fence life everyone told me I should want when I was growing up. I think it’s so amazing that you made sacrifices and went after this dream to travel the former Soviet countries. I also think you’ll see it a little better once you get back to the US and have a little distance, like you’re too close to it right now.

    Anyway, enough babble from me. Happy birthday!

    1. Thanks Ali! Always good to hear from someone who experienced the same thing. And I think you’re right – I think I need to be home for a while to really be able to step back and look at everything and fully appreciate it all.

  8. Happy Birthday Katie!! I remember thinking throughout our trip that it all felt surreal and had the same ‘looking at someone else’s life’ feeling. I liked that feeling – that I had really done it and was now living what I once thought could only be someone else’s life! As for getting older; I think we’re only as old as we let ourselves feel. I know ‘old’ 30 somethings and ‘young’ 60 somethings. It’s an attitude and a way of looking at the world. Enjoy!!

  9. Happy Birthday! Seems like we share a birthday, only with 8 years difference 🙂
    I’ve been following your blog for a while now and I really enjoy it! You’ve just visited places that are highest on my “to visit” list and gave me a confidence to think it’s not an insane idea to travel there 🙂 so thanks for that!

    1. Thanks Kami – and thanks for reading! Hope you make it to a lot of those places – some amazing things to see!

      1. ah, I’m already dreaming of going to all the “-stans”! 🙂 and you really encouraged me that it’s possible to be a single female traveler there, I doubt many of my friends would like to go there, even my alone trips to Georgia and Armenia or to the Balkans are too much for them 😉 so keep it like that and be the inspiration to me and other travelers! 🙂

  10. Happy Birthday, Katie!
    Yes, I am 40 and I am laughing (more like smiling). Actually, I’m almost 41 (in September, so I guess we are both Virgos). When I turned 40 last year actually it felt liberating. I felt like telling everyone “Hey, I’m 40!” I can’t explain it well, but it feels like I’m finally now living MY life. I am FINALLY confident enough to do what I want to do. All my life (even in 20s) I made choices based on what’s better for my family…. I constantly thought “If I do this it’ll help out my parents”… “if I do that, it’ll benefit my children” etc. It’s good to be considerate but there came time when I had to start thinking about myself.
    Sorry, I’m carrying on about myself only to let you know that 40 is great! Enjoy your thirties, you’ve got long way before 40, but don’t fret 40 either.

    take care,

    you say “drank cognac with a bunch of Georgians” LOL
    of course, that’s what you do in Georgia: drink and make friends, lol

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