Debra Lynkowski and her partner, Marc Archambault, were at the peak of their careers when they decided to sell their house, find a temporary home for their cats, and spend 8 months traveling around the world.
Q: What compelled you to do this?
A: I was going through a pretty intense period of self-reflection, which in itself was difficult to do because we were so fully engaged with our work and other commitments. I just knew that I wanted to create some space in our lives — to see what would emerge in the cracks. So I quit my job and Marc put his business on hold and we took a mid-life gap year.
Q: Did people think you were crazy to do that?
A: Some people were stunned at first. Like, “How can you do this when you’re in your late 40s and early 50s and at the peak of your careers?” But I had a deep sense that everything would be fine.
To paraphrase Paulo Coelho, ‘when you want something bad enough then the whole universe seems to conspire to help you.’ Friends and family supported us in every way.
Q: What did you hope to achieve and were you successful?
A: Before I left I probably wondered if I had done everything I wanted to in this life — if I died tomorrow, would I have regrets. I don’t feel that anymore. It’s not only because we travelled around the world. It’s because we shook things up and reminded ourselves what living is.
In some ways I feel that all of the fears and anxiety I had before about our future, about things like retirement and security, have dissipated. The experience helped to remind us about what is lasting – our connections to spirit, nature and each other. It reminded me why I’m here on this earth.
People ask if we have changed. I think we have but it’s been a very nuanced transformation. It’s simply a different way of seeing things. It is like that T.S. Eliot quote that at “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
Q; Did the trip require a lot of planning?
A: When we left we really only knew the general direction we would take. Our first stop would be Kauai to unwind. We would then go to Australia, New Zealand and Asia. That’s all we knew. We had to do research along the way and be prepared to spend part of each day being our own travel agents. Decisions were guided by what we were learning as we went along.
Q: What countries did you visit?
A: We visited 13 countries in 8 months and that was definitely enough: USA (Hawaii), Australia, New Zealand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, Scotland, Wales, Spain, and France. We quickly learned what worked for us and what didn’t. Trying to see everything and moving to a new place every couple of days was not good for our souls. Settling into a place every couple of weeks seemed to be key to our contentment.
We really had such remarkably divergent experiences in the course of the 8 months. Our eyes were ‘wide open’ as far as what to expect in Asia, and still, when we stepped off the plane in Laos we instantly felt that we were in such a profoundly different place. I’m so glad it was our first stop in Asia because we loved that country and the people so much – it was the best introduction.
In Bali, we felt enveloped in a cocoon. It was almost as if we were living there as part of the family. Then one overnight flight and we’re thrust into Istanbul and a completely different culture. But the biggest jolt was going from Istanbul to Scotland — from mosques to the Edinburgh Festival in the space of 24 hours.
Q: Did you stay in hotels?
A: We were happiest when we were living among the local people. We didn’t really like staying in hotels and much preferred our airbnb (bed and breakfast) experiences. You stay in people’s houses so you get a real sense of how the locals live. We stayed in 17 of them and made some lovely friendships. Even if there were language barriers we didn’t feel as much like tourists when we stayed in an airbnb.
Q: How about meals?
A: We made an effort to find places where we could cook many of our own meals. This was partly due to budgetary constraints but it was also a matter of choice; the unpredictability and variability of eating out can get tiresome. And I can tell you that other than Cat’s full Scottish breakfast in Helensburgh, Scotland or Wayan’s Bali breakfast in Payogan, the best breakfasts we had were Marc’s simple omelets.
Q: What were some of the trip highlights?
A: Kauai, Hawaii was like a warm winter ‘getaway’ with a focus on scenery, wildlife and some serious beach time. We started to get into a new rhythm and it helped set the stage for the next 8 months.
The beaches in Sydney, Australia are incomparable. Almost everyone there (I am not exaggerating) wears flip-flops. The harbour and Opera House lived up to all of the hype and the cliff walk between Bondi and Coogee beaches is stunning.
We spent two weeks in Cairns, hiking in the Daintree Rainforest, swimming in an idyllic watering hole known only to the locals, and happily eating wattle-seed ice cream. No trip to Cairns is complete without snorkeling or diving on the Great Barrier Reef — from the moment I put my head in the water there I was transported to a different world.
New Zealand exceeded our expectations; we found its beauty borders on the surreal. Queenstown on the South Island is set in a valley on beautiful Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains including one range called the Remarkables. We did a few great day trips including a three-hour boat ride down breathtaking fjords in Doubtful Sound. One highlight of the North Island was Waimangu Valley where we spent four hours hiking around craters caused by a volcanic eruption.
Laos was our gateway to Asia and a very gentle introduction to a world that was completely foreign to us. New Years in Laos is celebrated with water—a massive six-day water fight. As a practicing Buddhist, it was a very special place for me but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to be touched by the quiet dignity of the monks. We spent a day learning to cook traditional Laotian food and another day taking a “mahout” course, which is essentially learning how to make a four-ton elephant listen to you.
If Laos was love at first sight, Vietnam was a slow, cautious courtship and we sometimes felt out of our element. The legacy of the Vietnam War permeates every part of this beautiful country and going through one of the underground tunnels in Cu Chi was a claustrophobic experience. We were happy to end our trip with a lovely day spent in the Mekong Delta. We left Saigon for Cambodia with a new understanding of Vietnam’s history and a deep respect for its resilient people.
Cambodia’s horrific legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge still seems very fresh. We first made our way to Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, once a notorious detention and torture centre. Then we went to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, and to lesser-known temples that are still overrun by jungle growth.
After a harrowing mini-bus ride to the Thai border, we made our way to the small Thai island of Koh Mak, where we woke each morning to the sound of rain and spent each afternoon in the sun. (We really loved our time on that quiet island).
From there, we camped overnight on Verlaten Island, between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It’s close to Anak Krakatau, an active volcanic island that last erupted in 2012. We spent the evening eating some of the best local fare made on an open fire on the beach, and enjoying a full view of the volcano as the sun set and rose. Then we set foot on Anak Krakatau itself the next morning.
At the Borobudur and Prambanan temples outside Yogyakarta, Java we found that we were the tourist attraction and agreed to have our photo taken with many locals. Then we travelled to Bali, Indonesia, where we nested for six weeks.
Istanbul, Turkey was a huge adjustment but the Turkish coffee did not disappoint! We spent a lot of time at the Spice Bazaar, which was unquestionably my favourite market. Never having been in a mosque before, we really enjoyed visiting the two most significant mosques in Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed or “Blue Mosque” and the Suleymaniye Mosque.
Our stay in Edinburgh, Scotland was too brief to really soak up the city’s architecture and history, but we connected with a couple of Canadian friends who were living there at the time. We particularly enjoyed our time at a friend’s apartment in Newport, Wales along the Pembrokeshire Coast. We spent three weeks hiking along the gorgeous coastal trails and up the small mountains called Carn Ingli and Carn Ffoi.
For us, Barcelona, Spain was all about architecture, art and food: Gaudi, Dali and tapas. After traveling the world, I can now confirm that our food preferences are clearly Mediterranean. We both love bread, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. In Spain, these are common fare.
Our final destination was southern France, the last stop being Paris.
Q: Were you glad to be back home?
A: Yes, definitely. It was great to return to family, friends, and our two cats, Lucie and Bert. And I must say that we are enjoying some of the creature comforts that being in your own home allows. That said, we both continue to feel a bit of awe about the whole thing. We feel very grateful and privileged to have had this amazing experience.
Our lens has shifted; our attitudes have shifted. I am so filled with gratitude right now just for simple things. Even when we were traveling, I started out with a lot of goals – I thought I would be writing more, reading more, even taking time each day to learn a new language. But frankly, a lot of the time we just wanted to sit and look at rice fields, or watch a lizard doing its thing for an hour or more!
I think travel really gets to the core of who you are. It reveals your raw material. When you are moving from country to country, you are always being put in new situations, having to adjust, never quite feeling that you are on solid ground. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, and each other, these past several months.
This interview with Debra Lynkowski has been condensed and edited; notes from her blog to family and friends have been incorporated with permission.
Photo credits Marc Archambault
© Riding the buses 2014