5 Life Lessons from 5 Years of Travel

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

Five years ago this month, I saw two things in my rearview mirror.

Among the blur of beige suburban houses, I saw our own on the corner lot. Or what used to be ours – in the back of my car was the final pile of goods we had removed from it, junk that had accumulated over the previous four years. The house stood fully empty, waiting for the new owners to fill it.

The other thing I saw – an ear-to-ear grin that has been a near-permanent fixture since. Our nomadic life doesn’t come without its rough days, without question, but when we left those lofty possessions which defined our former existence in favour of the unknown path in front of us, that was the greatest peace I’ve ever felt.

And it has endured.

To both of us, this “vagabondaversary” is historic and worthy of celebration. That single day continues to rank as the most satisfying and gratifying that we have ever known, and it set us on a momentous journey that would change us more than we could have ever imagined.

None of us are the same as we were a moment ago, and the impact of the last five years is such that we find it difficult to even put words to most of it. But when people ask what we’ve learned most during this time, there are several important lessons that readily spring to mind.

Could we have learned these without travel? Maybe. Eventually. Gosh, some of them are so transparent and straightforward that it seems ridiculous that a drastic change in lifestyle was necessary to learn them, but so it is. We’re stubborn I guess, and it wasn’t until we pushed ourselves so far out of our realm of comfort and confronted the fate of others that we realized some simple and stark truths: that we collectively need to do better at caring, sharing, being smarter consumers, and looking at the world with a more positive view.

Maybe you already know all of this, but for us it took five years to even digest and speak of these lessons, along with an embarrassing number of hours to actually write about them.

So, here we go.

None of us are the same as we were a moment ago, and the impact of the last five years is such that we find it difficult to even put words to most of it.

Old-House-974x746

invention is the mother of unnecessary necessity.

It used to be that “necessity was the mother of all invention” (a proverb originally attributed to Plato), but it is clear that humankind has gone far too far.

In other words, we have way too much stuff.

We don’t need what we think we do. Yet we are pulled in a million different ways by propaganda that insists we need things, things, and more things. That we need them to make our lives more convenient, to look better, to elevate our status.

In our former lives, we were slaves to the debt to pay for those things along with the seduction to want to better them, so much so that it held us back from experiencing. Thus the story of our adult evolution has been about what we’ve left behind. When we’ve stripped down to only the things we absolutely need, it has made us both realize how powerful we really are by seeing how much we can do with how little.

We’re not suggesting that everyone sells everything they own to travel the world nomadically (because then who would we house-sit for?), but even tiny increments of less reliance on things can mean big positive changes.

Our empty storage unit

the world is awesome. and awful.

We have had so many experiences that provoke such intense inward joy that words fail me to express it, no matter how hard I try. Watching the sunrise in the Sahara Desert, teaching kids to swim in Bolivia, or just aquiet afternoon on an Italian island with the most perfect hand-crafted pasta ever made.

But this last year of travel was also hard on us. We became so attached to the country of Turkey and then saw it become embroiled in tragic protest just a week after we left. We walked the grounds of Auschwitz, I stood and cried in front of the Killing Tree in Cambodia. We watched as a protest outside our hotel inPhnom Penh erupted violently, killing an innocent bystander with a stray bullet. Our hearts ached, constantly.

Some people have commented that they don’t know how we can attend such locations and expose ourselves to those things that pass drastic reminder on how awful humans can be. And while I believe it is important to recognize the evil undercurrents in our world, I understand their misunderstanding. It’s hard. I’ve been reeling a bit from this past year and have since shied away from those reminders, trying instead to focus purely on the good that exists.

And what I’m realizing now is that observing the dark side makes the other that much brighter. When I think about the recent atrocities in such countries as Cambodia and yet also remember the genuine and persistent smiles on the many people we met there, I feel nothing short of spectacularly inspired. I know that my life, even with tragedies of my own to endure, is sheltered in comparison. I’ve learned gratitude, compassion, and resilience.

Travel shouldn’t all be about selfles and buying souvenirs. It’s about observing and learning and re-telling the story.

It’s about educating yourself so you can acknowledge the awful and get through to the truly awesome.

Sahara Sunrise

Sunrise in the Sahara

travel ain’t as scary as you think.

Fear of what happens outside our own cozy borders is what keeps most people at home.

In our five years of globe-trotting, we’ve lost several items by the annexation of others. A raincoat and a pair of sandals while we had our backs turned, and more forcibly (and recently), several items while under the threat of a gun.

But for those few stories, we have hundreds of others that stand as testament to the common human good. That couple in Colombia who spontaneously became our tour guides and patrons for a day. The elderly couple in Argentina who offered us drinks and shade as we were ill-prepared for an outing in draining heat. The countless number of strangers who took care of us at every turn in Turkey. That clerk at a hotel in the Galapagos who flew my iPod back to mainland Ecuador after I discovered I had left it on our bed. It arrived the next day at no cost to myself, accompanied with the most adorable note: “Please don’t forget it in Quito. People is not honest sometimes.”

Indeed. There are those who is not honest sometimes, and they often give foreign travel a bad and dangerous name. Those are the stories that are remembered, that are retold, and that make the evening news. But in most parts of the world, they are far from the norm, and fear of such should not be the thing that keeps any of us from getting out there.

Despite what you may think after watching the evening news, people are inherently good.

Colombia Friends

we all need to care about something.

Part of what made this last year so difficult is that for me, awareness means responsibility. After witnessing the deadly protest by garment workers in Cambodia, I read The China Price and wrote about being a more ethical consumer. After seeing the great work that the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand does in the face of all the others who abuse elephants through misuse, we sponsored an elephant for a year. We’ve offered our time (that we didn’t really have) to a turtle sanctuary in Mexico and donated little bits to several random causes.

With our regular exposure to plights around the world, we often feel pulled in a million directions – wanting to do good everywhere and feeling terribly guilty when we don’t. And thus we have made the decision to donate a portion of our earnings annually to one cause we both strongly believe in (more on that soon).

It’s not going to stop us from absorbing some of the pain we see around the world, or giving elsewhere when we can, but we feel confident that caring and consistently doing good for a solid cause is going to make a difference.

We can’t help everyone and everything. But we can care strongly about at least one thing.

Elephant Nature Park

share.

The world would be infinitely better if we all did one thing better: Share. Share your wealth with someone who needs it. Share your story, even the dark ones, not only does it help sooth your soul, but you will probably sooth others too. Share your home with travelers trying to understand the world community. Bloggers – share your ideas and knowledge with others so that we can all move the industry forward together. Share the kind words you may be shy to utter, the helping hand to someone who is lost.

It always amazes us in our travels that the inhabitants of some of the poorest communities in the world are the first to offer whatever they have to a passing stranger. This profound kindergarten principle is something we forget in the Western world, I believe, when competitiveness and societal pressures take over.

We can all stand to give more than we are.

Hecks-Favignana-974x624

There is so much more.

So much more that I want to say on the life of a nomad, how our travel has transformed, how we have transformed, deeper topics on the concept of nomadic travel that are too weighty for my imperfect thought. Questions on the impact of our travel on the world at large, hoping that the footprints we’ve left behind are all welcome and good. I want to talk more about the irony of visiting places that others struggle to leave and about the privilege of our life, which I will never call “lucky” because we have worked very hard to get here, yet still wouldn’t be possible without the fortune bestowed by the lottery of birth.

There are stories that I haven’t told yet because I am still working through the emotions.

There are so many instances of where I just don’t have the words.

It might take me five more years to get there.

Read more from our 5 Series!

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  • May 19 2014

    Congratulations on 5 years of travel! These are great lessons to share, some I have never even thought of being a traveler myself. When I see bad things happen or things I cannot change, it makes me want to stop sometimes too. But, the bad of traveling always outweighs the good and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon! Very inspiring post!
    Hannah Wasielewski recently posted..6 Things You Should Bring to Brazil

    • May 26 2014

      Oh, none of these have ever made us want to stop! The good always outweighs the bad. 🙂

  • Congratulations and a hearty endorsement of all sentiments in this post from fellow full time, long term travelers. We may have you beat by two years but you have us beat in the empty storage space department and we’re jealous. And embarrassed.
    Karen@Trans-Americas Journey recently posted..A Little Too Active – Masaya Volcano National Park, Nicaragua

    • May 26 2014

      You two are our heroes! 7 years!

  • May 19 2014

    Thanks for a great post!

    We’re coming up to our 6 month anniversary and the next few months are going to be harder than what we have experienced so far, BUT you have reminded me that it’s important to push your boundaries as there’s so much to experience in the world.

    After all – if travelling was easy – everyone would be doing it!

    • May 26 2014

      That is the truth Jonas. Congrats on your 6 months! Hoping there are many many more for you!

  • That’s a lovely list and round up. You’re right travel isn’t that scary! 5 years is a long time. Congrats!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..My Guide: the BEST Itinerary for India

    • May 26 2014

      Thanks Rachel! 5 years is almost too long for us to fathom sometimes. Seems unreal!

  • May 19 2014

    Happy vagabondaversary – seems like you’ve come a long way in 5 years. May your next 5 years be filled with more travel, love, health, happiness, and stories.

  • May 19 2014

    Happy Vagabondaversary! 5 years already. Where does the time go? 😉
    Beautiful lessons learned; indeed life on the road can be a heck of a teacher – and you’re obviously all the more enriched for it!
    Nora recently posted..A Week-In-The-Life of Anne and Mike in Nicaragua

  • Gillian
    May 19 2014

    Happy Vagabond-aversary! Too much stuff, find all the stories (not just the good ones), trust (even when bad things have happened), know that travel isn’t scary. Great lessons and advice! Looking forward to the rest of your series.

  • Wynne
    May 19 2014

    What a great piece! Travel is indeed, so enriching, and it’s been fun to follow you along as a “new” reader to Hecktic Travels. I look forward to exploring your blog and hearing more!

    Safe travels…

    • May 26 2014

      Thanks so much for reading Wynne!

  • May 20 2014

    Congrats Pete and Dalene!!!! I am glad I read this post today:) I have followed your travels for at least 3 of those 5 and have been inspired by so much of your writing. You helped to keep the passion burning for our travel dream and reading your blog helped when we thought we would never get on the road.

    But now we are traveling!!!!! And reading this today has made me look forward to our journey even more. Congratulations again and I hope so much to see you on the road.

    • May 26 2014

      It was so great to meet you and Rob, and we hope you have many years on the road ahead of you as well! 🙂

  • KristenEllen
    May 19 2014

    What a fantastic article. We’ve been travelling for only 6 months but have already been grappling with a number of the things you mention above. Especially the world is awesome. And awful. A great piece – thanks for sharing.

  • May 20 2014

    Happy 5th Anniversary! Fantastic blog post and thanks for sharing your thoughts. We love to read your posts and we wish you many more unforgettable travel memories. Looking forward to read more about your travels.

  • May 20 2014

    What a wonderful post! Tears in my eyes as I read it. Congrats on 5 years and here’s to many more.

  • May 20 2014

    Such a great post! You’re so right with no 1 – the pressure to base happiness on material possessions is one of the main reasons I left to travel in the first place. I found this a really heart warming post – I can also relate to how you realise the world, and people, are inherently kind (I think thats the main lesson I’ve learnt) but I also understand about feeling guilty wanting to help everyone. Congratulations and keep enjoying your travels! 🙂

  • Thank you for this beautiful and insightful post. Travel is about learning and you have learnt a lot in your five years away. I definitely agree that there is a feeling that we need so much more than we actually do. I am lucky to have a very wise father who taught me that at a young age, it is a priceless lesson to learn. Once you become aware that you in fact don’t ‘need’ much at all to be content and happy, your life is all the better for it.
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..Undiscovered Canarian paradise: La Gomera

    • May 26 2014

      100% agree with you Katie, and it sounds like your father gave you a great start in life by learning that early. It has been our biggest and most important lesson learned!

  • Pratibha
    May 20 2014

    Congratulations on five years. It’s always good to see where you have been (those photos just keep getting better and better) and looking forward to many more stories from the road. Thank you!

  • May 20 2014

    What a great post to celebrate your first five years. All of us are somewhere along that journey you describe. Thanks for your inspirational, heartfelt writing – and those great pix!
    Paul recently posted..Clutterphobia

  • May 20 2014

    Congrats on five years of freedom and not being a slave to societal expectations!

  • May 20 2014

    Congrats on the five years. And thanks for sharing your life lessons. Great read, guys.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Barranco de los Cernicalos

  • May 20 2014

    Great article. Isn’t so true that the poorest countries are normally the ones where you’ll find people the most willing to help. And love the note about Quito, so true.

    Congrats on 5 years and to 5 more!

  • May 20 2014

    “Travel shouldn’t all be about selfles and buying souvenirs. It’s about observing and learning and re-telling the story.

    It’s about educating yourself so you can acknowledge the awful and get through to the truly awesome.”

    YES! This is exactly why I travel – to learn. The more I learn about other places and cultures, the more I learn about myself in the process. Give me a museum over a full-moon party any day.

    Congrats on your 5-year anniversary! Can’t wait to see what’s next for you guys. Hopefully our paths will cross in Europe this summer!
    Heather recently posted..Friendship and Chocolate in New York City: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

    • May 26 2014

      Heather, we must stay in touch! We plan to be through Europe late summer/fall…

  • May 21 2014

    Love this post. Extremely honest and motivational. After travelling for a year, we’re certainly coming to realise all these things you’ve mentioned and we couldn’t agree more.
    Keep on doing what you’re doing – making the world a better place.

  • May 21 2014

    Awesome post! We are about to take of on our own adventure and it was great to read a gritty down to earth view of their travels.

    Congratulations on 5 years of travel.

    • May 26 2014

      Congrats on beginning your own adventure!

  • May 21 2014

    Very honest post. Makes me think of where I am right now, where I want to be and what would be right to do to get there.

    I like how you mentioned sharing and the competitiveness that lives in most of the Western world. It seems all around us, all the time. I think people need to realize that they can often create or do something better together, than alone.

    • May 26 2014

      ” I think people need to realize that they can often create or do something better together, than alone.” <--- Love that. So true. 🙂

  • May 22 2014

    These are some wonderful lessons one can take for inspiration, whether as a long- or short-term traveller.
    Happy traveleraversary, guys and loads of exciting and creative adventures 🙂
    Ivana recently posted..Sunday Story: Ma’am Ofelia

  • Bryna
    May 22 2014

    Amazing post. So honest and touching, I have tears in my eyes! Thank you for sharing your lessons learned and congratulations on 5 years of traveling!

  • May 22 2014

    I just stumbled upon your blog, what a great post! We are getting ready to head out this fall on our first travel of indeterminate length, and you are an inspiration! Travel is a blessing.
    Robb Hillman recently posted..How I paid off $65,000 of Debt

  • May 26 2014

    Oops, I meant to say the good always outweighs the bad, not the other way around!

  • May 26 2014

    Hey Dalene and Pete,

    Happy Vagabondaversary! I’m very touched by this post.

    You’ve conceptualized travel in a lovely way to help us understand how deeply you have been affected by your –astounding! — five years of stuff-free ramblings on this planet. My favorite point is “Share.” So darned simple!

    During a recent trip to California, I met my niece’s new in-laws — a humble Mexican family. Their struggle to become US citizens is a decades-long struggle and still continues because some family still waits for proper bureaucratic steps to be completed before they can join their family members here. So meager wages made here in the US are sent back to Mexico.

    It’s hard to describe the generosity of these people! You said, “the poorest communities in the world are the first to offer whatever they have to a passing stranger.” That is what I experienced with Camelia, the matriarch of the family. Not only was she giving beyond belief, but she took time to always express gratitude for what she has, (which is miniscule in terms of possessions.) Just thinking of her humbles me and makes me smile.

    I am a big believer in “random acts of kindness,” and Camelia shows everyone just how it’s done!

    Thank you for a post full of insights and inspiration,
    Josie
    Josie recently posted..Home Exchange vs. House Sitting: Which is Right for You?

  • May 26 2014

    Wow what a wonderful post Dalene and Peter. Thankyou so much for your indepth feelings that you have shared. I feel shifted inside from reading it. As a full-time traveler it is easy to get caught up in the doing and the moving constantly, but your post has just reminded me how important it is to do this… to travel the world. To sometimes be a solution, but sometimes just an observer of what is going on, without judgment. Thankyou from my heart <3

  • Steve
    May 26 2014

    Congratulations on reaching 5 years travel. The post is a lesson I can learn from.

  • June 1 2014

    I especially appreciate your approach to travel: observing and learning, educating yourself and lending a helping hand to those who need it. Congratulations on your vagabondaversary!

  • I’m glad you found the words. Those feelings and thoughts are so hard to describe to others

  • Ann Cee
    June 19 2014

    Love this. While I am too chicken to sell everything and jump ship (I’ll blame it on having a teenager at home, still), I would love to just sell most everything and live much more simply! Hats off to you for 5 years of travel!

  • I had some of my best meals in Bologna too! But I gotta say, Pete those tarantulas give me the shivers just reading it. Brave but sooo gross!!!
    Cristina ✈ (@travelingjourno) recently posted..Studying French in Aix-en-Provence

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