In the second interview of ‘The Sabbatical Stories’ series I pick up with Susan Trunk, founder of TrunkTravelStudio.com.
Susan is an explorer who loves to dive into new situations. The area she most loves learning about is the history and nuances of food and ingredients. She’s also a mother to two kids and a wife. They are an American family, currently living in the UK due to her husband’s job. Susan describes expat life as “far more difficult that she expected” but says they are still so happy they did it and feel it is the right fit for them.
So with the introductions out of the way, let’s find out a bit more about Susan’s sabbatical story….
What was going on in your life that prompted you to take a sabbatical?
My college roommate traveled around the world after college and I always loved the emails and stories she wrote back with. My dream was to someday travel around the world as well. I had a plan that after I finished my masters in business that I would quit my very well paying and fun job and just do it. I knew it was a decision I would regret if I didn’t go. About a year before I was supposed to leave, I met my husband. That completely threw a wrench into my plans since I really liked him. Thankfully, he knew about my dream and decided he wanted to travel as well. So we ended up selling all of our stuff and taking the trip together.
How long did you take for your sabbatical?
16 months. It was supposed to be 12 months but we ended up extending it.
How did you persuade your boss to let you take the time off?
I quit my job. My company knew though that I was going to leave at the end of the year.
How did you organise the complexities such as your house, pets etc whilst you were away?
We ended up renting our house out and thankfully we had great tenants. If there were any issues, my parents were local and could handle them. We also had a list of necessary services ready to call if need be.
What was your biggest challenge when planning your sabbatical?
I think the timing and logistics of a sabbatical are always challenging. When do you need to book travel tickets, visas, housing etc? Trying to keep it spontaneous but also understanding that trying to be economical means forward planning needs to happen as well.
What advice would you give others when planning a sabbatical?
One step at a time. You need to start initially with the big picture of why you’re doing it and where you want to go. After that, you need to go into tunnel vision and just accomplish things step by step. It’s a lot of work and if you overthink it, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the logistics before leaving. There were many nights I was up wondering if we were making the right decision, leaving a great life and great paying jobs. At the end of the day though, I knew in my heart that I needed to do this and I’m so glad we did.
How did you manage your finances so you could afford to take the time off?
We saved, paid off all our debt, sold things off. I’ve always looked at things I purchase in terms of a plane ticket. That’s my barometer for measuring value. I could buy this or I could buy a plane ticket. Most times, I opted to save for the plane ticket.
What was the best purchase you made before your sabbatical?
Patagonia underwear and R1 fleece (not sure if that is still around?). Durable, casual, warm. It just worked. Also, we ended up purchasing laptops while traveling so I would recommend bringing a laptop. We traveled right before smart phones came out so we had a HTC smart phone which actually came in pretty handy as well.
Were there any books or resources you used to plan your sabbatical that you’d recommend to others?
We mainly used the internet to get an understanding of prices/logistics/sights in the countries we were headed. After that, our guides for the trip were Lonely Planet. We found them to be really useful and aligned with how we travel.
Where did you go on sabbatical?
28 countries. We started in Europe (to get visas), made our way to Eastern Europe, down through Turkey into Egypt. Then we did Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, visited friends in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa. Then on to India and Nepal, parts of SE Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand (where we got married!) and then Fiji for our honeymoon (which was purely coincidental since we were already planning on going there).
What was your favourite part?
Landing in a new city and knowing nothing. I loved that feeling of total excitement and newness to figure it out.
Is there anything you’d do differently if you had the time again?
No, not really. We had a really great trip. There were times when I really regretted having a backpack but I don’t think a wheelie suitcase would have been any easier based on the circumstance.
How did you survive constantly moving from one place to another? Were there any routines you developed that you think helped?
We always stayed in places with ensuite bathrooms. Even though we were on a budget, that was the one luxury we had. Sometimes it’s really hard. I missed random things like full bottles of shampoo and being able to throw my stuff into my car. We also gave ourselves a lot of downtime so that we could adjust to a new city. There was no pressure to go out and see the sights the next day. By the end of our trip, it usually took us 3-4 days before we did anything besides “live” in a place and wander around.
AFTER YOUR SABBATICAL
How did you adjust back to life after your sabbatical?
It was really tough because nothing had changed, yet everything had for us. It was also hard to summarise how it changed us and that was a question we got a lot. I think it takes a really long time to absorb a trip of this caliber and ten years on, I’m still absorbing that trip. Also returning to America meant an overwhelming amount of stuff and selection. I remember going to buy toothpaste and suddenly there were 50 different choices on the shelf instead of the 1 or 2 that we might have found on the road.
What advice would you give to others on returning to help them come to terms with normal life again?
Be ready for a slow adjustment and give it time. Time is the only thing that will truly help with readjusting. Also try to keep that nomadic, adventurous spirit even in your own community. Find places and neighbourhoods that you’ve never been before.
Any other advice you’d offer?
For our next sabbatical (TBD), I would love to spend at least a month in a location to really get to know that area. That would be the one thing I would do differently.
Where can we find you to read more about your adventures?
I have a blog at www.trunktravelstudio.com.