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Contact: mannydilks at gmail dot com
Photos: Travel Photos
You are a living being. Everything that surrounds you - your clothes, your car, your house, your job, your toys - they are not yours in the permanent sense. Your only true asset is your body - it is the only thing that cannot be taken away from you. The path of your life ultimately depends on how you choose to spend your time while in that body. The big question, then, is: how are you doing so far?
In May of 2008, the mountains around Lake Tahoe were blessed with a late-season snow storm. The temps dropped and so did the fluffy white stuff. Two ski buddies were committed to getting in a few more powder turns and they invited me and Kristin.
We had skied every weekend that season and I couldn't imagine why we would miss this opportunity. But for some reason, I declined the offer. I gave my friends a lame excuse because at the time, I didn't quite know why we didn't want to go out. We just didn't feel like it. Instead, our weekend was spent quietly in our tiny home, snuggling, reading, talking and cooking.
It wasn't until Sunday evening that I asked Kristin why we didn't go skiing. She thought it was obvious: we had just decided that I would stop working, she would put her degree on hold, we would sell everything we own, and leave this life for a while.
We were going to trade this very happy, comfortable lifestyle for the great unknown of being vagabonds. We'd take with us only what would fit in our packs. Our destination and duration were undecided. We just knew that we would travel the world for the indefinite future. And so, upon subconsciously realizing our nomadic destiny, we wanted to treasure that stormy weekend by enjoying the most simple, basic pleasures in our cozy little home. (Back to Top)
Everything Must Go
The most daunting aspect of our journey was not necessarily the actual travel preparation. Rather, it was freeing our lives of lingering burdens. I love doing research, so I enjoyed figuring out where to travel and what to bring. That was where my attention naturally gravitated. Kristin had to help me focus on the bigger picture of getting rid of everything we owned. Like most of you, I'm guilty of accumulating too much "stuff." My garage seemed full of valuable things, even if I only infrequently (or never) used them.
Over the summer months I was able to sell, lend, giveaway or throwaway everything. Sites like Craigslist and Facebook were indispensable. It was not so bad giving away furniture because we had gotten most of it for free. We owned our cars and were able to sell them for a fair price. Our cellphone contracts were coming to an end, as was our housing lease. And we had no debts. Kristin and I had always lived well below our financial means, allowing us to save money even while she was in school and I was working for Outdoor Adventures.
We agreed to keep a few precious items, namely, our essential cycling and backcountry ski equipment. Neither of us could imagine returning to the US and not having instant access to our two favorite activities. We kept a few bits of memorabilia at my brother's house.
We also set aside three bags of clothing. Each bag contained a set of casual and a set of dress clothes for each of us. One bag was stored with various family members in California, Minnesota, and Virginia. This way, if we returned to the US, we would at least have one casual and one formal outfit, the later being for weddings, funerals, or job interviews. (Back to Top)
|Sunrise at Fitz Roy, Los Glaciares, Argentina|
In our early naiivity, we hoped to see almost the whole world. Surely a year or two would suffice. The question in our minds, then, was where to start? Before we knew each other, Kristin and I had each traveled to a smattering of countries on every populated continent except South America. Therefore heading south appealed to us and for many reasons.
The benefits of South America were overwhelming. One language could carry us through most of the countries, which would help ease us into travel mode. We had several friends throughout Central and South America, who could help educate us about their country. We didn't have to travel too far to start our journey - Central America is just a few hours away by plane. The countries are supposed to be relatively safe and inexpensive. And it is home to the world's longest mountain range, the Andes, at over 7,000 kilometers from Colombia to Argentina.
We each have separately traveled to Mexico several times, so we decided to hop over to Guatemala for our first country. We figured that we would head south through Central America and then do a semi-loop through South America. We didn't exactly know in what order we'd travel, but that we would focus on the good hiking and meeting up with our friends down there. The only countries we planned to skip were Venezuela, Suriname and the Guyanes. (Back to Top)
|Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina|
The short answer? Now! For us, that meant September of 2009. I wanted to finish the season of guiding for Shasta Mountain Guides, and Kristin wanted to complete her degree. The date was finalized when we we learned the exact day that Kristin's student health insurance ran out. All told, that gave us less than six months to prepare, which was sufficient. I would have taken as much time as I was given.
I wish I could say that we smartly planned our travel around the seasons and festivals. This, however, was not the case. We left the states as soon as we could, and then tried to make the best of the conditions as we continued onward.
We arrived in Central America at the end of their rainy season. We'd much rather put up with some rainy afternoons than big crowds, but it rained most days we were in Antigua, and it absolutely poured when we were in southern Costa Rica
We scored some cheap flights on Taca and LAN that took us all the way down to the southern tip of the continent in November and December. We found snow at the high passes, lots of snow and hail storms, strong wind, but also few people and cheaper prices. It doesn't sound like the weather in Southern Patagonia is ever very good anyways.
During the busy summer season, Dec-March, we were mostly traveling along the Andes between Argentina and Chile, Northern Patagonia. After that, we chose to divert our attention to the coast so we could explore Brazil (during Carnival), Uruguay, and parts of Argentina.
From Buenos Aires we flew to Colombia. The coast was not it's hottest, but still almost unbearable. The mountains of Colombia and Ecuador were terribly rainy in March and April. That set us up to be in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia in May and June - finally, perfect timing!
Looking back, it was our budget that helped decide when we would go. Buses are cheap but planes are usually expensive. Buses, however, require a more linear travel route. So, while our route is not perfectly fluid, it does allow for a good balance of weather and crowds while staying within our budget. (Back to Top)
We initially wanted to go west after South America, . New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, Asia, Mid-east, Africa, Europe. It looked like a beautiful plan, a true "round-the-world" adventure. However, we also only planned to stay in South America until March and it looked like I was going to keep us in South America indefinitely. We missed our chance to hike in NZ.
After a lot of research, we did the unthinkable. We returned to California in June 2010. I didn't think we'd be coming home so early! It turned out for the best, as we were able to rest and recharge. I guided a few mountaineering trips on Shasta.
Kristin and I had many long talks about where we wanted to travel, if at all. Russia topped our lists. It was off the travelers circuit, it was relatively cheap, I spoke the language, there are a lot of big mountain ranges, and we wouldn't have to deal with the heat of jungle or monsoons of SE Asia. (Back to Top)
|Sunset over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia|
Not only are we now exposed to the gammut of outdoor risks, but also humans, who have proven to be even more dangerous.In the backcountry of the Western US, we generally only had to worry about bears and freak storms. In addition to those, we now have lo be on the lookout for poisonous spiders, frogs, and snakes, wilder temperature variations, worse trails, vector-born diseases, and unreliable camping information.
The human element is even more difficult to deal with as it is always present but cannot be anticipated. This includes, but is not limited to, shoddy transportation, machete-wielding farmers, drug dealers, unsafe drinking water, theives, unreliable and antiquated medical infrastructure, dubious food service hygiene, corrupt cops and more. Sounds like fun! Where do we sign up?
We have taken measures to keep us safe without attracting too much attention. We do the usual traveler tricks: hiding money in different places, using a money belt, never carrying too much cash, and avoiding dangerous areas. In reality, our valuable are limited to our camera, netbook and money. We left our wedding bands at home and bought cheapie ones here. My camera is always in a deep pocket in my pants. We are careful not to show off our netbook in public.
We have taken additional precautionary measures. I carry a "fake" wallet that has a few bucks in it and several old cards (movie rental, frequent flier, etc) that have the names scratched off. It makes a better target for a pick-pocketer. If we're mugged, I can hand over the wallet and satisfy the thieves without losing more than twenty dollars.
My pants have three built-in secret zippered pockets. Kristin sewed a secret pocket into the interior of her pants. In really seedy areas we carry pepper spray. We hide valuable documents and money in the backpanel of our packs. We walk around with our student IDs instead of passports. We have physical copies of everything, plus backups stashed with various friends and family members.
Kristin's pack is smaller, therefore we tend to keep the valuables in it and keep it with us as a carry-on for all of our bus rides. My pack is loading up with the bulkier camping stuff and clothing, then wrapped in the Pacsafe. The bag can then be safely put under the bus or checked as luggage on a plane. Many hostels have luggage lockers, but when they don't, our Pacsafe comes in handy again.
We use credit card whenever we can safely do so, which allows us to carry less cash as well as have a record of our expenses. We read US embassy warnings, talk to our hosts/hostel owners, and ask other travelers about local crime. Going light has really helped us to stay safe. We are able to carry our bags easily, limit the amount of attention we get, keep Kristin's pack with us at all times, and we have less physical stuff to worry about. (Back to Top)
|Autumn Colors in the Altai Range, Siberia, Russia|
When people first hear of our story, the most common reaction is "How wonderful! I wish I could do that." Then they follow up with a standard reason as to why they can't, which is usually Time or Money.
Honestly, there is nothing that allows us, but not the average American, to do this. We abide by the 24 hour day, just like everybody else. We are not, and never were, rich. Kristin was a graduate student and received a small monthly stipend. I worked for the university for three and a half years, never making more than $31k/year.
We lived in California, which is has a higher cost-of-living, but we saved by renting a tiny duplex and having roommates. We still traveled a lot, but this usually involved outdoor adventures where we had friends in other parts of the States. Our hobbies were cheap and healthy, like running, cycling, backpacking and backcountry skiing. We had a garden, shopped locally and cooked all of our meals. This may seem like a slight digression, but we're really backpackers at heart and have lived in a simplistic manner that now allows us to backpack around the world.
We don't want to further lower your expectations about our journey, but there is also nothing particularly special about what we're doing. We are not attempting some amazing athletic feat, such as scaling the highest peaks, using only human power to travel, or breaking a time record.
There are many other backpackers who are traveling for several months or even years, just like us. Most of them create excellent blogs, replete with travel advice, funny anecdotes and awe-inspiring photos. If there is anything that sets us apart, it is the healthy lifestyle that we maintain and the inverse relationship between our tiny backpacks and big adventures.
You Can Help
Another critical reason that we are able to undertake such a journey is because we have a wonderful, supportive network of friends and family. You, the reader, can be part of that network. I am never afraid to say that we need help. Here is what you can do:
- Contribute to the what we declare is the best non-profit in the world
- Start your shopping here for Amazon.com.and the outdoor clothing/gear outlet Department of Goods. You'll get the same low price with no strings attached
- Find me on Blogger, Facebook, YouTube, PicasaWeb and spread the word by subscribing, liking, recommending, and sharing
- Contact me if you have: travel advice, a contact in a foreign land, blog suggestion, place to stay, or opportunity to publish our story/photos
Thank you for reading and helping us in any way that you can.