Non-Traditional Interviews: Full Time Travel at Any Age

Do you want to follow a different path in life? The non-traditional interviews showcase people who have chosen to make up their own rules and do something different. Today’s interview is with Barbara Weibel who has been traveling full time for 10 years and proves that you can change direction at any age.

About Barbara

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Where do you live now?

I’m a full-time digital nomad, so I have no home base. For the past few years I have been spending winters in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and traveling around the world the rest of the time.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara at an elephant nature park in Thailand

What do you do for a living?

Though I’m officially retired from corporate life, I still work as a travel writer and photographer.

What do you do for fun/what do you love?

Travel, photography, writing, Yoga, meditation, walking, coffee shops

What do you hate?

I try never to use the word hate. I think there’s quite enough hate in the world as it is. However, there are some things I dislike. The worst thing about being a digital nomad and travel writer/photographer is figuring out where I’m going and piecing together transportation and accommodations. The second worst thing is the hours I have to work and trying to find a balance between travel and work.

Tell us about traveling full-time and not having a home. What’s that like?

Getting rid of my home and all the “stuff” that went with it was the most freeing experience of my life. It was like a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. Today I travel with a 22″ carry-on size suitcase, which holds all my clothes, shoes, and toiletries. My photo equipment is in a small backpack that I carry-on, and I also carry-on a combination purse/laptop bag. Everything I need is in those three pieces of luggage. I realize that my lifestyle would not be for everyone, but I’m extremely happy living this way.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara visiting the lavender fields in Provence, France

Most full-time travelers we read about tend to be in their 20s or 30s, but you’re a bit older. Tell us what that’s like.

I will turn 65 in April of this year. I hit the road when I was 54, which as you say, is much older than most digital nomads. While I know many expats my age who have settled down in international destinations, those who travel full-time with no base are few and far between.

There are, of course, challenges to traveling full-time at this age. One hip and knee have become problematic in recent years, thus I can no longer trek on rugged trails. While I used to be able to walk non-stop for seven or eight hours, now I have to stop every couple of hours to rest my hip.

I tend to be more of a budget traveler, so I prefer to use public transportation whenever possible. Unfortunately, many metro systems and train stations have no elevators or escalators, and carrying my luggage up and down steep stairs is becoming more difficult.

I’ve overcome some of that by cutting down even more on the weight I carry, but I now also give myself permission to use taxis or shuttle buses that deliver me to my door upon arrival and to the airport terminal upon departure.

Fortunately, the benefits of being a more mature traveler far outweigh the drawbacks. I have broader life experience and greater knowledge than when I was a young person, thus I have more appreciation for the places I visit, especially from an historical context.

Because I’m older, and a woman, I never encounter resistance when I want to take photos of children. A young male friend of mine recently told me he couldn’t get away with it, because people became suspicious he may be a pedophile.

I also no longer have to suffer groping or inappropriate language from men in the countries I visit. Especially since I let my hair grow out to its natural silver color, I’ve been treated with great respect.

Finally, because I have no deadlines, I can travel as slow as I like and stay places for as long as I like. That allows me to immerse in the cultures of places I visit. It was impossible to do that when I was younger, as I was trying to cram trips into two weeks of vacation each year.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara at the Great Wall of China

How long have you been traveling full-time?

I’ve been traveling for 10 years, with no home base since November of 2007.

What inspired you to leave your traditional life behind and become a digital nomad?

From the age of 11, I knew that I wanted to be a travel writer and photojournalist. Unfortunately, my parents had other ideas and I bowed not only to their pressure, but to societal pressures that people should live a certain way.

I was expected to graduate college, get a job, get married, buy a house, raise a family, work hard, buy stuff, and save for retirement in order to live comfortably in my golden years. Thus, I spent 36 years in corporate jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy. I detested my life, but plodded on because I worried whether people would approve if I pursued an alternative lifestyle.

It took a serious illness to change that for me. Terrified that I might die, I lay in my sickbed and examined my life. “Is this all there is?” I asked myself. “What good is all the money if I never get to do the things I’ve always dreamed about?” I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from my successful career and pursue my true passions of travel, writing, and photography.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara poses with the Beatles in Liverpool, England

From the time you got inspired to become a digital nomad, how long did it take you to actually leave your home behind, and what were the steps you had to take?

It took a year to recover from my Chronic Lyme Disease. During that period I tried but had been unable to sell my house, because by then the real estate market had begun its nosedive. At the end of the year, I had to decide whether I would be true to the promise I had made to myself. It was a tough decision, but I knew that I simply couldn’t continue doing things that made me so unhappy. I shut up my house, slung a backpack over my shoulder, and headed out on a six-month round-the-world trip.

When I finally sold the house, I moved into an apartment in Florida and used it as a base between trips. During the ensuing 2.5 years, I was away more than home, and I eventually realized it made no sense to be paying rent and utilities when I was rarely there. But…because I returned to the States for a few weeks every Christmas to visit family, I decided to keep my car.

A few years ago, I came home to find that all four tires had rotted off the wheels because the car had sat in the sun all year without being moved. Insurance and new tires set me back $1,200! I did the math; I could rent a car for a month for far less. Within weeks, I’d sold the car as well. What remains are a few bins stored in my sister’s attic – things like tax records, family photos, some artwork, and a few mementos.

Today I look back on my old life and marvel at the amount of useless “stuff” I had accumulated. In literal, symbolic, and spiritual ways, it was weighing me down. I have come to believe that we buy things in an attempt to be happy, but the happiness provided by material things is fleeting.

Unless we love ourselves and are true to our own dreams and aspirations, true happiness is impossible.

These days, I need very little in the way of material goods.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara and a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands

Did you get any resistance or negative feedback when you announced your plans? How did/do you deal with that?

Did I! My family, and even some of my best friends freaked out. They could not understand why I would walk away from a successful career to travel the world like a vagabond. Some of them even questioned my sanity. Others implied that I was selfish and irresponsible. But even that turned out to be a good thing, because it prompted me to start my blog, which at that time was intended solely to keep friends and family informed about my whereabouts.

In the end, I realized that I couldn’t continue to live my life based on the expectations of others. I know now that I am the only person who needs to approve of my choices.

What’s the best part of being a digital nomad?

Meeting people, learning about other cultures, and being free to go wherever I want, whenever I want.

What have been the biggest challenges or problems you’ve faced along the way?

I haven’t really faced any severe challenges since I began traveling full-time. It’s something that resonates so strongly with me, and makes me so happy, that any difficulties pale in comparison with the joys I experience.

Balancing my need to work with finding time to explore each new destination is often a challenge, as is finding ways to travel that don’t bankrupt me. And the process of booking flights, trains, buses, and accommodations also makes me want to tear my hair out. But those are really just minor inconveniences.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara visiting the temples of Inle Lake, Myanmar

How do you afford to do travel full-time?

I lived off my small savings at first, staying in hostel dorms most of the time. Each year, following my Christmas visit to the States, I used frequent flier mileage to book a one-way flight to a continent. From there, I made my way around the world using lesser expensive trains, buses, boats, etc.

Blogs finally became mainstream a couple of years after I had started mine, and my traffic had grown enough that I started attracting advertisers. The bulk of my income came from text link ads for several years, until Google began penalizing advertisers for purchasing these kinds of ads, which were against Google’s Terms of Service. Almost overnight, all my income disappeared.

I could have shifted at that point to charging for “sponsored” or “guest” posts, but I refused to do so. My blog is devoted to first-person narrative stories about the destinations I visit and the people I meet along the way. I believed, and still do, that allowing other voices to appear on my blog would turn off my faithful readers.

These days, I earn money from freelance writing, occasional sales of photographs, corporate sponsorships, and affiliate advertising. Additionally, I will soon be publishing my first travel ebook, and am looking into webinars as a future revenue stream.

>>Some of Barbara’s recent stories include one about a rickshaw ride in Old Delhi, India, and one about the history of Chopin in Warsaw, Poland.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara at Machu Picchu, Peru

What’s the weirdest or most common question you’ve gotten about traveling full-time, and how do you answer it?

“You’re SO brave! Aren’t you afraid?” I shake my head every time I hear this. I am mystified by the (largely American) belief that travel in general is dangerous, and solo female travel is even more so. I’ve been traveling solo for ten years and have visited any number of poor, developing countries, without incident. In fact, the only problem I’ve ever experienced in all my years of travel occurred in 2002, when I was robbed in Hawaii.

Do you have any tips for those thinking about becoming a digital nomad?

I’m the first person to admit that it’s not for everyone. Many women have told me they could never give up their home completely, as they need a “nest” somewhere in the world (their words, not mine). Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be sure they can adapt to this lifestyle until they actually try it. For that reason, I recommend that people try it out for six months before they consider selling their homes.

non-traditional people - full time travel
Barbara in front of the Sydney Opera House

What’s next for you?

I’ve recently left Thailand and am in Australia for a couple of weeks. In early March, I’ll head for the Middle East, an area of the world I’ve never explored. Oman, UAE, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Lebanon are all on my wish list. Later in the spring I’ll continue on to the only six countries I’ve not yet visited in Europe. Of course, it will change dozens of times as I travel – it always does!

Bio: When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from 36 years of corporate life and set out to see the world. More than ten years later, she is still traveling full time, sharing stories and photographs of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels. Follow her on her blog and social media: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, and Twitter.

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non-traditional people - full time travel
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