The Wander Years



(update appended)

A couple of years ago, a Dartmouth professor made the observation to a group of juniors gathered around a table in the Classics Department library that we’d all shown, by nature of us being there, that we were incredibly adept at satisfying “How” questions. As students at one of the top colleges in the country, it was clear that, for the majority of our lives, we were really good at achieving what was expected of us. The goals had always been more or less obvious – we just needed to figure out how to accomplish them, and then, perhaps more importantly, execute that “how.”

What we were less experienced in, he argued, was solving the “Why” questions. Sure, we’d all had some experience with “why.” We had to, for example, pick a college by asking ourselves why we’d want to go to one particular school over another. But we never actually asked, “Why go to college?” It was a given, the defined pathway to success. Mostly, we just needed to do the “how”.

As we approached our last year at Dartmouth, the professor cautioned us that soon, for the first time in our lives, we’d have to start asking serious “Why” questions: why go to grad school, or law school, or med school; why buy, or why rent; why work in a given industry, or for a given organization, or live in a given city, or marry a given person; why?

My first year out of Dartmouth has taught me that the professor was right. Life was so much easier when the path ahead of us was already defined for us. “Here’s what the goal should be; now do the work to get there.” Today, there is no path. The implications of chaos theory are nearly overwhelming. And whatever my next move is, I’d better have a damned good reason for making it.

The Wander Years Blog is about figuring out what that next move is and the adventures I have along the way. I’m fortunate to have two such adventures coming up: next Friday I’m starting a 16-day trip to the Western Balkans, and a week after I get back from that I’ll be moving into a tent, where I’ll live until September 1st. These two topics will provide most of the material for the early stages of this blog.


I can remember the precise moment I learned what a hostel is. I was in Mrs. Onofry’s Spanish III class my junior year of high school, and we were covering a unit on travel.

Albergue… that’s hotel?” I thought the book had a typo.

“No, hostel.”

“Oh. What’s a hostel?”

By the time I went to sleep that evening, I had learned everything there was to know about the Eurail pass: the difference between regional and select; 15 days in two months versus unlimited; how in Europe you’re a “youth” until you’re 25. I promised myself that sometime – either before, or perhaps immediately after college, I’d spend a couple of months backpacking Europe.

If the desire to travel comes from a bug, I’m not sure when it bit me. It could have been during the “adventures” my dad would take my sister and me on in our small backyard in Westbrookville, and the wonder about the world he instilled in me from such a young age. He tells me I would go home, sit in the bay window in my room and stare for hours at the weeping willow at the bottom of our driveway. I’d never say what I was thinking about. We moved out of that house days after my fourth birthday; weeping willows still fill me with nostalgia.

But maybe it had more to do with the small town itself, and my faith that there was so much more to the world than what it alone could offer.

In any event, a nine-day trip to Italy with high school classmates during senior year gave me my first taste of international travel, and I was hooked. I spent my sophomore year of college studying in Toulouse, France, and I swore I’d return to Europe soon. But then reality set in. You need money to travel, and usually some security you’ll have something to come home to. I had neither. So after graduating, I started work in admissions and put my travel plans on hold. At least I’d get to see some of the US during our fall recruitment travel. Over three years, I never did quite tire of Courtyards by Marriott (though I’ll admit I’m not sure that would have held for another season).

Then, inspired by a book about the Bosnian war and motivated further by a particularly difficult breakup, in spring of 2010 I started planning a return to Europe for my first, real-life adult vacation. I split about two weeks between SerbiaBosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and while I left a part of my heart in Mostar, my deeper love was with the adventure, the friendships, the novelty, the self-conscious attempts at speaking the local language, and in this particular case, learning how societies move on – or don’t move on – from a devastating war. When I decided to stay in admissions for a third year, I negotiated to take all my vacation at once and I returned to the Balkans, this time for a month.

Meanwhile, fortunate circumstances in the office landed me more international travel than I would have thought possible so early in my admissions career. Over the next two years, I’d take three trips to Asia, seeing India, China, Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore and Hong Kong twice each. I didn’t write much in this blog about these trips, though my post on Mumbai is one of my favorites. In November I’m heading to India and Nepal for (likely) my last admissions office duty, and I’m thrilled to see our alums in India, some of the most generous and welcoming people I’ve ever met.

But all of that wasn’t quite enough, and so this brings me to today, sitting at a café in Tangier, Morocco at 11 o’clock on a Friday night, attempting to explain what exactly it is I’m doing here. Some of it has to do with career interests. I loved working in admissions, but I’ve always been more compelled by international relations and I don’t think I want to stay in higher ed. Since my fourth year in the office likely would have been a repeat of the third, this seemed like a good time to go. While traveling, I’ll be completing applications for masters programs in IR / security studies to start fall 2013. I’m also taking an online economics course from SAIS which will wrap up in December. Finally, I’ll still keep my eyes open for opportunities to extend my time abroad, perhaps by working as a college counselor in an international high school.

But a simpler explanation for this trip is something akin to “Because it was there.” I could, so I am. After all, gap years aren’t just for high-schoolers! So here’s the plan for mine:

After spending a few nights in London catching up with old travel friends and making new ones, I arrived in Morocco on September 30th. I’m here until October 30th, when I’ve got a flight from Casablanca to Mumbai. I’m working in India until Nov. 9th, then taking a couple of days to visit Agra before heading up to Nepal. I’ll take a week off there (it’s Diwali!), work 2 days for admissions, and then catch a flight to Bangkok.

There’s not much resolution to the planning for Southeast Asia. I’d like to spend about three months between Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and maybe Vietnam. I’m particularly excited about Myanmar, but I’ve got to wait for my econ course (and thus, dependence on reliable internet) to end before I go.

After that, I’m thinking about going to Bulgaria to learn to ski. I literally Googled “cheapest places in the world to ski” and found a place called Bansko that seems like a great deal. Plus, after having been to Serbia twice but never crossing into Bulgaria, I feel I owe it a visit.

Assuming I don’t become a European ski bum, my next move may be to Nicaragua for a PADI open water certification in the Corn Islands. All that’ll take me to about the end of February, so I’ll have another four months to travel around Central and South America before finally coming back to Europe to spend the last two months of my tour cycling around France.

It seems almost silly to have typed all this out knowing it’s so likely to change,  but this is the plan as it stands today. And when it’s all laid out like that, 11 months doesn’t seem like a very long time at all…