This week marks the start of our ‘Travel Inspiration’ series. Our very first inspirational story comes from writer and Instagrammer Lena Papadopoulos and her partner Jay. The pair are currently travelling Thailand whilst working remotely as writers and creators. Lena spoke to us about their digital nomad lifestyle, what still scares them about being on the road and all the juicy bits in between.
What first inspired you to travel?
I’ve definitely got some nomadic tendencies (aka, I’m addicted to it), so when I met Jay, he knew it wasn’t likely that I would be sticking around very long! Turns out, however, that we were both becoming pretty unhappy in our current circumstances and were really eager to leave where we were (we lived in Tallahassee, FL at the time). Jay knew I had this desire to travel full-time and set myself up to work remotely, so one day he suggested we go ahead and follow through with that idea, so we began making plans for how and when our journey could begin.
Where did you two meet?
We were both working at Florida State University in Tallahassee; we were in the same building. I had seen him a few times over the span of a couple of years and had always found him very attractive, but he never noticed me, haha! One day he came into my office and asked to borrow a tablecloth for an event. We both cheesily gushed about the encounter to close friends of ours. It all kind of went forward from there!
“Wanderlust…the ‘lust’ part has more to do with surrender than with conquest, and is closer to what I would call gusto; and the ‘wander’ has little to do with crossing borders and getting stamps in one’s passport, and everything to do with stretching the boundaries of one’s perspective and being drawn constantly to challenge. The person susceptible to wanderlust is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation.” -Pico Iyer
How long have you been on the road together for?
Jay met me in Greece at the start of October 2017, so it’s been about five months, but it feels like so much longer! Since meeting up in Greece, we’ve been to India & Sri Lanka, Laos, and we’ve been in Thailand for the last few months.
Where was your first adventure to?
In our planning, we agreed that I would go first and do some of my own travels before we started travelling together. I had spent the last decade as a solo traveller, and it was a huge part of my identity; I felt like I needed one last experience of my own. The plan was that I would travel from August-December on my own, and Jay would meet me NYE in Sri Lanka. Jay decided to go home to Puerto Rico for a few months, put in his resignation at work, and then PR was hit with the hurricane, and Jay’s family thought it best for him not to go home. I had been travelling on my own for a couple of months at this point, and I was staying with my grandparents in Greece at that time, so I invited him to join me. A few days later, he was in Greece! That was actually really cool for our first stop to be a place where he could meet my extended family and experience my culture.
What are my tips for novice travelers? This is one of the (many) questions @simonetcreative recently asked me. • There’s a lot of advice to be given, especially based on who you are and where you want to go, but I’m going to give you my top three PRACTICAL tips. Anyone feel free to add more in the comments! • 1️⃣ Know the visa requirements. This may seem like a no-brainer for a seasoned traveler, but I have worked with dozens of young adults going abroad for the first time who had never even thought about this. It varies depending on where you’re going AND where you’re from (the country of your passport), so make sure you look into this well in advance! *If you have to go to an embassy for a visa, you go to the embassy of the country you’re going to, not the one you’re from. • 2️⃣ Withdraw directly from ATMs abroad. Don’t let your family convince you that you need traveler’s cheques; it’s an outdated system. And don’t plan on exchanging money in advance of your journey; you lose unnecessary amounts of money in conversion fees, especially at airports. You can use your debit card to withdraw directly from an ATM when you arrive; there will be ATMs in the airport. You may be charged an international withdrawal fee by your bank (max $5 USD), so make larger withdrawals to avoid many withdrawal fees. If you use a small state bank (in the US), your card may not work abroad. Ask your bank, and open a free account elsewhere if need be. Direct withdrawal is the best way to get money without losing money. • 3️⃣ Buy a SIM card abroad. Please don’t let your phone provider convince you to pay their $10/day fee for international service. You don’t need them. Most places in the world don’t operate on long-term phone contracts (like the US). You can easily get a SIM card at a convenience store in your destination. You’ll get a local number and you’ll get a lot of data for little money. Just make sure your phone is unlocked before you go! • If you’ve got any other advice for novice travelers, drop it in the comments below! • #traveltips #traveladvice #travellessons #srilanka #instatravel #travelgram #instapassport
Do you face any challenges as a travelling couple?
We probably wouldn’t be human if we didn’t! I think travel brings out all kinds of things that you don’t get in a “normal” sort of relationship back home. I have told friends before that I thought it best we didn’t travel together because I didn’t really think our friendship would survive it! So the beginning was really difficult for us, mostly because I had such a hard time adjusting to no longer being solo. Losing a part of your identity, no matter what part, can be really confusing and can raise the HELL out some ego and pride. But I worked through that adjustment and things are so much better now! I think one of our biggest issues remains (and might always be!) our desire to people-please/indecisiveness. We both fail A LOT at being decisive because we’re too focused on ensuring the other one is happy, and that can often lead to wasted time and missed opportunities!
What’s your preferred way of travel and why?
We like to mix it up! When we stay in one place for a while, we end up itching to leave, but when we’re moving a lot, we long to settle down in a spot for a bit! So it seems that we’re already starting to develop a pattern in the way we think about potential future plans: 1-2 months of movement and new places, followed by 2-3 months of settling in a place, and then repeat the cycle!
What still scares you whilst on the road?
I think some of our scariest moments have literally been…on the road. In buses or vans or cars where people are just flying around corners and overtaking whole lines of cars. We have definitely had some very interesting public transport rides!!
How do you keep yourselves disciplined within budget?
Ha! I am the worst when it comes to budgeting because I never make a budget or track my spending or anything, which is pretty bad I know! Jay is actually an accountant, and since he didn’t have a whole lot of travel experience before our adventure, we made a deal that I would make most of the travel arrangements while he budgets and tracks spending. It works for me! The biggest chunks of our money have been spent on flights/visas; we do pretty well finding affordable accommodation and food.
Both @cma09 and @rasholica have asked me to share what it's like transitioning from solo travel to travel with a partner (esp. since I felt some resistance to it at first - solo travel was a big part of my identity), and which type of travel I prefer. Really putting me on the spot with this one 😅 • One of our biggest challenges has been decision-making. I’ve always been a people-pleaser; one reason I love solo travel is I don’t have to worry about that shit, I can just do me. But when someone else enters the picture 🤷🏻♀️For example, If I’m alone, I have no problem choosing where to eat, but if someone else is with me, I don’t want to choose; I want them to. The problem is that Jay is the EXACT SAME WAY. We talk in circles about where to go and what to do, and half an hour later, we still haven’t made any decisions. The WORST. • I like to be alone, but one thing I appreciate about having Jay with me is always having someone to laugh with or vent with when the inevitable mishaps arise. You know what they say — laughter is contagious, and misery loves company, so it’s nice to have someone to share it with. • I’m an introvert and can be very shy. Solo travel pushes me out of this comfort zone, but having Jay here keeps me in it, so I’m not really challenged to put myself out there, and I’m probably missing out on some unique connections, tbh. On the other hand, I often use solo travel to run away from the challenges of being completely seen and known by others, so being with Jay 24/7 challenges me to confront (and grow through) the things I don’t like about myself. • I don’t know that I can choose; they're both so different. Scenario: you love cookies and cake. You've always been eating cookies, and you have the opportunity to eat cake. You take it, because you love cake, too! But that doesn’t mean you never want to eat cookies again. I guess that’s how I feel: I'm so happy to have Jay join my travels, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want solo travel anymore. I've told Jay that I miss it and that I'll likely take some trips by myself every now and then. • So my answer: I love cookies AND cake; I want cookies AND cake; I will have cookies AND cake 🤣🍪🍰
If you could give one piece of advice to a couple looking to travel together, what would it be?
Expect the unexpected! Like I said, whole other sides of your personality can be brought about through travel. You’re navigating unfamiliar territory, oftentimes trying to communicate with people with whom you don’t share a language — your mind is working in overdrive, and it can be mentally exhausting. You’ve got long bus rides and heavy bags to carry — you get physically tired. And you’re just surrounded by new inputs and opportunities and ways of being and thinking and experiencing, so your emotions are constantly being tested, too. All of you is working to the max, and so it’s only understandable that you would face conflict with someone else who is also feeling all of those things. You may fight about things you never would have before. It just takes time, patience, and a lot of adjustment and adaptation to your new context and what your relationships look like within that.
What can’t you travel without?
Hmmm, I’m not sure there’s anything I couldn’t do without, but I do really appreciate having my favourite toiletries. I have used the same deodorant and face-wash for years, and I can never find anything I like as much as my products/brands of choice, so I always try to stock up on those things. After 7 months of travelling now, I’m out of both and it’s so sad!
How has travel changed you both?
Over time, travelling has changed me in too many ways to list! And maybe that’s not even the right way to phrase it; it has more so reshaped the ways in which I see and experience the world around me, including my place in it all. For Jay, embarking on this recent journey has really allowed him to see this part of the world in a different light, as opposed to some of the “dangerous” messages we’re always receiving in popular news. And I guess that’s an example of the ways in which travel has changed me as well; it’s almost as though it isn’t you that changes, but more so the way you think.
I used to adamantly avoid revisiting places; I felt like I HAD to see and experience a NEW place every time I traveled; I’d tell myself it was money and time wasted to go somewhere I’d already been. • And while I still love (and usually prioritize) seeing a new place, I don’t feel that way anymore. I also love revisiting and rediscovering places again. Just because I’ve been somewhere, even if I’ve spent time there, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve really experienced it or learned about it. Sometimes my visit is honestly pretty surface level. • In the field of cultural anthropology, there’s a common understanding that the longer you research, study, and live in a place, the more you realize how little you know about it. You could study and engage with a single culture for 10 years and that you understand the place and people less than you thought you did at year 1, simply because you come to see how nuanced and complex the issues are, and because no matter how long it’s been, you are still, and will always be, a cultural “outsider,” no matter how successfully you’ve integrated. • In addition, travel is incredibly contextual. Any experience you have in a place is dependent upon a wide range of circumstances. Your experience isn’t defined by the place itself; it’s created by adding up all the little experiences you have in that place. I LOVED India the first time I went. I left telling people it was my favorite country, and I couldn’t wait to go back. And then I did, and I honestly hated my second experience. I left a month early. • I used to be SO proud of my country count; it was a big source of pride and ego for me, largely because so much of my identity as a “traveler” was tied up in it. So I decided to stop counting, because it wasn’t doing anything but feeding my attachment to this “accomplishment.” But for ME, much of what I had “accomplished” in travel was also the result of a lot of privilege — opportunities afforded to me by my white skin, the English language, and a powerful passport. A lot of other people have to overcome so much more to have similar experiences. • What are your reactions/reflections on this topic? Would love to hear YOUR perspective!!
What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in order to travel?
I think most people tend to have the same answer here — leaving people behind. Whether it’s family or close friends, or anyone at all that means something to you, there’s a distance between you and the people you love that oftentimes slowly transforms into a sort of chasm beyond just physical distance. That can be hard, especially when you have significant chunks of life experiences in different places, and each of those places/communities holds a little piece of you. But again, it’s a choice. If you choose this life, you also choose to be away from those people, but it certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t care about them and miss them all the time.
Do you think you’ll ever ‘settle down’?
I guess that really depends on what it means to “settle down.” Neither Jay or I are really interested in getting married, though I think we’d both be open to it. Neither of us are interested in having children as of now, but we also acknowledge that we may not always feel that way. I think it’s likely that we’ll probably end up choosing a spot to build a stationary life eventually, but who knows where or when!?
We’ve got one more month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and we will most likely be heading to Myanmar from here. That will only be for 2-3 weeks. We’ve got a lot of possibilities for what comes next, but our eyes right now are on Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan before heading toward South America, but nothing is set in stone yet!
Don’t forget to check out Lena on Instagram and keep your eyes peeled for her upcoming website! Lena is also the brains behind the #voyagetovulnerable movement on Instagram, use the # to get your travel truth featured on their Facebook page.
Next week we’ll be speaking to Margarita from ‘The Wildlife Diaries’ to find out about her travel quest to see all 40 species of big cats and how she copes with travelling to the wild corners of the globe on her own.