By Anna Nalean
I was honored to be recognized this year as one of the Business Record’s Forty Under 40 honorees. During that process, former Fearless editor Emily Kestel asked me what I’m most proud of. After sharing my unusual travel story with her, she asked if I would be willing to share it with all of you, the Fearless readers.
Trying to put such a life-changing, personal experience into words is intimidating, but I have witnessed time and time again the ripples of inspiration that can happen when women are vulnerable and share their stories.
I share my story with a deep acknowledgement of the privilege I have on many levels that afforded me the opportunity and space to chase after such a big dream. I do not take that lightly or for granted.
May we continue to build a world where all women can boldly and bravely chase after their wildest dreams if and when they so desire.
The “Get Busy Living Tour”
In 2019, I embarked on what my husband, Bobby Nalean, affectionately titled the “Get Busy Living Tour.” I quit my job to chase a dream of backpacking around the world as a solo traveler. Chasing that dream took me to 30 countries over the next eight months, while he cheered me on from home.
We rang in the new year together in Des Moines. On the morning of Jan. 1, I boarded a train from Osceola to Chicago and caught a flight to my first destination, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had booked where I would stay for my first few nights, but beyond that, I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t know how long I would stay in the city or where I would go next, allowing me the rare freedom to be completely untethered and to dance in the unknown, taking recommendations from locals and other travelers I met along the way, as well as letting my own curiosities guide me.
After Vietnam I made my way through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. By March, I was in New Zealand, where I rented a car, bought a tent, thrifted camping supplies and began driving and camping my way around the north and south islands for a month.
I made my way to Europe, where my husband would join me in Greece briefly. He then headed home, and I continued my journey, backpacking through less-touristed countries such as Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and the Czech Republic. I also visited many of Europe’s more well-known destinations such as England, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain. I briefly dipped into Africa via Morocco.
Before I knew it, eight months had somehow melted away, and I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of all the beauty and wonder of this incredible world. My list of places that I wanted to explore had somehow grown instead of getting smaller. As I lived out of my carry-on-sized backpack for eight months, I realized how little stuff I needed in my life to live comfortably.
A little back story
I didn’t grow up traversing the world. It just wasn’t something my farming family of six had the means or the time to do. But I had a curiosity and sense of adventure. I would get lost in my Grandpa Paul’s stacks of National Geographic magazines and the stories he would tell of places he had wanted to visit but hadn’t been able to for one reason or another.
My first flight was a short domestic flight at age 20 and my second flight would be to Thailand to study abroad for a semester as an undergraduate. That is where I got my first taste of solo travel and the freedom and the sense of empowerment it brought.
After that semester ended, I came home to Iowa, got married, graduated from Simpson College at the height of the recession, and started my career in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
Early on in our marriage, my husband and I decided that we wanted travel to be a priority and a key fixture throughout our lives, not just something that would be reserved for milestone occasions or our retirement years. We recognized the power of thoughtful travel to enrich our lives, broaden our perspectives and expand our understanding of the world around us and how we engaged with it. We learned travel didn’t have to be an expensive, out-of-reach thing and that we could find ways to do it affordably.
After returning from a backpacking trip together through Peru in 2017, we were reflecting on what inspired us from our experiences – the culture and the people we met and what lessons we would like to carry forward into our lives. I had mentioned casually to Bobby how incredibly inspired I was by all the brave solo female backpackers we had met along the way on that trip. Instantly he said, “You’re doing it. I just pictured you there, being in your element, and that’s it. You’ve got to do it!”
I immediately rolled my eyes at him, told him that he was being ridiculous and began spouting off all the reasons why I couldn’t do that – why we couldn’t do that. “I have a job, we have student and car loans, a mortgage, other bills to pay, and we’re married.” I was not in an “Eat, Pray, Love” situation. No one we met was traveling for months on end while a supportive significant other was holding things down back home. What would people think?
Fear of the unknown
Fear of the unknown and seeking comfort in the familiar can keep us from living our lives fully, if we let it. While all the life and travel logistics were beyond reasonable concerns to sort out, it truly was the “What would people think?” piece of the equation that took up significant brain space and kept me from acknowledging to myself that I really wanted to do this.
I initially had fears of what diverging from the Midwestern sensibilities and practicalities I had been raised with and surrounded by my entire life would ultimately mean for my future. While I had financial security to some degree, as Bobby would continue to work, I was stepping away from a solid job. I was temporarily pausing my career in my early 30s, when I should be looking to advance to whatever that “next big thing” was.
I hadn’t known anyone who’d personally done what I was considering at this stage in life. How would I explain this gap on my resume? Would anyone want to hire me after I returned? Would this time away become a liability? So much of my life to this point was pursuing a more traditional definition of success – this would be straying far from that.
A core part of my story, which continues to bring perspective and focus to my life, was the unexpected death of my incredible dad when I was 19 years old. His passing at such a young age and the post-traumatic growth that comes with navigating the waves of grief gave me a profound understanding that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.
I don’t live my life in fear of my mortality but I do acknowledge its inevitability. The truth is none of us knows how much time we have, and many of us live as though we have all the time in the world, myself included, until we don’t. After months of stewing, I began asking myself: What is the thing I am most afraid of, if I were told tomorrow that my time here was up?
In asking that question, it became clear – it wasn’t the next big career move or title, achieving material successes, community accolades, or legacy-building that came to mind, although doing meaningful work, bettering my community and serving others is very important to me. My biggest fear was that there were so many places I wanted to explore, experience and learn about firsthand, and that I wouldn’t have the opportunity or time to do it.
I desperately wanted to get lost in the world and navigate all the challenges that came with it, knowing that I would be lonely, scared and homesick at times. I knew I would have to work through times of incredible discomfort, but I knew those moments of discomfort would also bring tremendous personal growth.
One day, I finally stopped and asked myself, “Why not me? Why can’t I do this? And more importantly, why can’t we do this?” We can create our own blueprint for how we live our lives, and it doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s. Also, I get to decide what my definition of a successful life looks like for me personally. With that, we began the 1½-year journey of saving, learning, planning and working to make the Get Busy Living Tour a reality.
Traveling solo as a woman
As in many areas of life, women who travel solo often receive different reactions than men who do the same. There were many concerns from loved ones and acquaintances alike for my safety, some even suggesting that it was careless to travel solo as a woman. Many projected their own fears and perceptions of the world and the unknown onto me.
The unfortunate reality is that women, regardless of whether we are walking alone in our neighborhood or are halfway around the world, must take additional precautions that men often don’t think twice about. But it doesn’t mean the world is inherently dangerous for us to experience and explore on our own terms. We just have to be more aware, cautious and prepared.
In all honesty, I often felt safer wandering in the many countries I visited than I do at home in the U.S. We all take risks every single day when we leave our homes; that is just a part of living, but we are more familiar with the risks we are taking and therefore more comfortable with them. My hope is that we as women don’t let an overly inflated fear of what “could happen” limit how we move in and experience the world.
Looking back, four years later
Writing all of this down makes this journey seem simplistic and easy. It definitely wasn’t. I was rereading some of my blog posts from early on in my adventures, and the fear in some of those early posts was palpable (read “Gaining Confidence One Street Crossing, Bowl of Pho and Laundry Load at a Time”), but so was the growing confidence and trust in myself and enthusiasm at facing these new and often humorous encounters.
Solo travel has challenged me in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but it also allowed me to meet, break bread with and befriend so many incredibly inspiring women, both locals and other solo travelers (there are a ton out there) from all walks of life, stages of life and from all corners of the world. Women who shared their life stories of heartache and triumphs with me, who welcomed me into their homes, into their businesses, introduced me to their passions, who shared their hostel rooms, meals, rental cars and rides on the back of their motorbikes with me. Women who picked me up when I was doubting myself along the journey and lent me a bit of their bravery, confidence and fearlessness in times when I needed it.
I kept family and friends updated on social media throughout my journey so they could follow along and learn about the world with me as I knew many would never be able to experience this for themselves for a myriad of reasons. I especially wanted to normalize the idea of exploring the world for my nine nieces and nephews, but especially for my nieces.
What I didn’t anticipate were the messages I received from women I knew from various stages of my life that were following the Get Busy Living Tour unbeknownst to me. Several of them were now embarking on their own solo travels, whether it be a weekend away in the U.S. or a far-flung adventure overseas.
All this to say, I share my story with you not to toot my own horn (although I’m pretty dang proud), but because I want to acknowledge the ripple of inspiration that was started when I met those fearless women in Peru.
They have no idea the impact they’ve had on my life and so many others – all because they bravely jumped into the unknown and boldly lived their lives a bit differently. I am forever grateful.
Anna Nalean is the community impact coordinator at Delta Dental of Iowa. She and her husband, Bobby Nalean, live in Des Moines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.