There are a lot of challenging things about traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I should probably put “traveling” in quotes, as we’re not moving from place to place right now. We have to deal with standard virus prevention measures like everyone else, but being in a foreign country also presents its own unique issues. While I realize that everyone is experiencing problems during this trying time, I felt like I should document mine.
The last time Katie and I stepped foot on US soil was on June 26, 2019 when we walked into LAX to board our flight to Asia. While we quit our jobs two months prior, leaving the country felt like the true start of our retirement adventure. Many hours later, we arrived in Bangkok ready to explore the world. During the last 12 months, we traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, back to Thailand, and then on to Vietnam where we’ve been grounded due to the ongoing global pandemic. Throughout these travels, we’ve spent way less than I anticipated. And while I post spending reports for each location, today I’m going to provide a summary of all of our costs by category instead.
As early retirees and nomadic travelers, we do not own many possessions. We also are not big spenders. Nevertheless, our life still feels pretty luxurious on a day-to-day basis. This is almost certainly because we have an abundance of the greatest luxury: time. We’ve been retired for over a year now and it still feels amazing having the flexibility to do anything (or nothing) on any day of the week. Still, when it comes to material luxuries, we have fewer compared to our previous working life. Lately, we’ve started to reverse that trend.
It was just over one year ago that Katie and I vacated our last permanent residence to become nomads. Prior to leaving, we spent a lot of time thinking about what this new life would be like. Since we were undertaking such a radical lifestyle change, it was impossible to know exactly what we would experience. All of our ideas were just educated guesses. A few months prior to leaving, I wrote down a bunch of these expectations. I’ll share these below and compare them to the realities of life in SE Asia. Let’s see how close I got.
It seems like the writing is on the wall. Not enough people in the US are taking the COVID-19 virus seriously. Up until very recently, officials and hospitals didn’t have enough testing kits and were only testing people exhibiting the worst symptoms. Even people with direct exposure to confirmed cases were being denied testing if they weren’t showing symptoms. Due to this ineptitude and the exponential nature of the virus spread, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until the number of cases in the US explodes. When that happens, even those of us 7000 miles away will be impacted.
Katie and I just wrapped up 19 nights in Hanoi. We visited for the first time almost exactly a year ago, but only for three nights. That previous visit was part of our first trip to Asia and our last vacation ever. At the time, I thought the city was totally crazy but also a lot of fun. It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, activity, and traffic that’s both entertaining and intimidating. I assumed that a longer stay would allow us to explore at a slower pace, help mitigate some of the sensory overload issues, and be more enjoyable. I was wrong.
By any measure, 2019 was one remarkable year. We experienced such drastic changes that the beginning of the year almost feels like a whole different lifetime. The top among these changes was retiring from our jobs at the ripe old ages of 41 and 42. Even though we have only been retired for 8 months, it might as well have been a decade ago. It feels like forever since I stepped foot into a fluorescent lit office partitioned into cubicles. Part of the reason for this distance is that we completely uprooted our lives upon retirement. If we had stayed in the same place but just stopped going to work, it may not have felt as drastic. Instead, we not only quit work, we also sold everything we owned and got on a plane bound for Thailand. Lots of other things happened too.
In the financial world, front-loading means to invest a large sum early instead of spacing it out over time. (Not to be confused with a front-end load, which is a fee charged by some mutual funds that I would never invest in.) For example, I could front-load my IRA contributions by investing the $6000 maximum in January each year as opposed to contributing $500 per month. Or I could front-load my 401k by contributing more than $1583 per month, reaching the $19,000 yearly maximum before the end of December.
Since our travels have no defined end date, it’s not always easy to decide how long to stay in one spot. Being able to take our time and thoroughly explore our destination is one of the best parts of slow travel. It’s a luxury that we rarely experienced during our working years and we don’t want to take it for granted. Conversely, staying too long in any one area means that we could end up bored. After all, not every place has a lot to see or do. One of the easiest solutions to keep things fresh and interesting is to simply change locations. The first few days in a new spot are always exciting. But even for us globetrotters, the actual act of travel is still no fun. So how do we strike the proper balance?
After leaving Colorado behind, we drove north through the very eastern half of Wyoming to reach South Dakota. The weather was still uncooperative, and constant cold rain meant that we were definitely staying in a motel instead of camping. But we needed to go through South Dakota as opposed to taking a more southern route for two reasons. The first was that I had never been to South Dakota before, and Katie wanted to show me some of the highlights of her childhood vacations. The second was that South Dakota has very liberal residency requirements combined with zero income taxes, so we were there to become official residents.