A Little Cheers …To Unexpected Changes and Amazing Possibilities

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I turn 29-years-old today. This birthday is already going a lot better than last year … last year my lovely friends in Chiang Mai came out to celebrate with me at a Mexican restaurant and instead of enjoying it, I spent much of the night sick in the bathroom (that was the first day of what became a three month battle with Giardia parasites … fun times). The illness made me slow down at the start of 2012, but it didn’t put a damper on the plans, because it was early 2012 when I began writing my book, which was such a hard but positive part of my life for majority of 2012.

So, anyway, 29 today. You know, I don’t feel very old, and yet I have an acute memory from ten years ago of thinking how “ancient” the nearly-30s seemed. I had lots of ideas and few clear plans at 19—college and acting amounted to most of my tangible goals at the time. And yet now, at 29, I am much more willing to look into the New Year with an eye for unexpected gifts and amazing possibilities than with plans and specific goals. I had so many plans and definite ideas (comes with the territory of being a young adult) and now most of those are gone, and I often feel a little lost, but I feel like I am more on the right track now than I ever was before.

My fifth birthday with my brother Brucey nearby
A photo of my fifth birthday with my brother Brucey nearby.

The fact is, I couldn’t have planned out these last few years in my wildest dreams, and I still can’t figure out the key moments that led me here. Perhaps at a time in the future I will look back and see those pivotal moments where a butterfly beating its wings rippled change throughout the course of my life … but for now I can merely go along with the events and hope that changes, obstacles, and decisions have a deeper purpose. Because some of what happened this year hurt, and it was hard. The book was a personal challenge, but beyond that there was dysfunctional family drama, hurdles, changes, and new directions for myself and many of the people in my life who I love.

mango sticky rice street food
Ana and I enjoy one last mango and sweet sticky rice at a street food stall in Bangkok before we headed back home to the US. The kid is so cute–she waxes poetic to her friends here about the food we ate in Thailand :)

For my niece, I hope and believe that a Butterfly Effect moment in her life was our decision to travel to Asia last summer. And now, another change as she returns to life back home while I continue traveling. Plans shifted over the past few months and Ana is re-enrolled in public school. My dreams for her haven’t changed, and though I am her aunt—and it would seem to many that me even taking her to Asia for nearly seven months was strange—I can only say that I have been a very strong part of her life since birth. And so … it’s hard to let her go. It’s hard for me to let her integrate back into a school system, friends, and a life that only includes me on the periphery.

It was harder than I imagined to watch her again embrace life in my hometown … a town I intentionally and very methodically plotted my exit from at 18-years-old; a place I do not want to live.

Ana frames her photo and snaps some shots of the cows outside of Hongsa, Laos.

My rambling stream of consciousness now turns back toward 2013, and the 30th year of my life. Ana will not be with me on my next trip, which is to Mexico in January (though she will join me again in the future to be sure!), and I am back to the solo traveler I started as in 2008. But not the same at all, there were choices along the way that have changed who I am and changed my perspectives.

I like to use the end of a year and beginning of the next as a way to both reflect and look forward, so here are both, intertwined!

To New Countries …

Myanmar (Burma) was a new country in 2012—I loved the fun of exploring a new culture and sites with my niece. Ana and I also traveled back to one of my favorites, Laos, but it was a very different experience in Myanmar, to spend three weeks immersed in an unfamiliar country with little internet and connectivity. I loved my break from the online world and used the time to talk and really pay attention to friends during our adventures in some of the prettiest places on earth, like Bagan and Inle Lake.

Sunset in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
As the day ends the sun drenched the ocher temples of Bagan in a warm, comforting light.

I also hope to explore a new place in 2013; though plans are unsure, I may travel with friends to Peru (I haven’t stepped foot in South America yet!) and if not, I have a very deep interest in taking several months in the fall to travel to Kenya or other parts of Africa (also an unexplored continent for me!). Africa is the dream right now, I like the world better knowing that I might make it there this coming year, so I mention it here, even though it’s the more distant possibility of the two. Looking closer to home though, immediate travel plans are to as-yet unexplored regions of Mexico, where I will hunker down for a few months to work on new projects. I need a place to hunker–more pointedly a place to hunker in solitude I think, I am ready to feel a part of a city again and have fast food and fast friends on hand, which happens most when I find a new place I want to call home.

To New Projects …

My book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, launched in October at an event where I spoke on a panel at Housing Works in New York City. Writing, publishing and launching my book was a wonderful and scary learning process and it’s more rewarding than I imagined to have it out now. Perhaps the best part? I loved hearing feedback from the wild—and by this I mean people completely unconnected from me and this blog—from people who read the book and have reviewed the book online, or emailed to share how it’s helped them solidify plans to volunteer or visit social enterprises. That’s the point, when I saw that I could actually have this sort of positive effect, it has motivated me in a way the idea of it never did. I want to help people travel, and all the better if they volunteer or give back when they do that traveling.

travel speaker volunteering
Speaking on a panel about travel at the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC for the launch of my book, alongside the authors of the Food and Solo travel handbooks.

In the coming weeks I will share more about the book and my journey in 2013 to support it out there in the world—podcasts, guest-posts, and giveaways are in the works. I often fear criticism, and equally fear looking like a braggart which keeps me quiet and silent as I hesitate to post any real-time updates—neither the successes nor the failures. I intend to do better on that in 2013.

And speaking of 2013, I have lightly mentioned my other projects, but my volunteer site will formally launch next month, and that is exciting; it’s been in beta form for well over a year, so I will share more on that in January. Then, throughout the year I intend to speak more often and about volunteering and travel when possible. I spoke with an 8th grade class in the United States last month  about following passions and how—for me—that has been travel these past few years. Those kids were so bright, inquisitive, and fascinated by the idea of long-term travel that it’s further inspired me to work with youth and college students in that capacity as a goal this year, and into the future.

To New Ideologies …

In summer 2011, I wrote a post that detailed my desire to travel for the better part of each year, and to weave that travel with time at home. This is how I have balanced old friends and family with my wish to travel for years on end. And that worked well as I bounced around between continents at roughly five-six month intervals.

sunset in yangon
A man on the commuter docks in Yangon, Myanmar takes in a quiet sunset as the last of the boats zip across the river, bring the workers back to their homes and to nearby cities.

Now though, I am shifting that a bit to take the lessons I have learned through travel and channel them into other passions like speaking, more writing, and creative projects. To do these things though, I want to settle somewhere more permanent and with a home-base that isn’t well, home. I haven’t found “the place” yet. It’s not the United States. I think it might be Mexico because I like the country’s proximity to the US (and thus Ana), I already speak the language, and the food is pretty great. But I’m not sure. Four years of travel wore me out some; perhaps it’s the solo travel aspect of it weighing on me lately. I rarely mention (um … never) my relationships, but that could be factoring into things too. I want to be closer to friends, while keeping the joys that travel brings to my life.

2013 is a conundrum for me. I have many professional goals I’d like to see happen in regards to my book. I am looking for a home—anyone, anywhere want to adopt me?! I still have many travel plans in the works. And I will miss my niece when I leave for Mexico. I am in a state of change right now. I know that what I’ve had for the past four years is not the pattern that will make me happy long-term, but I don’t know where I am headed precisely. And this is where the amazing possibilities comes into play. I never thought I would write a book, I never predicted my niece and I would explore Southeast Asia together, and traveling the world was a mere pipe dream at one point. And so, though I feel lost sometimes, I am willing to believe that the possibilities out there may bring some great changes.

tbex speakers spain
Hanging out with my bestie Jodi after we both spoke at the TBEX travel conference in Girona, Spain.

To What I Know …

For all the uncertainty I just laid out there, here is what I do know:

… I was blessed with finding a smart, sweet, funny friend in my niece as we traveled, and that is a gift I will cherish.

… I wrote a book, and I think it’s great. I want to help people and I want to see my book help people. So I know I will make that happen in 2013.

… None of us died during the Mayan apocalypse (had to add a dash of humor here folks).

… I am deeply grateful for the community and people who have supported me through this site, and throughout my travels.

… A new year means so many possibilities for each of us and when we stay open to potential, great things can happen and wonderful people come into our lives.

… I am 29-years-old today and this will be a kick-ass year!

Happy New Year!  :-)

61 thoughts on “A Little Cheers …To Unexpected Changes and Amazing Possibilities”

  1. Enjoyed your blog regarding life on the road and your desire not to return to that dysfunctional hometown. Sounded like my life! I’ll be back living solo in the redwoods of northern California as a volunteer again this summer and hopefully writing another book. You have inspired me to return to Chiang Mai with your vivid descriptions! Maybe in November of this year. Pleasant travels and may you find friendship and happiness…..

    • Solo in the redwoods — that sounds amazing. Just tonight I was talking with friends about how much I loved the forests and culture in Northern California. As for CM, if you go in early November you may even be able to make it for Loy Krathong, which is gorgeous if you’ve never partaken in it.

      Best of luck with the book writing, hopefully the redwoods keep you inspired :)

  2. I travel as much as I caN. I aplaud you in your quest. I hope to something similar, in the future when I can really retire. This year I am going to Ecuador and the amazon.
    thanks for a great blog

    • Thanks so much, your upcoming travels to South America sound amazing and should be memorable, I haven’t made it there but it’s high on my list too. Safe travels this year! :)

  3. I wish you all the best with your plans and projects for 2013. I also incorporate volunteering into my travels and it’s always good to come across other like-minded travelers. Much success!

  4. On a side note I travel to Thailand next week for a week. Can’t wait to go snorkeling and scuba, and also get into Buddhism while at it. You are right…SE Asia has that charm, that feel. I can’t wait to someday visit Laos or Burma…off the beaten track as they say.

    Take care Shannon,
    Rishi, India.

  5. This was very touching Shannon and it hit hard personally to me. I’d like to say that you are truly living your exististence, whereas most only exist- this is not a comedown on people who prefer other lifestyle but rather a praise for your’s.
    I think we are all lost…every human being that ever lived, and has lived and shall live, we are all trying to make sense of our purpose…..but after reading books, understanding people and experiencing moments, I am damn sure of the fact that traveling…experiencing is at the zenith of true contentment for any human being. Some choose meditation, others psychedelics and then some who are born wanderers.
    Your article on the cave paintings in Jordan got me obsessed with caves and mythology….to think that man, 5000 years ago must have painted his thoughts and imaginations and here I am witnessing them…this is legacy. That man left his mark, he must have travelled the hero’s journey and faded away into the annals of time. You are doing it right now and you should be proud.

    On a more rational note…I’d say this is the prime age to be what you are Shannon….travel some more, into your mid 30s and then maybe settle somewhere, get a decent saving and keep traveling sporadically….


    • Thank you for sharing your ideas here Rishi, there is so much change in life that I sometimes find myself struggling to catch up, and looking at others and wondering if I made wrong choices somewhere along the way, but at the end of the day, this is a personal journey and I truly feel like I am living it to my own terms and purposes.

      I hope you have a wonderful visit to Thailand, in all the time I spent there, I never seemed to make it diving, so please let me know what you think! Cheers and safe travels :)

  6. Happy Birthday gorgeous! What a year it’s been for you!!!!!!! Cheers to feeling better and having more adventures in 2013.

    • Thank you, thank you lady!! I hope you have such a wonderful and blessed 2013 as well, and perhaps we can finally share a coffee this year! :)

  7. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t can’t see the road that lead me here, but nothing has ever felt more right. Looking forward to what 2013 brings. Happy belated birthday Shannon!

    • Thanks Stephen! I hope 2013 brings you some wonderful things as well, and that your path continues to develop toward happiness :)

  8. Happy Birthday Shannon, you framed perfect picture of your plan in childhood i.e. to Act etc. By the way The Mango and rice is my favorite dish also.

  9. All the best for an awesome 2013! :-) I love that you travelled with your niece – it would have been such an amazing experience for her (and you!). I’d love to do the same thing with my nieces and nephews one day.

    • Thank you! Traveling with my niece was a real highlight of my years on the road–if you get the opportunity to travel with your niece or nephew you should take it! And with SEA and the islands and neat places like that I bet it wouldn’t even cost a fortune for a fun trip with them on a holiday break or some such. I hope you have a wonderful 2013 Rebecca! :)

  10. A little late to the party, but better late than never right? So, happy birthday!! There. I said it (publicly).

    Really really really glad I got to meet and get to know you in 2012…and looking forward to continuing to getting to know you better in 2013!

    • Thanks Drew!! I appreciate the public acknowledgement of my birth, and I am so glad we met in 2012. Hope your 2013 is so very, very successful! :)

  11. Happy belated birthday! Change is hard and scarey…but good for the soul. Best of luck with your goals in 2013, looking forward to reading next years recap…

    • Thank you Elaine! I think you’re right about it being good for the soul; it cleanses in a way to move cleanly into something new even when it’s hard. I hope you have a wonderful 2013 :)

  12. Happy New Year Shannon! I grabbed a copy of your excel budget sheet for my travels back in 2009. Worked like a charm. I was prompted to revisit your site as I plan my moves for this year. Nice to see you’re still at it. Congratulations on your book and all the best for 2013!

    • That’s so excellent, I love knowing people found it useful on their own adventures. I hope you have some great 2013 travel plans, let me know if there is ever anything I can help with–have a wonderful year and thanks for the support! :)

  13. Happy birthday, Shannon, and congratulations on a successful 2012! Although I’m in a slightly different boat than you regarding that bit of separation anxiety with your niece, I feel like I can kind of relate. When our foreign exchange students live with us and are a part of every strand of the fabric of our lives. Putting them on a plane and sending them “home” to their parents and friends and “real” homes breaks my heart after spending months as one of the most important people in their lives. It never gets easier, and yet I know that their lives change just like mine does.

    • It hadn’t occurred to me what it feels like to send your exchange students back to their parents and out of your life after investing time and energy in their lives, education, and well-being. Do most of them keep in touch with you afterwards and come back for visits? Through it all, you are instrumental in changing their lives–that exchange opens the door for so much more understanding and learning at those ages. Happy New Year JoAnna, I hope to see you at the conferences this summer :)

      • Luckily, yes, they do stay in touch with us, but each kid is different. Some like to Skype often; for others, we simply know what’s going on through Facebook updates. No one has come back to visit yet, though they all know they’re welcome to. We also have good relationships with their parents, all of whom have invited us to visit them in their home countries. We hope to make a grand Europe tour someday to spend time with them all, but the truth is that when they graduate from high school/college, get married, etc., they all know we’d happily make the trip for them. Hope to see you this year as well ~ happy 2013!

  14. Happy Birthday and Happy 2013 from afar. Shannon, your work and the sharing of your life with all of us is so generous. Do keep it up and I hope our paths cross again soon.

    • Thank you for the birthday wishes! I’m sending you so many positive thoughts too as you finish the final parts of your every country in the world journey in the next few months. Also, I have no doubts we’ll be crossing paths again this year; until then safe travels Chris :)

  15. Happy Birthday, Shannon! And best wishes for a great new year! I hope we can finally meet up again, wherever that may be. Congrats on the book release, too!

    • Thanks Kevin! I do hope our paths cross again soon, and with your beer guide out, I am intrigued and hoping I can use your knowledge to my taste-bud benefit next time we share a drink! :) Hope you and Peung have a wonderful New Year! :)

  16. Since I turned 66 on the same day you turned 29 I feel I am not out of order in saying that it will always be thus. At least if you have the inquiring mind and curiosity about life and world you have, and the desire both to experience the world and help make it a better place, it will. Life shifts and changes constantly, sometimes bringing more than we ever dreamed and sometimes taking a downturn for a while, of course. The fun is in never knowing what’s in store I guess.

    I shall be eagerly following to see where life takes you for the next stage, and wish you loads of luck in the journey!

    • Thank you Linda; sometimes I find myself faltering at the challenges and downturns but I know the path is twisting to get to the surprising places we go in life. Thank you for taking the time to reflect back, and I hope you have a wonderful journey through your coming year! Have a wonderful New Years :)

  17. Happy birthday Shannon and congrats on all you’ve accomplished this year! I can’t wait to see what you get up to in 2013 – I have no doubt whatever it is, you’ll continue to inspire. Have a wonderful New Year’s!

  18. Happy birthday Shannon! You’ve done so much in your 29 years, I’m in awe! I turned 29 at the beginning of December and feel like I haven’t accomplished nearly as much. I spent most of my 20s doing the “right” thing at uni, and am only just about to fulfill the life-long travel dream. Don’t get me wrong, I loved uni – and still intend to go back at some stage – but as I didn’t really know what I should do, I picked a career goal and went for that (only to discover it took a long time and I then didn’t really enjoy doing it!). Anyway, enough about me. Congrats on the book and the successful year, and here’s to 2013 being a great one for all of us!

    • You have accomplished a lot in your education goals–don’t let yourself invalidate those, studying and giving that time will only enrich your upcoming travels. I wish you SO much happiness this year and please let me know if there is ever anything I can help you to do for your trip. :)

  19. Happy Birthday, Shannon! Such a thoughtful look back on your year. I’m amazed by what you’ve accomplished – 7 months of homeschooling/traveling with your niece AND you managed to write a BOOK?! Amazing. :)

    • Thank you Bridgid! It’s amazing to look back and see what we can accomplish over a year–the goals that we bring closer. I wish you so much luck in 2013 and your house and travel goals :)

  20. You remain one of the most fearless people I know. (Fearless is being scared and doing it anyway – that’s my definition, the dictionary is wrong). And I admire your ability to reflect and then act on it. Being that kind of fearless and being able to make course-changes like that….it’s powerful stuff. You’re really good at the powerful stuff, and coupled with the fact that I read your book and it’s just terrific…

    Well. I don’t know what 2013 has in store. But you are superbly equipped to make the most of it.

    • Thank you Mike, and I will accept your definition of fearless–makes me feel good to be called that! I am very grateful for your support throughout the year and appreciate your friendship. I hope you have a super fantastic 2013 :)

  21. Happy Birthday!! Don’t worry, after 29 all the birthdays kind of blend together and you stop thinking about one’s age…or at least that’s what I told myself :)

    We were just talking today with some people in Berlin about how important it is to listen to your inner voice and accept changes instead of holding on to what worked for you in the past and trying to repeat it. Travel still excites me, but it’s the opportunities to create and find that purpose that really get me excited for next year. As you know, we’ve been struggling with the “home” bit, but think we’ve found a good base for the moment in Berlin. Hope we get to host you here sometime this next year!

    • Hehe, I like the idea that they’ll start blending, I’m going to hold on to that! Taking changes in stride, and believing they are leading somewhere new and positive was tougher this year than in the past. I know you and Dan have both also been in a transition–I love your stories and photos of Berlin, and I even went so far as to research the artist’s visa, so next step will be to come for that visit to see the charms first-hand! Thanks for the support over the years, I hope you enjoy Scotland and have a wonderful New Years :)

  22. Sounds like a pretty awesome year to me. Happy birthday :) I couldn’t have predicted the last ten years, either, but it’s been one heck of a ride…. here’s to 2013!

    • Cheers Rachel! Wacky how different life pans out–often in a good way–Happy New Year and I hope you have happiness and good things in 2013 :)

  23. Love this post. What an amazing adventure you’ve been on, and how brave you are to actually do it (all). I so admire you and I’m so incredibly proud of you!!!! I hope this year will be full of wonderful gifts and surprises, which of course it will be since you actually notice and appreciate them as such. Go conquer and continue to share your gifts with others; they are tangible and real and so valuable***. Cheers to you on your birthday and beyond!! So much love xoxoxoxo s

    • Thank you so much Syl! I miss you guys but have loved watching over the year(s) as you grow your photography into everything you dream for yourselves. I hope 2013 includes us sharing a meal and a catch-up session! Happy New Year! xoxo :-)

  24. Wow, what a year! Happy Birthday, friend. You can’t even imagine yet all the amazing things that will happen in the new year. See you soon I hope.

  25. Happy happy birthday Shannon! So glad I got to meet you and Ana this year in Chiang Mai, and see you launch your book in NYC! Here’s hoping our paths cross again in 2013 :)

    • Thank you so much Christine! It was really a lot of fun that you passed through CM–so glad! As you said, a definite hope we share a drink again in 2013 :)

  26. i enjoy keeping up with your travels (especially SE asia as it’s up next on my list). thanks for the great info, details.

    and not to be a downer, but 2013 will be the 30th year of your life!

    • Oh! Seeing that written hurts just a little, but you are, of course, correct ;-) Have an amazing time in SEA, and let me know if there is anything I can help you with before you leave or while you’re there! Safe travels and Happy New Year!

      • 30 isnt any big deal…. getting older (notice I didnt say growing up) isnt a bad thing, it’s so much better than the alternative. I know you said you didnt want to live in the States- but what about Miami? Good weather year round, Lots of Spanish Speakers, interesting culture, close to family/friends in Orlando and has both a major airport and port for when the next adventure calls.

        • Miami is a great city, not sure though, I like the passport stamps! A good thought though, they do have amazing diversity down there. Happy New Year :-)

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