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What To Do When Wanderlust Strikes

18/08/2015 8:03 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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"Chris is leaving us to become the world's oldest backpacker."

As my colleagues laughed at my boss's farewell quip, I sipped my beer and realised that, on paper, what I was about to do didn't make a whole lot of sense.

But life isn't lived on paper.

I was at a great point in my career and at 29 should probably have had my sights set on the next steps: saving for my first home and buying shares in Tinder...

Yet I was walking away, without a job to go to, and only modest funds in my savings account.

Most people take a 'gap year' after school or move to London. But in the broader context of my life, this late-to-the-game 'gap year' deal made perfect sense.

Three months earlier I'd broken up with my girlfriend of more than four years. We'd lived together. She was my best friend. We'd bailed from a beautiful two-bedroom apartment by the beach and gone our separate ways. I took to an air mattress in my friend's flat and ended up spending most nights on the schooners.

It didn't take longer than a couple of weeks to realise that I needed to get out.

I told the boss I was done. Then I pulled the pin on an apartment I'd found in Bondi, booked a flight to Cambodia and set up an account on TripAdvisor. Within a month I'd packed up my belongings, bade my farewells and left Sydney.

Over the next three-and-a-half months (OK, so it wasn't literally a gap YEAR) I travelled to eight countries, grew a ridiculous beard and styled my hair with women's accessories.

It was an interesting time.

I made it. #machupicchu

A photo posted by Chris Paine (@chrisreespaine) on

Beard there, done that.

And while the boss was right -- I was generally a good few years older than others on the backpacker trail -- I began to hear a familiar refrain: I needed to get out and do this.

Turns out I wasn't the only one taking a career break when life had stopped making sense. Lawyers from London, students from Israel, teachers from Canada; people were taking stock with a passport in one hand and a map in the other.

Pretty quickly I began to feel exactly what it was I'd been looking for: Freedom. It's what the whole trip represented to me, and any time I experienced that sensation I felt like I was right where I needed to be. Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Hiking through the mountains in Vietnam. Climbing the steep stone steps of Machu Picchu and waiting for two hours to glimpse the ancient wonder through the fog.

Freedom. #CPeru

A photo posted by Chris Paine (@chrisreespaine) on


Yep.

A photo posted by Chris Paine (@chrisreespaine) on


There was no life-changing revelation. No lightbulb moment. No point where it "all made sense". Mostly, it was just a helluva good time. My better-late-than-never 'gap year' afforded me the opportunity to experience the world, make new friends and wear the same pair of boardies for a fortnight at a time. When you're always going to the beach your clothes wash themselves.

It wasn't a trip imbued with life lessons, but here are a few fun takeaways, just for the hell of it:

- People will always try to one-up an experience, no matter how beautiful the moment. One woman declared atop a Cambodian temple at dusk that she'd seen a far better sunset in Africa. Who cares. Just be here. And stop talking.

- Drunk strangers WILL have sex just inches away from you -- and not give a damn. Not even when they fall off the bunk bed directly above you. Then keep going.

- Backpackers love hanging out with Aussies, but we don't always get a great wrap. I heard the phrases 'what's up with gay marriage' and 'groups of young Aussie guys tend to be jerks' embarrassingly often. Don't worry. I repped us pretty hard.

- A self-referencing hashtag may be incredibly obnoxious but it's a beautifully efficient way to aggregate your selfies. #CPonTour

- You can Skype a CEO from a hostel room. I had to borrow a business shirt. And shave. It worked out pretty well in the end.

***

Now that I've returned to real life I've realised just how important my trip was. And all the reservations I had before leaving -- 'I'm too old', 'This makes no sense', 'I just need to get my shit together' -- have slowly dissipated. I managed to land a new job and remain great friends with my ex. And I made it 'round the world without a single dose of food poisoning - not even from deep fried tarantulas or wild termites.

Don't mind the gap.

This blog first appeared in August 2015.

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