Where I’ve been is just the beginning of my world travel

I’m often consulted by friends for world travel advice and thoughts on different countries or places I’ve visited.  These days, I’m known for being a wanderluster, and while I’d say that’s fairly accurate, it’s only recently so. Where I’ve been thus far is just the tip of the iceberg of my world travel adventure. I’d like to share the advent my travel spirit with you, and leave you with a hint of news…

I grew up all over the United States.

Living in a multinational household, I learned about life in Latin America secondhand from my cousin and grandparents, but our family didn’t travel outside of the US often. I was lucky to live all over the United States, though — thanks to my dad’s Air Force job and my parents’ commitment to having me and my brother live with my dad during the summers. I lived in Utah, Colorado, Montana, South Carolina, Maine, and Georgia of course; and I traveled through most of the states on long roadtrips to see my dad. The spirit of finding a home anywhere carried with me when I went to college, and I lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and Minnesota for various internships and fellowships during my undergraduate years.

I’ve been to almost every state in the United States!

Erika Gemzer travel map
Happy to wedding crash at any weddings you know of happening soon in the gray states!

At 22, I’d only seen five countries.

Though I’d been almost everywhere in the continental US, I had only left the United States twice. My first time outside the US was when my grandfather passed away. I was 10 years old or so, living in Maine with my dad for the summer. We drove through Canada to get from Maine to Michigan, since it was the fastest way. I was asleep in the car, but I woke up once when dad was filling up the gas tank, so I think that counts?

My second and only other time leaving the US was for a 10-day trip to England, Scotland, and France in 8th grade. My parents worked so hard to afford that trip for me, and I am ever-thankful. The UK and France weren’t so different from the rest of the Western world, so I really had no idea how texturally different the rest of the world could be…until my first job out of college.

Here’s a map of the countries I’d experienced before I graduated from college in 2009, at the age of 22.

Erika Gemzer world travel map
Note: I actually haven’t been to Alaska or the far reaches of Canada. The tool I used for this graphic highlights the whole country, including minor outlying regions, if you’ve visited even just one city.

World travel began with my first job — a global role.

Now it was 2010, and I was 23 years old in my first job out of college, a global engineering role designing batteries. I was asked to fly to Portugal to run some battery trials in Lisbon.  Funny story/aside — due to a lack of strong geography studies, at first I thought Portugal was Paraguay. Until the day I had to pack for the trip, I thought I was going to South America, not Western Europe. Avoiding another embarrassing situation like this is why I have started my world travel country research!

I felt unnerved about going to a new place where they didn’t speak English, but I had the time of my life!  I walked 10 hours non-stop through the streets of old town Lisbon in awe and wonder. I tried octopus and took 500 photos of elderly people walking around the cobblestone streets. I took a bus without being able to ask where it was going. I skipped out on the fancy European hotel that the company was paying for and I booked a hostel in the middle of Lisbon — my first time in a hostel!

It was a fantastic experience all around, and I was enchanted with the city and with the new sense of self that emerged. It was a version of me that was energetic to new experience and endlessly curious, risk-taking, and open.

I begged to go to Portugal for any future battery experiments, and I was able to visit Spain and Portugal multiple times over the next two years. As I got more comfortable with the basics of solo travel, I started to develop my own world travel style, and I would book time at the beginning or end of my international business trips to extend my world travel. I invested in gear (my bright blue Gregory backpack!), and I felt like a part of me was in bloom. I fell in love over and over again with the struggle and triumph of solo travel, and I became determined to find a way to live internationally and experience more world travel.

Time to leave the nest.

I got up the courage to pitch my VP on the idea of moving me internationally to an ex-pat assignment in Europe. To my utter shock, my VP agreed.  The start of my world travel plan was in place!  I planned to move to Madrid for 1-2 years to work on global lean manufacturing initiatives for the company. My job was to bridge the gap between the headquarters in the US and the rest of the company in Europe, and it was perfect.

Sadly, the plans fell through on my ex-pat assignment, but my ready-to-get-out-of-dodge pump was already primed for a big move. I packed up and moved to San Francisco, taking a program management job at a health tech startup. Thanks to an unlimited vacation policy and my outstanding performance record, I was able to travel and experience new parts of the world between projects. Over the course of 18 months, I solo backpacked through Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Western Australia, Tasmania, Sweden, and Denmark. World travel enriched and texturized my life, and I felt like I had found the balance between my desire to build things and my desire to see and experience the things others had built before me.

Here’s a map of the countries I’ve experienced to date, as of October 15th, 2016 (PS: Happy Birthday to my big brother!)

Erika Gemzer world travel map

World travel hibernation.

After 18 months in the health tech startup, Google[x] called me up and told me I was a good fit for a project they were working on in life sciences. The project was in an area of long-standing passion and my undergraduate research topic, so I joined Google[x].

Immediately, work became my life, and I worked 14-18 hours per day for longer than I want to admit. I convinced myself that it was just a phase — a phase where I would build things for the benefit of others’ futures. My projects were in moonshots; the goals were 10x or bust, and everywhere I looked, there were people whose lives depended on our developments. Many have said that it’s best to live a life of planting trees in whose shade you’ll never sit, and I believe that as well. I convinced myself that this sacrifice was fulfillment, and for a time, it was.

Preparations for another world travel bloom.

Then my dear friend Brandi died at age 28, from breast cancer, far too early and long before she could plant all of the trees of her legacy. In the months that drudged by after her death, I had to ask myself many questions. For example, do I want to continue building things for others at this pace? Does planting seeds for trees have to be this tough? Is this the right time in my life for this kind of commitment?

Over time, I realized that I wanted to sit in the shade of others’ trees for a little while and grow myself. I realized that I was facing a moment in my life that would pass without any fight, unless I forced the conversation. This is a moment where I have the financial, emotional, and health freedom to take a risk and so something unconventional.

Over the next year, I traveled with my family to Uruguay, where my dad and uncle were born and raised. I traveled to Argentina and experienced nightlife and tango in Buenos Aires. I backpacked throughout Patagonia and down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. I froze my ass and saw baby penguins. This year, I convinced a group of friends to travel with me to Indonesia and experience one of the world’s most enigmatic and unconventional countries.

After a lot of research, planning, and mindfulness practice, I am ready for another bloom of world travel. Below is a sneak peek of the extent of world travel I’ve planned for the next couple of years!

Erika Gemzer world travel map

My world travel story hasn’t even begun.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from myself, it’s that where I’ve been is nothing compared to where I’m going in my world travel. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, including the important details of how I’m going to manage all this travel!


PS: Are you liking my travel infographs?  Make some yourself at amcharts.com; you can even post to FB or other social media channels! (nobody’s paying me, but when I see a good product, I want to share!)

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Erika Written by:

Operations zealot, writer, & art lover tackling sustainable development by day and dreaming up her next backpacking adventure by night.

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