Chaja: On How To Afford Three Years Of Travel
I recently asked my Instagram followers if they would ever quit their job to travel long-term. The majority (76 per cent) said yes—I’ll quit my job and buy a one-way plane ticket. I then asked the other 24 per cent what their biggest fears or concerns would be. Unsurprisingly, most people admitted their biggest worry is MONEY.
We have been sharing inspirational stories on One-Way Woman of young people who took off, quit school, quit their nine-to-five jobs, and made a life for themselves abroad. Yes, these stories are quite romantic and highlight the benefits of long-term travel. But honestly, how are they affording it?!
In our next interview with Chaja Merk (who has been traveling for almost three years!!), we really get down to the practical elements of long-term travel, with questions like: how do you afford it? what are your long-term goals? Do you ever miss home?
Chaja is an environmental activist from Amsterdam. Three years back, she quit her job working for Greenpeace and took off on, what was meant to be, a one-year trip around Latin America. Chaja is now in Israel working at an ecological farm and learning about ecological sustainability first-hand. We spoke to Chaja about how she is affording long-term travel and how traveling in an ecologically sustainable way has, in-turn, been the cheaper option.
Erika: Let’s cut straight to the chase: How much money did you set out on your trip with?
Chaja: I was thinking I would probably need like 800 euros per month, but I was aiming for 1,000 Euros a month, so I could have flexibility. I aimed to earn 12,000 euros, and that way I could travel and live for a year without making money… That was three years ago. The money lasted me a lot longer than I thought it would.
Erika: What advice would you give people who want to travel long-term but don’t have a lot of money saved?
Chaja: People think you need a lot of money to travel, but you just need to be smart. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, you’ll travel slower. I would spend a lot of time volunteering places. I stayed in Guatemala for over a month, in the same city, volunteering at a volcano expedition center. That way I was sleeping there for free and eating there for free, in exchange for volunteer work.
I also never booked flights, except for when I had to cross a whole ocean. Flights are one of the main polluting factors on the planet and I didn’t want to spend more money on fossil fuels, especially not as a climate activist. I would just take buses and trains. I even took a boat from Panama to Colombia—It’s much cheaper than flying.
Erika: Do you think traveling sustainably has, in-turn, helped you save money?
Chaja: Sometimes when you want to live sustainably, you need to invest in advance. For example, I bought a re-usable coffee cup and I have a lunchbox with a spork. I bought these at the beginning of my trip, and that’s what I use instead of plastic disposable stuff. Also, because I have it, I find myself packing food when I go on trips, which then means I don’t buy food along the way. Often, because you plan more, it’s cheaper. And because I travel sustainably, I think about the choices that I make. It also gets me into volunteering at cool farms, which then saves me the cost of living—and in exchange—I get to learn new skills.
Erika: Have you ever been in a position where you were scared you would run out of money?
Chaja: Yeah—it’s funny. I started being afraid of running out of money a year ago. Actually, to be honest, the last bit of my travels has been this constant dance between, “I’m running out of money,” and, “I need to be really careful” and, “Oh, you only live once, so I’m going to do whatever I want and buy this smoothie if I want to.”
“Now that I started to live without money, I see that it makes me much more creative—I really don’t need it.” -Chaja Merk
Erika: So it’s all about mindset?
If you want to travel, and you’re okay with hitchhiking, and you’re okay with camping, or you’re okay with sleeping on the floor in someone’s house, then you can travel for a really long time. Now that I started to live without money, I see that it makes me much more creative—I really don’t need it.
I stopped buying clothes a year ago, and people have started giving me clothes since then. I run into farms where there’s a clothing exchange—where you can go into a room and people leave clothing behind and you can leave something and take something. It’s funny, since I decided I don’t want to buy clothes, they just come to me.
Erika: You started out in Latin America for two years, and now you’re in Israel. What led you there?
When I was traveling in Latin America, I spent a lot of time with indigenous groups. It was very interesting because I met some indigenous groups that have some of the exact same customs as Jewish people. It made me feel even more connected with my Judaism by being with Indigenous people in Latin America—which is so far away from anything I’m related to—but it made me feel connected to my own culture and to the country that I feel my people are native to.
… I didn’t have any obligations because I was already traveling; I already quit my job two years before, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a partner, so I could do whatever I wanted.
Erika: You are going home to Amsterdam soon: Why did you make that decision?
Chaja: Israel and Latin America are both very complicated countries that are both dominated by men. It made me realize how good the quality of life is in Europe, and I miss this a little bit. But mostly, after three years of traveling, I really miss my friends and my family. I want to go back and spend some quality time with them. I’m also doing it because now I’ve completely run out of money; I want to earn some money, be home, and just be in a place where I understand what the fuck is going on around me. In Latin America, after two years, I spoke the language and knew the culture and I felt really at home there. But then, by the time I was feeling at home, and knowing the language and culture, I left and went to a completely different country, with another culture, another language and a completely different script.
Erika: Do you have another trip planned or do you plan to settle down in Amsterdam?
Chaja: I’m only going home for five months… I feel a strong pull towards Mongolia, India and Indonesia. I’m thinking about getting a working visa in New Zealand or Australia [to fund my travels in Asia].
… I love Amsterdam, and I know I can live the rest of my life there and be happy. But the thing is, I love growing my own food and I love living in nature. I also just really love the sun. When you’re having a shitty day and it’s raining outside, it makes your day shittier. But when you’re having a shitty day and the sun is shining, and you feel the warmth on your skin, your day is less shitty. I just feel more in-tune with myself when I’m in a warm country.
“The main thing I’ve learned is: Everything starts with loving yourself.” -Chaja Merk
Erika: This way of life would make many people anxious: not having a stable job, a house, or a steady income. So I need to ask… What is your long-term plan?
Chaja: My dream is to one day have my own ecological community, where I live and grow my own food and go on long trips. Here in Israel, I met a person who is now my partner, who wants to do the same. The idea is to continue traveling the world together, and live on a farm, and learn more about farming and learn more about construction and see how we can do this.
I’ve been in a lot of eco-villages in Latin America and I saw a lot of different styles of living. I was in a permaculture village in Colombia where someone had a house made of mud and shaped like a snail, treehouses made of bamboo, and all these awesome things. I made a list of ideas and requirements for my future community. I think once I’ve traveled enough, I will track down somewhere and build this place.
Erika: What has been the biggest discovery you’ve made while traveling?
Chaja: The main thing I’ve learned is: Everything starts with loving yourself. And self-love starts with treating yourself as your own best friend. Especially in sexist places like Latin America, you have to understand where to put up borders and to speak up. You don’t need to be polite—there’s absolutely no reason what-so-ever to be polite. It’s okay to be strong and to tell people to fuck off because they’re treating you in a way that you don’t need to deal with.
In the beginning of my trip, I was very naive. At some point, when you travel enough, you understand… Yeah, I’m in a different culture and I understand that. But I want to walk on the streets alone as a woman without being looked at in a certain way or without being spoken to or screamed at. A lot of people say, “Traveling alone as a woman, isn’t that dangerous?” No—it’s not. You just need to know that you don’t have to be polite.
“You just need to let go of fear and make decisions based on hope.” -Chaja Merk
Erika: Do you think you have been “lucky”?
Chaja: I think that for sure I am really privileged to travel because I have a Dutch passport. When shit goes down, I’m still a Dutch person and I can always go back home and work. I do understand, that when you’re from different countries; like Colombia, or Mexico, it’s harder to travel.
But I have met a lot of people [from these countries] who do travel. I really respect them because they they had to work a lot harder to get that first ticket out. But once you’re out, things will start flowing. You just need to let go of fear and make decisions based on hope.
Erika: What would you say to others who want to travel long-term but haven’t made the first step of booking a one-way ticket?
Chaja: I think it’s the greatest gift you can give to yourself: to travel on a one-way ticket. It gives you this sense of complete liberty—like you’re literally diving into the deep unknown. When you immerse yourself in a place where you don’t know anything, you don’t know anyone, and you don’t know what people are saying, that’s when you really get to know yourself. It sounds super cliché, but I’ve learned so much more about myself than during my studies or during the jobs that I had. I really wish for everyone to know that they have it and that they can do it.