Life as a Long-Term Traveler: Barbara Weibel, Hole in the Donut

Veteran traveler shares her best tips and stories from life on the road.

Several bags of colorful spices, red and orange and tan, in an Indian marketplace.

Photo by Akhil Chandran on Unsplash

Many people aspire to travel the world indefinitely, but few people ever take the plunge. Barbara Weibel, the woman behind Hole in the Donut, set out traveling in her mid-fifties, and has been doing it ever since. Barbara’s realization that she wanted to live a life of writing, photography, and travel, came to her when she was bedridden. She was battling Lyme disease, and could no longer ignore the gnawing discontentment of feeling like a donut—solid on the outside, hollow on the inside—due to her unfulfilled dreams. Luckily, Barbara recovered, and since early 2007, she’s been filling her void with the lessons and inspiration that come from round-the-world travel. AFAR recently caught up with Barbara while she was in Ecuador to get some tips and insights from life on the road.

Where are you right now?

I’m currently in Quito, Ecuador, but I just got back from the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the far northeast corner of the country in the Amazon.

You’ve been traveling for about four years now. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about dropping their life to travel the world?

I would encourage everyone to take six months or a year to travel. I started out with a six-month round-the-world trip. It’s a life-changing experience in a lot of different ways. You meet other cultures, you find out that people are more alike than they are different. [Traveling long-term] does really change your view of the world.

How do you do it?

One of the big objections that I hear from people is if they take a year off from work, they’re going to have a big gap in their resume, and that doesn’t look good. But when you’re out in the world traveling long-term like that, employers are going to see that as a positive thing, because it shows that you have some skills that other people might not have.

We get stuck in our lives. I was for years, and I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t do it because I was fearful. You just have to have a certain amount of faith and trust in the universe that if this is what you want to do, then you should go ahead and do it.

Could we go back in time and talk briefly about how came about?

My uncle gave me an old German ground-glass lens Leica camera when I was about 11 years old. I was never without that camera. I went into corporate life, because that’s what was expected of me by my family and society. Then I got sick. And when you think you’re going to die, you look at your life, and wonder if you’ve done what you really wanted to do. Luckily, I got better. I started the blog [in 2007] simply as a way for my family and friends to keep up with me while I traveled around the world. But by the time I came back six months later, I had about 1,200 readers on the blog. It was in the beginning stages of blogging when there were very few travel blogs. So I was very lucky with my timing [and being able to turn my blog into something to finance my travels].

Do you have a favorite travel experience from the past few years that reminds you of why you do what you do?

For some reason, from the moment I set foot in Pokhara, Nepal, I felt like it was home. I have a yoga guru there who I study with and I’ve become very close with his family. I was there a year and a half ago for Tihar, a five-day festival that’s the same as Diwali in India. At Tihar, they invited me back to their home on the last day for a ceremony called the Brother Sister Tika Ceremony. A tika is the little dot people get on their foreheads in Hindu societies. The brothers give the sisters a special tika and vice versa, and I helped give the tikas to the kids in the family. And then the father—my yoga guru—and his sister gave me mine and I gave them theirs.

At the end of the day, I thanked my guru for letting me be part of the family for the day. And he said, “Oh no, you don’t understand. You’ve been part of the tika ceremony, and that means you’re part of our family forever.” So now I spend three to four months a year in Nepal, and if I have any base, that’s it.

I think some people also fear not having a steady place that feels like home. I’d imagine it’s very freeing to not need that kind of security.

Yep, that’s the word: freeing. Getting rid of my home and my possessions was probably the most freeing thing I’ve ever done. I still have some things stored in a closet of my father’s house, but they’re just personal things—photographs, artwork, mementos. Society expects you to conduct yourself in a certain way. In the United States, we’re expected to go to college, get a job, work hard so we can have a good retirement.

None of what we, as perpetual travelers, do fits into that mold. The travel blogging community is my tribe. We have a Facebook group for travel bloggers started by Gary Arnt from the Everything, Everywhere blog with about 900 people, and we all ask each other questions and make plans to meet up. I’m heading to Cuenca soon where I’m going to stay with the friend of a friend who’s a travel blogger.

How does traveling without an itinerary help you connect with a culture on a different level?

I’ll use Mexico as an example, where I spent four months last year. I flew in and spent the rest of the time taking buses, boats, and trains all throughout Mexico. Because of that, I found incredible things recommended by locals that I never would have found. For instance, I took a train around the rim of Copper Canyon, the deepest canyon in all of North America. The bottom is inhabited by the Tarahumara Indians, who’ve been there for centuries. They’re known as long distance runners, who run for days at a time [they were the stars in the book Born to Run].

I wanted to get to know the cultures, not only the Tarahumara but also the others who live down in the canyon who are a mixture of indigenous Indian and Spanish. I ended up getting in a truck with some guy who owned a lodge. I spent an evening at another man’s house, where we talked in Spanish next to his fireplace. He welcomed me into his house without ever meeting me before and it turned out that his brother had a lodge at the bottom of the canyon. It was crazy. I had an invitation to go to a marijuana ranch, but I turned that one down (laughs). Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of this kind of travel is meeting the people and learning about the cultures.

What are your favorite travel blogs? Are any of them written by other round-the-world travelers?

Andy Jaroz of 501 Places is great; he’s a great writer. I like Holes in my Soles a lot. Jim Macintosh from New Zealand is a shoemaker by trade, and he has great photographs. Legal Nomads is by Jodi Ettenberg, a good friend of mine who was a lawyer who fled the corporate life for perpetual travel. Old World Wanderings by Ian and Claire is worth the time it takes to read their long posts. Three other favorites are Traveling Savage by Keith Savage, and Ottsworld and FoxNomad, both by perpetual travelers.

Serena Renner is the former editor of AFAR’s Wander section; previously she was also the travel editor at Diablo magazine. She caught the travel bug during a study abroad trip to Granada, Spain.
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