It’s common in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world to take a “gap year,” whether in between school and college, or after college before entering the work force.

In the US, it’s not so common–but it should be.

Long-term solo travel, whether as a gap year, or as a lifestyle, teaches personal responsibility and self-reliance. You learn to have backup plans, and backups for your backups. You have to plan and budget when you don’t have a regular paycheck coming in.

Whenever I tell someone that I’m moving to Australia, the reaction is usually one of the following:

  1. “Oh, I’m so jealous!”
  2. “Aren’t you scared?”
  3. “How can you afford to take a year-long vacation?”

I don’t think anyone should be jealous of me. If you want something hard enough, you will make it happen. Some want that corner office; some want to get married, buy a house and have kids. If you want it, and you work for it, it will happen.

Yes, I’m nervous, but I’m also prepared. I’m someone who plans everything out, so I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to pull it off. Worst comes to worst, I’ll come back home to US.

That last reaction grates on me a little, though. Yes, I’m making a life-style choice to explore and learn more about the world, but I’m not going on vacation. Making a jump like this is a TON of work, and the work doesn’t stop when I board that international flight. In fact, the work will be just beginning.

Even though I’ll speak the language (well, mostly; I still don’t know what Vegemite is), I’ll be in a foreign place, with different currency, unfamiliar streets, and no friends.

I’m not going for leisure. I’m starting a journey, one which, yes, I hope will give me a lot of stories to tell. But that’s what life should be about. Life is an adventure. There will be ups and downs, fun moments, scary moments, and times when I’ll wonder why I ever started.

But the reason I’m going is not just to be able to tell great stories. I want to learn about a part of the world that isn’t my own. I want to understand what makes another culture tick.

There are places in the world where “taking a year off” to travel isn’t just common–it’s expected. In Israel, it’s customary for young people to go backpacking for a year after their two years of military service. In Yemen, students are required to take a year off before attending a public university.

Taking time to travel later, like I’m doing (I turn 30 years old shortly after starting my travels), isn’t as common, but I certainly won’t be alone on the road. I think everyone, no matter how old, has a responsibility to go out into the world and learn about other cultures.

Learning brings knowledge; knowledge brings understanding; understanding brings acceptance. If more of us went out into the world, learned about each other, and shared each other’s cultures and beliefs, there would be less strife and pain in the world.

So no, I’m not taking an extended vacation. I’m embarking on a journey to learn more about the world and the people in it.