Long Reads

How ditching the 9-5 and moving to South America cured my quarter-life crisis

Sick of the millennial city grind, Sinead Mulhern ditched a steady job and left her family and friends to move to South America. This is what happened when she left the rat race behind…

I’m in a Toronto cafe on a crisp afternoon in November with the worst case of the Sunday blues I’ve had all year. Sipping a steaming London Fog, I recount my latest work incident to a fellow writer friend who I’ve known since I moved to the city in 2010. Having had her own share of work woes recently, she nods knowingly as I tell her that a superior’s unprofessional comments about me had made their way back to my ears.

Last time, it was aggressive emails in all capital letters. The time before that, unnecessary power moves and snarky jabs. We pick at a plate of apple slices and brie. I tell her my heart has been uncomfortably racing. Yet again, I don’t want Monday to come. 

My friend warms her hands with her mug of tea and, in a gentle tone, says she knows what toxic workplaces feel like. We both know I’m planning a year abroad in South America. She doesn’t tell me to hang in there. If I were you, she says, I’d leave sooner. I predict, accurately, that I’m in for another sleepless night. A few weeks later, I book a flight to Colombia. One way.

“Wintertime lingered and my mood took a hit with the dwindling daylight hours”

Months earlier, I’d decided it wasn’t working for me in Toronto. My salary wasn’t cutting it. Friends flaking on plans was becoming a pattern. Cost of living was rising. The office I worked in was unprofessional and both my patience and my motivation had run out.

Wintertime lingered and my mood took a hit with the dwindling daylight hours. I regularly found myself unable to sleep. I’d lie awake and see 2am, then 3am. Sometimes I’d see the sunrise, and then feel groggy all day. The insomnia felt like a tell-tale sign, my body screaming that something was up. As a result, I seemed to catch every cold going around.

Finally, I arrived home from work one day in May of last year and there was a ‘for sale’ sign on the lawn of my rented apartment. The thought of sifting through the city’s high-priced and rat-infested rental market sent me into a panic. “Let the house sell,” I told my roommate. Because I’m kicking it quarter-life-crisis style and moving to South America.

At first, I thought I was bluffing. But as my immediate family members already live on three different continents, they hardly raised an eyebrow. Over the summer, I started telling close friends. The plan was to save money and leave early in 2018.

I chose Medellin, Colombia, because I fell in love with the place while on holiday not long ago and I’ve always been drawn to South America. I decided to start there and then try Ecuador. I planned to freelance while away so I picked up side writing projects to build clients. I added every dollar of the extra money to the savings I’d already been collecting and I budgeted strictly.

As the months went by, the idea of me in South America for the new year seemed less far-fetched. It became my reality. A few times I freaked out. I was about to leave my family and friends, my cosy apartment and a steady paycheck for a place where I didn’t even speak the local language. That same journalist friend reassured me. “It’s not like you’re ever going to wish you didn’t go to Colombia,” she said.

She was right. 

“I chose Medellin, Colombia, because I fell in love with the place while on holiday not long ago”

I left Toronto eight months ago and 2018 has been my best year so far. I can speak enough Spanish to hold a basic conversation and am still working on that skill. I’ve hiked tough mountain trails and felt the refreshing waterfall mist on my cheeks. I watched Colombia play in the World Cup and joined street parties to celebrate a victory. I spent my first birthday abroad, went horseback riding in the country, toured coffee farms and took terrifying cable car rides up in the mountains.

I’ve met friends from all over the world who make me laugh until my stomach cramps. I’ve shown up solo to a foreign country for the first time with nothing but a backpack. I’ve seen monkeys and whales, giant sea turtles and blue lizards. I’ve seen the wonder of Andean cloud forests and tall wax palm trees in the Cocora Valley. 

“I left Toronto eight months ago and 2018 has been my best year so far”

I’ve relaxed on postcard-pretty beaches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast and done exactly the opposite - hiking to suffocating heights in Ecuador. I’ve swum in natural volcanic hot springs (beautiful) and rough white water rapids (not intentionally). I’ve sampled tropical fruits I didn’t even know existed and gone for solo hikes on quiet weekdays.

As for work, my office has ranged from sandy beaches, to kitchens of Andean homes to hostels packed with backpackers to quiet cafes in foreign cities and of course, my own apartment. I’ve gathered clients whose publications and projects I’m passionate about and these relationships are respectful. I’ve published pieces I’m proud of valuing every dollar I’ve earned independently. I start work motivated because I truly love what I do and since I’m my own boss, I have no reason to panic about Mondays. 

“I’ve hiked tough mountain trails and felt the refreshing waterfall mist on my cheeks”

“I’ve seen the wonder of Andean cloud forests and tall wax palm trees in the Cocora Valley”

My insomnia has retreated back to the dark depths which it came from no longer taunting me until dawn. I wake up energised having slept through most nights since my arrival. Of all the things I counted on from my travel, this one is certainly an unexpected plus. 

My restless nights have vanished and I can only attribute that to my lowered stress levels: I feel more in control of my work life and finances and I’m living in cities where expat communities are tight-knit and last-minute cancelling on friends is less common. I don’t have toxic relationships in my life and I’m exploring what the world has to offer.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said my travels have been without their low moments. Living abroad is difficult at times. There are periods of loneliness and culture shock. Language barriers complicate simple tasks and missing comforts from home. Working for myself wasn’t always financially successful in the early months and, in my industry, it’s laden with rejection too. 

I’ve had moments of self-doubt and heart-wrenching homesickness. The thing is, staying in Toronto would have been tough too. The discomfort I’ve felt here is the kind that leads to growing instead of stagnating. That’s the difference. I think of this when I’m out of my comfort zone.

“Recently, I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador”

Recently, I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador. Funnily enough, soon after I arrived I met up a new friend whose life has distinct parallels to my own. A twenty-something journalist from Toronto, she too left the city last winter when the pressures came to outweigh the rewards. 

On the day we met, we sat in a cafe listing our similar struggles with work, relationships, a culture not focused on community, tough work environments and the fast pace of big city life. We compared our Toronto days to the calmer lifestyles we have both now achieved. For me, this has been a complete turnaround for the better. The two of us agreed on one thing in particular when sharing feelings on our big city rut: when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. 

Tips for successful quarter life crisis travel:

Stop seeing the obstacles. Since I arrived, many friends have admitted that they wish they could do the same as me. They say I’m lucky because I have remote work and I came with spare money in the bank. Truthfully, it had nothing to do with luck. When I decided to work remotely and travel, I faced those same obstacles and I decided to save that cash and hustled until I had the employment figured out. Instead of finding the problem, give yourself an option.

Commit to a deadline. It will never be the right time to go. Part of the downside of travelling is that you’re leaving your bubble. Chances are, deciding to spend time away from home means leaving some of the things you love about your life. For me, that was friends and family. Instead of waiting for every factor to line up, give yourself a deadline. Don’t push it back or it will never happen.

“Part of the downside of travelling is that you’re leaving your bubble”

Tell supportive friends and family. When you tell people, it will feel real. I sat on my decision for a little bit but once I started sharing my plans with friends, they encouraged me, supported me, and put an end to any doubts I had. Had I not done that, it would have been easier to chicken out.

Save money. If you’re travelling for an extended period of time, you’re going to need some dough to support yourself. Sure, the cost of living may be a fraction of what it is in your country, but you’re still going to need a fallback fund. Set yourself realistic targets and figure out what you need to do to stick to them.

“In the early stages, I experienced culture shock and loneliness because my life had just taken a very different turn”

Admit it’s going to be uncomfortable at first. My biggest mistake was feeling impatient at the beginning because I wasn’t making friends, I didn’t know the language and I wasn’t wandering around Colombia seeing the best of what the country had to offer. That came with time. In the early stages, I experienced culture shock and loneliness because my life had just taken a very different turn. That’s normal. Don’t expect your life to be a perfect Instagram feed on day one.

Put time into the important relationships. Your close friends from home will keep you going even if you’re thousands of kilometres away. Make time for these relationships because they’re the people who will support you in low moments. They’re also the ones who are cheering you on when you have big work news to share or have a travel experience you want to tell someone about. Maybe you’ll be lucky and even have a visitor or two. Trust me, seeing a familiar face and getting to spend time with those who know you well is a big deal when taking on a feat like this. 

Images: Sinead Mulhern, Getty