29 November, 2017

Remember last New Year’s? Slumped on the train back from your parents’ house with a throbbing hangover and overcast British skies whizzing by, you swore to yourself that 2018 would be ‘the one’. That this would be the year where you finally expanded your horizons and saw the world.

But then life happened – again – and following more late nights in the office and more trials of adulthood, the only thing that’s expanded since is your waistline. Not that you’re alone: in 2015, a YouGov report found a third of British workers didn’t take their holidays, leading to a subsequent rise in sick days. Well forget all that now, because with a new year upon us, we have a travel challenge to help you rekindle your sense of adventure…

12 countries, 12 months, 1 man

Meet Jonny Smith [pictured above, having seemingly got lost somewhere east of Stockholm], a 28-year-old Londoner who last year set himself the challenge of visiting 12 countries in 12 months. He didn’t take a sabbatical, or pack work in entirely, he went freelance, booking relatively short contracts in his capacity as a social media strategist, and taking a week every month to visit somewhere new. From Naples to New York to Fiji, the Brit didn’t know what awaited him and had no real plan (“I’ll be honest, I was fucking terrified,” Jonny admits), but rather than being put off by this great unknown, he embraced it. And so should you.

Read more: Why every man should take a sabbatical once in his life

It was New Year’s Eve 2015, stood on a beach in Thailand, sinking a few beers alongside his younger brother, when the lightbulb popped. “We were chatting about New Year’s resolutions,” reveals Jonny, “how much we enjoyed travelling and how there was something undeniably enlightening about the whole experience of jumping on a plane, going to a completely unfamiliar part of the world and being out of your comfort zone. So that was it, I decided to travel to 12 countries in 12 months, and that would be the first.”

Akin to throwing darts at an atlas while blindfolded, there was no specific game plan, just a loose set of places and climates he’d like to explore (a desert, the best Italian cuisine, Australian nightlife). Once each trip was booked, he travelled with either a mate, his brother or simply himself to enjoy some solo time: “I’d always do a little research myself,” he says, “but I mostly reached out to mates on Facebook and Instagram to see if they had any personal recommendations from their travels or even friends that lived overseas. This way I got to experience new sights and scenery as well as cultures and traditions I knew nothing about. I also met some of the most incredible people on the way – some of whom I count among my best mates now, including a couple of honeymooners who I travelled through Fiji for a week.”

When life gives you lemons, travel

However, there was slightly more to Jonny’s challenge than just having a few nice trips and making some new BFFs along the way. It also coincided at a time in his life where the impacts of city living and social pressure associated with being in your late twenties were starting to weigh heavily: “Being single at the time was a factor to escape and travel, but so was everything around me. It was impossible for me to save up enough money to put down a deposit on a house in London. The sacrifices I’d have to make to just make a deposit didn’t seem worth it at all – great, I have a house, but then what? I didn’t need a car, I’m not into designer clothes, but I did have freedom.”

Read more: How to travel the world on hand luggage only

No sooner had Jonny headed to the airport for his second adventure than it quickly dawned just how much escaping the rat race would boost him mentally: “Stepping onto a plane, I just had this wonderful sense of relief and mindfulness as I was no longer pursuing a promotion or trying to prove myself to get a pay rise. The most surprising thing for me was that it was all fine! I didn’t have a single complaint or issue from any employer throughout the entire year. I found that so long as you are honest and upfront about your plans prior to starting a role then they respected your honesty and, being freelance, the emphasis was purely on the quality of the work produced and making sure it was delivered on time. In some cases, I was even able to work remotely overseas or come back with fresh ideas for clients.”

But before you go thinking you only have to be freelance to travel to 12 countries in 12 months, stop right there. While flexible working does help, it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all. If you’re not able to match Jonny’s geographical spread for instance (Thailand, Amsterdam, New York, Dubai, Stockholm, Fiji, Budapest, Naples, Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin), it’s easy to throw a few more short-haul weekend city breaks into the mix, making the idea of a trip every month more achievable.

“There will always be a reason not to do something”

“From the moment I started the challenge I was massively out of my comfort zone. Not just with work, but also about whether I would actually enjoy my travels. I needn’t have worried. My time away gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about myself, about the expectations society places on people in their late twenties or early thirties, and what we should have achieved with our careers, our relationships. Everyone has their own ‘f*ck it’ moment. I can’t speak for others but for me I was just fundamentally aware of all the things I was supposed to be doing or have done.”

Read more: 5 mountain ranges to conquer before you’re 50

So why not go for it? Why not whip out your shiny 2018 diary and plot a course for 12 foreign shores in the year ahead? You never know, it could be the best decision you ever make. But don’t take our word for it: “I’ve had lots of friends and co-workers tell me how much my goal inspired them to break convention or at least view things a little differently,” adds Jonny. “Seriously, I’d recommend it to anyone. There will always be a reason not to do something and there’ll never be the perfect time to do anything. All I’d say, out of everyone I’ve had the fortune of meeting along the journey, not one single person has ever regretted making their decision to go travelling.”

Oh, and a quick update: Jonny doesn’t have to worry about buying a place in London anymore, because he currently resides in Sydney, where the adventure continues….

Here are two countries every solo traveller should have in their top 12:

PERU: From Machu Picchu to Rainbow Mountain

JORDAN: From canyoning at Wadi Mujib to Petra by night

Images: Johnny Smith



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