Interview with Erin Beck on How to Adventure Travel the Right Way

Erin Beck and her hus­band recent­ly returned from a 15-month back­pack­ing trip over five con­ti­nents. Before embark­ing on the adven­ture of a life­time, the cou­ple left their full-time jobs as SpaceX engi­neers.

Dur­ing their time abroad, they worked as scu­ba div­ing engi­neers study­ing cli­mate change in the Mediter­ranean, sum­mit­ed Mount Kil­i­man­jaro in Tan­za­nia, rock-climbed the cliffs of South­ern France, rode motor­bikes through rice pad­dy fields while teach­ing Eng­lish in Indone­sia, and got quite stuck in the mud in the Aus­tralian Out­back.

Now that they’re back, Erin is busy work­ing on her start­up (she’s the CEO of Wana, which helps con­nect par­ents who want to trade babysit­ting) while her hus­band is pur­su­ing act­ing – and all while start­ing a fam­i­ly.

THE CLYMB: What did you do before leav­ing your full-time jobs and tak­ing on the adven­ture of a life­time? And how does one tran­si­tion from that type of job to a life of adven­ture?

ERIN BECK: My hus­band, Jose, and I are both engi­neers by trade, and we’d been design­ing, test­ing, and oper­at­ing the Drag­on space­craft for SpaceX for about a year when we announced to our friends and fam­i­ly (at our wed­ding) that we were plan­ning a trip around the world. We crammed all the loose details of the trip onto our wed­ding reg­istry as if to say, no real­ly, we’re seri­ous about this! Most peo­ple thought we were nuts. ‘You work at the coolest rock­et com­pa­ny any­where and fly space­ships to the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. You stud­ied for years to get here, and you’re going to leave, just like that?!’

We loved work­ing, and we loved work­ing at SpaceX. But there are a lot of cool things to do in life — have kids, make art, do research, run a busi­ness — and back­pack­ing just the two of us was one (of many) we weren’t will­ing to miss. For every great oppor­tu­ni­ty, there are ten thou­sand more. The trick, for us, is immers­ing ful­ly in each one while we’re in it. For the next few years, while we prepped and planned, we logged round-the-clock hours in clean­rooms and mis­sion con­trol, sent the first com­mer­cial vehi­cle ever to ISS, again, and again, and cheered each hard-won mis­sion patch. There was no leav­ing ‘just like that;’ each moment was rel­ished.

The hard­est part actu­al­ly was slow­ing down. Long-term trav­el is patient and obser­vant. But I’m so hard­wired to go-go-go that it was ruth­less­ly chal­leng­ing to just … sit.

Peo­ple ask if I miss work­ing at SpaceX. I tell them, ‘Absolute­ly. but if I did­n’t miss it, why was I there?’

THE CLYMB: Why did you decide you want­ed to embark on a 15-month back­pack­ing trip? What sparked the idea for that?

EB: One of the pil­lars of our mar­riage is that we enable each oth­er. I had always want­ed to trav­el the world, but I was too scared. Be home­less and job­less, what?! Jose had always want­ed to go, but did­n’t have that extra voice of encour­age­ment to get him out the door. But Jose is very brave. And I am very sup­port­ive. So togeth­er, run­ning off to explore was imper­a­tive.

Find­ing wild bananas in Ruar­we, Malawi

CLYMB: Was the orig­i­nal idea to trav­el for that long or did the trip get longer as you went along? How much of the trip did you plan in advance?

EB: If you real­ly study thrill seek­ers — the base jumpers, the deep-sea divers, the rock­et builders — they are some of the most thought­ful, delib­er­ate, well-researched indi­vid­u­als you could meet. They have to be, or they would fail, where fail­ure has dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences.

I was pet­ri­fied that we would run out of mon­ey, have all our gear stolen, con­tract lethal dis­eases, nev­er be able to get a job again; all the tropes of would-be trav­el­ers. How do you com­bat that? You plan. We spent three years learn­ing and spread­sheet-ing before we ever got on a plane.

And yes, it all changed as we went. Half the US Embassies in the Mid­dle East were closed by a secu­ri­ty scare the week we were sup­posed to fly to Dubai, so we rebooked through Ethiopia to Malawi instead. We were grasp­ing for ser­vice on a hill­top in elec­tric­i­ty-less Ruar­we when we got a job offer to return to France and took it, head­ing from Tan­za­nia to Nice instead of Johan­nes­burg. By the time a year had passed, we were pret­ty mel­low. I remem­ber stand­ing in the Thai­land air­port and real­iz­ing we’d for­got­ten to review the Visa require­ments to get in (oops), yet not being at all trou­bled by it.

CLYMB: Can you tell us about some of the most amaz­ing stops along the way?

EB: We kept say­ing good­bye to friends, then run­ning into them again on the oth­er side of the world! Our Airbnb host in Seoul decid­ed after we moved in to also quit her (brand new) job and try out her dream to work as a trans­la­tor in anoth­er coun­try; four months lat­er we were slurp­ing egg tarts out­side her new work in Hong Kong. Anoth­er host from Flo­rence sud­den­ly appeared in Mel­bourne; she’d also gone look­ing for a new adven­ture. Trav­el­ers often say they’re drawn to one anoth­er, and I think it’s one step more. When you do what you love, you inspire oth­ers to do what they love. That’s mag­net­ic.

Via fer­ra­ta in Peille, France

CLYMB: How did you finance your trip? Did you have mon­ey saved up or did you work along the way?

EB: We paid for the trip with sav­ings and kept a strict bud­get that we set before we left. Rather than sup­ple­ment with jobs that paid mon­ey, we found work that came with room and board. In exchange for part-time help, we became parts of fam­i­lies.

We tracked every­thing we spent, down to an Aus­tralian quar­ter lost in the rental car, and the prin­ci­pal fac­tor in cost was not where we were, but how we lived. We assigned each day a cat­e­go­ry — Tourist, Back­pack­er, or Work­stay­er — depend­ing on, for exam­ple, hotel vs. hos­tel vs. couch, or restau­rant vs. street food vs. kitchen. On any con­ti­nent, it aver­aged out to about $130 per day as a Tourist, $45 a day as Back­pack­er, or $20 a day as a Work­stay­er.

Say you want to sun-dry apri­cots and ren­o­vate an ancient stone vil­la in Italy for six months. Do it as a work­stay (as we did; wow, that was a lot of dirt to move) and you could do the whole trip for a few thou­sand dol­lars, flights and insur­ance and all.

We joined the research team in France and did that as a work­stay, and we spent one month teach­ing Eng­lish in a rice pad­dy vil­lage in Indone­sia.

CLYMB: Did you choose the des­ti­na­tions based on what you want­ed to do (rock climb­ing, sub­mit­ting Mt. Kil­i­man­jaro) or did you pick the des­ti­na­tions first and then found some­thing adven­tur­ous to do there?

EB: We anchored our des­ti­na­tions with who we were going to see. France to scu­ba dive with our friend engi­neer­ing a cli­mate change research sta­tion in the Mediter­ranean, Malawi to vis­it Jose’s uni­ver­si­ty stomp­ing grounds with his old math pro­fes­sor, Cam­bo­dia to join a friend vol­un­teer­ing in de-min­ing oper­a­tions, and home for the hol­i­days in the mid­dle. We booked flights onto and off each con­ti­nent from coun­tries we thought we’d like to see and let the details of how we’d get from the start to end points linger.

We also rebooked every sin­gle flight. Ethiopia instead of Dubai, Aus­tralia instead of Cam­bo­dia, Hong Kong instead of … I don’t even remem­ber, so maybe we had learned not to antic­i­pate so much by then!

The only event we real­ly planned was climb­ing Mt. Kil­i­man­jaro because we had to bud­get for that. The rest we just did because when there’s nowhere else in the world to do it, you have to! In the South of France, you dive the Med, rock climb the tow­er­ing sea cliffs, and Via Fer­ra­ta the ancient Alpen mil­i­tary routes. In Thai­land, you kayak with mon­keys in and out of jun­gle cav­erns that look like fin­gers pok­ing up from the ocean. In Java, you weave fast-paced scoot­ers around minibusses and pot­holes on flood­ed half-paved roads in the rain, then per­form Jason Mraz and Cher­ry­belle to 300 of your fel­low towns­folk in the vil­lage square. In Aus­tralia you surf … and surf and surf and surf.

Sum­mit­ing Bukhansan, the tallest moun­tain in Seoul

CLYMB: Any par­tic­u­lar adven­ture that was more chal­leng­ing than you expect­ed?

EB: They say Kil­i­man­jaro is a non-tech­ni­cal climb. A real­ly long hike. So I did not antic­i­pate the extreme phys­i­cal rig­or that would come from just the cold and alti­tude. The first cou­ple days you bun­dle up at the end of the day and recov­er, but then the chill set­tles into your body and the thin air starves your organs and final­ly you are hud­dled exhaust­ed in your tent near (oh so near) the top of the world chant­i­ng to your­self, ‘Pole pole, kama kobe.’ Slow­ly, like a tur­tle. On top of it, I start­ed the first hike vom­it­ing and Jose caught it, too, so by the third day of sev­en we were in for a tough haul.

It is thanks to steel-grade deter­mi­na­tion and beyond-expert trail guides (and a whole lot of laugh­ter) that we reached the sum­mit, and both of us will always say it’s one of our top expe­ri­ences of the trip.

CLYMB: What would you say were the biggest chal­lenges along the way?

EB: Noth­ing hap­pens the way you plan it. You plan so you know your options when every­thing goes to pieces.

Pre-trav­el, we got every vac­cine for every coun­try we might vis­it (find a doc­tor that spe­cial­izes in trav­el), malar­ia pro­phy­lax­is for each coun­try (dif­fer­ent ones work in dif­fer­ent places), and antibi­otics for traveler’s diar­rhea for each coun­try (again, dif­fer­ent). We split the meds between three kits, one for Jose, one for me, and one for a hand­bag, in case packs got lost, and filled them in with first aid gear and bag­gies of every over-the-counter con­ve­nience I’d ever used.

Would you believe we actu­al­ly used it all? Between the two of us, we mol­li­fied weird flu, esophagi­tis, sprained ankles, swim­mer’s ear, gross bug bites, food poi­son­ing (oh, food poi­son­ing). was aston­ished how an every­day cold in South Korea mor­phed into a sinus infec­tion in Chi­na and had me con­fined to a straw mat­tress in a one-bulb room in Indone­sia, clear­ly advanc­ing into some­thing fever­ish and sin­is­ter, six hours by bus from the near­est city clin­ic. As I broke open my mini med­i­cine cab­i­net, I was sud­den­ly struck how ill­ness­es that are noth­ing when you have all the resources to fight them may turn very dan­ger­ous when you do not. A week of antibi­otics and cold reliev­ers and I was brand new, but the les­son lingers and says much.

Rock climb­ing La Tur­bie, France

CLYMB: Any­thing that turned out to be much eas­i­er than you expect­ed?

EB: This is what I learned from trav­el­ing: Peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly good.

I kept read­ing this in blogs look­ing for prac­ti­ca­ble advice and I was so annoyed. This does­n’t tell me how to hail a tuk­tuk in Tan­za­nia or get a SIM card in Italy or get my car fixed in the Out­back! (All of which had to hap­pen.) But do you know who does know? The peo­ple you will meet. And they are good, and they will help you. And that real­ly was all I need­ed to know.

So now I have a life’s work: to pro­mote trav­el, cul­tur­al cross-pol­li­na­tion, and mutu­al giv­ing and receiv­ing. Right now, that’s as Founder of Wana (wanafam.ly), an online net­work for afford­able child­care where fam­i­lies trade babysit­ting back and forth with each oth­er for free, emu­lat­ing the deeply con­nect­ed com­mu­ni­ties I wit­nessed in our trav­els. Next might be an epic road trip, dig­i­tal nomad-ing down Route 66 to dis­cov­er and share the small-town gems of Amer­i­ca. Adven­ture awaits!