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.
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.
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.
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.
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!