Alex Petrov had what many people would consider a dream career, working at Google for nine years in Dublin and Zurich. But after major life events caused him to reconsider, he left the job to embark on an epic solo motorbike journey from Europe to Australia.
He arrived in Sydney just as the COVID-19 pandemic was breaking out across the world. Now, he is fulfilling a lifelong ambition by training to become a pilot; in his words, “this year made me realise how much more enjoyable life is when you’re doing something you truly enjoy doing”.
In this interview, Alex discusses his reasons for leaving Google, the standout moments of his journey, what it was like to arrive in Australia during a global heath crisis, and what the future may hold.
You can see the story of Alex’s journey in pictures on his Instagram account, @SurfingBiker.
Why did you decide to leave your job at Google?
Google is a great company and I’m grateful for the years I spent there. However, a few things that happened in my life – such as some health concerns and also a colleague of mine passing in an accident – made me realise that the time we have is precious, and is not as limitless as we tend to think.
Hence why I wanted to spend time doing what I really enjoy doing, and that is travelling.
How did your friends and family react to your decision?
I got a mixed reaction. My family and closest friends were happy for me and supportive – they could see I wasn’t happy with my life as it was. And those who really care about you ultimately want you to be happy, whatever it takes.
However, those outside the closest circle sometimes struggled to understand, and there was also a lot of pressure (“are you crazy?!”), as I was voluntarily leaving the path considered a definition of an ultimate success by many. I even encountered some who were clearly bitter and jealous.
Most people who do this kind of travel notice that their social connections change substantially. The further you are into your journey, the more difficult it will be for you and your old friends to understand each other. Which isn’t anyone’s fault – you just keep growing in separate directions. But you will form new connections, which is a natural process.
Ultimately, apart from certain family commitments, you have no obligation to live your life in a way that other people think is right. It’s your life.
How did you approach the situation with your boss and colleagues, and how did they react to it?
I feared that conversation a lot, but it went pretty smoothly. I clearly explained that even though I valued my role at the company and was grateful for the time there, at that stage of my life I felt like doing something entirely different.
The reaction was very understanding. I’m sure it’s not as uncommon as we think.
What were the last few weeks in the job like, and how did you prepare for your departure from work?
It’s hard to stay motivated when you know you’ll be leaving very soon. However, I usually have very high work standards for myself so I cannot just do things badly. Also, those final weeks are probably the most important ones, as that’s how you will be remembered.
So, grind your teeth and give it one final go – never ever burn bridges!
What gave you the idea to travel across the world by motorbike?
I always loved travelling, and especially by motorbike – I have been riding bikes for 15 years. Being so open, exposed and vulnerable to the world around you, the people, the weather – it really enriches the whole experience compared to the other modes of travel.
I’ve seen a lot of travel movies from people doing similar kinds of trips, and that gave me a lot of inspiration. Finally I wanted to see for myself those countries that very few people go to, and meet the people there.
“You have absolutely zero control on what is going to happen to the world, as the current pandemic mayhem shows.”
How long did it take to plan and prepare for the trip?
I was dreaming of it for years, but the actual preparation only took a few weeks. I decided to use the bike that I already had, so there wasn’t much to modify there. So it was mostly some paperwork such as visas and customs documents.
What are your standout memories of the journey?
Having a goodbye coffee and cookies with my friends on the day of departure from Zurich. It was very emotional, but it really gave me a boost to hear all those good wishes.
Riding across the desert in Iran, nearly suffering a heat stroke – it is at this point it really dawned on me just how remote I was and made me reflect on why I was doing this.
And meeting great friendly people on the way. Crossing the border from Myanmar into Thailand, one of my favourite countries in the world, marking the end of the toughest part of the journey.
But most importantly – people, people and more people. People who welcome you, people who like to talk to you, help you, learn stories of your life and share their life. I never felt alone on the way, in fact I felt more alone while living in Zurich.
What lessons and life skills has the trip provided that you could never have learned in your regular job?
First is how different the world is compared to what we see in the media. And how outstandingly helpful the people could be in very remote places or in developing countries.
Take Iran or Pakistan as an example. We all see horror stories in the media. In reality, the people I met there were the most welcoming, friendly and helpful people I have ever met anywhere. And I knew if something happened, to me or the bike, there were people who would help me out without asking or expecting anything in return.
Try that in Europe. If you have a breakdown and cannot get a recovery truck, a hotel or don’t have an insurance, you are screwed and it’s your problem. In many ways I felt safer there as opposed to here. I’m trying to give more help unconditionally now, and I notice more people who do the same.
“Often there is very little one can plan and control, and the only way is just to trust that it will all be okay in the end.”
Secondly, and this is something I’m still learning, is that sometimes you should just trust that things will eventually somehow work themselves out. Often there is very little one can plan and control, and the only way is just to trust that it will all be okay in the end.
“Connecting dots”, as in the famous Stanford speech by Steve Jobs. This is very counterintuitive after many years in a corporate environment.
You arrived in Sydney as the COVID-19 pandemic was breaking out. What was that like?
I was really lucky as the pandemic went into full swing exactly as I finished my journey. It was, literally, a borders-shutting-behind-my-back kind of experience.
It did create serious logistical challenges for getting the bike and myself out of Australia (I am now in Ireland and the bike is going to the UK). But it would’ve been 100 times worse if I delayed my trip for a couple of months.
Has the journey made you think differently about your future and career?
My lifelong dream was to become a pilot, and this year made me realise how much more enjoyable life is when you’re doing something you truly enjoy doing.
So my next step is to study for the private pilots licence, most likely in the Philippines (another country that I really love). After that I will decide if I want to progress to the commercial pilot career and where.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time out of their career to travel?
Do it as soon as you reasonably can. Try not to delay this to do “maybe in a couple of years”. This is a phrase I hear oh so often.
First of all, you have absolutely zero control on what is going to happen to the world, as the current pandemic mayhem shows. Secondly, you have no control over what will happen to yourself even in a few months time, let alone years. If you’re sure nothing can happen to you for a few years at least, you need a reality check.
I know it’s very scary. This was the hardest decision I had to make in my entire life. But if you’re not really happy where you are and if it’s something you genuinely want to do – do it, and do it asap. You will forever regret it if you don’t.
Update, December 2021
Alex has completed his private pilot training, just as he planned, from November 2020 until May 2021 in Malaga, Spain. He is holding back from starting a commercial pilot training due to ongoing uncertainty that the aviation industry is facing.
Meanwhile, he has turned to his other passion: motorcycle travelling. He has created a new motorcycle rental agency in Malaga – AndalusMoto.com – focusing on providing his guests with a great experience while they enjoy travelling around Andalusia on two wheels.
If Alex’s story inspires you, our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break will help you to start planning an adventure of your own. Nervous about having the difficult conversation at work? Our guide to asking for a sabbatical will help you through it with a clear strategy. For more stories, see our series of career break interviews.
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