When opportunities for growth were running thin in her graphic design career, Darah Aldridge set off with her husband, Garrett, to try teaching overseas. The move led to an 18-month adventure traversing Asia and Europe while teaching online.
The journey opened new doors for Darah, leading her into a new, fulfilling career in digital marketing. While on the road she started a travel blog, Where Food Takes Us, which helped her to discover her passions and develop new skills essential to becoming a digital marketing professional.
In this interview, Darah talks about how the journey came about, what she learned along the way, and her transition onto a new career path.
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Why did you decide to leave your job as a graphic designer to take a travel career break?
When we first hatched the idea, I had just finished up a short-term contract for a company and I had no employment prospects coming up. My husband, Garrett, told me about this idea to move abroad and teach English. It started as just a fun, sort of day-dreamy thought, but it wasn’t long before we took it seriously.
I went through a four-month period of unemployment because graphic design positions were slim at the time. In that period we really started planning on this move. However, I found full-time employment in the meantime and the decision to go abroad became even harder.
Regardless of my new security and income, I still wanted to travel! We thought that if we didn’t do it then, when would we? We’ve thought about doing it later in life, after retirement, but would we be healthy enough then? What does our retirement life even look like? Obviously, these questions are impossible to know, so we decided to act.
I could write a ton about how it all unfolded but I’ll be brief. We wanted to be English teachers in Taiwan and immerse ourselves in the country. However, that didn’t go according to plan. We moved abroad and changed our minds after a week. Instead, we found online teaching jobs and were able to travel wherever we desired as long as there was internet.
How did your friends and family react to your decision?
Most of our family and friends were excited for us, but ultimately most people were sad to see us go. Granted, I didn’t have an exact return date, so the people in my life were worried I wouldn’t ever return.
I think 18 months was much longer than they anticipated, but it was the perfect amount of time for me! Some of my family (including my 90-year-old grandpa!) visited me while I was abroad, so that was extra special.
How did you approach the situation with your manager and colleagues at work?
I kept my travel plans secret for many months, only coming forward about them at the very end with my two weeks’ notice. I didn’t tell my coworkers or boss because I wasn’t even sure I could make this happen. Honestly, I became pretty anxious at work and it was very stressful.
The day came when I put in my two weeks’ notice and it went much better than I had expected. My boss was obviously shocked at first, but once he got over that he kept talking about how cool it was. My coworkers had similar reactions, and for two weeks they wished me well and teased me for leaving.
However, it turned out that my department was laid off some time in the 18 months we were gone. Good timing on my part!
How did you plan and prepare for your career break – what were the biggest challenges?
The internet is a great resource! It also has way too much information for me to soak in! The biggest challenge was trusting the information I found. Reading about foreign countries, the price of housing/food, safety, all about basic life, I found so much information out there. But being thousands of miles away, I constantly envisioned what life was going to be like based on what I read.
I can say now that the research I did was super helpful! Even though my story was different from others I had read, researching every aspect of basic living in a foreign place is essential to a career break. Finding all these helpful tips online from fellow travellers was what inspired me to make my own travel blog.
Arriving in Taiwan, I realised I didn’t want to spend a year there teaching in a brick-and-mortar school with very little time off to explore. We had packed to move to another country, not backpack through multiple countries, so that plus finding remote jobs to make our dream happen became another big challenge.
How did you fund your travels?
I had a sizeable savings, but to make this trip last I needed some form of income. I found work as an online English teacher while living in Taipei, Taiwan. That allowed me to work just a handful of hours each week online, but still make enough to rent AirBNBs, buy groceries, and of course, see everything I could.
What were the biggest standout moments of your adventures?
There were so many awesome moments, but some of the best memories I have were meeting locals and eating every country’s traditional food. Whether it was meeting an AirBNB host, a roommate, a tour guide or my housesitting host, meeting new people in foreign countries made the experience more extraordinary. I didn’t enter each country like it was home, but after meeting folks, it sure changed how I felt.
For example, I did some housesitting (through TrustedHousesitters), which allowed me to stay for free in exchange for watching the house and pets. I did this in the UK and the Netherlands, which gave me the opportunity to meet so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise. Now some of my best memories are in these countries, where I got to spend time with some furry friends and meet some amazing people.
What did you learn from your travel career break that you would never have learned otherwise?
It might sound cliché but I learned a lot about myself, who I want to be, what I want to do with my life and even where I would love to live if given the chance (I would give anything to live in the Scottish Highlands, Sicily, or Prague).
Career-wise, I don’t know if I would have ever learned how to build a website and write content that’s optimised for search engines if it wasn’t for travelling. I know for a fact that those two skills helped me get my current job, which I love.
How did you approach the task of finding a new job after your career break?
About a month before we flew home I reached out to the staffing agency I had worked with before leaving. I told them I was returning to the States and looking for remote work. In the meantime I started applying for any job I qualified for with the word “remote”. I subscribed to newsletters from digital nomad and remote work websites so that I could look at job listings daily.
We were fortunate to be able to stay with my in-laws and continue to teach online until we found full-time jobs back in the US. There was no stress or race against the clock apart from the fact that we wanted our own space.
Have your travel experiences had an impact on your life and career since returning?
My travel experiences have made me much more confident in every aspect of my life and career. Most importantly, the blog we created soon after arriving in Taiwan forced me to learn skills I had dreamed about but never thought I could actually do, like designing a website, writing blog posts, and marketing a blog.
We’ve now had our travel blog for two years, and I’ve learned more skills in advertising and marketing than I did from four years of college.
Have there been any challenges in returning to full-time work?
Honestly, my biggest challenge in returning to full-time work was the commute. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15 minutes or an hour (which is what I was driving when I first started out), I hate commuting.
Luckily, the position I took started off in-person with the potential to go remote, so I put up with the commute short term. Other than the commute, I slipped back into the full-time routine easily.
Do you plan to travel more in future, and if so, how will you balance this with your work?
Absolutely! One thing that’s nice about having a travel blog on my resume is that it’s clear up front to any potential employer that travel is an important part of me. It was a huge talking point during my interview at my current company.
Since Covid-19 is restricting travel, it makes balancing travel with work a little easier. We’re limited to mostly outdoor activities that are a driving distance away. We’ve taken day and weekend trips to satisfy our wanderlust and need to get away.
My husband and I have hatched many ideas about how we can balance travel and work, but they all require us to have a little more longevity in our current positions. One of those ideas is to pick 2–4 cities in the US and spend a few months in each while working remotely for our companies but, again, we need to be in our current positions for a while before running that idea by the people in charge.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a travel career break?
Do it! If you’re seriously thinking about a career break and travelling, then don’t wait until it’s too late. Start planning now.
My break took me just around a year to plan and I still didn’t have all the details figured out by the end. But not knowing and just going with it was what made it an adventure! Taking a break wasn’t easy at first, but looking back at my 18 months abroad, every bit of the experience was worth it.
In addition to just going out and doing it, I’d say talking to someone who has done it would help get you on your way. I’ve had multiple people reach out to me for advice on how to do what we did, and I’ve loved emailing back and forth with each of them.
If you want to go on a career break, find bloggers, vloggers, online forums and groups (on Facebook or Reddit) who have already done it and ask every question you might have! Odds are someone else has already asked.
Did you find Darah’s story inspiring? You can continue following her and Garrett on Instagram.
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