Future Unmapped
Life just isn't a straight line, and neither is art

The initial sparks, the obstacles, the leap of faith and actions we took, the moments our efforts were validated, the lessons we learned, and why we keep going.

The Triggers

While we didn't settle on the name until May 2022, the idea of Future Unmapped dates back to July 2018.

The month beforehand began with our cuddle cat marking her 13th birthday in excellent health. By the end of the month, we lost her to cancer.

A few months before that, Sarah's parents' house was destroyed in a fire. There was foul play in the form of squirrels, their love of wires, and their obsession with chewing. The only loss of life were two pets - not ours - whose final sleeps were forced upon them.

A comprehensive home insurance policy ensured a happy ending of sorts for the parentals before Christmas that year. But the emotional impact runs deep to this day, considering what could have been.

Euthanizing our cat - and saying our final words as we watched her slip away in a matter of seconds - was a gut-wrencher. We weren't prepared to lose the cat who put human attention ahead of food.

Our other two cats behaved as though they had finally been liberated from years of oppression.

For us, the grieving process effectively triggered our what if moment.

We were already musing about RVing around North America with the cats ... thinking about how to avoid extreme temperatures, what the day-to-day routine might look like, how we could fund our travels through consulting and remote work, etc.

Kids - the eons-old elephant in almost every marital room - weren't a problem, since we didn't have any. If miscarriages closed the door, the adoption process - with more steps than the Niesen Treppenlauf - was the key that locked it.

And with yet another brutal Nova Scotia winter on its way, we started to seriously consider how to convert our ideas into something tangible and long-term.

The Blockers

Our most significant hurdle was our employment situation. In 2019, neither of us felt a pressing need to quit. Sarah was happy in her job, while my consulting work provided enough technical and people challenges to keep me going.

There was the question of what to do with our house. Selling didn't seem like a smart option. Renting sounded good in theory, but we weren't willing to be landlords.

We also had no wish to get rid of our cats.

Research and discussion continued whenever we found the time. Ultimately, the RV thing fell off the radar.

By the end of the year, we agreed on two key points:

  1. We wanted to travel for about a month, since we're not fans of vacationing for a few days here or a week there;
  2. South America was going to be our first destination. It was one of two continents - the other being Antarctica - that neither of us had been to.

Compromise established. Draft itinerary created. Logistics concerning the house and the cats agreed in principle.

Everything was subject to nailing down a suitable date in 2020, so that Sarah could get time off from her work.

As Starship put it, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". That was in January 1987.

But in January 2020, the world had its first major lockdown of COVID-19 ... the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Cause for panic? The world didn't think so. After all, it was only in China ... and the world recalled how SARS-CoV-1 between 2002 and 2004 was contained to just a few hundred deaths.

By the end of March 2020, COVID-19 deaths had soared to more than five times the final infections tally from that previous SARS outbreak.

Most of the world was under lockdown. So too were our plans. The world got things so very wrong.

The Opportunity

Twelve months on, the world wasn't returning to pre-COVID life as quickly as people demanded.

COVID protocols made Sarah's work as a medical office administrator harder to manage, which meant longer hours in the office. On the other hand, COVID meant she wasn't in danger of losing her job in the near future.

My consulting business saw a sharp increase in requests from experienced professionals, as COVID uncertainty encouraged them to look at transitioning into the digital space.

Follow-ups revealed their appetite to have someone run everything for them. But my thing was about helping people take control without this sort of middle entity.

I had to "wave at them as they pass by", with the nonchalance of Captain Jack Sparrow.

I knew how much of a cluster things like revolving-door requirements, time-draining projects, sleepless on-call hours, minimum service commitments, etc used to be. Those days were firmly behind me.

In May 2021, we observed a trend in the local property market. A house on our street was sold to an out-of-province buyer, at a price that was higher than expected.

By the end of August, we lost another cat. After 16 years of upholding household accountability on a daily basis, she decided her job was done ... and it was time for her to expire.

And by the end of the year:

  • people were allowed to move between provinces again, and they were also talking about getting on planes;
  • the real estate market was still a seller's game, but potentially nearing its plateau;
  • I was ready to take a sabbatical from my consulting business, after 14 years without a proper break;
  • we both wanted to do stuff that many people say they wished they had done when they were younger;
  • our last remaining cat - without sisters to hold him back - proved he was more independent and less maintenance-heavy than we thought.

Even though our mindset had already shifted to life in a COVID-inclusive era, COVID itself was no longer a showstopper ... and may even have helped to solve our property and career blockers.

The time felt right for us to make significant-but-measured changes to our lifestyle.

As it turns out, all that "research and discussion" from before - combined with a ton of patience - wasn't for nought. It gave us a truckload of questions to work with.

If we wanted all the answers, we would have to take the proverbial leap of faith to find them.

The Masterplan

Putting our house on the market was always going to be the toughest step. We didn't want to shoot first and ask questions later, so to speak. We're usually slow is smooth, smooth is fast people whenever possible.

Realtors came and went. Repairs were made. Decluttering happened. And after we staged the house, we realized it was no longer ours.

The staging process was like the last chance to back out. It felt weird and a bit numb. But it still felt like the right move.

On the final Monday of March 2022 - our 13th wedding anniversary - a signpost was gently-yet-loudly malleted into the ground. With our house echoing its way onto the official list of properties available for puchase, we moved into Sarah's parents' house.

Yeah, **it got real.

That FOR SALE sign invited questions from the neighbours. Sarah's office also wanted to know what was going on. It was a relief to finally tell the people who needed to know.

24 days later, our house was sold. 18 days after that, the keys were in the hands of the new owner.

And by the end of May 2022, Sarah had left her job after passing the baton to an excellent replacement.

Those "two key points" from the end of 2019 got a full rewrite:

  • Restricting ourselves to one month of travel was no longer necessary;
  • We wanted to spend more time in fewer locations, instead of always being on the move;
  • Our first destination needed to be the UK, to see my family for the first time since our wedding in 2009;
  • We were keen to avoid winter in Nova Scotia, and South America seemed to be an ideal place to do that.

Research was relentless as we mapped out possible destinations and potential timelines.

We found a 24-night repositioning cruise that would get us to Rio de Janeiro at the start of November 2022. It was due to leave Istanbul - Turkey's largest city - in early October.

We chose Sofia - the capital of Bulgaria - as the location to plug the gap between the UK and Istanbul.

By the middle of June 2022, our custom itinerary was all set until the end of November. Adding Curitiba (Brazil), Buenos Aires (Argentina), and Asuncion (Paraguay) got us to the middle of March 2023.

Mission complete. No winter in Nova Scotia for us, right?

The Vindication

In early July 2022 - four years after those initial sparks - we were finally off.

Leaving our 10-year-old cat behind was hard. Knowing he was safe at Sarah's parents was reassuring.

Having only known one home beforehand, he made their place a two-cat household once more.

If he could talk, he would express his happiness at his new kingdom. He even had two extra slaves to serve his daily needs.

Circling back to the "vacationing for a few days here or a week there" comment above ...

We've heard countless stories about people feeling exhausted due to vacation burnout, because they crammed too much into a short space of time.

We unintentionally proved our point during our visit to the UK.

Vindicated: Glasgow

Our overnight flight arrived in my hometown of Glasgow, for a 7-night stay to see my family. Sarah had never seen where I grew up, so there was a lot of childhood-related stuff to show her.

Unfortunately, seven nights back home was too short. We didn't include ample downtime between family, friends, memory lane, and tourist-type activity.

And even though we "crammed too much into a short space of time", it was a fantastic trip.

Vindicated: Darlington

We travelled by train to Darlington for a 3-night stay to visit one of Sarah's relatives.

This is one of those UK towns that people don't rank high enough on their must-go list.

Everything we needed - including the train station - was an easy walk from our town centre hotel. If we had given ourselves more time, we would have been in places like York within the hour.

But a walk along the banks of the Skerne to South Park - as well as nearby villages and market towns like Hurworth-on-Tees, Richmond, and Yarm - offered the right vibe for our last couple of days of calm before leaving for Eastern Europe.

Unlike Glasgow, we were more relaxed because we didn't have a schedule to get through.

Twelve nights into our travels - including an overnight stay at London Heathrow - we were quickly learning lessons for future planning.

And with these early deep and introspective ah ha moments, our UK trip inspired hope for what was still to come on our journey.

Vindicated: Sofia

Vitosha Boulevard - Sofia's main pedestrian area - was a 3-minute walk from our apartment, and a further ten minutes to The Largo. It was the ideal location for six weeks in the city's capital. Our first multi-week stay was off to a brilliant start.

The Changing of the Guard ceremony - which takes place at midday on the first Wednesday of each month - was distinctly different to the pomp of the Buckingham Palace equivalent. We felt immersed in some crucial local culture. It didn't feel like it was for the tourists or the selfie crowd.

The grounds and the garden of the Church of Sveti Sedmochislenitsi - and the church itself, which was originally a mosque - was one of our favourite urban spots to take a load off.

In truth, we got a little churched out after a while. Not entirely unexpected. The city is known for its many churches and triangle (or square) of religious tolerance.

But we had multiple parks to break things up, including Borisova Gradina Park. With an observatory, fountains, gardens, and tons of walkable space, it set the benchmark for what we like in a city. Its two football stadiums, two tennis clubs, and a sports club were bonuses.

We took a 2-night side trip to the steep hills of Plovdiv. As Bulgaria's second largest city, it gave us an extended perspective of the country's well-preserved history.

The views - both of and from - the Ancient Theatre of Philippopolis were as impressive as the narrow and vertically-challenged cobbled streets we took to get there.

The live, open-air performance of Mamma Mia! - in Bulgarian, and with clear skies as its backdrop - couldn't have been any more unique and surreal.

We left Bulgaria at the end of August, just as I was starting to get a feel for the Cyrillic alphabet. Our time in the country was tourist, but without the trap.

Vindicated: Istanbul

We didn't choose Turkey for any reason related to ancient history. It was the starting point for our transatlantic cruise. Plus, it was a direct flight from Bulgaria.

Chaotic, busy, friendly, honest, caring, hilly, and cats. A fascinating two-continent city of sixteen million people. Our memories of Istanbul will live with us for the rest of our days.

It took three meeting points at the airport just to get to our cab.

The host of our apartment-style hotel served us coffee, a crash course of all the hotspots, and a map with more notes than a mosque's call to prayer. That was before we got the keycard to our room.

The narrow cobbled streets (again, but not as clean as Plovdiv) between our accommodation and Taksim Square - our local metro station - took twice as long to walk because of all the cats. We're cat people, so it was all good.

The vibrancy of Istiklal at 1am - and the sales kid who served tea while Sarah tried numerous pairs of shoes - was night and day compared to the likes of London or New York City.

The walking tours, the numerous trips to the old town, the warm nights sauntering along Galata Bridge with the fishing crowd ...

Istanbul - and the many conversations we had with other visitors - reinforced our multi-week stay strategy. For us, "a few days here or a week there" was never going to cut it here.

That being said ... the Bosphorus dinner cruise - and running all sorts of gauntlets - highlighted the tourist stuff we prefer to dodge.

Vindicated: Transatlantic Cruise

MSC's Fantasia cruise ship took 24 nights to get from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro.

As first-time cruisers, the sea alternative to crossing the Atlantic was a no-brainer that didn't disappoint. The itinerary was decent, and the timing worked well for us.

Since MSC are approved by the Italian Celiac Association to serve gluten-free products, their dedicated gluten-free kitchen eased Sarah's concerns about managing her celiac disease.

We spent time in Italy, Spain, and Turkey, followed by six days and nights surrounded by water.

By the time we sailed into Rio, we had started to accumulate content that could be productized for Future Unmapped. We just didn't know it back then.

We were also unaware of the full impact our maiden cruise had on us, and the influence it would have on our existing plans ...

The Reality Check

As we trudged off the ship for the last time, we felt quietly vindicated about all that had transpired throughout 2022 thus far:

  • Selling the house;
  • Pausing our careers;
  • 11 nights in the UK;
  • 43 nights in Bulgaria;
  • 38 nights in Istanbul;
  • 24 nights on a transatlantic cruise.

We achieved our objective of getting to South America before Christmas. Nothing can take that away from us.

Flights and accommodation were booked until the middle of March 2023. We were going to escape another nipple-numbing Nova Scotian winter.

Everything was subject to life doing what it often does best. If something serious were to happen, we would change our plans accordingly.

What we didn't see coming were the wheels that were about to come loose. Future Unmapped was about to get literal.

Lessons Learned

Having spent over three weeks at sea, we needed a couple of days to get used to being back on land.

We didn't recover fast enough to want to explore Rio de Janeiro, even though Copacabana Beach was an easy 10-minute walk away.

Returning to the apartment lifestyle - while in travel mode - came too soon for us.

Lesson: End With A Cruise

Cruising is a multi-location mode of transport that provides accommodation, housekeeping, laundry, meals, and entertainment.

We had been so spoiled from living on the ship, that a one-month self-catering stay in a new location was a struggle.

During the planning phase, we used the cruise as an anchor point from which we worked backwards. We should have stopped there.

Lesson Learned: If we're going to cruise, do it as the last major travel treat before heading back home.

Lesson: Don't Plan Too Far Ahead

Rio was a bust. The fault was entirely of our own making. We overplanned. But we weren't done.

We cancelled the rest of South America. Our mindset had lost its momentum, and we couldn't give the continent the respect it deserved.

South America became unfinished business.

In the most literal sense, we unmapped our immediate future plans.

Lesson Learned: Given what happened next, planning so far ahead of time isn't necessary.

Lesson: Define An End Date

We cut short our 29-night stay in Rio with eight nights to spare. During those three weeks, we overhauled our plans to create a positive finale to our first chapter of travel.

The next four months in South America were now gone. On the other hand, we resolved a couple of issues which needed to be addressed:

  1. Planning our next moves in March 2023;
  2. Not knowing when we were due to go home.

Instead, six cruises over a couple of months - covering my birthday, Christmas, and New Year - took us to Belgium, France, Italy (including Rome on Christmas Day), Morocco, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK.

This was our "last major travel treat before heading back home".

Lesson Learned: Don't travel without a set return date, or with an open-ended itinerary. Possible homesickness aside, it's a time-drain that hinders the travel experience.

Lesson: Beware Travel Fatigue

Our goal to "escape another nipple-numbing Nova Scotian winter" mostly failed. We missed the first few weeks, so it wasn't all bad.

By mid-January 2023 - six months and ten days later - we were happy to be home again.

We hibernated for about a month. We needed to decompress, let the previous twelve months sink in, and appreciate our recent pursuits.

In April, we were ready to figure out our next moves.

And by the end of May 2023, our second chapter of travel was underway.

Lesson Learned: Constantly making travel-related decisions - while on the road for so many months at a time - is mentally wearisome.

The Takeaways

Travel can be frustrating, and rarely lives up to the romanticized narratives we get from the Internet.

Sarah often laments how travelling with celiac disease is stressful and hard work.

We have to be more patient - and pick certain battles more wisely - when we're guests in new environments, outside the safety of our own comparatively-little bubble.

We know we make mistakes. We know that events beyond our control may royally screw us over.

But we also know we can correct our course when required.

For us, travel has never been about looking for something better out there.

It's about learning stuff - deliberately and by osmosis - through a series of self-contained episodes.

It challenges our biases, both individually and as a couple.

It introduces us to new perspectives ... while extending, reshaping, and confirming what we thought we already knew.

It can feel like sensory overload at times. But the grounding of home allows us to put our explorative endeavours into context.

Travel motivates us to keep going, stay current, and look forward.

It encourages us to evolve and grow into better versions of ourselves, while reducing the risk of letting life get stale.

Yes, it can be exhausting. Things don't always pan out the way we want.

But it's those few-and-far-between moments - when things simply click - that stay with us. That's what makes everything totally worth the effort.