Duck! The couple in front of us shouted this word before the whole group fell as one. Riding on the roof of a train in Alausí, Ecuador, we barely missed being beheaded by an old water tower spigot. As I ventured to peek up I smiled at my wife, Christine Lanier Zimmerman (Ger’80, MEdu’90). We knew as the adrenalin wore off we would add riding on top of a train in South America to our collection of worldwide experiences. What a thrill.
That’s what we had come here for. We’d been following CU associate professor of psychology Leaf Van Boven’s research on happiness to the letter. He says experiences get better with time and the collection of our experiences is what defines us as individuals. Meanwhile our things — our toys — just get old.
When we decided to quit our jobs and travel the world for a year, our son Lars Zimmerman (EnvDes’07) had just graduated from CU, our parents were all active and healthy and we owned a house so full of things we had to rent a storage unit for them. It was time to go.
Two years later, we have hit four continents. We have lived high in the Andes, lost ourselves in the Dolomites of Italy, spent months on the chilly Baltic and fell in love with the Ecuadorian coast and people. We’ve learned to speak Spanish (Christina really well, me . . . I get my point across) and prefer living with what we can fit in two carry-on bags. It has been the most intense living we have ever done. Around every single corner is a brand new experience.
If you go by the number of photos we have digitally stuffed into our computer, we’ve collected 29,984 new experiences. The truth is we have millions of memories packed into our brains — the beautiful little farm that we would love to buy (is that a thing or an experience?) on the 13,000-foot-high shores of Lake Titicaca, the amazing Saint Bernards of Bariloche, Argentina, our favorite restaurants in Cuenca, Ecuador, the clear waters of the Adriatic, the kindness of the Colombians, the memory of selling my first story to an international magazine and the big scar I have in an unmentionable place with a long story to go with it. Scars are like tattoos with better stories.
We met a lot of Buffs in our travels. It was amazing to discover the fascinating things they were doing. Carrie Gibadlo (EnvSt’06) taught at the first bilingual elementary school in Canoa, Ecuador. Sean Obrey (Econ’83) worked for an international Internet security firm in Helsinki and Tyler Hartung (Fin’06) headed to Uganda to administer micro loans.
We learned a lot about traveling, too. Each of us started out with a duffle bag, a carry-on bag and a shoulder bag into which we crammed all the stuff we thought we needed for a year of travel. Fifteen minutes and 100 yards into our first destination, the folly of packing for a year became clear as we gazed with jet-lagged eyes up a massive stairway. After another stairway we began to jettison possessions left and right. We felt like Old West pioneers dumping family heirlooms on the side of wagon trails as they got too heavy or bulky to carry any further.
We ended up staying for months in Cuenca, Ecuador. Just miles from the equator, yet at 9,000 feet, it looks like and feels like Boulder or Aspen in the summertime. The red-roofed city is packed with students, giving it an international youth vibe that was fun to be a part of. But without ski resorts we needed something to keep us active over our long weekends.
Every chance we got we headed to the coast where surfing was king and seafood was cheap (five pounds of fresh caught shrimp for $5). Our favorite town on the beach was Canoa, the proverbial California surf town from the 1940s, which we discovered when we Googled “surf and Spanish school.” We always stayed at a wonderful inn run by a Norwegian who charged $24 a night for a beautiful beach-front room.
Our experiences have expanded who we are, opened our horizons and completely changed our concept of the world. In trading comfort, security and paychecks for adventure, we’ve met our share of challenges, misadventures, insecurity, craziness and a lot of pure joy — every Buff should try it, maybe even twice. We probably will have to work longer because of this career break. But for us, the need for adventure and change was just as important.
True home will always be Colorado, but we have adopted Cuenca; Bariloche, Argentina; Copacabana, Bolivia; Völs, Italy; and Kotor, Montenegro, as our new second, third, fourth and fifth homes. Who knows how many more are in our future? There’s a big, big world out there and even after all our travels we have only experienced a small portion.