She Quit School And Has Hitchhiked In 72+ Countries: Iris Shares Her Top Stories & Advice From 7 Years Of Non-Stop Travel!
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Iris Veldwijk
Iris has been traveling non-stop since November 2013 and she loves it.
24th Jul | 11 min read
"I was really fed-up with university and the prospects to then find a job that I’d eventually have to quit because everyone in this world seemed to hate their job. So I skipped that step and quit university instead" -Iris    

Iris has been traveling non-stop since November 2013 and she loves it. Other things she enjoy besides hitchhiking are playing guitar, reading Wikipedia, practicing yoga, unlearning harmful ways of thinking, hiking, learning languages, photography, studying maps, swimming, intersectional feminism, eating savory foods, and befriending other people’s pets. You can connect with Iris on GAFFL and through her wonderful blog Mind Of A Hitchhiker and Facebook Page.

I Dropped Out Of University To Start Traveling Solo

Back in 2013, when I was 22, I realized that many of the choices I’d made in my life weren’t really my own. The options after high school had always been presented as you either work and delay university or you start university right away.

While the people at university were great, the actual content of the courses and the system didn’t make sense to me at all. I was one year away from graduation with the prospect of another non-choice: you either do a master’s degree or you find a job.

In-between courses, I would take every opportunity to solo travel within Europe. I took a lot of low-cost flights. Five days in Ireland and Northern Ireland over Easter, more than enough to discover Dublin's attractions and to enjoy some natural landscapes, one week to travel from Serbia through Kosovo to Macedonia.

Over the summer holiday in 2013, I did my first big solo hitchhiking trip through Eastern Europe. I visited eight new countries and the disputed territory of Transnistria. Some university friends were staying at their parent’s summer house in Crimea, which was still Ukraine back then. I hitchhiked there without any knowledge in Ukrainian or Russian but became adamant to learn. When I got back from that trip I had been transformed.

I did one more week-long fly-in-fly out trip that started in Montenegro and ended in Croatia. So I had to travel northeastward through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Instead, I hitchhiked a motor yacht to Greece, from where I took the ferry to Italy, hitchhiked to San Marino with a monk, and ended up passing through Slovenia to still make it to my flight in Croatia. It was madness and I loved it.

By winter, I was really fed-up with university and the prospects to then find a job that I’d eventually have to quit because everyone in this world seemed to hate their job. So I skipped that step and quit university instead, without my parent’s knowledge. I hitchhiked through England, Scotland, and Wales for one month in December until I was asked to fly to New Orleans in the USA with my stepbrother and stepsister – who were minors – for one week. We’d all fly back together, but I’d taken a bus to Mexico instead to hitchhike from there to Panama.

Now everyone knew I’d quit my studies. This caused me to be €20,000 in debt until I returned to uni for one year in 2018 to finally put an end to this nightmare of a choice made in my teens. I am now debt-free.

I Have Met Many Great People During My Travels

Especially in the early days when I hitchhiked, partied, and couchsurfed or stayed in hostels, I met dozens of new people a week. Sometimes I had too much social life, so I’d choose to get out of a ride in the middle of nowhere so I could freecamp somewhere alone for a night.

The magical thing about solo travel is that you never know which of these friendships will last a long time and which won’t materialize beyond a fun anecdote. Especially because of hitchhiking, I have friends across many age groups, social classes, and cultures instead of just people who were young and backpacking at the same point in time and space. Many of my ‘peers’ have by now settled down and stopped traveling. That’s okay. But we don’t have as much in common as it might seem.

One of my longest-lasting friendships is with a Norwegian guy who encouraged me to continue what I was doing, a German woman who hosted me during a very difficult time in her life, and my brother from China who has since gone corporate. Blogging about my adventures has put me in touch with so many new people who I then met in real life. 

The most important person I met on my solo travels is Jonas, who is my partner. He was there for me in 2018 when I finished my bachelor’s degree. Since 2019, we’ve traveled mostly together and done some trips I dreamed of doing but knew I couldn’t do alone.

How Hitchhiking Has Changed With Jonas

A good travel partner can enhance your trip a thousandfold, while a mismatched partner can make the whole experience a terrible memory. Especially during hitchhiking it’s important to be in tune with each other.

I’ve had to part with temporary travel partners early a couple of times. It’s never a lot of fun, but it’s necessary for the trip to remain nice. There were times when I didn’t have the guts to do this and ended up resenting them and spending a lot more money to accommodate their wants.

I expected to still do a lot of solo adventuring even while in a relationship with Jonas, but we grew a lot in our communication. Now I mostly prefer to do things together with him. My prior years of solo travel have helped me remain flexible with changes of plans, though.

My experience with solo travel was hugely practical when we had to spontaneously split up on a Thai island to deal with a flat scooter tire. I can’t imagine the pain it would be had I been uncomfortable with being somewhere alone in a foreign country.

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Best Travel Memories With Jonas

One of the trips I dreamed of doing but knew I needed a partner for was paddling the Danube river from Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. I shared this dream with Jonas and he was intrigued by the idea.

In 2019, we bought all the kayak gear and paddled from the origin of the Danube through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary for four-and-a-half months. I kind of expected us to give up, but after a rough start, things got better very quickly and we paddled 200 kilometers extra in the end.

We took our laptops with us in the boat and worked on the days we didn’t paddle. I remember every day of this trip to be amazing. The rhythm of travel synchronized us and I still can’t believe we paddled 1,250 kilometers of the river in an inflatable kayak. We were planning on finishing that trip in 2021, but we might postpone it for a year because of the pandemic.

In 2017, I met Jonas in a place called Rodeo in Argentina. I’d just hitchhiked the partially-paved Ruta 149 to get to him. He had just done his first solo hitch in that town and even talked to some people in the guesthouse who were driving across the Agua Negra mountain pass to Chile. It’s one of the world’s highest paved border crossings at 4,753 meters above sea level (15,680ft). He asked me if I wanted to go back to Chile earlier instead of traveling to Salta in the north. I thought the border looked cool, so he asked the couple if we could ride with them the following day and so we did. 

This border is really out of this world. I’m glad I joined Jonas’ plan since it was such a magical experience, probably due to the lack of oxygen.

How I Choose Where To Travel Next

I try to travel overland/by water as much as possible, so to avoid flights I usually go to a bordering country. I prioritize new places over places I’ve already been to. The Kayak+Work trip was very special in that regard because I’ve already been to all countries on the Danube, while all countries after Germany were new to Jonas.

For an overland example: from São Paolo in Brazil to Lima in Perú can be done quickest through Bolivia. But with a slight detour, it’s very doable to squeeze in Paraguay and the adventurous road through the Gran Chaco. After arriving in Lima, it was summer in the southern hemisphere, so I hitchhiked south through Chile and Argentina to Ushuaia. Then autumn and winter came, so I headed up north to Uruguay. From Uruguay, I had the choice to hitchhike through Brazil to French Guiana, or back across the Andes through Argentina, Chile, Perú, and eventually Ecuador and Colombia. I chose the latter route because I wasn’t learning Portuguese yet and my French was merde.

I’ve been to 72 countries and a handful of disputed territories. I don’t really pick favorites because they all have their pros and cons. That’s why it’s so nice to travel to different regions and to revisit countries after some years.

That being said, the city I got trapped in during the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak is rapidly becoming my favorite city on earth. Penang in Malaysia has it all: beach, mountains, nice housing, food, fast internet, fair prices, and friendly people. I’ll be traveling to other parts of Malaysia during the eased lockdown, but I don’t think it gets better than Penang. Every Malaysian person I’ve met also loves Penang and the historic center of George Town.

I Travel Non Stop

With the exception of my return to university in 2018, I’ve traveled non-stop since December 2013. I break down those travel years by region. So I spent six months in Central America, six months in the Caucasus countries, Iran, and Turkey, two years in South America, several year-long stints in Europe, nine months (and counting) in Asia, etcetera.

Before that, I took short one-week trips between study periods and longer eight-week trips over the summer holiday at uni. Those were nearly all within Europe.

My longest uninterrupted stay on one continent was the two years in South America, although I might stay in East and Southeast Asia even longer than that if the borders remain closed. I feel like I haven’t experienced much in Asia yet.

My Scariest Travel Moment

A group of French football fanatics invited me to a match in Moldova back in 2013. That was a terrifying experience. Since then I try to avoid large crowds, drunk people, children, fireworks, men, people with an unhealthy sports obsession, or a combination of these – especially in the nighttime. Nothing bad happened to me, but that was uncomfortable at best and scary at worst. That’s why I usually watch festivals like Loi Krathong in Thailand and Feria de las Flores in Colombia from the periphery, rather than joining in at the center.

Some Of My Challenges With Working And Traveling

Right now what prevents me from traveling more is the coronavirus outbreak. I had things planned from Malaysia to Singapore, Australia, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia. All these ideas have been wiped off the table for now. I’m not upset about this, but I still find myself daydreaming about practicing my Tetum/Portuguese with the good people of Dili and drinking Australian wine in the humidity of Darwin.

Finding a balance between working online and traveling can be a challenge and needs to be assessed constantly. Jonas and I switch between intenser travel periods and intenser work periods. Before we traveled through Myanmar, we did less intense things in Thailand. Before we paddled the Danube, we worked extra hard from Cabo Verde, the Azores, and Lisbon. 

It’s very important to us to find satisfaction in our work and in our travels, even though I need to travel to have things to write about. I’ve noticed that the trips we do after some work are often better thought out than the ones we do right after doing something else that’s super exciting.

My Advice To New Solo Travelers Who Want To Work And Travel

Start today, don’t settle, and keep improving. If you want freedom you shouldn’t trap yourself in huge commitments and responsibilities. The choices you make while young matter towards how much freedom you can have in the future regarding work and travel. 

At university, I’ve seen kids choose directions that limit their freedom despite their ambition to travel. They’ll have to quit their jobs in a dramatic fashion at some point, start a blog and write about “quitting the 9 to 5”. If you know you’re going to hate that kind of life, it’s completely possible to skip that step and go straight to a digital nomad lifestyle.

Focus on the important skills that allow for remote work, such as programming, SEO, copywriting, online marketing, web design, etcetera. You can learn all these skills without going to university and will probably be better at them than someone who learned from professors and books from the late ’90s.

And if you eventually want to transition from solo travel to couple travel, pick a partner whose values align with yours. If they don’t want to work remotely they’re not a fit. There are people out there with the same desires as you. Entering a relationship with someone you want to bend to your will is just going to end up in hurt and disappointment. It’s better to remain single and happy than together and miserable. Staying single and solo traveling is valid. There are no prizes to living an unhappy life just because it’s the norm.

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    bill williams
    November 1, 2020 at 4:08 PM

    i thought it was very brave of you being a young women to travel to all those countries on your own.i would not have known were to start and how to funded it well done good luck in the future bill

    November 6, 2020 at 6:23 AM

    Have you ever been in danger from people , or wild animals , were armed or had self defence options??