‘Living the dream?’: The awful things we do to keep travelling

It wasn’t until I had to clean out the grain silo that I really knew.

This was a proper, full-sized grain silo, one of those multi-storey-high monstrosities that you see piercing the flat horizons of wheat-growing areas around the world. Turns out that at the end of the season, when all the grain has been carted away to be turned into something delicious, the silo has to be cleaned – someone has to get inside it with a huge broom and scrub all the dust and leftover grain off the walls.

That person, in this case, was me. I strapped on a flimsy mask, grabbed the broom by its big, long handle, and walked into that cavernous cylinder to get to work. It took me three days to get it finished. In that time, I went through about 20 face-masks and I earned, for my troubles, ??90.

And that was when I really knew: I have no business being a farmer.

Unfortunately, I still had a good few months left of my career in agriculture. I was 17 years old, and I was saving to travel through Europe for a few months. And I was nowhere near my goal. I needed to keep up the farm work – the strawberry picking, the lettuce planting, the pigsty cleaning, the shed tidying, the lettuce cutting – while staying with family friends in the north of Scotland until I knew I could sustain myself. That meant a lot more time, and a lot more hard labour.

There’s nothing like travel to teach you about the things you really love, and the things you really hate. That can be applied to all sorts of aspects of life: food, music, accommodation styles, the sanitary habits of those you’re forced to share a bedroom with – and, of course, careers.

You’re forced to work some pretty silly, pretty unlikely, sometimes menial and occasionally illegal jobs when you’re travelling. Each one is an educational experience, something that will form part of the process of “finding yourself”, something that will help you figure out in the long term what you do and what you do not want to do for a living for the rest of your life.

Those five months on a farm in the north of Scotland, for example, taught me that I absolutely did not want to become a farmer. I love the great outdoors, but I do not enjoy relying on those great outdoors to provide me with a living.

Never mind the manual labour, the cutting, the brushing, the sweeping and the heaving – how about being a position where you’re dreading the lack of rain, and then you’re ruined when you get too much of it? Not for me. Farmers, you have my respect.

And so I moved on, and like so many long-term travellers, I ended up working my way through several brief careers while on the road.

I worked as a line cook at a restaurant in Winter Park, a Colorado ski resort. I flipped burgers and folded burritos and tried to learn to ride a snowboard in my spare time. Those few months taught me that I’m a decent cook, and – after breaking my collarbone – a reckless and fairly average snowboarder. And that I would never be good enough to do either of them for a living.

Despite that realisation, I had another brief career as a cook a few years later, working on TopDeck tours in Europe, churning out tasty (ish) food for the occasionally drunken masses from a modest little cook tent as we did laps of the continent. That was fun, but it also made me realise that I was enjoying crafting long emails about my travels to friends and family back home as much as I was enjoying the actual travel itself. If only there was a way to make money from that????

I also worked behind a bar in Edinburgh, and did a few days here and there cleaning hostels in exchange for free accommodation. Neither of those things sparked a career, but they did keep me travelling for a little longer.

Mostly, that’s the point of working when you’re on the road. You do these crazy, boring, ill-suited jobs to keep yourself overseas and living the dream – there’s very little chance of them turning into a career. However, the travel universe works in strange ways. It has a way of reshaping your life, of pushing you in directions you never thought you’d go. And that goes for jobs as much as anything.

Maybe you won’t discover an amazing new career while you’re travelling. Maybe you’ll just do something menial like cleaning out the inside of a grain silo, and come to the conclusion, while caked in dust and staring down the barrel of two more days of this stuff, that you never want to do this ever again.

Or maybe, as happens with plenty of people, travel won’t help you find a new career, but it will convince you to ditch your old one. Quite often all that thinking time on the road makes you realise that you need to make a change. That’s great. My advice though: don’t get into farm work.

Have you discovered a new career while travelling? Have your travel experiences encouraged you to change career paths? What’s the strangest job you’ve done while travelling?

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???See also: The dumb things we do overseas

See also: The 13 things you will never hear an n traveller sayPODCAST: Flight of Fancy – the crazy jobs we do to keep our travel dreams alive

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