It's Christmas Day and I'm standing at cloud level in a place where Andean mountain peaks touch the sky, wildflowers add flecks of pink across the landscape and miles of jaggedy terrain stretch out below me. I'm sweating and have felt the burn in the strong muscles of my legs as I've ascended this steep incline.
The trail is not a long one but it sure is steep as it meanders from the base up to the sharply-angled peak and so I'm not exhausted but rather, I'm feeling the satisfying tiredness that comes after I've accomplished a physical challenge like this.
This here hike is the El Mandango trail, a relatively short route up the mountain by the same name in Ecuador's Vilcabamba village. As mentioned, it's Christmas morning and since I'm celebrating away from Canada and my family for the first time, I've made a point to do something I love: hiking in the mountains.
I'm attracted to El Mandango for two reasons: one, it's visible from the outdoor yoga studio at my hostel and so it's been teasing me every morning since I rolled into town. Two, since it's a short route, I can be back on time to enjoy a massive lunch and holiday festivities with my new friends afterwards.
This took place four months ago and it's an important memory to me because it illustrates perfectly what I've learned about discovering your passion since I left Canada 14 months ago on a sabbatical.
"Follow your passion" is one of those phrases that, I feel, has been tossed around easily and excessively since early childhood and phrases like that tend to lose their meaning... at least they do for me. These days, I'm living in Ecuador a year and some after completely overhauling my life and expectations of myself and so it has been a great time to self-reflect, self-examine and question lessons that have been arbitrarily enforced since early days.
During this time, my definition of "follow your passion" has come to be less about career goals and self improvement and more about doing the thing that gives me the purest form of enjoyment.
I think traveling is the perfect way to find out what that thing — that passion — is. Since trading life in Canada for life abroad, I've learned that being in the mountains makes me happier than anything. Travel can change your life because it has the power to point you in the direction of your truest joy.
Looking back now, I see some of the things that I did which helped lead to this conclusion. If you're looking to find your passion in life while abroad, here's some of my advice.
How to find your passion during your travels abroad
1. Reconnect with activities you loved as a child
When I left Toronto for Medellin, Colombia, I wasn't sure if I'd stay in the Andean city or if I'd get bored and make my way to the coast to enjoy sunshine and saltwater tides. While I did eventually explore the Caribbean coast at leisure, when I did, I felt entirely ready to return to the mountains after two weeks.
When I left Colombia for Ecuador, it was a mountainous city I was after again. (I chose Cuenca.) It shouldn't have come as a surprise that a mountain environment would suit me in the end, though.
If I only looked back on my childhood, I'd have remembered hikes with my family in the Rocky Mountains where I dipped my feet in crystal clear waters and balanced above the current on a fallen tree. I'd have remembered skiing and being in awe at the view from the tops of snowy mountains. As a kid I enjoyed the outdoors: riding my bike with friends, playing with boats in the stream by my house and running.
While I never fell out of touch with this side, further reflection would have shown me that living in Andean locations rather than a jam-packed city makes total sense.
2. Forget about your career for a minute
I'm a career person and I always have been so I don't give this advice lightly. Finding a career that's satisfying and reflects your strengths and talents is super important, but it's not the be-all and end-all. I love writing and editing but that's not the only thing I want to spend my days doing.
By giving yourself days where you don't allow work to be the focus, you find the hobbies that feed your soul and allow you to recharge. For many, the easiest time to do this is while traveling because it's the time you're most likely to not be saddled by any work obligations at all.
Recently after a busy week filled with deadlines, I escaped for the weekend to a countryside home in the mountains where I drank my coffee while taking in the beautiful landscape. A smaller-scale version of this is leaving my home office in the afternoon to run by the river with the mountainscape in full view.
Ego can be a driver but it can also be a killer of inner peace and happiness. Satisfying the ego can easily lead to feeling overworked, tired and burnt out. It's also frequently accompanied by us asking ourselves what we "should" do rather than what we WANT to do.
Ego is a great motivator but when spending time away from home, most people will realize that ego-driven actions are only one element of a well-rounded life.
I'm not saying that you can't be passionate about whatever fuels your ego, I'm just saying that doing things purely for the sake of it (and not as a means to an end) are another necessary way to feel fulfilled.
4. Ask yourself: what's your favorite way to spend a day?
This advice is almost too simple but I think it's really easy to jam-pack our weeks with things we're not even slightly passionate about.
Ask yourself what is your favorite way to spend a day and be honest with your answer. That thing (or things) is probably something you’re really passionate about.
The great thing about doing this exercise while traveling is that you're less likely to be over-scheduled and over committed. Therefore, you're more likely to be able to commit to this perfect day sooner rather than later.
5. If that doesn't work, ask what you'd like to do for Christmas, your birthday or any other special occasion
For this past Christmas, New Year's Eve and my birthday, I made a point of hitting the trails. For me, there's nothing like spending hours outdoors treading on both light and rough terrain in the pursuit of reaching a final destination. (Here in Ecuador, it's so often the case that that's a misty and powerful waterfall.)
Personally, I love the feeling of feeling sweaty and out of breath but still confident that I am strong and physically capable to reach the top of a mountain. When I get there, I feel proud of my accomplishment, happy to be using my body for these active pursuits and the fact that the views are always impeccable and I've been enjoying the sun's benefits for hours doesn't hurt.
I know this feeling all too well now and so when it comes to planning something for the most special days of the year, it's not a case of if I'll be exploring on a trail, it's a question of which one. When scouting out foreign lands during these times of year, most of us plan a special activity we know we'll enjoy.
Become aware of the types of things you gravitate towards. Then, make a point to do them during non-descript days too.
6. Spend more time being bored
Whether it's a standard two-week vacation, four months of backpacking through Europe or (like me) the beginning of a new life abroad, travels lend well to having less time burdens.
Take advantage of that by letting yourself be bored for once. That could mean less time spent on social or family obligations, time away from the desk, a social media hiatus or lounging in bed until late morning just because.
Allowing the mind time to be less active or, dare I say, bored wields many surprising benefits.
Pay attention to where your minds wanders. There might be something worth exploring there.
7. Pay attention to those who inspire you and ask yourself why they do
Perhaps there's a friend or sibling you've always looked up to. Maybe there's an Instagram influencer or travel writer whose profile you're constantly checking for updates. There could be a local group of artists or a local business owner whose work you admire.
The people who we look up to or who inspire us often tell us something about a hidden passion.
For years, I've admired trail runners, climbers, and adventurous thrill-seekers who scout out amazing off-the-beaten-path expeditions. I've also admired my older brother's knack for committing to his travel plans above all else.
These people inspire me much more than well-do-to business owners or those with the perfect homes and wardrobes. Had I paid attention to that sooner I could have learned something quite useful though, I'm happy to know this now.
8. Think about what you'd willingly get up super early for
I'm a sloth in the morning. I know it and I've been told it by family, friends, boyfriends and coworkers. Recently a friend, another non-morning person, said to me "I need time in the morning for my personality to load." I have never related to anything more in my life.
For all my complaining and moaning though, I will roll out of bed shortly after dawn for a day trip to the nearby national park no problem. The same goes for a run along a country road with friends first thing in the a.m. or to catch a bus to a nearby town to find some new trails. A morning race through my city wouldn't phase me; however, if I’m to start my day at 6:30 a.m. for any other reason, everyone and their sister will know about it.
For me, a major indicator that I've found something I'm passionate about doing is whether or not I find that activity worthy of setting my alarm extra early for.
And if I'm to miss a great night out on the town with all of my best friends on top of that, then I know I've found something that has truly won my heart. For non-morning people, I think this is absolutely a great litmus test to find out if you've found your new favorite hobby.
And if you hit snooze or shut off the alarm altogether, chances are you've got to keep looking.
When I reached the top of El Mandango in the south of Ecuador on Christmas Day, I knew I couldn't have chosen a better way to spend the holidays away from home for the first time. I said so myself as I stood on the mountain peak taking in the 360-degree views of Andean peaks all around me.
I felt lucky to be there in my favorite hiking outfit and once I caught my breath, I said something about how traversing the mountains in South America is what inspired me to put the backpack down and rent an apartment instead.I've found what I love and so here is where I'll stay... for now.
The week after, on New Year's Eve, my El Mandango pals and I hit the trail again in search of a waterfall. But that's another story.
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Sinead Mulhern is a Canadian travel and lifestyle writer who lives in Ecuador. In 2018, she quit her editorial job to pursue a career as a full-time freelance journalist. Over a year later, she spends her days running and hiking in the mountains, sampling local flavours, working on her Spanish and writing (duh!). Her work has appeared in various magazines in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Follow her adventures at @SineadMulhern.