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2016 In Review: A Productive Summer, Turning 30 & Discovering Europe

2016 is in the bag.

How was it?

As has been tradition each year (2014 and 2015 here), I’ll be publishing my personal summary of the year gone by. Where did I succeed? Where did I fail? What was good? Bad?

My own reflections are below for you to read if you wish, but more important are your own insights. I encourage you to take an introspective look at your year, and journal your thoughts to refer back to in 12 months time. Writing this has been very helpful, as has been reading my reviews from previous years. I think very few us take enough time to reflect. Even if we only do it once a year, that’s something.


Blogging

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It was a mixed year for the blog.

Statistics wise, traffic is down. In fact, it’s gone down every year since I went live. I presume this is due to the type of content I like to write nowadays. In my first year, I wrote a lot of free travel guides, how-to posts and SEO focused writing. Today I prefer to focus on stories and narratives which don’t bring in any search or viral traffic, but satisfy my longer-time readers and also allow me to share deeper travel experiences, which is what I really love to write about.

Despite traffic being down, readership continues to grow. My newsletter now goes out to more than 3,000 readers each month and has been one of my most active vehicles for getting to know many of you personally. It also allows me to update you all on my whereabouts, the books I’m reading, interesting things I’ve been doing, deals and giveaways, and updates from the blog. My blog posting can be up and down sometimes, but I always make sure the newsletter gets sent! Not subscribed? You can do so here.

I also started being active on Instagram this year, and built a little following there. It’s been the perfect tool for sharing little stories that aren’t big enough for their own blog post, and has been useful for keeping everyone updated on where I am in the world. I’m not much of a photographer, but it’s been a nice outlet for a little creativity when I’m too busy to get on the laptop.

Money-wise, the income was up a lot. Mostly due to the release of my ebook Triple Your Travel, having it included in this year’s Paradise Pack, and higher affiliate incomes. Still a long (loooong) way from replacing my accountant salary, but we’ll get there. Along with the rise in income comes a rise in expenses. It now costs me over a thousand bucks a year just to keep this thing online. Not quite what I expected when I signed up for my $50 per year hosting package back in 2013. But I guess that’s blogger life.

It was also bit of a battle of morals this year. Offers for free trips and advertising opportunities started flowing in. In my first year I committed myself to being ad-free. No sponsored posts, no ads, no free trips. I hated the idea of my readers being flashed with banners and getting sold random shit from around the web. I also hated the idea of writing blog posts about some goofy museum or tour for the sake of a free trip. More importantly, how can I honestly voice affordable travel for everyone when my trips are being paid for by some corporation? I can’t. I stay committed to keeping the blog ad-free, my blog posts are all non sponsored and written by me, and I pay for all my own trips.

Writing

I have been trying to write this damn memoir. I wrote about 50,000 words earlier in the year, then I stopped, because I thought it was shitty, and recently I started all over again. I don’t really have much else to tell you about that, other than “I’m working on it.”

As for the blogging itself, the year started well and it’s ending well, but I slacked off during my long Eurotrip, struggling to publish more than once or twice a month. I still wrote some important pieces this year – It’s Not About The Money, Why You Still Haven’t Found Your Passion, and Solving The Quarter Life Crisis appearing to be some of the more resonant with you.

As for personal narratives, I published one of my favourite pieces, It Started At A Salsa Club In Quito back in February, almost 18 months after I was actually in Quito. That experience was particularly special to me and it was difficult to really illustrate that in a blog post. I guess that’s why it took so long to write. I managed to knock out some other stories too; Under Stars In The Sahara, Big Trouble In Little Kraków, and To Where The Northern Lights Go.
I’ve got a handful more from the year drafted, I’ll get them out next year!

A New Look

I completed my first blog redesign this year! The original design was ugly and limiting, and I’d been planning on redesigning for a while. The whole process was quite long, my perfectionist nature with these things didn’t help either, but I was happy with how it all turned out. You can read more about the whole process and see some before and after screenshots in my post, A New Bren On The Road.


Finances

I spent approximately $8,000 this year on 7 months of travel, which included five months backpacking through Europe and five weeks laying low in Bangkok. I was prepared for this to be a bit more, especially in Europe, so I was happy with how the travel budget worked out.

As for income, the blog continues to bring in some cash (and takes out a lot too), mostly through ebook sales and affiliate sales, and my stock with my freelance clients continues to rise. Old investments I made in my accounting days still drip feed dollars into my account during select months of the year. I’m not going to be a millionaire anytime soon, but with my efforts to live minimalistically (that’s not a real word) things are fine. And for those of you wondering – no, I can’t survive off this blog alone…yet.

I’m currently working on a few things I hope to launch in 2017, keep an eye out!


Education

Awesome jiu jitsu class last night at Auckland MMA. Repost @aucklandmmagym.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

I was staying with my parents in Auckland for the first five months of the year. I used that downtime to focus on some new/refreshed interests:

-I spent 4-5 evenings a week down at Auckland MMA, training in various martial arts, as a follow on from my little jaunt at Legacy Gym in the Philippines in 2013. It was an awesome place to train and I look forward to getting back there this summer.

-I joined a dance school and was there twice a week refreshing my salsa skills from Ecuador. My teachers and partners always tell me I dance very well, but I’m still not confident enough to rock up into dance clubs and start shredding the floor with someone. It’s a mental thing – I will work on it.

-I spent one day a week in the ocean surfing, and also just sitting out there bobbing on my board thinking about my life (because I’m a weak paddler and get tired quick). Every couple of weeks I also went surfing with my old surfing coach from my Ahipara story, who really helped me get better at a lot of things.

-I started meditating seriously with Headspace, although I feel like it didn’t do much for me. I don’t think I’ll continue this in 2017.

-I tried to learn the guitar with Yousician and I got to about Level 8, but after trying and failing so many times over the years I think the guitar just isn’t my instrument. My instinct is music shouldn’t feel like a chore. A very musical friend I met this year told me “You don’t choose the instrument, the instrument chooses you” and advised me to try something different, like the piano. So I will do that this year.

-I added morning yoga to my schedule and still do it every few days – the body feels good when I can keep at it.

-I tried to carry on my French study from Montpellier using Duolingo and watching some French movies, but honestly I was kinda half-arsing and I’m quite sure my French is the worst it has ever been.

Overall it was a productive summer in New Zealand, and I was actually sad to leave for once. Still, the road called, and I was forced to change things up.

With no gym or dance school to keep me busy I started reading a lot, and totalled 13 books this year. I’m pretty sure that’s a new record, and a big achievement for me (I’m a slow ass reader). I’ll have my reading list up in a few weeks (2015 here).

I also threw down some cash and signed up for two blogging courses, finally. As someone who is three years into this game now, I feel like it’s time to learn from some of the vets. I’m only halfway through them, but my opinion so far is mixed. I am hoping these communities will help me increase the blog’s reach beyond it’s current ceiling, we will see how that goes in 2017.

As always, education remains a big part of my life, and I’m super passionate about being a lifelong learner and never limiting yourself. Read, read, read, discover new things, try them, learn, learn, learn. It’s what keeps life exciting, and your horizons constantly growing.


Friends & Family

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I actually saw my family a lot this year. Along with the five months I spent with my parents during the summer, I also travelled with them for a month at the start of my trip. A far cry from my entire years on the road back when my travel career began.

I also found I was a lot more choosey (aka snobby) with the people I hung out with on the road this year. There weren’t many nights out boozing with dorm mates or frequenting the Couchsurfing meets, like I used to do a few years ago. But it also meant I made much closer friends on the road this year – people who were walking similar paths to me, or people who I really enjoyed the company of. And it meant I had more time for myself to read, write, think, and take care of myself.

I was also blessed to once again spend Christmas with my parents, brothers, uncles, auntie, cousins and grandfather, and now I look forward to another New Zealand summer with my family and friends before I figure out what’s next.

A lot of travellers leave their old lives in the rear view mirror, including their families. I’m always conscious of never letting that happen.


Health

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I turned 30 this year.

I was actually walking the Camino with my Mum at the time, who turned 60 in the same month. To mark the occasion I wrote the post Dreams, Love, Fear & Pride: A Letter To Everyone In Their Twenties And Beyond.

Thankfully, I am in good health. Other than a niggling shoulder injury my body feels great, I am fit and healthy, I can sit through 30 hour plane rides without any problems, I can walk the entire day around new cities and suffer nothing but the usual tired feet. This despite smashing my body in the gym, the ocean, and on the road. But this has only been achieved through a lot of hours reading about how to maintain a healthy body, and even more hours doing mobility and maintenance work each morning through yoga, stretching, and subjecting my muscles to all sorts of unpleasant treatments with massage balls, foam rollers and unlovable exercises.

The second half of the equation is my diet, which is strict on the road and slightly obsessive when I’m stationary. A lot of greens, juices, supplements, power shakes and home-cooked food, healthy snacking and so on.

I shared a few of the things in my “stay healthy stack” in my recent post What’s In My Backpack?

At my age you learn pretty quickly that without a body of gold you can’t surf, box, dance, or do any of that other cool shit. So I encourage you to learn to treat your body like gold before anything else, sooner rather than later.

Things I will be working on in 2017 are fixing some imbalances, injury proofing myself, and working on my flexibility. One of my goals is to do the splits (it’s coming along slowwwly). Who knows if that’s even possible at my age. We’ll see. I’ll be doing some dietary experiments too.


 Travel

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2016 was about getting back to my backpacking roots. It was a huge year.

I set foot in 15 different countries, mostly in Europe. As a usual Slow Traveller, that’s far more than I’ve ever done before.

The year started in Spain. My Mum asked me to walk the Camino with her, so we headed up there in early May to knock that one off her bucket list. I look back on it and I’m glad I experienced it, but at the time I found it pretty insufferable. Not my thing. I spent most of the time listening to podcasts, and detailed all the interesting things I learned in my post 116 Things I Learned On The Camino De Santiago.

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After that we whizzed through Portugal. One of the struggles with travelling with others is you tend to miss out on things. Had I been alone, I think I would’ve stayed in Portugal for at least a month. There was a lot to see, and a coast filled with amazing surf that I didn’t get to check out. Had a nice energy. Unfortunately we only had five days. I met up with bloggers Dave from Too Many Adapters and Lauren from Never Ending Footsteps who are both living in Lisbon right now, and they are loving it. I would love to go back some day.

After that we spent a couple of weeks discovering Morocco. Morocco was a nice surprise for me – a different side of Africa, my favourite continent, and I warmed to it more than I expected to. I wrote some thoughts on the country in my post A Glimpse At Morocco.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

After that I headed back to Spain to start my solo journey. I hit up Málaga, the site of my very first solo trip back in 2011. It was nostalgic for sure, but southern Spain in June is so damn hot I just sat in the hostel most of the time and sweated. It was too hot to even read. I mostly ate and slept, but I also made some cool friends at my hostel that I hung out with each night. During my time there, I realised how much I’ve grown since that first trip.

The funny Schengen rules for Kiwis then forced me to head east quickly. I caught a flight to Kraków, Poland, where I stayed for five weeks and caught up on some work, while also frequenting the famous Kraków nightlife. I liked Kraków but for a place that gets raved about so much I consider it a little overrated. I ran into some trouble there too, but luckily got out okay. I share the ordeal in my story Big Trouble In Little Kraków.

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From Kraków I decided it might be fun to hitch hike the Baltics, so I hitched over 1,300km from Kraków, to Warsaw, to Bialystok, to Kaunas, to Riga, to Pärnu, to Tallinn. Seven cities through four countries, and didn’t spend a dime. It was a new experience for me, with many interesting characters. I found it inspiring that people would take time out of their day to help a complete stranger. In the end I realised that we fear each other more than we should, and trust each other less than we should. It was a very valuable experience. The whole story is shared in The Hitch Hiking Diaries: From Kraków To Tallinn.

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During my hitch, I made a stop in Pärnu for four nights to attend the Weekend Baltic Festival, my first music festival. I’ve decided they aren’t quite my thing, but I met so many amazing people there and was amazed how free and spirited everybody was. I am sure I’ll be seeing some of these friends again down the line. The lesson: Always say yes to new experiences.

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As I continued through Estonia and Finland, a handful of my festival friends offered me couches to sleep on. It was kindness like this that allowed me to travel Europe for so long on so little. Hopefully I get to return the favour someday.

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After a couple of nights in Helsinki, I spent two nights in the charming small town of Tammisaari, where I got a peek into small town life in Finland. You learn so much from small towns. Hard to put into words. But hopefully I’ll have a story about this place to publish soon.

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After that I headed to Turku, one of Finland’s student cities, and ended up renting a room from my Couchsurfing host. I stayed there for four weeks and caught up on some work. Made some great friends here too who were super welcoming. Finland is an incredible place.

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From there I headed into Finnish Lapland and hired a car for my hunt for the Northern Lights. This little road trip was an unexpected highlight of the year and took me through the north of Finland and Norway on what turned out to be a week of soul searching. I was reminded of why I live this life. I share the story in my post, To Where The Northern Lights Go.

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From Norway, I headed back to the Finnish coast to catch the ferry to Sweden. I spent four nights in Uppsala, and two nights in Stockholm. I visited some viking sites, ate meatballs, visited the Nobel museum, checked out an open mic, and caught up with some old friends. Overall Sweden was nice, but a tad underwhelming for a place I’d expected so much from.

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From there I caught the train to Copenhagen. I’ve wanted to visit Copenhagen since forever, but only ended up spending two nights there. I caught up with an old friend, and hired a bike for an afternoon to explore ‘the world’s most bikeable city’. Again, it was nice but a little underwhelming. If it weren’t so prohibitively expensive, I might have felt differently. Still, I’ve got love for the city. The semi autonomous Christiania was definitely the highlight.

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Berlin was next. I caught the overnight bus down and ended up spending about three weeks at the U Inn Berlin hostel. It was like a little family in there, and the perfect place to unwind after weeks of being on the move. The friends I met there reminded me of why I love the travel community – people who don’t need money and nice things to be happy. As for Berlin itself, it’s hipster heaven, with a very odd, quirky culture. I loved that it was so affordable for a capital, and always had something to do. But it seems like nobody that lives there is actually German. It’s like a poor version of New York city. Not for everyone, but grew on me.

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My final stop in Europe was Switzerland. I met up with an old friend I met last year (Lara from Melancholic in Montpellier), who invited me to stay with her family in Unterageri for a weekend, and later showed me around her new home in Aarau and some of her favourite places in Zurich. Switzerland in a word: Picturesque.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

By this time the European winter was setting in and I was ready for warmer climates. What better place to unwind than Thailand. I jumped on a flight to Bangkok, one of my favourite cities in the world, and rented a condo to lay low for a month. It was a month of noodles, writing and massages. I’ve written before about my love for Bangkok, and with the month I spent there the love grew just a little bit more.

A photo posted by Bren (@brenontheroad) on

Finally, I headed to Sydney to spend Xmas with my family, and now am back in New Zealand for the summer.

A huge year of travel, exhausting, challenging, but of course I loved every bit of it. Finland and Poland stand out as the places that I grew very fond of, Norway and Berlin were nice surprises too. But everywhere I visited left me something to smile about it.

For the first time on the road, however, I started to feel a little…bored. This year I realised I’m no longer the starry eyed do-everything love-everything backpacker anymore. I’ll always have love for the culture and the community – it has contributed so much to who I am today, but the traveller’s curse, if you could call it that, is that every trip needs to outdo the last. After five years on the road, much of Europe just felt a little ordinary. Bopping from hostel to hostel, city to city, it was too easy and familiar, like a job you’ve been at for too long. I think any further trips to Europe will need to be Slow Travel or Mini Retirement style, and future backpacking trips will likely need to be something a little more out there, perhaps one of Africa’s coasts, the Middle East, Siberia, something like that. Who knows. For now, I’m content to sit still and build my multi million empire (of Vietnamese dong) until the right adventure presents itself. I have a few ideas – surfing West Africa, the Caribbean, the ‘stans in Central Asia. We’ll see.


Plans for 2017

I have a lot of things I want to work on, so I’ll be in Auckland for the summer and most of autumn probably. I’ll be on the laptop during the day, back at the fight gym in the evenings. When the surf is good I’ll be in the water. I also plan to do another 28 Days Of Discipline soon to set 2017 off right.

As for travel, I am 90% confirmed to return to Tanzania mid year to attend to some commitments, and as the flight over there is so long I usually stick around to enjoy some extended time in my adopted country. But some family commitments beckon too. So that is up in the air for now. Other than that, no real plans.

One thing I do know is it won’t be another big backpacking year like 2016. I have a lot of things, both health and work wise, that I want to work on and they simply cannot be done while being so nomadic. So it will be very slow travelling next year, if at all. If time permits, I will spend some time getting to know my hometown – Auckland – and sharing it with you.


Thank you!!

I can’t believe you guys are still here. It’s funny to think this rickety blog has connected so many of us. Like an illegitimate love child, what started as an afterthought back in 2014 has now grown into it’s own little monster taking over my life. To everyone that supported the blog this year by reading my posts, sharing on Facebook and Twitter, leaving a comment, subscribing, donating, and especially those of you who supported the Triple Your Travel release, muchas gracias. I can’t thank you enough. You guys are the best readers in the world! (Actually you’re probably not, but you’re still awesome).

Hopefully I’ll see you back here in 2017. Until then, enjoy the holidays and stay safe.

Peece and luv,

Bren


How was your 2016? What were your successes, failures? What are you aiming for in 2017? Let me know in the comments below.

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12 thoughts on “2016 In Review: A Productive Summer, Turning 30 & Discovering Europe

  1. Bren, it’s always a pleasure reading your blog posts or seeing your newsletter pop up in my emails. It sounds like you’ve had a fantastic 2016 – I’ve definitely enjoyed your Euro Trip stories, especially hitch hiking!

    Thanks for always being a real, honest blogger – it’s nice to know some real bloggers still exist out there amongst the sea of perfected instagram accounts and listicles that seem to be in your face 24/7. I always enjoy your deep and meaningful stories – keep it up!!

    Hope you have a fab 2017!!

    Sapphire

    1. Hey Sapphire, thanks heaps, thanks for reading this year – it’s always nice to see your comments pop up here now and then. Stay safe and enjoy your new year!

  2. Hi Bren,

    I couldn’t agree more with Sapphire – your blog is among very few, if any, I follow, because the stories are honest and personal. I really enjoyed reading this – seems like you had an incredible year of both adventure and personal development!

    I’ll be reflecting on my year too… And what I want to achieve in 2017.

    All the best!
    Carol

      1. It was certainly a “transition” year – of dusting things off and sliding into a new phase.

        Yep, I am on the road again! I’ve settled in Taipei for the next two months, taking a breather and the time to reflect on past and prepare for future goals… Then I’ll be in Europe, mostly Italy, for however long I can manage.

        Keep in touch!
        Carol

  3. I feel ya Bren, after travelling and living abroad for 12 years I sometimes find myself getting bored too. I am currently in the Caribbean – 6 weeks in Barbados, Dominica and Guadeloupe and it is pretty awesome. Traveling the Caribbean on the cheap has always appealed to me and by using Airbnb, cooking our own food, and taking local buses – we have managed to keep costs to under $50 each per day. I am going to be back home in Auckland for 6-8 weeks from the middle of February – let me know if you want to meet up. I am a fellow blogger and always love to meet like-minded people 🙂

    1. Sure thing! Just hit me up when you’re back in town. Those countries have been on my list since forever and I’m dying to go there. Just haven’t found the time yet. Must be amazing…..

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