Healing Through Travel after the loss of the life’s partner

18 June, 2023 | Blog, Interviews

No one can predict where their life’s path will take them. That was certainly true for Barry Hoffner who is also one of our patrons. While searching for a way to heal from the devastating loss of his life’s partner towards the end of 2017, he unwittingly embarked on a journey to travel to all 193 UN countries.

Travel had been a big part of Barry’s life for the past forty-five years; living overseas for sixteen years in eight different countries, studying Mandarin in a dorm in Kunming, China in 1995, traveling overland from Nairobi to Cape Town with his late wife in 1996, and building schools in Timbuktu since 2010.

However, connecting with the extreme travel community gave him the confidence to travel to places that he previously only dreamed of going to: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan. From this journey, he regained a sense of wanderlust in a profound tragedy and is very grateful to have healed through travel. Barry shares his story in his memoir “Healing Through Travel.”

Healing Through Travel

No one can predict where their life’s path will take them. That was certainly true for me. Though I had consistently traveled to many countries the past forty-five years, I could not have foreseen that joining the extreme travel community to travel to all 193 UN countries would help me heal from a most devastating loss.

Barry’s map on his NomadMania profile

My travels initially began with a coin toss. Along with a good friend, I had saved money working odd jobs, and we decided to spend this money on a trip before college started. I wanted to go to Hawaii and surf while my buddy wanted to backpack in Europe, so we flipped a coin.

He won. That coin toss changed my life. Since then, I have been fortunate to live overseas for 16 years in 8 different countries, immerse myself in foreign cultures, learn languages, and travel to over 160 countries.

Barry with his late wife Jackie at the Taj Mahal in India

In late 2017, however, I lost my wife, Jackie, in a tragic accident in Botswana. I learned about the accident in an airport hotel in Dubai while awaiting my morning flight to meet her in Nairobi. We had only months before started our empty-nesting years, our two boys launched and both starting at university.

After this devastating loss, I moved away from my home in California for a while to be near my sons and to grapple with what had happened. After her passing, I gave up practically everything I had been involved with: farming grapes, investing in the markets, and being on organizations’ boards.

With children in Timbuktu, Mali

That said, I remained active in my foundation, Caravan to Class, that provides access to education to the youth of the fabled Timbuktu in Mali. After about six months of what I call “an inner search” through meditation, reading, and strenuous physical exercise, it hit me that I had to get back to what had provided the most spark in my life: traveling.

Remembering that I had longed to travel to all the Stans—I had already been to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan while living in Russia in the late 1990s—I took the first step and booked a trip with Koryo Group to travel to Tajikistan and, while there, ran the Dushanbe International half-marathon. On that trip I realized I had a heck of a lot more life to live.

I look back at this trip to Tajikistan as the start of my healing. One simple rule I try to live by is this: “If you do something and enjoy it, keep doing it.” So I did. Less than two weeks after returning from Tajikistan, I booked a trip to Turkmenistan in 2018 to complete my Stans, and from then on, I started traveling every month.

In Tajikistan

At that point I had never thought about traveling to all 193 UN countries. In fact, I didn’t know that people even did that. I was not very active on Instagram or Facebook (being a bit of a tech Luddite). But a friend recommended that I follow Wander Expeditions and Alvaro Rojas on Instagram.

I ended up speaking to Alvaro, who had recently completed his 193rd country and launched Wander Expeditions, and heard for the first time that people could actually travel to places I had only previously dreamed of traveling — places such as Iraq (where my mom was born), Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and more. After that July 2021 phone call, a lightbulb clicked, and I instinctively knew, “I have to do that!”

During a Wander Expedition in Shibam, Yemen

So many people have to deal with mental health challenges, tough life circumstances, and, like me, difficult loss. I look back now and clearly see that my salve for healing was travel. Before starting on my travel journey to visit all 193 UN countries, I put on the appearance of knowing what I was doing, but now I look back and realize that I was a little lost.

With my boys in college, I was alone for the first time in decades. Having lost interest in so many things, I instinctively knew I needed a complete rewiring of my operating system; I needed to focus on things I felt were meaningful. Those things turned out to be travel, making new friends in the travel community (and traveling with some of them), having great travel guides, meeting people from all walks of life in so many countries, seeing amazing sights, tasting new foods, and hearing new languages—all of which helped reordered my priorities.

The sad truth is that Jackie’s death gave me more sense about what it means to be alive. I feel empowered now to see myself and the world differently. I am living proof that travel, which allows you to disconnect from the stresses of daily life, is a form of therapy. In fact, studies in neuroscience suggest traveling can have a positive impact on the brain and body.

For instance, travel provides novelty and surprise, which can result in the release of dopamine, a chemical involved in reward and pleasure. Dopamine also seems to have long-term effects on the brain, including promoting neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and reorganize itself.

If you’re stuck in a rut—or, like I was, in a place of grief and depression – travel can help. For me, travel has been transformational.

Celebrating his 63rd birthday in Damascus, Syria

I know I’m lucky to have the financial means and time to travel the world. However, I have met so many in the travel community who have found a way to pursue their travel passions despite having less time or money. Some have even made a living out of this passion by monetizing their travel in one way or another. I have deep respect for all of them.

We’re currently midway through 2023, and the end of my travel goal to 193 countries is in sight. NomadMania has been an important part of this project for me, including meeting so many from the NomadMania community and finding some great guides through the platform.

I plan to finish my journey by the end of 2024 (whether or not I get into North Korea) and am writing a book about my healing journey called The First Step: My Journey to Every Country in the World for Healing, Connection, and Knowledge.

There’s no question that having the concrete goal of visiting all 193 countries has been a good measuring stick for me. But the real treasure has been the experiences: the people I’ve met, the new friends I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, sights seen, foods tasted, and cultures I now better understand.

From this amazing journey, I feel a greater sense of connection to a good part of humankind and have been able to weave together loose threads of history and culture to make better sense of our world.