Their love of travel runs so deep it shapes how they see, think and feel about life.
“We’ve had the travel bug forever and our families both love to travel,” Shaw said. “Travel’s always on the horizon.”
Friends since elementary school and a couple since high school when Shaw performed a song specifically to ask Vahalla out, their relationship continued at the University of San Diego. Here they went on the Semester at Sea study abroad experience together, Shaw’s music career enjoyed a solid push with The New Archaic and Vahalla’s full support, and they both earned the same degrees — in International Relations and Spanish — last May.
So, when graduation arrived, it wasn’t really a shock what was next. It wasn’t a question of where to go, but how long they’d be on a post-graduation trip.
“We’d been thinking about traveling after graduation for a couple of years and we’d been saving our money for awhile,” Shaw said. “It was going to be five months, but we extended it to seven.”
The result was an 11-country trip, July 12-Feb. 17, starting in Cancun, Mexico, and ending in Chile. In between, they visited Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.
“USD provided the inspiration to travel because of its great study abroad programs and the education from our degrees,” said Vahalla, who studied one semester in Uruguay. “USD’s very internationally focused, so much so that I don’t know if we would have been as encouraged to get out there and do something like this if we’d been at another school.”
Shaw was inspired by his knowledge and passion for Latin America. “It was the perfect trip after studying International Relations and Spanish. We’d learned a ton in our cultural history of Latin America and literature classes. The trip seemed the right fit to speak Spanish and apply it.”
They each budgeted $7,000 by saving money through their respective jobs — Vahalla as a waitress and Shaw as a valet attendant — as well as Shaw’s music. He won a San Diego County Fair songwriting contest last year that earned him a cash prize and a guitar.
“Winning the contest really helped,” Shaw explained. “We’re both pretty frugal people. We brought our lunch and dinner with us to school during our junior and senior years and we saved money from birthdays and Christmas.”
Added Vahalla: “Travel’s a very important part of my life. Saving money to do it is absolutely worth it. It was cheaper to travel these seven months than it is to live in San Diego when you add up everything.”
Indeed, Shaw and Vahalla, both 22, are experienced travelers with well-worn passports from visiting more than 20 countries each.
Despite operating on a $30 daily budget, they saw exotic locales, met interesting people and explored activities such as paragliding, zip-lining, bungee jumping and volcano boarding (hiking up a volcano and then sliding down).
“We really watched our spending, but we didn’t skimp either,” Shaw said. “If we had one meal out, we’d do two meals in. If we did something one day, we’d make it up the next day.”
Being experienced travelers made it easy to enjoy everything together, and to make time for themselves.
“We’d go sightseeing, but you always need some time when you come back and take a siesta,” Shaw said. “Sarah reads, does photography or writes. I play my guitar. It’s an awesome feeling after sightseeing to fit it into a song about what I’ve seen or I’m thinking. It was really nice to have a few hours each day to just play.”
While each country had its unique charms, Guatemala was a favorite destination.
“We loved it there,” Shaw said. “We stayed for three weeks and lived with a host family to experience a traditional life. Sarah and I taught English to children in the village, which was hard because Spanish was the second language for most after their Mayan dialect, of which there were 25 dialects.”
Guatemala spoke to Shaw musically. Four of 16 new songs he wrote on the trip came from there. Along with his Taylor GS Mini guitar and Vahalla filming, Shaw performed one new song, “Cathedral,” from inside El Catedral de Santiago in Antigua. He posted it — and other selected songs — on his YouTube channel and Tolan Shaw Music Facebook page.
“The biggest thing I learned as a musician on this trip is that I really want to do this as a career. It’s what I love to do most,” said Shaw, who plans to record a full-length album. “Traveling is my No. 1 inspiration for songwriting, not only because of the actual experiences while I’m there, but also the thought process that comes from it. I think about different ways of life, putting myself in another person’s shoes, about religion, theology and a lot of spiritual stuff. When I travel, songwriting’s the perfect conduit for those thoughts.”
Vahalla kept busy, too, by writing a blog. Shaw’s music, she said, “provided an audio blog.”
Their memories won’t fade, nor will the acceptance of life’s lessons while traveling. A “by the numbers” account included 72 cities visited, 61 beds, 17 modes of transportation, 330 hours on a bus, 300-plus hard-boiled eggs and, Vahalla said, “a lot of tortillas.”
If anything, this trip creates a pathway to new and equally exciting journeys.
“I enjoy the worldly view you can get from travelling,” Shaw said. “I feel more open-minded, more easy-going, and I don’t care as much. Saying ‘I don’t care,’ I’m not talking about being apathetic; I’m willing to let things be. I’m not afraid to fall on my face as long as I keep trying to do what it is I want to do.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of Tolan Shaw and Sarah Vahalla