Santa Cruz native Evan Quarnstrom quit his job with the International Surfing Association to travel the world. He’s been to Brazil, Colombia, Chile and right now, he’s in Bali, “where fast, powerful, waves that break over shallow coral reefs have been quite the contrast from the more mellow, sloping point breaks that I learned to surf on at home in Santa Cruz.” He’s also taken time to grieve his late father, Dean Quarnstrom, to come to terms with his famous local family and consider what sort of life he wants to lead. He reminds us that, with a bit of courage, we, too, could pick up and change our lives.
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Nine months ago, I did what a lot of people dream of doing: I quit my job to travel the world.
I started in Brazil, where I lived for six months, hiking, surfing, learning to speak Portuguese and rediscovering who I am in a new context. Then I moved to Chile and Colombia. Now I’m in Indonesia. India is next.
I don’t have an end date.
I’m 30 years old and suddenly — after years of striving to achieve and get ahead professionally — time has slowed down. Whether it’s learning how to greet someone in Balinese or figuring out how to take the bus in Rio de Janeiro, every day teaches me something new about my patience, the limits of my comfort, and the contours of my identity.
It’s also given me space to grieve my late father and work on his unfinished memoir.
It’s a chance to retroactively get to learn more about him and about his brother, my colorful uncle, Lee Quarnstrom, who was friends with author Ken Kesey and part of the infamous Merry Pranksters band who traveled across the country in their psychedelic, painted school bus. They did the first of their famous “acid tests” in Santa Cruz County.
As a kid, I was a bit oblivious to my family’s ties to the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Yet, as I learn more about the past of my father and uncle, I wonder if the same catalyst that prompted them to seek adventure is in me, too.
It didn’t seem that way in my 20s, which passed in a blur between college at San Diego State University, where I studied international business, and then work as a marketing manager at surfing’s Olympic authority, the International Surfing Association. It was the perfect job — in line with my studies and in an industry I love.
But it was hectic, stressful. All-encompassing.
Now, the slower pace is refreshing. It’s given me time to revisit goals that had been somewhat ignored, like traveling and learning about new cultures.
I grew up shuffling with my sister and twin brother between our divorced parents’ Santa Cruz houses. I spent a lot of time surfing on East Cliff, listening to local bands like the Expendables at the Catalyst and building bike jumps in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I developed a sense of reverence for the ocean (wetsuit-less frigid swims in the morning during Junior Lifeguards will instill that) and for the vast, open spaces in the mountains.
In recent months, I’ve surfed the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, including world-renowned spots like Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands. The fast, powerful waves that break over shallow coral reefs have been quite the contrast from the more mellow, sloping point breaks I learned to surf on at home.
I also hiked to the highest peaks of Rio de Janeiro, summited an active volcano in Bali, and explored the rainforest of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Nature and the solitude of it helps me recharge.
I made new, lifelong friends in Brazil through a shared love of ocean sports. My love for skimboarding and surfing that developed in Santa Cruz has repeatedly connected me to people across the globe, catalyzing lifelong friendships.
I cultivated new culinary tastes. My current favorite is Columbia’s bright yellow-orange, goose egg-sized granadilla fruits, which open to reveal slimy seeds that taste sweet and tangy. It’s like SweeTarts growing on trees.
While my surf industry job in San Diego was everything I wanted, I arrived at the point where it held me back.
So I let it go. I needed change to stay true to myself.
Traveling solo for 10 months has been lonely, but it’s a positive kind of loneliness.
Solitude is a great teacher. I’m finding what makes me happy at this stage of my life — how to grow beyond my comfort zone, what I need in my life, and what I can discard. I have enjoyed living with the bare essentials — a week’s worth of clothes, two surfboards, my computer, a camera and some books.
I read quite often. I like books about the histories of countries I’ve visited and I’ve returned to some old classics, like “Frankenstein,” albeit in Portuguese, and Sun Tzu’s masterful “The Art of War,” which is really a book about life.
And I have grieved.
My father passed away two months before I left, over a year ago now. Some days it still feels like I just lost him, especially on his birthday and the anniversary of his passing.
As a child, I spent every other weekend with him. He was a warm person with an at-times embarrassing sense of humor. His patience was comically short, something he would laugh about. But he was a unique parent who, instead of being stuck in his ways, was always curious to learn what his kids were interested in.
My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was 19, which made prolonged visits or conversation difficult. But we bonded by watching Warriors basketball and sharing photos of my latest hikes, but mostly, through writing.
I love to write and so did my father.
When he passed, he left behind a trove of stories that he hoped to one day turn into a memoir. I’ve tried to make sense of his writings — a tangled mess of digital Word docs — this past year.
It’s been excruciatingly difficult, but therapeutic. I feel like after his death, I am getting to know him better.
A large chunk of my father’s writings was penned during the time he spent in prison in Boron, in the middle of the Mojave desert. He did 2½ years for “conspiring to import and possess marijuana.” In these journal entries, he repeatedly questions his choices in life and expresses anxiety about his future upon release.
I, too, have had plenty of “what the hell am I doing?” days.
Sometimes I question myself. What if I run out of money? What if I am letting a promising career trajectory dissolve? What’s my purpose?
But I’ve come to learn that those down days are part of the process, the journey.
Looking back on that original decision to travel to Brazil, I often ask myself if I’ve found what I was looking for.
I think the answer is yes. In Brazil, I found people like Matheus Guerra, my hiking and skimboard partner in Rio de Janeiro, who let me rent out his room for two months. He is one of those gregarious, universally likable people who attracts the good energy of others.
I found Heitor Vasconcelos and Yara Pão, who invited me into their small, cozy, home for two weeks in Brazil’s northeast. They have relatively little, but they offered all they had to me, an outsider. I admire their family’s genuine happiness.
I understand my current lifestyle is privileged and out of reach for some. But for others, it’s not as big a stretch as they might think. It takes planning. Budgeting. Patience.
Traveling alone is not necessarily the correct path for everyone, but I know many people who have a similar inner desire, but are too scared to act.
I worked for, planned for, and made sacrifices to get this lifestyle.
On my travels, I’ve met several people who also quit jobs for a freer life. Not once have I heard anyone say they regret it.
Take my Chilean friend Edder Romario, who left his life working the salmon farms in southern Chile and moved to Brazil. Eight years later, he owns a small boat-tour business, and lives a tropical lifestyle he always dreamed of on the shores of one of the world’s best skimboarding beaches.
Here in Bali, digital nomads abound.
There’s something to it. Trust me. Trust them.
As far as what’s next for me, I’m not sure.
Part of the trick of freedom is finding a way to support yourself while doing it.
I am working on growing my freelance writing career, planning on places to visit in my next destination, India, and being grateful for every day of this phase of my life.
In two weeks, I’ll head to Mumbai and travel south on India’s west coast. I’m nervous.
But I am also looking forward to it — the new language, the new culture, the new surf friends.
I hear the batata vadas and the varan bhaat are life-changing.
I’ll let you know.
Evan Quarnstrom is a Santa Cruz native with an affinity for surfing, the outdoors, traveling and studying languages. He graduated from Harbor High School in 2010 and went on to study international business at San Diego State University. After seven years working in the surfing industry, Evan now works as a freelance writer and online English teacher. He has been to 25 countries and counting.