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Omaha Magazine

Jamie's Journey: One Nebraska Woman’s Adventure Across 60 countries and Counting

Apr 29, 2021 03:54PM ● By Sean Robinson
Jamie Thomas poses with travel backpack

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

It’s January, and Jamie Thomas has fended off another mosquito. 

Sitting outside a Costa Rica café 2,000 miles away from Omaha’s snow-packed streets, she’s more concerned about bloodsucking insects than teeth-chattering temperatures. However, no matter how strong a repellent she sprays or how speedy her swatting hand, she’s already been bitten—but not by the mosquitos who hungrily swarm. 

The travel bug struck years prior. Now Thomas has an incurable case of wanderlust. 

“Travel is my identity,” Thomas said. “I discovered life when I started traveling. It influenced me not just to explore but to have gratitude for the smallest things in life.”

In the span of 15 years, Thomas has gone from Nebraska girl to nomad. Omaha is home, but she’s visited 60 countries, many of them more than once, and done much of it solo. Move over, Carmen Sandiego. The real question is…where in the world is Jamie Thomas? Or, better yet, where is she going next? 

Sometimes not even she knows. 

“When I’m faced with the complete unknown or entering a brand-new place I’ve never been, that feels right. I’m home when I’m adventuring,” Thomas said. 

Her odyssey to seemingly every corner of the globe started in the least likely of places—among a maze of cubicles and white collars. At 21 years old, Thomas was thriving in Omaha’s corporate world. Young, talented, and on a fast rise from starting as a temp worker three years prior, she served as an accountant for Bank of the West.

She knew, however, there was more to see of the world than her view of Dodge Street from headquarters’ windows. She wanted to work to live, not live to work. That’s when she decided it was time to escape the eight-to-five grind and trade paperwork for plane rides.

Thomas rarely traveled as a child, making her choice to quit accounting and then promptly buy a one-way ticket to South Korea even more jarring. Her only other major travel experience occurred when she moved with family from Hawaii at age 9 and said “aloha” to life in Nebraska.

“I had no idea what to expect when I landed in South Korea,” Thomas said. “But when I arrived, I was astonished at how advanced South Korea was with technology compared to the U.S. Plus, it was so safe, with beautiful cultures and traditions.”

This was the trip that started it all. The place where the travel bug sunk in its teeth. 

It wasn’t all play and no work. Thomas signed a contract with a private school in the city of Wonju to teach English for a year and a half. There, she instructed up to a dozen children at a time, six classes a day. 

Teaching is one of the reasons she selected South Korea as her first destination. English tutors there receive monetary compensation along with coverage of cell phone and apartment expenses. This allowed her to save $3,000 throughout the duration of the contract. With newly found freedom from the shackles of office life and hard-earned cash burning a hole in her pocket, there was no way she was going home.

“Instead of going back to Omaha, I went to Japan, telling myself I’d spend a week or two there. But then I went to Guam. Then the Philippines. Then Thailand,” Thomas said. “Every time I arrived, I was taken [aback] at how kind, friendly, and safe each place was. And by traveling on a budget, my $3,000 lasted half a year. Then I was hooked.”

Once back, she didn’t stay long in the Cornhusker State. Winter hit, and Thomas decided it was time to fly south. This time Mexico was beckoning her to visit.

“San Luis Potosi, Mexico, is one of my favorite destinations in the world,” Thomas said. “It’s a land with contradicting landscapes, so your time here is filled with wild experiences that push the borders of adventure.”

Most U.S. travelers to Mexico spend their time sipping tequila beachside. Thomas isn’t like most travelers. During her time in San Luis Potosi, she rappelled 1,000 feet into a cave, hiked through the Wirikuta desert, and canoed to the Tamul Waterfall.

Of course, one country wasn’t enough. Following Mexico, the then-20-something spent six months backpacking through Central America and missed another Nebraska winter.

From that point, Thomas has lived her life on the go—jet-setting from Omaha to some of the most well-liked (as well as unlikely) places for tourists across the globe. She’s explored royal palaces in Japan, learned to scuba dive in the Caribbean, swam with a whale shark in Honduras—coming back to Omaha for a few weeks or months between trips to work as a travel counselor or expert. 

“My passion has been to help people grow and to influence others to follow their travel dreams,” Thomas said.

One way she fulfills this passion is through Travel & Culture Group in Omaha, a club she founded in 2013 that meets twice a month. Prior to COVID-19, each meeting was held at a coffeehouse or local ethnic restaurant. Someone would talk about a particular country and give tips on visiting there. 

Thomas takes it to the next level by organizing group trips for members. It’s all about introducing more of the world to more people. 

“She’s coordinating for 10 or 15 people at a time, so it’s impressive to see her wealth of travel knowledge,” said Melissa White, a member of the group and avid traveler herself. “Jamie has done safety talks, how to pack, budget…you name it. If you’re new to travel, she’ll guide you. If you’re an old pro, there’s an enthusiasm you can share with her.”

Even for a travel veteran such as Thomas, not every trip goes as planned—but that’s the way she likes it. 

“One of the biggest pieces of advice I have is to just go in with an open mind,” Thomas said. “Things will go wrong, but there’s no great story in a vacation that went perfectly. It’s the unexpected that leads to the best memories.”

One memory Thomas recalled was the time she was almost eaten alive by a lion while glamping in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. Late at night, alone in a cloth tent, she heard a large animal huffing on the side of camp. As the minutes went by, it got closer and closer. 

The grass crunched beneath the beast’s feet. Thomas' heart pounded in her chest. 

Just outside her tent, she then heard the ripping of grass. She thought, surely, it’s an elephant and not a reigning king of the jungle. Excited, Thomas grabbed a flashlight, zipped open the tent, and pointed a ray of light into the blackness. Everything went silent until a loud snarl echoed a few feet away from her. 

“It’s not grass ripping. It’s a carcass. A lion is outside my tent ripping into an animal’s body,” Thomas said. “I hid under my blanket and didn’t sleep a wink that night.”

After visiting almost a third of the world’s countries, Thomas has countless stories—from getting stuck in the Guam airport with the Harlem Globetrotters to befriending a Buddhist monk in India. She’s been around the world and back, then around again and again. 

“She’s the closest Nebraska will get to Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown,” said Jay Robinson, another member of Travel & Culture Group in Omaha. “I’ve been to the U.K., Serengeti [National Park in Tanzania], Italy, and she’s been the ringleader. My wife and I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”

Thomas and those who’ve followed in her footsteps are proof that travel doesn’t have to be complicated. She said getting started can be as easy as deciding where and when to travel. Then just book the ticket. Don’t let the stress of planning every detail and budgeting every penny get in the way of going. Those things happen over time. 

Traveling doesn’t have to be scary, either. Thomas thinks of it as starting a conversation with a somewhere instead of a someone.  

“If there’s one message I could share, it would be this: Travel isn’t meant to be about a point of interest. It’s not only about a famous museum or a UNESCO world heritage site,” Thomas said. “A destination is meant to be experienced and the best way to do that is by connecting. Get lost and explore something that a guidebook can’t explain. Find culture that can’t be photographed. Open yourself up.”

Traveling is simple as that—connecting. Take it from the woman who’s buzzed around just about any and everywhere. 

More information about the group Thomas founded can be found at @TravelAndCultureGroupInOmaha on Facebook.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann