The many problems with being a long-term lone vagabond without a base
In less than two weeks, I'm going to hit my anniversary of not having had a base anywhere in the world for ten entire years. I've essentially been a “homeless vagabond”, even if leaning more towards the flashpacker style of doing it with a laptop, and having a roof over my head the whole time (well, almost). But that roof has changed more times than I care to count.
“Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home”, and on Monday I'll be leaving my temporary stop in Berlin, where the 23kg (50lbs) that is everything I own has been based for the last four months. I'll be in the states again for the summer (more details on that on Monday, if you missed the recent email blast, which as always you can sign up to in the top-right of the site), and then somewhere else after that, and elsewhere again after that…
So, as I pack up to hit the road again, I am starting to think about the things that I don't get to have because of this lifestyle. Of course, travel is a wonderful chance to learn many things about the world, pick up some weird habits, meet some fascinating people, and learn languages, but no lifestyle is perfect and has its drawbacks.
In the interests of giving a balanced view, I thought I'd share some of the downsides of this lifestyle with you today, so that you can get a more full appreciation of this long-term travel lifestyle I know many people dream of.
The you-have-it-so-easy delusion
The first thing that has to be mentioned is the fact that many people might think I'm probably not entitled to even write a post like this – I “don't have a care in the world”, and am living the dream of travelling – what could I possibly have to complain about?
And this initial impression is in itself incredibly frustrating.
So many people who think that travel could get them away from their problems in life, seem to have a romanticised ideal view of life on the road of being non-stop adventure after adventure. Using travel as a way to escape real world problems is a terrible idea, because many problems that we have are actually with our personality and way of looking at the world. Even a dramatic change in circumstances can leave many people feeling unsatisfied because their problems just come back to bite them, only in slightly different forms.
I'm not running from anything in these travels, but consider this lifestyle simply a long-term learning process, where normal day-to-day problems definitely exist. I still have to deal with many issues like having a bad day, bureaucracy, not finding a parking space, people being mean to me, arguments with neighbours, public transport strikes, people ringing my doorbell and getting me out of the shower to tell me about Jesus, rain, price hikes, no bus coming for 20 minutes and then three coming at once, and all the other annoying little parts of life that you simply can't escape.
As well as this thought that you can escape problems, many people keep thinking I'm absolutely loaded since I travel so much, but if we compare our earnings we usually find they earn the same (or more than I do), and that I have in fact just learned to be more frugal or wise with how I spend my money, and don't buy shit I don't need.
And then there are the extra problems that I list below that a vagabond has which settled people may not relate to. I'm not under any false impressions that I have it worse than anybody else (anyone claiming such a thing without having all the information is incredibly arrogant), but we all have challenges we have to deal with.
No permanent address
One of the first problems you'll notice is the fact that I simply can't receive mail, especially (as I will for the next months) when I move around every week or so. What if I want to read a dead tree book not available on the Kindle, but that you can still order from Amazon? (Sadly quite often the case for a lot of the best language learning material)
Or what if I need to buy a spare part for my camera or computer that you can only get by delivery? Sometimes I have to wait many months before I know I can receive something like that, or generally just embrace the idea I mentioned above and not buy new stuff. Travelling with more junk is a hassle anyway.
And of course I never get postcards, although I'm a technology buff and find paper inefficient, part of it is simply because I can't receive it since nobody ever knows where to send it.
For bureaucratic issues though, I simply use my parents' address in Ireland and my dad scans any important letters to me. You need an address somewhere for official purposes (bank account etc.), so that's where I set my address as it's the only place that I do go back to several times a year, and know someone can check the mail for me.
Stuff you can't buy or travel with
I do strongly believe in the benefits of minimalism, but even after several years of it there are times when I wish that every decision I made to purchase something that wasn't food or a plane ticket, had to factor in how big or heavy it is, for when I need to take it on the road with me and check it in. Minimalists with homes on the other hand can still have few things, but own the most practical size/weight of something, such as a desktop computer rather than a laptop.
Here in Berlin for instance, I've had access to a printer and a scanner (it was already here in the furnished apartment), and it has been so incredibly convenient!! Normally, I have to keep going to an Internet café to deal with processing any signatures to send back home, or to print off vouchers I want to process or flight tickets (many places don't let you scan your smartphone yet). I'd really like to own a scanner/printer, but it's just impossible to travel with a good one. I'd also like to buy a sturdy tripod (I have one, but since it's the lightest one I could find it doesn't reach eye level without being propped on chairs).
Sometimes people will buy me a lovely memento of the place I visited, or a present of some kind, but sadly I can't accept it, or I do (since turning it down would be a huge insult in many cultures) but have to leave it behind as it's way too big or heavy.
The sometimes uphill battle to make deep friendships
Forgetting about stuff for a moment, the very people that I travel to meet, sometimes make it very hard for me to get to know them. In many places, knowing that you will leave in a few months immediately invalidates any possibility of friendship, which is a terribly frustrating aspect that I have to deal with way too regularly.
This is especially true with romantic relationships that don't even get started (more on this in a separate post, coming soon, since many people have been requesting this), even though the same person may cheerily tell me that she dated her last boyfriend for just a few weeks.
As well as this, people presume that a traveller must have only superficial friendships and not take me seriously because of this. These are just presumptions, and once people try to get to know me, I've noticed they say that they are surprised that I'm much more “down to earth” than they thought (I always wonder if they expected me to be hyperactively bouncing off the walls or something…)
Everyone is down to earth if you give them a chance and see their human part, rather than some caricature you may have of them in your mind.
The same conversations over and over…
Luckily, I have changed my job frequently enough to make the question of what I do interesting for most of my travels (working in a youth hostel, or as a translator, or English teacher etc.), but since I've been earning from this site for over three years now, having the same initial conversation with people about blogging or language learning all the time (essentially repeating the info on my About page) has been starting to drive me crazy. (I don't actually want to talk about language learning all the time; I see learning a language as a means to an end to talk about other stuff).
As such, I've been coming up with inventive ways to discard what I do as uninteresting, so that we can talk about that other person as soon as possible, usually replying to the question of what I do with a hand waving “Bah, just some writing job – what do you do?”, or “Boring Internet stuff; clicking buttons, punching keyboards, the usual” or try to use a bit of humour and say that I “have no idea what I do to be honest” or that I'm a failed engineer.
Generally, I've found that what you do for a living really doesn't matter when getting to know someone, unless you happen to really want to talk about it right now. The catch is that I have to constantly be getting to know new people, since I move around so much, so I much prefer to talk about that other person, or some common interest we share, so that I can have varied and more interesting conversations, rather than go around the world to give the same soliloquy the entire time. (That's why I gave a TEDx talk that's easily accessible to everyone; so I wouldn't have to give one every single day in social events!)
Those who know about my blog always invite me out when I travel through their town to talk about language learning… but I would generally do specific meetings with a bunch of people to do that (or give a private coaching call), so that the rest of the time I can talk about anything else. My long-term friends and I pretty much never talk about language learning stuff, including my polyglot friends. (My most recent conversation with Moses over Facebook was about silly t-shirts for instance)
It's a challenge because people do want to hear interesting travel stories or about how my job works, but behind the Jason Bourne-esque image of every traveller is just a normal guy trying to make new friends. It's a little exhausting to try to convince people of this on such a regular basis, when they first meet me, but when I do it's always worth it and I can stop introducing myself to new people and help a particular new friendship flourish.
A helping hand
While there are many problems involved with not having consistent friendships in the one place (I stay in touch with certain people and meet up with them several times a year, so I do indeed have deep friendships, just not where I happen to be a lot of the time), one is when you really need a helping hand.
For instance, when I was travelling Egypt this year, the day I recorded this video (why I look like crap and don't do anything more than nod politely) I had eaten something that would keep me bed ridden for an entire week. I lost 5kg (11lbs) in my first couple of days (probably all water; I know this because where I stayed had a weighing scale), due to the worst case of vomiting and diarrhoea that I can remember ever happening. And I had to spend this entire week absolutely alone – nobody to make me feel better or bring some food or medicine to me.
Shortly after I arrived in Taiwan, I found that I could get very affordable laser eye surgery and went for it, but needed someone to bring me home after it, since you are effectively blind for a few hours from light sensitivity. Since I didn't have a friend in the world within thousands of kilometres, I had to go for the rather pathetic solution of hiring someone to come find me and drive me home, and walk me up to my apartment.
There have been times when I could really use a bit of emotional support that you can't really get in a Facebook chat window, or even in a video Skype call. Many years for instance, I never would have even known it was my birthday apart from notifications that people have written on my Facebook wall.
Those who depend on their friends a lot in situations like this would find lone travel very hard, but it does definitely make you more independent and self-reliant. These are important skills, but we do need other people more than we would care to admit. I don't feel lonely so much, but it does happen.
I always prioritize making at least one deep friendship in each place I visit (ideally more of course), because I have seen the dangers of ignoring the human aspect – I have met a couple of long-term travellers who simply lose the ability to empathize with other people, because they never get the chance to care for anyone for long enough. I never want this to happen to me, and go out of my way to try to really get to know and help people so there is always some human connection, and that I perhaps leave a place better than how I found it.
When I do have good friends around (even though it may not be the case most of the year, I definitely have people I can rely on that I see every few months), the favours they do for me are always truly appreciated. It makes life so much simpler when you have a helping hand for things that you could never ask of a stranger.
The benefits of their long-term friendships are definitely one of the biggest things that I see settled people take for granted, and when I do have it, I cherish it because I know very well what it's like not to have this a lot of the time.
Long-term non-portable learning and clubs
In Berlin, I've also had access to a piano – it's the first time in my entire travels that I've had a piano where I live. When I was 13 I could play the Moonlight Sanata 3rd movement (the much harder one, very different to the slightly better known 1st movement), and I've always wanted to get back into practising, and maybe expand my classical piano learning to jazz, but I'm never anywhere that has had a piano, so this is really hard.
I've been so busy on my intensive project here that I simply haven't had the time to practise 🙁 . It's going to be very hard to rent an apartment as affordable as this one here with a piano again. This is not the kind of thing you can travel with (like a guitar), and you really need it at home, or at a friend's house that you can visit.
As well as this, I love dancing, and have gotten salsa lessons and tango lessons when it's been affordable, and in both Brazil and Quebec I managed to get modern and hip-hop dance lessons… but then I left. Starting with a new school and new teachers, or even finding a good school dulls your learning process down dramatically.
And this is one reason why languages has been the ideal thing to focus on learning. It's absolutely and completely portable, since I just need to get on Skype and start speaking. I met an Italian friend for lunch today and she said that she was amazed that my Italian was as good as it was the last time we talked even though I haven't been in Italy for years, and it's precisely because I practise it on Skype so often.
But if I wasn't travelling I'd love to be able to get into acting and singing in a musical again (these take many months of rehearsals; and something I loved to do as a teenager), or a non religious choir, or lead up to a dance competition… technically it would be possible to do these things by switching schools all the time, but it certainly isn't the most effective way to do it.
So for now, language learning or things I can do online seem to be the only skills I can really focus on improving, and I'd really like to expand on this, as there are so many wonderful things we can learn in this world.
One of the biggest reasons people tend to want to travel, apart from the pull factors of all the cool things in the other country, would be the push factors of trying to escape their routine.
But I actually miss routines a lot. I have to essentially look for a new supermarket that has what I want, new friends that I can confide in, a nice walking or jogging path, a good regular social event to attend, a place with great food, every single time I move somewhere. Sometimes I really wish I could have these things more easily accessible and not be constantly searching for them.
By the end of the time that I live in a place, the guy I get coffee from recognizes me and gives me a nice smile, or the weekly party I go to has the same familiar faces who wave at me… and then I have to go. It takes time to build these kinds of little nice parts of your routine that so many people take for granted. For me it's such a novelty to be able to say somewhere that I'll have “my usual” order…
To end the list of rants on a lighter note, I have always wanted to have a cat, but dragging one along with me into deserts, up mountains, and in very cold and hot environments, without the promise of consistent high quality cat food, would be animal cruelty! But… cats!!!
Having no home forever is not for me
After doing this for ten entire years, I can definitely say that keeping up this lifestyle until the day I die is not in my plans. I know I'll certainly be on the road at least another few years (I have big plans; not just learning a couple of new languages – you'll see!), but after that I am going to seriously consider my options and where I can finally have a home.
I wouldn't stop travelling really, but it would be so great to have a base, that I always go back to for six to nine months a year, and maybe travel for just 3 months a year. I'll always want to continue exploring other cultures, but the points above (and many more personal ones that I wouldn't blog about), just keep building up with time, and I know that calling myself a true nomad, is not a life long endeavour.
What I will say though is that I have no regrets, and as I said at the start I view this decade or so as a learning experience to hopefully improve me as a person and expand my horizons; in university I learned a lot about science and how many aspects of the world works from a technical point of view, but in the last ten years I've learned many things about how this wonderful world we live in works, by seeing how people across vastly different cultures in it live. But there are other lessons and aspects of life that I look forward to, which are not currently possible for me. That will be a new chapter in my life when the time comes.
The lessons I've learned will stay with me forever, even when I hang up my hat in one place permanently.
For now though, I'm not quite done, and definitely have a few more years left in me! I don't really know how much I have left, but I do know that living on the road should always be an educational experience, and not necessarily your actual life for the entire duration of your time on the planet.
Everyone should definitely travel – as Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page”, but generally I think short term travel is just what the doctor ordered for most people to learn a few important lessons, and open their mind. For some others, a year or so abroad is an excellent chance to experience another culture, but eventually we all have to go home, wherever that home may happen to be.
I hope you enjoyed this post, even if the theme is different to my usual travel ones! I'll certainly have some uplifting travel posts coming soon, I promise 😉