Three years in: An update on my experience as a nomad

Three years in: An update on my experience as a nomad

If you were to ask me how or why I’ve made certain decisions in my life, I’d have to say I really don’t know. My own decision-making process is truly a black box to me. I generally don’t have any recollection of taking an actual decision at any point; instead I just wake up one day and realize that I’ve put a certain chain of events in motion. And I’m just fine with that.

After spending years chasing academic and professional opportunities that would enable me to live in other countries, at a certain point I wanted to have more power to choose where I would be. I was thrilled to learn about the concepts of “location independence” and “digital nomadism,” which seemed to offer just what I was looking for – and started looking for work that I could do online. It then didn’t take me long to realize that if I wanted to take full advantage of my new flexibility and freedom, it didn’t make sense to keep a base. Before I knew it, I had given notice on my flat and started the process of downsizing my belongings. I waved good-bye to my landlord at the end of October 2014 and have been on the go ever since.

After a brief visit to my parents, I headed to Southeast Asia to eat my fill of mangos, rambutan, and mangosteens and see some friends. Thereafter I moved on to Europe, where I hung out for about two and a half years – mostly in the continent’s eastern corridor and Mediterranean region. The newest chapter is South Asia, which just began a few days ago. Along the way it’s been a mixture locations that were familiar and new to me, including Malaysia, Thailand, Romania, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Malta, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sri Lanka.

What has changed over the course of the past three years?

On a practical level, one big change has been downgrading from two bags (one large, one small) to just a carry-on backpack. I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a “one-bagger” at the start, but after a year I decided that lugging so much around just wasn’t worth the effort. I love the ease and simplicity of living out of one small bag, and it’s made me realize how little I really require. It’s also made me accept that possessions will flow into and out of my life on an as-needed basis. For example, it was great when a friend gave me a few sweaters to stave off the end-of-the-year chill in Spain – but as soon as spring hit in Cyprus, I could happily feed them to a clothing donation box to make room for sunscreen and a hat.

I’ve also realized that maintaining balance is important to me in many areas. For instance, I am much happier if I alternate living alone with living with others. I’m also more content to spend time in sleepier places if I’ve just been in a city that’s brimming with things to do and people to meet (although I’m still an urbanite at heart).

What is different from what I expected?

I’m not sure I had that many set expectations when I slid into this lifestyle. All along I’ve viewed it as a big experiment in which I am tweaking things as I go and making an effort to follow whatever I’m “feeling” at a particular moment.

That being said, I think I did envisage myself working out of a stream of cool cafés and co-working spaces – which hasn’t happened. It turns out that much of my work requires more concentration than I can achieve in a public space, and that some of my best working times are mornings and late nights – when I’d frankly rather be flopped on my bed working in my pajamas. I’m also not so keen on lugging my laptop around, for a variety reasons. When I do set up shop outside of “home,” I find that I enjoy the change of pace – so perhaps I’ll try to do it more regularly.

I think I may have also foreseen a bit more continent-hopping than I have been doing. My decisions to spend a lot of time in a few particular regions has largely been driven by the fact that I just really dig these regions and feel quite content there. However, I’ve also realized that a lot of long-haul movements can be both expensive and draining.

What have been the biggest challenges?

On a practical front, fracturing my ankle (and subsequently having a cast and being on crutches for several months) while in Albania certainly wasn’t a highlight. Ironically, a few days before that I had skipped hiking a slippery trail in Montenegro when I thought about what a hassle it would be if I had a leg injury. Go figure! At any rate, everything worked out fine in the end. I found great medical care, some truly amazing Airbnb hosts, and lots of helpful random strangers – for which I am truly grateful. It was also very eye-opening for me to come to the conclusion that as I didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular (I didn’t even have transport or accommodation booked beyond 4 or 5 days after the accident), it really didn’t matter if I just stayed put for a while. The “living in the now” I had been struggling to learn in years of yoga practice suddenly all made sense to me!

Another challenge may be spending too much time on my laptop. Between work, travel arrangements, keeping in touch with friends and family, and the usual social media/entertainment/random surfing time-sucks, my eyes are getting a bit rectangular. I think I’m also slowly going blind. I’m working hard to decrease my screen time these days, but I’ll admit that it’s a struggle – so please wish me luck!

How have I grown as a person?

To be honest, it would be easier to focus instead on how I HAVEN’T grown. Much of the growth has come from having more alone time that I would if I actually “went to work” somewhere or perhaps had a fixed base. Having the freedom to carve my life out in any number of ways has also made me more aware of my own personal definition of quality of life. It’s interesting to see not only the countries and cities that I’ve gravitated toward, but also the social settings I try to seek out, what’s important to me in terms of day-to-day practicalities, how I react to different situations, and where my comfort zone begins and ends in a variety of contexts. If you want a fast-track your journey to self-development and actualization, I definitely recommend a nomadic path!

However, I think the most valuable thing has been becoming more adaptable, flexible, and open-minded. I would have already used these terms to describe myself three years ago, but it’s like I’ve graduated from amateur to professional status. When you’re constantly facing new situations and parameters (both positive and negative), going with the proverbial flow becomes a basic survival skill. I think I’ve also internalized the transient nature of all set-ups and the need to look for any lessons I can learn. It’s also been a good reminder that in absolute terms, there are few “right” ways to do anything – whether it’s on an individual or a cultural level. These feelings have also made me limit the advance travel planning I do; I simply want to have the flexibility to react to situations and feelings as they come along.

Of course, there have also been countless amazing people, places, and experiences along the way – but more on that in the months to come.

What’s next?

We shall see! This lifestyle has been a great fit for me, and I am filled with gratitude for being in a position to embrace it. I don’t have any plans at this point to establish a base anywhere, but I still know there’s a possibility that I’ll wake up one day and decide that’s what I want or need; if that happens, I will look at my options and go from there. In the meantime, I am trying to shake things up a bit workwise and have some projects that I look forward to diving into in the coming months (including this blog). I’ll keep you posted – promise!

(@ Colombo, Sri Lanka)

20 thoughts on “Three years in: An update on my experience as a nomad

    1. Thanks so much, Kim! I’m enjoying watching your fascinating and inspiring journey as well. 🙂 I hope our paths will cross again soon and we can shut another horchata cafe DOWN!

  1. As a “root vegetable,” I often look at your life with awe and envy. Mostly I’m so impressed with your courage– to live your convictions, identify your joys, passion, and for having an amazing ability to act! Your courage is an inspiration I have tapped into in my life and I am proud to call you friend and sister.

    1. Aw, thanks so much for this, Dipstar — it truly means the world. 🙂 You’re doing some pretty amazing and inspirational things yourself, and I am truly grateful to have you in my life.

    1. Thanks so much for the lovely comment, Vilma! We only met in person a few times, but I’m truly glad that the cyberworld has allowed us to get to know each other a bit better. I’m excited to follow your next chapter as well! 🙂

  2. What a brilliant and thoughtful post – makes me look forward to future ones. Question: do you ever feel like there are trade-offs in terms of lifestyle? If so, how do you process that? I am ‘stuck’ where I am for a few more years (given family arrangements), and am trying to focus on the good stuff it allows (building a community; attending regular classes of stuff I like; etc.) to offset the stuff I miss (going with the flow; unexpected turns/developments; etc.). I am keen to know your thoughts on this, if you do not mind sharing. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for the kind feedback, Wendy — I’m really glad that you liked the post and I welcome the question!

      My philosophy is that there are trade-offs involved no matter what kind of a life you choose to live, and things like having a sense of community and being able to take classes would definitely be at the top of my own list of reasons to stay in one place. I think your approach of focusing on these benefits is a great one, especially if you don’t see yourself staying in your current situation forever. I’ve always found it helpful to hone in on what a particular set-up has to offer instead of what it lacks – among other things, it helps me to really appreciate and take advantage of whatever those advantages may be.

      I’ve also found it helpful to extend the balance notion, realizing that if I can’t tick all of the proverbial boxes in any particular day or week, over the long run I’ll still achieve some sort of homeostasis. For instance, after living in Bangkok, where I felt like it was hard for me to develop a sense of community, I eventually went back to the States for a few years – with diving deep into community as one of my main goals. If I hadn’t had a chance to fill my community tank, so to speak, I’m not sure the transition to being a nomad would have been so easy. Jonathan Fields of the Good Life Project talks about some similar ideas, using the concept of three buckets that we need to strive to keep (relatively) full: contribution, connection, and vitality. Have you read any of his work or watched any of his videos? If not, you might find it interesting to check some of his work out.

      I’d also throw out that there are many people who find a way to have a “hybrid” lifestyle that allows them to have what they see as the best of all worlds. For instance, they may keep a base where they live part of the year but also spend extended periods of time on the road (sometimes even renting their own home out on Airbnb). These folks sometimes choose to define themselves more as “location independent” than as “nomads,” as they are in a position to be anywhere but sometimes choose that anywhere to be home. If I decide I need a base at some point (likely for the original reasons you noted), this is the route I’m guessing I’ll take. It could be something for you to keep in mind, too.

      I hope this helps – and thanks again for the feedback, my friend. 🙂

  3. I am thrilled to have met you, Sarah, recently while we both were in Romania. It was wonderful to watch you in action, meeting people, planning future travel and sharing tips with new nomads. I also loved seeing how you were flexible in some ways and firm in others. You are inspiring, keep on trekking. Cheers, Leanne

    1. Thanks so much, Leanne – I’m thrilled to have met you as well, and your kind words really mean a lot to me. 🙂 I hope that all is wonderful and well i London and that our paths are going to cross again at some point in the future!

  4. Wow, Sarah. You’re truly a “writer” in every sense.
    I’d like to say you got it from me, but I’ll be content just reading what my lovely (in every way) daughter has written. BBL. Your Old Man.

    1. Aw, thanks — that really means a lot to me. 🙂 I definitely wouldn’t be here without you, in more ways than one. You’re a true inspiration!!

  5. just this moment deciding on return to states to teach public school (yuck) in new Orleans (yeah!) -with summers to travel, or take a uni job in Santiago, chile.
    Am in Honduras now b/c I can truly communicate in Spanish- but not really developing a community; then again nor did I do so in Connecticut… Generally I like books better and better than people and often prefer life abroad in terms of learning experiences, but how do you manage those lonely moments (xmas coming) that can be extra scary on the road? I don’t do online teaching also b/c of isolation (is that how you
    re financing your travels? with house sitting to keep expenses down? is that why you don’t do Americas/Africa- slower wifi?) BIG props on getting down to 1 bag, a real feat. Sri Lanka may suit you- you seem to me somewhat in a kinda sanyatsin state? giving up householder status?

    1. Dan, you are another truly nomadic soul – thank for the feedback and for dropping by!

      The community issue is indeed a challenge on the road. I define myself as an ambivert, which means I need time on my own to recharge just as must I need the energy that being around other people can provide. To make sure I feed both parts of me, I tend to alternate between staying in flats on my own and taking a private room in someone’s home (I haven’t delved into house-sitting yet, but I’ll probably give it a go at some point). This has been a good strategy for me. I also look for events (via meet-up.com, Facebook groups, Couchsurfing, etc.) to find ways to connect with people and get out and about – although as you point out in some places it’s definitely easier than others (for example, Berlin? Easy; Iasi, Romania? A little more challenging!). I’ve also taken to viewing remote communications (whether by text or voice) as a form of social interaction. I actually don’t find myself getting too lonely, even over the holidays (although I’d say it’s easier to manage when you’re in a part of the world where the holidays are different – I’m sure you’ve experienced that yourself). If any feelings start to surface, I’m big into distraction…and can tell you a lot about cinemas in different parts of the world.

      As far as supporting myself is concerned, I’m not teaching online – I mostly edit. That’s a bit solitary as well, as I don’t deal with my clients directly – but the advantage is that I also don’t have to worry about booking virtual meeting times (which I did at the beginning when I was doing interview coaching and a few other things). I’d like to try teaching online in the future, just to see what it’s all about…but it definitely does seem to have both advantages and disadvantages.

      In terms of location: The Americas and Africa are places I’ve spent time in over the years, and I’m sure I will return. Latin America – which is gaining in popularity among nomads – has been calling me in particular; in the past few years, I seem to have had a foot halfway on a plane to Ecuador or Colombia! It’s true that much of Africa isn’t as easy logistically for one- or two-month stays, but who knows – perhaps I’ll venture back that way again someday as well. Eastern and southern Africa are the places I’ve spent the most time, but the continent is truly so vast and diverse. (And if you’ve got any suggestions, I’m all ears!)

      And a satya state? That works for me. ☺ I’ve also always got my eyes on santosha.

      Thanks again for the comments and questions, Dan – please keep me posted on your decisions and where you’re going to end up in 2018!

  6. Sarah – It’s so thrilling to read about your nomadic life. I dream of simple —maybe tiny house — living. Chuck and I are fantasizing about/planning retirement down the road and just yesterday we talked about the possibility of having a base that we let out via air bnb or similar plan while we travel.

    A few questions: Are you a pet person and, if so do you miss having a cat or dog? Would you consider writing a post on what you carry in your pack—realizing it depends on season/location? What are your absolute necessities? Another suggestion, would you please write about vegan eating while traveling? Challenges? Surprises?

    Thanks and good to hear from you!

    Heather

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, Heather! I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog, and it’s great to hear that you and Chuck are thinking of some interesting possibilities during retirement. All of the opportunities these days are really exciting, no? And I love the tiny house movement!

      As far as your question about pets goes, I’m definitely an animal lover but having a pet hasn’t figured into my life since childhood. Given my moves, travel, and often crazy work situations, it just didn’t seem fair to the animal and would have been a logistical challenge. I’ve enjoyed friends’ pets over the years, through, and when I do the “private room” option via Airbnb I’ve found that people often have animals. I might try housesitting next year, which is another way to enjoy some four-legged company (seeing as most sits do involve caring for people’s pets as well as their homes). There are also sometimes opportunities to visit animal shelters; the place I’m staying next is apparently near to one, and I look forward to checking it out. I’m also aware of one nomadic writer who travels with a dog – check out Gigi Griffis’s work here.

      Regarding my packing list and experiences as a vegan traveller – I’d be happy to share on both counts! Please watch this space for more in the coming months. Thanks for putting in the “requests”; as I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself, sometimes nailing down good topics is even harder than the writing itself. ☺

      Happy weekend!

  7. This has been delightful to read. I admire your courage. Much food for thought in the entries I’ve read. Keep it up. I look forward to following your travels and insights.

    1. Thanks so much for the very kind and positive feedback, Mary! I’m thrilled to hear that you’re enjoying my blog and really appreciate the support and encouragement. 🙂 I hope that you and Bob are keeping well!

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