TRAVEL SERIES: The Constant Traveler
THE PRICE OF DOING NOTHING
In 2008, I came to Europe for the 1st time intending to walk across a continent & conquer the world. Five days into my voyage, I became sick. A month later, I ran home with my tail between my legs and cried. I believed I was a failure. I believed I was a coward. For another ten years, I questioned if long-term travel was for me. I distracted myself with relationships of varying kinds, jobs (some worthwhile, some meaningless), and cleaning house. I changed careers and traded apartments as often as I changed my clothes. The more I thought about returning to Europe, the more impossible it seemed...and money (or rather, lack thereof) was an ever-looming shadow. Then, two summers ago, a realization hit me hard:
I only have a limited number of days in my life to live—a limited number of breaths on this earth and heartbeats in my chest.
I can never know how many—and I won't get into philosophical musings about the afterlife, but what I knew was that I was 32 years old, my private practice was taking off...and if I didn't leave right then and try one last time to travel the world, I never would. I also knew that, in truth...it was the only thing in the world that mattered to me. It occurred to me that my lack of money, my job, my relationships, my medical/physical issues...none of these were actually stopping me from traveling. It was my FEAR that kept me stagnant and half-alive, staring out windows for hours rather than taking a step out the door. You see, I had not failed in 2008 but I had not prepared myself for just how frightened and uncomfortable I would be...
In this Western world of comfort, despite being what most in America would consider quite ‘poor,’ I was still privileged. I was accustomed to luxuries that many of us in America take for granted (like clean clothes & clean, running water). I had surrounded myself with habits that not only seemed necessary—they defined me, giving me a false sense of security and identity. Those same privileges and comforts, however, also penned me in.
To travel long term is not at all like traveling as a Tourist or even a Backpacker. When you decide to become a long-term traveler, you are taking on far more than just the ‘where to stay’ and ‘where to eat’ aspects of travel—you are talking about reinventing who you are and, potentially, how the rest of the world sees you. So, before we talk about the financial ‘How,’ we must address the personal ‘How.’ Right now, there are two types of people reading this article—those who dream of the open road and those who are looking for an escape from life.
The latter is waiting for me to offer some miracle answer which will allow them to get everything they think they want—luxury, inspiration, romance, adventure, freedom—without having to pay any sort of price for it. They are the ones who believe the way I travel is free and easy. If there is one truth the world seems to run on, however—other than the law of impermanence—it is what I like to call the law of equal exchange. I know you are familiar with it. It is the law that states that everything has a cost—whether it's money, energy or time—everything. So, in order to gain something, you have to give something.
If you are one of those people looking for an escape, this type of travel is not for you. The road has a way of bringing out all our best & worst traits. To travel this way, you may not need a lot of money, but you will end up paying with your time, your energy...and sometimes things even more precious than that. Be warned. This is not an easy life and there is always a cost to freedom, sometimes higher than you realize or are willing to pay. Does that mean that nothing will ever come to you ‘for free?’ No. But say a kind stranger offers you a place to stay & a meal. In turn, you will be giving them your company and your time. (‘That’s not so much!’ I hear you say, but after weeks on the road and no privacy or down time, you might not want to give of your time or company. Just a thought). If you want to be a good house guest, you will probably give more than that—you clean their house, make them dinner, play music, help them run errands, assist their kids with homework—all lovely things. But remember, these things can also add up.
Often, even when people do not mean to, there will still be something expected of you in return—remember that. Learn to give as much as you get and as much as you can—but also learn what you are not willing to give. Do your best to travel in balance, and the world will provide you with great things. Just remember that nothing comes for free.
So, if you are looking for any easy taste of freedom, excitement or escape from a life that is suffocating you (believe me, we have all been there), look instead first at what amazing steps you can do to alter your life or your perception...but don’t simply sell everything and take to the road as if it will provide for you. It may distract you for a time, but in the end you will be just as overwhelmed and isolated...if not more so, and you will need to constantly work for that freedom.
Now if, on the other hand, you know that you are one of those rare individuals who feels strongest in uncertainty, who feels grounded when the world is falling apart around them, who can be equally satisfied in famine as in feast, who steps outside of a morning only to be flooded with an aching hunger for....a nameless, unknown more...then you are indeed a Constant Traveler.
If that is the case, you are not really waiting for me to tell you ‘how’ to do it—you already know. You simply have to begin...and then keep going, at any cost.
If you are a constant traveler and have not yet taken your first step, you are not truly looking for ways to make this dream a reality—you are looking for justification and permission. You know what you have to do, you know that very few people in this world do what you are going to do, and you are probably terribly afraid. (We all are, and unfortunately that doesn’t always change). But you don’t really need justification or advice. You will never be ready. You simply need to give yourself permission....and go. No one ever said it would be easy—it won’t be—but it will be worth it.
“I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers...”
~ Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire
Over a period of eight and a half months last year, I managed to survive on just over $4.5k, including transportation expenses—one third of what I survived on the year before, staying at home. This never could have happened if it wasn’t for the utter generosity and graciousness of people I met on the road—friends of friends or strangers.
It has been a hard lesson to learn to ask for what I need and to accept help, but a very good lesson—we all take turns taking care of one another. One day it will be my turn again to offer help to someone else on their road. Even with so much kindness, it was a feat to survive on so little for so long, and it was certainly not always conducive to the type of work and research I am trying to accomplish. Most of us prefer a bed to a floor, safety to insecurity—and I always relish the thought of a hot shower, hot meal and the privacy of a private room. But these things are not always available when you travel this way. That is why I say:
Know what kind of traveler you are...and be prepared to have your boundaries and your perceptions constantly challenged.
3.) THE CONSTANT TRAVELLER
n. a person who wanders from place to place without a home or job.
WHO AM I?
If you are the sort of person who wants to know how people halfway around the world wake up and drink their coffee, celebrate joy & process grief, shop at the super market or do their homework, this is the life for you. If you can be equally satisfied in famine as in feast, on a floor as in a bed, surrounded by groups of people as alone—one who values complete and total freedom above all else, who befriends uncertainty & relishes the unexpected—you are indeed one of the rare Vagabond/Constant Travelers.
Where The Tourist comes to a place to find magic and feel like royalty and The Backpacker/Student travels to find adventure, culture or have a party, The Constant Traveler is seeking something more abstract—to discover themselves by discovering the world.
The Vagabond travels because no one place in the world feels like home—but to embrace the transitory nature of life by echoing it, they can acquire a feeling of always being ‘home.’ To choose to travel this way means that you’ve tried the creature comforts, the parties, the house, the promotion...and looked around at a sea of people sleep-walking through life...and realized you could no longer be one of them—that there is a whole great, undiscovered world out there with many perspectives, and that yours is just a tiny fraction of the truth that we call ‘life.’ (At least, that's what it means to me). Many people believe they have what they call a 'gypsy' spirit...not acknowledging any of the realities of what it truly means to be a gypsy. (There is nothing beautiful about persecution, for example, nor having to sleep on the street because you don't have enough money for a room...or when the restaurant won't serve you, because you look like a 'vagrant' after a hard week on the road and no time for laundry).
- You will need to get used to being uncomfortable. When you travel long-term, you will regularly be sweaty, smelly, cold, dirty, lonely, overwhelmed by people, overstimulated and under-slept. Realize that—while this can be challenging to adapt to at first—you are stronger than you realize. You will need to learn to go without certain ‘luxuries’ you take for granted…like regular showers and clean socks. Learning to do without these things will make clear what is actually important to you...and will make these niceties so much more appreciated when you have them. The funniest stories in hindsight are often the hardest ones to have lived through.
- The biggest lesson you will learn is that another dollar means another day. When you are a Constant Traveler, your goal is to make whatever budget you have go as far as possible. So by all means, order that gorgeous dinner in a nice restaurant...but remember that if you do, you may need to sleep in a tent the next night because you have just spent your hostel money on a single meal. Some days it’s worth it, but how often you can go without will dictate how long you can survive on the road. At the same time, remember that going without too often can mean you are not truly experiencing and living in the world around you. Be careful, but not care-full.
- You cannot go back to before. You may settle down eventually and find your own little corner of the world to call your ‘home,' but the road will change you. The seriousness that once filled your daily life—the life-or-death attachments to simple, everyday things like jobs, houses, clothes, social groups—while it may return, you will be cursed (or blessed) knowing that none of it really matters, because none of it is permanent. This can be liberating...but it will also make you an outsider wherever you go. We are not defined nor made great/safe/happy/fulfilled by our possessions, but by our thoughts and actions. You can never unlearn this.
- You may have to ask for assistance, even though it makes you uncomfortable or embarrassed. I often depend on the kindness & generosity of strangers, friends & friends of friends. I have to. This has been the most difficult leesson for me to learn, because I hate asking for help from anyone. In truth, however, this has afforded me the opportunity to connect me with some incredible people, many of whom I now consider very dear friends. It has also made me continually wish to be a thousand times more generous with the things I have to share. When we all support one another, no one goes without and we all win.
- You may not have a bed. I regularly sleep on the couch or floor of someone's apartment. I camp. I have slept, on occasion, down by a river or two (though it was probably technically illegal and very, very cold). I have slept or stayed up all night in train stations, bus stations and airports, because they were free and available. I have even—on occasion—hopped fences to set up a tent on someone’s farmland. These experiences have not been pleasant and a few have been downright dangerous, but in the end I slept and awoke mostly safe and sound. (They sure make for some great stories, later on).
NOTE: I will never sleep on the streets of a big city...though I have stayed awake through the night a couple times when I was too stubborn to shell out the money for a hotel. I would NOT recommend this, however. It can be very dangerous and bad for your health.
- When you travel this way—if you want to do so permanently, or semi-permanently—you will eventually have to find work or work-trade opportunities. Unfortunately this is can be difficult & sometimes illegal. (There will be an entire post later in the series focusing on visa laws and work-trade opportunities. Stay tuned).
- You will have little to no privacy. Ever. You will be on crowded buses. You will hitchhike. You will sleep in hostels (on occasion, when you can afford it) or in people’s homes and they will want you to regale them with tales of the road. You will find internet in crowded coffee shops and pubs. Even when you are ‘alone,’ you will never be alone. This will wear on you. It will also become natural. There are benefits & drawbacks to this constant contact—know when you need to disappear for a while & be willing to go into the woods or shell out the money for a private room when it happens. If you do not, you can become closed off & jaded, constantly exhausted and get sick easily. If this happens, you may find yourself wandering through your travels mindlessly, as though they were at a hated day job. You may be looked at/treated as though you are worthless because of the state of your clothes, your smell, your hair cut. As I said earlier, you will constantly have to reach out and ask for things—everything from directions, to the local way to say, ‘thank you,’ to asking a stranger if they can give you a ride to the next town—even when all you want is to crawl in a hole & hide. This will make you stringer and more outgoing. It can also break you. Be aware of your limits. I cannot stress this enough.
- You will need to learn to reach past your comfort zone. You will need to learn to find your balance in the midst of chaos. You will value the time you have with yourself. You will constantly be connecting to people you never knew existed and whom you might never have reached out to otherwise. You will be inspired; nothing will ever be dull. You will really begin to tune into the energy & subtleties of cities & people. You will have unimaginably rich experiences & learn that people all over the world, in many ways, are the same; going through the same things you do, every day.
- You will realize how infinitely small you are & how vast the world is...but you will also realize how much of an impact one person’s actions can have.
- You will learn to value things that money cannot buy: food, water, laughter, genuine experiences & time shared with friends or strangers...clean socks, a warm bed, long walks, the ecstasy & vibrancy that can exist in simply doing nothing...
We will have multiple posts over the next few weeks specifically focusing on cheap and creative transportation options, sleeping options, food and dining options and work-trade opportunities, among many other things and many of them (while they are options for any type of traveler) will be specifically useful for those traveling long term, so I will not take the time to cover them in detail here. But, for today, remember...
- I want to reiterate: The road has a way of taking care of you—if you give yourself over to it. It will test you every day to make sure you really want this life. Know that you are strong enough to handle anything that comes your way and that every challenge is an opportunity for discovery. Learn to seek the questions and the unknown perspective. This is not some sort of cliche rhetoric, but (in my own experience) a marvelous truth. You have to be daring. You have to be kind. You have to be strong and decide that you are here for a reason and that you will not fail. If you do this, I guarantee magical things will happen to you.
- While you will always be thinking about money...TRY NOT TO. One of the hardest things to do is NOT to worry about money, especially when you have little of it. Don’t be afraid to speak up or step back if something isn’t affordable for you—but remember that things have a way of working themselves out and generosity is a quality you want to cultivate. Perhaps one night you pay too much for a room in a hostel—ok. You did what you had to do. Two nights later, you’ll meet someone in a coffee shop who is inspired by what you are doing and offers you their guest room for a few nights—it also just so happens that their child is about to start studying the subject you majored in. Everybody wins. Perhaps you find yourself in a group of travelers doing a workaway and each one of you take turns making dinner over the course of the week so that, in the end, everyone is well fed and no one has had to spend more than a dollar or two per meal. These things happen all the time, but nothing kills opportunity faster than the constant fear of going without.
- When you are traveling this way, you must learn listen to your gut. What you are doing already doesn’t make sense to 95% of the world—don’t be afraid of what people think of you; they will always think something. When we are at home, where it’s safe, we have the luxury of shutting out the little voice inside our head that tells us to do things that don’t make sense. In my experience, this can be a matter of life or death, famine or feast. Do not doubt yourself, ever—listen to that little voice. Your conscious brain may not understand why you are supposed to go down one road and not another, but I guarantee some part of you does. Listen to it, or pay the price.
- Remember that you are not alone. The road is full of travelers just like you. Be aware, be vigilant, but remember that most of us are there for one another.
So…now that that we’ve covered these three types of traveler—with a few of the pluses, minuses & realities for each—who do you think you are? What type of traveling suits you best? Once you know that, you can plan accordingly. For some things, you will have to have money…but for all these kinds of travel, there are still common points we can focus on and you can take advantage of. I will do my best to cover them over the next few weeks.
The last time I came home, a friend said to me, “But...you could die out there!”
The thing is, we can die anytime, anywhere...and what’s worse—you can die a little more each day by never truly living...
I have never had as much money as I wanted; definitely not enough to make me feel safe and secure. I am frightened every morning I wake up. But I am also alive. Somehow, I have been able to accomplish and withstand greater things than I ever dreamed possible. Somehow magical things happen...because I have decided that I will not give up and I will not fail. When I am 92 years old and someone asks me what I remember most about my life, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna talk about that promotion I received once at my day job.
What are you waiting for?
In love, laughter & adventure—at home or abroad,
~ Genevieve (The Constant Traveller)