In many ways, it feels like my journey as a nomad has only just begun. But that day in late June when I packed up my backpack and left my old house in Minneapolis? That feels like CENTURIES ago, some black-and-white movie I once watched.
The last 14 months have been an exercise in almost complete change — I sold everything, left all that I knew and charged into an indefinite journey of solo travel. To do that, I had to unlearn how to live, how to think, how to operate, and then calculate and build a new normal in a totally new existence.
After more than a year as a nomad traveling mostly through Central America, here’s what I learned:
It’s not glamorous. Those photos of perfectly coiffed adventurers sipping frozen cocktails by fancy oceanfront pools that you see on your Instagram feed? Forget them. Who are those people?? OK they’re probably just way more successful than me — but I’m here to represent the realistic view (deadpan: how I always wanted to describe my life). For the average, low-budget nomad, that kind of lifestyle is going to be out of the question. Instead, get used to elements like cold showers, cockroaches, busted mattresses, sweltering busses and cooking on an electric hotplate. Your wardrobe will be condensed to about eight shirts, two pairs of shoes and a couple pairs of perpetually stained jeans. You’re probably not going to be super comfortable all the time. You’re probably not going to feel super clean all the time. Speaking of which…
Cleanliness is overrated. Sometimes you’ll have a decent shower and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll shower over a hole in the ground. Sometimes you’ll shower next to the chicken coop. A lot of times you’ll scream your way through icy cold showers. Your beauty routine will cease to exist. Learn to embrace a little sweat. Learn to embrace water as a form of air conditioning. Learn to pee while standing up. Also just go buy a lot of wet wipes.
You gotta roll with it. Sometimes life is a game of “figure it out.” And sometimes it’s an exercise in “ain’t nothing you can do.” Honestly, the nomad existence is totally insane. The sooner you realize that, the better. You’re not going to be able to be in control anymore. Things will rarely be ideal. You’ll miss busses, get lost, struggle with the language, leave your ATM card in the machine, drop your keys in a lake. Your bathroom drain will overflow and you won’t understand which products are which at the grocery store. You might even fall into sewage-infused sink mud and manage to pull yourself out 20 minutes later (yep, that happened.) It’s going to be hard, especially in the beginning, because, remember, you’re UNLEARNING HOW TO LIVE. In the long run, it might affect your personality, but in a positive way — you’ll learn to brush off adversity and go with the flow. Discomfort is good: it builds capacity. You’ll come out stronger.
Organization and self-motivation are necessary. You no longer have an office. Or bosses. Or meetings. Or feedback. Or direction. Or work structure of any kind. You will often find yourself without WiFi. You’ll often find yourself without a desk (I’ve worked from cafes, from beds, from busses, from big rocks, by sitting on the ground leaning up against a building). Life might throw you an insane day of travel, but you’ve still got to get stuff done. What this means is finding the inner strength to execute (and be creative, in my case) whenever and wherever you need to. And because your desk is traveling with you, it helps to be organized — I carry a mobile office filled with all the things I need — pens, business cards, camera equipment, cords, hard drives and my two favorite computer-cleaning tools to help me pretend my life has some kind of order.
You will find a new meaning for independence. Maybe you thought you were independent before. But this new nomad life will probably stretch your definition of the word. Not only will you be responsible for keeping yourself safe and fed and entertained, You’ll also be wholly responsible for your mental health and wellbeing in a way you likely never were before. Your network of support, will be far away. You will get sick, tired, lonely, scared, sad, confused, discouraged and exasperated, and for the most part you’ll do that alone.
People will surprise you, too. Ever on the move, true community can be hard to grasp. But the world is full of beautiful people who rise to the occasion, who give you directions and advice and emotional support and soup when you’re sick (Mel, I love you forever). When you’re at your worst, when you really need it, someone will help. Someone will give you a ride, help you communicate, find your lost keys, let you in their guest house to shower off the sewage mud.
Routine will be more important than ever. Whatever normalcy you used to have is now gone — so finding little routines in the absence of routine can help give structure to your life. Plan time for reading, make a home workout schedule, cook a meal, make your pick, pick three things that you can do the same way every day. This will help you feel like less of an untethered astronaut, floating through space.
So is prioritizing your mental health. A year in, you’ll learn you can handle a lot. But that doesn’t mean you should, all the time, if it isn’t necessary. In year two, I’ve raised my standards of living. I understand, now, what I need in a living situation and I’m willing to pay $10 more a night for it. I understand, now, that seeking out every meal of my life is probably not sustainable, so I ensure I at least have a hot plate, a fridge and a coffeemaker. I understand that being “out” every moment of every day is probably not healthy, so I make sure my apartment is somewhere I can be comfortable working and hanging. I started exercising more, thinking about vegetables. It’s easy to feel like you’re on one giant adventure filled with seeing everything, meeting everyone and FOMO if you dare to miss any of it — but you’ll learn to listen to your inner voice, to give your body and mind the rest it needs, to sacrifice some of the excitement and exploration for moments of peace and solitude. This is as important as everything else.
More or less, everything will be OK. Whatever happens, you’ll figure it out. Or people will come through. Maybe your problem will turn into some unforeseen lovely surprise. Or at the very least, into a hilarious sewage sink mud you’ll be telling for years to come. More likely than not, the situation will resolve, you’ll survive, the sun will come up the next day and offer a fresh start and new perspective.
And it will probably be the time of your life. You will learn every single day — about yourself, about the world, about the strength and kindness of people. You will feel stupid. You will feel small. You will feel privileged and guilty. You will feel amazement and wonder. You will feel love and gratitude. In fact, you’ll feel the peaks and depths of all emotions — the deepest sadness, the greatest joy, the most searing pain. And that’s because you’re alive, truly, as much as you’ve ever been. You’re no longer existing; you’re living as an action verb. Congratulations.