(Q24N) by Camille Willemain, This American Girl – How often do you open Instagram to see lustful photos of paradise, and wish that were your life?
I’m willing to assume it happens every single day. It even happens to me.
A snap of an umbrella clad cocktail in the foreground of an infinity pool. Or a selfie next to a tiger, from atop an elephant, or on the back of a camel. And then there’s my personal favorite, a yoga pose at sunset on a deserted beach.
As someone who posts photos like these multiple times a day, I want to tell you that a lot of what’s out there… isn’t real.
Last Fall I went on a press trip with the Costa Rica tourism board. We walked across hanging bridges high in the tree canopies and stumbled upon a family of howler monkeys. We soaked in hotsprings and rode horses to volcanoes and waterfalls. We skipped and played on Caribbean beaches.
You can imagine, the photos were amazing. It looked like paradise. Collectively we had hundreds of thousands of followers seeing how awesome it is to be a travel blogger and live nomadically around the world.
Our trip, however, was very stressful. We spent more time in the car than we did exploring, checked into most of our hotels after dark, barely had time to sleep, and couldn’t even eat a meal without being on camera. Not a single blog reader nor Instagram follower nor Facebook fan, would have had any idea.
A likely story among millennials. We share what others will envy, we create facades and egos, we present pretty packages that don’t begin to tell the whole story. We share everything, but we don’t really share much at all.
The same way that airbrushed magazines can cause us all to wonder why we don’t have the body proportions of a Barbie doll nor the skin of a newborn baby, lifestyle bloggers can make us wonder why OUR lives don’t look that good. Despite good intentions, they disillusion us into thinking that they have perfect lives.
I see the danger that exists here.
While a life of travel is exhilarating and blissful and eye opening and so much freaking fun, it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. It isn’t all perfect. It takes dedication and sacrifice and a lot of self work.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know how important it is to me to always keep it real. So, today I’m shedding light on the life of a nomad. I’m sharing with you the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. I want you to not only see that nomadic life isn’t “perfect,” I want you to see that your life is beautiful, no matter what it looks like on camera.
This is my experience, of what it’s really like being a nomad, traveling the world:
Countries and People Undoubtedly Change Your Life
We’ve all heard it before, “travel will change your life!” And honestly, it will. At the very least, it will dramatically change the way that you perceive the world. Meeting people who spend their days surfing in the ocean, sleeping in wooden shacks, and eating everything that comes out of their own jungle, will do that to you. So will having impoverished children beg you for money, squatting over a hole to use a toilet, and getting food poisoning on an overnight bus ride.
One way or another, travel reveals the myriad ways of living that exist in this world. It broadens your perspective on what’s possible not only for others, but for yourself.
Before I ever traveled to Costa Rica, I never would have thought that living off the grid in the jungle was remotely realistic. Then I met tons of North Americans and Europeans who were doing it. Before I started backpacking on my own, I never thought that being nomadic and making an income online was possible. Then I met bloggers, photographers, journalists, and all kinds of people dedicated to living that lifestyle.
In the process I discovered new sides of myself. I discovered that I can speak another language when the situation requires me to. That I love coconut curry and Moroccan tagine. That I’m capable of sleeping in bunk beds with strangers and taking 36 hour long bus rides. That I’m not in fact a fashionista city girl, but a tree hugging barefoot beach bum.
If you’re open to new experiences, a nomadic lifestyle is the surest way expand who you think you are, and consequently your capacity for happiness.
You Experience Rapid Self-Growth
Remember the way it felt as a kid when you went away for summer camp and came back feeling like a different person? Multiply that by a thousand, because when you’re a nomad, the summer never ends.
When your time is no longer consumed by a “career,” long traffic jams, or energy draining relationships, you can focus instead on yourself. Few people in Modern society practice self-reflection, though on the road, it’s necessary for survival.
In the years I’ve been traveling, I’ve found myself lost in dodgy neighborhoods, horribly ill on remote islands, and confused in so many situations where no one speaks my language. In those moments, there’s no one to blame and no one to fix it. There’s just me. I’m required to sit with myself and figure it out. To ask how I can better the situation and not make the same mistake again. That brings great responsibility, but all responsibility brings opportunity for growth.
Once I realized that I was capable of solving any problem, surviving most experiences, and choosing my own happiness, I evolved profoundly as a human being. And it never ends. The road constantly reveals new lessons to those who are brave enough to keep moving forward.
You May Outgrow Others
This self-growth often comes with a caveat. It can make returning home to see family and friends harder. Even after a month on the road, you may feel like a completely new person, while at home, nothing seems to have changed.
I struggled with this for years. I saw shadows of my old self in others and it scared me that they might pull me back into my old patterns. I could no longer relate to people swept up in materialism and unhealthy relationships. They couldn’t relate to my gypsy lifestyle, my comfort with filth, nor my newfound spirituality.
Meeting people constantly and forming so many friendships across the world, I inevitably had to start letting relationships go (or at least lessen), in order to have space for new experiences. Though, more importantly, I had to let go of my expectations of what I thought my old relationships should look like. I had to learn to love people without hoping for them to change in the same way that I have.
Getting Work Done is Really, Really Challenging
In the beginning long-term travel may feel like a perpetual vacation, but if you’re committed to sustaining a nomadic lifestyle, you’ll probably have to work at some point. Except that all of the people around you are still in vacation mode.
Imagine trying to write articles in the hostel lobby, surrounded by fresh faced backpackers in Bangkok. Or answering work emails from a beach bar with spotty wifi. Or constantly surviving the temptation of ditching your to-do list for a day of surfing and a night of partying.
It requires unbelievable discipline.
While I won’t say that it’s impossible, in my experience the only way to get work done is to travel more slowly than you would otherwise, to find a place to call home base, and learn to be a little less of a social butterfly. Typically I alternate days, having one day for pure adventure and the next focused on work in a coffee shop. Other times I’ll devote my morning to accomplishing my tasks and have the afternoon free for play time. I try to stay in my own room instead of a dorm so that I can have space without distraction.
Though honestly, when I really need to get sh*t done, I hole up in a cabin in Costa Rica or I fly back to stay with my family in the states.
There Will Be Times When You Run Out of Money
Alright, let’s get real for a minute here. Most people living nomadically, are barely making ends meet. Seriously. Pretty much everyone I know who travels for a living, myself included, has struggled or still struggles financially. Somehow, we all make it work, but there are times when it gets scary.
Like the time traveling in Southeast Asia when I wasn’t able to focus on work, and consequently found myself nearly out of money. We’re talking $30 left in the bank and no flight home. Or when I did my Yoga Teacher Training in Costa Rica and had been meditating for 12 hours a day instead of hustling to get freelance work. I had to borrow money from friends, stay with people for free, and figure out how I was going to improve my business while I was essentially homeless.
Though each time I’ve run out of money there has been an incredible lesson for me. It’s been a reminder to not get too comfortable. That relaxation is wonderful, but we all need to strike the balance between effort and ease. In fact, running out of money was precisely the motivator that drove me to start this blog in the first place. Imagine if I had been able to just chill on the beach all day on a trust fund? This unbelievable source of inspiration and fulfillment in my life, my blog, wouldn’t even exist.
You Learn to Roll With the Punches
I used to try to control everything. Whether it was my color coordinated closet to my perfect stacks of coffee table books, I liked everything to be in its place. I didn’t like when plans changed or when people changed. I lacked the ability to go with the flow.
It didn’t take long before I realized that on the road I have very little control over what happens around me. Sometimes buses will be late, other times they will break down. People will treat me with unexpected kindness or they might ruthlessly scam me. Living nomadically means living at the mercy of the world.
There’s actually something extremely liberating about that. The surrender that travel forces upon you brings a freeing flexibility. Like a tree swaying in the wind, you realize that your strength lies in your ability to bend. The more able you are to roll with the punches, the more you can handle whatever comes your way.
Staying Put Feels Scary
Constant movement and stimulation can teach flexibility, but it can also create restlessness. When you’re never required to stay put in one place, running away becomes an appealing option in situations of struggle.
“Should I work through this conflict, or should I pack up and change countries?” is actually a realistic question for most nomads. We have such freedom in our ability to move that we’re never required to stick around when things get uncomfortable.
What many people don’t realize, is that the inability to sit still is actually a cage in itself. Many times I’ve felt terrified, wondering if I’ll ever be content being in one place. It feels like being homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.
The only cure is stillness. Not necessarily stillness in space, but stillness from within. Embracing the idea that it doesn’t matter where you are or where you aren’t, because you are always home. You are home. The key is not finding a place in the world that you love with all of its imperfections. The key is loving yourself with all of yours.
You’re Never Alone and You’re Alone All of the Time
People often ask me if I get lonely traveling on my own. The answer is a resounding “no” and also an “oh my god yes.” There’s always going to be people to hang out with when your traveling. In fact at times you’ll crave solitude. However, it’s not always going to be the people that you want to be around or the conversations that you want to have. There’s a huge difference between company and intimacy. You’ll learn that you can be in a crowded room and still feel lonely.
You’ll have times when you miss your best friends who have known you your whole life. Your family who loves you even when you’re at your worst. The people who don’t mind if you break down and cry or have a hundred TMI moments.
But you’ll learn to find independence. You’ll understand who you are better away from the relationships that you once considered part of who you are. You’ll learn to love your alone time. And the more comfortable you become being alone, the more you attract the people who you can develop deep relationships with, even on the road. Many conversations never make it past the surface, but some dig deep and grow fast and fierce.
I’ve met some of my best friends traveling, from yoga teachers in Southeast Asia to health coaches in Costa Rica. My roots will always come from the states, but people in the road are on the same journey as my soul. The key is knowing yourself well enough to know who you want to share your time with, and loving yourself enough to enjoy your own company.
Relationships Take a Back Burner
It’s been over four years since I was in a romantic relationship. Yep, four years. Honestly, I love being on my own, but there are moments when I wish I had someone to experience this adventure with. I feel fairly certain this solitude is because of my nomadic lifestyle.
Think about it, how are you going to meet your future partner when you’re constantly changing locations? Or spending long stints in touristic beach towns with oversexed locals?
Of course, when you’re traveling it’s possible to sleep with a different person every single night. And plenty of people do. But I’d rather be alone than with someone who I don’t feel something for. I’d rather be in bliss by myself under the full moon than have an orgasm with someone I’ll never look at again.
The times when I have fallen for men on the road, it’s always short lived. Perhaps the moment passes too quickly and we both continue on with our journeys. Though more often than not I meet people who seem to be not only living nomadically, but running away from themselves. And when sex on the road is easy to find, they lack the motivation to invest in anything.
But even the men who weren’t open, opened something within me. And despite these alleged “failures,” I still believe that if I keep continuing down the path that I love, my path with cross with the man I’m meant to love. Otherwise, honestly, I’d rather walk it alone.
Letting Go is a Constant Practice
If you want to learn to let go, you could become a Buddhist, or you could become a nomad instead.
At some point everything you own will get lost, stolen, or destroyed. You’ll have to say goodbye, often forever, to most people that you meet. You will fall in love with countries without an idea of when you might return.
Constantly letting go isn’t easy, but the beautiful part is that it allows you to remain an open vessel for the new miracles that life has in store.
You Will Get Sick. You Just Will.
There’s a reason they call it traveler’s diarrhea. I’ve never met a nomad who didn’t have food poisoning at least a dozen times. It’s hands down the worst thing about this lifestyle.
Feeling sick in the best of circumstances sucks. Feeling sick in a crowded dorm room with a toilet all the way down the hall? Terrible. Feeling sick in a hut with a sand floor on a tropical island with no air conditioning? Even worse.
I got so sick and tired of being sick and tired, that I spent one summer in Costa Rica figuring out how to make sure it never happened again. I discovered probiotics. Not just any old probiotics. Extremely effective, practically free probiotics, that I could make myself and travel with all over the world. They’re essential and everyone who travels in developing countries needs to ingest them. Read more about them in my post How to Travel the World and Never Get Food Poisoning.
Travel Burnout is Inevitable
It might take a while, years even, but eventually your battery will run out. Constant movement without rest is simply not possible. Particularly when you’ve got work to do and your immune system is fighting a constant battle against foreign bacteria.
I didn’t truly experience travel burnout until about two years in, when I was backpacking in Southeast Asia. Always having to figure out where I was going to sleep, living on a shoestring, and trying to stay healthy in a world that loves MSG, wore on me. I was sick of having the same conversations with people “where are you from,” “how long are you traveling for,” “where have you been?” I even wrote to all of you that I Don’t Want to be a Backpacker Anymore.
In the past I would retreat back to Puerto Viejo whenever I got tired. Traveling in Central and South America, Costa Rica was close by so it was easy to spend a month relaxing at the beach in my favorite little town. But in Southeast Asia, I didn’t have that.
So when I got so tired that I wanted to go home, I decided to make a place my home. I spent three weeks on an island with no cars in Indonesia, Gili Air. It revitalized me. I finally caught up on my work and processed through my recent heartbreak. I stayed long enough to make lasting friendships with people who I’m still deeply connected with today.
Travel burnout is inevitable. Which is why if you’re living nomadically, you need to find a place that you consider home. A haven, a retreat where you can find sanctuary whenever you want to rest, have real friendships, and some sort of routine. For me, that place is Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.
It’s Easy to Become Jaded
Then there’s the nomads who seem to be burned out perpetually. Many years on the road have left them jaded. And I can see how. I’ve seen my own wanderlust eyes glaze over at times. I’ve felt my wonder slip away at times.
I’ve stood at glorious gushing waterfalls and thought, “I saw a better one in Laos.” Or snorkeled in the gulf of Thailand and silently stated, “It’s not as impressive as Belize.” I’ve gone on trips that would be a dream come true to so many people and completely taken them for granted
What I’ve learned is that we can’t always expect travel to spontaneously show us the magic. The more we experience in this world, the more we have to practice opening ourselves to it. The less it becomes about being moved from what surrounds us, and the more it becomes about being moved by what is within us.
And taking more moments of gratitude never hurts.
You Understand the True Meaning of Freedom
If you’ve spent your whole life in an office working a job that you don’t love to pay for a life that you don’t love, it’s easy to realize you don’t have absolute freedom. You may even fantasize about how freeing it would be to leave everything behind and travel the world.
And it is.
But then it hits you. You find yourself faced with the same problems that you ran away from. Only now, there’s nowhere left to escape. Because you’re already in the wide open space of the whole wide world and you can’t book a flight to the moon.
Some people keep running. And running. And running. Always wanting to feel the rush that they felt when they first started traveling, unsure how to recapture it again.
Some choose to look within instead. They realize that wherever they go, there they are. That they’ve always had the key to unlock their own cage, they just couldn’t see it until the walls of convention came down.
No matter where you are in space or in circumstances, you always have the choice to be free. Because freedom comes from acceptance. It comes from deciding that where you are right now in this moment is perfect. Who you are right now in this moment is perfect. Whatever that may look like today.
Read more at This American Girl