On a basic level there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reigning in your routine and reducing clutter. The easiest part of this process is stopping expansion. This means that in anticipation of vagabonding, you don’t add any new possessions to your life, regardless of how tempting they might seem….
While you’re curbing the material expansion of your life, you should also take pains to rein in the unnecessary expenses of your weekly routine. Simply put, this means living more humbly (even if you aren’t humble) and investing the difference into your travel fund….
Perhaps the most challenging step in keeping things simple is reducing clutter– downsizing what you already own. As Thoreau observed, downsizing can be the most vital step in winning the freedom to change your life: “I have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all,” he wrote in Walden, “who have accumulated fross but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”
–Chapter Three-Rolf Potts
Chapter three of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel is all about cultivating simplicity.
As I re-read this chapter the theme that jumped out at me was that simplicity is the key to freedom. That quote from Walden, at the end, that sums it up just perfectly: the struggle that so many people have with their “stuff” being at odds with their dreams.
It sneaks up on us, doesn’t it? Little decisions, small accumulations, tiny concessions that we justify along the way. We trade our big dreams for glass beads that glitter in the sun. Among the awakenings that come with Vagabonding is that realization and the determination to, “stop that right now!”
Vagabonding is a mindset, a way of thinking; one of the manifestations of which, is travel. Simplicity is part of what makes that travel possible in the first place and easier once underway. Possessions, debt, financial addictions, these are all things that keep us from taking off and traveling in the first place. An emotional dependence on the stuff that we think we have to drag with us, or “gear up” with as we go are the things that suck the joy out of the experience of walking through the world.
This chapter challenged me, yet again, to focus on cultivating the things that really matter in this life: time, passion and relationships. Instead of getting mired in the “stuff” around me and within me that results in golden fetters.
How ‘bout you? What does chapter three’s call to simplicity awake in you?
“So it’s plain to see what responsibility lies with our work, reportage. Plying our trade, we are not just men or women of writing pursuits, but also some kind of missionaries, translators and messengers. We do not translate from one text into another, but from one culture into another in order to make them mutually better understood and thereby closer.”
–Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, October 4, 2003
Whenever anyone asks me why I still travel on a shoestring at the ripe old age of 38, I usually tell them about the time I learned how to play the bagpipes in Havana.
Granted, I could probably relate a more typical story about the joys of budget travel - some tidy parable of money saved and experiences gained – but when I mention learning the bagpipes in Cuba it sounds like I’m going to tell a joke, and people like jokes.
The thing is, there’s no punch line. My encounter with Cuban bagpipers wasn’t memorable for its mere quirkiness – it was memorable because it illustrates how travelling on the cheap can offer you windows into a culture that go beyond the caricatured stereotype of what a place is supposed to be like.
If it sounds to you like I’m an ageing backpacker who never quite grew out of his shoestring ways, you’d be exactly right. In many ways, my travel sensibilities have grown out of a journey I took 10 years ago, when I quit my job as an English teacher and took a journey across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I probably had enough money saved up to invest in a three-month trip. As it turned out, I learned ways to stretch my travel budget into a life-enriching 30-month sojourn – and in all those months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: like many generations of backpackers and shoestring travellers before me, I was able to make my modest savings last by slowing down and forgoing a few comforts as I travelled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hotels, hostels and guesthouses. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I travelled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts. In what eventually amounted to over two years of travel, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1,000 a month. Instead of investing my travel budget in luxuries and amenities, I invested it in more travel time – and it never failed to pay off in amazing experiences.
It’s been almost eight years now since I finished that extended stint of vagabonding, but the experience is still very much a part of me. In financial terms, I have the resources to sleep in five-star hotels and eat in expensive international restaurants, but I’ve found I rarely choose such luxurious options. Given a choice between a $400-a-night hotel and an $18-a-night flophouse in Hong Kong, I tend to opt for the latter. Faced with the prospect of an all-inclusive dinner buffet in a Santo Domingo casino, I invariably find myself wandering outside to sample food from street vendors.
Ultimately, the charm of budget travel has always been less about saving money than making the most of my time on the road. Travelling cheaply has forced me to be engaged and creative, rather than to throw money at my holidays and hope for the best. Freed from a rigid, expense-laden itinerary, I’m more likely to be spontaneous, embrace serendipity and enjoy each moment of my journey.
Excerpted from Around The World On a Shoestring-The Guardian Feb. 6, 2009
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Quote: “It’s okay to travel alone. I spent a lot of time with a group of people, but would have been much happier doing my own thing, going places I wanted to see and at my own pace, rather than following along with the group.”
There seems to be something of a competition amongst travelers. A battle over who gets to define travel and impose said definition on the rest of the traveling masses. What does “real” travel look like? What are travelers “supposed” to do? Say? Think? Believe?
Recently I was treated to a familiar speech. A long-term traveler, complete with guitar case, backpack full of patches, full beard, and rainbow colored hat, lamented about the “walking stereotypes” disembarking from boats headed for the all things New Age in San Marcos. He shifted into high gear as he bemoaned the sorry state of Western (i.e. US) culture and scoffed at the new arrivals’ clean, and obviously new, backpacks as if such a thing were a sign of a person who should not be allowed to travel anywhere, let alone Lake Atitlan. Outwardly, I neither agreed nor disagreed with his well-rehearsed monologue but I did have to stifle a smile as I noticed that my new friend, the one busy looking down on those newly arrived “walking stereotypes”, wasn’t wearing any shoes- the most obvious and often pointed out stereotype of gringos visiting San Marcos del lago.
We are all stereotypes, us traveling folk. Every single one of us. It’s likely that we fit the bill of any number of stereotypes before we even took off. Stereotypes exist in the eye of the beholder and we are always, all the time, doing something that fits perfectly into someone else’s stereotype of who we are or where we come from. And yet, for some reason, we insist on going to battle with each other, placing our own assumptions on other travelers, and perpetuating the notion of “us” and “them” within our own little traveling community.
You’ve only been traveling for 6 months? That’s nothing. You’re not “really” traveling until you hit 6 years.
Did you see what she’s wearing? Why would anyone wear that here? (laughs) She must be on spring break.
You brought how much luggage?? Why? I’m a traveler, not a tourist, so I can survive with just a towel and a clean pair of underwear.
Why are you saying “sorry”? Good God, you must be American. Western culture is just so full of guilt! Haven’t you figured out how to let that go yet? You’re in (insert developing nation here) now!
You can’t get mad at men for treating you poorly here. (snorts) This isn’t America.
You’re going to eat that?! You should just eat a tortilla. That’s what the locals do. But then again, I guess not everyone is a “real” traveler.
Here’s the thing- we’re all just trying to figure this shit out. Sometimes some of us are sick of tortillas and just want some damn french fries. It’s not meant to be an affront to other travelers or an invitation for everyone to chime in with their opinions on whether french fry eating automatically revokes one’s “real traveler” card or not. The french fries do not necessary represent Western dominance, lack of awareness over environmental issues, or “fake” vegetarianism. You know what they do represent? French fries. Delicious, hot french fries that taste just a little bit like home after a long day.
Not every single one of us is on the same place on the path. Sometimes we’re not even not the same path. Once in a while, we aren’t even headed to the same destination. The lesson I am supposed to learn in this lifetime, is likely not the lesson you are meant to learn. This just might mean that the way we go about doing things might, just maybe, be different.
I write a lot about the fact that there is no “us” and “them” in general. It may be time travelers internalize this same concept and apply it to their own unique, vagabond community. No more “us” and “them”. No more “real travelers.” No more judgment. You cannot stake your status as a “real” traveler by looking down your nose and smugly insulting others, even if they are “new.” Some travelers eat french fries- even in Nepal. Some have brand new, clean backpacks. They will get dusty and worn soon enough, there’s no need for others to rush it.
Every single one of us, whether on the road for a week, a year, or more is just traveling the path they were meant to travel. There is no such thing as “us” and “them”, whether we are talking about the street children of India or the traveler in the dorm bunk next to ours. Many of us offer grace, empathy, and at least an attempt to understand when engaging with people in the countries and cultures we are exploring- why not off the same to our fellow travelers?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Without question it is Wat Rong Kuhn, otherwise known as the White Wat. I read plenty about this wat, designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, and even saw dozens of pictures. Words and pictures alone did not prepare me for the grandeur, beauty and strangeness of this place.
Describe a typical day:
In the morning I work for a couple of hours and then we set out on the motorbike for the same place we go everyday for breakfast. We always change up where we eat lunch and dinner in a city, but once we find a good breakfast spot in town we seem to never deviate from it.
After breakfast we generally hop on the motorbike and go outside of town to places like a massive tea plantation, Buddhist caves, various wats, museums, waterfalls or hiking trails.
After our daily adventure we head back to the hotel for homeschool and to finish work for the day. We then go to the night bazaar where we see the various local and imported wares for sale, mostly to tourists.
For dinner we go to one of the many local stalls selling a type of broth soup that is cooked at your table in a clay pot with noodles, vegetables and meat.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
I found it interesting talking with the manager of the hotel about various locations to see outside of town. After going through her list of recommendations, I asked which were her absolute favorites. She answered that she had not been to any of them. When I asked her why she said she didn’t have time to go due to her work and family responsibilities.
It was humbling and a great reminder just how fortunate we are to travel and see sights that often many locals are not even able to see. It’s just another painful reminder how unfair the world is.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I like the ability to quickly get outside of the town and see very beautiful sights. I like that the town and surrounding area are not overrun with tourists or owned and managed by tour agencies and large companies. It feels like the locals’ town.
I do not particularly like the town itself. There is not much about it that I find unique. Even this, though, has a type of charm when viewed through a certain lens. I would just advise renting some form of transportation when in Chiang Rai because the magic in this area lies just outside the city in the hills, caves, rivers and surrounding villages.
Describe a challenge you faced:
I got extremely sick due to questionable food while in a village outside of town. I have eaten unidentifiable street food from Istanbul to Bangkok without even a hint of stomach troubles, but I guess I was due. The worst part was that we had to take a bus for six hours the next day. This experience will not soon be forgotten.
What new lesson did you learn?
I was reminded that I tremendously enjoy having my own transportation, even it it’s just a 110 cc motorbike. Being able to get off the tourist trail and stop where we want has given us some of our most memorable and enjoyable moments. Simple things like finding a game of sepak takraw outside of town was just an unforgettable moment and really allowed us to see the daily life of the locals, something we always seek out.
Luang Namtha, Laos for hiking and kayaking.
“We all know that it’s possible to drive from here to California and stay at more or less the same motel the entire way, in a landscape where certain elements never change. This might have been an interesting experience thirty years ago when it was still new. It might be an interesting experience is you were V.S Naipaul just arrived here from England. But basically it’s a challenge to one’s powers of describing the humdrum. On the Great Plains — and I’m sure in the rest of America as well — you have to get off the paved road if you want to see where you are.”
Ian Frazier, in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing (1991)
“No journey is too great, if you find what you seek” – Anonymous
When I was little, I met counselors from all over the world at sleep-away camp. If you told me the ten year old who acquired a koala singlet from her counselor, would later marry an Australian and live down under; I would have told you, ‘you’re nuts’!
The travel bug bit hard during my first non-family trip. After university, a backpacking journey kept hold. Not far from the traditional American story there was college, graduate school and then a job. As a teacher, I traveled on every break and worked every summer at camp. The world continued to spin on its axis and adult life, as I knew it, was underway.
Meeting my husband on a trip in New Zealand changed everything. Relationships take work (especially long distance ones) and breaks now included international travel finding a spot between Australia and America. After many kilometers (and large phone bills), we married in 2009 and decided to go on a one-year adventure to follow the sun. Bucking tradition of everything I knew, we leapt and had no idea if any net would appear.
Travel lesson #1: I realized, my husband is my net…and gives me the strength to be my own.
That year, everything changed. I could tell you about the adventures, the people, and the sights, but that’s for another time. Most importantly, the vagabonding experience transformed me. It didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes a whisper, while at other times change screamed loudly. Fears packed in luggage were left behind along the way leaving me lighter in personal and tangible baggage. Certainties that allowed me to go were dropped out of airplanes unnecessary upon return. Vagabonding’s gifts are long lasting and perspective changing.
Travel lesson #2: People change but true friends will always be there.
We knew that the two of us could manage distance, but we didn’t know if our ‘home’ friends could. Those who truly wanted us in their lives did make the effort. Staying in touch mattered. We found that the more we traveled, the more like-minded individuals we met. We embraced and befriended locals. We felt a kinship with those who found that the more they explored, the longer their ‘list’. We learned that no matter where in the world, we were lucky to have close friends.
Travel lesson #3: Comfort Zones: Love ‘em and leave ‘em.
Comfort zones are never easy to leave, but more growth happens outside rather than in them. Like it or not, travel forces you outside of your comfort zone. For me, that was change, but the greater gift was realizing what to do with those newfound feelings is what truly matters. The more you venture outside of your ‘zone’, the more the comfortable one swells. Before we left, the uncertainties were frightening. The leave of absence and keeping the apartment minimized risk and allowed me to jump. How did I know if I was going to enjoy this travel/expat life or not? It was scary, yet exciting.
Somewhere along the line, my comfort zone expanded. Maybe it happened when we literally leapt off the edge of Devil’s Pool in Zambia. Maybe it was getting sick on a trip having to use our travel insurance to find a doctor. Maybe it was the search for a new dentist in Melbourne, bush-camping in Botswana or learning to dance in the rain. Little by little, the bigger picture mattered more. Once anxiety producing experiences became a welcome challenge. If I could write Travel her very own thank you card, I would. Foods I never would have tried, places I never thought to visit and communities I didn’t know existed provided direction, and a door to the outside of my comfort zone. Once outside, I couldn’t go back in.
Travel Lesson #4: Perspective-a traveler’s gift.
Travel Lesson #5: Lessons from the road.
It’s been almost four years since we returned from our first venture in ‘round the world travel. Since then, we’ve continued to travel, been touched by a natural disaster and thought a lot about the type of life we want. We relish knowing we are part of a bigger world and are grateful to have both roots and wings. Last year, we took a second ‘round the world trip (three months) seeing more of the world and interacting with new and interesting people. I took another leave and Mathew quit his job for that journey. We were less bothered by the risk. Change continued. Eventually, I resigned from the very structured world of public education and have found a new freelance career. It’s risky, but; I jumped. Maybe we’ll even take the leap to location-independent one day. Regardless of choice, it’s worth the chance to bring out our happy more often than not.
Travel, has been the gift that keeps on giving. It’s how we met and how we experience life. We don’t want to ‘get it out of our system’. We embrace the itch. Travel opened our eyes to what is out there and has given us the courage to take risks to live the life we imagine. The road provided an incredible gift…perspective. Now, there’s no turning back.
“Fate is what happens to you…destiny is what you do with it”
– Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Read more by Stacey at the gift of travel
A big red rock, Kangaroo Dancing, Thorny Lizards and beautiful sunsets
In our fist 3 day stay at Ayres Rock Resort we must have spent about $30 a day, give or take, on food and drink. This however doesn’t include the $25 for a 3 day pass to the Uluru National Park or the $72 we paid for the first 3 night stay on the campground. If $72 sounds affordable that’s because it is but we were lucky to have gone at the end of the winter season. This is when the resort offer 3 nights for the price if 2 on camping pitches.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Have you ever seen a Thorny Devil? A lizard with spikes all over its body. It’s harmless and if you get near, it stands still hoping not to be seen. The friendly lizard absorbs water from its feet to it’s spikes across the top of its back for consumption. If you were to pick one up and place it on your arm you’ll feel the suction on your skin. They are cute but a bizarre looking reptile.
Describe a typical day:
all activities on the site are included in the price. I would wake up and cook some poached eggs on toast from the camp kitchen. Catch up on some daily news with a coffee. I like to write before midday, an hour putting pen to paper. Get washed and ready and stroll into the town centre. A great indigenous man named Leroy can take you through some bush yarns (stories) about male and female roles in a mob (tribe/family) and talk you through aboriginal weapons and hunting equipment. He is a really interesting man and will happily spend time after to answer any questions you have. I don’t think I quizzed him once without getting a thorough answer – a very knowledgable man.
Soon after weapons it’s time for Udarki (didgeridoo) playing with the Aboriginal Wakagetti team. Again some really great, wise, friendly people who take pride and enjoyment in their work. Be aware that the Didgeridoo is regarded as a mans duty amongst certain aboriginal folk. I loved this as it’s the first time someone has taught me how to really play the instrument unlike my raspberry blowing I did at school!
Once finished its time to make my way to spear and boomerang throwing. This is a great deal of fun, hosted again by the Wakagetti team. Yet another great way to learn some really intriguing facts about aboriginal hunting. If you’re good at the boomerang throwing it is often advisable to duck, they come back fast! It is very enjoyable to watch all other participants climbing over themselves to escape the incoming missile!
Lunch time would be spent at the Kulata Deli where the best sandwiches are made by the resorts indigenous training team. We loved the sandwiches here, my favourite being a turkey and bacon grilled panini stacked with all the salad. This is more than enough to fill this hungry little man!
After lunch it’s a cool down with a swim in the campground’s pool and catch up on my tan. I was looking vaguely like Casper the ghost before I set out in this journey!
After chilling out I would head back into town to take part in the Wakagetti Indigenous dancing. They offer a tutorial taking you through various aboriginal dances. This is then followed up with a fantastic performance from the team exhibiting genuine cultural dancing. I couldn’t resist finding myself up on stage to show my best Kangaroo dance – a great deal of fun.
Then it’s getting time to drive out to the Rock’s viewing point to watch a magnificent sunset over Uluru. This cannot be missed in my opinion – it is a far better sight to behold than a sunrise. If for any reason it’s a cloudy day don’t be down hearted, the most beautiful colours light up the sky and add an array of beauty to an already magnificent view. It can also be a very romantic setting where a cuddle or two can be shared.
Back to camp kitchen for goon (cheap cask wine) and food, typically a barbecue and to converse with the hive of travellers that congregate around the barbecue. Then it’s time for bed. Word of warning – try to hold back on the wine if your planning a sunrise trip because it can be a very early start.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
The most interesting conversation I had was with a local who worked out of the brilliant Uluru Cultural Centre. When I used to imagine an aboriginal person, I would see a tribal black man. The conversation allowed me to learn that Aboriginal or Indigenous people are not this typical stereotype we often see in books, TV etc. What I came to understand is there are a variety of colours amongst mobs and I was asked to understand that to be an aboriginal man is about being close to the culture you were raised in, to understand and love your upbringing and engage and learn the knowledge and stories of your elders.
I am ever inquisitive and we spoke for quite some time on this subject. I realised that I had a misguided representation of just what it means to be aboriginal. This is often overlooked and can still be misinterpreted.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I love the beauty of the surroundings. The desert is fresh and untouched. This is where millions of years of nature continues to thrive. The red sandy plains reflect the years of natural formation of its beautiful vast landscape. I am yet to find a place that has such varying beauty. The changing skylines give various backdrops to fantastic desert views. There are many beautiful sunsets to be experienced watching the skies light up night after night with the most vibrant reds, purples and oranges. In contrast to this is the powerful lightening storms that can occur. Large thunderous clouds sweeping the skies, lighting up the desert for miles around, often silhouetting Uluru on the horizon. The clear nights offer you a chance to gaze upon the starry cosmos. This leaves you with the euphoric feeling that we as humans on this planet really are just floating on a rock in the large nothingness of space.
I would enjoy watching many creatures that live amongst the bush lands. From the suspicious dingoes to a wondering thorny devil. The trees filled with Brolgas and Magpies to the Goannas that plod along on the land below. Moths the size of your hand, to the angry little Praying Mantis who would offer you a fist fight if you came too close. It is fantastic how all the elements here live and breathe together as one, each knowing there own place in the world.
The only thing I would say I disliked is the endless repetitiveness of the journey here. It is a long drive with very little in between and when your van was as rickety as our van was, you often imagine being stranded in the middle of no where. However I would do it all over again for a chance to relive this experience.
Describe a challenge you faced:
the biggest challenge we faced was the distance from anywhere. The van was in good condition for a motor of its age. The driving hours are long whichever route you take.
What new lesson did you learn?
Being here in the red centre allowed me to understand a very significant part of my English history. As an Englishman I felt ashamed by what had been done to the natives of the land. I was able to grasp a true understanding of what culture, friendship and respect really means. The strength of belief and companionship, the pride of knowledge, what it means to be alive and treating the world around you with respect. I learnt to be at peace with the world. I have found out a lot about myself in my time here. These are lessons and understandings that have helped me as an individual understand what is important in life and what we often miss in the modern western world.
It’s off to Sydney!