“The literature of mystical or spiritual experience continually reminds us that the origin of the word ‘spirit’ is closer to that of a high-spirited child, or a spirited horse, than it is to any kind of anaemic piety. First and foremost, ‘spiritual’ means bursting with exuberant life. There is also that strong sense of belonging: of being at home in a benign universe that is both loving and lovable. Wherever I am feels like ‘my place'; whoever I am with are ‘my people’. When this is the case, attitudes of suspicion or competition are replaced with what appears to be an unforced inclination towards kindliness and care.”
–Guy Claxton, “Get Your Kicks,” Aeon, November 8, 2013
One of the most startling travel epiphanies I’ve had in recent years came on a trip to Burma, when I was counting out small change so I could buy a packet of toilet tissues. The Burmese kyat had recently suffered a jag of devaluation, and when I’d tallied up my toilet-tissue money, I noticed that it consisted of twelve small denomination bills.
Given that Burmese tissues came in packets of ten, it occurred to me that it would be more economical to just wipe my ass in kyat and pocket the difference.
Though this Burma experience was an unusually vivid example, travel always has a way of testing one’s faith when it comes to the workings of money. At home, one can pass bills without thinking too much about it, but the arbitrariness of modern currency can be alarmingly apparent when one is abroad.
As a veteran Asia traveler, my bewilderment with legal tender goes back to a day seven years ago, when an elderly vendor in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market refused to accept a worn $10 bill I’d brought directly from the United States. “Too old,” she’d told me. When I asked the woman to show me an example of acceptable currency, she held up a discolored (yet crisp) $20 bill that had obviously been counterfeited locally. In Cambodia, it seemed, the true value of American money was not pegged to its authenticity, but to whether or not it was wrinkled.
Such an idiosyncrasy may well derive from fact that portable currency (a system created in part by the demands of travel itself) has never been foolproof. In areas where a standardized money system has yet to catch on, for example, the act of shopping can prove ambiguous. In the 19th century guidebook The Art of Travel, Francis Galton suggested bringing beads and shells to use as “small change” when traveling in remote regions. Galton warned against knickknack-inflation, however — noting that one African chief had complained that his women were already “grunting like pigs” under the burden of beads given to them by previous travelers.
Other times, the absence of standardized currency has worked in travelers’ favor. Pioneering voyages to the South Pacific abound with tales of an improvised iron-based economy, wherein a sailor could acquire a short-term Tahitian wife through the gift of “an old razor, a pair of scissors, or a very large nail.” In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis of the Dolphis had to forbid his men from trading nails for anything save wood or water, “to preserve the ship from being pulled to pieces” by horny sailors. Of course, iron isn’t the only item that has served as de facto travel currency. Wandering Norsemen once brokered deals in butter, the nomads of the Sahara traded in salt, and (in a scenario that’s fun to imagine) ancient Aztecs paid off their debts in chocolate. Tobacco was legal tender along the roads of colonial Virginia — a fact that sounds strange only until you consider that cigarettes were used as money in many parts of Europe after World War II.
In fact, paper money — which carries a purely hypothetical value — has only recently caught on as a world currency. The Chinese may have valued paper notes against silk to mixed success 1000 years ago, but a similar effort in 13th century Persia was ruined by counterfeiters. William the Bad tried to introduce leather money in 14th century Sicily — though (given the king’s unfortunate name) it’s easy to conclude that this royal experiment didn’t go over so well. To this day, the uncertainty of paper money has been known to break a regime: In late 2001, forged paper notes reportedly helped destabilize the Taliban government (one naturally wonders what graven image the Afghan Islamists had printed on their money — a grenade? an unplugged TV set? a smashed chunk of Buddha statue?).
Even in the United States, a paper dollar has little inherent value beyond the fact that it’s a part of the largest system of common faith in the world. Indeed, despite doctrinal differences, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and animists readily accept paper dollars — and even the metaphysical workings of the dollar’s “managed system” of value (wherein American banks and the Federal Reserve determine, Old Testament-style, that a dollar Is What It Is) seems firmly rooted in the ways of shared belief.
When such faith begins to crumble, of course — like it did for me in Burma — it’s easy to conclude that, for all its usefulness, paper money is still just paper.
For the record, I went ahead and swapped those twelve banknotes for ten tissues. But only because the latter were more absorbent.
Hometown: Farmingville, New York on Long Island
Quote: You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope someday you will join us, And the world will be as one – John Lennon (Imagine)
Many people head to southern Thailand for beaches, islands, and the relaxed vibe of coastal life. Ao Nang is a bit more relaxed than larger cities like Phuket but still has a vibrant tourist draw and is an easy jumping-off point for many activities like rock climbing, island tours, beach lounging, hiking, and diving.
Cost of living:
If you’re trying to save cash and are settling down for a while, a monthly rental can be found here for about 9,000 baht if you’re willing to stay a few kilometers away from the main beach area. Doing this will save you cash and the restaurants and shops get cheaper as you move farther from the beach. A scooter rental will cost you 250 baht per day or only 3,000 baht per month. If you were to eat all three meals a day at restaurants, your daily food allowance would need to be between 350-500 baht per person. However, stocking up on groceries and eating breakfast and/or lunch at home can save some cash and drop your daily food costs down to 150-250 baht per day. Prices at restaurants can more than triple when you get to the main beach strip and the quality of food isn’t any better. Sometimes you have to give in and spend 200 baht on that piña colada so you can watch the sunset at a beachside bar.
“All I know is that I want to live somewhere I’ll have to relearn everything: how to cross the street, how to order coffee, how to deal with people whose modes of thinking are utterly, intriguingly foreign to my own. I want to be uncomfortable, to be an outsider not just in my own mind but in the eyes of everyone who glances at my awkward, bumbling self. I want to figure it out all over again, to savor the small good moments, and I want those tiny triumphs (and inevitable failures) to mark my days, and I want them to add up, over the years and the miles, to a far, far larger victory — that of experience, memory, and language over the unstoppable decay of time. To be clear: this is not wanderlust. Travel is not something separate from the rest of my life, something I need to “get back to.” For me, I’ve come to understand, travel and life are so intricately braided together that they cannot be teased apart.”
–Matt Gross, The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World (2013)
Growing up in Long Island, New York, my comfort zone was very small. I certainly never thought I’d leave that tiny suburban town for other coasts or other shores. After that first trip abroad everything changed. I had no idea then that harnessing fear of the unknown would be the thing that actually facilitated a growth spurt for my ever so tiny comfort zone. Little by little it started to grow and although, at times the fear tries to blur the lines, the desire of that comfort zone to stretch continues to win out. Almost twenty years after I graduated from a small university outside of Boston, I’m actively exploding that zone wide open and travel, for me, has been the blasting tool.
Even with strife and destruction happening daily in the world, I’ve yet to ever find a reason why the decision to travel could be a bad one. Day after day there’s sadness and devastation with people who aim to do evil striking at the heart of good. I’m not suggesting to directly put oneself in the line of fire or to go where those in the know say to heed, but travel will always open doors, help to defy stereotypes and change the world one traveler at a time.
Travel continues to provide endless gifts of perspective, growth, understanding and compassion. Comfort zones are great, but as we all know, minimal growth happens in them. Learning happens each time those boundaries are pushed and with even the slightest bit of movement, people are forever changed. Have you ever traveled by yourself and noticed those fears creeping in when what would be an adventure with a friend feels like disaster waiting to happen? Have you ever muttered the words ‘I’d never do this at home’ with a smile knowing that some sort of magic is about to happen even though you have no idea what, where or when? Have you ever found yourself wandering down a foreign land’s street filled with insane chaos, maddening sounds, bustling crowds, endless odors thinking just how different this is to your ‘normal Tuesday’ and how utterly amazing it is that you’re enjoying yourself as much as you are? We continue to surprise ourselves, if only we let ourselves.
Strange as it may sound – boundaries are pushed and comfort zones are meant to expand. As we grow, we learn of what we’re capable, what scares us and what, just maybe, we might want to push through. It’s the feeling of that little one finally letting go of a few fingers when she learns to cross the street or shouting, ‘let go, let go’ when he tries to take off on that first two-wheeler ride. Parents stand proudly by watching as that fine line swarms around them wondering, ‘do I run after him to keep hold or let him see what he can do on his own’. Now, we’re those grown up little ones guarding our choices and teetering on the edge of can I or can’t I, will I or won’t I and pushing ourselves to take that risk knowing that we’ll be alright whatever the outcome. Each leap really is one of leaps and bounds.
Travel has been the force propelling me forward. That desire to see the world, visit other destinations, meet new people, experience and wonder has frightened me, pushed me, amazed me and changed me. It gave me direction when I had little. It showed me paths that I would have never before taken. It introduced me to impactful people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. It showed me that different isn’t bad, difficult is worth the struggle and that change shouldn’t only scare me. I owe a debt to travel and the best way I know to repay it is to keep on going and thanking travel each day for helping me to explode that comfort zone.
Things I never thought I could…and did!
Jump into the edge of Victoria Falls
Go on an around the world honeymoon
Make my way through a language barrier
Walk with lions
Road trip across the USA
Quit my job to travel
How do you explode your comfort zone? How did a travel experience push your boundaries?
For more of Stacey’s travel musings, check out her blog.
Every now and then long-term travel is rough.
The lifestyle of never remaining in one city or continent for more than a few months requires commitment and sacrifice.
Traveling alone means experiencing days and occasionally weeks without making friends and starting over in a new place can seem tedious.
When this happens, travelers often feel overwhelmed with homesickness, wishing for old friends and all the comforts of home.
Through my experience on the road, I have learned long-term travel requires determination, but the rewards and perks of this astounding lifestyle outweigh the battle of loneliness.
Let’s talk about a few ways to combat loneliness on the road.
Embrace Your Feelings
Loneliness is a good feeling. When it is creeping up on you, use it as a time for personal growth. With no one around, there is ample time to reflect on your adventures and how traveling has transformed you as a person.
Reflection is a tool to help us learn more about ourselves. Evaluate the lessons the road has taught and ponder where your path might lead.
Embrace your loneliness. Within a short period of time, you will feel renewed and excited for the journey ahead.
Beginning a project is a vital way to keep loneliness from entering your mind. If you are journaling, video editing, or photo sorting; long hours in trains, buses, and airports become desirable.
For example, many times my travel blog, and other projects keeps me extremely busy. I often look forward to alone time so I can get caught up. I don’t even have a chance to get lonely.
Find something you are passionate, or start a travel job and pour yourself into it when you start to feel alone.
We live in the golden age of travel. With easy access to Ipads, laptops, and smart phones the world is easily accessible. New discoveries and knowledge are just clicks away.
When I started traveling, I promised myself every day I would try to improve as a person.
One goal was teach myself a new language. This not only took my mind off of being alone, but also gave me a better cultural understanding of the countries I was visiting.
Use loneliness for self-improvement and you will not only become a better person but a more responsible traveler.
Remember Your Goals
Having travel goals is one of the best ways to deal with loneliness on the road.
Goals help keep long-term travelers focused and are a continual reminder of why traveling is important.
Whether you want to see every country in the world or to just sip wine under the Eiffel Tower, goals keep your ship pointed north when it wants to go astray.
Talk to Strangers
This is going against everything you mother taught you since you were two years old, but one lesson the road teaches quickly is that 99% of people want to help.
If you are missing home or feeling alone, just start talking to someone in the area.
Chances are you will make a new friend which can ease loneliness.
I’ve seen loneliness break travelers and honestly, it has almost broken me a few times.
Knowing how to deal with loneliness is vital for any long-term traveler.
While the feeling is not always pleasant, it can be a gift to learn more about yourself, break out of your shell, and grow as a person.
“There is a sniffy school of thought that promotes the idea that the age of travel is over, and that in 1946 when Evelyn Waugh published the juiciest selections from his travel books under the title When the Going Was Good, it was to be assumed that the going wasn’t good anymore. The book is very funny, but the thesis is faulty. I disagreed with it when I set off to see the world in the early ’60s, and I have felt over the years, and through a dozen books of travel, that it is a complacent and disprovable view.”
–Paul Theroux, “Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet,” Newsweek, May 15, 2011
In a way, simplifying your life for vagabonding is easier than it sounds. This is because travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe this, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimalism that travel requires. You can, however, set the process of reduction and simplification into motion while you’re still at home. This is useful on several levels: Not only does it help you to save up travel money, but it helps you realize how independent you are of your possessions and your routines. In this way, it prepares you mentally for the realities of the road, and makes travel a dynamic extension of the life-alterations you began at home.
“Travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance. This is what Camus meant when he said that “what gives value to travel is fear” — disruption, in other words, (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide.
— Pico Iyer, “Why We Travel”
As with, say, giving up coffee, simplifying your life will require a somewhat difficult consumer withdrawal period. Fortunately, your impending travel experience will give you a very tangible and rewarding long-term goal that helps ease the discomfort. Over time, as you reap the sublime rewards of simplicity, you’ll begin to wonder how you ever put up with such a cluttered life in the first place.
On a basic level, there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reining 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. Naturally, this applies to things like cars and home entertainment systems, but this also applies to travel accessories. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes people make in anticipation of vagabonding is to indulge in a vicarious travel buzz by investing in water filters, sleeping bags, and travel-boutique wardrobes. In reality, vagabonding runs smoothest on a bare minimum of gear – and even multi-year trips require little initial investment beyond sturdy footwear and a dependable travel bag or backpack.
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. Instead of eating at restaurants, for instance, cook at home and pack a lunch to work or school. Instead of partying at nightclubs and going out to movies or pubs, entertain at home with friends or family. Wherever you see the chance to eliminate an expensive habit, take it. The money you save as a result will pay handsomely in travel time. In this way, I ate lot of baloney sandwiches (and missed out on a lot of grunge-era Seattle nightlife) while saving up for a vagabonding stint after college — but the ensuing eight months of freedom on the roads of North America more than made up for it.
“Very many people spend money in ways quite different from those that their natural tastes would enjoin, merely because the respect of their neighbors depends upon their possession of a good car and their ability to give good dinners. As a matter of fact, any man who can obviously afford a car but genuinely prefers travels or a good library will in the end be much more respected than if he behaved exactly like everyone else.”
— Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Perhaps the most challenging step in keeping things simple is to reduce clutter – to downsize 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 dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or sliver fetters.”
How you reduce your “dross” in anticipation of travel will depend on your situation. If you’re young, odds are you haven’t accumulated enough to hold you down (which, incidentally, is a big reason why so many vagabonders tend to be young). If you’re not-so-young, you can re-create the carefree conditions of youth by jettisoning the things that aren’t necessary to your basic well-being. For much of what you own, garage sales and on-line auctions can do wonders to unclutter your life (and score you an extra bit of cash to boot). Homeowners can win their travel freedom by renting out their houses; those who rent accommodation can sell, store, or lend out the things that might bind them to one place.
An additional consideration in life-simplification is debt. As Laurel Lee wryly observed in Godspeed, “cities are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.” Thus, if at all possible, don’t let avocado green furniture sets (or any other seemingly innocuous indulgence) dictate the course of your life by forcing you into ongoing cycles of production and consumption. If you’re already in debt, work your way out of it – and stay out. If you have a mortgage or other long-term debt, devise a situation (such as property rental) that allows you to be independent of its obligations for long periods of time. Being free from debt’s burdens simply gives you more vagabonding options.
And, for that matter, more life options.
* * *
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”
As you simplify your life and look forward to spending your new wealth of time, you’re likely to get a curious reaction from your friends and family. On one level, they will express enthusiasm for your impending adventures. But on another level, they might take your growing freedom as a subtle criticism of their own way of life. Because your fresh worldview might appear to call their own values into question (or, at least, force them to consider those values in a new light), they will tend to write you off as irresponsible and self-indulgent. Let them. As I’ve said before, vagabonding is not an ideology, a balm for societal ills, nor a token of social status. Vagabonding is, was, and always will be a private undertaking – and its goal is not to improve your life in relation to your neighbors, but in relation to yourself. Thus, if your neighbors consider your travels foolish, don’t waste your time trying to convince them otherwise. Instead, the only sensible reply is to quietly enrich your life with the myriad opportunities that vagabonding provides.
Interestingly, some of the harshest responses I’ve received in reaction to my vagabonding life have come while traveling. Once, at Armageddon (the site in Israel; not the battle at the end of the world), I met an American aeronautical engineer who was so tickled he had negotiated 5 days of free time into a Tel Aviv consulting trip that he spoke of little else as we walked through the ruined city. When I eventually mentioned that I’d been traveling around Asia for the past 18 months, he looked at me like I’d slapped him. “You must be filthy rich,” he said acidly. “Or maybe,” he added, giving me the once-over, “your mommy and daddy are.”
I tried to explain how two years of teaching English in Korea had funded my freedom, but the engineer would have none of it. Somehow, he couldn’t accept that two years of any kind of honest work could have funded 18 months (and counting) of travel. He didn’t even bother sticking around for the real kicker: In those 18 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: I had tapped into that vast well of free time simply by forgoing a few comforts as I traveled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hostels and guesthouses. Instead of flying from place to place, I took local buses, trains, and share-taxis. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street-vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I traveled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts.
In what ultimately amounted to over two years of travel in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1000 a month.
“When I was very young a big financier once asked me what I would like to do, and I said, ‘To travel.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘it is very expensive; one must have a lot of money to do that.’ He was wrong. For there are two kinds of travelers; the Comfortable Voyager, round whom a cloud of voracious expenses hums all the time, and the man who shifts for himself and enjoys the little discomforts as a change from life’s routine.”
— Ralph Bagnold, Libyan Sands
Granted, I have simple tastes – and I didn’t linger long in expensive places – but there was nothing exceptional in the way I traveled. In fact, entire multi-national backpacker circuits (not to mention budget guidebook publishing empires) have been created by the simple abundance of such travel bargains in the developing world. For what it costs to fill your gas-tank back home, for example you can take a train from one end of China to the other. For the cost of a home-delivered pepperoni pizza, you can eat great meals for a week in Brazil. And, for a month’s rent in any major American city, you can spend a year in a beach hut in Indonesia. Moreover, even the industrialized parts of the world host enough hostel networks, bulk transportation discounts, and camping opportunities make long-term travel affordable.
Ultimately, you may well discover that vagabonding on the cheap becomes your favorite way to travel, even if given more expensive options. Indeed, not only does simplicity save you money and buy you time, it makes you more adventuresome, forces you into sincere contact with locals, and allows you the independence to follow your passions and curiosities down exciting new roads.
In this way, simplicity – both at home and on the road – affords you the time to seek renewed meaning in an oft-neglected commodity that can’t be bought at any price: life itself.
Excerpted from Tim Ferris’ blog, 05/12/2010
Age: 45, 49, 12, and 10, respectively
Hometown: I grew up in Nevada, Heidi grew up in California, and we started our family in Apex, North Carolina, so I guess I’ll use that as the “Family Hometown”.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine