Nomadic Life: 18 Months on the Loose

January 2017 – Costa del Sol, Spain

The farewell party was raucous, starting in the afternoon and ending 12+ hours later in the wee digits. With blurry eyes, a few hours after saying goodbye, we boarded a sunrise flight from our long-time home in Birmingham, Alabama bound for Milan, Italy, the first stop in an exciting new adventure.

Farewell Party, May 2015.

Farewell Party, May 2015.

That was 18 months ago and the encouragement was overflowing. Friends wished us luck, even though they weren’t clear where we were going or for how long. Truth is, we weren’t sure either.

Eleven years earlier, after surviving a natural disaster, we had decided to change our lives and aimed to travel long-term. We spent the next decade plotting with care and saving like mad so when we did make a leap, it would be clean – no debt, career obligations, or family complications.

When the time was right, we told ourselves this dream need not have parameters. We could roam as long as it felt good and income flowed. If our desire to travel faded with the summer sun, then we would simply return home. No pressure, no expectations.

Two weeks into the journey, a simultaneously life-altering and affirming moment occurred. Watching Italian countryside roll by from the window of our train, I asked Matt a question I had been turning over. “I know we’ve just started, but how are you feeling? Do you think you will want to go home in a few months?”

I will admit, I was nervous. Even after fifteen years as a couple, with a leap this huge, there’s no guarantee any two people can be assured of staying on the same wavelength. What if he felt differently than I did?

As I held my breath, he only hesitated a few seconds then answered, “I’m never going back.”

And, there it was. One wavelength connecting the hopes and dreams of two.

While we realized that didn’t mean never returning to the US or our roots, it simply meant never returning to our former way of life. This was not another chapter, it was a whole new book.

Now after 500+ days of nomadic existence, it seems a good time to reflect on the journey thus far.

As followers of AGypsyGene have seen, we’ve had long stretches of smooth sailing to then face unexpected challenges. You know, just like normal life.

Along the way, surprises have been overflowing; joy, a near-constant companion; homesickness, a quiet, yet ever-present acquaintance; and gratitude, a faithful friend.

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Answering the questions heard most frequently from family, friends, and those we meet along the way seems a fun way to provide an overview. For the next five days, we’ll answer 5-6 questions each day. Cool? We’ll cover destinations, relationships, packing, money, and the ins and outs of this nomadic life.

We hope by sharing these experiences to encourage you – yeah, you – to chase a dream or two, take a chance, pursue a passion. Or maybe just take a deep breath and exhale away one nagging reason telling you that you can’t.

We’re here to say, whatever it is you want to do, you can. It’s all possible.

Answers to your questions:

Part 1 – The Journey’s Framework

Q: Where are you now?
Fresh off eight weeks on what we call the “Grand UK Housesitting Tour,” we are housesitting again! This time in southern Spain, near Costa del Sol, for three months. This is our lengthiest gig to date. And, so far, the most complicated (but, hopefully that means, most rewarding too.) Our job is to care for a beautiful home with expansive views of the sea, Gibraltar, and Africa, along with three loving dogs and one super-fun bird.

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So far we have accidentally let the dogs out the gate (disaster barely avoided,) seen one dog impaled on a fence (one giant step closer to disaster,) survived the worst flooding this area has seen in over 30 years (32 million euro worth of disaster,) nursed wounds, fixed plumbing, drank barrels of cava, learned to make paella, enjoyed truly epic sunsets, developed bird-love, and refreshed our Spanish.

More coming soon on this nothing-short-of-crazy experience.

Q: How do you decide where to travel next?
When our tourist visa is up in a country (usually after 90 days,) or our feet begin to itch, we make tracks for the nearest station –  bus, train, or ferry – and pick a place on the spot. And, just like that, we’re heading somewhere new!

Much of our time has been spent in Europe, dancing in and out of Schengen Zone (“What is Schengen?” you ask. Read my Travel Secrets column for Paste Travel for more.)

Being open to opportunity is key to this kind of travel. For instance, during the summer when our limit in Italy was nearing, a friend announced she was traveling to a yoga festival in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains. The Balkan country had never really been on our radar, but after ten minutes of research, based on two primary decision-making criteria, (1. Temperature, 2. Cheap Flights,) we were soon Bulgaria bound.

When it was time to leave Bulgaria, we considered staying close and visiting Turkey or Romania, then a Skyscanner search for flights “anywhere” revealed $20 one-way tickets to Liverpool, a place we had always wanted to visit. That’s how we ended up in the UK.

Temperature and expense are usually our top two concerns when choosing a destination, so England would seem an unlikely choice. We took on back-to-back housesitting gigs, covering six of our eight weeks in country, to keep us on budget. Even with free lodging, we still maxed our $2500 budget each month. It’s an expensive country, there’s no getting around it. And, temperature…well, let’s just say November in the Cotswolds isn’t our brew of tea. We’re still learning.

Q: How many places have you been?
Our preferred style of travel is what I often call “slow crawling.” We rarely spend less than a week in any spot and prefer a couple of months in a country. Getting to know a place below the surface, along with meeting locals, is a big part of the joy for us. Usually by the time we leave, we know the hangouts and hotspots and have explored every bike trail and running path. We know the area’s culinary specialities and who does what best and can claim at least one new friend in every place. And, in most places, we pick up a bit of the language, sometimes even local dialect.

Since leaping, we have spent significant time in 11 countries: Italy, France, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Morocco, Thailand, Myanmar, Bulgaria, England, and Spain. We’ve stayed at least one night in 61 different cities, towns, and villages.

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This means we have adjusted to 61 sets of pillows and mattresses, fumbled around lost in the dark in 61 different configurations to pee in the middle of the night, and readjusted to different rhythms of a place at least 61 times. So basically, on average, that’s a new home very week. Wooeee. 

Q: How do you get around? Do you miss not having a car?
I’m not sure anything symbolizes the positives and negatives of our style of travel more than transportation. Getting from one place to another, without a car to call your own. An un-American concept to the core.

And, it’s completely liberating.

This wouldn’t be the case for everyone, we know. For some travelers, the very idea of giving up the ability to go wherever you want, whenever you want, seems restricting. For us, it’s one more page into a new chapter.

We spend a crazy amount of time learning bus and train schedules. Figuring out how to shop for groceries using public transport has become a game. We walk crazy distances almost every day, usually just to gather supplies. Local buses serve as an elbow-to-elbow introduction to local culture. People watching is our sport. We’re in the mix and it feels good.

Plus, we’re not worried about directions, gas, parking, insurance, or car payments.

That’s not to say this kind of transportation isn’t fraught with disaster. (More on that subject in the “Relationships” section to come. Let’s just say, our approach to transportation is very different!)

Getting from one point to another is like a job and it has become our way of life. So far, I estimate we have taken about…71 trains, 52 buses, 6 ferries. 24 flights.

And, days we have missed driving a car equal 0.

Q: Do you get tired of moving?
There’s no denying that at times the idea of packing our bags and moving again can be exhausting. At least in theory.

Yet, no matter how much I love being in a place and may feel a tinge of sadness the night before leaving, when I wake the next morning, it’s all sunshine and butterflies. I’m downright, giddy.

I have developed a love for that morning feeling of packing everything I possess, then carrying my belongings on my back. Taking a mental inventory of a place and saying goodbye as we slowly walk to the station or taxi to the airport. Once the journey is underway, that’s where new possibilities begin and the dreaming starts anew.

Q: What do you do all day?
This subject has become a bit of an inside joke. When friends ask if I have done this task or written something on that project and I say, “I haven’t had time,” everyone laughs.

As dreamy as traveling non-stop sounds to friends and family, many can’t contemplate what it looks like on a daily basis. I can’t say we truly got it until we were in it.

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In our own ways, we’re both very structured beings. We like a certain amount of routine. Part of our reason for staying in places for long spells is so we can find normalcy and get into a rhythm.

Some of it has to do with our age. We’re in our 40s. Traveling is so different from when we were younger. It also has to do with duration. We’re not sight-seeing or touring, we’re living life…simply, in different locations.

Key to our happiness and sanity is exercise and sport. Matt cycles almost every day and loves exploring new places from the seat of a bike. He’s cycled over 10,000 miles this year!

Along the way, he’s discovered rolling green hills in Croatia and England, coastal roads in Montenegro and Bulgaria, and peaks in the Dolomites and Sierra Nevada, pedal by pedal.

I go on discovery runs 3-4 times a week, logging over 1,000 miles this year. I’ve found three of my favorite running spots in the world: Golden Cape Park in Rovinj, Croatia; Sathorn Chinese Cemetery in Bangkok, Thailand; and Senda Litoral de Malaga in Costa del Sol, where we are now, (when complete this path will run over 100 miles along the coast.)

As you can probably tell, we’re into goals and pursue passions like a job. In the afternoons, we meet back up to catch up on the day’s events, share a happy hour drink, and plan for cooking or going out for dinner. I also write every day, often for a travel or educational assignment. I have a bi-weekly column, called Travel Secrets, for Paste that keeps me cranking out work.

Usually we plan 1-2 days a week for actual tourist activities, almost like we would on a weekend at home. And, then, there’s social activities. We spend a good deal of time nurturing new friendships and almost never turn down an invitation for dinner or outings. (I haven’t changed in that regard. I still overcommit and try to do it all.)

And we’ve spent a fair share of time on volunteer projects like working on an organic farm in Croatia, building terraces in Italy’s Marche region, taking on a photography project in Montenegro for a local hostel as well as house-sitting and pet care in Italy, England, and Spain. We even served as guest house managers in Bulgaria for a short spell!

Tomorrow, we are embarking on another volunteer project, picking up plastic on the beach washed up by last month’s rains. (It’s crazy how much plastic washes up on any beach after a storm. Sad, really.) For more on this topic, please check out my latest for Paste on Mindful Travel in 2017.

Coming up next, Part II – Destinations! Followed by Relationships, Packing, Life Lessons, & more!

Is there something you would like to know about nomadic life? We’re happy to answer all questions, just leave a comment here.

Thanks for sharing the journey with us. Here’s wishing you a JOYOUS and ADVENTUROUS NEW YEAR!!!

Related stories:

Nomadic Life: Destinations

Turning Life Upside Down for the Love of Travel

Ten Years Later: Reflecting on the Tsunami and Life Altering Effects

Travel Secrets: Mindful Journeys