On the roving life

Picture: Denmark to Germany –  ferry from Rødby to Puttgarden.

When I first left for this voluntary nomad life at the beginning of 2013, I was scared. Throw-up-on-my-pants-at-boarding-gate scared.

I was secretly hoping that a whole other me would emerge after some time intrepidly living in strange places. You know the one – the smart, courageous, bull-horn-grabbing adventurer.


Right after I started this journey, I fell sick. I was sick for 3 months out the first 12. My body, subject to the effects of the preceding 10 tense years, immediately realized that it could relax and fall to pieces without repercussion. My memory decided to do the same. Waking up and not knowing what the date was, was normal, but not recognizing my own name when it was called, wasn’t.

On the road: La Paz to Todos Santos in possibly the only convertible in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
On the road: La Paz to Todos Santos in possibly the only convertible in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

When my father died at the end of 2013, I had to go back to Singapore for a long span of time. I think I lost my mind for a while. I don’t remember much of it. Most of 2014 remains a blur. But I believe the people who were around me during that time, when they assure me it is so.

I’ve been putting myself together again since then. A lot of anger, confusion and sadness is involved in this process. Some relationships were rejuventated, others severed, most renegotiated. I found myself viewing people very differently, very suddenly, for no apparent reason. It was disorienting. It still is disorienting.

I spent the first 5 years of my life in a village much like this one: Kampong Buangkok, the last remaining kampung in Singapore.
I spent the first 5 years of my life in a village much like this one: Kampong Buangkok, the last remaining kampung in Singapore.

I’ve realized, close to three years of moving around, that I’m never going to turn into the valiant explorer I so badly want to be. Travel has certainly been about following the paths less taken, but only in the context of what I’d done so far, so that isn’t saying much, since I’d never been anywhere unfamiliar on my own, before 2013.

I was never going to be anyone I wasn’t already: a nerdy city slicker with hermit-like tendencies. I once spent a week four wheel driving a track from outside Esperance in Western Australia, to a little gas station at Madura, close to the South Australian border, bush camping along the way. When I saw a proper shower after hitting a paved road again, I just about cried from joy. It seems unlikely I’d ever find myself signing up to discover unknown worlds at unimaginable depths like Sylvia Earle, or retracing Shackleton’s Arctic route on my own, like Ben Saunders.

New city from the medina: Tangier, Morocco
New city from the medina: Tangier, Morocco

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t changed. Mostly for the better (for me). I’ve learned things in the last couple of years that I would never have in my old life. A little more understanding of the wider world through contact: how different the spectacle of trauma I’m so used to seeing on the other side of the screen in media flashes, looks and feels on my side of the screen; that screen displays have little enough to do with how real life plays out, but affects them profoundly just the same; that what someone really believes is revealed not by what they say (or don’t say), as much as what they eventually do (or don’t do) – and that this applies to me too. I’m learning how to tell the difference between when I should just shut up and listen, and when I really, really need to speak up.

I have learned how to respect my body when it’s had enough. How to respect my mind when it tells me the same. And I’m learning how to make peace with who I am. I’ve learned that I am so lucky, to be born at this time, to be a citizen of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and consequently to travel on one of the best passports around (gypsy living would be harder, and much different, otherwise), to be educated, to have the opportunities all of this brings, to forge my own path.

Forest: Hannover, Germany.
Forest: Hannover, Germany.

I’m learning that I’ll never know who I am, if I don’t prise myself out of my cave and go and do things. Caves are cosy and hard to come by. I hate leaving my cave when I’ve found a nice one to curl up in (especially when it has fast internet). I’m learning that I’ll never learn anything of consequence without making mistakes, sometimes unimaginably stupid ones.

I could have learned these lessons without travel. I don’t think you need to travel to learn to be compassionate, informed, or resourceful. It wasn’t travel that made the difference – travel was an inevitable consequence of deciding I didn’t want to be tied to one place.

That decision did mean that the defining aspects of my life had to change though:

  1. Work: I went from being a 9-5er, to a freelancer, so I could say yes to interesting projects wherever they happened to be. More than that, it meant I actually needed to use my brain in ways I never did in the office. For the first time I was accountable only to myself when it came to what work I chose to do, and how I did it. It’s been a major shift in motivation.
  2. Social: I had to meet people. Lots of them (eek!). Most have been people who live, think and speak differently from me, in unfamiliar settings and situations.
  3. Daily Living: Living on the cheap made me resourceful, and meant I had to swallow pride & paranoia to ask for assistance when I needed it

And even then, it wasn’t that I couldn’t have done these things when living in one place. I just didn’t. It was easier not to disrupt the established flow, to have to think about what I did, and what it meant.

Disturbing the pattern was a good thing to do. 2 years ago it meant going travelling. It might mean something completely different in the future. But long may it continue.

Seattle, USA.
Seattle, USA.


12 thoughts on “On the roving life

  1. A well written post and required sharing a personal side of yourself. Much of our world does not see themselves or the world around them with clear eyes, it’s that screen you talk about. It makes me smile when I read about someone who has a new pair of glasses to see the world, no matter the path taken to find those glasses. There is a saying, “The best is yet to come.” I hope and pray that is true for you! By the way a great series of images.

    1. The screen is of great importance to me, Monty. It informs my worldview very, very much, and is also the reason that I find the opportunities I do, and meet all the great people I’d otherwise have never gotten in touch with. I don’t know that my eyes are clear. Working on it though :)

  2. A lovely piece, Charlene. Written with a depth that reminds me of our shared human condition, and the importance of breaking away from the things that make us comfortable in order to more deeply know ourselves.

    1. Indeed, Brian. There’s really nothing like being thrown into the middle of something unfamiliar to discover who we are. May we always work at being better people, if for no other reason, than those we love.

  3. An interesting piece. Without intending any dispute, I will offer a couple outside observations.

    Voluntary vagabondage (word?) is, in many ways a synonym for being in a homeless state. Most folks who travel go “walk about” (to steal an Aussie phrase) and then go home. Gypsies traditionally carry home and extended families with them as do nomads of various backgrounds. You, on the other hand, seem largely to have cut all anchors and cast your soul adrift on the wind. One might reasonably wonder if your body broke down soon after departure as a result of being free of the prior ten years of excess structure, or on account of the new and suddenly introduced strain of being totally adrift in the threatening unknown. Homo sapiens has sought the safe haven of home since the species began to walk erect. Certainly there have been those who did not tolerate being around the campfire night after night and left for extended periods of exploring or to found new settlements but, historically speaking, there have been few unforced exiles.

    You hint that changes might be forthcoming and I, for one, would be surprised if they weren’t. What you’ve been doing is very hard, even to the point of being largely adrift while grieving a devastating loss. Harder I would say than the activities of Ms. Earle and Mr. Saunders who each have support teams, a home base to return to, as well as specialized training and skill sets that prepare them for and allow them to accomplish the explorations they undertake. That’s not to diminish their accomplishments, but I suspect that neither one of them would take off like you did with little plan and so few resources. And through your blog you have invited observation of your rite of passage (if that is what it has been) by strangers. That connection has, in its own odd way, been a consistent point of contact. The importance of the screen, indeed.

    I have been one of those along for the trip much of the time and am glad to have been. I admire your bravery (which, of course, is not the absence of fear, but action in its face). I certainly wish you safe journeys and meaningful friends to share them with. Be well.

    1. “or on account of the new and suddenly introduced strain of being totally adrift in the threatening unknown”

      I’m sure that had something to do with it. My body was in no shape to handle unfamiliar strain at that point, so it could well have been the proverbial camel-back-breaking straw.

      I think a high level of gungho-ery (coupled with prep and support, as you mention) drives both Ms Earle and Mr Saunders, or they would not be able to do what they do, but for them to just take off (as I did) and head where they do would mean certain death. But as you’ve pointed out, our journeys are different. And I can say with confidence that am definitely not made of the stuff as stern as either of them! *wry smile*

      Thank you for coming along while I amble, Greg. Your comments are always insightful, and thought provoking.

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