To mark my two-year 'vagabondaversary' (thanks Lisa!) I planned to write an annual review like last year's (2,300 words), and to close it with half a dozen questions posed by friends on Facebook.
In fact I received no less than 25 questions covering most of the things I'd have written about anyway, and a host more. I'm going to try and keep most of my answers short, but I may follow up with longer posts on some of these themes. THANK YOU all for such thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. [NB This post is very long. Use CTRL+F+your name to find my answer to your question/s!]
Briefly, I spent summer 2016 in England, Wales and Scotland, celebrating my 40th birthday and being mortified about 'Brexit'. After attending the launch of Meg-John's (bestselling) QUEER A Graphic History in London on 1 September I pedalled northeast as far as Gothenburg (visiting Anna in Oslo by train), then south as far as Toulouse (oh how I love France!), spending time with various close peeps along the way. I spent the whole of November at Gabe and Rob's house in Languedoc where - amongst other things - I established the daily meditation practice I'd been intending for so long. I spent the winter slowly circumnavigating Spain to keep warm and with the intention of teaching myself Spanish. By March I'd reached stunning Northern Portugal, following the Duero valley and then the Portuguese and northern 'Camino de Santiago' pilgrim routes to reach Santander. I had about four days in London before flying to Vancouver where I co-organised the world's first conference for people who practise solo polyamory (honest non-monogamy without the 'relationship escalator'). After that I spent three difficult months riding the 3,000km so-called Pacific Coast Bicycle Route down to San Diego. I flew from Tijuana to Oaxaca, where I actually am finally learning Spanish. I'm desperate to get to at least intermediate-level before I ride through central and south America. My intention is to listen to and/or read Spanish for several hours of every day, and to speak it every day too.
Was there a specific event that made you realize you wanted this? Or was it a lot of things combined? (Rachel L-c)
I'm a complete cliché, I'm afraid! The mutual and appropriate but nonetheless fairly earth-shattering closure of my long-term relationship back in 2011 (when I was 35) catalysed getting my 'mid-life transformation' out of the way early. Four years later I informed my close people of my decision to quit my wellpaidutterlypointless job and become a vagabond.
"In 2011... I pulled the rug out from under myself. All that I have learned about myself since then I could not have learned otherwise. Staying in my home/city (which I love) and my job (which I loathe) have provided considerable stability while so much has been changing. Now is the time to pull those rugs out from under myself, to find out what else there is.
Last week I finally made the decision that’s been brewing since 2011. I am going to hand in my notice, rent my house out, and take off on a bike...
There’s no plan... It seems likely that I will:
• Try to learn languages, starting with Spanish
• Explore Europe and the Americas quite thoroughly (by bike of course), and perhaps other continents later
• Fall in love, with places, paces and faces
• Stop in places that I like and work, perhaps for months at a time
At the moment it feels likely I will return to London, but I can’t say when. The sense of freedom and possibility is vast. My intention is to travel, slowly, to some places that interest me, but really my intentions are less about DOING new things and more about exploring new ways of BEING.
Right now I am starting to feel more seen, more accepted and loved for my whole self than I’ve ever felt before. This is no coincidence; it’s part of the process of learning to allow myself to open to feeling: pain, love and joy...
How do you decide where to go next? Especially different countries/continents. Do you have a general path already or are you planning as you go along? (Momoko)
There are three levels to my geographic decision-making. First, I choose continents and countries based on my own interests. Second, I make commitments to meet my close people on specific dates, so that creates my general plan. Finally, in between those commitments I tend to make up my route as I go along.
I'm madly in love with Europe and expect to spend a lot of time there in the future. By my 50th birthday I might also have cycled through Turkey and the Caucasus, through Japan and South Korea, and I might have acquired a small, secluded 'basecamp' somewhere like northwest Spain.
Does your heart ever feel torn between places? (Emily M.)
Yes, very much so. I'm not fond of choosing. When it comes to human relationships of all kinds I don't practise one-at-a-time, but unfortunately my limited budget means I can't flit between continents and have to choose one place at a time. If I had more money I can well imagine choosing to chunk up my years between different continents/climates.
How do you deal with cold winters with early sunsets? (Jude)
This was a real challenge during my first winter in Italy and Greece. Especially at altitude and at night I was cold. My fear of stealth camping meant my days ended around 4pm and I regularly spent well over 12 hours/night in my tiny tent. The second winter I spent on Spain's eastern and southern coastlines so I was rarely cold. I'd also got un-scared by then so could set up camp later.
Do you have a contingency plan incase your body lets you down? (Emma)
Thanks for this thought-provoking question. As things stand, travelling and doing so independently by bike are big features of my life, but they aren't 'the point' of it, if that makes sense. With somewhat reduced health/mobility I could perhaps still 'travel' fairly independently. If I were not able to 'travel' but could still live independently I imagine I'd choose a base closer to some of my people and spend time doing other things I enjoy. If I couldn't live independently ditto, but in that case I'm sure I'd want to be near to some of my people.
What do you miss the most from default living? (Mel)
Honestly, I'm not sure there's anything I miss about 'default living'. My immense combined privileges of health, passport and small independent income mean that I can afford to live a very good life provided I make sensible choices about where to be (and eat a lot of lentils). I suspect at some point I might crave a basecamp but I haven't yet.
'The unexamined life is not worth living' (Socrates)
What was your steepest learning curve? (Bram)
A very significant psychological challenge for the first 3-4 months, stealth camping has become one of my most regular sources of euphoria. In fact, it's hard to convey the extent of my relief and gratitude that I nailed it. Free camping is what makes my freedom sustainable. I last wrote about it here.
Your life is the epitome of alternative. Where have you found the most, and least acceptance? (Mel)
As I wrote here, in the U.S. the (frequent) sight of person+bike+tent = homeless = go away. I haven't experienced a lack of acceptance anywhere else yet.
In terms of people in my life, I've been overwhelmed by support for what could easily be seen as my very 'selfish' choices. I do seem to have lost a couple of very cherished friends, but my sense is that's mostly to do with it being too hard for them to see me making a series of good, if difficult, decisions in order to get 'unstuck' while they feel unable to do likewise.
Can you share a wow moment or an enlightening experience? (Momoko)
Perhaps the single biggest wow is how much better a version of myself I am when not chronically tired.
Is a "regular" job and a "regular" abode "living" - or is what you do now "living"? (Adarsh)
For me, the way I'm being now feels more like living, but I wouldn't presume to prescribe it for everyone! As far as I can tell, many of my close people enjoy their 'regular' lives every bit as much as I enjoy my irregular one. Here are two quotes I return to again and again:
'If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.' (Paulo Coelho)
'Don't try to figure out what the world needs. Figure out what makes you come alive, then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.' (Howard Thurman)
I am interested to know... after camping in and travelling through so many (more?) natural landscapes than when you lived in a city - do you have any thoughts on your relationship to nature? (Rachel F.)
Having grown up feeling very stifled in a small town I used to have an uneasy relationship to countryside. Now, while I often feel socially 'safer' in cities (because queer), physically I tend to feel safer and calmer in the middle of 'nature'. While still not someone to get choked up easily, amazing landscapes do get me sometimes! I've also noticed how much I enjoy noticing birdsong. And there are few things in this world I love more than rivers.
How do you define 'home' and do you ever get really 'homesick?' How do you manage that? (Melody)
My concept of 'home' has definitely changed in recent years. For the first decade and half of my adult life I'm fairly sure I thought of my partner - rather than the places we lived - as 'home'. After I bought her out of our house, that came to feel very much my home. Now that I'm nomadic, wherever I hang my hat starts to feel like home after about one sleep. Right now I'm renting an apartment in a quiet neighbourhood of Oaxaca (for £6/night!), and thoroughly enjoying the novelty of walls, a shower, bed, fridge and wi-fi! So no, I don't get homesick.
Have you ever had times where you just wanted to give up and go back home? If so what made you keep on going? (Momoko)
I haven't had that feeling. Though ultimately London still feels like 'home' in some senses and I'd like to be able to get back there a couple of times a year, I wouldn't be able to afford to live there and just do nothing, so I don't think about it. So I guess my body is my home, and 'keeping going' with that isn't really optional!
At what point does alone become lonely? (Ruth)
Since starting to spend a lot of time alone for long periods, I can honestly say that I don't experience a link between being alone and loneliness. There are two specific exceptions to this:
If I'm in a very social environment where I'd like to know people but don't (a good example would be somewhere like a busy queer bar) I sometimes feel sorry for myself. I've learned not to put myself in those situations very often, and never when I'm feeling at all fragile. On the whole I don't find it particularly difficult to acquire 'temporary' or new friends when I put my mind to it.
The thing that makes me feel loneliest is feeling misunderstood/unseen (in a relationship with someone). If that happens, regardless of whether I'm alone, I feel lonely. In those situations I've learned to reach out as a matter of urgency to other people who do get/see me. For me, knowing that I can do this is a very distinct advantage of not having all my emotional eggs in one basket.
Does every place you visit fill you with inspiration and ideas or are there any that have simply been meh? (Joe)
I actually felt quite meh about much of the eastern and southern coastlines of Spain. Where not over-developed for tourism the coastal regions are very over-cultivated and daubed in polythene. (The cities are cool, of course.) But, there's no light without dark and I absolutely loved western and northern Spain, and (you'll be glad to hear, Joe) Portugal!
Other than that, I felt considerably more than meh about the USA.
What's the hardest thing you've had to deal with emotionally, with this type of lifestyle? (Rachel L-c) Was there anything that's been harder/more difficult than you expected? (Marc)
There have been three things. 1. Learning to stealth camp (see my answer to Bram above). 2. My time in the USA generally - I found the country loathsome and (unusually) regretted my decision to spend so long there. 3. Considering how happy we both are ploughing our respective and very different furrows, my ex partner still has a surprising amount of (unintended) 'power' to hurt me. While I still think of her as part of my chosen family, twice in the past 18 months she's made choices that have illustrated how differently she thinks about relationships and ours specifically. She was my main reason for cycling through the US instead of flying over it. When I got close to San Francisco it transpired she had no intention of hosting me! I was completely floored by this and drank a litre of wine (not something I make a habit of). The following day I was picked right back up by the overwhelming combined love of my 'close friends' group on Facebook. Once again, an example of not having all my emotional eggs in one basket. In the end, we did see each other three times in San Francisco and they were all wonderful. (That's categorically the only relationship where I'm basically willing to accept someone else's terms in order to have the relationship at all.)
Relationships with other people
How has being a vagabond allowed for you to maintain and strengthen relationships along the way? (although I know the answer to this, others might find the insight worthy reading) (Lisa)
Since 2011 I have been obsessively interested in the paradoxical human tension between wanting to feel connected and known, and wanting to feel separate and free. Some people say you can’t have both; that 'you can’t have your cake and eat it'. Having observed many people - including myself - compromise one for the other to the point of chronic unhappiness, I now work hard at balancing the two. This is something I wrote about at length last November in my personal user manual.
In the past I behaved like an extrovert, though I now find myself wondering if I ever really was one. Without a doubt I'm now an 'ambivert', loving and needing a lot of solitude and also relishing quality time with my chosen people.
It is a high priority to keep alive the relationships with my close people as I go further into my relationship with myself. My only significant reservation about leaving the UK was whether my relationships would withstand the change. You'd think being physically removed from all of my close people would makes those relationships hard. In fact, it's had a surprising strengthening effect on the majority of my relationships.
Most have not only survived but deepened through good communication about the change and/or chunks of high quality time together. To give just one example, I'd never spent a week with my brother since I left home in 1995. Since 2015 I've done so twice! Doing a quick 'tot up', since leaving London two years ago I've spent a 'chunk' of several days with n-n-n-n-n-n-19 of my close people (and two or three chunks with seven of these). There are about five close friends with whom I've yet to have such a 'chunk', but plans to do so are at various stages of development.
Several of my peeps have had an exceptionally difficult couple of years; I've been greatly touched when they've kept in contact, and haven't seemed to take my physical absence as unavailability.
'The only way to have a friend is to be one.' (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Now, here's something I haven't written explicitly about before. Hopefully everyone knows by now that while I do experience and value romantic love in some of my sexual relationships, I don't regard it as 'more important' than other kinds of love, such as love for my friends and love for my brother and nephew. This is clear, I hope, from the way I apportion my time and energy.
However (and this is the bit I haven't written about before and am slightly reticent to share for fear of it being misunderstood), lately I am noticing that while I can 'do' my non-physical relationships almost as well in a long-distance way, I do feel some frustration about the inability to have regular physical touch in the ongoing relationships that have a physical/sexual and romantic element.
One reason I had to move on from my long-term relationship was needing to explore my sexuality more fully. For a few years I did so, with gusto. Since being nomadic I've still managed to have a fair bit of incredible sex, but not as often as I would like! (Yet, at the same time, I feel fairly polysaturated, so... harrumph.) So there you have it; one thing about my current lifestyle that I wouldn't mind tweaking if it were somehow possible!
Did you find that being a vagabond left room for you to be more intentional in connections with others? Or do you need to just fit things into a time frame that works for other people or spend time with the people who are there (rather than the people you want to be there)? (Aviva)
To your first question, absolutely. I hope I've managed to explain how in my responses to Momoko (about planning) and Lisa above.
I hope to continue punctuating my solo travels with the companionship of my close people. Since most of my close people have more commitments than I do (e.g. jobs and/or kids and/or projects and/or spouses), we negotiate when, where and how to (talk and) spend time together. What's worked particularly well so far is people coming to join me for low-key micro-adventures (generally of 3-7 days) where my budget is neither an impediment nor a source of awkwardness/disparity: self-catering city-breaks or camping, hiking, cycling, etc. I underspend when alone and expect to exceed my daily budget when with others, but if I do the latter for several days I start to worry and that can affect my mood. Before spending time together I usually initiate a conversation about our needs and preferences including my need for spaciousness, without which I cannot sustain 'presence' for days on end.
'Spending time with the people who are there (rather than the people you want to be there)' isn't really an idea I can relate to, except perhaps in the sense of some folks being more accessible than others online for 'technological' and/or time-zone reasons. A few of my people don't use Facebook, for example, or aren't keen on videocalling, whereas others are very into these. All my people know that anybody expecting to have contact with me every day would be likely to trigger my engulfment anxiety.
I love meeting new people along the way, and don't ever find myself wishing they were someone else.
Do you think you could have done this without technology/social media to stay connected to conventional society/ parts of your old life? (Susie)
Hmm. If by my 'old life' you mean my people, I must admit I rely very heavily on Facebook, this blog and videocalling technologies. I struggle to imagine how the past two years would have felt without the use of those. I've pretty much lost touch with a couple of previously close friends who don't use Facebook at all, and am trying to figure out ways to keep up with another who decided to stop using Facebook recently. A couple of people have asked for more emails from me, but I just find email so... inefficient!
I don't have mobile connectivity, which I guess is quite unusual these days. This means that when I'm 'on the road' and camping I tend only to get online once a day. So far, only one of my close people has actually complained about my availability.
What, if anything, would you do differently if you had a do-over? (Marc)
There was a point when I questioned the wisdom of flying to a country I'd never been to that I wouldn't otherwise have prioritised (Canada), to co-produce (and, effectively, underwrite) a world-first conference with someone I'd never met. But that personal and financial risk paid off because #SoPoCo17 was a triumph in itself and has spawned a whole family of other happenings and connections. I also personally 'gained' (that sounds a bit mercantile) a ton of like-minded new friends and a new love.
What I do regret, however, was thinking it'd 'save money' to cycle from Vancouver to Mexico. In retrospect, if I'd saved all the money I spent on beef jerky (let alone everything else) I could have bought a plane ticket to Mexico with a stop-over in SF. In future I shall aim not to spend long periods in countries I'm confident I'm not going to like very much, or that are going to break my budget. That's not to say I actually regret cycling it. I mean, I survived, and spent time with wonderful people along the way. But I wouldn't do it again and I cannot recommend it.
Has your relationship with the following concepts changed over your journey - home, money, and work? If so how? And maybe why? (Anna)
'Home' is answered above.
Money. Throughout my working life I considered money 'unimportant' to me. I now realise that was because I had more than enough of it to be independent. Now that I'm trying to be independent on a lot less money (10-15 Euros/day when stealth camping, double that in cities), I'm more mindful about it generally, including its role in my relationships.
One thing I'm still getting my head around is friends offering to subsidise the things we do together (and, in a few instances, even things I've done without them). I couldn't say that I feel 'comfortable' about this (though obviously I'm immensely grateful), as I don't really see why my hard-working friends should subsidise my indolent lifestyle. The only 'counter-argument' that holds any sway at all is the memory of having done precisely the same when I had plenty of disposable income, and the knowledge that I would do the same again if the tables were turned. Still, it's a complicated topic.
Work. Now this is an interesting one. I have never done a jot of work. Not at school, not at university, not at 'work'. I have the 'worst' work ethic of just about anyone I've ever known. Truly, and I'm not sure why. Ask anyone who ever studied or worked with me! It always felt like a bit of game. Like, how little could I get away with? And now I've stopped even playing that game. I just do what I like. Do I feel guilty about it? Not really. Immensely privileged, but not guilty. Maybe someday I'll chance upon something I actually enjoy doing that also benefits the universe, but I'm not pressuring myself.
'Don't try to figure out what the world needs. Figure out what makes you come alive, then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.' (Howard Thurman)
Something quite interesting is happening right now. I want to speak Spanish fluently more than I've ever wanted anything that would actually have to be worked at. I have this notion of a kind of person who's fluent in a second language (like so many of the people I admire), and I want to be one. And, I think, I am 'working' at it. But, I'm so habitually indolent I'm finding I don't have the skills for learning. I'm just letting my curiosity (about the process as much as the content/possible outcomes) guide me, not forcing myself to do things that feel unnatural, and hoping the combination of listening+reading+intellect+paying for some lessons will get me past this excrutiating beginner bit to a stage where my fluency improves exponentially without even trying. Maybe I'm kidding myself.
Have I actually answered your questions?!
Do you think the experience has changed you and if so, how? (Ann B.) Is there any particular experience you've had in the last two years that has changed you the most? (Marc)
For at least five years (not just the last two) I've been aware of living much more in the present, for which I am grateful. I've made a series of really good decisions, and am getting gradually better at taking readings from my body and heart as well as my head.
'As Ram Dass has pointed out, we are human beings, not human doings. Being is very hard for some of us, and we may need to rehearse silence more than we need to practise speech.' (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection)
As I said above, I think getting enough sleep has made a profound difference. While not necessarily being particularly mindful about it, I have discovered a great enjoyment of sleep, in the basic rhythms and routines of life, and in simply being quiet and achieving nothing in particular. I never imagined I'd be the sort of person to lie in a hammock and read, for example! In fact, I'm pretty sure I was the sort of prat who said things like 'I'll sleep when I'm dead'. I'm still rubbish at putting myself to bed when there's electricity, but when camping, I sleep when my eyes droop and wake naturally. On the rare occasions I’m woken by an alarm it feels like some kind of torture. It’s rare for me to ‘get going’ before mid morning.
In addition, for the first time since childhood I've become an (almost) daily reader again, thanks to ample free time and my wise investment in a Kindle. I've also developed a joyful - if not very mindful - habit of reading my Kindle while cycling!
Very occasionally - particularly in cities where there's 'lots to do' - I still feel I ought to achieve more, but mostly I feel no sense of this whatever. Given the pressures of my culture-of-origin to do/achieve/earn/get/hold tight, this feels like a pretty radical shift to me.
Do you have a 'goal' in mind? i.e. an end point - or are you planning to go on forever like this? (Ingo)
Great question. I'll finish with this. I suspect my answer will either make total sense to you or it'll make no sense whatsoever.
As I explained right up at the top, 'my intentions are less about DOING new things and more about exploring new ways of BEING'. I gradually realised (while sitting in an office for 15 years) that I'd never find out what else was 'out there' while... sitting in an office. I literally couldn't conceptualise what else there might be to life, or to me. Again, I'm not pressuring myself to 'find my calling' or anything like that, I'm simply being, and seeing where that takes me. Working on the assumption I'm halfway through my life, there's still a LOT of time to play with.
I'm really enjoying my current way of life and can easily imagine continuing to be a vagabond for many years. Maybe in ten years' time I'll have got bored of having no money and thought of a way to make some, or maybe I'll still feel that being frugal is a small price to pay for absolute freedom.
Marc: Pick the questions you want to answer Hannah, you don't have any obligation to answer us all.
Me: I want to answer all of them! (And I never do anything I don't want to do! Except eat porridge!)