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Colin WrightColin Wright on the road again. He's one of 6 permanent nomads interviewed for this article.
A Portrait of the Modern Nomad

What drives people to live on the move?
A look at a few nomad's life choices


By Zac Heisey

The word “nomad” might conjure up images of shrouded herders, leading various livestock through the barren landscape of the Sahara or Gobi desert. Maybe we envision a group of traveling merchants or craftspeople, existing itinerantly in caravans or other mobile living units. Considering Merriam-Webster’s definition of ‘Nomad’:

“A member of a people who have no fixed residence but move from place to place usually seasonally and within a well-defined territory,” these assumed images make sense. How many of us, however, have ever thought about the possibility of living nomadically in a modern society?

It can be a difficult concept to grasp, what with our propensity for establishing long-term careers, owning property, starting families, and otherwise being part of a centralized, location-specific community. While it certainly may seem appealing at times, the thought of abandoning the comfort and security of our daily routines keeps many of us from fully considering a nomadic lifestyle. Yet for some individuals, the romanticized idea of living without a permanent address and exploring the far reaches of the globe is a reality.


These “modern nomads” have found ways to exist mobily – earning money, maintaining relationships, paying bills, but doing so from remote locations around the world. In order to get a better understanding of what leads someone to live nomadically, what the benefits and drawbacks are, and what lessons might be learned from this lifestyle, I spoke with several individuals whose input collectively helped create a portrait of the modern nomad.

A Change of Scenery

GustavGustavStuck behind a desk for eight hours a day, it can be easy to daydream about far-flung locales that would be spectacular to visit someday. Something, however, always seems to pull us back to our listless daily tasks, creating an on-going cycle of unfulfillment. For the modern nomad, breaking this cycle is often the first step toward living life on their own terms. Gustav, author of themodernnomad.com, left his London-based software engineering job with global investment bank UBS when life began to feel stale.

“I realized that although my life was good, it was no longer teaching me anything new, and I was ready for something new. I hate stagnation, and the nomadic lifestyle is a lifestyle that didn't just revive my sense of adventure but is also inherently non-stagnating.” On New Year’s Day, 2011, Gustav made a decision to beat stagnation, and has lived a semi-nomadic life for the past two years.

Other modern nomads who site the decision to change their daily scenery as a major turning point include Samuel Jeffrey of nomadicsamuel.com. After a backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, Samuel explains, “I was instantly hooked. At that particular moment, I realized I was truly doing what I loved; I started making plans towards a lifestyle that would be nomadic versus one that would eventually have me coming back home to live in Canada.” For both Gustav and Samuel, the first step toward becoming a modern nomad was simply committing to a change of scenery.

Money and Possessions for Time and Freedom

A common characteristic of most modern nomads is their desire to live a minimalistic lifestyle, which allows them to move about much more freely than someone with a mountain of possessions. What modern nomads discover is that by shedding costly possessions, the amount of money needed to support your lifestyle decreases significantly.

This is a good thing, since earning money while traveling can be tough. “It isn't difficult to live cheaply on the road, but it is difficult to earn money.” says Gustav. “Few companies want to hire someone they can only talk to over Skype. Difficult, but not impossible.” The modern nomad typically earns money through online freelance work such as writing, web design, graphic design, and software engineering. Others find jobs on the ground, working or volunteering in the places they choose to visit. What is clear is that, for the modern nomad, the tradeoff between money and possessions for time and freedom is not a deterrent of the lifestyle, but rather a major draw.

Samuel JeffreySamuel JeffreyFinding a Balance is Crucial

Even with very few possessions and financial responsibilities, it is still necessary for modern nomads to fund their travels. Outside of a structured “9 to 5” routine, achieving an appropriate work-travel balance can be difficult. Most modern nomads agree, however, that finding an appropriate balance is crucial in order to sustain a nomadic lifestyle.

“You don't have to slave at a 9-5 and work paycheck to paycheck for your entire life, but at the same time you don't have to sell the house, shoot the dog, and live in a cave. There is a lot of room in between the two, and I think that's where most ‘modern nomads’ exist today.” notes Kyle Ellison, freelance writer and author of kylethevagabond.com.

A speed bump towards achieving this balance is the fact that no two days are alike for those whose lives revolve around travel. Ironically, this is also a part of the appeal for many modern nomads I spoke to. Nora Dunn of theprofessionalhobo.com mentions, “The beauty of my lifestyle is the fact that no two days are the same!” This sentiment is shared by fellow modern nomad Colin Wright, who runs exilelifestyle.com.

“Honestly, I don't really have typical days. My habits change depending on where I am and what I'm working on. Sometimes I'll do nothing productive for weeks at a time, and sometimes I'll sit down and churn out an entire book in a matter of days.” However, Colin does admit that a balance between work and exploration is a good thing: “Usually it's somewhere in between — a lot of free time, which I use to explore my environment and learn as much as possible, mixed in with periods of intense nose-to-the-grindstone work.”

Kyle EllisonKyle EllisonThe Good and the Bad

Unequivocally, the modern nomad lists more freedom as one of the best things about living a nomadic lifestyle. Nora Dunn explains, “I have total freedom to rest my hat wherever my whims (or a good volunteer or house-sitting gig) take me.” Similarly, Colin Wright states, “I do what I want, when I want, for any reason or no reason at all. I get out of life what I put into it, and I'm at the same time wiser and more knowledgeable and more aware of just how ignorant I really am than I've ever been before.”

This heightened sense of personal and global perspective is another benefit of living nomadically.
Nora DunnNora Dunn
 
“Whether it has been my nomadic lifestyle, or just the wisdom that comes with age, I would say that now I have a lot more perspective on my life, the lives of others, and the world in general,” says Dunn. For Kyle Ellison, “Being a ‘modern nomad’ has helped me approach situations, discussions, political arguments etc. from a global perspective as opposed to an uneducated, ignoran

It can also be difficult to maintain relationships with family and friends back home, as Gustav explains, “It is hard to maintain friendships as people stop reaching out when you are not there in their every-day life anymore.” Samuel Jeffrey adds, “The biggest drawbacks are time spent away from family and friends back home along with the lack of support systems in place when problems arise.”t perspective that too many modern isolationists harbor.

When you have lived how much of the rest of the world has lived (i.e. in squat toilets, living on less than $3/day, etc.), it not only makes you appreciate the conveniences and luxuries of the modern world, but to not take them for granted. Perhaps the greatest benefit of being nomadic is all the perspective it brings.”

On the downside, there isn’t necessarily a modern nomad “roadmap” to follow like there is with more traditional lifestyles. “There are few templates for anything you do, which is a stark contrast to normal, sedentary life. How you stay healthy, how you manage relationships, how you work, how you pay bills — everything you do will be an exception to the rule out of necessity, and that's not easy for most people to come to grips with,” explains Colin Wright.


From discussions with the individuals mentioned above (as well as many others) who choose to live a nomadic lifestyle, we are able to create a portrait of the modern nomad – someone who values time over money, freedom over possessions, and perspective over security.

For those considering a change to a more mobile lifestyle, the most frequent advice offered by the modern nomad is to just go for it.

As Kyle Ellison puts it, “Excuses get you nowhere; saying yes to opportunity can take you anywhere.”

Zac Heisey







Zac Heisey is a freelance writer from California currently living in Lima, Peru.









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