It was just over one year ago that Katie and I vacated our last permanent residence to become nomads. Prior to leaving, we spent a lot of time thinking about what this new life would be like. Since we were undertaking such a radical lifestyle change, it was impossible to know exactly what we would experience. All of our ideas were just educated guesses. A few months prior to leaving, I wrote down a bunch of these expectations. I’ll share these below and compare them to the realities of life in SE Asia. Let’s see how close I got.
Expectation: Carrying only one backpack each would mean lots of laundry
Reality: It’s true that having fewer clothes means laundry more often. However, it hasn’t been an issue at all. Many of the places we’ve rented had a washer right in the apartment. The ones that didn’t often had a laundromat nearby. The upside is that we can usually fit all of our clothes into a single load. Plus, we have plenty of time to do it so it’s not impinging on us having fun like it was when trying to do multiple loads on limited weekend time away from work.
Expectation: Eating street food and having non-potable tap water would result in frequent intestinal distress
Reality: I was way off on this one. Without wading into TMI territory, neither of us have had a serious case Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly, or the Thailand Trots. I’m sure some of this was luck, but we are also very careful. We completely avoid ice that we didn’t make. This can be hard, as it’s often hot and an ice cold beverage would be delicious. We only drink bottled or boiled water. Every apartment we’ve stayed at provided a hot water kettle, so we use that to boil water often and keep us supplied with safe drinking water. This way we can mostly avoid buying bottles of water. If we eat out, we stick to street carts that are popular. Or when going to night markets, we go early when things are fresher. This also helps avoid the most crowded times. I’m really happy to have missed on this prediction.
Expectation: We would go through bouts of boredom, especially at the start
Reality: This was mostly true. Like all retirees, we have at least 50 extra hours per week of time to fill. Traveling helped with this transition, since things are new and exciting every time we change locations. But there was still an adjustment period. There’s a natural tendency for travel to feel like vacation, where we pack in a lot of activity before returning to our normal life. We often repeated the mantra “this is life, not vacation” early in our travels. We had to get used to a slower pace of living and days without anything scheduled. Overall I think we made the transition well, but it wasn’t without boredom. Now it seems like I can do nothing all day and not think twice about it. The COVID-19 quarantine has challenged that idea somewhat, but I’m happy that we got a lot of practice prior to “going live” with the lockdown.
Expectation: We’d be a lot better rested
Reality: Definitely! During the last few months prior to leaving, we were both mentally exhausted and rest was hard to come by. The process of getting rid of all our stuff combined with winding down our working careers was very stressful. We would both go through periods of waking up for hours in the middle of the night, unable to calm our thoughts. Now, I’m so well-rested that I couldn’t even take a nap if you paid me. It’s been months since I last woke to an alarm.
Expectation: I’ll learn some local languages
Reality: Barely. I learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local languages of wherever we visit. I have learned some of the food too, but I doubt I’m pronouncing it correctly. The fact is that English is widely used everywhere we’ve been in SE Asia and the tonal languages spoken here are nearly impossible to learn on a casual basis. Since I haven’t put in any serious study, I haven’t really learned much. Most people would rather practice their English on me than let me fumble my way through the few words I might know in their language. And even when there’s no shared language, like at some produce markets, it’s still easy enough to complete a transaction. I grab the fruit and vegetables that I want and they will weigh it. Many vendors have a calculator where they type in the price. Others will pull out their own cash to show me how much or sometimes they write it down on a piece of paper. They are used to dealing with language barriers, so because they make it easy, there’s less of an incentive for me to undertake the (likely) futile effort.
Expectation: No more deep cleaning
Reality: Moving into an already clean place every few weeks is amazing. Cleaning toilets or showers is mostly a distant memory. I have to wash a lot more dishes, but the days of getting on my hands and knees to scrub something is a thing of the past. As someone who is not the neatest person, this part has been great.
Expectation: We might get sick of each other
Reality: We spent a lot of time together before too. While we don’t have other people around to pick up the slack, it hasn’t been a problem. We both know how to give each other space and have the ability to keep ourselves entertained separately. But really, when things are constantly new and different, there’s always something interesting to see, do, or talk about.
Expectation: We’d spend around $36,000
Reality: It’s really been a lot cheaper than we ever imagined. While we’re not living in the lap of luxury, we’re renting nice, clean places and eating well. We’re visiting every tourist site, museum, and temple that we have interest in. As mentioned above, we’ve been treating this as life, not vacation, since the beginning. That means splurging on taxis or fancy restaurants or drinks at the bar are a rare occurrence, just like before. As a result, we’ve spent only two-thirds of what we planned. Coming in so far under budget has allowed us to not worry about finances even during this time of economic turmoil. This is another prediction I’m happy to have missed. (Note – I started tracking and reporting expenses once we left the US at the end of June 2019, even though we became nomads at the end of April. So our spending only shows 10 months instead of 12 right now, but it’s easy to follow the projection.)
Expectation: I’ll miss my own bed
Reality: This is hit or miss. Some places we’ve stayed have been great and some have sucked. Most beds are somewhere in between. However, my previous desire for a comfortable bed was directly related to how much it impacted my ability to get proper rest. As I already noted, I’m supremely well rested now. So I’m not sure having a more comfortable bed all the time would make that big of difference. Of course, I still check Airbnb reviews to see if anyone mentioned the beds, because having a comfortable bed is better than not.
Expectation: I’ll miss my bike
Reality: Yes, I definitely miss my bike. During the last 5+ years of my working career, I was a full time bike commuter. Even on weekends Katie and I would often ride to the farmers market, grocery store, or some other place around town. That meant that I was on my bike almost everyday during that time. We recently rented bikes a couple of days in Hoi An and even though they were too small and pretty cheap, it was a lot of fun to ride again. This is the biggest thing I miss from my old life.
Expectation: I’ll miss my well-stocked kitchen
Reality: It’s been a mental transition to move from buying in bulk to buying the smallest quantity available. We don’t have the capacity to carry many extra things from place to place. But we have plenty of time to shop and don’t suffer from a lack of variety. Our ingredients are not always the same ones we’re used to, but there’s lots to choose from. What I really miss is access to an oven. It’s extremely rare to find an oven in a rental here in Asia. All cooking is done by a rice cooker or on the stove top. We have pretty easily adjusted our meals to oven-less ones, but I do pine for a nice crispy-skinned baked potato.
Not everything was expected
So those are all the ways that I expected our life would change. I missed on a few, but I think I got pretty close overall. However, that’s not quite the full story. While I anticipated a lot of these differences, there were a few things that cropped up that I never even considered before leaving. Not all of them are a big deal, but they all surprised me.
Unexpected: Mangoes are seasonal
Result: I had no idea that mangoes were seasonal. Based on US produce availability, I assumed they were year round like bananas and other tropical fruits. When we first arrived in Thailand in late June, we were eating loads of delicious yellow mangoes. And then after a couple of months, they just disappeared. Luckily, they came back a few months later. I can tell you one thing. Traveling during mango season is more fun.
Unexpected: I had to give up shower beers
Result: It’s a wonderful feeling to jump into a cool shower when you’re hot and sweaty. It gets even better when you crack a can of beer to take in with you. The hot day, cool shower, and cold beer combination is one of life’s great pleasures. However, I quickly learned that in the land of non-potable water, I have to concentrate to keep my mouth shut in the shower. Especially because the facial hair on my upper lip holds water, trying to drink a beer in the shower would most definitely result in ingesting water that could make me sick. I never considered this sacrifice ahead of time.
Unexpected: My natural clumsiness would result in more injuries
Result: By constantly being in an unfamiliar environment, it meant that I was much more prone to hurting myself. I’ve banged my head on wardrobes, kitchen cabinets, open windows, and more. I’ve stubbed my toe on random furniture often, and recently did so hard enough to break my poor little pinky toe. It’s a valuable appendage! I took a chunk out of my foot in a Cambodian market thanks to a clumsy step and had to deal with that wound for a week and a half. In general, when everything is in a different place, opens in a different direction, or is simply unfamiliar, I’m at a much greater risk of hurting myself. I was definitely not expecting to suffer as many injuries. Luckily I have plenty of time to recover.
Unexpected: A global pandemic would end travel as we know it indefinitely
Result: I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I definitely didn’t expect that I’d have my life completely altered by a global pandemic. I’m not exactly sure what I was doing during the H1N1 Swine Flu, SARS, MERS, or any of the other historically recent viral outbreaks, but this was not on my radar. Like at all. While we’re doing what we can to make the best of it, travel and tourism is definitely different now and will be for some time. Packed museums or busy tourist sites have a lot less appeal. We’re also avoiding markets, even though that was one of our favorite activities previously. Crowding in with others, dealing with multiple vendors, and constantly handling cash seem like superfluous risks. Our travel has ground to a halt and I see us staying put and avoiding crowds as much as possible until a vaccine is available.
That’s where we stand one year into our nomadic life. Many of these expectations turned out to be about what I anticipated. That’s definitely a good thing. It shows that we planned well and mostly knew what we were getting ourselves into. Obviously, the biggest issue affecting everything is the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our travels have been grounded for now, but we’re hopeful that we can return to something resembling our previous normal life at some point. Due to restrictions and the current feeling that crowds can kill me, I’m guessing year 2 will not be as much fun or as exciting as year 1. But maybe I’ll get this expectation wrong too.
Good post, thanks. I hope you’ll keep posting. I imagine it’s more difficult in the early days, but you’re a good writer.
(I never knew shower beers were a thing, lol.)
I have postponed the start of my own nomadic life for the time being, but also hope travel becomes more viable soon.
Thanks B! Let’s hope that a viable vaccine comes to market soon. It’s a lot more fun when crowds aren’t a moderately terrifying proposition.
Eric, I love reading your posts and this was a very reflective summary of your year. Stay safe.
Upon reading this, I’m going to vigorously ride my bike tonight, work up a good hot sweat, shave clean and then hammer two ice cold beers in the shower. In honor of you, of course. Stay safe bro!
That sounds amazing! (other than the shaving part)
Great post. I’ve been researching the nomadic lifestyle, but I’m not sure yet if it’s best for me and my wife. How do we find out? We both love traveling, but we’re concerned that a nomadic life would eventually become too unbearable. Do you guys eventually plan on moving back home at some point? Will you be renters for the rest of your lives or do you plan on buying a house somewhere once you’re ready to settle down? We’re worried that we’ll regret not owning a home and having a place to fallback to once/if we reach a point when we’re done with being nomads.
Thanks Rob. If we ever stop having fun traveling, we can always stop. At this point, we plan to continue indefinitely, but it probably won’t last forever. And even then, I’m not 100% sure we’d go back to the US. We could find the perfect spot at some point during our travels and decide to stop there. So many options! I hope it’s a long time before we have to make any of these decisions.
Rob’s is an interesting comment. One of the things I’ve found since becoming financially independent (or free, I always struggle to know what’s the difference) is the choices I have and, importantly, if I find I make the wrong choice then I can always change direction. I don’t always manage it, but if I have an idea of what I would like to do, I’d rather try it to find out rather than live with the regret of later thinking I wish I’d tried it…kind of like it’s better to have lost and lost than to never have loved at all.
Also, how about trying the nomadic life for a period of time to see how it goes? Not quite the same, but I did 4 months of travels in 2018 and then 3 months in 2019, with “more traditional” living in between. I’d like another adventure now 🙂
That’s right David. Nothing’s permanent unless we want it to be. I don’t have my future all planned out, but hardly anyone else does either. But what I do have are a lot of options and we’re happy with our decisions for now.
Love to hear the update. ?
Thanks Rebs. When should we expect an update from you?!
I am curious – did you divest yourself of all your belongings except what fit into the backpacks? At my age (61) I cannot fathom doing this. I have treasured items that came from my parents and grandparents. Plus I have some things I just plain well like, such as a lot of Craftsman tools and tool chests. A Trek bicycle that fits my small frame. And horses, their gear, truck, and trailers that I use.
I have certainly imagined selling my farm and being house-less for a while, traveling the US with a horse or two in my combo RV/horse trailer, and putting the items I just can’t part with into a storage unit for a while. And moving back into a house when I get tired of the RV life or when it gets too physically taxing.
We have one small box that holds a few physical photographs and other small keepsake items that my parents are storing in their basement. We also stashed winter coats at both of our parents’ houses in case we visit when it’s cold. Other than that, we got rid of everything else. It was certainly a trying process, but we had to make a choice of a lot of stuff or a lot of travel and went with the latter.
So interesting to read your take on your last year of travel. We’ve enjoyed a lot of weekend trips in Vietnam and Thailand due to being expats in Singapore. Now that we’re retired slow travelers, we’ve been considering if we might make our way back to southeast Asia at some point for longer stays. Definitely want to explore eastern Europe first but we’re mulling over what a couple months in Vietnam or Thailand might look like. Great posts!
Thanks! It’s been pretty fun and certainly different than what we’re used to. A definite learning experience.
Interesting perspective – I was surprised at how little I spent in Thailand. I was with a Thai friend and sometimes got the Thai price instead of the foreigner price, but I think even with out it one could get by cheap. I stayed with my friend and his family, ate out most meals and enjoyed Bangkok and Phuket and in two weeks barely went through $350.
I enjoy reading about others’ nomadic existence but have no interest in it myself. I do like one-bag travel though, so definitely appreciate that part of your story! And about the bikes!
Even having been in SE Asia for almost a year, I’m still frequently shocked by how cheap things are. Sure makes it easy to keep the spending low!
Great post! After a year of the nomad lifestyle, I can confirm nearly everything you mention here. Have you tried using water filters? I bought a mini Sawyer filter and use it all the time. It’s tiny and efficient. This way you can have some fresh water in a fridge ready for you when going for a day trip and exploring.
I have not tried a filter, but every place we’ve rented has a hot water pot/kettle, so we just use that often for drinkable water. We let it cool and then pour it into one of a few reusable bottles. Without that, a filter would probably be absolutely necessary as buying bottled water all the time would not make me happy.
Sorry. A little late to the game here. Great post buddy. It’s was both interesting and encouraging.
Funny you mentioned missing your bike. Dian at I have older (2002ish) well maintained Trek bikes that we enjoy on most weekends. I told her the two things i’m going to miss the most are my bike and my bluetooth speaker. Those tinny sounding little speakers on my laptop aren’t going to cut it with the music. I honestly don’t think I’ll miss much else. I’ve already gotten rid of a lot of stuff and it feels awesome to be honest.
Regarding the water. Boiling seems like the way to go. We are also considering getting a Steripen https://www.katadyn.com/us/us/36833-ULT-MP-Ultra. I figure this might come in handy in a pinch, as well as when we are dining out and get served water. It’s very portable. Of course… Beer is always a safer bet.
Hey Skip. Good work on the purging. I actually do carry a small-ish speaker. I think it’s essential. But they sell those in every city in the world so if you start without and realize you miss it too much, you can just buy one wherever you are.
Yeah. I’ll have to get something smaller for sure. I have a Fender Newport in sonic blue and absolutely love it. It’s relatively small but it’s about as heavy as a brick, which is why it sounds so good. If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears.
It seems like there are a ton of options, and I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve been carrying the Oontz Angle 3 and have been very happy with it.
Wow, it must be awesome to travel the world and experience different cultures. Which city and country do you like the most?
That’s a tough question as we’ve enjoyed many stops so far. I think Penang was the biggest surprise, as it’s not really on the popular lists like Siem Reap or Hoi An are, which we also really liked. It’s pretty tough to choose just one though. Ask me again in a decade and maybe I’ll have narrowed it down. 🙂