Return of the Global Nomad
had become a "global nomad", a new breed of traveler '.
Albuquerque in 1912
Photos of old New Mexic
is it like to spend two years traveling around the world, exploring
thirty-five different countries, many of them in the developing world,
then to return to a fast-paced, work-oriented life in the United States?
It felt as awkward as my first day of kindergarten! I knew that experiencing
unfamiliar cultures would challenge me, but never thought that returning
to my native homeland could feel this strange. Of course, this is my
home country, but do I still belong here? Im not sure
In a traveling life,
you get to cast off your old identity and assume a new one. While traveling,
I had no job, no fixed set of friends, and no household goods - not
even a set of keys! All my worldly goods fit inside of an 18-pound well-worn
backpack. Any acquisitions were carefully screened in terms of size
and utility. Could it easily fit into my backpack? If not, what could
be pared down? My possessions were limited to only essential items,
with not an ounce of excess. I had no lawns to mow, no cars to repair,
and no monthly bills to pay. What a sense of freedom and lightness!
All I owned I could carry.
I had become
a "global nomad", a new breed of traveler. Someone
who lives outside of their home country for an extended period
of time, forging a new cultural identity. At first I thought
I was unique, until I encountered other road warriors who had
been roaming for three years, five years, and more, making my
mere two years look measly in comparison.
Friends on the road dont ask, "What do you do?" because
they already know the answer is "travel". They might inquire,
"Where do you come from?", but even that becomes difficult
to answer after a while. I began responding, "I used to live in
New York", having been gone almost two years. Anyhow, what mattered
most on the road was the type of person you were were you a flexible,
fun and easy person to hang out with? - not what kind of car did you
I started to realize that I could be ANY kind of person I wanted to
be while traveling. I played at re-inventing myself, trying on alter
egos to discover what kind of person might be lurking underneath my
conservative workday personality. I evolved from a staid consultant
in a business suit to a footloose woman traveler, my hair growing long
and sun-bleached and my body becoming strong and lean, as I pursued
new exploits such as scuba diving in the Red Sea and trekking through
the mountains of Nepal.
The stimulation of new countries, new languages, and ethnicities is
like a drug. It hooks you; you begin to want more and more. You seek
constant change, thriving on each new challenge and difficult circumstance.
Will I be able to cope with arriving alone in Rangoon, Burma at 10 at
night, figuring out the black-market currency and finding a cheap, safe
way into town? Can I suppress my fear of heights while navigating a
steep drop-off trail plagued by landslides, to cross the border from
Nepal into Tibet, China?
A traveling life is an amorphous one, often beginning with the question
"how many months should I spend in this country?" My pace
slowed to match the leisurely tempo of the countries I was visiting.
I allowed for days when the Indian trains didnt run, when the
Greek ferries were on strike, and the occasional attack of amoebas.
How sweet to sleep in without an alarm, take a leisurely breakfast and
wonder over coffee, "what would I like to do today?" Such
My rhythm alternated between active sightseeing and taking it easy,
depending on my mood, health and energy level. What fun to decide to
head north to Tibet because the border with Nepal had just opened up!
To take a train detour to Pushkar, India, where the annual camel fair
would start in just a few days under the full October moon. To encounter
a charming open air thatched roof house in Bali, Indonesia and decide
to rent it for the month, just because. To take advantage of chance
and fate, shifting my plans like the tides, teaching me to go with the
flow, because it would probably take me somewhere unexpected and amusing.
While on the road, I enjoyed an ever-changing set of friends from diverse
backgrounds and personalities that I never would have had at home. I
bonded with African Peace Corp volunteers, die-hard German backpackers,
and married Australian doctors rafting in Nepal. Hospitality extended
to me by locals was amazingly generous: the educated Turkish woman Guizin
who showed me around her native Istanbul, the Israeli woman Michal who
hosted me in her kibbutz home, the Italians who shared their carefully
hoarded wine and cheese for a picnic in the heart of the Himalayas.
How was I ever
going to return to a mortgaged house, a corporate job,
and the same set of homogeneous friends?
Yet, many months on the road takes its toll; my energy level began to
decline as I yearned for stability and comfort. Oh, to sleep in the
same bed for a month, to have a hot shower, to not repack my backpack
yet again. Travel is draining; it exhausts the mind and body.
After two years traveling, I had slept in over 200 hotels and had consumed
at least 2000 restaurant meals. I grew tired of finding a new place
to stay, a new café to eat at; I grew weary and impatient. Imagine
the luxury of having my own kitchen where I could fix the food of my
choice, and leave my clock permanently by my bedside. To have continuity
of friends, instead of repeatedly explaining myself to each new acquaintance,
who would soon head in a separate direction. It was time to return home,
while I still could.
I had met my husband Jeff while traveling, and we were married after
our return to the States. Being from opposite coasts, we chose to make
our new home in Seattle, which was new turf for both of us. The logistics
of restarting our lives turned out to be pretty mundane: setting up
bank accounts, finding jobs, buying a car, and renting an apartment.
But, the daily details can put you over the edge, such humdrum stuff
after an exotic life abroad.
And how do you
explain a two-year gap on your resume?
I couldn't blame it on a maternity leave? I took the direct approach
and pitched it as a selling point on my resume: "two year world
tour of Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Australia to
learn about world culture, geography and history". It triggered
some interesting discussions during my job interviews. Fortunately,
it was never an obstacle, and I was hired by conventional IBM.
So how do you adjust to a 9 to 5 job when youve been a free spirit,
living an unstructured life for two years while wandering the world?
This was the roughest transition for me. I remember watching the clock
during my first few workdays, waiting for the minutes to tick by until
the day ended.
Then theres the issue of vacations what do you mean I only
get two weeks vacation during the first five years? I felt like a slave
or indentured servant. How can this lifestyle be humane? Virtually every
waking moment of mine was now owned by a corporation. Yikes! At the
end of the workday I headed home, my lifes energy sapped, with
little time left for personal pursuits. The weekend became a recovery
period, its sole purpose to prepare for the coming workweek.
Yet, how quickly we adapt. What first is painful, becomes routine and
comfortable. How soon the adrenalin kicked in at my first big job success.
Yet I found myself frantically multi-tasking, trying to get through
my daily To Dos list, falling farther behind as new tasks were
continually added. I worked at a frenzied pace, hardly stopping to have
a social conversation, or god forbid take a non-working lunch. Everyone
was constantly in a hurry, cell phones were as pervasive as a virus,
and interruptions prevailed.
Having spent so many months in the developing world, I was overwhelmed
on my first visit to an American shopping mall after my re-entry. I
gawked at the heaps of merchandise so artfully displayed, beckoning
the shopper. A Starbucks on every corner, folks sipping cappuccino,
stylish shopping bags by their sides; the glitz and splendor were irresistible.
How much money was spent here in just one day? And where did all of
this stuff go to? Into peoples houses, attics, garages? I was
amazed at how many of our friends four bedroom, two car garage
homes were simply overflowing with possessions. How can this be?
The range of products was truly astonishing. In Sweden, there might
be a single brand of milk and maybe two kinds of yogurt at the local
market. Here, gaily-colored cereal boxes filled an entire grocery store
aisle, stacked from floor to ceiling. It took me ten minutes just to
find my favorite standby, Grape Nuts. Buying something as ordinary as
tampons required a decision tree: Did I want scented or unscented? Plastic
or cardboard dispenser? Light, regular, super or super plus? How did
life get this complicated?
At the same time, it was a relief to be among friends and family, surrounded
by people who knew our entire life history and eccentricities. How comfortable
to be able to blend into the crowd, not to stand out as a foreign curiosity,
or to be hit up as a source of dollars. I remember getting my hair cut
at a beauty shop in a remote Thai town, when a half a dozen customers
clustered curiously around me and started petting my arm, fascinated
by my blond hairs. No risk of that happening here.
Thankful as I was for our newfound stability, I felt slightly out of
step, as though I didnt really fit in. When friends inquired about
our travels, it was hard to convey the vastness and depth of our experience.
How do you distill two years of travels into a five-minute synopsis?
Their level of interest rarely extended beyond the requisite question
"What was your favorite country?"
People were astonished to learn that wed been gone over two years.
For them, little had changed. They were still living in the same house,
working the same job. Our travels felt like ten years worth of life
experience! We may have appeared the same, albeit a few pounds lighter,
clothes a bit worn, and hair in need of a cut, but our whole lives and
perspectives had changed. As well as our bank balance, which had dropped
to alarmingly low levels. But money can be earned again when
else in our lives might we have the opportunity to travel around the
We tried to stay abreast of world news and culture, but struggled to
find in-depth news coverage, finding most local papers and TV stations
to be very U.S.-centric. Friends seemed to have little interest in international
events; theyd rather talk about the stock market or their new
Lexus. Tibet and India were just vague places on a map. For us, these
stories had a real immediacy, as we visualized the countrys landscape
and fondly recalled friends names and faces.
Still, we were disappointed by the sterility and lack of warmth of our
home culture. Where were the charming town plazas, with music in the
gazebo on Sundays? Where could we stroll to have an unexpected encounter
with friends? People come and go in their fancy cars using automatic
garage door openers, insulated from their neighbors. Twenty years ago,
we might have had a backyard chat while gardening, but now most yard
work has been delegated to Mexicans or Koreans; six-foot tall fences
separate our yards and families.
Where is the heart and conviviality of our American culture? Our lives
are driven by work, so that we can earn more money, and then we spend
all our free time squandering it. Our walk-in closets cant contain
all our clothes, more clothes than possessed by an entire Mexican family.
Yet, how sweet and effortless is American life. Scores of quality products
available at such competitive prices. How lucky we are to have clean
air and water you can drink straight from the tap. Street and parks
are clean and manicured; litter a rarity. Everything seems well designed,
so thoughtfully laid out, whether it be Disney Land or banks; each process
has been optimized for efficiency. Not like the Greek banks, where you
wait in three lines just to cash a check. Here in the U.S., people smile
and recite their scripted lines, "Have a nice day", sounding
more like automatons than friends.
As we settled into our home in Seattle, we found it a slow going to
make new friends, lacking the daily survival battles that formed an
instant bond among travelers. Everyone was either too busy with work
or already had a large set of friends. Spontaneity went by the wayside,
as we planned social engagements six weeks ahead of time, first consulting
our Day Runners. No neighbors stopped by to welcome us to the neighborhood;
no one would dare stop by without calling first.
We moved forward with domestic commitments buying a home, paying
a mortgage, furnishing our house, having a baby, progressing in our
jobs. It felt like the right timing, but we knew we still wanted something
more. A sense of impermanence tainted our minds, even as we became increasingly
tied down. Yes, we might live in Seattle, but just for now. Not forever.
We continued our travels, as best we could within our job constraints.
We managed to take at least one overseas trip a year to keep ourselves
challenged. We dragged our son Chase along, taking him at two-years
old to Bali, at five-years to Viet Nam, and at six-years to Argentina
and Uruguay. Indoctrinated early, he turned out to be a good little
traveler, fortunately for us.
So where does this urge to travel come from? Certainly not from my family;
my Dad and two sisters have never traveled beyond the States and Canada,
nor do they want to. I believe that we are born with the desire to travel
(or not). I dont just want to travel; I MUST travel. Theres
no choice in the matter it remains an urgent, pressing need -
to renew myself in a foreign place. Without it, I would feel stunted
and confined. Ive read that scientists have discovered DNA differences
between risk-taking people who constantly seek new places and stimulation,
versus the lower risk, stay-at-home "berry gatherers". Me,
Im always looking for newer and better hunting grounds.
Each time we depart
on a trip, walking through the airport with our backpacks, I feel a
sense of exhilaration.
What might lie ahead? The excitement of a new destination,
the challenge of a new language and culture, the delightful uncertainty
of not knowing what will happen, so different than our predictable day-to-day
working lives. I feel younger, stronger, more capable, more open to
the moment and to the adventures about to be written. I crave this as
a part of my life.
While I will always be an American citizen, in my heart I am a citizen
of the world. I belong more to the variety of world cultures than to
the homogeneity of our own. We make the compromises we need to in life,
trading off the excitement of travel for the financial stability that
working provides. Yet, as global nomads, we maintain a broader connectedness
with the world, actively following foreign news, reading books on other
cultures, and maintaining foreign friendships. We are addicted to the
world "out there" beyond the borders of our country.
Our excitement comes from taking the next trip, maybe living overseas
for a while, or connecting with foreigners here in the States. We may
never enjoy the same contentment with American life as our neighbor
next door, but what richness and intensity traveling brings to our lives.
Once you become a global nomad, you can never return to your home culture
in the same way. But would you even want to?
© Lauren Packman 2001
Lauren is from Seattle,
but currently lives in central Mexico with her husband and 9 year-old
son. Several of her pieces have been published in the "Lake Chapala
Review" and on "Mexico Connect", a monthly web magazine
that focuses on living in Mexico.