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Return of the Global Nomad

Lauren Packman
'...I had become a "global nomad", a new breed of traveler '.

Albuquerque in 1912
Photos of old New Mexic

What 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? I’m 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 don’t 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 drive.

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 didn’t 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 exquisite freedom!

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 you’ve 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 there’s 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 life’s 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 Do’s 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 people’s 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 didn’t 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 we’d 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 world?

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; they’d 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 country’s 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 can’t 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 don’t just want to travel; I MUST travel. There’s 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. I’ve 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, I’m 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.


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