Six years ago Don and I made the decision to sell our apartment and our car, sell or give away almost all our possessions, and travel the world. Five and a half years ago we became homeless nomads. We started with a trip to Italy and Spain and followed it with nearly three months in India, one month in Bali, and one month in Australia. Since then we have travelled to twenty-six more countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, South and Central America, Oceania, and the Middle East.
Home has been hotels, hostels, rented furnished apartments, housesits, cruise boats, and overnight plane and train trips. Every few months we’d land back in Canada for a while and arrange to housesit for friends. We’d rent a car and raid our small storage locker for a change of clothes and the file boxes and printer we needed to deal with business matters. Home was with each other, and in other people’s homes. It was both a crazy, and a rewarding lifestyle. It was also stressful in ways we didn’t fully realise. Until we were forced to.
Over the years, as the blog has grown, the most frequent feedback we’ve received is that we are inspirational and courageous.
For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable with the mantle of being an inspiration, though I’m happy that my life choices proved to be that. After all, I’ve just been living my life in the most authentic way I know how. And then I thought of all the people who’ve inspired me – dozens, hundreds over the years, some in person, some through books. I would never have even come to the point of being committed to living an authentic life if not for being inspired by books I read and people I met. I was actually called fake to my face in my twenties. And you know what? They were right. I was busy trying to be who I thought others wanted me to be so I’d become somehow acceptable. So if in some small way I’m paying forward some inspiration to live a better life, some inspiration to go live your dream, some inspiration to be true to yourself, I’ll own that, and I’m grateful for it.
As for courage, I dismissed that too. We weren’t being courageous; we were just doing what we most wanted to do. It’s only courageous if you’re doing something you’re afraid of, and we were not afraid. At least we were not afraid of selling our home and all our “stuff” and becoming homeless nomads. That part didn’t take any courage. It was so clear that it was the only truly authentic course we could take, it was so clear that this was what would most nourish our souls, that fear never came into it.
It’s only now that I recognise how much fear we overcame, how much stress we felt as we travelled, homeless, for five and a half years. Every time we returned to Canada there was the stress of finding a place to stay, short of paying exorbitant hotel or Airbnb fees. We mostly housesat but it all had to be dovetailed, and frequently offers came in, or were cancelled, at the last minute.
Back in Vancouver for 3 ½ months this was our itinerary, from an earlier blog post: five weeks housesitting for friends, five nights in the guest suite of the building where we used to live, five nights with friends on Whidbey Island, twelve days housesitting for another friend, ten nights in the guest suite, three weeks housesitting for friends in North Vancouver, one night in a hotel, four nights in the guest suite, two and a half weeks housesitting for a friend in Coquitlam, and finally two nights back in the guest suite.
On another occasion we stayed in eleven different places in five months. I can’t deny that we would get anxious about it. It didn’t matter how often things worked out, how often we reminded ourselves to trust the unfolding, there was always that underlying low-grade anxiety – i.e. fear.
Travelling itself causes anxiety. Over and over we would put ourselves in the hands of strangers in foreign countries where we had no idea where we were. Every taxi ride required a certain amount of trust. There was the night we arrived in Fiji after dark and took a taxi to our hotel. We drove and drove. Out of the town, down narrower and narrower roads, until we were driving on a gravel road, and there was nothing around but wilderness. We were getting more and more uncomfortable, and alert, when suddenly we arrived at the hotel on the beach. This is one of many many occasions when we were afraid. Not terrified, but definitely on high alert.
Even with an experienced driver who we trusted, much closer to terrified was being driven after dark in India. There is little lighting, drivers basically go wherever they want, and the roads are also filled with unlit horse/donkey/camel drawn carts, people, and wandering dogs and cattle. We drove ourselves in Australia and New Zealand, which was easy enough, but in Turkey, Spain, and Italy it was definitely stressful.
We wandered streets far far from the usual tourist haunts in many countries with nothing to guide us but trust and intuition. We did things we’ve never done before without being sure we were physically capable of doing them, like climbing volcanoes, ice trekking, zip lining, and parasailing. Over and over we held the anxiety in check and carried on.
So yeah, now I’m also willing to own that we’ve been courageous.
I’ve written before about how stressful it is to keep up with blogging while travelling. I also took on this grand ambition that I would grow the blog to create a following so that when we finally get to write that book we keep talking about we would hopefully have an audience for it. I assumed a great responsibility, and I took it far too seriously. It became an ongoing source of stress for me and has taken me most of the time we’ve been travelling to finally let go. In the end I regret none of it because my ambition has driven me to become a much better writer and photographer, and now, finally, I’m being paid as a travel writer. Still, stress is stress, even if it’s self-created from nothing.
When you land in a new country there’s always the probability that you’ll never get back there. I didn’t want to miss anything. So I would do things when my body would really rather have been resting. I’d chase after sunsets and photo ops, keep on hiking when the body needed to stop, always trying to see what was just around the next corner. Yes we stopped for several months at a time in various places: Cyprus, La Manzanilla, San Miguel de Allende, Canberra, and Vancouver (which was always a break because it’s safe and familiar), but then there was the going again and all the same stresses would return.
So what now?
As mentioned in a previous post I got to be in so much pain that I couldn’t go on, and I understand now that almost all my health problems have been created by stress and anxiety. We realised that we needed to take a time out. We committed to twelve months back in Vancouver to see if I could get healed. We didn’t think much beyond that, except that we knew we would buy a car again because renting one for a year made no sense. We also thought vaguely about whether or not we’d rent a furnished or an unfurnished place, waiting to see what was available, knowing that any rent would be exorbitant. We also knew that we were not in a position to buy again. That was the whole point of selling our apartment in the first place – Don needed to retire but we could barely afford for him to retire and to keep the apartment and the lifestyle we had. Travelling as well would have been entirely out of the question.
We arrived back in Vancouver on March 1, 2017 and for seven weeks we rented a furnished basement apartment from a friend. Our friend doesn’t want to rent her apartment on a long-term basis so we knew that was not an option. We had no idea what our next steps would be and I think Don’s heart sank a little more each time he looked at the accommodation that was available, either furnished or unfurnished, and the cost of it. On the plus side within the first month we did luck into a great used car for a very good price.
A housesitting gig that had been planned for months fell through. Suddenly at the last minute some friends contacted us offering their place as they’d decided on a last-minute trip to Europe for three weeks.
And then Don found the apartment. Available from the date when our friends returned. For half what would be the normally expected rent in Vancouver! It means we can afford to travel and have a home. It feels like a miracle.
We never decided to stop being nomadic. It crept up on us. It was finding the apartment that did it. It was too good an offer to refuse. So I’ve been grieving the end of an era. It didn’t end the way I thought it would. I think I was clinging unconsciously to some big dream of writing a successful book. Instead I discover, probably to no-one’s surprise, that I’m just ordinary. It’s amazing the way the ego will grab a hold of an idea and a desired outcome, and think that’s the only way to be a success. As if success is even needed. It’s so much more peaceful to simply own being ordinary.
The whole backstory of this blog is that we are two people in our sixties/seventies who decided to let go of everything and become homeless nomads travelling the world. It is admittedly an unusual thing to do. I think that many of you who follow the blog were inspired to do so because of the backstory. So now I feel somehow fraudulent. As if I’ve let the side down. We are no longer that couple who threw caution to the wind, but just ordinary: an older couple with a home who are lucky enough to be able to afford to travel. In the end what happens to all modern nomads has happened to us. The time has come to stop.
So we have been nesting. We own furniture and a car for the first time in five and a half years.
Are we done travelling? Not a chance. As soon as I’m healed we’ll be on the road again. But we will never travel homeless the way we did before. We’ll go for two or three months at a time and come back to our own home. No more scrambling through a storage locker, no more living in other people’s homes, no more wondering where the next housesitting gig will come from. Having grieved the end of an era I am gradually getting used to this new normal, this new phase of our lives. Don had no grieving to do. He’s totally happy with the way things have evolved, and we’re both appreciating all the wonderful benefits of having our own home again.
And in the final analysis this is what it’s all really about:
Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond
by Mary Oliver
As for life,
I’m without words
sufficient to say
how it has been hard as flint,
and soft as a spring pond,
both of these
and over and over,
and long pale afternoons besides,
and so many mysteries
beautiful as eggs in a nest,
though warm and watched over
by something I have never seen—
a tree angel, perhaps,
or a ghost of holiness.
Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective.
It suffices, it is all comfort—
along with human love,
dog love, water love, little-serpent love,
sunburst love, or love for that smallest of birds
flying among the scarlet flowers.
There is hardly time to think about
stopping, and lying down at last
to the long afterlife, to the tenderness
yet to come, when
time will brim over the singular pond, and become forever,
and we will pretend to melt away into the leaves.
As for death,
I can’t wait to be the hummingbird,
Future posts in random order: Our new home and all about nesting. My journey of pain and healing. More about Antigua, Guatemala. Several posts about Cuba.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.