I, Nomad

Since my first Big Adventure on an Oasis Overland truck for three weeks in the Middle East I've been itching to see more of the world. During my PhD I have been taking the absolute piss utilising my academic freedom and conference travel funding effectively, and since September 2012 I visited seventeen countries, most (but not all) on a university's dime. I did this not by fraud or trickery, but by carefully picking conferences and communities to involve myself with, by thinking laterally about how I might find the cheapest transport options, and by asking for barely any funding towards accommodation, so I can ask for more transport funding again in the future. I squashed accommodation costs by CouchSurfing, hotel-surfing (when I know someone attending the same conference who has a spare bed or sofa in a room covered by their organisation), and staying in hostel dorms. Thinking laterally about transport options involves being flexible about dates, but also cities and means. Buses and trains are often cheaper than flights in Europe, and transport links are good. It's possible to get good multi-city deals on flights, and if, for a conference in city A, I can fly into city B and out of city C for less than a return flight between home and A, nobody minds when I expense that... and I get to see three cities instead of one. For that, I'm happy to pick up the cost of buses and trains to A from B and C myself. In the end, I'm sure I saved the university money.

In May 2015, I found four legitimately work-related reasons to be in different continental European countries in the space of four weeks. My department paid for a three-week Interrail train pass, which was cheaper (and more environmentally friendly) than two flights a week for a month. Before my rail pass started, I hitchhiked. En route between the places I was supposed to be for meetings or conferences, I visited a few new places alone, for peace and quiet and to catch up on work. This trip lasted five weeks, and was the longest travel experience I'd had so far. Because of the flexibility of the interrail pass, I didn't make much of a plan except for the known waypoints, and I was able to decide where to be next a few days or less in advance of setting off. I. Loved. That.

In October 2015 I moved to the US for a one-year visiting studentship, and the only months I didn't leave Massachusetts were January and July. I visited four countries outside of the US (not counting the UK), and six states within. I spent literally days on Amtrak, and far too long on buses.

Travelling is tiring, but so is staying in one place. At some point, possibly during that month of backpacking around Europe, it became cemented in my mind that my dream was to set off without much of a plan, and not have a date to be back by. I started telling people who would ask what I was doing after my PhD, that the plan was to... just go.

At this point it's less of a dream and more of a frantic urge. Boston is nice, but loud and expensive, and I can't wait to get out. Edinburgh is beautiful and affordable and friendly and full of people I love, but the thought of going back there makes me feel claustrophobic. There are places I know I will be welcomed with care and a bed, but nowhere feels like home right now.

I started pipedreaming about skipping winter this year, and heading to Mexico or Asia to finish my thesis. I have a month to vacate the US once my visa expires, so I thought I could overland travel south to Mexico, and just stay there. It turns out though that I have to leave the continent before I can re-enter as a tourist. Then I found out a bunch of people I know will be at ISWC in Kobe, Japan, in October, plus my brother just moved to Tokyo. Several people in the past year told me I'd "love Bali", and my sister didn't like it at all when she went last year. Two people I know through work-related stuff said they're planning to be in Bali at some point this winter. Bali is a fairly easy hop from Japan.

Eventually the signs mounted, and I booked a one-way flight from LA to Osaka. I left myself a week and a half in the US after my visa ends, mainly constrained by the dates of ISWC. I'm filling that time by flying to Austin to see a CouchSurfing friend, then taking a 37 hour Amtrak to LA.

Before I left Edinburgh for Boston a year ago, I gave away almost everything I couldn't fit into a large suitcase and a 40L backpack to take with me. I spent the summer whittling down my possessions further, and swapped the suitcase for a 52L backpack. I developed an absolutely pathological aversion to stuff, and started to check myself hard if I found something difficult to let go of. The harder it is to give some item a new home, the more important it is I get rid of it. I took a mountain of clothes to Goodwill, and sold nearly all of my tech.

I'll admit that I still have a cupboard of stuff in my old house in Edinburgh, but I've authorised the current residents to give away or claim all clothes, books and furniture. I'm stuck with some folders of writing and paperwork that one day I hope to digitise. I also have a buttload of stuff at my Mum's house in England. I remember finding it so hard to let go of childhood clutter. Maybe next time I go back I'll finally be able to sort through everything and let it all go.

This is what I have left:

40L bag stuff 52L bag stuff

packed bags selfie with backpacks

So, finally it's happening. From Sunday 9th October, I will no longer be on a rental contract. I won't have a fixed address. I have a one-way flight to Japan, just enough savings, and total time flexibility, to get to somewhere - probably Bali - I can afford to stay for the winter, once my brother kicks me out of his place in Tokyo.

I still have to finish my thesis. But the thought of doing it on the beach, in a timezone where nobody can bother me, puts me at ease.

I am officially a digital nomad. Don't ask me when I'm coming home, I'm already there.

🏷 digital nomad #justgo travel