What is the most important element for a full-time traveler? (hint: it's not the brand of suitcase)
Updated: Jul 1
Paul and I have been on the road now for about 15 months. In many ways, full-time travel is living the dream. We're seeing places we've dreamed of visiting, and getting a taste for what it's like to live as locals. What's not to love about that? We know how lucky we are.
In the movie "City Slickers", the character, Curly, tells the guys from the East coast this:
Curly : Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] Curly : This. Mitch : Your finger? Curly : One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean s**t. Mitch : But, what is the "one thing?" Curly : [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out. (source: IMDB)
We've realized the secret to full-time travel boils down to "one thing": flexibility. To make this lifestyle work, you have to be flexible. I realize writing this that the kinds of flexibility one needs is not something everyone is able to achieve. All kinds of things make it difficult to be flexible - allergies (food, atmospheric, skin, etc.), chronic illnesses, & certain types of personalities are examples of things that can prevent the kind of adaptability one needs for constant travel to new venues. Some people manage the life even with those challenges, but the more rigid you have to be, the harder it is.
Here are some examples of ways we have been challenged to be flexible:
We've been to a lot of different countries, with lots of different ways of preparing food. If you don't like to try new foods, this type of travel may not be for you. In particular, every place we've gone has served an abundance of seafood, something I almost never ate growing up in Southern Indiana. If you can't eat food from the sea, or fruits and vegetables you've never seen before, your choices will be a lot more limited. Having said that, in Europe, almost every place we ate had numerous vegan and gluten-free options; same in Australia, but somewhat less in New Zealand and Fiji (although those options certainly do exist). If you're a "I only eat burgers" kind of American, we have noticed options for burgers everywhere we've been. And french fries ("chips" in the Commonwealth countries) are served with everything, everywhere. But they might not taste like the burger and fries you are used to at home (unless you choose to eat at McDonald's which are everywhere!) We can almost never find bacon that we like, until we do! Even a grapefruit in Fiji looks different (notice the thick pulp). But the cilantro (which they call coriander) and spicy hot pepper on the crispy fried chicken was pretty amazing! A lot of the fun of the travel is experiencing food the way local people prepare it. The black rice in the sushi in Wellington was delicious. Food is an important part of culture. I do have my limits (no bugs or food that is still moving, thank you) but for the most part I've chosen to be adventurous in eating.
Our budget assumes we'll be cooking for ourselves a lot of the time - maybe half of our meals, at least. But, grocery stores and local markets don't always have everything you would get at home. The eggs might look a little different (in Australia & New Zealand, the yolks are bright orange, but in Fiji we're back to "normal" yellow yolks). Or, the milk might taste a little different. If you only eat one brand of peanut butter, you'll be in trouble. Paul spent time going through a good magazine to compile recipes to make some interesting meals. But in each place we've been, there's something we haven't been able to get to make the recipe as written. He's substituted things - which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. He found this one recipe using fresh sardines dipped in Italian-seasoned bread crumbs and baked with ricotta and pecorino cheese. In Melbourne and New Zealand, fresh fish markets were abundant but the sardines were apparently not in season. Here in Suva, the sardines are available but we can't find many Italian food products, including ricotta, pecorino cheese, and Italian-seasoned bread crumbs (but they have Panko break crumbs from Japan!)
But for the most part, we find local foods delicious - fresh and tasty. And, we've learned to adapt to what's fresh and available in our location. If you like to cook all of your favorite recipes with your tried and true ingredients, this might not be the life for you. But if you don't mind trying new things, it can be quite tasty!
You could put "coffee" in the same category as food, but for us it really is a problem to be solved in every locale in and of itself. All over the world, most cafes serve espresso versions of coffee, which are quite good. But, if you like real cream in your coffee, as I do, you can almost never find it in a coffee shop. Some groceries have pourable cream, and others only have thick cream. In the coffee shops, milk will have to do (a poor substitute, in my estimation). For whatever reason, I am really picky about coffee so I have to dig deep for adaptability. Sometimes a shot of caramel in a flat white or a sprinkle of chocolate on a cappucinno is enough to smooth out my coffee the way cream smooths it out. Paul loves a good long black (espresso shots with added water, similar to an Americano), but prefers when the cafe gives him his own water so he can adjust it the way he likes.
In our apartments, we have two challenges: a good method for making the coffee, and good beans, ground the way we like. We've bought french presses ("plungers" over here) in 5 different places. We just leave them in the apartment for the next person. They are not expensive, and we can usually find ground coffee beans somewhere nearby (although the grind is finer than I like and in Suva, we had a hard time finding coffee to our liking).
In a couple of places, they've already had a french press; one place had a Nespresso machine, which Paul really likes. Some have had decent drip coffee makers. We experimented with an in-house moka pot in London, but it made a tiny bit of coffee at a time and Paul didn't really care for it. So we bought a french press there. In some locales, we can easily find fabulous coffee beans - Lisbon, London, Melbourne, and Auckland come to mind. In others, we really struggle to find something to our taste.
Every place we go it seems like we start over with the coffee. I did have one of the best cups of coffee I've ever tasted in Wellington, New Zealand at The Hangar (Flight coffee). They prepared it in a chemex and had pourable cream. It was divine!
Each apartment comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. We have consistently hit the jackpot with good location - something that is easier to research than other factors. Other factors are less obvious from photos and reviews. A good camera angle can make a tiny place look bigger. We stayed in a studio that was a lot bigger than at least two of our 1-bedroom apartments.
In one place, we had to put a chair against the dishwasher to get it to run, in a pretty small hallway. [Note: the host did offer to fix it, but it seemed easier for the one-month stay to use the chair]. The appliances are all different, and operate differently. You have to be willing to learn how to use the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and stove in each new place.
With both of us working on creative projects, and both of us having work that sometimes makes noise (Paul listens to a lot of videos and I'm occasionally interviewing people or teaching a class or even practicing music), the apartment layout and sound-proofing can really affect one's quality of life. In a large, sound-proof space such as the one we're in now in Suva, Fiji, he can listen to videos downstairs while I sleep upstairs, or I can do vocal exercises upstairs in the spare bedroom while he works downstairs. But, in places where the spaces are more compact, or have bad acoustics, we've had to learn to be flexible in our schedules. If I'm teaching a class, he might have to go in another room or go for a walk. I've learned to fall asleep to action movies in tiny flats where the TV in the living room is up against the bedroom wall.
Each new place comes with a different set of furniture. We've had flats where nothing was comfortable (not the bed, the chairs, or the couch); where one or the other was comfortable, but not both the bed and other furniture; where everything was comfortable. When you live in a place from a month to 2 or more months, the furniture comfort can really affect your life. In one location, I had to buy an inflatable cushion just to be able to sit on any piece of furniture. If you can't adapt to different furniture, you might be miserable.
Communication with people we meet
Both Paul and I pride ourselves on being attentive to inter-cultural communication. Paul was raised by a Japanese mother and an American dad, and learned to juggle cultures at an early age. I studied the topic throughout my career and co-authored a book on Multicultural Lawyering. Our own cultural assumptions and behaviors are often very different from one another. But when you travel constantly, you are always running into new ways of thinking, new customs, and new ways to show respect (or disrespect). I learned that in New Zealand, when I had an appointment with Maori community leaders, it was a sign of disrespect to NOT provide an agenda in advance explaining the purpose of the visit. Those meetings tended to include exploration of who I was as a person before discussing a specific joint project. On the cruise ship, there was an unspoken hierarchy between staff and guests, and my midwestern attempts to break that hierarchy down were met with unspoken resistance. In most of the countries we have visited, the waiter does not bring a bill at the end of a meal - you go up and pay when you are ready. If you don't know that, you can wait a very long time for a bill which will never come. We have been very lucky to have had Airbnb and VRBO hosts who were extremely nice, direct, and helpful. But the one experience with a host who was unhelpful was not pleasant. Fortunately, that was only for a one-week stay. If you are not comfortable questioning your own assumptions about how the world is supposed to work, you may not be cut out for this kind of long-term travel.
Pace in different locales
In some countries, people are efficient and get things done expeditiously. In Helsinki, for example, if I sent a message to our Airbnb host, he replied with a solution in about five minutes. The transit ran on time and places were open when they said they would be open. But in Fiji, we might be told someone would do something soon, and they might come five hours later. They also seem really busy, so I'm not complaining - it just tests my American impatience. Most countries see Americans as obsessed with timeliness and a bit demanding. We are trying very hard not to send that vibe, but sometimes it can be hard.
We are heavily reliant on good internet and, to a lesser extent, phone data. We are used to paying for almost everything with a credit card. But in Fiji, it took some time to get connected and almost everyone here uses cash. If you don't know that going in, you can get very frustrated.
Routine & scheduling
If you have a regular routine, you might be challenged living always on the road. First, there are the time changes. Since January, 2022, we've lived in 8 different time zones (not counting the continuous time zones changes on the Pacific Ocean cruise) and we will live in at least 5 more times zones before we return to Michigan. This means that even if you have a regular daily schedule, your body will undergo frequent adjustments. Add to that the fact that different cultures have different routines - in Michigan, Paul loves to go to 24-hour diners for late weekend "breakfast", but in Melbourne, for example, most of the restaurants that served breakfast closed in the early afternoon and didn't open again until dinner. In many places, there are very few shops open on Sundays. In some cultures, such as Fiji, the apartment is serviced, which means you have to get up some mornings - which you might not want to do if you suffer from insomnia, or just like working late into the night. Finally, scheduling can be a real problem with the time zone differences. Finding mutual times to chat is challenging for personal conversations, but practically impossible in some time zones for business meetings.
Illness and injury on the road
Fortunately, so far, we've not had any serious illness or injury while traveling. But, we have had some minor issues. And, we needed to see a doctor for prescription refills and standard lab tests since we were out of the U.S. so long this time around. We saw one doctor in Melbourne, and I saw a different one in Auckland. I've also used the services of a physical therapist in Wellington. Every medical provider has been smart and helpful. And, the use of online patient portals for medical records has been terrific. But each provider has a slightly different philosophy about medical care. If you feel strongly you can only consult with your own doctor, you might not be suited for this lifestyle. If you aren't comfortable sorting out differing medical philosophies, you might feel anxious.
Spending time with your partner 24/7
When you live a slow travel lifestyle, you spend a lot more time with your partner than you would at home. For one thing, you don't have friends to hang out with, in most cases. When you do have friends, they tend to be friends of both of yours. You're never any place long enough to develop a local network on your own. You have to be more intentional about spending time apart.
I realized I really missed swimming, so in Auckland I found a pool where I could swim laps regularly. There's one in Suva that I'm eyeing.
Paul would frequent his favorite coffee shop when I was on a video chat.
But even with some separate activities built in, you have to learn a higher level of flexibility skills with your partner. If you have an argument, you need to learn to put it in perspective perhaps quicker than at home, because you're both in a new city in a foreign land, and your home is the only place of refuge. The small spaces are infinitely smaller when you're not getting along. Sometimes you have to remind each other that you are two different people, and you won't always see eye to eye on everything. Flexibility is key.
We are having a wonderful time traveling around the world. We've both dreamed of doing this for a long time. We both think of ourselves as pretty flexible, adaptable people. But 15 months in, we realize our flexibility can stretch further than we imagined it might. And, we are better people for it. We think this life suits us - at least for now - but it might not be for everyone.
Every once and a while, you see something that makes you think, "This is what I'm meant to be doing right now." And you know it's worth being flexible.