© Copyright 2018 by Samantha Scrivens
never meant to become a vagabond. While reading Rolf Pott’s
guide to the rolling stone lifestyle, I romanticized the notion of
long term travel and seeing the world without agenda like one might
fantasize a Roman holiday with a rainbow array of gelatos and Vespas.
But only to find the Trevi Fountain swarming like a big box store on
Black Friday with tourists clutching cameras, elbowing each other for
the best Instagram angle, there was an unexpected dark side to
vagabonding. It was where confusion, fear, and loneliness lingered,
seldom shown to the shiny eyed yoga teachers gushing about the
“awesomeness!” of this strange, gypsy life. I owe it to
all those yogi’s smiling eyes, and to you, dear reader, to
harness my experience like a prism does a beam of light and distill
it into colors, leaving no hue ignored, providing you with my honest
account of accidental vagabonding.
Everyone wants to know “How?”, typically referring to finances. HOW can you possibly afford it? Do your parents fund the lifestyle? No more than Mexicans would a wall on the U.S. border. My parents did, however, assure that I graduated from college without loans, which provided a cushy foundation from which I could travel, uninhibited by debt. But, living abroad and having student loans are not mutually exclusive. I’ve met vagabonds who’ve taught English in South Korea where they’d banked enough to send home a monthly remittance to pay loans, and still travel in their free time. As one ex-pat put it she could “be working and worried about debt in [her] hometown, or working and worrying about it and sipping a sandy coconut on the beach.” I have profound respect for the few, brave souls that decided to pursue their desire to travel in spite of the dreary financial forecast. Not having debt makes vagabonding easier, but not possible.
So how does one afford long term travel? With transportable work. Two years ago I began teaching with a company that links native English speakers with Chinese students. They create one-on-one lesson plans in a virtual classroom that have a translation tool, imperative as I know few words besides ni hao and bo luo (pineapple). Each month, they wire earnings to my bank account, and I extract the local currency from an ATM. In addition to my Chinese students, I have clients from Ecuador, Colombia, and Vietnam that pay me directly through Paypal for one-on-one Skype classes. Stateside, the pay is average, but earning USD and living on pesos in Colombia or Mexico allows me to work just a few hours a week while living and traveling quite comfortably. As I need privacy to sing “Old MacDonald” at 6 a.m. under noise canceling headphones, hostels make for lousy accommodation. In Colombia I rented a room in a penthouse apartment in Medellin for 600,000 COP ($200 USD) and in Mexico I found a gorgeously remodeled Airbnb apartment (with a pool) for 2,000 MXN (roughly $100) per week, having negotiated reduced rent with the owners for my long term stay. With a room rented cheaply, I can afford camping equipment to explore Colombia’s mountainous jungles, and treat myself to a pedicure afterward.
Besides the flexible, portable job, I’m not locked into leases or loans back home. As my uncle says, I never “got on the bus,” an odd metaphor, since I can’t seem to stop boarding buses, planes, trains, and other people’s automobiles. The bus that he referred to wasn’t literal, however, but rather that illusory American dream: a steadily growing bank account and 401k, a two year lease midsized SUV with 0 down, buying bulk and birthing babies to fill a mortgaged house. Between stints in South America, Europe, and (next up!) Asia, I occasionally return to the U.S. to visit friends and family. My transportation is my mom’s ancient, refurbished Schwinn bicycle, and my phone flips open. By only using my smartphone with Wi-Fi, I save a bundle stateside, and purchase inexpensive, local SIM cards and data while abroad. In the U.S., mobile phones are costly and under contracts, so instead I choose to pay $10 a month for a basic flip phone that allows for calls and texts, month to month service, and a lot of laughs from friends.
I am a minimalist by spartan standards. My work wardrobe doubles as active wear and pajamas, and is mostly black and grey tones, accented by a bright, Peruvian fanny pack. A rainbow sarong from Brazil became a towel, scarf, and even makeshift lampshade in my minimally furnished room in Medellin. I wear my clothes ragged, then replace them with either high quality (i.e. long lasting), handmade textiles from indigenous South Americans or second hand, gently used jeans from U.S. thrift stores. Even the laptop upon which I currently type came from a pawn shop in Denver. I am an avid reader, and exchange one book for another between friends or at hostel libraries, and make use of a library app to “check-out” and download audiobooks. In turn, this minimalist approach has loosened my attachment to objects and I find it easier to part with possessions. Those few that remain are uber-useful and I thus care for them mindfully. Ah, the enlightened vagabond.
Besides finances and frugality, vagabonding works best for me when I reach out to my social network. With the world at your (now manicured!) fingertips, the possibilities of places to see are endless, but I always find the transition smoothest when I choose to move to a place where I have a contact, someone to recommend home hunting websites, the best taco stands, and connect me with their already established social network. In Cancun I reconnected with a girl through Facebook who I’d met 5 years previous while teaching English in Madrid. She offered to rent me the spare bedroom in her house, and introduced me to acquaintances that provided an intimate, in-depth look at the city’s peculiar, divided culture, and overall richer experience. Out of our comfort zones, vagabonds, expats, and even those Trevi fountain tourists tend to be open and amicable, returning the help that they’ve undoubtedly received while on the road.
There is a dark side to vagabonding. The constant upheaval can be taxing, even for the most ardent adventurer. Each move is a breakup with a city and its charm, a country and its culture. There are typically tears and always a rational voice of fear: that maybe I should be settling down, investing in that 401k, doing something different with my gypsy life. “Maybe I should force myself to live somewhere for a year, without moving so I can better develop my writing,” I wondered aloud to the listening ear of my mentor in Madrid.
She let a beat passed, then asked, “Do you like chicken?”
“Not particularly,” I admitted, taken aback by her segue.
She smirked. “Maybe you should force yourself to eat it every day for lunch and dinner for a year, just to see what it’s like.” Point taken, but it’s still hard to reason with the voice of reason, which seems louder when I’m jetlagged or homesick or physically sick. What about retirement savings? it demands, and I apply Tim Ferris’s ideology that I’m having a quasi-retirement, and will never stop working anyway; I’ll be scribbling stories and articles for contests until I croak.
Besides the relationship with myself, vagabonding tests the connections I share with friends, siblings, parents, and partners. All of the VIPs are accepting (if not understanding) of my lifestyle, and flexible with reuniting sporadically (and sometimes suddenly with last minute travel deals through the Get The Flight Out app). But it’s challenging to balance a romantic relationship with my desire for constant travel, and every time the scales tip in favor of my passport rather than partner. Somewhere in the world, the shine from a yogi’s eye is shed through a tear.
The transition to vagabonding just happened. A two week trip to visit a friend in Colombia grew by two more months. There I saw that I could experience a rich quality of life while fulfilling my passions of traveling and living abroad. Working just a few hours allowed for time spent developing interests in yoga, hiking, and of course my sublime writing. It didn’t require a radical life change, but rather unfurled organically, best suiting my soul’s needs. I suppose that someday I’ll settle enough to grow roots, but my heart is scattered between Medellin, Madrid, and Melbourne, Florida. For now, I’ll keep working, wandering and distilling on paper my life as an accidental vagabond.
If one can locate her whereabouts, Samantha Scrivens will be found writing, teaching English, or balancing on her head. An accidental vagabond, she spends time between her hometown in Ohio, the winding streets of Madrid, and trekking in Nepal. Her mission is to fulfill her destiny derived from her surname, i.e. "scribe" and write professionally, all the while practicing yoga and wandering the world.