The great yoga mat/hiking boot throw-down

Yoga matI was having lunch a few days ago with some Cypriots I had just met. One of them kindly invited me to join her on a mountain hike that she and her friends were planning to take. Given the terrain, boots would be a must – and she was aghast when I said I didn’t have any with me. “When you are living out of a suitcase, you have to make choices,” I explained. “I realized I could bring my hiking boots or my yoga mat. And the mat won.”

Apparently, that was the wrong answer.

I spent the next several minutes defending my choice. A yoga mat certainly beats out hiking boots in terms of ease (and cost) of replaceability, especially when you don’t have the world’s most common shoe size; that is absolutely true. However, my decision was based on the assumption that I would get a lot more use out of my mat than I would out of boots. Perhaps more importantly, as my mat represents my own little sacred, happy place, it’s also just comforting to have it with me.

Packing can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. As more and more airlines charge for checked baggage, I think people are beginning to reconsider how much they really need on a trip. The decisions become a little more critical when you decide you’ll be living out of a suitcase indefinitely. For me, the clothing choices were easy, especially seeing as I was starting out in hot and humid Southeast Asia. A stack of nice t-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, two summer dresses, a lightweight fleece, jeans, sandals, sneakers, flats, and some socks and underwear rounded out the basic list. Next came a hat, umbrella, sunscreen, small-sized toiletries, plus assorted electronica. As a vegan, I also don’t go anywhere without B-12.

But that’s when things started getting hard.

For some reason, I became obsessed with bringing a swimsuit. This may seem reasonable, until you discover that I can neither swim nor spend more than a few minutes in the sun without frying to an absolute crisp. I think it was more of a statement I was making to myself: I had the freedom to do all of my work poolside, and damn it, I was going to do so. It felt like an important step in renouncing the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Needless to say, after a rather grueling afternoon of shopping (during which I was luckily supported by a very patient friend), I found what I was after. I think I have worn it three times all year.

As an avid reader, I struggled with the book issue. I did have a Kindle, but I was using it more to play games than to actually read. My impulse was thus still to pack a stack of physical books. I finally compromised by bringing one paperback to serve as a backup in case my Kindle ran out of juice on a long flight. I must admit that in the intervening months, I have become a huge fan of Kindle reading. One of my favorite features is being able to check the meaning of words – once a language geek, always a language geek.

Try as I might, I also found it impossible to overcome my obsession with bags. I ended up bringing a large backpack that converts to looking like a suitcase, a smaller backpack that I use as a carryon, an even smaller backpack that I use day-to-day, two cotton shopping bags, about eight different fabric bags that I use for storing a variety of things, two purses, and a large collection of plastic and Ziploc bags. I admit it’s a bit excessive, but the collection has actually proven rather practical. While I could stand to trim things back a bit, the idea makes me anxious – so I will continue to fill my bag with bags every time I pack.

So, what does all of this say about me? A lot, probably. A packing list reveals our habits, likes, interests, and even our neuroses. However, it also says a great deal about our expectations. We pack what we think we’ll need at a particular destination, as well as the person we think we’ll be there. Sometimes the vision matches the reality, but it’s certainly not always the case. People who return from a trip thinking their packing was 100% perfect are probably pretty self-aware (and good about checking weather forecasts). I’m getting there, but I definitely still have a way to go.

On this lovely day, I am therefore not hiking in the mountains; instead I am looking at my yoga mat and grinning. It may not have won your own throw-down – and it may not always win mine – but for now its space in my pack is secure. It’s the swimming suit that may have to go.

What I’ve learned in a year as a digital nomad

I’ve spent my entire adult life moving every few years, often from country to country. The longest time I’ve lived in one place since I was 17 was four years, and I was long past my sell-by date by the time I left. In 2014 I decided to take the plunge and become fully nomadic, which means that I no longer have a base or establish a regular household when I move. I am staying a few months at a time in different countries, a decision that is driven first by choice, second by practicalities (the limits for staying in countries as a tourist are generally 60-90 days).

In many ways, it’s like living a giant experiment. I am still discovering what works best for me, what I need to avoid, and what I still need to figure out. It’s been a fascinating process, because as the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” The self-analysis part of the process is not something I foresaw being so central, but I have welcomed the push from the universe to make progress on figuring some things out. It’s certainly not always easy to go through processes like this, but the payoff is always worth it.

Here are some of most important personal realizations and observations from my first twelve months on the go:

  1. Technology is both wonderful and horrible. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for all that the cyberworld has to offer, and my current lifestyle certainly would not be possible without the Internet and my numerous gadgets. That being said, it’s hard to avoid becoming a complete slave to things that plug in. I would like to be better about scheduling complete cyber-breaks, even if they are just for half a day at a time. It’s important for my brain cells, my sanity, and my eyesight (which is rapidly deteriorating, I’m afraid).
  2. There’s no such thing as a right way. I generally prefer to follow my own path in life and have never considered myself much of a “follower.” However, it’s easy to start feeling like even unconventional lifestyles have certain rules that one should adhere to. Part of that might come from following the many bloggers out there who are (either explicitly or implicitly) promoting whatever decisions they are making for themselves as models. It’s important to draw inspiration and ideas from them, but then to remember that they’re not me.
  3. People add value to the equation, but it takes effort. Some places have many pre-made outlets for meeting up with likeminded or interesting people; others need more work. Many people think that the key is to be outgoing or extroverted, but I’ve found that it’s just as important to figure out what you’re looking for. We all belong to tribes that relate to different parts of our lives, and having a better sense of what those tribes are makes finding other members easier. But you do then have to put yourself out there.
  4. The things you like to do are the things you like to do – and you should do them no matter where you are. Yes, it’s important to take advantage of special opportunities that exist in a given location or set-up, but you also have to be true to yourself. Some days I need to lose myself in a book or indulge in an afternoon movie, which is just fine to do even if I’m in some exotic location. An adjustment I need to make is more gym and yoga time: these are things that have long been important components in my life, and I haven’t been giving them the attention they need. I miss them and need to re-assign them a higher priority.
  5. Don’t manufacture stress for yourself. Sometimes I think that stress has become such a big part of our lives that we are uncomfortable when it’s missing. I have found it incredibly easy to let stress creep in, even in relation to things that are totally within my control (such as my next destination). When that happens, I’m learning to try to figure out where the feeling is coming from so I can avoid putting myself in a similar situation in the future. I’m also trying to remind myself that flexibility and a positive attitude create an almost infinite number of B plans. If going here doesn’t work out, I’ll just go there. It’s all good, as they say.

And so the experiment continues. I am grateful for a truly magical first year and look forward to the adventures and lessons that will accompany the months and countries to come!

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From where I stand.