The term may be new, but the concept is much older. We are a restless species: as much as we like to decorate our homes and acquire trinkets, we are always curious about what is over the horizon.
It’s the same instinctive drive that took man to the moon that sends gap year travellers to ‘find themselves’ in the beach bars of Asia and middle-aged business people to spread their wings in an overseas office.For the largest part of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, roaming the landscape with the seasons, tracking the best sources of food. Settling down, farming, building cities and getting addicted to takeaway coffee is pretty much an evolutionary blip.
Now though, a growing tribe of adventurous travellers are taking the species a step forward. The global nomad is taking advantage of all modern life has to offer in order to shake off the worst of contemporary existence.
The global nomad has seen the liberation that comes from travelling light. They’ve surrendered their home, car and regular job in favour of a toothbrush, laptop and sense of adventure. Rather than settling down and investing in stuff, they roam the world investing in experience, collecting memories rather than furniture and designer labels.
This new species is a varied and diverse beast. Some nomads backpack and odd-job their way from one adventure to another. Others take their family on the road, moving between countries and high-paying executive salaries.
Neither type of nomad had divested themselves entirely of the trappings of consumerist life. Both lifestyles have come to rely heavily on technology to enable their roaming lifestyle. Working in cafes on a compact laptop, emailing from smartphones and navigating by GPS, the nomad is free to live, work and explore thanks to gadgets and trinkets.
As Leslie Behr puts it at theraptorlab.wordpress.com, technology “has enabled the global nomad lifestyle considerably, allowing nomads to gain the use of a product with the least amount of “obligations and transport and storage costs associated with ownership.”
As romantic as the idea of footloose jet-setting seems, it comes with drawbacks. The restless running about the globe can leave more of a wake than nomad would like to admit, emotionally, economically and environmentally.
Expats have long faced criticism for spending part of their lives overseas, and global nomads are targeted for even more fault-finding. As with any group, there are reckless nomads who cause harm to the communities they visit and there are those who take great care to limit their impact.
If you’re contemplating a life on the road, we’ve compiled a run down of the most common charges levelled at global nomads.
Risk-taking and reckless
There’s a certain element of less adventurous critics who condemn those who strike out and try alternate lifestyles. They take aim at travellers, expats and global nomads, accusing them of failing to take responsibility for their lives.
Amy Scott describes herself as ‘location independent’, travelling the world whilst also working as an editor and life coach. She writes at nomadtopia.com that she has encountered negative reactions to the word nomad. “It could be considered a pejorative, “as if nomads were a bunch of irresponsible, homeless, shiftless people who don’t have sense enough to settle down.”
Of course, not everyone was born to be tied to a nine-to-five thanks to a mortgage and credit card bill. It may be that these criticisms say more about the lack of courage in those who level them than the irresponsibility those they are aimed at.
Taking control of your own destiny and accepting the consequences may be risky, but carefully weighing the dangers versus the benefits is second nature to anyone making massive lifestyle changes.
Make sure that you have the right insurance and safety nets in place and avoid placing anyone else at risk. If you do this, you’re adventurous, not reckless.
Abandoning civic duty
Living overseas naturally involves a separation from the country in which you were raised. For some, this is tantamount to betraying the advantages you were afforded living there and expat status is akin to treason. These are extreme views but can give expats feelings of guilt about their time overseas, which can be even worse for global nomads.
Constantly travelling means you aren’t always going to be there to assist the community that you once belonged to. But it does not necessarily equate to abandoning your country.
There may have been historic nomads who took to the road to avoid military service, or fugitives escaping the law. But in the most part it it possible to perform the most important of civic duties on the road.
Rules vary around the world for tax exemptions, jury service and voting, but some civic duties can compel you to return.
Analysing the new nomadic existence in Free as a Global Nomad: An Old Tradition with a Modern Twist, Päivi Kannisto and Santeri Kannisto discovered that Spanish citizens can face tough penalties for dodging civic duties.
“Our Spanish nomad, who wanted to remain anonymous, stumbled upon the election laws of his country. If a Spanish citizen is summoned to count the votes, he must go or he will face a punishment” the write. “His bank account could be frozen and in the worst case scenario, he could get a prison sentence…..There was no other choice for the Spaniard but to interrupt his ten-year bicycling tour and briefly visit Spain for his civic duty.”
Australians too can face penalties for failing to meet their civic duties. Voting is mandatory in elections in the country, failing to do so can be a criminal offence. Failing to cast a ballot can result in fines of AUS$170, plus costs and a criminal record; Aussies overseas who fail to cast a vote can still face a slap on the wrist.
American citizens living and working overseas are still subject to IRS tax jurisdiction, requiring them to submit declaration forms for all their income regardless of where they reside.
Uprooting the kids
Long-term expat kids often grow up attending local schools, making friends with neighbourhood children and growing up on a diet of their adopted pop-culture.
Balancing that is the influence of home. Even if they have no memory of it, parents will often keep traditions alive in the home, helping the kids develop a tangible link to their homeland. These kids are able to take a little from each culture and forge themselves a new, unique ‘third culture’.
Expat and global nomad kids alike report a lack of connection to ‘home’; that it’s just the country stamped on their passport. Leonardo Rocker interviewed a nomadic kid for childpsychologist.com.au. “Karina [is] a nineteen year old half British, quarter Chinese, quarter Filipino girl, who grew up in Hong Kong.,” he writes. “she doesn’t “feel British”. This is a common sentiment held by children suspended between different cultures, especially those of mixed race or those who have spent years of their childhood outside the country of their birth.”
Nomadic kids may find themselves moving too often to develop attachments to any one country, roaming through cultures without ever feeling part of them. The phenomenon is noted amongst groups of youngsters who commonly move around the world following their parents’ latest job postings.
Instead of picking and mixing elements from surrounding cultures, these kids are sometimes closeted away in a bubble. Military, diplomatic or big business families may find themselves moving from one piece of ‘home away from home’, never actually stepping out into the local culture at all. Even the most self-sufficient, independent families may find themselves forging their own, insular identity at the cost of enjoying the cultures that surround them.
Moving can be traumatic for adults and even more so for kids struggling to find a sense of self. It can be a rewarding, enlightening experience if they are given sympathy and support or it can be a confidence-wrecking ordeal being continually dragged away from friends.
For all the high-minded ideals about breaking down borders and reaching out across cultures, global nomads face a dilemma when experiencing a new society.
Many will adamantly separate themselves from ‘tourists’, those who come to a country to ‘see the sights’ and get a top level view without ever seeing ‘the real’ story under that. To truly be a global nomad requires a mental and spiritual gear shift that not all can make, opening themselves up to all new experiences without reservation or prejudice.
Vanessa D. Fisher endeavours to do just that, she told kosmosjournal.org. “It is so easy to travel to other countries, see all the famous historical sites, take a thousand pictures of our experiences there,” she writes of tourists. “And yet never really enter into the energy of the land or engage the native inhabitants with any level of depth. We can easily travel through another culture without ever having to challenge or expand our own sense of self, or what we view as ‘other.’”
Even living a life of perpetual motion, global nomads can retain their pre-held beliefs and fail to embrace the cultures they encounter. These individuals can end up harming those societies, reducing centuries of tradition to products to be bought on beachside stalls.
There’s a marvellous freedom afforded by budget airlines, flitting from one country to the next. But when you do land, your carbon footprint could be massive.
Aside from the burning of fossil fuels, there is the risk of the global nomad opening up areas to less responsible travellers. Exploring off the beaten track is a rewarding experience, but even the most remote of mountain paths can become teeming thoroughfares for backpackers following an excitedly written blog post.
Many global nomads document their travels, hoping to share their wonder of the world with others. Some of those are inspired to follow in their footsteps, sometimes without the lighter tread of the pioneers they follow. If you explore an unexplored area, think carefully about how you advertise this location to the world.
Lack of emotional investment
A life on the move means constantly having to say goodbye. It can be distressing to keep losing friendships and some global nomads grow a skin so thick it makes it difficult to form new relationships.
In her article Being a Global Nomad: The Pros and Cons, Debra Carlson described her own problem with intimacy after years on the road. “Global nomads know how to keep emotional distance. Until recently I always kept a margin of emotional detachment in all my relationships,” she writes. “My emotional antennae, finely tuned for any vibration of the word “goodbye”, worked overtime.”
Part of living the global nomad life is enjoying the freedom to move on as you please, without being held back by inconvenient roots. This can, however stop you forming the meaningful relationships that separate the nomad from the tourist.
With a rucksack full of technology, it should be easier than ever for nomads to develop, nurture and keep friendships alive when travelling from one territory to another. Even at the risk of heartache, it can be worth investing a little love into the world as you explore it.
Have you lived a global nomad lifestyle? Share your experiences in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer