You know the deal. If you want to travel extensively you either have to be rich, a student abroad, or retired after decades of saving. But what if you could take off next year—and not have to worry about work visas, shady employers or lack of income? Here are three ways that real people have actually done it. If you can think of more, tell me in the comments!
I have to start with this one because it is all the rage on teh internets these days. When I was a kid “minimalism” was an art movement that produced pretty awful artwork. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Minimalism is choosing to live with the least “things” possible in order to improve quality of life. Having less belongings means needing less living space and spending less money. Once you downsize your stuff you can redirect the savings. You could pay off debts, work less to see your family more, start your own business or–of course–travel.
Not all minimalists are world travelers. But many are, because the less stuff you own the easier it is to pick up and move somewhere else. As such, “minimalism” is almost universally linked with “location independence.”
Pros: Minimalism doesn’t require giving up luxuries. Sure you might have only two pairs of shoes instead of six and toss those boxes of holiday decorations, but you can still have coffee in the morning, wine in the evening and sleep on a nice soft bed every night. Plus there’s something gratifying about getting rid of “stuff.” It can be cathartic.
Cons: You still need income. Most minimalists own computers, live in furnished apartments and eat normal meals. So if you want to give up your job and travel you have to find a way to “work from anywhere.” Minimalist blogs tend to feature a lot of content about starting online businesses, marketing online for a commission, or otherwise entrepreneur-ing (is that a word?). The first piece of advice in most of these guides is you have to love it, you have to want to work hard, you have to love being your own boss. But many people don’t.
This is where we start getting into the unknown. Primitivism is living in a “back to nature” or pre-modern way in order to have a simpler or happier life. As a modern movement it goes back to at least the late 1800’s, but it gets little press for the obvious reasons: most primitivists aren’t going to spend much time publishing, blogging or hosting conferences.
I’m going to set aside the fact that there are about a million kinds of primitivism and focus on the one that most facilitates travel. That means no ox-drawn plows, no agricultural communes and no mountaintop monasteries. I’m talking about a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Sound hard? It’s actually in our blood (so to speak)—humans evolved to live this way, and it can be very satisfying. I spent part of a summer living at a primitivist camp and was surprised to learn that there’s very little work, very little stress and no shortage of food. If you develop a wide knowledge of edible plants and some basic hunting skills, most regions in the world offer an endless bounty of free food and easy shelter.
Pros: You literally need zero income. All of your food and materials can be gathered for free, and you can construct comfortable shelter with your hands and a few basic tools. I expected this lifestyle to involve backbreaking work but it didn’t. I finished all of my daily tasks in two to four hours. Because there was no enforced schedule and no penalty for not working, I could spread that work across my day any way I liked, or even just skip it if I wanted.
Cons: The main con here is adjustment. It’s not that you’ll be making chocolate out of tree bark, it’s that you won’t have chocolate at all (unless you’re in the right part of the world in the right season). It’s easy to learn the skills needed, but can take a year or more to get the mindset. What you eat is determined by your surroundings. Entertainment is different. Animals like mice, snakes and bugs are as big of a part of the lifestyle as beautiful waterfalls or majestic eagles. Oh yeah, and there’s pooping. You have to re-learn how to poop.
Fortunately there are outdoors schools where you can learn the skills you need and also adjust to the lifestyle in a more controlled environment. The best of these that I’ve seen is the Teaching Drum Outdoor School run by Tamarack Song.
3. Be a Mendicant
Whoa, whoa, don’t leave. I don’t mean go out and join a religious order just to travel around. But mendicants–wandering individuals, often monks, who survive purely on the kindness of others–have been around for millennia in both the east and west.
This is not something I’ve seen discussed much online, and I’m not sure why. With sites like Couchsurfing.org, anyone willing to hike or bike can travel virtually for free. The only thing left to cover is food and basic necessities. And how do you get those?
Traditional mendicants would provide a service to those who helped them. In their case, it was a spiritual service. Most cultures with a mendicant tradition believe that a person gains some form of spiritual merit by giving food or alms to a wandering monk.
I wouldn’t count on that attitude in New York City, and most people aren’t monks anyway. But most do have a talent they can put to use, like a musician on a street corner or a performer. Others might offer something abstract, like the person who promised to send a post card from a distant location in exchange for a small donation. (If I were to travel as a mendicant, I would probably offer sword lessons in parks and have a basket out for donations).
Pros: Being a mendicant is probably the easiest of the methods I’ve mentioned. It doesn’t require a lot of new skills like primitivism or an online business like minimalism. You’re almost guaranteed to meet interesting people, because you’ll be talking to everyone you see. And you can move at whatever pace you like, still staying in modern homes but not needing to pay for them.
Cons: Many people are afraid to talk to strangers and especially afraid of asking for money. If you aren’t confident you can provide a service worthy of a $5 donation, you’ll always feel like a charity case. Plus, subsisting on the kindness of strangers has its own drawbacks. If you walk up to the place where you planned to couchsurf and your host turns out to be a creep, what do you do? Spend the night on the street?
Lifestyle is Life
So what do these three methods have in common? None of them require piles of money, but they all require a change in lifestyle. It takes courage to make such a change. But ultimately, if there’s something you want to do with your life that you’re not doing already, it’s on you to make the jump. Waiting for a fantasy to come true won’t cut it. It might take planning, preparation and a shift in attitude–but change is possible.
I’d love to hear what you think of these three methods. I want to make my own jump and travel freely, and questions like this occupy my mind more often than not. If you have insights, please share!
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.