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Author Matthew Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt.Lola Akinmade Åkerström/Handout

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Ten Years A Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes.

Over the years, as blogging and social media have taken off, more and more people have started to travel the world and become semi-permanent nomads. Younger people, weaned on a diet of a global internet, travel more and to farther places. As the internet has allowed people to work remotely, and the term digital nomad entered our lexicon, it’s less weird to quit your job to travel the world. To young kids today, it’s more “Ohh, you’re traveling like that blogger Nomadic Matt? Cool! I hope to do that too” than “You’re crazy!” Even retirees are doing it more. I’ve seen a lot of “grey nomads” around the world. Long term travel isn’t as crazy an idea as it used to be.

But, with no blogs or forums around in those halcyon pre-social media days of 2005 to cheer me on, I had to find the mental courage to do it myself.

I don’t want to overstate the Americanness of the resistance I found when I announced my plans. Sure, people around the world who are lucky enough to live in travel cultures (New Zealand, Canada, Europe, and Australia come to mind) are encouraged to see more of the world, but they still have to overcome some basic human instincts that restrain us from walking out our front doors without looking back. For many of us, traveling takes a strong shove across the threshold. We need to be forced outside of our comfort zone. Fear of running out of money, fear of being alone, fear of possible danger, fear of leaving it all behind, fear of having no safety net – they’re all universal worries. It’s hard to just jump headfirst into the unknown and leave your entire life behind, with nothing but a backpack and a dream.

And that makes the hardest part of a journey the mental preparation. Once you are out of safe harbor, you feel the wind in your sails. Action begets action. As the shoreline drifts further away, the wind picks up and carries you like Gulliver to unknown lands. And once you’re out there, your fears fade away as excitement and adventure takes over. You are too busy having fun to worry about worrying anymore.

But it can take a lot of work to get out of the harbor. Our comfort zones may make us unhappy at times, but more often than not, they keep us just happy enough to resist change. We may hate our routine, we may complain, we may daydream, but we don’t change. It’s the devil we know. It’s where we are safe.

Society – and our DNA – tells us to favour safety over risk. Why leave the cave for where the monsters live when we can stay safe inside our shelter and live another day?

There is safety in the tribe. In routine. In your cave. To go out into the night is to court danger and death. Our primitive brain screams to us, Stay here! This is safety! This is life! So, while people everywhere dream of traveling the world, it is only those whose dreams are strong enough who get out and stay out on the road.

But strong enough for what?

Strong enough to overcome the fear of people who love you – people who, like my parents, still to this day email me travel warnings and news of terrorist attacks.

Strong enough to overcome the negativity of those who share your dream but not your intestinal fortitude. It’s understandable to resent someone who lives your dream while, for whatever reason, you don’t.

Strong enough to overcome the societal norms that tell you not to leave the safe harbor.

And, last but not least, your dream has to be strong enough to overcome your self-doubt. As I faced the daunting task of turning my dream into a reality, I asked myself the same hard questions I got from parents, coworkers, and friends.

Would I finish my MBA? How much money would I need? Where would I go? What would people say? Would I make friends? What credit card should I use? Were hostels safe? What the heck was travel insurance?

As I trudged through the seemingly endless preparations, I discovered a new daily mantra: “What did I get myself into?”

I didn’t so much care about my responsibilities. Bills disappear when you cancel the services that generate them. Cars go away when you sell them. And I knew my job at the hospital wasn’t going to be my career so I had no worries about walking away from it.

What worried me was the personal skills I thought I needed to have to travel – the courage, the ability to go with the flow, the ability to talk to strangers, the confidence, the maturity – and whether or not I had enough of any of them after two two-week trips over two years to two countries that were full of English speaking travelers like me.

Yes, a lot of people travel the world. I saw hundreds of world travelers in Thailand. Unlike my Canadian heroes, I wasn’t a hardened, experienced traveler. I was a sheltered child who never ventured far beyond his safe harbor. Did I really have what it took? Could I really fake a new me for so long? Would my secret nerdiness be outed? The fear and self-doubt I had whispered constantly in my ear.

All I could do each day was push the daily worry out of my mind. “I am not Magellan,” I’d tell myself. I wasn’t setting sail into the unknown. There were well-trod tourist trails. There were guidebooks that held all the instructions I needed, like a manual for assembling a dresser. I just had to follow their collective wisdom. If all those backpackers in Thailand could do it, why couldn’t I? I made it in Costa Rica and Thailand. I made friends there. I talked to strangers. If eighteen-year-olds fresh out of high school can manage a year around the world, so could I.

And that’s something I tell travelers now. We aren’t Magellan. We aren’t setting off into the blankness of history to chart new worlds. The next Magellans will colonize the moon. We’re simply getting on an airplane and going where others have gone before. That’s the difference between exploration and what we do – we’re trying to have new experiences and learn about ourselves, not uncovering blank spots on a map. We’re walking in others’ footsteps, and we can be grateful to them even as we blaze new personal trails.

That doesn’t make our journey less special. The world is full of new stories. New stories and adventures we would be a part of that would be special to us. I didn’t need to discover Thailand to enjoy Thailand. The journey and experience was what mattered.

With thoughts like these, I quieted the self-doubting voice in my head. I put the disapproval of my parents and coworkers aside. I learned to accept all those negative voices, even if I didn’t agree with them. If I was going to go away, I was going to have to do it on my own, because I wanted it for myself.

And I wanted it badly.

This trip was my chance to not only go on an adventure but finally shed the weight and insecurities of my past. This was my chance to go out there, live life, create stories, find opportunity, and become the me I’ve always thought I was in my head. To live out this character so much that I just became him.

I daydreamed the crazy things that would happen to me on the road. I’d make friends from around the world. I’d try adventure activities. I’d hike mountains and sail down exotic rivers. Locals would invite me out for drinks. I’d be sipping a latte, strike up a conversation with my beautiful waitress, and then the next thing I’d know we’d be at a wine bar, staring into each other’s eyes. It was going to be just like those travel articles I’d read, or movies I saw and romanticized.

I knew there was a better world out there. I had seen it. I had felt its power to change me for the better.

Elsewhere was out there and it was calling me.

I was going to go, have the time of my life, come back in one piece with some stories to tell, and show everyone back home that travel is not a crazy idea.

I was going to prove them all wrong.

Excerpted with permission from Ten Years A Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).