Unexpected challenges of the nomadic lifestyle

Earlier this week we traveled with some friends to the Perhentian Islands of Malaysia. During our time there, I came to realize there are some unexpected challenges and consequences to this nomadic lifestyle.

When people think about the nomadic life, I imagine they first envision people like the Berbers of Morocco and other Saharan countries. Thanks to social media and the Internet, digital nomads is a more commonly known term. We absolutely love being nomads, and it’s been an absolutely tremendous experience for us so far.

But there have definitely been challenges.

nomadic lifestyle, malaysia, elephants

Wild elephants on the roadside in Malaysia

Changed needs

We’re pretty flexible, and life on the road really enhances that. We’ve stayed in fairly . . . humble accommodations as well as some that are on the lower tier of luxurious. The more we do long-term travel, the easier I find myself being able to sleep practically anywhere and in almost any position. I’ve used everything from a rolled up jacket to my day pack as a pillow. (The jacket is more comfortable, in case you were wondering.)

I can handle a dirty bathroom, bugs on the floor, a creaky bed, and a nasty toilet (even a squat toilet if I have to). I don’t care if the place doesn’t have complimentary toiletries. I’m happy if the door closes all the way and locks reliably. I’m absolutely thrilled if the bathroom is en suite. I can be sitting in a restaurant when the power goes out and be completely unfazed.

But give me slow or unreliable WiFi, and my head may explode.


Things that would’ve really irritated me before, I just laugh at now. Train was supposed to arrive at 11:30, and it’s now 12 with no sign of an impending arrival? Whatever. Hair in my food? Pluck it out and keep going. I’m ecstatic when I get on a local bus, and there is actually an empty seat available. The long-distance bus has a working bathroom that I can use? SCORE!

After traveling continuously for almost 2 years, however, I have little patience for overcharging taxi drivers (a la Bangkok where they try to overcharge you by $8-10!) and touts. I will walk out of my way to not have to pass through a gauntlet of touts.

In addition, when you go to other countries a lot, you see how smoothly things like border crossings can occur. Later, when you find yourself in a situation that isn’t going so smoothly (for example, returning to the US), especially in a country that is more developed and has more resources, well, it just frustrates you that much more.

It’s a rather nice position to be in when you don’t really have anything in your life to escape from.

nomadic lifestyle, family nomad travel, nomadic life style, perhentian islands, sunset

Redefining “impressive”

When you live this lifestyle, visiting a remote tropical island just doesn’t have the same effect on you. The Perhentians are rather pretty islands with white sand beaches. There isn’t much to do other than chill, swim, dive, and repeat. I can see why it would be “paradise” for someone who is doing the typical 9-5 thing. It would be a GREAT escape.

But when you aren’t living the traditional model, it’s just another island with little to do or see and a lack of food choices. And when you’ve seen and lived in so many of these islands, it’s hard to be all that impressed by the Perhentians.

It’s a rather nice position to be in when you don’t really have anything in your life to escape from.

Things that can sound incredibly exotic tend to be “all in a day” for us quite often. And, I’m not complaining! I’m absolutely beyond thrilled our life is such that visiting a tropical island is just one of those normal things for us.

nomadic lifestyle, street food, malaysia, penang

Taking the term “street food” literally and making rice noodles out of an SUV.

Different kinds of “souvenirs”

Since we essentially carry all of our possessions, we don’t buy souvenirs. Instead we have experiences, memories, and photos to remind us of places.

But, I should say we don’t have intentional souvenirs.

Tigger’s sandals are from Morocco, suitcase from Mexico, and the shorts he’s wearing right now came from Honduras. Part of his netbook came from Thailand (when we had to replace its motherboard and battery).

Our toothbrushes and toothpaste were bought in Paris, my reading glasses are from Thailand, sunglasses and dental floss from our time in Morocco, today’s T-shirt from our sea turtle experience in Mexico, and my flip-flops are from Thailand as well. Our winter gear was bought in Colombia, and my current supply of medicines were obtained while in Peru and Morocco.

Every time I transfer photos from my memory cards to my laptop, it’s done with a card reader I bought while in Guatemala.

And, of course, there are the many stamps and visas in our passports.

nomadic lifestyle, nomadic life style, mexico, parasailing

Tigger celebrating his 11th birthday in style

Events are related to locations

I think the average person remembers occasions by when they occurred, but for many nomads we connect events with where we were at the time.

Tigger recently asked me “When did Hunger Games come out?” My response was: “I think it was when we were in Ecuador.” That’s more significant for us than remembering June 2012, or whatever.

“Where are we going to be for my birthday?” might seem like an easy question to answer, but usually it isn’t for us. (This year we know only because we have a housesit scheduled during that time period—in New Zealand).

“What are we doing this summer?” is a legitimate question; however, it may not apply for nomads. Why? Well, we could conceivably experience more than one summer in a year. This year we’ll have 3 winters. Or, we may be in a place that just has the 3 H’s for seasons: hot, hotter, and hell hot.

Typically, people may not remember much about Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, etc., but for us they were destinations. Last year we celebrated all three on an oasis in southern Morocco. The year prior we were in Central America. In 2011, Tigger celebrated his Forever Day by doing a shark dive in the Caribbean, and last year he celebrated it with a special dinner at our oasis home in Africa.

The nomadic lifestyle may not be for everyone, but we fall in love with it more and more every day. It’s hard to beat a life where you live your dreams every day.

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  1. It’s exciting to read about the global education that your son is receiving and that you have taken the opportunity to share so much time and so many experiences with him! The world changes us and allows us to grow in extraordinary ways when we take the opportunity to go out and see it and to engage with it’s diverse inhabitants. As to slow or non-existent wifi, I can completely relate! 🙂

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  2. I too have been exposed to slow internet services in the jungles of the Yucatan. It is frustrating not being able to utilize this single lifeline to it’s fullest. Completely sympathize.

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  3. I love how travelling constantly makes us reassess our perceptions and values, great to hear how being on the road has changed the way you think and respond. Being flexible should be a motto for us all.

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    • So true! Few things put a person in a state of constant reassessment and change like long-term traveling.

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  4. yeah its great that you are doing it!! i wish i could have with my kids! as it is i have been on trips to Thailand with two of my lads over the last couple of years, and we all enjoyed it! so i hope for more!

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    • I’m glad you’re able to get out ad explore with them at least! Any type of travel is just great in my book.

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  5. funny, we were invited to a ‘great’ beach today, and the boys said, well, don’t they realized we just lived across the street from the beach in Costa Rica for 7 weeks, Not that we don’t like the beach, we even just went to the beach 2 days ago, but I get and agree with your post (and many of your others (mostly the single parent one))…
    And, we love the place we are staying, but the lack of internet SUCKS, this whole town seems to have slow WiFi… anyway…. miss you guys……
    J K E

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    • When you live this lifestyle, crappy Internet can sure make an impact! I’m sure you’re missing CR!

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  6. The whole time reading this I was like..yep, yes, oh..ya! I completely agree with everything you said.

    Having slow wi-fi is the worst! Give me a dirty room or a squat toilet over slow wi-fi any day. We definitely remember certain things that happened by where we were, rather than when it happened. “When were we in the Philippines?..not sure, it was right after Hong Kong, but before Malaysia”! We have no idea of time anymore, which is great!

    Thanks for a great post 🙂

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    • A friend of mine (also part of a nomadic family) and I were laughing just yesterday about how when we see friends on Facebook being joyous that it’s Saturday we both think “Oh, it’s Saturday?” Unless you’re catching a plane or something, or needing to remember that it’s Friday in a Muslim country so you need to do the market earlier in the day, the day is really an insignficant detail.

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  7. I’m totally with you on the slow wifi! Also, I love the idea of Moroccan dental floss as a souvenir. I won’t be able to look at my toiletries the same again now!

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  8. “… I don’t care if the place doesn’t have complimentary toiletries. I’m happy if the door closes all the way… ”

    LOL Talon – oh how our expectations change! Shoot, in Mongolia – I didn’t even HAVE a “door” – just whizzing under a gazillion stars amid dollops of yak dung. 😉

    And yes, I do sometimes wonder if experiencing so many of the world’s wonders (countless breathtaking tropical beaches, amazing temples, incredible cultural moments all over the globe) won’t somewhat dim the thrill of the next tropical isle, etc.

    It hasn’t yet, but like you, I must admit that yet another sun-kissed beach simply doesn’t impress me anymore. And what I seek most is the little unique encounters with local people – be they in glorious settings or crusty city alleyways.

    Oh and yep – that “hair” in my pho? Uh, meh – whatever! 😉

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    • Those encounters are the best, as are the moments of personal growth. Our 2 months on the oasis in Morocco are one of the highlights of my life. If someone had told me that would be the case and not the almost year living on a small island in the Caribbean while scuba diving almost every day, I would’ve called them nuts. 🙂

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  9. I was nodding my head in agreement throughout this entire post.

    We have only been living the nomadic life for just over a year but in that time we have gone through some massive changes. I used to be known as a bit of a ‘princess’ but after 12 months of living this life I am happy to say the princess has left the building! Although, I don’t know how happy I would be to find hair in my food so maybe she’s still a little bit there 🙂

    The souvenir thing I especially related to. We never buy anything as a ‘keepsake’ on the road. But I can say with all my heart, that I will remember this time of my life better than any other period in which I have souvenirs from. Yes, I have photos and a blog so I will have those to remind me. But most importantly, I have beautiful places, new friends and precious moments etched into my heart so I couldnt possibly forget a thing.

    Thanks for yet another wonderful post Talon.

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  10. Love the Redefining Impressive!

    The souvenirs are perfect! My kids prefer to pick up a piece of sea glass off the beach than get some plastic junk.

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    • My son is similar. Although now that we’ve been on the road for a while he picks up less and less.

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  11. We are certainly not nomadic the way you are, but I could completely relate to the idea that events are related to locations. We have so much of that in our lives!

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    • Isn’t it funny sometimes? But it’s also wonderful when you have experiences to relate things to rather than money, merely a calendar, etc.

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  12. I relate to this post on so many levels. (Although, I feel like I say that a lot on your posts). It most definitely is a chance of point of view. And yes, lack of internet is the one thing that leaves me entirely devoid of patience.

    People say this about LIla often, but I’m going to pass it along to Tigger. He is so lucky to have the kind of childhood he has. Not just because of the moving around and travel, but because he has a dad who knows how to allow him to experience it.

    I hope our two can meet one day.

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  13. I’m so happy this is working out for you, Talon and Tigger. Beyond happy … thrilled for you. I love following your nomadic journey from my not-nomadic-for-now base in Ho Chi Minh City. I hope we see you here soon. (We have a ensuite!!)

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    • Thanks, Barbara. And we are coming to Vietnam in late April and staying about a month. Hope to meet you!

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