A Nomad's Lockdown

A question I am being asked fairly often since the beginning of the pandemic is how I am coping with the fact that I cannot travel anymore. And I must say the first months I was taken aback myself by how well I was dealing with such a radical change in my lifestyle.

Manhattan from the window next to the wing of an airplane
From up in the air to lockdown in no time.

I left home at 19 and I have been traveling ever since. So, as you can imagine, going back to my tiny, frankly boring hometown at age 33 was not exactly part of my life goals. It felt like it should be frustrating, infuriating even. It felt like I should dread the walls closing in on me. It felt like the right time to develop some sort of claustrophobia or cabin fever.

When nothing of the sort happened, I realized being a traveler for the best part of fourteen years was, precisely and paradoxically, what saved me from the sadness of being forced to stop traveling for over a year. It was the lessons I learned as a nomad what kept me from going up the walls. Let me share them with you but, first and foremost, I want to make clear that I did not lose anyone to the virus. That would undoubtedly change my attitude towards the situation. These are just remarks on how to deal with what I perceive as minor inconveniences thanks to my traveling experience.

Iris in the magic gardens of Philadephia, a garden with the walls and floors covered in broken tile.
I’ll walk you through it…

1 – When you live on the road, you expect the unexpected. From sudden connecting-flight cancelations while in a country for which you have no visa, to trains stopping for hours in the middle of nowhere. From fake hotel bookings that leave you with no options, to actual hotels so awful you’d rather sleep on the streets. From earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, to the sudden visit of black bears or wolf and huntsman spiders…

Traveling is not always sugar and spice, my friends. Hazards are part of the deal. And, the more you travel, the more chances you get of finding an unpleasant surprise around the corner. So, to be honest, my repatriation story was perceived as one more inconvenient travel experience that will later become a fun anecdote to tell. Was I pissed I had to leave Vietnam early? Sure, exactly the same way I was when my train to Takayama broke down and I missed my bus to Shirakawago a few years back.

I, later on, understood the severity of the situation and became truly scared for my family and friends all over the world. I know I am taking all the precautions and I am likely to be absolutely fine, but that does not account for the people I cannot keep safe. However, it is an emotion I am very used to, unfortunately. It is the same concern for my loved ones I feel when a tornado hits Arkansas, an earthquake shakes Tokyo, or now with the coup in Myanmar. I cohabitate with this kind of fear, always. It’s a side-effect of loving and being loved internationally.

Being used to it does not make it less painful or scary. It’s just I’ve learned to manage those emotions so that I can still function.

The meanders of a river that crosses a desert from a plane window
Traveling is not a straight line.

2 – You are used to adjusting to other customs. I know many people have a hard time acclimating to constantly wearing a facemask, keeping a safe distance, washing their hands dozens of times a day… And sometimes they decide not to adapt at all and put all of us in great danger because they lack that versatility, that flexibility.

Not true travelers, though. We are so used to stepping into different cultures with different idiosyncrasies that adapting to those changes is not a big deal for us. I’ve worn shaylas to visit mosques, I’ve covered my shoulders to visit cathedrals, I’ve walked barefoot to visit shrines. I’ve washed my hands and feet to enter some temples and I’ve kept silent when in holy places.

Restrictions surround us when we travel and, if we are able to accept that out of respect for beliefs and cultures, why would it be difficult to accept a temporary limitation of our liberties in order to save lives? Also, absolute freedom is a myth: we are all bound to norms and laws, even the non-travelers. Some of them, way more absurd than trying not to spread a deadly virus.

3 – You know how to be alone with your thoughts. Lockdown can be really hard on people living alone or used to a rich and active social life. I should know: I am a social butterfly myself. Nevertheless, solo travel entails many, many hours of that “solo” part.

I’ve spent long nights by myself in hotel rooms and airport lounges. I’ve hiked hills and walked along beaches without crossing paths with anybody. I have endured endless bus and train rides where I didn’t speak my fellow passengers’ language. In those situations, there are only two options: you either go mad, or you become your own best friend. And that’s why so many people travel abroad to “find themselves”. It’s not the trip: it’s the loneliness. It makes you accept who you are or change it accordingly, it makes you appreciate and challenge yourself, it makes you listen to your own needs and appetites without interferences, it makes you become stronger, self-sufficient, and more independent.

In those weeks of confinement and those months of not so much leisure and socialization, having already had the chance of spending time with my insecurities, my trauma, my dark bits… made the transition way smoother. I already knew who I was facing on those long lonely days and, quite frankly, I like her.

Iris is walking down the tracks on the train street in Hanoi. She flips her long dirty blond hair and smiles at us.
After all, she’s taken me this far!

4 – You have learned how to budget and hustle. I left for my first solo trip with just enough money to get me through that one month. Or so I thought. It turned out it was not enough and on the next-to-last day, I had to literally steal a small can of sardines because I was starving. That teaches you a thing or two about budgeting.

Not only I am better now at assessing how much a trip is going to cost, and I have a bit of a financial cushion, but I have learned how to evaluate whether an expense is justified or just a whim. And, believe me, this is way easier when you are at home than when you are traveling, because isn’t travel essentially hedonism, therefore a whim in itself? So after playing for years in the tightrope between giving in to my cravings and seizing the moment, I won’t say I’m a master budgeter, but I haven’t had to steal sardines since age 19.

With the pandemic, I lost my main client and some of my other clients started to send fewer and fewer projects my way, so budgeting was of the essence. And although I still indulged in some ways, because what else is a girl supposed to do while locked in her house but ordering Japanese ingredients online to make ramen, I focused on the other side of being a freelancer on the road: the side-hustle.

Being a full-time traveler means you need to carry your job around with you… unless you are a trust-fund kid, which I am not. So many of us nomads opt for freelancing. Usually, that entails holding several occupations. Most travelers I know are content creators on several different platforms (blogs, vlogs, podcasts…), photographers, travel agents, writers, traveling cooks, traveling nurses, public speakers… and not only the vast majority, but all of them are several of these things at the same time. I myself am mainly a subtitler, a marketing and tourism translator, an audio describer, a food and travel content creator, a lecturer, and a writer. But that’s not all: I am also the one in my one-person moveable office who does all of the invoicing, budgeting, taxes, client search, planning, performance assessment, digital marketing, and continuous training.

I must clarify, though, this last part is not at all exclusive to nomads: pretty much all freelancers have had this real-life training, regardless of their level of settlement. Anyhow, this has meant two things for me. Firstly, after a tough summer with virtually no clients, thanks to all those soft skills and diversification, I got back to my pre-pandemic average income. Secondly, I was so busy looking for new business opportunities, attending online conferences and courses, and redesigning my CV and portfolio, I was left with little to no time to panic or feeling sorry for myself (which I had been doing for a month at first —I am a wanderer, but still human).

Needless to say, as I pointed out at the beginning, extreme cases are out of scope. To lose one’s job and having to feed a family and pay a mortgage is a situation I have never found myself in. I am, again, talking exclusively about minor setbacks.

5 – Videoconferences and online meetings are normal. Related to work still, but also an altered social life, COVID-19 has brought to us more annoying Skypes, Zooms, Meets, Teams… than we care to count. At least to the settled. For the nomads, videoconferencing has been an invaluable and quotidian tool for us to keep in touch with our loved ones and business partners or clients for about two decades now. Moreover, we are used to managing calls in different time zones with an unreliable internet connection, sometimes sitting on the cold floor of an airport lounge because it was the only place with an outlet. So getting to be home, with stable WiFi and within the same meridian is our equivalent of a duck down pillow.

Do we miss hugs and kisses and human contact like everybody else? Constantly, that’s the thing. I am a very, VERY familiar person. And very touchy-feely at that. And yet I used to spend about five months without hugging my mom or petting my dog. You don’t exactly get used to that lack of physical affection, but you make do with what you can have, a.k.a. a laptop screen.

Iris is lying back on a floor covered in Turkish carpets and looks up the camera.
I am so comfy with all of that.

6 – You get curious and creative. Well, this is more of a personality trait than a nomad-acquired skill, but so it happens that every nomad I know is in fact curious and creative. Otherwise, why becoming a nomad in the first place? And while this may sound counterintuitive, being curious about the world provides you with a set of resources to cope with stillness.

To visit places first-hand is by far my favorite method to satisfy my curiosity, but it’s not the only one. Reading books and articles, watching shows and films and documentaries, attending e-conferences and courses, learning new skills. If I seek adventure elsewhere, I will most certainly be able to look for exciting stuff at home too, it’s my nature. So I’ve read hundreds of articles about tourism accessibility; I’ve taken ukulele and cooking lessons; I’ve attended travel and translation conferences; I’ve cooked a lot of the dishes I learned in my latest travels; I’ve taken courses on journalism, transcreation, digital marketing,  food photography, travel writing… And my to-watch list in Netflix, Filmin, HBO and Prime has alarmingly shrunk.

Those are also things I’ve always wanted to take up but my lifestyle, my constant moving, made it awfully hard. So I saw this chance and took it. Would I rather be at the beach in Bali right now, or hiking the Corcovado, or diving the Thistlegorm? Sure, but while I can’t I’ll make the most of it right here. And, for the curious and creative mind, that is not a hard thing to attain. Imagine when you are a foodie, on top of that! All of that extra time to cook and experiment!

7 – You develop empathy and a sense of relativity. When you travel long-term you are bound to witness some dark sh*t. Pardon my French, but this is just the way it is. And, while we cannot all fight all of the battles, that awareness of the problems of the world awakes in you some responsibility, some accountability, and certainly a lot of gratitude.

Okay, I know a lot of travelers go the opposite direction: they develop a sense of entitlement, they demand certain things and overlook, protected by their resort bracelets,  the misery, the environmental impact, the modern-day slavery they support and foster even if indirectly. And almost nobody is a hundred percent not guilty of attitudes like those. It is not my intention to imply that nomads are Light Beings of any sort, that would be a flagrant lie. But I do stand by the fact that many travelers can use the input they receive from their travels and put it towards further their empathy, their humanity.

And, when that happens, putting on a mask during a global pandemic becomes just part of your routine and not a liability. Not going out clubbing becomes just sheer logic and not a hindrance. Even giving up traveling when it’s not safe just comes naturally because, once again, you are fine when others around you are suffering, and you want to do your tiny part to ease the situation.

And I’ll go a little further. I just recently learned that one of my favorite restaurants, la Tasca del Palomo, which I recommended in this post, had to close due to the lack of clientele and the scarce or non-existent stimulus from the government, and it saddened me deeply. Likewise, when I think about all the tourist drivers and tour guides I met in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Turkey, Morocco, India Vietnam, and Myanmar, just in the year prior to the pandemic, my heart skips a beat. How are they supposed to pay their bills when borders are closed? I am still in contact with most of them, and they have had to completely reinvent themselves: Mai, in Vietnam, now works at a store. Manoj, in India, helps running his brother-in-law’s political campaign. Mustafa has gone back to his parent’s home and takes care of his younger sisters. And, well, I haven’t heard anything from Susu, in Myanmar, for over three weeks now. How am I supposed to feel even remotely sorry for myself because I don’t get to travel like I used to? I simply cannot.

Iris looks into the distance, back to the camera, watching a pink lake from the top of a rock.
Traveling gives you a new perspective.

8 – You have already gotten a lot of shots. It got intense in the previous section, so I’ll lighten things up a bit here. Or not, if you are an anti-vaxxer.

I’ve lost count of how many shots I’ve taken just to cross some borders. It has become kind of a rite de passage for me. Maybe I’m reckless, but not being a doctor or nurse, more often than not I have no clue what they are inoculating me with. But I want to travel, so I take the shots no questions asked. Well, that’s not true, I ask a lot of questions, but just because I’m curious, not because I am trying to decide whether to take the vaccine or not: that decision was already made by my wanderlust, not me.

I know, with the AstraZeneca tug-of-war, whether to take the shot or not has become more controversial than it should. Not being a medical professional, I don’t have a firm and well-informed opinion on the matter, so I won’t contribute to the b.s. Being spread online. I can only add that, hopefully, I’ll get vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna, but even if they offer me the British one, I’ll most likely say yes. After all, I have never had any of the usual side effects of the multiple vaccines I’ve had to take for the mere yen for traveling. Fingers crossed.

9 – You know everything is temporary. As I stated in my very first post, when you are a traveler you know you are always passing through. It doesn’t matter whether you are having the time of your life by a campfire eating smores or cursing the awful weather that is preventing you to continue your route according to plan: it is all temporary. “This too shall pass.”

Again, there are situations that are way more delicate than others, I am only referring to the sadness and uneasiness attached to lockdown and other COVID-related restrictions, not to true loss.

As travelers, we usually live in the “now.” One moment we live in a place, the next we might move to another, so a lot of goodbyes are said and lots of tears are shed. However, that is also what makes life exciting: the constant uncertainty, the wondering what is going to happen next. That’s how I chose to live and, sure enough, it has helped me through this period of my life. I am present for the good, and aware the bad shall pass.

I know, I know: easier said than done. That’s why I insist on how my years of travel in general, and especially solo travel, have trained me for this very awkward and difficult moment of our lives. I have been managing my time, money and thoughts in fairly extreme conditions at times and that has helped me relativize this situation, considering my privileges.

Iris tries to keep her balance when walking on the tracks of a railroad traversing the Bolivian desert of Uyuni
Just keep walking…

I am not going to lie to you all and say it is not hard: I’ve had my fair share of scares and moments of desperation, above all seeing how some people do not seem to understand the severity of the situation and put their comfort or pleasure before public health. And of course I am eagerly looking forward to the very moment when all borders reopen and I have been vaccinated and I can travel safely again. All I am saying is that the vicissitudes of long-term traveling as a way of living have sufficiently equipped me to endure this pandemic in a way maybe no-nomads did not expect.

Everyone, including me, was just waiting for my mental breakdown, for the breaking point where I’d start yelling “I need to get out of here!” and crying myself to sleep inside my suitcase while lovingly holding my passport. And yet, traveling the world has taught me how to collectedly bear to be cloistered within these four walls.

Life is weird.

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