Checklist for the Nomadic Existence

I am in my mid twenties, and go in and out of being comfortable that I’m nowhere near being a proper adult, and that I don’t see myself arriving at adulthood any time soon. A proper adult, I would say, could support him/herself with a reliable income coming from a steady job, and would have a reliable place of residence. Among other things, of course, but these are the essentials.

I am pretty good at the life I live, though, and that is the life of the nomad. I graduated college in May, 2009, and after a few months, departed home for a stint in Prague, teaching English. I’d spent a fair amount of time growing up in Budapest, so life in Central/Eastern Europe really was nothing new for me. Trying to figure things out on my own, however, in a new place, with a poorly paid job and few people I knew, was difficult. After a few months I came home, spent the summer saving up some money, and took off again in the fall. This time traveling across Eastern Europe for a few months instead of teaching. My time in Prague had served me well: I knew how to handle myself in strange situations where I didn’t know what was going on, and knew not to get too worked up about it. Another couple of months at home, and now here I am again. This time in Georgia, teaching English again.

While it may not be steady work, well paid work, nor is my place of residence very reliable, it is the life of wandering. And I’ve done this enough times to prepare myself for it, know what to expect from it, and not get too worked up and upset when things are topsy-turvy. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

  1. Pack Rain Gear.

Being a Howard, I know to pack for rain. We Howards have fond memories of camping trips in Northern Michigan, all of which were accompanied by torrential downpours. Dad making pancakes for breakfast, with the trunk of the van popped open, so there would be at least some cover from the rain. Watching the rain drip down the hood of his raincoat into the pancake batter… Then there was the intricate series of tarps we used to cover that monstrous tent… Then there was the time it was raining so hard we couldn’t even put the tent up, and drove to a motel for the first night. Another time Graham and I got rained out of our mini tent and joined the rest of the family in the big tent. All of our camping trips were rainy. I think most of the time we just sat in the tent, freezing, playing cards.

A great example just from last fall. After spending two weeks in Sarajevo with new friends, the Sarajevo family split up. Tara stayed in Sarajevo, I went South to the Adriatic coast, and Matt headed North to Belgrade. Matt and I would meet up in a week in Skopje – we enjoyed saying, for probably the only time in our lives: “Hey, I’ll see you in a week in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” The weather had been nice in Sarajevo, and it accompanied Matt to Belgrade. It was sunny and warm for him all week, and he wore shorts and sandals and had all sorts of grand adventures with new friends. I, on the other hand, had miserable weather all week. I’d seen lovely photos of Dubrovnik and Kotor, but I had rain, cold, and wind. I stayed in a homestay in Dubrovnik, but the doors to the patio didn’t really latch, and with the stormy conditions, they banged open and shut all night long. I had to put my boots in front of the door to try to keep them shut. It continued to rain on me in Kotor, where I climbed 1,500 wet stone steps to the top of a fortress. It was rainy all the way through the rest of Montenegro, through Kosovo, and into Macedonia. I was drenched, lonely, and miserable, and had endured rain every day for about a week. Matt met me the first night in the hostel in rainy Skopje, and the next morning, the sun was out and it got warmer, and it didn’t rain for a long time. We would curse our fates when we would realize the winds had changed and brought Sven luck.

So I’ve learned to pack for rain. I have a great Gore-Tex rain jacket, thanks to my one year as a professional cyclist. The team got all sorts of jackets that year from our clothing sponsor. I have a winter coat, a rain jacket, and a few wooly fleeces. It wasn’t a well paid job, was fairly disillusioning, I couldn’t really support myself, and it wasn’t anything that provided me with skills for the future, but at least I was provided with jackets for all climates. (Plus it sounds cool if I tell people I was a professional cyclist – Hello, I’m Sven. I’m a former professional cyclist and I have a good collection of jackets as a result.) My rain jacket is serving me well here in Kutaisi, where I would say it rains about three or four days per week.

I also finally invested in an umbrella. Last fall I was totally unprepared and didn’t even bring my rain jacket – I had thought I lost it! So I just wore a hoody underneath a wool jacket, and that served as decent weather protection. I dried my clothes at night. I had had an umbrella before; I had found one someone had thrown out in Zagreb. It was half broken, and slightly collapsed, but it got me through rainy Zagreb. I promptly forgot it in the Belgrade hostel. I broke down and spent two euros on an umbrella in Montenegro. I sat underneath it on a park bench in Kosovo in the rain from about 5am until 8am, waiting for the cafes to open. It’s so windy here in Kutaisi, though, that I’m realizing why it was just 2 euro. My hands cramp trying to hold on to the thing and keep it from bending in half. It’s constantly flopping around, threatening to snap on me. But it’s also serving me well.

2. Pack Boots.

Graham sent me a message in December regarding my homecoming:

If you are back at Christmas and we’re back in that cursed basement, we can, if nothing else, take solace in the fact that we both have proper boots. That’s “progress” is it not? Last year we were both back in that cursed basement and neither of us had proper boots. Aha! We’re showing existence a thing or two after all.

Having a proper pair of boots is essential to wandering. Maybe the most essential thing. I splurged before traveling in the fall and bought myself a pair of Danners. They went through a lot. Stepping in plenty of piles of canine excrement, once stepping in a bum’s latrine, and long, long days of getting lost. They kept the doors shut in my Dubrovnik host stay, and were my weapons of choice if those bum dogs that chased me and Matt in Sofia at 4am decided to attack. In Kutaisi now, I am glad that I have them. With roads and sidewalks that look like the surface of the moon, and with as much rain as the city’s been getting, I walk through a lot of puddles. I foolishly tried to walk to class in my work shoes once or twice, but my feet were soaked through, despite my expert puddle hopping skills. Long days of walking in wet shoes are bad. Hooray for proper boots! I’m always surprised to meet people traveling or teaching abroad, that haven’t seen the importance of a proper pair of boots.

3. Be good at wasting time.

I know that teaching English is a job that has a lot of down time. I had a lot of down time in Prague, a city with a huge expat community and a vibrant night life. Given, I’m more of the solitary type, but I still had a bit of a social life in Prague. But here, in Georgia, there isn’t that big of an expat community (surprising, right?!) I know the teachers living in Tbilisi get together fairly often, but in Kutaisi I haven’t met too many other teachers. And aside from the native English speakers, it’s pretty tough to find other people to have real conversations with. There are no nightclubs in Kutaisi, there isn’t a movie theater, and it really isn’t pub culture. There are a few pubs and cafes, but they’re nothing special. Plus, I’m basically a volunteer here, so I don’t really have the funds to sit in cafes and pubs downing beers and coffee. I prepared myself for all this beforehand, so I came with plenty of ways to occupy myself with the down time. Lots of books, and a journal to write in. I haven’t been as good about writing in the journal, but remaining fairly stationary with little to do doesn’t give me too many stories to scribble down. Oh, but I’m remembering my days in Prague now. I’m plowing through books! When I unpacked my books and put them on the shelf, I thought, dangit, why did I bring so many? I’m only gone for a few months, there’s no way… But at a rate of a thick book per week, I think I should be able to polish off most of these.

4. Beanage.

I brought Turkish coffee beans and my Cezve, fully aware that wherever I’d be placed, the coffee of choice would be a very proletarian cup of Nescafe. Now, I just can’t handle that! Unfortunately, I’ve been going through my Turkish coffee beans at an alarming rate, so I’ve had to cut back. But having to wake up in the mornings for work, and a lot of downtime in the afternoons, I have to have a few cups of coffee to ensure that I stay awake all day. Plus, if I have just one cup of coffee per day, I’m living dangerously close to the miserable coffee withdrawal headaches. Gotta keep myself properly juiced.

I’ve had to supplement my coffee habits with Nescafe, sadly. One cup of good brew in the mornings for a proper wake-up kick to the skull, followed by a few rancid cups of Nescafe so I can stay up through the afternoons for my marathon reading sessions. But it’s better than the dorm coffee. I thought I’d hit rock bottom in Prague, when I was drinking Tesco brand instant coffee. Oh, how I longed for Nescafe then! No, in the dormitory cafeteria I opt for the tea, and bypass the coffee. Did I say coffee? Sorry – it’s Cafe Pele instant coffee. Instant coffee that still has grounds at the bottom. I had a cup or two of it, and have learned my lesson. I don’t know if it’s as bad as the “coffee” dad and I had in Belgrade that one time, in Hotel Splendid. We still don’t know what that was, but for some reason it was purple.

The best cups of coffee we’ve ever had make for great memories: in the Jewish district of Krakow following our visit to Auschwitz in 2004 (where I had my first coffee headache, after refusing to drink the hotel Nescafe – already a coffee snob at 17), and the second best was at some random cafe in Bratislava, after walking around the city for four hours looking for Hotel Ibis. But the worst cups of coffee also have great stories. That purple coffee in Belgrade will forever live in our memory.

Let’s see… I know there are probably more items on my checklist for the wandering life that I’m forgetting. Other things are simple and require no explanation, nor is there much of a good story. Small computer, camera, toiletries, power adapters (an ipod would be nice, but mine crashed so I am sans music)…. Gotta have a good backpack, but not too big, or else you bring too much stuff. You don’t need more than 5 changes of clothing, really. I brought a suitcase this time around because I packed work clothes, and as always happens when I have a suitcase, I bring too much. Four pairs of pants! What was I thinking?! Ah, next time I’ll learn. I pick up on more of these things with each trip I take. The more I travel, the more I realize I really don’t need much at all, and I could always get by with less. Just don’t scrimp on rain gear, boots, books or beans. Those are the essentials.

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