After Nomadland came away with a clutch of awards at this year’s Oscars, the topic of nomadism was thrown into the spotlight. In a year when many people have stayed at home, it was interesting to see a torch shone on a different way of living that doesn’t involve four walls and a fixed address - something that ordinarily dominates the collective consciousness and media headlines.
Nomadic living is often greatly misunderstood by those who’ve never tried it, and can, like most things, take many forms. I speak from a place of experience. It’s something I’ve done on and off on many occasions - taking my computer with me on the road and working from different locations. I originally set off on a three-month stint in Africa, but the travel bug bit me hard, and I’ve found it hard to ‘put down roots’ ever since. Especially now that digital nomadding has become so much more common, and a darn sight easier. These days there are myriad websites, apps and Facebook groups that help nomads share knowledge and find work and community. Airbnb and co-living spaces to provide short-term accommodation, Zoom a way of connecting with friends and colleagues, meet-ups and dating apps for social life.
Some people are nomadic for a short time, some for years. Some out of choice, some out of necessity, and some a combination of both. It’s rarely the same for two people. And rarely the rosy image of a person on a laptop sipping a piña colada that you so often see on social media. The reality, as the film so poignantly shows, is a lot more varied and complex.
Being nomadic often means navigating visas and bureaucracy, regularly organising accommodation and travel, making new friends, saying goodbye to new friends, finding basic necessities and services in new places and often in foreign languages, carrying your belongings around with you, and finding or maintaining work. It can be wonderful and exhausting in equal measure. For me, its been very challenging, but it has also meant I’ve met incredible people, seen incredible things, and had experiences I never in a million years would have had if I’d stayed in one place for all that time. I’ve also done the stable home, working the nine-to-five office thing many times in my life, so I know the advantages and disadvantages of both sides of the coin.
Some nomads keep a permanent home base, others give it up completely or rent it out while they're away. Others were never able to afford one in the first place, and instead use geographical and economic leverage to enjoy a better quality of life in other countries or locations where the cost of living is lower.
Living a nomadic or semi-nomadic life not only frees you up to see the world, it also gives you a more global mindset. It forces you to rethink assumptions and stereotypes, gets you out of your comfort zone and allows you to question inherited political and cultural beliefs, biases and prejudices. In an age of increasing polarisation, nationalism and group-think, this is as important as ever. Being nomadic also allows you to vote with your feet. If the country or jurisdiction you're in does something untoward, or no longer suits you, you can up sticks and leave for somewhere better.
Sociologically speaking, human beings have always been nomadic. We've always migrated and emigrated, gone to where the work is, where the resources are, sought pastures new. It's in our DNA. So in this sense, it’s completely natural.
Nomadland shone a light on RV living in America, but there are other kinds of nomadding. Recently, technology has enabled some people to work from their laptops from anywhere, something that wasn’t even possible 20 years ago. These ‘digital nomads’ live for short periods of time in cheaper locations, and combine work with travel to enjoy the best of both worlds, a choice that has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years. The pandemic, for all its many, many shortcomings, has shown us that there are many roles that can be done remotely, from anywhere.
Of course, not everyone wants to or can work from their laptop. Lots of people do more hands-on jobs, roaming around the world volunteering on farms and in hostels, using sites such as Workaway, Help X and Wwoof to help them find hosts. They work for around four hours a day in exchange for bed and board, and can be away for longer periods of time because they're saving on expenses. The idea is to share skills and learn from each other, but also to mix with other volunteers from around the world.
Then there are the ‘van lifers’ - those who live in their vehicles full time or part time, and enjoy independence and freedom by taking their home with them. I’ve met many people who travel in a van, of all ages, nationalities and walks of life, some out of choice, some out of necessity.
I see a future where more and more people choose this lifestyle. Where it’s the norm not the exception. Instead of fixed borders, I see more open and flexible ones, allowing talent and skill to ebb and flow when and where it needs to. Technology will play an even bigger role in facilitating this movement of people, and help create a world where they’ll be happiest and able to fulfil their potential the most.
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