Living a nomadic life is not always rainbows and unicorns. Here’re a few things learned while sailing and driving around the world.
In 2003, at the age of twenty-nine, my wife and I went from living and working in downtown Chicago, to pre-retirement and sailing around the world. It was a dramatic shift for two mid-westerners who had never been on a boat before, and also were far too young to be retired in the traditional sense.
Our plan had been to sail around the world, sell the boat, move back to Chicago, and slip back into our old life. We’d be four years older, and have a ton of great stories to sustain us until we were much older, and could retire via the traditional route, after many more years of work.
But while sailing we realized something important, there’s a big world out there, with a lot to see and do, and we weren’t particularly interested in slipping back into the American way of life any longer.
Obviously, that realization does little to answer the question of how we would earn a living in order to sustain a lifestyle of world travel for years, or decades to come, but in the end we figured it out. We took what we were good at (trading/investing), turned that into an ongoing source of online work (www.wandererfinancial.com).
We also branched out into new endeavors, such as writing books and magazine articles. But perhaps more important than just figuring out how to fund this lifestyle, are the lessons we learned to truly enjoy it fully.
Living a truly nomadic life sounds ideal, but it’s not always rainbows and unicorns. Here are a few things that transformed and sustained this lifestyle for our family, making it more fun and interesting over the long term.
We All Want the Same Things
We have traveled through both the richest places on earth, and the poorest, and at the end of the day one thing really stands out to us—people around the world want a healthy family, food on their table, and a roof over their heads. With those three things, anyone can find happiness.
Whenever we have feelings of self-doubt about our path we try to remind ourselves that we have those three things, in spades. Any unhappiness, or shortcomings, can be erased simply by recognizing how good you’ve got it.
My wife and I found ourselves wandering around Bangkok, lost, one afternoon a year or two into our travels. We sat down on an out of the way bench in a park and got our map and guidebook out, trying to keep a low profile while figuring out both where we were and where we wanted to go.
A young guy spotted us, turned, and made a beeline for our bench. He told us he had been learning English and asked if we needed help. He looked, and acted, for all the world, like a caricature of the smooth-talking hustler who somehow fleeces the unsuspecting tourist in a straight to television B-movie.
We told him we were fine, but he insisted, took our map, and proceeded to circle half a dozen sites around the city. All of which he assured us were amazing, and wouldn’t be found in any guidebook. He then walked us over to a taxi, negotiated a price for the driver to take us to them all, shook our hands, thanked us for helping him practice his English, and continued on his way down the road.
For the next few hours, we toured some of the most beautiful sites we’d seen in our lives. Our taxi driver patiently drove us, and delivered us back to our hotel at the end of the day without asking for a baht more than the morning’s agreement. All in all, it was about as perfect a day as any tourist could ever expect to have in Bangkok, and we owed it to an anonymous stranger who had somehow convinced us to let our guard down.
That night, while talking about the day we’d just had, we agreed that from that day forward we would always assume the best of people, until they had proven otherwise. This, unfortunately, is the opposite of what most travelers start out doing, instead assuming the worst, and only being surprised when they get the best. Far better, in our opinion, to expect the best and be surprised by the worst.
Trust that people are good, and you will rarely be disappointed.
We put this new mantra to the test shortly afterwards.
We were now in Sri Lanka where the locals were everywhere playing a board game called Carrom. After playing at the local bars for a few nights we decided we had to have a carrom board of our own on the boat. We were touring the local shops, asking where we could get a board, when a local guy overheard us and insisted he knew where we could get one. He immediately loaded all of us into a tuk-tuk and off we went.
We began secretly wondering just how far we were willing to take this new “trust everyone” thing. We soon found ourselves at a small building in the middle of nowhere. Filing inside we found a husband and wife team running a tiny factory building carrom boards, and nothing else.
We bought a new board from them and headed back to town. On the way out I saw the lady slip him 60 Rp. Very little money, but I assumed that must be some sort of commission for bringing us there. The factory didn’t sell the pieces necessary to play the game, just the board itself, so we stopped at a couple of shops along the way back. Still not finding any, our new friend said he would get us some that night and he would meet us the next day.
We went home happy with our board, and happy with our decision to trust. Though, in all honesty, we were both sort of wondering where the angle was. What was this guy going to ask us for the next day?
We grabbed a small thank you gift and set off in the morning. Our friend was waiting, with the carrom pieces in hand. I noticed immediately that the price on the box was 60 RP. The money he had been given the day before was for the pieces, not a commission. We gave our friend a hat and a “tip” for helping us out. He looked at the money with confusion—for a second I thought he was unhappy and was expecting more. Then he handed back the money and insisted that he only helped us because he wanted to.
We talked for a while, then he put the hat on, smiling, and we said our good-byes. This man had spent a couple of hours with us simply because he is proud of his country and wanted us to be happy, have a good time, and share with the world what a nice place Sri Lanka is.
It would have taken little effort for us to have simply waved him off when he first approached us, but instead we took that same little bit of effort and used it to trust him instead.
Living Small is Really Living Big
Over the past twenty years, we have lived in three boats, a VW bus, two motorhomes, and an Airstream trailer while visiting some seventy countries. Only one of the boats and the VW bus were as a couple, the rest were all as a family of four. The Airstream was just 22’ long.
On some of our land-based adventures, there was the inevitable challenge of navigating foreign roads and understanding different traffic laws. This is where the International Driver’s Permit (IDP) came into play. An IDP serves as an official translation of your license in multiple languages and is recognized in over 150 countries. It made it much easier for us to rent vehicles and ensure we were driving legally in a foreign country. While not always mandatory, having it eased our minds and often facilitated smoother interactions with local authorities.
We live small by choice, not by necessity. We’ve learned over the years that we need very little to be happy and that living small allows us to pivot easily to whatever we feel like doing next.
When my kids were young we lived on our 43’ sailboat, traveling all over Pacific Mexico and up and down the Sea of Cortez. When we decided to sell the boat and buy a motorhome in the US we loaded all our belongings as a family of four, into four plastic bins. We got on a plane and landed ready to continue with our lives just as we had left off, except now traveling on land instead of water.
We are all conditioned from birth to be consumers, but breaking that cycle frees us up in order to have more experiences, with more people, in more places.
As I write this I am in the process of selling one boat in Aruba to move to another that is in Mexico. While our family has accumulated more than we have in the past, we’ll still fly out of Aruba with just a few bins of important belongings, and we’ll land in Mexico ready to begin the next chapter.
We made this decision, to switch boats and head off to sail around the world again, in just a couple of days. Friends joked that they take longer to decide what to have for breakfast. We don’t doubt it. But when you live small and are willing to do with less, you are free to move quickly and satisfy your whims without the anchors of possessions holding you back.
Be Smart, But Fearless
Growing up in the U.S. a person can get very accustomed to the Disneyland, sterile feel, of adventure. Our natural beauty is often blocked by fences to keep us out. It’s for our safety, the signs say. Other times, things are simply off-limits, or the very idea of them renders them an impossibility.
Around the world, we often find things to do that our immediate thought is, “This would never exist in the States.”
In all honesty, there are probably legitimate reasons that no insurance company would consider accepting the risk.
Be smart, but be fearless. We’ve done things through the years that we’ve been warned repeatedly told not to do. Almost without fail they turn out to be the best experiences. These include both organized activities, and things we’ve just thrown caution to the wind and done on our own.
In New Zealand, we sledged down Class 4 rapids. Sledging is basically tossing yourself into a raging river with a small plastic sled to hold onto, letting the sled both take the smashing rocks and keep you afloat while the river tries to rip you off. Great fun.
After weighing our options, and considering the statistics (maybe 1% problematic), we sailed through “Pirate Alley” off the coasts of Oman and Yemen.
In Aden, Yemen, we spent a rather raucous night at a port-side dive bar inexplicably singing the Russian National Anthem with a General in the Yemeni Army, numerous ladies of the night, and a taxi driver from Detroit who had just been deported.
We crisscrossed Egypt on locals-only buses, stared down an angry Israeli Navy ship’s gunner, cliff-dived in the Galapagos, hiked to a mountaintop fortress in Haiti. We’ve sailed around the world, driven a 1958 VW bus from Alaska to Argentina, sailed and motorhomes across every inch of Mexico, and circled the Caribbean on our trawler. We’ve taken a million risks, both big and small, that have contributed to the fun and excitement of our travels.
Take chances. When you are being told what you are about to do is stupid, or dangerous, first consider the source of that warning. Most things in life aren’t nearly as crazy as they are cracked up to be, but that doesn’t make them any less fun.
Don’t Be Afraid to Switch Things Up
Nothing has to be forever. Retirement is a fairly new endeavor. A hundred years ago only a very select few would retire from working life. Of course, times were different then, and people rarely lived to what we now consider retirement age, but the fact remains that retirement as we now think of it is a fairly new concept. Why we all have seemingly agreed on its definition is a mystery to me.
One thing I’ve always tried to keep in mind is to not be afraid to switch things up. In the past twenty years I’ve lived on a boat for four years, a VW bus for two years, another boat for four years, a motorhome for four years, and yet another boat for six years. I’ve worked for years, taken many years off, and then worked some more. I have yet to turn fifty and am still a long way from a traditional retirement.
Point is, we’re more likely than ever to live a long, healthy life. Take advantage of that fact. Get out and live your dreams now. And when what you are doing begins to not feel quite right, or you need to refill the savings account, switch it up until life feels right again.
Get Out There
I really do believe that a life of travel and adventure is a life well lived. After twenty years I have no regrets on the path I’ve chosen, and the path that my family is on. At the risk of sounding like a Nike ad, just do it. Work to achieve your dreams as quickly as possible, so that they don’t pass you by. Go out into the world with your eyes wide open to the possibilities. Say yes to everything you can. And have fun.
The author, Pat Schulte, began his career at the age of 25, as a commodities trading pit reporter at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.
Showing great promise, he was moved to the trading floor, where, as head clerk, then broker, he was taken under the wing of a small group of successful traders who would soon become his mentors.
With little to his name, he sold his car and deposited the entire $5,000 into a trading account…thankfully he never looked back, and never required another deposit.
Two years later he moved to Chicago to trade in the Soybean Options pit. He stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other pit traders, managed his risk, and within just a couple of years had made enough profit to flee the 9-5 for good.
In search of a life of freedom and adventure, Pat spent the next 4 years sailing around the world aboard a 35-foot catamaran named Bumfuzzle. But his adventures didn’t stop there.
Soon after circumnavigating the globe by boat, he drove around most of it in a VW bus, before entering, and ultimately winning, a race across America in his vintage Porsche. These and other adventures can be found on his blog Bumfuzzle.
Ready to ‘settle down’, he and his wife Ali had two children in Mexico aboard their second boat, before loading them into a vintage motorhome and travelling the world extensively once more.
In 2017, the family returned to Caribbean waters, this time aboard a trawler. Pat has now been trading for a living for over twenty years. Having successfully supported his adventurous lifestyle through the trading of stocks, he and his business partner Lorin now teach others how they too can live the Wanderer Financial lifestyle.