: a person who wanders from place to place without a fixed home : one leading a vagabond life
: moving from place to place without a fixed home : WANDERING
A : of, relating to, or characteristic of a wanderer
B : leading an unsettled, irresponsible, or disreputable life
Where it all began…
I used to long for adventure. Sensitive, romantic, fifteen-year-old me pined for the thrill she knew from books and films. Pirates, nomads, and wayfarers populated my dreams. Already I was searching for something elusive. Not a place. Not a person. A feeling.
And feelings are hard to pin down on a map. Sometimes, you have to spend a whole lifetime wandering in their pursuit. A feeling doesn’t have a mailing address. A feeling doesn’t come at the end of a “5 Simple Steps” blog post. There is no big red X marking the spot. There’s no clear mountain path to its abode.
This feeling has an unmistakable smell: woodfire smoke. A marketplace at noon. Saltwater. Damp earth. Chai. Skin. Old leather. Dusty journals. Sex. It has a sound: leaves crunching underfoot. The hum of a motor. Waves crashing on an empty shore. Human wolves howling at the moon. Tambourines. It has a taste: cinnamon and clove. Blood. Fresh air at 5,000 meters. Cold river water. And it has a color: blue like the sky. Blue like the sea. Blue like veins running beneath the skin’s surface, pulsing with life. Blue like twilight — at the edge of everything.
What was this feeling, then, in practical terms? Freedom? Close. Weightlessness? More grounded. Romance? Loosely interpreted, maybe? Wanderition (the consummation of wanderlust)? Getting warmer.
If I could give the feeling a name, perhaps I would not have needed to spend so many years seeking it. Yet it escapes every box, category, or linguistic cage in which we try to trap it. The more words I use to try to catch its essence, the farther it seems to recede into the edges of my awareness. It is, simply, the feeling.
If you have ever quit your life, sold all your belongings, and bought a one-way ticket to anywhere-but-here, you know the feeling. If you are considering doing just that, you know intimately the feeling-shaped wish in your soul. If you know me, you know what the feeling looks like when it takes over a human being and directs her life for a time.
Spoiler alert: you won’t find this feeling “out there.” It is a state of being, not a destination. Therefore, this book is not a map, but an existential guide to a vagabondish lifestyle and perspective. If you want to hold this feeling in your hands, you will have to dig for it yourself. There is no other way, no shortcut, no online course, no magic recipe. As a vagabondess who has made a life-long study of this feeling, I humbly offer you a few tools that may aid you on your own journey of discovery — and stories to help you on your way.
July 2017 — Boston (my hometown)
Question: How do we find our calling?
Answer: We don’t.
Question: Okay, but, something more helpful?
Answer: We don’t “find” our calling; we call out, and follow any voice that answers until our intuition tells us we can stop calling now. Some of us never do stop.
Question: Anything less esoteric?
Answer: Fine. Seek joy. Seek more questions than answers. Seek jobs, friends, lovers, homes in which or with whom you feel utterly yourself. Better yet, seek experiences that challenge you to become even more yourself — that is, to grow.
And if you should find more growth in movement, do not stop moving. And if you should find more meaning in stillness, stay still. And if at the end you still should wonder if you ever did find your calling, look back over the one inimitable path behind you, and ask your footsteps what you have learned.
Hint: The right questions lead not to answers, but to doors. We don’t find our calling, we walk it.
A path always makes so much more sense in retrospect. Looking back over the twenty-eight years that brought me to this moment in my life, it seems clear to me that it could not have been any other way.
I had the exceptional good fortune to be born into a family of travelers. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, but family vacations brought me to India, China, Italy, England, and many other places before I was out of adolescence. These vacations sparked my curiosity about that something, which I felt fairly certain was out there, and which I would spend most of my twenties seeking.
I first lived abroad in Paris in 2009–2010 as an eighteen-year-old gap year student. I studied little, explored much, and began to develop a broader understanding of Self there in a big city with plenty of space to get lost… and found. At age twenty, as an Anthropology undergraduate student at Vermont’s Middlebury College, I spent four months traveling and studying Tibetan language and culture in Nepal, then took eight months off to wear out a few pairs of shoes. Here, truly, I began to walk my path as a vagabondess. I wove my way along the “banana pancake” backpacker’s route through Southeast Asia, then stuck my proverbial neck and my literal thumb out on the road, hitchhiking over 6,000 kilometers through Europe. Why? I’ve never managed to explain it better than I did in an article I published in Salon about the experience:
“I love adventures. Over the course of my year-long journey, they became my raison d’être. I had always wanted to be fearless, and now I had begun to actively seek out and defeat the things that scared me. I got into motorcycle accidents in India. I accepted invitations to strangers’ homes in Nepal. I started eating meat again so I could try anything. I hopped buses on an impulse and boats on a whim. I ate street food throughout Asia. I became a “yes woman.” I tried to shake free of the platitude that, as a young woman, I must always travel with fear and caution.
By the time I reached Europe in April of 2013, seven months into my trip, the initial euphoria of my solo journey had begun to fade. I crossed the Balkans by bus and train and realized that the simple act of travel had ceased to be an adventure. Trains, which I had loved with a romantic nostalgia bordering on the irrational, had become banal, and that saddened me. I sought to rekindle my adventure.
…As I continued on, my pack became lighter. I gave away clothing to friends, left behind shoes, used up my shampoo and didn’t buy more. I became lighter. I stopped updating my blog. What could I write about that was not this? The physical act of travel, of movement, once more consumed me.
I could, in response to expressions of disbelief and disapproval, argue the statistics: that I was safer on the road in Germany than at a frat party at my college, that my odds of being harmed were so low that I might as well take risks and enjoy them, that I was more likely to get run over by a car, anyways. I could argue that I carried pepper spray, waited at gas stations, and took rides selectively, but those are false securities, and regardless, I made my choice on principle. My decision to hitchhike, and then to continue hitchhiking, sprang not from recklessness or a cynical conviction in the futility of caution, but from optimism.”
(I still hitchhike, once in a while. It still packs a powerful punch of travel-induced euphoria. I still believe in the goodness of humanity, too. I will delve further into my personal philosophy of risk-taking in Chapter 1.)
In 2014, I set off on a year-long journey through Spain, Kenya, and Zanzibar. In late 2015, I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where I spent most of the next year. In June of 2016, I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, adding another mode of transport to my list of favorites: my feet. For the most part, I lived out of a sixty-five-liter trekking backpack and designed my lifestyle to suit my wandering.
In 2017, I moved to Costa Rica to pursue a master’s degree in Peace, Media, and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace. Out of necessity and passion, I had developed a location-independent career as a writer, editor, and marketing consultant. Now I decided to dive into the theory behind my work. How does media work contribute to peace? How are media creators also peace-makers? What does it mean for stories to be medicine? In a sense, this book is an exploration of those exact questions.
I am still in Costa Rica now as I write this, in late 2019. After finishing my master’s program, I decided to focus on designing transformational experiences and retreats, bringing a different lens to travel, transformation, and empowerment. Staying in one place for a while has allowed me to redirect my energy toward initiatives aligned with the vagabondess spirit, such as writing this book and supporting other women to live and travel with confidence. But we’ll talk about staying later; there’s a lot to be said first about leaving.
In 2018, I completed my Level 1 training as an Empowerment Self-Defense instructor. I now regularly teach workshops and retreats that integrate self-defense training with yoga, wellness, and connection to nature. Now I provide women with practical tools for keeping safe, however they choose to move through the world — rather than simply advocating for taking risks and facing fear. For me, these two principles work in tandem: illogical fearlessness and self-defense-informed confidence.
I have a closet full of metaphorical hats, including facilitator, editor, consultant, dreamer, artist, dancer, organizer, and entrepreneur. However, my “writer hat” has been there the longest of all, ever since I filled my kindergarten journal with fantastical stories and misspelled animals. Two years ago, while flying into Guatemala City from San Jose, the idea for this book popped into my head, a gift from the sunset-hued clouds surrounding my plane. It has been following me ever since.
Now, finally, after carrying “Vagabondess” in my head for so long, I feel it is long past time to set it down on paper.
Welcome to the journey.
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
I found my way to this lifestyle through trial and error. I didn’t have mentors or guides, only an unwavering certainty that there was another way to exist in the world, and that I was going to find it. This book is for the travellers (current and future), the feminists, the adventurers, the seekers, and the curious. It is the guide I never had, and the advice I probably wouldn’t have heeded anyway. In these pages, I offer the insights I gleaned from moving through the world as a vagabondess. It is my intention to provide you, dear readers, with the encouragement we all crave to pursue our dreams, as well as some practical suggestions for getting there.
This is the book I didn’t have when I began traveling solo over ten years ago. If it had existed, however, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I was seventeen years old, moving to Paris for a gap year before college, and I didn’t like being told what to do. I still don’t.
I consider stubbornness to be one of my most endearing personality traits, although I doubt many people in my life will agree with me. Nonetheless, my insistence on finding my own way has brought me enough blessings that I’m not inclined to let it go. This tenacity, of course, has also gotten me lost in a few dozen cities. It has led to financial insecurity many times throughout the years. It has landed me in a sweaty mess in hostels and Airbnbs the world over, obstinately walking seven kilometers rather than taking a taxi from the bus or train station. All the same, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
February 2013, India
I am reminded of my arrival to Kolkata at one o’clock in the morning, after a forty-eight-hour train ride from Goa. I had booked no hostel, arranged no transport, asked for no advice from friends with experience traveling in the region. I had read one article about backpacking in India and jotted down the name of a street known for its cheap guest houses. I hopped in a cab, gave the driver the name, and hopped off onto a deserted street.
It had not occurred to me that every single hostel in this city might lock its doors at midnight. I spent a while banging on gates and hollering into empty courtyards with increasing desperation. Finally, a group of South Korean missionaries who were still awake took pity on me and opened the door to their hostel, and a girl my age offered to share her room with this strange vagabondess who had appeared out of the night-time shadows. The next morning, I met two other women who had arrived on the same train but spent the night wandering the streets of Kolkata. They had not been as lucky.
I can’t say I learned my lesson. Although nowadays I do try to book ahead if arriving at a new place after midnight. I did reaffirm my faith that humans will (most of the time) help other humans when given the chance — or with sufficient wheedling.
I may be independent to a fault, but I could not have achieved my dreams of being a vagabondess any other way.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I don’t like guidebooks. I don’t like self-help-style “you must do this to be happy” rhetoric. I really don’t like dogmatic, authoritative injunctions of any kind telling me how to live my life. And if my intuition about you, dear reader, is at all accurate, neither do you. So, don’t take anything written here as an imperative. I will be the last person to tell you what you “should” or “must” do. You’ll figure out your own path; I have no doubt about it. Consider this an interpretive roadmap. My roadmap, drawn with the advantage of hindsight and the lessons from over ten years of experience in being a solo female traveler. I hope it may be of benefit to you.
A Note on Reading this Book
To that end, do not feel obliged to read this book in any particular order. You may read it front to back, or back to front. You may skip the poetry and fiction in between chapters for now, and save those for later. You may ignore them entirely. You may jump around to the chapters or sections that call out to you first. A map doesn’t have a beginning or end, not really. And so, neither does Vagabondess.
I have given a structure to this book that makes sense to me; that doesn’t mean it is the best or only structure. Every mind is exceptional, and I don’t pretend to know yours. I encourage you to begin choosing your own adventure right now, dear vagabondess. Read this book however you see fit. I’ll try my very best not to tell you what to do as you continue on your journey. Remember: this is not a guidebook, it is a map. Wander at your whimsy.