What is it that draws you to the life of a vagabond? What draws you to a place? Are you surely sure you know what a vagabond is? Because I consider few to be a proper vagabond. It’s not trendy to be a vagabond. You won’t get likes on instagram for photos of your single, giant dread lock and there’s no filter to hide the grime on your toes or fingers when you pose with the local cafe’s warm drink.
vag·a·bondˈvaɡəˌbänd/nouna person who wanders from place to place without a home or jobadjectivehaving no settled home.verbwander about as or like a vagabond
There we go. That’s settled. I’ll even go as far as removing the “or job” part from the noun, because I’m a big fan of having money to burn while vagabonding. Notice that “acquiring photos for social media” is not a part of the definition. The wayward are there for the experience, not for the fucking phone photo. The parasitic jaeger, Stercorarius parasiticus, is a fantastic example. No, he’s not a broke frat boy pounding jaeger bombs, he’s a migrant bird known for appearing in many surprising and unpredictable locations despite having a defined range. In other words, he shows up to party and finds himself in far off locations on a whim through opportunities. S. parasiticus is a vagabond.
Unlike the jaeger, we have this horrible habit of turning travel into work. The hardest part of travel should be finding the deal on the transportation, and that should really be all there is (maybe dealing with parasites, police, and customs too, but those are inherent rather than created). I’ve seen more bitter arguments over vacations and travel than I’ve seen over the mundane grind of daily work… where’s the logic in that? Worse still, is the ego that follows the average “wanderer.”
I read a fantastic rant not too long ago about why most bucket lists are terrible. Sadly, I’ve long lost the link, but the point the author tried to make was not that bucket lists as a whole are terrible, but that most are poorly crafted. We have this flawed idea of romanticizing ideas and locations, a mistake I have made many times myself. When we impose this affair on the journey, we’ve suddenly given it a quota to fill; and something that is priceless does not correspond with numbers. More simply put, I laughed quite fully at the example presented by the lost article, that you might find your heart hurting when you travel to Egypt in hopes of exploring ancient history…
… but instead find mass produced pizza.
In short: reality sucks for people that aren’t in touch with it.
I am often asked how I do what I do, where I find what I find, etc. It goes on. I don’t have many answers as it’s something I’ve never really thought of; I guess I just have the natural tact of being a homeless, stinky, dirty-footed river hippy (more politely, a vagabond). Is that even a skill I can brag about? I’m really good at being homeless. So I’m attempting to answer those questions.
Working in tourism in a destination location for as long as I have, when guests bring up anything from the myriad of reality shows churned and vomited forth by the media (Bush People, Buying Alaska, that show about the Kilchers, there’s so many) I interrupt up them, “No. Throw out whatever conceptions you have. And welcome to my office.” If they still protest, the conversation quickly turns to the Kilchers, the “wild” family that lives in the bush (when in reality, they live 20 minutes from a major grocery store) and the blunt truth (and no hard feelings to the Kilchers, kudos to them for making bank on a lucky scenario… but a big middle finger to TV for creating an absolutely horrible frequently asked question). Not that there’s anything wrong with visiting tourist hot spots, but don’t expect anything you’ve thought… London is dirty and vulgar. Bears in Yellowstone and Alaska aren’t tame and trained. Playa del Carmen is a filthy ghetto. For Christ’s sake, be aware of reality. So, lesson #1 to travel as a vagabond:
1. Stop romanticizing.
I mean, be prepared for cold in the arctic and rain in Edinburgh and that stuff; go to San Fran for the Bridge, and Tahoe for the Lake, but don’t buy into preconceived adventures. “Packaged” and “adventure” go together like fruit and vegemite (off topic, your friends don’t always have your best interest at heart when they tell you something is fancy Australian chocolate).
Wander forth and learn as you go. The best adventures I’ve ever had involved roaming the ghetto of an otherwise pristine holiday destination and being kidnapped by gypsies. Last I checked, no travel agencies sell pre-packaged kidnappings. But certainly, it is an art to find the rare and the raw. And with all arts, not everyone is intrinsically gifted.
As a good friend once ranted, ask a local, “what do the locals do” and she’ll bitterly respond: “find a job… and buy two weeks’ worth of groceries.” Turns out the locals are no different than anyone else, and cornering them into some stereotype of your vacation is no way to learn the gems of a place. Despite that I worked in a pristine location and played with whales for a living, my spare time consisted of drinking and bird watching; yes, the wild woman with the mad spark spends her days off counting pine siskin with a whiskey ginger. A better question would be: “I like this, where can I do this” or, “what is in the area” (which will hopefully evolve into more precise conversation as each person will think of their favorite places nearby). Locals aren’t zoo animals and their lives aren’t on display. Lesson #2:
2. Ask intelligent questions.
I wanted nothing more than to find the fabled big cats of Cairngorms while in the area, but I did not approach the subject so bluntly. In fact, while I never found the legendary panthers, I learned of them through random discussion about the forest. Travel with an idea of what you want and strike a conversation. And, realistically, don’t be that asshole that’s trying to do things for free by inviting yourself or bluntly asking. If locals like you, they’ll invite you fishing or boating or into their home, but don’t be cheap and assume.
But if you are on a budget, do not despair. While bear flights and advanced falconry classes are worth every penny, adventure is not exclusive to the rich. Frankly, in most cases a pricey ticket often yields a crafted lie. To be honest, your vacation is my paycheck. The tourism industry has tuned the craft of filling the consumers’ needs (yes, you, you on vacation, is a consumer, perhaps the greatest example). And all this goes back to the idea that bucket lists suck because they are made without tact. But if you’d rather save the money, look for something on your own, or find something authentic, often, the greatest rewards are found where people overlook. And as biased as it may be for me to preach – it is the motto that I live by each day – lesson #3:
3. Find beauty in simplicity.
As we summited Ben Nevis I coughed and gasped for breath in the snowy air, still weak from devastating illness only weeks earlier. I smiled ear to ear the entire ascent. Maegan paused and looked at me bewildered, “I mean this in the best way possible, but I’ve never seen anyone so happy to be so miserable.” The truth was that I had hardly noticed how sick I was while climbing because I was so excited at the way the rocks were laid out upon the trail and I was so happy to be healthy again (or at least approaching healthy). There is no greater advice I can give about traveling than to enjoy the simple things. Seriously: learn that skill.
Dirty city streets of common commutes are often full sparrow-laden shrubs bursting with jovial songs that it’s near impossible not to join. The more secluded hostel might be harder to reach, but it quite commonly hosts the most amazing people whom are apt to change your life. And learning an appreciation for craftsmanship turns any dull sidewalk to an intricate maze of new sites and ideas. I’m not saying that you need to “commune with the trees” or any other bizarre hippy bullshit (though trees are mighty creatures), just stop feeling the want to need everything. The point is, there’s often fantastic things just below you’re feet. One must simply look. And these are the overlooked truths of a location: the things that grind on even when your wallet is closed. You can buy a packaged “adventure” and fight the masses for your glimmering chance. Or you can search the unexpected. But if you buy prepackaged, just remember #4:
4. You’re not special.
Just because you traveled somewhere doesn’t mean you’re special. Unless you’re a Syrian refugee that traveled through war with a kitten strapped to your chest or kayaked on a whim from Bellingham to Ketchikan, there’s very little you can do to impress me as a traveler. Not to sound like a dick though, I do appreciate the wandering spirit, but I’m also not going to treat you any differently than I would someone who is relatively local.
Chances are, if you’re got that aura of superiority to you, I’m going to assume that you’ve bought your way here through your parents’ plastic and then my primary concern will be keeping you smiling so you can share that plastic with me at the end of my shift in the form of a generous tip (after all, you ARE in my office). We just find it annoying when we deal with hordes of people who think everyone must bow to them simply because they’re on holiday, and if you act like that, we treat you like nothing more than a paycheck. I’ve got the upper hand on the average traveler in that I work on the opposite end and I can put myself in the locals’ shoes very easily. I respond to eager and earnest eyes, not entitled. The former gets invited to my secret locations of the sweetest blue mussels, the chance to sing with my favorite male loon, the psychedelic sight of rare bluing boletes, and to my church at the spawning grounds. The latter gets the It’s a Small World tour of my office. A little humility goes a long way.
Despite your best intentions though, it’s still a rat race at the end of days. You get what you give, and a little common sense serves and protects the warm hearted well in that race. Thus, the final lessons I live by in my wanderings as a vagabond, and perhaps the most valuable behind the third:
5. Be cautious.
6. Be eager.
7. Be kind.