In Love With a View: Vagabonds, Responsibilty and Living Well

Tim Patterson, editor of, recently published an article entitled How To Travel The World For Free (Seriously).

What’s far more fascinating than the functional tips though is the response from commenters many of whom tore into Patterson, calling him nearly every name across the spectrum from “rich, privileged, arrogant hipster” to “dirty hippie.” Make up your mind people.

Here’s a random sampling of some comments on Patterson’s post:

there are three possible answers for how he can do this and not have to worry about his obligations. 1). He’s a jobless loser that contributes nothing to society… 2). He’s a rich, privileged, arrogant hipster who, while preaching a lifestyle of no consumerism and organic foods, really travels around in a BMW, listening to his iPod, blogging on his Macbook Air, contributes nothing to society… 3). He’s a 14 year old idealist who’s parents were hippies, but now work for Haliburton.

The number of unexamined assumptions here is staggering — does having a job contribute to society? How? Is contributing to society a things you should do? Why? And so on — but it’s really the cynicism that depresses me. Why are we so quick to assume the worst in everyone? Oh right, the internet.

This one is probably my favorite:

Trusting people you don’t know while you sleep in their house is a good way to end up half-naked, raped, dead and in a ditch.

Mom? Is that you? Seriously though, this one is uniquely American. Only Americans live in fear of everyone. I’ve spent years trying to figure out where this belief comes from and I still don’t have an answer. My best guess is that the mediocrity of our lives is somehow more tolerable if we cling to the belief that everywhere and everyone else is much worse off.

Even good old fashioned western colonial pretentiousness finds its way into the comments, which Matador should really just turn off because there’s nay a voice of intelligence among its readership:

In fact, the further you get from the cities, the more viciously backwards with respect to medicine, hygiene and hospitality the people get… And, eventually, you reach places where the word ‘culture’ is completely inapplicable, and your life is seriously in danger.

My personal favorite though is the commenter who cites the words of a Pulp Fiction character as an example of how to live. Wonderful, murderous assassins are who you look up to? Oh right, ‘merica.

Why Vagabonds Have Always Made People Mad

So why all the vitriol about a seemingly innocuous concept — that traveling doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, isn’t all that difficult, and hey, you can even go right now?

The first negative reaction comes from the widely-held belief that travelers are a privileged lot — privileged because, unlike you and I, they can just drop their lives and leave. Americans love to make a great show of hating privilege1, which explains the first comment I highlighted. The great irony is that this reaction is in response to an article that has ten tips on traveling cheaply. It’s trying to show you that you don’t need money to travel, but that gets to the second reason people hate vagabonds.

Consider for a moment what Patterson is really saying: your life isn’t so important. Actually it’s so unimportant that you can just chuck it and travel.

Americans especially tend to have a lot of their personal identity and sense of self-worth tightly intertwined with their jobs, the status symbols they’ve acquired and so on, in other words, their life.

If it’s actually quite simple to toss all that aside and do something else then that’s not so subtly saying that all that stuff, our lives, have no value. Tell people that and they’re going to hate you, no matter what their culture.

Living Well

The debate that happens in the comments of his article cuts right to heart of some very personal ideas — just how important is your “life”?

What if the life you’re leading is so meaningless that it can be abandoned without a second thought? That doesn’t make anyone feel good and that’s why the attacks on Patterson are so personal and so vehement, because Patterson is, consciously or not, attacking people’s most cherished belief: that our lives mean something and are important. No one wants to think otherwise.

But I’ve done it — dropped everything and left — and, for me, as much as I am loath to admit it, it was true.

Everything I thought I needed to be doing turned out to be totally unnecessary and yes, meaningless. I spent the first month of my first stint of long term travel wrestling with that. I was caught between feeling like I was finally doing something that did matter and beating myself up about having been suckered into the previous life, now rendered meaningless.

I understand why some people reacted to Patterson’s piece the way they did.

American culture tries to convince us that if you do the right things, you life is very valuable. There are some long standing, deeply-ingrained beliefs that lead us to believe that relaxation, travel and not working are contemptible. Instead, we’re told, you need to work hard to “get ahead.”

The notion that the importance of your life is dependent on your ability to “make something of yourself” is pretty well ingrained in us.

I’m not immune to this notion. If you learn anything traveling, it’s that you can never escape your own cultural assumptions, not even when you realize them for that they are — culturally-bound assumptions. That’s why I spent most of a week in India feeling guilty. Guilty that I was enjoying my life rather than working for some future enjoyment. Guilty that I had apparently been wasting my life for some years prior to that moment. Guilty that I was able to finally escape that when so many people never do. Guilty for all sorts of contradictory things.

And scared. Scared that when I got back, jobless and penniless I would end up homeless and starving to death. Scared that I might not make it back at all (India’s bus system will do that to you).

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you about how I came to peace with it all. But the truth is that never exactly happened. Fear goes away, you learn the useful things it has to teach, you set aside the less useful parts. Or at least you learn to live with it. Or you don’t and you go home. That part is simple.

Finding meaning in your life to replace the meaning you lose when you step outside your culture and discover that “your” beliefs are not yours at all, just constructs you absorbed without thinking about is much harder because there is no transcendental culture. To replace the meaning you lose without your culture you can either stubbornly cling to your culture by belittling all the rest or you can enter the realms traditionally covered by religion, that is, the search for truth and meaning that transcend human culture.

I know, that’s not the answer you were looking for.

Making Something

The easiest thing to do is what the commenters above did — prop up your own culture by ridiculing other cultures. Like the man who says that the further you go “the more viciously backwards with respect to medicine, hygiene and hospitality the people get.”

In order to think that you need to believe that your society is superior to the rest because you have all the things you value and they have none of the things you value and never mind what they value, that’s irrelevant.

If you see everyone around you as a murderous bunch of backward rapists and psychopaths, you get to see yourself and your family and friends as shining examples of humanity.

To go back to that great Americanism, you’ve made something of yourself.

You’re better than the murderous bastards out there. Best of all you didn’t actually have to do anything. You’re most likely going to lead a miserable existence, but it is one way to answer the questions travel poses.

The View From Here

My last trip to Nicaragua got me wondering if I have turned back into someone who thinks their life is important. Have I forgotten that feeling of total freedom that comes from abandoning your “life,” that relief of realizing that all the things I agonize over in my “real” life, are actually quite meaningless?

See, unlike the commenters who don’t buy the vagabond argument, I suffer from a different American cliche.

For me, America ingrained its devil-may-care adventure motif far more than its make-something-of-yourself cliche. From Lewis and Clark to Huck Finn to Jack Kerouac, there’s a strong cultural legacy of lighting out for the territories at Twain put it.

Now I’m in an entirely different situation than I was when I left for my last trip. I’ll be married later this month, my wife and I would like to have a family. The common wisdom is that traveling with a family is somehow impossible, in America there’s a myth that once you’re married and have kids you have to settle down and that butts up against the myth I’ve been buying into all this time.

I still don’t know if it’s my idea or just me replicating that devil-may-care cultural meme, but I reject the idea of settling down and I’ve met enough traveling families to know I won’t be the first to reject it. It may be more difficult to travel with a family, I’ll have to get back to you on that, and fear not, I will get back to you because I will do it.

But the thing that strikes me is that, if I hadn’t already set out, rejected my own life and gone through everything that I went through, adding a family to the equation might well make the whole idea seeming completely unfathomable.

And that’s something I think many of these self-styled vagabond travel writers leave out of their “anyone can do it” travel pieces.

Anyone can do it, but it takes a hell of a lot more courage and effort for some than for others. I have no doubt that most writers are both aware of that and I understand that including the nuances just isn’t something online journalism generally allows for, but it’s a shame because it ends up alienating the people who could most benefit from some encouraging rather than banal “I did it you can too” articles. While I agree with the notion that any American can travel, I think the “just do it” incantations are every bit as hollow as a Nike ad — even when they’re true.

I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy to drop your life and take off to see the world. However, I will say that it isn’t as hard as you think. Your job isn’t as valuable as you think, there’s probably someone who’d love to rent your house and your kids will thank you when they’re older.

I’m also not going to say that I don’t buy the idea that you should strive to “make something of yourself,” but the important thing about the “making” is that you define what that means.

For some it might mean sticking to one job and providing for a family. For others it might mean dragging your family around the world on a grand adventure. Both answers are valid — just make sure that it’s you, not your culture, making the decision. And make sure that you realize both really are valid possibilities — the only limitation to your life is your own imagination.

For me, making something of yourself is a never-ending process and one of the key elements is exploring all the different ways people around the world answer that fundamental question — what does living well mean?

  1. That said, you’ll never find me denying that I am very, very lucky and have been handed an incredible amount of privilege in my life, especially relative to the rest of the world. But 90 percent of America is in the same boat. Troops do not storm our houses, bombs do not fall on our cities, Malaria, Dengue Fever, schistosoma and other killer diseases are unknown here. We are all privileged. For one American to call another privileged is a pot-kettle-black debate. 


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