I am not a vastly experienced traveller. So far I’ve spent less than two years on the road. But I have done it a little differently to most others. For one thing I’ve been alone, and I’ve also not moved around continuously as so many do. Instead I’ve spent months at a time in each place, with the aim to cultivate and pursue genuine purpose, and to integrate myself as much as possible into the local communities and culture. And through trial-and-error and the kindness of strangers, I’ve begun to notice patterns in the process.
This article is a two-parter. It started off as a single article but (as my writing is wanton to) quickly got too long… This first section briefly covers some thoughts, pointers and personal anecdotes on finding home in the unknown, and the second offers some practical advice on integrating into foreign, and particularly indigenous, cultures. By all means jump ahead if that’s all you’re interested in!
It’s been a pretty full-on couple of years—home has become a very different concept for me
HOME IS WHERE THE PRESENT IS
I remember the moment, sitting in Sidney airport when I realised that my childhood home in England—the house I’d grown up in—was no longer my home. Of course it would always be a sanctuary and place I could return to when I craved its comfortable familiarity, but, as clichéd and pretentious as it sounds, it was no longer my home.
Rather, I realised, I had no single home—home was wherever I engaged myself, the various cultures and places I commited to. It was wherever I had purpose and a community—the Fijian villagers, the freediving community in Bali, or my adopted family in the Malaysian rainforest. This nomadic realisation made me happy in a way I couldn’t have anticipated—the freedom and opportunity of it all. I made my own home, and was not tied to any particular place or time.
In my experience it all comes down to being present. Home for me is wherever I can live alive and in the moment. It is about flow and living fully. For me, finding home comes down to the following:
Perhaps most important of all, to live fully engaged and feel that your time in a place is worthwhile, you need a purpose. Simply ‘seeing and experiencing a place’ doesn’t work for long. Or at least not for me.
It really could be anything—learning a skill or a language; creating a photography portfolio; or even just integrating into the local culture. But the more definable and specific it is, the more focussed and engaged you can become with the place and culture.
For me, as a fairly ‘needing-to-be-doing-something’ person, having a purpose can really define a place and experience for me. To give some example, my time spent running an ultramarathon in Fiji, training freediving in Bali, and the weeks I lived learning the skills of the Batek tribe are some of the best days I’ve ever lived—I’ve already revisited to the latter two multiple times to take the further. On the other hand, a couple of months spent recovering from illness in the Philippines, while enjoyable in its own right, felt purposeless and I’m unlikely to return any time soon.
Humans are social animals, and the difference in positivity and worth that we feel when lonely versus surrounded by people is quite incredible. Despite being very happy in my own company and generally quite an introverted individual, I’ve come to realise just how much enjoyment of a place can be dependent on having a community around you, especially when those individuals are of similar ilk and drive.
In my own travels, I can’t think of a better example than when I was living in Amed, Bali, training freediving alongside a community of driven students and instructors. Every day we trained, worked, ate and rested together, and the atmosphere of sheer focus and motivation was unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere.
If you can find a place with both a purpose that fully engages you and a community that inspires and drives you forward, you can’t but help feel like you belong. And it only gets stronger the longer those circumstances persist.
The holiday life is all very well, but after a time even paradise begins to wear thin
A couple of other random thoughts:
I personally find that, although I enjoy shaking things up and trying to make myself uncomfortable, development of a routine is a major factor in making myself feel as if I belong somewhere—it’s only natural. Using Bali as an example again, I became accustomed to the repetition and it drove me to engage with each day: yoga and freedive stretching on my own at 5am, breakfast, freedive training at 8, and then shop work, swimming, running or strength work, before winding down in the afternoon. It’s often the little things that make the difference, and in my experience, even in circumstances that are less than ideal, the familiarity can help to establish place and stability.
I’ve journaled pretty continuously for many years now, not always every day, but it’s something I return to at least every now and again. It has been invaluable for organising thoughts, recording training, and sparking realisations and understandings.
But it also acts as a mainstay. To embrace the abstract, it acts as a concrete representation of my thoughts and engagement with the world around me. That engagement is in many ways my definition of ‘home’, and so, in a roundabout way, in continuously returning to my journal and reinforcing that engagement, I take ‘home’ with me and establish its roots wherever I am.
This may sound extremely wishy-washy and illusory, but it has been pretty effective in finding worth through some of the more lonely and directionless times. Plus journaling is so useful in so many other ways anyway.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Obviously, not all places are as conducive to a worthwhile purpose and stimulating community as others. In fact it’s often the places far from the tourist trail and online searches that are the most receptive and worthy to committing time.
You have to consider what makes sense for you. If you’re going to commit to somewhere for a long period of time, whilst you’ll never really know what opportunities might be waiting for you in advance, you can at least make sure you put yourself in the right place. Consider your purpose.
When I arrived in the small village of Merapoh in Malaysia, I had no idea whether I would be able to live with the Batek village or the potential to learn jungle skills as I hoped, but at least I knew there was a Batek community nearby, and that I was surrounded by some of the largest patches of rainforest in Malaysia.
It’s also worth considering your own personal needs, and this is closely related to the benefits of finding a routine. For me it’s things like the ability to either run, climb or swim regularly; to rise early and be outside; and the ability to be alone, preferably in the natural world, whenever I want it. Whilst it’s always good to stretch your comfort zone, and most aspects of comfort and personal mollycoddling can almost definitely be disregarded in the name of adventure and personal growth, you know what you need on a fundamental level, and it’s worth considering.
Home is where your thoughts are
FINDING ADVENTURE | A NOTE ON TIME AND EFFORT
Every place I’ve gone and really committed to I’ve found a genuine focus, a community, and a home. But it hasn’t always been immediate or easy, and there’ve been periods of time where I’ve been downright miserable. But assuming you know yourself well enough, I think that the ability to find home and all that represents largely rests on commitment—the commitment of time and effort.
I don’t think that each place or situation has a set potential for where it might lead. Rather if you stick about long enough and dig deep enough, something worthwhile will eventually reveal itself. The hard part is that you never know when this might happen, and the consequent gamble of how long it’s worth hunting for.
GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT
There’ve been many times where I have been disillusioned enough to be at the point of leaving a place, only to find a week or a month down the line the development or opportunity that becomes the start of some major project or adventure.
There is something to be said for sticking a place out despite its seeming to be worth very little, or even miserable at times.
For one thing, if you stay anywhere long enough for routine to develop, it becomes home enough that there is a nostalgia on leaving—even if in the moment itself it didn’t seem ideal. But more importantly, you never know when the best opportunities will appear, and most don’t present themselves until later—weeks or months in, when you’ve really delved deep into a place or community.
I spent two and a half months in Malaysia doing an internship that felt like it was going nowhere for me. And many times I came close to leaving, but for some tiny thread of hope that it might lead somewhere, or perhaps just a stubborn denial that I’d wasted a couple of months. But in that last couple of weeks everything changed. The community that surrounded the internship itself seemed to become a family (albeit dysfunctional), as if some threshold time span of living together had been passed. And then, on a final whim before I left for good, I lived a week with the Batek tribe. This soon became a month, and one of the defining and ongoing aspects of my life. To add an even greater layer of improbability to that, it was through the tribespeople themselves that I established contact with an anthropologist in France, sowing the beginnings of a major upcoming project. But that’s a story for another time…
THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE DON’T COME EASY
All that said, it’s no good simply staying put and waiting for worthwhile things to come to you. You’ve got to actively search for opportunity, and put yourself out there, regardless of how uncomfortable that may be. Take the initiative and go get it.
I was at a dead end in Fiji, miserable and lonely despite the paradisiacal tropical setting (a couple of cyclones that cut me off from most everyone else didn’t help much…). But I like to think I took the initiative, that resulted in an enormously worthwhile adventure. As soon as the flood waters receded I set off into the interior with a backpack and paper bag of kava (the required guest offering for traditional villages in Fiji) and went looking for an indigenous community. After a beautiful couple of days in Fijian jungle hills, I found the village of Cirisobu—a people and lifestyle who taught me many invaluable lessons.
It’s also worth noting that in many places the research and opportunity-finding just can’t be done online. In the places away from the trodden trail you’ll need to be there to make the connections, to figure out what’s going on and how it can work for you. Even when you can discover a fair amount remotely, the reality of a place is often very different in the flesh. Usually the biggest opportunities will only reveal themselves to you through dedicated digging in the place and community itself.
‘The best things in life don't come easy, but those things are the ones worth the sacrifice.’
— Adriana Locke —
So give places a chance, even when the situation really doesn’t seem up to much. Stay open, never stop looking and you’ll be truly amazed with what you might find. The best connections, opportunities and adventures have a funny habit of appearing in places you least expect them.
How’s that for an adventure when there’s nothing else worth doing
Find Part II here: Advice on integrating into an indigenous culture
Do get in touch if you have any comments or questions—it'd be great to hear from you.