Life Nomadic: How Much Does it Cost to Be a Nomad?

One of the big barriers between most people and becoming a nomad is money. It sounds expensive. Most questions I get about it have to do with affording the trips.

Here’s the big secret: being a nomad is not expensive. In fact, without knowing how much money you spend monthly, I can confidently say that you can probably comfortably become a nomad and spend less.

I don’t have exact numbers, but I’d say that Todd and I each average spending under $3000 per month. That includes everything including lodging, airfare, food, entertainment, and small gear purchases along the way.

There’s a big difference between “cheaply” and traveling “cheaply and well”. I have little interest in eating ramen in a hostel or taking buses across the country.

That’s backpacking. Nothing wrong with that, but being a nomad is different.

The key is not treat it like a vacation. Many people spend money outrageously “because I’m on vacation”. Life Nomadic is a lifestyle that’s intended to be sustainable.

One big advantage the nomad has is that he has no expenses back home. The tourist is paying nightly for a hotel, but he’s also paying rent, electricity, and cable back home.

That’s like trying to pay for two lives at once.
A basic hotel in Tokyo will cost at least $150 per night. That’s not a great hotel, and it’s definitely not in a great location. $1050 for 7 days.

Renting a large room with a fridge, two beds, and a couch cost Todd and I $1000 for a month in the most desirable neighborhood of Tokyo. That’s cheaper than it would have cost us for a mediocre hotel for a week.

It’s almost always cheaper to rent an apartment for a month than to get a hotel, but you can also just choose cheap destinations. Thailand is full of great hotels for $20/night, either in downtown Bangkok or on the beach on an island. In Panama City you can get a solid (but not exceptional) hotel for around $30 a night.

If you really have a limited budget, go to any of the countless cheap-but-awesome destinations. You’d be shocked at how cheap great places in Southeast Asia are.

The savings you create by living in such cheap locales can easily pay for the plane tickets you need to get there.

If you really have NO money, go to Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. You can hand out flyers for the big reggae club for four hours a night and make enough cash to pay for all of your food and hotel forever. And that little island is paradise, believe me.

Every country you visit will have a whole tourism industry centered around creating an America-like experience for you at a premium price.

Avoid that. Live like the locals.

Take the train, walk, or buy a bike like the locals. Don’t take overpriced cabs. Buy food from the grocery store and cook for yourself in your rented apartment. Ask around and see which beach the locals go to. It’s usually much better than the one that tourists are whisked off to.

Spend time in nature. It’s usually free or cheap and some environments you’ll see are unlike anything back home. Even something as simple as the deserts of the Middle East are breathtaking to a foreigner.

If you’re going to be somewhere for a month, don’t feel like every day needs to be filled with sightseeing and adventure. Spend four days a week practicing your language, working, and walking around town like you would back home. Then on the weekends go white water rafting through the rain forest instead of seeing the latest disappointing movie.

Above all, don’t let money stop you from living the dream. Being a nomad can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be, and the sheer adventure of doing something almost guarantees that the money you spend on a monthly basis will be well worth it.

Life Nomadic: The Wonders of Boquete, Panama

We woke up the next morning, eager to see what Boquete looked like. We spent all day driving there from Panama City the day before, but by the time we got there it was too dark to see anything.

“Wow. It’s paradise here.”

It was. Whenever I imagine paradise, I think of a white sand beach with perfect blue water. But then when I get to such a beach, I get sick of it within hours and want to leave.

This was different. Boquete is in the Panama highlands and is bordered on two sides by mountains. The result is year round perfect temperatures (if not perfect weather), and the feeling of being nestled in some secret valley.

My first thought was of Galt Gulch from Atlas Shrugged. It was exactly how I had imagined Ayn Rand’s utopia.

If you go to Boquete, and you really should, I recommend staying at Hostel Nomba. I’m normally not much of a fan of hostels, but Nomba was really clean, everyone there was friendly, the location was perfect, and the owner, Ryan, was unbelievably helpful.

A lot of people had cars around town, but we also noticed that some people had horses instead. I’m not talking about horses for recreation, I’m talking about daily driver horses for transportation. They tied them up outside of cafes, just like a cowboy might.

Neither Todd nor I had ridden horses in ages, but we decided that we absolutely had to find some horses to ride.

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We asked Ryan if he knew where to rent horses. Sure enough, he did. He gave us directions to his rancher friend in the mountains and told us to tell him that we were his friends.

The paved road became a dirt road, which led to a rickety wooden bridge that looked as if it may not be intended for cars. The idea of a rental car plummeting into the river below was too hilarious to pass up, so we went across it.

No plummeting happened, but immediately after the bridge was an impassable (yes, we tried) incline covered in huge rocks. We parked the car and started loading our backpacks with snacks and water to continue on foot.

“Hola! Me llamo Didimo!”

I looked up to see a short Panamanian rancher’s face smiling at us. It was Didimo, Ryan’s friend. I introduced myself and explained that we wanted to rent some horses.

No problem, he said. He had to leave for an hour, but there were hot springs on his property that we could soak in while we waited. Hard to complain about that.

After a short soak and a swim in the freezing cold river nearby, Didimo galloped up on his horse. He took us to some horses nearby and explained how he loved his animals and always treated them and fed them well.

We mounted our stallions and he lead us towards the woods. I had no idea if we were going to be walking around in circles in a pasture, or if we’d actually get to have fun.

Any reservations I had were put to rest when I saw the trail we were about to climb. It was narrow, rocky, and so steep that I’d be hesitant to climb it myself. To be totally honest, I had no idea that horses could even climb rocks like that.

For two hours we climbed through mountain trails, galloped through open fields, and walked along the banks of the river. Occasionally we’d stop in a pasture to play with other animals. Of particular interest was jumping on and riding a water buffalo bareback.

Didimo was the perfect guide. You could tell that he was delighted to show us around and was really proud of his animals and his land. We hadn’t worked out a price ahead of time, but after the ride I was willing to pay just about anything. He charged us almost nothing.

To go ride horses, soak in the natural springs, or just hang out with Didimo, talk to Ryan at Hostel Nomba. Didimo doesn’t have good cell phone coverage out there. I also imagine you could just show up and he’d be happy to have you.

I could talk about Boquete all day long, but I’ll leave you with one more great off the beaten path thing to do in Boquete.

The next day we were eating lunch at the Hostel, not sure what to do with the day. Ryan offhandedly suggested going to Paradise Gardens, a wildlife rescue shelter.

Great recommendation. The awesome thing about places like Panama is that they don’t have the same problems with people suing over everything, so there are often times less regulations. This was the case with Paradise Gardens.

We made friends with one of the volunteers, and he took us around personally and let us inside a lot of the cages. We played with a giant parrot, a lemur, a two toed sloth, and even a jaguarundi. At the end, after the center had closed, we stuck around and helped take care of baby owls by feeding them and warming them with our breath.

The grounds themselves are designed by an expat stone mason and his wife. They’re covered in beautiful flowers, stone walkways, fountains, and cages full of wild birds being rehabilitated.

The whole experience was magical, and well worth the $5 donation they ask for.

If you go to Panama, you must go to Boquete. It’s my new definition of paradise, and feels like a whole new country hidden within Panama.

Life Nomadic: How Airport Metal Detectors Work


I’m a bit fanatical about shaving. Most of my possessions are pared down to the bare minimum, but my shaving stuff is the one big exception. I use a Merkur travel safety razor with Merkur platinum coated blades, a Dovo silver tip shaving brush, and Truefitt and Hill shaving cream.

Excessive, I know.

The blades that the razor uses are standard “safety razor” blades. They’re thin pieces of metal with a blade on each side. That sounds like something that the TSA would possibly prohibit, but in fact they don’t. They mention them specifically in their rules.

They prohibit “Razor-Type Blades – such as box cutters, utility knives, razor blades not in a cartridge, but excluding safety razors.”

Clearly, safety razors are permitted. This is consistent with my experience, too. I’m almost invariably selected for further screening. TSA agents see my razor blades and move on.

And somehow I’ve managed to resist any temptation to hijack a plane with them so far.

In New York a few weeks ago, things were different. The TSA agent didn’t like my razor blades. I insisted that the TSA rules permitted the blades. Things got escalated to the supervisor, an icy woman named Gohel.

“I specifically checked the TSA site and saw that these are allowed. Can we please look over the rules together?”

Gohel told me in clear language that the blades would not be allowed on the plane, and that, no, I could not look at the TSA rules with her. No amount of friendly yet firm pleading would change her mind.

The blades were taken.

I anticipated that this might happen, so I came up with a way to pass small metal objects through the metal detector. I doubt any serious weapon could possibly make it through, but it’s great insurance for those worried that poorly trained TSA agents will confiscate items you’re legally permitted to carry on.
Metal detectors work on a simple principle. One of the walls of the arch you walk through sends pulses of radio waves to the other wall which bounces them back. Their return is timed, and if they come back too soon then they’ve hit metal.

However, they don’t pick up every bit of metal. If they did, then people with metal fillings, metal rivets on their jeans, and metal rings would be unnecessarily detained. The sensitivity is always turned down a little bit.

Because the radio pulses are coming from side to side, if a metal item is aimed so that its thinnest profile is facing the walls of the arches, it is less likely to be detected. I keep a spare blade in my wallet, and it has never set off a metal detector.

There’s no way to know exactly how much metal can pass through a metal detector undetected. I’m sure that the higher ups at the TSA have metal detectors calibrated to catch anything big enough to pose a serious threat.

I have successfully passed safety razor blades as well as small pairs of scissors with no problem. The TSA rules clearly allow scissors under 4″, but agents sometimes have problems with those as well.

Trying to get anything seriously dangerous past the metal detectors would be a very bad idea. I’ve been randomly patted down before, and I wouldn’t want to be caught with something that isn’t clearly allowed by the TSA.

But if you’re sick of being subject to poorly trained TSA agents’ whims and opinions, consider keeping your razors and scissors away from them and their metal detectors.

Life Nomadic: The Pan Panama Road Trip Begins!

The best adventures are the unexpected ones.

We sat at La Novena, an amazing Vegetarian restaurant on Via Argentina in Panama City. We order the same thing every time. Soup of the day, avocado salad for me, almond and pear salad for Todd, and whole wheat pasta with eggplant and tomato. We ordered it so much last year that when we returned the chef already knew exactly what we wanted.

After a predictably amazing dinner we stood in front of the kitchen chatting with the chef, Arturo. He used to be an engineer, and it shows in his meticulous preparation of the food.

Next to him was one of his employees, chipping away at the shells of dark brown beans, putting the cleaned bean in a small tupperware container.

“Que hace ella?”

And that’s when our education on the making of chocalate began. From a town near the Costa Rican border, called Al Mirante, came the raw cacao beans. Then they fermented them, roasted them, chipped away the shells, and ground them into cocoa powder.

Amazing. Todd and I are huge fans of dark chocolate. Anything above 85%. Can we try one of the beans?

The beans were delicious. We’d had both tried packaged cocoa nibs back in the states, but this was something different. They were barely bitter, just an overpowering chocolate explosion with a subtle fruity flavor.

We were hooked. Arturo put some of the beans in a cup for us to take home and Todd and I resolved to make the twelve hour drive to Al Mirante try to visit a chocolate plantation.

After dinner we headed to an internet cafe. A quick search revealed that Thrifty would rent us a car for only $8.10 a day.

“At that price, let’s just get the thing for two weeks and go everywhere.”

“Yup.”


We instant message our friend Vince, who is also in Panama, to see if he wants to come.

“Where are you planning on going?”

We never plan. We just go and let the adventure unfold ahead of us. The rental car wasn’t available the following morning, which had already put an annoying delay in our adventure.

From meeting fellow travelers during our time in Panama we know of a bunch of places that are worth visiting. David, Boquete (our first stop), Bocas Del Toro, El Valle De Anton, and of course a stop in Las Tablas for Carnaval again.

And so now I write this from the car as Todd drives like a madman through the Panamanian frontier. I occasionally glance up to find us in the oncoming traffic lane as he passes a car. Besides going relatively lightly on the horn, he’s adopted the Panamanian way of driving.

Thus begins the great “Pan Panama Road Trip” of 2009. Stay tuned as we go everywhere in Panama and let you know what can and can’t be missed. If you’ve been to Panama and want to suggest somewhere not on our list, let us know and we’ll probably go check it out.

Life Nomadic: Traveling without Planning

Ahh, and we’re back. After a semi-hiatus of a few months, Todd and I are back to the full nomad lifestyle. I say semi-hiatus because within those four months we both spent a good amount of our time traveling around the US, Mexico, and Canada. And even when I was in Austin, where my family and most friends are, I lived in a 21′ RV on the side of the road.

Once a nomad, always a nomad?

Our trip this year is going to be very different from last year, but our first stop is the same as last year’s first stop: Panama.

I’m not sure why exactly we chose Panama last year, but this year we chose it because we’d fallen in love with the country. The people are universally friendly and warm, as is the weather, the food is dirt cheap and amazing, and there’s no shortage of adventure to be found.

Not to mention that Todd and I are both nearing fluency in Spanish and Panamanian Spanish is actually known for being very clear.

One hallmark of our trips is that we usually don’t plan much. We often go to a city with no place to stay and no plans, assuming we’ll figure it out once we get there. That’s probably where our mantra, “everything always works out” comes in.
When our flight landed in Panama, it was two in the morning. We have a few friends in Panama from last year, but imposing on them to sleep on their couches at 3am seemed a bit cruel. Getting a hotel was an option, too, but it doesn’t make much sense to pay for a hotel you’re going to be in for just eight hours, even at Panama’s bargain rates.

And so we chose the third, less obvious option. In our backpacks we cram in luxury-lite cots, giving us the ability to sleep in perfect comfort just about anywhere.

(side note: if you have the foresight, check www.sleepinginairports.net before deciding to sleep in an airport. They have a good database, though most of the complaints people register are negated with a luxury-lite.)

We headed upstairs to the waiting lounge, where a dozen or so fellow travelers were awkwardly sleeping on the hard tile floor or slumped over in chairs. I hate to admit it, but I felt pretty smug knowing we were about to rest in perfect comfort in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

And we did. A security guard gently woke us up at 7am, we packed up our cots, and headed in to one of our favorite cities in the world with no plans or accommodations to speak of.