Nomadism, Travel Advice

“How Many Countries Have You Been To?” & Other Questions I Avoid

Originally published on elephant journal.

Nowhere on my website will you find a tally of countries I’ve visited. Not on my Instagram either.

Several times, I’ve debated changing my policy about this. It appears to be de rigueur for writers and bloggers in my niche of adventure travel and digital nomadism. And, I am proud of the ground I’ve managed to cover in relatively few years.

However, I’m much prouder of how I’ve covered it.

Hitchhiking thousands of kilometers through Europe, learning (basic) Swahili in Zanzibar, building community in Costa Rica—these are the stories I want to tell about my years on the road, which numbers can never do justice.

Numbers may tell you how many kilometers I walked, how many years I lived out of a backpack, or—yes—how many stamps I have in my passport. But numbers won’t tell you what the Phnom Penh pavement felt like under my bare feet, how my shoulders ached after carrying my life with me across Spain, or the many amusing (stressful) ways I crossed all those borders.

I think you get my point. The number of countries I have visited is, like any other tally, just a number. It is not, in my opinion, very interesting information.

Furthermore, it is already an exceptional privilege to travel as I have done. I am deeply grateful to sustainably maintain the nomadic lifestyle I find so exhilarating. It seems unnecessary to proceed to flaunt that privilege in such a one-dimensional way.

I also dislike the rhetoric, only too common in the travel blogosphere, that “more countries = more happy.” There is no happiness equation. A fuller passport does not equate to a higher happiness index—though travel can certainly lead us down many paths to fulfillment. I am wary of contributing to this superficial conversation in any way.

countries, travel, vagabonding, nomadic

All that said, I would hate to raise objections without offering solutions. I wouldn’t waste your time with criticisms of displaying the “travel number” if I didn’t have some alternatives in mind.

When I tell new friends about my vagabondish lifestyle, more often than not their first question is, “So, how many countries have you been to?” I’ve come up with a lot of ways to avoid (or transform) that one. Here are my favorites:

1. “Let me tell you about my most recent trip to X.” Stays on topic, but narrows the conversation down to a specific, less superficial angle that I actually want to explore.

2. “A lot… I’ve been living nomadically for quite a few years.” Vague, but hopefully avoids anything that might come off as boasting.

3. “Honestly, I’d rather answer a different question.” The most direct answer, and usually goes over well when delivered with a genuine smile.

4. “I actually don’t think it’s that interesting. Let me tell you a story instead.” Also direct, and opens space for the exchange to move toward a subject of mutual interest.

5. Just tell them the number…once in a while, it’s easier to go with the flow and answer the damn question.

I like these answers because most of them are rather versatile. The same tactics can help us to gracefully evade personal questions we don’t want to answer, small talk we don’t want to engage in, and norms of conversation we don’t want to support.

I hope travelers with similar misgivings to my own may take away a helpful solution or two.

May your backpack be light and your feet happy—no matter how many borders they’ve crossed!

I also don’t really like “Where do you come from?” Stay tuned for some thoughts on that.

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If I Could Fly: Seeking Stillness in Movement

Vermont. Early August, 2017. Stillness.

It’s 1:04pm, and the August sun is hitting my laptop screen at just the right angle that I must squint to see what I write.

The bus rattles and sways on the two-lane Vermont highway. Pen and paper prove unusable.

I have music in my ears for a change, and it makes me think of caravan routes through the desert, the rolling gait of long-legged animals on sand, the scorching white heat of a cloudless sky at noon.

I look out the window to my left and witness another set of elements entirely—green mountains, gentle New England sky. Yet, the felt sense is the same. It is a tenuous impression I have tried and failed to describe so many times, I nearly believe it impossible.

It is the thing that calls me to move and whispers instructions to my intuition. It is the thing that taught me to dance, barefoot and alone. “Wanderlust” is an incomplete surrogate for the thing I mean.

I look outside again.

There is a story in the sky, like always; I could spend the whole ride watching the shapeshifting drama and chuckling to myself. Mountains undulate on the horizon, soft and green and melodic; I could spend the whole ride tapping out their rhythm against my thigh. Walls of trees enter and leave my sight, as varied yet indistinct as an ocean of faces in a crowded subway car. I could spend the whole ride absorbing their anonymous features.

I could spend the whole ride sitting here, doing nothing, too—and for someone who loves to do things that’s already remarkable.

Several weeks ago, I shared my favorite ways to pass a long train journey. Reading, writing, and snacking all featured on the list. So did “doing nothing.”


I wish I could remember the first time I experienced the peculiar, meditation-like (but not quite meditative) peace of being in motion, but I do remember the first time I wrote about it. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, frequently on endless bus rides through astonishing landscapes, I first tried to put words to an enigmatic sensation:

What are you looking for?
I am searching…
I am searching for—
I am searching because
it is only in movement
that I find stillness.
In running I am free;
In dancing I am liberated.
But if I could fly—
Ah if I could fly,
I would be truly

— “If I Could Fly,” 2013


I think it’s time to revisit this finding stillness in movement that has occupied my traveling thoughts for so long. I would like to try again to define the thing that calls me to move and calms me through action.

What is it about being in motion—in trains or on foot, by boat or in dance—that soothes my mind into a stillness I have never found in sitting meditation?

What is it about being in motion that, like an embodied lullaby, so entrances me—and, I suspect, many lovers of movement?

The answer is in the question.

Movement entrances. It occupies us—or at least it occupies me—so fully that there is absolutely no space for thoughts of elsewhere. Other times, other people, other places…these disappear in the all-pervading “this-ness” of moving. (Moving my body through space, or being moved through space, it hardly matters, so long as the coordinates change fast enough to pull my thoughts with them.)

Four years ago I started writing about the inner stillness that arises when all else is in flux. Years before that, I experienced the same outcome in yoga and ecstatic dance. Its hold on me hasn’t loosened. I think it’s safe to say that this magic stillness is my only addiction. A single taste has you seeking it again for the rest of your life.

A vagabond knows this. A dancer knows this. A meditator or a yogi knows this.

However you step outside the borders of your skin and embrace “this-ness,” you will never be satisfied to remain inside the lines again.

I hear two things more often than anything else:

“What are you looking for?”


“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

But it’s not a “what.” It’s a who and a why and a how. It’s a voice that calls me to move and a sense of boundlessness that keeps me coming back. It is a way of moving through life and through space.

It is not a thing I can find and then be done with.

It is the searching that gives meaning and form to the sought.

And so we keep chasing shadows through the desert and melodies through the mountains. We keep seeking stillness in movement.

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A Vagabond’s Manifesto

I believe in coincidence. Happenstance. Chance. It has been responsible for so many of my experiences—too real to ignore—creating connections where I expected none, and repeatedly linking past interactions to present ones. I recently picked up Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and he believes in coincidences too. He writes, “Only chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.” I believe that meaning pools in the cracks between our expectations.
Only this kind of meaning-full coincidence could explain how often the word “vagabond” crossed my path during my travels through Asia and Europe.
I saw it painted across the front of buses in Nepal. Printed on a license plate in Thailand. Written on a Guest House sign in Cambodia. On graffiti. On T-shirts. Everywhere. I took its recurrence as an endorsement of my wandering activities by the world of signs.
“Be Happy. Be Free. Vagabond,” became my motto for that year. I carved it into trees, painted it on walls, and tucked it into emails and postcards.
In most every religious tradition, words themselves are understood to have power. That is why we are encouraged to repeat mantras or prayers even when we don’t understand them. I had long been drawn to words like “gypsy,” “wander,” “journey,” “nomad,” “wayfaring,” and, of course, “vagabond,” not only for their meanings and the images they conjured, but also for their taste in my mouth, rich and piquant. Their sensual, abstract power touched me deeply. I wrote essays on wanderlust, papers on nomads, and blog posts on wandering. These words cast a spell on me, saturating my dreams, and my waking life too.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a vagabond is, “a person who travels from place to place and doesn’t have a home or much money.” It can also refer to “leading an unsettled, irresponsible, or disreputable life.” Well, yes. The word “vagabond” often does, admittedly, hold negative connotations. Vagabonds are gypsies, tramps, and vagrants too. Our society often stigmatizes and demonizes these titles and the people who hold them. There is an implied element of disreputability, unsavoriness, or indolence.
Such definitions have merit, too, and yet, I never lost my love—idealistic though it may be— for the vivid flavor of these words and what they describe. One word, “vagabond,” through chance or predestination, came to inspire my actions, beliefs and perspectives over the course of that year-long journey, and it continues to do so.
For me, a vagabond is indeed one “who travels from place to place and [maybe] doesn’t have a home or much money,” but he or she is also one who is content with little, open to the world, and ever curious and optimistic. A vagabond defies society’s rules, certainly, but is by no means immoral; we need rule-breakers, (well-meaning) trouble-makers and chance-takers in the world. Vagabonds defy what is expected of them and read signs in the coffee grounds of coincidence. By this definition, I am proud to assign myself such a title.
In sharing this accumulated list of a vagabond’s guiding principles, garnered from my experiences, I hope to highlight the beauty of this word and its impact on me and my travels. Maybe I will succeed in redefining it for you as I did for myself.
A Vagabond’s Manifesto:
  • Always expect the absolute best of others, but have the resourcefulness and resiliency to recover when you encounter the worst.
  • Be fluid, open and expansive.
  • Carry little on your back, much in your mind.
  • Embrace spontaneity. Have contingency plans.
  • Never turn down free food.
  • Turn theory into action. Learn courage and fearlessness by doing things that are courageous and fearless.
  • Trust your instincts. Your intuition. Your belly.
  • Never say no to an adventure.
  • When unsure how to proceed, laugh.
  • Play often.
  • Walk everywhere. (Or bike. Or hitchhike. Or scooter. Or swim.)
  • Don’t believe anything everyone tells you. Believe everything anyone tells you.
  • Love and live like your train is leaving tomorrow.
  • Find joy in movement. Find joy in stillness.
  • Wander. Seek. Pursue. In body, mind and soul.
  • Be Happy. Be Free. Vagabond.


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