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.