On yet another not-a-cloud-in-the-sky January afternoon, you find yourself at a rooftop patio bar overlooking Chiang Mai's frenetic city core. Save for the greenery of the mountain to the direct west, the city's outskirts go on for as far as you can see, which, granted, isn't very far given the intense smog of the past two weeks. A few of your group sporadically look to their iPhones to ensure no fires have arisen that need attention; the others have them hidden away, relishing deeply in their disconnection from the outside world. You chat with two in the latter camp: Darren, the creator of a sex coaching app who now sits to your direct left, and Amy, a travel writer and software tester, to his. As it occurs, you take the slight pause in conversation as a welcome opportunity for a deep breath - you've been moving around so much over the previous few weeks that sitting here with nowhere to go seems almost fictitiously wonderful.
The silence evaporates, though, as Alex appears from around the corner of the patio. Not five minutes ago, after "threatening" to book you and Tom a flight to join him in Hong Kong if you didn't book it yourselves, he'd dialed his dedicated British Airways line and disappeared. And now, despite the cool shadow protecting your well-beyond-bronzed skin from Thailand's unrelenting sun, no amount of darkness can dim the twinkle in his eye as he takes a prolonged sip of his Singha beer and takes the seat to your right. Though you only met him a few days prior, you know him well enough to be certain he wasn't bluffing.
At thirty-two years old, Alex stands an unremarkable five feet six inches tall. He wears his polarized Oakley sunglasses and black Nike runners everywhere regardless of climate, his jet black hair always almost-too-perfectly erect. In his British accent, toned slightly down from his constant interactions with other cultures, he speaks with equal parts precision and enthusiasm. His four years of engineering at The University of Exeter surfaces in your frequent discussions about load-bearing structures, components of electronic devices, pollution inhalation, motor vehicle capabilities, and a handful of other conversational tangents you more-than-occasionally indulge in. And given his easygoing, overly-friendly demeanor, many are surprised to learn that three years ago Alex left his job as an investment banker with Lloyds Bank to take on a Vice President role with a well-known Fortune 500 company. That is, they're surprised until they see his travel schedule. Last month he visited four continents; this month he's on pace for five.
Your iPhone, face down next to your Chang, dings softly as Alex settles in next to you: "Your confirmation # is D4G5JS. Thank you for flying with Cathay Pacific." It was inevitable as soon as he picked up his phone, you think to yourself. Here we go again. Trying desperately to avoid giving him the satisfaction of your requisite lateral glance, you know that he knows it, too. "We leave at 3," Alex says, not looking up from the food menu. His commentary couldn't've been more dry, direct, deliberate.
Many would call it ridiculous for someone to book an international flight for himself and others without their consent - particularly when the flight is scheduled for the following afternoon - but that was par for the course as of late. Alongside Tom, a witty Norwegian with a memory bordering on eidetic, the three of you were flight geeks through and through. With the rest of your group raptly attentive, you spent much of the last hour explaining concepts like how airlines make pricing decisions, what routes are the best for flying between given regions, and recent secrets you had exploited, all topics of extreme interest to your tiny audience. And with a collective 50,000+ miles flown between the 3 of you in the past 90 days alone, you definitely practice what you preach.
Tom sits across the table deep in an IM conversation with his remote software engineer in India. Though most of the engineering on his web app is done in-house between him and his best friend and business partner, Christoffer, they still outsource a few non-core tasks to their Indian developer. Yet just as you look to him, you see that his confirmation email comes through too; unabashedly, he breaks into a smile bigger than yours. He's been itching to go back to Hong Kong ever since the idea came up. That was twenty minutes ago.
In an instant, Tom springs to his feet and raises his glass to the entire table in a friendly toast: "To good business, better travels, and the best people." The others follow suit, but as they tilt their heads back in a collective swallow, no one notices the split second pause you take before accepting yours. It's almost too much for you to see your best friends, a group that makes age, race, and language barriers irrelevant - people whose bonds hold roots in intellectual stimulation, not similar hobbies or, heaven forbid, geographic proximity - surrounding you like this, each of you collected here for no reason save the others' company. There's something about holding the same outlook toward industry, not in the macroeconomic sense of the word connoting a specific field of work but in the more precise definition meaning the work itself, that brings a long-ignored thought to the fore: these are your people. With any other collection of individuals, being at this patio bar early on a Tuesday afternoon would've been odd, but with this group it just feels right. With that, you consume the words and your drink in unison, a world of cool rushing down your throat with the delicate collision of eight glasses ringing in your ears.
The locals at the next table probably had no idea that all eight of you hail from eight different countries and were in town on eight different agendas. But it doesn't matter. Today, in this very moment, you share a special bond.
You are nomads.
In meetings with your manufacturer, a family-owned factory in the Huadu district of northern Guangzhou, you are relatively measured: instead, you reserve your true passion to discussions with other like-minded entrepreneurs. With them, you pose questions like, "What cities do you see that are severely undervalued?" or "How will advancements in computing power create more opportunities for 9-5 workers?" On days when you're feeling particularly sanguine, you'll simply ask, "What would it look like if everyone sold 90% of what they own?" This last question, the lead domino in a much broader discussion rooted in the subjective value of personal possessions, is one you like to return to. "The day where we own nothing yet have access to everything is near," you are known to say in passing. You built your entire company on that exact premise.
Your flagship product, a smarter, better-designed version of the traditional over-the-shoulder backpacking bag, has done well for you. The waist strap, an innovation you personally spent months of regular all-nighters working on, has been praised time and again by both customers and product review websites alike. Nearly everyone, your manufacturer included, said that a strap that provided as much support as you demanded yet still subtly tucked away when not in use - not to mention meeting the aesthetic specifications you set out - was impossible. So you tested and iterated your designs on your own and eventually came up with a strap that works. And it works well. Combined with the bag's suitcase-esque opening style, which eliminates the need to dig to the bottom of the bag to find what you want, it's no wonder travelers the world over are raving. You've built something people want, a rare innovation in an otherwise-stagnant industry, and you are finally reaping the reward. It's a far cry from 12 months ago when you were still too scared to take the leap.
"There's going to be a monumental shift in how people live in the 21st Century relative to the millennia prior," you tell a friend over lunch, the two of you hunched over on tiny red stools at one of a dozen food stalls down a teeming side street in Hanoi, Vietnam. "For the first time in modern history, we're not tied to any one geography anymore. We're going to be mobile. Why would anyone choose to be tied down if they can be free?" He nods as you speak, a flood of locals whirling around the two of you as you slurp your pho. "Just think of how global real estate prices are going to react when moving across the world becomes as easy as moving across the street. If a landlord in New York says you have to pay $2,000/month to live in a 1-bedroom there, you just say 'Fuck you, I'll pay $400/month in Ho Chi Minh City.' It's already bigger than New York, there's a hell of a lot more stuff going on there, and it's growing at a mind-boggling rate - the population there has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. Forget New York, it's the Microsoft of cities: old, overpriced, and relying on a rapidly-dying legacy to maintain its luster. Fuck it."
He laughs. He knows how much you, a former Googler, despise Microsoft's modus operandi of bullying smaller, more nimble companies with anti-trust lawsuits and lobbying. But under it all, he knows you're right: the world as we know it is changing before our eyes. As with all things, the first ones to embrace the change will reap the benefits of early adoption. While the world is struggling to adapt to a mobile lifestyle, you'll be seen as a thought leader, a visionary trapped among a myriad of myopic mortals.
In a lot of ways, you already are. Your blog, a place that used to receive double-digit pageviews on a good day, is now a go-to resource for aspiring long-term travelers. One of your recent posts, a how-to on working with Chinese manufacturers, has been linked to from so many other blogs and international publications that it's become a sort of de facto guide that wannabes devour in a single sitting. You almost feel bad that you wrote it over a weekend.
You pay the pho lady for your meal and head back to your Airbnb apartment, your friend going the opposite way. Behind you, a trio of schoolgirls donning white polos and pigtails scream and play as they run down the bustling sidewalk, their Hello Kitty schoolbags zipping in and out of the towering crowd of adults above. Across the street, a cow carcass hangs in a shop's open front window, a few men carving off slices with the deftness of the dentist upstairs and the speed of the seamstress next door. A gangly Vietnamese boy of sixteen pushes a cart overflowing with electronic components; his I ❤ NY tee makes you grin with irony as you try to decipher whether the computers are half-made or half-destroyed. Despite such an active backdrop, a single thought transcends all the commotion: How could I possibly want anything else?
But a second thought surfaces to remind you of your humble roots: there was a time when all that you wanted was something else. That next job promotion, the penthouse apartment, a newer, fancier car: it was just months ago that these were the epitome of success for you. Your belief that more equaled better fed your never-ending downward spiral of want, leaving you chasing the unreachable for years before uncovering that what you really wanted was not more stuff but more freedom. You could always go back to the materialistic life you had once lived - collecting physical items of finite financial value instead of creating experiences of infinite personal value - but no amount of money would allow you to reclaim the time you had spent realizing someone else's dream instead of working toward your own.
Half of the value you get from your new lifestyle comes from the sense of purpose and action that has pushed aside your previous feelings of inadequacy and inertia. Is it really worth sacrificing your entire existence for a room full of things you can hold but never truly feel?
A Hong Kong native, Winson's family moved to Vancouver when he was a boy. As soon as he finished university in Canada, he promptly returned to China, arriving with no more than a suitcase and an intense hunger for something more. You'd call him a scrappy entrepreneur focused on self-improvement to the point of obsession; he'd tell you he's spent the past year here in Guangzhou 'building a clothing empire.' As far as fabrics and other synthetic materials go, he's one of the best, and you know it. He's also become one of your closest friends.
In his own business, Winson makes decisions immediately and exactly; something is either contributing toward the overall vision or it's not. "It could be so much better," is a phrase he drops with alarming casualness, regardless of whether the topic of discussion is his slightly-overcooked char siu or the stock photography discovery process. He's quick to propose better alternatives when probed - most recently an on-demand Cantonese-to-English translation service for restaurant proprietors, a much-needed offering in a country where foreigners are flooding in and tools like Google Translate are both linguistically imperfect and inaccessible - and sees no shortage of industries that desperately need a fundamental shakeup. "Sure, but I won't be the one to change it," you retort one time to his favorite remark. He looks at you quizzically, his brow creased as though hearing an obscenity for the first time. "Then who will?"
It's moments like these that you like the most about Winson: he makes you think bigger. His approach to business is akin to a mathematician's approach to a difficult theorem: a problem with a defined solution. That's not to suggest that only one solution to a given problem exists, rather, that relying on happenstance to provide any solution is about as promising as betting on Internet Explorer as a given Gen Y's default browser. Winson's secret is not a secret at all, but rather a method of operating: the world is a definite place, not a lottery. The people that do the most with their time here are those that have a plan for it. You couldn't agree more.
Your years on Google's AdWords team were spent obsessing over the popular keywords advertisers were ignoring. With the help of a developer friend at the next pod, you built a personal dashboard to track which keywords were undervalued and then jotted them into your notebook, a tattered journal containing a distraught collection of random thoughts, half-written blog posts, and business ideas. Over time, you noticed that a few of these outlier keywords came up with alarming frequency: the one that piqued your interest was long-term travel backpack. Despite the overabundance of Parthenon and look-at-me-with-an-elephant selfies littering your news feeds, the data clearly showed that people wanted something more. You had discovered a secret, one that many suspected but few could actually prove: there's a lot of underserved wanderlust out there.
You mused for months about the prospect of building a business around your closely-kept secret, but never had the drive to take action. That is, until Google made a replica of your internal tools public; overnight, your insider knowledge became just another piece of searchable data. As you like to put it, "I either had to grow some balls or watch from the sidelines forever." Proverbially speaking, you grew some balls.
"Are you fucked?" A co-worker looked on with an expression bridging contempt and jealousy as you packed up your desk. "Do you know how many people are trying to sell you shit these days? Sure, I know outlier keywords can be indicative of an exploitable opportunity, but do you really think there are that many people actually leaving home for months at a time? They do a Europe trip after college and that's it. Who cares what backpack they have?" You grin. That was ten months ago. A week later, with visa in hand, you were on a one-way flight to China.
Though your impetus to action stemmed from an egregious hole in the market, your vision of the future goes much deeper. It's one where communications are ubiquitous and infinite, eliminating any remaining need for geographic proximity. It's one where long-term ownership of private possessions is replaced by short-term usage patterns fueled by peer-to-peer rental markets. And it's one where experiences and stories are currency, exchangeable for almost anything, and of an insatiable demand. The future you see is run by those that create it today. You're just getting a head start.
A hundred ropes slacken and tighten, their salt-infused fibers keeping their respective vessels at bay as they graze the brushed metal of the lengthy dock. The sound of a thousand creaky doors inhaling and exhaling fills your ears as you walk from boat to boat to boat. Each one gets consistently larger the further you walk: what was just a nimble 28' sailboat has now become a 110' megayacht. No one, save you, looks twice; for them, it's just another piece of the ever-changing skyline.
The rhythm of the city works like the rhythm of the water: high tide reveals itself as the Sun wakes up each morning; low tide descends as the night swallows the city whole. Small waves strong-willed enough to conquer the harbor's web-like maze of cargo steamers persist with the same pervasiveness as the foot traffic around the marina, a flurry of wide-eyed tourists and hurried corporate types. Despite the constant hum of activity, you feel cleansed of the traditional stresses of city life. Nothing can relieve you of your high here - not when every turn uncovers something newer, purer, and more vibrant than the last. You take a deep breath of ocean air, turn on your heel, and begin the walk back to the core of Singapore. As you do, your mind wanders back to that Friday night last month in Tokyo.
Kumi bounces playfully on the balls of her feet to your right. Her dark dress, a Yamamoto, contrasts so strongly with her ivory skin that only the word yin-yang comes to mind. Eight-foot tower speakers shake both your chest and the black concrete walls to the tune of 128 beats per minute of dubstep. Kumi gasps just as you return your gaze back to the centre of the circle.
Whoosh. You imagine the sound his twirling body would make in a quiet room as his eyes look up, then behind him, then to the ground below. His feet soar high, two limbs flying freely above his own head in a trajectory known only to him, until they hit the ground in perfect unison. A shockwave of sound emerges from his Flyknit 3.0s, the impact of his feet driving the music into a high-octane frenzy. His backflip makes the crowd surrounding the impromptu dance circle erupt, and before you can catch yourself, you're in the midst of it. Tokyo, with its bright lights, remarkably exotic foods, and never-ending nightlife, was good to you.
Still, the thought of him flying through the air with such ease reminds you of yet another of your favorite sky-high locales. Sure, the city is widely known for the quality of its urban hikes, but Dois Irmaos takes the cake; it wasn't until reaching the absolute peak that you realized all of the hype was fitting and perhaps even of insufficient supply. A mountain in the centre of a booming metropolis is something special on its own, but combine it with the 360-degree views of renowned beaches, sparkling skyscrapers, and one of the largest slums in the world, and you can only gape in awe. Rio de Janeiro, just like Singapore and Tokyo, never fails to amaze.
Upon reaching Singapore's centre, you meet an old friend coming through town at the start of her three-week Southeast Asia trip. As her coffee and your smoothie arrives, she asks you a familiar question: "What's your favourite place that you've visited so far?" You find yourself caught off-guard, not by her asking of the question, given that it's one of the first few questions close friends and strangers alike choose to employ, but by the immediate thoughts that come to mind: kicking a soccer ball with a group of children in Bali, sharing a meal with a mother of five in India, and spending the night on the floor of a Chinese family's home after they found you lost, confused, and utterly helpless. But how can you possibly convey to someone that your most precious moments were such modest activities when they're expecting to hear tales of motorcycle trips across Vietnam and skiing escapades in the Japanese Alps?
You don't. Instead, you shrug the question off, ask her what she has planned for the next twenty-one days, and allow the familiar Singaporean buzz to fill the gaps between her carefully chosen words. You won't soon forget what you discovered that afternoon, though, something you had known all along but had never formed into conscious thought until now.
A place is only as magical as the people you experience it with, and despite the number of stamps lining your passport, it's the stamp of a human connection that makes traveling truly special.
It's dark. The Sun has still to rise, yet you are awake and your day has begun. You step outside your dwelling - tiny, made of bamboo, and boasting no air conditioning despite the already uncomfortable heat - onto the dirt path serving as a road. You walk, barefoot, past other huts like yours - just as small, just as basic, just as unimpressive - until you reach the base of the mountain. You ascend.
As you climb, your mind stands still. You'll realize around noon today, once you get online, that overnight you made your biggest sale of the month, a $3,200 bulk order, which is more than enough to support you here for the next several months. Your backpack also got featured in a small yet extremely niche blog, so traffic on your site is currently triple its baseline levels. None of this occurs to you now, though; all that's on your mind in this moment is a general feeling of gratitude. You grab hold of stray branches and roots alike, gripping them like unfamiliar doorknobs promising to lead you into the unknown.
The morning sun blinds you as you reach the summit, but in an instant more you see everything: the centuries-old trees towering above you; the steep valley free-falling before you; the distant crash of the Pacific waves upon the rocky shore beyond. And you see Leanna, her favorite maroon headband accentuating the blondeness of her hair as she sips at a blend of fruit juices from a seat at the lone table positioned near the cliff's edge.
The two of you chat lightly as your breakfast appears. A photographer for the past five years, Leanna finally made the leap to a mobile lifestyle last month, and though she endured a slow start, today marks her first official photo shoot since arriving. Both of you had come to the island on the same day seeking the same thing: tranquility. So with the long-term significance of today's event in mind, she poses a particularly pointed question just as you start into your pineapple: "Do you ever think about home?" You hesitate for a moment, then answer honestly, "All day, every day." Leanna's expression shifts from one of surprise into a delicate grin as she comes to understand what you mean.
When you started traveling ten months ago, you believed that a certain emptiness would develop within you for lack of the concept of home. But as the weeks and months passed, that hole never developed; instead, you gained more of the things you had forever connected with the idea of home: deep, meaningful relationships, a place of growth and development, and a sense of inner comfort. It wasn't until around the six-month mark, when that internal emptiness had not only failed to transpire but disappeared from possibility entirely, that you realized that home is not a far-off physical place; home is wherever you feel free.
For some, they feel most free in the place where they grew up, for others it's in the arms of a loved one, and for others still it's somewhere that has yet to be found. But at its core, the place you feel free is one that you define for yourself. Whether freedom means extreme comfort or extreme challenge, extreme solitude or extreme companionship, extreme simplicity or extreme luxury, it's all irrelevant as long as you don't lose sight of the fundamental truth: freedom is something that occurs from within you. Home is wherever you are - if you're not taking steps to consciously create freedom in your life, who do you expect to do it for you?
Raising her glass to yours in an act of purely defiant celebration, Leanna mouths the only words fitting for the moment.