THE YEAR I BECAMEA NOMAD

A Story by Carlos Penalba

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We live in a world of constant and rapid changes. Technology is transforming not only the way we communicate and work but the way we live. Those lucky enough to have been raised in the developed world have never had so many options in front of how to live.  

Scientist Alex Wissner-Gross defines intelligence as a force that maximizes future freedom of action. Recent research shows that happiness is strongly related to the feel of control and autonomy we have about our own lives. Hence, it’s not surprising that becoming a digital nomad is a dream many have, a dream possible today.

After working for a financial software firm in London and New York for twelve years, I took the plunge and left everything behind, a well-paid job and a very comfortable life, to embark on a life-changing adventure. With my backpack, my camera, and my notebook, I started an 18-month exploration of Asia to discover an exciting continent and using the time to write a book and become a freelance travel photographer.

THE JOY OF FREEDOM

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The feeling of freedom I experienced throughout the way is still today one of the most incredible emotions I’ve felt in my life. Some mornings, I woke up not knowing where I was in the world, and it would take a few minutes to place myself in a country and in a city. It was an extraordinary feeling, full of lightness. I felt grateful for being so lucky. 

Traveling has never been this cheap and safe. As young people are learning English everywhere, it was easy to communicate with locals. Going solo made me accessible. Many youngsters came to ask me where I was from, where I was going to, what I thought about their country… In Sumatra (Indonesia), I explained why I’m an atheist to three young Muslim women; in Jaipur, I wrote a love letter in Spanish for an Indian man who wanted to send it to Carmen in Madrid; in Cambodia, I painfully listened to how my motorist saw the Khmer Rouge killing his father outside Phnom Penn when he was ten years old; and in Mentawai (Indonesia), I lived three days in the jungle with an Indigenous family with no electricity or running water.

USING TIME WISELY

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I started my journey with plenty of doubts about my quest to become a writer and a photographer. By the end, I had a clear commitment to put all my efforts in pursuing my dream. My time in the corporate world ended the moment I fully experienced the nomad’s freedom.

I wrote in my diary almost daily, and every few days, I would type my travel memoir, reviewing my notes, so all my experiences were narrated as fresh as possible. Although I took thousands of photos, not every day I’d use my camera to avoid my days turning into a photo-hunting obsession.

FEELING, CLARITY & MEANING

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My mind changed because of the alternative lifestyle I was enjoying for months. Instead of the constant planning a busy life, that a western city entails, my mind had plenty of time to concentrate on what my senses captured at every moment. My brain’s left side gave way to the right one; my logical mind lost its significance in favor of my sensitive one. I became a person much more in touch with my emotions. I learned a lot about myself, particularly where my mind wandered to when it was not focused on a specific task, what really interests me about people and cultures, and, more crucially, what kind of life I would like to live.

The combination of the long-term solo traveling and my meditation practice brought me a fantastic sense of lightness, focus, and clarity I had never felt before. It was as if for the first time in my life I was getting closer to understanding life itself, to what meant to be alive, and to its importance.

Not only those initial fears of the unknown vanished, but also my solo traveling helped in finding my future direction. A few months later, I published in English and Spanish my travel memoir: The Year I Became a Nomad: A journey through Asia on a quest for freedom, love, and happiness.

I also edited many of my best travel photos. Some have been published, amongst others, by NatGeo Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Doctors Without Borders.

GETTING BACK

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After 18 months of living as a nomad, returning home is never easy. Old routines and social customs felt far away. Going back to them wasn’t as automatic as after a short vacation. Self-publishing a book in two languages is difficult and promoting it it’s a daunting task. I underestimated the work it would entail. Self-discipline and focus are paramount for any freelance, regardless if he or she is a nomad or not. Loneliness is also an important factor to take into account when being a digital nomad. We are social animals and human interaction is crucial for a healthy mind.

Was I successful in my quest? I think so. In hindsight, I would have done many things different about my book launch. But most readers’ feedback has been rewarding. One told me she felt sad when she turned the last page. I asked why, and she said she had enjoyed traveling with me so much she regretted the end of my journey.

Somehow, I felt that way too when it happened, but sad with a big smile on my face. My journey to freedom and autonomy started when I left New York and the corporate world. I’m still trying hard to make it work, and I know the trying is the worthy part of the journey.

All photos are copyright and owned by Carlos Peñalba © 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carlos Peñalba is a freelance travel writer and photographer currently based in La Coruña (Spain). He lived in London and New York for 15 years while working for a software firm before embarking on an 18-month backpacking exploration of Asia, from Nepal to Japan. He is the author of The Year I Became a Nomad: A journey through Asia on a quest for freedom, love and happiness, a travel memoir about his Asian adventure. His photos have been published amongst others by NatGeo Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Doctors Without Borders.

www.carlospenalba.com

www.carlospenalbaphotography.com