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Perpetual Travel Is A Gamble For Self-Determination And Sanity

I can’t talk about leaving the rat race because I never entered it to begin with. In 1999 I began traveling, working on the road, living abroad, studying abroad, going wherever and I wanted and could afford to get to. I don’t have a cubicle ditcher story, I can’t tell a “take this job and [...]

I can’t talk about leaving the rat race because I never entered it to begin with. In 1999 I began traveling, working on the road, living abroad, studying abroad, going wherever and I wanted and could afford to get to. I don’t have a cubicle ditcher story, I can’t tell a “take this job and shove it” tale, I never even had a job for more than a few months in a row. I can only fathom what the 9 to 5 rat race is like. I have no idea what it’s like to have mortgage payments, to take the threats of loan sharks seriously, to have a job that I couldn’t easily walk away from on a whim, to have a domicile that is my responsibility to fix, to have more possessions than I know what to do with, to exist in a complex social network, to have so much money that I need to worry about it, to even have something that could be taken away which would have a real impact. Come to think of it, I don’t have much of anything at all, as I gave up the whole lot on a single gamble for self-determination.

I began traveling at 18 years old, right at the beginning of my adult life, and this is the only lifestyle I’ve known since. There are other people out there with a similar story, but I’d never meet one before I pulled up a bar stool next to Michael Robert Powell last week in Hangzhou.

MRP is the guy behind The Candy Trail. Since 1988, he’s been on the road traveling, working, screwing, learning, boozing . . . He left his home in New Zealand after finishing university at the age of 21, and he’s been going for nearly 25 years. He’s a wandering madman who hitchhiked across the Sahara, was arrested on accusations of being a spy in Iraq, hopped a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter to become the first tourist in the new East Timor, survived riots, cyclones, road accidents, and a mess of other calamities around the world. You may also remember him as Vagabond Journey’s perpetual travel correspondent a couple of years ago or have read his article in Vagabond Explorer.

In his own words:

A conventional life has never interested me . . . No. I took another path.

I’ve never had a permanent job. Never owned a house or car or motorbike (but once had a TV). After graduating from university, I took a 6-month job – then hit the road with the money saved and have never looked back.

Today I remain on the road. Still single, never married, no children, few assets, no social circle or societal niche.

Honestly speaking, pretty much nobody in the world has traveled as long or as far or as crazy as the guy who was sitting next to me drinking a tall mug of Tiger beer. He’s a travel legend, but one who would rather remain obscure, telling dirty, real life tales than wanking the commercial shaft like some kind of faker. From what I can tell, MRP still going strong, with a plan to return to Africa for the forth time and travel overland from Cairo to Cape Town.

But a quarter of a century on the road living out of a backpack has not rendered MRP ragged, weary, and ugly. At 47 or so, his gait still has a bounce to it, his eyes still bright, and his demeanor packed with enthusiasm.

I no longer need assurance that the perpetual lifestyle is sustainable, but MRP did a good job reassuring me anyway. 25 years in, and he’s still hungry. Like a narcotic, the more travel you consume the more you crave. This is an endeavor that lasts a lifetime. It is not possible to travel the world, this is a project that cannot be completed — even 100 years would not nearly be enough time to satiate the drive to experience this planet.

After a shot of tequila, MRP stopped short our conversation and asked me what I think of him.

I thought about this for a moment, and then replied, “You are one of the sanest people I’ve ever met.” I meant it too.

He looked at me puzzled, this was a very odd thing to say to a guy who is known for having absolutely insane adventures around the world.

“It’s insane to me,” I added, “that so many people voluntarily indenture themselves to a job, work 40 hours a week, enchain themselves to a home, and live in a way that truly doesn’t make them happy when they don’t have to. That’s insane.”

He then told me the story about the father of a friend of his in New Zealand who worked hard his whole life looking forward to all the things he would do when he retired. When he turned 60, retirement day came. A month or so later he died from a stroke.

“You never know when you’re going to die, a future is not guaranteed,” he spoke.

I think all perpetual travelers have stories like this. I have a couple. They are frightening cautionary tales of people who made bad gambles with their lives, trading time and self-determination for wealth or possessions or security — or the illusion of such things. The fear of not living life to its fullest extent is enough to drive some people mad. Mad enough to step out of the cycle of insanity and hit the road, head into the hills, or devote themselves to a passion or art — even if they must face destitution to do so.

Wasted money can be earned again, security ebbs and flows, possessions and people come and go, but there’s no redemption for wasted time. Putting up the best years of a life in an all or nothing bet on the future is an insane gamble that I don’t have balls enough to take. But it is a gamble that is so normal in the cultures of the over-developed world that alternatives often seem obscure and distant.

The “what ifs” of life are everywhere, they may not be asked very often of those who trod the beaten path of their culture, but under the surface they’re always there. “What if you get hit by a truck tomorrow? What if your company goes bankrupt and you lose your retirement? What if you get laid off tomorrow and lose everything? What if you can’t really afford the house, car, TV you just bought? What if your medical insurance won’t cover some procedure that you need? What if you lose your health insurance? What if your kids grow up to be spoiled little pricks who don’t give a shit about you? What if your wife leaves you and kicks your ass in divorce court? What if you’re building for a future that never comes? What if? What if? What if?

Life is an investment, no matter how you play it. The returns of any lifestyle may prove sweet but they may also prove bitter and empty — there are never any guarantees. If my life goes bust, I always have the memories of the decades that I traveled the world, living exactly as I determined. Each day I take something wonderful from my investment, and will do so until there’s nothing left.

Sedentary people may look at the life of a perpetual traveler and find fear and loathing and insecurity in it, but that traveler can look at the life of the sedentary with the same critical glare. Life is a gamble and there’s no way to step away from the table. So I cash in my chips as soon as I get them. I play for the present, as it has the highest likelihood of providing a good return.

“People ask me what I’m going to do when I’m old,” MRP spoke. “If I get old and frail and sick, and I’m all alone, and life starts to be a drag I’ll just blow my brains out and end it all. It’s simple.”

I believe him. What sane person wouldn’t do the same?

But I also believe that it would be difficult for someone like MRP to live in misery. Though our friendship has been digital up until last week, I have a theory that it’s incredibly difficult for a generally happy person to be rendered miserable. Once you develop a process of finding intrigue and fascination in the simple things around you it’s hard to be bored. Once you fill your life with projects, interests, and obsessions, and build them up year after year it’s hard for life to lose its meaning. Once you cultivate the emotional self-sufficiency to make yourself happy you become incredibly versatile and able to adapt and change with the shifting parameters that are before you. This is a subjective theory based solely on observation, but I’ve never met a depressed long term traveler before, I’ve never met a miserable person who carved their own path in life, I’ve never met someone who can be mystified by a sunrise, a bird, or a tree who did not delight in waking up each morning.

Life is just a game, you play around for a while, maybe reproduce, smile, fight, laugh, hump, discover, cry, and croak. These are very easy words to say, but far more difficult to put into practice. But when you meet someone who does live like this it’s obvious. Their eyes are bright, their aura radiant, and they seem satisfied enough just to have waken up in the morning alive. Life is a daily gift, anyone who sees it otherwise is insane.

As far as I’m concerned, MRP is the sanest man on earth.

Filed under: Adventure, Other Travelers, Perpetual Travel, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3424 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

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  • Drew February 22, 2013, 1:25 am

    “Sedentary people may look at the life of a perpetual traveler and find fear and loathing and insecurity in it, but that traveler can look at the life of the sedentary with the same critical glare. Life is a gamble and there’s no way to step away from the table.”So true. And what’s funny is the sedentaries are practically guaranteed to lose. They think they have some magic formula, like doing whatever your neighbors do somehow erases risk and uncertainty from the game of life. But they have the biggest risks (in the long run) and a practically guaranteed struggle. So much good stuff in this article, awesome.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 8:03 am

      It’s incredibly sad that your statement is true for many people — especially recently. Every once in a while I hear a story about someone being laid off a year or so before they’re set to retire or losing all their retirement benefits because the company they worked for went bankrupt and I can’t help but to feel a huge amount of empathy. It’s just not right for those who live the life that they’ve been acculturated to lead and serve as the foundation of their societies to be screwed over in the end, but it’s normal — and it’s always been this way. All the gears in the machine can be replaced, thrown out, disregarded. I chose to stay useless from the beginning 🙂
       
      But I don’t look down on the people who live the sedentary life — especially if they love what they do — they are the people we travel to meet, and the ones we stand to learn something from. Without them, we couldn’t live this way. MRP put it best when he said something to the effect of: 
       
      “Without the people driving the buses, working in the restaurants, and living the 9 to 5 life, I wouldn’t be able to travel.”
       
      That’s true. We need them, they don’t need us. 
       
      The best we can do is offer a glimmer of hope and lay out the foundations for a path for those who wish to opt out of this cycle.

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  • DavidJacobs1 February 22, 2013, 3:38 am

    Awesome article!  Glad you guys met at last.  Would like to have been a fly on the wall! 🙂

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  • joshtate90 February 22, 2013, 5:17 am

    Mr Nomadic Matt won’t be happy! I long ago stopped reading his blog and when I went back to it, he’s hawking a book about travelling the world and talking about how ”Íf I can ditch the cubicle, so can you!!” His site is a crash course in marketing bullshit 101 but I have Vagabond Journey which is honest, real and gritty. The punk rock blog in a sea of bubblegum pop shite.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 8:15 am

      @joshtate90 You know, I can’t criticize the mainstream travel blogging sect for what they’ve accomplished. Good on them. What those guys did was impressive: making the mainstream take notice of travel blogs was a big step, and they’ve really lent a degree of validity to all of us. But when you go as far as lying to make yourself look good is when others who’ve been around a lot longer are going to call bullshit. Those guys may not report to the office each morning but they carry their cubicles in their minds.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 8:18 am

      @joshtate90 You know, I can’t criticize the mainstream travel blogging sect for what they’ve accomplished. Good on them. What those guys did was impressive: making the mainstream take notice of travel blogs was a big step, and they’ve really lent a degree of validity to all of us. But when you go as far as lying to make yourself look good is when others who’ve been around a lot longer are going to call bullshit. Those guys may not report to the office each morning but they continue carrying their cubicles in their minds.

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      • Vagabond Journey February 22, 2013, 8:48 am

        @joshtate90 You know, I can’t criticize the mainstream travel blogging sect for what they’ve accomplished. Good on them. What those guys did was impressive: making the mainstream take notice of travel blogs was a big step, and they’ve really lent a degree of validity to all of us. But when you go as far as lying to make yourself look good is when others who’ve been around a lot longer are going to call bullshit on it.

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  • EnPleinAir February 23, 2013, 1:23 am

    I find it quite curious that many desk-bound lifers tell me how ‘brave’ I am and amazed that I’ve been traveling nonstop for almost five years (of course, I know that I am still a newbie and still getting my chops).  But to even suggest to a friend that they join me instills fear in them.  Just the thought of liviing without an anchor, even those who are unemployed and have lost their homes, leaves many of them visibly trembling.  Most live their lives as mice.
     
    For me travel, at times, involves confronting and dealing with fear.  Mostly the fear of the future.  ‘What will I do when I get old and sick?’  Don’t think I have the balls to pull the trigger.  I would probably miss and just horribly wound myself.  Same with hurtling myself off of a cliff. (Note to cliff jumpers: Don’t wear tight pants. They split open at the first bounce.)
     
    All in all, I would rather die in a bamboo hut overlooking an azure sea in a foreign land than the neighborhood nursing home watching inane soap operas.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 23, 2013, 2:20 am

      @EnPleinAir For sure! I always think the same about those people who are busting their balls day after day working hard and building up the sedentary life. That lifestyle is scary, as there is always so much to lose.
       
      We have nothing — or next to it — so how far could we really fall? 
       
      It is my impression that fear is misappropriated in many cultures. So many teach their members to live lives fearing death, when we should really be fearing not fully living. Man, I used to be scared to death of going through my days without a story. This was the fear that has been propelling me for the past 13 years.
       
      On another note, I’ve started up a new community forum with the intent of drawing together perpetual travelers to talk shop and share ideas and advice. There’s not much on it now, but feel free to add anything. It’s at http://www.vagabondjourney.com/forum/perpetual-travel/. Thanks!

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      • EnPleinAir February 24, 2013, 1:55 am

        @Vagabond Journey
        From my limited experience with death (other’s deaths, not mine), I have been struck that those who have fully lived their lives meet dying with grace and even some anticipation.  A few have even said that they ‘won’t miss it’, meaning life.
         
        The ones who have shirked away from living are the most fearful of dying.  Too many are postponing their lives to the future.  And I ain’t convinced that their future is going to be where they hope it will be.

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        • Vagabond Journey February 24, 2013, 7:21 pm

          @EnPleinAir Yes, that should be everyone’s goal in life: to come to the end of the road and say, “Yeah, I did it.”

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  • Just a reader February 24, 2013, 10:41 am

    You know what I like about The Candy Trail is MRP can write and he is free to write what he wants without having to worry about being yanked from the adsense prison. I question my sanity why I even put the crap on my site, it totally restricts one freedom as a writer. MRP has big balls. It was totally refreshing to read his stories about his travel adventures. He makes Hunter Thompson look like a girlscout. If The Candy Trail does not lite a fire under a travelers ass, then head back home and get a job flipping burgers. Thanks for tuning me on to his site.

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    • Vagabond Journey February 24, 2013, 7:20 pm

      That’s very true. That’s truly a collection of real and exciting travel stories delivered without apology or self-censorship. The way writing should be. 
       
      It’s a big advantage of not depending on writing for an income — it frees you to express whatever you want in any way you want to. If you want to make money from just about anything there are compromises, which is one reason why I’m trying to depend less on this way of making a living.

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  • the candy trail February 25, 2013, 12:43 am

    Been away from the web a few days and bang – found this. Nice write-up Wade.
    It was a pleasure meeting you, too. I suppose it’s up to all individuals to make and define their own sanity (as long as it doesn’t harm others).
    Yes, will be back in Africa in 3 weeks on another overland mission. Meantime, I sift around China.
    PS: Most of my craziest stories are yet to be released …

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    • Vagabond Journey February 25, 2013, 1:53 am

      @the candy trail Excellent! Looking forward to reading them. Really glad we had the chance to meet, and I’m looking forward to the next time our paths cross 🙂

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  • James J Taizhou CLong February 25, 2013, 3:21 am

    I quite enjoyed the article. I wonder if some travellers on here live interchangable lives as they travel to a new destination and somehow become more local to their position and are working for similar goals as the other ‘ratracers’. I would say that I am interchangable; nothing beats finding a new place to call home with the excitement of the culture and curiousity of finding out what is around that next street corner. I find now working in Taizhou it is still exciting but I am still trying to make a life by saving and planning how I will sustain myself. I was but a rat a mere 6 months ago back in Canada and it certainly is a different life. I do agree with the idea of wasting your life on pursuits like retirement, pension and all that ‘Death of a Salesman’ like approach only to have it taken away by a greedy society to sick to consider the ethical ramifications. What I was attempting to communicate was the fact that when we remain in a place for a long enough period are we really still the care free traveller destined to live no worries and follow our path with little impediments…

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    • Vagabond Journey February 25, 2013, 5:27 am

      @James J Taizhou CLong It is my impression that when you’re living in a place temporarily and working a job that you plan to end when a contract expires that you’re not really in the rat race — you’re just working. If anyone of you at Clong got fired tomorrow I can’t imagine that you would do anything more than shrug, say oh well, and move on. It seems to me that the goal for many perpetual travelers working abroad is to more closely experience the culture they’re in, do an interesting job, save some money, and then leave before you become too much a part of the landscape. But I have to say that there is often a big difference between the goals of a perpetual traveler and an expat. While it’s true that there are many expats that are essentially “drop outs” there is another sect who live the typical rat race type of jobs in the foreign context. So I have to agree with you here about the fact that going abroad for work, in and of itself, does not constitute dropping out of the rat race. It’s a matter of lifestyle, intentions, and objectives.

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  • Uzuoma February 25, 2013, 3:28 am

    ”It is my impression that fear is misappropriated in many cultures. So many teach their members to live lives fearing death, when we should really be fearing not fully living.”
     
    So true for modern societies. This is also one of the reasons primitive African culture attracts to me ( the same could count for other primitive societies). Instead of fearing death, they celebrate it. Even nowadays when you’ll go to an African funeral you’ll encounter happiness and joy instead of grieving. You’ll see posters of elder people around the streets who have recently died. I think my surname ”Onwudiegwu”, best exemplifies this as it means ”Death is beautiful” in Igbo language. A lot of people look at me weird and don’t understand when I tell them.

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  • melissa jones February 28, 2013, 6:00 pm

    This post is incredibly eye opening and touching. I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve gone through a number of the posts on your website, and I have loved everything I’ve read so far. I love your travel stories and experiences. I have so many ideas now that you have inspired! With this post, you had me at ‘perpetual traveler’. I continuously dream of travelling as much of the world as I can (yes, to the extreme you do) when I am done school, and I will do my absolute best to let nothing get in the way of that dream. Not even my father’s worried comments about how he doesn’t want his baby daughter to take on this massive planet alone. It’s so important to get up and do what you love every single day. Throughout my 18 years I’ve noticed how easy it is to do that by being uninfluenced by society and have little care towards what people think.
    I don’t know how I’d be able to live with myself knowing that I am not doing what I love because I let other people’s discouraging opinions get through to me. So this post was good for me to read—it really brought my hopes (and motivation) back up. Never have I been one to go very long without change. And I’ve definitely never been one with the ability to stay in the same spot for too long…unless it’s my bed. Before school starts. I’ve always known that a life of travelling is the life for me. I have done a nice bit of travelling already, and I thrive off of it. I love experiencing all the aspects of different cultures, whether it is food, tradition, love or religion. Also, I love taking in how beautiful God made this world!
    “Wasted money can be earned again, security ebbs and flows, possessions and people come and go, but there’s no redemption for wasted time. Putting up the best years of a life in an all or nothing bet on the future is an insane gamble that I don’t have balls enough to take. But it is a gamble that is so normal in the cultures of the over-developed world that alternatives often seem obscure and distant.”
    I love what you have said here. It is so important, and so true. I look for every adrenaline-inducing opportunity I can. It is ‘insane’ for somebody to be living a life they don’t want, when they could be living to their full potential. Everybody can live to their full potential.
    Anyway, all of your posts have been inspiring but this one out of all has touched me the most. It’s very deep and enigmatic. And thanks for the recommendation of CandyTrail! I love travel blogs like the ones you two have created. They keep me motivated to fulfill my dreams. Thanks for providing such cool stories, observations, and lessons.
    Keep inspiring!

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  • Taniasol July 22, 2013, 4:15 pm

    Liked it a lot! I have travelled loads — before I had my three boys and with them as well. They are not so adventurous as me, though. I wanted to take them to really long travels, living in many countries… their father didn’t agree. We ended up travelling when we could and they grew up in three countries. Result: wonderful open two young adults and a pre-teen, who already speak four languages… and love to throw themselves in multicultural situations. When we are free spirits who feel as you describe in this article, we teach our children that the world is primarily a gorgeous and rewarding playground. And for me there is nothing more beautiful than passing on to your children the fantastic adventure that life can be — and is.

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  • hansi mann January 6, 2014, 11:33 am

    Hi. I love your websites articles, esp. the interview with MRP. I hadn’t heard of him before but see life very much the way he does. We all exit in the end, so why not live on our won terms?
    I’ve also been a perpetual traveler, now in my sixties and slowing down a bit. Those four-star hotel rooms now look pretty good after so many hostels. I’ve tried to settle down but find myself bored with the familiar now that I know there is so much more out there, and the prospect of meeting like-minded travelers is always encouraging. One is never alone. (I actually ran into a guy I met in Peru thirty years before. He turned up in my living room in the Middle East, a friend of a friend. This shows the world is round. ; )
    Good luck to you guys. — H.

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    • Wade Shepard January 6, 2014, 9:40 pm

      Thanks. Keep going, it’s too hard to stop that inertia.

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