A Nomad’s Dirty Little Secret

April 4, 2011 |

Since starting Nomadtopia, I’ve sometimes avoided including certain content in a post or in a Twitter update. I’ve avoided talking outright about some things because they make me feel like my claim to the word nomad is less valid. But I realized that this attitude goes against one of my goals for this site, which is to highlight the variety of ways one can create a personal vision of Nomadtopia, and how to creatively incorporate everything that’s important to you—travel, home, relationships, hobbies, and more.

So it’s time to come clean and share my dirty little secret: I own the apartment in Buenos Aires where Roberto and I live. And for the last several years, in between trips to the U.S. and other random jaunts within South America, I have spent about 10 months of every year in Argentina. For now, while Roberto and I prepare for the next step, this is my Nomadtopia.

I read about all these travelers/digital nomads/adventurers who sell everything (including their house) and hit the road, and I fear my story doesn’t “count” because I didn’t do it that way—in fact, I did it backwards.

Even when I was on a traditional career track and in a steady relationship, I didn’t ever assume that one of the expected next steps, buying a house, was a given for me. Buying property, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived at the time, simply wasn’t within my reach financially. And as my interest in travel increased, along with dreams of perhaps living abroad one day or becoming even more nomadic, I wasn’t even sure it would ever be the right choice for me. I didn’t want to be tied down to one location, and the responsibility of owning, and paying for, a home.

So I sold my car, lived with roommates (once I was single again), never bought fancy furniture, and kept my expenses low in order to be able to travel. In 2004, I finally had enough money saved to leave some things in storage and travel around the world for nine months. After that trip I bounced between coasts and continued paring down my possessions, mostly by necessity. By the time I left for Argentina in 2007, I had sold everything but my books and some mementos, which are currently hanging out with my parents in New Jersey.

I arrived in Argentina with two suitcases, a location-independent business, and no plan other than to stay for six months, maybe a year. I found that I really liked Buenos Aires, made good friends, enjoyed getting to know the culture and the city and improving my Spanish, and didn’t have any pressing need to leave. And so I stayed.

After I’d been in Buenos Aires for nearly two years, it was clear how difficult it can be for a foreigner on a tourist visa to find a long-term, affordable place to live in the city (without forking out six months’ or even a whole year’s worth of rent upfront). I went back to living with roommates for a while to save some money.

I never would have asked, but my parents offered to loan me the money to buy an apartment (or condo, for those who have trouble imagining that one can buy an “apartment”) in Buenos Aires, where the majority of real estate transactions are done in cash. I took them up on their offer and chose a one-bedroom apartment on the top (ninth, tenth if you’re American) floor of a mid-sized apartment building in a typical middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires. It has a terrace almost as big as the interior space, and probably cost about one-fifth or less of what the same place would have cost in San Francisco. I (usually) love it.

But I’ll admit, I’m still not always sure it was the right decision. I may have arrived with just two suitcases, but here I am once again with an apartment full of stuff (purchased here or brought down from the States, one suitcase-full at a time). Repairs are a drag and an expense. And although my payments to my parents are less than what I would be paying for a tourist apartment here, they are higher than what Roberto was paying for the apartment he was renting when we met. Whether the costs seem like a bargain or a burden, the fact remains: as long as I have this apartment, I will always have to be sure I have enough money to pay for it.

People have assumed that my buying property meant I was “settling down,” but despite everything I outlined above, I don’t see it that way. As a serial expat I know so eloquently put it, “A house is just a house—it doesn’t have to be a ball and chain.” Indeed! In fact, owning an apartment offers some great advantages for Nomadtopians. I love to travel but also enjoy being a bit of a homebody, and it’s handy to have a place in the world to call home. It’s also nice to have a place to leave some stuff, if you don’t necessarily want to sell it all. And I can stay here as long or as short a period as I want, without signing a lease (this is particularly notable in a city where the typical lease runs two years). And when Roberto and I start our more nomadic life together, we can rent out the apartment, or even do home exchange with homeowners in other parts of the world, an opportunity I’m really excited about.

So that’s the story, and I’m not going to hide it or feel embarrassed about it. Homeowner or not, I have plenty of crazy adventures up my sleeve. Every day we are moving closer to our ultimate plan to have this apartment as a home base, when needed, and spend the majority of the year moving around and exploring other parts of the world. (In case you’re wondering, the only things stopping us from doing this all right now are wanting to save some more money, planning our wedding for early next year, and Roberto’s job.)

What do you think? Can you have a “home” (whether you own it or not) and be a nomad, too?

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