I picked up the emerald dress, turning the soft jersey cotton over in my hands, looking for stains, smudges, or smears. I lifted it to my face and inhaled with a little trepidation. Good enough. I pulled it over my head for the third day in a row and packed the rest of my belongings into my backpack. Today was moving day, onto a new country.
Such indifference to my appearance would have been unthinkable four years ago. Instead, I played the part of the six-figure career woman with the large suburban house and designer goods to match. My life was full of gadgets, upscale cars, and two-week tropical holidays to rest and heal from the corporate drain.
But that was then, before we endured a stacked series of tragic events in only a few months, before we made the decision to change our own lives forever. (Full dramatic story relived here and here.) Now I live with only three dresses, one pair of jeans, a few tops, three pairs of shoes, six pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, a small satchel of modest jewelry and one lipstick.
I also carry one very full passport, and I've never been happier.
I traded in my designer shoes for afternoons teaching English to working kids in Bolivia. Flashy purses and jewelry helped fund that afternoon soaring amidst the clouds in Argentina. Having conquered a paralyzing fear, I ran off the edge of a mountain. The intense build-up in that few seconds as I barreled towards the edge, with my partner yelling "Corre, corre, corre!" in my ear, gave way to silence and ultimate freedom. Wind whistling, floating, circling, with nothing between me and the ground but a thin piece of canvas.
That leap? It felt familiar.
The time between making the decision to travel and actually executing our plans was almost two years. During that period, doubt circled and raged against my husband and I. We battled scrutiny from our co-workers, friends, family, and ourselves. We didn't know if we'd enjoy it, if our relationship would survive it, and if we'd too readily miss the comforts of home. All we knew was that we had to try - we were hovering on the scary precipice of our life dreams, and one tiny thought kept us going.
We knew that no matter what happened, we'd never regret trying.
And when we got on that first plane, all doubt washed away. Nothing was between us and an infinite open road. We achieved real freedom on that day almost four years ago.
Visits home are interesting.
Since we left we have returned several times at our leisure, free from asking for corporate permission or by banking sick days. Drawn by a wedding, a funeral, and some homesickness, each visit reminds us of why we left. We dearly love and enjoy our family and friends, but feel no draw to rejoin North American culture.
And it didn't take us long to figure that out. One trip to a department store, where I stood facing a wall of football-inspired garden gnomes and the sign: "Collect them all! For only $80 each!" sent me running and crying. I was dumbfounded by the emptiness of it, and the marketing imperative that such gnomes were somehow needed. That gnome, and the countless shelves of endless crap that lines such stores represented a consumer culture I could no longer fathom.
A lot of our relationships at home have strengthened by our absence, others have died away. One thing is for sure though, each time we return, I consistently feel judged by what I don't have. Those roaming looks up and down my body, lingering on the same shirt they saw me in yesterday, always make me feel quite small.
But that's okay, too. That's worth it, too.
Those kids in Bolivia, the ones who were lucky if they got to go to school, the ones who looked at our English lessons as a way to improve relations with the tourists (their customers) on the streets - they taught us a lot.
Their families were fed on what they earned in the streets, my malcontent at only having two pairs of shoes dissolved when I saw their homemade sandals made of old tires. Now I can see that our struggle to downsize from 2,100 square feet full of possessions to just 130 litres of combined backpack space was ridiculous, trivial, and embarrassing.
We adapted, we learned. We appreciate each unique experience; we have long forgotten what we left behind. We are purely addicted to seeing new landscapes in foreign lands, to breathing, hearing and tasting new cultures. We thrive with the challenge of the unknown, and love wondering where we will go next.
And now that we have uncovered that living on the road is cheaper than living in one place, and that we have skills that can allow us to sustain an income online, we have no plans to stop.
To think that a garden gnome, or a dozen fresh-smelling jersey cotton dresses may have kept us from this in the past is now inconceivable. We would have missed out on so many breathtaking experiences: leading dog-sleds near the Arctic Circle, gazing upon the world wonder of Petra, and even becoming godparents to a Honduran baby.
It's all a trade-off, in the end. Every 'thing' purchased could be a life-changing experience lost.
Will you regret it?
Dalene is a digital nomad who has been traveling the world since 2009. Follow her journey at: http://www.hecktictravels.com
All images courtesy of Dalene Heck.
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