Being able to do something useful makes all the difference in the world when you want to travel the world for free or for almost nothing.
The fact that I can write, edit, work on computers, fix cars, and wash dishes means that I can go just about anywhere and trade my skills for whatever I need.
World Travel for Almost Nothing Tip #5:
Make yourself Useful.
Whether you cook, clean, or practice medicine the skills you’ve worked hard to develop will help you to be welcome wherever you go. If you are a carpenter or a mechanic, you can probably find everything you need in return for your skills. If you’re good at eating chips and playing World of Warcraft, well, it might be harder to find someone who is willing to trade food or lodging for those skills…but in this world, anything is possible.
In fact, lots of people opt to take actual jobs that involve travel. Working on cruise ships, airlines, tour guiding, and many more jobs actually pay you to travel…that’s almost better than free.
The key to this is that it takes time. You can’t step off the plane and simply say, here I am! You have to talk with people, you have to interact, you have to let people know that you have something to offer. So if you want to get that free vacation rental in Bermuda for three days, you better work your ass off figuring out who you know has connections there or using the internet to network virtually.
Another skill that has really worked in my benefit is being a teacher and a Native English Speaker. You can usually find someone who wants to trade what you need for language lessons.
This is actually, a very hard list to order – mainly because the particular time and experience I had in each place weighs just as heavily as the place itself. I didn’t realize that ranking these would be so difficult. Not only is it hard to rank the best from the places I’ve lived – it’s equally hard to rank the worst. In the middle, each place had positive and negative qualities that would change the ranking. Perhaps the only way to do this is to rank these places based on whether I would want to move there again with all other things being equal.
After getting started, I’ve realized that it only makes sense to rank the Top-10. As for the others, I’ve put them in an approximate order – but in general aside from general top and bottom of the list groupings – it’s pretty hard to juggle or rank them.
Looking at this list – it’s interesting to see that I’ve lived in six countries and seven U.S. States. My top 4 all have more than 1-million people. I’ve lived in four state capitals and nine cities of 500,000 population or more. I’ve lived in the largest cities in Turkey, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. In my top-10 are cities in Turkey, Hawaii, Washington State, Oregon, and Indonesia. I’m surprised that California isn’t in that group. The bottom line is that I like living in large cities next to the ocean, preferably with a Mediterranean or tropical climate, plenty of diversity, and at least one university and plenty of public transit options.
Izmir is a special place. It’s a port city on the Aegean and the gateway to the Turkish and Greek Aegean Islands. Izmir is cosmopolitan, modern, ancient, and laid back all at the same time. Izmir literally has it all. The caveat, of course, is that since I was last there in 2012 – a lot has happened. The Syrian civil war changed the population dynamic and the heavy hand of Erdogan and his process of re-Islamization may have drastically changed Izmir from my memories. Certainly it has changed, I’m just not certain how much.
No matter if Istanbul has changed or not – there is no place like it in the world. There are two places that I consider to be the center of the world. Istanbul is one of them and see below for the other. The entirety of human history and civilization meets in the crossroads of the planet. This astounding place with so many stories, so many traditions, and so many people. Istanbul contradicts itself. It is both East and West, a land city and a water city, secular and religious, expensive and cheap, easy and difficult. Every big city is a masterpiece – but Istanbul – it is more.
Honolulu is the other city I consider to be a center of the world. If you were to poke a straight hole through the globe, you could almost run it straight from Istanbul to Honolulu. Much smaller than Istanbul, much less history, and much less important in terms of human culture and politics – and yet – Honolulu is where the entire world dreams of going and you can meet anyone from anywhere on Oahu. It truly is ‘The Gathering Place’. Oahu is expensive, crowded, and remote – but the weather is beautiful, the people are generally peaceful and kind, and while very small in comparison to the world- it has an outsized place in the imaginations and dreams of humanity. At number three is living pretty much anywhere on Oahu including Honolulu, Lanikai and Kailua, the North Shore, etc.
Bellingham will always be a place that I hold dearly in my heart. The sheer magnitude of outdoor beauty from Mt. Baker to the San Juan Islands. Sitting between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. The terminus for the Alaska Ferry. The great beer, the hippie/environmental vibe combined with a great university. It’s just a cool place. I made a great decision when I decided to live there.
Like Bellingham but bigger and with a more robust tech industry, amazing museums, great architecture, and instead of being between Seattle and Vancouver, it’s between Vancouver, Bellingham, and Portland. Great music and art, lots of cool neighborhoods, amazing restaurants.
I enjoyed living in Fez. It’s an exotic city with a lot of the amenities of the West and great markets, food, entertainment, and a robust community of expats and educated locals. Fez is the only place in my Top-10 that isn’t a water city.
Kapa’a is one of only two small towns that made it onto my top-10 list – the main reason is because I lived right next to the beach there for a couple of years. Kapa’a itself had a pretty great selection of restaurants and diversity of cultures for such a small town – but really it was waking up and going for a swim every day.
Parapat is the other small town that made it to my list. I’m sure it is a totally different experience now – but swimming in Lake Toba, taking the trip to Samosir Island, drinking that coconut wine and playing guitars with the Batak men in the evenings, hiking into the jungle and finding giant fruit bats and orangutang – these were high points in my life.
Portland is a cool place but I’d never live there again. It’s gotten too expensive, too big, too weirdly politically correct. I love the food, the quirky neighborhoods, the music, the markets, Powell’s books – but I wouldn’t live there again. I will be happy to visit over and over again though…
The following are the cities that I would live in again – if there were no other choices available. They are good places.
Tacoma seems like it just might be cool. I need more information but if I had to choose one town from all of those not in the Top-10, Tacoma would probably be it because of proximity to Seattle, Portland, Canada, the Pacific and the universities, art, music, and culture.
Mendocino is beautiful and honestly, I would consider living there – but it suffers from the same issues as a lot of towns on the bottom of this list – too far from a city, not close enough to warm oceans.
Manisa was exotic and cool but the summers were sweltering and the real attraction was being close to Izmir. Three things I did love about Manisa – the hiking, the wild horses in Niobe, and the Messer Festival.
I feel lucky to have grown up in Big Bear Lake. I also recognize how limiting that was. It’s a beautiful place. If I were to live in Southern California again, however, I would be more towards the San Diego area.
I liked Sefrou but it’s a bit too big and a bit too small. If I were to go back to Morocco, I would pick a city or town on the coast that was either bigger or smaller. The biggest draw to Sefrou for me would be friends and family who are there.
Raleigh was another city I appreciated and enjoyed. Simply too far from the beach and the whole Southern approach to history including confederate monuments etc gets under my skin.
As for these last places (below), I guess I’ve said all I needed to say about them. I have no desire to visit or live in any of these places again. Reedsport is the only one that I ever loved – but it broke my heart and I have no desire to ever go back. I also loved being a farm kid in Myrtle Creek, I loved our property but not all that went with it, not the community, not the people, not the horror of my experience there.
I loved living in Seattle. I had been there for the protests that shut down the WTO in 1999. Seattle has great art, music, food, museums, and is surrounded by some of the most epic nature of any city in the world. I probably would have stayed there if the start up I was working for, TechPlanet, hadn’t of been an early crash and burn victim of the dot com crash in 2000. When I first started working there, I was commuting and after that couch surfing during the work week with friends in Shoreline and coworkers in Greenwood. Techplanet sent a bunch of us to Houston to take a crash course and become network engineers and all around tech gurus and after that three of us from the same cohort and office rented a house in Green Lake. We had stock options, we had good salaries, we were working in one of the fastest growing and best funded dot-com startups of that era – and then the venture capital dried up and one day we went to work and the corporate office in Menlo Park, California had simply closed. Suddenly, there weren’t all that many jobs in tech and those with more experience snapped up the jobs at Microsoft and Amazon.
One of my room mates became an insurance salesman, another one teamed up with some of the other guys from our old office to try to build a consulting firm, and I bought a VW van, got a job as a community organizer with ACORN (Association of Communities Organizing for Reform Now) and began attending a lot of anti-capitalist, anti-government rallies and meetings. ACORN trained me in identifying discontent, organizing community members, and working towards legislative and social change (they also trained President Obama in this). I was working in poor communities like White Center and South Seattle and I was mainly working with people who were the victims of predatory lenders. Their neighborhoods were being gentrified and they were being preyed on by companies like Countrywide Mortgage. It was agonizing and horrifying work. It was terrible to see what was being done. These were the early days of what would lead to the Great Recession of 2008 and the robbers were feasting on the flesh of the poor with impunity. I suggested radical action – too radical for ACORN – specifically, a neighborhood group I’d organized in South Seattle said they didn’t want the gentrification to continue AND they wanted the police to have more presence in the community – I suggested they break a window in the new local Starbucks every night. ACORN asked me to leave.
I moved out of my house, moved into my bus and began writing what would eventually become my first book Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond. The first title was Our Time is Our Own. My goal was to move into my bus and demonstrate and document a viable alternative to what I had begun referring to as ‘the money chase’. I lived in my VW van, did gig work on the side including ghost writing, web design, tile work, yard work, dumpster diving, book selling, and whatever else I could find. I endeavored to learn how to ‘work the system’ like ‘the system was working everyone’ and I used everything I could figure out – food stamps, unemployment, food banks, soup kitchens. I became a full time activist working with newspaper strikers, Food Not Bombs, and every other cause I felt sympathy for. It was a lot of work to not have a job. By winter, I was exhausted and it was getting too cold to sleep in a bus. In summer and spring it had been easy to find girls to cuddle with who wanted to explore my alternative lifestyle – but in winter – I was cold and alone most of the time.
One day in December of 2000, I drove up to Bellingham to see friends. I stopped at a Native American Casino along the way. I hit a jackpot on the slot machine of $1700. On the way back to Seattle the next day, I hit another jackpot of $1900. I bought a ticket to China and applied for a job teaching English north of Beijing. They offered me the job. I flew out of Seattle at 10:45 am on February 28, 2001. The Nisqually Earthquake hit ten minutes later. It was a 6.8 m earthquake and shut down the airport! It was quite a send off!
Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and while it isn’t the political capitol of Washington, it is the cultural capitol. With a total metropolitan population of about 4 million Seattle has a bit of everything you could want – unless you want more than two months of sunshine a year.
Seattle has an amazing jazz and arts scene. It is the home to Amazon, Costco, Microsoft, the Seattle Seahawks, the Seattle Mariners, Starbucks, Nordstrom and many other big businesses and teams. I’m grateful to have been there when the Sonics still played there.
Thinking of Bellingham, Washington always makes me happy. I’m not going to lie and tell you that my life there was always happy, but for me, Bellingham was a magical place. I rolled in during the worst blizzard in decades. I wasn’t worried, I had a huge 4×4 and had first learned to drive on mountain roads in blizzard conditions up in Big Bear Lake.
I’ll never forget those moments on January 2nd, 1996, of driving up I-5 and seeing frozen waterfalls on the side of the highway as I blasted Rusted Root and the Grateful Dead on my far too expensive car stereo system. My dog was next to me, everything I owned was in the back of the truck, and the world was good. I’d left my terrible childhood memories, my troubled times in the Marine Corps, and all the drama with the girl in Raleigh behind. I’d been the one pushing for Bellingham when we were talking about moving together. She’d wanted either Boulder or Las Cruces – this was my town.
My dark blue 1988 full size Ford Bronco with big ass tires had brought me through the Rockies and across the continent. I’d passed through and by Redding, Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, and Tacoma without stopping. I had no idea where I would live, what work I would do, or what would happen – but Bellingham would be home for the next five years except a couple of small breaks in Juneau, Alaska and London, England in 1998.
I got a coffee at a hippie coffee house on High Street and began looking for work and a place to live using The Echo – a free classified newspaper – it was like Craigslist but in newspaper form. I quickly fell in love with KISM 92.9 FM Independent Rock – the most amazing radio station I’d ever listened to. Great DJs, amazing announcers, absolutely amazing music programming, and superb fun shows. The morning show DJ, Dave Walker, would end every show with his tagline “You live in the coolest place in the world, go out and enjoy it.”
He wasn’t lying. Bellingham has everything. The San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker, the Northern Cascades, the Alaska Ferry system, great music and art scenes, Western Washington University, amazing literary talent, beautiful gardens and forests, spectacular beaches, and four glorious seasons.
Those first months in Bellingham weren’t easy. No one wanted a new roommate with a dog but finally, I found a house full of heroin addicts who rented me a room. I got a job at a saw mill in Ferndale, Washington. The junkies were too much for me – it was a constant threat situation and it came down to either living with the junkies and having my dog or finding my dog a new home so that I could find a new home. Using The Echo, I found a cool guy with a cool family who loved my dog. It was heartbreaking, but it was my only option. After that, I found a very cool roommate situation in the hippie burg of Fairhaven on the south side of Bellingham. The guy who adopted my dog helped me to find a job with the company he painted for. I escaped from the mill and the heroin house. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one.
As a painter I made a bunch of new friends. I also made new friends through my new roommate, Alyssa. Every day, I listened to 92.9 FM while I was working. One day, I told my co-worker – I’m going to get a job at that radio station. At a blues festival hosted by the station, I saw my chance. I met the programming director, a guy named Ken Richards who was also one of the DJs – I cornered him in the beer tent and told him “I want to work for 92.9 FM, I don’t care what it takes – I’ll clean toilets if I have to.” He gave me his card and told me to call him the next week. I did. He offered me a job as an producer/intern on ‘The Morning Deal’ – I would have to quit my painting job and it was a serious pay cut, but I took it.
Over the next year, I managed to take every job that came available. I took the late night DJ slots, became the full time producer of The Morning Deal, did part time work for the station’s engineer cleaning the garage, cutting brush, wiring new equipment in – anything – then I took a job as a commercial copy writer. Radio didn’t pay great, but I loved it. That guy who I’d heard when I first rolled into town “You live in the coolest place in the world, so go out and enjoy it” – he became one of my best friends. I started writing a weekly column for The Echo called Rambling Man. Between the radio and The Echo, I was suddenly kind of famous. I had also enrolled at Whatcom Community College. My life was full and beautiful. I met a great girl and we began seeing each other.
The girl was great but she had two children from previous relationships and I wasn’t ready to be anyone’s dad. Then, one day, I met a girl I fell head over heels for – she was all I could think about for years. I pursued her with a single minded determination that utterly failed. All she ever wanted from me was my friendship, but I wanted more. That desire (the root of all suffering) destroyed me, destroyed my ego, and left me disjointed and dis-satisfied. It left me completely unsettled despite my very cool life, great friends, minor fame, and decent income. I wanted her and since I couldn’t have her, I wanted more from every other aspect of my life.
In 1998, I bought a 1976 VW bus, left my job at the station and moved out of my apartment. I decided to go to Alaska and see if I could shake the sickness that had enveloped my soul. It didn’t work. I sold the bus and went to London, England to pursue something else – but it didn’t work. My desire for her was like a fungus that had grown inside me and wouldn’t let me do anything else. In both places (and in Bellingham) opportunities were presented to me like golden apples – but I could see nothing but her. I kept coming back, trying to impress her, trying to win her. It didn’t work.
Back in Bellingham, I started a magazine and co-founded an early internet startup. Once again, there were plentiful opportunities presented to me in work, in life, and in love – but she was all I saw or wanted. It was a sickness, this love and obsession – and whenever I would find myself healing from it – then she would appear – at a party, a call out of the blue, in the street, at a coffee shop, or showing up at my door. She wanted me in her life and yet, the one thing she didn’t want was a romantic relationship with me. It was all I wanted. Finally, I realized, I just had to get away from her. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, but she had eaten my soul.
I took a tech job at a start-up in Seattle. The first months involved a four-hour commute each day from Bellingham but eventually, I rented a house in Green Lake with new co-workers. The girl would show up still or she would call me – but I was healing – I was recognizing that I needed to end the friendship and put some emotional distance between us. It still amazes me that she never wanted me – and I still wonder what the world might have been like if she had. She’s the one part of Bellingham that doesn’t make me happy when I remember that place.
In any event, that’s what led to me leaving Bellingham, abandoning my startup, and changing my life – again.
Bellingham is a treasure. It sits 20 miles south of the Canadian Border and 90 miles north of Seattle. It is sandwiched between the San Juan Islands and the North Cascade Range of mountains. There are about 92,000 people who live in Bellingham and it is the northernmost city in the USA with a population of more than 50,000. There are numerous lakes, streams, waterfalls, and great hiking, mountain biking, and outdoor recreation of all kinds in the area. Summers don’t get hotter than about 90 Fahrenheit and winters can get incredibly cold – well below zero if caught in a Nor’easter. The population of Bellingham has nearly doubled since the time I arrived there – I’ve heard that Fairhaven is now more of a retirement community than a hippie burg – which is too bad. As a side note – I’ve just looked at the cost of buying or renting a family home in Bellingham due in no small part to nostalgia in writing this – it turns out that the increase in population has led to a housing shortage – good old B’ham, which used to be cheap – is now way out of range for nearly everyone with rents nearly as high as in Honolulu and Seattle…All I have to say is it’s a damn shame…