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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ten Years a Nomad

A Traveler's Journey Home

Matthew Kepnes

St. Martin's Press



Stepping Out the Door

He who is outside his door has the hardest part of the journey behind him.


DO YOU EVER HOPE FOR AN EPIPHANY? That supposed moment of revelation or insight—the kind that happens near the end of a story where everything makes sense. In the story, the hero has struggles and doubts, and then something—it could be as small as the sight of a bird’s nest in a tree or snow falling from the sky—happens that clarifies everything. Suddenly, everything in the hero’s life seems to make sense. The hero has figured it out. They’re a changed person. And because the thing that set it off is so seemingly insignificant, the implication is that your moment of epiphany is out there waiting for you, in the ordinary things that you take for granted.

You could change—really change—tomorrow.

It’s a nice belief, right?

But life doesn’t work like that.

We change all the time. The you you are now is different than the you from ten years ago, and the you in ten years will be different still. But the thought that we can pinpoint that change to a single, story-ready moment is something out of fiction. “Aha” moments are a rarity. Learning and change—even mind-altering learning and radical change—aren’t spontaneous, and don’t happen all at once. Only with distance, as we look back at the narrative of our existence, can we tell there was a moment when our old self disappeared, and a new person emerged, with new eyes and perspective. But even that moment wasn’t when the change occurred, it was simply when we first notice it. This is the nature of evolution. Gradual, imperceptible change that accumulates over time until our first memory bears no resemblance to what we are looking at in present day.

That’s how it was for me. I didn’t become a nomad the day I booked my Costa Rica trip. It wasn’t as if I was Corporate Matt, and then my first day standing beneath a jungle waterfall a few weeks later, I became Nomadic Matt. When I planned the trip, there was no sense that I was also planning to change my life, that my trip would be the first step to a rejection of nearly everything and everyone I had ever known. I had no idea I was setting in motion a journey that would not end, perhaps ever, and would cost me the price of a nice house in the suburbs, kicking my way from city to city, country to country, hostel to hostel; into, onto, and through more museums, excursions, bus trips, and food stalls than I can even remember.

I was nowhere near that fearless.

All I wanted was a vacation. Those two weeks to get me through the next fifty.

As I boarded a flight from Boston to San José, Costa Rica, near the end of April 2003, I was petrified. Going to Costa Rica with a small tour group was the safest “riskiest” thing I could do. I wasn’t interested in a new life—I just wanted to go on some hikes, see some waterfalls and volcanoes, hang out on the beach, and make it home in one piece. Simple. Easy. Safe.

All of that other stuff—the freedom, the adventure, the possibility—the things that make you fall in love with travel lay in the future.

* * *

EXITING BAGGAGE CLAIM in San José, my eyes darted left and right. As I made my way into the arrivals area, taxi drivers pounced on me. I was fresh meat. It couldn’t have been more obvious to them if I was hanging upside from a hook in a shop window. They spoke with such rapidity that my high school Spanish couldn’t comprehend a syllable.

“Necesitas un taxi? A donde vas? Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”

“No I don’t want a ride. Uhhhhh … No me gusta,” I said trying to remember the right words. “Yo tengo un … driver.… No, no necesito un taxi.”

The unfamiliarity. The discomfort. The entire experience was overwhelming.

I looked around for someone with a sign with my name. My tour came with an optional airport pickup and, if I had learned anything from my parents, the most important part of any trip was responsibly navigating airport logistics. Check into the flight the night before. Get to the airport early. The airline says two hours before for international flights, let’s make it three just in case there is traffic. Pack your pillow and snacks for the plane. Find the cheapest rental car or the freest shuttle. Whatever you do, don’t get ripped off.

In spite of me having spent God knows how many hours trying to avoid even the possibility of uncertainty upon arrival, my driver was nowhere to be found. With my heart racing and my palms sweaty, I paced around the arrivals hall, the tropical humidity only adding to my anxiety, absurd visions of spending my vacation trapped in the airport dancing in my head.

“Come on taxi real cheap,” said a man approaching me.

“No,” I said, sure that the invitation into the backseat of his taxi was an obvious ploy to kidnap and ransom me. Why had I done this? What was I thinking? I can’t do this. Even if this man defied all the Central American stereotypes bouncing around my cloistered New Englander mind, how would I even know that he was taking me in the right direction? It’s not like I knew these roads.

The foreignness of where I was suddenly hit me like a boxer landing an uppercut on his unsuspecting opponent. Even in something as universal as an airport—with a layout like every other airport—I was still in foreign place. Even an airport was a different experience.

As I entertained the thought of calling off the trip (Maybe I was in over my head.), there in the back, standing near a pole, was my driver casually holding a sign with my name on it. Staring into space, he looked like he didn’t care one way or the other if I actually showed up.

“I’m Matt,” I said as I walked over him.

“Okay, vamos,” he replied, grabbing my bag and ushering me to his dilapidated car.

In better days, the driver’s car might have been a nice Toyota. Now, the sun-bleached blue paint was peeling to reveal a Swiss-cheesed rust finish. Inside, the fabric was equally worn. The floor was littered with trash and old soda cans. I don’t know what I was expecting from my ride, but this definitely wasn’t it.

As we pulled onto the highway, the nervous anxiety turned into pride. I had passed my first test. I had navigated the airport and found my ride! It was a small victory but it was my victory. Now, I was here. Settling into the threadbare backseat, I looked out the window and got my first glimpse of Costa Rica. There were cloud-covered mountains in the distance and banana fields as far as the eye could see. The blue sky was dotted with enough white, puffy clouds to make Bob Ross feel right at home.

But the pride (and the visions of a tropical paradise) quickly faded away as small houses with corrugated roofs and bars on their windows began to dot the highway into San José. I could see tiny dirt roads filled with potholes and trash strewn everywhere. Was this a shantytown?

As we entered San José, more homes sealed like prisons popped up, squished together on streets with run-down buildings and trash. With a burst of embarrassment, I remembered the manicured, middle-class suburb where I grew up. I’d been sheltered. I’d never seen anywhere this impoverished. I’d never had to navigate a road that was more pothole than road, or watch out for piles of trash littering the pavement as I walked. Boarded-up houses were reserved for the “bad” side of town, the side privileged kids like me stayed away from unless we were trying to get back at our parents or seem cool to our friends.

And just like that, all of the ugly stereotypes of Central America I’d absorbed from the news media over the previous two decades leapt to the forefront of my mind: crime; guerillas; drug cartels; kidnapping; disease. I was raised to be afraid of places like this—“places to be avoided”—and now that lesson was bubbling back to the surface.

What the hell was I doing here? And where is this guy really taking me?

I was alone in a foreign country, in a car with a guy I didn’t know, who spoke a language I didn’t speak, and I had no idea where we were headed. This was not smart. This was not normal. This was not safe. This is why people don’t leave the country.

“Aqui,” the driver suddenly said, the third and final word in our entire exchange, his car and the escalating narrative in my head coming to a screeching halt at once. I was jolted back to reality and looked out the car window.

I had been so worried about “what ifs” that I missed the change in scenery. The neighborhood had changed. The homes were bigger, the roads were paved, the nearby park pristine, the streets clean. We were in front of a beautiful Spanish-style hotel. The scenery matched the expectations in my mind. And, to my young, inexperienced, sheltered self, that made me feel safer and reassured.

Okay, I thought to myself, maybe I was too quick to judge. This doesn’t seem bad at all.

The driver dropped my bag in the hotel lobby and left without a word. I didn’t even have a chance to tip him.

I gave my name to the front desk attendant, who scanned a sheet in front of him.

“Ahhh yes, excellent! Pura Vida!” he said, looking up with a smile. “Welcome to Costa Rica! Here’s your key. Everything is all set! This is the note from your tour leader.” He pointed to a sign on the desk that told us to enjoy our first day and to be back at 6:00 PM for a welcome meeting.

I walked to my room and saw another bag there. My roommate was already here. His leather backpack, the collared shirts neatly hung in the closet, the brown shoes laid out near the door, all spoke of a confidence that I was sorely lacking. He clearly wasn’t worried about the possibility of making a mad dash for the airport in the middle of the night because of a coup.

Sitting on my bed, I took a deep breath. I grew up a nerd. The kind that played Magic: The Gathering, D&D, and read Les Misérables (the unabridged version) for fun. I had been waiting for a growth spurt since I entered high school, but it stood me up at prom and at graduation, too. Even among my friends, I felt uncool. A nerd to the nerds, the one that got called last to hang out.

I brought the awkward nerdy voice in my head to college with me, so it didn’t matter how good my grades were, how much better my friends were. I still didn’t feel like I fit in. College was supposed to be a fresh start, but it never felt as if I was making much progress at creating a new, better me. There had been three other Matts in my residence hall, and I was the shortest out of all three (one was a basketball player). Suddenly, on the first day no less, I was known as “Mini-Matt.” That’s not a name you ever—ever—want to have. It was like a video game where you mess up early and know immediately that the whole rest of your turn is fucked. Better to just die and start over. My chance to reimagine my life was gone before I ever had a chance.

As freshman year ended, I hit the reset button and transferred to another school. If I could just go somewhere new, I thought, somewhere with fewer Matts, I could start again and define myself before others defined me. That would solve all my problems. All I needed was a fresh start and then I’d be able to write my own story from page one.

New clothes. New haircut. New me. I am THE Matt here.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I joined a fraternity, became social chair, developed a large network of friends, starting dating, and grew into my own skin. People just called me Matt. I learned to fake confidence. But faking confidence is different from owning it. Faking it didn’t get rid of the kid who felt like he looked like somebody’s younger brother. The one people didn’t really want to hang out with. The runt. Now, in a room four thousand miles from home, with a roommate I didn’t choose, I worried the next ten days was going to be high school and college (tries one and two) all over again.

Patterns like this are hard to break. We’re afraid of being hurt so we don’t let anyone get close enough to hurt us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my first chance to connect with a fellow traveler, to meet someone new on the road, and already I was fitting him into the old patterns of my life. Before we even exchanged a word, I was processing him through a lens colored by fear, anxiety, and rejection. It was, I understand now, the way I reacted to most new people. How long until they saw through my thin veneer of self-confidence? How long until they discovered the nerd underneath?

At the same time, the experience of transferring to a new college gave me a different pattern. I could, if I wanted to, write my own story. After all, nobody on this trip knew me. Of course, travel isn’t like going to a new college. Much less is familiar. Much more is uncomfortable. And because there are so many fewer points of reference from your old life, you have that much more freedom in crafting a new one.

The unfamiliarity of travel jolts you out of your familiar patterns. Who we are on the road is different from who we are at home. I don’t know if who we are on the road is closer to our real self than who we are at home—having changed so much in my life, I’m not sure if the idea of a real self is all that useful, honestly. But I can say that being on the road gave me the opportunity to stop faking confidence and start building it; to stop acting like a new person and to start becoming one.

* * *

IN COSTA RICA, I could create my own story free from the baggage of home. I didn’t know anyone’s past. They didn’t know mine. Our lives back home didn’t matter. No one cared. All that mattered was how we acted then and there.

And, if it didn’t work out? Who cared! I’d never see these people again anyways!

We all have an image of our ideal self in our minds. From the person who is a musical genius or can command an audience to the person who runs every day, tells witty jokes, reads a lot, or walks with confidence. In our minds, that ideal self is just being held back by the version of us who exists in everyday life. The one who justifies and rationalizes why you aren’t your ideal self and why you keep failing.

But in Costa Rica, those justifications and rationalizations melted away. I had a blank slate to be whoever I wanted. I could be the ideal funny me. I could wake up and say to myself, “What would funny, confident Matt do?” without worrying if people would go, “Hey that’s not the real you!” No one knew the real me. No one knew my shyness. My nerdiness. My insecurities. They just knew the now me, and as long as he was up for anything and didn’t act like a jerk, my fellow travelers were more than ready to start new friendships. Because they were in the exact same place I was—experimenting with their new selves, their fun, outgoing travel selves.

Funny, confident Matt took his first big swing when the group moved to Arenal, a small town in central Costa Rica renowned for its lake, hot springs, caving, a gigantic waterfall, and a volcano of the same name. At breakfast one morning, I asked two of the women in our group if they wanted to go hiking after lunch. I was not a hiker. I was not the kind of person who walked up to two strangers, even if we had become friendly over the prior week, and asked them to do anything, let alone hike. To my surprise, they said yes.

Later that afternoon, we took a taxi to the entrance of Arenal Volcano National Park and headed into the jungle, which often quickly thinned out to rocky trails spreading out like spider veins from the side of the mountains. These were remnants of eruptions long past. We wandered off trail and down gravel paths, seeing where they led for the sake of the discovery itself. I felt like Indiana Jones. I jumped over rocks and climbed boulders, got my new friends to take photos of me, followed unknown local birds as they flew around, and, eventually, got us very lost.

We wanted to reach the lake on the western side of the volcano in time for sunset, and nothing on our map was helping us find our way there. In my defense, the trail map our hotel provided was simple and very vague. It showed the “official” trail, but its many nameless tributaries were poorly marked—if they were even marked at all. Most of the time we weren’t even totally sure which trail we were on. Funny, confident Matt told himself this was all part of the fun of new travel adventures. Which it was, until the sun started to set.

Every trail we took, every bit of direction we got from hikers we passed seemed just to send us deeper into the forested slopes of the volcano. We went down trails that ended abruptly. We doubled back, found new trails, and the best we could do was go around in circles. As the sky turned a deep pink overhead, and day turned into night, mosquitoes began to hunt us by the scent of our sweat and animals came out of the brush to scavenge, no longer scared off by a thousand hiking tourists.

Then our flashlights died. In the creeping darkness, the three of us took turns using the light from our camera screens to illuminate our crappy map and divine the way back to the main road. With each false start my anxiety spiked and the trepidation within the group increased. I don’t remember who figured it out, or how, but finally we found our way to a dirt road that connected to the main highway. Roads meant cars. Cars meant people. People meant a way back.

When we got to the highway, it was empty. There were no cars. Tired and hungry, we began the long walk back to the hotel in silence. The whole way I worried that these two kind, trusting women would never talk to me again. Thankfully, before I could go too far down this spiral, a car appeared over the ridge behind us and slowed to a crawl when the driver spotted us along the side of the road. He stopped and asked if we needed a lift. Without a second thought, the three of us piled into the backseat. A week before I had been uncertain of how to get from the airport to the hotel, I had been terrified to get into anything that wasn’t an officially sanctioned tour bus and now I was hitchhiking.

As the driver pulled away, each of us turned to look at the mountain and watch it glow red as lava oozed down the side. It was the first moment in hours that any of us had stopped to appreciate the beauty that had brought us out on this hike in the first place. It was other-worldly. Instantly, our mood lifted. I’d had more excitement in half a day than I’d had in my entire life up to that point. And even more, I had a story. We had a story. A shared experience. One that bound us as travelers.

* * *

IN MY LIFE BACK HOME, I could plan out my days months in advance. I knew where every week would take me. There was no mystery, no “what’s around the next bend?” I’d wake up, get ready for work, commute, work, take a lunch, work again, commute home, make dinner, watch TV, vow to finally hit the gym tomorrow, and repeat for five days. There was little variation to that—maybe a happy hour, movie, or dinner here or there. On weekends, I ran errands.

Costa Rica was the opposite. Every day was unplanned, exciting, and adventurous. I was doing anything I wanted, making friends from around the world, and pushing myself to the limit. It was liberating. There was no judging. No baggage. Nothing I did before I came on the tour mattered—all that mattered was living in the moment with these new friends. After Arenal, we hiked more mountains, saw dolphins, ziplined, came up close to wildlife, went caving, explored tropical jungles. I took part in every activity. No opportunity was wasted.

Costa Rica showed me a world without commutes or days that blended seamlessly together, days when you didn’t wear shoes for hours at a time, where you talked to strangers and got lost. Every day was so different I sometimes wondered if I hadn’t lived three lifetimes by the time I fell asleep in bed. Days seemed to stretch endlessly and warp my perception of time. We did so much that places we visited the day before felt like they were years ago. Time did not drag like at home but slowed down to let so much happen that it stretched endlessly.

It stood in sharp contrast to the routine-filled life I had come to know back home. Now, I had seen a world where routine didn’t have to exist. That was the beauty of travel. Now I saw why people loved to go on vacation and always talked so highly of their trips to strange, far-off places. You could break free from everything! I was breaking free from my routine, but also from the version of myself I had grown tired of and the assumptions about what kind of person I had to be. For the first time, I felt like I was in the driver’s seat of my own life. I was the person I always thought I could be. I finally got it.

I was addicted to the high.

I wanted more.

Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Kepnes