Long term travel is not just for twenty-something backpackers taking a gap year after university. An anywhere lifestyle is increasingly becoming a viable and attractive option for people at any stage of their lives. Today’s interview is with Graham Phoenix, who began his full-time nomadic adventure at the age of 60. Graham is able to continue his previous lighting design career by working remotely and has been house sitting in Australia and Europe.
Please tell us a little about your background.
I am 61 years old and was born and brought up in the UK. After I left school I went off and worked in the theatre as a technician and eventually became a stage lighting designer. It was a great life and started my off travelling and working. Until I got married I moved from town to town as the work shifted around. I just took it as part of life and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Lighting design has been a critical part of my life. You can see details of it on my professional design site with a cv, a practice profile and an interview I did for a design magazine a few years ago. I was a stage lighting designer first. It happened because I went to work in the theatre straight after school and wanted to become involved directly in the creative aspects of a production. Lighting was the way in for me. I moved to lighting buildings when I started having children and my world opened out to cover the globe.
For me connections and community have been a vital part of the work I do. In lighting design I really worked this out. I became a member of the International Association of Lighting Designers. I was based in the UK and this association was based in Chicago. I became very involved and eventually became it’s President. One of the great things about this was not just the extent of travel, which was enormous, but also the means to involve people from all over the world in the activites. I made an effort during my term to open the organisation out even more, in my case to South America and making greater connections in Europe.
Now I still do lighting design but in a much smaller way. I have a clientele based around the work I have done in cathedrals, theatres and in Urban Lighting Strategies. I don’t seek work any more. More of my time is being dedicated to writing. I have two areas that I focus on, each based around a website. There is ‘Travels of an Earth Pilgrim’ which is devoted to exploring ‘Living and Working while Travelling’ and ‘Male eXperience‘ which is devoted to ‘Helping Men Re-Awaken their Core’. The balance of these two is very important to me. I also run a personal blog ‘Rising from the Ashes’ which is about whatever I want to write about. This all keeps me busy.
Your site says, ‘Earth Pilgrim is dedicated to encouraging people to look on travel as a way of life.’ Please elaborate.
There are several different types of travellers:
1) There are tourists who go on short trips to see various places but still live their normal lives at home. This is a fine way of travelling, particularly if you can avoid looking and acting like a tourist. I spent many years, particularly when my sons were growing up, as a tourist and saw some fabulous places.
2) There are people who travel as part of their work. This was me for a great deal of the time. The results of this are varied and can be awesome if people get involved in a local community.
3) People go and live in another country. My brother did this, he went to the US in 1968 and never came back. This is not really travelling in the true sense.
4) There is travelling as a way of life, this is what I do now. With this you are constantly travelling often staying in a place for 3 months at a time, but never putting down roots. Nowadays this is more a possibility for people with the development of electronic communications. You see wherever you are as home and you get involved in the local community. This helps to develop and grow our understanding of people and their culture and helps us to become more open and tolerant.
I encourage people down the 4th route because the effects are so much more positive. We all agree that tourism can be extremely destructive of culture, helping to create a world which is false and created. Route 4) helps us to move around and to develop concepts of community and co-operation.
You began travelling full-time a year ago, why now? What changed in your life?
A year ago I began travelling full-time, giving up my house and all fixed roots. I was divorced about 2 years ago after a long marriage and I met a Dutch lady who had been travelling for about 2 years at that point. Specifically I decided to join her on the road both to be with her and to develop a whole new way of life for myself. My sons are grown up and I was at a point in my life where I was going through a process of letting go. One aspect of letting go of the past was to let go go of connections, both emotional and physical. letting go of the need to have a home was an essential part of the exercise. Changing my whole approach to what home is was crucial for me. “Home is where the heart is” is an old saying and one that is now, for me, very pertinent.
Do you have any regrets about not beginning a life of travel earlier?
I thought I did earlier in my life. I left school and went to work rather than going to University. I thought that was great but later on I regretted not having a gap year, not taking that year out and just travelling the world. Later on I realised that this mattered less than I thought because of the amount of travelling I was doing with my work. Since I enjoyed the travelling I was doing, I decided that it would only increase in the future. Generally I don’t do regrets, I accept where I am and what I have done and move on. You can’t change what has happened you can only change what you do now, so I find it best to focus on that.
I would advise people, however, to get some real travelling in early in their lives, through a gap year or something similar. It will open up their attitudes to the world and to themselves. I don’t think it is ever wasted.
Where have you traveled so far?
I hae travelled a great deal to the US, for a two year period I was going on average every 6 weeks! I thoroughly enjoyed this, visiting many different cites and getting to know Americans who lived there.
Last year was a great year for travelling. With my partner, Cheta, we started the year in India. Spending Christmas in Hyderabad, there was a great British Airways deal there, before going to an Ashram in Pune and a retreat outside of Chennai. We then went to my cousin’s house in Bali for 3 weeks, before going to Australia, Darwin and Port Douglas. We went back to Europe, spending time in the UK and The Netherlands, visiting our families. We then returned to Australia going to an event in Brisbane and visiting a Chiropractor in Melbourne. Back to Europe for the summer with house-sitting in Spain, France and The Netherlands before returning to Australia, via Fiji for a month, for this current trip. We are here for 4 months with plans to return to Europe next spring. Last week I went back to London for a week on business. It was strange doing a business trip to, rather than from London.
How long do you typically stay in one country?
We like to stay for a decent length of time, that would mean not less than a month. On this trip to the Southern Hemisphere we went to Fiji for a month. That was time to settle in to the climate and atmosphere. We visited a number of places in that time but were sure to give ourselves enough time to relax and chill out as well as work. On this trip to Australia we are here from December to March, totalling 4 months. That, of course, is based very much on the weather and seasons. We don’t subscribe to the idea of rushing from country to country just to tick it off a list. For us it’s important to enjoy and savour a place.
Are you able to travel inexpensively?
We try to travel inexpensively although we do enjoy our creature comforts from time to time. We always travel economy on planes, we would rather spend the money on other things. We generally like to stay in apartments where we can cook for ourselves. We don’t stay in hostels but do use hotels to fill in the gaps. A great deal of our living is in house-sits, both in Australia and Europe. I am sitting writing this in a beautiful little cottage in Paddington in Sydney. There is a dog and a cat, lots of books and a great atmosphere. It helps me to feel part of the area. With house-sitting you can create short-term home for yourself on the back of someone else’s life.
Do you consider yourself a backpacker?
Definitely not. Although I had a backpack in India, for convenience, I don’t normally travel this way. Wherever I stay is my home and I like to enjoy my home. You have to understand that I don’t have a home to go back to with a lovely soft bed and all my familiar things around me. I have to create a home out of wherever I live. I like my home to be comfortable and so I work to create that on the road.
How do you earn an income?
Most of my income still comes from my lighting design work. I have learnt how to leverage this work so that I can do it as I travel. The work I do is all in Europe, mainly in the UK. I work on it wherever I am around the world. This is possible by email and internet communications. I invoice for my work as I travel and the money gets paid into my bank account, making it immediately available for me.
The point about funding my travel out of lighting design is that I am using a current skill I have to enable me to travel. many people make the mistake of ditching what they have and know and trying to fund this new lifestyle from the travelling itself, by writing or web adverts. While this can work, you are usually more successful if you take what you have and know and leverage that to fund your travels. Look at what you do now and see how you can shift it without rejecting it.
I have a small personal pension. This is only a minor amount of spending money and is nowhere near sufficient enough to travel on. Currently I don’t make a living from my websites. My current focus is to elevate them to a point where I can live off them. I am determined to use the lifestyle I have to create the income I need to fund it. I am working on a number of other projects outside the sites to supplement my income. It is important to look at multiple sources of income so you are not dependent on any one being successful at any one time.
How many hours a week do you work on average?
This varies enormously depending on actual travel arrangements but I suppose on an average week I will spend around 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week working. Some of this work is currently unpaid, but for me it is still work. I work around the same time as I used to at home although it feels a lot less.
Do you think it is easier or more difficult for older travellers?
I don’t think it makes any difference. I can get away with a lot more because people think I know what I am doing and treat me more seriously. But in the end it is your individual attitude that matters. Yes, experience and knowledge are enormously helpful and often this comes from more time having been spent travelling. This argues for a better experience by older people but I have seen many older people who make an absolute fool of themselves when travelling. They become arrogant and think they know everything, just like teenagers, and spend their time upsetting people. Just be yourself and accept others as they are and you will get on well with others.
What do you do for health care?
The UK has a free National Health Service which covers me all over the European Union. Other than that I rely on my innate good health. I find travel insurance impossible to get because of trip lengths and lack of prior planning, so I have to keep myself healthy as I travel. I have never experienced any problems with this.
Do you have a home base or a way to manage mail, telephone, etc.?
The ability to travel is, crucially, dependent on how I organise the administration of my life. We have storage in North London where we keep our bits and pieces. I go there every time I land in London. I have a virtual office in North London which looks after my phone calls and physical mail, emailing them to us around the world. I have my mobile phone contract in the UK which specialises in global roaming. Access to the internet is crucial and is the key to my being able to work.
Do your think long term travel is a viable way of life for most people?
Probably not for most people. It is only really for people who truly understand what they can gain from it and how they can use it to give something back to the world. This makes it open to everyone but viable for only a few. Many people use travel to take from the world and never work out how they can give back. Trips become about experiencing a place and taking that experience home, leaving only money behind. People need a reason for long term travel, a reason beyond their own enjoyment. Once you connect with why you are doing it, what you can give while doing it and find a way to make it work, then it all opens up for you. Travel becomes a serious way of life.
How long do you expect to continue a life of travel?
At the moment my plans are to continue this life, we enjoy it and it serves us well. As money allows we plan to buy houses around the world and live in them for short periods and let them out for the rest of the time. In this way we will continue our lifestyle while having some permanent places to live. Our homes will continue to fund our lifestyle. As to where these will be, that is a function of weather and cost. It needs to be warm and be cost-effective to live there. We are constantly reviewing where that might be. Fiji come high on the list as do California and Spain. More immediately we would like to spend time in cities like New York and Paris. This summer will be interesting as we have a 6 month house-sit coming up the Cotswolds in England. That will be a challenge for us to stop for a while and settle in to our work aims. We are already thinking beyond that to a trip to the US for 3 months in December, plans to go to South America and then Australia to Europe.
Do you have any advice for aspiring nomads?
My advice is simple and straight forward – just go and do it. We will each do it in our own way and we will each create our own niche. I find that the greatest problems are caused by fear of the unknown and over-planning. I remember that during the latter years of my marriage, when I knew it was no longer working, I did nothing because I feared living on my own. I had never done it and didn’t know how it would work. In the end I took the step of leaving home and just made it work and it was fine. I feel sad when I come across ‘travel sites’ by people who are ‘planning’ a big trip’ and are writing to help people do the same. They haven’t actually done it yet and they are in danger of ruining it by over-planning! Just get on the road and go where the wind blows.
Travels of an Earth Pilgrim
Rising from the Ashes