On April 4th, right in the midst of the pandemic and when the whole world was under Lockdown, we decided we can make quarantine pass more easily if we spent this time talking with some of our favorite travelers. So, we started doing live talks on our Instagram. One of these live talks was with Niko and Cynthia, that together have been travelling the world for almost a decade. These two avid travelers have a blog and an Instagram page with the name of “Journal of Nomads” and they shared some of their best traveling memories and stories with us. We divided this talk into two parts. Here is the first:
When you started doing this lifestyle did you ever get homesick? At what point did it start to feel comfortable and like home?
Niko: Good question. When I started traveling 13 years ago, it took a while. In the beginning, I had no intent to travel that long. I thought I was going to come back home. After going farther and farther (British Columbia, Alaska) my next destination was Mexico and Guatemala. The more I traveled the more I loved it. I couldn’t stop.
Cynthia: I was going to be traveling for just 1 year. I stayed away for 2 years. In my first year of traveling I went to Austria.so I went all the way to the other side of the world I decided to stay for at least a year. I moved back to my home country but I couldn’t adjust anymore. I decided from there on I couldn’t stop traveling.
The traveling life was so great that you changed your plans. and you kept on doing this.
Journal of Nomads (Niko): We can choose our lifestyle and our jobs. If we want to go on a vacation, do a sport. We can stop in a country and explore it for a year. It allows for these things.
(Cynthia): We can follow our hearts. If we don’t feel at home in a place, we’ll move. Gives a lot of freedom
Do you think you’ll continue this for how long? Does it get boring ever?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): Wherever I went was like home. Sometimes it can be tiring. We travel slowly and stay for longer times in places and take some days for ourselves. I still don’t want to fully settle. But there’s a certain longing to have a home base. A place to store your stuff. Right now, all my stuff is in my backpack.
Journal of Nomads (Niko): I have the same feeling. 13 years on the road is a long time. It becomes tiring after a while. 5 months traveling and 7 months staying sound better now. Maybe in Costa Rica. Waking up in the same place. We crave that. Having a base of friends, a favorite restaurant. A trail to walk every day, having pets.
(Cynthia): That’s the thing I miss the most. I really want to have a dog or cat. I can’t see my kind of traveling with cats or dogs.
(Niko): We still want to have a lot of freedom.
I never realized how walking home or a safe place can be something special.
What did you do before traveling 24/7? What prompted you to choose this lifestyle?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): I used to work as a special needs teacher, it’s not that I didn’t like the job. Felt like I was missing out on things, I could foresee what would happen in 10 yrs. I felt like this is not what I want. In between my job, I used to go on trips. I loved the freedom and adventure. I went for 2 months to Ireland as a test and it was so fantastic that after I returned to Belgium I saved up for 6 months to travel for a year, which turned to 2 years. When I started traveling something clicked in me.
(Niko): When I started traveling just out of high school, most people hitchhike across Canada and work in the western province. I worked with a bunch of travelers. I met a traveler that had been traveling for 7 years. I felt like this is what I want to do with my life and have a collection of jaw-dropping memories. From that point on I took as many jobs as I could. I was a street magician at some point in Mexico. It just fueled this journey.
What jobs did you do?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): When we first started traveling, being digital nomads didn’t exist back then. For example, in Australia, I was working as a waitress, gardener, in hotels,
(Niko): Back then if there was a job we took it. Odd and weird jobs. Manager of an orphanage in Guatemala, restaurant manager.
(Cynthia): At one point I was cleaning toilets. But u think this money will help me get to my next destination. When Niko and I met 6 years back, we found about teaching English online. We just needed a Wi-Fi connection. We continued doing that everywhere. We have something on our blog about it.
Weird customs or traditions that you came upon during your travels? Especially traditions of local people
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): For example, in Kyrgyzstan they have a drink that comes from the milk of a mare. People offer you this drink. You give it a taste, it’s like a very sour tasting drink. They laugh at your face while you taste it
Journal of Nomads (Niko): It has a really strong taste, but it shows great respect for the traditions. One time I was doing humanitarian work in Peru. At one point, in the house I was staying in they had these giant hamsters. The lady was pointing at this hamster, I said wow it’s a gorgeous hamster. And 30 minutes later she brought me that hamster on a plate to eat. It’s not something I would eat if I were just by myself but I believe that when you are visiting a foreign culture you have to be open to try.
It’s definitely a sign of respect on both parts. But everybody has a breaking point. How far would u go to respect your host?
Cynthia: c. Just give it a little try. Have to be open-minded and adjust quickly, flexibility is required. You can’t be stuck in certain mind sets.
Have you ever met any nomads in Kyrgyzstan?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): We met both modern nomads that were traveling around for a long time, by bicycles or even cars. The closest to traditional nomadic people were the semi-nomadic people in Kyrgyzstan. Every winter they return back to their villages, and as soon as the spring starts, in the month of May, they go to Kyrgyzstan’s mountains with their sheep and cows and horses. They go to their yurt camps and stay there until the end of the summer. These people were the closest people to traditional nomadic people.
Journal of Nomads (Niko): I like it when we’re with these people because it shows us how people used to be and how it still is, how they move their cattle from one mountain top to the valleys…very impressive.
It sounds a lot like nomads in Iran. Iran nomads do a full migration, and they don’t go to their villages, they go to warmer lands, and when the spring starts they go to colder lands.
Did you have a translator when you were with those nomads?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): Yeah, we had a good friend of ours who joined us and he speaks both Kyrgyzstani & Russian language, and he did the translation. We both know Russian but my Russian is very basic, Niko can communicate with them as well. It is important to have a translator with you, as they have so many stories to tell and you don’t want to misunderstand them.
(Niko): That’s right. If you join these people without a translator since you can’t really understand what they are saying, you don’t get from these people the whole knowledge and wisdom. so it’s highly recommended to have a translator with you.
You said they have a lot of knowledge. Was it different for you from other interactions you have with other people? A different perspective on life?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): They actually have a very simple life, and I really love about these people is how they follow the rhythm of nature, and in that, I mean living in nature, there is a lot of wisdom. In the modern world, we’re more disconnected from nature. In cities, we’re more bound to technologies, but up there in the mountains, there is no Wi-Fi, and you have to go up to the top of the mountains to get some cellphone connection. Up until today, there is actually a lifestyle possible without all these modern technologies, and it’s just going back to the roots, and I absolutely love that.
(Niko): It’s going to see how these people are so close to nature, and see the kids going around nature, running, chasing each other. It’s so different from the western world where kids are mostly right in front of the TV screen. They are 3 or 4 years old, but they know how to ride horses.
(Cynthia):And seeing how they are self-sufficient in certain ways, how they drink the milk of the horses, of the cows and sheep, they make their own butter. It’s a very beautiful life; you don’t need much to survive and live.
(Niko): and to be happy.
(Cynthia):Yeah, to be happy
As travelers, we sometimes experience extreme kindness from the locals. How can we pay them back and not just take?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia):Usually, when we are invited with these people, we try to help them with their tasks, and they like to have our company, and we try to help them with their daily chores, the dishes for example. I remember when we were in Georgia, we were in an apartment for 3 days, and during those 3 days, we met another traveler who was almost broke, and we invited this guy to our place. People have been inviting us to their home, and we, when we can, do the same for other travelers as well. It’s like trying to be generous & kind to people that we meet as much as possible.
(Niko): I think that very often we go back to places we’ve visited. There is a small village in Mexico. When I first went to the village it was when I was traveling on an extremely low budget. And I stayed there for a week and a half. We visited the village about 5 months later, and then I was a teacher at a university. What I did was revisiting the village, and I knew they were doing renovations in their house. So, I went to a shop and bought bags upon bags of cement and I bought some bread for them, ended up working with them. Help them with a big part of the material and help them renovate the house. You know, there are practical things like that the situation presents itself and you can actually do something. Or for example, Cynthia is a photographer. She takes their pictures when they like to be pictured. We can send them pictures back.
(Cynthia):People love photos. It’s amazing to see them when they see the photo of themselves or their families, so I usually try to take their photos. It’s a small gesture. If you can’t do the big gestures, you can try the small things and it can be appreciated, as long as the intention is there.
Something also came to my mind; paying back is one thing, paying forward is another thing. And it can also be good for that community. I think by promoting these new destinations that many travelers don’t know about, you’re doing an act of paying forward to these people, and tourism to that place can live on.
Journal of Nomads (Niko): Absolutely. As bloggers, the big contribution we can make is visiting these places & bringing awareness about those places. For example, how these people live, what their traditions are, what they do, and then people can understand their culture better.
Has there ever been a moment you just want to leave and go back home?
Journal of Nomads (Niko): No. there have been a few times in the first years that were difficult. I remember being stuck without any money, thinking ‘oh my God, what am I going to do now?’, and then it was like giving up, or giving it one more push, one more try. And usually when I did give it another try something came on my part or I actively went out to seek work, so, no. It’s been a very conscious choice. I do understand that it’s not for everyone, and if all of us lived the same lifestyle, it would be boring, and it’s very important that we’re unique and do what we love for ourselves
Will you ever visit Iran someday?
Journal of Nomads (Cynthia): Yes, we were supposed to go this month, to join the kooch tour and join the migration of nomads. Unfortunately, due to this circumstance, we couldn’t join the nomads. But we hope to come to Iran when it’s cleared of the virus. Maybe for the next migration in fall or next spring migration … we really hope so, and we really love to come to Iran. Iran has been in our list of countries for a long time
(Niko): Iran has fascinated both of us and we just keep saying “yeah, we have to go” “we have to go”
(Cynthia): and “now we are going” and then the Coronavirus happened.
(Niko): But we are still looking forward to it, and when we arrive in Iran, it would be like this: “YES, WE FINALLY MADE IT”
It’s a shame it happened. Right now, it is the best time for being in Iran. It’s spring, and you two are a perfect fit for this trip; you are both hikers and mountain climbers, you are so open to everything. So, I think you would fit in. They’d love you.
(Cynthia): I’m sure we’d love them too. We are looking forward to it.
How did you go to central Asia? Did you go by boat or ship? Did you hitchhike on a ship across the Caspian Sea?
(Cynthia): We hitchhiked in an overland journey from Ireland and then went all the way to Azerbaijan. And from Azerbaijan the only way to get to central Asia to Kyrgyzstan is by cargo ship. This boat is like a very irregular boat, and it’s usually for truck drivers, and yes, it ships over the cargo. They sometimes take travelers as well. So, that was a really really fun experience. Like we waited for 3 days in the port itself, before the boat left. And the boat journey itself was about 26 hours more or less. We were there with other overland travelers and truck travelers from other nationalities, from China, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan, it was really cool, a very fun experience.
(Niko): All in all, we hitchhiked from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan and that mainly took us 4 years, but in those 4 years, we spent a year living in Georgia, we spent 9 months in Turkey, and a year in Kyrgyzstan,
(Cynthia): For us, it’s like a typical plan; that we have many plans, and we come here, and then ‘Oh we like it here … let’s just throw all the other plans in the air, and stay here for a while, it’s so lovely’. And, it’s the best way to get to know different places. We actually had the idea of hitchhiking through Kyrgyzstan, then make our way to Mongolia, Russia, and then go to South Korea. On the cargo ship, across the Caspian Sea, we met 2 English guys who were driving and they offered us a seat in their car to cross Kyrgyzstan with them. But they also wanted to go on a quick trip through Kyrgyzstan. So, they asked us to join them and we said, oh yes, sure, and after the second day, we noticed how beautiful it was and we decided to stay more, and we stayed for the whole year (laughing)
These spontaneous plans you make seem better than the plans sometimes we overthink about them.
(Niko):That’s right. It’s good to plan things to a certain extent. We know we were heading East, that was our rough plan. But, we were open to new plans. If we like this country, why not stay here for a while? Instead of going to a new place, just stay here.
You have such a great way of talking about your stories. I think you should definitely think of writing a book or something? You have enough experience to cover a book…
(Cynthia):For me, it’s one of my dreams to one day publish a book. Maybe combine it with photos. a Journal of Nomads’ book. We’re in isolation now (because of the Coronavirus), so we do have time [laughing].
(Niko):Yes, we do have a lot of time for sure
(Niko):Let me tell you another one in there. This one is not so daunting, but just to show the extent of generosity that you can experience when you travel openly.
Cynthia & I were hitching in the north of Italy, and it was really hard. People didn’t give us a ride. We ended up waiting 9 hours. We were so desperate and we were thinking; ‘oh man, this is so hard, and we were walking and through the canals & bridges, and then there was a man, an old man, on a Gondola, that came close to Cynthia and started talking with her in Italian …
(Cynthia):I saw him coming, and I thought ‘oh, this can be very nice’, so I started taking photos of him. He arrived and Niko was just walking over the bridge, and he spoke Italian to me. But, I don’t speak Italian, and he was saying ‘come, come on the Gondola’. I asked how much it would be? And he said; ‘for free, for free’. And I called Niko, ‘Niko come here’, I thought I might have misunderstood this guy. Because Niko speaks Italian. And the guy was like this, ‘come and join me. Come and I’ll show you my city on my Gondola. We ended up visiting Venice for free, and he was so happy sharing his experiences with us, and you know after those misfortunes in Italy, it changed the whole feeling again. So, whenever we think back of stories of hitchhiking, this one is something that we keep thinking of, and it’s just like so positive. Sometimes, when things seem difficult, you just don’t know what’s going to come next. Maybe something super positive arrives.
(Niko):We were walking in a street. It was called Shekki. We were walking and our backpacks were really heavy. So we decided to sit on a bench to have a little break, and then a lady came out and said, ‘Hey, are you guys hungry?’, we were a bit hungry. She said, ‘let me bring something’, and then she brought a plate of apples, and tea, and all the good stuff. And while we ate, and she was like, ‘come inside my house, and see my family, I’ve just made lunch’. So we met the whole family and we had a feast, and they invited us to visit their whole neighborhood & the mountains around the city. And, we slept in their house. (laughing) lovely people.
(Cynthia):and we stayed in their home for 2 days. We were just sitting on a bench and then ended up in their home. It was beautiful. The kindness we see in people is incredible. Another story also; we were hitchhiking in Morocco, and when we arrived at the hostel, Niko wanted to his wallet, and he was like; ‘Oh my Gosh, my wallet is gone’, and all his credits & money were gone. Niko said he thinks it must have fallen out of his pocket in the car”. But we didn’t have any contact details of the driver, nothing. So, eventually I was able to connect to the internet and I saw a Facebook message, a kind of Facebook request. He had sent me a message. He had opened the wallet, searched it, and he’d said; ‘Hey, I’ve found your wallet, text me back, and I’ll bring back the bag to you. So, we met again and he gave us the whole bag back. The honesty of people, the kindness. It could have been a disaster without his help.
(Niko): A lot of people are scared when they travel especially when they travel on a low budget, and they go on an adventure and they’re not staying in a resort. They often think that who am I going to stay with, are they honest? Maybe they are dangerous, and I can tell you after 13 years of traveling around the world-and Cynthia can confirm that- ‘PEOPLE ARE SO GOOD’. People are so good, so happy to meet the foreigners, so generous …. we saw kindness everywhere we went.
You mentioned about the lady in Azerbaijan, and how she was kind & hospitable. I think as you said there are kind and hospitable people everywhere. In every country, there are beautiful people, but I think one of the main attributes of the Eastern countries, maybe countries closer to the Middle East is that they really love treating their guests, they love being the host and they love letting people into their houses. If you come to Iran, you’re going to get so many invitations. People you meet on the street, they want to treat you to home-made meals, they want to show you around, they want to show you ‘That great place that I know’, and you will get bombarded in the best way.
(Niko): Oh, I can’t wait. We have to go to Iran soon.
Are there any principles you guys observe when you visiting the locals? People from tribes or small local communities?
(Niko):What I always try to do is to do research prior to going to them, so I can avoid something that we call ‘cultural faux-pas’, and you get to know about the things you’re not supposed to do in that culture. So, I try to do a lot of research. For example, is it ok to rub the kid’s head? In some of our destinations, it was an absolute taboo.
(Cynthia):Or how to treat as a woman to men or vice versa. We try to know about them As much as we can. Sometimes it happens that you do something wrong, but they understand that you’re foreigners and you might not know about that culture.
(Niko):Exactly, we try to understand how this culture works. Whether there are somethings to do. And also I personally do try to do this: wherever I want to go, I try to learn as much of their language before I go. So, for example, If I knew I want to visit Iran in the next 3 months, I’ll put all my energy to learn Farsi. Because I believe one of the things we must know if we want to understand a culture, is the language to be able to talk to the people. So, I think it’s a very important thing to know about the culture.
Can you manage to learn the basics of a language in 3 months? That’s amazing!!!
(Niko):I think in 3 months, I would sound like a well-educated Tarzan. I’d be able to say for example, ‘Me hungry’ ‘where is the restaurant?’, just the basics, but at least it would help enough to have basic communication. Sometimes even facial expressions help communicate.