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Gratitude & Serendipity on the Road

This is why Mufidah and I travel — to open ourselves up to the unknown, to live life raw. And to be awestruck and humbled by, and grateful for, the generosity of others, the beauty of nature, and the strange stirrings of serendipity which seem to come at just the moment when you’ve no idea how you’re going to get through the challenge at hand.

We’ve been on the road for nearly fifteen months now, having left behind, in May 2012, our quite comfortable South East of England existence. And our travels continue with no end in sight.

A few of the Instagram photos I’ve taken this past week along the North Cornwall coast

We’ve spent time in Hay-on-Wye, Wales during the renowned Hay Festival of Literature & the Arts; all of last summer in France; seven-and-a-half months living in Burgos, Spain; and we traveled back through France this past spring, and around England and Scotland all this summer. As of a week ago, we’re house-, Labrador- and Jack Russell terrier-sitting in a rural hamlet on the spectacular North Cornwall coast. Later this month we’ll  be heading to our next house-sitting gig in southern France.

We’re continually amazed at how all this has come to pass, all the while we’ve been slow traveling on a virtually nonexistent shoestring. Opening to the unknown has been key, as has a great deal of creative seed-planting and trust in the universe. But it wouldn’t have become a reality without a great deal of generosity from a great many folk along the way. Not to mention the guiding hand of grace, the mysterious workings of the universe, and those uncanny moments of serendipity which seem to spring from nowhere.

We’ve camped, had our (old) tent flooded out, only to be invited to share the home of the owner of the restaurant in which we picked up some shift work during last year’s Hay Festival (I also ran a couple of writing workshops in Hay-on-Wye’s premier bookshop). We’ve stayed for a spell with a growing number of friends, CouchSurfed our way from hither to thither, lived out-of-doors all of last summer in France (in a lovely campsite with wifi signal that stretched to our new tent, the latter which never let us down despite sometimes torrential rain and wind), rented a flat on the cheap in central Burgos, organized writing workshops as a way to get us back to the UK this past spring, through France, and then all around the South East of England.

And we’ve house-, cat-, dog-, fish- and guinea-pig-sat all around Britain, with our next house-sit in France being too amazing to touch upon here, except to say that the place is stunning and situated within the owners’ hundred-acre vineyard.

That’ll be our home from late August through at least the end of the year, as we continue to write, help our Creative Thunder clients fire up their online presence and prowess, and continue to work on a few other creative projects we have underway — including the publishing of a book featuring the best of our 1,400-plus Instagram photographs of Burgos which attracted the attention of the Diario de Burgos, the primary newspaper covering both the city and the surrounding province.

Since the beginning of June, we’ve lived for between a week and three weeks, each, in the Lake District (England), Edinburgh, Fife, and Angus (Scotland), and, now, in Cornwall, a favorite place for British, and other, folk to vacation.

A house just up the road from us rents for £2,200 (€2,500 or $3,400) a week, to give you an idea of the attractiveness of this particular spot situated on the North Cornwall coast. The house we’re caring for is not nearly as large and is without sea views — though it’s perhaps at least as nice, with a beautiful garden with a variety of places to bask in the sun with a book, sip a glass of wine, or eat al fresco. And we’ve the use of this place for not just one week, but three. Cost: £0.

The downside? It takes perhaps a minute or so longer to walk to the coast than from the bigger house with sea views. But it’s a lovely walk. We’re also caring for the Labrador and terriers, but they’re a bonus, really. Full Disclosure: They can be a handful as well, and in need of a bit of eye-to-eye authority on occasion to keep them from wreaking havoc which can dictate our day, and piss off neighbors and passersby. They’re in this moment lying peacefully in their respective beds, after a good telling off in response to a string of mischievous occurrences.

But, all in all, they really are a bonus. And this has held true with all the other pets we’ve cared for over the course of the summer. The hardest part is leaving them behind as we move from one house-sit to another.

Truly, every one of our house-sitting gigs this summer has been just as incredible in its own way.

In the Lake District, we were surrounded by the natural beauty which made Wordsworth, Keats and other writers wax poetic. In Fife, we’d go for several-times-a-day walks along the Eden River, or drive to nearby St. Andrews or one of the popular East Neuk fishing villages; we also strategized and designed our Creative Thunder website while living there, caring for two particularly adorable cats (see above photo gallery). In Angus, the North Sea was a minute’s walk behind our house, which, itself, had a spectacular garden chockablock with fresh veg with which to prepare our home-cooked meals. In between bouts of creative work, we’d spend our days exploring rock pools, or walking along the shore or the Carnoustie golf links.

But Mufidah and I know full well that our journey isn’t about ticking off beautiful places we’ve slow traveled to. Nor is it about distracting ourselves with the newness of constant movement.

Our journey is at least as spiritual as it is worldly. We’re cracking ourselves open, allowing ourselves to be touched by the precariousness of our situation, traveling as we are on that aforementioned shoestring which would make the budget travel advice of Let’s Go, Lonely Planet or Rough Guide seem lavish by comparison, not in terms of our day-to-day situation — for we have been living in anything but budget accommodation and eat gorgeous homemade meals every day — but in purely monetary terms. While at dinner with friends in Carnoustie, Andy asked if the wines of Spain and France fit into our travel budget. I responded, truthfully, that we don’t have a budget.

The decision to indulge in a bottle of wine or a couple of bottles of lager to accompany a meal depends more on the immediacy of whether we, in that moment, have enough money to buy groceries for the week ahead, or to fuel up our car for the next leg of our journey. The finer points of strategic budgeting go out the window when living an essentially hand-to-mouth existence, even when, a decade-and-a-half ago, I earned upwards of $30,000 a month as a management consultant for my financial, marketing and IT prowess. Before, that is, I deliberately pulled the plug on my entrepreneurial career at 34 years of age to live a simple, philosophical and writerly life.

We, of course, keep a close eye on our upcoming expenses — the relative few direct debits which come along frighteningly fast each month as well as recurring costs like those pesky domain name renewals which add up for our various websites — and we compare this with the cash we have on hand. If we see a shortfall looming in the days, week or weeks ahead, we quite happily go without, or do what we can to quickly earn the necessary funds. Or if we’re in need of a place to stay, we turn our attention to finding a place to hang our hats at the end of each day. If for just a day or two, we tend to look for CouchSurfing hosts. If longer, we look for house- and pet-sits that fit with where we want to be, for the length of time we want to be there.

Thus far, things have worked out magically for us, despite a near-infinite number of moments when we could have lost our equanimity and let healthy concern tip into energy-sapping worry, or to have frozen like rabbits in the headlights.

And this, really, is the point of this post.

We are daily, if not hourly, exercising our capacity to have faith and trust in something larger than our physical travels. Our journey is not one of ceaseless doing, nor a midlife gap year or an extended holiday. We work as hard as any business owner or cubicle dweller. The difference from most is that it (mostly) doesn’t seem like work to us, as we’ve deliberately thrown ourselves into a way of life which in its simplicity, in its rawness, inspires us each and every day. And we have extraordinary day-to-day, moment-to-moment freedom.

I’ve been self-employed since 1995, having left the corporate world when I was 29 years old to found a management consulting business. As already noted, I decided to exchange my high-growth career for a life of simplicity and wisdom. I’ve certainly enjoyed the former if not necessarily the latter. And so, eighteen years later, it would be easy, one might imagine, to lose sight of the preciousness of being able to direct one’s own life, to decide for oneself, each morning, how to live one’s day. Yet the preciousness has never dulled for me.

Image © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Photo © 2013 Mufidah Kassalias

Now, traveling as Mufidah and I are, we’re extraordinarily grateful for the extraordinary life we’re living, and for the extraordinarily generous offers and of an unbelievable number of spontaneous and serendipitous occurrences which simultaneously amaze, humble and inspire us — say, the offer to stay in someone’s beautiful home, caring for their family critter folk.

One couple, who asked us to live in their extraordinarily beautiful home, and to care for their two Great Danes, handed us £60 as we were saying goodbye to them — more than enough to cover the petrol costs to our next destination, though they had no idea at the time just how precious of a gift that was, as they knew nothing of our financial situation, except, of course, knowing the essentials of our story, that we’re slow traveling on a shoestring.

But passing along examples, as above, seems to me almost blasphemous, as highlighting a particular serendipitous moment seems in the very selection to somehow diminish countless others which were extraordinarily precious to us when they arrived in our lives. However, a pattern of just the right things happening at just the right time — a house-sit in just the right place which begins and ends on exactly the days unaccounted for between two other house-sits seems a theme in our lives.

I’m tempted to qualify it as a growing or emerging theme, except that might suggest some expectation that such a pattern is developing which we might begin to count on or expect.

We expect nothing, yet are grateful for everything — even the untold difficulties we’ve faced, prior to and during our travels.

This, in fact, was a key reason we decided on Easter Sunday, 2012 to pick up sticks, sell or give away most of our belongings, and jump into our beloved ’98 Fiat Punto, then freshly roof-boxed, to live on the road. You see, a long string of serendipitous moments, miracles at the time, kept happening such that we could make our rent payment at just the right time. We have a standing reference from our landlord which says, in writing, that we always paid the rent on time. We did, but we often had little idea where it would spring from as it loomed large each month. Then, the day it was due, or two or three days in advance, we’d earn just that amount via our respective businesses.

Our month-to-month good fortune seemed not the sort of thing one should come to expect. And, yet, we decided if we were going to face the possibility of homelessness, despite working incredibly hard and creatively and having, each of us, a particularly supportive clientele, that it would be far better to become voluntarily homeless such that we could enjoy the great gift of being on the road — traveling, writing and taking photographs — the very things we both independently wanted before coming together as a couple three-and-a-half years ago.

Are you traveling or otherwise living an extraordinary existence? Do you have a story to share about how serendipity graced your life, in ways for which you’re forever grateful? If so, Mufidah and I — and no doubt many others — would love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below, even (perhaps particularly) if you tend not to leave comments on blog posts such as this.

Photo: Sean M. Madden Sean M. Madden is a writer-educator, photographer and slow traveler. A digital nomad, he’s also co-founder of Creative Thunder, helping creative individuals and small businesses to fire up their online presence and prowess. To get a free copy of the inspiring Creative Thunder Manifesto, click here.

  1. This is wonderful perspective on the traveling life. I am a bit long in the tooth for doing same but I realize what I have missed by not trying when I was younger.

    August 7, 2013
    • Thank you, Judy, for reading my essay, and for taking the time and care to leave your thoughtful comment. A question to consider, perhaps, is can you arrange your life so as travel as you want to travel? If so, I would suggest that age needn’t be a limitation. I am 47, Mufidah 45. But there are many traveling who are much older and, of course, much younger. I traveled for an extended time when I was 23, just out of university. I was exactly double that age when we embarked upon our travels last year; and, thus far, I’ve not come upon any essential difference between my doing so back in 1989 and doing so now.

      August 8, 2013
      • Sean, my husband and I take to the road when we can, always planning a getaway to somewhere in the Western states that we have not seen yet. Some of our happiest moments have been on the road together. Someday we would like to replicate the trip we made when we first started being together although we will not be tenting. I really love to see everything even the towns no one goes to. But my work and my studios keep me pretty grounded in one place or another. I can’t seem to imagine my life without being able to go into my studio. I do love to read about other’s travels, though, especially the people they meet. And like you, when I travel I think about what it means to me and what I have discovered about people or places.

        August 12, 2013
  2. I feel the raw emotion in this post. Travelling such as this is to live on a paper thin edge between fear and joy. Your photography is reflecting this, in raw, tumultuous depth and beauty.

    August 10, 2013
    • Dear Leigh,

      Thank you so much, firstly, for reading this piece, and for writing your above comment. What you’ve said means so much more given that it’s coming from you — a fellow traveler (and student of life) with a thirst for, and a great deal of experience in, living on that same paper-thin edge.

      With great gratitude for you, as always,


      August 10, 2013
  3. To be admired, Sean. This is beautifully written.
    The fullness of life to you and Mufidah. Cheers!

    September 26, 2013
    • Thank you, again, Karen, from both of us.

      September 26, 2013
  4. Hi Sean,

    Thank you for the reminder about the joyous way, living with trust. The conscious dance with life is suddenly emerging in me and it means so much to see others living with abundance without the notion of control.

    Kind regards,

    September 28, 2013
    • Hello Nic,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving your warm and generous comment. I wish you all the best with your continued dance with life. With regard to living in abundance without the notion of control, well, that’s a tricky one. Mufidah and I do our best to open to what the universe presents, and to remember, always, to be grateful for all that arises (be it seemingly “good” or “bad”), but, not surprisingly, of course, it’s a daily, moment-to-moment challenge.

      With warm regards,


      September 28, 2013

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