Moroccan salesman encountered at Atlas Mountains, Morocco, January 2010.
Moroccan salesman we encountered on our journey across the Atlas Mountains toward the Sahara Desert, Morocco, January 2010. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Freed and trapped by a nomad lifestyle


I’m suddenly taken back to a crazy trip to Morocco in 2010 when a friend and I eventually got to hang out with wandering Berbers in the Sahara Desert, after a dizzying van ride bordering the precipice through the Atlas Mountains. Theirs is actually our natural state, since human beings started out nomad: The traditional model was for the men to hunt and for the women to gather, and to move on to greener pastures when nature demanded it, carrying only the necessary provisions.

Then along came agriculture. Settling down along bodies of water. Attachment. The need for infrastructure. For money. To possess more and more.

But the nomad quest for other lands never ended – it came with the thirst to own more, to expand one’s tentacles. The (terrifying) marches across continents. The epic navigations of the Chinese, the Vikings, the Iberians, the British. The conquest of other spaces – unfortunately often already occupied by other people, who’d suffer long and hard under the oppressive hand of empires and colonialism.

Or the smaller-time sailors. The mercenaries. The missionaries. The merchants. The traveling bards and circus acts. The knapsackers. The vagabonds. The students. As old as time. And as old as time, the people (often) waiting for them back home. Hanging on to a handkerchief losing its scent. Letters turning brown. Hopes that one day the loved one will come back and settle down – if death or some other passion don’t pull them away for good.

Now traveling is generally safer, easier and cheaper, but passions seem more volatile. Unanswered e-mails have replaced the withered letters. With social media and the NSA, it’s no longer so easy to disappear off somewhere, though.

Ana Beatriz Ribeiro, editor of The Leipzig Glocal, on top of a camel in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.
Me on top of my camel in the Sahara Desert, guided by Berbers, Morocco, January 2010. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Recently articles came out saying that some people are born with a “wanderlust gene,” while others lacking such gene are usually content to spend their lives in the same place. It’s probably not so simple.

In my case, pretty much since the time I was born, my parents had gotten into the nomad habit of moving to a new place every couple years, and that became the norm for me. It could be a matter of nature, of having inherited some moving-obsessed gene, but it’s almost certainly a matter of nurture.

Packing up and leaving houses and people behind became the routine for me, and each time farther away, and eventually farther than my parents got to go. At one point, they got kind of tired. They’d accumulated a massive amount of stuff they had to transport each time and even find extra storage for.

They’d never turn out to hop farther than the Americas in terms of moving (and rarely, even, in terms of travel). Their new stops were now at most a couple dozen kilometers apart rather than hundreds or thousands, and lasted longer. Meanwhile, I kept getting rid of stuff at each of my own stops, looking for something no place I lived and no person I met could give me.

Maybe this something is the (nomad) quest itself, not necessarily a fulfilling end result.

For some people, though, moving is a matter of necessity. With the insecurities instilled by neoliberal globalization, the flexibilization of labor and intensifying competition, they just have to go where the job is, and stay as long as their temporary contracts allow them.

Also, as the contemporary immigration wave grows exponentially, immigration laws around the world become stricter. So when that visa expires, many don’t take the risk of staying on illegally and hoping for the best. Intercultural loves of transnational inevitability have found me and most of my friends in Europe having to navigate long-distance relationships – and often sinking.

The long-distance loves that do survive are often a rare combination of compatibility, compromise and unselfishness, featuring the sacrifice of at least one person’s career aspirations, at least for a while, to be able to follow their partner. That often involves having to get married to have the right to stay, which may not be so appetizing when one is young and surrounded by beautiful young sirens from all over the world while being lured by career opportunities off across the land or sea.

It’s a constant tug o’ war between settling down and moving on.

The editor of Leipzig Glocal travels with a tour group into the Sahara Desert, Morocco.
A transnational tribe? Traveling with a tour group into the Sahara Desert, Morocco, January 2010. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Yesterday I published an article on this site from a friend of mine (and new travel book author) who wrote about her glocal experience, and I quote her, because I can relate so closely to what she said: “My bike became my friend. Flights became a regular home bill. I learned to crave a Currywurst the way I crave a grilled fresh fish from the Portuguese sea… And although my sense of European citizenship became the proud label of my twenties… I somehow feel broken into pieces, each of them belonging to a different city, country, corner of the world.”

Like her, I often think – and live my life – in English, although my mother tongue is Portuguese. I eat pretty much any food. I have adopted habits that have little to do with my “mother” culture – if that can even be pinned down at all these days of intense cultural transfers.

Having friends from all over the world is no longer anything new, and as she and I discussed, we now tend to feel closer to each other and to these friends from far away than to some of the people we knew “back home,” our own kin and kind. Perhaps we are members of a “transnational tribe” and speak the same language that way too.

As for Leipzig, it actually became a sort of “home” for her, for the emotional ties she developed with the city, the first stop on her peregrination. I’ve grown attached to this city, too. There’s something about it. But she left. And I probably will, too, at some point.

Editor of Leipzig Glocal travels across Atlas Mountains, on winding roads, to Sahara Desert, Morocco, 2010.
On the long, winding, scary road to the Sahara Desert across the Atlas Mountains, Morocco, January 2010. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

Sometimes I wonder what it would’ve been like to have settled down in the southern U.S., with my own SUV with a baby seat in the back, a mortgaged little house, and perhaps a nice tranquil man and a Golden Retriever. But it may be too late for me now. Not because of age, but because I’ve gotten so deeply conditioned and accustomed over the years to carrying only the necessary provisions, moving on to greener pastures when nature demands it.

My place is a rental and all my furniture is second-hand. I don’t have or need a car. So far I haven’t had the desire to own anything big – really. I don’t care if I hold on to anything other than a laptop and phone, my Polish purse with a Gandhi imprint, some scarves and, most importantly, the people in my life to whom distance doesn’t mean much.

I am getting tired, and my heart is scattered in pieces around the world. But I don’t know any other way to live. At least not yet.

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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