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Who Are We?
Hi, we are Whitney and Howard Darby from Calgary, Canada, in the midst of our five month trial run as nomadic retirees. I am 56 and Howard is a newly minted “senior” having turned 60 during our travels. We met nearly 37 years ago via the 1980’s of Match.com (a personal ad in the newspaper) and have been together ever since.
Our Pre-Retirement Lives
In our former lives, as slaves to a paycheque, Howard was an IT consultant working at various times with small start-ups, unions, municipalities, and large oil corporations. I was a litigation paraprofessional, with a short stint as an elementary school librarian when our boys were young, ultimately returning to the legal field as our kids got older. High stress roles for both of us, often with long hours, but they did fund multiple amazing international vacations through the years.
The Decision to Become Nomadic Retirees
Howard’s parents worked hard right up until they both had reached the traditional retirement age of 65ish, and then sadly, just a few years into their new lives, his mother passed away. I think it has always been in the back of our minds that we want to enjoy retirement together, and the later you leave that lifestyle change, the higher the likelihood that health issues become a concern.
In terms of what a retirement lifestyle would look like for us, about 12 years ago we bought a 5th wheel RV and, along with our kids, spent our summers camping lakeside or in the mountains, and on some extended road trips through the western United States. We found trailer-life quite appealing and figured we would ultimately be the quintessential “snowbirds,” spending our golden years RVing the winter months through the southern United States, with maybe an occasional overseas trip, if the budget allowed.
In the course of doing lots of research into what an RVing retirement lifestyle entailed, we stumbled across numerous blogs and YouTube channels by nomads living overseas and a lightbulb went off – why were we limiting ourselves to North America?
Several thoughts went through our heads. Firstly, we realized over the years we’ve actually been to all of the states west of the Mississippi, plus several of the southern states east of the Mississippi, as Howard competed on the Fast Draw circuit.
Fast Draw is the fastest timed sport in the world where competitors must draw an old-west style six-shooter then hit a target, with reaction times being measured in 100ths of a second. Howard holds numerous records in the sport and still retains the title of Fastest Gun Alive (details at howarddarby.com).
Secondly, as Canadians we can only spend six months of the year in the US, meaning the rest of our time would likely be spent “home” in Canada. And finally, health insurance is hideously expensive when travelling in the US. As we read more of these international nomadic blogs, it became abundantly clear to us that not only could we see sooooo much more of the world, it was going to be less expensive living in certain places overseas than it would be to retire in North America! So we set our sights further afield and began planning in earnest.
The Retirement Date Dilemma
The struggle that probably every potential retiree faces is “will we have enough money to live comfortably FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES?!” Howard is nothing, if not thorough in all of his decision-making and record keeping (probably what made him a good IT consultant), and has been tracking our household expenses for the last 30+ years. Consequently we have a very precise picture of our spending habits.
About six years ago we started looking seriously at our finances in an effort to map out a retirement timeline at which time Howard created a massive spreadsheet with expenses and investments combined with assumptions for different retirement ages. With this in hand, we could narrow down when it would be a good time to make the leap. Even with this visual tool (and passing it by three different financial advisors), which shows we won’t run out of money even if we both live well into our late 90s, I still struggled with moments of panic over our finances, but took a deep breath and decided no one can predict the future, and we won’t know if it works unless we live it.
The next hurdle was GUILT. We’d been married almost ten years before we started our family. As a result, as we were nearing potential retirement age, our boys were still living at home, finishing post-secondary studies and I really felt like we were abandoning them. We talked it through ad nauseam, in their opinion, and ultimately came to the realization that there was no guarantee they would even stay in Calgary when they finished school and more importantly I really didn’t want to risk the postponement of our retirement dream morphing into passive aggressive resentment years later. Serendipitously, in the spring, our youngest son accepted a summer job in another province and managed just fine without his mother living nearby.
So we decided to start mid-summer of 2021, leaving the boys to live in our house until they finish school next year and are ready to launch their own independent lives. We’ll head back to Canada at that point to tie-up some loose ends before hitting the road again.
Where We Are, Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going
The first destination for our trial run as nomads was Bulgaria. Odd choice I know, but we didn’t want to transit through the UK which is a common layover for international flights from Canada. COVID quarantine rules (even for the fully vaxxed) were changing constantly, and that limited our choices somewhat. Plus we thought it was kinda fun to start our travels somewhere off the beaten path.
It was a great choice as the cost of living in Bulgaria is ridiculously low and we spent almost a month there, splitting our time between the capital of Sofia and the second-largest city, Plovdiv. From there we headed to Turkey for a two month stay, starting in Istanbul before meandering our way down to the Mediterranean coast, ending in Antalya.
To really get a feel for an area, we’re trying not to move around too quickly and have enjoyed the slower pace immensely. From Turkey we take a slight detour from “nomadic” life to join some friends for a three week tour of Jordan and Egypt, with a side trip to the World Expo in Dubai, before settling back into a nomadic lifestyle (and budget) in Spain for the balance of the year.
We have tried not to overly plan our travels and see where the wind blows us, with the Dubai trip being case in point. We hadn’t known about the Expo, but when we read about it on the Senior Nomad Facebook group, and realized how easy it would be to get there from Egypt, we figured why not! We’re not bound by timelines anymore…
How We Pick Our Homes on the Road and How We Fill Our Time
We’re visiting places we’ve never been before and naturally, we want to see the local tourist attractions but we’re not on “vacation” so don’t need to cram these activities into a short period of time and can mix in quiet days at “home” too. Once we’ve decided on a new destination, we put together a summary of what we want to see and do in the area, which often includes museums and historic sites (I can’t get enough of Roman ruins), and sometimes the absurd (like the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria).
We generally won’t have a vehicle, unless it’s for short day trips, so when we look into Airbnb’s we ensure amenities like restaurants and grocery stores are within walking distance, and whether sightseeing sites are also walkable or if there’s a good public transportation system. Generally, this means we look for Airbnb’s in city centres. Armed with these details we make a decision on whether a week to ten days is sufficient for the area or whether it looks like a good place for an extended stay which allows us to take advantage of long-term stay discounts.
We both enjoy just wandering the streets of a city, getting a feel for the neighbourhood and try to get out for a walk every day. Howard’s hobby is photography, so travelling like this is a photographer’s dream. He particularly enjoys night-time photography, and often when we are wandering the streets of a city during the day, he’s scoping out places to return in the evening.
A good portion of his spare time is spent editing his pictures for our blog and our own personal album. I love to read and initially thought a good book would be sufficient to fill my days. I was also a quilter and found I really missed having something creative to do with my hands, so since we can’t drag along a sewing machine, I have started knitting hanging kitchen towels that we often leave behind as a parting gift for our Airbnb host.
Making Friends in New Places
To be honest, we are both fairly introverted and rarely seek out social events. Twice during our relationship we had to relocate cities for Howard’s job, and got used to just being the two of us. These are early days in our nomadic life, so time will tell whether down the road we feel the need to be more social, but not yet. That being said, should we ever be in the same place, at the same time, we would love to connect with fellow nomads to trade stories and experiences.
The Good, the Bad, and Thus Far, No Ugly
Our biggest win … we’ve been under budget (ignoring our trip to Jordan and Egypt which is using money we had set aside prior to retirement for several trips in 2020 that were derailed by COVID)! In this pilot phase of our travels we set a very conservative budget of $110/day CAD (USD$89), knowing we had room to comfortably increase that figure if need be.
When travelling through Bulgaria and Turkey, we have been pleasantly shocked at the low cost of living in both countries. We are staying in Airbnb’s which means most of our meals can be prepared at home, but we also found that if you avoid the touristy restaurants, eating out is quite manageable too – Howard’s birthday dinner in Selçuk, Turkey was $9 (CAD) for both of us, including a tip!
We did have this grand plan of travelling with just backpacks as carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees, however, even before we left Calgary, we realized that was not going to be doable and switched to suitcases. That switch did allow us to bring extras like wetsuits for diving. Because the bags are checked, I picked-up a good kitchen knife and cutting board because chopping chicken and vegetables with the worn out utensils we’ve found in our Airbnb’s is painful!
Bedding has also been driving us nuts. After the first six Airbnb’s we stayed in did not have top sheets or blankets that covered both of us (the bedding was only the width of the bed, no overhang). In the case of our Plovdiv, Bulgaria unit, we were given some weird extra-large pillowcase style of sheet. We finally broke down and bought a king-sized sheet to carry with us and have slept soundly since.
Other than these truly minor inconveniences, our travels have been hassle-free (hope that didn’t just jinx it), although I do wish I knew a language other than English – thank goodness for Google Translate.
As Canadians we are incredibly fortunate when it comes to international travel. As of July, 2021, 188 countries and territories allow Canadian passport holders visa-free or visa upon arrival status, with varying lengths of stay allowed. We did need a visa for Turkey and when we looked into it found lots of online services offering to obtain visas for travellers. However, with a little digging, we found many countries have an online portal right on their government website through which you can apply for a visa. Going this route ensures you’re getting the right visa, it’s timely (for Turkey the approval was instantaneous) plus you aren’t paying service fees! The Visa for Egypt was equally simple to obtain through that government’s portal.
Tips and Tricks for Other Nomadic Retirees
- Follow other nomads, through Facebook, YouTube, personal blogs, etc., they can be a great source of inspiration and guidance.
- Start your own blog, or at least a Facebook page for your travels. It might only ever be followed by friends and family, but it’s a lasting record of your adventures.
- Take advantage of technology to stay connected with friends and family. Even my 80-year old mother has embraced video calling on a weekly basis, despite the various curveballs we’ve thrown at her when we switch to a newly discovered app. Some of the most useful bits of technology we’re using are:
- Marco Polo – video vignettes we share amongst our family;
- Discord – our son suggested this gamer’s app for video calling rather than Zoom, and we’ve been really happy with it;
- Google Translate to communicate with locals, and also works well to read food labels, menus, and signs;
- Google maps to pin the places we want to visit so we don’t get lost (we also always download the local map so even without an internet connection we can still navigate);
- A streaming device to connect to a TV (we use the Amazon Fire Stick) which allows us to connect to our own Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts, plus stream major news channels (including our hometown news, if we’re feeling homesick).
- Be flexible – don’t over plan. We booked accommodation and transportation for the first six weeks of our nomadic travels. After speaking with some locals we changed our minds on a couple of destinations which meant losing money cancelling Airbnb’s and buses. Our detour to the World Expo in Dubai is another good example of being “unscheduled.” We really hadn’t decided where to go after Egypt so it was easy to take advantage of that travel opportunity.
- We haven’t sold our house yet. When we first set off on this adventure I will admit to having several sleepless nights thinking what are we doing??!! For me, it was very comforting to know we still had somewhere to return, if this experiment failed. Three months into our travels I’m 95% sure we’re going to sell it now!
- For the foreseeable future we intend to return to Calgary once a year to spend Christmas with our adult children, which helped to assuage my guilt!
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