The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

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Fear-Driven Vagabondry

Travelling is the only thing I am good at. The moment I arrive at the dingiest room in West Africa, I am comfortable. I hurl my gear on the floor and start looking for vegan food. Unpacking takes seconds, and so does packing. After visiting over a hundred countries, this is the least I can expect from myself.

About two years ago I noticed that I no longer wanted to travel, but I could not stop. Something kept pushing me on and on. I spent eight months in Singapore over the last twelve months, but I changed my residence within the country seven times. I can’t stay put. Travelling is the only thing I am good at, and I suck at everything else big time.

Whining and self-pity are the easiest things to do, and these vices also rank high on the list of guilty pleasures. That is not my goal here: I set out to uncover the reason why I find it difficult to stop travelling. I keep self-flagellation to a bare minimum where cold facts support my observations.

Changing my location gives an illusion: a new beginning every time, a hope that I am given a new chance to overcome my limits. It never happens. I keep hitting the same walls over and over again. Everything I do is fake or a spiritless approximation of what I would like to do. It is easier to move on and not learn anything, then restart my same shitty ways in a new place.

I was involved with a dozen research institutes around the globe — including top-tier ones — doing short stints in each. The papers we wrote with the scientists there are the most inconsequential manuscripts they every produced. This is a special gift of mine: finding a research problem that makes absolutely no difference whether it is solved, and for which the solution itself is a bore. Every time I look at my i10 index, I wonder what happened to all those years of effort I put into my work.

Career is not everything, though, and most humans are capable of a fulfilling life while slaving away in some graveyard of ambitions to make a living. People thrive enjoying their friendships and relationships, they indulge in sports and hobbies. I excel at failing at physical activities. Although I keep trying again and again, I don’t rememberl ever swinging my BMI above twenty. I do not technically have a hobby either.

Apart from a permanent feeling of detachment from my surroundings, my social life is further impaired by curious limitations. At 10pm sharp, I fall asleep, even if I am in a salsa club, dancing with the most inspired salsera on the dance floor. I never had energy and I am incapable of experiencing ecstasy. Crazy-makers, people who are at least vaguely interesting and spontaneous, sense this and they soon learn to avoid me. Talking about spontaneity, it is also completely missing from me: it takes an absurd amount of effort to change my course of actions once I made up my mind about something, usually about not doing it. Yet, all my regrets stem from not having done something that I should have. While I oddly don’t have a problem with squatting over a crocodile or learning skydiving, anything that involves interacting with fellow humans makes me overly cautious. I naturally repel adventure. I drink decaf with soy milk — that is about as adventurous as I get. This is the fear that drives me on: the fear of rotting away in my own ineptitude.

My solution to the problem of unstoppable vagabondry is blatantly dumb: instead of addressing my shortcomings, I tried to make travelling difficult. An expensive tailored suit was added to my possessions. I found a way to travel with it: I wear it while on the road. A year later I acquired dumbbells, weighting a total of nine kilos. This almost doubled the weight of all the items I owned, but I was still portable. Then, as I was getting ready for an expedition to Peak Lenin, I had to buy a pair of crampons, weighting about a kilo.

The crampons made the difference. My inertial mass finally reached a point where it is physically difficult to move my gear. I can no longer travel easily. Barcelona is the place where I found a local energy minimum at least until next spring. I even have an official short-term lease for an apartment — I don’t recall having anything like that in six years. Not that I have much to expect from myself, the hope is always there in the beginning.

Balcony in Barcelona

The balcony at my new pod. A tiny outdoor space and a hint of vegetation always give a sense of hope. Until the plants die, that is.