High Income Vagabonding?

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Since this blog is in many ways a time capsule from the current version of me to the person I was 15 years ago, there are concepts that occasionally resonate with the unencumbered new attending far more than they do with the married father of two with a mortgage and a bum shoulder.  One such idea is the concept underlying the classic independent travel book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.In the book, Potts lays out an ethos of working long enough to cobble together funds for extended budget travel.  Akin to adopting a dirtbag millionaire lifestyle, his suggestion offers the possibility of leveraging the relatively high physician income to work just enough to enjoy yourself.  Granted, the typical new attending will have a decent debt burden to repay before she can consider this route, but the fantasy is worth exploring.


Imagine being single, unattached, out of debt and board certified.  The world is your oyster.  You could opt for a nomadic lifestyle, where 4 months of locums work could support your travels the rest of the year.  Be forewarned: being young and virile in another country can have long-term consequences. A close childhood friend taking a gap year in Europe after college returned to the states with a global perspective…and a Slovakian-born son.  Sow your wild oats carefully. I was a sponsored exchange student to Beijing for a couple of months during my 3rd year in medical school. During one of several backpacker travel breaks from the wards, I met a rather ascetic Frenchman wandering Yunnan province with a light pack and flip flops. He described to me a life where he spent 9 months of the year traveling the world in a low cost, low impact manner and 3 months working as a highly paid waiter in the south of France during tourist season.  He packed the bare essentials.  When clothes wore out, he bought from local tailors.  He ate well and cheaply from street vendors.  While I must admit the prospect of hepatitis A crossed my mind as he told me this, there was something appealing in his carefully designed lifestyle.

The Frenchman’s story also brought to mind Doc Renneker, made famous in William Finnegan’s New Yorker piece “Playing Doc’s Games.”  A married family practice physician, Renneker has carved out a deliberate niche of writing textbooks, working in inner-city clinics, and a private patient advocacy service for cancer patients as a means to build a career that accommodates his lifestyle of big wave surfing along the coast of San Francisco.

Expecting?  No problem! Although neither the Frenchman nor Doc Rennaker have children, Jeremy and Winnie at Go Curry Cracker have seemingly cracked the code for a nomadic life, complete with a low cost birth abroad.  Better still, Junior’s first year and a half was spent averaging a new country visited for every month he’d been alive.

An option for those with families looking to explore a new terrain while working includes taking a year-long gig in New Zealand or Australia.  When I sat for my 10 year board re-certification at a local testing center, I met a fellow emergency physician who had just returned with his wife and 2 young kids from a year spent working in New Zealand.  They loved the experience, and were able to return rather seamlessly to life and family in the suburbs of southern California.

Why Fantasize About This Now?As I complete this article, my family and I are returning from a two week getaway to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.  It’s our longest test of slow travel with the kids to date (ages 7 and 9), and it’s been a success thus far. 

There are many perks to family travel abroad.  Our airbnb rental is a charming and light-filled colonial home blocks from the city center, and comes with a live in housecleaner who makes the beds daily, all for about $70 a night.  Laundry service is cheap and convenient.  We’ve been enjoying favorite tropical fruits like mango and rambutan daily, for just over a buck a kilo.

Family time here does not magically eliminate the drama of our strong-willed kids, but it’s amazing how not having an overnight shift to head out to leaves plenty of time to talk through feelings and improve communication.   We’ve even adopted a new nightly activity where we lie in bed together as we’re putting the kids to sleep and share what we are grateful for experiencing that day.  The cultivation of gratitude as a family has brought us closer together. 

Not feeling rushed makes all the difference. Bedtime at home can feel like a procrastinating child pulling me away from what little free time I have to spend with my wife.  Bedtime here is a luxurious opportunity to reinforce and reflect on our shared experiences.  We laugh recalling a terribly off key street busker whose singing reminds the kids of their grandfather, and acknowledge the uncommon sensation of being in the minority at a Mayan outdoor produce market where more people speak Tzotzil than Spanish.

While it’s not too late to take a year abroad with my wife and kids, I do wish I’d planned one out 15 years earlier…here’s to your pulling off what I haven’t yet!


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