Over the weekend I listened to an interview with Rita Golden Gelman, author of the New York Times bestseller Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World (Broadway Books, 2001), who says she has traveled the world living in villages and thriving with families for more than 30 years, without a permanent address. I read the book before I found the interview but Gelman was a digital nomad long before ‘digital nomad’ was even a thing.
For those who may still be unsure, a digital nomad is a person who is not location-dependent but uses technology to perform their job. Simply put, they work remotely rather than being physically present in an office. Many work out of coffee shops, co-working spaces, public libraries, recreational vehicles, vans, and/or in another country.
In Tales, Gelman explains that by 1985 she was living a life she no longer recognized. Though married with a husband and two college-aged children — she herself a successful children’s book author, no longer felt fulfilled.
Suggesting to her husband that they take a break from each other for a couple of weeks, she goes on to say:
“He agrees to a break and counseling but adds that two weeks is not enough. He suggests two months in which we are both free to see other people.”
Initially shocked as anyone would be by the extended time apart, Gelman eventually decides to leave California for a village in rural Mexico. It’s 1986. She’s arranged to take a Spanish language course in a Zapotec village for those few months, staying with a local family. She was 48 at the time. No internet or social media for guidance.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the art of connecting with the local community and Gelman’s intuitive spirit. With a few exceptions, she hardly ever planned a trip; moving best on instinct, trust and the power of connecting. She would immerse herself in cultures; eating the local food, living how they lived, participating in activities that they did, learning the language as best she could and making the most it.
She was never an expat in these communities; she dove in feet and heart first. She also said at this point in her life she had never even had dinner in a restaurant by herself; always dining with friends and family. However, she had studied Anthropology at UCLA and completed coursework for her PhD. She just loved people and languages. Gelman is now 80-years old.
Throughout the course of the book, Rita travels from Mexico to Guatemala then Nicaragua. She sleeps with sea lions in the Galápagos Islands; heads to Indonesia and through sheer determination makes it to an orangutan camp on Borneo. She also lives in a puri (a castle) for a number of years. It’s inspiring to know that Rita did all of this in a time when the internet was at its infancy.
Traveling to Israel, Canada, New Zealand and Thailand as well, Tales of a Female Nomad is a fascinating read, full of wisdom, adventure, joy and gumption.