In February 2017, after four years living in Colombo, Delhi, Pune, and Singapore, I moved back to Sydney. This is a post about falling in love with my hometown after several failed attempts over the years.
But first, some context
Though I was born in Sydney, clocking over thirteen years in Australia in bits and pieces, I spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia. My relationship with Sydney had always been complicated, and I never quite felt like I belonged. In the search for a place that resonated with me, I moved to Vienna during my final year of university. As soon as I graduated, I moved to London, making the most of my two-year youth mobility visa. I begrudgingly moved back to Sydney in 2012, but when an exciting opportunity to start a digital agency in Sri Lanka popped up a couple of years later with a couple of audacious entrepreneurs, I was on a plane out of Sydney again.
The next chapter of my life was deliciously nomadic. This was what some of my travel scheduled looked like in 2014: Delhi for four weeks, Colombo for six weeks, Singapore for two weeks, back to Delhi for four weeks, then Colombo for three weeks, and then Singapore for three weeks. From mid-2015 to mid-2016 I lived, visited, and/or worked in: Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Qatar, Switzerland, Turkey, France, UK, Malaysia, Thailand, USA, Ecuador.
It was thrilling being truly location independent – thanks Tim Ferriss for the inspiration – earning less than I did in Sydney and yet somehow saving more than I had in my entire life. The cost savings in rent alone funded most of my flights. Having friends who were kind enough to host me on their couches and spare beds certainly helped save money on shorter trips. And having client meetings in different countries, paid for by work, helped too.
When I moved back to Australia, I fully expected to be plane-bound within a few months. But all the travel – short, medium, and long-term – to places so far beyond my comfort zone and familiarity expedited the growth of my curiosity, adaptability, and appreciation for wherever I am. I found myself not wanting to leave just yet. Two and a half years later, I’m still not ready to go.
Exploring and nesting don’t have to be mutually exclusive
“Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences. They say to themselves, for example, ‘So this is what an earthquake is like,’ and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.”Bertrand Russell, quoted in ‘Vagabond’ by Rolf Potts.
Changing location every few weeks, and sometimes every few days, was bloody exhilarating. As an aviation geek I loved the flying. As someone who grew up on a compound in Saudi Arabia I loved the freedom of being able to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. But really getting to know a city beyond the superficial was a regular challenge throughout my era of vagabonding. I had to figure out ways to go deep in short sprints of time, and doing so in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was trying to tick off every single activity listed on TripAdvisor.
The focus in any new destination was first and foremost wander through a city, ideally on foot, absorbing the ambience before diving into the details: the cafes I’d inevitably be drawn to many reasons ranging from the coffee beans to the music, the bookstores and type of books I’d notice the locals would be drawn to, the smaller, lesser known museums, hole-in-the-wall establishments all sorts of people ate from. Naturally, it was the people who made all of my travel worth it, but more on them later.
Returning to Sydney, conditioned by the necessity to get to know a city better, I noticed I was no longer an impatient teenager itching to graduate from university so I could get on a plane, but an explorer eager to find out what my own city had to offer. Treating Sydney like one of the cities I vagabonded through, I discovered new neighbourhoods to live in, found new favourite beaches scattered through the city’s glorious harbour, followed up my first ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat in 2014 with a three-day retreat in the Blue Mountains, and found more than a dozen cafes that perfectly balanced great coffee with patience as I sat there for hours on my Mac, working away, day after day.
Surprised that my usual itch to wander the globe hadn’t kicked in even a full year into my return to Sydney, something came to me as a bit of a revelation: going out of my way and making the effort to explore, made staying at home, the familiar, the domestic, all the more meaningful and comforting. This may seem obvious to many folks reading this, but having moved well over 25 times in as many years, this was truly revelatory.
A few of my favourite places in Sydney
Fave places to eat:
Lentil as Anything
Sushi on Stanley
Absynnia (Ethiopian food)
Dish (Sri Lankan food)
Hakiki Turkish Ice Cream
Jasmin1 (Lebanese food)
Gaziantep (best Baklava in Sydney)
Alexandria where I live for it’s proximity to the city, grungy inner west, and airport
Auburn and Granville for its middle eastern food
Vaucluse for its beautiful beaches in the near vicinity of the city
Parramatta for its Indian food
Surry Hills for its pubs, like The Carrington
Appreciate, luxuriate even, in the mundane
Learning to appreciate the mundane, day-to-day life in a quiet(ish) city like Pune as well as the adventure and magic in never-boring Istanbul helped me appreciate the regularity of living in Sydney and being intentional about finding adventure, creative stimulation, and connection. Being stuck on a bus for 16 hours that regularly broke down as it made its way from Pune to Goa, experiencing rush hour in Manila, and paying a ridiculous USD60 for a SIM card in Beirut made me appreciate Sydney’s infrastructure, as boring as that sounds.
What do we get here? The sprawling, messy, chaotic but generally functional, safe, and versatile public transport network. One of the world’s best public healthcare systems. A strong democracy with the brilliant preferential voting system. Some of the world’s best universities. Expansive stretches of pristine nature. A vibrant arts scene (that could always do with a bit more support and funding). Multiculturalism, one of the best byproducts being an incredible food scene. Potable water, straight out of the tap! And of course, without a doubt, the best coffee in the world.
Say “Hell yeah!” more
Reclusive entrepreneur Derek Sivers says everything that you don’t say “Hell yeah!” to, you should confidently say “Hell no!” to. We’re all way too busy to say yes to everything. But until you’ve broadened your horizons enough to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and know what aligns with your values, I believe in saying yes to as many different experiences as possible.
I wouldn’t have had a life-changing two years in London had I not said yes to the idea of applying for a youth mobility visa to live in the UK. I wouldn’t have moved to Delhi for a few months, had I not said yes to leaving a career with Apple to enter the startup world of South Asia. I wouldn’t had a spur-of-the-moment weekend in Taipei while I lived in South-East Asia had I not said yes to a friend during a lunch break while working on a project in Singapore.
And I certainly wouldn’t have said yes to the possibility of moving back to Australia, and staying for longer than a couple of months, had I not said yes to the idea of writing the first draft of a story I’d been researching and mapping out over the previous year.
Some of the above choices sound impulsive, and trust me a couple of them were, but bringing the “Hell yeah!” attitude back home, I ended up making many little “Hell yeah!” decisions that, taken individually, don’t necessarily amount to much, but considered over a year or more, you see how they shape the entire trajectory of your life.
Consider bushwalking in the Royal National Park, Blue Mountains, Ku-Ring-Gai National Park.
Consider an early morning swim in one of Sydney’s 100+ beaches.
Consider doing a Vipassana meditation retreat.
Consider having the best $30 massage of your life at the NSW School of Massage.
People make a place
One of the by-products of saying “Hell yeah!” is the inevitable meeting of people, fascinating people from all walks of life you’d otherwise probably not meet. I used to be a very shy, introverted person, and a part of me still is. But with each relocation came a slightly more confident version of myself, made just a little more comfortable with the fact that we’re all human, and no one’s judging. Okay, maybe a few are. But most people wouldn’t think I wasn’t worthy of their time. So I talked to strangers, neighbors, and friends of friends. I got invited to parties, signed up for networking events, went to gigs with people I’d just met, and became a huge fan of the Couchsurfing community.
Connecting with people is far more valuable than new experiences and sights and sounds and food. And as Henry Kissinger proved, there’s immense value in building wide networks of friendship. There’s a multiplier effect in the learning, exposure to diverse cultures, personal growth and most of all, fun, in having a global network of friends.
Some of the friendships I made over the years became deeper than others, of course. But I ensured that none of them were simply discarded after I left a city, and mostly thanks to technology, I have several close friendships with people who live around the world.
One night in Ecuador, during a week-long stay in a tiny, spiritually-oriented village, a stranger approached the fire I was very clumsily constructing to ask if he could dry his socks, of all things. The fellow was sleeping in a hammock that chilly night, while had a three bunk cabin to myself. Following a long conversation, drying of socks, eating of food cooked over an open flame, I just couldn’t let him sleep outside and offered one of my spare bunks. Three years later and he’s moved back to Europe and I’ve moved back to Australia. We are still friends, communicating mostly the ‘old fashioned’ way, through lengthy email updates every few weeks or months.
Back in Sydney, my circle of friends here has never been wider, but it also has never been deeper, thanks to friendships around the world that have expanded my perspectives, challenged my thinking, and are absurdly enjoyable.
What I’ve learned in a few directives
Explore liberally, nest mindfully.
Say yes to many, many things.
Treat your city like a faraway destination you have only a few days to explore, every now and then.
Be an amazing old friend, and make lots of new ones.
While my living costs have skyrocketed in Sydney, stretching my finances as thin as they’ll go, I find the premium of living here deeply satisfying and worth it. Sydney hasn’t changed much. I have. Having spent the four years traveling the world, cultivating a bit more of an open and curious travel philosophy, I’ve found the last couple of years a reintroduction to Sydney, a city I now find more interesting, beautiful, social, and liveable than ever before.
What changed in my approach to travel, and this fabulous holiday on a planet on Earth we get to enjoy for about 85 years, if you’re lucky, is beautifully captured in this paragraph in Rolf Potts’ ‘Vagabonding’:
“This is why vagabonding is not to be confused with a mere vacation, where the only goal is escape. With escape in mind, vacationers tend to approach their holiday with a grim resolve, determined to make their experience live up to their expectations; on the vagabonding road, you prepare for the long haul knowing that the predictable and the unpredictable, the pleasant and the unpleasant are not separate but part of the same ongoing reality”
Also published on Medium.