Haleli Smadar. Tomer Appelbaum

The Israeli Family That Left Everything Behind to Trot the Globe

Haleli Smadar gave up the 9-to-5 world for life on the road with her children. She talks about the freedom of nomadic life – and about feeling that there is no way back.



Talking to: Haleli Smadar, 39, lives all over the world, writes the 'Breakaway from the 9 to 5' blog (in Hebrew). Where: A coffee shop in Tel Aviv. When: Tuesday, 2 P.M. 

I have caught up with you during a visit to Israel. Where have you come in from?

The Philippines.

It’s you and your three children. What were you doing in the Philippines?

I’ve got a son who’s nearly 17 and a 14-year-old daughter, and the youngest is a 10-year-old girl. We rented a house with a private beach, in a little fishing village in the Philippines, and we simply lived there, with the local residents. There isn’t anything there – no restaurants, no real stores – and we had to travel to the market to buy necessities. My daughter spent time with the children of the village. They taught her how to catch sea urchins and how to fish by the light of a flashlight.

You’re already leaving Israel on Friday. Where are you heading?

Northern India, the Ladakh region. We’re basically returning there, to live with a family we lived with last year. It’s a common practice there for each family to have a kind of guest rooms, and you live with them. We got very close to this family.

When did you leave Israel, and why?

I left Israel in 2010, because I felt that my life was revolving around chores and lists. A successful day was one in which I checked off all of the “musts” that I’d listed for myself: work, laundry, carpools, shopping, cooking. I realized I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. On the other hand, it was a huge decision to get up and go. I struggled with it; I was very scared.

Tomer Appelbaum

You were scared – because it wasn’t just a decision to set out on a trip: It was a decision to change your entire lifestyle. To live like a nomad.

Yes. We left everything. There was a children’s clothes company, which I closed. My now-ex-husband left his job. We left everything we had: house, property, car, refrigerator, and simply got on a plane.

In many respects, a lot of people dream of doing what you did, but are scared.

I was afraid of exactly what everyone else is afraid of. What will I do about money? What about the children’s studies? What about their health? What if something goes wrong? I had a very hard time dealing with all these fears. I was living in a state of dissonance: I had a burning need to get up and do it, but I was scared. Simply scared.

About leaving the familiar, even if it feels stifling and suffocating ...

Yes, and everyone in your proximity is of course encouraging you to stay close to that which is familiar and well known, and markets this to you as a matter of “security.” It isn’t truly security, of course, it’s only the sensation of that. A fiction. The moment I understood that nothing was going to change, that I would continue to be afraid, I decided that I simply had to head out on the road, because the fear would be there, and life doesn’t wait.

And so you set out, as you write in your blog – parents, three kids and a dog. Even with all the freedom, it doesn’t sound like an easy life.

You have to understand that travel is absolutely different when you have time and leisure. You don’t run after attractions, you don’t have to cover any ground, you simply live the day, without trying to manufacture any experience.

Do you feel this is a more authentic life than the life you lived here?

Yes. I get up gradually in the morning, don’t look at the clock, don’t even know what day it is. I live with a great deal of mindfulness with respect to my body and my soul. In Israel, I felt that my time was dictated by other factors, but there, I decide. If at night, say, the children decide they want to spend a little more time with their friends and not go to sleep, I couldn’t care less. I know they will wake up whenever they want, and that I will wake up whenever I want, they don’t have any exams tomorrow and I don’t have to make any presentation.

I’ve traveled a lot in the Far East. I remember that moment when I became tired from the trip, I no longer had the strength to look for another guest house, to make sure that the bottle of water was really sealed. I wanted to go home. To my clean bed.

I don’t have a bed of my own. My bed is the bed on which I sleep. But I can say, I’ve had it with the Philippines. That I am weary, that now I feel like spending a month in a hotel with a pool and drinking fruit shakes. Or that I feel like a trek in Mongolia. I always take care to create some sort of balance between the time spent in one place, all relaxed and tranquil – and the time spent on traveling and having adventures.

Hecke, Dreamstime

Just to make things crystal clear, this isn’t you taking time off from life. This is how you plan to live. Forever.

This is how I plan to live, but actually I don’t really have a plan. If two years from now, I have a craving for a washing machine and a need to scrub the kitchen counter, that’s what I’ll do. Because I was able to make that initial choice, I can always choose. I’m the one who creates the road and the journey and the route, not the opposite. If difficulties crop up, and they do crop up – well, life isn’t perfect. I study them and I deal with them within the context of my life. In the same exact way that when you have some difficulty, you solve it within the context of your life.

You’ve broken out of the matrix. What is the price you pay?

This life is filled with separations. In two days’ time, when I have to leave Israel, that will be hard for me, too. Personally, I have a particularly hard time with separations. I am always departing with tears in my eyes.

What is the social cost of doing this? How are you labeled? What do people say about you?

When I am abroad, it’s fine, because I spend time with people who are like me. People who like this [kind of] life, each one within his own constellation. I don’t have to explain myself. In Israel, people judge you. They criticize. I’m okay with that. This is my life and my dream, and I have no expectations that anyone who doesn’t have this dream can even comprehend it at all. I get a lot of criticism, but at the same time, a lot of admiration, too. A lot of admiring emails from people who read my blog, including older, 70-year-old women who write me that they also dreamed of doing this but didn’t dare, so they take their hats off to me. The critics say that I am not normal. True: I am not within the norm. They say I’m completely nuts – and with that I do not, of course, agree. And they say that I am irresponsible. Actually, I feel that I’ve assumed responsibility: for my life, for my children’s lives, for my decisions. I am full of responsibility. I have no one on which to unload anything. It’s me and me alone.

After a year of being on the road, you were left alone with the children. Your husband and your dog returned to Israel.

At the beginning, it was very strange. I was inundated by the difficulty of it all, even though I wasn’t really alone. We were in India, where there are always people around you, and I was with friends.

And this shift in your life didn’t make you think that you wanted to come home?

When I set out on this road, I made a very big decision. I took a risk, I made concessions, I sacrificed a lot of things in order to bring myself to this place, which is better for me. And even if it is difficult, there is no way back, and if I am having a hard time, I will examine what I can change to make it less hard.

In my opinion, it hasn’t taken some colossal effort on my part to have remained alone with the children. Since I was 18, I’ve believed that this is how children should be raised. That they should move around and see and experience things. That is what shapes them. Before we left the Philippines, we went diving at a nature reserve, with giant sea turtles. Seeing my daughter’s face was incredible. Or we traveled for 40 days in the steppes of Mongolia, with a tent. There is nothing at all in Mongolia. Not even roads. We were on the border of Siberia, we rode horses for five days, we met the shepherds of the northern reindeer, we slept with them in a tent one night. Each day you had to gather wood for the fire, set up the tent, cook, and in the morning you had to fold everything up and start from scratch.

Education vs. schooling

Dreamstime

I assume that a lot of the criticism that you received before you set out had to do with the matter of the children’s education.

Yes, obviously. But I wasn’t at all worried. It was clear to me that they would learn much more than if they were sitting for eight hours a day in some school. You have to distinguish between education and schooling. You can always get schooling. What’s important is education toward values, toward morality, toward accepting real responsibility.

I am not engaged in preparing them for the modern world as it is because I want a better life for them. What I wish for them is that they not have to spend 40 years in an office doing work they don’t like, and that they won’t think that because of a mortgage or because of social conventions, they have to compromise on their happiness. I think that by virtue of the fact that they travel, meet other children, see other lifestyles, experience a lot of experiences that make them stronger – that is the best education I can give them.

When my children arrive at a new place – they express respect for the place, the culture, the religion, the customs, and the people who host them. They are altogether open-minded. In three years’ time, my daughters have learned three new languages. They speak English, Nepalese and Hindi fluently.

And you?

I haven’t. Which is really awful, because when they don’t want me to understand, they talk among themselves.

What about the social situation? Friends?

That is a somewhat trickier issue. This lifestyle is a little different, and so are the needs of the children. But I pretty much believe that when the need for society arises, they’ll know how to fill it. There are children everywhere.

But these are temporary friendships. Limited by time.

Not always. Often they maintain close contacts with people they’ve met along the way. Look, there is a community: the community of travelers and of the people and the families that travel the world, more or less along the same axis, in our circle. It isn’t Pardes Hannah, but it is a community that continually exists around you. We consult, we exchange information, and frequently we also get together and travel together.

And what is the plan? Where else do you want to go?

I strike a balance between new places and places we’ve already been to. I want to travel to Kazakhstan and the other “stans” and to Africa. My children also have all sorts of plans, too.

In fact, the way that you live has a name: “digital nomadism.” People think that traveling around the world is an expensive privilege. You claim that isn’t true, and that you can make a living along the way.

When you fly somewhere on vacation for a week, everything really is very expensive, because the tickets are expensive, and it costs you a lot to stay – because if we’ve gone that far, we’ll take a nice hotel and we’ll go to attractions and we’ll eat in restaurants and we’ll taste all of the finest desserts in Paris. When you live like I do, you can make do with a simple room – for example, the house we rented in the Philippines cost me $15 a night, and you can also make do with trying out the finest dessert once a week.

The costs are much lower than the costs of a normal family here in Israel. Significantly so. We get by on between 4,000 shekels [about $1,000] and 7,000 shekels a month. Of course, the question is how to earn a living – and in today’s world there is no lack of possibilities. I myself have learned a new way of making a living: I set up a blog that both brings in money from advertisements and also enables me to save money on my travels, through all sorts of cooperative arrangements and referrals to other sites. I also earn money from consultations and planning people’s trips, and from articles that I write.

What about a bit of privacy? How does that exist within the framework of this lifestyle?

Actually, I’ve got tons of privacy. I usually take a private room for myself, and also try to give the children as much privacy as possible. There are times when that is difficult, no doubt about it. Sometimes they lack privacy, sometimes they are bored. I don’t get too worked up about it, because that’s life. I do not live detached from the world – just as there are people who have a hard time living in the 9-to-5 mold, I have my difficulties, too. Adolescent hormones are the same hormones everywhere in the world. Relationships between the siblings and arguments – everything. We deal with it.

Let’s talk about freedom. In your experience, are you free? Is it truly possible to break out of the rat race, or only possible to live alongside it?

I feel very free. In my opinion, freedom is the choice. I can decide for myself what I want and how I want it. There aren’t a lot of dictates according to which I have to act.

I read a sentence on a forum for nomads that caught my eye. Someone wrote, “We are not free; we simply chose the thickness of our handcuffs.” Do you agree with that?

Totally. It’s also a matter of internal dictates. It’s possible to break free from the 9-to-5, but in order to really do so, you have to break free not only physically, but also conceptually. Release is a process; it’s gradual. Clearly, in many respects I am not free, but at the day-to-day level, I am very free. I get pleasure from the here and now. I sleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry, head out on a journey, sit down and have coffee. It took me a long time to learn how to conduct myself according to my real desires.

You’ve changed.

Yes, quite a bit. Over time, all of the patterns to which I had accustomed myself because I was born in the place where I was born have been relinquished. I see completely different ways of living life, and I see that they work. My entire perspective has changed. I have much lower expectations, I am much more capable of accepting a person as he is, as trivial as that may sound.

And are you happy?

Really happy. Much much happier. I also feel more courageous. I used to be awfully frightened.

I wonder if there is a point at which you feel that you’ve gotten too far away from the rat race. From which it’s impossible to go back.

Listen, I’ve been in Israel for three weeks now, and I feel that I want to return to my life out there.

Do you think you would you be able to return to Israel? To live here?

No. That wouldn’t be good for me.

You wrote in your blog, “I don’t want to possess objects.” So, what do you own?

I have barely any possessions. I’m not lacking for anything, and I love it this way: that I have no house and no refrigerator and that I don’t have to pay a mortgage or call a technician. That is colossal freedom. My possessions consist of a suitcase with clothes, notebooks that I write in, and a laptop. And that’s it.

You’re not lacking for anything? Not books? An espresso machine?

Maybe I would buy myself a better suitcase. Aside from that, I don’t feel the need for anything else. My daughter is 14; she has a backpack and that’s it. Whenever she has a birthday, the same question arises, “Mom, I don’t know what I want for my birthday, I have everything.” And then we try real hard for a week or so to find something. It only shows me that we really don’t need anything. I very much enjoy not being tied down, for the reason that I am not enslaved to a house or to its maintenance. I don’t feel any less safe than the way I felt when I lived in my own house, with a set routine and a refrigerator. On the contrary, I used to be awfully bored.

I felt that I was confused between comfort and emptiness. I wanted to be truly excited by something. A lot of people can get up and freely live their lives, but choose not to do so. It is the choice between the established and the material and the comfortable, on the one hand, and life as a journey and doing away with the connection with property and material. For this lifestyle you have to travel light: with a desire not to accumulate assets and property, but the opposite. To accumulate experiences and moments and adventures and to encounter the new and the unknown.

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