In Bolivia, we bought a hammock. It was a frivolous purchase; we had precious space to spare, six weeks of travel ahead of us, and no house to hang it in. “Someday, we’ll be able to hang this in our backyard,” Jared said, as he rolled it tightly and shoved it into the bottom of his backpack. “When we have a house.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Someday.”
I’d always wanted a hammock. It had been romantic, walking into the shop and debating the merits of green versus black. Is it sturdy? we asked, in broken Spanish and elaborate hand gestures. Yes, yes, very strong, the woman assured us. I liked the idea of filling our someday-house with meaningful items from our travels, and a hammock seemed like the perfect place to start. It was a suggestion of future plans without the real-life commitment of a mortgage. I’d always wanted a hammock, but I’ve never actively wanted a house.
Eight months later, we moved into our rental apartment. It’s small, but there’s a balcony and it only takes me ten minutes to walk to the beach. That is a luxury I never thought I’d have—ten minutes of walking from my parents’ house would get me halfway to Target, not the Pacific. Jared jokingly hung our hammock on the wall, using two existing hooks.
“That is so not where the hammock is going to live,” I warned.
But the hammock is still there; I don’t even see it anymore. We store hats in it, easy to grab as we go out the front door on the way to the beach, the grocery store, work. Sometimes visitors point it out, our one-dimensional hammock-as-wall-decoration. Is that a hammock? they ask.
“Oh, that,” we say. “We bought it in Bolivia. Jared carried it all the way to Ecuador in his backpack. Someday, we’ll hang it up. After the wedding, when we buy a house.”
Then our landlord gave us three months’ notice. His son was moving back to town and needed the apartment.
“Well,” Jared said. “Maybe this is the kick we need to buy a house.”
Not that I really wanted a kick, but there it was. Buying a house was no longer in the hazy fringe of “someday,” it was now. And that freaked me out. For over ten years, I’ve built an identity as Woman Who Travels. Travelers have no business buying houses! Most people sell their stuff and quit their jobs so they can travel the world, not the other way around. It felt like we were throwing in the towel and joining the rat race, that choosing to buy a house meant shutting the door on other options.
We started looking at houses online, calling banks, making casual inquiries to our mortgage-saddled friends about which affordable neighborhoods might be a good match for us. (I’ll give you a tip: not one of them is a ten-minute walk from the beach.) I grieved the inevitable loss of our prime location, affordable to rent but impossible to buy. I let Jared take the lead, wondering why I was going along with this when I didn’t really care about buying a house, when I’d be happy enough to rent for the foreseeable future.
Logically, I knew why we were buying a house. It wasn’t to have a forever home or because we felt like it was the next step. It’s because we had a comfortable deposit put away, and buying a house in this part of Australia is a fairly safe bet. The plan was to spend a couple of years paying down the mortgage, then re-evaluate what we want to do. I’d met people in the past who were traveling purely on the rental income from their property investments, and Jared and I always talked about how one day, if we played our cards right, we could do that too. The world was still our oyster; we weren’t trading in our passports for a lawn mower and a walk-in pantry.
But my inner voice was pacing back and forth, panicked. A house is forever, it said. Buying a house is serious. Every time someone expressed excitement that we were house hunting, I wanted to check their enthusiasm. Yes, we’re buying a house, but that doesn’t mean we’re settling down. We’re not doing that thing that everyone thought we’d do one day: getting the travel out of our systems and behaving like sensible adults who make choices you can relate to.
It’s like the feeling of fear you get when you’re standing at the edge of a dizzying height: What if my body suddenly throws itself over? You know that it won’t happen, but the terror is there, the possibility. I harbor a fear that buying a house will rush us into a life we didn’t sign up for, that ten years from now we’ll still be living there, swinging in our hammock, wondering where the years went.
To many people, a house represents security and comfort. To me, it stood for stagnation and immobility, two things I have worked very hard to avoid. I hear too many people use the phrase “I wish I had…” and I’m terrified of one day using it myself. Even though our motivation for buying a house wasn’t to live in it until the end of our days, I found it impossible to disentangle our intentions from society’s message about house buying. It felt like buying a house meant buying the cultural narrative that came with it.
And then there was the fact that for the price of a starter house in Australia, we could buy a modest mansion in the Midwest (never mind that I don’t want to live in the Midwest, the comparison was still there). We made an offer on a three-bedroom on a narrow block in an allegedly soon-to-be-trendy neighborhood, which means that it’s still just a little bit on the industrial side of pretty. The house is yellow weatherboard and has a green roof. It sort of looks like something you could buy at IKEA, if IKEA sold houses-in-a-box. When our offer was accepted, I felt for a second like someone had turned on the screen lock to my life. This was it: my job, this city, that suburb. Locked in.
“Hey Jared,” I asked, as we lay in bed that night. “Why do you want to buy a house?”
I had asked him once before, months ago. He’d told me that he was tired of paying rent. That he wanted to have a garden. That it would become a useful asset in the future, whatever we decided to do. Now that it was real, now that we were actually buying a house, I thought I’d better ask him again, to make sure that he wasn’t approaching this purchase in a totally different way than I was.
“I was tired of paying rent,” he said. “And I wanted a garden.”
I nodded my head, even though the room was dark. It was the answer I’d expected; we were still on the same page. And I understood why I was on board, despite my resistance. I didn’t necessarily want to buy a house, but I didn’t not want to. When I fought through my angst about leaving the beach and stopped making pointless comparisons to the Midwest, what I found was the truth: my instinct is telling me that this is the right move for us.
I’d forgotten my conviction that life does not sweep us along in its current; we always have the option of paddling in the direction we choose. So we will set up our hammock, with its reminders of Bolivia, and celebrate the knowledge that when we’re ready to explore the world again, we will. But in the meantime, it’s totally okay to stay in one place for a while, because that, too, is a form of exploration.