There are 195 countries in the world and Alastor Gray has been to almost all of them. It’s a Sunday morning in Chicago and the 30-year-old is sitting at the foot of a dark leather couch, trying to name the places he hasn’t visited.
There’s Colombia, Somalia, DR Congo, Sudan, Antarctica, Palestine, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – but that’s about it. “Mostly due to political unrest,” he says, the sound of a train rattling by in the distance. “I’m hoping to get to them eventually.”
Alastor speaks with a shapeshifting accent – part Irish, part Australian, part Cornish, part American – that immediately sparks questions of identity. But Alastor isn’t from anywhere. He has grown up around the world, living on the move, rarely spending more than a few months in one place.
“I feel like there’s an expiration date to everything in life,” he says. “Once you start experiencing the same things day in, day out, it’s easy to get caught in what I consider a rat trap.
One of my favourite things in the world is stepping off a plane in a new country and not knowing anybody or anything beyond what my senses tell me. When things start to feel a bit too familiar, it’s time to go somewhere else.”
Growing up, Alastor’s mother travelled a lot for her job as a radio presenter, taking them from country to country. By the age of 16, he’d finished high-school in Melbourne and felt ready to do some travelling of his own. So he chose to study applied linguistics in France, using his spare time to explore Europe.
Once his degree finished, Alastor just kept going, picking up work as a surf instructor, bartender, teacher, hostel worker – anything that came his way at the right moment. Deciding where to go and what to do next is more or less happenstance, he explains.
There isn’t much reasoning beyond how he feels about a particular place. The idea is just to live in the present as much as possible. “It takes away your ego,” he says. “If you can’t speak the language or know anything about the culture, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers – which you don’t do at home.
“When was the last time you were in an English-speaking country and had to ask for something that you couldn’t just look up on your phone? It pushes you out of your comfort zone and that’s something I think a lot of people need.”
Apart from an email account, Alastor keeps his digital footprint minimal. He avoids social media and burns through new phone numbers in different countries.
There are few people he considers true friends – one is currently riding a truck through South America, another is working on a cannabis farm in the middle of nowhere – and they only meet when their paths happen to cross. It’s the same with family.
“We can go six months without communicating but if I call up, they will drop everything to do anything for me and I would do the same for them,” he says.
“When I first started travelling, it was all me, me, me. It’s taken a few trips around the world – not running away from comfortable circumstances but getting away from them – to realise that those lasting connections do matter.”
You can tell Alastor prefers deep conversation to run-of-the-mill small talk. He lights one cigarette after another, steadily flicking the ash but barely pausing to take a drag.
Sometimes, when starting a new relationship or even just meeting someone for the first time, his outlook requires a bit of explaining. People find it frustrating that they can’t immediately connect with him online but, once they give the idea a chance, most warm to it quickly.
“Let’s say you meet someone at a pub and you get along with them,” he says. “Before you go on another date, you will potentially know so much about that person – their likes and dislikes, their friends and experiences – having all these blanks filled in by what you find on the internet.
“But I don’t want to experience life through a filter. I don’t want a rehash of information. I’d rather learn about people organically.”
In the coming months, Alastor will fly from New York to Reykjavik before catching a flight to London and then another to Helsinki. He’ll make his way to Moscow and take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Shanghai.
In March, he plans to open his own hostel and community centre in Saigon: a place where travellers can get to know locals through their art and cuisine. Starting a business marks a new chapter in Alastor’s life. He doesn’t want to be that 50-year-old dude sharing dorms with backpackers, but he believes the essence of how he lives won’t change.
The sense of perspective means too much to him. People in the West get so caught up in stuff we shouldn’t even care about, he says, that it makes us lose sight of the bigger picture. Brexit and the rise of Trump have only reinforced that impression.
“When someone hasn’t seen anything beyond their city or state or even what their social network tells them, then they don’t know any better,” he says.
“I think that’s what I’m striving for at the end of the day: to be constantly put into check by other people and circumstances. If everyone just disconnected from their own lives a bit and saw what else life has to offer, maybe there would be a little more progress in this world.”
For some people, it’s not the lure of the unknown that inspires a new beginning – it’s the need to escape an unhealthy existence.
Sarah was a 19-year-old living in New England when she met Michael, a guy with a mesmerising smile and a fast car. Together they started taking the prescription painkiller OxyContin, moved in with Michael’s parents and built a routine around their addiction. (Sarah asked not to be identified as she has kept this hidden from her family.)
“Throughout my teenage years, I always felt the urge to go, to do something,” she says.
“School took a backseat to life experiences, whether it was meeting new people or experimenting with drugs long before my peers. Anxiety is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember and taking a pill, doing a line or having a few drinks before dancing the night away was the quickest way to overcome it, even if only temporarily.”
Over time, Michael became possessive and emotionally abusive. Sarah not only felt trapped by their drug dependency, but by a poorly paid teaching job she hated. But in September 2011, things changed when an old friend paid her a surprise visit.
“She had moved to Prague completely alone, without knowing anybody and without having a place to live,” says Sarah. “But in coming back, my friend could see how miserable I was and felt compelled to get me out.
“So she came up with a plan: I could come live with her for a few months if my mom would pay for the flight. I had to decide quickly and I was scared out of my mind to drop everything. But it was such an amazing opportunity, there was no way I could say no.”
The critical moment came a month later. Sarah handed in her notice at work, gave away her possessions and told her landlord he could keep the deposit. There were no loans, car payments or credit cards to worry about.
Still, Sarah felt a surge of anxiety. She lied to a lot of people about where she was going and for how long. Almost all of them had spent their lives in the same State and, at 21, Sarah could see herself doing the same if she didn’t leave there and then.
A flight to London formed the first leg of the trip. Sarah fell asleep on the plane and woke up just as it was descending, her stomach knotted with nerves.
“I was terrified to be in this new place, even if it was still an English-speaking country. I found somewhere to sit near the departures board and just stayed there for my entire layover. I was exhausted and hungry but wired from the stress… I hadn’t even noticed the drug withdrawal kicking in.”
In Prague, everything from the street signs to the grocery shops felt alien. Sarah kept a low profile for the first few weeks: holed up with a book, rarely leaving the fl at alone, eating takeaway from the KFC downstairs.
But before long she found a babysitting job that paid cash-in-hand, giving her the confidence to explore the city and pick up the language. By the time her three-month tourist visa expired, she felt happier than she’d ever been and decided to stay on illegally.
One reason was Adam, a local she started seeing. He treated her well and the pair became inseparable. But nine months into their relationship, Sarah became pregnant. “I panicked because I couldn’t stay under the radar any longer,” she says.
“I contacted a non-profit organisation for integrating foreigners, who suggested we explain our story to the authorities and just hope they took pity on us. We got lucky. It was a long process with a lot of paperwork, but I was granted residency on the basis of family reunification. Now we live in a house in the suburbs and our daughter is about to turn three.”
Looking back, Sarah realised that the people she disconnected from had only been ‘friends’ as long as they took drugs together. The real ones stuck by her. And while she occasionally misses home, she’s happier now and glad to raise her child away from the US.
“If you think you need a total life makeover somewhere else in the world, you can do it. Moving across the ocean seems out of the realm of possibility for a lot of people. But you are not stuck. There aren’t any setbacks that you can’t overcome. If you’re afraid to leave your friends and family, trust me: they will still be around when you get back.”
Zac Mange felt like he’d reached a dead-end in life. By day, his job handling reservations at a car-rental company proved mind-numbing. By night, he wasted his free time vegetating in front of the TV. So when his flatmates opted out of their lease, and his long-term relationship crumbled, the 26-year-old sensed an opportunity.
“I felt like I had been doing the same thing my whole life, over and over, and I was ready for a massive change,” says Zac. “I dreamed of being a musician and I wasn’t really doing a whole lot with that in Oregon, where I grew up. That fuelled the frustration. I always wanted to see the other half of the country but never had a reason to. I thought, ‘If there’s ever going to be a good time to do it, this is it.’”
One possibility presented itself by chance. Someone Zac once played a show with in high-school mentioned that his band was looking for a guitarist… in Ohio, nearly 4,000km away.
It felt like a tenuous link, but enough to spur Zac into moving. Four days later, he decided to disappear without telling anybody. Zac’s social circle felt like part of the problem, while the relationship with his parents felt strained at best. He didn’t think they’d care one way or the other.
“I had it in my mind that a completely fresh start was going to fix everything, so I wasn’t going to tell anyone or communicate with them,” he says.
“I realised I’d spent a lot of time trying to live for other people, living up to some standard I thought I was supposed to. But it just made me unhappy. I decided that I’m the only one who should worry about how I live my life.”
The drive to Ohio felt liberating, the scenery beautiful. But when Zac arrived, the accommodation he’d arranged fell through.
That meant sleeping in his car until he found a part-time job at a gas station. The hardest part, he says, was not knowing anyone (his new bandmates were practically strangers, after all).
But creating the space to follow his passion made Zac happier and, over time, a new life came together – all offline, away from the connections he left behind. “I abandoned the internet for a long time,” he says.
“By the time I thought about getting back on, years later, I couldn’t remember any of my passwords. It feels dumb now but I convinced myself that my unhappiness might be some of my friends’ problems.
“If I was doing it over, I would probably not just disappear in the middle of the night. I would let people know and maybe stay in touch. I had a lot of good friends who I’ve completely lost contact with and I have no idea how to reconnect. I regret that.”
Four years on, Zac is married and raising a daughter. The music never quite worked out – he works as a chef now – though he’s glad he took the chance to at least try.
Along the way, Zac realised that just taking off for somewhere else was never going to be the answer. “There’s nothing wrong with packing things up and trying a different approach,” he says. “But when you get to wherever it is that you’re going, you’ll still be the same person.
“If your problems are self-created, then you’re just going to create them all over again in a new place. You have to change who you are, not where you live.”