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Homes for the mobile

By Margaret O'Connor
January 28, 2008 10:24 IST
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Ram Charan's wheeled suitcase functions as a virtual home. The 67-year-old management consultant and writer of business books sleeps in five-star hotels every night of the week, every week of the year.

Happily married to his career, this ultimate road warrior logs hundreds of thousands of air miles annually, circling the globe, proffering management advice to the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, sheiks, entrepreneurs, and the occasional civil servant.

Charan is an extreme example of the business-class nomad who spends so much time travelling it's almost not worth them having a conventional home.

Lopa Banerjee, a development professional who specialises in human rights and gender issues, moves between conflict zones and countries in transition with enough high-quality Kenyan coffee beans to see her through any assignment. Her favourite coffee purveyors in New York and Pretoria know when she's passing through town because the scale of her raids triggers an alert in their stock systems.

But the Lamy fountain pen her Delhi-based sister gave her goes in her carry-on bag with a laptop loaded with her favourite music and photographs. Unpacking these carefully selected personal effects helps to transform hotel rooms and serviced apartments from Tehran to Sudan into safe zones. Her key criteria for accommodation are that it should be a short commute to the local United Nations Development Programme office and that there's a reasonable place to jog nearby.

Antony Gormley sits cross-legged on Virgin Atlantic's flat-bed seat, sketching the changing light and landscape below in a notebook. Studying the world from 39,000ft is something the 57-year-old British sculptor does constantly since winning the Turner Prize in 1994.

Gormley follows the aircraft's journey on one of the many maps in his travel kit or on the flight navigation screen in his entertainment console. He keeps a camera within reach to capture the charged atmosphere and stark earth outside his window seat. He credits this active participation in the act of travel with minimising jet lag and helping him acclimatise to a new place.

These travel rituals are important coping mechanisms for business-class nomads says Dr Robert Hayden, an anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. He suggests that there are parallels between the goldsmiths, travelling genealogists and folk medicine practitioners who roamed India while living in tents and the modern-day management consultants, architects, journalists, development professionals and artists that now criss-cross the planet.

Hayden says the territory covered by this new breed of nomad is less clearly delineated than that of their predecessors in India because demand for their services can come from anywhere in the world and because new technology and accessible air travel enable individuals to create their own personal trade routes.

The desire to seek work in new territories is another defining characteristic of the modern nomad. The intellectual satisfaction that comes from identifying emerging trends and helping clients and colleagues adapt this knowledge to local conditions fuels their interest in finding new pastures in which to work.

"The new breed of nomad embraces this lifestyle because of the professional mobility and personal adventure it offers. These people transcend boundaries, rather than erect them," says sociologist Dr Anne-Meike Fechter of the University of Sussex in southern England, who recently published the book Transnational Lives and contributed to the anthology Gender and Family Amongst Professional Migrants.

She suggests that home for these people is not a fixed place where one lives or the place where one originated but a set of social relationships that includes professional peers and family.

Gormley concurs that people are more important in defining a mobile person's sense of home than place. "I continue to travel because each journey triggers unique insights and adventures," he says. "I feel hugely privileged to work with special people in special places."

He traces his passion for collaborating with people from across the globe to 1989, when he met the Texca family in Mexico's great volcano plain. Three generations of this family of brickmakers created 35,000 figures using clay from the valley for his "field" installation. "The social dimension of site-specific work changed my life," Gormley acknowledges.

Horse trekking across the spine of the New Zealand Alps with his wife when we spoke by satellite phone, he was in the country to survey a site for a private commission before jetting off to China to collaborate with 16 monks and four Belgian dancers on creating the set and lighting for a Sadler's Wells production in the Shaolin monastery (established AD498).

This Shaolin project represents a circle the artist is closing. He studied meditation in India and Sri Lanka during the early 1970s before returning to his native London to continue his art studies at Goldsmiths College and the Slade School of Fine Art. Having his wife accompany him on this circumnavigation of the globe represents a break from a career-long habit of travelling solo and focusing exclusively on work during his trip.

"It adds a celebratory aspect to the journey to share it with a loved one. It also reduces the constant stress of having to constantly navigate new working relationships."

Constant travel places enormous pressure on a nomad's emotional support structure. The nomadic professional often craves the continuity that a stable spouse, partner or friend brings to their universe but maintaining such relationships is made all the more difficult by the repeated separations. Negotiating constant departures and arrivals requires open and honest communication.

Banerjee, who has just celebrated her 20th anniversary in a commuter marriage, leaves her husband, a senior development officer with the UN, at a home base (New York has been the centre of his UN career but he is currently on a long-term field assignmentin Pretoria) so as not to interrupt their 17-year-old daughter's education.

"When our daughter was three years old - living with her father in Delhi while I was working in Bombay and travelling to trouble spots around the globe - she said, 'Mommy, organisations are not supposed to come between families.' I realised I needed to articulate my lifestyle choice more clearly. It must have worked out OK because she now claims to want to become a human rights lawyer."

Should she do so she will be joining a growing band of itinerant professionals. Statistics suggest that an increasing number of people are adopting a nomadic lifestyle. Global Relocation Surveys, a US-based private research company that monitors professional migration in 110 countries, maintains a rich database about where people are moving, for how long, and in what professional fields.

The shortest international assignments the company tracks are one year. The typical nomad's engagement ranges from 48 hours to four months, while assignments range from a year to five years.

Dr Nikos Papastergiadis, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, suggests that Banerjee's experiences are atypical and insists that one needs to be single to succeed with a nomadic lifestyle. As an academic specialising in the confluence of migration and contemporary art, he felt compelled to move from Australia to London to participate in the biennial circuit. He quickly achieved his fantasy of working on almost every continent.

"But I got tired of bumping into people who never paused long enough to listen to anyone else," he says. "They were too busy dashing to their next engagement to make time for meaningful engagement. People wear their mobility as a badge of success."

The social scientist smiles at the memory of the London-based curator that used to travel with a Filofax with an alphabetised section in which each letter stood for a city on the art circuit. On the R page he had everything he needed to function in Rome: three or four great restaurants, 20 useful and interesting people to contact and the choice of three hotels that knew how to make him feel at home.

"His work was a constant collage of encounters from around the world. Tapping into his manic energy, he could create vital installations from a nearly infinite range of sources across cultures and time zones."

However, his success came at a cost of living with a series of fleeting and spiritually unfulfilling social episodes and in a cultural bubble that was impregnable to the influences of the locations he visited.

Papastergiadis realised he needed to change his lifestyle when he woke up one morning and confronted the reality that his heart was in Australia, his mind in London, and his body working in a third country. He returned to Melbourne to marry his long-time girlfriend, became a parent and found an academic posting at the University of Melbourne that would employ his cross-cultural expertise and value his extensive international network.

Like most professional nomads, he feels he adds value in his working life by drawing on many cross-cultural personal experiences. "Being an outsider enables you to observe local practices with an inquiring mind but you sometimes need to adapt your own behaviour to be a credible participant in professional and personal circles when you operate in a new place," he says.

He cites the experience of working at a Swedish university on a six-month assignment. To make the furnished apartment he shared with his wife and nine-month-old daughter more homey and to try to establish some sort of connection with the locals, he moved his desk next to a window with a courtyard view.

He says it provided him with a window on the domestic drama unfolding in his neighbours' apartments because no one used to hang curtains. "Sunlight was at a premium."

He decided to stop his informal research when he noticed a single female neighbour strip off her work clothes to cook dinner. He realised the Swedish view of privacy was diametrically opposed to his Greek-Australian upbringing, where everyone engaged in constant surveillance of their neighbours as an expression of their concern for each other.

He left Sweden with a richer appreciation of the benefits of protecting one's personal space and cultivating a quiet inner world.

Papastergiadis encourages people who pursue transnational lives to interrogate their stereotypes. "These half-truths are a useful starting point when you arrive in a new place but to get the most out of the collision of cultures, you need to stretch your perceptions and to adjust your thinking. When you take the time to understand how a different person thinks, mutual transformation takes place."

Banerjee counts Iran as the place where she experienced the most important cultural transformation. She arrived in Tehran Airport in a dowdy hijab and a special immigration officer helped her tie her headscarf.

Minutes after getting through customs, she was in central Tehran feeling like a hick because all the other women on the streets wore bright, figure-hugging hijab and pushed their headscarves back, testing the limits.

Banerjee's work colleagues took her shopping and taught her Farsi. On her first weekend away from work, she met a dentist and her teenage daughter on a flight to Shiraz. They invited her to their home and to join them for a ceremony at the tomb of Sufi poet Hafiz.

Banerjee counts that evening spent walking clockwise round the memorial on a moonlit night, chanting Sufi poetry, as one of the most memorable episodes in her adventurous life.

But it seems even the most extreme professional nomad gets taken with the urge to settle down eventually. Charan has bought an apartment in Dallas. Work occupies him too fully for him to consider making it home right now but there's now a fixed address he could use for filling in his immigration forms.
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Margaret O'Connor
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