A peek behind the digital nomad curtain

Behind the curtainWhen people discover I’m a digital nomad, I usually a get hit by a barrage of questions. I don’t blame them: it’s a lifestyle that’s not that common, and curiosity is a natural response. As a result I am always more than happy to share how I am managing different aspects of my life at the moment. On the assumption that others may have the same questions, I have put together a set of personal FAQs that outlines the strategies that are working for me given my own circumstances and preferences. Happy reading!

Do you have a base somewhere?

Since late 2014, no (although my parents’ place in the US serves as my “permanent” address and is home to my ten boxes of belongings). My plan is to continue being a nomad as long as it feels like it’s a good fit. If circumstances change or I wake up one day and suddenly feel the need to be domiciled somewhere, I’ll rethink things. Until that time, I’ll stay on the go.

What do you do for income?

I support myself through editing, writing, and interview coaching. All of my work is done remotely and can be completed using my laptop and the Internet.

Where do you stay?

I mostly use AirBnB to find short-term accommodation and like alternating between having my own apartment and sharing (always with my own room). I look for something in a central, safe, and interesting neighborhood that has easy access to transport and basic facilities (including grocery stores). This year I’ve stayed in everything from a villa designed by one of the fathers of modern Malaysian architecture to a 19th century prison cell (yes, really!). I’ve also had some wonderful hosts who have enriched my stays and now count as friends. My monthly rent has ranged from about $375 to $875.

Do you have insurance?

After much research and consideration, I opted for only travel health insurance (as opposed to full-blown international health insurance). My $60/month plan offers mostly catastrophic coverage; I usually refer to it as my “dengue-fever-or-hit-by-a-motorbike” insurance. It also covers medical evacuation and a few basic travel-related things (such as baggage loss). I decided to go this route as I don’t have any health issues that require regular medication or monitoring (touch wood) and most of the countries I have been in offer more affordable healthcare than my native US – which makes covering minor medical expenses that may arise a much more manageable prospect.

What about communication?

My unlocked Samsung serves me well. I buy SIM cards and basic prepaid voice/text/data plans in each country, the cost of which averages out to about $10/month. I use my phone mostly to communicate with people locally and access email and information while I’m out and about. For international communication I turn to Skype (calls to other Skype users are free, while calls to land-lines and cell phones generally have quite reasonable per-minute charges).

Isn’t it a really expensive lifestyle?

If you’ve been doing the math, you’ve seen that it’s actually not too bad. The only two major categories of expenditure that I haven’t covered so far are travel and daily living expenses, both of which will vary substantially from person to person. The former can climb if you do a lot of long-haul air travel, but having flexible travel dates helps. Daily costs include food, local transport, entertainment/recreation, and self-care, and if you spend a lot of money in any of these categories wherever you are now, you’ll probably do the same on the road. Of course, the other key factor is the cost of living where you are – I certainly found myself running through cash must faster in Berlin than in Kuala Lumpur, for instance.

Although I haven’t kept detailed records, my back-of-the-envelope calculations show that my total average expenditure in 2015 has been below $1,200/month (taking all of the above outlays into account). There are certainly ways one could do it for less (or a whole lot more!), but this amount has allowed me to lead an existence that is comfortable and meets my personal needs.

How much stuff do you travel with?

I have a larger backpack that converts to a suitcase and must be checked on flights. I also have a carryon. Some nomads limit themselves to just one small bag, but I’m not there yet (and may never be; I really hate doing laundry). My basic packing list is mentioned here.

How do you decide where to go?

This is a tough one. So far I have chosen a combination of places that I know to a varying degree (Malaysia, Thailand, Germany) and that are completely new (Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus) – and I suspect this pattern will continue. For many years I only wanted to visit new places, but I am now realizing how nice it can be to spend more time in places that I know I enjoy (and sometimes where I know some truly amazing people). However, I need to balance that with being able to experience the joy of exploring a completely new country and culture. Given that I am an urbanite at heart, I gravitate towards bigger cities.

I also take a number of practical issues into consideration: connectivity (the digital part of digital nomad is quite important!), visa and length-of-stay limits, climate/season (my preference is to eternally chase summer), cost of living (where my main goal has been to maintain some balance), and travel logistics (region hopping is fun but can be both discombobulating and expensive).

Do you know people in these places? Doesn’t it get lonely?

For the most part, I don’t know people where I go (with the exception of one city where I previously lived). However, there are many great ways to meet people if you put a little effort into it. So far I’ve had good luck tapping into online resources and communities such as Meetup, Couchsurfing, Find-a-Nomad, and LinkedIn. I haven’t tried any co-working spaces, which is a common way for nomads to connect socially – but at some point I will. There are certainly also always ways to interact and meet people the more old-fashioned way. For instance, there’s a collective here in Cyprus where I have gotten to know some wonderful people (thanks especially to their fabulous weekly vegan lunch). Meeting friends of friends is another good possibility. Of course, keeping in touch with people in other parts of the world via assorted electronic means also enables me to feel connected no matter what’s going on locally. That all being said, I also am someone who values having time to myself and I don’t mind being on my own. As an ambivert I just need to ensure that I honor both my extroverted and introverted tendencies.

So that’s a wrap, folks. If you have any questions or I can assist you in your own exploration of digital nomadism, please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a message!

And for those of you marking holidays this week, including American Thanksgiving and Thai Loi Krathong: may your celebrations be full of joy and peace. I join you in having both much to be grateful for and much to release.

Of coffee mugs, boxes, and me

Coffee mugToday I missed my coffee mug.

One of my favorite things to do is take coffee back to bed with me in the morning. I spend an hour or two reading, catching up on news or podcasts, listening to music, or just staring into space. It’s an absolutely delicious way to start the day, and it’s one of the many reasons I am happy I don’t have to rush out the door to make it to a job anymore.

The apartment where I’m currently staying is incredibly comfortable and fairly well appointed. My greatest complaint is the lack of a sizable mug. Today I finally gave up and took two smaller cups back to my bedroom; it was particularly early, and I knew I needed to hibernate for a good while longer. I found myself longing for the blue behemoth that had been my mug of choice in the past few years – the one that held enough coffee to keep a family of four awake for days and fit so beautifully into my hand. It was not a mug that had particular meaning: indeed, I don’t even remember how it came into my life. However, for the two years I used it, it seemed to represent beverage receptacle perfection.

Before I cut the strings and went nomadic, I went through a process of culling my belongings. As I have written before, I have spent much of my life making moves between cities and countries, which I have always used as an opportunity to lighten my proverbial load. This was even true in the days when my employer paid for packers to box everything up and ship it to wherever I was headed next. In fact, the process of sorting, donating, tossing, giving, and recycling has become so connected with transition in my mind that I launch into it the moment my inner change junkie starts getting restless. Nonetheless, this was the most drastic purge of them all. I set myself a goal of keeping only what would fit into about ten boxes, which I am happy to say I reached.

In the months that led up to heading out on the road, I can honestly say that I held everything I owned in my hands. It was an intense experience, and sometimes even looking at a simple ticket stub would create such an overwhelming wave of emotion that I had to put things down and do something else – anything else – to distract myself. Along the way I discovered I was unconsciously lugging around a few “little boxes of sadness,” as my friend Christa dubbed them. I’m not altogether sure why certain things created such a difficult reaction, but I think it had to do with saying good-bye to former versions of myself. I’m pretty glad to be where I am today, both literally and figuratively – but to rehash things I once was or thought I would be was challenging. Getting rid of items associated with these former “me”s was liberating, but it also tested any sense of self actualization I thought I had achieved. Luckily, there was also a flood of warmer emotions as I was reminded of fun times, personal accomplishments, and friends who while no longer in my life enriched my being at some point in time. I had to get rid of some these items with more positive connotations as well (space becomes a precious commodity when you have only ten boxes to fill), but that was valuable, too. I spent time imprinting associated memories in my mind, said my good-byes, and sent things off to continue their own paths through the universe.

As anyone who has gone through something similar can attest, it’s not always the easiest of exercises. Some days I was in top form and purged like a maniac, while others I had just reached my limit and had to pretend that nothing was happening. I don’t think undertaking such a process makes me virtuous; the time was just right for me to divest. If others feel the need, they should heed the call – but if hanging on to things is what their hearts desire, well, that’s their prerogative, too.

I was surprised to realize this morning that that damn coffee mug is the first thing I have missed since I started living out of a suitcase. This is an amazing feeling, as it somehow validates all of the other things I got rid of. An apartment full of stuff, and in 12 months I get one pang of longing for a piece of pottery? I’d say that’s not bad. If anything, it makes me wish I had been even more ruthless about getting rid of things earlier. Most items are indeed replaceable, if you decide you really can’t live without them. There’s also something to be said about the excitement of finding new things and for bringing new energy into your life. I think it’s also dangerous to get too attached to any object, as just like humans they have a lifespan. Coffee mugs break, jewelry gets lost, and clothes wear. It’s inevitable. It seems healthier to recognize that objects are transient.

I am grateful for all of the assorted items that have passed through my life over the years: those that have served me, those that have brought me joy, those that are full of good memories, and those that represent assorted challenges – and thus growth. I am also thankful for all of the versions of me that accepted each of these items into my world at some point in time. I celebrate you all and welcome whatever objects and versions of me may appear in the future. For now, however, I honor the small cup in my hand, what I have in my suitcase, my ten boxes, and the me of the moment.

Vegans in the wild: The joys of random meetings

Vegan animals in the jungle

These aren’ t exactly the vegans I’m referring to, but they are indeed still vegans…

A surge of energy pulsed through my spine as I put out my hand to greet the man in front of me. The way he raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to the side signaled to me that he was feeling a small endorphin rush as well.

It had nothing to do with physical attraction – it was all about the fact that we had just been introduced to each other as fellow vegans. The world around us had melted away, and we were having our own little tribal moment.

Global statistics regarding vegetarianism and veganism are hard to find, and those that exist do not seem to be well documented. On the vegetarian side, estimates commonly range from five to ten percent of the world’s population (including India, which is about one third vegetarian). I think it’s therefore pretty safe to assume that at the most only a few percent of us are full-on vegans. Thankfully, these numbers seem to be increasing, with veganism gaining in popularity in countries as diverse as Germany, China, and Israel.

Despite this growth, the absolute numbers mean that our chances of bumping into another vegan are still relatively low. The likelihood is certainly much greater if we are in a vegan-friendly city or country, and we can always up the odds by heading to a veg restaurant or event (should such an option exist).

Of course, people are drawn to veganism for any number of reasons, and there is no guarantee that just sharing a plant-based diet will mean that two individuals have an instant rapport. For instance, a vegan who is all about the animals may have a very different outlook from someone who is vegan for health reasons. The feeling of kinship is nonetheless consistent, and I think most vegans find it exhilarating to stumble across someone who really “gets” an important part of who they are. Sometimes we follow the prescribed set of topics: our histories as vegans, favorite restaurants, and coping strategies for different situations. It’s true, vegans do tend to really like discussing being vegan, especially if we don’t have many other vegans in our lives. The opportunity to exchange information can also be very valuable, especially in places that are a bit harder on the food front. However, sometimes there’s no need to do the dance – just feeling the connection is sufficient.

Being in the minority can be challenging, no matter what the situation. The issues involved certainly range in magnitude, and in the scheme of things being bombarded by bacon-related posts on Facebook certainly isn’t life threatening (at least to me; it’s a slightly different matter for the pigs). However, sometimes it’s just a drag to feel outnumbered. Discovering that we are not alone in some aspect of our lives goes a long way for our psyches, especially given the need to belong that we as social creatures have.

And that is why I really treasure meeting other vegans in the wild, especially now that I am on the road and no longer part of a more static vegan community. While I embrace being different in many areas of my life, I’ll readily admit that sometimes a little sameness goes a long way.

The great yoga mat/hiking boot throw-down

Yoga matI was having lunch a few days ago with some Cypriots I had just met. One of them kindly invited me to join her on a mountain hike that she and her friends were planning to take. Given the terrain, boots would be a must – and she was aghast when I said I didn’t have any with me. “When you are living out of a suitcase, you have to make choices,” I explained. “I realized I could bring my hiking boots or my yoga mat. And the mat won.”

Apparently, that was the wrong answer.

I spent the next several minutes defending my choice. A yoga mat certainly beats out hiking boots in terms of ease (and cost) of replaceability, especially when you don’t have the world’s most common shoe size; that is absolutely true. However, my decision was based on the assumption that I would get a lot more use out of my mat than I would out of boots. Perhaps more importantly, as my mat represents my own little sacred, happy place, it’s also just comforting to have it with me.

Packing can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. As more and more airlines charge for checked baggage, I think people are beginning to reconsider how much they really need on a trip. The decisions become a little more critical when you decide you’ll be living out of a suitcase indefinitely. For me, the clothing choices were easy, especially seeing as I was starting out in hot and humid Southeast Asia. A stack of nice t-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, two summer dresses, a lightweight fleece, jeans, sandals, sneakers, flats, and some socks and underwear rounded out the basic list. Next came a hat, umbrella, sunscreen, small-sized toiletries, plus assorted electronica. As a vegan, I also don’t go anywhere without B-12.

But that’s when things started getting hard.

For some reason, I became obsessed with bringing a swimsuit. This may seem reasonable, until you discover that I can neither swim nor spend more than a few minutes in the sun without frying to an absolute crisp. I think it was more of a statement I was making to myself: I had the freedom to do all of my work poolside, and damn it, I was going to do so. It felt like an important step in renouncing the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Needless to say, after a rather grueling afternoon of shopping (during which I was luckily supported by a very patient friend), I found what I was after. I think I have worn it three times all year.

As an avid reader, I struggled with the book issue. I did have a Kindle, but I was using it more to play games than to actually read. My impulse was thus still to pack a stack of physical books. I finally compromised by bringing one paperback to serve as a backup in case my Kindle ran out of juice on a long flight. I must admit that in the intervening months, I have become a huge fan of Kindle reading. One of my favorite features is being able to check the meaning of words – once a language geek, always a language geek.

Try as I might, I also found it impossible to overcome my obsession with bags. I ended up bringing a large backpack that converts to looking like a suitcase, a smaller backpack that I use as a carryon, an even smaller backpack that I use day-to-day, two cotton shopping bags, about eight different fabric bags that I use for storing a variety of things, two purses, and a large collection of plastic and Ziploc bags. I admit it’s a bit excessive, but the collection has actually proven rather practical. While I could stand to trim things back a bit, the idea makes me anxious – so I will continue to fill my bag with bags every time I pack.

So, what does all of this say about me? A lot, probably. A packing list reveals our habits, likes, interests, and even our neuroses. However, it also says a great deal about our expectations. We pack what we think we’ll need at a particular destination, as well as the person we think we’ll be there. Sometimes the vision matches the reality, but it’s certainly not always the case. People who return from a trip thinking their packing was 100% perfect are probably pretty self-aware (and good about checking weather forecasts). I’m getting there, but I definitely still have a way to go.

On this lovely day, I am therefore not hiking in the mountains; instead I am looking at my yoga mat and grinning. It may not have won your own throw-down – and it may not always win mine – but for now its space in my pack is secure. It’s the swimming suit that may have to go.

What I’ve learned in a year as a digital nomad

I’ve spent my entire adult life moving every few years, often from country to country. The longest time I’ve lived in one place since I was 17 was four years, and I was long past my sell-by date by the time I left. In 2014 I decided to take the plunge and become fully nomadic, which means that I no longer have a base or establish a regular household when I move. I am staying a few months at a time in different countries, a decision that is driven first by choice, second by practicalities (the limits for staying in countries as a tourist are generally 60-90 days).

In many ways, it’s like living a giant experiment. I am still discovering what works best for me, what I need to avoid, and what I still need to figure out. It’s been a fascinating process, because as the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are.” The self-analysis part of the process is not something I foresaw being so central, but I have welcomed the push from the universe to make progress on figuring some things out. It’s certainly not always easy to go through processes like this, but the payoff is always worth it.

Here are some of most important personal realizations and observations from my first twelve months on the go:

  1. Technology is both wonderful and horrible. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for all that the cyberworld has to offer, and my current lifestyle certainly would not be possible without the Internet and my numerous gadgets. That being said, it’s hard to avoid becoming a complete slave to things that plug in. I would like to be better about scheduling complete cyber-breaks, even if they are just for half a day at a time. It’s important for my brain cells, my sanity, and my eyesight (which is rapidly deteriorating, I’m afraid).
  2. There’s no such thing as a right way. I generally prefer to follow my own path in life and have never considered myself much of a “follower.” However, it’s easy to start feeling like even unconventional lifestyles have certain rules that one should adhere to. Part of that might come from following the many bloggers out there who are (either explicitly or implicitly) promoting whatever decisions they are making for themselves as models. It’s important to draw inspiration and ideas from them, but then to remember that they’re not me.
  3. People add value to the equation, but it takes effort. Some places have many pre-made outlets for meeting up with likeminded or interesting people; others need more work. Many people think that the key is to be outgoing or extroverted, but I’ve found that it’s just as important to figure out what you’re looking for. We all belong to tribes that relate to different parts of our lives, and having a better sense of what those tribes are makes finding other members easier. But you do then have to put yourself out there.
  4. The things you like to do are the things you like to do – and you should do them no matter where you are. Yes, it’s important to take advantage of special opportunities that exist in a given location or set-up, but you also have to be true to yourself. Some days I need to lose myself in a book or indulge in an afternoon movie, which is just fine to do even if I’m in some exotic location. An adjustment I need to make is more gym and yoga time: these are things that have long been important components in my life, and I haven’t been giving them the attention they need. I miss them and need to re-assign them a higher priority.
  5. Don’t manufacture stress for yourself. Sometimes I think that stress has become such a big part of our lives that we are uncomfortable when it’s missing. I have found it incredibly easy to let stress creep in, even in relation to things that are totally within my control (such as my next destination). When that happens, I’m learning to try to figure out where the feeling is coming from so I can avoid putting myself in a similar situation in the future. I’m also trying to remind myself that flexibility and a positive attitude create an almost infinite number of B plans. If going here doesn’t work out, I’ll just go there. It’s all good, as they say.

And so the experiment continues. I am grateful for a truly magical first year and look forward to the adventures and lessons that will accompany the months and countries to come!

20150415_163514

From where I stand.