Digital nomad

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.

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!

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From where I stand.