What I learned as a *whisper* digital nomad
Four months ago, I set off to prototype a dream I had of traveling and working. I left with hope and excitement, and also a fair amount of questions and doubt.
- Would I be able to show up fully & reliably for my clients ?
- Would I be able to earn enough money to make it sustainable?
- What were the implications of traveling during a pandemic that is still active?
- How could I justify the large carbon footprint of travelling so much ?
- Is the whole digital nomad lifestyle/trend simply an extension of colonialism, where privileged tourists arrive to exotic locations to take resources without giving back to the community or connecting to the local culture?
- Would I be able to maintain deep friendships online ?
Generally, when my mind starts spinning in such ways, I find that simply moving to action provides way more information than endless ruminations.
And so I went. To Mexico, to El Salvador, to Costa Rica, to Colombia. Through sprawling metropolises & sleepy beach towns, from shared hostel beds to a jungle treehouse to a high rise apartment. As the weeks turned to months, I slowly began to relax, to settle, to breathe, to embrace the change of pace.
The result was breathtaking. Over a four month period, I explored, learned, experienced, grew, delighted & despaired in a way that seemed to shift what was possible within a short time frame.
So, while I continue to think about those original questions, I want to share some of the learnings, to help anyone else who might want to take the leap.
- Wifi in hostels & hotels is often unreliable (the speed goes down when multiple people are connected) unless it is a dedicated coworking hostel.
- The best set-up was a vacation rental room or home with multiple high speed networks.
- Ask the host before booking the exact speed of the internet.
- Get a local sim card and a big data plan, and have the phone on standby to hotspot or continue a video call directly from the phone.
- Have a low data easily available and set-up (ex. Whatsapp).
- Create a backup plan with your clients/team if your internet goes down, i.e. someone continues to lead the meeting until you return online.
- Have credit and debit cards from two different banks, stored in different wallets, so that in the event of theft, you aren’t left without funds (if that were to happen, get a friend or family member to transfer you money by Western Union or a similar service).
- Wear a jacket or pants with zippers, or inside pockets to prevent pickpocking (or a traveler's wallet if you don’t mind the sweat :P).
- Keep your work equipment locked up.
- Always take a cab or Uber when you have all of your possessions so you are never in a position where everything could be taken.
- Consider bringing an old phone that you wouldn’t mind losing.
- Get a separate container/organizer for all of your electronic equipment so that you can quickly set up shop wherever you happen to be.
INTENTIONALITY OF RELATIONSHIPS
While meeting so many people, I realized that I needed to be more clear with myself about what each relationship meant to me. Was it a one-time hangout ? A potential longer term friend ? Being clear with myself allowed me to end relationships that weren’t nourishing me (kindly, firmly), and keep my energy focused on those that were.
Part of this intentionality was reaching out and fostering connections with friends that were geographically elsewhere — memes, GIFs, stickers, photos, stories, questions, voice and video calls, links, articles and like. The constant little messages showed both of us the relationship was important.
DOING TOURIST THINGS YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO
When you first arrive in a city, there is a laundry list of attractions that everyone tells you you ‘must see’. You don’t need to do the laundry list, it’s much more interesting to tune into what is actually interesting and alive for you, and go to those experiences.
SETTING CLEAR TRAVEL INTENTIONS
I found I felt the most grounded and focused when I had a clear intention in mind in a city. Because at any given moment, I could be relaxing, working or exploring, I needed a compass to guide my actions. Was it that I wanted to discover the neighbourhoods ? To learn about the history of a place ? To learn a specific skill ? To practice a language ?
Once I was able to zoom in on the main intention, everything else fell into place.
BRING PEOPLE INTO THE ADVENTURE
By telling friends, family, travelers and taxi drivers where I was going, I would receive so many helpful tips for things to do, people to meet, and ways to best enjoy the stay in a specific area. It is a delight to see how people simply want to help you with your journey.
IDENTIFYING THE FIRST THINGS
When I first arrived in a new place, I would look for a familiar set of grounding things — a nice park, a restaurant with vegetarian options, the transit station. Finding these things fairly quickly gave me a surprising amount of grounding.
I very quickly realized that it simply didn’t work being somewhere for 3–4 days and then moving on. While that might work in a travel beat, with work happening simultaneously there simply isn’t enough space to really get to know the energy of the city. I found 2+ weeks in a larger city gave me time to know the neighborhoods, to begin to develop friendships, to begin to have a sense of familiarity.
Instead of booking meetings and working on travel days, I decided that they would simply be for travel. Much more relaxing.
Another grounding element was having a daily morning and night time routine. Whether that was meditation, journaling, doing exercise or simply taking a moment to breathe, these routines offered a structure to a day that was constantly shifting.
USE THE TRAVEL AS A SPRINGBOARD FOR CONNECTION
Both for people you meet at local cafés and in the street, as well as with your clients, sharing your story and your experiences can be an amazing way to create meaningful connections, to share about your country and to learn about others’ realities.
I am coming to the end of this first prototype, and while I will consider to sit with those initial doubts and questions, I have seen first hand that there are many ways to be a digital nomad, many of which can be inspiring & generative.