A couple weeks ago, I saw a Humans of New York post on Facebook, and posted a comment encouraging the traveller to consider Workaway.info for free boarding while travelling. Shortly after, some 500 people followed my link to my Facebook page and “liked” me for my nomad life page.
So, if you’re one of those people, hi! If you’re new some other way, great!
If you’re one of my long-time readers, I love you for sticking around, but don’t go anywhere, because this is for you too.
How I Took Up the Nomad Life
At 39, I was deeply unhappy. All my travel dreams stood unfulfilled. This line I’d given over the years about staying single for “freedom and flexibility” had been moot. I could get 12 cats and have just as trapped-at-home life as I was already living.
Then I quietly decided to investigate living abroad. The more I researched it, the more the legalities and logistics overwhelmed me. That’s when “location-independent lifestyles” and “nomad life” started popping onto my radar screen.
Digital nomads and location-independent folks were only bound by the ability to work remotely and the length of visas available where they were.
Being Canadian, everyone likes us, so my passport’s among the world’s most flexible, outside of Europe’s tricky-to-understand “Schengen Visa.” (It makes borderless travel in Europe possible for most Europeans, but that’s another posting altogether.)
I’m 43 now. In nearly 14 months of nomad life, I’ve been to 9 countries (10 if you pretend the Azores aren’t Portugal; as remote as they are, they kinda are their own world). I’ve logged over 50,000 kilometres of planes, trains, and automobiles. And all of this has been relatively “slow” travel.
Nomad Life: Eyes Wide Open, Not a Blind Jump
As much as I wanted to go ASAP, I didn’t up and travel. It wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to unhappiness. It took me three years to make the plunge. I wanted to do it responsibly, because I can’t go plunging further into my debt as a single woman in my 40s.
Fact is, I had a wall of debt crushing me and I had to chip away at it before a departure was even possible.
Another thing I didn’t do was tell anyone my plans. Why? Because people will smother hopes and dreams right out of you, if you let them. They see their own fears and project those upon you. So, I kept it to myself and researched the hell out of nomad life. Then, when I finally told people my plans, I shut down their negativity with facts and experiences of others already in the lifestyle.
To do that, I had turned my radar to people travelling long-term. For two years, I mooned and sighed over their photography, I read their words, followed their planning, and learned what I could through osmosis.
Research: So Much to Learn
To pay down the debt that was my biggest hurdle, work consumed 40 to 60 hours a week for the better part of two years. Beyond that, I spent as much as 20-30 hours a week on top of that, researching the hell out of everything else regarding the nomad life. Yeah, I had no life, but I had a dream, and I was making progress.
Things I needed to know for myself and for planning included:
- What kind of visas could I expect?
- What were flight prices like?
- Logistically, what made the most sense?
- How many insurance options did I have?
- For gear, what was essential and what wasn’t?
- How did cost of living play out internationally versus living at home?
- What was the bare minimum I needed to live on?
Q&A With The Nomad
With all that in mind, here are some questions I’ve been asked over my first year of the nomad life.
How did you convince your employers to let you work remotely?
Working remotely involves a ton of trust. Logistics too. My first remote working attempt, in 2010, was a catastrophic failure. My work set-up was anti-ergonomic. My productivity plummeted. Back to the office I went. Other coworkers, though, they loved it and never returned.
Another year passed and I wanted to escape to a smaller city on an island, Victoria, and live a simpler walking-based life. I asked my employers to let me work remotely exclusively.
That happened March, 2012. By late-2013, I was the most productive I had ever been. By September, 2015, I had paid down about 80% of that crushing wall of debt and nomad life awaited me.
But, by then, I was reliable at working remotely, and unflappable. In fact, my sick time taken fell by 90% when working at home, and I never missed a deadline despite piling on self-employment atop my 30 hours a week in my day job.
(Spoiler: My Bosses Usually Love It!)
Today my employers only have 1/3 their staff in-office. They’ve cut office space in half and sublease the rest, a reduction in overhead and new income they never thought they’d have. Plus, sick-time plummeted amongst all remote workers, not just with me.
Plus, my being in Europe, like I am now, means I’m working 8-9 hours ahead of their deadlines. When emergency projects arrive, I’m the saviour who works “through the night” (but it’s my regular “work day”), finishing rush projects before my bosses arrive at work, 10 a.m. Vancouver time!
Where do you live?
Because I’ve given up my home, I still have my old living allowance I adhere to despite the nomad life. Once rent and utilities are added up, anything under $1500 a month fits my budget. But there’s travel, too, so I try to keep my rent under $1200 Canadian a month, if not lower. I’ll be paying $592 for a month in Greece at Christmas, for example.
I like AirBNB for a range of reasons. It’s off-season and shoulder season that I favour, for saner travel, which allows me to negotiate with AirBNB landlords for a better rate. Sometimes I get 60% off. Sometimes I don’t.
AirBNBs aren’t perfect but I’ve learned what to look for. I never book less than 4.5-star lodgings. I read reviews fastidiously in search of comments about:
- Neighborhood safety
- Bed comfort
- WiFi reliability
- Nearby places to eat and shop
- Ease of accessibility on foot, since transit increases cost of living
And I also pore over photos to see what the working set-up would be. Do they have a desk? If not, do the table and chairs look suitable?
Why don’t you hostel?
I do, occasionally, for a night or two, but hostels, even with private rooms, are terrible for working in. I’ve never had good internet in a hostel. Literally never. Internet is my life. Workspaces are critical. Coworking spaces are also not for me. Why would I save money on lodgings via living in a hostel, then spend my savings on a coworking space? Even in low-cost places, like Southeast Asia, they’re charging “Western” prices for coworking, which is nuts. It would cost what I could’ve spent to live like a grown-up adult in a real apartment with a better bed and a kitchen all to myself. So, yeah, I’ll take a whole apartment to myself, thanks! Little stuff like, oh, having a home-like space make nomad life way more bearable.
How do you protect yourself?
Financially: I secured a power-of-attorney before I left the country. My best friend works at my bank and he’s my front line of defense. Anything I need banking-wise, he has the legal power to take care of on my behalf while I’m on the other side of the world. I have used his assistance DOZENS of times in my first year and I couldn’t be travelling as confidently as I am without his help. Obviously, I brought him whiskey back from Scotland!
Medically: Being Canadian, I have base medical insurance, so I top that up with travel insurance from TuGo. A friend of mine had a blood infection after ignoring a foot wound on a hike in Fiji and was flown back to Canada and then back to Fiji once his hospitalization concluded, and they footed all the bills.
Insurance-wise: No travel insurance I found had sufficient coverage for belongings. Nomad life means home insurance does not apply. $1,500 as a side policy for travel insurance doesn’t cover crap when you break down costs of everything from makeup and the luggage itself to clothing and electronics. My electronics weigh in at nearly $7,000, so I went in search of “business insurance.” This was the most arduous part of my research, requiring nearly 50 hours of emailing about all kinds of policies with tons of companies. In the end, only Lloyd’s of London offered a plan that covering the cost of my electronics if anything happened, for full replacement value with a $500 deductible.
What would you do differently?
Every single nomad says this and none of us learn from others’ lessons: I wouldn’t buy as much gear. I have continually downsized as I travel because 50 pounds fills a duffle bag fast. Being a plus-sized woman, I need all my wardrobe as I travel because so many countries don’t have plus-sized clothing. It’s so hard to buy specifics while abroad in the nomad life, let alone plus-sized clothes.
But gadgets, most of them never get used. Most of it is a waste. I do have a lot of JUST IN CASE stuff I hate, but it’s necessary. Example: A back-up power source for my Microsoft Surface Pro laptop. It’s a proprietary power cord and work is my life. If my power cord died suddenly today, in this remote town in the Czech Republic, I’d have to return to Prague. That’s more than 8 hours in travel alone. There’s lost income, frustration, angst. Or I’d have to pay to rush-ship it to me via online purchases, but secure shipping is a chore, since I seldom have mail access. I have something shipped to me in Croatia and it was a nightmare. (It never came. Took months to collect the insurance.)
So, you make your choices, right? I’m overloaded with luggage, though, and while I’ve made it work okay for the first year, I’ve got to weed it down more. It’s harder than you think. If you’re NOT working remotely, you have more flexibility about what to bring. At least 15 pounds of my gear is work-related, 12 pounds is the luggage and backpack themselves.
What will you change in the future?
I’m trying to set up a house-sitting account. I’m not really in a rush since I’m content with AirBNB. A criminal record check is good to have for house-sitting, and I would pass it, but I don’t want to spend that money right now.
Mostly, I’m not keen on housesitting, though, because it’s a lot of responsibility and there’s such freedom in renting by the month. But, gosh, it’d be nice to not spend money on lodgings! I do want housesitting opportunities back home in Vancouver, since I’d love to see friends more frequently and it’s so expensive to visit there.
For other ways to travel cheaply, I have looked into things like WWOOF and Workaway.info, but it’s more work. (And some countries will deny you entry, because you’re considered to be taking the job of a national who could work it were you not doing it for free! Canada is strict about this.)
Fact is, I already work both for myself and for the man, so more work so I can stay free is counter-intuitive. Yeah, I’d stay free, but work would consume my travels more than they do now, and I’d never see anything anywhere. At least this way I’m my own boss. Nomad life, man.
Do you think you’ll survive five years of nomad life?
You bet I will. Honestly, I’m used to this lifestyle now. It’s tiring, it’s stressful, but it’s an incredible opportunity and I’m aware of that daily. I’ll incorporate more stays with humans periodically for companionship, but only short stays, as it’s often impossible to work in most people’s homes. Co-work community housing might be a plan, though, from time to time. Sometimes I find myself wondering if five years will be enough travel, if you can believe that! In fact, many nomads are still travelling as much as a decade later. Once you make it work, it’s a life with complete freedom, and it’s hard to give nomad life up.
What’s the most amazing moment you’ve had?
Impossible question to answer. Was it the time I was all alone in a Roman coliseum in Pula, Croatia? Maybe. Or perhaps it was that time I stood at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe, where explorers set out 500 years ago to find the “new World” and I realized I, too, was an explorer. Perhaps it’s that time I rented a car and circumnavigated the Azores Islands’ Sao Miguel, amazed I could be in such a remote place. Gratitude shut me down and stopped me cold for a half-hour as I stared out over the Azorean Atlantic. Could it be when I was walking Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and a bagpiper playing the Braveheart Funeral Theme brought me to a full-on bawl as I was devastated to leave the city the next day?
I don’t know.
It’s not arrogance, but my life is amazing almost daily. It’s not often one knows they’re having the adventure of a lifetime, but I am. Every day I’m aware this is an amazing life. Sometimes nomad life feels routine but then I remind myself of what I’m doing. Today, for instance, I have a view of a 500-year-old pond in the remote Czech Republic where they once “farmed” fish for consumption in the Middle Ages. I’m just a 10-minute-walk from an 800-year-old town many photographers call “the prettiest village in Europe.”
Do you get lonely?
Yeah, sure. Of course I do. But you know what? I got lonely at home, too. I was asked once if I missed my people, so I wrote this. Eight months later, my father died while I was travelling. Maybe I’ll never forgive myself for that, but… I also know he wanted me to travel. He bragged about my nomad life to anyone who would listen.
And I know that if I don’t do this, I’ll die with regrets – or worse, I’ll live with regrets. I may be sad or lonely sometimes, but aside from the Dad Thing, I have no regrets about choosing nomad life. (It’s 98% likely I would have missed my father’s death anyhow. That’s heart attacks for you. Sigh.)
But you know what? Last week I answered a question in a Czech pub and it turned into a three-hour conversation. Dude was from Portland, and even lived in my hometown for the better part of a year. Here we are, remote town in the Czech Republic, two strangers, both living lives echoing each others’. We laughed, had a great chat, went our separate ways. If I never heard from him again, that’d be okay, you know? For three hours, someone understood the life I’m living. Two weeks ago, I had wine and appetizers in a Prague wine bar. I made friends with the French-Canadians on my left, who shared their food with me, and had laughs with the Irishfolk on my right. Maybe that’s not “friendship” or “companionship”, but it’s human interaction – and enough to keep loneliness at bay.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning a “Creative Travel” experience to share with others in Fez, Morocco, in April and May, 2017. People will stay for five nights and we’ll workshop a “creative adventure.” I’ll teach them to experience new cultures and record that through writing, photography, and maybe video. I want a career of teaching others to travel more mindfully.
Meanwhile, I’m off to Budapest next. Then Christmas in the Greek Islands looms. After that, I need to get out of the “Schengen Zone” of Europe since my visa will be up. I’m thinking summer in the Balkans but a Spring test trip to Morocco to plan for my travel workshop. Stay tuned for information on how you can join me!
Soon I will do a Q&A of advice for those looking to start the nomad life. If you have any questions, please share those with me in the comments below!