These 4 months in South America have had a slightly weird ring to them. The traveling, sights, experiences and cities have been extraordinary. But, I’ve come to admit, it hasn’t been the exact experience I imagined. It’s not bad — not at ALL, but it is different. And I’ve struggled to wrap my head around it.
To be fair, I hadn’t a clue what a digital nomad existence would look like overseas. The first year on the road experimenting with location independence was pretty straightforward, exploring the good ol’ U.S. of A.
But the last time I was overseas for an extended, multi-month stretch, I was on my RTW (’round the world, for newbies) backpacking journey. Life was a nearly endless cycle of exploration, adventure and the big one: Not working.
For those who haven’t tried it, a career break is a beautiful thing and can make even life’s most mundane tasks shimmer in an otherworldly glow of traveling bliss.
Sure, there were difficult days on that journey, days when I was homesick, or didn’t feel like getting off my arse to see the sights of a given city, only to then feel like a lazy dolt for not taking advantage of my existence on the road.
Incredibly — and perhaps surprisingly — 8 months backpacking around the globe in 2010 and 2011 flew by. Four months in South America, circa 2014? Not so much. Think: molasses.
I’ve tried to make sense of the difference, and in so doing, of myself.
Am I unhappy with this lifestyle, with uprooting myself every few months to experience a new place? Do I want to be rooted again to the 9 to 5 world (or as the case may be in NYC, the 9 to 8 or later world)? And when your physical world of “Stuff” has been crammed into a 10’x10′ Public Storage unit in a suburb of Philadelphia, where is home?
What lots of soul searching, journaling and meditating has taught me these past few weeks, is that the answer — at least to the first 2 questions — is a resounding “No.”
The 3rd question, well, I’m still working on that one.
In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned:
- Seeing a foreign world when you’re free to roam and explore as you wish, for as long or short as you wish is the beauty of RTW travel. As a working digital nomad, particularly one tied to specific hours of work, it’s easier for a host of logistical reasons to stay put in 1 place for multi-week stretches of time. And this long-term schedule, when a place is a little weird and not singing to your soul, can be trying (and involve unintentional purchases of psychotropic drugs). Being a working digital nomad is a new way of considering travel and exploration. You’re free to explore, love and embrace or turn your back on a new location, but perhaps, you’re not as free to do so as often or rapidly you once were.
- Location independence can seem very sexy from the outside: freedom to live in dreamy apartments, in cities all over the globe, with sunset cocktails from bucket list destinations being Instagrammed out the wazoo. But the reality of my daily schedule is typically a lot less intriguing. It often involves me working at my computer in pajamas, staring into space or occasionally at Ayaz sitting across from me, listening to Spotify, and not leaving the apartment for an entire day as deadlines are met.
- This wildly slowed down state of travel can mean time moves egregiously slow. Which means when you’re homesick for your family and friends, your return to their hugs seems perpetually far in the distance, without ever growing closer.
I realize this isn’t exactly the sparkly tale people considering location independence (or fantasizing about it) may want to hear. But it is honest. And you should know that side of the experience, too.
But you know what? Here’s what I’ve also learned:
- I can still live this off-kilter traveling life I choose to lead and have the comfort of a home base. I deserve to have both — we all deserve to live a life extraordinary as defined on our own terms. I still want to have jaunts — many and multi-week ones all around this great, wide world — but I also want a familiar place to return to when they wrap up. One that’s in easy access to family and friends. Making this a reality will be the next step in my journey.
- Letting go of expectations about a destination or trying to control expected outcomes of a journey will place you in flow — or pretty darn close to it. This particular state of being is a far better place from which to explore new surroundings. Trust.
- Get creative with your routine. Every new destination makes for a new daily routine when you’re working. Mostly they’re fine, but when you’re in a place that feels less than homey, your routine can feel grueling at worst, utterly dull at best. The solution? Mix it up, yo! With 2 weeks in a sweltering apartment in an isolated town in Florianopolis, we hightailed it for 4 nights to a hotel in a way better location with ice-cold A/C and fast wifi for the same price as a 1-day car rental would have cost. In other towns we’ve mixed it up so afternoons are spent exploring or lounging on the beach while mornings and evenings become office hours. A shift in routine can make a world of difference in shaking up your perspective of a destination.
- I love this lifestyle. I love experiencing new locations over extended timeframes, living like a local. I love doing it all with Ayaz at my side. I am grateful I have figured out a way to make location independence work. I just need to make a few tweaks to the system — and it’s completely possible to do so.
It’s all a bit like those tailors that shorten your jeans but still keep the hemline, isn’t it? I love the look of the life I’ve created, and with a bit of work it’ll fit even more comfortably.