These days, it is not uncommon to hear people use the term digital nomad. When you check the social media postings of a digital nomad, you will discover envy-worthy photos featuring a well traveled person who appears to be enjoying life without having to work.
So what exactly is a digital nomad and how are they financing this lifestyle?
HOW I STARTED DIGITAL NOMADING
Somewhere between five and six years ago, I was employed by an American company that operates 100% remotely. Their work culture was such that it does not matter where in the world their employees are, or what time their employees clock in and clock out. The only thing that mattered was that the work gets done on time.
I took this opportunity to head down to Machu Pichu in Peru and then to Barcelona in Spain to try my hand in being a digital nomad. The idea was to see the country while working remotely. I quickly learned to work for a few hours in the morning and then continue for a few more hours after my lunch break (which also lasted for a few hours hah).
Evidently there isn’t much of a work-life balance due to the fact that the scale is tipped more towards life but if you can manage your time efficiently and meet your deadlines, I say live life to the fullest!
It is worth mentioning that even though you are free to work from wherever you feel like in the world, a strong internet connection is an absolute requirement. It may seem obvious to you but somehow it did not cross my mind when I took that leap of faith and traveled to Peru. Luckily I managed to get my hands on some mobile data sim cards which came in very handy in the smaller cities of Peru.
PLACES I HAVE VISITED
Some of my most frequented places prior to the pandemic are Croatia and Serbia. I used to visit Croatia annually and spend between two weeks to a month and I would take one week off to travel exclusively. The break will be used to visit all the amazing islands in the south of the country.
I was told Dubrovnik is where they filmed Game of Thrones but unfortunately I have never seen a single episode of that hit show. That said, I can understand why the location was picked.
Otherwise, I love Croatia because the cost of living is low, making it affordable for me as a traveler who wants to spend a long period of time in the country. In fact the cost of internet is also low, which is a bonus for me. Not to forget their scenic beaches which are tranquil and perhaps an ideal spot for a digital nomad to get work done while getting their tan on. It may not be practical but it is most definitely possible.
Another favorite location of mine is a small remote village called Mokrin in Serbia. If you have been following my blog posts over the years, you will know by now that I am in love with the co-living space there called Mokrin House.
Similar to Croatia, the cost of living in Serbia is also low. So even as a Malaysian with an average salary, if you were to stay in Mokrin House for a long period of time, you can live like a king while there.
The wifi connection is strong at Mokrin House and you can have your own private living space, similar to hotel rooms with housekeeping daily or every other day. There is also a large dining area with a chef on standby to prepare your meals three times a day.
For those looking to get work done, there is a separate office building and then for recreational activities after work hours, there is a gym, a swimming pool, a big open field and a secret underground bar.
If you are a couch potato, there is a home theater area and a pool table. Basically, all your needs are provided for in this closed compound. It is the perfect spot for those who are looking to work or just to gain inspiration.
That said, if malls are your thing, the closest shopping center is located an hour and a half drive away. The idea is to disconnect and let your creative juices flow. I usually stay there for a whole month in a year.
Back when I used to actively “digital-nomad”, I would switch locations every month. I chose co-living spaces to stay in while traveling and this allowed me to meet all kinds of people from all over the world. I was exposed to foreign cultures that I would never have been able to experience had I simply stayed in Malaysia and worked.
I met Jewish Israelis and as someone who comes from a country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel, I realized that certain things in this world are simply political propaganda. Jewish people are absolutely nothing like what I have been told growing up back home. They are just people, much like you and I. This taught me a valuable lesson that if you were to dislike policies, then you should say you dislike the government of a certain country, instead of the people of the country.
WHY BEING A DIGITAL NOMAD KICKS ASS
First and foremost, I love the freedom that comes with this lifestyle. You work to earn a living but you are not confined within a cubicle, looking at the same things every day, waking up at the same time, facing the same traffic situation day in and day out.
I am also afforded the freedom of time because my clients are results oriented. It makes no difference to them where I am and how I am getting my work done, as long as the work is completed to their satisfaction.
Next, I love the fact that being a digital nomad exposes me to so many cultural differences through meeting all sorts of people from around the globe. Instead of being stuck in an echo chamber, I get to listen to different opinions, ideologies and points of view from people who come from a completely different background from myself.
HOW SAFE IS IT?
Due to the fact that digital nomads tend to stay in Airbnb’s and co-living spaces, even as a single woman, it is pretty safe as compared to staying in hostels as a backpacker. However, tourist hot spots in any country come with their own set of dangers. From pickpockets to muggers, situational awareness is paramount.
I was once traveling to Rome, Italy with a tour group and a woman got mugged right in front of my eyes, in a public place. From that moment on, everybody in my group felt like we could not fully enjoy the rest of the tour as we were always focused on our surroundings and making sure nobody was trailing us.
Having said that, Italy is a wonderful country that everybody must experience at least once in their lifetime. As mentioned earlier, tourist hot spots in any country, in any continent can be dangerous for a foreigner.
Apart from touristy areas, some European countries are so safe that you will have no trouble walking around alone at three o’clock in the morning. Most important thing is to research the country you are traveling to and make sure to list down danger spots.
WHAT KINDS OF JOBS CAN BE CARRIED OUT AS A DIGITAL NOMAD
Most jobs can be carried out remotely. From software engineering to marketing, I have even met people who are attached to the HR and finance department who are running their work from the other side of the world.
The key here is a mutual understanding between you, a digital nomad and your employer. Not all companies have a full understanding and may have issues with remote work but more and more organizations are starting to jump on board the work-from-home bandwagon after experiencing it themselves during this pandemic.
These days even those employed as a sales person can work remotely, as long as they have a stable internet connection for online meetings. It goes back to the point of what your company’s work culture is like and if your employer or client is on board with working remotely. In my experience, startups are usually open to the idea of having remote workers.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Aspiring digital nomads need to be prepared for minor and major culture shocks. Minor ones range from silent train rides in some countries to seeing babies being left outside by themselves sleeping inside strollers. One thing that could possibly be categorized as a major culture shock for Malaysian Malays would be the unavailability of bidets in bathrooms. Be prepared to switch to toilet paper as soon as you can!
This whole digital nomad concept is modern and might not be widely accepted by your loved ones. A person who is employed full time by a company while digital nomading might be regarded as being more stable by their peers. On the other hand, a freelancer might be living paycheck to paycheck as they travel and this leads to family members worrying about them back home.
In fact this concept is so alien to so many people, when I first started traveling, my friends watched my journey on Instagram and started asking if I was dealing drugs or weapons!
Thankfully with more and more people working from home during this pandemic, people are starting to have a deeper understanding of what it means to work while not physically being in the office.
MAINTAINING A GOOD WORK/LIFE BALANCE WHILE TRAVELING
It is your own responsibility to manage your time as a remote worker. If you are unable to do this then perhaps being a digital nomad is not for you. For me personally, I will make sure I wake up in the morning, get breakfast and hang out for a few hours at my favorite cafe while getting work done.
I do not leave until all my tasks for the day have been completed. And then I will use the remaining hours of the day to sight see around the city I am currently at. This is the reason why I tend to spend a very long time in each location- because I am not visiting the city as a tourist who would have ample time to sight see.
The keyword is self-discipline.
When staying in a foreign location for a long time, a sure fire way to save money is to cook your own food. This applies pretty much anywhere, unless of course you are a multi-billionaire with unlimited funds, in which case, get your private chef to serve you caviar on toast for breakfast!
Another trick is to avoid eating at touristy restaurants as they might have a much higher rate for foreigners. Unless of course, you learn the basics of the local language and use this to order in restaurants. Instead of handing you the tourist menu, you would probably be given the local menu with local prices.
Personally, I do not actively go out looking for halal food but if that is one of your concerns prior to traveling, you might be surprised that certain countries practice a high level of inclusivity, to the point of making halal meat available almost everywhere. Rule of thumb would be to research and perhaps find online forums with tips from Muslims living in the countries you are headed to.
GROWING YOUR NETWORK
Digital nomading is a fantastic way of growing your network. I have been lucky enough to be able to rub shoulders with high level executives during my travels and socializing with them have translated into gaining clients for my freelance work. If you are an introvert, fret not! So am I.
Digital nomads are generally warm and friendly people. They are open to accepting you into their circle while you are in the same location as them.
Initially I used to travel with this group called Hacker Paradise. I have blogged about my wonderful experience with them before and you can read about it here. Joining free walking tours on your travels will also allow you to meet new people from around the world.
YOU WANT TO BE A DIGITAL NOMAD. NOW WHAT?
First thing you need to do is figure out what online based jobs fit your needs and skills. Be mentally prepared for this adventure as it will be nothing like working in the office. It can be tiring as you attempt to balance both work and leisure but once you get the hang of it, it will be so worth it.
I chose SEO as my field because it has been my interest since young. The passion I have for my chosen field serves as a motivation on days where I feel like going astray and enjoying the sights and sounds instead of working. Therefore, it is pertinent that you really love your chosen field.
In order to convince foreign companies to hire you as a remote worker, you have to build your online persona. We spoke about this a few weeks ago and you can read about it here.
At the end of the day, everybody’s path is different but keep in mind that how ever you choose to do this, make sure you have a public persona and have confidence to sell yourself to potential clients.