If you were to ask me how or why I’ve made certain decisions in my life, I’d have to say I really don’t know. My own decision-making process is truly a black box to me. I generally don’t have any recollection of taking an actual decision at any point; instead I just wake up one day and realize that I’ve put a certain chain of events in motion. And I’m just fine with that.
After spending years chasing academic and professional opportunities that would enable me to live in other countries, at a certain point I wanted to have more power to choose where I would be. I was thrilled to learn about the concepts of “location independence” and “digital nomadism,” which seemed to offer just what I was looking for – and started looking for work that I could do online. It then didn’t take me long to realize that if I wanted to take full advantage of my new flexibility and freedom, it didn’t make sense to keep a base. Before I knew it, I had given notice on my flat and started the process of downsizing my belongings. I waved good-bye to my landlord at the end of October 2014 and have been on the go ever since.
After a brief visit to my parents, I headed to Southeast Asia to eat my fill of mangos, rambutan, and mangosteens and see some friends. Thereafter I moved on to Europe, where I hung out for about two and a half years – mostly in the continent’s eastern corridor and Mediterranean region. The newest chapter is South Asia, which just began a few days ago. Along the way it’s been a mixture locations that were familiar and new to me, including Malaysia, Thailand, Romania, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Malta, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sri Lanka.
What has changed over the course of the past three years?
On a practical level, one big change has been downgrading from two bags (one large, one small) to just a carry-on backpack. I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a “one-bagger” at the start, but after a year I decided that lugging so much around just wasn’t worth the effort. I love the ease and simplicity of living out of one small bag, and it’s made me realize how little I really require. It’s also made me accept that possessions will flow into and out of my life on an as-needed basis. For example, it was great when a friend gave me a few sweaters to stave off the end-of-the-year chill in Spain – but as soon as spring hit in Cyprus, I could happily feed them to a clothing donation box to make room for sunscreen and a hat.
I’ve also realized that maintaining balance is important to me in many areas. For instance, I am much happier if I alternate living alone with living with others. I’m also more content to spend time in sleepier places if I’ve just been in a city that’s brimming with things to do and people to meet (although I’m still an urbanite at heart).
What is different from what I expected?
I’m not sure I had that many set expectations when I slid into this lifestyle. All along I’ve viewed it as a big experiment in which I am tweaking things as I go and making an effort to follow whatever I’m “feeling” at a particular moment.
That being said, I think I did envisage myself working out of a stream of cool cafés and co-working spaces – which hasn’t happened. It turns out that much of my work requires more concentration than I can achieve in a public space, and that some of my best working times are mornings and late nights – when I’d frankly rather be flopped on my bed working in my pajamas. I’m also not so keen on lugging my laptop around, for a variety reasons. When I do set up shop outside of “home,” I find that I enjoy the change of pace – so perhaps I’ll try to do it more regularly.
I think I may have also foreseen a bit more continent-hopping than I have been doing. My decisions to spend a lot of time in a few particular regions has largely been driven by the fact that I just really dig these regions and feel quite content there. However, I’ve also realized that a lot of long-haul movements can be both expensive and draining.
What have been the biggest challenges?
On a practical front, fracturing my ankle (and subsequently having a cast and being on crutches for several months) while in Albania certainly wasn’t a highlight. Ironically, a few days before that I had skipped hiking a slippery trail in Montenegro when I thought about what a hassle it would be if I had a leg injury. Go figure! At any rate, everything worked out fine in the end. I found great medical care, some truly amazing Airbnb hosts, and lots of helpful random strangers – for which I am truly grateful. It was also very eye-opening for me to come to the conclusion that as I didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular (I didn’t even have transport or accommodation booked beyond 4 or 5 days after the accident), it really didn’t matter if I just stayed put for a while. The “living in the now” I had been struggling to learn in years of yoga practice suddenly all made sense to me!
Another challenge may be spending too much time on my laptop. Between work, travel arrangements, keeping in touch with friends and family, and the usual social media/entertainment/random surfing time-sucks, my eyes are getting a bit rectangular. I think I’m also slowly going blind. I’m working hard to decrease my screen time these days, but I’ll admit that it’s a struggle – so please wish me luck!
How have I grown as a person?
To be honest, it would be easier to focus instead on how I HAVEN’T grown. Much of the growth has come from having more alone time that I would if I actually “went to work” somewhere or perhaps had a fixed base. Having the freedom to carve my life out in any number of ways has also made me more aware of my own personal definition of quality of life. It’s interesting to see not only the countries and cities that I’ve gravitated toward, but also the social settings I try to seek out, what’s important to me in terms of day-to-day practicalities, how I react to different situations, and where my comfort zone begins and ends in a variety of contexts. If you want a fast-track your journey to self-development and actualization, I definitely recommend a nomadic path!
However, I think the most valuable thing has been becoming more adaptable, flexible, and open-minded. I would have already used these terms to describe myself three years ago, but it’s like I’ve graduated from amateur to professional status. When you’re constantly facing new situations and parameters (both positive and negative), going with the proverbial flow becomes a basic survival skill. I think I’ve also internalized the transient nature of all set-ups and the need to look for any lessons I can learn. It’s also been a good reminder that in absolute terms, there are few “right” ways to do anything – whether it’s on an individual or a cultural level. These feelings have also made me limit the advance travel planning I do; I simply want to have the flexibility to react to situations and feelings as they come along.
Of course, there have also been countless amazing people, places, and experiences along the way – but more on that in the months to come.
We shall see! This lifestyle has been a great fit for me, and I am filled with gratitude for being in a position to embrace it. I don’t have any plans at this point to establish a base anywhere, but I still know there’s a possibility that I’ll wake up one day and decide that’s what I want or need; if that happens, I will look at my options and go from there. In the meantime, I am trying to shake things up a bit workwise and have some projects that I look forward to diving into in the coming months (including this blog). I’ll keep you posted – promise!
(@ Colombo, Sri Lanka)