I come across a lot of people drooling over the digital nomad lifestyle nowadays. What they usually imagine is a sunny beach with golden sand, and some palm trees casting shadows on them laying down beneath with their laptop. The weather is perfect and nothing will stop them from bootstrapping their sexy startup. Especially when their bleak and cold home city is far far away, and their anxiety seems to have loosen its grip, right? Well, welcome to the real world of digital nomadism.
Chiang Mai and Bali. Hong Kong and Singapore. Shanghai and Seoul. I’ve spent five years jumping between those cities, working at coworking spaces, cafes, and airports. It’s been a very rewarding experience and I still love this lifestyle. But. It’s not what you think it is.
Here is my personal bummer moments.
Unreliable internet connection
It’s been said many times, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. While in big cities the connection could be pretty fast (Hong Kong and Seoul are good examples), in small cities and especially islands internet speed varies from mediocre to almost non-existent.
Coworking spaces could help here but they cost money and sometimes are still rather slow. Nothing is more annoying then going offline out of the blue while deploying updates or talking to a customer.
I still remember changing three places (including a coworking space) in a day in Chiang Mai, hopelessly trying to finish some scraping job. Super annoying.
I’m writing this text in a Starbucks in the center of New Delhi now, and the connection is non-existent. Literally. I have to use 3g which is still very slow. Since I’m here for just a couple of days a coworking space is not an option.
Trying to get some work done while travelling is an uphill battle more often than not.
How to fix: use coworking spaces; have internet on your phone ready; get recommendations at nomadic communities.
Finding a good workplace is tricky. Most places don’t have chairs and tables suitable for prolonged sitting. Others make you buy something every half an hour (Starbucks in Hong Kong), or two hours (some coffee shops in Chiang Mai).
Again, coworking spaces can be handy sometimes but they are not necessarily cheap. Their chairs might also be far from perfect.
Good luck trying to beat my home office setup.
Also, sometimes you have to eat something more substantial than coffee and cakes. That means you have to leave your workplace and look for street food or a restaurant. It’s another drain for your time and money.
How to fix: look up the workplaces’ interior photos; try several places.
I’m going to focus on South East Asia here, since the most popular nomadic destinations are Chiang Mai and Bali anyway.
Besides three or four months of paradise-like weather, it’s either blisteringly hot or raining cats and dogs. Most of the time it’s also quite humid.
I have fair skin and if I had to choose between freezing cold weather and the scorching heat of South East Asia, I’d take the former any day. Choosing the latter means either to be dead from skin cancer in my fifties or putting on sunscreen every single day. No, thanks, wearing a coat is much easier.
Your mileage may vary (especially if you’re dark-skinned and used to hot weather), but to me it’s not only inconvenient — it’s dangerous. Just remember that visiting a tropical island for a week and living there for months are two different things. As with any place, I guess.
How to fix: read about the climate of the country; ask the locals.
Visas and paperwork
We can harp on about globalism and whatnot as much as we want but it won’t make immigration policies magically go away. Before and througout your trip you’re going to spend time and money on all that bureaucratic nonsense you didn’t know even exist.
Also, I can’t even recall how many times I’ve been charged by corrupt police officers. Or paid some fees. Or been stuck in some stupid situation like losing my passport. You get the idea.
So even if you’ve won the birth lottery and hold the passport of some developed country you’re still going to lose time and money on paperwork. That’s not something to worry about, but a nuisance nonetheless.
How to fix: have the photos of yourself ready; plan every move ahead.
Every time you eat something on the street or in some unknown place it’s a Russian roulette. I’m not saying that you’re absolutely safe while eating out in your home city, but the probability of being poisoned is much lower.
Besides not being particularly fun, food poisoning steals your time. The time you could spend doing something more productive than lying in bed.
How to fix: eat at the places popular among the locals; cut on meat; cook at home.
Even for a seasoned traveller visiting a new country can be more expensive than it should.
I consider myself a rather experienced and frugal traveller but every once in a while I overspend. Sometimes that’s because I’m in a hurry or didn’t sleep well last night. Sometimes I just make mistakes and am being played by someone like a taxi driver or a corrupt official.
No one is immune to overspending and that applies to your time too. It’s easy to forget how many things we take for granted while in our home cities.
How to fix: do your research about the city; plan ahead.
No strings attached
I’ve met a lot of people on my trips and most of the time there was no chance to sustain those connections. They all are fleeting and ever changing. Everyone is on the move.
I prefer to form deep connections to a limited group of people. So while I find this whirlwind of people enjoyable, there is no way I’m going to keep doing this on a permanent basis.
How to fix: learn to enjoy it; have a travel mate.
True, English being lingua franca gives us a marvellous way to communicate like never before in human history. Although, it doesn’t help with the local people whatsoever. Most of the time, if you’re not in an English speaking country, you will be constantly struggling to get even the simplest things done.
I’m a talkative person so it really bothers me when I can’t have a little chat with cashiers and other local people I see everyday. Eventually, I find myself being in the bubble, surrounded by the people like myself. Yes, I could learn the local language but it’s another time drain I simply can not afford. Neither do you, I guess. Remember, you’re going to forget it after leaving the country anyway.
How to fix: befriend an English speaking local.
Most people simply don’t get the digital nomad concept. To them we’re a bunch of slackers procrastinating on some nice sunny island (see the beginning of the article) while they are busy working on a real job. This mixture of envy and frustration is quite powerful and can lead to profound misunderstandings.
To be honest, I can understand them. We work at places they use for recreation. And let’s face it, a lot of digital nomads can’t resist the temptation and begin to mightily procrastinate, making up all sort of excuses. I’ve been there too. In fact, sometimes I think I’m still there.
Whether this condescending attitude is well-deserved or not, it’s here and it’s not going anywhere soon without our efforts. As well as this annoying practice of slapping pictures of sunny islands and beaches in articles about this lifestyle.
How to fix: ignore it, focus on your work.
Totally worth it
Despite so many obstacles digital nomadism is one of the best things that ever happened to me in recent years. If you do it right and have strong work ethic, it can transform you into an unstoppable achiever or a wise work-life balancer. But don’t fool yourself. You don’t have to go anywhere to be productive and happy. All you need is a laptop and maybe a decent internet connection.
Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. You may only succeed if you see this saying as positive. Otherwise, the nomadic lifestyle will smash what little has left from your motivation and work ethic.
See you around!