Beyond Instagram filters: what being a digital nomad actually means

Being a global citizen, traveling the world while living the dream, or just another way to increase social inequality and mess up your mental health. What does being a digital nomad actually mean?

Sitting with a laptop under a palm tree, sipping cocktails, traveling the world, breaking free from the monotony of nine-to-five jobs. Social media, full of exotic photos from faraway countries, creates a highly romanticized image of a phenomenon coated almost a couple of decades ago as digital nomadism.

Digital nomads encompass a group of mobile professionals who use digital technologies to work from anywhere in the world. When choosing their place of residence, digital nomads prioritize factors like lower living expenses and take advantage of their remote flexibility to travel extensively.

Is this highly praised modern lifestyle the future? I was a digital nomad for around five years and have lived in Denmark, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Jamaica, Ecuador, and Malaysia. I won’t lie – it was amazing, but everything beautiful also has a flipside of the coin.

Nomadic by nature?

Anarchists or neo-hippies might argue that human nature is, by default, nomadic. This is not far from the truth – the human species have been nomadic hunters and gatherers, roaming the forests and carrying only the essentials for nearly 2 million years. Thus, the instinct to wander in search of food and a better life may seem like our core habit trait.

The rise of the world wide web, connectivity covering almost the entire globe, and the development of the freelance job market seems to have awoken nomadic human instincts and become a natural continuation of globe-trotting ways of living.

When I secured my first job in a tech company after graduating from university almost a decade ago, the concept of working remotely was still rare. For years, my company positioned itself as highly progressive by using the fact that employees were granted the flexibility to work from anywhere as their PR punch line.

COVID-19 and the pandemic reshuffled the deck entirely for digital nomads, propelling remote work to unprecedented heights. While working from home has already become the new norm, why not work from under a palm tree in the Maldives?

How I became a digital nomad

I always loved traveling. Since my teenage years, I dreamt of a career that would enable me to explore the world. Ultimately, I didn't pursue a career as a biologist, which I had once romanticized as involving expeditions to the jungles or Antarctica. Instead, I opted for multimedia studies without even the slightest idea what digital nomads were at the time.

It was through a single conversation that my journey as a digital nomad truly began. ​​In my student years, while hitchhiking from the Middle East to Europe, one of my Couchsurfing hosts introduced me to the O'Desk platform, now known as the biggest network for freelance jobs – Upwork.

“That’s the perfect way to earn money while traveling,” he explained, who himself was a programmer working remotely for a US-based company and residing in a spacious apartment in the heart of Yerevan, Armenia.

Working in a ranch in Mexico, Oaxaca state
Working in a ranch in Mexico, Oaxaca state | From personal archives

It sounded amazing – you only need a computer and the internet. I registered on the platform straight away and started working with graphic design and web development, later moving on to writing. With a remote job in hand, I started traveling, funding my trips on the go simply by pulling out my laptop.

In South America, young travelers fund their endless trips through the continent by juggling or selling their crafts on the streets, forming an entire subculture of artists on the move. I saw myself in the same manner. Being a craftswoman – just using a computer. A digital craftswoman.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia
Working in a hotel lobby in Perhentian Islands, Malaysia | From personal archives

The flexibility of time and location really enables you to pursue your passions and saves you from getting trapped in the same boring routines. After work hours, you can explore new places, meet new people, learn about foreign cultures, and have fun being a global citizen.

And, of course, you can come to work in a bikini and rest your eyes from the screen by watching the ocean every 20 minutes, as ophthalmologists recommend. But not everything is as rosy as it seems.

It is not a vacation – it's hard work

Viewed from social media, digital nomadism can look like an eternal holiday. Everyone has that one friend who posts videos of themselves surfing somewhere in the Caribbean or biking on a volcano on a regular Tuesday.

I remember my friends used to be jealous of my life in Spain, assuming that I was having the time of my life. However, the unfortunate truth was that, despite residing in the renowned holiday spot of Costa Brava, I spent most of my time isolated in my rented attic. Day and night, I remained glued to the computer screen, drawing illustrations for an RPG game I was working on.

Eureka moment for UX design problem at the cafeteria in Cordoba, Spain
Eureka moment for UX design problem at the cafeteria in Cordoba, Spain | From personal archives

That’s precisely where my friends found me when they came to visit. In the attic, on the computer, wrapped in blankets. Because houses in Spain have no heating, despite the chilly weather outside. So where are the beaches and cocktails? Someone forgot to Instagram this!

The truth is, being a digital nomad is hard work. Under a palm tree or at your desk, you still need to get the work done. I would say that being a digital nomad is even more demanding than office work, especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life-travel balance.

First, working from faraway places involves dealing with time zone differences that can completely disrupt your sleep and daily routine. During my time in Asia, I worked for European companies, making the time schedule manageable.

However, it still meant starting my workday at 2 p.m. and finishing at midnight, resulting in missed dinners with friends and struggling to stay awake during the final hours of my workday. Working for US companies would be even more difficult, as the significant time differences would entail working through the entire night.

Working on a bunk bed at the hostel in Bangkok, Thailand
Working on a bunk bed at the hostel in Bangkok, Thailand | From personal archives

Another energy drainer is accommodation arrangements. As you don’t stay long-term in one place, it often entails staying in hostels, hotels or AirBNBs. The lifestyle of living out of your backpack and moving from one temporary home to another inevitably leads to a sense of homelessness at some point.

Furthermore, the bustling atmosphere of regular hostels filled with party-seeking backpackers might become bothersome, as you aren't there to party for a week and then go back to your regular life. You're actually living and working in this hostel daily, so you have slightly different priorities.

Your work/life balance is chaotic

Once you work remotely, having a good sense of humor becomes your trusty companion as you navigate the sometimes chaotic work-life balance. It’s funny to remember that during those five years of being a digital nomad, I managed to get work done in numerous hostels, lobbies, dorm room floors, bus stations, cafeterias, and even in the backseat of a car on roadtrips.

Photo editing on a floor in the shared bedroom, Mexico City, Mexico
Photo editing on a floor in the shared bedroom, Mexico City, Mexico | From personal archives

I can recall sitting with my phone, completely absorbed in my digital tasks, while a speedboat was taking me from mainland Thailand to Koh Lipe island. The boat was flying over the waves, and people were vomiting from seasickness all around me while I was trying to write my article.

I spent an entire month in Cartagena airport on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, using it as my office. Unlike the room I rented, it had an air conditioner and a cafeteria with good coffee. What else do you need to get work done?

The cafeteria’s employees not only knew me but also knew what I was going to order. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of this weirdo coming to the airport every day. Their smiles hinted that I might have looked quite eccentric to them.

Office at the airport of Cartagena, Colombia
Office at the airport of Cartagena, Colombia | From personal archives

Staying connected can also be a challenge. While marooned on Tioman island, a small secluded island not far from Singapore, I constantly endured blackouts, which meant no Wi-Fi at my hostel. Locals advised me to go to a luxurious hotel nearby, as it had its own gasoline generators. That seemed the ideal solution to the constant blackouts until one of the few cell towers on the island suddenly lost power.

No power for the cell tower meant no phone reception and no internet connection on the island. I had no way to inform anyone at work that I’d be offline until the power supply for the cell tower was fixed.

What to do? Pray not to get fired and hang out with islanders until the connection is re-established. Occasionally, these blackouts lasted an entire day.

Internet blackout while working in a living room of a village house at Tioman Island, Malaysia | From personal archives
Internet blackout while working in a living room of a village house at Tioman Island, Malaysia | From personal archives

Going crazy is always on the table

What else is at stake while being a digital nomad? Mental health, certainly. While some argue that working from home can be challenging due to the distracting nature of the home environment, let me tell you, working and traveling takes that difficulty to a whole new level.

If the main time-wasting culprits while working from home involve making a sandwich, eating it, checking social media, and taking a shower, multiply those distractions by ten when you're on the road:

  • “Where to stay tonight?”
  • “Where to buy food?”
  • “Hmm, could this mosquito carry malaria?”
  • “Where to get cash?”
  • “Why doesn’t my credit card work?”
  • “Why isn’t my mobile internet working? Again!?”
  • “Which cafe is best for lunch?”
  • “Where do they serve normal coffee?”
  • “Which area should I avoid?”
  • “How not to get robbed?”
  • “For god sake, how does the public transport work here?”
  • “No, I won’t give you coins, Mr. Junkie.”
  • “Oh my god, I got bitten by some crawlers!”
  • “How does the medical care work here?”
  • “Yes, I’ll explain for the 1000th time what a blonde girl is doing in [insert name of the country].”

Every day brings forth a fresh battle, not necessarily a negative one, but rather a confrontation with the unknown. This realm of uncertainty injects you with an abundance of adrenaline and fuels your creativity. However, over the long run, it becomes a relentless drain on your time and energy.

Working at the cabin in Port Antonio, Jamaica
Working at the cabin in Port Antonio, Jamaica | From personal archives

The transitory nature of human relationships on the road adds additional strains on mental well-being. For me, being a digital nomad was a lot about saying goodbyes to both people and places. Friendships and bonds were temporary, ranging from just a few days to a maximum couple of months before inevitably you or others leave for the next travel destination.

The modern lifestyle of mobility clashes with stagnant structures like country borders and bureaucratic processes that digital nomads have to deal with.

The first and most serious legal problem are visas. You can’t get a work contract-related visa or residence permit, as, technically, you have no job in the host country. You find yourself in a perpetual state of being a tourist. However, this state of being a "tourist" is not truly everlasting.

Many destinations popular among digital nomads grant visa-free entry for tourists for up to three months, sometimes six months, but that is it. When this period eventually ends, you’re left to seek alternative solutions to extend your stay.

Many nomads use the technique of going out of the country for a day and coming back to get another three months as a tourist. It might not always be strictly permitted by the law, but most of the time it works just fine, thanks to chaos in the migration departments.

For me, the only chance to stay in Colombia for a year was to go to Ecuador and come back the next day. My visa was about to expire in a couple of days, but due to the festivals, all buses were full, and there were no seats left to the border town. So I took the only available bus that brought me to another border region, which was known to be involved in an armed conflict.

I had to hop on a 5-hour-long ride through the jungle, which might be full of armed soldiers and guerrillas, in the back of the truck, and finally walk towards Ecuador. Well, I got my passport stamped and could return to Colombia for another six months. But hell, that was a trip.

Walking toward Ecuador
Surrounded by jungle and walking towards Ecuador to get passport stamped to extend my stay in Colombia | From personal archives

Some countries are slowly opening up to digital nomads and providing them with visas that are linked to income rather than job contracts. Thailand has recently introduced a digital nomad visa, and Malaysia is in the process of implementing one too. So maybe moving back and forth through borders won’t be necessary anymore.

The second problem is taxes. As no country claims you as their resident, doing taxes can become a bit like rocket science. Not to mention regular social security and health insurance coverage, which you most likely will not have.

During my digital nomad “career,” I officially resided in no country. My bank accounts were from Lithuania, UK, and Denmark. I received my salary on fintech platforms. Honestly, I still have no idea how I managed to pay my taxes correctly. And good that I was not run over by a car, as I had no health insurance.

Living in a bubble of white privilege

I’ve written about personal struggles so far, but let’s zoom out a bit to see the bigger picture. There’s a fundamental social inequality rooted in the concept of digital nomads.

Even linguistically, contradiction and privilege are imprinted in simple words – immigrants and expats. While both describe people who chose to live in another country searching for a better life, the word immigrant bears much more of a negative meaning.

Digital nomads bring an influx of money to some countries, as their buying power is greater than that of the locals. On the positive side, it benefits local communities by generating employment opportunities and income.

However, there’s a dark side too. It’s common to see an increase in prices and gentrification of the areas where digital nomads live, driving out the local residents. This is most evident in real estate prices. As many travelers opt for Airbnb, short-term rent drives up costs for long-term rent, pushing locals away from their neighborhoods. In April, Lisbon, a renowned hotspot for travelers and digital nomads, was shattered by the protests over the escalating housing crisis, as the skyrocketing rents left locals homeless.

Digital nomads often tend to close themselves up in their own social bubbles, forming enclaves of Westerners seemingly detached from the vibrant tapestry of the local culture surrounding them.

They come for the same commodities they’re used to back home, but cheaper and with better weather. This was never the case for me, as I always tried to go as local as possible. But it’s definitely a common feature of digital nomads in general.

That's why you'll find the same types of coffee shops, vegan restaurants serving Buddha bowls, and yoga centers springing up in places like Mexico, even if they seem unrelated to the local culture. They're simply meeting demand and catering to a specific crowd.

Final verdict

So, what's the final verdict? Well, it seems there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Becoming a digital nomad is an intensive experience that’s likely to evoke a love-hate relationship within you.

This lifestyle might not be suitable for everyone, but it undoubtedly creates vibrant memories that will last a lifetime. If I had the chance, would I repeat it all over again?

Definitely, yes.

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