Most people in this world do not get to take a whole month off of their regular life, much less head thousands of kilometres away by plane to another country to be Digital Nomads, explore, write, meet wonderful people, and play.
So I start this final post about our Digital Nomad adventure in Guatemala on a note of appreciation. I am truly thankful for this opportunity to explore the wonderful country called Guatemala, the amazing people who make their lives here, and our fellow travellers, among whom I now count many new friends.
10 things I appreciate about Guatemala and our adventure here:
1. The feeling that you are in a very special place in the world.
2. The amazing vibrancy of life here – flowers, fresh produce, animals, people of all walks of life, and even the air. Yes, even the air feels vibrant.
3. I follow the Buddhist philosophy of greeting everyone who comes into my experience with an open heart. Of the hundreds of souls I have greeted here, a smile and cheerful greeting was returned to me in almost every case. Magic.
4. Food. Eating food made from fresh ingredients and prepared with care from scratch was an amazing culinary experience in Guatemala.
5. Lake Atitlan. The author Aldous Huxley waxed eloquently about it. I echo his sentiments. Lake Atitlan is both visually and spiritually a breathtaking place in this world.
6. The climate. Ahhhh…warm and dry.
7. Ease of doing things here. Whether is freedom from mosquitoes, clearing the airport, shopping for food, or exchanging money at the bank – getting things done is pretty easy here. OK, driving doesn’t look like fun, but buses, boats, and tuk-tuks are available everywhere, and so cheaply, that it doesn’t make sense to drive yourself.
8. The man who brings goats around every day and who will squeeze you a cup of fresh milk on the spot.
9. A human place. A place where human beings seem to fully live their days and connect with each other authentically. People here in Guatemala, whether locals, expatriates, or visitors, aren’t living in a fantasy-land. They are fully engaged in what is important in life.
10. Freedom. You can experience real freedom here. Freedom to have a cat sleeping on your lap while you eat dinner. Freedom to connect with others and get a desire to connect in return. Freedom to live naturally.
One of the more challenging aspects of living a free life is knowing how to go about being successful in all you do – working, travelling, and living your life every day. I would argue that relationships are the keystone to a successful Digital Nomad lifestyle. Connecting to people every day in some meaningful way is necessary to both your ability to function and to be happy.
Some scenarios to illustrate:
John, a moderately successful entrepreneur, 36 years old, single, speaks only English
“I prefer to roam in better countries in the world. I might visit Italy and Greece for a couple of months this year as they are struggling financially and this means I can stay in great hotels and eat well. I am not cheap, but having worked hard to build my business and be personally free, I don’t waste money, either. I do about 10 hours of work a week managing my businesses remotely, primarily by telephone and email to my employees in Canada. It is amazing what you can see and experience when you visit Europe. Not a day goes by when I don’t run across an event, historical marvel, or a restaurant serving delicious food.”
Mary, an NGO logistics coordinator, 42 years old, in a differentiated relationship, speaks 3 languages
“My experience with the independent lifestyle is one of real freedom. I work part-time for an NGO which operates in 35 countries in the world. My speciality is in connecting people and resources to have our operations take place smoothly. This might mean preparing and guiding a group of volunteers who are providing medical care after a natural disaster, or it might mean setting up a school in a vibrant but poor community somewhere in the world. In all cases, the greatest satisfaction comes from the people I meet and work with to make the logistics happen. Sometimes I am invited to stay with families of our local contacts and end up having wonderful connections – people I now call life-long friends. Other times it is the volunteers who I have a marvellous time with. But in all cases, whether I am working or just enjoying the places I am once my work is done, it is the people that make this an amazing lifestyle.”
Prakesh, receives a good income from an online businesses, 29, single, speaks 2 languages and learning a third.
“I am a first-generation American, born and raised in New Jersey. After receiving my degree in engineering I chose to start some online learning programs for ESL learners. These now provide a nice income for me to explore the world with. I travel for about half the year, spending time in amazing places and getting to know amazing people. While I am officially single, I do meet up and travel sometimes with someone special who I met in Argentina a couple of years back – a fellow free-spirit. I know that I am not an island – relationships are important to me. In fact they are in my blood, so to speak, as my very tight-knit family is from India, originally. So besides my wonderful travel companion, I also tend to spend time in homestays, hostels, and family run hotels where I can get to know people. I give wherever I go, too, whether it is helping with some technical problem or sponsoring a student. This spirit of giving results in wonderful friendships wherever I go. I won’t always be a digital nomad. In a few years I would like to have a family and this will mean more geographic stability. But after those years, I hope my wife/partner will join me in our later years for more fun exploration of the world and connecting to wonderful people.”
A few thoughts about John, Mary, and Prakesh
Which of these people do you think will be the most successful in the long-term as a Digital Nomad?
I would argue that Prakesh has the best chance of having the best experience. Why? Because he strives for balance, knows that nothing lasts forever – including where he is in his life stage right now, and knows that people and relationship are a foundation to his success, including a clear relationship with himself.
Mary will also have a successful time, seeing relationships as both a cornerstone of her success in her job and as a fulfilling part of her life. However, do you see that Mary does not have as well-rounded a perspective, perhaps, as Prakesh?
Finally, I would suggest that John’s archetype, the lone ranger, while a nice romantic vision, is not sustainable emotionally or logistically. He is enjoying the rewards for his hard work as an entrepreneur, but does not have a well-rounded understanding of himself, his life path, how to connect to the world (one language, a tourist approach to travel), and is missing the key ingredient: People. Being a lone ranger is not a sustainable mode for being a Digital Nomad.
Relationship principles for a Digital Nomad lifestyle
The following are some human relationship principles I would suggest can serve you well as you go about creating your ideal roaming lifestyle:
1. You are not an island.
Daily meaningful interactions with people are essential to your mental and emotional well-being. If you come from a family or social sphere where distant connection, high personal boundaries, and much privacy is the norm, then moving towards closer connections with people you meet might be a bit of a cultural challenge for you. Or it might not find it hard: You may find that you have been starved all your life of the kind of connections that feed your soul and will be a social bunny rabbit when you find yourself in more relationship oriented countries. In either case, prepare now to be more socially connected in a Digital Nomad lifestyle.
Tips to help the transition:
– Learn more than one language so that connecting with people other than fellow travellers is doable. If you plan on spending a lot of time in Europe, French and/or Spanish would be good bets. If Central or South America is on your radar, Spanish is essential. Asia? Tougher to learn a second language, possible and recommended if you plan to return many times and for many years. Some people visit Japan, for example, and 5 years later they find themselves both fluent and surprised that they stayed so long.
– Ease into closer connections. Start by travelling with a friend. This will buffer the raw shock of connecting so quickly and closely with people in the countries you visit. When you stay in hostels or hotels, try shared bathrooms instead of private. This will help you feel less self-conscious as you internalize the reality that you are not alone in having to share space and facilities and your toileting and cleaning processes are just the same as everyone else’s…and no-one is watching you.
– Eat at a mix of local and expatriate restaurants and be OK with it. Purist travellers insist on eating only at local cuisine restaurants and sneer at “tourists” who eat expatriate food. Don’t waste a second listening to them. Ease into local foods and restaurants gently. Like personal hygiene, food is a very special part of our grounding and connecting. Eating at restaurants run by expatriates and serving food that you are familiar with is a great starting point. And you will naturally run into others from your culture who you can connect to. Often a group will be heading out to dinner at a local restaurant and you can join them – again having a buffer to start getting used to connecting with unfamiliar foods, restaurant processes, and peoples.
Learning to make rich connections with people wherever you go is not something that happens easy for some people. If you fit this personality then go easy on yourself. What we are talking about here is not becoming an extroverted party animal, but rather to be open to connecting authentically and naturally with people in any culture and place, something that everyone can learn how to do.
2. Most the world is relational.
Only a few countries – led by the U.S. – espouse individualism and independence very highly. To get things done in the rest of the world, people and relationships are key.
Here is an example of how it works:
Lev, an Israeli-American visiting Guatemala for the first time, saw a wildlife park in a guide book and decided to visit it immediately. He read about the route by bus in the same book, found his way to the bus stop on his own, paid, and rode 1-1/2 hours by bus to the park. Upon arrival he found out the park was closed that day, something he didn’t read in the guidebook as it was currently off-season and the park wasn’t open 7 days a week.
“Why didn’t someone tell me?” Lev said to me in exasperation when relating his tale. “I wasted 3 hours on the bus!”
Do you see what happened? In North America, we are used to using guidebooks and the internet to figure everything out – we independently take initiative to help ourselves make things happen. We have learned that we can do thing faster and with fewer interpersonal slow-downs if we take control and do it ourselves.
And there is no problem with this way of doing things…in North America and much of Europe. Systems are designed to work well for independent action. As most people know, trying to phone a chain store to confirm if they are open, for example, is exasperating: Phone self-serve menus are designed to give you everything they think you need…except being able to talk to a live person.
Most of the rest of the world is set up with the expectation that people will naturally be the system you use to get things done. Everyone expects you will ask for help and they are quite willing to help you. Of course, if they need help, they will expect you to help them as well, something that can make those from highly individualistic and independent culture squeamish!
To get things done in most of the world, ask people about most things. Get to know them a bit and they will help you. Offer to help them with something and they will go out of their way to ensure you get what you need done and make sure you know the best and safest way to do things.
Go back to Lev’s situation. Notice that he didn’t actually talk to anyone?
Interesting insight and useful tip?
Aural and vocalizing (hearing and speaking) are central to the relationship orientation. As I was taking a local inter-city bus in Guatemala, I noticed that there were two people running the bus – the driver, and the “caller”. The driver managed the chaos called driving in the country. The caller, on the other hand, leaned out of the bus door and loudly called the destination of the bus as it came to various stops. Yes, the country has a high illiteracy rate, but the destination was boldly and clearly written on the front and even if you are illiterate, you would probably be able to learn basic patterns of words such as city names.
Then the bus came to a stop and as the caller shouted the destination, two people who were talking to each other jumped up and ran to the bus. They were not waiting at the stop looking down the street for the bus (a process orientation). They were not lined up the stop to be first on the bus (a goal orientation). Instead, they were were sitting talking to each other, and when they heard the caller, they got on the bus. They were relating to each other first and foremost.
This may seem a simple example, but it underscores how life is in a relational culture – you are in connection to one another and people connect vocally (the bus “caller” in this case) to let you know when you need to take action.
Tip: Get used to relationships and how they work before travelling in highly relational cultures, particularly. And get used to asking and listening more than trying to figure it all out yourself. You will avoid a lot of mistakes, frustration, and irritation.
Being relational is just how most of the world works.
3. You will change…and so will your relationship needs
You don’t become a Digital Nomad and stay that way for life. It is not a lifelong profession or spiritual philosophy. It is only a lifestyle, albeit a pretty awesome one.
What happens when you enter a different life stage and context, triggered by one a number of possible situations?
You enter a relationship that you feel will lead to starting a family or some deep inter-personal learning together.
You find a place you feel incredibly at home in.
You connect to a group of people doing something in one place – you find your tribe.
Your aging parents need more support.
You join an organization that needs you to be in one place.
You feel you would like to be more grounded in natural rhythms such as growing your own food.
I have seen many people try to brave on with their Digital Nomad lifestyle even when their life is changing and it is time to put the travel guides on the bookshelf for awhile. In most cases, when your life changes significantly, digital nomading simply doesn’t work any more. It doesn’t work for a while, or even for a very long time. A high need baby, for example, doesn’t dovetail nicely with your taking a red-eye flight to Bangkok for some late night bar-hopping with friends. It simply doesn’t work.
The biggest relationship shift seems to be one of moving from a very free flowing mode with few relationship responsibilities to one of commitment to a relationship which requires your consistent presence. This can be a new love relationship, the arrival of a baby, the illness of a family member or parent, or even, in one memorable example, where someone with a terminal disease asked a close friend to stay to be with him when he dies. All powerful reasons to unpack the laptop and toiletries bag for awhile.
Understanding that the nature of your relationships with others will evolve over time and your relationship to yourself, too, is essential to living the Digital Nomad lifestyle happily and successfully right now.
‘”Carpe diem” – “seize the day”. Tomorrow will be different. And that is OK.
The romantic vision of the Digital Nomad is of an independent traveller roaming the world at will, visiting exotic places, thrilling at amazing interactions with people, and stumbling upon delightful events and cultural experiences.
Well, from my experience of being a Digital Nomad, this is actually true! Here is a snapshot of just my last week:
Spent a lovely evening with an eclectic group of fellow travellers, sharing stories while we enjoyed a curry buffet and naan bread…in Guatemala.
Stumbled upon a road closure. 100 feet in front of us the president of Guatemala was about to give a speech. We hung around and heard three federal ministers and the president give speeches. Right in front of us.
Hiked 3 hours along a trail with stunning views, visiting small towns and thrilling at the beauty of the country. At one small town we ran into a fellow Canadian I had emailed before coming to Guatemala. Total coincidence.
Through no planning of mine, landed a hotel room next to someone we had met earlier on the trip – someone who we ended up having some insightful conversations over dinner with.
Helped the owners of a local restaurant with their marketing in exchange for a couple of lovely meals and insights into life as an expat in Guatemala.
Met a dozen or more fascinating people over drinks and casual meetings.
Ate numerous beautiful, fresh, and delicious meals made from locally grown food.
Stayed in 2 lovely places, one a beautiful glass-art hotel and the other a delightful thatched roof cottage with the rich smell of wood in the air.
Started my day with yoga and meditation every morning in the warm post-dawn sunshine, high up over the lake with a stunning view of 3 volcanoes and mountains surrounding the lake.
Sounds good, but what did this all cost? Not everyone is a millionaire!
Most people know that nothing is perfect. So what did my amazing week cost…not just in terms of money, but in what I had to give up?
First, the “giving up” part.
One thing about being a Digital Nomad is that you must have very few hangups – beliefs, fears, “must haves”, insecurities, required habits, etc. I wrote about clearing out this gunk in a previous posting. In my case, the last week of amazing experiences came with the following things I did not get:
We had a shared bathroom in two of the three places we stayed.
We couldn’t cook our own food in most of the paces we stayed. We were on the move a lot so didn’t rent a longer-term place with a kitchen.
The internet was not always working perfectly.
Guatemalans are a joyfully noisy people – you have to seek out peaceful times and places.
Few locals speak English – you have to speak in Spanish, which I am still learning.
Not all of our “normal” foods and amenities are available here – your diet will vary day-by-day.
Did any of these trigger discomfort in you? No? OK, I talked only about a week, during which most people would be happy to suspend many of their needs in exchange for an amazing experience. What about a month? Or two months? Or three? Are you starting to hesitate about having such an experience for a longer period of time?
At this point you might realize some of the complications of the Digital Nomad lifestyle. One key one is that you have to make up your life as you go along. The normal foundation pieces of your life simply aren’t there – your home, furniture, kitchen, shopping patterns, friends, eating patterns, routines, etc.
Having to create your life every day is a cost you have to pay for being a Digital Nomad. And it may not be an easy price to pay if you are not prepared for it mentally.
So, what does it cost to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle?
There are three costs to consider:
Travel costs. As this varies by your experience and where you go, travel costs will be a topic for later consideration.
Non-daily expenses – medical care, clothing, tools (ie a cell phone), etc. These too will be a topic for later consideration.
Daily expenses – accommodation and food.
Let’s look at this last one. Before coming to Guatemala, where I am writing this, I started delving into the costs of the roaming lifestyle. And while here, I did some more comparisons. Here is a snapshot of costs in Guatemala versus costs in USA or Canada. These numbers may not reflect all places in Guatemala or USA/Canada, but can give you a sense of what costs might look like if you choose to be a Digital Nomad inexpensively:
You are keeping a modest home base somewhere – a cottage, condo, etc. that you rent out or sublet, so that it is costing you little or no money while you are roaming the world.
You don’t have an expensive fixed cost structure at your home base – no car payments, for example, on a vehicle that is sitting there depreciating while you roam the world.
USA / Canada
Accommodation (single, with internet, including taxes)
Basic – a dorm with shared bathroom in a hostel
Basic – a private room with private bathroom in a hostel
Good – a nicer private room with private bathroom in a hotel
Premium – a really nice private room with private bathroom in a hotel
Accommodation (per person, double occupancy, with internet, including taxes)
Basic – a private room with private bathroom in a hostel
Good – a nicer private room with private bathroom in a hotel
Premium – a really nice private room with private bathroom in a hotel
Food: Restaurants (per person, including taxes and a tip)
Breakfast – basic – eggs, toast, juice, coffee
Breakfast – good – a full breakfast
Breakfast – premium – a full exotic breakfast
Lunches are the same price in Guatemala, but 25% more in USA or Canada.
Dinners are 25% more in Guatemala and 50% more in Canada
Accommodation in a modest-cost country like Guatemala costs 1/4 the price of comparable accommodation in USA or Canada, when travelling alone, or as little as 1/6 the price when travelling with another person and sharing a room.
Food costs about 1/2 that of USA or Canada.
OK, those are big savings. If you choose to be a Digital Nomad on a modest income and live in inexpensive places in the world, you can really do so inexpensively.
A final thought on money:
The longer you stay in one place the cheaper it gets. So, if you decided to stay for 3 months in Guatemala, for example, your overall costs would drop from those noted above as your accommodation is cheaper per night when booked monthly, you can rent a place with a kitchen and cook for yourself, thereby lowering costs, and you won’t have as many travel related costs.
I came on this trip to Guatemala for many reasons. One was to explore the Digital Nomad lifestyle – living somewhere warm, beautiful, and inexpensive while working remotely via the internet. A related reason for spending time in Guatemala was to check it out as a possible expatriate lifestyle for my 50’s decade. Having lived abroad and travelled widely, I am not naive enough to simply jump at the first place that offers sun and a friendly people. But I have to say that Guatemala offers a lot of raw material for creating an amazing expatriate life.
Some random insights on this theme
– Almost everything is very inexpensive here. Food, accommodation, real estate, help, travel, …all of it. Great for anyone who wants to live a simple life on a modest income. And no sales taxes! I can’t believe how delightful it is to pay Q.35 for a nice breakfast…and your bill is Q.35 ($5). That’s it. Just a tip to add on top.
– Yesterday we were walking to a neighbouring town and got stopped by a small crowd in front of us. Someone said the president of Guatemala would be speaking. So we hung around for a bit and sure enough, 30m in front of us, the president of Guatemala got up on the stage and gave a speech dedicating the funding for an expanded highway to the town. It is not everyday in North America you can run into such an experience. I jokingly called it our private Spanish lesson given to us by the president of Guatemala. The point? Since we arrived here magical stuff like this has happened. Experiences you simply can’t get sitting at home in North America watching TV.
– Expatriates, travellers, and locals do not sit at home watching TV in the evening. They are out and about in the warmth during the day and in evenings, working, connecting, sharing, learning, and enjoying time together. I appreciate that it is cold in the upper half of USA and Canada for at least 1/2 the year, limiting your ability to simply wander around and meet people, but I feel it goes further: North America is a very goal oriented society. You feel you should always be running around doing stuff. Shopping, going for a run, cleaning, working, building, etc. Homes and cities are designed to support this goal oriented mind frame, rather than a connective, relationship-oriented mind frame and lifestyle. Here in Guatemala, the year round warm weather and relationship orientation makes connecting by wandering around outside easy, natural and expected. Sign me up.
– Food. An amazing abundance here. Prepared from scratch for you at restaurants, with resulting tastes and substance that is fulfilling. And available at markets cheaply for your own cooking. Fresh, wonderful, healthy food.
Before our trip my son and I checked in with a Rotary group who are doing some development work here. I have a soft spot for Rotary as they sent me on an exchange trip when I was a teenager and whenever I get a chance to contribute to their mission in some way, I jump at the chance. This time, the group will be putting in concrete block cooking stoves into the homes of very poor locals. These stoves dramatically improve the air quality in homes while cutting raw material (wood) costs to a fraction of what was used for open fire cooking. A great mission and though I am not directly involved in this effort, a great opportunity for me to see how this might work.
The reason for my backdrop Rotary story is a funny coincidence. At the end of my Spanish lessons in San Pedro, my teacher and I visited a very small, one-room local home. More a shack, really, about 4m x 7m in size, with 4 children and their parents. One bed for the parents, mats on the floor for the children, and a seating area for eating. No running water, I didn’t see electricity, and few possessions. Of course, as you might expect, beaming smiles and friendliness everywhere. But to my delight was one of the stoves Rotary will be putting in! The exact model, and being used just as I was visiting. Not one to miss an opportunity to learn, I found out that they really work well, it uses a fraction of the wood of an open fire, and it keep the air really clean. The mother was super happy with it and expressed her delight in Mayan and a bit of Spanish…and of course with a beaming smile.
Go Rotary! These stoves work.
So, you would think that this Rotary story is done, right? Well, I wrote this posting early in the morning, after spending some time enjoying the sunrise between two volcanoes.
Around 11am today, Alex and I decided to hike from San Marcos to Santa Cruz, a 3 hour hike. The roads ends at Tzununá, a tiny traditional town a couple of km from San Marcos. As we walked into Tzununá the road turned right or left. Coming up the path from the right was a person who was clearly a Westerner. I asked him the way to Santa Cruz. He cheerfully offered to to show us the way and we walked together for a few minutes. Naturally, I asked him where he was from. To our surprise, Victoria, BC, where we are from. And as he talked a little about his time here, I sensed something fishy and asked if he was a dentist. Yes.
This was John Snively, who was to be our Rotary contact in Guatemala and who I had emailed from Canada. Nice to meet you, John.
Magic just kind of happens here. Get ready for it if you plan to visit Guatemala. And enjoy the magical journey.
Oh, and the hike to Santa Cruz should not be missed. Spectacular.
This may sound profoundly self-evident, but you really need the internet in order to be a Digital Nomad.
In the olden days – before 1995 – you could still work remotely, but it was a hassle. You had to send discs with data by physical mail or courier. Faxing was useful then, too. You would print out a document and have it faxed to your client or boss. Of course, you could even use physical mail to sent the printed document. This assumed, of course, that you had access to a printer, wherever you were in the world.
Today, we need the Internet. The old systems are simply too slow, such as physical mail, or don’t exist anymore, such as with faxes, which are almost all gone. The digital world works very fast, requiring us to be online for at least an hour a day to respond to emails, post updates, and manage our personal and professional business logistics. If we start to skip days we get “out of the loop”, and will start to fade from the minds of key people in our circles who are geographically bound – professional contacts, colleagues, and social contacts. Even family and close friends will start to forget us as we are not part of their immediate geographic and cultural life experience.
This leads us to a paradox: We need the internet wherever we go to stay connected with our professional and personal worlds, but at the same time, that very same internet connection binds us to places where it is available and commits us to spending time every day linked in.
And the paradox is deeper: By having our minds engaged for some time every day on the internet, we are dividing our focus between the physical life we find ourselves in and the virtual life we are engaged in on the internet. This split focus can mean that we are not really experiencing our geographic locale fully and therefore not allowing ourselves to learn and grow from the experience as much as if we were entirely immersed there.
This is not a problem if you have no need or intention to learn much about where you are geographically and culturally. So, if you are staying in a nice little condo in Hawaii, for example, who cares if you are dividing your attention between the internet and your life in Hawaii? You can do your work online and then go for a walk on the beach in the afternoon. Only good things happen in this case: You are a Digital Nomad and at the same time you are delighting in all the warmth and beauty that Hawaii has to offer.
But what if you are in Guatemala – as I am while writing this – in a small town that speaks half Spanish and half Maya? And you are surrounded by a thousand years of poverty and strife, while staying in a small hotel in the midst of embedded historical chaos. And where your $15 per night room is the same $15 that a family of 6 here can live on for 2 days; in fact, they must to live on this amount for 2 days. Should you be dividing your attention between the internet and the amazing learning that could take place if you were solely focused here?
Ultimately, the decision on where you go as a Digital Nomad, what you choose to experience there, and how you spend your time in a day, is yours to make. You can judge yourself, but you know that would be silly. This self-judgement can slip into your mind without constant vigilance and reminding yourself of why you are digital nomading in the first place, however. Likely you will connect with other tourists and expatriates who are on various personal journeys and it can be easy to unconsciously compare their path with what yours looks and might sound like. I have had to practice this mental vigilance on this trip: I am in Guatemala for a month to try out being a Digital Nomad, enjoy the warmth, practice Spanish, and get to know a bit about this wonderful country. That’s all. I am not here to feel guilty about anything. Or to feel I have to run around visiting every Mayan pyramid. Or to worry about how I spend my time – online or offline.
I know why I am here and I am living this experience exactly as I intended. Perfect.