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.
Digital Nomading sounds fabulous. Check out this quote from book The $100 Startup, by Chris Guillebeau:
“Packing a carry-on bag with running shoes and two changes of clothes, I head into the world via a short connection from Portland to Vancouver International Airport. Later that evening, the twelve-hour Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong gives me two hours to watch a movie, six hours to sleep and four hours to write emails.
Arriving in Asia, I clear immigration (no bags to claim), check my wallet to see if I still have local currency from the last trip here, and settle into a concourse chair before jumping the train into the city. I flip open the laptop, connect to “HHG-Free-WiFi”, and log onto the world. Woosh…out go all the emails I wrote on the plane and in come 150 more that arrived during the night.
…After I adjust to the time difference over the next couple of days, I settle into a routine of morning work and afternoon exploration. At least one week a month, I live this dream world of travel, work and frequent coffee breaks. The business is structured around my life, not the other way around.” (page 57-58)
Chris is not the only one to expound the possibilities of an amazing life as a Digital Nomad. Tim Ferriss, of the 4-Hour Work Week fame, does as well, suggesting that taking a month or more of time abroad is not only doable, but desirable.
Can you actually do the ‘Nomad’ part?
Sounds great doesn’t it? Just surf the systems of the world, experiencing countries, peoples, lifestyles, and places while doing your work digitally.
So here we are in Guatemala, finding that yes, some of this is absolutely true. While back home on Vancouver Island it frosted the other night and is typically rainy, dark, and cold this time of year, Alex and I are sitting under palm trees in San Pedro, Guatemala in beautiful sunshine, connecting to our hotel’s wifi connection and working digitally. Oh, and our nice little hotel costs $12.80 a night, breakfast around $9 for the two of us (we splurged at a nice place), and this afternoon, when our work is done, we will go kayaking on gorgeous Lake Atitlan, where our hotel is on the shore of. Kayak rentals: $1.25 per hour.
Ready to fly down and join us yet?
A must: Understanding the context and setting the stage
Wait a minute! You know deep down that nothing is ever perfect. The grass cannot be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Life just doesn’t work that way.
So what is wrong with the pictures Chris Guillebeau and I painted?
First, the context:
Did you notice that Chris does not mention family? I don’t know his personal situation, but would you be able to jet around the world one week a month if you have a teething 6 month old at home? Or a spouse/partner who you have created a geographically grounded life with? Or when your 3rd child is having their first dance performance next week. “Sorry my dear! I’m off to Guatemala. Mommy will video it so I can see it when I get back from playing abroad!”
Do you see the reality of most people’s lives in contrast to a Digital Nomad’s?
Being a Digital Nomad means you are free of geographic, fused relationship, and mental constraints.
Geographic: You must be free of a job that specifies you be in one place. And a residence that ties you down with maintenance, security, and/or high costs. And no dogs or cats who need your attention. And few or no community or civic commitments. You must be separate enough from your “home base” to be free to travel and “digital nomad”. How many people are ready to live like this? Can you feel the emptiness of living in a geographic community but not being a significant part of it based on time you spend there and the attention you give it?
Fused relationship: For those who don’t know what this means, a “fused relationship” is one where you do your life together – eating, playing, sleeping, thinking, believing – a set of agreements to be together and support each other every day. “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine”. A beautiful feeling it is, knowing someone is so close to you and loves you intimately.
Obviously and sadly for many, this does not bode well for you being a Digital Nomad. And no, just because you want to be a Digital Nomad does not mean your partner does not. They may enthusiastically join you one one trip, or two, or three, but sooner or later you will find your paths separating for days and weeks at a time. If your relationship can stand this change to a more differentiated relationship, you are on your way to being a Digital Nomad.
So, what kind of a relationship do you have with those most close to you – A partner, siblings, parents, etc.? Is the foundation of your relationships in life differentiated, or fused? If fused, are you willing to change the nature of your relationships to allow for the freedom you want in order to be a Digital Nomad?
Mental constraints: The picture of our time in Guatemala that I painted earlier is absolutely true, but what I left out are the following mental challenges:
– My son and I have to speak Spanish most places just to get by in all our day-to-day activities. Are you ready to learn other languages, or at least enough of them to get by in a new place?
– I picked up a stomach flu a few days ago. 5 years ago, I would have been in a panic and on the plane back to North America to get good medical care in a “safe” country. This time? Lots of liquids and sleep. A couple of days later I was functional. No panic, no running around looking for medicine, no worry. How sensitive are you to life’s inevitable twists and turns? Do you live a life of security and safety, or do you trust that everything will work out with time, patience, rest, and care in what you do? I suggest that many people have an idealized sense of their own flexibility and adaptability. I certainly did! Do you?
– It is noisy, complicated, and different here in Guatemala. I am learning to surf the differences and remember who I am and that I am at all times OK. 6 years ago, this would not have been so easy. It wasn’t, actually, and we headed home from Mexico early because of pre-election violence there, a bad sense of dislocation from home, and simply being fed up with constant daily hassles.
What is your mental state? Are you ready to flow easily through the world, adjusting, adapting, resting when you need to, and moving on when it is clear the time do so has come? Do you feel safe wherever you are, or do you rely on systems, processes, structures and the familiar to keep you feeling grounded?
In summary, then, know your personal context really well before you decide that being a Digital Nomad is either desirable for you or a goal you want to achieve. What does your life look like right now and if not close to that which would allow you to be a Digital Nomad, are you willing to change it? Are those around you going to help you make these changes, or resist them?
Setting the stage
OK, so you are either in a very good or ideal personal context for being a Digital Nomad. What now? How do you make it happen? A few key steps:
1. Release yourself from geographic constraints. Have a low cost, safe-when-unoccupied, low-maintenance residence. No dog, no cat, no plants (unless you have roommates), and not a worry on your mind in any way when you are away. Do not take on new ties that will commit you a community and gently release yourself from projects, teams, and groups who rely on you for your attendance on a regular basis. Change all your business to electronic – no more physical utility bills sent to your home, no more physical office. Buy a laptop if you have been using a desktop computer. No, not just an iPad if you have real work to do abroad, a laptop.
2. Get your relationships ready for your more freely flowing lifestyle. Depending on your life situation, a therapist or life coach may be of value. Seriously. Changing the nature of your relationships can be hard and will be the second hardest thing you do in this process, if not in life in general. For others who are already pretty lightly connected in terms of relationships, no problem: Off you go.
3. Get your head straight. Sorry, no easy way to do this but by gutting a lot of your habits, beliefs, and values. And by facing your fears, challenging yourself to think differently, learning to live in trust, and being brave enough to be truthful to yourself and the world. This will likely be the most difficult task you face in this process and in your life in general. And the most worthwhile, I should note.
Do I make this sound easy? I have been at it in earnest for 6 years now. A challenging and heart-wrenching task, but hey, I am now writing this under a palm tree in Guatemala, pretty darn happy with life in general.
Mine was, and is still not, an easy journey to freedom. And I am not fully there yet, but far enough to know I have succeeded.
If you are really drawn to be free to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle know that if I can do it, so can you.
This post dedicated to my amazing partner Sheila, with whose love, support, and living our fabulous differentiated relationship together I can try out the Digital Nomad lifestyle.
Culture shock is a totally natural, well-studied, and known experience for me. The hard part? I don’t why I can’t seem to avoid it! Despite coming to Guatemala with open mind, few expectations (warmth, cheap), I still find myself going through the stages of culture shock as if I am some kind of neophyte traveller. Heck, I have lived abroad, travelled a ton of times internationally, and came here with a short agenda.
Ahhh…I just found the problem: I came here not with a lot of expectations of Guatemala, but of expectations of myself.
This is why I am feeling so low. Despite taking precautions, a stomach bug laid me flat for the last couple of days. Alex has been a wonderful travelling companion, both taking care of himself and of me during these last two days. ( Thanks, Alex!) So it has not been that miserable an experience. But in the periods between violent expulsion of bodily fluids, I wondered why we came in the first place, why I got sick, and why I was wondering these thoughts at all.
The answer, of course, was that I expected to be healthy, strong, have all the answers, and be able to figure out the rest. Yup: Paul the almighty.
Time to let expectations of self go bye-bye. And get on with making the rest of the adventure as magical as it deserves to be.
One curiosity about travelling while in unfamiliar territories is how much I need to stay grounded. It can be something as simple as a set of habits that I follow every day. Or being able to get on the internet. Or eating a type of food that is familiar to me.
This time, while being ill and not being able to have my usual grounding habits and things, I found a new one: A nice air-dried cotton towel. The cotton bits were hard from be air-dried. It smelled of nothing – which is exactly what my overstimulated olfactory glands craved. Guatemala is full of unfamiliar smells that often triggered nausea in the last 2 days. The towel was clean, white and felt delightful against my arms and face. Today, on the recovery end of the bug, I have loving feelings toward my towel. Thank you towel.
Grounding: If you get sick while travelling in unfamiliar lands, find something that grounds you. Whatever works.
The Presidential Election
We enjoyed being in Guatemala during the American presidential election and having a few good chuckles with people about the race between Obama and Mittens. The contrast between the rhythms of life here in Guatemala and those back home in North America made the election seem surreal to me. The sheer amounts of money spent on the election could have raised the standard of living for the whole Guatemalan population a couple of notches, for example. Just one interesting thought the contrast brought out.
Another interesting thought was from reading Time, which a nice Israeli-American in the room next door gave to us. The thought was something like this:
No matter how sophisticated a country, people, or system, we all just play our roles in life and every day we just bring the best or worst of ourselves to the table. The article on the election in Time made it seem so important. But in the end, it is just who we decide to be right now, right here, and right in this very moment, that counts.
Our first few days in Guatemala have been delightful! Having been to Mexico many times, I was ready for more of the same: Constant forced interactions with street sellers, a machismo vibe, and a steady underlying tension in the society.
To my delight (and relief), Guatemala is not the same as Mexico. While there are certainly street vendors who want your attention and money, even in the most touristy areas they are neither as aggressive nor as constant. And rather than a machismo vibe, there is a very grounded family feel here – a much more feminine and balanced energy to the place. To be clear, we haven’t seen the whole country – these observations are only for the several places we have visited and toured so far.
I was surprised by this grounded feeling here as I have read and heard of the strife in the relatively recent past. And finally, unlike Mexico, there is a dynamic energy here, but no tension. Again, this might just be in the places we have visited, but there just isn’t the heavily armed military and police presence that I have come to expect in Mexico. Even coming through the airport was smooth and free of tension of any kind.
Getting into the country
Formal visit visas for many Western countries, including Canada, are not required. You simply show up, fill out a Customs form and they stamp your 3 month visitor visa. And you can renew it for another 3 months if you want by visiting an office in Guatemala City. We found the process of going through the airport on arrival very painless.
No, English is not the semi-official language here
Spanish is the language spoken here. Yes, I know you knew that. But I mean that it is really Spanish spoken here, not “Spanish, but everyone also speaks English”. While you will find some people who speak English, you must be prepared to work with most people who only speak Spanish. Even most people in the tourist trade speak at best a few words of English. While they like the foreign tourist income, they do not adapt their interactions to it – the language aspect being one example.
Friendly, friendly, people and place
Guatemalans are really friendly, warm, and welcoming. Though they don’t speak English, their beaming smiles, gentle body language, courtesy, and genuine warmth are clear and evident everywhere we have been. I always like to test layers of a society to see if what is true for one group is really part of the place. Well, this photo says it all. On my early morning walk in Panajachel I passed this front yard scene. Cat rubbing up against dog. Dog with chickens, rooster puttering around. In peace. And the very relaxed perro in the next picture really sums up the Guatemala I have experienced so far.
Guatemala is for Guatemalans first and foremost. Unlike Mexico, which has a very strong U.S. influence, Guatemala is a country set up for Guatemalans primarily. This is not to say that there aren’t facilities, signs in English, and the ability to get things done here as a foreigner, just that most of the country is set up for their own citizens, not to meet the needs of foreign tourists. For some people this will be a delight as you can more easily view and experience authentic aspects of Guatemala. For others, this will be an irritant as they expect to be treated with special attention and have the focus on them. And yes, I witnessed visitors from some unnamed country who expected to be treated as if they were royalty and were verbally clear on how much they disliked not being the centre of attention.
Get used to relationships…or don’t – your choice
Guatemala is very relational. We witnessed a younger female European getting very upset and even angry at the lack of exact punctuality and other process-oriented faux pas. And I noticed the discomfort of some visitors who were at a loss when faced with no goals to accomplish. Anyone coming with either a strong process orientation or strong goal orientation will have to adjust. Guatemala: Family and relationships come first.
Guatemala: A fixer’s dream country
Many visitors come here to work on fixing Guatemala. They are here to have their altruistic experience. No judgement here, just that it is clear that good intentions are mixed with the desire to have that “I am doing good in the world” payback. Does Guatemala need help? Like many places in the world, I am sure they do. But humorously, I was told that there at times multiple levels of NGO’s, charities, and volunteer groups working on the same communities and trying to do the same things, almost competing with each other to try to fix the Guatemalan people’s lives.
A country in transition
I love dynamic, changing, and transitioning place. Guatemala is one such country. A country on the move is how I would describe the Guatemala I have experienced so far. This time of change won’t happen without teething problems, but it will happen. And some of the changes won’t be liked by foreigners who are pleased with the Guatemala they are experiencing now or loved in the past.
Would I want to live or retire here?
It would be too early to make a decision about living or retiring in Guatemala from my limited experience here. Many foreigners are living, working, and making out their lives here, so this bodes well. But I have not seen many traditional American retirees here – gated communities, condo towers on the ocean, enclaves, etc. An eclectic mix of nationalities dovetail their interests and lives in Guatemala, but I have not seen a lot of retirees looking for a safe, warm, cheap, familiar haven to relax in. This is primarily because it not a safe and familiar haven – it is a country in transition and a country or Guatemalans, not retiring foreigners who want gated communities.
Finally, you gotta love volcanoes here. They are plentiful and play a significant role in the country…we climbed onto the lava fields of one that erupted 2 years ago, with steam vents and a lava cave for us to explore.
Signing off from the town of Panajachel on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala!
When you are living in a place where you go to work every day at a physical institution, you naturally develop rhythms and patterns of time that allow work to take place in predictable and trustworthy patterns. For example, you have meetings you can schedule that will allow you to move an agenda forward. And you have people around you working specific hours of the day offering their job structured services. Finally, you can craft a to-do list that fits the hours you have available in your office, giving some assurance you will get them done before you close your office door and head home for a (scheduled) dinner.
But what happens when you are either traveling or living in a place where you don’t have those natural work rhythms and patterns to structures, because you are a Digital Nomad?
This is where it gets interesting. You have to take full conscious responsibility for your work habits, patterns, and responsibilities.
Right. Better get on that.
Digital Nomad – Wrinkle #2: Doing interesting things while traveling and living geographically free means that you are always being tempted to do things other than work. Climb a volcano or assess a grad paper? Hang out chatting with interesting people or reply to work emails? Live now with the results of your work or work now to generate the results that will allow you to live more freely later?
As I am just learning how to find the right balance, I don’t have a depth of advice to offer. What I do know is to really understand your work and life priorities at any one point in time and ensure that the highest priority rules the moment. Planning doesn’t really work well. “Flow” does…
Digital Nomad – Delight #2: Contrast. Wow, traveling and living the Digital Nomad lifestyle gives you amazing contrast to work with. Want to judge a person you work online with harshly? Taking a look around where you are right now and seeing the realities of life that most people live puts you quickly into a place of humility and consideration of the reality of the person you are working online with.
Feeling that you deserve more money for the work you are doing? One glance at the lack of opportunity, little pay, and harsh working conditions of most people in the world will straighten out your thinking real quick.
Thinking that something you want to create online has already been done and there is too much competition? Most of the world is just ramping up their use of the internet. The question is not one of competing in first-world online contexts, but of finding international markets that are yet to develop or are yet under-served. There are thousands of these available. Any field, any language, any scale.
Finally, think you deserve to take the morning off to play? Take one glance right now at the person near you who is working 10 hours a day at a repetitive, boring job – for a pittance.
Right. So, what’s my priority this morning and what do I want to create with it?
I stage a lot of experiential learning opportunities in my classes. With the luxury of 3 hours per class session, a diverse range of nationalities, the maturity that is typical of grad students, and a foundation of trust, I can set up some pretty profound journeys for all involved – including me. In my staging I quite often startle myself with what results. I really don’t know they will turn out, which of course makes them even more powerful because they are authentic. Truth is the central goal of pretty much everything I do, and truth is almost always startling.
So it will come as no surprise that one day while we were exploring some marketing truths we suddenly found ourselves on the edge of a cliff I had not intended to go over: the “Judgement” question, with a capital “J”. If we looked at this question in the class we would be plunging to a new level of truth – one I was not sure most students in the class were ready for. I was uncharacteristically startled into momentary silence when we reached the cliff edge – and delightfully surprised by the arrival of the vista of truth that opened up.
I stopped on the cliff’s edge that day instead of plunging over. But that vantage point gave me the next Marketing Manifesto principle:
A Marketing Manifesto
10 principles and practices of great marketing:
#8: You can’t judge…anything
Arriving at this cliff edge came suddenly because you really can’t avoid the Judgement question in marketing – it is everywhere. Heck, everyone already thinks marketers are evil, using psychological tricks to prey on innocent consumers. So, having to face the question of Judgement really should have happened sooner.
But here it is what lies below that cliff, on the plain of truth below:
In marketing you can’t judge…anything.Everything you do will have both intended and unintended consequences. You can only act from a place of personal integrity. All that results from your efforts and actions is in the proverbial ‘eye of the beholder’.
The foundation of judgement: Beliefs (bye, bye beliefs)
Judgement is about making decisions about what is right and wrong, based on personal morals and ethics. Organizations can’t have morals and ethics. An organization is just a grouping of people held together by various agreements. However, the people in the organization can have morals and ethics. In fact, they always do have them, and are the only ones who can have them.
Morals and ethics are beliefs – beliefs about what is right and wrong. These beliefs come to us through various experiences in our lives and even through our genetic structure, apparently. Our belief systems are the result of a variety of mostly unnoticed influences. We arrive at a place in our lives called adulthood with a generally fully formed set of values – a mix of morals and ethics that are underpinned by a framework of beliefs. Again, they are generally unconscious, but we use them every day in large and small decision making. By unconscious I mean that they result in us knowing what to do in a situation inately – we don’t really have to think, we know what is right and wrong.
As a marketer striving to become the very best at the art of matching customers to the emotional experiences they want to have, a large and complex network of beliefs is a limiting factor on your path to becoming the very best at your art form.
It is not long before you bump up against situations that challenge your beliefs about what is right and wrong and you must right then judge the particular situation facing you to decide if you will go agree to buy into it. The situation could be as innocuous as being asked to script an ad for a second-rate product when you know a better product is available to customers. Or it can be more challenging, such as being asked to carefully craft cigarette marketing that will meet legal requirements but at the same time encourage the purchase of these deadly little emotional delivery devices. (‘deadly’ = judgement, of course!)
To the outside world you are already considered evil, as already noted. A wide range of societal ills are pinned on the marketer, from encouraging young women to starve themselves in order to meet unrealistic body image types to promoting first-person shooter computer games that train the brain that it is fun and totally acceptable to kill people. As marketers, promoting products and services that both help and harm people is standard fare. Beauty is in the proverbial eye of the beholder and the mind of participant. Young women don’t have to expose themselves to toxic role models. And Young men don’t have to play first-person shooter games. When asked point-blank if killing someone is fun and acceptable in everyday society the vast majority of young men will vehemently attest it is not.
In the end, the best marketing in the world is done from a judgement-less state of mind. It has to be. If marketers decided to be careful judges of all they do, based on a large framework of personal beliefs, they would be crappy marketers.
Insightful crafter of emotional experiences…or psychopath/sociopath?
So, how can you actually do marketing so that you are an insightful crafter of emotional experiences that enrich people’s lives rather than a psychopath/sociopath who preys on people’s emotional, intellectual, and developmental vulnerabilities?
And it is a simple principle. As you strive to be the very best marketer you can be, you inevitably question and challenge your own beliefs, in order to get them out the way. You want them out of your mental field of vision so as to gain a bias-free understanding of what customers really want and how best to deliver their experiences to them. All good. However, what happens when you are free of your beliefs and judgements and see only the perfect way to deliver emotional experiences to customers. What then? Do you simply act? For example:
“The best way to keep a war economy going is to have lots of developmentally vulnerable young men trained to go to war and want to kill people because it is fun and exciting to do so. We will market a video game that makes the killing of people emotionally irresistible to children and young men who are developmentally vulnerable to deep mental programming. This marketing will engage these young people to play the game, allowing it to lay a foundation of mental patterns and beliefs that war and killing is acceptable, exciting, and emotionally rewarding. I will do the very best I can to use naturally unconscious instincts and developmental vulnerabilities to get children and young men to play the game as much as possible, so that they don’t consciously challenge their beliefs in war and killing at an adult age, thereby allowing wars and killing to continue unabated, keeping a war economy going.”
Judgement-free marketing at its best!
Or in clearing your own beliefs and resulting patterns of judgement do you come to a point where you now have to take responsibility for your actions – be fully responsible so that you must now actually think about who you are and how you want to act in the world?
If you decide that you are responsible for how you go about in the world, but wish to stay judgement-free, you become a very powerful person, not just in marketing, but in the world in general. You now begin to act from a place of personal integrity, one that is conscious, created by choice, and thoughtful.
And, going back to a previous Marketing Manifesto, you decide on one of two courses of action:
To act from a place of fear.
To act from a place of love and hope, helping people have their emotional experiences, but in conscious manner for both you and them.
Acting from this consciously thoughtful place, deciding in real time what you choose to do to help people, is personal integrity at its very best.
This is our first full day in Guatemala and so far, so good. Alex and I decided to come here for a kind of learning retreat – a chance for us to write, improve our Spanish, explore a different culture, and particularly for me, learn to be a Digital Nomad.
To my surprise, most people I have mentioned ‘Digital Nomad’ to haven’t heard of it before. So, here’s my definition:
Digital Nomad – n. A person free from location-based work and life responsibilities who travels the world, and/or lives where they like in the world, working online wherever they are.
Digital Nomad – Wrinkle #1: When I used Google to do a search just now, it cleverly noticed I am in Guatemala and switched to Spanish with search results keyed to local resources.
Gracias, Google, pero… I am not yet fluent enough in Spanish to want to do all my online searches in this language.
But wait! Wouldn’t working in Spanish with Google help me improve my Spanish? Yes it would. But I am not quite there yet skill-wise, and my work online is only in English. So I will switch it back to English…for now.
Digital Nomad – Delight #1: Guatemala has widespread internet availability, and it seems to be free with many types of accommodation and in many cafes and restaurants! Obviously, a good internet connection wherever you are would be required for working online. One warm, inexpensive, friendly, and interesting country – Guatemala – is enabling my experiment in lifestyle design by having a core piece of infrastructure I need – access to the internet.
To end this first post on`digital nomadacy`, I should put a shout-out to Tim Ferriss. He put a fire under me, and so many other people like me who want to be free of geographic and mental constraints, to make lifestyle changes happen in our lives. Tim’s now famous book, “The 4-hour Work Week”, really challenged me to think about how I want to live my life. One of the goals of this trip – learning to be a Digital Nomad here in Guatemala – is a direct result of the fire that Tim set. Thank you, Tim.