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.
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.
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?
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.