I haven’t always had a thirst for travel. There is something to be said for the comforts of “home”; close-knit friends that are always there, friendly smiles from staff at your favorite local hangouts… It feels good to be familiar with a city and its quirks, and feel safe and comfortable in its neighbourhoods. In the last months of 2011, I went through some personal stuff that forced me to take a good hard look at my life, career, and personal goals. I felt myself going in two possible directions: I could pick up and start over—find a new apartment, acquire new furniture, and begin to “settle down” again and so forth—or I could get rid of all my worldly possessions and become more transient, working from anywhere. I’ll let you guess by this article’s title which direction I chose. It may seem drastic, but it turned out to be a lot easier than I imagined. (Not to mention a lot more fun!)
My story begins about a year ago. Around that time I read an article by a fellow designer, John O’Nolan, that totally inspired me. He had rid himself of all possessions and travelled with his laptop and camera, working wherever he happened to be. I had also been reading the blogs of several other inspiring “lifestyle designers” and full-time travellers, including Cody McKibben, Jodi Ettenberg, Chris Guillebeau, Colin Wright, Louderthan10 and Benny Lewis to name a few. I guess you could say the travel seeds had been planted at that point. The seeds grew fast, because that following October I was on my way to Thailand and Hong Kong, my first trip in years and my first time in Asia, ever. It was amazing.
Shortly after that trip I went through a breakup and prepared to move out of where I was living. As I dealt with my possessions and thought about next steps, I realised a life of travel was calling me. I didn’t actually have many possessions; I owned an iMac, some clothing, books, a desk, a few kitchen items, a snowboard, rock climbing gear, and not much else. I decided to get rid of anything that wasn’t absolutely essential, and everything else I put into storage. The only new thing I picked up was a Macbook Air, which would be light enough for easy travel, and a 32-litre backpack.
Some people are very attached to the idea of “home,” but that’s never been the case for me. I left my “hometown” of Ottawa at 17 to attend York University in Toronto, studying under the York University / Sheridan College Joint Program in Design. I lived there for nine years before moving to Vancouver B.C. in late 2009, so I was actually unsure how to answer the questions that always came up while I was traveling, like where was I from, where did I grow up, what city did I feel most “at home” in, where was the last city I lived in…and so forth. The idea of “home” has blurred over the last few years. I know it’s cheesy, but I have really come to understand the old saying: “home is where the heart is.”
It’s not difficult to be nomadic. The biggest hurdle is probably the mental leap it takes to part with your possessions. I can tell you from experience, it’s easier than you might think to live with less. You stop stressing about things that don’t matter. You realize how much stuff you had, and how those things were actually owning you.
Once the decision to travel was made it was just a matter of when and where.
I chose Bali, Indonesia as my first location for a number of reasons. I had heard many things about it, and knew several people who had gone and loved it. Internet would be readily available, the cost of living would be very cheap, and the surroundings would be fairly exotic. I had never been to Indonesia before, so I would almost certainly be out of my comfort zone, which was also a big part of my desire to travel. As a first-time solo female traveler, it would be a safe and friendly introduction to living in Asia.
After 60 days in Indonesia, I would need to renew my VISA on arrival by leaving the country and returning. Before leaving for Bali I had no idea where I would go to renew it, and figured I could make the decision once I was there. It turns out that I had a friend who was going to be in Cambodia around the same time I would need to renew, so I decided to spend 8 days in Cambodia as part of my VISA run. Internet there was surprisingly faster than in Indonesia, so I was able to get some work done in the evenings after full days of temple hopping.
Alright, let’s talk logistics.
The easiest way to have a legal registered address while travelling nomadically is to use a family member or friend’s address. Choose someone you trust implicitly, who won’t be moving anytime soon, and for whom receiving your mail is not going to be a huge inconvenience. I’m currently in couch-surfing mode and likely will be for the duration of the summer, so I use my best friend’s address. This means that they can email me to let me know if something important comes in.
I don’t operate well within a 9 to 5 work schedule. Some people are rigid and prefer to have that structure. I’m not one of those people. I prefer to have a very relaxed morning; eating breakfast and sipping coffee on the patio of a bungalow in the rice fields of Bali, while checking my email and getting ready to work. It’s important for me to start the day off relaxed. My most productive hours are sometimes between 4–7pm and 10pm–2am.
I have tried to maintain rigorous schedules, but my creativity just doesn’t flow that way. So I listen to my body, and work when I need to work, and relax when I need to relax. I’m always keen on improving how I manage projects and balance work. I’ve read billions of books and blogs on time management and creative process, but no prescription has yet fit the way my creative juices flow and batteries charge. I’m sure most creative types know what I mean. Inspiration can come from any angle at any time on its own terms.
I recently began teaming up with another business owner from Calgary. His background is in marketing strategy, and he’s seriously organized in a way one has to admire. We collaborated on a few projects before I left for my first destination, and we played off each other’s strengths so well that we decided to continue working together on future projects. Being accountable to another person helps me stick to a schedule and meet my deadlines, even if I am not working 9 to 5. However, it was a 16 hour time difference between Ubud, Bali, and Calgary, Canada, so you can imagine the challenges that poses on collaboration.
A few tools were critical for working remotely. In fact, I use these tools a lot regardless of where I am:
- Basecamp: This is the easiest way to keep projects organized and communicate with clients while travelling to different destinations and working in different timezones.
- Freeagent: My favourite tool for invoicing and managing/organizing my finances from anywhere. I can easily track all of my income and expenses, and it makes filing my taxes a breeze.
- Google Drive (formerly Google Docs): Useful for collaborating and sharing documents with others.
- Dropbox: Easy way to share large files with others.
I spent three months living and working in Bali, and I fit all of my belongings into a 32-litre backpack and laptop bag.
Here is a complete inventory of my possessions:
- Macbook Air
- External Hard Drive
- Universal Adapter
- Camera (Canon S1100 Digital Elph)
- Travel-size hair straightener
- iPhone (3G turned off)
- 3 pairs of shorts
- 1 pair of fitted capris (à la Lululemon)
- 1 pair of long, lightweight pants (for my stopover in Korea, and for temple hopping)
- 10 pairs of underwear
- 3 bikinis
- Sarong (so many uses for this: chilly bus rides, light sheet, covering your legs at temple visits, etc.)
- 2 dresses
- 2 long-sleeve cardigans
- 1 long tank top to use as pyjamas
- 7 tank tops
- 2 shirts
- 1 light/loose long-sleeve blouse
- travel towel
- Moleskine and pens/pencils
- travel-size toiletries/makeup/first aid
- travel wallet
- collapsible/reusable water bottle
Acquisitions along the way:
- A versatile dress (for variety in daily appearance)
- Basic mobile phone (essential for coordinating when no wifi was available)
- jewelry (nothing fancy or expensive, but it’s nice to feel girly once in awhile, and I hadn’t brought anything with me!)
And as far as applications and the web go, here were some indispensable resources: Tripit, Frommers Travel Tools (currency conversion tool), Offmaps, Skype, Foursquare, and CouchSurfing was an invaluable for meeting new people along the way.
I became pretty adaptable over my three months in Asia, working in some pretty unconventional places: airports, hotels, hostels, guest houses, beaches, cafes, restaurants, bars, etc. Basically, anywhere there was wifi was a potential place to work. Some examples include the airport in Seoul, South Korea, the hotel lobby in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and an endless number of cafes in Ubud, Bali.
The following photos show some of my many tortuous workspaces.
Internet is not always reliable when travelling, of course. The cafes with internet in Bali are few and far between, so when I found a good space, I stuck with it. The Denpasar airport does not have free wifi (though they advertise that they do), so you can never really count on it 100%. Wifi at the bungalow where I stayed was good, but not good enough for reliable Skype chats. I think I was able to have only five or six successful Skype chats in my three months away.
Clients and ROI
Is it financially feasible to travel and work? Yes, absolutely, if you are organized and motivated.
Expenses are an important part of business accounting, or course, so let me give you an example of my living expenses while abroad.
Rent: At $300 per month, my small bungalow in the rice fields, including breakfast and wifi, was quite affordable. Other times, when I wasn’t staying at the bungalow, my rent was approximately $15 a night.
Food: Since breakfast is usually included with rent, I only needed to buy lunch and dinner. If I ate at the local warungs (small, family-owned restaurant), the cost was anywhere from $1.00–$3.50. If I ate at the more “westernized” restaurants, meals were closer to $2.50–$5.00. If I splurged and got a smoothie or a beer, the cost was closer to $9–$10. So with two meals a day and the occasional drink, it was anywhere from $350–$500/month on food/drink. (You could absolutely do this cheaper if you wanted to.)
Transit: The easiest way to get around in Bali is to rent a scooter. It’s cheaper if you rent by the month ($50), otherwise you pay approximately $3.50 per day. For day excursions or side trips, it’s easy to hire a driver. The more people that go, the cheaper it gets. These trips cost anywhere from $5–$30. Otherwise, you can catch a shuttle bus to neighbouring cities for $3–$10.
On average, you are looking at about $1000/month for living quite comfortably in a place like Bali (rent, food, transit, small extras). You can do it for less—getting away with closer to $600-$800—by skipping out on fancy drinks and excursions, bartering for everything (even your rent), and staying in a basic place for longer periods of time.
A seriously disciplined person could pull off working an average eight-hour day, five days per week. But since this was my first experience as a solo traveler, and it was as much for personal development as it was for professional, I was very lax with my work hours, and I splurged on travel and sightseeing. I got my diving certification. I surfed. I explored temples. And I took that side-trip to Cambodia; about $700 in all for roundtrip airfare, hotels, meals, transit and excursions for eight days.)
I earned roughly 60 percent of the average monthly income I had been earning before I left, while reducing my work hours and expenses to less than 50%. Some weeks I worked only 15–20 hours, while others were closer to 30. I had an occasional day where I would work 8–10 hours, but then only work for a couple of hours a day for the next few days. If time management is your strength (unlike myself), then you’ll have no problem finding a routine that works for you.
The logistics of getting paid are straightforward, as most of my clients pay via electronic money transfer. If you have clients that insist on paying via cheque, you can arrange to have friends or family that you trust deposit them for you.
I was always very up front with my clients about my working situation. I made it very clear on my website and in email that I was living abroad, and open for work opportunities, so this was never something that I tried to hide from my clients. I suspect this also acted like a filter, as many of the people that contacted me during my time were also travel buffs.
How did I get clients while I was in Indonesia? Word of mouth. I launched a successful website in the early fall of 2011 that ended up getting a lot of recognition. That project alone has provided more than enough referrals. Teaming up with a super organized business partner has allowed me to be stay on top of my projects, and can sometimes make bridging the timezone gap a lot easier.
Working with a 9 to 12 hour time difference can be a major headache. It often means flexible work hours, and an inability to deal quickly with “emergencies.” There is often a full day that passes between each round of communication, which can make simple changes take much longer.
When I’m getting ready for bed, my clients and business partner are just waking up. By the time I wake up in the morning, it’s already the end of the work day for them. Having a business partner you can trust, in a timezone closer to your clients really eases the burden of connecting with clients when they need you (though it’s not an impossible challenge).
I found that having a little clock handy in my dashboard served to remind me what timezones I was working with. And I would sometimes check my email late in the evening to ensure nothing urgent needed dealing with.
Where to from here?
This was only my first experiment in exploring a working–travelling lifestyle. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a lot too. Here are some things I would do differently next time:
- Define more regimented work hours, and stick to them.
- Not be afraid to say “no” to social activities when I don’t have time.
- Not offer to help others if I don’t have time.
- Always check that the wifi works before sitting down and ordering food.
- Always verify wifi functionality at hotels, guesthouses, etc. (Many advertise free wifi, but it can be so slow that it’s useless.)
- Check online for lists of the best wifi spots in the area.
- Use Foursquare to acquire wifi passwords and tips at the local cafes.
- Remember to backup my files daily.
This was just the beginning of me satisfying my urge for a working–travelling lifestyle. I plan to spend the summer couch-surfing in Vancouver, with a few stops in Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, and New York, before embarking on my next trip in the fall. I’m not sure where it will lead me, but I’m excited.
I am even considering a North American couch-surfing tour, using Twitter and my blog to reach out to others, and spend my money on transit instead of rent. I’ve already had a few offers, and I’ve no location-based commitments, so why not?
I highly encourage fellow homebound freelancers to consider an extended work trip somewhere new and unfamiliar. Even if you don’t want to give up your “home base,” consider going somewhere like Asia, where your dollar can go much further than in North America or Europe.
You’ll meet others who are doing the same thing (many who take a different approach), and you will might learn a thing or two along the way. The people you will meet and the experiences you will have while abroad will change you for the better, personally and professionally. I cannot recommend it enough.
Oh, and do yourself a favour: buy a one-way ticket and don’t plan too far in advance. If you happen to go to Bali, I created a “Best of Bali” Google Map to save you a bit of time. It shows accommodations, entertainment, and food with my own personal comments. Enjoy!comments powered by Disqus