Sold the house, gave away the stuff, packed a carry-on bag and set off to see the…yada, yada, yada.
You’ve heard the digital nomad story from me and others, and most folks now have some hooks for understanding the lifestyle. We’re three years in and this is my annual update. You can catch up at year one or year two. You can even see us in the digital nomad documentary One Way Ticket.
Feeling at home
At some point in the past year (I have no idea when it happened) I started feeling at home anywhere in the world.
It’s odd because I’m not generally someone who’s comfortable anywhere. To find myself comfortable everywhere was totally unexpected.
It snuck up on me. I was just sitting in a coffee shop one day, expecting to feel like I always feel–a bit out of my element–and it struck me that I felt like I belonged. It happened in all sorts of places. It happened when I least expected it.
I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos and I feel at home sharing the table with a Chinese couple with whom I share no language. He’s slurping his eggs up with his face down near the plate. I’m eating my toast with jam. He’s drinking tea, I’m drinking coffee. We all smile and nod, not saying a word, and I’m perfectly content.
I’m in Dahab, Egypt and feel at home slapping high fives with the dozen tiny children who follow me for a block each night as I wander back from dinner.
I’m sitting outside, which is actually inside the home of a family in Ubud, Indonesia. We’re sharing a dinner of rice and fish and vegetables. The children and the grandparents can only communicate with me and Lisa with gestures. The husband has great English and his wife has some. I feel at home even as Lisa inadvertently sits on the mat which turns out to be the dinner table.
I feel at home when the couple across from us stares so hard that I can feel their eyes on my skin. It’s not the first time, it happens frequently, and I’ve grown accustomed to being the subject of curiosity. We smile and nod and we say goodbye to the staring couple when we leave.
I feel at home when the waitress shakes her head “no, no” after I randomly pick something off the menu since I have no idea what the Korean menu actually says. She points and gesticulates me into a different order and I have a great meal thanks to her concern.
I feel especially at home on the 19th day of buying a croissant from the same Croatian woman at 7 AM each morning when she finally lets her stern demeanor down and, for the very first time, smiles like she remembers me.
I feel at home when I stumble and fall on the street in Mumbai, cutting my face as my glasses smash into the concrete, and Indian men rush over, scoop me up, dust me off, and help me get moving again toward my hotel.
I feel at home as the young woman stops to help us buy subway tickets and explains the machine. I feel at home as the young man stops to translate the “closed for remodeling sign” on the restaurant door and then walks us three blocks to a place he likes that definitely has something vegetarian for my wife.
I feel at home when the Vietnamese soldier with the big machine gun waves at me to move back, to go the other way, and gives me a forceful look.
I feel at home confronting the Turkish taxi driver who’s ripping us off and who concedes and gives us back our money. I feel at home assaulting the other tourists with conversation in the rooftop bar who thought they were going to have a quiet drink at the manager’s happy hour.
I feel at home talking to anyone and posing for pictures with locals, other tourists, and hotel staff who want a record of our time together. We’re always sure to get a picture on our camera too.
Feeling at home in the world wasn’t something I expected. It wasn’t something I aspired to feel. I didn’t know it was a thing. It just happened and it’s wonderful. I’m still surprised when I realize that I feel like I belong, in a place where I clearly don’t belong.
It took a long time, I had no idea it was coming, I’m not sure I’ll feel this way in the next place we go, and I’m not sure I’ll feel this way forever. But for now, I feel at home wherever I am: anywhere in the world.
The stress is way down
Living this lifestyle did, for a long time, create some stress.
Early on, Lisa and I came to an informal agreement to keep our conversation to a minimum on travel days. That was especially important during our packing and departure. We knew that the less we talked, the less chance there was of an argument.
Recently, though, we’re talking more on travel days, because neither of us is nearly as stressed as we once were during transitions. I think we both realize that things will work out even if there are unexpected glitches.
The airport in Yangon, Myanmar turned the stress tide. Before that flight from Yangon to Bagan, we always assumed the biggest problems would be of our making. We used to worry about arriving late, going to the wrong terminal, or failing to print our boarding pass.
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When we arrived at the airport in Yangon we couldn’t find the airline desk for the airline that had sold us our tickets.
In fact, the airline named on the boarding pass, which we had printed, just to be on the safe side, did not exist. No one had heard of the airline. It wasn’t in the airport because it wasn’t an actual airline.
What happened? Everyone agreed that our airline was not an actual airline. One of the other airlines gave us new boarding passes for their flight and we got on the plane about an hour later than we had originally expected to depart. How much did it cost? Nothing. They just took us without issue.
These sort of things have happened regularly. One airline insisted that we present the credit card we had used to buy the tickets, which I had cancelled and thrown away in the interim. The supervisor put us on the plane anyway, without the card. On many occasions we’ve been late for connecting flights–the airlines nearly always make sure we make the connection.
If all the travel fears we used to have actually turned into reality, the airports would be filled with stranded passengers every night. They’re not. Things work out most of the time for nearly everyone.
It took us awhile, but we’ve stopped worrying about travel. We have always ended up getting where we’re going, finding the hotel or apartment, getting the visa issue fixed, finding someone to help us get the SIM card, or finding a different taxi to take us where we actually needed to go.
It’s so freaking easy that it’s embarrassing sometimes
We live somewhere new every few weeks, sometimes even every few days. We work remotely. We stay in hotels and Airbnbs. It’s not rocket science. It’s not hard. It’s not more expensive than living in your average American ‘burb.
To be honest, being a digital nomad is ridiculously easy. A monkey could do it–a monkey with a carry-on. We constantly have people tell us how amazing it is that we’ve figured out how to do what we’re doing.
We love the attention and the flattery, but seriously–this is easy, embarrassingly easy.
I get up many mornings and head to the hotel breakfast room to eat my included breakfast. The fruit has been sliced for me, usually there’s an omelet station, and I don’t have to wash the dishes. Then I find somewhere to work–a coffee shop or coworking space–and someone comes in and cleans our hotel room while we’re out.
We Uber to a late lunch in a nice restaurant and then go for a walk or do a tourist thing like a museum or a park.
This is easy, easy, easy. We don’t deserve any credit or praise for what we’re doing.
If this lifestyle is of interest to you, then don’t be put off by imagining it as challenging. The tough decisions I used to make–like which HVAC system to buy when our $7,000 unit broke or how to pay for new kitchen cabinets and countertops–have been replaced by decisions like whether we’d prefer the beach in Sri Lanka over the one in Mozambique.
Our lifestyle isn’t for everyone
I used to think this lifestyle made sense for everyone. It took me a while to get out of my own head and into the heads of others on this topic. Obviously, lots of people wouldn’t like living the way we live.
We both happen to have a high need for novelty, as well as tolerance for uncertainty. We cope well with minimal connection to the people surrounding us. Sometimes we form relationships with the people we meet, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. It’s just the two of us.
Our personalities make this lifestyle work for us. Others would find it unsettling, disruptive, and disconcerting. It’s a vacation from which one never goes home. For many folks, the going-home part is one of the best parts. I used to love getting home after a trip and I remember that feeling well. What we do now feels very different.
We lose some things by travelling so much. We don’t see our family as often as we’d like. We don’t have the same community connection as we did in the past. We aren’t able to rely on routine to refine the easy way to get things done. Yep, we miss out on some stuff, but we’re not complaining. We could settle back into a home in an instant if we made that choice. This lifestyle fits our psychology. It works for us, but it truly isn’t the right choice for many others. Life is pluses and minuses, no matter which path you follow.
What’s happened since my last update?
We spent last summer in Europe. We visited Hungary, Poland, Croatia, and Georgia.
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Then the temperature started to drop in Europe so we headed to Asia.
We spent time in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and China and flew to the US in early May for three weeks, for a visit with family, a little business, and many medical checkups.
Now we’re back in Europe. We just wrapped up a month in Montenegro and today we’re flying to Riga, Latvia.
As we move along and pass through places, life keeps happening. Three things have marked this year for us in addition to the destinations–one business, one family, one health.
Our business: If you’re a regular reader then you know that I sold the law firm back in October. That was a huge event for me. I’d been running the law firm remotely for a decade. I didn’t sell the firm as a result of our traveling schedule, but it sure does make the time zones easier when I don’t have to return calls. The travel had zero impact on the firm, but running a law firm, as you know, is stressful. Having that behind me is awesome.
Our family: One of our kids is a rising senior in college, having transferred schools last summer. We’re now counting down the days to graduation. This third year of living nomadically has involved lots of discussion about the kid’s adjustment to the new school and, now, the final steps toward graduation. Thankfully, it has all gone well, but it has also involved many moving parts and transitions. It feels a little odd to sit down to lunch on a pier in Baosici, Montenegro and chat about the kid’s question about getting new tires on the car, but that’s what has to happen when one lives the way we’re living.
Our health: We both gained weight for the first two years of traveling. That’s not something I can afford to do with a history of heart disease. I’ve got to maintain my weight in order to stay alive. Our habit of eating in restaurants doesn’t make that easy, but it’s hard to do otherwise in each new place.
About a year ago I stopped eating dinner. I shifted from three meals per day to two. It worked. I dropped weight steadily from the first week and have continued to trend down without gaining any of the weight back. Apparently eating less causes one to weigh less–who knew?
After about a month Lisa joined me on this new plan and it worked for her as well. There is, of course, endless debate about the right way to maintain weight. I’m no expert, but eating less is working for us so we’ll keep doing it. We don’t want to have to start purchasing extra seats for ourselves on the flights.
Now that we’ve gained some understanding of the flow of a year of travel, we’ve been planning loosely in one-year increments. We’re book-ending our years with a visit to Raleigh each May to see family, friends, and doctors.
We have the entirety of the coming year generally planned and are slowly acquiring plane tickets as we have the option to use our accumulated points. We’re usually able to find the best free business-class seats if we book eleven months in advance.
The coming year includes Latvia, where we arrive today. Then we’ll visit Lithuania, Norway, Moscow and Saint Petersburg in Russia, and then we’ll fly to Italy and spend time in Rome and Sicily.
We leave Europe in October to visit Beirut, Dubai, and Salalah, Oman before heading down to Ethiopia.
We’ll spend the rest of our year in Africa visiting South Africa, Namibia, Senegal, and Morocco before heading back to the US for a couple of weeks in May. Hopefully we’ll be attending a graduation while we’re in America.
What else is next? It’s hard to say, as predicting the larger pattern when living this way is difficult. It’s rarely the broad strokes I remember, anyway. It’s the little things that stick in my mind and change me as we move through the world.
I’ll never forget walking silently along the path in Auschwitz with a group of tourists. No one was speaking as we all took it in. The only sound was the soft crunching of our shoes on the gravel as we walked toward the incinerators. Then a train whistle sounded in the distance. It was eerily unforgettable.
I’ll never forget the crumpled, legless man sliding along the pavement in the train station in India, using his hands to propel himself slowly. He reached out and touched my leg as I bought myself a drink. I pulled away reflexively. I’m still uncertain how to process that memory.
I’ll never forget the music flowing up from the courtyard below our apartment in Tbilisi as the Georgian men harmonized their polyphonic singing, a cappella. It felt as if the sound drifted through our window like smoke. It lifted us up as we peered down through the glass, listening as they sang late into the night.
We’ll have to wait and see what’s next. Something unexpected will happen and we’ll be ready to take it on, take it in, and enjoy it when it comes. Year four is underway and we’re all in.