Living as a 'Digital Nomad' Is Like One Super-Long Vacation
A growing number of people who can do their jobs from laptops are realizing they don't have to be burdened with a permanent "home."
If you're a human, at some point, somewhere down the line, your ancestors were nomads, constantly uprooting their homes to travel to new locations in search of food. In most cases it was out of necessity rather than choice, following the migrating patterns of wildlife and the shifting weather conditions so that people wouldn't freeze or starve to death.
Sounds miserable, right? Or does it sound like an opportunity to travel the world, no strings attached? That's the philosophy behind a certain breed of travelers who call themselves "digital nomads." They've given up permanent homes for the chance to see the world, constantly on the move, like nomads. And in the age of remote employees, full-time freelancers, and entire industries that take place not in an office but on the internet, they've found a way to do it without sacrificing regular income.
Amy Truong is one of those people. A software tester for Github (about 60 percent of the company works remotely), Truong doesn't have a true home base—she picks up and moves to a new city, a new country, every few months. She also moderates Hashtag Nomads, an online community for digital nomads to connect to each other and meet up IRL. While Truong was in San Francisco, we met up to talk about how she makes the traveling lifestyle work for her, the tricks she uses to make moving easier, and the loneliness that comes from constantly being on-the-go.
VICE: Let's flash back to five years ago—what was going on in your life and how did you decide to become a digital nomad?
Amy Truong: OK, let's see. I was in IT consulting over on the East Coast. After working hard, graduating, and having three to four weeks of vacation to travel, I'd started my career, as people do. The problem for me was once I got home from vacation, I just wanted to travel more. So I thought about it and I knew I needed to figure out a way to do this seriously. There are lots of options actually: You can go work for a travel agency; you could be a flight attendant or a pilot; you could work in consulting, just traveling around to different places every week; and then of course you've got the vagabonds, or the forever bartenders that pack up and move to a new area when they feel like it.
I thought about my options and I knew I wanted to travel, but I also knew I didn't want to be a bartender forever hopping from place to place. There had to be another way to do this and have a stable income. One way of doing things [is to freelance]: There are freelance developers, graphic designers, writers, authors, journalists, bloggers, and stuff like that. But that's not realistic for most people. It's pretty tough to make that happen as a long-term option.
But you decided to try to make it work.
For me, I had a single moment of clarity. I was in Washington, DC, getting on the metro; it was a hot summer day and I had my backpack on with my laptop and heels inside, because you totally can't walk on the metro in heels. And I was just sitting on this hot car, with no AC, and I was just like, "Wow, this sucks. This really sucks. I am going to end up spending the rest of my life like this if I don't do something." I had to decide if that's what I wanted to do. I was literally in a rat race. There I was underground, in a maze, on an escalator, just trying to find what makes me happy—it definitely wasn't this. I realized that I was in my 20s, I wasn't married, I didn't have any kids, I didn't have any overwhelming responsibilities tying me down to any one place, so why not make this happen?
How did your friends react when you decided to make that change?
Basically everyone thought I was crazy. My friends asked me if I needed help and [said] that they would be there for me to help me through "this phase" of my life. I guess they view traveling a lot as one thing, but making it my life entirely is just taking it too far in some people's eyes. I had one friend even ask me, "What are you running away from?"
Well, are you running away from something?
I don't know. I mean, yeah. It makes me doubt myself for sure sometimes. It makes me feel bad about what I want, I feel guilty sometimes, like, why don't I just want the normal things like everyone else? Is something wrong with me? But ultimately, if I look deep down, yeah, I think I was running away from that boring conventional life I was living on the East Coast before. I just have a lot of fear inside me about quickly slipping back into that rhythm if I let myself. At the same time though, I'm not saying there is anything inherently bad about that sort of traditional lifestyle. It works for most people, but I guess it just doesn't feel right for me.
How is being a digital nomad different than a permanent vacation?
I travel more slowly. Instead of staying a week or two somewhere, I'll stay a month or two. I'll hang around the places locals do, enjoy the local hole-in-the-wall restaurants, go to the grocery store, and see the sights on my own when I want, instead of racing through with a group of tourists. Instead of eating at all of the top restaurants, I like to just take my time and have a nice meal at home like a local would. It really helps me get a better feel for a culture and an area than if I were to treat it like any other vacation.
Do you think that throws you off, though? If every time you go to a new place you have to reset your entire way of life, that could get really hectic.
I have a routine that I stick to every morning, which helps. I wake up pretty early once my sleep schedule [acclimates to] the timezone, have my green tea, check my email, maybe go for a walk or get in a quick workout, that sort of thing.
So instead of having a consistent place to call home, you rely on your consistent routine to make wherever you are feel like home.
Looking for travel recs? Check out The VICE Guide to Europe.
Does it ever feel weird to be constantly on the move? I mean, do you have friends?
It really helps with how big the digital nomad community has gotten these days. We've got websites, subreddits, Facebook groups, Twitter, and so much more out there for people to connect on. If I'm going to Switzerland, I'll pop into a group and ask if anyone has any friends or family there. We meet up and it immediately gives me a friend or familiar face in an otherwise new area.
What about family? How do your parents feel about your volatile lifestyle?
At first, my father was very concerned and worried. But then after I started traveling alone and, more importantly, actually coming back safely, he realized I might know a bit about what I'm doing. When I told them about my decision to sell everything and fully commit to this lifestyle, they immediately asked me if I was crazy. But after we talked about it, they were OK with it. Deep down they want me to be happy. If I found a way to do what I truly wanted to do, chase my dreams, and be happy, then that's all they wanted. It sounds cliché, but it's the truth. I have wonderful parents.
What's dating like as a nomad? I mean, is it even possible?
All of these dating apps out there now like Tinder make it so much easier to date if you want to. As a digital nomad, there is a very skewered male to female ratio. Making friends and going out to have a good time is extremely easy for me, but finding something more long-term is obviously a struggle. Do I care enough about this person to lay down roots and stay in one place for a while? Do they care enough about me to warrant me staying? There are just a lot of factors at play.
How do you choose where to stay?
I use Airbnb—that website is seriously a godsend like no other. Usually people on there love to rent out their places for several weeks or a couple of months at a time and I get a better deal that way. There's even a subletting section on the site as well. I have used Craigslist before too, subleasing places the traditional way, that sort of thing. In fact, one big trend that's getting more popular now are what's called "co-working houses" and it's just a big group of nomads getting together in a house—with WiFi of course, that's a necessity—and sometimes people even set up retreats for communal living arrangements for big groups. WiFi is such a huge deal for nomads and that's where resources like NomadList come in handy because we can rate things like the internet, cost of living, weather, safety, nightlife scene, and a lot more.
Have you ever had negative experiences traveling?
Well, I will say that all of the traveling I've done, as a woman, has really opened my eyes to how women are treated in a lot of other countries. For example, as an Asian woman visiting Thailand, I was able to sort of blend in myself. Most people that talked to me or watched my mannerisms could probably tell that I wasn't a native from Thailand at all, but at first glance maybe you couldn't tell. So on many occasions I've ended up on the receiving end of ill treatment from a lot of tourists, or visiting Americans or Europeans, that assume I'm a local—being ignored, talked down to, disregarded, and just generally not treated like an equal person. It hurts, to put things simply. No one should ever be treated like that but it happens every day around the world.
One moment in particular sticks out in my mind still to this day. I was with a group of fellow nomads, clearly in a social meetup. And a guy in the group just assumed I was a local server girl or something at the place that we were meeting up at. What really got to me isn't that I was mistaken for a local, that's fine, but it was the way he treated me because of who he thought I was. Not that I was being ignored, but that no one should be treated like that.
I noticed a lot of veteran nomads on the subreddit were extremely skeptical and borderline judgmental of "new" nomads. It's almost like they don't believe they are "real" or "serious" enough about it. Do you have any insight into why people could treat newcomers like that?
Yeah, I think if you are an aspiring nomad and you ask for all this advice and guidance, it just seems like in most cases those people never even actually end up taking the advice. And people just get so sick of giving the same advice over and over and then they don't even care. It's like, why even put forth the effort if they don't even care? This is our passion and our way of life, so don't trivialize it by treating it like your cool new hobby. It's not a fun little vacation, or a side hobby. It's a serious commitment.
A lot of digital nomads like to talk about their lives like it's just one nonstop, super-long vacation. Is that really what it's like?
Traveling so much makes me happy and it's my passion, but it's not like I'm always on the beach or anything like that. A lot of work goes into this and it takes dedication, discipline, and above all else, the ability to motivate yourself. I work a lot sometimes and that's just how it is. And there are a lot of times where I really just feel lonely. I miss my family. I miss my friends. When I get food poisoning or something and am sick at home but still have all of this work to do and I wish my mom could take care of me but she's on the other side of the planet—yeah, I get homesick.
I've had those low moments where I'm laying in my bed at night crying and thinking, "If I died right here in this bed right now, no one would know or care!" You totally get those moments. This is not all sunshine and butterflies. But loneliness is just a symptom of what's ailing you on the inside. If I go back home to treat my loneliness, it might help for a while, but ultimately I'll still feel lonely inside. The most important thing, I think, is finding what truly makes you happy and doing that until you can't anymore. That's my secret.
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