Digital Nomad – 6 Months On

Wat Suan Dok, Plitvice Lakes National Park, New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, La Sagrada Familia, View from Penang Hill

This week marks six months since we set out on this adventure of ours. In that time, we’ve lived in six different countries – Thailand, Malaysia, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, and now Romania. We’ve flown more than 30000km, or about 3/4 of a lap around the world. We celebrated New Year’s Eve with paper lanterns in Chiang Mai, Thaipusam in Georgetown, Easter in Barcelona, and the new season of Game of Thrones in King’s Landing Dubrovnik. We ate some of the best street food of our lives: khao soi, char koay teow, mee goreng, hokkien mee, mee sotong, pastéis de nata, pintxos, ćevapi, and so much more. And we visited a ridiculous number of castles.

So many castles

I say this not to brag – well, not just to brag – but to attempt to put into perspective the intangibles that make this trip so worthwhile to us. The tangibles, namely that we’re still on track to spend less than we would in a typical year of modest living in Seattle, are the real reason we can pull this off.

On that note, I’d like to talk a little more about how we manage our lives on this unusual trip.

Stay: Accommodations are almost exclusively Airbnb. There are probably cheaper, if higher-effort ways to procure an apartment for a month, but Airbnb gives us the ability to filter by things that are important to us (location, price, wi-fi, washing machine) and gives us peace-of-mind in dealing with payment in any country and currency. Plus, the reviews are usually quite honest and helpful in deciding whether a particular listing is right for us.

Getting around: Usually walking (as Seattleites, our favorite option), public transport (especially good in Europe) or Uber (convenient, and in Malaysia easily most affordable pick). We especially love that the accountability of a driver’s picture on our phone and the incentive of a good reputation leads drivers to be much more welcoming and unlikely to try to scam us than local taxis.

Logistics: We started our trip with a very flexible schedule, booking no more than two months in advance; now we average at least four. It gets very hard to find desirable places that are free for entire 4-week stretches on short notice. Especially in Europe, there are so many constraints on our options (amount of time we can spend in Schengen, cost of living, climate matching up with our limited wardrobes) that we’re losing very little flexibility in choosing which country to go to in exchange for much more in apartment selection. In order of booking priority, it goes accommodations, airfare, and then everything else.

Once we’re on the ground in a new country, our first objective is usually local SIM cards. It has become increasingly clear that American cell phone service is a huge ripoff. One month of prepaid service in the USA to tide us over between canceling our plan and leaving the country cost us more than $50 each. Since then, we’ve never paid more than $16 per person, and in Croatia and Romania, as little as $7 gets a full month with more data than we know what to do with.

In America, this is known as a “second mortgage”

In Southeast Asia, it was often as cheap or cheaper to eat out as to cook for ourselves, usually around $1/meal in Thailand and $2/meal in Malaysia. Elsewhere, I follow the pattern of our lifestyle in Seattle: cook often and well, and eat out extremely rarely and only for things I can’t do better at home. Packing up and moving every month makes it particularly important to optimize what we carry with us, and we generally don’t buy or keep anything we don’t absolutely need. That said, I’ve found good cooking utensils – chef’s knife with a travel-friendly sheath, lightweight cutting board, measuring cup – are well worth the added weight. Many Airbnbs, even with well-equipped kitchens, have cobbled-together, incomplete, and sub-par cookware. A few small carry-ons pay huge dividends with how frequent and important home-cooked meals are for us.

With so much of our lives online, there were relatively few preparations we had to make for living abroad. To deal with physical mail in the States, we use a mail forwarding service. They scan every article we receive and I can decide how to proceed: shred it, save it, forward it somewhere in the world, even cash checks for us. We also picked up new credit and debit cards with no foreign transaction fees or ATM fees. Even ignoring the no-fee aspect, both give much better exchange rates than currency exchange offices or typical point-of-sale systems, which really saves money.

Finally, language. We try to learn some basic phrases for each locale we visit. “Hello,” “thank you,” “how much?” Add in a little pointing and smiling, and in most countries, that’s enough for many simple transactions. However, we’re also extremely lucky in that we speak English, pretty much the lingua franca of the world. In Malaysia for example, attempting to speak Malay to people indiscriminately would get us weird looks. A person’s first language might be Malay, or Mandarin Chinese, or Tamil (Indian), but almost everyone spoke some English. Packaging is harder, since even multi-language packaging prioritizes first languages, but many words are pretty similar across languages (rice, beer), others are easy to figure out based on context (chicken, sugar), and Google Translate helps get the point across for any mystery meats or sauces. I’d love to be fluent in every language and not expect everyone to be fluent in mine, seeing as I’m the visitor, but it’s just not practical for a one-month stay. Instead, we just try to be respectful of the local language where possible, and thankful that so many are willing to meet us more than half way. (Like, 99% of the way, really.)

We’ve had an incredible time on this trip. It hasn’t been easy, to throw off the trappings of our old lives and face the uncertainty of an existence without roots. But it’s also an existence without boundaries; full of promise, adventure, and new experiences. It’s a challenge, but a good one – invigorating and thrilling. I’m not yet sure how long it will be until we stop, or if we ever will. For now at least, here’s to the next 6 months.



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