It’s 9 o’clock somewhere!
When this trip began, we had intentions of volunteering, WOOFing, and scraping by on minimal costs for as long as possible. It sounded amazing, but difficult. We would bounce between small towns with only our backpacks, camera, and lightweight laptop to stay in touch. The romantics in us equated it to getting to know the world by enmeshing ourselves in these rural communities and learning everything we could from everyone we met.
We ended up on a much different, much more sustainable trip.
As the trip became more of a reality and our departure date neared, we discussed when we should quit our jobs and how much notice we needed to give. I don’t remember which one suggested it, but we decided to give them 3-4 months notice. The reason we wanted to give so much notice was to request the ability to work remotely. No one in our companies was doing this as a full time thing, so we wanted to allow ourselves time to convince our respective companies. We saw people all the time on Instagram talking about working remotely, or being a “digital nomad”. It felt like everyone was doing it. So, we figured, why not us?
When March 2018 came around, we approached our jobs with proposals of job descriptions, any necessary accommodations, changes to benefits, schedules, etc. If you ask us, we were pretty damn prepared. Ben’s company was able to work with him pretty quickly and accommodate the schedule. They signed a small contract to ensure the responsibilities and expectations were clear, and then he was good to go! My company had a few more issues. To be fair, Ben has 9 coworkers and I had somewhere around 350. I appealed my case (with the help of my supervisors) all the way up to the COO. They were all amazing, but they just couldn’t see how to make it work with our hours in Asia. After a couple months of discussions, we decided I would simply quit in June (although on very good terms!).
However, this left Ben and I in a funny spot. He was now guaranteed income, but also required to have a schedule. I was not. Fast forward a couple months and I found a job working with a fully distributed company. They were 99.9% based in the US, but willing to give international work a try.
We left the states, bags a bit heavier than imagined, and with a lot more travel insurance than we would’ve thought! It’s a little different when you need two laptops, headphones, chargers, WiFi extenders, and external batteries. However, we had the promise of regular income and a whole new budget to show for it. We no longer had to live off our honeymoon fund for the year. Instead, that could be used to do things like a Galapagos cruise for 6 days (in the first month of travel!), a tour of the Amazon rainforest, and a trek to Machu Picchu! We were bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed.
After a couple of days acclimating to Quito (it’s high!), we got set up for our first day of work. We had been staying at a hostel, but moved to a nearby AirBnB on that Sunday so we could be guaranteed good WiFi. It was also around the corner from a co-working space.
In our initial proposals, we envisioned a ton of co-working spaces, communities of digital nomads, and full weeks in each working location. It turns out, co-working spaces that were affordable, allowed daily passes, and that had websites or correct addresses were harder to come by than we thought. And when all of those pieces fell into place, it still wasn’t a guarantee that it’d be a good fit. Ben went to the coworking space around the corner from our place in Quito only to find the WiFi inferior to our AirBnB and the environment much louder. Plus, we moved cities way more often than we imagined. Throughout our 4 months in South America, we only stayed in one city for an entire week 5 times (and 3 of those times we moved apartments during the week). That ruled out doing any longer deal contracts with the co-working spaces. So, we pivoted. We started using our internet stipends to ensure better WiFi at our AirBnBs and hostels. We ensured that we always had a private room (for calls), and a space to work so we didn’t have to live on our bed for 8 hours a day. Not to mention, trying to ensure we appeared professional on video calls with our clients.
In the first 6 months of the trip, we have worked in around 36 living spaces, 1 co-working space, and countless coffee shops. And, it’s working. Honestly, it’s working probably better than either of us ever expected. As we like to tell people on the road, if it wasn’t for our family and our dog, we would probably do this forever.
It’s not without its challenges though. Most, if not all of them, have to deal with the elusive concept of balance. We have to balance being on vacation in our free time vs living in these cities. We aren’t actually on vacation. We work 40 hours a week still. That means we can’t always go to that beach rave until 4am because we have things to do the next day. More than that though, it means that the pace with which we explore these cities has to be different than that of someone on a pure vacation. We are running a marathon, not a sprint. To not burn out, we have to spend less than people who have been planning and saving up for a two week vacation. And we need to take some breathers from all of our touristing.
We talk about it as being a three legged stool where you can really only ever get two legs fully on the ground. We are continually struggling to balance the three legs of Living, Working, and Touristing (the art of being a tourist). There are only so many hours in a day and we’ve found that we can’t give all of these things equal attention or our stool doesn’t really work. Life doesn’t stop on this trip. We still need time to do our “life maintenance” things like, balance the budget, pay our bills, prep for taxes, etc. Ben tries to set aside time to continue advancing his photography and we want to keep updating the blog as well. And those things take time. Plus, some days we are tired and want to Netflix and Chill, ya know? This is the Life leg.
Then there’s the Touristing leg. This is the “OMG I NEED TO SEE EVERYTHING WE ARE ONLY HERE FOR 4 DAYS LET’S GO!” leg. The world has a lot to see in it and every city has those “must-see” locations. And, we want to see those places. We try to make sure we see as many viewpoints, go on as many hikes, and explore as many national parks as we can afford to. But this is tiring and requires a lot of money to support.
And finally, there’s the Work leg. This is pretty self-explanatory. We work 40 hours a week. We need time set aside every day to do our jobs. Working abroad has a little extra “work” associated with it because you have to secure a place to do your work from. It needs to have outlets, good wifi, and a place for you to make calls. Sometimes this is the hardest part of our work day because we don’t want to spend a whole day in the AirBnB, so we go in search of a WiFi cafe that can support us. If it doesn’t work out, we’re both frantically searching Google for an alternative so we don’t miss anything on our schedules. Once we’ve found a place in a city, you can bet we’ll be back there because we don’t want to go through the rigamarole of finding another spot!
We’re not saying all this to be like “Oh, poor us,” but to instead paint an honest picture of what our experience has been working as digital nomads in South America (and a bit of Asia). It’s easy to romanticize things and paint over the uglier day to day stuff, focusing on the Instagram moments. Is it a lot of work to sustain this lifestyle? Yeah, we think so. Is it worth it? 100,000%.
Before I jump into the logistics, which I think are interesting, it feels important to call out that what we’re doing isn’t normal. There isn’t a huge community out in the world doing this. At this point, we’re pretty sure it’s the same 5 “digital nomads” posing as all of these different instagram users. If you do exist, let us know! We would love to meet up. The world is full of people that choose not work from an office, it’s full of expats, and it’s full of backpackers. If we do find people that are even remotely (get, it??) similar to us, they are contract employees. The world just is not full of expat backpackers working remotely full-time. That’s what we are. A true digital nomad (no offense to the other digital nomads!).
Some of you may be curious what it looks like and how we make it work. Here’s a rundown of some of the most important things that we have learned.
AirBnB is great because it allows you to message places ahead of time. You can confirm what “Free WiFi” means and request a speed test. It is really obnoxious because AirBnB doesn’t let you message URLs so you can’t simply request they go to speedtest.net and send you the results. Also, I think that AirBnB should allow homes to upload their WiFi speeds as an incentive to business travelers, but no one asked me.
Booking.com is a lot more commonplace and will have options when AirBnB does not. However, you can’t really confirm WiFi. The best option is to go to reviews and check their WiFi specific reviews. Then, you can filter by reviews that specifically mention WiFi. You generally get a pretty good idea at that point. But, it’s not foolproof.
Private rooms (or multiple bedrooms) is a must if you aren’t working alone. It’s really distracting when you both have calls and you can hear each other talking from across the 16m2 apartment. Or, you have to juggle muting yourself while the other person talks then unmuting to answer questions.
We started off with one adapter, a surge protector, chargers, bluetooth headphones and two MacBooks. This was not ideal.
We learned immediately that Bluetooth interferes with WiFi (they run on the same frequency). I am pretty sure you don’t notice this a ton in the states because of the inundation of WiFi networks (and overall better speed). However, when you are scraping by on 2mbps download, the bluetooth interruption matters. So, Matt switched to a trusty old 3.5mm set of headphones with a microphone. Ben went a little more industrial and got a set of noise-cancelling, USB headphones with a microphone. He might look like a telemarketer most of the time, but they work!
We then learned that half of the world uses 220v in their outlets. To be fair, we knew this and tried to plan ahead. We bought an adapter (not a converter) because 90% of plugs can do that conversion for you. If you aren’t sure if yours does this, check the back of your plugin. For example, Mac adapters say “Input 100-240v” on the bottom. That means you are safe to plugin to a 220v with just an adapter to make the plug physically work. We bought a great surge protector that had 3 outlets and 2 usb ports. Unfortunately, we had the first issue with this “great surge protector” in Peru. We were there overnight for a layover and plugged everything in. It smelled a bit like smoke when we woke up and the surge protector looked a little...melty. But, it still worked (minus the USB outlets)! It would get a little hotter than we would like, but otherwise carried us through the duration of South America. We bought a new one when we went to the states and brought it to Europe. On a layover in Iceland, we plugged in the surge protector to plug everything in during work. And, we blew a fuse at the Iceland airport disabling all the outlets in our vicinity. Oops. It turns out that there is no one to tell that to at an airport. So, we moved. And did not plug that surge protector in again. Now we have two adapters and no surge protector. If we had to do it again, we would get two of the Go Worldwide Adapters. Ironically, this is the one we bought in the Norway airport, not the one we researched and purchased in the states.
Lastly, we added a RavPower external battery that can charge a MacBook Pro with USB-C. Unfortunately, it won’t charge Ben’s computer since it is a little older and uses the magnetic charge from Apple. But, it works great for Matt’s laptop and lessens the need to find a coffee shop with good WiFi, affordable prices, and an outlet near the table.
The Random Stuff
Coffee shops are crucial to your sanity. It’s really important to work somewhere with other people and to interact with more than just your co-workers and partner. But, they have really weird WiFi. So, we downloaded the Speedtest application and always ask for the password and test the WiFi before ordering anything. You don’t want to get caught having ordered lunch and then not have functioning WiFi for the next hour when you have a call in twenty minutes..
Airport lounges are amazing. You really can’t rely on airports to have consistent WiFi. Sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes it has a limit on your time, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist. But, you can pay to enter a bunch of airport lounges, or you can get a credit card that lets you in for free! (We opted for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. But that’s mainly because I am a die-hard Chase customer and it was a no-brainer with the rest of their perks).
I will say that South America (and even Europe) were a lot easier than Asia will be. South America involved almost no time zone shift so we worked during the day when everyone else worked, and we were free to be social and go out at night. In Europe, we had to work afternoons, but were still done by 10 PM and could choose to go grab a drink, or hang out a bit before bed. The farther we go in Asia, the later we will work. But, we will update you on that in a few months when we know how it actually feels.