Digital avant-garde – nomads

Featured photo: coworking Bansko

If in an office job you only need a laptop and the technology allows for instant communication between any two points in the world, why wouldn’t we be free to live wherever we want?

I am sorry if the internet is a bit weak, it’s  like that throughout Uganda, next week I ‘ll be in Kenya, it should be better – I tell a client from Berlin, sat in a cafe at Nile River Explorers camp located 2km from the source of the Nile. In Germany it is 9am, here 11am, so I had time for breakfast and a yoga class with a view of the river before work. I open the application that we use for project management and from the corner of my eye I watch the monkeys jumping on the nearby tree. I mute the microphone for a moment so that the client doesn’t hear their short row. We discuss the work for this week. Some corrections to the finished ticket and one new task. If I plan my work well, in the afternoon I will be able to go with everyone to visit the kids from the 22stars project. For now, I order a banana-mango smoothie, put on my headphones and get to work.

The first nomads

A digital nomad is a person who only needs a laptop and internet access to perform her work and usually does not have a permanent residence. If there was a digital nomads’ Bible, it would be Tim Ferris’ 4-hour work week. Published in 2007, it sparked the imagination of the first generation, that gained access to technologies such as smartphones with interactive world map and beautiful travel apps like Airbnb which made travel logistics easier. Thousands of people began to follow his tips and this paved the way for digital nomadism. In 2014, Johannes Voelkner started a Facebook group called Global Digital Nomad Network, which quickly grew to 5K members (today 43K) and looking for travel companions posted a link to a cruise with a caption “Let’s go.” 100 people booked the cruise. Johannes understood that hundreds of people traveling and working remotely like him needed a community and he could turn it into a business – so he founded Nomad Cruise.

Nomad Cruise

Since then the entire nomadic ecosystem has been created. Its focal points are conferences such as Nomad Cruise and Nomad Summit, which each time attract hundreds of people. What is special about these events?  Unlike traditional industry conferences, the common theme there is the lifestyle, not what we do, and the diversity of perspectives always fosters creative ideas. The talks cover everything that may be of interest to working travelers: marketing, process automation, international taxes and clever ways to pack a backpack. On Nomad Cruise, the evenings are reserved for “meetups”, i.e. meetings on any topic organized by the cruise participants, for example acro yoga or tantra workshops. Lack of internet and being locked on the boat for two weeks facilitate personal connections. On  the 8th deck a group of people gathered regularly to play the guitar and sing in a circle like a campfire. So it’s no surprise that one of the nomads made a comment: “When someone asks if I miss home, I answer yes, I miss Nomad Cruise.”

Where do nomads roam about?

There are several locations around the world known for their nomad community. The most famous are Chiang Mai in Thailand, Bali, Medellin in Colombia, or Lisbon. In these  places there is always at least one coworking space and often also a coliving that organize events and workshops so that newcomers can quickly find friends. New cities are constantly joining this list by striving to attract the nomadic community. An example could be Bansko, a small ski resort in the middle of Bulgaria, which Matthias Zeitler and Uwe Allgäuer decided to put on the nomadic world map. The coworking space opened by them in two years gained such popularity that when I visited it last summer it had 100 active members. This is an impressive number for a town where you can’t buy broccoli, cauliflower or lettuce in stores because they are not popular in Bulgaria.

For those who do not want to create their own itineraries and want to travel with a fixed group of people, there are companies such as Remote Year, Wifi Tribe and Hacker Paradise. The first one organizes accommodation, flights and activities for its members throughout the whole year of the program in 12 cities around the world. Others have chapters in which you can join the community and get to know a new place together with a working group. Finally, there are retreats and trips offering a specific experience. You can join a group of nomads taking photos in Switzerland, sailing in Croatia, crossing Portugal with camper vans as a part of Camper Retreats or travel from Moscow to Mongolia by joining Nomad Train.

Workation – work and vacation

I came to Uganda for such a trip organized by Stella Airoldi, the founder of the 22stars foundation, which sponsors children’s education. Stella, like me, is a digital nomad and several times per year invites a group of nomads for Social Impact Workation. Workation is a combination of the words “Work” and “Vacation” and means a time when you do something fun, which would usually be a holiday trip, while working part time. Thanks to Stella and her connection to the community, a small international group of nomads has the opportunity to see the real Uganda. At the same time, throughout the day, depending on the time zone of their clients, participants pull out their laptops and work for a few hours, and then chat about new business ideas in their free time. I remember Carmen from Spain, during breakfast in the slums in Kampala, listening with great interest about a German-language blog about peer-to-peer loans run by Lars. She quickly checked if something like this already existed on the Spanish-speaking internet. It did not, so on the same day she registered the domain and with the help of Lars began to build her own blog on this topic. A few months later, the blog began to bring in money. I, in turn, inspired by Stella’s trip, asked myself why wouldn’t I organize such a trip in Poland? For many nomads, this is an exotic place. When I showed the group the first version of Poland4Nomads.com website, they liked the idea. Half a year later, together with Carmen and six other nomads, we visited Wieliczka salt mine and Auschwitz, ate dumplings and barszcz, and I had the opportunity to see Poland through their eyes. It was such an exciting experience that I’m going to organize Poland4Nomads every year. I learned, among other things, that the word “faktycznie” with the accent on the first syllable can be adapted for an English curse, and to ask for the bill, all you have to do is say “wreck your neck” indistinctly.

These stories illustrate how the digital nomad community works. The characteristic traits of people who decide on such a lifestyle are curiosity, independent thinking and openness. They fit all their belongings in one backpack and within a few hours in a new country they feel at home. They are accustomed to risk.  They can’t be sure how the next place they will go to will look like or whether everything would go according to plan. They have learned to accept it. They trust their ability to learn and adapt, they don’t get attached to one way of doing things. They constantly practice creative problem solving – even the currency conversions and deciphering menus in a foreign language provide a daily mental training. Finally, they are surrounded by an inspiring multicultural community sharing these traits. Their approach to business reflects the lifestyle. They know that to test a new idea it suffices to just look around a coworking space! There will always be someone with whom they can brainstorm, and someone who has the skills they lack and will be happy to teach them or join the project. Therefore, when they come up with a business idea, they are not afraid to simply try to implement it.  Those who are employed in companies or work as freelancers are good at what they do and have no problem finding clients.

Can you become a nomad?

Being a digital nomad is not for everyone. Continuous traveling involves a number of challenges such as lack of stability, loneliness and discomforts. It also doesn’t have to be a plan for lifetime.  Many people decide to do it for several years and then choose a permanent base. As a life coach, I professionally help people in life transformations and I know that building such a lifestyle requires a lot of work and strong motivation – but I haven’t met anyone who would regret it! Sean Tierney in the keynote speech on Nomad Cruise X compared the decision to become a digital nomad to a defibrillator able to shock people out of whatever slumber they are in and bringing them back to life. Those who, while reading this text understood, that there has always been a nomad in them, I strongly encourage to try! The best way to start is by surrounding yourself with inspiration. Podcasts such as The Maverick Show, Badass Digital Nomads or Nomad Podcast are full of tips and stories of people who have been successfully doing it for years.

Will there be more of us?

Nomads emphasize that although we are the avant-garde of digital freedom and our school friends often can’t get over our travel stories, “normality” is on our side. Humans have not evolved to live in the office! Humans are nomads by nature, we need to move, be outside and explore our surroundings. We slowly begin to realize that thanks to technology it is possible again, but now our “surroundings” become the whole world, so the number of digital nomads will only grow.

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