Nomading during a pandemic

(part 1)

ELLY EARLS
LAST UPDATED DECEMBER 15, 2020

Every nomad has one of these selfies: Karen flying 'home' at the beginning of the pandemic

What happens when you’re asked to work from home but you don’t have one?

 

 

In ten years, if you ask any digital nomad where they were in March 2020, I guarantee they will have an answer. While most of our friends, family and colleagues were battening down the hatches, figuring out how to shift their work to their home offices and firing up Zoom for the first time, we had the opposite problem. We were all set on the remote work front, but where on earth were we going to do it from when we’d built a life around the fact that we didn’t have a home? 

What’s more, we only had a limited amount of time to decide. Borders were shutting, flights were being cancelled, entire airlines were going out of business.

 

The freedom we live for – that ability to work from Vietnam one week and New Zealand the next – was abruptly taken away from us. The priority became getting somewhere we felt safe and the anxiety of figuring out what that meant rippled through the nomad community. I remember not being able to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. There was just one question running through my mind: do I stay or do I go?

Digital nomad Karen Stephen, a remote CFO who had been on the road for a year and a half, remembers feeling the same. While 

I was relatively settled in Bali (I’d been there for two months), she had just travelled from Mexico to India for a yoga course. “I had a great deal of anxiety around the uncertainty of knowing whether I’d be able to get ‘home’,” she tells me. “I was looking into loads of different countries to go to, I could barely focus on my yoga course. We were supposed to be super chilled and zen and all I could think about was I need to make a decision about whether I change my entire lifestyle by flying ‘home’.”

Both of us decided – like many nomads I’ve spoken to this year – to return, initially at least, to our family homes. For me, that meant exchanging my fancy pool villa for my Mum’s tiny spare room. Stephen cut her month-long India trip short to head back to Scotland.

Life before the pandemic: Karen enjoying a yoga course in India

After the most surreal journey of my life - the flight from Bali to Doha was empty; Doha to London was packed; London felt like a post-apocalyptic dystopia – I found myself settling relatively easily into a new routine in South East England. I taught my mother and her partner how to use Zoom. They pretended they knew what a podcast was. We met for lunch breaks, watched Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and barbequed in the unseasonable sun. I went for lots of long walks.

Stephen also tried to look at the positives. It was the first time she’d managed to find proper productivity just working from home – no coworking spaces – and she felt safe and happy with her family. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t her life. “It was this weird limbo situation and there were a lot of days where I just cried because I missed the life that I knew. The travel life and my independent life was completely gone and I couldn’t get back to it because it didn’t exist,” she recalls.

Angie Cole is a coach from the US who set out on her digital nomad journey in 2016. When the pandemic started, she was in the UK with her partner. “Not only did I not have a choice to stay where I was, being a nomad is my identity. It’s not just for six months. It’s how my life works. I don’t have a winter coat!” she says. 

Cole ended up staying in the UK for as long as she legally could, before heading to Croatia, where she did the same, and most recently Portugal. “Travel used to be delightful,” she says. “The choice to move and pick where I was going to go and for how long, that used to be part of the fun and excitement. I loved that part. But overnight it became dangerous and uncertain and it felt like other people were in control of my movement.”

She couldn’t even get information she trusted from the authorities she would normally count on. “I got my permission to stay in the UK a month after I left and I don’t know how many emails I’ve written to the Portuguese authorities and received zero response,” she says. "The systems didn't know what to do with us before but they definitely don't know what to do with us now!"

She also realised that a lot of the strategies she has for her mental wellness are attached to wandering and freedom. “I’m a nomad because I’m at my best when I get to be in that state – literally going out and wandering the streets. So a lot of the things I do to take care of my mental health were suddenly unavailable to me,” she explains. 

On the upside, the pandemic has afforded her an opportunity she doesn’t think she would have created for herself for a while. “I got to feel nesty and settled in a way that only happens with six months instead of three,” she smiles. “I don’t know if I would have chosen that for myself but I decided to make the most of it and loved it. I began to see the same plants on the walk to the grocery store change and go through seasonal cycles. It took my breath away realising how long it had been since I’d been in one place for long enough to appreciate those things.”

Veteran nomad Hannah Dixon, the creator of virtual assistant training programme Digital Nomad Kit, identifies. “I realised that I’d seen so many awesome things all over the world for 12 years now and yet here I was in Austria [where she’d rushed when the pandemic hit, catching one of the last trains into the country] sitting outside and enjoying the sound of the birds on a little terrace,” she says.

This year, she’s thought a lot about what her idea of home is. While she always used to believe that home wasn’t a place, it was a feeling – “all these things we say!” she grins – she feels good about having put a lease down on a place for a year and feeling somewhat settled. “I have some certainty for the first time in a very long time and I didn’t realise I was lacking that,” she says.

Mirroring my feelings and those of many other nomads, Dixon says the pandemic hasn’t changed her mind about being a nomad, but she is going to dramatically change how she lives the lifestyle, spending year-long stints on different continents, rather than months.

Her reaction to furnishing her new apartment indicates just how far she is from hanging up her nomad badge. “I bought a sofa and was so excited about the sofa. Then I got home and I was in a bad mood for hours,” she laughs. “There was something in me rebelling against it. It meant I was really staying here. It’s a strange up and down. Sometimes I’m great about staying put. Other times, I want to get on the next flight to Mexico.”

Mixed feelings: Hannah was excited about buying an expensive sofa but also felt it was tying her down

Stephen has had the same inner conflict. After spending four months at her Mum’s, she travelled to Portugal for the summer and then a couple of months ago actually did find a way to get back to Mexico, one of the places on the planet she feels most at home. “I’ve been asking myself do I want a base? Where do I want a base? I definitely know I’m going to travel slower now, but I was planning on that anyway,” she says. “At the moment I have mixed feelings between staying somewhere a bit more consistently and, when it’s possible, going to the places I’ve been talking about going for years, like South Africa. We can’t assume we’re always going to be able to travel.”

My 2020 followed a similar trajectory to Stephen’s. After three months in the bosom of my family, I flew to Germany to spend the summer with a close friend. Now I’m in Portugal, where I plan to stay until Brexit means I have to leave.

I was reminiscing with a nomad friend the other day about a life-changing trip we took to Sri Lanka and it occurred to me that if we’d had the same conversation 18 months ago, we might have spontaneously booked a flight to Colombo the next day to relive it all. I don’t think I’ll ever treat travel that lightly again, at least I hope not. Like Cole and Dixon, lockdown helped me appreciate the small things – a takeaway latte on a windswept British beach, daily walks along the same hedge-lined paths, family time. But it’s also reminded me just how much I love being a nomad, and how privileged I am to be able to live like this. So while I do plan to slow down, and might even set up a home base to live in for part of the year, I certainly won’t be putting down serious roots any time soon. Now where’s that vaccine?  

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