Opinion: What I learned living abroad as a digital nomad
- 05 May, 2013 06:10
My wife and I have lived as digital nomads for the past 10 months in Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and Spain.
During that time, I didn't take a single week off. I worked the entire time. And that was made possible by recent revolutions in mobile computing, the spread of Wi-Fi and two tech booms that have generated incredible cloud-based and social apps and services.
(I'm still a digital nomad. I'm just doing it in the U.S. for a while.)
Here are the surprising things I learned.
It's awesome to live abroad
If it sounds great to live in one foreign country for a while, then move to another and another, well, it is.
In fact, if it's at all possible for you to do this for any length of time, you really should. It's a life-changing experience. It's cheap, too. I've found that my cost of living was approximately 1/3 of what it was in the US. This can be easily adjusted up or down depending on where you choose to live, and how.
Digital nomads are weird
Digital nomad behaviours that are normal in the USand almost mandatory in Silicon Valley are very strange in many countries.
The most basic example: using a laptop in a cafe. I've found that countries with the strongest "cafe cultures", such as, say, Greece, Spain and France, have the weakest working-in-cafes cultures. Nearly everyone seems to spend hours at coffee joints drinking coffee, talking, smoking cigarettes or whatever. But nobody's working. (Except me.)
When you do see people working on laptops in public, they're almost always tourists or students.
Using a full-size physical keyboard with a tablet or phone is totally alien outside the U.S. and Asia, as far as I could tell (something I do heavily).
Even walking around with earbuds is strange in many countries. I do a lot of my professional education via podcasts, often when I'm walking around in a city. In countries like Greece, you just don't see this.
Despite the strangeness of the digital nomad lifestyle, I was always amazed at how accommodating restaurants and coffee places were at helping me get plugged in and connected.
You need less computer 'stuff' than you think
I overpacked. I brought all kinds of extra cables, routers and USB extenders, as well as an extra tablet that I didn't need and never used.
For example, I came prepared to encounter Ethernet ports but never did. Wi-Fi is all I used.
Whatever you would need to work all day at Starbucks is all you need for months or even years abroad. Pack light. Choose quality over quantity.
The mobile revolution enables living, not just working
Digital nomad conversations tend to focus on how technology enables working abroad. But the larger challenge is living abroad. People send paper mail and packages. They want documents signed. People often say: Let's deal with this when you get back, and they don't understand why you won't be back for six months.
This happens because the world isn't quite ready for digital nomads. They want a US address. They want to communicate via paper. They want you to come in and do things in person.
Our solution was my son and his girlfriend, who picked up our mail and did a huge number of things to facilitate everyday interaction with companies and government agencies. Without someone back home helping you, it's much more difficult to function.
The iPad is great for times when no outlet is available, such as this coffee joint in Sparta, Greece.
Expensive services like Earth Class Mail, which digitizes your paper mail and puts it online, can help. It also helps to use the services of a lawyer, accountant and others who can represent you in various situations, even if you would normally do that stuff yourself.
Wi-Fi is everywhere
There are few places in this world where you can't find Wi-Fi somewhere. We had no trouble, for example, finding Wi-Fi connections in Nairobi, Marrakesh or Istanbul restaurants, hotels, bars and other locations. We never once had to venture into a "cyber cafe".
Kenya leads the world in mobile wallet adoption, but these kids had never seen an iPhone before.
Wi-Fi often doesn't work
Although Wi-Fi is everywhere, it often doesn't work. And it's not clear why. In general, many businesses in the countries we lived in add Wi-Fi connectivity as a way to lure customers but don't really manage it. Locals barely use it, because they tend to use phones and have mobile broadband. As a result, about half the Wi-Fi networks we encountered abroad were "ghost" networks -- you see them, but can't connect through them. We learned to always make sure bits could pass through a Wi-Fi network before we sat down and ordered anything.
It's possible to live and work without mobile broadband
During my entire 10 months abroad, I never got local mobile broadband. I did the entire thing with Wi-Fi.
It's possible to live on Wi-Fi only, but it's not desirable, and I'm never going to do it again.
The main constraint is that you have to navigate an endless range of options, most of them bad, in every new country. It's very confusing, and you end up paying a fortune for some incredibly limited service that assumes you're going to download only 100 megabytes a month, or something like that.
Internet connectivity is less challenging than electricity
We had a lot of random problems with electricity in various places. For starters, when I'm working on all cylinders, I've got a laptop, tablet, phone, camera and other stuff all plugged in at once. I've blown out either fuses or entire electrical systems with my overuse of electrical power.
I've also experienced a lot of power failures, which are very common in some parts of the world.
In Greece and Kenya and elsewhere, many older electrical outlets have locks and on-off buttons. I've had trouble physically inserting my US-UK adapter into some Kenyan plugs.
Finding outlets in some cafes and restaurants is nearly impossible sometimes.
Starbucks is your friend
I spent a lot of time working in "cafe culture" countries, where there are cool little coffee shops all over the place. My social media friends always lambast me for working in Starbucks instead. But at Starbucks, you can always find the holy trinity of resources for productive work as a digital nomad: Wi-Fi, electricity and a big-enough table.
In Turkey, many of the coffeehouses have tables the size of dinner plates, and chairs not much bigger. Even if you can find an outlet and Wi-Fi, a laptop overwhelms the table.
The downside of Starbucks abroad is that, unlike in the US, many give you a custom password that expires after 45 minutes or so. I didn't care. I just asked for five of them when ordering my beverage.
Kenya leads the world in mobile wallet usage
Kenya was one of the biggest surprises of the trip. The big carrier there is Safaricom. They sell pre-paid SIM cards everywhere, and both phone and data is cheap and flexible. You just walk in, say you want 1000 shillings each worth of voice and data (about $12) and they hand you a SIM card that lasts for a month. (My wife got this but I didn't.) Even more shocking is that the pre-paid Kenyan SIM card continued to work fine even after we went to Europe.
Even as a visitor, my wife was able to quickly sign up for an M-Pesa mobile wallet account and pay for things everywhere using her phone.
Nearly one-third of Kenya's entire GDP is processed through mobile phones.
The ease and low cost of Kenyan mobile broadband and e-wallet service makes me think we're being taken advantage of in the U.S.
Tablets are mobile devices
When you're a digital nomad abroad, however, the iPad is the ultimate mobile device -- especially when you also have a keyboard and a case that props it up.
I found the iPad (and by extension Android tablets) is a perfect device for the random work locations you encounter abroad.
And the iPad's 11-hour battery life was a life-saver, given the constant challenge of finding electricity.
Overall, living as a digital nomad is a fantastic experience, thanks to all the mobile gadgets, wireless infrastructure and various services that have come into existence in the past five years.
If there's any way you can do this, you should.
Working abroad is like working from home, except when you're done working, you can sometimes go jump in the Mediterranean!
On a semi-related note, I have just begun a mobile-computing experiment in which I will attempt to survive the entire month of May using nothing except Google products. I'll be using a Chromebook Pixel and a Nexus phone and tablet. All the software and even services I use will be Google products. I'll write about the experiment in this space in the coming weeks.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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