As someone always on the move, changing countries and lifestyles every year, lockdown didn’t seem like something I was prepared to cope with well. Most of my travel friends lament the days of jet setting off to a new country every other month. They are the ones posting memes about their passports gaining weight or other quips about not being able to enjoy the thrill of nomadic living.
While I’ve already written a blog post about some of the insecurity I’ve felt facing a global pandemic in a foreign country, I want to highlight something I found surprising: I’m doing quite well, especially given Malaysia’s initial strictness. I realized traveling has already forced me to deal with many of the challenges people are currently struggling with.
Of course, many people are facing circumstances I can’t begin to imagine. I have no intention of gloating about how well I’m doing. Rather, I wanted to take a moment to write a tribute to travel and how it prepared me to overcome obstacles far before the four horsemen of the 2020 apocalypse rode up on their scary little ponies.
Here are five ways my nomadic lifestyle prepared me well for Covid-19.
My Future Was Already Uncertain
Things are uncertain for many people right now. As a freelancer living in the gig economy and constantly having to navigate visa processes, foreign banking, new cultural norms, and the day-to-day exhaustion that comes with negotiating life on the go, I’ve stopped making too many concrete plans or expectations.
If you had asked me in December where I’d be in September 2020, my guess would have been as good then as it is now. I’ve taught myself to always be open to drastic changes.
Most people don’t believe I used to take every trip with a strict itinerary and had a well-thought-out 5-year plan. But at some point, sticking to “plans” became difficult. I like to stay flexible to external challenges and unexpected opportunities.
Obviously, this type of lifestyle and mentality doesn’t work for everyone. But I have to admit, it’s made suddenly living in Kuala Lumpur (a city I literally planned to be in for a single week in January) much easier.
Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Because I love flexibility and spontaneity, I’ve had to find a way to make money without sacrificing jetting off to India for a last-minute wedding invitation or flying to Hong Kong for a Backstreet Boys concert.
This is why I went remote.
Technically, I started working remotely in late 2016. Although, I’ll admit it took nearly all of 2017 for me to figure out the best way to make money online sustainably. With time, I figured out how to make it work but wasn’t actually enjoying it much. That’s why I took a job in China.
But last summer, I decided to go back to the remote freelancer lifestyle. This time, I’m both enjoying the work and the freedom to control my own schedule and have time for other things. I already worked on both Skype and Zoom long before Covid-19.
It also meant I purchased private health insurance and set up retirement and other investments independently. Even if I had lost my job, I feel secure knowing an employer can’t impact these.
There are a lot of perks of having a brick and mortar job. But during the pandemic, I see my decision to rough it as a digital nomad has more perks than I realized. In this time of illness and insecurity, it’s been a huge relief that no aspect of my work has changed.
Discipline and Routine
I rarely work from my apartment because I feel I am more productive sitting in a cafe. If I stay at home all day, I told myself, I won’t work.
But it wasn’t the cafe that magically made me more productive. It was simply having a routine.
Since I am quite spontaneous and move around a lot, I think a lot of people assume I’m not really big on routines. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I thrive on routine. I used to refuse plans to go out drinking in Colombia simply because I wanted to get up at sunrise and work from my favorite cafe as soon as it opened. No one was there to tell me I had to get there at opening. I just wanted to. It was my routine.
When the whole world locked down, I realized a lot of people don’t do well working from home. That long space of unregulated and unmonitored time is difficult to manage. I just had no idea other people struggled with it, too.
After a week or two of quarantine, I found a routine I enjoyed and, I dare say, I’m even more productive than before. But I doubt I would have been able to create a routine so quickly if I hadn’t been forced to make and break new routines every time I change countries. I’ve had a lot of practice. I was also well-prepared for the risk of demotivation and depression that comes with social isolation.
I do not understand boredom.
I’m not saying I’ve never been bored. What I don’t understand is when people say they don’t have anything to do. They work. They hang out with friends. And if they can’t do those things? They complain about being bored.
This floors me.
I have so many “potential” passion projects I haven’t started because I simply don’t have time to pursue them all at once. I don’t read because I’m bored, I read because I have an online literature project I’ve been mulling over for two years now. I don’t write because I’m bored, I write because I have about 13 different novel ideas swirling around in my head.
Of course, I have days I lack motivation. There was definitely a day in lockdown I did nothing but watch “Night of the Living Dead” and lay on my floor. But, for the most part, I’m so overwhelmed by all the things I want to do, I can’t even begin a sliver of them.
Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Despite not living in any one location for more than 2 years since 2012, I have a lot of friends I talk to on a regular basis. My mom finally got on Whatsapp which makes it easy for me to text her questions like “What kind of plant is this and how do I keep it alive?”
I leave painfully long voice messages to all my best friends on a regular basis. (It’s like a phone call, but we just leave 2-10 minute audios which we listen to while cleaning or driving or exercising).
The point is, I’m used to being far away from the people I care most about. So this hasn’t changed my relationships. Technology is a wonderful tool.
We’ve all handled this in our own ways. I’m sure there are some people who were prepared in ways I never could (I’m looking at you, people who cook and sew like it’s 1847!) What are some ways you’ve coped?
It’s wonderful that you are handling this so well!
Dad & I are handling this fairly well b/c we also have about a skillion projects that we need to do – either b/c we never “had the time” or b/c of procrastination (me). Also, living in a 100+ year old house provides countless projects to do whether we want to do them or not (e.g. replacing the floor in your room before we fall through it).
So, flexibility and countless projects seem to be the key for us also.
I very much agree with what you have written regarding how living a nomadic life, has helped us cope with the uncertainties and stresses of the quarantine. It’s been over two months of quarantine for me, and I must admit, it is a time I am thriving in. Largely because of already living in uncertainty, having to create my own routine and work, and having already developed coping mechanisms for isolation (which we constantly experience in new countries). However, I am amazed how well you have developed your freelancing lifestyle. I’m still working on mine and it’s not progressing as much as I wish. I’d love to learn more about how you have accomplished this, but I’m not sure if you’re already written about this 😉
I actually keep meaning to write more about freelancing! I don’t think a lot of people really know what I am doing and think I’m just roaming around.
Honestly, freelancing was a lot of trying a bunch of random things and seeing what worked best for me. This year has been easier because I took a new position with my old company (a non-remote company) and that is how I make at least $1,000-$2,000/month. This was a lot of luck because I already know everyone who works there and they already knew me. So the trust had already been established. Then I had another organization where I teach a few literature classes each week and I’m considered starting to teach for TOEFL/IELTS.
What kinds of things have you been doing as a freelancer and what issues have you been running into?
I’ve been doing ESL with the Chinese companies. I’ve finally found my style and am pretty comfortable now. However, there have been pay cuts left right and centre and so I’m expecting a natural change in my word soon. I would love to teach environmental science online, and have found platforms, but I’m not sure how to go about creating my own curriculum for it. Another thought is starting my own ‘business’ regarding corporate social responsibility regarding environmental sustainability, but then the question of ‘How?’ arises. The business option is a long term endeavour and I think teaching environmental science is a great way to work towards it. However, I’m a full time student right now in Spain (for the visa reasons), and so studies/work/yoga mean very limited time.
I started off doing ESL for Chinese companies as well. I liked the reliability of it, but after 6 months it got a bit monotonous and even teaching just 4-6 hours a day didn’t pay so so well considering how much it would tire me out. I didn’t feel I was being challenged intellectually either.
I’ve actually had the same thought as you. I’d like to do more with writing and literature teaching/projects but there aren’t so many platforms for these things. But starting a “literature business” seems difficult. As you said, there is a big question of “how?” It’s something I am hoping to dig into more this summer. I’ll share any ideas I have or things I learn as I go! I love the idea of there being more options for online teaching than just standard ESL classes!
Ken and I are also doing well, we have so much stuff in our house it would be hard to get bored plus piles of books to read but I think I would not have done as well if I did not have my garden. There is always something I need to do there and I usually pick it instead of inside stuff. we were also prepared for isolation from last year because we were nursing Il’ya 24 hrs and one of us had to always be there and usually it took both of us. So compared to that this is easy. Although when I was supposed to go to Ireland and visit Cassie and then all us were going to Barcelona I did get dow.
I imagine not being able to visit Cassie would be the worst part! But you and my mom seem to be on the same wavelength in terms of home-improvement projects. She’s been keeping my dad really busy! And it’s good you have yards. When it was stricter here I really wished I had a balcony.
How’s II’ya? I still tell people the story of the miracle dog that ran up the stairs after months of not moving!