Local Couple Travels the World as Digital Nomads
By June 20, 2021 One Comment 61•
America has always been a nation on the move. Recently, however, the idea of working remotely while traveling far and wide – the Digital Nomad lifestyle – seems to have taken hold of the public’s imagination.
After more than a year of pandemic-induced cabin fever, Americans are dreaming of the open road. Not just for vacation, however, but as a sustainable way of life.
A host of recent trends have only added to the fervor. During the pandemic, many employers have seen the benefits of a teleworking labor force, especially as teleconferencing apps such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype have improved alongside digital connectivity. Gig-economy job training and opportunities have flourished online, while apps such as PayPal and Venmo have made digital payments and money transfers instantaneous. Traveling light to scenic regions with lower costs of living has become more affordable, while cheap accommodations such as Airbnb and couchsurfing sites have proliferated worldwide. Cell phone GPS has simplified navigation. Savvy “geo-arbitragers” are learning to take advantage of differential currency exchange rates to lower living expenses.
Social media influencers and communities of like-minded fellow travel bloggers have sprung up around the globe providing eager voyagers with travel tips, recommendations, and bucket list destination goals. Many prime destinations have even begun offering cash or other incentives (such as e-Residency visas for digital nomads) to lure remote workers to contribute to their economies. Hotel chains are offering subscription memberships to encourage travelers to hop from one location to the next.
Many digital nomads have also taken to the open road in pursuit of seasonal work, as economic downturns have restricted their work options, retirement incomes, and homeownership. Customized RVs and travel vans, as well as the parks accommodating them, are more present than ever on the travel landscape.
Even Hollywood has jumped into the action, as the film “Nomadland” recently garnered three Academy Awards based on its interpretation of the 2017 book by Jessica Bruder, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” Bruder, a Columbia University journalism professor, traveled the country as a “vandweller” to research her book about the “invisible casualties of the Great Recession [who] have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads.” Several of the people Bruder met during her voyages appeared as cameos in the film.
The term “digital nomad” was first popularized in the 1997 book “Digital Nomad,” by authors Tsugio Makimoto and David Manner, who foresaw the rise of technologies enabling people to become itinerant virtual workers.
According to a recent report by MBO Partners, digital nomadism doubled in the United States from 2018 to 2020, from 4.8 million in 2018 to 10.9 million in 2020. The most common occupational fields for digital nomads, per the report, are information technology (12 percent), followed closely by education and training (11 percent), consulting, coaching and research (11 percent), public relations (9 percent), and creative services (8 percent), along with a “smattering of numerous other professions that can be done with a laptop and a decent Wi-Fi connection,” according to Hal Kos.
To find out more about the digital nomad lifestyle, The Georgetowner hopped onto a Google Meet video call to Zagreb, Croatia, to chat with former D.C. residents Mike and Tara Shubbuck about what this way of life has meant to them. Authors of “Create Your Escape: A Practical Guide for Planning Long-Term Travel,” the husband-and-wife team, who met as students at American University, have been traveling the world extensively since 2012 when they set out on an “around the world” honeymoon voyage, visiting 26 countries in more than 14 months – from Asia to Africa to Europe – and creating a travel blog about their experiences at twotravelaholics.com.
Thrilled by the road life and under the sway of travelaholism, the couple decided to become permanent digital nomads. After five years of intensive preparation, such as lining up their client bases, living in efficient apartments to save money, selling their belongings, and arranging their credit and finances, they said good-bye to their old ways of life tethered to the Washington area. In 2019, they took to the road once again – but this time with the goal of becoming “location independent” for the long term.
“I started picking up free-lance clients in addition to my regular job,” Tara said, and soon realized “we could turn this into something. We could live a more flexible lifestyle… We were reading about people who would sort of travel and work and we just liked the idea…” On her website, she recounts: “We decided that 2019 was the right time to start that transition to becoming digital nomads.”
They had been hopping from Portugal and the delights of the Carnival season on the island of Cabo Verde to a country they had “loved and sworn to return to” – Croatia – when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020. Though their international globe-trotting has been halted due to the pandemic, they continue to work virtually from Zagreb: Mike as an IT professional, technical writer, and applications trainer, and Tara as a marketing consultant, content strategist, and freelance writer.
For Mike and Tara, Zagreb has turned out to be a great location to become temporary “slow-mads” (i.e., nomads who slow down their movements) during the pandemic. The time-zone differences are perfect for working with their U.S. East Coast clients, always giving them the advantage of being a calendar day ahead and allowing them to prep in the morning long before their clients wake up. “When we were first thinking of becoming digital nomads,” Mike said, “we were thinking of going to Bangkok, but with East Coast clients, you’re suddenly doing a lot of work at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m.!”
Another great advantage to the digital nomad life in Zagreb is that there’s no morning commute. “When we were living in D.C.,” Mike recalled, “Tara’s company was based in Maryland and mine in Virginia. We didn’t own a car (and haven’t for 20 years).” So, Mike had to “take a bus to the Metro, to another bus, and every step of the way — especially when they were doing all that track work — I started waking up at 5:00 am. For a night owl, it was nightmarish.” Without such commuting requirements, he said it’s “really given us a better work-life-happiness balance.”
When Covid hit, they realized they couldn’t just “jump on the next flight” back to the States. Airports would be packed and there were no direct flights from Zagreb. “And, we didn’t have U.S.-based health insurance any more,” Tara recalled, “so we might get other people sick and if we got sick in the U.S., we would go bankrupt.” Fortunately, an Airbnb host of theirs told them of a way to apply for a one-year Croatian residence visa, allowing them to be added to the nation’s socialized health care system — which is “amazing,” according to Tara. The country also follows strict pandemic safety protocols, so Mike and Tara have felt “totally safe.”
Being able to focus on one country for so long has really helped Mike and Tara reduce work stress and appreciate their travel experiences. Since they each have to serve their online clients and log their hours, they’ve had to be more careful with time management and pacing their daily lives to avoid burn-out. As digital nomads, however, they have enormous flexibility in scheduling and activities. “If I want to have a 12-hour day, it’s amazing, because I can pack that in for a couple of days and then have the rest of the week free,” Mike said, “I think the really cool aspect of this lifestyle change is that it’s allowed us to kind of explore different possibilities of living, both culturally and with how we move.” Instead of travelling by RV or van, they use local transportation and hop from one Airbnb to another.
“Because we’re still in a new place and still abroad, we try to do some of these digital nomad things,” Tara said. “A couple of weeks ago, we went on a day trip and saw a nearby castle and visited a few places. Today, we’re putting in a lot of work so that tomorrow we can go hiking in the mountain that’s right above Zagreb.” For Mike and Tara, the key is to do their travelling on weekdays when it’s cheaper and less crowded.
Travelling light and sustainably also improves their mobility. “Obviously, you accumulate things without realizing it sometimes, but we have to ask ourselves ‘can this fit in our backpacks?’ and ‘is this worth taking with us and getting rid of something else?’ In other words, we can add, but we’ll also have to subtract,” Tara said.
Mike and Tara have enjoyed the great sense of freedom the digital nomad lifestyle provides. “One of the whole reasons we set our lives up like this is that it gives us the opportunity to be flexible,” Tara said. “If we see an opportunity to take a few days of vacation or just all of a sudden become residents of a country, we can do that. We’re not on a schedule and we don’t owe anyone anything. So, as long as we can meet our work obligations, we can take our lives in any direction we want and that’s one of the most thrilling and exciting things about living this life.”
While many digital nomads reach out to online support groups for advice and to prevent loneliness on the road, Mike and Tara have delighted in getting to know the people of Zagreb. “The people we’ve met are actually locals who speak really great English,” Tara recalled. “It’s actually given us a richer experience to understand the culture, to be introduced to different foods, and just the ways of living, because we have these local friends and we’re able to see and hang out with them on a fairly regular basis.” Their local “honey guy” provides them honey, the “Rakia guy” sells them Croatian brandy, and so on. “So now we have these hook-ups for all these things, just like the locals do, and it’s only because we’ve made these local friends.”
Sampling local foods and even taking regional cooking classes is one of their favorite aspects of living as digital nomads. “This is the most amazing thing ever!” Mike recalled fondly of his first taste of a freshly picked fig. “Or, how about Bay leaves right off a tree, or capers just growing out of a wall? We were just, like — you don’t see this in D.C!”
Unlike other digital nomads, Mike and Tara decided not to monetize every Instagrammable or YouTube-able moment they experienced on the road and simply posted helpful information on their website. “It just felt like we had experienced so much good in the world. We weren’t robbed and nothing bad happened to us, so we thought maybe we should just give back the knowledge…. We thought ‘hey, let’s be a little bit altruistic because we’ve had such a good experience.”
Mike and Tara are currently working on another book on “how to become a digital nomad” and they’ll have plenty of practical advice to give. Many travel safety tips, of course, but a host of others. Be sure to talk to a tax consultant before you consider working remotely abroad. Find a telecom company that will support your travel itinerary. Be sure to take internet and WiFi connectivity into account as you travel, especially if your remote work depends on it. Try to work out how to have a dedicated phone number in the States that will allow you to do multi-factor authentication when necessary. Be sure you understand your credit rating and how you’ll protect against credit card and identity theft. Watch for unanticipated expenses, such as fees for ATM usage or credit card transactions.
They’ll also have advice on the psychological aspects of the lifestyle. “If I could make one point about being a digital nomad,” Mike said, I think it’s extremely, extremely challenging, but not in a bad way. Every day, you wake up and you’re not in the U.S., you are challenged as a person, whether it’s language, temperatures, conversions, or even driving on the wrong side of the road. All of your perceptions are being challenged all the time.” Tara agreed: “I mean, we’re in this constant conversion process where if it’s not language, it’s converting currency, or Celsius to Fahrenheit, or cultural measurements. Just like the most random things.”
For Tara, digital nomads who try out the lifestyle, but decide it’s not for them will still gain great life experiences. “If you want to be a digital nomad, continuously travelling and this is the romanticized dream you have for yourself, but then you get on the road and it’s not what you imagined, and you become really homesick, or you’re not making friends, or it’s more difficult to juggle workwise than you thought, don’t be afraid to quote-unquote ‘fail’ and choose another path … It’s a lifestyle change and it’s a move you won’t know until you try. You learn a lot about yourself along the way…. You grow from it and better understand yourself and the world. Once you leave your comfort zone, I think you’re a much better person for it.”
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