I used to travel…a lot.
Most of it was in my early 20’s. I just craved it constantly. Other travelers called this the “travel bug”…which was a great description cause it definitely felt like a disease I couldn’t shake. To me, the intrigue was that you could explore an entirely different world, an alternate universe…and you didn’t need a space shuttle, just a simple plane ticket. Every trip taken expanded my world view of culture, cuisine, business, education, art, beauty, humanity…and brought me out of the confines of my suburban upbringing. Traveling was a small price to pay for transformational life experiences.
Traveling was a lot more organic back then, before the days of in-depth travel sites and the temptation of following in the footsteps of the masses of other travelers. Today, you’d do all this itinerary planning beforehand, research your desired destination on TripAdvisor, cross reference Instagram for the visual highlights, and basically build a respectable itinerary. You might not get the most profound trip, but you can basically guarantee yourself a fun and scenic trip.
Back then though, I’d just grab a copy of Lonely Planet, a backpack full of clothes, maybe one ‘nice’ outfit, camera, journal, and off I go. It made for more adventure, more discovery, more interactions with the locals, more interesting stories. To me, I just felt a lot more like an explorer back then…versus just confirming things I already explored online. I can’t help but wonder…is this style of travel long past now for me?…now that I’ve grown accustomed to nice hotel accommodations and less tolerant of shady hole-in-the-walls? Or maybe it’s the access to the tomes of travel resources we all now have, which makes these ‘other worlds’ much less mysterious.
Below is a photo of the type of organic travel I really miss, a snapshot a buddy took of me on our trip through the jungles of the Philippines ages ago. We were trekking our way from Manila to Boracay, and on that leg of the trip, the Lonely Planet guide probably just told us to take a bus from one town to the next. Simple right? Not much details, no turn by turn…after all, it’s your fun to figure out the exact logistics.
They don’t tell you the bus you take is actually a rusty rickety Jeepney the size of a large van. They don’t really tell you that Jeepney probably runs once a day if at all, likely depending on the mood of the driver that day. They don’t tell you that the Jeepney is also full of local passengers packed like sardines, and if you want to make it to the next town, you better bribe the driver to let you hop on…even if you have to climb on the roof of the Jeepney where they heap on all the passenger’s luggage, groceries, and apparently their patio furniture (see photo). And they don’t tell you to hold on for dear life to all that luggage you’re sitting on, as the roads are rough, wet, twisty, and it’s at least a 2 hour trip where every bump in the road can hurl you off the roof.
But they also don’t tell you that sitting there roof top…you fully experience the most beautiful unobstructed views of the jungle, the refreshing smell of the damp tropical air as you pass by trees at eye level, the sights and sounds of wild animals on land and sky. And when the sun sets over the tree lined horizon…you realize it’s futile to take a picture cause nothing can describe the breathtaking sense of awe and wonder you’re experiencing there at the moment. It’s there, the travel bug grows…you just know you have to travel more.
My Current State of Travel
Fast forward to the past several years of my life…stamps on my passport is embarrassingly sparse. Somehow, adult responsibilities took hold, and all my past priorities to travel somehow got thrown to the back seat. Promises I made to myself in earlier years to always travel often has somehow been neglected. Yes, there were complexities in life that lead to this phenomenon, surely it wasn’t black and white…but I do look back and I viscerally know something got out of balance.
One of the big indicators I often look at to judge if there’s a problematic travel life imbalance is how many unused frequent flyer miles I have. Just taking a quick look across all my frequent flyer programs…I currently have somewhere over 450,000 miles. How is this even possible? How did I go from someone who craved travel to the utmost…to someone with an almost empty passport, with free tickets to go anywhere. Shame on me.
It’s weird, the wise thing people often ask themselves is, “what advice would your 10 years older self tell you now, so you don’t squander your current stage life?”. I find myself doing the opposite, where I’m asking myself, “what advice would my 10 years younger self tell me now so I don’t squander my current stage in life?”. My younger self would’ve used those frequent flyer credits up in a heartbeat and reminded myself about the importance of travel. Perhaps it’s Peter Pan syndrome…but I think it’s time to start listening to my younger self.
For some years now, I’ve been fascinated by the term ‘digital nomad’. Unfortunately, this concept just wasn’t around during the height of my travels. It’s this idea that in today’s digital age, many people have jobs that can be done mostly in front of a computer (e.g. app developers, designers, social media marketers, bloggers, etc.)…so your work can potentially be location independent from the company office. The way I see it, there are 2 types of digital nomads: those that travel to some city and can easily find a tech job at a local company there…and those that work for a US based company but can arrange to work remotely from the main office.
The beauty of being a digital nomad is way different than just being a normal traveller. I think on some level…mere traveling as a tourist just didn’t do it for me anymore. Being a short term visitor just didn’t have the same effect or appeal as being fully immersed into a new culture as a medium/long term local. For me, I’d say anything over 3 -4 months living in a location can give you a profoundly different experience than being a mere visitor/tourist. This is the kind of traveling I began to crave…and I think short touristy trips just didn’t have that same level of satisfaction for me. This idea of being a digital nomad, however, seems to hit that craving.
Honestly, back at the height of my traveling, I didn’t have the skills to be a digital nomad even if that concept existed. Most travelers, myself included, were just normal nomads. We just took odd jobs, and most expats just taught English. This just wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. Sure you’d have a blast, but you’d barely make enough money to live mediocrely in countries where the cost of living was low. You also wouldn’t be building any real career skills with these odd jobs, so you’d kinda be stuck in those countries…since often, that unique overseas experience wouldn’t be relevant in the job market back in the US. I heard a recent podcast where someone called this phenomenon, being a ‘travel refugee’…cause maybe you can teach English for 4 hours and surf the rest of the day in Costa Rica…but you really can’t do that back home in California. There just aren’t many well paid jobs back in the US for someone who worked as a part-time English teacher in Costa Rica for the past 2 years.
The idea of digital nomad changes the game a bit. You’re not doing odd jobs or teaching English (sorry to keep bashing on English teachers)…you’re doing your normal digital vocation, just in a different location. All the work and skills you’re building is fully transferable back in the US, so there’s never really a risk of being a digital refugee. For example, I could probably still bill $100/hour being a freelance product designer living in Thailand, and a year later come back to LA and work for a Fortune 500 doing the exact same job. This is what I call high reward, low risk.
So, what’s next for me? I’m not sure…no drastic changes yet. At the conservative end of the spectrum…looking to put more stamps on the passport soon. At the crazy end of the spectrum…drop everything, move to Argentina as a digital nomad. I think somewhere in the middle is reality…involving travel + baby steps outside the comfort zone. All I can say right now is the cravings have come again, the bug has resurfaced, and the desire to regain balance of life + travel has returned.