Last summer, I ran away from home. 5 weeks, 7 countries, 6 currencies, 6 languages, 9 different beds, 4 planes, 7 buses, 9 trains, 5 ferries, 3 cars, and innumerable rides on the buses, trams, and metros of different cities later, I returned: blisters on my feet, forever altered.
My business weathered the experiment better than my feet. One of the things that most excites me about design is that, in theory, I can do it from anywhere in the world–all I really need is my Macbook, an internet connection, and the contents of my head. The idea of being free to come and go as I please–of being truly mobile–is intoxicating, especially when I’ve become such a travel junkie. Not only does travel make me stronger and more independent, but the exposure to new concepts and cultures is certain to shape me as a designer. How could it not be beneficial to my career–wandering through strange streets, finding new museums, constantly photographing the new visual landscape? (Note to the taxman: I will hereinafter be claiming all air tickets as business expenses, okay?)
Of course, it’s never quite has easy as it seems! While more and more people are becoming self-confessed “digital nomads“, it’s not necessarily an easy transition to make, nor is it an ideal lifestyle for everyone. I considered it for a good long while, but a number of factors (notably my attachment to the people I love, and to my shoe collection) led me to think of things on a more temporary basis. This summer, for example, I’m planning another trip–a full two months around France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.
I think I’ll be better equipped to balance the varied stresses of travel and work this time around. What did I learn that I wish I’d known?
Reliable internet access is more vital than water, but sometimes harder to find.
Who needs water, anyway? If you’re in Europe, the wine is usually cheaper, and nicer. What they lack in outrageous wine prices, though, they make up for with utterly terrible internet access. I was surprised to find that Italy was far worse than any of the Eastern European countries I visited: I spent three hours running around the neighbourhoods around Termini, desperately trying to find anywhere that would let me beg, borrow, or steal their internet. Even internet cafes were useless; they just looked at me as though I’d grown an extra head when I explained that I needed wireless, unless their machines came with Illustrator and Photoshop and all my fonts installed. The little Croatian town I lived in for two weeks had only one “internet club” that was run by a fourteen-year-old who spent most of his time eating ice cream and playing video games. He didn’t understand why I wanted receipts for my payments, and would close the place down at the slightest instigation. (I eventually found a fantastic bar with wireless instead, but not until I’d already wasted a good deal of time and money cooped up in a little dungeon.)
When you’re plotting out routes and sights, do a little extra research and figure out where the most useful internet access points are. Take into consideration costs and availability of power outlets. Have a list of places ready before you land in a foreign city. Everything else you can gamble on–internet is a necessity.
Don’t count on being able to work, sleep, or do anything even mildly productive while in transit.
I planned for a great deal of night trains, buses, and ferries, thinking this would be a great time-saver. In some cases, it was: the ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik was one of the most fantastic sleeps I’ve ever had, and I could sleep on some of the buses I took, albeit fitfully. Sleeping pills will help (bring lots, as European pharmacies are rather a mixed bag), but sometimes the jostling, uncomfortable positions, and constant jarring visits from uncaring border guards demanding to see a passport will just get to you. When I got to Sarajevo after eight hours of fragmented bus-naps (and I was stretched out across the back row, no less!), I was so weary and exhausted that I curled up on a cardboard box in a park and slept for another two hours. (I was woken up by a little girl begging for money. I guess in Bosnia, sleeping on a box in the park isn’t enough to make you look like a transient?)
As for working, I could actually see that potentially being a little easier, although you’ll need to account for the lack of internet and power. Practise at home first–I often work on public buses these days. Cross your fingers that you don’t have a seatmate, or learn to control your elbows.
But generally speaking, assume that transit time is going to be lost time, and plan for it accordingly. If you can get anything done, you’ve come out ahead.
Take it a little slow.
Beforehand, I’d only done short weeklong trips (Mexico’s Yucatan, New York City). I don’t think I really take vacations, per se, so I worked while I was traveling then still, but I did far less, as my time was so limited. If you’re planning to work while you travel, you need to account for the extra time.
If you want to work an eight-hour day, you won’t be able to spend sixteen hours sightseeing. However, if you can work, say, a six-hour day, you’ve still got plenty of time to take in your surroundings in the evening. I think here’s where you need to figure out what works best for you–if you’d rather do one day off and one day on, or work half-days every day, or whatever arrangement suits you, and your business, best. The nice thing about being nomadic like this is that you’re free to set your own rules.
Just make sure that you don’t end up feeling as though you’re wasting days, either by working, or by not-working. Even if you spend the whole day in a coffeeshop somewhere, you’re soaking in a little bit of the culture around you. (One of my favourite finds was S&M Bar in Budapest’s Jewish district, where they had teddy bears in cages, and the bartenders gave one another spankings when it was slow. Free wireless, right next to my host’s house, and cheap wine!)
Make sure everyone knows where you are.
I’m the world’s least organized person ever when I’m home. When I travel, I become a different person entirely. (I actually wear little to no makeup, the same pair of almost-flat shoes, and a different perfume than the one I wear when I’m home, so I most likely look like a different person, too!) Juggling sights and an array of transportation timetables, it becomes necessary to schedule out the days of your trip.
When I left last year, I plotted out my route and my travels over the course of a few weeks, taking all timetables, schedules, and costs into account. Then, I worked the times and dates into a calendar, which I eventually finalized and put online using Google Maps. I was then able to share my schedule as required, which was great–it meant that my clients would know where I was at any given time. (Oh! She’s on a bus in Hungary. Alright then.)
However, I wasn’t as good as I should have been at sending this out to all of my clients, and in fact, most of them weren’t aware that I was traveling. This year, I’m sending my schedule, along with an explanation of how frequently I’ll be checking in, and how their problems will still be dealt with expediently, to all of my clients–regardless of whether or not they’ll notice I’m gone.
It can be easy to let the stress of work get to you when all your belongings are strapped to your back and everything is in flux around you, but if you aren’t having fun, you aren’t doing it right. Remember to breathe, look around you, and get excited about all the new things around you!