Updated: Nov 23, 2022
“I don’t know where I’m going to be in 5 years:” meet the women who left it all behind to travel while working.
by Laetitia Lesieure Desbriere-Batista @leti_writer
Vivi, Sibu, Andrea and Vanessa are each in a different time zone when I talk to them over Zoom, but that is actually what connects them: they are all digital nomads. In these interviews done in May 2022, they share life experiences and reflect on lessons learned on the road.
In June 2020, Sibu Szymanowska was a Master’s student in Berlin. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and her summer research plans in Turkey had fallen through thanks to Covid. Suddenly everything was online and nothing was attaching her to Germany.
At 31, with a Costa-Rican and Polish background, a US passport and previous experience living alone in China for 7 years, she knew what she was going to do. “I left three suitcases of stuff in storage and I just left.” Thus started her digital nomad journey.
She is not the only one. The pandemic accelerated the digitisation of business and the normalisation of remote work, allowing many to become nomads too. According to a 2021 US report, their numbers doubled between 2019 and 2020 and grew by an additional 41% in the following year.
This report defines digital nomads as “people who choose to embrace a location-independent technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the internet-connected world.”
The conversation about them often seems to teeter between fascination about the possibility of working from dreamy locations and criticism about the privileges this lifestyle often seems to be rooted in — the privilege of having a passport that guarantees you easy and cheap entry into most countries in the world, a job you can do from a computer and a university diploma.
The four women I talk to, all at different stages of their travels, help me untangle the clichés from their reality.
All of them came to this decision from dissatisfaction with their previous lives. Vanessa Knopka, 25, left her home country of Germany at 18, without a university diploma, and lived in Australia on a work tourist visa for three years, before starting out as a freelance nomad.
Speaking from Portugal where she has been for 5 months with her boyfriend, also a digital nomad, she says, “At 18, I was studying and I was unhappy with what I was doing. I was really depressed and so I decided to start travelling and go on big trips on the other side of the world because I wanted to find myself.”
Vivi Ton, 31, from Southern California, is in Las Vegas when we speak. Like Vanessa, she explains that she always loved travelling and was tired of having to limit her trips to a few weeks a year and of the pressure of needing to cram as much as possible in that short amount of time.
Portuguese researchers have found that digital nomads strongly value their life goals and personal growth. Sibu, speaking from Costa Rica, says these life-changing decisions may come easier to Gen Z and Millennials who are less hesitant to “go against everything that society has dictated” and to “take control of their lives.”
Vanessa also says that social pressure is strong, particularly for women.
“Society wants us to believe we are only good to work 9 to 5 in one location, build a house and have children,” but she says that “we don’t have to limit ourselves. It is all about us being happy, as long as we respect everyone and treat each other with compassion.”
Sibu agrees, “I see [travelling while working] as my life right now and I don’t see why I should sacrifice any of it.” There is a counter cultural element to this way of going against the mainstream — something Sibu also does by choosing less popular travel destinations like Poland and Saudi Arabia recently.
Vivi, as an only child on the other hand, says having her parents on board was at the top of her to-do list before leaving. They turned out to be supportive and even visited her at her first stop in Las Vegas. So did her friends.
However, once you have made your decision, there are no set guidelines on how to be a digital nomad - for employers, governments or nomads themselves. The logistics of location independent remote work are questions many around the world are grappling with right now.
Figuring out things like visas, taxes, insurance and cheap travel arrangements is a puzzle complex enough to make people “scared to do it,” Andrea Valeria, 34, says from Mexico City. Clear rules and the support from family and bosses can make a big difference.
Some governments, like Barbados, are setting up digital nomad visas to let remote workers stay for a full year, making formalities easier both for workers trying to figure out each place’s local laws before leaving and for workplaces that are afraid of ending up having to pay extra taxes.
Vivi says that when she asked to work from anywhere her boss at Personal Finance Club told her: “It’s easier to force you to be stuck in an office with really good internet, but I want you to be happy so that you don’t quit.” This reflects the conundrum many businesses are facing at the moment, as employees disagree on whether to return to this office or not.
Andrea too had to negotiate with her workplace in 2016, first to have a hybrid work week, then to work from home every day and then from anywhere, convincing them through trial periods and her own efficiency. Now she is fully self-employed, giving tips on how to land remote jobs via her platform, It’s a Travel OD, and social media.
Being a digital nomad is not simple, and both Andrea and Vanessa started years ago, when there were much fewer resources and online advice available. Even today, according to researchers, digital nomads are forced to be resourceful, pragmatic and creative to handle the risks inherent to their lifestyle.
They always place their well-being first though, and if this sounds individualistic to some, digital nomads are also characterised by their collective mindset, sharing tips and recommendations with others, professionally like Andrea, or casually like Sibu.
Vivi found Sibu on Instagram and says:
“She really inspired me.” Before setting off, Vivi asked her “how much stuff do you bring when you house-sit? How do you decide where you go? Do you get lonely?” And she says, Sibu is always “good at making me feel like things are going to be ok.”
Yet, among all the clichés about nomadic life, loneliness can be a real concern, Sibu admits. This lifestyle is not for everyone, Andrea agrees, but remote working works with her personality. She says, “I don’t need a community or work happy hours.”
For Vivi, who had always lived in Southern California before this year, the concern is not just about being alone but about leaving home. Three weeks after moving, she reflects on what that means to her.
“To have to let go of everything that I’ve known my whole life was very hard… That feeling when you look at your old home that’s now empty and you don’t have anything to keep you grounded anymore is pretty scary,” she says.
An Australian study about digital nomad’s perception of home reveals that, in their case, it is not a house but something they carry around with them through objects with emotional value, a partner travelling with them, friends — something that gives them stability within mobility.
Vivi chose as her first destinations places where she already knew people. “It does feel very reassuring to have… at least one person you know in case you're in trouble,” she says. Her next stops will be Seattle and Vancouver, where she will stay with friends, but she says “I don’t know if I will ever feel like I have a home anymore.”
Beyond loneliness and homesickness, as a woman and a person of Asian descent, she has been worried about safety and hate crimes, but she is careful. “Hopefully the safety stuff doesn’t stop us in our lives,” she says.
For now Vivi’s social life is busier than ever. “To have a limited time here has helped me be more appreciative and grateful for every day that I have,” she says. Gratitude is also what Vanessa retains from her own travels so far.
On the other end of her digital nomad journey, Andrea, originally from Panama, just bought an apartment in Mexico City, a place she first fell in love with back when she had just started working while travelling.
The pandemic actually helped her realise she “could have made better financial decisions earlier on” and spent less on travel and fancy rentals. For two years then she saved and invested until she could buy this place. She calls it a “home base,” not a home.
Andrea has a YouTube channel discussing the pros and cons of the digital nomad lifestyle
Travel will need to slow down as she pulls her resources into the apartment, but she has no intention of stopping. She won’t be a digital nomad anymore in the sense that she won’t live out of a suitcase, but she will keep exploring. “I don’t know where I’m going to be in 5 years,” she says.
In the meantime, Vanessa spent the pandemic in Europe closer to family, while most countries closed their borders. Now she dreams of making it back to the Philippines where she has already spent six months.
As for Sibu, she plans to go back to the US and negotiate with her workplace to be able to travel full-time, which has caused problems with her hierarchy before. If that doesn’t work, she says she might take part in the “Great Resignation” and join the ranks of dissatisfied workers in the US looking elsewhere for an employer that will respect their wishes.
There seems to be an inherent optimism among digital nomads, about the beauty of what the world has to offer and their capacity to navigate it, their desire to grow from it and learn more about themselves in the process, and the importance of making the most of the limited time they have.
Being a nomad is not for everyone and there are still obstacles for people who want to start. But asking yourself what you really want, what you are willing to do to get it and finding the resourcefulness and confidence to work towards that goal feels both timely and inspiring, in a post-pandemic world.
October 2022 update
Sibu spent the summer making her way through the Balkans and is now in Pakistan. She is still working with the same company and on the side, she organises guided tours. The next ones will be in Uganda in January 2023 and Bosnia in May 2023. She says she believes in “exploring lesser-known destinations and seeing first-hand what a country is all about.”
After leaving Las Vegas in May, Vivi spent time in Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco and is now in Seoul. She says, “every new city I visit is special to me as it represents a different life lesson and place in my life.” For her, “you learn something new about yourself every time you change your environment.” Her next destination is Tokyo.
Andrea is still living in her Mexico City apartment, while travelling every chance she gets. As for her business helping other people find remote jobs, she is still creating content and has recently started posting on Youtube again. In her latest video, available here, she talks about transitioning from being a nomad to having a home base.
Vanessa has left Portugal and spent several weeks travelling through Europe with her boyfriend over the summer.
Digital nomads in 2022
There are 15.5 American digital nomads today.
Two thirds of them have a traditional job and the rest are freelancers, consultants and business-owners.
65% of all digital nomads are Millenials and Gen Z.
65 million Americans would consider becoming digital nomads, a 20% increase compared to 2020.