Hey, I’m Jemma and I’ve been a digital nomad since summer 2012. I studied Public Relations and Media at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, and got a job in social media management when I graduated in 2009.
Some of my friends worked in copywriting. They were always on the hunt for new freelancers (and I was always on the hunt for extra cash) so I submitted a sample and started writing for them on the side. As my contacts moved on to pastures new, they brought me with them.
By day, I’d started working in-house for a FTSE 250 company. It wasn’t really my scene and I was really unhappy there. My partner, James, worked for a startup and he was miserable too. After reading The 4-Hour Workweek, we decided to do something about it.
James discovered house sitting as a cheap way to travel, and after being accepted for a few gigs, we decided to quit our jobs and move to France. Our original goal was to make £500 each per month. We house sat for about a year, and then realised we were making more than that: enough to rent our own apartment without having to deal with the (sometimes crazy) demands of homeowners.
What’s your normal daily routine as a digital nomad?
On a regular work day, I’ll get up around 10am and grab a cup of coffee while I flick through the Economist Espresso app on my phone. I fire up my laptop, check my emails and Slack to see if any new work has come through, then I start tackling my to-do list. This could be anything from writing descriptions of shoes for big fashion retailers, to coming up with blog post ideas for insurance companies. Usually, I finish work around 7pm. James and I take turns cooking dinner, and we always try to keep it healthy during the week. We take Saturdays and Sundays off work and usually treat ourselves to some nice brunches, lunches and dinners while we’re out exploring.
What’s your favorite part about of being a digital nomad? What’s the opposite – least favorite?
My favorite part of being a digital nomad is being able to go where I want, when I want. I’m originally from Scotland which is very cold, so being able to pack up my office and move to the south of Portugal (where it’s 65°F+ in January) is a big bonus. My least favorite part is the loneliness and lack of permanence. It’s really hard to meet people when you work from home, and really hard to build lasting friendships when you’re only in a place for a few months.
What’s the first adventure that comes on your mind from your digital nomadism career?
My 3-week stint as an alpaca farmer in the Pyrenees was a major highlight of my digital nomad career! Especially when I accidentally rode an alpaca across a field…
What are the hardest things to keep up with while being a nomad? What’s your suggestion for dealing with them?
It’s really hard to keep up with fashion when you’re a digital nomad! Jewelry (especially necklaces) really don’t travel well, and as for make-up? Forget about it. I keep a small bottle of The Library of Frangrance’s ‘amber’ perfume in my purse as it’s the perfect size for travelling, and I tend to buy only the barest essentials when it comes to makeup. I try to keep to a capsule wardrobe so that I have fewer clothes and shoes to carry around, but it’s really difficult!
What were your beliefs about “being a digital nomad” before you became one, that turned out to be a complete nonsense?
Before becoming a digital nomad, I got taken in by the 4-hour-workweek myth. For me, it’s still a 40 hour workweek (if I’m lucky: sometimes it’s a 14-hour-workday).
What’s the biggest misconception people have about digital nomads?
The biggest misconception people have is that digital nomads don’t actually work, but just sit around drinking cocktails on the beach. One of my best friends, who is also a client, knows exactly how much work I do for her company but still thinks I’m on a permanent vacation. To change it? I’d encourage my fellow nomads not to shy away from posting about the bad times on social media. Of course you want to show off that spectacular sunset in Ko Lanta, but don’t be afraid to add a few snaps of the discarded cans of Red Bull (and the well-loved PJ bottoms you’ve been wearing all week) too.
What are your tips & tricks for better travels?
My personal tips for better travels? Check into the airport lounge. It usually only costs about $25, which you’ll make back if you work while you’re in there (free Wi-Fi, yo). If you move frequently like I do and have lots of stuff, I’d recommend sending it by courier rather than checking it as luggage. It often works out the same price if you’re flying with a budget airline, but removes all the hassle of lugging it around town. We’ve written more about our favorite travel hacks on our website, Portugalist.
Many people are afraid of never being able to settle down after being nomads. They can’t live long in one place, they can’t find partner who’d love to travel as much, etc.
While some people are worried that they’ll never be able to settle after becoming nomads, I’ve actually felt the opposite. I’m desperate to have my own place (a fully equipped kitchen… it’s the dream!). The thing is, buying a house doesn’t necessarily mean staying put forever, especially with websites like Airbnb. If we get bored, we’ll just pop our apartment on there and go back to the old lifestyle for a bit except this time, we’ll have a home to come back to. Our friends Mike and Juergen of For 91 Days do this very successfully. They own a gorgeous apartment in Valencia but are planning to spend six months in Asia this year (including 91 days in Ho Chi Minh City).
What’s your favorite way of meeting new people as a nomad? What would you suggest for introvert digital nomads to get out there more?
Couchsurfing and Meetup events are a great way to meet new people on the road, but the best friends I’ve made during my travels were found through Twitter. As an introvert myself, I find it really hard to put myself out there and meet new people. I usually bribe myself: if I go out and socialize tonight, I can do whatever I want tomorrow. Usually I have a great time, but I need that little push to get me there in the first place.
What are the main things you are looking for when deciding where to go next?
Usually we decide to move somewhere after visiting for a weekend and falling in love, but often it’s down to cheap rent or convenience (my dad and James’s parents both live in the Algarve, making Portugal a great choice for us). Before choosing a new place I usually look to see how many events there are on Meetup.com and if there are any digital nomad groups on Facebook. This gives me a good idea of how big the local networking scene is.
Top 3 places to visit as a digital nomad
My top three digital nomad destinations are:
Berlin: there’s so much going on, plus it’s still quite cheap in terms of price.
Lisbon: great weather, a growing digital scene, and everywhere has wifi with easy to guess passwords. Also very cheap!
Kuching, Borneo: there’s a fantastic co-working space (iCube Innovation), the people are really friendly and the scenery is seriously awe-inspiring: the rainforest is home to orangutans, proboscis monkeys and wild pigs!
What’s your vision of the future?
I definitely don’t see myself going back into an office. Although the 9 to 5:30 structure would be a relaxing change, I’d miss the freedom to sleep in or take a long lunch here and there. I’m currently studying wine under WSET (level 3!) and am hoping to make a sideways move into wine marketing. James and I are also planning to buy a property in Lisbon so we’ll have a proper base. I definitely see more travels in my future, though.
Gathering all your current experience – what would you now say to your old self, back when you just started?
It’s important to say yes to weird and wonderful new opportunities, but don’t be afraid to say no if people ask ridiculous things of you. When we started out we once drove for 34 hours straight to get to a house sitting client on time. When we arrived they said they didn’t need us for another week.
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