Why being a digital nomad is not all ‘Insta-glamour’

It’s the Instagram pic guaranteed to drive those back home green with envy:

An open Macbook set up in front of gleaming white sands and an impossibly turquoise sea (with bonus points for the artful inclusion of a fancy-looking cocktail).

“Another busy day at work guys!” proclaims the caption – a digital nomad who seems to have cracked this life business.

There’s just one problem: it’s a big fat lie.

First off, sand and digital devices do not mix. Secondly, the glare from the midday sun makes squinting at a computer screen very tiring, very quickly.

And finally, I don’t know about you, but it’s shortly after that first cocktail that I tend to get very drowsy indeed – not exactly conducive to a productive day of work.

Not all frozen margaritas

The reality of life as a digital nomad – a location-independent worker, often a freelancer, who has opted to travel the world while working – is a much more nuanced proposition than that clichéd social media pic would suggest.

It often involves traipsing out to find an internet café when the wifi fails, strange looks from locals who wonder why you’ve been hunched over a laptop for four hours straight, and scheduling Skype calls for 1am to catch up with contacts back home.

Sure, you may be able to squeeze in the odd beach bar day (preferably when your itinerary is no more taxing than replying to emails), but the day-to-day grind of earning money in the 21st century is generally spent somewhere with air con and artificial lighting.

Flip flops forever!

Despite the occasional mundanity of everyday work, however, I’m a digital nomad evangelist. Working online has allowed me to live in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Colombia and the Czech Republic – and to reap the benefits of life on the road.

In fact, most of those benefits are the surprisingly small things – the type of stuff you never would have imagined before you took the plunge and booked that flight out of the country.

It’s the joy at forging a genuine connection with local people as you slowly become a (admittedly, temporary) part of their community. 

It’s finding the tucked away local restaurants where you can pick up a delicious lunch for $1.50. 

It’s realising you haven’t worn anything but flip flops on your feet for three months straight.

And, of course, it’s that sweet, sweet sun, which means you can forgo a winter wardrobe entirely and just chase an endless summer around the world.

The ‘work’ in working abroad

But, yeah, catch me on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m probably hunched over a laptop, brow furrowed, cursing under my breath at an email attachment that doesn’t seem to want to attach.

Among the digital nomadic friends I’ve met while travelling abroad, most get the ‘Insta-life’  snaps out of their system early on – and get down to the business of making a living pretty quickly.

Anyone running a one-man business, working as a freelancer, or merely working remotely for a company will know that the each day can bring its stresses and strains. Finding a quiet, cool and connected working environment you can return to day after day goes a long way to removing unnecessary challenges to work.

So, if your image of digital nomadism is all endless cocktails and sand between your toes, fantastic. But maybe get the work out of the way first.

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Jack Davidson is a nine-year digital nomad who's made his home in such far-flung locations as Cambodia, East Timor, Colombia and Hungary. He writes on a variety of topics relating to travel, travel insurance and financial matters for globetrotters and occasional wanderers alike. Jack is also the host of battleface's podcast When It Hits The Fan.