Digital nomad. It's a term we hear often nowadays. It's become the golden dream of travellers; the dream to earn a living doing something you love while travelling full time, moving country every few months. Checking emails while sunbathing, finishing work by midday and spending the afternoon seeing the sights. It's definitely been my dream for quite some time. I've known people who move country between every 1-3 months, whereas personally, I tend to settle for between 6-12 months. I like to really get to know a city before moving on.
But first, a little history on my own nomadic journey.
I was born with an insatiable wanderlust in my bones. It’s very much in my blood, from an intrepid maternal grandmother whose own travel photos and souvenirs served for an entire childhood’s worth of inspiration for the adventures I swore I myself would have one day, to generations of roaming on my father’s side, by boat, cart or foot. Travel was always inevitable.
And so, from my teen years, I was travelling by the only means I could afford; hitchhiking. I'd take a cheap coach as far as France, and then hitchhike wherever the wind took me, often without a set location, or with just a final destination in mind. I met the most incredible people: a family with twelve home-schooled children packed into an old school bus they called home; a doctor who had quit a high-paying job and left an unhappy marriage to volunteer for Doctors without borders; a double amputee whose limbs were specially designed to help them to drive. I noticed that often, the people who would pick me up from the side of the road were going through some sort of crisis in life. They'd known hardship and wanted to do a kindness. They were always the most fascinating of people, and we'd trade stories while clocking up the miles.
I'd rent a bed in cheap hostels, or stay with hosts who would immediately become friends through Couchsurfing, and cook them plates of spaghetti and wine as a thank you for their kindness. We'd talk late into the night about our travels because people who host through Couchsurfing are always wanderers themselves. I'd spend the day taking full advantage of free entry to many attractions across Europe for EU citizens under 26 (that particular birthday was a sad time indeed), roaming museums, castles and ruins.
I first moved abroad in my early twenties. I spent six months in Rome. As with everywhere that I've moved to, I only intended on staying for a week, and just found myself... staying.
As for how I survived, financially, I've had several jobs over the years:
My first income was through photography, beginning with weddings and progressing into portraiture. I flirted with fashion photography for a while, and more recently, travel and street photography. Over the years I've tried various business models as to how to earn money through photography, and it can be a challenge earning while travelling, as essentially I re-start my business with every move to a new country.
In various cities, including Rome, London and most recently, Paris, I've specialised in offering portrait packages in front of iconic attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, and the houses of Parliament. This is a business model which I've found to be especially successful in Paris, thanks to Instagram and Pinterest; people don't just want standard holiday-snaps anymore. I intend to write a more detailed post on how I source clients at a later date.
The same week that I completed my university degree, I took a weekend course to become a certified TEFL instructor. While photography was always the intention (my degree being in Commercial Photography), travel was also the intention, and so I knew that I needed a backup plan while I established my business.
TEFL has proven to be an excellent choice for a nomadic career. While many people work in schools in Asia and the Middle East, I've always preferred to work online, purely because, for now, I was more drawn to living in Paris, Rome, and Barcelona than Beijing, Seoul, or Dubai. Not that I won't find myself in one such city one day. While there are plenty of classroom-based jobs available in Europe, particularly in Spain, Italy or Czech Republic, from what I've witnessed, the pay is rarely lucrative enough to live on, whereas jobs in Asia (China especially) pay well enough, and often with accommodation included, for both a decent lifestyle and saving to be possible.
I earn through a combination of freelancing, searching for my own clients through relevant tutoring websites, and from working with agencies and companies, often based in China. Again, this is an industry I plan to write a detailed post about in the near future.
I've highlighted some of the best TEFL courses available here.
This is the hard reality of the 'digital nomad' life. It's tough. It's tough, especially if, like me, you're fresh out of university, and haven't yet established career or taken the time to build a business. Finding fresh clients in every new city, as I do, is difficult, and sometimes TEFL companies don't bring in the number of hours they've promised. The reality is, there are times when it's necessary to press pause, settle in a city for a while, and get a 'proper job', and my proper job, I mean, bricks and mortar employment. I've worked as a barista in various cafes across Europe, as a receptionist in hostels, as a tour guide. These jobs are easy to find through word-of-mouth within the ex-pat community, and fluency in the local language is rarely required. Yes, washing dishes or changing bedding in hostels may not be quite living up to the 'digital nomad' dream, but if you haven't the career history and connections to support you in your chosen field, an extra job will at times be necessary, no matter how frugally you live and travel. Just while you build up your freelance work, of course.