Taipei: A City of Food

Taipei is often called “The food capital of East Asia,” and boy does it live up to that name. We spent a month in this city– and spent most of our time eating!

The food in Taipei is endlessly diverse: ranging from the ubiquitous street stalls to the world-class bakeries to Michelin-starred restaurants, the city offers something for all palates. Think of it this way: late at night in the U.S., people wander the streets looking to drink; in Taipei, people wander the streets looking for something to eat.

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What Travel Taught Me About My Own Privilege

Machupuchre Fistail Mountain

I’ve made more charitable donations in the past five months than the rest of my life, combined.

After a year of hard work, research, and planning, in October, I finally took off to travel the world. I had a few thousand dollars in savings and a stable remote job good for about about $1,000 a month, after taxes.

A good enough budget for Thailand and Bali, but in the grand scheme of things, not a ton of money; a budget which I knew wouldn’t last forever. I thought I’d be pinching my pennies the whole way. I had a lot of places I wanted to see; a lot of things I wanted to do. I worried about how I’d fit it all in.But a funny thing happened after I arrived:

I started to feel guilty

I arrived in Asia a wealthy westerner, and whenever I board the plane home, no matter the contents of my bank account, I’ll still be a wealthy westerner. All around me, I have seen poverty and struggle, contrasted with the extreme wealth of a privileged few. My skin color and my status as a tourist automatically, obviously, placed me in the upper-class bucket here. But as I kicked that idea around, I began realizing the huge extent of the privilege I enjoyed even at home, in the United States.

Hubud during burning season

Because I chose to travel as an always-online digital nomad, I was unable to disconnect from my friends at home. As a blogger and an Instagrammer, I was faced with a dilemma: try and build an audience, or be humble and simply enjoy your good fortune? Being that it’s 2016 and I have aspirations of being a successful creative, I chose to try and build and audience. That’s just what life is, these days.

But every time I get on Instagram to post, or I share a blog on Facebook, I’m instantly reminded of the fact that I’m across the globe, puttering around, while back at home, many people are suffocating under the pains and pressures of everyday life.

Was my travel selfish?

A fraternity brother’s father died. I donated $100 to the funeral costs, without a thought. There was no way I needed that money more than he did.

Later, a good friend suffered an even worse loss: both parents gone in an incident of domestic violence. He was in the worst grief of his young, promising life— the entire trajectory of his life upended through a situation he had no control over. And where was I? On a beach, In Bali.

I couldn’t be there for him, and I felt horrible. I donated a lot of money to him, too. That wasn’t what he needed, but it was all I could do.

Our situations easily could have been reversed

My career as a digital nomad is one part hard work, one part luck, and one part privilege. My upbringing– white, middle class, straight male in America– provided me with a million small stepping stones, stepping stones many of my friends never had, as they attempted to wade across the river of adolescence and young adulthood on their own.

I got a “bad” degree (English major), but somehow still ended up with a job after college. And I was able to take that job across the world with me. I lost that job, in early January. I couldn’t even be mad; I was just amazed I had been able to hold on to it that long.

I hopped on a plane, flew to Taipei. I found a new part-time job– remote again– in less than a week. It doesn’t pay as well, but still.

What an absurd situation

Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

Every day I walk the streets of Taipei. The neighborhood we are staying in is old, traditional: an immigrant neighborhood, my local friend says. He is bilingual— flips between English and Mandarin at the drop of a hat. What a valuable skill! He has more to offer than I do, but he’s unemployed and burdened with student loan debt.

 

He’ll get by, as will my friend, and my fraternity brother. So will the poor Thais, who are some of the happiest people you will ever meet, despite the impoverished conditions many of them live in.

I can’t “save” any of these people— nor are they asking me too. But they’re not in these unfortunate situations because they didn’t work as hard as I did, or anything else you’ll hear on the campaign trail. They just got dealt a worse hand— and even the most personable people can only bluff so much.

This is why I also donated money, twice, to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

I feel more compassionate and understanding, since hitting the road. I am willing to sacrifice some of my dream for those of others.

 

So after reading my sister’s post on why you should join the Peace Corps right after college, I just donated some money to a school being built in her former village. That money buys me a one-way plane ticket to my sixth country in as many months; it might buy those girls a totally new life.

 

How could I possibly do anything else?

 

 

Should I become a digital nomad straight out of college?

Graduation Gown Caps at Ceremony

PROBABLY NOT

I’m going to drop some real talk, which is rare amid the ENDLESS lifestyle porn of the “digital nomad” space.

I run a blog called “this is youth.” I’m 23. I’m a college graduate, tech-savvy, and self-motivated. I had never left the United States prior to this trip. I had a remote job lined up, and basically needed nothing except a little courage to step into this lifestyle. To be location independent was a serendipitous confluence of my professional goals and personal desires.

I still wouldn’t recommend the lifestyle to other young people. Here’s why:

Go join everyone else your age, and hit the backpacker trail

James Bond Island

There’s no wifi on that boat.

Look, I’m constantly called an “old soul,” told that I have my shit together, or asked for advice on “how to adult.” I don’t spend all my money or all my time binge-drinking, and that creates a bit of a disconnect for me sometimes. I’m not the most social person. But even with all that, I’m still jealous of the backpackers. I want to put down the laptop and go join them. Let’s hike to the waterfall. Let’s go out for beers, then have another one. And another one. And another one. And I want the people I’m with to understand that reference.

Nomads, by and large, wouldn’t get it. That’s because,

Digital Nomads, the successful ones, are mid-career people.

Young people in the U.S. romanticize travel. It’s a growing trend, I think largely due to the popularity of social media and the growth of travel blogs. Everyone wants to travel. “It’s just too much money,” or “I don’t have the time.” Being a digital nomad seems like a perfect solution to this problem.

And it is. But it won’t solve the problem in a way which will allow you to really see the world in the way you are imagining. Most of your time as a nomad is spent sitting in front of a computer, thinking about Twitter followers, and reading about growth hacking. Your peers are upper-middle class white people, digital marketers and entrepreneurs.

MOST of these people tried the office for years and years before embracing this lifestyle. Their perspective is very different from yours, a person who maybe, has never spent a day of your life in an office.

Yes, there are some young people out there trying it out, and a smaller portion making it work. There are many of these people in Chiang Mai. Leave the most famous and accessible digital nomad hub, and those young people start to fall off, quickly.

Suddenly, the only people your age are backpackers, and they look like they’re having a hell of a lot more fun.

Again and again, you will meet a young backpacker at a foreign coffee shop. You’ll strike up a conversation, and she’ll say “Wow! You’ve been here for two months?! I wish I could do that.” Then she’ll ask, “Have you hiked the volcano yet,” and you’ll have to say no. You’ve been working.

She’s off to the Gili Islands in two days.

You’ve gained twelve Twitter followers.

It’s really lonely

Look: everyone mentions this. “Being a digital nomad means you have to leave behind your friends and your life at home, but in the end, it’s totally worth it.” That’s the line, or whatever. Everyone acknowledges this. It comes at the end of a 1,000-word post telling you all the great things about the lifestyle— travel, culture, entrepreneurship!

What you don’t see online is a real, true telling of this isolation. It’s crushing— the constant movement of people and places presses on you, on all sides. Especially when you first start out, and the urge to move countries frequently is almost irresistible.

The friend you met at the coworking space, and the last two days talking to nonstop? Headed to Saigon in a week. Meanwhile, you’ve booked tickets to Chiang Mai already. Well fuck. See you on Facebook, I guess.

Spend a month in a place, start learning a few words? The shopkeepers start recognizing you, going beyond just “can I take your order please?” Your visa expires. Gotta go. Sawasdee!

This is happening to everyone around you, at all times. The rejection is almost total. There is little spontaneity— although with enough time, your paths may cross again, or you can plan a meetup in some foreign city. This is a cool sentence to write, and an inspirational one to read— but it’s simply not fun to live, day-to-day.

Those who choose to stay in a city for six months or more can avoid this, to some degree. But even six months doesn’t match up to a friendship at home, usually developed over years of near-daily contact. Your life at home will move on without you. Your college friends will get jobs, up and leave town, and you won’t even be there to buy them a beer at their going away party. And it gets a lot harder to make friends, after college. You want to hold on to the ones you have.

But I REALLY want to travel

If international travel is really the only thing you want to do, that’s fine. If you’re a startup-techy-marketing type of person who is ok with long stints of serious loneliness, you might be ok for a while.

But for most young people, I’d recommend working hard, saving up, then hitting the backpacker trail like everyone else your age. You will lack millennial peers as a digital nomad, and you’ll be adding more stress than you expect to your travel experience.

The Nomad lifestyle is only going to become more ubiquitous

Blurry Focus Coffee Cups on Hooks

Right now, being a digital nomad is still kind of cutting edge. With the huge shift towards distributed teams, it is becoming more commonplace by the day. The most commonly-cited studies say half the U.S. workforce is a freelancer of some sort, and that’s only likely to increase. Work-from-home is on the rise, and while most people will never go further than their neighborhood coffee shop, anyone with a remote job can technically be a digital nomad.

As visibility and understanding of this lifestyle grows, so will the number of companies willing to accommodate it; and the number of services designed to facilitate it. In 10 years, it will be considerably easier to be a nomad. You will be considerably further along in your career, and probably have less opportunity to drop everything and go travel without obligations for months on end.

So take advantage while you have that opportunity. Leave it all behind, and I mean ALL of it. You’ll never get those gap years of your youth back. Live it up. There’s plenty of time for work, later.

Top 5 tips for a cash-strapped digital nomad

 

I had the misfortune of losing my job this past week. After two years of surviving cut after cut, the endless layoffs at Inside.com finally got me. That’s startup life, I suppose. And truthfully, it was probably time for me to move on, level up in my life and in my career.

I know it’s a weird thing to write from a foreign country halfway across the world, but I had gotten complacent.

Life as a digital nomad looks a lot different once your income stream dries up. Things get a lot more stressful. I’m lucky enough to have saved up a nice little cushion, so I’m trying to treat this break as a vacation, rather than an excuse to panic. Still, money suddenly became a lot more precious to me. Here are the top five things I’m doing to save money while traveling (as a digital nomad, specifically).

Get free water at your coworking space

Since nomads often frequent undeveloped countries, bottled drinking water is one of those little expenses that can quickly add up. Especially in a place like Bali, where we are currently experiencing 90 degree days with alarming regularity. You have to drink to avoid dangerous dehydration— but you don’t necessarily have to pay for that water.

If you are using a coworking space, almost all of them offer water coolers, with safe filtered water. Use them. Get a water bottle and fill it up every day before you leave. Bring it back the next day, and fill it up again.

It’s also smart to stop buying coffee, and use the free stuff provided at the coworking space. As a coffee lover myself, I find it hard to consistently obey that last rule, but I am trying. If you make use of the free water and coffee every day, you can often more than make up for the cost of your coworking.

Of course, if you are truly budget strapped, then it’s often more economical to just

Drop your coworking space

In Bali, this is simply not feasible— Internet speeds are awful in most places on this island. You can’t rely on a coffee shop, and most hotels, homestays, and guesthouses can barely handle your Facebook uploads.

However, in a place like Chiang Mai or Taipei, it’s worth asking yourself: is a coworking space a necessary expense? You can work just the same from your apartment. It might not be as social, but skipping the trendy coworking can save you anywhere from $50 to $300 a month.

You might have less cool Instagram shots, but you will have more money to eat and experience the local culture. Which is the reason you’re abroad in the first place, right??

One option here is to

Replace your coworking with a mobile hotspot

Since I don’t need blazing fast Internet, I’ve opted to supplement my basic coworking with pay-as-you-go mobile data. I use tethering on my iPhone to beam the connection to my computer. In general, it’s a lot cheaper. Here in Bali, 4 GB of data on Telekomsel costs 100.000 rupiah (~$7.50 USD). 25 hours of coworking at Hubud costs $60 USD. Guess which lasts me longer?

4G tethering through my phone is almost always faster than the free wifi offered at the cafes and restaurants throughout town.

Plus, Telekomsel has coverage throughout the Ubud area. I’ve actually been quite pleased with the coverage here: it’s fast (4G), and rarely do I drop coverage. I think Telekomsel must have invested some serious time and money into their infrastructure, because prior to arrival, I had heard their coverage was slow and spotty. That hasn’t been true in my experience, at all.

Eat local

This is a tried and true travel tip, or course. Local food is always cheaper, and often better, than the Western food on offer. When you have money coming in though, it can be easy to treat yourself; this is why its not uncommon for 20-somethings living in big cities to drop fifty, sixty, seventy dollars on brunch. Why not?

Why not is you’ll get just as full on a $1.50 dish of Nasi Goreng as you will on a $12 green shake with eggs and toast. Granted, you’ll get really sick of– and possibly from– the Nasi Goreng by the time to leave Bali (ahem), but over the course of a month, you’ll save enough to be able to afford a plane ticket to your next destination.

Plus, when you return home, you’ll be able to explain the ins and outs of Indonesian food, which will make it seem like you actually went somewhere, and did something.

Set aside an emergency fund

This is something you should do BEFORE you start your trip. Not everyone has this luxury, I know. But IF POSSIBLE, you should set aside at least a few hundred dollars in case things go sideways. Ideally, this fund should contain enough for a plane ticket home, and then a few hundred on top.

I understand a lot of people like to live life a little riskier than that, and that’s fine. It’s certainly possible– and probably a better story– to work yourself out of that hole, learn to survive, and find a way home from the verge of bankruptcy.

But for me, I prefer a little more stability. My savings account means I have a few months of runway to seek out freelance work, affiliate income, or a new full time job before I have to head home with my tail between my legs.

In the meantime, I’m taking all the steps above to reduce my burn and increase my runway, but I’m damn glad I have the safety cushion.