HUFFPOST PERSONAL

What It's Really Like To Be A Digital Nomad. Hint: It’s Not Glamorous.

The author in Krakow, Poland (taking this photo with a tripod).
The author in Krakow, Poland (taking this photo with a tripod).

Last August, when my lease was up in New York City, I decided to move out of the city altogether and travel full-time for a few months. I talked to my boss and with a few stipulations on work hours and output, I was allowed to work from anywhere. As someone who has traveled quite a bit, I knew this was a luxury and with my skill for finding cheap flights and budget traveling in Airbnbs and hostels, I’d be able to actually save more money than I did living in New York.

I thought being a digital nomad would be glamorous. All the influencers and full-time travelers I follow on social media have perfectly curated photos and thus, I assumed, lives. I thought I too would just naturally blow up on Instagram because of my beautiful photos (see below) and remarkable life and everything would be picture-perfect. OK, maybe I didn’t actually think that, but I did think that becoming a digital nomad would essentially make life more fun and easier. Spoiler: It didn’t.

Honestly, 60 percent of being a digital nomad is just trying to find reliable Wi-Fi. This is a lot harder than one would think and thus, you often end up working from McDonald’s wherever you are. There’s absolutely nothing glamorous about that, except for maybe the Toblerone McFlurries in Interlaken.

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved the freedom I have had, and I have been more productive in my work than I ever was in an office (sorry, boss!). I’ve been to eight countries ― including Poland, Switzerland and Mexico ― and a handful of states across the U.S. and though I’m not ready to stop being nomadic yet, it’s absolutely not a pretty lifestyle to have, and I don’t think it’s for everyone. Being location-independent has made me realize just how much extra noise and baggage there is that we constantly allow into our lives.

I have mastered the art of Marie Kondo-ing my packing list; however, somewhere in the packing for my actual trips and bouncing between New York and Virginia ― where my parents live ― I’ve ended up with only six pairs of underwear.

Like, I don’t know where half my things are. Some of it is in New York across two or three apartments and the rest is in my parents’ basement in unmarked boxes. Packing for my actual trips has been easy. I know what feels good and what will last through two to three wears. I have mastered the art of Marie Kondo-ing my packing list; however, somewhere in the packing for my actual trips and bouncing between New York and Virginia ― where my parents live ― I’ve ended up with only six pairs of underwear. This is not a huge deal. I’ve learned to schedule in laundry and hand washes of undergarments, but the thing is, I have at least 20 other pairs ... somewhere. I am not a minimalist at all, but living out of one Away suitcase has proven to me that I don’t actually need a lot of the things I own to feel like I fit in, look good, or have enough. This has taught me the same for my relationships.

I go weeks without knowing when I am going to see my fiancé again or talk to some of my best friends. I am constantly missing out on what is actually happening in their lives in real-time because by the time we properly catch up, things get forgotten. On the flip side, I feel like I don’t really have anyone to share my experience with. Yes, that’s a huge part of traveling alone, but a lot of my close friends don’t really understand the experience ― because they haven’t had it. As problematic as Instagram can be, I’ve actually been able to use it to connect with other digital nomads to feel less alone. After being on the road for five months, I realize that I don’t need intimacy from a lot of people, but the people I do get it from, it needs to be nurturing and deep.

The same way I am learning to invest and rely on good-quality shoes and shirts to repeat every other day, I am more aware than ever that it’s important to invest in the very few people who bring so much light and love to my life.

When I was living in New York City, I was great at maintaining all my relationships ― friendships, acquaintances, long-distance friends. When I got on the road, I realized it’s not sustainable. I learned to honor my truest friends and allow for some not-so-close friendships to slip. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn because it means grappling with the feeling that I have somehow failed someone.

As a digital nomad, I have the flexibility to literally be wherever I want to be. When friends and family pick up on this, all of a sudden, I’m getting questions and plans thrown at me from all sides. I haven’t mastered the art of being selfish, spending time with people I love and actually “traveling.” I feel guilty when I bail on a friend’s birthday party because I canceled my six-hour train ride up to New York from Virginia out of sheer exhaustion. Or when I spontaneously decide to book a flight to Europe for a week (like I’m about to do) and have to have that conversation with my family again that I have this time and I want to make the most of it ― without them.

I constantly have FOMO, even when I am somewhere jaw-droppingly pretty. Sometimes it’s for the spontaneous drinks after work with a bestie in New York. Other times, it’s for an even more meaningful sense of community. When I was in Poland during the Kavanaugh hearing, I missed being in my newsroom with my colleagues and peers to comfort and help me get through the difficult time. Instead, I cried myself to sleep with the lights on for days, struggling to get out of my temporary apartment to see Krakow.

Sure, being lonely comes with the territory when you are a digital nomad, but being alone all the time doesn’t always mean being lonely. While I’ve had to learn to set the time aside, and account for time differences, to keep in touch with my close friends, I’ve learned the power of transient relationships. 

When I was in Switzerland, I made a female friend who was a bit younger and from New Hampshire. We ended up exploring the mountains together for three days ― hiking, ziplining and scootering. Turns out we see the world in a lot of the same ways and both studied ASL for no other reason than to learn it and were able to attempt conversations in sign language in the middle of Switzerland. We were connected for three days, and through being a digital nomad, I’ve learned that goodbyes are a part of life, but it doesn’t mean that the time spent together has to mean less.

A lot of people have asked me how I have the courage to do it: to forgo all routine, constantly leave my fiancé ― and most comforts ― to travel and live out of a suitcase. I have wanted this lifestyle for years now, and it essentially came down to a decision I could make now or wait and undertake a lot later in life. I decided on now. I recognize that I am extremely privileged to be able to travel full-time. I don’t have debt and I’m only accountable for myself right now. I know a lot of people quit their jobs to live this lifestyle, and I’m extremely lucky to work for a company who granted me the flexibility to live out this dream.

I’m shocked that I haven’t truly missed having my “own” place to come home to. Maybe that’s because I’ve been able to adapt my concept of home. I’ve decided that home for me is when I feel most comfortable in myself. At some point, “home” may be my life as a homebody or as a mother. Right now, it’s pursuing my passion for writing and exploration ― of self and world ― and constantly learning new things about who I am and who I am constantly becoming.

The author's "office" in Puerto Vallarta.
The author's "office" in Puerto Vallarta.

When no one is around to push me or witness me alone, I am inherently lazy. I am training myself through my extended time alone to be more disciplined and learn what productivity means to me. I’ve learned that my concept of feeling grounded is about time management and people, not a place.

For now, I am staying in the United States for a few weeks. I’ll be back in New York City for a week before I head to Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C. I’m learning the pleasure of revisiting places and experiencing them all over again but, this time, as a different version of myself.

And while I have been able to splurge a little bit here and there from the money I’ve managed to save, being a digital nomad isn’t necessarily just about having new, glamorous experiences. Instead, it’s about discovering things about myself, how I see the world and mastering the art of balance … and of course, the beautiful Instagram photos I take along the way.

This is part of an ongoing series where Sahaj navigates her adventurous dream of working remotely while exploring different parts of the world. Read her previous piece here, and feel free to email her with recommendations or curiosities at sahaj.kohli@huffpost.com, and follow along on her Instagram.

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