Digital nomad: Two years of combining work and travelling

19. October, 2015

The last couple of years I have been fortunate to travel a lot. I have spent approximately 10 months each year outside of Denmark in 15 different countries. I have lived and stayed at places in the span of a few days up to 10 months. I have been to countries very different from Denmark and I have visited European metropolises reminiscing home. I have worked at offices in boring environments, at cafés, and in awesome co-working spaces.

All this I have done in an attempt of working at the same time – not just by myself but with my girlfriend Michelle. As a conclusion to my adventures, I would love to share my experience with all of you, and I can already conclude that I am not done with travelling and working. ☺

This article might seem long so I have divided it into sections – jump directly between them if you find some of it a bit too heavy or simply not interesting.  Total estimated reading time for the article is around 10 minutes.

  1. Where I have lived (including periods of time, type of housing, benefits and downsides)
  2. 10 things I have learned from travelling this way
  3. How I want to travel in the future
  4. 5 recommendations if you want to combine working and travelling
  5. 10 pictures that reminds me of why it has been worth it
  6. Conclusion

How I lived the last couple of years

Place: Beijing, China

Digital Nomad

The first placed we ever lived outside of Denmark, and where our desire for living this way was born. In 2012, my girlfriend and I went to Beijing to spend a year because of her Master’s degree. We always dreamed of living abroad, and all of a sudden we had the opportunity. Beijing seemed to be the perfect fit to our exotic expectations.

Period of time: 10 months, 2012-2013

Type of housing: Permanent apartment which we found through a real estate agency. Entirely normal lease as we know it, where you pay a deposit and sign a normal contract. To a large extent furnished, but without sheets, microwave oven, a couple of lamps which we bought ourselves. We did not get back all of our deposit, but it is China after all☺.  All things considered, the rent was really cheap, but in extra expenses we did end up paying quite a bit, so a residential solution as the one in Barcelona would have been more economic appropriate (Airbnb, see more below).

Office: Found a spot at a Danish company who were willing to give me a desk for free, but with 4 hours of total travel time each day during rush hour, it was not worth the trouble. Mainly, I worked from home. It was extremely difficult to find office communities in China.

Benefits:

  • Big plus on the adventure account
  • Something crazy happens every day in the streets of Beijing
  • Your senses are severely sharpened
  • It’s a challenge settling down in a place so different
  • We learned a lot about not only China, but also ourselves
  • Experiencing the everyday life in such a different culture is truly an eye-opener
  • You eat stuff you don’t know what is ☺

Downsides:

  • We had never been to Beijing before – we probably should have visited the city before deciding to live there
  • The winter was really tough and depressive (extremely cold, windy and polluted) – 10 times the Danish winter but with pollution too
  • Too few “western” places to flee to when you had enough of China (for this, Shanghai would have been a better option). This point is a bit embarrassing, but Beijing is just so intense, that sometimes I felt like this.
  • Extremely difficult to find good offices / co-working spaces and to find friends / creating a social life – you may at times feel very isolated and lonely because of this.

Place: Barcelona, Spain

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Post-Beijing, we were at home in Denmark for a year. We have an apartment on Frederiksberg in the centre of Copenhagen, but after throwing in the towel* with a start-up I tried to get going and my girlfriend finished her studies, we were ready to start a new adventure outside Denmark. We decided that this time it should be something exquisite, comfortable and easier than China. Our new home should be Barcelona which we had been visiting consistently for a couple of years in connection to Refuga*. In the aftermath of our travelling, we have come back to Barcelona again and again, and it has gradually become our second home.

Period of time: 5 months, 2014

Type of housing: We found a wonderful apartment on Airbnb in an area without too many tourists and after some negotiation, we managed to drive down the price. Fully furnished plug’n’play place with everything we needed in terms of kitchen utensils, towels and bedding – unlike in China.

Office: 3-4 days a week at Regus, rest of the working hours at café or from home.

Benefits

  • Extremely comfortable and way easier than China – all the things we wanted
  • Fantastic city which was amazing to live in and feel the everyday life of
  • Lovely to experience the seasons change, and with somewhat milder weather than in Denmark
  • Mountains right in our backyard where we used to jog 4-5 times a week
  • Very relaxed. Even if we worked 8-10 hours a day, it was very relaxing. As an example of this, we used to go to a small coffee shop every morning with the rest of the regulars

Downsides

  • Almost too comfortable. Barcelona – and Europe in general – is very easy, nice and comfortable to approach, but we lacked adventures.

Place: Morocco

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We kick-started 2015 by going to Morocco almost right after new years evening, because Refuga had a trip to Morocco in January. Our initial thought by this travel was to get our need for adventure satisfied, so we didn’t really plan on how long to stay there nor had we an idea of what was coming to us – we just wanted to let life do its thing to us.

Period of time: 1, 5 months

Type of housing: None. We were just travelling all around and we managed to overnight in both the Atlas Mountains, by the sea, at the house assigned from Refuga, and in incredible Marrakech. All in all, we were about five different places in 40 days (we decided to rent a car).

Office: None, wherever we were. During our journey, we did work 10 days at a co-working / co-living place in a small surfer / fishing village where we really worked our asses off.

Benefits:

  • Nice to feel an adventure again, where something crazy would happen all the time
  • Compressed travel where we in 40 days experienced a lot of different stuff in this amazing country.
  • I fell in love with Morocco
  • Overall an unforgettable experience
  • Even if it was just one and a half month, we were so many places meeting so many people that I will always have a relationship to the country.

Downsides:

  • Hard/almost impossible to establish a proper working routine when you get so many adventures under your skin in such a short amount of time.

Place: Santiago, Chile

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After Morocco, we went to Brazil, where my girlfriend has family, since it was a while since our last visit. As we earlier used to travel in Brazil, we knew it was a possibility to cross the border to one of the neighbour countries, so we wanted to visit at least one of the other countries nearby.  Spontaneously, we ended up in Chile because it was easy to find a co-working space and because we knew that our place in Santiago would be next to a mountain side.

Period of time: 2 months

Type of housing: Apartment booked on Airbnb in advance. Super easy and straight forward, even though it would have been cooler to live at someone private and learn about Chile, since we didn’t get to see much of the country.

Office: Big co-working space filled with entrepreneurs.

Benefits:

  • Two months of concentrated work served us well. We did line up the office and apartment in advance, so once again a very plug’n’play experience.
  • Amazing nature right in our backyard

Downsides:

  • The city was way too generic – Too much as we knew it from back home. When travelling so far from home, it has to be a bit more different.
  • Way too much focus on work. We worked around 11 hours a day, so we did not have much time left for travelling around the country, and then it suddenly becomes a bad idea travelling so far away.

 

Extras

Beside the abovementioned, we have in periods of 1-21 days been to Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal, Tanzania, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Russia, and Singapore. It has been through Refuga, on weekend visits, places where we did stay and work for a week or two, and other forms of travelling.

 

10 things I have learned from travelling full-time

1. It’s definitely not as easy and exotic as many “digital nomads” are presenting it as

Many obstacles and frustrations can occur travelling and working at the same time. In theory, you are trying to combine things counterintuitive intentions. It is troublesome and expensive moving around all the time. You get into neighbourhoods and residences that are not as expected, and it takes a lot of energy to adjust. People often get the picture that living and working this way is very exotic, but that is not always true. Expecting everything to work out by itself will make you learn the hard way.

2. Clear priorities is a must

It took us a while settling our priorities. When we started this, we wanted to travel, be extremely committed to our projects, while I was doing sports on a high level. But it just is impossible to do so many things 100%, so you need to have your priorities straight. Through our experiences this year, we have learned that working should be our number one priority. It has been like that all the time, but we need to be better at having travelling as a definite second priority, and we do that by lowering our number of travels – more about that in the conclusion.

3. 2 times 80% is still more than 1 time 100%

Even with clear priorities, you are after all still trying to combine two things. My experience is that if you want to do something 100%, for example going all in on your company, you need to have an uncompromising attitude, and then it’s for no use to visit 10 different countries in a very short time span. That being said, you can get the best of both worlds. By lowering your ambitions just a tad, it is possible to both travel and work at the same time. 2 times 80% is after all more than 100%.

4. Everything is easier with good planning

We have been planning differently for our future at different occasions. It feels good to be spontaneous, but when you at the same time need to focus on your job, you have to plan it. By planning and scheduling well, you are making it easier for yourself. And by good planning, all I insinuate is that you do it early so you don’t get caught by surprises. For example, by travelling with Airbnb and just doing a small amount of internet research beforehand, it is super easy to move in a new place, but as it comes closer to travel time, the harder it gets to schedule.

5. Travelling equals education

The more I travel, the more fascinated I have become by this world. The more I travel, the more optimistic I become. I delude myself into believing that the more I travel, the more tolerant I become. To me, travelling is the wildest form of education. Fuck MBA, fuck online courses, fuck start-up accelerators. If you really want to learn stuff about yourself and our world, all you have to do is travel. If everyone travelled to foreign regions, we would all understand each other a lot better, and the world would have fewer issues to deal with. The most interesting, tolerant and open people I have met, are people who have lived outside their own country for a shorter or longer amount of time – I am a big advocate for having an obligated travel like this as an implemented part of high school, especially in the global world we live in today.

6. We are more alike than different

In Morocco, we met an American woman who was rather successful in the advertising industry in New York but was about to quit just to break free and travel. She said that one of the things she learned by travelling was that “we are more alike than different”, and I find that quote extremely well said. It connects to the idea that education equals travelling. The more we travel, the more we understand that people are alike despite different cultures.

7. Without a physical base, you will have to find base somewhere else

When you move around a lot, you have to be careful that you don’t become rootless. My limit for what I call home has started to change, and when I am in Denmark I don’t feel as much at home as I used to do. Denmark is the place I was born, but where do I actually belong now? That feeling of being rootless might lead to something good, I believe. When you don’t have a permanent physical base, you have to find another base mentally. Without having a 100% permanent physical base, I have been forced to find tranquillity and balance in myself, and during the many years of travelling I am starting to become more self-contained than ever.

8. I am extremely fortunate

Being Danes, we are extremely lucky. We are the richest and happiest country in the world. When you travel, you are easily reminded that many places are not as good as Denmark. Many people around the world have entirely different limitations, and when you experience that, you start to appreciate your own life. We are easily granted visa for every place on the earth, but other nations are not that lucky. To me it is a privilege to live this way and I cannot allow myself to miss out on an opportunity like this. My girlfriend and I remind ourselves how lucky we are each and every week.

9. The unusual makes you happy

I truly believe you become happier, when you travel and experience something new. Even when I have lived in Denmark, I have followed one simple rule of living* which is visiting at least four new countries every year. When I have been living in Denmark, things get the same very easily. You know everything so well, so your senses aren’t sharpened and you don’t notice the small things in life. Being in a new place, you notice languages, scents, the weather, and a lot of other stuff. I get that feeling visiting Barcelona which is very alike classic Danish environment – when it’s another country, it will always be a little foreign to you, and your senses are automatically sharpened. These things make me happier. I often feel happier, because I notice every small thing of the everyday life.

10. Go for the life that fits you

Just because Denmark is the place you are born, it does not necessarily mean it’s the place that will make you the happiest or the place that will grant you most opportunities. Living this way has been a pursuit on both a lifestyle and a place that fits us and makes us happy. As with many other things in life, you need certain experiences to learn stuff about yourself, and by living abroad in both shorter and longer periods of time, I really believe that I have gained some experiences which I can use for the lifestyle I want to practice.  When I haven’t worked in front of my computer, my job has been travelling with Refuga.

 

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When I’m not travelling myself, I’m travelling with Refuga :-)

5 recommendations if you want to combine working and travelling

Based on my experiences so far I have gathered a few recommendations if you want to combine your work-life with adventure.

1. Seize the opportunity properly

I feel like a lot of digital nomads like me tend to travel a lot to places where they will only meet people like themselves. Many will only pursue the great weather and cheap prices. It might be tempting with an easy, pleasurable experience, but if you only go for that, I think you will miss out on a great opportunity. You have the option to really learn stuff about yourself and the world we live in by going to places very different from Denmark. It is always nice with some beach and luxury life, but you can easily balance those two things. Even though I spend a lot of time in Barcelona, it is almost too easy. We have just now started our scheduling of 2016, and we have an insatiable hunger for adventure.

2. Travel as it fits you

There is no right or wrong way to travel. If you decide to live like this, you have a great opportunity to do whatever you want. So travel as it fits you, but make sure to get out of the comfort zone from time to time.

3. Make sure to have an economic buffer

When you travel like this, you don’t really know what might happen to you, so I highly recommend to have some economic backup just in case. If you lose some costumers, it might be harder to get new customers if you are abroad. If something goes wrong, you will always have economy for a couple of months, and it will make your life easier knowing that you have this buffer.

4. Make it as easy for yourself as possible

Unless you are 100% determined living the same place for a long time, I will recommend sites like Airbnb any day of the week to make sure you get what you want. It might be a little bit more expensive in the short run, but in the long run it might turn out the cheapest because of local arrangements and bureaucracy. That’s also why I travel on tourist visa (please notice that this might give you trouble in places like Thailand, because you need working visa to work in co-working spaces). That is also why I have found helpers via Elance, so they can help me plan or answer if I have any questions about the country which I do not speak the language of. This is something that really helped me.

5. Do it – at least for just a short amount of time

I cannot stress enough how much I can recommend this. I guarantee you won’t regret it, and you will learn more than in the same period at home. If you have the opportunity and the lust to do it, I highly recommend that you just go right now.

 

10 pictures that reminds me of why it has been worth it

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Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro with Refuga (photo by my friend Lars)

 

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Having my mom visit us in Beijing was a great experience!

 

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Enjoying the fireplace at a refugium in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco after being caught in a snowstorm – with good friends!

 

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Experiencing the Brazilian carnival while visiting some family

 

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 Sleeping on a polish field during a road trip through Eastern Europe

 

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From the last day on our first international Refuga trip – A great experience that kickstarted me working on Refuga full-time.

 

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Goats in a tree in Morocco. This is exactly what I love about this country :-)

 

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Eating a Sunday lunch with the family we work with for our Spain location.

 

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A break from the office in Santiago, Chile. That country has some incredible nature.

 

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Swimming in a lake near our spanish location. Pure freedom.

Conclusion

If I have to draw a conclusion over the past two years of travelling and living outside Denmark, the overriding statement would be that it was totally worth it. It’s not a perfect lifestyle, but it is a way to learn about our world and ourselves. To me, it has been an educational journey where I have been gradually more certain on how to live in the future. I did not find the recipe to the perfect lifestyle, but I have become wiser, and I know what my next steps in life are.

Next year I still want to travel, but in a way so we spend 5-6 months each place. It’s the amount of time that has worked best for me. Without revealing where we are going exactly, I can tell you that we are going to places with the right combination of good working conditions and room for adventures.

In the long run, it’s difficult to tell where we will settle down. Denmark is still our home after all, and where our families live, so we might end up there, but nothing is safe to say.

One of the main conclusions is that long time travelling like this is a fantastic way to learn about yourself and the world around you. I wouldn’t swap my last couple of years for anything in the world.

Also, two other things came to my mind when writing this post: 1) I’m never sitting by a computer on the pictures that gives me the best memories. 2) A very big part of my best experiences has been with Refuga. Food for thought :-)

Nikolaj Astrup Madsen I am the founder of Refuga. I'm danish, but I'm traveling the world while building Refuga and whenever I have time I go for a run in the mountains. I hope you will join me on this journey!

4 Responses to “Digital nomad: Two years of combining work and travelling”

  1. Kevin says:

    Hi Nikolaj!
    I’m sooo impressed by your blog!
    So I’ve been on a similar journey this year, travelling round the globe to places like Chile, Brazil, and Dubai. Now I am in London for 2 years, and travelled to Denmark – a place I love!
    I wanted to inquire about finding stability within yourself. I like that you said, as you travel, you have found out what way is best to your life for the future years (it’s funny how sometimes you have to go on a journey to find these things out), and currently I’m experiencing a lot of stress from having moved around so much. But wonder how you made yourself the base? For me, I feel stressed that I’m on the move, but I do enjoy the experience, as I first lived abroad in Korea for a year – this is what sparked it all off.

    Thanks for your blog, and sharing!
    Regards,
    Kevin.

  2. Peter says:

    Great story, Nikolaj. I especially liked your honesty with downsides of each location.

  3. Priya Fernandes says:

    Hi Nikolaj,

    My husband, Edwin and I left MNC jobs to live the life out of the rat race. We both find the concept of worcation very intriguing. Hope to join you for a trip soon.

  4. Rajesh says:

    Hi Nikolaj,
    A very inspiring write up! Its lucidity and honesty will definitely provoke some introspection in all who reads this..
    Good luck in all your endeavours!!

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