People tend to put backpacker, traveller, digital nomad and location independent in the same category.
Can I tell you guys a secret?
It’s the same one I told my partner last night, and I had the same twist-gut feeling telling him as I now do telling you guys.
I’ve never been a backpacker.
My partner and I are starting to prepare a road trip across Central and South America, and I felt like I owed him the truth.
I romanticise my story of how I came to live in Central America. I ditched all my belongings, packed my backpack, flew to the other side of the world and magically fell into an online job that just happened to support my free-spirit nomad lifestyle.
That’s not exactly what happened.
From my very first day studying journalism and professional writing in university, one of my tutors said “you all need to start getting published, like, now. You need as much experience as you can. Anywhere you can get it. Start now. Start today.”
I started harassing publications I vibed with to publish me. One particular publication paid me in gift vouchers for the supermarket which I used for groceries, and most paid me nothing at all. I wrote most of my articles from 12am-3am, the only time I had between my two retail and hospitality jobs, and studying.
I flew from Perth to Sydney for an unpaid internship at Australia’s largest independent women’s media group.
For accomodation, flights, and all the expenses, I spent something like $5000 dollars, on my retail-job wage. I needed another internship after that, around 2015, and that’s when I got connected via a mutual friend with the founder of Salty Souls, Erika Drolet, who was just about to launch the first round of experiences.
She needed someone to write engaging content. I needed someone to write engaging content for.
I interned for Salty Souls for a year, writing articles. Part of the exchange was I would fly to El Salvador and participate in the retreats for free. There would be an opportunity to discuss a paid position after a year. Remember, this was before Salty had even been launched yet. We had no idea how it would go.
“Yes, I’m in!” I remember firing back to Erika in an email after receiving the invitation.
“Dad?” I picked up the phone a minute later “where is El Salvador?”
I came to El Salvador with the mission to turn my internship into a paid job. To explore a new part of the world, yes, to learn and grow and keep my eyes open.
But mostly, I wanted that job.
I knew I had wanted to work location independent since I was 17 and doing a road trip with my dad and stepmom from Adelaide, Australia, to Cairns. Earlier in the year I had moved my university online and was listening to my ‘journalism ethics’ lecture on my phone in the backseat of the car, writing notes on my hand. I loved the feeling of being productive and on the move at the same time. More than anything, I loved that as long as I had some sort of screen that connected to the internet, I could go anywhere on the planet I wanted to. I knew then I needed my future work to be location independent. I wouldn’t settle for anything less.
Being the free spirited traveller/ nomad/ expats who works a little bit on the side so she can surf, has been the biggest misconception I think I’ve projected since I got here.
Because I’m still as ambitious as I ever was, and have been since the moment I touched down in El Salvador, three years ago.
It’s true, as the living costs were lower, I didn’t have to work 3 jobs at the same time to keep myself afloat. That meant more time to connect with people, to learn to surf, to start to get the taste of Spanish on my tongue. But that wasn’t a seperate entity to my ambition. It was a part of it. My life served as a creative boost, and I got inspiration in the water, amongst new people, in the depths of challenging times where I felt myself being stretched way beyond my zones of comfort. Inhale. Then I retreated into my bubble and alchemized my experiences into writing, into new ideas, into plans. Exhale.
I have been breathing like that ever since.
It sounds symbiotic, and sometimes it is, but sometimes time it’s not.
A lot of backpacker/ travel culture is built around drinking and partying. I really haven’t been into the drink-til-you-drop culture since I was 15-16 and sneaking out of my mothers house to go meet my friends and drink cheap vodka and kiss boys in the local park at midnight (how am I still alive?)
Because of this, I have knowingly missed out on a lot of connection and experiences while living here. All those times I shut myself in my room and favoured creating something, or working on something, or being alone so I could let the ideas percolate without getting drowned out by the noise of others. All the times I didn’t attend a party that was happening in the town, or didn’t sit down at the kitchen table to spend a few hours talking with guests (remember, I lived in a hybrid small guest house/ hostel thing), or all those time I responded a “not today” message on my phone from a new friend saying “would you like to come have drinks?” Even if alcohol wasn’t the main event, I still turned down a lot of invitations.
There have been times I have had the opportunity to take connections further, make friendships deepen and more solid through the pure investment of time, and I have opted not to, instead opting to invest my time in creating.
I do have years of memories and connections and friendships from living here. Of course I routinely remind myself to get my head out of my ass and to go connect. I remind myself humans were made to live in community and not in solitude, and I need to connect with people off-screen as well.
Sometimes I need to shake it all off and play and be silly and get amongst nature or talk about dumb shit with someone until your gut hurts from laughing. Actually, in a weird way, stepping away actually fuels the creative process more.
Not everything has to have an end goal, not EVERYTHING has to be written about or alchemized.
Especially with my partner, who is one of the most social people I’ve ever met and who recharges in groups of people, I’ve learnt to surrender (a bit) and reap the richness of being around a group of people that genuinely gives a shit about you.
I feel insecure about that a lot. That there’s so many interesting people arriving to Central America, eyes wide open, ready to connect and adventure, and I’m in my weekly routine, getting stressed about sales targets and deadlines, in the same food-stained dress I’ve worn for 5 days straight.
So, yeah, I fear I have missed out.
But then, none of my poems or articles would have ever been written. I wouldn’t have built my small online community I adore. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have got to know myself so well that when I DO commit to a connection with someone, I know exactly who I am as I enter it, and can connect deeply and truly.
In 2017 I became the part-owner of my first business, The Salty Club. I never knew just how much time went into creating a business. I read the entrepreneurial magazines and followed a tonne of #GirlBoss insta’s and thought it was as simple as coming up with a cool product you were passionate about and firing off a few social media posts a week, and your community would jump in with you.
If you’ve checked out the club, follow us on insta, or are a maybe, maybe you see the content, the design, the posts, the cute visuals and messages we share.
But behind that is thousands of hours of work. Tens of thousands of messages between the team, brainstorming and sharing ideas and streamlining and listening to feedback and discussing how to implement it. It’s hours having to discuss and re-discuss ideas and budgets and plans and bugs in the system and sort through personal or creative differences.
It’s hours or days or weeks spent sometimes crippling doubt at the fact that though we’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars of our own money at this point, we’re still just breaking even, and haven’t even made back our initial investment yet.
If you’re starting your own business it isn’t a decision to take lightly.
Many take years to get off the ground and many never even lift off the runway. I believe in what we’ve created and I believe in our vision to combine the five elements of growth under one roof to help people unleash their greatness. Seeing the posts from our community doing the workouts, the yoga classes, the masterclasses, is proof of that (not to mention so, so uplifting and exciting.) But it’s going to take time and patience. And I’m down with that.
But it will have to come at a cost. Time is the only thing you can’t get back, or however that saying goes.
This might sound contradictory now when I say if I lost it all tomorrow, I wouldn’t die.
My followers and community are so nice, and I’m so grateful. My job, where I get to write poems and articles for a living, is nice. The business has been one of the most profound love experiences of my life. I adore all of them dearly, but also know if I lost it all tomorrow, I’m okay. I’m still whole and worthy. My productivity, success or what I output doesn’t define me. I am so much more than anything I do or achieve in my work life. As Liz Gilbert said in big magic, “It has to be the most important thing in the world. And the least important, too.”
So it’s not really the finished product and the outcomes of that finished product I do it for, then.
It’s for the act of creating itself.
The inhale of experiencing and feeling and thinking. The exhale of using my unique experiences to share with my community and hopefully create something beautiful. This, is when I feel most free.
I can’t do one without the other. If I have no fresh inspiration, fresh air, fresh experiences or new feelings, I can’t exhale. I can’t inhale if I’m stuck at home in an office.
And that is why I have made this life this way. I don’t want to sit on a hammock all day. Conversely, I don’t want to become another cog in the capitalist system that believes her productivity defines her worth and succeeds for the sake of success. Somewhere in the middle is good for me.
Being a digital nomad, working location independent and building a business overseas is not computers and coconuts. It’s confusion. Also, it’s intense scrutiny of your value system, your purpose and your morals. It’s challenging and a lot of guilt and FOMO and boundary-setting. It’s knowing that while you can have anything you want, you can’t have everything. And that is ok.
Mark Manson says that life is like a whack-a-mole of problems, as soon as you whack one problem, another one arises. I didn’t like working inside, so I moved to the beach. I didn’t like the rules and regulations in Australia, I sometimes struggle with the organized chaos in Central America. The beach was full of backpackers, I couldn’t concentrate on my work, drinking made me sad the next day. I put up more boundaries to concentrate on work- I felt shut off from the community. I created a life that lets me surf- I feel guilty my partner is still working in a gruelling government job in a small Guatemalan town, sweating through his suits. My partner gets some time off to come hang at the beach- I worry he’ll find me boring compared to the fun other travelers.
The Buddhists call it Samsara, the cycle of dissatisfaction and pain that comes from desire and ignorance. Desire for my business to grow. Desire for things to be a certain way. Desire to never be uncomfortable.
Get some real problems, some of you might say. Actually, I had a friend say almost exactly that this week.
Basically, no matter what life you choose, there’ll always be some bullshit.
I will just say happy and grateful this is my bullshit to deal with.