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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

What I've learned after nine months as a digital nomad

Six months after my first post reflecting on my newfound nomadic lifestyle, it’s time to re-reflect.


Where the hell am I?


I've been in Ukraine (currently Kyiv) since mid-January and am quickly approaching the three-month mark under visa-free status (which is my cue to leave). Having made a few Ukrainian friends on my travels and inspired by their descriptions, I decided to check out the country for myself.


I’ve spent time in Lviv, Kyiv, Odessa, and Mariupol (all among the top-ten largest cities), with a few day-long excursions to the snowy Carpathians for hiking, the semi-frozen Rata River in Velyki Mosty for kayaking, and the Chernobyl exclusion zone to attempt to grasp the magnitude of the disaster.


I’ve also found Ukrainians very easy to befriend and have been subjected to plenty of hospitality over these past few months. Although I knew very little about the country's history and ongoing issues (e.g., the significance of the Chernobyl disaster and conflict with Russia/invasion of Crimea) before arriving, I’ve learned a lot through the people I've met along the way.


What about coronavirus?


As someone who hit the road instead of sheltering in place in the middle of the pandemic, I asked myself more than a few times if traveling at the moment was shameful. I fully expected to receive backlash in the form of a negative comment on social media at some point in time, at least (which never happened).


Traveling for nonessential reasons outside your home country's borders (or on a much smaller scale—outside your town, city, or the four walls of your home) remains controversial (albeit to a lesser degree now), with many people insisting that it's irresponsible, end of story ("travel shaming").


But what's more ethically important? To avoid potentially contributing to the spread of the virus, or supporting the wavering tourism industry? The issue is not so black and white to me. I'm not talking about the airlines and rich hotel chains that will survive regardless, but the small business owners who run guesthouses and homestays or work as guides in low- and middle-income countries, in particular (and who don't receive financial aid from their governments).


In theory, we could help these workers without visiting their establishments by donating money online (here are some of Charity Navigator's recommended Covid-19 nonprofits), but the fact is that many workers/businesses (especially in low-income countries) will not be reached by these charities, and motivating people to donate is really damn hard (see upcoming rant below). By choosing to sleep in a homestay for a while, not only am I giving money directly to the owner but to the other small businesses in the vicinity of where I'm staying.


All this being said, my stance is that those who do choose to travel right now are being supportive, not shameful.


In the third wave of the pandemic, I know enough people who've contracted Covid—the irony is that many of them basically stayed home aside from periodic adventures to the supermarket. I managed to evade Covid (and hard lockdowns) for almost nine months of travel through Greece, Albania, and North Macedonia before Covid finally caught up with me here in Ukraine in mid-March.


I’m surprised it took this long to catch it (let’s face it—I was knocking on Covid’s door for a while now), and I’m extremely grateful that I bounced back so quickly. Through a combination of rest and superfoods, my body fended it off within less than a week, with the result of feeling better than before I had it.


Fundraising: less fun than the name suggests


I wrote a few posts on social media promoting my GoFundMe campaign for my good friends Dona and Beni, who run a very modest campsite called Albturist Eco Camping in Përmet, Albania. My goal was to help them towards building a guesthouse on their property, which would facilitate hosting guests year-round. This incentive quickly proved to be an uphill battle.


For those who followed my social media stories, I’m sure I sound like a broken record by reiterating this message, but I don’t want to give up on the campaign—I just needed to take a break from it. I actually lost sleep over trying to devise new ways to reframe the fundraiser and persuade people I know to donate, but, to be honest, it mostly felt like screaming into a void.


Given the unpredictable course of the pandemic, I realize that it’s been a stressful past year for most people (mainly psychologically, but possibly financially for those working in certain sectors), so I expected it to be difficult to motivate people to donate, and I’ve tried not to guilt friends into it. But the fact is, despite the pandemic, most of us Westerners are still in the position to donate what amounts to a coffee at Starbucks or a craft beer from a microbrewery.


Solving global crises that affect the masses will always be the priority, but the small-scale struggles people face shouldn’t be overlooked, and as I've already pointed out, those who solely rely on income from tourism especially need the extra help right now.


Pros and cons revisited


Although I've been silent on my blog for a while (as in, almost six months—*facepalm*), I've been productive in other ways. I'm super happy to report that all the pros I mentioned previously still exist, and a few of the predicted cons haven't really proven to be issues. There's still no doubt in my mind that working fully remotely and flying by the seat of my pants was the right choice.


A few things that stick out:


I've become better at balancing work with travel. I've made the most progress in this respect––I'm totally confident that I can maintain my lifestyle from a financial perspective while still having ample time to adventure and socialize. I'm not able to consistently train my chosen sport (i.e., bouldering/climbing) as often as I would like (due to either lack of gyms and/or lockdown restrictions), but I've accepted it as one of the compromises and train when the facilities are accessible.


I'm not as lonely as I thought I'd be. Feelings of loneliness ebb and flow, but thanks to an awesome international circle of good friends and family, as well as new friends who enter the changing picture, I'm never without love, kindness, and support. I'm extremely grateful to these people and have done my best to prioritize maintaining these relationships.


I can't forget strangers––those I've had a passing positive interaction with have also played a role in my day-to-day level of joy and inspire me. I've been warmly received everywhere I've gone and have been the recipient of numerous small acts of kindness, which I always try to pay forward.


I still feel a bit lost from time to time (both in the literal and non-literal sense). The non-literal sense has to do with determining where and how to spend my energy in the future, both in terms of my career and physical challenges, which also drive me (like climbing and mountaineering).


However, there's a big difference in feeling lost while stagnant vs feeling lost while on the move––the latter is so much more fun. Cover photo credit: Sviatoslav Motren

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