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Remote roving and digital drudgery, part 1

This experiment has been 3 years in the making now, it's high time I write about digital nomadism.

Time is very much relative. You needn't take a hit of DMT to figure this out, get up, start a chronometer, close your eyes and go to the kitchen.

Seriously, do it.

It took me 18 seconds, but it sure didn't feel like that. It took me twice as long to write this sentence, but I have no memory of that time passing.

Time, both felt in the moment and remembered in memory, is highly subjective. I fear that once every moment of my day is part of a routine, I will die.

In the very real sense of getting used to it so much, that every minute, hour, day, week, year rushes by without me noticing. Before I know it I am sitting in a doctor's office being told I have a few weeks to live. Realizing I must use those weeks to make up for the lost conscious experience of a lifetime.

Last week was a really depressing week for me, I got injured, it was raining heavily all day, I was overall in a kinda shitty mood. As always, I did a lot of "conceptual" work, writing, talking, coding, reading, listening. But, as opposed to what would have happened 3 years ago, I also managed to interact with the undigitized matter that still constitutes most of reality.

I visited a national museum with some impressive taxidermy and an exhibit about communism in a prison-like room. I also walked around the less flattering local modern art and medicine museums. I scooted up to and ogled at a (rather grotesque) gigantic cathedral. I walked around two bazaars in search of stimulation. I ran around trying to find a print shop that could read the ancient technology of CD. I tried a new fruit and 3 or 4 new dishes, I held a short (50 hours ?) fast. I pranced around some bits of the city I had yet to see. I struggled to buy drugs with labels written in languages resistant to character recognition.

Last week was a somewhat unrepresentative dull week of travelling for me. If I were to stretch my memory a few weeks back I could talk about birds courting under the Haga Sophia dome, armies of fishermen on the Galata bridge, gigantic communist monuments scattered around uninhabited mountains, walking on top sprawling ruins almost 3 millennia old, rap battles between mosques, 1-handed driving at 140km/h on barely-paved winding mountain roads, hiking through large medieval cities carved in cliffs and a hundred other similar things.

But enumerating countless list-worthy moments is missing the point

What I care about is the shittiest of weeks, those when I'm injured, under the weather, underfeed, overburdened with work and sad. I don't want to lose those weeks, I don't want to fall into an immobile pattern and reduce conscious experience to a handful of moments when I fool myself into thinking I'm making a choice or seeing something unusual.

Does travelling accomplish this?

I don't know. But the last 3 years have certainly made me wonder why it took me 22 to notice that living is an active process, not an immutable fact. Or that the sequence of qualia I experience as time is much more detailed and pleasant when most of them are novel.

i - Working while travelling

One issue people commonly have with travelling is how they are going to accomplish anything while at it. Doing stuff is important because a sense of “progress” and “achievement” is required to keep you sane and, more pressingly, because maintaining a travelling lifestyle requires an income stream, which for most of us is primarily our job.

The introspective solution for this is realizing how pointless most of the “work” you are doing is. Once you get a bit detached it’s fairly easy to see how most of the stuff you label as “work” isn’t contributing to anything, or is circular.

You need to spend time cleaning and improving your home because you have one. You need to spend time doing aerobic exercise because your commute and work schedule makes it so that you end up sitting too much. You need that boring gig for extra money because you’re living in an overpriced city and clawing away at depression by buying expensive “services” all the time. You need to take that expensive vacation to Ibiza or you'll burn out.

The reality-altering solution for this also involves that same realization, but this time as part of an organization undergoing it, i.e. a distributed company.

Finding distributed companies is hard. We are not at the level of robotics and automation where most jobs can be done entirely digitally. Unless you work in fields where that's doable, you'd need to change fields. I was lucky enough to work in such a field already.

So how hard is it to work remotely while travelling instead of doing it from one place? Well, if you've experienced remote work already, it's not much harder.

It involves being able to adjust your workflow to your new time zone. I need to be a night owl when I'm towards Asian time zones and I need to try and become a morning person if I head towards the west. If your company is distributed you probably already have some of the toolings to help with this, in the form of preferring async communication, having an achievement-based rather than time-based employee and team evaluation process and knowing how to schedule around timezones/breaks and turn them into pluses by getting better coverage and dealing with issues sequentially.

It's harder to peer code or do high-bandwidth communication with a distributed company, that's obvious. But one thing that I can do which most people in offices can't even dream of is work sequentially on a project without wasting time. If I have to work on 1 and 3, and my co-worker has to do 2 and 4, and they must be done sequentially and take roughly a day. What would have been a 4-day job, now becomes 2 days, as long as our schedules don't overlap and I PR my stuff by the time she's ready to start work.

Finally, it involves extending your schedule for communication, I will often log onto slack as soon as I'm done with my morning exercises and not log off until I close my laptop to prepare for sleep. This can be a "bad" habit if you are stuck home all day, but working in "phases" through the day and accepting the fact that background requests that I can deal with easily will pop up is another tradeoff I find quite seamless. While writing this chapter I replied to 2x people in slack to resolve some issues, it took me less than a minute each time. This might be problematic if you're really bad at context-switching, but otherwise, it's a skill you can probably learn.

Ultimately you don't need all of this to work successfully while travelling, they are just tools to keep in mind and skills to hone; I'm certainly missing some.

In regards to actually finding remote work, I've been asked to write and often wished I could cite an article about this topic as it pertains to programming. It's in the making, it will be out at some point this year.

ii - Setting up while travelling

The next issue which comes about is one of setting up your "environment" for working and living.

The solution I found for this involves bringing a few essential items with me to facilitate any routine I might have and allow me to have a decent laptop setup.

For me, this means carrying around a tiny yoga mat, some resistance bands, a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, a lapel microphone, a < 1kg laptop and a high-quality bluetooth speaker.

I also bring consumables which I keep stocked in the form of toothbrushes, toothpaste, nail-clipper, shaving razors, a few aromas, my daily supplements, some tea and so on.

These items alone are not enough to make a place feel like home, but they can work in tandem with what the place I've booked contains to make a home. For example, I never set up my workplace the same way. Sometimes I make a makeshift standing desk, other times I have a normal desk, other times I slouch on the couch or bed with my laptop and yet other times I work mostly from cafes.

Nor is my routine always the same, it changes based on my physique, mood, location and available facilities. My morning exercises are significantly different if my hotel has a gym, or if I live next to the sea, or if I have a bunch of beautiful hikes nearby.

The items I carry are there because I noticed they interact well with any environment to help me get into a routine that's not too alien and to allow me a bare minimum fallback. For example, if I were to get quarantined for 10 days in my current tiny hotel room in the UK due to a false positive on my day 2 covid test, I would go a bit insane, but I'd be in a much better situation than if I had none of these things with me. I'd at least be able to set up a workout routine, drug myself to sleep, have the supplements required to use the time for a prolonged fast and spend time on work without destroying my back from doing it 14 hours a day in one position.

Ultimately, setting up a living space requires a lot of flexibility on your end, both in terms of irregular activities, routine and feeling overall "comfortable" in whatever place you are.

This, I am told, might be a useful skill to have, since I'm not guaranteed that life will always offer me an ideal living space. Even more, it teaches me how few things I need to have a comfortable existence, and the amount of flexibility I have in terms of settings I enjoy. There are many places I lived in that I'd be happy spending my whole life in; They were all unique, the nice things each had, as well as how they synergized with my life, were quite different and often distinct.

One final note here is to never forget that "permanent" items can be bought for cheap and used as disposable. For example, if I'm ever again living on a sub-tropical island during "winter" I will be sure to buy a convection heater for occasional cold nights and decreasing humidity. It's not something I can afford to lug around, but who cares, it costs at most 50$, I can just leave it in my room when I leave.

Same can be said about the cardboard boxes you use to prop your laptop or a v60 you may wish to have handy if you are staying in a place with very nice local coffee.

iii - Never drink the tap water

Never drink the fucking tap water.

Don't drink it in Nepal or India or Vietnam because you might outright die, or at least contribute towards a very nasty case of heavy-metal poisoning while fucking up your gut flora.

Don't drink it in Tbilisi or Istanbul either. People will tell you "oh it's fine, I do it all the time", and then you'll read about how 5% of the water sampled had very high levels of giardia or how potable and wastewater had been mixing for 6 days and it was only now observed.

Don't even drink it in Berlin or Paris or London. Maybe it's fine, but have you checked the plumbing for the old building you're renting? Even first world water treatment leaves some background level of pathogens in, and some are picked up from the pipes, and your body might not be used to them.

The reason you shouldn't do this is not that the risk is that big, but because it's safe to avoid, it's 5 to 50$ a month extra that can save you a lot of trouble. Not just acute diseases, but background issues that are hard to spot.

It's a great example of such a risk because it doesn't apply to autochthones of those places. Living somewhere lets you get accustomed to the tap water, people in countries with tap water that's lethal to westerns drink it every day without any issues.

There are many such risks when travelling, risks that you can avoid easily, but that most people don't. I'm not sure why, maybe it's because travellers are risk-takers in general, so a culture of carelessness builds around travelling.

The few things I'd recommend, listed in order of importance, are:

  1. Get vaccinated, I can't stress this enough, because most travellers don't do it. Get FUCKING vaccinated. This includes well-known vaccines for "exotic" diseases such as Typhoid, Japanese Encephalitis and Yellow fever. It also includes newer or more niche inoculation that your travel doctor may be unaware of. I took Dukoral for cholera, you may also consider getting a tuberculosis vaccine (BCG) and pneumonia vaccine, doubly so if they weren't given to you as a child (the younger you are and the richer your country is the more likely it wasn't). In addition to this, there's a bunch of critical boosters you probably need to get, though you can control for antibodies first, namely hepatitis A and B as well as polio. Then there's the stuff for infections that are not deadly but can still ruin a week or two, which you are much more likely to catch while travelling, namely covid and the flu.

  2. Look for diseases endemic to the area you are going to. Malaria is chief among these, but hepatitis E and C are close seconds, rabies high on the list if you enjoy animals and rural areas, and even HIV becomes a problem in some places with poor sanitation and high incidence (keep in mind, it can be transmitted by blood, not only sexual contact). Not to mention a dozen flaviviruses from Zika to Dengue, to West Nile fever. In some cases, you can get appropriate prevention and reduce the risk to where it's manageable, in other cases you can't and you should take that country off the list. The vaccines for these are either inexistent, ineffective or carry significant risks. In most cases (sans rabies) they are not a death sentence, but they can fuck up the rest of your life.

  3. Look for disaster risks: earthquake, floods, eruptions, hurricanes, etc. This is easier said than done. The best way to avoid this is to stay in buildings that are reinforced and old (i.e. have a proven history of surviving previous events) or built with proven techniques to resist these. Some places (e.g. various Indonesian islands, cities like Pukhet) are death sentences no matter where you are staying. Others (e.g. Istanbul, Dodecanese) can be quite dangerous but the risk is greatly reduced if you just pick a new building in an area with low seismic risk. Overall the risks of natural disasters are pretty low and our ability to assess them is poor, so I'd only consider this if you are very cautious.

  4. Look at yearly traffic fatalities and act accordingly in terms of how you travel, how much, and how careful you are when you metaphorically cross the road. This in part becomes obvious once you're on the ground and see how locals drive.

  5. Look up the murder rate in the countries you'll go to, ideally on several years and several indexes if it's fairly high. You can use the countries you're comfortable with as a baseline. Also, note that a high crime rate on its own gets worst when combined with low GDP and high inequality. Kenya and Angola have murder rates comparable to the US and Chile, but this is just an indicator of the "absence of rule of law". However in the US, there's no reason for anyone to target me specifically for a mugging or kidnapping, in Angola, there's presumably plenty.

  6. Illegal stuff may be way more or way less illegal and dangerous. Some stuff that you might think is legal is illegal and vice versa. In most of South America (so I'm told) buying cocaine is safer than in the Netherlands. The same goes for hashish and North India. But you might be literally hanged for smoking weed in Singapore or consensually kissing someone of the same sex in Iran. There's a lot of things people tend to do that's at the edge of the law, usually, they involve drugs, sex and non-violently breaking "minor" laws (e.g. theft, traffic, filming, trespassing). In case any of these are something you do a lot, consider doing a quick google search about them in the country you're going to next. The risk of your being killed for this is inconsequential, I used those examples to illustrate extremes, but you could end up paying fines that will ruin you or spending weeks or months in jails that make US maximum security prisons look humane.

Again, this list is in order of importance. If you are googling "can I smoke weed in X" before you've got all your vaccines for X you are doing it wrong.

Also, consider that the poorer and less organized a country is, the less reliable the estimates are. You'll find 10x variations in Malaria incidence estimates for India depending on who you ask. Same goes for murder in Jamaica.

But don't let these risks detract you from travelling. Use them as a guideline for how to travel and where to travel. If an area has some risk of Malaria it doesn't mean it's a no-go zone. It means you should consider carrying Malarone, get a nice hotel and carry mosquito repellant. It means you should do a deeper dive and look into incidence during the last few years and what people on the ground are reporting. For example, the Himalayan regions in India have malaria incidence on paper, but if you are high up enough during winter and stick to touristy cities there won't be any mosquitos to speak of. Mexico overall is quite unsafe, but tourist cities are fine, probably safer than places like the Bay Area.

The problem with risks is that they are invisible until they hit you, and then it's too late. So do plan ahead, travel done well ought to enrich your later life, travel done poorly can cut it short or make it chronically miserable.

In hindsight, it was a bad decision to end on such a pessimistic note. But I'd rather not extend this past 3000 words. I'll probably do a series of these because I still want to cover: haggling, what and how to carry, booking a place, transport, touristing, social life, weather and, last but not least, food.

Published on: 2021-10-13



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