Dream or Delusion: The Truth Travel Influencers Don’t Tell
January 10, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
A new wave of remote workers are traveling to exotic locations to escape the 9-5 grind—but is the location-independent lifestyle really all it’s cracked up to be? Or are we desperately seeking freedom in a world where nothing is free?
It’s 11:40 AM on Thursday when the last few shuffle in and take a seat around the conference room table. Bamboo lines the room from floor to ceiling with AC pumping through the vents. Monkeys patter across the roof.
Everyone in the room is barefoot, their rubber flip-flops piled outside next to the daily offerings of incense, rice, and flowers. Canang sari.
At the front of the room, a fitness entrepreneur named Brian paces back and forth prepping to give a presentation on how he went from homeless to six figures in six months. The small room is packed well beyond American capacity limits. In the audience: a 34-year-old woman who founded a coconut water company in Breckenridge, a couple of 20-something creative entrepreneurs from Sydney, a 22-year-old software engineer from Moscow, a handful of travel bloggers, and a 24-year-old German girl who created a dating app for nomads—and me, a writer from California.
These presentations happen every Tuesday and Thursday at the co-working space in Ubud, Bali, an establishment where remote workers from all over the world congregate to earn a living from their laptops. Topics range from personal branding and website development to more abstruse ones like brain optimization and investing in cryptocurrency. Attendees are typically in their 20s and 30s, equipped with MacBooks, loose-fitting tank tops made in China, and whole fresh coconuts impaled by plastic straws. Their energy is relaxed but eager. They left the security of their corporate careers to chase the whisper of limitless opportunity, freedom, and wealth. The coveted six-to-seven figure incomes of digital entrepreneurs like Brian and Gary V.
Headlines call them digital nomads. If you ask them where they’re from, they’ll tell you they’re location-independent. Whatever you call it, the surge of remote workers has grown enormously in recent years as more freelancers and entrepreneurs opt-out of office life to live on their own terms—which in many cases means wandering around Southeast Asia in search of a poolside lounge with wi-fi and shitty cocktails priced like water.
Some of them are running away: from bad relationships, bad jobs, bad politics. Others are running to see the world before it disappears. Before the coral reefs crumble, the rainforests disappear, and the sandy beaches turn into plastic peninsulas. “Quick,” says the little voice in their head, “see the world while you still can!”
Brian concludes his presentation with a photo. In it, he flexes with a first-place trophy at a bodybuilding competition. “One day, I woke up on my friend’s couch, broke and homeless and hungover, and visualized this exact picture. Every day, I visualized it until it happened.” His phone alarm goes off every hour as a reminder to stop, drop everything, and manifest the next big goal.
Everyone claps and files out of the air-conditioned conference room. In the lobby, a couple of guys compare scrapes from separate scooter incidents while the local community manager enthusiastically recruits people for an upcoming beer pong tournament. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might guess that this was A) a college dorm or B) a Silicon Valley startup.
In reality, it’s neither. This co-working space is one of many capitalizing on people’s desire to live independently together. The strange thing about this lifestyle is that you aren’t entirely an expat. But you aren’t entirely a tourist either. You exist entirely in between. Pouring yourself another beer at Dubai International. Waiting for the immigration officer to pound the next stamp into your passport.
The society of digital nomads tends to congregate in low-cost cities with high quality of life: Bali, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Lisbon. When they tire of co-working spaces, they shift to cafes with cheap coffee and free wi-fi. The line between new friends and potential income sources is often blurry. Everyone has a motive.
They left the corporate ladder only to climb a new one—to the top of Google search results, internet fame, and media mentions. Desperate to fund their freedom lifestyle. But at what cost?
* * *
It’s 2:13 AM in the hours between Sunday night and Monday morning, when I used to lay awake dreading the week ahead. Wayan picks us up outside our villa and begins the pitch dark ascent towards Mount Batur—one of the most-trekked volcanoes on Bali. The night is cool and quiet in contrast to the daytime buzz of scooters and roosters. Through tired eyes, Batur takes shape in the distance, looming in the dusty night sky over a mirrored lake.
Wayan parks and we pile out onto the dirt road, equipped with headlamps and water bottles. We file through the dark until we reach a fork in the trail. “The easy way or the hard way?” Wayan asks, explaining that tourists who hire motorbikes take the easy way. We choose the hard way. Straight up. A cross between hiking and bouldering, with enough humidity to make even a fit person puke at 4:30 AM.
As we approach the summit, a hum of voices materialize into a crowd of at least 300 other foreigners perched on rows of makeshift benches facing east. Wayan gestures us to an open seat and then joins the other guides to prepare coffee, banana sandwiches, and hard-boiled eggs from a small outpost erected from raw branches and plastic tarps. Our once in a lifetime experience is everyday routine for the local guides who make the trek up Batur each morning before sunrise.
To our right, a girl in a floral skirt and strappy sandals flips through a series of rehearsed poses while her guide snaps photos. Overhead, a swarm of drones buzzes, capturing the same shot on repeat. These people are part of a new generation raised on connectivity and internet likes. They travel on disposable income or credit card debt and a need for recognition in a world where anyone can generate a fan base if they put in enough screen time. But is it worth it?
* * *
The sun rolls over Mount Batur and I rejoin my barefoot contemporaries at the co-working space in the afternoon to catch up on emails sent from 15 time zones away. A man with a British accent speaks firmly into his phone. His latest round of funding fell through and, from the sounds of it, he’s going to need a one-way ticket back to the UK.
I hit “send” on my last email when Helena from Breckenridge walks over to my desk in the open workspace. “A few of us are going to a women’s full moon circle tonight. Want to come?” she asks, sipping on a fresh coconut. “Sure,” I shrug, sliding my laptop into my backpack.
Everyone is instructed to meet at a nearby vegan cafe at 6:00 PM to carpool to an undisclosed temple. The girls from my co-working office wave me over to a family-style table in the middle of the cafe. I take the last open seat and order a virgin piña colada.
A steady stream of women wearing an assortment of crochet tops, long skirts, and decorative piercings slowly fill the cafe, exchanging exaggerated hugs. Around half-past-six, a woman with long brown dreadlocks raises her arms and the room falls silent. “Ladies, welcome. We’re going to travel together to the temple nearby,” she commands. “Follow me.”
Outside, a cabal of scooters waits to take us to the temple. The air smells of nectar and exhaust. I hesitate, looking around for a helmet, before jumping on the back of a red Scoopy with a blonde-haired girl. Later, she introduces herself as Anna from Copenhagen. She landed in Bali six hours ago for an eight-week yoga teacher training.
At the temple, at least 100 women form a circle around a fire pit. An American woman with a tribal collar tattoo steps into the center and invites each of us to offer something into the fire. Something we want to let go.
I rip a shred of paper from my journal, fill it with the word “expectations,” and toss it into the fire. Once everyone has made their offering, the woman with the dreadlocks speaks, reminiscing on her history of addiction. “I was so sick, I couldn’t even brush my hair. That’s when it started to dread,” she shares, as two other women begin the task of cutting her dreads off and throwing them into the flames. The “tribe” of women begins to howl. Smoke sinks upward into the moonlit sky.
* * *
Over the past year, my partner and I traveled and worked from 11 different countries around the world. In the months leading up to our one-way flight out of LAX, we meticulously sifted through everything we owned. We packed anything with meaning into a 5x10 storage unit and donated the rest. When people asked when we were coming back, our answer was: “We don’t know.” But as the months wore on, I longed for a sense of familiarity. Loading up my 80L backpack, triple checking for my passport, and going through airport security became routine.
The life of a digital nomad is incidental and bizarre. It’s transient and transactional and as unimportant as anyone else’s life. A lifestyle—like any other—marketed by social media influencers, bloggers, and companies that depend on us never going home. But I wonder, is our frantic need to see the world before it’s gone doing more harm than good?