Someone recently told me there are two types of expats you’ll meet in Bali:
- those in a recent life transition (quit their job, change in relationship, etc.) and
- those in the former category who loved Bali enough to settle down there for the long-term
I was no exception, having left my cushy tech job in San Francisco to experiment with a more nomadic lifestyle in 2019. Bali felt like a natural launching pad into the unknown.
My New Home Across the Pacific
When I arrived on the island in early January, I was ready to relax. I had just come off of a hectic last three weeks in SF where I packed up my life and said goodbye to my community. Some of the events that transpired included my last day at Dropbox, the company holiday party, moving all my possessions into storage, taking a short trip to San Diego with a close friend, spending New Years in New Orleans with another close friend and his girlfriend, writing my annual review, and hosting my goodbye party. Phew! I loved the memories I created with my friends over the holidays, but I felt exhausted.
Two weeks later, I have gotten a taste of living in the expat communities of Canggu and a little bit of Ubud (having just moved there). There are certainly cultural differences between the towns, which I may cover in another post, but Bali as a whole promotes a laidback vibe for expats. People I talk to here emphasize a desire to unplug, slow down and live a healthy lifestyle. Yoga studios, organic vegetarian restaurants and massage centers line the streets. “Eat, pray, love”-style messaging is marketed on billboards everywhere. Nature is easy to access; stunning beaches, lush forests, and majestic mountains abound.
Making the Shift Towards Self-Care
Has living in Bali helped me relax? On one hand, Apple Screen Time informs me that I have decreased my iPhone usage. I don’t intentionally plan out my week in advance anymore, letting it take unfold more organically. Every day I’m surfing, hiking, or doing something else outdoors. I met and got to know a handful of fun, interesting people.
On the other hand, I noticed myself unintentionally falling into what I like to call a classic “American vacation schedule” aka a vacation schedule from hell. I would pack an intense amount of activity into each day: surfing, scuba diving, road trip to a distant temple or beach, exploring a new island. While I truly enjoyed every experience, I found myself feeling physically tired near the end of my time in Canggu. Not as bad as when I started traveling, but not where I wanted to be either.
How did I get myself here? Make no mistake: it’s not Bali’s fault. Like most people, I’m a creature of habit. Back in my SF life, I diligently optimized my schedule for productivity. Maximizing my outcomes given the limited time I could invest. This portfolio allocation approach to time was great because it helped me focus and prioritize what was important to me. I was in control.
After moving to Bali, I didn’t even notice that I was still applying the same principle to my time, which is antithetical to leading a more open-ended nomadic lifestyle. There’s no way I can control my schedule and still leave it open for serendipity. As Ralph Ellison said, “Life is to be lived, not controlled.”
What will I do differently? Easier said than done, but say yes to activities that disrupt my schedule. I have gotten so ingrained in the mindset of protecting my time that I notice myself prioritizing activities that I already “committed” to even if I’m not actually that excited about it. What I want to do right now is break this vicious cycle. Get myself feeling comfortable with the idea of letting go of control over my schedule. So the next time someone invites me to a yoga class (which feels like it happens every other day in Bali), I might even say yes.
First Impressions of the Nomadic Lifestyle
I have always been curious about digital nomadism, but it’s one thing to read about it in the news and another to experience it for yourself. Traveling has enabled me to test drive the lifestyle myself and meet other nomads, freelancers, and remote workers who are living it. At hostels and co-working spaces I have crossed paths with English teachers, software developers, government consultants, yoga instructors, start-up founders, veterinarians and videographers — just to name a few types of backgrounds. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of people I have met in the community.
Few things I have noticed about the digital nomad lifestyle:
It’s easy to get started in nomad hubs like Bali. Aside from surfing and relaxation, I was drawn to Bali because of the sizable nomad community here. What I didn’t realize was that living a relatively comfortable lifestyle here is fairly low barrier to entry. Everyone here speaks English, even locals. Wi-fi speeds are very fast with 5G offered at many co-working spaces, making it efficient to get work done. Co-working spaces and hostels make it easy to meet other nomads; good ones regularly organize a variety of social events. All the conveniences I had in the states I can usually find in Bali though it might require a work-around: instead of taking public transit and Ubers, I ride a scooter and occasionally hail a Go-Jek. I have even adopted new conveniences, such as laundry service or ordering food delivery via Whatsapp/Insta. Cost of living is very affordable (spending $40 – 60 per day).
People adopt a nomadic lifestyle for different reasons. Full-timers that have negotiated with their employers so they can live abroad while working (aside: several of these people smartly escaped their frigid winter for tropical Bali). Freelancer/contractors who only need a computer and internet connection to do their work, moving from one place to the next every few weeks. Entrepreneurs who wanted to start their business in a more positive, supportive environment than their home community. And long-term travelers who are experimenting with various passion projects (like me). These are just a few of the reasons I have heard of for transitioning to nomadism.
Living a digital nomad has its own suite of challenges. One, making meaningful social connections. The most obvious challenge to me. Hostels and co-working spaces are transient places; people are always coming and going. It’s easy to meet new people, but it’s hard to let them go constantly. There is a beauty in fleeting connections, like the bonfire that’s put out by the morning, but I’m curious to learn the ways to keep the fire going in this lifestyle.
Two, lack of structure. I know; I was just railing against my over-structured schedule, but flexibility is a double-edged sword. When living in a new place, I find myself wanting to explore as much as possible quickly, but I know balancing exploration with time for socializing, working out, and my creative projects is a more sustainable path for me. Similar to what I learned while working in SF except swap exploration for my day job. Otherwise, I end up feeling burned-out or even worse, like I wasted my time.
Three, infrastructure and logistical considerations. Fast wi-fi is very important to me, and in some locations it’s more scarce than others. Trying to back up my photos without 5G means painful, glacial paced upload speeds. Living and working conditions aren’t always the best: renting a private room in hostels has been inexpensive, but they haven’t always came with good A/C, comfortable beds, and enough insulation to keep out mosquitos (my worst nightmare). Finally while I haven’t personally experienced these issues — other travelers have shared stories about hard-to-understand migration paperwork, spotty transportation and sketchy health services.
Three months in Southeast Asia is very short. I have met other travelers who have stayed in the region for years (up to six years!) and still feel like they have much more to see and explore. With that said, the more I travel here, the more I realize I want to come back to explore the areas that I miss during this trip. The idea of long-term nomadism honestly feels a little too untethering for me (at least for now), but I have fallen for the nomadic mindset to approaching life. I would love to sustainably travel in spurts for the rest of my life.
Where am I going over the next couple months? My last day in Bali will be next week. Hoping to explore more waterfalls, mountains and temples before I leave. Then I aim to visit Singapore and Myanmar next before embarking on a motorcycle journey across Vietnam for 1.5 months.
Looking ahead with clear eyes and an open heart. Thrilled for the next chapter to unfold.