Auckland-born Nathan James Thomas first travelled alone at age 17 when he bought a ticket for 20,000km on the Greyhound bus network in Australia.
Over the next decade, he lived in China, Spain, Poland and Hungary, visiting dozens of other countries along the way.
He has engineered a digital nomad life for himself, shunning the 9 to 5 to travel to exotic lands while earning money remotely.
In this extract from his new book, Untethered, he explains how.
The only real means of escape from New Zealand when I was growing up was to fly, and so airplanes stuck in my mind.
As a child, the economy-class seat seemed enormous on the long-haul flight from Auckland to Singapore. The television screen located in the back of the seat in front of me kept me riveted (I remember watching The Jungle Book and a game called Kirby), while the hostesses would spoil me with free snacks.
Singapore airport was a fascinating wonderland, with rooms of holograms and games. We would then continue on to London to see the parents who my parents had left behind when they emigrated shortly before my birth. The connection in Singapore was sometimes long enough to allow for a brief excursion into the city state.
I don’t recall if it was with my mother or father (I did this journey frequently with each of them, but never in memory with them both) with whom I rode that very first taxi into Asia, but I can still remember the towering building resplendent with mystical Chinese characters and garish neon signs, a billion hawkers and sharp smells and strange noises. Everything was different and magical. I stood up to my full 4 or 5-year-old height on the back seat of the taxi and took it all in.
Through primary school my dad would bring back small model airplanes from his many trips and I would worship them from my suburban Auckland bedroom. In high school I knew, intuitively, I would take the so-called gap year and delay university to see a bit of the world. I’d been working parttime and had saved up enough to buy a pass for 20,000 kilometres on Australia’s Greyhound bus network. I planned to hop from bus to youth hostel until the money ran out or I figured out something better to do.
The journey began in Sydney and took me to every state and territory in Australia. Small roadhouses outside beat-up desert mining towns replaced the spotless splendour of Singapore airport, the crash of a kangaroo against the bull bars on the roaring bus substituted for the airplane TV and enticing snack trolley. I was off and, other than for a few mostly sedentary years at university in isolated Dunedin that drove the wanderlust to a frenzy, I’ve never really stopped.
Travel is not a break from life but a way of life. It is that feeling of belonging both everywhere and nowhere. It is feeling restless after a few months (or weeks) at home. It is the terror of thinking you know what tomorrow will bring. What next Monday will bring. And the Monday after that.
But this vagabondish existence seems to run counter to the normal goals and milestones of adulthood. If you’re constantly on the move, you aren’t forging stable, sustaining relationships. You aren’t nurturing a career. You aren’t building a credit rating or paying down a mortgage. You are moving, but perhaps you aren’t growing. This may be fine for a year or so in order to find yourself, but forever … for life … surely you’ll just be left behind?
The costs are real. I remember when I visited two successful lawyer friends in Hong Kong, and because I’d splurged on the trip, I had to suggest, a little weakly, that perhaps we go to a cheaper restaurant to eat. They too had travelled and even relocated to exotic lands as expats. But they’d also achieved some of the conventional milestones. I am not sure if this was a wake-up call of sorts, or whether it was the terror of the pandemic when a reliable income sourced cratered and I had to hustle to save an income, or entering my fourth decade and requiring something softer than the hostel floor, or being in a long-term relationship and wanting the stability and comfort that brings, but at some point I started putting a bit less energy into pushing the “freedom and adventure” lever, and a bit more on the “work hard and build shit” lever.
Opportunities came, and I built what was essentially a make-ends-meet freelance writing business into an agency and income source that would be considered respectable (if unspectacular), even by those who were not currently living out of suitcases in the quiet corners of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
While the uncertainty of travel has put strain on personal relationships at times (there are only so many times you can tell a glamorous woman that she can own so many clothes as to fit in one suitcase, with shoes metered out by the inch and by the gram), travelling for years at a time with my partner proved that we could survive discomfort together, overcome early starts and late nights stranded in strange lands, cope with uncertainty and overcome challenges. All useful skills. My point is, while the digital nomad life is an unconventional and counterintuitive route to the conventional milestones of happiness and success, it does not need to preclude you from them.
Some nomads are happy to prioritise adventure over income, solitude and freedom over calm and company. Others own homes, run businesses or have high-powered corporate careers with six-figure incomes all while travelling long term. And most, like me, are a little confused but mostly content, somewhere in between.
An American expat journalist I met in Tbilisi told me if he goes for too many days without writing, he “gets a little weird”. Likewise for me with travel (and writing too, for that matter). Some need to know where they will be sleeping next month, next year. Others need that calming cup of chamomile tea, the presence of a beloved pet, the satisfaction of exceeding a milestone or reaching a professional goal.
How it started
About eight years ago, a younger, slimmer version of me was sitting in a small, cramped bar in Poznan, a university town in the west of Poland. The bar was a typical student joint, and back then I was young enough to blend in. Typical for Poland, anyway. It was underground. It was dark. The music was loud but not too loud for conversation. Top 40 stuff and the odd Polish rock classic that will get everyone singing along. Beers went for about AU$1 each. Young people sprawled around tables, while the older, more weathered crowd sat upstairs at a bar.
Fetching a round of drinks for myself and a friend, I stood behind an old man who had just ordered four shots of vodka, filled to the brim, and a large glass of orange juice. Like a mechanic adding fluids to a car engine or a doctor administering pills, the old man took the first shot. His face expressionless, he followed it with a sip of the orange juice. The next shot went down just as smoothly, followed by more juice. The third and the fourth quickly disappeared, and within the space of 30 seconds all five glasses stood empty.
“Co chcesz?” (”What do you want?”)
The bartender, utterly unfazed by the performance of the old man, snapped me out of my awestruck reverie. I grabbed two beers and took them back to the table where my friend was waiting.
We were the only ones in the bar speaking English, and back then, in certain less-visited spots, this would still warrant the occasional curious glance. Some well-dressed guys in their late 20s were working on laptops at a table behind us, beers scattered among the keyboards and cables.
The eldest, who was tall, slim with a wispy goatee, pale skin and short, spiky black hair, looked at me as I finished telling a story to my friend. He walked over. ‘Where are you from?’
“New Zealand, wow! What are you doing here?”
“Just staying for a few months, checking it out.”
“Amazing, hey … can you help me with an article I’m writing in English?”
By then I was pretty accustomed to odd encounters with strangers in Europe, but this was new. Sure, this kind of thing happened a lot when I lived in China, where friends of friends of friends tracked down my contact details and asked me to rewrite a 50,000-word thesis as a favour, but it had never happened here.
“Okay,” I said. What the heck.
I sat at his laptop and looked at the document. It was a typical piece of “content”, an article designed to attract clicks and maybe customers, focused on a fairly specific part of web development and design. I started editing, correcting grammar errors and smoothing over the verbiage. I lost myself in the task, much to the annoyance of the young lady I was with, and handed back the article to the man with a flourish.
“This is amazing,” he said, reading through. “Hey,” he looked at me intently. “Do you want a job?”
I wasn’t working at the time. I’d put myself through university with an online business selling ebooks and courses. Selling the business had given me enough cash to disappear into China for six months and then find myself in Europe. I hadn’t yet developed the writing habit and didn’t have much to fill the days other than reading and wandering the old city. “Why not?” I thought.
So began a several-month spell of early morning trams to an office in an up-and-coming suburb, where I’d write and edit articles about web development with a small team of Poles led by a maniacal Turkish man with an impressive beard and a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the founding father of the Republic of Turkey) as his screensaver. The work was dull and the pay humiliating, but it was, in some ways, my gateway into the world of professional copywriting and content marketing.
Other clients would come from similarly random encounters. A major client whom I’ve worked with now for half a decade was also met in a bar. Another was an introduction from a friend. My biggest current client at the time of writing found me on LinkedIn when I updated my location status a few months after moving to Spain.
As my career has advanced, I’ve found myself writing less and less “copy” and doing more of the big picture stuff, directing tone and messaging for organisations, developing marketing strategy, figuring out how products are going to be sold and to whom. However, writing is still a big part of my work, and chipping away at the craft is satisfying and interesting, while at times frustrating and even terrifying.
In the corporate space, feedback is rigid, immediate and brutal. Your writing is “good” if people buy what you are selling. It is “bad” if they do not. There is no escape from this calculation. When you’ve had entire corporations poring over your precious words, tearing them apart, and leaving your beautiful copy whimpering feebly in the recycling bin, then you’re unlikely to be discouraged by a form rejection letter from a literary magazine or a one-star review on Amazon.
The 2020 pandemic reality has ironically helped with this lifestyle in some ways. Companies that previously wanted people “in the room” have adapted to welcome more remote workers, which has resulted in more work for me. People are also generally a little more tolerant of those who reject the corporate lifestyle in favour of something a little more autonomous.
And those of us used to the uncertain world of freelancing have, in some ways, more practice at the constant adaptation that this new world requires from us. It hasn’t always been easy. While many people fall into a life that is designed for them, consciously or otherwise, you’re going to have to deliberately design yourself from the ground up.
Extracted from Untethered: Living the digital nomad life in an uncertain world by Nathan James Thomas, published by Exisle Publishing, RRP:$34.99.