The Reality of Full-Time Travel (and Why We’re So Lucky)

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What it's like to travel full time (and why we're lucky)
Just out of shot: mosquitoes, lousy signal, sunburn, uncomfortable, and the feeling of incredible fortune that, unlike everyone around us, we can change our entire lives overnight.

“Living the dream” is usually the caption that goes along with photos like the above.

But the reason we started Discover Discomfort was not to “live the dream”. More than anything else, we wanted to remember how lucky we are. In America and in Australia, we take for granted things that most people in the world only dream about. Things like safe shelter, the option to learn for fun (rather than survival), and basically unlimited amounts of amazing food.

We knew we were lucky to have all that. We’re both from immigrant families, and so only a couple of generations away from being poor. My great grandfather was a Kurdish goat herder, and here I am, a travel writer who has the space in my life to muse about whether my great grand-father would be proud of me.

We know we’re lucky, but we want to feel it.

But along the way we discovered many other things we were fortunate to have in our former lives. The option to work on computers, rather than physically. Clean water. Safe transport. A life free of (preventable) deadly disease, and mostly free of scary bugs.

Because despite the mostly idyllic picture travellers portray, these and many other small problems are the reality of the places we’re visiting.

At the same time, these inconveniences of our peripatetic lives are reminders of how much we have to be thankful for as we travel through places less developed than the most developed (and expensive) parts of the world. Because for us, the discomfort we experience is self-imposed, and temporary. It’s not so for others.

But anyway. Onward to the “developed world problems”.

The internet is slow and these wall sockets don’t work

… but we’re lucky to be able to work online. As we watch people piling bricks in the scorching sun, carrying vegetables for miles on their heads, or swinging axes in fields we often think: we’re not really working, are we?

Nonetheless, a lousy internet connection is the number one bane of every travelling writer in many less developed parts of the world. Yes, we’re looking out at pristine waters, or an idyllic mountain range, but we can’t get a decent signal and it’s impossible to work.

There’s a limited amount of work we can do offline, like photo editing or creating the text for an article. But there’s usually so much online-only work.

WiFi in public places or cafes in most parts of the world is slow or limited. In China, the “internet” is more like a USB hard drive full of Chinese language movies and sycophantic propaganda. Yeah yeah, Xi Jin Ping is pretty good. In Africa and the Middle East, only the most startup-forward cafes in major cities give WiFi are OK for public work. Some cafes advertise Wi-Fi, get you in the door so you order the cheapest coffee on the menu, and then they tell you it’s “broken”. Who designs this super unreliable cafe Wi-Fi anyway, the same schmuck who builds meters for Egyptian taxis?

We constantly find ourselves switching routers, topping up our phone with credits, or restarting our hotspots or laptops to try to make the signal reconnect. “Maybe if I tether via USB? Maybe via Bluetooth? Damn it why am I only getting two bars, and 3G only?? Should I have gotten a different carrier?” (As I write this, I’m using Bluetooth, because the WiFi hotspot doesn’t work, and thinking of switching from Zantel to Airtel!)

Also, a working wall socket within reach of even a long cable is a distinct luxury. Cafe workers in places like Australia and the US are familiar with this. In anywhere in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America, wall sockets are distinct rarity. Let me clarify: working wall sockets. Because there are tons of sleepers: seemingly functional wall sockets that refuse to work, making us question everything else. Is it my plug? My charger? My farkakte phone again?

But we never forget the joy of being able to work online. In places where so many people do manual labour to earn in a month what we earn doing consulting work on the phone in an hour, we consider ourselves truly blessed. It only takes me seeing one kid on the side of the road spending his vacation helping his mum break a pile of boulders down into rubble with a hammer for us to remember. But on one walk we’ll see two or three similar examples.

We are extremely fortunate, and owe it all to our parents, grandparents and the difficult lives they led and the choices they made.

A small note on this: Asia and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, are paradise for digital nomads. Especially Estonia, the Czech Republic and Scandinavia in Europe, and Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia. Probably other places. Everywhere has WiFi, and high-speed data is fast and plentiful. Amazing!

There are bugs everywhere

… but we can afford bug spray and medicine, and unlike for almost everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is not an inevitability.

A large african wasp in Zanzibar. This is what long-term digital nomad life is like.
A huge bug (a wasp) in Zanzibar. This was the size of my little finger.

Mosquitoes are bane number one of our lives. Mosquitoes are like terrorists: it just takes one to wreak havoc. It’ll cost us either half an hour of sleep as we try to find it, or a week of our lives as we battle a blood-borne illness.

Others who live here seem to be used to them. They get bitten and don’t care.

The result is that we’re always thinking about our supplies of mosquito repellent. Is this one strong enough? Is this one fake? We’re worried about developing an allergy to DEET, a highly toxic substance that’s the most common repellent. We’re worried about our malaria medication running out, or for malaria to slip through the cracks anyway — because medication is not 100% effective.

But we never forget how fortunate we are to have anti-malaria medication, mosquito repellent, and the luxury to only choose accommodation with working mosquito nets.

The reality is that many people in Africa have gotten malaria at least once in their lives. And malaria is bad news. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year in Africa from malaria, mostly children and the elderly. And those who don’t die feel like they will, with a crippling fever and violent nausea that lasts for a week or more.

And even if we do get malaria, we know that our medications will make it much milder. So this is an inconvenience at most, not a deadly threat.

Other bugs are banes number two through infinity. Flies, spiders, giant flying wasps, centipedes, millipedes, migrating swarms of bees, ticks, lice, fleas and bed bugs. We learned the Swahili word mdudu when we asked our housekeepers what the heck this giant black flying wasp was called. “Mdudu!” she told us. It turns out means bug. But “bug” is a great word to know in a land of many kinds of mdudu.

Again, if we see a bug, we kill it. I’ve even been known to call in a neighbour to help with a wasp (I’m scared of wasps, and this was the size of my middle finger, which I wanted to give it because I was too scared).

The reason I left one particular island in Asia (Lamma Island, Hong Kong) was every morning I’d wake up to giant golden orb spider webs on the path on the way to the shops (these aren’t dangerous, but hello, they’re giant spiders!), and I knew that eventually, I’d find centipedes in my house. One neighbour once found a centipede in her bed.

So we can always leave. But this isn’t a choice most people have.

Laptops Aren’t Made for the Desert or Beach

but we have expensive laptops and the latest phones. Boo-hoo.

Oh, poor me, I can’t see my super bright MacBook Air’s screen, when most people are shielding their second-hand non-smart phone with their hands to try to read a text message after topping up an equivalent of 50c.

I find it hard to take myself seriously even as I write this. But believe me anyway: those people posting pictures of them working at the beach are lying about how practical a place it is to work with a laptop, iPad or whatever.

We had sand in our keyboards that would make (famously crappy) MacBook keyboards stick for weeks at a time. Right now, I’m typing this on an external keyboard, because myspacebarhasjuststoppedworking.

We can barely see the screen, even with full brightness, even if we’re in the shade. You just can’t watch those pristine blue waters and type very efficiently at the same time. Do one or the other!

To make things harder, there are very few service options for even Apple hardware around the world. There are no Apple Stores in Cairo or Dar Es Salaam, the two major cities we’ve stayed in for a while. If I go to a repair centre, it’ll take more than a week to fix — time I don’t have in a life of constantly moving.

But you know what? It was amazing living in the desert of Sinai, by the Red Sea. I don’t care that dust particles made me another anti-Apple statistic, because those dust particles make one of the most beautiful parts of the world I’ve ever seen. And we don’t forget that we don’t have to carry bricks in the 50 degrees C/ 120 degrees F sun as our day jobs and get to sit in the shade and type mysteriously into the void. Eventually, we left the dusty desert, but in the meantime we typed less and appreciated the beauty of life more.

We keep running out of water

but we never get crippling illnesses from polluted water.

In many parts of the world, tap water isn’t clean. Especially unboiled, and doubly especially for foreigners with weak digestion systems.

There’s a few levels of how clean tap water can be

  • You can drink it straight, and it’s delicious (is this you? tell me where it is! unless it’s Scandinavia in which case, stop showing off)
  • You can drink it straight, but it’s gross (most major cities of the world). It’s fine for coffee
  • You can drink it straight if you’re a local, but better to boil it (especially if you’re a foreigner): Most cities in less developed countries
  • You have to boil it (cities and towns in less developed countries)
  • You can only use it for washing (very poor areas)

In most of our travels, we boil tap water for coffee, and use bottled water for drinking straight.

This means we have to carefully plan each move. Where can we buy water? How can we minimise cost AND buying plastic? Our favourite is to buy huge (10L+) containers of water. These containers are re-used, so we’re not contributing to single-use plastic waste which we hate (and are reminded of every time we smell a trash fire).

We have to carry water with us, to avoid over-paying in restaurants (and buying more bottles).

We are also reminded how lucky we are to be able to afford clean water. We don’t get randomly sick from water, something that happens to many poorer travellers, or presumably sometimes to local people.

In much of rural East Africa, people in villages use water from community wells. It’s not in the house. It’s low pressure.

Usually, locals will drink water straight, developing a strong stomach over time. They may boil it for some things, over a charcoal fire. We use a gas stove, or in cases of occasional luxury, an electric kettle! (Three out of four places we stay in don’t have electric kettles, so they’re definitely a luxury.)

Some houses are fortunate to have water plumbing, but the pressure is so low that most visiting Westerners would assume it was broken. Fancy houses (the places we stay in for $10 per person per night) have their own water pumps.

Most people in East Africa never drink bottled water. Why would they? It’s the same cost as soda! It breaks my heart any time I see someone drinking a sugary drink, but this is especially true in places where they’re seen as a luxury. Kids often ask me for money “for soda”. (I give kids fruit, and it brings me joy when they appreciate it.)

Bottled water is such a luxury that kids even ask us for our empties. The bottles themselves are valuable resources that can be reused in daily life. When we buy honey or milk from markets it always comes in re-used plastic bottles.

My ideal end situation is developing such a strong stomach that I can drink well water anyway. But I know that I wouldn’t risk even the chance of a terrible water-borne disease (that can affect our lives for many years). So our reality is we’ll continue to be cautiously conservative, boiling and buying water, but appreciate never being thirsty or sick.

The food is unhealthy

… but we eat whatever we want, and as much as we want.

The privilege of relative wealth is being able to afford good food. And eating it until we’re full.

People do eat somewhat healthy, but mostly when they cook at home. For us, this means that in every place we go, we have to stock up on vegetables and grains, and buy basics like salt, oil and spices over and over again.

Finding healthy food eating out is extremely hard.

In the Middle East, breakfast is passably healthy (a typical meal of beans, eggs, salad and bread is healthy, delicious and wow, I miss it so much), but apart from that it’s all shawermas (which are liberally doused in a sauce made of mayonnaise) and fried hamburgers.

In Taiwan, people rarely even eat in, because eating out is so cheap. But there’s an art to eating healthy, which is why we created a guide to eating healthy in Taiwan.

In East Africa, foods like mishkake (skewer kebabs of fatty meat), chapati (bread made with tons of oil, basically greasy heavy pancakes) and extremely fried fish are the foods people eat when they go out. You might find a place that serves beans and rice, but it’s not guaranteed (not sure why; maybe because beans take hours to cook).

Long term travel means having to eat unhealthy food like coconut curry and oily chapati.
Coconut and bean curry and chapati. Very greasy, very tasty and very greasy

So it’s tough to always be on the move and keep a balanced diet.

African food is very energy-intensive, and this is no accident. Living in East Africa is very energy-intensive in itself. The fishermen and sea-weed collectors in rural Zanzibar work every day, wading out into the waters for hours just to provide for themselves. People in villages in inland Tanzania walk for hours a day, doing things most westerners would call “a really hard hike” they do for fun on occasional weekends. I mean carrying loads of 20+ kg (50+ lbs) for 10 miles (16km). Every day.

To support this energy-intensive life, foods like greasy chapati breads, large piles of steamed ugali (cornmeal) and fatty beef mishkake make a lot more sense. This is just necessary fuel!

We’ve noticed a loose correlation that the higher up a mountainside people live, the more in-shape they tend to be. It makes sense! But it’s not a choice people make. It’s just their lives.

For us though, we have to actively increase our activity, and monitor what we eat. We do appreciate that we get to make this at-times difficult choice.

We even appreciate the opportunity we have to miss certain foods, like great coffee and ice cream. If we struggle for a month, it’s with the knowledge that we can change everything in our lives by buying an airline ticket. And that airline ticket costs as much money as many Tanzanians make in an entire year.

The coffee is bad

… but we don’t have to drink coffee, just as many others don’t, even in coffee-producing nations.

There’s a strange paradox in many less-developed nations like Tanzania, Colombia, and Rwanda. On the one hand, these are a few producers of some of the greatest coffee. On the other hand, the best coffee is not available in the country.

This is because of the higher prices exporters can get. It’s a self-reinforcing system: because exporters can get higher prices for coffee, they choose to only export their coffee, not even looking for local avenues.

There are some exceptions worldwide. In Indonesia there are strong import tariffs on raw coffee which mean cafes basically only serve Indonesian beans. And in Kenya there are enough good cafes in Nairobi and Mombasa to make it OK.

Still, most of our coffee right now is this, “Africafe”:

[photo of Africafe]

It’s not good. I even miss Nescafe.

But do we have to drink coffee? No. It’s just how we like to start the day. Those who know me will know I can talk your ear about coffee for hours. We made a series of sacrifices as we travelled, downgrading from carefully brewing our own precisely measured coffee, to eyeballing it, to drinking Nescafe (a big leap), to moving to Africafe, and now considering moving to nothing.

Nothing? Sure. Because most East Africans don’t drink coffee in daily life. They usually drink tea, or a ginger sweet drink called tangawizi (which just means “ginger”). Coffee is a luxury, even in instant form. So maybe it’s time we switched habits. Coffee will always be waiting.

Also, it’s really fun to say tangawizi. Say it with me! Tangawizi!

This chair is uncomfortable and my back hurts

… but at least we get to sit down while we’re working, and not do hard physical labour.

As you sit and read this, you are possibly on a luxurious sofa, or maybe even reclining slightly on a $1,000+ design award-winning chair in your San Francisco startup office.

When we’re spending $10/day on accomodation, we get a lot, but great seating isn’t one of those things.

Working in a cafe means being hunched over a lot. We can put our laptops in our laps, meaning our laps get hot and our neck starts to hurt.

The reason for this is that in a lot of the world, people don’t really sit down much to work. When people in rural East Africa sit, they’re relaxing (or sleeping). When they’re up, they’re working.

We passed by a lot of farmers constantly swinging axes, scythes or knives diong their work. Actually, I don’t thikn I’ve seen a compound harvester in months. I don’t know how they’d make it up the side of the mountain.

And women (traditionally) spend hours wakling up and down the sides of mountains, carrying groceries between their homes and local markets, or between farms and markets in neighbouring villages sometimes hours away. I’m sure you’ve seen how many women carry baskets on their heads. It’s hard work, but you know, I don’t see many fat people here, and I also never see bad posture. I think this should be a fancy new exercise in high-end gyms. (Like the “yoke carry”. A little too literally named, in my opinion.)

It’s kind of hilarious to think that the way sedentary office workers (like us, formerly) combat the ill effects of sitting down all day is through ergonomic chairs, elevated monitors, standing desks and occasionally treadmills at their workstation. It’s like we were/are recreating the same conditions that billions of people have to spend every day, walking for many kilometres to subsist. Maybe we should step up the walking workstation with a heavy bag on our heads, too.

The reality of travel: we're lucky to not have to work hard labour, and can work on our computers
Western exercise; every else surviving

We might die on the public transport

… but we can afford taxis, and even Uber or Bolt when it’s available.

If you’ve travelled to anywhere less developed, you might be familiar with transport that might kill you.

In most of Africa, Asia and Latin America, you can find informal economies of private buses that make up for the lack of public transport. In Kenya they’re called matatu, in Tanzania they’re daladala, in Egypt they’re microbus and so on. They are all similar: they’re cheap enough for locals to use them, they’re packed to the brim, they’re ignored by the government (which can’t afford to formalise or replace them), drive like lunatics and are regularly in deadly accidents.

Road accidents with matatus, dala dalas and microbus are a regular feature of digital nomad life
There’s at least one micro-bus accident a day… and this is just in Kenya.

And buses are the safer kinds of informal transport. There are also tuk-tuks (known as “Bajaj” in East Africa, after the Indian company that makes them) and boda boda, a motorcycle you sit on the back of, and possibly die off the back of.

No helmets, regularly crossing large roads perpendicularly, and sometimes high speeds over bumpy roads. Death is common and life is fraught.

Taking a microbus, motorcycle or tuk-tuk equivalent is usually only a matter of US$0.50-2 (depending on how far you’re going), and that’s probably inflated for my inability to bargain hard or wait for a deal. But every time, it’s a very calculated risk.

And every time I take one, I know I don’t have to because we can afford Uber, Careem and Bolt, or even a private car to drive for an hour with all our luggage for $20. So life is good for us. Not so for those with fewer options.

It’s hot and noisy

… but we can always escape.

The self-imposed environment of the cafe, beach, or hotel with a view isn’t always a perfect environment for work.

It just takes temperature being a few degrees off to throw off the mojo of our delicate sensibilities. And it can be REALLY off. Often, we’ve typed out articles or edited photos with sweat dripping off us. Actually, one of those times is right now.

And noise levels are extremely erratic. At times, it’s completely silent. But often, we’re surrounded by the cacophony of either city or village life.

There’s the constant Islamic call to prayer (seemingly endless on today, a Friday), the traffic sounds, and constant construction during the day, roosters, and people screaming at football matches at 2am.

We always consider ourselves lucky, though, that we can escape at any moment. Even within a country, we rarely stay in one place for more than two weeks at a time. If we don’t like the traffic, we go to an island. If we don’t like the isolation of the island, we visit a town. Having the freedom to move puts us among the most wealthy people in the world, probably even the top 1% — not in terms of money, but definitely in terms of being able to choose our own destiny.

We try to never forget this.

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