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Nomadism: The way to freedom

  • Digital nomad
Interview
Published 2 months ago

What is better than having the opportunity to earn a living while travelling around the world? The lifestyle of a digital nomad has its ups and downs but first and foremost is rewarding, and it gives you the freedom to discover new cultures, meet interesting people, and create the life you want to live in. Sanne, a digital nomad and blogger, has been living on her own terms for nearly a decade and speaks to Expat.com about her nomadic journey.

Sanne Wesselman

Sanne has been living abroad and travelling the world since she was 17. More than ten years ago she started a marketing company which allows her to work from anywhere and live the digital nomad lifestyle. She shares some of her travel experiences and tips on her blog Spend Life Traveling.

Hi Sanne, you started as an expat in 2002, and now you identify yourself as a digital nomad. What are the main differences between the two?

As an expat you are much more tied to a specific location. When I first moved abroad, to Spain, I had a job in that country. Nowadays, I run an online company and can work from anywhere. That location independence combined with the online nature of my work makes me a digital nomad. But hey, in the end they are only labels! I know people who identify as a digital nomad even though they only leave their home base for a couple of months a year and I know many people who avoid using the term expat for various reasons.

USA digital nomad
© Sanne Wesselman

To how many countries have you been since 2002, and what type of jobs have you done abroad? Do you have a favourite period in your life from these travels, or is the best yet to come?

Since 2002 I have had jobs or done volunteer work in 14 countries and travelled to many more. I’ve taken on a wide variety of jobs just to be able to experience new countries. From marketing jobs to hotel housekeeping in Honduras. I enjoy hospitality and my background is in marketing so most jobs were related to one or the other.

It’s hard to pick a favourite period though. Every experience had its ups and downs. I lived in the Maldives where I got to stay at some of the most luxurious resorts in the world and sail on expensive yachts. Is that my favourite period? No, because at the same time I lived in the capital city, just after a coup, where Sharia law limited people’s freedom and the depressing, defeated atmosphere was heartbreaking.

I lived in the Caribbean where my job was to go diving every day. Was that my favourite period? Maybe, but then I got robbed and started to see a completely different side of the island life.

I can’t possibly pick a favourite period but what I love about all the things I have experienced is how diverse they have been. I have lived in so many different cultures and have met so many interesting people that is priceless and I am very grateful.

Diving with dolphins
© Sanne Wesselman

How and why did you decide to become a digital nomad?

I don’t think I ever decided to become a digital nomad. I started a marketing and web design company in Spain when I was 20. Two years later, I was offered a job in the Caribbean, and I decided to go for it. At the same time I wasn’t willing to let go of my company, which I had worked so hard for. So, me and my business partner divided the work so that everything that could be done from a distance was done by me and everything that needed to be done locally was done by him.

As the business slowly started growing there was less of a need for me to take on local jobs during my stays abroad, and I could focus more and more on keeping the business going. Without a prior plan, and without ever having heard of the term “digital nomad” I had now become one. I think the main reason I became a digital nomad is because of my need for freedom. I love travelling and experiencing new things, and routine tends to bore me.

What do you enjoy the most from the nomadic life?

The freedom to create a life that suits me. For years, I have moved country every three to six months. Now that my twenties are over, I feel that the need for constant change is disappearing a bit and the way I travel and live abroad is changing. But, all of that is possible: if I want to move to a new country tomorrow I can, if I want to stay in the same place for years or even the rest of my life then I can do that as well. Of course every lifestyle has its downsides and limitations but the fact that I feel truly free to be where I want to be, work when I want to work, and change my life when I feel it’s time for a change… that’s an incredible feeling!

Do you have a base where you go back to when taking a break from nomadism? Why did you choose this country to be your base?

Four years ago I bought an apartment in the Netherlands. I am from the Netherlands so when I was craving a home base it made sense to buy a place there, close to my family and lifelong friends. I do have to admit though that the apartment has been rented out for more than three years now so it has started to feel more like an investment than a home. It’s great to know that if for whatever reason I need to go home, I do have a home to go to, but I don’t feel the need to live in the Netherlands at the moment. I am currently back in Europe to see if I can maybe find a new base a little closer to home. A place filled with my own belongings instead of rental furniture. A place where I am not living out of a suitcase anymore.

Zip linning
© Sanne Wesselman

Can you share one of the best and one of the craziest experiences of your most recent nomadic life?

In line with the freedom I mentioned before I remember being offered to go on a “boat delivery” in the Caribbean. I didn’t know much about sailing so I wasn’t familiar with that term but it basically means moving a boat from one place to the other and in our case it meant taking a luxury yacht from the island of St Maarten to the British Virgin Islands (BVI). So my response: “Sure, why not, I am sure I can find wifi in the BVI to get some work done.” That was such an incredible trip, sailing through the night, no other lights than the stars above you.

But, there have been plenty of crazy, negative, and frustrating experiences as well. Not knowing the culture, not knowing who you can trust… I once spent a few months in Rome, Italy doing some marketing work for a couple of small hotels. I accepted a hotel room as part of my compensation. This seemed perfect to me  I got to stay in the centre of Rome without having to pay for it. Until one of the hotel owners freaked out and started screaming at me for listening to his business partner (who as it turned out had a romantic history with him and therefore now a very complicated business relationship). Now all of a sudden I was very vulnerable, not knowing many people in the city yet, not knowing where to go if he would kick me out. That vulnerability I have felt in many countries — when you have just moved to a new country, you will have to rely on people you barely know and sometimes that works out great, but sometimes it doesn’t.

How have you changed, if at all, since you became a digital nomad?

I think the nomadic lifestyle has made me a lot more flexible and open to new experiences. I have had to build a new life for myself every few months. To do that you have to be open to the world and willing to learn and grow. It has definitely broadened my horizon and taught me how thankful I have to be simply to be born in a relatively wealthy, safe, and stable country.

Swimming pool
© Sanne Wesselman

What is the feeling and reactions you usually get from people when you share your nomadic life story?

Reactions are usually very positive. People think it’s cool and interesting. Even if they don’t necessarily want the lifestyle for themselves, they are normally intrigued by it.

I do feel social media has helped to make this a more widely accepted lifestyle though. When I first started moving from country to country and terms like “digital nomad” and “nomadic lifestyle” weren’t common yet, I received a lot more negative reactions. “Shouldn’t you settle down somewhere” or “you must be running away from something” are comments I have heard more often than I would like.

Where's home and what do you miss the most from home? Do you ever have the time to get homesick?

That is a very good question. I went to the hairdresser when I was visiting my family in the Netherlands and, just to make small talk, she asked me if I lived in this town. What was I supposed to answer? “No, I am actually in between countries right now”?

I don’t have a home. I moved to Valencia, Spain, a few weeks ago so for now this is home. But yes, I have been a digital nomad for nine years now and I miss having a place to go home to. I don’t really get homesick (because I don’t have a home?) but I do miss feeling more settled somewhere. And I always miss my friends and family. If I could pick up my friends and family and take them with me wherever I go, I am sure I could live this nomadic lifestyle forever!

You are a traveller. What’s your favourite transport and why?

Planes. They get you to faraway places quickly and the views, flying over varied scenery are often incredible.

Camel riding
© Sanne Wesselman

Where are you heading to next? What will you be doing or seeing there?

I only just moved to Spain so for now I am focusing on creating a life here and seeing if this could perhaps be my home base. But, I am already planning a trip to the USA and to Suriname in South America, so I am sure I will see a bit more of the world before this year is over!

What advice would you give to someone who’s considering to become a digital nomad?

Take your time and don’t forget it won’t all be positive. As for most digital nomads, it took me a long time to make enough money to live comfortably wherever I want. Therefore a lot of digital nomads start in more affordable countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. With their large networks of digital nomads these countries might be locations worth considering. Experiences from the digital nomads you will meet can surely help you to better understand the ups and downs of this lifestyle and ways to make enough money. Don’t pay a fortune for expensive nomad retreats or online training courses though. There are plenty of free Facebook groups for digital nomads, and the more you talk to digital nomads the better you will understand what your options are and what it will take to create the type of nomadic lifestyle that fits you.

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