Last October I left the Netherlands to go work as a volunteer teacher in Bogotá, Colombia, but somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn and landed about 3,000 km north in Mexico City. Instead of moving to one place, I’m now traveling indefinitely, and instead of working a nine-to-five, I’m working on becoming location independent.
In January I started this trip, from NOLA to Bogotá, carrying just a 45 liter backpack, $50,000 of student debt, and $600 in the bank. Mexico City is the first big mile marker, a place to slow down and sleep in and soak up and lean back. I’m improving my Spanish, cultivating skills for a geographically flexible professional life, and even making some headway against that debt. Now I’m taking the time, here behind the desk of the hostel where I’m working in Mexico’s capital city, to share some reflections on why my trip and others like it are infinitely more doable and worthwhile than most people seem to think.
At the end of the first chapter of my journey from NOLA to Bogotá, I’ve got no regrets yet.
How I got here (or ‘Chronic Peter Pan Syndrome’)
In June 2014, I was living in Leiden, the Netherlands. My first home abroad. The place where I got to know the other half of my family, where I learned what it’s like to live among internationals, to speak other languages, to travel. My lievelingsstad. The stad waar mijn (metaforische) wieg aan de Rijn heeft gestaan. The only place I’ve ever been where I could see myself actually living for a long time, and the place I’ll probably return to one day in my vague grown-up future.
In September I finshed my Master’s degree, at which point I was finishing up an internship that could’ve led to a job. My lease on the tiny student room in the flat I shared with nine people was coming to its end, so I was looking at apartments. I was even having a bit of luck in the dating department. At 23, everything was driving in the dreaded direction of ‘settling down’. I felt like I was headed for huisje, boompje, beestje as they say in Dutch (‘little house, little tree, little pet’, essentially suburban monotony).
After a few weeks of genuine excitement about being all growed up and having disposable income and nice things, I had the inevitable what the fuck am I doing omg I’m still a kid meltdown, in which I realized that I didn’t actually know anything about anything and I still struggle to squeeze my ‘adult’ activities into the 15% of the week when I’m not drunk or too hung over to get out of bed.
So I signed up for a volunteer teaching program in Colombia and booked a one-way ticket out of the Netherlands for the end of that year.
I went back to Florida in November to spend the holidays with my family before shipping out, and several mini-epiphanies later, I realized that a year broke in South America was moving in the right direction but still not quite the remedy for my adultophobia. I wanted to travel, to really travel like I hadn’t before. Flexibly, minimally, indefinitely, to new parts of the world that would stimulate and challenge me. But it wasn’t just about travel; I didn’t want to just put off the nine-to-five life, but avoid it altogether. I wanted to find a way to live reasonably while doing meaningful things that energized me.
I spent the holidays with my family in Florida, and on January 4th I set out West to New Orleans, the launching point for my trip. I was still going to Colombia, but now I would do it slowly, overland, and hopefully figure out some things along the way.
Where I am and where I’ve been so far
Three months into my trip, I’m in the Roma Norte district of Mexico City, Distrito Federal, largest city in Mexico and the entire Western Hemisphere, living and working in Hostel Home.
The last three months have taken me about 2800 km (~1750 mi) through two countries, five US States, five Mexican states, and 12 substantial stops, as well as a handful of towns, villages, and daytrips in the US and Mexico.
Some of the stops along the way have been not new but revisits to places I’ve already been, like New Orleans and Houston, but this time in a new context. After finishing my BA a couple years ago, I did a rapid five-week tour of the US and a bit of Canada, with all my buses and Couchsurfing hosts and hostels booked before I ever left home. Austin was a stressful day and a half of trying to do ALL THE THINGS in this great city I’d left myself so little time for, and Cincinnati was a painful battle with boredom, having sentenced myself to three days in a city barely worth one.
This time, everything was indefinite, subject to changing winds and whim. I even thought about staying in New Orleans for a while (which seems to happen every time I visit that city). Even though it was my first stop and the fourth time I’d been there, NOLA was easily one of the highlights of the trip so far. Every time I go, I have a chance to dig deeper into the local culture, and to expand the bounds of my familiarity to other neighborhoods and times of year. Afterwards, hitchhiking from there to Texas was an adventure like I’ve never had before, and urban Texas was also a stereotype-defying delight.
In Mexico, Monterrey was an ideal transition into Latin America, and I got to build up my Spanish social skills throughout the middle of the country, but to me Querétaro was certainly the best thing between Louisiana and Estado de Mexico. It’s quaint and central and unique and safe, the kind of really livable little city that you come across while traveling and think, “hmm, maybe I should just settle down here.” It reminded me so much of Leiden, which tugged at my vulnerable domestic heartstrings.
This trip is moving along much more slowly than I had thought. Originally I figured it for lasting somewhere between three and six months. By the beginning of April I had expected to be somewhere in Guatemala. But now it looks I probably won’t even be done with Mexico at the end of the first six months. But that’s okay; in fact, it’s sort of the idea. It’s my first trip without an expiration date, which is allowing for flexibility and depth where I want it. So far I haven’t left a single place thinking “oh, if I’d just had a few more days…”. Or rather, the couple times I did think that, I just stayed a few more days.
And now I’m in Mexico City. Enormous, busy, cosmopolitan, culturally engaged, and affordable. In my not-particularly-humble and only semi-informed opinion, La Roma is the coolest neighborhood in the Mexican capital, and I’m lucky enough to have it as my current base of operations.
The DF (short for Distrito Federal, pronounced deh-effeh /de ‘ɛfe/) is composed of many different colonias (neighborhoods), of which Roma is one. It’s the de facto capital of the city’s expat community, on the west side of town, between chic Condesa and rainbow flag-covered Zona Rosa. To the northwest lie Parque Chapultapec and über-ritsy Polanco, and to the east is the less desirable, don’t-walk-around-alone-at-night Colonia Doctores.
Hostel Home is my first Workaway. It’s gone so well that I’ve already extended my stay long past what I had originally intended, and it looks like I’ll stay here a couple more months yet. Major job responsibilities include sitting behind a desk, cleaning stuff from time to time, trying not to screw up money, and preventing drunken guests from setting stuff/each other/themselves on fire. It’s basically just college again but with cheaper tequila.
The city itself is, in a word, ideal. At least for me. It’s global like London, cheap like Fez, and full of people from both places and many more. Effective and insanely inexpensive public transit (5 pesos, about 0.35 USD, for a ride on the metro). Parks, museums, bars, and clubs. Every subculture and nationality has a pocket here: you’ll find sex shops and Koreatown and thousand year old ruins all within or just outside the city limits.
While I’m here, I’m taking advantage of the city’s (and the neighborhood’s) global orientation and disposable income to offer some English classes and make a few pesos. Between working a couple days a week for free accommodation, living in one of the coolest neighborhoods in this whole country, and earning some income on the side, I’m content to stay a while and work on things that’ll help me extend my trip and maybe my longer-term traveling lifestyle.
Becoming location independent: building new skills, sharpening old ones
I think one of the biggest things that puts twenty-somethings off from traveling is the fear of having a huge gap of unemployment on their CVs when they finish. Or maybe it’s the sudden realization that you took out tens of thousands of dollars of debt to get through university and now you’re expected to both 1) support yourself, and 2) start paying that debt back. Either way, there’s this odd myth that if you don’t get a job with a desk and a timeclock as soon as you finish university you’re going to become a leech on your family and/or the taxpaying public at large.
That’s dumb and it makes me lol.
One of my many reasons for taking this trip is that I’m aiming to develop skills that I don’t think I’ll have a chance to nurture otherwise. I’ve already mentioned this buzzword, but it all converges in location independence, being able to work (remotely or otherwise) from anywhere in the world.
Throughout my trip I’ve continued to do freelance online work, mostly editing papers and theses for non-native English speaking students in the Netherlands and a few other places. From time to time I get some work with the NGO I used to work for in The Hague or another international development organization doing some writing, editing, or translation. This is something I’m really wanting to scale up during my time in DF, hopefully turning it into some semblance of ‘steady’ and branching out to more translation work.
At the same time, since I’ve been in Mexico I’ve been giving private English classes, which seems to be pretty easy work to find for a native speaker in any of the big cities here. I’m also blogging, which comes with a whole laundry list of CV augmenting skills — writing, Content Management Systems, SEO, social media — and now working in a hostel, which means it’ll be way easier for me to walk into any given hostel in the next city and ask for a job.
Very soon I’ll have a full blog post on what I’m doing to earn money and how I’m doing it, how I’m trying to make it all sustainable, and how you could also start working towards location independence.
Why it’s not a waste
I’ve followed the societal formula pretty closesly so far: good grades in high school, then college and even a Master’s. I’ve been formally employed more or less non-stop since I was 15, and have picked up some nice resuméable positions and skills and internships along the way.
I think the next step is supposed to be a crappy tiny apartment and a job that’s not really in my field but kinda close and that pays just enough to cover my bills and make some nominal payments on student debt. Then thinking about saving for the future and sowing my seed and accumulating lots of stuff and taking a two-week beach vacation every year so that I can make sure other people know I’m successful. Marrying a place: tying myself to it with strings made of mortgages and career opportunities and personal relationships.
Last week one of the other volunteers in the hostel commented on the fact that I had stopped packing my clothes into my backpack and instead had just left them out, folded up under my bed. It freaked me out. I wanted to scream at him that I wasn’t staying forever, that it wasn’t like I’d bought a chest of drawers or coat hangers or something, jesus christ, they’re just under the bed, it’s not like I can’t shove them back into my bag with a couple minutes’ notice. Worry about your own life, jerk.
I don’t actually fancy myself the eternal nomad type; a lot of the domestic crap I mentioned actually sounds kind of nice to me. But I also know it’s more or less inevitable, and I’m only 24. In the meantime, I’m still sort of playing society’s game, so to speak, but I’ve just declared veto power over the rules. And for now, I’ll be playing the game and tweaking the rules as I see fit in Mexico City.
What’s stopping you from taking an extended trip? Share your thoughts in a comment below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons.