It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m laying on a makeshift massage parlor on a beach in Thailand, coconut oil scented air, soft dainty hands putting expert pressure on my back, waves crashing in the foreground, the sound of palm leaves rustling in the air, and one long pinky finger interlocked with mine. I open my eyes, look to my side, and these crystal blue eyes are staring back at me, impossibly white shiny teeth are smiling, surrounded by an adorably scruffy 5 o’clock shadow and pillowy lips saying, “Can you believe it’s the last day of 2017?” I smile back and nod, seeming self-assured and peaceful, all while my brain is going 1,000,000 miles per hour and actively obsessing over just one thought: “You lucky ass bitch. How are you living this life?!”
Chill, baby, chill. And let me tell you how…
I’m not what you would call a “traditional” digital nomad. As a matter of fact, back when I started living the nomadic lifestyle, there wasn’t really a name for the movement yet, or any fancy Instagram feeds showcasing beautiful people in beautiful locations living beautiful lives, or any other type of instructional manual for how to live outside of the box.
I was trained as a professor through many years of schooling, and that’s what I do, I teach: just online instead of face to face.
My situation is an example of a traditional career that can be performed completely remotely. Chances are, most of you could do your current job in your pajamas, from home, or remotely from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
As for me, I’ve been an online professor for almost 14 years now. I got my master’s degree really young and was lucky enough to know someone within my university that needed some adjuncts. I don’t get paid any kind of decent wage, and I have no medical benefits or retirement accounts to speak of, but I have the one thing that is worth more to me than any of that, in the here and now: complete freedom to travel wherever I please, whenever I please.
I often say that I’m officially spoiled beyond repair, because I cannot imagine living a life other than the one I’ve been living for over a decade: no alarm clocks, no daily two hours sitting in traffic, no soul sucking nine-hour work days, no need to be in any place for longer than I desire (six months is usually my max in any one place). I have very limited responsibilities, and spend most of my days just sitting around, reading and contemplating life and all of its mysteries.
Do you hate me YET?!
Well, don’t, because the road here was not paved with rainbows and sunshine. I worked my ass off during the first half of my life, and am now reaping the rewards of having been a sober (a.k.a boring lol), young immigrant nerd who busted her ass in high school to get that university scholarship, and then continued working her ass off for years until she could find her own way out of the rat race. There weren’t any motivational pictures with cheesy quotes on social media to show me the way, back in the stone age of the early 2000s: I had to create my own destiny, draft my own road map, and just do the damn thing! None of my friends or acquaintances had paved the way for me; no one I knew in backward-ass Florida was doing anything out of the norm with their lives. So I entered the rat race, proudly, thinking I’d make it my bitch. Boy, was I wrong…
Entering (and Swiftly Exiting) Corporate Life
Like a diligent little nerd, I got a full time office job five days after graduating high school, while taking classes for four long painful years of my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a huge national bank as a licensed financial specialist, selling mortgages, mutual funds, annuities, and other such responsible adult things.
If I got two hours of sleep per night, I considered it a triumph. My alarm would go off at 6 a.m. and I would literally cry in the shower because I was so exhausted, shaking as I picked out my business casual outfit for each corporate day from hell, just knowing deep in my soul that the routine was killing me and that no human was meant to have this life for months, years, decades! After four painful years, I finally decided that no job was worth my happiness, so I dramatically quit one day and was escorted out of the building with my little box of desk souvenirs, like in the movies (this is actually standard operating procedure for banks, regardless if it’s a temperamental Cuban quitting or not). I was legitimately burned out and absolutely depressed by the time I started my graduate studies. I budgeted my money like a boss and lived on $800/month during my first year in grad school, happily, all while nursing my sanity back to health and recovering on the years of sleep I had missed.
Let’s Get This (Nomadic) Party Started
At 24, after I’d finished my Master’s Degree (and was continuing to complete coursework toward the PhD), I was already starting to get an inkling that all jobs essentially suck ass, and there are few passionate lucky ones who can get away with that whole ‘if you love what you do, you don’t work a day of your life’ mentality (unless one can get paid to lay around reading all day, interspersed with some staring into the void of existential despair, because that’s MY jam). I had a friend who was becoming an adjunct professor for courses at our university that would be taught exclusively online, was I interested? Um, are you shitting me? Yes, please.
Like all faculty newbies in any academic department, I began teaching only one class every 12 weeks, and slowly built up the amount of classes I was allowed, until I had a class load of 15 classes per year by my fourth and fifth years of teaching. Fully online. Rare phone conversations with students. I could literally be in any time zone, anywhere, as long as I had an internet connection.
My nerdiness had paid off at last!
If I hadn’t busted my ass quite miserably for four years of undergrad classes and full-time corporate employment, followed by the many indignities of graduate school, I wouldn’t have been a 24-year-old online professor for the second largest private university in Florida.
Having that freedom to be anywhere is what compelled me to begin my adult nomadic journey and explore other towns in the US. It set my twenties into motion. With my meager adjunct earnings, no credit card debt, and my little 2-door car/sleeping quarters, I proceeded to explore the country block by block, starting with weekend road trips all over Florida, which set in motion a thirst to visit ALL of the United States, every corner of it that my time and resources would allow as a broke ass graduate student in the early 2000s. Getting my weekends and any kind of social life back was a miracle, and I started “collecting” national parks while most of my peers were collecting music festival wristbands.
After three years of sporadic U.S. road trips and getting addicted to snowboarding and taking senseless short trips into shitty mountains, I finally took the plunge to go spend at least half a ski season somewhere. I had gone to Colorado on one of my favorite trips and knew I wanted to try Vail Valley. Within days, I had found a gorgeous room with a private bath in a giant mansion-like, 8-level town home for $700/month.
To live in a mansion in one of the most gorgeous places on earth?! I couldn’t believe it. That three month stay in Colorado gave me more gorgeous landscapes and turned into a yearly event, with my schedule morphing into spending January through April in Colorado, May and June road tripping through different U.S. states every year, and July through December spent living beachfront in South Florida for low season prices, all made unbelievably affordable while renting furnished homes.
Before I go on about the life of an online professor, it’s important you meet my digital nomad husband.
How Loreta Got Her Groove Back (A Digital Nomad Love Story)
I met my husband in Jamaica six years ago, on a group trip of 30 strangers. A friend of mine from high school needed “models” for a resort wedding photo shoot, and asked would I pleaaaaase be his wife in the brochure? I will never forget how much I laughed when he asked me, of all goofy ass people, to pretend to be in love with his gay ass for a photo shoot! It was absolutely terrifying, but I did it somehow, and it was destiny, because that’s how I met Branden.
Branden also worked remotely and was able to jump on this hilarious opportunity to go on a free trip in exchange for his “modeling” services. When we met and shook hands, it was a totally ordinary moment, but once we got talking about traveling and being “digital nomads,” the proverbial sparks started to fly!
One of the most difficult aspects of dating while working remotely and travelling is the fact that one party is usually not willing to stop their nomadic ways to settle down.
If both people aren’t digital nomads, it just ain’t going to work. So when you meet someone who tells you they do exactly what you do, work whenever and wherever, it certainly piques your interest and curiosity. It also didn’t hurt that he looked like an honest-to-God Disney prince (I hate him). After eight days of being the biggest of bros, we let ourselves be carried off by the beauty of our surroundings and circumstances and fell in loooove for the last four days of the trip. We said goodbye at the airport in Montego Bay: I headed home to Fort Lauderdale; he went home to Vancouver. The next day, we Skyped at night. The day after that, he was walking up to me at the Vancouver airport arrivals area with a dozen red roses, because my 32-year-old-grown-ass-woman-self literally threw some hoodies and a coat into my Jamaican luggage and bought the first ticket out of Florida to go be with a 25-year-old-Canadian-real-life-digital-nomad-Disney-Prince.
We started traveling together pretty much immediately. We went to Cabo San Lucas a week after I got to Canada, then a three month South America backpacking trip through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, the Galapagos, Colombia, and Mexico. On our break from longer trips, we lived in Vancouver (best city on earth, except for the rain), Phoenix, Toronto, South Florida, and Colorado, wherever rent was the cheapest at any given time.
We got married in late 2013, went through aaaall the immigration paperwork to get him his green card, and celebrated our honeymoon properly, years later, with a three-month trip through Cairo, Greece, and Western Europe last Fall. I’m writing this from our month long trip to Southeast Asia: Northern Vietnam, Siem Reap, and Thailand. Now that he doesn’t get nearly as harassed at the U.S. border as he used to, we are planning to spend more time outside the country and have been eyeing Southern Portugal and Germany for some 2018 work/life adventures.
Affording the Nomadic Lifestyle on a Measly Professor’s Salary
What people don’t get, and what I’m here to tell you: it IS possible to travel with very little money. The trick is not to spend money on stupid shit! And it’s aaaaall shit! I’m over here trying to minimize all of my belongings into only one suitcase, one snowboard bag, one carry on, and my laptop bag, and it’s still so much unnecessary shit, I know this. I admire people who don’t become attached to things: this is the true key to liberation. While I’m still getting there, I try to resist the temptation to buy crap I don’t need.
These are some other things I do to save money:
- I pay off my credit card bills every month, completely (if you don’t have a credit card that gives you air miles for every dollar you spend, what are you waiting for? Citibank and Chase both have great ones).
- We just got a new car and now have a monthly payment, but previous to that, my car was old–and paid off–and my insurance was cheap, so leaving it parked for months at a time was no big deal.
- I don’t own any furniture. I’ve sold everything of value, even aaaaaall my books (and there were many I crammed into this noggin).
- We have a little storage unit where we keep a handful of bins with childhood memories, (which frankly, should be just thrown in the garbage, lol!). But our sentimentality gets the best of us, and so we spend $40 per month to store our material attachments to our current incarnations.
What about rent?
We have a budget ($2,000 max per month, split between the two of us) that allows us to rent short term, furnished places, anywhere from a week to six months at a time. We try to look for places where we won’t kill one another from spending 24 hours a day together, in each other’s faces, being the super annoying humans we are, lol. A furnished studio is fine, but a 1-bedroom, a balcony, and a view? Even better. We usually plan out our year in three-month increments, and during the planning cycles, there are furious and constant vacation rental, AirBnB, and short term furnished rental searches going on between the two of us. You can hear our fingers clacking away nonstop, looking and looking and looking for that next perfect rental on the usual websites: vacation rentals by owner, Homeaway, Flipkey, Airbnb, and yes, even good old Craigslist (we’ve actually scored our most awesome digs ever through Craigslist).
We work from home, and to spice it up, we work from coffee shops. But the trick is to be a highly adaptable creature, and train yourself to be able to work on one tiny laptop with no keyboard, no mouse, no ergonomic chair. You have to roll with the punches and be able to literally, work from anywhere (for example, I’ve written this article from bus stations in Hanoi, boats in Halong Bay, beaches in Thailand, and tuk tuks in Siem Reap).
How Can You Do What I Do?
Thinking about becoming a professor? Don’t. Haha, I’m playing…kind of. I think people have quite the romanticized idea of what being a professor entails.
First off, four to five years of undergraduate school for your Bachelor’s degree, depending on the academic discipline. Then, a nice Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy, because you will study the ins and outs of every single word uttered about your chosen discipline, thus transforming you into an annoying philosopher on that one subject, hooray!), which will usually take you five years of coursework, a week-long qualifying exam of some sort (some people really lose it at this point), and then, the most hellish, loneliest venture you will ever undertake: a doctoral dissertation.
What is a dissertation, you ask?
A dissertation is a very specific study you undertake with a highly methodical, scientific approach in order to answer some very specific questions. Usually the questions involve lots of how’s and infinitely more why’s, with research methodologies ranging from quantitative logistic regressions to ethnographic qualitative studies.
Sounds fun, right? WRONG! A dissertation, or dissertorture, will make your soul leave your body for days on end as it astrally projects itself into the cosmos and gives up on being human because it doesn’t want to come back and deal with that bullshit. But hey, if you are an unrepentant nerd who is endlessly curious and wants to follow ONE specific rabbit hole down to the nitty gritty, then a dissertation is for you. Mine was on state building and peace building following Central American civil wars, quality of life, and human security. It took me seven years to finish. You read right, don’t judge me! SEVEN YEARS. 345 pages later, that hell was done. The good thing about being an adjunct is that I was able to teach for nearly nine years as a PhD candidate, meaning all my coursework and exams were done, and I was in dissertation status. Most universities that start you off as an adjunct will allow you to build experience as a doctoral candidate (experience you also accumulate as a teaching assistant during your studies).
I’m not a typical professor because I’m not on campus, ever, and I luckily don’t have to participate in the overall higher academia culture. It’s nasty. Everyone thinks they’re the smartest person in the room, and loooove hearing themselves talk. The egos in academia are not for the faint of heart. Also, finding a job teaching in higher education has got to be one of the most impossible careers to get into. There is an oversaturation of PhD’s thanks to higher education being pushed as the answer to everything, and most departments have hiring freezes. Also, good luck competing with the dozens of overqualified applicants who each have at least two post-doctoral degrees AND are supernatural nerds who pump out at least a handful of research and conference articles per year. I briefly operated within this world for some years as a Graduate/Research/Teaching Assistant to my mentors and let me tell you, it takes a special kind of nerd to love that kind of life. I am not such a nerd, that’s why I’m eternally grateful for a friendship that ultimately led to this teaching opportunity I’ve gleefully exploited for 14 years now. If you don’t know someone in a department (and even if you do, there’s less than zero guarantee, obviously), it’s quite the long shot to get hired as a professor in this day and age, whether it’s at the adjunct, assistant, or associate level.
If you’re a current residential adjunct professor who wants to branch out into distance education, you have to be willing to make an average of $2,000 per class (at only nine classes tops per year to purposely keep you at the part-time level and deny you healthcare and benefits, that makes it a whole $18k for your yearly salary! Making the big bucks!). And being that over 60% of classes within the U.S. college and university system are taught by adjuncts, I wouldn’t hold my breath for that tenured position, nor will a tenure position offer you what you really want if you want more freedom to travel: online class assignments.
Online Adjuncts are struggling
We make peanuts, we are not allowed to unionize or negotiate, we work on a semester to semester basis, our classes can be cancelled the day before they begin, and we get paid per student if we do not meet enrollment quotas per class. Many adjuncts live in poverty, which is preposterous considering we are the mostly highly educated workforce in the world. I have it SO MUCH BETTER than most adjuncts who teach residentially and have to drive between three counties multiples times per week. Some are even living in their cars! Homeless professors, y’all! That’s the culture we’ve created. As my class load was cut in half after the Affordable Health Care Act was instituted in 2009 (I don’t blame Obama, I blame the horrible, wider university system that doesn’t take care of its adjuncts), I had to get creative with side jobs that I could do from home, which have included any temporary administrative task imaginable.
The flexibility to hop from place to place also helps. I live wherever the living is cheap and take advantage of low seasons to negotiate accommodations. I can’t imagine being an adjunct professor in NYC, or out in California, where rents are insanely unaffordable.
If you’re a teacher at heart, or in the education field, and you want to work remotely but don’t want to mess with a long degree and painful job search, may I suggest a career in Instructional Design/Technology? Some years ago, a friend asked me “How can I do what you do? How do I teach online?” After giving her the same schpeel I just gave you, I said “Why don’t you do some Google searches for other remote careers within the teaching realm?” She found a Master’s degree in Instructional Design, fully online, and was able to work her way up to a killer remote job that allowed her the freedom to travel. I myself do Instructional Design work on the side to complement my measly professor’s salary, so it’s an area I have a lot of interest in, especially as education of all sorts keeps moving into the online realm. If you’re already a trained professor in pedagogical theory, psychology of learning, and systems theory, you’ve already got a leg up on many of the skills necessary to succeed in this industry. Here’s a short, useful article on becoming an Instructional Designer: https://elearningindustry.com/7-steps-become-instructional-designer
What Living Nomadically Has Taught Me
Being nomadic has always been part of my experience on this realm: made in Cuba, born in Spain, raised in New Jersey, Argentina, Miami, Toronto, and South Florida, and choosing as an adult to continue a path that was already set out for me. At 38, I’ve eased into working minimally because I’d honestly rather have time for myself, to go inward, to observe it all. My definition of success is very different from most people. It has to do with depth of experience in this incarnation, not with material gains or egoistic ventures (I have wayyyy too huge of an ego to indulge like that, I’d go off the rails, lol!). I’ve become highly adaptable to any situation: If something doesn’t go my way, I stop, breathe, and switch gears. I’m not saying I don’t have a little hissy fit, but I’m able to rapidly assess the situation from various angles, let go of my absurd expectations of how any given moment should go, and quickly get over it. That’s just what I’ve learned to do in the many years of changing landscapes, circumstances, friends, family, and home comforts.
I’m thankful to have a partner in life who understands this side of me so innately, because he also arrived at this same place through his own fascinating set of life experiences. I’m thankful to meet nomadic people from all walks of life who decided to break out of the materialistic and consumerist culture that was imposed on them. I’m thankful for this community of open-minded, knowledge-thirsty truth seekers that Kiona has created, and I’m thankful you’ve taken time out of your day to read my story, just one tiny blip of experience in our fascinating and powerful collective consciousness.
Come chat with me at @thingswelookat
Check out my extensive catalog of eight entries on my award-winning blog (awarded for being awesome, by ME, lol!)
OR come check out my meme page @peacefulcreatures, where I disperse some light-hearted inner/outer peace education (oh yeah, I never told you what I teach: peace studies, human rights, research, ethics, ALL the fun stuff!).