The Ups and Downs of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle: Meet Mike from Hobo with a Laptop
10 min read Along with providing online therapy to individuals around the world, I also post an Interview Series on this website…
10 min read
Along with providing online therapy to individuals around the world, I also post an Interview Series on this website where I share the stories of global citizens throughout the world who have moved abroad, are traveling the globe or are transitioning to life back at home.
This week’s interview is with Mike, who is originally from Burlington, a small city just outside Toronto, Canada. After living in a number of Canadian cities from the West Coast to the East Coast, he formalized his status as a digital nomad and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand back in 2013.
Along the way, he hired a virtual assistant who proved to be indispensable –he decided to meet her in person a few years later, and they immediately fell for each other. They married in 2017, and have no plans of ending their nomadic lifestyle. Mike is also the author of Digital Nomad Escape Plan.
When was the first time you left your home country? What was your life like before that?
I’d travelled to a number of cities in the US as a consultant, but the trip that changed everything was in 2013. I’d gone to Florida with my then girlfriend on vacation where I saw my first palm tree. I was immediately enamored by the site of it, the warm sea air, and the relaxed atmosphere. We were only there for a week, and I spent the entire time trying to convince her that we didn’t need to honor our return plane ticket.
A few months later I was single and aboard a flight to Thailand.
Life before living abroad felt like work for the sake of work, and the only way to find happiness was to be miserable by the very means to which it was acquired. My life was going well, but I felt like I had no purpose. Every day was exactly the same. It felt like I was in a waiting room for something bigger.
What motivated you to leave your home country?
I was motivated to leave my country because I knew I could, and I never once felt like I was home when I knew I should have. I’d already been living in a state of slow travel, and I worked remotely often. I’d even tested the waters by holding down a well-paid suit and tie job in Toronto while living in a hostel for a few months. I figured if I could master that kind of a double life, I could do it anywhere.
My first inspiration came to me back in 1993 in the form of an AT&T ad. When I saw their “You Will” campaign, it felt like I’d found the missing piece of a puzzle. This was right around the time I got my first computer, an Amiga 500 from my big brother, who also helped me get my first cell phone in 1997. I was still in High School back then, I graduated in 2000.
I still get that original rush of emotions whenever I see those ads. Got to hand it to David Fincher, he did an amazing job directing them.
It was Fincher who showed me where work and technology was going, and I knew it was only a matter of time. By the time I graduated high school, I was good to go.
What’s the most difficult part about travel or living outside of your home country? How do you overcome these difficulties?
Health. As a thirsty, chain-smoking writer, I find cheap beer and cigarettes difficult to avoid. When I wrote Digital Nomad Escape Plan I holed myself up in my Chiang Mai apartment for a couple months and proceeded to sew my self-destruction.
I drank too much and my immunity took a dive. I had a rainbow of problems after that, from ringworm to advanced weight loss. Despite all of this, I refused to go home to Canada. I was in and out of the hospital, it put me into debt. That was when I thought I was on my last mile, and I decided to meet my VA because she was helping me start Copyrise and I had to prepare for the possibility that I’d be out of commission for a while.
She picked me up at the airport and we immediately clicked. I moved in with her that night, and my newfound love motivated me to make some pretty big changes in my life.
I switched to Paleo, started going to the gym, and I ate 5 to 10 quarter-chickens per day. Although I didn’t gain a pound over the 4 months that followed, I felt incredible. I decided that if I was going to get better, I needed to go back to Canada and see my family doctor.
Long story short, they couldn’t find anything but a stark vitamin B deficiency. Paleo was harder to accomplish in Canada than I’d thought, and I succumbed to pizza. In spite of the headaches and lack of energy that resulted, I persisted. I ate everything in sight –lots of carbs. My bloat returned 2 days later, and in the weeks that followed I gained all my weight back. Pizza saved my life.
I wrapped up Canada with as much pizza as I could handle, and then got back onto a plane to the Philippines to get married.
The whole experience taught me a lot about my body, and along the way I developed a religious regimen of probiotics, coconut oil, spinach, broccoli, and raw garlic.
My health is back up, I’m back on a Paleo diet, the bloat is gone, and I feel great. And I even found the love of my life in the process. It’s been one hell of a year.
What’s the best part about travel or living outside of your home country?
Everywhere I go, I’m home. I was always looking for that place that felt like home, I didn’t realize home isn’t a place to me, it’s a person. I finally know what the “normals” feel, even though I acquired the sense of home in an unconventional way.
Beyond that, the lower cost of living, doing what you love, living in different places with your best friend in the whole wide world, knowing she’s agile enough to share the adventure (and is already used to bucket showers), and eating dope street food every day is incredibly fulfilling. I am truly content, and its bliss.
What experience have you had abroad that you want everyone to know about?
Every location has a history, and that history really comes alive when you’re physically present. When I was young, history was boring. My best advice is to ask a lot of questions about wherever you are and cover as much ground as you can.
I found Ayutthaya really interesting. Ayutthaya is a small city just outside Bangkok, and it was a popular trading port from the 1300s almost up until the 1800s when it was razed by the Burmese. Today it’s a quaint reminder of what makes Thailand such a rich, beautiful culture. Many of the old temples and monuments still proudly stand, and it’s a great place to go sightseeing.
On a visit there I ran into the Dutch Ambassador to Thailand and got to join him on his two-day visit to Baan Hollanda, a Dutch museum run by the locals there. As a Dutch-Canadian, I found the Thailand-Netherlands history to be intriguing.
On a wall inside the museum is a story of how the King of Thailand extended a rather warm welcome to early Dutch traders. It’s important to note that not every country in Asia had a good relationship with the Dutch; Indonesia being one example.
It was because of these traders (and others from countries like Spain) that Thailand was never conquered as their neighbors were.
When the French were on one side of the country and the English on the other, it looked like Thailand’s days were numbered. It was the traders –many of them in Ayutthaya— who told the warring countries they’d have a big problem on their hands if they messed with Thailand. Thailand is proud it was never conquered, few talk about why it wasn’t.
All was well for many, many years. Until one night the Dutchmen got drunk and started fraternizing a little aggressively with the local women.
Aware of their love of elephants, the King of Thailand thought it appropriate the men be put to death by way of being crushed by said elephants. Their village was destroyed shortly after, and what’s left is at the museum.
What has living outside of your home country taught you about life, romantic relationships, family and/or professional ambitions?
After getting robbed, my bank card gobbled up by a bank machine, and my laptop destroyed by water all in events a short amount of time from one another –I learned how to accept what life gives you.
Again, going home was never an option. I had to make it work; instead of losing my mind I worked on a public computer at the TCDC in Chiang Mai, I made a new friend whom I could trust to cash all my earnings from PayPal until my new bank card arrived 6 weeks later, and I ended up finding a few new clients on Tinder. Yes, that Tinder. Hell, even my phone went missing 3 times and it always came back to me.
I learned how to be pragmatic, trust people, and that gratitude doesn’t go away during the dark parts. I was very aware that I still had it better than so many around me. I start every day off lying in bed, focusing on what I’m grateful for, and most days are excellent because of this.
In terms of romance, travel forced me to become vulnerable. It changed how I look at myself and those I share relationships with. I’m still trying to articulate how exactly I wound up marrying my best friend, I wish I had some sort of sage advice on this one. Once you stop looking for your own gratification in another person, you’re partly there. If you start genuinely putting others before yourself, true love will follow.
And as for my career? I changed my direction a few times while on the road, I had to.
When the WiFi wasn’t good enough to have regular telephone meetings with my consulting clients back home, I became a copywriter. Then an author. Then I decided I only wanted to work with travel-related businesses in a marketing capacity. That was when I stopped hiding the fact I was a digital nomad and I embraced it. And then travel marketing became travel influencer marketing so I could hook up the sea of travel bloggers around me with sponsorships and capitalize on those relationships. And then influencer marketing showed me how to fit into the influencer mold so I could get sponsorships, too.
I was worried about keeping up appearances for the suits back home I’m connected to on Linked In. “Coming out” as a hobo with a laptop ended up opening more doors than it closed.
My biggest fear over these last few years was putting my real name on Digital Nomad Escape Plan. Now I don’t give a f*ck. Fear is too potent a barrier for something that’s invisible if you ask me.
What are 3 things on your bucket list? These can be travel destinations, career ambitions, etc.
- To take my wife to every location on her bucket list.
- To be paid just to be myself, whatever that is, as long as it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve got a long way to go before I build a body of work that will get me where I’d like to be.
- Have homes around the world with off-grid capability; a Tiny House in Canada to be near my family, and a few others in warmer climates. Totally sustainable; green houses, chickens, water recycling on-site, a dog, you name it. I crave simplicity, and I’m not getting any younger.
What advice do you have for people who are considering traveling or relocating to a new country, but are feeling doubtful?
- Find that Baz Luhrmann track called Wear Sunscreen and listen to it on repeat for a week. That’s what I did.
- Start giving away anything you own that doesn’t fit into a carry on or a suit case. Burn your secrets in a fireplace. Aim for leaving behind one carefully filled banker’s box, and little more.
- Unlearn everything. There’s so much programming in your head, it’s hard to tell what’s you, and what was put there. Travel used to be “an education”, it was on par with going to a top university. Now people are convinced that travel is not a sustainable way of life, it’s expensive, it’s dangerous, it will ruin your future, it’s whatever. You’re going to be real pissed when you figure out you’ve been lied to.
- Understand that social conventions are rarely compatible with “wanderlust”. One day you will be dead. No more tries. Cold. Stiff. Darkness.Think about death long and hard for a moment. Not what people will say, but what it literally feels like. What part of your physical body will fail first? Picture saying goodbye.It would be grisly to lay in bed knowing you’re on the slow boat to the afterlife and you didn’t do that Allow that panic to come over you, don’t resist it. Learn from it.
- Everyone is part crab. The ones closest to you will be the ones who say and do things to prevent you from leaving. They don’t mean to hurt you; they just don’t want to lose you.
- Say goodbye and that you love all of the good humans in your life, just in case. When you come back around on the other side, you won’t be you anymore.
Do you have a favorite quote, book, movie, TED Talk, etc?
I certainly do. I won’t comment on it; its message is complete. It stands alone.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself before starting this journey? What do you hope people say about you on your 70th birthday?
Stop caring what your family thinks –they’re going to feel like you left “because you hate them” no matter how hard you try to make them feel any different, even decades after your first flight. This thinking is more indicative of their thinking than it is of your choice. They won’t show up for the weekly Skype calls you ask for, they’ll think you’re crazy, their kids won’t talk to you, and they won’t relent. Oh, and if you ever ask for help, they’ll tell you “you made your bed, lay in it”. It’s just the way it’s going to be. Move on.
That was a little dark, but I nearly did myself in struggling with their mindset and it led to many bitter arguments. We don’t speak today. I’ve met many who’ve had similar struggles, it is what it is.
On a more positive note; If I live to 70 I know people will say I was crazy, unrelenting, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way –but I stayed the course, I lived my life my way, I made a place for myself, I found happiness, and I know there’s respect and purpose in that.
They’ll say they love me, and to me, that’s the only legacy I care about. I’m not a “legacy” person. I don’t do anything for the legacy of it. I do it because I feel it’s right, and I’ll never apologize for it.
What has it been like to return home after being abroad and what advice would you give other people who are returning to their home country?
I’d wondered what kind of “reverse culture shock” I’d experience when I went home, and if reverse culture shock consists of a deep boredom and deeper loneliness, then I guess I experienced it.
Everyone was struggling financially and it felt like A Great Depression. Canada was not what I remembered after 4 years of being in Asia. Social justice warriors were rampant combating ignorant “first world problems”, everyone was bitter, and the economy was at the lowest I’d ever seen it. And I lived through the last recession.
I spent my time with chosen family, and we made the best of it. We ate great food, we had even better discussions, and the whole experience was one I’ll never forget.
Beyond that, I didn’t get invited to family Thanksgiving, I was pretty much alienated by people who felt I’d abandoned them, and it wasn’t the homecoming I thought I’d receive.
My advice? People get on with their lives in your absence. And that’s okay, because so did you. The crab mentality I mentioned earlier thrives in your absence among those who are bitter you left in the first place. I’ve got homes all over this amazing planet, and I don’t have any regrets.
It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s something you need to be prepared for. I wasn’t. It certainly doesn’t look good on a travel blog, and I think that’s why no one really talks about it.
Thank you so much Mike for giving us a glimpse of your own adventures as a digital nomad. I’m sure your story will inspire many readers to travel, move abroad, or try out the digital nomad lifestyle themselves. If you’d like to learn more about Mike, you can check out his Hobo with a Laptop and Copyrise websites. You can also find Hobo with a Laptop on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn.
If you’re living outside of your home country or are an avid traveler and want to be featured in a future interview, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
About the author of Intentional Expat: Melissa Parks moved from Seattle (USA) to Madrid, Spain in 2009 to spend what was supposed to be just a year abroad working as an English teacher. Over 7 years later she’s still in Europe and recently relocated to Amsterdam. She currently works as a psychologist providing online therapy for people living outside of their home country (as well as in person therapy in Amsterdam). Her passions include travel, meditation, promoting positive body image, dancing, writing and helping empower women and men around the world to live their best life possible.