The moment I realized the dream was getting away from me, I was sitting in a Starbucks in Wrocław, Poland, a city with a name that sounds nothing like what you’d expect: vrat-swaf.
We were on a long weekend trip from Prague, where we’d gotten an apartment earlier in the year to take a break from months of frantic, nomadic travel, and were intrigued by Wrocław’s claim to fame: more than 300 anthropomorphized gnome statues hidden throughout the city.
Having fallen in love with every Polish city we’d been to so far, we did the math and concluded four days of Polish vodka + a plush hotel bed + quaint European streets would equal a lot of fun.
But here’s the reality: the weekend kind of sucked. We did wander the city’s quaint European streets, competing against each other to see who could spot the most gnomes, and we did drink too much vodka in lively hipster bars, but it all revolved around my freelance client work.
Even when we were out exploring, I was silently freaking out about the likelihood of reliable Wi-Fi and my quickly approaching deadline.
Instead of cocooning myself and sleeping late in the cloud of a hotel bed, I got up at five a.m., sucked back crappy lobby coffee, and started typing. When it came time to explore, I brought my laptop along and negotiated how long I could enjoy the city with my husband before I’d have to find a café and get some work done. Even when we were out exploring, I was silently freaking out about the likelihood of reliable Wi-Fi and my quickly approaching deadline.
These are the moments most travel and digital nomad bloggers don’t tell you about. And for me, it was the first clue that the clichéd dream – sell your belongings, quit your job, and travel the world forever while earning an income online – isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
You know that famous Tolkien quote: all that is gold does not glitter? Well, after 27 months of being a digital nomad, I would add: all that glitters is not gold.
Wrocław was the first, but certainly not the last, of these moments. There was three weeks in Stockholm where we barely left the apartment because the city is crushingly expensive; two weeks along Spain’s Costa Brava, where I worked almost non-stop while also trying to enjoy a (comped) €7,000 per week villa; and 10 days in Copenhagen, where I got slammed with non-negotiable deadlines that our livelihood depended upon.
And then the kicker: another Starbucks, this time in Berlin, right across from Checkpoint Charlie. My sister-in-law and her husband had flown from Calgary to Prague to visit us, and despite trying to take time off, I ended up working the entire time, including on the train to Berlin, toasting red wine straight from a bottle and trying to hold back I’m silently freaking out here tears while racing to finish a client project.
After spending the last 27 months on the road, the quintessential broke traveler trying to stay afloat and make it work, I can say with experience that do what you love, and the money will come is terrible advice. But so is spend your working hours doing something you don’t care about, just so you can travel. After all, what’s the point of being in Poland or Berlin or Vietnam or wherever, if all you see is the inside of a café.
Despite first impressions, this isn’t a story of the perils of being a digital nomad, or a ‘poor me’ about having to spend my days – gasp – working. Rather, it’s a story of patience and perseverance, of the importance of knowing deep down what really matters to you, and of being bold enough to make it happen.
For me, the realization that snuck into the back of my mind in Wrocław, percolated across Stockholm and Copenhagen and Spain, and came out fully formed over a non-fat latté beside Checkpoint Charlie was this: it was time to go big, or (literally) go home.
This last week, we had a banner moment for our start-up travel colouring book business: we got a huge media mention; sold a full 20 per cent of last month’s sales within the first day of the month; and partnered with friends and 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year on our next project: an adult colouring book about Mexico.
But it’s taken us years to get here. So often, when you read stories of people carving out a niche for themselves, it’s a story of massive success, a bolt of inspiration, a huge splash. I’m here to call BS on that. After surrounding myself with dozens of creative, intelligent, educated and driven people who are also trying to build legitimate businesses while traveling the world, I simply don’t believe instant success is a thing. In reality, we’ve all spent years doing work we don’t like, missing out on normal life experiences back home, and gazing at the just-out-of-reach freedom we crave before finally finding something that works: food tours, a consulting business, travel colouring books.
For me, the key to turning things around and reclaiming a piece of the freedom we sought, was admitting the thing that had looked so shiny on the surface — freelancing our way around Europe — actually had me on the verge of tears.
It took making a drastic change, and trading the heritage buildings and hipster cocktails of central Europe for street tacos and cervezas in Mexico, for us to see the way forward. And in all honesty, it took moments of desperation, like when we almost went all-in on a beard oil business, despite neither of us knowing or caring much about beard culture, men’s cosmetics, private labeling or drop shipping.
We all have those pivotal moments in our lives, when we’re struck by a sudden realization, and it hits us that we’re standing at a crossroads and must choose a path forward. After more than 800 days of full-time travel, I’ve discovered the trick is to actually choose: embrace the agency you have over your own life, commit to what you want, and focus all your efforts on making it happen.
With more than two years of full-time travel behind us, we’re just starting to figure out how to make this life work and build a business we’re proud of. We’re still, for the most part, quintessentially broke travelers, but now it’s because we’re investing every dollar we make back into the business, slowly carving out a niche in travel coloring books, and looking ahead to how our business will evolve into the future.
When we set out to travel full time, what we really wanted was the freedom to live life on our own terms. And while we did ultimately manage to make it work, it took a huge leap of faith, a lot of hustling, and more than a little creativity.