When I started traveling while working there was no such thing as a remote worker. There were no fancy words to describe it. It was just “working from home”, and good luck explaining it to friends, family, and immigration officials. It was a simpler time, though perhaps it was more complicated… I do remember spending an entire weekend in Cairo looking for a suitable internet connection, and freaking out that I’d have to buy a one-way ticket anywhere with an internet connection if I failed. Thanks to the prevalence of WiFi and 4G, things are a lot easier today. For the price of a plane ticket and sim card, you can be anywhere, influencing or blogging or whatever it is kids do nowadays :). I know, I’ve been that kid.
Coming from a small country, population 3.5 million and diminishing, it was exhilarating toting around a laptop through Europe, Asia, and Africa. I wanted to see it all, and in no particular order. I wanted to ride elephants in India, as well as ride motorcycles across the States. I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower and the Great Pyramid of Giza. I wanted Disneyland every day.
Although I don’t think I was ever disrespectful, I wasn’t particularly aware of social customs or the impact I had with my vagabonding. I thought the world was a playground to be discovered. However, after years at this, I’ve come to realize that I do have an impact, and that things are not as peachy for those I leave behind after I check out of a hotel, Airbnb, or a friendly hostel.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about “digital nomads” and working from home, and living off Mai Tais in Thailand on $400 a month. You can’t visit a cafe in Bali, Berlin, or Ho Chi Minh City without being surrounded by laptop toting hipsters blogging on how you too can live for 7000 dongs a month in Vietnam.
Call it coming of age, or having an anthropologist for a partner, but I’ve become a bit more reserved about visiting countries without taking into account my effect on local housing, where locals are frequently forced into the outskirts of the city, since renting out an apartment for a few nights on Airbnb is more profitable than renting it out for the entire month to a local.
On the surface it may sound like money being shuffled locally is a good thing, but in practice there’s a lot of Russian, Chinese, etc to name a few, that buy entire apartment complexes, and keep them empty as a store of value. It’s not like this benefits anyone except someone keeping their funds in a stable place while they continue living in their own countries.
And don’t get me started on “expats”. If you can live like a king for a few bucks in Bali, it’s not because of the beauties of the free market. It’s precisely because the Balinese couldn’t compete for the same jobs as you, that you could even make $400 writing SEO optimizations for pets dot com. Believe me, your skills are not that rare or difficult to attain.
If the Thai kid with a computer could get a work visa to work in Mountain View, believe me, prices would drop across the board. I’d get paid less. You’d get paid less. They’d get paid more. End of story. But we don’t live in a free market, and traveling privileges are asymmetrical at best. We live in a world where those in “luckier” countries can relocate to less advantaged countries and call themselves “expats”, while those in the disadvantaged countries have to fight for visas only to then get the jobs nobody wants for no other reason than their “immigrant” status.
Being a digital nomad in developing countries is possible precisely because “they” don’t have access to “our” labor market. Because they can’t get on a plane and live in the neighboring cheaper island, or because they can’t move to New York to optimize Instagram search results.
p.s. And by the way, expat is not a real word. It’s a made up phrase for those in privilege to avoid being called immigrants. You never hear of Senegalese “expats” no matter how rich or educated they may be.
p.p.s. Here’s a novel way to reduce healthcare costs in the US: accredit foreign medical residencies in the US and let doctors compete in a free market. I don’t care how you do it. Give them an incredibly hard test, only include more objective residencies like radiology, who cares? How much do you think a Haitian doctor would charge to read your x-ray from Port-au-Prince? I’m not singling out doctors by the way– do the same in Silicon Valley or Wall Street for similar results.
p.p.p.s. If you made it this far, you may be interested in reading Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration under Late Capitalism