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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Life Remotely: An Interview with Jessica Mans

Last week, I wrote about location-independent work. Jessica Mans, one of the people who runs Life Remotely, which opened my eyes to just how, well … really cool this lifestyle can be, graciously took some time to talk about location independence with us. Life Remotely is a great resource for everything from planning your own extended trips to just living vicariously through the experiences of three people who got a taste of travel and living abroad and decided a taste wasn’t enough. They’ve just wrapped up an epic drive from Seattle to Patagonia (yup, you read that right) and have put out one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2013: Don’t Go There. It’s Not Safe. You’ll Die. And other more rational advice for overlanding Mexico & Central America.  

The Freeman: From what I understand, this is how all of you plan on living your lives for the foreseeable future. By “this,” I mean planning out and taking extended trips like the drive south, working en route on unrelated jobs (are they unrelated?), and renting places for short stints between trips. Do I have that right?

Jessica: Yes. Maybe. Sort of. I think so. We are the flaky non-committal type in our relationship with overlanding and location independence. And at the moment we’re simply looking for balance. 

We plan to continue to be digital nomads, working remotely from wherever we want, but sometimes that place isn’t South America or Mongolia, sometimes is our parents’ house, it’s our home town or a quiet cabin somewhere no one has ever heard of. 

Our extended driving trips are momentarily on hold. These trips take ages to plan and at the moment we are simply at the point of having too many options. We’re probably going to start with smaller, non-driving trips to explore some places we haven’t been in a while, like Europe and Kobus’ home, South Africa. From there we’ll pick the best option for the next trip. What’s that? Did someone say sailboat? Yeah, that’s on the drawing board, too. 

The Freeman: Could you talk a little about the costs involved? 

Jessica: I’ll answer this in two parts. For the type of costs that make our bank account go down. If you only consider living expenses, i.e., daily needs, accommodation, food, gas, laundry, Internet, etc., our costs were substantially lower when we were traveling. While traveling we averaged about $30 per person per day, half of our expenses while living and working full time in Seattle. If you factor in all of the other travel-related expenses however, the big one is time costs: our vehicle, modifications, flight tickets, costs to ship our car between continents, and our very expensive cruise to Antarctica. All of this brings the cost quite a bit closer to what we would actually spend at home. 

There are two reasons why we could live cheaper while traveling. First, we’re camping, sleeping in tents, cooking our own meals, and generally lowering our living standards. Second, in every country we visited the cost of living was simply lower. Food and lodging was a fraction of the cost of the U.S. If we were to do a trip like this through a place like Europe or Australia, we would not be able to save the same amount of money. 

As for non-monetary costs, that’s a different story. We gave up a nice house, with a great view, a shower that was always hot and a kitchen that was always set up, in order to be able to work part time and see the world. We gave up consistent fast Internet, cable TV, any type of cell phone upgrades for the entire time we were traveling, partially because it wasn’t possible, but also because it simply costs too much. We weren’t willing to give up our free time traveling to have these luxuries.

The social costs are a different ball game. We found ourselves growing further away from our friends back home, but closer to this huge community of location-independent travelers. And now that we are home for a few months, the pendulum is slowly swinging the other way. When we’re in a good place and can work the extra hours, we spend money on going out and seeing friends, and when we’re on the road, we find a campground, build a fire and make a feast. One takes time, the other money; both result in great friendships. 

The Freeman: What got you started on this? Was it something specific, was it a general desire to travel that you decided to run out to a logical extreme? Did you hear about it from someone else? 

Jessica: The three of us were planning a big backpacking trip. We wanted to take a year off and go to three or four continents [to visit] New Zealand, India, China, the Mediterranean, and Patagonia. We planned that out on a schedule and it looked like hell. So we took a step back and reconsidered. Around the same time we all transitioned our clients into letting us work remotely, for one reason or another. Kobus took an online teaching position, Jared’s employer allowed him to work remotely 100 percent of the time. And I simply stopped agreeing to in-person meetings. 

Once we realized we had the ability to do our jobs from anywhere, we started looking at the gear we needed and how much we wanted to work. Anything more than 20 hours a week was going to be taxing with all the other work to be done with constant travel. And with the extra gear we needed to do our jobs, and to be able to camp and cook our own food, the only option was to overland. 

From there, things fell into place. I wanted to go to Patagonia and we had no choice but to drive. A few Google searches later and we found all the information we needed to start planning. The rest is history. 

 And for the record, New Zealand, India, China, and the Med are still on the list.

The Freeman: How do/did people you know from back home (friends and family, mainly) react to the decision to go location independent? 

Jessica: Most our family and friends saw it coming. We’ve been on and off this bandwagon for quite a while, so they weren’t surprised. Our close relatives and friends were initially worried that we weren’t coming back, and it took some convincing for them to realize that location independent doesn’t mean gone forever, it means I can visit whenever I want. Three months at home for Christmas, no problem.

The outer reaches of our social circles were more skeptical. Especially about the idea of starting our location independence in a place like Mexico. We took a lot of crap from a lot of very misinformed people about the dangers of places that really aren’t so bad. So much crap, in fact, that we wrote a book called Don’t Go There. It’s Not Safe. You’ll Die. And other more rational advice for overlanding Mexico & Central America

In the end, the people we cared about, our friends, family, and even our clients, were hugely understanding. Some were envious and some just curious, but they never wavered in their support.  

The Freeman: Could you describe the process of rearranging your careers to fit this lifestyle? Is it a chicken-and-egg thing, or did you find yourselves wanting to go full-bore into the lifestyle and then looking for career paths that enabled it?

Jessica: For us it was mostly career first, lifestyle second. We knew we wanted the lifestyle, but it was impossible without a career that didn’t fit. For close to a decade we messed around varying our careers and trying to make something work. We’d take jobs for a few months, then quit and travel, then pick up new work for a few more months and take off again. All the while we were searching for a better alternative. 

It took us nearly 10 years. And when we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel we went for it full speed, all or nothing. It meant a lot of adjustments, a lot of long and slow conversations with clients and employers. We took what we could get and kept moving forward. Once we had the careers going and the clients and bosses that would support us, the rest was easy. 

The Freeman: How much time and money does dealing with visa issues take up? Do you get tourist visas and just keep the job on the down-low? 

Jessica: We always went the tourist visa route, because to my knowledge, in every country we visited, you are only required to have a work permit if you clients or employers are based in that country. 

All of our clients are in the U.S. and we continue to run our business and file taxes there. Because of that, most other countries don’t expect us to have a business visa. When it comes down to it, we are tourists who happen to need to do some work while on “vacation.” We aren’t in these counties to find work or to take away from their economies. At least, that’s my interpretation of the law. This is very gray area, and some counties are changing the rules specifically for people like us. I expect this to become a hotly debated issue in the future. 

The Freeman: Finally, going back to the origin story, what was the motivation to fully commit to this lifestyle? Was it simply an urge to see the world and have adventures? Was there an additional layer? As you've gone about it, have you developed an underlying philosophy? 

Jessica: Our full commitment was 99 percent about the desire to travel and 1 percent about everything else. We wanted to see the world on our own time, when and how we wanted. Of course, that dream, or any dream of that caliber, always makes you question why you are working 9 to 5 in an office building, spending money on things that don’t make you happy, and wasting time in a cycle that isn’t taking you toward that goal. 

For us, our working lifestyle was always the means to an end. We have worked 80 hour weeks months on end, doing crappy jobs if that let us spend 6 months somewhere else. We didn’t do it because it was fun, it was simply a necessity. Location independence is the best of the travel and working world. But, the working part is still simply the means. We want to travel. Period. Everything else is details. 

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