Stay or Go? A Digital Nomad Dilemma

by Sasha Savinov

To say that we’re living in strange times is a vast understatement. The coronavirus pandemic has brought much of the world to a screeching halt. There have been countless stories of travelers stranded, desperately trying to get home. But what about us digital nomads? How does one “go home” when they don’t really have one? In this post, I’ll discuss our decision to travel back to the US from Colombia and what our plans are moving forward.

Realities of Digital Nomad Life

We’ve been digital nomads for half a decade now. The last time we signed a contract of any sort for a place to live was back in the summer of 2014 when we moved to Kunming. Since then, we have lived in Bali and Mexico and traveled extensively in Latin America.

During that time, we’ve just been bouncing around different Airbnbs or places we found through Facebook groups. The longest we’ve spent in any place in the last three years has been two different stints of six months in Puerto Vallarta.

While we love it there, it’s definitely not “home.” We’re not residents of any kind in Mexico. Rather, we just get that sweet 180-day tourist stamp in our passports and then move on when it’s up.

live in China

Rachel’s first day in Beijing.

We’re both American, but we haven’t lived in the States since early 2010. We moved to Beijing to teach English in March of that year and have never moved back. Other than a few boxes in our parents’ attics and basements, we have no worldly belongings there.

As you can see, the whole concept of “home” is a bit different for us. We live out of our backpacks and are used to moving around every few weeks or months. It’s not an easy lifestyle, but it’s the one we chose and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Life During Quarantine

Things like a global pandemic make an already complicated situation much more so. We started hearing about the virus back in January as we teach Chinese students online. We were following the news closely out of there but didn’t imagine it would have any effect on our plans.

The year started off great…

At the time, we were traveling with my brother and his girlfriend around Mexico. They were going back to the Philippines after the trip and we planned to continue on to Colombia. None of us could have imagined how life would change just a few weeks later.

As I wrote about last month in our update, we ended up living that #quarantinelife in Medellin. When I wrote that update, we were in the middle of what we thought was a 24-day national lockdown.

It sucked, but we made our peace with it and were keeping busy. We both still had a lot of classes booked with VIPKID. Rachel was working tirelessly on launching her course. I was my typical hippie self, sitting on the porch strumming my guitar and doing yoga.

Smiling the afternoon before quarantine started.

We found a way to make the best of this situation and mapped out a scenic route along a little stream to the grocery store. It wasn’t much, but that brief time outside once or twice a week was a godsend.

We cooked delicious meals in the evening, watched some of our favorite bands do live streams, and got on Zoom calls with friends and family. To be honest, it really wasn’t that bad.

Then the lockdown got extended.

They announced it would go for another two weeks with even stricter rules. This included a system where you could only go out for essentials on certain days based on the last number of your ID.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

All the while, we had been getting e-mails from the US embassy about humanitarian flights. These warned US citizens abroad to return home immediately on these flights or risk staying abroad indefinitely.

INDEFINITELY.

That was the one word that always stuck out.

Most of them were out of Bogota, which wasn’t exactly feasible for us. They announced one for Medellin, but it sold out immediately.

We started to try and wrap our heads around this idea of staying in the Spring City “indefinitely.” While we love the place, that wasn’t something we were really OK with, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

At least we had a nice view.

They announced a second humanitarian flight, and we seriously considered it. However, we had already paid rent for the whole month and had lots of classes scheduled. Canceling classes, even for legitimate reasons, typically lands you in what we call “booking purgatory” – something we cannot afford at the moment.

We also didn’t really know where to go once we got back to the US. While both of our families would obviously welcome us with open arms, we didn’t want to risk infecting anybody if we got sick while traveling. After talking it over with family, we decided to stick it out.

Then we heard gunshots. Right below our apartment at about 1 AM on a Wednesday. And we were staying in a “nice” and “safe” part of the city…

Now, I grew up right near the hood in Detroit. I’m used to hearing gunshots. It’s not like I was terrified or anything. From the noise that ensued with the security guards and police on motorbikes, it seemed like it was just warning shots and that no one was really hurt.

Either way, it was a bit unsettling. We realized that neither of us was very comfortable with being legitimately stuck in Colombia.

The uncertainty of it all started to weigh on me mentally. Considering how much of an extrovert I am and how antsy I get, I was doing a pretty damn good job of quarantine if I do say so myself. I did yoga every single day for over a month. For the first time in years, I played guitar on a near-daily basis.

How hippies get ready for quarantine life…

When yet another humanitarian flight was announced, we thought it might be our last chance for a while. It was looking like Colombia would extend the lockdown yet again. There was no date in sight when they might re-open the airports for commercial travel.

We called up our insurance company to see if we were still eligible for political evacuation coverage. They said we were but couldn’t guarantee we’d be reimbursed. The total cost for both of us would be close to $1,000 – more than we make in a busy week of teaching.

Once again, there was the whole issue of where to go. Renting an Airbnb and a car for weeks on end at American prices isn’t exactly in our budget range. If we were left to fend for ourselves, staying in Colombia was really the only option.

Family to the Rescue

We’re very fortunate to have such generous and helpful families. Rachel’s mom and stepdad have his old house in the mountains outside of Asheville that they visit on the weekends.

It’s a place that’s near and dear to us, as it’s where we spent our first honeymoon after our wedding in Asheville. They’ve done an amazing job fixing the place up and once they got WiFi, it became a viable option for us to stay and work when visiting.

At the mountain house on our honeymoon.

We’ve spent a lot of time here over the past few years, but never in a situation like this. They have been spending more time here lately, as has Rachel’s step sister. We felt really bad asking to take over the place, as we would need it to ourselves for two weeks in order to properly “self-isolate” after our trip.

It’s been a decade since we gave up on being down and out in the US. We were under-employed, on food stamps, and begging our parents to help us pay rent at that time. We’re proud of how far we’ve come since then and didn’t want to rely on our families to take care of us.

Once in a while, you’ve got to swallow your pride and realize when it’s time to throw in the towel. We realized that we had nothing to prove by toughing it out in Medellin, paying rent to be stuck in a sparsely furnished apartment 24 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Of course, Rachel’s family offered to arrange things for us to return to the US. I had a nice long talk with my folks as well, and we all agreed it was time to come home.

Rachel jumped online to look for seats and we ended up getting the last two. As luck would have it, we also hadn’t scheduled class for that night so we could watch the Phish stream online. Shortly afterward, Colombia announced yet another two weeks of quarantine measures.

The universe was definitely giving us a sign.

The Long & Sanitized Road Home

With the last two seats on the flight booked, we prepared to say goodbye to Medellin. On our final morning there, we got up at 5:15 to teach our classes, packed our things, fixed up a lunch, and arranged a cab to the airport.

As all commercial flights were shut down, they only had one door at the airport open. We had to maintain a safe distance from others and security guards were checking passports. They also made sure everyone had a mask.

The security check was at the front door. From there, we each had a temperature check and were spaced out to check-in and hand over our bags. There was hand sanitizer everywhere.

This process continued for ticket checks and boarding. On the plane, not a single middle seat was full. They did a bare-bones food & drink service for paying customers, but we had our own bagged lunch with us and water.

Rocking my Phish bandana over my mask.

Once in Ft. Lauderdale, it was a relatively quick and painless trip through customs and immigration. They seemed more interested in learning about our alternative lifestyle than doing a health screening.

With no flights to Asheville for two days, we decided it was best to just rent a car. One-way rentals are usually super expensive, but we got ours for $30. Prices are low due to the pandemic and companies also trying to move their rentals out of Florida now that the high season is over.

The original plan was to stop about halfway in someplace like Savannah. After a few hours in the car, though, we decided to just go for it. We both had classes in the morning and felt more comfortable getting to the mountain house than trying to teach from some roadside motel.

Since we had taken the night off to enjoy the Phish “Dinner & A Movie” stream, we didn’t want to break our plans. We hit a Chik-Fil-A drive-thru (which seemed to be taking the virus more seriously than the FLL airport) and played the stream through our iPad.

Rachel drove the first half of the way and then we switched at about 1 AM. I had a big coffee and cranked up some high-energy tunes so I was ready to rock for the graveyard shift.

We made it back to the house just before 6 with an hour to spare before Rachel’s first class. I took a nap, taught my one single class, and went right back to sleep. It was a long journey, but we had made it.

Not a bad place to quarantine!

Home Again

Despite not having one, we very much feel “home” here. It’s been great being able to go for walks outside and to just sit on the porch looking at the mountains. Several of her step dad’s family members live on the road, and we’ve been able to have socially distant chats with them on our walks.

We’ve been enjoying North Carolina craft beers, which are so much better than the watered-down crap they sell in Colombia. Last weekend, we fired up the grill and cooked some burgers to go with our potato salad. These little comforts have made a big difference.

Breweries in Asheville

There’s lots of good beer ’round here…

Unfortunately, the 17 hours I spent sitting up on that travel day did a number on my back. I’ve never had such bad pain in my back in my life and could barely move for the first few days.

A week later, I’m happy to say that I’m once again going for walks and am able to help out around the house again. I picked the guitar back up but am waiting a few days to get back on the yoga mat.

Meanwhile, Rachel crushed a 7-day home workout challenge. I’ve been cheering her on from the couch! I can’t wait until I can get some serious exercise again.

We’ve still been teaching, although bookings are getting a bit erratic as some kids in China are trickling back to school. I’ve struggled to write much since this whole thing began but I am easing my way back into it.

What I’m most excited about is a video project documenting our 10 years of travel. It’s been quite the undertaking, but I finished up the first part and it’s a whopping 30 minutes long. I’m excited to share it with everyone once we have internet fast enough to upload it.

For now, here’s a short teaser…

What the Future Holds

While 2020 got off to an excellent start – 3 nights of the Disco Biscuits, visiting the paradise of Isla Holbox, raging Carnival in Barranquilla – the year quickly went to sh*t.

Our trip to Panama got canceled.

Summer Camp got postponed, as did other concerts we had tickets for.

Our return to Puerto Vallarta got nixed, which hurts even more as we were supposed to have friends visit this time around.

It hasn’t been announced yet, but we know that Phish’s summer tour is going to be canceled.

We were meant to spend our 5th wedding anniversary seeing our favorite band at our favorite venue – the Gorge.

Nothing beats the Gorge!

My brother and his girlfriend still plan to tie the knot in Seoul on 10/10/2020, but now most of my family are unsure if we’ll even be able to attend.

To put it quite simply – 2020 sucks the big one.

In addition to all of our plans being gutted, our work is also suffering. I was excited to be writing full-time for one of the most popular travel blogs out there, but they’ve had no choice but to cut my workload drastically.

Rachel has put her heart and soul into her course to help others get started teaching English online, but now many companies have waitlist from getting so many applicants and are short-staffed to do interviews and mock lessons.

For the moment, we’re just happy to be back in a comfortable and familiar place. We worked hard these last few months and have put some money away. We’re still getting decent bookings with classes, I’ve still got some paid writing to attend to, and Rachel is still doing well with some affiliates she has running.

Once our 14-day self-isolation period is over, we’re looking forward to spending time with her family and seeing some friends in the area. We hope things will ease up a bit and we’ll be able to go for hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway and maybe some of the Appalachian Trail.

Asheville hiking

Looking forward to more hikes like these around Asheville!

While it looks like there won’t be any concerts or festivals in our near future, we will most likely stay in the US through the summer. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to travel anywhere – not even back to our beloved PV.

This lousy pandemic is forcing us and many others to hit the reset button. While we always like to “improvise our life,” we honestly have no idea what the future holds at this point in time.

Perhaps we’ll go back to Asia in the fall and stay over there for a while. Maybe we’ll finally suck it up and just sign a year-long lease in Puerto Vallarta and spend a high season there. This might be the year I finally get my shit together and apply for grad school. Who knows?

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. We appreciate all the support and encouragement we’ve gotten from readers over the last few weeks. I’ll leave you with some lyrics from the Good Ole’ Grateful Dead that are more relevant now than ever before:

We will get by. We will survive.


 

 

2 comments

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2 comments

bruce May 1, 2020 - 2:53 pm

geat post. thoroughly enjoyed reading. Now stuck in Tequis Mexico staying with a friend. Dont know how how I will be here as i have no other place to go having recently returned from Thailand after 9 years. What to do WHAT to do ?????

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jude mccormick May 1, 2020 - 12:59 pm

Great update! Seems as if you’ve made some excellent decisions and are happily settled into a lovely spot for now. Thanks for sharing.

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