Notes to digital nomads: Don’t let solitude turn into loneliness, and give back where you take from

Suvarchala Narayanan March 10, 2017 5 min

I’m writing this from a tiny village near Bhagsu in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by the majestic Himalayas and a heavy silence that shrouds me in a bubble of isolation.

I came looking for this experience, having grown a bit weary of Bangalore’s constant sounds and movement. I welcomed the long hours of solitude with just my laptop and endless cups of tea. But it also got me thinking about the other side of the digital nomad life, especially when I got into conversations with the warm and welcoming pahadi family whose room I was renting.

Work with a view: my homestay in Bhagsu, Himachal

Much as I love the nomadic lifestyle, my time alone made me reflect on the factors that make this a difficult path sometimes, and the less glamorous aspects of this life that very few nomads talk about. Here are my thoughts:

Solitude Vs Loneliness

“Loneliness is one thing, solitude another.” — Nietzsche

I am of the belief that to be a digital nomad, you must not just be able to tolerate solitude, but actively seek and love it. While you can always meet people and entrench yourself in communities in different places, a large part of a digital nomad’s life (unless you’re a couple) is enacted in solitude. And while the opportunity for solitude is one of the reasons most of us choose this life, sometimes, ‘alone’ crosses the line into loneliness. Months in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and where everything — from the culture and customs to the food — is new, can take a toll on you after the initial euphoria over the novelty of solitude subsides.

This is why the way you travel can really matter. Some travellers stay like tourists, slightly apart from the essence of local life. But, to truly belong, (and the secret to overcoming loneliness) is to make every place home, no matter how temporary. Learn the basics of the language — at least enough to communicate on a daily basis — and, more importantly, to develop a feeling of familiarity with the place and its people.

Two of my favourite resources in this department are YouTube and italki, a website where you can do language exchanges and also find teachers who will give you lessons over Skype.

Learning Greek with a local teacher, Manolis, and later through italki.com
Basic Arabic lessons with Maha on YouTube before my trip to Jordan

Stay with locals

This one is a no-brainer, but it is often underestimated. Finding areas where other expats live and putting up at international hostels is the easiest thing to do. While this can be great sometimes, depending on the place, it can also rob a traveller of an intimate experience of the culture she is a part of. Use homestays, Airbnb, couchsurfing, and recommendations from other travellers on online forums to find welcoming local families to stay with. It is usually cheaper (except for Airbnb in certain countries) and definitely more interesting.

With my Greek landlady, Maria. Our daily chats and homemade Greek food made me feel like family
Staying with locals embeds you in the culture and leaves you with lifelong relationships

Another approach is to involve yourself in local activities or volunteer work. This brings me to the second point I want to make — ethical nomadism and the different ways to live the digital nomad life.

Ethical nomadism Vs irresponsible nomadic culture

There is a debate raging in digital nomad circles on whether the current version of the trend is exploitative, with people from more developed countries merely leveraging the power of their currencies in developing countries.

It’s a question Seoul-based journalist Do You-jin asks in her documentary on digital nomads One Way Ticket. Here, she asks the question many evangelist nomads shy away from — is this movement spreading wealth to developing countries, or is it a new form of gentrification and colonialism?

From blogs to communities I’m a part of, this debate has resulted in nomads introspecting on the impact our lifestyle has on local communities and also our responsibility towards these places that become our temporary homes. One approach that finds a lot of consensus is that instead of merely taking from the place, nomads should find ways of participating, contributing and giving back. We can do this by getting involved in local cultural activities and learning local skills, teaching children English (or other relevant languages) and other valued skills, or crowdfunding to help build homes, clinics, etc where they stay. The nomad-local relationship should be a two way-exchange, where we learn from the place and the people and we humbly contribute what we can.

Abhijit Sinha, founder of Project Defy Makerspaces, worked with the local community in Uganda to build low-cost ambulances for less than $500

Abhijit Sinha, founder of Project Defy Makerspaces in India, exemplifies this approach pretty well. In 2014, he worked with the local community in Uganda to build low-cost ambulances for less than $500. Asked about the Bodacart project, he says: “I made the first prototype version in 2013 using junk thrown out of the hospital in Mbarara — a hospital bed, bicycle wheel-holders, bicycle wheel, scrap metal. The ambulance was made from scratch in Uganda with the help of local welders. We now want to teach the welders how to make the complete model so they can build their own ambulances. They can then sell or lease them, thereby getting an entrepreneurial or employment opportunity. The model will be open-source, locally produced and locally competitive.”

While the digital nomad lifestyle does have some downsides like the loneliness and the near-constant uncertainty many nomads have to grapple with, living longer in places and finding ways to make them home go a long way in helping overcome the challenges.

For those of you interested in the debate on ethical travel and the questions nomads often ask themselves, I really recommend Daniel Kay’s piece on his blog.

“We must take adventures in order to know where we truly belong.” — Unknown

Photographs: Suvarchala Narayanan


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