It’s January 2021 and I’m at home in England, in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Looking out of my back-bedroom-office window at the snow falling against the background of a grey sky, I reflect that this is a complete contrast to my travelling office setup as a digital nomad. Somewhere I have a photo of one of my makeshift ‘offices’: my laptop on a wooden table at Dolphin View Beach in the Solomon Islands.
For the last five years I’ve designed for myself a ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle combining work and travel, taking my creative enterprise around the world with a backpack or suitcase. My laptop’s always with me, so I can keep my business open wherever I go.
That means I can coach clients online from Sumatra before climbing a volcano; take a backpacking trip to Central America before a business conference in Colombia; and deliver training workshops in creative hubs in cities around the world.
Clearly there are many huge differences between life as a digital nomad roaming the world and being forcibly grounded in England. There are similarities too: some fairly obvious, and others I’m slowly discovering.
There’s the isolation, which at times is exactly the same. Also, the structure of the day that’s largely self-created. This can be a blessing or a curse. Freedom is wonderful but scary too. There’s a comfort in fitting into a typical ‘working day’, commuting to an office and being amongst people. Both at home and abroad I have my to-do lists and tick my way through them. My procrastination is with me, wherever I am.
When overseas, I sometimes don’t know what day of the week it is, and oftentimes it doesn’t even matter. My travelling doesn’t follow a 5-days a week pattern. And weekends are observed differently from culture to culture, or not at all. At home in lockdown, every day seems the same. My office is open 24/7. Even if I’m less busy than usual, it’s always in view; a constant reminder of the work I should be doing.
Being self-employed, I love the flexibility of working around my own rhythms and creativity. I often choose to work during the weekend, whether at home or on my travels. But now, on the long road of day after day sameness, the border between weekday and weekend has no signposts or checkpoints.
I hardly go anywhere nowadays, in stark contrast to jetting around. (I was going to say ‘zooming around’ but that has a different meaning nowadays. I’d never even heard of Zoom before the pandemic.)
At home I have my car. Overseas, I rarely drive, with a few notable exceptions, like my epic ocean drive in Tongatapu with a fellow backpacker. During lockdown, driving is also rare, since there’s nowhere to go except the supermarket. Commuting to visit clients has been substituted by online meetings.
The places I’d go for weekends away, like my beloved mountaineering hostels in the Lake District and Wales, are closed until further notice. Most of the places I need to go during lockdown are within walking distance. My car didn’t move an inch for the whole of the month of May.
Many things are the same, but with a different flavour, or a new angle: wifi; people watching; writing; seclusion; shopping; chats with strangers; coffee.
Even the weather, which is one of the big contrasts when travelling, has parallels in this strange new universe. I think back to England’s sunshine last July before this January’s snow. That six month transition, as 2020 plodded on, was a thousand times slower than my six hour flight from hot to cold, leaving Malaysia’s humid markets for Japan’s snow covered temples, exactly four years ago.
This winter, I feel imprisoned, my wings clipped, grounded. I’m usually out of the United Kingdom half the time each year and normally I make a point of flying away from the depth of the British winter to enjoy several weeks in tropical climates.
I have three passports but all my exits are blocked. My backpack is unused, my travel gear untouched, my packing routines forgotten. Skyscanner, Rome to Rio and Booking.dot.com not needed.
For a year now, there have been no new travel photos framed; no maps collected; and no pins added to my world map on the wall. Foreign bank notes I didn’t change back in the hope of using them again are starting to fade. International adapters sit redundant. Mosquito spray has gone out of date. My laptop has cabin fever.
Occasionally, wistfully, I remember the good old days of long-haul flights to exotic destinations. I miss all the stuff of travel: booking my flights, the airport lounges, watching films on planes. Perversely, I also miss immigration forms, airport buses and crowded carousels. I miss stretching my legs and scrounging snacks from the galley at the back of the plane. I miss my routine at airport arrival halls: (1) withdraw local cash, (2) buy a new SIM card, (3) log in to the local taxi app.
Perhaps because I’m British, I even miss the queues! Boarding the plane in Manchester wide-eyed or wearily snaking towards an immigration desk after an overnight flight. Queues and crowds in airports, train stations and ferry terminals were part of the old regime, vaguely remembered, as if in a previous life.
Post-Covid, the world will never be the same again. At times I wonder if I’ll ever return to being a digital nomad, backpacker or business traveller. Cancelled conferences might never be revived. Training workshops have largely gone online and may stay there. Many of my favourite hostels and hotels could be closed forever. For some time yet, quarantine rules will stop and start like tropical rains. I’ll probably need a Covid vaccination certificate alongside the one I carry for Yellow Fever.
Right now I don’t have any trips planned. That means I don’t have the anticipation of travel, which is part of the fun. Planning is part of the adventure. I need to keep the faith about a better future. So last June I renewed my annual worldwide travel insurance policy, as a defiant act of hope, well worth the waste of money.
My inability to travel, the multiple tragedies of the pandemic that caused it, and the fogginess of the future, have combined to gradually slow me down into a gentle depression. It’s hardly noticeable to others, and even to myself.
Despite all this, the flame lives on. I’m still a traveller at heart. And there’s still something of an explorer in me.
During lockdown I’ve remembered that exploration isn’t necessarily about foreign lands; it’s about being open minded about finding new paths. It’s a state of mind, not a matter of distance from home. As a boy I’d ride my bike alone to see where the road led, beyond the park where other kids played. Within a few miles I was in (for me) unexplored territory and unheard-of places.
Decades later, during this pandemic, taking my permitted daily exercise on my bike, I’ve rediscovered my inner explorer. I’ve found lanes and tracks I’ve never travelled before, surprisingly close to home. I’ve remembered the boyish joy of discovering new places.
There’s hope for me yet.
Copyright © David Parrish 2021
First published 24 January 2021
“Nothing is permanent, things will get better soon. Like when we wait for the good weather to be able to reach the summit, you just have to have that faith.”
Nimsdai ‘Nims’ Purja. Nepalese Mountaineer.
“To me travel is triple delight: anticipation, performance, and recollection.”
“Travel is ninety percent anticipation and ten percent recollection”
“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”
Read more travel quotes.