The is an unedited interview I did in 2015 with Ronny from Israeli magazine, Masa Acher (meaning, "A Different Journey"). You can see the article in which my comments were used and written in Hebrew here. Read my current reflection on this interview here.
RONNY: How does one become a voluntary nomad?
RIKKA: The first step to becoming a nomad is putting aside all those ideas society and the people around you have put into your head about how you are supposed to live your life. A nomadic lifestyle is not a typical, normative way of living. Nomadicism deliberately goes against the social norm of “settling down.” A voluntary nomad must shift her or his priorities and learn how to create a lifestyle on-the-go.
Luckily, this lesser beaten path is not without its footprints. There are many people out there who have chosen to deviate from the norm and become nomads, too. Resources from travel nomads and travel hacking experts helped me not just accept the path to a life of travel but to realize a plan for making it financially possible.
RONNY: As your blog name suggests, and being a social psychology researcher - what is the essence of the new lifestyle you chose?
RIKKA: The essence of the new lifestyle I chose has very much to do with integrating who I was as a social psychology researcher with who I am as a full-time traveler. I have always been interested in the impact of social norms on people’s lives and how social norms may be changed to improve people’s lives.
I believe social norms can only be changed when individuals try something new and understand or accept other people’s behaviors when different from our own. Deviations from normative paths provide opportunities to evolve, improve, and progress as individuals and whole societies.
For me, this meant deviating away from academia for a while. I had to get over the message taught to me since I started my doctoral training that my career would suffer if I did not jump into a post-doctoral job position (a “post-doc”) immediately after graduation. This was the first normative assumption I had to break.
Instead of applying for a post-doc as I neared graduation, I researched and developed ways to make full-time travel financially possible. For example, I travel hacked my way to thousands of frequent flier miles which I then used to purchase flights to the destinations I wanted to visit. I also became a couchsurfer and housesitter so I could have low-cost or even free accommodation all around the world.
RONNY: What is the essence of being a digital nomad, what makes it different from tourism or long term traveling?
RIKKA: A digital nomad takes full advantage of how well-connected the world is in the modern age in order to live a life of travel sustainability. The internet and technological advancements have made the need to be settled null and void. If we want to, we can travel and take our livelihood with us—on a one-inch flash drive the size of a thumb or by accessing our files in a “cloud.”
It’s different from other forms of travel because digital nomads do not travel with the knowledge that a home and a job are waiting for them back at the original location from which they departed. Digital nomads make their home wherever they go. As Pumbaa from the Lion King once said, “Home is where your rump rests.”
Digital nomads’ businesses come with them or they expect to create their business and make money as they travel, not just when they are back where they started.
Relationships may work similarly—either they come along or are created as they go.
RONNY: Do you even consider yourself to be a "digital" nomad?
RIKKA: To be honest, I had not thought seriously about my digital nomadicism until you asked me. I suppose I am a digital nomad in some ways, but not in others.
I am a digital nomad because of my blog and because of the freelance web/graphic design and social media marketing I do for a few small business clients back in New York. I work on both of these as I’m traveling.
I am not a digital nomad because I have not yet figured out how to make my travel financially sustainable through these two sources. Without financial sustainability on the road, I am still reliant on funds I’ve earned “back home” to support me.
My devotion to the blog keeps me seeking out Wi-Fi connections as often as the next nomad, but it has yet to generate an income. I’m still working on getting my blog known, finding my “voice,” and determining what people like about my writing. While my design and marketing work does generate a small income, it is nowhere near what I need to sustain my travels forever. It's a work in progress.
RONNY: What are the benefits vs. the challenges of this lifestyle?
RIKKA: The benefits are too numerous to name so I will mention two of the most significant to me:
(1) You get to feel productive even while you’re vacationing. I used to feel unproductive and guilty that I wasn’t working on something whenever I took time off from work and school. Being a digital nomad means you can pick up your laptop and get typing at any moment. Then you can hike up that mountain, lay on that beach, or drink with that local guilt-free.
(2) You get to learn more about yourself and your interests than ever. When you’re left to your own devices, how do you fill your time? I used to think playing video games and watching TV series were two of my favorite past times. Since I’ve started traveling, I have actually struggled to motivate myself to play a game or watch a show. The desire is still there, and occasionally I have the opportunity, but going off on an adventure to experience something new or writing about these adventures in my blog have consistently been the more fulfilling options when available.
I can think of two challenges both of which stem from digital nomads’ inevitable dependency on technology and staying connected:
(1) Finding a balance between work and play while on the road can be just as challenging as at home. I’ve heard some fellow digital nomads tell me they are afraid to travel to certain countries because they fear going without Wi-Fi for more than 24 hours. I think this is the point at which you have to assess your original reasons for becoming a digital nomad in the first place. Digital nomads have to decide if they care more about the experience of seeing a unique part of our world or about their business.
(2) Old fashioned snail mail is still a must when it comes to technological break downs. When your devices break overseas, you suddenly realize how much you used to take advantage of free shipping services to manufacturers when your devices are still under warranty in their country of origin. The price you pay to ship your broken item back to the manufacturer can be hefty. Not to mention, the wait time for getting your device repaired, replaced, or reimbursed is doubled and can make your workload fall way behind. Having a backup plan is essential.
RONNY: The most memorable travel experiences you have? It can be either good or bad
RIKKA: The most memorable would have to be my experience hitch-hiking for the first time. I was trying to get to Christchurch which would be a three hour drive from the ferry on the South Island of New Zealand. A car full of local Maori men ended up stopping to pick me up. I remember feeling extremely nervous about getting into anybody’s car, let alone a car with 3 men in it. But I was determined to keep an open-mind and push myself to get over my reservations. So I executed a few safety precautions and then hopped into the back seat.
My decision to ride with them resulted in some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in all my travels. We discussed Maori culture, stigmatization toward them from other New Zealanders, and what they wished others knew about Maori people. As far as I could tell, these three young men who kindly gave me a ride asking for nothing in return trumped all the stereotypes I had been hearing about Maori people in the weeks since I had landed in New Zealand.
Hitch-hiking and getting picked up by these men proved we cannot really know others until we deviate the norm and leave our assumptions behind.
RONNY: Any practical tips regarding nomadic traveling (recommended locations, do’s & dont’s, etc.)?
RIKKA: Do talk to locals. This is the way to find new experiences and opportunities.
Do push yourself to do what you normally do not or would not do. Go to the tourist attractions that interest you, but don’t be afraid to hop on a motorbike and drive down a random road. See where alternate paths take you.
Do take precautions but don’t let them hold you back. If the news at home gives warnings about the destination to which you plan to travel, ask people who have recently traveled there to find out what’s really going on. Learn from locals where locals go and do not go, but remember even locals have misconceptions about other people and places.
RONNY: What are your future plans in terms of traveling: would you keep going "forever" or do you plan on settling down soon?
RIKKA: If these were my only two choices, I would choose the nomadic lifestyle over settling down. But I refuse to limit myself to dichotomies. I would prefer to blur the line by having bouts of long-term travel and periods of nesting sporadically as fits the situation across my lifetime.
Ultimately, I am open to trying out multiple paths in order to obtain a lifestyle that best suits me, whether it means deviating from the nomadic path, deviating from settling down, or deviating from both. If I can build up my savings and develop my design and marketing business to sustain long-term travel, I will travel long-term again. Similarly, if I receive an offer for a job back home I cannot refuse, I will accept it and relocate to do it. If neither of these work out, I will explore other paths.
I followed an academic path for nearly my entire life. I named my blog “deviating the norm” to remind myself to be open and push myself to try new ways of being. Deviating the norm is not about finding one new lifestyle and then sticking to it. Instead, deviating the norm is about testing alternative routes and adjusting the path at every point along the way in order to find a lifestyle that uniquely suits me at any given moment in time. It’s not meant to be linear. My own choices and subsequent happiness matter in the end—not sticking to one lifestyle or another for the sake of it.
My deviations have recently led me to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. I’ve started to volunteer at a local non-profit organization here and I am building relationships I want to explore further. But I do have plans to keep traveling. In my sights are diving Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and exploring more of Southeast Asia, but we’ll see. Part of the experience of deviating is growing accustomed to and appreciative of the unknown and unexpected.
Read my reflection on this interview here.
[A special thanks to Ronny at Masa Acher for asking great questions and allowing me the chance to share the full interview in English.]