When I first started mucking about with websites back in the mid-2000’s, bloggers and entrepreneurs would tout the ‘laptop lifestyle’. Some copy about working anywhere would typically be paired with images of sunny beaches. I guess they’d thought about how to talk to grumpy office workers sardine canned into peak hour public transport.
It’s harder to glamourise remote work when you’ve done it for a decade. Usually I’ve worked from my lounge room, sometimes my back porch. That’s not at all a bad thing. It thoroughly suits me to be a homebody.
Well, until winter hits. As the cold bites and the AFL season becomes steadily more obnoxious, venturing out becomes less and less pleasant. It starts to feel miserable and isolating to be stuck at home all the time.
In previous years, this has been the ideal time to holiday. But having recently come on board as a co-founder of an IT support team, juggled with my usual freelancing to pay the bills, I’m far too busy to take time off.
But does that mean I have to work from Melbourne?
After all, did not the renowned philosopher and poet Kanye West once tweet “the world is our office”?
I’m hardly the first to try this
There are digital nomad scenes from Berlin to Buenos Aires. Freelancers and online entrepreneurs are attracted by low-cost living, new experiences, and the endless summer. Southeast Asia seems particularly popular.
After seriously considering Chiang Mai, Ko Pah Ngan and Siem Reap, in the end, I decided on Bali. There were great deals on flights, some interesting looking coworking spaces, Australians get 30 days visa-free travel on arrival, and it was a place I’d never been as an adult.
Preparing to leave
One thing that’s essential for working on the road is a virtual private network, or VPN. Sharing a wireless network with people you don’t know is fundamentally insecure – a VPN stops bad guys from stealing your info by encrypting your internet traffic and sending it through a server somewhere else.
A VPN is also handy because the internet is heavily censored in Indonesia. The list of banned websites seems to change all the time, but it has included major websites like Youtube, Vimeo, Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr so there is real potential for this to interfere with the work day. A VPN bypasses this by accessing the internet from wherever your VPN server is located.
Because I already had a server I could use, I installed my own VPN. If that’s not convenient for you, there are plenty of commercial options.
Another thing to have in place is some kind of synchronised cloud backup. If a falling coconut breaks your laptop as you plot world domination from your hammock, that’s always going to inconvenience you, but it’s far worse if you actually lose all your hours of work.
I also researched locations, a rough itinerary, places to stay and to work from. Bali seems to have two main digital nomad communities centred around the surf scene in Canggu and the hillside hippies of Ubud.
Perhaps my most important preparation was writing my to-do list. I know myself well enough to realise that if I don’t set clear tasks, I’ll get distracted by shiny things. If some brilliant opportunity comes up – whether through my website or through someone I meet here – I can always be a bit flexible. If not, I’ve got a pretty ironclad promise to myself to get some crucial stuff wrapped up.
You’ll easily get the best deals on a room in Bali by booking on arrival. The trade-off there is that after umpteen hours of end-to-end taxis, airports and the flight itself, it’s really the last thing you want to deal with.
That’s why I booked ahead. For $400 I got two weeks in a nice guesthouse, clean and comfortable, with air conditioning, private bathroom and an awesome lounge chair in a lovely sunny garden. It’s a leisurely 10 minute walk to where I’m working. I’ve left the rest of my accommodation to figure out as I go.
There are cheaper options here and no end of luxury resorts too. For people staying longer, the popular option seems to be to rent a villa by the month for about $900, which gets you 2-3 bedrooms, a swimming pool and a cleaner.
Phone and internet
My phone plan had a fairly inexpensive daily global roaming rate for Indonesia, so I just used that. This means that I’m still contactable on the same phone number, which is important for work.
I’ve had no problems with voice calls. Sometimes it takes a minute or two for text messages to send, which is no great drama.
The internet is a different story.
I was concerned that, being on the road, I would burn through my mobile data in a matter of days and then get charged some exotic international rate for the excess. I needn’t have worried – it’s difficult to make any kind of dent in my data cap because the connection is both intermittent and slow.
Perhaps there’s a better SIM card out there, but from my conversations, my experience seems to be very normal.
Wi-fi is often not a lot better. When you’re researching from Australia, it seems just about every cafe and room offers it. What you discover when you get here is that it’s often slow and often doesn’t work at all.
I’ve since learnt that it’s rather more involved to get a business quality internet connection here than it is at home. Coworking spaces connect to multiple different internet providers so that when one drops out, which happens all the time, there are others to fall back on.
As a general rule, assume that any wi-fi not specifically advertised as suitable for remote work is intended more as just a courtesy for tourists to post on Instagram.
Coworking and networking
I’m travelling alone and came here not knowing anyone, so I figured it would be a good idea to check out an existing scene. The day after I arrived, I signed up at Dojo Bali, one of Bali’s two major coworking locations.
Dojo is pretty great. It’s comfy, spacious and chilled out. There’s a pool, an on-site cafe and the best internet I’ve found in Bali.
Showing up here is in itself not a terribly social event. We’re all here to sit down, focus and get things done.
They host networking events all the time though. For someone whose commitment to professional networking usually goes no further than checking emails, this has been an excellent experience.
Getting work done
Before I left, one thing I was a bit wary about was whether I’d be able to focus on work. Instead, I’ve totally crushed it.
I think part of it is that, back home, what often drags me away from work are domestic things like cooking, groceries, laundry and cleaning. I find these tasks to be the most diabolical form of procrastination because it really wouldn’t do to eliminate them completely. They’re part and parcel of being a grown up.
So it is that you take a 10 minute break from writing and then suddenly find yourself at 4:30 with a spotless kitchen and an unfinished website.
In Bali, free of any need to clean or cook, I’m domestically liberated. I wouldn’t want to live like this forever, but it’s a great situation to be in to focus on projects. Perhaps if I got settled in more permanent accommodation, some of this would creep back.
Cost of living
Indonesian food is easy to find for about $2-4 for a full meal, rising to about $5-6 to eat right on the beach, which is quite nice at sunset. This has been almost the entirety of what I’ve eaten. It’s tasty, made with fresh ingredients, and after a couple of weeks here there are still things I’m yet to try.
Beverages are about 50 cents for a bottle of water, $1-2 for soft drink and juice, $2-3 for locally brewed beer, and $5-10 for a cocktail.
My membership to the Coworking space cost about $100 for 50 hours. I ended up doing a bit of work from my room so I probably could have made do with a 25 hour membership, but the cost difference there is minimal.
The taxi from the airport cost $20 after quite a bit of negotiation, and since then everything has been close enough to walk to.
Because I’m only here a month, I’m still paying for bills and housing back home. That definitely adds an expense. On the other side of the ledger, so long as you’re still handling clients, there’s an income to balance these outgoings.
Probably the biggest surprise has been how straightforward it’s been to do this. In my head, this was much more difficult.
I’ve managed to power through some projects, see and enjoy a different part of the world, all while generally feeling quite relaxed and chilled out. I can’t see the downside.
Not everyone can tear themselves away from home for a month. But if you can, it’s a great way to give yourself the time and space to focus on your most important projects, and a great way to put your brain on a bit of a different diet and find new ways to think about what you’re doing.