Berna Anat: Dishing the Dirt on the Crazy Life of a Digital Nomad

Instagram: @heyberna

Berna Anat is hilariously real.

In January 2018 she grabbed a bag-pack and set out with her boyfriend to embark on a whirlwind worldwide adventure. They have been travelling ever since. Currently they have set up home in Taiwan and as for where they’ll travel next, who knows? That is the wonder of Berna and Peter’s lives right now.

She has gained over 8,000 followers on Instagram, many of whom love her for her candour, humour and honestly. This girl is not afraid to get weird, she is not afraid to be honest and she doesn’t shy away from being real about the life of a digital nomad.

What can you expect if you start to follow Berna and Peter on their journey? A whole lot of love, financial transparency on how they fund their lives, brutally honest financial advice, silliness, long witty captions, interesting blog posts and unpredictable photos that will make you laugh until your sides hurt.

Berna is what we need in today’s world of people pretending their lives are perfect and easy and they don’t have to budget their travel expenses to a T.

Luckily for us Berna is dishing the dirt on the unpredictable and wonderful craziness your life takes on when you decide to become a digital nomad.

Instagram: @heyberna

Tell us a bit about your background?

I’m a Filipina-American born and raised in San Francisco, but the first thing that strikes a lot of people is that I “don’t look Filipina.” I like that my big hair and dark skin forcibly reminds folks that, contrary to the lies that racial stereotyping tells us, humans come in every shape, shade and hair volume level. It’s literally science. I grew up dreaming of becoming the editor-in-chief of a teen magazine, but then I actually worked at a teen magazine and, wow. Hard pass. So I jumped into a career of teen empowerment instead.

My heart loves non-profit youth programming work, but my brain loves digital media, and I’ve been lucky to do a bit of both with freelance video production and writing. Just before my big leap into the nomad world, I was the Teen Community Lead at Instagram, which basically means I got to crawl through and understand the incredibly creative youth communities that use Instagram — and, as a side effect, I was sort of resident Teen Speak Translator for the company.

Why did you decide to travel and how are you supporting yourself financially?

I figured out quite young that working until you’re too old to enjoy your freedom seemed like a shitty idea. And having traveled and studied abroad a decent amount, I knew that the way we do life in the US was not the only way to do life. (And that that mindset is exactly what got us into our current political predicament, but I DIGRESS.) I was hungry to see what other excellent, righteous, mind-blowing lives people led outside of our bubbles.

But it wasn’t until I met my current partner that I gathered up the ladyballs to quit the rat race. We had a really easy convo early on in our relationship, which went something like: Oh, you also want to quit life and travel indefinitely? YUP. Oh, you also have crippling 5-figure student debt? YUP. You wanna get serious about paying it off, and then jump ship together? YUuUuUuP. It was an easy decision to make, and a hard but fun journey to actually achieve.

Once we were almost done with our student loans, we put all of that debt-slaying energy (and money) towards aggressively saving to travel abroad — all of which took about two years. We’re living frugally off of that savings right now, and I’m slowly picking back up on my freelance life to try and continue financing this magical, backdoor hack of a life we’ve found.

Instagram: @heyberna

What are your travel plans, where have you been and where are you going or is it all spontaneous?

Before we left in January, our only travel plan was this: Get one-way tickets to New Zealand, figure out the rest as we go. Leaving it open ended was kind of the whole point — we wanted to live unstructured, spontaneous lives abroad. But we had the vague idea that we wanted to work out way north through Asia and end in Japan — mostly because we hear that autumn in Japan is freakin’ gorgeous — and be back home for Thanksgiving. Home for dinner, kinda.

So far, we’ve spent:

  • 3 months car camping and volunteering on farms all through New Zealand.
  • 2 months living with one family in Bali (with a 3-day visa run in Singapore)
  • 2 months traveling from the southern end of Vietnam to the North.
  • 2 weeks (so far) in Taiwan, with the plan to circle the whole island in 2 months and end with a half-marathon in Taipei.

We have vague plans to eventually meet up with a new friend in Jeju, South Korea, but other than that, we’re open. And that’s the way, uh huh uh huh, we like it.

What made you decide to document your experience on Instagram? What Instagrammers inspire you?

I knew I’d document our lives on IG because that’s where I have the most fun documenting anything — it’s fast, it’s visual, and it allows for just enough humour and creative expression without the insane pressure to produce fancy shit (for me, at least). And it’s where everyone in the communities I care about express themselves, too.

But hands down, the Instagrammers that inspire me the most are the young creatives who are using IG to make bold socio-political statements — especially the ones who use the platform to make their own platform. Nadya Okamoto’s @periodmovement for menstrual awareness comes to mind, as does @elliewheels for accessibility activism, as do youth-led collectives like @risenzine and @schoolofdoodle and @girlpowermeetups and @adolescentcontent. These people are like, Ok, I get that this platform tends to be shallow and narcissistic, but let me bust down that narrative, educate the masses AND ALSO look zamn good whenever we feel like it.

Do you consider being a digital nomad as a form of escapism?

Hell yes and hell naw! It’s definitely escapism — the whole reason I became a digital nomad was to straight-up escape the shitty hamster wheel our upbringing/capitalist America/Millennial ambition has us on. Like,hard ESC button. I believe what I was “escaping” was scary and damaging and not the only way to be, so I have no ragrets about it at all.

It’s also not escapism as we know it; it’s not leaving one “bad” world and stepping into a perfect, fake utopia, even though lots of folks ‘Gram it that way. Both nomadic life and non-nomadic life have its separate, distinct shit. It’s just choosing this life’s shit over the other. For example, we’re lucky and privileged enough to romp around the world, but there are serious emotional and financial consequences to throwing your body in a different city (or country) every few weeks. And oh my god, I miss my people. I’ve been ready to throw my body into the next plane home just to be able to grab boba at will with humans that understand me.

Instagram: @heyberna

What is the best, worst and funniest thing to happen to you so far on your travels?

WOW YES. I love a juicy, impossible question.

Best thing, I think, is a tie between two things. One: Finding so many humans and families who stole the shit out of our hearts. We did not expect to feel true love and attachment with so many folks, but that’s what happens when you travel slow. It feels like we’re constantly saying goodbye to adopted moms and dads and babies and dogs, and crying. It’s horrible and also delicious. The second thing is, obnoxiously, the self-discovery. I feel like I’ve grown ladyballs for so many things I would’ve never tried had I stayed at home, like entrepreneurship. I’m incredibly proud of myself for such fast, blender-like growth.

Worst thing? God, there was that time a rock just randomly plowed into our windscreen in New Zealand and we had to pay $400 to get it fixed, on top of the exploded radiator and blown fuses we had just paid to replace. I’ve had some pretty thick homesickness episodes, too, that have laid me low for a few days. But honestly, we’ve been incredibly lucky and safe. Very few complaints.

Funniest thing, wow. This one time in New Zealand, we at a work exchange with this very eccentric older woman, and on our much-anticipated last day, she announced that she’d be giving us a goodbye ceremony. This goodbye ceremony ended up being three hours of twirling around in smoke, making music with sticks, and watching her do something I can only describe as hum-chanting while throwing scarves around. THREE. HOURS. We mumbled goodbyes, drove straight to a parking garage and literally just laid in our car laughing for like, an hour. We were like, weird-ass moments like these are exactly why we went on this trip.

Is it important to you that you are traveling with your boyfriend or do you feel you could have done your worldwide trip with a friend or alone?

Ooh. I pick the annoying Option C, all of the above. Kinda. My original life plan was to do a trip like this alone, but the way m’life was set up, it unfolded as a tag-team journey that really started when we decided to tackle our debt together. Then I was like, alright, if we can tackle crippling debt together, we can tackle the world, too.

Traveling as a couple makes this journey such a different creature, both beautiful and ugly, than it would’ve been alone. And through friends I’ve met, I know that solo travel is an equally beautiful and ugly creature, too. That’s the thing — they’re different big beasts with different big outcomes. As a couple, this could’ve been a whole garbage fire, so l feel incredibly lucky that my trip is with such, such, such a good human.

However, I don’t think I could do all of this with a friend. When you’re solo, you only have to deal with yourself, and you can opt out of any blegh social interaction. When you’re a couple, working through challenges together and finding compromise is kind of the whole point. But with a friend, I’d feel less of an obligation to compromise, less flexibility to give up my own stubborn, independent thoughts. Even with my best friend, I’d be like, Uh, I don’t really have to make this work; can’t I just go away? Can’t YOU just go away?! You understand, right, cause you’ll still love me after I act like a butthole?!

Instagram: @heyberna

How do you defeat homesickness?

Okay, straight up: Sometimes, you don’t defeat homesickness. Sometimes you have to let go and let it defeat you a little. You need to wave the white flag, lay low for a bit, and douse your heart in familiar things that you can access, like hours of Netflix and a big fat plate of spaghetti bolognese (surprisingly available pretty much anywhere). I had to learn that fighting homesickness was sometimes more exhausting than just admitting defeat, sitting my ass down, and riding out the wave. I had to keep reminding myself of that: It’s a wave, and it’ll end eventually.

But when I had the juice to fight it? The best cure was getting the hell out of my room and spending time with the real life humans around me. Sometimes it was just going downstairs and letting our homestay host’s son talk my ear off about Minecraft for an hour. Sometimes it was grabbing a green tea and, y’know that convo with the underworked barista that you’d usually cut off after a while, due to awkwardness? It was letting that convo flow for 10, 20, 30 more minutes. It was asking someone to teach me new words in Vietnamese, or Indonesian, or Mandarin (people were always SO delighted and amused to watch me try). Usually, what I was actually missing was just genuine human interaction, which tends to be very free and readily available if you force yourself to be brave.

What’s one unexpected thing to come out of your travel experience?

Lately, I’ve been so jazzed at the idea of becoming a polyglot. Virtually impossible in your late twenties, I know, but I’ve found that even if I just learn 3 phrases in a new language and I get brave enough to use them, people open up to me in a totally different way. It’s almost better if you’re terrible at it but you try anyway, and you ask for help just to get better at one word or phrase. It has been the difference between normal, indifferent service at an alleyway restaurant vs. the cook singing to me, dancing with me, kissing me on the cheek and sneaking more pork into my soup (a real thing that happened in Hanoi). It improves and deepens the relationship between me and my host family every single time.

I think when you attempt someone else’s language, especially if you’re leaving English behind, you’re showing respect and humility by giving them the power, making yourself the student and them the teacher. You attempt to cross the bridge to them, and man, peoples’ eyes just light up. It’s like a direct line to their heart, and that’s fascinating to me. So, anyway, Duolingo is about to hear. From. Me.

How do you think you’ll settle back into life post digital nomad?

I’ll be honest: There’s a part of me that hopes I’ll keep being a digital nomad in some way. I can’t imagine leaving behind this stupidly lucky (and privileged) life, being able to work my own hours, build my success around my own habits — and then walk out the door to have mind-blowing new food with new people in a new language. But I miss the shit out of my people. Eventually, I want to make a family near my family in America, but I hope to keep being nomadic in a way, then, too. Nomadic in the brain.

If you want to learn more about Berna or follow her crazy journey you can check out Berna’s site and fantastically funny and honest Instagram!

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