Transitioning from Backpacker to Digital Nomad: is it a lonely road?

It’s been about 10 days since I arrived in Ubud, a known digital nomad hub in Bali. I came here to surround myself with the beauty and energy of spiritual, artistic Bali and the entrepreneurial mindset of location independent expats who have made this their base. I’m launching a business and writing a book. The two are completely unrelated but both are exciting me and keeping my attention. Generally speaking, I work on one during the day and the other in the evening.

Writing the book is a solitary process that I delve into at home. Working on the business is also solitary but it doesn’t require the peaceful, private environment of my bedroom the way the book does. So I sit in coffee shops and restaurants working on the business, writing posts like this, or updating my blog. Sometimes I use a co-working space when I need fast wi-fi and the buzz of other people around me. To round out my days, I take Pilates twice a week. And instead of riding a motorbike, I walk. Everywhere I go, I keep myself open to the prospect of meeting a new friend. Indeed, I naively hope that someone, anyone, will turn to me and say ‘hi.’

You see, I’m an introvert. I almost never strike up conversations with strangers. Years of solo travel forced me to and gave me the confidence to do it but after some tricky interpersonal relationships caused me a great deal of pain, I’ve retreated into my shell. I can’t bring myself to be the one to say ‘hello’ to anyone. I try to make myself approachable but that isn’t easy when I’m behind the screen of my laptop or writing furiously in my journal. I’m not drinking so I don’t have the social lubricant of alcohol to aid introductions. Days go by when the only conversations I have are business transactions.

I have an amazing housemate who’s wonderful to spend time with when we aren’t each buried in work. And there’s a woman I met at a conference last year who invites me to all sorts of events. Other than her birthday party, I haven’t made it to one. The thought of being in a crowd depresses me. I’m simply not interested in surrounding myself with more than three or four people at a time. Which leaves me wondering: is this what life as a digital nomad is like?

When you’re backpacking, it’s easy to meet people. If you don’t meet other travelers where you’re staying, you meet them out doing things. Hiking to a viewpoint in town, looking for fireflies along a river, as part of an organized day tour, on a dive boat, on a train platform, in the bus … backpackers are usually easy to spot and are, as a general rule, an open-minded and friendly bunch. At the moment, though, I’m not backpacking. I’m staying in a rented house with a Canadian ex-pat. I haven’t done a single touristy thing here yet. Which means I haven’t met backpackers. And quite frankly, I don’t care to. My head’s in a different place and I won’t be able to relate in the way I once could.

On the other hand, I’m not committing to living in Ubud. So I’m not sure I belong with the long term expats here, either. After years on the road, easily meeting people with whom I had things in common, I’ve forgotten that it’s hard to make friends as an adult. That when you live somewhere and focus on work, especially if it’s solitary work, it takes effort to meet people and even more to find the ones you truly connect with.

For now, I’m ok with this. Wrestling the demons that are driving the book takes an overwhelming amount of my energy. As a result, I don’t have much to offer right now and that would make me a terrible friend. So it’s alright that I’m not out meeting people and making personal connections. But I know this will change. I will, one day, be ready to step out of my shell and find a few kindred souls. Where will I find them? Where would I even begin to look? They’re out there, I’m sure. I don’t know that they’re in Facebook groups or at the co-working space or here in Bali. But they are out there. Is all I can do trust that when I’m ready, I’ll find the people I’m supposed to meet?


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Marbree Sullivan is a former attorney who’s been traveling full time since 2013. She’s passionate about diving, writing, and the transformative power of travel, no matter how short the trip or how far from home it takes you. Find more at ChasingTheUnknown.com.

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