In June of last year, I packed my entire life and flew to Mexico on a one-way ticket. I had just exited a three-year relationship, and it felt like the only way forward was to get the hell out of Seattle and pursue my dream of becoming a digital nomad.
I signed up for a six-week stay in Mexico City with Hacker Paradise, a company that arranges trips around the world for remote workers. The day I left I had no real plan beyond that. I quit a part-time job that was supporting my freelance career. I pared down what I needed to one suitcase and one backpack. I said goodbye to my friends and family, and then I was off.
I ended up spending three months in Mexico, following a path that was full of adventure, introspection and heartache. Here’s what I learned along the way:
Mexico is fantastically diverse
There’s no way I’m going to be able to do justice to the diversity of Mexico in the next 300 words. But I was really struck by Mexico’s incredible range of geography, food, folk arts and native cultures. It shouldn’t go unmentioned. After Mexico City, I traveled to Oaxaca City where I spent a quick five days with friends. After that, I moved on to Playa Del Carmen where I spent another five weeks with Hacker Paradise. Each place was such a different experience!
In Oaxaca, you can spend the day wandering cobblestone streets amid colonial-era buildings built by the Spaniards. Here, I ate incredible food like huitlacoche and tlayudas, and drank a respectable amount of mezcal, Oaxaca's specialty. We spent a day exploring outside of the city, and I visited the workshop of a Zapotec family that’s been weaving there for generations, creating intricate designs from naturally-dyed threads. The Zapotec people are one of more than 50 different native cultures across Mexico, many of whom still speak languages other than Spanish.
In Playa Del Carmen, I visited a Mayan village, made a tortilla in a Mayan family’s kitchen (it's harder than it looks!) and swam in a cenote, a freshwater pool filled by rain and underground rivers. This cenote was a straight-up bat cave. Swimming in the cool, fresh water with bats flying overhead was magic. In Mexico City, I visited architect Luis Barragán’s house, which was full of glass sculptures and ceramic tequila jars from his home region of Guadalajara. One day I stumbled on a performance of Danza de los Voladores in the Bosque de Chapultepec. The dance, which is performed mostly in the air using a 20-foot pole, is traditional to the Veracruz region.
I got to see and experience SO many rich and beautiful things in Mexico. But the really crazy thing is how much of Mexico I didn't see. People I met in my travels told me about incredible beachside towns in Baja, the charm of colonial Mérida, the immense size and beauty of Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre). Yes, I want to go back and could easily spend another three months exploring Mexico. Or three decades.
Remote work is the way of the future
During my trip, I was surrounded by people who had remote jobs. Some were freelancers like me who could work from anywhere. Others had full-time jobs with companies that let them work remotely.
When I first came back to the U.S., I talked to some recruiters about a few jobs with Seattle-area companies known for innovation. I soon learned many of these companies rarely offer location flexibility. This was actually the one bit of reverse culture shock I felt after my time in Mexico! Technology has evolved to the point where it's often easier and more efficient to connect with colleagues virtually. I predict that in the future we will see a lot more remote jobs.
There are even companies, like Zapier, Toptal and InVision, that have fully distributed workforces. I hear they save a ton of money on overhead. And their employees get unparalleled flexibility and can change their work environment at will. I lived and worked alongside people who are 100% remote, and immediately noticed higher degree of job and life satisfaction among this group.
Remote work has a range of benefits, but I think the best part is that it makes travel - whether for adventure or to see friends and family - WAY more accessible. Back when I had a full-time job, my employer offered 70 hours of paid time off per year. I felt like I had to choose between sick days and vacation days - I couldn't do both.
In Mexico I worked during the day and spent nights and weekends exploring. It was awesome! It’s not a model that works for every profession or every lifestyle, but I think a lot of people would greatly benefit from access to remote jobs. If not for the travel aspect, at least for the flexibility. I hope more companies embrace this in the near future.
The joy of living with fewer things
I have a tendency to acquire things. Every time I move I get rid of a bunch of stuff. And every time, I ask myself, Where did all this CRAP come from??
When I moved out of my Seattle apartment, I was essentially moving into a suitcase. I had to intensely edit down what I was bringing with me to Mexico, and it was pretty wild to look down at my two bags knowing they held my whole life. Everything else would remain behind, locked in storage.
It took me about 20 minutes to unpack everything once I arrived in Mexico City. It was an amazing feeling; everything had a place, and I always knew exactly where to find things. As a chronic loser-of-things, I found this very liberating.
And every time I looked at my closet, I just felt so happy. I only had about ten items of clothing. I couldn't afford to buy a bunch of new clothes, so I just brought my favorite things. I limited myself to mostly neutral colors, so everything went with everything. Soon, getting dressed every morning became easy and fun, something that had never been true for me before. What had once been a major source of anxiety for me pretty much vanished.
It’s OK to cry at Starbucks
The day I left Mexico City, I had a big gap between Airbnb checkout and airport check-in. Plan A to leave my suitcase at a friend’s place fell through, so I ended up at a Starbucks in Condesa. With nothing else to do, I opened my laptop and started writing down some thoughts. As I wrote, it hit to me how alone I felt. I’d woken up that morning feeling incredibly homesick, but I didn’t really know for what. Seattle? The apartment I’d shared with my ex? Neither place was home anymore. I started to cry.
But not a quiet cry. The feelings rushed up from my core to my throat. Soon there was so much water on my face you could've deployed a novelty pool float. I felt self-conscious and thought that out of respect for the strangers around me I should leave. But where could I go?
I thought of a conversation I had with my uncle before I left Seattle. My brother and his wife had just left for a year-long trip around the world. “I imagine they’ll be OK on the road because they have a home in each other,” my uncle said. His words came back to me as I sat there, wiping my tears off my face and onto my black leggings. Looking at my suitcase and backpack, I realized My entire life is right here. If I had any home at all, it was inside myself. I let the tears flow.
You can't run away from what's in your heart
In addition to the homesickness mentioned above, I was also dealing with major emotional fallout post-breakup. Betrayal and grief can really mess you up.
Dealing with this kind of bullshit when you’re far away from friends and family isn’t easy. I thought I had found another way to cope; when you’re a digital nomad, you can move on to a whole new place when you’re in a rut. My last week in Mexico City was straight-up depressing, but when it came time to pack all my belongings, I felt my body perk up knowing I was on to the next adventure. It happened again when I left Oaxaca for Playa Del Carmen. I thought, I can’t wait to get out of here, the next place is going to be a fresh start.
I had been expecting each new city to cure the fact that I felt like shit all the time. Spoiler alert: that didn't work. No amount of travel could get me away from the intense anger and sadness I felt every day.
I accepted that my pain was as much a part of me as my internal organs. I took it with me everywhere I went for about nine months. Once I saw I had been running from my problems, it took the pressure off. I saw what I needed to do to actually solve them. Then one day I looked around and realized I wasn't carrying that too-heavy load with me anymore. It was as though I'd set down all that heavy baggage somewhere along the way. I didn't miss it.
One year later, I'm so grateful to have had all these experiences - the good and the bad. And I'm also grateful to be back in Seattle and re-establishing a life here. When I step back and look at the big picture, I now see enormous value in adventure and routine, new experiences and familiar ones.
Just like winter, Mexico is behind me now, and ahead of me also.