Brian Shaler

Occasionally Interesting

Gravity is for chumps

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

2013: A year of working from anywhere

It would be nice to recap the year using photos and a map, but for now a list of places and events will have to suffice.

January: I booked a flight to Amsterdam for a couple weeks to couch surf with a friend I met at SXSW years prior. While there, I noticed 3 of the most intelligent and interesting people I know from around the world were converging in Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum and figured, what the heck, why not swing by and try to crash some parties? I found a cheap flight from Rotterdam (less than an hour from Amsterdam by train) to Geneva, where I rented a car and drove across the country to Davos. Turns out you can’t really crash parties at the World Economic Forum; there are too many fully-automatic assault rifles. Driving through the Swiss Alps made the entire trip worth it. Incredible.

February: I attended a small tech conference on a boat in the British Virgin Islands. I figured if I was going to spend all kinds of money to be on the boat for a week, I might as well make a trip of it and spent a week with a friend who coincidentally lives a stone’s throw from where the conference’s boat was docked. There’s not much to do on Caribbean islands when you’re not on vacation or spending money, so I tend to be very, very productive. I remember making excellent progress on a Node.js CLI app to render videos of cars spinning around for my client.

March: I didn’t leave the country, but I went to Texas for SXSW, and that’s pretty close. I stayed with an old friend (since 5th grade!), who recently had a kid. Oh, how fast life whizzes by when you spend your life on the go and only check in with someone every year or two.

April: I went back to New Zealand, and this time I reserved a campervan in advance and spent most of my 3 week stay gallivanting around the kiwi country side while working from wifi-enabled commercial camp sites (“holiday parks”) from Auckland to Queenstown. Two weeks in 2012 wasn’t enough. Three weeks in 2013 wasn’t enough. I desperately want to go back as soon as possible for a greater number of weeks, which I’m sure will also not be enough.

May: I attended another tech conference, this time in Belize with 27 CTOs, investors, and startup founders. It was only a few days long, so I hopped over to Ambergris Caye, which was recently in the news as part of John McAfee’s saga.

June: I spent a week in Germany tending to a 2 year old physical installation I worked on at Volkswagen’s Autostadt.

July: Upon getting my passport back from the Chinese consulate faster than expected, I was free to leave the country during July. I wanted to keep my streak of leaving the country every month (except for March) going, so I hopped up to Vancouver for a week. First time to Canada! I napped in my third hammock of the year, which made me realize I had napped in hammocks in three different countries in 2013, none of which were in the USA.

August: I slowly made my way to Beijing, with a multi-day layover in Hawaii to visit friends. After a couple days in Beijing, I met up with a couple friends from NYC in front of a coffee shop, where we were swooped up and taken to the DPRK.

September: After a week in the DPRK, we returned to Beijing, where I stayed an additional 10 days before slowly making my way back to the Arizona with a 10-day stopover in Hawaii. I didn’t know where I should stay in Beijing, but after reading a summary of some of the districts, I booked a hotel in “the Silicon Valley of China,” Zhongguancun.

October: I wanted to visit a friend of mine in London, but he had to go to Dublin to speak at Web Summit. He was able to secure a spare ticket, so I darted off to Ireland and then England—first time anywhere in the British Isles!

November & December: I ended up just shuttling back and forth between NYC and PHX for Thanksgiving (PHX) and Christmas (NYC).

What an exhausting year! The only downside of my travel in 2013 was that almost every trip was about 2 weeks long, which is not very practical or economical when leaving the country or crossing an ocean. Instead of boomeranging out of the country and back many times, I would prefer to wander more slowly and go to more places when visiting a region. Hopefully I can make that happen in 2014.

Homeless for a year

Here's @brianshaler waiting for the train. PLEASE hope w... on Twitpic (looks like Twitpic isn’t working right, and I can’t download and upload their photos via my phone.. I’ll try to fix the image when I’m not restricted to my phone)

I didn’t set out to last any specific amount of time. I thought 6-12 months of full-time travel—the much more glamorous way of saying homeless—was doable, considering I had already spent a few years traveling part-time while working. On a few occasions, I had used my 1-week carry-on bag to last 4 or more weeks. I figured as long as I could find a way to do laundry every week, I could travel indefinitely.

The core of the experiment was about living expenses and sustainable travel. Traveling, even on a tight budget, is very expensive. The cost of food, lodging, and transportation while traveling can easily match or exceed your standard cost of living. Full-time travel could thus double your monthly expenses. But what if you were able to eliminate the first part of the equation and only pay living expenses wherever you currently are? What if you could go to Rome for a month and not have to pay for the month of rent and utilities back home?

To keep travel cheap, on a per-day calculation, you need to travel slowly. Going to another continent for one or two weeks results in a very high per-day cost, but you can save on lodging by staying longer (weekly rates are lower than daily rates, and monthly rates are lower than weekly rates) and lower the per-day cost of transportation by putting more time in between flights.

I decided a year ago to try this out. I rented a studio in the Bahamas for 35 days for $600, a room in DC for 4 weeks, a hotel in Germany for a month (which was thankfully reimbursed by a client), a hostel in Budapest for 3 weeks, a mountain-top hotel in the US Virgin Islands for 3 weeks, and a cabin in lower Manhattan (which I had to see to believe) for 5 weeks.

So, 6-12 months. When will it end? When will I “settle down” and return to traveling only part-time, 1-3 weeks per month? It’s an internal conflict I’ve had since the 6th month. The full-time travel is exhausting, stressful, and both physically and mentally taxing. But at the same time, I’m in a position to travel longer and farther than I would otherwise be unable to. Giving up now would feel like squandering the unique opportunity I have. I have never been to Asia, Australia, Africa, or South America, and this would be a great time to do it.

The jury is still out. It could be up in the sky, for all I know. Speaking of which, I am now on my descent into Charlotte, North Carolina. Time to turn off and stow all portable electronic devices.

“We want you to move to SF.”

In 2008, I decided to change jobs. I reached out to employers I had deflected while happily working away on exciting projects. I don’t remember what made me choose the company I ended up working for, but it very well could have been the opportunity to travel.

They wanted me to move to SF and work in their headquarters (they had a satellite office in Santa Cruz), but they ended up giving me two job offers. One included a high salary, a signing bonus, and required I live in SF and work on-site full-time. The second offer had about $40,000 chopped off the salary, no signing bonus, and allowed me to work from home, while visiting the office for at least 2 days per month.

For almost 3 years, I was in SF every calendar month, and for the last of those years, I subletted an apartment there.

The brilliant thing, though, is this: my reduced salary was still very competitive against local Phoenix salaries, and the yearly travel cost was less then the difference. It was a win-win. My employer saved money while paying me fairly well and covering my travel expenses.

While in Phoenix, I got to live the work-at-home freelance lifestyle (i.e. flexible hours and no work/life balance), which helped me get actively involved in the Phoenix tech community.

Oh, how I miss direct deposit..

“Finally, a REAL Hungarian man”

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I was hanging out with a new friend I made in Budapest, via Twitter no less. A homeless guy approached us, stood in front of me and started speaking in Hungarian. My friend stepped in, speaking Hungarian to the man, gave him some change, and then the man left. My friend translated what the man had said to me. “Finally, a REAL Hungarian man!” My friend set him straight. Just a funny looking American.

In Hungary, almost every person on their paper currency features some sort of facial hair. Most of the statues, too, don mustaches and beards.

My handlebar mustache was uncommon among the people there,but it seemed to fit right in with their money and art. Their history.

I was a blast from the past.

Stranding Yourself

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Half way up the mountain, overlooking downtown Charlotte Amalie to the South, along the highway that takes you to Magens Beach on the North side of St. Thomas, rests a cozy hotel with a marvelous view. Mafolie Hotel.

I landed in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands on a Saturday afternoon, after a long, three-leg, red-eye trip from San Francisco. Friday afternoon, I was trying to come up with a place to sleep in San Francisco when I just got the urge to jettison myself to some island somewhere. My friend Chrystall had said I could crash at her place in the British Virgin Islands any time. Out of the blue, I send her a direct message via Twitter to the effect of, “Hey, mind if I crash on your couch? Like, soon?” She said yes, so I double-checked flights.

“Okay, I’ll be there tomorrow!”

Sunday worked better for her, so I ended up having a day to kill in St. Thomas. I booked my flight with a half dozen hours of notice and decided that was enough planning for one day.

Fortunately, I got adequate cell phone coverage in St. Thomas. Upon landing, I asked myself, “What now?” I searched online for a hotel. Something cheap. Near downtown. But not too ghetto, so I opted for something that was $20 above the cheapest.

Book it. “Taxi!”

Couch surfing is tough, especially considering I only stay with friends and I hate feeling like I’m intruding. I’ve been wasting too much time and energy figuring out where to sleep each night, and decided I should just get away from it all so I can focus on me and my work.

While at the hotel bar, I asked the bartender if she knew of any cheap weekly or monthly rentals in the area. I was in luck, because the peak travel season hadn’t picked up yet and the hotel was still offering long term leases for a few more weeks. Instead of $125 per night, which is way too expensive for a month, they offered me $350 per week ($50 per night) if I stayed for at least 3-4 weeks.

Book it. “Ferry!”

A few nights couch surfing, with Chrystall in the BVIs, a short ferry ride away, and then I’d be back in St. Thomas for 3 weeks.

I thought it would be nice to lock myself away for a while and work full-time on my own thing. A bunch of people have told me this is a common desire. I was living their dream.

Honestly, it wasn’t that great. Good, but not great.

Despite becoming more reclusive during the last couple years, the biggest thing I was missing was socializing with fellow technologists, and all the excitement, motivation, and inspiration that comes with it.

I struggled to put in fully productive days, but luckily forced myself to take breaks and get some sun. I hardly left the hotel, pool, or hotel bar, mostly because going into town was an expensive hassle and almost nothing down there interests me.

The food at the hotel was way too expensive for my budget, so I made use of the mini-fridge and microwave. I drank a lot of fruit juice and ate a lot of microwavable ‘healthy choice’ type crap. (#startuplife)

The view from the hotel really was spectacular. The list of applicable adjectives could go on and on. Being able to work with such a magnificent backdrop is amazing and very fulfilling, especially when the seaplanes were taking off and landing. But ultimately, the isolation was rough, draining, challenging, and I realized I need to come up with a better way to work. I definitely need more balance and a better atmosphere.

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