It’s actually not that hard. Freelancing, that is. While backpacking through a developing country.
As long as you can accept that your “office” is whatever hostel, guest house, or tiny apartment you happen to find yourself in, you’re pretty much good to go. That’s the part you knew about from the beginning, though. That a long-term (or, in my case, indefinite) backing trip would require you to give up the trappings of a traditional professional environment.
But what about Internet access? How do you participate in conference calls or make yourself available at a moment’s notice to address a client’s concerns?
While I haven’t been backpacking through every corner of the globe (at least not yet), I can offer a pretty comprehensive overview of the freelance-related issues I’ve encountered whilst tramping through Central America. Here are five challenges I frequently encounter and a word or two about how I resolve them.
1. Internet Access
As I write this post, I’m in my room at a guest house in Jinotega, Nicaragua. There is no Internet access in the room, but there’s a common area just a few steps away where I can easily get online.
This is a common scenario. While reliable Internet access isn’t always at your fingertips in Central America, it’s never terribly far away. This is a region of the world where few people can afford to get online in their homes. Hostels and guest houses are usually connected to the Internet, but access is sometimes limited and WiFi isn’t always an option.
Only stay in places that have WiFi. Pretty simple, huh?
I just call ahead and make sure it’s available. Sometimes there’s a “gotcha” scenario where they tell you there’s WiFi, but you realize after you arrive that it’s only available at certain times of day or in certain areas of the property. That’s ok, but it means you have to be flexible about where and when you conduct your online business.
Mobile technology also becomes my friend in situations like these because no matter how limited the WiFi might be, reliable 3G or Edge networks are really common here. Since my phone can become a portable WiFi hotspot, I have the option of connecting to these networks if and when I absolutely must.
It’s a handy-dandy smartphone feature that has already saved me on more than one occasion.
2. Client Phone Calls
I’m a freelance copywriter. Clients frequently call me to explain what they need. I even publish my phone number on my contact page, so it’s easy to get in touch with me. If I didn’t do this, it would be infinitely more difficult to do business.
So, how can clients call me when I’m in, say… Panama? Aren’t international calls expensive? And how do I call clients when I’m so far away?
These are actually some of the most easily resolved backpacking-whilst-freelancing challenges I’ve encountered. Modern VoIP solutions, incidentally, can turn the client phone call “problem” into a total non-issue.
My business phone number is actually a Skype online number. When you call me, it rings me in Skype. If I’m not logged in to Skype, it forwards your call to my Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, or Panamanian cell phone number.
The best part is that anyone who calls me will pay local (or at least US) rates. Yes, my Atlanta phone number with the 678 area code will actually ring me anywhere in the world. And my Skype subscription lets me make unlimited calls to clients in the US and Canada.
3. Work/Life Balance
I didn’t start backpacking abroad so that I could work all day. I did it to have new adventures.
But I still work a lot, even if “a lot” isn’t every day. Work/life balance is an issue so widespread that it’s a big cliché in the U.S. When you’re traveling the world and living out of a backpack, it becomes an even bigger issue – especially when you’re traveling with someone who isn’t freelancing. In my case, this would be my wife.
Careful planning and strict schedules: That’s how I do it.
With some exceptions – and those occur weekly, I should add – I work in the mornings and leave the afternoons free for travel-related activities. This often involves getting up very early, which is fine because there are fewer distractions during that time.
Balancing work with my personal life is more difficult on the road than it was at home, but travel gives me more motivation to actually create that balance.
4. Travel Days
If you’ve never traveled in Central America, here’s how it works:
You ride in a bus – a crowded bus – for many hours. Then you change to another crowded bus and ride for many more hours. Unless you have a car, that’s pretty much how it works here.
Moving from one city to another can take an entire day or an entire night. And if you complete these trips during the week, that means an entire work day cut out of your schedule.
Whenever I have a travel day, I designate one day the following week to be an “all-day” work day. On all-day work days, I’ll work longer than I usually do. It could be a sun-up to sun-down thing, or it could be shorter. Or longer. It all depends on my obligations at the time.
Travel days are little more than another time management challenge, and time management has been one of the biggest issues facing freelancers since time immemorial.
5. Other Unusual, Unplanned-For Problems
Today, I checked into a guest house that actually had a little desk where I could sit and write like a dignified copywriter. I was so excited, I think I teared up a little.
Then I saw a little ant. That ant had friends – lots of friends – and some were on my desk. One of them started walking across my laptop screen. I brushed him away, but I knew this meant I had to leave the desk and set up my office on the bed for the time being.
Then there was the last place I stayed, where the proprietor let her animals roam the premises at will. Cats kept entering my workspace (I’m allergic to cats), so it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable arrangement for finishing the first round of foundational Website copy for a new client.
Hey, it’s Central America. If you want to travel in the developing world, unexpected, inconvenient incidents can and will happen. And they happen often.
Just be ready for what comes, whatever it is. If you’re the kind of person who can’t deal with cold showers, random electricity blackouts, or the apparent non-enforcement of even the most basic traffic laws, maybe Central America isn’t for you.
But this is what I’m doing – freelancing my way around the world. It’s not always the most comfortable way to work, but “comfortable” was never really my thing.