Travelling Light: Ubud Girls (Part 1)
I’d seen these three girls floating around our workspace, Hubud, talking, laughing and working on their laptops around a big table together often. I immediately wanted in on their girl gang, so the idea for this interview took shape. I did some asking around and discovered they all worked remotely for various start-ups in Marketing roles.
What was planned as a short interview turned into a two hour deep discussion, on the realities of life as a digital nomad, experiences they’d all had to go through to get to this place, experiences I realised I had been through too.
This is the inside story of how three girls from all across the world, Nevena from Amsterdam in Holland, Lena from Bucharest in Romania and Kintan from Jakarta in Indonesia, came to be working side-by-side for remote start-ups in Ubud, Bali out of Hubud coworking space.
If you don’t already know, remote work, sometimes called local independence, involves working remotely for a company. You have a job, a salary, a role and responsibilities, you have emails to answer, colleagues, a boss, meetings to attend, you just aren’t physically in the same room, city, country or even continent as your colleagues, or boss for that matter. It sounds great I know but in this interview we were keen to get to tell the honest truth about this lifestyle, the ups and the downs.
(Picture: Kintan Ayunda)
On how they came to be working remotely in Ubud, Bali
NEVENA: I was volunteering at a school for children with mental disabilities in Ubud and I was supposed to just stay for a few months but I found out that I really wanted to stay here longer. I heard about Hubud and I came here and I started working for a friend of mine, I never ever worked in online marketing or anything, I didn’t know anything, didn’t even know what WordPress was, really I had no idea.
My background is in psychology. I was really interested in marketing though so then I just started to hang around here (at Hubud), doing the courses, the workshops, and started to work for a friend of mine, like easy things. I was looking for something where I could learn about online marketing and doing some organisational things. Kintan told me about the job opening for my role actually!
LENA: I worked in advertising for a couple of years in Romania and at some point I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was just going so fast and everything was so fake, everything was so money, money, money… And then I was like, ok I can’t take it anymore. I didn’t know what to do, it all started with a panic attack in the middle of the night.
KATIE: Oh, that’s how a lot of these stories start…
LENA: It was 4am and I couldn’t breathe, and then I suddenly felt so happy because I knew that I still had four more hours to sleep – that was my only happiness. And in the morning I remember the Director just came to me and said, ‘Hey, we won a pitch, you’re going to get this client, on top of your other work’ and when I heard that I was like, ‘No. I quit.’ Then I just picked a random destination, well I had heard some things about Bali so it was not totally new, but it was pretty random.
“It was 4am and I couldn’t breathe, and then I suddenly felt so happy because I knew that I still had four more hours to sleep – that was my only happiness.”
KATIE: So you just got here and you said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’m going to do it here?’
LENA: I just, I know myself and I know if I really want it I’m going to do something about it. I was hanging out at Seniman (local coffee shop) and then I worked for another remote start up but it didn’t quite work out. And then, I didn’t have a lot of money but I was working with my boyfriend at some point on some projects. And then this job that I’m doing now came along…
KINTAN: For me I was planning to stay here for nine weeks because I received a scholarship for this coding bootcamp at Hubud. I was like, ‘Oh coding, ok!’, and then afterwards I had a friend here and he offered me something like, ‘hey you’re just fresh from the coding bootcamp, why don’t you work with me as a web developer, just continuing your knowledge’… ever since then I just came here and was working here (for a few different start ups) in marketing and web development.
NEVENA: I think we all kind of did all different things, small things, to find something bigger.
(Photo: Nevena Tamis)
On wanting to give up, regularly
LENA: I remember when I first got here in Bali, I had my huge backpack and I just I arrived at the airport. Then I saw all the taxi drivers going, ‘Taxi! Taxi! Taxi! Transport! Transport! Let’s go, let’s go!’ and it was so overwhelming and I just sat down on the pavement and I just looked around and I remember I said it out loud, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’.
KATIE: I’ve had so many moments like that.
NEVENA: Yeah, I’ve had so many moments like that too. There were a few months (at the start), when it’s really uncertain, it’s really difficult, you need money, you want to learn, you’re making connections but you don’t know where to go, you don’t know where to find things, it’s like sometimes you’re like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? Why am I doing this?’.
KATIE: Because it’s not real at the start, it’s not real yet.
NEVENA: I think it happened like ten times that I was sitting behind my laptop looking for a ticket back home and then thinking, ‘OK you know what? I’m going to give it one more week, see how it goes’. And also in the beginning you don’t know anyone, you’re just fucking alone and you meet new people, you’re all nice and social because you want everyone to like you but then when you’re alone you’re like, ‘Uhhhh what am I doing here?’. I think everyone has this experience.
KINTAN: When you said every time you wanted to go back then you would give it a week? I did that too. In transition from doing the web developer (coding) thing, I didn’t have a job for like a month, and I was like ‘OK let’s give yourself one more month, and then we’ll see.’ At that point, I already got accepted in an (advertising) agency in Jakarta and then the interviewer said, ‘Woh so you’re having such a good life in Bali hey? Are you ready to go back to Jakarta?’ And I was like ‘I’m a Libra, don’t give me that question! Like seriously!’
NEVENA: I remember I said, at one point I just didn’t know anymore what I wanted to do so I went to the mountains by myself for a weekend to think about what I was going to do. Because I had the feeling I maybe just had to go home and face the reality. And I said, ‘OK I’m going to give it one month and otherwise I’ll go home.’ And at the end of that month I got this job.
On what their parents think about their chosen lifestyle
KINTAN: My mum and Dad think that this is all very rebellious. I am their youngest brother, and they like to think that I’m still their baby. When they found out I wanted to work here they were like, ‘Oh my god why don’t you get a corporate job… blah blah blah’. I don’t think they understand because they come from the generation where they want a safe kind of lifestyle, get a mortgage, and all that… the kind of life that everyone else has.
So they don’t think I’m working! It’s also hard to explain to them what I do here. So I used to say to them, ‘Well if you want, I can just fly to Jakarta and still work’ and they’re like, ‘How can that be possible?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah remote workers!’ and they’d be like, ‘What’s that?’. My brother has the same reaction, butl he’s more like; do whatever you want, but maybe someday go back and finally get a normal life?
It’s still a struggle. My parents think I’m not doing well here, and they are afraid that I don’t have friends! Because whenever I call them, they would say things like, ‘What are you doing?’, and I’m like, ‘eating’, and they’re like, ‘With who? Your friends or alone?’, I say, ‘I have friends here!’
NEVENA: Well your Mum knows now you have at least one friend…
KINTAN: She (Nevena) met my Mum and then right after, I think their worrying about me not having friends is done.
NEVENA: Like last weekend, she (Kintan) said, ‘Can we make a selfie to send to my Mum?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah ok whatever’.
LENA: Well my Mum doesn’t really understand what I’m doing and why do I need to go abroad and do that and she doesn’t really get why I’m almost 27 and I still don’t have this “career success”. And it’s kind of hard because I know that what I’m doing what feels right for me, but it’s kind of hard to listen to this from someone whom I really care about.
NEVENA: Yeah they’re your family.
KATIE: You’re used to listening to them your whole life and I mean, they gave you life! And you thought they were God, they’re your parents.
LENA: Yeah and at some point… I told my father I was going volunteering for a couple of months, like I didn’t give him all the details but I already knew that I wouldn’t come back soon. I told everyone, in my family, ‘It’s going to be like around a year’ but now it’s been almost two years.
(Picture: Lena Holban)
On those ‘working from my laptop on the beach’ pictures on Instagram
KINTAN: It’s not about all sunny days and monkeys stealing your banana.
KATIE: Monkeys braiding your hair?
LENA: There’s a lot of fakeness and hypocrisy in the posts people do who are travelling. And then, I feel like, hey this life isn’t only about beaches and pools and sun and all this. It’s so untrue for the people who are watching it and looking at it. And I realised that I’m doing it too, I’m not posting a lot but I still only choose what’s beautiful and what’s best and not say the downsides of it.
KATIE: Like when I fell off my scooter.
LENA: Yeah that. Or like, I had moments literally where I had no money, no phone, no laptop. Literally I was in the middle of the street waiting for a miracle, you know, like what the fuck am I doing? These are really, really hard times and no one posted about them. If you post about them, you post about it in a positive way.
NEVENA: Well I think I told you that Jared and I are starting a project (check it out at Remote Boys & Remote Girls, soon to be cordless.com), what we really want to do with that is to share the real stories. So like inspire people by telling them, for example, Lena just quit everything and she left and that’s super brave and she’s having the time of her life but how did she do that? We all have these experiences but what if we could just share it and talk about it as well, eventhough it’s not perfect.
On the downsides of Digital Nomad Life
LENA: You cannot get real, like those exact connections that you do with the people who share the same language or the same culture with you. It’s a challenge, it’s a beautiful challenge, but sometimes it’s like I can’t take it anymore you know. Where people who don’t really understand you, where people who just don’t do it the way you are used to it, and you know that it’s more efficient the way you know because you’ve experienced both ways and this cultural thing. Having no money is also hard.
KATIE: Sometimes those threats make you question, is it worth it?
LENA: Yeah like, is this struggle worth it?
LENA: Yeah and also you miss some feelings that you are used to, like, oh I sometimes miss dressing up and going for a cocktail. I miss those moments and you cannot really do that here.
NEVENA: To drink good wine! But then you meet so many beautiful people and you meet so many inspiring people and you are driving your scooter in the mountains and… it’s all worth it.
On romance when you’re always moving
NEVENA: I think the most, for me, the most difficult part is saying goodbye all the time. Not only in romances, but to friends in general. That just breaks your heart every time. And with romances you all come here for your own adventure and you all have your own plan. If you meet someone, I mean you meet each other very briefly actually and it’s very intense right away.
“The most difficult part is saying goodbye all the time. Not only in romances, but to friends in general. That just breaks your heart every time.”
Because I mean, you’re in this place and it’s really beautiful but then one of the two is going to leave eventually. So you know it, you prepare yourself for it. So you think, am I gonna do it? Because I know he’s leaving. But then you think, ‘Oh ok you know what, whatever, I’m just going to do it.’
On routines and productivity
NEVENA: We have this bot on Slack, automated thing, at 10am and we kind of do a small kind of report. Like ‘What did you do yesterday? What are you going to do today?’
KATIE: That’s awesome!
LENA: And are there any obstacles. So it kind of gets you motivated to always be at work around 10, so you can go a give the reports.
KATIE: That’s so cool, what’s it called?
KINTAN: Standuply, it’s in Slack. It just makes the goal clearer. Because sometimes, for me, I always list everything in the morning before the bot appears. For me personally, routine is really important, to do the same things, and then working away from your boss. I mean, I’m so grateful to have this kind of culture in the company with such level of flexibility. For me, it works.
Next week: Kintan, Lena and Nevena will talk about remote working as the future of work, and the importance of physical connections in a digital world.
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