Five Reasons Why Digital Nomads Should Live in New York

You may have heard the term “digital nomad” before. Basically a digital nomad is a 21st Century creature much like myself: a person who is highly mobile and makes a living through working remotely. With no physical office to trek to every morning, I can choose to live anywhere – or nowhere, if I feel like it.

Out of all the world’s cities, I have selected New York as my base.

Times Square

I first moved here in 2004, and altogether have spent about six years in the City of all Cities since then. The rest of the time I’ve been roaming around the world: Australia, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa. My trips away from NYC have varied from a couple of months to even a year at a time. But no matter how far I’ve ventured, I’ve always found myself back in NYC sooner or later. It truly is the best place in the world to call home! I am always excited to come back here, so homecoming blues is a foreign concept to me nowadays.

nightsky

But despite what you might think, there aren’t a whole lot of other digital nomads using this megalopolis as their home base. Most seem to set up their mobile offices in places like Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I suppose that is mostly because of the lower living costs of developing countries (and the eternal sunshine of these spots…).

Well, I can’t blame these kids, but I sure can think of multiple reasons why more digital nomads should live in New York City instead. (Not counting the obvious: New York is the center of the world’s media and definitely one of the most exciting cities in the world.)

Here are my TOP 5 reasons.

1. New York just might be the most multicultural place on this earth

As a globetrotter with precious memories from 60+ countries, I tend to get nostalgic for at least five countries/cultures per day. I may simultaneously miss Bolivia, Laos, Korea, Nicaragua and Senegal. Luckily New York has people from all over the world who have formed lively communities here – some 110 different languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone. So whenever the mood strikes, I can head over to Korea Town, Little Ecuador or Little Senegal to ease up my reverse-homesickness. Easy peacy! A normal New York day for me is one where I use 3-4 languages, hear music ranging from reggaeton to Irish folk tunes, wander from a Latin area to a Chinatown (of which there are three in New York) and chat up some strangers from exotic lands. I often feel like I’m traveling, even when I haven’t left the city borders. Amazing.

2. You can get all your favorite foods in New York

pupusaEvery country I’ve traveled to has left some kind of a mark on my culinary palate: it’s because of my recent trip to El Salvador that I now love pupusas, both home made and those from street stalls (pictured above), and I still yearn for Mexico City’s tacos that I tasted in 2009. My Korean trip would not have been complete without daily helpings of kimchi and bibimpab, and the Senegalese yassa sauce was so delicious I want to learn to make it. The good news is most of these foods can be bought in New York. All it takes is a trip to some far-flung ethnic neighborhood, and you’ll get all your favorite cuisines from the world over. No passport needed.

3. New York is inspirational

A few months ago I attended the Social Good Summit and the Global Citizen Festival in Manhattan and learned a ton about the problems plaguing the world today. More importantly, I learned about the solutions. That’s the beauty of the city: whenever I have extra time on my hands, there’s no shortage of lectures and networking events to attend, and most are free of charge. My favorites are the speeches organized by the Open Society Foundations, as you also get served a tasty lunch. Can’t beat that, free nourishment for both the body and the mind. In my spare time I also attend lectures about the future of journalism and the art of travel writing. I meet other writers, get inspiration for new stories and improve my craft. Love it!

4. New York is affordable

Sunset Park

I know what you are thinking – “what is this girl talking about? New York is the most expensive city in the US!” Sure, the city is pricey based on the statistics, but make no mistake – there are always deals to be had in this town. I might even go so far as to suggest that New York has more deals than any other place in the world. In midtown Manhattan there’s always a $1 pizza slice war going on, and in Brooklyn you can find neighborhoods where beauty salons charge $12 total for a manicure and pedicure. Happy hours are abundant, as are $10-15 three-course dinner specials in Thai restaurants. Taxis cost a fraction of those in Europe. Even rent gets down to affordable levels once you leave Manhattan. Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey just across the East River all have affordable housing options and fast public transportation into Manhattan. Plus with all the free events going on, who has time to spend money in this city? I find that I spend relatively little money in New York, considering how much fun I have here every week.

5. New York has great flight connections

Digital nomads need good flight connections and many airports options – and New York City has three airports in its proximity. Bargain hunters can score roundtrips to Europe for $400-500, and one-ways to Central America can be bought for as low as $150 on Spirit Airlines. And getting to the airport doesn’t break the bank either: New York has the world’s only 24-hour subway system (as far as I know), so you can take the train to the airport at all hours of the day.

Convinced yet? Let me know if you are a digital nomad contemplating moving here! It would be great to have more world traveler friends in New York. 🙂

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Weekly Wednesday Video: West African Dance Party

I woke up today convinced it was Tuesday. But would you believe it – turns out it’s Wednesday! Again! Wasn’t it just Wednesday?

Well, who I am to fight it. It’s time for my Weekly Wednesday Video! So let’s travel virtually to Senegal’s Casamance region where I witnessed a wild dance party during my West African roadtrip last year. The fiesta took place in Oussouye, a small town that loves to bust a move. This particular time the celebration was in honor of someone’s birthday, I was told. Who wants to do the same for my birthday next month??

Casamance has in fact been on my mind for a number of reasons lately. One is that I just wrote an article for The InterDependent about how the United Nations is starting a sanitation campaign to build more toilets. As you may remember, in Casamance I visited a family that lived in a tiny town without a single toilet.

Yeah, that was quite an experience. I had been in Bouyouye for a couple of hours by the time I discovered the situation. I had looked into every nook of the little clay house I was staying in, and poked around the yard’s various corners. I just couldn’t see it.

“Where’s the toilet?” I finally asked my weekend’s host, Jeannette Diatta, 40. The cheerful mother of six school-age children pointed at the sky-reaching Fromager tree in front of me.

“Just go behind there. Nobody will bother you.” She handed me a bucket on water for cleansing, as is the local custom.

So off I went, climbing over the wide roots of the so-called elephant tree and wading through piles of brown leaves in search of my own makeshift latrine. Finally I found a spot where I could comfortably go about my business while leaning on the trunk of the tree for support. I tried to be careful not to step into other people’s leftovers, should there be some, but luckily I didn’t see any.

Later on that day I realized why – there were rows of happy little piglets running all over the town that is the full-time home of about 300 people. A human’s dump is a piggy’s treasure. I secretly felt relieved the Diatta household wasn’t serving pork that day for dinner.

During my travels in more than sixty countries on six continents, I have come across many types of latrines: the low porcelain squat toilets of India, a hole in the wooden floor a’la Mongolia, the no-wall group stalls of old Beijing and the high-tech Japanese toilets that give you an automated butt rinse.  But my visit to West Africa last year was the first time that I came across people without access to any kind of a toilet. In Guinea-Bissau’s Bijagos Islands, I even saw locals nonchalantly pooping on the side of the road.

Little did I know how typical these folks actually were: According to the UN, there are 1.1 billion people in the world still defecating out in the open, some 15 percent of the world’s population. To read my piece on what the UN is doing to change this, click on the photo below.

Picture 17

While West Africans may not all have toilets, they’ve sure got the moves. What did you think about my video of the Casamance dance party?

My Weekend with Senegalese Subsistence Farmers

“So how was Africa??”

Ever since flying out of Senegal in May, not a week has gone by that I haven’t heard this question and soon been retelling my African roadtrip stories to some friend or acquaintance. Nowadays I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record since I already know what memories I want to share and what aspects of the experience I’ll focus on. Not that it’s been easy narrowing my four months down to a few short tales, quite the contrary!

Still, one of my favorite stories to tell is how I spent a weekend visiting a tiny rural village in Senegal’s Casamance region – a town that did not have a single toilet, not even of the hole-in-the-ground variety. Instead there was a tree behind which you had to go in times of need, and little piglets roaming around eating the leftovers. Magically it was one of the cleanest toilet arrangements I encountered on the continent.

The most memorable part of the weekend in Bouyouye was going oyster fishing with a few of the village ladies. 

The trip made such an impression on me that I even wrote a story about it for Passblue.com, the same website that recently published my article about the new Cabral museum in Guinea-Bissau. Should you want to learn more about life in rural Senegal, check out this link:

http://passblue.com/2012/07/25/in-rural-senegal-oyster-fishing-is-not-a-hobby/

But even if you are not in the mood for reading the longish piece, don’t miss out on watching this video of a dance party that took place in the village on my last night there. There was really no special occasion for the fiesta nor was it planned at all- one of the guys just started playing his kora (a small guitar-like African instrument) and suddenly the whole village came out to jam. It was quite the scene and this is what went on for hours:

Wow! I was looking at the goings-on with a mix of awe, amazement and a hint of jealousy. If only I had such rhythm in my blood! Unfortunately my efforts to copy these ladies’ styles looked pretty pathetic, so I left myself out of the video. 😛

Altogether if I had to choose one weekend that has had the most profound effect on me this year, this just might be it. While in Bouyouye, I started thinking about what’s really important in this life and questioning our modern world where nobody has time for an impromptu dance party anymore.

Visiting the village made me want to simplify my life even more, and to make time for meaningful human interactions. And it made me less understanding of people who choose to work a 70-hour work week just to make more money to buy more useless material things. I’ve never seen houses more bare than the ones in Bouyouye, but I’ve also never seen happier people. Somehow I feel like there must be a connection… don’t you think?

Have you ever visited this type of a rural village? Did it have as profound of an effect on you as my visit to Bouyouye did on me? 

Addicted to the Beach

A few months ago I realized something very profound about myself. It happened as I was swimming at a deserted paradise beach in the village of Diembering, in the Casamance region of Senegal. Jumping over big waves and body-surfing on top of the blue water, I was feeling overly happy – like a kid on a sugar high.

That’s when I realized that I have a problem – a beach problem. In fact, it’s a real addiction.

Since 1999, only one year has passed without me spending weeks or months in the vicinity of amazingly beautiful tropical beaches. That year was 2005, when the shore line of New York (which is actually not too shabby!) had to suffice.

But in 2006 I more than made up for the lost beach time by spending eight months in Australia, the country of pristine waters and white sands and mind-boggling snorkeling opportunities. My favorite memory from that year is swimming alongside a giant turtle at Lady Musgrave Island. 🙂

Since those sunny days Down Under I’ve also discovered playas in Latin America (Colombia! Cuba! Panama!), South and South East Asia, the Caribbean and most recently West Africa. In fact, looking at my travel routes over the years, my paths have almost always followed the coast lines of continents. Coincidence? I think not.

So yeah, I like beaches. A lot. But so do many other people. Why would that be a problem, you may ask…?

Well, not that it’s a problem per se, but my love of beach bumming has definitely had a profound impact on who I am, my career choices and the type of life I lead nowadays. Sometimes I have to wonder what kind of a person I’d be, had I never been enchanted by gently-swaying palm trees and the refreshing taste of fresh coconut water – to the point that being near them is almost an unhealthy obsession. You wouldn’t believe the arrangements and compromises I’ve made in order to stay near the ocean swells.

You see, it was the proximity to Pacific and Atlantic beaches that prompted me to pursue journalism studies in California and Florida, and even got me considering Hawaii for my master’s degree. Eventually New York won, but only barely.

Yes, my addiction is that bad! The thought of living inland has always felt suffocating. Even my occasional inland travels, such as the February yoga retreat in the Sahara, make me feel a bit uneasy. Generally a week is the max I can spend away from the coast without getting jittery.

So in early 2000s I studied for two years at Palomar College near the famous surfer city of San Diego, California. I then transferred schools and two years later got my bachelor’s degree from Flagler College in the tiny coastal town of St. Augustine, Florida. Since Flagler didn’t offer a degree in journalism, I had to settle for studying communication. But at least I was able to spend my days off rollerblading to the beautiful nearby beach! Now that would not have been possible at the Missouri School of Journalism, probably the most famous J-school in the US.

So basically I had to make the choice between a quality education and a quality beach – and I chose the latter. Was it the smartest thing to do career-wise? Maybe not, though the classes at Flagler were definitely good too and I learned a lot. Did I love my life in California and Florida to the fullest? You bet.

And I won’t lie – it was the images of eye-achingly white stretches of sand and unreal turquoise waters that got me thinking that the Maldives would be an amazing place to teach journalism in 2010 with the help of the Davis Projects for Peace grant. That, and the fact that the country had just gotten freedom of speech in 2008 and the residents were in dire need of media education. Lucky me, my proposal got selected for the grant as one of 11 out of 50 applications.

So for two months I taught workshops in this tropical island nation together with my super talented photographer-videographer friend Mariana Keller. The experience was truly unique: I loved being able to share my knowledge with the local journalists and to train them in our common craft. But yet somehow what I remember the best from those months is the amazing scenery that words cannot describe:

Ahhh. Pure bliss.

It may come as no surprise that it was this trip to the Maldives that solidified my decision to continue on the freelancing path. Sure, it may not be the best paid job out there or one that is for the faint of heart due to its irregularity. But then what other job would allow me adequate beach time whenever I felt a pressing need to hug a palm tree? If you hear of one, please let me know. Until then, you’ll likely find me typing away on some tropical beach.

So who else wants to confess to being a full-blown beachoholic?? (Yes! There’s even a song for us!) What kinds of sacrifices have you made in your life in order to keep your feet in the sand as often as possible?

A different kind of a roadtrip

When you say the word roadtrip, most people start visualizing images of never-ending North American highways, identical Burger Kings, and soulless roadside motels.

But the kind of roadtrip I have taken over the past few months through West Africa has been a world apart from its Yankee cousin.

It’s taken me through four countries, one occupied territory, a no-man’s land full of landmines, past countless herds of camels and cows and sheeps, through 30 hours of pure Saharan desert scenery, past more than 20 police checkpoints, into lush tropical greenery and a world of white sand beaches.

I started my trip in Morocco back in January and have over the past three months made my way through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau on a quiet, leisurely pace.

My modes of transport have consisted of shared Mercedes Benz bush taxis, colorful ramshackle minibuses, converted Chevy “Sept-Place” cars on the verge of a breakdown, a horse-drawn cart, a pirogue (a shaky little fisherman’s boat), big ferries, comfy buses, motorbikes and my own two feet.

At times I’ve been feeling totally out of place, surrounded only by men wearing a boubou, the Mauritanian version of a Moroccan jilaba

Other times I’ve felt right at home.


It’s been quite the adventure, and I’m sorry I haven’t  kept you updated all that well. Every day here in West Africa seems to be so full of adventure that each would warrant its own blog post, but that’s exactly why it’s hard to find the time to sit by the computer on a regular basis. Not a week goes by that I don’t feel a little guilty for not writing more, especially as my head is full of topics I’d love to discuss with you.

One of them is how Africa surely has the best children in the world. Never in my travels of 50+ countries have I encountered such happy, smiling, positive kids, without fail. I haven’t met a single teenager with attitude problems in West Africa nor a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the street.

Instead, I’ve met lovely boys like Makhtar, who smiled so radiantly on the beach in St. Louis, Senegal, that I just had to go say hello. I was so happy to learn his name, as it’s also the name of my favorite little boy in Mauritania.

And I’ve met beautiful girls like Jatou, who was my neighbor in Guinea-Bissau’s capital of Bissau for four days.

And I met tens of smiling kids in the rural village of Bouyouye in Casamance, Senegal.

How can you not feel overwhelming happiness when you look at these joyous faces? These guys and gals were my neighbors for a week in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

So again, I’m sorry for not including you in my everyday African life a little better. You certainly would have deserved it. But actually rather than a day-by-day count of my travels, I see this blog as being a place where I can share some particular snippets from the road and some observations I’ve made along the way. At least I say that to make myself feel better about it. 😛

If you have any particular questions about the logistics of traveling long-term, please don’t hesitate to ask. Just because it’s not in the blog, it doesn’t mean it’s a topic I am avoiding as I’d definitely love to help out with any info I may have. It’s just difficult to cover it all – especially while trying to also live in the moment, getting to know new cultures, learning new languages, and working as a professional  journalist all along.

Despite my lack of details, I hope this blog will still inspire some of you to take more unconventional roadtrips in the future. During my trans-Saharan trip I barely ran into any other travelers though there are certainly plenty of wonders to be discovered in this part of the world (and on six other continents!).

So please don’t be afraid to venture beyond those well-known vacation destinations, or to look for paths less beaten in those popular countries. At least for me this is the most rewarding way  to travel,  though it’s certainly not always easy or relaxing. In fact, after three months in West Africa, I’m ready for a vacation!