Susan Munro is an Australian digital nomad who has lived all over the world while holding down a remote job and crossing life-changing experiences off her 30-before-30 list.
We asked Susan to tell us about her favourite experiences so far as a nomad, the places she avoids, the advice she would give to other creatives on the road and why she created her website, Nomadic Footsteps.
Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do as a digital nomad?
I’m from sunny Mackay on the North Queensland Coast, Australia. I do research for a media intelligence company, and I’m just getting started on my professional travel writing path.
What is a typical day like for you?
I like to work through the night because I’m a night owl, so I get up around late morning and go from there. I usually like to work from home (wherever that is) but sometimes I’ll go out to a library or coffee shop and do a bit there.
At night I’ll go to a street market (location permitting) and maybe meet some friends. If I’m at home or in a pricier location I like to cook and hang out with flatmates or family.
What pushed you to make a leap of faith and become a digital nomad?
I discovered Rolf Potts’ amazing Vagabonding book in 2011, and from then on I dreamt of having the freedom to work from wherever I wanted. This job fell into my lap in 2013 – I’d just finished my degree and went to New Zealand to interview for a job at a company I used to work for, so i was sure I would get it. I turned up and they’d already given the job to someone else!
I got a call from the company the following week asking if I’d like to take up the job I have now, and 3 years and 28 countries later here I am!
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?
I like to go for a walk, maybe get a coffee or something to eat. I actually love checking out supermarkets – they are different in every country and there’s always some amazing stuff to buy that is unique to that place. It’s a fascinating cultural insight.
What are your inspirations?
I love travel writing by Rolf Potts, Rebecca Solnit, Bill Bryson. I also adore travel documentaries from Stephen Fry. Of course the Nomadic Matt and Legal Nomads blogs are great too.
What have been your favourite places so far and why?
Ah, that’s tough. I love Berlin for its art, music and drinking culture, Chiang Mai for networking, great food, massage and cheapness and Edinburgh for its heritage and amazing summer festivals. Although honestly, it’s hard to choose!
You mention on your website that you have been working on an urban fantasy novel. Please can you tell us more about it?
It’s on hold right now unfortunately! I’ve been writing poetry lately, and going to some spoken word events in Melbourne, it’s a great scene.
How has your lifestyle evolved during your time as a nomad?
I’ve become far more disciplined in general, and a better time manager. Also, I can pack at the speed of light. I’ve always been terrible at staying in contact with people as I move around, so that’s been a challenge.
How has your lifestyle affected your relationships with people back ‘home’?
I’ve never been terribly settled, having lived in a few different places since I left home. Some people don’t understand why I enjoy moving around, they see it as quite an unusual existence, which I suppose it is.
I see people getting married and having kids, and that’s great, but it’s not for me. I think most people are understanding but you do miss things, you won’t be as close to people as you would if you stayed home.
Has anything ever scared you as a digital nomad and how did you deal with it?
The place I was staying was broken into in Kuala Lumpur while Couchsurfing. I was sleeping when it happened. He took a bunch of cash and my Kindle, luckily not my phone, computer or laptop. It was scary. They caught him though, I guess you can’t ask for more than that.
What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?
Home is the connections you make with people. That said, sometimes I get this peculiar feeling of belonging when I’m having a coffee or wine and writing in a place by myself. I think, ‘Yeah, I could live here.’
Can you tell us about your ‘30 before 30‘ list? Which item have you most enjoyed ticking off and why?
Ah yes! I’ve been pretty poor about updating it, but I have to say the skydiving in New Zealand was amazing! Like no feeling on earth, I can’t even describe it. I managed to do all but 2 of them, so not bad considering I started about 18 months before!
Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?
I travelled quickly through Europe in 2016 and never again! It was crazy doing all of that and with deadlines too. If you travel slow, even live somewhere for a few months, you get a depth of experience you never would have otherwise.
That said, I don’t have anything against a cheeky mini-break weekend with some rad individuals here and there!
Which digital nomad resources have helped you the most?
Nomad List is good. Nomadic Matt has an epic list of resources that’s amazing. I like Digital Nomad Forum for networking. I also look for Facebook and Meetup.com groups whenever I get to a new city. I’ve had some great times out with people that go to events through these!
Can you tell us about one or more of your favourite moments as a digital nomad?
There’s been so many. I had an awesome night out with a bunch of nomads in Chiang Mai in December last year that was hilarious – we went from legit bars to little hidden karaoke dens and ended up on the street drinking outside a 7 Eleven, just swapping stories. It was brilliant.
What have you found challenging about the digital nomad lifestyle?
Loneliness is the major thing, something all nomads go through I think. Even those lucky nomadic couples miss friends and family back home. The thing is, the longer you do this, the more spread-out your friends become, and you miss things. Weddings, births, graduations. Everyday stuff, too.
How do you choose where to go next?
I like to say the place chooses me, not the other way around. I sort of notice references to different locations pop up around and that makes me think I might be getting drawn in that direction.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to someone involved in a creative pursuit while traveling from place to place?
Get up and around. Julia Cameron talks about ‘stocking the pond’ in her amazing book The Artist’s Way, which I’d recommend to any person interested in the creative process. This means you have to experience life in order to create, because creativity is really the process of putting together life experiences, thoughts and ideas in new and interesting ways.
Also – don’t be afraid to take the local transport. Uber-ing and getting VIP Buses everywhere isn’t going to be as interesting as going on a local train, bus or songthaew (in Thailand: sort of a public taxi with benches).
What are the main aspects of your personality that have allowed you to live as a digital nomad?
You need to be quite self-contained as a person. Able to manage your own affairs, from safety and scheduling through to meeting people independently and able to go to events and things alone. I was never a particularly open person, so I’ve had to learn to be a bit more willing to engage people.
Do you have any daily routines or habits that help you stay productive and focused?
I use a programme called Awareness that reminds me to take breaks every hour, and I like to do a Reiki treatment on myself before I go to sleep to help relax.
How do you stay healthy on the road?
I try to hit local markets and eat fresh as much as possible. I stopped smoking a few years ago – I vape now, and feel much better for it. I like to walk around, incidental exercise is key.
I’ve also learned to drink a bit more like a European – with food and in small quantities. That’s not too easy for an Australian with British roots!
Are there any places you would recommend against traveling to? If so where and why?
I don’t like border towns – particularly between countries that are different in terms of standard of living. There’s often a lot of smuggling and pickpocketing going on, amongst other things. I try to arrive in daylight and get out as quickly as possible.
What is an issue that you feel especially passionate about?
It’s between animal welfare and environmentalism, particularly plastic bag usage. Tourism has quite a negative effect on both. I try to look for ethical businesses where possible, locally run and green.
I also carry my own water and fill my bottle where possible (Thailand is great for this, as there are roadside filling stations everywhere) and a tote bag. I’ve started carbon neutralising all my flights on noco2.com.au, a great Australian site.
What do you wish you had known when you started?
That time flies! When you are in a new place, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the experience there, and you still have deadlines. My time management has improved out of sight since I started, but the first year was difficult.
What is the best food you have eaten as a digital nomad?
Ah, another tough one. I absolutely love Thai food, and am proud to say I’ve built up a good tolerance to chili as a result. I love a spicy papaya salad with prawns. Yum! I’ve always believed that food alone is enough of a reason to travel.
What was your motivation for creating Nomadic Footsteps?
I wanted to create an ‘everyday’ guide to surviving life as a location independent professional. There’s plenty of travelogues out there, so it seemed like something a little different.
How have your friends and families reacted to your lifestyle?
People have largely been supportive. Sometimes I get a bit of jealousy, and then some people think I’m a bit mad! In the end I still have to earn a living though, my life probably isn’t as exciting or carefree as most people think.
I work on my computer in my room most days. That said, when I finish work and leave my desk it’s like teleporting into another country, which is pretty brilliant.
How do you define success?
Living life in a way that is both personally fulfilling and helpful to the world at large. That’s the goal.
What music do you listen to on the road?
So much! I used to do a bit of music journalism so I’m into a lot of different stuff. Right now I’m listening to a lot of electronica, dreamy stuff good for staring into sunsets on long bus rides and more driving beats for when I’m walking somewhere (which is a lot). Spotify is my best friend because you can save thousands of songs offline for when you don’t have internet access.
Which books have had a big impact on you?
I already mentioned The Artist’s Way and Vagabonding, so I’d have to say The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, which is a giant journey across a continent, so seems appropriate to my world view!
What are the creature comforts can you not live without?
Coffee, chocolate, and wifi! My phone, of course. Nice wine, when it’s available.
Which other digital nomads have inspired you to embrace life on the road?
Nomadic Matt, Christine Gilbert of Almost Fearless, Mish and Rob from Making it Anywhere and Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads are the top ones – I follow a lot of blogs! There are some incredibly inspiring people out there making their living while travelling around this big blue dot. One day, I hope to be one of them!
Big thanks to Susan for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out Nomadic Footsteps for tips on living a nomadic lifestyle.