Nomad Reprised: Reflections on Travel

Traveling abroad as a nomad again was a breath of fresh air. I had forgotten how much fun and how liberating it is to pick up and go somewhere new.

Nomad Reprised: Reflections on Travel
Photo by Eva Darron / Unsplash
This piece was written as part of my 2022 Q2 and Q3 Review.

Traveling abroad as a nomad again was a breath of fresh air. I had forgotten how much fun and how liberating it is to pick up and go somewhere new.

We spent two months traveling nomad-style this trip, one month in Mexico City and the other in New York City. Both experiences were amazing, though in different ways.

Mexico City was a repeat for me. I had lived in Mexico City for ~3 months back in 2019—it had been my last truly nomadic stint before the pandemic trapped me in Taipei. It’s fitting, then, that Mexico City would be the first place I’d return to as a nomad “post”-pandemic.

I love Mexico City, personally. Enough so, that I sometimes joke with people that a different twist of fate might have found me stuck in Mexico, and not Taiwan for the past few years.

For my girlfriend, Mexico was a first. She’s done her own fair amount of traveling, but I sense that before meeting me Mexico would never have made her bucket list. I think she was pleasantly surprised—the artist in her was enamored by the Mexican obsession with color, and the foodie in her found that real Mexican street tacos were every bit as delicious as I had described them, and much more delicious than my own crude attempts to do them justice.

Suffice to say we stuffed our bellies fuller than full. To my girlfriend’s accounting, I ate something like 100 tacos that month. We ate at a few of Mexico City’s internationally famous restaurants including Pujol and Contramar. Both were beyond first class experiences that I would highly recommend to anyone making it out to that part of the world.

We managed to overlap with my little sister during her last month in Mexico City, and snagged a deal on an AirBnB where the three of us could live together. It was nice to reconnect with my sister—I’ve seen her only very seldomly since the pandemic started.

Balancing work and play was tough—tougher than I remembered. In Mexico, I was still working on features and fixes for Midana, and I was still trying to hit a daily pomodoro target. While in Mexico City, I discovered that getting myself out to a nearby cafe in the morning (or whenever I woke) did wonders for my productivity. I think it helped to develop the idea that I’m “going to work” not just mentally, but also physically.

Somewhere along the way in Mexico City, I stopped committing to the idea of a daily pomodoro target. Instead, I focused on making sure that my time felt like it was being spent well in the moment. For example, going out to lunch with my girlfriend and then detouring to see something interesting on the way home always qualified as a good use of time. Working when I could was, of course, a good use of time. Importantly, I started to loosen my grip on this idea that I have to hit a certain time target or I didn’t have a successful day. I found that loosening this grip made me feel less stressed and more able to find flow whenever and wherever I could.

Still, there was enough to see and do in Mexico City, that I found myself quickly exhausted. A month isn’t really that long a time, on a nomadic scale—it’s just long enough to start feeling comfortable and settled in a place before already needing to emotionally detach because you’ll be leaving soon. Our weekends and many week nights were packed full of things we needed to see, do, or eat since my girlfriend had never experienced them before.

It didn’t help that my girlfriend and I were training for a half marathon at the same time. Since we knew we’d be eating a lot, we figured the best way to maintain some semblance of health would be to exercise enough to make up for all of it. So we registered for a couple of half marathon events—my girlfriend’s first—to overlap with our time in New York City in July. In hindsight, it was absolutely crazy for us to add that to the mix. It stressed us both out. We occasionally fought over it. Ultimately, I think we had a hard time giving both travel and the training the full attention each deserved.

New York City was a different animal. I’ve visited New York many times. When I worked for Palantir, I used to make almost weekly trips to the East Coast, and I’d often spend my time in either the New York or the Washington DC office. This month-long stint was my first time trying to really live in New York, though.

Pre-nomadic me had a poor impression of cities, and so never had a strong desire to live in one. It took nomading around for several years to realize that I actually feel more at home in cities. All of my favorite nomad spots are bigger, busier cities—Taipei, Ho Chi Minh City, Mexico City. Sure, I do enjoy the calm of more suburban or rural spots like Medellin or Chiang Mai, but I always have a hard time imagining not getting bored living in those places long-term.

All of this is to say, when I used to visit New York City, I don’t think I ever took full advantage of it, or really fully experienced that city life. This time around, I was super excited to try NYC on for size—after all, many people claim that NYC is the city.

NYC delivered. It was $$$$ to live there for any length of time, certainly more than I typically budget for, but I really enjoyed the experience. The food scene was amazing—my girlfriend and I ate probably as many calories in pizza as we had in tacos in Mexico City—and it felt like there was always so much to do and see.

Most intriguing to me was the energy of NYC. Even in our first week living in Williamsburg, before I had even really had a chance to get out and about a whole lot, I could already feel the energy. I’d describe that energy as the feeling of constant motion. In NYC, it felt like people were tirelessly working toward something and bettering themselves. I could see it in the effort people put to exercising, just looking out my window. I could feel it in the impatient air on the subway, and around rushing pedestrians—like everyone had somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to be.

When I was in NYC, I related to a number of friends that I loved that energy. I was insanely productive in NYC just feeling it. It motivated me to toil hard at making my dreams a reality. Indeed, I found myself in flow in NYC more often than I have almost anywhere else in recent memory. (To be fair, though, part of that was likely the initial excitement for the new vision I had for my work, which surfaced while I was there.)

I easily spent long nights working. I lost sleep in my haste to make progress. Whenever I left the house, I found a giddy excitement to return to my laptop that I haven’t felt since high school, when I first discovered my love for computer science. (I used to write code on pieces of notebook paper during other classes because some problem from comp sci was holding my interest.)

In a word, I’d simply call that energy “hustle”—a hunger to be more, to do more. Frankly, we don’t have much hustle here in Taipei. In my experience, people in Taipei are quite happy where they are, almost complacent in their work. There’s a sense of stability, maybe even quiet pride, in conformity and doing one’s small part that I think is common in East Asian culture. Hustle does exist in Asia, but it’s easier to find in South East Asia where there’s more psychological hunger. In fact, the last place I felt a sense of hustle as strong as the one in NYC was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I do wish we had a bit more hustle in Taipei. Since returning, though, I’ve stopped to wonder what drives that energy in NYC. I’m more than a little dismayed to realize that much of it likely comes from ego and competition, born from American individualism and self-determinism. At least, that’s what I think it may have been for me, and I can only guess that some of that was absorbed from the environment.

There’s a subtle, but important difference between wanting to better myself and wanting to be better than other people. The former is an expression of self-love, the latter an expression of ego. I’m a pretty competitive person by nature, and I’ll be the first to tell you that my ego is as big as they come. I’ve spent most of my 20s working to better myself, but also working to counter and suppress the more toxic parts of my ego.

While drunk on the hustle and the ego, I felt sure that I would want to live in NYC if I could afford to without compromising on other things (being self-employed, for example). On second look, it’s alarming how quickly I can slip back into old patterns in a place like NYC. While I like the energy, it’s important to me that it come from integrity, not ego. I wonder how much of hustle necessarily comes from ego. Lately, I wonder if a place like Taipei, where despite the lack of hustle there’s also almost not enough ego, may better match my needs long-term.

A month in NYC passed quickly, and with so many of our weekends packed with either half marathons or doing and eating everything “quintessentially New York,” both my girlfriend and I were thoroughly exhausted by the end. We had a lot of fun, though, and wouldn’t have had it any other way :).

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