Digital Nomad Interview – Sanne from Spend Life Traveling

A fresh interview in my series of interviews with digital nomads features a long-term nomad and travel blogger.

Sanne Wesselman, originally from the Netherlands, has been a digital nomad since 2008.

I asked her about her lifestyle, advice, challenges and future plans.

She touches on many of the things that aspiring digital nomads need to know and that experienced ones will identify with.

What were your first experiences as a traveller?

I was 17 when I first moved abroad. For a summer, to work in a restaurant in Spain.

It was an incredible experience for me, still a teenager, to be away from home, work with a fun, international team and enjoy nightlife and the beach during my free time… I think you can picture what that may have been like!

It was an incredible experience for me, still a teenager, to be away from home, work with a fun, international team and enjoy nightlife and the beach during my free time… I think you can picture what that may have been like!

I didn’t realize it back then but that one summer opened a new world to me. It taught me how great it is to move abroad, to start over and to try new adventures. It marked the start of a life spent living in countries all over the world.

Initially I returned to the Netherlands after that summer, with the plan to go to university. But I quickly decided I liked Spain too much.

I also realized that instead of going to a Dutch university I could enroll for an online Bachelor’s degree and study while living in Spain.

And that’s what I did. I moved to Spain, spent almost 5 years living there, completed my Bachelor’s degree and started a Marketing and Web Design company with a friend.  

What made you decide you wanted to be a digital nomad?

Maldives digital nomads
Sanne in the Maldives

I never consciously decided I wanted to be a digital nomad.

Maybe that’s because I became one before I’d ever heard of the term.

After living in Spain for five years I was offered a job in St Maarten, an island in the Caribbean. I took the job but didn’t want to give up the company that took me such hard work to get off the ground.

So, my business partner and I came to an arrangement where I’d continue doing all the work that could be done online and he’d take over the rest.

Back then, in early 2008, working online and more so working online while you are on the other side of the world, was not normal.

I lost a lot of clients. A lot of them valued the face to face meetings too much and didn’t see how I could stay focused on their business while I was in a different country.

I am so thankful things have changed over the years!

But, back then I was the odd one out and many people didn’t understand how I thought I could leave the country yet still keep a business going.

I did though. It took me a long time to grow my part of the business to where it could fully sustain me, but eventually it did.

Anyway, back to what made me decide I wanted to be a digital nomad.

I loved living in St Maarten. But, it’s a small island and after six months I had seen all there was to see and done all there was to do. 

I came to an agreement with the company I was working for to keep them as a client (which they stayed for many years) as they seemed to understand that I could continue my marketing and web design work, even if I wasn’t on the island anymore.

And I think that’s when I realized there is a different way to live your life. You don’t have to stay in the country where you were born to build a future. And you also don’t have to move abroad once and build a life there.

I had seen how easy it is, even for the shy person I used to be, to meet people in a new place and to create an enjoyable life.

So, at the age of 23 I decided this was something I loved and I was going to do that in more countries.

How do you make a living working from anywhere?

For most of my time as a digital nomad it was my marketing and web design company that allowed me to work online and live this lifestyle.

But these days my travel blog, Spend Life Traveling, is profitable enough to be my source of income.

But, none of that happened over night. For several years my company didn’t make enough to sustain myself.

So what I did for the first few years was find a short term job or volunteer work that offered free housing.

And that is one tip I’d like to give anyone who is thinking of becoming a digital nomad: you don’t have to wait until you make a full income online.

Finding work locally, and especially volunteer work, has been so rewarding! It’s been such a great way to connect with the local community and get to know local life. Much better than when you are working on your laptop for your own company all day.

I taught English in a slum in India, worked in a dive shop in Mallorca, counted dolphins off the coast of Mauritius (yes really, that was my job!) and this list goes on.

And some of my most memorable experiences abroad are actually from when I worked or volunteered somewhere, not from when I sat in a cool coffee shop with other digital nomads (although that’s great fun as well).

What do you wish you had known before you became a digital nomad?

That’s a good question. Because I didn’t know I was becoming a digital nomad, I was just trying to create a lifestyle that worked for me.

And maybe that is important to know these days: there isn’t one type of digital nomad lifestyle you should aspire to.

I know digital nomads who are based in their home country and only travel and work abroad occasionally. And I know digital nomads who move to a new place every few weeks.

So I guess it’s important to be aware that you are trying to build a lifestyle that works for you, not just follow a trend.

You’re not a fan of Bali? That’s fine. You can enjoy this lifestyle while working from Berlin, Amsterdam or a remote mountain top (as long as there is internet) as well!

What are the best cities for digital nomads from your experience?

Valencia

I think Valencia, in Spain, is great for digital nomads. And that is why I made it my base.

Valencia is affordable, it has a comfortable climate and a growing number of digital nomads and expats. It

also has all of the facilities digital nomads need: good wifi, cafés to work from, coworking spaces, regular events to meet other internationals, and an international airport.

Other cities I have enjoyed as a digital nomad are Medellin in Colombia and Chiang Mai in Thailand.

I also have a soft spot for San Diego, in California, but unfortunately you don’t find many other digital nomads there (too expensive?) even though it does have that great entrepreneurial vibe and coffee shop culture most digital nomads love.

Share one resource that every digital nomad should be aware of

For me it’s Facebook groups.

Every time I go to a new place I check Facebook to see what expat or digital nomad groups there are in that city, town or country.

There aren’t always dedicated digital nomad groups, but there are (almost) always expat groups and they are a great way to get to know an international community and to get answers to any questions you may have.

Another website I like is Meetup.com. It’s definitely more active in some places than in others but when it is it’s a great place to find local events and meet people.

What’s the best thing about the digital nomad lifestyle?

Digital nomad philippines

Saying the freedom is maybe too obvious.

So I would say the chance to experience so many different places.

If you only go on a one or two week holiday you just don’t have the time to really get to know a place.

But if you can work from a city or town for a few months you build routines, you get to know locals and you get to understand, at least to some extent, what life is like in this place.

That’s also why I’d recommend not to move too much. I know your list of places to visit is probably really long, but there is real value in staying in one place a little longer. Plus, it helps you to stay productive while working remotely.

What has been your biggest challenge?

I know the digital nomad lifestyle sounds great, but yes, there are definitely challenges.

I think the emotional challenges of digital nomad life are the hardest.

For me it’s the difficulty building deeper connections.

When I first started living this lifestyle I generally didn’t stay in the same country for more than two or three months. And yes, I’d meet great people and had a lot of fun in those few months, but after a while I started realizing that I missed having more long term connections.

And that requires time and effort. 

Plus, if you hang around only in digital nomad circles you are constantly saying goodbye to people who decide it’s time to check out a new place.

So now, after years of really enjoying the faster pace and constantly experiencing new things, I spend more time in one place and focus more on building long term relationships.

Another big challenge for me when I first started, and I know this is a challenge for many new digital nomads, was creating a good work/life balance.

When I started out it was a struggle to make enough money. I often worked seven days a week and finding reliable internet has been an issue more times than I can count.

I would set my alarm at 4AM to deal with clients in different timezones.

I was young, I had no prior entrepreneurial experience so combining building a business with traveling and living abroad was a huge challenge.

I often felt stressed and overwhelmed. And it has taken me years to finally get closer to that lifestyle that’s pictured on social media: working only a few hours a day and enjoying your surroundings the rest of the time.

It isn’t easy for most of us, and it’s something to be aware of if you are thinking about quitting your job and becoming a digital nomad. But, for me it’s definitely been worth it!

What are your plans for the future?

Digital nomad spain

I’m based in Valencia now and am actually looking at buying property here.

That doesn’t mean I’m planning on living here year round but for the past few years I’ve felt the need to have a place to call home, a place to return to, instead of living out of a suitcase full time.

In the 12 years that I’ve been a digital nomad I have lived in a wide range of countries and experienced so many different lifestyles. 

I’ve had so many different experiences that it feels like I lived a dozen or so different lives.

I lived through the aftermath of a coup d’etat twice (in the Maldives and in Honduras), I’ve enjoyed city life in places all over the world but also lived in a few towns so remote people jokingly referred to them as ‘the end of the world’.

I have done volunteer work in many countries to contribute to local societies, I’ve lived in shared housing infested with rats and cockroaches but also on luxury yachts.

And most importantly, I have met people from all walks of life who taught me there are so many different ways to live your life and be happy. 

I don’t know exactly what the future will bring because at times I feel the urge to move again and to experience an entirely different lifestyle, but at other times I crave stability and want to build more of a home.

Many digital nomads I know have these conflicting feelings after a while and I think that’s ok.

So for now, I’m based in Valencia, working on my businesses and on building meaningful relationships and who knows, maybe next year I’ll find myself living on the other side of the world again.

It’s that freedom I love about this lifestyle!

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