The Safe Nomad

The Safe Nomad (8). Sophia Cheng and Jayme Elkins, UK. The life of a nomadic couple.

Mark Twain once said, “There ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” And I’ve had hundreds of encounters that prove the old man right. Indeed, no matter how nice, cool or easy-going a friend can be while settled, the simple act of traveling can turn them into awful creatures. But the opposite is also true: someone you never think you could ever like proves to be a wonderful travel companion and a magnet for great encounters and experiences.

Now let’s take Mark Twain’s peer-reviewed assertion and try to apply it to a couple. All of a sudden, after – say – 5 years of being in a relationship the two decide to leave home and travel the world together for God knows how long. What will they learn about each other? Will it work? Will they break up under the constant pressure of finding new places,  new jobs, and adjusting themselves to new geographical and cultural climates?

“We must be doing something right.” says Jayme, a 40 year old musician and composer from England. Next to him, Sophia Cheng, 10 years Jayme’s junior and 7 year girlfriend nods lightly while sipping jasmine tea on the terrace of Café Veda in Canggu, Bali.

They must be doing something right, indeed, their relationship has strengthened since they left home almost 2 years ago. The first thing  was finding each other, I’ve rarely met two people so different and yet so balanced as a couple.

Mr. Yin and Mrs. Yang

Sophia is the doer. Goal-oriented, pragmatic and disciplined, she still preserves that corporate discipline that put her on the list of “The UK’s Best 30 Young Communication Professionals” in 2012.

Jayme, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken bohemian, a dreamer and a bit of a philosopher. And while Sophia hides her sensitivity behind a curtain of assertiveness, Jayme wears the cloak of apparent feebleness to disguise his strength. If Yin and Yang were ever to incarnate, they would look just like these two guys.

Sophia excels at organizing and making new connections but Jayme also has strengths his partner admits she lacks. She is the one who encourages him to keep working and move forward, but he is the one to blow a whistle when she’s been working too long and should stop and unwind.

Among the things Sophia and Jayme admittedly have in common is their profound and sincere care for the environment. They use modular mobile phones which  are built with conflict-free minerals and not upgraded every year, any repair is easily fixed simply by replacing the broken module. They wear clothes made from sustainably-sourced, environmentally friendly bamboo. And when they travel, (which happens quite often) they embrace the good habit of offsetting their air miles – to offset their guilt.

The Becoming

Up until 2014, Sophia had a “normal” job in Corporate Communications.  Then she received a job offer for a role that would take her to New York, Indonesia and Peru, sharing the messages of indigenous peoples.

She accepted, and for the following year traveled while Jayme stayed in London working part-time and writing soundtracks for various projects. Two years ago, however, they  decided it was time to turn traveling into a permanent lifestyle and leave the London ratrace. They took baby steps, short stays in Europe to test the nomadic lifestyle staying in Slovenia, Paris, then Madrid, where they studied Spanish so they could work with Latin American communities across the Atlantic.

“Usually, Sophia suggests where to go and I’m pretty easy going about it. Jayme admits, cheerfully.

Sophia: “I’ve had the travel bug for long as I can remember, I was lucky enough to travel with my family and take a gap year at 21. I always said I’d get away again before I was 30. Life goal: tick.

Jayme: “Initially, it was really frightening. I was afraid of travelling long-term, going to places like Central and South America. My family don’t do anything like that, it is totally unheard of. Partly I did it because my mind always evokes the worst case scenario and I wanted to challenge that, to see what I was so afraid of. Everywhere I went, the picture I had in my head was so wrong.

For Jayme, the big departure was also more of a philosophical statement about life itself.

Jayme: “I’ve always been a deep thinker, as a teenager I didn’t understand the concept of work, I hate money and the illusion it portrays. I struggled for a long time working in offices, hating it and feeling lost in society because my mindset didn’t fit. As a teenager I was told ‘you need to find a proper job, you’ll never make money out of music.’ What is ‘proper’? What is success? And is it measured solely by my paycheck?

Sophia: “One of the reasons that drove us to leave in the first place was to challenge the status quo. Our own, and that of the society we are part of.  I am so lucky being from the UK, I inherited privilege. I believe it is my responsibility to be useful to the world and ‘live deliberately’. I think that every decision we make should be fully conscious, we should commit to it with our eyes wide open. That’s what we have been trying to do over the last couple of years: to keep our eyes open.

US was next: New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles. Then Nicaragua, Colombia and Mexico. While moving from one place to another, Sophia was in regular touch with her clients, held work meetings on and offline, built up her new client base and began writing for the couple’s blog „With Many Roots”, while Jayme helped his former employer  and wrote music for video documentaries. He also began the tricky work of trying to sell himself.

In January this year they came to Asia in part for Sophia’s work, in part out of curiosity. “I had a feeling Jayme would love Asia.she adds, almost smugly.

2017’s been hectic. We haven’t stayed anywhere longer than two and a half weeks this year. We are staying still in Bali for a while!

Life as a digital nomadic couple

Sophia: “I think there are many challenges in a nomadic lifestyle. You face more uncertainty and there is so much new stimulus every day; new conversations, new interactions. It’s easy to stay in the digital nomad bubble, so we try and make sure we get to know a little of the local culture, learn some of the language and spread our spending. On top of that you have to move forward with your career, find new clients, have your meetings, and meet deadlines. At the end of the day this is a wonderful way to live but it’s not all sunsets and filters!

How has this lifestyle changed the couple’s life?

Sophia: “In our current lifestyle, the highs can be higher but the lows can be lower too.

Jayme: “Leaving home was like a magnifying glass on our relationship showing us what issues we had and how to address them. We had to do that faster than we thought. We are closer as a couple now. We are trying to be more open with each other and communicate how we’re feeling. We do try and have fun too, it’s surprisingly easy to forget to do that! We hiked Mount Ijen on Java last week, that was incredible.”

Sophia adds, “We proactively seek out separate spaces to work or different people to meet to prevent things getting too intense. Bali has been great for that.

On technology

Sophia’s globe-trotting online marketer office fits in a rucksack: photo camera, phone, laptop and a laptop stand for keeping a correct posture during the long working hours. She has to be up for 3 different time zones, her team being spread out in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Jayme’s studio, while a bit heavier, still fits in a bag: a laptop, soundcard and stand, an alien-like MIDI keyboard with keys that are almost sensual to the touch, a handful of cables, and a classic Spanish guitar on top.

With all this gear packed up, the two can cover almost every type of human communication service, from writing to photography, recording to complex soundtracks. They admit that their nomadic careers could not have been possible without technological innovation (I keep thinking of that keyboard!), but they don’t forget to add a pinch of salt to the tech-will-save-the-world soup.

Sophia: I am a reluctant optimist when it comes to that. Technology has a lot of potential to help but I think that if we hide behind our technologies, then we’re not gonna solve the world’s problems. It’s opened up the range of possibilities to communicate but narrowed our echo chamber. It helps me get in touch with my colleagues around the world but it also prevents me from saying hello to the person next to me. I think we need technology but we need to find a balance that doesn’t exclude real life, real human interaction.

What makes them feel secure

Jayme: “Now that you’re asking it I realize that our relationship and what we have helps me considerably. Also when we come to a new place, there’s something about the room, the people, the area, it has to have something, it’s this feeling in my gut that makes me feel more relaxed. I feel protected in certain spaces, in others not at all.

Sophia: “For me it’s the rituals and elements of routine that help me feel secure – like writing in my journal every day, keeping some kind of structure. When we land in a new place we put a lot of effort into finding a temporary home and ensuring (by photos and by conversations with the hosts) that it’s going to be a comfortable and safe nest for us, then we go for a walk and find a market, note the nearest cafe, co-working space, green space and realize we have all the essentials. It’s amazing how quickly a place can feel like home.

Jayme adds: “For me security also comes from knowing that I live a free life. Each month that we keep going builds our confidence. It started out with 2-3 months on the road in mind and before we knew it we were at six months looking at the next set of flights! The more miles we’ve left behind, the more secure we feel about ones ahead.

About the author

Brad FLORESCU

Brad has been working as a travel journalist, photographer and digital nomad for the last 8 years. From his base in Thailand he journeys around the world – from Papua to the Carribean – seeking for deep, meaningful stories about humanity, nature and life.

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