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The digital nomads did not prepare for this

NEW YORK — For a certain kind of worker, the pandemic presented a rupture in the space-time-career continuum. Many Americans were stuck, tied down by children or lost income or obligations to take care of the sick.

For a certain kind of worker, the pandemic presented a rupture in the space-time-career continuum. Their logic was as enviable as it was unattainable for everyone else: If you’re going to work from home indefinitely, why not make a new home in an exotic place?

For a certain kind of worker, the pandemic presented a rupture in the space-time-career continuum. Their logic was as enviable as it was unattainable for everyone else: If you’re going to work from home indefinitely, why not make a new home in an exotic place?

NEW YORK — For a certain kind of worker, the pandemic presented a rupture in the space-time-career continuum. Many Americans were stuck, tied down by children or lost income or obligations to take care of the sick.

But for those who were unencumbered, with steady jobs that were doable from anywhere, it was a moment to grab destiny and bend employment to their favour.

Their logic was as enviable as it was unattainable for everyone else: If you’re going to work from home indefinitely, why not make a new home in an exotic place?

This tiny cohort gathered their MacBooks, passports and N95 masks and became digital nomads. They Instagrammed their workdays from empty beach resorts in Bali and took Zoom meetings from tricked-out camper vans.

They made balcony offices at cheap Tulum Airbnbs and booked state park campsites with Wi-Fi. They were the kind of people who actually applied to those remote worker visa programs heavily advertised by Caribbean countries. And occasionally they were deflated.

Mr David Malka, an entrepreneur in Los Angeles, had heard from friends who were living their best work-abroad lives. In June, he created a plan: He and his girlfriend would work from Amsterdam, with a quick stop at a discounted resort in Mexico along the way.

The first snag happened almost immediately. In Cabo San Lucas, Mr Malka and his girlfriend realised that the European Union wasn’t about to reopen its borders to American travellers, as they had hoped.

Returning to the United States wasn’t an option: Mr Malka’s girlfriend was from the United Kingdom, and her visa wouldn’t allow it.

The two decided to stay in Mexico a bit longer. At first it was glamorous, Mr Malka said. Working by laptop — he manages a portfolio of vacation rental properties — they had the resort to themselves.

But by the second week, their situation began to feel like “Groundhog Day”. The city and the beach were closed, so the couple never left the resort. Meanwhile, the travel shutdown was hammering his business.

“All we could do is sit by the pool or go to the gym,” Mr Malka said. The repetition, boredom and isolation all wore on them.

Eventually, the couple took a 28-hour, two-layover trip to Amsterdam, where Mr Malka was indeed turned away at customs. They retreated to London, where they promptly broke up.

He has been there since. “Cold, raining, depressing,” he said. “Those are the first three adjectives that come to mind.”

Now Mr Malka is trying to figure out how to get to Bali — it’s technically closed to visitors, but he heard about a special visa that can be rushed for US$800 (S$1,080) — or use his ancestry to obtain Portuguese citizenship. It’s a lot of logistics.

“I have PTSD planning my next month,” he said.

Mr Malka is far from the only Covid-19 nomad to stumble on the road. It turns out there are drawbacks the trend stories and Instagram posts didn’t share.

Tax things. Red-tape things. Wi-Fi rage things. Closed border things.

The kinds of things one might gloss over when making an emotional, quarantine-addled decision to pack up an apartment and book a one-way ticket to Panama or Montreal or Kathmandu.

THE WORST OF BOTH WORLDS

Americans have never been especially good at vacation. Before Covid-19, they were leaving unused hundreds of millions of paid days off. They even created a work-vacation hybrid — the workation.

The idea: Travel to a nice place, work during the day and then, in theory, enjoy the scenery in the off hours. In pandemic times, the digital nomads have simply made workation a permanent state.

The bad news is it’s the worst of both worlds. They should be enjoying themselves in their new, beautiful surroundings. But they can’t enjoy themselves, because work beckons.

The anxious self-optimisation ping-pongs between “Why aren’t I living my best life?” and “Why aren’t I killing it at work?”

Ms Katie Smith-Adair and her husband run PlaceInvaders, an event company in Los Alamos, California.

When the pandemic halted business, they packed up their Volvo with a tent and an outdoor shower for a month-long camping road trip around the West. All the while, she worked 40 hours a week trying to set up PlaceInvaders for virtual events.

The first lesson learned? Never trust campground Wi-Fi. The second? Expect judgment from campground workers for needing the Wi-Fi.

“They make you feel bad because you’re not unplugging and getting into nature,” Ms Smith-Adair said.

“This is my job. I want to unplug, but I also have to get on that Zoom call real quick.”

At an RV park near Boise, Idaho, she noticed a Wi-Fi hot spot whose name was the equivalent of a middle finger directed at all Californians.

‘INTERMITTENT FASTING OF TAXES’

Perhaps the worst potential outcome not advertised by those who’ve escaped: You and your employer could end up in tax audit hell.

Lots of American travellers try to use a tax rule that carves out exemptions for Americans living abroad.

But it requires being out of the country 330 full days of the year, not counting travel. Messing it up brings severe penalties.

“It’s the intermittent fasting of taxes,” said Mr Alexander Stylianoudis, the general counsel at WiFi Tribe, a group that helps facilitate travel for 900 digital nomads.

“Everyone talks about it, and everyone does it wrong.” The number of mistakes he has seen since the pandemic has multiplied, Mr Stylianoudis said.

Some workers have avoided that by simply forgetting to mention their location to their employers — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” of remote pandemic work. Others have been honest and lived to regret it.

One employee of a publicly traded tech company went to Canada when her office closed in March. In September, two weeks after a promotion, the company suddenly told her that she had to return to the United States within two weeks or resign. The reason, she was informed, was to avoid paying foreign taxes. (She asked that her name be withheld because the situation is unresolved.)

Other employers are trying to decide where to draw the line. Mr Leigh Drogen, the chief executive of Estimize, a fintech startup, said he had discouraged an employee’s request to bounce around from country to country for a full year but had given permission for the worker to go to Spain for six months.

Estimize’s oversight of its staff is already “thin,” Mr Drogen said, and he worried about the employee’s ability to focus while moving around.

“You work best when you’re in one place,” he said.

There are also visa issues. In years past, digital nomads would cross and re-cross borders as needed to avoid overstaying. That’s not so easy in a closed-border pandemic.

Others are struggling with the same vacation fatigue experienced by Mr Malka, the Cabo-to-London-to-maybe-Bali wanderer. According to research conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands, it takes eight days of vacation for people to reach peak happiness. It’s downhill from there.

‘I JUST WANT TO GO BACK HOME’

This summer, Ms Katie Jacobs Stanton, a venture capital investor living in Los Altos, California, saw her moment for a fresh start. She was about to become an empty nester, with two children in college and another taking a gap year.

Her father had died of Covid-19, and being alone at home, especially amid California’s wildfires, was too depressing. Figuring she could find venture investments and strike deals from anywhere, she decided to take a gap year of her own.

In August, Ms Jacobs Stanton gave away most of her possessions, bought a Tesla and prepared to hit the open road with Taco, her golden retriever.

“I had this image of a glorious, beautiful American landscape and mom-and-pop, Main Street USA,” she said.

She found a different reality. First, someone stole her Tesla. (The police recovered it.)

Then her first stop, Reno, was grim. “It’s a very sad city,” she said. In Tahoe, wildfires raged. In Bozeman, Montana, Taco became sick. A trip to a veterinarian led to emergency surgery; Taco had eaten a tube sock.

Then came Kanye West. In September, Ms Jacobs Stanton had a phone call with the hip-hop artist about a possible venture in the music business, which he mentioned on Twitter.

Name-checking her set off “one of the most bananas days in my life,” she said. Ms Jacobs Stanton was overwhelmed with messages, but on the plus side, the episode prompted all three of her children to call and check in.

She froze while camping in snowy Yellowstone and stressed over the icy roads. Then her daughter in college got the coronavirus, and Taco needed more surgery. (Both recovered.) On top of it all, people in small towns she visited didn’t wear masks and were hostile about it.

By late October, she was ready to call her gap year short. “I think I just want to go back home,” she said. “No more road trips for Katie Stanton.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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Covid-19 coronavirus traveller work from home vacation digital nomad

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