‘Digital nomad’ stops on Manitoulin: A vanguard of the new economy

Digital nomad Nastasia sits in front of her laptop on the shores of Honora Bay. A software engineer, she is one of a growing number of individuals who work remotely while exploring the world. photo by Michael Erskine

HONORA BAY—Nastasia settles in front of her laptop to begin her workday in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Huron. The software engineer is a digital nomad, part of a growing phenomena in the global economy that has been accelerated exponentially by the pandemic mandates.

Digital nomads are remote workers, plying their trades wherever in the world they choose to hang their hat.

“All you need is a good laptop, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to work,” said Nastasia (The Expositor has agreed to withhold her last name for reasons that will soon become apparent). “You need at least a two megabits, but 10 is preferable, especially for video. Mobile data can work, but I prefer cable—fibre is ideal.”

While some digital nomads work from coffee shops or other locations with a free wifi network, those in Nastasia’s line of work tend to seek out quieter venues. “In my work you need to focus,” she said. “Distractions are not a good thing when you are working on code.” Although modern high level programming languages like Python and RUST eschew the nitty detail of ancient scripts (concentration remains a stock in trade for programmers).

Nastasia works full-time for a major data company. “I work 40 hours a week,” she said, but her hours are somewhat flexible thanks to the size and global reach of the company she works for. Although time zones do present a minor challenge, Nastasia said that she considers that just a minor inconvenience in comparison to all of the advantages of being a digital nomad and that, so far at least, she has not had meetings at challenging times of the day. “I have had to get up for 5 am for maybe three or four video conference calls,” she said, “but that wasn’t so hard.”

Nastasia, 30, has been working in information technology since she was 19. “I started out in nighttime technical support,” she laughs when she sees The Expositor pull a grimace. “No, no, it worked out good,” she said. “I was able to put myself through school and I learned how big corporations worked.”

While she has worked freelance in the past, Natasia said that she prefers the relative stability of a nine-to-five gig and the steady paycheque security of working for a major company. “I like having just one company to work for,” she said.

Nastasia works on the “backend” of software platforms, far from the front lines of her tech support beginnings. “Users never see me or what I do,” she said. Her work largely consists of ensuring that the workload of major data centres is distributed across multiple mainframes in different jurisdictions in an economical manner. This is extremely important when it comes to such mundane, but vital matters such as efficient electricity use.

She has been working full-time as a programmer since 2014.

Nastasia began exploring the possibilities of becoming a digital nomad a few years ago, as she was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the growing oppressive atmosphere of her birth country—Russia. “For instance, it is a crime to call what is happening in Ukraine as a war, you must call it a ‘special operation,’” she said. While she began the process of leaving Russia long before the current conflict in Ukraine began, the writing was already on the wall.

Even though she has been out of the country for some time now, having wandered the world as a digital nomad to places such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and choosing to take her vacations in European countries such as Italy, Germany and Hungary, she remains nervous about the reach of her home country, even into Canada—hence her request for a measure of anonymity.

“I don’t like what is going on with Ukraine,” she said, but prefers to stay away from political discussions.

She discovered the digital nomad lifestyle from her friends who had adopted that kind of work. “My friends started doing it,” she said. Even without the desire to step out from under the gathering clouds, there was a lot to find attractive in becoming a digital nomad.

“I wanted to see the world,” she said. “I like learning about the food people eat, how they spend their time, this allows me to do so while keeping my work.”

She has learned a number of languages, with English being in the forefront. “I learned much of my English while I was in Asia,” she said. She began with a bit of English, but as it tended to be the lingua franca (odd pun there), a common communication denominator, in most Asian countries she was able to hone her linguistic skills in those countries. She is currently learning Spanish. “I have an app that helps me learn,” she said. “I spend five, maybe 10 minutes a day and over time, 360 days a year, you pick up a lot. It is much better than sitting through hours of courses and videos.” So, there is an app for that.

Nastasia does a lot of research in order to prepare to move to a new country. “I look online to see what kind of internet options there are, then I talk to my friends who have worked there,” she said. The bonus of her online work means that, unlike the youth travelling the world in generations past, she doesn’t have to find work there.

When it comes to paying taxes, there are some simple rules to watch out for. “I stay only six months in any country, so I only have to pay taxes in my home country,” she said.

That leads into where she pays taxes now. “Canada,” she laughs. “I am a permanent resident here, this is my ‘home’ country.”

Many digital nomads ply their trade through travel visas (technically illegal), but a growing number of countries are tailoring their visa programs to accommodate the new global workforce and not all digital nomads actually travel from country to country, choosing to move around their own country—nations with large geographies like Canada and the US being cases in point.

Not being a full citizen is another reason Nastasia wants to maintain a small measure of anonymity. “I don’t have all the rights of a citizen,” she said. “I am not sure how that might effect me.” Apparently living under an actual authoritarian regime tends to leave a lingering mark on one’s psyche.

As a final comment on becoming a digital nomad Nastasia said that she would like to address one of the prevailing stereotypes of the lifestyle.

“People think we come to work, put down our laptops and sit in the sun by the beach,” she laughs. “That doesn’t work. For one thing the sun is too bright and even the best laptop screens are impossible to read in the bright light. And the sand—the sand gets into everything, it is not good for your laptop. I always find a nice quiet place to work.”

Nastasia has enjoyed her time on Manitoulin, she currently hangs her full-time hat in Toronto. “I have seen more wildlife while I have been here the last couple of weeks than I have seen before in my life,” she said. “It is so beautiful here.”

Coming from a northern country, Nastasia said she finds the climate in Canada very familiar. “And if I want to be somewhere warm, I can do that too,” she laughs.

She discovered Honora Bay through her colleague Shane O’Donnell, owner of Little Current’s Heartwood Mushrooms and a bit of a digital nomad himself in his day job. “We met at a software conference,” she said. Mr. O’Donnell’s description of life at the Northern Ontario Permaculture Research Institute in Honora Bay was compelling, so she took the opportunity of an invitation to come and visit for a couple of weeks.

Digital nomads have been growing in numbers at a rapid pace, even before the pandemic. According to a research study, in 2020 there were 10.9 million American workers who described themselves as such, that’s a 49 percent increase over 2019. It is a trend that is only increasing, not only among younger workers and backpackers, with the lifestyle luring in retires or semi-retired individuals, snowbirds and entrepreneurs.

For Nastasia and many others, the freedom, flexibility and ability to travel the world are major advantages. Drawbacks include the challenges of maintaining personal relationships over long distances and long periods, as well as the potential for experiencing loneliness, isolation and burnout. That means the digital nomad lifestyle might not be for everyone.

Nastasia notes that maintaining work-life balance is one of the reasons she prefers to have only one employer. “It is easier to maintain boundaries,” she said. As a younger individual who grew up in the digital age, she finds it easier to maintain her friendships through online communication, especially as many of her friends are also spread across the globe.

Two Canadian cities, Montreal and Toronto, are among the most popular destinations for digital nomads.