A ‘digital nomad’ finds a home in Cuenca and says the trend is growing rapidly worldwide

Jun 9, 2022

By Sinead Mulhern

We’re halfway up a mountain on the edge of Cuenca when the alpha of a pack of dogs notices us. He lets out several growling barks, and soon the entire group is descending upon us. My knees go weak and I freeze. “No pasa nada,” my friend Diego says. Don’t worry. When the dogs reach us, they simply sniff our ankles.

We continue up the ridge, passing horses, cows and high-altitude Andean plants. At the top, I pull out a mini bottle of Zhumir, the Ecuadorian liquor bottled near Cuenca, and Diego and I each take a shot. We’re celebrating my recently earned permanent residency, which means I can continue to be based in Ecuador while working remotely.

‘Digital nomad’ Sinead Mulhern has time to explore the mountains surrounding Cuenca.

It’s not lost on me that this is the kind of day that drew me to this lifestyle in the first place. Andean morning hikes and my friendship with Diego are just two of the joys available to me because of it. Later, I’ll work.

I’m part of a growing group of so-called digital nomads, whose jobs aren’t tied to a location. Common portrayals of the digital nomad trend often highlight perfectly posed influencers, or tech bros with laptops in beach lounge chairs, but these narratives focus on surface-level benefits. They frame the lifestyle as a perpetual vacation — but in reality, there’s more to it than that.

Many who opt for this lifestyle experience deeper benefits. When we strip away timelines, return flights and societal norms, we’re left with room to explore paths that otherwise may not have been available. The outcome is often new passions, priorities or values.

Such was the case for Leah Harris, a soul and R&B musician who credits being a digital nomad to changing her life. “Had I not done it, I wouldn’t have as much awareness about what makes me happy, what I want in life and who I am,” she says.

Harris, who’s from Windsor, Ontario., took a two-week trip to Ireland in 2017 to visit her grandmother — and stayed. Far from home, she began to question her career path in biochemistry. She felt called instead to pursue music, and so she quickly changed course.

“I was able to work all day from my laptop and then find a place with a piano and get gigs booked. I was on tour for two years,” says Harris, who performed at night to crowds in cities like Rome, Paris and Barcelona. Once, she even released a single from a mountaintop in Cyprus. Today, she’s based in New York. Biochemistry is a thing of her past.

That’s one of the more dramatic digital nomad stories I’ve heard, but this theme of a borderless lifestyle prompting a 180-degree shift is a common one. Some of my nomad friends have ended marriages. Some have found life partners in places they least expected. Others have started businesses.

I was able to explore a career as a full-time freelance writer (something I wouldn’t have done in Toronto), and I discovered a love for trekking in the mountains. These days, I can even make a meaningful connection in Spanish — a language I hadn’t previously ever considered learning.

When I witness what digital nomadism actually looks like, sure, there may be some laptops in beach houses. But behind that Instagrammable moment, I see a lifestyle that allows for something more important: healing, connection, unlocking new potential and creativity, to name a few.

Sarah and Eric Bomhof embody that, too. “I never would have imagined owning our own business,” says Sarah. The couple headed to Central and South America in March 2021. They stayed in Ecuador for six months, followed by Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica for two months each.

On “The Boms Away,” their cleverly named YouTube channel and Instagram account, they’ve documented everything from ruins in Guatemala to the pristine glacial waters of Peru’s Humantay Lake.

Their channel started with humble goals: to create videos for friends and family, and earn side income for travel. But in their year of exploring while creating, “The Boms Away” took off.

They returned to B.C. with incredible memories — and a thriving business. (They’re currently revamping a van so they can work with clients across Alberta and B.C. this summer.) “We never thought we’d still be doing it. All of a sudden, we had developed this business that we’re running. I never pictured myself as that person,” says Sarah.

This feeling of I-never-pictured-myself-as-that-person is something many digital nomads could relate to. I never pictured myself as the person who could file a story and then camp at 4,000 metres elevation in frigid mountain air, with nobody but my friend and a German shepherd. I never pictured myself sending emails from a car swerving past landslides and through valleys.

While it’s true that personal growth can happen during travel in general, transplanting yourself in other cultures for prolonged periods of time — without itineraries or hard return dates — offers a more open-ended opportunity for revelatory change.

“What stood out were the moments when I realized I could say yes,” says Harris, noting that vacations didn’t always allow that flexibility. “The freedom to say yes opened up a whole new area of my life. Normally, we don’t have that option. We’re cut short before we could see what would have been down that road.”

That opportunity to say yes has opened up my life, too. A work-from-wherever approach allows space for the values that matter most to me: creativity, exploration, nature and connection. Sometimes that looks like hiking in the mountains while avoiding a pack of dogs. That’s not for everyone, but the beauty of this lifestyle is that I get to make that choice.

Credit: The Toronto Star