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A life as digital nomads

Gabriella Hummel and Sandro Alvarez started their journey in their old VW bus on the roads of North and South America 1,000 days ago. They tell us how they unexpectedly became digital nomads and what it takes to fulfil the dream of working anywhere.

Text: Julie Freudiger, photos: Büro Luz

You’re only back in Zurich for a few months before heading back to South America. Were you homesick?

Sandro Alvarez: It was time to see friends and family again. And drink the famous first coffee with our customers.
Gabriella Hummel: That’s usually not possible with us. Some customers are OK with this, while others aren’t. That’s fine.

You didn’t plan on working on the road from the word go. You “only” planned to take a year out to travel from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego. Why the change of heart?

S.A.: Anyone who’s ever travelled for a long time knows that a year of travelling sounds like a lot, but time flies by extremely quickly.

G.H.: We travelled so slowly that, after three quarters of a year, we were nowhere near Tierra del Fuego and had only made it as far as Mexico.

Digital nomadism: Sandro Alvarez and Gabriella Hummel in front of their bus Luz in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
The Vanabundos have been on the road for 1,000 days and settle down for the night wherever they choose.

And then our money started to run out, because we’d only budgeted for around a year.

G.H.: We worked as freelancers at first. But that wasn’t satisfying. It took us at least half a year to come up with the idea of joining forces.

S.A.: That was a journey within the journey: to work out how to proceed.

G.H.: There were difficult moments, especially financially. I remember a moment in Guatemala when our backs were really to the wall. Our account was empty and I was afraid we’d have to go back home.

But it took a while to found your current agency. As a journalist and a content and marketing consultant, wasn’t that the most obvious solution?

(Both laugh.)

G.H.: It seems obvious now we’re doing what we’re doing. However, it took one and a half years before we realised how we could make money on the move and then founded our company.

Do you see yourselves as digital nomads?

S.A.: We can work anywhere. That’s how we describe what we do.

G.H.: Otherwise, our way of working doesn’t differ much from that of other self-employed people.

“The biggest challenge is the first step: positioning.”

What are the biggest challenges of location-independent work besides the search for an internet connection?

S.A.: Internet coverage was fine everywhere except in Patagonia. First and foremost, customer trust is the most important thing.

G.H.: And maybe the different time zones. When we work on a project, we make sure that we’re online at about the same time as our customers. In Cusco, for example, this meant getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Not pleasant when it’s zero degrees and still dark. But it’s doable for a week.

S.A.: But the biggest challenge is the first step: positioning. To think about what you want to do, who you want to work with and what you can offer.

Is there a conflict of interest between travelling, the desire to discover new things and deadlines?

S.A.: That is a real challenge. Especially when we have visitors or are about to set off on a long journey without adequate internet coverage. But we deliberately integrated this into our project management right from the start.

G.H.: The trick is to travel slowly and plan well. If we have a deadline to meet immediately after arriving at a new location, we simply wait a few days to explore our new surroundings.

S.A.: For bigger projects, we sometimes rent an apartment where it’s easy to work. And we prefer to work on a project-by-project basis. So we only need to be online when the project is under way.

Do you work 100%?

S.A.: That’s not the goal. Due to the low cost of living in South America, we currently don’t have to do that to cover our basic costs.

G.H.: Travel itself is a full-time job. Everything takes longer – to find somewhere to shop, plan routes, repair the bus. We make sure that we maintain a balance and don’t take on too much. Otherwise, we’d drive ourselves crazy.

On your return, there was a lot of media interest in your story. Have you benefited from the hype surrounding van life and digital nomads?

G.H.: We’re breaking new ground in Switzerland when it comes to digital nomads. There aren’t many people here who live and work like we do.

S.A.: That’s not to say that everyone would be happy travelling. And we don’t think we’re doing anything totally out of the ordinary. In fact, quite the opposite. If we can do it, anyone can.

Working and travelling the world at the same time sounds like a dream.

G.H.: There are always ups and downs, no matter where you are. In Lima, for example, we worked closely together for the first time. We won the project, but we fell out with each other. It was a disaster. But now we’ve defined who does what and things are going well.

 

“The trick is to travel slowly and plan well.”

Did you find it difficult working and living together in a confined space?

G.H.: When you travel together, you learn a lot about relationships. You’re forced to communicate. We also always made sure to have some time alone. One of us was on the bus, the other outside, or Sandro went jogging and I went to a yoga class.

S.A.: Passive-aggressive behaviour in such a confined space is simply not possible.

What’s your advice to anyone who wants to become a digital nomad?

G.H.: Digital nomadism is a way of life, not a profession. Everybody has to forge their own path. You don’t have to learn anything to become a digital nomad. You do what you can already, just in digital form.