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Book Review: Life Nomadic

I think it’s fitting that I’m starting the review of this book while sitting in the AirFrance lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, coming back from a four days trip to Paris to see Video Games Live playing at Le Grand Rex.

Life Nomadic was one of a set of suggestion that my dentist, of all people, gave me. Since the book is short, and it was available on Kindle Unlimited, I thought to start with it, even though it was possibly the one I was the least interesting of the list. Turns out my instincts were right and shouldn’t have even read this.

The premise of the book may be interesting, and depending on the cover you see for it, it might be what catches your eye: How to travel the world for less than you pay in rent. I find this is quite the clickbait (how do you call clickbait on a book cover?) because that’s not what it talks about at all; it’s not just travelling the world, the author argues for a complete overhaul of your life to be able to do so, and that, in my opinion, is myopic to say the least.

It might sound “trendy” to say this, but the book clearly reeks of white privilege — while the author never mentions that directly, it becomes very clear by oblique references that he’s white, and he’s clearly male, he says that at the beginning. He’s also healthy, and he’s insisting that this is thanks to his diet, rather than having won the health lottery and having grown up in a rich, healthy environment.

Indeed, the whole premise of the book is that if you’re privileged, in one way or another, travelling around the world is easy. But until you get to the end, when he’s talking about what to do with work (again in a fairly myopic way), you don’t realize that all his suggestions hinge on one important node: you have to be able to risk your job.

Forget to follow the advises of these books if (and this is an incomplete list, I’m sure):

  • you have a medical condition, light or heavy, that requires you have a relationship with a medical professional — I find it difficult to make appointments with my diabetologist while travelling for work, and with a relatively fixed schedule, if I were to follow his advise of just taking whichever next flight comes to your mind, I would probably be half-dead with untreated diabetes.
  • you are not American or European, as he’s ignoring all the difficulties of getting visas for most other nationalities; it is true that if you have an American or European passport getting visas for most of the world is just triviality and spending some money, it is less the case if you have other nationalities — and in some cases, it might actually get you outright in trouble;
  • you are not a white male, for whichever part of the world — the book starts with the author recounting doing something quite illegal and being given a slap on the wrist by the authorities; while it is true that I’d fear American police more than the rest of the world right now, plenty of stories from friends and acquaintances tell me this is a privilege; the risk of jail time is real if you’re not white even in Europe, let alone what may happen in some random country in which you happen to be one of the most obscure minorities;
  • your work actually requires presence, or timing, or any kind of (even flexible) schedule — the author does not quite specify what he works on, except by describing himself as a “die hard entrepreneur”; he says he stared by writing some software to sell, and points out he was mostly living off royalties of a previous book he published; I’ll get back to this;
  • you have any family ties at all — a relative, parent, close friend that is ill, or that you support directly or indirectly, as a lot of the talk in this book relies on how “cheap” (compared to US dollars) is the life in many developing countries.

To expand a little bit about how myopic his advises are, I’ll also point out how they can’t even apply to me, and I’m a well-off, single, straight, white guy with (loose) family ties. Even seeing my doctor three times a year (which is not much), I have to have with me a significant amount of “paraphernalia” for my diabetes: pills, insulin, needles, glucometer, etc. This by itself makes it almost impossible to just spend months at a time without a fixed schedule of being able to refill them. Not only some of those medications would not be available in some parts of the world at all, but even if they are, they are a significant cost, and I’m not even factoring in effects of the craziness of the US insurance system on the drugs prices. Besides, those things don’t really travel well. I have a refrigerated pack for my insulin, and luckily I never had trouble through airports before, but I have heard horror stories with insulin pumps and metal detectors. Even the Libre’s simple sensor managed to get me a stern questioning by the Nice airport security guards (and if you want to know, that was before the terrorist.)

While at it, I would like to present a thank you to AirFrance; their lounges at CDG are the only ones I’ve seen, up to now, that make it welcoming to take insulin: they have a sharps container in the bathroom, so you don’t have to ask for it (possibly embarrassingly for some people.) They also have signs on their aircrafts pointing you at their cabin crew for the container, which I’ve done before when flying back from Japan.

A particular note I’ll spend on the work section I noted above. As I said the guy defines himself as an entrepreneur, and if you have spent as much time as me around the Silicon Valley crowd, you can easily recognize the type in the book, even when they are from Austin, instead. He’s the kind of person who made “techie” into a bad word. The whole section about “Earning Money as You Travel” takes no consideration of workers outside of “our” (damn, I don’t want to be associated with this guy’s peers!) industry. The first suggestion is to start a business — well, I know how that goes, and it’s not easy at all, indeed it can only work well if you have capital to invest on it to begin with, which was a big problem for me when I did, because I had none, this guy clearly had since early on (as he goes on to say how he used to order random crap off Internet just for the giggles.)

The other suggestion is to go on contracting, or being a remote worker, suggesting that you may work on websites or software, or that (and I quote) «many office jobs can translate into contractor work» which to me sound like this guy has never seen an office worker outside of tech. And even within tech, he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about (emphasis mine):

Jobs that are particularly conductive to going mobile are jobs that require minimal interaction with others, like writing, editing, programming, graphic design and system administration.

If you have ever tried doing system administration remote, you would know right away that this is clearly bullshit — if you have no idea what the customer is doing, and how they are doing it, you are a horrible system administrator. Yes, you can work remote, but there is no way that they only require “minimal interaction”: they need plenty of interaction, maybe even more so when doing it remote.

Want to have even more fun? Again emphasis mine.

Figure out which program you’d like to become proficient at. Buy the software, buy the great tutorials to learn it from [omissis], and spend some time practicing. The money you’ve amassed from selling everything should easily last you through the transition period.

Yes, he did argue selling everything you own at the beginning of the book. He seems to think that you can do that, and amass money, probably while living in an RV and working from the tables of a closed-up restaurant in-between lunch and dinner, as he did. And that should be enough to learn something new you never did before. I’m sure this guy would have been able to, if he wasn’t lucky (because it’s all a matter of luck.)

Okay, enough with the usual SV-style no-work-is-important-but-tech part, let’s see if there is any value in this book otherwise.

He does have a significant amount of useful information on the actual travelling part, although some of it is clearly only important to note to Americans, such as the viability of train travel in Europe. He has good suggestions for the use of ferries (that I may actually try once in a lifetime too, because I am indeed lucky, and despite disliking travel, taking a week or so to traverse the ocean without a flight sounds cool to do.) Unfortunately that makes up only about half of the book.

He’s got a good list of suggestions about gear, too — although a lot of it is already part of privilege: most of the options are bloody expensive and not something that you can even consider without an injection of capital at the “transition” as he calls it. If you are lucky and privileged it might be worth a look, I have particularly been tempted by Smartwool, and particularly by their wool socks, as my diabetes makes it more likely I get blisters, if my feet get wet — but before those even got to me, I ended up buying a pair of tights in Paris, because it was very cold while I was there, and The North Face store in the city stocks Smartwool too; they are significantly expensive, but also much more comfortable that others I tried before.

His suggestions for services are also out of touch — among others he’s suggesting the American Express Platinum card, which admittedly it is a very useful card for a traveller lucky enough to afford one: not only it ignores the fact that not everybody can get a credit card but also that it’s not only the price that makes American Express an elitist card. It is effectively limitless (or rather, has a very flexible limit) which means their credit score requirements can be significantly higher.

In the book he points at his website to provide a list of gear — which sounded like a cool idea, I do something similar myself for my hardware, but the link is now dead. Which is a shame, because that might have been the only useful thing he could have done for the public. Too bad.

Finally, some of his suggestions are downright unethical, including abusing airfare rules to enter lounges he should not have access to (although I hope he took a shower while there, because one of the most annoying things while travelling is the well-off traveller smelling like goats for a four hours flight.) And mine and his point of view are clearly at odds on the general ethical side, too:

[speaking about airfare systems] I like systems like this — they reward the smart and determined at the cost of the lazy or ignorant.

I would rephrase it as “They reward the lucky elite at the cost of the otherwise busy masses.” But clearly my belief system and his are very different. It should not be a surprise by then that the book the guy got his money from, and that allowed him to start, sounds like that of a PUA title (or, in his words, “a book on dating for men” — update 2021-05-17: yes, definitely a pick-up-artist manual 🤮).

Travel should widen your horizons, it’s very hard for it not to, but my feeling is that this guy has been looking at the world as if he deserves all of it. Rather than being empathetic to the condition of others that might not have his privilege, he pours contempt for them: friends locked in their lives (whether by choice or lack of opportunities), people living in their own home countries, and even the readers of this book.

Final result: not a fan. I’ll actually synthesise this review in a form that is acceptable to Amazon and GoodReads and post it as a warning.

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