I’ve been in a pensive and nostalgic headspace recently – probably because of whatever they say in my horoscope as a Sagittarius. Just kidding!! But it may be because in about a week’s time, I will celebrate my 1 year anniversary of arriving in Medellín, Colombia. 

I never expected to be here this long, and to think, I’m in the process of requesting a visa to stay longer! (No I didn’t meet a lucky Colombian!!! haha) But it’s been one thing after another keeping me here, plus finding routines.

I’ve learned a lot since I abruptly stopped my career as a full-time photographer, left my apartment in Newburgh, sold most of my belongings – including my car – put the sentimental stuff in storage, and carefully curated the bare minimum luggage I could fathom – which fits into a large suitcase, 40L duffle and 28L backpack – which some people still think is too much and others couldn’t ever consider nearly enough…

I entered into my new life as a “digital nomad”, depending on how you look at it, either in November 2022 when I left my permanent residence, or January 2023, when I left the USA. Either way, it was finally real once I arrived in that first airBNB in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. I had finally arrived and I was alone with my bags, my savings and neither a plan, nor direction – just some half-brained ideas about what it meant to “be a nomad”, colored by my previous travel experiences – studying/teaching English in France and 3-4 week vacations to Hawaii and Peru – not to mention, expectations from social media nomad influencers and Facebook groups.

Because of these influences, I thought I’d be moving around quite a bit – that it would be like being on vacation or backpacking, but permanently. So I’d be constantly going on tours and explorations/adventures, hiking all the time, meeting other travelers, and being in new places every week or two – indefinitely.

I soon learned that that wasn’t practical for me – for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the incredible amount of energy it takes to continually search for new places to stay that meet your growing list of “needs” – AND the inconveniences of moving the luggage I had brought – which was bulky, awkward and of course, heavy – even if well-organized and curated. But not only those things – don’t forget about the constant worry about money – in spite of the 10s of thousands of USD I’d previously saved… I wasn’t prepared for that, not to mention getting used to spending in pesos (50 Dominican Pesos was about $1 at the time, meaning basic stuff was in hundreds up to 1000s of pesos), which was mind-boggling and had a bit of a learning curve. Even though my plan was to take some time off and then find work in a couple months, the level of uncertainty was extreme, and really, every expense, no matter how small sent alarm bells a-ringing, causing me to do much less adventuring than I’d have thought. I learned quickly, my experience of the reality of this lifestyle isn’t necessarily as glamorous as how it is often portrayed online… But also, I learned that I am not a backpacker – I am a “nomad”, meaning I am living in places and moving along when it seems right. I’m moving at a slower pace, to feel a connection with the place and the culture and get a sense of the experience of the place – not just to collect destinations or see tourist sights.

I’m not shy about the fact that I deal with anxiety and have at times, been depressed, struggled with massive self-doubt and insecurities – especially with people-pleasing, higher than average sensitivities and often craving external validation. But, I essentially jumped-ship from everything I had known and – from the outside, my life had finally been starting to look pretty good… my photography career was finally busy, I had a circle of good friends, I was hiking frequently, and my finances  were in the most order they had ever been… but was that really happiness? Was that really all there was to life? What about the fact that when I traveled I felt the most alive, the most meaning, excitement and interest? But when I’d go for a month – I’d still have to pay rent on my apartment, even if I wasn’t there… Even if my business and finances were doing well – it still was a struggle to manage that on my own. So – become a nomad, and it will all come together, somehow, eventually. On some level, I thought pursuing this lifestyle would mean I’d constantly feel happy and good about myself and my life, thus preventing me from feeling the darkness in life or having mood-swings or anxiety.  

Well, let me tell you – the grass is never greener on the other side – what I’ve learned from this is that the darkness is my travel companion. She will accompany me as long as I live, no matter the place or the circumstances. Though, the more my various needs are met, the less anxious I will likely feel. But, probably that doesn’t mean I will feel happy 100% of the time, especially if I’m doing what I do – taking risks, taking hard paths, and making something interesting of this life. That said, feeling good and being “successful” in life is not linear, nor is it instantaneous or permanent, that’s for sure. I’ve had to learn again and again that the painful moments don’t mean I’m a failure or that I’m necessarily pursuing the wrong path, just that I have things to learn, needs that need to be met, and perhaps, strategies to adjust. This experience hasn’t been all bad, of course, but it’s also not been a picture of pure bliss and only happy moments that part of me was expecting.

In reality, it turns out that leaving your life behind and following your dreams is actually a recipe for feeling lost – and lonely – a lot of the time. What I did was create a void and I didn’t have a clear sense of purpose, direction or what to do with myself. When this happens, it’s quite hard because no one can really give you good advice. No amount of external validation will ever feel like enough. When you go against the grain to follow your dreams, you have to really check in with yourself, your own motivations/desires and your own sense of yourself and worthiness to enjoy life – not only because you frequently go against not only conventional wisdom, but also what the people closest to you might be saying. No more validation-seeking or people-pleasing – it’s a hard-knock course in finding yourself and being willing to be/try something different and learn how to regulate the hard emotions yourself. Frankly, it can be pretty lonely – especially when there’s no one to blame but yourself when there is a challenge or you make a mistake and things don’t go “according to plan”- because it’s not like anyone told you to do this… In fact, some people seemingly would rather you simply give it all up and “come back.” 

On some level, I thought it’d be kind of like a perpetual vacation, travel, creativity, inspiration and that somehow, it’d be easy to find remote work. Obviously, many people who pursue a digital nomad lifestyle already have the income piece sorted when they begin, but I didn’t – I jumped into the deep end where it’s sink or swim. It hasn’t been easy getting that piece going. In spite of having a 10+ year career as a creative, it turns out the reason I’m a freelancer is still valid – the “traditional” job market has always seemed elusive to me. Conventional wisdom has rarely worked for me in many areas of life – I don’t know why. So this has been the second time in my life where I’ve “fallen into” freelancing and thus a less secure income – truly, deep down, I really do like the idea of freelance/contract work, it’s just hard when you’re in the beginning of a new venture or in a work “famine”. That being said, this isn’t the first time I’ve freelanced or started a business, however, this time, there’s a new angle – it’s gotta be remote. So I’ve had to discover new approaches to networking, business development and what services I can offer. It’s been a journey and admittedly, it’s still a work in progress. Luckily, I’m a woman of many talents, so I have been able make progress on that front. It’s not perfect and there’s still more mountain to climb, but a year and a half in and I’m figuring it out, in spite of the previously-mentioned struggles with anxiety. Thanks to my previous experiences in this area, I realized that the rejection, ghosting and neglect, that is inevitable in this process, although it can feel personal, is generally just a part of the experience and to let it go. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, and that I don’t sometimes need to feel the raw emotion when things don’t work out – but it also makes the successes and small steps forward that much greater. 

So, all that said, what is day-to-day life like for me, at this stage – if it’s not adventure-by-the-minute? What have I been up to for a year in Medellín, Colombia and why am I still staying?

Remember when I said it’s not glamorous? Really, part of the reason I haven’t been posting that much is because my reality didn’t quite match the expectations of constant novelty (as shown on social media), plus the lies of the anxious voice making me doubt the “interest”/”value” of my ideas/experiences, but also because the day-to-day is mostly about following my routine of working, dancing and resting. Kind of “normal” actually – but in a different country. 

Does all that mean I never have new experiences, see new places or otherwise? Of course not. Just that most of my time is spent “adulting” and following the “discipline of routine”. Here’s how that frequently looks: spending the day working from home in my small office, covered in wall signs, to-do lists and goals; thinking in French and English whilst teaching those languages to beginner-intermediate students online; and at night, going to dance classes/rehearsals/events and switching into Spanish and dance mode. It’s a little crazy, in spite of how fluent I am now, sometimes when I’m in a dance class, learning some strange choreography, trying to figure out how to ask questions to the teacher about it is complicated, or dancing in a social and trying to maintain a conversation in Spanish at the same time, or even translating Spanish to English for some other gringo that doesn’t know the language. In the apartment, it’s totally Spanglish with my roomies – who might start a sentence in one language and use one or two words of the other in the middle and 10 minutes later completely switch languages. If that weren’t enough, I’ve also been maintaining an over 400-day streak on DuoLingo in Portuguese and occasionally listening to “Coffee Break Portuguese”, which is basically a podcast to learn the language… I’m used to it all at this at this point, so it feels normal to me – but maybe it sounds crazy to you. Sometimes it’s mentally exhausting – like when I haven’t slept well – but mostly it’s entertaining and a good mental workout to language shift. Sometimes I really enjoy teaching French, sharing my passion for the language – and other times, it’s tiring and tedious. (That really depends on the student, tbh…) Outside of that, I also do content creation for some clients and work on the development, marketing and creative activities to grow my business.

It’s been a monotonous, yet wild experience – filled with all the emotions. I’ve experienced so many cool cultural events, including a parade of Jeep Willys piled high and decorated with lots of cargo (from bananas/coffee to household items and more); Carnaval in Barranquilla complete with ornate costumes, dancing in the street, days of parades, flying foam and corn starch in the air, and Aguardiente with locals; and even a parade of people carrying traditional displays of flowers on their backs. From August to December I participated in a leadership/personal development training (with only Colombians), in which I took risks, reconnected with my inner child, gave myself permission to pursue what I love, found accountability for my goals, and raised money for local at-risk youth – and obviously improved my Spanish considerably. I’ve visited colorful pueblos, hiked in the mountains to do yoga, bathed in natural hot springs, done a few photo shoots with friends, and even participated in a dance festival, witnessing pro/semi-pro salsa and bachata dancers and taking workshops with them. I also visited Santa Marta, went on a coffee farm tour and have had plenty of authentic experiences with locals, even taking a road trip to my roommate’s hometown of Mongui in the department of Boyacá. I’ve had my share of arepas (of various styles!), chorizos, fresh tropical fruit juices, and, of course, coffee.

I may not be moving/adventuring/exploring at the rate I’d have expected – since indeed, this is regular life and not a vacation – but staying in one place has allowed me to once again develop my first passion – dance. This has been a theme throughout my life, but especially since coming to Latin America, I’ve finally been able to invest in it more and it’s starting to take on a life of its own. Some of my favorite moments are when I manage to dance salsa or bachata with locals (who are really good) and do complex moves with me in a social, meanwhile making small talk in Spanish. It’s not just socials (social dancing events where people dance with anyone as a partner), but I’ve been consistently involved in a salsa caleña class at a dance school for about 3 months now, with whom I’ll be performing at the school’s show in June – as well as a contemporary dance artistic program that is also preparing for performances later in the year. I’m finally dancing at the rate my inner child always dreamed of – sometimes up to 7 days a week. I’ve even started learning some Brazilian zouk and urbano. At the dance festival, I tried dancehall and even an African styles. As a total novice in those, I felt a bit silly and out of my league, but it was still fun.

With all this dancing, teaching and the maintenance of living, not to mention traveling, managing anxiety, and working on my business, plus the pressure I can feel from social media to create “Instagrammable” content very often, I haven’t had much energy for blogging, though, I’ve occasionally been writing poetry and end up using much of what would be my “blog writing time” for journaling, organizing content for Instagram or working on client projects. On top of that, since my camera isn’t the tool it once was – churning out wedding photography like a factory, and since I’m not exploring at the frequency I expected, I’m currently trying to find my creative voice for my own content, photography and perhaps, even video. I’m excited to let it be a tool for my own creativity once again, though, I admit I’m fed up with social media for sharing photos because – especially on IG – there is a huge focus on viral video and vertical content, and my work doesn’t get shown much to my followers. Anyway, between all these factors, I’m struggling to navigate where, outside of dancing, to spend my limited creative time/energy and where to share/what to do with my photos. That said, I plan to start using my camera more for creative projects and hope to develop a better workflow to share more content, more regularly. I’m just not quite sure yet how that will play out. If anyone has some tips or has any questions or ideas about what you’d like to see or know about my experiences, please let me know. I’m open to feedback.

If you’ve made it to the end here, thank you for reading and sticking with me. 🙂 I appreciate your support.

And now, for a random collection of images from the last year…