Story by Joshua Heineman
Photos by George Mandis
George Mandis is a web developer living and working in Portland, Oregon. Like a lot of technologists, though, his geographical home is more of a choice than an employment necessity in the classical sense. The internet has leveled the landscape and many young workers find themselves untethered from the traditional work/life model.
At thirty years old, George had been freelancing for a significant chunk of time and now felt he had a solid understanding of running a business. More than that, he’d always wanted to be a bonafide traveler. Beyond a romp around the United States a decade earlier, all the moving pieces never seemed to line up enough to make it a reality. Or maybe he hadn’t made it enough of a priority before. His thoughts turned more and more to wandering the globe while continuing to work.
There was a false start with the Portland Trail Blazers – a dream job of sorts. What had seemed like a promising full time job that might make Portland a necessary home eventually came pinballing down through the organization and landed in his lap as a part time arrangement. Freelance again.
George was literally waiting on nothing. “That was the last domino to fall,” he said. “That made me realize there’s nothing tying me to Portland and that I should go do this thing I’ve been daydreaming about.”
Two weeks later he bought a half-way-around-the-world airplane ticket for a big chunk of money, partly as a tactic to force his hand at figuring out all the details. A few weeks later he told his friends and family that he’d be traveling the world for a year. “I felt kinda bad springing that on them,” he said laughing.
On January 6, 2013, he left for Peru.
A YEAR LIKE ANY OTHER YEAR (just somewhere else)
Arriving in Peru was George’s first foray into understanding how this experience of traveling the world while maintaining his normal freelance schedule was going to work. He smothered the little voice that worried about things like connecting with clients in differing time zones and untested internet connections. Worse case scenario, he thought, he’d end up back in Oregon with his tail between his legs.
When he got off the plane things immediately went off the plot. The person who was supposed to pick him up was nowhere to be found and – armed with some functionally bad Spanish – he engaged a taxi and showed the driver the address where he was to be staying. The driver refused to take him there, saying it was too dangerous. Shit, he thought.
Eventually he arrived at his little cement studio above a bodega in a neighborhood with lots of gates and tall barbed wire. The kitchen was a small range with a propane tank. The water wasn’t drinkable and so he spent the next month carrying large jugs of water back from the store a mile and a half down the road.
Still, he said, the arrangement in Lima was a good experience because the learning curve was just hard enough to push him. The WiFi cut out each day between 2 and 4 in the afternoon and so he came up with a nice routine of getting up early to work, going out to explore or grocery shop during the mid afternoon, and then returning to his room to work a little more in the evening. He more-or-less keeps that work schedule to this day.
While out exploring the world his clients remained where they’d been before – Portland and Seattle. Ironically, he even gained a few clients. That year abroad turned out to be one of the busiest of his career.
“I told some clients up front what I was doing,” George said. “A few I revealed it to later on … ‘oh by the way, if this call sounds a little funny it’s because I’m two thousand miles away.’ Ideally, I don’t think that’s what you should do but it depends on your relationship with the client.” The Blazers never even found out.
From a month in Peru to a month in Argentina, George found himself in Buenos Aires for a spell. Suddenly, he had a refrigerator and could drink the water. The big city had Starbucks and reliable wireless. Everything felt easier and he started to suspect this experiment would work out after all.
He then spent three weeks across the bay in Uruguay, staying with a woman and her young son in Montevideo. She rented rooms in her house to help make ends meet and so George shared the space with two other guests from Norway during his stay. Originally, he had hoped to avoid situations like this because he feared it would be impossible to work. That fear proved unfounded, however, and he soon came to enjoy the interactions and regard them as a highlight of this nomadic lifestyle. The woman, it turned out, had quite a story and he polished his Spanish skills real quick in listening to the details of her unbelievable past life while accompanying her and her son on a trip to the first Uruguay Air Show.
“The most interesting parts of traveling are finding other people and their stories and realizing they’re not so different,” he said. “Or maybe that they’re just really different than you thought they were. I could do that forever.”
George took a bus up the coast of Brazil. He stayed with a young man who had just inherited his father’s stained glass art business in Porto Alegre. He stayed with a musician in Sao Paolo. When he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, he took a vacation. Up until that point, he’d worked Monday through Friday each week just as if he’d been home.
Summer was ending in the southern hemisphere by this point, so he followed the season and detoured to Iceland for the next month-long leg of his journey. Finding no direct flights, he landed in New York for a week to stay with a friend. Upon arrival, he realized that was the first familiar face he’d seen in months.
The weather wasn’t the only difference greeting him in Iceland. Suddenly everything was expensive. Whereas he’d spent $300 to $400 per month to rent in South America, he now spent his time with four students in someone’s attic for $850. No shower. Much of his free time was spent swimming in Iceland’s glorious super heated pools. Eventually he went to an artist residency in a tiny fishing village on the north side of the island, where they had an extra room to rent. He made a mental note that to carry on an extended trip like this he would need to mix up countries where the currency was relatively strong or weak.
“All the money I’d saved and all the good I’d done by spending three or four months in a cheaper part of the world was almost undone by staying there for a month,” he said of Iceland.
When he’d arrived it was May and the duration of daylight was increasing all the time. By the time he left the sun would never fully set at all, just dipping low and moving along the horizon before going back up into the sky.
He moved on to Europe. Paris was a borderline squatting situation with curtains instead of doors, pigeons everywhere and someone sleeping in the kitchen. Barcelona was a perfect storm of too many business projects and terrible wireless internet connections. Portugal was suffering an economic malaise hanging over everything. Still the work continued. The time zones were reaching into the nine to ten hour mark difference at this point and that took some getting used to for everyone involved. George met with a couple agencies in Barcelona but steered the conversation to traveling. “I told them this was a ruse and I didn’t want to talk about work any more than they did. They were on board with that.”
Africa loomed. He returned to Spain to finish a few projects and begin taking his malaria pills.
WHY ARE YOU HERE?
The line of questions he got in Kenya always started the same. Are you here as part of an NGO? No, he’d say. Oh, so you’re here to go on safari? I don’t plan on it. Well, they’d ask, why are you here? George was there to basically work a little and hang out. That wasn’t a common reason.
Working, as expected, was very difficult from Nairobi. When the internet cut out there wasn’t a Starbucks to fall back on. In fact, it wasn’t even comfortable to go searching for back up plans because he got enough attention in the street without carrying a laptop around. Most projects during his weeks in Africa were discussed over email as the connection was too slow for Skype. “You just have to plan on having stretches of your trip where you’re not going to be as available,” he said. “For the most part, people are pretty receptive to that, depending on the type of job you have going on.”
While researching lodgings he stumbled upon a couple men renting an extra room through Airbnb. They stuck out because most listings in the area were aimed at expats that want elaborate huts with live-in maids and safari experiences. George wasn’t looking for that. They told him that if he wanted to go on safari they would help him but if he wanted to spend time with them he was welcome to come along on their adventures.
The first day in town his hosts took him on a walk around the neighborhood. There were many mosques dotting the landscape and traffic maintained a flow that felt backwards due to the area’s past as a British colony.
There was camel poop in the street. This was a new experience.
One day they brought George to see where they’d grown up in a poorer neighborhood on the other side of town. He’d be safe, they told him, because he was with them. George met their extended family and had the unique pleasure of interacting with young kids that had never seen a caucasian before. “This (one) baby could not get over it,” he said laughing. He ate a lot of great East African food and then – realizing he was at the mercy of two men in their mid twenties – headed out to a club, where they stayed until 7 in the morning. As the sun starting rising, George found himself helping his new friends, who were by that point quite drunk, push their car down the street as a crowd gathered around the strange sight of a caucasian at dawn. Eventually one of George’s hosts asked him to get in the car and lay down for awhile out of sight. “I don’t think I want to know what the crowd was saying,” George said. Even though he’d had a truly one-of-a-kind evening, it was a relief to get home. The next day, as if in apology, they offered to take him to see some giraffes.
He did meet with a web development and design company in Nairobi. The company was eight employees total, with half working graveyard shifts to match timezones with potential clients overseas. They were the sort of company that fills your email box in the middle of the night with outsourcing requests and it was an interesting experience to put faces to that dynamic, George said. The other interesting revelation was that they made money reselling text messages to companies in Kenya, which is a huge business in Africa. Most people do not have computers but almost everyone has a cellphone, he said.
Before jumping back into a full time work schedule, George took a weeklong vacation to Zanzibar, rented a moped and went leisurely about the island. He noted the vast seaweed farms for the Chinese market and trusted his life to a $20 boat rental. “We went swimming with dolphins,” he said, “which in retrospect is just harassing wild dolphins.”
A WORKING HOLIDAY
George spent a lot of his time in Greece, his next destination, just working and decompressing from the month in Africa. He had once written a college paper on Bulgarian choir music so he decided to go there next via bus. Even though the ride was relatively short, the culture was completely different – sort of stuck in a post-soviet malaise with half finished propaganda projects surrounded in barbed wire.
Turkey was a highpoint of the trip. Detouring from the unstable situation in Egypt – where he’d originally planned to go – he booked a place in Istanbul. He was several months into traveling and really pleased with how it had gone. Clearly, this was a sustainable venture. He felt comfortable in his own skin. And he still had a lot of traveling to do.
For the remainder of the year, he continued working and traveling across 18 countries, 5 continents and enough flights to make him question his carbon footprint. He proved just how remote his remote work could be… that he could make this a lifestyle, if he wanted. The world is big, but not so big. It was a year like any other – just somewhere else.
George Mandis is a freelance web developer and consultant at Snaptortoise, frequent traveler, intrepid flâneur and occasional educator based (primarily) out of Portland, Oregon. He’s worked with startups, professional sports teams, small businesses and individuals but excels at helping people find elegant solutions for their projects.