The Excellent Adventures of Digital Nomads Jason Batansky and Jeremy Albelda
It was supposed to be the anti-spring break. Not a last-gasp bender before adulthood, but a moment to pause and prepare. That’s how, two months before graduating from college, Jeremy Albelda found himself in Medellín, Colombia, nursing a beer at a hostel. He was traveling to detach. ¶ It was 2010, and Jeremy had a well-established life in Miami. He was 22, a handsome guy with big blue eyes, a bright smile, and a girlfriend he thought could be the one. Getting his diploma was a formality — he already had a leg up on a personal-training career. But it wasn’t his calling. He knew that much. And if he didn’t find a way out soon, who knew, maybe he’d end up becoming one of those rudderless failure-to-launch millennials who hang around college bars well beyond graduation. So he ventured south of the equator, in search of something.
Since the end of the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellín had seen violence plummet and tourism rise. The hostel where Jeremy was staying was less a slummy crash pad for backpackers and more boutique, with high-speed Internet, an open-air hammock area, and a wooden deck with bar service. There, on that sun-swept deck, the course of Jeremy’s life would change when someone called out his name.
It was a voice he hadn’t heard in four or five years. Jeremy was smacked in the face with one of those ridiculous small-world coincidences that seem to happen with surprising frequency to well-traveled humans. Calling out to him was Jason Batansky, an old acquaintance from where he’d grown up on the Main Line. They hadn’t been close friends at Lower Merion High School; in fact, they’d hardly spoken since they’d been teammates on the middle-school wrestling squad. But Jeremy immediately recognized the guy who’d hailed him: J-Bone.
Jason was different. He was quieter than Jeremy, more cerebral, a smart kid who’d run a renegade e-commerce site as a teenager. As he explained to Jeremy on the deck that day, he’d graduated from Pitt in three years and was now running another successful online business while bouncing around the globe. He might spend a month in one South American country followed by six months in another. Like an international assassin, minus the car chases and tuxes.
It was as if Jason Batansky had taken all the stereotypical traits of millennials — that they can’t commit to a place, career or relationship; that they value adventure over hard work; that they’re unrealistic — and laughed in everyone’s face. Apparently he’d found a way to live a life of limitless flexibility with an income almost any 20-something would envy. “From that point on, he was like my muse,” says Jeremy.
Indeed, before Tim Ferriss wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, Jason Batansky was perfecting it. He was an early adopter of a lifestyle that has since been popularized as that of a “digital nomad.” While hopping around the world, Jason created a niche business on the Internet, discovered strategies for avoiding taxes, and researched foreign-currency exchange rates. Then he taught Jeremy how to do it, too.
Seven years later, just as the Trump administration has Americans joking about moving abroad, these two Philly expats have a blueprint for how it can be done. They’ve padded their retirement accounts while experiencing the world on a whim. They have so much time on their hands that, like elderly retired folks, they have to seek out hobbies.
I know you’re already judging. Jason and Jeremy — who are now close, by the way — might be financially independent, but they’re not grown-ups by conventional measures. They refuse to work for anyone else’s business or settle down with a mate. They’ve been effectively homeless. They’re well traveled and cultured, but don’t claim to know a lick about anything nuanced, outside of where to find the best nightlife in the Pacific Rim.
While it’s easy to sniff at these digital nomads’ privilege — and my God, yes, there’s plenty of that here — you better get used to it. People have been leaving America to live overseas forever. Historically, they’ve been the bohemians, the social outliers, the iconoclasts, teaching English in exchange for a simple life abroad. Now, though, technology has streamlined the experience. The Internet has opened up the possibility of making money from anywhere, doing practically anything. The rise of globalization, the growth of on-demand everything, the stratification of worldwide wealth, the abundance of free wi-fi, the explosion of self-employment — they all point to the rise of digital nomads.
Parents, start teaching those languages.
Given all the other places he could be, it’s hardly surprising that Jason Batansky doesn’t make it back to Philly often. “I hate the cold,” he says on one of those rare occasions, in March. Bald and bearded, Jason is seated across from me at a sports bar in Narberth, sipping a Guinness. There’s roughly three inches of snow outside, and Jason is wearing the warmest clothes he has in tow, an unpretentious hoodie-and-tee combo. Next on his itinerary is Thailand, for a month-long fitness boot camp. Instead of hitting the gym twice a week to build up his body, Jason says, “I can dedicate one month to strictly working out and then just skip those six months and have a really good base.”
There’s a spontaneous all-or-nothing intensity that carries throughout Jason’s life. He’ll leave for Asia as Peter Parker and return as Spider-Man, then throw a finger to the wind to decide which continent is next — and live there indefinitely. Well, “Indefinitely,” Jason clarifies with a smirk, “being two to five months.”
Digital nomads are a particular brand of expat: global citizens masquerading as locals. They’re vagabonds by choice, like upscale versions of gutter punks — those smelly dreadlocked kids who choose homelessness as a lifestyle and appear on the streets of Philly every summer. It’s impossible to know how many people are pursuing lives as digital nomads, but there are now more than nine million Americans living abroad, a population that’s more than doubled since 1999. (A recent New York Times piece noted that dozens of new work-tourism programs have sprung up to cater to those interested in the lifestyle.) The community consists of freelancers, stock traders, travel bloggers, entrepreneurs and the nouveaux riches. Jason doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the term “digital nomad,” although he follows the basic precepts, namely cycling through material possessions at a rapid clip and remaining stationary for exceedingly short intervals. It’s a lifestyle that blends efficiency with luxury. Jason lives out of a suitcase but often fills it with designer clothes. Most of the time, he rents out places through Airbnb, or finds sublets from Facebook groups even in countries where he doesn’t speak the language. Last summer, he met a woman in Ukraine; they communicated with hand gestures and Google Translate for a month. He tries to avoid traveling like a tourist and to live like a part-time local.
To support himself, Jason flips websites like a shark flips property. “The goal has become, like with a house, to buy a website, refurbish it, then sell it for more,” he says. In 2015 he bought a site called the Aspiring Gentleman when it was a derelict domain. Swiftly, Jason ordered a makeover of the layout and design and began pitching the site to advertisers as a landing spot for sponsored content. It began making thousands of dollars almost instantly. Earlier this year, he sold the website for a tidy sum that could put a kid through college. Or, if you’re Jason, untethered by marriage or alimony or student debt, enough for several years of expenses.
Legally, he’s no longer the Aspiring Gentleman. And yet it’s an apt description for how a lot of people view his lifestyle, including his mother, Toby Stolberg. “Generally, I’ve never gotten used to it,” she says. Of course, moms worry. When Jason was first traveling abroad, almost a decade ago, she made him email “hi” — that’s all — to her every day. But it’s more than just missing him or fearing for his safety. Stolberg works in a hospice program and regularly sees cancer patients in their final days. “At the end of your life, all the travels in the world don’t create a legacy. They’re worth nothing. What’s worth something is the family you create,” she says. “I certainly don’t want him to end up without that legacy.”
Jason was engaged once. They broke up while he was in Egypt. He admits that nomadic living can be a tough sell on first dates, at least if you’re looking for more than a hookup. But aside from its romantic shortcomings, the lifestyle hasn’t caused him to miss out on much, he says. He still sees his nieces and nephews a couple times a year. He speaks with his family frequently on the phone. If anything, he’s more nimble than the average American.
A more pressing issue is dealing with all the time he has on his hands.
At this point, Jason has outsourced and automated so much of his company’s business that he’s rarely working a traditional-length workday. “One of my main problems is to figure out what to do after 1 p.m.,” he says. “Retired people have similar problems.” That’s why Jason has hobbies galore, including acting appearances on Colombian television (and a cameo in the Netflix hit Narcos) and writing articles for the Daily Beast. He acknowledges that his life is oozing with privilege. “I came from an upper-middle-class family,” he says. “My university tuition was also paid for. Those are the circumstances I was given; I don’t feel bad about them. I’m just taking advantage of what was given.”
He’s also picked a path that, if presented the choice, many millennials would take in a heartbeat. Research has shown that for young people, one of the most sought-after qualities in a workplace is flexibility, often more than pay. Digital nomads are simply on the far end of the distribution scale when it comes to working to live rather than living to work. “I’m building small businesses; I’m not going for start-ups that are going to make millions,” Jason says. “It’s never overwhelming, because you’re always starting small.” It’s the same way he thinks about building his life — independently and incrementally.
Jason seems to have been destined to live abroad. He grew up in a household in which he drank soy milk and ate nori before anyone had conceived of Whole Foods. As a teenager, he bought 150 VHS tapes off eBay so he could watch the entire series of PBS’s Globe Trekker.
Jeremy Albelda, too, seems to have a wanderlust gene. In 1963, his grandfather, a Philadelphia public-school teacher, packed up the whole family and moved to Mexico in a ’57 Chevy. Nobody spoke Spanish. His mother took Jeremy to Europe when he was a teenager. He went on a Birthright Israel trip when he was 18 and studied abroad in Spain a year later. Inked on Jeremy’s biceps are corresponding tattoos that serve as reminders of why he travels: on the right, “Get Out of Your Head”; on the left, “Get Into The World.”
So all Jeremy needed to fully embrace the digital-nomad life was a nudge. A couple months after he bumped into Jason at the hostel in 2010, he was stuck in a post-college, post-breakup malaise. He began picking Jason’s brain, started travel blogging, and accrued income through a business he started that provides English translations and proofreading for foreign business content (menus, websites, communications, etc.). Jeremy wasn’t reinventing the wheel; it’s just a whole lot easier to pull off with technology. The same could be said about traveling. There’s no need to worry about getting lost (see: Uber) or getting laid (see: Tinder). “It’s way different now than it used to be. Part of the fun of traveling used to be that it was really disconnecting. It was an experience meeting people on the street — fucking relying on the universe to guide you around,” he says (the last part sarcastically). “Nowadays, I never feel alone anymore.”
His social media presence gives the impression of life as a perpetual vacation. There’s the desert safari in Dubai. Making pisco sours in Peru. His butt-naked beach bod in Playa del Carmen (which got a rise out of his nearly 24,000 Instagram followers). It’s impossible not to feel a little FOMO. But that’s half the point. “That’s part of my brand, showing that there’s more to life than sitting at a desk,” he says. “But I don’t post pictures of sitting at a desk for four hours. People think I’m a lazy piece of shit. I’m still doing traditional work; it’s just from wherever I want to be.”
Baby boomers have often bemoaned the so-called “delayed adulthood” of their children. But it’s more than a generational touchstone. Today, Jeremy’s mother is a dedicated travel blogger (in addition to practicing law) who both endorses her son’s path and borrows from it.
The search for community looks different nowadays. Jeremy finds friends through expat Facebook groups or discovering the creators behind drone videos — flying drones is a hobby he’s recently picked up. That said, “Human beings are social animals,” he says. “We want to have a pack. So even the people who set off to do these independent lifestyles — this digital-nomads thing — people end up in circles. People conform to the anti-conformity.”
Not to mention that Jeremy isn’t fully nomadic anymore. This past winter, he bought an apartment in Mexico City. “It’s only been a month or two, but I have plants,” he says proudly, showing them to me through his computer’s camera. That didn’t stop him from making a trip to Cabo San Lucas on a whim the week before we spoke. He’s calling this adjustment a 2.0 version of himself. Every nomad knows there are diminishing returns to traveling. The next amazing thing you see doesn’t feel as amazing as the last. For Jason and Jeremy, both approaching age 30, maybe digital nomadism was just meant to get them over the hump. Jeremy bought property. Jason has been listening to podcasts about real estate investing. Maybe he’ll start flipping houses instead of websites.
Published as “Excellent Adventures” in the June 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.