The Digital Nomad Curse: Flying Against Nature
When I imagine going to a new place, I think of all the things I want to (or have to) do! I imagine getting off the plane and hitting the ground running. Whether it’s exploring or getting work done (which has been the case most recently) or, in most cases, both! I imagine waking up, ideally meditating, cooking, walking around, hiking, getting lots of work done, writing, doing tours, exercising, feeling good.
After all, when I imagine this, I am usually at my optimal health already doing all these things. So going to a new place feels like continuing what I’m already doing, only in a new and exciting place.
But when I get to the new place, things start going wrong… Most of the time, without fail, it takes me at least a full week (yes, seven days!) to adjust to my new environment. When I leave the place, I have great memories of it, so it’s like I completely forget the initial pain.
If you’ve ever experienced jetleg, you’ll know firsthand that you can’t escape nature. As a digital nomad, I’m no exception.
I was reminded of this twice this month… Once going from Fiji to San Francisco Bay Area and now, a second time, going from San Francisco to Ketchikan, Alaska.
The San Francisco -> Alaska adjustment period seems extra painful. After all, it’s basically in the same timezone. The flight is not even that long.
But things in Ketchikan are very different. First, the sunlight hours are ridiculous. I barely see a true night. When I go to sleep around 9:00pm, the sun is still fully up. At 3:00am, it is already light out. Only when I wake up at midnight due to insomnia caused by too much sun, do I get a glimpse of true night.
Next, the weather is different. It is mostly cold (I usually have to wear my winter coat and hat!), cloudy, and rainy.
The air is different too - it is pure and amazing… and very different from the pollution of San Francisco. In San Jose (south of San Francisco, where I stayed), I had allergies the entire time. Spring was in the air, pollen was everywhere!
So I guess it is no surprise that in the past 7 days, since getting to Alaska, I’ve experienced horrible bodily symptoms such as insomnia, migraines, vertigo, panic and extreme fatigue among other symptoms. Instead of hitting the ground running like I imagined, I was barely able to keep up with my work and had no desire to go out and explore besides a few walks around town I did managed (after which, I felt exhausted).
And just like a miracle. Today, exactly eight days after arriving to Ketchikan, I finally felt normal. I worked, walked around, meditated, cooked, socialized (I made a friend!) and truly enjoyed myself.
This same 8th day miracle happened to me before. Most recently, in San Francisco Bay Area. I arrived from Fiji ready (and needing to) hit the ground running. But all I got was extreme fatigue, a cold, allergies, bad sleep, etc. After 7 days, I was back to my normal self. I remember being shocked - Fiji is only a 5 hour time difference! I did not expect this.
But switching a natural environment has effects beyond just jetleg. It effects the body in a big way. The body has to adjust abruptly to a completely different weather, timzezone, plants, food, water, season! If you think of our ancient ancestors, before there were planes or cars or even horse-drawn carriages, people just didn’t travel much. They were in-sync with their environment with only gradual seasonal changes. What planes enable is a bit extreme, and our body will suffer the consequences. There is not tricking nature. That’s the plight of a digital nomad.
So here are a few things I do to travel in sync with nature (if I can!):
Many digital nomads you’ll find on the web are in constant travel mode, changing locations every week. I do not recommend this… Instead, I try to stay in one place for 1 - 3 months. 3 months is my ideal. That way, my body can take the initial time (7 days!) to adjust to the new environment and then enjoy the rest of the time in that place.
This doesn’t always work out, but I try to stay as long as possible if I can. When it does, I don’t remember the initial pain period at all - I enjoyed the place most of the time, doing everything I imagined I wanted to do.
Travel Short Distances
As a digital nomad who can work from anywhere, there is no reason most of the time for me to change locations drastically. I take my time traveling around the world slowly if I can. From America to Europe, from Europe to Asia, from Asia to Oceana (New Zealand, Australia, Fiji). And within each continent, I’ll slowly make my way around toward the next continent.
Travel Horizontally, not Vertically
One thing I’m finding, and I think Jared Diamond’s Book Guns, Germs, and Steel explains this well, is that the health consequences are a lot worse when traveling drastically within Latitude (Vertically) vs Longitude (Horizontally).
Horizontally, the weather and nature is more likely to stay very similar. Vertically, that is when you get the major shifts in climate, sunlight hours, animals, food, etc.
Various plants and animals aren’t able to survive based on latitude - that’s why coconuts only grow in tropical locations and apples grow higher up north. That is one of the main reasons why some countries are poor while others rich according to Jared Diamond’s book.
As natural creatures, we’re subject to the same hardships as these plants and animals! Some places in the world (such as Alaska!) are so uninhabitable, that humans mostly survive there due to advances in technology (light, shipping of produce via boats and planes, etc). I’m not surprised that my body has such a hard time adjusting here.
Going from a tropical islands of Fiji and Tuvalu where I was eating coconuts, fresh fish, and experiencing sunrise and sunset at equatorial times (around 6:00am and 6:00pm) to the San Francisco Bay Area where the food includes avocados, peaches, cherries, a spring to summer climate with lots of pollen in the air, and an early sunrise and late sunset was a major change despite only a 5 hour time difference horizontally…
So too, San Francisco and Alaska defer majorly in climate, sun exposure, food that grows there, animals (hello black bears!) and more due to their huge latitude differences.
Meanwhile, when I travel from New York to London or Germany, I barely experience major consequences. In fact, if I fly in in the evening Europe time and wake up and soak in the sun the next morning in my new location, my jetleg will disappear for the most part within a day or two.
Sync with Nature
Finally, when I do arrive to a new destination, and this is more important traveling vertically, I try to sync with nature as much as I can. I wake up to see the sunrise (although in Alaska right now that’s way too early…), feel the sunset, eat the seasonal food (this is important!). I make sure to go to the local market and cook instead of eating unhealthy junk food.
I remember in the tropical island of Tuvalu, my kind hosts gave me an apple from New Zealand one morning when I mentioned I like to eat fruit for breakfast. I didn’t want the apple - I’ve been eating fresh-picked coconuts for breakfast every day! But I felt bad because I knew the apple was imported and cost them a lot, so I ate it.
I put it to the side of the table expecting flies to come eat it just like they attacked my coconut (I had to walk around while eating the coconut flesh to get away from the flies!). To my shock, the flies didn’t go near the eaten apple… I didn’t eat outside the natural island food after that… it’s just not healthy!
Expecting to hit the ground running in a new place and instead being grounded by intense fatigue and other health consequences is a hard pill to swallow. I get stressed and angry at myself… Then I forgive myself and live that week in pain knowing that it will pass, and I’ll be fine in a few days.
I’m also not too hard on myself and follow what my body needs. Although I prefer to follow the time clock of the new location (waking up to see the sunrise and seeing the sunset without sleeping in between), I do take naps if I’m extremely fatigued. I try to follow the food times - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - of the new location, but I’ll eat if I’m super hungry in between. I also get massages to help relieve my stress.
Remember, extreme travel is not natural, and you’re completely normal in needing the time to adjust. Take the time, take it easy. No need to add extra self-punishment and stress to what nature will already punish you with.
P.S. Being a digital nomad is amazing in so many ways, but fighting nature is definitely a big consequence. This picture was taken today - day 8, when I finally got in sync with my surroundings! So happy to be back to healthy!