I Spent 5 Months Backpacking in Europe, Then I Found My Career

I embarked on my first backpacking trip when I was 31, since then I've never stopped traveling!


NAME & SURNAME: Carola Bieniek
AGE: 38
TYPE OF DIGITAL NOMAD: Freelancer, but mainly for one client
NAME OF THE COMPANY: gengo.com (my blog is notesontraveling.com)
SECTOR: Translations
NEXT LOCATIONS: Traveling around SEA, staying 2 to 4 weeks in one place
FAVORITE LOCATION: Always the next one

When did you decide to become a Digital Nomad and why? What did you do before?

The story of me becoming a digital nomad is really the story of me starting backpacking. I embarked on my first backpacking trip when I was 31. I had started working full-time right out of school, completing my business and project management studies via distance learning. Over the course of 12 years, I had changed careers a few times: from au-pair to casino croupier to office manager to project manager.

Then, in 2011, I was about to change jobs for the second time in a year, and felt I needed to take a break. So instead of finding another job, I decided to go backpacking in Africa for a year to figure out what my long term career should be. Surprisingly, I realized that a longterm career and a 9-to-5 life weren't what I was made for. After eleven months in Africa, I returned to Berlin and all I could think about was to go and explore the rest of the World.

The question was: "How do I pay for this lifestyle?".

While working as a project manager in a social startup, I found out that I was not a natural entrepreneur. I'm not good at marketing myself and talking about money. So I looked at skills I did have and how I could monetize them. Eventually, I noticed that languages had been a part of all my past jobs: I was a German au-pair in the US, I had regularly given English language presentations at the casino, and I had written and translated a diverse list of German and English documents for my office and project management jobs.

Without having a steady income stream established, I went on a 5-month hike across Europe and ran through my savings pretty quickly.

When I was down to the last 500 euros in my account, I found Gengo, a translations platform. The best thing of Gengo is that your language skills are the only qualification you need.

Carola Bieniek Digital Nomad Backpaking

Tell me more about your current job. How did you start?

To get started at Gengo, I had to do a few tests. They were pretty straight-forward simulating the task I wanted to get paid for: translate a text into flawless German. I failed the first two times. But then I passed the test and passed the higher level tests to get better paying jobs and even broke into the German to English translations segment. As they say: the rest is history.

I have been working for Gengo fore more than two years now, generating a steady income. They take care of finding clients and handling the money side of things. I just show up and make sure I deliver flawless translations.

Lately, however, I am finding that I'd like more independence. There are times when the stream of Gengo jobs is a mere trickle and I have not been able to take some time off because I cannot generate enough income to allow myself a vacation (or a full weekend for that matter). The answer to this issue is a travel blog, which I am slowly building to eventually monetize it.

What kind of tools do you use to be productive? How many hours per week do you usually work? 

As long as I am only doing translations, I have no issues being productive: I have a deadline to meet and being paid by the word means that my hourly rate rises when I focus. I have set aside the mornings for translations, but will sit in front of my computer until I have reached a daily target. That way, I spend about 20 hours a week translating but most weeks I'm sitting in front of my computer hitting F5 and waiting for projects.

Blogging and marketing the blog is a different ball game because you can easily get side tracked. Trello is helping me to not only stay on tops of tasks I have signed up to, but also to keep track of how much real time I spend on tasks (as opposed to perceived time).

Carola Bieniek Digital Nomad Backpaking 2

How do you choose the next locations?

I want to explore as much of the World as I possibly can. But, of course, having to consistently work, means some restrictions on where I can travel. I always make sure that I have free Internet access in my accommodation. So, there won't be a trip to North Korea any time soon, and I can only dream of overlanding Africa as I did before.

I also need to be able to rest and have a certain amount of quiet to work. It doesn't so much matter whether I stay in a hostel or AirBnB or hotel, but rather where the accommodation is located and how it's set up. Often, a noisy air con or a busy street outside is worse than staying in a hostel dorm. So when I find a quiet place, I usually extend my stay; likewise, when I can't find an accommodation that suits my needs I move on regardless of how much I like the city or region I'm in.

Which are your passions? What do you do in your free time?

Traveling is my number one passion. I've chosen this lifestyle because I want to explore the World. So when I don't work, I step outside, stroll through the city or village I'm currently in, watch the people going about their daily life, try the local cuisine, and explore the culture.

Another passion of mine is writing. I am currently trying the install a stable routine for translating and blogging to carve out time to work on my first novel.

What’s the worst part of being a Digital Nomad?

The uncertainty of whether the accommodation I am about to move to is really offering me the peace and quiet of a home. Usually, when we chose a house or apartment to permanently live in, we make sure it fulfills certain criteria and we build it into a nest -- that can be soundproofing, light, neighborhood, space, colors etc. When you're moving once or twice a month like I am and to a place you've never been to, you not only have to chose between nests somebody else has build, you also do so largely blindly (relying on reviews and recommendation).

What’s your advice to somebody who wants to become a Digital Nomad?

If I had to boil my advice down to one sentence: get a grip of reality.

Digital Nomads are not on one long vacation: first of all, working hours are usually longer than 9-to-5. There is a lot of uncertainty connected with the lifestyle: from finding suitable accommodation while sticking to your budget to securing a visa to the chosen place of residence to reliance on infrastructure that might not adhere to the standards you are used to from your native country. Finally, even if you settle for a longer time in a place, chances are you'll always be an outsider and never a true local, be it because of the way you look, your lack of language skills, differences in available income between you and the average local, or simply cultural incompatibilities.

So systems are more important than ever.

- Build a strong framework for your work-life-balance with defined working hours and leisure hours (days). Take a vacation once in a while!

- Refine your strategy of finding accommodation and have rituals helping you to make anywhere home -- from work out routines to that perfectly soft pillow or bringing your Netflix account.

- Seek out local life by stepping out of your comfort zone: attempt to learn the language. Have dinner in a truly local eatery even if you have no idea what food is served. Walk outside the touristy neighborhood, in fact, walk and don't drive everywhere. Ask locals arbitrary questions about their life, culture and history.

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