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23 Feb 2018 9:41
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  •   Home > News > International

    'Ultimately, it's freedom': The young digital nomads descending on Bali for a poolside career

    Sarah Hill was barely making ends meet juggling full-time work and freelancing in Sydney when she thought there had to be a better way. Now she works from Bali, but locals have mixed feelings about the influx of digital nomads.

    Sarah Hill fell into the digital nomad lifestyle by accident.

    "I finished uni and thought, 'I'm going to get a job in an agency in the city,' but it just didn't happen," she says.

    Instead, the 30-year-old graphic and web designer from Cronulla worked full-time as a brand manager for a cooking school, before paring down her hours and picking up freelance design work on the side. She earned enough to make a living, but found that saving was near impossible in Sydney.

    "I was finding renting in Sydney very difficult as a single person.

    "Trying to save for property was very, very hard."

    When Ms Hill moved to Noosa to live with her dad to save on rent, it proved she didn't need to be in the same city as her clients.

    In the past two years, Ms Hill has spent time in Thailand, Vietnam, Spain, the UK and Bali, freelancing from co-working spaces for periods and then moving on to the next destination.

    "I don't think I could ever go back to working for somebody else fulltime," she says.

    Digital nomads descend

    At Dojo Bali, a co-working space on Indonesia's most visited island, there's a noticeboard covered with multi-coloured post-it notes.

    Each one advertises a particular member's skills, services or business needs — including Ms Hill's.

    "Growth hacking", "crypto-currency tutorials" and "social media marketing" are some of the more eye-catching services.

    It's one of at least 10 co-working spaces that have opened on the island.

    Dojo Bali specifically caters for "digital nomads" — entrepreneurs and freelancers who are able to work online from anywhere in the world. As work becomes increasingly decentralised, relocating to a cheap, tropical island like Bali is more appealing to those with specialised tech skills.

    'Ultimately, it's freedom'

    Dojo Bali is a cross between a trendy modern office and a Balinese resort. There are plants, colourful beanbags and polished hardwood. It's open plan, with a series of shared desk spaces, two conference rooms, three private booths for Skype calls, a cafe and a pool. The beach is a block away.

    The space has between 300 and 470 active members at any given time. It costs roughly $300 a month or $20 for a day pass.

    Americans are the most common users, followed by Australians, Britons and Germans (Indonesians are sixth). Members are generally working for clients in their home countries or internationally.

    Michael Craig, an entrepreneur from Perth, set up Dojo Bali two years ago, disillusioned with running his own software company.

    "I worked my arse off and then I put it under management because I'd been a bit stressed. I came up to Bali for a more chilled lifestyle," Mr Craig says.

    "A lot of people have gone away from their own countries because they felt like they were robots in a corporate little shell."

    For Mr Craig, pursuing a digital nomad lifestyle is partly existential.

    "When you become successful, then what?" he asks.

    "From what I know about people who are coming into the space, it's about changing up what's important to them. They're getting experiences and they don't need to have that house and they don't need those material possessions.

    "Ultimately, I think it's freedom."

    A 'life in the sun'

    It's this sense of freedom that attracted Sarah Newland, a 37-year-old nutritionist from Torquay. Sarah left a clinic in Melbourne to set up in Bali, working mostly with local expats and consulting with clients abroad via Skype.

    "All those material possessions just stopped interesting me," she says.

    "I'd rather have a life in the sun, do what I love with hardly any overheads and be free.

    "It's so normal now to be an online consultant to someone that you haven't necessarily even met.

    "I'm glad to live in an era where this is possible because I certainly wouldn't be happy stuck in a clinic in Melbourne."

    What's in it for locals?

    Igede Arya Eka Wira Dharma — known as Ayok — is a 24-year-old surf teacher whose family has lived in Canggu for generations.

    For him and his father, a rice farmer and fisherman, the rampant development of Canggu is concerning.

    "I worry a lot, because I was born in 1994 and I know how Canggu has changed just in my lifetime," says Ayok.

    "With more people coming, it's going to be good and bad," he says.

    "If they can support local businesses, that will be best. But most of the businesses here are owned by Westerners."

    Mr Craig agrees, saying, "There's unchecked development here." He reasons that while the co-working space is undoubtedly bringing in a new demographic, it's not necessarily bringing any more people to Bali.

    Ayok isn't particularly concerned about foreigners who come to Bali to work online as they aren't taking Balinese jobs.

    "It's good because they can spend their money here and stay in local places long term," says Ayok.

    "But most of what I see is a lot of Western people who work as freelancers but not online. They work as freelance surf guides."

    Ayok runs private surf lessons and his family owns a small guesthouse, so competing foreign businesses are an immediate threat. He says the beach is overrun by foreign surf schools and the money doesn't filter back into the local community.

    "They don't support our small local businesses and they take all of the students and we don't get anything."

    "At the moment, they just pay for the parking [at the beach], which is 2000 rupiah [20 cents]. It's nothing."

    "Tourism is good and bad at the same time, it's about trying to find a balance."

    Nomads give back

    Some of the digital nomad community have sought to alleviate their impact by working on projects that solve problems in Bali. One example is the Pererenan Green Village Project, a waste management framework in a community north of Canggu that they intend to replicate across Bali.

    The founder of the project, Sean Nino, approached Dojo members to help build the website, write standard procedures, build an app and fundraise for the project.

    According to Mr Craig, this is a crucial part of the digital nomad lifestyle.

    "If you're successful and you've got time to share, put your effort into something else so that you have more purpose," he says.

    "Just because you're white and you've had an education and you've got a $5000 laptop doesn't give you the right to come into a country where people are less fortunate than you and steamroll everyone.

    "There's this massive disproportion of wealth and I think everyone in here sees that and they see it all over the world. Things are not fair."

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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