How to Disappear

If you search the internet for information on “how to disappear”, you will enter a whole new world. You’ll find husbands fleeing their wives, defrauders absconding from justice, spendthrifts taking flight from the burden of debt. There are entire communities dedicated to discussing which Caribbean tax system is the best, how to get a cheap passport from Burkina Faso and when to change your cellphone number. People want to escape private and government investigators alike. Shady real-estate brokers seem to be especially knowledgeable on such matters, offering properties in the most favorable countries for devious escapees.

When I first read about these topics, I was captivated but I didn’t know what to make of it. As a student, I didn’t pay any taxes at all. I had no debt. And hell, I certainly didn’t want to buy real estate in some banana republic to which I had never been. Yet in some way, “disappearing” lingered as an intriguing notion in my mind for years to come.

After school, instead of serving my time in the army (obligatory in Germany but avoidable), I did civilian service in Colombia. Once finished, I began to study in different German and Colombian cities. When my wife got a job in El Salvador, I lived with her whenever I could. In 2009, I finished my thesis in the beautiful city of Cartagena, in northern Colombia, and embarked on a large trip through the rainforests of Venezuela and Brasil, while developing my writing skills. After that I moved to Bogotá for some time, where I programed websites and made translations for an Austrian entrepreneur. Only there did I remember the disappearing community of the Internet. Out of curiosity, I looked to Google once again, and found that there actually was a simple way to attain what I had done unconsciously through my amateurish ventures. It was like disappearing without the tax fraud – and it had a catchy name, too: location independence.

As it turns out, disappearing from your original place of residence is now completely within the bounds of possibility, even for the ordinary and upright citizen. Instead of doing your job in a cubicle, hacking data into a computer, why not dump the cubicle and take your computer to a white-sand beach somewhere in the Caribbean?

Probably the best application of the whole idea is what location independents call geo-arbitrage. If you manage to earn your money in dollars, pounds, or euros, but spend in Thai bahts or Colombian pesos, favorable exchange rates will convert your meager paycheck into a reasonable salary. As a consequence, you will be able to either improve your lifestyle, or reduce your working hours.

Location independence is not for everyone, of course. If you have to supervise people in your office or pour scotch for the drunkards in your bar, you probably won’t be able to work from your tropical paradise. Even if you convince them to come along, a location independent pub is probably an impractical business idea in the long run.

But, if you are employed and mostly working on your own anyway, it might be worth a try to convince your boss to let you go. As a start, ask to work one or two days a week remotely from home. Frame it a productivity-enhancing experiment. Cheap laptops, ever-expanding wi-fi networks, VoIP services, and remote intranet access through “virtual private networks” make it possible.

Freelancers, on the other hand, will have even fewer problems in taking the plunge. Nowadays, a huge number of location independent people are writers, designers, programmers, coaches, and consultants.

When starting out, it obviously helps to have clients already. You may lose some of them due to your decision to go location independent, but it is a worthwhile sacrifice. Increase your client base by marketing yourself actively on the web. Once you’re out there, clients can come to you from all over the world. It’s helpful to get your message out through whatever online medium you prefer: email, blogs and Twitter are all good channels. Also, you can offer your services on freelance platforms like Payment may be humble at first: competition may come in the form of a lot of smaert kids from India. Geo-arbitrage is not a one-way road.
To get moving fast, teaching English is a popular way to pay the rent in your new home while building your company or your portfolio and client list. Dilettanti like myself might even end up working as a tourist guide from time to time in whatever place they happen to be, while the real location independent professionals will set up automated businesses that make a good deal of money and don’t require more than a few hours of maintenance each week.

In order to avoid financial meltdown, some further preparation is advisable. Apart from making sure to save enough money to survive at least your first months on the road, building multiple income streams is one of the best strategies to pursue. If you are employed, try building a sideline business before resigning. As a freelancer, avoid being dependent on only one or two big clients. If you have some expertise in different areas, you may even try to mix various areas of work and passion: a copywriter who speaks more than one language may also be a great translator, and a hobby musician may earn some money giving guitar lessons while keeping his main job as a web designer.

Another major recommendation before going location independent is to get rid of stuff. Selling your belongings on eBay will be quite liberating and can generate some easy money for your travel fund. Also, you wouldn’t want to carry too much stuff around when you’re hiking through Patagonia or looking for the best beaches in the Americas. How much you offload depends on your preferred pace of living. While I personally like to stay in each city for at least a few months, other location independents will choose a backpacker lifestyle and only remain for a few days in one place.

Whatever your personal approach is, don’t forget the fun once you’re out there. In the end, disappearing from the office and the bad weather of Central Europe doesn’t benefit you if all you do in the Caribbean is sit inside and hack into a laptop. Go out, meet people, get to know the area. There won’t be any snoops following you, assuming your disappearance wasn’t related to tax fraud.

New Escapologist

This article was first published in New Escapologist, issue 3. Republishing it here is a shameless attempt to conceal the fact that I still haven’t finished my next post for the (slow) tempo giusto series, as I am currently traveling on (slow) trains through the (slow) country of Austria and passed the last 48 hours in areas where wifi isn’t heard of and people confuse my laptop with a travel typewriter. It is an even more shameless attempt to activate your consumerist desires, forwarding you to the marvelously redesigned New Escapologist website and shop. Issue 3 is not only beautifully typesetted by Timothy Eyre, it also features shockingly intelligent articles  by some of the greatest brains of the escapologist fringe group, including Brian Dean, Tom Hodgkinson, Neil Scott, Tom Mellors and, of course, editor Robert Wringham. At £6 for nearly a 100 pages it’s a real steal – allegedly, it’s so cheap that even the editor doesn’t make any money with it. Although to be honest, I don’t buy that story. Robert probably finances his extravagant playboy lifestyle with the revenue.

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