Charlotte Lau is a self-described “digital nomad.”
The 31-year-old American citizen has lived and worked in other countries since graduating with a bachelor’s in international relations roughly a decade ago. Born and raised in New York City, Lau was always fascinated by other cultures. As an undergraduate student, Lau spent every summer abroad; she had her sights on doing that full time for as long as she can remember. So, upon graduating, she got a job with an international-research organization, which took her to countries including Colombia and India and Sri Lanka, each stint usually lasting for about six months.
Lau eventually ended up in South Africa, and that’s where she fell in love — with both the country and a man. The couple met at a house party eight years ago; he’d made her a mojito. The rest was history. Lau changed jobs several times and even went to the United Kingdom to get her graduate degree. But the pair stuck together, and recently decided to take a year and a half off to travel. “Having the flexibility to do what we wanted and pursue our hobbies was really important to us,” says Lau. The two ended up in Mexico City, deciding to make it one of their home bases on top of Cape Town.
Then the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. On March 11, the State Department issued a global level 3 travel advisory, urging Americans abroad to “reconsider travel,” citing the severity of the pandemic. March 13, President Trump declared the outbreak a national emergency. Then, on March 19, it raised the threat to a global level 4 advisory — “do not travel.” State warned Americans abroad to return “unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” As the virus spread, “thousands of Americans began clamoring to return,” reports Forbes. The United States government has provided repatriation flights to Americans in countries where conventional commercial air travel is no longer an option. As of early April, it has helped more than 50,000 Americans return home.
The prospect of flocking back to America, however, never crossed Lau’s mind. She’s “not particularly close” with her family. If anything, Lau finds herself wondering when she’ll be able to return to South Africa — the place she most considers home these days, as it’s also home to “the heaviest concentration of people I love.”
“I still feel quite American,” Lau continues. “But having spent as much time as I have in South Africa, and having my South African partner, I am proud of South Africa and feel it’s one of my countries.”
Various young, American women living abroad said they opted not to return to the U.S. because of love — for a person, a people, a cause, a life untethered to the strictures and bustle of America.
For some, however, the decision was a fraught one. “There are so many unknowns for everyone in the world,” says Rachel Conrad, a 29-year-old environmental analyst based in one of Ecuador’s poorest counties, where she runs a project that helps to protect farmers’ water rights. “So it was hard to make a statistical, fact-based, family- and caring-based decision” about where to be amid the global covid-19 pandemic.
Meredith McBride opted not to leave Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture, where her active-duty husband is stationed. Doing so risked breaking up her small family — which includes their roughly 18-month-old daughter. While McBride and their baby were free to head back to the states, military directives prohibit her husband from doing the same. “For me, the concern was: What if I can’t get back to Japan?” McBride says.
Kristina Caltabiano, a 30-year-old “digital nomad,” meanwhile, decided to extend what was supposed to be her short stint in Bali, Indonesia, simply because life in her safe, serene compound seemed far less stressful than it would be back home in Virginia. “For right now, as long as everything in the world is on pause,” she says, “I would prefer to be on pause here.” As globe-trotters, many of the women interviewed have approached the covid-19 pandemic much like they would any travel hitch. They are, after all, drawn to the nomad lifestyle precisely because of the opportunity to be present — to be unencumbered and uncomfortable.
Caltabiano, who has a master’s in public health and focuses on maternal and child well-being, has lived abroad since receiving her graduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2017. Upon graduating, she ended up in Brazil, where she lived for a year and a half. She subsequently worked as a Peace Corps response volunteer in Malawi, after which she spent a couple of months each in Mozambique, India and Thailand. It was when she was gearing up to leave Thailand, in February, for a two-week yoga-training program in Bali that the severity of the outbreak became “super palpable.” Caltabiano handles the program’s administrative work and started receiving emails from participants asking whether the training was still happening. “In my head I was like, This is so far out there.” The training happened, but by the time it wrapped up, in mid-March, people “barely made it out,” Caltabiano says.
Still, Caltabiano, has navigated the crisis with what Lau described as “global dexterity.” Caltabiano’s end-goal is to “put roots down” in Brazil — she loves Latin America, speaks Portuguese, and knows from experience that she’d have “a good quality of life” there. She has tons of close friends in Rio de Janeiro. But she’s content staying put in Bali, where she shares a home with two “amazing women” and lives on a diet of papaya and dragon fruit, fresh tempeh and coconut cream — where she’s surrounded by green space and ocean and can go on a run every day.
Conrad, the Ecuador-based environmental analyst, is currently sheltering in place with two other young, American women working on her water-rights project (including her 31-year-old sister). They are in a small town in Ecuador’s Bolívar province, in a compound comprising their office space and dormitories. The town is severely limited in public-health resources; its hospital lacks an intensive care unit and has fewer than two dozen beds. PPE is all but nonexistent.
Upon learning of the State Department’s level 4 directive, the trio spent hours on end deliberating whether to stay. They were concerned about their families in the U.S., especially given its higher rates of covid-19 relative to Ecuador. “It’s pretty scary to be this far away from our loved ones — to think that something could happen … and we couldn’t be close to them,” says Conrad, who’s lived and worked in the South American country for the past seven years. “I’ve been far away for a long time, but then again there was never a pandemic like this.”
Caroline Marso, 26, moved to Northern Spain last October as part of a year-long program in which American college graduates work in schools supporting English teachers. Until Spain — one of the hardest-hit countries — implemented its covid-19 lockdown orders, Marso spent her days traveling to rural primary schools, collaborating with educators and their young, disadvantaged students. “The idea of leaving now, when I was in the middle of the program, of leaving my teachers high and dry” was a sacrifice Marso wasn’t willing to take. She’s currently quarantined in an apartment with two roommates, but “on the off chance we do go back [to the schools], I want the opportunity to support the kids,” too.
Then there’s the fact that Marso — like many of the women in this story — doesn’t have health insurance in America and worries that she’d be at greater risk here. Health-care systems abroad seldom pose the kinds of barriers present in the United States.
Given circumstances like these, many American women living abroad are deciding to stay put. Living away from the country they were born in, they’ve come to appreciate that “we’re all in this together,” as Marso put it. “We’re all struggling in our own ways.”