How Jane Thomas Works Remotely While Housesitting on Luxury Islands

This post is brought to you by a few of Jane’s recommendations for inspirational authors: Erich Fromm, Alain de Botton, Locke, and Descartes

This is the latest interview in a series featuring digital nomads talking about their lives and lessons (click here if you want to be interviewed). The goal is to help demystify the process of making money online, wandering the world, and living an unconventional life!

Jane became a digital nomad by prioritizing travel and then finding jobs that could be done remotely around her travel schedule. She has fantastic stories of housesits abroad and great tips for taking the leap into location-independent work.

Thank you for being here with Freedom Is Everything, Jane!

Key takeaways from Jane’s interview:

“I was never ‘inspired’ to start nomading – it’s just who I am. I could write a book on what I’ve learned from living and working around the world for two decades, but I think in a nutshell, what I’ve learned – or been reminded of – is that people are essentially the same. We have dreams and hopes and fears; we have basic needs and wants, things we strive for. We are a community, whether individual governments want to acknowledge that or not.”

“Look at that bag you’ve packed to go travelling and take out at least half of it. You don’t need it. Life becomes so much easier when it’s lived out of a single carry-on bag. I have all my photography gear, my laptop, my life, wrapped up in a 40 liter bag, and that is a game-changer when you’re on the road. You can hike anywhere; you can keep an eye on your bag because it isn’t stowed underneath in a bus; you don’t need to wrestle yourself and a ludicrous suitcase into a tiny bathroom…”

“When I feel like my life has lost purpose – and that has been really hard to hang onto this past year, when the world has closed down – I find a way to make a difference. Even small. Always give help without the expectation it will ever be returned. Always give more than you take. What’s that great line…? ‘To do the right thing for the wrong reason, that itself is the greatest treason.’ “

Table of Contents

Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?

Jane Thomas sits next to a pool with her back to the camera while a dog lays beside her overlooking the ocean and a mountain
Sitting with Oscar by the pool on Nevis, looking towards St Kitts – I housesat for nearly two years on Nevis, moving from luxury home to luxury home.

I’m Jane, a freelance writer, photographer, and IB examiner. I don’t have a story that sits alongside many others: I never worked in an office and felt the frustration of life punctuated by meetings and water cooler chats. There was never a plan to ‘go off and travel the world’; there was never anything to escape. I travelled, and so I found work that I could do online. 

I’m lucky that the main bulk of my work is done in two months of the year: I’m an IB examiner, and in May and November, I make sure to be somewhere static – usually with the help of a housesit – so I can sit and get through as much marking as possible. After ten years of this, I’m now a Principal Examiner, which doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things but does, in an odd sort of way, give me a degree of security in regards to my annual income. 

Just over three years ago I bought a small cottage in France. My mother had nagged me one too many times about the boxes of ‘stuff’ stowed away in her loft; my father had repeatedly mentioned the books lining his garage. It was time to either ditch it all or find a corner of the world to call my own. It’s a base. For the last year, thanks to Covid-19, it’s been my permanent home. In order to deal with being in one place for so long, I bought a camper van, a bright red converted VW T4 called Florence, and she has been the main source of my sanity. I often take her off to the coast or up onto the moorland and use her as a mobile office. 

It’s helped deal with the foreign experience of being stationary for so long. Over the past 20 years, I’ve lived in too many places to mention here – but it includes Hong Kong, Indonesia, Eswatini (back when it was Swaziland), Hawaii, Argentina, Nevis (of St Kitts and Nevis), Spain, and Italy. I haven’t necessarily loved every minute, but there isn’t a part that I wouldn’t re-live.

Please tell us the detailed story of how you started your freelancing business.

I think ‘business’ might be a generous term for what I do. I’ve remarkably little interest in money for the sake of money and prefer to earn enough to keep moving around; that’s all I need. 

I write. I wait for people to ask me to do something, and then I write it. I’ve never had to actively seek out work because it invariably comes to me one way or another. At the moment, I’m writing a children’s book about mercury poisoning in Canada, creating content for a major airline’s website, and guiding examiners through marking for this year’s IB course. To be honest, it’s an irritatingly busy time, and I don’t like having so much on at once, but if I can’t be on the move, I suppose I may as well be working. Oh, and I’m writing for a luxury real estate company based on Nevis. 

What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?

Jane Thomas sits atop the synchro in the heart of the Kalahari as the sun sets behind her
New Year’s Eve atop the syncro in the heart of the Kalahari

A few years ago, I came across a poem by Robert W Service that opens with these lines: 

‘There’s a race of men that don’t fit in, 

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.’

I think it sums things up rather well. I was never ‘inspired’ to start nomading – it’s just who I am. I could write a book on what I’ve learned from living and working around the world for two decades, but I think in a nutshell, what I’ve learned – or been reminded of – is that people are essentially the same. We have dreams and hopes and fears; we have basic needs and wants, things we strive for. We are a community, whether individual governments want to acknowledge that or not. 

This past year, with Covid-19, I’ve sat and watched as the world I love – a place of freedom and welcoming kindness – has closed its borders, people pushed back into their ‘correct’ boxes. Borders have slammed shut, rules and restrictions imposed on entire nations. The reason Covid-19 could spread so rapidly is because we are truly a globalised society. The reason we will take so long to defeat this is because governments are forgetting that: in the race to ‘save’ their own citizens, they forget about the vulnerable on the other side of the world. Seeing what has happened over this past year has been incredibly difficult for me because it doesn’t represent the world I know and have loved. 

I have been lucky enough to be born in the UK and granted the passport that goes along with that. If ‘nomading’ has taught me anything, it’s that luck plays a huge role in our lives. Luck dictates where we appear on this planet, and that dictates more of our future than most of us care to acknowledge. 

What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?

I’m often asked this, and the answer changes every time – it’s an impossible one to pin down. 

But I can tell you that it’s true, that life lived under African skies has a special magic to it. For a few weeks, I travelled with a friend in a 4×4 deep into Botswana’s Kalahari; during the time we spent there, we met just two other people late one afternoon. Otherwise, it was us and the bush, twenty thousand square miles of land all to ourselves, the satellites at night the only reminder that there was a world happening beyond. I had loved Africa long before I went to Botswana, but I understood it after I left there. 

Jane Thomas stands with four friends on a beach in the Philippines wearing santa hats and standing next to an outrigger canoe
With random friends in the Philippines one Christmas. I always take a Santa hat if I know I’m going to be away over Christmas, to add to my collection of photos around the world

I also loved the Philippines; I’ve visited there many times and was lucky enough to go back in the early 2000s before parts of it were destroyed by tourism. El Nido in Palawan is, I’m told, a completely different place to the one I lived in for months. When I went, I paddled out on a battered outrigger to some of the deserted islands and camped overnight, living for days on a diet of fish and coconuts. I don’t think you could do that now. 

And I’ve never managed to visit Italy without falling in love with it all over again. Every corner, every region, every view is somehow more extraordinary there. I am not blind to the flaws, but I somehow love Italy even more for battling on despite them. A couple of tips I’m willing to share: if you head to Capri, then be sure to go up to Anacapri, far quieter and less about the glamour than the crowded, gaudy part at the bottom of the hill. And drive down the coast of Puglia in the spring: you’ll probably have it to yourself, and with the sparkling sea on one side and fields of wildflowers on the other, it is one of the most spectacular ocean drives I’ve ever done. And I’ve ‘done the Big Ones. 

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?

I mentioned before that the Philippines has changed significantly since I went. The world is changing; the way people travel is changing. A few years back, I went to Guatemala and discovered that these days, people have a disarming ability to book places weeks and months in advance. It’s harder to make casual decisions, to operate on a whim and a prayer. For anyone thinking about it, go now – before it changes even more. 

As I’ve said, I don’t travel because I ‘like the idea’; I travel because it is who I am. I can’t imagine being worried or alarmed by going off and travelling… Meeting people? It’s easier than you’d think. Be interested in others, and you’ll always find people. Watch them, listen to them, know that everyone has a story to tell, and be keen to hear it, and you can’t go wrong. There are always people out there who have done more than you or had different experiences – don’t be too quick to assume you are the most interesting person in the bar. 

And I guess first and foremost, don’t do anything daft. I’m tired of meeting people who put themselves in impossibly dangerous situations and are then surprised when Stuff Goes Wrong.

I will never be wedded to a guidebook, but they’re a useful starting point: find out which areas of the city are ‘no go’ areas. Rather than marching around insisting that it should be a safe world for a woman to walk alone at night, accept that it probably isn’t and adapt accordingly. Never arrive late at night if you can help it – and if you do, have a plan already lined up. 

I guess my last tip would be: look at that bag you’ve packed to go travelling and take out at least half of it. You don’t need it. Life becomes so much easier when it’s lived out of a single carry-on bag. I have all my photography gear, my laptop, my life, wrapped up in a 40 litre bag, and that is a game-changer when you’re on the road. You can hike anywhere; you can keep an eye on your bag because it isn’t stowed underneath in a bus; you don’t need to wrestle yourself and a ludicrous suitcase into a tiny bathroom… 

What is unique about the way you travel, and what advice do you have for someone that wants to travel with a similar style?

When I was younger, I loved youth hostels – I met people, I created little families in some. In Buenos Aires, I lived in a hostel for so long I had my name on my door. We were a community there, and it was wonderful. But now? Now I need a little more space and peace. I’ve discovered housesitting. It means I’ve had the opportunity to stay in some extraordinary homes around the world, looking after dogs and creating a real way of life for the time I’m there.

That, combined with general wandering, combined with my camper van Florence, combined with visits back to my home base in France, is a good enough combination to see me saving money each year while dramatically increasing my quality of life. 

If you’re a woman, person of color, and/or LGBTQ, what should other people who identify similarly (and who haven’t traveled much) know about traveling/nomading?

Jane Thomas sits on a front porch with one dog cuddling her and another dog sitting at her lap
Saying goodbye to Kalea and Chance on the lanai, Big Island, Hawaii, after a three month house-sit

Some of the best advice was given to me by an elderly Filipina on a bus: ‘When you’re in trouble, ask an old lady for help.’ It’s true. Start off with old ladies as your ideal candidate for help. 

And a trick I’ve learned that can get you out of some awkward situations: put in earphones and have them attached to a device, but don’t have anything playing. It means you can ‘ignore’ people if necessary. 

Don’t assume that the world is out to get you just because you stand out a little. Walk tall, be kind, have a ready smile, and know that, at the end of the day, you’re just another person. You may feel as if you stick out like a sore thumb, but that doesn’t automatically make you a target. 

Since launching, what has been most effective to acquire/retain clients?

As I’ve mentioned, I don’t actively seek work. But I can tell you that the way to retain clients is to provide decent work. That’s it. There’s nothing more magical to it than that. If you create something your clients want, they’ll keep on wanting it. 

I try to avoid collaborative work if at all possible. This requires too much time online, too much time waiting for somebody else to get on with their part, and I have remarkably little patience. If I have work to do, I want to get it done and dusted. Saying that, I have recently started writing children’s books, and this has been the most wonderful collaboration with an illustrator. We’ve never met in person, but we really ‘click,’ and she is bringing the stories to life. www.jolly-ollie.com if you want to check them out – trust me, the illustrations are extraordinary. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the stories do veer towards finding out about the world… 

What digital tools do you use for your work/business?

This sounds horrendously organised – I’d be lying if I said I used anything more complicated than Open Office and Gmail. I very reluctantly agreed to a Zoom meeting a few months ago, but I try to avoid these at all costs. As I’ve said, I find collaboration generally quite draining.

I prefer clients who trust me to get on with the job: send me what they want, like what they get back. A ‘thank you’ in an email, prompt payment in the bank, I’m happy. 

What scale is your business at today, and what are your future goals?

Lombok, Indoniesia on a sunny day with terraced rice fields, some houses, palm trees, and a mountain as a red dirt road winds through the photo
Palm trees and red roads in the heart of Lombok, Indonesia, where I spent weeks getting wonderfully lost on a scooter

I’m not particularly interested in finances, and I’m not sure it’s for anyone to know what somebody else earns… But I earn enough to keep doing what I want to do in life, which is wander around and explore, and I think that’s all anyone can ask for. I don’t have a mortgage on my cottage, I don’t have debts, and I don’t have sleepless nights. 

Future goals? To keep on keeping on. I have attended balls at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and at the Royal Naval base in Dartmouth; I have stayed at some of the finest hotels in London; I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in San Francisco. I’ve seen what the world has to offer, and I’ll take the hidden beaches and the palm trees every day of the week. 

For someone interested in becoming a freelancer in your field, what’s the best advice you would give? And what books, podcasts, thought leaders, or other learning resources do you recommend?

I’m sorry – I wish I could give you answers to this, but I can’t. I think if you want to become a freelancer in any field, find something you love and just start doing it. So many people say, ‘I want to be a writer’ but never write anything. We all have imposter syndrome; some of us are just better at quashing it when it needs to be. If you want to read something inspirational, look towards Erich Fromm or Alain de Botton – or go further back and look at the likes of Locke and Descartes

“Know thyself, accept thyself, and be thyself” – that is by far the most useful advice I can give anyone. Fighting against what you really are in order to become something you like the idea of being will always result in heartache and stress. I’ve seen many travellers go through hell because they refuse to acknowledge they don’t actually like travelling. If you try the ‘digital nomad’ life and you don’t like it, it’s okay to walk away. There’s a wonderful line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

What do you travel with that you couldn’t imagine traveling without?

Jane Thomas camping in the Kalahari at sunset while she and a male sit in camp chairs on top of a camping van
Camping in the Kalahari

When I was about eight years old, I found a four-leafed clover in my father’s garden. I put it in the teeniest tiniest picture frame, and it has travelled everywhere with me since. This has become part of my ‘good luck collection,’ a small cotton bag that comes with me everywhere. I’m no longer sure which part is the ‘good luck,’ so I can’t take any of the pieces out… 

I guess something more useful to note would be my backup Rugged hard drive. That beast is indestructible and has been invaluable over the years when laptops have unceremoniously died in inconvenient places. 

If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons you would share with the world?

The trick with life, I think, is to find what makes you happy and then keep on repeating that. I used to think that ‘happiness’ was a trite notion, something that could never be attained. But it can be found. It’s out there. And it’s worth the effort. Never put your life on hold for someone who wouldn’t do that for you. Love fiercely and honestly or not at all. 

What’s your favorite book and why?

My favourite book… I think it has to be EM Forster’s ‘Room with a View.’ It’s a perfect portrayal of Italy and love and questioning and understanding. That, alongside ‘The Great Gatsby’ – every line of that is pure poetry, and the last words are so true: ‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into our past.’

Tell us about your content creation journey and share some of your favorite content that people should check out!

My website has a lot of content on it, but I’m not necessarily a content creator. www.booksandbicycles.com will give you a peek into some of the places I’ve visited. It’s woefully out of date, I do need to work on that. Goals for the future: update website. 

What is your philosophy on being happy and/or finding meaning/purpose in life? And any recommended resources for people navigating this journey?

A small child hands Jane Thomas and friend a chick that has been dyed hot pink
A little boy introduces a ‘digital nomad’ friend and me to dyed chicks, Bali, Indonesia

I think I’ve probably answered this inadvertently as I’ve gone along here. We have to create meaning and purpose in our lives: it isn’t done for us. I sometimes struggle with this one. I’ve worked in some of the poorest corners of the world and have been privileged to help children come from impossible backgrounds to the giddy possibilities of Ivy League universities. 

When I feel like my life has lost purpose – and that has been really hard to hang onto this past year, when the world has closed down – I find a way to make a difference. Even small. Always give help without the expectation it will ever be returned. Always give more than you take. What’s that great line…? ‘To do the right thing for the wrong reason, that itself is the greatest treason.’ 

The website idealist.org has a mountain of jobs and voluntary positions for ‘good causes.’ The smaller the charity, the better. These large ones get out of hand. Never pay to volunteer either, and never do a voluntary position that means a local person misses out on a job. By all means, volunteer your skills to help a community, but don’t patronise or take or go in expecting gratitude. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, and the world is in desperate need of people doing the right thing. 

How can people learn more about you and your work?

I should update it more often – it’s woefully out of date – but my website is www.booksandbicycles.com. One day, I do genuinely plan on leading those bicycle tours – and others. I also have a Facebook page that I’ll keep updating as I write more books – https://www.facebook.com/BooksAndBicyclesPress. I’ve an intense dislike for social media… 

 

Lauren Allain
Lauren is a freelance journalist from Seattle. She travels the globe in search of the best grocery stores, bouldering gyms, and snorkeling locations. Her mission at Freedom Is Everything is to help others make the transition into location-independent lifestyles.