• In 2018, I packed up my life in Minneapolis after graduating college and hopped on a plane to Vietnam with the goal of building a location-independent career.
  • Since then, I’ve traveled across six continents and lived in both Australia and Indonesia while working full-time as a freelance travel writer and creative media strategist.
  • I was in Indonesia when the US issued the level 4 travel advisory urging travelers to return to America.
  • When your “home base” is a storage unit, stay-at-home orders due to a pandemic pose an entirely different obstacle.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Some say home isn’t a place — it’s a feeling. And that’s what I keep telling myself while quarantined in Bali precisely 9,386 miles from my home in the United States.

I’ve had the great privilege of choosing a base-free lifestyle. As a digital nomad, my livelihood comes from my laptop. I have a pile of belongings — contents ranging from childhood trinkets to my college diploma — stashed in a five-by-ten-foot storage unit in Minneapolis. I pop back to the US intermittently to change out worn-in clothes and catch up with everyone I miss while abroad, but I don’t stay very long.

When I heard of the coronavirus for the first time back in January, I was sitting in a bedroom in Australia. The headline sent a prickly shockwave across my skin but I shook it off, chalking it up to my propensity for overthinking worst-case scenarios. One month later, I found myself in Indonesia as the US Department of State released a Level 4 Health Advisory urging travelers to return as soon as possible.

Texts about going home began flooding in, and I found myself facing questions I wasn’t ready to answer. Would home mean Minneapolis? Australia? Perhaps the hole-in-the-wall hostel I fell in love with in French Polynesia? Images of residences I had briefly called home flooded my mind.

RiceFields   Canggu



Sarah Lempa for Business Insider


The risk of getting stranded on the way home, coupled with thoughts of rocking up to a storage unit in a jet-lagged haze, put me off from trying to get back to my homeland. Healthcare in Bali has its own complications for expats, but with the virus progressing stateside, I knew that thousands of people in higher risk categories would likely need that space more than me if I were to fall ill.

After several days of anxious deliberation and a 30-day travel insurance purchase for $42.51, I decided that hunkering down in Bali until further notice was my best course of action.

What it’s like to be in Bali during the global pandemic

Grocery store runs have now replaced my routine visits to local warungs, Indonesia’s traditional family-style eateries. Fragrant coconut-marinated jackfruit curry isn’t on the menu for now; instead, I’m biding my time at home making recipes like chili.

Facebook groups for rental accommodation in Bali make finding like-minded housemates a simple process. For $650 USD per month, I’m renting a private room in a villa with four other expats from England and Poland. With a garden, lotus flower-filled pond, two kitchens, and a palm-fringed pool to boot, it never feels crowded. 

Smiles at Warung Nyoman



Sarah Lempa for Business Insider


I’ve been living in Canggu, which is one of the more popular areas for expats. On one of my periodical “sanity drives,” I ride past the once-buzzing cafés and formerly cheery beachside bars that I frequented during my first few weeks in Bali.

My thoughts turn to the locals who will be affected by the lack of tourism. Most restaurants have switched to takeout or have completely ceased operations, cutting their losses as the streets saw less and less activity. A surprising handful remain open despite their largely vacant dining areas. Handmade signs instructing patrons to “use hand sanitizer before entry” remain standing.

Central Canggu   Jalan Munduk Catu



Sarah Lempa for Business Insider


Though there’s a notable absence of tourism and the streets see much less traffic, parts of life hum on as usual in Bali.

Street vendors with pushcarts full of pisang goreng (deep fried bananas) continue to sell their treats. The fishermen perched atop the creek near the end of my road still trade smiles with me when I pass by on supply runs, peppering my day with much-needed normalcy.

Street food   Jalan Raya Canggu



Sarah Lempa for Business Insider


Keeping a career going during lockdown in a foreign country

Although my coworking space shuttered its doors weeks ago, the structure of my career remains mostly unchanged.

I still spend way more hours every day staring at my phone and laptop than I probably should. I still rely heavily on Slack and Zoom to keep up with clients and colleagues around the world. Freelance work, however, is not an infinite spring, especially when you primarily operate in the travel industry and no one can leave the house.

Some of my ongoing work has been frozen or reduced until further notice, but I’m lucky enough to say that I’m still pretty busy at the moment. On the bright side, choosing a freelance career has to some extent equipped me to deal with this particular pandemic-induced income anxiety. This is not the first time I’ve dealt with financial uncertainty, nor is it the first time I’ve had to manage my professional life sans traditional office guidelines.

Self portrait



Sarah Lempa for Business Insider


Costs of living are far lower in Bali than they are in the US. A carton of eggs costs as little as $1; a bottle of water will run you around $0.30, and a loaf of bread hovers around $1.50. Other items that aren’t as commonly consumed in Bali, like wine, cost a bit more than you’d expect — think $10-15 for a decent bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

There’s no shortage of ways to spend exorbitant amounts of money in Bali (looking at you, floating brunches). Before the coronavirus outbreak, I would say my average cost of living was around $1,700 a month, but I’ve since reduced spending as much as possible. Adhering to stay-at-home orders has helped me slash my cost of living; gone are the days of last-minute spa days and cocktail hours that glide into late nights. With life largely on hold until further notice, my costs have cut themselves.

In the meantime, I’m sticking to necessities and keeping things simple. Concerns for the future loom on the horizon for us all right now. I’m just trying to focus on my priorities one day at a time.

One day, I ride down the road I’d normally take to the beach and find weathered bamboo poles and other improvised objects barricading the sandy entryway. There’s a serious-looking security guard to enforce it, too. He breaks his solemn demeanor and we smile at each other with our eyes only — a heartening, wordless exchange, even if it’s trapped behind by protective masks.

It is then that I remember community extends far beyond language and background. That feeling of solidarity is all the “home” I could ask for during a time like this.

Editor’s note: This article is not intended to encourage travel during the pandemic, nor is to intended to serve as guidance for travelers’ actions during the pandemic.

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