Until 2012, Karen Maraj was one of those millions of white collars who kept the Earth spinning. In her cubicle in Toronto, she was managing the online presence of a top Canadian pension fund, Monday to Friday from 9 to 5, then went back home to her husband, cat, and friends. She had a stable, predictable life; she could plan her holidays well ahead as she knew how the next week, the next month were going to look. Or so she thought.
All of a sudden, in the wake of the financial crises that shrank businesses across the planet at the beginning of this decade, Karen is ‘restructured’. Around the same time, she and her husband decide to divorce, so Karen moves downtown, leaving her house and community behind. The iconic family cat, which has been with the couple for the whole 20 years of marriage, dies one month later. On top of that, Karen passes out one day and ends up in the hospital. Suspecting a seizure – which eventually proved to be nothing but a reaction to stress – the doctors ban her from driving a car.
So here’s the 2012 version of Karen Maraj: no job, no family, no friends, no car and, even worse, no cat. But the young woman still held one lucky card that, if played well, could have turned the game around: her online skills and a holiday she had taken at the turn of the millennium.
“It all started as a joke. In 2000, my ex-husband and I went on vacation to a big luxury beach resort on the Riviera Maya, Mexico. When we came back home two weeks later, I had a lot of photos taken during our stay and I thought I might share my impressions and memories with others. So I set up a very basic website on Geocities. Yes, I know, Geocities sounds like something from the Jurassic, but this happened 17 years ago, alright?
After a while, I added a discussion board so people could ask for tips or write their own reviews and impressions. And, without my doing anything, the little website started to get more and more hits. I was very glad about it but I did not know what to make of it. It was just a hobby and I was so busy with my job that I did not have time to invest in it.
Then in 2005 I broke my leg and was forced to stay in bed for one month. So what do you do if you cannot leave home? You take your old little website and put AdSense on it. I remember the day after when my husband came home and I told him: honey, I made 11 dollars today without even leaving the house.”
Later, Karen learned how online affiliate marketing works and started earning a 6% commission on all bookings funneled through her website. It worked so well that Karen and her husband could afford to travel abroad three to five times a year. Karen recalls:
“It was free money; easy money which gave us freedom. But I did not see it as my future business yet; I was still stuck with the traditional 9-to-5 model and with the monthly paycheck. Just after everything collapsed around me, I started to look at it as a serious alternative. And then I realized it could change my life.”
Tapping into the travel industry, she was invited to a few famtrips during which she developed knowledge and connections. One brand, a chain of luxury resorts in the Caribbean Sea, made her think that she could scale up. If her little website, dedicated to one place in Mexico, worked this well, what if she does the same for the 15 properties of this luxury brand? She had already visited all of them: who else could claim that?
It was time for Karen to build her little empire. But she could not do it in Toronto: too cold, too busy, and too expensive. While looking for a place abroad that would welcome her for a while and give her time to focus on work, she bumped into the exotic-sounding town of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. She touched down in November 2016.
“I’ve always wanted to travel to Asia. I picked Chiang Mai without knowing its reputation as the Mecca of digital nomadism in Asia, and only when I got here I realized what a good choice I had made. I love Chiang Mai. The culture, the people, the food, it’s all so interesting – so ‘spicy,’ I would say.”
“Back home I had a huge tower desktop computer with two 21’ screens. But now my whole office fits in this little backpack: laptop, smartphone, and camera. Most of the other tools I need are available online. I keep everything securely on cloud storage.”
When she is in Toronto, people say “wow, Karen, you are so lucky, so lucky to be able to travel and work from beautiful places around the world!” But what they don’t realize it’s not at all about pure luck. Karen explains:
“I was forced into it. I had to make myself lucky! I had to no other option. People say ‘I cannot do that, I have a job, I have a house, I have kids,’ but that’s not true. They can. Everyone with internet skills can do what I do. It might not succeed from day 1, but with experience and hard work it eventually will.”
To know more about Karen Maraj’s life and work as a digital nomad, follow her on Instagram.