Mel and Armando with their van, Mork

Interview with Westfalia Digital Nomads Mel Candea and Armando Costantino

Mel Candea and Armando Costantino first met in the Czech Republic before throwing themselves into the digital nomad lifestyle. We decided to find out more about how they have made vanlife work for them around the world, how they find friends and companions on the road and their advice for other people who would like to free themselves from the 9 – 5.

Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do as digital nomads? 

We are Westfalia Digital Nomads, a couple who travels mainly Europe in a T4 VW Westfalia campervan while working remotely. Armando is originally from Milan, Italy and he’s a videographer. Mel is from Montana in the States and is an online writer.

How did you develop your careers in filmmaking and writing?

Armando has worked 20+ years as a professional filmmaker. He worked his way up, from commercials to TV and movies. I started writing in my teens and was published a few times before moving to the Czech Republic to teach. While I was teaching, I started writing online.

Once we’d decided on traveling full-time in our campervan, we started with basic jobs that fit our experience. Armando began by filming interviews at different places we stayed for a New York fashion company and I wrote dating articles for a now-defunct online men’s magazine.

Since then, we’ve both actively branched out. He now does video editing, 2D animation and motion graphics. I can do most types of online writing minus techie stuff, social media management, video scripts and voice overs.

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What pushed you to make a leap of faith and become digital nomads?

Boredom? Ha. No, seriously, it played a part. We both really wanted to travel and needed to figure out how to finance it along the way. The term ‘digital nomad’ didn’t really exist when we started (2012), so we weren’t actively pursuing the title. It kind of organically happened because of our passion for travelling.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?

We usually stretch our legs first. Even if it’s a short drive, we like to explore the space we’re in. We organize (moving bags, cleaning if needed). Try to find free WiFi or see if our WiFi works. And we always take photos on arrival and throughout our stay.

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What are your inspirations?

As Armando says, travel is our main inspiration. Having the freedom to explore and see areas that catch our fancy, waking up to new sunrises and meeting people along the way – whether they’re locals or fellow travelers – can be incredibly inspiring.

I mentioned boredom before, but it isn’t just that. We actually feel more connected to our surroundings than we did in our static lives. It’s inspiring for us to be able to embrace our passions, without the distractions of the same daily experiences.

What have been your favourite places so far and why?

We get this question a lot. Grin. We don’t really have favourites, since we’ve had memorable moments throughout our travels. Watching the seals on the west coast of France at sundown? Crossing Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, immersed in its wonderful chaos? Driving across the great expanses of Ontario and enjoying a chat with a local fisherman? It’s a long list-!

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How has your lifestyle evolved during your time as nomads?

Oh, wow. We didn’t know what we were doing when we started. Not at all. A perfect example was our first dinner in the van. We were in Budapest driving to Bulgaria. We had a fork, hot dogs and used the stove top flame to roast them. It used to take us an hour to pack up or unpack. And as far as work, we weren’t established at all.

We’ve added a solar panel; we have a portable WiFi; and we’re almost completely independent for working on the road.

Now, we have our system. We’re organized (or at least much more than we used to be). And we can pick and choose our clients or projects, depending on our personal preferences, rather than just taking on any job. We’ve also been working on our own projects, instead of just working for clients.

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How has your lifestyle affected your relationships with people back ‘home’?

We’ve both lived abroad for so long (Armando 11+ years in Bulgaria; I was in the CZ for 11+ years) that they weren’t really affected. They enjoy living vicariously through us and our adventures, for the most part. And we love sharing our journey with them.

Has anything ever scared you as a digital nomad and how did you deal with it?

Nothing, really. It’s different for us as a couple, I suppose. The difficulties we’ve had in being location independent with work always came down to financial. Either looking for work as a full-time job, waiting to be paid, waiting for payments to process – it adds a lot of stress and insecurity you don’t have from a stable job.

We have been robbed twice: once in Prague at 9:30 a.m. (they busted out a window and stole Armando’s camera gear). It gave us a pause and we were almost at the point of giving up. But we decided to make the best of it and he used my digital camera to finish the shoot we were doing at the time.

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What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

To use that old quote, ‘Home is where we park it.’ As long as we’re together (the two of us, Ziggy our dog – in Mork) it doesn’t matter where we are. We’re home.

On your website you mention a great story about staying for weeks with an Argentinian family you met on a ferry. How do you build relationships with people while traveling?

We usually meet people who are fellow travelers, or those who are static, but interested in our travels. We’ve got a ‘family’ in Lithuania because we parked next to a remote lake near their house, and they didn’t want us to leave. We have another ‘family’ in Portugal, who taught Armando how to surf.

Sometimes we meet people online that will be in the same area and we organize a meetup. And when we can, we revisit those connections we made. Sicily’s (where we are now) a perfect example: we were here in 2013, and we’ve re-met many locals from our first visit.

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Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?

Slowly. Traveling in a van kind of begs for that type of travel. We don’t have return ticket or specified time – it’s always up to us how short or how long we’d like to stay in a place. We’d rather take our time getting to know the area, taking part in local events and experiencing unique things than rush through.

One summer, we did have an intensive time (7 countries in 7 weeks for a client). We never want to do it again, because it was a whirl of bland moments.

Which digital nomad resources have helped you the most?

Erm… depends. We use Google Maps for discovery and parking, for example. We have a list of resources we like here. But again, there weren’t really any resources when we started out. And we didn’t need any after we’d figured out what worked for us.

Can you tell us about one or more of your favourite moments as digital nomads?

For Armando, it was his first remote job. He’d go around a city looking for interesting shops and do interviews. When he got paid for the first time, he realized ‘Yes, this is possible-!’

For both of us, getting the feedback from clients always gives us a boost on a job well done. It’s self-satisfaction, in a way, and it’s also pride in the work we do.

What have you found challenging about the digital nomad lifestyle?

I think the most challenging is financial: finding new work. Challenging yourself and motivating yourself, including building up your skillset. Many people would rather have a steady job with security and the ‘feast or famine’ of being a freelancer can be quite tough.

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How do you choose where to go next?

It’s changed a lot since we started. We have long-term plans and short-term plans. Winter, somewhere warm. Grin. To explain the long/short: right now our long-term plan is to visit Sicily for a few months. The short-term is where do we want to go today/this week? What haven’t we seen? What have we been told is fantastic? It changes and depends, and weather can play a part.

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to someone about to take to the road in a van?

You need to be able to adapt. Don’t sweat the small stuff, meaning that you need to focus on the goodness and let the little irritations slide. One reason people struggle with living in a van is getting overwhelmed when it builds up and then something really big happens, like your van breaks down.

Also: let go of things. You need to downsize and change your daily life. You probably won’t have a hot shower every day; your beautiful flat screen probably won’t fit; and instead of all of those books – get a Kindle. You’ll thank me on a rainy day.

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What are the main aspects of your personalities that have allowed you to live as digital nomads?

Adaptability, a love and even craving of freedom and already having lived abroad for so long, homesickness wasn’t a question. Also, I think our personalities are complementary to each other: Armando is an extrovert (Italian!) and very sociable; I tend to be more homey, calmer and introverted.

How did you meet Ziggy and what advice would you give for traveling with an (adorable) animal?

Ziggy adopted us in Taghazout, Morocco. He was being chased by a pack of strays and jumped in our van. We couldn’t get him out. The next day, we took him to the vet to have him checked out, chipped and given vaccine shots. He’s been with us ever since.

We try to find areas where he can run free (no leash) a lot of the time. He’s really mellow (rarely barks, never whines), so we don’t really have that to deal with. You do have to make sure their shots are up-to-date, depending on the country’s requirements before you visit.

Mel and Armando's van with another impressive backdrop

Do you have daily routines? If so what are they?

We usually get up around 5 or 6 in the morning and have our first cup of coffee. The second cup is to chat about our plans (what we need to do or what we’d like to see) and gear up for the day. We go food shopping daily or every other day and cook most of our meals in the van. It depends on the day what we do. In the evenings, we usually watch a film or a TV show before bed.

How do you stay healthy on the road?

Erm, try our best to be careful? Ha. We’ve only had a few mishaps (a torn toenail, a knee out of the socket) as far as accidents. For exercise, Armando does surfing and I take walks – but we’re really not the poster children for intensive workouts.

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Are there any places you would recommend against traveling to?

If so where and why?

The U.S.. (Kidding) (Kind of).

What do you wish you had known when you started?

Too many to name, but I have written a guest post for Nomadtopia that kind of covers all the bases: ‘What I Wish I’d Known about #Vanlife.’

What is the best food you have eaten as digital nomads?

We’ve had a lot of tasty food over the years. Czech Svickova, home-made Moroccan tajines, Sicilian cannoli and Indian tacos in Canada, we’ve been pretty lucky to get a sampling of local cuisine in each country we’ve visited.

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What was your motivation for creating the Westfalia Digital Nomads website?

Originally, we started out with a Blogger free account called ‘Artrek12.’ It was to keep family and friends up to date on our wanderings, instead of trying to write dozens of emails.

After about 6 months or so, we noticed we had fans from as far as Russia and Japan (and we were pretty sure we didn’t know anyone based there), so we decided to upgrade to a WordPress blog. Our site is the natural progression from those first tentative posts.

How do you define success?

By our quality of life now. It’s apples and oranges compared to when we were feeling listless and stuck in our static lives, and I suppose our job satisfaction and happiness gives us an immense sense of satisfaction.

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What music do you listen to on the road?

I love this question-! I make new playlists roughly every 2 months, which are pretty eclectic. I’ve just created some road trip playlists on www.8tracks.com, with our latest favorites.

Which books have had a big impact on you?

Travel books, or books in general-? I don’t think either of us have been influenced by a specific travel book. Some blogs, perhaps, especially in the beginning. Travels of Adam and Seek New Travel come to mind.

As far as book-books, one of my all-time favorites is Candide. It’s a perfect read for when you’re feeling overwhelmed with life and maybe need a good laugh.

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What creature comforts can you not live without?

Armando couldn’t live without his phone/tablet, for sure. Grin. It’d have to be my Kindle for me – I used to cart around books and they took up loads of space. I think we’ve learned to live without a lot of things that other people might feel are lifely necessities. We have our home, our dog, brilliant travels and each other. What more could we ask for?

Which other digital nomads have inspired you to embrace life on the road?

Again, it’s really hard to say as the term ‘digital nomad’ wasn’t the hot trend it is now. But we have met some really inspirational people on the road, like Coge3 or Searching for Sero. And we’ve met some inspiring nomads like Alberto from Nomadi Digitali, who runs a website for Italian nomads.

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Big thanks to Mel and Armando for taking the time to answer our questions. Learn more about their adventures on the Westfalia Digital Nomads website. You can also connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

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