Escape to Zoom Island

Written by David Kushner, GQ

Wednesday April 27th, 2022

When the pandemic untethered millions of workers from their offices, a new species of digital nomad was born. On a sun-dappled island in the middle of the ocean, a group of them is engaged in a novel experiment that might foretell the future of work.

Soon enough, the morning grind will begin again. The congested traffic, the crowded trains, the elevators and escalators whisking workers to their designated boxes. But that’s not how the workday begins here in Ponta do Sol, an ancient village on the subtropical island of Madeira. It starts at sunrise with clifftop yoga.

“Inhale, reach for the ocean,” Lindsay Barrett, a nimble, sandy–blond instructor tells a half-dozen millennials one crisp, clear morning last October. They’re perched on a stone patio a few hundred feet above the Atlantic, which noisily crashes against the lava rocks below. Pink-orange light spreads across the vast blue horizon, far past the green terraced mountains and cascading waterfalls.

But these aren’t trust-funders on vacation. They’re professional-class international expats who’ve moved here during the pandemic to live and work. Thirty-one-year-old Barrett used to punch the clock at a giant New York accounting firm but booked a one-way ticket here in 2019 to reclaim herself. “I want to work hard,” she says, “but I also want to enjoy my life and not do the rat race.”

She has company. All along the winding cobblestone streets nearby, outside cafés, inside parks, on laptops and iPads, this old town teems with about 200 guinea pigs in the wireless workforce of tomorrow. In the taxonomy of wanderlust, they’re called digital nomads, early explorers of Generation Zoom, liberated by technology and changing norms to work anywhere there’s Wi-Fi. As John Weedin, a long-haired 30-year-old freelance copywriter from Kansas City, Missouri, says as he rolls up his yoga mat, “I want to keep traveling, man. People are making it work.”

This is the vision of the program’s ambitious founder, Gonçalo Hall. A stocky, gregarious 34-year-old from Lisbon who is “always in beach shorts,” as he tells me, Hall is one of the leading evangelists for the nascent nomad nation. With just about $35,000 in investment from the local government, he launched Digital Nomads Madeira last February after the island’s tourism economy had sharply declined. Within six months, the nomads had created a vibrant, sustainable community—and helped reboot the local economy. Micaela Vieira, project manager for Startup Madeira, a business incubator run with government support, says nomads have generated an estimated 1.5 million euros per month. “They significantly helped,” she says.

How did the nomads pull this off? And what, if anything, are they leaving behind? I was on Madeira to find out. But, as Hall says, importing a bunch of contemporary nomads into an ancient fishing village has been as much a social experiment as an economic one. And like any experiment, it doesn’t always go smoothly. “We are a community,” he says with a toothy grin, “but I don’t control everyone.”

Madeira sits in a secluded part of the North Atlantic, around 550 miles west of Casablanca, Morocco, and about as far as you can imagine from a cubicle. For Hall, who’s been coming here since he was a kid, it was the perfect place to create the isle of nomads.

As a nomad himself, Hall understands firsthand the challenges of leaving a stable life behind. Four years ago, he was working for a sports-betting company in Germany. “I was happy, I was dating, I had a good salary,” he says. But when he turned 30, he realized he was miserable. “It hit me in the stomach, and I understood that this is not a life I want,” he says. “I don’t want a stable life in a nice city in Germany. I want to travel the world. I want adventure. I want to start my own business.”

He quit his job, and with his girlfriend, Catarina, a user-interface designer, he traveled around the world, from Poland to Bali to Vietnam. He became an early proponent of the nomadic lifestyle—launching his own podcast, Remote Work Movement Podcast, organizing conferences on remote work, and consulting with companies on how to embrace remote working. His passion isn’t just for free-range living—it’s for helping those who want to live in far-flung places, like Ponta do Sol, find fulfilling and lucrative work online. “Remote work is a tool that can change the whole world,” he says.

When COVID-19 hit in February 2020, the planet was suddenly filled with remote workers. At the same time, tourism crashed, leaving countries that relied on it with significantly less. One of those places was Madeira. The island averaged about 1.5 million tourists a year prior to the pandemic; a massive portion of that tourism, which previously accounted for roughly 20 percent of the GDP, disappeared due to COVID. Like many lifelong residents, Marisa Freitas, owner of Ponta do Sol’s popular Steak & Sun restaurant, feared the worst. “I was thinking I was going to lose the restaurant,” she tells me.

Hall saw an opportunity to help people like Freitas. In September 2020, he pitched the secretary of the economy a plan: Bring in the nomads, who would support local businesses, and perhaps inspire new ones. “Our interest is in keeping the village strong,” he says. “The locals have to be the winners.” After hearing Hall’s pitch, Startup Madeira struck a deal to support and finance his plan to create what they called the world’s first Digital Nomad Village in Ponta do Sol. They had no idea what to expect. “We were hoping for 500 applications total,” says Vieira, “but we started getting 200 applications per day.”

With this came a formidable challenge: bringing a thinly populated 15th-century village into the 21st century. The first order of business was to find someplace to convert into a coworking space. Right in the middle of town, near the one strip of restaurants and bars, Ponta do Sol had a cultural center dedicated to the American writer John Dos Passos with glass walls, garden views, and a spare exhibition space that could be used for coworking. They partnered with NOS, the communications company, to pump in the internet at a download speed of 500 megabits per second, with indoor and outdoor routers. A local real estate agent, Susana Pestana Silva, worked with homeowners to get their apartments up to speed for the nomads as well, adding desks, improving their internet connections, and working with them to attract renters with lower rates, sometimes at a 50 percent discount.

But it wasn’t just the internet and the homes that needed to change. Tourists come to Ponta do Sol for its seafood: succulent shrimp and luscious limpets bathed in fresh olive oil and garlic, and its spears of perfectly grilled local lamb. But since about one quarter of nomads are vegetarian or vegan, restaurants had to get with the tofu and the veggies. At Steak & Sun, Freitas added vegetarian options to the menu, or, as she wrote in English: “Betrayal of the Meat.”

It’s midmorning at Nomad Village, and I’ve come to work. The chipper digerati are strolling in from their apartments down the cobblestone alleys to roost. A young British online marketer in aviator shades kicks back on a call on the patio. A scruffy computer programmer from Russia commandeers an outdoor table while his homeschooled kids color alongside him.

Though they’re an itinerant bunch, there’s a chumminess to the group. As they flash smiles or peace signs while I look for a spot, it feels like they’re all in on the same cosmic joke: the one where they actually get to work here. Ahmed Hamouda, a 33-year-old software developer from Alexandria, Egypt, quit his job at Amazon to be here with his girlfriend. He tells me that becoming a nomad is worth the upheaval. “Because of the weather, because of the community,” he says, “we want to live this lifestyle.”

During the week I visit, Hamouda and an estimated 1,000 remote workers from over 50 countries are on the island, spread among a few main locations: here in the seaside cove of Ponta do Sol; in the city of Machico, about 45 minutes away; and in the bustling nearby capital of Funchal. Some rent apartments, often reasonably priced, overlooking the lush banana plantations. Others share what Hall describes as rambling old farmhouses with 200-year-old wine cellars in the basement. When it’s time to get a project done or hop online for a Zoom, they grab their laptops and stroll to any number of coworking spaces.

But this experiment didn’t go so smoothly for the earliest arrivals. At the time, Spela Tezak just wanted to get away. The 33-year-old tourism manager was living in her home country of Slovenia when the coronavirus brought her job to a halt. Previously, Tezak had spent many weeks on the road, working with travel agencies and young travelers. Then, suddenly, she couldn’t. “I had a lot of time to think about myself,” Tezak, who speaks quickly and wears her long blond hair in a ponytail, tells me one evening in Funchal at an outdoor café. “I wanted to do something for my mental well-being.”

After reading about Digital Nomads Madeira, she thought the island seemed like just the place to wait out the pandemic. Like many her age, she could continue to work online, so it didn’t really matter where she lived. Many nomads aren’t rich at all—they’re just getting by. And yet the lifestyle is designed to be affordable. She lined up a cheap apartment in Ponta do Sol and bought a one-way ticket to the island in March 2021. There was just one problem when she arrived. Ponta do Sol was dead. “It looked like a ghost village,” she says.

Despite the allure of working from an exotic place, there’s no escaping the realities: learning the language, working across time zones, and, perhaps most crucially, finding community. As Hall knew from his own years of nomadic living, it wasn’t enough to just help these newcomers obtain extended visas and find fast internet. “Community is the key,” he says. “It’s why everybody else is completely failing at attracting digital nomads. They miss the most important thing, which is that nomads travel between communities, not between places. I travel because my people, my crowd, my friends, and my tribe is in that place, and I want to be with my tribe.”

So did the nomads who began arriving to the island in winter 2021. “There’s a couple of struggles that nomads have, and one of them is, How do I build community?” says Pamela Smit, a sustainability consultant from the Netherlands who came here last March. As Smit puts it, “How do I not get lonely if everybody’s always working hard and doing their own thing?”

Rather than leave the new arrivals to chance, Hall launched a Slack channel to serve as their networking hub. He talks about nurturing the community as if he’s creating a thriving town in The Sims. “Don’t try to force it,” he says. “You have to create infrastructure, but you don’t own it. You have to give the power to the nomads as soon as possible.” Hall goosed things along by offering sunset hikes and afternoon swims, but eventually the newcomers took to the channel to organize their own activities. Before long, Hall says, “Nomads were managing the nomads.”

Merle Makoben, a 24-year-old college student from Lübeck, Germany, served as the Ponta do Sol nomads’ community manager until January of this year. She found they shared one common desire: personal development. It’s an attribute that Hall discovered in entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’s school of life hacking, and it was elemental to what inspired many of them to hit the road. They planned yoga, salsa lessons, musical jam sessions. “I think all of us are seeking freedom and self-growth,” Makoben says.

Jorge Frietas, a second-generation bartender at The Small House, one of the only bars on Ponta do Sol’s main street, had a mixed reaction to the young, worldly visitors ordering shots of Jägermeister and thumbing through their phones. Some were good customers, while others were less well-behaved. And, the town worried, they could be bringing in COVID. To keep the virus from spreading, Madeira instituted a 7 p.m. weekday curfew in January 2021. But some of the travelers broke it anyway, said Makoben, which led police officers to “admonish” them.

The locals’ concerns proved right when in the spring, Hall says, one of the nomads came down with COVID, and three more cases followed. Nomads who had been in close contact with the infected decided to quarantine themselves. “It was a very conscious decision to separate ourselves from the locals in order not to endanger them with infecting anyone,” Makoben says. But later, as cases waned, the nomads developed a new sense of purpose. “We made the jump from wanting to separate in order to keep everyone safe to wanting to integrate,” she goes on, “because we’re here in your home and we don’t want to be a separate bubble.”

“We wanted to make an impact,” Tezak says. “We want to give something back to this beautiful village.” They started volunteering around town: leading beach cleanups, painting murals, and offering lessons to locals, like salsa classes taught by a nomad from Germany. Before long, Ponta do Sol started to feel alive again. Freitas, owner of Steak & Sun, said that the nomads were instrumental to the restaurant’s recovery. “They are very, very good for us. I say ‘They’re my angels.’ ”

While Hall was building his community in Ponta do Sol, he wasn’t the only enterprising nomad on Madeira. A half-hour east, at a five-star hotel and resort in Funchal, a different kind of pop-up community for a different kind of traveler took over—and it was nothing like what Hall had in mind. “I have my own principles,” he says, diplomatically. “I think what they did was amazing, but it doesn’t align with my vision.”

On a sizzling-hot afternoon, I ascend to the panoramic rooftop pool deck of the luxurious Savoy Palace resort to meet the person responsible for this competing vision: Bogdan Danchuk, whom his fellow nomads nicknamed Boggy D. An amiable 32-year-old with his blond hair in a man bun, Danchuk is dressed in jeans and a denim button-up. He waves like the rock star he is here to the hotel employees passing by. “I miss this place,” he says with a sigh.

Just as Hall led the nomads in Ponta do Sol, Danchuk convened his own crew here. Their visions, though, couldn’t be more different. While Hall worked with a small village to keep things local and communal, Danchuk went corporate and glossy: scoring a deal for him and 168 of his nomadic friends to move into this deluxe resort at a time when COVID numbers were surging. For six months, the hotel was theirs to enjoy, and they lived a kind of decadent, dystopian fantasy filled with booze, revelry, and cryptocurrency.

“I still can’t believe it happened,” he tells me wistfully, as he gazes over the infinity pool to the ocean below. “It was the time of our lives.”

For Danchuk, who grew up so poor in Ukraine he sometimes only had onions and a bit of bread for dinner, it was like nothing he had ever dreamed of. After his family moved to Israel, he became an enterprising kid—a popular class president who vowed to never be poor again. Danchuk created his own digital marketing firm at 18, and hit the road as a nomad a year later. Since then, he’s been in over 36 countries, from the U.S. to Vietnam, spending a few months in one spot before moving on.

But there was one location where he wanted to stay: Madeira. “I was amazed to see this place, which has every single thing you could imagine you wanted out of life,” he says. “It’s like a big-city feeling while being surrounded by nature.” There was just one drawback: the old, stodgy tourists. “You had people from, like, 70 to death,” he says with a laugh. “It was the only negative about this place for nomads, but it has everything to entice those people to come.”

After the pandemic hit and he heard about Digital Nomads Madeira, he came up with a competing plan. He wanted to find a hotel where he and other nomads could find refuge. A hotel, he reasoned, could offer a collegiate, dormlike experience, only with grown-up amenities. “You have access to bars, restaurants, socializing,” he says. “You’re basically flatmates in a large building.” Danchuk emailed hotels around the island, pitching a nomad package. For the hell of it, he included the Savoy Signature group, which owns the Savoy Palace, and which he considered the most extravagant hotel on the island. Originally, the plan was for the nomads to move into another Savoy hotel in Calheta, on the island’s west coast.

But then, with the pandemic wearing on, the Savoy contacted him. The other Savoy Signature hotels would be staying closed due to the lack of tourism, but the Savoy Palace, the chain’s flagship hotel, would remain open. Danchuk’s nomads could help them keep the lights on. The Savoy Palace was theirs. “I couldn’t believe it; it was a crazy development,” Danchuk says. “But part of me was also a bit scared.” With over 100 millennial nomads shacked up in a five-star hotel during a global pandemic, what could go wrong?

Danchuk put out the word on various nomad hubs on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Slack. There were no requirements to get into the Palace—it would be first come, first serve—but a lot of people wanted in: around 1,000 of them for just 168 spots. While Hall’s nomad village Ponta do Sol attracted a younger, less-established crowd drawn to its apartment living and small-town feel, Danchuk’s luxury offering lured what he described as an older, more entrepreneurial group of telehealth doctors, crypto-traders, and start-up founders.

One of the first to arrive, last February, was Lorelie Dijan, a fashionable and fun-loving 33-year-old from the Philippines. Dijan was working as an I.T. project manager for an automotive company in Frankfurt, Germany, when the pandemic hit. When she walked into the Savoy’s chandeliered and gilded reception hall, she couldn’t believe it, she tells me. “It was like, Wow, okay, this is impressive.” And yet it felt so surreal to see it so abandoned, other than a few staff members waiting to greet her. “Practically nobody was there,” she tells me over Zoom from her apartment in Germany in November.

Teemu Tiilikainen, a 32-year-old cofounder of an I.T. consulting business in Finland, and his wife, Sofia Seger, a software engineer, arrived with the hopes of not only finding refuge from COVID but also something that often eludes young professionals: new friends. “At this age, most of your life is going around your work or your hobbies or whatnot,” he says. “I don’t actually make new friends that often. But we all arrived to be together in this bubble.”

Because of COVID, that bubble was real. Nomads had to test negative just to get into Madeira. And due to Madeira’s strict curfew, the Savoyians, as they called themselves, had to remain within the hotel after-hours. Of course, being stuck inside a luxury tower has its perks. The nomads made the Savoy into their own dream dorm. Danchuk describes them as living on room service and hooking up a PlayStation to the TV in the cigar room. They hit the gym, got massages, and downed shots of poncha, the island’s sweet and citrusy signature cocktail, at one of the hotel’s bars, which Danchuk says they persuaded the hotel to leave open 24/7. (The Savoy Palace said that the bars were never open after midnight.)

Using a Slack channel to organize, they began palling around in groups, going from the breakfast buffet to the palm-tree-lined pool and rocky beach. They planned yoga classes, karaoke in the conference rooms, and a self-help ritual called circling, in which they gathered together on the lawn to share thoughts, feelings, and fears. The nomads were designing a new kind of communal living—with room service. “It felt like a tight family after maybe two weeks,” Dijan says, “because every night we would do something; on the weekends we would do something.” They became so tight that hookups, she jokes, “felt like incest.”

“It was surreal to see this whole thing being born in front of my eyes,” Danchuk says. “I was pinching myself to see this community thriving under one roof.” Gone were the days when someone had to be stuck in their own neighborhood, isolated and alone. With social networks, people could create their own communities anywhere in the world. Now, they could actually move into them. “Nowadays, you can find groups on Facebook which you’ll feel are your tribe, and you can create your own reality,” Danchuk says. The perfect storm of the pandemic, Madeira, and the Savoy proved this life-hacking approach to be viable. “It was already coming,” Danchuk says, “but this was the first time we lived it.”

With the rest of the planet facing restrictions and isolation, the Savoyians reveled in their strange dystopian paradise. “I call it the Madeira magic,” Dijan says. “People just kept extending their trips or canceling their flights, and the crazier and crazier it got.” Much of the craziness was due to the other part of Madeira’s magical storm: the boom in cryptocurrency. Throughout the hotel, Danchuk says, were crypto day traders, hedge fund managers, and heads of crypto-exchanges who bought and sold coins and traded tips on new ones, armed with their laptops and shots of poncha. Danchuk claims that two nomads started their own crypto hedge fund with a $2 million investment from people inside the hotel and that another made $200,000 on a $2,000 investment. “We had people reinvent their whole career based on the advice they got,” Danchuk says.

One of them was Lucas Braun (who prefers to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy). Braun was a sales manager in Berlin who went to Madeira on a tennis trip with his friends in late 2020. With just a tennis bag full of clothes, he checked into the Savoy and fell deep into the crypto-scene. Before long, he was spending his days trading-—and expanding his consciousness.

“When you get into crypto, you’ve got to open yourself up to new ideas, new domains,” Braun says, who compared trading crypto to taking psychedelics, as some in the crypto-scene were known to do. “Psychedelics are very good to open your mind so that you make connections. You don’t question so much, you actually get it.” Eventually, he quit his day job. “It was a life-changing moment,” he says. “It opened me up completely. I gave away my old thought patterns about needing to do things a certain way.” He wound up staying for a year.

With the money flowing and the sun shining, the inhabitants of the “crypto–hotel,” as the Savoy was nicknamed, went on yacht trips and taxi rides, and had lavish dinners of fresh sea bream and Madeira wine. One night, Danchuk says, the Savoy CEO strolled through the lobby while nomads played “Wonderwall” on guitar. They held ecstatic dance parties, shimmying in complete darkness in rooms cleared of furniture, and saw the sunrise during parties on the beach.

But the costs of their lifestyle fell on Danchuk, who said he fielded all the complaints from the hotel, including a smashed TV. “I would wake up to a hundred

WhatsApp messages per day,” he says. As more tourists returned to the hotel, he claims he was told to keep a closer eye on his Savoyians, including the scruffy nomad padding down the halls in striking footwear. “Can you tell him he cannot walk around the five-star hotel in wolf slippers?” he says the hotel told him.

Ultimately, the thing that killed the pandemic–era party was the pandemic’s waning. That’s what happened last May when, due to falling COVID case numbers, Madeira’s tourism returned. One by one, busloads of silvering retirees began pouring into town again. For the Savoyians, that meant the end of their sweetheart–package deals by June, and their short-lived fantasy. Unlike Hall’s scene in Ponta do Sol, this one was never meant to last.

Danchuk witnessed more than a few steely guys burst into tears as they hugged him on their way out the door. “Here was this successful career man suddenly finding a community, suddenly doing something together, suddenly having this student-exchange dormitory experience, but in a much nicer environment,” Danchuk says. “It became their new normal, it became their family, it became their life. This magical thing was created and happened. People really didn’t want to leave.”

Dijan was among them. “In Frankfurt I live alone,” she says. “I do have friends, but I don’t see my friends every night. And then, there, all of a sudden, you belong in a community. And even if people are staying just two weeks, you create a certain bond. So every time people would leave, it was like, ‘Oh, no!’ It’s a little heartbreak each time.” When one Savoyian told Sofia Seger that it had been so easy to lose touch with reality in their bubble, Seger replied, “No, this is actually how it’s supposed to be. This is supposed to be normal.”

“Hey, man,” Arkadi Silverman tells me, as he swipes through his iPhone. “Check out this picture of this apartment I bought.”

It’s a starry night in Ponta do Sol. Silver-man, a laid-back and bejeweled 32-year-old Israeli, and a number of other nomads have taken over a clifftop bar for their weekly invite-only party Purple Fridays. The party is named for the spectacular violet-and–crimson sunset view from the dance floor, which throbs as the ocean washes against the volcanic rocks below. As one online event listing explains, the private party is for “professional networking, partying, and dancing.”

Silverman, who describes himself as a retired pro poker player, now manages crypto-portfolios and trades NFTs—including the “apartment” he just bought for about $400 worth of Ethereum. On his phone, he shows me the image of a cartoon living room with a table, chairs, and a window. The digital nomad has bought a digital apartment. “Pretty nice, huh?” he says.

When I visit in October, the island is back and booming. Nightclubs have reopened, and vineyards are booking tastings. And as the rest of the world returns to the office, the dream of what the nomads call a “location–independent” lifestyle is becoming more real by the day. According to a recent survey from, around two-thirds of American businesses have permanently closed some or all of their offices since the start of COVID. Before the pandemic, just under 6 percent of Americans worked remotely. Now, nearly 25 percent of the full-time workforce is expected to do so this year. By 2025, an estimated 36.2 million will be working at home—unless they’re on the beach, in a yurt, or any other not-a-workplace workplace they can dream up. And those companies stubbornly hoping to lure workers back to their digs as COVID subsides are facing the so-called Great Resignation, with a record 21.6 million workers quitting their jobs from September 2021 to January of this year.

At the same time, the sort of digital nomading pioneered on Madeira is continuing to gain popularity. There are nomad books (Nomad Capitalist, The Digital Nomad Survival Guide, and what many call the bible of the movement, Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek). There are nomad podcasts (Nomadtopia Radio, Nomad on Fire, The Nomadic Executive). There are nomad conventions, nomad dating sites, and a transatlantic nomad cruise (“designed to inspire and break down the fundamentals needed to grow an online business while traveling the world,” as it advertises).

Increasingly, governments like Portugal’s are getting on board. In November, the country’s parliament approved new labor laws to protect and lure more nomads. Among other things, employers there now face fines for contacting remote workers after-hours except under extenuating circumstances. “We consider Portugal one of the best places in the world for these digital nomads and remote workers to choose to live in,” the country’s minister of labor, solidarity, and social security, Ana Mendes Godinho, told the Web Summit conference in Lisbon in November. “We want to attract them to Portugal.”

For the strange new universe of remote working, the past couple years will go down as the big bang. The social experiments on Madeira are already being exported. Danchuk is hoping to bring his Remote Haven hotel model to other places, too, such as Tokyo, Boston, and Hawaii. Hall continues to oversee the Digital Nomads Madeira program, which still offers the same services to remote workers coming to Ponta do Sol and other villages on the island. He’s also trying to bring the Madeira model to other countries. I caught up with him recently by Zoom while he was in Cape Verde, an island chain around a thousand miles south of Madeira, setting up a program there. “It’s very chill,” he tells me with a big grin. “White sands, swimming with the turtles, live music everywhere.”

As nomadic living spreads, the only obstacle to stop someone from joining the tribe is fear. “It’s just the status quo and the fear keeping people from a nomadic lifestyle,” he goes on.

“Most people don’t understand. They say, ‘You are lucky you can do that. I can’t because*—put excuse here.*’ But I think it’s just breaking from the status quo. That’s the hard part for most humans. It’s very comfortable to be in the status quo. That’s why maybe the nomad community is so interesting. It’s because everybody in the community had to break the status quo. Everybody had to say, ‘I’m leaving this job. I’m not living here. I’m not buying a house. I’m not getting a dog and the car. I am traveling the world instead.’ ”