Behind the Postcards with Moataz Ahmed / by Chris Tyre


Passport Please...
Name: Moataz Ahmed
Nationality: Egypt & USA
Current Location: San Francisco, CA, USA
Next Destination: Japan

Behind the Postcards is an interviews series I'm doing with nomadic souls from around the world sharing their story from going from "normal" to nomad. Today I'm talking to Moataz who I met over a chai tea latte at a coffee shop in Chicago about a year ago.

N+C: Motizzy! What's up buddy? Thanks for doing the interview. Can you share with readers who you are?

MA: Hey, I am Moataz Ahmed, a freelance graphic designer who moves around to a new city every few months. My plan is to keep moving west, visiting every single continent, and living in 15 countries. I learn languages for fun and recently got into practicing mixed martial arts and hand lettering. I do a hand lettered piece every day on my Instagram @motizzy88 and share my process on Snapchat @motizzy.

Chillin' beach side in Haiti

Chillin' beach side in Haiti

N+C: What was your first solo trip abroad and what inspired you to go solo?

MA: Last year I went to the UAE, stayed in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for a week. It was a lot of fun. I never experienced that much display of lavishness ever. Very interesting place to visit. Let’s just leave it at that.

I actually wasn't interested in going, but what inspired me to go was the $200 roundtrip ticket price from Chicago. I was browsing one of those airline deals websites one day, and I found this airline mistake and I booked it immediately. 

It's weird that my first solo trip abroad was only a year ago. As a person who values alone time, impulsive decisions, and secluded exotic locations, I'm surprised it took me so long. I do almost always travel with friends or family. Partly because of the whole traveling while Muslim/Arab thing looking extra shady alone, but also because it has its benefits too.

Any day I would prefer to travel alone because I can do whatever I want, but having friends and family to share these moments with is also really great, especially if they're very similar to you.

N+C: What is your travelosophy?

MA: My travelosophy is travel slowly, learn as much as you can, the language of where you want to live, live there, leave for a new place, repeat. If you're traveling fast, have an unlocked phone, get a good data plan, and off you go. 

For a broader philosophy about travel I would say that traveling makes you fear less. Cheesy quote alert:

The world is a book, and if you never travel, then you've only read the first page.

Really early on in my life this quote really inspired me to keep learning and traveling. It's been attributed to a lot of people, but I first heard it as said by Ibn Battuta. He was a very well traveled Moroccan man from Sub-Saharan African heritage who lived in the 1300s. He went all across Africa, Europe, and even all the way to China. He was a pioneer in traveling the world and a well-respected scholar of his time who documented a lot of valuable information in many fields. 

Moataz in Tahoe

Moataz in Tahoe

My take on that quote is that traveling will make you fear less, because people fear what they don't know, and if you don't travel, then you don't really know. If you've never read another page, then you're guessing at what the rest of the book says. So I always keep in mind that I am very ignorant about other cultures, and I won't be able to say that I know about it unless I experience it for myself. I'm willing to bet that there is an inverse relationship between bigotry and racism, and between exposure to other cultures. 

Traveling makes you accept that there are other people out there with different thoughts and ideologies. Traveling will make you learn to coexist, not just because of osmosis where you absorb the culture. But because when you live with a new group of people, you actually get to experience the challenges they face and end up sympathizing with them.

That's why slow traveling (living somewhere for a few months) is really important to me. I want to not have any stereotypes, and I want to appreciate countries and cultures. I don't want to just race to a few landmarks busy with tourists and have a rushed, unauthentic experience and be disappointed. I'll get to enjoy traveling, and visit the sites whenever I want.

Palace of Versailles, Paris

Palace of Versailles, Paris

N+C: How have you been able to fund your nomadic lifestyle?

MA: The thing is, having a nomadic lifestyle is actually pretty inexpensive. I'm living in one of the most expensive cities in the world right now, and if I were planning on living here permanently I would end up having to work a whole lot more to afford it here. Most of the world is cheaper to live in than the U.S. so you'd be saving money by living there, as opposed to traveling there and coming back. 

I spend my money on travel, and on not much else. The difference between being frugal and being cheap is that frugal people spend on what they value, and not on what they don't value. Cheap people don't spend on anything. 

I don't make a whole lot of money, but you don't really need to if you want to keep traveling the world. I do graphic design and occasional copywriting for a living, a lot of which is off-site. So I can potentially just be anywhere, almost all the time. 

One of the first things I do when I move to a new place is (if I don't already get a contract job there from before) is go to meetups in non-design fields. For example developer meetups where I'm the only designer there and everyone needs a designer for their startup. I always carry a lot of business cards and network in person and try to get a good read on potential clients, and that's how I get most of my business. 

A lot of times I apply online to a few companies that I might want to work for as a contractor, and stay there in that new city, then look for a new place after it's done. Freelancing can also be a feast or famine phenomenon, so in the drought times I also teach online and in person a few of my skills that I later on plan on making video series for. (Design, hand lettering, Arabic, Japanese, etc.)

With all these apps, you can make money through pretty much anything. You can turn your car into a taxi, deliver things to people's homes, you can even barter or exchange skills online. Possibilities of funding your travels are endless.

Hugging it out in Haiti

Hugging it out in Haiti

N+C: You’ve said that you’re a graphic designer and I know that you are a typography nerd. So am I! So how has traveling impacted or influenced your design work at all?

MA: It saves time designing for international in the long run. Traveling got me exposed to recognizing different patterns that relate to geographical areas. Having diverse taste from exposure really sped up my workflow. Instead of doing a lot of research on what would be the best logo for an "ethnic restaurant" I already have a library in my head from staring at signs on the street. 

As I'm sure you do too, designers notice typefaces and logos literally everywhere. And I'm assuming subconsciously you already have organized folders in your brain of where specific styles go that you can pull up when designing for a location.

You also know the cultural norms of a place. You won't use an offensive color or phrase in your design. (Side note: If in doubt, always go with orange. There are no cultural taboos associated with it anywhere). 

Also, another thing I do, is I always carry a small sketchbook and a brush pen with me, and I start copying logos wherever I go.

N+C: What’s the biggest mistake that you’ve made while traveling that you wish you could go back in time and tell a younger you DON’T DO THIS?

MA: The number of times I didn't have a portable phone charger and wish I had one with me. If you don't have one, get one, especially if you're like me and have no sense of directional navigation. A lot of my travel stories revolve around not having a charged phone and just wasting a lot of time walking aimlessly and getting lost or being in a dangerous situation.

The Moataz & The Mona Lisa

The Moataz & The Mona Lisa

N+C: Is there a city or country that you’ve been to that was totally different than you’d thought it would be?

MA: Yes, all of the ones I visited. I'm always surprised no matter where I go. The one that sticks out is Paris. I thought it was going to be extremely clean and fancy, and a lot of times it wasn't. But at the same time, it was more beautiful than I imagined. The architecture, the museums, the food, everything was just amazing. Even with the occasional trash and weird smells that I happened to experience, it was an overall amazing place to be.

N+C: What’s the most unique thing that you pack when you travel?

MA: I had a friend who had a very small rabbit plushy he called 'traveling bunny' that actually made it to very interesting places in the world, it even went skydiving and snorkeling, and has its own Facebook page. I really wanted a traveling bunny of my own, but I never could pick something that I always pack. I have a Domokun plushy that I might make as my traveling companion, but I think another friend is already doing that. 

I do on the other hand pack random things on my way back from trips, like sand from this one remote dune-scape or beach, or rocks from this long hike. Because all my possessions can be put in two full size bags, I a lot of times just give them away to friends or family as sentimental gifts. These are probably the worst gifts ever, but there is usually a story behind it, and I hope that it's enough to give it some sentimental value. I do bring actual souvenirs too, but I feel like it's not enough, to me that's not as valuable as a rock from a remote mountain with a story.

N+C: I hear ya. I’ll spend a few months in a city and on the last day I’ll think, you know, maybe I should buy a souvenir or two haha. Last question, what advice do you have for someone who wants to become a digital nomad?

MA: Talk to other nomads, talk to as many of them as you can. You'll learn a lot from them, they'll tell you about their experiences and how to be safe, and to travel smart. People in general love giving advice, so ask them if you can. I tend to jump into things without doing much research, and if I were to go back in time, I would tell myself to get in contact with as many nomads as I can early on. There are quite a lot of mastermind groups and communities out there that can help you find other nomads. If you don't know any digital nomads, then listen to the plethora of podcasts and blogs out there that will tell you very detailed information on this amazing lifestyle.

N+C: Thanks so much man for doing this interview. I always get inspired on how to better design my life after our talks. I'm also going to search for airfare mistakes now. Anyway, be sure to check out Moataz's typographic drawings on Snapchat @motizzy. They're memorizing! And check out his design portfolio at Cheers!

All photos courtesy of Moataz Ahmed.