9 Years of Legal Nomads

gluten free translation cards

Published April 2, 2017

Ever since I left my job as a lawyer on April 1, 2008, I’ve shared my plans and my thoughts about the prior 12 months at the beginning of April. These annual review posts serve the same purpose as a new year self-reflection, tracing my sabbatical that eventually and accidentally turned into a new career.

During the last 9 years, I learned how to sail. I climbed a volcano while it was erupting. I sat with spiders for 10 days. I figured out how to speak in front of crowds, at first following a vomit session spurred by nervousness, and eventually a keynote without barfing. I stumbled into a lot of stupid mistakes and shared some of the more embarrassing ones.  I made friends, the kind of friends where you pick up after months and months of not seeing each other as if it were yesterday. I feel grateful for these experiences and people, and for the ability to earn a living by being as curious as I can.

Last April, I wrote about the most frequently asked question I received: when will I settle down? My reply dismissively suggested that the question itself was faulty. That what I’ve chosen to do is not temporary, but simply a lifestyle change. “My roots are there,” I wrote, “they just splay out sideways, reaching farther but not quite as deep.”

The joke’s on me, because this year marked the end of my nomadic wanderings – at least for now.

The lesson for Year 8? Acceptance.

At Least There are Tacos

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.”

― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

In October I took a deep breath and poured out a piece about my struggles with chronic pain during the last few years. Having a public site is difficult in this respect, because there’s always a line between sharing-to-help, and over sharing. I’ve had no problems writing about the challenges of my life choices, mostly to counterbalance the many “it’s all ponies and rainbows” pieces out there. But I didn’t want to complain.

Eventually, my pain levels and shitty immune system interfered with my ability to live the life I had built. Friends and family had not realized the extent of what had changed until I wrote the post. The Guardian picked up the piece, and the hundreds of emails from readers sharing their own stories with invisible illness were remarkable. Some people chastised me for “giving up,” but there is a distinction between passivity and acceptance. The latter involves more wallowing; the former channels Murakami’s decision to keep standing up to your present.

I’ve written about how travel helps us keep perspective, but it’s more than that. Travel doesn’t change you by itself; it shows you how un-special you are by giving you a spectrum of living to go by. Writing about my experiences with invisible illness did the same thing. Out of the woodwork came men and women who made me feel less alone in the experience of pain, and less invisible.

I knew I wasn’t unique in what I was going through. No one is. But it was very comforting to share with a few people who have similar issues, where we are each other’s sounding boards from afar.

To be clear, my day-to-day is not miserable. The problem is that in addition to the joint pain, my immune system is not very strong. I wrote about some coping mechanisms in the pain piece — yoga, eating healthily, probiotics, meditation, etc — but they haven’t stopped me from getting sick often. If there’s a bug going around, it’s bound to find me. I seem to have developed seasonal allergies that I never had before. I’ve been really frustrated by starting to feel ok, only to find myself felled by something totally different.

I had a very long, low-grade temper tantrum earlier this year about what felt like a loss of identity. And then I sat down and wrote that piece on chronic pain. The acceptance of Year 8 came in the form of stopping – literally and figuratively – and saying it’s enough.

I told my landlord I’d be renewing my lease in Oaxaca, bought a few rugs, and settled in for the winter. I still do get sick often here, but at least there are tacos.

tacos oaxaca
Goat tacos at the Friday tanguis in Llano park.

A More Stable Life of In Betweens

In March of 2012, I wrote a piece about my “life of in betweens” and homesickness while traveling. I was 3 years into my wanderings, starting to realize that I might not head ‘home,’ and a bit concerned about what the constant movement would do.

“On my end, I certainly do think we leave a part of us in each of the places we visit. There are repercussions to doing this with frequency, too – if you keep leaving parts of yourself around the world, what’s left to leave? And is there a way to go back eventually and collect all the pieces?”

As anyone who has moved then not moved knows, I was over thinking things. But then again, I still have a lawyer brain, and I always over think things.

The truth is far more straightforward. You are the aggregate of your experiences and the people who teach you to live in this world. What your personality absorbs as you travel, what you “leave” of yourself in the places you love isn’t a lacuna. It’s an exchange. It makes room for all of the new wonder and recipes and memories. That’s simply life.

It’s also simply life to undergo big shifts in who you are, often because of circumstances that are out of your control. What this year taught me was that fighting my state of being was making things worse. Wanting to feel healthy again and being able to move around whenever I wanted to was not possible. Pushing myself to the point of exhaustion simply made me more exhausted.

And what made me exhausted was a lot less than most of my friends or family. That was probably the hardest part, because I felt anxious and foolish for being so tired or in pain. Ultimately, anxiety can lead to self-absorption because you fixate on what you’re experiencing instead of the wider picture.

In situations of traditional grief and loss, professionals recommend shifting from a more passive process of suffering to one of actively constructing new meaning from what now is. The advice remains sound, even if my preoccupations the last few months aren’t grief per se. Once I swallowed the dissonance and got over feeling sorry for myself, I looked at my business and started to build something new.

Business Projects for the Coming Year

In the fall, my 6-year partnership with G Adventures came to an end when they shuttered their Wanderers in Residence programme with the bloggers that served as brand ambassadors. I will still be writing for them once per month, mostly about food. In addition, as any of you with affiliates on Amazon know, Amazon halved their affiliate percentage payouts for many categories.

I wanted to work on my own projects, but I worried about focusing on them when my income came primarily off-site. These changes spurred me to turn back to Legal Nomads and redirect my energy to the projects below that excite me.

It wasn’t just the income levels that felt a bit scary, but also confidence. I didn’t believe I had the authority to offer a class on storytelling. I was not a formally trained writer, and while I could draft a mean indemnity clause, that didn’t make me an expert on narrative structure. I didn’t think I had the right to share my tips for public speaking, because I landed my first keynote by accident – and then threw up for an entire year before each of my talks.

It’s thanks to readers that I feel more comfortable putting out these projects. You were the ones to ask me for the storytelling course, for the speaking post, for more food maps. You’ve sent me your own stories, your soups, your tacos, and most recently – and a bit jarringly – your pictures of dogs wearing raincoats. (For the record, I’ll accept all animal photos, no questions asked.)

My focus for the 9th year of Legal Nomads is to offer products and services that are different, hopefully valuable, and boosted by the cumulative output of this site.

1. Gluten Free Translation Cards for Celiacs

As I mentioned last year, I’m building out what I’ve called the Gluten Free Cards Project, a database of celiac translation cards for purchase alongside free guides listing foods that are safe and unsafe to eat. Yes, there are translation cards out there, both for free and for purchase. The problem is I still get sick when I use them.

Why? Because they don’t account for things like cross-contamination, or use local dish names, or list ingredients that may have hidden wheat. I’ve found that in many countries, especially developing countries, saying you can’t eat wheat or gluten isn’t sufficient. You need to use local names, as well as listing out the sauces or additives that contain wheat.

An example from this week: I wrote a draft of this post from San Cristobal de las Casas. I went to a taco spot and made sure the tortillas were pure corn. The meat wasn’t marinated. There was no flour in the sauces on the table. Despite this, and communicating in Spanish that I can’t eat anything with wheat, I saw the chef add “salsa Ingles” to the meat she was cooking. Salsa Ingles is basically Worcestershire Sauce – which has wheat. It’s barely used in Oaxaca, but is common in other parts of Mexico. And as most people don’t realize it’s unsafe, of course the waiter didn’t think to check or mention it. This is also why I try to eat in food stalls or places with open kitchens, so I can pay attention.

All this to say: the cards are different because people like me get very sick and need something to make sure they don’t.

You may recall that last year I was planning to offer these gluten free translation cards for free, hoping readers bought from the shop.

I’ve learned that no one buys from the shop. (Sigh.)

So now these cards sell for $10, with the longer guides still offered for free.

japanese celiac translation card
Japan card!

I’ve completed Italy, Japan, Portugal, Vietnam, and Greece. Next up is Spain, with cards for Spanish, Catalan, and Galician. And then Germany.

I’ve redirected a chunk of the earnings from this project to hire another food-obsessed celiac who is helping research future cards. Once these go through two translators for accuracy, I convert them into branded versions (below) using Canva.

The project has felt overwhelming at times, but it is all worthwhile when I get an email thanking me for a reader not getting sick. A celiac acquaintance in Oaxaca was planning a trip to Japan and her tour company suggested she buy the “Legal Nomads Japan Card” – it’s taken on a life of its own! I’m excited to get more of these guides and cards out in the coming year.

2. Public Speaking.

I plan to write a piece about how I got over my fear of public speaking. For the last talk I gave, for example, I read that overclocking my brain may help me memorize my speech – so I practiced reciting it from memory whilst listening to heavy metal music.

It’s all about experimenting with what your brain needs and wants, and then remembering that you are there for a reason, and the audience wants you to succeed. Usually. I mean there are certainly times where they want you to fail miserably and epically, but thankfully I’ve never had to face that kind of crowd.

wds jodi ettenberg
Me at my first talk, WDS 2011.

My public speaking goals are to focus on opportunities outside the travels sphere, and as with last year I will aim for education and food.

3. Typographic Food Maps.

Portugal is complete, new and cheaper black tote bags are in the store, and I’ve sent out the Japan list of foods for approval so we can get that one inked too. These did very well around Christmastime, and I have so appreciated the photos of my maps on your apartment or home walls, and in restaurants.

After Japan, readers have asked for Spain, France, and Canada. Since you guys vote on the next country, I’m all ears for what you’d like to see.

4. Writing Course.

I quietly put up a link in my monthly newsletter about a course I planned to lead that focused on storytelling in a digital world. I have yet to put the full outline and costs online, but the gist of it is to learn how to tell better stories in a crowded digital world.

Instead of a massive online class, I wanted a more intimate group that could benefit from each other’s energy. I also wanted to personally edit each assignment, so I will limit the class to 10 people each time it runs.

Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned issues I’ve not been able to focus on this as much as I want – sitting and writing has not done wonders for my nerve pain. But I will build out the workbook this season and hope to start the inaugural class later this year.

You can learn more here.

5. Oaxaca Street Food Walks.

street food tour oaxaca
1st Oaxaca food walk! This stall isn’t on the food walk itself, but loved this family so much we just kept going.

THESE HAVE BEEN SO FUN. While Oaxaca city does not have a density of street food like Saigon or Bangkok, I’ve formed relationships with vendors who make incredible food. It’s been great to share them with readers who pass through.

The family above was my 1st food walk in town, and they were happy to beta test all of my delicious eats. Alexandra is a reader who, like me, can’t have gluten — so all the better that my first walk was a celiac-friendly one. Her family was so lovely that we kept on going and ended with mezcal and long conversations.

I’ve been asked to scale these out further and partner with other companies, but I want to keep them for readers as combo meetup plus eat-up.

Readers coming through Oaxaca can learn more here.

6. More Writing on Legal Nomads.

As these other projects have taken shape I haven’t had the time to write on the blog as much as I would like. More histories of food ingredients and herbs and spices, more profiles of local vendors, and more photoessays. I also have a food guide to Oaxaca coming up, as well as what to do and see in the surrounding area.

* * *

That’s a wrap for my 9th anniversary of Legal Nomads.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and following along. Here’s to another year of stories, tacos, and learning through food.

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