In high school, I saw a documentary about the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian trains, and it planted a seed that grew over time. Riding those trains remained a goal as the years went on, through law school and several years of practice. Eventually, it led to a planned sabbatical for a one-year trip around the world centered around the experience. I wanted a space to share my adventures from that trip, and started Legal Nomads in 2008 primarily as a travel blog for my family, former legal clients, and friends.
Since then, Legal Nomads morphed into a new business, one focused on food, stories, and photography. That deviation was a bit of a fortunate accident, because I never intended to leave the practice of law. It really was supposed to be a short-term (1 year) trip that I spent years saving for. I thought I would return to the States after the year was up, and go back to being a lawyer.
But life had other plans.
I was able to save up enough while working that one year extended into two, and over time, Legal Nomads morphed into a website that housed a business. Instead of my one year trip, I found myself writing for a growing community of people who, like me, loved food, stories, and photography.
After a few years of nomadic living I became tired of always picking up and moving, especially when I wanted to dig deeper when it came to food. I set up a home base first in Thailand, then several years in Vietnam, and finally in Oaxaca, Mexico. Each of those years involved plenty of eating, learning, and exciting work in storytelling both in freelance commissions and with public speaking. A few years into my travels, I was asked to present talks about those experiences, starting with a keynote about fear and travel in 2011.
Eventually, I started writing about my experiences traveling as a celiac. I received so many emails about how to do so, but I only mentioned it in passing on my site. I realized that there were many others like me who wanted to see the world with a chronic condition, and hoped my writing would help them feel more empowered to do so.
In 2017, after a few years of having a home in Oaxaca, a routine lumbar puncture while in the United States derailed the life I built, and led to a spinal CSF leak that is still ongoing. I am presently disabled, and cannot stand for long periods of time. I cannot tie my own shoes, or lift anything heavy. I can walk several times a week on a good week, but more slowly than others—and those walks eat into my other “standing up” time. I have had procedures (4!) to try and fix this spinal CSF leak, but none have lasted longer than 8 months.
At the same time, I found out I have a condition called mast cell activation disorder, which explains why during one of those leak procedures, I went into severe anaphylaxis on the table. This condition means that my wound healing is not normal, and that most of the foods I used to love sharing here are off limits, including my most favourite condiments, fish sauce.
This has also meant I not only “lost” travel, but also the joy of the world’s dishes.
As you can imagine, such a sharp life shift brought about feelings of loss and grief. I can remember the moment I realized that I would not be returning to my home in Oaxaca.
In the years since the lumbar puncture, I have mostly kept the Legal Nomads blog idle. I have, however, continued to update the resources pages and gluten free guides. On the blog, I’ve shared some personal updates, and thoughts about the adjustments and mental mindset needed to weather these kinds of difficult changes.
I am incredibly grateful for my community of readers who supported me fully during the shock of the initial medical procedure, and have provided feedback and questions to my newer posts about resilience and curiosity. It’s incredible to still have the support of my community, even though my life has changed so much.
In 2021, I redesigned the site and changed the logo from a slogan of “Telling Stories Through Food” to “Curious About Everything.” Travel and food exploration are no longer my norm. My strikingly different life means that these days my exploring is more of the mind, body, and soul. This required a new look for Legal Nomads.
This about page is thus quite unlike the page I started with in 2008, or shifted to as my business took off. It’s a living tree, just as we are all living trees. I’ve tried to answer the questions people have about my trajectory and work within it.
Starting with: money.
Making Money: Then and Now
Ah the money question. Understandably, people want to know how to make an unconventional career work. I used to get questions about whether I had a trust fund or a rich boyfriend (no, and no).
My writing slowly grew from passion project to platform for a few different revenue streams, each built upon the foundation of this site. I did not want to put ads, sponsored text links, or advertorial on the site, so it was up to me to find different ways to build a business that benefitted my readers best.
I am fortunate that this site began in 2008, before the travel blogging sphere was established and saturated. My readership grew considerably year by year, and eventually I was able to shift away from blogging and toward the projects I list out below. Some are passive income, which has helped now that I am mostly bedbound and unable to work. And some were active, and thus cannot be done any longer.
How I Make Money Now that I am Disabled
As I mentioned above, in 2017 my life came to a grinding halt. I’ve been mostly in bed since, and the change in my life has taken a lot of mental and physical adjustment. One of the biggest problems is that I’m unable to work as much as I’d like (or used to).
These days, my income is primarily the Patreon membership, and my celiac translation cards, as well as the supplemental streams below. As it was before, I do not take sponsored content, ads, posts, or collaborations/link requests. What you see here is what I experience, full stop.
When I first got my CSF leak, my community rallied together to help me get to the US for treatment. Now that the leak is chronic, they kept asking for a Patreon community to help with the income I need to keep the site afloat, and help me try to live independently.
The Patreon is a place for people to learn about ways to cope with chronic pain, from meditation techniques to accommodations around the house. I also share resources and videos to help people learn more about spinal CSF leaks. The reality is, almost all of us will either be in pain, or know someone who is. Many have questions about it. The posts therefore also include lots of questions from members that I’ve answered, about how to support loved ones, yourself, and reframe when grief overwhelms.
If you want to support my journey, writing, or work: this community is the best way to do so. You’ll also receive lots of information that (I hope!) will benefit you or your families.
Here’s my “Why I Started a Patreon” video:
Gluten Free Restaurant Cards for Celiacs:
I bought and used existing gluten free restaurant cards while traveling, and still got sick. The reason? They don’t account for the names of local dishes, and cross-contact concerns. For celiacs, avoiding gluten isn’t a choice and consequences aren’t simply an upset stomach. I created paid cards and free celiac guides that accompany them in order to help others with the disease eat safely around the world. They go through two sets of translations for accuracy, and I get messages constantly from readers who used them and found they alleviated a huge part of the anxiety we feel traveling as celiacs.
I had to navigate the stress of traveling and trying not to get myself sick, so I know how hard it is to do so. This part of my business is important to me, and I am grateful I was able to put together so many languages prior to my illnesses. See them all here. I have a few others in the works, but it goes slowly when I can only work in 20-minute increments.
Since I started them years ago, a few other cards have cropped up, some now mentioning cross-contact. I have sold over 6,000 cards since I started offering them.
Here is a video from 2017, just before my leak began, about why I built these gluten free restaurant cards:
Food Art From Around the World
I am really proud of these beautiful hand-drawn maps of food that I designed. They were inked by the talented Ella F. Sanders, and are available in black and white. These hand-drawn food maps have been purchased by readers around the world, but also by restaurants and shops who want to showcase the foods they sell.
It’s been so lovely to see pictures when they are up and on the wall! I’ve got posters (below!), tote bags, and t-shirts. Presently, Italy, Vietnam, Portugal, Japan, Thailand and Mexico are in the store, with 10 countries planned in total.
After I started my Patreon, I received a lot of emails asking if there was an option for readers to donate once, instead of signing up to a membership-type model.
So I’ve created an option for this as well, for people to support me more easily at a time that I cannot work like I used to.
How I Used to Make Money While Traveling
Freelance writing for magazines and websites.
I was very fortunate to have a website that led editors and others to commission articles via my Contact page. I did not expect freelancing to become a part of my income, but was privileged enough to have commissions come through over time. A percentage of my monthly income came from licensing photographs, writing destination or food-based writing pieces, and writing personal opinion pieces for publications around the world, including The Guardian and the BBC.
Public Speaking: Keynotes and Conference Panels
These were paid public speaking opportunities, and they allowed me to put these years of writing to work in a different medium. Among other things, I gave talks about food, the neuroscience of storytelling, and branding in a crowded digital world. Please see my public speaking page for more information about the speeches I gave.
Street food walks in Vietnam and Mexico.
I started feeding hungry readers in Saigon, upon their request. Part reader meetup, part eat-up, I took them around the city and introduced them to the wealth of great food. These food walks were housed under the now discontinued (since I can’t walk!) Jodi Eats umbrella.
When I moved to Oaxaca, readers asked for the same type of excursion. It was a pleasure to meet more of my community there, and offer them 3-4 hour food and mezcal crawls.
Brand Ambassadorship with G Adventures
For quite a few years, I was a brand ambassador for a Canadian tour company called G Adventures, as part of their Wanderers in Residence programme. I would join a tour with them once per year, and then write about it on their site, and under the WIR tag (for Wanderers in Residence) here on Legal Nomads. This was a paid ambassadorship.
I published my first book in 2012, called The Food Traveler’s Handbook. It’s about how to eat cheap, safe and delicious food anywhere in the world.
More About Legal Nomads
As I mentioned above, Legal Nomads began as a vaguely chronological recounting of my time living and eating abroad. I wanted friends to follow along, and I loved to write. As a celiac who traveled, food was an important part of my days. I needed to know what to eat, and what to avoid so that I did not get sick. Through the lens of mealtimes, I was able to learn so much more about a place and its people. I also discovered a deep abiding love of soup.
I wanted readers to find a community that connected storytellers who want to dig deep into a new country, shared in-depth food guides to cities around the world, and also offered lots resources to help plan and budget for long term travel. I also want to make sure I set realistic expectations about the sacrifices unconventional choices require.
Legal Nomads focused on food, but also the human experience in a modern digital world. And as my life changed, so did the focus of the site. Many recent posts address the universality of loss, and how to work with your mental mindset when life crashes around you. As with my years of travel, I want to share the good and the bad.
New to the Site? These May Be Helpful:
1/ For those seeking to work and travel, my resources for location independent entrepreneur. It’s a long resources page with tips, tricks, visa suggestions, and more from people who have done it successfully.
2/ The travel resources page, which hopefully serves as a starting point for those feeling overwhelmed with travel planning. It has budget, packing, solo female travel, and many other sections to get you started.
3/ For celiacs, my landing page for the detailed gluten free translation cards. These cards are different because they account for cross contamination, local food names, and were written by a food-obsessed celiac. Most are accompanied by free GF travel guides.
6/ For fellow street food aficionados, my how to eat street food without getting sick provides tips and tricks for enjoying great, cheap food safely as you travel.
7/ Because jet lag is a problem for us all: how to prevent jet lag and sleep better when you travel, or at home!
8/ Want to meditate, but unsure of where to start? I built a free 10-week meditation course. It allows you to try out different types of meditation, like mindfulness or self-compassion or Zen, to help you get on your way.
9/ If you’re a lawyer looking to escape the private practice / law firm job, my alternative careers for lawyers page may help.
10/ For those experiencing chronic illness, please see my general health page here for stories about coping with pain and grief.
For a chronological list of my posts going back to 2008, from latest to earliest, see the Blog page.
Over the years, Legal Nomads won several Lowell Thomas Awards and North American Travel Journalism awards for writing and photography. It has been featured in the publications below, as well as many others. For a full list of press and podcasts, videos, and interviews, please see my press/pr page.
More than anything, Legal Nomads is about a lifelong dedication to learning as much as possible and connecting to others to help us all stay afloat.
About Jodi Ettenberg
My travels evolved from living out of a backpack for several years, to having a home base in Thailand, then Vietnam, and then in Mexico. These days, I am indefinitely grounded due to physical disabilities.
If you told me back in 1998, when I went to law school that I would be roaming the world and stuffing my face for almost a decade, I’d have laughed at the impossibility. I thought I would be a lawyer in New York and eventually shift into a public advocacy legal role. Never did I think I would be a writer and public speaker.
I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, and spent my childhood skiing and playing soccer and not really thinking about long-term travel or food. I began to think about heading to Siberia in high school, after I saw a documentary about the Trans-Siberian trains.
Prior to founding Legal Nomads, I worked for 5 years in New York City as a corporate lawyer. I went to law school at McGill University in Canada, and then accepted an offer at a firm in Manhattan. My school debt was minimal due to Canadian tuition rates, and as a result I was able to save up for my dream trip during my years of legal practice.
I set out in 2008, with Siberia as the impetus for a sabbatical from the law. As I travelled, I found something new happening: I started to pick places because of the food. Learning about countries and their history became far more fascinating when seen through the lens of mealtimes, and I wrote about food more and more on the site starting in 2010. By 2012, when I published my first book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook about how to eat safely and cheaply around the world, food had eclipsed almost everything else as I roamed.
I am also a celiac, and part of why I continue to share on Legal Nomads is to help others with the disease travel safely and with less fear. The Gluten Free Travel Guides aim to arm celiacs with more knowledge and less panic as they explore the world.
Growing year over year, by 2017 my business included public speaking, food walks, freelancing, and more. It was at a high point in my work life, just after I sat down to make an ambitious 5-year plan, that I ended up disabled by a spinal CSF leak.
In the year since, I have worked hard on my mental mindset, and on processing the grief of losing the life I loved. I don’t know what comes next, but it is important to me to continue sharing the good and the bad, in the hopes it makes my community feel less alone. I also want to keep raising awareness for the under-diagnosed spinal CSF leak condition, as well as the other chronic conditions I have.
In 2022, I joined the board of directors for the Spinal CSF Leak Foundation in the United States, as well as their Patient Advisory Panel for Research.
I also have a my monthly newsletter that features the best of longform writing from around the web:
I am honored that my writing has resonated with an incredible community of readers.
Site policies, & Keeping Legal Nomads Ad Free
When Legal Nomads began attracting more attention, I received offers for sponsored posts and text links, as well as ad offers. I decided early on to keep the site ad-free, and have maintained that throughout my years of travel. There is nothing wrong with accepting ads, and for many it is the best way to earn a living with a blog.
I simply hate reading content with ads on them, and decided that I would treat my readers the way I wanted to be treated. That said, there are some affiliates on here from Amazon.
Book reviews: I sometimes summarize or list out books of interest to readers, particularly those about food or ones I read when I was travelling from A to B. Best books posts: Part 1, Part 2, and food books. I welcome emails about books you’ve written, especially if they are food-related. Occasionally publishers send me free books to read, which I include if I enjoy them and leave out if I do not. I also have a long post called A List of Books that May Change your Life, with input from readers.
Product reviews: I do not cover products or review them. Instead, I post about what I actually travel with on my Travel Resources page.
Amazon Affiliates: In posts where I reference books I’ve read or products I’ve used, I link to the product on Amazon.com or the manufacturer’s page, where I receive an affiliate percentage of the purchase price. If you click on a product I recommend and it is sold via Amazon or that manufacturer, I will receive a minimal percentage of the sale price (4%-6%, usually). I do not link to products I have not tested or verified.
No sponsored posts, embedded links, or guest posts: I do not accept sponsored posts or embedded text links, nor do I take guest posts. The only content that was created with a paid benefit was the longer term brand ambassadorship with G Adventures, who I worked with for 6 years. I disclosed this ambassadorship in my writing.
Ads generally: No, no, no. No ads, display or otherwise.
No pop ups: I know, I know, they work. I hate them. So they won’t be on Legal Nomads.
TL;DR Legal Nomads isn’t monetized via advertising or sponsored content, but rather through the creative projects, gluten free cards, my shop, and writing. The site is ad-free. Any affiliate links are products I have used or can vouch for and am comfortable attaching to my reputation online.
The Ups and Downs of Long-Term Travel
People often asked if my travels were fulfilling, or if I regretted taking off. In my “why I quit” post I wrote about moments of overwhelming happiness on this journey. That’s not to say every day was perfect, but on the whole I was lucky enough to explore some extraordinary countries, meet terrific new friends and eat as much food as possible.
This privilege was especially evident when I became disabled. I can’t imagine what I would feel had this happened and I was still a lawyer with dreams of travel. I am grateful that I left the law when I did, and was able to experience so much freedom before I lost much of mine.
Some posts along those lines:
- On the ups and downs of having had no home base during the last many years of building Legal Nomads.
- On how travel has helped me keep life in perspective in the long and short term.
- On homesickness and what it means to be ‘home’ in a world of in-betweens.
Some videos about life after law, the negativity I encountered when quitting my job:
A video interview from July 2013 with Bloomberg TV for their “Stealth Lawyer” series, about food, travel and life after law.
My talk about taking risks, long-term travel and finding your passion in life from the WDS 2011 conference:
Grief, Resilience, and Loss
When COVID hit, I received a lot of messages about how the changes to my life preempted the pandemic, but were quite similar in terms of grief and loss. I do think that is true, except that when the world eventually opens up I will still be left behind. Regardless, there is a universality in the grief and readjustment of a life halted in its tracks, whether for COVID reasons or my reasons, or many others.
In recent years I have started to write more about what that process was like for me, and how my mental mindset was the most important thing I could work on. I shared a lot about this on Instagram too.
- On learning to cope with chronic pain.
- On turning 40 with a spinal CSF leak.
- On a 10-day silent Vipassana Meditation course, and the lessons learned.
Want to Connect?
Thank you for reading,