FAQs after 6 years of travel

Well, everyone. We’re still here. Six years after I said, “hey why don’t I quit my job as a lawyer and travel for a year and write long, rambling posts about bus rides from hell so my parents can be even more worried that I am not safely in North America?”, I’m still writing.

And many more of you are reading.

The posts are just as long, though hopefully less rambling. And in the intervening years since April 1, 2008, I have tried to weave a history and culture component that the original writing did not contain. I’ve also focused far more on the visual — photoessays and design — than when I set out.

It’s been a really fun ride.

I say this every time I do a yearly roundup, and it’s no less true 6 years out: I’m extremely grateful to be here. I get many emails from readers asking how they can find their passion in life, since I appear to have found mine.  But I don’t think it’s ever “found”.  As I said in the first speech I ever gave, it’s far more realistic to point yourself toward a path using skills you’ve gained (and don’t hate deploying), combined with things you enjoy — and then see where it takes you. Provided you are positioned to even think about “finding passion” then this approach might give more comfort than a giant search for Purpose. I write back to those reader emails suggesting that bite size morsels of enjoyment and skill are more digestible. That is, keeping an aggregate list of ever-changing things that bring joy, and a separate list of skills that can be leveraged to build the life you want. If work and those joyful things overlap, the more the better. But just as there is no one path to success, there is no one path to happiness. And of course this discussion requires you to have the luxury of seeking happiness in the first place. Not all of us have that privilege, which is a perspective we are reminded of quickly when we travel.

In my case, yes, I do love what I do. I love the writing, the sharing, the meeting readers in far-flung places and hearing the stories of their lives too. And I’m grateful for the multitude of meals shared with friends and strangers who trust me to feed them, or who love food and want to share a connection over soup.  It wasn’t my plan to “be” a travel and food writer, but here I am six years later. I still don’t know if I’ve found “my” passion; it seems strange that passion should be singular. What I do know is that long ago I stopped looking for what my passion might be. I ignored the posts and sites that urged me to find it, and instead focused on learning more, on gratefulness and on hopefully making a difference in the lives of those who cross my path.

And, you know. On soup.

jodi ettenberg ho chi minh city
mmm…. souuuuuup.

Given that I recently wrote about my year of being down for the count with dengue (which does, in fact, suck donkey balls), I’m forgoing the usual State of the Union style anniversary post. Instead, I’ve compiled the frequently asked questions from reader emails and from a thread on my Facebook page, listing out the main inquiries from readers.

Questions about how I pay for my travels

Every time the site gets new press (which is great!), I am sent a slew of “how do you pay for this” questions. The first time this happened, I changed my about page to disclose the ways I make money, and how I continue traveling the way I do. Understandably, I still get the question via email, so I am going to answer it here.

How do I make money?

1. Consulting work in social media. Quietly working with smaller businesses who want to build a community of engaged users and followers online, not simply spike engagement.

2. Merchandise and products relating to the Legal Nomads brand. Part of the benefit of having kept up this site for so many years is that there is a great community of people who seem to be excited about the things I love.  And willing to argue about the things they think I should love that I don’t (*cough* olives *cough*).

The first in this category was my Food Traveler’s Handbook, which was well-received and supported by many of you. The second — which I will build upon further this year — was the hand-drawn typographic maps of Vietnam’s foods, a collaboration between me and an artist I love (Ella Sanders). There will be more of these in the same style, with Thailand up next. And other fun merchandise in the form of posters and notecards, highlighting photography and maps from my travels, as I set up an online store to house these endeavours.

I’ve funnelled my enthusiasm for food and maps and photography into products that you would love as much as I do, built out of creativity and excitement.

3. Brand partnerships with companies I respect such as my longstanding partnership with G Adventures to travel with them, document those travels and other adventures, and work with them to promote sustainable travel and community.

4. Food walks. These have been a pleasure to run, but not something I want to scale. The goal was spend time with readers, and hopefully run 10 tours this season. I’ve now met over 100 (!) of you who have come through Saigon, and you have been enthused and excited participants in eating your way around town. Unlike some of the other tours that are more general, these aren’t meant to be perfect snapshots of Saigon’s food. Instead, they are places I love to frequent, and each dish tells a story about the history of the ingredients and how they came to the Vietnamese table. (With bonus interim mealtimes acted out in Frogger style, weaving through traffic.)

While I don’t plan to make this a full prong of my business anytime soon,  I am grateful for a platform where I can run these small food walks in places I love. Saigon high among those places, of course.

making money from travel
One of the first food walks included an impromptu afternoon tofu snack from my favourite warm tofu lady (called tàu hũ nước đường, silken tofu with ginger and tapioca and topped with coconut milk, served warm). After the pho of course!

5. Freelance writing. I still do take freelance writing projects and have written longer pieces about food, travel and history for magazines in Asia and the USA.

Given that this new career happened by accident, how did I plan financially when I left? 

I researched other people who had done a longer trip, and also had friends who were nearing the end of their one year around the world. Based on those conversations, I aimed for approximately $15,000 in savings for the year. (For what it’s worth my budget came in at less because I ended up spending so much time in Asia and not including Japan in the process.)

So my goal was to not quit until I had a buffer of two years (total $30,000) and then an additional amount that I would put aside as an investment and not touch.

When I realized that I would not be returning after a year (or two), I decided I wouldn’t eat into that investment money.  Instead, if I came close to the end of the 30k then I would commit to going back to work as a lawyer or seek a full-time position to make up for the loss. I managed to transition from hobby blogger to a more business-based endeavour before the clock ran out on my savings, and have since been saving money as I’ve lived abroad and travelled. The transition from spending savings to actually saving small amounts happened in the summer of 2011, with a variety of freelance writing work and smaller jobs.  In 2012, with the book and other contracts, writing and projects, I began to feel more comfortable with this path.

It’s important to note that I was able to save this much in part because I had no lingering school debt (my law school tuition was $1600 a year at the time that I attended as a Quebec resident) and I was working with good salary in New York as a lawyer. It was and remains scary to not have a secure paycheck as income, and to rely upon a slow build to a bigger and more stable place. That said, I wouldn’t trade in — it’s been exhilarating.

I don’t keep detailed spreadsheets like many others, but for budget you can also see my resources page with a long budget section that I update twice a year. It lists out budgets by round-the-world trip, or by specific continents or countries.

Do I plan to return to the law?

You know, I do miss parts of it. The negotiations, the pressure, the adrenaline highs once a deal closed. But I don’t miss the closed environment of an office or the long hours toward someone else’s goals.

I don’t plan to return to the law, but I have maintained my NY bar admission because you never know what comes next. And holy hell, I never, ever want to have to take the NY State Bar exam again.

Why don’t I take advertising?

Or, you know GUEST POSTS? (Sorry, had to. The amount of guest post requests circulating to all corners of the internet is mind-boggling.)

I decided to treat readers here like I would want to be treated. So that means no pop-up boxes (I don’t care if they convert readers — I hate them), no on-site advertising, no sponsored guest posts (hidden or otherwise). I do monetize in ways that build on the existing brand (as I set out above), and had hoped that readers would appreciate that I declined the more invasive opportunities. Based on the emails I’ve received from readers, you do.

In terms of the site, there are affiliate links with Amazon or Eagle Creek for products I use in the course of my travels, both on the resources page and below in the bags section. Not monetizing at all is not an option unless I want to go back to lawyering on the side. But creating income streams ethically and in an incremental way has meant that I can continue to write without compromising what I want to see as a reader.

Other general questions

The money ones are the most frequently asked questions, but here are others I have received!

How creepy are people on the internet?

Allow me to illustrate with a screenshot of Google autocomplete for my name. I type only Jodi Ett and the following appears:

Yup, people’s searches be creepy.

I laugh at the screenshot, but my friend James also has a morbidly-named folder where I forward any creepy emails or send screenshots of tweets that are problematic or threatening. Someone ought to have a copy other than me. What I get in my inbox is much milder than the vitriol for many female journalists, especially in the tech or science world. I realize that this is a byproduct of putting myself on the interwebs, but it doesn’t make it enjoyable (or ok).

Why is it Legal Nomads and not The Legal Nomad?

I originally co-authored this blog with Jess, another lawyer who quit at the same time. We were planning to travel the world together but I got really sick and had to head back to NY, and she continued on with her plans. I ended up picking up again in Russia but by that time Jess was in India, and had decided she didn’t enjoy the writing component to her travels. So I kept Legal Nomads as my own blog, and she completed her travels and returned to work as a lawyer once again. She’s doing well!

What should I eat for dinner?

Soup. What’s wrong with you people?!

bun rieu
Mmmmm… soup.

How do I handle need for addresses while I am perpetually on the road and where do you I mail?

I use my parents’ address in Canada as my resident address for the purposes of travel, as it’s the only address I have that is stable. It’s quite difficult to explain that I live nowhere in particular but that my parents are stuck receiving my mail, but regardless I still do try to explain.

Other travelers use PO boxes, or set up a mail scanning account (e.g. Mailbox Forwarding), or temporarily forward mail to a friend. I went paperless for as much as I could, opting for e-statements and the like, which are more and more common. For communication that requires a response or address, however, my mum has been a lifesaver and helped manage the few notices I do get.

What’s with all the olive hate?

#saynotoolives (they suck)

I never intended my hatred of olives to become a thing, but I was sufficiently vociferous in my derision to rankle the pro-olive crowd, and now here we are. I just happen to think they are disgusting. I will always try a new olive and in countries known for them I have acquiesced to sampling the local harvest, though what inevitably happens is that I choke it up into a napkin while trying not to fling the rest of them across the room. I’ve eaten olives in the Middle East, in Toronto (“these are the best olives you’ll ever eat” — nope), in Europe…it doesn’t matter, they’re all repulsive.

A friend said that I could get over my olive hate by eating seven in one sitting. I think this is just a ploy to try and get me to eat seven olives.

My next t-shirt will be a say no to olives t-shirt, and that’s because there are many of my brethren out there, ready to commit to their passionate disavowal of this evil ‘treat’.

Do you feel like you are missing out on a more stable community by traveling or living abroad in roving chunks of time?

I actually misunderstood this question initially. Always interesting to see how your worldview differs from others, and in this case the reader was asking about the opportunity cost of pursuing adventure or experiences, instead of staying put with a more normal life and having a thriving community.

The reason for this disconnect in my mind is that there is a huge group doing interesting things unconventionally, many making a living by working in different places around the world. I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with friends I’ve kept in touch with via technology, and reunited again over and over in different countries. And in the places where I stay put just a little longer, it is very easy to create the rough outlines of a community and even simpler to darken those lines.  With time spent together at a much faster pace than if you were in a ‘normal’ life (“hey, we just had lunch together but let’s all grab dinner too!”), you deepen friendships more quickly, fast-tracking conversation toward interestingness.

When I’ve been sick in the past, friends in Vietnam or Bangkok or wherever I was based have quickly offered to bring supplies or meals, and we’ve celebrated birthdays and other fun occasions together. When tragedy strikes one of us, the group pulls together. It’s very much as it would be in a more stable setting, it’s just a more transient tranche of time together. And same goes for returning to places I’ve been. Reunions in Bangkok with my friends who were my community there are as rewarding as they were when I was living in town.

So I don’t think it’s community vs. adventure/experience. They’re not mutually exclusive at home, nor abroad.

What is the meaning of life?

This was an actual question.

The answer is 42.

(With apologies to the reader who genuinely wanted an answer — not sure I’m qualified just yet.)

What bag do you use?

The reader who asked this wanted to know about having more stuff than she thought she should for a trip, and how I fared as a frequent traveler. With several places that are bases around the world, I’ve benefitted from leaving things in them (and having an Evernote list of what is left where). I then swap out clothes or items as I move around. What I didn’t sell when I left NY is at my mum’s place, but I have a small stash of things in New York (thanks Cheryl!), some winter clothes in the UK (thanks Cale!) and when not in Vietnam, books and skirts left in Saigon (thanks Brooke!)

In terms of bag, it depends on the travel type.

– For technical climbs / longer hikes, I use a I use a Gregory Jade 60 (in XS torso size it’s 54L) as a larger bag. It’s the only bag that seems to fit my mini-sized torso well, and allows me comfortable to carry weight while camping. I’ve yet to find a bag that fits as snugly for climbing or hiking.

– For the trips where I know I am basing myself somewhere for longer term, I’ll use a lightweight duffel like the Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25. (Note: this is an Eagle Creek affiliate link.)

How do you notify your bank of your travels?

I call them every quarter to let them know where I will be. Pretty boring, but it’s the easiest way I’ve found to avoid unnecessary card freezes.

Update: a few more questions that have been asked a few times since this went up.  

How do you travel with celiac disease?

It’s not easy in many places. I’d love to eat my way through the many different cuisines of China but so much wheat is used (in the soy sauce and in sauces to thicken them) that I have not returned in years. I’m heading to Singapore and am curious about how I will fare. Soy sauce here in Vietnam has no wheat in it but elsehwere that’s almost always not the case.

What gets me by is researching local sauces and ingredients that might have hidden wheat, getting a gluten-free card in the local language (there are many sites that offer these, such as Select Wisely or Allergy Translation) and making sure I have some snacks on me if I get hungry and am unable to find anything I need. Usually this involves nuts and dried fruit, but instant gluten-free oats was a lifesaver in transit many a time, since hot water is readily available.

Many countries don’t have the same concept or cultural understanding of autoimmune diseases like celiac or allergies, so I’ve had to be extra careful to ensure I don’t get sick. And sometimes I do get sick, but in the end it’s still not worth staying home for. Also, sometimes I do stupid things like, say, get REALLY jealous of everyone’s banh mi sandwiches in Saigon and then ask my friend Dan if I can eat some of his and then eat most of it because it’s so delicious…and then get sick for days.

I learn my lesson never, apparently. Though this was the first time since the Great Poutine Incident of 2011 that I purposely glutened myself. Usually I am careful, and in Vietnam that’s quite easy because of the rice-based meals.

What’s the readership of the site, as asked by Dan below in the comments?

Last year the site topped 1 million views (my annual report is here), which surprised me! Traffic climbs slowly each month, but I don’t post frequently and rarely check statistics against prior months. About 40,000-60,000 uniques a month, depending on the month.

What about olive oil?

You can all breath easy — I love olive oil BECAUSE IT DOESN’T TASTE LIKE OLIVES.



* * *

I may have started out with no laptop or inkling of an impending career change, but it just made all of the interim steps (from “no laptop” to “glued to laptop” to a nice in-between) more fun. I hope these answer your questions, and I look forward to sharing more from Vietnam, New Zealand and other destinations in the coming year.


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