8 Years of Legal Nomads

Eight years ago today, I left New York bound for Chile. I expected to take a sabbatical from the law and return a year later. Of late, people have asked the same question: when is enough for this strange life I’ve chosen?

The problem with the question is that it suggests what I do is temporary. This strange life is my life and one that I am excited to keep living. It may not be normal, but the assumption that it has to come to an end is a very binary way of looking at the human experience. I fully understand where it comes from, and people’s questions often seek to validate their own decisions or assuage their own fears.

In my case, I don’t have a comforting answer. I usually say, “who knows! Only the future can tell.” That’s not meant to be pithy, it’s simply how it is. Things change yearly — how could they not — but a wholesale abandonment of this site or the flexible life I’ve built is not where I want to go.

I often joke that this new career chose me. It wasn’t until I was two years into writing and eating that I realized I would not return to New York. I had moved on to something that would take me away from the law for a long time to come. That something involved telling stories about food, which included the ability to chose a place to live based on what I wanted to eat. The new career also afforded me the response of “I eat soup for a living” to the many people in North America who asked what I do. (Have you noticed that few other countries ask you what you do as quickly or abruptly as the USA and Canada?)

I went from this:

long term travel 8 years later
Me at the beginning of my RTW trip, at the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia

To this, just under 8 years later:

ramon camaron in oaxaca
Losing my shit over a shrimp tostada at the awesomely-named Ramon Camaron in Oaxaca

Long Term Travel and Self Work

I have written quite a few posts about lessons I’ve taken from travel. Suffice it to say that these last 8 years have taught me that travel can be a container for all sorts of things. Immersion therapy for fears (spiders and silence among them), exhilarating highs, painful lows. It is simply an armour you put on that can protect or trap, depending on how you wear it. But it isn’t the travel that changes you, it’s the interactions with others and how you absorb them.

In a Medium post earlier this year I said:

Travel itself is not an answer. It can’t save you from yourself, or the demons that you have. You will bring them along with you as you roam. You can’t absolve yourself of your responsibilities or the monotony of routines that will reappear the minute you stop moving. And if you travel to escape darkness, it will eventually find you.

The lifestyle I have had the privilege to build is a decadent one. I can live where I want, I spend ample time with people I love, and I occasionally stop in the middle of stuffing my face with a great dish and think wait, this is work?!

The flexibility I’ve forced into my business comes with another positive, which is the ability to build in time for self-work. Problems are problems, at home or abroad, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of traveling to escape them. I don’t think that I have – the last year especially has been about facing my fears. But it’s good to take stock every so often and make sure you’re on the path you want to be on.

I believe that everyone owes it to themselves and the people they interact with to do the same. To reassess where they are and where they are going as human beings. Not a 5-year business plan, but to think about the person they want to be in several years.

When I do writing workshops, I tell people to write their own bio for 10 years in the future. I’ve found the exercises a good way to get a better handle on what their professional goals might be, and what they need to do personally to make it happen.

There’s a lot on the Internet about self-work but there are truly no rules. Who do I want to be? Is what I do helping me be that person? How can I add more kindness and caring to my day-to-day life, despite its ups and downs?

Important questions, no matter where you are. I only began to contemplate them when I took myself out of a profession that didn’t resonate. But that’s simply my story. Those nagging, quiet questions were ones I wished I had asked before.

This Year’s Projects for Legal Nomads

I chose long ago to abandon my plans to return to the law. I felt that this site, with its emphasis on stories and food, provided more value to others than a return to corporate. I am flattered that over the years you have proven me right, supporting my work and reading REALLY LONG POSTS at a time where the soundbite started to rule the web.

In the years since the site started, I’ve gone from pure narrative storytelling to a mix of the stories plus the practical guides. I think both are really important, which I reiterated in my “Why Travel Blogging Needs more Storytelling” piece.

This coming year will bring additional focus on the projects I hope are helpful to others.

  • For starters, the gluten-free cards project, a big undertaking to translate dish-specific country cards for celiacs to travel more safely. Currently, Japan and Greece are done. In progress are Italy, Morocco, Spain, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • In addition, I’m building out country guides for the site (Australia is now up) for planning purposes when readers want to head somewhere I have already been.
  • Also in the works: an overhaul of the taxonomy of this site. Eight years of blogging, including a switch from Blogspot to WordPress and several theme changes, has led to quite a bit of disorder. I’m rearranging all of the content under the following categories: Travel Writing and Photography, Food, Alternative Careers for Lawyers, Speeches and Workshops, Travel Tips and Resources, and Wellness. The latter will be where the posts about insomnia or fear live, as well as the usual narrative storytelling.
  •  My typographic food maps are growing, and for sale right now are Thailand, Mexico, and Vietnam. I am in the process of redesigning the Legal Nomads store. You’ll see Portugal next, which looks great so far. I’m also adding a new set of products for each of the maps: tote bags (these look so shiny I LOVE THEM!), pillowcases, and mugs.
  • More public speaking. I’ve been asked to speak at the NAFSA conference in Denver, about empathy and storytelling, as well as a few universities, to talk about how food can build human connection. I hope to do more of these in the coming year.

If you’re looking for project updates during the year, I frequently update the “now” page on the site.

Future Plans and an Apartment in Oaxaca

People still ask me whether I want to settle down. I think I have, in my own way. My version of what “settling down” means just isn’t the norm. My roots are there, they just splay out sideways, reaching farther but not quite as deep.

There are some changes for the coming year. I was not looking for a base in Oaxaca, but a place came up for rent across the hall from two of my good friends, and was a reasonable price in a good area near some great markets. Just as I started contemplating the investment, a reader wrote to ask if I knew of a place she could sublet for a few months. Easy decision there. I was a nomad with a lease, and my reader had herself a newly painted apartment.

I am still leaving Oaxaca in late May, and my reader will take the place while I am gone. I will come back again next winter. After so many years in Asia, it is lovely to explore a new country and its food. I’ve been learning as much as I can about mezcal and how it’s made. Corn was domesticated not far from Oaxaca City, and as a celiac this place remains a calming experience. In most countries, snacks are off-limits, bread-heavy. Here, antojitos are corn-based with the exception of tortas (sandwiches), meaning I can graze like a cow all day long, corn-filled and happy.

I’ll be writing more about the history of some of the dishes here, and about mezcal. I’ll be profiling some of my favorite vendors and their specialties. While I struggled to wrap my head and tongue around Vietnamese, I already speak Spanish. I’m taking lessons to improve – my grammar is appalling – but I can ask people their life story, and explain mine in return. It feels good.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Saigon. There are times when I wonder if I ought to have chosen Lisbon. This lifestyle certainly encourages a paradox of choice! Over the years, I’ve found the options to be paralyzing and to be liberating; it’s more about owning what you decide. In the spirit of these last 8 years, I decided to point myself in the direction of something that excites me and see what happens next.

So Oaxaca it is, at least for now.

I bought a rug, and some cutlery. A bottle of Tobala mezcal. A lamp for the bedside table. It is the first year lease in these 8 years that isn’t a month-to-month contract. The place comes fully furnished but it is fun to add some touches to the place, especially when I now live in a valley teeming with artisanal geniuses and weavers.

As always, I am grateful for the many wonderful people who have become an important part of my life, as well as the close friends from home who still love me despite this “strange”existence I insist on leading.

To my readers, another sincere thanks for the comments, the emails sharing your own story, purchasing things through my Amazon links and then sending me notes to say you’ve done so, the bowls of soup you’ve sent photos of, the snapchats with vendors I’ve written about around the world, and so much more.

I started writing to share stories with my family, and it remains a huge honor that my words resonate with so many people in this wide world we live in.

-Jodi

77 thoughts on “8 Years of Legal Nomads”

  1. For the first time this year, I am seriously thinking about not renewing my law license which I’ve had since December of 1980 when I was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. Yours was one of the first travel blogs I stumbled across 4 yeas ago and your writing continues to inspire. I also had leftover Thai food for breakfast and am heading to Scotland in a few weeks, so better late than never. Write on!

  2. I am *thrilled* that the Portuguese food map is next! I just moved here (Porto) and love exploring the cuisine. If you need any help with names of northern or regional dishes, I’ll happily volunteer the services of my (Portuguese) husband or his chef friend :). I continue to love reading your stories and updates, and I can’t thank you enough for providing inspiration when I was considering taking a year off to travel.

    1. Thank you Jennifer! I have sent it for review to two Portuguese people in the food industry there, but I appreciate the offer. It’s so pretty! I’ll also have it available in pillowcases and mugs shortly :)

  3. Great post and very inspiring, I didn’t realize you’ve been up for a full 8 years already! I’m still working a “day job” between travels but your 10 years in the future biography really got me thinking.

    Your storytelling post also inspired me to work on improving my writing style as well. I still tend to default to chronological documentation, but it’s getting better :) Thanks for the great posts!

    Also as a side note, I’m COMPLETELY addicted to Marie Sharp’s green habanero salsa, I go through almost a bottle a week!

    1. Thanks Tim! That’s great to hear about the storytelling post. I’m happy that it made a difference. I’ve never tried Marie Sharp’s so I’m looking forward to discovering it. Currently gorging myself on salsa verde in Oaxaca and curious to compare!

  4. Erin Southerland

    Jodi,

    Every year this is one of my favorite posts that you do. You never skimp on the realities of this lifestyle – the wonderful and the difficult – in your blog in general and in this yearly reflection. It has often inspired me to keep fighting to take a leap into this lifestyle myself, and now that I have, your reflections resonate with me more than ever.

    Cheers to as many more years of this life as you wish!

    Erin

  5. It’s funny how one year can lead to a lifetime of change. Larissa and I can definitely relate to that. Good luck in keeping the adventure going for many more years.

  6. Yay! Congrats Jodi! It’s been such a pleasure to watch your journey unfold, and even now as we come up on our own 5-year mark in a few weeks, Jo and I continue to be awed and inspired by the life you have and the impact you’ve made on our lives and the world at large. We’re eternally grateful for your generosity in providing SE Asia tips when we started back in 2011. Keep on going, and growing the roots far and wide! Hope to see you soon again somewhere in this amazing world my friend!

    1. Aw, thanks you two! Every time we meet you bring a smile to my face with your genuine excitement for others and selflessness. I always enjoy reading your updates. I hope to see you sooner rather than later! <3

  7. Hey Jodi! I love your April 1 post each year… I always knew you would be writing… And you are doing a great job at it! Interesting, passionate and still making me laugh. Have another great year…maybe our paths will cross this time. Mishka

    1. Thank you Mishka! A far cry for both of us from those darkroom days at LPHS! I hope you and family are well. Would be lovely to see you when I’m in Ottawa this summer. x

  8. Following your journey has been so inspiring, Jodi! 8 years already? Oh, time!
    Super excited for what’s in store for you this year!
    Sending love and hugs from Sweden

    1. It is crazy how time flies! I remember meeting you in NY, my first Restless Legs attendance, confused about this new world of travel writers that I hadn’t yet become a part of. Grateful for your hugs and warmth that day, and hope we do get to cross again soon! x

  9. What a delight to receive your update in my email inbox – O ! but you Lawyer you – ok now ex – but surely not PARADOX of choice, but Plethora of choice, nu?

    I’m now in Catalunya for a bit, (lease for a year and intend to extend) , lot of the feel of the resentment of Quebec towards Greater Canada here in Catalunya towards Espana but with, well moi an anglo saying this, here with much greater reason. My wife thinks me foolish for striving to learn Catalan instead of Castilian: she’s doubtless correct, but I appear to be an incurable romanticist. {Wife substitutes idiot – she’s learning Castilian… we’ll see who gets served sooner in the down country Catalunya. Yep, probably her, ‘coz they’ll understand her. Feh }

    Go well in Oaxaca, Ms Ettenberg, I do enjoy your blog
    adams from Toronto [wife – not from here – calls it Tonto. Doubtless you’ll understand her insult…]

    1. Thanks Peter! Catalunya is just beautiful and yes, I see the similarities with the Quebec separation movement also. Your wife sounds like a character, which I mean in the most complimentary of ways! (As a Montrealer, Toronto is a bit tonto for me ;)

  10. Jacques Lafortune

    Jodi

    It’s ironic that you started off your great adventure on April Fool’s Day. What had started off as a “trial” (I suppose), turned out to be a life-changing decision. The joke was not on you: it is you who have been laughing ever since. Keep up the fine writing, the great discoveries and the sharing of your life. I too have come to realize that it is the interractions with others that change you. I remember so well, after leaving India for the first time, asking myself “What the heck just happened to me?”

    Jacques

    1. Thanks Jacques! That was actually done on purpose. I think April Fools’ is quite silly, especially in a digital world where jokes don’t scale very well. So I figured, I’ll take it over and make it a different meaning for me.

      Thank you for the comment and for reading! I hope you have many more trips that make you think as India did.

  11. Michael Cunningham

    Hi, Jodi. Your 2008+ saga resonates with me. When I left work as an economic policy adviser in London in 1972, I expected I’d take 18-24 months off, when I expected to run out of money. In the event, my life changed dramatically following my first Vipassana course in 1972. Over the next eight years, I travelled, meditated and helped organise and manage Vipassana courses In England, India and the US before becoming an accidental immigrant to Australia. I returned to economics in 1985, advising an economic policy council chaired by the Prime Minister whilst also chairing the trust of the Vipassana centre in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Not so dynamic now after long years of serious illnesses during which I could not meditate for some time and which have left continuing fatigue. A recent trip to New Zealand recharged the batteries.

    Jodi, in your Australia Guide, you say that Jeff Goodell’s Rolling Stone article is an “Interesting and alarming read on the havoc climate change is wreaking on Australia.” Nothing in our recent climate is outside the range of what has been experienced in the last 150-odd years. What Goodell describes is not due to a changing climate, it is the norm. I’ve been engaged with the issue since 1989 or ’90, when I was briefed by the IPCC’s Chief Scientist.

    I enjoyed your Guardian Vipassana article and your responses to posts on it, and will bookmark your site. Regards, Michael.

    1. Hi Michael, thank you for the long comment here and the ones on the Guardian piece.

      If you have further reading about climate change in Australia and elsewhere, I’m all eyes! Please send away :)

      Thank you for stopping by, and glad to hear I’ve gained a new reader!

  12. I have always enjoyed reading Legal Nomads and your stories surrounding food and travel. Congratulations on your eight years and wishing you many more…..

  13. Oh missing Mexico and Oaxaca. We are in Costa Rica as of last Monday and experiencing sticker shock and also the lack of street food (or good food) and the cafe culture. Buns and hot chocolate needed! And a tlayuda. Oh well back in spring:)

  14. Really loved reading this post. I currently work in tax and my boss has granted me a year sabbatical starting mid-next year and I really don’t think that I will want to return afterwards! I’m glad you found this fantastic life and are enjoying it still! Congratulations on the 8 year milestone!

    1. Hi Danielle, a year sabbatical is a generous grant from your boss! I hope you enjoy it, and if you do feel ready to return to work thereafter nothing wrong with that. Thanks for reading!

  15. I know what you mean about everyone assuming your current path is a temporary one. Of course, it’s only natural for friends and family back in the States to ask me about when I plan to return, but, after 3.5 years abroad, I’m only now starting to feel comfortable saying that my plan is to continue with life as an expat. For now, my life is here in Europe, and I’m very happy about that. Here’s to another 8 years of travel for you and another 3.5 for me!

    1. Thanks Jennifer! I don’t think we need to add the labels everyone wants us to add. It might make life a bit more simple but honestly part of the fun and challenge is to try and lean into the uncertainty as well as the joy. It’s not easy! We’re wired not to. But it is definitely something I’m learning to enjoy — only took me 8 years ;)

  16. Your post was really inspirational. Just this past winter I decided to leave my 12 year career in Project Management with non profits, to pursue my love of writing. I have no idea where my path is taking me but reading your post really inspired me and rejuvenated my passion. It’s so scary in the beginning to start your life over to truly find yourself — especially when you’re no longer in your twenties. Thanks for this great read. I’ll be sure to follow.

  17. Congratulations on your achievements! Although I’ve only been following you for about a year or so, you have always been an inspiration to me and to others.
    Keep on doing what you’re doing and I look forward to reading all about it!
    p.s. I just got back from Portugal. I hadn’t been to Lisbon in 9 years so it fantastically good to be back!

  18. Oaxaca is a great place to have a base and to go back to, so I am not surprised at all that you decided to stay a little longer. Yet, I understand your love for Saigon. It is one of those places I fell in love instantly – the buss, the people, the huge roads next to the tiny alleys, the feeling of a huge city and a small village at the same time, and the food!

  19. Stephen Gradijan

    Soup for you!!!

    I suggest that you consider making that into a t-shirt, poster, mug, etc. with your pic on front.

  20. Stephen Gradijan

    P.S. Same idea, but on a ceramic soup bowl; I strongly suspect that your fans would like that one especially….

  21. YAY for you!!!! Congratulations on 8 years!! And I’m so excited you’ve fallen for Oaxaca as much as you have since Danté and I will be there for Day of the Dead. I’ll be asking you where we should eat ;) Hope to see you in NYC or elsewhere sooner than later. xo

  22. “…the assumption that it has to come to an end is a very binary way of looking at the human experience. I fully understand where it comes from, and people’s questions often seek to validate their own decisions or assuage their own fears.”

    This resonated with me, Jodi.

    About two years ago, I discovered the Mr. Money Mustache blog and online community, along with other online FIRE (financial independence and retire early) resources. A lot of what I’ve read has a distinctly binary tone, which could be a reflection of the binary nature of the traditional full-time work-to-retirement transition. That does not resonate with me.

    I’m a little, but not completely, financially independent. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I hope to consider myself completely financially independent. When that happens, I might just do something a couple of mutual friends (Kathy and Kyle) did, and become a long-term traveler. Or not. I could try long-term traveling before I become completely financially independent. Or not.

    Like you wrote, “Who knows! Only the future can tell.”

    1. Hi Jay, thanks for writing and reading. I think this does differ from FIRE because I’m not looking to retire early, but a lot of what he says resonates with me also. I think we each different with what makes us feel financially independent or what is sufficient to leave a comfortable situation. The hardest part is usually the first step but it does become easier thereafter. With technology, so much of what wasn’t possible re: work and travel is now possible, and it’s part of why I can do what I do. Wishing you the best of luck and hope to meet with K&K one of these days down the line!

  23. Great choice! There’s just something about Mexico — an easy and fun place to live. Excited to read more about your Mezcal research too. If you need a research assistant, let me know.

  24. Hi Jodi,

    I am about to embark on a trip and moving to a different country. I have travelled before but always with an expiration date. I was just wondering what laptop you recommend for backpacking, if any. I want to be able to write about my experiences and hopefully come back and share them

    1. Congratulations of 8 years, I read your blogs when I had my first backpacking trip 7 years ago and I wish I had your Vietnam insights when I was there, I am obssessed about delicious bowls of bun rieu or bun bo hue!

    2. Hi Liza! I travel with the 11″ Macbook Air. I know that Apple is now changing their system and potentially removing the Air entirely given the thin Macbook Pros that have come out, but for the last 5 years or so that is what I have traveled with. However there are many other ultralight computers you can buy more cheaply if you are willing to buy a PC instead.

  25. Youmi Hapsari

    Hi Jodi, very inspiring story. Happy 8th Anniversary btw. From just 1 year sabbatical leave continues to 8 years. Extraordinary. I know the struggles around the world without a permanent job, even though I’ve never been for a long time. Keep traveling and Keep Writing. You’re awesome;)

  26. My favourite quote in the post: My roots are there, they just splay out sideways, reaching farther but not quite as deep.

    that perfectly sums up how you can be fond of a place and call it home for a few months without deporting your family to have them close by too. When I lived in London I met and worked with so many people that called it home for a few months or years but then moved on just like I did so being ‘nomadic’ shouldn’t be that strange a concept to many people. Cheers Charlie.

  27. Happy 8th Birthday ! I just discovered you but already love your blog (very full of information!)
    Wish you the best

  28. I love your site! It must be quite hard to travel to unknown places and find food that agrees with your stomach (I know the feeling). Your post is very inspirational and gives me some motivation to keep working harder on my blog and set some more goals. 8 years is a very long time but I know time flies when you’re on the road. Do you ever get home sick at all for NYC?

    1. Thanks Adriane! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yes I am homesick for NYC and Saigon and many other places I felt at home in; it’s part of why I return every year :) I wrote a piece on homesickness and long term travel, and the tl;dr is basically that it’s almost a perpetual feeling at this point, one that coagulates into a generalized nostalgia instead of a simple stab of homesickness for a specific place in time.

  29. Wow.. 8 years… quelle merveille! I didn’t realize you’d left your Saigon (Food Walks behind) and moved on to Oaxaca; a world away, hey.. good for you! I’m taking a break (from my own quasi-nomadic 5+ years of life in Bali), visiting family in Montreal, loving the summer here – as I know you do! May you revel in 8+ more years of adventures, street food discoveries, meetups, good health and a whole lot of fun. A bientot ;)

    1. It was more that I needed to be closer to North America and Oaxaca seemed a highly-recommended place from readers and friends, based on the food. I do miss Saigon all of the time! Enjoy Montreal also. I’ll be having a meetup after labour day if you’re still in town :)

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