Jodi Ettenberg left behind a successful career as a lawyer to eat her way around the world. Her round the world trip never stopped and over three years later she is still going. We had the pleasure to meet Jodi at the TBEX travel bloggers conference, and like everyone there were instantly charmed by her. Her blog Legal Nomads features beautifully written and informative posts, stunning photos, and most importantly lots of food tips.
1) How long have you been travelling and where have you been?
I quit my job in April 2008 with a one-way ticket to Chile and have been travelling ever since, interspersed with visits home to visit family and attend some celebrations (like the 3 weddings I had this summer!). From South America, I went over to South Africa, then up to Russia and spent quite some time in Siberia and Mongolia, hopping on and off the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian trains, and finally looping down into China. After the trains, I spend a month in China and most of the next 3 years in Southeast Asia. While there was a small foray into Australia, most of what I loved about travel at that point had to do with food and food culture, and Southeast Asia was a perfect place to indulge my interests (and fill my stomach!). In the region, I’ve spent most of my time in Thailand and the Philippines, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar falling close behind. Plenty of other places to explore, and Vietnam is high on my list, as well as the Subcontinent and Central Asia.
2) What made you decide to become a digital nomad?
I didn’t really decide to be a digital nomad, I just fell into freelance work as I traveled. I started my site for my parents and friends to follow my travels, but had no expectation that it would gain a wider readership. It’s been a great surprise! I don’t accept ads or sponsored posts on Legal Nomads and have preferred to see the site as a CV of sorts, standing for what I feel passionate about. Instead, I quit my job having saved enough money to travel for a few years without having to work, living off those savings from my years of lawyering. The site, and my writing and photography, has organically morphed into what I do now – but it’s still very much a work in progress.
3) How do you fund your travels?
I worked as a corporate lawyer for 6 years to save up money and then I travelled for 3 years on those savings. As most of the travel was in Asia or Southeast Asia, it was extremely cheap by most people’s standards; months in Chiang Mai last year came in at $800 each or less. Travel within the continent is also quite reasonable, either via buses or on local carriers like Cebu Pacific or Air Asia.
Come last January (2010), I had to make a decision – go back to lawyering in some capacity, find a full time job doing something different or try to make it work on a more unconventional path. I chose the latter, but really it chose me – too many years of feeling satisfied with the writing and learning, with sharing history and culture from far flung places. As much as I tried to envision a return to the office (and there are times when I do miss the routine and consistency of the workplace), I couldn’t colour in that vision. I was far too happy with meandering, even if that meant 6 months in each country. It was the freedom of being able to stay or leave if I wanted do combined with the passion I had for food and travel that made my choice.
At the moment, I fund my travels through one-off freelance work, and contributions to CnnGo when in Asia. I’m also a regular contributor to The Hipmunk twice a week and have sold some of my photos and written a guidebook on Northern Thailand. I’m still in the process of figuring out how I want to handle the freelance work or whether I’ll take some time to do freelance legal work again sometime soon, but until now, it’s all been via savings and the odd job along the way.
4) Do you find it difficult to balance travel and work/ blogging? How do you manage it?
I think it necessitates both slower travel and learning how to compartmentalize and disengage from the online world when you can, giving yourself some room to breathe. I find myself connected more than not, but the travels I had where I wasn’t online – Laos and Burma, parts of the Philippines, etc – are the most vivid of all my memories. As a result, I’ve tried to set blocks of time to focus on work or pre-post / schedule posts, so that I can sink into wherever I am at all other times.
5) What is the biggest challenge of nomadic life?
The decision of where to go next, missing family and friends at home and figuring out how to keep your brain sharp and keep learning as you travel. I also love to keep up with hard news and technology stories, which isn’t easy when you’re moving around but made possible by sites like Twitter and great curation tools like Summify that synthesize stories and email them to you once a day.
6) What are some of your favourite local dishes that you’ve eaten on your travels?
Don’t get me started! Look no further than these delicious street foods from Laos or this photoessay on Thai foods that will make your mouth water. I generally tend to eat at food markets and street stalls more than restaurants, and I am almost never disappointed..
7) We are heading to Thailand in September, where you have spent many months. What vegetarian-friendly food should we try?
There’s quite a bit of vegetarian food in Thailand, and many restaurants that serve just that. Delicious vegetable soups with noodles and mushroom ‘meatballs’, rice and sauteed spicy vegetables, fiery Penang curry with tofu – you’ll have plenty to choose from. Most of the markets will make you a veg only dish without a problem.
8 ) Your beautifully written posts about Burma have made us really want to visit. What did you love about the country?
Thank you for the kind words. I think it was a combination of the resilience and generosity of the people coupled with their relative isolation. Set against a backdrop of very complicated politics, the friendliness of the Burmese was that much more appreciated. And the landscape and strangeness of the traditions (not just the fact that most of the people wore traditional longyis, but also the quirks like holes in the taxis to let in water during the monsoons and strings with buckets at each apartment building to haul up food and send down money) meant that every day was fascinating. Those 6+ weeks felt like 6 months, if only from the intensity of experiences.
As I’ve said before, it’s important to avail yourself of knowledge and books about the country before you go. Given the political sensitivities and the fact that locals can be in quite a lot of trouble if you talk to them about the government, I keep stressing that it’s best to be as informed as possible. Not that I’m an expert! But I did try and soak up what I could before going. Reading The River of Lost Footsteps is a good start – it’s the most comprehensive history of the country that I’ve seen.
(Erin’s note: A great start is Jodi’s very informative post Crash Course Burma: What To Know Before You Go)
9) What are some of your favourite off the beaten track destinations?
It’s not a popular opinion, but I really think any place can be off the beaten track if you look hard enough. Even in tourist-filled Bangkok there are plenty of nooks and crannies and local markets that are worth exploring, which feel like new cities altogether in their foreignness. The best way to find those pockets is to head to the food markets and take it from there; spending time talking to locals and seeing where they eat or what they do is a great way to find wonder in an otherwise conventional place.
That said, there are definitely some lesser-visited places that merit a mention. I loved my time living in El Nido, Palawan, and while it’s gotten more popular since it’s nowhere near the hordes that go to Boracay. El Nido’s beaches rivaled any other I’ve seen in Asia. More recently, a trip up to Northern Laos was extremely fulfilling (not just because of the food!) and buses can be taken all the way up to the Vietnamese border, much less crowded than anywhere else in the country.
Bolivia is also a favourite destination, with much less tourist infrastructure in place but a corresponding remoteness to many of the tiny towns and even the bigger cities. And the swath of land up near the Burmese border in Thailand is an excellent place to discover, especially if you’re comfortable on a motorbike. Mae Hong Son, Doi Mae Salong and Ban Rak Tai – all with great food, friendly locals and a very tiny set of expats who would love to give you some tips about where to eat and what to do.
10) Where are you heading to next? Do you think you’ll ever settle down in one place?
Everyone’s favourite question! I don’t have specific plans at the moment. After a great summer with friends and family, I’m in the process of figuring out where to next. I suspect Asia will come calling soon, though! As much as I love South America and have many countries to explore in Africa, the food draws me back to Thailand and Vietnam and Laos consistently. I just registered JodiEats.com and am in the process of building it, but I think food – writing, videos from street stalls, history of spices – will play a greater role going forward.
If you enjoyed this interview then read about other long term nomads Audrey & Dan, Benny, Earl, Todd, Kirsty, Johnny, Nora, Anil, Gary, Cherie & Chris, Jess & Dani, Lainie & Miro, Anthony & Elise, Akila & Patrick, and Lara & Terry.