Our Nomadic Interviews series continues introducing you to permanent travellers with Todd Wassel, who has been travelling and working abroad in international development for 11 years.
1) How long have you been travelling and where have you been?
Well, I left the US in 1999 and have been traveling ever since. The list of where I’ve been would be too long and boring to read 🙂 I’ve been to about 40 countries (to many of them more than once) but have lived and worked in Japan, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Kosovo over the past 10 years.
2) Did you plan to travel for so long? What made you stay on the road?
At first I just wanted to see the world and gain new experiences. The longer I stayed out the more I became homesick until I finally returned home after 5 years on the road and went to grad school. Somehow after school I ended up back on the road. Now I’m well past the date I planned to “settle down” and return home. In the end I’ve come to peace with the fact that I love change, I get bored easily and I feel stagnant in life if I’m not moving, experiencing or learning something new. So I guess it was my own nature that made me stay on the road, or at least an unwillingness to be unhappy.
3) How do you fund your travels?
I have worked my way around the world. At first I was an English teacher and then I made a career switch to international conflict resolution and human rights. This part of my work has helped me get paid to travel and shift countries every few years. I am also a travel writer, earning some money through my blog Todd’s Wanderings, and have started small ventures such as a Gem export business with friends in Sri Lanka. It’s all enough to live a nice simple life and see the world.
4) International development work seems like a competitive field. How did you get into it?
Yes, it can be quite competitive. My first stop was graduate school (The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy). I’m still paying off the loans but a Masters is a minimum requirement these days. Even with it, it can be difficult to get into the system. But once you’re in your experiences build on each other.
My way in was in Timor-Leste in 2006 when the government broke down and the military and police began fighting each other. In conflict situations there is always a need for people willing to jump right in and take on responsibilities. I was working in San Fransisco and my boss at the time (I was interning) called me on a Wednesday and asked if I wanted a 2 month consultancy in Timor-Leste. I of course say yes and he told me to get on a plane by that Friday. I dropped two bags with a friend (I only had three with me at the time) and left the country two days later with no intention of coming back. It was an awkward conversation with my parents when I called and said I was moving to Timor-Leste in two days. They didn’t ask where it was but “what” is Timor! I’ve been living and working in this field ever since.
5) What does your work involve?
That’s a very difficult question for a short interview. The nuts and bolts of it involves developing programs that help reduce tensions between communities heading towards or recovering from violent conflict. We try to show them a future that is more prosperous if they work together, and to help them deal with emotions that prevent them from seeing each other as human beings and not stereotypes. Basically someone has given me the time and money to figure out a way to make other people’s lives a little bit better. Its a wonderful job with huge consequences for real people if we get it wrong.
6) What are some of your favourite off the beaten track destinations?
Shikoku Japan and its 1400 km, 88 Buddhist temple pilgrimage. I’m writing a book on my two trips around the island that I’m hoping will be finished early next year. I also love Timor-Leste. The scuba diving is unmatched with its healthy and vibrant coral.
7) You lived in Sri Lanka for some time, a country we also love. Where would you recommend people visit there?
There are so many great places in Sri Lanka but I love the hill country. Definitley visit Haputale and experience life in an English tea bungalow that looks out over the mountains. I also love Unawatuna. It’s a great beach with fun locals and a nice night scene.
8 ) Tell us about your Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan.
It was by far the hardest and the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I found myself (twice) while walking 1,400 km and sleeping outside each night. The people on Shikoku are something special and are some of the most generous loving people I have ever met. As I said before, I’m writing a travel memoir around my experiences on the pilgrimage, and what I love and hate about Japan after living there for 5 years. I would recommend the pilgrimage to anyone who is looking for a true journey. You can get a feel for the pilgrimage from my post on the Hermit in Seclusion.
9) What is the best food you have eaten on your travels?
Wow that’s really difficult. The best meal I have eaten was a dinner on a deserted beach in Japan where all I had was a huge loaf of cheese bread and a bottle of red wine 🙂 But I think my favorite food is gyudon, the Japanese beef bowl. It is just so savory and tasty.
10) Where are you heading to next? Do you think you’ll ever settle down in one place?
I have no idea where I’m heading next, and that’s the way I like it. I’m living in Kosovo at the moment and will be here for at least another year. I’d love to head back to Asia and maybe work in Nepal. But life tends to alter plans quickly so I’m happy to go with the flow and see what opportunities come our way.
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