Meet A Travel Writer: Jodi Ettenberg

We all daydream from time to time about faraway lands, daring adventures, and breathtaking sights. It's the people, however, that forge ahead to the unknown who truly captivate our imagination. We have all heard the famous line by Robert Frost that “two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” In this 'Meet A Travel Writer' series, I want to talk firsthand to these individuals who have done just that and find out how they made it all happen.

Jodi Ettenberg needs very little introduction. She's been written pieces for dozens of magazines and travel websites, been interviewed by anyone who could get a few minutes from her, and regularly appears on podcasts and discussions about travel and food. We were very grateful to get her to answer a couple of questions. 

Who are you?

I’m Jodi, though over the years I’ve been called Half Pint, Bite Size (I’m not a giant), Jodifer and a bird-crap magnet.

Where are you from?

Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, eating a steady diet of maple syrup, smoked meat and poutine.

Where would you rather be right now?  

Eating at a street stall in Bangkok. Preferably pad pongali, with chicken.

Describe your profession.

A few years ago, I’d have said corporate lawyer. Nowadays: hungry nomad, avid reader, mountain climber, marshmallow enthusiast, and travel blogger.

You’ve undergone a huge lifestyle change from being a corporate lawyer to traveling independently for weeks at a time through Burma. How did you arrive at this big vision of experiencing the world alone?

Like many paradigm shifts, it happened gradually, until one day I was climbing a mountain alone in a quiet part of the Burmese countryside thinking “I cannot believe I’ve come so far.” The seed for this kind of travel was planted quite early, but my independence was a much more latent development. In high school, I saw a series of PBS documentaries about the trans-Siberian trains and they piqued my interest sufficiently that by the time I went to law school I was already ruminating about ways to see the world, with the trains being a small part of my overall journey.

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.

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.

In January of 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.

What was your most stranded, “oh-my-[deity]” travel moment?

Waking up on a boat in Indonesia to find that our captain had fallen asleep and gotten us stuck in a village’s fishing net at 4 am. This was preceded by a harrowing shot through the rocky Sumbawa Straight, with the boat tipping so close to the water that all of us aboard would roll onto each other (awkward!) each time it perched from side to side. Not my best wake up call.

What are a few of your very special places out there, the ones you thirst to revisit time and again?

El Nido in Palawan, the Philippines. I lived there for 2 months, fishing for dinner and marvelling at how gorgeous it was. Hpa-An in Burma. Bolivia—I want to go back and spend a lot more time there. And I’ve still got a very soft spot for Bangkok, a city I initially didn’t like at all but fell for fairly seriously thereafter.

What is a priceless bit of travel advice or wisdom you have to share?  

You never need to plan as much as you think you do. Get your basic research in order – know the history of the country you’re visiting, understand the basic social mores – but leave a wide berth for getting swept up in the magic and newness of the place after you arrive. It’s much more fun to plan only the skeletal details and make your “what’s next” travel decisions based upon the foods, experiences and people you meet as you go.

Jodi Ettenberg is a former lawyer, who quit her job in 2008 to travel around the world. Her blog began so that she would have a space where she could post photos and share crazy stories with her friends and family. That site is now the very successful Legal Nomads. On top of that, she is the author of the recently published The Food Traveler's Handbook and is a contributing editor for Longreads.

You can follow more of Jodi's adventures on Legal Nomad's Facebook page or follow her on Twitter @LegalNomads