Jodi Ettenberg was born in Montreal and has been eating her way around the world since April 2008. She is the author of the recently published The Food Traveler’s Handbook. She is also the founder of Legal Nomads, which chronicles worldwide travel and food adventures, and is a contributing editor for Longreads. Prior to founding Legal Nomads, Jodi worked for five years as a corporate lawyer in New York City. She frequently speaks about social media strategy, food and travel, and curation. She gets the shakes when she goes too long without eating sticky rice.
How did you get started traveling?
I started traveling back when I was in law school, taking shorter trips and then following up my degree with a year in France (to study) and a year in South America, primarily Uruguay and Argentina, for sustainable development law. While I had always wanted to see the world, the stories, experiences and new friends from those initial years certainly reinforced my desire to do so. Prior, I watched a PBS documentary on the Trans-Siberian trains and the combination of the wonder from learning about the train routes and the great times abroad meant that I was committed to traveling. I worked as a lawyer for close to 6 years total, most of which was spent in New York City. When I saved up enough to take what I thought would be a one-year trip around the world, I quit my job and set off. It was April 2008.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve always written. Even if no one was reading my site, I’d still be writing. It’s a cathartic process for me, and I’ve got drawers full of notebooks in my incomprehensible lefty scrawl at my mum’s place in Montreal. I think writing came naturally but of course I’m always looking and trying to improve. With the web came accessibility to an audience, and over the years I’ve really enjoyed building up a readership for Legal Nomads. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of my readers as I’ve traveled, and learning from their own life choices and stories too.
I started the blog to keep my mother apprised of my whereabouts on my trip, but earlier — during those trips to France and South America — I sent out group travelogues about my misadventures. The medium changed, but the writing process did not.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I don’t think there was a break per se, more like a slow build into where I am today. There were certainly mini-surges in that build — e.g. writing about the protests in Thailand because I was living in the middle of them got notice, or being recognized by economist Tyler Cowen, definitely outside the travel sphere. But generally there was no break, merely layers upon layers of writing and exposure that led to a bigger audience and more exciting press mentions. This culminated in a New York Times profile last April, when the NYT contacted me through my site to ask if I’d contribute with an interview. It was a very satisfying moment after many years of hard work, and I’m thrilled that they liked the site enough to profile it.
With the recent publication of my Food Traveler’s Handbook, I’ve been able to write more about food in mainstream outlets too, which has been wonderful.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Time. And the fact that as others have said, when you are traveling you are not writing, and when you are writing you are not traveling. It’s hard to make a routine when you are on the move. I’ve been inclined to rent apartments now for several months at a time to stabilize the routine somewhat, exploring a new city and being able to have work days and weekends like I would if I were still in North America — that has been the best way to ensure I remain productive but of course still get to explore and learn about a new place by living through it.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Time again! And language — so many compelling stories are lacking the nuance that would come from knowing the local language. I try to learn as much as I can (friends joke that I “speak food” when I live somewhere new) but of course it’s not the same. Practically, finding fast wifi to back up / upload photos is understandably also a challenge in many parts of the world.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Promotion and finances.
For promotion, I feel squirrely promoting my own work too much. I don’t tweet all of my posts, only the ones I think are better than others. I know you need to make yourself heard, but I think there’s also a need for balance. I’ve found that people do appreciate the metered self-promo, and will encourage others to read my work for me — that’s really rewarding. But I do need to get a bit better at putting my own work out there because of course that’s the primary way to get it noticed.
Financewise, I don’t monetize my site other than Amazon affiliate links for books I read or products I use on my travels. Instead, I make money via other means — long-term contracts with certain travel companies I use and am happy to partner with like G Adventures, freelance writing and social media consulting work, speaking gigs and, more recently, the book. The challenge is one of time, and of scalability.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I do some work in social media consulting, primarily for travel DMOs or companies. I really enjoy it, and it’s great to put some of the lessons learned and information gained in building out my own business to good use by helping others.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I got a subscription to Rolling Stone in 1993, and I remember reading PJ O’Rourke’s dispatches with wonder and awe. He would be one of the first influencers, I’d say. I love the micro-history format of Salt and Cod from Mark Kurlansky, as well as the narrative beauty of Shantaram (the plausibility of parts of the story up for grabs, though). I’ve missed subway stops while reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper because I was so engrossed in the book. I cried my way through The God of Small Things.
For websites, I enjoy Roxanne’s Stories of Conflict and Love, and Roads and Kingdoms‘ longform pieces. I’ve been reading thoughtful link curators like Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and Jason Kottke’s Kottke.org for quite some time since both post stories from around the world. And for photographic inspiration, I enjoy Alan Taylor’s work — originally from Big Picture but now the eyes behind The Atlantic’s In Focus blog and some of the food books I’ve read.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
The industry has changed and will continue to change. If someone is going into it to make money while traveling, there are lots of ways to do so, but less ways to turn the travel writing into a long-term, sustainable career. If they are looking to make a career out of it, reputation-wise and eventually leading to books or the like, I’d say to hold off on monetizing immediately, choosing instead to focus on building out an audience/community and work on improving writing and storytelling. After a platform and audience, comes the rest. Like anything, it looks shinier and more simple from the outside than it is in practice.
I’d also encourage a use of social media that focuses on displaying personality within and outside of travel, a way to show the rest of the world what else you are interested in. The beauty of social feeds is that so long as you are authentic you really can share whatever interests you, from travel to food to astronomy and more.
There are many people in the travel writing/blogging community who will be happy to provide help and advice, too. It’s been quite supportive, especially with those who started out around the same time (2008 or 2009) and I’ve learned a lot from the brainstorming meetings with other travel writers when we’ve managed to cross paths.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The rewards are manifold. Exploring places by living through them, sharing the quirks and wonderful little things that make this world so fascinating, meeting like-minded and completely opposite types of people from far-flung places, meeting readers and fellow travelers as I roam and much much more.