August 12, 2010

The Unconventional Backpacker: Interview with Jodi Ettenberg

I met Jodi at an AONC meetup in Bangkok, where she had just returned from a big trip through Burma.

Jodi isn’t a typical backpacker—she was a corporate lawyer, trained in Quebec and working for a big firm in New York. The whole time she was working, she was also saving for a new life.

I caught up with Jodi again a few months later while she was home in the U.S. and Canada, before heading back overseas to Asia. Check out her great perspective below.

***

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.

How long were you planning your escape from your corporate job?

As counterintuitive as it sounds, I was planning my escape well before I even took the job. I had no aching desire to be a lawyer, I was just stubborn as hell and when someone bet me I couldn’t get into law school straight from CEGEP (in Quebec, CEGEP is the equivalent of Grades 12 and 13), I took them up on the challenge. As a Quebec resident, law school tuition was extremely reasonable and when I was accepted, I decided to attend. It seemed like a huge act of hubris to turn the offer down, and as there was nothing else I was more interested in doing (outside my dreams of travel, that is), it was an excellent opportunity to train my brain in a new way of thinking.

As a result, I was quite young going into law school and when recruited by a big New York law firm I saw the offer as a great way to start saving for my eventual travels around the world. Though the hours were long and my heart wasn’t tied to the legal profession (especially not in private law), I truly enjoyed working with many of my clients and felt lucky to start my legal career in a city like New York.

What were some of the things you did to make your dream a reality? (Did you open a second bank account, post your goals on your mirror, etc.?) What advice would you give others with a similar dream?

First and foremost, I thought of every purchase in terms of a plane ticket’s value. “I could buy this, but it’s basically a plane ticket from Bangkok to Bali” or the like. I felt a bit like a salmon swimming upstream with my “means to an end” mentality in a fast-paced, results-driven city like New York. But you do what you have to in order to stay focused, and for me that meant concentrating on the eventual travel as a way of pushing past the city’s obsession with material things. I did open a second bank account, and dumped a set percentage of my salary into it each month.

I was also fortunate for two reasons. The first is that I went to law school in Canada, meaning that as a Canadian resident my tuition was extremely reasonable by North American standards. As a result, I was able to pay off my school debt entirely in my first year of working in New York. The second is that I was in a profession with significantly higher salaries than most. However, the end result regardless of positioning is the same: you put your head down when you can and you work toward your goals. For me, that meant buying kids’ clothes to wear under my suits (I’m small, so it’s a bonus), hiking in Harriman park instead of weekends in the Hamptons and spelunking for cheap eats in a city known for extravagant food options.

None of these were true sacrifices. The true sacrifice was the time spent at my desk, and the nights where I fell asleep under it waiting for a deal to close. But I was bolstered by my goal of seeing the world, and wanted to make sure I saved a sufficient amount to take my time doing so when I finally did quit my job to travel.

What would you say to women who want to travel independently but feel that they can’t because of safety concerns?

It is a valid worry, of course. Safety was among the primary concerns I had when I initially envisaged this trip, but safety can be a worry everywhere. The most important thing is to trust your instincts and when they tell you to get out of a situation, do so at the first inkling of discomfort. If you are wrong, the opportunity cost is minimal.

It’s also worth distinguishing between destinations when thinking about personal safety as a woman. In Asia for example, I felt tremendously safe. Yes, there are muggings (non-gender specific, usually) and people’s belongings often go missing. But in terms of personal safety as a woman, I felt safer in Asia than I did in my years of living in New York. That’s not to say that I became complacent in my time there, but rather that my spidey senses felt more comfortable than in NY or parts of South America.

What do you cherish most about the experience you’ve had over the past two years?

The interactions I’ve had with local people throughout the trip have made it a fulfilling, educational and fascinating experience, more so than anything else. The times I spent living with a family in El Nido’s Palawan—singing Air Supply on karaoke as the monsoons rolled in, or jumping into a banca boat with them to fish for dinner – are among the most smile-inducing memories thus far. Similarly, my nights living with nomads in the Gobi dessert or in my tiny “Sesame Street soi” in Bangkok where almost no one spoke English helped paint a richer, more rewarding picture of each destination and helped me truly understand what it meant to live there.

What is one aspect of solo travel that you wish you could magically change or make easier?

Honestly, the most frustrating part of solo travel is the budgetary penalty you pay for being alone. So many countries have double or triple rooms, but rarely price for a single person, and oftentimes the price for a double well exceeds my budget. The big exception to this rule is Burma, where most if not all hostels, hotels and B&Bs have single rooms or will at a minimum offer a price for one person even if it is the same room that two would customarily share. The cost of bungalows or beach hotels are usually so high that it’s cost prohibitive for me to go alone, unless I find a group to go with or a rare establishment that factors in the solo traveler.

Do you ever feel lonely or anxious on the road? If yes, what do you do with those feelings?

Yes, definitely. I would be worried if I didn’t suffer some pangs of loneliness or times when the fear of the unknown overwhelmed me. It’s the nature of being human, truly. As a starting point, I think that it is important to accept that these feelings exist and acknowledge them as being valid—only then can you move on from the fear. While there were certainly times that I wished I was stronger, technology definitely aids in getting through the low points, the times when the fear gnaws away at you from the inside out.

I don’t mean watching a sunset without someone to share it with, I mean the times when you are alone and sick on the road, or if you are me, when you’re an arachnophobe and your room is covered in poisonous spiders. When I stumble into these feelings, I’ve found the best thing is to think of all the effort it took to get there and to try and reach out to friends or family online to bring my mind back to center.

Does the excitement and novelty of new places, cultures and people ever wear off or become tiresome? (Do you ever just want to pack it in and head back to North America?)

People often ask me this question, and I understand why: travel—with its sensory overload and new people and challenges—is exhausting. I will say that while I’ve felt drained on the road, the energy of new places, cultures and (for me especially) new foods is part of what keeps my spirits high. I went to Burma almost 21 months after I embarked on this adventure, and I couldn’t sleep the night before I left because I was so excited to explore a new country.

If I stopped feeling this way, I would just head home for good—there is no sense in forcing travel when your heart is not in it. Those few times where my patience has worn thin were when I planned a vacation within my trip—a few days on a more remote island, a week of relaxation somewhere away from the bustle. That small resulting ‘reset’ goes a long way to staying positive when traveling long-term.

Have your experiences changed the way you view opportunities, money, or just the world in general?

Absolutely. In my travels, I’ve tried to do certain things in each country: volunteer at a local nonprofit, and learn how to make a local dish. These activities allowed me to forge relationships with locals and truly partake in the culture in most of the places I’ve been. It has also heightened my awareness to the things that we take for granted at home, and inevitably lowered my tolerance for all the complaining we tend to do about things like the weather.

Overall, I’ve found myself happier than I’ve ever been and a large part of that happiness comes from the knowledge that this trip has been ultimately fulfilling in ways that I had not even contemplated. The glory of discovering new and delicious foods; my living with local families in insanely remote places; meeting the other travel bloggers, each stumbling through their own crazy experiences. Each distinct adventure has piled on the colours and tastes and lessons learned, and I have grown exponentially as a person as each month bled into the next. Not in height, unfortunately—I’m still only five feet tall. But in spirit, most definitely.

Last but not least, what’s next for you?

At this point, I’m not entirely sure! I am home for the summer and have just returned from a press trip to the Dominican Republic. Having never explored the West Coast (Seattle and Portland especially), I’d like to do some travel here in the next few months.

Ideally, I’d also like to move back to Bangkok come 2011. Despite the tumultuous red shirt protests this spring, it still felt more like home than anywhere else I’ve been. And Bangkok is a perfect base for further travels through Bhutan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, each of which high up on my ‘must see’ list. I’ve also truly enjoyed sharing my experiences through the blog and inspiring others to travel independently, and plan to keep posting about my myriad (mis)adventures.

***

My thanks to Jodi for sharing her world with us. You can follow her adventures at LegalNomads.com, or on Twitter here.

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Comment on this article

40 Responses to “The Unconventional Backpacker: Interview with Jodi Ettenberg”

  1. That’s a good idea to always remember opportunity costs of our consumerist choices. Dinner in an expensive restaurant may equal to few days of living in Asia…

    Good and inspirational story, thank you for sharing!

  2. What a wonderful & independent spirit. Jodi has succeeded in casting off the world voice and experiencing her ideal freedom. When we can inquire into who we really are with intense integrity – we will discover that the only thing standing in the way of heaven on earth is our denying the possibility. We must be daring to break free of that old tune.

  3. I’ve been following Jodi’s adventures for a little while now. She did an awesome job keeping Twitter fully updated during the political issues in Bangkok earlier this year. It was really interesting to follow.

    Jodi, if you read this, which mountain did you end up on out here in the Northwest?

  4. Hey Chris, and Jodi,

    Nice introduction. How long will you travel Jodi? And what’s your next big goal?
    devin

  5. Fabulous interview. It’s so great and encouraging to discover like-minded people who have been planning their escape and now are fulfilling their nomadic/free-spirit nature. Living the dream.

    I’m biding my time in my career as well (designer w/freelance biz + full time corporate gig) while I work toward the end goal of marrying my personal+professional lives on the international scene. I’ve had an obsession with the Russian/East European cultures for as long as I can remember. Just in the last few months, a vision to utilize that passion has been coming into focus.

    This site has been playing a role in getting me prepared for that future as well. Many thanks again and safe travels everyone:)

  6. So great! I love that Jodi recognized early on that the practice of law wasn’t going to be for her. Although I made my great escape from law, I wish I would have known what I wanted a bit sooner. But, if I had, I suppose I would have missed out on my own journey. Life is nothing but interesting!

  7. Excellent story. Jodi you’re inspiring. You have a destination, a long term plan on which you stay quite focused and disciplined. You don’t fear loneliness, living new experience and taking risk. I value your independent spirit and the time your taking to evaluate the opportunity costs of the choices we make. Yes true, Quebec tuitions fees are extremely cheap as a Quebec resident. But you pay pretty high taxes when you hit the market as a professional. Going to work in a foreign country when school was over was probably the best way the save up money for the travelling experience.

    I was wondering if there a website to follow Jodi.

    Bonne chance dans ton périple.
    Pascal

  8. Jodi’s site is linked at the bottom of the post, along with her Twitter handle.

  9. Great story and great post from a fellow Canadian! I’ve been to Thailand and I must say I share her enthusiasm for such a great place. Very inspiring.

  10. Hi Jodi/Chris–

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. I appreciate the methodical approach you applied to the corporate world, and balancing your values with the bigger picture.

    There’s nothing like travel to lower our tolerance for what many see as “problems.” It’s amazing what we take for granted in the Western world. I have traveled to Bangkok, and of the countries I’ve visited, the Thai people are my favorite. I found Chiang Mai to be breathtaking, too.

    Great adventurous story to begin my day-and I look forward to following your blog.
    Linda

  11. As a female who travels with friends, groups and independently, I find Jodi’s journey encouraging and inspiring. I look forward to reading her blog and referencing her experiences as an example for naysayers that travel for cultural immersion is possible and imperative.

  12. Wow, this has hit home for me. I’m about to take the journey of my lifetime in 2011. Her comments about living in Thailand, is my goal next year, except in Vietnam. I’ve been their twice (2005-2006) and have many friend in the Photo Clubs, who are truly amazing. I’m 65, retired and now have the freedom to travel, with no baggage. My photography has opened doors for many connections. This adventure will be different, because I will traveling alone. Thanks so much, and look for my blogs in Feb 2011 as I plan on starting in India, and staying at least 2 months.

  13. Hi all,

    Glad you like Jodi’s interview… yes, she is one serious traveler! I give respect.

    I’m getting on a 10-hour Thai Airways flight now, but will post the rest of your comments on the other side. :)

    cg

  14. Sure would be nice to hear how the heck she got into Myanmar (Burma). They aren’t known for handing out visas…

  15. What an inspiring interview, Chris. It’s a great example of how people can actually use “work” to fuel and fund what they really, really want to do with their lives, so it ends up serving a purpose that’s beyond the day job.

    Jodi, I hadn’t followed you before now, but am about to cut across to your blog to do so! I’m so impressed that you were so determined to achieve your dream that you found ways to make it happen for you financially, in particular being really creative around your spending.

    Also, I so relate to what you’re saying about how travel changes your outlook on things. I live a much less nomadic existence these days, but have done a lot of traveling, living and working abroad, all of which have attuned me really well to things like cultural differences on the one hand, while making me much less patient about the things in my own culture that get taken as “givens” and “unchangeable”.

  16. What an awesome life – my heart feels like magical fire every time I see people getting out and living their inspirational adventures.
    My best experiences spring from my travels – Thailand as well.

    May she encounter many more, beautiful experiences.

  17. Love love LOVE this interview! I’m a solo female traveler, too — backpacked Africa in 2008. Go JODI! Thanks for inspiring all of us.

  18. I am thrilled that you chose to interview Jodi. Her blog is an inspiration to all females who wish to travel solo.

  19. August 12, 2010

    Karel Sabbe

    agree and understand me are very scarce at the moment, finding them only on the internet – on blogs and so, but so seldomly in real life.

    I have a question though and I guess you’ve had some of the same doubts, and maybe you know more of an answer to it now:
    how did you think about love? About meeting somebody who you really like and was not thát travel-minded? (offcourse he would be travel-minded or you would not have fallen in love with that person) But that is sometimes something I wonder.

    With kind regards to both Jodi and Chris,
    Karel (Belgium)

  20. Thanks so much for sharing this great look into the life of a solo female traveler! Some awesome questions answered by such an inspiring woman.

  21. Chris, thanks for sharing this interview. As a single woman about to head out on my own travel adventure, starting in the Philippines, I appreciate hearing from Jodi.

  22. Great interview. I feel privileged to know Jodi. She is an inspiration to all female solo travelers (and probably men as well!).

  23. Great interview.

    Jodi I’ve followed your travels a bit and I think we even ended up doing the same semi-ridiculous huge commute up to the north of Burma just for the sake of coming back down again by boat. If all of your travels have been like that then you’ll have had a pretty spectacular trip so far. I think I might pop on over to your blog to see what you’re up to these days.

    Safe travels! You too, Chris.

  24. Thanks, Chris and Jodi. Unless I missed it, I’m curious as to how long Jodi saved before she left her corporate lawyer position?

  25. Thank you for all the comments & to Chris for asking me to participate at AONC.

    @Tyler: I had to cancel my Nepal trip because I tore 2 tendons in South Africa and re-injured it in Bangkok, so I chose South Sister. Smaller, but still possible to camp on the summit. I’ll be camping out atop the mountain (hopefully!) on the 14th.

    @Devin: As I said in the post, 2011 in Bangkok is my current plan. I’d like to work at a small NGO or microcredit organisation in advocacy/public law and continue to explore Asia.

    @Pascal: Merci bien pour vos souhaits. What influenced my choice was that bar school is 1 year in Quebec and the stage is another year, whereas in NY bar school is 9 weeks and you start at full salary without a stage. So the decision made sense financially for several reasons.

    Thx again for the lovely comments,
    Jodi

  26. Great interview. I can totally relate to your situation, Jodi, of working and keeping your head down as you plot an entirely different journey. It’s a difficult road to stick to because you’re slowly (sometimes quickly) checking out mentally.

    I can only hope my own break away will be as successful and fulfilling as yours.

  27. Great interview. Jodi is top notch.

  28. Okay, this is the sort of thing I needed to really kick me in the butt….

    Thanks to us moving, I kicked the eating out almost every day habit. Now it’s a rare occurrence during the week and mostly for the weekends. Surprising amount of money that we can now save for taking trips… One weekend to Seattle this September, snowboarding/skiing in the winter here in Spokane and hopefully an Alaskan cruise next spring. :)

    World traveler? Hardly. But I’m working up to it, and these are the stories that help me feel like it’ll happen.

  29. Awesome post! Really inspiring. Let Jodi know if she needs a tour guide in Portland, OR I’d love to meet with her and show her around town.

  30. Thank you for sharing another inspirational story Chris! Cheers to you Jodi :) Wishing you all the best in your travels around the globe!!

  31. August 12, 2010

    Lora Terry

    Great Interview Chris! The question that had me reflecting on my time traveling was this one, “Do you ever feel lonely or anxious on the road? If yes, what do you do with those feelings?” Her reply was similar to they way I learned to adapt in Congo! Another inspiring travel interview. Thank You!

  32. @JP: Myanmar/Burma will issue visas if you pass their check. You have to provide 10 years of employment history, though. As their Nov 7 election date looms, they will likely be far more strict with their visa allocation.

    @Natalie: I spent 4 mos in the Philippines and have written about it quite a bit on the blog. Feel free to email with any questions.

    @Kirsty: I actually did the commute in Burma to be on the boat for the solar eclipse (well worth it!), but yes one of many similar (and awesome) adventures. Happy to discover your site as well – looks great.

    @Laura: About 5.5 years of saving while working as a lawyer.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  33. Good interview Jodi! Don’t stop traveling!

  34. I can’t agree more that a little ‘reset’ goes a long way in keeping the travel experience fresh. Often, you’ve just got to follow your feelings and put the trip on hold.

    One day while cycling through Africa I woke up and realized the bicycle tour was no longer fun. It had become drudgery and I was just cranking out kilometers to save face and prove I could do it.

    A week later I was on a plane headed for India where I spent six months re-charging for the rest of my cycling tour. Two years on I’m still going strong and loving the round the world bike touring lifestyle.
    Without the rest I might have given up completely. I’d be back behind a desk instead of living my dreams.

  35. WOW! What an inspiration. Right after college I moved to Japan for 3 years and traveled extensively around Southeast Asia. I always dreamed of spending a year going continent hopping, but the sensible side of me won out and I decided to go to grad school instead. Fast forward 4 years and I don’t even have a valid passport. So, Jodi, I look forward to living vicariously through you. Thank you!

  36. What a great interview, very detailed answers and I can relate to it all!

  37. These are the kind of stories I love to hear about. In America, law students slave for years to try to get into a firm in NYC. They feel that is the end result of all their hard work – yet for Jodi, it was just the beginning. Kudos to her for giving it up and pursuing her love for travel.

    She was so well spoken (written), and she really touched on what makes travel so essential to those of us who love it dearly. I especially liked how she discussed the mindset you have to be in to really endure traveling for long(er) periods of time; so true.

    Thanks to you two for this interview!

  38. How long did you work in the New York law firm before setting off for Asia? Do you ever expect to return to that profession?

  39. I love this story, she was working with a purpose and she has found the life she loves in Bangkok. We can all learn from her by not following the crowd and find our own version of happiness.

    Josh Bulloc
    Kansas City, MO

  40. Oh Jodie is my kinda gal! I’ve been hit by a similar bug over the years…deemed to be stingy by family for saving it all up for plane tickets and dinners in London…or wherever…there is nothing like the stimulation of new languages and cultures. Yes, it’s tiring to keep moving. I recommend a stint in a place so you can put your bag down, and explore a place properly. Housesitting makes this possible. happy travels!! *sigh****

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