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.