Travel blogger Q&A: Jodi Ettenberg

For many travel enthusiasts, bloggers, and armchair travelers, Jodi Ettenberg’s story is downright inspirational. For several years a successful corporate lawyer, she left her comfortable if demanding life in New York to travel the world.

Along the way, she’s had an unnerving number of bird crap incidents, documented Thailand’s red shirt protests, and provided an enticing introduction to the Perhentian Islands, among many other engagements. One constant throughout is food, and in particular street food.

Ettenberg authors a fantastic blog called Legal Nomads and maintains a very active and always interesting Twitter account.

Q: Describe your profession.

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

Q: What drives your instinct to travel?

A: A desire to soak up as much as possible, as intensely as possible. I know this sounds broad, but it applies to almost every facet of what I’ve done these past few years. I am continuously energized by learning new things and experiencing them firsthand. Travel can be exhausting and it can be awe-inspiring, but I’ve found the best way to balance between the two is to keep reaching out to local people wherever you go.

My time learning, eating, and traveling with locals has compelled me to keep going, from living with a local family in the Philippines to shaking my head at the sheer insanity of a crazy transportation route in Burma.

Q: Your travels have focused on South America and Asia. What drew you to these parts of the world, in very general terms?

A: For South America, the language and the people. I lived in Uruguay and Ecuador in 2002, and taught myself Spanish by compulsively writing down words in the middle of conversations and then memorizing them at night. In my months on the continent, I managed to pick up quite a bit of the language. I was able to talk to cab drivers and learn about their life stories, and ask questions about South America’s tangled history. More importantly, I was able to understand the answers to my questions, which deepened the desire to keep traveling there.

For Asia, the food, with the people a close second. It could be whatever magnificent street eats I find for breakfast, to the many soups in Burma, to sitting down in Kuala Lumpur and receiving cooking lessons in exchange for bringing tourists to a street stand near BB Plaza. I get obnoxiously excited about food, and will happily travel to another town just to try a dish. My interest in food adds a tremendously rewarding dimension to my gallivanting, especially in Asia where food is so integral to culture. I loved reading Anthony Zee’s Swallowing Clouds for that reason, as it ties together Chinese food and history and culture in an intoxicating way.

Q: The sheer duration of your travels is an inspiration to tons of travel writers and bloggers, and your pace is both slow and relaxed. Talk about this.

A: I started out traveling at a relatively quick pace, but once I hit Asia and fell in love with Asian food I started to move more slowly. I spent four months in the Philippines and two months each in Indonesia and Malaysia. The 90-hour work weeks I’d endured as a corporate lawyer gave me the freedom to truly explore whatever enticed me as I wandered through the world. I worked hard, and I feel very lucky that I now have the time, energy, and desire to keep traveling as long as I have.
Q: You were in Bangkok earlier this year while the red shirt protests raged and were quite active on Twitter during that period. Would you be comfortable making any statements about the contemporary politics of Thailand?

A: It is interesting that you framed your question around Twitter, because the role it played in Thailand’s tumultuous spring was truly eye-opening. I joined Twitter in September 2009 after dragging my feet for quite some time, and it has been a great way to learn about new things and to meet other travelers or expats in new places.

But during the red shirt protests, it became a whole other brand of useful to me and to Thailand generally. I was quoted in a Globe and Mail article after the crackdown about Twitter and its unprecedented role in Bangkok, and the examples cited in the article show how truly important the real-time updates were. From warning people of dangerous areas, to updating on the ground with pictures, to helping rescue the wounded from the downtown core during the crackdown itself, it was just so incredible to watch the organic expansion of public interaction, even when things were going pear-shaped.

I experienced this firsthand on April 10th, when the Thai media tweeted that no tear gas was currently being used just as I was in Kok Wua intersection getting teargassed. I was able to upload a picture from my BlackBerry of the teargas being dropped over the intersection as it happened, which was retweeted widely. Pictorial proof is not absolute, but the thousands and thousands of pictures uploaded by Twitter users in Thailand went a long way to keep everyone abreast of what was happening during the maelstrom of those weeks in Bangkok.

As a foreigner in Thailand, it is important to tread very lightly with any political statements. I tried to keep my blog focused on pictures and links to articles about the red shirt rallies or politics, as opposed to making judgments myself. I was only there for a few months, and though I was lucky enough to have been thrust into the core of the protests (both by purposely running around in the rallies and taking pictures and by living in Din Daeng, an area devastated by the resulting crackdown), I am certainly no expert when it comes to Thai politics. I will say that things have, on the surface, returned to normal, but that under the surface, resentment still percolates as many of the underlying issues leading up to the protests have not been addressed by the government. Yesterday’s downtown Bangkok bomb explosion, which followed a local by-election, demonstrates that reconciliation has yet to occur.

Q: Where are you headed next?

A: I was supposed to head over to Nepal and trek with my brother and his friends at the end of the summer, but unfortunately my lingering bronchial issues (from inhaling burnt tire smoke in Bangkok during the protests) have made the trip a no-go. My aim is to move back to Asia on a more permanent basis come 2011. Ideally, I would like to keep writing about my travels on a freelance basis, and get involved with a microcredit organization in Asia.

Q: Can you offer three tips for prospective long-term or RTW (round-the-world) travelers?

A: From my own experiences, I’d offer the following:

1. Do not buy a RTW ticket. If you’ve got a set time frame, then a RTW ticket might be for you. But otherwise I encourage everyone to see where their travels take them, as that freedom is part of the fun. Had I booked a RTW ticket, I would have never made it to the Philippines, Burma, or Ecuador. I understand that many people want structure within their travels, but so much of what makes travel exciting to me is the ability to jump somewhere enticing if the opportunity arises.

2. Bring duct tape. I’ve taped up the rips in my pack cover, holes in the window screens in malarial zones, leaks in my tents on a variety of camping trips, and the cord to my eeePC when rats chewed through it in the Philippines. I wrap the tape around itself so it has no hole in the center.

3. Read as much as you can about a place before you go. Many travelers are well-informed about their destination but know little about the historical or cultural quirks prior to arrival. I could only gape at a tourist in Burma who said enthusiastically “this country is so peaceful!” He had read nothing about the place and hadn’t realized how much of the country was off limits and why. He just arrived, saw the sights, and left, without trying to dig deeper to understand what made things the way they are. I’m not saying that you need to be able to give a dissertation upon arriving somewhere new! But along the way, it is great to pick up a book or two, if only to add an additional, important layer that will make your visit more satisfying overall.