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.

Is Thailand Safe Now?

Yeah, pretty much.

A full month has passed since Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the slightly Orwellian-sounding CRES (Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation) gave themselves an all-clear. The official sigh of relief follows a few weeks of fairly intense civil unrest–the chaos of ongoing street protests between yellow-shirted PAD and the red-shirted UDD claimed 88 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and lost business. The violence only ended following an agreement to hold general elections this coming November. Since then, the Thai government has been implementing a number of important changes in order to return the country back to normal. (But honestly, was Thailand ever normal? I mean, does anyone fly 16 hours to a country because it’s normal?)

Although the emergency decree remains in place, the curfew has been lifted in Bangkok and the country. (That’s a very good thing because Bangkok with a curfew is like going on a date with your parents in the backseat.) A far more encouraging sign is that the US State Department has ended their travel advisory for Thailand, even disappearing it from their website.

If it was anywhere else in the world, this on-again/off-again safety status might seem alarming, but those who know Thailand understand how quickly people settle back into a peaceful, “life-is-good” sort-of existence. It’s also important to remember that the most recent protests were concentrated in very specific areas of Bangkok. Few signs remain that anything was ever amok.

Hesitant tourists are the unfortunate result of any political instability, no matter how short-lived. The resulting drop in foreign visitors to Thailand has instigated a price war among hotels and resorts across the country–if you thought Thailand used to be cheap, it just got a whole lot cheaper. A number of awesome deals are up for the taking, like Thai Airwarys’ Discover Thailand pass (fly to any 3 cities within Thailand for $278).It will take a long time for tourism to recover, for sure. To encourage reluctant travelers, the Thai Tourist Authority is now waiving visa requirements and all fees for any American traveler wishing to stay beyond the normally-allotted 30 days. Already eager to please as a culture, Thai businesses are also bending over backwards to accomodate visitors. All flights are running normally at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, which, for the record, is a far more efficient airport than JFK and LAX put together.

Regardless, travelers to any foreign country should always follow a “Stay Informed” mantra. Before you go anywhere (be it Ireland, Italy, or South Dakota), it’s best to make yourself aware of the political situation. People versus parliament is a universal struggle (see Tea Party) but in Thailand, there is a long back story to the back and forth between people, government and military. There is also a very long history of peace. The beaches aren’t bad either.

(Photo Credits: Ratchaprasong and The Media Slut on Flickr)

Flights resume in Bangkok

Gadling has been following the situation in Bangkok over the past few days. Hundreds of thousands of domestic and international travelers were stranded when anti-government protesters occupied Suvarnabhumi Airport, the country’s international hub. Things came to a rather anti-climactic end yesterday (thankfully for those involved) when Thailand’s highest court convicted members of the ruling party of rigging elections held last year. Getting the result that they wanted, protesters simply abandoned the airport peacefully.

In the past few hours, those who were previously unable to leave have been flocking to the airport and to travel agents around the city in an effort to book their flights home. Cleaning and inspection crews have been working around the clock to bring the airport back to international standards. Airport officials claim that it will take two weeks before the airport is fully operational. For now, flights are trickling in. Travelers stranded might have to wait several more days before they can procure a seat on a departing flight.


Thai government dissolved as protesters finally leave Bangkok’s airport

The Constitutional Court of Thailand decided that the ruling People Power Party had to dissolve. Its leader, now former PM Somchai Wongsawat, was forced to leave office. That was exactly the result that the anti-government mob occupying Suvarnabhumi International Airport was hoping for. Their goal was to shut down the airport until the government was taken from power or stepped down voluntarily. Their goals achieved, the mob at the airport dispersed earlier today.

Supporters of the government criticized the court’s ruling by calling it a judicial coup. However, the court claimed it had evidence proving that the PPP, as well as several other parties, cheated and bribed their way to victory in last year’s elections. The party’s leaders will be banned from politics, but other members are already at work forming a new party called Puea Thai.

Suvarnabhumi is now empty, but it was damaged during the protests. The head of Thailand’s airports, Serirat Prasutanont, said that the airport would remain closed until 6 pm on December 15th. Equipment and systems must be checked prior to the reopening. The closure cost the airport more than $10 million.

[Related coverage @ The Nation]

Travelers getting out of Thailand, but the situation is worsening

Following the lead of Etihad Airways, more than a dozen international carriers have sought out secondary airports to get passengers out of Thailand. Tiny U-Tapao Airport in coastal Rayong (a few hours south of Bangkok) has seen 50 flights per day. Passengers have been squeezing into the one terminal, but tents and portable toilets have been sent up outside to help with overflow.

Don Muang, the old international airport in Bangkok, has also been receiving some international flights, though the chaos in Bangkok makes U-Tapao a better choice in the eyes of most carriers.

Meanwhile, anti-government forces are still controlling Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s international airport. Protesters are in the terminals and armed guards loyal to the protesters have set up checkpoints at various points around the airport. Small bomb blasts are occasionally heard throughout the airport grounds and a news truck was recently riddled with bullets after it was stopped at a PAD checkpoint. No one in the truck was injured.

Police have surrounded the airport and are organizing themselves. An end to the stand-off is most likely immenant. The question is, will it be a peaceful or violent end.

[full coverage: The Nation and BKK Post]