This week’s “Four Cheapo Questions for…” interview features travel blogger extraordinaire, Jodi Ettenberg of LegalNomads.com.
We first met Jodi many moons ago in New York at our favorite after-work watering hole, Botanica, where she happened to be attending a MeetUp for Gothamist.com. A member of our happy hour clan happened to be wearing a t-shirt from the travel website Gadling, which Jodi spotted and—shazam!—a new relationship was born.
Since then we’ve enjoyed chatting it up with Jodi at the TBEX conferences and various events here in New York. We love her story and think you will, too.
Question 1: You have a very interesting, non-traditional career arc, to put it mildly. Can you let us know how you developed your plan to stop lawyering and start travel blogging? Was it part of your personal “master plan” or one day did it just become an apparent, obvious change you wanted to make?
It was a very gradual, very planned out change, though I thought I would just be traveling for one year and then return to lawyer once more. As you’ve seen, what happened is that I kept going and going, and the one year trip turned into a multi-year, sprawling adventure that led me to discover the world through food.
I always loved to travel, but the plan to quit and do so full-time can be traced back to a documentary I saw in high school, about the Trans-Siberian trains. I started thinking about going there myself, and taking the trains out to Mongolia and into China. Over the years, this idea sat below the surface and by the time I took my job offer in New York, I was dreaming of a full year of travel that would, of course, include these trains.
It was wonderful to finally get there and take my time crossing Russia, Siberia and Mongolia. Coming into China from Erlian, I was excited for a new continent but superbly satisfied to have done what I set out to do and enjoyed it so thoroughly too.
Question 2. You’ve been traveling all over the place the past 5 years. We’re talking South America, Russia, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Turkey, England and Scotland, to name a few. Do you have a personal strategy for keeping it cheap while on the road? We’d love to hear some of the tips you’ve picked up along the way.
I think a good part of keeping costs down comes from the food. I don’t tend to splurge on meals, but rather find the market stalls and the street food carts that are popular. For lunch in Asia or South America, seeking the town’s university is a surefire way to locate fresh and cheap food – students are hungry, so demand is high and turnover is quick. While the food might not be gourmet, it is usually very good and authentically local.
In Europe, I tend to find greenmarkets or buy on-the-go building blocks for dinner at supermarkets – fresh cheese, bread (in my case, gluten-free crackers), fresh fruit, and more. Then, I’ll have my bigger meal at lunch (not dinner). Many restaurants have set courses at lunch that are very cost-effective. For finding them, I rely on sites like eGullet, Chowhound or on the suggestions of other travelers.
Question 3. We have a lot of travel friends in the industry who are big-time foodies. But you’re the only one we know who wrote a book about relying on food as a means to discover the world. How’d you wind up writing it? Give us the scoop.
It’s a fair question because I certainly didn’t start out with the intention of writing about food. What happened was that I figured out somewhere between Mongolia and China that I cared more about meals and food ingredients than most people, and with an intensity some found strange.
I wanted to know not just what people at for dinner, but why. And how did those ingredients end up in those countries? Why did people focus on certain spices versus others, or how did tea ceremonies or food etiquette come about? And as I started researching and asking questions, I saw that this would clearly become the primary focus for my future travels, because food was at the core of what fascinated me. It was as though my whole philosophy shifted to placing food in the center, with all the other interesting things – history, culture, landscapes – related, but separate.
So I started to travel for food. I went to towns specifically in search of a soup someone recommended, I tracked down an herb used in soup that tasted like nothing I had tried prior. I tried to learn the stories of the people behind the food too, and how their expertise had formed over the years. Concurrently, I started to write more about food and my site’s readers started sharing their own stories and questions. They also wanted to know how they could eat as I did without dying of dysentery…
When Shannon from A Little Adrift wrote to say she was joining a project started by Janice Waugh, and she suggested I come on board for the food book. And the rest is history! The book is part of a series of five called The Traveler’s Handbooks, and each follows a similar model – practical tips and inspirational stories, with lots of quotes from seasoned travelers and many photographs. I’m very excited to see the paperback up on Amazon, with digital versions to follow this week. I can’t believe it’s actually out there in the world!
Question 4. Last questions and it’s a loaded one: What’s the single best travel advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t eat yellow snow? Oh, wait – no….that was my dad’s advice when he taught me how to ski.
I think the best advice would be from a quote from the book “A Fortune Teller Told Me” by Tiziano Terzani. I like the quote because it addresses what I truly believe about food: that it doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. Instead, you only need to take a closer look or dig under the surface for what makes that ingredient, dish or meal special.
“Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching the passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.”
So true. Thanks, Jodi!