In a world where travelling as a woman without a companion is often seen as a dangerous or risky proposition, it’s inspiring to see strong, independent women such as this month’s guest prove that not only is solo female travel safe, but that it can be a normal part of a woman’s life. Jodi Ettenberg began travelling full time 5 years ago and has since built a fantastic blog called Legal Nomads, written a book about street food and continues to work as a freelance consultant.
To her readers, she continues to be an inspiration and is someone who we are honoured to have as a friend.
Name: Jodi Ettenberg
Hometown: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Currently living: No home base. Winters spent in Asia or Southeast Asia in search of great eats and the stories behind them, and summers in North America for conferences and consulting work.
Tell us a little bit about Jodi Ettenberg:
I’m a former lawyer from Montreal who quit my job in 2008 to travel around the world for a year. It’s now been five years and counting, and instead of returning to the practice of law as planned, I’ve been working as a food and travel writer, primarily in Southeast Asia.
What are you currently busy with?
I’m excited to launch a few big projects this year. In addition to my Legal Nomads site, I’ll be starting up food tours in whatever city I’m living in, based around the colours of food. So choosing a red tour would get chili and tomato soups and other red foods; choosing green would offer green drinks, pandan desserts and vegetables, among others. Essentially my readers were asking if I’d be offering ways for them to see food the way I eat it, and this was a fun next step for my site. I’m also launching a gluten free travel site since I have celiac disease. I was diagnosed over a decade ago and I get very sick when I eat wheat. While there are lots of domestic sites available, there are few for international travel. Finally, I’ll be continuing to work on consulting in the social media and branding space.
Tell us about your first memorable travel experience:
After law school, I went and studied for a year in France. It was the first time I travelled alone, and I was terrified. I decided that during my first weekend in town I would go to the train station and just take the next long train to …wherever. I figured it would be a good way to learn how to travel alone. I went up to Annecy, near the border of Switzerland, and it was gorgeous. I often wonder what would have happened if it had been a terrible weekend. Would my travel bug be as strong? Answers I will never know. 😉
Where do you plan to travel next?
I’m in North America this summer as I’m presenting at conferences in Toronto and Portland, with time in between in New York and Chicago. I’ll be returning to Montreal to help my grandpa celebrate his 95th birthday, and then heading to Costa Rica to officiate my best friend’s wedding in the fall, followed by a trip to India with my mum on the occasion of her birthday. Family-filled fall, full of great travel! I will return to Southeast Asia as soon as I can, likely in early 2014.
You’ve been to Indonesia before. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience here?
Given the size of the country, I have not had a chance to explore much of what it has to offer. The time I did spend in Indonesia was wonderful. People at home ask me whether it was safe as a solo female traveler, and I never felt insecure or threatened – people were very kind, and curious about why I was alone. I did, of course, dress conservatively compared to neighboring countries like Thailand or Vietnam, and on several occasions people even thanked me for dressing this way. I would love to return to Indonesia and see some of the many other islands that I’ve missed. The diversity of landscape, flora and fauna is astounding and I cannot wait to see more.
Do you have plans to return to Indonesia anytime in the near future? We know the Indonesian food and travel communities would love to catch up with you and perhaps help you uncover unique foods to show the world!
I’d love to return! I hope to be back in Southeast Asia in January and was planning to take a trip to Indonesia when I am in the region. There is so much I have yet to see.
Last year you published a book about travel and food. Can you tell us a bit about the book and what we can learn about different cultures through food?
The book advocates using food as a tool for connecting with and learning about different cultures around the world, particularly street food or market stalls. I wanted to emphasize that while food IS delicious, it’s also one of the best ways to get under the skin of a new place, and to understand people’s routines there. Unlike in North America, much of the world eats outside – at markets, at street stalls, at hawker stands. It was an attempt to encourage people who are afraid of eating street food abroad to try their hand at it, which is why I also include a lot of resources for safe eating and further reader.
In Indonesia, the idea of solo female travel is very new and many women feel scared about the prospect of seeing the world on their own. What do you say to young Indonesian women who dream of hitting the road on their own? What do you say to allay their fears about safety?
I wrote a long post about this recently (http://www.legalnomads.com/2013/02/female-solo-travel.html), in light of the death of an American woman in Turkey. The American media was quick to say that solo female travel was dangerous as a result, and I was frustrated by the dialogue because I thought it ignored the true issue: that the “danger” for women is at home and it is abroad, because the issue was truly one of violence against women and not solo travel. The reality is, I feel safer as a solo female traveler in Asia than I do in North America, but this is hard for people at home to understand or believe. It comes down to comfort levels and knowing what your limits are, and to common sense. No matter who you are – male or female – it’s unwise to tell someone you just met what guesthouse you are at. If you do drink alcohol, it is never a good idea to drink too much if you are alone, and always watch your drink to make sure no one puts anything in it. Stay in more central, well-lit locations. Etc. (The post above also has a list of tips at the end for solo travelers.)
For women wanting to start out traveling alone, perhaps start with a two-week package trip, then stay on alone after, once you are more used to it. The bottom line is this: there are definitely concerns that women face that men do not have to worry about, definitely, but there are also many great places to visit where the risks of them are less acute. Being aware of how I am dressed (dressing conservatively in conservative places), being aware of my surroundings and what I say to people I meet – that all goes a long way. In the end, I’ve found my travels alone for the last few years extremely rewarding and empowering. I feel much more confident as a person now than I did when I first set out. And I’ve gotten to eat so many delicious foods 😉
When did you start your blog and why?
I started my blog in 2008 when I quit my job as a lawyer (I was working as a lawyer for 5 years by that point). I started it for my mother and friends and family to see where I was going – I never expected it to be a full-time job! I actually thought I’d return to being a lawyer again. But as I kept writing and traveling, I started getting offers to write freelance and my audience for my own site kept growing. So I thought: why not take these opportunities and see where they go? Now I wrote a book about food and am still writing on Legal Nomads, with food tours and other projects in the works for 2014. I would have never believed you if you had told me in 2008 that this was what would happen!
What is your travelling style? Backpacker, flashpacker or luxury?
Mostly backpacker or flashpacker. For food, budget – street foods, market eats, snack vendors from tiny carts. For lodging, I do prefer private rooms to dorm rooms. I travel with a computer because of work so I don’t want a place I can’t work in quietly. Generally though I’m not traveling any more – I’m living in places and renting apartments for several months at a time.
You’ve travelled a lot around the world. Are there any places that you haven’t been that you dream of going to one day?
Many! I’m finally going to India this fall – I’m taking my mum for her birthday as she hasn’t been either. I’d love to get to more of Indonesia, to Sri Lanka, to much of Africa (I’ve yet to travel there for the most part). And Bhutan would be wonderful too. Many more – these are just a few!
You live a nomadic lifestyle, but is this something that anyone can do if they really want to?
It’s definitely not for everyone, and for many family obligations make it quite difficult. I am happy that my lifestyle lets me come home to North America to spend time with my parents every summer. We do, as people, need a lot less “stuff” than we realize. I am amazed sometimes at how much people buy – electronics and clothes and you name it. It’s satisfying to realize that you can live with less. I’m not a minimalist by any means but I do just travel with a 22 inch suitcase (carryon size) for the year, getting the little things like bowls or plates or the like when I am renting an apartment.
If people want to live this way, there are many resources out there. I list a few on my resources page – www.legalnomads.com/wds, too, as well as budget and planning tips for long-term travel.
What are 5 things that you never travel without?
- Sarong: doubles as a pillowcase, skirt, scarf, headcovering – you name it.
- Safety whistle: chases away monkeys, gets people’s attention when stranded on a boat in the middle of nowhere, great to have when hiking and small – no excuse not to have it.
- Smartphone – using What’sapp and Instagram and Skype have all kept me close to friends and family far away and helped keep homesickness at bay.
- Doorstop – I use these on the inside of the door in my rooms because they keep people from entering at night. Gives me some extra peace of mind.
- Headlamp – for power outages, reading in bed, and more. Useful and tiny.
Many many more! I have more of the packing tips on the resource page I linked to above.
Jodi really is one of the top bloggers out there. She writes with passion and integrity and is someone we could all learn from as we blog about our travels. Do yourself a favour and check out her blog www.legalnomads.com and check out her twitter feed – it’s one of the most unique voices out there.