In 2008, Jodi Ettenberg of Montreal, Canada, made the drastic decision to take a year off of working as a lawyer in New York City to travel the world—an adventure that has yet to end. Five years later, she is still traveling and documenting her stories on her popular travel website (legalnomads.com). Ettenberg’s experiences and writing have allowed her to rethink what happiness means to her and to pursue a career as a travel writer. She has even published a book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, on how to eat safe, inexpensive, tasty food while traveling. Stowaway caught up with Ettenberg between locations in India and Bangkok.
What lessons have you learned from your experiences?
I’ll mention a few highlights. An appreciation for the commonalities between humans in disparate places. An ability to sweat the small stuff a little less. The ability to learn through food, something I never did before. The incredible kindness of strangers in far-flung places. The staggering disasters we don’t read about in our local news, like corruption or political upheavals that are barely a blip at home. But, ultimately, the biggest impact is a wider perspective: seeing the world more fully and hopefully inspiring people to learn as much as they can in the time that they are given.
What keeps you from returning to your old life?
This new career and new life happened so organically for me, and I want to see where it goes. I’m not traveling constantly any longer like I was before—now I stay in places for five or six months at a time, writing and working on freelance gigs. It’s almost like mini expat-stints in places I love. So when that grows old or when I decide that I miss a more routine life, I can change course. But for now, it’s been incredibly rewarding.
While I am absolutely grateful—I did build this life after all—I’ve definitely traded things that society tells me are normal (house, car, one place to live, less street food at 2 AM) for what I do. That said, this life is 100% worth it to me. If it weren’t, I’d no longer be doing it.
I’m still admitted as a lawyer. But I love what I’m doing now—and I love the serendipity of how my new career has progressed. I would have never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I would have laughed had you told me that I would be doing social media consulting work or public speaking or taking mini food tours while writing about food all over the world. The flip side to the uncertainty is, of course, the wonderful freedom to follow opportunities that come my way, all the while working in fields I feel passionate about.
How does food factor into your travels?
I think it’s the history that surrounds food that I find most compelling, not just the culture. I’m interested in why people eat the way they do—how a certain set of mores came to be, how the spices or condiments on the table can be traced back to earlier eras in a country’s history. Food is the lens that gives me the most in terms of knowledge and the most in terms of connection.
Food is universal, and it is important just about everywhere. By recognizing this I’ve been honored with invites to weddings and have been welcomed into kitchens to learn how to cook for family get-togethers and festivals. I’ve experienced these amazing things because I took an interest in the food, asked questions, and tried to learn as much as possible. It has been infinitely rewarding for me. The book I wrote stemmed from these lessons, showing that food is the best tool out there to connect with a place.
What advice would you offer to young travelers?
Have a buffer for the worst-case scenario, be it a skill set that you can draw on for work while traveling or a savings account that you can lean on if needed. For those who want to travel and work, there are some great teaching, mentoring, and fellowshipping opportunities out there to fund the experience.
Keep an open mind. Be respectful of local dress and customs. And remember that people across the world are more alike than we realize.