How To Make Money While Traveling

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This isn’t a post on how to become a freelance writer or how to make money writing about food and travel. The path to this type of career cannot be replicated, despite what other writers and bloggers may say or try to sell you. To be completely honest, I’m struggling to upkeep a steady stream of gigs while I’m here in Nicaragua…and god knows what will happen when I’m in China. Maybe my days as a paid freelance writer are limited.

I am one of the lucky ones. I get paid to write about food and travel and this path was forged by a combination of timing, pure luck, rejection, countless hours of writing and a lot of emails. I can’t give anyone advice on how to be a paid roaming writer, but I can give people advice on how to pursue their travel passions and still make it work financially:

1. Start With Your Strengths
The main reason why I’m not writing a how-to-be-a-travel-writer post: not everyone knows how to write or pitch to publications. You may be a strong writer, but if you don’t know how to find a good angle or write in AP style or pitch to the right people at the right time, then it’s very difficult to hit the ground running as a professional scribe. So start with your strengths, what you can do. Everyone has strengths — whether it’s writing or teaching English or a foreign language. Tangible, marketable skills are the best. Some examples: teaching, social media marketing skills, Photoshop, knitting (yes!), photography. Or you could just have a really good eye for things and a strong business acumen.

2. Find A Demand And Fill It
China has a bunch of rare teas? Let’s figure out how to sell that and import it into America. The undiscovered parts of Central America with tourism potential? Let’s bring people in. No one has written a story on Nicaraguan volcanoes? I’ll pitch it. No one has collected recipes from all the provinces in China? Let’s do it. Too lofty? Then think smaller. Teach English, find an organization to work at, live on farm in exchange for housing. I prefer the loftier goals, honestly, because that gives more flexibility and control.

3. Be Creative
Think outside of the box, don’t go for the traditional send-in-an-application-and-wait-route. Hundreds of other wanderlusters are doing the exact same thing. Want to teach English but don’t want to go through the paperwork? Make friends in the village, find people who need private tutors, go from there. Want to be a paid photographer? Solicit hotels and hostels ahead of time and see if they’ll pay you for photography or at least give you a free stay.

2. Get Connected And Get Rejected
This is the part where most people give up. As a freelance writer, whenever I send out pitches, I always always always always always get rejected. It’s just part of the job. When I was raising money for my China trip, I encountered (and still am encountering) a lot of negativity and people who want me to fail. Things will fall out of place. You may get an offer but that person may drop the ball on you the week afterwards. The most important element to remember about this lifestyle is that nothing is certain, but send out enough nets and eventually, I promise, something will bite.

4. Get Over Yourself
Get over yourself as in get over your fears and insecurities. Get over yourself as in realize that you will get rejected and at times, you’ll run out of money and that nothing is for certain. Money will not drop in your lap. At all times, be flexible. Realize that in exchange for your lifestyle, you will have to work hard for it and have to go through uncomfortable situations.

5. Never Start Learning
You know your strengths and what you can do. Build on it, acquire new skills. The more you know (the more languages, the more skills), but more you can do. Right now, I’m learning Spanish, about the ins-and-out of a tourism company, how to be a guide, food pricing, etc. How this will help me in the future? I’m not entirely sure, but they’re valuable skills to be had and you can bet that I am taking notes everyday.

Make the determination, set out the nets.
Buckle up, you’re in for a ride.

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On Connection

unnamed (2)Outside of hiking, living in Leon is a lot like living in New York City. During chill times at the house, everyone is most likely cloaked in laptop, books, phones. I am among the guilty…mostly because I don’t know what else to do with myself and I don’t want to bother other people.

At my favorite coffee shop, tourists and locals alike create distance even on the communal tables by idly swiping on their phones.

It’s ironic. I came here to escape the technological flood, yet, really, it seems that in every city…it’s become unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability and courage and connection recently, a self-conversation spurred on by loneliness. No, I’ve concluded. I’m not more lonely as a result of Nicaragua. I’m lonely because for the first time in a long time, I’m forcing myself to deal, head on, with the loneliness.

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Finding Faith

IMG_4030By luck, I’ve had a couple days off in a row this week and a wonderful byproduct of all this alone time has been the opportunity to confront my inner demons. I took a stroll into the Cathedral de Leon yesterday, attracted first by the ringing bells and stunning white facade. Some sort of minor service was going on in there, but I felt comfortable enough to quietly walk in. There are lofty depictions of Jesus and his crucification all over the walls, his head bowed down, a humble glow around his head. A priest was chanting something in Spanish and the parish was fixated, chaste, heads bowed down, like Jesus.

I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, but the godly mantras of my childhood came rolling back:

Jesus died for your sins and you must repent for your sins. We love because God first loved us.

And then a endless stream of: I am not worthy. I am not worthy. I am not worthy. 

Worthlessness was a big part of my psychology as an adolescent. As a kid, I’d kneel in front of the church, weekly for hours, crying out of shame…a shame that was never jusitified. I was ashamed that I was a sinner by default, that I had lied, that I had lost my temper. I was ashamed of all my negatives and would apologize profusely for all the bad I convinced I was. At a very young age, I learned to despise myself and punish myself for things that were not my fault. I never stood up for myself because to do so would mean I wasn’t being godly.

And though I am well into adulthood at this point and have renounced any sort of religion in my life, a lot of those insecurities are still strong and they get stronger when I allow people to hurt me.

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Living In The Physical World

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Alas, it’s been 11 days since I’ve arrived and though I’m still adjusting, I’m beginning to get into the routine of things: Wake up, sign in the clients, hike up a volcano, run down, repeat, eat lunch, clean, coffee shop reading, an occasional Spanish class, siesta, prep for the next day, lounge in the hammock, drink a beer.

The other day I went to the beach with some of the kids at one of the projects we support — Las Chavaladas. All boys — some addicted to drugs, some just in difficult living situations.

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But other than minor excursions out (to the beach, to a bar, an occasional salsa night), I’ve been opting to stay home and rest on my days off. My body is sore, scabbed, tanned, worked out. A nap is the best thing in the world.

This is a good thing. It’s a really good thing.

I’m beginning to realize how much I enjoy living in the physical world. For once, my job requires me to be out and away from the computer. Also, internet is slow here and I don’t have a phone. My hours are spent doing things with my body. We cook and clean, get into rickety trucks or hitchhike, and hike. Yeah it’s grueling and painful and I still feel like I can’t keep up… but everyday I’m in awe at the fact that I’m here doing such a surreal thing with my life.

I can feel my body getting stronger. Few things phase me now.

Tell me to climb through a barbed wire fence and ward the running farm dogs off with a stick? Okay.
Hitchhike on that random pickup truck? Sure thing.
Lead a hike with a machete and whack away stubborn branches? Just doing my job.

Time slows down here. I don’t plan past the next day. I find myself in the company of travelers from around the world on a daily basis.

It’s a bit odd, I’ll admit, being on the other side of the tourism industry. With the exception of the Los Angeles Chinese food scene… usually I’m the tourist — the curious visitor, the person forking over the money. At Quetzaltrekkers, I’m the guide, the leader, the person giving the tourist the experience.

Ironic, isn’t it?

I also find it amazing that I’m even here. A little over a year ago, I had a full-time job, I was living in Studio City and was devouring travelogues like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Eat, Pray, Love a la Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back then, I had never hiked more than five miles a week and I would never have imagined myself to be in Nicaragua. But I remember admiring their courageousness and envying their travels.

And since then, since I’ve embarked on all these trips…I’ve most definitely eaten, prayed, loved, hiked, dived, gotten hurt physically and emotionally, and undergone a lot of edits as a person. This will continue. I know it will. I no longer envy Strayed or Gilbert; my reality is far more interesting.

Do I know what the fuck I’m doing?

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Covered In Volcanic Ash

IMG_3924I feel like I’m living another life, and my old one back in Los Angeles is but a distant memory. There are remnants of it when I talk to my friends online and hear a friendly voice over the phone. The familiarity is comfort enough to make me cry. I’ve been seeking out anything and everything American or Chinese to deal with the culture shock. Today, I craved Burger King. I gulp down liters of Coca Cola. I saw a Chinese restaurant and I ran in to talk to the owner in Mandarin because I knew it would make me feel better.

It’s funny how some weeks can go by without notice and others can turn into completely different lifetimes. This past week has seen me stretched to my emotional, physical, and mental limits. My first hike was a brutal one: a 12 mile hike in 90 degree weather. I barely absorbed the scenery. I was more focused on not puking.

Perhaps I over-romanticized things before. Because things stop being so poetic when you are in physical pain.

As a trekking guide, my job is to lead the clients and I’m ashamed to say that at more times than I’d like to admit, I could barely keep up.

Low blood sugar, dehydration, shock.

There were a couple of moments that the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other seemed impossible. My calves are sore, my arms are covered with bug bites and sunburn, and on one hike — my core almost collapsed with 30 pounds of weight on my back.

Mentally, I’m mute and deaf and blind. I have to book shuttles, deal with entrance and bus fees in a language I don’t understand. I have to lead folks through winding streets with no names, and stuff them in ancient rickety school buses already packed to the seams with locals, ride an hour to some stop in the middle of nowhere and navigate through unmarked trails for four hours, through farms, past horse shit, and up a very active volcano that exploded just two months ago. Cook for clients, carry a machete and a giant pot. Start a fire, comfort sick people.

Emotionally. Well, the root of it has been loneliness. I had always imagined that I would travel the world with a partner: someone who would understand my erratic decisions, who would make just as many of his own, together. Misery and joy, I truly believe, is always better with company. But unfortunately, the reality is that I am here alone and will continue to travel alone. And that has been very difficult to deal with. Of course, I knew this already.

But there are, of course, the positives, the signs.

A couple months ago, when I was in Kauai — halfway through a hike with strangers, one woman suddenly gave me the poignant life advice of: “Get involved in the things that you are interested in and the people will follow.”

I knew somehow, that I needed to hear those words, that those words would assist me beautifully in the future. (As life goes on, I’m beginning to be more and more convinced of the validity and presence of signs.)

I see those Hawaiian words of wisdom coming to play right now, here in Nicaragua. In terms of life philosophy, I’m no longer a minority. Everyday I meet writers and wanderers and vagabonds and journalists and nomads. My clients are mostly backpackers; people who understand that life shouldn’t be organized into boxes from nine to five.

Here in Quetzaltrekkers and in Nicaragua, no one asks what you do, why you’re here. The reasons are personal and multifold and constantly changing, for everyone. And most importantly. I’ve learned that the reasons that spark people to go somewhere are often not always the same reasons that compel them to stay.

This is true of my journey here.

I got another wonderful tidbit of wisdom today.

I met a woman who has been on a motorcycle with her boyfriend for the last three years, traveling the world. They’ve been sustaining themselves on photography and writing gigs, sleeping at locals’ houses, making it work through everyday hustle.

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“Difficulty is good,” she told me in the midst of a conversation I can’t remember. “It makes you think. It’s the only way you can change for the better.”

I almost reached over and hugged her. Instead, I asked to take her photo.

In so many ways, that is exactly the cliche that I needed to hear because everyday since I’ve arrived, I’ve been questioning my motivations for coming.

Why in the world did I volunteer my time to run down volcanoes (literally run down a very steep one with a flag while our clients board down), carry the equipment of clients who are too weak to do it themselves, sleep in dust, be covered in volcanic ash on a daily basis, cook for strangers, carry a shit ton of weight in humid heat, and hike up brutal inclines three to five times a week? Why am I subjecting my body to the most intense physical labor for no pay? Why am I learning Spanish when my field of interest is in Asia?

I think the answer is that it’s difficult. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.

It’s a challenge. And though everything hurts right now, I know that this is my opportunity to grow emotionally, physically, and mentally.

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First Day In Nicaragua


I’m in Nicaragua right now, in a communal house in the middle of a maze of a city called Leon, where there are white cathedrals and streets colored in bold pastels and accented by graffiti. There are no street signs or traffic lights. Cars honk to assert their right of way; pedestrians scamper between the spaces.

I don’t know Spanish and I don’t know anyone here.

Nicaragua was a spur of the moment decision, the most random one I’ve made yet and made simply because I heard there were hikes and lava in volcanoes. That was enough to convince me to go, because at this point of my life — unattached, young and healthy is good enough reason to go anywhere cheap.

The weather is a very normal 90 — humid and sticky, relentlessly so. And it is because of these conditions, I have sworn off makeup and as a result, any care in the world about my appearance. This was the point. I’ve come here to live in the physical world and not be bogged down by the daily frustration of altering my appearance to conform to a standard. I’ve come here to learn more about my soul, without the distortion of fancy affairs, constant Internet connection, or Tinder dates.

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Yes, I feel unprecedentedly naked without makeup. Yes, I suffer from chronic adult acne. Yes, I miss my friends and family and support group back home. Yes, I’ve accumulated already a handful of bites and sores. But I welcome the heat and discomfort. So far, at least. It melts away the petty problems. It makes me focus in on what’s important.

I’m spending the next three months here leading backpacking tours up to volcanoes for Quetzaltrekkers, a completely volunteer-run organization. All profits go to local schools and community organizations. The house is made up of volunteers, usually from Western countries, all really sweet.We cook and clean and spend a healthy chunk of the week lugging around 60 liter backpacks in the wilderness, being kissed by mosquitos, sleeping in a brilliant sludge of our own dirt and sweat.

It’s far from glamorous and in the first 24 hours, I’ve oscillated from major regret to pure joy.

I’ve sat in the park, in a fit of emotions, wondering what in the hell compelled me to move to Leon. This morning, I followed a woman to a pharmacy to buy her toddler medicine because I was feeling lonely and conversing with her in her broken English and my poco de espanol made me feel better. She asked for much more than I anticipated and so I said lo siento and went on my way. I’ve hung out in a coffee shop and listened to a man the owner knew sing with unyielding gusto.

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Kiss Me, It’s Foggy


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I gave common sense up when I left Wine Country and watched, helplessly, as my car pushed west on Valley Ford Road, until the manicured rows of grape vines became a lingering note. The hills turned from fluorescent green to overgrown beige and I felt as if I had finally driven back to reality. Because in Wine Country, the view seemed forced.

There were moments where my car would come to a screeching halt and I’d jump out just to snap a photo, no doubt startling nearby traffic. An Asian girl with distraught hair and a ugly pink raincoat, jumping out of a perfectly good Mercedes to take photos of dead plants.

I watched as the gravel hit an ocean cliff and was forced to spilt, and my car veered right to the north hugging the outline of Highway One and fueled by a couple of stories I was, once upon a time, told.

“Sea Ranch is my favorite place on earth. I want to take you there one day. I promise you that. An hour north, there’s a glass beach called Fort Bragg, where the sand is made of glass.”

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I had carried those words with me for so long, told to me by a boy I had once upon a time loved. His unfulfilled promise had bothered me.

Yet I had forgotten about all the stories and how much they bothered me until June.

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Nicole’s Napa

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Nicole: “Whatcha doing?”

Me: “Writing about you.”

Nicole: “What are you writing about me?”

Me: “I don’t know. I don’t know what I write until I write it.”

Nicole: “Two college friends frolicking in the vineyards talking about past loves and potential futures…eating too much food….”

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I’m in wine country right now and the contrast between these last couple of days and my life in the last three months couldn’t be greater. Since May, I’ve been camping and scuba diving and writing, barely taking showers, hardly looking in the mirror, wearing the world’s most comfortable clothes.

These two days has seen me in makeup, dresses, frequenting wineries, eating charcuterie and cheese and at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc. I’ve also been slightly drunk this whole time.

But of course, I’m cherishing these days and I wouldn’t spend Napa with anyone else but Nicole.

Nicole and I go back to college. We met in NYU Shanghai during our study abroad semester there and despite our differences (she’s fancy luxury, I’m hole-in-the-wall nature gal) we bonded quickly. There’s an unspoken respect between us, despite our vast contrast. Though she’s an East Coast gal (born, bred and buttered)  and I’m a West Coaster, we make an effort to vacation together at least once a year.

Our common thread has always been food. Nicole works as a food and beverage manager (at the age of 25!) at a luxury hotel in Chicago but back in the day, before we were both anything, she was the one who really opened my eyes to the world of fine dining and dancing and all things New York City.

So I know when I’m with Nicole, the following elements are essentials: 1) Quality, clean accommodations. 2) Good wine. LOTS of it. 3) Spectacular food.

What We’ve Done:

11828543_853341371415002_301270908760953687_nWedding at Mann Farm in Bolinas: Spent our first night in wine country with free flowing wine and lots of food, celebrating the marriage of one of my high school friends. So many happy tears. This was also Nicole’s first time using a porta potty. Her struggle was real.

Benziger Biodynamic Wine Tour: Nicole hooked it up and we got a private industry tour of this biodynamic winery in Sonoma. Their approach to farming is holistic, complete with ponds and animals. Fun fact: they dry farm their grapes!

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Brunch at The Girl And The Fig: Busy restaurant, well-known in the community, in the heart of Sonoma. I recommend the charcuterie and cheese board. Supplement with a mimosa.

Scribe Winery: Another industry tour. Definitely a different vibe, much more hip and young crowd. The tasting area is on a hill, overlooking the valley. A gorgeous time.

11208657_10205145133841246_5380793745880647600_n (1)Ad Hoc: And of course a trip to Napa would not be complete without a pilgrimage to at least one of Thomas Keller’s institutions. I chose to opt out of French Laundry (ain’t got the money for that), but said yes to Ad Hoc. No regrets here. It’s a four course prix fixe for $52. Our main course was hickory smoked ribs, with baked beans, corn pone and whipped honey butter.

While wine is not my comfort zone, I can appreciate it. After all, I did live in New York City for four years and wrote heavily about “the industry” there. But wine country makes for great photography time and it’s a quaint place to catch up on new lives, ambitions and loves.

One more day left and I’m off to living in my tent again.

Appreciating the scenery…but for reals….where are they hiding the bodies? (And the farm workers and the dirt and the trash cans and the reality?) It’s almost too manicured here.

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