We talk with the force behind Legal Nomads, about the wisdom of taxi drivers and the dangers of llama empanadas

When Jodi Ettenberg was in high school in Canada, she saw a PBS documentary on the Trans-Siberian railroad that took hold of her imagination. First it was the trains, then the thought of snaking railroads running across the great continents of the world, then, finally, the idea of all those people moving freely about the great expanse of earth.

Years later, as a lawyer in New York City, she decided it was time to stop imagining those trains pulling out of the station. She left the Manhattan law firm with a plan to travel the world for a year. Nearly five years later, she’s still on the road, not just as a dedicated wanderer, but also as the force behind LegalNomads.com, a digital compendium of musings, misadventures and inspired advice for the itinerant set.

Her work sticks out in the very crowded universe of travel bloggers for a number of reasons: It’s personal without being self-indulgent, it’s prescriptive without being preachy. And it’s all delivered in a warm, intelligent voice equally adept at espousing, say, the need to spend money on good underwear as making a genuinely moving observation about the nature of travel.

Jodi has just published her first book, The Food Traveler’s Handbook, not just an astute tactical guide for getting your hands on the best food around the world, but also a moving manifesto about the importance of cuisine as a bridge between cultures and communities. I had a chance to chat with Jodi about the new book, and about some of the highs and lows of her time traveling the world. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

Roads & Kingdoms: So you started out with the idea of being on the road for one year. It’s been nearly five. What happened?

Jodi Ettenberg: Travel happened! I saved up enough as a lawyer to travel for one, perhaps two years without working as I did so, thinking that I’d return to NY and work as a lawyer again. I started up the site to keep my mother apprised of my whereabouts, and to share some of the funsies from the road.

I never expected to love the openendedness of traveling without a set itinerary – it was antithetic to a lawyer’s mindset after all. And I certainly didn’t think that the site would gather momentum and a readership of its own. But, after that year was up and then a year and a half and more, I realized that I was really enjoying both learning from travel, and learning from the readers I started to hear from as I moved around. So I figured, let’s see where this takes me.

R&K: Was there a particular moment along the way—whether with the site or an experience on the road—where you realized that you had embarked on a much bigger journey than you planned for?

JE: I don’t think there was a particular moment, but rather a slow build to realizing that this might have organically become a whole new career for me.

I think there are two separate sides to it: One was from a personal level, thinking about travel and the interconnectedness of what I was doing and learning. I wrote a post called The Things that Long Term Travel Doesn’t Fix because it wasn’t long after Eat Pray Love had come out as a movie and people were talking about running vs. travel, and about life on the road. And I really wanted to tell people—look, I’m doing this because I truly take great pleasure in this learning experience and the perspectives I’ve gained, but not because I think it’ll fix things that might have been wrong, or align me with what I’m generally expected to do in life. I asked myself those questions often too, because it merits thinking about. And I wanted to share that with readers.

But from a more professional side, I think I realized it when I wrote a post about why I quit my job to travel. Up until then, the posts were very much what I saw and things I was up to—misadventures on chicken buses and crazy injuries on the road. I never thought anyone would care why I left – why would they? It was my mum reading the site. A friend in Bangkok implored me to write it, and it quickly became the most popular post on the site. So if the decision to actually see where this wonderful and engaged community of readers would come along with me could be pinpointed, that post was it!

R&K: What are a few of your very special places out there, the ones you thirst to revisit time and again?

JE: El Nido in Palawan, the Philippines. I lived there for 2 months, fishing for dinner and marvelling at how gorgeous it was. Hpa-An in Burma. Bolivia—I want to go back and spend a lot more time there. And I’ve still got a very soft spot for Bangkok, a city I initially didn’t like at all but fell for fairly seriously thereafter.

R&K: Food has become a major focus of Legal Nomads, culminating in the release of the awesome new handbook. Were you an adventurous eater before hitting the road?

JE: I was always a curious eater, and would try anything at least once. I don’t know that you could call it adventurous since I didn’t stray far away from what friends and family ate, but my childhood food memories centre around the friends I had from elsewhere -making labne at a Lebanese friend’s house, trying curry for the first time with a friend from India, etc. Small snapshots into a world of possibilities. It wasn’t until later that I actually started caring about food, since my parents were not focused on it at all.

R&K: Is there a prevailing philosophy that helps guide you to the good stuff when you’re traveling?

JE: Taken broadly, the philosophy that matters most is thinking of food not just as a silo of a meal but as interconnected with everything you are seeing.

The reason I love food is not just for the beautiful confluence of tastes—which is joyous, most usually—but also how those tastes came to be combined, and what it says about the people and the place that serves them.

It’s a package deal of history, tastes and often politics that makes food so fascinating. I know you feel the same way.

Less broadly, I think engaging people about their foods is the surefire way to finding the good stuff. Our countries [USA and Canada] are so young; our food traditions are not developed as deeply or with the same measure of complicated twists as many other countries. When going to a place with an older history and migration of cultures, it’s always great to talk to people making food about what they do, about the traditions and family recipes and ingredients—why they use what they use, etc. Inevitably, this leads to larger conversations about food in the country and of course where else to find it.

Street pad naem in Chang Mai, Thailand.

R&K: You’re a serious street food advocate. What do you tell to other travels who might be squeamish about having lunch on a plastic stool prepared by, say, a glove-less old woman?

JE: Haha, evocative question. Really, though, do you know if the person in a restaurant kitchen is wearing gloves in the same destination? You don’t, of course.

People are afraid of street food, and afraid of getting sick. And that’s a very valid fear. It’s part of what led to the book in the first place—I wanted to share the philosophy behind why food matters, then provide tips on how to get it safely on a street level.

I usually talk about how street stalls are transparent kitchens – you can see exactly what goes on, right in front of you If the turnover is fast, food will likely be quite fresh as well. In contrast, in a restaurant you don’t know how long the food has been there, and can’t see it being prepared.

If that woman you described is glove-less and also touching money and the raw food with those same hands, I’d caution trying that particular stall. But I’ve found street food to be safer than restaurants over the years. I’ve gotten more sick off the street than eating at stalls.

R&K: What’s the worst you’ve been jammed up?

JE: You mean sick? Is this an Americanism, Matt Goulding?

R&K: It’s a phrase I stole from my brother, from whom I inherited my wanderlust.
But yes, sick would be it! I’m trying to turn it into an Americanism as often as possible.

JE: I’ll see what I can do and pass it on.

The sickest I’ve ever been was from eating a llama empanada in northern Chile,
the night before I headed on a 4×4 trip to Salar de Uyuni. I bit in, and it wasn’t fully cooked—it was cold in the middle. And so I broke a terribly important rule: eat only the food that has been cooked through.

And I paid for it dearly. I was sick for days, throwing up on the side of the road at 3000m then 4000m and 5000m. And also at the Bolivian border, sick behind a burnt-out bus, the skeleton not quite protecting me from view with the border guards laughing at telling me it was altitude.

I should note that my favourite animal growing up was a llama, so my brother claims it was merely an act of karmic retribution. Either way: unable to stop being sick for at least 4 days, then parasites followed.

R&K: At least you got a good story out of it. Much cooler than eating a bad shrimp off a buffet table.

JE: Cardinal rule: no matter how hungry you are, do not eat half-cooked meat.

R&K: Duly noted. Any other sagely advice for our hungry readers?

JE: I tend to ask my taxi drivers where they ate breakfast or plan to eat lunch. Not where they’d recommend me to eat, but their own preferences. The older the taxi driver, the better the food advice. Totally unscientific but consistent results.

I’ve also found that a good lunch option is to go to local universities, the biggest in town, and find a place there. Hungry students mean fast turnover and often cheap versions of the local food, created not for tourists but for their own tastebuds.

R&K: There’s talk of you slowing down. Is that even possible at this point?

JE: The thing is, my travel has changed a lot over time. The last months have been intense writing for the book, and also speaking at conferences – very different from the initial months of aimless wandering.

I think it’s less stopping and more shifting – it’s become business more than not. And I would like to shift back to the more casual travel in between. I’ll be heading to London to launch the book there, then to visit my brother and I’m thinking of Vietnam thereafter, to continue with my eating. I am starting to want a home base, however – it’s been really rewarding to go where my stomach takes me, but I miss having a set place to return to.

That will be a focus for 2013. Since all of this happened organically and unexpectedly, I haven’t travelled with a set plan – “I will stop in x years” or the like. I’ve just weighed the opportunities that came my way and made the best decisions for that time.

So, I’m thankful for what I’ve been able to build and write about and eat thus far, and I don’t suspect I’ll just pack up the towel and go back to lawyering—I’ve enjoyed this career shift too much to do so!
I’m still admitted as a lawyer, so it’s always there as a worst case scenario—not the ‘worst case’ to have at all.

The sun sets on Iceland, one of Jodi’s most recent destinations.

R&K: What has five years of constant traveling brought you? What are the big lessons you’ve picked up on the way?

JE: The first thing that comes to mind is perspective. I’m very thankful for my years as a lawyer—they gave me much-needed skills and a lot of learning and I met great people.

But they also reinforced the whole “you must sweat the small stuff” mentality, because that’s what lawyers do—think of all the possibilities, then try to preemptively mitigate against them.

Coming out of that world and into a different one, one that was focused on travel and food and people was quite a change. And I think it’s taught me a lot about the interconnectedness between cultures and about being much more open to learning from everyone I meet, and really taking pleasure in the small stuff in life.

It’s not that I wasn’t someone who cared about those things prior, but rather that the life I was leading didn’t let me focus on them. For all the things that I am grateful for in this life that I worked hard to build, that perspective is one of the most important.

I also learned just how much communities revolve around food. Growing up in a house that didn’t focus on it, I didn’t realize this—but it’s so important to functioning microcommunities. The spoke in many a wheel!

R&K: Last meal? As in, what would be your last meal?

JE: So many options!

R&K: Yes, but you must choose!

JE: Well, I have celiac disease so I can’t eat all the dumplings I would want to.
So if it’s a last meal anyhow I might as well go out with something that’ll harm me in real life: I’d want a giant dim sum feast, from chicken feet to bao to steamed dumplings galore.