It was only supposed to be a year off work, but that year of travel turned into a new career path entirely for Jodi Ettenberg. With her time as a practicing lawyer behind her, Jodi is now the face of Legal Nomads, a travel blog that specializes in food and culture around the globe. Her award-winning blog has garnered national attention and her storytelling style has gained a supportive and loyal fanbase as well. We caught up with her to find out more about her choice to leave law behind and how she embraces her unconventional (but super cool) lifestyle.
It seems like you’ve been everywhere, especially across Southeast Asia! How often are you on the road, and where do you call home when you’re not traveling?
I’ve been on the road since April 2008, and don’t otherwise have a home base. I just rent places where I want to eat, usually 3-4 months at a time. I return to the places I love to dig further under their skin, and of course to eat more.
How did you turn traveling into a career?
It wasn’t a purposeful choice. I took a one year sabbatical from being a lawyer, wanting to head to Siberia and Mongolia via the Trans-Siberian trains. I started a blog for my mother, so that she could follow along with my journey from afar. Friends and colleagues did the same, as did my former clients.
Over time the site grew, and I was confused to find non-family/friends readers leaving comments! As the site grew, I kept writing as I would want to read: no ads, no sponsored text links, and long-form writing that focuses on narrative.
In 2010 I realized that this could be a new career when I was offered a contract with CnnGo in Asia, who had found my blog when I was writing about Thailand. Since, I’ve focused on building out resources and not just narrative, putting together 10,000 words on planning for long term travel, how to work and travel from anywhere, and more.
These days my career isn’t just about writing, but also public speaking, consulting work, and a store where I sell my own creations: hand-drawn maps of food.
How did you come up with the name “Legal Nomads”?
Initially I quit with another lawyer, my opposing counsel on the last deal I worked on before giving notice. We were two lawyers who were going to be nomadic; the name made sense! She did what we both were supposed to do and she went back to being a lawyer after her year of travel was up. As you can see, since I’m answering these questions, I never did!
I’m still a lawyer (though not a practicing one) and still nomadic, so I’ve kept the name. But I suspect at some point I’ll move the work over to my own named site instead of Legal Nomads.
Where is the first place you’ve ever visited abroad? Have you revisited it since?The first place I visited without family or friends, just me, was when I moved to France for the year to study at the end of law school. I was terrified. My first weekend in town I forced myself to go alone to the train station and book a train to Annecy – that was a great weekend! I wonder how my life would have been different had it been awful. I wrote about this and other lessons from travels here.
We’re big foodies here and we love that your Instagram is full of so many great bites too. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had while traveling?
I don’t think there was only one “great meal” – there are so so many! I love my time in Vietnam because they’re almost all stupendous so I’ll narrow it down to a country instead of a meal!
How do you seek out the top local spots on your travels — even if you speak a different language?
I ask around to readers now because I have the benefit of a great community of people around the world who read the site. I read blogs and other suggestions too. But mostly I just head to morning markets and ask around, questions about why and how and where. When people see that you’re deeply interested in what they’re making or eating, they often suggest some great places to try more things.
A lot of people find packing for a trip incredibly stressful. What’s a good packing hack you keep up your sleeve?
I use packing cubes for just about any trip. Tops in one, bottoms in another, so organized and easy to use. I’ve got a ton of other packing suggestions here.
Be honest, what’s one item you refuse to leave home without?
Portable chopsticks, my iPhone, and a sarong. (Editor's note: A sarong was also a favorite item with Wandering Earl!)
What’s your favorite part about traveling?
I think it is the input levels – they’re so high all of the time. It’s the constant bombardment of things that evoke wonder, provided you’re willing to pay attention to the details. The kindness between strangers, the conversations rushed on the way to a train, the curve of foreign hills at dusk, so reminiscent of home but so different.
Every day is filled with newness and something to learn, and I’ve built a life and career around those two things. I think it’s made me feel more fulfilled, not just because I’m hopefully helping people change the way they see a new place via my work, but because it also provides me with infinite sources of gratitude in the form of new experiences.
Yes, travel can also be tough and there are always bad days and good. And getting sick is pretty horrible when you’re far from people you know. But overall, I’d say that it has forced me to confront who I really am, work on being better, and revel in the learning I do day in and day out.
Do you have any bucket list adventures you haven’t crossed off your list yet?
I’d love to get to see parts of Africa, specifically Ethiopia as the food there is quite unique! As a celiac, I wish I could travel through the ‘Stans but am worried about the wheat in their diet and if I can find something to eat. I’d also love to get to some of the National Parks in Canada and the USA – my travels have taken me so far afield that I’ve yet to experience closer places!