On the Road Again

Three myths and three truths about travel writing


By Mirva Lempiainen

“Wow, you’re a travel writer! How does one land a gig like that?” asked Graham, a retiree from Canada, as our small group visited the Pearl Key islands off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in February. For him, standing on the white sand and taking a dip in the turquoise water meant vacation had started. For me the day counted as work. I chatted with the fishermen about the history of the islands, organized a visit to the nearby abandoned luxury resort of Wild Cane Key and took more photos than I could ever possibly need.

Graham’s question is one I hear almost weekly, whether in Mongolia, South Korea, New York or Istanbul. Wish I could give you an easy answer, but I only know how I did it — the hard way.

Before starting my master’s program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2008, I spent a couple of years backpacking around the globe. I lived on a shoestring budget: I slept in a $1 hostel bed in Cambodia, on the floor of a Vietnamese night train, in a hammock on the beach in Colombia and on half of a couch in Argentina (the other half was taken up by an Ecuadorian traveler). I ate sausage fries from a street stall in Bolivia that left my stomach grumbling for days and scratched my arms picking lemons in Australia. I traveled long distances by bus, train, boat, tuk tuks and foot.

Immersed in adventures and armed with an undergraduate communication degree, I started pitching travel stories to media in my native Finland. Much to my surprise, the editors liked my articles about Thai cooking classes, the natural wonders of Tahiti and the ABC’s of New York nightlife. Soon I started selling stories to travel publications on a regular basis.

While I loved telling readers about unknown places, I thought of freelancing as something I did temporarily. In fact, when I started studying at CUNY, I thought I had left my traveling life behind and was about to be metamorphosed into a cubicle slave like most of my classmates. But I was wrong. The open road lured me back. The pull of unexplored countries was too strong to resist; the entry-level reporting jobs with their graveyard shifts and 10-day annual vacations were too uninviting.

So after I graduated in December 2009, I didn’t draft a single job application. Instead, I started pitching articles. And that’s how writing on the move became my job.

It’s now been four years since graduation. I’ve supported myself solely as a freelancer since then, mostly while on the road. I have filed stories from six continents, leaving out only Antarctica. In addition to your typical travel pieces — writing about the barbecue culture of Brazil and a tree house hotel in the Gambia — I’ve also delved into more serious topics, like the HIV epidemic in Guatemala, Nicaragua’s sky-high teenage pregnancy rates and the effects of climate change in the Maldives. This is largely thanks to CUNY: The program changed me from a traveler who writes into a writer who travels.

With several years on the job, I now feel qualified to bust some myths and to tell you a few truths about what it’s like to be a globetrotting journalist. So here’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Keeping office hours in Montezuma, Costa Rica (Photo Courtesy of Mirva Lempiainen)

Myth 1

You are permanently on vacation

Yes, I may have visited more than 30 countries over 24 months, relaxed on tropical beaches from Guinea-Bissau to Costa Rica and enjoyed some coco loco (coconut with rum) while watching the sun setting over the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. But if you’ve kept up with my Facebook page, you’ve seen the photo series titled “My office today.” That should tell you: This ain’t no permanent vacation. No matter how inviting the surf or how sleep-lulling the hammock, I am that lame workaholic who brings her laptop everywhere. In addition to the beaches of Jamaica, I’ve written articles in a crowded bar in Guatemala, on a long-haul flight out of Japan, in the subway tunnels of New York, on a bumpy bus ride in El Salvador, in a five-star hotel in India, on a friend’s couch in San Francisco, on the top bunk bed of a train crossing Siberia, on a rocky boat in the Caribbean … you name it.

Other travelers have thought I’m some obsessive Internet addict, and have advised me to go back home if I can’t stay away from my computer even while on vacation. I’ve had to explain to them that they are, in fact, looking at my office during business hours. When your place of employment is of the mobile variety, you have to be creative and adaptive. There are plenty of excuses to be lazy, but if you make use of them on a regular basis, you won’t stay in this business for long. So no, I’m not on a permanent vacation even though I’m constantly moving from place to place. I still work the same eight hours a day as everyone else does (or more), I just don’t do it in the same spot day after day. Wherever I can plug in my power cord is where I will work on any given day — it’s as simple as that.

My office on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua (Photo by Mirva Lempiainen)

Myth 2

You get to travel for free

I won’t lie — on my free 10-hour flight to Japan I did enjoy sinking into that reclining business class seat and sipping the champagne that was handed to me within five seconds of entering the plane. But rest assured, that is not my everyday reality.

There is this idea that travel writers always get to stay in five-star hotels, live off filet mignon and jet around in first class. Unfortunately that’s not the norm for those of us who try to hang onto our journalistic credibility. It’s a well-known fact that if you accept freebie press trips, you will be banned for years from writing for the most prestigious outlets, such as The New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler. There are only a few acceptable ways of scoring free travel. One is to be sent out on assignment by a publication that pays expenses, as I was when writing for Finnair’s Quality Hunters travel blog in 2011, a gig that in addition to Japan sent me to India, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. Another is to land a travel fellowship from an organization like the South Asian Journalists Association or the Knight Foundation. And that does happen. In 2010 I was awarded a $10,000 grant by the Davis Projects of Peace to run journalism workshops in the Maldives for two months. Lacking such windfalls, you are mostly stuck paying your own way. But hey — at least you can deduct those coach class flight tickets from your taxes.

My office in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (Photo by Mirva Lempiainen)

Myth 3

You just have to be a good writer

Chilling in a hostel in Nicaragua, I started chatting with an American guy in his late 20s. After I told him I write about travel, he exclaimed that this was his dream as well: “I’m a good writer too!”

Newsflash: Being a good writer has surprisingly little to do with being a successful freelancer. Of course you have to be able to produce readable, largely error-free copy, but you’ll never have to worry about getting to that stage unless you are these two things first: a superb salesperson and the image of persistence. When pitching a story about the five treasures of Guyana to a media outlet, you have to be good at explaining why the story matters, why it’s relevant right now and why you are the best person for the job. Then you’ll often have to wait for the answer for days, email the editor some reminders about your pitch, and if you still don’t hear back, go find another buyer for the story and start the process all over again.

In the beginning, your pitches get turned down nine times out of ten. Exhausting, yes. Once you’ve established yourself, you’ll get rejected only about half the time. A friend of mine once likened freelancing to a permanent job hunt, and there’s a lot of truth in that. Unless you actually enjoy the process of looking for work — the exhilarating thrill of finding the perfect gig, convincing employers of your suitability and following up with them — don’t even consider freelancing. Even if your writing is Pulitzer-worthy, nobody will see it unless you can sell your work as if your life depends on it. As a freelancer, it kind of does.

My office in Playa El Zonte, El Salvador (Photo by Mirva Lempiainen)

Truth 1

Every month’s salary is a surprise

“So how much money do they pay you for these articles?” asked the father of my friend’s foster kids last summer. It was the first time we had ever met.

Believe it or not, that was not an anomaly. Strangers constantly ask me how much money I make. While I wouldn’t think of asking anyone else what their monthly salary amounts to, many folks see nothing wrong with asking me about my finances. I guess it’s because they figure the answer is one of two possibilities: I must be making six figures to be able to zoom from Dakar to Hong Kong and Tokyo just like that, or I must be living in poverty because of not having a steady job. Well, the truth is much more mundane than that. I have good and bad months. Sometimes I do nothing but work for weeks and I get rewarded with a big fat paycheck. Other times I focus more on traveling and experiencing things that I can write about later, and my bank account balance takes a big dip. In any given month, my income can be $0 or $5,000. That’s just the nature of the business. You have to get used to the insecurity — even learn to embrace it. The plus side is that when you are constantly scouting for new gigs, your brain is always stimulated and life doesn’t become stagnant. That’s a bonus in and of itself.

My office near Casamance, Senegal (Photo by Mirva Lempiainen)

Truth 2

You have to be a planner

A story I wrote about holiday shopping in New York for a women’s magazine in Finland took me about a day to write, and I banked about $1,000. Easy peasy. Then again, years ago I wrote a brief article about budget dining in New York for a local paper in Manhattan — and got paid $35 for that. Yes, sometimes I’ve gotten paid very well, other times I’ve made peanuts. I also don’t have a set number of articles I complete per month. It generally ranges from one to 10.

To prepare for the unpredictability of this workflow, I try to keep my overall expenses down at all times. When I go on a reporting trip, I sublease my New York apartment for the time I’m gone. While on the road, I stay in budget hotels, small locally-owned guesthouses, hostels, with friends or with members of Couchsurfing.com, spending on average less than $20 per night on accommodation. This means my monthly “rent” is a maximum of $600 no matter where I am in the world, be it Morocco, Mexico or Malaysia. I also take longer journeys to offset the price of the flights, and tend to spend more time in cheaper countries (six weeks in Nicaragua vs. two in Costa Rica). I take advantage of the various frequent flier programs and last-minute flight deals. So in a nutshell, the globetrotting journo lifestyle is not ideal for big spenders or lovers of the high life, at least not in the early years of your career. You cannot be the type of person who lives paycheck to paycheck, as in this field you never know when the next one will be rolling in. As an entrepreneur, you are also responsible for organizing your own health insurance and retirement savings, so you need to truly enjoy being in charge. I know — this isn’t half as fun as you thought.

My screen supporter in Djembering, Senegal (Photo Courtesy of Mirva Lempiainen)

Truth 3

This is the best job in the world

I may have shattered most of your dreams of travel writing by now, but don’t worry: It’s still the best job in the world — at least for me. I can combine my passion for writing and my love of traveling with my need for personal freedom. Most of the time I don’t feel like I’m working, even if I’m hunched over the computer for hours. (I can’t escape it even on the beach!) Also, it’s a job that enables me to take off for a four-month road trip through West Africa on a whim, or set up camp in Central America when winter rolls around farther north. I have had amazing adventures in 60-plus countries, made friends in all of them and covered terrain from the Sahara Desert to the Siberian tundra. I have learned the basics of rare languages such as Wolof and Dhivehi, swum with turtles in Australia and with dolphins in Cuba, interviewed a shamanic village chief in Senegal, attended the full moon party in Thailand, ended up on a 48-hour train ride across China, escaped from gangsters in El Salvador, eaten rice and fish with my hands in Mauritania, studied Spanish in Argentina, flown in the cockpit of a plane across Northern Europe, spent days on a deserted paradise island in the Caribbean, lived it up in a fancy historical hotel in Poland and fed elephants in Sri Lanka. In short: I’ve accumulated enough amazing travel memories to last a lifetime. And I’ve done so while relentlessly working on my career out of my mobile office, from Laos to Uruguay and Western Sahara. I love being my own boss. Whether I want to spend the next year relaxing on a tropical island, keeping busy in New York or recharging my batteries in Finland is totally up to me. There’s no need to ask anyone for vacation time — I just need to grab my laptop and go. If you ask me, time is the only real luxury we have in life and I’m happy to have full control of mine. ■

This story is also published here.