Five Questions: Jodi Ettenberg (Legal Nomads)
Jodi Ettenberg is best known for her website Legal Nomads where she provides a wealth of detailed information about food, wellness, and travel, as well as personal stories from more than nine years of world exploration.
I met Jodi while she was traveling through my beloved Los Angeles for a few days. We spent an afternoon together walking around Culver City, scoping a few of my favorite eating and drinking spots as we talked about a zillion things like travel, music, relationships, a gluten-free brothel, loneliness, my terrible cooking skills, her short stint as a French Horn player as a child, her favorite animal (alpaca), and that carrots are her favorite vegetable…but only visually. We also squeezed in Five Questions at the Culver Hotel.
This interview took place in June of 2017 and a lot has happened to Jodi in the meantime. I’ll let her friend and colleague, Mike Sowden, explain:
In late August of this year, after a long, debilitating six months of increasingly ill health, Jodi went to the hospital to get checked out. (Her immune system had previously been compromised by dengue , and doctors she’d seen were stumped about why she hadn’t made a full recovery.) As part of the investigation, the hospital gave her two (!) spinal taps.
When Jodi returned to the New York apartment she was staying in, she found she’d been burgled. Her laptop, her camera, and all her precious digital archives recording her work around the world - all gone.
Unfortunately, what came next was even worse.
In rushing round the apartment in a state of overwhelming distress and filling out the required police reports late into the night, Jodi put pressure on her body that it wasn’t meant to bear. (You’re supposed to REST after a spinal tap, let alone two of them.) Instead of healing the small hole in her dura (the membrane around the spine) created by the lumbar punctures, her spine started to leak at the weak points created by the spinal taps.
This is exactly as bad as it sounds.
Your spine is filled with something called cerebrospinal fluid, and it circulates all the way up to your brain, cushioning it. Less cushion? A whole world of agony awaits.
CSF leaks are notoriously slow to heal - and utterly debilitating until they do. Since the leak, Jodi has been suffering from excruciating headaches. She can’t sit upright for more than a few minutes before the pounding starts in her temples. She spends all day laying down, and in horrible pain.
Consequently, everything has stopped for her. She can’t return to her current home in Oaxaca, Mexico. She can’t write, apart from typing into her phone. She can’t run tours. She can’t attend meetings. She can’t do any of the jobs she’s done to pay her way through the world these last 8 years - and as her friends, we want to make sure she can make ends meet for the time being.
(This text was taken from a GoFundMe page set up for Jodi by her friends and family. Please consider supporting her while she continues to recover.)
Our interview holds a lot of weight for me personally, as the experience of having an incapacitating health issue is something I'm familiar with myself. Jodi was absolutely delightful company that day in L.A. and her outlook on life, which shines in her writing as well as her answers below, is truly inspiring. Meet Jodi.
How do you define being “in love”?
People conflate limerence with love a lot. Especially in the western world. Now, with all these sitcoms and romances. It involves two parts. Part is the willingness to be loved and part of it is loving someone else. You want the letter H and not the letter A. So two strong people together with a bridge between them creating something even better, and building something beautiful. If it’s the other way, the letter A, and more codependent, I don’t consider that healthy love. For me it’s really people who know who they are and are excited about bringing someone into their world and learning from them and to build something even better.
Me: Have you been in love?
Jodi: Yeah, definitely. Sure.
Me: Did it look like an H?
Jodi: It did. As relationships devolve, as sometimes they do, the letters slanted a bit in different directions, but when two people are communicating healthily, and you’re willing to pick apart the tough questions—this idea that passion should last forever isn’t a realistic one and there’s the whole notion of the responsiveness of passion as you get deeper into a relationship with someone. There’s something really beautiful there as well. For a time, definitely. Where the imbalance begins and kind of takes off is when one of those letters starts to cave in or cave out.
What's one thing you don't know now, but feel compelled to know before you die?
Everything. This is my biggest burden in life. I never feel satisfied with learning. When people ask why I do what I do, that’s my answer. I somehow built a job that allows me to get paid to learn as much as I can every day. I really don’t think there’s a limit. It’s not to lord it over someone else or to make it seem like I’m the knowledgeable one, there’s just so much genuine interestingness in the world and how things fit together and the serendipity of people coming together that there’s just no end.
Me: What about before all this? Were there goals you wanted to accomplish or was it just, “I’m going to fuck off for a while and see what happens.”
Jodi: No. It wasn’t about fucking off for a while. [Laughter]
Me: I put it so eloquently.
Jodi: “Mom! I’m going to fuck off for a while and see what happens!” [Laughter]
I left to take a sabbatical from my job as a lawyer so I never planned it to be what it is now so many years later. The goal I had was that I really wanted to go to Siberia. That was the most important thing. I had seen a documentary about Siberia and taking the Trans-Siberian trains. That was part of that first year and it was a really incredible experience. Nothing like I would’ve expected, but everything I wanted. My friend said something like, “You’re going to the Trans-Siberian Express. Birch trees and thieves! Be prepared!” But that wasn’t at all what it was like. It was being adopted by families in cars next to me, feeding me along the way, getting off the train in the middle of Siberia, learning about Lake Baikal, learning about Siberian shamanism, it was just so many interesting components of that specific trip, and that spiraled into this new business and new life for me. But that was the core of what led me to leave and everything else has been a delightful surprise. There were not-delightful parts, but a learning experience that never ended.
How do you deal with loneliness?
I almost never feel lonely.
Me: Really? Tell me how.
Jodi: Do you feel lonely?
Me: Yeah. Sometimes.
Jodi: There’s a difference between feeling lonely and feeling alone, right?
Me: For sure. I love being alone. I don’t like feeling lonely though.
Jodi: Well, nobody likes feeling lonely. They’re not like, “I really want to feel empty inside! How do I make that happen?!” [Laughter]
I like being alone, too. I’ve had to teach myself to be more—I hate to use the introvert/extrovert spread—but I’ve had to teach myself to be more extroverted. Especially with speaking at conferences and being around more people and trying to be gracious with the onslaught of eyes when you really want to crawl into a hole. But I know for myself, I recharge alone. I love living alone and coming home to quiet. But I don’t—the only times I’ve felt lonely are when I’m really sick and I’m somewhere far away and I’m genuinely not sure how it’s going to go from here.
Me: You mentioned before about when you had to call your brother that one time when you felt really shitty.
Jodi: My brother and I have a great relationship and he does that with me too. There’s something about, when you feel bleak, being able to rely on someone who knows you better than anyone else and that’s what siblings can do. I wasn’t feeling alone or lonely that time…
Me: Sure. But you referenced being sick and that same sort of vibe.
For me, when I feel lonely or down, depressive, it’s the same feeling.
Jodi: I would disagree. It’s not the same. Depression is very inward facing where clawing yourself out of it feels impossible because you’ve lost perspective. It’s like a trick of the mind. But feeling lonely doesn’t feel like there’s no end in sight, it’s just a temporary reflection that feels heavier than not. But I don’t know. I’ve found it really easy to meet people and learn from them. There’s always something that’s an input level for me that brings me above loneliness. Even if I’m by myself there’s always something interesting that sparks my mind. People have asked that a lot: What do you do when you feel lonely? And I’m always like, “I really don’t feel lonely.”
There’s something interesting that buoys me above that, but I do feel when I’ve gotten really sick over the years, which has happened when I’ve traveled, that’s the time where you feel lonely, and not in a, “I’m gonna die alone!” type of way, but in a genuinely, “I just feel so terrible physically right now that I don’t have the energy to muster anything else but what I feel.”
Me: That’s impressive. I’ve definitely felt—not even just traveling—but the automatic assumption—and I don’t know if it’s automatic or not—but people think when you travel a lot by yourself, that you get lonely.
Jodi: It is automatic. Everyone’s asked that question.
Me: And I don’t get lonely when I travel, but I get lonely for other reasons. I could be traveling or I could be with my friends in L.A. or at home in Boston. But for me the idea of loneliness—it doesn’t matter where I am, that shit kicks in.
Jodi: Sure. I think people ask me that based on travel because there’s this trope of the wandering solo traveler, female or male, watching all the couples and crying for themselves. That’s just not my jam. [Laughter]
Me: I’ve not had that experience either.
Jodi: But I do think if that’s what you’re talking about with loneliness, what that actually brings in is the dichotomy between fitting in and belonging. Because it’s when you fit in but don’t feel like you belong, you feel that sense of dissonance that leads to lonely feeling.
Me: Well said.
Jodi: Brené Brown talks about that quite a bit in terms of the feeling of belonging, but a lot of what underpins peoples’ restlessness is usually a feeling like they fit in but no one can see that they actually don’t belong. Because I’ve traveled for so many years knowing I don’t belong—because I’m foreign in these places—but being comfortable enough with fitting in as best as I can by respecting the culture, by learning what I can about the food, it’s bridged the two in a way that hasn’t led to that internal dissonance. But I do feel it more in reverse culture shock when I come home, and obviously life goes on and there is definitely a lacuna between where I left and where I came back because that’s just life.
Me: I’ve felt that lately coming back to L.A. because I’ve more or less left L.A. and coming back, I’m not here anymore, and their lives—my best friends—their kids are older, they’re older. It’s just different. It’s a strange experience.
Jodi: As opportunity costs go, I choose this continuously. I’m comfortable with that as an opportunity cost. But I do think it’s important not to idealize the idea of travel to include some sort of fix for your loneliness because, if anything, all it does is spotlight all the things in you that you feel are worst about you and then you’re stuck reckoning with them. That’s why I don’t feel lonely because I’m comfortable facing those things and have people in my life who love me for my flaws and my good things. You don’t need to reconcile. Those are just sides of you and you just work to be as good as you can be every day as a person. There’s no urgency in reconciling loneliness. I think that’s where people lose themselves a lot.
Me: That’s a good point. That’s a good point. I get lost in that too. I want to not be lonely now. Right? When you feel negative feelings, you want them over immediately. We talked earlier about resting in those feelings. Going through those difficult times and saying, “Hey, I recognize these will pass. And yeah it feels like shit now, but they won’t be here forever.”
Jodi: You talked about your work with Buddhism and your interest in eastern philosophy. There’s that idea of sitting with it and holding that uncomfortable space. That’s the exact opposite in North America. Definitely not the way I was brought up. But I think it’s important to—if you’re going to make choices to set you outside the “normal life,” and if you’re going to make choices that pull you into the panoply of cultures, then you have to be comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling. Because you’re going to get it a lot and if you fight it, then all you’re doing is creating more frothing around this issue.
Me: Frothing. There’s a good word.
I feel like a lot of my questions have a sad vibe.
Jodi: I don’t think so. I think they’re questions people focus on because they’re questions born out of fear. So when someone says, “Oh, you do this thing. Let me ask questions that reflect all the ways that I’m afraid of doing what you’re doing.” So that’s what people want to know. I don’t think it’s negative, it just reflects society’s fears.
Me: It’s funny because a lot of the answers to these questions turn into such positive things. I ask people what’s your greatest fear and they’ll start with a fear and then come to the reason why they’re not, or shouldn’t be, afraid of it.
Jodi: Or how they’re countering it.
Me: Exactly. It’s an interesting process to watch.
But I phrase these questions the way I do for a reason. I didn’t just pull them out of a hat.
Jodi: If you could come back as a vegetable in your next life, what vegetable would you be?
Me: Wait, you can do that one.
Me: You’d be a carrot?
Jodi: I like the coloring of the—I like the combination of bright orange and green. That’s not my favorite vegetable.
Me: What’s your favorite vegetable?
Jodi: I don’t have a favorite. I think… No, don’t have a favorite. Depends on my mood.
Me: You thought for one second! That’s it??
Jodi: No! But I like the imagery of carrots so I’d be comfortable being a carrot.
Me: The imagery of carrots as a person? Like with arms and legs and a face?
Jodi: And googly eyes.
Me: The googly eyes are important.
Jodi: Very important.
I think vegetable desires depend on complementary flavors. It’s hard to pick one vegetable to eat forever. Brussels sprouts I could eat forever.
Me: I do like brussels sprouts. What is a food—anything—you could eat forever?
Jodi: Anything Vietnamese really. I could eat so many soups. Vietnamese food is really special because every dish is balanced between warming and cooling foods. In Thai food, you’ll often order for the table and you’ll get a vegetable and a dish with meat, and rice, and everything is balanced for the table. But in Vietnamese meals, every dish is balanced that way, so you don’t feel full. You feel beautifully balanced after you eat. Lots of fresh herbs and there’s always a meat and noodles and the pickled something that brings it all in balance. It’s wonderful.
Me: I dig it.
So we’re just going to say carrot.
In what ways do you hold yourself back?
Me: Because if you say you don’t, then that’s just fucking crazy.
Jodi: I absolutely do. We all do. Anyone who says they don’t is either—
Me: You already said you don’t get lonely which is impressive.
Jodi: I don’t think that’s impressive.
Me: I do! I deal with loneliness for real and I’ve met a lot of people who answer that question right away, but I have had one other interview where she said she doesn’t. And I was like, “Tell me!”
Jodi: Maybe I feel the same thing as you but I just don’t call it loneliness because loneliness has a negative connotation.
Me: Yeah, yeah. But I think you hit it on the head. I really appreciate your answer because you recognize that idea of wanting to belong.
Anyway, we don’t have to rehash that.
Jodi: How do I hold myself back? The primary way I hold myself back is probably by wanting things to be perfect before setting them free into the world. I definitely write less often than a lot of my peers or put a lot less out—not that I’m afraid of failing, but of course I am because we all are—but it’s never stopped me. But what’s stopped me is the fear of it not being good enough to actually affect change. And that’s where I get stuck. Where frankly I could probably affect more change if I just got over myself. But I haven’t been able to do that. [Laughter]
Me: I agree with that thought, definitely.
Jodi: If you find the answer to that, you call me!
Me: We’re going beyond five at this point…
Jodi: You’re going to include the vegetables, right?
Me: Oh, hell yeah, are you kidding me?
What does failure look like to you?
That is the flip side of your fear question. Not that my fear is failure, but what failure looks like to me is what I’m afraid of. Which is going through life and not actually affecting change. I know that sounds kind of tropey, but it’s true. I would say, before I quit my job as a lawyer, my fear was boredom or being boring. And I remember coming back to my family, some of whom were very supportive and some who were quite traditional in their mentality toward work and life, and was really questioned with what I was doing. I did tell them that I opened a gluten-free brothel as a joke. Like, “This is my new career path!” It didn’t go over very well. [Laughter]
Me: Where is this brothel, by the way?
Jodi: It only sells noodles.
Me: Come on. That was all right.
Jodi: It was beautiful.
I said that every day I stay as a lawyer in New York is one day closer to dying as a boring person. And that’s not because being a lawyer is boring, because it’s not. There are many people who have fulfilling careers. I’m not one of those people who are like, “Stick it to the man and quit your job!” Everyone has a very different path, and how they can affect change is different. What worried me was that it wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t doing anything that I felt was making a difference, or at least making a difference in the way that I needed to feel more contributing to society as a whole. The fear for me, and what failure looks like, is putting all my effort into building something that I hope makes people reframe the way they see the world, or makes them think differently about places, or makes them less afraid about things they’re scared of, or none of that happening. And them being like, “What a cute story! Delete!”
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
People! People I love and who love me. The ability to understand what makes people different. Some of the best nights of my life are just sitting with wine or no wine or coffee or tea and just talking and learning from everyone’s experiences on the spectrum of humanity. There are so many variables that allow people to take these meandering paths that are so different that by the time you cross paths with them—even if they’re younger—they have, obviously, a mentality that’s going to be different because they didn’t lead an exact imprint of your life. And if you approach conversation, and you approach connecting with people as—instead of reacting to what feels different, really try to understand and learn, I think you can’t go wrong. That is part of what brings me a lot of joy in my life, is really trying to understand what makes us human in different ways, in different places. Part of nine years of traveling now—more than nine years—I’ve been bowled over by the generosity of spirit by people I’ve met on a day-to-day basis and a one-to-one basis, and been shocked at how similar we are in so many ways despite being brought up in completely disparate worlds.
I’ve also been really let down and jaded by the prevalence of corruption. On an institutional level I’m way less optimistic and more cynical, and on a one-to-one level, I’m far more optimistic which is a—someone said the other day, “That’s very much a dichotomy.” And I said, “It’s not. It’s actually what it means to be human.”
Just before I stopped the audio recording, Jodi and I were able to get a pretty sick high five on the record. I said, “I’m going to leave the high five in there.” She responded, “I know you are.”
That’s an instant friend right there.