A real writer can write anywhere—all you need is a pen and paper. Or so I’ve been told.
After living in Prague for over 4 years, I decided it was time to move on to sunnier skies and follow up on my obsession with Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. But before relocating to my new home base in Lisbon, I first escaped for a few months to South America for the winter (summer in Argentina) holidays. Along with half a kilo of salt and sand in my hair, I picked up some valuable lessons on working as a “location independent” (I prefer “nomadic”) writer.
Hardly a week before leaving from Buenos Aires for the classic Argentine winter vacation—bumming around on Uruguay’s beaches—I received a last minute project to create a short city guidebook. The project would be due in 4 weeks, just a week and a half longer than I had planned to laze around on the beaches of Uruguay’s most beautiful stretch of coastline—and without my laptop!
Suddenly I found myself surrounded by beaches and wailing, breeding sea lions on the tiny, national wildlife refuge of Cabo Polonio in Uruguay–where not only was I sans computer, but also without internet or ATM. Nada. Nowhere. It wasn’t such a big deal, but I found out the Cabo Polonio rules only after my arrival and ended up having to borrow money from a friend to pay for my share of our beach shack group rental. As incredible and rather life-changing as my week on this isolated beach proved to be, the freelance writing part of my brain was ablaze with a chant of guilt and anxiety from not being able to constantly check my email!check my email!check my email!
In the end, I had to call a friend’s mother in Buenos Aires from a local pay phone (which took half an hour to figure out how it worked), give her my email user name and password and ask her to check my emails, look for such and such names, and could she please send an email to my editor saying this and this? Wait, she had to go get a pen and paper and wait, she can’t find her glasses. Okay, now what did I want to say in the email? With the credit on my phone card almost running out, I dispatched my message in choppy telegram style and hoped that it would reach my editor. After that, there was nothing I could do except enjoy the beach sunsets and resort to writing up the guidebook the old school way—with pen and paper.
–Always carry adequate cash (hidden on your person) in case you are stranded (voluntarily) on a remote island and the locals don’t take kindly to bartering.
–Before heading out on a trip, always alert your editors and take care of invoices, contracts, deadline agreements, etc.
–Don’t underestimate the power of writing unplugged—with pen and paper. You’ll find that your ideas flow in a completely different and sometimes more coherent way.
Punta del Este, Uruguay
Fast forward a week or so later to the Uruguayan beach town of Punta del Este, the fancy, condo-filled summer playground of the Argentines and many Latino celebrities. Each morning, as my boyfriend and his family slathered on the sunscreen, gathered towels, magazines and cookies for the kids, I was typing on my bed, back against the cool wall, laptop on my outstretched legs. Yes, I finally had my laptop back–I had temporarily handed it over to my boyfriend’s family for safekeeping, but now that we had made our way to visit the family vacation home, I could work again. But this of course meant no beach time for me. When the beach-going crew returned for a timely lunch, I joined them. But then the group retreated from the strongest sun of the day for a siesta, and I went right back to work. If it wasn’t too hot, I sat outside near the parilla (BBQ grill), where I was shocked and excited to discover a power outlet—but of course, it turned out to be broken. So when my battery ran low, I was forced to return to my bed in the backroom and make do with the breeze from the window, while trying to block out sounds of the kids playing at the foozball table right outside. At a time when I could have most used my iPod, it wasn’t with me, as I had left it back in Buenos Aires, thinking, ‘An iPod? Who needs music when I will have the sweet sound of the eternal ocean?’
–Always carry your headphones and fully charged iPod or mp3 player of choice. Don’t forget the charging cable.
–Charge your computer overnight, when you’re having lunch or when you go out, basically whenever you get the chance. You never know when the next opportunity will come up.
My first apartment in Lisbon, right in the heart of Alfama, the oldest and liveliest (and most touristy) barrio in town, wasn’t exactly the perfect writing retreat that I had imagined. While adapting to minor culture shock, I also was dealing with the bar situated right beneath my flat, and the inebriated and squealing patrons sat at tables all over the little sidewalk below my balcony. The construction workers in the building next to mine were also a rowdy bunch, and just when they were about done for the day, the touristy fado restaurants just around the corner began to let loose their warbling fado singers at full volume. Needless to say, trying to work through the noise wasn’t easy. I did try to find cafes nearby to work in, but there wasn’t much around that offered free wifi and a relatively calm environment during the day. Plus, I didn’t think conducting my Skype interviews in a noisy cafe or other public place was sensible. Again, I was back to plugging my headphones in to some ambient, vocal-less tunes, until I discovered another apartment (through an online ad) in the quiet, peaceful suburbs of Lisbon. Within a month, I moved out of Alfama and found that I was basically living in the midst of a huge, beach-front fruit salad with figs, kiwis, bananas, limes and plums growing in the parks and on the sidewalks of this suburb just 20 minutes by train from the city. From there, when I opened my windows, I heard nothing but palm trees rustling in the ocean breeze–and the beach was a terribly tempting 8-minute walk away!
–Do your research and ask locals and expats about the neighborhood before you agree to move into an apartment there.
–Ask/research about calm cafes or libraries with free wifi. Look for co-working spaces.
–Don’t be afraid to pick up and leave if your living situation just isn’t working out.
When a travel writer finds her way to off the beaten path destinations (which are usually more fun to explore and make for better articles!), she is quickly reminded that, believe it or not, some places in the world still don’t have internet. Forget about wifi–you won’t even get dial up. And if you are lucky enough to have internet access in the tiny village that you’ve settled into for the next couple months, well you better hope that it’s not raining heavily or really windy when you need to send in an article to your editor or conduct a scheduled Skype interview.
Which is exactly what happened one day during the several months I spent in a tiny village in Bulgaria. I had been in touch with my interview subject by email and we had arranged the interview for 1pm New York time—dinner time in Bulgaria. But I knew my dinner would taste that much better when I’d completed a satisfying interview and captured those juicy quotes that make for a great article. When I woke up on the day of the interview and tried to get online, however, I couldn’t connect. I looked outside and sure enough, the wind was blowing through the trees in full force. Beautiful and warm as this summer day was, the internet signal that came from the tower sitting atop the village mayor’s office simply couldn’t cope with the strength of the wind. I moaned and paced and tried to work on some other assignments, trying to connect every 5 minutes. Finally I gave up and spent the day outdoors, enjoying the sun and keeping my mind off imminent interview disaster. Dinnertime rolled around and tempting scents wafted out from the small kitchen. Once more, I tried to get online and could not. There was no way to let my interview subject know that I had to cancel the interview. Even if I could have called her on a normal phone, her number was in the email. I had my dinner on time, but I ate with a pit in my stomach, feeling like a failure, rethinking this whole “travel writer” business. Location independent? Not exactly.
There was nothing I could do but wait until the next day and hope to god that the internet would prevail through tomorrow’s weather conditions. I waited till the US was awake and I called her on Skype, apologizing several times. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to mind.
“You’re where?? Bulgaria? Oh, I thought the magazine was in Chicago. So you guys are international?”
“Uh, no…Actually it’s just me. I’m a freelance writer, and I’m traveling at the moment.”
–Patience is a virtue. No, I really didn’t know this. But you can learn all you need to know about patience when you move to the village. Instantly.
–Ask beforehand about the weather dependence of the internet. Sounds weird, but if there is an issue, and there’s really nothing you can do about it, at least you will be mentally prepared and can mention to your clients before you leave that you are “on the road with intermittent access to internet.” That way, they won’t be surprised when you don’t call for your scheduled appointment or email your article when you said you would.