Listen to Pilot Light

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Making money on the road

I've spent a lot of time (years) traveling around the world, living in a fascinating variety of places, to the extent that the question "where are you from?" flummoxes me. (Okay, I've been looking for a sentence to put that word it for a long time, but it is apt.) When I explain that the answer is sort of confusing, and I'm not certain what they are asking, things get murky. But the place I was born was one I lived in for only a few weeks. Am I from there? Am I from one of the many places I grew up in? Are they asking what country issued my passport?  

Once through that nonsense, people often tell me they'd like to travel like that too--try living in other places. Unfortunately, x gets in the way (x being money, relationships, time, a new job, a recent bout of the flu, more money...).

For most of us, the issue is money. So they want to know how to make money while living on the road.

I'll explain that as best I can, from the perspective of one traveler. But first I want to mention something I've come to realize over time. The truth is that, for the majority of the people who say they want to try the traveling life, it just hasn't been as much a priority as it has been for me. I don't mean that they don't honestly and sincerely aspire to the traveling life, but they are unwilling to engage in some of the tradeoffs. You only have so much time and energy to expend in this life. If you are traveling, then clearly you aren't doing something else. Believe it or not, this goes to the heart of what it means to make money, the money it takes to live on, no matter where you live.

Note that I'm not saying I thought traveling was a better way to live, or even that it was a better use of my time than other things. I'm only saying that, for my own reasons, I have always given it a higher priority than other things. For example, we don't have many accumulated possessions. Traveling around, unless you are wealthy, means shedding things, even things that mean something to you.

The thing people ask most about the traveling life is how to make money. Not get rich money, but enough to live on in strange places. Well, the answer is complicated. The short version is that you work at whatever jobs are around you that can earn money.  Obvious, right? The next thing I often hear is, "Well that's okay for you." 

I think I know what that rather cryptic comment means. Our culture urges people to cling to labels about themselves, to think of themselves as an architect or a banker. That is limiting. You can certainly work a lot of places around the world within a label like that, but narrowing your focus can make it hard to go where you want, when you want.

Consider. I have a degree in Economics. I've never worked in that field. When I think of myself, I see a writer and musician. I've done those things for love and profit since before I was an adult. Those haven't always been useful in the places I wanted to be, at least when I wanted to be there.

So I've done office jobs (editing magazines) in Asia, put in the electrical wiring for a new restaurant in Venezuela, played music in waterfront bars in the Caribbean, and repaired things. My wife is an artist, but she is also a good carpenter, and I've assisted her (played gopher) when she built things for people (wooden shutters for a nice home, for instance).

We didn't plan any of it. (We don't even like the word plan.) Many times the work found us. Not always. Sometimes we failed. Different places have their own rules for the kind of work you are allowed to do, if you can do any at all. In places we visited that didn't allow us to work, we couldn't stay no matter how much we wanted to. In other places you need to take some time and meet people and get into the system to be allowed to work.

And all the time I wrote and my wife made art and we lived cheap.

One year, during our ten on our boat, our work time was consumed with important boat repairs. That year, my major source of income (ironically) was selling poetry. Not that I set the world on fire with my poetry, but it was an extremely good year for poetry and extremely bad for everything else. But selling a poem to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and writing a lot of poems and nonfiction for Caribbean Compass. I managed a lot of very small sales to other magazines as well and the proceeds almost kept us afloat, so to speak.

You might have noticed a (possibly pathetic) lack of a coherent vision here. That's because the dream was traveling, living on a boat, living in Asia and so on, rather than earning a living. Thus, the answer, unexciting as it might be, is that to live out on the road you do the same thing you'd do anywhere that you are having trouble getting a job. Get creative. Find someone who needs your help.

You look for activity that might require your services.

You accept what people might see as demeaning work, because eating gets to be something of a habit. And you have a great time doing it, because it means you are living the life you want to lead.

Living a traveling life has been my dream (and expectation, I should add). Being a writer has been part of that dream. The lives of writers and travelers have always fit together like a hand in  a glove in my fuzzy brain.  Sometime maybe I'll figure out how that works.