Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You Don't Need a Safety Net: An Interview with Christine Gilbert

Two years ago Christine Gilbert decided to leave the rat race*. She writes on Almost Fearless that one day working for a Fortune 500 company she realized "...somehow I ended up trading in my 20’s for a job I didn’t love, money I didn’t need (but happily spent on things I didn’t need)." So she quit the job and became a world-traveling freelance writer. She writes about her experiences in a ebook "30 Ways in 30 Days to Redesign Your Life and Travel the World."

Now she believes "You don’t need a safety net. You can figure this out. The idea of being out there, with nothing to catch you if everything goes wrong may make your stomach do little flips, but really, you’ll be just fine."

Christine took some time to talk to me about world travel, true security and vagabonding family style.

Q. You talk about leaving a job as a manager at a Fortune 500 company to become a traveling freelance writer. What type of work did you do, and why did you decide to go into the corporate world initially?

A. I worked in health care software, something that I had never intended to do. In 2002, my husband and I were both laid off from our jobs. He was an animator and I was a marketing manager at a small publishing house and we woke up the next morning in Seattle and quickly realized that there were an awful lot of creative types like us, desperate for work. Everyone had moved out to Seattle to be a part of the big dot com craze (we moved there in 2000 when just knowing HTML made you a rock star) and suddenly there were no jobs and thousands of people competing against you.

To make ends meet, I took a short term job building a database for a local medical center. The next thing I knew, I was learning interface coding and digging into their ancient medical software. From there, corporate made sense. It paid well, it was well established and it allowed me to travel around the country, doing installations and working with smart, well-educated people. It wasn't what I wanted, but it's not a bad gig if you can get it.

Q. I assume (based on mentions of student loans) that you have a college education. I’m interested to know if you pursued an education because of family tradition/expectations, a desire for knowledge, the promise of a better income or something else?

A. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I had every expectation that college would be my ticket to financial freedom.

Q. Was there an epiphany or an event that made you decide to change your line of work?

A. Yes. I was sitting on the 13th floor of a building across the street from the Prudential in Boston. Everything was gray. My office walls, the building next to me, the sky, the wet sidewalk below, even my suit. In that moment, I had this feeling I couldn't shake. It was impossible to ignore it and continue on like nothing happened. I stopped caring about the work. I felt a little reckless. I knew I had to get out.

Q. What is it about travel that appeals to you?

A. I'm addicted to change. I love finding new places. People who travel to the same place every year confuse me. What's the point of that? The places that get me excited are as far away both geographically and culturally as possible. I love culture shock.

Q. Many people like the idea of trying couch surfing or backpacking and staying at hostels, but worry about security. Did you worry about safety when traveling and how did you overcome that?

A. I think being a little afraid about security is a good thing. I'm always aware of where my wallet is, where my camera is, whether someone can snag my bag without my noticing and so on. Petty theft is a problem where ever you go (in the States as well). As far as other kinds of crime, I'm not as worried. Statistically, it's incredibly rare. Someone hurting you while couch surfing isn't exactly the perfect crime. If there was a psycho out there, he's more likely to drug women at bars (watch your drinks, ladies) than to go online and leave a big fat electronic trail to his front door. As far as hostels go, the biggest problem is cleanliness. There are fantastic places, and some sketchy ones, so if you run into the latter, just get up and walk to the next place.

Q. You write that “you don’t need a safety net.” Were you ever in a challenging situation where you ran short on funds and weren’t sure you’d find a place to stay or something to eat? What happened?

A. It's funny because when you're living in the states and you have $5 in your checking account and ramen in your cabinets, it's called being a college student. Do that while living in Prague and people think you're taking your life in your hands. I have had challenging situations before.

While I was in Panama last year, I decided to go to Las Tablas for Carnival. When I arrived at the town, I had no reservation, no guidebook and no clue. It was midnight and every hotel had been booked since three months prior. I realized that I was going to have to take the 6 am bus back to the city, so I bought a coke, found a picnic table and sat down to read my book for a few hours.

This kid, Kris from Panama approached me and we chatted in Spanish for a while. He and his 8 gay friends (do you know how rare it is to find gay men in Central America?) had rented a house and offered to let me stay with them. I took him up on it and had the most amazing week at Carnival, dancing, drinking and hanging out with these kids.

Q. How would you describe your views on money and material stuff?

A. I used to view money as a sort of security blanket, something that would keep me safe. These days, it's a method of exchange for my time. I'm much more aware of the costs of earning money... I don't give away my time anymore without consideration. As far as material things, when you travel it becomes easy to keep it minimal. Everything you buy, you have to carry!

Q. How much time do you spend traveling in a year and what is your home base like?

A. This past year, I traveled about 9 out of 12 months in the year. I was pregnant, so I took it slower than normal. We did a two month roadtrip across the US and up to Alaska via the Canadian Yukon while I was in my first trimester. However, we usually have a home base in another country, and I travel from there. That means renting an apartment or a small house so that the dogs have some semblance of a normal life. (Although I think they love camping even more than us).

Q. A lot of the people blogging about vagabonding seem to be single and unattached, which must make it easier to just “take off” somewhere. You are married with a family. I am wondering if you could tell me a bit about how that works. Do you travel together? Were you both on the same page on the decision to leave corporate life and “downshift?” Do you have a similar philosophy when it comes to money and possessions?

A. Yes, I'm married and we just added a baby to the mix in March. Luckily, my husband is 100% on the same page as me. He was the one that encouraged me to quit my job when I was doubting myself. If it wasn't for his support and dedication, I'm sure I'd have a very different life.

In July we'll be leaving again, this time with our two dogs and a four-month-old baby. We'll pick a home base for 3 months and then rent an apartment, get settled in and take short trips with the little one as we see fit (it's really easy to find dog sitters abroad-- most backpackers will leap at the chance in exchange for free housing). We're definitely limited by my desire to research and plan a trip. The hardest part of traveling with a family is figuring out all the logistics.

If you fly with dogs you want to take nonstop flights and it has to be airlines with a pet-friendly policy. Finding a place can be a challenge, especially with big dogs (we have Labrador retrievers) and getting around, even from the airport can be tricky. Babies at this age are easy, especially if they're breastfed, as it's easy to soothe them anywhere. It's all doable, it just takes more planning than your average backpacker, who can wake up hungover in one country and decide to on a whim to travel half-way around the world. I spend a lot of time writing emails, trying to get things down with the help of locals who aren't out to overcharge us.

Q. Is it difficult to maintain a sense of community while traveling extensively?

A. Yes, absolutely. I've made some incredibly close friends during my travels, the kind of relationships that I didn't find when I was working all the time. There's something about the bond between two people who have traveled together. You've been through this amazing experience that no one can understand, and most people in your life don't want to hear about. I don't have a community in the geographic sense... there is no location that I can call home... but I have these threads connecting me to people all over the world, that keeps me buoyed.

Q. Tell me about your film project.

A. One of the great side effects of having my blog is all of the amazing travelers I get to meet. There's this community of digital nomads: people working remotely, freelancing or running their business from overseas, allowing them to travel indefinitely. In some ways it's the dream lifestyle. The fascinating part is that the technology has changed so much in the past 10 years that it's incredibly easy for people to take their lives on the road. Everything from getting your mail, making phone calls, communicating with clients, managing your bank accounts, looking up files on an office computer... it can all be done over the internet. We're endeavoring to show some of the varied ways that people make this lifestyle work for them. This summer and fall we'll be traveling around the world filming and interviewing people who live incredibly ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.