Mailbag: who I am, what I do, how I make money

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that my name is Amelia, that I am a solo female traveler and that I have been exploring Central America for more than a year.

What you might not know is some of the specifics — how I began my journey, what exactly I do for work and how I make a living in this crazy life.

Recently, I asked you all to send me questions, and send you did!

In fact, I received so many queries that I plan to make this mailbag a series — upcoming mailbags will be focused more specifically around the logistics of my travel, how I address health and safety, and what I love about where I am now.

But for now, let’s begin with some of the basics: who I am and what I do.

Here are some of those questions I receive most often:

What exactly do you do? I am an independent writer, photographer and video producer. I have no permanent residence, so I travel full-time, finding stories and telling them in a variety of ways.

What’s your background? Before becoming a nomad, I worked in newspapers for more than a decade. I’m originally from North Carolina (and have lived and worked as a journalist in Boston and Detroit) but many of you know me from my time in Minneapolis, where I worked for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for eight years — first covering sports, then features, food and travel. I left my job in the summer of 2018 to work independently and travel. To do so, I broke my apartment lease, sold or gave away almost all of my belongings and set off with only a 40-liter backpack and little guarantee but lots of motivation.

What motivated you to uproot your life and live like this? I have always loved telling stories and I have always loved to travel. At some point, I felt strongly that working within the natural confines of a company was restricting the kind of travel and storytelling that I was doing. I also knew that I couldn’t afford to keep a residence — and the kind of community and normalcy that comes with it — and travel, too. So I made the decision to go all-in on this life and see where it takes me. I think many of us assume that for nomads, constant change, upheaval and unfamiliarity is natural. For me, it isn’t always. I get tired, I get lonely, I crave routine and the network of friends and family I left. But I think there is a power to pulling yourself out of your comfort zone and finding new ways to live. I also think all of us should be a little more uncomfortable a little more often, and should have the opportunity to better understand the way others live and the way they see the world around them. Travel is essentially the cultural, historical and socio-economical education most of us did not receive when we were in school.

Palm trees and a picturesque white church line a mountainous Central American road.
I was drawn to Central America because I wanted to expand the narratives that we most often hear about this part of the world. (Omoa, Honduras.)

Why Central America? I was interested in this part of the world for a lot of reasons. First, these countries are our neighbors, and I had never been. Central America is very present in the U.S. news right now, but mostly for one-dimensional reasons relating to violence and poverty and the discussion of immigration. There is a lot of context that is generally absent from those conversations. I knew these countries couldn’t be as one-dimensional as the media typically portrays them. I’m also very interested in the history of U.S. influence and intervention in this part of the world, and I believe there is a shortage of both storytelling and awareness of that critical background within the States.

How do you make money? For most people, living the independent life means generating income from a variety of revenue streams. I’m no different! I left my job with a couple thousand dollars saved up and the expectation that I would need to start making money right away. The greatest (most regular) percentages of my income come from a) the “Live Inspired” sponsorship with John Reamer and Associates on my own website (which brings you these columns almost every week) and b) my Patreon subscriptions, which allow readers/viewers to pay what they value and receive perks, like a monthly postcard from wherever I am. (A revamped version of my Patreon structure with new tiers and perks is coming soon!) I supplement those two income streams with freelance work (it varies each month) and an occasional Instagram project. Smaller percentages come from a little bit of radio work and from pop-up sales featuring prints, calendars and notecards made from my photography. For close to a year, that income was enough to fund my rooms, my food and my travel. Now that I am working to create some bigger (and more expensive) projects, I am exercising my credit card! This is another reality of independent work: at some point, to do what you want to do, you will probably have to make a bet on yourself and spend more than you have.

Who comes up with the ideas and how? I do! The beauty of being independent is getting to focus on whatever you want. The drawback is being solely responsible for idea creation. Thankfully my old newspaper brain has trained me to always be thinking of everything as a story. If someone says something interesting, I think to myself, ‘is that a story?’ Almost every interesting experience operates as content for one thing or another — a video, context or details or quotes for a story, Instagram content, photo opportunities — and usually, I’m thinking of several of those things. Since I am ever moving and always an outsider, ideas form rather naturally. I get some ideas from things people ask me about. I also just talk to the people around me a lot — about politics and culture and the whys of the way things are in a certain place. Short of that, I walk around, I take public transportation and I try to be very observant. Sometimes, I lean on ever-popular topics — the solo female nomad thing has a lot of interest, right now — but my ultimate mission is to go much deeper.

A girl in a denim skirt and a tank top looks up at a pyramid in Guatemala's Tikal site of indigenous ruins.
The benefits of being independent include setting your own schedule and creating what you want. But drawbacks include working pretty much all the time. (Tikal, Guatemala)

What are the challenges of your current work flow? There are a lot of challenges unique to independent creation. First of all, the brainstorming/feedback/direction of traditional work places is almost completely absent. You also won’t always have an ideal place to work or consistent WiFi. I am also working within what I call the “parachute syndrome” — I am new to these places, and trying to make sense of them in a short period of time. There is a great responsibility that comes with that — you want to make sure you describe places fairly and in a way that would feel genuine to the people who live there. You need to find the right people to help you tell the story, without having any network in a particular place. There are logistical issues, such as getting around remote areas without a car or knowledge of the landscape. There are different expectations — in some places, people who are interviewed assume they will be paid for their time (especially if they are lacking), in others, paying for their voice might be construed as an insult. Finally, there is the language barrier. Although I mostly converse in Spanish throughout my day-to-day, I typically bring a local with me for interviews. Interviewing in English is hard enough — you’re thinking, listening and scribbling simultaneously. Doing so in Spanish, I find I quickly get lost; it overwhelms my brain, so having someone truly bilingual there to assist when I do is imperative. It’s also extremely helpful just to have a local with you in non-white areas; it lends credibility. Of course, hiring people to drive you, to help translate, to help with history and context and locating people and places creates additional costs.

How do you find people to help you do those things? I generally make friends quickly when I’m traveling alone — and lean on them to help me find others (sources, “fixers,” videographers) who can help me with what I need. I’ve also found Instagram to be a major source of networking; while posting lots of content from a particular country or city, especially if it doesn’t get a lot of attention from outsiders, many times locals reach out to me and those conversations lead to helpful leads.

What’s your work schedule like? Most independent professionals, especially when they’re starting out, especially especially when they’re working in the creative fields, understand one thing pretty quickly: you will be working pretty much all the time. Although I’m aware this life of constant travel seems very sexy, often it’s sitting in front of my computer for 12-hour days. One of the major benefits is setting my own schedule — I make time for exercise, for reading, for errands, for outings when there is something I really want to do. But you have to fit in the time somewhere. I often work late into the night (I find that’s when I’m often my most productive); I often do almost nothing for a week or more — working straight through the days and evenings. During especially busy points, if a friend suggests we do something I say “sure, but we’ve got to make it into a video.” I’m *always* taking photos, I’m *always* making notes. My friends, wherever I am, quickly get used to me going into interview mode in the middle of happy hour. I’m *always* Instagramming. In effect, there is very little that happens in my life, now, that isn’t being repurposed for some kind of content because the truth is, the best content happens when you’re just walking around, chatting with people and doing fun things. It can be exhausting because I’m almost never “off” (which is why I schedule alone time). But to reap the benefits of the independent life, you need to hustle.

A mother and three children play around a park fountain in Mexico City.
I tend to make friends quickly when I travel alone; I rely on them for advice and context of place, as well as to help me find others — sources, guides, etc. (Mexico City)

What advice do you have for other creatives who are interested in the nomad life? My primary advice is to begin building an audience. With an audience, you have many options; without an audience, you have nothing. For me, my background and my activeness on social media created that audience. I was able to build a loyal following during my years as a reporter in the States — the key, I believe is to let your personality, not just your work, shine through — and those people ultimately became subscribers and contributed to the buoyancy of my independent career in other ways (John Reamer found me through Instagram, for example). I was active in constantly creating for and rewarding my audience. I became a person behind my work. Being something of a public figure at a major newspaper certainly helped me. But if you don’t have that, there are many other ways to grow your audience. Social media is a great tool that has changed the lives of many people. First, you need to produce — whatever you want to do eventually, start doing it now. Secondly, you need to be strategic. For that, I suggest hiring a social media strategist professional, and I’ve got a great one: Molly Hale.

How can I support your work if I don’t have the budget to be a Patreon subscriber? There are many ways to support what I’m doing without actually signing up for a monthly subscription, which you can do here (subscriptions begin at $3/month). Also, though this link, you can buy me a beer for $5, which helps keep me motivated and happy :). You can also sponsor a video ($50) here (producing videos consume a lot of time and cost money related to travel logistics, content and soundtrack purchases). Finally, if you don’t want to spend any money at all, you can support me by subscribing to my website (free) and my YouTube page (also free) and by telling your friends or your own social media followings to check out my stuff. Eyes are power, and audience growth continues to open up new opportunities for me.

Is there an end date to nomad life? Nope! I have never put an end date on this life, but at this point, I believe I will do it for years. There is a great learning curve in this sort of existence and in trying to create this sort of work, and I believe I am getting closer to what I truly want to do every month. I am all-in, and I think I’m only just getting started.

5 thoughts on “Mailbag: who I am, what I do, how I make money

  1. Great questions, Your answers will help everyone develop insight into what you are doing as someone committed to the life of a nomad, traveling and creating great content. Thanks.

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