Monday, August 25, 2014

Long-Term Travel and Romance Writing: How I Did It

I ended up traveling in North America and Southeast Asia from October 2013 to June 2014. The trip was funded solely on the steam powered by my writing.

I don't know what to say about this except that it's bloody hard to meet deadlines when you're hopping from city to town to ass-fuck-nowhere every few days. It's impossible. We all knew that, didn't we? You have to stay put for months somewhere to do any real work. I can't tell you how many times I was sitting in a cramped bus for hours on end trying to bang out my word count for the day. 

And yet, I got something done and I got paid something and somehow I am now living in Mexico. Not dead in a ditch. I did go into debt to cover the gaps between pay cheques (and to cover some unforeseen expenses, which I won't go into here). 

But all in all, I wrote, I survived and I saw all the things.

The usual question after a long trip is now what? For me it was going back to Mexico City where my fiancee was able to get a job. 

Thankfully, my trip had given me two solid contacts who have been hiring me consistently since April 2014 to write romance for hire. So that's what I do now. As a job.

Most people aren't aware of how writing romance for hire (aka ghostwriting) works so here's the deal: 
  1. You get hired through Elance.com or Freelancer.com (in my case).
  2. The client gives you a word count and a genre i.e. romantic thriller or cowboy romance
  3. Sometimes the client gives you a specific plot to work with but this is rare. More likely they will say: "OK cowboy romance trilogy. Three books. 25,000 words each. Go!" Seriously.
  4. You sign a contract saying you don't own the rights to the book, you will get paid a flat fee upon completion and you can't contact the end client or know what happens to the book.
  5. The client puts your fee in escrow.
  6. You write the fucking thing. SWEAT SWEAT SWEAT.
  7. The client will release the funds. You do a happy dance and pay your credit card and your therapist.
  8. The client will probably not ask you for edits but if they do, they are minimal. You do another happy dance because you hate extra work.
  9. The book is then self-published or sold to a publisher. You aren't allowed to know anything about that. 
  10. The end.
Question: Bronwyn, if the client just publishes the thing on Amazon or whatever, why don't you write your own books?

Excellent question, knucklehead. Because I need money now and I don't want to wait for the royalties to kick in. But I definitely want to do this in future when my income is more stable.

Question: how much do you make?

Shit. I make shit. Then again, I live in a cheap country (Mexico), I love the freedom of being self-employed and I know how to live lean. I earn $525 for a 40,000 word book. $300 for a 25,000 word book. I also write plot outlines for clients. Ten plot outlines for $150. What do my clients do with these plots? I don't know. They don't pay me to know! I just write them.

I also still occasionally do copywriting for Demand Media and various corporate blogs to supplement my income. I do not teach English anymore in Mexico. Why? Because schools pay crap and steady private clients are usually old creepy guys who think they're paying for "the girlfriend experience."

Shudder.

That's romance writing, my friends. I'm also working with an agent in Toronto who will hopefully be selling my novel to some Big Ass publisher this fall. I'm trying to work all the angles, yo.

Hit me up with questions in the comments if you're so inclined.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

RantRantRant: Foreign-Owned Hotels in Cambodia Charging Through the Nose and Hiring Foreign Staff

Footprints hotel on Otres Beach II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
Great beach views, angry British owner. Footprints, Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Alright, it's rant time. So I'm in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, it's also been very expensive as most tourist establishments want U.S. dollars as opposed to the local currency, the riel. Not only that, but they charge U.S.-comparable prices, not the equivalent to the local rate.

Let's just stop here. I'm never going to the be dick who rants on and on about how Western tourists should always pay local prices. We can afford to pay a bit extra and usually the people in question need that bit extra (I make an exception for gouging i.e. extremely overinflated scams which is just not cool). It makes me cringe when people get angry because they refuse to pay $3 on what they think should be a $2 tuk-tuk ride. It's one thing to be asked to pay $10 or even $5 but $3? Shit.

In my two plus weeks in Cambodia I've now stayed at my fair number of foreigner-run hotels. Why? Usually because they were recommended to me and I've learned the value of a no-surprises clean hotel. For the most part, the hotels were well-run, clean and relatively well-priced. Right now I'm staying in a room at the Magic Sponge in Kampot, Cambodia with fan, hot shower and private ensuite that's clean, secure and is in a great location. It's $9 a night. NINE dollars. Can't complain there.

What gets me is that these hotels subsidize these decent and Cambodia-appropriate rates by charging through the nose for food. $4.50 for fruit salad, muesli and yogurt in Cambodia? You have to be kidding. 

Now, Cambodia is a country that could sure use some cash. Most people make under $1000 a year. So if there's a place where I would invest some hard currency, Cambodia would be it. Yet, these hotels are foreign owned. I'm basically pouring my dollars into expat hands. But you say -- he or she pays taxes, employs staff, buys Cambodian supplies. True, though I'd be a lot more comfortable giving these funds directly to a Cambodian.

To add insult to injury, I've seen a couple of these establishments hire foreign staff. Footprints hostel in Sihanoukville offered backpackers food and accommodation if they worked behind the bar or at reception. As a backpacker struggling to write to support my travels, I know the value of an accommodation/food arrangement. I've done Workaway placements in Malaysia and payed a low daily rate in Indonesia for food and accommodation in exchange for teaching at local schools. In the latter case, I worked alongside Indonesian English teachers. No one's job was being stolen.

That said, Cambodians really, really need these jobs. The backpackers probably don't, at least compared to the locals. That Canadian at reception? A good job for a Cambodian. The British guy behind the bar? Another needed local job. And the British owner who was continually and loudly rude to her one Cambodian waitress? Reprehensible.
Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
While I love these little beach towns, I sometimes feel like their purpose is to
seal tourists off from the realities of local life. This is Otres Beach II, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Alright, so the million dollar question is: why aren't you just staying at local places, Bronwyn? Well, other than the recommendation thing I have a limited time in Cambodia so I'm hitting up the highlights where the foreign-owned quotient is probably a lot higher. That said, I do feel like I'm doing things wrong, that I should have tried harder to put dollars in Cambodian hands, that I should be getting off the beaten track and staying with and paying Cambodians.

It's so easy and yeah, comfortable, to just hop to the nearest tourist compound where some American or Brit delivers cheap beer, expensive Western food, all the English DVDs you could ever want and other comforts of home. I guess you pay for that experience, the experience of not being too uncomfortable in a strange place. But would I do it again? Definitely not.

What do you think? Am I a dick for trying to divine Cambodians needs? Do you have a different perspective?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Time I Lost My Shit in Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Southeast Asia
Trip from hell so worth it to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.
I knew it was going to happen eventually. That I would lose my shit, somewhere along the line in this grand backpacking tour of Southeast Asia.

I'm not the most patient person. I'm also perennially anxious, change-avoidant and generally terrified of any stimulation stronger than reading a good book. This all makes me one of the worst travellers alive. In fact, I'm pretty much unfit to step outside my door. I've wondered many, many times during this four months (and counting) trip why the hell I put myself through this much stress.

I suppose it's because even though I hate new things I also hate stagnation. I get bored easily and I crave eating new foods, hearing new languages, meeting new people (on my own very limited terms) and experiencing things that give me that shock-awe-horror-bliss sensation that's so delicious as well as terrifying. In short, I'm stubborn despite my shortcomings.

That said, I was so sure I was going to have some kind of meltdown during the trip. How could I not? It was going to be the ultimate clusterfuck of terrifying new things! I came pretty close during our scuba diving course on Koh Tao, Thailand. The first time we approached the pool and began to don that heavy equipment I began to cry, thoughts of drowning running through my fevered brain. I made a bit of an ass of myself but I saved face by pulling through and finishing the course.

However, I was still early in my travels. Now, the last month or so has been a real test of my patience. I got a disgusting skin abscess on my leg that was dangerously deep and has kept me from swimming, diving or at times, walking. Then my boyfriend lost his passport in Indonesia. I went onward to Cambodia alone and we frantically coordinated new flights while he raced around Jakarta trying to fix all the things. It was an expensive and emotionally exhausting experience. 

Miguel finally landed in Cambodia and we got around to the business of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. But the city is under-developed and tough to love, at least for me. I'm not much of a city person, preferring the controlled stimulation of small towns with excellent wifi. Phnom Penh is busy with no public transportation, limited amenities for tourists and they use the U.S. dollar so it can be expensive. Plus, our hostel was a party place with music raging on well into the night. Not relaxing.

Ta Prohm temple in the Angkor complex, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Also worth it to see Ta Prohm, a crumbling jungle temple near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I wanted to get out so I booked a daytime bus to Siem Reap, the city closest to the archaeological wonder that is Angkor. The hotel's prices seemed inflated so we went to a random tour office and booked a ticket through them. Big mistake.

We got to the station on time and I sent Miguel out to grab water and snacks for the five and a half hour trip. He ended up having to go farther than he thought. I loaded our bags on the bus and waited for him. Except that the driver, his buddies and random tuk tuk drivers were having none of it. They all started in on me, yelling that I was holding everyone up, that this was my "personal problem" and demanding to know where Miguel was. Like I knew. OK so I shouldn't have asked Miguel to go out, but seriously, don't yell.

I burst into tears and started crying, right there in the middle of the damn street. That's when the tuk tuk drivers started laughing at me. Laughing!

Miguel emerged and pulled me into the bus. The driver got in my face, berating me, so I lost it and yelled "SHUT UP!"

Not my finest moment. I definitely shouldn't have gone that far.

Got in the bus anyway, where I continued to sob and the guy next to Miguel started laughing as well.

It was a long five plus hours on terrible roads, plus we were crammed in the very back in tiny seats. The driver drove like a madman, playing chicken with tour buses and motorcycles alike. Gotta love the infamous "third lane" in Southeast Asia.

I learned later from reading online that Cambodians sometimes deal with uncomfortable or awful situations through humour. God knows they've been through a lot, so I get it. I didn't realize that before so there you go -- serious cultural misunderstanding.

I regret being such an ass, as much as I regret taking that stupid piece of crap bus. I guess I can now say I've had my "lost my shit moment" and be more diplomatic from here on in.

Have you ever totally lost it while traveling? What happened?

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Eighth Ring of Hell, Otherwise Known As “Sightseeing”

Elephant ride in Koh Phangan, Thailand
This is one of my favorite "I am having a moment" moments. Elephant ride in Thailand.
Sightseeing is a given when you’re traveling. You’re not traveling to a new and potentially expensive place to scratch your balls. No, you’re out in the world to refresh your worldview, to take a break from the mundane, to fulfill your societal contract to post something interesting on social media.

All right so let’s not disparage sightseeing. It’s one thing to sightsee at a fake haunted house in Guanajuato or wherever and pretend like you’re having a moment. It’s quite another to sightsee at a revered, possibly holy site such as Angkor Wat. You are having an experience, of course, you are being forced to see with new eyes. Perhaps the event won’t translate into any change in your life, it won’t translate into any good in the world. But oh hell, in that moment you saw. We deserve these life moments of wonder to refresh ourselves from the expected.

 I’m not really working while traveling Southeast Asia, unless you count spinning such crap as “How To Know If He’s Still Interested” as working. I don’t know when it happened that I thought I could afford such outlandish dignity. I cling to it, even when I really should be grateful to earn a living. But I like to think I’m an intellectual, so I scoff at the rough bread I bake to keep going. Life is just better when you’re above it.

 It’s logical then to think that sightseeing would be my “job.” Right? Every day I should get up at a reasonable hour and see things. Important things are best, though they can be padded with a few minor sights as long as I’m making the effort to fill the day. During the day I see and at night I relax, or I shift the schedule around slightly. Perhaps I relax all morning and see at night. After all, let’s not get tyrannical. We’re not working after all, no, we’re on vacation. A seeing vacation, full of importance. Full of sights. Report back the sights or they didn’t happen. Social media, quirky updates.

 I’m in Bali! Today we did x, y and z. We didn’t waste a minute, or not that you’d ever be able to tell. We saw all the top sights on Tripadvisor, plus this locally relevant restaurant and look at our inexpensive but grand hotel. We’re enjoying ourselves so much! Look at us posing. We’re little traveling monkeys, looking traveling appropriate, posed in front of whatever background we think should be there, or you think should be there, it’s all the same. 

I can't even think right now about contributing. Volunteering. That's another post, that's one where you'd really need a dose of humility. I believe in volunteering while traveling. I am writing this because to not say so would be monstrous.

Back to the subject at hand: I’ve stopped sightseeing. I’m full of anxiety because I think I’m not traveling but loafing. I’m not fulfilling my social contract. I’m not educating the masses, or myself, or lying hard enough that I’m seeing. I’m very obsessed with my little project, my traveling, and that it is important enough to be anxious over. Whether I am sightseeing or not -- this is important. This is the stuff that life is made of.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Being Sick on the Road: World's Biggest Baby vs. Skin Abscess, Round I

Rice fields in Cianjur, Java, Indonesia
Really enjoying these rice fields in Java, Indonesia. Yet my leg is starting to feel funny...
This blog is becoming in serious danger of being renamed I Traveled, I Saw Stuff, It Was the Worst.

This week while in Yogyakarta, Indonesia I discovered that a tiny blister on my leg had evolved into a full-blown, bloody, oozing skin abscess. I'm a tough cookie but even the slightest sickness has me snivelling like a child who just dropped their ice cream. If I get sick twice in a row I start thinking it's my secret HIV that the blood tests never picked up on. A weird skin rash is indicative of a deeply buried tumour. I'm terrified of needles, sharp instruments, gloved doctors and that hospital smell. Even the feel of my own bones under my skin grosses me out, I'm that adverse to bodily functioning and professional practices associated with it.

So it was with a lot of trepidation that I chartered a squeezy tuk-tuk to take my boyfriend and I to the nearest hospital. Taking a bicycle tuk-tuk itself is a wonderful experience, especially on a busy Indonesian street where it's like being a cat running with ravenous wolves.

I was all moon eyes going in, imploring Miguel not to take me to the big bad place where they would surely cut into the festering wound, causing great curdling screams and unbearable pain. Then they would slap me repeatedly with their gloves and laugh at me before kicking me out of their facilities.

Pain is more delicious with Yogyakarta's street food.
Of course they just poured iodine on it, bandaged me up and gave me a prescription for three random meds. I was not to touch it for three days, except to pour iodine into the bandage every eight hours (iodine ... who uses that anymore??). I lasted about two until the giant diaper-like bandage started giving off odours that definitely were less than delicate and feminine.

I spent about ten seconds in the shower, trying to clean it, before bawling. Because obviously the pus which had finally worked its way to the surface meant I was going to lose my leg. Also, no way was I going to touch that festering mass. Miguel came hurrying, his ear now acutely tuned to the sound of me crying. I am embarrassed to say that it ended with me lying in our hotel room, bawling into a pillow, while he was forced to doctor to my gaping wound. Which really wasn't that bad and just needed some alcohol-soaked pads and a little fortitude.

Not long after I was washed and in my ridiculous cupcake dress, eating rice and tempeh out of brown paper, then ice cream, embarrassed but also satisfied that I had managed to outsource a most disgusting aspect of being human. Ain't love grand?

Borodubur Buddhist temple in Java, Indonesia
Managed to hobble out to Borobudur Buddhist temple near Yogyakarta. So worth it.
The thing with traveling is that when you're weak, you're really weak. This trip has been a greatest-hits collection of Bronwyn's Weakest Moments. I actually tend to be pretty cavalier when alone but being coupled allows you to really indulge in self-pity and weakness, to dig deep into those low moments. I've started digging and now I probably won't be able to stop until my head comes back around and goes up my own ass.

More likely, in a week I'll feel better and tramp around again like I'm God's gift to travellers. When you're sick, traveling is a little special circle of hell and when you're well, it's all shiny unicorns and endless potential for self-renewal. More or less.

But the leg abscess followed a bout of flu, which is usually Bronwyn's Body's way of saying, "Hey partner. Going a little fast, aren't we? How would you feel about a couple of days in bed not doing the stress thing?" This time it was like, "Fuck you! You sit down motherfucker and you don't get up. Don't even THINK of moving! You move and I swear to God I will send shooting laser pains into your BRAIN. How you like them apples???"

Bronwyn at Borodubur temple in Java, Indonesia
Trying to look excited at Borobudur while my leg tries to eat itself from the inside.
True to form, life delivered me the quietest, cheapest, cushiest little hotel with free breakfast, outdoor deck, wi-fi and comfy bed (La Javanaise Homestay) in which to recover in relative comfort. So I sat my ass down, forced myself to forget sightseeing and got comfortable with doing nothing. I booked a flight to Bali to avoid the stresses of Indonesian road travel. A real love-in of sorts. 

This isn't new. Two years ago my body gave me serious anemia so I'd stop pushing myself so hard. I spent most of my non-work time in bed. Then I forgot about it.

So when don't I forget about it? When do I actually start taking care of myself? That's the answer I've been waiting for for a while.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Freelancing and Backpacking: Can It Be Done?

Volunteering in Indonesia
I can't work right now, I'm helping children in Indonesia! (ha, perfect excuse)
It was my big fat plan: write freelance and backpack Southeast Asia at the same time. It seemed like the perfect way to fund my trip, especially since I hadn't had time to save up (at all, as you'll remember from my initial post). I had visions of eating breakfast at a breezy beachside cafe while doing some writing and then escaping in the afternoon to swim and laze about, all while paying peanuts in a country with a favourable currency. How hard could it be?

Apparently a lot harder than I thought.

The thing with backpacking is that you're constantly on the move. You're just bleeding time in places without wifi like buses, tuk-tuks, trains, planes, bus stations, other types of stations, the middle of the damn street. Meeting deadlines becomes difficult. Soliciting work becomes patchy. Suddenly you're just holding on, barely, to the few clients you have. Then they start dropping off and you don't have the time to replenish them.

And then there's time spent on logistics such as figuring out why your debit card suddenly won't work, comparing flights, trolling Tripadvisor trying to find the least shitty hotel possible, figuring out impossible local transportation routes, going to five pharmacies to try to find Advil, trips to the doctor to figure out why a giant bleeding wound has sprouted on your leg (that was today).

I recently spent an entire day in Singapore trying to get my antidepressant prescription filled. AN ENTIRE DAY. Stuff like that just happens. A lot.

Then there's the travel. Glorious beaches. Abundant food. Relaxing jungle hide-outs. Everyone else is on vacation -- lounging. Endless lounging. Chatting. Planning excursions. Eating all the things. More chatting. You think ... work? Is that a thing I really need to do?

I probably could have scheduled myself better. I don't know. But what I'm certain of is that it's a lot harder than knocking off a couple hundred words over tropical fruit and coffee each morning.


Malaysian food, Penang, Malaysia
Why work when I could be eating this? (Penang, Malaysia)
So it's come down to a bit of work to finance some of the trip and a bit of borrowing (thanks, bank) to finance the rest. Not really an ideal situation. The one bright spot has been Workaway projects, which have helped cut costs immensely as you trade part-time work for accommodation and sometimes even food too.

The verdict: Save money and then budget your trip accordingly. If you want to work and travel, I'd suggest having a very healthy client list first because trying to build your business (as I wanted to do) is really damn hard when you're on the move. Also, traveling slow helps a lot. I'm starting to think that housesitting would be a much better gig, or even renting a really cheap place in a country with a good exchange rate. Stay in one place and take day trips instead of trying to conquer a whole region like some real-time version of Risk.

My boyfriend and I plan to spend the next month in Bali, hoping that some down time will help us get back into the working groove. I'll let you know how that goes.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bitterness in the Cameron Highlands: When Backpacking Feels Like Life Failure

BOH tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The beautiful Cameron Highlands, looking deceptively non-damp.
I knew that it would come to this: travel burnout, cynicism, general despair. But maybe not 2.5 months into our trip, 1.5 months into the Asia portion.

Still, you don't choose your low times. For my boyfriend Miguel and I, it came during three days in the Cameron Highlands, a mountainous area 1500 metres above sea level in central Malaysia. I was really excited to go. 

We'd just finished a Workaway volunteer project and were looking forward to having our own space and a few days to be tourists. The Brits turned the land into a holiday place and producer of tea, strawberries and other non-Malaysian type crops. How could I not love a place where I could let out my inner Englishwoman? I envisaged myself having elegant high teas with crumbly scones, touring tea plantations, reading by flashlight in our jungle bungalow and enjoying slow walks on the local trails.

Instead, it rained for a good part of the three days we were there and poor Miguel came down with an infection on his knee. Meaning, we weren't going no where. Fine, but relaxing is awfully difficult when your 'rustic' bungalow smells like a a culturing ground for mold, a dainty crop of mushrooms are establishing themselves in your bathroom and everything is so doggone damp that touching any surface is like chillaxing on under-dried clothes.

Awful. Awful awful awful. I quickly came to HATE this place of never-ending rain, damp and chill. Note to self, do not visit England. Ever! Miguel and I grumpily sequestered ourselves in Starbucks which was the only place in 50 km that felt dry and warm.

Scones and tea at the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Eating all my feelings.
Still, like all aversions there was a lot more going on under the surface than just bodily discomfort. I spent seven days at a silent meditation retreat where I slept on a board, took showers from a bucket, and didn't eat after noon. I was fine.

No, the real crux of the problem revealed itself when we had to hitchhike from the bus drop off to our destination: a tea plantation. Cabs were ridiculously expensive and Miguel couldn't walk because of his knee.

Now, I'm the world's worst hitchhiker. I will accept a ride if someone offers it but I hate asking for one -- not because I'm afraid someone will make me into meat confetti but because it makes me feel like a vagabond.

Lately I've been feeling all kinds of vagabond:
  1. No job
  2. No property
  3. No marriage/children that might earn me social stature (and happiness! of course!)
  4. No life plan
  5. No fancy possessions that might buffer me from life's ills (save my two Apple products. I will DIE if they die. This is sad, I know).
  6. No social standing (from something ... I don't know)
So there I was standing by the side of the road. I hadn't showered for two days. Pretty broke and just eking out a living from random writing work. Emotional shit up the ying-yang. Dressed like freaking backpacking Barbie in my pink and grey outfit. Angry. Pissed off. And now hitchhiking. 

Proceed towards tantrum. Poor Miguel.

Then suddenly a white pick-up appears. Miguel takes the initiative and scores us a ride. We hop in the back with a bunch of giggling Singaporean girls who work at a jewelry store together. We get to the plantation, ogle the amazing green fields, drink fancy tea with tarts and are generally fine. The pick-up takes us back and we find a cab the rest of the way.

Indian food in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Indian food is my favorite and Malaysia really delivers. The CH weren't ALL bad.
In a nutshell, I'm supposed to be 'working on myself' on this 'great trip.' Peeling away all but the basic necessities to reveal deeper core needs. Instead, I'm feeling mostly like I swallowed a lot of self-help bullshit about finding myself and am actually pissing away my time being poor. 

Backpacking = glorified poverty
Glorified poverty = actual poverty
Actual poverty = no one wants this

So I feel stupid for going on my little fake slumming-it experience. And mad because I actually do want something intangible and life-changing out of this experience.

It's a lot of feelings!

We're now in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and paying up the arse for a fancy hostel where there's a rooftop bar, drinking water, great wifi, schmacy digs and no mushrooms in the bathroom (eww). It's clean, it's warm, we're re-evaluating exactly what we want from this trip

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