Three years ago, in London, I was feeling stuck. I had just finished a guidebook, and increasingly wanted to write about travel, but how could I write about travel if I couldn’t afford to travel? I wasn’t making enough money (from writing and temping) to keep my house, travel on research trips, return to base and write stories; I needed all my income just to survive. I became despondent; I stopped going out and started living the life of a frugal recluse. Over six months, I managed to save a few grand, and that gave me enough money to extricate myself from London. But where would I go? A friend was planning a trip to India, so I decided to join her. We got a flight ticket, London to India to Thailand to Australia. I bought a laptop; with the money left-over I calculated I could spend six months in Asia, and then, when I got to Australia, wouldn’t I be able to find some kind of menial employment?
In India, given its ancient spirituality and its peculiar cultures, I found great inspiration. I started writing to editors suggesting a travel column about the backpacker scene in Asia: the idea was to have stories of backpackers, mostly parodies of backpacking. One editor accepted the series, a column monthly (still ongoing). I wrote to more editors with ideas for articles and commissions started trickling in. By the time I got to Australia as planned, I didn’t need menial work because I had enough writing to keep me busy. I was rolling in a modest income – enough to live frugally, something I am resigned to after six year of almost full-time freelance writing.
After eight months in Australia, I went back to Thailand. By this time I had enough work to ensure a regular income, so I kept travelling – the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, China. A way of working had emerged: it occurred to me that I could do this indefinitely, simply staying on the road, writing as I go in a perpetual self-financing romp around the world.
Now I continue to travel cheaply (my budget is $30 daily), lugging a laptop and camera equipment with me, and conducting all transactions via email (in Internet joints). By working like this, I save the largest expense of travel – flights. I still do not make enough money to be based somewhere, travel for research, then return to base and write; but I do make enough to continue travelling cheaply. As far as possible, I travel overland, exploring all corners of a region, as I have done with Southeast Asia. Then, every six months or so, when I am exhausted from travelling, I pause somewhere for a few months, in a cheap homely guesthouse or short-term-lease apartment. During these sedate periods, I take care of practicalities (process and scan slides, move my money across the world, store extra luggage somewhere) and write furiously – 10 hours daily. I also do all kinds of work I can find: hotel reviews for hotel directories, country reports, articles, essays, columns, pictures for guidebooks, writing for guidebooks, and I am also writing a travel book (I am already one year on deadline, as the book takes second priority to the articles I need to churn out to survive).
I have learned to do multiple articles for each place I research. A recent trip to Borneo, for example, has already yielded four stories: a short destination piece for International Living, a longer destination piece for the Bangkok Post, and two commentaries, one my ongoing travel column, and the other for a Singaporean magazine called Travelmart.
In a way, this way of working has been forced on me due to financial limitations. It’s not something I planned; it’s something that evolved out of my situation. The downside is the occasional loneliness, and worse are the moments I feel rootless and susceptible – and I have long given up on the idea of a long-term spouse. But recently I realised that this has been the proverbial blessing in disguise. If I made more money, I would hop around the world, but that would lead, I believe, to superficial travel articles. On the other hand, because I travel cheaply, locally, by bus and ship, pausing in remote, cheap places, I get to experience places and peoples in a deeper way than if I visited a place strictly for whirlwind research. When it comes to accommodation, for example, I seek family-run guesthouses in back-roads, and that gives me great access and insight into the natives’ live. Additionally, since I hardly ever have a plane to catch, and I hardly ever have return-tickets for other modes of transport, I spend as much time as necessary in a region. Then, while there, I sniff out ideas about where to go next, and I have the freedom to follow these whims. It has led, this way of travelling, to greater depth in my writing – and it is this fact that has given me a competitive edge, and an ability to write about somewhere with the profound revelations that come to us slowly.
Do I have a plan now? I am writing this in Malta in the Mediterranean. This summer I have commissions for guidebooks about Malta and Sicily, and I plan to spend a couple of months exploring Libya: who knows where things might lead from there? That’s how far ahead I can see. I take my life in cycles of six months, which is the longest I now spend in any country.
Victor Paul Borg, 32, Maltese, has been writing for the past 12 years, 5 years full-time. He has written guidebooks, and has had over 500 articles published worldwide. His specialty is travel writing, and he is trying to finish a literary travel book about backpackers in Asia. You can see more of his work at: http://www.victorborg.com.