And Then It Went to Hell in Bulgaria

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Veliko Tarnovo

Professional travel bloggers don’t talk about the dark times. Not the genuinely dark times.

We have the lives that people dream about. We quit to our 9-5 jobs and went off to travel the world indefinitely with the express purpose of living awesomely.

Whenever you see an account of negative times while traveling from a travel blogger, it’s usually packaged under the guise of entertainment — a cutesy, self-deprecating form of look what’s happened to me now! I’m relatable!

I know I’m guilty of it.

But those are the bad times that can be packaged into entertainment. The TRUE dark times? The times when you feel that it’s so hard to dredge up a shred of happiness, the darkness that you hide so well from the world? Not so much.

There are very few long-term travelers who can convey any kind of darkness well. One is my friend Wes, and I wish that more people did.

So it might as well be me.

Let me tell you about Bulgaria.

I wanted to visit Bulgaria. I wanted to see as much of the country as I could. But by the time I actually arrived, I know I hadn’t planned my trip well.

My two-week trip taking in Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and a night in Romania was overly ambitious. I wanted to visit as many destinations as humanly possible, despite resolving to slow down.

Two nights in Ohrid, two in Bitola, one in Skopje, one in Pristina, another in Skopje, and one night in Sofia, Bulgaria. Four nights remained before I would have to get to Romania for my flight out of Bucharest, and I didn’t want to keep packing up and moving each day.

After some consideration, I axed the Bulgarian destinations of Plovdiv, Varna, and Rila Monastery, deciding to head straight to Veliko Tarnovo and spend four nights there, working solidly the whole time. Yes, it was July, and I had been warned about Bulgaria’s searing summer heat from my friend Amanda, but wouldn’t heading into the mountains keep things at a reasonable temperature?

Not quite.

Temperatures were north of 100 degrees (38 C) — and on top of that, Veliko Tarnovo is entirely made of hills steeper than anything I’ve seen in San Francisco. Did I mention that I was staying in a hostel at the very bottom of all these hills?

In other words, it was awful. I desperately needed to work from morning to night on my biggest, most intense workload to date, with several projects due within a week, and I couldn’t find anywhere in town that had both working wifi and air conditioning. Each day, I roasted in various cafes, mopping up my dripping face with a towel as I typed incessantly.

Meanwhile, I got attacked by mosquitos in the two worst places possible — my face and on the soles of my feet. For weeks after, it looked like I had a face full of blotchy acne and I would wake up covered in sweat and dried blood from sleep-scratching my entire body.

Veliko Tarnovo

Learning From My Mistakes

If you read nothing else in this post, remember this: Macedonia-Kosovo-Albania makes much more sense for a two-week trip than Macedonia-Kosovo-Bulgaria. It’s a much better fit culturally, geographically, even linguistically. The routes are easier; driving distances are shorter.

I should have done that instead, and saved Bulgaria for another trip. One taking place in the spring or the fall.

But that’s okay. You live, you learn.

The Truth About My Lifestyle

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post called The Reality of Being a Professional Travel Blogger. It got a lot of attention, and it’s worth a read if you haven’t seen it yet.

In the past year and a half, much has changed — as I predicted, professional travel bloggers, myself included, are now often getting paid for press trips — but most of the items on that list have remained the same.

I never forget how fortunate I am — being born healthy in the United States with a loving and encouraging family is the equivalent of winning the global lottery — and I am thankful each day that I have been born into these circumstances.

However, it irks me when people tell me how lucky I am to be a travel blogger because my career and location-independent lifestyle are borne entirely of hard work. The reason why I’m here today — not to mention one of few full-time travel bloggers who doesn’t live in the developing world — is because I never stop working.

And it is SO HARD.

Veliko Tarnovo

On Freelancing

I’m very happy that my freelance writing opportunities have increased so much in the past year. Getting a quirky little essay of mine published in The Boston Globe? Unexpected, and a springboard to so much more.

But freelancing is one thing — actually getting paid on time is something else.

Imagine spending several weeks on a major project, working 80-hour weeks and doing hardly anything else (when the posting here is light, that’s usually the reason) — and finding out that your expected payment, a payment that will amount to more than $1,000 and that will be a very welcome (and needed) addition to your bank account, will be delayed by weeks or possibly even months.

And yes, you have a contract stipulating your date and method of payment, but your client can’t pay you on time because they are stuck in endless bureaucracy that is out of their control. Contract or not, the money you’ve earned doesn’t exist yet, and whether it’s right or wrong, it won’t be appearing in your bank account.

What happens when a client informs you that for some reason your bank won’t allow them to do a transfer, and they can’t pay you via Paypal, either?

What happens when another client has a project that you could do perfectly but it needs to be done IMMEDIATELY and you will need to cancel your plans and work the next two days in order to get it done, and you could say no, but they’ll just give it to someone else?

What happens when yet another client says they massively overspent their marketing budget for the quarter and though you’ve already sent them your work, they can’t pay you until the next quarter begins?

And yes, theoretically you could hire a lawyer to chase them down and honor the terms of the contract, but chances are that your contact within the company has his or her hands tied, and your contact’s boss is stuck, and your contact’s boss’s boss is stuck as well. The budget is decided by the highest-ranking people in the company and there is nothing that can be done until they free up that money. Literally. Nothing.

You don’t want to know how often this happens to me.

Veliko Tarnovo

On Quality Work

When I first visited Paris at the age of 16, I fell in love with Montmartre and, along with my classmates, immediately got my portrait drawn at Place Tertre. We were quickly swindled by lackluster artists and soon discovered that there was a lady who was a gifted artist, drawing gorgeous portraits. She was, however, much more expensive than the roving sketchers, and I didn’t understand that.

“Is it possible that you could do it for 20 euros?” I asked the lady in French. “Because 20 euros is what many artists here say.”

“That may be, but my work is worth more than that,” she replied.

I stared at her — in shock, then in admiration. That was incredibly audacious of her — yet it made total sense. Her work was so good, she could get away with charging more. She deserved more.

I bring this story up because every day of my life, I’m emailed by different companies that want me to do work for them — writing, consulting, promotion — for free or ridiculously low payments. I tell them what that artist in Paris told me — that they can find people who charge less for their work, but if they want my excellent work, they’re going to have to pay me what it’s worth.

Or they could choose to pay less to work with a blog that functions as little more than a content farm of poorly written sponsored guest posts to an audience a fraction of the size of mine.

These are major companies that do billions of dollars worth of business each year. A bank that many of you use. A credit card that a handful of you have in your wallet. A beverage that quite a few of you have sipped at some point in the last month.

And yet they choose the content farm almost every time. Because it’s cheaper.

There are lots of problems with this scenario — the fact that many companies don’t pay professional bloggers remotely close to what they pay professionals in other industries, the issue that newer bloggers have no idea what to charge and end up undercutting the rest of us. It’s not easily solved.

Veliko Tarnovo

On Introversion and Misanthropy

I’m an introvert. This does not mean that I’m socially inept or shy or misanthropic — it means that I require time by myself in order to reenergize. Spending extended time with other people wears me out, especially with people I don’t know well, and if I don’t get enough alone time, I get agitated.

Extroverts, by contrast, need to be around other people in order to reenergize and go crazy if they spend too much time alone. Most but not all of the travel bloggers that I know identify as introverts, despite what the pictures of the conferences and meetups look like!

I love my own company, and that’s why I’m a good solo traveler. In the past year or so, however, the work has been piling up to higher levels than ever before. The stakes are higher. I’ve been putting in far more hours, and I’m held to far more obligations.

Because of this, I’m spending a disproportionate amount of time chained to my computer as I travel the world. But instead of wanting to get away from the screen, the more time I spend there, the more time I need to spend there.

My zest for travel? It’s nowhere near the level that it used to be. I now judge locations on their wifi quality. (South Korea is FANTASTIC, by the way.)

At times, I don’t recognize myself. What happened to the girl who would always choose the party hostel for the express purpose of making friends? If I were traveling through Southeast Asia today, would I have made the same wonderful friends that I made three years ago? Probably not, and that makes me sad.

Nowadays, when someone at a hostel starts talking to me, I’m ashamed to say that I do everything I can to get away.

Veliko Tarnovo

On Relationships

I got engaged at the end of June. Since then, I have seen exactly one person that I knew pre-engagement (excluding online friends): Jane, who happened to show up at my hostel in, yes, Veliko Tarnovo. In true blogger fashion, we were sitting across from each other on our computers and didn’t notice for a good hour.

I showed her my ring. She told me she loved it. And it made my heart ache.

I’ve never dreamed of a princess wedding. My wedding will be determinedly offbeat and unusual. But there’s one bridal tradition that I always thought I’d have — revealing my engagement ring to a crowd of my friends and family and having them squeal over it.

That feeling really doesn’t transfer over Skype or Facebook. And I won’t see them for a long time. Sure, there are blogger friends that I’ve met and will continue to meet along the way, and it’s amazing that I get to run into them all over the world — but it’s not the same as having a core group that you see all the time.

I miss having friends that I see once a week or so, friends that I meet up with for coffee and dinners and drinks. I had that in London, but again…I miss my home friends.

This has been one of the harsher trade-offs for my lifestyle lately, and it’s something that I’ve been craving more and more. I haven’t been handling it as well as I did a year or two ago.

Veliko Tarnovo

This is not an easy lifestyle.

Every week, I receive between 5 and 20 emails from people telling me that they’re ready to try becoming a professional blogger.

Well, good luck. You’ll need it, and I’m not saying that sarcastically. Most people who think they can hack it end up quitting before they’ve been at it for a year, which is a big reason why most companies won’t work with new bloggers. How do they know that a new-ish blogger won’t be giving up in a few months?

Even if you think you can handle everything I’ve mentioned in this piece so far, you are starting fairly late in the game. It’s going to be a lot tougher for you than it was for me.

But it’s a lot more than that. It’s a question of whether you can handle the darkness that seeps in despite you living the life of your dreams.

Veliko Tarnovo Cat

Battling the Darkness

After battling the reality of long-term travel and entrepreneurship for weeks and months, the darkness will sink its claws in deeply. The joy that led me to this career has been harder and harder to harness.

It used to be that a compliment from a reader could make my week. Now? Well, now, you don’t want to know.

Bulgaria was capped off with the train ride from hell — seven hours in a sweltering train car even hotter than Veliko Tarnovo itself. I broke down and sobbed over everything — how hard it’s been lately, why it feels like nobody will take me seriously, how I miss everyone.

That was my lowest point in years.

Times like this will make me think that my unconventional life has run its course. Things like furnished apartments and shopping for cute clothes start to look far more appealing than they did years ago.

BUT.

When you weigh all that against the fact that I haven’t worked in an office for nearly three years, everything falls away.

Even the fact that I’ve visited 45 countries doesn’t hold a candle to the fact that I’m self-employed. That’s why I celebrate my I-quit-my-jobaversary (September 14, 2010), not my travelversary a month later.

This is SO worth it. Despite the difficult aspects of this lifestyle, the good times are so unbelievably good, but it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative is.

I cannot forget that. Not ever.

My current lifestyle is leaving a lot to be desired, though. Maybe that means I need to take time off from work (I haven’t taken any time off in 14 months); maybe that means I need to change my habits. Maybe I need to stop moving and stay still for awhile, though I don’t have more than two weeks anywhere until the end of October.

The darkness is seeping in, and I can’t let it take over my life.

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