Turning 36 in a Year of Uncertainty

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When I think about how I’ve managed the last few months, one long-ago memory comes to mind.

It’s 2:00 AM somewhere off the coast of Komodo Island in Indonesia. I’m standing in the rain on the bow of the boat, now dangerously lurching to the right as it sinks into the reef. The crew are yelling at each other; one just screams. My legs are spread and bent, my arms out for balance, as I tell myself, “This is what you’ve got to work with.”

Seriously, the shipwreck again, Kate? Yeah. I know. It’s been almost ten years and I’m still dining out on it. Virtually, nowadays.

But it’s an apt metaphor in this case.

This was the year I was finally getting my shit together. I had the hard realization that as much as I loved living in New York, it couldn’t give me the financial or emotional security I needed. Once I decided to leave, things began to open up.

I finally found a partner who had the same lifestyle as me — working remotely, traveling a ton, and enjoying and valuing the same things in life that I did.

I felt more secure with myself and mentally healthy than I ever had been.

I had my name on a new lease in Prague, moving in with a wonderful man — and would be paying around $650 per month for rent, utilities, and health insurance. Previously I was paying $750 for health insurance alone.

Things were looking up. We would spend the winter in Mexico, I’d do some solo travels in Peru and Ecuador, and I’d head back to Prague in May and start my trade license paperwork. Maybe visit some offbeat parts of Montenegro over the summer.

And then everything fell apart.

Kate swims in the ocean in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the water reflecting her image in the waves, rocky cliffs behind her.
Dubrovnik, Croatia

There were several different stages of the shipwreck. First, the rainy, queasiness-inducing ride hours before the boat hit the reef. This was me in Mérida in February, grumbling about nobody traveling to Asia and watching my numbers underperform compared to the previous year, but still having a worry-free weekend away with friends in Bacalar.

Then the waking up in the middle of the night stage, being told, “Everybody, put your lifejackets on,” and scrambling. This was me in Oaxaca in March, realizing this was serious. I watched my Mediavine income tumble head over heels, each day worse than the last, until I was only earning 15% of my usual daily earnings.

Then the sitting and crying stage, unable to do anything but hold onto my shipmates as the boat sped closer to shore. This was when we first got to Mexico City, when I was wracked with indecision over staying or going home, where the situation was much worse. I had a constant band of tension squeezing my chest, couldn’t sleep for days, and had a panic attack in the street.

Then the calm, focused, standing on the bow of the boat mid-plié, getting orders to jump, and leaping into the water without fear stage. I got to this stage while in Mexico City in late March and I’ve been in it since. Each day feels like I’m balancing myself and working with what I have.

The finding out the crew robbed us stage. Oh, that insult to injury. That was when Amazon slashed their affiliate rates once again, after their stock hit an all-time high, and other affiliate programs stopped paying out altogether.

The asking readers for help stage. Turning to them, knowing that they wanted to help. Starting one-on-one calls with readers in March, and growing them into blog consulting, book clubs, and eventually, the Adventurous Kate Patreon.

The watching the Danes get flown home immediately for free stage. Watching the rest of the developed world with jealousy as their citizens enjoyed generous safety nets and replaced income, while some Americans got a single $1200 payment. I didn’t even get that stimulus, though I did get a PPP business loan eventually.

But more than anything, I want to talk about standing on the bow and waiting. Though the shipwreck had so many emotions compressed into a short period of time, what I remember the most is knowing how to focus in a time of turmoil.

“This is what you’ve got to work with.”

What am I working with? A career that has withered down to a thread of what it once was, with no clear way forward. A career that I built from scratch and defined my life becoming more irrelevant than ever. And while I freaked out during those rough days in Oaxaca and Mexico City, I’ve accepted it now.

Kate stands in front of wooden bottles filled with brandy at the Ararat Distillery in Yerevan, Armenia.
Yerevan, Armenia

I know how good I have it.

I’m deeply grateful that I haven’t lost anyone in my life to COVID-19. That, far and away, is the most important thing, and I give thanks every day that my loved ones are enduring this crisis safely.

Around eight or so people I personally know have had COVID-19, all in the United States. Some were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms and recovered quickly; one was hospitalized; a few are dealing with worrisome health effects months later.

I’m relieved that I moved out of New York before this happened. Christ. That may be the best timing of my life. I couldn’t imagine paying New York rent at this time. I’m also happy that I got to spend a few months with my family this spring, living cheaply and getting in quality time.

I’m glad that I’ve kept my business streamlined all these years. I don’t know if that was ever my specific intention, but that’s how it worked out.

I always remember a conversation that Anthony Bourdain had with Emeril Lagasse. It’s in one of Bourdain’s essay collections, but I can’t remember where, so I’ll paraphrase. At the time Emeril was launching a new line of cookware or salad dressings or something, and Bourdain asked him, “Really? You’re selling crap like this with a straight face? Come on.”

Emeril pointed out that his company has a lot of people financially dependent on him, and if they’re not constantly growing, people will lose their jobs. It’s all about feeding the “Emeril machine.”

Bourdain understood. He realized that he would have been much wealthier had he gone the same route as Emeril or Wolfgang Puck or Bobby Flay, putting his name on everything from airport restaurants to canned soups — but he didn’t want that to be the driving force behind his business.

(Plus, are we going to pretend that a chef would rather use a bottled salad dressing than making something quick and delicious out of oil, vinegar, shallots, and fresh herbs?)

And so Bourdain ran his business in a way that made him feel good. He wrote books and hosted documentaries. He wrote poetically about the underbelly of the restaurant industry and amplified the stories of marginalized people around the world. He made business decisions that allowed him to create the specific kind of content that inspired him.

You could say Uncle Tony never “sold out.” I’m not a huge fan of that phrase — haven’t most of us done paid work we weren’t totally in love with at some point? — but you can’t deny he ran a business consistent with his values, and could have made a lot more money if he hadn’t.

It makes me think of what the Adventurous Kate Machine would have looked like had I taken the Emeril route. How big it could have been; how shallow the content would have been; how much money it could have made. Maybe I could have owned a brownstone in New York. Or at least owned an apartment in a brownstone.

But if that had been the case, I would have had to fire a lot of people when the pandemic hit, potentially cutting off income to several families. And there’s a good chance I would have fallen out of love with my work long before then — or worse, been ashamed of my site’s content.

Money does not equal happiness. It’s a cliché saying, but cliché for a reason. Among the travel blogging community, I know people who are wealthy and people who are barely scraping by. I know people who are massively in love with their work and people who gave up work they loved for work that made more money. Some people are wealthy and happy. Some people are wealthy and miserable.

Kate stands in front of rows of parmigiano reggiano cheese wheels and holds her hand up to her ear like she's listening to them.
Parma, Italy

How do you work when your industry has screeched to a halt?

For awhile, it seemed like travel bloggers were shell-shocked. We had done everything right. We were prepared for algorithm changes. We had diverse income streams. But who could have predicted that the world would stop traveling? And how do you move forward from there?

I see some of my colleagues continuing to crank out SEO-optimized travel posts, confident that soon travel will return to its normal levels, and their incomes with it.

I see other colleagues on pause, doing minimal work and relying on savings (and often their spouse’s income) until things recover.

Other colleagues are rolling over their blogging skills into the oversaturated but more secure and potentially more profitable world of food blogging.

And a few colleagues are planning their exit strategy.

As for me, I’m working in a few different directions. As much as I want the travel industry to bounce back, the truth is that it’s not going to be up to previous levels for quite some time, and even if it does, it’s not as secure as we thought.

I’ve got a project in the works that should be a new income stream, but I’m thinking of what to do long-term, too. I’m feeling big urges to move beyond travel into another medium.

I’d love to do something that combines my big interests: travel, politics, feminism, and diverse books. But that’s not an easy or logical income stream! I’ve got a lot to think about.

Kate wears a mask and shops for groceries.
Osijek, Croatia

Right now I’m working with about 80% optimism and 20% cynicism.

I’m optimistic that we’ll have a vaccine by early 2021. I’m cynical because the United States will struggle to manufacture and distribute a vaccine to 330 million people through our ramshackle healthcare system.

I’m optimistic that our nation will vote Donald Trump out. I’m cynical because Republican leadership is going to do everything they can to suppress the vote.

I’m optimistic that we are at a genuine moment of reckoning for civil rights. I’m cynical because I don’t trust anyone in leadership to carry it through.

I’m optimistic that we will be able to travel again. I’m cynical because I expect a lot of red tape and complications in our future.

I’m optimistic that my income will grow back. I’m cynical because I don’t expect it to happen quickly or easily.

More than anything else, I think I’m cynical about the state of the world — but optimistic that I can handle the plot twists it throws in my direction.

Kate stands in waist-deep water with her hands splayed, smiling and looking to the side, in Croatia.
Brač, Croatia

Nine years ago in Sayulita, Mexico, I met with an astrologer. At the time I was weighing whether to attempt to blog full-time, even though it wasn’t earning anywhere close to a full-time income. That, for me, was the do-or-die decision yet — more so than quitting my job to travel and blog in the first place.

“Your readers will always lift you up,” she told me.

I’ve thought about that so many times over the years. She was right. You’ve always been there for me when I’ve needed you the most. It’s you signing up for my Patreon. It’s you traveling to a place I wrote about and following my recommendations to the letter. It’s you reading the books I suggest and telling me that they changed your perspective.

But it’s important to remember exactly what she said.

Your readers will always lift you up. Not your blog will always lift you up.

You’ll always be there. Wherever I end up.

Kate crouches in front of a large spread of food, each in its own small plate, in Monopoli, Italy.
Monopoli, Italy

What next?

I’m in Dubrovnik and celebrating today with a trip to one of my favorite places in Croatia, Mljet island. I definitely didn’t expect to be here, but here we are!

I’ve been in an in-between stage since arriving in Serbia on June 27. Charlie and I thought we would be there briefly, because the Czech Republic said they would be allowing partners to return shortly — but this month we got the news that only partners of Czech citizens would be able to return. Charlie is a permanent resident, not a citizen.

So we’re here in Croatia until we get the next update. I’m encouraged by the fact that so many EU countries have made it possible for Americans to visit despite the travel ban, with either testing requirements (like Croatia), quarantine requirements (like Ireland and Switzerland), or time in the EU requirements (like Italy and Malta). I hope the Czech Republic will be joining them soon.

Once I get to the Czech Republic, my original intention was to start the trade license process, which would allow me to stay long-term. I also preferred getting a visa on my own merit as an entrepreneur, rather than tying it to a relationship. But considering the crazy state of the world now, I may apply for a partner visa instead, as it’s faster and easier.

Kate wears a furry hooded coat and clasps her hands in joy in front of the church towers of Cesky Krumlov.
Česky Krumlov, Czech Republic

And what by age 37?

If I keep the cynicism in check, I think I have high hopes for what the next year will bring.

A vaccine. A gradual reopening of the world. Less fear.

A new American president, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2021. Moves toward Medicare for All. A dignified retirement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg — if that’s what she wants, of course.

A Czech visa in my passport complete with reliable, low-cost health insurance. A deluge of new Croatian content on this site. A profitable new income stream, and a fulfilling new direction.

Thank you, my dear readers, for keeping me afloat in a scary, uncertain year. I appreciate you so much!