S&S ABROAD with Brendan Van Son – Travel Writer, Photographer & Editor

The life of an expat is fascinating – to pack up, move away from “home” and make a new life is no small feat. It’s an experience available to the few of us in the world who have the privilege of freedom and choice.

Over the past few years I’ve met some incredible expats, both on the road and from connecting to an amazing network of travelers in person and online. People like you and me, who took a chance to create a new life, through travel. They moved away from their “patria” for reasons as wide as the universe –  a better chance at success in their fields,  more quality of life, or to satisfy their need to explore. Some are nomads, others picked a new country and called it home. They all have one thing in common: the courage to pursue their dreams.

Though this “Abroad” series, I will profile some of these unique individuals. They’re willing to let me peek into their lives abroad – why they moved, what they do and how travel has transformed them beyond work. My goal is to continue to inspire through my blog, and what’s more inspiring than knowing that anyone can press the redirect button on life?

They are writers, teachers, photographers, computer nerds and much more.

Meeting them fuels me and I hope it does the same for you, whether you wish to live abroad or not. (Plus you get to read about someone other than me!)

For the first profile in this “Abroad” series, I’m happy to introduce writer, photographer and travel-entrepreneur Brendan Van Son. I first heard of Brendan when I stumbled on a post he wrote, ranking travel blogs into a Top 100 list. I sent him an email to introduce myself (hello, what about me?!) and he was quick to respond, inviting me to submit my work for his new digital magazine, Vagabundo, which aims to showcase the sea of fresh talent that’s out there. I loved his down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is personality. Plus, he’s managed to turn travel into work – through publications of his own and through his blog.  I’ll stop now – read on to find out more!

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NAME: Brendan Van Son

PATRIA: Canada

OCCUPATION:  Photographer, Author, Editor

CURRENT LOCATION: Madrid, Spain

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Brendan, you’re originally from Canada. Where are you currently living and how long will you be there?

Yes, I’m from a small town called Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, but I’ve been on the road for 3 years now.  I don’t actually live anywhere.  I’m a nomad of sorts, a week here, a couple days there.  At this exact moment I’ve just arrived in Madrid, Spain.

What triggered your desire to leave home and travel the world?

I decided to start travelling once I realized that all my career ambitions revolved around which job would allow me the most opportunity to travel. I gave up a lot of “good” career options to seek out my own career discovering the world.

What’s your travel style, do you structure your time in any way in each destination?

I’m a backpacker, and not a long-stay traveller at all.  Since I work from the road I stay a little bit longer than most tourists, but not much. Generally I stay 3-5 days somewhere >>and I’ll go out and photograph almost every morning and evening, while I’ll explore mid-day about half of days. I spend the other half of those mid-days working from my computer.  I work almost every night for about 4-5 hours as well.

Antigua, Guatemala | by Brendan Van Son

Many people assume it takes a lot of money to live abroad. You’ve been on the road for 3 years. How have you supported yourself financially over the years? Do you work while abroad?

Yeah, it doesn’t have to cost a lot, but there are sacrifices that one has to make to live the way I do.  I spend time in dorms, don’t eat too many fancy meals, and take some pretty shady forms of transportation.  That being said, I don’t have the bills. I have no cell bill, no electric, no car/insurance, etc.  I left home with $500 and I started working as a guide, then a travel writer/photographer.  Now I’m to the point where I’m pretty self-sufficient thanks to my personal travel website as well as my travel magazine Vagabundo Magazine.

Had you always wanted to be a travel writer and photographer? Did you take any courses or are you self-taught?

Yeah, I’ve always wanted to do it, but until I got started I thought it was a pipe dream.  I remember my uncle telling me years ago that I should become a travel writer and I laughed.  I thought, “who doesn’t want to be a travel writer”.  I am fairly well-educated so the writing chops came pretty naturally. The photography is mostly self taught, but I’ve also had a lot of help from photographer friends.

Which country moved you the most overall?  Would you live there?

I’m not sure really. The country that “moved” me most was perhaps Haiti.

The people are just so resilient, and the kids are so happy and playful. That being said, I couldn’t live there.  I’m not sure I could really live anywhere.  Medellin, Colombia is the closest thing I’ve found to home so far.  The country I had the most trouble adapting to, interestingly enough, was Ireland.  I had been in the developing world for so long that the city, the driving on the wrong side of the road, everything just really got to me.  It was really weird, and it was something I wasn’t expecting at all.

Haiti by Brendan Van Son

What was your favorite destination and why?

Antarctica is an easy choice.  It’s just so powerful and vast.  I didn’t expect to be as blown away by Antarctica as I was, but I’d go back in a heartbeat.  It is one of the world’s last frontiers, and it was such an amazing experience getting to go.

I read your recent post on your volunteering trip to Haiti and loved the photos of the kids. Did you feel safe and what was it like there, as a visitor?

The truth is I felt safe, but everyone around me kept telling me I shouldn’t be.  And the things that were going on at the time I was there probably proved them more right than me.  An American was shot and killed at an ATM the week before I arrived. And while I was there, there were others shot in the center, and a German girl was kidnapped.  The compound I was at was basically on lockdown although I still went out.  That being said, there is a lot of support among the foreigners there working to make it a better place.  There are hundreds of solo females that go there, and as long as they work with an organization they’ll never be truly “solo,” as everyone sticks together.

What’s the most significant change that travel has brought to you?

I think that it has given me an appreciation for what I had in Canada growing up.  In Canada, we have an equality of opportunity, meaning that every kid is born with the same rights.  The same education, same health, same opportunities. That doesn’t mean socialism at all, it means that just because my parents were rich, or poor, doesn’t change my possibilities in life.  Most of the countries I’ve been to, that’s not the case.  Truth be told, that’s not even the case in the United States.  In most countries in the world, children are born with a certain set of rights based on the societal position they were born.  I’m thankful for the system we have in Canada.

Jamaican portrait by Brendan Van Son

When you’re a traveler like us, everyone thinks your life is all roses and sunsets. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced leading a nomadic lifestyle?

Oh god, I’m to the point I don’t even really tell people what I do for a living because they immediately look at me like a jerk haha. That being said, any of the challenges are far outweighed by the beauty of it.  The biggest challenge, aside from the struggle to fund things, is simply the difficulty to have proper relationships with people.  I’m away from my family and friends years at a time, so it’s hard.  Moreover, on the road you meet people constantly, and it’s great, but in a couple days you each split your own way.

Has moving around hindered your chances of meeting someone and settling down or is that not a priority for you? Would you consider settling in one place permanently one day?

Yeah, it definitely has.  I’ve gone through a number of girlfriends because they wanted me to settle down, and I wasn’t ready to. I’ve really come to the decision that I’m not going to settle down unless it feels right.

Ideally, I’d love to find someone who loved travel as much as I did so we could share that together.

Unless you both share that dream on person ends up resenting the other because they are holding them back from doing what they really want to be doing, I think.

As a photographer myself, one of the first things that caught my eye on your site, is your photography ebook, for beginners. What do you think makes yours unique and what’s your top advice for aspiring travel photographers?

My advice is different because I focus on point and shoot cameras.  Most of the travel photography books are geared towards photo enthusiasts using DSLRs.  My book teaches those who want to take great travel photos how to do so with a simple point and shoot.  I don’t gear it for people that are looking to become professionals, just for people that are maybe planning a big RTW trip and want to make sure they’re photos are good enough that when they return home their friends and family will be impressed.  My biggest piece of advice for beginners is to take photos of everything, and don’t be afraid to explore different angles.  As much as you can, avoid the “walk up and shoot from eye level”.  Make your photos different than all the others.

Your latest entrepreneurial venture is the new Vagabundo Magazine. I’ve noticed a surge in new digital magazines. How did yours come about and what does it offer readers?

I think digital magazines are the next step in things after the death of print.  Nearly everyone in the developed world has a smartphone, i-Pad or Kindle, so we want to provide them great reading material for their platforms.  My magazine came as a result of my own struggle really.  I was annoyed by the lack of good travel magazines that would work with new writers/photographers.  I decided that once things were starting to go well for myself that I would offer an outlet for the new writers to work. I think that I’ve done that so far.

(That’s really fantastic and I loved the first issue, by the way!)

What’s your best advice to someone wishing to escape their cubicle and become a nomad, without fear of going broke?

Decide that it’s what you really want first.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me they want to do what I do, then head out in the world and see that it’s not all sugarplums and candy canes.  They get worn out and head home. Also, I think it’s important if you do decide this is what you want that you leave yourself no escape route. It sounds bad, but a rat in a corner fights it’s way out of a jam.  Knowing you have all sorts of backup plans only makes it easier to give up when times get tough.

What’s your next destination? Where do you still dream of visiting?

I’m on my way to Africa, in fact I might already be in Morocco by the time this is published.

I’ve been dreaming of Africa for a couple years now so I’m really excited.

I think the places I’m most looking forward to in Africa right now are Sierra Leone and Ghana.  I still dream of visiting just about every place I haven’t been.  It makes you wonder, really, how anyone can ever stop traveling when there’s so much of the world still to discover.

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Gosh, I have to agree, how can anyone ever stop traveling? Thanks, Brendan, for this great interview and the solid advice. And I can’t wait to hear of your experiences in the Motherland.

If anyone has more questions for Brendan, please feel free to ask away in the comments below.  You can also visit his blog, or check out Vagabundo Magazine online (a great read for the road or at work).

And stay tuned for next month’s “Abroad” profile!

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the currrent author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. Lily is also AFAR's Jamaica Expert, and author of the AFAR Jamaica Country Guide. A serial expat, she's lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire–and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year.

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3 Comments

  1. Larry 1 May, 2012 at 8:24 AM #

    I enjoyed reading this post…so inspiring.

    Thanks Lily.

  2. Lebawit Lily Girma 1 May, 2012 at 9:28 AM #

    Thanks, Larry! I’m happy to hear that and appreciate your feedback.

  3. Brendan van Son 2 May, 2012 at 12:20 PM #

    Thanks for posting the interview, looks great :D

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