Just a few housekeeping notes, for followers both longtime and new (thanks!)…
For the past five years, I’ve been posting faithfully three times a week, sometimes more.
Pooped! (Hint: please spend some time poking around the archives, where you’ll find plenty of material, often on books, writing, publishing and freelancing, often titled The Writer’s Week.)
For the nex few months I’ll likely be posting once every four or five days — not every two days — as I’m now teaching three college classes and will be spending a lot of my time preparing for them, teaching and grading students’ work.
So please don’t feel neglected and/or abandoned!
I also offer six webinars on various aspects of writing, blogging and freelancing, details here. They cost $125 for 90 minutes via Skype or phone and satisfied students have come from, literally, across the world — New Zealand to Germany.
I can schedule these any time that suits you, including days, evenings and weekends.
I also coach other writers individually, answering pretty much any question you’d like to throw at me about journalism, writing, publishing non-fiction commercially, memoir. Happy to read your pitches or work-in-progress, be a “first reader”…
I charge $150/hour (with a one-hour minimum), and will be raising that rate to $200/hour in January 2015.
I’m teaching writing this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design; I have also taught writing at Pace University, New York University, Concordia University and Marymount College. As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, for places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, I know what it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive business.
What can I do to help you? Please email me at email@example.com.
So, Broadside keeps growing — and thanks for stopping by!
But, even though I look at every new follower’s photo and website, if you have one, I’m always very curious who’s here and why.
If you haven’t read my About and Welcome pages, I’m a journalist living just north of New York City, in a lovely small town on the Hudson River. I start teaching writing and blogging soon at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the 1990s.
I write for magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire but also write on business for The New York Times and others; my husband is a photo editor at the Times. I’m also the author of two non-fiction books, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011).
Personally, I love to travel, cook, entertain and read. I take jazz dance and choreography class and play co-ed softball, usually second base. I was born in Vancouver, Canada, raised in Toronto, Montreal, London, Mexico and moved to the U.S. in 1988; my mother was an American citizen which allowed me to have a “green card”, the legal right to live and work here indefinitely.
I speak French and Spanish and head out on foreign trips as often as I can afford to.
Please tell me a little bit about who you are!
Where do you live?
What sort of work do you do? If a student, where and what are you studying?
Those of you new to Broadside may not know that I make my living as a freelance writer and editor, with my work appearing in places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. I occasionally open the kimono to let you know what it’s really like — triumphs and tragedies alike — as many readers here are fellow writers, freelance creatives or students of journalism.
I start my week, as I often do, with an hour’s jazz dance class. It’s a new teacher and new routine. Feeling confident, I try some new moves. Bad idea! I hurt my left knee badly and limp home and I’ll spend the rest of the week icing and elevating it, and taking Advil. Ouch!
I have only one assignment this month, which is terrifying, disorienting and liberating. That hasn’t happened in years.
I spend so much time cranking out copy for income that to have time to sit still and really think, make calls, do some deeper story idea research is rare — and necessary,
I work up a list of pitches and have ten, all at various stages of readiness. Most of my pitches do sell, eventually, but to keep cashflow flowing means selling them as quickly as possible.
I follow up by phone and email on a pitch I sent three weeks ago. It’s a great story and one I know is a really good fit for that publication. No answer — yet!
A 40-minute phone conversation with a non-profit, a potential client with a lot of work to assign. As many of my clients now do, this one came through personal contacts. At my stage of the game, 30 years in, I have a wide network of people who trust my skills as I do theirs — she mentions a need for skill I know another friend has and, even though he’s in Argentina this week, I immediately email him to give him a heads-up.
I check in with a regular client to find out our next story is due in October. Cool. I like to be working at least two to three months ahead.
I’ve also re-set my income goal a lot higher — (like, double) — than before, so I’m hustling a lot harder for new clients and clients whose pay rate is better. They’re out there. I just have to find them!
Spending way too much time on-line! I’m a member of several new and secret women’s writing groups on Facebook and they’re both a source of tremendous intel and fun distraction.
One of them spun off a new blog, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, a place where women share stories of sexual assault and/or emotional manipulation, the goal to empower younger/other women and girls. It very quickly attracted a lot of media attention, like this BBC story.
I’ve finally been binge-watching the award-winning Netflix series House of Cards, which is both chilling and compelling. Its two lead characters, Francis and Claire Underwood, are absolutely ruthless in their search for, and exercise of, power. It’s well worth your time. I also love the production design. I’ve now seen more than 20 episodes and the show’s color palette is restricted to black, blue, gray, brown, cream, white. No sunny yellows, reds, purples or cheery prints here!
My husband, a fellow journalist, was a photographer in the White House Press Corps for eight years, so much of it feels familiar to him; here’s his blog, with many of those historic images. It’s also fun to see people we know, personally and professionally, playing cameo roles as journalists. I have a photo of Betty Ford on our living-room wall — taken by the official photographer at the time — standing on the Cabinet table. Love that image!
I check in with my accountant as I fill out reams of paperwork from the two New York colleges where I’ll be teaching writing this fall, The New York School of Interior Design and Pratt Institute. Looks like I will owe even more more money. Not a chance! Time to create some more deductions and figure out the maximum I can stash into my retirement savings instead.
Reading through my bookshelves choosing which books I want my students to read and discuss.
I check in with Jen, pictured below sharing a dugout canoe in rural Nicaragua on assignment, to make plans for a conference we’ll be attending together this fall. I speak to fellow writers, by phone, email or social media, pretty much every day. When you work independently, it’s the only way to survive, let alone thrive.
By 9:00 a..m. New York time, it’s 3:00 pm in Switzerland, where I need someone to help me with sourcing. I call them, ask in French for help, and send an email.
The weather this week has been delicious — sunny and clear, with no humidity and a breeze, so I’m writing this sitting at a table on our sixth-floor balcony. Enormous buzzards and red-tailed hawks wheel and dive within 30 feet of me. The only sounds are overheard aircraft, the wind in the trees and the radio station I listen to much of the time, WFUV.
I pitch a national business magazine, one new-to-me, after reading their editorial guidelines. I was introduced to the editor yesterday by a colleague, someone I met when we were both judging journalism awards. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since, but we play at the same level.
I started this blog in July 2010, dubious anyone would ever show up. (I had been blogging for a year at True/Slant, paid, but it was sold from underneath all the writers who built it. Nice!)
But you did show up, and you keep arriving — readers from Ireland, England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, India (hi, Ashok!), several African nations, New Zealand and, of course, the United States.
I’m amazed and amused and grateful at the variety of people who come to Broadside: artists, teachers, students, business owners, consultants, singers, fashionistas, fellow journalists and writers. There are high school students, college students, fresh graduates and retirees — an unlikely but welcome mix of perspectives and life experiences.
I’ve published 1,650 posts, blogging usually three times a week.
I really appreciate those of you who make time to visit and comment so thoughtfully and consistently, including:
Steve, a contractor in Pennsylvania; Charlene, traveling the world taking photos; Leah in Arizona; Ksbeth, a schoolteacher in Michigan; Kathleen, a schoolteacher in Germany; Jonelle, a consultant in D.C., Katie, whose blog name (The Stories My Suitcase Could Tell) is perfect; Ohio State student Rami; fellow journalist CandidKay; artist/writer Emily Hughes; fellow athlete/blogger/journalist Caitlin, (who blogs at Fit and Feminist), MuddyRiverMuse, CricketMuse, Robin in Vermont, Michelle in Saskatchewan…
If you, too, are a writer, I also offer individual coaching, editing and six specific webinars; I no longer schedule them for specific times, but find a mutually convenient time to work with you by phone or Skype. Details here.
Here are some of my favorite — and most-discussed/liked — posts from the past few years:
A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.
The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.
The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.
With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.
One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.
The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.
But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!
We only get what we negotiate.
I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:
— My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.
— I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)
— I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.
It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.
The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.
Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)
Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.
And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!
That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”
I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.
And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.
But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.
And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.
Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.
I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.
I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.
But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.
Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.
Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:
She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.
People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.
If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.
If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.
And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.
Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching your next attempt shrivel very quickly.
So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.
Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:
Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…
And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?
Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:
How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!
I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”
Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.
I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!
If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.
In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.
I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.
For those of you fairly new to Broadside, welcome!
A career journalist, winner of a National Magazine Award, author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction, each on complex national issues, I now offer webinars a few times a year, designed — after consulting you — to offer the skills you’ve told me are most helpful.
I taught journalism to adults at New York University for five years, and find this individualized approach fun, and practical. If you need more information on my background and journalism credits and credentials, please visit the about and welcome pages here, or my website, caitlinkelly.com.
Students signed up for my fall webinar series, and individual coaching — thank you! — from Australia, New Zealand, London, Chicago, D.C., California and Connecticut; one student saw her blog’s page views and followers increase as soon as she made the simple change I suggested; more testimonials here.
Even if you enjoy only one webinar a year, ($10.41/month), your sharpened skills can markedly and quickly improve your productivity, audience and satisfaction.
My classes are also friendlier, more affordable and much more personal than sitting in a classroom or the cost and hassle of attending a crowded conference. (I also coach individually whenever it suits you — by phone, Skype and/or email.)
These are the six 90-minute classes, each priced at $125:
May 10, 10:00-11:30 a.m. ET
This practical, lively seminar offers more than 30 steps you can take — right away — to boost your blog’s engagement, views and followers; Broadside has more than 10,000 followers now, and grows every single day. To win writing jobs, freelance or full-time, your blog is your best marketing tool. Broadside has been Freshly Pressed six times and chosen as one of 22 in “culture” by WordPress worth reading. Let’s do it!
You, Inc: The Business of Freelancing
May 10, 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm ET
I’ve freelanced full-time since 2006, this time, for local, regional, national and international clients. You can too! In this super-focused, tips-filled webinar, we’ll discuss how much you really need to earn, negotiating, how to find (and keep!) clients and how to maximize your productivity. My clients include Cosmpolitan, Ladies Home Journal and The New York Times and on-line sites HGTV.com, Quartz.com, reuters.com and the Harvard Business Review blog.
Learn to Think Like a Reporter
May 10, 4:00-5:30 pm ET
If your mother says she loves you, check it out! This class teaches the tips and tricks I’ve gained from working as a staff reporter for three major dailies, including the New York Daily News — and freelancing for The New York Times since 1990. What’s a stake-out? A nut graf? A lede and kicker? Every reporter knows these basics, and if you hope to compete with them — whether you’re blogging, or writing for on-line or print or broadcast or video — this is the stuff you need to know.
Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview
May 17, 10:00 a.m. to 11;30 a.m. ET
No ambitious non-fiction writer, blogger or journalist succeeds without knowing how to conduct probing and well-controlled interviews. I’ve interviewed thousands of sources, from an Admiral to convicted felons, Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, duck hunters and ballet dancers. How to best structure an interview? Should you tape or take notes? What’s the one question every interview should end with? My 30 years’ experience as an award-winning reporter, author of two-well-reviewed books of nationally reported non-fiction — one of which included 104 original interviews — and frequent New York Times writer will help you ace the toughest interviews.
Crafting the Personal Essay
May 17, 1:00 p.m – 2:30 p.m. ET
From The New York Times to Elle and Marie Claire — to Thought Catalog, Salon, the Awl, Aeon and Medium — the marketplace for personal essay continues to thrive. How to sell this challenging genre? How to blend the personal and universal? Every essay, no matter the topic, must answer one key question, which we’ll discuss in detail. Having published my own essays in the Times, Marie Claire, Chatelaine and others — and winner of a Canadian National Magazine award for one — I’ll help you determine what to say and in what voice.
Finding and Developing Story Ideas
May 17, 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m ET
We’re surrounded every single day by dozens of potential story ideas. Recognizing them — and developing them into salable pitches — is the topic of this helpful webinar. And every non-fiction book begins with an idea; developing it into a 30-page book proposal means “saving string”, collecting the data you’ll need to intelligently argue your points. This webinar will help you better perceive the many stories already swirling in your orbit and determine who’s most likely to pay you (well) for them.
Feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me in New York at 914-332-6065.
Sign up and further details are here; I won’t be offering these again until fall 2014, possibly in October.
“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”
Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:
Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas
I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.
Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.
I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence
Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.
I make no money selling books
Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.
A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer
Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.
Some of us loathe and fear public speaking
I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?
Your audience is too small
Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.
The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.
Your audience isn’t my audience
Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.
It costs me time and money to do this for you
You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.
If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.
Your competitors pay!
I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.
If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.
Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?
I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance
I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.
We’ve printed, framed and hung a few of my Nicaragua photos.
Jennifer — the blogger who was on our team — and I have scheduled a phone meeting to plot our next adventure.
I’ve finished my malaria pills and my stomach, after a quite rough week, is back to normal.
We’ve left behind glowing red hibiscus for bare brown branches, 33 degrees Celsius (98 F) for 33 Fahrenheit, soft sunsets for pelting, cold wind-driven rain.
“Real” life begins again.
I wish it wouldn’t!
As many of you fellow travelers and adventurers know, re-entering “normal” life after a profoundly moving, challenging and fun adventure, whether personal or professional, can feel really unsettling. As one friend, who knows Nicaragua well after serving there in the Peace Corps and writing several country guidebooks about it, wrote: “Double culture shock. It sucks.”
My greatest challenge now, after 30 years working in journalism, isn’t money. We have no kids and have saved decently for what we hope will be a retirement with health to enjoy it.
It’s challenge. Or lack of it.
I tweeted the other day my motto: Challenge is my oxygen.
By which I mean, I feel suffocated by the tedium of much of the paid work I produce, even for Big Name publications like The New York Times. I work hard and do it well, but learn very little new about the world, or my craft or myself.
I’m not sure what my next steps will be, or if they’ll head in a new direction or if that will even be financially possible.
I do feel enormously grateful that WaterAid chose me to join their team and tell some of their story. I hope add more of this sort of paid work — overseas, using my language skills, working in a team, working on projects that actually make a real, quantifiable difference in others’ lives — to my life, even a few times a year.
How about you?
Are you ready for — or have you recently made — a re-set in your own life?
Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?
No running water?
No postal service?
A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?
A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?
We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.
We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.
The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.
We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.
A few moments:
We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.
When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!
Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.
Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.
Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.
Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.
Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.
Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.
Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.
I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.
Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.
Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.
Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.
When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.
I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.
There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.
In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.
We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.
Work is work.
Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.
The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.
I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.
“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”
Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.
You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.
Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.
A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.
You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.
You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.
Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.
That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.
That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)
Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?