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Work Your Way Around the World: The working traveller’s bible

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I was surfing back and forth between a few of my favorite travel sites yesterday when I happened to stumble upon this Gadling interview with Susan Griffith. Susan is a writer and editor who reports mainly on the phenomenon of working abroad, and her extremely popular book, Work Your Way Around the World, is an absolute legend in independent travel cirlces. Incredibly, Susan has gone through the process of updating the book every two years since 1983. In other words: She’s doing something right. 

If you’re the type of person who tends to willingly go out of their way in order to find unusual experiences while travelling abroad, I can almost guarantee this is a guide you’ll want to become acquainted with, post haste. The very user-friendly book is full of information about how anyone might go about the process of finding a job in a foreign country. And the truly fascinating aspect of WYWATW is that while Susan does write about the obvious and time-tested expat jobs — like teaching English in Asia, or pulling beers in a London pub — she’s got a lot of the bizarre in here as well. Here’s how her publisher, Vacation Work, describes the book’s thirteenth edition, which is now available for sale on Amazon.com:

“This is the thirteenth edition of the unique and acclaimed guide for the working traveller that explains how to find temporary work around the world, not only in advance, but also on-the-spot, while travelling. It incorporates hundreds of first-hand accounts from people who have actually done the jobs with a mass of hard, factual information to offer authoritative advice on how to find work — from selling ice cream in Cape Town to working as a film extra in Bangkok.

Work Your Way Around the World gives information on all the main areas of temporary work including the tourist industry, teaching English, childcare and voluntary work, and business & industry. In addition, it explains how to travel for free by land, sea and air. It explains how to earn money by spotting local opportunities. And it gives dates and details of harvests from Denmark to New Zealand. Included is a country-by-country guide of all the opportunities to be found.”  

At any rate, Gadling’s conversation with Susan reminded me of the time I spoke with her myself while researching an article for Young Pioneers, my one-shot, self-published magazine about independent travel culture. I’ve been thinking a lot about Young Pioneers these days because, as some of you already know, a partner and I are in the process of relaunching it as a magazine about creative and unusual entrepreneurs. In fact, that’s why I often write about creative entrepreneurs on this blog — the Labor Party was actually created to be a companion piece to the magazine, as well as a promotional tool. But before YP 2.0 actually becomes a reality and gets shipped off to the printers, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the original travel content. So without further ado, here’s my Q&A interview with Susan herself — first published in the Spring 2004 issue of Young Pioneers. (And if you’re interested in having your very own print version of the magazine, ultra-rare copies of YP01: Independent Travel Icons can now be purchased via PayPal at this site. You’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page.) >>>

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If you’ve spent much time in youth hostels or cheap guesthouses abroad, there’s a good chance you’ve once thumbed through a battered, out of date copy of Work Your Way Around the World — a veritable backpacker’s bible that’s been connecting budget travelers with under-the-table grunt jobs in far-flung locales around the globe for nearly twenty years.

The guide has sold more than a quarter-million copies, but more importantly, it offers real world advice from travelers who’ve been there. Want to be a film extra in Bombay? An English teacher in Cairo? A bartender in Hong Kong? Acording to Griffith, it’s all very possible, and she’ll even throw in a few addresses and phone numbers to get you started.

In years past, Griffith has worked as a vineyard assistant and dog-kennel cleaner in Greece. These days she stays a bit closer to home, and every two years updates another edition of the most inspirational work of travel lit you’re likely to read in a lifetime.

Young Pioneers: How did the book first come about?

Susan Griffith: Well, I got a job with a publisher in Oxford because I had been in this country as a student and I wanted to stay on. I’m from Canada. This little press published some very boring directories of summer jobs and one or two travel titles, and I started as an editorial assistant. But by coincidence-although I’m sure it’s partly also why I got the job-I liked to travel as well. And with these boring directories, I thought it would be much better to have a lot of that hard information, but to cut it with the stories of the people who did them, just to make it that much more readable. The publishing house had a good basis of information to start from with the organizations that set up jobs abroad, but we didn’t have contacts with the students and the young people who did it. So we just put little ads in The Guardian that said “Have you ever worked abroad in any capacity?” I set up meetings with people who answered the ad and took them to the local pub, which was around the corner from the publisher. No one had ever taken a real detailed interest in what were often very low-level jobs. You know, shit jobs, basically. And so that’s how the first edition came about. It couldn’t be thoroughly researched. It was just random, really.

YP: It must have been tough to get hard facts.

SG: Well, there were some hard facts, they were just so sketchy! You know, “If you go to Crete in November then that’s when they start to pick olives and if you ask around you might get work.” It seemed rather risky. I wrote a whole chapter on Iceland based on one story, but it seemed to work. And the next edition I got loads of letters and postcards saying things like, “You mentioned this town, but where I was picking olives at the other end of Crete it was much better because we didn’t have to compete.” So it just sort of wrote itself. I just sat back and waited for all the people using the book to write in. I think there happened to be a real demand for that kind of thing at the time. A lot of people bought it and a lot of people wrote back.

I always corresponded with them, and some of them-one or two-are still writing back! One of them now has an organic farm in Thailand, and is now welcoming the next generation of readers of the book. Some people have moved on to really respectful things. Some guy-I was really impressed-he drove a taxi in Sydney in the 80s, which was kind of a six-to-twelve month job, and now he’s a producer for a radio station. Some of them have made good. Some people pull it together and other people continue to drift, but that’s not to say their lives are wasted.

YP: It’s almost as if there were a lot of people who were just waiting and waiting for a book like Work Your Way Around the World, but didn’t even know they were waiting for it.

SG: I think that’s right. A lot of people were doing it, but they were just absolutely winging it. In fact, once they persuaded themselves they were going to do this-go on the road for an extended period and take what came-they did meet up with other people who guided them, but they always started out pretty cold. In the early days-this doesn’t happen anymore-but in the early days loads of people wrote in and said, “Oh, I wish I’d had this book when I started.”

YP: Were you ever afraid that you were going to steer somebody onto the wrong course?

SG: Yeah, kind of. In fact I had a couple of letters saying, “I imagined that it would be different from what it was, but it was much harder. You make it sound too easy. I came home without ever having got a job and ran out of money.” But then they went on to say they had a great time. You know, they had a wonderful time camping in the south of Spain. So in a way it couldn’t lose, because traveling is great fun. Anyone who wants to go away is probably going to end up enjoying it even if it doesn’t work out in the way they predicted or hoped.

YP: Do you feel like there is such a thing as a “working traveler” subculture? And I don’t necessarily mean people who are just out of university and are going off to have a working holiday, but an actual culture of people…

SG: On the road, sort of semi-permanenty, you mean? I think there definitely is. There has always been this kind of subculture of people who are very good at picking up casual jobs and just following the seasons around Europe. I can’t say how big it is. I don’t know if it’s bigger or smaller than it used to be, but it definitely exists.

YP: It seems to me that most of the people who’ve been doing it for more than, say, two or three years, seem a little odd or a little eccentric. A little out of the loop. It seems that most normal folks call it quits and go home after a year or two.

SG: Time to go home and get back to your real life. I think that’s right.

YP: Why do you think that is?

SG: Well, I don’t know that people who’ve been doing it for more than two years are necessarily eccentric and odd. But the longer it goes on, the further you are from your roots. I mean, you’re cutting yourself off. It’s certainly true in teaching English. A lot of people just do it for one or two years and then they go back to England and get a “real” job, and it was just a kind of break. But other people kind of move from one post to another, and there’s not much of a career structure there. I mean, there is-you can do it-but you’re sort of stuck on one level. A lot of those people are misfits, I would say, who are satisfied with two years in Damascus. It’s kind of exciting, but on the other hand the expat life that you can live in these places is not that on the edge. It’s a kind of alternative, comfortable way of life, but it sort of prohibits the normal stuff like buying houses and having kids.

YP: Do you think there was a larger expatriate community around the time you started the book?

SG: No, I’m not sure there are fewer now. And certainly a lot of those expat characters in weird corners of the world, like Papua New Guinea, are real characters. They have a fantastically interesting history, and they’re often kind of old-style hippies. The idea of moving back to wherever they came from and putting in a job application is just as remote as can be. They couldn’t possibly do it. They fly bush planes and all that kind of stuff. I think there’s plenty of types out there still doing that, but they’re probably not moving around all that much. They’ve made their homes in some developing country and probably plan to stay there.

YP: It seems like every single person on the backpacking circuit either has a copy of your book with them, or has at least heard of it. Does that put a lot of presure on you?

SG: It sure is weird, especially when I stay at a hostel and see people carrying it. I think, Oh my God, really! It’s not necessarily all true, you guys! But if it gets you started along certain lines-if you go to a certain village to go orange picking and you find out it’s full of Albanians and there’s just no hope-at least if you go you’re meeting the people who have come from somewhere else and know what to do. Some of the concrete information is usable by almost anybody. Kibbutzim in Israel, for example. I maybe wouldn’t recommend it just at the moment, but it can work for anybody. If you don’t know where to start and you just had the chapter on Israel and a couple of addresses-you’re off!

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