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Tony and Thomas of Contemporary Nomad on Traveling and Blogging

Tony Eitnier and Thomas Arnold, authors of the Contemporary Nomad travel blog, live quintessentially postmodern lives. Arnold, a German chemist, and Eitnier, an American language and communications trainer, started their travels as couple without a home. Because of the exclusionary marriage laws in their respective countries, neither was able to obtain a visa to live in the other’s home country. This pushed them into a nomadic lifestyle, and online entrepreneurship, both of which they have come to love.

Because of their tradition-challenging relationship, they spend their days studying the traditions of the world’s oldest cultures. Because borders sought to keep them apart, they live borderless lives. Because their lives could not remain stationary in the physical world, they found work in the one place where they could keep a fixed address—the Internet. Now, while visiting remote and ancient cultures, they have become icons in one of the fastest-growing and newest technological cultures—the blogosphere.

This email interview found the postmodern couple in the southern Philippines where I asked them about their travels, some of their favorite reads, and their work in the most postmodern of literary forms.

MG: Can you recall a time that you were surprised by a large unexpected increase in traffic to your blog? What happened?

CN: We’ve had occasional surges in traffic related to specific events. The earthquake in Sichuan, the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, and, of course, the terrorist attack on Mumbai, which we experienced first-hand at much too close a distance. (We were right across the street from the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tony actually saw the attackers running by.) The people came to us during these events for two different reasons. Firstly, friends, family and followers wanted to see if we were OK. Secondly, our descriptions of the local culture occasionally showed up first in Google searches by people seeking to learn more about these regions. We’ve also had quirky things send us traffic. We photographed a strange ice formation created by a high-altitude plant in Zanskar, India which sent a stream of scientists to our website. And our video on the border closing ceremony near Amritsar, India somehow became a reference for a Wikipedia article on Indian nationalism. It’s amazing what actually brings in our visitors, it’s almost impossible to predict.

MG: What is your most popular blog post? Why do you think that is?

CN: We have several posts which seem to stick out. The Omelette Man of Jodhpur seems to be one of our most visited posts. And, of course, there is the piece on the ice formation in Zanskar, which I mentioned before. Interest in Danba Family, The Baisha Miao, and The Paduang seems to suggest pieces on the struggles of tribes and ethnic minorities are popular. Our most viewed piece is actually a YouTube video we did called The Lions of Sasan Gir. It’s actually only a short clip, but people like the view of the rare Indian lions. We also have a notorious YouTube video called The Rajdhani Express which is a tongue-in-cheek review of the famous Indian train. Indians HATE the video and have thereby made the piece one of our most successful videos. Check it out for their rabid comments – we love reading them and have referred our visitors back to the comment section several times. Actually, the video isn’t that bad, they just seem to have worked each other up in the comment section.

MG: What’s your favorite blog post on ContemporaryNomad.com? Why?

CN: We have several blog posts which bring back amazing memories. Tony’s Rajasthan Camel Safari is a crack-up because of all the things that happened on the trip. And Thomas’ Trans-Island Odyssey was a wild ride across the Andaman Island chain which included a run-in with wild elephants and an encounter with the Jarawa tribal people. Great memories. I also love our two videos on our 20-day trek across Zanskar.

MG: Is there competition between bloggers out there, given that new blogs keep springing up with often similar themes (and occasional downright rip-offs)? Or do you think that many are driven more by the need to express their own passions.

CN: More and more blogs are springing up because everyone wants to have a voice. We get that. Some people are driven by the lure of dreamt-up riches, which is unrealistic. But others simply thirst for adventure with a dash of writing. Actually, it often surprises us how few really good travel blogs are out there. There is definitely space for more. Unfortunately, it does seem that some travel bloggers have an overly competitive edge. We noticed last year that one of our fellow bloggers seemed to have hired people in India to vote for his site over and over again in the Blogger’s Choice Awards resulting in a last minute jump in rankings. That’s not cool. While some view travel blogging as a competitive race, we are far more interested in the sense of community. It’s through this community that we discover the best destinations for future adventures.

MG: Do you find yourself using search engines in order to research your topics more when you blog, or are you more concerned with capturing the moment? Or does one complement the other?

CN: We don’t base our postings on what we perceive to be popular keywords or commonly googled topics because we realize that all of our most popular posting are off-the-wall things that we put up just because we thought they were funny or fascinating.

We love Walking the Amazon, which others might not label a “travel blog,” but we definitely would. We also love Life on the Tibetan Plateau with its encyclopedic knowledge of the Tibetan world. And we just discovered a new blog on Africa called Border Jumpers, which we are following now. And of course, Beverly at Nomadic Narrative is a good friend of ours, so we regularly follow her site. She recently spent 6 weeks traveling with us through Cambodia and Laos and we co-blogged our experiences together, which was a lot of fun.

MG: Who, in your opinion, is the most successful travel blogger (from a business perspective)? Why do you think that is?

CN: That’s a great question. Who knows? Sites have such different purposes and ways of monetizing their content. I would venture a guess that it is one of the smaller sites which is doing something really crazy, such as the one I mentioned before “Walking the Amazon.” While the site is not necessarily making much money now, if he succeeds, he’ll probably end up with book deals and well-paid magazine articles or TV interviews. Even if he doesn’t get rich, such an incredible journey would definitely meet our definition of success.

MG: What equipment do you carry for working on the road?

CN: We carry WAY too much: two laptops (Toshiba Satellite, Sony Vaio), two cameras (Canon 400D, Canon G7), five lenses for the 400D, an underwater casing for the G7, a ridiculously large but very useful power strip with exchangeable fuses, a tent, a camping cooker, a pump operated water purifier, two mosquito nets, a huge medical bag, diving masks and snorkels… We hate the bulk, but we use it all. We change equipment as we travel. We had high-altitude clothing and warm sleeping bags for the Himalayas, but when we left the mountains we gave all the mountain gear to a Ladakhi man who wanted to become a trekking guide.

MG: We all have certain expectations when we visit places. It’s easy for a place not to live up to what we imagine it to be. What was your most disappointing trip?

CN: We have both been traveling for over twenty years, so our expectations have grown much more realistic with experience. However, there are occasional disappointments. Our recent trip to Laos was a little disappointing because of the horrible field burn-off which takes place in March and April. We knew in advance that burn-off would occur, but we had no idea how bad it would actually be. I highly advise staying out of northern Southeast Asia in March and April. Beyond that, I would say the biggest disappointment we experience is the general feeling that adventurous, exploratory travel as a whole is slowly ending. The world is changing very quickly. Exotic tribes are vanishing, extraordinary wildlife is disappearing, pristine environments are being destroyed or bought up and turned into high-priced resorts. If you want to travel, get out there and do it now before everything is gone or too expensive.

MG: What trip was the nicest surprise

CN: Nepal was probably the nicest surprise. Travelers have been going to Nepal for decades and we both expected the country to be so over-developed and over-visited that it would certainly fail to impress. Quite to the contrary, the country blew us away and we have become devoted Nepal fans. (We just wish we had been going every year for the last twenty years.)

MG: What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you on the road?

CN: We could fill a 32-volume set of books with strange stories and adventures. One story we tell a lot is about turning on an air cooler in India and having a snake blow out of the machine at us. That seems to strike a chord with critter-phobic travelers. We have both been arrested, we’ve been bitten by poisonous things, and we’ve been charged by wild animals. Once, an elephant stepped over our tent in Zimbabwe during the full moon. We held our breath as we could see the back-lit shadow of the enormous beast stepping over us. We’ve been in car accidents, we’ve been attacked, and we’ve been caught up in violent conflicts. A million stories.

MG: The growth of backpacking has resulted in an increase in rave-type parties in travel hubs and destinations worldwide. Along with this has come an increase in drug use among travelers. How do you feel about drugs and backpacker culture?

CN: We both hate this scene and avoid it like the plague. Unfortunately, it really is like a plague that seems to be sweeping across the world wiping out the earth’s more beautiful spots. We now refer to it as Vang Vieng syndrome.

MG: Travel can make or break relationships. How do you deal with the pressures put on you and your partner by life on the road?

CN: Actually, we are a couple. We don’t talk about it much on our blog because our blog is about adventure, not our relationship. But interestingly, it is our relationship that really got us into long-term travel. When we first met 17 years ago, there was no way for a German and American gay couple to stay together legally as no country acknowledged the relationship for the purpose of immigration. We had to bounce around the world to stay together. In fact, Lisa Nunn, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, has been documenting us for over eight years. Later this year, she will release a 45-minute film on our lives called Excluded (the last segment was recently filmed in Cambodia) and will be speaking at this year’s national sociology conference on how our struggles as a binational couple caused us to “go nomadic.”

MG: Is there a particularly good book, article, or author that you read recently youíd like to recommend?

CN: “Papillon”. It’s required reading for the adventurous at heart. Also read the follow-up “Banco.” “Keep the River on your Right” is amazing as is “Shantaram.”

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5 Responses to Tony and Thomas of Contemporary Nomad on Traveling and Blogging

  1. the candy trail ... October 7, 2010 at 4:54 am #

    Greetings from China … Great reading; refreshing to read about “real travelers” … Agreed about: get out there and see the world now … before it’s too late I have been saying that for years and as nomad myself, since 1988, across much of the Developing World – it’s changing too fast.

    I also share their interest in ancient cultures and historic places (and not the overhype-travel scene crowding the web and the world).

    Regards – Michael Robert Powell / the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    • Matt Gibson October 8, 2010 at 12:34 am #

      Yep, these two are an awesome couple. We keep in touch by email from time to time. Their love of travel, and travel style, both resonate with me. They are very down to earth and genuine in what they do and how they do it. Much respect.

      Your blog looks great too. How long are you in China for?

  2. the candy trail ... October 10, 2010 at 4:19 am #

    Hi Matt. Thanks. My blog is in the make-over stage … but getting there. Still a massive archive – of 20 years and present travel stuff – to edit and upload …

    I came in overland from Bangkok a month ago and am now temporarily based / working in Tai’an – Shandong, for at least the next 6 months … and then maybe out towards the “-Stans”.

    Regards – Michael

    • Matt Gibson October 11, 2010 at 12:28 am #

      That sounds awesome! Best of luck on your trip.

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