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Nerdy Nomad, Or How the Web is Financing My Life of Travel

Kirsty Henderson is a lifelong travel addict who left Canada in 2001 and has been wandering around the world or living abroad since then. She's done everything from scrubbing toilets to picking fruit to sustain her travels and then started earning enough from a handful of websites she runs to be able to fund her travel addiction. She has lived in Kigali, Rwanda since 2010 and runs the travel website Living in Kigali. She has started making paper tourist maps - maps are her latest passion - first of her adopted hometown of Kigali and more recently of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Next will be stints living Kampala and Nairobi in an attempt to add two more maps to her collection.

Women on the Road: Tell us a bit about the subtext of your travels - no destination, no time limit, no plan, no worries...
Kirsty Henderson: I've always wanted to be able to travel with no plans, time limit or real destination in mind. To be able to wander around the world, changing plans on a whim and experiencing the freedom that comes with it is something that I've always dreamed about and not having any plans is something that I find hugely exciting. I think planning is overrated and most of my crazy stories and most memorable moments have come at times when the guidebook was nowhere to be seen.

WOTR: Did you simply decide to - go?
Kirsty: I made the decision so long ago that it's hard to remember exactly what was going through my head. I went to Ireland in 2001 and spent the summer working at a hostel. This was what really got me hooked on travel and, more specifically, working abroad. After university I spent a year travelling around Australia picking fruit and scrubbing toilets as I went and I loved every minute of it. When that came to an end I wasn't ready to go home so I took advantage of my British passport and headed to the UK where I stayed for five years until I left on this trip.

This current trip was never a matter of deciding if I should go but more a matter of when. With my internet business pulling in a bit of money and my feet getting itchy for travel, January 2008 seemed like as good a time as any to break free and just go for it. It has never been a difficult choice for me. Travelling is what I love to do most!

WOTR: You're financing your travels with your websites. How is that working out?
Kirsty: I had an amazing run of earning a good amount of money online from 2008 up until around 2013 when things dropped off drastically due to Google cracking down on link sales. But having an income for so long while travelling was almost too good to be true. My monthly earnings over this time were probably enough to live anywhere in the world so it went a very long way during my travels since I was in cheaper locations travelling on a budget.

I currently run an expat and tourist oriented website called Living in Kigali that brings in an ok amount each month in advertising revenue. I’m far more proud of this website though because it seems more real. I have readers who love the website and there are businesses in Kigali who want to reach this market so it all seems more legit than selling links so that companies can attempt to fool the Google algorithm. I make a lot less from websites now than I used to but I’m a lot more proud of the work I’m doing now.

WOTRI remember one of your early websites, Travoholic, and over the years you’ve had many. How did all that evolve?
Kirsty: My ultimate goal was for my small collection of websites to continue to earn enough to allow me to be able to live anywhere in the world while only having to update them from time to time. I don't care about becoming rich but having time to travel, attempt to learn languages and pursue other interests is important to me. I ended up accumulating about 15 websites (I bought about 5 of them) and I still have them now. Though they earn a lot less for me now, I still get the occasional ad sale.

My Nerdy Nomad blog (which has, sadly, been neglected) and my Kigali website on the other hand are less about making money and more about discussing topics I love, sharing knowledge and connecting with like-minded people. It’s been great to see my Kigali website take off and for advertisers to want to pay to reach my readers and this is a way of earning online that doesn’t make me feel so shady.

WOTR: Can anyone use websites to pay their way around the world?
Kirsty: The learning curve can be pretty steep for someone who doesn't know much about computers or websites but the reward of being able to work from anywhere is a very good motivator.

Once the sites are all set up it's possible to maintain a certain income level without needing to put in much day to day work but getting to this point has taken me thousands of hours of work over several years. I started my first site as a hobby in 2001 and didn't make a cent for years but, as the internet became more and more commercial, I started to see the payoff.

I'm lucky because I love the work I do and would probably still build websites even if the money wasn't there. I’m also lucky because my timing was great and I was building websites before Wordpress came along, lowering the barriers to entry. Now it’s easy for anyone to put a website online which is great because we have access to all sorts of information from passionate people, but if your motivation for making a site is to make money then you’ll find it quite difficult starting from scratch.

WOTR: Tell us about your volunteering work along the way.
Kirsty: I love volunteering on my travels because it really gives you a glimpse of a different side of the places you go. My preferences are either doing work exchanges that get me out to local farms, or to work with an organization called All Hands Volunteers who do disaster response work. I’ve worked with them since 2008 when I headed off to a remote village in Bangladesh with no idea of what was in store for me. I loved my experience there doing cyclone cleanup and have since worked with them in The Philippines, Indonesia, Malawi, Nepal, and three times in Haiti.  My work with them has been incredibly rewarding and I’d recommend you check them out!

My main motivation for volunteering is to be able to immerse myself in the community, befriend local people and other volunteers, learn about a totally different way of life and just have an interesting experience away from the typical tourist trail. The bonus is that I get to do all of this while helping people whose lives have been devastated by a natural disaster, even if in just a small way.

I wouldn't say that volunteer work overseas should be a part of everyone's trip because people travel for different reasons. But I can certainly say that I had a wonderful experience and I recommend it to everyone I meet. The search for a place to volunteer can sometimes be a bit discouraging because so many charge ridiculous admin fees but if you can find one that fits in with your philosophy and lifestyle, then go for it!

WOTR: You’ve even written a book on humanitarian volunteering. What would be your best piece of advice?
Kirsty: I think that a lot of people who dream of volunteering overseas have lofty ambitions and sometimes also an unrealistic sense of what will be accomplished. This is natural, especially if it’s your first time doing this type of work. But my advice would be to put things into perspective, lower your expectations, and approach your volunteering work knowing that you’re likely to get a lot more out of the experience than you’ll be able to give. Be responsible when deciding who to work with (I would recommend reading up on volunteering with children and animals, for example) and with which organizations. Do a lot of research beforehand, keep your expectations in check, and go with an open mind an an attitude of being willing to do whatever is needed and you should have a good experience.

WOTR: What are your plans now?
Kirsty: I’ve been working hard lately on making tourist-style printed maps of East African cities. I’m not sure how wise it is to be making paper maps in a digital world but so far it’s going great! People really love maps and I’ve filled mine full of information (they’re kind of like guidebook/map combos) in what I think is a beautiful and fun product and they’ve been very well-received. I completed my first map of Kigali in 2015 and will reprint it in a couple of months and I recently released a map of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

I’m working now maps for Nairobi and Kampala which is keeping me very busy. The creative part of exploring the cities and making the actual maps is the fun part but I’ll have to spend some time in those cities in the new year in order to make connections and set up a distribution network in hotels, cafes, and restaurants. It will be challenging work but I’m looking forward to it.

By the time July 2017 rolls around I will have lived in Rwanda for seven years and I think I’ve ready for a change. Lisbon, Portugal is very much on my radar at the moment and I’m planning on moving there next year to explore, eat good food, meet nice people, and to have a crack at living in Europe for awhile. I’ll be able to run my African-based business from there and, while I still love Rwanda very much, I’m looking forward to also seeking out to opportunities and challenges.