How I went from being a bored academic to a fun and free blogger

How I went from being a bored academic to a fun and free blogger

Not long after coming back from Uruguay after one of my many trips to Latin America, last April, I started catching up with the usual horror stories of the Italian job market. One of them was particularly touching to me, as I could relate to it. It was published by the very well known Italian magazine, L’Espresso. The article soon went viral. It was a piece by an Italian researcher who just reported his story, and pointed out the total lack of merit in Italian academia (but the same would go for the rest of the job market) – a story that happens only too often in Italy, something we talk about on a regular basis but for which we seem unable to fight.

Then, I read another piece, this time on The Guardian, where the author pointed out that mental health issues of PhD students and academics are becoming increasingly accepted in British universities, where staff is pushed to perform beyond their limits.

I fully enjoyed travelling alone in Uruguay

I fully enjoyed travelling alone in Uruguay

Once upon a time, I used to work in academia – and I thought it was cool

Two job environments that should be similar – despite in different countries – in reality could not be more different: in one, researchers struggle to work and have their work recognised; in the other, they are put under so much pressure to perform and gain better results that they eventually face extreme stress and even depression. I have studied and worked in both and, quite frankly, I find the issues faced by academics in the UK are almost laughable compared to the ones faced in Italy. Sure, when I worked at the University of Essex or at University College London I used to be snowed in with work. I had lectures, seminars, meetings, administrative work, conferences, workshops, office hours, papers to mark, exam questions to write (and have approved). All of that, besides having to write my PhD dissertation. But at least I was rewarded. At least my work was acknowledged. And I was part of the staff – from the highest ranking professor to the newly arrived admin worker, we all knew each other, we all respected each other, and we knew that we could count on each other. It was homey.

I should have stayed in England and I should have kept working there. I should have done many things, I suppose. But I didn’t. Because I am from Sardinia, and as pretty much anybody from Sardinia, I have a visceral connection with my land and for as much as I (we) can live away for even decades at times (I spent more than 10 years overseas), I (we) all want to go back home eventually. So, when after more than 10 years away from Sardinia, I got a fellowship to work at my old university, I did not think about it twice: I quitted my job, I packed my belongings and I boarded a plane that would take me home, finally.

La pelosa, Sardinia

I couldn’t help wanting to go back to Sardinia

Do I regret coming back?

I don’t regret giving up my academic career in England, because through a long and difficult path it brought me where I am now.

Working at my old university in Sardinia, the place where I was educated and that ultimately molded me into being the awesome human being that I am, should have been rewarding. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was the closest I could imagine to being in hell. It should have been homey (more homey than the University of Essex, I would have guessed) but I felt like I was walking in foreign territory and I should watch my back at all times.

For as much as I worked, as much as I achieved (publications in international leading journals, books, conferences and what not), I felt that the university I wanted to give back to so much did not want me and in fact did its best to push me away. I realised soon enough that I was seen as a threat: I was highly specialised, I was a hard worker, and if only I was involved in a research project or participated in a conference, I would easily put the most of the others in the corner. Like the time I happened to attend a book presentation and a professor kept calling the Roma “gypsies” – he did not like it when, at question time, I pointed out that “gypsy” was a derogatory term hardly used by people in the field nowadays. Or like the time another professor said that a specific international treaty hardly had any relevance as not many states had ratified it, when in fact – as I told her – 90% of the UN members had done so.

In my years at my home university, I faced increasing obstracism. The course I taught on discrimination was cancelled on demands of another researcher who – incidentally – was married to a professor. I was first asked to teach at a summer school in human rights, and then found out that someone else was called to do it – and that very someone did not have the expertise to teach the subject, so she demanded that I passed her my notes rather than backing off and pointing out to the director that I should teach the course instead.

The isolation I faced in Italy, the less than cooperative approach to research, the lack of any real connection and the unfriendly environment where I worked slowly brought me to hate academia. What kept me going were the conferences I attended, when I met other international academics and we exchanged ideas, views, projects. But then, that was not enough anymore. The frustration I felt made me forget what I had loved about academia and research. My hey-days in England, when I felt like the world was my oyster, and it was just waiting for me to blossom, were over.

Then I started travelling

Then I started travelling

…Then I started travelling, and that is way cooler than academia

Was it all so bad? I’d say most of it was. The good thing about being forced out of teaching and only having to do my research meant that I had no real commitments and thus I could travel whenever I wanted. So I did. Multiple short trips across Europe, then longer ones on the other side of the Atlantic. Peru first, then Mexico, Argentina, and finally Cuba in February 2013.

Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina

I had a blast in Argentina

Cuba changed my life. I did not know it back then, but looking back, two years after visiting, I can see that it did. It isn’t just that the place was so special and that I found myself there. Sure, it was and I finally came to terms with the fact that I love it. But it was a series of factors that, coming together, had a real impact on my life.

Mojito time

I left from Cuba with a huge smile on my face – I wanted that to last

Factor number one was the extreme frustration I felt during my first 10 days there. I’d lie if I said I did not hate it. I really did. Travelling in Cuba, for an organisation freak like I am, was frustrating. Try as I might, there was no way I could get things my way in Cuba. It was like the entire country had plotted to boycott my travel plans. It took me a while to get to appreciate and embrace spontaneity as a way of travelling. So, when I got home, with my zero knowledge of the blogging industry, I decided that I wanted to create my own blog, in English, to tell the truth about Cuba and warn anybody who may go there. I knew so little about blogging that I had no idea about how I could even get readers. I just thought that, since it was online, people would eventually find it. In fact, some actually did find me and started following me. In other words, I started a blog to vent about Cuba and say whatever I wanted without being censored. Cuba eventually grew on me – but that is a different story.

Machu Picchu, Peru

I want to feel as amazed as I was when I visited Machu Picchu

Factor number two was meeting Guiselaine on an eventful ride from Santiago to Baracoa. As the tire of the bus exploded, the driver asked all passengers to get off so that he could change it. So, we all started wandering about, taking pictures, and laughing at what had happened (and secretly thanking God that we were all fine). I had spotted Guiselaine at the bus station, and she sat behind me on the bus. We started talking when we were waiting for the tire to be fixed, and we agreed to meet later in Baracoa to have dinner. We did the same for every night we spent in Baracoa and eventually went separate ways, but we kept in touch since.

Where to go in Cuba: Playa Maguana, Cuba

Relaxing in Playa Maguana I realised I never wanted to work in academia again

Starting a blog and meeting Guiselaine may seem two separate things. But they weren’t. In fact, talking to Guiselaine we realised we had many things in common, which included a desire to travel the world for longer periods of time than the usual 3 weeks vacations, and the increased frustration with the traditional job market. I was increasingly frustrated with my job in academia – aside from the obstracism I faced on a regular basis, I found no purpose and no thrill in writing on the same topic over and over, in attending conferences which were auto-celebratory more than anything else, in talking about human rights issues without really taking action towards change. But while Guiselaine decided to take a step towards happiness and establish herself as a digital nomad, I wasn’t ready to go as far.

Then, my fellowship expired, there were no funds in sight to keep me working at my home university, and I did not fight to find any more. I started looking for other jobs in academia, but my heart wasn’t in it. I refused any temporary job I was offered by other universities around Italy, as I saw it as slave labour and the money wasn’t even going to cover my basic expenses for having to move to another region.

Speaking to Guiselaine, she gave me the final push to follow my dream: it was then that I decided that it was finally time to go on that backpacking trip across Latin America that had been on my mind for years. I set to leave at the end of November 2013, first stop Guatemala. Destiny can be tough at times, and with my luck, a few days before travelling, I got a permanent job offer from a university in England, but the negotiations for the starting date did not go as I had hoped – they were not willing to wait for me to get back from my travels. And although that was a good job, that would take me back to British academia, I was not ready to give up my dream when I was so close to fulfilling it.

Yaxha

I want to see the world, have fun, explore!

So I left. I just wanted to explore that part of the world and I thought that, once back, I could still look for a job in my old field. My family encouraged me to travel. My father was enthusiastic to know I’d be visiting so many places. But what is even more interesting is that my mother and sister insisted that I figured out a way to blog about my trip and make this my new career. However, blogging was only a past-time to me, something I’d do (less than seriously) while I travelled.

Finally blogging, for real!

I guess I only realised how right my mother and sister were when I got back and, after a surgery to remove my tonsils, I spent a few weeks of total misery, feeling completely lost and unsure about what to do with my life. The thing is, I did not have the guts to go back to a job in academia. I was so done with it, that the thought of writing yet one more academic paper, or preparing one more lecture, made me sick. My family encouraged me to do what I loved the most and what made me happy. And I could only think of travelling. I knew I had to give it a try, at least.

I thus applied for a course in travel design to become a specialised travel consultant. And all my years of travelling across Latin America (and spending all my savings on it) paid off when I was hired to work as a tour leader in Mexico and Central America. Finally, I decided it was time to give it a try and become a real blogger, and bought my own domain, started studying SEO manuals, social media communication techniques, and working hard on it.

I am not even close to making money yet. I work an average of 10 hours per day, every day. But I wake up with a smile on my face each morning. I like what I am doing and I am happy. I keep being interested in human rights issues and wherever I travel I can’t help observing the world through the lenses of a former human rights lawyer.

Will I succeed? I may, or I may not. But, sure enough, I will keep on trying. The years of suffering, isolation, frustration and humiliation at work were not in vain, as they brought me to a much better place. I have left academia, and I am never looking back.

I still have dreams

I still have dreams

What is your story? Did you also have a career change?

 

 

 

PURA VIDA! Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica

PURA VIDA! Things to do in San Jose Costa Rica

Chepe, as Ticos lovingly call their capital, is the heart of Costa Rica. While most travellers do not spare it negative comments, I find that despite its messy architectural style, due to the economic boom and urban expansion, this modern city is a cool place to hang out for a few days and it offers some of the best things to do in Costa Rica. And even people who live in Costa Rica actually enjoy it, such as Samantha of My Tan Feet, who clearly states in her post on 50 things to do in Costa Rica that visiting San Jose should be one.

I suppose the bad reputation of San Jose is partially due to the fact that the lush nature of the rest of the country – with its sloths, crocodiles, volcanoes and rain forest – fascinates visitors and is unfound here. Yet, since most backpackers follow the gringo route and foreign residents opt to visit and stay in other regions where they can enjoy the nature of the country, this ends up being the best place to experience the true Costa Rican identity.

The city was founded in 1737 and it was originally called Villanueva de la Boca del Monde del Valle de Abra. The name was then changed to remember that of its saint patron. Interestingly, for a long time it was only of secondary importance to the bigger Cartago. After Spain took everyone by surprise by abandoning its colonies in Central America, Cartago and San Jose signed a number of treaties while preparing for war in secret. On 5 April 1823 San Jose won the battle of Ochomongo and became the capital of the country. Later on, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela attempted to ransack the city in a siege known as La Guerra de la Liga, but the capital managed to win and confirmed its status.

San Pedro is among the nicest neighborhoods of San Jose - photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)

San Pedro is among the nicest neighborhoods of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)

In more recent times, San Jose has undergone a vast urban development, as many Ticos and Nicaraguans moved to the capital in search of a better life. This has led to the creation of vast shantytowns and to the increase in criminality rates.

Chepe is a modern town, with a functioning transportation system, and compared to other cities in Central America, it will feel extremely European with its shopping malls, traffic lights, modern buildings and trendy restaurants. Despite being a large city, the atmosphere is relaxed and the people are very friendly (a typical scene would be meeting someone, asking for information and eventually be greeted with a “Pura Vida!”) and ready to give a hand and directions to lost backpackers.

It is said that certain areas, especially in the city centre, may be dangerous especially at night, but I did not encounter any problems while visiting. Of course, it is important to always keep one’s wits about and pay extra attention.

Another reason to spend a few days in the city? Compared to the rest of the country, temperatures here are milder, giving backpackers a nice break from the extreme heat of the coastal areas.

Best things to do in San Jose Costa Rica

Costa Rica is by far the richest and most advanced country in Central America (certainly much more than Nicaragua), making it the most expensive too. But, since I like walking and don’t mind using public transportation, I was able to save my pennies and still enjoy the city.

There are a good bunch of places to visit in San Jose. The most interesting areas to visit are in the city centre, where I took a nice, long (and free) walk through Avenida Central, Plaza de la Cultura and Calle 8, as well as Boulevard Ricardo Jimenez south of Parque Nacional. The nicest “barrio” to visit is Barrio Amon, a colonial district which is still the residence of “cafétaleros” (coffee producers), with homes built between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Some of the buildings have been recently restored and turned into hotels, restaurants and offices, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. This is by far the most popular area among tourists.

Another charming visit may be that of the Mercado Central. Sure it may not be as great as the markets in Peru or Guatemala, but it is a good introduction to Central America culture, and it is lively and busy and has a great selection of fresh produce.

San Jose, Costa Rica

The center of San Jose – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)

At the top of Paseo Colon, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is the best place to escape the greyness of the city and it hosts two museums, a lagoon, a fountain and a number of sports courts and swimming pools for those wanting to keep fit. On the east side of the Parque there is the Museo de Arte Costarricense, with a permanent exhibition of Costa Rican art of the 19th and 20th centuries and located in a nice colonial building. On the south west side there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales La Salle, for those wanting to see embalmed animals and butterflies.

Plaza de la Cultura is considered by Ticos as the geographic heart of Costa Rica, and it hosts the Museo de Oro Precolombino.

Finally, San Jose is a good place to do a Spanish Course, and some travellers may want to couple the experience with volunteering.

Street life in San Jose - photo courtesy of Jean-François Schmitz (flickr)

Street life in San Jose – photo courtesy of Jean-François Schmitz (flickr)

Day trips:

At a 45 minutes bus ride from San Jose, Cartago may be an interesting city to visit for its religious significance and its conservative charm. Highlights include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, a byzantine style church which has been renovated in 1926 following the 1910 earthquake and where I could admire the famous statue of La Negrita (a black Virgin statue) and Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, the ruins of the Iglesia del Convento built in 1575 in honour of San Juan and destroyed by an earthquake in 1841. Reconstruction works were interrupted in 1910 after the earthquake.

Where to stay:

My choice in San Jose is Hostel Urbano, in the heart of the student and residential area of San Pedro. This is a great choice for backpackers on a budget, with dorms at $ 14 per night: beds are comfortable and have great lockers, rooms are spacious and clean, with large wardrobes; bathrooms are spotless; a pancakes and fruit breakfast is served daily; there is a very well equipped kitchen, a lovely backyard, a great common area, a game room and book exchange; the staff is incredibly helpful and friendly and will provide plenty of information on restaurants, transportations, courses, activities and what not, and the overall atmosphere of the hostel is so great that it made me want to stay longer just to enjoy it.

Not far from it, the cheaper Castle Tam is an option if one can bare its dirty dorms, a messy kitchen, the stench of cigarette smoke, a grumpy atmosphere and a moody owner and staff who change the prices of accommodation as quickly as their mood.

Where to eat, drink and enjoy nightlife:

Save some pennies by shopping in one of the many supermarkets – some of them are so upperscale that I could prepare a gourmet meal. This is especially true if lodging in Hostel Urbano: backpackers will find that great kitchen and cozy dining room will be perfect to enjoy their meals. If not, this student area offers plenty of budget eateries with set meals for as little as 4 US dollars.

Not far from the hostels, there is a very busy street packed with bars where students like having a drink. Pick any, they are all busy!

In Avenida Central in San Pedro there is the Jazz Cafè, the best bet for quality live music with bands that play from jazz to salsa. Going to the Jazz Café is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica!

San Jose

The beautiful national theater in San Jose – photo courtesy of Randall Elizondo López (flickr)

How to get to San Jose

There is no real public bus system and no central terminal, but a number of private companies operate from hubs scattered through the city. The biggest stations serve entire regions: Gran Terminal de Caribe has buses to the Caribbean Coast; Terminal Coca Cola connects to the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. Terminal San Carlos serves Monteverde, La Fortuna and Sarapiquì. Tracopa links to San Isidro de General and the South.

Tica Bus and Transnica are the best long distance, international companies that connect Costa Rica to Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Book the ticket in advance to ensure a seat.

If in Nicaragua, catch a Tica or Transnica bus from Managua through Rivas all the way to San Jose. The advantage is that it is much easier to go to through immigration if on one of these international buses, with the staff that clearly explains everything there is to do. For more border crossing information, check my other post.

Here it is possible to find complete information on the bus services and timetables in Costa Rica.

Turrialba:

If wishing to explore an off the beaten place in Costa Rica, this would have to be my pick. Easily reached from San Jose through Cartago, not many visitors venture in this mellow yet appealing town, famous for its mountain air, strong coffee and what is known as Central America’s best white water rafting. The area is also great for mountain biking, kayaking, and canyoning. These activities may blow a daily budget (costing up to 100 dollars for the whole day), but they are worth a try!

Rio Reventazon has the most difficult rafts in the country: 65 km to keep your adrenaline going. Rio Pacuare has the most scenic rafting in Costa Rica, with a view of spectacular canyons, rainforest, and it goes past indigenous villages and will give anybody a chance to take a view at the great Costa Rican wildlife.

Want to find out more about Costa Rica? Click here for more posts.