"Working on the Road: Myth vs. Reality" (about Erin Van Rheenen) — by Donna Peck

BATW member Donna Peck wrote “Working on the Road: Myth vs. Reality” about BATW member Erin Van Rheenen.  It was featured in February on Plugin.com, an online magazine for creative professionals.
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Erin Van Rheenen at book-signing in San Francisco (photo © John Montgomery)
Erin Van Rheenen at book-signing in San Francisco (photo © John Montgomery)



Being a freelancer is as much about organization and scheduling as talent says Erin Van Rheenen, author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica. Her 442-page book, laden with information, helps dreamers set up home in the Central American tropics.

Unlike tourists and expats, Van Rheenen worries about being connected. She recently crossed Costa Rica from coast to coast on a marathon work schedule.

She visits Costa Rica every year, but this year she needed to update her book. With visions of being productive in paradise, she arrived with a detailed itinerary and sophisticated tools: an internet-ready netbook, a digital camera, a flash drive, a Kindle, an MP3 recorder and a rented cell phone.

She covered much ground in two months. This was her ninth trip, so she knew what to pay attention to. “I had to do the research for the third edition and put up posts on my website,” she says. Knowing the country well helped. She stayed on the move, spending one or two nights in each place, covering hundreds of miles. She was living the life of the easy, breezy globe-trotter.

Then myth clashed with reality. How well did her tech tools work?

The Netbook

For netbooks, the hype holds true. After a day in the rainforest, she typed up her notes on her Asus 10.1-inch netbook, which she bought for $379. “I’ve worked on an Apple all my life. This is a PC but I was very happy with it,” she says. She didn’t regret the learning curve. “The last time I took my 7-pound iBook. The Asus weighs 3.5 pounds, and it made a huge difference,” she says. She also liked the ten-hour battery life.

The Internet

Van Rheenen relied on an internet connection to back up her notes to email, post blogs on her website, and confirm travel details. “They claim wireless is everywhere. Even good hotels advertise wireless throughout. What that means is there’s one spot in the restaurant or the stairwell where you get wireless access,” she says. Costa Rica’s internet access is intermittent and unreliable, often interrupted by storms. “A lot of things can go wrong,” she says.

The camera

Her partner brought a Pentax digital SLR camera to shoot pictures for the new edition. He dropped it the first week and couldn’t use it. For the remaining seven weeks, he took pictures with a back-up camera. “It’s a perfectly fine Canon Powershot SD 750 point-and-shoot, but it doesn’t cut it if you are expecting to be able to shoot raw and tweak to your heart’s content,” she says.

The flash drive

In Costa Rica the author didn’t worry about the elements because she invested in a Corsair Survivor 32GB flash drive. She used it to backup notes and photos. Gushing about its durable, shock- and water-resistant qualities, she says, “It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin.”

The Kindle

She bought a used Kindle 2 for $125 from a co-worker and says, “Thumbs way down: I put it through hell, and it didn’t hold up.” Kindle is good for pleasure reading but can’t withstand the traumas of the road. The screen became unreadable halfway through the trip—more than a minor annoyance. Before she left, she had loaded it with Lonely Planet travel guides. “I love the idea of an eReader for traveling light, but I wouldn’t get another Kindle unless I could download library eBooks and free ePub documents,” she says.

The MP3 recorder

When she is interviewing people, Van Rheenen whips out an iRiver mp3 recorder, which she bought on eBay for $100. “Its better than anything I’ve ever had,” she says. She listens to the digital files and transcribes what she wants.

The rented cell phone

The author doesn’t recommend renting a cell phone. “Even when I was under a cell phone tower, it didn’t work,” referring to a cell phone she rented from a car rental agency. Costa Rica has by far has the worst system in Central America because of the government monopoly on telecommunications. “I bought a calling card and used public phones. I also borrowed cell phones from strangers,” she says.

Life Unexpected

For bloggers, experience is the greatest teacher. “Posting as it happens didn’t work. I barely had time to take notes much less write. Even when I had the time, I had to wait a week for internet access,” she says, estimating that her output was about 40 percent of what she had wanted it to be.

“My goal to post everyday reflects what a lot of writers do,” she says. “They overestimate how connected they will be on the road and underestimate how long it will take to write,” she says. Getting good material and writing well is nose-to-the-grindstone work.

She scaled back her expectations about blogging from the road and decided to be more selective about her topics. Her most successful posts include intimate observations. “I wrote about expat life in this beach town with older North American men hooking up with young women half and a third their age. I observe, I describe, I add sensory detail. It’s my observations that are important,” she says.

In towns, villages, rivers and rainforests, Van Rheenan entrusted her observations to her notebook. In the end, what tools proved the most useful? Paper and pen.

Donna Peck

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