by Jayme Moye

Intrepid Illustrating: Living Cheaply, Traveling Widely, and Getting Paid

Choosing to become a global traveler is a brave decision. There’s no well-worn career path, and certainly no guaranteed money involved. But get it right, and you might end up like Candace Rose Rardon. Jayme Moye catches up with this citizen of the world to find out how she does it.
Candace Rardon Drawing in Burma

Candace Rose Rardon was five days into an admittedly ridiculous quest to drive an auto-rickshaw 1,865 miles across India when she got stuck in a traffic jam. The standstill separated Rardon, a 25-year-old American, from her convoy of fellow rickshaw runners, pushing her even further outside of her comfort zone in a country whose customs and language were completely foreign to her.

Instead of panicking, Rardon observed. She watched a handful of mopeds methodically weave between the halted trucks. She realized her rickshaw could do the same, at least in theory. Rardon took a deep breath, summoning the courage to hit the gas. “We’ve got this,” she told her co-pilot. And they did. Forget that Rardon had never driven a rickshaw until five days prior—in her world, every challenge, every roadblock, makes for a better story. As a travel writer, Rardon was in her element.

Candace Rardon draws in Peru

Rardon, now 30, is a particularly rare breed of travel writer. She’s so committed to her craft that she doesn’t even have a home base, choosing instead to roam the world and land wherever the next story takes her. Since launching her career in 2010, she’s traveled through 50 countries on six continents. Her method is working—Rardon’s writing appears in such venerable publications as National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog and BBC Travel.

Speaking with Rardon over tacos and margaritas on a summer afternoon in Corte Madera, California, where she was presenting at the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, I’m surprised to discover that she isn’t independently wealthy. Rardon, who grew up in Virginia, is completely self-supported. She’s an inspiring example of a person living life on their own terms, free to travel the world and pursue a career of passion. Here’s how she does it.

Candace Rardon Sacred Peaks Peru illustration

Finances, fear, and taking the leap

In 2008, a month before her college graduation, Rardon still hadn’t found a job. She knew her English Literature degree was flexible—she could be a teacher or an editor or even wait tables and work in a bookstore while she figured it out. But none of the positions she’d interviewed for had worked out.

So when two friends who were moving to London after graduation said come with us, Rardon said ok. They’d signed on with a company called BUNAC that assists students and recent grads to work abroad for six months. “It seemed crazy at the time,” said Rardon, “but looking back, it wasn’t actually as big a financial risk as it felt.”

Rardon’s parents had started a college tuition payment plan for her when she was a child, so she was fortunate to graduate with zero debt. She’d also worked a part-time job while in college and had enough money saved up to buy a one-way ticket to London. Once overseas, Rardon and her friends found a flat to share in London through BUNAC, and she went to work in a six-month contract position as an administrative assistant at a university. It wasn’t her dream job, but it covered her living expenses and got her “out in the world.” There, Rardon met new friends who told her about a one-year “working holiday” visa in their home country of New Zealand. Rardon applied online and within three days, had an approved visa in her inbox. “I went to London hoping to experience Europe, and left believing I could see the world,” Rardon said.

In New Zealand, Rardon lived in Christchurch, Queenstown, and Wellington. She worked a variety of short-term jobs in hospitality and office administration to cover her living expenses, and launched a travel blog. The more Rardon blogged, the more she felt certain that she wanted to be a travel writer. By the time her year in New Zealand was up, Rardon had been accepted into a Masters in Travel Writing program at Kingston University in London. She was 24 years old.

Back in London, Rardon took a part-time job to cover her living expenses while working on her masters degree. To cover the cost of her tuition, she took out a student loan. She continued blogging during her studies, and attended a travel blogging conference where she entered a raffle drawing and won a place on the 2011 Rickshaw Run. “It was happening in mid-September,” Rardon says. “My job contract ended August 31 and my Masters dissertation was due September 1, so I was like, I guess I’m going to India.”

Her decision to travel to India felt similar to her initial decision to go to London and then New Zealand—serendipitous and slightly crazy—but with the added stressor of being a legitimate financial risk. This time, she didn’t have a job waiting for her, or an organization that helps recent grads land on their feet. She was completely on her own. Rardon offset her stress with the knowledge that the trip would be a good move for her fledgling travel writing career—as part of her participation in the Rickshaw Run, she would be blogging about the experience for The Adventurists, the company behind it.

“You know that phrase, leap and the net will appear?” Rardon says. “It was kind of like that. India was a test jump to see if there’d be a net.”

Candace Rardon with a friend showing illustrations

The payoff

There was. After the Rickshaw Run, she got a contract job doing multimedia marketing work for The Adventurists. Rardon didn’t have much to relocate to New Delhi, basically just her clothes, laptop, and camera. Shortly after, while back on the starting line of the Rickshaw Run—this time reporting on it for The Adventurists—Rardon realized she didn’t even need the apartment she’d rented.

“I was in the mountains of Meghalaya, in northeast India, with my tan backpack,” Rardon remembers. “I got out my laptop and camera, my external hard drive and my Wi-Fi dongle, and started posting a web update for The Adventurists. It suddenly hit me that I had everything I needed to do my job in one backpack. This was my home base. And it could literally be anywhere.”

After that realization, Rardon traveled through Asia, from India to Thailand to Japan, taking short-term contract gigs like the one with The Adventurists, and selling some of her first freelance travel writing. She also began monetizing a childhood hobby—sketching—by selling custom watercolors and illustrated maps through her Etsy shop, Serendipity Sketches.

When Rardon won a ticket to Prague from a writing contest, she decided it was time to move on, to eastern Europe, followed by Turkey. Next she chose South America, specifically Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, because her editor at National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel Blog was looking for more content from that area of the world.

Rardon lives simply, which allows her to move easily and inexpensively. She can pack the entirety of her possessions—most notably her laptop, camera, scanner, and sketchbooks—into a 35-liter backpack. When she needs to purchase an international flight, Rardon keeps an eye on Kayak and Skyscanner for the most affordable ticket. “Norwegian Air is one of the best-kept secrets for transatlantic flights,” she says. “My direct flight from Oakland to Stockholm earlier this year cost only $169. I also flew them last year, from Orlando to Oslo, for only $217.”

For accommodations, she looks for short-term rentals that give discounts for monthly stays, and artist residencies that provide free or subsidized housing. In the past two years alone, Rardon has served as a sketch artist-in-residence in the Costa Brava region of Spain, creating 50 sketches in six weeks; spent seven months in San Francisco, drawn to the city by its vibrant community of writers and artists, and opportunities that included illustrating the cover of legendary travel writer Don George’s latest book, The Way of Wanderlust; and completed a self-hosted residency in an artists’ house in Norway, where she began work on her own book, an illustrated travel memoir.

Candace Rardon illustration in Spain

When the going gets tough, as it often does in the world of freelancing, Rardon says she reminds herself that her work is seasonal in nature, and that a season of light work is often followed by a season of steady assignments. “The word I’ve come to believe is most important for freelancers is ‘tenacity’—which I feel implies a sense of grit and determination to hang in there,” says Rardon.

She also makes a point of stepping outside her work to connect with others, and to be open about who she is and what she’s passionate about. Rardon once landed a commission to paint an 85-foot-long mural at Google’s office in Bangkok simply by sharing some sketches she’d done while in southern Thailand with a woman she met at a holiday party. “You never know what you’re going to get back when you share what you love,” she said, “But it all starts with putting yourself out there.”

Kind of like stepping on the gas in a rickshaw in a traffic jam.

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