For a lot of people, the term ‘travel blogger’ conjures up images of endless free airline tickets, hotel stays, and tours in exchange for what is — basically — content advertising. My readers will know that’s not what I do.
I’d been at Bambu Hostel in Medellin for over a week before the fact I was a blogger even came up. I was sitting at the breakfast table, talking with Ram, the first Indian traveler I had met in South America.
We were talking about the vibe at the hostel. It’s hard to quantify the overall vibe of a hostel, since it changes all the time, depending on the people who are there. But, at Bambu — right then, right there — it was a good vibe. I’d been living in Bambu for a week, and I just kept extending my stay. Ram said he was tempted to stay longer too, “but I’m staying for free, and I don’t want to be that guy you know? ‘I’ll stay just a few more days…’” he told me, by way of explanation.
“You’re staying for free?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m a travel blogger,” he said. “I stay everywhere for free.”
I looked down at my phone, where I saw a worryingly low number in my bank account. I looked back up at Ram. “A travel blogger, you say? How many views do you get a month?”
He said a number that was significantly less than my number.
“Realllllly,” I said. “And you get free stuff with that?”
“Yeah man,” he responded. I write city guides, so before I go to a place I just email all the hostels and offer coverage in exchange for some free stay… usually enough places take me up on it that I don’t need to pay.”
I drank my coffee quietly. Ram and I traded blog addresses, and he headed off to do some sightseeing. I stayed at the hostel, where I spent the afternoon in the garden, smoking and playing chess with my friend Dylan.
Dylan had volunteered at Bambu, two years prior, and now he had brought me back. He was volunteering again, for a short spell, but I was still paying for a bed. Granted, it was $9 a night with free breakfast — a steal, in the fancy Poblado neighborhood of Medellin — but still. $0 a night sounded a lot better. And in this case, I knew I had the leverage I needed to get at least a few days for free.
Long story short, I got my free nights.
And in the end, I spent a month in Medellin — almost entirely at Bambu hostel. Most of that time
It was a place I enjoyed very much — from the fun and helpful presence of Nata, the owner, to drinking ‘mate’ and talking with the Argentinian volunteers, in their incredibly fast Spanish, to the great parties we attended in Poblado. And most importantly, I loved the time we spent playing chess in the garden out back. So much time, in fact, that the cleaning lady invited her husband by to play with us. The chess champion of his local barrio, he cleaned our clocks. Several times. But now at least, I know all the Spanish words for chess — or aljedrez, as they call it.
But the issue I’m faced with, when I sit down to write about Bambu, is: a lot of the things I enjoyed about the place aren’t things a business would usually want me to write about.
The story I have to tell about Bambu is flattering — it is nice. It has a soul. But it isn’t marketable.
Now, having taken compensation from them, I find myself questioning what type of story I should write.
Let me be clear — the staff at Bambu didn’t set forth any rules for what I could write or anything like that. In fact, we really didn’t discuss my blog much at all. I think Nata would have given me the free nights anyways, because I’d been there for so long by that point. I don’t think she really cares what I put forth.
But, the thing is, I have two conflicting impulses here:
1. I want to tell an honest, authentic story.
2. I also want to show gratitude for the great hospitality I received, and to help Bambu succeed.
But achieving the first goal will impede the second. Prioritizing the second goal will reduce my ability to achieve the first goal.
So, what is there to do?
Obviously, one of the great perks of running a successful travel blog is the opportunity for free or sponsored travel. That’s probably the greatest perk of the job, which otherwise involves a lot of time spent working for free, battling technical problems, and pulling hair out over spotty wifi on beautiful beaches.
Now, after two and a half years in the ‘business,’ I find myself in the position of having a successful travel blog.
A successful travel blog that’s built on a reputation for radical honesty, authenticity, and storytelling skills. You don’t come here for fluff. But brands, to be honest, are rarely looking for anything beyond fluff.
The story I have to tell about Bambu is a good story. There is an arc, there are characters, there’s emotion… but I almost don’t want to tell it, because certain parts don’t reflect all that well on a place that was kind to me.
This is the struggle with honest writing.
I met a pair of European travelers at Bambu — a German woman and her Dutch friend. They caught me at the kitchen table, tapping away at a blog post. “What are you doing?” the German asked me. I was kind of dismissive with her — I told her I was working on my book. She inquired a little further, and I told her she could read it here, on my blog.
She vanished, for a day or two. She came back, and told me she’d read the first bit. Now, she seemed a bit more interested in me. A few more days went by, and she read a little more. The next time she saw me, she was angry with me. She’d read the bit about the ceilings.
“You can’t just write stuff like that about people!” she said, her tone wavering between playful and serious. “Imagine if any of those women were to read that?”
I think about this often, of course.
When one has an audience, at least in the U.S., the next step is to start profiting off that audience. To convert, to get some sort of reward from the work I’ve put into this blog, I need to start selling. But I don’t know if I want to be selling brands to you, my readers. I think I’d much rather sell stories.
Of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to sell anything at all. But I am not yet a millionaire, and contrary to what some other blogs might tell you, extended international travel isn’t free.
Writing in-depth blog posts and stories with emotional depth takes time. Time for which I am not compensated — especially since I stopped running ads on the site.
So, going forward, maybe you’ll see a bit of sponsored or compensated content now and then. I’ll always let you know if that’s the case — I value our relationship, you and I.
So, for now, I’ll just say: if you happen find yourself in Medellin, Colombia, you should check out Bambu City House and Glamping. It’s probably not the best hostel in Medellin. But it is my favorite.
If you happen to get down there, say ‘hola’ to Nata for me!