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Many readers ask me how I make money to perpetually travel the world, and the answer generally lies in learning skills and trades that can be plied on the road. Paulo, from Paulo is Here, is a traveling massage therapist (amongst other things) and has successfully transformed his work skills into a fully functioning independent travel business.
I first met Paulo at the Finca Tatin in Guatemala, and subsequently agreed to take on his job working reception at the hotel while he went traveling in Mexico. During our time there together, I watched as Paulo employed an excellent multi-faceted approach to funding his travels: he volunteers at hostels or other places for room and board and then does massages on top of this to make money. In this way, Paulo has been living well as he travels a slow path across planet earth.
As I have been conducting interviews for my traveling micro-business series, I could think of no better traveler to include than Paulo. The following interview is about Paulo’s massage business and his broader travel strategy. It was conducted through email, as Paulo has returned to the Finca Tatin and is back to massaging its clientele — who tend to be sore and weary after long days of hiking, kayaking, and swimming in the jungle.
Could you tell us a little about how you use your massage skills to make money while traveling?
When I came to this hemisphere, I knew that eventually I would have to do something – er, work – to make some money. I checked several Mexican hostels, theme parks, and, although I found a few paid jobs, I wasn’t fully convinced, so I didn’t lift a finger. I’ll see what comes my way, I decided, there’s no rush in getting a job.
Then I landed on a Guatemalan jungle lodge and liked it, so decided to stay for a while as a volunteer. Got on really well with the owner and the staff and it wasn’t until a few months later that I realized that I should be looking into ways to make money.
One day this older guy asked for a massage, so I called all the hotels and agencies around and found no one. Then it hit me. I can do this!
“Dude, if you want I can give you a back rub. I’m fully trained. If you think I’m shite you own me nothing, but if you like it, then you pay what you think is fair.”
An hour later he gave me 200 Quetzals (25 dollars) and an even bigger contribution:
“Paulo,” he said, “you got skills. You should do it full time.”
I was in the prefect place, a jungle just by the river. I asked the owner, who agreed with it and even built a massage room for me. I went to L.A. (Lake Atitlan, not the other LA ;-)) to do a refreshers course, then to Guatemala City, where I managed to purchase, with the help of Couchsurfing friends, a great massage table for 600 Quetzals ($75), almond oil and white sheets.
Finally, it was just a question of which technique to advertise and how much should I charge. Initially, I listed six different massages but then cut it down to only three: Swedish, Deep Tissue, and Indian Head massage. Nearly everyone asks for a mix session, which I agree to do. I started charging 160 Quetzals ($20) – I thought was a fair price, – but I usually got Qz.200 ($25) because nearly everyone leaves a gratuity. The price remains the same.
In addition, I found out that I really like doing it. It’s a job that is never the same. Each person’s anatomy is different, each person’s needs is different, each person’s pain threshold is different. There’s no monotony at all. I’m always trying new techniques and new moves. If you can make money with something that you really enjoy doing, is that really considered a paid job or some paid hobby?
How did you learn to do massage? Did you go to school for it? Do you need any special certificates or certification?
I learned many things when I was a little boy [in Maderia], you see, my granny was the local sobadora so she taught me stuff like where not to touch, where to put your hands, how much pressure, how to stand, etc. The traditional approach, some might say. Throughout the years, I took a few massage workshops just to keep updated with the latest trends.
Funny that in the massage field, very little has changed in the last 30 years. I was watching a youtube video on Lomi lomi massage and some of the techniques shown were exactly like my grandmother taught me when I was little. Having said that, I have a couple of certificates, but nothing like a massage school degree.
How long have you been doing massages professionally? Did you ever formally work for business as a masseuse, or have you always worked independently?
All my life.
I never charged for the pleasure of a back rub until I got to Guatemala and decided that I would use my knowledge to finance my travels. I had found my micro business as you eloquently put it. Independent is the way! I don’t know if in the future I’ll join a SPA or something. Never say never, right?
How do you get clients, do you advertise, use word of mouth?
I don’t advertise (yet!). I just have a wee folder, sitting on a table, listing the different types of massage that I offer. If people are interested, they will come to me. I’m happy with that. Nevertheless, if I didn’t meet my quota then I would surely come up with ways to advertise it further. Actually, I have a long list of ways to get customers, which I intent to put to use once I leave Guatemala. And funnily enough, I’ve already tried one when passing through Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
You know the way every time you alight from a bus, there’s always a mob of tourist touts and hustlers waiting for you? You usually dodge them, refuse their “friendly help” or push them away if they’re too insistent. But, although they’re a pestering bunch, they are also people trying to make a living, so they can also be very useful.
Thus, arriving at Copan Ruinas, a smiley tourist tout walked up to me saying that he will take me to a nice and cheap hotel, and score me with women, drugs or whatever I needed. On the way to the hotel, I had an idea so I asked him if he’d like to earn five dollars. He smiled. “Of course hermano. What do I have to do?” I explained that I was a masseur and if he’d find customers for me he’d get a fiver.
Less than 4 hours later, I was chilling on a sofa, reading a book, when he stormed in the hotel with news and more smiles. He’d found me someone that had a long hike and needed a massage straight away. “Let’s go,” I said. I got paid 30 Dollars for one hour of my time. I handed the tout his deserved commission.
Five nights later, I left this Honduran village having performed six massages, which meant that my accommodation + food were fully paid for! I earned 30 bucks from each massage, my “agent’s” cut was $5, my hotel room was also $5 per night and food + beers expenses were like $10 per day. I left Copan Ruinas without having spent a single penny and with a surplus of crispy 70 dollars in my pocket.
Around how much money do you make from doing massage?
In Guatemala I’m charging 20 dollars. In Honduras, I charged 30. I’ll let you know once I get to San Salvador! There’s some good months and some excellent ones. On average, I perform four massages a week, so around $320 a month plus tips. My best month was December 2009, in which I made nearly $700.
Are you able to fully meet your travel expenses from doing massages?
Bien sur. See the Honduran example above.
What other strategies do you employ for keeping your costs of travel low?
I usually stay with Couchsurfing hosts. Then if I’m going to stay for a while longer I look into renting. Or I’ll volunteer at a cool hostel. That way I can have board and accommodation and just need a wee folder with my massage options.
There it is, a concise rundown of what it takes to make a living on the road. Going through Paulo’s answers it became apparent that many of the strategies behind his traveling micro-business could also be used for other forms of work or just taken outright. Lets look closer at the ingredients that made up Paulo’s traveling massage business:
1. Paulo identified a need to work- He wanted to travel perpetually, so he realized that he needed to work.
2. He identified a skill- He was good at doing massages and had some background knowledge and experience in the practice.
3. He made a connection between his skill and people willing to pay for it- He took a job at a hotel in the jungle of Guatemala, a place where clients tend to do a lot of hiking, swimming, kayaking, and other physical activities. Given these circumstances, many of the clients are willing to pay for massages. When I worked at the Finca Tatin, clients would come up to me almost daily requesting massages, and they would get disappointed when I had to tell them that our massage therapist, Paulo, was on vacation in Mexico.
4. He cultivated his skill- Rather than just hacking it, when Paulo realized that he could make a living off of doing massages he began actively cultivating his skills. He took a couple massage courses and began doing extensive book and internet study of various techniques.
5. Promoted his business- Paulo found effective ways to connect his services with clients. At the Finca Tatin, or at another hotel, Paulo is able to bring in clients just from leaving his booklet of massage offerings in plain view and verbally offering his services. In Honduras, he employed a promoter to bring in clients for him.
6. Matured his business- Paulo now has a regular line of clients coming in, and he is making enough money to live well. He matured his massage business to the point that he is able to subsist from it without taking it to extremes: he has balanced his work/ recreation ratio. This is important point for running a traveling micro-business, as there is no point in traveling if you need to work all the time. I suspect that Paulo could make more money and increase his clientele if wished to work longer hours and promoted his services farther, but there is no need for this: the point of a traveling micro-business is to make enough money to travel, not to get rich.
In conclusion, Paulo’s tactics for running his traveling business can be used for may other types of professions beyond massaging, it just takes self-knowledge, imagination, guts, and determination to make a living on the Open Road.
To read about Paulo’s recent experiences doing massage work in Guatemala, read his travel blog entry entitled, Dreams. The photo on this page was taken from that page. To find out more about Paulo, his travels, and massage work, visit his blog at Paulo is Here. To read more about Paulo on Vagabond Journey read Tote bag for travel and Minimalist travel packing.
This piece is part of a series about travelers who fund their travels from running independent micro-businesses. Follow the links at the top of this page or below the related posts to navigate through the other articles in this series.