Nikki Vargas, CALL YOU WHEN I LAND: A Memoir

Nikki Vargas, CALL YOU WHEN I LAND: A Memoir

Zibby speaks to Colombian immigrant and travel journalist Nikki Vargas about her soul-stirring travel memoir, CALL YOU WHEN I LAND, which whisks readers through the countries that brought her self-discovery, new love, and the inspiration to launch the first international feminist travel magazine, Unearth Women. Nikki reveals the beginning of her journey (as a runaway bride, screaming into the jungles of Argentina) and then describes her path to travel writing and the unique 3-part structure of her book (Turbulence, Changing Pitch, and Landing). She also talks about her magazine, highlighting the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial venture, and shares her plan to transition into fiction writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nikki. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Call You When I Land: A Memoir.

Nikki Vargas: Thank you so much for having me. I am so excited.

Zibby: Yay. Tell listeners everything about your book, which is, of course, yourself. Anyway, keep going.

Nikki: Call You When I Land is a travel memoir, but there’s so much more to it than travel, which I think surprises a lot of readers. It’s a love story. It’s a story about running away from a wedding last minute. It’s a story about chasing a career dream around the world and all the ebbs and flows and highs and lows that come with chasing a career dream. It’s a story about coming of age, of learning to embrace your own identity, your own heritage. It’s a little bit of a murder mystery, which throws people for a loop, but that’s in there too. Underneath all of it is travel and this constant thread that ties together this whole tumultuous coming-of-age journey. It is a travel memoir, but there’s a lot of storylines in there that make it so much more of an evolution.

Zibby: Let’s start with the runaway bride aspect. Talk about that. Go from there.

Nikki: The runaway bride aspect, the book begins in the jungles of Argentina. You find me a week before my wedding day. It’s this New York wedding that has been planned for months and months and months. I had been taking a backseat to that planning. There’s a lot of avoidance. There’s a lot of running away from my life in all the wrong ways. A lot of it is just youthful naïveté, just trying to not take seriously these big decisions I’m making that can come to define my adult life. After all of this avoidance and hiding and running away, you find me in the jungles of Argentina as a runaway bride screaming into the trees that I don’t want to get married. The reason I start the book there is because I think that that is really where the transformation begins. That’s sort of the prologue of the book. Then it rewinds and builds back up to that moment of how I got there and what led to that — why was I avoiding it? — and how I was using travel as a tool of avoidance. Then you move past that moment to see what happens next. The runaway bride part of it was absolutely the catalyst for this memoir because it was such an audacious decision at the time and surely, one that caused a lot of drama and a lot of pain, but it ultimately was one that set my life completely on course. I think that that was a great part of the book to really pin the transform to.

Zibby: So many people — I shouldn’t say so many people. A lot of people have doubts when they’re getting married. They’re getting closer to the date, but maybe the wedding is taking over. The momentum, like you discussed, the cart before the horse — you know what I’m — the cart is out of control. I don’t know.

Nikki: We’re both waking up. I get it.

Zibby: It’s early. I don’t know.

Nikki: I’m guzzling coffee.

Zibby: I know. I think that’s what I need. I need my second cup, but it’s only nine. Not everyone can make that decision and slam on the brakes like that. I know you go through this in how that developed. If you could say in a sentence, why could you do that? What was it about listening to the voice, even at the last second, that you feel like you could do that maybe is hard for other people to do?

Nikki: I think the truth is, to say it as concisely as I can, I had reached the point of no return. There was just no other decision to make. I, for months, had not been listening to my inner voice. I had been really avoiding everything that was going on in my life, not only this wedding, but the career decisions I was making. Everything I was doing, I was doing passively because it felt like that was the thing to do. I should be making others happy. It reached this point where I could not take another step forward without having this clandestine meeting with myself and figuring out, what is it that I want? That’s why I think a lot of people think, did you really scream into the trees? The answer is yes, I did because it had built up so much inside me that when I stopped to finally ask myself, okay, what is it you have to say? I didn’t think about the answer. I didn’t decide, now I shall scream into the trees dramatically. It just flew out of me, these words, because they had been so suppressed. There really isn’t a magic-bullet answer to that question. It really is just, I had pushed myself so, so, so far to the edge that there was nowhere else to go but to just take that jump and trust myself.

Zibby: I love that. I love that so much. When did you know that travel was your thing?

Nikki: Oh, gosh. Travel has always been this passion that was cultivated throughout my childhood in the form of family trips. When I became an adult and in my twenties, I realized that it could become a career. I became really attached to this idea of being a travel writer. I had always loved writing. I studied journalism. I had this passion for writing since I was a kid. When I learned that there is a career that combines those two passions, I was just gone. That really becomes a lot of pressure on that relationship that ultimately becomes the marriage I walk away from, this idea that I’m trying to chase my dreams literally around the world because I’m trying to be a travel writer. I’m trying to go to the farthest-flung places on earth to get these compelling stories. It starts to really rub up against this life I built in New York with this man who fell in love with me at a certain point when I wasn’t an adult, really. I mean, I was an adult, but when I was just fresh out of college.

Zibby: When I was twelve, I first got engaged.

Nikki: I was like, let me correct that statement real fast. When you enter your twenties, you’re so different than who you are when you exit them. There’s so much growth and evolution in this time period, arguably more so than in other decades of your life. I really, really, really wanted to try to convey that in the book, this massive amount of transformation happening in this short period of time.

Zibby: Don’t they say that your brain isn’t even fully formed until you’re twenty-five? Something like that.

Nikki: That’s absolutely true.

Zibby: Yet we’re all making these major life decisions. I had friends who got engaged in college. Not friends, plural. Okay, one person I knew. Well, I didn’t even really know her. She was friends with a friend of mine. Even still, she was twenty-one years old. I’m like, how? How can you possibly know? It’s impossible.

Nikki: You’re absolutely right. When I look back at that time period and I look back at how I was taking these major decisions in stride, moving in with someone, choosing career paths, choosing a future husband, discussing the idea of kids, when I look back at it and I see where I was mentally at that point in time, it seems almost laughable that I was just so cavalier about these decisions. I was making them the way I would make, yeah, we’ll go there for brunch. It was like, whatever, it’ll be fine. I’ll figure it out along the way. I am now thirty-six years old. It’s very different. Every decision I make is so intentional. There’s a lot of mindfulness behind those choices. There’s a level of carefree spontaneity that doesn’t happen anymore that did when I was in my twenties. I have to say, at the end of the day, for as messy and audacious and quite honestly, just all over the place that I was in my twenties, I’m glad I was that way because those giant swings got me to where I needed to go.

Zibby: Now that I’m at the wise old age of forty-seven, we can all look back and say, okay, that was so stressful. I felt like that was a mistake at the time, but it all made sense because it led up to now. Maybe it doesn’t always work out. Talk to me more about travel and how you build a career as a travel writer. What do you need? I’m not sure I’m the best traveler. I’m very picky about where I stay. I’m very picky about what I eat. I don’t like major routine disruptions. I probably am not the best travel writer, unless I only get to pick my spots. What are some of the secrets of great travel writing? Who are people you look up to as travel writers? How did you forge your way into that field?

Nikki: When I set out to be a travel writer, it was at the time that the world of blogging was really rising up. It was piercing the pop culture fabric. Now you are seeing things like the White House blog and news sources referencing blogs. It was really this new wave of writing. All of that is to say that when I graduated journalism school, there were really no jobs to be had. I decided, if you can’t beat them, join them, so I started a travel blog. The hope for this travel blog was that it would allow me to build up this portfolio of writing and eventually kind of kick my foot into the door and get in the industry. I really went about it a roundabout way. It took me most of my twenties to get to that point of becoming an on-staff travel writer and editor for a publication. In the time that it took me to get there, it really was about press trips. This is something that I’m very honest about in the book and I try to demystify.

For people who are not in my industry, the first question that comes to mind is, how? How were you going to Borneo? How were you just running away to Buenos Aires? How lavish. The answer is press trips. Press trips is one of the most fantastic parts of our job, which is to say, we have the ability to go on these free trips by virtue of being travel writers, whether we’re hosted by tourism boards or hotel brands or whatever it is. It’s really a tit-for-tat arrangement. They invite writers out to cover their destination or hotel. We write stories that feature said destination and hotel. It’s a symbiotic relationship. When I was trying to be a travel writer and instead, I became a travel blogger, I had stumbled into this world of creator trips, press trips, influencer trips. It allowed me to see the world at that age on an entry-level salary with no savings living in an apartment on 79th and 2nd that I could not afford. I took those trips and eventually were able to parlay them into stories, which led eventually to my first on-staff job. It was a really cobbled-together, roundabout way that took a long time, but eventually, I did become a travel writer.

To answer the other part of your question, travel writing, to me, I love the writing that’s a beautiful blend of personal narrative while also acknowledging the destination. I think sometimes it leans too much on one or the other where you get people kind of rehashing their emotions in the presence of a beautiful place, but you don’t know anything about the place. I love the writing that pairs the two. An example would be the late and great Anthony Bourdain. Outside of his television work, he was a phenomenal writer. His book, A Cook’s Tour, one of his early books, he had such an incredible power to draw you into a destination, connect you to a destination not only in the sights and sounds, but the history and the culture, and then also reveal some of his own emotional turmoil while in that destination. That is something I really tried to channel in Call You When I Land.

Zibby: Amazing. I listened to No Reservations. Isn’t that what it was called? I listened to it on audio as an audiobook with my husband on a long drive. It’s amazing.

Nikki: It is. He was great. He was a lot of things. He had his faults, but at the end of the day, he was an undeniably great writer.

Zibby: Tell me about writing this book. What was this process like? How long did it take? When did you know you were going to write a memoir? Then how did you structure it? Did you enjoy writing it? Just tell me all about the writing.

Nikki: The structure, I really love. The book is divided into three parts. Part one is Turbulence. They’re all aviation/travel. Part one, Turbulence, as it suggests, all the chapters in it are very turbulent. It’s meant to feel almost uncomfortable to the reader because I’m really drawing you into my mistakes and what I’m trying to figure out. Then that eventually gives way to Changing Pitch. That is an aviation term for when the nose of an airplane adjusts up and down, ultimately shifting direction of flight. All the chapters in part two of Changing Pitch are exactly that. It’s figuring it out, trying to find that equilibrium, redefining my life. Then obviously, it gets into Landing. Self-explanatory. You’re coming in at a landing and coming in on resolution. I really always had the idea of structuring it in these three buckets. The way the chapters are written, they are written in a very chronological, linear way, but they’re almost written like vignettes. It’s almost flashes in time. Each one is rooted in a place.

There were so many more trips I could’ve put in this book, but I intentionally wanted to choose trips where there was some level of epiphany or transformation that moved the story along. As much as I would’ve loved to just write about myself drinking margaritas in Mexico, I’m sure people just want to get to the good stuff. There was some trips that didn’t make the cut. All in all, I always had an idea for how I wanted this book to be. I knew I wanted to start it in the jungles of Argentina. I knew I wanted to trace this evolution through my twenties. It was cathartic to write, which I’m sure you hear a lot when you talk to people who’ve written memoirs. It was difficult, for sure. I think what surprised me the most is the parts that were difficult. Writing about the wedding was actually the easiest part because it was so long ago. There was so much time between that. The part that was the hardest was writing about Unearth Women. For those listening, Unearth Women was this women’s magazine I started in 2018 out of the depths of unemployment. Truly, it is not an exaggeration to say I was just drinking wine in my pajamas on a weeknight and thought to myself, I should start a women’s magazine, and then ran with it.

Zibby: I can totally relate to that, by the way, that type of thing. Anyway, keep going.

Nikki: As most great ideas begin, with a glass of wine in the middle of the night. It had this meteoric rise. It went from this idea born from the bottom of a glass of wine to becoming a magazine sold in over eight hundred Barnes & Noble bookstores across the country. Then it very promptly fell. We had to fold the print magazine. That was the most difficult part of the book for me to write because I realized it’s still so present. There’s still a level of unfolding I’m working with Unearth Women. It was a lot of fun. I’ll tell you what, there were a lot of dirty martinis that I had in the process of writing this book.

Zibby: I love it. The subtitle is Call You When I Land: From Wine on the Couch to Dirty Martinis. Nikki’s real life.

Nikki: Yes, exactly. It’s so funny. Spoiler alert, my now husband, he would come home sometimes — I remember one memory. He came home. I had my hair in a messy bun. I’m in pajamas. I’m all hunched at the computer typing manically, have this dirty martini in my hand, and I’m crying. He comes in. He’s like, “My god, what happened?” I’m like, “This is the scene where I say bye to –” Alex was my ex-fiancé — “my ex-fiancé.” He’s like, “Okay.” It’s that level of having to, in a way, shed dignity so you can really just let loose on the page and kind of drop that barrier. It’s such a fun, creative process, I have to say, as you well know.

Zibby: What contributed to the downfall of the magazine, or the success?

Nikki: I think the success came from the magazine being introduced at a moment in time where — it was around that cultural moment of Me Too, around Time’s Up where you’re getting a lot of overdue support for women, and particularly, women-led initiatives. Unearth Women was kind of sticking a flag in the travel media industry, which at that point was so largely male dominated, and saying, here’s a magazine for women, who make more than seventy percent of travel decisions but are often overlooked. Here’s a magazine just for you. We’re not only going to give you tips on how to travel, and really nuanced, thoughtful tips, but we’re also going to share stories about women doing incredible things around the world. It’s not going to be a novelty. It’s just going to be great stories. I think it just flew on the wings of that moment. Ultimately, what led to it folding is what leads to every print magazine folding right now. There’s not enough demand for print. Everything’s shifting to digital. It does still exist digitally. Unearth Women is now. I just loved the magazine so much. It just meant so much to me that it existed in the world as this tangible object, that it was in bookstores next to Afar and Travel + Leisure. To lose that really was, I say in the book, killing your darling. It really was a killing of my darling to give up that magazine.

Zibby: It’s interesting to talk about this because we have this magazine called Zibby Mag. I really want it to be print even though obviously, everything is going in the wrong direction. I feel like I keep leading my businesses in all of the ways where everyone’s like, bookstores, dying. Magazine, what are you doing? You’re going backwards.

Nikki: I love it, though.

Zibby: It’s totally different. I love when the magazines come that I love. I save them for a time when I can go through them. It’s not the same thing when I’m just scrolling through articles.

Nikki: What I will say about Zibby Mag — I actually am familiar with — I’m familiar with everything you’re doing in this space because I think it’s so amazing. For Zibby Mag, what I will say is that, take my lesson and learn from me. What I learned with Unearth Women magazine was that — we were trying to do it, at the time, quarterly. I wish that I had scaled back. I wish that I had allowed myself time to breathe in between issues. Instead, I just kept pushing, pushing, pushing because I was afraid that somebody else would swoop in and kind of step on our toes and take that opportunity away. In retrospect, what I now realize is that if I had scaled back, if I had done maybe two issues a year and done it more thoughtfully, targeted the New York market as opposed to just immediately go across the country where people haven’t even heard of it, if I had been slower and more intentional, who knows what would’ve been? I don’t think that it’s impossible to have an indie magazine. I actually think that there’s a real renaissance of indie magazines right now, but I think it has to be slow. Slow and steady wins the race.

Zibby: I don’t like slow. I’m not good at that.

Nikki: Neither am I, obviously.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, you aren’t either. Slow and steady? What race?

Nikki: You’re my soul sister here. We’re the same.

Zibby: I know. We’re the same. Oh, my goodness. Do you have plans for more books? What do you think?

Nikki: I do, yes. I am in the very early stages of writing my third book, which will be fiction. True to form, it will be very rooted in reality. I’m a little nervous about it, I will say, because everything I’ve ever written is nonfiction. Keep in mind, I am a journalist. My background is travel journalism. I’m now a travel editor at Fodor’s Travel. I’m a senior editor there. Everything I do, everything that I’ve done, what pays the bills is nonfiction writing. I am both nervous and thrilled for this opportunity to try my hand at fiction. This next book will be very different, which I am very much looking forward to.

Zibby: Wow. I wrote a novel after only writing nonfiction my entire life, basically. For me, I felt like I had to write many novels to figure out how to write a novel.

Nikki: I love that.

Zibby: I couldn’t just do it once, and I’m like, oh, yeah, I got this. Over and over and over again.

Nikki: How did you find that initial switch from nonfiction to fiction? Was it very jarring?

Zibby: At first, I was like, this is basically a memoir, but I’m making it fiction. Then I moved into, actually, I’m trying to write a novel. It’s still hard. I’m trying again now. I’m curious how you are finding it. Every time, I’m like, I don’t know, can I do? I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Nikki: I am very much in that same headspace. How I’m finding it is that I find myself writing nonfiction and then being like, wait, I can take liberties with this. I don’t have to be so to the book and to the letter. I can change these details. I can play this up. I can add this dialogue. I can switch this location. That’s very freeing. Obviously with memoir, you can’t do that. I do enjoy the liberties. My nature is to definitely stick to nonfiction, so I have to keep reminding myself, add, embellish. Have fun. You don’t have to color within the lines.

Zibby: I feel like we need to have a coffee and discuss this a little bit more.

Nikki: I would love it.

Zibby: One-sentence advice for aspiring authors?

Nikki: Take notes. Always take notes throughout your life. Even if you don’t have a book idea in mind, even if you’re not even sure you want to write a book, capture moments. Write down anything that inspires you. Keep journals if that’s you. Just takes notes. One of the biggest things that helped me in writing Call You When I Land and retracing my life over the past ten years was the fact that I had old journals. I had old notes. I had maps that I had written notes on about places I had been to when I was in Vietnam. I was able to cobble together all of this material and bring myself back to these moments and retrace steps and remember the name of that hostel in Hanoi that I had stayed at and then look on a map and find the place where I ate that bánh mì sandwich. At the time, I had no idea that I would write a book. I wasn’t doing it for a story. I was just doing it for myself and if future family members wanted to go to Hanoi and try that restaurant. Now I see the value in that. My biggest piece of advice is, keep track of things. Write it down. If you’re in a market in Europe, jot down a sentence of what it smells like, what it sounds like, what it feels like because it will bring you back and jog your memory in such a useful way.

Zibby: Amazing. Nikki, thank you so much. Call You When I Land. Congratulations.

Nikki: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure. Buh-bye.

Nikki: Bye.

CALL YOU WHEN I LAND: A Memoir by Nikki Vargas

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