18 Years Abroad – How We Created a Life Filled with Travel
How we created a life filled with travel is something we’re continually asked. As last year was our 18th year living abroad and we’re celebrating a few more milestones, we thought it time to share our epic journey (so far), some lessons learnt, mistakes made, and wisdom gained
Anyone who knows me knows I’m hopeless at remembering dates. I’m always forgetting birthdays and anniversaries – even our own. And yet we’ve had good reasons to clink glasses in recent months.
How We Created a Life Filled with Travel – Celebrating 18 Years Abroad
We’ve celebrated seven years of Grantourismo, 23 years of marriage, 33 years together, and we’ve now lived abroad, travelling and working around the world, for 18 years. Almost eight years of that period was as expats, a decade as digital nomads, and now we find ourselves as expats again, hosting culinary tours and travel and food writing and photography retreats, running a media company and writing a Cambodia cookbook from our home in Siem Reap.
I could call these personal milestones or professional achievements but the reality is that the personal and professional, our ‘home’ and ‘office’, work and leisure time blurred way back in the late 1980s – well before we decided to live out of our suitcases 11 years ago, and well before we left Australia ticking that ‘permanent departure’ box.
I’m not always sure we’re “living the dream” as we frequently get told – although it certainly feels like it when we’re on some fabulous trip, such as our 12-month grand tour of the world, an epic train journey across Australia, or we’re eating and sipping our way through a culinary capital like Barcelona, Paris, Tokyo, or Melbourne. Most people don’t realise how tough it can be working as a freelance travel writer and photographer.
Nor do I believe we’re “lucky”, which is the response I usually get when asked how long we’ve been away or how many countries we’ve been to – it wasn’t luck but hard work over many years to develop the knowledge, skills and experience to do the sort of work that enabled us to live and study abroad and travel the world.
Over the years we’ve thought nothing of working late nights and weekends, in airports and on planes, boats, buses, and trains. We’ve worked well into the wee hours dealing with editors and clients in different time zones that didn’t care that it was a Friday night and we should have been enjoying the start of our weekend. We’ve never really minded – until now.
In recent years I’ve written here about trying to achieve a better work-life balance. So far we’ve failed dismally, despite getting better at saying ‘no’ and pickier about who we work with. So this is the year we finally do it – finish work earlier, exercise, enjoy more downtime, have weekends to ourselves, and get back to Australia to see family and friends more often.
Having said that, we’ve got some exciting plans for Grantourismo this year, an exciting new site launching soon, and a Cambodian cookbook to continue with, among other projects. We’ll tell you more about those soon.
While I may not feel lucky, I do feel privileged, particularly during such tumultuous political times with massive migrations and a global refugee crisis that much of the world is ignoring. To have the freedom to travel that an Australian passport allows is a privilege. I’ve had friends with passports that don’t give them such liberties. Don’t think we take that for granted for a second.
Travel has the power to change, to open minds, and make us all more tolerant and understanding. As horribly clichéd as it sounds, I do believe that if everyone travelled more, if they were less self-absorbed, more empathetic, and engaged more meaningfully with the people they meet on their travels, the world really would be a better place.
I’ve used ‘celebrate’, but I should be using ‘marking’ instead, because there are downsides to living abroad. It’s hard to celebrate being apart from loved-ones for so long. I haven’t really experienced homesickness until recently, when I’ve found myself getting increasingly nostalgic and melancholic (my Russian is starting to show) yet I’ve always missed family and friends. I think that longing becomes more intense the older we get and become increasingly aware of our mortality.
Not a day goes by when I don’t spend time thinking about loved-ones. I don’t have many travel regrets, but I have regretted missing significant events that we were unable to return for: funerals, weddings, birthdays, births of children, and so on, as well as just generally being there for them when they needed us.
Mobile technology – email, messenger, social media, Skype, and the good old iPhone – go a long way in helping us stay in touch and connected with each other’s lives, but it’s not the same as being there to hold a hand, have a hug, clink glasses, or cook a meal with someone you love. I’m determined to change that this year, too. Again, I write that here so you can hold me to it!
Because I’m a writer, I need to finish one chapter before starting another, and as January has already ended and we’re already into February (this year is going too fast!), I thought I’d reflect upon our journey up until now before moving on, by answering one of our most asked questions: how we created a life filled with travel.
As I wrote this, because writing and for Terence writing and photography have been such a central part of our lives, I realised I was going some way in answering another question that you often ask us: how did we become travel writers? Or rather, how can you become a travel writer? I never know where to start, as it’s not an easy answer. So this is that. Let me begin from the beginning. Better go make a cup of tea – or pour a glass of wine…
18 Years Abroad – How We Created a Life Filled with Travel
The 11th January was our 23rd wedding anniversary, marking the day Terence and I married at the Little White Chapel in Las Vegas, following a six-week backpacking trip around Mexico, which included a rapid departure from Chiapas just two days before the Zapatista Uprising. Our honeymoon was a road trip along a stretch of Route 66 with detours to places inspired by songs our parents played when we were kids: By the time I get to Phoenix, 24 Hours from Tulsa, Is this the way to Amarillo, that sort of thing.
Though that’s not usually the date we pop a bottle of bubbly. That’s the 17th December, when things got serious, a decade before we eloped. So it was 33 years ago that we started this grand adventure that’s taken us to 80 countries more or less. I stopped counting at 72 when it struck me what a shallow exercise counting countries was. I’ll save that subject for another post.
Six months ago another milestone slipped by – our 18th year abroad. We left Sydney in mid-1998 when we moved to Abu Dhabi so I could teach filmmaking, writing and media studies to young Emirati women. We had planned to move to Buenos Aires and travel around South America.
First lesson: Life doesn’t always take you where you thought you had wanted to go.
January marked another significant date. In January 2006, I wound up a 7.5-year stint as an academic, Terence shut down a multimedia business, and we packed up our Dubai apartment and put our things in storage for what we envisaged would be 12 months on the road. Seven years later, we were still living out of our suitcases, bouncing around the world writing guidebooks and stories from hotel rooms and apartments.
The impetus to leave expat life was almost a year’s worth of guidebook commissions for Lonely Planet, whom Terence had found himself writing for full-time and I’d been writing for during holidays and weekends. By the end of that first year on the road, we would have stories published everywhere from The Independent in the UK to USA Today and a paid blogging gig that would lead us to develop Grantourismo.
On New Year’s Eve, Grantourismo turned seven. That date marks the launch of this site and our focus on slow, local and experiential travel, along with the start of our 2010 yearlong grand tour of the world and our quest to explore more authentic and enriching ways to move, to make travel more meaningful and more memorable.
So how was it that we created a life filled with travel, what have we learnt from it all, and what can we share from the journey? I could write a book on that subject – written over three days, my first draft of this post was 17,000 words! – but I went with a considerably condensed version instead.
It’s missing a whole lot, particularly the painful personal stuff, the messy machinations of print publishing, and the frustrations of our work, from travel mishaps and technology disasters to cancelled projects (after months of research) and the wasted hours chasing unpaid invoices, stolen images and plagiarists.
But as Terence used to say, when we were young and making movies, to alleviate my suffering as I watched yet another piece of 16mm film drop to the cutting room floor: “nobody is ever going to know what was meant to be there”.
We Started Travelling at a Young Age
We each thank our parents for the travel bug that bit us. Descendants of European immigrants, our families loved to roam. We both have treasured childhood travel memories of summer holidays spent caravanning and camping in Australia. Mine are of days spent swimming and fishing, sucking oysters from the shell that we’d gathered from the lake floor, evenings spent enjoying barbecues by the beach.
Both pairs of parents instilled in us a desire to travel from a young age. While my earliest travel memory is of a flight with mum from Sydney to Perth as a 4-year old, most of my recollections are from the back seat of a car – Namatjira landscapes, meat pies, I Spy, and starry skies.
Our parents were part of the generation of Australians that pioneered slow travel. In the 1970s, buying a 4WD and caravan and pulling the kids out of school for a year to circumnavigate Australia became a rite of passage. After my father learnt he’d probably die of kidney disease if he didn’t go on a dialysis machine, he decided we too should do ‘the big trip’. We set out on the requisite one-year around the country – only it turned into five.
Lesson learnt: Things always take longer than you think – especially travel.
That never-ending road trip taught me so much about our country and its peoples, about my family and myself. It took us to magic places that not many Aussies get to (places Terence and I later returned, researching and photographing guidebooks). The Jacaranda Junior World Atlas and Caravan and Camping Guide rarely left my lap and I became adept at researching and planning trips – as much as dreaming about places to go to. It would turn out to be the best schooling I’d have.
Wisdom gained: The greatest education parents can give their kids is travel.
We Invested in Our Educations
After five years on the road, including a life-changing year living in Alice Springs, my parents decided to settle us on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. We’d been en route to Sydney, so I could complete high school like a normal teen. The Sunshine Coast was where Terence and I met and in 1986, just a few months after I moved back to my hometown Sydney to go to uni, Terence joined me.
We both did intellectually rigorous communications degrees, studying film, writing and photography, with as much critical theory as creative production. I later did a masters degree in international studies and Terence completed his masters in media studies. I did another in screenwriting, before beginning a doctorate project on film and travel that I later (regretfully) had to abandon.
Terence and I have continually drawn from our educations throughout our lives. When people ask us “how do I become a travel writer/photographer?” we generally respond: “go to uni”. Not because you need a qualification, but choose the right degree and you’ll develop knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and creative skills that will stimulate you for a lifetime.
Or, you could just consult good bibliographies and educate yourself. I guarantee that you’ll learn a lot more from reading books than you will from attending conferences, trade shows and networking. Whether you’re writing or blogging, in the end it’s your ability to tell an insightful and engaging story that’s going to take you places.
Wisdom gained: The best thing you can give yourself is a good education, but study to learn, not advance your career/brand. And read – never stop reading.
We Pursued Our Passions
Our first decade together, Terence and I voraciously devoured books, movies, music, art, and food. I wrote for uni newspapers and cinema publications. Terence performed in bands, wrote songs and designed soundtracks. We made short films and a feature film and worked on friends’ projects. With other students we organised monthly mini film festivals. I had a teen fiction novel published by Harper Collins. Terence got serious about photography and we got involved in a photo gallery. It was a blast.
The feeling I recall most from those years was a sense of perpetually being excited and inspired by stuff – films, photos, books, places, food – feeling creatively stimulated and energised. We seemed to always be full of ideas and endlessly working on some sort of project.
We consumed food as much as film and music, developing an enthusiasm for all things culinary that competed with our creative pursuits. We went from weekends in dark rooms and editing suites to foraging in Chinatown markets for Asian greens.
While I was in South America ruminating over whether to make films or enter academia, Terence was in Sydney working nights at a friend’s restaurant, also pondering a career change. When I returned, he was cooking multi-course menus from the Rockpool cookbook one night, the French Laundry the next.
Our advice: Dedicate time to pursuing your passions. Don’t postpone doing things that you want to do. Challenge yourself and take risks.
We Developed Careers
Incredibly, throughout those years we held down serious day jobs and developed respectable careers. Terence went from technical writing and designing books to managing a department for one of Australia’s largest publishers and creating some of the country’s first travel sites. I spent seven years as a staffer to a very honourable member of parliament, starting in research/media, leaving as executive officer.
I resumed freelancing, juggling writing and teaching film with a bit of PR to pay the bills. It was then, after writing professionally for a decade, that I started to write on travel and food – I laboured over my first tiny piece on yum cha for three days! Terence and I then wrote and produced the first compact Sydney guide – an experience that would prove invaluable six years later when Lonely Planet invited me to do a writing test to become a guidebook author.
Our advice: Don’t feel pressured by all that ‘escape the cubicle’ BS to give up your day job to travel the world. Do what you want when and how you’re comfortable doing it. Hate your job? By all means, quit and travel. But know that you can have it all if you really want.
We Explored Our Backyards
As we were so busy working, studying and creating stuff during our first 12 years together, when we explored it was mostly locally. In summer, we’d drive to the beaches. We’d take the train to Cabramatta to slurp pho. We’d drive up to the Blue Mountains for fresh air or to Canberra for art shows. We did weekends away with friends to the Hunter Valley to buy wine or down to Melbourne to shop, eat, drink, and dance. We spent long weekends at my parents place on a lake near the beach.
Our advice: Until the time is right to venture overseas, travel locally. Explore your backyard. Do staycations, weekend escapes or weeklong getaways. The important thing is to travel and develop a sense of curiosity.
We Went Off-the-Beaten-Track
For most Aussies their first trip overseas is to Bali – either with family or for ‘schoolies’ week (ie. a high school graduation holiday with friends). The second trip is often to Thailand. Maybe to New Zealand to go skiing. Just like the Brits, many young Aussies take a gap year, either between high school and university or between end of uni and work. Straight from school the tendency is to backpack Asia. Post-university, it’s to ‘do Europe’ then work in London. Some stay for years.
Our first overseas trip in 1993 wasn’t until I was 26 and Terence 29. It was that Mexico backpacking trip and US road trip (the one where we eloped) via Tokyo on a short stopover. Next, we travelled to Cuba via Mexico. I did my big Latin American trip to ten countries. Now I realise I was a ‘solo woman traveller’, although in those pre-blogging/social media days, it really wasn’t a big deal for a woman to travel alone. Then Terence and I moved abroad to live in the Middle East.
Aussies travelling to Tokyo, Mexico, Cuba, and even (the safe bits of) the Middle East isn’t so unusual now, but it was then. Tokyo aside, they were perceived as dangerous places, places where foreigners got robbed or even kidnapped. Tokyo was off the beaten path because of language barriers and because it was just so different. But that’s partly why we chose those destinations. I want to write more about that in another post.
Our advice: When you travel, avoid your own kind as much as possible. Go to places where they don’t go, where people don’t speak your language or eat your food. Get out of your comfort zone.
I Studied Abroad
After my bachelor’s, I had no plans to do another degree. I wanted to make another feature film. Then I saw an ad for a new two-year international studies programme specialising in a world region (I chose Latin America), a language (Spanish) and a year of in-country study. I have to confess, I was exhausted from our first feature film, feeling a little lost, and the course excited me more than making movies. I thought it might provide the re-boot I needed. And it did.
I applied, was accepted, and proposed a research project on Latin American cinema that would take me to ten countries over twelve months on an itinerary I crafted around film festivals. Courses on modernisation and globalisation, making of the third world, and social communication and cultural power prepared me for the trip by providing context and a new lens through which to see the world.
Doing that degree was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The course, the project, and the trip gave me a renewed sense of purpose and it changed me. It also gave me my first experiences teaching filmmaking to foreign women (in shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro and Lima) and working on the road. My study abroad year was 1997. I’d bought an IBM ThinkPad the day before I flew out of Australia, having never owned a laptop before.
During film festivals, I watched films and interviewed filmmakers and academics. In between festivals I travelled, read and wrote up my thesis – in hostels, hotels, libraries, parks, cafés, and bars. I carried the laptop with me everywhere, fearful that something might happen to it and I’d lose all my work.
We had some adventures that laptop and I – like on the overnight bus in Bolivia when it slipped out of the jacket I had wrapped it in and slid along the floor from the back almost to the driver’s seat. I had to retrieve it from beneath the petticoats of two sleeping women in bowler hats and layers of skirts, with cages of chickens on their laps. Then there was the time I took it on the Inca Trail. Not to mention Bolivia’s Death Road.
After I returned to Australia, earlier than planned – I’d finished my research, was homesick, was running out of money, and wanted to be back for Christmas – it wasn’t long before I was itching to leave again.
Lessons learned: Sometimes you need to get a little lost to find your way – to get back on track, study or travel.
Wisdom gained: Travel with a sense of purpose – whether to study, do a project, learn a language, or create something – is travel that is more engaging and more immersive. It’s a deeper kind of travel that affects you in ways you could never imagine.
We Moved Abroad
When I returned from Latin America, I suggested to Terence that we move to Buenos Aires. He didn’t need much persuading. Flicking through the paper one day I spotted a job teaching media production at a women’s college in the UAE. I bought a Lonely Planet Gulf States guidebook (Google wouldn’t be launched for another six months), applied, did an interview via video conference (no Skype either), and got the job. In those days, as Terence used to say, nobody could pin Abu Dhabi or Dubai on a map. The tourism boom came much later. I’m sure our friends thought we were mad.
In mid-1998, Terence left his management job in publishing, I submitted my thesis and finished up freelance contracts, we packed up our apartment, put our things in storage, and flew to Abu Dhabi with suitcases full of books and films (mine) and several guitars (Terence’s). I had a three-year contract. We thought we’d stay a year. We left 7.5 years later, moving to Dubai at the start of year five after I was promoted.
Our advice: Be prepared to put your dreams and best laid plans aside to take advantage of incredible opportunities. You can’t imagine where they’ll take you.
We Became Expats
We became expats and it was exciting! After I signed my contract, we were sent air tickets to Abu Dhabi, met at the airport, sped through immigration, put up at a plush hotel, and handed an envelope of cash. The next day we were taken to the bank to open an account, to the hospital for health checks, to the shops to buy furniture, and given keys to our new apartment. This was serious! Best of all: we had UAE resident visas in our passports – and we were given a license to purchase liquor.
As I quickly learnt, some expats live in bubbles, only socialising with their own kind. Determined not to do that, I politely declined an invitation to join the Australia Club. Every day after work we explored a different neighbourhood or rollerbladed the breathtaking Corniche. In the evening we’d wander the atmospheric old souk, buying frankincense and sipping fresh mango juice.
We adopted local rituals, especially when it came to food and drink. Weekend mornings were for washing down honey-soaked baklava with mint tea or syrupy Arabic coffee. For dinner, we tucked into Lebanese or Southern Indian at small fluoro-lit backstreet eateries. I accepted everything my students offered and became especially smitten with za’atar croissants and chocolate covered dates.
But it was our jobs that gave us the most enriching experiences. I worked with over a hundred different nationalities, and taught young Emirati women of Bedouin heritage day in day out. We became close; initially they were like daughters, later like sisters, and as graduates they became friends. I attended their weddings, celebrated their children’s births, and comforted them at the deaths of family members.
Terence worked as an editor at Abu Dhabi TV for a bit, mainly with Arab colleagues, before signing a contract as a multimedia producer specialising in interactive storytelling for the institution I worked for. Later he returned to web design with an Iraqi business partner.
Lesson learned: Being expats gives you a deep insight into everyday life that’s impossible to get as long-term travellers or digital nomads.
Our advice: Once again, ignore the ‘escape the cubicle’ advice. We’d never actually worked in cubicles until we moved to the UAE. If you want to go overseas and really immerse yourself in a new place and its culture, get a job.
We Travelled Like Never Before
We had a stupid number of holidays: two weeks for winter (maybe three if the break coincided with a public holiday); 6-8 weeks for summer depending on how many extra days I earned for curriculum development and borrowed days from the next year (these days that would be called ‘holiday hacking’). Plus we had loads of five-day breaks and long weekends for religious and national holidays. Not to mention days of mourning when a local or regional leader died.
We made a three-year travel plan and, while I abhor the idea now, I started counting countries. At one point my goal was to work our way through the CNN Weather list. (I’m groaning just thinking about it). We decided to tick off Emirates Airlines destinations instead to earn points. It was good decision. We flew Business for years.
We developed holiday rituals. We split the long summer between 2-3 European countries: Italy, Spain and Portugal, Turkey and Greece, Croatia and Italy, and so on. Winter holidays were spent in cold climates – a week so Terence could snowboard and I could read books and sip wine by a fireplace, then a week road tripping or eating our way around a city or region.
We went to Morocco, where we skied (which was as crazy as it sounds; no lift meant we hiked up the hill and skied down); we had Christmas in Baqueira-Beret (where Terence learnt to snowboard) followed by a Catalunya road trip to Barcelona; Cortina d’Ampezzo, and a drive through the Dolomites to the Italian Lakes and Milan; Geneva to the French Alps; Munich and the Black Forest, etc.
All expats say this, but we really did feel like the world was our oyster. We could go anywhere, do anything – skiing in Lebanon, sailing in Turkey – and it was addictive. I brought my parents to the UAE to visit and encouraged friends to come stay, so we didn’t have to return to Australia.
Wisdom gained: There are few better ways to see the world than as an expat. Working in a place with a handsome, regular income means you can afford to travel well and travel often.
We Immersed Ourselves in the Middle East
Long weekends and religious holidays (which averaged five days), along with the many mourning periods when regional leaders died (anything from three to ten days) were spent in the neighbourhood – Muscat, Beirut, Bahrain, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo, Istanbul, Cyprus, Mumbai, and Marrakech.
One of the first things we did after we arrived in Abu Dhabi was buy books on Arabia and the Middle East and weekends were spent reading Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark by the swimming pool. That reading made the experience of exploring all the richer.
There was a lot of time to think and dream about the big summer trips – I started planning the second I received the new academic calendar – but there was little time to plan for Islamic holidays, such as Eid al Adha and Ramadan, as their start dates depended on the sighting of the moon.
For weeks and days we’d all predict when that might be. Once it was announced I’d head to the Emirates Airlines office to see what promotions they had and what flights were available. In those days that process could take hours. There were many times when I was picking up visas and air tickets an hour or two before we had to head to the airport. But that spur-of-the-moment travel was exciting.
Over the years we saw a lot of the Middle East. My only regrets were not getting to Iran and Yemen. They were so close, I had students with Yemeni and Persian heritage to had contacts for us, and I knew filmmakers from those countries. Iran was easy to visit, there were no restrictions for us. We just never got around to it. And every time we planned a Yemen trip, there’d be a kidnapping.
Lesson learned: As an expat, explore your backyard. Resist the temptation always to travel far. Experience the things right under your nose that won’t be so easy to do when you leave.
We Became Guidebook Authors
We’d been Lonely Planet users for a while, but that seemed set to change after one of our European summer holidays when we went to a certain country for six weeks and left thinking four would have been enough. We’d relied exclusively on a Lonely Planet guide and it let us down horribly – out of date information and reviews that didn’t appear to represent the places we actually went to, stayed in and ate at. Our reaction was typical: had the author even been there in recent years?
When we returned to Abu Dhabi, we complained to our friend whose sister worked for Lonely Planet and she suggested we send them feedback. At the very least they’d send us a free book, she said, and guidebooks were ridiculously overpriced in the UAE at the time. LP invited us to write for them.
You see, I’d been scribbling in journals since my first trip to South America and keeping trip notes since we wrote our Sydney city guide years before. After I sent LP feedback that was so detailed and critiques that read like reviews, they responded with an invitation to do a writing test. I was still teaching, but I was considering leaving and we wanted to keep our options open.
I did the test, we were put on their authors list, and invited to do a Dubai guide. That book would be postponed but there would be other commissions first, including Milan, written in a hot hotel room in the summer of 2004, and a Syria and Lebanon book that required combining two older country guides, writing a tonne of fresh content, and updating existing text. If you know Syria and Lebanon and the politics of the region, it was a bad idea that wasn’t received well locally.
It was a challenging project, as was the update we did years later, but they were two of our favourite countries. Lebanon was the second country we visited (after Oman) in 1998 after moving to Abu Dhabi. A Sydney friend came to stay and the three of us hopped on a plane to Beirut and had a wild New Year’s Eve in Jounieh. Terence and I visited Syria not long after, focusing on Damascus, Aleppo, and the key archaeological sites, and we fell in love with the country.
Just as I was thinking of leaving, I was offered a promotion in Dubai. As my work became more demanding, Terence, who’d started a web design business from home, took on the bulk of the guidebook writing. I’d plan his trips and he’d fly out to do the research.
When the Dubai guide finally came up, we researched and wrote it on weekends and holidays, and when offers came in to do European titles we aligned those with my long summer holidays. Terence took the lead and pulled me in to do chapters on sights, arts/culture and shopping, and – my specialty – itineraries.
It came at the right time. Terence was able to juggle books and websites and closely watch the weather reports so he could squeeze in some snowboarding in Lebanon. I was feeling as if I’d lost a lot of myself to an increasingly demanding job, and having devoted years to my students, it was time for me to get creative again. Guidebook writing was a step in that direction.
Our advice: If you want to become a travel writer – whether for print or digital – have a go at guidebook writing. It will teach you as much about yourself as the place you’re writing on.
On Travel Guidebook Writing
At that point, we loved doing the guidebooks. The frustrations would come much later. Guidebook authors get a lot of shit – mainly for things like places being closed (largely due to the long publishing process, which means books are out of date by the time they hit the shelves) and dots on maps being in the wrong spots (generally because a designer has not placed them correctly).
Of course there are guidebook authors who are lazy or a tight turnaround means they run out of time to check everything or they simply don’t have good attention to detail. Most guidebook publishers pay crap fees (not LP; not then anyway), which do nothing to motivate writers to do a thorough job. But at that stage, we still loved the work and took a lot of pride in it.
Of all the different genres of travel writing, nothing compares with guidebook writing when it comes to getting to know a place. I loved the intimacy that comes with walking every street, boulevard, lane, and arcade of a city – multiple times – and the immersion into the culture and everyday life.
You can’t flit in and out of a destination in a few days as most magazine and newspaper writers do. A guidebook update can take months. And nobody is going to organise your trip for you. There are no famils for guidebook writers. Besides, you wouldn’t want them to, as guidebooks are written for independent travellers and guidebook authors like to organise their own trips so they’re better able to help travellers to.
As a guidebook author, you have to experience everything, from checking into as many hotels as you can and checking out as many sights as possible, to eating and drinking in as many cafés, restaurants and bars as you’re able in the time available. You’ve got to research the history, geography, politics, culture, society, and contemporary affairs of the place, learn a little language, and connect with everyone from museum curators to chefs, artists to tour guides. You’ll also end up scrutinising as many bus timetables, as you will put dots on maps. It’s not all fun.
Lesson learned: Of the many genres of travel writing, authoring guidebooks is all at once the most tedious and time-consuming yet in many ways by far the most enriching and rewarding.
We Became a Writer-Photographer Team
Terence ended up shooting photos for the books we were doing for LP. It was inevitable. He’d studied photography and used to shoot images for the books he designed in Sydney. The additional income from photography meant that guidebook work was very lucrative for us, as we both wrote, so we could share the workload, and finish a book in half the time of a single author updating a title.
On the downside for us as Dubai writers, it meant that in the UAE we no longer had the anonymity as guidebook authors, which had supposedly been a requirement of working for LP. We now had to identify ourselves to get permission to shoot images. Dubai is not the kind of place where you can sneak in to shoot photos in a five-star hotel. As one PR said of Dubai’s hotel lobbies: “You might find anyone from Israeli spies to rich and famous men with women who aren’t their wives.”
It wasn’t long before an Asian travel magazine reached out offering us writing gigs. Initially hotel reviews, then city guides, and not long after destination features. I wrote and Terence shot the stories. And it wasn’t long before we had a 10-page feature published on a Moroccan road trip we’d taken my mum on. It was exciting to see my words and Terence’s beautiful photography in that format.
Not long after that, more offers of work came in, from newspapers and in-flight magazines, as well as rival guidebook publishers. We may have been in the right place at the right time, when Dubai began to get attention. But we also had the skills and experience that enabled us to accept that work. Although frustratingly, due to our contracts with LP that prevented us working for competitive publishers on the same destination, we also had to decline opportunities.
Lesson learned: Find a partner with compatible skills!
Just joking. But while it seemed like things were serendipitously falling into place, if we hadn’t have had the skills and experience that we did, we wouldn’t have been able to accept the work.
Our advice: Keep learning and expanding your skills and building experience so you can be flexible and accept new opportunities.
We Became Destination Experts
Was it serendipity or did the stars align? But no sooner had I quit my job in September 2005 and started the final semester of work and all the preparation that goes into extracting yourself from a country you’ve lived in for 7.5 years, that the travel writing and photography work started trickling in. By January we were drowning in it.
After authoring a handful of guidebooks to a place you’ve lived in for many years, you inevitably become destination experts. Occasionally Lonely Planet PRs would direct a reporter our way who needed quotes on Dubai or a radio journo to do an interview. Though it wasn’t nearly as many opportunities as we expected. Because a big chunk of the world still hadn’t caught onto the fact that tourism was booming in Dubai.
As we were starting to think about packing up the apartment and preparing for winter in Europe and our first LP gigs – I was commissioned to write some Paris walking tour scripts (Terence had already authored a Best of Paris book that I’d helped with) and we had a Belgium book update after that – we were inundated with work. It was all on Dubai, Cairo, Beirut, Muscat, and Qatar.
Aside from the European work for Lonely Planet that would end up taking us to Paris, Belgium, Greece, and Amsterdam in 2006, everything else offered was in the Middle East. Just as we were packing up our Dubai apartment we were inundated with offers that could have kept us there. It seemed crazy to be leaving just as we’d established ourselves as destination experts and tourism in Dubai was booming, but it was time for a change and time to take risks.
Our advice: (without the risk of sounding repetitive) Take risks and get out of your comfort zone – especially when things start to get too comfortable.
We Became Location Independent Digital Nomads
So we embarked on our global adventure, living out of our suitcases and travelling the world as writers and Terence also as a photographer. Our months-long guidebook projects would be punctuated by breaks of a few weeks to travel for pleasure rather than work. Although of course work was an absolute pleasure. We were living the dream/we had dream jobs – or so everyone kept telling us and would continue to tell us for years to come.
We were living in places for a month or two at a time, working out of apartments and hotel rooms. Wherever we, and our laptops, were became our offices, whether it was a hotel room in Paris, a studio in Antwerp, a penthouse in Brussels, or a canal house in Amsterdam. We became location independent. All we needed were our MacBooks and Internet.
Without realising it we became what is these days called digital nomads, although nobody really described our work that way back in 2006. While it might have been a new way of working for so many professions, guidebook writers had long worked on the road, going on months-long research trips to update books.
The difference was that they’d move at a fairly fast pace to cover a lot of territory, maybe moving places every couple of days if they were updating a region or country. They’d then cart their backpacks crammed with books, press kits, brochures, menus, and business cards back home to write up the book.
The difference with the way that we had decided to do things was that we were going to do both research and writing – and for Terence, in some cases, photography as well – on the road. We no longer had a home to return to.
Instead, we’d settle into places, start our research, and write up as we went. During the final couple of weeks of write-up, if we realised we’d forgot to check out a bar or we noticed a new restaurant had opened we’d just pop out and check it out. It meant the books were far more thoroughly updated and more up to date than most guidebooks.
The idea for guidebook writers to work in this way may have been novel, but techies had been working on the road for a while.
On Working Anywhere, Anytime
Back in 2002, it had been an Intel PR executive who had introduced me to the idea of “location independence” when he invited our young Emirati women students to produce creative projects that communicated what he described as a “new work order” and the idea of being able to “work anywhere anytime”. “The laptop with its wireless connectivity opens vistas that some people have not yet dreamt of,” he told the students in their briefing.
Intel had categorised its staff into “nomads – heavy users of remote access and mobile IT, whether while travelling or working in remote offices technology” and “global collaborators – interface often with people around the world, they resemble nomads, but work across time zones and need access to collaboration tools, anywhere, anytime”. I’d wondered if they saw a synergy with our students who were of Bedouin heritage.
Of course the project was all about Intel promoting their new faster mobile technology that offered longer battery life than ever before and complete wireless connectivity, giving greater freedom and flexibility to work ‘anywhere, anytime’. But they were giving our students complete freedom to be creative – and a new laptop. They were dream clients.
I recall, as I typed up those notes from the meeting into a student brief, thinking how exciting it was (“I can work by the pool!”) but it wasn’t until I saw the students’ projects that I started to get other ideas. In one, a young woman worked on her wireless (!) laptop in the middle of the desert, surrounded by towering red sand dunes. That idea captured my imagination. I’m not sure that Intel gets the credit it deserves for its vision and the way in which they contributed to changing the way that so many of us would work.
At the time, I could not have imagined that in four years we’d be location independent, travelling the world working anywhere, anytime.
Lesson learned: Technology may have just been a tool for us, but it was able to inspire a whole new way of working and a lifestyle change.
We Became Bloggers
Along with commissions to do stories for everything from The Independent newspaper to Hemispheres in-flight magazine, in 2006 we were invited to blog for a stylish design-focused shopping site – and it was a paying gig, too. We wrote about hip hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops we discovered on our travels. And that was the birth of Grantourismo in its earliest but very different incarnation.
Lonely Planet also asked us to blog our two-month road trip to update half of the Greece guide, and the following year we each started (now defunct) personal blogs – ironically, in response to frustrations with guidebook writing. The personal blogs were spaces where we could write about the things we couldn’t write about in the guidebooks we were authoring.
My blog explored ‘why we travel’, focusing on the everyday life of places and the things I thought were cool about travel. My first post was about Aleppo’s souks and the stallholders’ siesta. Terence wrote about ‘people, places and plates’ – a theme he continues to focus on – covering everything from his work as a photographer to ragu Bolognese on his blog Wide Angles, Wine and Wanderlust.
The blogs offered creative outlets – places to explore an idea and reflect upon our travels and work, occasionally have a whine, sometimes philosophise. The freedom that blogging gave us to scribble about anything and everything that crossed our mind was the appeal. Nobody was monetizing blogs or getting anxious about SEO yet. Blogs were a bit like the indy magazines of the 1980s. How quickly that would change.
The Travel and the Writing Continued
For four years our main income came primarily from writing and photography for guidebooks, with an ever-increasing number of feature stories, city guides and itinerary-driven pieces for newspapers and magazines (travel, in-flights, hotel, and business magazines) and, soon, websites.
By early 2009, we were beginning to get weary of bouncing around the planet. We’d been to almost every European country, from Scandinavia and the Baltics to the southernmost Mediterranean, and flew down to Australia more times during that period than we had since we left in 1998, for personal family reasons I don’t want to go into now, and for work (thanks to Lonely Planet who appreciated our situation and need to be ‘home’).
A highlight was a couple of months in Buenos Aires, where we did the last book we’d do for Lonely Planet. We’d already stopped writing for LP on Dubai so we could accept more lucrative first edition books on the UAE for competitors such as Dorling Kindersley, which our LP contract had prohibited us from doing.
After that we began writing for other guidebook publishers and would quickly learn that while LP could be frustrating to work for, they paid by far the best of any publishers, were the most professional and systematic, and they treated their writers the best.
We also spent a lot of time in the Middle East, mainly working for in-flight magazines, covering the Arabian Peninsula countries, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Levant, writing about everything from street food in Amman to Aleppan cuisine.
And we did some immensely-satisfying, long profiles for a business travel magazine, which took us to Israel for the first time – somewhere we couldn’t go as expats with UAE resident visas. For a while there we were passing through Dubai so many times it felt like we were living there again.
We Became the World’s First Professional Travel Bloggers*
As we wrote up our guidebooks in apartments in Amsterdam, Milan, Palma di Mallorca, Brussels, and Buenos Aires, we began to develop an idea for a yearlong trip that would enable us to do what we’d been doing for a few years – renting apartments in a place, learning to like locals, shopping the markets, cooking the food, learning a little of the language – and blogging about it. For us, it was the best way to travel: slowly, locally, and experientially.
Our inspiration was the European grand tour and the idea really started to take shape during months of road tripping across Northern Italy for three different guidebooks. The first little Grantourismo blog had fizzled out and the name encapsulated what we wanted to do.
Our idea was to spend a month each in 12 places, living like locals, and learning things. Terence wanted to focus on learning to cook the quintessential dishes of places and learn a musical instrument in each. I aimed to learn a little bit of the language and anything from bead-making in Kenya to silver-making in San Miguel de Allende.
In mid 2009, just as we started to seriously plan our Grantourismo project in my uncle’s kitchen in Bendigo and were tossing around ideas as to how we’d finance it, I saw an ad on Travemedia from HomeAwayUK who were looking for a travel writer-photographer couple. I applied and they responded, proposing an ‘Around the World in 80 Stays’ project. We’d done that kind of crazy travel, spending way too much time in airports, and weren’t interested. We predicted that the people who took it on wouldn’t survive six months – and it wouldn’t be us.
At the time HomeAway was the world’s largest holiday rental site. There were many other companies like it (and still are), from VRBO to Holiday Lettings, and while Airbnb would start that year, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar and wouldn’t be for another year or two.
We proposed our grand tour. Our aim of encouraging travellers to live like locals by promoting slow, local and experiential travel was more aligned with HomeAway’s goals than their own project. After a few months of negotiation, we agreed to compromise – we’d move ‘homes’ every two weeks. We signed contracts, packed, and flew to Dubai to soft-launch the project in a luxury villa on Dubai Palm and then to London for the proper launch in a beautiful penthouse.
If you’ve been reading Grantourismo since then, the rest is history.
That was our dream project – an all expenses paid job for a year that would take us around the world doing exactly what we loved to do. It was bloody hard work but we had a blast, travelling and living exactly the way we loved to.
And we unwittingly become the world’s first professional travel bloggers (according to academics who contacted me in the years that followed). Up until then there had been blogging competitions such as Tourism Queensland’s Best Job in the World, that was open to anyone to enter, but HomeAwayUK had sought out a professional travel writer-photographer couple to blog full-time.
When it finished, the project would open more doors, pivoting us in a different direction yet again, leading to both more digital work and more (albeit much shorter) projects with travel brands. It would prove challenging, as while we still wanted to continue Grantourismo, we wanted to resume writing and shooting beautiful feature stories for magazines.
The following year, in February 2011, I reflected upon how our roles as writers had evolved in this piece for TNOOZ on An Entrepreneurial Model for Travel Writers Working in an Evolving Media. It was in response to a blogger who claimed print was dead and blogging was the future. It came at a time of massive change in the blogosphere, with more and more blogs beginning to monetise and go ‘professional’ and an increasing number of travel writers beginning to blog. Nobody was talking about influencers back then. As I said: how quickly things change.
What Happened Next
The years since our 2010 round-the-world grand tour, and all our travels around Asia, Australia and beyond, are documented here on Grantourismo. Just click on any of the destinations and you’ll see what we’ve been up to.
We’ve continued to work a little differently to both other travel writers and bloggers, in that entrepreneurial style that I described in that TNOOZ post. At times that has been wonderful, as it’s allowed us to move between magazines and websites, and given us the freedom to develop our own projects and businesses.
However, at times we’ve juggled way too many jobs and projects, including some nightmares – from an underpaid editor-at-large gig for a dysfunctional Asian travel magazine (what was I thinking?) to a few guidebook projects from hell that made me appreciate how professional Lonely Planet had (mostly) been.
Interestingly, print didn’t die, despite all those predictions, and in fact some magazines have flourished and more and more niche travel and food magazines are launched every week. By contrast, many of the websites and digital companies we’ve worked for over the years have folded.
We’ve continued to write for print. We still love the smell of a new magazine, just as we loved the smell of film – there are few bigger thrills for writers than seeing your 10-page feature published in your favourite magazine. We’re no exception. The only thing we could have done without were the gigs for publications that took forever to pay us.
Our Lives Went Full Circle
As I hinted at, some of the biggest challenges during our 18 years abroad, especially for me, have been personal – from dear dad dying of pancreatic cancer when we lived in Abu Dhabi to mum getting hit by a vehicle and put into an induced coma, to my sister going through a very stressful divorce and all that entails.
I’ve tried to do what I could at the time – from taking dad on his final dream holiday to Malaysia and Singapore and a road trip in Australia to see family, to taking my mum on a European grand tour to help her heal following his death. My sister’s dream trip is still to come! But it’s never enough and can never be enough.
After our grand tour ended we returned to Australia to catch up with family and friends and spent the good chunk of a year there. But we knew we weren’t ready to return to Australia permanently yet, so we decided to move to Asia, so we could be closer to ‘home’.
We settled in Bangkok for a while, before moving to Phnom Penh. We’d only been there for a month – I was editing that dreaded magazine and we were doing stories for everything from in-flights to newspapers – when we were asked to go on assignment to Hanoi. Our one-month trip turned into three. As they have a tendency to do.
As we were making our way south to the Cambodian capital, we stopped in Hoi An, fell in love with the town, food and people, and stayed another three months, writing stories on everything from cao lau to the restaurants, hotels and shopping. We only left Hoi An because we couldn’t renew our Vietnam visa again without leaving the country, but our plan was to return.
On our way to Saigon via a stop in Mui Ne for a story on fish sauce, we realised that our time in Hoi An had made us appreciate small town life. We returned to Phnom Penh, collected the luggage we’d stored, and moved to Siem Reap. Three and half years later, we’re still here, with no plans to leave.
We’ve become expats again and Siem Reap has become the base for exploring Asia that Dubai was for discovering the Middle East.
Our advice: Stop counting countries. Don’t do those 20 countries in 30 days “if it’s Tuesday it must be Barcelona” trips. You’ve got your whole life to explore the world. Move abroad. Study Abroad.Work Abroad. Whatever way you choose to see the world, take your time and make it meaningful.
In the time since we’ve been in Siem Reap we’ve found ourselves writing mainly on food and travel, and a little archaeology – from 10-page food features on Battambang for Delicious and city guides for Australian Gourmet Traveller to exclusives on Rene Redzepi and Noma’s takeover of Nahm for a night for CNN to new archaeological discoveries at Angkor for The Guardian.
Our fascination for Cambodian food, which we quickly realised very few people knew anything about (and what they mostly knew was wrong) led us to developing a Cambodia cookbook, which we’re still researching three years later, and another exciting project that Terence will be launching soon.
Somehow Terence found himself juggling photography assignments with websites, mainly for restaurants. And after chef and restaurateur friends started asking for help with their Cambodia trips, I began crafting bespoke itineraries and planning trips.
Not long after that we were hosting Travel and Food Writing and Photography Retreats and Cambodia Culinary Tours, and we launched Grantourismo Media and Siem Reap Retreats. (Incidentally, we’ve just announced more 2017 dates.)
I’m exhausted just thinking about it all and everything that we’ve done in these 18 years abroad – especially knowing that I’ve left so much out of this story. And that’s why I’m closing this very weighty tome, pulling out the pages we love, and starting another slim, streamlined text.
While we’ll continue to write and shoot stories for the publications we really love, this is the year we get even more pickier about which who we work for. The same goes for travel brands, and let’s face it: nobody in travel is offering the kind of dream jobs to bloggers anymore that HomeAway did. It’s the 20-something self-absorbed Instagram influencers with their selfie poles, bare butts and legs dangling over cliffs that are getting paid to travel the world. And we know that you, our readers, expect a lot more from your travel content than that.
While we’re cutting back on a lot of the work we’ve been doing, I’m going to be hosting even more retreats and tours, we’re going to finish that book, we’re going to launch Terence’s new site, and we’re going to devote more energy and time to Grantourismo.
We like to think that our baby has finally grown up – maturing from a travel blog to a travel site, albeit one that’s still personal. We still test out everything we write about on Grantourismo and produce 100% of our content, and we’re still as opinionated as we are (we hope!) inspiring. While the design has changed a couple of times and we’re about to launch another design very soon, it essentially remains the same site.
Our ‘slow, local and experiential’ philosophy might not be as obvious now as it was that first year, but it permeates everything we do, every decision we make. You’re never going to see us write about Disneyland, Starbucks, a Hard Rock Café, or one of those monumental cruise ships that pollute the ocean. Our commitment to small, sustainable and responsible hasn’t changed. It’s stronger than ever.
The thing that has changed has been our readership. Grantourismo has never been busier and that’s heartening to know in this age of Instagram influencers, for whom creating travel content means treating a place as little more than the location for a fashion shoot. We know many of you out there still want to read stories – you want to be inspired, you want insider advice, you want critical opinions, and practical information.
We appreciate that you’ve grown and that you keep growing. And that’s why we’re going to give you more attention.
Pictured above: Views over Lake Wanaka, New Zealand