An Interview with Top Travel Blogger Shannon O'Donnell
Did you dream of traveling the world since you were a little girl?
Funny enough, no. At least not as a very small child; as I got older I crushed on Prince Harry pretty hard core and that inspired me to want to visit England. It's around that time that my parents traveled to Ireland for their 14th anniversary, and seeing their photos of castles and endless green mountains inspired me to want to see first-hand these places I had read about (I was a book-worm). Acting as a catalyst for that realization was the fact that my dad has always given me a subscription to National Geographic (it even followed me to my four years in university), and when he and my mom started traveling, it really hit home that all these exotic places I had seen in the magazine were places people (me!) could actual visit.
How many countries have you lived in so far? And what are the biggest challenges when settling into a new country?
Surprisingly I would only consider three as countries I have lived in for any real length of time. I have traveled nearly non-stop since 2008, and throughout that time I like to pause in places that resonate with me, or offer some sort of volunteering. The first place I really jived with was Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2010 and I spent about a year there total, but in two six month chunks. The country has an accessible, friendly culture and foods I love, so it made sense for me to rent a place there and volunteer for a while. And because Thailand has a huge expat population, it's quite easy to rent an apartment (you can show up and have a place rented within days), and the food and cost of living are affordable, I detailed out the exact costs but bare-minimum once you are there, you can spend around $500 for the basics, and upgrade your lifestyle from there if you want more amenities.
And though there have been many countries for one to three months at a time (Guatemala and Nepal), and many others more quickly, I have found myself calling the Sayulita, Mexico region my location of choice—home of delicious tacos and a quiet, understated beach culture. My first full year of travel was an around the world trip and I blazed through 15 different countries; since then I have learned to really slow down and I love setting up shop for at least a month somewhere new.
You're all about immersing yourself in the local culture when you travel: what experience with a local has been the most memorable?
There are so many moments on the road, stories that captivated my attention and shared with me a truth—or a version of it—that I hadn't previously realized. But one person I call a friend, and whose story has touched me and affected me, is Lee, the owner of Akha Ama Coffee in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Lee is the face of a coffee collective in the mountains of Northern Thailand, and he makes a great spokesperson for his village. On my travels I have jumped coffee shops more so than cities; I am addicted to this caffeinated bean and I have embraced the addiction and allowed it to actually lead me around the world at times. Which is how I found my way to Akha Ama, and Lee, and his story about helping his family develop a sustainable brand of coffee that empowers the farmers growing the bean. Because although Lee is Thai, he is also Akha, a hill tribe ethnic group often facing issues of inequality, few opportunities, and exploitation. I lived in Chiang Mai for about a year, and over that time my friendship with Lee, and meeting his family, learning about his journey—this sum total experience—emphasized for me both the commonalities we all share in terms of hopes and dreams for a future, as well as the wealth and economic disparities affecting too many. I wrote about the coffee journey I took to Lee's village, and I count this among the clearest reasons I travel slowly, to find new friends, ideas, and experiences I would not ordinarily be able to find on a quick, superficial trip through a city's highlights. There are times when that is ideal, but for the most part I am grateful I have the time and ability to sink into a new place and see what I find.
Volunteering is a big part of your travels: what volunteering experience most surprised you?
Volunteering with my niece while we traveled in Southeast Asia was wonderful and the lessons and ideas she immediately gleamed from it surprised me. When I left to homeschool her on the road, I assumed she would absorb a lot of lessons and learn from travel, but I also knew many of the lessons would take years to sink in and fully resonate with her (she was 11-years old at the time). But after we taught English to a Burmese refugee each week while we were living in Thailand, it was only a month into the experience that Ana, my niece, came home and told me she felt bad that she had always taken for granted her own education—that she had never had to work very hard or wonder if she would be able to get an education. The refugee we taught worked hard to process and memorize each lesson we taught her, and Ana saw that she had been given some advantages by way of a free education in the states. And it wasn't even something I had to directly mention! She noticed it herself and had been chewing on that idea for days apparently, and all by herself. For me to see that, to see that we can shift the perspectives of the next generation even minutely, felt wonderful. I loved teaching with my niece and sharing that volunteer experience with her.
You authored The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, which was published this past fall. Can you tell us a bit about your publication and the inside scoop on what went into creating it?
Writing my book was the convergence of every fear and self-doubt I had, all culminating in one project. I have long wanted to write a book, I think many of us creative types feel like we have a great story within us, and so to that end, my volunteer handbook was a realization of that dream to write and publish a book. But the other side? Well, that was a dark and ugly place at times. To write a book, even a non-fiction book like mine, means putting a piece of yourself on display for public criticism—and the fact that praise could also come doesn't even enter into the writing process. Over the nearly year of writing, editing, and prepping the book for publication, I think my fears actually made the book better. My fear of failure made me double check and triple check everything I wrote to ensure that I covered all the potential pitfalls, obstacles, and issues related to international volunteering, and that propelled me to seek out divergent voices on the topic, I asked many people for their experiences, and I wove the sum of that information into the final product. It was a both harder and infinitely more rewarding than I could have imagined to see my book in print for the first time.
What are some of the greatest challenges of being a solo RTW traveler and what are some tips to overcome them?
One of the questions I most often field from others considering a solo trip is about fears of feeling lonely on the road. And to them I say: valid concern. It's daunting to think about being on your own and out there in the world, even if you've traveled before. I won't pretend that I've never been lonely on my travels, but I also have had far more unexpected friendships and new experiences because of my status as a solo traveler than I would have otherwise. To a large extent, I choose my level of interactions when I am traveling, and that includes things like eating solo— in the vast majority of places I have traveled I have easily joined up with other travelers and backpackers for drinks, dinner, and even big sightseeing days. And while in Europe and Australia this was helped along by the environment in hostels, it's really possible anywhere if you're friendly and open with the others you meet. And in those lonely moments, when it just so happens I couldn't find traveling friends to share a long bus ride, it's in those moments that I processed my travels and reflected more about myself ... I learned to enjoy my own company and the solace, joys, and introspection that comes from solitude. There are trade-offs with anything in life, but I have deepened my understanding of myself, the world, and the others I have met because I did not allow fear to prevent me from traveling as a solo female these past four and half years.
Food is another of your passions, particularly vegetarian cuisine: what has been your favorite meal so far on your travels? Have you ever had an experience where it's been challenging to explain that you don't eat meat?
I love the challenge of finding delicious vegetarian foods when I am on the road, at times it's a cinch, but other times it forces me to learn more about the culture than I might otherwise, and to learn more local language than many people can get by with. India was easy-peasy in terms of vegetarian food and it's likely my favorite food in general, but Burmese cuisine was the most surprising because I did not even have general knowledge about that country's food culture before I started traveling, but once I traveled through Southeast Asia, Burmese salads turned out to be my favorite new dishes. Of note is lephet thote, a fermented tea leaf salad, which is a signature dish in Burma and an explosion of flavors unlike anything else I have tasted.
But challenges I simply could not overcome ... that happened in China. China is culturally not attuned to vegetarianism and I found it difficult to even communicate the notion of no meat. At times, my soup or food would come without any meat chunks, but having been cooked in pork "for flavor" because the locals could simply not conceive of a situation where I would want bland, meatless food since they eat such a wide range of animals and animal parts. I always try to be respectful in those situations and I pay for my food and instead eat an apple or other fruit I carry in my bag!
Where are you headed next?
Right now, I am renting an apartment in Mexico for a few months, and I hope to travel to Eastern Africa this fall; this will be my first time visiting Africa and I am looking forward to seeing some of the wildlife reserves, and then hunkering down in one spot to to volunteer for several months. I never have super firm plans, rather ideas of things I would like to see happen if the elements align for a particular trip, in this case, I am hoping things align to take me to Africa! :)
Thank you Shannon, for sharing your travel experiences with us. We look forward to reading about your next adventure on A Little Adrift!