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While many have been bit by the travel bug, blogger Lara Dunston is different. With her approach focusing on small locally run locales, she’s the true insider’s outsider.
It’s the age-old question: nature or nurture.
For decades, biologists and psychologists alike have debated just how exactly one becomes a globetrotting traveler.
For Lara Dunston – of Grantourismo fame – travelling is more than just a hobby, or a job; it is something she was born to do.
As she grew up in a family of first-generation Australians – her mother born to travelers themselves, who immigrated from Russia – Lara travelled across the country in a caravan, the travel bug well and truly taking hold of her in the process.
Today, her adventures can be found across the web. Her writing, once an after work wind down, is now as much a career as it is a passion. Lara spoke to The Big Smoke and told us what makes her tick.
If you search Lara Dunston on Google, you can see your work popping up on news sites across the web – CNN, The Guardian, Gourmet Traveller. What’s it like being in so many spotlights, and how did it all begin?
I dabbled in travel and food writing when we still lived in Australia – my hometown is Sydney – in the ’90s. However, we moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998 so I could take up an academic job, and then to Dubai, and while we were in the UAE we serendipitously fell into guidebook writing. Lonely Planet asked us to do a Dubai guide, though we ended up writing Syria and Lebanon first.
We ended up writing, updating, and my husband also photographing, a couple of dozen books for Lonely Planet, and loads of other stuff for them, from walking tours to destination videos. Then we started writing for other publishers. Once Dubai’s tourism boomed, magazines and newspapers began approaching us.
From Dubai, we hit the road and were literally living out of suitcases for over seven years, then we settled in Southeast Asia. First Thailand, then Vietnam, and finally Cambodia where we’re based now. Asia and Australia are the focus of our work these days.
From travel writing we segued into food writing and we’ve been researching a Cambodia cookbook and culinary history for the last four years. Now, I also craft bespoke holiday itineraries for people, I host eight-to-ten-day Cambodia Culinary Tours and Terence and I also host travel/food writing and photography retreats, in partnership with local travel companies, hotels, guides etc.
What was it like when you first started living life out of your suitcase? Did you find yourselves hitting a proverbial wall?
Initially, we loved the freedom of being able to go where we wanted at a moment’s notice. We would pitch Lonely Planet for different guidebook jobs, and it’s a great feeling when you’re finishing a book in an apartment in Brussels, and you’re looking out the window at the snow falling over the city. It’s beautiful, but after months of it you’ve had enough, and then you get an email asking if you want to go to Greece and update a guidebook.
And then you think, well, what shall we do between now and then, and you plot out a trip through Scandinavia and the Baltic countries that gets you to Thessaloniki just in time to start the book. That’s the good bit.
But when you then get a call and find out your mother has been hit by a car crossing the road and is in hospital in Perth, that’s the downside of this life – being so far from family, especially in emergencies. Fortunately, in that case we managed to get on flights home the next day. But we had to eventually leave again as this is how we make a living.
It’s the life we’ve created for ourselves. And we found that we had to start leaving stuff with friends on our travels and sending boxes back. You just accumulate things – well, I do, anyway! – so you can only do it for so long. For us it was over seven years.
You bill Grantourismo as making travel more meaningful and memorable – how do you think you do this, and do you think this is the biggest thing that makes your site stand out?
Our main focus is “slow, local, experiential”: slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel. So, while we recognise that everyone’s different and people want different kinds of holidays at different times – which means we will provide a guide to the best Dubai beach resorts, which is what some readers recently asked us to do – our personal preference will always be small, independently-owned boutique hotels, holiday houses and apartment rentals, and living like locals whenever we travel.
That means having a kitchen, shopping at the local markets, doing a food tour to learn about the local cuisine, doing some cooking classes and cooking once a day.
We’ll always opt to spend, say, two weeks in Venice (off-season!) than “do” the whole of Italy in that time. We much prefer to get to know one place better and really try to get beneath the skin of that place and connect with local people. And that’s what the “local travel” is also about – exploring local neighbourhoods and engaging with locals.
Experiential travel is about doing and learning things, so we’ll get hands-on and sign up for classes and courses. For us, that combination results in a more enriching and meaningful experience, which we think makes for a more memorable experience. It’s not for everyone all the time, but we believe it has a place.
A lot of people dream of being able to travel the world like you, but there’s always the money issue. How do you stay afloat while you’re abroad, and more importantly, how do you afford all the costs involved in travelling?
We’re travel and food writers and my husband is a photographer as well as a writer, so we make our living writing about the places travel to, and increasingly the places we live in and have lived in. I just did a piece on Abu Dhabi for National Geographic Traveller.
That has been our main source of income for many years. We launched Grantourismo on January 1st, 2010 with a one-year “grand tour of the world” project in partnership with HomeAway, which was the world’s largest holiday rentals website. Nobody had heard of Airbnb then.
We’d been developing our project throughout 2009. We wanted to spend a year focused on slow, local and experiential travel, with a month in each place, settling in to live like a local, learning a little of the local language, learning to cook the food etc, to try to encourage others to travel like locals – which nobody was talking about back then.
But we couldn’t figure out how to fund it when HomeAway approached us to do something else, and we persuaded them on our idea instead. So, they essentially paid us to do our project for a year.
Since then, Grantourismo has brought us an income through a combination of projects for tourism boards – we go to a destination, we experience it, and we write about it – and affiliates, so we earn a small commission when people book accommodation or buy a book or whatever through us.
As our readers have increased, so has our focus on Grantourismo, so we now spend more time on the site and our own projects, and less time writing for other publishers and we prefer it that way. We’ll soon be publishing our own books.
Have you ever left a place and thought “this one might not be for me”?
Diani Beach in Kenya. We stayed there on our one-year trip and we were quite critical of it in stories we wrote on our site.
The expats had taken over and some communities were very cliquey and stuck to themselves – you could feel the divide between locals and foreigners, which is very different to Cambodia, for instance.
There was too much development – so much that they were taking away the habitat of the colobus monkeys, who get electrocuted crossing the power lines to access food. The foreigners who own the holiday houses are doing very well but the locals working for them are still poor and many make a living by selling souvenirs on the beach, so it’s not a pleasant place to be unless you’re on the beach to shop. It’s an example of bad, not good tourism.
We said we wouldn’t return – and we rarely say that – unless it was to volunteer for the Colobus Conservation organisation.
What was it about Cambodia that made you call it home? Are you all settled in now, or are there still little niggles every now and then?
We’d been living in Bangkok, but as much as we loved it, it’s a big crazy city and the traffic gridlock can be maddening. We tried Phnom Penh, but realised we enjoyed visiting but not living there.
While we were figuring out where to go, we were offered stories to do in Hanoi and ended up renting an apartment there for a few months. We then went to Hội An to do stories, fell in love and settled there for a few months investigating housing rentals etc, only to discover we couldn’t get the right visa from the visa we had and would have to leave for a year. It then hit us that after years of living in big cities, we were ready for smaller towns so we thought we’d try Siem Reap. That was in 2013 and we’re still here.
It’s the Cambodian people that make it special. They went through hell and back during the Khmer Rouge period of the late 1970s and while that was a long time ago, many still suffer from trauma and everybody has stories about loss and hardship. But they always smile.
They’re incredibly resilient, resourceful, laidback and generous. We have Angkor Wat in our backyard, Siem Reap is surrounded by gorgeous lush green rice fields, sleepy villages shaded by coconut and sugar palms. The country is rich in culture. They are talented craftspeople and cook fantastic food. We’ll continue to bounce around the region experiencing places and sharing those stories but I think we’re settled here for a while.
Can you see yourself settling into an ordinary, comparatively very boring job later in life, or has the travel bug well and truly taken hold of you?
I think I was born with the travel bug. My mother’s parents were Russian immigrants who arrived in Australia post-World War II, and my parents had the travel bug. They took my little sister and I around Australia for five years in a caravan when we were kids and that experience had a profound effect on me. Terence’s family also did a lot of caravanning when he and his siblings were kids.
Those experiences really shape who you are. There are fewer things we enjoy more than road-tripping around Australia, and we’ve been lucky to do that as travel writers for several guidebook publishers.
We’ve been travel/food writers and Terence a photographer for so long now, I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. But our work is definitely evolving. Terence was in publishing when he was young in Sydney, designing books, and that’s what he’s doing right at this moment. We’ve been writing and developing a few books, so that will be a focus for a while.
Who knows, maybe our lives will go full circle and we’ll become grey nomads later in life, cruising around Australia in a camper van, stopping by the side of an empty outback road to sip tea from a thermos and munch into some meat pies. Sounds like bliss to me!