Dunston Checks In: Interview with Lara Dunston
Many of us dream of circumnavigating the globe for a living, Lara Dunston does it. Again and again. Who is she? Lara is a widely-published travel writer who - pen in hand - has stepped foot in at least 60 countries and contributed her finds to some 20 guide books for Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley. Her reviews and insights have also graced the pages of myriad magazines and newspapers including National Geographic Travel and USA Today.
But you, dear readers, may know her better from her globetrotting tales on the Charles and Marie Grantourismo blog. There, she and her husband Terry (travel writer and photographer) give you insider's tips on where to dine in Damascus and where to sleep during your Arabian nights. Together, they were on the road (or in the air) all 365 days of 2006. Yes, all year. If you've ever been curious about a destination, chances are Lara and Terry have been there.
So if you are looking for genuine travel expertise from someone with the passport stamps to prove it, sink back in your chaise and soak in the wisdom of this savvy world traveler...
Lara, your bio tells us you’re from the United Arab Emirates. Did you grow up there? Tell us about that.
The UAE has been home for almost a decade (a quarter of my life!) but I was born in Australia and grew up there. I moved to the UAE to teach film to Emirati women in Abu Dhabi - the shift was inspired by an encounter with women making films in shanty towns in Lima and Rio. The UAE has been an extraordinary place to live - so dynamic and forward-thinking, yet full of tradition and culture.
When did you develop a love affair with traveling? Were you born with wanderlust?
It must be in my blood - my maternal grandparents were Russian and emigrated to Australia at the end of world war two while my paternal grandparents were ancestors of the first settlers to Australia. My parents dragged my little sister and I around Australia in a caravan (an enormous mobile home) for 5 years during those formative early teens - that was what really gave me a taste for travel, for picking up and moving on when the mood takes you, for meeting people from all walks of life, and for the road trip. I’ve often dreamt of becoming a travel journalist. How did your career in travel begin?
I don't know that I have a career in travel... I think I've always made my livelihood tellings stories... over the last 20 years, I've had a number of simultaneous and overlapping careers, in film, academia, politics and PR, but the one constant is that I've always spent my days writing and talking, whether it's been directing, teaching, consulting, in some form or another it's been about telling stories.
We’d like to think it’s all first class tickets and concierge pampering, but travel is exhausting if you’re doing it full time. What makes this profession challenging for you?
My husband (who I write with) and I have been traveling continually for the last 19 months, going from commission to commission, whereas most writers return to a base between gigs, which is what we used to do. So the biggest challenge, believe it or not, has been keeping our luggage below the excess baggage allowance! And it's not because I'm filling the Samsonite with goodies I'm buying on the way - I wish it was - it's mainly books and research materials weighing us down. Working on the road used to be a challenge, particularly if you check into a hotel room that only has one desk - or at worst, doesn't have one at all, so we're spreading our laptops and business cards and brochures out on the bed! But we're very disciplined now and can work anywhere. If we have a long time between connections we'll head to a business lounge so we can work.
I love to explore as many cultures as I can because it changes me forever. Has your unique opportunity to explore the world changed you as a person?
Absolutely. It can't not. On the plus side, it's made me very open-minded, tolerant, patient, and empathetic. Conversely, I now have no tolerance for ignorance and get impatient with close-minded fools. Everybody should travel as frequently as their funds allow. Another negative is that I love change and am always seeking out new experiences and new places to see.
Narrowing it down may be difficult, but share with Venti Cup readers one of your best and worst travel experiences.
It is difficult to choose just two. One of the best experiences - attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, one of the world's best. The Cubans are the best fun to watch movies with - they really interact with the screen and laugh and cry out loud, and Cuban cinema is brilliant. I spent all day every day watching movies for a week and partying all night. The Cubans love to dance and party as much as they love movies. The worst experience was taking the bus along 'Death Road' in Bolivia, from La Paz to Coroico, which it's said is the world's most dangerous road because people Its real name is Yungas Rd and it travels through some breathtaking scenery but the road is extremely narrow (10 feet in some places) with no safety rails, it's often muddy, and it's a sheer drop of 1000 metres in many places. I went with friends and we took valium and drank cheap Bolivian champagne but it didn't make a difference - we were literally on the edge of our seats the whole way.
Our perception of a location is often completely disproved once we step off the plane and settle in for the stay. Is there a location that surprised you?
The first time I visited Syria I was surprised by how incredibly friendly and hospitable the people were - the country gets such a bad wrap in the Western press that it just doesn't deserve. It's one of the safest countries in the world. It's full of so much history with some of the world's greatest archaeological and architectural treasures (Damascus' Old City, Aleppo Souq, Palmyra, Crac des Chevaliers, Umayyad Mosque etc etc) and yet its contemporary society is equally as interesting. There's a real sense of optimism there now and a vibrancy on the street. The First Lady is particularly popular - she's another Queen Rania (Jordan), generous, beautiful, smart, stylish, the people love her - it's a shame the Western media don't give her some column inches - people's perception of Syria would change.
You’re a pro at this now, what travel tips do you have to offer?
- You'll fit in better (and are less likely to get pick-pocketed) if you dress overseas as you would at home - unless you're going on a wildlife safari, there's no need to wear khakis. And there's no need to wear Birkenstocks - why have the shoes you wear all day every day at home suddenly become so uncomfortable?! Even better, dress like a local - for instance, if you're going to Rio, buy your bikinis there.
Take a couple of great books about the place - I mean literature not travel guides - go for something classic or historical and something contemporary (you might have to buy the latter in an English-language bookshop at the destination). They'll not only give you a great insight into the place but your future readings of that book will always be associated with your memories of your travels to that place.
Pack a phrasebook and always learn the basic greetings before you go - it's amazing how far a 'Salam Aleikum' can go to break the ice and make friends. Try and learn a new word every day, and always decode your menus - it can be a struggle, so couples/friend should ask for one menu in English and one in the local language and you can play a guessing game and learn some of the language at the same time.
- Buy some local music when you get there - head to a good record store and ask for a selection of music in a few genres, for example, if you in Buenos Aires, buy tango classics, tango-electronica, rock nacional, and folk music. You can listen to some music while you have a drink in the evening and before you head out, and, as with the books, when you listen to that music when you return home, it will be infused with the memories of your trip.
- Pack light - it's a cliche, but its importance shouldn't be underestimated - buy locally, shopping can be just as much fun and just as insightful a cultural experience as visiting a museum.
If you could only visit 5 destinations for the rest of your life – but go as often as you’d like, what would they be?
That's tough but it I had to choose it would be Morocco, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, and Russia. Oh, and I have to add Thailand. Can we make it six? Seven??
And last, what does a globetrotter do on vacation - and do you have a favorite vacation spot?
Unfortunately we haven't had a vacation where we haven't worked in years. We certainly need one and most people laugh when we say that because the general view is that a travel writer's life is one big holiday. Most people don't realize we work seven days a week, 365 days of the year, we're working from the time we wake until we collapse around midnight in front of the TV, sometimes our nights are a lot longer if we need to check our clubs and music venues. If we're not walking the streets putting dots on maps, we're rushing through museums and galleries noting down the highlights, inspecting hotel rooms (and not all five stars unfortunately), and when we're eating out or trying bars and cafes, we're always making notes and chatting to the chefs and waiting staff.
Because my husband is also a professional travel photographer, we're on shoots a lot also. So, holidays... we don't have them, but definitely need one, however, the vacation will involve doing nothing but swimming, eating and reading books. A favorite spot is The Verandah, a very hip, low-key resort at Cha-am in Thailand. The beach is not the most beautiful, but the swimming pool is heavenly, the bar is very cool, and the Thai food at the restaurant is some of the very best of anywhere.
Any parting words?
...and there'll be a new site launched in about 10 days, and next year a book of travel literature about our experience of being on the road continuously for what will probably end up being 2 years.
Lara, although I know your role of travel expert is difficult, I can't say I wouldn't love to trade shoes with you for at least a year. Marvelous adventures, marvelous advice, and best of all a wonderful person. Hopefully our paths will cross soon. Thank you so much for sharing!