Special guest – The Cool Travel Guide

Lara Dunston, who writes the Cool Travel Guide, is a self described “perpetual globetrotter”, and the author of over 30 travel guides. She and her talented photographer husband Terry Carter have published numerous articles in newspapers and magazines as well. I recently read her Dubai City guide, and found I really liked the way she was able to enfold me in the culture and feel of the place. Lara is smart, funny, effortlessly cool, and as exotic as the foreign lands she writes about. She’s also a guide who’ll tell you how she truly feels about the places she’s been, good and bad. My favorite post? A clever little blurb over at Charles & Marie on how her luggage is surviving.

Lara stopped by Instant Native recently for a little cyber chat. Here’s what she had to say:

Being a travel writer is hard work. You’ve been on the road for over two years now. What is the best part of your job?

You’re right, it’s really hard work: minimum 12 hour days, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But I’m working in all these amazing places all over the world, so who’s going to listen to me complain? The best part? Having the freedom to go somewhere at a moment’s notice; getting to spend a lot of time in one place to really get to know a destination (we’ve rented apartments for months in Amsterdam, Brussels, Buenos Aires, and they were magical experiences); and being able to work in my underwear or drink a glass of wine as I write a story, if I so please!

You’ve contributed to more than 30 guidebooks. How do you choose the places you write about? Are they assigned or do you get to choose your destinations?

I’ve written most of those with my husband, and many were first editions, so that means writing them from scratch. There are several ways the projects have come about: in some cases commissioning editors have phoned and asked us to write a book, in other cases I’ve pitched for titles publishers have had on their schedule and got assigned them, and then I’ve also submitted proposals to publishers and persuaded them to commission us to write a book. We choose some destinations, in that we say, okay, let’s try and get a book in Buenos Aires, while other places have not been on our radar at all, like Cyprus and Crete, where we just spent a couple of months.

What is your “must have” travel accessory (i.e. iPod, shampoo, cozy slippers)

Does my Mac PowerBook G4 count? I guess that’s an essential rather than an accessory! I don’t go anywhere without it. There are a few must-haves: an iPOD of course, plus our Apple Airport Express, so we can set up our own wireless internet, a network to share files, and play our own music from our laptops, and my Motorola RAZR phone, which I love. I don’t have anything as extravagant as slippers I’m afraid – I don’t have room for more than 4 pairs of shoes (black leather knee high boots, which I wear every day in winter, leather flip flops for summer, good trekking boots, and glam pair of high heels).

What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?

I labour over this question because I don’t have one particular favorite destination. I love so many places. But I could give you a top ten: Madrid, San Sebastian, Barcelona, Venice, Essaouira, Marrakesh, Damascus, Beirut, Dubai, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Antwerp, Zurich, Venice, Milan, St Petersburg, Moscow, and Istanbul. But, gosh, that’s 20, better make it a top 20!

Least favorite place?

Aya Napa in Cyprus, Benidorm in Spain, Oludeniz in Turkey, those kinds of places where you see menus in six different languages, ‘English breakfasts’ on the menu, and Irish pubs – destinations that have been over-ran by package tourists and ex-pat property-buyers so much so that they’ve changed the very nature and culture of the places.

You’ve written about being an “instant native”. What does that mean to you personally?

I write a bit on my blog from time to time about ‘living like a local’ and becoming an instant native – to me that means going to a place and staying a while, renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel, getting away from the tourist areas and off the beaten track, learning the language (even if it’s just the basics), learning how to cook the local cuisine or dance their national dance, shopping in the local markets, watching a football match, and just generally doing activities that locals do – in some cases you can learn more about a culture going to a shopping mall and buying your groceries in a supermarket with the locals or going to the cinema and watching a movie and seeing how they react and interact, than you do visiting a museum. Some people find it hard to do this though, especially people who haven’t traveled much outside their own country or culture, which is why I think the service you provide is amazing. It provides people with guidance and help so they can more quickly get acquainted with a place and get the most enriching experience they can from a destination.

When you have a travel snafu, how do you handle it?

Politely, confidently, reasonably, and forcefully. If an airline has bumped us off a flight or a hotel has lost my booking, I won’t let it go. There are always ways around things, but sometimes you have to find the solution yourself and make the suggestion. You need to see how the locals around you are dealing with things and adapt your behavior to suit. For instance, rudeness will get you nowhere in Australia where anyone in any kind of uniform thinks they are a policeman, while being polite is a mistake in Egypt.

What travel resource can’t you live without?

A good map, dictionary, and phrase book for the country I’m visiting – they’re the first three things I always buy.

Do you recommend people use a guide book on vacation?

They have less of a need for one if they’re using a concierge service like yours. If they want to travel light they’ll be fine with a good map, phrase book, some confidence (to ask locals for advice), and a couple of good books on the destination, such as an engaging read on the history, culture or politics of the place, and a memoir of a travel writer who has been there before. Whenever we arrive somewhere new, one of the first things we do is find a good bookstore and pick up a few books by local writers, a novel and some short stories usually – that way you get a real local insight into the contemporary culture. You can’t go wrong with a DK Eyewitness guide, which also has good walks and their photography allows you to get an idea of what a place will look like which helps you to make a decision as to whether to go there or not. The slim DK Top Tens are terrific for short breaks, as are Lonely Planet’s little Encounters.

Given your vast travel experience, is there a travel tip you can share with us?

Learn the ten language basics of the country you’re going to while you’re on the plane (hello, how are you? good thanks, yes, no, right, left, excuse me, thank you, and goodbye). You’ll be amazed at what a difference it makes to your experience of a place and how locals treat you.

4 Replies to “Special guest – The Cool Travel Guide”

  1. Hi Anne, thanks so much for the interview! It was lots of fun! I’ve just written a post linking to it. And I’m going to be posting about the whole idea of being an ‘instant native’. We’ll have to talk about that.

  2. For instance, rudeness will get you nowhere in Australia where anyone in any kind of uniform thinks they are a policeman, while being polite is a mistake in Egypt.

    I think that this is great advice but also the hardest to locate.

    I haven’t seen many guides that give insight into the ‘cultural norms’ for interaction, especially when you’re trying to get something from someone. Perhaps blogs are a better place to look.

  3. Hi Max

    You are so right! Exactly my point.

    There’s a long explanation of the incident in Cairo that led me to that conclusion actually – we would have missed a flight and an important connection if I hadn’t been watching the locals and abandoned my Western ways and did as the locals did and hounded the poor check-in guy and continuously demanded a seat until he got us one on the flight I desperately needed to get on (or lose my job). And when he did I was all sweet and appreciative and charming, as I saw the locals were, all “habibi, habibi, shukran, shukran”!

    Had I have acted that way in Australia, they would have never served me, in fact the check-in person would have walked off and complained to her supervisor about my attitude and I probably would have been dragged off by the police.

    Continuous travel has taught me you need to watch the locals and learn and adopt the same patters of behavior.

    But you know what? Lonely Planet would never let me write that in a guidebook. For a start, it would be misconstrued as racism (even though it’s not) and seen as politically incorrect (again, even though it’s not in that part of the world – where I live). So you’re right, Max, perhaps blogs are the best place for this kind of content. Thanks!

  4. oh I love this! Lara is living a dream life. I know constant travel is difficult.. but when it is someone else’s job it seems like a dream come true. wonderful tips. wonderful questions. thank you!

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