Chatting with Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift

author photo
Rough Guides Editor
11/3/2020

Shannon O’Donnell, the talented blogger behind “A Little Adrift”, has been travelling the world since 2008. Since taking the plunge to travel full time she’s generated a dedicated online following through her blog, which chronicles her experiences and motivates others to follow in her footsteps with invaluable advice and resources. Her “grassroots” travel style puts local communities and connections at the fore, and she’s been crowned by National Geographic as Traveller of the Year for her work in responsible tourism.

Sharing with Shannon

Q. How does your life before 2008 compare to the one you live now?

A: A decade has changed everything! When I first left for long-term travel, I was part of a minority of people able to work remotely. The term “digital nomad” did not yet exist and I was unsure of how I would balance working and exploring the world. Before I left to travel, I lived in Los Angeles and had only lightly travelled in Europe. More than a decade later and I am living in Barcelona and effectively able to balance work and travel.

More than just the physical location, however, was the mental transformations a decade of travel brought to my life. I had a limiting view of myself and what was possible before 2008. It had never occurred to me that life as an expat and traveller was possible for someone raised barely middle class in nowhere, Florida. On the road, however, I met people from every walk of life crafting a life on their terms – they empowered me to drastically reassess my self-limiting beliefs and instead look for opportunities to embrace a life outside the US that was led by my curiosity about the world and its many communities.

Learning about the wonderful social enterprise Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya © majimotomaasaicamp.com

Q. You originally set out on a one-year around-the-world trip. When did you make the decision to turn travel into a long-term lifestyle choice?

A. At the end of my year-long trip, I headed home to Florida just in time for Thanksgiving. Over the holidays, I enjoyed reconnecting with my family, but I felt unmoored. It didn’t feel right to head back to LA because there were still so many places to explore. I told myself, “just six more months so I can backpack Central America.” And then six more, and six more until I admitted that my remote work was a true blessing, allowing me to work on the road. I figured I would follow this journey through until it no longer felt right.

That lasted about ten years, then I decided to settle long-term in Spain and continue exploring from a homebase. And I love this current cadence of travel just as much as I loved my decade of wandering the world. Ultimately, long-term travel isn’t for everyone, and it also often comes to a natural end as personal priorities change, and that was the case for me.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe © private archive

Q. Your grassroots, slow travel style puts emphasis on getting to the heart of a destination and its people. What do you gain from travelling in this way?

A. Better travel stories! That’s the glib answer, but also the long answer. I left in 2008 sold on the idea that travel is transformational and I wanted that transformation for myself. What I learned during my years on the road, however, is that not every trip presents opportunities to truly form deep and meaningful connections to other cultures, people and experiences. Some trips are truly meant as a relaxing beach vacation, and that’s OK. But the trips that yielded my most remarkable moments always came from places where I took the time – sometimes days, sometimes months – to integrate into a community and learn enough to ask better questions, make better observations, and just genuinely understand more about whatever fascinating place I had chosen to visit. I believe all travellers want those remarkable travel stories, and the surest way to guarantee them is to slow down and give yourself time to truly connect to elements of the place that fascinate you, be it the culture, food, history, people – or all of the above!

Market fun with Shannon showing photos to kids in Kampala, Uganda © private archive

Q. A Little Adrift’s sister site, Grassroots Volunteering, helps connect travellers with local causes. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

A. Around the time that I realized that some of my travels had impacted me more profoundly than others, I also became passionate about helping other travellers access the mom-and-pop businesses and local organizations that could also help them connect on their travels. In 2011 when I launched Grassroots Volunteering (GV), no free and comprehensive database of volunteer opportunities existed – it was all behind a paywall or a middleman. The term “social enterprise” was still in its infancy in the tourism industry, and I hoped that through GV I could empower travellers to use their tourism dollars as a force for good. So many travellers I met said they’d love to help more, if only they knew how – hence, the website, which offers a vetted list of social enterprise and indie volunteer opportunities submitted by other travellers who found and loved the business’s social mission and thought other travellers would too.

Lunch by the lake in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania © private archive

Q. When volunteering, it can be difficult to choose between different projects and opportunities. How would you recommend selecting a programme so that it meaningfully benefits and empowers local communities?

A. The multi-billion dollar voluntourism industry has many flaws and every volunteer should be prepared to extensively research their volunteer opportunity. That’s the first requirement – the onus is on you to ensure that your volunteering plans are ethical, sustainable and empowering to the communities where you’ll work. It’s only by understanding the pitfalls that many/most international volunteer programs face that you will be armed with enough knowledge to assess the programme you’re considering.

There are three main questions:

  1. Do you have the skills and time to volunteer in your desired area? If you lack the skills, or the time to truly implement your skills to their full effect, consider if a research and exploratory trip is a better option. You can always plan to volunteer later, when you have the time or enough skills to impact the issues most important to you.
  2. Does the programme foster dependency? Iffy programmes are designed to indefinitely perpetuate the need for more paying volunteers in these destinations. In many cases, your programme should be designed to eventually make itself obsolete.
  3. Does the programme maintain the dignity of the local community? There are many ways volunteer programmes often undermine the dignity of locals: unskilled volunteers replace skilled workers, handouts replace integrated solutions, short-term volunteers are given direct contact with vulnerable communities only because the volunteers desire it, not because it meaningfully impacts the work being done with locals. Well-designed programmes prioritize what’s best for the community, even if that means a less “meaningful” experience for the volunteers.

In the decade since I launched GV I have increasingly become convinced that the vast majority of travellers in search of short-term volunteering should instead plan a thoughtful trip filled with social enterprise support at every level – their hotel, their day tours, meals, etc. In most cases, the traveller will have more impact spending money at businesses with strong social missions than having the majority of their fee go to a middle-man, multinational voluntourism company.

Teaching English to young monks at a monastery in Pharping, Nepal © private archive

Q. What’s your experience of coronavirus been like? Has it impacted your travels?

A. Spain was hit hard in the first wave of the virus and we were completely locked down for seven weeks – we weren’t even allowed out for walks or exercise. It meant long and lonely weeks spent staring at my apartment walls. I ached for travel personally, but beyond that I was heartbroken to see so many travel businesses slowly shutdown – many forever – as the weeks wore on. This has devastated so many of the small, local businesses that I have long supported and advocated for on my travels. I stayed in Barcelona for the summer, and ventured for a short, socially distanced trip to a remote beach in Sicily while restrictions were open between the two countries. Mostly though, I have stayed in my flat and respected the government’s request that we maintain caution. I love to travel and will get back to it when it’s safe, but for now I am doing my part to protect the vulnerable by staying home until restrictions lift.

Streets of Yangon, Burma © private archive

Q. Covid-19 has meant a total reset for the travel industry. For many travellers and industry players, it has provided time to think about how we can travel differently – and often more ethically – in the future, be that more sustainably and responsibly, or by supporting smaller, independent, local businesses. Do you think we could see some positives resulting from coronavirus, specifically in the long-term in the travel sector?

A. If there’s a silver lining to how the pandemic ground travel to a standstill, it’s our rare chance to now build sustainability into vulnerable travel destinations once they reopen to tourism. I live in Barcelona, a poster-child for overtourism, and it’s been heartening to see locals take back their city without the usually tsunami of tourists. Thanks to a proactive mayor, we have new bike lanes and pedestrian walkways where cars used to dominate. And there is real talk of systemic changes that could allow locals to permanently reclaim these parts of the city. Venice is likewise using this breathing room to change how tourists will flow through the city on its busiest days, and looking for opportunities for locals to move back into the town centre.

These destinations have a do-over, and it just might be the very thing that saves them in the long term. It’s come at a huge price, though, and that can’t be overstated. Many businesses that made destinations so culturally rich and interesting are permanently shuttered – and the families supported by them struggle now for income. But in terms of sustainability, it’s refocused both overpopulated and emerging destinations on why it’s important to keep their culture and non-tourism economies alive and well-functioning.

Jumping show with Shannon’s niece at Angkor Wat in Cambodia © private archive

Q. When we can move freely again, will you make any changes to the way you travel in the wake of coronavirus?

A. It will be more important than ever for travellers, myself included, to be mindful of travel’s impact on the destinations we love. There is no doubt that travel can be a force for good – it funnels needed money into conservation, remote communities, and helps locals build sustainable livelihoods.

But it’s not all roses, and we’ve known that for a long time. I will continue to avoid the lure of quick and cheap trips in favour of purposeful slow travel, as I think that’s a key takeaway from this long absence of easy budget travel – bargain-basement travel doesn’t always help the destinations. This is an imperative for all travellers really. We all knew that those €50 flights in Europe or Asia were alluring but we should resist – air travel is wildly unsustainable – but often travellers justify and pop in for a weekend here or there. This mindset needs to shift from quantity to quality of travel. It’s better for the environment, better for the destinations, and ultimately it’s slow travel that most often leads to the transformational travel experiences many of us seek.

So in the wake of coronavirus I plan to double down on being a mindful traveller. I aim to limit the possible negative impacts associated with my trip by taking fewer flights, staying longer in destinations, and I will continue to spread my tourism dollars into local communities as a way to both lift those economies while also avoiding contributing to overtourism in the world’s trendiest destinations.

Tofu Nway, a traditional Shan soup at Inle Lake, Burma © private archive

Q. Where will your first trip be to post-Covid?

A. Depending on the season, I’d love to finally make it to Peru or Greece and spend weeks and months exploring their food, culture and history!

Q. What are your top three destinations around the world?

A. Guatemala, Myanmar, the Republic of Georgia, and Ireland (I snuck in a fourth!). Each country profoundly impacted me and gifted me something unique while I travelled and learned about its culture, people and history.

Q. What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten on your travels?

A. Being a long-time vegetarian, I don’t have the wackiest food travel stories, but one of my favourite meals is Shan tofu nway, a traditional soup dish in Myanmar made from thick, liquid chickpea tofu and noodles, topped with crunchy roasted chili and crushed peanuts. It sounds like a strange combo for the uninitiated. It is strange. But all of those flavours and varied textures add up to pure magic.

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