Shannon O'Donnell is a travel writer and an advocate for grassroots volunteering. She runs a popular travel blog, A Little Adrift, and a database of volunteering opportunities, Grassroots Volunteering. She was named National Geographic's Traveler of the Year in 2013, and is also the author of "The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook", which was published recently. Shannon O'Donnell has been travelling around the world since 2008 and her widely-followed blog serves as a vital resource for travellers, motivating and encouraging them through stories, advice and photography. We caught up with her, and this is what she has to say!
Where are you at the moment?
St. Petersburg, Florida for the holidays. I flew home from the Republic of Georgia so that I could spend December with friends and family. Next up is a Oaxaca, Mexico in early January so I can mow down on Mexican food and look into grassroots initiatives in the region.
How did you first get involved with volunteer tourism? And how was the experience?
I have a long history of volunteering, so when I started traveling it seemed logical to continue that aspect of my life. I didn't know how to go about it at first, and used a placement company to facilitate my first volunteer experience in Nepal. That opened my eyes to some of the ethical issues inherent in international volunteering, so I focused my subsequent years of travel on creating a better process and more transparent way for volunteers to connect with local projects.
Tell us about your project, GrassrootsVolunteering.org. What is in it for travellers?
The website is the manifestation of my belief that responsible travel has the power to positively affect the entire travel experience. By not just volunteering, but by committing to responsible travel, travelers can use the site to find local social enterprises and business that need support on their travel route. Tourism can become the largest redistribution of wealth between developed and developing companies, and it starts by making conscious and deliberate spending choices. GrassrootsVolunteering.org helps travelers navigate that transition and understanding how they can take more ethical and responsible trips.
Please share with us some of your most memorable volunteering experiences.
Many of my favorite memories actually come through my trips that incorporated support for a social enterprise. When I traveled Africa last year, I visited the Maji Moto Maasai camp and I was able to stay with them for a week and really dig into the Maasai culture. They have the camp built as a social enterprise and tourism dollars go into supporting their education advocacy as well as the camp's work to eliminate female genital mutilation. It was one of the most impactful and eye-opening experiences of my time in Africa.
You travelled solo for three years before travelling with your niece Ana. How was the experience of travelling with an 11 year old and how different it was from solo travelling?
Traveling with my niece really changed the entire process of travel for me. More than just adding a dependent to the mix, bringing Ana to Asia for those seven months allowed me to really dig deeper into each place, always on the hunt for interesting experiences. When I travel via my own interests, I have always found fascinating projects. Traveling with Ana though forced to investigate other sides of each new place. Instead of simply wandering markets in the evenings, we would join the Thai families in a local park feeding the ducks or running the track. I loved the chance to see each country through a new lens because I was sharing it with a child.
You are a former actress. Did that help you in any way during your travels around the world?
Acting training helps you learn to read other people and assess situations. I found that aspect of my former career allowed me to really focus in on the nuance of conversations with others and sometimes move past cultural or language boundaries more easily.
You have some stunning pictures on the blog. Where did you enjoy shooting the most?
Thank you, photography is something that I developed a passion for as I traveled. So many places have intriguing details and nuances that are easy to overlook, so I use photography as a way to see under the skin of a place and keep myself attuned to anything that adds a new layer to understanding the culture or history of a place. I love photographing artisans and social enterprises, and I've had the opportunity to do that in Kenya, Thailand, Panama, and countless other gorgeous places.
Which is the one place you would love to visit again and why?
Several places rank on my "to revisit list," but most recently I added Tbilisi, Georgia to it. The country is still relatively unknown on the main tourist route, but it won't stay that way for long. It has a lot of varying activities, as well as a beautiful culture of hospitality. It's in the Caucasus region, so there are stunning mountains, they have a deep history with 4th century monasteries and fortresses. And the capital is just charming. I could not stop sharing snaps from there. I have a total crush on Tbilisi and I hope to return in the coming year.
What have been the highlights of 2015 and what are your plans for the next year?
Well, if my fangirling about Tbilisi, Georgia didn't convince you yet, I will note that it was a highlight of my year. As were my travels in Japan. So often travelers associate developed world with "westernized" and Japan was a fascinating study in just how untrue that can be. The country is thoroughly modern and yet the culture constantly threw me for a loop. In the coming year, I'll be in Mexico for the first half of the year, then I have hopes to perhaps do a trip to Mongolia in the fall, and perhaps back to Southeast Asia to see friends and visit past social enterprises I connected with years back.
This interview with Shannon O'Donnell is a part of Travel Trolley's ongoing 'Best of the Travel Bloggers' series. We are interviewing and showcasing popular travel bloggers who encourage and inspire people to travel. Check out all the bloggers we have interviewed and showcased and learn about their interesting experiences, adventures, travel stories as well as useful holiday tips.