Q&A with Robin Esrock

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By Tern Magazine Staff

So if you’re like anyone else who knows how to type and has a bit of a travel bug, you’ve probably thought at least once about becoming a travel writer. It’s one of those rare jobs that constantly tops the dream job lists, but snagging that line of work sounds a bit too good to be anywhere near the realm of possibility.

Robin Esrock has done it. It all started a decade ago when a bit of a windfall took the South African/now-Canadian on a round-the-world backpacking trip. That trip spawned a newspaper column and his travel writing career took off from there. Since then, he has hosted a TV show, written countless articles for major publications, spoken at a TEDx conference and, most recently, authored a series of books showcasing Canada’s must-sees, starting with The Great Canadian Bucket List. He’s currently rolling out a series of regional bucket list books and has his sights set on The Great Global Bucket List book due out next year.

We caught up with Robin in Saskatchewan by phone to chat about what travel means to him, what it means to be a travel writer and what exploring Canada should mean to Canadians.

Your career really got underway with a round-the-world backpacking trip. How did that come about?

Robin: Ten years ago, I was hit by a car in downtown Vancouver and I broke my knee cap. About eight months later I received a $20,000 insurance settlement. Everyone was telling me I should put it into Vancouver’s real estate market, or put it away for a rainy day, which is kind of silly in Vancouver. I’d been backpacking quite a bit in my early 20s but I always dreamed about that big one-year trip. And I thought this was my opportunity to do it. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. So I took that money and I bought a round-the-world solo ticket to tick off my bucket list and off I went. You hear of people who do that and you never really think it will be you. And then one day it is. In that year I did 24 countries on five continents. And that’s what kicked off my career.

What do you think that you got out of long-term backpacking that ended up shaping your life and career today?

First of all, the idea of being by yourself, which I think holds back a lot of people. But travelling by yourself, you meet so many more people. I loved that freedom, that I’m in control of what I want to see, where I want to go, who I want to be with. Right away the adventures, the craziness kicked off right away from day 1 in Lima. I don’t think any of that would have happened if I’d been with anyone else. It allowed me to throw myself into situations as I travelled, and especially on a very small budget—only $35 a day.

I guess I developed a skill I’d need as a writer: someone who observes, someone who is far more open, far more adventurous. I learned to really listen to my instinct and trust my instinct. Because I didn’t have any guidebooks, I didn’t set up many expectations. This was just about getting there and seeing what happens. That’s something I still try to do today. I try to get to a place and not set up anything that’s unrealistic so I won’t be disappointed. Just let things happen as they do.

What do you think you get out of backpacking that you don’t get as easily out of other types of travel?

The social aspect of backpacking is, by far, miles ahead of any other kind of travel. When you go on a package tour, you’ll meet other people as well. But what inevitably ends up happening is you find yourself kind of trapped with people. Some people you might like a lot and other people might drive you crazy, but either way, you’re spending your time with those people.

With backpacking you get to meet so many people wherever you go. There’s so much more of a social atmosphere in hostels. At the same time, you get to latch on to other travellers. You can choose the kind of people you want to be on tour with, if you want to call it that. I’d often be at a hostel and I’d be going off to see something and someone else would and we’d pair up. If they ended up being a cool person to hang out with, I might end up travelling with them for a couple weeks. At one point, I think I’d gathered up like 12 different travellers around me (laughs) and we were going through South-East Asia. You’re effectively building your own community as you go. And hostels are such a great place to do that.

What wisdom from that big trip do you still take with you on your travels today?

The first one is, “Wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be.” As a backpacker, you’re faced with so many choices every day. What do you do, where should you go, where should you eat. In the beginning I remember constantly second guessing myself. I’m here but I heard that place is better. I went north when maybe I should have gone south. There are so many decisions to be made. There was an incident where I missed a night bus I was supposed to be on in Brazil, and the bus was involved in a horrific accident and a whole bunch of people were killed. A friend of mine was on the bus and I was supposed to be sitting next to him, and the person next to him was really banged up. That was a big realization for me. The decisions I make are the right decisions. I tell people wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be.
The other thing is that I found that despite what you read in the news, people would rather help you than hurt you. The world is actually a lot more friendly and welcoming than the mainstream media would have us believe. Whenever I was in a jam, nine times out of ten there was a local there to help me. Whether it was directions or a place to sleep or a ride or whatever it was. You have to be desperately unlucky for something bad to happen.

Is there a moment you can pinpoint where you realized you could turn your travels into a job?

I pitched the Vancouver Sun just before I left on my trip. I got this round-the-world column, which is really lucky. I never really saw it in print, because it started running after I left. So I started filing these stories, based on my blog posts. I was in Rio, Brazil, there were guys hang-gliding over the beach. I remember thinking wow, I’d really love to do that but it’s $200. I started chatting to one of the tandem pilots, and I mentioned I was writing this column for a newspaper in Canada. He said well if you’d be interested in writing about this, I’ll take you out. A lot of lights went on for me (laughs). Because I would have written about it anyway. It would have been a highlight. It wasn’t like he had to buy me off, this would have been my story. I suddenly realized how being a travel writer could enable me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. And I’ve been following that path ever since.

Is travel writing all it’s cracked up to be?

With everything, it’s all relative. It’s never quite what everyone thinks it is, but it’s still pretty awesome. I remember a couple years ago I was thinking the freelancing is getting very difficult. Traditional media was getting harder and harder, rates are getting cut, the assignments are drying up; it would be great if I could do this without all that hassle. And in a way that’s kind of what’s happened now with the Great Canadian Bucket List. I’ve built up my own audience, I have my own brand and I can just do what I want. I’ve got sponsors and it just kind of pays for itself. I don’t have to chase the penny assignments like I used to.

So if somebody comes up to you now and says they want to be a travel writer, is it something you recommend?

I spoke at Simon Fraser University last weekend for a writing course, and I wanted to be positive and encouraging but also give the students a realistic sense of what they’re getting into. I tell people that anyone can be a travel writer. You just need to travel and you just need to write. Then you’re a travel writer. Can everyone make a profession out of it is a different story. That requires a whole set of skills and attitudes, in terms of persistence and sacrifice, that most people wouldn’t put up with.

But in terms of being a travel writer and sharing stories, everybody has the ability. Especially today with blogs and Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, everybody can do it. And it’s a lot of fun to do. When someone say they want to be a travel writer, I’m like ‘Well, just so you know, they’re two different things.’ You can be a travel writer, you can write amazing stories, take wonderful photos. If you’re talking about wanting to be a professional travel writer, I’ll say it’s a very hard market and would require a lot of sacrifice.

Do you still come across people who say that they want to be travel writers?

Every day. (laughs)

It’s no secret that journalism and publishing are not as healthy as they once were, but maybe that’s not enough to kill the dream?

That’s exactly it, it’s the dream. From what the vast majority of the public thinks travel writing is, they think I’m being paid to be on holiday. They don’t see the amount of work that it takes to actually be there, and they don’t see that being on holiday is when you’re on your own time. They don’t understand that for a large part of it, being a travel writer is about being on someone else’s time. Being told to go here and told to go there, which is a very different thing from being on holiday. There are certainly lots of perks but it’s a lot of work, and when you start factoring how much you get paid for that work, it really becomes a somewhat obscene choice (laughs). The public doesn’t know that any more than I know what a rocket scientist does.

You’ve said that you don’t think Canadians appreciate what they’re sitting on, and that was part of the impetus for writing The Great Canadian Bucket List. Do you think that Canadians are especially ignorant of what’s in their own backyard or do you think people are like this in other countries too?

Most places that you go, people don’t view whatever’s in their own backyard with the same awe as they do things that are farther away. The farther away places are, the more awe we have. I just went to Antarctica in December and most people think that sounds just so crazy far away. But a lot of what you’ll see down there is not unlike what you’d see on a cruise in Alaska. In Vancouver, the idea of taking an Alaskan cruise is like ‘Nah, whatever.’

Canada is a country that is very modest and doesn’t like to brag too much, in the shadow of the biggest braggart nation in the world. So we kind of keep things low. With the book, I started looking for experiences that you can’t do anywhere else in the world and that’s where I started finding all this amazing stuff. And a lot of the times the locals either wouldn’t know about it or they did and they didn’t think it was a big deal. Like, 90% of the world’s mustard is grown in Canada. What? Really? What about France? In Dijon, they produce the mustard but they get the seeds from Canada. You wonder why don’t people know that? Or everyone’s like, ‘Ooh, the Galapagos.’ But in BC, Haida Gwaiiis a lot like the Galapagos. It’s a remote part of the world that’s pristine, from ocean floor to mountain top. The kind of wildlife experiences you’ll have there, the kind of nature you’ll see there, it’s amazing.

Or, in BC the Ice Sauna at Sparkling Hill, the only ice sauna in in North America. You walk in and it’s -110ºC and you kind of half-freeze yourself to death, but it’s supposed to be good for you. It’s insane. That’s something that’s one of a kind, that’s unique but that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

To find out more about Robin and his book, visit The Great Canadian Bucket List or follow Robin on Twitter.