Simon Willis is a British born journalist living in Medellín, Colombia. A self-proclaimed sports nut, Simon started out in sports journalism and later moved into the world of travel writing. He writes for numerous publications and keeps both his readers and friends entertained. This week he’s entertaining us with his story and sharing a bit of advice.
I understand you started out as a sports journalist. How did you move from sports into travel writing?
Indeed I did. I’m obsessed with sports. When I discovered that I could write about this for a living, I jumped at the chance. But despite a few chinks of job satisfaction (I loved writing live soccer match reports) the repetitive nature of writing about transfers or ringing Scottish fourth division soccer teams to get team news on a Thursday evening convinced me to move on. Or more specifically, move abroad.
Whilst sinking a few pints in my local pub, I decided to travel the world with a good friend of mine. We somehow scraped a living by working in hostels, selling sunglasses and appearing in Indonesian commercials. Then a few travel publications decided my writing was worthy of a few bucks and it’s really from there where it started. I took a couple of great two-day courses in London and learned how to break into the industry. It has really helped that I live in Colombia as it’s still an up and coming travel destination with loads of tourist-free locations, and it’s cheap, which is HUGE!
You split your time between Britain and Colombia, tell us about the decision to make that move and the pros/cons of life in Colombia.
I’ll always go back to Britain when I can. Since moving away I have developed a heightened appreciation for my family, friends and fish and chips. Missing these would be the main drawback about living in Colombia. The shortened list of pros for living here would be: the weather, local people’s warmth and kindness, the fruits, pork belly, aguardiente, the 40-miunte flights to the Caribbean coast, the feeling of being able to do anything you set your mind to, and the man who sells ice pops next to the metro.
What do you love most about your career?
By far the best part of my career comes from how my perception changes when visiting new places. The experts are telling us that mindfulness is the cure for many ills, well traveling with due care and intrigue can hit the same notes…for me anyway. I really feel like an observer of the world, and of my own self, when on assignment. The unyielding fun and learning buzz of understanding a new culture and piecing together the history of a place is unparalleled. Then I get to relive it through my writing!
Your work has been published in numerous publications including Afar, Matador Network, Washington Post and many others. What advice would you give writers trying to break into those publications?
First, you need to want to do it. I mean, really want to do it. Then, be good. Learn the craft. What makes a great intro? Why am I writing this article? What’s the hook? Why is it necessary now? Write these questions above your desk.
I could mention a hundred more questions but I’m dying for my ice pop fix, so I’ll stick to the two pieces of advice which ensured my first few breaks. 1. Always follow-up (my first published article in the Washington Post was thanks to an email prompt) 2. At the beginning, take everything you can (I wrote a guide for AFAR even though I was desperately ill; now I’m a regular contributor). Oh, and check your work, then check again and again. Nail the factors you control like the facts, grammar, word count, the publication’s specific style etc. Then, if you don’t hear anything after that, or you get rejected, simply crack open a bottle of wine and flick on Game of Thrones.
What’s your craziest, scariest or most bizarre travel experience?
Getting lost in the Colombian jungle for 6 hours with two other travelers with nothing but a small bottle of water and half a box of cornflakes. That was pretty scary and rather foolish. But, maybe more terrifying were the dozen plate-sized spiders that ran across the water as we climbed over huge boulders.
I also received an ancestral healing in Quito, Ecuador. A native woman in a market slapped me with stinging nettles, rubbed an egg over my bare body and spat in my face. That was pretty weird.
Any place you’ve yet to visit that is calling your name?
Antarctica. Tibet. India. Tanzania.
Simon is a travel journalist specializing in South America and Europe. From his home in Medellín, Simon contributes to the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Guardian, Afar, Adventure Cyclist and Delta Magazine. As well as writing and curating inspirational travel guides, Simon has trained to become a Colombian cowboy, investigated the Argentina’s youth soccer culture and explored the hidden Quechua communities in Peru’s Sacred Valley. Check Simon’s work at www.simonwillistravels.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter – @simonwillis11.