Maureen Littlejohn is certainly an accomplished writer and photographer, but it is her passion for doing good in this world that drives her. Based in Toronto, Maureen has left her home for extended periods to work in Ethiopia, Swaziland and Vietnam. Her experiences have enriched her writing and her life. We caught up with Maureen to learn more about her experiences and to see what’s up for her next.
Tell us what inspired you to become a travel writer and how you got started in the business.
I was the editor of a pop music magazine in Canada called Network, given out in Sam the Record Man stores across the country. I was often asked to interview stars in Los Angeles or New York and I loved the travel component I was able to add to the stories – the flavor of wherever the interview took place. Gradually, my interests veered towards the destinations, not the celebritie, and I segued into travel writing once my editing gig was over. It wasn’t a chop-chop sort of thing. I went on to be a movie and entertainment writer at the Winnipeg Free Press and really got more opportunities to visit New York and LA. But the travel bug had bitten. So when I wrapped that gig up I devoted myself to landing freelance travel writing gigs. Not easy. But then it never has been.
Has travel writing and traveling changed how you view yourself, or the world? If so, how?
Travel writing gave me the impetus to really get to know a place, not just as a tourist. I went back to school and studied international development. Then I volunteered as a long-term communications consultant in Ethiopia, Swaziland and Vietnam. Next up is Ghana. I have made friends with the people where I lived during those stints. I understand (somewhat) their politics and I have a much better understanding of where my country stands in international political dust-ups. It is never as it seems, and certainly not as your local MP would explain the issues.
I know you have a passion for international development. Tell us about your work in that realm.
Sure, I first went to Ethiopia as a volunteer with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO). It was a 6-week gig and I traveled all over the country with a photographer interviewing volunteers. Their stories then appeared on the CUSO website and in the organization’s marketing materials.
Next up was Swaziland where I was sent by Crossroads International as a communications officer with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) for a year. I lived in the town of Manzini and spent a lot of my time working on national campaigns to raise awareness about gender-based violence (there is a lot there, one in three women under 18 are sexually abused). Grueling work but ultimately rewarding. There was some legislative change just before I left and hopefully perpetrators are actually serving the time they deserve now.
I was also able to travel quite a bit during that time and not only did I see all of beautiful Swaziland, but I went to Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and was able to write about those destinations.
My last mandate was in Vietnam. I spent nine months in Hanoi working as a communications consultant with World University Services of Canada (WUSC). I was working with their partner, Bac Thang Long College, helping them with marketing and promotion. We spent much of the time working on success stories of alumni and partners that could be used on their website and other promotional materials. Vietnam was amazing. I traveled the entire country, north to south and experienced the diverse flavors, landscapes and culture of a multitude of ethnic peoples. I am still writing up those stories. Next might be Ghana, but I haven’t signed on yet. Will keep you posted!
You’ve been in this business for a long time, have you established any tricks-of-the-trade – things you always (or never) do when you sit down to write a travel article?
I always fact check. The internet is great for that. Spelling, dates, names. I really don’t want to make mistakes. I make copious notes, but always crosscheck with printed material I’ve picked up. I also find my photos are the best creative trigger of all to help me really remember and evoke the feeling of a place.
What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring travel writers?
Be curious, be persistent and take your time. There is lot to see but sometimes the best stories are in the small details.
Obviously you travel all over the world, if you had to choose three top destinations what would those be, and why?
I love my own country…more and more in fact as I travel. Each province has a distinct personality and much amazing history. I love the nooks and crannies of the United States, especially where the history speaks to me, could be literary, political, military or otherwise. And I absolutely love Africa! It is a huge continent, but the open skies, animals, golden light and warm people I have met so far will stay with me forever. Much more exploring to be done there!
What does the future hold for you? What projects are next on the horizon?
More Africa, for sure. But I also want to delve more deeply into places such as India and Southeast Asia. I want to continue helping the people I meet reach their capacity on various volunteer mandates and I want to continue opening my arms to this wonderful, amazing planet we live on.
A Toronto-based traveler, writer and communication specialist, Maureen combines her wanderlust with a drive to do good in the world. When she is not gazing at the northern lights in Norway, sweating in a Mexican temazcal or stroking the soft fur of lion cubs in South Africa for a story, Maureen can be found sharing her expertise and building the capacity of people in developing countries. So far she has undertaken long-term volunteer mandates in Ethiopia, Swaziland and Vietnam. From buying produce in the local markets to checking out a new city’s hidden nooks and crannies, she revels in soaking up the culture and savoring the cuisine. Her award-winning articles reflect her natural curiosity and love of life, no matter where she happens to be. “There is nothing like living in a country to gain an understanding of its people and gently lift the curtain of otherness,” she says. “The more I see of the world, the more I realize we are all on a journey together.” You can find more about Maureen on her website: www.maureenlittlejohn.com