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Interview with Hanna Butler: On Travel Writing & Southeast Asia

WORLDWIDE | Wednesday, 1 August 2012 | Views [8261] | Comments [1]

Hanna Butler, winner of our 2012 Travel Writing Scholarship, went on assignment to Southeast Asia earlier this year. She worked with Rough Guides author Richard Lim to update The Rough Guide to Singapore, chased adventure with Stuart McDonald of Travelfish in Bali, and fell into a Malaysian foodie frenzy with Cho of hsaba and Robyn of Eating Asia. Here, she shares her experiences on assignment and what she learned from her mentors.

What was the highlight of your scholarship experience?

The highlight of any trip for me is the people I meet. I met many fantastic people while on the scholarship. A standout for me was Pearly Kee who I spent the day with visiting her local market, then cooking using her family recipes. She is such a character – cracking jokes with a big knife in her hand, but then also getting quite personal about her life. She really inspired me to learn about food and cooking traditions from my family and culture.

There is an old Maori saying in New Zealand which really sums up why I travel.

“He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata.”

What is the most important thing?  It is people, it is people, it is people.

What was the biggest challenge for you on assignment?

Finding time! I was up pretty early and days were spent under the hot Southeast Asian sun going from activity to activity until after dinner late at night.  I kept pretty good notes of everything, but I found at the end of the day I just collapsed into bed. I hindsight I would try to summarise and type up my notes every evening. I would also dedicate writing time every day or couple of days. Sometimes when we travel we want to squeeze as much into our days as we can. Having time to see what happens and as writer having time to process information and details is important.

Another challenge was the fact I am a recently trained print journalist and have been moulded to write succinctly and with a hard news angle. While this training is a huge help it also meant that I really have to change my thinking and loosen up a bit with my writing!

What new skills did you learn from your mentors? 

Richard Lim from Rough Guide taught me how important it is as a guidebook writer to be thorough. You just can’t assume a restaurant or hotel is good, you have to go there and try it. Even down to checking that bus stations are still in the same place – go there and check and never assume.

Stuart McDonald  from Travelfish really drove home the importance of being web savvy with your writing. Linking to other sites, having a blog and tweeting. Thinking about my writing as a product and building a portfolio.

Both Stuart and Richard also advocated the importance of being independent. There are many travel writers who review certain hotels and restaurants in exchange for a free bed or meal. Stuart and Richard don’t and they won’t and I really respect this. When I read guide books and websites I want unbiased information not advertorials.

The Malaysian leg of my journey taught and inspired me to really think more about food. To be quite honest I didn’t think that I could, but I did. Food and travel have always been my favourite twins – they go together, but I never thought about how much they relied on each other, particularly how you can travel through food. My time with foodies Cho, Robyn and Pearly made me think about what stories come from eating and cooking.

What were you inspired by (or inspired to write about) in Southeast Asia?

What inspired me most was how surprised I was about places I would usually have never visited. I’m not a travel snob, but we all have preferences and certain travel styles.

I’m usually found hanging out in a non-descript location with no major attractions, just there for the sake of being there. My days are spent drinking lots of tea and coffee and people watching. And getting a sense of the place. I love overland travel, finding the long way round which can take you through lots of small towns.

But with this trip I was off to Bali, a place I knew nothing about other than it was a magnet for sun seekers and party animals. I was quite wrong – admitted this and found inspiration in this. It’s about your attitude and not the destination.

Singapore was also a bit like this. A week in a spot that had been a long-time stop over destination for me. I was again surprised and inspired and how much there was to do.

What was the best advice you were given on your assignment?

The best advice was the most simple. Robyn Eckhardtsuggested a café to sit at; people watch and wait for a friendly local to have a chat with me.

For me this really embodies how something so simple can open the doors in a place, its people and culture. These kinds of interactions can’t be found in books or tourist attractions.

What's next for you? 

I am still at my job in the charity sector – which I really enjoy. But I can’t shake my fate as a writer and traveller.

I have a couple of writing projects which I am fleshing out and I am really excited about. I am trying to follow my own advice and am coming up with something that combines local travel, with international travel, food and writing. Something along the lines of ways of travelling without actually getting on a plane. But also when you do get on the plane what are the things in a metaphorical sense that take you places when you get there? (I’ll keep you posted)   

I spent most of my twenties as a gypsy around the world, so now I am looking at more sustainable ways to incorporate my charity work with travel and writing. I love New Zealand, but realistically it won’t be long before I pack up and move on.

When I do it will be to write and to travel. And to eat.

Travel. Learn. Create.

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Awesome post! Really inspiring, and it seems like you learned so much. I can only imagine how incredible this trip must have been.

  Rachel Vinciguerra Aug 16, 2012 12:36 PM

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