Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, world traveler, and culinary historian. She’s been to 37 countries on six continents following her passions after quitting her corporate job and leaving for Australia, a trip that would change her life forever. She also was recently elected to the Society of Women Geographers. Her first book, Waltzing Australia, won the Mom’s Choice Award for travel writing. She’s worked for every major educational publisher in the U.S., including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and has published more than 400 articles and contributed two major entries (on Mongolia and Jordan) to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Read below to find out more about this fascinating woman!
FG: How did the idea for your book, Waltzing Australia begin?
CC: My reason for leaving the corporate world was to pursue writing, so I had gone to Australia with the intention of writing daily. I filled pages and pages of notebook paper with observations, background, everything I was seeing, doing, learning, and experiencing. Every couple of weeks, I mailed the pages to my parents, basically in lieu of regular letters. When I returned at the end of the six months, I went to see my folks, and mom had put all the pages she’d received into a notebook—a surprisingly thick notebook. I could hardly believe I’d written so much—hundreds of pages. It already looked a lot like a book. I began typing up the notes during down time, as I built my career, thinking I might be able to turn it into a publishable work. However, it really didn’t seem as though I could turn it loose until it had that happy ending of “I made it.” The original notebook ended with me on the plane home saying, “what do I do now,” and that just wasn’t how I wanted the story to end. Once I got the happy ending firmly in place, I felt the book could be published.
FG: What are some of the advantages of traveling as a woman?
CC: There are actually quite a few advantages. People generally feel safer with a stranger if it’s a woman, and so feel more comfortable striking up conversations. I’ve experienced this in many countries. People, from teens to retirees, have stopped to offer me directions, asked me to join them for dinner, offered to show me around, and even invited me home. Also, women are generally better than men at connecting quickly. I’ve struck up worthwhile friendships in the time it took to do a couple of loads of laundry at a youth hostel. Also, in lots of places, chivalry lives on, so assistance is readily offered.
FG: Out of all places in the world, why did you want to go to Australia first?
CC: My dad had been with the airlines when I was growing up, so I’d been to Europe five times with my family, plus I lived in England for a semester while in college. So I was familiar with Europe. For starting my life over, I wanted something unfamiliar—something dramatically different, in fact. I wanted a place that would test me, not just let me be comfortably who I’d always been. I’d always been interested in Australia, but it grew to be almost an obsession—the place I had to go—when I started planning to get out of the corporate world. It proved to be absolutely the right destination.
FG: You now work as a freelance writer and travel the world writing about your adventures. Can you tell us about a few of the countries you’ve been to?
CC: I’ve now been to 37 countries on six continents. One of the important things I’d learned about myself on that first trip to Australia was that I’m not just a traveler; I’m an adventurer. I’ve been back to Europe, and I love it, but I’ve also done a lot of rugged and exotic stuff that would have seemed unimaginable before Australia. I’ve drunk fermented mare’s milk with nomad herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, traveled in a dugout canoe down Ecuador’s Rio Napo in the Amazon rain forest, browsed through the souks and medinas of Morocco, climbed the Great Wall of China and the stairs of Tibet’s Potala Palace, explored caves in karst formations in northern Vietnam, and soaked in a thermal spring in Iceland (in February). I have a particular fondness for culinary history and the interweaving of food and culture, so I’ve also gone to cooking school in Mexico and took cooking lessons while traveling in Thailand, India, and Egypt. Some places I love more deeply than others, but I’ve really enjoyed everywhere I’ve been.
FG: When you visit a new country, how do you go about choosing where to go? Are you often accompanied by a guide?
CC: Choosing where to go is usually based on a great deal of research, sometimes lifelong, other times, in preparation for a specific trip. I also ask for other people’s recommendations. Some choices represent long-term goals, such as visiting Cambodia’s Angkor War, which entranced me when I first saw photos in a National Geographic back in grade school, or the Summer Palace in Beijing, which I’d wanted to see since reading Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman in high school. Then, as a culinary historian, there are places you just have to visit, such as the Ethno-Botanic Garden in Oaxaca, Mexico, because Oaxaca is where corn was first developed thousands of years ago, or Kerala in southern India, where most of the world’s favorite spices originated. Wherever I’m headed, I always have a substantial list of places I want to go or things I want to experience before I leave home, and usually before I even book flights. However, I do try to leave a bit of room for serendipity, taking recommendations I get as I travel, or pursuing discoveries made on site.
As for going with guides, that’s determined by a fairly broad range of factors. If there’s a lot of trackless wilderness involved, I definitely go with a guide. (I consider getting back home again to be a key part of a successful trip.) If I’m going to remote rural areas where no one speaks English, I’ll have a guide. In some countries, such as Tibet, guides are required by law. I’ll also travel with a guide in areas where the customs and beliefs are such that simply being a woman might get me into trouble. If I have a very limited amount of time, a guide can be useful, if for no other reason than knowing how to get to all the worthwhile spots. And then there are the country-specific reasons. For example, in Bali, the generally unmarked roads are dominated by farm animals, and if you hit a cow with your car, the village may very well seek an unpleasant revenge. Plus, it costs about half as much to hire a guide and driver as it costs to rent a car. So even though I’d outlined everything I wanted to see before reaching Bali, I still hired a guide when I wanted to venture out into the countryside. Otherwise, I don’t have much problem just using a guidebook and heading off on foot or using public transportation. Turkey, Japan, Hong Kong, and England are all places where it’s especially easy to rely on public transportation. But research is the key to figuring out where to go and not missing anything important.
FG: What advice do you have for women who are interested in having a career based around travel?
CC: What you need to do depends on your other passions. If all you want to do is be out there, you can get a job on a cruise line or you can train to be a tour director. Just decide what you want, look at who’s doing it, and check to see if they have jobs available. If, however, you want to write, then I’d say the most important thing is to be good at several things. I write about travel, but I also write about food, history, culture, and geography. I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles, but I’ve also written dozens of textbooks and contributed to encyclopedias. This is actually not quite as diversified as it sounds, as there is no good travel writing that doesn’t include all these topics. It’s just a matter of learning how to tailor your work to your audience or client—plus getting good at research and taking notes everywhere.
FG: What were some of the obstacles you faced when first starting to pursue your dream of being a writer?
CC: Well, the biggest obstacle was the one all writers face: no one goes out looking for new writers. There is no way to succeed other than just doing the work. Start with lowly magazines to get clips. Learn to write query letters. Expect to get rejections. In fact, if you’re a writer, that’s going to be your life, not just your start up. However, one does build a reputation, makes connections, and gets better at fitting queries to markets. So you don’t escape the work needed to get assignments, but you do get better at it. Like a good athlete—the course doesn’t get shorter, but your speed and endurance build, and you start to win more than you lose.
FG: How many of your business decisions are based on know how vs. your intuition?
CC: Gosh—it’s actually kind of hard to separate the two. However, if I had to choose, I’d say know how, at least at this point in my career. I’m constantly studying, pursuing the things that matter most to me, keeping my skills sharp, and because I’ve built my career around the things I love—writing, travel, history, geography, food—it’s my know how that keeps me moving forward. That said, intuition is still involved, because the way the market and publishing are changing, there’s still a lot of guesswork.
FG: What do you consider to be some of the major highlights of your career thus far?
CC: I think the initial big highlight was when I knew I was going to make it as a writer. I had been working part time in retail, to get insurance and make ends meet. When I could walk away from that and rely entirely on my writing to support me, I was overjoyed. Of course, having Waltzing Australia get published was a huge highlight, as was having it winning the Mom’s Choice Award® for travel writing. Writing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was exciting. I loved being invited to contribute major articles (on Mongolia and Jordan) to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. And I was delighted to be elected to the Society of Women Geographers earlier this year.
A highlight of a different sort is getting reactions from readers who are inspired by my book. A lot of people just enjoy my adventure and wonder of Australia, but I am particularly excited to hear from people who have found something more in my book, whether it was simply the motivation to go on vacation or the inspiration to pursue their dreams.
FG: What is a spiritual mantra or philosophy that you live by?
CC: I’d say that the closest I come to having a mantra would be something from Nobel laureate Patrick White that I quote often: “Nothing important is easy.” As for a philosophy, I think that could be boiled down to always doing the best work you can, even when it doesn’t seem to matter (because it always matters, even if it’s only internal), and care deeply—about your audience, about your craft, about the truth. Actually, I think caring deeply could be said to be the engine behind always doing the best you can.
FG: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
CC: “Make the most of every opportunity.” My dad always emphasized that. The other best piece of advice, also from my dad, was “Be nice to everyone—but especially to the people others ignore.”
FG: What would you tell your younger-self if you knew then what you know now?
CC: There is a degree to which I so value everything I’ve gone through and everything I’ve learned that I’m not sure I’d want to change anything, even the difficulties—and maybe especially the difficulties. Of course, it depends on how much younger. I might tell a much younger self not to be hurt by those who were intimidated by intelligence—but I’m not sure I’d have listened when I was younger. In fact, I’m pretty sure my mom told me that, but you can’t really process that until you’re older. If we’re talking about the beginning of my writing career, I’d probably have told myself the clients that would turn out to be the best, so I could have avoided a few dozen rejection letters. That way, I could have skipped the stint in retail. (Not a highlight of my career.)
Finish these sentences:
FG: Women should stop complaining about______ and start doing _____________
CC: They should not complain about what they can’t do and start doing whatever they can. That will mean different things for different people, of course. If you have four kids, you can’t just walk out and go to another country. However, you can start writing articles for local magazines, or start learning a foreign language, or take a college course (online, if necessary), or start reading books about places you’d like to visit, or take up embroidery, painting, jewelry making, or archery. There’s always something you can start doing that will enrich your life, and there’s usually something you can do that will potentially, over time, lead to the fulfillment of a larger dream. Focus on what you can do. Everyone is happier when the glass is half full, rather than half empty.
And remember, nothing happens instantly. It took me three years to save enough money to pay for that first big Australia trip and to support myself for a year afterwards, while I started my new career. It took me longer than that to build a new career when I returned. Remember, “Nothing important is easy.”
FG: If your life had a soundtrack what would be your top three songs?
CC: That makes me smile, because when I was planning to leave the corporate world, one of my motivational techniques was to create an “escape tape,” a tape of songs that reminded me I was getting out. One of the songs was “I’m Already Gone” by the Eagles, and I think that would have to be on any soundtrack of my life. I’d probably include “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, just because Australia was the door into my new life. Gosh, about a dozen songs come to mind involving country roads, leaving on jet planes, and ships at sea. However, if I only get three, I think I’d have to pick “Africa” by Toto as my final one. It almost always brings me to my feet, dancing, and makes me think about digging out my passport.
FG: What project(s) do you have coming up?
CC: I’m currently working on three books. One is a sequel to Waltzing Australia. I’ve been back to Australia three more times, though only for a month each time, not the six months of the original trip. However, I’ve had some delightful and often astonishing adventures on the return trips. I’ve also begun writing a book of all my tips, tricks, and advice for traveling smarter and healthier, and having a better time doing it, plus pointers on how to get more travel into your life. And I’m working on a book of the histories of the most important foods in the world. People are usually astonished to find out the impact food has had on world events—and how stunningly valuable currently ordinary items once were. For example, in the Middle Ages, a serf could buy his freedom for one pound of black pepper, and dried cod made the Age of Vikings possible.
For more information on Cynthia and Waltzing Austraila please visit the Waltzing Australia blog www.waltzingaustralia.wordpress.com, for information on Cynthia’s food history and non-Aussie travel blog: www.worldsfare.wordpress.com. You can also visit www.worldplate.com. Upcoming speaking engagements and book signings are posted on Facebook fan page (Cynthia Clampitt: Author).