The life and adventures of a travel writer

By Abby Gillies

Abby Gillies talks to Timaru-based travel writer and nzherald.co.nz blogger Jill Worrall about her disastrous first foray into journalism, her fascination with Islam and the vital role travel plays in the fight against ignorance

Jill Worrall, by her own confession, was a very late bloomer.

It took nearly 36 years before she knew what she wanted to do with her life and even longer before she drove recklessly, revelled in dangerous situations, embarked on intense and unlikely relationships and smoked hashish for the first time - the last one taking place while on a roof in Pakistan.

Some may call it irresponsibility, but for Worrall it has been valuable research; the experiences helping her become one of New Zealand's most prolific and successful travel writers.

In her travel blog for nzherald.co.nz, readers are invited to share in the Timaru woman's latest adventures.

Here, as in all of her writing, Worrall credits travel with giving her the adolescent approach of experiencing every moment to its fullest.

From fleeting connections in Istanbul, to shambolic border crossings in Uzbekistan, for 48-year-old Worrall travel writing has not just been a job, it has also been a way of growing up and connecting with the world.

"I enjoy the slight sense of being on the edge, it's an amazing high," she says.

And travel is an addiction she has no intention of giving up.

The first time we meet, Worrall is energetically addressing a group of budding travel journalists - describing the delights of evoking senses to transport the reader to a place.

All hair and hippie-ish charm, she has a natural exuberance and doesn't stop moving the entire hour.

A few weeks later her movements have been forced into submission following a leg operation, but the speed of her story-telling hasn't missed a beat.

A two-time Qantas award winner and a Travel Communicator travel writer of the year, she has published a book, contributed to every New Zealand newspaper and travel magazine you can think of, writes the Escapism travel blog for nzherald.co.nz website and works as an international tour guide.

There is very little, it seems, for Worrall to achieve in the travel writing field.

But what she really wants to talk about, is her hat collection.

Proudly displayed on top of a living room cabinet, the colourful, jewelled hats are testament to the places she's trekked, stumbled and sailed through over the last decade.

It took a few trips for her to realise however, that copper teapots were not the most practical souvenir and the compactable hats were a much better choice.

Now they're a staple purchase on every trip.

Then there's the near-deportation story, which further reveals the mentality of a woman who has travel in her veins.

It was in Colombo. Faced with a pedantic, gun-wielding officer, who was attempting to endorse her passport for a 20 minute overstay in the country, Worrall became aware of something.

"It was boiling hot and total chaos, but I realised in the middle of it all, covered in sweat, I love it," she says.

Worrall had always wanted to be a geography teacher, but after her teacher's college application was rejected twice, she decided she must be destined for other things.

However writing was not the obvious career move.

In what she describes as the "worst interview in the world", she pitifully admitted to the Clutha Leader's editor that she couldn't type or write shorthand, had no experience - or even interest in - sports and had no writing skills whatsoever.

The following week the same editor called her in desperation, after the successful applicant suffered a breakdown just five days into the job.

Worrall got the sports reporting job.

But in the worst possible start to her writing career, she managed to kill someone within the first six months.

A bad phone connection between her and a Lawrence police officer resulted in her mishearing "shot in the leg" as "shot dead".

The death notice in the next morning's paper was of no greater hilarity to anyone than to the would-be dead man himself.

He called later that morning to report he was still alive.

"Everything stopped, I wanted to be sick," Worrall says.

"The first six months were hell, then something clicked."

She learnt from her early mistakes, studied typing at night school, taught herself shorthand and, within two years of starting, was the chief reporter.

An OE, two kids and a move to Timaru later, Worrall knew that a writing career was the thing for her.

She worked as a sub-editor and feature writer for the Timaru Herald for more than 15 years - the latter a role which saw her win a 2001 Qantas award for a story about rugby referee Colin Hawke and, two years later, the award for best travel feature.

But the pull of travel kept drawing her back, in particular to her beloved Pakistan, the setting of her book A Blonde in the Bazaar.

As she says in the opening chapter: "It only takes an insistent car horn, the twirl of a bright scarf, wood smoke at dusk and, with an immediate and painful tug at my heart, my mind takes me back there."

Equally alluring was the freedom travel offered.

"When you travel you can be who you want. That's part of the attraction and addiction for me, there are no preconceived ideas."

For Worrall, writing about travel was then a natural extension from her travel experiences.

At 36 she made the conscious decision to see if she could make a go of it as a travel writer - she and her husband Derek took a six week trip to India and Sri Lanka, with the intention of writing about the experience.

The trip was pivotal in Jill's decision to give up her day job and make a go of it as a full time travel writer.

Funding trips is a constant issue, so in 1998 Jill applied for the Asia 2000 programme, hoping her work would make a strong case for winning a scholarship.

The organisation funds travel for writers, enabling them to reach the destinations they write about, and aims to increase understanding and contact between New Zealand and Asia.

She was delighted when she won a place, giving her the opportunity to go to Bhutan, a country she had always been fascinated by.

The trip became the basis of several articles and helped her to build her credibility and contacts within the industry.

Drawn to Islamic countries, the West's often negative perception of Islam is something Worrall feels very strongly about.

While researching her book, Worrall's decision to stay with Muslim locals raised fears among her New Zealand friends.

"They were genuinely worried that I wouldn't wake up in the morning and thought I should be scared for my life," she says.

"Ignorance breeds fear, fuelled by America. I have met so many Muslims who are just wanting to get on with their life."

As a result of rising costs and the ethics involved in travel, Worrall sees the role of writers as central to educating people about other cultures.

"That is one aspect of travel writing that is important.

"It gives me the chance to explain about culture and religion to people who might not go there, then travel writing goes beyond entertainment."

Iran, Bhutan and France rate among her favourite countries, but in the end, she acknowledges it's the people who make a place.

"There's magic in certain places and the nature of the people draw you back."

Despite the benefits of what some would see as a dream job, travel writing has its downsides.

This darker side of the industry was highlighted earlier this year, with the publication of a controversial book by Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm.

In his autobiographical book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, Thomas exposes the underside of the industry as he lurches through the task of researching and writing the guide to Brazil.

All-in-all he paints quite a tragic picture of an industry rife with embellishment and bias, with drunken interludes and loneliness.

While Worrall doesn't agree with everything Kohnstamm says, she does believe he raises some real and relevant points.

In particular, she agrees that travelling can often be a lonely experience, that the job is market-driven and that there is some mediocre work in print, which often comes down to destination rather than good writing.

But Worrall wouldn't have it any other way.

She loves it all - the quirks, the annoyances and the interruptions, even the financial drain of her career choice.

"For me, travel's not a luxury," she says.

Worrall is currently finishing her second travel book and anticipating her next trip, to Iran in October.

TRAVEL WRITING EXPOSED

Thomas Kohnstamm: American travel writer who has worked on more than a dozen Lonely Planet Guides, including Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and South America. He has also written travel articles for US publications Travel and Leisure, Time Out New York, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.

Jill Worrall: New Zealand travel writer who has written for a number of New Zealand and Australian magazines and newspapers, including the Dominion Post, the New Zealand Herald, the Brisbane Courier Mail, North and South, On Holiday, House and Garden and Inspire. She has published one book and her second is due out this year.

HE SAYS: "Most travel books fall into three groups:

* The earnest writers who become enlightened through contact with the simple, yet honest, lives of Mexican peasants or the unparalleled
tranquillity of the Tuscan countryside. A more holistic approach to life is discovered and the universe is balanced.

* The smug writers who mock how backward the plumbing and transportation are anywhere outside of North America. Those foreigners are so wacky and their toilets are too! Isn't that hilarious?

* Guys who attempt solo ascents of mountains without telling anyone where they're going, are forced to amputate their appendages with a spork, and then expect us to appreciate their triumph of human spirit."

SHE SAYS: "I'd like to think some of us have found a happy medium. But it's clever, cynical and there's a gem of truth in it."

HE SAYS: "When thousands of travellers follow a guidebook word-for-word, recommendation-for-recommendation, it not only harms contemporary international travel but can also do serious harm to places in developing countries. A guidebook is not the singular or necessarily the correct way to approach a destination."

SHE SAYS: "I do take them (guidebooks) but I realised some time ago, you can be bound up by them. They're a useful tool but you mustn't let them take over your life. You won't experience most of it unless you step outside the pages of the guidebook."

HE SAYS: "Lonely Planet use the term 'parachute artist' to describe a certain type of traveller who can drop into a place, quickly assimilate and write about anywhere."

SHE SAYS: "I suspect I am this type of traveller. I'm fortunate that I can get into a place and make connections with people. My problem is I find it hard to parachute out again."

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