Conversations with men and women of wit, humour and letters
Photo: Clare Arni
Founder of Love Travel Guides Fiona Caulfield lets us in on her jaunts around the globe, falling in love with cities, and why emotional anchors are fundamental while zeroing in a place to travel to How do you go about picking the places you travel to?
I owe it all to serendipity. It could be (prompted by) a conversation, an image, a mention in a book, a location in a film. Mostly, however, it is a real conversation with a person, face to face. Some memorable conversations have led me to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, reading poetry in the Haida Gwaii, walking the kora around Mount Kailash, and taking a dip in the Ganga on Makar Sankranti at the Maha Kumbh Mela with tens of thousands of fellow pilgrims.
When did the idea of putting together a series of city guides occur to you?
I identified the need for a different kind of travel advice when I was in Calcutta in May 2004 after having trekked to the Everest Base Camp, en route to Dhaka. The idea for the destination guides happened soon after, when my flight to New York was diverted and I ended up in Bangkok. I was drinking my first glass of red wine in a month at the Como Metropolitan Hotel and scratched out some notes that became the Love Travel brand.
How do you immerse yourself in a place when you travel? Do you consciously glean information or go by the seek-and-thou-shalt-find approach?
In this case it is the abundance of the ‘AND’, rather than the scarcity of the ‘OR’. I do both.
How do you shortlist the recommendations in your travel guides? Is there a hard-and-fast process you usually follow?
I do my research, gathered slowly over the years, but what really elevates my knowledge is the fact that I talk to a lot of people. I ask them to imagine that I have taken them away for ten years to Mars, for example (sometimes Australia — works the same way!). I then ask them to imagine coming home and tell me just three places they would go to. I exclude visits with friends and family as that is almost a given. But we get specific really quickly and they almost always manage to give me the answers I am seeking. They describe the time, the view, the taste, the smell of very specific places and experiences. This way I start to uncover some of the emotional anchors to a destination and not just ‘tourist sights’ to tick off.
Would you pick a book to learn more about a place you are travelling to? Are there any authors whose works have inspired you to travel to new destinations?
Yes, a million times yes! Books have been essential throughout my travelling life. I still have the copy of In Xanadu by William Dalrymple published in 1989 that inspired me to quit my advertising life in London and spend six months travelling overland back to Australia. The trip turned out a little differently than anticipated but the inspiration to travel stayed on. Another pivotal book was Mister Raja’s Neighbourhood by Jeff Greenwald, who wanted to write a novel whilst living in Kathmandu but ends up only with a series of letters and compiles a book based on them. That was, I think, a turning point which saw me giving up my advertising life in New York, and try out a travelling and writing life in India. Not all books, of course, have such a lifelong impact, but so many provide inspiration that triggers travel. For example, who doesn’t want to go to the Sunderbans after reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide?
What, according to you, are the places in India that are less explored but worth visiting?
I can’t think of one place in India that is not worth exploring; perhaps if pushed, it would be Gurgaon! I am drawn to big, complicated cities, and India has plenty of those. However some of my happiest adventures have been in remote places — taking a stroll in Sikkim, hunkering down for a few days in the Kumaon, picking jasmine in the hills outside of Madurai, watching bison in the tea estates of Coonoor, and catching ferries around the Andamans. This is now becoming a very long list!
While in India, why did you choose to stay and work in Bangalore?
I was homeless when I first arrived in India and some new friends generously gave me keys to their cottages in the hills outside of Ooty. Each day I would walk for almost an hour into town to check my email and back walk home. After two months, during a ferocious monsoon, it became clear that having internet access might be useful as would being closer to an airport, and so I moved to Bangalore for a short time. Some 14 years later, I remain. Apathy perhaps, but over time, I have gathered some wonderful friends who now dance on my head about me not being around more frequently. I have also learnt how to navigate around to avoid Bangalore’s legendary traffic snarls.
What would you have to tell to people who want to seek ‘authenticity’ in travel? Do you think it is a largely misunderstood, or perhaps overused word in this context?
When I developed the Love Travel brand back in 2004, the one word I chose for equity was ‘authenticity’, for the style I chose ‘intimacy’, and for the design, ‘sensuality’. So what I mean by authenticity is keeping it real — real places, real people, real advice based on real experiences. I loathe and avoid experiences manufactured for tourists. I write like I was tapping out a note to my best friend, so I share my absolute best personal advice. Nothing finds its way into the books or into my travel design services, that I have not experienced first-hand. However as a ‘luxury vagabond’ talking to like-minded people, I use time, not money, as my currency. I think as you get older you realise the importance of time and not wanting to waste it having crappy experiences. I believe it is up to my clients and readers to choose their budgets and their priorities, not me. For example, whether you are chartering a yacht or queing up for a ferry, I want to make sure you have a memorable experience on the waters of the Bombay harbour — you choose the one that suits you.
What is the one object from your travels that you cherish the most?
There is no one object, in fact there are very few objects. As hackneyed as it sounds, I really do cherish memories, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the views, the surprises, the friendships and the knowledge gained from a travelling life. My family and friends will be rolling their eyes at this point, having witnessed way too many overstuffed bags of treasures coming back from adventures!
Could you share some of your most memorable experiences that have made their way into the travel guides?
Hah, the most memorable experiences might need to go into a novel, not a travel guide. I think this question is best answered reading one of the guides. Each page, each entry is a memory.
Shop for Love Travel Guides here.