Travel writer and overseas volunteer, Shannan O’Donnell, recently returned to her childhood home in Florida for a brief respite. During her stay, I caught up with her over Gmail. The following interview explores Shannon’s unique experiences abroad, her relationship to her website, A Little Adrift, and her personal reactions to scenes and cultures she has witnessed abroad.
-Jeffrey F. Barken
Jeff: How has being an actress influenced your travels/ your instinct to travel?
Shannon: I am a bit of an introvert in many social situations, but my improvisation training over the years has given me the ability to often overcome my tendency to prefer small gatherings and I can interact and enjoy larger groups for a time. It also gave me a passion for finding local arts and chances to experience traditional art and dance; once I left I found that watching cultural performances often filled the gap in my life that was left when I abruptly left the acting industry.
Jeff: What was your first destination? And why did you choose to go there?
Shannon: My first stop was in Australia, and since I was living in Los Angeles at the time it seemed like a great starting point
for my round the world trip — I took a one-way flight to Sydney and then worked my way back west toward home (the US) over the course of a year.
Jeff: Did you always plan to keep a blog?
Shannon: From the moment I started researching my trip I saw how few long-term planning resources were out there (back in 2008) and yes, I planned on recording my journey and everything I learned along the way so others would have some online resources to look to in their own planning. That being said, I really wasn’t sure more than my parents would read the blog and it’s been a wonderful surprise over the years to see that others did, in fact, need and appreciate the resources and have set out on their own amazing journeys as well. Blogging allowed me to join a community of other writers and travelers in a way that was unheard of five years ago, but now I have friends in each new place because of the community that has grown out of my blog.
Jeff: Did you find it took a long time to grow into your character as a traveler, or did you know instinctively who you wanted to be and or become while on the road?
Shannon: The first year on the road as a solo traveler was my boot camp for life. It was about me learning how to shed some of the baggage I carried around with me as a person and learn how to travel from a place of gratitude and curiosity. LA often breeds narcicism in people (it did in me), and I worked on shedding that in the first months, and through volunteering and service as I travel I have cultivated a life I feel has value for others outside of myself.
Jeff: Have you tried out different personalities in different countries? And or ever made up a story about your past to create a role for yourself?
Shannon: I never consciously chose to try on a different personality, but I do know I occasionally allowed myself to mold into some of the travelers I met — just to see if their mode of travel suited me better. By doing so, I found a style that feels like me. I joined up with a hitch-hiking backpacker in Ireland and camped on the windy shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Ireland; in Laos I partied with travelers on the Nam Song, and in Thailand viewed the country through its food history. Each gave a unique lens on travel, and helped me cultivate a style that pushes at my curiosity and comfort level just enough to keep things interesting.
Jeff: What countries did you fall in love with and why?
Shannon: Each place offers something different so it’s hard to answer this. I loved India for the food — an entire country’s cuisine built to cater to vegetariasm was a wonderful and tasty experience. I love the accessibilty of Thai culture when you travel in Thailand and the warmth of the Guatemalans in the months I spent there.
Jeff: Were there any countries you visited that you didn’t like? If so, why? (Please elaborate on what made you feel uncomfortable).
Shannon: The places that I didn’t love are were usually for very personal reasons and for that reason I always hesitate to mention them — some people have told me I am crazy for not loving my time in Cuba. For me, it just didn’t stand up to my expectations — and maybe that was the folly, to have heard so much about the country that I went with ideas about what it would be like once I was there.
Jeff: Could you write about a country that disappointed you or even left you feeling troubled? How did your blog following react if they felt you were in a difficult place?
Shannon: I don’t think I’ve written many negative posts on my site, I blogged about Cuba getting an “ish” from me on the ratings scale and then laid out what was going on in my life at that time. My readers were interested in my reaction and generally all the discourse was constructive and civil with some even agreeing with me.
Jeff: Did you ever get the traveler’s blues? When is it time to go home? And how do you know?
Shannon: There are times that I have been intensely lonely on the road, and generally that feeling passes within a few days if I take some steps to call home, relax, and give myself time and permission to have the blues. Long-term traveler has its own obstacles and the having the blues sometimes is one of them. I touched on this subject recently on my site, and noted that one of the ways I deal with the dynamic now is to recognize that I prefer to spend about six months on the road, alternated with a couple months back home. This has worked pretty well in my travels since that first yearlong trip.
These hands are from a woman preparing a traditional Jordanian bread called shrak; the saj is in the background and I love that that the image captured her steady motion as she prepared the dough for the fire seen in the background.
The series of sunset photos in San Pancho, Mexico are also a strong memory for me. The town I lived in for five months is a surfers town and has a nightly ritual where residents gather on the beach to watch the sun go down — that ritual became a mooring point for me and the tranquility of the gorgeous sunset shots transport me back to that town and that time and place in my life.
Jeff: I remember reading in the early days of your blog that part of your inspiration to travel was to get away from the States where the artist’s/ acting life is grueling and all too often unsustainable. You cited school debts and the high price of health insurance as factors pushing you to leave. Can you elaborate on this part of your experience?
Shannon: My life in Los Angeles as an actor was just not sustainable. Over the course of two years I had wracked up debt, still had student loans to pay off, and was not really loving the reality of living in the culture LA incubates. There are wonderful people in the city, many close friends still there, but it was not a good fit for me and as I came to that reality, I also realized that I could pivot to a different dream — one that focused on better on consulting skills so I could have a steady income from working in web marketing and use that money to travel long-term. When I cam up with the plan it felt right from day one because it allowed me to prioritize two things I really wanted in my life 1) minimalism and carrying no debt 2) travel.
Jeff: Tell us about your last days in LA. What preparations did you need to make before you could leave? What was your mindset? Were you nervous, excited, stressed etc.?
Shannon: In my last days in the US I was basically done with the core preparations and it came down to the goodbyes and the sinking understanding that I was actually going to be traveling solo for a full year. That realization sunk in while I was having a coffee with my best friend about six days before I left and it led to my first and (to-date) only full panic attack. I had a meltdown of epic proportions as the enormity of my trip overwhelmed me. Luckily it passed and I became better at focusing on the immediate next steps rather than the bigger picture. That helped me find the courage to step foot on the plane and kiss my friends and family goodbye for a year.
Jeff: While you were abroad, did you consider yourself an ex-pat? / Were you angry at the USA?
Shannon: Angry is a harsh word, I would never say that I travel from a place of anger at my country. Some parts of my country frustrate me — I prefer taking care of my basic health care while overseas — but I travel because I love the constant assault on my sense when I’m living in a new place. There is a thrill to each day learning a new culture, new foods, and nuances of a life different from what I knew growing up. At times I consider myself an expat, when I land in a place for 5-6 months I will rent an apartment and try on life as a local. However, my family lives stateside, as do my closest friends and that means the US will always be one of the places I call home.
Jeff: What have been the biggest surprises since you started your blog, and embarked on your adventurous life?
Shannon: The community that formed through A Little Adrift has been a wonderful by-product of my travels. I never envisioned that travel would become a part of my future work when I left in 2008, but through the community and encouragement from readers and others in the community I have shifted and found ways to make travel a part of my work and passion.
Jeff: What’s the best advice you can give fellow travelers?
Shannon: Book your ticket. Set a realistic time-frame for traveling and then lock yourself into the plan. It’s easy to let our dreams slip away as time passes and you keep thinking “soon, soon I’ll book the ticket.” I’ve always found that when you lock yourself into a plan you rally yourself to meet the deadline and actually realize your goal. Travel is what we’re talking about now, but this really applies to most goals in life.
Jeff: And to come full circle, how have your travels impacted your acting career? Are there certain roles you now feel more prepared to take on? Or is writing your new career?
Shannon: I gave up acting entirely over the past five years — that is not to say that I won’t return to that career path, but right now I am more focused on sharing travel as a message and an actionable goal for people from all walks of life. Though writing will always be a focus, I plan to move into speaking with teens and young adults over the coming year about how to realize goals and dreams. Acting may happen in the future, but I’ve pivoted my life a bit and I find my creative outlet through writing on my blog, as well as through photography.