Learning from the best – discussing travel, writing and self-care with Sarah Barrell

It was 6 pm and my usual Canary Wharf view has just become replaced by a magical white curtain of falling snow. I have just finished my Skype coaching session after a full day of working from home and looking at the weather outside I felt grateful for not having to leave the house. I had wanted to attend a Travel Writing Masterclass held that day by the National Geographic Traveller (UK), but have by that point reluctantly accepted that the tickets had long been sold out. I was about to cozy up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a good book when I heard the beeping sound of an incoming Facebook notification. I couldn’t believe my luck! Because of the snow one of the attendees has just cancelled  and there was one last ticket left for the NGT Masterclass I so badly wanted to attend! Without giving it much thought I booked the ticket and ran out of the house, zipping up and putting on make up as I hurried to Covent Garden. I didn’t notice the cold, didn’t mind the snowflakes crushing coldly into my face. The universe gave me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

After the inspiring evening with NGT’s writers and editors, I gathered up the courage to walk up to Sarah Barrell, their Associate Editor and Travel Writer. I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah once before, at the London School of Journalism where she was giving lecture on travel writing, yet the idea of bothering her with my questions still made me uneasy. Despite feeling shy, I decided to approach her. I thought someone who has traveled to so many countries and has built an incredibly successful career around her life’s passion would be a wonderful person to write about for my January travel inspiration series. To my great surprise and even greater pleasure, Sarah was kind enough to agree to do an interview for TravelPsyched!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

TravelPsyched: So, Sarah, you’re one of the most inspiring travel writers in this country and your articles have been published in all the leading newspapers and magazines, like The Times, The Guardian, Wanderlust, Marie Claire, or National Geographic Traveller (UK), and you also held a few editorial positions in some of these great papers. How did you get on this path and is this what you have always wanted to do in life?

Sarah Barrell: I think in some way – yes. I always loved writing and reading as a way to escape.  As a kid I picked adventure books, whether that was “The Famous Five”, “Swallows and Amazons” or more magical stuff. At school, I wasn’t that good at anything else – maths, science, whatever. So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that I ended up studying English and publishing at university, and working on university magazines and radio stations. Travel writing didn’t really happen until I realised I was pretty much constantly travelling. From the age of 16 I had always had a job so was able to save a little bit of money, and used this to fund trips. Once I graduated from university I got into a cycle of doing any job I could in order to fund my travels because I’d become addicted. Getting a “proper” job became something that was on the horizon but never quite happening. Then, a radio editor said to me: “why don’t you just go travelling properly rather than going backwards and forwards?”

I had toyed with the idea of working in radio for a while, and finally decided there wasn’t really any future in it. I didn’t want to be a DJ, and while I loved programmes such as “Excess Baggage”, opportunities for making radio documentaries and features were thin on the ground. So I went travelling for a couple of years, and when I came back I was lucky enough to find that one of my former university friends had started work at The Independent, originally as an intern, then as a freelance on the Arts Desk. The Independent on Sunday was just launching a standalone travel section headed up by a brilliant writer, called Jeremy Atiyah. I got work experience on the desk and ended up hanging around like a bad smell, making myself useful, doing some filing, writing bits and pieces, researching, fact checking, doing boring radio listings. All the stuff journalists (we’re talking mid-nineties), generally did to earn their stripes.

Eventually I got myself a job, and I learnt almost everything I now know about travel writing from that experience. I could write but it was a bit of an ambition over talent situation. I learnt everything, really,  by reading and editing other people’s copy. When I read something good, I looked at how was constructed and asked myself, how am I doing this differently? I was also lucky to have great advice from my editor, who went through my copy with a red pen. Brutal but invaluable. I learnt enormous amounts in the time on that desk and after a few years became Deputy Travel Editor, and Travel Editor when Jeremy Atiyah left. However… I didn’t really like being chained to the desk, and that’s what it ended up being, so I eventually left in early 2000 to go freelance, and more or less haven’t looked back.

T: Were there any specific personality characteristics that you’ve had or skills that you’ve learnt along the way that really enabled you to get where you are right now?

SB: You’ve got to be really thick-skinned, especially when people turn down your pitches or ignore you, because that’s just standard, unfortunately. But I think you need to understand how busy everyone is, it’s not something to be taken personally. You have to be extremely self-motivated to keep the ball rolling because nobody is going to be doing that for you. It’s a highly competitive area. You have to keep generating ideas, keep generating pitches. And more than anything, you need an insatiable hunger for the world. After doing this for almost twenty years you might think I’d get bored. But the more you do it, the more addictive it becomes and the more you realise there is to see out there. So: you need that drive that makes you want to do it more than anything else, as it’s really not a sensible way to earn a living [laughs].

T: You’ve been traveling for so many years and you’ve been to so many wonderful, and I’m sure beautiful, places. What’s the most inspiring place that you’ve visited?

SB: That’s a really hard question to answer. It’s the one I have to ask interviewees sometimes and it’s a pretty impossible question, for me at least. I’m a very fidgety person, as I think many travel writers are, and there’s usually nothing that’s inspired me as much as the last place I’ve visited. Especially if it’s somewhere new. You’re full of the smells, the flavours, the things you didn’t know about it, the things you’d wish to learn more about. And this for me is most inspirational. It’s finding myself charmed and curious and seduced by something. I mean, I have favourite places – I love Bali for its utter sensual overload, seductive colours, pungent smells. I love Italy and Greece because I lived and worked there. I love the buzz of New York, that never gets old. But I think if we’re talking about places that inspire me, it’s usually the last place I’ve been. It’s very rare that I would go somewhere and come away without having that travel bug reignited.

T: I think travelling can often be a wonderful way not just to reignite that hunger for travel, but also a way to develop yourself, to learn more about yourself when we find ourselves in new situations, among new people that often challenge us. What would be the most important lesson that you’ve learn during your travels?

SB: I think you have to be very open. I think the minute you start travelling with a preconceived idea of what you want to get out of the place, you’re going to end up having a disappointing experience. I think you have to have a sensible idea about where you’re going, to be safe and understand what the destination is basically about. But ultimately you need to be open about itineraries. I try to plan as little as I can, without wasting opportunities. I wouldn’t want to miss out on something important just because I hadn’t known about it. But in general, I don’t like to be pinned down too much. You have to be open, really want to talk to people and meet people. I think all those wonderful experiences, the stories, the leads, the quirky things you find out – for me, they almost always come from unexpected conversations.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is the innate kindness of people. It was always been something I took for granted as a teenager and twenty-something. I think I ran around the world like an overexcited puppy, expecting everyone to be the same and surprisingly I’ve never really been kicked back. I’ve been lucky I guess but I think if you approach someone with kindness, usually you get that response back. Obviously there’s been a few cases when that didn’t happen but I’ve never had a significantly bad experience. I’m always amazed how similar people are. It doesn’t matter whether you live in a hut in the Serengeti or a skyscraper in New York, the same things basically drive us, and I truly believe (despite the way the world can seem from a distance), that there’s an infinite kindness in humans.

T: You’ve talked about the infinite kindness and how you’ve never been kicked back, but what would be the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome while traveling?

SB: I think sometimes travelling can be quite lonely. It can be hard when you’re travelling solo. Some days you just don’t feel like it, you’re tired, you’re jetlagged, having a down day, feeling a bit more introverted. To keep yourself motivated all the time can be quite challenging, and I think you need to learn to acknowledge and accept when you ‘re tired and low on energy. And just let that happen – don’t  beat yourself up too much about it. But also try to find a way to re-inspire yourself. That might be through reading some great travel writing or thinking: “where do I really want to go next?”, and trying to fire up that enthusiasm again. So I think being self-motivated is the toughest thing to master, and that comes down to something as practical as being able to fund your trips: making travel writing pay.  I mean, in all honesty, it doesn’t always work,. It’s a very rare person who can fund their way around the world exclusively by travel writing.

T: Do you have any tried and tested ways of looking after yourself to keep that energy up? Either while you’re travelling or between your travels?

SB: Yes, I do. I’m not brilliant at always doing it but for me it’s finding the time to go outside. If I spend too much time indoors, whether it’s an airport, a hotel or an office, I can start feeling a bit trapped and frustrated. But I’ve learnt that it doesn’t take that much to pick me up again. Just going for a walk or a run or a swim; even better if I can do an outdoors yoga class. Yoga is that really works for me, although I don’t do enough of it! Outdoor swimming also really works for me, makes me feel better about myself. It’s also vitally important to get enough sleep (I don’t), and to not try and pack in too much in.

I have also started to travel with particular items. I never used to understand this habit in travelers, and found it a bit sad, this need for a sort of a security-blanket. But as I’ve got older, particularly when I travel by myself, I have come to realise the importance of having little things that make me feel at home wherever I am. For example, I always travel with a particular brand of tea, as tea often tastes rubbish in other countries, the water is different, the teabags are often not very good. I also travel with a particular type of throat spray. The air conditioning on planes can leave you with a sore throat, and I’ve got a spray that seems to banish that quickly. I always having little care package of books, DVDs, downloads and music that I love. More often than not, I go away with these things but I don’t use them as I’m too busy  but just having them there for that downtime or a delay, or when I’m in need of some mood enhancement is invaluable. I never, ever travel without a ton of downloaded music. Music really makes me feel better about myself, it’s a simple, quick fix.

T: Thank you. The final question, then is about the advice you would give someone who would like to make their life all about travel?

SB: You have to ask yourself why you want to do this? If it’s got anything with money or becoming famous in whatever way, don’t do it. I think if you want to do it because you find you can’t not do it, then you’re probably in the right place. It’s something you have to be a bit addicted to. If you have any other skills, my advice is to use them elsewhere, because it’s tough to stay alive as a travel writer. If you have the option to become a doctor or a lawyer, my suggestion would be to fulfill that, and then use your spare time and money to travel and write. Travel writing is a little like being in love. If you can’t not be, then you’re probably in the right job.


You can find out more about Sarah on her page and blog: https://sarahbarrell.com/

The tracks to freedom

There comes a time in everyone’s life when we need to escape. We run for various reasons. For some it’s a rebellion, for others a chance to find themselves. We can run towards something or run away, even if we are not exactly sure what that something is.

Fourty years ago, 25-year-old girl decided it was her time to break free. She was running away from boredom, a series of unfinished repetitions her life was becoming and her “self-indulgent negativity“. This petite blond decided to leave everything she knew and move to Alice Springs with a dream in mind. She would walk 1,700 miles across Western Australian desert, accompanied solely by Diggity, her loyal dog, and a few camels.

Thus began the story of Robyn Davidson, author of one of the best traveling books of all times. In “Tracks”, Robyn not only describes her remarkable expedition from the centre of Australian outback to the Indian Ocean, but tackles her personal journey and a process of discovering the person she was meant to become.

Although many came across Robyn’s story thanks to the magnificent movie starring talented Mia Wasikowska, for anyone interested in a true journey within the book is a must. Throughout the pages Davidson vividly depicts not only the crude magnificence of Australia’s wilderness, but she also honestly portrays the strenuous and less poetic points on her life’s map.

Before she takes us on the desert together with Dookie, Bub, Zeleika and Goliath, Robyn has to learn how to train her camels. She must acquire all her skills and knowledge from scratch, in a world she hates, among people who often either try to use her or ridicule an idea of a woman trying to accomplish such an arduous trek alone. She has to endure the ever-present racism, chauvinism and drunken brutality that prevailed in Alice Spring in the seventies. But it’s a part of her journey and she must persist.

Setting out on this brave travel, Robyn was not planning to write a book. She did not plan to sell her story, she wasn’t doing it to prove anything to anyone. Her escape was her way of minimising, a means “to pare away what was unnecessary“, as she put it in “Tracks”. She instinctively felt she had to leave things behind to make space for the new. She didn’t always know where the tracks she was following would take her, but she hoped that the journey from desert to the ocean would change the landscape within her as well.

“So I had made a decision which carried with it things that I could not articulate at the time. I had made the choice instinctively, and only later had given it meaning. The trip had never been billed in my own mind as an adventure in the sense of something to be proved. And it struck me then that the most difficult thing had been the decision to act, the rest had been merely tenacity – and the fears were paper tigers. One really could act to change and control one’s life; and the procedure, the process, was its own reward”.

Robyn made a decision. A decision many questioned, scorned, failed to believe in. But despite everyone’s opinions, she patiently prepared and worked towards it.

What will you decide to act upon? What process will be your reward?

Wherever your decision takes you, I hope you find your tracks.



Museum unlike any other

Istanbul has always had a special place in my heart. It’s a city I return to over and over again, each time finding a new piece of magic. Traveling to locations you’ve visited before has a special attraction – you can once again experience our favourite food, see the sights that have mesmerized you  and look forward to these rendezvous with memory long in advance, prolonging their spell. You can also relax and and really absorb the place – the chances being that you’ve already ticked off all the “must see” tourist landmarks during your earlier visits.

It was on one of such meetings with Istanbul that I encountered the Museum of Innocence.

I cannot recall what came to my life first –  the museum or the book.But that foggy sequence is actually quite poetic in itself, because they were created by Orhan Pamuk hand in hand.

The Turkish writer, mostly known for My Name is Red and Snow,  decided to take fiction to a new level. While working on his novel of the same title, he created an actual place called the Museum of Innocence.

The Museum is home to more than a thousand real objects Pamuk has collected over the years that depict the life of Instanbulites between 1970s to the early 2000s – when the novel is set. Instead of providing a cultural context however, Pamuk included in his notable collection items specific to the lives of his book’s characters.

The “Museum of Innocence” follows a story of Kemal, a man from a wealthy family who despite his engagement to Sibel, a lovely girl from his social circles, starts an affair with young Füsun, a distant relative he unexpectedly meets when buying bag for his fiancee.

What begins as an sensuous escape from his everyday life soon turns into a maddening obsession. Kemal cannot accept losing his beloved and find consolation in surrounding himself with items that belonged to her. Drifting further and further away from reality, Kemal loses himself in the world of memories.

Pamuk’s actual museum features what would have been Kemal’s collection. “I began to set my sights on things like ashtrays, cups, and slippers (…)during my eight years of going to the Keskins’  for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette buts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips…” admits Kemal in the book while we find each of his stolen treasures in the museum.

Although the book was not my favourite, I found it somewhat spellbinding thanks to Pamuk’s creative idea. I loved that I was reading fiction yet knowing everything on the pages I was holding in my hands existed in real life. I could go to Istanbul and see Füsun’s lost earring that features in the book in such a vivid way, I could visit the museum and experience my beloved city’s past. To me, that’s a whole new level of literary genius.

Next time you’re in Istanbul please make your way to Çukurcuma district. Wander around its narrow streets admiring old houses and quirky cafes. When you come across a reddish 19th century house on the corner, do step in and immerse yourself in Istanbul’s memories and Pamuk’s fiction. And when you’re there, ask yourself: how far would I go for something I’m passionate about?




No ordinary life

“oh Mary!- how I crave to write book already

-one that’s big – interesting

-and one of the very first copies with my own hand dedicate:

to my beloved Marysienka“.

But this is still a dream only…”

This is what in 1934 Kazimierz Nowak wrote in a letter to his wife. At the time of writing it, this 37-year-old man was in Clanvilliam – 3 years into his trip across Africa. On a bike…

Kazimierz Nowak is one of the most inspiring travelers I’ve ever come across. Born in 1897 in Poland, young Kazimierz moves to Poznan after first World War to assume an office work. Soon after he marries Maria Gorcik, with whom he has two kids – Ela and Romuald. Despite his professional and family commitments, Kazimierz finds time to travel through the country on his bicycle, pursuing his passion for travel and photography.

Soon however, Poland is no longer enough. In 1925 Nowak decided to leave the country and support his family through the work of a foreign correspondent and photographer. In this capacity, he travels through Europe, all the way to Turkey. His second cycling trip through the continent takes his to Tripolis.

He is almost there now. He has reached his beloved Africa. The dream of little Kazimierz to see this enchanting continent is now almost true. Almost, because the war in Tunisia, health and money problems stop his from going further. But Kazimierz decides he will come back.

On the 4th November 1931, Kazimierz Nowak sets on the most extraordinary journey – he will cycle all the way across Africa –  from Algier to Cape Town. Alone.

Traveling through the savannas and deserts on his rickety bike, Kazimierz stops by the local villages, photographing the people he meets on his way, and capturing the breathtaking landscapes. He sleeps in a tent he brought with him, feeding with food he exchanges with the locals or received from the missionaries. The photos and articles he sends back home, make their way to the travel magazines in Poland, allowing Maria to support the family that Kazimierz misses painfully each day.

Despite the loneliness and hardships, Kazimierz persists in his voyage, reaching the most southern point of Africa in April 1934. Yet even that is not enough. To everyone’s astonishment, Nowak decides to go back to Europe the same way he came – on a bike. The British colonizers he meets on his way admire his bravery and offer him a first class ticket home, but Kazimierz prefers his 7-year-old bike.

Returning to Poland in December 1936, after 40 thousand kilometers and five years of travel, Kazimierz Nowak becomes one of the very first men to cycle through Africa -twice.

Although the surgery he had to undergo a year after his return exposed him to pneumonia, causing a premature death of this astonishing man, Kazimierz got the book he dreamed of – almost 70 years after he set off on his extraordinary journey.

Remembering the stories of Nowak’s adventure from his grandpa, young man, Lukasz Wierzbicki, collects and publishes Kazimierz’s letters to his wife. A book “Rowerem i Pieszo Przez Czarny Lad” makes its way to the bookstores in Poland and to the hearts of all travelers and dreamers. On the cover – picture of Nowak pushing his bike and the name of the author: Kazimierz Nowak. He got that big and interesting book after all. One with the first page reading: “to my beloved Marysienka“.


We all have Nowak’s spirit in ourselves. Kazimierz needed a financial crisis to give him the courage to purse his passions and a childhood dream. He needed family he loved so much to be the catalyst of his motivation. He set off on a journey that was difficult. Maybe even more mentally than physically. Many thought it was not possible – a man born in a Polish countryside cycling alone on a rusty bike across Africa? But Nowak proved that if we believe, we can achieve anything.

What will you choose to believe in?

The ideal place

Once upon a time there was a postman. Every day, Ferdinand Cheval, for that was his name, set out on his 18 mile country round, delivering the long-awaited letters.

One spring day of 1879, on his usual route in Hauterives, in south-eastern France, Ferdinand stumbled across an unusual stone. He stopped to pick it up. Holding the oddly shaped pebble in his hand, the 43-year old postman decided to take it home.

The next day, walking more slowly than usual, Cheval began to look for other unique pieces of sandstone.With every day, his walks became longer and longer, and his stone collection grander and grander.

Bringing home from his postal walks more and more treasures, Ferdinand soon had his entire garden filled with his findings. Yet he pursued this strange hobby of his for 33 years.

You see, our postman had a plan. Each day, after tiring work, he would get home and mixing the pebbles with lime, cement and water, he would build a palace that he saw few years earlier in his dream.

And this is how the Palais Ideal came to life. Born from patience and persistence of a postman who devoted half of his life to build a breathtaking palace in his own backyard with the stones collected on his way to work.


Despite spending his entire life in France, Cheval’s style was influenced by ancient Egyptian and Hindu  architecture, medieval castles, mosques, mythology and various exotic animals that he knew only from magazines and postcards.

This little architectural marvel known as the Ideal Palace is a true tribute to the power of a dream. It is an ideal place to pause and reflect on our own perseverance.How determined are you to bring your dreams to life?

Why not go to Lyon, rent a car and drive to Hauterives to find out?


New Year. Old Dreams.

First of January is one of my favourite days of the year. While to many the first day of the new year is a chance to recover after the New Year’s Eve craziness, to me it’s a new beginning.

I prepare for this fresh start for weeks, beginning to plan my resolutions as early as October. I look at my progress since the previous January and review the lessons learnt. I frantically clean the apartment and ensure I don’t carry any unresolved projects into the New Year. I vow to be better come January 1st.

This year was no different. I made my list of things to focus on. Alongside daily exercise and other noble pursuits, I add my usual – travel to five new countries each year. Except that this time it’s not enough.

2016 has brought some truly unforgettable moments that I will cherish forever. But it also brought a variety of other things. Things I don’t like to remember. While I managed to visit some amazing places, spoke at a travel conference and delivered my own bespoke travel psychology workshops, I also let life take over a little. A little too much.

Travel has always been a part of my DNA. It’s always been there, I’ve always taken my wanderlust for granted. Until 2016 when for the first time in life, I felt too tired to travel. Me. A travel obsessed person, dreaming of visiting every country in the world, suddenly had to have her husband convince her to spend money on honeymoon. Me. A travel writer, who instead of waking up with excitement at the thought of flying to Mexico arrived at the airport dreading the long journey.

That’s when I realized that I begun to let life take over. Reality was starting to win over dreams, exhaustion began to conquer wanderlust. Luckily, not for long.

Mexico woke me up. This colourful country rubbed off my soul and slowly I started to emerge again, my hunger for travel stronger than ever before. Had it not been for this one flight however, have my husband given in to my pragmatism, things could have been very different.

Look around you. Are you doing what you thought you would be doing in life? Have you pursued that dream career? Is your life the way you wanted it to be? If not, what are you doing to reclaim those dreams of yours?

Few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending my Sunday afternoon with a group of people who came to my travel psychology workshop. They all shared the same dream of traveling, but all were stopping themselves from making it come true. Money issues? Sure, maybe you can’t afford that trip around South America at the moment, but what are you doing to save up for it? Are you reading travel guides and making notes because one day you know you’ll make it there? Or is your fear stopping you? We can’t always make our dreams come true right now. But it doesn’t give us excuse to stop dreaming.

In 2017 I wish all of you to reconnect with your dreams and start making even the tiniest steps to helping them come true.

To help you reignite your travel spirit, for the next 7 days I will be posting here a little dream related travel treats.

Let us keep on dreaming and never let the everyday life take over.

Happy and hopeful New Year.