Megan Starr loves going places. She’s been to over 95 countries and 45 US states.
Megan Starr is a travel writer based for now in Frankfurt. A self-proclaimed Geography Nerd, she‘s explored the depths of Pittsburgh as well as the outer reaches of Azerbaijan. Whilst Megan eagerly shares her best images and experiences from a place, she isn‘t afraid of telling travellers what didn‘t work for her.
You’re a straight-shooter. If you don’t like something, you don’t sugar-coat it:
‘The two cities are on completely different planets. Almaty’s planet being one I’d like to live on and Astana’s planet being one I’d like to see sucked into a black hole forever.’
Do you think that there’s pressure/expectation for travel writers to love everything?
Most definitely. There are so many people that sugar-coat every experience and make it sound like everywhere they go is paradise. The fact of that matter is that you just can’t like everywhere you visit and some places will hit at you deeper than other places.
There are many travel bloggers and writers that take press trip after press trip and feel this obligation to write positive reviews about it because they know the people running it and they made money from the experience. That is why so much of what is out there these days are uninspiring listicles. Either the person feels obligated to write positive (or neutral) reviews on the experience or they never got to know the destination in the first place because they saw it on a paid and organized press trip.
Bullies and cups of tea
On the other hand… I do regret the way I wrote about Astana. True, I hated it at the time. I loathed it more than any other place (I found a place to match it after all these years though) I had traveled to. However… the city is home to a lot of people and I kind of attacked the city in a bit of an immature way back then. While I regret writing that, I have never deleted it because I think my relationship with Kazakhstan has matured and evolved over the years. I have since been back to Astana and while it will never be my favorite city, I enjoyed myself there the second time around and I actually found many fun things to do in Astana unlike my first trip.
I think one of the hardest things about travel writing is knowing how to balance your thoughts and emotions and to convey it to readers in a way that is not bullying a place for not being your cup of tea. I missed the mark on this one.
With that being said, Almaty is still my cup of tea and I love that city so much and regret nothing I said about the southeastern Kazakh city.
You’ve been stomping around Central Asia and post-Soviet countries for donkey’s years. How do you handle BS at border crossings?
I cry. Okay not really… only sometimes. The older I get, the more anxiety border crossing cause me. I am claustrophobic and carrying heaps of baggage around causes me severe panic, so I think I was destined to be a hermit who never leaves my flat. But, what’s the fun in that?
I haven’t had too many issues at border crossings, thankfully. I received an absurd amount of questions one time going from Tbilisi to Yerevan (I had just been in Azerbaijan) but it was painless. And one time, I had border guards in Kazakhstan pretend to lose that dumb white piece of paper they make you hold on to and fine you $250 if you lose it, though. That wasn’t funny no matter how much enjoyment they got out of the look of despair on my face.
You have thoughts on bribes. Explain.
Ugh… nothing irks me more than when entitled westerners pay bribes for their own benefit. I have known people to pay money to guards at closed off buildings so they could go in and take photos so they can appear to be ‘cool’ on their travel blog. I have seen these scenarios so many times and it really upsets me.
I have many friends who live in countries where bribery is a part of everyday life. Sometimes, their family members can’t get medical treatment without paying a bribe. This kind of mentality is destructive and countries will struggle getting rid of this if entitled foreigners come in and see this ‘cheap’ bribes as a way to score the cool photo they want, etc.
Every time they sneak into places and opt to pay the bribe if caught, someone who lives in that country has to pay a bribe they can’t afford just to keep their apartment or to get medical treatment. Now, I know sometimes you get caught in a situation where a bribe is the only option (carrying certain passports, etc)… but there are so many times travelers put themselves in the situation of having to pay a bribe for some selfish reason and I have a huge problem with that. Don’t be part of the problem. Please.
For heading somewhere new, what’s your travel philosophy? Spontaneity or research?
I would like to say spontaneity, but really it is just laziness. I have traditionally been really lazy with research and I just take places as they come. Those days have caught up with me. Now that travel blogging and writing is my full-time job, I feel an obligation to get the best information possible for my readers… and that often requires research before going to a destination. Instead of looking up specifics, however, I seek out what people are looking for there. Then I try to build content around that when I am traveling so that I can help them with their queries and still have a little fun when on location.
As a writer and photographer with a travel blog, how to you balance life/work when on holiday?
This is something that I struggle with, to be fair. I just got back from Greece and I spent 90% of my time there working. And I don’t work 4-hour days… I am behind a computer almost 12-14 hours daily. However, I was in Puglia, Italy before that trip working and I managed to keep a better balance.
One thing that does help me is that I rarely travel to places for short amounts of time. I tend to travel to places for many weeks or a month at a time. This allows the balance to take place in a natural manner and I always leave feeling more knowledgeable on the place than when I arrived. Maybe short trips just aren’t my thing.
Some people say that travellers should avoid countries that have human/animal/ethical/environment issues. Thoughts?
Yikes… this is a tough one! Truthfully, I can find something unethical in every country… or at least something I disagree with. Norway, a country with a dang near spotless reputation, has a company being brought to international attention for drilling in Australia’s oceans and damaging a sensitive ecosystem. I think it depends on what is important to you.
My own country (USA) has plenty of human rights violations and I would still advise people to travel there. I don’t like the way many former-USSR countries treat animals, but I would still tell people to travel there.
There is only one place in this world I would never go to with its current state and situation and that is North Korea. And there is one place I would never, ever go to in my entire life regardless of the situation- and that is Antarctica.
What’s the deal with Antarctica?
I just think humans should leave one place untouched and pure. We have ruined everywhere else and while we will likely indirectly ruin Antarctica by forcing climate change upon it anyway, we really don’t need to travel there and mess with animal breeding patterns, leave tainted soil on the earth, and see it so we can ‘check off our last continent.’ For me, the only people that should be down there are scientists and researchers. We are all entitled to our own opinions and I respect the decisions others make… that is just mine.
A common misconception about travel writers is…
We just travel and have fun. If someone saw my recent Greece trip and how I sat in a cafe on an island 14 hours a day behind a computer screen, they would have cried for me. It is a lot of work. But, at the end of the day, I truly feel like I have the best job on the planet. If I am behind a computer screen doing unexpected work that got dumped on me last minute at a cafe in Greece where I can see turquoise water and beautiful scenery out my window, I haven’t got it too bad.
Got a tip for a hot destination in 2019? Where? Why?
Armenia! The country has so much to offer that I can’t even wrap my head around it – scenery, incredible food, new government, oldest winery in the world, birthplace of Christianity. It really has something for all types of travelers whether they are young or old and whether they are adventurous or have a voracious appetite.
My best friend and I (he is Armenian) are even in the process of launching an Armenian travel website called AbsoluteArmenia.com that will help travelers get that practical info that has been traditionally missing in order to help them with their trip to the country.
I also think Kazakhstan is a very underrated destination and I hope to see it on more people’s radars this year. It has, hands-down, the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life (from a diversity perspective). There are mountains, teal lakes, steppe, desert, canyons, and so, so much more. I just hope they keep that visa situation friendly and don’t close off like the constant threats indicate.
all images ©Megan Starr