An Interview With Liz Chatburn of Pocket Cultures

by Sarah Menkedick Feb 24, 2010

Photos: Fotos Oaxaca

Liz Chatburn, managing editor of Pocket Cultures, shares her perspective on being part of a cross-cultural couple, how blogs could change travel in the future, and the qualities of a solid piece of travel writing.

PocketCultures aims to “put the world in your pocket.” The site features blogs and articles from writers around the world and attempts to provide readers with a palpable, unique sense of local places and cultures. Its writers are diverse, coming from Thailand, Costa Rica, Germany, and Britain, among other countries.

PocketCultures pushes beyond the “look at this bizarre local custom!” gawking of so much travel writing to help travelers get a feel for the social and political issues a particular culture is dealing with, and the way its people eat, dress, speak and think.

It’s a site for the travel anthropologist, who wants to not only visit a place but to see the world from the perspective of people living there.

I interviewed Liz Chatburn, managing editor of PocketCultures, about the site, blogging, and traveling.

Photos: Fotos Oaxaca

How did the idea for Pocket Cultures come about? Can you share its story?

We’re three co-founders and we have all traveled and/or lived in several different countries. One thing we noticed is that the ‘real version’ of a place, which you see through visiting or getting to know locals, is often quite different from the story you see from outside.

For example the Vice guide to Liberia has been getting a lot of attention recently. But what was featured in that series is not representative of the lives of most Liberians and if you talk to a Liberian or someone who has spent a lot of time in Liberia you’ll soon find that out. Actually, we’re working on a series of interviews with Liberian bloggers at the moment.

So, back to the story… we thought it would be great to create a place where people from many different places could share the ‘real stories’ of their countries with each other. We hope in this way we can make connections and help promote better understanding between people of different countries, cultures, religions and backgrounds.

So far we have contributors from nine different countries and they are all passionate about exploring different cultures and sharing their own. As well as wanting to share their cultures, some also joined because they feel their countries are not well understood or don’t get the attention they deserve from the rest of the world.

Pocket Cultures has a really interesting section called “My partner is a foreigner.” This is an area most travel blogs don’t cover. How did the idea for this section come about?

It seems that many people who spend an extended period in another country end up meeting someone!

As one contributor to “My partner is a foreigner” wrote about living in Turkey:

“One of the things that surprises me about the Turkish culture is the huge sense of hospitality, they meet you today and tomorrow you are at their home having dinner and finally it happens like me…. you get married!!!”

Being part of a cross-cultural couple has its own unique set of challenges but it also puts you in the special position of experiencing another culture though your partner. We thought this would be a fun way to explore cultural differences.

One of the things I love about Pocket Cultures is that it covers “blogs of the world” — blogs from all sorts of different places, both in English and in foreign languages. Do you think blogs are changing the way we travel and encounter foreign cultures? If so, how?

Definitely. Personally I think guidebooks are really useful and I don’t think they will be going away soon. But by reading blogs as well before you visit a new place you can see a local’s perspective and gain deeper insights into life and culture there.

The other great thing about blogs is the interaction – you can easily leave your own feedback, or start a discussion with someone on the other side of the world. So yes, for people really interested in better understanding of a different place and culture blogs are a great opportunity.

How did you begin traveling? How do you think it affected you as a person?

Photos: Fotos Oaxaca

I’ve always been curious about the world, but my first real travel experience was a rail trip around Europe during the summer holidays whilst I was at university. I grew up in the UK, where you have to cross water to go abroad, so it was a totally new thing to cross borders without getting off the train!

As well as the ‘hey, there’s a whole world out there!’ moment, my travelling friend and I also met some really interesting people who didn’t speak English. It was a great feeling to be able to communicate using our (very bad) high school French and German. That was a huge motivation to carry on learning languages.

You are in an intercultural marriage; can you tell us a little about what that process has been like for you? How did you meet your husband, and what sorts of rewards and frustrations have come from being part of an intercultural couple?

We met when we were both studying in Barcelona. Deciding where to live after getting married was fun: we took a map and each marked our favorite countries. It turned out that we both liked the idea of experiencing life in Turkey – that was quite a surprise! That’s how we ended up here.

One great reward of being in an intercultural marriage is learning to be more open to different cultures and flexible about different ways of doing things. I’m definitely more laid back than I used to be. Deciding where to live is one of the most difficult things, because we cannot both live near our families. At least these days it’s easier to keep in touch with Skype, email etc.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced while traveling and living abroad? How have you overcome them (or how are you still struggling with them)?

On one hand I have friends in a lot of countries, which is great, but on the other hand we can’t hang out without someone getting on a plane, which is not so great. Making new friends takes time, so that’s always a challenge when you travel or move to a new place. It can be even more challenging to develop deep relationships with people who have grown up with a culture that’s very different to yours.

I try to be open minded towards different points of view, and meet lots of different people rather than searching out people with a similar background. It’s more difficult at first but very rewarding. Turkish people are incredibly friendly and outgoing so living in Turkey has been a pleasure in this respect.

When you think of “travel,” what’s the first thing that pops to mind?

Photos: Fotos Oaxaca

Definitely food! I love trying food from different places.

Would you mind sharing your travel philosophy, or the way that you think about travel?

Interesting question! First I should say that I think everyone travels for different reasons and I don’t think there is a wrong way to travel, as long as you get what you want out of it (and don’t do any damage to the place you visit)

I believe that people all over the world have lots in common, but there are also some differences, and understanding and respecting those differences is key to getting along. So I travel to learn more about what makes a place and its people unique. I’m as happy sitting in an everyday café soaking up the atmosphere as I am seeing the sites.

What do you look for in a piece of travel writing?

The best kind of travel writing lets you picture the place whilst you’re reading. I love articles that show insights into daily life and culture: encounters between people, the atmosphere, what the food is like, what makes a place special.

Also, for me a respectful approach to potential readers from other cultures is really important. Often when reading an article I think ‘how would I feel if someone wrote this about my country?’ How we experience a place is partly filtered by our own cultural values and expectations and I think really good writing is aware of this subjectivity and acknowledges it somehow.

Community Connection

Attention Matador U students! Do you want to become a contributor to PocketCultures? The site is currently looking for regional contributors.

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