Australian-born Emily is the talented writer and photographer behind Wander-Lush, a successful blog grown from her love of travel, culture and photography. From showing up at the wrong airport, to uncovering the best places to eat in Tbilisi (where she’s based!), to social enterprise in Southeast Asia and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia, we get the lowdown from Emily on the life of a travel blogger in 2021. Be warned, this post will make your feet itch!
What made you decide to start a blog? Were you always traveling?
I worked in the media in Australia and always wanted to have my own project or ‘space’. I love every aspect of content creation, from research to design, and I wanted an outlet to share something entirely of my own creation. That’s the control freak in me!
Blogging seemed like a natural fit, but I didn’t know anything about photography, SEO, social media or how to run a business. I had a few false starts and ended up getting pretty frustrated with myself. When my partner and I decided to move to Chiang Mai in 2015, it felt like the perfect time to have a real go at blogging, so I dived in.
I started off by documenting topics I’m passionate about: textiles, cultural traditions, markets, festivals. For the first few years it was very much a hobby as I was always working full-time on something else. I’m glad it happened that way – it forced me to take things slowly and to learn as I went. I had no expectations whatsoever so when my website started to gain a following, it came as a nice surprise.
Please share a few fun facts about yourself that most people don’t know about you.
I’m a massive homebody and a creature of habit, so it’s funny that I wound up doing what I do. In many ways travel doesn’t gel with my personality at all, so it’s a process!
What was the first big trip you went on?
I was very fortunate to travel a lot with my parents and sister when I was younger, mainly around Australia and the Pacific but also to the US and Europe. My first big trip without my family was to New York for a study excursion when I was an undergrad studying art history.
But it was a big trip through Southeast Asia that really kickstarted my passion for travel and planted the seed of wanting to live abroad. My partner and I did the classic ‘Banana Pancake Trail’ through Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I fell in love with textiles and weaving and social enterprise. That inspired me to do my Masters degree in Communication for Social Change, and I eventually went on to live and work in all four countries.
That was my life before travel writing and my path out of Australia, which eventually led me to blogging.
What’s the best thing about living in Tbilisi?
Tbilisi is one of those cities where you can walk the same streets a million times and still find something new and unexpected. I love photography, so living in a place where I can roam around with my camera a couple of afternoons a week is one of the things I value most about being based here.
Because Tbilisi (and Georgia) has always been a bridge between different cultures and religions, the mix of influences in the architecture, culture, food and everything else is very intriguing. When I first visited, I wrote this big list of things to do in Tbilisi, and I find myself having to constantly add to the article as new things pop up. It’s hard to keep up!
There’s a wonderful energy and sense of forward momentum in Tbilisi that’s hard to describe, but it feeds my creativity. Georgians are renowned for their hospitality and I love the sense of community here as well.
There’s a wonderful energy and sense of forward momentum in Tbilisi that’s hard to describe, but it feeds my creativity.Emily @ Wander-Lush
What do you enjoy doing the most in Tbilisi? Can you please give us some local foodie recommendations?
I’m happiest when I’m walking around with my camera in hand, exploring the nooks and crannies of an old neighbourhood.
Eating is also a highlight! Georgian cuisine is hugely underrated – the fresh produce here is unreal (you haven’t really had tomatoes until you’ve had Georgian tomatoes), and the heavy use of spices such as fenugreek and adjika makes everything so tasty.
Most people know Khinkali (‘soup dumplings’) and Khachapuri (‘cheese bread’), but there’s a whole world of food beyond those two dishes. Regional specialties are my favourites – I especially love Megrelian food from western Georgia, which uses a lot of adjika and cornmeal. One of my favourite dishes is Kharcho, a rich beef ‘stew’ with walnuts that’s usually served with Elarji, a cheesy cornmeal. Mapshalia is a little no-frills restaurant in Tbilisi that specialises in these dishes.
Some of my other go-to restaurants are Salobie Bia, Keto & Kote, Amo Rame for great Khinkali, Shavi Lomi and Shemomechama. The Georgian word Shemomechama means something along the lines of ‘I accidentally ate the whole thing’ – that pretty much sums up Tbilisi’s food scene!
You can find lots more recommendations in my Tbilisi restaurant and food guide.
What’s your funniest memory of travelling so far?
My funniest travel moments usually involve something getting lost in translation or a cultural faux pas, always on my part. But the one that stands out was a classic mistake every traveller makes at least once in their life: Showing up for a flight at the wrong airport.
It was the new Istanbul airport that got me in the end. Luckily I realised my mistake early enough to still make my flight, but it was a comedy of errors – the airport WIFI was out so I couldn’t get online, I didn’t have enough cash for another shuttle fare, and things just got worse from there! I can laugh about it now but at the time it was very stressful.
How does collaborating with brands affect your content, and what has been your favourite brand to work with so far?
I’m very selective about the brands I collaborate with. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of like-minded companies in recent years – those partnerships have allowed me to go places and do things I might not have been able to otherwise, which allows me to create better content for my readers. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing to me.
A big part of my philosophy is to promote responsible tourism, lesser-visited destinations and small businesses. One company I recently worked with that shares these values is Sarajevo Funky Tours, a boutique travel company that uses travel and cultural immersion as a tool to overcome prejudice and broaden perspectives. They showed me around Bosnia and Herzegovina and were an absolute joy to work with.
Are you travel blogging full time? If so, what are the biggest challenges in the life of a travel blogger in the COVID-19 pandemic?
I also work as a freelance writer and manage social media for a small fair trade company, so while I’m not technically blogging full-time, it makes up for about 80% of what I do.
The past 12 months have been hugely challenging in every sense of the word – financially, emotionally, physically. I think one of the biggest issues is figuring out how to navigate the travel space in a responsible and sensitive way. Staying relevant at a time when travel is understandably the last thing on most people’s minds isn’t easy, and I’ve had to figure out how to keep in touch and engaged with my readers.
Being in Georgia has made things a lot easier in that respect, as a lot of my readers are passionate about this region and happy just to see photos of my socially distanced walks around town!
Putting your own spin on something is one thing, but mis-representing a place doesn’t serve anyone well.Emily @ Wander-Lush
What tips do you have for maintaining a great blog and online presence on the go?
Organisation and going into a trip with a solid plan are crucial. I try to do as much research in advance as possible and have systems for keeping up with things like organising/backing up photos while I’m travelling.
I still find it difficult to balance the enjoyment of travel and work responsibilities. I’ve found it’s best to schedule ‘off days’ where I zone out and focus completely on work. I have to travel a lot slower as a result, but I generally prefer to spend longer periods in one place rather than dash around, so that suits me just fine.
What has been your experience of the online travel community?
I’m very grateful to have made lots of online connections over the years that have translated into genuine real-world friendships. Travel blogging can be a very solitary and sometimes isolating pursuit, so I value those relationships immensely. My overall experience of the online travel community has been hugely positive – the past year has been very difficult for a lot of people and in this time of crisis, it was awesome to see the community come together.
Do you find that the travel blogging industry is saturated? What makes you stand out from other travel bloggers?
In a way, yes – but I also think everyone has their own perspective and their own take on things. I try to be honest and candid in my writing. I’m always making mistakes and learning, and blogging is part of that journey.
I hope my focus on cultural travel helps me stand out, as it’s not a topic many sites focus on.
What have you missed about travelling the most in the past year?
The thing I’ve missed most is that feeling of being upended and forced out of my comfort zone. I find many aspects of travel quite challenging – especially logistics – and I miss pushing myself in that way.
Do you think that most travel bloggers and influencers portray an idealistic way of travelling that is far from reality? How do you try to keep it real?
Sometimes I do think that’s the case, whether intentional or not. I’m quite a private person so I don’t always feel comfortable sharing the nitty gritty that goes on behind the scenes and I can see how things can wind up looking idealistic when those more unglamourous aspects of travel don’t make the cut.
Most professional bloggers I know are very aware of this issue and are actively trying to improve this, particularly when it relates to ethics in blogging. Putting your own spin on something is one thing, but mis-representing a place doesn’t serve anyone well.
What would be your three top tips for someone to grow on social media, especially Instagram?
Social media and especially Instagram has never been a huge focus for me. At the end of the day it’s an algorithm that doesn’t necessarily value authenticity.
Consistency is important, so I would say that developing a system should be a priority. Picking your metrics can also help with staying focused – I don’t have a huge following and I don’t particularly want or need one, but my audience is quite engaged and that’s what matters most to me. Thirdly, I would say finding your own voice is critical rather than just emulating what other people are doing.
If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?
It’s painful being so close to so many countries I’m itching to visit and yet not being able to just jump on a train. I’m looking forward to exploring more of the former USSR countries when I can, especially the Baltics.
If I had to pick one place, though, it would probably be Vietnam – I haven’t been back for a couple of years now and I’m long overdue to catch up with friends. As much as I love Georgian food, I do miss pho!
Which travel bloggers or other influencers inspire you the most?
There are lots of bloggers I admire and draw inspiration from. I’ve been following ‘Megan & Aram’ and ‘Kami and the Rest of the World’ for years now – both write about unusual destinations and have inspired me to travel off the beaten track.
‘The Common Wanderer’ is another favourite of mine – their photography is incredible.
Take a look at Emily’s Wander-Lush blog for inspiration on the life of a travel blogger, and how you too might travel to live. Don’t miss her popular posts on the Top Caucasus Experiences, and the perfect 2-6 week Georgia Armenia Azerbaijan itinerary!