University of Virginia alumna Heather Mason is living what many might call the dream: she gets paid to travel the world.
Mason, a 1996 graduate who majored in English, is a writer and photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She moved there from Washington, D.C. in 2010 to join a boyfriend and, as she wrote in her debut blog post, because “I think I belong there.” She had visited Africa once in 2007 through her job with an organization focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.
“It was just a life-changing experience,” she said of that first visit. “At the time, I was living a fairly conventional, 9-to-5 life, but I just could not get Africa out of my head. After a lot of soul-searching and emotional agony, I decided to move there. It just felt right.”
Seven years later, Mason’s first blog post has spawned hundreds more and her thriving travel blog, 2summers, is her full-time career. She has earned sponsorships, newspaper columns and other opportunities, traveling to more than 20 countries along the way. Her articles and photographs offer tantalizing glimpses of those journeys, from bustling metropolises like Cape Town, Nairobi or Mexico City to vibrant scenes from island beaches, South African wine country, and of course, the streets of Johannesburg.
UVA Today caught up with Mason between trips to learn more about how she turned a hobby into a living and to find out her best travel tips.
Q. How did you turn your blog into a full-time career?
A. When I arrived in Johannesburg, I had no idea I would end up writing for a living. I planned to continue consulting for my employer in Washington, D.C., which I still do occasionally. Beyond that, I didn’t really have a plan. I started the blog simply because this was a huge move for me and I wanted to document it.
However, within two years, I began getting more opportunities for travel writing and photography, all stemming from my blog. Today, I mostly use the blog as a portfolio for other photography and writing jobs. I write regularly for a local newspaper, several magazines and lifestyle websites. For example, I recently did a series for Mercedes about great road trips. I also do some trips sponsored by tourism organizations and write about my experiences.
Q. What sponsored trips have you done recently?
A. Right now, I am doing sponsored posts on Mauritius, an island where many South Africans travel. Recently, I went to Stellenbosch, a South African town known for its wines. I joined several other bloggers spending a week there.
I am very fortunate that I can get by here without earning a huge income, because the cost of living is relatively low. So I only accept sponsorships that I believe are a good fit for my audience – trips that I would do regardless, just because they are great.
Q. What advice do you have for writers and photographers hoping to do something similar?
A. The first thing you have to do is create a blog and update it consistently, without focusing on the money. It sounds simple, but I think many people believe they will start making money in six months. That is not how it typically works. When you first start, think of it as a passion project, not a profession. If you find a niche that works for you and consistently publish in it, the opportunities will start to come.
My niche was Johannesburg. I showed up here with the eyes of a tourist, wrote about what I saw and it resonated. Now, I feel so lucky that I get to do this. I have gotten to do so many things that I never would have done.
Q. What do you love about Johannesburg?
A. Jo-burg (as we call it here) is like the New York City of Africa. This is where everyone comes, from all over Africa and beyond, to try and make it. It’s a crazy mix of cultures, which makes it a very stimulating place and also a difficult place, with a huge poverty gap. It makes for a very interesting, dynamic city with lots of energy.
Q. What is one of your favorite destinations you have visited?
A. I really loved exploring Swaziland, a tiny, landlocked country that borders South Africa. Many people do not even know it exists, but they should. It is really beautiful; the people are so nice; it’s easy to get around. There are beautiful rolling hills, great small guesthouses, interesting local crafts made by amazing weavers and sculptors, and great hiking and wildlife. I would definitely recommend it.
Q. Most unusual trip you have taken?
A. Reunion Island, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is actually part of France, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It’s very tropical and wild – we even flew over a volcano spewing lava – but it also feels French, with mostly French-speaking people and French food. It is just a very unusual, tiny island that few people know about.
Q. What travel advice do you have for people interested in visiting South Africa?
A. For those interested in traveling to Africa, South Africa is a great place to start. You can get around on your own pretty easily and the exchange rate favors Americans. I recommend allowing two or three weeks if possible, because there is a huge diversity of geography and topography here. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving, go on a safari, climb a mountain or explore cities. There is also great food and great wine, which is both wonderful and amazingly cheap.
Q. Any other travel tips for those seeking great local experiences?
A. Before I had this life, I used to obsessively plan my trips in advance. Now, I try to be a little more spontaneous. Don’t feel pressured to see all of the big things, or to treat the trip like a checklist. Be flexible and let yourself be guided by the moment. If possible, stay in smaller guesthouses and rent a car – it gives you a lot of freedom to discover things along the way.
Finally, the most important tip I have for travelers is to be open-minded. Traveling is so much easier when you can let go of your preconceived notions about a place and just experience it as it is.