Welcome to my first instalment in the Human Gallery — where the funny, eccentric, nerdy, poignant, inspiring, and downright weird things live. My first interview is with Johanna Read, a mid-forties female traveller who reviews luxury hotels to earn her keep (and keep her going!). Read about how she transformed her life with a simple application of positivity, sacrifice, and hard work…and maybe a few spoonfuls of sugar in the lemon juice.
(Note: all photos supplied are Johanna’s. Some have been changed to black and white for style purposes).
Lemons became lemonade fairly easily. And then, they became lemon pie.
This is the story of Johanna Read. It has a sour beginning, a sweet ending, with a whole lot of hard squeezing in the middle.
It tells of a woman in her early forties who endured a burnout at work, redundancy, and divorce before deciding to fashion the life of her dreams, which involved plenty of travel and writing about her experiences. In her words, “Any one of these [things] is pretty awful, but funnily enough, all three together made it so much easier to realise I could leave my old life behind and do something different.
“I had it in my head that, aside from a vacation or two per year, the way to do this was to work hard, pay off the mortgage, maximise my pension, and only then start living the life I truly wanted.
“The universe smacked me on the head a few times until I realised I should live the life I want now, at 44, and not wait until I’m 55. Lemons became lemonade fairly easily. And then, they became lemon pie.”
To kickstart her lemon pie life, Johanna sold her house, converted her severance package into travel funds, and stayed with friends and family around the world. Editors started accepting her pitches for writing and photographic work. Aside from regular freelancing and the odd press trip, Johanna also reviews luxury and boutique hotels – not your everyday travel gig.
“I often find myself in a villa with a private pool, getting driven around in a vintage Mercedes, up a gondola with amazing views, and taking a float plane to a wilderness lodge to go whale watching and kayaking,” she says. “Every time, I can’t quite believe it.”
Before you start plotting to kill Johanna and steal her job, remember it’s not all fluffy duvets and pillow chocolates. As most freelancers would agree, “There’s a lot of work in finding the ingredients, making the pie, and making sure there’s another pie when the current one is all eaten up.
“I have a bit of a guilt complex. I work really hard so [the hotels] don’t think I’m just after a free ride. I’m always on the lookout for ways to promote them, and I’m also very aware that I have three bosses: the hotel, the magazine, and the readers. Luckily, there are very few negative issues to report with luxury and boutique hotels, but if there is a problem, I can’t not say it,” Johanna says.
While she admits she didn’t set out to write articles about hotels, Johanna claims doing so has opened doors to opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have experienced – and we’re not talking about complimentary cruises around the Galapagos. (Yep, that happened).
While reviewing the Park Hyatt Siem Reap, Cambodia, she was introduced to a monk: Venerable Hoeurn Somnieng, founder of the Life and Hope Association.
“He was born after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. At the age of three, his last surviving adult family member – his grandmother – announced she was no longer able to feed him or his four siblings, and left. A neighbouring family took him in. He escaped hunger, but not the domestic violence that was common in Cambodia around that time,” Johanna explains.
Venerable Somnieng’s strong values and hard work resulted in a scholarship to Harvard University. He used his newfound knowledge to establish a sewing school for young, impoverished women back home.
“Learning to sew is just a good-enough reason for women to leave their tiny Cambodian villages, poverty, and abuse, and fashion their lives into something new. ‘It is not the skills,’ Venerable Somnieng told me, ‘but a transformation of her heart, her behaviour, and her values’.
“Both Venerable Somnieng and I fought back tears as I listened to his stories of how the Association is helping to break the cycle of violence and poverty, and rebuild the nation of Cambodia,” Johanna says.
Experiences like this are what transform travelling as a hobby into an addiction. The possibility of an encounter with someone interesting or inspiring, or navigating one’s way through unusual (and often hilarious) scenarios are what propels an eager traveller from place to place. For Johanna, this also involves food (she is the TravelEater, after all).
“I love to eat, so a country that values its food for more than just sustenance is ideal – Peru was incredible,” she says. “And while I like cities and mountains and everything in between, I’m happier near, and in, the ocean. I must have been a fish in a past life.
“While I certainly have priority destinations, there isn’t anywhere I don’t want to go. I have a family trip to Paris and Barcelona in February; I’m thinking about the Middle East and/or northern Africa for the spring; and a fantastic resort in Costa Rica has invited me to check them out.
“Maybe I’ll meet someone new who introduces me to my new favourite place!” she says.
You might be reading this and counting your own lemons. Perhaps you’ve endured divorce and a job cut, like Johanna, or something else. Maybe you just really like lemon pie. In any case, here’s some advice for you.
“First, figure out what makes you happy and what is important to you. Then, figure out what you’re doing in life that is helpful and not helpful towards meeting that goal. It’s pretty simple: do more of the stuff that helps, and less of the stuff that doesn’t. In a way, it links back to what Venerable Somnieng said: it’s about a transformation of the heart, behaviour, and values.
A lot of people tell me they’re jealous of my life, and wish they could do what I do. Well, most of them could, if they really wanted to. All it takes to turn lemons into lemon pie is knowing yourself, a positive outlook, sacrifices, and setting priorities. You have to be happy with yourself, regardless of whether you’re in the lemons or the lemon pie phase.
“Following my passion instead of a pay cheque has made me a much healthier and happier person – I just wish I’d had the guts to do this sooner!” Johanna says.