INTERVIEWED BY ELEANOR PARK, SUZIE VO, EMILY DJOHAN, ALLISON MI
Justyna Mleczak, in her words, is a "solopreneur who worked as a sports journalist, volleyball instructor, referee, hotel staff, camp counselor, guide for bicycle tours, travel agent, but most recently – since 2015 – tour leader and tour guide in Albania and Macedonia." In 2016, she started a blog about Macedonia, which initially was supposed to be just a record of her research and observations during the student exchange. Do Macedonii is now her business and "expert brand!"
Sections of this interview (for quick navigation):
Introduction and Work
How COVID-19 Affected Her Work
Inspiration Behind Do Macedonii
Schooling and Steps Take
The Best Part of Her Job
Authenticity, and Why it's Unreal and Unfair
The Distinction (or lack thereof) Between "Tourist" and "Traveller"
Advice for Travellers
1. Could you introduce yourself and your company? What does a typical workday for you look like?
I do not have a typical workday and the word “company” is so big when it relates to my activity!
I was preparing to write my master's thesis on the impact tourism had in conflict resolution, and intended to continue that with my PhD, but no one was interested in such a research topic. I abandoned the PhD idea and jumped into tourism. Still, I was doing research on my own, without a mentor, which I still lack. I was catching fragmentary knowledge like a puzzle.
At the end of 2019, I decided to start my new business and build an expert brand. Do Macedonii was registered in January 2020. Then, all my tours with various tour operators were cancelled due to the pandemic. Luckily, I didn't invest a huge amount of money under a bank guarantee and did not open a travel agency, otherwise I would probably be in debt now.
I work from home. My office is literally the table, not to be confused with the office desk in the living room. I'm learning marketing, social media, and I read about ethical and sustainable tourism. I am polishing Macedonian and English and starting to learn Serbian. I would like to return to Albania one day, but it is a very ambitious task. I am developing my website and narrative, but after 2020, I have a tight budget.
I search the Macedonian media every day, looking for the stories of individual people, and I establish contacts with activists, enthusiasts, not necessarily related to tourism. At the moment, tourist attractions are probably the least of my interest. I am looking for people and their stories.
2. How has COVID-19 affected your line of work? How did your business plan change and how has a typical workday changed?
Ironically, the pandemic contributed to my meteoric development. Had I been able to do all of these trips I was planning, I would not get a chance to slow down and take a look at my values and vision. I would have been running through a whole season working for companies which do not share my values or even are against them. For all these years, I cannot count how many times I have had to grit my teeth not to stand up for people I care for, smile at unfair comments, or hide my own sexual orientation and values, because having your own opinion is still inappropriate when you serve as a tour guide. People are here on their vacations, do not disturb them by holding them accountable! It was hard, but safe. I had a job, and I had the money to continue my brand activity.
However, I was not aware back then that I got lost. I was tied up and had to rely on job offers from other travel agencies, so I silenced my key message. My blog was slowly turning into a cool travel website with posts like “10 Instagrammable Places in Macedonia.” And that’s okay, I needed and still need content like this – but it should not obscure or even erase the things I fight for.
You can imagine it was a rollercoaster. I had ups and deep dark downs. I got through the one moment when I was really close to removing my website and shutting everything down–my vision included. But I decided that I would try to reach the courage through fear.
I started building my message from scratch. I am focused on sustainable, ethical travel. I am learning about non-violent agreement, multicultural issues, diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am thinking about taking intercultural training, but for now I cannot afford it… we’ll see.
As I have already said, I do not have any typical workday. One thing that has become my everyday routine is writing things for which I am grateful and overcoming the fear of leaving my comfort zone. My productivity’s worst enemy is imposter syndrome.
3. What inspired you to pursue a career in tourism and to start this brand?
The lack of sustainable tourism and antiracism narrative in travel non-fiction, blogs, and books. The lack of non-white, non-Western voices and perspective in travel writing. People tried to convince me that I would fail, and that it is not something that interests anyone. If someone tells me something is impossible, I do it anyway, pretending I don't know it.
For a long time, I wanted to become a non-fiction journalist or war correspondent. I wanted to tell people’s stories. Then I discovered John Urry’s book, The Tourist Gaze. It reshaped my view on travelling and tourism. Since 2016, I researched and read a lot about bindings and the relation between touristic and political narratives, exclusive touristic language, and staging the tourist attraction and the power behind it. Recently I discovered Brené Brown, and I was delighted because she has given me what I had been missing–language. So far, I had to base only on forebodings, my own sensitivity and thoughts. Now I find my leading voice which tells: We should talk with people, not about them, and if you don’t own the story, you can’t write the new ending.
I want people to be able to regain their stories and voice.
4. How did you fall into this career and what educational/professional path did you take? What did you study in school and what prerequisites did you obtain?
I would say… accidentally? Well, that is not completely true. My dad, a P.E. teacher, was organizing youth bicycle camps since before I was born. He involved the whole family in it. Our family vacations were all about that. My mom, normally a school principal, was once a year jumping on a bicycle as a camp counselor. Me and my younger brother participated in the beginning from a support car and as staff, pitching tents. Imagine what it looks like to put up a few tents with two toddlers around – I believe that other people on the campsite saw my dad as supernatural… Then, I became a young camp counselor. Later, my dad and I focused on volleyball. I started training in it. We were organizing together a national volleyball championship for youth and volleyball camps. But even if I had ideas about tourism, I never really thought about going deeper.
I did not finish any tourism studies. I finished the course for tour leaders, but it is like earning a driving license: you pass the exam, you get your license and finally… you learn how to drive.
I chose the field of study to read interesting books. My bachelor was in Central European Studies. It was a mix of Polish philology with elements of Czech and Hungarian cultural studies and history. I had classes in two faculties, Polish Philology and History, and plenty to read. With over twenty students at the beginning, only three of us finished and got the bachelor’s degree.
I finished my MA studies in Balkan Studies, and I can't say much about them, mostly because I spent the first year in Skopje on research and the second on writing my thesis. The greatest advantage of going to university for me was the opportunity to meet inspiring and charismatic lecturers. I was, let’s say, arrogant enough to get ahead, and while our group was assigned a bachelor's or master's thesis supervisor, I was looking for someone who would be involved in topics I needed to go deeper into. I was also lucky with really good lecturers, and the size of our group forced us to always be prepared, leading to rich discussions.
I participated in a students’ exchange twice. Firstly, I spent one semester in Prague. It was an eye-opening experience. If I had not met the people from whole new worlds there--Panama, Japan, USA (California and Minnesota), Czech--I would be another person today. It was a clash with other worlds, an exit--rescue even! --from a Polish, nowadays homogeneous, culture.
I keep learning from these experiences, they are still alive in my mind. Recently, this thought came to my mind: I envy those countries that are multicultural, because multiculturalism is so inspirational and educational! A second later, I laughed sarcastically at myself. We are blind. This is how tourism works. We are blind to our own cultural richness. We are locked in our ghettos and neighborhoods. We prefer to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to see “other cultures,” but we do not value the story around the corner. I have learned this from traveling, but only because I instinctively look for people. Without people, traveling wouldn't teach me anything.
5. In addition to travelling, what are some ways that you pursue your passions?
I am multi-passionate so we could do another interview on this topic. From each idea, I try to find something that connects with the other. I see the patterns. However, I get the most out of history, social issues, and sociology. Truth be told, I do not read about Macedonia or Albania that much. I understand many things better by looking at them from a distance, in perspective. For example, I recently listened to an excellent podcast on the history of the US census. Suddenly, a light flashed in my head, which allowed me to look differently at the upcoming census in Macedonia and the issues related to it. So my way to pursue my passion is through curiosity.
6. What would you say the best part of your job is?
Challenging myself to switch perspective. It was Tim Ferriss who said, “Do not believe in everything you think” and I love that! Jobs which involve answering unique questions makes you look at them like in the mirror. Questioning your own easy thinking.
In addition, the path I recently entered, the path of undermining the racist xenophobic narrative and of accountability, is like getting out of your comfort zone every day. This is the best and the worst--or the hardest--part of it for me right now.
7. Why do you think authenticity is an “unreal” or “unfair” idea? What does authenticity mean to you? What is the closest that people can get to authenticity?
This is such a broad question! First, we would have to unpack what authenticity is (or means) in general. There are plenty of podcasts, courses, and coaches that promise to teach you “how to be authentic in business.” But I would like to ask you--if you have a bad day and smile at the customer anyway, or if you are scared to death, standing on stage, and stressed out, and you deal with it with trained self-confidence… is it authentic or not? Would you rather snarl at the client or business partner? Ok, I am playing with you right now, but I think it is worthwhile to play such games in your mind.
If we stay with authenticity in tourism, there are lots of, sometimes conflicting, definitions, and I gave up my PhD on this subject, but am still fascinated by it (I hope that the fact that I missed this academic Olympics does not prevent me from going to the gym and running marathons...).
One of the best ways to consider authenticity, which I found in one of the books by Polish researcher Anna Wieczorkiewicz, is: there are no steadfast truths, there are only ideas for authenticity. As Erik Cohen once wrote, the authenticity in tourism is not a constant, fixed category--it is a process! One of the most important works, at least for me, which describes this process in detail, is The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class by Dean MacCannell and I recommend that you start your search for authenticity in tourism with this, as well as John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze. Shortly speaking, Dean MacCannel argues that tourist attractions are designed, created, and even sacralized. This applies not only to sight, but also the imagination of cultures, places and whole countries.
Why do I think it is unfair? Because when we base things off of our imagination, often created by marketing campaigns, films, books, selected scraps of the whole, we tend to undermine else’s authenticity, and thereby identity. When travelling somewhere, we imagine our destination in a certain way. This is where the disappointment comes from, hence we often find something overrated. However, what is worse– we romanticize poverty. We love to sigh and say "eh, there's no commerce here, no running, there is happiness and peace”. We visit for a moment and due to our comfort, we want to enchant the places we visit in a time capsule. African tribes with Internet access? Fraud! Road development and modernization of Balkan towns? Tragedy! We want this idyllic picture for one moment, the moment of our visit. We do not want them to change--not because we care about their happiness, but for our idea of happiness, comfort, and life that we have no idea about, because we participate in it from a very safe box.
I do not know what the closest point to authenticity is. Hence, I try not to rely on this category as much as I used to. It requires daily struggle with the beliefs that we are told since birth, like ideas about what femininity is or what “being a good human” means.
Maybe to get closer to authenticity implies to hear and to be heard.
8. Can you elaborate on the distinction between “tourist” and “traveler”? How can a person ensure that they are being respectful and open minded while traveling?
The truth is – I do not see a difference. I do not like these ads like “not for tourists, for travelers only”. However, it took me a while to reach this point. Now, I see it as dividing into better and worse, smarter and somehow narrow-minded. “Travelers” view themselves as smarter because, in their opinion, they are able to touch, taste, sense authenticity, meanwhile they are trapped in their own imaginations, beliefs, and in their own cultural codes and what they see, and they translate according to familiar patterns. I could compare it to the “false friends” we know from languages. Certain words look and sound the same in different languages, and then they have different meanings. What if we add context and other nuances to it?
I love what Ibram X. Kendi says about differences between racism and antiracism: “essentially to be antiracist is to admit when we’re being racist.” We will make mistakes. We will be disrespectful, and we will do xenophobic things. The point is that we should hold ourselves accountable. It's not even that we have to learn--we actually have to unlearn much more.
I have no recipe for being open-minded. I try not to divide people into categories, which is not as simple as you may think.
9. How would you define ethical tourism? What does ethical tourism look like to you, and why is it important?
I don't feel competent enough to give a definition. Moreover, it seems to me that sometimes definitions are limiting or too safe. What I mean is that you can hide behind them. If you know the definition, it releases you from thinking. It is impossible in one definition to pin down “the decalogue of ethical tourism”, hence if we do that, some people will follow the rules, but will feel justified in doing something wrong beyond the definition. After all, nobody told them not to do that. Here again comes the need for accountability.
I can tell you what ethical tourism to me is not. Ethical tourism does not always mean tourism without a travel agency. It is the illusion that when traveling alone, we always do less harm, but we are never really alone. Sometimes such travelers have blogs, vlogs etc. that reproduce harmful stereotypes. Ethical tourism is not always equal to slow travel. I think being a slow traveler means we are on a good path, but still, as a slow traveler, we can become so focused on the outer idea that we may stop noticing and understanding the people around us, especially if they don't fit to the very idea. Ethical tourism is not always volunteering, and certainly not trips to other countries to help in areas in which we have no experience, just to entertain ourselves.
Now it occurs to me that ethical tourism has something in common with working out in a gym. If you stay in your comfort zone, you're not stimulating your muscles to grow.
Should I advertise my tours: Uncomfortable travels? That would be quite original, wouldn’t be?
10. Do you have any advice for people who are looking to incorporate travel into their lifelong goals?
I would like us to start defining travel differently. There is a popular quote “every journey begins with the first step”. Let’s be open-minded and respectful from the very first step we take every day getting out of bed. Let’s be curious about the people who live around the corner as well as thousands of corners away.
11. What are the next steps for you and your business? Any future plans/goals?
Ambitious but difficult to realize. I have established cooperation with one Macedonian travel agency and the Genuine Experiences project, which promotes sustainable tourism in Macedonia and Albania. This year will really be a trial year, either it will fly, or I'll have to seriously consider changing the industry.
This year, I want to implement several programs, each one based on sustainable, ethical tourism. I also intend to write more texts on these unpopular topics and speak up with courage. I keep learning about being accountable, not silencing myself and giving the room to others’ voices.
I would like to create a platform of understanding and dialogue. Even if I am working in Macedonie, I would love everyone, after a tour with me or visiting my website, to be able to create their own “uncomfortable” but wise, open-minded travel.
The most important projects this year will be a trip to women--focused on meeting women from different linguistic, ethnic and social groups in Macedonia, devoting time to discussing with them, and getting to know their perspectives and everyday life.
The second project is to attract interest to my activities of high schools and universities--both in terms of educational trips, but also meetings in schools, and discussions about what travel is and what is wrong with the language we use when describing others. If we start discussing this early it will be much easier for us. Because instead of unlearning, we'll start learning right away. And see people as people, not attractions in the zoo.
FOLLOW JUSTYNA MLECZAK HERE: