A fellow expat, Sarah Harvey, travel and lifestyle journalist, writer, and travel lover, spoke recently with Her Expat Life about her career in journalism and her lifestyle in the Maldives.
1: Sarah, tell us about your life - you are a journalist and content creator. What is life like in the
Hi! I’m a British travel journalist and content creator and I specialise in the Maldives. In 2010 I moved
to the Maldives from London to work as News Editor for a travel news website. I ended up living there full time for five years (making me one of the only foreign travel journalists to have ever lived in the Maldives long-term). Today, I rotate between the UK, the Maldives and a few other countries that I’ve lived in too - it’s basically how I make my travel writing career work. I love to get embedded in a country, make local friends, find out their insider tips, then when I feel I have a grip on it I aim to write about the things that no-one else is writing about.
The type of life you can have as an expat in the Maldives depends upon where you live. The capital
city is modern with lots of high-rise buildings and not enough trees, which makes it extra-hot due to
all the concrete and lack of green spaces. It’s basically the opposite of what you imagine when you
picture the Maldives. It’s also incredibly crowded. If you live on a resort island (which means you
would be working as resort staff) your environment is obviously much prettier but nothing like being
on holiday! The resort staff I know work around the clock to ensure all their guests are happy (or at
least, at the best resorts do that!). My life in the Maldives is a mix of the ‘real’ Maldives (in the city, or
on a neighbouring island named Hulhumale, which is quieter), combined with visiting the resort
islands to write about the accommodation or interesting projects or activities happening there. They
are two totally different worlds.
2: You have incredible achievements throughout your career including writing for BBC Travel, Forbes
Travel Guide, the Los Angeles Times, CNN & the Financial Times! Tell us how you became affiliated with such high profile journalistic institutions!
Wow, thanks so much, that’s very flattering! The honest answer is quite boring, I paid my dues and
worked my way up after starting as a junior reporter on a newspaper in London. That initial
experience gave me a solid background in turning around articles fast and doing thorough research,
which editors really value. It was very hard work but I built up a big portfolio of work on regional
websites and magazines, which helped open doors to larger international ones. Now I’m finally at a
stage in my career where international publications sometimes find me on LinkedIn and commission
articles or content from me, or I get recommended by someone to editors or content managers, but I
also still pitch my own story ideas to editors too. I think having a main niche (the Maldives) has
helped a lot, as very few travel writers know the Maldives in detail (since full-time travel journalism
jobs in the Maldives are almost non-existent and the cost of living there is prohibitive to many).
3: You write about travel and lifestyle with areas of expertise: Maldives, Sri Lanka, French Riviera,
Riviera Maya & Valencia - Have you traveled to these countries? Tell us about your travels! What
inspired you to write in the travel and lifestyle sector?
Yes! I decided to make those countries my areas of expertise for travel writing because I’ve lived in
all of them for at least 18 months or more, and I ensure I regularly return to all these destinations to
keep my knowledge fresh. That’s basically what makes my career possible – concentrating on just a
few countries or regions and becoming something of an expert on them.
I decided to switch from news journalism to travel journalism because I’ve always loved travelling
and learning about new cultures, in fact I think I’m addicted to learning! I recently realised that every
time I move to a new place i’m making new neural pathways while I learn my way around a
neighbourhood. There’s something about that that I love! But the catalyst for it all was I had a life-
changing medical situation when I was completely paralysed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I was
determined to learn to walk again, and I’d been dreaming of living overseas for so long that I made
travelling my motivation when I was in the ICU. I realised life isn’t a dress rehearsal, and you never know how long you have, so it was time to take the leap and move overseas. While I was recovering, I
started sending my CV to media companies in Asia, and somehow ended up being on the shortlist
out of about 300 applicants for a News Editor job in the Maldives! Since then, I’ve fully regained use
of my limbs and have learned to scuba dive and climbed a mountain!
4: You have lived and worked on four continents - What were your most challenging and rewarding
experiences? Where was your favourite place to live?
It’s so hard to narrow it down because there are so many great things about all the places I’ve lived
in, and continue to return to. Probably the Maldives was the hardest one, not only because it was my
first time living overseas but also because of a number of other things: One is that I realised we all
take the support networks we have at home for granted, but when you move abroad you don’t have
that, and it’s easy to underestimate how it will feel when something goes wrong. It can be
overwhelming, but it makes you tougher! And it makes you realise how important it is to build a good
quality network of friends overseas – real friends, not people you hang out with just because they’re
from the same country as you. The other main thing is, Male’ was a huge culture shock after living in
London (where you have access to amazing entertainment, West End Shows, nightclubs, incredible
art galleries, museums and all kinds of delicious cuisine from all around the world). In the Maldives,
you have to get used to living on a tiny island (normally only a mile or two long at most) and your
entertainment options are very limited in the capital by comparison. But then you realise you
shouldn’t even compare what you know with where you find yourself living now. All you can do is ask yourself if you feel you have good friends and a decent quality of life and career opportunities. I
discovered the best thing about living somewhere so remote is you end up talking to friends for
hours on end and so become very close to them. When I moved from the Maldives to France I had
18 house guests visit me in the first 18 months - and most of them were friends I met in the
Maldives! I think one of my favourite places to live was Playa del Carmen, in the Riviera Maya. It ticks a lot of boxes for digital nomads, including good internet and affordable rent. When I was researching it, foreign and local women already living there told me they felt safe there, many of whom were solo.
The town is compact so you can walk or cycle anywhere, but it has a huge range of local and
international shops, restaurants and bars, and a great beach plus good scuba diving. The Mexicans
living in Playa del Carmen were very friendly and kind to me, particularly my first landlady, which
made settling in so much easier, and I ended up moving to a lovely serviced apartment five minutes
from the beach run by an indigenous family, who were brilliant landlords and I learned a lot of
interesting things about Chichén Itzá from them.
5: What cultural differences have you faced along the way and how did you overcome them?
There are so many, but also so many similarities I find with people all over the world, too, despite
sometimes growing up in very different circumstances. If I had to pick an example, I suppose I found
in France that the practice of kissing every colleague on both cheeks every single morning in the
office a little awkward for my British sensibilities. ‘La bise’ is fine with friends and acquaintances but
it felt a bit odd with coworkers. It’s quite time-consuming to do in an office, too! The only thing you
can do is roll with it, after all, we’re guests in their country, and it’s always important to remain polite.
6: Where to next? Where is on your wish list to travel to?
There are so many places I want to visit! I’m not sure if I’ll ever run out of places I want to see. One
place I’d love to go is Bhutan because it looks beautiful and the culture is really unique and
fascinating to me. I love how they are careful about preserving their culture and keeping the number
of visitors sustainable.
7: What advice do you have for aspiring writers or women who may want to move into journalism?
The more you read, the better you write, so find articles that inspire you and keep educating yourself.
Take inspiration from other writers who started their careers before you, and don’t be fooled by the
apparent glamour of travel journalism – there’s a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes that
you need to be prepared for, and you only see the edited highlights on social media. Also, if you’re
from a first world country and you’re writing about a different region, try to be aware of any historical
subtext, cultural issues and possible subconscious colonial bias.
I wouldn’t say there’s only one route into journalism so all I can do is talk about my experience. My
thinking was that if you want to get started in journalism you have to get noticed by the editor, so I
always made sure when I was an intern that I worked through lunch and was the last person to leave
the office. Obviously, that’s not enough on its own, you need to figure out how to write compelling
content too, and fast. I ended up getting more bylines as the intern than any of the actual staff, so
the editor noticed that and offered me a job and training, off the back of my second internship, then
the editor of the previous newspaper I was an intern at tried to poach me when I told them I had a job offer! I ended up sharing this advice years later with a particularly talented intern, and he ended up getting a job there too, so I suppose it’s helped at least one other person!
8: What is it like being self-employed? What tips do you have for other women who may be looking to become self employed to start their digital nomadic lifestyle?
I’ve been doing a mixture of full-time work for employers and being self-employed throughout my
career, and I’m currently enjoying being self-employed. I like it a lot because I can work remotely
from anywhere and set my own hours. It’s not for everyone, and I think the ability to multi-task and
have self-discipline are probably the two most important things for success when you’re self-
employed. I wouldn’t recommend anyone becoming self-employed as a writer or content creator
unless they have at least one or two ‘anchor clients’ so they know their living expenses are covered
as a bare minimum. There are various routes though and it depends a lot upon your industry.
9: What do you like to do for fun?
I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious but the honest answer is it depends which country I’m in! If it’s
the Maldives, it’s scuba diving, but if it’s Europe, it’s probably hiking and cycling. I also love
organising events and bringing people together, so I set up several successful social media groups
in some of the countries I’ve lived in to help people meet up and make friends.
10: Lastly, where is your favourite hotel or place to go on holiday?
It’s so hard to narrow it down as there are so many destinations that I love! However, I think 'Annecy'
in the French Alps has a special place in my heart.
Connect with Sarah: