Founded in 2004, the international citizen media NGO Global Voices plays a crucial role in amplifying the voices of online communities around the world, and advocating for a more open, freer Internet. It’s an organisation with dozens of staff and hundreds of volunteers, but no physical headquarters — which means GV’s core team members, like managing director Georgia Popplewell, spend much of their time on planes and in airports, and “the office” is wherever there’s a wifi signal.
Your work takes you to meetings, conferences, and other events around the world. What’s the most surprising or incongruous place you’ve found yourself visiting for professional purposes?
Nine days after the January 2010 earthquake, I went to Haiti to research how people were using citizen media in the aftermath of the disaster. Nothing, I think, can prepare you for your first encounter with a place that’s been hit so hard by a natural disaster.
As the airport was closed to regular traffic, we had to travel overland from the Dominican Republic, and there was such chaos at the border that my passport wasn’t stamped on either entry or exit: according to the official record, I have never visited Haiti!
We arrived not knowing where we were going to stay, and ended up living for several days on the verandah of a restaurant in Pétionville, along with an uplink crew, the restaurant’s chef, who’d lost her home in the ’quake, and a bunch of medics.
It was impossible to plan anything, so you took things as they came, gleaning whatever information you could from the people you met. Driving around in the evening you’d come across districts where the residents were pulling mattresses out into the street to sleep huddled together with their neighbours in the open air.
How do you cope with being away from home so often, and the rigours of long flights and international travel?
I still find the being-in-other-places part of international travel completely thrilling. It’s the getting-to-other-places part that’s unpleasant, and there’s no getting around the fact that travel across time zones takes its toll. I am, however, one of those lucky people who can sleep on planes, and I also take homeopathic anti-jet lag pills that some of my friends scoff at, but which work for me. Once on the ground, I try to replicate my regular routine as far as possible: daily exercise, downtime, as much sleep as possible.
What would you do to make airports everywhere more pleasant?
I’d place security checkpoints at each departure gate, as they do at Amsterdam’s Schipol and Berlin’s Tegel airports. It’s a costly modification, of course, but the security check is probably the most stressful part of air travel for both travellers and airport workers. Shunting hordes of people going to multiple departure gates through a single checkpoint makes for chaos and inefficiency (I’m looking at you, most US airports).
If you had to leave your house with five minutes’ notice to catch a plane to the other side of the world, what essential things would you grab to take with you?
Apart from my passport, a small amount of cash and credit cards, a couple pairs of clean underwear, dental floss, smartphone and charger, notebook, a couple of pens, two or three irreplaceable cosmetics. Anything else I could probably buy at my destination.
What travel destinations are still on your wish list?
The big omission on my Caribbean travel list is Dominica. I’ve been to most of the countries in South America, but yet to visit Argentina, Colombia, or Uruguay. Sri Lanka. Post–Fidel Castro Cuba (I was there in 1988, but it’s a different country now). West Africa is a region I want to explore, and so far I’ve been only to Ghana. And two recent visits to the Philippines have whetted my appetite for more of south-east Asia. Obviously I need to live to one hundred.