Interview with Meg Pier
Meg Pier is a writer, photographer and proprietor of View from the Pier, a travel and inspiration site. Meg founded VFTP four years ago after four cancer scares prompted her to check out of a high-pressured media relations career in the investment industry. She seeks to take visitors to VFTP on a journey of self-discovery, sharing the transformative power of the world’s cultural traditions, spiritual practices and powerful landscapes. VFTP features stunning photography, vivid destination pieces, inspiring interviews and thoughtful essays on themes such as acceptance, serenity, belonging, serendipity and extracting meaning from challenges and chance encounters.
When did you first start traveling?
My first major travel was to the Philippines, back in my P.R. days. I accompanied a Wall St. Journal reporter who was doing a “day in the life” feature on an emerging markets portfolio manager. It was fascinating to sit in on her meetings with government officials, company CEOs and casual conversations with “everyday” people to get a behind-the-scenes look at what makes another culture’s economy run. That trip sparked an obsession to learn more about how people around the world live, and the ways in which we different and alike.
What kind of travel do you prefer (e.g. luxury, budget, backpacking, train travel, etc.) – and has that changed over time?
My primary interest is people and their cultural traditions and spiritual practices. I love to get an insider’s perspective on how local people live and what they consider particularly meaningful and special about their region—as well as connecting with them on a personal level. Being invited into a Hindu home to celebrate Divali in Trinidad, watching a 90-year old Orthodox priest and icon painter in his studio at a monastery in Cyprus, talking to “the Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas about her faith and her telling me about her mother’s final days as my own mom was dying, interviewing the Duke of Argyll inside his family’s quarters at Inveraray Castle and learning how his role as chief of the Clan Campbell has influenced his views on “belonging.’ These experiences are all windows into our shared human condition for me.
How do you like to travel – alone, with a spouse/partner, other family members, with friends or as part of a tour group?
I love travelling with my husband—we have a lot of shared interests and are really compatible on the road—no small feat! We balance each other out—he makes me slow down a little bit and I encourage him to take risks. We’ve done some home exchanging, which is a great way to become immersed in a culture—and make new friends! I also really enjoy travelling alone, even if it can be a bit intimidating at times. It helps me stretch my comfort zone…and that makes me more open. Driving across Estonia solo was one of the most liberating experiences of my life—coincidentally, I was there for the 20th anniversary of their independence from the Soviet Union.
Besides travel, what are your passions?
Photography is a huge passion of mine. My husband gave me my first camera in 1995 and it opened up a whole new world for me. Photography allows me to change my perspective, see the beauty in the everyday, ‘focus’ on the moment at hand and become more mindful.
I also have a deep fascination for history and people’s stories. I’m of Irish descent and come from a long-line of story-tellers. I recently launched a business as a personal historian, helping people process and record their life lessons and memories—either as a gift to themselves, or for their children and friends.
Have your passions played a role in the choice of travel destination?
Definitely. One of the ways I find new destinations is to peruse UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural traditions. Most people are aware that UNESCO seeks to preserve historic landmarks but aren’t necessarily aware they are also actively safeguarding cultural practices. Last January my husband and I traveled to Chiapas Mexico in part to see the annual Chiapa de Corzo’s Fiesta de Los Parachicos, an amazingly vibrant celebration that has its roots in a 1711 legend. I had the privilege of interviewing the head of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage division for VFTP–her work and her background are amazing.
Do you consider travel a necessity or a luxury? What are you prepared to sacrifice so you can travel?
Travel is a necessity for me. It feeds my soul, nourishes my creativity and keeps me open-minded and continually learning. I get very restless if I can’t indulge my wanderlust every few months. I have made dramatic changes in my lifestyle in order to travel as often as I do and those have been choices that are well worth it to me. That said, I am a conventional traveler by some standards. I am not back-packing around the world. Each year I generally take four or five two-week trips to very specific areas.
What are you prepared to pay extra for when you travel?
I am a big believer in using professional guides. I don’t go on organized tours but I do work with people who are resident experts in the cultures of the countries I visit. I always need to build in plenty of time to explore on my own but a knowledgeable, seasoned guide can provide nuances, subtleties and access to off-the-beaten path nooks and crannies and interesting people. I also have found that almost all the guides I have worked with are drawn to their profession because of their love for and deep pride in their heritage. The guides I’ve worked with are also generally sensitive, literate, fun and often wise people who are students of human nature. I’ve formed some very strong friendships with people who have guided me.
What has been the most fascinating destination you have visited from a cultural perspective?
Wow. That’s a tough question, just because so many of the cultures I’ve experience have been astonishing.
It was pretty humbling meeting members of the Kogi, a Native American group indigenous to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the world’s highest coastal range. The Kogi civilization has existed since the Pre-Columbian era and today they have a population of approximately 12,000 people. The Kogi have long avoided contact with other people but concerns about dramatic changes in their beloved mountain landscape have prompted change. Kogi representatives recently begun to emerge from their self-imposed isolation high in the Sierra Nevada to share their message to respect the earth.
What place in the world surprised you? Was the experience better or worse than expected?
I really loved Malta and its people. It’s considered one of the most Catholic countries in the world with almost 95% of the residents belonging to that denomination. I was there over the Easter holidays and was blown away by how exotic the faith I was raised in seemed. The pageantry was spectacular, with processions of people in Biblical costumes and different ritualistic events. That said, I was also very moved by many experiences in which it was evident that people’s faith is a very real, concrete part of their day-to-day life.
Is there somewhere you return to year after year? Why?
It’s interesting to be asked this question now. If it had come up more than a year ago, I would have said ‘no, there are too many places I still want to see to be making return trips.’ But last year I visited Scotland twice and hope to go back again this year. The sheer physical beauty of the landscape there is incredible. I love the dry sense of humor and earthy artiness of many of the Scots. The country really just struck a chord with me on a very deep level. I could see myself living there. I haven’t quite figured out how much of that is the impact the country and its people had on me, and how much is an internal receptivity to connecting with a place that way. Perhaps I lived there in a past life!
Tell us where your top three travel experiences occurred and what made them stand out.
Gee, this is tough! So many to choose from!
I’ll start by sharing one that may seem an odd choice but just immediately popped into my mind. On 9/11, I was on Santorini. My husband had left the day before to return home via an overnight in Brussels. It was my first time alone in a foreign country and I was feeling very much the “Big Girl.” I had been out shopping and had walked back to the cave-like apartment I was staying in outside of Thera. I flopped on the couch and flipped on CNN. It was 3 p.m. in Greece and 9 a.m. on the East Coast at home. As the TV came on, I saw the attack on the Twin Towers in real time. The airline of the attacking planes was unknown for a while and it took 24 hours before I was able to connect with my husband and know he was OK. I cut short my stay on Santorini and left immediately to join him in Brussels. I needed to spend a night in Athens en route. I remember the scary size of the newspaper headlines in the Greek alphabet and recognizing only the word “Amerika.” While in my Athens hotel room, I was weeping with fear and sadness and there was a knock on my door. It was a maid; she took one look at my red, tear-filled eyes and American garb and in one of those beautiful, instinctive moments of compassion that sometimes occur, she reached out for my hands and held them tightly and looked into my eyes and spoke to me in Greek. I have no idea what she said but it was a profoundly moving and uplifting gesture of connection for me that I have never forgotten.
Another highly memorable experience was the physical and spiritual rush at being within arms’ length of Iceland’s Great Geysir as it blew a giant translucent bubble that grew and grew and grew and then BLEW with tremendous force, provoking much delighted screaming by the dozen of us around it’s circumference.
Estonia has a special place in my heart—I had many, many incredible moments there. One experience that was particularly special was an afternoon I spent with a group of elderly women who are part of the Seto community, an ethnic and linguistic minority who live along the border of Estonia and Russian. A tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity is leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing. The women were all members of a Seto choir called Varska Leelokoor Leiko, which means “play.” A time-honored gathering spot for Estonians, including the Seto, is a massive wooden community swing. Two of the women climbed on to the swing and set it rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform–Haime crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground. The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia’s canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt…and I understood why the women’s eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.
Where in your own hometown do you encourage people to visit?
At one square mile, Nahant is the smallest town in Massachusetts and is a little island joined to Boston’s north shore by a two-mile causeway. Famous residents include poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and statesman Henry Cabot Lodge. You can walk the circumference of the town in an hour, enjoying its six beaches, each of which has a distinct personality and view. Come visit!
Final Question: Do you have a favorite movie (or song, television program, book) that inspires travel?
Hmmm… I actually don’t think I do, sorry.
Photos courtesy of Meg Pier