Some of you will remember that, when we launched The Collective’s Interviews section a few months ago, I outlined the criteria for the interview subject that I, selfishly, would enjoy talking to: a person working on something exciting or unique that overlaps in some way with the goings-on here at TC HQ.
Ioana Todosia, the founder and one-woman show behind experiential travel company Comuna Travel, ticks these boxes and then some. Ioana founded Comuna Travel while based in Ottawa almost one year ago; its mission, succinctly articulated on the website’s home page, is “Explore the unknown to tell a different story.”
Ioana herself is a heck of a storyteller, as I was lucky enough to learn during a phone conversation with her a few weeks back. After some unforeseen technological challenges on my end, which Ioana was generous enough to walk me through, we enjoyed a productive chat about her work at Comuna, her life in Canada’s capital, and her family’s move from Romania to Canada 25ish years ago. Ioana projects the kind of passion, energy, and insightful observations you’d expect from the founder of a travel company dedicated to fostering cross-cultural connections while exploring offbeat destinations. Naturally, a predictable side effect of our conversation is that my travel bug is flaring up again!
To learn more about Ioana and Comuna Travel, including where they’re heading to next, keep reading below…
Ioana Todosia, founder of Comuna Travel, in the Centro Historico of Mexico City. Photo by Mychael Henry (Cook Will Travel).
Lauren Makin: [Opening preamble discussing Ioana’s dog, who is at home with her recovering from ACL surgery]. Comuna centers around this idea of discovering lesser known paths, and I know that you do the scouting for each location personally. You’ve done two trips to Cuba, are launching Mexico City this fall, and are currently curating a trip to Romania for 2019. When you’re picking somewhere for a trip, what kind of places are you looking for?
Ioana Todosia: Maybe it’s easier to talk about when I decided to start Comuna. I was in Cuba on a whim…I had been in Miami and decided to hop over to Havana because I’d never been; I didn’t really know anything about it but had always wanted to go. I had this very romantic notion about Havana, as I think everybody does. I went there and I walked into this rooftop bar where there weren’t many tourists. I happened to sit beside a local couple and, at the time, tourism for Americans had just opened up, and I asked them “What do Cubans think about this influx of American tourists?”. They thought it was great, awesome, they were very happy about it, but the woman went on to explain that [tourists often have incorrect perceptions of Cuba]. No one tries to get to know the locals and find out what’s actually happening below the surface. People get stuck on the tourist circuit. So that’s sort of what got the wheels turning about the tourism industry and our relationship to it. I started thinking about how most people have a difficult time stepping outside of their comfort zones, even if they’d like to, and engaging with the local culture from different angles. As I experienced in Cuba, the local reality was very different from the tourist reality. There’s this divide that exists in most tourist destinations that gets perpetuated by the travel industry. So that’s the motivation behind the places that I choose: places that are either misrepresented through the media or skewed in most people’s perceptions; I’m working to show a different reality that’s much more rich and diverse.
LM: You rely pretty heavily on the locals in these places to provide firsthand experiences for your guests. How do you find these people?
IT: Through a lot of research, and just kind of stumbling across very obscure online resources that have led me to one thing and then another thing. I’ve done a lot of reaching out through social media and have been connected to interesting people doing great work by other people. Everyone that I work with is now a very good friend so I’ve developed very special relationships with them and they’ve become like part of a family. Even just by meeting one person when I’m on the ground scouting who connects with what I’m doing and is enthusiastic about being a part of it, I’ll then become connected with someone else, and someone else...
LM: As far as figuring out what you want to do when you’re on a trip, do you get local recommendations and incorporate those?
IT: There’s a general theme in all of the experiences in that I try really hard to bring the local creative culture into the travel experience, which wouldn’t normally be connected to tourism, because in all of their different forms, creativity and entrepreneurship are what create and preserve culture…[people like] a local art curator or an independent music label or a dance group or sustainable farmers. I bring them into it in a very experiential format and then I also generally work with at least one social enterprise or non-profit in each place that I go to. In Cuba, for example, I’m working with an organization called Cuba Skate and they’re involved in youth and community development. The use skateboarding as a tool for creative expression and give youth the opportunity to be part of a greater community.
When the group gets put together, I also speak to everyone individually, too, and design the final itinerary based on collective interests. Then I work with all of my local partners and connections to curate the experience based on these interests.
LM: How many people typically go on each trip?
IT:I’m intentionally keeping it really small because I think that, as travellers, we often leave a really big footprint behind so I’m not into herding 20 to 40 people on a group travel experience. We’re generally in groups of 6-8 people so it’s very small and intimate and gives you the ability to really connect with who you’re travelling with by engaging with the people providing the local experiences on a very personal level, together. It’s a very immersive experience because we keep it really intimate.
LM: Amazing. Let’s shift gears a bit. You write really meaningfully about your dual cultural identity as a Romanian-Canadian. How did your family’s move from Romania to Canada shape you?
IT: I feel like it shaped me in every way, and I’ve thought a lot about this over the past year; about the impact [that move] had on me and how it shaped where I am today. At least for me, sometimes we don’t stop to reflect on our life and look at the past to see how it brought you to where you are.
My parents immigrated to Canada in the mid 90s, a few years after the revolution and fall of Communism; at that time, Romania was undergoing a huge social and economic collapse. My dad was a seasonal labourer in forestry, which explains how he ended up in northcentral British Columbia. He would work in Canada during the spring/summer and came back to Romania in the winter.
When I was little, I was very sick and it took doctors a long time to discover that I had a kidney condition. I needed an MRI but there was only one MRI machine in the country and it wasn’t working [laughs]. The hospital had no resources, they had no money. My parents were basically forced to leave; the doctors said they should get me out of the country or I’d probably die. Because my dad was already working in Canada and the immigration policy was very open at the time to people from the former Soviet Union, my parents took that opportunity and relocated within a few months. So that’s how we ended up here, out of this crazy necessity to leave and migrate without wanting to. My parents had to leave their lives and family and culture behind.
Because of that history and the experience of migrating for freedom and opportunity through my parents, and everything they gave up in terms of their cultural identity and trying to integrate into a completely new society, I was always really observant and saw what a challenge that was for them; cultural exchange and integration is something that I’ve always been very passionate about and conscious of. To them it was really important that we maintained our connection to our culture and our roots. They were adamant about us speaking Romanian at home and eating Romanian food. I’d be almost embarrassed, like, “Aw mom, can’t you make English food [laughs]”. As I’ve gotten older I, of course, appreciate that so much and am very grateful that this is a part of my heritage and my place within society, toeing these two lines. It has made me very open and welcoming of others, and also love how diverse this world and its people are.
In Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana. Photo by Emory Hall.
LM: You’re currently living in Ottawa, but moving to Montreal in October – exciting! What does a typical day look like for you right now in Ottawa?
IT: I work from home. I’ll wake up and walk my dog, listen to a podcast. I really love podcasts and love starting off the day clearing my mind for everything I need to get done. If I don’t start my day off feeling balanced I can easily get overwhelmed because it’s just me doing this! Some days I’m the marketing person and some days I’m the accountant! Most days I’m full-on in research mode for upcoming trips and experiences that I want to create. I spend a lot of time connecting with people and reaching out to people to collaborate and developing those relationships so the in-country experiences [when we’re on trips] can be as unique and meaningful as they can be. It’s all about the experience: how can I make it better, more unique? How can I create moments of real cross-cultural connection between people? How do I gather people from different backgrounds who don’t know each other to connect over a common purpose? Pretty much every waking moment I think about these things. I also love to cook so at some point in the day I usually make a really big meal and, hopefully, share it with other people!
LM: I’m normally very interested in books, what you’re reading, but you mentioned podcasts. What podcasts do you typically listen to?
IT: I listen to a lot of creative business podcasts. One of my favourites is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. It’s sort of an interview in a conversation/story telling-type setting. It’s really inspiring hearing other people’s stories and where they’ve come from and what they’re doing and how they decided to follow their passion and create something.
LM: What’s been the biggest challenge or what has surprised you the most about owning your own business?
IT: There are a lot of highs and lows; it’s something that I’ve been reflecting on and working on being better at managing over the past year since launching Comuna. It’s easy to feel like you need to be reaching a certain milestone or to compare yourself to others when you’re starting a new business. But my motto this past year has been to grow slow, to allow myself and the company the time and space to evolve into what it needs to be rather than rushing into anything because of this invisible pressure that’s usually more internal than external. Just remembering why I started [Comuna] and taking it slow…making sure that I can put everything into it so I can look back and feel like I gave 100%.
LM: As we’re talking about Comuna more, I just think your whole concept makes so much sense! These are the kinds of trips that people in our demographic are interested in; people want to learn while they’re travelling, too, and they don’t want to be empty vessels who don’t engage or change in any way while travelling. Were you surprised that there weren’t any similar companies out there?
IT:The travel industry and being a part of this tourism space is a whole new ballgame to me – I just saw an opportunity and thought, what if this existed and what if people had more options to have this type of experience? The most surprising thing has been that the tourism industry in general still operates on this old school mentality that hasn’t innovated very much…they’re still operating on the same models that perpetuate the tourist circuits and, often, display a lack of cultural awareness. There is this fear [of the unknown] and the traditional tourism industry really relies on that to promote these ideals of western comforts. Comuna’s motto is “Explore the unknown to tell a different story” so, although the safety of my guests is the most important thing, I’m passionate about guiding people into places that they’d never know to go otherwise and experience something special and different and meet people they’d never have the opportunity to meet. I want to show that the unknown is a beautiful place, so that they can come back inspired in many ways and have a different story to tell about their experience.
I think there’s also this idea right now that being a tourist is a bad thing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a tourist. It’s about how you choose to be a tourist and how you engage with the local culture that matters. You can actually have a really big impact in both ways, the giving and the receiving of those interactions, as long as it’s done responsibly. There are a handful of interesting companies that have popped up in recent years who have similar ethos about what travel should be about. It’s very exciting to be part of a growing community of like-minded travel entrepreneurs who also see sustainable travel as a fledgling industry and an opportunity that can really leave a positive impact on the world.
LM: I love that idea. We hear about the travel footprint and many people probably do feel that there is a stigma around being a tourist, so I love the idea of reframing what that means.
IT: For sure. Being conscious about the footprint that you’re leaving as well as what you’re taking from the community and from a local culture and making sure that by being there you’re also giving something back.
Comuna works with a group of young entrepreneurs to preserve Afro-Cuban culture in the community. Photo by Emory Hall.
LM: On a different note, I’m always fascinated about our relationship to food while we travel. If you kept a food journal while you were travelling, what would it look like?
IT: I’ll try everything! When I’m at home in my normal everyday life I’m a vegetarian. All three of the countries we’re travelling to now [Cuba, Mexico City, Romania] are very meat-heavy so I usually throw being a vegetarian out the window while I’m gone! When I travel I try to be as open as possible because, at least for me, food is such a big gateway into learning about people and how they connect with each other and their culture and their history. There’s so much history in food and I think being picky and not wanting to engage with that leaves open a big opportunity to learn more about people. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian and come on our trips, I also make sure that there are plenty of options available to you and won’t make you feel bad about not trying something [laughs]; that’s just how I roll when I travel.
LM: Can you give us any hints about other destinations you’re looking into for future Comuna trips?
IT: Next year I’m planning on scouting in the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey is definitely a place that I’m wanting to spend more time researching. I’ve spent some time in Turkey and really loved it and it falls into the types of places that I want to explore more and to help people explore.
LM: Comuna’s one-year anniversary is coming up in November! Any plans to celebrate?!
IT: I realized that I’ll be leaving on a trip to Cuba, the 10-day immersive trip, during that time, so that’s going to be exciting. I’ve planned something really special that will bring our travellers and local partners together in Havana. It’ll be a collaboration between some really awesome urban artists on a rooftop in old Havana. So I’ve very excited about that…that’ll be a good way to celebrate.
Yep, I’d say that sounds perfect. Happy (almost) one year, Comuna Travel!
- Like Kaylyn from our first interview and TC’s founder Darryl, Ioana also grew up in Prince George, BC! I swear being from PG isn’t a prerequisite for doing a Collective interview!
- Check out this awesome one-minute video of Comuna’s trip to Havana this year.
- Follow Comuna Travel on social (Instagram and Facebook) and check out their website. Be sure to see if there are any spots left for their upcoming trips!
- Interview cover photo by Kait Labbate (The Roads I Travelled) in Havana.
When Team TC decided to add a section called Interviews to The Collective, I immediately started compiling a list of people I wanted to chat to. The criteria, for me, turned out to be pretty simple: someone I admire who is doing something exciting, unique, or just plain cool. And, if their work or play happens to intersect with anything we’re doing at TC, that’s an added bonus.
At the top of my list was Kaylyn van Driesum, who, in addition to being an increasingly well-recognized Vancouver-based wedding photographer and a passionate philanthropist, also happens to be one of my best friends. How very convenient for me!
I successfully lured Kaylyn to TC’s favourite local haunt with the promise of coffee and we sat down to talk about her work behind the camera, her return to Vancouver (hallelujah!), and her recent trip to the Dominican Republic on behalf of the HOPE International Development Agency. It’s worth noting that this trip took Kaylyn to the Dominican as part of a team called Women For Water, which raised $63,000 to help 75 families in the village of El Memiso. Pretty damn cool!
Learn more about her work with HOPE and find out which three items Kaylyn, aka KVD, would bring to a desert island in our conversation below!
Kaylyn and Cola, the town leader of La China. His town's irrigation project was completed two years ago.
Lauren Makin: [Opening preamble including complimenting Kaylyn’s hair, which is amazing and always perfect]. Part of the reason that you’re really intriguing to me and part of the reason I feel like you have a lot in common with the team at Traveller Collective is because, first, you’re operating a successful small business here in the city and, second, because of your efforts with HOPE International. Your first project with HOPE was for clean water in Ethiopia and so was ours, with charity: water! But, anyways, all that aside: describe yourself in two words.
Kaylyn van Driesum: Oh my gosh…this is really hard for me!
LM: Take your time.
KVD: We might have to come back to this!
LM: Okay, sure. I was interested in how you got into photography. You’ve been doing it for about four years, primarily wedding and portraits, although I know you do the odd event.
KVD: I have literally always had a camera in my hand. It was the one thing I’d ask for on my birthday and I finally got one when I was 15 or 16. I was so happy; it was one of the first digital cameras that came out. I’d haul it to school every day and was that person who was always taking pictures of my friends. I just never thought I could make a living as a photographer. It wasn’t a thing that I sought after in my small town of Prince George. But as soon as I moved to Vancouver I thought more about it, every day really. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even when I went to fashion business school, I still had the dream of one day having my own photography company. Wedding photography is not what I thought I’d be getting into but I absolutely adore it. I had the opportunity to second shoot for a guy in the US and that pushed me in the right direction.
LM: What kind of camera are you rocking these days?
KVD: I am a Canon girl so I have a Canon 5D Mark III and an assortment of lenses…if that means anything to you. [Author’s note: Nope].
LM: Earlier you described Vancouver as the site where you realized that there is a market for photography and that you could potentially make a business out of it. How long have you lived here?
KVD: I’ve been in Vancouver for just over a year now, but when I went to school here [John Casablanca Institute] I was probably a Vancouverite for about two years. There was some time in between when I lived in Victoria and back up north for a while, but it feels good to be back in the city.
LM: I was thinking about your move back here. How would you say Vancouver impacts you as a professional?
KVD: I came back to Vancouver from Victoria, where there is a bit of an Island vibe and life is a bit slower. I think in Vancouver you want to be busy, you’re encouraged to build your business and get your name out there. There are so many amazing photographers here so [there’s a] sense of competition, but I’m inspired by the people I look up to in the city. Being back in Vancouver has been great for me because I feel like my business has expanded and I can see how much more work I’m putting into my business because I’m excited to do so.
LM: What does a typical workday look like for you?
KVD: I have breakfast and coffee first thing in the morning. Then I’m usually working at my desk by 9:30 AM until 4 or 5:00 PM. There might be a few coffee breaks in there, too; I love seeking out cafes in my neighbourhood. It’s a lot of editing and emails; it depends if I’m in my busy season or non-busy season. A lot of time at my computer.
LM: I know that, before this, you worked in restaurants for a long time. Now you’re the sole proprietor of your own business, KVD Photography. What would you describe as the biggest challenge to owning your own business?
KVD: I think staying motivated is the hardest thing for me. There are so many times in the day where I’m by myself at my desk and I haven’t talked to anyone all day, other than the people I’m emailing or maybe a phone call or two. Going from the service industry to owning my own business, having served thousands of people to now not having a conversation with anyone during the workday, is a bit tricky. Come wedding day and shoot days, that’s the fun part of my job. Everybody says, “Isn’t that the most stressful?”, but it’s my absolute favourite part, being surrounded by people and doing what I love.
LM: So what is the most rewarding part of your job? It sounds like it’s the actual labour!
KVD: Totally. I’d say 90% of couples have never had professional photos taken so [they] come into the photo shoot or engagement shoot being super nervous and then by the end say to me, “That was so fun! I wish we could do it again” because they were so amazed by how comfortable they are in front of the camera. And then I show them the images a week or two later, and they’re so stoked about them and I’m getting texts saying, “I can’t believe we look like this on camera. I’m now so excited for our wedding day!”…that’s probably one of the most rewarding things in my job.
LM: What’s the wildest or craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen at a wedding or a shoot you’ve done?
KVD: I’ve been really lucky to have people that are really low key and not stressed on their wedding day. I’ve never had something crazy happen but there have been some highlight moments where I think, “I can’t believe this is my job.” I was shooting a wedding in Victoria and the groom’s two brothers got up and were going to give a speech but then slowly made their way to the dance floor and I think everybody could feel what was about to happen. They did this dance, I don’t think anybody was sitting in their chair by the end. There were legs wrapped around each other with one person flying, there were lifts…it was soo good. It was surprising and not surprising; I think everybody kind of expected it of these brothers. I can’t even explain it, I think you had to be there.
LM: I want to chat a bit about the work that you do with the HOPE International Development Agency. I know you just returned from El Memiso in the Dominican. Can you fill me in on your special connection to HOPE?
KVD: My family has been involved with HOPE for about 20 years, and I’ve been really active for about 15 years. The very first project we did as a family was in the name of my Opa when he passed away. We took on the task of raising money for a well capping project in Ethiopia. And then after that we did a project for my brother after he passed away…it’s been quite a journey with HOPE. I took a break between that first fundraising project and then went back 8 years later to the Dominican. It wasn’t until I went on a UNION trip [Understanding Needs In Other Nations] that I really saw myself getting back into it. The Dominican is definitely where my heart is.
LM: So it’s a real family attachment.
KVD: A real family attachment. My sister and I have come together to raise funds for two villages in the Dominican [Cazuela and El Memiso]. There’s always the family support, from my parents, and my brother has taken on his own projects in South Sudan. I think we all have a heart for helping people. We’ve always been told that we’re a very generous family and we’re really passionate about helping others that are less fortunate. I think we see it as a duty, in a way, because we’re so blessed with what we have in North America.
LM: You’ve been to the Dominican four times now. What continues to surprise or shock you when you get there?
KVD: How much time do you have [laughs]? The whole country to me is shocking, in a way. I’ve been there four times so my level of comfort is a lot higher than it was…now I feel like it’s almost a part of me so when I do arrive I feel like I’m coming back to this amazing place that I know but I’m still amazed by so much that happens there.
The most surprising thing continues to be the people in the villages that I visit. They are joyful, resilient, determined individuals who live their lives with very little. To paint you a picture: they have one school in their village with teachers who teach multiple grades at the same time. Parents raise big families in houses that are the size of the garden sheds in our backyards. Many of the families don't own their own land or have a way to earn reliable incomes for their families. And yet they are so grateful for the chance to have a better future! Some families have had to move out of their villages but are now able to return home because of the opportunity that's been provided by HOPE's projects…and that's a pretty special thing to be a part of.
I’d also say that the way that they raise their kids and the community that they have is amazing. I was in the village of El Memiso for five days and I didn’t know which child belonged to which parents because everybody just raises everybody over there! They all have these roles in everybody’s lives and they talk to each other with such respect. They really listen to the kids over there and the kids respect their teachers and the principal of the school and the elders in the village and it’s really, really cool to see.
LM: I was thinking about people who have similar inclinations, who want to give back and want to help, but I feel as though there can be a barrier to entry in that you just don’t know where to start. What do you make of that?
KVD: I think one of the best things that HOPE International does is put on these fundraising dinners. It’s the opportunity to have a great evening out and be entertained and have a great meal with a lot of people that are inspired to give so I think attending one of these dinners is a step in the right direction and there’s a chance to donate there, too, to bid on silent or live auction items. It’s also a way to get to know what it’s all about at the same time. [The dinners are] all across the country, which is great, so that’s one way to get involved. It depends how people want to give; whether it’s their time or financially but there are plenty of ways to do that!
LM: That makes sense, that getting in at the local level makes it less intimidating. I like the idea of getting involved locally and then getting to spend time with likeminded people from the same area.
KVD: I don’t think people should look at HOPE as this big intimidating organization, either. They’re run by less than 20 people in a house in New West [city outside Vancouver]. You go to their HQ and you think it’s going to be this big bustling place but everybody is so humble and so down to earth and they’re there for the same reason.
LM: How do you feel as though these two things that you do—photography and philanthropy—overlap?
KVD: I would say that it comes back to people, honestly. I love working with people, taking photos and getting to know people, understanding their relationships. Whether that’s me shooting a wedding and getting to know a couple or whether that’s me going to the Dominican and understanding how they live and work over there. I’m really fortunate to have a job that has a high season and a low season so if I can spend half my year focusing on my couples and then half my year focusing on them but also on my HOPE International project and fundraising for that, then I’m thrilled to do so. I’m really fortunate to be able to have the time to do both.
LM: You obviously get to travel quite a bit for work and with your efforts for HOPE. What would you say is your number one travel tip?
KVD: Do what the locals do. I think going to a place like the Dominican, it’s so easy to say that the Dominican is made up of beautiful beaches—which it is! The Dominican is a gorgeous island. But there’s way more to it than that. You can get to know the people and eat where the locals eat. Get away from the path that everybody takes and get to the small inland towns…I think that enhances your overall experience of any country you go to, not just the Dominican.
LM: A plane is taking off right now…you’re on it…where is it going?
KVD: I’d love to say the Dominican but I think I’d really love to go to…that’s a really hard question. Let’s go with Croatia. I’ve always been super intrigued by their culture and architecture and the things I hear about it. I’ve never really been to that part of the world.
LM: What would the weather be like there now? Nice, I’m assuming? That’s a guess.
KVD: I think less rainy than here, but don’t quote me on that.
LM: If you were on a desert island and you got to have three items with you—what would they be?
KVD: A bible, an axe…no, wait, I changed my mind. A machete, as someone from the Dominican would have. And a camera.
LM: To come back to the opening question: describe yourself in two words.
KVD: That’s SO hard. I want to say generous. And principled.
I couldn’t agree more.
Kaylyn next to the water reservoir in La China. It holds one million gallons of water and irrigates all of the town's fields.