Interview 2: Ioana Todosia
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.