An avid traveller who cherishes remote locations, preserved cultures, and virtually any activity that brings her in contact with locals off the beaten track, Lisa Pagotto has always thrived on adventure. Turning her lifetime passion into a profession with the founding of Crooked Compass, a ‘boutique tour operator uncovering the world’s best kept secrets’, she now leads groups of likeminded travellers from the streets of Nepal to the foothills of Iran, always in pursuit of that insatiable goal to both encounter and engage with the incredible cultures, landscapes, and people that the tourism industry so often neglects. As Lisa explores the globe and inches ever closer to her ultimate goal of visiting every country that peppers its surface, she continues to encourage and inspire others to travel mindfully and respectfully, thus building the educative foundation that is required to foster such sustainable travel in the future.
Given this alignment of our core travel values, we here at the Scrubba wash bag are thrilled to be partnering with Crooked Compass by offering wash bags for all travellers booked on one of their small group tours. With this partnership, we hope not only to ease the burden of doing laundry in some of the world’s most remote locations, but also to educate about the importance of sustainable travel, particularly in regard to mindful water consumption and the avoidance of water pollution. Enthusiastic travellers ourselves, we’re thrilled to be part of Lisa’s journey, and lost no time in seizing the opportunity to find out more about her inspiration, motivation, and goals for the future.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your past adventures
I have had travel in my blood from before I was born. I took my first plane at two weeks old and have not stopped since. I was very fortunate as a child to travel abroad regularly, but nothing changed me more than my trip to Tunisia, my first non-western country, as a 21 year old. My Nana took me as it was a favourite destination of hers, and as a child I grew up hearing stories of her exotic travels there. I was desperate to be part of her stories but was always too scared to venture to a North African country. When I finally arrived, I was captivated. The strange Arabic language tangled with Latin inflections, while the unusual aromas, mysterious culture, and unexplained sounds of the call to prayer made my mind swirl. This destination challenged me. It made me curious to learn more about this world that was so foreign to me. My time in Tunisia was spent living with local families familiar to my Nana, which laid the foundations that would later shape me into the experiential travel junky I am today. I set out in search of other destinations that Australian travellers would often stigmatise, as I was desperate to break down those barriers and show people a world they didn’t know existed. This year I will reach country number 100, meaning I am almost half way to visiting every country on the planet!
From a professional side, I have been in the Travel and Tourism industry my whole career (14yrs). Starting off as a retail travel agent, I have worked in wholesale, sales and marketing, product development, contracting and negotiation, foreign exchange, strategic partnerships and also as a tour guide.
What exactly is Crooked Compass?:
Crooked Compass is a boutique tour operator exploring emerging destinations and the lesser known side of common destinations through small group tours and private customised tours. We focus on uncovering the world’s best kept secrets and showcasing a destination through the eyes of a local. Our culturally immersive journeys are created to inspire, educate and encourage travellers to understand responsible tourism and support local community initiatives.
What inspired you to start Crooked Compass and what was the first tour you organised?
Crooked Compass started out a blog which was simply a hobby. It was basically me blogging about all the unique, weird and wonderful experiences I have seen throughout my travels. It quickly grew a readership, with many followers asking how they could travel like me and experience these unique wonders for themselves. I started to collate my knowledge and had an app built to house this information in one platform, allowing easy access for travellers to search for ‘outside the box’ travel experiences. From here, the business morphed into a touring product. The first two tours that were launched were Snow Leopard Tracking in India and the Mount Hagen Cultural Show in Papua New Guinea.
Tell us about some of the tours you offer and what makes them unique
Culture & Craters – This is the perfect little 6-day African trip for those who are fascinated by culture. Sadly, when you visit Masai villages now in Kenya and Tanzania, the experience is very commercialised, with Masai throwing on a blanket over their modern clothes, chatting away on their mobile phones, and zipping off to town on a motorbike. We spent a lot of time researching to find that corner that is still untouched and authentic, and we found exactly that. This tour spends time living with hunter-gatherer tribes that still lead a traditional, nomadic life. We go with them as they hunt for small game (i.e. rabbits), learn how they extract poison from trees to make their poison hunting arrows, and see how they live off the land by foraging for food.
Soul of Nepal – I created this tour after the Nepal earthquake, at a time when tourism simply stopped. We did a lot of research to see what was stopping people going back to Nepal, and asked ourselves what it would take to get them there. The most common feedback we got was, ‘I’d love to go to Nepal but I don’t trek.’ I created this itinerary as a response to that feedback, eager to showcase the more local side of Nepal – a truly beautiful aspect of the country that is too often overlooked by other tour operators – and to prove there is far more to Nepal than its treks. On this itinerary, we visit smaller, almost forgotten villages in the Kathmandu valley where income still operates on a barter system. Here, you can see women sitting in the dusty streets grinding mustard seeds. Time old traditions are rich here, and there are no other travellers. We also spend time in an ancient Newari village called Panauti, where we split up amongst the local families and live with them for 2 nights. Your host family becomes your guide and you do whatever you like! It might be hiking into the foot hills to mingle with Tibetan refugees, cooking with the mum of your family, or cycling through the village with the children. We also stay in the guesthouse of an active monastery where we have time to interact with the monks and learn about their way of life.
Valley of the Assassins – When the Iran travel sanctions were lifted at the end of 2015, I watched as every tour operator launched into selling this fascinating destination. I quickly noticed that they were all selling the same part of the country, with extremely similar itineraries, so we naturally decided to #FollowADifferentPath. Our Valley of the Assassins tour ventures north from Tehran into the Alborz Mountains. We visit villages that are only accessible by foot, meaning they are frozen in tradition. We run this tour in September, when Shahsavan Nomads are in these foothills. We spend a night with them learning about their fascinating life on the land that hasn’t changed in thousands of years. We then visit Kandovan, which is similar to Cappadocia in Turkey (minus the tourists and touts). This fairy chimney landscape is so unheard of, yet so spectacular. We really focus on the quieter, greener, and more traditional side of Iran as opposed to the ‘Classic Route’ following Persian history, architecture, and jewellery.
Do you have a favourite travel destination or a favourite travel activity and why?
Syria is, so far, my absolute favourite destination, although I was there well before the current conflicts and would definitely not advise travel there at the present. My favourite travel activity involves spending at least one night with the locals– experiencing their traditional life and food. I have lived in a ger with a Mongolian nomad family in the middle of winter, slept on hay in the upstairs of a barn in the Sapa Valley in Vietnam with a minority group, and stayed on a local family’s rooftop in the old town of Jerusalem. I’ve even slept on a clay bed with a lower caste farming family along the Great Wall of China after spending the evening making hundreds of handmade dumplings for an upcoming local festival! Such experiences usually involve no English, which forces you to communicate with your hosts through non-verbal signs, enabling you to realise how insignificant language really is!
What are your travel goals for the future, both personally and within Crooked Compass?
Personally, my goal is to travel to every country in the world. I love meeting people from different backgrounds and learning about fascinating cultures and tribes. The more remote something is, the more interested I am. Goals for Crooked Compass are to keep up the curiosity. To keep searching for and discovering the lesser known side to countries and showcasing this to our travellers. Our goal at Crooked Compass is to educate travellers by helping them understand their destination at a deeper level. To understand where their travel dollars go and how they help support the communities that we visit. On the flip side, we are also extremely focussed on ensuring that we do not harm or disturb the environments we visit, as we want to ensure that our trips enhance the quality of life for those who live there. Our ultimate, ongoing goal is to teach our travellers to be responsible.
How do you combat the 'travel bug' when you're not actively exploring the world?
The simple answer is: I don’t! I am well and truly infected with the travel bug and there is no cure (not that I want one). I simply manage my itchy feet by always having the next trip booked. Whether it be a personal holiday or escorting a Crooked Compass small group tour, I always have at least one, (usually 3 or 4) upcoming trips planned so that I always have something to look forward to.
Do you have any advice for others hoping to explore the world like you've done?
If you are wanting to travel the world in my style, guide books are a great starting point for background knowledge, but they won’t provide you with the experiences that I seek. Instead, I rely heavily on chatting with locals, getting the inside scoop, and asking for information on those places that the travel guides don’t cover. For those who are at a crossroads of wanting to travel but feeling obliged to do the adult thing and continue in a career, this is a quote I really believe in and live by: “Take vacations. Go as many places as you can. You can always make more money, but you can’t always make more time.”
Do you have any awesome travel tips that will help people to stay safe, travel light, or save money while exploring the world?
Some tips to stay safe include always registering your travels with Smart Traveller and always carrying an international sim card. To travel light – mix and match. You don’t ever need more than 5 tops (especially if you have a Scrubba wash bag with you). Take clothes that can be dressed up or down with a scarf or beads from a market. To save money, bargain, bargain, bargain, and only ever change enough currency for what you need, as you will always loose out changing currency back. If you see something you love but think you can’t afford it, just buy it and figure out how to pay for it later! After all, you will never see anything like this again and you will likely regret passing up the opportunity! Trust me – I did this once, and will never make the mistake again. Now my house (and office) is filled with the most amazing, eclectic pieces from around the world – including an 89kg Terracotta Warrior! – that never fail to bring back tons of memories each time I walk past them.
Where can people go to follow Crooked Compass or get involved in one of your journeys?
To see the full range of our small group tours, visit www.crooked-compass.com or follow us on social:
A big thanks to Lisa of Crooked Compass for taking the time to share some of her travel secrets with us today. We look forward to putting her copious knowledge to use on our own trips in the future, and encourage anyone interested in her style of engaged, immersive travel to check out the Crooked Compass website for more information.