Of Destinations and Dog Biscuits: An Interview with Journalist Jacquelin Sonderling

by Celeste Heiter, Jul 10, 2001 | Destinations: China / Yangtze River

Does it ever seem as if some people squeeze more life into a lifetime than others? That their days contain more than the meager twenty-four hours allotted to the rest of us? While Jacquelin Sonderling vows that this is not the case, her life so far would appear otherwise. Perhaps it's because she found her calling early in life.

Well before the age of 21, Jacquelin had already discovered her passion for both travel and writing. Since then, she has traveled to more than 20 countries, and has cultivated a successful and rewarding career in television journalism. However, she attributes her discovery of journalism to serendipity.

"I ended up in journalism accidentally," she says. "I've always loved writing. But when I enrolled at California State University, Northridge, I had no idea what I wanted as a major. A year or two later, I took a general ed class - an introduction to journalism. And that's all she wrote! I'd found my place!"

During her four years at Cal Northridge, Jacquelin's extracurricular work experience went a long way toward launching her into her career in journalism. "In college, as part of the curriculum, I worked at our school radio station, KCSN, which at that time was part of National Public Radio. Since we were a fully licensed station, and not a college carrier station, we got out and about, and reported on stories just like any other station in LA. I covered City Council meetings, Board of Education meetings, County Supervisor meetings, and so on. I also anchored several half-hour news casts a week."

Ironically, however, Jacquelin's first job after college was not in the field of journalism. Instead, she made a detour into the travel industry. "I didn't end up in journalism right after graduation. I ended up in the travel biz - first at a local travel agency, then a wholesale tour operator and finally with Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. I spent six years with Hyatt - in Monterey, back in Los Angeles, the Regional sales office for the International hotels and finally in Newport Beach."

By her own admission, however, the travel industry did not fulfill Jacquelin's career expectations. Journalism still beckoned. "It took me six years to realize I was doing the wrong thing! I went back to school to do some post-graduate journalism studies, and got my first job as a writer at KNX, our all-news radio station, a CBS news station - the sister station of KCBS in San Francisco."

From there Jacquelin made the transition into television, at KTLA, a local station, then to FOX, and finally to KCAL, where she spent three and a half years as the Arts and Entertainment Producer. As part of the job, she rubbed elbows with some pretty high profile celebrities. "I covered awards shows: the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, and the elections, and the trials (yes, that one!). I interviewed practically every major star you can name. Shall I drop a few names? Denzel. Julia. Mel. I've done stories on world leaders: Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and Barbara Bush."

However, in spite of her choice of television journalism over the travel industry, travel has always played a significant role in Jacquelin's life, whether as a necessary element of her career, or as an escape from it. Her list of travel destinations reads like the index of a geography textbook.

"In Europe, I've been to Yugoslavia (when it was still Yugoslavia), France, Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, and Italy, with a quick trip into Czechoslovakia. I made my first trip to Asia in 1981. Since then, I've been to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Seoul (with a quick trip up to the DMZ), Singapore a couple of times, Hong Kong at least a half dozen times, Bangkok at least a half dozen times, Chiang Mai, Vietnam, Nepal twice, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji; Delhi for a day, China in 1983, just as it was opening up to the West. Just a wonderful trip. Almost a month, including a downstream Yangtze River cruise. I think that's all. Oh, yes, Mexico a few times, and Canada, but Canada has really only been business. I used to go to the Toronto Film Festival."

"Most of my U.S. travel has been for business as well. I used to go to New York 10 or 12 times a year, and I also frequented Chicago, and Washington D.C.; Minneapolis, Miami and St. Louis were also for business. On vacation, I can remember driving to Yellowstone and through Colorado when we were kids. Also San Francisco, San Diego, and Santa Barbara."

Without question, however, Asia remains Jacquelin Sonderling's favorite destination...and all it took was one trip. "When I came back, a friend asked me how the trip was, and while I searched for the right words, she looked at me and said, 'Ah, you lost your soul to the Orient! You won't be happy until you return!' Truer words were never spoken!"

When asked how travel has changed her, memories of Asia came immediately to Jacquelin's mind. "The first time travel really had an impact on me was on my trip to China. We were somewhere along the Yangtze. We'd made a stop at a school, where the kids had danced and sang for us. Then we were taken to some local housing and visited the apartment of a young couple whose daughter we'd seen that morning. Their apartment was two rooms - a living room/bedroom and a kitchen. They paid a few cents a month for rent, both worked in the local factory, and they were extremely proud of the boom box they'd saved up $40 to buy (a fortune!). The woman and I were about the same age - probably about 30. As I sat there, I realized her life was set. She was doing what she would do until she died or was old enough to retire. Period. I, on the other hand, had nothing but choice in my life. If I chose to give up everything and live the life she had - I could do it. If I decided to make a career change - I could do it. The world was open for me - but not for her. And I remember driving down a street when I returned home, thinking about how much we have here - and don't even realize it."

"Really, every time I go to a new country, or a different part of a country I've visited, I experience something new and take away something else. Nepal has also had an impact - especially this last time. We were having dinner in our lodge in Lonasa, talking about how we felt as if we'd stepped back 200 years in time. No plumbing. No heating. A single (really bad) light bulb. Hydroelectric power is plentiful in Nepal, but life is very hard. No cell phones, no computers, no television. Although farther along the trail, I heard a porter listening to what sounded like a transistor radio! Another trekker said yes, her porter was listening to one too. I have no idea where it was broadcasting from!"

These days, however, in lieu of her globetrotting lifestyle, Jacquelin is working as a freelance writer and producer, while enjoying a spate of domestic bliss at her home in California's Hollywood Hills with her two Shetland Sheepdogs Devon and Teddy.

"I've got a wonderful open, airy house with lots of light and all the late afternoon sun. I end up doing most of my work at my laptop in the kitchen - partly because I love the kitchen (I love cooking!) and partly because it's a much friendlier room than my office. It's just a very comfortable kitchen. I have a small but nice back yard, which finally, after six years here, is starting to look good! I love working in my garden, trimming, planting, and picking. I've been planting steadily for the last five years and things are finally growing in. Lots of flowers - roses, gladiolas, tulips, irises, and bougainvillea."

And while Jacquelin is between adventures, she travels vicariously by way of her palate. "A good friend of mine and I like nothing better than finding new little places to eat - where we're the only non-Asian folks and you feel more like you're sitting in a foreign country than in Los Angeles! And since I spent so much time traveling and working on weekends, now I'm spending as much time as I can renewing a lot of old friendships, people I haven't seen in sometimes years."

"And I love to cook. No surprise, most of what I do is Asian. Cooking, to me, is like meditation. After my first trip to Nepal, I stocked up on spices so I could learn about Indian, Nepali and Tibetan cooking. I've taken Thai classes. And I prowl the ethnic markets rather than the big grocery chains." Amazingly, Jacquelin even finds time to bake special cookies for her dogs. "I know," she says. "That makes me sound like some weirdo, but it's fun. And I give them to my friends for their dogs - everyone loves it - two and four-footed!"

But just how long will this stay-put lifestyle continue for Jacquelin? "Right now, I'm figuring out how to make everything I love come together," she says. "I'm passionate about travel, food, exploring new cultures and new places. I'm passionate about adventures. That's what I love so much - exploring cultures that are different from mine and meeting people who are different from me and from anyone I know."

That said, no doubt, it's only a matter of time before Jacquelin dusts off her passport and hits the road again. Bali seems to beckon this time. But while she's making up her mind, Jacquelin Sonderling has these words of wisdom for those travelers who are already headed off into the wide world of experiences and flavors: "Don't be afraid to get out there and really feel what it's like. Just let yourself go and experience it, because if you don't, then what's the point?"

"And, by the way," she adds. "While you're there, don't forget to stop and pet the dogs."