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a southern yankee abroad

Month

March 2016

Touched Down in the Land of the Delta Blues: My Memphis Highlights

Memphis is second to none when it comes to boasting a rich tradition in music, culture, and history. The city, immortalized by Marc Cohn’s classic song “Walking in Memphis” (yes, I love this song and I’m not ashamed!), is probably most famous in pop culture for being the home base for musicians such as B.B. King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Justin Timberlake. I love Memphis because it never pretends to be something it’s not—it’s a city as authentic as the sounds that come from it. Although I moved away a few years ago, Memphis still feels like home to me, and the two years I spent there teaching high school were life-changing. One plus of my family’s recent move from Alabama to Tupelo, MS, is that I can visit Memphis even more frequently (Tupelo is an hour from Memphis!). Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite Memphis highlights.426709_10200402062906670_1149355756_n

  1. 398936_3509378325686_890617298_nVisit the Orange Mound neighborhood. Located south of Southern Avenue and east of Lamar Avenue, Orange Mound is the oldest community in the south founded by African Americans, and the second largest in US history (behind Harlem in NYC).
    While the neighborhood has had its challenges with poverty and crime, the tradition and strength of community is tremendously strong. As a teacher at Melrose (Orange Mound’s only high school) for two years, I was honored to get to know and work with so many of the teachers and community members who make Melrose and Orange Mound so special. Melrose has produced a number of famed athletes, such as Olympian Rochelle Stevens and basketball legend Larry Finch, as well as entrepreneurs such as the Neely family and academics such as Alvin Crawford, an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disease and Lawrence Madlock, medical director at the UT Medical Center. I recommend a visit to the old Melrose High School, which is designated as a historic landmark. If you are around on a Friday night, nothing beats a Melrose Golden Wildcats home football game! A great documentary about Orange Mound came out a few years ago, and you can watch it here.
  2. Go for a run through Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River. The views of the city and the river are stunning. In particular, the view going downhill from Riverside Drive at the south of the park is my favorite! You will be treated to this view if you run in the St. Jude marathon or half-marathon, as it’s included in the route. Apart from this hill, the route is relatively flat, so it’s good for your knees! Be sure to notice the statue that honors Tom Lee, the river worker who saved 32 passengers when their steamboat sunk in the river in 1925.

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    I was so excited to round this corner while running the St. Jude’s marathon last December–the view is much better in person!
  3. Spend a night on Beale Street. Whatever your taste in music is, Beale Street has it and does it well. That being said, the blues rule here. My favorite blues spot on Beale Street is the Rum Boogie Café’s Blues Hall. If clubbing is more your style, Club 152 offers the closest thing to a “club” on Beale, and it’s a lot of fun! Visit Silky O’Sullivan’s for dueling pianos, a “beer drinking goat,” and an outdoor band, and visit one of a few karaoke bars along Beale if you’re inspired to start performing on your own. Drinks are cheap, and you’re allowed to carry your drink in a plastic container outside along the street (visit Wet Willie’s if you want a to-go slushie with a punch!)
  4. 577219_3423660262788_1045711115_nCheer on the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. I really think the Grizzlies are a microcosm of the city itself. The mottos “Memphis v. Errbody” and “Grit and Grind” personify both the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis—both are often considered underdogs, yet both win, even if the process of winning is not always pretty. The Memphis community really gets behind the Grizzlies, and this is beyond evident when you attend a game at the Forum. The atmosphere at a Memphis Grizzlies game is electric! No offense to the NY Knicks or Nets, but those game atmospheres do not hold a candle to the atmosphere at a Grizzlies game! In fact, whenever I’ve attended a Grizzlies game since moving to NYC, it is always easy to spot the other Grizzlies fans, as we are always the most excited, cheering the loudest, and decked out in Grizzlies blue! The Grizzlies have been crushing it recently, and have made the playoffs each year for the past 5 years. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.
  5. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The museum has preserved his room exactly as it was that day, which was the day after his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. It is incredibly moving to not only view this room as he lived in it during his last few minutes on Earth, but to learn about the long history of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the ongoing struggle (you can read here about how Memphis educators are succeeding in closing the achievement gap). The museum has a special focus on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which brought Dr. King to the city in 1968. I have visited the museum twice, but not since it was renovated in 2013. The museum is a must-visit for any first-time visit to Memphis.
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    Raiford’s will turn anyone into a disco queen!

    Get into the music. Memphis is a music lover’s mecca. Of course, there’s Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Several of his wild outfits, cars, and guitars are on display, as well as his platinum and gold records. My favorite is the jungle room—you just have to see it to believe it! I also highly recommend the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has a replica of the dance floor used on Soul Train! You can also visit Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded hits. To actually live the music of Memphis for yourself outside of a museum, you have to go to Paula & Raiford’s disco on Second Street (just off Beale). The club is a true disco, where you can dance the night away on a light-up dance floor, relax on red leather sofas, or even play on a drum set. Mr. Raiford will be in a sequined cloak spinning all of the best 80’s and 90’s songs!31919_4870696197782_1000994998_n

  7. Visit the Peabody ducks. An esteemed Memphis tradition, the feathered residents of the swank Peabody Hotel march to and from their day job (swimming in the lobby fountain) each day at 11am and 5pm, respectively. The march is always closely monitored by the honorable Duckmaster. If you happen to miss the ducks’ march, you can visit their sweet penthouse home on the roof. I also recommend having a cocktail in the lobby and enjoying the people (and duck!) watching.

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    The ducks are preparing for their 5pm exit in front of the crowd!

8. Eat some BBQ! It probably goes without even mentioning, but Memphis has the best BBQ there is. Period. My personal favorites are Central BBQ (both on Central Ave and downtown), the BBQ Shop on Madison, and Interstate BBQ. If you’re flying through the Memphis airport, you have to stop by the Interstate BBQ shop in Terminal B, even if it’s not lunch or dinnertime (they serve amazing Southern-style breakfast biscuits and delicious coffee!)  If you’re vegetarian, please disregard…but I guarantee you will find some delicious meat-free “fixins” to indulge in at any of these places!

This is just a short list of the things I find most special about Memphis. There really is so much more that makes this city so amazing. Do you have any other recommendations?

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Parlez-vous Français? Learning Languages, Calculating Currencies, and Other Tips

One of the most exciting parts about traveling abroad is the unknown and the unfamiliar—being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, using money you don’t know the value of, and finding your way around a brand new place where your recognize nothing. To make the unknown more exciting and less distressing, it helps to do a little homework ahead of time. Although it’s impossible to prepare for every “unknown” you will encounter along the way, doing some preparation beforehand will build confidence for the solo or first-time traveler, more than anything. Below are some of my basic tips for preparing to encounter the unfamiliar during a trip abroad.IMG_6667 (2)

Learn a few basics of the local language. Several readers have already asked me how I travel solo to countries where English is not spoken. The truth is, most people know some amount of English in most places you may be traveling. However, it helps to learn some language basics of the country you’re traveling to in advance, keeping in mind you will also learn a good bit once you actually arrive (thank you, Joslin, for teaching me “how to flirt” in Afrikaans!)

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Apparently, Duolingo thinks this phrase will be useful to me during my travels!

For my travels this summer, I have decided to focus most of my preparation on learning French, since I will be spending a relatively large amount of time in and around Paris. From what I’ve heard, the people there are less likely to choose to speak English and expect you to get on their level and speak French primarily! I recommend the Duolingo app for your smartphone (free in the App store). Duolingo will quiz you simultaneously on vocabulary, verb conjugation, and common phrases by using matching exercises, bi-directional translation exercises, and microphone recording. The app will also send you push notifications and emails to remind you to stay regular on your practice. (If you fail to practice regularly, the app will even send a very sad message that says, “We see these notifications aren’t working, so we’re going to stop sending them…” 😦 )

As for the other countries I am visiting, I plan to rely on the very basic skills I still have left from Spanish courses in college, as well as an Eastern European language phrasebook and Southeast Asia dictionary. As a last resort, I also plan to carry this picture dictionary, although I plan to avoid using it at all costs! (I feel like this screams “tourist,” but let’s be real…I am a tourist. And it is best to be prepared!). My goal is to come away from each country with at least a few solid phrases and expressions I can use the rest of my life!

Practice your mental math to calculate currencies. When planning a trip abroad, it’s important to keep an eye on exchange rates. During my time working in foreign exchange, I paid attention to exchange rates down to the pip/half-pip. However, it’s important to only know general “ballpark” rates to be able to calculate exchange rates in your head. Depending on where you are traveling, one of the most important rates you need to learn is the EUR/USD rate. For the last year, EUR/USD has been in the +/- 1.10 range, meaning 1 euro has been worth about 1.10 US dollars. This means Europe is a slightly “more expensive” place to spend money than the US. Despite this value difference, now is a great time for Americans to travel to Europe, as the US dollar is the strongest it has been since being at parity with the Euro in the early 2000s!

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EUR vs. USD exchange rate since the inception of the Euro in 1999. Source: ECB

To calculate prices, I know that the cost of something in euros is really that plus around 10% in US dollars (just move the decimal place over once to get 10%), or the price in euros x 1.10. (For example, something that costs me 2 euros really costs me roughly $2.20, something that costs 45 euros really costs me roughly 45 + 4.5, or $49.50, etc.)

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It’s not as bad as it seems!

It is important to realize that the Euro is the “base” currency against USD, and the same is true for the British pound, Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar. However, for most currency crosses, the US dollar will be the base currency. This means that when my hostel reservation in Budapest costs me 4,800 Hungarian forints per night, I only owe $17 per night (1 USD is worth approximately 280 HUF, so I divide 4,800 by 280 to get ~$17/night. Very reasonable!)

(Note to my former math students who may be reading this–see how useful math can be!?)

For those of you without an FX background or who would like to simply double-check your currency conversions, I recommend the free Oanda Currency Converter smartphone app. I will be keeping this on my phone, and referencing as needed!

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The NYCMate app. Check the app store for similar free apps for any cities you plan to visit!

 Use maps on apps! Living in NYC has instilled me with a deep love of and appreciation for public transportation. I have had the NYCMate app on my iPhone since day #1 of living in the city, and I am now seeking out similar apps for cities where I plan to use public transportation a good bit. So far, I’ve been able to find similar apps for the metro systems in Paris, Berlin, London, and Munich. Of course, it’s always good to have old-fashioned paper maps on hand for when/if your smartphone runs out of battery (gasp!). Most hostels provide maps of the city for free.

 

 

 

What do you mean it is 45 degrees?! After riding for 4 hours under the scorching African summer sun and drinking ~2 liters of water to stay hydrated, imagine my surprise when my safari guide told me it was 45 degrees! I knew he was, of course, giving the temperature in Celsius. However, measuring temperature on the Fahrenheit scale my entire life means I need to do an extra calculation in my head when discussing temperatures in every other part of the world (just 5 countries measure temperature in Fahrenheit!)

The equation for the conversion is F= C*1.8 + 32 (Former math students who are still reading–this is your standard y=mx+b equation!)

However, the shortcut is just to multiply the Celsius temperature by 2 to approximate the Fahrenheit temperature.

Until my next post, totsiens! Or goodbye (in Afrikaans)!

You’re the Only Ten I See: Memphis vs. Nashville

Separated by 200 miles of farmland, rolling hills, and interstate, the cities of Memphis and Nashville coexist as the two largest cities in the state of Tennessee. Like rival siblings, the two cities have stark differences in character and appearance, yet won’t admit to just how similar they really are. Both seem to always vie for the spotlight as Tennessee’s best travel destination. I spent 4 years living in Nashville during my undergraduate years at Vanderbilt, and then 2 years living in Memphis immediately following graduation while working with Teach For America. As a result, friends and family often ask me, “Which city did you like the best—Nashville or Memphis?”

Nashville and Memphis, a battle for the ages.   

What a tricky question! Both cities have amazing and unique experiences to offer, and I loved my time in both cities. Nashville is glitz and glamour—they don’t call it “Nashvegas” and “Cashville” for nothing. Memphis, on the other hand, is grit and grind in a way that is just as inviting, if not more so, than Nashville. Nashville is about flashing lights advertising platinum-selling legendary artists at sold-out arenas as well as up-and-coming artists playing cover on Broadway. Memphis is about the sign (that’s maybe missing a few lights…) on the street corner promising you the best live blues music you’ve ever heard, and then following through on that promise. Nashville has Broadway, featuring a bar with a mechanical bull; Memphis has Beale Street, featuring a bar with a “beer drinking” goat. Nashville will get your adrenaline pumping and your boots stomping; Memphis will invite you to kick back and drift along with the rhythm of the blues.

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A night out on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee
Above: A random night at “Mount Richmore,” the former home of John Rich from Big & Rich. He had an awesome rooftop pool! This evening was a very “Nashvegas”-like experience.

So when I answer my friends and family, I tell them that there were things about both cities I absolutely loved while living there, and it is difficult to compare two cities (although in the same state) with such different vibes. I then conclude that I am more #TeamMemphis than #TeamNashville, for the simple reason that my experience teaching high school in Memphis connected me to the city and the people there in ways that I never felt connected in Nashville. That being said, please visit both cities if you can!

My next few posts will highlight some of my favorite things to do, see, eat, and drink in each city. In the meantime, let the battle continue…Nashville vs. Memphis! I think they both win.

Beauty Tips for the Female Backpacker

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Because we don’t all “wake up like this,” Beyonce!

Living out of a backpack for an extended period of time presents a special challenge for the beauty-conscious traveler. Below, I’ve listed a few tips to keep yourself looking great so you can focus on the beauty around you while exploring!

 

  1. Just mascara, lipstick, and a bronzer/blush go a long way. Depending on your destination, you may find it is easier to wear no makeup at all (I often have!). However, it is always nice to have a few staples on hand for those nights you want to doll up. When you have to pack everything you need for a few months in a backpack, space is very limited. Pick out the 2-3 essentials you truly depend on from your makeup kit, and leave the rest at home. For me, this is mascara, lipstick, and bronzer.
  2. If you straighten your hair regularly, consider getting a Brazilian keratin treatment. If you have hard to manage hair that reacts unpredictably to humidity (like me!), a Brazilian keratin treatment from a salon will do wonders. For me, the treatment completely eliminates the need for a blowdryer and straightener. Post-treatment, my hair air-dries in half the time and maintains a manageable texture, eliminating the need for a straightener! This is extremely helpful, considering space in my backpack is limited and a blowdryer and straightener would take up a good amount of room. Also, being able to shower and go without worrying about my hair saves so much time on the road, leaving more time for visiting with fellow adventurers and sightseeing! The treatment can be a bit on the pricey end (ranging from $80 to $300), but lasts for 3-6 months. Make sure you only use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner to make it last longer. I like the Organix and Aveeno brands, often available in travel sizes at drugstores.
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    Wet hair, don’t care! Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

     

  3. If you must pack a straightener, purchase a mini-straightener. This will save a good bit of space! While I am not packing this for my summer travels, I love my trusty Mini Flat Iron from Sephora. If you absolutely cannot live without it, this tool will save a lot of room while packing.
  4. Dry shampoo and baby powder work miracles. In case you don’t have time to wash your hair between exploring all day and going out in the evening, a dry shampoo will add volume to your hair and give it a fresh look. I recommend Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak Dry Shampoo in an airline-approved travel size (pack a few cans!). This is available at most drugstores. Old-fashioned Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder applied at your roots provides the same benefits at a cheaper price.
  5. Use sunscreen with a minimum SPF 50. Even if you “don’t burn” (which is usually my case…until it isn’t!), you will when you’re exploring non-stop in the sun from dawn to dusk. I recommend Coppertone Sport in a travel size, which is waterproof (pack a few!). I prefer a lotion to a spray, as a spray can leave unsightly streaks if you are not extra careful when applying.

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    The “bushman’s soap” (found in the bush of southern Africa) will provide instant soothing and healing to a severe sunburn. All you have to do is find the Devil’s Thorn plant in the bush and apply water!
  6. Pack a hat or two, as well as a Buff. Hats are great for keeping the sun off of your face and your hair in place in all weather conditions. I always pack a trusty baseball cap, a straw brimmed hat, and a Buff. A Buff is a convertible headband/bandana piece, and it’s great because you can wear it so many different ways! They also come in a variety of colors and patterns. I always keep one tied to my backpack just in case I need to get my hair under control at any given moment.
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I also highly recommend purchasing matching hats with your friends you make while traveling when possible!

7. Just let go and embrace the natural! I am someone who enjoys consistently wearing makeup in my regular everyday life. It makes me feel ladylike and put-together. As my grandmother says, if the barn needs painting, paint it! However, part of the beauty of traveling is just going with the flow. While in Africa, I did not wear makeup at all until the very end of the trip (and only because it was Christmas night, and we celebrated by dressing up and having a braai!) Not wearing makeup was truly a liberating experience, and I feel like I grew more comfortable in my own skin as a result. Stay focused on the experience, and your inner glow will provide all the beautification you need!

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Embracing the makeup-free life while hiking in the beautiful Matopos, Zimbabwe!

 

How Affordable is Traveling Abroad?

 

10338680_10206454388371024_8528537077188326176_o“Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.”

I could not agree more with this statement. Travel (along with education) is the most important investment you can make in your personal development.

But, let’s be real. Traveling is expensive. Once you decide to travel abroad, it helps to have a game plan in place to make the trip a reality. You do not have to have a trust fund or win the lottery to see the world! With some research, extra attention to spending habits, and patience, the world will be yours to see. Below are some of the tips and advice I’ve found to be helpful in the process.

Save, save, save! Once you decide upon a trip abroad as a goal, pay yourself to go. What do I mean? Take a close look at your budget (fixed costs v. discretionary spending). What can you live without? It is really as simple as deciding you can live without certain things, and setting the money you would otherwise spend aside. For example, as soon as I got back from Africa, I was so inspired to save money to travel more that I cut off my cable!

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There was no cable available in my tent in Africa, and I found out I was very happy to live without it!

Websites like Mint can even help you set savings goals for vacations, and track your contributions on a regular basis. Also, most tour companies like EF Tours and G Adventures will let you make payments on the cost of your trip starting several months in advance, instead of paying the amount in full. Once you decide to travel, treat the saving process like paying bills (except this is a fun bill that actually gives back to you!). Remember, tours are all-inclusive (sometimes even including flights to and from), so this can be helpful if you want to work with a hard figure for your savings plan.

If you’re in college, study abroad! Often, financial aid packages will cover the costs of tuition and room and board expenses for study abroad, and living in a foreign country can be equal to (if you’re careful) or less than living in the US. My one regret from college was not pursuing a study abroad opportunity. All my friends who did it says it was a life-changing experience. At least visit the travel abroad office to investigate your options. It never hurts to ask!

Be on the lookout for flight deals. Flying is not as expensive as you’d think it might be! The growth of low-cost airlines has been a boon for budget-minded travelers, especially in Europe where they’ve been around a while.

I use Kayak to search for flight deals. It is a “metasearch” engine that searches for good deals across multiple search engines, so it’s better than just using Expedia or Priceline. It also includes a lot of deals from low cost airline providers.  You are more likely to find a good deal on a flight if you can be flexible with your schedule (I recommend using the “flexible dates” function to compare prices across a range of workable departure and return dates). I also really like using Skypicker. Often, their results will show up in a Kayak search, but sometimes I like cross-checking against their website just in case (just be careful, because all Skypicker sales are final!)

For my upcoming long-term summer travel, I’ve managed to lock in my intercontinental flights (US to Asia to South America to Europe to US) for a much cheaper rate using Kayak/Skypicker than I found when searching for an around the world (“RTW”) flight ticket. However, this type of ticket may be sensible for you if you have a firm schedule for long-term travel. I highly recommend doing your research on Kayak and comparing it to RTW ticket prices you find on Airtreks.

Tip: I have no idea if it is true or if it is just me being superstitious, but I always search Kayak in “incognito mode” on Google Chrome, so as not to inflate prices on multiple searches. Maybe it is me being silly…but passing along, just in case!

Be as flexible as possible. As mentioned above, be flexible with your dates as much as you can be when searching flights by departure and return date (for example, it is often cheaper to leave on a Wednesday than a Friday). Also, be flexible with your airport of departure if you can. For example, searching a round trip ticket from Atlanta to London yields a price $910, while searching a round trip ticket from Birmingham, AL to London shows a price of $1,625…big difference!

Track “small” expenses. Something as basic as your passport will cost you $30, which is important to keep in mind as these small but critical expenses add up. Some countries will charge you for a visa to enter (anywhere from 35 USD for Zimbabwe to 80 USD for Vietnam to 135 USD for Bolivia), but many if not all European countries and some South American countries will grant US citizens a free visa for a period of time, usually less than 90 days.

Try to avoid foreign transaction fees and currency exchange rates. Keep an eye on foreign transaction fees as you book transportation and accommodation overseas in advance, as well as when you use your credit card abroad. It is best to try to open a checking account with Charles Schwab (reimburses ATM fees) or obtain a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as a Chase Sapphire or Capital One card. Bank of America charges a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase made outside of the U.S. or Mexico…ouch! Try to use ATMs instead of currency exchange kiosks once abroad, as they will charge you exorbitant rates. You can usually order currencies from your bank ahead of your departure for a much lower rate.

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Beware of foreign transaction fees and currency exchange kiosks!

Stay in hostels. This advice is especially true if you’re young and single (yeah!), but I’ve also found some family-friendly hostels in my search process. Hostels provide dorm-like conditions for the budget-minded traveler at costs as low as $8/night (this is what I am paying each night in Chiang Mai before I meet with my tour group in Bangkok). The trick is to make sure you reserve a hostel with a reputation for being clean and safe, as well as one that provides extra perks like free wifi, free breakfast, and a washing machine. I used Hostelword as well as word of mouth from friends when planning my hostel stays for this summer. Hostelworld features good, detailed reviews for each hostel. I also like their “flexible booking” system, meaning you can pay an extra $1 to receive a credit back on your deposit to use for another reservation should you cancel or change your reservation. This has proven very handy, as my plans have already fluctuated multiple times even a few months out!

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The Man in Seat 61…he’s awesome!

Research the train system. I’m actually very excited for this tip, as I have yet to master the rail system in Europe (I’ve heard it’s great though!). While I am using low-cost airlines for some travel within Europe, I will be using the train for much of my travels. I recommend crunching the numbers to see if it is more cost-effective for you to buy a Eurail pass, or just buy tickets as you go. For me, I will just be buying tickets as I go along. The point is…don’t assume a “pass” is the cheapest option! Visit The Man in Seat 61 for awesome advice regarding train travel.

Enjoy and appreciate destinations closer to home. In the meantime, enjoy your home and the surrounding area as a destination! I’ve met plenty of people on my travels who have never visited the US, so take time to appreciate what is unique about the place around you. When it comes down to it, we all live in and are from a great travel destination…so own it!

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I love being a tourist wherever I live! This shot is from Memphis, Tennessee when I lived there a few years ago.

I hope my tips have helped you realize traveling can become a reality with some planning ahead. Do you have any additional tips or questions about saving money to travel abroad?

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A riverboat on the Zambezi in Zambia, which reminded me of Memphis!

 

Johannesburg, South Africa: The Somber History of Apartheid

1404816_10206454516374224_4149021129424623718_oMy visit to South Africa last December included a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I went in with a general understanding of apartheid as a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa in the late 20th century, mostly gleaned from brief overviews in a high school history class. However, I quickly realized how much more there was to learn from this painful chapter in history. The Apartheid Museum serves as a reminder that the struggle for equality still exists, in South Africa and around the world.

Below are a few facts I learned for the first time during the visit.

-Apartheid permeated every detail of a person’s existence. Each citizen was legally classified as white, black, Indian, or “coloured,” and was required to carry an identification card denoting this. This classification affected details as small as what alcohol you were allowed to drink (black people had to drink the lower quality “Bantu beer” as mandated by the government) and as big as where you could live (3.5 million black South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods over the course of 2 decades).

-Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa early in his life, and was a victim of the discrimination that served as a precursor to the apartheid system. In 1893, Gandhi purchased a first-class ticket for a train traveling from Pretoria. A white passenger complained about sharing the car with Gandhi, and Gandhi was forcibly removed after refusing to move to third-class. Gandhi became active in fighting discrimination in South Africa, and called this incident among the most important in his political career. Gandhi continued his work in South Africa until 1914, when he returned to India as Mahatma, meaning “a great soul.”

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Gandhi as a young lawyer in Johannesburg, c. 1905

-The Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw schoolchildren, some as young as 13, come together to protest inequality in the education system. Essentially, the government led by the pro-apartheid National Party passed a law mandating all children be educated in the Afrikaans language. However, black South Africans spoke English. As Desmond Tutu said at the time, black South Africans viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor.” Can you imagine going to school and trying to learn math, history, and language in a language that was completely foreign to you, in your home country? This was exactly the problem faced by black South African students and teachers, who were now forced by law to communicate in Afrikaans only with English-speaking students. (It probably goes without mentioning, but the schools themselves were completely segregated along racial lines, and the black schools received much less funding.)

The students stood up for their right to an equal education. On June 16, 1976, 20,000 students and protesters marched in the streets and were met with violent backlash from the South African military, who used machine guns, dogs, and stoning to attack. It is estimated up to 700 protesters died during the uprising. June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, to honor the memory of these protesters.

As a former teacher of high school students, learning about the Soweto uprising shook me at my core. What are we doing in the US to fight for all students to have an excellent education? How are we empowering youth to stand up for their rights without fear of repercussion?

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Schoolchildren protest oppression in education, Soweto Youth Uprising, 1976

-The “toyi toyi” dance/military march was adopted as a symbol of protest and unity among black South Africans after the 1976 massacre. The museum had several very moving video clips of the toyi toyi used in protest. I’ve included one from You Tube below. Although this is fake footage from a movie, it can give you an idea how powerful it was to see actual video footage of this.

Toyi Toyi as protest to apartheid in South Africa

-Nelson Mandela was released as a political prisoner on February 11, 1990 after 27 years of confinement, much of it in solitary confinement. While this is a pretty widely known fact, it still blew my mind to be reminded that this happened during my lifetime (I was 8 months old and in diapers when he was released!).

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The South African flag was redesigned and adopted in 1994 to represent unity in a post-apartheid era.

-My tour included a visit to the Soweto neighborhood (a syllabic acronym for Southwest Township), where hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forced to move after being forcibly removed from their original homes during apartheid. This is separate from the visit to the Apartheid Museum, but my hotel was able to arrange both tours and provide transportation. This neighborhood features the only street in the world with the addresses of two Nobel Peace Prize winners—Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

 

My visits to the Apartheid Museum and to the Soweto neighborhood were informative, inspiring, and humbling. I highly recommend the tours if you find yourself in Johannesburg.

 

To Tour or Not to Tour: Planning the First Solo Trip

 

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“Sailing ’round the world in a dirty gondola…” – The Band

Going abroad for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, if you have no one else who can travel with you at that time, it may be the only option you have. I have traveled alone on both trips to Italy and Africa. When I left the comfort and familiarity of NYC to board the flight to Italy alone almost 2 years ago, I was practically shaking with anxiety. However, as soon as I arrived in Rome, it took almost no time to realize that living independently in NYC for nearly 1 year had more than prepared me for the streets of Italy’s most fantastic cities!

If you are traveling abroad for the first time solo, meeting with a tour group may help alleviate some nervousness. However, depending on your destination, you may be able to self-plan your trip to cut costs and fit in more of what you want to see and do without having to cooperate with a strict group schedule.

For my first trip abroad to Italy, I was scheduled to meet up with a good friend I had taught high school with in Memphis, as well as one of her friends from college. My friend had arranged for the 3 of us to travel with EF Tours, with the majority of our group being from the Memphis area. I would fly solo from NYC to Rome to meet my friend and the group there. Given my lack of experience in foreign travel, I willingly agreed to this plan…at that time, I did not know the first thing about planning a trip in Italy! However, my friend had to drop out of the trip just a few days before our departure due to family circumstances, and I found myself traveling across Italy with a group of relative strangers. I grew to enjoy the company of the group, but often found myself splitting off to see more sights at my own pace.

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Climbing the Duomo in Florence, a solo feat! Not for the claustrophobic…

There were both pros and cons to using an organized tour company for my first solo trip:

Pros:

  • I knew I had a group waiting on me in Rome and expecting my arrival. This was reassuring, just in case the unforeseen happened!
  • Pre-arranged transport and accommodations between all the major cities on our agenda (Rome, Florence, Venice) as well as some less-visited towns (Assisi, Spoleto, Bologna) proved extremely convenient.
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Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi…a beautiful and moving visit I may not have made if I were traveling completely solo, since it’s a little off the beaten path! This painting spells “peace” in every language.
  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, meaning I was able to see a different side of Italy that was less touristy. For example, dancing with these nuns we stayed with outside of Venice was definitely a highlight of the trip! They also served very good wine. You can visit their website here.

Cons:

  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, so I felt like I had less time than I desired in places like Rome and Florence.
  • The tour ran on a very strict schedule! There was little time for wandering on my own (although, I sometimes created this for myself by splitting off from the group when I knew there was something else I wanted to see or do).
  • Once I got the hang of being in a foreign country after the first few days, I realized I could have planned the entire trip on my own, cut down on costs by staying in hostels and traveling by train, and seen more of the sights I wanted to see!
  • Most of the meals were pre-arranged, which was a real bummer. Although it was included in the tour price (wine was always extra though), this did not allow me the opportunity or freedom to explore as many restaurants as I wanted. I feel like I need to go back to Italy to experience more authentic dining!

All things considered, I still booked my trip to Africa last winter through a tour company. This time, I used G Adventures, based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks DJ!). Even though I was much more comfortable with the idea of solo travel at this point, G Adventures (contracted through Indaba Explorations) provided the overland vehicle for transport, camping equipment, and meals cooked over the campfire each night, making it a sensible decision. This time around, I actually thoroughly enjoyed being in a tour group—everyone was in the 23-35 age range, we had amazing local guides (shout out to Joslin and Francois!), and there was plenty of free time (when we weren’t on an organized safari of course). More on how much I loved my Africa travel group later 🙂

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On safari with new friends in Zimbabwe

This summer, I will be using G Adventures again as I travel through Southeast Asia. However, I will be backpacking in South America with a good friend from NYC, and taking on Europe completely solo for 7 weeks (I will share more on my itinerary later)!!

Have you ever used a tour group for solo travel? If so, what was your experience like?

Why Travel? Better Late than Never!

Hello, blogosphere! Thanks for taking the time to visit my page. I thought I’d write my inaugural post about my background and why traveling is so important to me at this stage in my life.

I did not leave the United States until I was 24 years old. I used to be so embarrassed of this fact, but I am certainly not anymore. In fact, I hope my story can inspire those of you out there who may be looking to travel abroad for the first time, but are just not sure where to start.

Since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I know every little kid wants to be an astronaut, but I was so serious about it! I read every book I could find about space and space travel, and used my telescope in the backyard on a regular basis. I even begged my parents for family trips to visit the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Cape Canaveral (thanks Mom and Dad)! In high school, I began to realize being an astronaut was not the most realistic of careers, and began to focus on other interests. However, I think the deep desire to explore and seek adventure stuck with me.

In my college years, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who were much more well-traveled than I was, and I began to feel ashamed of how little of the world I had seen. I definitely did not have the funds to start traveling then, and I certainly lacked the confidence as well. I thought I could only travel abroad if I had a companion, and the scheduling and funds never really lined up. So, I tabled my travel dreams for another few years.

I moved to NYC in 2013 to start a career in finance. The around-the-clock nature of my work did not leave me with much time to reflect and plan for a trip abroad. Also, I began dating someone soon after moving to the city, which took a lot of my time and focus (in a positive way!). Career, check! Boyfriend, check! Living in a fabulous city, check! Then, New Year’s Eve 2014 changed everything. My purse was stolen at a club in Soho. My driver’s license, along with my phone and credit cards, was gone. Panic ensued, as I was supposed to fly home to Alabama for a friend’s wedding the next week! My then-boyfriend pointed out, “Why don’t you just use your passport to get on the plane?” I broke down sobbing, and confessed, “I don’t own a passport!”

At that moment, my priorities shifted and my lifelong dream of adventure came into sharp relief. I knew it was time to travel abroad, even if it meant going alone and using a big chunk of savings. Within the next few weeks, I had applied for my passport and booked a trip to Italy. My then-boyfriend was in med school and could not go with me. However, I was finally confident enough to pursue my dream alone.

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My first morning abroad EVER! In Santa Marinella, Italy.

Since Italy, I have traveled in Africa and Mexico, and this summer I will be taking 3 months to travel through Southeast Asia, South America, and Europe. I hope to use this blog as a place to share my ups and downs, funny stories, and observations. I also hope to use it as a place to reflect. Lastly, I want to use this blog to encourage others to travel by sharing how I’ve overcome obstacles in my past to pursue this dream.

Before I leave in May, I’ll be sharing about past trips, both abroad and within the USA. I’ll also share about the planning and packing process. Please feel free to reach out via comments or email!

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