Don’t fear travel, fear NOT living

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A new year, new U.S .presidency, and new travel concerns.  It’s no secret 2017 has ushered in new and uncertain times.  A couple of weeks ago, when our president (yeah, I’m in still in shock too) issued the first travel ban against immigrants, many fellow travelers expressed concern and even panic.  With an upcoming trip to Cuba and Iceland, many people hit me up inquiring about my thoughts on traveling abroad.  Am I going to cancel?  Is it safe?  Am I afraid of experiencing any anti-American sentiment when traveling abroad?  Well, yes and no.  There will always be a fear that something could happen when I crossover into international territory, but it’s no greater than the fear I experience when I drive to work every day.  Looking at the data and statistics, I probably have a greater chance of being killed in a mass shooting at my local shopping mall or movie theater, than being killed in a terrorist attack abroad.  So what will I do?  How will I proceed?  I plan to do exactly what I’ve always done:  be aware, stay informed, and practice common sense.   While others are hesitant, I plan to continue to live. And there is absolutely no judgment towards those that choose to pull back on their travel experiences.  At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for you and your comfort level.  Hopefully, the following tips can help guide you in your decision making and ease your fears when it comes to traveling abroad.

1. Enroll in the STEP program

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The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  As a participant, you can receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, allowing you make informed decisions about your travel plans.  Participation can also help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency. And you can also help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

2. Travel alerts/warnings

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The U.S. State Department issues travel warning and alerts and updates information on their website regularly.  This site is helpful in guiding your destination choices.  A travel warning is often long term and in place until the situation resolves itself. A travel warning can include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks.  A travel alert is short term and usually related to an election season or a health alert, such as an influenza outbreak.

3. Turn off the Television

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Stay informed, but don’t become obsessed.  I am a firm believer that the very thing we focus on the most shapes our reality. Constantly watching the same negative news reports over and over again only reinforces the very thing you want to avoid.  It incites and fuels fear.   If I governed my life based on the news, I’d never leave my house…and I’m just talking about the “local” news.  Be aware of what’s going on around you, but don’t let it overwhelm you or take hostage of your life. There is always the risk that something can happen.  It can happen abroad or right in your own back yard. Life is risky, live anyway.

3. Communicate/Check-In

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Communicate your travel plans to your family.  Provide them with a copy of your itinerary, flight/lodging information, excursion information, and copy of your passport.  While I’m a proponent of remaining unplugged and disconnected when traveling, it’s a good a do to check-ins, through social media.  If something happens, your loved ones will have a time line and information on your last known location.

4. Roadtrips/Domestic travel

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If you’ve decided that traveling abroad isn’t for you right now, it doesn’t mean you have to stay grounded. There are a plethora of things you can do right here on U.S. soil.  Take a road trip and visit some of those landmarks that remain unchecked on your bucket list.  Spend a weekend in New York and catch a Broadway play. Consider catching a flight deal and attending a music or film festival in a city you’ve never been visited before.  The possibilities really are endless.  Last summer, I launched the Tourist in My Town campaign.  This campaign provides tips on how to take advantage of the tourism opportunities right in your own backyard. If you didn’t participate last summer, this is the perfect time to put it into practice.

Safe travels and wishing you the best in 2017!

 

@urbantravelista 

Urbantravelista | Do you value experiences or things?

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When I was in high school, I had two opportunities to travel abroad. The first opportunity was a trip to Paris with my French class during my freshman year. And, the other opportunity was a bus trip to Canada with my band during my junior year. Both trips would’ve been great opportunities for a black teen whose family didn’t even own a passport. During that time, my travels never extended anywhere beyond visiting relatives in Michigan or my birthplace in Arkansas. My parents supported my decision to go. So why didn’t I go? Well, both trips took place around Christmas break. And like most teenagers, I looked forward to getting Christmas gifts. But my family was far from the Huxtables.  I mean, my parents were (and still are) very awesome and loving.  But like most parents, they couldn’t accommodate both my desire to travel AND provide me with the gifts I wanted for Christmas. So they gave me a choice: I could take the trip in lieu of Christmas gifts or have a decked out Christmas and skip the trip. Being the teenager that I was, I took the latter. I have my whole life to go to Paris, right? I have my eternity to go to Canada, it’s not the far away?

Well, that was almost 30 years ago. And guess what? I still haven’t been to Paris or Canada.  I mean, I’ve been to some pretty dope places, but this reflection reminds me of how even as adults, we often value “things” over experiences.  I don’t even remember what I received for Christmas those years I declined the trips. I can’t tell you what clothes I received or how long I had them. Those material things are all gone. They didn’t last.

I did start to travel about 5 years ago. And I’ve come to learn that my travels and experiences hold so much more value. I can’t tell you what I got for Christmas in 2012. But I can tell you about the adrenaline rush I got when I went zip lining in the jungles of the Dominican. I can’t recall my summer wardrobe from 2013, but I can recall the magnificence of stepping in the Caribbean sea for the first time in Aruba, as if it happened 5 minutes ago. I don’t even know if I still have the pair of gloves I purchased last fall or what they even look like. But I do remember the freedom and liberation of taking my first solo trip to Cancun and trekking the Mayan ruins last October.

Looking back, I regret not choosing the travel opportunities extended to me when I was in high school. Those experiences would’ve lasted a lifetime. I have finally reached a place in my life where experience trumps everything.  I would gladly take an opportunity to visit Spain over a designer handbag or uncomfortable pair of Louboutin heels any day. And I think it all started with that first passport stamp back in 2012. Since that time, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve had to downsize and even rebuild. But through it all, I’ve come to know that the world can strip you everything. But your experiences…your experiences will last a lifetime. They will be with you when you’re old and gray on your death bed.

So the take away it this: Possessions aren’t loyal. They eventually break, tear, or leave. Most of the overpriced junk we buy doesn’t retain value. But experiences…they will ride with you until the very end.  Experience over things…always!

@urbantravelista

 

 

I love the Blue Lagoon

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Back in April, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most serene and terrestrial places on planet: the Blue Lagoon.  So what exactly is this place?  Well for me, it’s one of those dope places that you see on the Travel or Discovery Channel, but never think you will actually ever visit.  But in reality, it’s geothermal spa and happens to be one of Iceland’s most visited attractions. Simply put, if you visit Iceland without making a stop at the Blue Lagoon, you’re doing it wrong.  The lagoon is man-made and located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula.  So how did the lagoon come into existence? Well, in 1976 a pool formed at the site from the waste water of the geothermal power plant that had just been built there. A few years later, people started bathing in it after its purported healing powers were popularized. In 1992, the Blue Lagoon company was established and the bathing facility was opened for the public for tourism.

Getting there

The awesome thing about the Blue Lagoon is that shuttles run regularly between Keflavik airport, the spa, and the hotels in Reykjavik. The spa is about a 20-minute drive from the airport and a 50-minute drive from Reykjavík.  This is helpful for those who have an early arrival into Keflavik, but can’t check into their hotel until the late afternoon. For example, my flight arrived at 6am, but check-in for my hotel didn’t start until after 2pm. So, instead of stressing out about how I would spend the next 8 hours consuming my time, I arranged for my shuttle to drop me off at the Blue Lagoon and took a shuttle directly my hotel in Reykjavik when I was done. What a nice way to unwind after a 6 hour flight?

Check-in

If you’re arriving from the airport (or doing a stopover before heading back to the airport…many tourists do this as well), the spa will check your luggage for a nominal charge. The Blue Lagoon offers four standard base packages: standard, comfort, premium, and luxury.  These packages increase in price and amenities. After selecting your package, you’re given an electronic wristband, which is scanned to add al a carte items such as spa treatments, drinks, lunch, etc. The wristband is also used as an electronic key for your assigned locker. In addition to swimwear, you are allowed to bring your own robe, slippers.  If not, you can choose one the packages that offers these items upon check-in. After check-in, guests are REQUIRED to shower before entering the lagoon. As a nurse, I think one of the best attributes of the spa is its strict code of hygiene.

The Experience

After showering, and putting on your suit, you’re free the go out to the lagoon. Some people stay for a short time and others stay for hours. The lagoon has a swim up bar and I had no reservation about drinking Prosecco at 8 o’clock in the morning. I mean, I’m in Iceland! While the temperature outside was about 35 degrees, the average temperature of the lagoon averages around 99 to 102 °F.

So what are the benefits of the lagoon?  Well, the warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur.  It’s been reputed that bathing in the lagoon helps some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis.

A few reminders

  • Attire: bring swimwear- nope, it’s not “nude” spa
  • Make you reservations early.  The Blue Lagoon fills up rather quickly.  You can book directly with the spa or through a tour company like Gray Line, Viator, or Reykjavik Excursions
  • Protect your hair: the geothermal waters of the lagoon can REALLY dry out your hair. From what I’ve been told, it literally turns your hair into straw.  I recommend wearing a head wrap and avoid submerging your hair into the water.
  • Pictures: Take advange of the on-site photographers. They will take your photo free of charge and even email it to you.
  • Purchase or bring a cell phone cover- you can use a plastic sleeve to secure your phone when you take pictures in the lagoon (unless your phone or device is waterproof).  The Blue Lagoon sells these for $25.00.
  • Silica mud mask: try it, it’s a must!
  • There is a restaurant, hotel, and skin care shop on site. If you’re traveling on budget, the skin care products are much cheaper at the airport.
  • Children: children under the age of 9 years old are only allowed entry with the use of armbands, which are provided free of charge, also, the lagoon is not suitable for children under the age of 2 years old.
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Didn’t take long for me to make friends!

 

And yes, I look forward to returning back in April 2017.  You should join me!

@urbantravelista

Urbantravelista | Get out of your comfort zone

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I guess it’s safe to say that 2016 has definitely been my year of summer “festivaling”.  A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to add another summer festival to my resume: The Chicago Hot Dog Fest.  Located in historic Lincoln Park, the event took place over three days and featured some of Chicago’s top hot dog vendors, live entertainment, face painting, and games. Proceeds benefit the Chicago History Museum and this year marked the fourth year of the festival’s existence.

But here’s an interesting plot twist. I hadn’t eaten a hot dog in almost 30 years. As a native Chicagoan, that’s considered pure blasphemy.  Hot dogs are a staple in my city.  But, once my eighth grade teacher Mr. Patrick (may he rest in peace) decided to share how hot dogs were processed, I lost my desire to ever eat one again. But fast forward 30 years later, attending the fest motivated me to give into peer pressure. I mean, how can I blog about this event and not even try the main product? So, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried a hot dog for the first time in 30 years.

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After posting the photo and caption above on my Facebook page, it didn’t take long for the food Nazis to express their disgust and disappointment.  And I totally get it.  I can understand the naysayers.  In a failed attempt to go completely vegan, I gave up pork and red meat a few years ago. But when I travel abroad or have a new restaurant experience, I try to remove those limits.  We tend to play it safe in life, especially when we travel. We will venture thousands of miles, across several time zones and even cross the international date line, just to eat the same routine foods we eat every day when we’re at home.  Life is short and I don’t believe in wasting experiences anymore.

So the take away is this: whether you’re at home or abroad, it doesn’t hurt to step outside of your comfort zone. It won’t kill you to try something new or unfamiliar. I’m living proof. I ate a hot dog for the first time in 30 years…and LIVED to write about it. And BTW, that hot dog was AMAZING…but it will probably be another 30 years before I experience another one.

Day Trips/Excursions: Ten essential items you’ll regret leaving at home

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I love day trips and excursions, but I love them even more when I travel prepared. Some excursions don’t require intensive preparation, it depends on the activity. Some can be short (a few hours) and others run ALL DAY (up to 12 hours).  When I visited the Chichen Itza last fall, I had a scheduled pick up time at 7:00am and didn’t return until after 6:00pm. That’s longer than my work day!  Although I felt prepared for the long day, there were a still a couple of items I wish I had brought along. Here’s my personal list of 10 essential items that will make any summer excursion or day trip run more smoothly:

 

  1. Water bottle: The tour operator may offer water (depends of the tour), but it never hurts to have your own to stay hydrated.
  2. Disposable Camera:  It’s a good idea to bring a disposable camera, just in case. They’re inexpensive, light, and compact. There’s nothing like traveling thousands of miles to see a landmark only to find you can’t take a picture because you’re primary camera failed.
  3. Portable External Battery Pack:  Some excursions can last just a few hours and as long as 12 hours. Bring a backup portable battery for your electronic devices.
  4. Crossbody Bag/Backpack:  These are probably the most comfortable and efficient bags to carry. They’re big enough to hold your essential items and usually have enough room to add items you might purchases along the way. They’re also durable and comfortable to transport.
  5. Sunscreen:  Depending on the climate and destination, the temps can really climb. Protect your skin just as you would if you were lounging at the beach for longer excursions.
  6. Rain Poncho:  If you’re bothered by heavy downpours, bringing a disposable poncho might be of benefit to you.
  7. Snacks/Energy Bar: Again, this depends on the length of your excursion.  Some tour operators offer snacks and others don’t offer anything.
  8. Travel medications:  The registered nurse in me never leaves home without meds like Benadryl, ibuprofen, or anti-diarrheal. History demonstrates that disaster usually strikes when you have no access to relief.
  9. Sunglasses/Sunhat:The sun can be really unforgiving and cruel during long day excursions. You will appreciate the shade.
  10. Hand towels/Moist Towelettes:  To freshen up during long excursions.

 

This list may seem exhaustive, but don’t stress it. Most tour companies will provide a list of suggested items specific to your activity at the time of booking. Pack light, but pack prepared… and happy travels!

@urbantravelista  

#TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge

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So what exactly is the #TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge? Well it’s a challenge I created to inspire myself and others to take advantage of the abundant tourism that’s right in our own back yard. I’m always intrigued whenever I meet people from other parts of the country and globe that have experienced and know more about my city than I do. I mean, how exactly does this happen? How is that John has been to Navy Pier more than I have and he lives in Seattle? Well, I have a theory. Just like a relationship, we get complacent. The attractions we have access to will always be there, so we take them for granted.

In the early 90’s my family and I relocated from the burbs to Hyde Park. If you’re not familiar with Chicago, Hyde Park sits along the lakefront and houses the prestigious University of Chicago and Museum of Science and Industry.  And it is also home of our current First Family. Although it’s changed a lot over the years, there has always been great beauty and a lot of history there. Growing up as a suburbanite, moving to Hyde Park was a welcome change for me. I was so excited to be taking the plunge into city life. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited living on the 22nd floor with a panoramic view of the lake. I couldn’t wait to stroll on the lake with the rest of the joggers and bikers. Well, after my few times, my enthusiasm died down. After my first year, I can count on one hand how many times I went back over the 12 years that followed. And the Museum of Science and Industry? I didn’t go at all. It was walking distance from my apartment building SMH! Truth be told, I really haven’t gone to any museums or zoos since my high school years. And the last time I went to the Sears Tower (I’m a native Chicagoan, it will NEVER be the Willis Tower) was for a job interview. Why didn’t I check out the new Skydeck? I didn’t even get the job, so it would have at least made the trip worth my while.

A second theory I believe keeps us complacent is the “work factor”. Many of us live in the suburbs and work in the city. When we have our freedom on the weekends, the last thing we want to do is travel back to where we work. We commute in, do our work, and leave. Meanwhile, the tourists are having a field day taking advantage of every awesome experience we take for granted. While we’re running to catch that last train back to the burbs, they’re passing us by on their Segway tour.

I want to inspire people to venture outside of the comforts of their own neighbor for leisure rather than work, school, or a doctor’s appointment. Everyone isn’t in the position to quit their jobs to globetrot and island hop every weekend. Everyone doesn’t have the financial resources or even available time off to travel. Some people even have trouble getting passports. But EVERYONE can take advantage of the tourism opportunities right in their back yard.

So how to do you do the #TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge? It’s simple. Pick a day (or a few) and pick out a few attractions you want to check out over the summer:

  • Museums/Landmarks/Tours: Check out the museum or landmark you haven’t visited since childhood. Try going for pure leisure, instead of going because you have to chaperone on a field trip. Does your city offer a walking or bus tour? Try one. You’ll be surprised at what you might learn.
  • Ferris Buller Day: Remember the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day off (I know, I’m telling my age)? While I would never advocate anyone jeopardizing their job, you can play hooky from work and spend the day in your city sightseeing. Just don’t go near your workplace LOL!
  • Day Trip: Find a destination a couple of hours away from your city and plan a full day trip. Is there a winery or beach you’ve always wanted to visit? Is there an activity you’ve wanted to try, like kayaking or hiking, but never made time for it? The possibilities are endless with a day trip.

 

 

It is my sincere hope that this challenge will give us a new appreciation for where we live and what we take for granted. The news reminds us daily of what’s wrong with our city. Let’s show the world what’s “right” with it. There is so much history and beauty right in our backyard. You can start anytime you want over the summer. Rep your city and don’t forget the #TouristInMyTown hashtag in your social media pics. Let’s go!!!

@urbantravelista

Five things I love/hate about solo travel

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While solo travel may not be for everyone, I do think it’s something everyone should experience (male or female) at least once in their lifetime. You’re probably asking yourself why on earth would a woman “want” to travel halfway around the world alone when dining out and requesting a table for one is already awkward? That was the reaction I received from a few friends when they learned of my first solo trip to Cancun. But if you take my personality into account, it would be no surprise that solo travel would appeal to me. I’m introverted, reserved, socially awkward, and get my energy from solitude. Yeah, I’m the “why you so quiet” girl. But I’m a beast on Facebook (did I mention I was socially awkward in real life?). Anyway, I’ve always been a loner, so doing things alone always seemed to come easy to me. I was also an only child for ten years and grew up as a “latch key kid”. Because of these experiences and personality traits, I guess one could say that I’ve mastered the art of enjoying my own company.  While my experiences with solo travel have been nothing short of amazing, there are pros and cons just like anything else.

What I LOVE

  • Flexibility: What I love most about traveling solo, and I think most others would agree is the freedom to move around and not stick to a rigid itinerary.  Girlfriend/group trips are great, but the freedom of doing things on your own time can be rather enticing. If I want to sleep until noon, I sleep in.  If I want to go chill at the beach, I chill at the beach.  If I’m sleepy and want to turn in early, I go back to my room and go to sleep. If I want to skip an excursion, I can do just that. There is no obligation to participate in anything I do feel up to. I can do things at my own will without being looked at as antisocial or the group “Debbie Downer”.
  • Empowerment: Traveling solo to an unfamiliar territory boosts your confidence like no other. Some people talk about what they’re going to do, the places they plan to visit someday, but seldom ever do. You’re the exception. You had a desire, created a plan, and did it all by yourself.  You didn’t wait for anyone. You turned someday into TODAY. You had fears and you we’re unsure of yourself, but you did it anyway. That’s EMPOWERMENT. And this is the kind of empowerment that builds dreams and turns them into reality. There is no greater empowerment than creating the life you want.
  • Respect: Believe it or not, there’s a lot of respect that comes with traveling solo. The most common line you will receive is, “wow, you’re brave”. People have this perception that you’re fearless, courageous, and a go getter because….well because you are. As I mentioned above, you’re doing what most people “talk” about doing. Embrace it, own it, and be unapologetic for it.
  • Liberation: There really isn’t much I can say about this because it’s something you truly have to experience for yourself. The freedom and liberation that comes with traveling solo feels like an intense dopamine release. It’s almost orgasmic…there’s really nothing like it. Well there are a few substitutes, but I think most of them are illegal LOL. When I traveled solo for the first time last year, I felt like a bird that had just been released from its cage. There is something liberating about being a place where no one knows you and the few days lying ahead of you to do as you please. It’s just YOU living by YOUR own rules.
  • Self-reliance: It should be no surprise that solo travel increases your self-reliance. Being in unfamiliar territory forces you to rely on your senses and become aware of your surroundings.

What I HATE

  • Fear Mongering: While our concerned family and friends mean well (I know they really do), the constant affirmations of what can go wrong can be overwhelming. It takes a lot of courage to travel solo. Once you make the decision to do so, you don’t want anyone raining on your parade. We can’t fault them for overreacting sometimes, especially if they are limited in their own travel experiences. And let’s face it, our media seldom shares the positive realities of our world. It never shares what goes right. We’re constantly inundated with negative news stories and the horrors of the world  instead of its alluring beauty. And while I’m sure our loved ones’ concerns come from a sincere place of love, they often fail to realize is that we really have a greater chance of being robbed, raped, or murdered right in our own backyard. The best analogy I can think of is our soldiers who go overseas to fight, only to return home and be murdered right here on U.S. soil. To be frank, more things go wrong in my life when I’m home than when I’m away. That’s part of the reason why I enjoy getting away LOL!
  • Assumptions: When you do the epic things that others don’t have the courage to do, people will assume the worst about your life. They assume you’re lonely, have no friends, and/or no significant other or someone special in your life. When the reality is, you just like to travel. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t mean you’re bound to die alone with 20 cats during your golden years. And even if you did, at least you saw the world and did what you wanted to do and instead of “wishing” you had. So let them assume while you keep collecting stamps. Checkmate bish!
  • Lack of dope pics: This one probably irks me the most. I haven’t mastered the art of the selfie stick. And even if I did, a selfie stick doesn’t hold a candle to the full length action pics you see posted on sites like Travel Noire and Soul Society. I want an action pic of me doing a yoga pose in front of the Taj Mahal too . You can’t exactly achieve that level of dopeness with the selfie stick you bought at Walmart. Sure, you can ask a stranger or tour operator to take your picture and the will usually offer before you have a chance to ask. But I need like 30 takes to get a good picture and they just don’t have that kind of time. So until I move up in the world and staff my own professional photographer, selfies it is!!

 

  • No Shared experiences: As I mentioned before, freedom, flexibility, and liberation are just a few of the benefits solo travel has to offer. However, I do occasionally find myself missing those shared intimate moments with someone. Whether it be a good laugh, a random intimate kiss, or just conversation with someone who really knows you, shared experiences have their place and are necessary in this thing we call life too. Even when I’m going through my tough “I don’t need anyone” moments, I realize that we do need these experiences sometimes.
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This solo trip is everything, but I kinda want a bae too *sad face*

  • Addiction: Yes, solo travel can be addictive. While it may push you further outside of your comfort zone, it can also push you further into rejecting opportunities to travel with other people. People approach me all the time about traveling with them and at times, I want to decline. And like I mentioned before, although solo travel affords many benefits, I believe we still need those shared and bonding experiences as human beings.

So there you have it. This sums up my personal list of pros and cons to solo travel. Alone is a state of being. Lonely is a feeling (emotion). People often use these constructs interchangeably. They are not the same. I’ve been lonely by myself and in room filled with loved ones. You come into this world alone and you will die alone. Sure, you may be surrounded by people for both events, but the pre-journey to get here and post-journey after departure is all on your own. So get over yourself, get out of your way, and get over your fears. Go so some world, WITH or WITHOUT someone.

#urbantravelista