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: 2016 Year in Review

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Twenty years from now, if someone ask me about the year 2016 , I won’t know where to begin. This has certainly been a tumultuous year for many.  There’s been birth, growth, and a lot of loss. No one was exempt.  I mean, we lost Prince. That alone was enough to send many of us over the cliff.  But for me, the first half of the year actually started off on a good note. Exactly this time last year, I was scouting my favorite shopping malls and boutiques in search of THE perfect dress to celebrate NYE in Dallas with one of my besties. I brought in the new year surrounded by good friends, good people, and positive energy. We spent the first day of 2016 enjoying a fabulous champagne brunch at a friend’s home. We fellowshipped, prayed, and spoke our goals for 2016. The following day, I boarded my flight back to Chicago feeling inspired, empowered, and ready to smash every goal and intention I set for myself. And things went well in the beginning. They really did. But by July, 2016 turned on me like a rabid pit bull. But such is life, right? Sometimes, a year will give you everything you hope for and more. And other times, it will leave you wondering how you survived it at all. In spite of 2016’s tragedies and having to put some of my adventuring on pause, I did have a few great moments in travel and adventure.

The birth of my brand

In April, I gave birth to my lifestyle/travel blog, Urbantravelista™. I created it as an outlet to share my personal life and travel experiences. I debuted my blog recounting my first international solo vacation experience. BTW, if you missed it, no worries. You can read it here: Solo Travel: Tips for a first time “Urbantravelista” . This is my second run at blogging and it’s the longest I’ve ever stuck with a writing project. Truthfully, running this project and growing Urbantravelista has kept me sane and grounded in the midst of 2016’s insanity.  I guess I finally found my niche.  I look forward to seeing it’s growth and evolution in the forthcoming year.  My goal is to encourage others to create their own fulfilling experiences by embracing the unknown and stepping outside of their comfort zone. I want to inspire others to live their truth (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and to make lemonade in the midst of life challenges…and be fabulous while doing it.  Life is imperfect.  Therefore, we don’t have to be perfect.  But we do have to LIVE.

 The Iceland Blackout

Also in April, I had the opportunity to join a meet-up experience in Reykjavik. We dubbed this event “The Iceland Blackout” as we collectively represented a group of over 70 black likeminded travelers from all over the world.  You can read about it here: Don’t sleep on Iceland . This adventure was special to me, because I had NEVER travelled this far away from home alone. Iceland was a destination that I never fathomed I’d ever visit or even have the desire to visit. Well, I completely underestimated it’s DOPENESS. I basked in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon, rode the Reykjavik bus system by myself, danced with Icelanders in a Reykjavik hip hop club, toured the Golden Circle, felt the chilling magnificence of Gullfoss Waterfall, learned about Icelandic culture, walked the path between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and danced in the middle of nowhere under the Reykjavik stars while chasing the Northern Lights. I’m looking so forward to my return in March of 2017.  Stay tuned!

 

Golfing

When spring opened up, one of my best friends introduced me to the game of golf. It started with drink and appetizer outings at Top Golf. To my surprise, the more I practiced, the more I wanted to experience going out on a real course. So we did just that and after a few outings, I got to be pretty good at it. I do have a long way to go before I become proficient at it, but my performance and interest motivated me enough to invest in a set of clubs of my own.

 

Being Bobby Brown

He may not be significant to you, but he’s very much important to those of us that grew up during the New Edition era. My mom found out he was in town for a book signing in my neighborhood. Because she was a bigger fan than I was, I braved to two hour wait in line and got an autographed copy of his new book for the both of us. It was a couple of days for before my birthday and he was the first person to give me a hug and wish me Happy Birthday. How cool is that? Thanks Bobby!

 

TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge

 Over the summer, I launched a “TouristInMyTown Summer Challenge” campaign to encourage people to take advantage of the culture and tourism in their own backyard. I promoted this campaign by patronizing the various festivals, events, and tourist attractions in my city and challenging others to do the same in their respective cities. I kicked off the challenge at the Wells Street Art Festival held in historic Old Town. This festival featured over 225 artists from across the continent. Next, I attended the Taste of Randolph, a food and music festival similar to the Taste of Chicago, but on a much smaller scale. As summer progressed, I took the challenge to the south side where I attended house music’s signature summer event, The Chosen Few Old School Picnic.  This event is held in Hayes Park and takes place during the Fourth of July holiday. This was my third time in attendance and it gets bigger and better every year. Next, I headed back to the western suburbs and attended Naperville’s Rib Fest. This event is also held during the Fourth of July holiday and expands over four days. My final festival of the summer took place at Lincoln Park’s Hot Dog Fest. I stepped far outside of my comfort zone by trying a hot dog for the first time in 30 years. Yeah I know, pretty groundbreaking.  And in between my summer “festivaling”, I reacquainted myself with Oak Street beach, a Chicago attraction I haven’t enjoyed since my childhood. Sunbathing on the beach with my city’s beautiful skyline as the back drop was everything.

Saying Goodbye

After experiencing one of the best summers I’ve had in years, travel and adventure came to a screeching halt when I experienced my biggest heartbreak ever, saying goodbye to my beautiful mother. Death is an event that you never see coming. It doesn’t send an invitation for you to prepare or RSVP. It just shows up on your doorstep completely uninvited and gives zero f*cks. My fall and winter itinerary suddenly became replaced by profound grief and sadness. Discovering my “new” normal and picking up the broken pieces of my heart has become my newest adventure. It’s all a very unwelcomed adventure, but still an adventure that most of us will face some day nonetheless. Looking back, I came into 2016 feeling empowered and inspired. Although my year took a tragic turn, I still find joy in the goals I was able to accomplish. I find solace in the positive experiences I was able to create and the possibility of inspiring at least one person to create some positive experiences of their own. I’m not sure what’s in store for 2017, but the only thing that keeps me optimistic is my desire to continue living the way my mother wanted. She lived vicariously through my adventures and I look forward to honoring her memory by creating more awesome experiences in 2017.  Sure, it’s dark now, but joy comes in the morning. Let’s hope the sun shines brightly in 2017 with more travel and adventure.

 

 

 

@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

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  

4th of July Finale: Naperville Ribfest 2016

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So, I ended this year’s 4th of July celebration doing something that I’ve never done before: I attended the 2016 Naperville Ribfest. The festival is typically a four day event and ran from Friday, July 1st to Monday, July 4th.  It’s hosted by the Exchange Club of Naperville to raise funds to help fight child abuse, domestic violence and to strengthen families in local communities.

The festival  has a north and south entrance featuring vendors, raffles, and carnival rides/games, that meet up with “Ribbers Row” (the 12 national rib vendors that make up Ribfest).  There are also two stages set up for live entertainment.  This year’s line up featured Sheryl Crow, Matchbox 20, and several blues, country, and rock artists.  And are you a vegan or vegetarian?  Or are you just trying to watch your waistline?  Well no worries, because Ribfest offers many alternatives to accommodate the most health conscious palate. I don’t eat pork but had no issue feasting on a chicken sandwich, onion blossom, and funnel cake (pictured below).

General admission for Ribfest is $20 for adults.  It’s a great event for families, couples, groups, or even if you want to roll solo.  There is something for everyone. And as a finale, Ribfest puts on a huge fireworks show, usually hosted by one of their big sponsors. Check it out next year!

 

@urbantravelista

UNPLUG: My new travel vow

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This past weekend, I spent my birthday (yep, I turned 25 “again:) in Dallas with a really good friend of mine.  Now my friend, is rarely ever on Facebook.  But me?? I LIVE on it.  I admit, it’s an addiction.  That’s right…my name is Stephanie and I’m a Facebook addict.  When I first joined the community back in 2009, I immediately became hooked.  Being the typical Cancer moonchild that loves to connect with her past, the idea of connecting with old classmates that I grew up with and distant family members I hadn’t seen in ages really appealed to me.  I love nostalgia.  And I love reuniting with my past.  And then, there is the expression component.  As an introvert, I’m pretty shy and reserved in social settings.  Being social in the real world makes me uncomfortable and drains me. But in the virtual world, I feel completely free and uninhibited.  When I joined back then, I was also going into my third year of marriage and things weren’t going so well.  My marriage was quickly heading south and Facebook filled a void for me.  Over time, it gave me an outlet to express my thoughts and became my muse.  It became my primary source of entertainment.  I’ve always taken great pleasure in uplifting others, even when I’m feeling down myself. I really believe it’s my gift to this world.  I share inspiration, politically incorrect humor, thought provoking discussion topics, and even participate in some social Facebook groups.  And over the years, it seems like I’ve developed quite a following .  So back to my weekend…while partaking in the awesome bar hopping birthday festivities my friend arranged for me, she jokingly mentioned that I live on my phone.  And I couldn’t deny it.  She was absolutely right. I live on Facebook. I live on my phone…in daily life and when I travel.

But I’m not the only offender. When I reflect back on past travels, I’ve made the same observations of other fellow travelers. The “matrix” struggle is real. What is it about social media and technology that makes it so hard to give up when we’re supposed to be living and creating experiences? Why can’t we unplug and disconnect?

I suppose the daily grind of the rat race is partly to blame. As human beings, we’re creatures of habit.  It’s hard to stop running once the hamster wheel has stopped spinning.  It’s difficult relax and just be. I have a problem and whether they know it or not, so do many other travelers.  So, I’ve made the following vow to myself for my next trip:  I WILL NOT LIVE ON MY PHONE.  With the exception of occasionally check-ins (for safety reasons, especially when traveling solo), I will NOT Facebook.  If I feel the urge to post that epic selfie I just took in front of Christ The Redeemer, I will post it and not comment until I return.  I will not miss out on connecting with myself or the company of others.  I will not miss out on just “being”.  I will not miss out on experiencing once in a lifetime moments.  Rare moments are priceless.  And I will no longer spend them of Facebook.

Can you unplug?

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Unplugged in Aruba, circa 2013…

 @urbantravelista