Maybe the Stars are Aligning

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately. Maybe it’s the whole nearing 40, midlife crisis thing, or maybe it’s just that I never feel fully satisfied in my work. I always feel like there is something more that I should be doing. Trying to figure out what that thing is is often the most difficult part.

In trying to gain some clarity, I began writing each morning. Three pages, stream of conscious, anything goes type of writing. At first, it was difficult. I found that my creative voice and my love of writing had been stifled from years of academic writing. I used to regularly blog, and many years ago, I had a column in a local magazine. Lately, every time I sit down to write it is a laborious task, involving citations and an APA guide.

With this realization, I made a promise to myself to write more. I also sent an email to that editor from many years ago. She responded, asked me to pitch some ideas, and told me that another editor was excited to learn about me and would be in touch.

One of the ideas I pitched is to write a piece profiling the street artists of St. Louis. To my surprise, as I was walking to my favorite coffee shop today to spend the afternoon writing, an artist was out working on a new mural. It turns out that she is not just one of many street artists in St. Louis, she is the artist behind the murals.

She gave me her card and agreed to let me interview her over coffee next week. I’m not typically one of those people who believe in fate, but this is almost too good not to.

Touching up the mural that was painted at Grove Fest.

I just love this new addition to The Grove. 

This one is another favorite. 

A Serendipitous Summer

As I was just beginning to think about my summer travels, I got an opportunity to teach a graduate qualitative research course in Limasol, Cyprus. I had never considered visiting Cyprus, but of course, I said yes. I was told that after my class, I could extend my stay by booking my return flight whenever I liked. I decided to visit Vienna because the flights to and from Cyprus were convenient. I split my time in Vienna with Budapest and Bratislava before flying to Istanbul to visit a friend for a long weekend.


The sea in Cyprus.


My friend, Cigdem, and I taking a tea break in Istanbul.

A couple weeks after I returned home, my kids and I traveled to Belize and Guatemala. We were honestly considering traveling to South America, but I found a really great deal on flights, so Belize and Guatemala we went!


My kids and I on a coffee tour just outside of Antigua, Guatemala.

In much of the same fashion, I traveled to Beijing to present a paper at a conference almost as soon as I got back from Central America. I’ve long wanted to see the Great Wall, but China is a country that has never been on any of my ‘to-see’ lists.


I was most excited to see The Great Wall.


Apart from Istanbul, a city I love and have visited before, I just sort of fell into the other destinations. Because of this, I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t know what I wanted to see or do. I just showed up.

And it was brilliant.

I took advice from locals, wandered down streets because they appealed to me, ate at restaurants because they looked lively.

This isn’t too far off from how I normally travel. The main difference comes in the preparation beforehand, as I love to read about the places I’m visiting. So while I might not visit every recommend attraction, I still know that they are there.

This summer, I knew nothing, and I think that created a sense of awe every time I turned the corner and discovered something new.

It was a nice reminder that it’s not always the destination – it’s the sense of discovery, the learning about a new culture, and the meeting of new people. It doesn’t matter where. It could be in your own backyard.


My Five Favorite Apps for Trip Planning

I’m one of those people who get almost as much joy planning trips as I do taking them. I love researching and learning about possible destinations. Here are a few of the apps that make that process so enjoyable.

1. Tripadvisor – This is my go-to app. I use the forums and the destinations guides to get a sense of upcoming destinations. Tripadvisor has everything – travel guides, forums, places where you can search hotels and flights, detailed reviews, and more. I can usually find the answers to my questions in the forums. Before I book a hotel, I always check reviews on tripadvisor, and I often find my cheapest flights through this app. You can see why it is my go-to – I use it for everything.

2. Skyscanner – This has been a recent discovery, but I have found some great deals on flights. The app compares flight and hotel prices, often giving you the cheapest options. I used this app for my most recent flight purchase to South America. My multi-destination flight from Chicago to Bogota, and Lima back to Chicago was $510.00, much less than I was finding through other searches.

3. Flickr – Because I am a visual person, I love this app when I’m planning trips. If you’re not familiar with Flickr, it’s a website and app where photographer post their work. I love being able to see what makes a city unique. I’ve learned about neighborhoods I want to explore, towns I want to visit from this app. It’s often the first app I use, and I continue to bounce between it and travel guides as I make decisions about where to go next.

4.Airbnb – Airbnb, the app that lets you book rooms or apartments from locals, has changed the way I travel. It’s made expensive destinations affordable and allowed me to have a more local approach to my travels. I’ve used this app to rent rooms in Barcelona and Vienna, rent an apartment in Mumbai (from a Bollywood star, I later discovered), and rent a thatched-roof bungalow in Tulum. The best part about booking through Airbnb is that I’ve become friends with all of my hosts.

5. Duolingo – As often as I travel, I’m always embarrassed that I don’t fluently speak another language. The Duolingo app has been instrumental in my trip preparations. The app is like having a free language tutor on your phone. You work through the levels and are rewarded by ‘lingots.’ The best part is that you can connect with friends and motivate each other as you learn another language.

Here’s a bonus app – one that I haven’t actually tried, but one that I’m curious about. Entrain is an app that helps reduce jetlag before your trip by recommending a schedule for light and darkness exposure. I’ve read mixed reviews on the app, so I’m excited to try it out for myself. If you’ve used it, let me know what you think.

I hope you find these apps as helpful as I do.




Affording Travel

I have been asked several times over the last couple months how I afford to travel, so I decided to write a blog about it.


First, let me preface this by saying that I have the modest salary of an educator and am a single parent with two kids. By most people’s accounts, traveling shouldn’t be part of my family’s narrative, but it is because I prioritize it. I make significant concessions in my daily life and travel pretty cheaply so that I can afford to go off every summer. In sharing what has worked for me, I realize that many people may read this and think, well, I could never do that, and that’s okay. I’m just sharing what has worked for me. I definitely am under the mindset that life is short and so you have to go after the things about which you are passionate. For me, that’s traveling.


Here are the ways I have structured my daily life so I can afford to travel:

  1. I don’t shop. I no longer buy things because I like them; I buy things when I need them. When I do shop, I pay close attention to prices. We are definitely not a name brand family; I can’t imagine caring about the label on my shirts.
  2. Apart from student loans, I don’t have debt.
  3. I don’t spend a lot of money on my kids’ activities. They both are involved but not at the expense of doing other things. I honestly think they gain as much, if not more, from being exposed to other cultures in the summer months than from a busy life full of activities.
  4. I sell anything we don’t need or use on Craigslist (you’d be surprised at how much money you can make selling things you no longer want).   I’m very much a minimalist, so as soon as I don’t need something, I sell it. Just this week I made $190.00 (which is an abnormally high amount because I sold an old iPhone).
  5. I’m not much of a drinker, so I don’t spend a lot on alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good glass of wine, but it’s more of a treat in my life, not a regular activity.
  6. We recently moved to a smaller, less expensive two-family home (where I no longer have to take care of the yard!!). I’ve never had the urge to have a big house with a sprawling yard. In fact, the opposite appeals to me.
  7. I still rent. This is for two reasons: 1. I am a restless person and the thought of staying in one house for any length of time makes me feel claustrophobic, and 2. I don’t want to all of my extra money to go towards house repairs. I realize this won’t make sense to a lot of people, but I’m just not a house person. My sister jokes that I’m going to join the tiny house movement after the kids graduate, and she might be right.
  8. I constantly look for ways to cut costs. Recently, I have switched cell phone providers ($120 monthly savings), canceled my parking pass at work ($55 monthly savings), and canceled my gym membership for the summer months ($40 monthly savings).
  9. We shop at Aldi’s – why spend more on groceries? I don’t understand it.
  10. We limit how much we go out to eat, and I try to limit how much I spend on coffee (as I write this from a coffee shop…). In the same light, I don’t get pedicures or massages.


Here are the things I do when traveling to cut costs:

  1. I pick destinations and/or travel dates based on cheap airfare.
  2. I typically use O’Hare as my home airport even though it’s five hours away. The savings is sometimes as much as $500.00 per ticket. I have more time than money, so I’ll always opt for the cheaper flight. I typically drive to my parents’ house in Illinois and leave my car (and sometimes my kids) with them and then take the train up to Chicago. The three hour train ride costs around $30.00, so the savings is significant.
  3. I travel to places, such as Southeast Asia, India, Central America, that are generally pretty inexpensive for Americans.
  4. I book multidestinational flights so that I can see a couple different places for the same price of a roundtrip ticket. If I fly to Asia, I’ll book Chicago – Bangkok, Bangkok – Paris (or some European city), Paris – Chicago. Most of the time I have been able to do that for the same price as a roundtrip ticket. I have found that adding more than one extra stop, makes the price jumps, so I stick with one city. Once I’m in Europe, I’ll use budget airlines or the train or bus.
  5. When I’m in places that are more expensive, I use airbnb for accommodations. I never pay money for expensive hotels. I’m never in my room, so that money just seems like a waste to me. I have met amazing people through airbnb and paid a fraction of what hotels are asking. I even stayed in a hostel this summer in Europe. I stayed in a room for four females for $10 in Budapest. In most places outside the US, I can keep hotel (or airbnb) costs below $50.00 a night. In Southeast Asia, I’ll sometimes pay $45.00 for an entire week, and they’re nice rooms for that price.
  6. I travel with a stash of granola bars which make for an inexpensive and easy breakfast. I’ve heard of others bringing oatmeal packets and tea bags to cut costs, but I’ve never done these things.
  7. Food can be really expensive when traveling. Sometimes, I eat a late lunch instead of eating lunch and dinner. I love street food, and it’s always inexpensive. I also love markets for fresh fruit. I have found that you can spend a lot or very little on food – just depends on your budget. I do both, depending on the location and how long I’m traveling.
  8. I only travel with carry-ons. I refuse to pay luggage fees on a plane. Long gone are the days of struggling with suitcases that I cannot carry over the train platforms in India. I did that and was miserable. It doesn’t matter if I’m gone one week or six, I only bring a carry-on. I do laundry on the road and bring clothes that coordinate.
  9. I limit visiting museums and monuments – mainly because I don’t travel to cities to check off every tourist must-see. I find that I can only handle about one tourist sight a day – plus, admission fees add up quick. I’d much rather wander the streets, watch people from a cafe, or stroll through a park.
  10. I’ll buy a few souvenirs on my trips, but I don’t travel to shop – even in places like New York and Paris.







My Not-So American Dream

In high school, I took a class where the main project was to design a home (Obviously, I wasn’t challenging my intellectual capabilities at this point in my life.). The project required us to pick a floor plan and select furniture and furnishings for each room in the house. I remember picking blueprints for a large, modern house, the quintessential American dream home.

I went to college with that big home idea firmly planted in my head. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I thought large homes with fancy furnishings were obviously in my future.

There were conversations along the way that gave wind to different ideas and different ways to live. A conversation with a former English professor who cautioned against taking out too many student loans because professors in the humanities (and in the social sciences) don’t make a lot of money. So, I wouldn’t be rich, but my goals remained intact.

Post-graduate school, I flew to Texas to visit a friend in Austin. He picked me up in his rusty, dented Grand Am. Stapled lining, torn seats, a concave roof from a tree falling on his car made me laugh every time we went anywhere. I couldn’t understand why my friend would choose to drive this car, a car he later sold for a dollar, when he had a good job. He explained, “You spend your money on car payments. I buy flights.” By god, he was on to something….

As I began to travel more, this idea became more and more prevalent in my life.

This past weekend the kids and I moved from our ranch house with a large yard to a smaller, two-family home where we share a yard, and I’ve had to reconfigure a large sunroom into my bedroom. I can tell by my friends’ reactions that this is not the way you’re supposed to do things. Americans upgrade into bigger homes and fancier cars; you’re not supposed to go in the opposite direction.

My main motivation in making this move is that it will enable us to travel more. Not only will we have significantly more money with which to travel, but I won’t have to worry about having to take care of a yard (or a house) during long summer trips. Because I am an underpaid faculty member, much like my former professor warned, most of my decisions are motivated by how it will affect my ability to travel. I could buy a new pair of shoes that I don’t need or pay for a week’s hotel in Cambodia. Cambodia will win every time. I could buy a new vase for our house, or I could pay for an amazing dinner in Turkey. I promise I’ll get much more enjoyment from the dinner than I ever will from the vase.

Living this way in America, I realize, is not normal. But for me, it’s the only way to live. If I had to go back and redo my high school assignment, I would have an easier time furnishing a studio apartment, which is the dream home of my future.




Solo Traveling

I received an email last week from a recent college graduate.  She is in her first year of teaching and thinks spending the summer in Thailand will be more fulfilling than teaching summer school. Yes! A hundred times, yes! Teaching summer school is generally the pits, but when your other option is going to Thailand, you always choose Thailand. This same student’s first flight was an international flight to South Africa, so my guess is that she’ll be just fine traveling alone, but she asked for advice, so here it is.

1. Just go 

Before going on my first solo international trip, I second-guessed myself several times a day. Mostly because everyone around me seemed to think the idea was crazy. I was forced to answer questions that I was asking myself. Is it safe for you to travel through Asia (specifically India) by yourself? Won’t you be lonely? I didn’t know the answers, but I assured everyone that I’d be fine, while suppressing my–oh shit, I can’t believe I’m doing this–nerves.

Having now gone on several solo trips, my advice would be the same: go!  You will be fine (you will actually be better than fine), and you will meet amazing people. There’s something wonderfully liberating about traveling alone. You answer only to yourself. When in life are we allowed to be that self-indulgent? You set your own schedule, doing only what pleases you. And you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people in the most unlikely places. When you’re alone, you’re not so engrossed with the other person with whom you’re traveling. You pay more attention to your surroundings and other people, and in turn, it’s very easy to make friends. I’ve made friends outside fish market in Tokyo, sitting in a cafe in Vietnam, emailing in the hotel computer room in Nepal, drinking at a bar in Paris. The list could go on and on.


2. Do your research and be aware of your surroundings

As a solo woman traveler, I think it is important to fully research your destinations ahead of time. Sometimes entire cities get a bad rap, when it’s only one neighborhood that needs to be avoided. It’s important to be smart about your surroundings. There are some places where I feel comfortable walking by myself at night and other places where I don’t. In those places, I might go out with someone else or hire a driver to take me back to my hotel. Often times, I use late evenings for relaxing in my hotel and watching local television (which always proves to be entertaining).

3. General safety

I know that with light brown hair and fair, freckly skin that I stand out in a lot of the places, but I try to blend in as much as possible. I wear clothes that are appropriate for the destination and never wear anything that looks expensive or flashy. I always carry a scarf that can be quickly used to cover my head or shoulders if I need to be more modest in certain parts of a city. I use a small messenger bag instead of a purse when I travel so that I can keep it (zipped and) in front of me. I try to keep everything simple. So far, I’ve never had anything stolen from me, but I did catch a woman trying to get into my bag in the Paris metro.

I try to avoid looking at a map on the streets. I like to appear as if I know where I’m going. Oftentimes, I’ll look at a map or my guidebook over lunch so that I have a plan for the next part of my day. I walk fast in general, but I try to walk with purpose when traveling. I have found that when it looks like I don’t know where I’m going, I get lots of people (mostly men) wanting to ‘help’ me.

4. Money and identification

I would recommend making a copy of your passport and itinerary before leaving. I email this to my parents and to my own email. I also carry a copy of my passport with me to use when I don’t want to carry my own.

I create a folder in my email with all my hotel bookings, flights, and itinerary information. This has been incredibly helpful in a couple situations where I have needed to prove that I had paid in advance for a hotel or had a flight out of the country.

It is also important to have a couple ways to access money in case of an emergency. I typically bring at least two one-hundred dollar bills, and I’ve had to use them in several scenarios when ATM machines didn’t work properly or when I couldn’t convert my Indian rupees in Nepal. I was once in a city in Bali where the ATMs wouldn’t take Visa, only Mastercard. I now travel with both, but at the time, I was grateful that I had cash with me.

5. Go with the flow 

There will always be situations you cannot predict, situations you do not instantly know how to handle. These are the moments that make great stories after-the-fact, but at the time, they are generally pretty nerve-wracking. Just don’t loose your cool and things will work out. I’ve been  lost in Tokyo, without money in Nepal (that’s when Western Union comes in handy), and sick in a few different countries. Lost luggage, missed flights, crammed busses – it’s all part of the experience. Just embrace it and have fun.


Picturesque Destinations for 2016

I’m a sucker for quaint, charming destinations, places that are so picturesque they don’t quite seem real. In such locations, I find myself saying the same types of comments over and over.

Can you believe how gorgeous this is?

 Wow, can you believe this? 

It’s so gorgeous. 

It’s probably a good thing that I’m mostly travel by myself because, as my daughter can tell you, my constant declarations of amazement get annoying after awhile. This summer in Prague, she would respond in all her teenage sarcasm, Yes, it’s STILL pretty. Yes, I know how gorgeous it is. 

As you think about your travel plans for 2016, here are ten of my favorite places you might want to put on your list.


10. Chania, Crete, Greece. Chania is the second largest city on the Greek island of Crete, but I think it’s the city to see.   A Venetian lighthouse, a Turkish mosque that dates back to the 1600’s, and colorful buildings line the harbor. My favorite time of day was at dusk when the heat was less intense and the lights flicker in the sea.



9. Bruges, Belgium. Bruges, or Brugge, as you will sometimes see it, is sensational. Canals, narrow cobbled roads, bicyclists, chocolate, waffles. Do I need to say more? This medieval town is so picturesque you might need to pinch yourself to realize it’s real. Though with the hordes of tourists that crowd the city in the summer, you might not get the fairytale feel you for which you were hoping. Even with the crowds, it’s a place worth visiting.



8. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Situated in the middle of Bali, Ubud is nestled below a volcano and amidst terraced rice fields. There are temples and shrines (and Starbucks) that help give Ubud its unique, magical appeal.



7. Prague, Czech Republic. Prague is known as “the City of a Hundred Spires.” Red roofs topped with ornamental spires create one of the most mesmerizing skylines. Prague amazed me from every turn, every vantage point. It’s an exquisite city. Baroque buildings and Gothic churches line cobbled stone roads, making it one of my favorite destinations.



6. Venice, Italy. I feel like Venice is a city everyone knows about because it is such a gem of a destination. No cars, just boats on the canals. Narrow passageways and bridges create a maze-like experience for visitors trying to navigate their way around the city. A definite must-see destination.



5. Eze, France. The village of Eze sits atop a hill in the French Cote d’Azur. Following the winding pathways up and down will lead you to hidden surprises. Cafes, art galleries, jewelers, perfume shops, and most important, views of the Mediterranean sea. You don’t need a lot of time to appreciate this village, but it’s definitely a great place to spend an afternoon.



4. Arles, France. Sure Arles is full of Roman ruins, and that might be the appeal for some, but for me, it’s Van Gogh. Arles is where Van Gogh painted around 200 paintings including many of his famous sunflower paintings, and this yellow cafe. Van Gogh’s Arles is a place I could dream many days away.



3. Hoi An, Vietnam. The Old Town of Hoi An is a perfect combination of yellow buildings, colorful silk lanterns, and ancient Chinese and Japanese temples and bridges. I biked around the city and found that after a day, there wasn’t much to see. It’s a gorgeous city (full of tourists), certainly one to see, but not one where you need a lot of time. If anything would have motivated me to stay longer in Hoi An, it would have been the food. Have I mentioned how much I love Vietnamese food? (Maybe that’ll be a future post.)



2. Chefchaouen, Morocco. If you take a bus from Tangier (or Fez) to the middle of the Rif Mountains, you’ll find a blue oasis called Chefchaouen. This entire mountain village is painted different shades of blue, creating the most splendid sight. The blue medina is confusing but is nothing like the mazes of Fez and Marrakech. The tranquility of Chefchaouen makes it a great reprieve from the chaos of the bigger Moroccan cities.



1. Santorini, Greece. Santorini is a popular honeymoon destination for right reason. The white and blue spilling down the rugged cliffs makes for one of the most dramatic and exquisite sights I’ve ever seen. Not to mention mesmerizing sunsets.