Category Archives: Travel

The Stranger on a Plane Who Saw My Broken Heart

I held the pink, laminated reusable boarding pass in my hand, rubbing my finger over its bubbled edges. The weight shifted in my backpack as I re-situated it on my shoulders and picked up my laptop case. I handed my paper ticket to a woman behind the metal fence and walked along the concrete to the plane’s steps.

No security checkpoint and no overhead storage bins awaited me. My ears would not be alerted by an announcement that the plane was about to lift off. I could reach into the cockpit and touch the pilot. I could hold hands with nearly everyone on the plane without having to leave my seat.

Though it felt like the 1940s, it was 2015, and I was leaving the place I’d learned to call home.

I was saying goodbye to an island whose people, simplicity, and natural beauty I’d come to love.

And yet, at that moment, I wanted to be away from people, floating on a cloud among the birds of the sky. I wanted to be free but have all the answers, I wanted to feel loved and worthy and adored, and I wanted the fissure in my heart to be miraculously healed.

As the plane took flight, I leaned against the thick, sweating window glass, trying to become invisible. I didn’t want to look outside because that meant accepting the daunting truth that those turquoise blue waters I’d come to know would no longer be present in my daily life. I didn’t want to look down because then I’d see that I was moving away from those white sand beaches of quiet isolation, not toward them.

I didn’t want to look out the window because then I might see my reflection, and that would feel like staring into the face of someone I didn’t know.

Instead, I closed my eyes tight and hugged my backpack to my chest, trying to shield my face from the other passengers on this 14-seater plane, trying to hide my pain. But the tears falling down my cheeks coupled with my silent sobs gave me away to the man sitting across the two-foot aisle from me.

Wordlessly, he removed a tissue from his bag. I was burying my brokenness into the nylon cover of my travel backpack when he tapped me on the shoulder. I raised my head a couple inches to see the tissue dangling by my cheek.

The stranger on the plane smiled at me.

Without saying anything, I took the tissue and wiped my eyes and runny nose. I crumpled it into a ball for later use and then made eye contact with the man. My lips turned up ever so slightly, a genuine smile but one that took effort nonetheless.

The stranger on the plane nodded his head and turned to look forward, giving me privacy to process my feelings.

His kindness reminded me that I am not and should not feel alone in this world, and that I am also allowed to have my feelings–no questions asked.

I didn’t know that the next two years of my life would be the hardest two years of my 29 years. I didn’t know that they would also be the most rewarding.

I didn’t fully understand all that I was leaving behind, that it was a testament of self-love to jump headfirst into this new unknown–lost, scared, confused, sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, and in that moment, so very broken-hearted.

I didn’t fully grasp that taking this first step on the next part of my journey would, in time, prove to be one of the most valuable and meaningful chapters of my life.

It took me two years to recognize that abandoning the island life to chase opportunities in the city was one of the most courageous things I have ever done. Two years and I realized that leaving that island home–one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done–was also one of the most loving things I could ever do for myself.

I am not, I was not fearless. But I did stare fear in the face while navigating an increasingly rocky path to become the incredibly self-aware woman I am today.

If you asked me if I’d do it all over again, I don’t know that I’d say yes. But if you asked me if the loneliness, heartache, and utter confusion were worth it, I’d look you in the eyes and tell you that believing in myself and knowing who I am and what I want in life is my biggest achievement, and I have those feelings to thank for that.

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Reflections of a Global Nomad: A Decade, From the Beginning Til Now

I intended to give myself a break from work today. No writing, no researching acting gigs, no scouring the Internet for animal opportunities. But I’m not very good at doing nothing. So I started cleaning.

While sweeping, the broom brushed out a rolled up scratch off map my sister and brother-in-law had given me for Christmas. I’d been putting off hanging the map on my wall because I wanted to be reflective during the time I spent scratching off the countries I’ve visited, the cultures I’ve experienced.

Today, I made time for that. And then, naturally, it inspired me to write so here I am at 9 AM on a rare day off that turned into not a day off because, well, I’m writing.

Writing is like an extension of my being. It’s hard-wired into my soul. I was born a writer; I can’t not write.

And just like writing, I’m a born traveler. The world is literally my stage (and I am literally a vagabond actress gallivanting across it, collecting parasites and scars and countless memories).

My first taste of international travel slammed into my heart 10 years ago when, college freshman year, I went with my roommate and a handful of girls from our floor to her home country in the Dominican Republic.

That original passport has since expired, but I was quick to renew it six months prior to the expiration date. I had no set travel plans, but when you’re a nomad at heart–well, you never know.

Today, I continued researching flights for my next international excursion, and I couldn’t help looking at Panama on my map anticipating using a penny to scratch it off. One of my flight options routes me through a layover in El Salvador, and I thought, okay, so I stay a little longer and see El Salvador.

But I don’t want to just see a country. I don’t want to just visit. I want to immerse myself. I want to jump head first into the unknown. I want to get lost and trust my gut and the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. I want to eat foreign foods and struggle to explain veganism to a waiter that can’t fathom it. I want to sleep on lumpy beds fending off cockroaches and humidity that make me toss and turn. I want to hitch hike and swim in new waters. I want to hear laughter and see smiles in a land that is so different from my own, full of people that are simultaneously unique and just the same as me.

As the years have passed and turning 30 looms closer, I had this little checklist in my brain, pushing me to hit 30 countries before I’m 30, so that I could feel like I knew a good chunk of this world. But I’ve stopped counting countries.

When I look at a map and see the big countries I’ve embraced, like Brazil, and then itty bitty ants of a country, like Luxembourg, they are of equal significance to me.

When I scratched off Brazil on my map, I remembered my first trip to the Amazon, something I’d dreamed of since childhood. I could see the faces of the children who helped me build their school. I pictured Bruno’s smile as he stole my bright green hat and taught me “Happy Birthday” in Portuguese, which I still sing a decade later. I felt how sore my muscles got mixing cement by hand in 100+ degree heat.

When I scratched off Luxembourg on my map, I remembered getting caught in a rainstorm and taking refuge in an old museum with a new friend I’d made from Australia. I could see the blood moon hovering over the capital city, brighter than I’ve ever seen it before. I remembered turning down an alley and running into a Serbian I’d met in Germany.

As I scratched off each country, my brain was flooded with memories–the good outweighing the bad, and the bad being mere life experiences that I learned from and laughed at–getting robbed in Ecuador, getting stalked in Canada, getting locked out on a third story terrace in Peru. (Oops, didn’t tell my dad about all of those…)

Scratching off my vagabond adventures, my gypsy life, my nomadic wanderings, I reflected on how many lifelong friends I’ve made all across the globe.

I notice the scars on my legs. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach with my inaugural adventure alone in a foreign land. I taste the salty tears dripping into my mouth the first time I set off with a beginning and end but no middle. I see the teenager I was and the woman I’ve become.

And I’m so damn proud of that woman.

She is the woman I’ve always wanted to be but needed to find the courage to become. She is someone who knows herself better than she ever thought she could, who believes in herself, who will try and fail and consider that succeeding. She is someone who knows how to plan and how to be spontaneous, who never stops dreaming and doing and dreaming and doing. She is the type of person who values face to face conversations and snail mail and nostalgia and blasts from the past and out of the blue honesty. She is the woman who loves humanity and this earth and will always do her best to spread love and happiness and the greater good.

Travel made me that woman, the woman I am today.

Looking up at my scratch off map now hanging above my bed, I am humbled. I’ve worked hard to experience so much of this world, yet this map reminds that I’ve still so much to experience. I’ve still so much to do, to learn, to see, to live.

So I’ve stopped counting countries, because I’m the kind of woman who chases meaningful experiences over fleeting moments, who values time over money, and who knows that no matter how small this world sometimes seems, it really is a great big world out there.

I’m Going to Meet Dr. Temple Grandin!

When I was rescuing animals in the Ecuadorian Amazon, sitting in a monkey-poo stained hammock in a bamboo hut after a 12-hour work day, I read Dr. Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation by candlelight.

The book details how Dr. Grandin’s autistic mind allows her to understand animals, literally putting herself in their shoes. She crawled through mud down cattle chutes to revolutionize the livestock industry. Half of the slaughterhouses in the U.S. and even more throughout the world now use her humane design, giving respect and dignity to these farm animals up to their predetermined end.

Dr. Grandin’s book was pivotal in my decision to commit to a vegetarian (and now vegan) lifestyle. It is a conscious choice I make every day to offer respect to the beautiful, entertaining, comforting, inspiring, impressive, and innocent animals that make up this great big world.

And now I get the chance to go to a Q&A and book signing with one of my idols, a woman who has battled countless odds to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves or are misunderstood. Not only is Dr. Grandin world famous in the livestock industry, but she is also a leading spokesperson for autism.

I received a press pass to go to the Vashon Sheepdog Classic (VSDC) this summer. Read more about Dr. Temple Grandin and the VSDC here.

“Animals in Translation” was a reprieve each night from the manual labor I put my body through in the Amazon, and helped me escape my anxiety and homesickness after being robbed on my first day backpacking solo in a foreign country.

When I was back in Ohio, I used to pull the book out from the shelves and stick my nose in the pages that forever captured that distinct and remarkable rainforest smell, transporting me back to the first glimpse of both my addiction to solo female travel and my future animal career.

I Met a Man from Iraq

On the evening of Tuesday, November 7, 2016, I flew from Idaho to Washington. In the airport terminal, I stopped at a burrito bar. It was there that I met a man from Iraq.

I made small talk with the man taking my order. He asked where I was from, where I was heading. Friendly and bright-eyed, he asked who I thought was going to win the election. I was confident a racist, xenophobic misogynist would not be taking the presidential oath in January, so we didn’t talk much more about politics.

I asked him how he liked living in Idaho. He said he hadn’t been here long, but it was suiting him fine.

“Oh, where did you move from?” I asked innocently.

He looked at me and said, “I’m from Iraq.”

A woman in a hijab emerged from the kitchen to begin fixing my burrito.

In that moment, I fumbled for words. I wanted to pour my heart out to them, to offer my sincerest apologies for all the hate–so much hate–being spewed in their direction. I wanted to ask them what it was like to live in Iraq, what it was like to listen to the news in America, what it was like to pass through airport security every day. I wanted to know how they came to run a burrito business and what were their hopes and dreams. I wanted to tell them I was sorry for the state of the world.

I wished to reach over the counter and take that man’s hands in mine and tell him I would fight for him. I wanted to look that woman in the eyes and tell her she was beautiful and so was her hijab.

Instead, hoping my enthusiasm would show I didn’t care where they came from, I uttered, “Oh, wow, that’s cool!”

Then I asked the man, “How did you choose Idaho?”

He shrugged and said, “It’s quiet out here in the middle of nowhere.”

I gave the couple a generous tip.

Early in the morning of November 8, 2016, I cried for the man and woman I met at a burrito bar.

I have wished countless times since then that I could rewind the clock and speak my thoughts aloud. Silence and inactivity are a crutch for the weak, confused and insecure. Fear paralyzes us and accomplishes nothing. Hate begets hate begets hate.

I cannot time travel, but I can work for the future. I will not stop fighting, and America, I hope you won’t either.

 

Beach Essentials: How to Make the Most Out of Your Sandy Relaxation

When I lived the island life, I quickly developed a habit of grabbing the same beach necessities every time I headed to the water.

While the coast of Washington doesn’t see me snorkeling like I did in the Bahamas and Florida Keys, I still pack my beach sack with the same things, excluding snorkel gear.

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Here’s a list of beach essentials that I recommend you carry to make the most of your shoreline adventure:

 1. Travel games

I refuse to go to the beach without Bananagrams and a deck of cards. Even if I’m going solo. Sometimes it’s too windy for cards, so keep that in mind before playing Solitaire or Rummy. And sometimes sea gulls will swoop in and steal the letter tiles for Bananagrams, particularly the coveted vowels. Here’s proof.

 2. Water

It is of course important to stay hydrated while soaking up the sun, but I also never go anywhere without a water bottle. Drinking fountains are just too far away from my beach towel anyway.

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 3. Headphones

I always bring music with me. If it’s a crowded beach, I am most likely going to be plugging in the tunes. If I’m traveling, I play music from my outdated iPod (read: songs from 2000–expect lots of High School Musical).

However, if the sound of nature overpowers the tourists, I forego the headphones. Puget Sound surprised me last summer with a delightfully vocal group of seals and sea lions!

 4. Blanket

In addition to the obvious beach towel, I usually bring along a comfy dedicated beach blanket. My blanket of choice has morphed between various styles over the years as they become soiled with seaweed and saltwater.

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 5. Camera

The best moments in life can’t be relived in a photograph, but nature constantly has beauty to behold. When I lived in Long Island, Bahamas, I kicked myself every time I got to the sea turtle cove and the camera was either forgotten or uncharged. Now I make sure I’ve got a means of snapping a picture if the opportunity presents itself.

 6.Waterproof shoes

Many of my beach adventures turn into hikes along old coral beds, which can’t be done in flip flops. I had to retire my last pair of Scuba booties, but any sort of waterproof shoes will do. (We called them aqua shoes in Ohio, but I’ve been told that is not a universal term. WHAT DO PEOPLE CALL THEM!?) Keens are also great! I wore out my pair in Florida–they’re not made for saltwater.

tidal pool

7. Other games

In addition to handheld games, I like to be active with other games on the beach. (I loooooooooooove games.) Growing up spending the summers on Lake Erie, my sisters and I played a minimum of two board games a day. Game pieces actually got lost in the sand and were recovered in future years during sandcastle building, hole digging and people-burying.

In case you’re feeling a 90s throwback, the beach board games of my youth included:

  • Pizza Party
  • Mall Madness
  • Sorry!
  • Guess Who
  • Ready, Set, Spaghetti!
  • Hi-Ho-Cheerio
  • Clue
  • Scrabble
  • Memory
  • Chutes and Ladders
  • Candy Land

In my 20s (ohmygodImalmost30), I tend to bring a volleyball and cornhole to the beach if I can.

crashing wave

 8. Beach snacks

Snacks at the beach get their own term–“beach snacks”–because they tend to be bite-sized foods that we gravitate toward time and again when packing up for the sand. In my Ohio years, we always had Oreos at the beach. We’d freeze them and then let them melt in the sun. (Fun fact: Oreos are vegan.) Chips ‘n salsa was also a must and usually some fruit, veggie and cracker trays thrown in there. Frozen grapes are great!

Nowadays, I tend to bring fruit and trail mix as well as a sandwich. Check out my healthy, allergy-free recipes for some ideas! It is zero fun having to leave the beach because you’re hungry. Prepare ahead of time to prevent this!

 9. Book

Don’t ever go to the beach without a book. Just don’t do it.

Once, I made the mistake of bringing a book I’d read a few months before. I have regretted it every day since.

Kindles are great; just make sure they’re fully charged!

Sometimes, I also bring my animal identification books (birds, shells, etc.) because once a zoologist, always a zoologist.

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 10. Beach cover-up

To protect my skin from the sun but avoid overheating, I have a nifty, flowy, breathable button-up I bring. I apologize that I don’t know what material it is made out of, because this fashion piece is dynamite. If someone could help me out, that’d be fantastic.

 11. Sunglasses

Make sure you have good UV sunglasses, and don’t trade fashion for protection. With good research, I promise you can have both. If you have giant white scleras like myself, take extra caution to protect those eyeballs or you’ll get UV damage like I did! 😦

 12. Notebook and pen

Not only does this come in handy for keeping score in card games, but it’s also a necessity if you’re a writer like myself. When that muse hits you, it starts spewing like a jar of marbles. Be prepared to snag those good ideas before they roll too far.

13. Jar for seashells

To be honest, I usually forget this one, but I am a sucker for beachcombing. I’m always collecting shells, seaglass and rocks on the beaches with which to make little seashell creatures. The beach finds end up going in my teeny backpack (which I much prefer to a tote bag) or in whatever container I have leftover from my lunch.

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14. Miscellaneous

I’m limited in how many arms I have, and sometimes I get to the beach on my bike. But when I can carry more items, I’ve also brought or enjoyed the following:

  • Hammock (you’ll need trees for this one)
  • Chair
  • Metal detector (my friend had an underwater one and we found a whole penny!)

boat on beach

Note: This post was inspired by Tripping.com’s Florida Vacation Rentals. If you’re heading to Florida this spring or summer, be sure to visit some of my favorite coastal towns heading south:

  • Anna Maria Island
  • Sarasota
  • Boca Grande
  • Florida Keys (all of em!!!!)

What are your beach essentials? Florida and Bahamas friends, I want to hear from you especially! 🙂 

**Please do your part to protect the environment and avoid taking plastic bags to the beach. They blow away in an instant and are mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and other animals!**

All photos ©Stacey Venzel, Creative Commons license.

 

50 Things I’ve Learned Since 2015

My life has been a series of catapulting adventures and misadventures since I left the Florida Keys in February 2015. But I’ve never felt more alive.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some things I learned in the past two years:

  1. Some people will be there for you; some will not. Always be the one who is, not the one who isn’t.
  2. Dogs cure everything.
  3. Date yourself at least once in this lifetime.
  4. Be real on social media.
  5. Being a member of a community is vital to your own humanity.
  6. Almond butter > peanut butter.
  7. Everyone has a voice, but some voices are stifled. Be a voice for those who want to be heard but aren’t.
  8. It’s okay to be emotional.
  9. Never stop asking questions; it’s how you learn.
  10. Second chances keep you from second guessing.
  11. Not everyone will “get” you. Embrace those who try, forget about those who don’t try.
  12. Laugh at yourself often, a minimum of once a day.
  13. Friendships are just as valuable as blood and boys.
  14. Stopping to smell the flowers is a legitimate excuse for being late.
  15. Modern luxuries numb perspective and gratitude.
  16. More often than not, strangers are beautiful humans trying to get by just like you.
  17. Individual independence is a state too few obtain in life. Seek it.
  18. Change precedes growth precedes fulfillment.
  19. The city can eat you alive, but it also teaches things you can’t learn anywhere else.
  20. Most opportunities you have to make for yourself.
  21. Never take an unhitched breath and a normal heart rate for granted.
  22. No dream is ever too big. Dream and then do and then repeat.
  23. Always flip head over heels for the little things in life.
  24. The harder you work for something, the better it tastes.
  25. Find the equilibrium between listener and advisor.
  26. Self-awareness is a necessary state of living.
  27. Forgiveness is an incredible gift. Give of it freely, and accept of it graciously.
  28. Know when and how to stand up for yourself.
  29. Failure is inevitable. Learn from it.
  30. If you sacrifice until your sacrifice is no longer a sacrifice, you’ll be an expert on compromise.
  31. Happiness is subjective.
  32. Success is subjective.
  33. Beauty is subjective.
  34. Hate begets hate begets hate.
  35. Be funny.
  36. Push yourself, but don’t be hard on yourself.
  37. Celebrate your accomplishments, even if others don’t understand them.
  38. Don’t forget the power of face-to-face conversations.
  39. Trust your gut.
  40. Be an expert problem solver.
  41. Never go anywhere without nail clippers. Hangnails are the devil.
  42. If you’re going to lose yourself in something, Nature is a good option.
  43. Balance the good with the bad and the old with the new.
  44. Believe in something. Be grounded and steadfast in that belief.
  45. Not having a car is one of the quickest ways to learn patience.
  46. You can be informed about lots of things but you don’t need to know about everything.
  47. Cooking over a fire is not the same as cooking over a stove.
  48. Fearing for your life is something you never really get over.
  49. Some people are toxic, and you have to let them go.
  50. Empathy can feel like a curse. See it as an incredible gift.

We only have one life to live. Let’s give it all we’ve got.

Sometimes Travel Is About Who You Visit, Not Where You Go

I used my Travel Rewards points to book a flight. It isn’t to somewhere exotic; in fact, it’s to a place I’ve already been twice before. Yet with my current excitement level, you’d think I’m finally setting off on that backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.

In the past decade with so many months spent on the road, I’ve embraced solo travel—and it’s taught me more than I could ever learn at any job. But I have also worked hard at nurturing the relationships, near and far, that mean the most to me.

Sometimes travel is about going home for the holidays. Sometimes travel is about celebrating your friend’s marriage or newborn baby. Sometimes travel is about cherishing those last few breaths with a loved one.

And sometimes it’s about making the most of a quick trip simply to dance like a fool with your bestest friend.