At last, the truths behind what travel has taught me revealed!

I just read an op-ed Rihanna wrote for The Guardian to shed light on the need for global education advocacy, and as the offspring of two teachers, I must admit I was pretty impressed. Understanding the value of a good formal education and being committed to putting in the work to get one, wasn’t an option growing up in my household; it was a must. So, to see the passion this Caribbean-born entrepreneur, philanthropist and international superstar has for assisting kids who may be denied an education because of social, economic or political reasons really moved me.

Among several important points raised, BadGal RiRi mentioned being grateful for the education she’s gained from traveling the world. That admission caused me to think of my own life experiences, and the extent to which travel has been an integral part of my personal evolution.

Below I’ve summarized five key things I’ve gained from my sojourns over the years:

A deeper sense of gratitude for my Caribbean roots and upbringing

I grew up on the island of Jamaica – a beautiful place without question – but also a country with its fair share of economic and social challenges. However, despite our ups and downs, every Jamaican I know walks around with some measure of braggadocio and an ebullient sense of national pride. But as much as I can laughingly acknowledge that even in our “bruk pocket” state we usually act like we’re the best thing since sliced bread (especially around Olympics time), I will also confess I didn’t fully grasp the full impact that Jamaican culture had made on the world until I left its shores.

Whenever I’m abroad and tell people I am Jamaican, I’ve encountered nothing but love and, in some instances, seen entire attitudes change. Believe me, from taxis in Dubai to plane rides going to South Africa, and explorations in Greece, Italy, South America and in between, I’ve discovered that our food, accent, Red Stripe beer, Bob Marley and Usain Bolt are tried and true connectors.

A greater appreciation for, and understanding of, the world around me

Every time I visit a new country or city, I get a better sense of how broad the human experience truly is and the tiny space we each occupy in this world. Because of  that, I consider it a blessing and a privilege that I have been able to visit places I previously only read about in my high school text books, or was introduced to by a magazine article, movie or travel show. It’s always such a pleasure to see and experience them in real life! What’s more, sometimes it’s only after a visit that elusive details finally make sense. For example, I always wondered why people made such a point of washing their feet before entering homes in the Bible stories I heard growing up, but after visiting Cairo and seeing how dusty my own were at the end of the day, it just clicked.

Travel has also expanded my mind because it allows me to observe and participate in new ways of doing things, try foods that are foreign to my palate, and see man-made landmarks, historic sites, and architectural designs that never fail to blow my mind.

At the core, people have more similarities than differences
For the most part, I think socialization shapes our predispositions, and those biases then end up coloring our interactions with others. But ultimately – whether we are from the Western or Eastern world; have trust funds or receive measly hourly paychecks; are born black, white, Asian or Latino – we ALL just want to be acknowledged and loved. I’ll never forget a lesson I learned in one of my college communications classes that said, “meaning lies within people, not words.” That’s why I attempt to get to know the people wherever I go, and try to approach each new destination with an open mind, as well as an eagerness to learn about customs and cultures that tend to be different from my own.

The knowledge that “problems” are relative
I never realized all the things I took for granted until I visited some places where possessions, services and freedoms I’d come to expect as the norm were not as commonplace. I’ll readily admit there have been times when I am home that I’ve wanted to cringe, cry, or throw a fit when I felt things weren’t going my way. But at the end of the day, I typically end up swallowing a chill pill because I know there are people out there without basic amenities like running water, a reliable roof over their heads, a decent paying job, and three balanced meals a day. When reviewed within that wider context, my challenges often pale in comparison.

How to be more adaptable and resourceful
Travel can be extremely unpredictable because it often takes you outside of your comfort zone, so I have had to learn to adjust quickly to unfamiliar situations. If my favorite breakfast foods aren’t available, or I find myself at an attraction that is closed because of a national holiday I knew nothing about, then I make do with the next best thing and keep on moving.  Similarly, if I lose my way (which is rare), I keep going and ask questions until I figure it out.  The truth is, it’s more rewarding to be flexible and resourceful than to be constantly frustrated. Life is too short to waste it on regret or recriminations!


What about you? Feel free to tell me what you have learned through travel.

Only 36 Hours in New Orleans? Here are 9 Itinerary suggestions

Some destinations are known for stunning natural scenery, while the appeal of others lies in instantly recognizable landmarks, the significance of the location’s history, its music scene, or culinary identity. But very few, like New Orleans, have most of those attributes with the added distinction of being world-renown for SOUL.Jaz musician statues at ouis Armstrong Park_New Orleans

And I don’t mean soul solely in terms of the definition normally ascribed to the African-American context that infers being steeped in black culture or ethnic pride. No, the Big Easy has soul in a much broader sense because it exudes an emotion, a passion, and an intensity that transcends race and ethnicity. I’d liken it to an intangible, but visceral force that leaps across socio-economic, political, generational and geographic chasms to make you forget about your respective backgrounds for long enough to absorb just the right amount of its crackling energy.

Plan for a long stay, but if you only have 36 hours, here are nine itinerary suggestions:

Take a city tour
You can do bus tours, food tours, or go on historic walking tours. My sister and I planned this trip for our parent’s wedding anniversary, so with seniors on board in the heat of the summer, we opted to sightsee on an air-conditioned bus. The ride took us past the French Quarter, the Garden District, the famous Superdome, the Tremé neighborhood, and the Ninth Ward area that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The stories of the city’s resilience and its sights were impressive, but one of the biggest highlights of the drive for me was getting to see the William Frantz Elementary School where 6-year-old Ruby Bridges boarded the steps in 1960 and did her part to end school segregation. The building is small, but I can’t imagine how huge and imposing it must have seemed back then to that tiny little girl.

Ride the streetcar 

New Orleans Streer Car
The streetcar is such a novel and neat way to see different parts of the city that you should add it to your list. The NOLA three-line, streetcar system is one of the oldest operated ones in the world. One of the cool things about it is if you ride all the way to the end of one line, you just get up and turn your seats around to face the other way on the return. Plus, it’s cheap! At US$3 for a 24-hour pass, its prices beat even Uber and Lyft.

Eat, eat… and then eat some more
Let me warn you now, do not go to New Orleans if you’re on a diet! The food is so outstanding, by trying to watch calories you will be losing out. What I liked best is the wide range of culinary offerings available everywhere, which means you don’t have to dress up and pay fancy prices to savor the deliciousness that abounds. We tried to avoid the tourist traps by eating local, and oh me oh my, the hotel staff and taxi drivers sure didn’t steer us wrong. 

If you’re a fan of shrimp, gumbo and crawfish/crayfish, I have two words for you: Cajun Seafood. It’s a small, stand-up-and-order-at-the counter eatery on 1479 N. Claiborne Avenue that serves seafood by the plate or pound. You get fantastic tasting meals with humungous servings at half the price you’d pay in even the most basic restaurant in the French Quarter.

If you’re staying in the business district and are looking for good ole homestyle breakfast and lunch options that are easy on the taste buds AND your pocket, you can try Commerce Restaurant on Camp Street or P & G Restaurant and Bar on Baronne Street.

Other must-try signature meals elsewhere include beignets (Morning Call Coffee Stand), pralines (Leah’s Pralines), fried chicken (Dooky Chase or Willie Mae’s), and jambalaya (Jacques IMO Café). I didn’t get to try them all, but those places come highly recommended.

Visit City Park

Relaxing in City Park, New Orleans
City Park is NOLA’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park, and it is a lovely 1,300-acre green oasis lined with stately historic oaks. The outdoor art in The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is outstanding, but if art isn’t your thing you can check out the botanical garden, or go walk, bike or hike the pathways in the seemingly limitless space adorned with dramatic moss canopies.

Watch live jazz
Music is so interwoven into the history of the city that no visit would be complete without enjoying a live jazz show. It’s quite likely you’ll hear it on the streets from performers who really should already have a record deal, but it you’re looking for more ambiance in your music setting you can plan to visit a hall or showroom. I enjoyed listening to the vocal gymnastics of Mayo Jones at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. They didn’t charge a cover, but there was a one drink minimum rule per set.

Other popular places I heard about were Tipitina’s (which had a Free Fridays night), Preservation Hall and One Eyed Jacks.

Visit the French Quarter

The infamous Mardis Gras stories, and the non-stop revelry and liquor-laced shenanigans that take place along Canal Street and Bourbon Street make the French Quarter famous, but there’s much more to that area than bawdy behavior and colorful, fishbowl-sized go cups. Public monuments in what was once the original town square have French and Spanish architectural design influences that are interesting to see, but the pièce de résistance is its cluster of charming Creole townhouses and cottages.

Go on a riverboat cruise
This is a popular way to get out on the water to see the city. I took the Steamboat Natchez Cruise on the Sunday morning before I left, and it was a relaxing way to recharge my batteries after an action-packed visit. There are also lunch and dinner cruise options that allow you to eat while you glide downriver.

Try a cemetery Tour
Because the city is below sea-level, the residents have a unique way of burying their dead, so cemetery tours are common. On my bus tour, the driver made a brief stop at the Metairie Cemetery, where we got to hear about their burial process and see some of NOLA’s above-ground tombs. I admit this kind of thing is not for everybody, but it is different.

Learn about black heritage and the history of jazz

NOLA Black History & Jazz tour
I encourage you to get off the beaten path to spend about two and a half hours with Mikhala Iversen, a Danish/American jazz singer and recording artist who set up her company – All Bout Dat Tours – to showcase aspects of the New Orleans story not being covered by the other plantation, swamp and ghost tour companies. The history lesson starts at Louis Armstrong Park where she talks about the forced transatlantic journey of enslaved Africans, their subsequent stories of pain and resistance, and their ensuing reliance on music and the healing drum circles of Congo Square, which is attributed as the birthplace of jazz.

If you’re so inclined, you can chant along with her to “spiritual libations” that purportedly evoke good energy and healing under one of the oak trees near the square. Later, she takes you to Bayou Road, which is in one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the United Sates. There you’ll find primarily black-owned businesses, so take extra money to support them by buying books, local art, and African fabric, as well as things like handmade soaps and jewelry. If you go into the community bookstore to browse for trinkets, please say hello to Miss Jennifer, a sweet-natured woman who doles out hugs like she could be everyone’s grandma.
Editor’s Notes

Other travel tips to note:
1. Hotels in the French Quarter are closest to the all-day, all-night tourist action, but they also tend to be expensive and noisy.
2. If you want to be close by, but not in the thick of things, book accommodations in the business district near the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.
3. Canal Street separates the French side from the English side of town and the streets have names in both languages, so take note of your surroundings carefully. Don’t fall prey to any crafty, metered taxi drivers who may take you on an extra long route to drop you off right across the street.
4. Shopaholics, I was told Magazine Street has 60 blocks of retail therapy just waiting to take your money.
5. Bar loving babes and gents, happy hour starts at 1pm on a Friday and the drinks keep flowing. NOLA residents will proudly tell you, “You will pass out before they run out.”

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