THE DANGERS OF STUDYING ABROAD

My mom cried. She thought I might die in a terrorist attack. I reiterated that I wanted to go to Europe, not the Middle East. In our current day reality, this may have been a threat that I would have put some legitimate thought into. However, my concern would have been fleeting and regardless, I still would have boarded that plane.

To back up a bit, I went to Florida State University (Go ‘Noles!). During freshman orientation, there are tons of break-out sessions that upcoming freshman can attend to find out how to maximize on their college years. I was eighteen, fresh-faced, naïve about the world, and had never traveled outside the country. Despite my mom’s comment that day as I peeled off to attend the informational session on the study abroad programs (“I’m not paying for that…I’ll go to another session), I went and listened to what the advisors had to say. Come Hell or high water, I was going to spend a semester overseas!

My mom was telling the truth. She didn’t pay for me to study abroad (which, of course, I did not initially believe since she was always willing to invest in anything academically focused). This is not to paint a negative picture about my mom at all, in fact quite the opposite. I learned more from her telling me “no,” than I ever would have if she had just agreed that my parents would foot the bill. Because my parents weren’t paying, I decided that I needed a loan. I didn’t know about terms, or interest rates, but I applied, I got approved, I signed my name on the dotted line, put my name in the hat for a summer in Italy, and got into the program.

9 years later, I came back to visit the FSU campus in Florence

9 years later, I came back to visit the FSU campus in Florence

So that was that. I was going to Italy! Now it was time to plan! I needed to get my passport, a student visa, luggage, books for classes, adaptors, and every other thing I was informed that I needed for the upcoming summer semester. Months, and a lot of checklists later, I rolled up to the American Airlines check-in counter with two HUGE suitcases, both weighing in at the maximum threshold. I looked like I was moving permanently, instead of just attending six weeks of classes.

I connected through Charlotte International Airport and met up with one of my best friends from my freshman dorm who had lived in Italy as a child while her dad was in the Navy (coincidentally, I ended up marrying he brother, so now she is my sister in-law and her father is my now father-in-law). We flew side-by-side across the ocean, and landed to find that our luggage didn’t make the trip. We ended up spending the first two days wearing our new classmates’ clothes, using their cosmetics, and not caring one bit. We were in ITALY!

Kalee and our first day in Italy in front of the Baptistery of San Giovanni

Kalee and our first day in Italy in front of the Baptistery of San Giovanni

Upon initial arrival, we all checked into our apartments. Somehow, we had thirteen students in one tiny, lackluster, poorly plumbed, and incredibly perfect apartment. We decided to have a “roomie” dinner where we all ended up enjoying too much wine, making our 8 AM orientation less-enticing than it would have been if we had solely suffered from an overdose of jet lag. I remember walking around that morning and seeing the Baptistery the first time and knowing that something in me had changed on a molecular level.

I spent the next six weeks wandering the streets of Florence. Every moment that I wasn’t in class, I was perusing the shops, drinking wine in the piazzas, and exalting the artwork that decorated the streets. As an outsider, I couldn’t imagine that Florentines ever become numb to the rich beauty of their city. In walking to a restaurant, you pass multiple Renaissance art pieces, monuments, and landmarks. Florence has a wealth of history, and I was cashing in all my chips to see it all before I left in June.

Our weekends contained trips to Rome, the Tuscan countryside, the Amalfi coast, Milan, Venice, and a myriad of small towns that create the allure that Italy has to offer its residents and tourists. Every town, every meal, every breath abroad changed my perspective on life and my expectation of what it was to “travel.”

The dangers of studying abroad were not imminent, physical, terrorism-rated, nor did they appear to be obvious, at first. In fact, I didn’t even realize what I was at risk of at any time during my semester in Italy. To clarify, nothing about my study abroad experience was actually dangerous or even slightly risky. However, the emotional danger was the fact that I was officially afflicted with a permanent case of wanderlust.

finally convinced my mom to visit Florence with me in 2014

finally convinced my mom to visit Florence with me in 2014

Travel in itself was not the problem. The conundrum was that anytime I was not traveling, I was either daydreaming about where I can visit next, or I found myself researching the next item to check off my bucket list. I have reason to believe that I am not alone in this. In fact, I now tend to see a lot of study abroad alums posting recent pictures of their excursions to Europe, further validating my perspective.

So here I am ten years later. I wish that everyone could have the pivotal experience that I was able to participate in during the summer of 2005, but I realize that is far from a reality. However, I can help others feel the same emotions that I had during those six weeks that I spent in Italy. This is exactly why Explorateur Travel exists. My goals include providing all aspects of experiential travel for those who want to “feel” the place that they are visiting. The focus is not merely to book travel, but to plan those small details that invoke an intense and permanent connection with the vacation destination.

IT’S NEVER TOO SOON FOR TULUM

tulum.jpg
Ready to explore the town of Tulum!

Ready to explore the town of Tulum!

Most pictures that I have seen of Mexico tend to be around the main hotspots that we have all heard of: Cabo San LucasPlaya del Carmen, and Cancun. But one day, I was toying around onPinterest (Dangit, Pinterest…why do you have to be so addicting!), and came across a picture of lantern lit jungle tavern with a white sandy floor in a place picture referred to as “Tulum.” The next thing I found out about Tulum, was that it was a yogi’s haven. Now, I am not a yogi, but I am all for integrating wellness into a vacation. As I continued my Pinterest meandering, I saw images of bathing suit-clad travelers lounging on mattresses in the sand, while drinking something that I imagined to be cool, rum-filled, and delicious. I spiraled into an all-out vacation fantasy!

Tulum has apparently been a hideaway for travelers that want to avoid the chaos of the main resort towns, but want to experience the glory of local culture, no-fuss sunbathing, cenote swimming, and the pleasures of the many restaurants that are sprinkled along the main Tulum strip.

The idyllic Ahau Tulum eco-lodge Photo credit: Ahau Tulum

The idyllic Ahau Tulum eco-lodge
Photo credit: Ahau Tulum

Even getting to Tulum was enjoyable! Thanks to Delta, getting to Cancun from Florida was a breeze. However, fighting through the crowd of vendors in the airport who want your business, was not. Fortunately, I had reserved a shuttle with USA Transfers and they were perfectly prompt and professional. They even stopped at the 7-11 as we got on the highway so that we could enjoy a cold cerveza for the drive! So with Pacifico in hand, we settled in for our one and a half hour drive towards our beach hideaway.

By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were ready to see what this town had to offer us. As we walked up the sandy steps to the check in desk, we were greeted with champagne and a warm welcome. Customer service here was no joke. Honestly, Ahau Tulum’s staff was better than any I have ever experienced (and much more impressive than I expected from an eco-lodge).

Our dinner restaurant, Casa Banana Photo Credit: Casa Banana

Our dinner restaurant, Casa Banana
Photo Credit: Casa Banana

Even though our visit was in November (normally a dry month), we were met with unseasonably rainy weather. Because of this, the receptionist tempted me with an offer I couldn’t refuse: an essential oil massage in a hut on the beach. I anxiously accepted, and I am so glad that I did. I waited for my masseuse with the world’s most magical tea in the lounge area, where other guest were reading and hanging out. Within a few minutes, it was my turn to be pampered. For two hours, I listened to the waves crash against the shore and the pitter patter of the rain on a palm frond roof, while experiencing the most cathartic massage that has ever happened to my body. I’m talking about wobbly legs, woozy feeling, and make-no-sense kind of talking after this massage. I was useless to the world- apparently this is just how Tulum likes its guests!

Luckily, this warm welcome was the tip of the iceberg for the town of Tulum. The rain did not slow us down, and actually added to the novelty of visiting an actual rain forest! We ended our first day with a drizzly walk down the canopied road to a fantastic dinner at Casa Banana. If you ever have the chance to diner here, I would absolutely suggest it. We waited for a table by the bar, while enjoying artisanal, fresh, and unique cocktails. My husband and I both enjoyed perfectly cooked steaks and grilled vegetables that were prepared over an open wood-fire grill.

To end the day, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Tulum goes to bed quite early. This really is heaven! It was early to bed for me- after all, I had sun salutations with the hotel’s yogi early in the AM….Namaste.

THE “EXPERIENCE” OF DINING IN MADRID

In the United States, the average family tends to eat between 6-8 PM with a typical bedtime of 8-10 PM. When on vacation, it wouldn’t be abnormal to have a little variance in this schedule. However, I never expected dinner time to extend into the late night when I am usually snuggling up with a book and a cup of tea.

When my husband told me about a childhood memory of how his family was unable to find a restaurant to eat dinner at 10 PM in Malaga, I truly thought he was exaggerating. Then this April, I was the one wandering the streets of Madrid at 9:30 PM, hungry and being turned away time and time again. How could the Spaniards eat so late? Aren’t they starving by the time they get to the restaurant? Don’t they have to get to sleep? And why is every restaurant packed to capacity?

Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that lunch is the main meal in Madrid. You can see business men and women enjoying their mid-afternoon meal until around 2-3 in the afternoon. So no wonder they aren’t hungry until later!

Eating out is not just a convenience in Spain (as it tends to be in the U.S.), but it is an intense social occasion. Lunches and dinners last for hours – filled with multiple courses and varying beverages. We sat next to a table of four locals who sat for hours and gradually made their way through croquettes, paella, and dessert accompanied with cava, sangria, and then finally onto coffee. Therefore, the restaurants typically only host one seating per evening and have no problem filling their tables, much less turning those away that didn’t have the foresight to make a reservation in advance. If you are eating in Spain on a Friday or Saturday, I highly encourage you to make a reservation or you may end up wandering the streets and hoping that someone missed their 9:30 PM reservation.

With that being said, no matter what the time was, our food was incredible, fresh, and served with a healthy side of delicious Sangria!