Must-D0s when at a Travel Destination

There a few things I always try to do when I travel to a new place, I think they really help me connect and not be an insensitive aloof tourist mowing over culture and locals.

1.Befriend a local – where possible, I really like making friends with some of the local people. It’s a great way to really get to know a place and to get recommendations  of things off the tourist trail. They are always happy to spill all the secrets that will help you have a really wholesome trip. I have thankfully been able to either make new friends at places I have been or to already have friends who live there. It is really great when you get invited to people’s homes, eat with their family and hear stories that bring life to your journey and make you appreciate being where you are. In smaller communities, befriending a local also opens the gate for you to be accepted by the wider, perhaps more cautious community.

 

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Trying to befriend a local – Matana, Burundi

2. Run – If you are a runner, it goes without saying that you will be packing your running gear with you on travels. If you are not a runner, well you should be, running and runners are great! Running abroad is a great way  to stumble upon some spectacular places, some out of the way of the tourist bus. Running on location really amps your motivation as you might get to run on white sandy beaches, through mountains, muddy terrains or through a lush forest. Most people run on concrete weaving through buildings, pedestrians, prams and vehicles trying not let the exhaust pipe fumes strangle their lungs. So, getting a chance to change scenery and air quality is always welcome. Again, running has a way of really plugging you into the location and forging a connection. Do check out if you can sign up for any local or national races before you travel.

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Running route – Nafplio, Greece

3.Buy local –  Try to avoid the massive international chains and invest in local businesses when at a new travel destination. It is a great way to get some authentic cultural stuff and  to talk to some interesting people. Open markets are amazing spaces, usually full of life and interesting vendors. Also, buying local (made) means you are less likely to buy stuff made in a sweat shop in some dark alley.Do remember to negotiate prices where possible though! I often try to find cool home decor that are well made , FOOD, jewelry and local fashion designers and artists. It is essential you buy stuff you really like and that is well made with real craftsmanship, it may cost a bit more but you don’t want to accumulate badly made junk.   You may have to buy less but few quality pieces are much better than loads of junk…I would think.

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Eating local – Bath, England

Taormina – Sicily’s Gem

Whilst I was in Italy, Reggio Calabria, I took a ferry over to Sicily, of course. You can see Sicily from the shores of Reggio Calabria, it beckons you and you have little or no choice but to ferry yourself over.

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Outside Taormina Giardini Station

Sicily is a large island and I only got to truly visit Taormina. I asked my friends back in mainland Italy – “Where would you suggest someone who is short on time go in Sicily?” – and every single person said Taormina.

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The journey from Reggio Calabria to Taormina is fairly straightforward and very scenic. I took the train from Messina to Taormina Giardini Train station. The train journey was mostly by  the beautiful Mediterranean, which had islands, great and small, jutting from its depths. It was breathtaking. The train ride in and of itself was a great experience. I hear the bus from Messina to Taormina offers even more of a scenic route!

Once at Taormina Giardini Train station, which is the most majestic train station I have ever alighted at as its background is the sea, the easiest way up to Taormina is a cab or a bus.

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Taormina Giardini Station

When I say the easiest way up to Taormina is a cab, I do mean it when I say “up”. You are literally spiraling up to the hill top town, farther and farther above the sea. There are unconvincing safety nets separating the cars climbing up to the little town from the seas below. This is both frightening and beautiful, beautiful because this results in clear, unobstructed panoramic views of the sea and even the famous ice-capped Mount Etna.

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Up and up into Taormina

Taormina may be small but its packed full of treasures. It felt like nothing I have experienced, it was so perfect that it felt I was in some fantasy film or book. It really is the stuff of dreams and hopes. You do feel that you are hundreds of feet high up as you can see the world far down below. Up in Taormina, you get a clear view of the intimidatingly massive active volcano, Mount Etna.

I found Taormina to be quite contradictory in the sense that it is a very stylish obviously tourist town full of all kinds of luxury and independent chic shops but also built atop centuries of architectural masterpieces and intimidating natural wonders. It’s alot of everything in high concentration.It didn’t take me long to see why it was so vehemently suggested as a must-see by my Italian friends. It is small enough to do in a day but full of excitement that you will leave feeling both fulfilled and curious as to what details you might have skimmed over or what beauty you might have overlooked. That is how packed full it is. And I definitely have to return as there where key things I didn’t experience such as the ancient Greek theater, called the “most dramatically situated Greek theater in the world” and the beach by the aptly named Isola Bella (beautiful Island).

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Piazza IX Aprile and the singing men

My two definite favorite experiences were the Piazza IX Aprile on Corso Umberto and the Garden of Villa Communale. Both have absolutely stunning views (no surprise). The Piazza is at the end of Corso Umberto and is a pleasant surprise as you come from the narrow street full of shops and restaurants unto this wide square with its checkered shiny floor, an old small chapel on your right and the sea to your left, hundreds of feet below. You can contentedly sit in the Piazza for hours, armed with gelato, without a care! When I went, there were a couple of men singing in the Piazza and these two adorable little girls where dancing round the square happily, the breeze from the sea in their hair. Perfection.

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Walking into Piazza IX Aprile

Taormina is quite expensive, so do be prepared to splash out a bit on restaurants and hotels. However, there are a few hostels which are really cheap accommodation if you are on a budget. Though you can do much in a day, I would suggest around 3 days for a thorough in-depth but relaxed experience.

Taormina for me was the most surreal place I have ever tread my feet. The combination of the town’s altitude; the consequent views, the people and  the food makes it a gem.

 

Few things to expect when travelling as a Black Woman

Now these points are going to touch on travelling to places where Black people are extremely in the minority based on my experience.

  1. You will be stared at and possibly pointed at; it’s completely unavoidable. You will get lots of stares from lots of people. This could be off-putting especially if you weren’t expecting it. However, after a while you do get used to it and choose to focus more on enjoying yourself . The amount of attention you get also greatly depends on which part of the country you are in and if they are used to getting tourists. As a note, I have found most stares to be harmless in the sense that it’s pure curiosity and perhaps shock, and though it might seem antagonistic I haven’t found it to be so. I say this because when I do have to communicate with the locals, which in my case is often, they are usually friendly. Of course, I try to be sensible when picking who to talk to. I have heard of people touching people’s faces in awe of all the melanin, but that has never happened to me before (thank God!)
  2. Sadly, again depending on the country and region of country, you may get creepy men paying you attention – more than usual at least. This is the worst part for me as I suspect this is often based on prejudices and sick stereotypes they might have about Black women. This could also be scary if you are on your own. Solo female travelers in general need to be careful. The best tip I can give is to just ignore, as you normally would at home, and keep it moving. Also, its always great to have someone you can contact in the country if in trouble. I also try to make sure I know the numbers to dial for emergency services in the country I’m in.
  3. You will not find your foundation/powder shade so make sure you don’t run out! It’s hard enough finding a shade that matches you exactly in diverse places like London so don’t dream of finding a variety of dark shades in places where there aren’t many black people. The reason is obvious, the market is little, the demand is not significant enough for wide ranges to be stocked.
  4. People might think you are a celebrity, even though you look nothing like said celebrity (sadly lol). You might get called Naomi Campbell or Beyoncé, do enjoy the moment of fame.

All in all, travelling for me has been great and I haven’t experienced any racism or damaging reactions from people. People have been super kind and hospitable.  I do think this is the case for most Black female travelers. People will be curious but its usually harmless.

The color of your skin should not affect places you can travel to, yes you have to be wise and having a local or a group of friends is always helpful. Having said that, if locals advise you to steer clear of some areas, it’s often smart to do so. I know for the super adventurous that could be annoying though, but its important to consider local advise.

p.s. – Some might consider this bad advise or contradictory to last paragraph above but I think its worth saying.  Never let people’s opinions of a particular culture and place completely put you off going to a place. Sometimes its scaremongering, sometimes its legit, its up to you to research and know for yourself if the trip is worth it and how you can make it as safe as possible. The News makes some countries sound like a cesspit of violence but sometimes it’s just regions of said places. Do your research and make your decision.

After all “you’ll never know until you go”

 

Italy – Calabria

There have been two places on the top of my must-visit list for some years now and Italy was one of them. I think Italy is a must-see for many people. It’s a well publicized destination and has the element of romance and pizzas working for it. I saw no Gondolas or Colosseum but what I did see was equally beautiful!

I was in Italy for three months in a small seas-side town called Locri in the region of Calabria. Italy did not disappoint, if anything it further captured me and drew me in deeper, I want to see more of Italy than I have.

 The people here, in the south of Italy,  have a strong sense of identity and often see themselves as very different from their northern counterparts. Most people did not speak any English as expected,so I had to pick up Italian pretty quickly and was able to have light conversations in Italian by the time I left.

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Promenade, Locri

Now Locri is surrounded with lush rolling hills (perfect for hiking) with the sparkling Mediterranean at its doorstep (perfect for swimming). Surrounding villages are houses built on and into rocks across the hills and getting through involves rides through winding, tiny streets leading higher and higher above the Med. I lived about 5 minutes from the beach, which was mostly deserted as it was a bit chilly when I went. The chill didn’t stop me from throwing myself into the sea several times though. This part of Italy truly takes your breath away, exquisite raw beauty is the norm here. To top it off, there is gorgeous food everywhere, from mouth-watering pastries and pretty little treats to legendary pizzas and delicious appetizers. I believe the single thing I ate the most during my three months in the South of Italy were these mind-blowingly delicious ice-cream sandwiches –  gelato spooned into brioche rolls. I couldn’t stop devouring them in large quantities.

I really liked the feel and “vibe” in Locri, the people were very friendly despite my horrible Italian and the fact I was probably the only non-white person for miles and miles. Surprisingly, in Reggio Calabria or simply Reggio, the major city in Calabria, the people though friendly on communicating with them, stared A LOT. When walking down the busy high street during passegiatta (Italian informal custom of strolling up and down main streets and socializing, usually Sunday evenings), I literally stopped traffic. It was a strange experience for me as this was the first time I was in a place where people weren’t used to seeing Black tourists. Sadly, a lot of the Black people in Reggio where refugees or people seeking asylum;  they were poor and did menial odd jobs, I was obviously a tourist and as such a rarity.

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Locri – my morning jog route

There are quite a few ruins and archaeological sites to visit in the area, many dating years before Christ. My favorite little town in the area was Gerace, which is absolutely stunning, and is, unsurprisingly, perched on a hill. The windy streets, the little cafes, the old castles and the panoramic views of the sea made it feel heavenly.

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Castle ruins, Gerace

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View from the top, Gerace

Calabria was good to me. There were moments when I felt it was all too good to be true. But it was true, I had the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of this place for three months and it was a lot of beauty to behold.

 

 

 

Why I love travel..

It’s the movement.

The progress, the soaking up of everything that’s so new and different.

An invasion of the senses – the smells, sounds, tastes, the feel, the colors…

Travel takes you back to your early years – you’re a sponge and you just soak it all up cos it’s all new, like all things are new when you are child just starting life.Everything is a surprise.

It’s a regression and a progression all at once.

The perfect composite

Burundi – Bujumbura and Matana

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Sunset – if you look to the horizon you can just see the silhouette of hills in the DR Congo

 

Burundi is a piece of heaven. So strikingly beautiful and raw and perfect. You never hear of Burundi as a tourist destination nor do you see it in National Geographic, but it’s beauty is on par with many more famous beautiful destinations. My whole time there (3 months) was very authentic and non-touristy in many ways. I went there to volunteer with a local church in the hills of Burundi in a village called Matana.

We flew into Bujumbura, the capital city. It is very mellow, in my opinion, for a capital city. Of course it was more hectic than the villages, but in comparison to say…Lagos, another African capital city..it was really mellow. But then again most cities are incomparable to Lagos, even the staunchest Londoner/New Yorker would find Lagos overwhelming at the very least. I would recommend visiting the tourist market which have loads of handcrafted things you can buy for people back home. Cafe Gourmand was also a nice treat, its a patisserie where you get all the usual sweet stuff and ice cream, unsurprisingly loads of westerners congregate there.

Now, Matana, was where I spent most of my time in Burundi. It is a village in the hills, Burundi is mostly hills covered in lush green and tea farms (tea is really good here). I love rural living, I live quite rural in the UK and just love the peace and slower pace of life. Matana is very beautiful and most people live off the land and rare cattle. People are proud of their cows and I saw one of the biggest cows I have ever seen in my life whilst up there, granted it was also pregnant. When it rains up here it pours, its loud and very heavy, nothing like you would ever see in England. It’s a deluge. Then the after-rain smell is just gorgeous due to all the green and red earth..urgh..perfection!

Of course, I  visited Lake Tanganyika a couple of times. It’s the biggest freshwater lake in Africa and second biggest in the world by volume. In some parts, the beach is white and the lake very clean and you feel you are in the Caribbean and not beside a humongous lake. At some point we were driving to Blue Bay resort and on one side of the road were huge hills dotted with palm trees and on the other side was the beautiful lake, needless to say I was awestruck the entire time.

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Lake Tanganyika

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Blue Bay

For the first time in my life, I finally got to see a water fall  after climbing through the hills in Rutana. The Karera Falls were amazing and I truly felt blessed to have the opportunity to be in this beautiful country filled with such natural beauty.

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Karera Falls, Rutana, Burundi

To add more to the wonders of Burundi, one of the sources of the Nile can be found here, it’s only a trickle now but nevertheless a must-see. Of all the places I have traveled to, I felt my most content and complete in Burundi; the rolling hills, the Lake, the people, the red earth. The beauty that surprised me at every turn and the the generally slow pace of life really does give this little gem heavenly traits!

Washington D.C – And it’s a wrap

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Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.

I absolutely love museums. I often call myself a cultural traveler and for me one of the best places to consume culture ,spanning from centuries in the past to the present, are museums. Now, Washington D.C.’s National Mall is a museum-lovers paradise with Smithsonian museums scattered across the Mall.

I had only two days to spend in D.C. and it was nowhere near enough. These  museums are huge and busy and free, so you really need time to get around them. I believe there are 18 Smithsonian museums in the D.C. area and I was pitifully only able to visit 2 of them. I visited the Air and Space Museum, the National Archives (not a Smithsonian) and the American History Museum; and my highlights were seeing the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Magna Carta and Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration dress & Julia Child’s kitchen respectively.

As at my visit, the African American History and Culture Museum was still being built, I would have loved to see that. However, my greatest disappointment was not having the time to mooch around the African Art Museum. I went as far as the foyer of the Natural History Museum, at this point I had already done a few museums, but it was so crowded that I was immediately drained of energy and motivation, so I did an about turn and went home. Bear in mind that seeing the Mall’s delights involves a lot of walking, getting to and around the museums, sights and memorials. A warm memory was when I bought a gigantic pretzel and sat my tired self on a wall directly opposite the National Archives and munched away appreciating how blessed I was to be able to see this part of the world.

Asides, the Smithsonian, visiting other tourist magnets like the White House and Capitol Hill were almost dream-like for me with how surreal it felt. Seeing war memorials were more sobering but equally enjoyable. I was nearly euphoric standing at the Lincoln Memorial and in front of the Reflecting Pool where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream..” speech.

 

As I went sightseeing on my own, I got to make friends along the way and it was just a great couple of days.I must say, I found it really pleasant being in America, if you have read my two previous posts you won’t be surprised to know that one of the reasons America (at least the states I visited) was so much fun for me was because it had  Nigerian vibes. In the sense that Americans, at least the ones I met, were quite chatty and loud, and the average Nigerian is quite chatty and loud and hence I felt quite at home. There was less stranger anxiety and it was  much easier to get into conversations with random strangers, than in the UK. So, even though I was a solo tourist in D.C., I did not feel alone as I had free rein to chat with random people without much fear of being given a cold shoulder, in fact most people I got into conversations with initiated the chatting. 

So, 3 states down in America, so much more to visit!

Next Stop, FLORIDA!

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With Princess Fiona and Shrek at Universal Studios, Orlando

I had quite the unfortunate journey on my way from Menomonie, Wisconsin to Miami, Florida…I was seated at the rear of the plane, on the inner window seat of a row of 3 seats. The problem arose from the fact that there was no window by my window seat. So for the duration of the flight, I felt like I was in a large tube being hurtled across the sky mercilessly.

However, my time in the sunny Florida completely made up for my sickly plane journey. In a sense, being in Florida felt like being back home in Lagos, Nigeria. The sun was on full blast throughout the time I spent in the aptly nicknamed “sunshine state”. I was surprised to notice there were very few pedestrians to be seen everywhere I went in the state. Everyone seemed to have taken cover from the blazing sun. In comparison to the UK, I noticed there were loads of people driving white cars and under the bright sun, they sure did look good with the rays bouncing off of the white.  As I think of it, I do not think I have ever once seen a white car in the UK (moments after writing this I realized my neighbors actually own a white car….).

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Delicious Chick fil A milkshake

One of the major highlights of Florida was dropping by Chick fil A on our way to Orlando. I  had the most delicious milkshake ever made, in my opinion, and I have had a lot of milkshakes.

Without a doubt and it will come as no shock, that the best experience in Florida was visiting the Universal Studios in Orlando. I am an adrenaline junkie and hopped from roller-coaster to simulated roller-coaster. My dad, who I went with, is not an adrenaline junkie and he nearly had a heart attack. I wish we had more time though. We were only able to visit one section of the theme park and I would have also loved to go to Disney World which is a stones throw away from Universal Studios. It is definitely worth setting aside a few days (and wad of cash) to thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Other fun experiences were visits to South Beach and Daytona Beach (which is the self-proclaimed most famous beach in the world…). The waves reminded me of some beaches in Lagos, I often went to as a child. The waves of the Atlantic hedging Lagos are very wild and my idea of a perfect beach – warm sand, wild waves.

It probably goes without saying that Florida is a fantastic place to visit especially if you live in a country with more frigid temperatures. I found the people there warm and friendly and can’t wait to have another opportunity to return.

Starting with the U.S.A – Wisconsin

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Milwaukee, USA

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Milwaukee, USA – Harley Davidson Museum

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IHOP – International House of Pancakes in Milwaukee

 

Right after submitting the final draft of my university dissertation in the year 2013, I left York, England and flew to Minneapolis, USA to visit my Uncle’s family who lived in nearby Menomonie, Wisconsin. This would be my first real travel and the beginning of an unquenchable, insatiable, bugging desire to see the whole world.

This post will be about my first stop in America, Wisconsin and the things I did, what I saw and how I felt there.

My first defining thoughts in America were – “everything is so big, even the people are bigger”. I got relatively stressed out transporting myself from one end of the massive airport I was changing flights at. American airports are HUGE. I was already at the verge of missing my flight mostly because I had underestimated how many miles I would have to travel within the airport. An interesting thing I saw as I rushed was people clapping for a group of soldiers who were walking by. I guess it was their way of showing respect. I have definitely never seen anyone clap for any soldiers in the UK.

Menomonie – I stayed for a few days with my Uncle and Aunt in their little town, Menomonie, before heading to Milwaukee for my cousin’s graduation. I remember us going to a Chinese buffet one evening and finding it difficult to believe “soda” had free refills. I was later to find out this is quite common in the States. Food portions are also much bigger and I spent my first few weeks back in the UK grumbling as everything was more expensive and portion sizes suddenly became a travesty.

Madison – There was a brief stop in Madison on our way to Milwaukee. I got to  see the University of Wisconsin campus there and again was truly flabbergasted at the size of the University in comparison to its UK counterparts. It seemed limitless to me. The only comparison I had was probably the few Nigerian Universities I have visited which are also quite huge. I somehow found my self at the university reception and nearly choked with surprise when I saw iMacs dotted round the foyer for free access.  My dear University of York immediately paled in comparison as I took a moment to appreciate my truly humble educational background – infrastructure-wise.

Milwaukee – We were here to attend my cousin’s graduation which took place in a gigantic stadium – again I experienced shock at the scale of the ceremony and also the liberal and informal atmosphere. A man kept blowing a Vuvuzela somewhere in the stadium.

The Harley Davidson Museum and Company was visited and the best word to use for that experience is… cool. Of course.

Milwaukee caused a bit of excitement for my Uncle and his family as I happened to get “lost” for a few hours. Really what happened was, everyone was exhausted after the graduation festivities and had fallen asleep in the hotel. I, on the other hand,  was not exhausted but still very excited about being in the States and thought sleep was a waste of time so I left the hotel for a wander round downtown Milwaukee. When I returned I met my family in the foyer, my Uncle looking harried and worried. Apparently, there had been some gun firing a few hours ago at a Walgreens I walked past during my wandering. I did see the gunshot holes on the glass door of the shop but for some reason felt no sense of fear or clear understanding that someone had shot a gun, obviously quite recently, at the shop I was causally walking past. This had further worried my Uncle I believe.

I found it amusing that when describing me to the concierge, my Uncle apparently told the guy one of the distinguishing characteristics of mine was that i had a very “distinct accent”. My distinct accent was later going to be a consistent topic through out my American travels.

We found out that Bill Cosby was also a guest at the hotel we stayed in  (not certain this is something to be proud of..)

I returned to Menomonie on my own, having stayed back in Milwaukee for a few extra days.At the bus station, as I was about to board the bus (unfortunately not a Greyhound), an Amish family suddenly appeared and also boarded the bus with me. A pair of young Amish men sat right next to me. Now , having been fascinated by the Amish for quite a while my first actual encounter with them was surreal to say the least. I even had the blessed opportunity to lend my phone to the Amish dad of the bunch. He kindly offered to pay me after using the phone!

Forever engraved in my mind, is the image of a little Amish toddler girl who was part of the group. She had the chubbiest cheeks which seemed even chubbier when squished into a little black bonnet tied quite snugly round her pudgy face.