Sex Work in New Orleans

“This is where she operated, the famous Norma Wallace” our tour guide announced. A three story building in the iconic New Orleans building stood before me on an unpopulated street. At the time, I had no idea who Norma Wallace might be, but I snapped a photo anyway. Chills ran down my spine, and I got the spooky feeling that something of importance probably happened there. I wasn’t sure what and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I cared.

Courtesy of Facebook.

In a trance, I considered how wild the decades past in New Orleans must have been. In my mind, sex work in New Orleans was something that stopped just about everywhere in the 20’s. To know a brothel  operated all the way into the 1960’s was shocking information. My tour guide seemingly read my mind. “If anyone wants to know more about her, get a copy of The Last Madam.” Two months later, I purchased the book and finished it in one evening. It is one of the single greatest pieces I have ever read. 

The front cover of the novel, "The Last Madam." It is a green cover with yellow and white writing.

What are you waiting for? Purchase your copy here.

Norma Wallace was a high profile madam, five times married, an alleged criminal, and above all – a national treasure. We’ll revisit her later on. 

A Paradigm Shift

Feminism can be really tricky. For the longest time, I felt that women who participated in sex work were the enemy. The prospects and possibilities of the type of career women can pursue has never been higher in our country. Yet, some women choose sex work. This is a career which in my mind only reaffirmed the male perspective that women are good for one thing. I felt for most of my life that women whose only job was to bare their naked bodies and lay on their back reinforced the notion that a woman with a brain was an oddity. To me, they upheld the idea that a woman’s real calling is to please men. I experienced one of the most profound paradigm shifts of my life after visiting New Orleans. First, a history:

Having been ruled by the French before the establishment of the United States, New Orleans in some ways dodges the bullet on the Puritan Prudism that plagues the east coast and thus most of the country. New Orleans was swamp land in its conception. Dirty, bug infested, stinky swamp land. Thus, France has a tough time populating and building up  the area. No one in their right mind would have left the sanctity of France to move there. France’s answer?

Well, find people who maybe weren’t in their right mind to move there. Enter – a deal. Criminals and the criminally insane held behind bars were given the opportunity for freedom. This was by way of moving to New Orleans and leaving France. The catch was they had to do the dirty work of building up the city. The men did, and in addition took it upon themselves to build places to drink, places to gamble, and…wait a minute! They needed a place for sex! They needed women for sex, primarly though.

Abby the dance teacher shaking her body

French prostitutes were next emptied out of the country’s jails and sent to New Orleans. So you see, New Orleans was a city built on vice. The first prostitutes sent over were actually more like pioneers coming to an unknown world. Beyond opening their legs, they sailed the great distance and foraged a path facing insurmountable dangers the entire time.

These is Bloody Shoes

I can only assume that being a prostitute in the 17 and 1800s could not have been dreamy. Often times from film, when we see prostitutes of the past picture we are met with images of lace, chandeliers, and sexy lingerie. Through my travels I’ve learned that this was definitely not the case during this time period in New Orleans. Most prostituion took place near the old French Market. The area was disgusting and smelly. Trash, dead bodies, and decaying seafood littered the ground. The blood from animals being slain from meat ran into the streets. It would often stain the bottoms of the high heel shoes of the prostitutes working there. Therefore, according to my tour guide, Quinn LaRoux, when Cardi B sings, “these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” she damn well knows her history.

For more on my time with Quinn LaRoux, check this out

Black stiletto shoes standing on top of a pile of red blood. It's showing Nikki Minaj's lyrics, "these is red bottoms these is bloody shoes

The area was unbelievably violent – so much so that the police would not even enter. Sex workers had to learn to survive this climate and soon themselves became some of the most vicious and violent perpetrators themselves including stabbing, shooting, and robbing to survive their hard environment. 

A New Place for Sex Work in New Orleans

New Orleans knew this could not continue for much longer, and so pushed sex work into Storyville – the city’s red light district. Storyville was a more “elevated” means of prostitution. Well – elevated in the sense that women weren’t giving out blowies in broad daylight on the street and people weren’t getting stabbed and raped in public. Prostitutes operated out of actual houses. Men visiting New Orleans would often be handed “blue books” which listed the names and telephone numbers of the prostitutes as well as which madams house to find the women at. Clients received more than sex here, it was an experience. Drinks were often served and accompanied by live jazz music played by legends such as Pops Foster and Jelly Roll Morton.

Jelly Roll Morton sitting at the piano.
Jelly Roll Morton. Courtesy of Britannica.

Keep in mind, we are talking about the early 20th century here. Also, I’m not trying to paint an image of Storyville being an Eden. Storyville has its fair share of questionable morality even beyond traditional sex work. If you dig deep into the far corners of the internet, you will definitely find that sexual acts with animals (and oyster shells apparently) were a thing for sure. However, let’s return to my thesis. These women of Storyville didn’t have the means to go to college and become white collar professionals. Even if they did, how far would their male counterparts let them go? I’m damn proud to say that out of nothing many of these women grew something.

Storyville prostitute in black and shite striped stockings and black heels with messy bun sits and has a drink on a chair.
Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Many of these women became business owners – madams of prostitutes and grew their own fortunes. These women handled the accounts, set the prices, negotiated terms, leases, and pricing. In many times, they were their own security detail as well. In Storyville, many women banded together and formed deep friendships. One woman might watch the kids of the prostitutes on her off day. By doing so, their mothers could earn a living. Those women would return the favor on their off day.

For those women that found themselves accidentally pregnant and unable to have a baby there was some help. There would often be one woman who would give abortions. Women could then continue on with their trade without worrying about being pregnant and losing business. This is not female comradery as we see today. Rather, this is an early example of women helping women. This, given the circumstances that they were made to face. 

Norma Wallace

In the 1920’s in one of Norma Wallace’s homes is one of my most favorite examples of women helping women. There was a system for when the police would knock on Norma’s door. She would put a plank of wood from her window to a neighboring brothel across the street. The place was run by a woman named Josephine. The prostitutes would scurry along the beam and into the safety of the neighboring bordello. The girls would pull the plank of wood in all before the cops were let into the door. 

By this point, you’re wondering who Norma Wallace is anyhow. 

Norma Wallace began to work as a “street walker” at just 15 years old. This was essentially after her mother abandoned her to pursue a wild life of sex and alcoholism. Eventually, she would go on to own New Orleans’ most infamous and well established brothel. Norma essentially born and died being fiercely independent long before it was in vogue. Throughout the course of decades many men tried to enter into Norma’s life and gain control of her.

Men tried to force her to settle down and turn toward a respectable life of being a housewife and mother. She never buckled or wavered under this pressure. Norma always stayed true to her desire to live life as a fruitful “landlady” as madams preferred to be called.  She was tough, elegant, and took no shit from anyone. Norma was a business woman ahead of her time and was respected, loved, and feared by thousands.

She was always dressed luxuriously and was the original bad boss bitch. It became tradition to visit Norma’s whore house for sex. What I found most interested is how many fathers would take their sons there because they had been there as boys. Men would even take their wives to meet Norma and reflect on their wild youth. Norma was notorious among college boys, unsatisfied husbands, business elite, famous movie stars, mafia members, and the authorities.

Beyond sex work in New Orleans, the city has its fair share of “sex-y” work as well. There are many who say that burlesque has its origins steeped within the city. Burlesque is different from what we think of as stripping. It is sensual, artistic, refined, and at times quite “campy.” 

Burlesque: Classy Nudity

When one thinks of New Orleans Burlesque, one may think of Kitty West. Her stage name as she was better known was Evangeline – The Oyster Girl. One of her most famous acts involved sitting half naked in a giant oyster shell on the stage at Casino Royale. She would dance scantily clad accompanied by a basketball sized faux-pearl.

A burlesque performer, Kitty West AKA Evangeline the Oyste Queen is picture in a giant oyster shell while wearing a bikini.
Evangeline the Oyster Queen. Courtesy of http://www.evangelinetheoystergirl.com

Burlesque shows were huge decades ago and many famous venues for the seductive performance art lined the street. Women and men alike would actually dress in their finest for the performance. Patrons would imbibe in strong cocktails while enjoying the artistry. Burlesque belonged to another era entirely – one of jazz lounges and supper clubs, high heels and suits.

Christina Aguilera flipping her hair in a scene from the movie "Burlesque"

Legend has it that Kitty was either jealous of a fellow performer or performer at another lounge. Either way, her rival created an aquatic themed act. Kitty felt this to be a rip off of her performance. When her rival performed in a giant fish tank, Kitty channeled the violence and rage of the women who had come before her. She smashed the tank with a sledge hammer. Wu-tang clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with Evangeline and her giant oyster ain’t nothin to fuck with. Unless of course, it was all a publicity stunt. If that’s the case, the two girls were very much in on it. They hearkened back to the business genius of those women who came before them.

Evangelina smashes a water tank with performer inside. She stands on stage in bikini and heels holding a hammer. Water pours from tank and girl inside of tank appears to be in shock.
Evangeline smashing her competitor’s water tank. Courtesy of Reddit.

You can still find sex performance, but unfortunately its largely confined to the sub par strip joints on Bourbon Street. While the naked bodies are still alive and thriving, the mystique and decorum of the art is lost entirely. 

New Perspective

I deeply believe that there can be, and is a beauty, mysticism, and sensual element to women in professions like prostitution and sex performance. For so long I wondered, “Does any woman actually want to be a prostitute or sex performer?” Some women do. Some women enjoy sex, or strip teasing and for them, the career is not only lucrative but enjoyable. In these cases, I support these women. Not only that, I believe that there is power and strength in a woman choosing a profession in sex work. This is so long as it’s a choice and not forced. These women are the living epitome of the notion that many find appalling. The idea that it is OK for females to be sexual and to enjoy sex. It’s enjoyable even enough to earn money from it.

Men only take issue with this type of work because they’ve yet to find a way to control it. Where prostitution is legal, they are not typically proprietors and thus do not profit. This is especially true in the cases of female run establishments. Men can never be comfortable with an entity that they do not own entirely. This is also why there is a heavy stigma of sexually active women. Female sex workers are typically seen as not being suitable wives.

Perhaps as women we sneer at sex workers because we are ignorant. Women, by way of being human deserve to be treated with respect. Women deserve dignity no matter what their chosen profession or sexual history. Many feel that to treat a sex worker, a woman of the underworld, with respect and integrity is indecent. True indecency would be believing that a person’s chosen career, especially one as benign as sex work, makes them deserving of being treated cruelly and as less than human. 

Hopefully, you’re reading this somewhere with a glass of something alcoholic in hand as I am. If so, it is only proper to toast. I’d like to remember and thank the women in this article, even the hundreds not mentioned by name.

I’d like to give respect and kudos to the women of the sex industry. Particularly, I’d like to give respect to those who have been a part of the history of sex work in New Orleans. Many of whom who endured the harshest and most unforgiving conditions on the streets of New Orleans. These women have faced some of the worst that humanity can bestow.

Many of these women took what was handed to them. They made not just lemonade, but a lemonade empire out of lemons. Others, we must never forget, were undoubtedly physically and sexually brutalized and perhaps utterly broken both in spirit and body. Although most will remain nameless for all of eternity, you are not forgotten.   

A woman giving cheers with her wine glass to another woman with the caption "that's right!" written underneath.

 Looking to book the Drag Queen Walking Tour where I learned a lot of this? Click here

A Gatsby Inspired Stay at Oheka Castle

A must visit for any die hard fan of the 20s or The Great Gatsby!

Entering and Leaving the 20’s. On New Year’s Eve, I anticipated the iminent spectacle of the New York City ball drop in the time capsule of Soviet culture that is my in law’s Brooklyn apartment. In Russian, my father-in-law gave a speech about the exciting moments to come in the new year, and I looked apprehensively at the shot of vodka in my hand.  I’d had enough olivier and caviar to choke a horse, and yet, my mother in law insisted on walloping heaps of mayonnaise-slathered (albeit delicious) helpings of cuisine onto my gold and white china plate.

The stupor from over indulging in the Russian spread, combined with the inhumane lack of sleep from being a new mom, left me nearly forgetting that New York, and the entire world, would be welcoming a brand new era at the stroke of midnight. It had seemed, at least according to my Instagram feed, that Americans were beguiled by the possibility of another “roaring 20’s.” My mind conjured up images from The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve taught dozens of times as an English teacher. 

Champagne, jazz music, flappers, tuxedos, and Gilded Age mansions for housing the aforementioned three. There is a scene where the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, forgets about his own birthday. As the ball began to drop and those around me began to count, it dawned on me that as society was ready to welcome the “20’s” I was days away from preparing to leave my own 20’s behind me. This would be my final year to secure a foundation in life before turning 30, when the “building” of an “adult” life allegedly begins. “Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness” is how Nick Carraway, describes the impending development of the big 3-0. 


As I prepared to enter the last year of my 20’s, I meditated on Nick Carraway’s feelings towards turning 30. In many ways, of course, I was not lonely. I noted that I had my husband, both parents, a son, and a small, core group of friends. However, I could not help but reflect on every other birthday celebration of my 20’s. A memory of my 24th birthday in particular stood out. Twenty or more of my friends and I stayed over at the luxurious Standard Hotel which boasts floor to ceiling windows – presumably for those with voyeuristic fetishes in mind – housed in Manhattan’s exclusive meatpacking district.

We danced and imbibed in New York City’s hottest night clubs, transported via a behemoth of a party bus. I remember the night as an endless barrage of flower bouquets, free drinks, and a $2,000 bill for dinner which upon its arrival, that I didn’t blink an eye at. What was I to care? It was wasn’t me who was paying. I felt like a celebrity that evening. In my mind, I always assumed the throngs of friends I celebrated with would attend every birthday celebration of mine my whole life.

Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald, I found myself unable to cope (even if I only admitted this to myself) that my roaring decade of popularity and evenings out in New York City – the “golden shimmering mirage” – had ended. As I turned 29, and with 30 looming on the horizon, I made the disheartening realization that I have nowhere near as many friends as I once had a few years ago. Even among the friends that remained close there was no time to celebrate something as trivial as my birthday. My core group of friends were pregnant, closing on houses, moving out of New York, working 16 hour days, and – feeling their own “hot whips of panic” upon nearing 30 – and in response, were desperately navigating the dating scene. 

Bleary eyed, in the early morning hours sitting at the school where I teach, I scrolled through Groupon looking for a way to celebrate my special day that did not involve a Bacchanalian evening and the torture of wearing black stiletto heels. It was a half hearted endeavor, I scrolled absent-mindedly just knowing I’d settle for some minor off Broadway performance. Suddenly my finger abandoned the mouse and my fingers found their way to the dry patches of skin on my lips, as they often do when I’m deep in thought. “Oheka Castle” I mused. An overnight stay at Long Island’s only castle-cum-luxury hotel. The groupon was my own, personal, green light on the end of a dock. A signal to “go for it.” My finger hit “purchase.” In a minute or less, I had booked my trip to Oheka Castle. 

Scrolling on Groupon like….

Why would someone in my position be interested in staying at Oheka Castle? As stated in the aforementioned paragraphs, I am a book nerd and English instructor. As such, it is my duty to fawn ceaselessly over writers of the “lost generation.”  This is a labor of love, for I passionately and intensely love the writers of this era as if I know them personally. The first time I saw Baz Luhrman’s rendition of Gatsby in movies, I sobbed.

The beauty and grandeur of the era belonged to those of the past, and I would never experience it for myself. Oheka Castle was in large part a source of inspiration for The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald visited the chateau with Zelda while living on that “riotous slender island.” In its heyday of the 1920s, Oheka Castle hosted lavish cocktail parties, the kind Fitzgerald sought inspiration in for his great American classic. The mansion was used it partly as the setting for Jay Gatsby’s colossal home.

Time travelers.

Otto Herman Khan was the original owner of the home. He was a banker and philanthropist, as well as a contemporary and competitor of JP Morgan. In addition, he was the inspiration for the Monopoly man (as if his resume were not impressive enough) at least according to the lovely tour guides at the estate. The castle was built on a 443 acre plot in Cold Spring Hills neighborhood of Huntington, NY; its construction cost over 100 million dollars in today’s currency.

Needless to say, Khan possessed an unfathomable type of wealth. The gargantuan size of the estate cannot be overstated enough. In fact, the 109,000 square foot estate was twice the size of the White House. Unlike the White House, Khan and his family did not live in 127 room estate full time. Oheka Castle, the second largest private residence in all of the United States was merely Khan’ summer residence which happened to host a number of royal figures, politicians, and celebrities at its glamorous parties in the 1920’s. Chaplin, Gershwin, and the Folly girls all indulged in the opportunities for fun provided at the estate such as ballroom dancing and swimming.

Portrait of Otto Khan – original owner and creator of OHEKA castle. Original fireplace is pictured as well.

Just a few short years after the stock market crash, Khan died of a heart attack in 1934. Not wanting to maintain the upkeep of the property, his widow sold the estate to none other than the New York City Mayor at the time, Fiorella La Guardia. Under his care, it became a retreat for sanitation workers and their families who were only expected to pay $1.00 per day of retreat. 

The building came into the hands of the Merchant Marines during World War Two for radio operating school afterwards. Then, it became a military training school. Due to the resistance of the Vietnam War, enrolled plummeted at the school and so was closed. Oheka Castle remained entirely abandoned and fell to the whims and delights of local vandals and thieves. Gary Melius, a developer and contractor, was undoubtedly inspired by those with an interest in preserving the castle’s history. He bought the property and the 23 acres surrounding it.

In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby sincerely believes that his love from five years ago (Daisy) will abandon her high society husband (Tom) for a man she hasn’t seen nor loved for five years (Gatsby) after reuniting at Nick Carraway’s house. The consensus is largely that he is delusional. When seeing photographs of Oheka Castle after years of vandalism, arson, and theft there were undoubtedly throngs of skeptics who wondered if Melius plans for restoration were not entirely as delusional as Gatsby’s own dream.

The post apocalyptic edifice would have been better suited as a shooting location for The Walking Dead. However, both Gatsby and Melius carried “infinite hope” and saw the boundless possibilities of a dream that seemed to many, to be utterly unattainable. However, Melius was also equipped with something that Gatsby never had, yet desperately needed: a plan and professional help.

Melius and his team of historians and researchers used photographs, salvageable relics from the mansion, and original architectural drawings to bring Oheka Castle to its former splendor and to maintain its historical authenticity.

Today, Oheka functions as a wedding venue (notably, one of the Jonas brother’s choice of location.) A plethora of movies (such as Citizen Kane) and television shows have been filmed at the estate including HBO’s new thriller Succession. A dizzying list of celebrities have visited the castle and filmed music videos on its premises including Taylor Swift for her Blank Space shoot. Beyond all of this, Oheka Castle is a luxury destination for anyone looking to fulfill their dreams of living like the Buchanons.

Wedding reception area

The long driveway to the castle is lined with an impressive array of sizeable and perfectly trimmed trees which seem to brush against the sky. This is where most visitors start to gain awareness that this is not merely a “hotel.” However, the first view of Oheka Castle undoubtedly casts a feeling of awe and surprise on any first time guests spirit – this is where the transformation to another time period entirely really begins.

On first thought, it would not at all be outlandish for one to rub their eyes and wonder if they were actually on a trip to France’s Loire Valley and not in fact, on a weekend getaway to Long Island, New York. Guests should prepare to become an instant VIP upon your immediate arrival to Oheka Castle. Instantaneously, uniformed staff begin radioing of one’s arrival to each other quickly. I was surprised to have my car door opened for me and my luggage immediately being taken off my hands and transported to my quarters.

I teetered unsteadily in a smart pair of pumps across the gray cobble stones and took a moment to look at the many windows and chateau style peaks which top the castle. The style of roof of Oheka Castle helps give the castle a fairy tale look. When undergoing renovation, Melius and his team used the exact company that Khan’s crew had used when building the roof. After marveling at the exterior architecture, prepare to step back in time. 

Straight out of The Great Gatsby

The magnitude of grandeur of the foyer is so lavish, that one nearly feels a small level of paralyzing chagrin. I was met with a grand horseshoe shaped marble staircase. It swept out from both sides of a large door adorned on either side by statues of women doing their best to hold large candelabra over their heads. From the door, both sides of the staircase sweep down toward a landing where a marble bench is placed. Past the landing the sweeping of the staircase continues onto the main floor. The artistic railing which lines the stairs are entirely wrought iron.

The inspiration for this staircase came from the famed Fontainebleu of France. The entrance door swung shut behind us sending a rippling echo of sound up to the church like high ceilings which hold some impressive pieces of artwork, two windows the size of mattresses on either side of the staircase, and an ornate and prodigious chandelier over the staircase, which looks like it would be able to crush an entire group of guests should it fall. If there is any traveler who has even wanted to step into the 1920’s or an F Scott Fitzgerald novel – this is the place.   

The grand horse shoe shaped staircase as guests enter the front door of Oheka Castle on Long Island
The grand staircase which greets guests at Oheka Castle

Our chateau category room at Oheka Castle came equipped with the most comfortable bed known to humankind. The ceilings were gold plated, and the fireplace gave an aesthetically rustic and historic feel to the room. Our son slept in bed with us all night (go ahead – judge me.) The next morning, I came to regret that decision.


A proper read for a Gatsby inspired stay at Oheka Castle!

Allow me to briefly jumpy ahead to the following morning. Henry lay playing on the floor with my husband early in the morning. As I lay in bed, I got the feeling that I was not alone – that something had gone terribly amiss. I was terrified, I knew there was something in my bed and it took a ton of courage to finally look. And then – I had a real life Godfella’s moment.

I lifted up the comforter and screamed bloody murder. Not a horse’s head, something worse. Baby shit. Everywhere. No idea how it happened. I can still smell it as I write this. I had to scrub every single inch of it out of the sheets and the mattress topper. Honestly, my biggest fear was that the hotel would see the stains and assume it was my grown ass husband and I who committed the crime. That is something that I SIMPLY COULD NOT ALLOW TO HAPPEN. AND, I can’t believe I’m writing all of this for people to read. But, (butt HA) it’s the truth, and I must share it. I am forever traumatized. I used my bare hands guys. I’m like Lady Macbeth…but with baby crap. (Want more cringe-worthy embarrassing tales? Try looking here: https://whatilearnedis.net/2019/03/30/the-awkward-moments-series-a-tragic-tale-of-embarrassing-myself-via-horseback-riding-in-iceland/)

For dinner we were seated in the quirky “Chaplin room.” An upscale  room where intimate conversations took place among couples and a family celebrating an anniversary. The room is painted entirely in red and has no less than DOZENS of photographs and posters of Charlie Chaplin from all around the world. Khan was a fan of the silent picture star and even visited the mansion. Thus, when the chateau was resurrected, it was decided that one of the dining rooms would be named after the 1920’s star.

I ordered the Long Island specialty of duck breast in fig and port wine sauce with a side of the creamiest wild mushroom risotto. It was well worth the price tag and then some. A side of a few glasses of rose’ didn’t hurt either. When dining at the castle, everyone is treated to bread with a side of the gorgonzola cheese sauce for dipping. Move over fondue, you have met a far more decadent and elevated match! https://www.ohkbarandrestaurant.com/

Dinner in the Chaplin Room.
Long Island duck, kale, rose’, and the creamiest risotto in the world.
Henry has gotten significantly better at fine dining. I mean….look at that stance.
Obviously a top notch visualization of our evening together.

After dinner, we moved onto cocktails in the library. The library features one of the three remaining original fireplaces in the mansion and all of the remaining details are authentic to original plans. Having had a prior residence destroyed by fire, Khan sought to have his entire mansion made as fireproof as possible. The “wooden” walls are actually not wooden at all – but drawn to look like wood with a fire safe material underneath!

Relaxing after dinner.
My kind of party ambiance.
Getting all crafty with that bottom up angle!

The morning after we indulged in a feast. Oheka offers the best continental breakfast that I’ve ever seen included at a hotel stay. Pastries, fruit, Greek yogurt, and bagels were all up for the taking. The tea bar offered a dizzying array of variety and I found my new favorite brand – Stash tea! It is beyond my creative limits to try and imagine what it might be like to eat breakfast in such a regal setting. I’m sure however that I could get used to every day being waited on hand and foot.

Continental Breakfast with bagels, pastries, yogurt, tea, and apple juice at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Diet starts tomorrow.
Tea station in grand ballroom with giant painting above at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Tea Bar!
Breakfast in grand ballroom at Oheka Castle on Long Island with giant painting in background
One of these is a lie: A – I brushed my hair the morning of this photo. B- I look exactly like Kate Middleton in her castle in this photo.

The part of the trip which makes my soul burst with joy – I found the hidden indoor pool. The pool is hidden in the basement behind a heavy black door and would not have been easy to find.

Hidden black door to hidden pool at Oheak Castle on Long Island
Would you ever think a hidden pool was behind this door?!
Indoor pool with black and white tile on Long Island at Oheka Castle
Hauntingly Beautiful

Paranormal investigators did a stake out in the room a few weeks prior to our visit, and it’s no wonder why. I still feel chills looking at these photographs. Despite being the only person in the room, I truly could feel as though the spirits of Gatsby’s roaring 20’s party guests were all around me, and one might accidentally pushed me in. It was the eeriest, most awe inspiring moment of my life. 

Indoor pool with black and white tile on Long Island at Oheka Castle
Absolutely chilling. However, imagine the parties that must have gone on in here!

Guests visiting the Long Island mansion have the option for doing a tour without staying over, however, staying overnight at the hotel gives guests a free guided tour the next morning. We were able to learn an extensive amount of history about both the original owner, the new owner, and all of the history in between. While our tour was passionate about her job, she rubbed me the wrong way.

I am NOT one of those people who believes it’s adorable when kids misbehave. However, my son was on his best behavior at all times. Several times she went out of her way to make comments (disguised as jokes) about how he needs to act properly. At one point he giggled at the lecture being given to which she remarked, “I’ll let you know if he gets to be too much for us.” I felt so upset that I left the tour for a while while my husband took notes.

Selfie with baby in mirror at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Mirror selfie with my best friend. Our tour guide got mad that Henry giggled during her speech and suggested I leave the lecture with him. I was not happy about that.
Sun shining through the office room at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Upon his death, Khan was laid here for his wake before being taken to his final resting place.
Fire place with picture hanging over it at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Cozy vibes.
1920's detailed bathroom with clawfoot tub at Oheka Castle on Long Island
I need to believe that this was exactly what Gatsby’s tub look like.
Grand ballroom with chandeliers, paintings, and tables at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Plenty of room to Charleston.
Dining room as tour explores at Oheka Castle on Long Island
11AM Tour
Giant bridal suite at Oheka Castle on Long Island
When Fitzgerald wrote about Gatsby having how own “home” within his castle I could never understand or conceive of what that looked like. Now, I get it!

What is perhaps most surprising about Oheka, is that given its vastness and sprawling design, it feels cozy and intimate. It is not too difficult to get the feel of one’s (albeit extraordinarily large) home rather than a frigid, marble slabbed mausoleum. I think it is entirely possible that Gatsby felt totally fine living in his mansion alone before Daisy.

The staff are professional, but approachable. By Sunday morning, we already knew many of the workers. Many who would call my son, Henry, by name, play with him, and even offered to rock him to sleep. In his mission statement, Gary Melius hopes to impart a familial and welcoming feeling to each of his guests and has undoubtedly succeeded. So often a luxury setting can be anything but relaxing as one constantly has to consider if they are behaving, speaking, and eating in a way that exudes class and conveys a sense of deserving to be staying at a five star establishment. Oheka combines old world luxury with the added benefit of genuinely allowing visitors to let their shoulders down.

Busts and painting found outside of our hotel room at Oheka Castle on Long Island
Decor outside of our hotel room

The 2020’s will very certainly not be anything like the 1920’s – sorry to disappoint. My 30’s will more than likely not be anything like my 20’s. Change is inevitable and we should welcome it as warmly as Gary and his staff welcome their travelers. Afterall, we do not want to be entirely like Gatsby, retreating ceaselessly into the past, clinging to dreams that have long since fleeted and being unable to move forward. There is much to look forward to…

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Imagine this being your own personal dining space?
standing by giant mural in Oheka Castle on Long Island
I think 29 will be a great year for me. We can only wait and see!

In the words, once more, of Nick Carraway “tomorrow we will run faster [and] stretch our arms out farther…”  https://www.oheka.com/

New Orleans Through the Years

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At this point in my life, I’m incredibly well traveled. Inevitably, I will often be asked “what is your favorite place in the world?” I haven’t been to everywhere in the world, but I’ve been to 25 countries in counting and dozens upon dozens of cities. While most travelers say, “Ugh, I hate the question of my favorite place” I’m not afraid of it. My favorite place in the world, is New Orleans. Hand’s down and no contest. This Thanksgiving, will be my fifth time in the Big Easy (also my good friend’s college nickname.) I’ve been scanning through my photos from 2014 to now, and it’s so interesting to see my love affair of New Orleans through the years.

There is nothing pretentious about New Orleans. Even at its most exclusive and upscale of institutions it is welcoming and inclusive. New Orleans is admirable in the lengths it takes to preserve its culture and the uniqueness of its identity. While many cities are chameleons, trying to be like Paris, or New York, or Rome, New Orleans knows it is not those places and does not try to be, because it’s better than those places.

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I’m amazed at the taxi cab drivers. Every single one has mastered the art of conversation and for 15 minutes to an hour, I get a no holds barred look into the life of a complete stranger. On my most recent trip I met a refugee and former attorney from Venezuela who indulged in all of the ways that he was pursued by the Venezuelan government for his speaking out against them. I had another cab driver pass me her phone where I watched videos of the dancing she does in her free time. Yeah, try striking up a conversation with a New York cabbie about dance moves, see how that goes.

I love the way the intricate and unique architecture and bold colors of creole cottages mixes with the undeniably palpable feeling of residual other wordly energy lingering from the Yellow Fever days. It feels as though the people who once lived in the city have never really left. You are never alone in New Orleans, even when you’re the only person on a block. The city turns even the biggest skeptics of ghosts into believers. The magnitude of their stories lingers heavily. There is an air of mysticism in the city; one sees it as he passes the tarot card readers, wanders into Boutique du Vampire for some herbs, and examines a dizzying array of voodoo dolls in VooDoo Authentica.

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The city is so damn eccentric. Let’s start with the fact that the first inhabitants, Native Peoples aside, were convicts and prostitutes who traded prison sentences for freedom if they built up the city. Once you understand that, everything else falls into place. There is something not disturbing, but poignant about the tales of The Big Easy’s history of Storyville prostitutes, coffin girls, madams, psychics, druggies, writers, and Bohemians.

As much as New Orleans is a tale of wantonness, it is also, as Tennesee Williams once said, “an easy intermingling of the races.” In this city there are cultures of people simply not found within the United States. There are Creole people of mixed descent, people of Native, African, and Spanish heritage. There are French Cajuns and a true Francophonie society where French culture and language is preserved; French immersion schools exist here.

Nowhere in the world has better food than New Orleans. Yes, you can find your share of gumbo and jambalaya. But, the city also procures the best hummus I’ve ever had. It also churns out exceptional bahn mi and pho thanks to its Vietnamese population. A large part of acclimating to the New Orleans culture, is holding tight to your mother culture and sharing it with the city. What is more beautiful than that? Just as delicious, savory, and fulfilling is the music of the city. As essential as water and oxygen, music is present at all vital passages of life, New Orleans is the city of Second Lines and jazz funerals. Everything, everything, is celebrated and expressed with music.

I’d like to take a look back on some grainy photographs, and at some points even grainier recollections of my time in New Orleans through the years!

My first trip was in February of 2016. My husband and I drove down from Brooklyn after severe winter weather grounded all flights out of New York City. After 13 hours in total on the road, none we reached the Crescent City. From the very first night time looks from the car it was gritty, it was gray, it was raucous. It was a city made for me as far as I was concerned.

I was in my early twenties and completely content with doing the Bourbon Street thing, and that is exactly what we did starting early the next morning. We waited in line for Jimmy J’s Cafe, and I’ll never forget my first New Orleans meal: crispy bacon and bananas foster french toast. The restaurant was jam packed, but the streets were even more packed. I remember leaving Jimmy J’s just in time to catch a glimpse of a parade passing by, one krewe member looked right out from the float and threw a frisbee. I was all the way in the back of the crowd with at least a hundred people in front of me, and yet, the frisbee floated over the heads of the masses and directly toward me, and landed right into my non athletic hands. It was in that moment, clutching the bright yellow frisbee, my jaw hitting the floor, that I knew New Orleans was magical. I still have that frisbee.

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I get a brain freeze just thinking about all of the slushee drinks, the hurricane after hurricane that I pounded down. That is what I really remember about that day, and that’s what got me into a lot of misadventures. I remember after already slamming something like 5 or 6 of them, a woman from Slidell stopped us and said, “I’d slow down with those. Remember, it’s a marathon not a sprint. I made the same mistake you’re making now my first time down here.” I scoffed in her face and pounded the drink as I walked away. This was no mistake, this was NAWLINS. I spent a lot of that evening with my head in my hotel toilet. I hope she’s reading this now and laughing at me.

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I promised random adventures, there were quite a few. None that really make sense now as a sober person several years later. I remember taking photographs with a topless older woman with an exquisite Mardi Gras mural painted across her chest. I remember a random llama roaming the streets and taking photographs with it and thinking, “is Mardi Gras really this crazy? We got llamas up in here now?!” I remember women flashing for beads, but being really disturbed by the amount of photographs being taken of these revelers. I think more women would have had fun and bared it all if there weren’t perverts encircling them with cameras. Mostly, I remember how disgusted I was with a group of protestors who marched in with their anti gay nonsense. I got in the faces of one of the protestors, and my husband was pepper sprayed by the police as a consequence.

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I had way too much fun, and got into way too much trouble. I slept off the day hangover, and was treated to the New Orleanean dinner of my dreams later that night. Enter, my first shrimp and grits in the city, and samplings of crawfish etouffee and jambalaya. I still remember the creaminess of the grits and the rich, smokey dark brown roux.

That first trip was mostly drinks, but it wasn’t entirely drinks. After hearing about bayous in so many rock and country songs, I finally saw one. We did a cruise through ominous waterways full of twisting, turning, bare trees and all sorts of wildlife. I saw a gator, our tour guide straight up grabbed him out of the water by the snout, petting him like the family dog. Louisianians are crazy. CRAZY. (In the best way.)

I was introduced to Marie Lauveau for the first time, and she has captivated my attention and heart ever since. Marie Lauveau is known as the voodoo priestess, but she is actually and literally one miracle short of being a saint. Her major life’s sacraments are recorded history in the Catholic church. She exuded the manifesto of “love thy neighbor” by allowing those with no place to be buried to rest forever in her family crypt. She was an entrepreneur who used the gossip she often overheard as a hair-dresser, as well as word from enslaved people, to put on the appearance that she had powers that were beyond worldly. She would hear a piece of gossip about a person in the city, and confront the person about the new fact leaving the person stupefied as to how she could possibly know such an intimate secret. Once she built faith in her clientele, she was able to sell them potions and charge money for readings.

After just three days it was time to move on with our road trip and leave New Orleans. I knew I’d be back soon. I returned several more times.

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I returned for a bachelorette party where we carried an inflatable man and his giant penis into every bar on Bourbon street, his name was Bad Boy Brad. At one point, someone stole him and he crowd surfed all the way up to the main stage at a live music event, it was really difficult getting him back, but we did it!

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That same weekend I had drank two giant hurricanes and a dozen jello shots and danced in the same bar on Bourbon Street for FIVE HOURS. Five solid hours dancing with no breaks. I don’t know how many middle aged random women that we pulled onto the dance floor and forced them to be friends with us, but it was probably at least fifteen.

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I rode the streetcar.

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I visited Mardi Gras world and saw how the parade floats are made and learned about the history of the holiday. I had no idea that designing and decorating the floats are full time careers for some artists, and the opportunity to work on these floats attracts real artists from all over the country!

I ventured into the Treme and had the best friend chicken in all of the United States.

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I visited Muriel’s and had no idea it was haunted. But, we also lived our best life ordering champagne and the best food ever. The savory gorgonzola cheesecake makes its way into my dreams at least once a week.

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I went in the winter, during January, and found more things to fall in love with.

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I tasted crawfish for the first time and while I still freak the fuck out that they look like mini cockroaches, and I feel like they’re going to re-animate and come back to life every time I pick them up, they’re damn delicious. My favorite place for them is the Original French Market restaurant and bar on Decatur. In fact, they offer my definition of comfort food and one of my death row meals. Crawfish plate, crab legs, their creamy and generous portion of mac and cheese, and a tap beer.

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I returned to the bayou, and came face to face with my long lost twin, seen below.

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I found Frenchmen street, and my tastes are now such that I really prefer it to the madness of Bourbon Street. I heard a second line for the first time on Frenchmen, and it brought me to tears. The diversity of crowd it attracted, the hard work of the performers, people from all walks of life coming together to enjoy the music, these are the most magical moments of travel.

However, I was 25, and so a rendevouz down Bourbon Street seemed appropriate. We said we were just going to take a quick stroll and then…

I met the love of my life…the Central Grocery Muffaletta. Being Italian, this was always bound to happen. A huge delicious loaf of bread stuffed with all the meats and cheeses and olive tapenade…yes please.

I met a random restaurant owner on the street who knew my name without ever having met me and told me that angels told him to tell me that I have a blessed and protected life.

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I ate approximately 9,234 beignets during both my January and July trip.

I whole heartedly enjoyed every second of jazz brunch at Antoine’s. Once of the oldest restaurants in the city.

After a few year hiatus, I took a trip last month with my cousin, Nina (who you remember from my Wales escapade.) This was my first girls trip after having a baby, and you could say I really let loose.

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We got wigs, spread a gaudy amount of glitter on our bodies, caked on purple eye shadow, and became new people. Fifi Mahony’s on Royal Street is THE best place for wigs. They charge a five dollar capping fee, but it goes toward the purchase of a wig. We must have tried on a dozen, and the women who work there were incredibly patient and helpful.

We had a bougie French meal at Justine’s complete with champagne, a cheese plate,duck and oysters.

I had possibly the best meal of my life at Shaya, an incredible Israeli restaurant which if you follow what’s hot in the gastronomic world, tops the charts of New Orleans constantly. Shaya made cauliflower taste good. I couldn’t stop eating it. This is the kind of magic that this place creates, guys. The hummus had to have been made by gods. I can see no other way to understand the perfection of their hummus. Seriously…get on a plane and go there.

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I tried the Cafe DuMonde in City Park and I risk my life by saying…the cafe mocha is so much better than the cafe au lait.

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We visited New Orleans’ Arcadian book store where books are sold in both French and English. The works are piled high and you’re bound to find something (or someone) interesting. I’ve never been in a bilingual bookstore, but I think we need more of them.

In New Orleans through the years, I’ve always been content to just do the tourist thing each time I visit. But, locals keep saying that the best way to experience the city is through the many festivals that the Big Easy offers. Enter…mac and cheese fest! Live music and a multitude of different types of variations on the classic. Not to mention, a mac and cheese eating contest!

I’m a huge fan of AirBnB experiences. Here are some that I did during my trip in October:

Champagne Destiny Reading: I’ll be doing a separate write up for this entirely because it was so great, and linking it to this article once I get it done. Briefly, the experience starts with a bottle of bubbly (as every morning should) which was appropriate because the organizer, Mika, is so much fun and so full of life! She was down to earth and easy to talk to, she shared about her own background and how she became involved in the mystical practice of card reading and astrology. I will say, my reading was eerily accurate. The entire practice is based on birth dates. I’m now a believer!

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Frenchmen Street Pub Crawl: I’ve been on Frenchmen Street, but never knew which clubs and music spots to dive into. Quay changed all of that for me. He was our guide on our big night out in the Marigny, a respected musician, and his mother used to sing back up for Aretha Franklin! He took us to several music spots throughout the night and timed everything perfectly so that we would always be listening to the best live music. We saw jazz, classic rock, blues, and even danced to Zydeco thanks to a lot of liquid courage. He led us to places I would never have known to visit, and we always had the best seats in the house! We even stopped at the Art Market to pick up some souvenirs. He really opened up my eyes, heart, and what’s left of my soul to the huge range of diversity in New Orleans music which makes the city so unique. I feel way too old to be partying on Bourbon street anymore, but there’s a new life for me and my antics, and that life is on Frenchmen Street with world class music!

Drag Queen Tour: It’s difficult to pick a favorite experience of my October trip to New Orleans, they were all outstanding. However, I might have to go with my drag queen tour! I try to pick the wackiest, most fun, most unique activities when I visit the city, I love all things drag, so this seemed like a great option. As a humanities teacher, I welcomed the opportunity to learn about the history of marginalized people. This tour was packed full of the history of people of color, the LGBTQ community, sex workers, and WOMEN! Quinn was our guide and she was so full of knowledge and humor, I was captivated from the get go. Quinn exudes a style of teaching which makes it impossible to forget the stories she tells. However, please don’t think this experience was anything like a boring history class! We learned about women who danced seductively with oysters on their bodies, the sex workers of Storyville and its history, violence, and all the raunchiness! I’m a proud ally of the LGBTQ community and so I loved learning about the struggles of the community, but also its history and how members of the community have overcome bigotry. I enjoyed learning about how women used their limited opportunities in the city to become entrepreneurs. It was inspiring, educational, and SO much damn fun!

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Drunk and Haunted tour: New Orleans just does everything in such an incredible fashion, and this was no exception. The city is full of unbelievable story tellers and we were lucky enough to have one as our guide. I learned so much and after hearing about all of the stories truly felt the spirits of those who passed walking among us. Not in an eerie way, but a matter of fact way. In every location we went to, Nina was able to see green orbs on her phone! If you’re not a ghost nerd, orbs are said to be spirits floating around. I learned the real story of Marie Lauveu, and the heinous story of Madame LaLaurie, even visiting her old mansion. There is said to be so much residual energy there that people actually faint when visiting. I ran this past our tour guide, and she thinks they faint from drinking too much. I REALLY appreciated that she herself is a historian and only shared what was factual and did not fabricate for the sake of the tour. There were two stops on the tour which were opportunities to get drinks and the Pimm’s Cup I chose was a pretty boss move. The sky was a midnight blue, the white moon shone bright, the air had a crisp chill and rustled the leaves on the streets. Other tour groups walked excitedly from place to place like adult trick or treaters. Autumn was a perfect time to take this tour! I’ll be sharing more in a separate post!

I also got MY FIRST TATTOO! Shout out to Downtown Tattoos and Piercings who did such a phenomenal job. I came in with an embarrassingly gaudy and hideous idea for a tattoo, and they gave me suggestions and ideas which saved my foot from pretty much looking like a giant king cake. For their creativity, for their professionalism, for their great humor and conversation, I’m so thankful! In an ode to the city I love the most, I got a fleur dis lis.

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New Orleans through the years has certainly changed. When I first visited, it was still legal to smoke in bars! That’s mostly a thing of the past. When I first visited, I was mainly interested in the drinking and partying scene, as any proper 23 year old should be. Nowadays, I try to visit at least once a year for different reasons. The cocktails will always be an integral part of my experience, but I also love the history, music, and culture. It will be interesting to see what experiences I have in November going with my husband, parents, and 6 month old baby. Talk about a change! Any ideas on what to do when I visit for Thanksgiving? Let me know in the comments!

How Fear Factors Into My Travels

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The amount of times I nearly walked away from a flight is staggering and would probably surprise you. I would say in recent years, I have seriously considered losing thousands of dollars I pay for trips in advance, leaving it all on the table, to walk away from flights. While I’m making strides with my anxiety and OCD, it is also no joke. Sometimes, I’m entirely convinced that the worst situations that can happen to a traveler will happen to me. Muggings, stabbings, murder. The bitch about anxiety is that we who suffer cannot rely on trusting our gut. If I did that, I’d never leave my house. My gut is always telling me that everything is terrifying and risky. What helps my anxiety is consciously reminding myself that my worst fears have never happened on a trip. This normally works, until it didn’t.

Before departing for Spain in 2017, I lamented to my husband that I might be the victim of a terrorist attack. He rolled his eyes. “Stephanie, I’m stuck here working. You have an incredible opportunity. The odds of you being involved in an attack are incredibly slim. Go and relax, a reward for all of the hard work you do.” Oddly enough, a terrorist attack did happen when I got to Spain. I was out at Mercado de San Miguel when I looked at my phone and received dozens of texts and calls. Before I could even open any of my messages, a frantic petite woman sidled up to my best friend and I. “There’s been a terrorist attack in Barcelona! Someone drove a van into Las Ramblas and the attackers are on the loose!” I would be heading that way in two days. I couldn’t believe it. My immediate thoughts were of course terrified. I felt like the attackers were pervasive. They could be anyone and they could be anywhere. I briefly texted my mother and husband before pounding glass after glass of sangria with my bestie trying to numb our fear of what might happen next.

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Heading back to the hotel, we Skyped our moms and had a lot of decisions to make. Do we switch countries? Do we skip Barcelona, a place I’ve always wanted to see? Do we fly home? Amanda offered that we should stick to our original plan. She felt that when people switch plans is when bad situations arise. I received an alert on my phone that yet another attack had happened at a resort town in Spain. We decided we would stick with our original plan. At around midnight we made our way to Joy Teatro Eslava, an amazing nightclub in an abandoned theater. As much fun as I had, I’ll never forget the constant unnerving feeling I held until the drinks caught up with me. The constant need to stand by the closest exit. To scan the room for places that a person might pop out from unexpectedly. It was eerie. I remember walking home from club through Plaza Mayor and seeing a group of people, mostly families gathered around a street performer and speed walking past them feeling that such a large congregation was inevitably a target for a terrorist who might be lurking in the shadows.

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To make a long story short, our trip was nearly perfect, and unforgettable, but I was scared for sure. When we ate outside, I never had my back to the street in case a car drove up onto the sidewalk, I would be able to see it. I recall being alone with Amanda on a bus with a sketchy group of guys who were huddled in a circle and whispering. I made us get off at the wrong stop because I seriously considered that they might be assailants in some way. My heart was in my throat sitting in the Plaza del Sol knowing that it was so heavily frequented by tourists, and what if someone decides to do the unthinkable. My mind had become a microcosm of McCarthyism. Everyone was the enemy. We took a train from Madrid to Seville and shared a compartment with a (probably) 17 or 18 year old kid. I’ll never forget that either one of us couldn’t rest out eyes despite being SO tired because what if he’s one of them. He went rummaging through his bag at one point, and I death gripped my seat handle knowing…just KNOWING he was about to pull out a weapon and end it all. Actually, he was pulling out a carton of cigarettes.

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Fear did not end with my trip to Spain. I vividly remember sitting on a plane from Mumbai to Udaipur with my husband when a young man pulled out two cell phones. Why did he need two phones? What could he need two phones for? I remember tugging at my husband and demanding he ask the young man why he needed two phones. I remember digging my nails into my jeans just knowing that he had one of those phones wired up somehow to hurt us all. This…this is what anxiety makes of a person at its worst. It wasn’t until my husband reminded me that he himself carries two phones, one for work, that I calmed down and was bathed in a river of my own stupidity and embarrassment.

To be fair to myself – I have been in some very hairy situations involving flying. One situation involved my best friend and I flying home from Vegas on Spirit Airlines. The man assigned to sit next to us kept asking my friend about orgasms and cliter-i. When I demanded that he stop, he calmly told me that the entire plane was going down and going to kill us all.

I still don’t have an answer for the question I’m about to pose, but I thought I’d open up the floodgate. To what extent do we and should we allow fear to play a role in our travels?

I’m in a really good position in regards to travel. My husband is a huge fan of travel and supports all of my wanderlust wishes. We prioritize travel above most things. Our baby, at six months old, is already incredibly well traveled. He does excellent on long car rides, adjusts well to new surroundings, and is generally very well behaved and curious in places like museums, restaurants, and tours.

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Having won the lottery on this, the opportunities are endless. One such opportunity presented itself recently, and I’m torn. Recently, we’ve been given the choice of visiting Costa Rica for four to six weeks this summer while my husband works remotely. Do you know how many people dream of doing the digital nomad thing, and here we are with an opportunity? We are deeply in love with the country, in fact, the novel I’m working on is set there! This is an amazing opportunity in so many regards both professionally and personally for our family. We have the funds, the drive, the ability, and still, I can’t pull the trigger. I don’t know if I ever will. Why? Fear.

What if my son gets sick and contracts some weird Costa Rican illness? Would I ever forgive myself? Would society ever forgive me, or constantly look down on me as an irresponsible and unforgivable mother? What if we wind up hating it there and feel isolated? What if my parents and family are heartbroken that we’re leaving for such a long time? What if a severe storm sweeps through the area and tears our home apart? What if we love it, and returning to a conventional lifestyle absolutely breaks our hearts?

Nearly everyone in my life lives a conventional lifestyle. No one I know travels as much as I do, except a few of my husband’s friends. People talk about it with me, dream about it with me, but never actually pursue a life centered around travel. Every person I know is focused on marriage, kids, a house with a mortgage that will never be paid off until near death, taking care of family, and career. Some parts of that really excite me, such as having a big family, celebrating holidays together, and having a home. Others are unfathomable to me. I don’t want to work only to be able to afford a mortgage and nothing else. I don’t want to keep up with the Jones’ family for the best furniture and best clothes. I don’t want to spend my free time, the little time I have on this earth painting walls and fixing plumbing and going to the same bars and restaurants. My whole life I have been an outlier, someone who does things differently, and my whole life I’ve been sneered at. I typically do not care what others think of me, but the criticism to be normal and step into line with others can be intolerable sometimes. People seem to have no problem spending hundreds of dollars on birthday parties, Abercrombie clothes, Christmas presents which get cast to the side after days, and zippy after zippy at Fire Island. When I spend my money on travel instead, I’m doing the unthinkable. I must be a millionaire. I must be in debt. I must have my head examined. I must be doing myself and my family wrong. Traveling the world ain’t got shit on owning a home and a minivan, apparently. I want to give my family experiences, not things. If I had to choose between a hundred top selling toys or the gift of confidence, joy, and learning that experience brings, I will pick experience every time. There are family and friends of mine reading this who, I assure you, definitely think I’m an asshole for feeling this way.

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Recently, I lost my godmother. The process of finding a diagnosis to losing her was very quick, very overwhelming, and very unfair. I don’t think I realized how much she meant to me until I lost her. When family felt loud and wild, she was a beacon of quiet and safety. She thought everything I did was impressive and would genuinely listen to me when I spoke. She loved me, really loved me. Not out of a sense of familial obligation, but choice. I remember laying in her arms on a cool day as she told me about all of the birds who lived in the tree in my other aunt’s backyard. She was calm. She was peace. She was love. I’ve been battling with her loss tremendously, and once a week I break down in tears over it. My godmother was so radiant, so loving, and So. Full. of. Life. Seriously. She wasn’t someone who did nothing with her days, waiting for it all to end. She was energetic, she partied, she traveled, she loved, she always smiled and always laughed. She told great stories. She danced side to side with a glass of wine in her hand. She lived life so fully. Typically, I am pretty rational and understanding when it comes to death. Death comes for older people, yes. Death comes for people who overdose on drugs, or get into a car wreck, ok. This shook me. I still do not understand how someone so full of life, so vibrant in all that they do can suddenly receive a diagnosis and be gone. Thinking of my godmother helps me keep my life in perspective. I’m very careful about where I channel my energy and my efforts. I’m very aware of making the most of the time I have with the people in my life who mean so much to me. This is also perhaps why I think Costa Rica might me a “no” for me. Six weeks away from family and friends seems like a lot. Will I regret leaving my family behind if something were to happen?

When I think about how much I could have missed out on had I let fear stop me, I am sick to my stomach. Most of what gives my life purpose, has kept me going, and makes me happy stems from travel and experience. No matter whatever becomes of me in the future, or how it all ends, I live knowing my life was one of purpose and fulfillment. I currently walk the earth not having a single regret or, “I wish I would have” thought. However, I know that every trip I’ve taken in some way has involved risk and could have ended so badly. On the tragedy in Barcelona, a heartbroken father said of his son, he would have never thought in a million years it could happen to him, that he would be the unfortunate victim in a seemingly random terrorist attack on his travels. This sentiment is not lost on me either.

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When I consider what to do with my life each week, when I consider which thoughts to focus on, which plans to pursue, I keep in mind how finite and uncertain the course of life can be. Do I extend my time on earth by all means necessary? Do I avoid taking risks, going off course, getting in planes as much, and spending money in case a war breaks out? These ideas do not seem unreasonable when you have a child. I’m so damn afraid of bringing any kind of harm to my child, sometimes I do consider staying put and doing what is safe. On the other hand, does the uncertainty of how long we have mean we should be doing the most with our time? Taking the risks, rolling the dice, moving away, changing careers, saying hell yes, and giving a middle finger to convention? I’m still not sure. What do you think?

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

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Inconsistent India

I shouldn’t have clicked it, but I did. New York Post put out an article today entitled,

“Woman raped and burned kills attacker by dragging him into the flames”

I held my stomach with one hand as I opened the article on my phone with the other. “Surely, the country can’t be getting this fucking bad” I thought to myself. Things were getting ‘that bad’, but, in another country. My country was not the sight of the attack. It had taken place in India, a country where sexual assault, rape, and violent crime against women is up, again.

Damn. Humans are selfish. At least I am. After reading the article and the comments, I thought about myself. I began to recall my own time backpacking through India. I thought about my own uncomfortable moments involving the men there and put my phone down. “Can’t believe I did all that. Backpacked through India.” Despite only being two years ago, it seemed like some wild, impetuous thing I’d done as a teenager/young adult, to which there are many stories. On more than one occasion, I felt threatened by a man in India, and I still feel the same nausea thinking about those moments as I did when they actually happened.

I listened to a podcast on the way home from work, punching my foot to the gas to get to church and receive the good ashes, evidently. Four female hosts talked excitedly about their time in India and how they’ve been trying to re-create their favorite dishes of the country in their own homes here in the states. “Oh…India!” I declared out loud, suddenly and VERY fondly remembering the rainbow array of exceptional food I had during my two week stint. I did not have a single bad meal while in India. The hosts talked of sweet coconut chutney with idli, a better version of pancakes. “Yes, yes! I remember eating that every day for breakfast, it was delicious!” I said aloud in agreement. Writing this now, I’m embarrassed saying that because as you’ve probably guessed, I was alone in my car saying this aloud. A flood of happy memories such as lounging on a private boat on a sunny day in Kerala, dining on the beach in Goa, and laughing so hard my sides hurt in a rickshaw with my husband and our driver in Delhi came pouring into me. India, one of my best trips, I mused.

Same trip, same traveler, two very different recollections. So, what gives? Mixed feelings. I participate in many travel related social media groups. Every once in a while there is a woman who will ask if she should visit India, or visit India solo. The responses are always, “yes!” “hell yeah!” “OMG YES!” These straight up, no hesitation responses always puzzle me. Admittedly, when a woman asks if she should do anything in this group, there are seldom people who say something like, “no” or “let me be honest…”

I’ve been an outcast in so many spheres in my life, that I don’t comment on these circumstances and just let everyone pipe in with their “yeahs” and “yipees” which I’m SURE are well-intentioned. After all, these people are all adults. My strange comment won’t mean much, I’m sure. But, if a friend were asking me if they should visit India, here is what I would say.

I’ve been to 23 countries and God knows how many places in the USA. I mean it when I say, I love every single country I’ve ever visited. I. love. India. There are so many reasons why. I intend on writing another article about the details of my trip to India, but here’s a snapshot.

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India, on one hand, is not what you think. Yes, I did visit the bustling cities of Delhi and Mumbia. But, India is more than just that. The south of India, in particular, is another world entirely. Kerala and Goa are the best parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, and California rolled into one. Think lush greenery, beautiful beaches where people party until sunrise, palm trees swaying in the wind, hippies, yoga in the brightest green tea hills you have ever seen, and the most soft spoken, humble, and normal people you’ve ever met. Kerala is nicknamed God’s own country, and the name is legitimate.

If God used a mighty paintbrush to paint only one part of the world canvas, it was undoubtedly Kerala, and south India as a whole.

Goa was a vacation spot for people who are exactly like the friends and family you know. In fact, nothing could be more typical of a resort town. Older women clinking their wine glasses as they cheered being on a girls trip and away from their stupid husbands. Men slamming down beers and singing “pub style” in small beach shacks, celebrating being away from their annoying wives on a guys trip. Parents dipping their small children into the ocean and laughing at their reactions at seeing the ocean for the first time. Guests ordering plates of fried seafood. People drunkenly singing karaoke at beach side bars and trying to find the perfect souvenirs of t-shirts, sunglasses, and trinkets in small clothing huts. Tito’s lane is full of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants that could fit right into Los Angeles, Miami, or anywhere of the like.

Some parts of Mumbai and Delhi could easily have been mistaken as any big city in my own country. We were shocked to see young couples on…DATES! Dates in chic, hip restaurants which played hip hop music and kept right on part with the edgy molecular gastronomy movement happening everywhere in Europe and the Americas. Young couples held hands and walked along the water. Dads driving middle class cars held the door open for their small children to run in and be dropped off, presumably, at school.

For those who aren’t visiting India to see a different version of the same thing they see all the time, there is room for that too. In Udaipur we visited a temple where men, women, and children sat in colorful and elegant clothing clapping their hands and signing to worship their gods, barefoot and smiling. We visited small shops where artisans create works of art from animal bones, and we caught a performance of traditional Rajasthani performance. Our first day in Udaipur we passed a public bus, except this bus allowed men to sit on top of it when there was not enough room down below.

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India, on the other hand, is exactly what you’d think. As we drove from Mumbai’s airport to our hotel, I was physically sick from culture shock. THOUSANDS of horns were blaring, cars drove in fictitious and self created lanes, cows ran wherever they pleased. At a traffic stop, a man with a missing arm banged his “stump” on my window begging for money. The buildings were gray and dilapidated, trash was abundant, smells were more abundant, and everyone looked at me from outside as the asshole, rich, white foreigner that snapped photos of their day to day life to post on social media later.

When we got to our hotel, I turned on the shower, climbed in, and sat on the floor knees curled to chest and cried. I fucking hate this and I want to go home immediately. (Side note, I no longer felt this way after spending that afternoon and night sleeping comfortably.)

We took a tour that night of Mumbai by night. In addition to our incredible tour guide and driver, we met a couple from Australia who were lovely. This tour made me see Mumbai in a different way, a way I really liked. It should be noted, that people of India LOVE taking photographs with foreigners. So, when two shy young men asked to take a photo with us, I didn’t think this was odd at all. In my world, it is not unusual to throw your arm around the person next to you in the photo, or to step closely to them. In an attempt to break barriers, I said, “come on guys! Group photo with new friends!” I threw my left arm over my husband’s shoulder, and my right over the shy young man next to me. Big mistake. The man began groping me FIERCELY and uncomfortably around me waist and my stomach as the lens snapped. The photo was taken, they thanked us, and ran off with it, and I was left dry heaving and in tears. I was at a loss for words and as I give pause while I write this, I feel sick re-thinking about this. My biggest fear was that this photo would be used in an unwholesome way, not as a memento from having met some cool Americans. I’d like to write more on how I felt, but I’m as much at a loss for words now as I was then. I felt disgusted and even plunged into an acute panic attack/depressive moment as that moment, the feeling of his grimy hands on my as I stood next to my husband played over and over again.

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When riding a train another day in Mumbai, a man put his hand over mine as I held onto the strap. Usually, Mumbai’s trains are a nightmare, and you cannot be mad for people being too close to you or being in your space, you just can’t. But on this day, at this time, there were only 7 of us in the compartment. Twenty straps, and this man had to put his hand ON my hand. I moved it, thinking, maybe this is his strap, the one he uses daily. He again, took his hand and put it over mine again and stared at me as I looked at the floor waiting to get off our stop. I shutter not that this happened, but for how much more could have happened had I not been with a tour group, had my husband not grabbed my hand to show we were married, and had I been alone. Later on in Mumbai, less disheartening, but still a shock to me, when negotiating a deal with a tour operator, I spoke up to explain a concern my husband and I had and was told by the operator to be quiet because this was a conversation to be had between him and my husband, two men, and I had no part in it.

In Delhi, at the Red Fort, three men stared at me in a way that made sweat drip down my neck, every woman knows this feeling. “We want to take a picture with your wife” one of the men declared. My husband, tried to give them an out. “Excuse me? Did you say you would like my wife to take a picture for you? Of the three of you?” The man clarified that, no, he had in fact wanted me to be in a picture with the three of them. My husband gave them a stern no and laughed it off, but again, I wonder, what if I had no husband to say “no“ for me? Would my ”no“ had been enough? A few days after returning home, I read an article about a foreign couple who was stoned outside of the Taj Mahal for denying a photo with a group of men. Could that have been us?

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I will say, there were plenty of places where men were more than respectful towards me. We took a private 24 hour boat ride in Allepey, and the crew of men were professional and accommodating. When my husband became ill overnight I made several demands, spoke sternly, and was given the upmost respect and was spoken back to like a person of equal stature. The men made themselves scarce and stuck to their duties the entire trip, but also made themselves available for polite conversation and to work out every detail with us to make our journey perfect. I felt so comfortable with this crew, that I could have easily been on the boat myself and not felt in danger.

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If you are healthy both in mind and body, have an adventurous spirit, and can roll with the punches, you should always visit India. The bad experiences I had pale in comparison to all of the magnificent ones I had, and given the chance, I would absolutely go back. I personally would not feel comfortable traveling to India alone or with a girl friend. I felt that my husband was not only an amazing travel partner, but a big deterrent in being harassed or taken advantage of, even in terms of being charged for things. There were times where I felt very uncomfortable, because I was out of my comfort zone! Some days were outstanding, but challenging for me because they were so different, not because I felt unsafe or in danger. For example, in Munnar we went on an hour long hike and I had never done a challenging hike before. I was so thankful to have my husband there to physically help me when I felt weak and to know all the right things to say when I felt scared or unsure of continuing. I would recommend visiting India with someone you know and trust who will be your biggest asset when you need support and who you will always be glad you shared such an adventurous and amazing time with.

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Yes, Visiting An All Inclusive Resort IS Traveling

I’m a travel enthusiast who hates travel snobs.

Exactly one year ago my husband and I chose the Now Sapphire resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico as the venue of our wedding. It was affordable, exceeded all expectations, and was one of the best travel experiences of my life. One year later we’ve moved on with our travels, but our guests still rave about our week together in paradise and hail it as the party of the year. Essentially, 60 of us unplugged from work, from commuting, from the monotony of life, and from the oppressive gray skies and snow of New York to gather together to drink heavily, enjoy the 80 degree sunshine, and experience something new. I was floored by the resort and have fond memories of the week. I am eternally grateful to the guests who spent their hard earned money to celebrate our nuptials, and I hold nothing against the guests who could not make it to our celebration, well except…one bitch.

Let’s give her a fake name like…Cathy. Cathy did not attend our wedding despite having a more than comfortable amount of disposable income and unlimited vacation days at her cushy, corporate, position. Cathy did not attend our wedding in Mexico because, “she likes to travel for real and being at an all inclusive is not traveling.” I’m lying if I didn’t tell you that I had visions of shoving a pitchfork up Cathy’s ass…you know…to keep the stick that had already clearly been there company.

Cathy likes sleeping in huts with strangers she’s never met and thinks she’s edgy for not getting vaccinated before traveling to foreign countries. Cathy practices yoga and meditation every day while gazing into the eyes of a statue of Buddha’s head in her living room. She doesn’t let the fact that actual Buddhist principles strongly detest having such incomplete shrines of Buddha on display stop her from appropriating the parts of their culture that she enjoys. Cathy does these things not because they add any real value to anyone’s life, but because she thinks it makes her a better person…more woke, enlightened, and chill. In Long Island culture, Cathy is what we locals refer to as, a twat.

It is an indisputable fact that getting on a plane and going to a foreign country anywhere is in itself, traveling. So help me understand this bullshit philosophy that people who visit all-inclusive resorts are not “really traveling.” We travel bloggers and enthusiasts live in an age where adorable young women like to get on their high horse, aptly named Instagram, and preach to us about “authentic traveling.” After all, what can be more authentic than having someone take fake candid photos of you looking at paintings by artists whose name you know, but history you know nothing about. What’s more original and unique than a photo of you standing in tree pose in a yoga class in Bali. What screams I’m too legit to quit like wearing the highly appropriate mountain climbing attire of a FUCKING BALLGOWN as you ascend on a two hour climb to watch a sunset in Southeast Asia. What is more authentic than…ooooh a photo of one enjoying an acai bowl by the beach! Or, captioning your photo on a hammock or water swing with a quote by some author you know nothing about because you don’t spend your free time reading! Or, eating an ice-cream cone, or taco, or piece of pizza and writing some witty caption about how “fat” you are. Or a photo of you walking toward the ocean with peace sign fingers and your tanned ass hanging out?

All inclusive resorts, so long as they maintain a level of safety and fairness to their guests and staff, are the shit, and I intend on spending a lot of my vacation time in the next few years at them. Why? Simple, when was the last time you spent consecutive days truly doing what you want?

I’m not dissing any of my travels, I love them all. But, traveling is hard work whether or not people want to believe that. Any trip to Europe has always felt exhausting. I’m running from sight to sight, show to show, place to place. I’m on another flight or train ride every third day, I’m up at the crack of dawn for sight seeing and out experiencing the night life until the wee hours of the morning again with little sleep. While these are my most fun and fondest moments of life, I’m also arriving back to New York feeling as though I need a vacation from my vacation.

This simply isn’t the case when I visit an all inclusive resort. Critics will say they find “all inclusives“ too restricting or limiting, I say it’s more freedom than I feel anywhere in the world.

No Schedule: As a NYC school teacher, my world revolves on a schedule tighter than a crab’s ass. I won’t bore you with the details, most people with a 9-5 or something of the like understand. Most times when I travel, I am still on a schedule of visiting sights, taking tours, and arriving at reservations. All Inclusive life? No such thing. I start the day waking up whenever I want. I can watch the sunrise at 6AM, or roll lazily out of bed at noon. The only thing awaiting me is lounging by the pool, endless cocktails, food and friends. I can eat as many times a day as I please and at whatever time I want. I get all kinds of wild. I’ve had my breakfast at 1pm and ordered room service at 3 in the morning. There are no meetings, no lectures, no conferences. I’m free to relax, I mean REALLY relax in the sunshine and warmth all damn day. At home, we tend to accept that laying in front of the TV eating Cheetos is relaxing. At an all inclusive resort, splashing to the swim up bar, watching the waves roll in on the beach, and reading a novel under the sun reinforces what relaxation really is. In the evenings, I can spend the night in my hotel room listening to the ocean and nodding off at 9PM, or I can let loose drinking and dancing until 2AM where I return to my room without any need to set an alarm. Out of all the things in life I claim to be the best, I think this is the winner. In one word: Restorative.

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To Do or Not To Do: The onslaught of activities at all inclusive resorts is literally insane. There are the usual suspects: kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding, etc. Then, there’s the activities the resorts plan which go off roughly every 3-5 seconds. At Now Sapphire, I remember it raining heavily the day before my wedding. One of the entertainment staff informed me that my choices of activity, from 4-5PM would be sushi making, salsa lessons, cigar rolling, and continued to name at least four more activities. All of these happened within one hour! And every hour there were an abundance or more, new, activities! There is always something to see, do, or new to try. Travel should be fun, and not too serious. If we’re being honest, most of us are not changing the world when we travel, we’re there to enjoy what is offered. Sometimes, travel has to be silly, nonsensical, and ridiculous. I absolutely love watching the “pool games” put on by resorts. I’ll never forget my favorite.

My husband and I watched a game of men vs women scavenger hunt by the pool. There were four men and four women, each would pair off and be told to find something and take it from a guest (a chapstick, a dollar bill, etc.) One of the items was a pair of swimsuit bottoms. Whether I liked it or not, I watched an elderly woman rip off her bottoms in the pool and hand them to a contestant, and in that moment everyone laughed. Not at her, but with her, and she laughed too. No one rushed to snap a photo, no one scorned her, it was a rare moment of many different kinds of people coming together to appreciate and enjoy a silly moment and to celebrate that we were not at our office jobs where one is expected to keep their clothing on at all times. In one word: Unifying.

Staying and Going: I usually spend at least 5 days at an all inclusive resort. There are many days where I have no purpose other than to relax on the beach or by the pool. But, there are at least two or three days where I sign up for excursions outside the resort. The critique many travel snobs give to all inclusive resorts is that, “you’re not really seeing the country.” That is a choice. In Mexico I’ve swam in cenotes, toured ruins, and passed time at local bars, clubs, and restaurants outside of my resort. In Jamaica I’ve thrown myself into the chaos and throngs of the streets, visited Nine Mile, and swam in the Blue Hole with locals. An all inclusive resort does not limit you from getting out into the country and exploring. If anything, it just gives you the option to rest and recover in the best of ways of the days you are not out there doing the most. If you don’t stay at an all inclusive, you’re almost forced to be doing something every day in my opinion. In one word: adventurous

Doing Nothing is the Popular Option: In NYC, if you spend your day doing nothing, you’re a waste of life. Few able bodied people spend their day doing nothing in the big apple. There is always pressure to be working harder and longer, to be at happy hour, to be at Soul Cycle. Not for me, but for people who actually exercise and shit, the pressure is there. Where else can you go where the popular activity of a place is to DO NOTHING!? Imagine Skyping a friend from Vienna, Uganda, or Colombia and telling them that your agenda for the day is doing nothing but laying down. The whole culture of all inclusive resorts is centered on doing nothing but relaxing! There is zero pressure to always be on the go and I cannot express how refreshing that is! Laying on a sun bed for hours on end is the best free medicine. It is a necessity you probably didn’t even know your body and mind needed until you do it. In on word: relaxing

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Bang for Your Buck: Travel needs to be economical. I’m all for splurging once in a while, but it’s important to be financially responsible. When you have things like children, a mortgage, and bills to worry about, it becomes even more important. Not everyone is willing to live so high beyond their means, and I think that’s a sound principle. An all inclusive resort is often the best way to ensure you do not spend above your budget. Many people see all inclusive resorts as getting their moneys worth considering what you get for the roughly $1,000-$4,000 price tag. That essentially includes a restaurant experience three times a day, quality and comfortable digs, activities, access to things like a gym or fitness classes, booze, in many cases a babysitter for your kids, and if you visit the resort my parents did in the DR, a woman who offers to babysit your husband as well…because she was a hooker. Fun fact, there is no point in your life where your parents talking about anything remotely sexual feels OK. We need to stop perpetuating this myth that people who don’t go to Europe just aren’t trying hard enough. Most of the people screaming at people telling them that “IT CAN BE DONE AFFORDABLY IF YOU JUST STAY IN HOSTELS AND EAT OUT OF DUMPSTERS” are young, able bodied, and without the circumstances that most Americans are subjected to. For many Americans, all inclusives allow for the ability to experience travel without the hefty pricetag while not compromising comfort or quality. In one word: economical

Effortless Cultural Understanding: The people who work in these resorts aren’t actors playing the part of Caribbean or Mexican natives. They really live in these countries, and are often trying to make a better life for themselves. When traveling, it can be hard to meet locals and even more so, to have an in-depth conversation about the way of living and culture of the country. I can only imagine as I’m rushing down the street of NYC, a tourist stopping me to ask me if I can tell them about the culture and way of living in New York. Here, let me show you by throwing my coffee in your face for making me late to work. That’s the culture of big apple in one motion. How does one really have an in-depth conversation with locals if we’re being honest? At an all inclusive, you are constantly interacting with the staff who are themselves authentic locals. Whether you intend to or not, you wind up having conversations with the people who work at the resort as per the nature of folks in the hospitality business and a conversation is actually able to happen much more organically. I remember being hung over and swimming in the pool the day after my wedding listening to two of my guests conversation near me, because I’m a weirdo who listens in. They were discussing how a staff member told them about the low wages many people in Mexico are paid and about the formidable way of life in some parts of the country. “I had no idea about all of that, can you imagine? How can someone live like that?” Two people who don’t travel often at all experienced an effortless moment of learning about another person’s way of life which, as their own words suggest, perhaps changed how they view people outside of their home country. In one conversation, these people were able to reflect on and empathize with the struggles of someone completely different from themselves. In one word: enlightening

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Travel is such a personal experience, the memories we make and the lessons we learn and take away. Travel is joy and growth, it is not a competition, or for one to decide the merit and value of another’s travel experience. The hot new trend in the “travel sphere” is this focus on jungle-esque or beach-esque meditative/spiritual retreats focused on yoga, meditation, eating healthy, etc. The irony. The irony of having someone take photos of you as you meditate and worrying about getting the perfect shot when meditation is about focusing on breath and nothing more. Yoga and meditation is about learning to live and let live, but how many of these “influencers“ so harshly critique themselves, or critique others for staying in an all inclusive resort for a family vacation. The irony, that probably the best place for restoring one’s health, mentally and spiritually, and really letting go, is a place like an all inclusive resort.

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