I took my first international flight at 10 years old. My family flew from St. Louis to Newark to Miami to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, two small tropical islands but one nation, off the coast of Venezuela.
Twelve hours, an inspection by drug dogs in Miami, a semi-militant immigration line and 80 degrees warmer later, we arrived at our destination. I still remember standing outside the airport, sitting on my suitcase while we waited for our ride.
I couldn't take my eyes off anything.
Now, more than 20,000 miles and six countries — all before the age of 23 — that awe at discovering something new has turned into an insatiable desire to go.
I've bussed through South America, and repelled off cliffs and scuba dived off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. I've criss-crossed the U.S. on road trips, from Massachusetts to Texas to Georgia to Colorado, the highlight of Kansas being a prairie dog museum. In 2012, I was on one of the first mission teams into Cuba after Raul Castro began allowing Americans back in the country.
In just a few months, I'll be expanding my travel repertoire to include jet lag, an overnight 14-hour flight and maybe even a tarantula for lunch: I'm planning a trip to Cambodia, my first ever trans-international-dateline trip.
It's not just the tourist attractions or stamps on my passport that draw me to a country or a city. It's the rich history of a place, the influence of ancient cultures on the market places and monuments we see today, the intricacies of the peoples' daily life. Behind every postcard attraction, there are values and a culture that hundreds of years and millions of people have contributed to.
What undoubtedly taught me more about travel and cultures was living six years in Ecuador, from 2004 to 2011. About the size of Colorado, the country is diverse — from the Andes mountains to the jungles of the Amazon, from swamplands in the east to the Galapagos Islands in the west. At over 9,000 feet altitude on the equator, 65 degree days, al fresco dining and long walks through city streets are the norm.
I spent my high school years transversing Quito, the capital city of 3 million, learning the language, back alleys, best restaurants and friendliest street vendors. I learned that the best way to experience any location is as a local.
These days I keep to the same philosophy. Whether crossing continents or a short drive up Interstate 57 to Chicago, I seek out the hidden gems slightly off the beaten path. Any place becomes new with a little bit of adventure. Some of the best discoveries are made armed without a plan and with a GPS.
Starting next week, I'll be writing about some of these places in a new monthly column on my Chicago travel adventures. I already have a few ideas — taste-testing at the best taco places, free Brazilian dance lessons at a small local theater, and a hole-in-the-wall bookstore just for cookbooks. Hopefully, my travels will include lots of walking, lots of adventure and more than a few surprises. My first? Mix the nostalgic and modern for a date night at a hole-in-the-wall, award-winning crepe restaurant.