For all of my life I had dreamed of visiting Santorini. And it finally came true.
When you think of the island, you might picture white washed villas and blue domed churches overlooking the caldera. You may envision the sunshine, the food, the people. One thing I'm highly certain of: perhaps the last thing anyone thinks of is the idea of visiting Santorini alone.
Why should I go alone when I can travel with others? What will I do with myself all day? Is it safe? Will I feel lonely? Would the trip be worth it?
All of these anxieties and doubts swept over me as my Aegean Airlines flight landed in Thira, Santorini at 4:45pm. I have arrived. Restless, I grabbed my overly packed carry-on from the overhead compartment, and descended down the steps from the plane where airport buses were waiting to send us over to the airport building.
"i have arrived."
Santorini has huge, plush air-conditioned buses running throughout the island for cheap. I lugged my belongings and rested my head on the window, enjoying the ride to my hotel.
Stepping off the bus, I was immediately hit with an overwhelming feeling of confusion. Why was I here? I'm not on a honeymoon, nor have I ever been close to marriage, heck - what even is dating?
Choosing to visit during off-season definitely wasn't helping either. I was faced with rain and a looming aura of darkness from the clouds masking the warmth of the sun. I was cold, I was tired and boy, was I hungry.
After pulling the weight of my suitcase up several hills, I finally reached the top to see the iconic view of the Aegean Sea.
Low and behold...it was by far the most visually impactful scene I had ever witnessed. "God is quite the artist," I thought. After snapping this photo and a couple of gorgeous Instagram stories, I felt the heaviness of my body after the flights and bus rides and immediately searched for my hotel.
It was at least 30+ huge steps below the main surface area of the island. That's right. I had to carry 30 pound luggage down the slippery stone stairs to my hotel in the chilled darkness. I stayed at Mill Houses Elegant Suites, a cozy-chic boutique hotel overlooking the Aegean.
The first night was the most challenging. I felt luxurious and pampered, yet completely alone, despite the fact that I had been living in a new country as a student for two months prior. But this was a different type of loneliness - this was solitude.
I was deliberately isolating myself. If I wanted to share something with someone, I had to rely on the internet that was excessively spotty. Should anything happen to me, no one would know for a few days. Given that Santorini is an island, I felt like a castaway - completely detached from society. Even so, after coming all the way here, I was determined to enjoy myself.
"I was determined to enjoy myself."
The next day, I wanted to get out of my element and committed to the infamous hike from Fira, the town I was living in, to Oia, one of the most expensive and Instagrammable spots on the island.
According to my calculations, the total distance of the hike is about 6.5 miles and took me about 3 hours total. When I tell you that this was the most difficult and longest running hike I've ever taken, I'm not lying. I felt like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt across the Red Sea.
"i thanked the lord."
About halfway through I was feeling like I had been doing this for days. I needed a break. I made a deal with myself that if I didn't find a bench in the next 10 minutes, I would just sit in the grass somewhere.
Five minutes pass by, and I found myself slowly going uphill. I thought that there would not be any rest stop on a hill, as they are often the climax. I was going to be in trouble.
Little did I know, I had stumbled upon a safe haven. I found a church and in this moment, I had never felt closer to God than being here.
I started to get emotional, so I got on my knees and prayed. I prayed for good health and for my family, I prayed for everlasting happiness and hope, and I prayed that I would be able to continue travelling for the rest of my life. Finally, I thanked the Lord that I had found my true passion.
My main tips for this hike:
1. START EARLY. Like around 11am. Otherwise, by the time you get to Oia (about four hours later), it will be dark.
2. BRING WATER. You can usually buy some along the road, but don't count on it. The journey feels like you are trekking through the desert for days on end. (I'm exaggerating a little, but still).
3. PET THE CATS AND HORSES ALONG THE WAY, because they are friendly and want to love you.
4. DON'T RELY ON MAPQUEST/GOOGLE MAPS. It will not work. You are on an island, there is no internet connection in the wilderness.
5. STICK TO THE PATH. You may be tempted to take what you believe to be a shortcut. DO not do this. It will often lead in a similar direction, but take you to another part of the island. Stay on the path and don't be afraid to ask the nice Greek locals for directions.
"I belong here."
Feeling equally exhausted and accomplished, I was finally beginning to feel like I belong here. I just trekked over 6 miles by myself!!! I get back to the hotel, shower, and discover a shock.
On my neck were these tiny red spots. They were painless and didn't itch, but I had no idea where they came from. Was it from a rash? Did something bite me? Was I having a reaction to something? If so, to what? Who do I tell? Cue: CALL MOM.
I did some research and concluded it may have been a bed bug situation. I decided to wait it out and see if they start going away over the next couple of days.
Later that evening I realized that I had booked a photoshoot through Airbnb Experiences. One does not simply visit Santorini without getting those iconic shots with the villages, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime photos. I shot with the Santorini Photographer, a local who knew the ins and outs of the island as well as the best spots to shoot. I had to choose my outfits!
Luckily, I had visited a shop in Athens a few days ago and picked up a traditional Greek maxi dress. I was told that the best colors to wear in Santorini were bold, bright colors like yellow and red that would contrast well with the whiteness of the buildings. Instead, I selected a royal blue shade that matched the top of the domes.
I also realized that I would be shooting alone for the first time. Again, those feelings of awkwardness began to develop, but this time I cast them aside. I utilized the empowerment I felt from my journey, packed my clothing options, did my own hair and makeup and met with Panos.
Nothing was on my side during the shoot. The weather was unpredictable, the sky was a dull grey, those strange marks on my neck were still there, my hair became frizzy AND on top of it all, I was bloated. Then it began to rain. Luckily, Panos had the most open and welcoming attitude - he made shooting SO easy and even told me exactly how to pose in each shot. I felt so beautiful striding along the island with him.
"i felt so beautiful."
After sending a few proofs to my mom and receiving her feedback, I realized that I had made the right choice. I am so glad I wore this dress. This photoshoot was EVERYTHING and more.
On my final day in Santorini, I felt that the perfect sendoff would be to explore the island on horseback with the locals. I was determined to feel grounded and connected with the island's nature, its animals and its people. The company I booked with was a local company, a husband and wife team.
The wife, Zanet, picked me up and brought me to her family's ranch in Megalochori, a small town with grand pastures and fields. Zanet was from Poland and told me that she had actually met her husband while doing the very same horseback riding tour here during a solo trip in Greece. They fell in love. She later moved to Greece to be with her husband, and the two took over the family's horseback riding business. Notice the unexpected benefits of doing solo trips.
Arriving at the ranch, I was expecting to encounter at least one other tourist, but I was the only one there. I used this to my advantage and got to really know the couple, how they raise their horses, their history as well as the history of the island.
"I took the sunset tour."
Zanet brought me to the shed, geared me up with riding boots and a fitted helmet, then walked me to the stable. I wasn't given many options for the horses since I was just a beginner, so the couple matched me with this white mane. I reached my hand out to stroke his head, and he grumbled. Not a great first impression.
I told Zanet, "maybe he'll respond to your commands during the ride." She replied, "oh, not to worry, my husband will be with you the entire way." Husband? Was she not riding with us?
I was correct. I spent the next hour riding horseback into the sunset alone with a very gorgeous and very married Greek man. I was having the time of my life. Zanet understood.
It wasn't until he snapped this photo of us that my horse began what I call "bumping." He galloped so slowly and made the ride so bumpy I nearly slid off. I figured he was tired, and hadn't rode in a while since it was a chilly day and mid-March. My horse maintained such a great distance between the husband that I lost sight of him sometimes. The husband told me to gently pat his rear side to catch up.
"Horses don't respond well to gentle riders. You are so nice, and a beginner. He can sense that. Be deliberate with him," the husband revealed to me.
"I'm trying!" I screamed back.
We trekked around the pasture for another 30 minutes and returned to the ranch. On the drive home, I asked if Zanet went to university. She said that all of her friends had studied STEM subjects, and she was the only one to study art. I asked why she decided to travel solo to Greece, and her reason wasn't far from mine.
Zanet wanted to discover the world, to expand her horizons, to meet people she wouldn't have met otherwise, to break away from the ordinary, to mess up and to recover herself, to challenge her mental framework, to find new inspiration. Zanet inspired me to keep going. I decided I was going to be like Zanet.
"Zanet inspired me to keep going."
As my beautiful trip began coming to a close, I understood that I would have to say goodbye. Goodbye to a girl unsure of herself, goodbye to my anxieties and fears, goodbye to the old version of me.
I would have to leave an island full of freedom, nice people and plenty of loving stray cats.
Reflecting on my journey, not once did anyone question my solo journey; I didn't receive any questions on why I was alone, nor did anyone make a strange face at me when asking for a "table for one" at a restaurant.
I was never harassed by locals or any foreigners, never robbed nor stolen from. I did mistakenly leave my passport in the hotel safe, but that's another story. All in all, I felt completely safe and surrounded by love, which highly increased my confidence.
I left Santorini, Greece ready to embark on my next greatest adventure: London!
It is entirely possible to visit Santorini without having found "The One" and without having a large budget. These are simply perceptions made by your mind to avoid disappointment. But when you stop feeding yourself a certain way of thought, you realize that it is only yourself holding you back - that you've been trapped by your own limits and others' opinions. I hope this post inspires you to take action and look into your own first solo trip.
The world is waiting for you to explore. Heck, you might even meet your husband.
I've finally done it. My first solo trip, and to one of the world's most beautiful cities, is complete!
This past weekend I can proudly say that I've navigated Italy's regional train system, accurately located my hotel, planned everything down to the hour and now feel accomplished. Travelling solo is a journey in itself as there is no one to fall back on but yourself if anything were to go wrong. But, there is so much FREEDOM and BEAUTY in being able to call yourself a solo traveller.
I was able to eat where I wanted, arrive and leave without considering the needs of a larger group. I could better blend in to the vibe of the city, meet other solo travellers and explore the area without any constraints. I packed light, only one small carry on - which allowed for easy travel on buses and small Italian cars. I knew I wanted to visit Florence after hearing how glorious it was, so I planned about three weeks in advance which gave me the best deals on my tickets and hotel.
I stayed at Adre Majestc View, a guesthouse offering free breakfast in the center of the city within walking distance to major tourist areas. The staff was helpful in recommending the best sights and things to do in the city. The rooms were older but exceptionally clean and quiet. I even received a free room upgrade and had three extra beds to spare! I would definitely stay here again, as it was a great value for my money.
Florence, or "Firenze," the dreamy capital of Italy's Tuscany region, has been the highlight of my time in the country thus far and is perhaps my favorite city in Italy. It's the home of iconic Renaissance architectural masterpieces, bistecca alla florentina, genuine leather shops and the creamiest gelato. I explored the vast Piazzale Michaelangelo, Il Duomo, the Gallery of Accademia featuring the Statue of David crafted by Michelangelo himself and the lovely Boboli Gardens.
Tuscany is also a region known for its specialization in truffles, the expensive flavorful mushroom used as a delicacy in pasta dishes. One of the finest restaurants offering truffles as a highlight is Trattoria Zà Zà, an elegant eatery with fair prices and delicious dishes. I ordered the ravioli alla crema de tartufo, spinach and ricotta ravioli with truffle cream sauce, for only 9 euro! I also had the pleasure of stumbling upon La Bottega Del Tartufo, a local shop in Firenze that offered a vast selection of truffle goods including truffle pasta and truffle potato chips! I ended up purchasing the chips and a truffle based olive oil. I've never tasted better food in my life!
The art and romance of Firenze can be felt from a mile away. The nightlife included men and women of all ages serenading the city with pure talent, creating the perfect atmosphere for a lovely stroll through the piazzas at dusk.
Pisa was just as great. I arrived early and was able to ask a kind stranger to wait for me to awkwardly balance on a stone and place my hands in the right position in order to get the perfect shot of the leaning tower (see above). I then checked out the Pisa Baptistry and the Monastery for a total of only 5 euro.
There were significantly less people in Pisa itself and it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city. The food was also delicious. For a late lunch, I randomly chose La Piadona, a local fast-food joint that still offered freshly made piadine. The owner spoke English and when I told him I was from California, he got excited and told me he lived in Torrance for a while. I truly loved interacting with the locals who appreciated my broken attempt at Italian.
I highly recommend solo travel. There is such a negative stigma around travelling alone as a female, let alone as a black female. I have experienced a bit of discrimination as some Italians are against those perceived to be of immigrant status. I do also get stares all the time but I believe they're more out of curiosity and shock than mal-intent. However, Italy is much safer than most countries and I always thoroughly research where I will be living and walking beforehand. I also remain aware of my surroundings at all times, watch shadows and know the local emergency numbers.
Men in Italy are known for voicing their attraction, but typically will leave you alone if you're uninterested and shut them down. The main active threat to women here, and anyone in general, are pickpockets. I have yet to be affected by this (knock on wood), but if you keep your hand on your bag and wear it in front of you as a crossbody, you should be fine.
I have no fear of eating alone - it gives me time to reconnect, plan for the next day and people watch. I also highly enjoy my own company. After my mom, I'm my favorite travel companion! I know myself the best, what I like and don't care for, and that makes exploring much more enjoyable.
The only downside I still have to overcome is my hesitancy. When travelling alone I often wish I had the boldness to approach another person sitting alone or even a larger group and chat, but I know this will come with time. I believe that solo travel allows you to love yourself even more and I look forward to my next one. I just wrapped planning for my spring and Easter break trips, so stay tuned!
Michelangelo's The Statue of David
A popular sandwich shop in Firenze, "All'Antico Vinaio"
Piazza del Duomo
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini
Statue of the Fallen Angel
Overlooking Firenze from top of Piazzale Michelangelo
Back in January I had the opportunity to travel to Campania, a southern region in Italy known for its coastal beauty and rich history. The region features major cities such as Naples, Agropoli and Paestum. Because my travel group visited during the off-season, it was so freezing that it began snowing, much to my dismay. Fortunately, we were still able to take in the beauty of the region.
The Second Temple of Athena (pictured above) is Greek and is the oldest surviving temple in Paestum. Our local guide informed us that while it was initially dedicated to the goddess of war and wisdom, it was later used as a Christian church. We also visited the historical Roman amphitheater (now in ruins) and the Archaeological Museum. Agropoli, situated on the Cilentan Coast, hosted marvelous sunsets over the Tyrrhenian Sea. The area was stunning - the perfect lovechild between historical architecture and natural beauty.
Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was the visit to a buffalo farm called Tenuta Vannulo where we watched fresh mozzarella being made. The staff was proud to announce they treat their mammalian guests to a "massage," a grooming technique used to relax the buffalo in order for them to produce the highest quality milk. We then toured a local vineyard known as the Azienda Agricola Vini Marino and did some wine tasting. Although red wines tend to be much richer in flavor due to the skins being left on during fermentation, I highly enjoyed and preferred the sweetness of the white wine. The owner was hospitable enough to offer us some focaccia and bottles for purchase while serenading us!
Stay tuned for a post about my trip to Florence in the coming weeks!
Azienda Agricola Vini Marino
Focaccia and white wine
Inside the museum
My first few days in Rome have been a whirlwind! Adjusting to the new time zone, moving into my hotel and having to utilize the language right off the bat have been a bit overwhelming. Nonetheless, the staff at my new school, the John Felice Rome Center, have been extremely welcoming and wasted no time orienting us to our new lives for the next four months.
Balduina, the quaint neighborhood I'm staying in is highly residential and quite populated, yet peaceful and serene. I've already discovered a few popular local shops and grocery stores. Navigating the neighborhood by foot and by bus has given me insight into the true Italian lifestyle, not just the typical touristy way of life. The Italians I've meet so far have been outgoing and chatty, yet when I attempt to speak their native language, they reply in English. Because I live away from the campus, I get to walk to school everyday where everything is central - the Mensa cafeteria, the gorgeous library, classes and offices. The JFRC is very modern and beautifully remodeled.
Within my first week here I had the opportunity to tour staples of Italian art and architecture including: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps. I'm looking forward to continue exploring Rome and other cities in Italy. Agropoli is next on my list.
The Roman Forum
The Spanish Steps
Fontana del Pantheon
Image by Johnny Silvercloud
Daphne Valerius’ award-winning documentary The Souls of Black Girls explores the various ways in which American television, cinema, music and print exploit the culture of black women and reduce them to self-sabotaging stereotypes.
The documentary features commentary from prominent figures in the business including actresses Regina King and Jada Pinkett-Smith, rapper and actor Chuck D, the late news anchor Gwen Ifill and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis. Beginning with a roundtable discussion of the harmful effects of the media, several young women of color detail their struggles dealing with society’s emphasis placed on light/white skin and eurocentric beauty standards. They explain their unsuccessful attempts to obtain a white image of beauty and the harm that comes along with this pressure.
A key point made in the film was the concept of a growing “self-image disorder,” the idea that if beautiful doesn’t look like them [African-American girls], then they must be ugly. Ifill explains this condition as an undetectable, discrete disorder. Compared to anorexia, a dangerous life-threatening disorder, everything else is a “deeply buried emotional condition” and the girls dealing with self-image disorder aren’t screaming out for help.
This disorder not only affects black women but also white women, as they too are encouraged by the media to view people of color in a negative light. According to Safiya Noble’s “Searching for Black Girls,” both “blacks and whites who view blacks negatively on TV are more likely to hold negative perceptions of them(selves)” (Noble, 2018, p. 23).
The documentary also points out that media industries explicitly make a profit off of black women by selling public manipulation off of what they think the public wants. While white images of provocative women are free, black explicit images cost. Gender also plays a role in this manipulation – men are often in charge of marketing campaigns that sabotage black female bodies.
Women of color are looked at as objects for the male gaze and shown overly sexualized in media to welcome the disrespect of the viewer. Described in the film as an extension from slavery in which slave owners would humiliate black men by taking advantage of their wives and children, the media continues disrespecting black women.
If women of color want to be included in campaigns at all, they feel a pressure to compromise their natural given beauty. This leads women of color having to conform to a white-washed version of themselves, examples including the straightened, lightened hair and skin tone of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry and Jessica Alba.
Moving forward, the film suggests the need to change the images we see in the media by including a diverse network of executives. By showing darker skinned women on the screen and starting production companies led by black women, the narrative will begin to shift to promote more body-positive representations of women of color. It is also vital for black women to admit to their pain with honesty and not shame, as burying the guilt and sorrow is a major cause of self-image disorder.
"There's certain things in life that I love. One is architecture. And music, culture, food, people. New Orleans has all of that." - Lenny Kravitz
Put simply, there's no city quite like the charming, inviting and ever celebratory nature of New Orleans. I fell in love with this city soon after my arrival and I owe this newly acquainted love affair to my scholarship. Whether you're a foodie, a shopaholic or simply a people person, there's something for every traveller and with so much to experience, you'll never grow tired of NOLA.
1. Visiting Cafe Du Monde/Cafe Beignet
Both famous for their warm, freshly baked and perfectly crisp world-famous beignets, these cafes are often bustling with crowds eager to satisfy their sweet tooth. Cafe Du Monde, perhaps the more well known of the two also sells rich coffee that pairs well with the donuts. My personal favorite, Cafe Beignet offers a fine classical music selection and also serves breakfast with a much shorter wait time for the same great taste.
2. Riding the street cars
A classic image of New Orleans (along with the river steamboats!) are the street cars, which run 24 hours daily all throughout the city for a $3.00 day pass. Visitors can catch a ride from St. Charles station all the way to the famed Canal St. A trip to NOLA would be incomplete without a ride on these thrilling trains.
3. Shopping at the French Quarter & Canal St.
Wandering aimlessly around the city, I happened to stumble upon the gloriously stunning French Creole architecture of the French Quarter, home to the Louisiana State Museum Cabildo, street vendors, several boutiques and small mom & pop shops. I found a unique shop with such trendy pieces for the most affordable prices. Souvenir shops also surround the city with T-shirt prices for as low as $5.00. If you're lucky, you'll catch a typical NOLA jazz band during one of their performances (and snag a pic with the artists, too!)
4. Gumbo, Jambalaya, Crawfish, Oysters...need I say more?
These New Orleanian staples are available year round, but I must say that enjoying some hot jambalaya in the summertime with in-season ingredients is unmatched. I took a chance on a random restaurant that happened to showcase excellent service, a welcoming environment and delicious food - The Gumbo Shop. I've also been recommended Remoulade and Brennans.
5. Spending a day in Jackson Square Park
Established in 1721 by French explorers, Jackson Square Park's center honors with a majestic statue the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Major General Andrew Jackson. The park includes an enormous fountain where visitors can find birds bathing and enjoying the sun. In the heart of the city, the park is surrounded by several other hot spots, so be sure to use Jackson Square as a landmark for navigating the rest of the city while enjoying its beauty along the way.