My Dark Chocolate Itinerary

1/9/2014

Today I leave home to take a bite of the chocolate of my dreams – it’s dark chocolate, and no matter the goodness it has a twinge of bitterness.

I fly to London where I will be staying with my newfound sister. Her name is Noella Musunka Coursaris (http://noellacoursaris.com/), and she embraced me into her humanitarian world at the start of my gap year. I’ve now been working with her daily towards the mission of her non-profit: The Georges Malaika Foundation. You could say I got lucky…

After working remotely for the past 5 months, we decided to eliminate the distance, hence my upcoming trip. I leave for Cheltenham, London where I will be staying and traveling with Noella for the next eight weeks. Bitterness? The longest period of time I have been away from my family. A perspective builder nonetheless, but you can guarantee there will be a hefty international calling bill.

The sweetness of this trip I am about to set foot on, is something I still haven’t grasped – I don’t think I will until I’m mid-flight. Let me give you a quick peak at the nooks and crannies of the world I am preparing to visit:

Destination 1 – Noella & her family in Cheltenham, London. I will visit the city, Buckingham Palace, and of course, the more royal Wimbledon Grounds. Day trips to Bath and Oxford will be last-minute but very anticipated. With regular internet access, expect to see often updates of me drowning in English culture. Time: 2 weeks

Destination 2 – Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Noella and I will be staying with her mother, on the grounds of the village of Kalebuka. An area familiar to poverty – GMF has built a school for girls here where I will work amongst the community. Teaching English in the classrooms, tennis outside, and more than ever looking to absorb the many teachings the girls can give you themselves. Stay tuned for many more details, even live updates from the ground. Time: 2 weeks

Destination 3 – Cheltenham, London. After a few weeks in the Congo, I arrive back to London where I plan to do some leftover sightseeing and of course work live with Noella on all GMF tasks. If I’m lucky during this period, I may get a visit from my Mom. Expect to see more unique pictures of life as a Londonite. Time: 1 and 1/2 week

Destination 4 – Geneva, Switzerland. More than lucky…this was a treat. Noella’s christmas present to me: a trip to see her family in Switzerland. Skiing may be in the itinerary along with trips to the city. From here is where my trip nears its end and I fly back to the Big Apple. Time: 1 and 1/2 week

I created this blog with hopes of sharing my travels and findings with my family, friends, and anyone else looking to see what to do and not to do on a two-month trip involving sightseeing, friends, and of course humanitarian food for the soul. In Europe I hope to post daily and in Africa, in the case I don’t post – do not call the FBI. The party will reconvene as soon as I am back in Europe and you can be sure that I will unload all the Congolese pictures.

My love extends to all who take the time to read my blog, but even if you’re a scanner – I guess I will love you too. (-:

Keep you’re eye out for the first post from the UK. My sweet-tooth is about to take off on the trip of a lifetime. My first dark chocolate plane departs later today and you are one of the people who I will write my next post for. Thank you my first blog readers!

Day 1: Home of the Masters

1/10/2014

This morning at 7am, 2am or so New York time, I landed into London Heathrow airport. The view, hiding London in the dark, was more incredible than I’d thought – thousands of feet in the air looking down on royal lights shinning brightly on in every direction.

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In the top picture, if you look close enough you’ll see the Thames River snake around the city. The trip in couldn’t have gone smoother and once I had landed I was fortunate enough for the hour and half of sleep I got during the car ride to Cheltenham.

Cheltenham – the suburb in which Noella, her husband James, and their 3 and a half year old boy, JJ, lives. I thankfully spent today amidst the house relaxing, though tomorrow I fully intend to go out and see the town, considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of England.

I made a best friend today – though I credit it to my charming ability – I had also left him three unwrapped presents under the christmas tree after he came home from day-school. Regardless, we spent the day building houses with Legos, flying helicopters and driving monster trucks around the living room, and watching a few episodes of British cartoons. You can guarantee our common interests will take us far into our friendship.

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After our play date, my incredible hosts toasted to my arrival and I was in for a surprise. Noella’s nephew, and professional chef, is also staying in the Masters’ household for the time being. The appetizer was a beautiful lemony shrimp and avocado dish, and its plating is part of the amazement (see below). The party in my mouth didn’t stop as we went on to be served a duck dish with an incredible orange sauce.

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My first night has me hungry for more, and I am so excited for tomorrow where I step outside the house and take in my first sights of the English town.

My First Weekend Abroad in Europe (Day 2 and 3)

1/13/2014

I woke up Saturday morning to fresh croissants and English tea as sun poured in the kitchen. I couldn’t have been more excited to get out in the town of Cheltenham and witness my first sights of European life. Noella and I spent a few hours working in the morning and then I was off to wander around the mini-shops and cafes. The hardest part? Walking amongst the masses of people and consistently repeating in my mind “stay to the LEFT”. You’d be amazed at how many times I almost broke someone’s nose by not flowing with the normal direction of pedestrian traffic.

I could not have been more in love with the town—quiet in its corners yet bustling with a colloquial vibe. Cheltenham had me surprised with the amount of bikers and clean streets decorated with vintage, rouge homes.

When I saw the object found below I couldn’t help but look like tourist. I stood in the middle of the street and captured my first and the iconic, red telephone booth.

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Saturday evening ended with a stunning girl’s night out as we shared plates at an edgy restaurant. Lost in a utopia of European culture, I pray that one day I’ll have the ability to unlock someone else’s imagination as Noella is doing for me by hosting and showing me the beauty of the rural UK.

Sunday called for the traditional English Sunday lunch; a meal cooked so well that you eat like a King at 1pm and can’t eat for the rest of the day as you fall asleep with a full stomach. We spent the day watching a movie, swimming at the indoor center, and enjoying a beautiful end to the week.

Day 4: An Oxford University Awakening

1/14/2014

Today I took a train from Cheltenham to Oxford. As the train pulled up to the station I eagerly waited in front of the exit door, expecting it to open upon arrival (just as the automatic doors open on the Long Island Rail Road). If I had waited a second longer, I swear the man behind me would have knocked me upside the head – the doors on the English rail road system had to be manually opened with the push of a button…duh!..(one of many symptoms associated with being a young, solo tourist).

The train ride there though was something magical; the countryside of the United Kingdom has history written in its rusted barns and bright green plots of land with herds of sheep. Passing by it all in a train going 60mph left me in awe – and I remain determined to one day trek through the Costwolds and discover its hidden mystery. Just a snapshot of what I really saw (I promise it was 10x more beautiful):

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I grabbed an almond croissant and coffee from the station at Oxford and sat next to a friendly looking girl (if there’s one thing I’ve learned…it’s to make sure they always look friendly). I asked her if she was a student at Oxford and she enthusiastically (thank the Lord), said ‘Yes, of course!’ After a nice chat, she left to catch her train to London and I with a sense of direction around the center of Oxford and a few tips on the colleges and attractions not to miss.

I followed the few routes she gave me and ended up still getting lost – not direction wise so much, but more in just how simply beautiful the buildings were. It was the stones and architecture that made walking down the first street seem like I was thrown right into the set of Hogwarts. Overall, it is a sight no words can explain – as I’m sure you can imagine. To give you a preview of the gallery to come:

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I haven’t seen to many places of the world yet, but if there’s anything I know it’s that you can’t form your opinion until you go there and breathe it all in for yourself. Trust me…being across the Atlantic from my homeskillets (aka. blood-related family) and leaving my sister’s home in Cheltenham to wander the streets of some unknown gothic city had me feeling a little nervous. But it is a test for those looking for courage. You walk with your shoulders back and an innocent curiosity in your eyes and people tend to see you as a part of the city; beauty lurking under the layers of erasable commercialization sketched across it (key word there is ‘erasable’). Every breathtaking city has it’s bright-eyed onlookers (‘tourists’ is too general), they’re the people who keep it alive.

But as I said – don’t take my word for it. Go see Oxford, not Miami University Oxford, the real Oxford. The university, the castle, the churches; it eats up every piece of you that ever thought history could never lay wide awake inside the standing walls of present day.

A few very specific places I made my way to see in my 5 hour period of time: a History of Medicine exhibit (incredible), a few colleges inside the University, the center of town, the Oxford castle, the shopping area, St. Mary’s Church, the Radcliffe Camera, and a few more.

I have a confession today – I was walking down the cobble-stone street when a brown hanging sign a few feet ahead read: Chocolate Hotel. I walked past it, keeping my head down, but turned back after my eyes hit red bricks instead of the delicious-looking pieces of heaven smiling at me in the window display. The picture says it all – chocolate was no by-stander today.

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A gallery of much more interesting pictures is to follow. Tomorrow I head into the city of London where I will, for the first time, be in the same vicinity as Royal blood – I can’t wait! Stay tuned my friends (-:

A Bite of Royal Sweetness in London – Day 5

1/15/2014

Today I encountered the city of London in a tiny snapshot.

The Congolese embassy was my first stop after arriving at the London Paddington train station. With a lunch appointment at the Royal Automobile Club directly after, I couldn’t wait to arrive at the grand setting. I walked from the embassy to Piccadilly Circus walking straight through Oxford Circus.

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Yep, I totally meant to get the red double-decker in the picture. And this next sign helped me not get run over by one…

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It was more amazing than I could have imagined. My short time walking around has me so eager to go back and spend more time in different parts of the city. I think I’ll take the train back in this Saturday.

So I arrived at Pall Mall street and popped in shop to ask the keeper where the Royal Automobile Club was – thankfully, 100 feet down the street to my left with a large blue flag: R. A. C. From my understanding, it actually is a country club in sorts, with a swimming pool and other facilities, but only for those considered ‘royal’ of course. I met up with the family friends, who are incredibly sweet, and we were formally led to the table. If I had a picture it would blow your mind, but unfortunately my IPhone wasn’t suited for it’s extremely royal layout. I had fishcakes with a green sauce and constantly refilling glass of sparking water followed by a white chocolate cake with walnuts and a dried fruit I had never seen before—you could say I was in heaven.

Oh! And for all of you who aren’t into my foodie side—take a look at the automobile the club decided to put on show. I believe it’s an Aston Martin? Racecar version.

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They took me past St. James Square before we parted, and soon I was off to finish exploring Piccadilly Circus before my 6pm train home.

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After walking in my fancy heels back up to Oxford Circus, my feet had officially turned to mush. When I was informed I couldn’t wear my comfy flats to dine at the Club, my feet, which had walked all of Oxford the day before, weren’t so happy. I on the other hand couldn’t have enjoyed more dressing up for the occasion.  So from Oxford Circus in the center of London I decided to make use of my handy NYC subway skills. I stood in line at the underground to use the self-operating ticket machines but didn’t get past the ‘Which type of ticket would you like?’ screen… I promise, I’m smart, but that machine was crazy—it definitely had some internal problems. (-: After buying a ticket from the place where there are people behind the screen, I made my way to the platform and waited for the train. Helpful tip: in London they call their subway system ‘the tube’.

I couldn’t have asked for a more royal start to my time in London. Back in Cheltenham though, I was glad to be back in the countryside. I have so much more to see and do inside the beauty of London, today was only a quick snapshot of what I’m sure is going to be a magical experience over the next month. I plan on returning a few times before and after Congo.

Day 6 and Day 7, the Thursday Jan 15th and Friday Jan 16th, I am spending time working with Noella—my main reason for being here and enjoying the brilliance of Cheltenham. For my devoted followers (if you exist), I may not post until Day 8, where I plan on heading back into London with a friend, and you can be reassured there will be lots of pictures of us to come, until then… Cheers!

An English Weekend; Pre Congo Thoughts

1/22/2014

Apologies, readers… these past few days and weekend were filled with packing our bags and making sure everything is set and planned for the minute we reach the ground. Also, I will not be posting the “Day #” as I have to say, my jet lag is over and if I don’t stop now, I’ll start counting days before I have to fly back to New York before I know it.

Today I leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo—actually, I leave for the Nairobi airport first, but then we fly  into Lubumbashi. I cannot put to words how excited I am for this leg of the trip; this is the time I have been waiting for (for what feels like all my life…but in fact just a few months). Anyways, I am incredibly sorry for not making a more detailed post, especially after a weekend of GMF work and strolls around Cheltenham. In fact, Noella’s husband took us out for a night in the English Pub, and I made chocolate chip cookies (English style) with Noella’s son – it was beyond fun. But honestly, time-shortage aside, the only thing I would be able to talk about is how ready and excited I am to be in a new continent.

As soon as we are on the ground it is going to most likely be hot, rainy, and have a smell I have never before inhaled (the smell of Africa)! I’m going into the unexpected and not knowing what I will find down there but just holding on to the fact that it is going to be new, refreshing, and something I will never forget—it what makes it all the more thrilling.

I plan to post as soon as I get access to wifi! And show my people the girls and life at the school, food I will hopefully have properly digested, and so much more I that have yet to learn about. I’ve been hearing about the storms back home in the states and wishing everyone stays warm and healthy! We are off to the airport in 8 minutes, but my readers, I would never abandon you – stay tuned, for my African side is about to sprout.

Congolese Indulgence

1/24/2014

My laptop reads 2:22pm, it’s New York time; my one reminder in the corner of my vision that where I am does not match where I have started from. My phone is smarter, it reads 9:22pm: seven hours ahead and running on adrenaline after a red-eye to Nairobi and a five-hour delayed connecting flight, my two feet take their first steps on the African continent.

Walking in Noella’s shadow, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the enduring hospitality, yet there were private cars, personal cell phones handed out, and luggage tags collected as they would deliver our checked in bags straight to the house.

I sat in the back seat of a white car as Lydie, the principal of our GM School, began to point out the passing neighborhoods of Lubumbashi. Poverty was evident and expected, what I hadn’t planned for was seeing the massive mansions lurking behind 9 foot stone walls topped with barb-wire. It was patches of enormous wealth surrounded by aluminum-covered huts and a myriad of items bordering the roads; I saw everything from white-plastic chairs, to pots and pans, to bags of what seemed like rice. At first glance, it seemed the people behind the item-lined barriers were rich with a myriad of materials, elements, and objects. Then you look closer and I thought, how much of these things are actually useful? My mind went on to contemplate then if these items, that at first sight might portray a bustling and rich society, exist only to portray. Maybe they truly are clutter that keep the clean patches gated off and those rich with invaluable items—well, that much more poor. But poverty is a whole other battle…

Arriving at the guarded gate of my Congolese home for the next two weeks was the bumpiest car ride I’ve been on in my entire life. Being monsoon season the potholes create mud-roads with two to three foot ditches.  Noella’s mum, who we call Mamoida, waits just outside the gate with a smile too warm to explain. Bonjour!

I went to our school today to see the work that I’ve been doing for the last 5 months in real life. I literally have no words – and the videos especially will show their magic.

As my wifi is so limited, and as much as I would like to write a book about every single experience – I have about 30 solid minutes in wifi. So I must let the pictures tell all, but trust me, they work. Lots of love to all back home and can not wait for a few days when I will have so much more to post!

Noella’s Birthday Party & A Record-Breaking Heart Rate

1/30/2014

In honor of Noella’s special day, who can resist the Congolese warmth of her home on a beautiful afternoon in Lubumbashi? We spent the morning decorating the grounds and greeted the many guests as they arrived. Everyone from family to local sponsors enjoyed home-cooked barbeque chicken and a feast of other traditional delicacies—while we savored the chocolate sponge cake at the end.

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Noella and our incredible guest for a few days, Karina Nagin of Clinton Global Initiative, along with one of our Directors of GMF, Yamandou Alexander, snuck off for a private meeting at the football mecca of Lubumbashi…yes, I had a heart attack when Noella mentioned she would take me. We arrived at the stadium of the famed T.P. Masembo Football team and could hear the cheers of the match against Zambia as we were escorted into a private box. After I picked up my jaw and attached it back to my mouth, we sat for a bit watching the players show off some half-time drills. Oh, and playing a tennis match with a very special opponent later in the evening… my heart rate has officially reached a pace so high, it’s unknown to mankind.

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The late afternoon called for a coffee and dessert-run invitation with a few fantastic people who Noella very recently introduced me to. The night ended with a GMF team meeting to organize schedules and talk strategy for our time on the ground.

Tomorrow will be a great start to the week. We are touring our VIP guest, Karina, around Kalebuka, so will be primarily spending most of the day at the School or Football for Hope Center. Working to set up our proposed initiatives, coordinating meetings on projects, holding interviews for positions on site at our projects, and helping to refine and develop our ongoing operations are just a few of the many tasks we are working around the clock on, especially being here on the ground.

A picture of Karina (to my closest left), our founder Noella (inside extreme left) and GMF colleague Eileen (outside extreme left) at a well we built in the local village.

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I’m off to an amazing start here in this amazing 80-degree daily weather and unmatched hospitality. I write in a word document as I am unsure as to when I will have wifi next, but the blog is the first thing I update. So excited for tomorrow—not sure how much sleep I’m going to get tonight… Ciao!

Mid-Trip & Loving Congo

1/30/2014

I’ve officially experienced my first few days in a row out of wifi…but I guess there is a first for everything. Meanwhile, we have been waking up around 7am and travelling 30 minutes into the village of Kalebuka where all the magic happens. It has been an extremely productive week and I can’t say I’ve ever been able to sleep so deeply after a full day of work—it’s refreshing to say the least!

A snap of my pretty girls-couldn’t resist this one:

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In and out of meetings with the local staff working on projects from coordinating local media teams to administration around the school to the physical education program. Time has been flying by and with a dinner in town a few nights with an all staff outing to a nice restaurant with a few new friends Noella introduced me to; I cannot remember a moment of boredom.

So a few amazing recent experiences, not necessarily in order: Playing tennis in a private backyard clay court. Night out with Shaida, an amazing lady living here in Lubumbashi and a new friend for life, along with her friend Yesha, who is just as incredible (and a private pilot for the government…how cool is that?). A trip to the local zoo…Never in my life have I received VIP treatment by being able to go to where the Bengali tiger, six-year old lion, and enormous ostrich are kept “behind-the-scenes”, you have to check out the pictures.  Being invited to help give tips to a tennis player raised in a local village – as the top player in the community him and his team are working to improve daily and watching him play was a sight to see; incredible strokes all blossoming though his determination to improve everyday. Visiting the Malachite market (malachite is a stone the Congo is very known for) and of course doing some shopping for family and friends – this is definitely a must for anyone looking for a beautiful green stone morphed into pieces of African culture. Only a few of my picture-worthy moments— find pictures below!

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Shaida & Yesha (from middle to right)

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Lubumbashi Zoo!

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Local Tennis Player with team & just him. Felt very special being the only girl (-:

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Malachite Market:

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One of the coolest things I did, today in fact (today which is Thursday, Jan 30th) was being toured around a few local hospitals with the health director who contributes his time to our girls at the school. Although Eileen (a GMF colleague and very good friend) were simultaneously on a hunt for statistics through talking with the administration offices at the hospitals, for use at our New York office in grant filling and fundraising projects; we couldn’t help but be sucked into the new planet of health-care that exists in this developing area. I placed this event separate from those above; it doesn’t matter that the visuals I saw were not picture appropriate as they are stored in a sealed folder inside my mind. It’s not sad or depressing, when you look at the situation differently, as usual, the problem is an opportunity. Yet, Eileen and I—brainstorming in the short car-rides between what the locals see as a healing temple—couldn’t circle around one solution that had the potential of corruption due to money or disbelief in the western culture by the locals. When the area is so poor, how do you build a system where doctors will work with a primary motive of healing their patient and not making money? Maybe it’s a mentality that needs an infrastructure genuinely built, working through on-the-ground, hands-on help and generation of time, and not within the periods of grant money dispersed. It’s an issue that only lends itself to the real importance of creativity and well-educated minds needed in international developmental work. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have left the hospital sites with new images to reference and a brand new perspective.

Sendwe & Kamalondo Hospital Sites:

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We also were taken to the UNICEF office of Lubumbashi where we met with the local director and were thankfully given so many helpful statistics—the blessing of having reference material for filling around-the-clock grants in an international non-profit is one I will take with me to the grave.

I am soaking in the, at times, unbearable, heat and spending time simply taking in my surroundings—as this country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has encrypted itself into my life and isn’t planning on leaving. Witnessing the amount of potential seen from agriculture to hospitality can leave you sleepless at night when you think: every seed you drop in the Congolese soil sprouts within the hour—why isn’t this the statistics we portray in flyers promoting the Congo? Instead of percentages on poverty and scarring stories on war.

Regardless, working at the school is a dream I didn’t realize was hiding in between the lines of the plan I had originally drawn for myself. Unexpected and ultimately satisfying to any sweet tooth craving life-long memories and uncovering hidden lessons, not rewards or any sort of material, behind the door of hard-work.

If there is one thing I have learned here it is to cherish clean water, food, a shower from the shower-head, WIFI, and sleep. I am about mid-trip today, looking forward to a relaxing weekend of work in town (Lubumbashi) and taking a short break from the red-dust and addicting community in the village of Kalebuka, before gearing up for the next week at our School and Football for Hope Center. A huge shout-out to my mentor Nalini Bates, the inspiration behind my blog! (-: Much love, until next time – Au revoir!

Last Day in DRC

2/6/2014

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Spent my last day teaching my girls and a class at the community center – was one of the best days on the ground. More to come of my fun times over the past few days, but this was as much as I could get up in my limited wifi. Leaving for Europe tomorrow, very sad to leave the Congo!

Unpacking to Repack – London/Paris, here we come!

2/9/2014

We arrived back to Cheltenham early Saturday morning, and then spent most of the day sleeping to catch up from the 8 hour layover in Nairobi and 8 hour flight! But overall, couldn’t have asked for a better end to the trip.

Today, Sunday Feb 9th, has called for documenting my Congo trip as I prepare a portfolio, and unpacking a very large suitcase. All I have been able to think about today is how excited I am to see my mom tomorrow morning. I take an early train out of Cheltenham and into London where we will be spending the next three nights in the city and then taking the eurostar to Paris! It’s been one adventure after the other and I am not even close to being travelled-out. Stay tuned for some incredible photos of us two as we take on the city lights. After GMFing with Noella for the past few months, I am hoping to give her and her family a nice break from me (-:

Update coming soon- Cheers!

Londonites Turned Parisians

2/28/2014

I could see her face through the tinted windows of the Starbucks at the end of a long hallway in Paddington Train station. Mommy’s Girl has seen the pot at the end of her rainbow, and finally… finally reunited.

I honestly dreaded the idea of my Mom coming to visit me during my, shorter than I’d hoped for, tour across the African and European continents. It was my first trip so far away, alone, and going all by myself—the excitement was thrilling. It wasn’t until mid-trip, when I felt some sort of strained emotion. It felt as if I had left something I couldn’t live without, something more important to me than anything else, and forgot to take it with me. That mid-trip point came when I was staring out of the jet window soon after boarding the flight in Lubumbashi that would take us to Nairobi. A short flight in a tiny airplane, sitting next to two nice-looking strangers, I watched men in orange vests carry luggage underneath the plane, and felt that very emotion and small droplets stroke my cheek. At that point, I couldn’t have been more excited knowing a part of the parcel I had forgotten would soon be making her way to me—and before I knew it, I walked into that Starbucks with the smile of kid in a chocolate factory.

The city center of London for three days, Paris for another 3 days, and a visit to my host’s home in Cheltenham for a few days was her itinerary. To not go into excessive detail, our days consisted of waking up to the rays of sunshine flooding our tiny room on the fourth floor of a mini-hotel.

Oh, funny story: My mom and I drag her 50 pound, massive, suitcase along with two carry-ons, and our trendy tote bags packed with all our woman necessities from the station to the hotel. The hotel had about a 8 stairs until it’s main door into the lobby—Ok, no big deal, our arms would be toned. We arrive at the receptionist’s desk and pull out our printed reservation. The Russian-accented lady asks what we prefer a room on the first floor or the top-most, fourth floor. “Fourth! Of course,” I blurt, “A great view!” Ok, no problem the lady says. She gives us the key cards and point in the direction of the stairs. We casually gather our elephant sized-monster bags and pull them towards the stairs which most definitely would have an elevator close by, because which 21st century, public building, with FOUR floors doesn’t have one? Well… once we finally accepted the elevator in this spiral-stair cased building had to be invisible and apparently non-existent, we reached the top of four floors covered in a thick layer of sweat. Better yet—we enter the lavish penthouse sweet of the franchised hotel, to find a shrunken queen size bed, painfully squeezed between the two walls of the miniature room and a window looking down on a graffiti-filled wall and a few dumpsters. (: You could say that was one of my Mom’s proudest moments of my adult-like decision-making.

The trip itself was your typical touristy, sightseeing, pastry devouring, shopping made a professional sport, type of visit to a few of the largest cities in Europe. For me, it remains some of the best times of my entire life. But to be honest, besides visiting the modern art museum in Paris, taking the hop-on hop-off tour bus in both cities, and meeting some incredible family friends in London, our trip consisted of eating absurdly and laughing our eyes out.

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Okay…Seeing Wimbledon for the first time was one of the few speechless moments of my existence.

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I loved being new. It was a rush of culture, history, and mainly new ideas and even body language. The simplest things from people-watching in the Parisian Underground to eating a combination of food you’ve never before tried, it built a new level of respect inside of me. Not just for their country but for the culture, the people, and their ways, no matter how different. It made me realize how important it is to travel, get outside of your bubble, and learn the world you live in before making assumptions.

For further masses of pictures of funny faces in front of the Eiffel Tower, me posing in front of a money transfer bank which stole my name, and the many other delicacies my Mom never fails to keep Facebook-censored, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/ria.shah.37853 Friends and family, you know where to look (-:

Stanmore With a Side of Dim Sum

3/1/2014

After unpacking from a week of vacation with my girl (Mom) – I spent the next few days catching up on a bit of GMF and beginning on a few days of meetings with our London based volunteer Louis. The amount of work Noella and I got done face to face was incredible – either I need to be permanently based in Cheltenham, or she needs to move to New York City… I guess we can live with Skype (:

For my amazing weekend in Stanmore with family friends, I only have my Neeta Auntie Patel to thank. After her email introducing me to her sister’s family, I couldn’t help but go visit them and enjoy the Indian chai and day spent in the Camden market with Janvi. I don’t even need to formally introduce her, as I am fairly confident she is going to be one of the world’s top cake chefs someday. Take a peek for yourself (my favorite, for obvious reasons)..completely edible:

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If you would like to see more of her masterpieces, you have to check out her facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CakeTinIcing

Dim sum was the treat I was in for, my first night at their beautiful home in the outskirts of London’s city center. Just like sushi’s crave exists in New York City, dimsum is a local favorite of Londonites, as I was explained. It consists of dining in at one of several places, one being ‘Ping Pong’, and watching steamed baskets of three or four pieces of dumpling-looking mouthwatering creations. From sesame chicken to exotic seafood, the possibilities are endless. It is a must for any London first timer.

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Thanking the entire family, Ashwin Uncle, Shila Auntie, Rishi and Janvi for making me feel right at home and letting me steal a room for a few nights. After some tough goodbyes, they so graciously drove me to Heathrow where I met up with Noella and her son, JJ, as we prepared for some fun in Geneva.

Geneva, Gruyere, Vevey, Villas; My Kind of Swiss Alps

3/1/2014

The above are the few cities I was privileged to witness with my own eyes. Switzerland is a breathtaking country, the views in particular, of course. Not only that but from their prosperous economy to friendly people, it’s hard to believe in flaws as you walk the lakeshore in Montreax.

What I saw as we were landing (and of course the miniature planes…which were very important too).

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My trip started in Geneva, where I was introduced to a wonderful couple, Herve & Corina, who also let me invade their apartment-home. GMF was benefited by a few meetings between our Founder Noella and a few high-level executives, and I had the pleasure of spending time with Corina, an amazing woman who has and is travelling the world and embracing her African heritage. After an incredible afternoon out with her, exploring Geneva city and its intimate European feel, I met up with a few old co=workers from a P&G internship this past summer. Did I think I would have co-workers in Geneva at 17…No, not exactly. But when the adult bug bites you early, it has its plus sides. The three of us talked common P&G names, new happenings in our Product Services Purchasing Function, and a whole deal of laugh as we joked around like three friends who had grown up together. I had never met them in person before, though this summer we had often communicated on conference calls and video chat during weekly meetings—seeing and meeting them in person, and talking to them about their life in Geneva opened my eyes to the existence of opportunity in different forms. Though Switzerland is a rather expensive country, the health of salaries is fairly wholesome. When you subtract the cost of living, I saw there was something efficient about the way the small city pushes out success. Geneva’s public transport system involves buses connected to electrical wires that provide the bus with electricity – no fuel needed. Water is fresh, as you can imagine, and taken from Mountain springs. There is tranquility to the entire system that keeps a tourist excited and on their feet, moving to only discover more intelligent operations and not disturb a single cell in the super effective working body. Switzerland attracts many of the world’s largest people and groups; I couldn’t be fooled by it’s small-town feel as you walk around Geneva—the amount of people may be small but the amount of international presence around each corner can leave a big-city dweller astonished.

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(Amazing afternoon out with Corina)

From a time too short spent in Geneva, Noella, JJ, and I took a train up to a town close to Montreax; Vevey. It was tucked away in the side of an enormous mountain overlooking the famed lake Geneva sits on. The view from the house of Noella’s cousins left me waking up and running to open the blinds on my window where I would stare and watch the sun play a game of shadows until I was blind from the strong rays. My morning view:

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We couldn’t have gotten luckier with the weather. The sunny days mixed with fresh cool air lent me the perfect setting for days out with a new Chilean family and enjoying a first-time Racklett dish with amazing hosts to our Vevey stay. Racklet involves cheese, so it became one of my favorites as I smelled heated cheese entering the room. It is a specialty dish in the area and eaten after you place the specific type of cheese on individual heating pans and stick them on the central mini-stove warmer in the middle of the table. You then take your melted cheese, after a few minutes, and pour it over a plate of steamed potatoes and freshly chopped tomatoes and onions. I felt like royalty eating a type of cheese I had never before tried – is a must if ever in the surrounding area of Geneva.

A quick look at what I got to see everyday…

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I also met a new family while in Vevey. A sort of God-family to Noella, they embraced me as her younger sister and treated me like one of their own. Our first day together we drove up to the top of the closest mountains and played in the snow, followed by cups of tea and chocolate cookies in their cozy home in another small town in the area. I sat at the kitchen counter and watched my Abuela fry some pancake-like pumpkin bread, while her daughter, and my new Auntie Yasna rolled out the dough. We talked family, life, and most importantly in Spanish, as they are first-generation Chileans and can speak a few words of English. Being forced to dig back into my past, I felt a rekindling of my love for all things Español. I credit my life-long passion of the latino culture, people, and language to my first teacher, Mrs. Taggart – she was my sidekick as I took on the Swiss-Chilean accents. We talked and ate and before I knew it I a day had passed and we were all walking up towards a rustic castle in the middle of the village of Gruyere – yes, the same gruyere where it’s own cheese is made. Let’s just say the fact that I had a Gruyere soup in a nearby restaurant while visitings…might lend you a bit of insider information on my new love for cheese and tiny, famous villages known for making cheese. Collage of our time before and after visiting Gruyere:

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Another understated event on my trip – skiing in the Swiss Alps. I’ll let the photos do the talking:

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It was a feeling I never expected to have (as much of this trip has contained) when I sat and talked with Yasna’s daughter Carla about her Swimming that took her to Spain to compete while Yasna stood on the other side of the kitchen island cooking her specialty risotto. When you travel so far away from everything you have known, finding a group of like-minded people in whom you can look into their eyes and see not a hint of cloudiness, but only clarity and your best interest in mind; it is a feeling I wish every single person on this planet to experience. You feel eternally indebted to them, for providing you with such intangible items that seem to carry the most significance. But then, just as this entire trip has prompted from me, you rethink. I know from that exact clarity in their eyes, the only way they would accept me to repay them is to provide that same kind, intelligent, and beautiful embrace to another solo-passenger. Someone who has left their home miles away and arrives at your doorstep with wide eyes, ready to explore. I thank you, each of you, so, so, so much for your graciousness during my three day stay in your care. To Cedric, Marisol, your incredible daughters, Yasna, Carla, Abuela, and your entire family: Sincerely, Thank You. A mi familia Chileana, muchas muchas muchas gracias por todo.

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After an evening out celebrating Noella’s birthday – a well-deserved birthday celebrated in the many nations she calls home – I spent time with Noella’s niece and a new great friend, Jenna. She took me out to witness some Swiss nightlife and we had to be separated in order to stop talking. She is a young woman working for Nestle and with a the little knowledge I picked up during my short time at P&G we talked business, economy, and big corporations and made some time to talk about how beautiful Vevey and Montreax are in the summer – in particular the Montreax Jass Festival.

I left Vevey and Geneva, taking one last look at the mountains in every direction before boarding the plane back to London Heathrow airport. I know I will be back – Switzerland…until next time.

I Looked to Explore – I Found a Thousand Memories

3/1/2014

Because at the end of it all, of education, love, money, family…life, for each and every one of us, whether successful or not, it’s the memories we make that we are left with.

As March 1st dawns and the sun pulls up to reach noon in the English countryside, I pack the last of my clothes and hop on a three-hour bus from Cheltenham to Heathrow.

I’m not ready to say goodbye yet.

Rethinking…

I don’t technically have to say it yet, because there are a few things I’ve gained this trip that I’ve packed away in my own, internal suitcase (and never plan on taking out), to bring back home with me. The largest of the packages is confidence. I will miss most uncovering new techniques, ideals, accents, and other small things on a daily basis—but I realized I don’t necessarily have to be in a brand new country, miles away from home, to do that. I simply need a newfound confidence to put myself out there enough to dig and search for these refreshing new treasures, no matter who or what being of narrow-mindedness steps in my way.

A new respect for people, cultures, ideas, and all things, both living and non-living, working towards a better future, is the second item I am wrapping up to bring back home with me.

I’m ready to bring my gained respect and confidence back to my life. My upcoming happenings of: working in Manhattan for the Georges Malaika Foundation and frequently visiting my original home in Cincinnati, Ohio before beginning a new summer at P&G, then a following fall at university.

So I don’t have to say goodbye yet… Okay, maybe to my new friends and family made abroad, but not to uncovering new things daily and living with passion. ‘Hello’, I say to new knowledge, courage, and curiosity. And ‘goodbye’ to my battered suitcase, which I have considered my homely companion for the past few months; it will calmly rest in peace in a dark closet for the next few months.

Before I move on and take on new challenges and excitement and leave this trip as a fluorescent light both to guide and highlight parts of me—I would like to thank my mentor and person who made this entire trip possible, Noella Musunka. Without you and your family’s help in making my dreams a reality, I wouldn’t be the transformed and amplified person I am today…who is casually updating her blog and making her way through Heathrow airport to catch a flight back to New York City. (:

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