Girls That Go! – An Interview with Jessie on a Journey

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This week we got to catch up with Jessie, the fantastic female traveler behind Jessie on a Journey. Check out her tips for newbies traveling to NYC, her advice for finding ethical volunteerism spots and more!
GGG: Wilkommen, Bienvenue, welcome to Girls That Go! Let’s do introductions first, as always–what’s your name, where are you from originally and how did you get your start traveling?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to be interviewed and tell my story, I’m Jessie Festa, creator of Jessie on a Journey and Epicure & Culture. I’m born and raised in New York — originally from Long Island, University in Albany and now living in Brooklyn. I’ve actually been traveling since the age of four. Every year my parents took me on a trip, whether it was a road trip to an amusement park in North America or a Caribbean cruise. My passion for solo travel began after I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia. I spent some time after the semester traveling on my own and loved it. About a week after arriving home after the semester ended I already had a solo trip to Southeast Asia booked!
GGG: In your Essential Solo Traveler’s Survival Guide post you give some great tips for solo travelers. What would you add to the list, if you had to choose one more thing?

I would say to always trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably not. Don’t worry about social graces. If you’re with people that make you uncomfortable, if you’re in a place that makes your stomach lurch or if you’re in a situation that’s making your ears ring, these are all signs your body is telling you to get away. I recommend keeping your accommodation’s business card on you so you can swiftly get into a cab and make a getaway without having to fumble for directions.

GGG: We totally agree! On another note, you spent some time teaching English in Thailand. What were the advantages of that experience for you versus your time traveling through a country or volunteering somewhere?
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When I taught English in Thailand it was before I was blogging or really working in the travel industry. While I felt positive about the experience and felt the group really helped the community, especially with a number of side projects we worked on, I would advise anyone looking to volunteer abroad to be very careful with the decisions you make. Many “volunteerism” operators are interested more in having YOU have a great experience so they can get many and positive online reviews, rather than caring if the experience is mutually beneficial for you AND the community you’re working in. There are a few questions that are imperative to ask any volunteerism operator you think of volunteering with. Will I be taking the job of a local? Am I qualified for the position? How EXACTLY are funds allocated (make them get specific about phrases like “project development”)? What kind of experience does the project coordinator have? Can they put you in touch with past volunteers?  Not all volunteer abroad projects are bad, but many are, and it’s crucial that travelers become enlightened on the realities of what many tour operators are really offering that might not be apparent on the surface.

GGG: Those are awesome tips. Speaking of other awesome things, you also run Epicure & Culture, a website geared toward ethical travel with a focus on food & culture. What inspired you to create that site?

I love Jessie on a Journey because it allows me to show my personality, take people beyond their guidebooks and the typical tourist sites, and (hopefully) inspires them to get on the road and live their best life. At the same time, I really wanted a magazine-style publication I could build to have my own contributor staff and inspire people in a totally different way. I’ve always found food and drink to be a way for people from all different cultures to be able to connect and come together, and I really wanted a site that went beyond recipes but also told stories about the food and the people making it.

Moreover, as an almost full- time traveler I see so many negative practices that I don’t think many tourists fully comprehend — such as elephant trekking and visiting long neck villages. I wanted a place where I could open people’s eyes to these issues while also highlighting positive travel experiences and projects.

Lastly, I wanted to create a place where others could share their stories of trans-formative travel and immersive cultural experiences on. Instead of my blog where people are following my adventures — although I always strive to give enough information that people can replicate them — I wanted people to feel like they could really connect and even share their stories. We’ve even created a special form that allows people with a story to tell — not just professional writers — to share.

GGG: Recently, you earned your certification to become a NYC tour guide. Can you share a couple tips for first-timers to the Big Apple?

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I did, indeed! First of all, I would tell them that NYC doesn’t have to be crazy expensive if you just look beyond the obvious. For example, Simit + Smith offers filling and healthy Turkish lunches for under $5 (it’s one of my favorites!), Rudy’s Bar & Grill gives free hot dogs with the purchase of a beer, Alligator Lounge gives free pizza with the purchase of a drink and Agozar  serves unlimited free drinks with the purchase of a brunch entree. Moreover, major parks like Central Park, Prospect Park and Bryant Park host daily free events, workshops and experiences.

Of course you’ll want to see the major sites like the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty (which, by the way, you get a great view of for free from the Staten Island Ferry), but you should also pepper some offbeat and lesser-known experiences into your experience. First of all, if you go on CourseHorse you’ll find loads of cool classes to take covering all kinds of topics. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, can be a fun day trip into Brooklyn that’s uber close to Manhattan with wineries, a brewery, a chocolate factory serving free samples, great cafés for people watching, a scenic waterfront, rooftop bars and weekend Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea events worth checking out. I also recommend the neighboring Bushwick — where I live — for innovative eateries, experimental art and beautiful graffiti.

Lastly, go out of your way to meet locals by hiring a private local guide (like myself!) or going on CouchSurfing forums to really experience NYC like a local.

GGG: Rapid-fire!

Favorite hostel: My favorite hostel would be Earth Lodge, located right outside of Antigua, Guatemala, on an organic avocado farm in the mountains. It’s out of this world — almost literally — as you wake up staring out over valleys, volcanos, villages and birds. It’s super social too. It’s almost impossible not to make friends, especially on weekends when there are barbecues and you dine family style.

Favorite foreign dessert: My favorite foreign dessert is Turkish Delights, gelatin candies flavored with rosewater featuring chopped dates and nuts. Really pretty much anything from Turkey. I also love delicious Ashure. When I was in a lunch shop in Istanbul a man saw me staring at the dish and gave me a heaping bowl — free of charge for absolutely no reason. It instantly made me love Turkey. Ashure is kind of like pudding with nuts, dates, raisins, beans, bulgur, apricots and other tasty surprises all mixed together.

Favorite place to watch a sunrise: My favorite place to watch the sunrise is the Exumas, a paradise destination in the Bahamas. I’ve literally never seen colors that vivid. I have to also mention the summit of Indian’s Nose in Guatemala, which is just utterly surreal as the clouds part and reveal Lake Atitlan below, glowing under the rising sun.

GGG: Are you going on any exciting upcoming journeys we can look forward to hearing about?

I’ve actually got a few upcoming trips. Along with a few domestic jaunts like Buffalo, New York for my boyfriend’s birthday (he’s from there) and Temecula, California for a wedding, I’ll be heading to backpack through Colombia for a few weeks and doing a solo trip to The Azores. I’m also in the works of planning some farm and eco-friendly glamping stays on the east coast of the US, as well as a language immersion trip to Nicaragua in early 2015. Stay tuned!

We will! Thanks so much, Jessie! To hear more from Jessie about her journeys, check out Jessie on a Journey or find her other work at Epicure & Culture. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook, too, or even book her as a personal tour guide for your next trip to New York City!
All photos in this post courtesy of Jessica Festa.
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About Author

Sara learned the value of travel at an early age, on annual family trips in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Not to be relegated to the North American continent, she made her first trip overseas at the age of 13 and has been finding ways to travel ever since. She has explored Etruscan tombs in Italy, made hostel beds in Ireland, and hiked volcanoes in Costa Rica. Follow her travels near and far at www.saramelanie.com

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