Why I Started a Travel Blog – My Deeply Personal Journey
August 10, 2020
When I started Wanderlust on a Budget, I didn’t know what I had in store for me. It began as a passion project. Something to keep me busy. A way to document my travels. But it has turned into so much more for me. It’s what I live for and what I hope to be able to do full time someday. But it isn’t easy. It’s a damn hell of a workload. It’s a struggle. There are days of creativity and days of writer’s block. Days of inspiration and days of imposter syndrome. So while you’re wondering why I do this, I’m ready to get real personal. Get ready to read about why I started a travel blog, who inspired me, and what my ultimate goals are.
I dedicate this article and the telling of my personal triumphs and struggles to my late cousin, Todd.
Let’s start at the very beginning. As Julie Andrews would say, ‘a very good place to start.’ I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money. I was on a reduced lunch program at school, and I got help paying for my college exams and applications. It goes without saying that we didn’t have much money for travel.
My mom did her best to show us as much of the world as she could, but that consisted of New York State and a couple of journeys into Pennsylvania and Canada. She wanted to do more, but I was still grateful for what we did. While other kids were going to Disney, I was falling in love with the Adirondack Mountains. spending hot summer days at Water Safari in Old Forge. Classmates would spend their summers in Myrtle Beach or Virginia Beach. I spent weeks at Girl Scout Camp, learning valuable skills that helped form the independent woman I am today.
I wouldn’t change that for anything.
My childhood was a world of books. I read every spare minute that I could. I got in trouble for reading past my bedtime. But books were my escape. I could travel wherever I wanted through the stories, living vicariously through the characters. The American Girls had me craving adventures in different places and times.
As a teenager, I started to explore more. I’m forever grateful to my aunt, who, with no kids of her own, always treated me as a daughter. She craved adventures just like I did. So every summer we planned a trip together. Nothing crazy, but it whet my appetite to explore more.
We gained appreciation for the Amish and their culture in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Went whale watching in Cape Cod. Learned that Maine has a desert. (Seriously – you should check it out!) Explored the cute town of Mystic, Connecticut. Watched dolphins jump in Delaware and horses run free in Maryland. It was incredible. And I was only scratching the surface.
School Field Trips
Through my time in Girl Scouts and various classes in high school, I was able to explore a little more. Our Girl Scout troop spent a day in New York City to see The Lion King on Broadway. The next year we went to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera.
So if a girl scout comes up to you asking for you to buy a box of cookies, BUY THE DAMN COOKIES! Buy 5. Buy 10 and put them in the freezer! You just might be fulfilling dreams they never thought they could achieve.
I was grateful for my school field trips, and for my grandparents for helping to pay for the fees. (Luckily they were nicer than Emily & Richard Gilmore, they didn’t guilt me about paying for school!) I went to Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. In 2004, I got to see President George W. Bush inaugurated for this second term in Washington DC. I even got to spend a few days in Quebec with my French class.
And I craved more.
A Graduation Gift
When I graduated high school, my cousin and his girlfriend were living in California. As a gift, they bought me my very first plane ticket to go visit them in San Diego. I had just turned 17 and I’d never been on a plane before. But I wasn’t afraid – I was ready for the next chapter in my travel journey!
I spent a week in California embracing the sunshine with them. Visiting the San Diego Zoo was only something I had dreamed about, after watching kids win a trip there on Nickelodeon game shows. But I got to do it! Me!
We watched seals bathing in La Jolla. My cousins haggled with salesmen in Tijuana. We explored the natural landscape of Cali which was so different than my home in Upstate New York.
My cousin and his girlfriend are married now, with two beautiful kids of their own, living in North Carolina. I don’t know if they realize how important their gift to me was.
A Fateful Friendship
The same year of my high school graduation, another cousin of mine (the first one’s brother) hosted a foreign exchange student from Australia. Only a few years younger than me, we became instant friends. I taught her all about American culture, and she taught me about Australia. I told myself that someday I would make it to Australia. Somehow.
My grandfather was in the army during World War II. He traveled through northern Africa and Europe to fight the good fight. My Papa saw the concentration camps and the atrocities there. He took photos to document it, but his camera was stolen before the war ended.
My grandfather is my hero. My idol. I was his number one. He told everyone – friends, family, even the teller at the bank. We shared a special connection. I wanted to learn everything I could about World War II. I wanted to know where he was, what happened. It’s my mission to prevent anything like that from happening again.
While at Syracuse University, I took some classes focused on World War II and the Holocaust. I got the opportunity to travel to Houston to meet with survivors, liberators, and researchers from the Holocaust through a fellowship program.
It was incredible. I yearned to learn more.
Someday I will go to Poland. I will honor the people who didn’t get to achieve their dreams. I will tell their stories.
“You should be a travel agent”
My friends in college learned about my passion for travel, and for different cultures. They loved that I planned spontaneous road trips for them. Overnight in New York City to eat at one of Bobby Flay’s restaurants. A surprise visit to a friend in Boston for a weekend. Spring Break in North Carolina.
And all budget friendly. I didn’t have a lot of money. I was going to a private university strictly on scholarships and loans, working 3-4 jobs the entire time. My friends told me that I should be a travel agent – or just write about my travels and how I planned them. When I think about why I started a travel blog, I remember these early conversations. And honestly, I should have started then!
My First International Students
During my first student teaching experience, I had a handful of international students in my classes. There was a young girl from China, and three from Vietnam. Two of them were sisters who had moved to the US in June. They started school in September – completely in English. I had to teach them math in a language they didn’t know. It wasn’t fair.
I developed a connection with the girls. The worksheets I made I translated into Vietnamese. I attended their ESL classes with them to help understand their struggles. Perhaps I spent a little too much of my focus on them, but they needed me. They needed help, and they needed to know that their language and their culture is just as important as the one they were forced into.
I am grateful for these girls for showing me where my passion was. I knew that my focus needed to shift from mathematics education to teaching English.
The English Language Institute, Part 1
The summer after college, I got the opportunity to work at the English Language Institute, doing administrative support. I met students from countries all over the world. They taught me their cultures. I learned some phrases in their languages.
There were sleepless nights and countless trips to the airport, but it was worth it. I made some of the best friends by working there… more of that to follow.
Moving to Australia
After college, I knew I needed a break. A change. My senior year had been rough. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I sat by her side as she went through chemo and radiation. I struggled with depression and finally sought counseling. I needed to reset.
Here comes my friend Jamie, the foreign exchange student from Australia, to save the day. I told her I needed a break. A year off between undergrad and graduate school. Something to change things up.
She invited me to live with her family in Australia for a while.
How could I say no? It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I applied to The University of Melbourne to get my masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). One of my college advisors told me I likely wouldn’t get in.
Life in Australia
I moved to Australia and ended up living there for 16 months. Though it sounds cliché, I grew into myself, learning who I was and what was important to me. Living in a foreign land will do that to a person. I highly recommend it.
I started a blog to stay in touch with my friends and family back home.
My host family was incredible. They helped me travel, brought me on family vacations, and taught me all about Australia. We went to Sydney a few days after I arrived. My birthday was spent in Tasmania. Easter was in Perth. I made friends and traveled to Queensland and Adelaide. My host sister and I took countless road trips around Melbourne. I went on my first cruise – to Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Traveling was a way of life for Australians. It became my way of life too.
The English Language Institute, Part 2
After returning from Australia, I went back to work at the English Language Institute. I spent several more years there – as an instructor, international student advisor, and assistant director. I made hundreds of friends from around the world. It was my job to help them apply to college, prepare for visa interviews, find a place to live, learn English, make friends, understand new cultures, and so much more. I loved every moment. Every day I made a difference.
I began recruiting for the program. I traveled to Japan, UAE, Kuwait, and Brazil. In each country I visited with former students. They chauffeured me around, accompanied me to events, and showed me the best restaurants in town. I got to experience their cultures firsthand.
One of my biggest passions is equality. Equality based on religion. Sexuality. Gender. Ethnicity. National origin. Age. Ability.
Some of the nicest, most hospitable people I have ever met are those who come from cultures that are routinely discriminated against. It’s not fair. And I will continue to do what I can to educate those around me.
Follow Your Dreams
In early 2017, I had just come back from my honeymoon, happy as can be. But I was struggling with how to spend my time since I wasn’t wedding planning all day every day. A new hobby was waiting for me.
On March 6, I attended a lecture by Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York, at Syracuse University. He gave a talk about his pathway to success. When Brandon talked about the importance of using your time wisely and pursuing your dreams, it finally hit home for me. On March 7th, I published my first article.
On March 19, I got the text message. “Hey, Dani. I don’t know if you heard, but I’m in the hospital…”
No. That can’t be true. My cousin Todd is one of the healthiest people I know. He’s never smoked or drank a day in his life. He hikes, kayaks, does long trips on his bicycle, eats pretty healthily. No, this isn’t right.
But it was right. He had multiple myeloma and there was no cure in sight. The five-year survival rate is only 50%.
No. He’s too young.
March 21, 2017
The first night I visited him in the hospital was one of the hardest nights of my entire life. He was such a strong person, my light during my dark days. But there he was, laying in a hospital bed, in too much pain to move. He talked about dying.
Todd knew he didn’t have much time left, but he didn’t know how long. All he could talk about was how sad it is that we spend so much of our time at work, leaving little time for our family and friends. He wanted to write more. He wanted to spend more time with his kids. Heck, he wanted to play more video games and tell more jokes!
But one message rang loud and clear. We need to spend our lives doing what we care most about. We need to find the right work and life balance. Keep our family and friends a priority.
There it was. My goal. To find a way to do what I want for a living. To be able to educate others about other cultures and experiences from around the world. Have a flexible schedule. Be able to be there for my friends and family when they needed, not when the typical work day is done. I was going to find a way to grow this blog. I was going to pursue my dreams, no matter what it takes.
One of the smartest people I have ever known – probably THE smartest – Todd could also be very cynical about certain topics. We talked a lot about how people take others for granted, or use certain things to their advantage – like influencers who ask for free things just because. This is not my goal.
I created this blog to tell stories. To have my own experiences, and use them to educate people around me. There are a lot of bloggers out there who write about things they have never done just to get clicks. I don’t do that. Everything I create is my own – photos, thoughts, writing… I want my readers to have authentic experiences and interactions with me and my content. I’m an educator at heart.
As I wrote, traveled more, and shared my stories, Todd supported me. He understood my desire and my passion to indulge in other cultures, to help educate those who needed it.
January 12, 2020
After nearly three years of battling cancer, including a short stint of remission, I lost my cousin.
I will continue to write. I will continue to tell stories. Because he wasn’t able to finish his.
I will not take this opportunity for granted.
The Struggle With Imposter Syndrome
Despite years of higher education, travels across the world, and never-ending dedication, it’s hard to run a successful travel blog. What began as a hobby has become one of my life’s missions, and hopefully a full-time job someday.
But it’s a struggle. There are thousands of travel bloggers out there. The field is saturated. There are days it feels impossible to ‘make it’. I post a useful article in a Facebook group and it gets deleted by the moderators. I share something in a subreddit and get banned from posting there ever again. It’s hard. Especially when many companies look at the number of followers you have on social media, not how engaged your readers are.
What if I’m not good enough?
Plus, no matter how much research I do, or how confident I feel when I’m writing, there’s always this feeling that it’s not good enough. What if people don’t read it? What if someone gets mad about something I said? The insecurities abound. What if, what if, what if…
Then there’s the days when I post something I’m particularly proud of – but then a few days later a state tourism board posts almost the exact same thing. Was mine not good enough? Or were there not enough people who saw it? What about my masters degree in English? Doesn’t that count for anything?
I’ve had people call me out for poor writing and lacking journalistic skills. Well, these aren’t academic articles. They aren’t meant to be. They are meant to be fun. Light-hearted. Because isn’t that more fun to read?
Other people have claimed that I’m some ‘out-of-towner who Googled places nearby.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. I take pride in visiting all of the places I mention, in establishing relationships with local businesses, in working with tourism boards to showcase these stories.
So I have to overcome. Believe in myself. Continue despite all the struggles.
I can do this.
A World of Support
So why did I start a travel blog? To share my experiences and to tell the stories from the people I’ve come to know from all around the world. To help other people learn about new cultures and have a chance to travel the world.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family and friends along the way. So I want to thank them for the roles they each played in my journey.
My mom, who told me to spread my wings and never stop chasing my dreams.
Aunt Kathy, for bringing me on adventures throughout New England.
My cousins Eric & Eva, for buying me my first plane ticket.
Uncle Joe & Aunt Jan, who let me live with them rent-free so I could save up to live abroad.
My husband Josh, who is my biggest supporter. He had never been outside of the US and Canada before we met, and now has been to 11 countries!
My cousin Adam, who never fails to let me know how proud he is of me.
All of my international students, for sharing your cultures with me.
To my friends, who continue to show their support, follow along on my adventures, and share my stories. Especially when they travel with me!
To all of the tourism boards who have believed in me and wanted me to tell their stories.
And most of all, to my cousin Todd, who inspired me to live my life doing what makes me happiest, especially when his was cut too short.