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Wanderlust: Melanie D., Germany

30 April 2012


I grew up in Jamaica, where I had a wonderful childhood where most people dream of going on holiday. Only, I didn’t know that back then. I loved to read, learn languages and longed to see other places. The bug first bit me in high school, when I first met a foreign exchange student. Today, I don’t even remember what the guy’s name was, or if he was cute. I just remember thinking:  ‘I want to do that too.’
I ended up going to Norway. I lived near Bergen (on the eastern coast) for a year. I later went back to Norway for two years to do my Masters, this time in Oslo.
These days, I’m married and live in Germany with my family. So travelling now depends on when the kids have their school holidays  - and requires a bit more planning.  Travelling with kids also means you have a totally new perspective on things and new priorities – such as where’s the nearest playground, and how to cover the next mealtime. More on that next time.

Practical advice

Coming from Jamaica, I hope I can inspire other readers to travel. It can be difficult for non-US passport-holders to travel, but not impossible. Whereas some folks can just get up and go, other folks have to put more planning into it. This is what I had to learn – the power of planning and preparation.
The first thing is get a passport before you need it. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date. That means it’s got at least a year before it expires – some countries won’t give you a visa on a passport that will shortly expire (even it ‘barely’ or clearly covers the dates of your intended trip).
The next thing is to take the time to inform yourself. By time, I mean six months to a year before you want to go. If you’re from a country with more visa-requirements, take a year. Find out where the nearest embassy is, what can you sort out on the phone and what do you have to appear in person for. Also find out when they are open (not just opening hours, but which days – Did you know that German embassies close on local AND German holidays? Yeah, I had to rebook a flight because of that.)
If you’re in school (high school or Uni), get an international student ID. Membership in theInternational Youth Hostel Association won’t hurt either. These usually run a year, and can be very helpful if you’re the kind of person who likes a discount on travelling, accomodation, etc. Also, some embassies usually require that you provide proof that you have somewhere to stay. And youth hostels are normally very good at sending/faxing booking reservations.

My main challenge was how to get from the Caribbean to Europe. You don’t have to have travel-agent-training to figure it all out, just a map. You want to figure out where the nearest big hubs are to you. Definitely Miami. Depending on your destination, and attractive prices, other hubs like Atlanta or New York may work better for you. If you don’t have a US-visa, then London. Or you might want to consider an in-transit visa for a journey through the US. Look into it, you don’t want to get tangled up in the security hassle and miss your connecting flight.
If you’re on a budget (like I was, and still am LOL!) you might want to look at low-cost carriers. Back in the day, I used to live on the Airhitch website. I don’t know if they’re still around (if not, I’m sure there are other similar firms doing the same thing), but they would buy up empty blocks of seats on trans-Atlantic flights and re-sell them at a fraction of the cost. Of course, you have to be flexible with your travel plans. If you’re a US-citizen, you may want to look into being a courier.

If you’re in High school, check out exchange programmes. If you’re in College/Uni then check out if your school has an exchange programme or if you can help create one. I’ve done this – it isn’t difficult, but you have to have time and determination on your side. You can also check out Praktikum/Work Experience programmes like IASTE in your field. You can also check out International Summer Schools in your field of study – why not get a few credits while you’re at it? However, you need to check with your department (get it in writing) BEFORE you go, that they will count towards your degree.
Once you’re out of school, it gets a lot harder to travel, but still not impossible. You can go the tourist route, or you can head abroad by teaching a foreign language. In Japan, there’s JET. In Europe, there are tons of private language schools who are eager to snap up native-speakers. A plus would be to have a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. If you don’t, no need for despair – some language schools will give some rudimentary training.