Dream Big and Travel Far

An interview with Melissa Bannigan

The thing I love most about travel is the continuous parade of fantastic people we encounter. The folks that I would never have crossed paths with but for our shared passions for wandering.

Several years ago I received an email from someone who’d been reading our blog, and she had a question about traveling with her daughter. Since we were in her area, we invited the ladies to come and camp with us for the weekend and talk out the details around a campfire, with marshmallows and glasses of wine, instead of by email.

What I could never have predicted was the way our lives would be woven together from that point forward.

Melissa Bannigan is one of those rare women who’s strength and passion ooze out of every pore. She’s done nothing in her life the easy way, or the traditional way, and it’s that very difference of approach and determination that makes her shine like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow in a world that paints the life of a single mother in shades of grey.

She’s given up a lot of what, to other people, would be considered ‘good’ things and ‘the right’ things in order to blaze her own trail.

She’ll be the first to tell you that following dreams and living a passion driven life isn’t easy. She’s given up a lot of what, to other people, would be considered “good” things and “the right” things in order to blaze her own trail. She’s dedicated to giving her daughter a living example of powerful womanhood and self determined destiny. From the moment I met her, she has inspired me: as a mother, as a teacher, as a business builder, as a traveler, as a dreamer of big dreams, and now as a partner in the Global Leadership & Empowerment Summit for Teen Girls, happening in Peru, July of 2015.

If you have a teen girl, trust me when I say, you want her there!

I sat down with Melissa when I was in New York a few weeks ago, and we chatted about her life, her travels, and the dreams that move her forward:

Tell us your story

Who are you? What did you do? Where have you been? Inspire me

Melissa2

My name is Melissa Banigan, founder of the Advice Project, a budding organization that empowers and educates teen girls and women, and editor of Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self, an anthology of advice letters written by 50 women from around the world to their teenage selves. I’m also a homeschooling single mom who believes that travel not only opens minds and hearts, but also increases our capacity to change the world for the better.

I take my twelve-year-old daughter traveling for trips that are at least a month long, and I often chronicle our experiences on my travel and education blog, Break Out of Bushwick. Last summer we were in Peru for a month, and the year before that we spent two months in Europe, starting in Iceland and ending up in Spain. This summer I might be heading to Cameroon to lead a two-week-long workshop, but my next big trip with my daughter will be back to Peru in 2015 for an Advice Project called Global Leadership and Empowerment Summit for teen girls, held in the rainforest.

What is the one thing you learned from travel you could never have learned in a classroom?

While I occasionally rent apartments while we travel, I prefer to book rooms with local families, believing that by trading some minor comforts such as having our own bathroom and more privacy, we’ll learn more about the culture of places we visit than we ever could from reading textbooks.

Learning about the daily rituals of the families we stay with- how they greet each other when they wake, how they prepare breakfast, how they greet guests and just generally tackle their days – these are things we wouldn’t learn as easily if we stayed in hotels or private apartments.

Learning about the daily rituals of the families we stay with- how they greet each other when they wake, how they prepare breakfast, how they greet guests and just generally tackle their days – these are things we wouldn’t learn as easily if we stayed in hotels or private apartments. While we might already have an idea of who does that cooking for a family or who raised the children, it would be impossible to learn HOW these things are being done without witnessing them first hand.

Culture is largely built around food and family (which are, in my opinion, the building blocks of culture) – where better to learn these things than in a person’s home?

How did your experience change your life upon returning?

When my daughter stepped onto her first international flight to Iceland, she was pretty timid and held my hand the entire time. She was too nervous to look out the window and wasn’t into making small-talk with strangers. By the time we returned two months later, she was more confident, didn’t feel the need to hold my hand, initiated conversations with strangers in both spoken language and hand gestures, and was just so much more mature and confident than before we had left.

Having seen how [others live] has given us the opportunity to redefine our notions of ‘poverty,’ ‘gratitude,’ ‘wealth,’ and ‘happiness.’

Also, travel greatly influences how we consider things such as wealth and poverty. We live below the poverty line in New York, but still have enough to eat and have a roof over our heads. Also, we have enough to be able to cut expenses and save our pennies to travel.

Having seen how some of the Roma in Florence live, learned firsthand about how immigrant Nigerian and Somali women in Italy aren’t allowed to work, and witnessed what some of the indigenous women have to do to survive on the islands in Lake Titicaca, has given us the opportunity to redefine our notions of “poverty,” “gratitude,” “wealth” and “happiness.”

What, in your opinion is the single greatest factor that keeps people from traveling?

Melissa

Lack of imagination and fear, which are two sides of the same coin. I think many people get so wrapped up in the idea that they have to graduate from a good college, work 9 – 5 for “the man,” pay back a debt to society (whatever the heck that means), get married, buy a house and consume, consume, consume, that they forget to live. Not that there is anything wrong with leading what is considered a traditional life (although I don’t think consumerism is healthy for our planet), but many people have a hard time imagining what might be outside of the box because fear of the unknown holds them back.

More specifically, grown-ups too scared to follow their own dreams are often the people who will tell others to ‘be realistic’ in regards to travel dreams. That life isn’t a ‘vacation.’

Sadly, I think it’s other grown-ups who are the ones spreading most of this fear. More specifically, grown-ups too scared to follow their own dreams are often the people who will tell others to “be realistic” in regards to travel dreams. That life isn’t a “vacation.” That travel is “irresponsible.” I suppose I prefer to listen instead to people who dream big and are relentless in getting what they want. I usually choose women as examples because I want to set the bar high for my daughter. I want her to know that she can also be a mover and shaker who can change not only her own life, but also the world. Imagine what the world would be like if Amelia Earhart had decided not to set precedent by flying solo across the Atlantic? Or if Sally Ride had never been to space?

In my anthology of letters, I’ve chosen 50 women who have traveled – if not outside of their countries, at least outside of the boundaries of what is considered “normal.”

  • Felicy Aston, for example, who skied solo across Antarctica.
  • And Naheed Bahram, an Afghan women who helps countless other Afghan refugee women in the States to fight against oppression.

Essentially, I’ve chosen women who have – in one way or another – combatted fear.

I lead a series of Advice Project workshops and classes that uses the letters from the anthology to illustrate how contributors have overcome fear by examining the problems they’ve faced as well as solutions they’ve created. While themes are varied and involve ideas such as beauty, war, genocide, gender-based violence, sexual identity, suicide, finding passion, and living authentically, every letter involves the idea of travel – whether to a new country or into a new idea. In my mind, the book disturbs what’s viewed as normal and helps readers step out of their comfort zone. Cool, huh?

Ultimately, it’s the idea of not being safe that makes people most terrified to travel. I’ve met a lot of people who think that safe travel means staying in nice hotels and purchasing expensive tickets to museums and tourist attractions.

“I can’t afford to travel,” they say.

When I bring up the idea of homestays, backpacking or seeing some lesser-known attractions, I can see their eyes glaze over.

“Is it safe?” they ask, when I recount my experiences of taking inexpensive overnight buses rather than expensive flights.

“What about getting kidnapped?” they ask, when I discuss staying in strangers’ homes for much less than what I would spend in a hotel.

It’s all about perception. I suppose I feel much safer living with a loving family than I do staying in a hotel.

What enabled you to travel ?

For years I had been terrified of living a life that honored my own needs and desires. I worked a series of 9 – 5 (or rather, a 7 – 7) jobs in New York offices, helped rich people make [more] money, passed my daughter off to nannies, and felt embittered by a society that didn’t (and doesn’t!) value a one-parent household.

After realizing that it cost roughly the same to travel as it did to live in Brooklyn, the world, as they say, became my oyster.

One day, shocked out of submission, I woke up and decided to change my life. I took my daughter out of public school, started homeschooling, crafted an editing/writing business, bought plane tickets to Europe, and scheduled a series of homestays woven with the occasional few days at hotels.

I rented out my apartment in New York, and off we went. After realizing that it cost roughly the same to travel as it did to live in Brooklyn, the world, as they say, became my oyster.

What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?

While it would be easy to say money, in actuality it was society’s perception of who should and shouldn’t travel that was hardest to overcome. For years, I believed that a poor single mom who owed $100,000 in student loans wasn’t worthy of traveling. That I had to “pay my dues” before I could afford a “vacation.” After all, I had heard this sort of thing a million times.

Well, guess what? The world didn’t suddenly implode the second I took off with my daughter to see the world. In fact, it cracked wide open and I met new people was privy to new opportunities.

For years, I believed that a poor single mom who owed $100,000 in student loans wasn’t worthy of traveling. That I had to ‘pay my dues’ before I could afford a ‘vacation.’

I now see things differently. I still pinch pennies, and sadly, I still owe student loans. But I’m no longer dependent on the social system to tell me when I can travel. I have no dues to pay to society except for being the best, most interesting, socially-engaged, empathetic person I can be.

But I’m no longer dependent on the social system to tell me when I can travel.

I’m a single mom living in a system that supports two-parent households, but I refuse to be trapped by others’ expectations. See, travel isn’t, at least in my book, a series of short-lived vacations, but rather an ongoing, educational adventure.

Who did you meet on the road who changed your life? Tell us about that.

One of my favorite experiences was when we stayed with a single mother and her teen daughter last summer on Amantani Island in Lake Titicaca. Located at very high altitude, in a chilly climate, the mother woke early in the morning to cook breakfast in her packed-earth kitchen before heading behind her home to work in her potato fields. In-between household and farm duties, she worked on handiworked projects.

In a classroom, a teacher probably would’ve focused on the differences between our families, but staying in this small home high up on Amantani, I saw more of the similarities.

The pair of us had a language barrier, but we were able to convey the pride we had for our daughters and discuss a little about the difficulties of being single mothers. In a classroom, a teacher probably would’ve focused on the differences between our families, but staying in this small home high up on Amantani, I saw more of the similarities. Those moments – the ones seen through a lens that focuses on oneness – are hard to come by except through experience.

You’re putting together a global leadership and empowerment summit for teen girls, in Peru.

Tell us about that and how you see travel as part of empowerment.

The 2015 Advice Project Global Leadership and Empowerment Summit for teen girls came about in response to the series of Advice Project workshops and classes I’ve led in both New York, and more recently, a partnership with a group of twelve girls in Cameroon.

In a nutshell, I’ll be taking a group of 16 – 24 teen girls to stay for two weeks at a gorgeous eco-lodge in the rainforest in the Amazonian River Basin. Together, we’ll be learning about how biodiversity and climate change are affecting local tribes, and using excerpts from the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology as teaching tools, will also be examining issues affecting girls and women at a global level. Five amazing adult leaders will be teaching a variety of workshops in the mornings and evenings, and each afternoon, three guides will be leading us all on rainforest adventures.

The summit will empower the teen participants to think more critically about the world around us, to consider what it means to be female, and most importantly, they will return home feeling empowered.

The summit will empower the teen participants to think more critically about the world around us, to consider what it means to be female, and most importantly, they will return home feeling empowered and will be provided with opportunities for amplifying their voices by being invited to share articles and stories that they write as well as videos that they create.

The Peruvian rainforest is such a great place to learn about global issues while seeing how policy affects local communities. For example, the area we’ll be visiting has been subject to colonization by the Spanish, and rainforest inhabitants have been subject to slavery, brutality, and ongoing health, economic, and cultural concerns at the hand of rubber barons and oil and gold companies. We’ll be speaking with local women about how their lives have been affected and will learn about what we can do to make a difference.

While we’ll be having an enormous amount of fun (art-making, music, hikes, boating and even fishing for piranhas!), we’ll be tackling some pretty big topics.

I’m currently accepting applications for the summit and invite any interested teen girl (13 – 17) and youth leader (18 – 25) to read more about the program, adult leaders, accommodations, etc.

You have a particular passion for helping young women to find their place in this world. If you could say one thing to young women travelers, what would it be?

While it always pays to listen to your elders, you don’t always need to do what they tell you: only accept people as mentors who are living lives you think are worth emulating.

Only accept people as mentors who are living lives you think are worth emulating.

Also, for young women, I strongly advise you to search for female mentors and fellow travelers who have overcome obstacles. Find strength in sisterhood, always ask for the things you want (the worst someone can tell you is “no”), and never, ever give up. Also, as silly as it sounds, the world is your oyster – gobble it up.

Read more about people who are putting a priority on travel and making a difference:

manifesto - defining your values

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  • Jessie Voigts said at 2014-05-29T01:51:32+0000: LOVE this. Brava!