Katie Albert could be described as a “small town girl,” but only technically.
Sure, she is just seventeen and her hometown of Waterloo, Illinois has under 10,000 residents. Her perspective, however, stretches far beyond the horizons of the southern Illinois heartland.
In fact, Katie has her sights set on visiting all seven continents – a goal that she is on her way to accomplishing through Girl Scouts travel opportunities, known as Destinations.
A summary of her Destinations trips so far:
“Swiss Challenge” – Adelboden, Zurich and Bern, Switzerland. Katie hiked the Alps, ziplined, rappelled and toured local attractions.
“San Juan Islands Kayaking” – Washington. Katie joined a small group of girls who kayaked by day and slept under the stars by night. Girls took turns being leaders who checked tidal charts and plotted the course, as well as sweepers who made sure that no one in their group became separated.
“Amazing Oz & The South Pacific”- New Zealand, Australia and Fiji. Katie had diverse rural and urban adventures that included eating a geothermal meal in a Maori village, visiting the Sydney Opera House, taking a day trip to the Blue Mountains, snorkeling in a coral reef and participating in kava ceremony.
“Patagonia – Adventure at the Bottom of the World” – Chile. Katie kayaked through the Straits of Magellan, hiked landscapes ranging from sandy beaches to volcanic rock, rode horses with gauchos and visited a penguin colony.
“The Great Panda Adventure” – Sichuan Provence, China. Katie volunteered at the Dujiangyan Panda Base, helping clean enclosures, prepare panda food, weed tea gardens and even feed pandas. She also explored area landmarks and culture, including touring Manjushri Monastery, Tiananamen Square and the Forbidden City and attending a traditional Chinese opera.
What inspired your love of travel?
Family vacations were my first inspiration. Those trips made me want to branch out more, but I thought my options would be pretty limited. Then, an older Girl Scout came to one of our troop meetings to talk about her Destinations and her visit inspired me. The next year, I went on my first Destination. That was all it took - I was hooked on travel. Each trip I took made me want to take another; to continue the adventure of seeing the world.
How did the ambition to visit all seven continents come to you?
After visiting my third continent (North America, Europe, and Australia), I thought, hey, why not make it a complete set? The number of travelers who meet this goal are fairly small. I’d like to be one of those people!
What has given you confidence to pursue your dream?
Remembering all the places I’ve gone, thinking back to the countries I’ve visited, makes me think of all the places I have not been. It inspires me to continue to keep going.
How has your perspective on travel changed?
In an essay about my early Destinations, I said, “I used to think that the world was so much bigger than my backyard. Now I realize that the world IS my backyard.” Every trip I take reinforces that feeling.
I used to be nervous. I worried I wouldn’t make friends; I wouldn’t like where I was going; I wouldn’t like the food; I wouldn’t be able to communicate. Now I know it will be ok.
I’ve learned to be confident. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask for directions. Ask what something is or what it means. It is ok to be curious. Try to speak the local language. Learn about the country you are visiting before you go. Go with an open mind and be ready to try new things. Try every new thing you can, because you might regret it later if you don’t. Even if it’s something that seems gross, like eating a scorpion! Just do it.
What have you learned from your various trips?
Embrace the culture, learn about it and appreciate it. Take a moment to just think about where you are. Use all of your senses: what do you see, hear and smell? At first, I thought the “big stuff” would be the highlights of traveling. Things like seeing the Alps or the world-famous Sydney Opera House. What I’ve found is the opposite. It’s the “little stuff” that makes traveling memorable. The little stuff is what makes it real and what makes it YOUR trip. Playing an alphorn on the streets of Bern, watching an octopus disappear under a piece of coral while snorkeling, sitting in a kayak speaking Spanish with a native Chilean, feeding and petting a panda… My first thought is “I can’t believe I got to do that!”
You’re an avid outdoor adventurer – what draws you to outdoor experiences?
Outdoor adventures are my favorite part of traveling. When you are hiking or kayaking, you see the countryside. Cities have roads and buildings, much like any other city. I think you learn more about a country from what has been left untouched. Pretty much any tourist can fly to a city and tour the museums or zoo. Not every tourist gets the chance to kayak, rappel or hike and become one with that country.
What have been your favorite outdoor adventures?
Rapelling into the Choleren Gorge in Switzerland was exhilarating and outrageously beautiful. It made me feel small and insignificant when looking up to the top of the gorge and the mountains surrounding it. At the bottom, when I looked up, I felt filled with energy.
A close second would be kayaking the Strait of Magellan. It was high tide in the Southern Ice field and was a little rough paddling at times, but so, so worth it! The water was frigid, but the air was warm. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. I was kayaking at the bottom of the world. I felt empowered and free and it seemed there was no limit to what I could do.
What has been the most physically challenging of your outdoor adventures? How about mentally challenging?
The most physically challenging adventure has been climbing Elsigenalp in the Alps. It was definitely an ‘uphill battle’! The trail and weather conditions became more and more difficult the higher I went, but I did not stop. When I reached the summit, the feeling of accomplishment was almost overwhelming
The most mentally challenging activity was a long time ago, in 4th grade, when I rappelled for the first time. I was fine getting into my harness, getting instruction and walking to my position at the edge of the cliff. And then everything in my brain started telling me this was not a good idea. I had a fear of heights, but I was determined to conquer that fear. It took every bit of courage I could find to take that step, but at the bottom I was so happy. I learned I can overcome my fears, I can do things I never dreamt I could do.
What is the most rewarding part of travel to you?
Travelling helps me realize who I am. You leave behind the day-to-day stress and issues of your normal life. You have time to think and you become more aware of what is or is not important. You become more willing to let go of things in your life that bring you down.
Talking to people from different backgrounds helps you look at things from a different perspective. At home, most of your friends and family have much of the same experiences and similar opinions. Getting new perspectives helps you think more clearly and be open to other viewpoints. It helps you decide if your thoughts and feelings are really yours or if you have just been copying what those around you think and feel.
Having “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences is also rewarding. I doubt I will ever again get to hand-feed a panda. Odds are I won’t ever crack open a coconut on a beach in Fiji at sunrise again. But I have done them once and will have the memories forever.
What are some tips you would give other travelers who are just starting out?
Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and be challenged, but make sure it is realistic for your ability.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Assume you will never visit this place again and make the most of your opportunity. Realize you don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it.
Be flexible. Travel can be difficult. Relax - it will work out!
Don’t be afraid to make new friends. Be the one to break the ice.
Have a positive attitude. Embrace difficulties. You will be a stronger person for it.
Weather does not care about your vacation. How you choose to handle it will make the difference.
Be ready to learn. Pay attention. Talk to locals. Listen to them.
Take pictures. A lot of them. Make a photo buddy to swap cameras so you are in some of your own photos.
Keep a journal. Write down what you did, where you went and more importantly write about how you felt. If you were in awe of the architecture or the beauty of the sunset, write about it!
Go with an open mind and no preconceived prejudices. Embrace local culture. Be friendly. Be polite. You are a visitor – be respectful. Honor local customs. Treat people with respect and odds are good it will be returned.