The weekend was a chilly one for March in New Orleans, but the atmosphere was entirely alive with the colorful energy of world travelers. Travel writers, bloggers, flight attendants, influencers, adventurers, activists, solo budget travelers, content creators and long-term nomads all flocked to the Big Easy the weekend of March 12th to share in a festival celebration designed for the women who love to travel and explore new cultures, who are constantly learning about the world around them and how to help preserve and maintain each place through sustainable travel practices. As stated by Beth Santos, the founder and CEO of Wanderful, a women’s travel community, as well as the first annual Wanderfest, women make up 85% of the travel industry so why not create a safe space for women travelers to feel seen, heard and uplifted by fellow wanderers.
Wanderfest began with a grounding land acknowledgment by Nana Sula Spirit, who also performed a fun Latin music experience with Margie Perez the following day accompanied on instrumentals by their Latin ensemble band. The festival was hosted by Hadiatu Dumbuya, whose energy and inspiring words of acceptance and understanding as she spoke to her fellow travelers in the audience allowed for a warm welcome to the festival. “Right place, right time,” Dumbuya repeated throughout her hosting gig, acknowledging that in such a non-traditional industry and lifestyle, the festival guests needn’t question that they belonged in this environment. Throughout my own travels, especially my solo travels, I’ve been reminded over and over by a seemingly magical force of the universe that I truly belonged in each moment that I would unexpectedly find myself in. Moments made even more special when you realize that you are one of few in the entire world experiencing them right then and there. I’ve come to believe that there is a genuine magic that occurs when it comes to traveling and greeting each day with an open mind.
As someone who has found herself at a fair share of music festivals throughout her teen and adult years, I was excited by the idea of an outdoor festival that featured a little bit of everything: music from a diverse range of incredibly talented local artists, worldly foods from female chefs, inspiring and enlightening interviews and panel discussions with experts in the travel industry, dance classes ranging from Bhangra to AfroBeat Yoga to Bounce & Twerk, and vendor stations featuring female-owned businesses that are changing the way we think and talk about travel. The combination was a breath of fresh air.
The first panel of the weekend left attendees with stars in their eyes as Hadiatu Dumbuya spoke with Oneika Raymond, an Emmy award-winning journalist and TV host, about her journey towards obtaining a career in travel. Some takeaways from their conversation include not waiting for your work to be perfect before going out there and doing it. She reminded us that failure is inevitable, but we should always “fail upwards” by learning about how we can grow and become even better at what we do. Oneika admitted that her first YouTube videos feel amateur compared to the work she’s doing now, after years of experience, but if she had never started on her own she wouldn’t have been approached for any professional TV hosting jobs. Being an Emmy award winner, she also shared her mixed feelings on accolades, saying that validation is great but not to live and die by it. She pointed out that for Black women especially, having these sorts of titles before their names becomes what legitimizes them in their designated field of work rather than being seen as qualified without the awards. In the end, this sort of validation can end up limiting the number of women being viewed as “successful” or worthy of being hired for certain positions.
Other highlights from day one of Wanderfest include a Masala Bhangra dance class with Sarina Jain, the “Jane Fonda of India,” that warmed the crowd from the cold weather. The class was followed by a Women Trailblazers panel discussion with Deidre Mathis (the first Black woman to own a hostel in the U.S. – the most successful hostel in Texas, to be exact!), Lillian Rafson (founder and CEO of Pack Up + Go), Sarina Jain (creator of Masala Bhangra Fitness), and Beth Santos (founder & CEO of Wanderful and Wanderfest). The day ended with a traditional N’awlins second line parade where the Le Bon Ton Baby Dolls led the festival attendees dancing and letting loose in a parade guided by musicians from the Red Wolf Brass Band and the Brian E. Murray, Sr. Legacy Jazz Band. I don’t think there was a single person left without a wide smile stretched across their face by the end of the day.
Day Two saw more sun and warmer weather for Wanderfest. The speaker highlight of the day was Patricia Schultz, author of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” From the time she was four years old, she knew traveling was it for her. She believes that travel is more accessible to a wider range of people nowadays, with the technology and options of discounted fares that you can find if you are clever and persistent in your research. Schultz wrote her book as a means to open people’s minds to consider visiting places other than the ones they’ve always heard about, saying we need to open our horizons and our heads to places that we maybe hadn’t heard of or just didn’t know why we should visit. She explained further that you miss the “good stuff” if you don’t know where to go. She thinks it’s great to have some sort of an itinerary, and everyone has their own preferences when it comes to the way they travel, but she also urges people to leave room for serendipity – the things you didn’t plan for. That’s how you find the “good stuff,” when you leave yourself open to the universe. When you listen to your Uber driver’s stories or recommendations of places to go. The things that change your opinion about a place. The things you have no control over are the best part of traveling.
Schultz went on to share her understanding that “travel is always such a personal experience. Whatever gets you out of your bubble, however you need to do it, do it. What thrills you might put another person to sleep.” Her one piece of advice is to always say yes. She always knew that in some way traveling was the most important part of her life. “Whatever you do, you have to find out what revs your motors, what makes you happy, makes you feel fulfilled. Whatever it is that makes your day shine is what you have to do. You need to create a life that will accommodate it because life is so short.” She explained that travel was what always made her come back feeling thrilled and exhilarated, she just didn’t always know how to make a go of it. Similar to the advice given from Oneika Raymond the day before, Schultz said that making your desired lifestyle happen can take a lot of trial and error, but in the end you have to do what you love because life is just so short.
When I met Patricia at her book signing she spoke to me about traveling through Europe right now, saying not to be afraid to do so because those countries still need our tourist dollars but there are also so many other wonderful places in the world to visit in the meantime. She explained that being cautious of where our American dollars are going is very important when it comes to supporting local communities while traveling.
On a high from meeting Patricia, I grabbed a bite to eat with a new festival friend, fellow blogger and hostel roommate Stephanie Cahail. First, we had some of the most delicious Trinidadian Doubles by Queen Trini Lisa. After a beautiful performance by jazz singer Robin Barnes, known as the Songbird of New Orleans for a very good reason, we tried some Polish Pierogis and Kielbasa sausage from 4 Cats Catering and it really hit the spot! They were also collecting donations to help those affected by the war in Ukraine.
Jessica Mulherin opened 4 Cats Catering with her fiancé during the pandemic after they both lost their jobs. She had been working as a cook, so for their Easter holiday while the world was shut down she vetoed her partner’s idea of having spaghetti for dinner and instead cooked the food of her Polish heritage that she grew up with. Being from Philadelphia where there is a large Polish population, she quickly learned that New Orleans didn’t have anywhere to find Polish food so she decided to use her cooking skills to start a business delivering Polish cuisine to people’s doors. And the rest is history.
The weekend ended with an excursion to see a burlesque show put on by WanderWomxn hosted by Jeez Loueez and featuring Simone Del Mar, Mz. Juno, Qween Quan, the Baby Doll Ladies, Jazabel Jade, Nova Vella, and Wil Merlyn. The show was endlessly stunning and full of surprises by the performers that made it hard to look away. I didn’t want to miss anything!
And, a special surprise for those of you in Chicago, Jeez Loueez will be hosting the 10th annual Jeezy’s Juke Joint: A Black Burly-Q Revue, the only burlesque festival featuring a cast entirely made up of Black artists. The event will take place this weekend, March 24th-26th, at The Promontory in Hyde Park, located at 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West. After what I witnessed in New Orleans, you are not going to want to miss this show!
Wanderfest was an unforgettable weekend filled with new friends, good food, fun and dancing and nights on the town through the French Quarter and Frenchman Street, and important lessons about New Orleans’ culture and history of the past and present. There is no greater gift than connecting with like-minded peers in an environment dedicated to supporting the world around us through the act of sustainable travel. If you’re interested in attending Wanderfest in 2023, you can check it out here:
Hope to see you fellow wanderers there next year!
Below I’ve included a list of vendors I met at the festival that I highly recommend checking out:
Origin Travels adventure retreats
Trailblazer Wellness personal training for adventure travel
Pack Up + Go a planned getaway with a surprise destination
Teach With Love, Global work with underserved students around the world
Harmonize The Light Reiki practices
Global Family Travels sustainable travel with local communities
Lotus Sojourns women-only travel experiences