Transformative Travel Experiences

At Context we often speak about transformative travel experiences. Our goal is that each and every walk with a docent should leave you coming away with the feeling that you are changed in some way – whether it’s a new piece of information, an emotional experience, or just the curiosity to keep discovering more. But this hope to transform starts with our staff, the behind the scenes mechanism that works with our docents and helps you shape your trip before you even land. We thought we’d share a bit more about what makes our staff tick and what memorable travel experience started their passion for the life long learning that Context strives for.

Slide 1
Rome-native Petulia has been with Context since the beginning. Now living in London with her husband and young daughter, she currently managers our London/Edinburgh programs as well as helping steer our customer service team. I was 10 (so it was 27 years ago!) and my family and I took a 1 month long trip to the US. We flew to NYC, spent a week there, and then to Phoenix and from there we rented camper vans and traveled West covering most of the National Parks, as well as cities. I will never forget that trip, meeting people from all over the world, seeing amazing places, and starting my lifelong love for American culture and people.
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Lily Heise has been living in Paris for many years, where she works for Context the France/Spain regional manager, as well as supervising our expansion program in South America. At 17 I spent a semester abroad in Milan, Italy. It was my first time in Europe and a life changing experience in itself. During those three months my one big dream was to go to Florence to experience all the Renaissance art and architecture I could, in particular the works of Michelangelo. This dream was to become a reality towards the end of my trip. I'd carefully planned out all the sites I had to see in a minute itinerary to squeeze everything over the two days. Arriving around noon on the first day we spent hours combing the Uffizi then exploring the Duomo and the streets of the stunning city center. Sunday's mission began at the Academia with its heroic David. Leaving the museum, we ambled towards the Riccardi Medici Palace, where Michelangelo lived for a time under the patronage of the powerful Medicis (here I discreetly pocketed a loose courtyard stone, perhaps the artistic genius had stepped on it?). Next on our list was the Medici Chapel, the family's mausoleum with some wonderful Michelangelo sculptures. Making our way around the San Lorenzo church my blissful face morphed into horror finding the entrance doors closed and firmly locked. It was only opened in the morning on Sundays. Back in Milan I almost cried explaining this tragedy to my host mother. In consolation she replied, "if you’d seen all the sites, you wouldn't have a reason to go back." Important words of wisdom which always stay in my mind while traveling. I can take my time, soak up the destination's atmosphere because I'll be back. Maybe I will, maybe I won't, but I'll have had a stronger first experience driving an eagerness to return and see more of its treasures. Like Florence. I've now been five or six times, I happily saw the Medici Chapels on my third, and have saved others for the next time.
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Natalie supervises our Central and Southern European operations, calling Berlin her home after having moved from the UK. In addition to her work with Context, Natalie has a keen interest in sustainable travel and works as a freelance writer for numerous travel and cultural publications. At age 20 I took my first solo (read: sans parents) trip abroad, supposedly for a week in Cairo and Dahab, which promptly changed to two weeks after a friend and I decided to extend our trip. After the fortnight was up, we were by no means ready to go home, and having the luxury of a undergradsized summer break, decided to forego our homeward flight altogether. Instead, we headed up to Alexandria and jumped on the next flight to Athens. After travelling around Greece, we took a boat to Brindisi and bought ourselves an Interrail ticket. (Though we quickly found that hitchhiking was much more fun and, often, much faster). Living in a tent and eating out of cans, we wound our way through mainland Europe for the next three months. No cell phones back then (at least we didn't consider actually taking them abroad), just the occasional call from a pay phone to our parents, who tried desperately to hide the mixture of anxiety and relief in their voices. Onwards through Rome, Nice, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon... before finally heading north on a no-frills flight to Amsterdam, the perfect way to end our adventure before heading back to uni in the UK. Travel can be tiring, frustrating, and exhausting, both physically and emotionally, especially when you leave your comfort zone. But it's not those feelings I still remember; instead, it's details like the colour of the Saharan sky at dusk and the taste of homemade Greek chips drenched in olive oil. The experience opened my eyes to the vastness of cultural diversity, and affirmed my belief in the kindness of strangers. It also taught me that the richest moments spring from a spirit of spontaneity.
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Jessica has been living in Rome since 2005 and currently manages Context's social media channel. She was previously the Italy regional manager and expansion manager, helping shape programs in Central Europe and Asia. Traveling to Japan for the first time in 2011 fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit that country. Having never traveled to Asia previously, I wasn't sure what to expect but was surprised by how my friend and I were able to get around quite easily. Soaking in the Japanese culture was a powerful experience, seeing how they juxtapose nature and urban culture, as well as all the sites and sounds that come out of the big cities like Tokyo. You could go from the neon lights of Hiroshima to the zen gardens of Kyoto in a minute. This trip fueled my desire to travel even further afield of my comfort zone, seeking out cultures even more different than my own.
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Emily started as a docent with us in Rome during her Fulbright scholarship. After completing her PhD she is now working with us in the Rome office, using her experience to help client shape their trips to Italy. This was in 2009 when I was on the Fulbright in Rome, and a few friends and I took a 7 day trip to Egypt. Ancient Egypt is the first historical culture that I fell in love with as a kid and I've wanted to visit the pyramids ever since. Don't get me wrong, the pyramids were amazing, but it was seeing things off the beaten path and meeting locals that I remember most fondly. One day we hired a driver to take us down to Aswan from Luxor and hit the major temples on the way back up. The first place we went was a granite quarry where a huge, partially carved obelisk lies unfinished. During the carving a large crack appeared, and thus the project was abandoned. I was so excited to see this because it was a chance to get up close to such an amazing feat of architectural engineering. It was also something that I taught in my Introduction to Art History classes at Rutgers, and I always love seeing in person anything I've taught or studied. While at the site we ran into a friendly guard, and with a little backsheesh he took us around part of the quarry that was normally roped off. He led us to another unfinished obelisk and let us crawl around the structure as he explained how diorite, a stone stronger than granite, was used to carve the obelisk out of the quarry. For the first time in my life the definition of the Stone Age really dawned on me as it sunk in that these incredible monuments were made by carving stone with stone and without the aid of metal tools. To this day my mind is still blown by the fact that such amazingly large and sophisticated monuments and buildings were created with the simplest of technologies, and I would never have been able to fully appreciate this without seeing it first hand.
Slide 6
Liz Roller, a native of Philadelphia, has worked from our home office since 2011 and is our Italy client specialist. My first real travel memory is age 11, in Rome. My mom had brought us (me, my little brother, and my grandparents) to Italy on a month-long adventure, and we started with Rome. We did the usual round of sites, but the memory that has always stood out the most is the lunch we had after visiting the Colosseum. My mom was determined to find a small trattoria that she remembered from a trip almost 20 years prior, and made us search for almost an hour (dragging two tired, hungry kids) before we finally found it - a hole-in-the-wall tiny trattoria, almost unnoticeable from the street, with hanging plastic strips in place of a door. The interior was somewhat dark and filled with tables and armoires that had been there for what seemed like forever. There was a bottle of wine on the top of one armoire that had at least an inch of dust coating it! The meal itself was incredible, I had my first cacio e pepe, but the final part of the memory was the actual outhouse in the back courtyard, with a dirt hole in the ground! Not something I'd ever seen before. We had to have a family tutorial from my mom on how to make this work, grandparents and all. We thought it was the best adventure, and what I came away with (from that experience and the trip as a whole) is that it's the differences from your own life that make a trip memorable and special, and it is always, ALWAYS worth the effort to find the hidden, local restaurant that no tourist would step foot in. My mom and brother and I are going back this fall, 20 years to the date of that first trip, and we plan to spend an afternoon looking for that restaurant again.
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Emily Knight works from our Italy office, where she assists in the regional manager and focuses on Italy-based social media. In the Fall she’ll be beginning a graduate degree at Oxford University. When I left school, I went backpacking with a couple of friends around Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia for 3 months. It was the first time I had travelled outside Europe on my own and I had little to guide me but my trusty Lonely Planet. Over the course of the 3 months, we experienced an incredible range of topography: rainforest, mountains, desert, salt flats, bustling cities and remote villages. Part of what I loved most about this trip was experiencing a world so totally removed from my hometown, Oxford. In Bolivia, we swam with pink dolphins and visited reed islands on Lake Titicaca, in Peru we trekked Machu Picchu and explored Cuzco and Lima, and in Ecuador we fought our way through the cloud forest and rode horses with mountain peaks on the horizon. This trip shifted my world view and gave me a confidence to take on anything. It taught me how to seek out the unknown and stray from the standard tourist trail.
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With Context since 2012, Whitney works in our Philadelphia office as the client specialist for Central Europe. One of my more memorable travel experiences was not abroad at all, but right here in the U.S.. When I was about 10 or 11, my family spent a couple of weeks out in the American West. At one point we met up with an eccentric family group that was retracing an old gold rush trail from Ohio to California in actual covered wagons. We joined them for a night and a day somewhere in Wyoming. I have no idea how my mother discovered these people (this was before the Internet), but it became clear they weren't really set up for visitors. At dinner we ran out of chicken and plates, and they crammed all four of us into a teepee to sleep. But I think this only added to the authenticity of the experience. Other memorable details: our wagon driver was a 13 year old girl who cursed a blue streak, and despite being mid-July, it was so cold that the water in the horses' buckets froze overnight. I've also never experienced such painfully chapped lips in my life. It turns out those wagons are like rolling windtunnels. At the end of the day spent riding in the wagon train, a man drove us back to our car in a pickup truck. Unbelievably, a distance that had taken us a full day's journey in the wagons took only about 20 minutes in the truck. As a child, this left a major impression on me. Those pioneers sure were tough.
Slide 9
Lindsay Poulin works in our Philadelphia office as the France/Spain client manager, allowing her the chance to share her passion for Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona as she helps shape itineraries. My favorite travel memory has less to do with any one place, and more to do with a mix of experiences that primarily revolve around food and conversation. I've shared a traditional French meal in England, eaten homemade bibimbap made by a Korean friend in western France, prepared an American Thanksgiving dinner for my European friends in graduate school, hosted a chocolate tasting with friends in Montreal, picnicked on the Champ de Mars with childhood friends from America, and learned to make pasta with strangers in a tiny kitchen in Bologna. Even spending a spring evening on a quai by the Seine with friends, a bottle of wine and a box of cookies from Monoprix has widened my cultural perspective. Food is perhaps the most universal and truest of all languages, such that sitting with old and new friends for long hours at the dinner table, exchanging stories and debating cultural differences, makes me feel at home no matter where I am in the world.
Slide 10
Sara McCarty has been with Context since 2011, when she started in our Philadelphia office as the France/Spain client manager. In early 2014 she started the next adventure of her life, returning to Paris where she currently works in our office as the France/Spain docent manager. When I was 20 I spent a semester abroad in Paris, my first experience without parents, after which I took a month to travel with a friend to some of Europe's major cultural capitals. Somehow during this trip I carelessly lost my passport and only discovered it was missing while on a train from Munich to Zagreb. Specifically, while the train was still in Austria, safely within the Schengen zone but fast approaching the Slovenian border (Slovenia was still not a Schengen state). My friend and I, both fairly naive, thought we might be able to sweet talk the border police into allowing us to continue on out of the Schengen zone sans passport. We enlisted the help of our quirky, possibly homeless boothmate, a Croatian Swede with perfect English and a penchant for sipping buttermilk from a carton, to help us persuade the police. As you can expect our pleas were laughed at, and my friend and I were kicked off the train and told to go to the nearest Schengen capital, Vienna, where I could register the lost passport with the American Consulate. I cried, but quickly realized this would be more of an adventure than anything, and I ended up spending the week in Vienna, getting to know this grand city and, in fact, spending a few days there solo (friend decided to eventually continue on to Croatia without me) where I gained the confidence to be in a strange place by myself. My friend and I met up unscathed the following week in Budapest with plenty of stories to share (and me a pretty new passport).
Slide 11
Part of the Context team since 2013, Sophie manages our Asia program from her base in Shanghai, where she moved five years ago. In January 2010, almost exactly a year to date before the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, my friend and I went to Cairo. I was 22 and had been abroad many times before but, outside of Israel, never to the Middle East. We had made no plans for this trip. But, our hotel was quite near the beautiful Neoclassical style Egyptian Museum. The number of antiquities on display was staggering, but there were no labels. The galleries were dusty and dark, with wires running all over the place and chunky, outdated phones propped on display cases. It was unlike any museum I'd been to before and still has never been topped. The next day we went to the Giza Pyramids. I pictured them as enormous, dotting a vast expanse of desert far from the city, but in fact, to get there, we took the subway and then a short car ride. Once again, we were left to our own devices and we wandered around with little idea of what we were seeing, but still wide-eyed and grinning. Prior to Cairo, I had never felt so conspicuously Western. There were discomfiting looks when we went out at night, the only women on the street. The traffic was terrifying. There was the worst pollution I've ever experienced, though now that I live in China, I laugh at my naivete. But I loved it and, even after five years of living in Asia, that trip remains one of my all-time favorites.


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