Interview: Amy Cohen

This is the first in a series of interviews with travelers and travel professionals. I'm thrilled to launch the series with Amy Cohen, an old friend and probably one of the most well traveled people I've ever met. Amy is a high school teacher in St. Louis, MO and has been pretty much everywhere! I recently had the opportunity to work with Amy on a trip to Madagascar, so I asked her about her experience there, as well as highlights of her many trips over the years. 

Amy visiting with some lemurs in Madagascar .

Tell me about yourself: 

I was raised in St. Louis but have been traveling since my teen years. I spent a term in Israel for high school, studied abroad in college on a program called Semester at Sea, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Papua New Guinea. As a high school science teacher I have had teacher exchanges and volunteer opportunities in Russia, Macedonia, Morocco, Poland, China, and South Africa.

I know you’ve done a ton of travel - can you tell me some of the more interesting places you’ve been?

I was in Vietnam in 1996 as a college student and was fascinated with the eagerness of the people to welcome capitalism (their government’s version of it). I returned in 2000 to see a lot of small independent businesses but also much more economic division. It also was interesting to see them sort of embrace the history of the war, knowing that it lured tourists there.

Morocco (2012) was a lively meld of European, African, and Arab influences. Marrakesh in particular had an amazing energy. The Jemaa el-Fnaa square was a cacophony of human activity; dancers, henna artists, carts with trinkets and child toys, food stalls with open flame pits, mounds of ground spices, or piles of fresh produce.

What interested me about Macedonia (2011) was that despite the remains of communist influence there was a great sense of nationalism, which can be challenging given its history of Greek and Ottoman rule. It didn’t quite feel Eastern European nor Mediterranean, but a unique blend of intersecting cultures and traditions.

Can you tell me about your recent trip to South Africa and Madagascar? What were the highlights of your trip? 

I was in South Africa with a delegation of other educators from St. Louis, in conjunction with Maryville University. We were partnered with teachers from either Cape Town or Pietermartizburg and presented lessons, attended workshops, and visited schools. One of the highlights was seeing Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain. The other was working with students on Youth Day. It’s an important national holiday commemorating the uprisings in Soweto which ultimately led to the dismantling of Apartheid. Hearing their views on the importance of democracy, and why people should speak up for human rights was really eye-opening.

I then went to Madagascar for vacation. The scenery and flora and fauna were so amazing it’s hard to narrow it to a highlight. But definitely seeing so many species of lemurs in their natural habitat was very exciting.

Why did you want to go to Madagascar?

As a biology teacher, the biodiversity fascinated me. Plus as someone who enjoys exotic/adventurous travel, it had been on my top five list for a while. Being only a 3 hour flight from South Africa, it was hard to pass up the opportunity to explore the country. What about South Africa was different than you expected? What surprised you?

Having seen Cape Town in 1996, I knew to expect that it’s a very modern, cosmopolitan, beautiful city. What surprised me was how open people were to talk about what life was like under Apartheid and how things have changed (or not) in 20 years. The disparity between the rich and the poor was stark and unsettling.

You hired me to help plan your recent trip to Madagascar. How was it working with a travel consultant? 

I am used to doing all the research and making travel arrangements myself so at first it was a bit odd to involve someone else in the process. But it was great to have someone to add their perspective (and expertise) when it came to sorting out the details to make good decisions. You were an invaluable resource when there were some problems while I was traveling and it was a huge relief to know you were in contact with the tour company trying to sort out a solution.

Amy at the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa - this time without lemurs in her hair.

Of all the places you’ve been, which one or two would you most want to go back to?

Something about Italy just warms my heart and I would welcome the chance to go back. I also would like to see more of India. Where do you want to go that you haven’t been to yet?

Top on my list are New Zealand, Turkey, and the Galapagos. I’d also like to get to Antarctica since that’s the only continent I haven’t visited.

Do you have any travel tips?

When in a place where the water isn’t safe, if the hotel has a tea kettle I use that to boil water instead of buying bottled water.

Thanks Amy!

Note: This interview series is inspired by the Travel Style interviews on Johnny Jet's site (which I encourage you to check out as well).