Meet Mae Ling Choquette. This Newport Beach, CA native and University of San Diego Alpha Phi is the definition of a world traveler. I am lucky enough to have her as my personal travel inspiration and guru. Mae Ling know's whats up when it comes to globe-trotting.
I got the chance to catch up with the brilliance that is Mae Ling and discuss the casual awesomeness that is her life. Hang gliding in Rio de Janiero? Been there. Partying in Barcelona? Done that. Salsa dance in Havana, Cuba? Oktobrfest in Munich? Meeting long lost relatives in Ireland? Check, check, and check!
Warning: if you continue reading on about Mae Ling, you may just fall over from travel jealousy.
First off, let me just say it is an absolute pleasure catching up with you. Besides the fact that I keep close tabs on EVERY trip you take (New Year's in Cambodia was for sure an envy agitator), I was fascinated by your wanderlust and your ability to dive in headfirst to SAS (Semester at Sea). I know you grew up in a travel-oriented family so do you think that sparked your interest in SAS?
Oh man I’ve been traveling for as long as I can remember. Both of my parents love to travel, so I grew up taking trips all around the world. I definitely get my curiosity and love of the world from them. I’ve always had wandering feet, I have trouble staying in one place for too long. Anyways, before I went on Semester at Sea I think I had been to around 35 countries. I first heard about SAS from one of my dad’s best friends who had done the trip when she was in college and is now on the board for SAS. I think I was in 6th grade at the time and it just sounded like the most ridiculous thing to me. I never thought that sailing around the world on a ship was something I wanted to do. Once I got to high school, I began to feel like it was something I actually wanted to do. While studying abroad was always part of my collegiate plan, SAS became the only program I could even think about. I have travel ADD, so for me I wanted a program that would allow me to go everywhere. After visiting 15 countries on 4 continents in 3.5 months, I can attest SAS was the perfect program for me. I definitely felt more prepared for a trip like SAS because of my past traveling experiences, but I don’t think anyone could be fully prepared for the SAS lifestyle. It’s a life of absolutely no routine, which I loved, but it’s exhausting at the same time.
Mae Ling jetting through the blur of London.
Thirty five countries before SAS? Good Lord, Mae Ling. Have you even had time to sleep? You must be constantly traveling, you lucky girl. Before we get to the awesome places SAS took you to, I want to more about the ship. You basically lived on a cruise ship for three months. I must know how that works! What were accommodations like? Staff and crew?
Accommodations on the ship were great! The staff and crew become like family, they truly are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. All of your meals are prepared for you, and your room is cleaned every 2 days. I lived in a triple room with two other girl which was pretty tight, but I never really spent that much time in my room anyways. Everyone spends their days on the ship in class, laying out, or socializing in the common areas. Life on the ship is basically like being in a different country in itself because it’s such a different culture.There was about 625 students on my voyage, and I can honestly say that I know most of them. The community is extremely close knit, and I met some of my best friends while on SAS. We have mini SAS reunions all the time all over the country. Actually a few of my friends I met on SAS are coming to visit me next week, and I just got back from visiting a handful of them in Boulder. The blessing and curse of traveling on the ocean is the complete lack of communication with the outside world. All we had was email, so we wouldn’t be able to text and talk to everyone at home all the time. This really made everyone on the ship close, because it forced us to put down our phones and actually just have conversations with each other. I became so close to people just because we would stay up and talk until 2 in the morning. The friendships and relationships that are built on the ship didn’t stop when we got off, they’ll last a lifetime.
Lack of communication while travel is truly and overlooked and beautiful thing. Totally lets you experience the place and people around you! So one more question and then we will get to the really good stuff. Obviously, you are a full time student and SAS is definitely an academic program. What classes did you take?
Most of the students on the ship only take 4 class, but I took 5 because I needed to keep a full course load to graduate on time next spring. I took Global Media, Sociology of Childhood, World Cities, Travel Writing, and Trans-Atlantic film (I’m a communications major and a sociology minor). I really liked my Global Media class because we would study the media of each country we were going to and then come back after our visit and reflect on it. I also appreciated my Travel Writing class because it forced me to think about my travels and write for myself. In the future, I know I’m really going to appreciate everything I wrote for that class. I didn’t particularly car for my World Cities class, as it focused mainly on city planning and the architecture of cities. It was interesting, but architecture isn’t exactly my thing. What was really interesting about all of my countries is that the curriculum was built to focus on the countries we were visiting. So I would read of Brazilian street children in Rio in my sociology class, and then when we docked in Rio I saw them for myself. It’s one thing to learn about something in a classroom or in a book, and then a whole other experience to see it first hand. I learned more last semester about the world and myself then I have probably during my past few years in college.
Mae Ling, what day is it? What day is it?! Morocco, Africa
Those sound like some seriously rad classes, at least better than anything you could take at a regular university. Alright, now the question everybody is dying to know: where did SAS take you and what was your favorite?
Ok I’ll list every country first so prepare yourself: UK, Russia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, Ireland, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Barbados, Cuba. Did I get them all…yes yes that’s all of them! I get this question from everyone about my favorite stop was and I never have any idea what to say! Each country is so different from the next that it makes it really difficult to compare them side by side. I can’t say that I have a favorite port because each one had something about it that I absolutely loved. But I do have a favorite memory from each port! I celebrated my 21st birthday in Berlin and rented out a huge apartment with 12 of my friends from SAS. My dad met me in Dublin and we met our long lost irish relatives and got to see the old family farm where my dad’s grandfather was born. I stayed out all night in Lisbon and watched the sunrise from the 7th deck of the ship. My friend and I snuck off on our own and had the most insane 48 hours in Munich at Oktoberfest with at least 100 of our friends from USD. I rode a camel into the sunset in the Sahara desert and explored the night markets of Marrakech. My friends and I went on a three day drinking bender in Barcelona where we went to the most insane clubs and didn’t sleep for more then 8 hours in all three nights. I slept in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in a hammock. I went skinny dipping in Barbados and enjoyed way too much of their delicious rum. I salsa danced in the streets of Havana and met the founder of Cohiba cigars. Looking back now, I can’t even believe this was my life for 4 months. I miss it so much I can’t even explain.
I think I just keeled over and died of jealousy. You truly have no idea how much I wish I was there with you for all of that! Okay, so give us more! How much travel did you do outside of the port cities? I know you pretty well, and well enough to know that you are an adventurous young lady so I know you went off on your own! Tell us all about it.
I did a lot of traveling outside of the port cities we stopped in. I wanted to see as much as possible in the limited time I had in each country, so I was always on the move. I never did any solo trips, as I just really prefer to travel with people. But I did walk around cities by myself sometimes just to have some time to myself. I didn’t really do any planned trips through SAS, as I wanted to be able to formulate a different journey for myself based off of what I wanted to do and see. I traveled from Gdansk to Krakow, Poland in order to go and see Auschwitz. That was one of the most eyeopening visits for me, it really tore me up. I took a train from Casablanca to Marrakech, Morocco to take a camel trek into the desert. I flew from Rio to Manaus to take a river boat down the Amazon river. So yes I traveled a lot outside of the port cities, but would try to see as much as I could from those as well.
Mae Ling just basking in the perfection that is her life in the old city of Havana, Cuba. #lifegoals
The fact you have been to such culturally diverse places such as Russia, Brazil, and Cuba absolutely fascinates me. I don't know many people who have been to Russia or Brazil and I know fewer who have been to Cuba. Let's hear a little bit about your experiences in these places.
I had actually been to Russia before with my family a few summers ago and it was sunny and beautiful. But this time it was completely different. St. Petersburg was our first stop on our itinerary and it was gloomy and rainy when we got there. It really transformed a beautiful city into one that looked dull and not nearly as pretty. But I was still glad to be able to go back and visit the Hermitage, which is one of my favorite museums in the world. I also organized a sunset boat cruise for a big group of friends and it was the first time we had all gone out together since we got on the ship. We ended up at the roof top bar of the W Hotel which had the most amazing view of the city. It was wild to say the least. Russians aren’t the most welcoming to Americans, so I was glad to move onto a different country. Brazil was definitely one of my favorite places. My friends and I rented an apartment in Copacabana and enjoyed the beaches, booze, and Brazilian boys. Their culture is so lively and different then our own, I loved it. I got to see a lot of different aspects of Brazil, as I went from Rio to the Amazon and then to Salvador. I also got to spend a day visiting and painting houses in a favela, which was one of my favorite days on the trip. The poverty some people live in is astounding to me. There is so much beauty throughout Brazil, but there was also a lot of people living in some pretty terrible conditions. I believe it’s important to see the not so polished side of countries as well, as I’ve learned the most from those places. Cuba was wow, I hardly have words for it. It was amazing to be able to go there and Havana quickly became one of my favorite places in the world. We were greeted by the University of Havana students, who gave us the warmest welcome possible. We spent the day on their campus listening to lectures and then attended a welcome reception where everyone was dancing and singing in the campus square. The people were so nice, I’ve never felt so at home. My dad actually has a really good friend from Cuba named Tony, and he was so good to me and my friends. He took us under his wing and showed us around to different highlights of the city. Being in Havana felt like I was transported to a different era. With the classic cars and a mixture of well kept and crumbling buildings, it was easily one of my favorite cities. I’m so excited that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are finally starting to clear up after all this time, but I’m really hoping that we don’t go in and westernize the country. The last thing I want to see when I return to Cuba is a McDonalds and Starbucks on every corner.
Ugh, Mae Ling. You are killing me. My wanderlust is truly spiraling out of control just hearing about this. Since you have been to over 40 countries (YES PEOPLE, FORTY, FOUR ZERO!) what are a few of the most compelling and enchanting cultures you have participated in?
This might sound strange, but it was probably the culture on the ship. I’ve been to a lot of places in my lifetime, and it’s easy to research a country before you go there. But it’s not just like you can find out about ship culture before you get on the ship because the people you are with create it. Nothing prepared me for the people I meet and the connections I built. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, because I’ll never be able to sail around on a ship for 3.5 months with the same group of people ever again. I became closer with some of the friends I made on SAS then people I’ve known my entire life. We lived, ate, studied, and traveled together. I think that everyone shows their true colors when they travel and that it’s the best way to get to know someone. We all went through something really amazing together and it will always bond us together. It all sounds kind of corny, but honestly I miss being on the MV Explorer everyday. A huge part of it is because of the people I met and the friendships I made onboard.
Prost to a life well traveled! Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany
And the whole crowd sighs, "AWWWW!" That is so sweet. I am sure you made some crazy awesome friends aboard that ship. Now lets talk adventure. What was the most exhilarating or breath taking moment of your three and a half months abroad?
It’s so hard to pinpoint just one, I really tried to be a risk taker during the entire semester! But it was probably when I went hand gliding while I was in Rio. I’m not really into action sports, but it was something I’ve always wanted to do and Rio is infamous for it. I was totally calm until I got up the mountain and strapped into the glider. There was a handful of people in front of me, and I just keep seeing them run and jump off of the cliff in front of us. Before I knew it it was my turn and I was flying. It was one of the most unbelievable feelings to be soaring through the sky. And the view was breathtaking!
Hang gliding? I honestly cannot believe you did that! Even the thought of being up that high makes me queasy. I am so envious you had the guts to do that. I know you are an awesomely deep and intuned person, so I'm guessing you had a pretty stellar mantra or mindset going into this?
My mantra while traveling has always been to be a traveler and not a tourist. The difference between the two is huge! Tourists are there to see every major sight possible. They don’t care about the little adventures in between, and are just looking to hit the highlights of places. I believe that a traveler knows that the highlights are found off the beaten track. A traveler is culturally aware and sensitive, and cares about the impact their making on the land and on others. It’s not about getting the selfie in front of the Trevi fountain, but about really taking a moment to close your eyes and make a wish, you know what I mean? I hate traveling with an itinerary and I always tried to be more of a traveler whenever I can. I had an idea of things I wanted to see and do, but at some point that just kinda went out the window. I was so much more down to just adventure and go with the flow. And those became my favorite memories, they weren’t planned excursions but spontaneous outings.
"It’s not about getting the selfie in front of the Trevi fountain, but about really taking a moment to close your eyes and make a wish." Wow I absolutely love that. I need to put that on a poster or something because the truth in that statement in beyond on point. Last but not least, any suggestions, tips, tricks, and last words for young wanderlusting women like yourself who are interesting in SAS?
Be flexible. Prepare for the worst, but expect the best. Life is messy, travel is imperfect. You will jump on the wrong train, your flight will get canceled, your bus will leave two hours late. Instead of getting impatient and angry, I suggest you laugh and make the best of the situation you’re dealing with. Because it’s the moments where everything goes wrong that eventually make the greatest stories. You won’t come home and tell everyone about the time that your train left the station exactly on time and you promptly arrived to your destination. No, instead you'll come home and explain to everyone how you had to take a completely different route to Berlin because your train in Krakow never showed up. Also, you have to accept that you won’t be able to see absolutely everything in each city you visit. Sometimes I would have 24 hours to explore a city, sometimes I would have a week. My advice is to take time to just do whatever it is you want to do. Do things for yourself, and if no else wants to do them, go alone. Know it’s okay to skip the touristy sites sometimes and just kind of say “screw it” and go have a drink with your friends in a fun bar. Places can be revisited, sights can be re-seen, but time with your friends can never be recreated. Embrace and cherish every single moment because it’ll be over before you know it and like me, you’ll be dreaming of being back at sea.
Want to see more of Mae Ling's travels? Follow her on instagram @m_choquette!