Zim Flores

On thinking unconventionally about travel

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Named a leader using her voice and talent to elevate humanity by Oprah Winfrey, Zim Flores is the Founder of Italicist and Founder & CEO Emeritus, Travel Noire. In 2013, she started Travel Noire, an award-winning boutique travel company. By the time the brand was acquired in 2017, it reached 2MM travelers each month and sold out of every product it brought to market, building a legion of loyal followers and customers along the way. This Forbes 30 under 30 awardee have been featured in the New York Times, TIME, CBS This Morning, ELLE, The Nation, Essence, NPR, among others, and was awarded by Glamour Magazine as one of 25 Young Women Changing the World.

Currently, she is the founder & CEO of Italicist, a platform that utilizes computer vision technology to help women discover modest clothing. We had the pleasure of chatting with Zim and are quite delighted to share the conversation with you.

JUMP TO TOPIC

ON BUILDING A BUSINESS AND LESSONS LEARNED

Dorcas:

You had started Travel Noire - an award-winning boutique travel company in 2013 - What was the journey of starting it like and how did you go about building it to be one of the most innovative companies?

 

Zim:

It really started out of a conviction that people who like you and I can travel and experience the world in ways that we never have before. We can travel and not just take one vacation a year or every two years, or just travel to see family. There was a world in which we could exist and travel to all of these different, interesting places and have these stories and experiences and be able to share them with others. 

I was living in India at the time, and I was traveling extensively. People back home were like, “wow, I never thought that was possible,” and “how did you do that?” So it kind of started from there and I focused on building a community first - that was the main thing. When I think about building brands, I think about building a community. Because those communities can go wherever - no matter how your product changes, the community is so valuable. We started by teaching people how to travel, how to get off the beaten path. It was a place and destination where people go to think unconventionally about travel. 

 

Then, we launched Travel Noire Experiences, which was born out of my own experiences in India and how challenging they were. So I thought to myself, “how can I create an experience for a group of people that is a challenging one. Not just, we are going to Rome. Instead, we are going into people’s homes. We are going to talk with them, we are going to do things you’ve never done before, see things you’ve never seen before, have conversations that you might not have known, eat with nonnas, and all these different things.” So I think people really latched onto that concept because it did seem a bit unconventional. That you were traveling and not seeing any of these major sites, but you were actually engaging with the people. 

"When I think about building brands, I think about building a community."

It was a really special time. We measured the impact of our experiences by the number of people who cried at the end because our trips were always so transformative for people. There was rarely a trip where people didn’t cry at the end. So we ran 60 trips a year and it was really a joy to be able to do that for people and see their lives transform and take leaps in their own way.

When I did sell the business, it was a challenge - it was really hard because it was something that I built and I wanted to make sure that the voice of the brand stayed intact. You can’t always keep those things - for most people when they sell their businesses, the easiest thing to do is to sell and leave. But the reality is when you really care about your community, and the company that you are selling to has never had a travel community before, then it is very much your responsibility not to leave. There was a whole other journey in that - loss and grieve comes to the forefront. But those four years were definitely special.

Dorcas:

I read some of your journals about that transition, and can only imagine what that journey must have been like… What were some of the pivotal moments, milestones, and lessons along the way?

Zim:

When we were creating Travel Noire Experiences, I thought that people knew how to put together an unconventional experience. For example, when I had our experience designers create an itinerary, a lot of times, they would simply create an itinerary that they would give a friend who was coming into town and has never been to the city. Which was to go see the Colosseum and all the famous places. So I realized we really had to teach people how to think differently about an experience. It’s not about what we see, it’s about who we meet. That was not easy for a lot of people to grasp. It was also pretty hard to put words to a transformation. When you’re selling somebody an experience or a trip, how do you tell them that they’re going to be transformed? It’s hard. So we had to be really creative with our copy - how we wrote and how we spoke.

Those are a couple of moments. I think that keeping our community close and making sure that we were serving them was another one. The ethos and the heart of Travel Noire has very much changed over the years, especially since the acquisition. When I ran the company, I really wanted to make sure that we were close to the heart of our community.

 

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WAYS TRAVELLING CAN BE TRANSFORMATIVE

Dorcas:

That’s so good and probably the key to why it was so successful. What does travelling mean to you?

Zim:

To me, travel means freedom. It means spontaneity. I am able to discover new things, meet new people, and engage in different conversations. I can envision a different life when I am in a different life. If I were to go to Italy or Cinque Terre, for example, and take one of those hikes above the water - you look back and imagine there is a house on a hill with no electricity or power, but it’s overlooking the ocean and it’s so peaceful and quiet. And you say to yourself, “maybe one day, I can have something like this. I can buy a cottage and it can be on the coast. It’s a place I can come to when I want to take a break and step back.” So it’s the freedom to dream and to think about your life in a different way. It also provides a lot of inspiration. Take something from one part of the world and apply to your life in another part of the world, and it really makes things different. 

Dorcas:

That leads to the next question - what have you taken from your experiences and travelling that has shaped your life or the way you live currently? 

Zim:

I used to be a traveller that had a list of things I must see, which was early on in my travel journey. My husband is the opposite. He is more ‘go with the flow’ and “oh, look at this alleyway or sideroad, it looks really interesting” or “look at this interesting coffee shop, let’s go inside” type of person. Now we end up navigating our travels the same way. A lot of times, when we travel, we just book the first few nights at a hotel, the flight, a car, and that’s it. We don’t plan any activities, which allows us to have the freedom and flexibility to be like “oh we really like this place, let’s extend our stay or stay somewhere different” or “let’s go to another part of the country, let’s do something different.” So it’s taught me flexibility, adaptability, and being able to make sure that people stay at the center. No matter what we do, we always make sure that we have components where we are engaging with culture and people. I think that has always been a big part of what I’ve learned and how I’ve evolved as a traveller. 

 

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ON FULLY EXPERIENCING A NEW PLACE, PEOPLE, AND CULTURE

Dorcas:

For someone looking to travel and wanting to fully experience their destination, how would you advise them to approach it? 

 

Zim:

First, rent a car. It’s a brilliant way to get off the beaten path - and this is if you are not in a major city. Don’t rent a car if you’re in Rome. Rent a car the day that you’re leaving Rome to go somewhere else. Say that you’re driving through Tuscany and want to go off into these winding roads. If you have GPS on your phone and access to signal, that means you have the luxury of getting lost. It’s not really a hack, but it’s something that I like to think about as an easy way to get off the beaten path. 

 

Second, walk everywhere, if you can. If you are staying in Rome in a cute little neighborhood or you’re staying in another small town, walk and use public transport. Again, get lost. Getting lost is honestly the key to finding really interesting things. You could stumble upon a show. You could stumble upon a movie in Italian and you have no idea what they’re saying, but you’re getting a picture or glimpse into the Italian movie culture, which you might not have ever had. When I was in the movie theaters in India, they took breaks. I had no idea they would have intermissions in the middle of the movie. It just goes to show that there are so many things that we think are regular in our own culture, that if you go to another culture, it could be completely different. 

 

Visit coffee shops or tea houses. They give you a pulse on the neighborhood and the coffee culture, which I think is a thing in a lot of different places. You see new artists and different things, you see how people work, you can find events if they have things on boards and things like that. 

 

Lastly, Airbnb experiences are really interesting. They are ways to dig a little bit deeper with the culture. On our honeymoon, my husband and I did a soba noodle-making class. We were in the home of this guy who makes his own soba noodles every single day - that’s all he eats. So we were able to sit in his house, he was in traditional wear, and he didn’t speak English that well, but it was really cool to experience that with him. I had my husband go on a ramen tour in Tokyo, which is cool. I couldn’t go because I don’t eat meat. Those experiences, especially if they’re cooking classes, give you another glimpse into what it’s like to live like a local.

My whole modus operandi -  is to figure out how people live locally in their own country. I want to wake up and do what I would normally do in my own city. So if I wake up, I maybe would go to a coffee shop and work for a couple of hours, then I’d go to a park, then maybe I’d go to a church service, then after a show or the library, or whatever. What does that look like in another country? Ok Zim, you’re in Lisbon. What are the coffee shops around you? What are the cool restaurants? Are there any shows going on? Where is the nearest park? Can you walk to it? Those are the kinds of conversations that I would have with myself. Also, when I travel to a new place, I always search “hipster” and the name of the city and that will always bring up some good results too. 

Dorcas:

Wow, that’s a good one! Never thought of that. You touched on this a little bit - the idea of living in a new place and wanting to experience the culture authentically. How do you learn to spend time with people that are not like you?

 

Zim:

That’s a good question because a lot of times, people tend to be more insular in their travel experiences. They may stay with who they know, for example, etc. When I am solo travelling, I tend to stay to myself or I connect with somebody who knows somebody in that town. So we were in Telaviv and I did some searching on the Internet because I wanted to have a meal with a family - specifically, we wanted to have a Shabbat dinner. So I searched online and found this guy who runs this startup. We ended up having a Shabbat dinner with a family that didn’t speak English - only one person spoke English. But they were so loving that we spent maybe three hours there for the Shabbat dinner - it was amazing. 

 

So I am a little adventurous in that way, that’s how we got our Cape Town experience for Travel Noire. I went on the Internet, was looking at interesting people, and sent an email saying, “hey, I would love to meet you and show you what I’m working on.” Boom! Connected with someone, told him about TN Experiences, and he became our Experience Designer for years and is a very good friend. 

 

So it starts with being curious, asking questions, and not being afraid to meet other people. Obviously, meet in public places and during the daytime - don’t meet a stranger at night at your place etc. For me, it’s a little bit easier because it was a business proposition as opposed to like, “Hey, I’m on vacation and I’m looking for x, y, and z.”

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ON CHOOSING A TRAVEL DESTINATION OR WORKING ABROAD 

Dorcas:

When choosing your travel destination, what are some things that you look for?

Zim:

It’s changed over the years. Although it’s crossed my mind that it would be cool to go to every single country, the reality is I am a creature of comfort and I like to go to places that I really love. Those places that I love are oftentimes a result of trying out one new place or destination. 

 

My first time in Israel was last year and I went with a foundation. It was forty of us. Group trips - especially at that scale - are not really my thing. But the way that they constructed the trip was all super hyper-localized with a lot of interaction with the people. I fell in love and so much so that I put it back on our honeymoon list for us to go. 

 

So I think for me, it’s less of a “is it hot?” Instead, I’m trying to think “are there interesting people?”, “is there an interesting culture?”, “are there pretty views?”, “is the landscape really interesting?” I have wanted to explore more of Scandinavia because I like their designs. A lot of times when I think about travel, I am a big fan of boutique hotels but I’m a bigger fan of hidden boutique hotels. I will drive for hours to find a beautiful hidden boutique hotel. A lot of times, I will search for hotels and go to a place because of that hotel.

 

There is a monastery hotel in Umbria, Italy that I remember seeing for the first time maybe three years ago. I was so scared to go because one of the pictures on the website is of a huge forest and the hotel is a dot in the middle of the forest and I was like, “oh my gosh, I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere and I’m not going to be near anybody.” I ended up going and I loved it. It’s one of my favorite hotels. It’s very hard to get to but is a whole experience. It’s called Eremito. Similarly, I went to a hotel in Sri Lanka and it was really in the middle of nowhere. You had to drive on the side of a cliff to get there. But when you got there, it took your breath away. Our wedding was the same way. It was in the middle of nowhere and people had such a hard time getting there. When they got there, they were just like, “wow, this is beautiful.” One of my sayings is, ‘the more difficult the journey, the more beautiful the arrival.”

Dorcas:

You’re like the queen of finding these places. I just want to go to all of them! 

Zim:

I know! That’s kind of how I choose destinations. It really depends. I have a tab of my saved Instagram pictures called ‘Marriage Vacay’. Whenever I find something that looks interesting, I’ll save it. So when it’s time to go on another vacation, I go back and look. 

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Dorcas:

Do you have any advice for people who are looking to do long-term travel or maybe work abroad for a while?

Zim:

I recommend this book called Delaying the Real World by Colleen Kinder. That was the book that I looked at when I was looking at fellowship options. My fellowship was actually on the list in that book. I applied for it and that’s the program that took me to India.

They paid me a US salary - it was nice. So if you’re looking to work abroad, try and get sponsorship or a fellowship or apply somewhere. Because it’s really hard when you’re thinking about visa sponsorships and all these legal things when you move abroad for the long-term that could get a little bit hairy. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about a lot of that. 

Dorcas:

What was the name of the fellowship?

Zim:

It’s called the Henry Luce Scholars Program and it’s from the Henry Luce Foundation. It’s a program that I love. It’s near and dear to my heart. 

Dorcas:

How do you think travelling will change post-COVID?

Zim:

That’s a great question. I have some theories but from what I heard, I think that people are going to want to stay close to their homes and be near people that they know. Less adventuring out and doing new things. For me, I will travel anywhere that is pretty much not war-torn but I might have a second thought about going to the airport. Airports are nasty. But sadly you mostly have to get on a plane in order to get to your destination. 

 

People still yearn for connection so it will be interesting to see what connection looks like post-COVID. Does that mean that people are not going to be going to the same restaurant? Does that mean that people are going to want to do more things outside? Not to be stuck in a confined place. Are group trips going to be a thing of the past because people don’t want to stay in the same room as somebody they don’t know has COVID or not? It’s hard to tell.

So I think for me, it's less of a "is it hot?". Instead, I'm trying to think "are there interesting people?", "is there an interesting culture?"

 

RECOMMENDED DESTINATIONS 

WHAT'S TO COME

Dorcas:

Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see. Perhaps when we have a vaccine, things might return to normal - who knows? What are the top five places you’ve visited?

 

Zim:

I love Columbo - the entire country of Sri Lanka actually. It’s so underrated. A part of me is like it should stay that way, but another part of me is like don’t be selfish. It has a really interesting colonial history. People are really warm. It’s like where you go when you want to experience India but you don’t really want to experience its craziness. They call it Little India for that reason. 

I would say Cape Town is another one. It’s very interesting because you would think that since it’s in Africa, there’s going to be a lot of black people but you get there and it’s like Denmark. I think that if you connect with the right people, it changes everything. It changes your entire experience. 

 

Panarea in Sicily. It’s a beautiful island and it’s gorgeous. I love Sicily as a whole. If I could have a second house, I would have it in Sicily or South Africa. 

 

Next is  Madeira. It’s a Portuguese island and an hour and a half flight from Lisbon. It’s off the coast of West Africa. Gorgeous island. Everywhere you drive is a view of the ocean - it’s perfect. 

 

Number five would have to be Doncella in Northern India. It’s where I lived right after I left my job in Southern India. I went up to live there for a few months. My husband and I went back for part of our honeymoon and it was just the most peaceful. I asked people if they’ve seen India like this because we were often in places where there were no people. People were asking, “how is that possible? You’re in India?” You just have to know where to go but it’s totally possible. 

Dorcas:

Top two cities to go for long-term travel or maybe a year long sabbatical - If they are  different for any of the five places you mentioned. 

 

Zim:

It really depends on what you’re going for. If you’re going to heal and be by yourself, I would say hill country in Sri Lanka is probably good. It’s literally views and views of nature and good food. If you’re going for work or you need somewhere with a good Internet connection, I would probably say Tokyo. Japan, for me, is just really interesting. It’s expensive though, so it’s not like you can go and live off the grid. If cost was a factor, I would probably say Lisbon or Portugal. 

Dorcas:

Top 3 cities for honeymoon destinations. 

 

Zim:

I think about a honeymoon a little differently than a lot of people because we went for so long. It wasn’t like we were on a beach. I will say that there are a couple of islands in Cambodia and Vietnam that are really beautiful, and have luxury boutique hotels on them. My husband and I went to one on a press trip in Vietnam a few years back and it was really, really special. I think people will conventionally pick the Maldives or something like that. I would even say, if you’re up for it, Namibia is beautiful. If you go down south to the desert, it’s gorgeous. Then I would say anywhere on my top five is a good honeymoon place.

Dorcas:

What are some places that you guys have on your horizon - that you’re planning to visit in the future? Also what are some exciting things that you’re looking forward to in your personal projects - what’s to come?

 

Zim:

We are looking forward to our first anniversary trip. We are trying to figure out where we are going to go and it will probably be an extended trip. I don’t know how long we are going to go for, but we are looking back at Asia. We love, love, love Asia. Asia is one of those places that kind of grew us up so we feel very much not indebted to. Another thing that I was thinking about was Southern Africa. I want to experience more of that with my husband. He’s only been to South Africa on the continent and we went to Joburg and Cape Town. It’s Africa but it’s not Nigeria that’s for sure. So being able to take him there, I think would be really interesting. So those are a couple of places on our horizon. 

 

Also getting back to some places that we love. Oh, one place that I didn’t mention but I really love is Istanbul in Turkey. Turkey was amazing. The weather was terrible but I could easily see Turkey as being one of my top ten countries. 

 

In terms of personal projects, I am starting a new brand called Italicist. It’s based on modest fashion. It essentially allows people to find more of what they love online without having to spend so much time searching for modest items. It’s for people who have a particular style but have to hop around to seven different online stores, or can’t find what they want. So it’s a SaaS - software as a service - solution. You fill out this really cool quiz and you have a profile. Then you’re basically presented with your own store which has items that are specific to what you can wear. For instance if you specify that you can’t wear things without sleeves, then everything in your store will have sleeves and will be from the brands that you have specified you like and other brands that we pull from online. So I am really excited about that.

Dorcas:

Wow! I’m already really excited. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much Zim for taking the time to chat with us.

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ON BUILDING A BUSINESS AND LESSONS LEARNED

Dorcas:

You had started Travel Noire - an award-winning boutique travel company in 2013 - What was the journey of starting it like and how did you go about building it to be one of the most innovative companies?

 

Zim:

It really started out of a conviction that people who like you and I can travel and experience the world in ways that we never have before. We can travel and not just take one vacation a year or every two years, or just travel to see family. There was a world in which we could exist and travel to all of these different, interesting places and have these stories and experiences and be able to share them with others. 

I was living in India at the time, and I was traveling extensively. People back home were like, “wow, I never thought that was possible,” and “how did you do that?” So it kind of started from there and I focused on building a community first - that was the main thing. When I think about building brands, I think about building a community. Because those communities can go wherever - no matter how your product changes, the community is so valuable. We started by teaching people how to travel, how to get off the beaten path. It was a place and destination where people go to think unconventionally about travel. 

 

Then, we launched Travel Noire Experiences, which was born out of my own experiences in India and how challenging they were. So I thought to myself, “how can I create an experience for a group of people that is a challenging one. Not just, we are going to Rome. Instead, we are going into people’s homes. We are going to talk with them, we are going to do things you’ve never done before, see things you’ve never seen before, have conversations that you might not have known, eat with nonnas, and all these different things.” So I think people really latched onto that concept because it did seem a bit unconventional. That you were traveling and not seeing any of these major sites, but you were actually engaging with the people. 

It was a really special time. We measured the impact of our experiences by the number of people who cried at the end because our trips were always so transformative for people. There was rarely a trip where people didn’t cry at the end. So we ran 60 trips a year and it was really a joy to be able to do that for people and see their lives transform and take leaps in their own way.

When I did sell the business, it was a challenge - it was really hard because it was something that I built and I wanted to make sure that the voice of the brand stayed intact. You can’t always keep those things - for most people when they sell their businesses, the easiest thing to do is to sell and leave. But the reality is when you really care about your community, and the company that you are selling to has never had a travel community before, then it is very much your responsibility not to leave. There was a whole other journey in that - loss and grieve comes to the forefront. But those four years were definitely special.

Dorcas:

I read some of your journals about that transition, and can only imagine what that journey must have been like… What were some of the pivotal moments, milestones, and lessons along the way?

Zim:

When we were creating Travel Noire Experiences, I thought that people knew how to put together an unconventional experience. For example, when I had our experience designers create an itinerary, a lot of times, they would simply create an itinerary that they would give a friend who was coming into town and has never been to the city. Which was to go see the Colosseum and all the famous places. So I realized we really had to teach people how to think differently about an experience. It’s not about what we see, it’s about who we meet. That was not easy for a lot of people to grasp. It was also pretty hard to put words to a transformation. When you’re selling somebody an experience or a trip, how do you tell them that they’re going to be transformed? It’s hard. So we had to be really creative with our copy - how we wrote and how we spoke.

Those are a couple of moments. I think that keeping our community close and making sure that we were serving them was another one. The ethos and the heart of Travel Noire has very much changed over the years, especially since the acquisition. When I ran the company, I really wanted to make sure that we were close to the heart of our community.

"When I think about building brands, I think about building a community."

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WAYS TRAVELLING CAN BE TRANSFORMATIVE

Dorcas:

That’s so good and probably the key to why it was so successful. What does travelling mean to you?

Zim:

To me, travel means freedom. It means spontaneity. I am able to discover new things, meet new people, and engage in different conversations. I can envision a different life when I am in a different life. If I were to go to Italy or Cinque Terre, for example, and take one of those hikes above the water - you look back and imagine there is a house on a hill with no electricity or power, but it’s overlooking the ocean and it’s so peaceful and quiet. And you say to yourself, “maybe one day, I can have something like this. I can buy a cottage and it can be on the coast. It’s a place I can come to when I want to take a break and step back.” So it’s the freedom to dream and to think about your life in a different way. It also provides a lot of inspiration. Take something from one part of the world and apply to your life in another part of the world, and it really makes things different. 

Dorcas:

That leads to the next question - what have you taken from your experiences and travelling that has shaped your life or the way you live currently? 

Zim:

I used to be a traveller that had a list of things I must see, which was early on in my travel journey. My husband is the opposite. He is more ‘go with the flow’ and “oh, look at this alleyway or sideroad, it looks really interesting” or “look at this interesting coffee shop, let’s go inside” type of person. Now we end up navigating our travels the same way. A lot of times, when we travel, we just book the first few nights at a hotel, the flight, a car, and that’s it. We don’t plan any activities, which allows us to have the freedom and flexibility to be like “oh we really like this place, let’s extend our stay or stay somewhere different” or “let’s go to another part of the country, let’s do something different.” So it’s taught me flexibility, adaptability, and being able to make sure that people stay at the center. No matter what we do, we always make sure that we have components where we are engaging with culture and people. I think that has always been a big part of what I’ve learned and how I’ve evolved as a traveller. 

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ON FULLY EXPERIENCING A NEW PLACE, PEOPLE, AND CULTURE

Dorcas:

For someone looking to travel and wanting to fully experience their destination, how would you advise them to approach it? 

 

Zim:

First, rent a car. It’s a brilliant way to get off the beaten path - and this is if you are not in a major city. Don’t rent a car if you’re in Rome. Rent a car the day that you’re leaving Rome to go somewhere else. Say that you’re driving through Tuscany and want to go off into these winding roads. If you have GPS on your phone and access to signal, that means you have the luxury of getting lost. It’s not really a hack, but it’s something that I like to think about as an easy way to get off the beaten path. 

 

Second, walk everywhere, if you can. If you are staying in Rome in a cute little neighborhood or you’re staying in another small town, walk and use public transport. Again, get lost. Getting lost is honestly the key to finding really interesting things. You could stumble upon a show. You could stumble upon a movie in Italian and you have no idea what they’re saying, but you’re getting a picture or glimpse into the Italian movie culture, which you might not have ever had. When I was in the movie theaters in India, they took breaks. I had no idea they would have intermissions in the middle of the movie. It just goes to show that there are so many things that we think are regular in our own culture, that if you go to another culture, it could be completely different. 

 

Visit coffee shops or tea houses. They give you a pulse on the neighborhood and the coffee culture, which I think is a thing in a lot of different places. You see new artists and different things, you see how people work, you can find events if they have things on boards and things like that. 

 

Lastly, Airbnb experiences are really interesting. They are ways to dig a little bit deeper with the culture. On our honeymoon, my husband and I did a soba noodle-making class. We were in the home of this guy who makes his own soba noodles every single day - that’s all he eats. So we were able to sit in his house, he was in traditional wear, and he didn’t speak English that well, but it was really cool to experience that with him. I had my husband go on a ramen tour in Tokyo, which is cool. I couldn’t go because I don’t eat meat. Those experiences, especially if they’re cooking classes, give you another glimpse into what it’s like to live like a local.

My whole modus operandi -  is to figure out how people live locally in their own country. I want to wake up and do what I would normally do in my own city. So if I wake up, I maybe would go to a coffee shop and work for a couple of hours, then I’d go to a park, then maybe I’d go to a church service, then after a show or the library, or whatever. What does that look like in another country? Ok Zim, you’re in Lisbon. What are the coffee shops around you? What are the cool restaurants? Are there any shows going on? Where is the nearest park? Can you walk to it? Those are the kinds of conversations that I would have with myself. Also, when I travel to a new place, I always search “hipster” and the name of the city and that will always bring up some good results too. 

Dorcas:

Wow, that’s a good one! Never thought of that. You touched on this a little bit - the idea of living in a new place and wanting to experience the culture authentically. How do you learn to spend time with people that are not like you?

 

Zim:

That’s a good question because a lot of times, people tend to be more insular in their travel experiences. They may stay with who they know, for example, etc. When I am solo travelling, I tend to stay to myself or I connect with somebody who knows somebody in that town. So we were in Telaviv and I did some searching on the Internet because I wanted to have a meal with a family - specifically, we wanted to have a Shabbat dinner. So I searched online and found this guy who runs this startup. We ended up having a Shabbat dinner with a family that didn’t speak English - only one person spoke English. But they were so loving that we spent maybe three hours there for the Shabbat dinner - it was amazing. 

 

So I am a little adventurous in that way, that’s how we got our Cape Town experience for Travel Noire. I went on the Internet, was looking at interesting people, and sent an email saying, “hey, I would love to meet you and show you what I’m working on.” Boom! Connected with someone, told him about TN Experiences, and he became our Experience Designer for years and is a very good friend. 

 

So it starts with being curious, asking questions, and not being afraid to meet other people. Obviously, meet in public places and during the daytime - don’t meet a stranger at night at your place etc. For me, it’s a little bit easier because it was a business proposition as opposed to like, “Hey, I’m on vacation and I’m looking for x, y, and z.”

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ON CHOOSING A TRAVEL DESTINATION OR WORKING ABROAD

Dorcas:

When choosing your travel destination, what are some things that you look for?

Zim:

It’s changed over the years. Although it’s crossed my mind that it would be cool to go to every single country, the reality is I am a creature of comfort and I like to go to places that I really love. Those places that I love are oftentimes a result of trying out one new place or destination. 

 

My first time in Israel was last year and I went with a foundation. It was forty of us. Group trips - especially at that scale - are not really my thing. But the way that they constructed the trip was all super hyper-localized with a lot of interaction with the people. I fell in love and so much so that I put it back on our honeymoon list for us to go. 

 

So I think for me, it’s less of a “is it hot?” Instead, I’m trying to think “are there interesting people?”, “is there an interesting culture?”, “are there pretty views?”, “is the landscape really interesting?” I have wanted to explore more of Scandinavia because I like their designs. A lot of times when I think about travel, I am a big fan of boutique hotels but I’m a bigger fan of hidden boutique hotels. I will drive for hours to find a beautiful hidden boutique hotel. A lot of times, I will search for hotels and go to a place because of that hotel.

 

There is a monastery hotel in Umbria, Italy that I remember seeing for the first time maybe three years ago. I was so scared to go because one of the pictures on the website is of a huge forest and the hotel is a dot in the middle of the forest and I was like, “oh my gosh, I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere and I’m not going to be near anybody.” I ended up going and I loved it. It’s one of my favorite hotels. It’s very hard to get to but is a whole experience. It’s called Eremito. Similarly, I went to a hotel in Sri Lanka and it was really in the middle of nowhere. You had to drive on the side of a cliff to get there. But when you got there, it took your breath away. Our wedding was the same way. It was in the middle of nowhere and people had such a hard time getting there. When they got there, they were just like, “wow, this is beautiful.” One of my sayings is, ‘the more difficult the journey, the more beautiful the arrival.”

Dorcas:

You’re like the queen of finding these places. I just want to go to all of them! 

Zim:

I know! That’s kind of how I choose destinations. It really depends. I have a tab of my saved Instagram pictures called ‘Marriage Vacay’. Whenever I find something that looks interesting, I’ll save it. So when it’s time to go on another vacation, I go back and look. 

Dorcas:

Do you have any advice for people who are looking to do long-term travel or maybe work abroad for a while?

Zim:

I recommend this book called Delaying the Real World by Colleen Kinder. That was the book that I looked at when I was looking at fellowship options. My fellowship was actually on the list in that book. I applied for it and that’s the program that took me to India.

They paid me a US salary - it was nice. So if you’re looking to work abroad, try and get sponsorship or a fellowship or apply somewhere. Because it’s really hard when you’re thinking about visa sponsorships and all these legal things when you move abroad for the long-term that could get a little bit hairy. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about a lot of that. 

Dorcas:

What was the name of the fellowship?

Zim:

It’s called the Henry Luce Scholars Program and it’s from the Henry Luce Foundation. It’s a program that I love. It’s near and dear to my heart. 

Dorcas:

How do you think travelling will change post-COVID?

Zim:

That’s a great question. I have some theories but from what I heard, I think that people are going to want to stay close to their homes and be near people that they know. Less adventuring out and doing new things. For me, I will travel anywhere that is pretty much not war-torn but I might have a second thought about going to the airport. Airports are nasty. But sadly you mostly have to get on a plane in order to get to your destination. 

 

People still yearn for connection so it will be interesting to see what connection looks like post-COVID. Does that mean that people are not going to be going to the same restaurant? Does that mean that people are going to want to do more things outside? Not to be stuck in a confined place. Are group trips going to be a thing of the past because people don’t want to stay in the same room as somebody they don’t know has COVID or not? It’s hard to tell.

So I think for me, it's less of a "is it hot?". Instead, I'm trying to think "are there interesting people?", "is there an interesting culture?"

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RECOMMENDED DESTINATIONS

Dorcas:

Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see. Perhaps when we have a vaccine, things might return to normal - who knows? What are the top five places you’ve visited?

 

Zim:

I love Columbo - the entire country of Sri Lanka actually. It’s so underrated. A part of me is like it should stay that way, but another part of me is like don’t be selfish. It has a really interesting colonial history. People are really warm. It’s like where you go when you want to experience India but you don’t really want to experience its craziness. They call it Little India for that reason. 

I would say Cape Town is another one. It’s very interesting because you would think that since it’s in Africa, there’s going to be a lot of black people but you get there and it’s like Denmark. I think that if you connect with the right people, it changes everything. It changes your entire experience. 

 

Panarea in Sicily. It’s a beautiful island and it’s gorgeous. I love Sicily as a whole. If I could have a second house, I would have it in Sicily or South Africa. 

 

Next is  Madeira. It’s a Portuguese island and an hour and a half flight from Lisbon. It’s off the coast of West Africa. Gorgeous island. Everywhere you drive is a view of the ocean - it’s perfect. 

 

Number five would have to be Doncella in Northern India. It’s where I lived right after I left my job in Southern India. I went up to live there for a few months. My husband and I went back for part of our honeymoon and it was just the most peaceful. I asked people if they’ve seen India like this because we were often in places where there were no people. People were asking, “how is that possible? You’re in India?” You just have to know where to go but it’s totally possible. 

Dorcas:

Top two cities to go for long-term travel or maybe a year long sabbatical - If they are  different for any of the five places you mentioned. 

 

Zim:

It really depends on what you’re going for. If you’re going to heal and be by yourself, I would say hill country in Sri Lanka is probably good. It’s literally views and views of nature and good food. If you’re going for work or you need somewhere with a good Internet connection, I would probably say Tokyo. Japan, for me, is just really interesting. It’s expensive though, so it’s not like you can go and live off the grid. If cost was a factor, I would probably say Lisbon or Portugal. 

Dorcas:

Top 3 cities for honeymoon destinations. 

 

Zim:

I think about a honeymoon a little differently than a lot of people because we went for so long. It wasn’t like we were on a beach. I will say that there are a couple of islands in Cambodia and Vietnam that are really beautiful, and have luxury boutique hotels on them. My husband and I went to one on a press trip in Vietnam a few years back and it was really, really special. I think people will conventionally pick the Maldives or something like that. I would even say, if you’re up for it, Namibia is beautiful. If you go down south to the desert, it’s gorgeous. Then I would say anywhere on my top five is a good honeymoon place.

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WHAT'S TO COME

Dorcas:

What are some places that you guys have on your horizon - that you’re planning to visit in the future? Also what are some exciting things that you’re looking forward to in your personal projects - what’s to come?

 

Zim:

We are looking forward to our first anniversary trip. We are trying to figure out where we are going to go and it will probably be an extended trip. I don’t know how long we are going to go for, but we are looking back at Asia. We love, love, love Asia. Asia is one of those places that kind of grew us up so we feel very much not indebted to. Another thing that I was thinking about was Southern Africa. I want to experience more of that with my husband. He’s only been to South Africa on the continent and we went to Joburg and Cape Town. It’s Africa but it’s not Nigeria that’s for sure. So being able to take him there, I think would be really interesting. So those are a couple of places on our horizon. 

 

Also getting back to some places that we love. Oh, one place that I didn’t mention but I really love is Istanbul in Turkey. Turkey was amazing. The weather was terrible but I could easily see Turkey as being one of my top ten countries. 

 

In terms of personal projects, I am starting a new brand called Italicist. It’s based on modest fashion. It essentially allows people to find more of what they love online without having to spend so much time searching for modest items. It’s for people who have a particular style but have to hop around to seven different online stores, or can’t find what they want. So it’s a SaaS - software as a service - solution. You fill out this really cool quiz and you have a profile. Then you’re basically presented with your own store which has items that are specific to what you can wear. For instance if you specify that you can’t wear things without sleeves, then everything in your store will have sleeves and will be from the brands that you have specified you like and other brands that we pull from online. So I am really excited about that.

Dorcas:

Wow! I’m already really excited. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much Zim for taking the time to chat with us.