For many Rockdale residents, summer means vacationing at sandy beaches in Florida or mountain getaways in north Georgia. But when Jennifer Smith plans a vacation trip, she’s more likely to be feeding lions in South Africa or climbing glaciers in Antarctica.
The 1997 Rockdale County High School graduate caught the traveling bug in her teens and hasn’t stopped since, visiting more than 57 countries in her brief 33 years of life.
For Smith, it only makes sense to learn about the world firsthand.
“Yes, you can see a picture of rice paddies in your social studies book,” she said, “but when you go and see them in Bali, it’s just amazing.”
She rattles off some of the adventures she’s had. “I’ve been peed on by a crocodile, I’ve been peed on by a monkey… In New Zealand, I took a helicopter up to the top of a glacier and walked on a glacier.”
This globe trekker’s life may come out the pages of National Geographic, but she doesn’t count herself as unusual or extraordinary. She doesn’t do anything the average person couldn’t do, she said.
What got Smith started was a five-month cruise around the world she took with her father and twin brother after high school.
Her father told her about the cruise, which would leave in 1999 and return in 2000. The family had always taken road trips and traveled, with her grandparents being from Scotland, England and Canada, but nothing like this.
Smith postponed going to University of Georgia, instead attending Georgia Perimeter College, living at home and working at Outback Steakhouse six days a week for two years to save up for the trip.
“Yeah, I miss that I didn’t experience that college life... But that cruise was amazing,” she said. “I would never trade anything for that.”
She, her brother and father traveled to 35 countries and all seven continents with a group of 250 passengers and an equal number of crew in a converted World War II troop carrier. “We spent Christmas 1999 in Antarctica,” she said. “New Year’s Eve, we spent the week in Santiago, Chile.”
They rode horses on Easter Island, saw tropical islands like Bora Bora, Fiji, and Tahiti, took a four-day safari in Kenya. After the cruise, they spent two weeks in Egypt and cruised down the Nile.
When the revolution happened in Egypt last year, her memories of visiting Tahrir Square made the headlines more than distant news.
“That brings it all home,” she said. “It’s really not that far away.”
Since then, Smith has continued racking up her list of countries visited.
She and her brother and father hiked through the Swiss Alps, watched humpback whales play off Newfoundland, jumped in sulfur springs in New Zealand, spend a semester in Spain, witnessed the aftermath and quick, efficient cleanup of a bus bomb in Israel, and tasted the best falafel and humus she’s ever had in Jordan.
Last year, she spent two weeks at a wildlife reserve in South Africa on a volunteer-service vacation, where she spent a lot of time scooping up poo, preparing raw meat to feed to lions, making baby bottles for cubs, leading tour groups and school kids around the compound.
By the end of her two weeks, she had had such a great time, she was “homesick to leave.”
“I’m halfway across the world by myself, and I did not want to leave. I did not want to come home. I was homesick to leave. That’s when you know it’s a great trip.”
Her advice for would-be travelers is to know the place you’re going to, use common sense and to be open and curious.
For instance, if she is lost while in an open air market, she’ll duck into a stall before looking at a map to figure out where she is. Or in South Africa, she learned to go to the bathroom in groups and not to hang her purse on the door hook.
“A lot of it is common sense. I learned how to be safe. I don't do stupid things. You figure it out. When I do go someplace where I don't know the language, I make the effort to learn a few words. Please and thank you, hello, goodbye – courtesy words. They see that you're trying so they help you.”
She also learned that while traveling alone, “I don’t need to be afraid... I can go by myself and I’ll be alright. You’ll meet people; you’ll have a good time. I think that’s the best part of traveling — meeting the people, relationships."
As a practical matter, she added, whatever you pack, take half of it out. Or take things that you can leave behind after you use them, like old socks and old shoes.
Smith graduated from UGA in 2002 and now works as a flight attendant. But, she said, she pays her own way for her trips.
“I pay in full. I carry no debt. If I can’t afford it, I don’t do it,” she said. “I’m not going to put myself in debt for a vacation.”
Traveling is her passion now because she can. “I don’t have a family now. I don’t have any responsibilities. I don’t have a big house. I save my money for traveling. I know when I have a family, that’ll slow down.”
She has friends who have started families that say they live vicariously through her. But she also lives through them and their pictures and stories about their families, she said.
Strangely, though, most people back home aren’t interested in hearing about her trips. It’s only with the advent of Facebook that she’s gotten positive feedback to her pictures and postings about her trips.
What’s next for this intrepid globetrotter?
Smith said she would love to be on the reality show “Amazing Race” with her twin brother Shannon Smith, a manager at Outback Steakhouse.
And she still has a long list of places to see and things to do, including the Great Wall in China, the east coast of Australia, Angkor Wat in Myanmar, climbing to a base camp at Mount Everest, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
This insatiable curiosity is the key to making her the traveler she is today. “You have to have the willingness to explore. You have to be curious. You have to want to learn more.”