Adria Ellis is no ordinary traveler.
This is because when most people travel abroad, they are usually seeking for new experiences and novelty. And in many ways, that is understandable. After all, the whole point of getting away from it all and traveling to a new country, is to experience things that we cannot experience in our home country.
But for Adria Ellis, a seasoned traveler and photography tour leader, traveling is not about indulging in novelties.
Indeed, she has a slightly different perspective when it comes to overseas travel. For her, traveling overseas to countries such as Cuba is like visiting a home away from home.
She said: “As an artist and photographer, I’m creatively inspired and that naturally fits in with my travels. Some people love to travel because they have got the travel bug. For me, it’s 50/50. Half of it is the creativity and the photography. The love of photography is what drives my travels but it is also what inspires my travels to be a little bit more unique.
“If I’m traveling somewhere new, of course it’s really interesting to see really amazing art, visit incredible museums and see churches. It’s extraordinary to see those things. But I find myself walking the streets, exploring back alleys and getting off the beaten path and going somewhere a little bit more remote.”
Quality Over Country Quantity
As a veteran traveler, Adria has lost count of how many countries she has been to. While some travelers find it trendy to boast about how many countries they’ve visited around the world, Adria loves to gain a deeper understanding of the countries she has been to and immerse herself in the everyday life and culture of the countries she visits.
She prefers long-term travels, as opposed to short vacations with packed itineraries. For example, she currently lives in Hawaii, which she considers to be her home. She also finds solace in Cuba, which she visits often.
Adria added: “I have no idea how many countries I’ve been to. I’ve never counted. When most people travel, there are so many different things they want to experience and get into. One of the things I’ve realised about my travels is that I love to find a new place and keep going back. I love to find the marrow of a new place.
“For example, when I’m in Havana, Cuba, I love that I know the people just as well as I know the people in my own neighborhood. I also enjoy going to a culture that is not my own in a country that I’m not accustomed to, because it also then starts to feel like home.
“That’s one of the things that I really look for. I love to get a sense of understanding and comfort in a new place. That tends to be the pattern when I travel.”
But as well as finding her home in other countries abroad, travelling has also given Adria a sense of appreciation for the things that she has. It also made her realise just how little it takes to make people happy - even when they are living in impoverished countries.
For example, in Cuba it is really difficult to find water to buy. Local people living in poorer neighborhoods often rely on a truck that delivers water to them on a daily basis in their villages or cities. That water is used for everyday activities such as bathing, cooking, drinking and cleaning. They do not have access to running water in their homes - and this is something that many Westerners take for granted.
Adria said: “They live in extraordinary circumstances. If you just show up on a tour bus, you don’t have an understanding of what their life is really like and what they experience. I want to know what people’s lives are like. I’m not interested in the majority of the tourist things that go on there.”
A Shortcut to A Different World
Let’s face it. Not every traveler is able to spend long periods of time in overseas countries to get an in-depth understanding of a country.
For many people, obligations such as work, kids and mortgages prevent them from being able to have the freedom, time or money to spend a month or two getting to know a neighborhood.
This is why Adria is so passionate about leading her own photography classes. When you sign up to one of her classes, you essentially see the world through her eyes.
You end up meeting the people who she has gotten to know over many years. You get a taste of what the lives of local people are like. People that she knows.
“I feel like there are a lot of people that don’t have the time to be able to travel the way I do. If you have an office job, family or a normal life, it is hard to be able to get out and travel for really extended time periods and it is just not normal for a lot of people. So the thing that I love most about offering these small classes to people is that I get to share the cumulative experience of me being in Cuba.
“That is a very valuable thing for me to be able to offer somebody. When I have the groups that come to Cuba, they meet my friends. They see that when I walk the streets and I meet people, I know who they are.
“For example, I know the guy on the corner who I’ve photographed a thousand times and that he’s thrilled to be photographed. That is valuable to someone who does not feel comfortable with street photography. When students come to my classes, they have the opportunity to really be immersed in my life in Havana and to have experiences that are unusual.”
The Kindness of Strangers
However, the real reason Adria loves Cuba as much as she does is because of their kindness. She said that while she has been to many places across the world where people have been generous, nothing beats the generosity of the people she met in Cuba.
She said: “Cubans are the kindest people I’ve ever met. They are incredibly open-hearted and they are always excited to see me. For example in 2018 I was with a group of students and one of them had a medical emergency and they had to be in the hospital for 10 days after our class.
“This was really difficult because for Americans in Cuba, you can only bring up to $4,000 cash. Cards do not work in Cuba and there are no ATMs. What we bring down is what we have and you don’t have a way of getting more money. This can be a tricky thing when you have a medical emergency for 11 days.
“The day this happened, three of my closest friends in Cuba offered to help. One of my friends Eduardo offered to give us all of the money he had (which was $800). When I woke up in the morning, 3 of my friends had already called the hospital to find out how she was.
“They also left messages for me at the desk so that I would know how she was as soon as she woke up. If anything, we have a lot to learn from Cubans. Eduardo also offered me a place to stay in his house and his family’s house.”
Understanding The Reality of Cuban Life
After having spent years in Cuba living and working with the people there, not only has Adria made some awesome friends, but she has also gained a firsthand insight into the culture of the people there. She quickly realised that more than anything, people simply want their lives to be recognised for what it is and they want the world to see the reality of how they live - both the good and the bad.
Adria added: “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable with street photography and taking photos of people. I really like to bring people in and share this experience with them. The people I know in Cuba want to be photographed and they are keen to see the photographs. They are so grateful for the photography work I do there.
“A lot of people like to judge and claim that I’m exploiting people. But the friends that I have in Cuba constantly thank me. They want people to learn more about their lives and to show that there is good in their lives. One of my friends in Cuba said ‘now I know I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet’ after looking at the pictures I had taken of Cuba.
“He never realised how much beauty there was in his own country. Cuban people want to be seen and they want their lives to be seen. More than anything in life, people want to be seen and recognised. As a photographer, I’m able to do that for people.”
Waiting For Those Magic Moments
Adria said that the key to taking the perfect photograph is patience. While the life of a travel photographer certainly seems glamorous, it also involves a lot of waiting around and finding the perfect spot before the opportunity to take that perfect shot arises.
Ultimately, it is about keeping your eyes open and having an awareness of your surroundings.
It is also important to surround yourself with others who love taking photographs or those who share and support your passion in some way.
Adria added: “If you’re walking with someone who doesn’t like taking photographs, it is not as enjoyable, for you or for them.
“Get off the beaten track a little bit and move slowly. Take your time and have an awareness of what’s going on around you. What I have learned is that often I’ll find myself in a situation or environment where it is the perfect recipe for a photograph.
“For example, the surroundings may be beautiful, with perfect lighting and people. When I find the perfect recipe for a good photograph, I will sit and wait for something to happen. So when you spot the perfect surroundings to take a photograph, you should sit and wait for something to happen because it always does. Keep your eyes open for those little magic moments”.
Fancy taking off sometime soon?
Fancy taking a group tour across the United States? Our ambassadors at WiGo Trips have collectively organized dozens of adventures across the US and other parts of the world. Be sure to visit our app for more information.
Janine is a copywriter and marketing manager from England, with a background in journalism. She runs a popular travel blog called janinesjourneys.com and a Youtube blog where she shares her top tips and travel advice with other travelers. As a digital nomad, Janine spends most of her time exploring new places, creating dynamic marketing campaigns on behalf of other companies, and producing inspiring content about travel and photography. She represents a number of different entrepreneurs and startups. She also has a passion for helping people to reach their full potential.