Course Charted’s Origin Story

Thank you for joining the adventure here at Course Charted, your resource for slow, sustainable, savvy travel!

What began as a journey half-way around the world, into the courtroom, and behind a camera has brought me here — charting a course for us to have more memorable, meaningful travels.

Because travel connects us, changes us, and empowers us to seek something greater than ourselves.

Home Is Where the Suitcase Is

My earliest memories are of travel. From fleeing to southern Ukraine after the Chernobyl disaster to leaving my homeland forever as my family moved to the United States. These formative moments made me a traveler.

I remember sleeping on top of a suitcase as we took the long, uncertain journey to the US.

I remember selling wooden cranes on the beach in Italy to help my family earn money as we waited for our documents to come in for the final leg of our journey.

Italy Travel Child
Me (aka the crane-seller) in Italy!

Some family members were already living in Chicago so we made it our home too and felt lucky to have a support system when we arrived.

But those early years were hard.

We didn’t know the language. We didn’t know the customs. We had barely enough money to last a couple months. So we stayed with family until my parents saved enough to move into a rundown apartment in Chicago.

My parents, both highly educated in Ukraine, had to take low-paying, low-skilled jobs. They worked long hours at restaurants and my grandfather (who reluctantly left Ukraine with us) became my main caretaker.

He had been a musician in Ukraine, and I could tell that he missed his friends and his sister (who decided to stay back). To this day, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to leave a place he knew so well for the solitude of a foreign country. 

Kiev Grandfather
Clockwise from left: me, my grandfather and his sister, my grandfather’s Kiev crew, my grandfather with his tuba bandmates

But luckily (or unluckily) for him, I was a handful and took his mind off what he left behind.

While my parents worked my grandfather was tasked with keeping me alive. No easy feat — I was a very active and adventurous kid, and there was no tree too tall to climb. I was regularly covered in bruises and scrapes, and I proudly tallied all the bandaids.

I was no tamer in school. I loved to reenact gymnastics routines I had seen on tv on the playground. Mind you, I had never taken gymnastics class in my life! But that didn’t stop me from believing in my abilities on the uneven bars.

I was taking a spin on the highest bar when my knees slipped off and I fell headfirst onto a pile of wood chips. 

Monkey Bars Child
I’m the upside down one (of course)

This was the kid my aging grandfather was raising.

But he rose to the occasion. He read Russian fairy tales to me about far away places, deadly dragons, and valiant knights.

We didn’t have money to travel at the time, but I traveled through those books.

I became obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Her unbelievable, inexplicable adventures entranced me. I walked through the hallway of doors, drank potions, and attended the maddest tea party with her.

When we weren’t reading fairy tales, my grandfather and I were studying Russian alphabet books.

After moving to the US I quickly learned English (thanks mostly to American cartoons!). But my grandfather was worried that I would lose my Russian. So he encouraged me to keep speaking it with him.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but those lessons and stories had lasting effects on who I am and how I interact with the world.

To this day, I can speak and read in Russian, and have added Español, un po ‘di Italiano, and un peu Français!

I Knew You Before I Remembered You

“You look familiar” said the cute boy named Jake in my high school Debate class. I was sure it was a line and brushed it off, but over the course of that school year we became close friends and took several classes together. We mostly hung in groups, but there was an obvious connection. 

One day at school Jake took me over to his locker, gave me a red rose, and asked me to prom. I was a senior at the time and he was a junior. Bold move. It was an easy “yes.”

We had a great time at the dance and were inseparable all summer.

The more we got to know each other, the more things we found we had in common. Jake was Belarusian but his dad had grown up in Ukraine. Jake’s family also had a similar immigration story to mine. And they lived less than a mile from my house in the suburbs of Chicago. 

One day, I casually mentioned Jake to my grandfather. After a few follow-up questions about Jake’s parents and grandmother, my grandfather surprised me — he knew Jake’s grandmother! 

My grandfather had been sweet on Jake’s grandmother when they met in Chicago about a decade prior.

He recounted how he and I would walk to elementary school, stopping by Jake’s house to pick him up (even though it was out of the way). 

When comparing stories, Jake and I suspected that my grandfather had been putting the moves on Jake’s grandmother by offering to pick up Jake. Maybe it was a way of seeing her and making small talk? Both of their spouses had passed and Jake’s grandmother was a looker!

I had no recollection of meeting Jake back then, and he didn’t remember meeting me. But now we had two stories of “how we met” — how we remembered we met (in Debate class) and how we actually met (when my grandfather walked with me to Jake’s house to pick him up).

This boy that I had known longer than I could remember became my husband!

Eleuthera Wedding Couple
As two travel-obsessed souls, we had to have a destination wedding <3

He is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to me. Jake is my best friend, my soulmate penguin, my grammar sparing partner, and the other half of my travel-obsessed heart!

He is just as passionate about seeing the world as I am.

We’ve been on countless travel adventures — going north of the Arctic Circle while chasing the Northern Lights in Sweden, jumping off of a 65 ft. cliff at Kawasan Falls in the Philippines, and hiking the treacherous Nosokodake trail on the tiny island of Ishigaki in Japan. 

Jake supports my bold moves. He encourages me to take risks and and dream big.

Course Charted is as much a result of his belief in me as it is my belief in myself.

Couple Travel Paris
The look he gives you when you book another trip…

You Have to Be a Doctor Or a Lawyer 

I chose the latter. As an child of immigrants, I felt a lot of pressure to excel in school. My parents would frequently comment on how their friends’ kids were doing in school — “Did you know that the Mikhailovs’ daughter got straight A’s?”

There was always a clear implication that I was expected to achieve the same level of excellence.

Viola Practice
I played the viola (for the cool orchestral outfits and the immigrant street cred)

Holidays and celebrations were a time when my parents and relatives recounted the hardships they endured to “make it” in America.

I grew up feeling the burden of justifying our move to the US.

I finished university with two degrees: Economics and Psychology. I completed both with a perfect GPA and a packed extracurriculars schedule.

I was in the Honors College, President of the Economics Club, and Captain of the Mock Trial team.

Mock Trial
Mock Trial team (aka future lawyers of America)

My parents say that I wanted to be a lawyer since elementary school, but I don’t remember that. I don’t know when that idea first popped into my head. But wanting to be a lawyer was a feeling that was always with me.

Maybe it’s the fact that many immigrants romanticize a handful of “acceptable” professions. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” too early in life.

The idea of being a lawyer planted itself into my subconscious and germinated into a motivation so all-encompassing that I rode it (unquestioningly) straight into law school.

My efforts in college earned me a scholarship into one of the top law schools in the country.

Law school did nothing to prepare me for the mundane realities of practicing law. But it did teach me to think critically, research efficiently, write persuasively and read really fast.

I read hundreds of pages a night, combed through case after case for the key facts, issues, and rulings. I lived in the library. I absorbed more information during those three years than during any other point in my life.

Law school solidified my nerd status. I fell hard for Intellectual Property law: trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets. This was sexy subject matter. 

Intellectual Property law was the perfect companion to my economics and psychology degrees. Understanding how the law protects creative work in order to incentivize innovation, writing, and other creative endeavors — this resonated with me.

I envisioned myself helping writers protect their work from plagiarism, helping photographers protect their photography from those who would exploit it, and helping individuals and small business owners protect their brands.

But one meeting with my guidance counselor before on-campus interviews, and I quickly realized that helping the little guy wouldn’t pay off my student loans. Even while in school I could feel their weight and the looming interest that would start accruing as soon as I graduated.

So, like most of my classmates, I took the big firm job.

If You Think About The Case While Peeing You Can Bill .1

Being one of countless associate attorneys in Chicago defending large corporations was unfulfilling, all-consuming work. But I did learn a lot. 

I drafted countless legal documents, churning out winning dispositive motions, motions to compel, motions to bar and every other type of motion that is brought before a judge. (A motion is a fancy legal word for a document that asks the court to rule on a legal issue.)

I learned how to litigate cases in and out of the courtroom, from the early stages of a lawsuit through trial. 

But the work came at a mental cost!

Law firms require attorneys to measure every minute of time spent working on a case. That time is then painstakingly entered into a time management system. 

At my firm, we billed in increments of 6 minutes. If I spent an hour and 8 minutes working on a motion, that’s a 1.1 entered. If I was at dinner and neglected my husband for 19 minutes to respond to a client email, that’s .3.

I once had a partner at the firm tell me “if I take a piss and think about the case, I bill .1.”

Ironically, the effect of this unnatural state was an acute awareness of the time I lost. The time I lost with friends and family. The time I lost with the outdoors. The time I lost with myself.

Chicago Skyline Child
I missed this fearless version of me!

My loans, societal and familial expectations — I could blame any combination of these things for why I over-stayed in a profession that was sucking the life out of me. But I won’t.

I let money make me complacent. I conditioned myself to the steady paycheck, the office, the routine. None of them made me happy, but they were comfortable.

There Is No Destination, Only the Journey

Changing my career trajectory from attorney to writer, photographer, and founder of Course Charted has been a series of small steps, not always in one direction but ultimately leading in the right direction.

It wasn’t until I left law firm life that I started envisioning a professional life that would make me happy.

I had spent so many years in an analytical, cerebral profession that I felt artistically drained. That’s when I turned to photography.

flat lay japan

No longer confined to a florescent-lit box, I had time to travel.

And as I traveled more, I wanted to capture those precious memories and experiences. My camera at the time was my cell phone (several models behind the times). 

I had no idea what it meant to be a “good photographer.” But good at absorbing information (thanks law school). So I googled and YouTube’d the technical aspects of photography — composition, light, and processing.

I started applying everything I learned, but if I was going to get better, I needed to find a community to inspire and critique my work. Enter Instagram.

AlanaInWanderland Instagram

I hear creatives complaining about Instagram, but I am forever grateful for its positive impact on my photography.

Scrolling through my feed, you can see the evolution (or at least I hope you can). That’s largely thanks to the feedback from the Instagram travel community and other creatives!

This might sound weird, but Instagram also improved my writing. (And I’m not just talking about my emoji skills!)

I spent so much time writing for judges and law firm partners that my writing became stuffy and formal. It was full of legalese.

I had forgotten how to write for normal human beings.

I found travel writers and storytellers on Instagram who inspired me, whose writing pulled me into a destination and made me want to book a ticket. Renee Roaming, Chris Burkard, Chelea Yamase and so many others made me feel writing-joy again.

I started sharing interesting facts and stories behind my travels. I discovered that I loved sharing travel hacks for making travel more accessible and affordable.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my passions were coming together — travel, research, writing, and photography.

During this time, I also learned that I was happiest with a semi-packed suitcase and a camera at the ready, capturing images and telling tales to inspire others to have deeper travel experiences!

Birthing My Website-Baby

While sharing my travels on Instagram, I started getting comments and dm’s asking if I had any travel articles about the places I was sharing.

I got questions asking how I found amazing flight deals, ($295 round trip Chicago to Italy? yes, please!), how I negotiated sweet rates on vacation rentals (yes, you can negotiate!), and how I planned a perfectly paced trip.

The Instagram text box was too limiting for all of the stories and know-how that I wanted to share and all of the questions that the travel community wanted me to answer.

It was time to get on the interwebs.

Latte Laptop Chicago

Well, here we are. So what are we doing here?

Course Charted is all about slow, sustainable, savvy travel. 

I used to be a check-list traveler, bouncing from one touristy site to the next, barely remembering any of them.

As I’ve traveled more, I’ve found that there’s a better way — a way of traveling slowly to immerse in a destination’s unique culture. 

This doesn’t mean that you need to travel for weeks at a time. I found that you can have memorable, meaningful travels as short as a weekend trip or as long as a month plus. The key is to slow down.

When you slow down you see past the surface sights and discover the hidden gems that make a destination special.

I created Course Charted to encourage and help you do just that!

I also created Course Charted will also help you travel more sustainably.

I love learning and sharing ways to minimize the negative effects of travel while maximizing the positive effects (like patronizing small businesses and volunteering abroad).

proyecto asis monkey
By volunteering at places like Proyecto Asis, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Costa Rica, you can have a positive impact on the places you visit!

There is power in where you spend your travel-dollars! And I believe in supporting businesses that are also committed to sustainability. 

Speaking of travel dollars… my most frequently asked question is how I value-travel and save money on lodging, activities, and dining.

I created the Travel Smarter section to share my best travel hacks and tips for saving money on travel, but also getting more for the money you spend!

If you’ve read this far, THANK YOU!

Thank you for coming on this journey with me, and thank you for trusting me and the resources here at Course Charted to help you with your dream trips!

Psssst, don’t forget to sign up for the Course Charted newsletter so you don’t miss out on the latest travel news, wanderlusty posts, travel hacks and more!

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