Why #squad is so essential

YBJ squadron. #issabrunch

YBJ squadron. #issabrunch

The older I get, the more I realize how essential friendship is. When I was a young, angsty teenager, I would always say, "I don't like people" or "I run solo." True -- I do like my alone time. It allows me to recharge and recalibrate. But I appreciate the company of dope people.

This past weekend, some friends and I hosted a brunch for some of the young, black journos in D.C. It was super casual -- I put out an invite on Facebook to people I knew and told them to bring a friend. The idea to do a brunch for journalists came about on a whim. I wanted to give folks a safe space to drink, connect and laugh. I'd say it was a success. Over 20 people showed up! I made some new friends and reconnected with old ones. Everyone was super chill and

We had brunch at Pursuit on H Street. What I love about Pursuit is how excellent the service is. The staff took excellent care of us. We had the entire second floor to ourselves, they let us play our own music, and we had unlimited food and drink for three hours. We ate shrimp and grits and chocolate blueberry waffles and threw back mimosas for hours. The staff was gracious and accommodating. It's one of my favorite spots to brunch at in D.C., and I'll be back. 

It's been a stressful few weeks in the news. What we do is hard. And as black folks, we sometimes feel undervalued and underappreciated. We're smart and strong, but it sometimes takes a toll. But giving people the space to be themselves, to connect, to form relationships, and to form a #squad is meaningful to me.

I owe my #auntiesquad, my #worksquad, and my #journosquad a lot. My heart is full from Sunday afternoon. I love bringing people together and I can't wait to do it again in the future.

Deal of the day: New York to Auckland for only $633 round-trip

Photo by stefaniedesign/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by stefaniedesign/iStock / Getty Images

It's hard to find a good deal from the East Coast to New Zealand or Australia. They're hard to come by and if you find a deal for under $1200, I'd consider it a good deal. While putting together my newsletter, I found a crazy cheap flight from New York City to Auckland for only $633 round-trip. The deal includes two long layovers in Beijing if you want to explore. Check it out below, and let me know if you decide to book:

NYC – Auckland $633 round-trip, March 2018 dates

'If it ain't foreign, it's boring' is the wrong attitude to have

I have my reasons for being passionate about international travel. I never thought as a child that I'd have the opportunity to see the world. In my early twenties, I've been filling my passport up with stamps from different countries throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. I wanted to learn about different cultures, meet different people and visit the places my ancestors came from. 

In some of my Facebook travel groups, the phrase "if it ain't foreign, it's boring" often gets thrown around. I disagree. The U.S. is a beautiful place. From the beaches to the mountains, this country has a lot to get lost in. 

I'll admit that I haven't done as much domestic traveling as I'd like as an adult. Growing up, my family and I did cross-country trips multiple times -- twice to Las Vegas and once to San Antonio. I was too young to appreciate the mountains in Tennessee, the food in New Orleans, the deserts in New Mexico and Arizona. All I cared about was getting out of the van because my legs were cramped and my Gameboy was dying. 

As I approach my mid-twenties, I'm trying to make it a point to see what's in my backyard with weekend trips. I went to Los Angeles and New Orleans this year and fell in love with both cities. I've already started my 2018 bucket list -- Hawaii, Salt Lake City, Deer Park Sunflower Fields in Washington State, and Nashville. As much as I've made time for international travel, I'm holding myself accountable for traveling inside the country, too. In 2018 I'm looking forward to eating good, taking great pictures and seeing what the U.S. has to offer outside of the East Coast.

Watch out for me in your town next year. And if I'm ever in your city, say hey. I'd love to grab a drink.

Affordable bottomless brunch spots in D.C., a non-comprehensive list

Brunchin' at Nopa in Penn Quarter.

Brunchin' at Nopa in Penn Quarter.

If we're friends – and even if we aren't – you've probably gotten a "brunch?" text from me at some point at 10:00 am on a Sunday. I'm about this brunch life. I've brunched all over D.C. – from cheap, reliable spots to bougie places. My only rule for brunch is this: "if it ain't bottomless, it's breakfast." I try to only frequent restaurants that serve bottomless mimosas because my money goes further, and nothing beats being buzzed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. 

Because brunch is such a big thing in D.C., it can be hard to find an affordable, reliable place to get your eat and drink on. Many restaurants have gimmicks and promotions to stand out from the crowd.

But sometimes, you don't want all of that. Sometimes you just need that spot where the server leaves the mimosa pitcher at the table. When it's the Sunday before payday and you're hungry but you don't feel like cooking breakfast. When you're broke but you still want to hang with the homies. When you rolled outta bed at 11 am and want to make a last minute reservation and it seems like every restaurant you've called is completely booked.

Below is a (non-comprehensive) list of reliable, fairly cheap brunch spots in the D.C. area.

Brunch at Bin 1301 on U Street in 2015.

Brunch at Bin 1301 on U Street in 2015.

Red Rocks (H Street)
One word: reliable. I can always make a reservation here, even if it's an hour before. The service can be so-so and the food is aiiiiiight, but the mimosas are strong. They're served in huge wine glasses and you can choose from orange, grapefruit, and cider. They also have really fun brunch + day parties and a huge rooftop.

Local 16 (U Street/16th Street)
Another reliable spot. The food is decent and really cheap, but the mimosas really are the selling point. This a place where they leave the pitcher on the table, which a lot of places don't do. It can be hard to make a reservation here the day before or day of, so make sure you make yours a few days in advance.

Cava Mezze (Barracks Row/Capitol Hill)
This is easily one of my favorite brunch spots in the District. It's like tapas style, but for brunch plates. You order a bunch of brunch plates and share with your friends. They have a cute rooftop that overlooks the Barracks Row neighborhood. The service is great. Every time I've been, I never had to wait for a refill.

Front Page (Dupont Circle)
This is the only restaurant on the list with a buffet brunch, which means it's the only truly bottomless brunch spot on the list. They have a buffet with the standard brunch stations: a waffle station, eggs, grits, and bacon. The biscuits and gravy are really good. They're super accommodating if you need to add a last minute friend or if someone's running late, you can still get seated. The music playlist is solid, and you can chill with your friends sipping mimosas and eating bacon and grits.

Pursuit (H Street)
This place is like a hole in the wall. If you walked past it on the street, you might miss it. But it's a really cute two-story restaurant on the far end of H Street. The plates are kind of small but the food is really good. I recommend the blueberry and chocolate chip waffles. They serve liters of bellinis and mimosas. I usually get the pitcher of the "blushing mimosa."

Ozio's (Dupont Circle/Downtown)
If you like your brunch with a side of turnup, this is your spot. Ozio's is mainly known for its brunch + day parties (like Wings & Mac). I've never been myself, but you can't beat a bottomless brunch and day party for around $40. 

Bin 1301 (U Street)
I went here a lot in the summer of 2015 after graduating from Howard. Back then, it was one of the only places we could stroll into at noon without a reservation and be immediately seated. The food is good, with standard brunch plates like french toast. It's super cheap, too, which was a perfect setup for my broke recent grad friends and me.

Honorable mentions:
I'd be remiss if I didn't include the GOATs of cheap brunch spots in D.C. Long live Irish Whiskey and its $1 champagne, and Tap & Parlour's $7 bottomless mimosas. #NeverForget. RIP. (h/t JQ)

Sound off: What's your favorite cheap brunch spot in D.C.? Did yours make the list?

'It's the northernmost Caribbean city'

My boy Clinton & I at Peaches Records in Uptown New Orleans.

My boy Clinton & I at Peaches Records in Uptown New Orleans.

My life in D.C. has been outta pocket lately, so it felt good to escape #thistown for a few days. This year's National Association of Black Journalists conference was in New Orleans, and I was determined not to miss it. I'd never been to New Orleans (save for a brief overnight stop en route to Las Vegas when I was eight) and I wanted to eat, drink, be merry and meet other dope journalists. 

NABJ this year was pretty cool. It got a lot of publicity for other reasons, but it's always great to see old heads that I admire, and young heads just starting out in the industry. This is my fourth year going to the conference and it's been amazing to watch the growth of myself and my crew over the years. 

When I got to New Orleans, I was worried about the weather situation. There were reports of heavy rain and flooding. The morning after I landed, it was raining pretty badly and I just hung out at the conference hotel all day.

The next day, the weather cleared significantly and after spending some time networking and recruiting for work, I was ready to try the food scene. And baaaaby, let me tell you: I fell in love. That first day I had lobster macaroni and cheese. It was still boiling in the plate when the server set it on the table. It isn't an exaggeration when I say that it was so good that I wanted to cry. My homegirl remarked that she could taste the state of Maine in the lobster. It was that good.

During my time in New Orleans, I tried to eat as much as my tiny stomach would hold. I have zero regrets. I had shrimp pasta, po' boys, and beignets. Shout out to Cafe du Monde, btw. They're open 24/7 and the beignets were super cheap.

On Saturday my girls and I made our way to Meauxbar, where I had the best grits of my life – and I don't like grits. At all. My stance on grits has officially changed. The brunch was great – I had sausage and egg on a biscuit – and the bottomless mimosas were strong, with a kick.

After brunch, it was still pretty early and we wanted to explore. We made our way to Bourbon Street (I know) and ended up amongst drunken, red dress-clad revelers. There was a "Red Dress Run" earlier that day, and the runners clearly wanted celebrate. Nobody, including our Uber drivers, could tell us what charity the run benefited. Ignoring the runners, we got some frozen daiquiris
and decided to explore the area.

De crew after brunch

De crew after brunch

New Orleans is a complex city. It's a city still healing from Hurricane Katrina, and it's undergoing aggressive gentrification in parts of the city, but the residents have so much pride for the city. I saw it from the time I landed at the airport until the time I departed for D.C. 

It's a city with good food, good music and good people. I heard brass bands, listened to some bounce music, and went to the record store that gave New Orleans legends like No Limit and Cash Money their start.

My homegirl JQ said, "it's the northernmost Caribbean city," and I could feel it. It felt like my experience in Jamaica, or Havana, or Port-au-Prince. It was loud and colorful. It was warm and homey. A cab driver told me that New Orleans was unlike any city in the country. "It's like being in a whole different country," he told me.

It was a welcome change from D.C., where politeness can be hit-or-miss. The southern hospitality reminded me of back home. My cab driver, on the way back to the airport told me, "everyone down here is like this." If that's the case, I'm sure I'll be back soon.

 

How to make last minute travel plans and not break the bank

Photo by seb_ra/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by seb_ra/iStock / Getty Images

Man, listen. Sometimes you just want to get away. You're having a rough week, and it's only Tuesday. You're dreaming about a beach, or the woods, or any other place not where you're currently at.

Scenario:
You decide on a location, and you're looking for flights and a hotel. The prices freak you out, and you almost decide to just kick it at home. But before putting a pause in those last minute travel plans, here's a checklist to follow:

1. Do your Googles
I can't stress this enough. The best way to find cheap, last minute flights or hotels is through Google. Google Flights is your friend. Google Flights will save your life. Google Flights will save you hundreds of dollars. Toggle around with the dates, and if you decide to make a trip into a long weekend, do realize that you may have to fly back home on a Tuesday. Google Flights is a hassle-free way to find last minute, often dirt cheap domestic and international flights. 

For example, I want some sun and am desperate to get out of D.C. for a few days. Today is July 23. I found a round-trip, one stop flight to Cabo for July 29-August 1. It's well-known that some flights actually decrease in price the closer you get to the date, so this is a good strategy if you're a procrastinator. Not too shabby for a last-minute, international trip. 

2. Peak times are not your friend
Sometimes – you may be able to fly out on Friday and come back on a Sunday or early Monday in time for work. Most time however, you'll probably have to fly on days or hours not considered ideal. When I went to L.A. in May, my return flight was cheaper because I was fine with flying back to the East Coast at 11:00 pm. Unfortunately I had a layover in Chicago, but slept on the LAX-CHI flight, landed in D.C., and went straight into work. 

3. Yes, you might have to fly Spirit (or Frontier)
Spirit, and to a lesser extent Frontier, get a bad rep. It's understandable. They're late, crowded and generally unfriendly. Yeah, your flight will probably land late, but if you aren't pressed for time and don't care about not getting snacks on flights, this might be the best, economically-friendly bet for you.

4. You ain't staying at the Intercontinental, shawty. But you can find something nice (or nicer) on Airbnb
You don't get to be picky on last minute trips – mostly. I was picky on my L.A. trip and landed in a great housing situation because of AirBnB. If you're open to house sharing sites like AirBnb, you may end up with a gem that's better than a traditional hotel.

It's possible to book last minute travel and not stretch the limits of your budget. But flexibility is key. Play around with some dates and locations, and see what you can find.
 

The secret to taking great vacation shots on an iPhone

Full disclosure – if you have an Android phone, I can't help you. But I'm told the new Samsung Galaxy s8 takes great shots.

Since I've been traveling as a passion, I've only ever taken my DSLR camera on one trip. I took it on my Southeast Asia trip, and ditched it at the bottom of my suitcase once we got to Bali. My best photos – taken by me or otherwise – have been taken on an iPhone 5S or 6S. The iPhone camera, when used correctly, packs a pretty powerful punch.

I recommend iPhone photography while on vacation because, obviously, iPhones are easy to carry around. I was constantly worrying about the duration of my SLR battery, or making sure the lens cap was on. With my iPhone I can just whip it out, get the shot, and slide it back in my pocket. 

Photos are memory keepers. I look at them when I'm trying to assuage the travel bug that's always inside of me. I look at them to remind myself of better, happier times. And I look at them and realize that travel is always bigger than me. 

But on a purely selfish level, most of us want to get that shot on vacation. You know the one I mean. The one that gets featured on Instagram travel accounts and Facebook groups. The one that you look back at months after your trip and say to yourself, damn – that was a really good time in my life. There's nothing wrong with that either! You travel to make memories with yourself or the people you love. Just don't base your entire trip focusing on trying to get that shot. It'll come.

Many of my 2016 travels were documented by my homegirl, Kayla. Lil Kayla is a dope iPhone photographer. Lil Kayla got me featured in Essence last year. To my knowledge, Lil Kayla has no professional photography experience. I've always said that, sometime soon, a Pulitzer Prize for photography will be awarded to a photo shot with an iPhone.

Here are the keys to getting that banger shot (which is what we called the shot on our South Africa trip):

1. Lighting. 
iPhone cameras perform best in well-lit situations, but some photos taken at dawn or dusk can come out good as well. I've found that, if facing the sun or any other kind of light, get just a small bit of light in the shot. Your phone camera will do the rest of the heavy lifting for you. It casts a natural, eerie shadow over photos. We took a lot of these kinds of shots in Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town.

2. HDR function
The HDR function, in my opinion, cleans up the shot so you don't have to do much, if you choose to do so, in post. I turn it on auto and let it do the work for me. 

3. Angles
The right angle can make a good shot extraordinary. Angles are something I rely heavily on. To get the right amount of sun in a photo, which I did a lot in Kuala Lumpur, I tilt my phone at a 25º angle. If you're shooting something with height, such as a monument or a mountain, you can usually get most (if not all) of the scene in the shot. Sometimes I'll squat and lean back slightly to get an entire shot.

4. Editing tools
Instagram has some great filters, but the native camera app does too. I tend to play around with the chrome feature to add the right amount of lighting or drama to a photo. The photo function on Twitter is also pretty solid. I play around with the warm or breeze function to add warmth or coolness. If I want to add depth or a bit of color, I'll toggle around with the radiant feature.

Sound off: How do you get the banger shot on vacation?

 

In D.C., brunch is an institution. In NYC, it's a party

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I brunch — a lot. There's nothing more that I love on a Sunday afternoon than bottomless mimosas and chicken and waffles. I like my mimosas strong, and I love different flavors other than the standard orange. Bonus points for any brunch spot with a passionfruit mimosa on the menu.  

In D.C., brunch is a way of life. Even serial brunch-haters will attend just so they don't miss out. Day drinking is not only acceptable but fully encouraged in the District.

I spent last weekend in New York, catching up with my Unfriendly Black Aunties, and I wanted to check out the brunch scene in the city. The last time I had brunch in the city was in 2014 at some place fancy place in Flatiron. I'm an older and more seasoned bruncher now, and I wanted to experience the city's scene.

D.C. and New York brunches have some similarities, but are vastly different. Most people I've spoken to who've experienced both say that D.C. tops NYC's brunch scene. I have to agree – when it comes to the food and unlimited drinks. Most places that serve brunch in D.C. have bottomless mimosas, but that isn't the standard in NYC. 

But New York beats D.C. in brunch/day parties, hands down. I met up with my fellow Auntie Alana and another homegirl at Angel of Harlem, where we got shrimp and grits and endless rum punch. It was great! After the drinks stopped flowing, the music started. The DJ got the crowd amped with a mix of Northern and Southern hip-hop, with infusions of DJ Khaled and Carlos Santana

Many D.C. brunches turn into day parties, and a lot of them are fun. But some dartys can be pretty pretentious and full of folks who want to flex and be seen.

There was no posturing in New York. People were turnt, the drinks were strong and the crowd was great. I have a feeling I'll be brunching in New York more often.

Sound off: Do you prefer brunch in D.C. or NYC?

'Pretty Girls Like Trap Music': How trap music inspires me

If you know me, you know my love of music. And if you know me well, you know my love of Southern music. 

I grew up listening to OutKast, UGK, Jeezy, Gucci, T.I., Ludacris. I've said often that I found southern music far more relatable than northern music. Growing up in southern Virginia, I was fortunate to have the best of both worlds as it relates to hip-hop. I listened to Dipset as much as I did 3 6 Mafia.

But southern music holds a special place in my heart. I've always thought of trap music – a sub-genre defined by Urban Dictionary as the "use of the 808 Roland drum machine, pitched and re-sampled hiphop/rap vocals" – as therapeutic. I listen to it while I'm working, while I'm at the gym, and while I'm writing for this blog.

With the rise in popularity and its commercialization outside of the south, trap music has become more mainstream and millennials are capitalizing off of it. There's Trap Karaoke, Trap Brunch, Trap Yoga. You get the point. 

But more importantly, trap music, to me, is inspirational. I've said that Gucci Mane is an American success story, and with good reason. 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Migos, Future – all of these guys worked hard in their music careers and are enjoying the benefits. It's easy to apply that work ethic to my every day life and how I approach traveling. 

I haven't done any of the things described in any of the songs, and my life hasn't been nearly as difficult as the lives described in the music. The trap is just that. Issa trap. Trap music is about the struggle for success. We all have had situations that could have trapped us in the circumstances we've faced. But we got out. Life could've gone very differently for me, and you. But I've been blessed to see success and see the world, and I owe at least a part of it to my grit and determination.

I've written about my go-to travel playlist, but here's my non-comprehensive trap music playlist.