In the 21st Century, it’s common knowledge that a global education is unlike any academic education available. Discovering cultures from within the culture itself, tasting the food, sharing smiles with the people that contrive it… It’s priceless. It was having these cultural exchanges that taught me countless life lessons that my four collegiate degrees never could. None so much as how extraordinarily beautiful it is to be Black. Allow me to share more of my story about how traveling taught me Black pride.
To be completely honest, it all started in the Peace Corps serving as a Black-American Community Development Volunteer in the Balkans. It was here that I was reminded of my Blackness on a daily basis. Living in an Eastern European country most people can’t find on a map can have that effect. In reality, this part of the world relies heavily on what is seen and heard about Black culture in film and music. The teachable moments born from this opportunity, however, were my first exposure to understanding the importance of visibility.
How traveling awakened my Blackness
I was what is commonly referred to as a “token”, growing up in the suburbs of San Diego. A token Black person is typically a singular Black person in a community (or group) of non-Black people. My eldest sister and I were introduced to code-switching and microaggressions long before actually knowing the terminology for such things existed. Admittedly, I spent 33-years of my life in this carefully crafted and overly comfortable bubble. Thank goodness for my courage to step so far outside of my comfort zone because travel changed my life.
First by moving across the globe to an entirely different culture than those immediately surrounding my upbringing. Then to backpacking full-time for years as a digital nomad, to arriving at this remote working existence of my dreams. Traveling enlightened, empowered & taught me Black pride. But it was serving my country on the other side of the planet that was the catalyst.
As a Black-American woman serving in the US Peace Corps, I was unknowingly part of Black history. My realized awareness of this fact switched on an internal light I didn’t even know was outfitted with a lightbulb. I began to see myself through the eyes of others. I began to understand the impacts my culture has on the world. How deep the roots of racism have been planted on a global scale. And in doing so, I understood the importance of being a positive example of my culture.
How traveling empowered my Blackness
There have been instances where I’ve felt empowered by the melanated tint of my skin when traveling. When I catch a child staring at me from across the airport, as an example. I stand a little taller, tuck in my headwrap a bit tighter, smile broader before I wave. Taking control of exchanges before it can be taken from me by someone’s ignorance or negativity has become a superpower. And thanks to these examples of how traveling enlightened, empowered & taught me Black pride, my cup these days runneth over.
There have been moments riddled with tension, definitely. There have been locations that gave me bad vibes, and others that left me with only negative memories. But through it all, my personal sense of Black pride has deepened my understanding of the Black diaspora. And I lean into when choosing destinations vs using it as an excuse not to go somewhere. But allowing a destination to enlighten and empower my Blackness has been magical.
Destinations that celebrated & taught me more about my Blackness
Though these eyes have seen much, I do have plenty more adventuring to do yet. There are always plenty more cultures to witness and learn from. Foods to salivate and bond over, and cross-cultural experiences to lose myself within. But in the many places I have wayfared, a small handful of destinations have enlightened, empowered & taught me Black pride.
Cambodia was alive and full of color, and so was I. Learning firsthand about the impact the Vietnam war had and still has on the nation moved me. As a Black-American, I found a common ground in the struggle. Not so much the genocide, though that could arguably be a better word to insert into Black history. But in the inhumanity of it all. Much like being physically ill witnessing the rooms full of hair and prosthetics at Auschwitz visiting Poland a year earlier.
Adding another level of gratitude was witnessing historical sites like Angkor Wat alongside other BIPOC. Timing and good communication aligned the reunion of an old co-worker and his wife also traveling through the area. Days spent adventuring ancient ruins in gross levels of humidity bonded us for life. As a solo traveler, the rare moments I get to share adventures with friends in this capacity resonates. Standing in places that are centuries older than you are is humbling, to say the least.
The go-to description of this country is that is unBELIZEable, and it isn’t an exaggeration. The natural wonders in this region of the world are astounding as is the adventure. Don’t get me started on the food… The Mayan culture runs deep in the country as does the pride.
The diversity in Belize is incredible. With Black-Caribbean influences along the coast, it was here I was introduced to the Garifuna. An indigenous tribe to these parts routinely comes to town to perform drum circles and traditional dances for tourists. Taking the opportunity to dance and start conversations with the children are highlights of my experience. They had such joy from simple pleasures. It was a beautiful reminder of what is and isn’t important in life and how traveling enlightened, empowered & taught me Black pride.
How do I put this as basic as possible? Cuba changed my life. There we go. Not only was I forced to analyze my personal views on certain comforts, but I was also delighted by the result. My pack was incorrectly sent to Kingston, Jamaica for 16 out of 24 days for this adventure. Going without my makeup bag, Instagrammable wardrobe or tweezers was only the beginning. Discovering that replacing simple items would cost me triple had me grateful to be only a tourist.
Life in Cuba is challenging, to put it lightly. But the people are remarkably formidable and the countries role in Black history was completely eye-opening. Here I learned about the history of Santaria and how stealthy Black people had to be to worship these deities. Feeling the beats of the drums resonate through my blood as performers portrayed Oshun and Yemeya. The moment was bigger than me and I was willingly swallowed whole by it.
The timing of which I visited brazil makes this destination stand out in memory. Caught up in the thick of my grief, I was struggling to keep up with the peripatetic life I was living. Fresh off my three-year stint in the Peace Corps, my Blackness, in general, was welcome here. Women looked like me, curvy hips, thick lips, brown skin, and natural hairstyles were everywhere. Locals approached me on the street for directions speaking Portuguese, which I know exactly three words in.
I was emotionally overwhelmed numerous times as I was embraced over and over again by locals as “one of them”. With friends in the area, nights were spent exploring as locals do in places only locals could go. Physically and spiritually, I was elevated. Standing on my balcony each night blowing good night kisses to the bustling city of Rio de Janerio. Christ the Redeemer, visible from almost anywhere in the city, standing watch over us all.
A dream destination since I was an adolescent, traveling to Egypt was done strategically. I reserved a spot on small group tours passing through Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan. Do I need to break down the roots of Black history here? Good.Hooray for common knowledge.
The Egyptian people were welcoming, the children hungry for knowledge, and the men overly friendly. Still, walking the halls of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, and scaling the walls of the Pyramids of Giza had me reeling. Fainting fake kisses to the Great Sphinx and getting up close and personal with camels. Being Black in Egypt just felt correct.
The Black experience in SE Asia varies with the country. For example, my experience in Vietnam was riddled with racist slurs and behaviors. In Thailand, it was next to impossible to locate skin products that didn’t include a skin lightening ingredient. In Indonesia, most locals understood my English better if I spoke in an (fake) English accent. But in Laos, my Blackness was damn there coveted.
Walking the streets of Vientiane, women would approach me and touch my bare arms in awe. Commenting amongst themselves in Laos before looking up at me to say, “So beautiful… Your skin is so beautiful.” Wondering around the hundreds of temples throughout the country was enchanting. Looking up at statues of rulers with nappy roots and natural hairstyles was beyond amazing.
Representing blackness in the world of travel
After jet-setting across six continents, collecting 58 passport stamps (and counting) my Black travel journey is far from over. In fact, it’s more alive than ever, if I’m completely transparent. Though my individual role in it continues, there’s an alarming amount of Black-Americans still to apply and obtain a passport. This singular fact serves as a pillar for the foundation of why I do what I do.
Knowing how deeply travel enlightened, empowered & taught me Black pride serves as the catalyst to teach others, too. My visibility is only the beginning. Sharing and uplifting other Black travel stories is another. What’s your Black travel story and how might you better support the Black travel community? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments. And never forget to adventure on.