It was a tumultuous 2016 both personally and politically. My relationship of four years ended as January 2016 began. Just a year before, I had made the choice that the teaching career I built over five years was no longer what I wanted, and I was nannying with multiple families to earn a living. To top it all off, a lugubrious leech had won the presidency of the United States. It was time to go.
I booked my flight in October 2016 and in January 2017, I began a two-and-a-half-month solo trip around Southeast Asia starting in Bangkok, Thailand. During this trip, I slept in over 30 beds in a mix of hostels and hotels in countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Within three weeks, I knew this continent was where I needed to be.
I worked any and every job I could I find to get back to the far east ― I taught English online to Chinese students three days a week starting at 5 a.m. Then I’d head to my two-week hostess gig at the U.S. Open until midnight. After those two weeks were up, I snagged two part-time jobs at a cafe and a stationery store. With all that hustle, I saved enough money to return to Asia in January 2018, this time indefinitely. I kept my online teaching job.
Like most people prepping for long-term travel, I researched everything there was to know about Southeast Asia. From my research, I knew to expect the stares from locals as I’m a 5-foot-10-inch, dark-skinned curvy black woman. I also knew to expect an abundance of skin-lightening creams and to arrive prepared with products designed for my skin or go without washing my face with a cleanser or using sunscreen.
But, I pride myself on my adaptability. I was born in St. Thomas, Jamaica, and raised in New York, and both worlds shaped me. I arrogantly believed culture shock was for the less traveled. That was until I stepped off a plane in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), Vietnam.
One day, as I roamed the aisles of a supermarket in the south of Vietnam in search of a new headscarf and some goodies, I couldn’t help but feel the gawkers, see the pointing, feel the sly attempts to touch my braids, and hear the giggling as I walked through the aisles. This kind of attention became old really fast so I told the hostel-mates I was with that I’d wait elsewhere for them.
I spotted a bench by the entrance, and as I sat down, a Vietnamese woman sprung from her seated position on the same bench, grabbed her toddler and ran away so fast you’d think I was Freddy Krueger. She was in such a rush to get away, she dropped his shoe and ran back to grab it, never taking her eyes off me.
This was one of many times I scared someone by merely existing in my black body.
As I continued to encounter similar experiences throughout the six months I spent in Vietnam, I began to wonder how anyone could be scared of me.
″How could this woman believe I would hurt a child when children are my world?”
″How could anyone be scared of me when I’m a … woman?”
But it’s never about my womanhood, but instead my blackness and its perceived danger.
After living and traveling in Vietnam for months, I decided to travel to India. In a lot of ways, Vietnam prepared me for my five months in India. The staring didn’t bother me too much, though India takes staring to a level that feels criminal.
Before visiting India, I read several articles about the struggles of African students from countries like Nigeria and Tanzania, who were targeted by police and locals as drug dealers, prostitutes and cannibals.
It’s one thing to read it, but it was another thing to witness.
Imagine being a student in a new country and more times than not being asked: “You got that stuff?” because of the color of your skin. Imagine being silently beckoned by a man in a restaurant while having breakfast with a key in hand signaling with his eyes to go upstairs because he assumes you’re a prostitute. The latter happened to me three months into my stay in the South Indian state Goa. I felt disgusted and it took everything I had in me not to resort to physical violence against this man.
The false narratives of innate promiscuity and hypersexuality that white supremacy and the global media have perpetuated about black women leads to this kind of objectification and sexual violence which also includes the widespread sex trafficking of West African women.
There were many times I felt invisible while traveling as a black woman. Of course, I was seen for my physical appearance and the preconceived notions that come with that, but my humanity was invisible. This was made clear the night I was aggressively searched without cause on a sleeper bus in the north of India.
I was aggressively woken up by the bus driver to find three police officers standing over my 40-pound backpack silently demanding that I open and empty its contents. As I stood in the middle of the narrow aisle, trying to remain calm, I felt many pairs of eyes burning into my skin. I had an audience. No one else was being searched, including the two white girls from France I had met earlier during the rest stop.
“It’s just clothes,” I repeated in a low, sleepy tone, being careful not to sound taut.
As one officer flipped through my books and journals, another intensely watched as I fumbled for a place to put my clothing, refusing to put them on the filthy floor. The third was so close behind me I could feel him.
Eventually, I stopped speaking because they were set on giving me the silent treatment.
It didn’t matter what I said was in my bag because they were determined to find something. Once they checked and rummaged every pocket and compartment, satisfying themselves, I was only left with the words “theek hai,” which is Hindi for “fine.”
They brushed past me to exit the bus, never meeting my eyes and never giving me a reason why.
And for the first time in two years of travel, I was scared.
There was a part of me that felt like I couldn’t complain or express the legitimate anxiety I felt after this situation because “I put myself in this position” by choosing a nomadic lifestyle. When I read old journal entries from my first solo trip and the first few months of the second, I often used words like “just deal” and “staying strong” refusing to acknowledge the real pain I was feeling.
I was humiliated and traumatized in a way that not only changed the way I traveled the rest of India, but it forced me to become so hyperaware of my blackness that I couldn’t be my full authentic self. I refused to smile or engage in small talk with anyone, especially men, afraid to give the wrong idea. I was always careful and always “on,” and found myself shrinking in order to accommodate those around me.
There is undeniable loneliness that accompanies solo travel as a black woman.
Sometimes I would will the universe to have me cross paths with another black human, even momentarily, so I could dwell in our connectedness. I would sometimes ask family members to speak patois (Jamaican dialect) on the phone, so I could bask in something only I could understand.
Malcolm X said: “The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.”
Throughout my adventures in Asia, I’ve learned there is almost nowhere on this beautiful planet that any person of the African diaspora can step foot without witnessing white supremacy holding reign.
But I also know this: Escapism in a black body is an act of defiance.
It is an act of resistance to the systems that aim to diminish our personhood worldwide, and it is essential to show up and explore every corner if our circumstances allow.
To answer the cliché travel question “Why do you travel?”: I travel because I’m free. I travel to be seen. I travel to be heard. It’s my hope that with every flight, ferry, bus and train I board, every conversation I have, and every word I publish that people; locals and other travelers, not only see my blackness, but my power, joy and magic.