I first experienced international travel in 2010 when I flew from Nairobi, Kenya to Jonesboro, AR. Yes, ladies & gentlemen, you read that right, I moved from a buzzing metropolitan city to the most quiet little southern/midwest college town in the U.S.
The first culture shock was the quietness of Jonesboro. It was mid summer, so the college town was slightly dead. In case you are wondering what the heck I was thinking when I made this move, I had started college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro since it was in a state where I had family nearby and was also affordable for my blue collar family back in Kenya. Despite the shock of adjusting to life in Jonesboro, I actually developed to love the school. I made friends quickly and things seemed to be ok. After a year of life in AR though, I decided to move to Washington state & that is where my love for travel began.
I initially started traveling locally in Washington State on my days off from work and this opened another world I had never thought about. As an early 20-something black African woman, I struggled to find friends who enjoyed travel or who wouldn’t mind spending money on travel. Most of my friends seemed legitimately scared of traveling, constantly telling me it wasn’t safe to venture out to places you didn’t know. I will say I cut ties with a lot of friends with this type of mentality because I didn’t understand how people would be afraid of traveling. I now have a small understanding of why.
I can say that I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that black people, and moreso, black women are treated very differently in travel spaces. Since 2012 to 2019, I was accompanied by my husband to almost all my travel destinations, all of them within the continental U.S & Hawaii.
I started doing more solo travel in 2019 when we moved to Europe due to my proximity to other countries. I also have more flexibility compared to my husband, so I tend to travel a lot more, meaning lots of solo day or weekend trips. I enjoy solo travel because you learn so much about yourself & how others perceive you, and also get to experience things that you probably wouldn’t have been able to experience without venturing out solo.
My first solo travel experience as a black African woman was in Venice Italy. I enjoyed Venice a lot and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it because I think everyone needs to see it at least once in their lifetime, but I also experienced blatant discrimination because of the color of my skin. Some of these experiences involved being yelled at by a service person in the public bathrooms because I was trying to figure out how the pay system at the entrance worked. I approached the woman, who was glaring at me the whole time and politely asked if there was something wrong I was doing. She angrily yelled at me, which took me aback so I stepped away and followed one of the customers & watched how she operated the pay system & did the same. That experience made me really angry. 2nd incident happened at the beach, where I approached a reception area to reserve a beach chair/space. The lady looked up at me as I approached and started shooing me away. I politely asked if she spoke English & when she nodded, I asked if I could reserve a beach chair. She responded, “the free beach is on the other side”. I replied that I would like to reserve a chair & an umbrella here if you have space. She looked at me, apologized and said, “of course you can do that”. This incident was obviously her judging me by how I looked and deciding I couldn’t afford to pay for a chair. It wasn’t as upsetting, just very confusing & frustrating at that moment. I later had a few incidents where people in service denied me an extra ask, like “heating up my pizza at a quick bite bakery, when she had done that for everyone else infront of me.” In those moments, I was just happy to be traveling in Italy so they didn’t sink quite deep until I heard other black women’s experiences in Italy and it hit me hard. My first travel experience to Italy had been to northern Italy – Cinque Terre with my husband, and the experience had been the opposite. We felt like people rolled out the red carpet for us, from the host at out hotel to the all the lovely service people we interacted with. When I ask my white friends who have traveled solo to Venice, what their experiences were, they narrate a totally opposite tale.
Bottom line is, traveling to Italy solo as a black African woman was totally fantastic because the pros outweigh the cons, but the cons can be really disheartening. I felt like majority of service people treat us as less than, or not financially capable of affording to travel there. With all of that being said, I would still go back to Venice if I got the chance to again. I have an open mind, I want to experience other cultures, whether alone or with friends and family, & I hope the world will adjust to seeing people of color in travel spaces.