Where we go is important. Different travel destinations are significant because of the new worlds they expose us to, the new foods we get to try, and the incredible people we encounter. Seemingly, those encounters often occur way before we reach our new city, country, or continent. Who we choose to travel with considerably impacts our understanding of experience, our interpretation of individuals, and how we begin to process our travel. I’ve had the fortune of traveling many different places with many different people. Below I’ve detailed who they are, and the unique lesson they offered.
Markus is what some would call “woke.” He’s Norwegian and self-admittedly extremely pale. Think of a typical Scandinavian complexion (it gets cold up there) and he probably fits that contrived description. Quick to call out the homogeneity of his hometown and country, Markus’ experience growing up as a young adult is marked by a profound engagement with discomfort and multiculturalism.
Markus went to high school in Swaziland, a small African nation completely surrounded by South Africa. More precisely, he went to a United World College (UWC) school which attracts students from all over the world. Going to school in Swaziland, being surrounded by peers who didn’t look, sound, dress, or adhere to the same cultural practices as him, offered him a great deal of perspective and context.
Semester at Sea (SAS), in very similar ways, attracts a diverse assortment of students. Some students have a significant deal of travel experience before they begin their voyage; some don’t. Some students enroll in SAS to party, get drunk in every country, and experience party culture transnationally. Many students choose to voyage to really engage in academics and a culturally comparative experience, uninterested in parties. Some meet in the middle. Where you’ll find most diversity, though, is in people’s knowledge of their impact as travelers. Concepts such as the meaning of entering a space as an outsider, experiencing a culture that you don’t belong to, and being around folks who look vastly different than you.
Markus was particularly aware of his masculinity, his Norwegian background, his whiteness, his educational privilege, and how various facets of his life transform his travel experience. That made traveling with Markus through Ghana extremely valuable, comfortable, and fun. Our experience together tested many of the ways that racial politics manifest in the West African nation. I chose to travel with him for several reasons, but one reason is honestly because he’s white. In my experience, traveling through Africa with white people gives others a certain impression—that you’re just as foreign, that you’re probably wealthy, and that you should be treated well. Playing into the anti-blackness that manifests on the global stage is not something I’m proud of, but is an honesty reality of my time navigating parts of West Africa.
Keenly aware of this, Markus did what he could to acknowledge his privileges in authentic ways. When I didn’t concede to a man’s solicitation on the street, the man told Markus “C’mon man! You blacker than him!” Markus responded that the gesture was kind, but untrue. I appreciated his ability to understand my challenges in identity while traveling, and to support me as I parsed through complex challenges.
Deja and I are in the same class year while she studies at Delaware State University. We hit it off immediately on Semester at Sea. As one of the first black faces I saw on the ship, we immediately connected through an unspoken but immediately recognized shared experience. In fact, she made my semester abroad complete.
She wasn’t always the easiest to travel with. Her dietary preferences were a bit limiting to say the least; she only ate fish and white meat chicken. That proved to be an issue when our waiter in Morocco didn’t know what white meat chicken was. Our friends thought we were a little too high maintenance; hostels weren’t really on the table for us.
Deja was strong-willed and steadfast, but of a golden mind and heart. She took care of an inebriated student when we ran into them at a club in Tokyo. She knocked on my door (vigorously) when I slept through an alarm and almost missed a flight to Hanoi. She even came to every event I held on the ship—a true ride or die.
Traveling through Japan, China, Vietnam, South Africa, and Morocco together felt like a dream come true. Having someone to share the vulnerability of travel with while experiencing others’ interpretation of blackness was profound. We cried together after mildly traumatic experiences in China—like when someone started pulling on her hair on a train to Beijing. We laughed together when we both went kayaking without life vests, against our better judgement, in Vietnam. We stood in awe together when our on-ship little sister, Emma, was keenly aware of racial disparities in South Africa at only seven years old. Deja is a living manifestation of the joy we can experience when we fully give ourselves to another.
My trip to Cuba would have looked vastly different had Juan not joined me. I don’t speak Spanish, but he does natively after growing up in a Mexican household. While I think he was a little tired of being my translator, by the end of the trip, Juan’s effectiveness as a communicator well exceeded mine under the circumstances. We learned things from everyone, and Juan taught me that being a global citizen means extending oneself outside of linguistic comfort.
Juan is also the first openly gay friend I’ve traveled with. Defining myself while traveling through my black identity has become central to my experiences; I usually finding myself compartmentalizing queerness in protection of my safety and comfort. With Juan I was able to see Cuba through rainbow colored glasses, noting when pairs perceivably of the same gender were holding hands or performing what we perceived to be queerness. We observed the performance of masculinity as it related to gender expression and sexual identity. Jokingly, we even looked for gay clubs and drag shows.
Juan empowered me to explore a central part of my identity, making the space for me to do so while offering me companionship in the process. This was not intentional, meaning he didn’t set out to be my liaison to a big gay world. However, his presence allowed me to embrace a piece of myself that I tend to cast to the shadows
If I were to get married tomorrow, it would be to Kyndelle. In fact, we’ve posted so many “couples” photos on Facebook that people genuinely think we’re together. Kyndelle is just someone I enjoy sharing life with, and as of our trip to Cuba, sharing the world with.
Kyndelle speaks Spanish at a conversational level and helped me translate throughout our journey. Operating under the idea that everyone has something to teach you, Kyndelle taught me that I can use my masculinity and male privilege for good while traveling. To put it plainly, Kyndelle is really pretty. When we would walk down the streets of Havana, men would regularly look back at or “break their necks” for her. Understandably, this made her feel uncomfortable and at times unsafe. In line with the realities of society, I would often hold her hand while walking to give people the impression that we were romantically involved.
Kyndelle noted that when she would walk by herself or with another woman, men would consistently make unsolicited sounds and gestures at her. However, when she walked with me, she rarely ever was subjected to that kind of harassment. It’s pretty gross to know that she can’t experience travel in the way I do in part to the gendered nature of society, and I know I can’t singularly change that. Yet, Kyndelle’s experiences have given me two steps I can take in make in actively fighting misogyny. First, I can make sure that I don’t walk through life perpetuating the same misogynistic traditions that lead to our holding hands for her safety. Secondly, I can hold her hand, speak out, and actively intervene when gendered violence arises at home or abroad.
Sana and I connected at the snack bar on Semester at Sea. I saw her looking at vagina anatomy on her computer screen and was a bit confused, but intrigued by her nonetheless. We had a mutual friend who introduced us and I realized that she was studying for human sexuality psych course. She wasn’t just watching porn in a public space.
I expected some difficulties traveling through India, which is why I made the conscious choice to only travel with one other person: Sana. We experienced those difficulties together. Realizing that “four stars” in India didn’t quite equate to four star establishments in the U.S., we managed through the incredible but disorienting scents, sites, and sounds that India had to offer.
Sana’s lesson to me was unique. She encouraged me to find beauty in all things, particularly in struggle. We almost missed our flight back from New Delhi to Cochin. We were chased by monkeys. We were basically scammed in a tuk tuk. People recorded us as we casually walked through historical sites and significant public spaces. In all those instances, Sana encouraged me to see the bright side. She encouraged me to remember the helpful lady we met in Agra, or the beautiful white marble at the Taj Mahal. She reminded me that human goodness can triumph in nearly all situations. Sana knew that trouble was inevitable, but our thoughtful response was imperative.