Addressing some of the concerns of friends and friends of friends has been one of my jobs as the resident globetrotter. Yesterday, I began writing about my experiences of traveling while black. It’s worth stating again, in 2017, I feel traveling while American is more of an issue than traveling while black. As many travel bloggers and expats of color will agree, when you leave the country you become American first and black second. After recounting my the ten or so issues I’ve had in twenty-five plus years of traveling alone or with friends I thought I would share why I love being melanated and on the road. It gives me a type of blendability in many locations, allowing me to observe my surroundings in peace—something that the stereotypical white American cannot do.
I wrote my first journal entry about blendability when I was in the Dominican Republic at a friend’s family home in Yaguate. That was around 1996. I didn’t know how else to account for the fact that only for a brief moment when landing and clearing immigration was I considered American. From the moment I walked outside and hugged my friend and then hopped on the guagua with him I was just another girl on the bus. The glossy tourist geared compounds disappeared. We were able to bypass the blockade on the airport road setup by people upset that thousands tourist flowed into the island every day but their tourist dollars were inaccessible—only benefiting a handful of vendors and the resorts.
When I landed in Rio de Janeiro in 1997, I was overwhelmed with being in a new place where I did not speak the language. While waiting for the bus to Salvador, a 27-hour ride, a woman struck up a conversation with me in Portuguese. Trying to pick out words that sounded a little like Spanish, I winged my way through that conversation and others for the next several weeks. That was until, like many others who learned to speak on the streets of Brazil, I got a boyfriend. When I would go out with him and his friends, I was surrounded by people who looked like my friends back home, enjoyed the same activities, and laughed at the same stuff.
Arriving in Cape Verde in 1998, I had my first experience in Africa where people didn’t think I was half white. Traveling around the islands with my camera I captured images of Africans who could easily have been Cubans, Gambians, or Venezuelans. In this pre-Wikipedia and smartphone era, I had to wait until I got back home to delve deeper into the Islands’ history and its pivotal role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. History explains why the people looked so diverse.
In 1999 in Morrocco, staying with a friend’s family in Marrakesh I was given a jellabiya by his mother. She told me to wear it when I was walking around the neighborhood and no one would bother me. She was right. Entering the store to buy Sidi Ali water or sitting at the ice cream parlor drinking mint tea, my dress was like a cloak of invisibility. I could sit back and people watch, read my book, or make new friends local friends.
I arrived in Mauritius in 2004, in the taxi the driver, a curly-haired dark-skinned man, was playing Tanya St. Val and I briefly forgot I was in Africa, not Guadeloupe. A few nights later, I went out to a club with some new friends. The mix of African, Indian, and White was written across the faces of the young people dancing to zouk and the same popular Indian songs I’d heard in Madagascar.
When I landed in Qatar in 2006, I was shocked to see the woman at immigration was black. Sure she was sporting hijab but under my American definition, she was black like me. As I walked around the malls, I realized her look was not uncommon. Over the years, I would don an abaya myself to keep out of the American spotlight associated with the Iraq war, GWB, and misbehaving contractors from the military base.
While these are just a few examples, the take away is this, you can travel while black and stick out the same as a German tourist with socks and sandals, or you can take advantage of your color and get a glimpse inside.