Here's Why, as a Black Woman, It's Been so Important for Me to Travel Alone

by Tiffanie Drayton May 14, 2016

As a 26-year-old black woman mostly raised an NYC-area girl, I’ve learned a lot about self-esteem and mental health from adventuring out on my own. I’ve hitch-hiked the islands of Hawaii, traveled to multiple islands in the Caribbean and even did a tour of South East Asia — all on my own. Every experience has helped me to grow and develop in ways I would’ve never imagined. The idea always seemed daunting at first, after all, doing anything alone — even just going out to dinner or a movie — is usually stereotyped as being “antisocial,” but I tried to remain undeterred. Here’s why.

Traveling by myself gave me space for introspection and self-reflection.

When I took my first solo-adventure trip to The Big Island, Hawaii, I was looking to find room for myself in a life populated by the needs of the world around me. Growing up as a black girl in a single-parent household, one thing I never had was space. I always shared a room and all of my things with my other two siblings and counted on them for constant entertainment, which made turning inward practically impossible. I was also constantly hyper-aware of the reality that my family was deep “in the struggle.” My mother — who was always working between 2 and 3 jobs — was often tired and in need of tons of support. And as a child, I was only able to give it in limited ways.

As soon as the plane landed in Hawaii and there was no one there to greet me, the immediate sense that I was all by myself set in. I slung my huge backpack onto my shoulders, equip with a tent and a sleeping bag (although I had never camped a day in my life before) and set off to find a spot to sleep. I spent that first night, and many others, crying myself to sleep because 1. I never knew I was afraid of the dark or why, and 2. I never noticed how dependent I was on my family for both emotional and psychological support. That crying spell really gave me the time to acknowledge my weaknesses. It also gave me a greater appreciation for friends and family members. I was especially able to put my mother’s hardwork and dedication into perspective. Taking care of me alone was probably hard, but I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for her to take of me, herself and my two other siblings.

Then I found out that I was the person who needed me the most.

Before my first solo trip, I was working a part-time job teaching kids how to swim, and I had to schedule and maintain all the classes by myself. I was also a full-time student and was holding down multiple internships. Not to mention, my friends and family always depended on me to be the bubbly, helpful person they knew me as. With all of those obligations, I lost track of the fact that I needed time to myself. I felt completely stretched thin. Then all of a sudden, I was trekking through the Amazonian rainforest, bathing in the Pacific Ocean and camping on the beach with no one to worry about but myself and my needs. I needed time and space to heal. Travelling solo afforded me both.

Solo traveling gave me the opportunity to ditch my old and unhealthy lifestyle choices (and the people who reinforced them).

While living at home with my family, it was practically impossible to avoid the wonderful Caribbean meals they loved to cook. From curry with roti and Pelau, a tasty blend of chicken, beef, rice, peas and (when my mom makes it) salted pig tail, to the staple Sunday dish of stewed chicken with macaroni pie (a version of mac and cheese), something tantalizing and delicious is always on the stove in a Trinidadian household. Sadly, many of these meals are very fattening and they were making my weight loss/management goals very difficult to achieve. Then to exacerbate all of this, my mother loves to offer me sweets or my favorite dessert, especially when she knows I’m trying to lose a few pounds.

During my trip to Thailand, I enrolled in a Muy Thai camp, where you literally sleep, breath and think Muy Thai for at least 3 to 4 hours every single day. Every morning, training started at about 7:30 which included jumping rope for 10 minutes, stretching, shadow boxing, conditioning and sparring. After two hours we broke for breakfast and lunch and then did it all over again in the afternoon. Unlike back at home, my meals typically consisted of more vegetables and proteins and fewer carbs. After a couple of weeks, I developed better eating habits, lost 20 pounds, and I’ve pretty much been able to keep it off since I’ve been back.

While it’s still sometimes difficult to stick to my new eating plan when I’m back at home, the impact of eating well for weeks at a time got rid of many of my cravings and stabilized my body’s hormones and sugar levels, so I typically felt less hungry. Not to mention, being in better shape, I felt more confident to go to the gym and scare dudes with the Muy Thai training techniques that I learned while abroad.

I realized that the odds of finding love might be against black women in America, but that’s not the case everywhere in the world.

It is practically impossible to miss the various studies and articles that tell Women of Color — especially those who are the most gainfully employed or best educated — that the odds are stacked against us in America’s dating and marriage pool. My dating life in New York City depressingly reinforced that notion, where most guys never took me too seriously, fetishized my black womanhood or were out to just “hook up” after having a drink.

After a while, I just gave up on the idea of settling down or having kids completely because I thought it wasn’t an option for me.

However now that I travel alone, outside of New York City, I’ve had the best luck with dating. I’ve had engagements with some of the most amazing men while solo traveling, many of whom were interested in exploring a relationship with me and even talking about marriage and children. From my beautiful green-eyed beau in Hawaii, who still insists I move there so we can have a relationship, to my Trinidadian weight-lifter who I’ve made a pact to have kids with if we are both still single in 5 years, my prospects for a long-term relationship have increased dramatically since solo-travelling.

I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I was until I took a step away from my life.

Years can disappear as we hurtle through life on a path riddled with trials and tribulations. The main objective? Survival. Our secret desire? To thrive. While struggling to simply get by or survive, our emotional health can fall by the wayside. And to make matters worse, busy lives move at warp speed, so we may not even notice we’re having a hard time until we break down and have an anxiety attack. This is especially true for black women because the daily pressures we all face are exacerbated by facing constant racism, financial instability and the hardships of maintaining or being raised in a single-parent household.

Luckily, after college, I avoided what could’ve been a mental breakdown from the fast-paced, emotionally taxing lifestyle that I had back in New York, by traveling to the West Indies by myself. I had no idea the toll years of dealing with both overt and covert racism and sexism had taken on me, until I gave myself space from men and allowed myself to be in countries with a black majority. I was no longer a minority. The slights I had grown accustomed to — like random strangers asking to touch my hair or being the only black person in most spaces I occupied, or having to be the spokesperson for black people whenever whites made insensitive comments or asked questions about blackness — instantaneously disappeared. In the West Indies, I was just another black person, not a minority or an outsider.

Solo world travel challenged my definition of blackness and even womanhood.
America has a pretty rigid way of defining our blackness and womanhood that often fails to account for the complexity of those identities — and we’re all guilty of internalizing them to some degree or another. Blackness can feel constricting, but it doesn’t have to be. The seemingly inconsequential events of meeting other black female travelers, embarking on their own world adventures, added dimension to my own sense of self. My life in America taught me to define blackness and womanhood by what I shouldn’t be able to do.

“Black people can’t swim.”
“Black people don’t travel.”
“Women shouldn’t travel alone.”
“Women shouldn’t camp alone.”

These were just some of the many negative stereotypes and ideas I encountered that reinforced a narrow-minded view of blackness and femininity. These myths were shattered, however, when I encountered some of the best swimmers ever — divers in Jamaica who readily jump from 25-foot cliffs fearlessly — and they were people of color. I also encountered many black solo travelers — some of them women — from all across the globe during my adventures. In Vietnam, I met an African-American woman who decided to spend her week vacation in Ho Chi Minh, from Malaysia, where she ran a school. She had been travelling for more than 15 years and had been to every continent (with the exception of Antarctica, of course) in the world. This was very inspiring. All of these experiences added dimension to my understanding of being black and being a woman and what we should or could do. And I would have missed out on them if I hadn’t started adventuring alone.

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