a life of my own.

freedom, life, solotravel, spirit, travel, wholeness

The streets of Oaxaca City were quiet and I a stranger sleuthing through the quieted darkness in May of last year, the eve before my 31st birthday. I’d arrived at the Oaxaca City airport a half hour before exhausted yet wide awake.

I felt like I could breathe again after drowning for most of the year: a traumatic event affecting a family member, a romantic relationship I knew deep down was wrong for me yet couldn’t let go of because I cared too much; the severing of once close turned draining friendships, discontent with my home environment, a loneliness which began with a longing to be understood and seen.

I told the Universe out loud I wanted a reprieve from the depth of all I had been feeling and cognitively churning through. I wanted a chance to exhale and not have to focus on coping from all the bad, all the drain. I’d been dreaming since early January about Mexico with an eerie amount of specificity.

I’d dreamt I was walking the streets with a warmth in my heart I hadn’t felt for a long time. By early April I’d booked a one-way ticket to Oaxaca City with a vague idea of when I’d return. It seemed crazy then and maybe it still is now looking back but I was being guided. My request for a reprieve had been heard and honored.

And so here I was, sleuthing in the dark. Dragging my suitcase up the stairs in the Airbnb I’d booked. Dropping the suitcase in a spare corner with a groan and flexing my fingers. Sighing while collapsing on top of the bed fully clothed.

Then I was asleep. And then it was my birthday. I woke up with text messages and my first thought was to memorialize this moment. I took a photo of the room as the sun was rising with the curtains still closed.

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I went to lunch with a large group of women within walking distance from where I was staying. A vegetarian restaurant. The company and conversation drained me. The food was decent enough. Before we’d completed our meal, it started raining. The light drizzles met the top of our heads, our fingers, our arms, then our plates. Speed of the rain slowly intensified. Not a light, afternoon rainstorm. A torrential monsoon.

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I looked down at my floral dress and my sandals and said a prayer. I walked back to my Airbnb only to remember I’d left my window open. My suitcase in the corner was sitting in a puddle of rainwater.

 


 
I write, talk and think about freedom a lot because I’ve never really known what it means to be free. Certainly not as a child and lesser so as I’ve grown and matured into a woman well into my adulthood. A few weeks ago I was sitting in silence on the couch before I turned the TV on the watch a show on Netflix when I thought to myself that I felt suffocated and perhaps had always been under the burden of expectation. I’ve felt suffocated because of my parents.

Being the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant is something I’m immensely proud of my. My Nigerian heritage is so much a part of who I know myself to be and often intersects in what I write about as well. But even things like my beautiful name, the name I’ve struggled to accept and love, came with responsibility I never wanted.

My name is given to the oldest girl in a Nigerian Igbo family. In English, it means mother is supreme and is in homage to what the mother is and acts as in the family — the nurturer, the glue, the person who holds the unit together through love and care. In so many words and conversations, my father, who is also the oldest in his family, explained to me my role, my responsibilities, the things expected of me.

The pillar I was expected to always be. As a child, especially as a child who was born and growing up in (Black) America, I lacked the cultural context for why this was important and why I needed to step up. I vividly remember being told in an ominous way that since I was the oldest I was to be the example and that my younger sisters were watching me. It was up to me to be without blemish.

The mother is the resting space, a space to return even as you grow and age. The mother is synonymous with home and never forgetting from whence you came. My name is not just what I am called and known as. It is a responsibility. To be seen as the role I hold in my family and within the greater fabric of this world at large — to care, to help and encourage others to heal, to encourage others to return home, whatever or wherever that may be.

My presence, my existence, the fact that I am here, a living breathing entity means I am here to be home to others. I have never felt at home to myself.

I didn’t want the responsibility it meant to carry my name. I didn’t want the weight of expectation. I didn’t want to have to shoulder the burdens and cares of others. But as I learned as I grew older, as the conditioning was deepened, this was who I was called to be. Holding tradition, humility, sacrifice, obedience, duty and obligation close as dear, treasured friends.  

The past five years have been an unrelenting tussle between me trying to find a way to juggle all these things, what they mean as far as family, honoring and respecting them, and how to honor and respect myself. For the most part I didn’t find a way. I simply gave in. I collapsed underneath all the pressure. I played it safe because I lacked the bravery or conviction to do otherwise.

And sadly this is what I’ve done most of my life: the practical, logical and wise thing. I listened to my parents. I heeded their guidance of what was best for me. Their insistence of how I should lead my life meant at the age of 26 I had two degrees. I’d worked hard. Paid my dues. Done everything perfectly.

And I was miserable and empty.

There had to be more I told myself as a refrain muttered often. After graduating from Journalism school and before I started graduate school, I fluttered from paid internships to shitty part-time jobs. At one point I worked as a receptionist for a tax preparation service. I spent my time at the front desk bored and scrolling websites looking for writing jobs, emailing editors asking them to give me a chance. Nothing worked.

When I finally got my first full-time writing gig at a local newspaper in the metro Atlanta area, a full two years after I’d graduated from college, I let out a sigh of relief. I was sure this was it and I’d finally feel fulfilled. Six months into that job I found myself wondering if there was more. And when I finished my Masters degree two years later, that feeling only intensified.

There was more. I found the more in Spain. In the capital city of Madrid. I found freedom.

I found the space to figure it out. Start over. Piece together who I was thousands of miles away from home with zero distractions. Zero nudges of guidance from parents. Zero of the insistence of doing it their way, the way that had worked for them and wouldn’t work for me, distracting and confusing me. I owned my voice. I claimed my power. I began to have an inkling of what I was incarnated on this planet to do. And it was not, and had never been, dulling or ignoring my heart or my inner voice.

It involved listening to my own guidance, my own voice, my own desires. It involved…me. All of me. Only me.

 


 

This time feels different. This time setting out on a wandering journey away from home, the home I always knew, the only home to ever exist before it dawned on me home is a spirit inside of me, feels different because it is different.

I am different.

I am not doggedly packing up all I own into two suitcases and convincing people I’m brave to leave it all behind when I’m instead terrified and unconvinced in the person I am. This is not then. I’m also not running as fast as I can away from my life and expecting to meet a new version of it and me once I’m there.

I know, this time, my life never stops turning and I never stop living it no matter where in the world I may be. And I know this is the right decision for me and I remain unmoved of any negative feedback I may get. Although, surprisingly, there has been none this time around. And even if there was? I wouldn’t care. It would not move me.

My journey starts in Oaxaca City. I’m returning to the very city, as a starting point, which breathed life into a dormant version of myself full of this reminder I received in response to an email. An email I might add I wrote to the very man who had the courage to end the relationship I mentioned before that wasn’t right for me. Turned out it wasn’t right for him either. We both cared too much.

But he said this one-liner to me and it has stuck with me since. Hearing it from him, in a way, gave me a permission to take a leap:

I don’t think you should get too down on yourself about your life. It may not be perfect, but it’s yours. Finally.”

My life is my own. Finally. All the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, disasters and exhilarations. It’s mine. All mine.

Finally.

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broken in bogotá.

life, solotravel, travel

Before heading to Bogotá a few weeks ago, I’d heard nothing good. In fact, I heard much of the opposite. Stories of about how wayward and conniving the taxi drivers there could be. Warnings to not ever hail a taxi from the street lest you be overcharged and swindled. How dreary, cold and overcast the weather generally is there. The high altitude which can assault those not accustomed to it with migraines, aches, pains, nausea and fatigue.

I wasn’t exactly excited about going there. Although I was excited about eating my way through Colombia at the up and coming Bogotá Wine and Food Festival. It was, after all, why I was there instead of continuing to hang around Medellín , where I had spent a magical few days prior to exchanging a city with “eternal spring” for one where I’d need to consciously layer.

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Brrrrrr.

And its coldness, the wind and the clouds hanging low in the sky, drifting beneath the golden green mountain peaks assuredly met me, a mere two days into the total five days total I planned on spending there. I was at El Chato surrounded by food writers and chefs. We were passing shared plates around the shared table, with the sound of a chorus of oohs, aahs and pleased food moans.

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Towards the end of the lunch, I finally connected my phone to WiFi after being disconnected and offline for most of the day. As I often do, I pressed my thumb against the Gmail icon and did a cursory scan of the subject lines. The name of a friend popped out to me most. The name of my dear friend along with the words “killed in a fatal auto accident.” My breath left my body. Then I froze.

A heavy plate teetered in my hands and eyes darted back at me. I wasn’t sitting alone at the table and those around me, the strangers around me, wondered why I was acting so strangely, why it looked as if I was practicing a balancing act with the plate in my hands motionless. A nudge and gentle laugh from the person sitting next to me jolted me back to the present, to which I shared robotically, ignoring the compassion I received. I excused myself to the restroom. I didn’t have to pee.

Instead I sat on the commode, blinking ferociously, feeling nothing and everything at the same time. I held my phone in my hand, reading the subject title of the email over and over again, willing to believe the truth. I had a friend who was dead. A friend of mine, one who I had vulnerably shared bits and pieces of my life and heart for the past seven years, was dead.


 

The first time I met my dear friend, Precious was her name, it was the fall of 2010. I was 24-years-old in the first semester of my graduate writing program. She sat next to me and seemed to be scribbling on her notepad notes from our professor who rambled in circles for the entire three hours of class. I didn’t speak to her for months. And later when we became friends, she admitted she thought I was unapproachable, although we often caught each other’s eyes as two of the few Black women in our class.

Turns out, she wasn’t scribbling notes on her notepad. She showed me some months in the semester her sketches she spent her class time creating. She was a gifted artist aside from being a brilliant, fluid writer and poet. She was a year younger than me and wiser than me in so many ways. Her quiet strength moved me as she talked from her eyes and her heart.

She was and still remains the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Her friendship healed me after years of losing friends due to people telling me I was too exhausting, required too much and was too sensitive and feeling to keep people in my corner. I never gained that sense from her from the moment we became friends. She was open and honest, friendly and warm. We talked about our lives, our families, our joys and passions, our deep-seated and hidden pains.

Even after I graduated a year early and no longer saw her on campus during the week, we still kept in touch. Our friendship wasn’t predicated on frequency. Often we went weeks or months without seeing each other before we reconnected. But when we did? It was like no time had passed at all. It was as if, once again, I could pause all the tunnels, noise and distractions and be heard, be loved, be affirmed, be enough.

I never told her this and now, I wish I had but she was my shining star. I looked to her with seedy admiration because of how she channeled all her pain and past hurts into moving forward. Her shining example enabled me to do so again and again. After breakups, after disappointments. After moving to Spain, leaving Spain, moving to Washington, D.C. and leaving Washington, D.C. She remained my friend through all the changes and ups and downs, all the drama-filled phone calls and texts about my latest meltdown. And she never let any of lapses in judgments lessen the strength of our friendship.

The funny thing? She once told me she thought I was braver than her. I never agreed. I still don’t now.


 

Today marks three weeks since her death. Because we were those types of friends who didn’t depend on seeing or talking often to keep the love and nurturance of our friendship alive, sometimes, most times, most days, most moments, I can busy and distract myself with the lie she’s somewhere distantly still alive. That life hasn’t changed. That she didn’t die alone on the streets at night.

It works most times.

And other times the truths ripples over me and I ruminate. I turn it over and over again in my mind and still can’t come out with any shining truth. She is dead and intellectually I know this. Emotionally I wrestle with despair and disbelief.

The day after I’d learned she died, I opted out of morning outdoors yoga and a group dinner. I stayed buried underneath the crisp, white duvet in my room and ordered room service: a cheeseburger, french fries, tomato soup, a slice of cheesecake, an ice cold coke. My food arrived minutes later and as the TV blared in the background, I sipped the tomato soup spoonful by the spoonful. Then my chest heaved with heavy tears.


 

My last full day in Bogotá I balanced filling grateful with broken as I stuffed my face with at least five different burgers and Colombian artesanal beer. The day was uncharacteristically sunny and cheerful and the sun’s rays bounced off the full, blue sky. I still wanted to cry. I still wanted to ball my hands into two ardent fists and box with the shadows of the Universe until I had answers.

Instead I ate. I sipped beer. I had conversations with the families that sat around me and watched as they looked onto me in amazement when I told them I wrote, that I was there to write about their city and their country.

Then I gathered all my things up and left. I went back to my quiet, dark and lonely hotel room. I packed up all my belongings. I prepared to leave Bogotá and I pledged to never return. To never revisit the site of when I communed with the ghosts of grief and grief fully entered me.

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the surprising reason solo travel changed my life.

inspiration, life, madrid, solotravel, spain, spirit, travel

Because solo travel has transitioned from just something I do to a way of life, all my solo travel experiences have become a blur. I don’t mean that to say I have forgotten all of my solo travel adventures I’ve taken.

How could I forget my solo trip to Milano where I had a couch surfing experience from hell and a dear friend saved my ass and salvaged what could’ve been a horrible trip? Or the 36 hour solo trip I took to Porto, Portugal and the time spent sitting on a cottage along the Douro River crying because I was verklempt? Or being stunned into silence by the view of Eiffel Tower?

I’ll never forget these experiences. Not for the rest of my life. It’s just it’s been four years of solo traveling. Four years and as of now, 11 countries and 32 cities full of my wanderlust taking me to corners all over the world solo dolo. When it becomes a way of life, it’s sort of unconscious. It becomes who you are and how you see — and experience — what and those you encounter. The beautiful conversations you have. The scenes which beg to be photographed. The culinary bites which you either love or hate vehemently.

Solo travel has changed my life. As a woman. As a Black woman. As an African woman. As a daughter. As a sister. As a friend. As a lover. As a writer. As an artist. As a creative. As an empath. As a spirit-filled and spirit-led person.

I read a lot. A lot of blogs, a lot of tweets. There are more and more women taking solo trips. Which means there are more and more people writing about these experiences. Although most of the written are vaguely surface-level.

 Yes, solo travel will teach you to enjoy and love yourself in new ways and to not fear being alone. Yes, you will emerge from a solo trip with a newfound sense of wonder and confidence. And yes, every woman should have the experience at least once in their lifetime. 

Can we go deeper though? Can we talk about how solo travel creates new neural pathways and shifts you emotionally, mentally and physically?

For me, the most unexpected and surprising reason solo travel has changed my life is how it instilled within me the treasure of still truths. A knowing that it’s okay to start completely over and to not have a plan. Solo travel taught me it’s okay to break the mold and veer off the path lain in front of me that isn’t really mine but instead is one that’s always been taken.

Traveling alone — without friends, family and a significant other by my side — inadvertently taught me how to be who I a truly am, the person I spent most of my life running from. An individual. A woman who lets her heart guide her. A woman who isn’t fearless like most people think she is but instead, a woman who is almost always afraid but is brave and courageous simply because she works with the fear in her life that arises.

I did not have that sense until I dared to start doing things alone. And not just travel either. I mean doing everything alone, from the mundane to the magnificent. To spend a lifetime not listening to your heart and what it wants and deferring to the voices of others, is like living a life chained. A life which is limiting and has limits. A life which can’t expand, grow wings and fly away and reach new heights. A life which is rife with too much comfort, too much familiarity and too much of the same.

A life which wants to change but is afraid to change and rather than look the fear square in the eye, quiet it by staying put.

Solo travel, surprisingly, handed me the rest of my life, my life which was waiting for me to awaken to it, to say I was ready to accept the great challenge and calling I was born and named for.

I’m writing this post from a flat near the center of Madrid, Spain. Almost four years ago, I took my first international solo trip here. No one was excited for me when I announced that I was taking this trip by myself. I was met with endless questions about how safe it would be for a young woman like myself traveling with no companion. People asked me if I spoke Spanish. What I would do if I got lost. If I would run out of money. If I would be able to use my cell phone.

The almost two weeks I spent in Madrid were spent carrying those questions, holding the projections of others near and dear to my heart. At a certain point during my time there, I wanted to enjoy myself without my brain being flooded with other people’s stuff. 

Then was when the magic began.

As you can imagine, being back here in Madrid I am filled with nostalgia from those moments (and others) and remembering. Remembering what my life used to be like when I lived here years ago and how much time has passed. How it seemed so automatic that I needed to relocate my entire life here, my entire former existence, to a foreign country and city after a short period not even equaling two weeks.

I’m also reflecting on the great surprise of how solo travel began much needed healing. Solo travel unlocked my heart. It gave me myself. It told me to not fear, to shake off shrinking myself and settling for good enough. And it told me, with a gentleness, a kindness, it was okay to dream while awake, with my eyes wide open, in my waking, moving, everyday life. To not have to wait until it was night and the stars danced in the sky.

My heart. It told me to lean into my heart and trust. Lean into my heart and leap. 

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Considering taking your first solo trip soon? Join the Afros y Paella mailing list to get solo travel affirmations to accompany you on your journey and to get the scoop on my upcoming workbook Solo Sojourness: A Roadmap to Planning and Bravely Taking Your Solo Adventure. Join my mailing list here.

five reasons why 2016 should be the year you solo travel.

solotravel

If there’s one thing you should know about me from reading this blog for the past (almost) three years, it’s that I’m a one woman show. I don’t wait for anyone to take my travel adventures. It’s been four years since I first started solo traveling and today, I’m at 11 countries and 30 cities traveled solo dolo.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Solo travel is not only an interesting conversation I can count on to dazzle a possible suitor or liven up shaky dialogue at an otherwise stale happy hour, but it’s also the one area of my life where I can directly credit a lot of my personal growth and refinement of my identity. Traveling alone put me directly in tune with my own thoughts, opinions and emotions. It has helped me to discover exactly who I was on my terms and not based on what everyone else has to say about me. And lastly, it has been a space where my penchant for adventure and exploring has been fed and rendered me joyful.

So, of course, I want to encourage each and every one of you to take a solo trip if you haven’t already. And here are my five reasons why 2016 should be the year where you make it happen.

 1.  It’s a leap year. Which means leaps should be taken.

The month of February has 29 days this year and as you all know, the years in which this occurs are referred to as leap years. Leap years occur on average every four years. Which means after this year, we won’t have another year with 366 days until 2020.

(I promise I wasn’t intending to make this a lesson on addition and calendar and years, but sometimes I get really into these kind of things and tunnel into a rabbit hole. And then I get really excited and start rambling and babbling and get really committed to the tangent, whether related or not, I took myself on).

Anyway, my point is, years like this year are extraordinarily rare; let it encourage and inspire you to take a leap of your own, that leap being committing to a solo trip before the year’s end. Make 2016 a year you will (literally) never forget and years from now, look back on fondly because you exercised your courage.

2.  There are places you want to see and you should stop waiting on other people to see them.

One of the main reasons I started solo traveling years ago was because I was tired of waiting on my friends to want to go somewhere with me because the idea of going alone seemed really weird, especially as a single woman with no kids. But after countless times of getting really excited about taking a trip after picking out a destination, starting to put money aside for said trip, booking a hotel on a credit card and then following up friends before booking a flight and being met with countless excuses such as — not having the money after all, not being able to get time off work, not as enthused about the trip overall as originally communicated — I was done. I was done waiting.

Which brings me to my next very crucial point and perhaps the best aspect of traveling solo…

3. Planning a solo trip is a helluva easier than coordinating for a group one.

There is so much freedom in traveling alone because planning is super easy. Only having to check in with yourself is what makes the difference here. You don’t have to check in about dates, the best day to fly out, where to say, how much you’re willing to pay (or not pay) for where you stay and innumerous other details. When it’s just you, you also don’t have to compromise which means you get the exact travel experience you want without having to bend to what a friend, lover or family member may have personal expectations.

4. Because fear isn’t a good enough reason to not solo travel.

Think of the most inspiring, courageous and brave person you know. It could be your mother, a dear friend, your partner, a coworker or neighbor. This person’s light shines indescribably bright and being around them is always a pleasure. They seem to be really in control of their lives and overall happy, peaceful and authentic to who they are at their core.  And they also seem particularly fearless and unafraid of what life may bring. Because for one reason or another, they are prepared for whatever life may bring and will stand unwavering, unmoved, unaffected, not completely blown over or shattered.

Now, know that this person, whoever they are, is probably always scared and the difference between them just being a person who is ruled by fear, as most people are, they act in spite of it. This is the true mark of a brave, courageous, inspirational person. They’ve made friends with the fear that arises in their lives and consciously work with it, not against it, and use it to propel them forward.

Being afraid to travel alone if you haven’t already is normal. When in your life has a new experience not been scary though? It’s scary because it’s outside of your comfort zone and realm of things you’re used to doing. Honestly, I can’t tell you from personal experience that you won’t feel that fear when you get ready to take that first solo adventure. But what I can say is letting fear paralyze you and keep you from embarking on what will ultimately be a transformative experience is how fear wins. It’s how fear becomes bigger than you. Does fear really deserve that much passionate, unrelenting, high strung dedication?

5.  Solo travel will change your life. Completely.

How could I know that traveling to Madrid, alone, four years ago would completely turn my life upside down, in a good way? Exactly a year after that amazing trip to Spain’s capital city, I moved there and called Madrid my home for nine months as I taught English. I’ve not been the same after living abroad for the time I did.

Saying solo travel will change your life isn’t a statement to be taken lightly. Your life will change. That is a promise. The question is, however, are you ready? Are you ready to shake up your life in all totality? Are you ready to be in touch with the grandest sense of personal freedom you’ve ever experienced? Are you ready to take the leap into the rest of your life?

Affirmations can be used for everything, including solo travel. Join the mailing list for Afros y Paella to get your solo travel affirmations andddddd updates about upcoming digital workbook Solo Sojourness: A Roadmap to Planning and Bravely Taking Your First Solo Adventure.  Click here to join.