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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remembrance and reflection.

life, spirit

By nature I am a reflective person. I’m constantly looking back for lessons I might’ve gleamed over for things which were once nonsensical, to have some sort of clarity deriding from them. It just so happens that Monday’s date, August 24, inspired a sort of wholeness as I look back.

Two years ago I was just a week out from starting a new chapter in my life — relocating to Madrid, Spain. It was a decision which I ran from initially but then once I fully entertained the idea of moving abroad, something I’d always wanted to do, it seamlessly worked itself out. By Thanksgiving of 2012, I scarily held an acceptance letter for the intensive TEFL certification program I was in my first four weeks in Madrid. I told my mother first, who reacted strongly and was quite unsupportive. Some weeks later after I’d graduated from grad school and gathered at a Persian restaurant in Buckhead among friends for a celebration dinner, I shyly told all my friends the news I’d been holding to myself.

The almost year that followed my declaration was a palpable doubt and anxiety as I weathered through the visa process blindly. I quit my first and only reporter job completely fearful despite knowing quitting had to be done almost a year prior. And those fears never completely melted away. I only traded them with the hope and optimism for the international journey I was embarking on. I had so many thoughts about what the new chapter of my life would look and feel like but instead…life happened.

This space has allowed me to step into writing my most authentic thoughts, of exploring how transformative travel has been for me already and will continue to be for the rest of my life. Because really who would I be if I hadn’t started traveling back in 2009 once I got my passport?

When I posted my first blog here two years ago, I was doing my due diligence in terms of the blogosphere. Whenever you move to another country, you start a blog. That’s just what you do. I’ve had countless blogs since I was a teenager (Xanga and LiveJournal anyone?), most of which were either forgotten, deleted or abandoned. I had no expectations that this blog would be any different. I had no expectations I would feel the need to keep writing in this space. But here we are.

Expectations are often weighty, naive silly things to cling to. They are a way of looking at the life ahead of you in an idealized manner, without taking stock that sometimes life experiences are meant to happen in other ways. To live is to expect the unexpected and to know the unexpected often is the best way for things to unfold.

A week ago, after doing training for a new gig I picked up, I was astonished to discover where I was sat on the bank of the Potomac River. That day I’d brought that familiar brand of anxiety with me, tailing behind my otherwise sunny disposition, worried about one of those things outside of my control. I knew I had to find peace with it and as I sat on a bench by the water, the whispers of conversations from lovers and friends brushing past my ears and the wind brushing past my face as my eyes slowly closed, I could let it go. I could own I had done my part and it was up to the Universe to do what it would.

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Then I got up and drove home and started stewing in anxiety again.

My body writhed in anxiety for hours — a racing heartbeat, quickened shallow breaths, my face warming as the anger rose. The air went out in my apartment. I was sweating. I was furious. I was uncomfortable.

And it dawned on me all this was pointless. Why was I choosing to be so angry over something I literally could not do anything further about? I knew I was being called to wait and trust it would be all worked out.

Hours later it was and I wasn’t even aware at that point because I had detached from it all, texting with friends, tweeting and drinking brandy in that night’s cup of earl grey. I was oblivious and distracted when my resolution to my issue came. It was as if the Universe was waiting for me (with bated breath) to just relax and let things be before a seamless turn of events resulted. And things were okay.

In today’s reflective state about what the past two years of my life has been and how it has taken so many unexpected turns, this instance speaks volumes to me now. The timing of our lives is not something we can control. We can push and fuss and fight and clamor and try to escape when we don’t have the answers in an attempt for our life to feel less tenuous and groundless. We can waste precious energy on being enraged on why things aren’t different.

Or we can simply detach. Trust that everything is unfolding in exactly the way it has intended to. And be present enough to see the gifts instead of being bogged down in frustration from things not presenting to us in the way we would like.

I’m not sure what the timing of my life is up to now. I don’t have this blissful state of clarity radiating from my being. I don’t have a froufrou response about how now I feel enlightened and sure and everything has worked out.

But I do have peace. I do have trust. I do have the utmost certainty that right now where I am is where I am supposed to be. I do have the sense that things will start to flow now that I’ve stopped fighting and am choosing to be. And really that’s all I need. That is enough.

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lost (and not found).

Uncategorized

September 2012; Madrid, Spain.

Desert dunes.

Nothing but desert dunes, or what appeared to dunes of sand, were visible ahead of me. I looked behind me at the train station I had just exited to double check and it quickly confirmed one thing: this had to be a massive joke played on me.

The night before, after strolling on Gran Via, one of the bustling streets of Madrid, to shop at H&M, peek into the flagship Zara store and eat one of the most expensive solo dinners of my life, I meticulously charted out both walking and Metro routes for the next day, to avoid what had miraculously become my destiny: being lost.

I couldn’t understand how I could be lost after confirming which direction I would go in on both Google Maps and what was not a crinkled map I had been given from the fine (old) gentleman’s loft I was renting.

But I was. And all I saw were sand dunes.

There are deserts in Spain?

Sweat began to sneakily trickle down the back of my red maxi dress I wore and my feet, clad in gold braided sandals, burned from the ultraviolet rays of the Spanish sol. There was no one around, except for a few stray Spaniards parking their cars alongside the Metro station, and I kept walking. There had to be a store or restaurant nearby where I could hail a cab.

I was walking for the next five minutes.

I passed children playing basketball with a deflated ball, throwing the ball which barely bounced against the headboard, making the sound of a dull thud. The children skittered and stared as I walked past them. I kept walking, with a slight shrug.

Just around the corner I heard music and as my stride neared me closer the music, I discovered it was a restaurant. I squealed on the inside, knowing that I was that much closer to being on my way to my destination.

When I entered, sat down at the bar, smiled and said hello, I expected to be greeted back, but was only met with confusion. Flies interrupted my train of thought as they landed on my fingers and I shooed them away, only then realizing that this restaurant was dingy, dirty and explained precisely why there was no one dining except for the man sitting to the right of me at the bar.

“Can you call me a cab?”

I asked, looking at the man behind the counter, who seemed to be the sole employee in the vicinity. He stared blankly at me, smiled and shrugged, before offering a simple explanation.

“No…speak…English.”

Shit, shit, shit!

I turned to the fellow next to me and he smiled as well. I was the solo American and English speaker, stranded who knows where and didn’t speak enough Spanish to figure out how the hell to get to my destination.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman with her children shuffle into the restaurant, bringing with them a cloud of dust and dirt from just beyond the door.  The children were restless, loud and she yelled, “Vale! Vale! Vale!”  repeatedly to get them settled and sitting at a table.

I sighed and looked up to a futbol game on a 20-inch boxy television suspended on a stand in the corner. From one peer at my phone, I determined I still had plenty of time to figure this out. I closed my eyes and held my head in my hands and exhaled, my entire body distressing with a heavy, shaky breath.

When I opened my eyes, the sun now streaming in through the windows in front of the bar, the man to my left handed me his cell phone. Looking at him strangely, I took the phone after he made a motion that suggested I take it. I looked down at the screen and realized he had pulled up a translation device. I texted that I had gotten lost and needed a cab to come pick me up from here and take me to Calle de Orense. I pressed “traduzco” before handing the Droid over back to him and once he looked at my message he rattled off Spanish at an unintelligible speed. The employee picked up the phone and within five minutes, I was on my way with a “Ciao” and smile from him.

———

In a couple months, it will be two years since I uprooted my life from Stone Mountain, Georgia to thousands of miles away, across and oceans and several timezones to begin a new journey in Madrid, Spain. It will also be two years since I began my journey on this blog, one intended to share alongside the journey of my life that was spiraling out into this beautiful direction.

I think back often to that trip in September of 2012 to Madrid often. I think about what if I had not taken that leap to even go. What if I had not dared to silence the negative voices telling me I was crazy for going to Europe, for the first time, alone. I think about how much of my life would still be in a standstill. Would I be the person I am today? Would I be the woman I am today?

There are choices to be made in each moment, choices which have the capacity to change the course of our lives in either minute or major ways. And we can’t undo any of these choices. We can only reflect on the magnanimity of them in the aftermath, whether our choices have led to good or bad outcomes or a mixed bag.

I’ve been especially thinking back that trip in September of 2012 to Madrid lately in terms of the theme of being lost. What does it mean and what does it feel like to not know where you are headed, even when you’ve planned with your best of intentions? When you embark on a journey with a map in hand, a clear idea of where your destination is and no Plan B? And what happens when Plan A, the only option you pre-determined there was, bottoms out? When it fails and you’re sorely disappointed, beyond in ways which you can express?

Lost in a maze. Life has not made any fucking sense to me as of late. A tailspin. A tidal wave. One of those lame corn mazes you go to with friends in the fall and you have to weave in and out of small, confined spaces in order to try to find your way out. Only, there’s no true exit in this corn maze. It’s just a perpetual, slow, morose, depressing, somber stroll, aimlessly drifting around. Grasping for sense, for reason, for answers.

That’s been me.

I had a plan. My plan was to go to London for grad school. My plan was to become an expat once again. But my plan didn’t work out. My plan didn’t come to pass. My plan fell apart in front of my eyes despite all my efforts to have an outcome of otherwise.

People tell me the timing wasn’t right. It wasn’t meant to be. There’s a season for everything. Everything happens for a reason. But what I can’t reconcile is what this means for the all abiding faith and hope I clutch and cling to as my inner compass. I felt this move with a great deal of certainty it was happening yet— it didn’t. How can I believe and trust in my sense of knowing? How can I trust me again? How can I trust the Universe? How can I trust God? How can I trust any divine order? And what the hell am I supposed to do now?

One of my favorite spiritual teachers Pema Chödron talks a lot in many of books of encountering life as a continuous sense of groundless — that is, accepting life is a series of moments where we realize there is always shaky ground beneath us. Realizing no matter how we may thrust or manipulate our lives to be peaceful and seamless, we ultimately have no control over certain things which may happen. And that many of life’s elements are accepting this and everything that surrounds us being in a state of impermanence, swinging between presently existing and within the throes of falling away. She is also careful to consistently note we try so hard to escape we all chase the unknown, not knowing what is around the corner or sometimes not being able to make sense of the direction our lives take.

Guess I’m starting to grasp this for myself in grave, sweeping ways.

And this is life. This is living. This is knowing the only knowing I have is that I know nothing at all, that I have no clue what is going on, that I have no clue what is next, and that I remain lost, drifting to and fro, hoping at one point or another, the clarity will come.

Hoping the clarity will come.

americanah in arlington.

Uncategorized

My skin was a mass of prickly, raised bumps because of the frigid temperature in the media room with a projector turned into a makeshift classroom. The air was always so icy in that room, able to zap through even the thickest and fluffiest of sweaters, encouraging teeth to chatter.

The year was 2011. I was a graduate student in a pseudo MFA program, a program I applied for and told no one about except for my boyfriend at the time, because I had been yearning to become a better writer after plateauing just two years after leaving J-school. I needed to feel the magic about writing again. I needed to be excited about pieces I was working on, about sitting down to write, even. That excitement had dried up and disappeared it seems, lost in the shuffle in being unable to find a full-time writing position for almost two years after graduating.

I’d survived the first two semesters of grad school, much to my surprise, much to the sacrifice it had been. I was still a full-time reporter, spending eight hours every day calling, emailing and scrounging the internet for newsworthy tidbits in the metro Atlanta area. I somehow found a way to balance both of these worlds — the world of reporting which I’d haphazardly, unexpectedly fallen in love with during my college years and the the new world which seemed to be opening ahead of me, of writing that existed outside of reporting.

But then again, I can’t say I really survived more like fought desperately to remain afloat. My typical day was eight hours of doing reporting followed by four hours in being in class by the evening. Then driving nearly an hour to get how at the end of each day and doing it all over again, three times each week. Looking back, the time and effort I exerted for grad school seems out of reproach. I don’t know how I managed it but reaching for our dreams often seems second nature even if we are embroiled in situations and environments which leech from us.

This course, in the icebox classroom, was one on intercultural communications. It was an entire semester dedicated looking at how we can communicate with each other, internationally, with the cultural cues which often differ. And how to reconcile those differences so communication becomes smoother and reciprocal. Each of us had to pattern an avatar, a person of a certain age, gender and nationality and then choose a book which was representative of the fictional avatar we had created.

I chose Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s first novel and the first book of hers I read which touched my heart. When I heard some weeks ago that’d she be in Arlington doing a talk at a local library, my heart sang and fluttered with joy. This would be the moment to soak up the knowledge and prowess of a writer, a woman I admired so deeply.

And while, for a lot people, the admiration and respect they have for her is merely just because of her talent, her eloquence and precision of which she speaks (evident in the many lectures she has given and TED talks which she’s now known for) and how she seems to have effortlessly captured the world’s attention by interweaving her Nigerian heritage into her works, it’s much deeper than that for me.

It’s personal.

I think about when I first started reading Purple Hibiscus back in grad school. I think about how I was in a precarious, fragile state of discerning both my Black American and Nigerian identity. I think about how reading that book gave me the courage to even begin to accept both parts of me as real, tangible and not warring at each other in the most violent of ways.

And it moves me to tears. Just like each work of hers has ended in a pool of tears in my lap, with a few stray tears tapping on the pages, making them wrinkly and noisy.

I read Purple Hibiscus and started to imagine that being Nigerian wasn’t something weird or misunderstood, as I had been led to believe throughout all my childhood and the teasing I had received for my name. And the rampant questions about whether or not my father was a prince or king, commenting on the “smelly” food that Nigerians often ate and calling me cruel names which elicited rounds of giggles from my classmates but a barrage of tears for me in private.

I read The Thing Around Your Neck and felt so intimately how being Nigerian impacts so many things and how Nigerians, Africans, are human, too. We are not some spectacle to be examined underneath the looking glass. There are complexities surrounding our relationships with others which are real, just like everyone else has.

I read Half of a Yellow Sun and ached for my ancestors and the atrocities of the Biafran War. The stolen lives, the stolen sense of peace, the stolen memories marred by a war which shattered families and hope for a better future.

I read Americanah and understood to a greater degree what my father, an immigrant to this country nearly 40 years ago dealt with. How he must have felt confronting what it meant to be Black in a country predisposed to othering him instead of trying to understand his difference. I understood to an extent that I had never before how difficult that must have been and how assimilation, though detrimental to me and my sisters who went through most of our lives lacking the proper context of what Nigerian culture and tradition is, was a means of bitter, double-edged survival to him. From softening his accent (which after all these years still rings through) to opting that people refer to him by his English, more widely known name instead of his proper Nigerian one.

And while hearing her speak last week, it was comforting. It was this same sense of a gentle understanding, of being made to feel that who I was, Nigerian, is okay.

She was candid in talking about her father’s kidnapping and visibly emotional. She apologized if she at all seemed off but admitted it had been hard to cope for her because her family means so much to her. Instead of just speaking for an hour, she spent her talking time taking questions from the audience. She paced herself as she spoke, being careful to insert the needed pauses, the emphasis on certain words and to laugh where she saw fit. But there was also a sense of ease, grace and calm that ran underneath each of her words.

It was an ease, grace and calm I hope to one day as effortlessly impart to others who come into my space and come into contact with me. It was refreshing and admirable.

There was a point where someone asked Chimamanda what her name meant. And as she explained the meaning of her name, my God will not fail me, there was hushed silence that fell over the room.

A sense of awe.

It was the same sense of awe I felt as I lined up behind many, many others after a thunderous round of applause was given after her answering questions was concluded to get my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun signed, a book signing I didn’t even know would be happening until after I had arrived and found a seat.

Those manning the line  apparently told everyone to write their names down on a slip of paper to expedite getting their name spelled in the front cover of their books. I missed this, completely, although I wondered what the slips of paper everyone was holding were for. I didn’t think to ask because I was so enraptured that she was literally sitting feet in front of me.

Then it was my turn and I was rendered speechless. I silently put my book down in front of her, turned to the cover page where she was signed. She looked up to me as to ask what my name was and I feebly said, “Nneka.”

She looked back up at me and repeated my name, with a smile, “Nneka.” Saying it in the way I’d heard my name pronounced all my life by my father, deep and throaty with the strong, Igbo Nigerian accent which I’d always loved (and wished I had).

And yet again, all the feelings of insecurity surrounding my name and all the pain it had brought, all the teasing, all the declarations about how weird or strange my name was, all the mispronunciations, all those asking me if they could call me something else because pronouncing my name the proper way was too much of an inconvenience for them — were quelled and I was reaffirmed in that moment. There is beauty in my name, there is acceptance, there is a knowing. I am a Nigerian Igbo woman.

And I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie, a fellow Nigerian Igbo woman. She knew my name. She recognized my name. She said my name. She knew how to spell it. There was no hesitation. No head cocked to the side in confusion. There was no awkward pause. There was no attempt to ask me to spell it again and again and again (and still spelling it wrong). She knew how to spell it. She wrote my name in a couple of strokes, one and done.

There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because of that. There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because I am me.

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traveling while black.

african, discrimination, prejudice, race, travelingwhileblack

Growing up in the predominantly black suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia perhaps shrouded me from ever feeling like I was different. I grew up submerged in sea of other people who looked like me, spoke like me, listened to the same music as me. There was no clear separation. It wasn’t until I went away to school at Mercer University that I grasped what it meant to be within the minority.

And being in the glaring minority was only amplified, to gross, sweeping levels when I moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013. I had never experienced the phenomena of being the “only one” because I was always one of many, many, many others who were just like me. I had never identified with the isolation, confusion and frustration of constantly having to navigate my (literal) physical space within others who were not like me and clearly did not understand me, nor where they committed to, in the very least, of being tolerant of those like me. I never had to stuff down the constant anguish of doling out explanations of who I was for the sake of sanity or knowing, intimately, how a little bit of you dies and breaks off each time you have to negotiate within yourself to do it.

Maybe if I was more deluded, more in denial, more oblivious, I could pretend one of my greatest passions behind writing (ahem) and cooking — travel — bears some affect when my race comes into the picture. And no, I’m not just pulling the “race card,” holding a chip on my shoulder, being overly sensitive or reading too into things. This is something I know firsthand from the several experiences I’ve had over the past year, when me, my Black self, was jetting around the world in search of adventure, and I realized, a sober realization, that doing so was a revolutionary act in itself.

I can reflect on London, strolling the cobblestone streets. My feet, exposed and uncovered frozen solid, my teeth chattering, the layers of clothing I attempted to wear still rendering me frigid. Eating a kabob loaded with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, succulent lamb juicy and bursting with flavor and a cooling yogurt sauce, dripping onto my the front of shirt, laughing with my cousin and his friends. Staring bright-eyed, in childlike wonder, through the wrought iron gates, speckled with gold leaves which looked as delicate as foil, at Buckingham Palace at the change of the guards, the guards clad in morose, somber grey posts instead of the red pea coats I thought I’d see.

But I only, mostly remember, slapping a vibrant head wrap on my head the wee hours of my departure before heading to London Gatwick airport. I remember, vividly, being asked if my head wrap was donned for religious reasons and when I shrugged in confusion, leading the border control agent to believe I meant no, urging me to remove my headwrap, exposing my nappy natural hair, my TWA, matted to my head. I remember her roughly fingering my hair, attempting to feel my roots but only snagging my kinky coils, and causing me to yelp in pain. And being asked, with vitriol and aggression leaking in her voice, only seconds later, to remove my shoes, although I was originally told I could keep them on.

I can reflect on Brussels, stumbling into Grand Place, where one of the most ornate, beautiful and awe struck cathedrals I’ve seen with my naked eyes — outside of The Duomo in Milan and the Catedral de Sevilla in Sevilla — or pushing my way through the Godiva where the smell of freshly churned chocolate tickled my nostrils and aroused my taste buds. I remember the nine hours I spent there, not knowing a word of French. Eyes being cut at me, like I was a suspicion, a threat, someone to be feared. People bursting my bubble of boundaries, demanding I answer them in French, because of course, I’m Black. My skin is brown. I have to be African which means I most likely speak French. But I didn’t. Not then, not now.

But I only most remember, going through passport control at the Brussels airport and the officer looking at me stunned, blown away and utterly bewildered. After looking at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport, he cocked his head to side and peered at me and asked, “What happened?”

I squinted back at him and stuttered, not sure what I was supposed to say. And okay, maybe I did look different. In my passport photo, I had honey blonde hair stringy and broken off and in person, I had a dark haired (my natural hair color) nappy coils which were short and low cut. But did I really look that different? My face looked the same. These were the microaggressions. The demands to explain.

I could also go into grave detail about how dozens of times I’ve been “randomly selected” to undergo extra screening before jetting off to a new locale. Asked more questions then necessary. My belongings being rustled through for an indeterminate amount of time, threatening me to miss my flight. Or being stared at like I have three heads when out and about in a foreign city. Or feeling like I was abnormal or strange because of the color of my skin. The whispering, the pointing, the slower than slow service because of my brown face, because of course, I’m not deserving of the customer service that other, White customers, receive.

But I think you get the point. I think you can see that I’m not exaggerating. That these are very real micro aggressions which can wear on someone who is so determined to see as much as the world as possible but when other people are determined to remind you of the global appeal of anti-Blackness. How Black faces being unwanted isn’t just an American construct and how it is a global one, in every truest sense of concept, one bolstered by colonialism and White supremacy coursing through the veins of every living soul.

And yes, many will argue with my passport, my blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle on the front presents me with a horde of privilege. But let’s also be real — what difference does my blue passport really make, that when whomever flips it open to the photo page, and they see my un-American name? When they look at it, and instantly, know it’s not American? When they know I’m foreign, in some sense of the word, and decide, right then and there, to discriminate?

Many others will tell me that yes, as a Black woman, a tall Black woman, I’m warranted the stares and the ogling I get whenever I go somewhere where I’m not in the majority. People will tell me to expect it. That it’s just because I’m tall, as a I stand, statuesque at almost six feet. And in the same breath, they’ll also tell me to extend an olive branch, to be more understanding of their confusion and the subsequent ignorance which arises in their questions and their ignorance. They’ll tell me explain, to be a good example, to be a representative on behalf of countless others.

But dammit. That isn’t me. The me I am, the me I have grown to be, isn’t interested in that. The me I am isn’t interested in extending nary of even a damn twig branch. The me I am isn’t here to be your bridge to cultural understanding. The me I am isn’t here to be representative of what it means to be Black, to be Black American, to be African. The me I am doesn’t want (or ask) to be affronted with the different treatment and surely doesn’t want to be exhausted to have to bother to explain. To me I am understands that Black American and Africans aren’t a monolithic group. That there are differences and wavelengths that vary along gender, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. And to be asked to be a representative is insulting and denounces the vasty amount of diversity that exists within us, among us.

I understand my existence, for most, is audacious. That daring to be a Black American and African woman who is unapologetically proud of who she is…unfathomable. But who I am is who I am. Who I am is proud. Who I am is authentic. And who I am won’t stop daring to see the world, one city, one town, one country, one continent at at time. And the who I am doesn’t ever want to, have to, desire to, have to explain.

paris

solo sojourner: a black woman’s solo travel manifesto

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I am writing this for me.

I am writing this to remind myself on low days, when my mind skitters to that dark, desolate, lonely place deep within the wilderness, when I feel as if I can’t fight to find my way out, that I am enough. That I am powerful. That I am unconquerable. That I am a visionary. That I am brave. That I have the embattled courage of my ancestors coursing through my veins.

Those low days, those days when my life seems to be hanging in the belly, in the underside of the time, in the bitter, unforgiving balance of distance, are plentiful. They chase and swirl around me as I sleep and often are there greeting me as my eyelids flicker and adjust to the bright sunshine sneaking in through my blinds at the head of my bed.

And really there is a clear connection of the low days, the dark periods, leading me to the light and unbridled jubilation. I see it clearly, especially, in the beginning of what has lent itself to being a transformative period of my life.

The fall of 2012 was the last semester of grad school filled with mostly working on my thesis creative nonfiction manuscript. It was also a period where I was struggling to find myself, the bare bones of myself, after being left past devastation in a relationship which armed me with more battle wounds and scars than sad memories of a great love lost.

Do you know how it feels to be caught in a vacuum, not knowing who you are or where you are headed? Not being able to trust your emotions, your thoughts or your instincts? Feeling a vast void because your existence, you realize, was thrust into a malicious stranger who capitalized on your (inner) beauty and strength which was mounted on shaky confidence, too afraid to stand strong and irresolute? This was me then. This was me emerging from a toxic, emotionally abusive relationship with a man I loved deeply who I should’ve never trusted, who never meant me any good from the start.

In retrospect, I thank him endlessly. He has thus far been one of my greatest teachers, one of my greatest lessons. He was the sole person I can credit with making me crouch still enough to dare to look inward and take a discerning look of who I was and who I could become. He saved my life, as much as travel has saved my life.

My first solo trip in September of 2012 was an experience filled with euphoria, confusion and tears. I cried hot tears of frustration on being lost, not knowing my bearings and not being able to communicate (well) what I was thinking/feeling in Spanish to strangers, just as equally as I was astonished, in awe and enraptured by Madrid and its beauty. Taking that trip definitely started stirring my gears to finally make my longtime dream of living abroad a reality but much bigger was this concept of moving more inside of myself.

It had been a long time since I had heard my inner voice clearly and distinctly and knew I could trust it. It had been a long time since I relied on myself to get from one point to another. It had been a long time since I was at peace, felt like I was no longer warring with the essence of who I am.

This degree of vigor, steadfast dedication to following my heart pushed me to traveled solo to Seville, Milan, Paris, Oporto, London, Brussels, Zurich and Mallorca last year, and is continually the throb and rhythm I use to continuously chart my course going forward. I listen to myself. I listen to myself and I take the leaps, despite how terrified I may be. I’d say being terrified, generally, is the barometer I use to know whether or not I’m making the right decisions.

porto

My (new) therapist recently shared me with me this amazing analogy which put into perspective what type of person I am and why solo traveling, why daring to see the world, one city at a time, with only my own company, has become a defining space for me. She told me I was like that kid, who every day during recess, climbed to the very top of the jungle gym, stood atop the highest point and jumped, arms failing, smiling, without looking, yet still having every shred of hope I’d land on my two feet. And even if I didn’t land on my two feet, I knew I had somewhere, whether it was hidden or exposed, the dignity and strength to recalculate, reevaluate and try again. And again. And again. And again.

But that is me. I leap before I look and I terrify all those around me, namely my parents, who pride themselves on having a plan, staying safe and not charting into the unknown. But I’m learning and know intimately for myself, the unknown, the dark spaces, the nights fumbling around with no viscosity, is where transformation occurs. That’s where life occurs. That’s ground zero. That’s where the meaning we’re all searching for comes in, robs us blind, and inspires us on heights which were before inconceivable.

I know how revolutionary it is to chart this life for myself and to have a vision no one else can tangibly reconcile and therefore not easily believe in. I also know how revolutionary this is for me as a Black woman daring to do so, as an African woman daring to do so. I also know how revolutionary it is to mosey into every corner of the world, looking for a new adventure, looking to uncover new truths about myself (or hidden truths), as a Black woman, as an African woman.  I know this and perhaps, this is what makes traveling alone, traveling with no one to fill the white noise, the silence, the space which should be regulated for companionship and company, so rewarding and fulfilling. And perhaps, that makes this all, this all makes traveling and seeing the world with just my own two eyes, all the more worth it.

brussels

(I am writing this for me.

I am writing this to remind myself on low days, when my mind skitters to that dark, desolate, lonely place deep within the wilderness, when I feel as if I can’t fight to find my way out, that I am enough. That I am powerful. That I am unconquerable. That I am a visionary. That I am brave. That I have the embattled courage of my ancestors coursing through my veins.)

how (and why) I moved to spain.

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Since repatriating back to the States, the question that I am asked the most other than why I left beautiful, stunning Spain to live in lackluster Washington, DC (I wonder now, too), is how, aside from gathering the gumption to move 5,000 miles away, I even executed an international move. For instance, how did I secure work to make money? How did I find somewhere to live? How was I legally able to stay in another country for nearly a year and earn legitimate money?

Well, trust me, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. It was nearly ten months of frustration, stress, confusion, patience and hundreds of dollars, before I even set foot in Madrid. And quite honestly, when I look back on that journey I took before the transformative journey of being an expat, I wonder how I managed to do it all, mostly on my own.

Metropolis

Rather than having this lengthy conversation with innumerous facets repeatedly with different people, I thought I’d write a comprehensive, full frontal and gut-wrenchingly honest (because more is needed of that in terms of becoming an expat, especially an expat of color in Spain) post highlighting just how I was able to pull this shit off.

I decided I wanted to go. I decided that I most definitely was going to go and stopped entertaining that it was an outlandish idea.

Talking myself out the self-doubt was probably the hugest thing in terms of starting the preparation to moving abroad. I decided in November of the previous year (November 2012) that I was going to move to Spain and stuck to my guns. This isn’t the say that I didn’t entertain tons of self-doubt in the ten months leading up to my actual departure to Madrid. I did. After I decided I was going to for sure move, I told my parents, followed by close friends. This was done partially because I was excited about it and partially because I needed to speak it aloud for it be more real rather than some abstract concept I was concocting absently in my mind.

I contemplated how I would get to live in Spain.

If you’re in the least bit familiar with the state of Spain’s economy at the moment, you know that unemployment is quite high, so any thought of casually waltzing into the country with a work visa — without the prior backing of a company based in the States with offices abroad — is nearly impossible.

The vast majority of Americans who reside in Spain are either study abroad students or people like me who decided to teach English. I knew the only option for me to get to Spain was a student visa, so it really came down to me researching my options. And there are two: going through credentialed, established programs solely for placing native English speakers in teaching positions, such as the North American Language and Culture Assistant program backed by the Spanish Ministry of Education, CIEE, UCETAM, BEDA or do it solo dolo through an established language academy.

The latter typically have programs who offer intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate programs who might offer assistance with things such as getting your TIE once the student visa you obtain lapses after the first 90 days, finding housing and helping you get teaching jobs to build your own daily schedule. Both routes will get you a student visa but the process will vary, slightly.

I actually did both. I started out as a freelancer after getting my TEFL Certification and then switched to the North American Language and Culture Assistant program (also known as Auxiliaries de Conversación). The unpredictably (and bullshit) of freelancing teaching became too stressful, and I needed to know that I had a set amount of money coming to me monthly which is why I switched.

I applied for a student visa.

A moment of silence for the most horrific process I have ever endured.

Okay.

Maybe I’m being a tad dramatic, but I’m not exaggerating on how confusing and frustrating the process is. When I applied for a student visa for Spain, as a Georgia resident, in 2013, there were 14 things total I needed: a completed national visa form, two recent passport size pictures, drivers license, original school certificate of admission, information about the study program, proof of health insurance coverage, proof of means of support, proof of accommodation, local health certificate, original certificate of good conduct and the visa fee (~$150 at the time I believe).

Whew! Each of the originals of those and a copy were needed. Yes, copies of everything. I still remember running around the corner to a nearby Publix the day of my visa appointment to make copies last minute because I didn’t realize how literal that request was.

Now, these requirements might have changed because this was now two years ago when I applied and they vary based on the state you live in. I pulled the checklist with extremely detailed instructions from the Consulate website I had to go to. Because I lived in Georgia at the time, I had to go to Miami to turn in my application in person after making an appointment months in advance, to give me time to get everything together, namely to get the original certificate of good conduct (fancy way of saying an official FBI background check clearance). That document alone took weeks and once it was received had to be sent back to the Department of State for Apostil Certification (a fancy way of saying notarized basically). You’ll also need fingerprints to send in along with the paperwork for the certificate of good conduct, which was a clusterfuck to figure out in Georgia cause only certain places would do it, contrary to what the Consulate told me would be the case.

I figured this all out on my own through trial and error and mindless Googling for insight because the Consulate of Miami would not answer (or return) my phone calls. I got really desperate at one point and sent an email which they eventually “answered” in one line, still not helping me in any way. I say this to say that depending on Consulate you have to go to you may or may not have this same experience. Just be prepared to have to just figure things out if it comes down to it.

Proof of means of support is another one of those things that was mind-boggling. Because I wasn’t going through one of the pre-established programs that feed directly for English teachers and instead went through a language academy (which means they were not providing my means of support or salary like the other programs do), I had to prove I had $1,000 per month that I would be in Spain (12 months x $1,000 = $12,000). Other consulates weren’t as strict and would let you just get a letter from your parents or legal guardian saying they’d be responsible for you. Miami wanted a bank statement printout showing the proof of funds. I hear now this has changed and they want a six month history of funds to meet this qualification. Ouch.

I saved as much as I could.

Because piecing together the various parts of my visa application began to get costly, this was difficult, along with other expenses that popped up unexpectedly (hello life!).

Also, as an aside as far as saving, because I freelance taught my first few months in Madrid, nothing was guaranteed and I knew this (to a degree) before I moved, saving more should’ve been a priority. Freelance teaching is highly unpredictable and there were often moments when I wasn’t paid the exact amount I was promised, if at all or really late. Ranges per hour can vary vastly; the academy I taught in, for instance, paid only 12€ per hour! Getting the heftier rates per hour often involves a mix of experience and reputation and as newbie TEFL teacher, this wasn’t something I could demand right off the bat.This made drawing up a budget based on expected salary to be nearly impossible, although I knew, at the end of every month, I needed to allocate money to rent (~350€), my metro pass (~60€), groceries (~20€ per week) and for fun things.

To be quite frank, I didn’t save as much as I should’ve, and I paid for this mistake in the first few months after my move. I was fortunate to have family who understood and helped me, but if I could do it all over again, I might’ve worked a second job during nights or weekends to create a cushion for myself so I didn’t have to depend on others to finance my dream. I highly suggest you do this, too. Make this journey one that you make happen on your own. It will feel that much more gratifying.

I consolidated all my belongings into two suitcases and a small carry-on.

Per the sage advice of others I stuffed down the desire to bring the slew of six-inch heels into my luggage and everything in my wardrobe. I only brought a fraction of my clothes with me, under the assumption I could shop for things once I was settled there and only five pairs of shoes. Funny thing was, as a curvy, tall woman (I’m 5’10”) I had a lot of trouble finding clothes and shoes for myself as the typical Spanish woman is petite. That’s a story for another day though…

I moved.

Getting comfy on a flight out of Newark in Jersey courtesy of Jet Airways (fly them if you ever get the chance; impeccable customer service and delicious Indian food served on flight) was the easiest part of this journey. Cause all I had to do was check my luggage…and sit.

The other part, which I deem equally important, is the why. Why, would I, a Black and African woman in her late 20s, pretty successful in terms of career strides up and leave everything she knew in exchange for an overwhelming amount of unfamiliarity? Why would being surrounded by a language I barely spoke with people who didn’t look like me and knowing not a soul be alluring?

Sometimes you get so desperate for a change you take gigantic, nonsensical leaps which seem crazy, ill-fitting and illogical to most others. But for me, it was just the leap of bravery I needed to reignite me and set my spirit alive. I hadn’t realized then, even while I was an expat, how much I was changing, how each moment, with each choice, I was consciously changing, morphing more into the spirit I had always been. The spirit I had convinced myself wasn’t good enough, needing fixing, needing to douse her head with tons of self-help books and practice meditation, religiously, to be acceptable, a good person, a good woman, a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend, a good companion.

And that’s what it all boils down to. I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought adding some extra stamps to my passport, traveling to other countries, trying a new career, speaking another language other my native tongue fluently would make me…great. But what I discovered was that I was already and had always been immeasurably great, marvelous, wondrous, amazing, inspiring. That’s what travel and these great intercontinental and international adventures are about— inward journeys.

Maybe you’re reading this post contemplating an international move. Maybe Spain is your destination. Maybe you’re thinking you’re crazy (I know I did when I first considered moving to Spain). Maybe you think your dream is far-fetched, too far from the norm, too off the beaten path to be accepted from your family, friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend.

It’s not.

And you’re not crazy.

Take the leap. Even if you’re scared. Especially if you’re scared. Even if you’re trembling and fearful that everything in the world could go wrong if you left everything you’ve known behind.

But how will you know if you never even try?

Plaza Mayor