culture

Decolonizing the Way We Think about Travel

by blessing ikpa

    Travel is not accessible to everyone.

Point blank. Period. We on the same page? Good. As a society, if we are going to have honest discussions around travel, we have to acknowledge that not everyone can travel. Many people will never be able to travel in their lives due to accessibility issues (whether physically, socially or financially). So can we please stop with the glamorous Instagram travel accounts?

My first time traveling out of the United States was with my family to Nigeria in 2007. But I was 13 years old and I couldn’t fully comprehend where I was, what we were doing or why my skin was having such a strong reaction to the African sun. So we won’t count that necessarily. The first actual trip abroad that began to change my perception of travel was a mission trip I took to Haiti during my sophomore year of college (Again, we are decolonizing travel here. I know how mission trips are essentially colonization in modern-day form, I still feel shame from going. This will definitely be discussed another time). When I got to Haiti, seeing Black people from the African Diaspora who had the same hues of melanin like me genuinely opened me up to the world.  Understanding the trauma of the Haitian people, from the Haitian Revolution to the 2010 earthquake that shook the country to its core, I began to understand that these aspects are the part of traveling that no one glamorizes or discusses on social media. When people go on mission trips and simply take photos of children and their communities, who does this genuinely benefit? Painting a few homes for people, how does this equate to stability and autonomy for these communities? (I said I wasn’t going to talk about mission trips, but here we are). Traveling to Haiti stuck with me more than I realized and was the starting point of how I understood travel in general.

When I told my mom I was going to study abroad in Italy, she was not having it with me. Her last born child traversing through Europe without adult supervision? Absolutely not. The conversation went something like this:

Mom: “You are not going to Italy.”

Me: “I already paid my deposit and filled out the forms, so I guess I am.”

Mom: *Stares me down*

When I got to Italy, I feel as though I looked like a newborn baby for the first 5 weeks of my trip. I was, essentially, on my own to genuinely take in my surroundings and travel. I went all over the place - Barcelona, Marrakech, London, Nice, Monaco - and my bank account reflected my travels by the end of my study abroad journey. I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to even study abroad. In 2015, I didn’t know many people of color, especially Black women, who had study abroad. I was creating this path for myself and truly paving it as I went. I felt so damn accomplished. I was going places that my parents have never been and I felt the honor being bestowed upon me.

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The height of the migration crisis was ongoing as I lived in Italy. With southern Italy being one of the main stopping points for people coming from Africa, there was an ongoing (heated) debate about what refugees and migrants could mean for Europe. As a Nigerian-American woman, I felt both of my identities coming to battle with one another. The privilege I had as an American-born woman weighed upon me to travel into any land I wanted, yet knowing that many countries within Africa, like Nigeria, were unsafe and people were literally dying to escape. Travel is a double-edged sword rooted in privilege and accessibility. Seeing these conversations play out on a global level showed me how out of tune people were with the world around them. Privileged people were traveling all over the world and vying to get the perfect photo for Instagram, but spoke so harshly about people who were escaping for their lives. The same people who were speaking negatively about refugees and migrants entering into Europe, Canada or the U.S. are the same people whose relatives colonized all of Africa and stole their resources (Am I going there? Sure). Reality started to settle in and from that moment, I realized I didn’t want to be the typical American who bounces around the world but stays completely out of touch with the communities I come into contact with. This began my journey into the field of International Relations.

Travel is not accessible to everyone. I repeat, travel is not accessible to everyone. People see my life and think, “ugh, Blessing is going somewhere literally EVERY. WEEKEND. Like relax.” When in reality, the Universe just put me in the right place at the right time with the right means. Tomorrow could be a different story. If you’re someone that has the means to travel, think about the communities you will be entering into. Think about how your ticket or your passport gives you more access than some people could even dream of. Are you traveling to simply have Instagram photos to post or are you traveling to broaden your understanding of our global community? As I think back on my trip to Nigeria, I think of my family who immigrated to the United States for more opportunity than their homeland could give them. When I was in Haiti, I thought of the people who fought to keep themselves from being enslaved. When I lived in Europe, I mused over the privilege I held to have the means (not A LOT of financial means, but I had some) to even be there. I make every effort I can to understand any place I travel because that’s what it means to be a global citizen. In order to actively engage, we have to decolonize our thought processes between who can and cannot travel. It’s not about having the coolest travel gear or agonizing for hours over what filter to put on our picture so we can make sure everyone back home is jealous of us. It’s about our intention and making sure we aren’t leaving places worse than how we found them.

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author, blessing ikpa

Blessing is a native of Norman, Oklahoma but claims the Washington, D.C. area as her new home. She is a child of Nigerian immigrants and holds her Nigerian/African-American heritage closely. She’s currently finishing her Master’s degree at the School of International Service (American University) in studying International Relations. Blessing has a love for travel, journaling and attempting to replicate recipes from Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook. Feel free to connect with Blessing on all of the social medias.

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graphics, jae vyskocil

Jae is a member of the Gold Hand creative team.

Jae Vyskocil is currently a student at Portland State University in Oregon. She is majoring in international studies with a regional focus on the Middle East and minoring in graphic design and conflict resolution. Her illustrations use patterns and textures to explore a range of themes. When she’s not drawing you can find her skiing on Mt. Hood or knitting.

Instagram: @jae.v