Photo Credit: Akia Merritt
The Black Expat: 'Moving To Ukraine Was One Of My Most Uncomfortable Experiences'
Meet Akia Merritt, a Miami native who lives a life of adventure or insanity, depending on who you ask. Her first time on an airplane was when she left Florida for New York City to study at The Fashion Institute of Technology, where she received her bachelor’s in fashion business management. Most recently, she spent time living in Ukraine.
Since then, Akia has quit her 9-5 job, had multiple business ventures as a designer, business coach, and blogger, to name a few, traveled the world solo, and moved almost 10,000 miles away from her home in the U.S. to live a dream life abroad.
Once she graduated college, she immediately started what she believed was her dream job as a product development manager for one of America’s biggest retailers. Akia spent her entire career with the company, being promoted several times over the course of her four years with them.
“I really believed that it was where I wanted to be long term…until I started to travel. One trip a year quickly turned into three. I would bundle my PTO and days off to be able to spend additional time traveling. I would do random solo trips and I became addicted to exploring, meeting strangers, unique experiences, and places that I couldn’t have imagined existed.”
Akia ended up spending almost a month in Ibiza, Spain with a friend living in the countryside. They picked fruit from the garden for breakfast, hiked to remote beaches daily, took road trips to new places, and had dinner with friends almost every night, laughing, sharing stories, and dancing. It was that trip that changed everything for her.
“I knew I was quitting my job after that. I knew I wanted a different life that didn’t involve me being in a building for 40-60 hours a week. I knew I wanted to see the world full time and manage my life and my time on my own terms. I had no idea how I would actually do it, but I knew I was going to. I quit my job and moved to Bali, where I continued to travel full time.”
Overlooking the rice fields, taking long rides through the mountains, exploring the ocean, enjoying flower baths, traditional massages, Balinese healers, sunsets in Ubud, and diving on Nusa Penida, life in Bali was a dream come true for Akia.
“Indonesia is a special place. It has my heart because it is just surrounded by beauty from the people, the landscapes, and the energy. Although Bali is a must-see destination, I highly recommend that people take the off-beaten path of Indonesia. There is so much to be seen and felt!”
Since beginning her travel journey, Akia has been to 20 countries and has lived in Tanzania, and most recently, Ukraine. A country that was never on her travel bucket list, it was fate that led her to move to the Eastern European nation.
“While living in Indonesia, I matched with a Ukrainian guy on Tinder. We initially were friends who traveled the off-beaten path of Indonesia together, and on that journey we grew to like each other. Six months later, I moved to Kyiv with him.”
Living in Ukraine turned out to be one of Akia’s most uncomfortable travel experiences, forcing her even further out of her comfort zone.
“I thought I was this OG traveler that was ready for anything, but I was not ready for Ukraine. Ukraine was a truly real and raw experience for me because it was not a destination that had a mainstream tourist market. If I am being honest, it’s not a tourist-friendly destination. Of course I’ve experienced similar situations on my travels, but I found Ukraine to be even more challenging than normal.”
In Ukraine, Akia often faced difficulties searching for things like hair salons, skincare products, new friends, and even activities to do. One of the most challenging aspects she dealt with there was the language. The fact that Ukrainian uses a completely different alphabet, makes it quite difficult to learn.
Also, language is a bit of a political subject in Ukraine. While most of the population can speak Russian, due to the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia, some people only want to speak Ukrainian.
“I learned a few words in both languages from repetition, but I was always confused. Communicating was probably one of the biggest cultural shocks from the moment I landed at the airport. There were also cultural differences like the water closet, where the toilet is in a separate room than the rest of the bathroom. The country has a complex history from being a part of the USSR, and the fact that they are in an active war with Russia impacts things like the language issue and not being able to visit certain parts of the country.”
While it’s no secret that Ukraine is not popular for having a huge Black population, the country does have a community of African descendants, mainly Nigerians, who are there studying. During her time there, Akia encountered two Nigerian hairstylists that she tried out, as well as a Namibian medical student she met on Instagram.
“It was definitely a rare occurrence and a nice surprise when I would see other Black people, but I can count all of the times we’ve crossed paths on one hand.”
Akia received occasional stares while walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, but while she admits to feeling uncomfortable there as a Black woman, she says she was never treated poorly or had issues that she believed to be solely because of her race.
“Mainly it was the lack of a Black community and just not ever really seeing people who looked like me that led to my discomfort. However, I never took it personally because there just aren’t people who are my same race in every country I visit. It’s the reality of traveling and being in another country different from your own.”
A predominantly white former Soviet nation where racism and discrimination have arguably been major issues in the past, Akia believes there is a possibility that a lot has changed due to social influence and global uproar regarding these issues.
“My experiences were more like this: the old Ukrainian lady at the market smiled and tried to speak with me every time I went to buy my fruits and vegetables. I regularly had Ukrainians tell me that I am beautiful. And every time I would poorly say the words that I could barely pronounce, they’d crack a smile with a thumbs up.”
These types of experiences are what Akia loves most about traveling; interacting with the natives, figuring out the unknown, trying new foods, and exploring new environments and cultures.
“The street style in Ukraine reminded me so much of New York! The architecture and buildings really tell stories about the country’s history. And the beauty industry there…they do the best nails and eyelashes and are ranked #3 for having the most beautiful women in the world.”
After traveling to six countries this past year, Akia is currently back in the U.S. for one month visiting family and friends before embarking on her next adventures, which will include Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Sri Lanka.
She invites everyone to check out her Stop Waiting 4 Friday podcast, blog, and YouTube, where she shares insightful glimpses into her journeys, as well as honest travel tips and advice. Inspired by her journey from a 9-5 to full freedom, Stop Waiting 4 Friday is a lifestyle and travel blog that aims to inspire, motivate, and help others live their dreams with confidence and support.
“We spend so much of our lives waiting; for a better job, for more money, for our friends, for the perfect relationship, to take a vacation, to start working on that idea that we had, to enjoy and live life. My goal is to inspire, share, and help others who feel the fire that I felt to make drastic changes in their life and Stop Waiting 4 Friday, for summer, for approval from others, for love, and all of the other things that keep us from living the life that we desire.”
Having had an average upbringing with a mother who struggled to raise three children, Akia faced adversities just as most people do. There was a point in time when she failed to realize she could indeed survive without a paycheck from her 9-5 job. She aims to show people that it is possible to wake up every day and live the life they dream of on their own terms.
“This is why I share my story and this is why I create. I was never into social media, but during my travels when I saw how shocked and curious people were about my ‘how, why, and what,’ I decided that the more people I can share my story with, the more people I can inspire to stop waiting to live.”