Photo Credit: Courtesy: Nkem Chukwumerije
Tips From A Black Expat: Making Friends And Mental Wellness While Solo Traveling
Meet Nkem Chukwumerije, a solo traveling Expat, building community and relationship to self while wandering the world. As a writing coach, writer, workshop facilitator, and podcast host, she is fascinated by all things language, self, and human relationships and carries this with her in her solo traveling habits. In this interview Nkem shares with Travel Noire her experiences and tips on making friends and staying rooted while solo traveling.
1. How did you start solo traveling?
I was 19 and a sophomore in university. During that holiday break, I’d traveled to Nigeria with my family with plans to stay longer than the others since my school’s break was about 5 weeks. My dad was living in Nigeria primarily at the time, so I thought I’d spend most of my time with him while my sisters, mom, and brother all went back to their homes.
When my dad was off doing his thing, I’d head to the corner store for some chocolate (classic Nkem) and I soon figured out I would need to be sure about my identity walking into these places, or interacting with anyone.I didn’t have my dad there to enter before me and be the big Igbo man people instantly respected. I soon figured out I was more American than I’d realized, and this identity sort of clung to me (or perhaps I clung to it) until I finally moved overseas, initially to South Korea.
Between that first experience in Nigeria and the one in Korea, I’d traveled solo to Jamaica and Italy, with other trips where friends either tagged along or I’d gone to visit friends I’d made in other countries. Later I lived in Abu Dhabi and then Mexico.
I’m currently in Porto, Portugal, having followed an interest to have a longer-term European experience as a sexy late-twenty-something, as I like to call it.
2. What are some of your favourite ways to make friends while solo traveling?
My favorite way to make friends anywhere, at any time is to be so into me, publicly, and see who I attract. You can’t cultivate personal community when you’re in isolation. And I had plenty of moments in isolation; also moments with people I didn’t care about being with, in situations I would have rather not been in, just to hopefully make friends.
When I moved to Abu Dhabi, I quickly picked up learning to play the guitar, and my guitar became my friend, which ended up being a foundational part of one of my romantic relationships during my time in Abu Dhabi.
While in Abu Dhabi, I heard about a wellness center offering yoga, spiritual healing, things I naturally felt drawn to. So on my birthday, I attended a heart chakra healing session, and my perspective was blown open.
It was yoga and art and the group was soft, loving, open, creative, sensitive. I felt like I had been walking down the wrong path for so long, but if I were to turn my head, away from the shadows and into the light, my people were there sitting in a circle, with cinnamon tea, talking about the intricacies of their lives. All I had to do was change course. And so I did.
My time in Mexico was completely magical because it was spiritually centered. At this point, I’d quit my job and decided to go on somewhat of a sabbatical, like I’d seen people I’d met during my travels doing. What would it look and feel like to travel somewhere and stay for not 5 days but 5 weeks or even 5 months?
I also wanted to focus my energy on cultivating community through the wellness-through-writing platform I run Wellspringwords. I’d already started the digital anthology nearly a year prior, but then began a podcast, and had dreams of hosting writing workshops online and in-person. I was dreaming, but finally in a space to see these dreams through to fruition while I traveled around Mexico. And let me say, aligning myself with Wellspringwords’ mission really helped me attract and gravitate toward the right people in that phase of my life.
While here in Portugal I have to lean on the ways I created and join the communities that worked in my last two locations. It’s a different environment with people coming from different places. But everyone has a heart, so that is what I try to connect with.
3. How do you stay grounded while solo-traveling?
This has been a tricky one for me. Grounding was one of the elements I focused on heavily at some point during my time in Mexico. I had been in Puerto Escondido and then I moved to Mexico City and things changed — I was wearing pants and shoes, for one. But there was also structure to my days, structure to what I wanted to begin doing with Wellspringwords.
I’d been in an ongoing year-long yoga teacher training program, so I counted that as one of my tools; my guitar was always never far — another tool. Dance, another tool, and my most effective medicine, along with using words to translate my heart’s call through writing.
As a highly sensitive person and empath, an environment can make or break my vibrational state, so I sought elements that would create a home space that felt like a sanctuary all day — for me that meant incense, light smelling candles, low lighting, sweet tunes (usually soft jazz), my favorite books nearby, food that felt delicious and fresh.
I had all these tools and practices, plus more, at my disposal. I was tasked with discovering how to integrate them into my life in ways that felt natural, nurturing, and supportive; rather than prescriptive, like some wellness to-do list, which is part of the over masculinization paradigm many of us are actively divesting from.
I had to learn not to routinize my life so that I wasn’t institutionalizing myself and losing my freedom. I had to realize that to live life as my life wants to be lived is to still myself and feel, intuitively, what feels the best at this moment? What is most meaningful right now? Between these options, which will serve me to the highest degree? The courage to be grounded in our truths comes from following intuition.
4. What do you look for in a community/support system while traveling?
At this point in my journey, I’m looking less and feeling more. I’m tuning into my intuition and using my psychic abilities to know if a person or group is right for me for the moment. This requires me to be highly knowing and accepting of myself and all my isms; all the narratives at the forefront of my consciousness, laying filters on how I see and interact with the world.
I know that I desire to love, to empower, to share in enthusiasm and sincerity… so these are the types of people and communities I seek. On a surface level, as a solo traveler in a new country, it can be enticing to schedule daily coffee dates with people from dating apps and Facebook groups just to make sure I’m putting myself out there — and some of these meetings can lead to great relationships or opportunities.
But I mustn’t engage blindly or from a place of fear or scarcity. In periods of personal transformation, we know what loneliness feels like, so we seek companionship to counteract that. But what if we remembered that we have always been supported during loneliness, by ourselves and those around us, this would help us see that we don’t have to seek connections from fear of rejection, but rather from a place of love, authenticity, heart, and true support.
5. What are some lessons you’ve learnt about caring for yourself while traveling?
I suppose the biggest lesson, that I have to remember daily, is that caring for myself cannot be routinized. It has to adapt to my changing energy. Because of my innate openness, my ability to set and honor boundaries is one of my most important skills, that I’m consistently honing. Just because my aura is open and I attract a lot, doesn’t mean it’s all bad, and doesn’t mean I need to create brick wall boundaries.
Caring for myself in ways that feel organic and sustainable requires unending grace; and sometimes that grace looks like loving discipline. I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have.