In her first seminal book on education, bell hooks, a fierce feminist writer and insurgent Black intellectual, reminds us to rethink teaching and “transgress” or push against existing racial and class boundaries to attain true freedom, the result which she describes as real teaching and a true education for a student. This idea of transgression holds a real place within the domain of travel. It forces us to revisit a simple yet often “under-thought” question: why do we travel? For an escape? For sunshine & relaxation? For an event (ex. a reunion, wedding, bachelor party)? More than often, many folks travel for these aforementioned reasons; reasons which triumph in the face of why we should travel.
Traveling to another part of the world without experiencing that country’s customs & traditions is not really traveling. It’s merely a change of scenery.
Yet, why do we sometimes tend to shun educational activities during travel and see them as boring and dull? We bask poolside at our hotels, enjoy spectacular meals at highly reviewed restaurants, indulge in fun sporting activities and adorn fancy dancing shoes while taking in the local nightlife. But what about taking the time to really understand where we are. Learning about the place you are visiting should not be relegated to local museums and historic sites and attractions. While these can be great ways to experience more of the culture of your destination, let’s take another approach.
I’d like to challenge every traveler of color to consider doing some honest reflection & research prior to choosing a destination. It may very well influence your decision to visit a place or inform what you choose to do while you are there. Forget the cliche Lonely Planet book and look to the Internet to fully research your destination: its local practices and customs, the current political climate, religious infusions, must-try cuisine, gender roles and expectations and even local laws. Travel should be both educational and transformative so think deeply about why you desire to travel and what you hope to gain from the experience. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Ensuring Your Safety
It is important to know what’s happening where you are visiting. There may be travel warnings issued by your country due to local protests or civil unrest. You should always know the number and location of your country’s embassy. You also want to know if there are places you should avoid during the day or night time – particularly if you are traveling solo and stand out significantly. However, it does not mean you cannot travel to a certain locale at all. I took a trip to Istanbul last summer during a period of heightened civil protests in Taksim Square. However, I stayed on the opposite end of the city and never once felt afraid or that I was in danger. Research simply means making smarter – and safer – decisions.
2. Staying Out Of Trouble
The fact is that laws are different everywhere, and no judgments can be made as to what is normal or strange in a different country. These infractions will not be on signs at the airport or in your travel guide. Mostly, you should research local rules to remain on the right side of the law. A few examples – It’s an offense in Florence to eat or drink while sitting on church steps or within a church courtyard. Camouflage clothing/items are forbidden in many Caribbean islands. Vicks inhalers and Sudafed are banned under Japan’s strict anti-stimulant drug laws. Publicly kiss in the UAE and you will end up in jail. And it’s illegal to feed pigeons on the streets of San Francisco; bring bibles into the Maldives; publicly smoke or chew gum on the trains in Singapore; or take pictures at the airport or military and official buildings in Kazakhstan. Jail time nor steep fines are not options on anyone’s trip. So be smart and take the appropriate precautions.
3. Finding A Special Place
Without some prior research, you may miss the opportunities to visit a special place in a city you have journeyed to. Visited Barcelona? Perhaps you missed the opportunity to eat at Els 4 Gats, where artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali, gathered to eat dinner and have meetings about art. How about Atlanta? I couldn’t ever imagine not walking the exact path along Jackson Street between Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home and his church in Atlanta. I also can’t forget the unforgettable 2 hours I spent walking around one of New Orleans’ oldest above-ground cemeteries on Canal Street. These are not necessarily the top activities that visitors to these cities would partake in. But your experiences in these places would be forever changed if you did.
4. Being Culturally Sensitive
Each time I see travelers share their desert pics in Dubai, it takes me back to my own visit to this new Mid-Eastern city of juxtapositions. The appeal is obvious – the magnificent and grand structures and the luxury and opulence present everywhere. However, many leave without realization of the 85% immigrant population – yes 85 – that fulfills the menial jobs (ex. taxi drivers, construction workers, hotel staff etc.) in the city – all of them who are underpaid, some illegal, living in poverty and unable to return to their native countries from where they were wooed to enter into labor contracts in the UAE. Perhaps if visitors to Dubai and Abu Dhabi realized this, they would recognize the economic state they are contributing to and fate of its people whom they certainly came into contact with – like the weary Indian man leading the camel on your ride. I share this final point not to discourage travel to Dubai or any other place. Rather, I hope to encourage an awareness and a level of reflection and introspection that is often absent from our travel plans and travel tales alike. Knowing some basic truths about where you visit will radically change what you define/see as “fun.”
5. Remembering Your Purpose
Meaningful travel can really provide you with a taste of profound fulfillment. Letting go of a daily itinerary and embracing spontaneous acts will usher in a wonderful sense of personal freedom. One of the great benefits of travel is the chance to disconnect from your regular routine. You get the opportunity to appreciate your accomplishments, personal successes and overall blessings (including being able to afford your trip). No matter what your travel plans are, always ensure there is time to unwind quietly and reflect upon both the big and small. These moments will make the day’s prior adventures all the more gratifying.
Amidst this fervent clamor for introspection and research, I do have one precaution: never judge a travel destination choice based solely on what you read or what others tell you. Instead, always perform your own research, make up your own mind and create an itinerary that will enrich your mind, heart and reinvigorate your soul.