Photo Credit: Grace Wathelet
Traveler Story: 'Even When I Was Broke, I Still Found Ways To Travel'
Meet traveler Grace Wathelet. The 28-year-old is of Congolese and Beninese descent, and was raised in Liege, Belgium from the age of three. Travel had always been a big part of her life, and from a very young age she’d developed an obsession about one day moving to Australia. She was determined to find ways to travel.
“I have no idea how it started, but I was determined,” said Grace. “In 2017, I had a burnout and fell into depression. I was taking medication to help me sleep because of the anxiety and social pressure for me to find a permanent job, buy a house, and have a family; in other words, live a normal life. My dreams of travel and a life abroad weren’t received well by my family.”
After a solo Southeast Asia trip through Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, Grace decided to chase her dream and leave for Melbourne, Australia at the end of 2017. She arrived in Melbourne in December, but soon realized her dream may be short-lived.
“One of the main challenges for me was finding a job. I was perfectly fluent in English, and yet it was hard to find one because there was a lot of competition and I didn’t have a lot of experience. After using up all the money I had in just three weeks, I had to figure things out!”
Grace came across a work-away opportunity with a couple that needed help on their property for two weeks. During this time, she didn’t have to worry about rent and food. However, it wasn’t enough. After the new year, Grace was left with only $260.
“I found out that some hostels were hiring volunteers to do a few hours of work in exchange for a bed in a shared dorm. I was offered a position in Sydney, used $200 for my flight, and the hostel manager asked me to pay for the first night, which was $56. I remember the prices because I was on the verge of asking my mom to book me a flight back home.”
Earning very little money, Grace’s first few months in Australia were very rough. The cleaning jobs she would manage to find here and there brought in just enough to buy her food. During this time, Grace had to be very creative in finding ways to earn money or get things for free.
“Eventually, I ended up getting a paid job in the hostel I was volunteering at along with a promo job for an entertainment company, which got me free entry and drinks in some of the biggest clubs and bars in Sydney.
Moving on in the travel industry, and relocating from Sydney to Cairns, I was promoted to events manager for five hostels. However, as I was promoting and hosting parties, I fell into heavy drinking and other things that led me to become a whole other person.”
Grace’s second year in Australia was the most challenging for her, physically and emotionally. Another thing that heavily impacted her mental health and wellbeing was the fact that there were not many other Black people she could spend time with in Australia.
“I met a few other Black expats and travelers, mostly from the US, but there was not many. Many of the white Australians I encountered were welcoming and very laid back, and though I never dealt with any overt racism, I have dealt with ignorance and microaggressions. I really began to feel like my dream of moving permanently to Australia was just not meant to be.”
As she started connecting more with the country’s indigenous people, Grace saw how bad the situation was for them. She felt there was not much visibility for them, and that many white Australians were in denial about this. Grace also noticed that while there was little racism towards Black foreigners, there was a great deal of it directed at the indigenous population.
“I had a conversation with a young Australian, around 22 years old, and I was shocked at what he was telling me. I asked him if in school they studied indigenous history. He told me that it depended on the schools, but that he didn’t see the purpose of learning about their history because it was part of the past, and it would not benefit them in the future. I was speechless. There’s just so much work that needs to be done. But I have hope in the younger generations to change things and bring awareness.”
Despite the negative aspects of Australia, Grace considers the four years she spent there to be the best years of her life thus far. Having experienced a great deal of growth during her time there, she was sad to leave this past September. After 2.5 years without seeing her family and friends, she returned to Belgium, only to find that the country no longer felt like home.
“The reverse culture shock was really intense, so I set myself a goal of finding a job and moving again within two months. After two weeks of being back in Belgium, I was offered a job at a well-known credit card company and six weeks later, I moved to Madrid. I now have been here for almost two months, starting a completely different life working a 9-5.”
There are many things about Australia that Grace is already missing, such as the cleanliness of the streets and outdoor areas. What she misses most, though, is the nature. Considered by many to be the ‘Hawaii of Australia,’ the remote tropical region of Cairns is home to the Great Barrier Reef. Grace enjoyed being able to hop on a ferry and find herself on a tropical island snorkeling with turtles, and being able to hire a car to check out waterfalls or head north for camping in the Daintree.
But so far, she is enjoying life in Spain and has fallen in love with its food and culture. As a night owl, she has found that Madrid is a perfect fit for her, its shops and restaurants staying open late into the night. Grace is excited to be back in Europe, where traveling to a variety of destinations is easier and more affordable. Her travel plans for early 2022 include weekend trips around Spain to visit locations like Palma de Majorca, Ibiza, Barcelona, Tenerife, and Andalusia.
“For the rest of 2022, I will do a few city trips to visit friends in Paris, London, Switzerland, Berlin, and Amsterdam. But the biggest trip and closest to my heart for next year will be Tanzania with one of my best friends. We’re celebrating 10 years of friendship. It will also be the first time that I will be going back to the motherland, so I’m very anxious but extremely excited for that trip!”
Grace’s goals for the coming year also include sharing her story through Instagram and YouTube, as well as sharing others’ stories through her podcast, The Grace Abroad, to show different perspectives on ways to travel and live abroad.
“I want to inspire others who think travel is inaccessible because of money. I’ve been broke since 2016, but I’ve been traveling the world and figured out ways to make it work. I’m hoping that it will inspire others, ESPECIALLY Black people! We need more of us out there. Travel has completely changed my life and I just want to share that with likeminded people while removing stigmas around travel and life abroad.”