Often, traveling for pleasure is something we do with loved ones: a trip to Vegas with the girls, Aruba with the hubby and maybe, a cruise with the parents. According to travel expert Marybeth Bond, women will spend an estimated $125 billion on travel this year alone. Most of that will be in groups or with friends and partners. When it comes to flying solo, there’s generally no “flying” involved. As women, we often choose staycations instead, letting wanderlust fall to the wayside, paying no mind to the idea of traveling for leisure alone.
But if you ask Kiratiana Freelon, author of “Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Black Paris,” a roundtrip ticket for one is the only way to fly. It all began back in 2002, when Freelon was awarded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a $20,000 fellowship to travel around the world. Now, at 30-years-old, the Harvard graduate has traveled to more than two-dozen countries—some more than once. With plans to create more travel guides, as well as trips to Belize and Guatemala in the pipeline, it’s evident that she has no intention of slowing down. The Chicago native, with roots still planted in the Windy City, is a testament to why fear should never trump passion. “Three months traveling throughout West Africa independently introduced me to countries like Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Gambia and opened my eyes to things I don’t see on U.S. TV—houses of strong extended families, gorgeous fabric, and the nicest people I’d ever met in my life,” she says on her website. She also goes on to describe how Brazil “strengthened her self-confidence” and how trips to the Olympic games left her with thoughts of world peace. Cheesy? Absolutely. Although it’s all the more reason to envy and be reminded why venturing out into the world alone isn’t such a foreign idea.
Marquita: So you’re from Chicago?
Kiritiana: Yes. I'm originally from Chicago but I have lived in Munich, Germany, Paris, France, and Salvador, Brazil.
M: Do you mostly travel alone, or with friends?
K: I mostly travel alone, mainly because I'm such an independent traveler that I often forget to ask if people want to come on a trip with me. I also tend to make my travel arrangements later than most people. I'll start thinking about a location three to four months out, and then I make a decision to go seven weeks out and then I'll finally buy a plane ticket about four to three weeks out. I'm just now realizing that most people plan vacation much further out in advance. The one time I did do a trip with a friend, I think I wore him out! We went to Carnival in Salvador, Brazil and while I wanted to stay up for 36 hours straight, he couldn't handle it!
M: For someone so well traveled, I wonder what was your childhood like? Did you travel often? What piqued your desire to explore, was it mostly the Fellowship?
K: I wouldn't call my childhood well traveled. Travel for us mainly just meant going to Grenada, Mississippi every summer to visit family, with a couple of different domestic family vacations thrown in. I didn't travel abroad until my junior year in high school when my mother took my brother and I to Jamaica for a long weekend. I made a decision once I started Harvard that I’d study abroad. I saw it as an opportunity to finally use a language that I had been studying forever (German). So I lived in Munich, Germany for six months and traveled all over Europe. Interestingly, it was in Germany that I also became interested in Afro-Culture. I became friends with a group of Germans who traveled all over Germany attending African festivals and concerts. These concerts and festivals introduced me to artists like Baaba Maal, Miriam Makeba and Patrice. Also the majority of the black people in Germany were Africans from places like Cameroon.
M: What places have you visited and would like to visit again
K: I haven't been to Brazil since 2005 and I must get back soon. I would love to return to Mali, West Africa because I loved the diversity of the country. There were several different ethnic groups, the Bambara, Touareg, Dogon and so many things to do in the country. In three weeks, I traveled down the Niger River in a pirogue, visited Timbuktu, ventured out into the Sahara Desert, visited Dogon country and hung out in the capital, Bamako.
M: Wonderful! Have you had any bad experiences, if so where and why?
K: Obviously I've had my share of bad hostels and hotels or bad food. But if you're a serious traveler, you'll have that regardless. My only real bad experience traveling solo was quite frankly, my own fault. I had been living in Salvador, Brazil for two months and by that time I felt like a local. I started enjoying the weekly Tuesday night festivities in Pelourinho a little too much. For some stupid reason I went to a back street to call a friend in the states on a public telephone. By this time the festivities had died down and I had no business on this street at this time of night. Then a few young guys came up behind me and tried to take my camera and cash. While they didn't get anything, it was scary because I was literally ‘jumped by a few guys.’ I should have never been on that street alone at night at the time. Period.
M: With so much happening politically with the U.S., how do you feel this may impact women traveling solo? K: Well you have to look at each individual location and understand the difficulty of traveling solo for women in that particular country. The Mid-east is a very testy place to travel overall now. And in some places, like Egypt, have always been difficult, but not impossible, for women to travel alone in. The good thing about traveling now is that we have a President who is generally liked around the world, as opposed to years past. And even then, people would only say, "I don't like your President."
I’ve never experienced difficulty traveling because of my nationality. In West Africa, the people respect the states as being a place where someone could "make it." In Salvador, Brazil, there was an acknowledgement of the states being a place with descendents of slaves as well. And in Paris, the French love America, but they won't publicly admit it. Just be safe. Research the place before you go. Ask other people about the location. Find people who live there and ask them about location.
M: Are there any places you feel African Americans should visit more of?
K: That's a good question. I think African-Americans should travel more to West Africa over South Africa. I'm very biased to West Africa since I backpacked throughout the region and I recently attended the World Festival of African Arts in Dakar, Senegal this past December. I think when African-Americans even think to travel to Africa, the first thought is Capetown, South Africa, instead of the very places like Ghana, Senegal, where most of us are descended from. Yes, I agree that African-Americans have a close history with South Africa because of apartheid and the civil rights movement. But a trip to Senegal and Ghana will directly connect African-Americans to their history and culture.