Posted: 5/31/16 | May 31st, 2016
This month’s interview comes from Alex, a 29-year-old black traveler from Northern California. When he approached me earlier this year to do an interview and told his story and the barriers — racial and non-racial — he faced before and on the road, I knew he had to be featured here.
As a white Western guy, my experience is vastly different than many others. I don’t face many of the prejudices others might and, while this site is called “Nomadic Matt,” I view it as a resource for all travelers — and the only way to do that is to bring in added voices like Alex. So, today, without further ado, here is Alex!
Nomadic Matt: Hi Alex! Welcome! Tell everyone about yourself.
Alex: I am a 29 year old from Northern California. I grew up in a city near San Francisco called Alameda. After finishing college in Arizona, I moved back to the Bay Area and worked in SF before quitting my job to travel the world.
I know the decision shocked my mom and many of my friends, but I know it was a necessary experience for me to embrace at this time in my life.
What inspired your trip?
The short answer is that I wanted to see the world. The more nuanced answer is that I wanted to see it through my own lens. With the wonders of the world wide web, we are inundated with information and imagery of people and places from around the world. I needed to see what the world was like through my eyes, through my own conversations with people in such places, and through my personal experience of growth and change in traveling to these places.
After reading so many backpacking blogs, I got inspired and knew I needed to do this. My original intention was to travel for six months but 11 months later, I’m still going!
How are you funding this trip?
I worked in finance for five years. I had been saving for travel since I started working. Once I made the decision to do this trip, I started making the appropriate sacrifices to increase my travel fund (like skipping smaller trips with friends and cutting out expensive dinners and large bar tabs).
After reading different travel blogs and your book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, I was able to save $25,000 USD for a year of travel.
To make that happen, I began automatically depositing money from my paycheck every two weeks. I reduced my spending on the non-essentials, as well. For example eating out less, canceling services I rarely used, and skipping smaller vacations.
As time came closer to leave, I made money selling furniture and other items from my apartment. Also, the last bonus check from work helped a bit as well. In all, it took a little over a year to save up enough money for this trip.
I had friends telling me they could never afford to do what I am doing but would spend $400 USD/month on organized cycling classes and $500 USD/weekend on drinks. Saving the money needed for a trip like this wasn’t easy and required many sacrifices. However, I knew traveling was the ultimate goal and this was a part of the process to accomplish that goal.
Do you have any specific advice for people saving for their trip?
My advice and something that helped greatly was to look at a breakdown of my spending over a 3 month period. Your bank or credit card company usually provides this information free or you can do it yourself. Identify what is consuming the largest portion of your income and figure out ways you can reduce it.
Why don’t you think more people of color travel? You said in your original email that your friends and family said you were being “too white” by doing this.
The “you’re acting white” comment is one I’ve heard all my life. When I showed an interest in my education and a career in finance, I was acting “white.” When I went against the norm by quitting my job to travel I was acting “white.”
Honestly, it’s all quite confusing and makes trying to be yourself that much more difficult. In regards to traveling abroad, people view it as representing a certain amount of privilege that is not generally associated with minorities.
But again, this is about priorities, and if traveling is a priority you can find a way to do it without being a member of the upper-class elite.
I think another reason why people of color don’t travel as much is a lack of exposure. Without close friends and family who have or do travel, how might someone know that this is something to do?
Or that it is even worth doing?
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that people of color do not travel at all. That’s certainly not the case as I traveled quite frequently as a child with my family. However, I’d label this type of traveling as vacationing — and it was always to familiar places.
Where I see a lack of minority travelers is to those unfamiliar places like Southeast Asia.
In my opinion, Southeast Asia is a perfect place for people of any color and any budget. Yet I mostly see white travelers here. Why is that?
Many minorities my age in the U.S. come from families where their parents and grandparents did not have an opportunity to go explore the world. Instead, they were likely fighting for their civil rights and equality (which was a more pressing priority). Many were also recent immigrants to the U.S. and focused on creating a new life in an unfamiliar country.
So I think, due to a lack of exposure in minority communities, this idea of traveling the world isn’t as prevalent. The idea of traveling abroad became associated with white people and privilege.
Although at times it doesn’t seem like it, the opportunity for minorities to travel and explore is now much greater. We should take advantage of the sacrifices made by the generations before us.
How do you think that opinion can change? Do you think it ever will?
I think the opinion will change with time and an effort to educate minority youth about traveling and its accessibility. It is encouraging to see organizations and individuals trying to help push this effort along. With the emergence of social media, everyone can now share their travel experiences with a wider group of individuals.
Maybe an Instagram picture of the beautiful beaches in Thailand inspires a young person of color to work towards one day visiting, no matter the hurdles in their way. I know for myself it has opened my eyes and mind to hundreds of places I want to visit.
Have you faced any racism while traveling? How do you deal with it?
I thought I would encounter racism on a greater level traveling through Europe and Asia than what I’ve experienced at home.
But in my 9 months of traveling to big cities, small cities, urban and rural areas I can not think of one time I’ve experienced any deliberate racism. There were a couple of incidents of ignorance but not what I would consider racism.
I do have one interesting story I’ll share from when I was in this small town on the border of Montenegro. Based on the looks of curiosity I received, I’m fairly certain I was the first black person to travel through this town in a long time. As I made my way to the bus stop, I had a brief encounter with what I would guess were late-teenaged boys.
As I was standing at the crosswalk they slowly drove by with their rap music turned up and yelled out the window “What’s up my n*gga?” accompanied by a peace sign gesture. Having heard the word “n*gger” shouted from a car before, my guard went up immediately. But then I saw the look on the young boys’ faces. They were smiling as if they had encountered someone famous.
At that moment I realized they must have assumed this was an appropriate way of greeting a black male. I simply laughed while shaking my head. These kids were repeating what they were being fed through music and movies as being cool, likely not knowing the origin or meaning of the word they used. I only wish I could have used this as an opportunity to teach them the reality of that word and its connotations, but this was not a hate crime.
If anyone was treating me differently for being black, I was oblivious to it. At times I feel like I’m more likely to be treated differently for being American versus anything else. I’ve come to learn that most travelers are extremely open-minded and interested in learning about the places they travel as well as the people they meet along the way. You would be surprised how many other travelers express their curiosity and concerns with me about the lack of minority travelers.
What advice do you have for other travelers of color worried about racism when they travel?
Racism is ubiquitous. If you are going to put yourself in a setting of “others” you will experience “othering” — this is what humans have done for our entire existence. But I think one important piece of advice is that you can’t confuse racism and ignorance.
It is likely you will travel to places that are incredibly homogeneous so meeting or seeing a minority like yourself may be a first for them. Take this as an opportunity to teach someone about you and your culture. A smile and quick chat can go a long way in learning about our differences but even more so our similarities as humans.
If you do find yourself in a situation where you feel that you’re being treated differently due to the color of your skin, I’d suggest politely walking away. Don’t allow racism or discrimination to “win” by provoking a negative reaction from you and possibly ruining your adventure. The world is full of amazing and accepting people and I have faith that if you get out there on the road you’ll find them!
What was the moment you were like “Wow! I’m really doing this! This trip is real life!”?
Those moments happen so frequently. From the first train ride in Europe, staring out the window as I traveled from Stockholm to Copenhagen, envisioning the journey ahead of me, all the way to sitting on top of a pagoda in Myanmar watching as the sun rose, casting light onto an amazing moment.
This trip has been the best experience of my life so far and I make sure to reflect on and be grateful for all the amazing moments often.
OK, let’s switch gears and talk about the practical side of travel. How do you make your money last on the road? What are some of your best tips?
My most important tip to the backpacker crowd is to control your spending on alcohol because those beers add up fast. Ask around where the best happy hour and drink specials are located.
If you are with a large group, try to negotiate your own deal on drinks. Better yet, go buy alcohol from the store, grab a speaker to play music and drink outside somewhere. Those tend to be some of the best and cheapest nights out!
If you could give three pieces of advice to a new traveler, what would it be?
I’m one of those people who enjoys planning and researching before heading out to somewhere new. However, don’t over-plan your trip. Leave a little room for spontaneity. You’ll definitely meet some cool people or that special someone and want to continue traveling with them.
That’s hard to do if you have your entire trip pre-booked.
Put down your phone, smile, and say hello to someone new. I promise that interaction will be more interesting than whatever you’re reading on Facebook.
Find an activity to participate in that helps you overcome a fear. The open water scares me and in order to face that fear head-on, I went scuba diving. Also, pick an activity that challenges you mentally and physically. I climbed up the 5000+ steps to the top of Adams Peak in Sri Lanka. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my trip.
Lastly, find a way to give back while you’re traveling. Volunteering, donating and responsible tourism are some of the ways to help support the local communities you are traveling through and impacting.
This interview is not an end-all discussion on racism and travel. It’s one person’s perspective. Since this is a topic I’m often asked about, I wanted to share Alex’s story and perspective on the matter. I know this can be a passionate subject, but please keep all comments civil and respectful.
How to Travel the World on $50 a Day
My New York Times best-selling paperback guide to world travel will teach you how to master the art of travel so that you’ll get off the beaten path, save money, and have a deeper travel experience. It’s your A to Z planning guide that the BBC called the “bible for budget travelers.”
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.