One Black Woman's Travel Notes and the Art of Taking Up Space

“I can’t believe you travel by yourself.”

This is the most common phrase I hear on my travels. Closely followed by, of course, “aren’t you afraid?” To that question, I often shrug. I’m not.

Four years ago, I made a personal commitment to travel more by taking one trip per year. I got tired of seeing others take these nice vacations and feeling envious. I had talked myself into the notion that I couldn’t afford to do it. After all, like many millennials, I’m knee deep in student loan debt along with a whole host of other debt.

Traveling alone was not my original intent. And traveling with a partner is something I am welcome to doing. However, in my Southern family, I come from deeply rooted people. They don’t really travel much. When it comes to friends, schedules seldom sync up to make a trip happen. Therefore, I travel all by myself.

Rather than write a long essay about my various experiences, I have broken them up into sections. Some are posed as questions and others statements. This allows you, the reader, to pick and choose what sections you want to read.

The view of Montreal from the Chalet du Mont Royal. It was a cool 5 degrees at this point. Quite a hike but worth the view.

The view of Montreal from the Chalet du Mont Royal. It was a cool 5 degrees at this point. Quite a hike but worth the view.

How do you afford to travel?

First, right off the bat, I limit my travels to US/Canada. Remember, I said earlier that I wanted to take one trip per year. An international trip would cost more and require a longer time to save and plan.

I pay for my trips through a variety of ways: tax return, credit cards, and that floating pay check. My booking, either airfare or AirBnb, usually coincides with the time I get my tax refund. Now, before you think I’m balling on a refund check, I’m not. I am a single woman with no dependents BUT I do pay on my student loans. Usually that helps me to get a nice but small return. The past few years I’ve gotten about $300-$400 back from the government. That amount can typically cover airfare or AirBnb but not both. I use the refund to pay whichever is most expensive.

To cover the rest, I may put the amount on my credit card and then pay it incrementally over the coming months. Or, I wait until I have that “floating paycheck.” I am paid biweekly. If you pay attention, there are about two to three months out of the year where you will get three paychecks instead of two, depending on when your payday falls. Most often, I will pay on credit card, pay incrementally, and when that third paycheck comes, pay the remaining balance.

Now, all I have to do is save a little more for food and transportation costs.

Voila, you now have a trip.

Where have you visited?

Since starting this “one trip per year” plan, I have been to Houston, Chicago, Montreal, and New Orleans.

Do you have a list of places?

No. No written list of places but I do have a general idea. For example, I know I would like to visit San Diego, Vancouver, Nova Scotia, Portland (Oregon and Maine) to name a few. It’s great to get out and see various parts of the country.

When do you travel?

When I decide to travel is based on a little bit of research. For each city, I do some research to determine when their busy tourist season is. Why? To know what time of the year to avoid because that’s when costs are at their highest. I’m fortunate that I have a fall birthday (late October). For many US cities and Canada, that is at the tail end of their tourist season and prices are starting to creep down and the weather is still nice.

How much planning do you do before a trip?

It varies as it depends on my interest level to “see all the things, do all the things” which is, in part, governed by how much time I have in the city. On average, I usually stay about 2-3 full days (excluding travel days). Three days is my maximum before I start missing home, my cat, and home cooked meals.

In generally, I don’t plan out a schedule in the sense of 9 AM go to x museum, 11 AM….etc. I set a daily goal. For example, when I visited Chicago, my goal for the day was to visit the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum. I set this goal due in part to proximity. They are near each other so why not hit up both?

Most of the time, I keep a fluid schedule to allow for spontaneity. Also, I always check out local bulletin boards in coffee shops, restaurants, etc for any activities that might strike my fancy. For example, in the same Chicago trip, I found out about an Oktoberfest going on at a church. It was a big outdoor venue and they had an amazing 80s cover band. I ended up jamming out with a group of people as we sang loudly and off key to the music. This side adventure wasn’t on my list of things to do. I saw a flyer at a restaurant and decided to go.

You mentioned having a cat. What do you do about him?

I have a 9 year old rescue kitty named Thaddeus. He is fairly self-sufficient. Before and after a trip, I shower him with attention. He may be a bit of a loner cat but after a few days of no human contact, he can be pretty needy.

I use to pay someone (a friend) to come in and play with him. That ended up not being feasible in the long run as I also travel for work. Shelling out money each time and then coordinating with a friend for the key exchange became too much.

About a year ago, when I moved to Detroit, I purchased an automatic feeder for dry food. For context, I typically feed the old man twice per day (6:15 am & 6:15 pm). When I’m traveling, he only gets fed once per day at 6:15 am. The automatic feeder can only dispense up to 5 days worth of food. I make sure to fill up each feeder trough to the brim.

On the day I’m leaving, he gets one whole can of wet food (he usually gets half) and then a separate bowl of dry food and a full bowl of water. Essentially, I over feed that first half day I’m gone.

Lucky for me, Thad is a grazer. He takes his time to eat. So when I come home, he is seldom hungry just very clingy that I’ve been gone.

Thaddeus Lorenzo Stevens aka Old Man, aka Bub, aka Fat Man

Thaddeus Lorenzo Stevens aka Old Man, aka Bub, aka Fat Man

How do you get around?

Combination of ways: by foot, public transportation, and ride-sharing (preferably Lyft). To travel with me, means you will do a LOT of walking. It’s the best way, in my opinion, to experience the city. There are things you miss or don’t notice if you ride-share all the time OR get a rental car. Thus far, I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t needed a rental car. For my Houston trip, I was living in Texas so I drove there.

In general, some of the cities I have traveled to have had decent public transportation. As part of pre-trip prep, I’ll see if they have any daily or weekly passes I can purchase. Bonus points if they have one of those reloadable cards. Side note: if they do, I always get it and hold on to the card. They don’t expire and I never know if I might visit that city again for work.

In terms of ride-sharing, I mostly use this going to/from the airport OR traveling at night. I prefer Lyft as I feel the drivers are nicer and the rates are more reasonable. I’ve sparked up many a conversation with Lyft drivers. I’ve gotten a ride from a math teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a documentary filmmaker, an aspiring nurse.

Travel must haves

My FitBit (for all that walking), a portable cell phone charger, and a book.

The charger was a true godsend. One of the issues I use to have traveling, whether for work or personal, is a dying cell phone. And it usually starts to die around the time I need it the most. My New Orleans trip (and my latest) was the first time I had the charger. Soooooo, helpful.

Any harrowing experiences?

In Montreal 2016 (and in December no less!), I got unbelievably lost. I had the printed instructions to get to my AirBnb as I knew I would have spotty cell service. Side note: Canada is behind the times when it comes to their cell service. At best, you might get 3G but you can guarantee you’ll have 2G.

Anyhoo, I overestimated my remembrance of the French language and got off at the wrong subway stop. My cell phone was dying so I had to use it sparingly. So there I am wandering around a foreign country, lost, at night, and the temperatures were dropping.

I turned a corner and saw the Starbucks logo. Y’all don’t know the relief I felt. I popped in, ordered a cup of really hot coffee, and asked for directions. The barista in French-accented English helped me out. I made sure to write down her instructions. Turns out I was only a few blocks from my AirBnb. I said a “merci” and headed on my way. That was one of my most harrowing experiences.

How I spent most of my time in Montreal in December. Thoroughly covered and layered up. Under this jacket I wore two layers of clothing.

How I spent most of my time in Montreal in December. Thoroughly covered and layered up. Under this jacket I wore two layers of clothing.

Have you had any awful AirBnb experiences?

*knocks on wood*

Fortunately no. Interestingly on that aforementioned Montreal trip that was the first time I used AirBnb. Once I got to the place after being lost, I did have the realization that I was meeting the male owner of the AirBnb, in the studio apartment, by myself. Suffice to say I was on high alert. He ended up being quite a pleasant man and we chatted for a bit and then he left. Unfortunately, our conversation touched on the recent 2016 election. I plastered on a fake smile, my people of color know what I’m talking about, when he talked about how our current president could be the catalyst to shake things up. Riiiiiight. Ok, byyyyyyeeeee.

In general, most of the time, the key is left for me in one of those lock boxes and I never meet the owner.

What’s it like to travel as a black woman?

I haven’t experienced any blatant, overt acts of racism or sexism. But I do experience that hypervisibility/invisibility that many black women experience and have written about. For example, in a lot of my travels and in certain spaces, I may be the only or one of a few minorities in a primarily white space. In New Orleans, the French Quarter is one of the places you should check out. I found, shockingly so, that I was one of the few dots of color as I walked around. I did see black people but often they were either street entertainers or sanitation workers. (That in and of itself made me feel some kind of way.) I found that people, other (white) tourists, would notice me. Some would flat out stare. Why? You’ll have to ask them.

Then there is contending with the invisibility side. It is to contend with white people who act as if I’m not there. Whether its while walking on the sidewalk, taking public transportation, or ordering at a cafe. I call these your sidewalk hoggers, space invaders, and amenity blockers. All of these people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are subtly demanding of me to minimize myself or wait my turn until they’re ready. Not only that, many of them. Yes, many of them know exactly what the f**k they are doing. I see it in the way they look at me. Look dead at me and then continue doing the thing they are doing whether it inconveniences me or not.

Now, I recognize that we are living in perilous times. And, I recognize that each circumstance should be taken on a case-by-case basis. If at any time you feel like your very safety is at risk, don’t do it.

That being said, on my own path of self-love and change, I live by a simple motto now:

Take. Up. Space.

Advocating for oneself has become erroneously synonymous with aggressive confrontation. Like you’re ready to square up and lay some hands on folks. Nope.

Taking up space is refusing to be minimized. If I’m walking down a sidewalk and I have no room to get over but a couple walking on the other side does, I square up. I keep moving forward. Either they will yield space or we’re going to collide. Simple as that. And I have collided with people. Some have apologized but most haven’t. But they have now had a lesson on learning to be mindful of others.

Taking up space is letting folks know they are holding up progress. At this point in my travels, I have zero qualms of saying clearly “excuse me,” “are you done?” “i need to get over here” or “i’m not finished” in order to disrupt the many ways white people take up space and expect that deference. For example, I was at a cafe with a self-serve coffee station. There were two white men at the station. I was behind them. Both of them noticed I was behind them but continued their conversation long after filling their cups. Hence the moniker amenity blockers. Once I got hip to it, I said in a very clear and stern voice  “are you finished? Some of us (gesturing to the folks behind me) would like to get our coffee.” I called out their behavior while pointing out how they are inconveniencing several other people. They never apologized (I didn’t expect them too) but they got out the damn way.

America is a country based on this straight white supremacist capitalist patriarchy hegemony. If you lie outside of any of those identifiers it is expected that you will defer to it. To do so requires you to relinquish your identity and minimize who you are. This country can not progress to where it needs to be until this is challenged and toppled but also for those of us to assert our identities. This deference is no longer the way. To refuse to defer is in and of itself a challenge to this hegemony.

Best tour I took in Chicago. This was a mere weeks before the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I attribute their win to my visit. #justsaying

Best tour I took in Chicago. This was a mere weeks before the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I attribute their win to my visit. #justsaying

Share what it’s like traveling as a woman.

It isn’t much different but it does have a layer of caution. I may seem like a stick in the mud but I don’t immerse myself in the nightlife that much when I travel and I have a two drink maximum. For the first part about nightlife, a big reason for this is that I’m usually pretty active during the day with lots of walking. Context: on average, I walk about 5-7 miles per day. Sure, I will venture out for dinner but I find I’m pretty tired by 9 PM. In my most recent trip to New Orleans, I actually got out at night because I did a better job of conserving my energy. My AirBnb was only three blocks west of a vibrant bar and restaurant strip.

The two drink maximum is a general rule for me. I’m not a big drinker and if I do drink, two drinks is my cut off. At two drinks, I start to feel relaxed but still have my wits about me. If I want to do three then I definitely pair with food.

In Montreal, I didn’t travel at night because the 10 degree temperatures kept me in. Instead, I listened to music, picked a book from the Airbnb’s bookshelf, and drank a copious amount of red wine.

In New Orleans, I went out twice. In both instances, I walked to where I was going because they were a short distance. The city has many a shadowy, uneven sidewalk. For streets that were this way, I walked in the middle of the street where there was the most lighting. I used my phone sparingly as I didn’t want to be distracted. Case in point, I was walking back from a bar. I saw this couple who were both on their phones. I got within 5 feet of them before they noticed I was there. Now imagine if I was someone with ill-intent.

I generally don’t get hit on by guys. I think it may be a combination of the resting bitch face (which I have grown to appreciate) and my demeanor. I’ve been told I give off a “leave me alone” vibe. I’m OK with that. I don’t mind chatting people up but I’m not looking to pick anyone up or be picked up. At the end of the day, I don’t know you from a random person on the street. The rare occasions I have been hit on I felt I was in a safe enough environment to rebuff the advance without feeling like my life was in danger.

I mentioned on Twitter how I was hit on by a drunk guy in New Orleans. He had the wherewithal not to be pushy and asked if I wanted to keep talking or did I want to be left alone. At that time, I wanted to be left alone and I said as much. He left me alone.

I do get street harassed and cat-called. Now, what I do is I will put my earbuds in, sometimes there is music and sometimes there isn’t, and wear my shades. The earbuds give me a natural out because, to them, I may not have heard them. I make a point of not reacting to what they say because then they may get hip to the fact I can hear them. Thankfully, I haven’t been followed but I do make a point to look around me and subtly check.

Any last traveling advice or words of wisdom?

Traveling is possible. You may not be able to do a “one trip a year” but one trip every other year or every three years is possible. If you have someone traveling with you, that can help to cut down on individual costs.

Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to that feeling. Don’t dismiss it. At the end of the day, you are in an unfamiliar place by yourself.

Learn your cardinal directions. Which way is north, south, east, and west. This skill comes in really handy if your phone is dying but you know you’re headed east. When I arrive at my AirBnb, I usually pull up the map on my phone and orient myself. If I head right, which direction am I heading?