The science behind travelling alone as a black woman

by Drew Chateau (Law, 2018)

Many people say the world is your oyster, but it’s not so straight forward when you’re a black woman. Identifying as black and as a woman means that I often don’t feel safe. The fear that I can experience on my own street, worrying about my safety walking at night, or walking past the police on my road, making sure that my hands are out of my pockets and I look straight is a common part of my routine. The situation is heightened when viewed from the world at large. In 2016, it was found that 32% of people in France and 48% in Italy experienced hate-motivated harassment, compared to 21% in the UK. Yet despite these figures and despite my own feelings, I had an aspiration that I would fly across Europe and travel alone. It started when a friend at work told me about her holiday to Sri Lanka on her own. I was shocked, stunned yet inspired. Immediately, I wanted to learn her secret, how she managed to leave her entire support ground and fly, as a black woman, across the world alone. I wanted to acquire her confidence. 

I was a shy girl, having been bullied many times throughout my school experience and not appreciating the power that my voice could hold. I was weary of new environments, from both men catcalling or following me on street, to being stopped and searched as a child. My confidence was low from an amalgamation of social anxiety due to the combination of my identity. I worshipped the thought of a holiday, an escape from the everyday social conformities that were shaping me to become especially inept to converse with my peers, male, female and work colleagues. When my friend spoke of waking up, and planning her route around Sri Lanka, of walking and caring for the elephants, making friends with the locals, buying her own amenities and catering for herself outside of all the influences that shape a person, I relished the idea of what that could do for my own self-esteem.

But my friend didn’t have any secrets to tell me. She just simply, went. And so, I felt the message that my mother had always been telling me. To feel the fear and do it anyway. Whilst feeling the fear, I booked my flight ticket. First one, to Italy. Then, I felt emboldened by the adrenaline rush and I booked my second. Not one bound back home. No, I was extending my trip – to France. Both places had some high rates of black people and women feeling discriminated against, not just in surveys but in the news. I was booking my trip after the racist’s chants at the Amiens football game in France, and after the kidnappings of women in Italy. 

Foolish as it might have been, I refused to let these factors hinder me. But, I also didn’t rush in foolhardy. Instead, I altered my experience by creating a ‘sandwich-trip’. The beginning of my trip in Italy, I was accompanied by my mother, and at the end of my trip, in France, I would be staying with friends. In the middle, I would be touring the world on my own.
My mother flew out before me. It was an exhilarating moment, knowing that I’d be boarding my very own flight in a few hours. I finished packing late and was driven to the airport by a family friend, the slow adrenaline picking up as we went through my packing list. Phone charger, camera, clothes – oh my gosh, I’m travelling alone! The airport experience was completely novel to me, including the guards walking around with the automated guns. I had never seen one before in my life – a gun that is, and rather than feeling assured, it reminded me of the grand task ahead of me. The thought of quitting never entered my mind though, I was in too deep and I was determined to see the other side of that plane.

The plane journey itself was a moment to remember. The flight attendants ushered us in, greeting everyone with warm smiles and I began to feel the holiday jitters settling in. Then I realised that it was the turbulence I was feeling. That, I decided, was my first test. If I could hold on, grip the arm rest, close my eyes and breathe, it would lead to something beautiful. And it did. Now I know, one of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen, is flying over the night sky, being within the clouds, drifting towards a different culture on the other side of the world. All of my previous fears vanished, and I thought; ‘what a beautiful sight. I would not miss this for the world’. But it was a very early morning flight, so I ended up sleeping the rest of the way. When I woke, I clamoured with the overhead storage and lifted my numb legs through the narrow walkway to experience Italy, my first destination. And the heat was not lost on me. As soon as the aircraft doors opened I was thrust into a furnace. I thought at first, this oppressive heat would pass; but then I realised, that was just Italy.

I called my mum and got a taxi from the airport to her Air BnB. I was exhausted, tired, but I knew that the adventures would soon begin. And I was correct. We walked through the streets, witnessing people busking English pop songs in the street to an Italian beat, as on the other side of the road, the ruins of Roman Colosseums stood. Later, we saw a group of Senegalese people, who welcomed us into their community. Someone had a home at the back of a shop and inside, a group of 8 people were sitting on sofas around a pot of food. We sat down and let the culture do the talking, as the language barriers prevented much more conversation. My French skills were put to the test, as I translated Italian French, to my mum who only spoke English. We spoke of their experience in Italy, their family all over the globe, and I learned, sitting there eating home cooked stew in the back of an Italian-Senegalese house, that their life, though challenging, was not as frightening as it was portrayed over the media. The message; racism exists, but it doesn’t stop us from existing either. 

Sooner than expected, I said goodbye to my mum and began my solo trip. I was renewed with the vigour of our experiences and was feeling uncharacteristically confident. So much so, that when I went to my hostel, I started the conversations first. It ended up in me connecting with a German girl, who was also travelling on her own after her exams and having her as my own personal tour-guide. We spoke about all sorts and touched on her solo-adventures. We saw the ruins, me relying on her knowledge of Classics and Italian classes to translate the parts of stone decorating the streets. I tried Italian gelato, and watched as jewellers argued with drivers, negotiating their portion of the road near the Trevi Fountain. Each moment, I took pictures, sending them to family so they had a running inventory, both of my amazing experience as well as my whereabouts at all times. Through carefully managed timing, I was able to have fun, grow yet stay safe at the same time.

Then, I packed up and moved on again. Standing outside the station in Rome, I chose my own taxi driver, then promptly phoned my mum and spoke with her throughout the entire journey until it was time to board. She refused to let me sleep in the passenger lounge, on my own, and enlisted my cousin to keep me awake with funny YouTube videos Till this day, I still watch the series that was introduced to me then – The Hot Ones. On my second plane ride, I was a veteran and skilfully navigated baggage-claim and boarded the metro alone. My friends were already waiting for me at the station, and the next leg of my journey was simply sublime. In my short time there, I walked the Champs D’Élysées, eating ice-cream and speaking French with the natives. I slept in the countryside, watching from the window as a thunderstorm raged in the adjacent field. We played laser tag and yelled ‘tricheur!’ at the boy cheating the entire game.  I even played French monopoly and hunted down ‘la sourie dans la nuit’. It was a time that I will never forget, least because when I returned I was a different , more confident and liberated person.

Fear prevents people from appreciating many great things in life. I wanted to travel alone, and I didn’t let my identity stop me. My trip was in no sense of the word fear-free, but it was managed, extraordinary, and dare I utter the cliché: life-changing.