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I am not a good swimmer. In fact, I am the best drowner I know. Even walking is cumbersome at times, so the thought of snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean was a daunting task. My friend Ramona, a German engineer, convinced me to go in the water. I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Quepos, Costa Rica on my first solo trip with G Adventures.
“Let’s go for it,” Ramona said.
“No thanks. I’m a horrible swimmer. I’ll drown,” I replied in fear.
“I’ll go with you — it’s fun and you’ll get to see so many animals,” she persisted.
“What will people say?” I pondered.
What will people say?
This motto is a sword ready at my immigrant parents’ arsenal. It’s cumbersome being part of a new country and community. People’s ideas and whispers linger in the air and over time, they edge themselves as foundational blocks for our insecurities.
My family moved to the US from Haiti in 2004, and we have been asking ourselves that question before every major life decision. Applying to college. Choosing a college to attend. Applying for jobs. Picking out apartments.
“What will people say?”
It can be difficult to shelter your own values, cultures, and traditions when you are so far from your own home. And then, to choose again to visit a new country — to be vulnerable in welcoming in a new culture.
I boarded the plane to Costa Rica at 5am on Christmas morning. I was leaving on Christmas Day to a country I had never visited before. I was tired, hungry, and anxious. Though I only carried one small suitcase with me, I was weighed down with emotional baggage. This was truly my first solo trip and I would not know anyone in Costa Rica.
Flashbacks to being the only African American in Chile from my study abroad program flooded my mind. Flashbacks to having strangers grope my hair in China. Each flashback more daunting than the last. I pushed those doubts out of my headspace and mustered strength to physically get on the plane.
My fears going to Costa Rica were not the language, the food, or the people. Though this was Central America, I lived in South America for six months and I knew the environment would be similar.
I was afraid of me being in Costa Rica.
In previous travels, I would outwardly look at people and love their country and their ways of life. I have stood in awe at merchants at the Night Market in Beijing and San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, and marveled at the busting lives hurrying to and from work.
But these same people would, inevitably, look at me as the only black one in the group.
There’s a specific stare from others that make you question if you belong.
It’s subtle but unforgettable.
I can easily tell that their brains skimmed the group of Americans and when their pupils landed on me – in a second, they wondered “one of these things (people) is not like the other…” This is the most petrifying scare you can get as a traveler.
This has not kept me back from traveling.
It has only encouraged me to trek new paths and walk new roads. Every day of traveling is not always uplifting — sometimes I end the day by Skyping back home in tears. I talk through action steps and schedule in breaks to go on walks.
But other times, I force myself to be seen. I stand tall in group photos. I happily greet strangers and hear all that they want to tell me. I order the hardest dish to pronounce on the menu and I ask merchants to take Boomerang videos with me.
I’m here. I’m black. And you see me.
Half a day later, I landed in San Jose. I ran from the taxi to the hotel where I kindly asked (begged) for the wifi password, the bathroom, and my room key. In that order.
I ran upstairs to meet one of the happiest happy-go-lucky people I have ever met — my roommate, Dulce (Spanish for “sweet”). Mexican born and raised, Dulce translated everything with a smile, loved seeing animals in the wild, and laughed like there’s no tomorrow. The extrovert to my introvert!
Later that evening, we met our G Adventures Chief Experience Officer (CEO) for the trip. It helps to have someone local who knows the land and its people – the introduction to a new country is more insightful that way.
‘We have a great group of people from all over the world on this trip,” Hector started.
He was right. Soon, I learned that our team had so many countries represented: US, Mexico, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium! At first, I was skeptical of having so many people from different cultures and parts of the world come together for two weeks. But by day four, I already started reaping the benefits of this diverse group.
Dulce, who would later trek a mysterious alleyway with me as we carried our laundry to a woman who would weigh, wash, and fold them by the next day.
Our friend from Denmark was on his twelfth tour with G Adventures and swears by the elephants drinking river water in the Serengeti, snorkeling in the Galapagos, and the best places to eat in Kathmandu.
Ramona and I jumped in the Pacific and plunged beneath the surface. She held my hand the whole time. I also screamed “HOLD MY HAND” the whole time. We spent an hour exploring Costa Rica underwater, our boat patiently waiting for us on the surface.
Snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean was not on my bucket list. I had met Ramona three days prior. It never occurred to me because I often avoid my very non-European hair getting wet (a cringe-worthy thought). But Costa Rica was one of my first travel experiences where I didn’t feel entirely different from everyone else — because we were all different.
This new confidence allowed me to try new things. We climbed waterfalls. We went horseback riding in the rain. We white water rafted down rapids. And when the sun decided to shine, it was great, too.
I know many women who treasure their comfort zones at home and never want to go abroad. I also know many women who fear traveling because of what people will say. They fear being black abroad because it is already exhausting being black at home.
I can only speak from my experience.
I still struggle with what people will say. I am still afraid that someone will touch my hair.
Though, with every trip I am starting to care less and less about what people say and learning to stand up for myself. This past trip to Costa Rica has certainly shifted my perspective and aimed my focus to exploring a new country.
So what will people say?
It doesn’t matter. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.