The experiences of being a black traveller abroad is a unique one. It certainly was for Shira Smillie, a 23 year old English teacher who is currently living in Spain. Originally from Philadelphia, Shira decided to go backpacking across the world after graduating from university. It gave her one of the most powerful and eye-opening experiences she ever had. This is her testimony.
Travelling teaches us so much about the world. But for some of us, taking a trip overseas is more than just a vacation. It’s a way of life.
One that enables us to connect with the primal desire to figure out who we are and what our place in the world is.
At least that’s how it was for Shira Smillie who has so far been to more than 20 countries, and is still ticking destinations off her bucket list.
She currently works as an English teacher in Spain, which she has done ever since graduating from university.
It is a job which allows her to travel abroad, soak up the culture and learn a new language.
Although it wasn’t Shira’s dream to teach English for a living, it has certainly allowed her to travel and meet some amazing people.
She said: “My experience has been amazing. I’ve been able to travel extensively and practice my Spanish. People are really friendly. I live in a part of Spain which is not touristy at all. Most people don’t speak English.
“It means that I can immerse myself in the culture. Because I came straight from university, I’ve done all this on my own. It’s definitely made me grow up. It’s required a certain amount of strength and tenacity that I always kind of had and this experience has really solidified that.”
However, travelling isn’t just a way to see the world. It has also provided Shira with the opportunity to learn about the world.
During her trip to Poland, she visited the site of the old concentration camps in Krakow. For her it was to be one of the most powerful and memorable experiences she had in Eastern Europe.
She said: “I’ve studied history in university. Visiting the concentration camps in Poland made me cry. I think that everyone should go to concentration camps as a way to not forget the atrocities that have happened.”
However, this wasn’t merely a chance to learn about the past. For Shira, it was an experience that brought the past alive and acted as a powerful lesson for the present.
Shira added: “There are so many more atrocities that have happened which nobody talks about. Being in those concentration camps touched a part of my emotions that I didn’t even know I had.
“As a spiritual person, I felt like I was walking among the dead. It’s one thing to hear about people being burned alive, it’s another to see an incinerator. It’s one thing to learn about the concentration camps, but it’s another to see the piles of hair that belonged to the people who lost their identity there.
“They divided the camps into these barracks, where you can see all the objects that they took from people when they had to remove their clothes before entering the camps. It was very overwhelming.That was definitely my most memorable experience in Eastern Europe.”
However, while her journey across the world has certainly been an enlightening one, she has also faced her fair share of prejudice. Black travellers face unique challenges when venturing abroad, and this is particularly the case with many black women.
The main problem for Shira, as with so many other black women I’ve spoken to, was the sexual stereotypes and lewd behaviour that was projected from other people.
She said: “The biggest form of racism that I’ve experienced in Europe is the hypersexualisation of my body. For example, the amount of cat calls I got in Milan was awful. I almost didn’t want to go outside at one point.
“For example, I’d be walking out with my cousin and cars would stop and tell us to get in. They treated us like prostitutes. That outright sexualisation and racism made them feel like they had some sort of right to my body. It infuriated and angered me.”
But this racism has a deeper issue. That issue is human trafficking. Human trafficking affects women from all over the world, especially in Africa. As a result, many women are trafficked from Africa and forced to work in brothels in Europe. Sometimes they are simply tricked into going, with the promise of jobs. Other times, they are kidnapped.
This, combined with media stereotypes has led to the perception of black women being ‘easy’. This is particularly the case in countries where many trafficked women are taken to -such as Italy.
Let me be clear. This is not to deny the experiences of women in Europe, Asia and America who have also been trafficked in their thousands. But rather, to shine a spotlight on how these hidden crimes against humanity can feed into racial stereotypes.
One of the great things about travelling abroad is immersing yourself in other cultures that are very different from your own.
However, sometimes the most powerful experiences come from reconnecting with a part of our ancestral history that has been lost or forgotten.
And so it was with Shira. As a black traveller with Jamaican roots, she found more than a kinship in another part of the Caribbean – Cuba. After resonating so powerfully with the people there, she was moved by her experiences there. It was one of the best she’s had so far.
She explained: “I saw a show by these Afro-Cuban women who were doing these very spiritual dances to music. The majority of the music in Cuba comes from Afro Cubans.
“As they were dancing, they were also doing these spiritual chants. I am a very spiritual person and I felt like I was moved to dance in that moment. It was the best show that I had seen. I felt like it spoke to my spiritual beliefs about the universe and spirit. I felt the history and I felt as though the ancestors were with me. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
A similar experience happened when Shira was in Ecuador and she met Afro Ecuadorians who welcomed her warmly as one of their own.
Shira added: “That was the first time I felt the African diaspora in action. They told me they were very inspired by Martin Luther King and other black leaders. They were keen to start their own civil rights movement there.
“They had such an admiration for African Americans and experiencing that was amazing. It was interesting to learn about their philosophy and the unique challenges that they face and I learned that black people around the world have very similar struggles. It’s pretty much the same but it is just packaged differently.”
The whole idea behind telling the stories of other black travellers and hearing their testimony is to give a voice to those who have been largely forgotten by the mainstream travel industry.
The images we see on travel magazines, documentaries and advertising affects the way we think about travel. If you don’t see anyone that looks like you, it becomes easy to assume that backpacking or taking overseas adventures just isn’t for you.
Even worse, there are many who assume that going abroad is particularly dangerous for the black traveller. While you do have to be careful and you may face stereotypes abroad, you may also face these problems in your own country.
Hearing the personal testimonies from people like Shira show us that another world is possible. She comes from the United States, where 48% of people do not own a passport. She certainly does and her adventures have been powerful.
But of course, there will be many people who read her story and ask themselves how they can do the same. How can you become a black traveller and have your own adventures all over the world?
Well it starts with keeping a more open mind.
Travelling opens the mind in a way that nothing else can. In this article and in many others, I’ve spoken at great length about the prejudice faced by black travellers.
However, I also believe that travelling changes us and makes us more open and accepting towards others.
This was also the case with Shira, who says she has grown because of her experiences.
“As a result of travelling, I am a more open and tolerant person because I have been exposed to more ideas and perspectives. If you only spend your life around people who think like you, look like you, then you confine yourself to a cage.
“You need to free your mind from yourself and do things which make you a more open and well-rounded person. That’s what travelling has done for me.”
Almost every black traveller I’ve spoken to said that the greatest gift of travelling has been meeting other people. Shira is no different.
“I love meeting other people and hearing their stories,” she said: “I’m a writer and a storyteller and I love hearing from people who are different from me. I also love meeting people with different beliefs and ideologies from various cultures. That is the best part about travelling.”
Shira says the key to travelling the world is saving enough money and coming up with several sources of income to support your adventures. However, she is not one to sit on her dreams. Once you’ve got the money – just go. Adventures await you.
Shira put it best when she said: “Just get out there and do it. Don’t wait. The best way to have these great experiences is just to do it. Don’t get too caught up on the idea that you may face racism.
“There is racism in every part of the world. Don’t let racism or fear of facing racism stop you. Other people’s problem with you is just that – their problem. Don’t let them stop you and do what makes you happy.”