Rasheeda and I met through a mutual acquaintance a few years back. Over the years I've hardly been able to keep pace with her as she criss-crosses continents. She operates with grace, strength and flexibility. She's a bona fide bon vivant, never far from song and lyric. In the time that I've known her she has been continually pushing her boundaries. How would such a forward-thinking, independent, and determined sister handle the unchallenged male privilege of the Gulf kingdoms? I asked myself that question when I learned of her plans to take an assignment in Saudi Arabia. The anecdotes she recounted following her arrival took me through a scale of emotions. She has never failed to leave me awed after a conversation.
ND: You seem to be a spiritual person. Often, when we speak, you talk about energy and what have you. What do you mean by energy? And how has that been affected by your travels?
Am I spiritual? Yeah. I guess. I think that we are all connected to a life force. Some of us more than others. When I talk about energy, I'm just talking about the general feeling of good and bad. These feelings usually help us make decisions. And traveling as a single woman, I rely on prayer, meditation and a heart of discernment when dealing with "the public". I have to rely on the energy or the vibration around new people and new things to discern if those things will lead to positive experiences or frustrations.
ND: Cool, I think I'm similar in that way.
ND: One thing I really dig about your style of travel is that you seem to embrace traveling with a purpose or intention. Why do you think that is important?
Traveling with intention is more about maximizing my experiences. What I've noticed about setting goals and setting intentions is that there is always an offshoot benefit or distraction from working towards something. Too often we take action but have no particular reason for it. But since traveling requires confidence and sometimes quick thinking, it's good to have some sort of foundation for why you are wherever you are. When someone asks me, "Why did you come here? What made you leave Canada (the land of milk and honey) to come here (insert third world/developing nation)?" I wanted to know for myself that I am not just there as a tourist, I am also there as cultural observer. Someone who wants to know how people live. What makes them tick? What motivates their lives? What is most essential to survival? And these answers are vast because there are so many other standards of living outside of the western ideal. There are different hierarchies of needs. [My intention] is there to keep me focused on something other than the differences and idiosyncrasies that occur, and often malign one's embracing of other cultures. My intention keeps me focused on being present. Sometimes that leads to other things but all of my experiences put together off me a world of hope.
ND: How have your intentions shifted according to some of your destinations?
When I first moved to Korea, in '07. I was just trying to see another part of the world. My intention there was to save some money and explore a culture almost completely opposite to mine. Going back to Korea in '09 was definitely about getting over a break up and redirecting my frustrations into something positive, which was teaching. That worked out amazingly. A month in Japan and three months in Brazil allowed me detox sessions from the life I was living in Korea. Both of these times, I had to address my self-esteem when returning home. Not because there is anything wrong with me, but my needs and my perception of what I represent, changed. Adjusting is a real thing. the first challenge was just based on language. Body language isn't as important when everyone speaks English.
ND: How have your travels buttressed/challenged your self-esteem?
As a black woman, my self esteem is challenged in or out of a travel context. But travel experiences have been colored sometimes by racism and sexism. Having to tolerate people misjudging you, speaking to you with a lack of respect or ignoring you because you are a black woman is upsetting. It doesn’t happen often but it happens and it can be discouraging. For example, one time I was transferring planes in Bogota, Columbia on my way to Washington, D.C. and had the flight attendant move me from a comfortable window seat at the front to the very back of the plane for no other reason than my skin color. The exchange was so disrespectful, upsetting and unnerving. And as I arrived in Dulles International, I was excessively searched and subject to be violated by a sniffing dog. The tears flowed pretty automatically in both of those experiences because there was no recourse other than my words to complain on a paper. And I was grateful to be embraced, immediately after, that by the loving arms of my family. It was horrible. I think vulnerability is a real thing when we travel alone. My self-esteem took a hit in this travel experience because, I would have never considered that I was someone people/authorities would look at with suspicion. But sometimes, we have to shrug off the frustrations of what the outside world wants us to feel. Being with my family again truly rejuvenated me and reminded me that I would be fine. I am not always going to be viewed with suspicion. I am not always going to be misunderstood.
ND: From knowing you, I've sensed that you don't have too much of an issue with traveling solo or putting yourself out there, so to speak.
Traveling solo is a privilege and a curse at the same time. On one hand, I go further and see more. I can say yes without hesitation or secondary considerations. The independence is astounding. I get to move quickly and decide what is best for me only and benefit from that quite easily. But then again, when some beautiful stranger asks me to fly to Cartagena, Colombia for a weekend, I can say yes and go, but my body could end up floating in a river someplace (laughs). Its a catch22 with the single life.
ND: Do you think it's more difficult for female drifters to go it alone?
I don't think traveling for women is as difficult as we sometimes like to make it seem. As a westerner, we are often boundless in terms of where we can go without a partner.
ND: What advice would yougive the ladies looking to hit the road alone?
The two most important things to have while traveling alone is cash and wisdom. Cash can normally get you out of situations or provide solutions to problems that arise. Wisdom is for avoiding those situations in the first place [laughs]. Women [travelers] are sometimes vulnerable— but in general, being strong, assertive and direct helps people think twice about misunderstanding you or misrepresenting themselves. That is where being aware of the energies and vibrations around you plays its part.
ND: Speaking of advice, I know that before arriving in Saudi Arabia— where you were when we last spoke— you sought advice, and kind of came to the realization that people can give you advice, but that advice may not be the best advice for you. Can you expand on that?
Yes. Its true. I live and teach in Saudi Arabia. And I can't lie, its been amazing in both a negative and a positive way. Before I came, everyone I knew seemed to know how horrible it was going to be. I kept thinking that 20 million people live there. Some of those people love it there and I want to find them. Saudi is such a closed country and environment that, most people can only judge it by what the western media says. Everyone who knew I was coming here was either really supportive of me exploring Islam or really afraid for my life. While listening to the many tales of Saudi's oppressive daily life, I often thought to myself, "Man, no one is going to be able to tell me how to be me in Saudi Arabia." And because I came with that approach, I think I was able to adapt in a positive way. At least in a way that didn't land me in a Saudi jail. Everyone has to try to stay positive even when our morale is low because we all have submitting and adjusting to do, that was never required of us prior to coming to Saudi. So, I think the experience in itself is particular because Saudi is such a particular place.
ND: With regard to Saudi and its particularity, what have been some of your other observations?
What being here has shown me, is that human beings are resilient. We can live through anything. Slavery, the Holocaust, Genocides and prevalent wars and uprisings, there are still people who are around who are glad to be alive and grateful to be alive. Alhumdulilah. Not saying that this life is right, but its not my culture. Its just my reality for now.
ND: How would you describe and compare some of the standards and expressions of femininity in some of the places that you've lived? Any stark contrasts or similarities?
Many people of different faiths and culture have expressions of femininity. No other culture I've experienced is as extreme in exercising its male privilege like Saudi. Some women like it. I can appreciate some of it, but again, this is not my culture so I just go with wearing my Hijab because I live here and if I don't wear it, the religious police will tell me to put it on. I may as well wear it. I'm not really saying anything by not wearing it while I live here. If I don't, I am just opening myself up to some avoidable foolishness. Especially as a woman of colour. I think many women together, in the spirit of family and sisterhood, is incredibly empowering and beautiful. However, I think to exist in that mindset 100% of the time while waiting to grow up and get married, is impossible. So I wish there was a better balance in social etiquette between men and women. I think gender segregation in every aspect of a woman's life, is challenging her sexuality in ways and emotional maturity in both arrested and perverse ways, when the only men she is allowed to interact with are those in her family. Same for men. I think women cope with it fine though, because Saudi women are amazing. They try, bend, manipulate, dominate and juxtapose their situation so that they can benefit from it.
Femininity, in Latin America, North America, Asia and the Middle East, all have stark contrasting differences, motivations and reactions to being born woman and the challenges of patriarchy and male privilege. You could write an entire blog on challenging these ideals. Since lately, men don't see themselves as men unless they are "above" a woman. And that's frustrating. However, it doesn't inhibit my travel experiences. Its enriching and makes me have a deeper love for home where human rights are discussed and mulled over enough to the point where we challenge our societies to do better, be better, respect our personhood more, etc. Not all cultures can insist on certain freedoms and no where is perfect.
ND: What is your travel philosophy?
My travel philosophy is very simple. There isn’t anywhere on God’s green Earth that I don’t belong. And I have so much love to give, I pray that I will get there to give it. Love yourself into the reality that you want.