A Chinese proverb says, “a journey of a thousand miles starts with just one step.” Though we’re living with limited mobility because of the current health crisis, it is important to remember that that first step starts very close to home. There’s no need for far-flung places to open their doors, when the very beginning is opening your heart.
Much of what people fear about travel is not the journey itself, it is the abrupt exit from a comfort zone. A space where communication and connection are easy, where everyone is working from the same sheet of cultural music and where everyone is believed to know the tune. There is something very valuable in that, but it is important to remember that that harmony could sound anywhere. Whenever you seize those small windows of opportunity to let empathy and vulnerability sunset fear and intimidation, there will be genuine connection that could last a lifetime. Those opportunities are all around us.
Earlier this year, I jumped into the back of a ride-share, ready to be whisked off to my destination, but something told me that this car was just too quiet. I checked my route to time my arrival and realized that my driver was identified by the app as being hearing impaired. Something in me clicked. I have been here before. This happens with every taxi driver in Marrakech, in Cairo, in Dakar, we have a communication gap and I go the extra mile to bridge it. I simply asked Siri to tell me how to say, “Thank you. Have a nice day” in American sign language. Within seconds, I was practicing the motions in my head, trying not to draw too much attention to myself in the backseat. When we arrived, I shook off the nervous butterflies and set my hands in motion. The driver looked humored and delighted, maybe even relieved. And before I could finish, he was wrapping up “nice day” for me, because - well - he clearly had other places to be. We laughed, and in his eyes I could see that he appreciated my effort. I felt like that short trip across town was so similar to the long ones I had taken across the world. Travel skills are transferable, and we should never waste the chance to keep up the practice.
With Jelani Women, we travel with empathy and we intend on connection. It is not by happenstance, so much as a deliberately cultivated part of the travel experience. That said, it is only as impactful as individuals’ effort. We plan cultural service trips to offer our skills to young people in need and share our hearts with those who may have never met a Black American woman before. We hire local expert guides and service providers who value our best efforts at “hello” in Arabic, Twi, Wollof, Zulu, and Swahili. Then, the travelers, themselves, go the distance.
Trust me, we don’t always get it right. We mispronounce things and we mix stuff up, but it is always important to make the effort to try. And in the trying, we learn not to take ourselves so seriously in unfamiliar situations, and sometimes in return we make life-long friends out of perfect strangers.
The wherewithal that makes you a world traveller is the same that makes you a good global citizen. It is seeing the ability of each and every soul to connect with one another, and to find commonality even where you least expect it. It is about going the extra mile to see what is on the other side of fear, miscommunication, and a comfort zone that deserves new boundaries. The first step in a travel journey is personal and private. It starts with seizing mundane opportunities to see the humanity in others in your own backyard. We encourage you to waste no time and to take that step now. Before you know it, you will join us - as a travel companion and friend - when your journey takes you farther afield.
Ashley N. Company
“Fly” Girl spreading #BlackGirlMagic across 100 countries and counting. Headwrap lover. Fierce Protector of Black Lives.