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When travel journalist and author Elaine Lee took her first trip out of the country, she had just started law school at Howard University. “I flew from Washington, D.C. to see the Howard University basketball team play in The Bahamas,” says the Berkeley, California, resident.
But while trying to relax on the beach in Nassau, she was being inappropriately approached by men and people trying to sell her things. So, a local Bahamian suggested she try a quieter island.
“He said his aunt was leaving for her home on the island of Exuma in the morning and that I could go with her. And I just said, ‘OK,’” Lee laughs. Though these Bahamians were strangers to her, somehow Lee just felt safe going with them.
“When I met the guy’s aunt, I liked her and she liked me,” Lee remembers. “And I stayed with her and her husband for about two weeks and it was just wonderful because it was a true cultural immersion!”
She baked bread every day with the woman, played dominos with her husband and his friends and they even set Lee up to speak to the local elementary school students about becoming a lawyer.
“So that was the beginning of me learning what it meant to be a traveler and not a tourist,” says Lee, who first got her love of travel as a kid through road trips with her mother. “And I realized this is the way I’d like to maneuver in the world.”
Finding Herself in Paris
That maneuvering took her on a solo trip to Paris. “I was a workaholic civil rights lawyer when I first visited Paris,” Lee admits. In fact, Lee had started a nonprofit that was the world’s first law center for battered women.
“It was very rewarding but all-consuming,” she laments. But a colleague told her she was overworked and needed to take a break. She told Lee that she and her husband were going to Paris for his six-month sabbatical and that Lee was welcome to stay with them with her own room, plenty of food and not have to pay a penny. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Lee laughs.
Once in Paris, Lee was told about a Black expat hangout called Randy and Jay’s, a place known for its BBQ ribs. She visited during the end of Fashion Week and got to party with a diverse group of Black travelers, including models and fashion photographers.
There was music, dancing, and singing and everyone just welcomed Lee into their community. “I realized Americans live to work, but Parisians work to live,” states Lee.
“The two weeks I was in Paris made me realize I needed more balance in my life.” That was in 1989. Lee has traveled to Paris every year since and considers it her second home, with friends throwing her a welcome party every time she arrives. “It’s really where I came alive for the first time, so I call it the birthplace of my soul.”
That rebirth caused Lee to change her life when she returned to Berkeley. She spoke to her financial planner to see how she could retire and travel the world and was able to make it happen in two years.
After speaking with a friend about combining her love of travel with her love of writing, she took travel writing classes, joined the Bay Area Travel Writers and became a paid travel writer. Since then, she’s traveled to 59 countries and has taken two six-month solo trips around the world.
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She says her experiences have taught her that traveling alone is safe and that most people around the world are friendly. “For Black women, we’re like third-class citizens in the United States, so it’s wonderful to travel the world and be treated as a first-class citizen,” Lee emphasizes.
“And I think it’s so important for Black people to get out of the United States and see what it’s like to not have to carry the burden of racism. It’s so liberating!”
Encouraging Black Women to Go Girl!
But Lee didn’t start out being the fearless traveler she is today. “I was really terrified and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing,’ because in reality, I had never met a Black woman who had traveled around the world alone before,” Lee emotes.
“But after I finished my first trip around the world and I was flying back to the United States, I was thinking of how well that trip went and how few Black women I saw on that trip,” Lee remembers.
“I felt like I needed to let Black women know how safe it really is out here in the world.” That’s how “Go Girl!: The Black Woman’s Guide Book of Travel and Adventure” came to be. The book was a hit when it was published in January 1997 through Eighth Mountain Press.
Now, nearly 30 years later, Lee is releasing “Go Girl 2” on February 15, in print and on Amazon. “I realized a lot of young women had never heard of my book. And with this new, massive Black travel movement, I felt that people need to know about it,” states Lee.
“ My book not only provides information for Black women travelers, but it provides a venue for Black women travel writers because there aren’t many venues for our voices to be heard,” she laments.
The expanded and updated edition of the original book holds 54 tales, poems, and photos from both veteran and new Black women traveler writers about destinations from every continent. New contributors include Lola Akinmade Åkerström, Lebawit Lily Girma, Martinque Lewis and myself.
Veteran contributors from the first book include luminaries like the late Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Jill Nelson.
Lee adds, “In the last few decades, the idea of reclaiming our heritage has made a lot of people want to go to Africa. In fact, 2019 was the “Year of Return” in Ghana (400 years since enslavement in the U.S.), and a record number of people returned to Ghana and even got dual citizenship. So I chronicle some of that history in my introduction of ‘Go Girl 2.’”
The book ends with a generous section of travel resources and a planning guide.
The History of Black Travel
Since “Go Girl 2” is being released during Black History Month, Lee reflects on the history of Black travel in the United States. “When you think about our trip from Africa here, that was extremely traumatic,” Lee states with emotion.
“Once we got to America and were stuck on the plantations, we weren’t even allowed to travel without a pass. And if we ran away, we could be maimed or killed. So that’s a reason that Blacks in this country were historically reluctant to travel.”
She continues, “Then after Reconstruction when Blacks were starting to do well, Jim Crow Laws were enacted to keep us from getting too ‘uppity.’ That’s when ‘sundown towns’ were created, where Blacks had to be out of town by sundown or risk being lynched,” Lee emphasizes.
African Americans also couldn’t stay in segregated hotels, eat in segregated restaurants or use segregated public facilities. That’s why New York City mailman Victor Greene published “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” Lee notes.
“It helped Black people navigate this country at places where they would be welcomed and safe.”
Lee’s books, “Go Girl!” and “Go Girl 2,” are like modern versions of that book because they share the experiences of Black women world travelers to give Black travelers an idea of what to expect in terms of being welcomed and safe.
Safety of Solo Travel
Lee says she always feels safe when she travels solo outside of the United States and notes that if you can navigate the U.S. with its racism and violence, you can navigate any country.
She adds, “I’m not a solo traveler because I don’t want to travel with other people. It’s just that it’s hard to get friends who have the time and/or the money at the same time that I do to travel.”
She continues, “And since I do love closeness and friendships, I develop them on the road. And I’ve been friends with people I’ve met in my travels for more than 20 years!” Lee says there’s a big perk to traveling solo.
“When you’re alone, you’re able to get involved in people’s lives in a way that you never would if you were with a group,” she divulges. “Travel writer Jeff Greenwald said, ‘When you’re a solo traveler, you become a rolling confessional’ because people see you as safe to tell you all their secrets. And boy the secrets that people have told me during my world travels,” Lee laughs.
Along with Paris, some of Lee’s other favorite countries are New Zealand, Brazil, Nambia, the British Virgin Islands and Thailand. She has developed an amazing knack for connecting with the right people on her travels.
One of her connections resulted in her being taken under the wing of one of the wealthiest women in Thailand. “I ended up having my own house, my own driver and my own cook,” Lee exclaims. “So I’m not only learning about Thai culture, I’m also learning about being in a wealthy Thai culture…It was like a fairytale!”
All Lee had to do was agree to help her host with her English. “We became like family, and it was just a love fest! I’ve traveled there three times,” she exclaims.
Lee says she never experienced racism or violence in Thailand and remembers having an epiphany in Bali, Indonesia. “I went to some [event] on a Saturday night, and I was walking down this alley and realized I had left my flashlight at home,” she recounts.
“It was pitch black and I was all alone. But there was not a scintilla of fear in my body. And I was like, ‘Oh, Elaine, you need to memorize this feeling! You are free!’ Because no one was going to harm me, if anything, they would try to help me,” she explains.
“That was a very liberating moment for me because I realized the kind of heavy armor I wear as a Black woman in the United States in order to survive.”
She continues, “Racism causes so many physical and mental health issues, and I believe that I’m as healthy as I am because I know what it’s like to live without racism through my international travels.”
Sharing Her Love of Travel
Lee enjoys sharing these stories even beyond what she shares in “Go Girl 2.” She speaks to students in the San Francisco Bay Area about travel and if invited, she’ll also speak to students in the countries she visits.
She also teaches a class entitled “How to Navigate Mother Earth” at the annual Empowering Womxn of Color Conference at UC Berkeley. Lee also sends out a quarterly “Afrocentric Travel Media Newsletter” through her company Ugogurl Productions, where she shares travel information, travel writing contests, writing opportunities and more.
Though she paused a bit to get the book published, she’s already planned her next trip. “This year, I’m going to be traveling to Portugal for the first time,” Lee exclaims. I’m going to Lisbon with this company called Backroads Active Adventure Travel, a Bay Area company.”
The organization specializes in bike and e-bike tours. “We’ll do a riverboat cruise down the Douro River, and we’ll be biking into small villages along the way,” notes Lee. Although she’s done two around-the-world trips, there are still places on her bucket list: Japan, Madagascar, Columbia and Alaska.
As her excitement increases for the release of “Go Girl 2,” Lee fondly remembers a testimony she got from a reader of her first book.
“A Black guy contacted me and told me that he loved my first book so much that he read a story to his young daughter every night because he wanted her to become a citizen of the world,” she says with pride.
“He said he wanted his daughter to hear the voices of fearless Black women who navigated the planet, and that’s a hope that I have for “Go Girl 2.” I hope it encourages Black girls and women to get out and see the world.”