The intersection of race and travel: A few lessons to note

Those of us who live in America are reminded of simmering and overt racial tensions far too often. We see it in news images of black effigies being hung from a tree in a front yard while the homeowner goes on record saying that the world shouldn’t be ignorant; he just wanted to make his place scary for Halloween.

We also hear it in the quivering voices of grieving family members who, having lost loved ones under questionable circumstances, have had to face intruding cameras to try and make coherent and dignified statements when the justice system sets the aggressors free. And many of us can’t help but connect with the raw emotion of kids like the courageous nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant, who felt compelled to make a desperate plea to her city council to “stop killing our fathers and brothers”.

Image source: Affinity Magazine

Since I write about travel, I couldn’t help but ponder how narrow-mindedness and bigotry affect people who go on vacation in this country and abroad. Make no mistake my fellow globetrotters, this sort of incendiary behavior isn’t limited to the United States alone. If a billionaire like Oprah Winfrey can have a retail sales assistant in Switzerland refuse to show her a handbag because she felt she couldn’t afford it, and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s  sister) and mother can get screamed at on a train from Milan to Basel when no one else is being treated that way, you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee. The intersection of race and travel could converge around you!

I wrote about my first encounter with racism here, and I encourage you to read that story when you finish this post. Below, I share a few other incidents that resulted in valuable insights along the way. My experiences may be different from yours, but the lessons are universal.

Lesson #1: In-your-face racism can happen when you least expect it. If you are not in physical danger, stay calm and try not to let it get to you.

I remember once when I was a kid, my family and I went for a dip in a pool at a time-share in Daytona Beach, Florida, and everybody inside suddenly remembered they had someplace else to be – at the exact same time. We simply splashed around for a short while after the mass exodus, then left with our heads held high.

Also, on another occasion when I was on a business trip to West Palm Beach, I went to exercise at the ritzy hotel gym that doubled as a private club. Almost immediately, I felt daggers shooting from the eyes of a few older patrons who appeared startled when I displayed a legitimate room key that guaranteed my entry. One gentleman was so put out, he left. With the palpable rancor in the room, I was tempted to leave myself, but I remembered Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists who risked their lives and limbs so that I could be free to go wherever I pleased. That knowledge kept me rooted in place. Facing the staring squad, I raised eight-pound dumbbells in quiet and dignified defiance.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the encounters are more subtle, which makes it difficult to tell if you’re being profiled because of your race, your accent, or your nationality. It will irk you, but don’t do anything to give the individuals justification to take the harassment to another level.

Case in point: I was pulled out of the immigration line in China and questioned in halting English about the validity of my picture, despite having the required visa (issued by my local Chinese embassy) in my Jamaican passport. After a few moments of apprehension, I was able to figure out the “issue” that caused me to be singled out, while everyone else in line went through without any additional interrogation. They thought I looked older than my passport photo.

A faulty picture? Yeah, right. More like an unfamiliar and “third world” passport.

Miraculously, upon more detailed review, tangible evidence of access and travel to “first-world” countries in the form of U.S. and U.K visas and stamps seemed to make me less of a possible border threat. Eventually, I was allowed to go.

Lesson #4: On occasion, prejudices can affect your trip budget. Always have access to back up funds that you can tap into when faced with unforeseen circumstances. 

Italy remains one of the most alluring countries I’ve ever visited, and I love it, but unfortunately there are people with biased predispositions residing there, too. Years ago, when I took a spring break trip to Europe, my best friend and I were denied entry at an inn in Milan because they mistook us for African immigrants. We were students crisscrossing Europe by train with no set itinerary or agenda, and because it was the era before Airbnb and travel apps, as soon as we arrived in the city we went directly to the tourist board to get help with securing budget-friendly accommodations. The officials there gave us recommendations and called ahead to one of the facilities that said it had available rooms.

When we arrived at the address and rang the buzzer at the gate, they spoke to us through the intercom system (which had a prominent camera in place). Suddenly, they had no space.

We argued our case to no avail, and when we went back to the tourist board to let them know what happened, the people there apologized profusely. They called the innkeepers back and challenged them about confirming the space then turning us away, and they admitted to thinking we were not the persons the tourist board had sent over. I still chuckle when I remember they had the gall to invite us to come back.  Naturally, we were having none of that. It was on to the next prospect, regardless of cost!

Lesson #4: Narrow-mindedness reflects on the individual spewing the hate, not necessarily on everyone who resides in the country you’re visiting. So, never let one negative incident color your overall impression of a place.  

I recall being on a walking tour in Buenos Aires in which the Mexican-born guide was reciting the city’s history. out of the blue, he mentioned that Argentina was “lucky” they didn’t get any African slaves when the Europeans arrived. To this day, I still wonder if that was a deliberate statement or a factor of details getting lost in translation. His English was not very good, but the guy had been nice to me up to that point. Shortly after boarding the bus he had found out I was Jamaican, and we’d had a brief conversation about cricket, and my country’s uncanny ability to excel globally in music and sport.

I pondered saying peace out and walking away after that explosive comment,

but it was my one extra day in the city after a week-long conference, and I wasn’t going to allow him to dim my glow. I’d already paid for the tour. Plus, I was getting to spend time with my buddy from college whom I hadn’t seen in years. He was from Argentina, and he assured me that the man’s views were not reflective of his people and his country, so I bit my lip, ignored him, and got back on the bus. Surprise, surprise! The dude turned out to be an equal opportunity abuser with a serious case of verbal diarrhea, because he went on to say unflattering things about people from Paraguay and Chile, too.

A few ensuing moments of lulling vehicular motion helped me to zone out the negativity of that “transplant” to the extent that I was able to get through the last hour of the tour. I’ll confess there was a certain amount of poetic justice to the fact that he had to drop me off last – the only black person on the bus –  at The Four Seasons.

Lesson #5: There may be individuals who actually feel they have the right to invade your personal space because they consider you intellectually or socially inferior. Stand your ground!

I will never forget the white Afrikaans woman who sat behind me and my mom on a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg. At four o’clock in the afternoon, she decided we had no right to have our window shutter open because she wanted, and was entitled to, a dark cabin to sleep. It didn’t matter that it was about 30 minutes after takeoff, nor that she had an eye-patch issued to her by the airline (like the rest of us), or that the price of her ticket was the same as ours – perks free.

Without any request or other form of conversation, she took it upon herself to reach across my Mom to slam the window shut, brushing her shoulder in the process. We could hear the accompanying harrumph punctuating the self-serving move.

Our jaws almost fell to the floor. Naturally, we were having none of that.

“I beg your pardon!” Mom turned around and said indignantly. My darling mother wasted no time pushing the shutter back up.

The crazy woman then started ranting about how we clearly didn’t know the protocol on international flights, which in her world meant you closed the windows right after takeoff, even if it was still daylight. Seriously, who needs to sleep for 15 hours straight? Of course, I didn’t feel it was important to list how many international flights we’d been on up to that point, but we shut her down nonetheless – in a manner that could never be misconstrued as ‘angry black woman’ mode.

Pretty soon, multiple flight attendants came running over to avert the brewing situation. At the same time, we started getting thumbs up signs and notes of encouragement passed down to us from neighboring passengers who were as outraged as we were at this woman’s pompousness.

She eventually simmered down when she realized no one was taking her side. It took her a little time to realize she wasn’t dealing with ignorant or submissive folk. I won’t bore you with all the details, except to say the incident resulted in me writing and submitting a formal report to the airline about her obnoxious behavior. Upon deplaning, the purser and flight crew met us at the door to apologize again, and to thank us for how well we had handled the situation.

Lesson #6: Don’t let fear of possible racial slurs or uncomfortable situations keep you from pursuing your desire to travel. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and negative incidents are usually few and far between. First ensure your safety, then deal with whatever comes your way with grace and dignity.

In spite of the bad eggs in the bunch, my wanderlust hasn’t ceased, and my travel wish list just keeps growing. When taken by surprise, I always push myself to remember a quote from Nelson Mandela about his time of imprisonment. He said in part, “we would want it [Robben Island] to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

My country’s most famous icon, Bob Marley, also talked about emancipation and the fact that “none but ourselves can free our minds.” So, I say forward and onward in this generation, my fellow black travelers. And do it triumphantly!

Do you have any stories to share? What happened, and what did you learn from it?

Climbing the Great Wall of China: 6 things to know before you go

Prepared to be awed at the sight of China’s Great Wall. It’s not one of those much talked about attractions that actually underwhelms you when you see it. Quite the opposite, this expansive piece of construction – presumably the result of mostly manual labor –   lives up to its impressive reputation and surprises you with even more. More grandeur. More wonder. More jaw-dropping views.

Section of Great Wall of China

If it’s on your bucket list, there are some key things to know before you go. See my list below.

Its history

The Great Wall was built across the northern border of China to protect its people against raids and invasion. At various times, it also was used for border control where duties were imposed on goods being transported by Silk Road merchants. Although it never truly prevented invaders, the wall acted more as a psychological divider between Chinese civilization and the world, creating a mystique around Asian culture, and an albeit grudging respect for their strength and autonomy. Much of that still exists today.

The Asian Culture, history and heritage remains symbolic and powerful yet serene
The Asian Culture, history and heritage remains symbolic and powerful yet serene

Best section to visit

With more than 13,000 miles of historical monument to choose from, there are several sections that can be visited. Where you go depends on how much time you have, the vistas you prefer and your tolerance for crowds. Badaling, the section closest to Beijing, is the most popular. It is the most renovated area and it has facilities like guardrails and cable cars that make it easier to climb. The downside is the hordes of tourists thrown together with the occasional pickpocket and the ever-present souvenir hawkers.

Another section where you see the wall stretching for miles
Another section where you see the wall stretching for miles

Mutianyu is the second most preserved section. It has less foot traffic and it is steeper. Simatai, the most perilous and dense area, appeals to the adventurers and Jinshanling gets a lot of avid hikers as it is completely un-restored. Other options include Jiankou and Gubeikou.

Caution: Wherever you go, please watch your footing! Undeveloped sections are insecure and in some cases damaged, so you could easily hurt yourself if you are not careful.

Best time to go

If you choose to visit Badaling, try to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the bus loads of people. An added bonus to going at those two times is that you also get better light for your photos.

Hello, Hello!
Hello, Hello!

The scenery and temperatures change with the seasons so in terms of weather, the best times of year to visit are spring and autumn. Then, it is sunny but there is no blistering summer heat. Think May, September or early October. During June to August, tourist season is in full swing. I went in March and it was COLD. I only learned later that ‘November to April is always bitterly cold with biting winds’.

The sparse winter scenery at the Great Wall (March)
The sparse winter scenery at the Great Wall (March)

What to wear

To get the true experience of the wonder that is the Great Wall, you should spend between two to three hours exploring this great engineering feat. It will be a strenuous walk as you traverse main staircases and passageways or observe watch towers and garrison stations, so you’ll need comfortable shoes.

That's the stance of someone happily thinking, "I came, I saw and I conquered THE Great Wall".
That’s the stance of someone happily thinking, “I came, I saw and I conquered THE Great Wall”.

Ladies, no open-toed sandals, wedges or heels will do. Guys, I recommend loose trousers rather than denim because denim will cling to you after perspiration sets in. Let’s not dress this up too much, you WILL be sweaty and out of breath after a few steep climbs. And I say sneakers for everybody!

Some months it can get quite windy due to the high altitudes so a scarf or light sweater may prove useful. At other times, an umbrella would be nice too. In the summer, have moisturizer handy to help protect your skin.

What to bring

If you can deal with the weight of a backpack, take your own snacks and water. However, if you’d rather stay light on your feet, food and drink will be available for sale in Badaling. Just know it will be pricey. Plus, western-styled food is hard to come by. As far as I know, there is nothing for sale in any other section.

Member of my tour group. We represented Australia, Canada, USA, UK and Jamaica!
Members of my tour group. We represented Australia, Canada, USA, UK and Jamaica!

Important note: While it’s important to stay hydrated, please temper your water intake if you have to go for regular bathroom breaks when you drink a lot. There are no pit stops along the way. The bathrooms are near to the ticket office and entrance.

Best way down

You can walk down, take a cable car or get into a toboggan. I chose the latter and the meandering downhill slide was a whole lotta fun!

Cable cars that help you to go up or down
Cable cars that help you to go up or down

Applying for a visa: Aaargh!!!

Brand Jamaica!!
Brand Jamaica!!

I am PROUD to be Jamaican. It’s a non-detachable part of my psyche and my socialization. My national pride is reflected in my distinctive accent, my “we-can-do-all-things-we-set-out-to-do” confidence, and a hearty appreciation of our indigenous delicacies like patties, jerked meats and the national dish – ackee and saltfish. Regardless of where I go, and the pleasure I derive from exploring far-flung destinations, there’s just no substitute for our food, our culture, the landscapes, our people and that irreplaceable island swag.

But sometimes, just sometimes…I wish I carried a second passport.

The evolution of the Jamaican passport
The evolution of the Jamaican passport

The challenges and inconveniences some passport holders like myself face when planning trips can be disheartening and downright annoying. Not only does the need to apply for a visa limit spontaneity in vacation trips, it also can impede our ability to work as well. What’s more, the process is costly and quite invasive. Depending on the country and category of visa needed, application requirements may include all or some of the following:

  • a job letter
  • a bank statement
  • police background checks
  • biometrics (i.e. fingerprinting)
  • proof of itinerary (airline and hotel reservations)
  • an invitation letter, conference attendance documentation etc.

And, let’s not even talk about the fees!

Passpot rank varies by country (PHoto courtesy of grcity.com)

It gets on my nerves occasionally, because sometimes I just can’t be bothered with the hassle. Thankfully, I’ve never been denied a visa but the hoops I have had to jump through to travel to Egypt, London, Brazil, China, Europe, and the Cayman Islands are noteworthy. The easiest process I ever had was with Dubai. It wasn’t even a stamp in my passport; the entry visa was delivered via email.

In former roles, I also missed two opportunities to go on work-related trips to Anguilla because it is a British Overseas Territory, and I needed a UK visa to get in. Yet, I was able to travel to the Turks and Caicos (another UK Overseas Territory) multiple times with my Jamaican passport and US resident card. So, clearly the rules are not consistent.

In a recent study, Jamaica ranked 98 in the Global Passport Power Rank 2016 index, with a visa-free score of 77. That means Jamaican passport holders have visa-free access to 46 countries and can obtain a visa on arrival at an additional 31. Other Caribbean neighbors rank much higher:  Barbados (132), Bahamas (129), Antigua & Barbuda (124), St Kitts and Nevis (124), and Trinidad and Tobago (12). See the link with a full country listing here.

Where does your passport rank, and have you had any challenges getting to where you need to go?

 

Don’t buy those designer knockoffs in China!

Have you been weighing the pros and cons of buying designer knockoffs during your next trip to China? It’s a popular tourist thing to do and you can get many label lookalikes there but here’s my humble suggestion – don’t do it.

First, haggling with vendors who don’t speak your language fluently is a highly advanced skill, not an effortless art. Also, when everything is said and done, the effort and time invested to own that fake “7 For All Mankind” jeans, “Louis Vitton” handbag or “Rolex” watch just really isn’t worth it.

The items may look good from afar but are far from good in reality. Besides, nine times out of 10, you aren’t really fooling anybody!

'Bvlgari' and 'Emporio Armani' watches
‘Bvlgari’ and ‘Emporio Armani’ watches

When I visited China, I decided to see what their thriving knockoff industry was all about. But I didn’t do my research at Han City, Qipu Lu, Hongqiao New World Pearl market or any of the numerous other venues you often read or hear about. I made an unscheduled stop in Beijing that you will never see on an official map or tour itinerary.

Some group members and I visited one of those shops that was clandestinely located down several steps, around a few corners and set behind a green tarpaulin entrance tucked far, far away. If you asked me to identify the place 30 minutes after I left it, I wouldn’t have been able to find it on my own.  It was a highly mobile operation run by a well-oiled relay system.

Busy street in China
Busy street in China

This is how it worked.  Our bus driver made a call before approaching the drop-off location. The tour guide then walked us to a point where we were met by a liaison who led us to the designated establishment. Immediately afterwards, said liaison disappeared. I can’t verify this but I got the hair-on-the-back-of-my neck feeling there were ‘lookouts” in the operation network as well.

Someone I kept in touch with had problems with some impromptu watch purchases almost right away. The first sign of trouble was the constant need to replace batteries because the knockoffs stopped working regularly. Eventually, rust and corrosion set in.

I also know someone else who bought handbags for herself and a work colleague and the linings began stripping in no time. So why bother?

Chinese jade earrings bought at a jade factory
Authentic Chinese jade earrings bought at a jade factory

There are several great shopping options in China and truthfully, the indigenous finds are far more unique and memorable. You can look out for:

– silk products like scarfs, pyjamas or ties

– jade jewelry

– great teas and tea pots

– calligraphy and scroll paintings

Traditional Chinese lettering
Traditional Chinese lettering

I recommend getting creative with your shopping list when you travel. Why spend money on items you can get at home?

Genuine designer watches in your local Macy's (retail store chain)
Genuine designer watches in your local Macy’s (retail store chain)

What do you think? Have you come across any truly unique shopping items on any of your trips? Please share!

Tai chi in Jingshan Park, Beijing

According to Mayo Clinic, ‘Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves stretching and a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion”.

Pavilion in Jingshan Park, Beijing
Pavilion in Jingshan Park

I think the Chinese are on to a good thing here. It is widely believed that this ‘meditation in motion’ technique does wonders for alleviating stress and anxiety levels – in the young and old.

Man stretching as part of his morning Tai chi routine,
Man stretching as part of his morning Tai chi routine

If you’re ever in Beijing, you should walk through Jingshan Park early one morning, say between 6 and 7 a.m., to see locals doing this graceful exercise.

Group exercise Jingshan Park
Group exercise

If invited to do so, you can even join in.

Group Tai chi routine in Jingshan Park, Beijing
Joining the group routine. I am sure you can spot the tourist, right? LOL

There are beautiful flowers and trees.

The park
The park

Breathtaking views from Wanchna Pavilion, the highest point in the park.

Highest point in the park
Highest point in the park

And…peace…joyful, serene, no-strings-attached peace.

A moment or two away from the crowds, Jingshan Park , beijing
One local finds peace and serenity with nature and his thoughts, away from the movement and crowds.

Chinese Street Food

There’s an old saying that says: “The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies — except airplanes.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled when I heard it. But when I saw dishes like sautéed frog, sweet and sour snake head soup, donkey and braised croaker (lizard) listed on hotel and restaurant menus, the laughter dried up – quickly.

So take it from me. Be prepared to see and experience the gamut of food choices when you set off on a Chinese street food adventure. Some of it may make your stomach yearn for more. But the more exotic delicacies? Think churn…or quiver?

Chinese noodles
Chinese noodle stall

If you opt to buy breakfast on the street as many locals do, don’t expect anything as mundane as scrambled eggs or cereal. Most Chinese eat steamed or fried dumplings with various fillings in the morning, or something sweet like doughnuts or buns – usually accompanied with a drink of soy milk. Egg pancakes, rice porridge and noodle soup also are common. I was hesitant to try any meat varieties, so I sampled the vegetarian dumplings instead. They were scrumptious (and filling).

Xi'an Street Food
Meat skewers in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

For lunch and dinner, many roadside stalls display rows of skewered meats (kebabs), hand pulled noodles, and Chinese-style hamburgers that are shredded meat served between steamed bread. Other specialties include spare ribs, and simmering lamb or beef broth that you break chunky flat bread into. Several vegetarian meals are also available. You can lick your lips and linger; standing up, or sitting down.

Xi'an street food
Chinese flatbread

Xi’an is a great spot for street food. Once part of the famous ancient trading route of the Silk Road, it is now a modern city with craft/souvenir and retail shops,and interesting historical sites – the Terracotta Warriors being one of them. The Muslim Quarter, specifically the bustling Beiyuanmen Street, is famous for its food stalls.

For the faint-hearted epicureans like me, there’s also a nice Starbucks. I won’t lie to you. Its magnetic force was formidable. My warm ham and cheese panini sandwich, washed down with a steamy cup of hot chocolate, was just what I needed on a cold winter day.

Wangfujing Snack Street

If you’re heading to Beijing, you must visit Wangfujing Snack Street. Be warned; it’s noisy and crowded.  However, I was convinced that ‘the snacks’ were presented more for shock value than sustenance when I saw even some Asian visitors with mouths agape. It is must-see.

Your experience will depend on your spirit of adventure. All types of wriggling insects are displayed, just waiting to be cooked. Does hearing about centipedes, scorpions, spiders, bugs or sea horses get your gastric juices flowing? Well you’re in luck; chances are they’ll have it.

Insect varieties at Beijing Snack Street
Insect Varieties at Beijing Snack Street – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson
Beijing Snack Street
Exotic options at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson)

Are those snacks too tame for you? Don’t worry, you can order exotic meat as well – as in dog, cat, sheep’s balls, or frog on a stick.[ Sidebar: I wish I could see your face right nowAre you salivating (or barfing) yet?]

All my queasy compradres, there’s hope for you too. Some vendors also sell plain foods like dumplings, squids, noodles, and fruits.

Beijing Snack Street
Meat varieties at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing

 I’ll end this post with one little word of wisdom. Whatever items you choose to try, please ensure that it is cooked before your eyes.

Beijing Snack Street
Desserts at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing (Photo credit@ Stacy Wilkinson)

 Bon Appétit!

___________

Editor’s Notes: For full disclosure, I must let you know that the hotel menus also had regular meal options. Admittedly, my culinary experience was not the best I have ever had but some people in my group had no issues, and  I do know two families that came back from their China trips raving about the food. I guess it depends on where you stay, what you like, and where you eat. I can vouch for the Peking Duck and the dumplings. They were awesome.