Travel As Escape: A Reflection on My Unhappiness

I once wrote that travel is not my escapism. And now I feel like a hypocrite.

April 2019

My mom came to help me get settled into my new apartment. I’d spent a week lugging all of my belongings down the stairwell of the building I’ve lived in for going on 5 years. I only moved downstairs to get an apartment with a balcony where I envision hosting gay ass tea parties in the spring.

On one of the mornings during her visit I woke up early to log onto the internet to secure tickets to the Black Smithsonian (because I refuse to code switch) for my mom and me. I got ‘em after two attempts. We went.

After making it through about 3 hours and two stories of Black history--which mentally and physically felt like trudging through thick mud, we decided to grab lunch in the museum’s cafeteria. I paid, and we sat down at one end of a long table; noisy high schoolers at the other end.

The macaroni was good. And the fried fish hit the spot! Then my mother looked up from her plate and asked, “Are you happy?”

I’d moved to Washington, DC five months after grad school. Since I hadn’t secured a job immediately after graduation, I moved back in with her to Indiana where she lived with her husband out in the boonies. My room was in the basement. No windows, and I could hear everything that moved in the kitchen directly over my bed.

One day a classmate and friend of mine FaceTimed me and let me know of a short-term gig in the DC area conducting surveys door-to-door in Spanish. She offered me her spare bedroom, and that is how I got to DC. Fast-forward 6 years, a stint temping, and ultimately landing a good job at which I’ve been promoted three times, and here I am.

"One drop would have fueled a torrent of pain that I’d been holding in. A pain that was wet and corrosive, and I wasn’t willing to put that on display."

I paused after I heard her ask me that question, “Are you happy?” Looking at her surprisingly blank face as she awaited my response, most likely assuming that I would ultimately answer in the affirmative, I said, “Yes.”. She went on to say that she’s glad about that. Then she got up to get condiments.

Immediately after she walked away, with my back toward her, I could feel tears marching down my tear ducts into the pink space between my eyeballs and my eyelids. Little liquid saline soldiers were revolting against the lie I had just told. I don’t know why they didn’t fall--either I dabbed them out of the corners of my eyes, or tilted my head back so they’d dissipate, but I refused to let one drop. One drop would have fueled a torrent of pain that I’d been holding in. A pain that was wet and corrosive, and I wasn’t willing to put that on display, letting her know that I was not happy with my life as it were.

October 2019

I’d spent three months sneaking to quiet spaces in the office to have phone interviews with a major tech company that had liked an application that I submitted. I spent three full nights toiling over a “creative prompt” that was ten pages long by the time I submitted it. I thought it was a work of art; and it got me to the final interview. I posted sticky notes all around my apartment claiming this specific career opportunity that would represent a substantial increase in compensation, professional autonomy and work that better positioned me to impact the world in a way that I consider meaningful.

I wanted to hear back from the recruiter before I headed to Costa Rica for 10 days, but she’d gone silent after my three hour Skype interview. Finally, she emailed me back and said we could chat on the phone at a particular time---and that she’d call me. At the exact moment that she called me I was on a white sand beach looking out into the blue vastness of the Pacific Ocean. My phone rang and I scuttled through the sand to answer, finding my way into the shade of a nearby tree.

I didn't get the job. Only the rays of the Central American sun were more prickly than the feelings that her words conjured. I managed to shake it off and enjoy the rest of my time in Costa Rica. I thought I was over it. Even telling my therapist, and my mom that I felt invigorated and energized to snag the next opportunity.

And after a few weeks back in DC, making my way to and from the office each day, I realized that I had not shrugged it off. Like the sand that I could not rid from the crevices of my shoes and luggage, I could not shake the inadequacy and disappointment that I’d felt from this loss--and from countless other fonts of frustration that uncovered my unhappiness.

November 2019

Dulles airport was quiet on Thanksgiving Day as I floated down the escalators heading to the international terminal. I was finally heading to Brazil, a place that I’d been enamored with ever since I learned of that grand green thing called the rainforest, and a place that I’d been intrigued with when I saw Black Brazilians thriving there.

I knew on the flight’s approach that this would be an incredible trip. The only reason I prefer aisle seats is so that I can have unobstructed access to the airplane lavatory, but even from there I could see out of the window as we descended into Rio de Janeiro. The clouds turned into a fog that hugged the green mountains and gave glimpses of homes stacked on top of one another in a cascade down the face of the mountains. As our plane pierced the sky, it oscillated between sunlight and clouds. The interior of the airplane lit up, then faded, then lit up again in rapid succession that reminded me of a strobe light. And just as the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated for landing, I strained my neck and sat on the edge of my seat as we passed eye level with the Christ the Redeemer statue. I almost cried at the beauty of the entire scene. I felt blessed to be embarking on what I knew would be one of the best travel experiences of my life.

"And even if I didn’t understand their language, I understood their attitudes--their feelings. They felt like the Black folks that I know at home."

After checking into my Airbnb, I set out to explore Lapa, the central neighborhood known for its eateries and nightlife--close to Escadaria Selarón and the Lapa Arches. The only time that I felt like I did not blend in is when the doorman inquired as to who I was and what apartment I was heading to.

My first steps into a new city are like a hungry kid in front of a plate of his favorite food; he devours it as fast as he can, barely coming up for air, and probably taps his foot letting you know he’s satisfied. My feet devoured the city. I walk fast, my eyes dart around, my lungs fill up and I try to orient myself with landmarks as I move further away from my home base. I people watch.

I looked for the Black people. I studied their faces. I investigated their expressions, and their clothes. I examined their mannerisms and their intonations. And although I didn’t understand their language, I understood their attitudes--their feelings. They felt like the Black folks that I know at home.

I felt good as hell out there in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. I blended in effortlessly!

Then this Black guy walked past me, and I did a double take. He did too. I stopped. He did too. And backtracked toward me and blurted out a train of words that I didn’t understand.

“Nao falo portugues”. I told him I don’t speak Portuguese. And between his bit of English and my Spanish, we came to an understanding. He thought I was beautiful. I thought he was handsome. And I asked him to show me his eyes behind those light blue sporty sunglasses that he wore with swag in a way that only a Black man could. And he tilted them down, resting them on his nose. Our eyes met.

He told me he was heading somewhere in a rush, but that we should message each other on WhatsApp. He invited me to a party later that night. I wasn't sure if I’d go, but I did. There, I learned about carioca funk, an soul bass filled music that originated in the favelas. And I learned that cigarette smoking is a thing. And that’s also where I learned that kissing on the mouth at first encounter is a normal, very Brazilian thing--and it can happen without warning.

The rest of my trip went something like the scenario above. I’d be walking down the street and someone would approach me to speak, and invite me to hang out, or have drinks with them.

There’s that time a guy stopped with me to chat, and he used the opportunity to attempt translating colloquial Brazilian expressions into English which still required some deciphering on my part. And we ended up sharing a liter of beer at a sidewalk bar as he shared about his life.

There’s that one night after leaving Ipanema Beach a group of English speaking guys engaged me in conversation as they waited on their friend to arrive to dinner. After about five minutes they asked me if I wanted to join. It took me a few moments, but I obliged. We ended up getting shitfaced on endless churrasqueria, sushi, and caipirinhas.

And there's the time when a photographer I’d hired invited me to a neighborhood samba party where she introduced me to her friends and we spent the night laughing and dancing, of course with cachaça, the local fermented spirit in hand.

And there's the time when I got invited to a place where Black and queer intellectuals, artists, and activists gather and commune in love and solidarity. One of the nights I was there, the founder of the place, Brazil's first Black trans legislator invited me to sit at her table and she schooled me on what it means to be Black in Brazil. She ended up introducing me to one of the country's most famous contemporary musicians who ended up giving me a ride back to my Airbnb after ignoring my petition for a selfie; opting for meaningful conversation instead.

This and countless similar experiences boosted my ego, and gave me confirmation that I am worthy of all the richness that the world has to share. Even if losses were sprinkled in between. It made me feel good about who I am---just being me. My black ass skin, my tall skinny-ass frame, my nappy-ass man bun, and my inquisitive thirst for the world was being recognized and loved on. And I didn't have to prove myself to anyone. I felt so damned good!

December 2019

Then I got back stateside. And I joined the DC rat race again. And my confidence faded. And there was again something to prove as a Black man in a white world, with hopes of making enough money to keep surviving in one of the world’s most expensive metropolitan areas.

"Travel saves my life each time I go far away from the patterns and places to which I have grown familiar, yet tired of."

And as the time between my trips and me gets further and wider, the fact that I ̶w̶a̶s̶ am unhappy becomes clearer and clearer.

I now realize that not only is travel my passion--because it lights me up from the inside--and makes me feel like I have a purpose in the world--but, it is also my escape.

Travel is my quilombo, the place where I seek refuge from a reality that I can’t survive without working. It is a safe space where I seek shelter from the reality that my at-home existence is borderline performative, and shrinks the realest version of who I am. Travel saves my life each time I go far away from the patterns and places to which I have grown familiar, yet tired of. Travel reminds me of who I really and, and that there are people that will love me for it.

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