Black Skin, Blue Passport: Cruising Out of Our Comfort Zones

Why we lose by staying on the boat.

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Or will I?

While there is something to be said for choosing comfort and relaxation over saving money, there is also something very rich about having a sense of adventure. Which is why I think I’ll save my next cruise for when I’m too old to do anything else. I’m sure Tom Joyner will still be doing his thing.

In the meantime, I think I’d like to get more out of the places I visit. I’m optimistic, for example, about the increasing popularity of heritage tourism, offered through companies like Soul Planet Travel, which presents a view of places like Brazil and Senegal with our history in mind.

I know what you’re thinking and, yes, this kind of group travel can have its own limitations. There’s nothing more suffocating than being tied for hours to a large group of people you wouldn’t necessarily hang out with in real life. There’s nothing worse than not being able to steal a moment alone in an intoxicating new place, to sit at an outdoor table with a glass of wine and, say, eavesdrop on a group of heavy-smoking teenagers, fumble through French with a sneering waiter or just sit happily and watch life go by because you’ve missed your train.

One of the things I notice when I am enjoying this sort of observant downtime is how few African-Americans I encounter along the way. There are as many explanations for this racial imbalance among Americans abroad as there are people to give them. Certainly the high cost of travel has something to do with it. Racism, and perceptions of racism, too, play not insignificant roles. Most people can conjure up anecdotes of racial affronts that occur overseas. Not even Oprah is impervious to discrimination when outside the country.

But by choosing the safest, most comfortable — yes, bland — vacations, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonderfully challenging side of international
travel: the side that shows us that vacations do not have to be about sun and
sand to be just what we needed.

I’d like to suggest that the next time a vacation opportunity presents itself, we try to think of going someplace that challenges our notion of “language comfortable” or “color comfortable.”

For inspiration, we might reach back to our student days, when discomfort was a state of being. Sometimes, I even reach back to my grandfather’s days in the Army, when he traveled overseas to hostile regions on behalf of a country that had not yet abandoned its hostility for him or his family. For me now, as for him then, inspiration comes from knowing that knowledge can flow in both directions. You just have to be willing to take a few chances.

Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.