“The idea of discovering, of learning something new every day, of stretching my boundaries and living outside of my comfort zone — that’s what I really enjoyed.”
When Oneika Raymond first traveled out of Toronto, she loved the experience, but thought she simply enjoyed being away from home. It wasn’t until later that she recognized the true root of her wanderlust.
Now having visited 100 countries across six continents, Oneika talked with us about the evolution of her passion, the experience of traveling as a black woman, and what it means to truly discover a new place.
What role did travel play in your upbringing?
I grew up in Toronto in an immigrant family — my parents were born and raised in Jamaica. We didn’t really have much of a culture of travel. We would go and visit family members in the U.S., but that was about it. Nobody I knew was jetting off to Bali or anything. Toronto is very multicultural, so I was always aware of different countries and cultures and languages, but I didn’t travel anywhere. The friends that I had who were from other countries traveled, but it was always with a purpose: to visit family. They weren’t traveling to explore or to discover; it was functional. I didn’t have anyone around me who was just backpacking or exploring.
At what point did travel become a part of your life?
Canada is a bilingual country, so you learn French when you are very young. When I finished high school, I had the opportunity to go to Quebec and live there for a summer studying French. At the time, I saw it less as a travel opportunity, and more as a way to leave home. I was excited to be out from under my mother’s thumb. It was only for about five weeks or so, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What freedom.”
At university, I was an economics major. I learned that if I took French, I would have the opportunity to go live abroad, so I took a French language class. Again, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to travel, as much as I wanted to get away and do something different. I knew that Toronto had started to feel small to me, and during my trip to Quebec, I had had this taste of freedom, of exploration. I didn’t internalize that that was what I was craving or that was what I really enjoyed, this idea of being a fish out of water. I thought again that I just wanted to get away from home.
Eventually I realized that it was travel that was really feeding me. It wasn’t necessarily the idea of being away from home, but the idea of discovering, of learning something new every day, of stretching my boundaries and living outside of my comfort zone — that’s what I really enjoyed.
How did your time in France affect your relationship to travel?
While I lived in France that year, I had the opportunity to travel to a few different countries: Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and England, for example. I had such a great time, and I realized that I love to travel, that I love that feeling, and I didn’t want to give that up.
As soon as I returned for my last year of university, I thought, “How can I keep doing this?” I found a program that would allow me to move back to France and teach French, so I went. I spent a second year in France and had the time of my life. I met so many different people. I had the opportunity to travel a little. I had a French boyfriend. It was amazing — so eye-opening.
While I was having that experience, I thought, “Okay, so this is my second year abroad. I’ve traveled a bit. I’ve tasted freedom. I’m reveling in discovery — I want to make this a lifestyle now. I don’t just want to have a year here, a year there. I want to live abroad permanently.” I met somebody who told me, “If you want to live abroad and make money, you don’t have to teach English. You can get your degree in education and then work in schools around the world for expat children.”
So I went back to university in Canada and got a master’s degree in education. With that, I was able to teach in international schools. I started in Mexico and realized I could have a good career trajectory, make good money, and continue to live abroad. I ended up living in Mexico and teaching in Hong Kong a few times. I lived in London, and I had a lot of school holidays, so I was able to travel during those. I was working at very privileged schools that put an emphasis on experiential learning, so I had the opportunity to travel to different countries with my students. I led trips to Cambodia and Nepal and mainland China and Paris. I’m still traveling today.
Can you elaborate on any specific experiences that gave you that “fish-out-of-water” experience you latched on to?
I arrived in Mexico with very basic Spanish. I was living in a city where English was not commonly spoken and had to learn Spanish on the fly. If I wanted to call a taxi, I couldn’t communicate with the driver. I really felt like I was living in a culture that was foreign to me.
Even though I’m well-traveled now, I still go to places where I feel vulnerable. For instance, it’s very difficult in certain parts of China to communicate if you don’t speak Mandarin. You get a lot of hand signals going on, lots of pointing and nodding, and smiling, but I find that experience very fun.
On your site, it says that one of your goals is to “demystify travel for oft-marginalized groups in a disarming manner.” What inspired you to make that a part of your mission?
At the beginning of my travels, I wasn’t conscious of how I was impacting my community. I recognized that I did not have images of people like me traveling when I was younger, so I didn’t think that traveling for leisure or exploration or to find yourself was something people of color did.
Eventually I recognized that being a visible black, female travel blogger was a huge deal for people in my community. I would get emails from people who would say, “This is so amazing what you’re doing. I don’t know of other people like us traveling like this.” Obviously, things have changed now. There has been a huge influx of travel resources marketed toward people of color. But at the time, in the early 2000s when I was traveling and writing, there were very few black people doing this online. I got a lot of positive feedback.
I didn’t realize that there was an interest in my experiences as a woman of color traveling. Afterward, I started creating resources specifically for black travelers. For instance, in terms of hair care, what do I do as a black female from the U.S. or Canada traveling for extended periods of time? How do I care for my hair? Where do I procure hair products? I started incorporating issues like that into my travel articles.
What are some other challenges you face traveling as a black woman?
A lot has progressed and gotten better. But, at this point, the most annoying thing for me is being racially profiled — being pulled aside in the airport immigration line, for example. That doesn’t happen often to me, but it happens enough that I realize it’s still an issue in 2017.
In some places, I still get a lot of attention. Recently, I got a lot of attention from people when I was in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. I usually don’t mind when people have questions or stare or tell me that they like my skin color. But this time it was aggressive and felt mean-spirited. People were taking pictures of me, and I felt like a circus animal. You can be curious, but you still need to be respectful.
What are some of your favorite travel locations?
I’ve traveled to exactly 100 countries at this point, and the places I return to again and again are those that make me feel good and that I have some sort of personal connection to — France, for example.
In terms of places that I don’t necessarily have a personal connection to, one of my favorites is Thailand. If you’ve never traveled in Asia, I would definitely make that the first country you travel to — it has everything: beautiful beaches, incredible history, great food. It’s the Land of Smiles. The people are so lovely, and it is devastatingly beautiful and inexpensive. There is so much to do. Topographically, it is very varied. You have the highlands, and the lowland beach areas, and so many beautiful islands and mountainous regions.
I’m also a huge fan of Mexico. It’s a large country, and I love that there’s a lot of regional diversity. There’s so much more to Mexico than Acapulco and Cancun — the history and the culture are incredible.
Do you have any particular memories from your travels that stand out?
One of the first trips I did was a two-week train journey through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. This was back in 2004 before there was Facebook, before I had a laptop, before there were smartphones. My friends and I didn’t plan a thing, we just went. We met people along the way, and our route changed depending on what recommendations we received.
You’d stay in the hostel and actually speak to people. It was a golden age of travel. We have a lot of technology now, which is great, but I feel as though I spend so much time researching things, taking pictures, posting pictures. When I traveled in the past without all those bells and whistles, I focused more on the journey.
Also, because I was such a new traveler at the time, everything was so fresh and new. I remember taking the ferry from Spain over to Morocco and thinking, “this is absolutely gorgeous.” That was a really special trip for me because it opened my eyes to what it meant to be a backpacker, what it meant to plan your own trip, and what it meant to truly discover a place.