Here is my fourth interview in honor of Women’s History Month! Mary Blair is a graduate from the University of Chicago with a Bachelor’s in Political Science and Comparative Race & Ethnic Studies. One interesting fact about Mary is that she and I are both from the same city, St. Louis, Missouri, in the midwestern region of the United States.
Q: Can you tell me why you chose to study abroad and pursue Fulbright in Senegal?
A: I knew that I wanted to return to Senegal after my study abroad experience, and when I heard about the Fulbright program, I knew it was perfect for me. I started my grant in September of 2019, and I’m currently doing research on tourism and colonialism on Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal. I’m really grateful for the experience and I am always open to answering questions about the program!
Q: How has travel impacted your life and how has it changed you?
A: Traveling has changed me in more ways than I can express. My first experience abroad was in Dakar, Senegal. I did a 3-month study abroad program through my school, and the curriculum took a deep dive into issues like colonialism and the slave trade. As a descendant of enslaved people that were taken from Africa, it was a very personal experience for me to have my first experience abroad be in West Africa. It made me reflect on my history, culture and identity. Since that first experience, travel continues to give me a new understanding of how my identity as a Black American woman is mapped onto me around the world.
Travel has also changed my life in material ways. Had I not taken that first trip abroad to Senegal, I am sure that I wouldn’t be completing my current Fulbright grant. I first thought of my research project during that experience, and some of my letters of recommendation came from professors I had during that time. I also fell in love with the city of Dakar and knew that it was a place that I wanted to live long term. So here I am, 2 years after my first short stint in Dakar, living here on a Fulbright grant. Travel is quite literally the reason I am where I am today.
There are so many ways travel has changed me. I’m more open, independent, and confident. I hold myself accountable, and I’m surer of myself and my skills. I believe that people are generally good, and I’m more aware of foreign policy and how it impacts people’s life experiences. The list goes on. Travel is a deeply impactful experience that I wish that more people, especially Black people (around the world), had more access to.
Q:Where was your most recent travel experience and what did it teach you?
A:Technically, my most recent travel experience is my current experience in Dakar, and while I’ve learned so, so much during this year, I’m honestly still processing. I feel like I discover something new about myself and my environment every day, but most poignant to me has been what my research has taught me.
My research investigates the ways in which tourism on Goree Island, home to the infamous House of Slaves (a holding center for slaves during the Transatlantic Slave Trade), reflects Senegal’s history of colonialism. Doing this kind of research has taught me that tourism and travel are far from neutral acts. Our ability to travel freely in the world is directly informed by systems of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. It’s really important that those of us who do have the opportunity to travel consider how these systems may privilege us as (Western) tourists and disadvantage others. When we know better, we have to do better.
Knowing what I do now, I think that it is imperative that travelers work towards decolonizing our understanding of travel and tourism. I was able to learn this through participant research, but I know it may be daunting for people that may be new to the idea. Bani Amor is a travel writer that focuses on decolonizing travel. Their piece “Getting Real About Decolonizing Travel Culture” is a good introduction for those looking to be more intentional and ethical in their travel. How Not to Travel Like a Basic B**** is also an incredible blog that features voices of mostly people of color writing about traveling ethically.
Q: What has been your most favorite travel experience and why?
A: I don’t think that I can pick a “favorite” travel experience, because they all have impacted me in profoundly different ways. However, one of my most memorable travel experiences was probably my trip to Thailand. While the ocean views, elephants, monkeys, and food definitely made it a trip to remember, what was most impactful for me was traveling with a group of all Black women. I was the only Black women in my study abroad program and as a Fulbrighter, I am mostly independent, so traveling in a group of women that looked like me was really meaningful. It was also particularly comforting to be around other Black women in a place like Thailand, where we obviously stood out.
I also want to clarify that although traveling in a group to Thailand was one of my most meaningful experiences because of who I traveled with, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was my favorite place to travel ( I don’t think I can pick a favorite). I just want to emphasize that the experience of travel extends beyond where you go– who you go with also matters.
Q: Do you have any tips or advice for people who want to travel more?
A: Here’s just a few–
1) Make a budget!
One of the largest barriers to travel is money, and for a valid reason. Travel can be very expensive, but it’s not always impossible. I recommend making a detailed budget spreadsheet that lists the cost of fights, visas, accommodation, tours/experiences, food, emergency funds, and souvenirs. You can find estimates of these costs online. Use those costs, and work out how much you can afford to save on a monthly basis to go on your dream trip! If you’re going on a group trip, be sure that everyone agrees to the budget before moving forward with the trip. If one person is not committed to going or pulls out last minute, the prices for everyone involved could change.
2) Do your research!
Make sure you do a little bit of research on the laws and cultural norms in the country you’re going to and ensure that you’re being respectful to local customs. You’ll also want to check the weather and see if there are any travel advisories that may impact your trip.
3) Learn some survival phrases!
I would also suggest learning some basic words/phrases in the local language before going. Apps like Duolingo and Babbel are good for this, but keep in mind that these apps don’t have every language on them, so you may have to do some digging online if you’re looking to learn a less commonly spoken language.
4) Eat the local food!
I will never understand Americans who go to the other side of the Earth just to eat Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. Don’t be that tourist. Get you some food with some flavor and support the local economy at the same time! Eat locally!
Q: What are the must have items in your packing list?
A: 1) A Journal
Journalling during my trips abroad has helped me reflect on my experiences, making it easier for me to organize my thoughts and feelings about a place. I highly recommend journalling for a more introspective travel experience.
2) Antibacterial Wet Wipes + Hand Sanitizer
Loooook…. we gotta stay clean out here. I know that this is a hot-button issue because of the current coronavirus crisis, but I would recommend having these items on you regardless. When you travel, you come into contact with so many germs from all over the world, so the best course of action is to just always be prepared.
3) RFID-blocking Wallet
Identity thieves can highjack all of your personal information electronically through “RFID skimming”. They don’t have to even touch you– if they are close enough to you, they can simply scan all of the information on your credit cards and IDs using a special device. Thieves using this technology target airports, where people are generally standing close to each other and often have their wallets in their hands to show their passports or boarding passes. RFID wallets protect you from this kind of technology, so I don’t travel without mine. I’d rather be safe than sorry.
4) Travel adapter
Plugs are different in different countries, so I always travel with my adapter so I can charge all of my devices no matter where I am in the world.
Q: Where can people follow your travel journeys?
A: You can check out my travels on http://www.BlackbirdBlair.com or follow me on instagram (@mary.beee)!