What Travel Is Like When You’re Not a Rich White Kid – VICE

“Is it true that you can buy anything from a vending machine in Japan?” my oldest brother asked down the phone. “Like, even a pizza?” It wasn’t true, but how was he supposed to know that? Raheem – whose name I’ve changed to protect his privacy, as with all my family members in this piece – had never left the UK, let alone gone to Tokyo. Homeless at 15, Raheem was a dad, part of a gang and one of the main breadwinners of our family by the time he turned 18. 
Growing up, travel was not the priority for my family. I grew up in Newham – an East London borough with the second highest child poverty rate in the country. Fifty percent of the borough’s children are affected by poverty, and being one of seven children, I fell squarely into that category. Travel seemed so unattainable that we just never considered it. I hadn’t even been to the seaside.
But when I was 16, I left my Newham bubble to go to a sixth form in Camden, North London. There, I met kids who’d prattle on about their summer trips and ask where my family went. I was always too embarrassed to admit that we’d spent the holidays more concerned with where our next meal was coming from than our next vacation to Disneyland or Cancún. 
Still, that exposure to travel had a real impact. It became a dream of mine to go abroad – but, like, a pipe dream you never expect to actually happen. Judging by the fact that the travel industry is still overwhelmingly white, this shouldn’t come as a total surprise. In the US, only 36 percent of outbound adventure travellers identify as non-white. Meanwhile, in the UK, people from the Black and Asian ethnic groups were less likely to have visited a heritage site (at 42 percent and 56 percent) than white people (75 percent). 
I was 21 when I first went abroad, and I haven’t stopped since. I’m not the only one: Wunmi Alowonle and Sophia Tran, both 30, are the co-founders of Thrifty with a Compass – a blog that aims to show marginalised people from low-income backgrounds that travel can be attainable.  
“Both of our parents were immigrants, so we never really travelled growing up,” Tran says. Now the pair have been everywhere from France to Belize. They’re big advocates of self-funded travel that doesn’t break the bank – but they also highlight how different it can be when you’re the first in your family to travel. “We didn’t have a playbook growing up,” Alowonle says, “so as adults, we kind of have to navigate it ourselves.” 
Like Tran and Alowonle, I had to figure out how to travel by myself. I remember booking my first solo trip: a one-way flight to India. I’d done no research – I just thought it sounded far enough from home to be an adventure. My friends thought I was crazy, but being brave (read: stubborn), I insisted I wasn’t even a little bit scared by their horror stories.
“When you haven’t grown up travelling,” Alowonle says, “you lean so heavily on the planning side because you don’t have that experience of just following along with your parents as they plan the trip for you.” I’ve never been a planner, but after an overwhelming first week in Delhi, I learned quick. I was a planning pro by the end of it.
Maybe a little too pro: by the time I landed in Goa for the next leg of my trip, I’d pre-booked everything, completely missing the point of free-floating backpacking. I thought I had it all figured out, only to find that while everyone else hopped from hostel to hostel in search of the best parties, I was – unfortunately – stuck at the first place I’d booked.
While my friends grew up with well-travelled parents who encouraged – even funded – their travels, fear of the unknown meant that mine would have preferred me to stay safe at home. This isn’t uncommon within communities of colour; Tran describes a similar experience with her mother: “My mum is always scared because she grew up in the Vietnam War. She saw really horrible things, so she's always scared for me, especially as a young female traveller.” 
But the skills I picked up during that trip became invaluable to me, in ways that those who can’t relate to my background may not even recognise. 
The resourcefulness, flexibility and – to be honest – distance, were all especially useful as I navigated family crises from abroad. The options to couchsurf, hitchhike, eat cheap street food and take in the sights for free meant I could use spare money from my student loan and scholarships to contribute to my family in ways that I couldn’t while living in expensive London. When Fayez, the second oldest of my three brothers, was sentenced to five years in prison, I could put money towards appealing his sentence. For the first time in my life, living broke was cool – I was a “backpacker”, not poor, and I could easily brush off my lack of funds as part of the experience. 
It wasn’t all great, though. Staying in touch with Fayez in prison was hard. While others FaceTimed their parents everyday, I’d wait by my phone for his weekly 3AM calls. He’d always call one of our other siblings on the landline; they would then call me from their mobile, and place the two phones next to each other on loudspeaker. It became ritual: He’d fill me in on the latest prison fights and I’d catch up with him from a different country every week. 
After a while, Fayez snuck a mobile phone into his cell so we could talk more easily. 
“The first time I used it I was shitting my pants,” he tells me now. “I was shaking and everything.” What would have happened if he’d gotten caught? “I got spun once,” he says. “That’s when they suspect you have a phone, so they put you in a cell called the Cage and then they send like three officers to your room to rip it apart and see if they can find the phone. If they found it, I would have got moved to a higher security prison… But they didn’t find shit.” 
Travel is different for people like us: even a phone call is never as simple as it seems. Still, I’d never laughed as much with my other brother Raheem as when he was asking questions like “So what then, are there just elephants an’ that runnin’ ‘round in Thailand?” Travel often feels “out of reach” for Black and brown people, Alowonle says, but this was the first time I sensed Raheem’s hopefulness as he realised what life on the outside could look like. “I’m so proud when I hear about your travels, y’know,” he told me once. “It makes me want to go legit so I can travel too. Maybe I’ll take my kids somewhere nice one day.”
That day never came. When he was 32, Raheem died in a prison cell while I was abroad in Thailand. It took a week for me to get home after his death; I was too broke to change my flights or even to pay for the privacy of a hotel room while I grieved. I sat in my hostel bed that entire week, turning the circumstances of my brother’s death over and over in my head. 
Maybe one of the things I enjoyed most about travelling, back then, was that it was the first time I didn’t feel like a walking sob story. But Raheem’s death felt like the harshest reminder that, regardless of the physical distance I put between myself and my background, I could never truly escape. Tran is more optimistic, pointing out that the best part of travelling when you come from backgrounds like ours is being able to inspire those around you. Her father – a survivor of the Vietnam War – loves when she brings back pictures, sends videos, or calls them while she’s abroad. 
“My dad didn't have anything at all and he just saw that life is so short,” she says. “So he's always telling my mom, ‘Sophia has to learn. She has to see what's out there. She has to experience it. And then we also get to live vicariously through her.’” Maybe Tran’s right. Though he never got to experience it himself, I’d never heard Raheem as excited about the future as when he was talking to me about my travels. 
It’s people like Tran’s dad and Raheem who remind us that, beyond fun, beyond “finding yourself”, travel means a lot to people like us. As Wunmi puts it: “Representation within travel matters so much, because you don't realise how impactful it is to see people that look like you doing things that you wanna do.” Maybe that’s why I’ve come to love travel more than ever: It’s a reminder that – even in the face of so much adversity – people like me can thrive, too.


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