My sister’s wedding brought my mother and me to our first adventure outside of American borders, into what we thought of as the unknown. The largest body of water we had seen before the trip was Lake Michigan, which didn’t count because it was practically outside our doorstep in Indiana. We were traveling together, two Black women, to the island of Jamaica. The thought of such a trip shouldn’t have produced so much fear and trepidation, but we were nervous because neither of us had ever flown in a plane before. Sure, my sister was getting married for the first time, and this was the first wedding of one of her children that my mom would attend (my wedding was quick and cost $50). However, we were still stressed about the whole trip—leaving American soil, crossing a whole ocean, changing planes (and possibly missing a flight), the whole thing.
There were so many small things that other travelers take for granted that we weren’t sure about.
There were a lot of things that could have happened. While we packed and prepared, our family members were filled with stories about tourists, women especially, getting snatched from the street, warnings about losing our passports and being stuck in a foreign country, or worse, being assaulted while we were out because we were two women traveling alone. As we sat in the darkened O’Hare terminal, my mother and I both tried hard not to think of all those cautionary tales. Instead, we talked about food.
“I want to drink from a coconut,” my mom said. “Just sit on the beach, drinking from a coconut and looking at what God made.”
“A coconut drink with rum in it?” I teased.
“No. I don’t have to have the rum to make it good.” My mom is a teetotaling Christian.
We had plenty of time to talk about the food on the island because we had arrived at the airport three hours ahead of time, as directed. However, at five in the morning the security lines were nonexistent, so we zipped right through, only to be waiting for our plane in an empty terminal for two hours.
As the plane prepared to take off, I remember grabbing my mom’s hand.
There were so many small things that other travelers take for granted that we weren’t sure about. We didn’t know if we should leave our terminal in search of breakfast; all that food talk made us hungry. We were worried that the plane might arrive early and leave without us. We shoved passports, boarding passes, itineraries, and probably a few receipts at the attendant when our turn came to board. As the plane prepared to take off, I remember grabbing my mom’s hand. It was like a roller coaster ride in the beginning that became some terrifying, loud ride. I felt that pressure building in a mix of fear and anticipation. I also felt it in my mom squeezing my hand as she silently prayed like a monk for a safe takeoff.
Later, we would laugh about how the anticipation made that first takeoff worse than it actually was.
When we finally landed in Jamaica, the heat, the smells, the sounds as we entered the airport were overwhelming. “Look at this!” “Look over there!” “Over here!” It was too much to take in as we headed through security and customs.
“You got your paper? You don’t want these folks to keep us here,” my mom said, reminding me about the immigration form for the third time since we landed. “You got your passport?”
As we made our way out to the cab stand, my mom kept saying, “All these beautiful black people. And look at the hair.”
Our driver was an older man with a thick island accent and a way with words. As we dashed through the Montego Bay streets as if we were in the Indy 500, the cab driver laid on the charm so thick that my mom barely noticed our near-death experience that was the cab ride.
Later, we would sit on the beach talking to my sister by phone. “I could live here,” my mom mused. I laughed, but my sister on the other line had me relay a message. “Tell her that she got a passport, not a Visa. Mama has to go back home!” It didn’t stop Mom and me from dreaming throughout the entire trip.
The rest of our trip was full of firsts. My mom made friends with a bunch of local vendors who gave us the lowdown on the island and the culture. The women bonded over grandkids and blackness. I remember one woman telling my mom that she was so refreshing to talk to after seeing so many white faces all day. The woman also told us to leave the currency at the exchange, as the best deals are always made using American dollars. We saw miniature crabs scuttling around that the Jamaicans dismissed as pests, just as we would ignore ants in Indiana. We learned about coconuts and even drank from fresh coconuts from trees. Lunch was from a real jerk chicken hut on the beach. We got the seasoning to make our own from the gift shop. Another first for us was eating at a fine dining restaurant with low light, new, exotic foods, with nothing but the waves crashing against the shore for ambiance.
The entire island atmosphere was really about admiring the natural beauty and relaxation. The people talked slowly and were always urging us to relax or telling us long stories that drawled on enough to put me to sleep. My mother discovered that the beautiful plants were giant-sized versions of the houseplants she had at home. We both marveled at the tree-like heights her pothos and dieffenbachia plants could achieve with some dense humidity, year-round heat, and lots of sun. Later, we would sit on the beach talking to my sister by phone. “I could live here,” my mom mused. I laughed, but my sister on the other line had me relay a message. “Tell her that she got a passport, not a Visa. Mama has to go back home!” It didn’t stop Mom and me from dreaming throughout the entire trip.
Our first day on the beach, I waded into the warm water, letting the rocks and sand massage my feet. I turned back to see my mother kiss the sand and come up muttering one of her prayers. She knelt on her beach towel and brought her face to the sand, kissing the beach like she was greeting a new friend. This trip was a dream come true for both of us.
Growing up with nothing and having to scrape up every dime to survive, we never even had time to think about an island vacation, much less a reason for a passport. Poor folks like us didn’t travel. But as my sister and I grew older and started our careers, doors opened and dreams became realities. This island trip, getting to see a new part of the world, was something that we both had dreamed of. I knew right then, though, that it was much more than just a dream for my mom. It was a fantasy made real. To top it all off, she would get to see at least one of her two girls married. I still haven’t lived down the quick-and-dirty nuptials my husband and I pulled off well over a decade before.
Poor folks like us didn’t travel. But as my sister and I grew older and started our careers, doors opened and dreams became realities.
Just getting over these small hurdles, the fears that crop up when two poor Black women decide to travel abroad, was more than refreshing for us—it was empowering. The fear of the unknown took up so much space in our minds that we would have never traveled outside the country if not for my sister’s wedding. Now that we’ve experienced it and know that we can travel confidently, we both crave more. We want to travel to many more places where blackness dominates and we can see things that are not native to Indiana, USA. We don’t need anything but a passport, a plane ticket, and each other to explore the world from now on.