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The Worst Part About My Travels As A Solo, Black Woman

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Paris, France |
Paris, France // July 2015

While I’m the first to encourage my fellow African-Americans to spread them transatlantic wings to hop across the pond and join me in Europe, there’s a part that I’m always hesitant to open up about when it comes to the reality of our existence in some parts of the world.

And while I can’t speak for every black woman, nor every country’s views, I can share my experiences, my observations, and my discoveries, in hopes that it can prepare and even educate fellow black women as to something that is far too common, and yet, beyond our control.

Sorry to build the suspense, but I have to contextualize this, because again, I was so oblivious to it at first, that when it happened, I was so shocked, disgusted, and confused. And a bit saddened as well.

Toledo, Spain |
Toledo, Spain // June 2015

Because when you’re so used to doing everything to control the perception others have of you, and then having that “power” taken away from you for the simple fact that you’re in a city or region where people that have your skin color, are usually prostitutes, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Yes, that’s right.

I was mistaken for a prostitute.

Not just once. But dozens of times. And I’ve honestly lost count.

The first time it happened, I was in Spain.

The second time, The Czech Republic.

The third time, Albania.

And before the cynics begin to question what I was wearing, it didn’t matter. I was clothed, covered, and respectable.

Whether that be in a long, flowing skirt or in jeans and a peacoat, there are just some regions of the world who see black skin on a woman, and assume that the only way I was able to afford to get there and stay there, was by way of selling my body to a local.

This way of thinking isn’t born overnight. It’s taught and it’s engrained by what’s happened in the past.

Costa Brava, Spain |
Costa Brava, Spain // May 2015

In Barcelona, my favorite city in Europe (and that’s extremely biased as I got to call it home for a year), I soon learned that there were certain streets I just couldn’t walk down at a certain hour, even as “early” as 8PM.

One time I was with my German friend leaving a restaurant, and he was walking me back to the train station on the famous La Rambla street, and one by one we’re met with these strange looks that I can’t quite describe. It was a mix between a look of congratulations to my friend and a look of dirtiness to me.

We pass police officers who mutter something along the lines of “good job” in Catalan, while looking towards my German friend, and seemingly scaling me up and down as if imagining what Nicki Minaj moves I had in my repertoire.

My friend and I look at each other, mutually sensing the discomfort of the situation, but still wondering why we were attracting such strange expressions.

And this was one of my closest friends while in Barcelona, strictly platonic, and now incredibly awkward.

I start becoming self-conscious and more observant of everyone around us, wondering why we were getting so much attention.

And then I lock eyes with what looked like a West-African (specifically, Nigerian) woman.

She stares me up and down, then looks at my German friend, eyeballs his crotch area, then looks at me again and mutters something to her friend nearby.

It’s now clear they were prostitutes, and they’ve mistaken me as their “competition” and crossing into their territory.

By now, we’ve made our way off the main strip of La Rambla, and off to the smaller sidewalk, because the attention became too much.

And then we notice a trend.

Every 100 feet or so, there’s a new African woman.

Claiming her spot/corner.

Giving me the same “jealous” glare as if they’re mad I had found a “customer” for the night, while they were still out there harassing every man that passed them by.

The worst part is, they did look like me. And I looked like them.

You see, most African prostitutes in Europe don’t exactly dress like prostitutes do. They wear coats, scarves, sweaters, and jeans. Just like me. Therefore, making us almost indistinguishable.

I was an empty corner away from looking like one of them, and the embarrassment was enough to keep me away from that street past dark for the remainder of my time in Barcelona.

I tried hard to forget about that night, and my friend and I only talked about it once over coffee, before agreeing to pretend it never happened. It was awkward. To have a friend walk down a street for 15 minutes under the assumption that you, his good friend, was purchased for the night.

I don’t walk around flashing my college degree, credentials, or achievements on my arms, but the fact that I couldn’t and didn’t really know how to defend myself, was something new. I was embarrassed. A type of embarrassed that leaves you speechless and unsure how to vent or open up about it with friends.

Madrid, Spain |
Madrid, Spain // June 2015

Another time while I was out and about exploring the city, I arrive at a small intersection where I see a car coming.

When I’m in no hurry, I’m always very laxed about letting cars just go in front of me, and depending on where you are, most of them do anyway.

But I see him slowing down, and encourage him to press the gas again, and do a motion with my hand that waves him through to carry onwards.

But he instead brakes even harder so that his passenger window is right in front of me, winds down his window, and excitedly asks me in Spanish how much I charge, soon motioning that he didn’t even care, to just hop in the car anyway, reaching over to open the door.

The shock hit me so hard again, I felt like someone just punched my gut. I *accidentally* kicked his car and walked around him and crossed the street.

My Spanish/Catalan was so bad at that time, that I hadn’t taught myself how to be angry in a foreign language yet. And God knows that was probably for the best. Jesus took that wheel.

And as much as I try to forget it happened. It soon happened again in Seville, Spain. And then in Prague, Czech Republic, and then in Gjirokastra, Albania. And several other cities, towns, and villages around Europe.

And being here now in Cyprus, I was reminded yet again, that this is just a part of my solo travel experience that I have to accept. Because it’s happened again.

Kyrenia, Cyprus |
Kyrenia, Cyprus // April 2016

The other day I met a lovely lady from The Philippines who’s the pastor of a church here who told me about their worship service happening in a few minutes.

She wanted to prepare a few things and had her husband walk me to where the church was located.

Sidenote: After traveling for so long, you start to develop a spirit of discernment, and I knew from the sound of their voices and the joy in their heart from finding a “sister in Christ” that I was in good hands.

So her husband and I start walking down the main street and heading for the church.

He was probably in his early 60’s, and since the wife was off picking up some things, there we were. An older man, with a 20-something old black woman, and immediately, the heads are turning, I’m hearing mutters, and on this narrow street lined with bars and restaurants of hundreds of people sitting outside facing towards the street, we soon become the center of attention. And by the looks of their faces, it was not for anything good.

There is nothing more embarrassing than the thought of someone thinking you were just “purchased”.

I knew what everyone thought, and my jolly new friend, oblivious to it all, is telling me about his journey of being a born again Christian, and how much God has worked miracles in his life.

And there I was, instead of rejoicing with him in his victories, allowing my human side to take over, and I put my head down, trying to avoid all the stares and mutters we were receiving.

It was different than the stares I got when I was by myself exploring Cyprus. People smiled and waved, and even chimed in a few times with, Welcome to Cyprus! It was beautiful.

But it was about 8PM this time. And all I saw were judgmental faces.

We soon arrived to the church and I’m greeted by a cheerful group of Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Africans who are so delighted to see a new face in their church.

But the walk I made to get there was too much for me to handle at the time, and I was still trying to process it all. I honestly just wanted to break down and cry and run back to the comforts and confinements of my hotel.

I wasn’t in the mood to serve or sing, although that was probably the exact type of environment I needed to be in, but I was tired of going through that same worthless strut that had followed me in far too many cities around Europe.

But writing is my form of healing.

And just like my Prague experience, I’m slowly but surely teaching myself that I simply cannot control others’ perceptions of me.

Despite my accomplishments, despite my education, despite what I’ve overcome to get where I am today, if they’re accustomed to associating my skin color with those of prostitutes, then I simply can’t let that get to me.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland |
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland // March 2016

Their ignorance is NOT my problem.

So while I want nothing more than my fellow African-American women to go out and explore this beautiful world around us, on their own if they can, please do be prepared and aware that this might be your experience too.

I’ve been traveling around Europe cumulatively for almost 1,000 days since 2012, and that’s been filled with beautiful encounters, cultural exchanges, and inspiring conversations.

So these moments definitely make up the minority of my experience. And it’s important to remember that while we can’t change the perception of black women in these countries overnight, we can do our best to increase our presence, as everyday tourists, worthy of respect and not lazy assumptions about how we afforded to get there in the first place.

Limassol, Cyprus |
Limassol, Cyprus // April 2016

And know that these problems aren’t exclusive to these cities and countries, nor is the prostitution label exclusive to black women, because it really depends on the history of foreign women in that area.

And if a fellow African-American female traveler went abroad for the first time and experienced this, I can at least feel good about letting her know that she is not alone and it’s completely out of her control.

So while I wrote this as more of a therapeutic way for me to cope, I also hope it enlightened some of you all too.

Thanks for listening.

Worst Part About My Travels As A Solo, Black Woman |
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  • Sheena Dersidan

    Glo, it hurts my heart that you have even experienced this, let alone multiple times. You are such a beautiful light in this world and your courage to share your experiences is a gift to others. Thank you for writing this. ~Sheena

  • Iris

    Thanks for sharing this !!! I love your blog, I came across it a few days ago due to instragram.

  • To be completely honest, I’m so USED to it. It doesn’t really bother me unless men are being particularly aggressive- which is very rare.
    Although, I can imagine after awhile it can become super irritating to be oogled everywhere.

    I usually try to think of it this way, it’s THEIR ignorance. And that’s on them. It’s a free world, if weather permits I will wear whatever I want to wear, and there’s not enough idiotic men on the world to stop me. I’m sure they really wish they could afford “alla this” LOL. As for black women who work as prostitutes, Its a shame, but for some women it’s a reality I’m sure they wish they could change. So when they see you walk by, they most probably know already that you’re not one of them.

    Meh, my time in China opened my eyes a lot, and I think black women at times get the worst deal when it comes to travelling. But since when did that stop us..?

    Another great post Glo!

    Jo X

  • I’ve lived in Holland for over a decade. I’ve had dates with elderly Caucasians as well as with younger guys. The stares don’t get to me anymore I guess. When I go alone to some stores here, I get shadowed..followed about because black skinned Africans have long been associated with shoplifting; when I am all dolled up with a white date, the waitresses and waiters make faces that are puzzling and sometimes full of respect, the response is so varied most times that I just don’t pay attention any more. I don’t have the attitude that anyone with white skin is better than me because most people in Holland don’t give off that racist vibe as opposed to a place like Croatia, in my opinion.

  • sue rock

    This is a very important topic. The Green Book was written to assist Black travelers traveling throughout the US during the 1950s and 1960s. It was printed, written and produced because African Americans had a very clear understanding of their environment and not only prepared accordingly but encouraged others to have a safe and rewarding experience while traveling. Your post goes back to that clarity. Some things will not change but surely future travelers do not have to have these experiences (or worse).

    Your courage and “real talk” will support other women while traveling! Cheers to you!

  • JustGoPlaces

    Great post! I had no idea this happened. I am used to the public perception that I am my children’s nanny (they are light-skinned like their English father). Usually we travel as a group so it’s clear that we are a family or if it’s just me and the kids I’m the hired help. Yes, it does depend on what part of the world you travel. In the Middle East, I get the impression the hookers are non-African. (but the Indians are still hired help!!).

    • I got the nanny/housekeeper thing when I was a high school student studying abroad in Austria!

  • Very interesting read. I was apalled, sad and angered by this. I just can’t understand ignorance and prejudice to that degree. I’m a white South American woman married to a Brit and living in Texas. Of course, I’ve been accused of marrying him for his passport and money. The one that me the most was a fellow South American making this accusation. I don’t get it.

  • Sandra Henriques Gajjar

    When I was in Dubai, a taxi driver complimented my husband (my boyfriend at the time) for his taste in prostitutes, while pointing to me. My husband is Indian, I’m white, and this conversation was in Hindi (I’m not fluent); he waited for us to be dropped off and then told me what had happened and how he had scolded the taxi driver (he knew if he had told me what was happening while we were inside the car, I would’ve jumped to the passenger seat and start yelling at the guy’s face). Apparently in Dubai when a “colored” (sorry to use this word) man leaves a hotel accompanied by a white woman, it could only mean one thing… As a multicultural couple we are so used to taking crap from people; sometimes we joke about it, sometimes I lose my temper about it (and it’s not pretty to watch).

    As for your experience in these countries I am shocked! I would like to think of Europeans as open minded, non judgemental people but damn have I been blind or what? I don’t think this would happen in Portugal, not that I have noticed so far.

  • Very interesting, I’ll definitely share this blog with my traveling sisters. Many are new to international travel and don’t always consider all of the possibilities of solo travel. I’ve traveled the world widely for 30 years, but always with my husband. So my experiences on Las Ramblas Barcelona (also one of my favorite cities) and in Dubai were different. Thanks for sharing your honest feelings and experiences.

  • Just like with your Prague post, this rings true to me, too. Because in France, this is also the case (at least from the places I lived). And like you, I had similar thoughts of… feeling completely out of control about what people assumed about me just because the color of my skin. I would walk home alone at night and though I never had encounters like you did, instead of feeling like I was just normal, I wondered: Do I look like a prostitute? And once you begin to understand that that’s how people may perceive you, you get a little more defensive or wonder if certain people are being friendly just because of that. This is definitely a reality that isn’t spoken about at all, but I’m glad you wrote about it.

  • Gemma

    Oh man, this is a hard read, I can’t begin to imagine how it feels. I was in Nicaragua last month and I was so peeved at the men there, ‘Hey Mamma / Mummy / whatever’ some even taking their kids to school in the morning, really setting a great tone for their sons to follow. Anyway, not a patch on your experience. I really haven’t met many black travellers in the past year (the Americas and now Europe), we’ve probably only met three fellow Scots too. Turns out Scottish people don’t really leave Scotland. Wishing you a stress free and less discriminatory trip!

  • Robin

    Thank you for sharing. I’ve been a solo traveler (albeit white) for more than 20 years. There is so much power, wisdom and spirituality to be gained as a women taking in the world solo. So I am so very glad you haven’t let these reactions slow you down. And as more women of color travel, let’s hope it begins to change perceptions. I’m a big girl, which gets my own kind of looks and assumptions. Don’t let any of it stop us!

  • Wow I am so sorry that you have to endure that, how horrible. It is great to see that it also doesn’t stop you.

  • Hannah Logan

    Fantastic post Glo. When I first started travelling and lived in Ireland I remember talking about all the places I wanted to visit (the south of France specifically comes to mind) and being warned against going out at night because of all the Africans. I was like um what?! I didn’t understand at all. I’m Canadian I have friends and neighbours and coworkers of African descent. They are a regular part of my every day life and I couldn’t fathom why I needed to worry. I was horrified that they even said something like that. It was then explained to me that plenty are illegal immigrants and running drugs or working as prostitutes… But I thought to myself don’t people of every culture do that? The more I thought about it though the more I realized that many Europeans treat those of African descent the same as many North Americans treat the Native populations. A few sad cases and situations have somehow morphed into the supposed norm. And somehow everyone gets thrown into one big category no matter whether they belong there or not. It’s ridiculous and quite frankly, stupid, but I’m so glad women like you are proving a point- doing your thing, loving it, and sharing it. You go girl. Xo

  • Lawrence Taylor

    Thanks Glo for enlightening me on the challenges a woman might go through and I’m sure that it happens to women of any ethnicity though experience does tell me that west african women are more obvious in non-african environments. As an AA man, I have been with women of different ethnicities while abroad that garnered an extra glance also but after living in America where few of us might be seen, this was nothing close to the hostile looks from Americans. My truth as an AA is I have always been treated better abroad than I ever have at “home” in the USA. Travel and exposure has proven to be my personal emancipation! Hope to cross paths one day. Heading to Russia, Bulgaria and Romania now before winter in Asia! Be safe, try hard to let go of the assumptions/perceptions of others and happy travels.

  • I love that you write so honestly and bluntly. I think it’s a really horrible situation as a whole – prostitutes in Europe (all races/ethnicities) often only go there for a promise of a better life, often told that they’ll be models or actresses. I’m sad that it’s so prevalent, and that onlookers can be so blatantly rude, judgmental, and nasty towards a pair of people walking in the streets. Sad for the stereotype and sad that this is daily life for the prostitutes. Ugh. I did not feel good reading this. Glad to have you writing enlightening articles like this!

  • shouldbedancing

    I got mistaken for a prostitute in Thailand! I was like whaaaaaaaaaaaat?!!

  • Chris Jean Ciolli

    I’m so sorry you had to go through this but am glad to hear someone that has experienced it first-hand sharing so that other women will know they’re not alone. I’ve had the prostitute thing happen to me in Barcelona when I’ve been waiting to meet someone of an evening, but nothing that even comes close to what I’ve seen women of color experiencing here.

  • I truly understand this feeling, as a girl who wears something on the head which we all know called a hijab, I so oftenly, well, always, get those rude stare, whispers, and finger-pointing everytime I go abroad. Not to forget mentioning how people in public don’t treat me like they treat anyone who doesn’t wear hijab. it’s like I’m something else. It’s like I’m traveling with something dangerous inside my bag. It’s like I’m going to do something while flying on board. No. No, absolutely not. I’m just a girl, 21 years old, who loves going places, talking to strangers along the way, taking pictures and that’s all. But, reading this post I know that things like those couldn’t stop us from exploring every corner of the earth! Thank you for being such an inspiration, Glo!

  • Nina LoveHall

    As a black solo female traveler I have to say that while I identify with having to deal with preconceived notions of my blackness I am a bit unnerved by how you reached the conclusion that the first woman you saw at the station was most likely West African – specifically Nigerian.

    How do you know she is Nigerian? Are you Nigerian? Have you lived in Nigerians/West Africans for extended periods of time?

    I ask these questions because in my experience (African American born and raised in Brooklyn) most people who aren’t Africans cannot tell Africans apart (except Ethiopians and Somalians, and even then they get it wrong at least 20% of the time).

    I guess what I am trying to say is: Here we are complaining about people making judgements about us based solely on what/who they think we are AND yet we are doing the same thing … making a claim about another person without concrete proof. You don’t know if she is West African/Nigerian or not so don’t write it or say it. She is just another black woman like you … most likely an immigrant but you have no way of knowing where she is from.

    • Lisa

      The author is Nigerian.

    • Hi Nina! So sorry that I didn’t specify or expound on how I came to the Nigerian conclusion, but as someone who has 100% Nigerian blood, I can spot my own. I also recognized their accents and the Nigerian cheekbones we’re known for, were very prominent. This was also confirmed by a few friends who live in Barcelona, that the sex workers on La Rambla are Nigerian immigrants. No disrespect intended whatsoever, and I definitely wouldn’t call them by their country if I wasn’t already 1000% sure, but I was.

      • Nina LoveHall

        Hi Gloria! I really appreciate you taking the time to address my comment

        First I owe you an apology for being “all up in my feelings” when I typed my comment. At the time of my comment I was very sensitive to the dynamics of the sex-trade industry specifically as it relates to African women in the diaspora.

        Thanks for replying in a very civil manner 🙂

        • Tochukwu Mary

          Hi Gloria, I just came across this, researching solo black female travelers. I started traveling alone a year ago and so far, I have been to only African countries. My experience has been similar to yours and I understand the need to live above people’s perceptions. But like Nina said, it is a pity that people assume who/what we are is determined by our skin color or race, the same way I find it amusing that all the prostitutes in that particular city are all Nigerians. Being Nigerian, I tend to get pissed with such assumptions, although…I have come to walk with my head held high. So, my question to you is do you identify as a Nigerian American “born” and raised or African American? Don’t get me wrong.. I have no qualms with your identity. I just need to clear that before you place emphasis on a particular people and generalize based on hearsay and not proven facts, that you de-stress the emphasis. I am a born, breed and raised Nigerian and like I said, I have been to many African countries and they never identify me as Nigerian until I say so.

          • Hi Tochukwu, great question! My Igbo name is Uchechukwu, almost similar 🙂

            Because of my birth country, I always identify as American. If someone questions further, then I say I’m of Nigerian heritage. I never really use Nigerian-American, because people would be 10x more confused than they already are, especially since many I meet still have never met a black person before.

            But not only are there several articles and videos of Nigerian women in the sex trade around Europe, but all it takes is me passing by to recognize the mother tongue.

            Of course, just like any other statement, there are exceptions. Are all Africans who are sex workers around Europe Nigerian? Absolutely not! But the ones I’ve encountered are. And I can only speak for myself.

            Me dissociating myself with sex workers isn’t me dissociating myself with my heritage. I love my roots and I’m excited to visit Nigeria for the first time this December.

            As this was my first exposure to this after 3 years of traveling, I guess more than anything, I just wasn’t ready.

            Thanks so much for reading and commenting with your thoughts.

  • Johnny Yip

    I’m an AA male and have done a lot of traveling, been the only black person in 1000 miles. Had photos taken of me, been followed down the street, but America is still the place where I’ve encountered the most racism. My sister in law, a AA woman, has lived in Spain for the last 3 years and she loves it there. She live in Barcelona now and we’ve visited her there and it was fantastic. So, i’m not discounting your experience, merely offering another one. I still think AAs should travel as much as they can and form their own opinions. Really, what’s the worst that can happen? Feelings get hurt? Well just don’t visit that place any more. And in America Blacks kill Blacks and cops kill Blacks, ain’t nothing that bad in Europe.

  • Thank you for this. I’m literally three weeks into my stay in Salamanca, Spain trying to understand why I have received these looks and aggressive attitudes from various people. None the less I came across your post in search to see if others have had the same experience…unfortunately there are many educated, and ambitious Black women who have also gone through the same!

  • Steph Humphrey

    This happened to me in Prague in May. I was eating dinner by myself outside at a nice restaurant and two men came up to me asking for sex. It ruined my entire time in Prague…even though I didn’t like that city anyway. But it was the first time I’d ever felt unsafe in Europe. The way men looked at me was scary and disgusting. During the rest of my Central Euro trip I got nothing but love in Vienna and Budapest where I was the only black face around so I was shocked. I’ll never go back to Prague for various reasons but at least it prepared me for my upcoming trip to Spain.

  • Nann

    Well, having travelled all across my African home country, Europe and the world from the age of 15, I can tell you that coming out of your “usual circle” is the most enlightening thing that can happen to any woman.

    It doesn’t matter that I’m black, or African, or legit, etc. There are things that just need to be experienced to learn the value of “self-respect” that some misguided people in African, European, American or even South East Asian societies try really hard to erode with their attitudes.
    On the one hand, you get patronised, then vilified, then admired, then quarantined and later dreaded for being a soloist. On the other hand, you get a clear picture of where you stand in the world as an individual. Nothing can give character better than this.

    It’s sad that you got this experience as a traveller, but as a woman, my deepest resentment doesn’t go to those who misunderstand the situation, but to those who created this situation. I.e the greedy pimps/proxénètes, the “clients” who think that apart from their families, all females and males in this world can be bought, the corrupted African “cousins” who lure their families/friends into this trade, the African governments who watch and couldn’t care less as long as their bank accounts are full of smuggled foreign aid, the African families who are delighted to reap the benefits of their children’s enslavement, the poverty that is rife and persistant in some African countries and ruin the basic concept of human dignity.

    This human world sometimes reeks of the filth of money and perversion. We are lucky we have the means to step out of it. Everyday I thank my parents and the education they gave me for preserving me from this truth until I was much older.

    The driving pimp incident happened to me when I was in my teens (aged 13), right on the main street outside my “middle class white” neighbourhood, back in 1999. Innocent as I was, I did not even acknowledge it. Today as a woman (aged 31), I live in a rural white community in Oceania, and I get the “hints” from some male colleagues right in the middle of office discussions. This time I am able to set the record straight.

  • Hello and thank you for sharing your stories… I am in the process of contemplating a trip to Ireland in January and I too am an African American Female that will be traveling solo. This blog has made me re-adjust my location choices. I would be interested in hearing further travels from you. God Bless

  • Ana Mihalj

    I’ve just came across your blog today and I absolutely love your writing style, so I was that much more sad to read this post.

    My only advice to you is to hold your head high, at all times and ignore the fools.
    Sometimes you have to wear thicker skin, but even though you might not see it, you are doing something for other women traveling, especially those with african heritage.

  • Michael Munro

    Super gross how you equate to women who do sex work = uneducated .

    Really gross and archaic.

    OP: I don’t like being judged, I’m a good God seeker so I will just judge other people..

    • Hey Michael! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

      As I see 80-year old men as the normal customers for these young women, I can’t help but hurt for them. I never called them uneducated, but feel free to infer whatever you’d like, which may also be a gross and archaic cliche comment.

      Thanks for dropping by!