Did I do it for the ‘Gram?

A few months ago, a poet made me wonder if I would “still want to travel to that country if [I] could not take [my] camera with [me]” (see “Simple Words; Hard Truths”). And I feel so relieved because currently I am sitting on a patio in the neighborhood of Imerovigli on the island of Santorini, Greece (which is serving as my Lenox Stoop for the time-being) and the last thing on my mind is where my camera is. Instead, I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun in my face and the freedom to write whatever comes to mind.

For about 10 days now, a group of girlfriends and I have been island-hopping throughout Greece and it has been an amazing experience of fellowship, exploration, fun and relaxation. We have laughed, I have cried, and we’ve met so many people, tried new foods and seen the sights, that it has truly been one of the best experiences of my life.

If you follow me on Instagram, then you might be thinking: “But you are taking a lot of pictures and posting them to social media; is that not the point Waheed was making?” And, honestly, at the time I wrote “Simple Words; Hard Truths” that’s what I thought, too. But I’ve realized that simply posting pictures does not mean that you are appropriating a culture – it means that you are instantly sharing your experiences with others in a way that was not possible 10-15 years ago. The number of likes you get is simply evidence that other people appreciate and support what you’re doing, seeing and experiencing, and that they are happy that you shared it with them.  You may even be sparking something in them to go visit these places (or any place at all) when they might not otherwise have thought to do so.

Add to that the point that Greece in particular is currently dealing with an economic crisis and they are largely dependent on the revenue from tourism to help them climb out of debt. So the fact that I’m spending my Euros to have a great time here when I could have gone anywhere is not taken for granted by the locals.  They are so appreciative of the business and they hope I’ll spread the word and tell everyone I know to come visit their country.

Still, the point Waheed was making is not lost on me, and I can truthfully say that learning more about the people and local cultures in Greece has been a sincere desire of mine and everyone else on this trip with me. Everything from understanding how the volcanic acid in the soil causes the wine to have a unique taste to trying local foods like Fava and hearing how to say Greek words properly, are all things that we were intentional about learning (and if you’re wondering, “gyro” is actually pronounced “hero”, but not like a New Yorker talking about Superman; rather the “h” is breathy and has more of a Spanish “qui” sound like “key-ro” – which probably still sounds really confusing so you should just go ahead and make plans to visit Greece yourself and hear it first hand!).

And not only did I learn a lot while on this trip, but I think we also left an impact as well. Four Black girls from the States are hard to miss around here, and we’ve been chatting with locals and tourists alike, having fun and bringing up the energy around us on a regular basis. We also spoke our mind when we didn’t agree with how we were being treated.  So I have to believe that those who encountered us have also been affected by our visit, and I hope that we’ve left an overall positive impact on them as well.

Another reason why I love to travel is because of the distance it puts between me and my everyday life. When I’m in a different environment, a different country and a different time zone I’m forced to truly check-out of all the things that were stressing me out or clouding my thoughts back home. It lets me hit the reset button and I become open to new inspiration and ideas without even realizing. So many of us get caught up in work and family life that we make excuses for why we can’t or shouldn’t take time off.  But we all get a certain amount of vacation days every year for a reason! Why are you saving yours??

My parents (my dad in particular) didn’t really put much emphasis on taking time off when we were growing up, and to this day still don’t “vacation” at all. I can recall hearing about them taking a cruise to the Caribbean when I was really young, and they took us to Disney World when I was about 8 or 9 years old, but otherwise I cannot think of a time when my parents took a trip for the sole purpose of being on vacation. They do travel often for family reunions and visiting their parents and grandchildren, but those are normally weekend trips and some are even just overnight! So when I tell my dad that I’m going to Barbados or South Africa or Greece for no reason at all other than to get away for a week or two, I get a reaction that, at least initially, feels like judgment. Those types of reactions from family, friends, and even a boss or co-worker can be just enough to deter us from doing the thing we actually need the most: rejuvenating ourselves.

But after talking about it with my sister and the other girls on this trip, I realized that it may actually be misunderstanding rather than judgment. My father is the type to never take time off from work, but he also truly loves what he does and would probably do it for free if he could.  And for him, relaxation is reading the newspaper, gardening or spending a weekend at his parents’ house watching the game with his dad. So in his mind he may not understand why I need to go to a completely different country for a week or two in order to truly relax.  But I do think that he is proud to have raised children who have those opportunities; children who are capable of discerning what makes them happiest and are strong enough to pursue those things despite what others may say or think. And I even believe that after seeing us explore the world, he is now more open to the idea as well…

So to answer the question, yes I would still go if I couldn’t take my camera with me – but I think that having my camera brings another level of impact that is sometimes lost in translation: lighting subtle fires of curiosity in others.

And for that reason, you’ll continue to see my trip all up on Instagram…

 

The World is Her Oyster

About two weeks ago I was on a pretty epic and much needed vacay. First stop was Miami. Some girlfriends and I spent 5 gloriously drunken days in one of my favorite U.S. cities.  Point of the trip?  Just because.  Our days were filled with pool parties, brunches and South Beach lounging while our nights had a life of their own, consisting of bottle service at the iconic LIV on Sundays where we found ourselves in the midst of a spontaneous Lil’ Wayne concert, watching the sun come up while eating steak and eggs, an interesting-to-say-the-least night at King of Diamonds and a surprisingly lit bar hopping experience in the Art-Deco district.  Even when we spent one morning on a boat riding around Star Island recovering from hangovers, somehow mimosas and Beyoncé twerk sessions were still involved.  I felt like I was 21 again, partying all night and relaxing all day – not a care in the world.

The next stop was Atlanta for a bachelorette weekend… And rumor has it that the first night ended with me letting an armed police officer at Waffle House know that I was an officer of the court, so you already know that there was an extremely high level of intoxication involved and an equally high sense of feeling carefree (maybe even too much of both).  And even though I was completely exhausted when I returned to New York, I also felt thoroughly rejuvenated.  I was inspired to pick up some hobbies that I had let fall to the wayside, and I decided to bite the bullet and splurge on a trip out to LA to celebrate a friend’s “flirty thirty” weekend that is scheduled to take place in a few weeks.  I had had such a great time during my travels that I wanted it all to just keep on going.

But then that first week back to work was a complete 180-degree turn. It was back to the life of conference calls and meetings, reports and deadlines. I was up bright and early to mix and mingle with clients at a breakfast panel one morning and stayed late to finish reviewing a draft joint venture agreement.  The only remnants left of my glorious days of freedom were my hairstyle and skin tone: Senegalese twists flowing down my back and milk chocolate skin freshly sun-kissed with the tan lines to prove it.

Luckily, my firm is great in that I didn’t have to deal with weird looks or sly innuendos about the new look, and even the few co-workers who follow me on social media praised me for having what they could tell was an amazing time off.  I obviously didn’t give all of the juicy details to my bosses but had no shame in letting them know that I was largely drunk the entire time I was away, and most of them just laughed and told me they were glad I had fun.  So albeit a different environment and not as carefree, I was still me; not hiding or trying to conform to what I thought people expected of me – and it was OK.

I found an old post from about 3 years ago, where I described myself as a chameleon, writing:

“I’m blessed to be able to blend well in many settings. But, I am so busy changing red, and blue, and purple that sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what my true color is…”

And as I thought about writing this, that post just kept popping into my mind. Was I the real me when I was inappropriately intoxicated at Waffle House?  Or am I the real me when I’m going back and forth with opposing counsel about the sunset provision of an environmental indemnity agreement?  Is the real Marissa the person who spends her weekends binge watching trashy TV, or the person who volunteers at the local community center on Saturdays to host economic empowerment workshops?  Is she meant to be a lawyer, or is she the hat maker? I thought she was a writer? No, she’s a photographer, right?

Despite my chameleon complex, I am learning that I am all of those things wrapped up in one. The serious, intelligent lawyer can also be the idiotic drunken girl sometimes, or the creative writer. I can be the lazy girl who sits in her pajamas all day or I can museum-hop around New York City for fun.  This Marissa does not like to be boxed into certain stereotypes or categories; I am everything you expect me to be and everything you don’t.  So whenever someone thinks they have me pegged, I just laugh and sharpen my oyster knife…

Simple Words; Hard Truths

I don’t know about you, but I rely pretty heavily on my friends to keep me up on the latest happenings in various social circles – let’s face it, there’s way too many for me to keep track of on my own. And, most recently, two of them were telling me about a book of poetry that was the newest craze and that I absolutely had to get. I asked them, “who just sits and reads a book of poems for fun? Do you read just one poem and put the book down, or are there chapters so that you’re reading mad poems back to back?” I was completely confused.  Although I love reading and even majored in English in college, my experience with poetry up to this point has been limited to specific works suggested by professors to spark classroom discussion – I’d never had or wanted a book of poems for leisurely reading (unless you count Dr. Seuss, who obviously was robbed of the Nobel Prize).  But their response was simple: “No chapters; you can read whatever you want – read one and think about it or read a bunch and see how you feel.”

They had sufficiently piqued my curiosity so I went on Amazon later that night, found Salt by Nayyirah Waheed and hit the checkout button.

I can’t lie to you, though, for the first few days after it arrived the book sat on my dresser untouched. Something about it was just daunting to me. I once read that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful” (Rita Dove)– and as beautiful as that concept seems, poems have historically had a way of either going completely over my head or being so literal that I didn’t see them as interesting.

When I finally sat down to read I found myself flipping pages extremely quickly – for me it was a page turner of a different sort. Each poem barely filled a page, and some were only one line!  Like, bruh, really?  They were interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but honestly I just felt silly.  Then, around 10 pages in, right as I was about to give up and put the book down, I read this:

would

you still want to travel to

that

country

if

you could not take a camera with you.

 — a question of appropriation

And then I did have to put the book down. Not because I was over it or because I thought reading a book of poetry for fun was pointless.  Rather, I had to put it down because that messed with my spirit.

I have been the proud holder of a U.S. Passport for only a few years and as a result have accumulated only a few stamps so far, but in that short time and from only few experiences I have literally fallen in love with travelling – even if where I’m headed doesn’t require a passport. I went to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for Thanksgiving one year and got to experience both a larger African city where there were tourists galore and a population of locals more diverse than I had expected, as well as a more rural town where I ate game-meat such as zebra and wildebeest and where electricity was completely shut off every day in the middle of the day to conserve energy (you read that right: during the hottest part of the day – in AFRICA of all places – there was no electricity for a few hours anywhere in town).  I also spent a spring break in Barbados with a group of classmates and we explored caves, rode jet skis and often danced the night away with the locals.  And when my sister and I went to Puerto Rico last fall we literally spent all day every day at the beach and did little to nothing else – and it was glorious.

Travel has afforded me a variety of experiences in a short amount of time and I am fortunate to have made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve made it my personal mission to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year, to drag my sister and my friends to as many places as I can, and to not-so-subtly nudge my extended family members into planning family trips as well (I haven’t yet been successful at the last one, but I’ll break them one day!).

I often post my adventures to Instagram and Facebook, share them in photo albums and group chats, and talk about them to whoever is willing to listen. But I never once thought that my actions could potentially be assisting in the further appropriation or commodification of local cultures and people. I am obviously familiar with these phenomena on a conceptual level, but the thought that I might be personally contributing to their occurrence truly escaped me — there was no feigned ignorance here, just a young woman with a genuine excitement for travel birthed from having the time and the means.

So that very simple question posed by Waheed hit me hard; it slapped me right across the face, and the intentions and implications behind my newfound love were immediately questioned. Had I been blind to my own actions?  Do I want to go to these places just to say that I was there? Is it about bragging? Is it about curiosity? Am I embracing a sense of freedom that my parents didn’t have or am I only chasing after one? Do I care to learn more about the people and cultures I visit?  Or is my focus instead on how many likes my pictures get on Instagram?

Simply put: would I go if I couldn’t take my camera? And as I was sitting there reading, I honestly could not answer that question… and it freaked me out.

After days of having it on my mind, I still cannot answer the question fully. However, what I can say is that studies show that Millennials (which I learned is defined by most scholars as today’s 18 to 34 year olds, although I think it’s more accurate to describe us as those aged 25 to 34, but what do I know?) are more likely than any other demographic to travel for leisure.  Some might say we are less likely to have children and other major responsibilities at this age so we are in a better position to be able to travel, but at least one article that I read suggested that Millennials with families are even more likely to travel than those of us who do not have those responsibilities.  So I think that at the end of the day we simply have different priorities for our lives than older generations, and travel is one area that we see value in – it factors heavily into the “work-life balance” concept that reigns supreme in our eyes and governs everything that we do.  The question that I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself is what exactly that value is.

I’m planning a trip to Greece this summer, though, so now that my eyes have been opened hopefully I’ll be more cognizant of how I experience my travels and what I ultimately aspire take away from each trip – as well as what it is that I would hope to leave behind. So this conversation is to be continued…

Needless to say, I’m hesitant to pick up that book again – but for different reasons this time. Simple words. Hard truths.