I can’t remember why I thought it would be a good idea to travel alone in the midst of a global pandemic. Maybe it was the way the days blurred together so seamlessly, or the pang of boredom that followed me everywhere within the tight walls of my home, or the fact that I was slowly becoming a recluse, turning down every invitation that involved having to actually speak to people in real life. All of these things led me to a seat on a plane from Toronto to Vancouver with a yoga mat strapped to my back. I’d never been to the city before and I didn’t know a soul who lived there — all I knew was that I wanted to see something different — to breathe in some fresh West Coast air and do yoga with a mountain view. That was the limit of my expectations. I should mention that I’m a classic introvert, the kind of person who would enjoy this kind of thing. The idea of solo travel was so comfortable to me that it almost felt like something I had already done before. Now, I just had to go and actually do it.
I took my seat next to a young couple who immediately became curious about the chick who just sat down next to them without company. The girl turned to me, sweetly asking why I was headed to Vancouver. To the surprise of my inner introvert, it only took a few minutes into my trip to start chatting with strangers. We talked about travelling during a pandemic and heading into a province with so many active forest fires that it seemed like it was burning to the ground. “I don’t care if the world is burning down around me,” her boyfriend said. “I’m going to live life.” In one sentence, he had summed up why I was sitting on that plane. All right then, let’s go.
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Mask mandates change everywhere you go…
Six hours later, I was sitting on the Skytrain heading into downtown Vancouver, but it didn’t take long for me to notice something that made me rethink my trip entirely. People weren’t wearing masks. I had researched everything heading into my trip — I knew the location of every active forest fire in BC, what percentage of the city was vaccinated, the air quality by the hour — but one thing I didn’t think to question was whether or not people wore masks in a freaking global pandemic. I did a quick Google search — BC’s mask mandate was lifted the month before, so everyone was free to breathe their hot, potentially-diseased breath on anyone else. My palms got sweaty, my chest tightened and I suddenly felt light-headed — it hit me that I was alone in a city where a deadly virus was free to roam. I wanted to text my sister, but my hands were shaking, so I took a deep breath, looked out the window and oh… my… God. I was so in my head that I didn’t realize I was surrounded by incredible mountain views. The Jurassic Park theme song could have started playing in that moment and it would have been completely fitting. Was I really still in Canada? I set my worries aside. I 100 per cent wanted to be there, no matter the risk.
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Why is everyone staring at me?
After dropping off my luggage at my hotel, I waited for my room to be ready by exploring the streets. The city centre felt like Toronto, only with a stunning mountain backdrop. As I checked out the shops along Burrard St., I couldn’t help but wonder: is everyone staring at me? I mean, I was fully living in my main character energy, but that couldn’t be the reason. Maybe it was all in my head, so I decided to test out my theory.
I’m unapologetically Black and I wouldn’t be tying up or straightening my hair for anyone. If people wanted to stare, I’d give them a show.
I could see a blonde woman staring at me from across the street, so when the crosswalk light changed, I walked up and stood behind her to wait for another crosswalk light. If I was the thing that was so interesting to her, she would turn around to look at me. And guess what — SHE TURNED AROUND. Um, awkward. After a moment, the light changed and she went on her way, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s when it hit me. I’m one of very few Black people around, and on top of that, I was fearlessly wearing my hair in a curly ‘fro. During the pandemic, I had ditched my straightening iron to embrace my natural hair, but I suddenly had the desire to lean on that conformity crutch. As I ate lunch on a patio, I counted the Black people walking by. I was probably sitting there for an hour and only saw about three walk by. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t in Toronto anymore, but that was alright with me. I’m unapologetically Black and I wouldn’t be tying up or straightening my hair for anyone. If people wanted to stare, I’d give them a show.
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Please leave me and my Sour Patches alone
Hours later, my feet were aching and the jet lag was setting in. I crawled under the hotel duvet, pulled out a bag of Sour Patch Kids and started watching the latest episode of Love Island: UK. This was bliss. Then, I got a text. A guy I had gone on a date with in Toronto, but successfully friend-zoned, had landed in Vancouver and wanted to hang out. He was a nomad who didn’t actually live anywhere, but just worked and travelled the world, and I did promise that we could hang out while he was in the city. I tried to get out of it — I’m sorry, but the delightful combination of a mountain view, Sour Patches and Love Island, was one my introverted soul didn’t imagine was possible. “Did you really come all this way to stay in your hotel?” he messaged. Crap, he was right. I got dressed, met him in the lobby and let him lead the way. We watched a sunset at English Bay Beach (which was unreal), walked a bit of the Seawall, took a ferry over to Granville Island and had dinner at this amazing seafood restaurant called The Sandbar.
As we took the ferry back to the mainland, evening had set in and I was ready to crawl back into my bed. “We have to go to Yaletown for drinks,” he suggested to my surprise. I had been awake for almost 24 hours now. “We can walk there. Don’t worry, I know the way.” Immediately, alarm bells started ringing in my head. I didn’t know this guy very well and it was pitch black outside. My inner voice asked me a question: do you trust him? I can’t stress enough how important it is for a woman travelling alone to listen to this instinctual voice. We only had a few metres until we would reach the dock — if I didn’t want to go, I only had a few seconds to speak up before it got weird. My gut told me it was OK, so I agreed to go, but don’t take my situation as law. Listening to this gut instinct can be life-altering for a female solo traveller, so listen closely. I wholeheartedly believe that a woman’s instinct will never lead her astray.
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Representation matters, including when travelling
The rest of my trip would be a series of new experiences with me, myself and I. I would go to the beach to watch sunsets, I learned to dine alone, biked the seawall (which was amazing), explored must-see neighbourhoods and dared to cross the Capilano Suspension Bridge by myself. I even manifested that yoga class with a mountain view at Kitsilano Beach. I became one with the uncomfortable feeling of doing new things on my own which is something I took home with me.
One evening, I was looking for a bus stop after watching a sunset at English Bay Beach. My Uber costs were astronomical, so I was trying really hard not to call another one. A guy walked up to me as I was searching for it. “Excuse me. Are you Ethiopian? I have to ask because no one here looks like you.” I could tell that he was East African and he was asking a question I get a lot in Toronto. I politely told him no, but we chatted for a bit before he asked if I wanted to hang out the next day. Now before you start thinking this was a romantic, meet-cute scene out of a movie, I didn’t feel a spark there. But, I was open to making a new friend and I didn’t mind some company. What no one tells you about making friends as a female solo traveller is that the majority of people who want to talk to you are guys, and you really just have to feel out their intentions.
The next day, we watched a sunset at Kits Beach (clearly I’m obsessed with them), and talked about being Black in Vancouver as the sun hauntingly disappeared into the smoky sky. He was originally from Toronto, moved for work, but was struggling with finding a community that he could be himself around. He hated it in Vancouver. It was refreshing to have someone to talk to on this level and our conversation that night was honestly one of the realest moments I had on the trip. I felt a collective sigh between the two of us, dropping our guard, that feeling of “otherness” we were so familiar with, and letting the Pacific Ocean at our feet take it away.
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A journey I was meant to take
Solo travelling was a spiritual experience, one that my soul was called to do. That feeling that I had at the beginning of the trip that I had already done this before was there for a reason. It was a guiding force that was telling me to go for it because it was an experience that was meant for me. I connected to myself in a way I didn’t know was possible and became familiar with the soothing sound of my inner voice. Even after the trip, I can hear her louder now because I know what she sounds like. Reflecting on the trip, I’m reminded of a line from a conversation I overheard on the way to Kits Beach in a moment of serendipity. “Trust yourself. Trust yourself and everything will line up.”
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