Recently, we caught up with Rachel Hill, founder of budget-friendly travel blog Rachel Travels. Rachel has been to 40 countries and counting from Myanmar to Iceland, and has been inspiring Black millennials to get out there and explore the world.
What’s remarkable about Rachel is that she stepped away from a six-figure salary at a Fortune 500 company after suffering from anxiety attacks. She then embarked on a three-month-long backpacking journey in Southeast Asia to practice some self-discovery and self-care. Little did she know that her blog, initially meant to keep in touch with family and friends, would evolve into a full fledged company and lead to features on the Matador Network, Essence, Xo Necole, Blavity and a number of speaking engagements as a travel influencer.
We chatted with Rachel about her backpacking adventure throughtout Southeast Asia, what surprised her most about one of the coolest travel destinations of 2017, Iceland, her travel routine and the importance for Black travelers to practice self-care. Check out highlights from our conversation and listen below:
Melanin Majority: What was your experience like in Southeast Asia as a Black woman, and what inspired you to start in Southeast Asia backpacking, it’s a bit off the beaten path?
Rachel Hill of Rachel Travels: I was looking to go far for the least amount of money and of course I was safe, it has a lot of great food, beaches and great weather, and so Southeast Asia fit a lot of the things I was looking for. I could have gone to South America, but I read about safety. I had heard more crazier stories about backpacking solo in South American than I did in Southeast Asia. And so I just decided to start my travels in Thailand. In three months, I had traveled to 8 or 9 countries, and I went solo, and I spent (I want to say) $2,500 for the entire three months. I was able to see a ton of countries and meet people, eat amazing food, see amazing beaches and have all these great experiences, and I didn’t spend a lot of money at all.
MM: What helped you want to turn your travel experience into a brand as opposed to a one-time experience?
RT: So initially when I left, I wasn’t seeking to turn my life or my experience into a brand. The way that Rachel Travels started was that I left a 6 figure salary and this ideal life, according to most of our standards of what ideal is, everybody thought I had lost my mind. I started a blog as an open journal to share my experiences with my family and my friends, so instead of getting individual emails and texts, I journaled, you know, this is why I left my great job. I had a conversation about Black travelers and this is why he doesn’t see a lot of Black travelers, and he’s asking me why. That’s really how it started and then when I posted a few articles on a personal Facebook, it went viral and so that’s kind of when I think I saw it as more of a brand or I saw the potential for it to be a brand.
MM: You talked about how you needed to escape from corporate America. We’ve all kind of felt that. The 9 to 5 grind can be so taxing, and can bring on anxiety disorders and depression and so many people suffer from that, especially Black people, so how integral do you think self-care is with travel for Black travelers?
RT: Absolutely, I think it’s a huge part, and what I’ve found through my travels at this point, and a lot of what I’ve been hearing is that ‘I want to to travel, BUT’ And there’s always a but. Anything after ‘but’ is bullshit…So my mission is to show people that once you get all those excuses away, you should utilize travel as an opportunity to really tap into yourself because most of us have this 9 to 5 grind, you really don’t get a chance to sit down and think about what it is you truly like, what you’re truly passionate about, how you can serve people because you have a long commute to work, you’re working all day, you have a long commute home.
I found that with traveling, it’s just one of those things that is a part of self-care, like travel and meeting people, having new experiences, you know, create you own opinions about religion and politics, and society and economics and all those things, you learn when you step outside of your everyday bubble.
So that’s what I want to push, the notion of utilizing travel as a way to really develop yourself. Different aspects versus traveling…at this point, I’m seeing in our particular niche that it’s getting more into traveling to post pictures on Instagram versus utilizing travel as a way to deeper understand yourself, the things you like and the things you want to do.
MM: Absolutely. That’s very true. We’ve found with our own travels how it opens your mind, your perspective, you see yourself as an American in a different way, a Black American in a different way. You’ve traveled extensively now, do you have a routine when you go to a new country and what’s the first thing you like to do?
RT: It depends on what type of traveling I’m doing. When I’m traveling solo, I’m just really, really open to whatever. I typically do research to understand what is the national food, national drinks, all those types of things just so I can know what it is I want to try when I get there. So typically I will only book two nights when I first get there just so I can have a place to stay and then I’ll figure it out from there.
My routine is to be as authentic and meet as many people as possible.
I give myself about two days to get acclimated, and typically in the first two days, I’ll try to do something touristy like a city tour, something like that, so I can get acclimated with the city, and that gives you an opportunity to be around other travelers, be around locals so you can ask questions like ‘Where are you going tonight? Where’s the hottest bar? What’s the best restaurant that’s not for tourists, like where you and your friends go on a Friday night?’
MM: Travel isn’t so glamorous the way that Instagram pictures tend to portray, so what are some of the biggest inconveniences you’ve run into on the road, so that other Black travelers can be mindful of those pitfalls?
RT: I think traveling in and of itself is just an amazing opportunity and an amazing privilege, really. But some of the things that I probably, I wouldn’t say they’re an inconvenience, but it’s discounted, right. There’s always an issue of a language barrier, but that can easily be mitigated with something as simple as the Google translate app. And I love that app because you can not only speak into it and it will translate in real time, but there’s also a feature where you can scan an image or like a menu, as an example, and it will translate the meaning for you in real time.
Another thing I find that people don’t look into when they travel that could make or break their experience is understanding cultural norms. Small things like, I believe in Dubai, if you spit gum out on the street that’s against the law, so you could go to jail for that right.
I find that a lot of times people don’t research those small nuances and they could have one bad experience and then they totally scrap their entire experience based off of a lack of research.
MM: If you could think back on all the 40 some countries you’ve been to, which destination has surprised you the most?
RT: There are actually two that come to mind. The first one is Iceland, and I know that’s a big destination now, which I think is great, cause most people don’t look at Iceland as a place to travel, but I was actually just reading the ‘World Travel Market Industry Report’ and Iceland was one of the top four countries slated for 2017 to be visited. And it was really amazing cause people are so nice, the scenery is unreal, it’s like being inside of a National Geographic magazine.
The thing that really, really surprised me about Iceland is that they have a poppin’ nightlife.
We found this club that played 90s Hip Hop and R&B that we grew up on, and it was just such a good time. We were in there for, probably all night, at least five hours, just dancing and singing to SWV, and all kinds of stuff with the Icelandic people, so that was really surprising to us.
Another country that surprised me was Myanmar, it’s formerly known as Burma and it’s a country in Southeast Asia, and that surprised me because right now it’s one of the rarest passport stamps to get because they just opened the borders, maybe, 10 years ago. So I want to say it’s hard to get in there but it’s kind of considered hard to get in, they still have a lot of political things going on. It’s just interesting because they have been closed off from the world for (I want to say) like 30 years, it was almost like stepping into a time machine, so everything was like in the 60s, so if you watch TV, all the movies were still in the 60s, and the things were doing in the 60s in the movies were the same thing they were doing in present-day. So it was really interesting to be kind of catapulted back in time.
MM: Music and reading and just the things that you do when you’re waiting to get to your destination is really important for us, so what kind of music do you like to vibe to that gets you in the travel mindset, and also what do you like to read?
RT: I read everything from marketing books to self-development books, and sometimes I have to throw in there something very elementary just to get my mind off of reading hardcore stuff often.The last book I read was called ‘The One Thing’ and it’s really about prioritizing everything, like what’s the one thing that you can do right now in order to get the impact that you want, so it breaks that down to you, so that was a really cool book.
As far as music is concerned, I really have everything on my Apple music from like Prince to Jidenna, Bruno Mars…to house music. I listen to pretty much anything so I kind of put it on shuffle and just go from there.
Honestly, especially for international travel, I like to watch a lot of the foreign movies because it kind of gives me an idea of the culture before you arrive, so you can see what people are eating, how people are dressing, you can see the type of topic that they’re talking about, whether it’s politics whether it’s about love, and how they view love, how they view family, how they view society.
I really like watching a lot of foreign movies….that gets me excited and gives me a more visual and audible understanding of the culture before I get there.
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