I Never Traveled as a Kid, but It's Never Too Late To See the World

As a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago, travel was a luxury that was out of my family’s reach. As an adult, I’m living my dream of experiencing the world.

Joyful woman on a zipline
Photo: Veronica Hilbring

When I was a kid, I wasn't aware that families traveled outside of special occasions.

Every summer, my brother, cousin, mama, dad, and I would all load into my dad's Ford F-150 truck for the hour and a half drive from the South Side of Chicago to Six Flags Great America about 50 miles north. For that entire day, we were free to explore every roller coaster and arcade game and eat all the cotton candy the amusement park offered. At the end of the trip, when the park closed, we climbed in the back of the truck and slept the entire way home.

For most of my childhood, that was the extent of my travel experience and that was common among many of the people I grew up with. Traveling—especially flying—was an unattainable luxury for many in the predominantly Black, working-class community where I grew up. Then, I never felt as though I was missing out on anything.

When I became a teenager, I became curious about the city I lived in. I learned that I could take the local number 6 bus from my block to downtown Chicago and I began exploring as often as I could find the $1.50 for the round-trip bus fare. I would even cut school for the day and hang out downtown in Borders bookstore and Marshall Field's, both now defunct.

The most significant travel moment of my life, at the time, happened when I went away to college in 2003. Taking a pure city girl and dropping her off in the cornfields and sundown towns of Southern Illinois was more than a culture shock. It was also the catalyst that sparked my love of writing and travel.

In college I boarded a flight for the first time. On that trip, at 21 years old, I met my muse and future love: New York City. After that trip, I knew that come hell or high water, I would live in New York City. Throughout college, there were road trips to St. Louis, Washington D.C., and the proverbial spring break trip in Miami.

It was only as I was slowly awakened to new experiences and cultures that I realized that I was never exposed to travel as a child. When the realization hit me, I didn't feel any bitterness or anger toward my parents. We were all there trying to survive on low wages and public assistance. After graduating in 2007 I returned to Chicago, where I worked and occasionally traveled for the next few years.

At 29, I made the leap and moved to Harlem, where I ultimately worked and struggled for the first few years. After finally landing a job where I could keep my head above water, one of the first things I did was book a week-long Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to the coast of Italy and the South of France. I was ready to have my Eat Pray Love moment. I finally understood why Jay Z famously said, "I like South Beach, but I'm in St. Tropez."

Those 10 days in Europe kicked off my next few years of travel. I began traveling solo. I learned about travel sites like Google Flights, Hopper, Secret Flying, and The Flight Deal. I—a single woman with no kids or husband—would book a flight and worry about the accommodations—and if my PTO was approved—later. I also read Black travel blogs like Oneika the Traveller and JetSetSarah.

I would visit Paris, London, Rome, the coasts of Montego Bay, Cancun, and Puerto Rico shortly after. The trip that changed my life was the five days I spent in Havana, Cuba in January 2020. The Cuban people embraced my traveling partner and me with so much love and kindness that I think of them often. I can't wait for the day that I can return to the island.

COVID-19 ended any travel dreams anyone had for the rest of 2020, and I spent the next year inside my Harlem apartment working and dreaming of travel. When my lease was up at the top of 2021, I put all my belongings into storage to spend a few months at home with family and friends.

I hadn't spent that much time in Chicago in years. At home, my mama dug deep in the back of her closet and pulled out her old photo albums. She showed me pictures of the road and camping trips that she, her cousins, and friends would take back in the 70s. Those photos proved to me that travel is more about experience and camaraderie than the location.

Though I've been around the world, I know that every adventure doesn't have to be a world-class exotic vacation. One of my earliest travel adventures was a 12-hour road trip from southern Illinois to Washington D.C. in college. Nearly 10 of us packed in two minivans and headed east for the Howard University journalism job fair. Along the way there were sing-a-longs, memorable stops at random drive-throughs and truck stops, and bonding with my classmates.

You can learn and experience so much about the world close to home.

As the world continues reopening, I've returned to Harlem, and I'm back online searching for the next travel deal and destination. At the end of my current lease, I plan to take another leap into the world of expat traveling and living temporarily outside of the United States. It's a new and exciting adventure I can't wait to embark on.

But no matter how far I travel, I take the young girl riding the number 6 bus downtown with me.

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