Just a few destinations shy of her 100-country goal before turning 40, Davita McKelvey slowed down to talked to EBONY. As a wife, part owner of the travel magazine Griots Republic and all around Black girl magic, McKelvey discusses the beauty of traveling and doing this thing called life on her own terms.
EBONY: Before we get started, I just want to say congratulations on almost completing your goal of traveling to 100 different countries! That’s no small task. What number are you up to?
EBONY: Did you start off saying, "I want to visit 100 countries or did the number expand as you traveled?"
DM: When I turned 33 I completed my Master’s program, left my corporate job and decided to embark on 33 countries to celebrate. When I returned — almost a year later — I tried to go back to my regular life and nothing fit anymore. I even tried to return to the corporate world and it was torture. I stayed for as long as I had to. A friend helped me get that job, so I stayed long enough to ensure that she didn’t look bad (and received her bonus for referring me). After that I just couldn’t stay. I started planning my next trip.
EBONY: What was it about your first trip that made your former life “not fit” anymore?
DM: In general, people want to be free. You want to chase your bliss without worrying about the consequences. If you have a business, you want to run it the way you want to without the pressure of having to make money to survive. When I was traveling, I found something that just spoke to me in that way. I was exploring. I met new people. Ate new food. I had no pressure. I was just HAPPY. I ate whatever I wanted and still lost 50 lbs. because everything was done with no pressure — just walking around and exploring. Do you understand that kind of happiness and freedom? When I got back home, it felt like trying to fit a circle into a square peg. I had already been [exposed] to so many other experiences and countries and people. I simply couldn’t go back to who I was. It just so happened that when I came home we (my husband and I) were in a place where we could move some things around and change our lifestyle to make it happen. And we did.
EBONY: I’m sure that was unexpected. But when you planned a solo trip to visit 33 different countries, how did you imagine life to be different when you came home? And why THIS type of trip? Some people are like, "Hey, I’m turning 33. I’m having a brunch. Bottomless mimosas all around." THIS was different.
DM: I know this may sound naive, but it’s something that I always wanted to do and I thought I would get it out of my system. I figured I would take about a year, go travel the world, write about it and come back home. But that wasn’t the case. I couldn’t get on with “regular life”…I needed to LIVE. So since 2011 that’s what I have been doing. Just chasing my bliss and defining my own idea of what freedom looks like for me.
EBONY: Before you left did you know anybody who did this? Was there anybody that helped you with planning or how to navigate your emotions upon your return?
DM: No. I didn’t have anyone that could help me with the logistics, or someone to help me navigate my emotions once I returned. When I took my first trip in 2011, I didn’t know about any of the Black travel groups. I was just out there making it happen. Since then, I returned and left several times for months at a time. 92 countries in and now I can look back and laugh at how naive I was. One time I randomly ended up in the hood in India. But these things make for richer experiences.
EBONY: What are the differences in the way you prepared for your first trip vs each trip that followed? Emotionally, and financially etc., how did you prepare and how did it change in time?
DM: The first time I did A LOT of prep. I used spread sheets that listed the cost of each flight to the different countries, how much I should expect to pay for food, where I would stay, what I would do, how I would write about each city, my budget etc. The spreadsheet was so detailed. It was just ridiculous. I had bags full of just everything. Now, I literally just show up at an airport with a backpack. I don’t do any of that other stuff.
EBONY: What changed?
DM: Now it just becomes life. It’s like when you go visit your mom that lives in another state. You don’t pack a bunch of stuff; you sort of just go. It’s such a natural part of life now. I’m so used to being on a plane. I’m not vacationing, I’m just living. And since I’m just living and not actually on vacation, I walk around looking like my ‘I’m at home self." Which is why I get embarrassed when I’m in another country and I see other Black folks. Most of the time I look a mess. The natives don’t really know what my hair is supposed to look like, but my sisters…they KNOW. Sometimes they give me the, “ Girl you know better" look. Sometimes I deserve it. At times I just look absolutely homeless. But again, I’m just living, not really vacationing.
EBONY: It’s interesting that you keep stating how much this is just part of your life. To be away on solo trips is just the norm now. When you got married was this always part of the plan?
DM: We planned to travel frequently together. He wanted to be a photographer and work for National Geographic. But when you’re married, sometimes things change and people change and your dreams change. For him the idea of freedom started to look like owning his own business. He wanted to be free to build his business the way he wanted. That’s why he started Kindred Films. His dream changed. I’m not gonna lie. We definitely had seasons where it became difficult. When you start to change, just as people within in a marriage, things can get hard. But we are at the point in our marriage where he recognizes the things that I need to do that make me happy and I recognize the things he needs to do that make him happy. For me “newness” makes me happy. I like to experience new things, and I am able to experience this within my marriage via travel. For him he experiences “newness” and freedom by growing his business, getting new clients and taking on a new projects. But we are still a team.
EBONY: What is one thing you could share with our readers that you learned while traveling to almost 100 countries?
DM: Never let fear stop you. Figure out what freedom looks like for you. Once you figured it out, go out and create it…on your own terms.
Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, traveler, speaker and social justice advocate. Her background includes juvenile justice reform, nation-wide consulting and collaborating on multi-million dollar grants. However, she is most proud of her title as the Mom of an amazing black girl. Follow her on Twitter.