Since she was an infant, my daughter Isoke has been traveling. During her first year, I moved from Detroit to L.A. where I had an editorial job that required I fly to New York once a month. Passengers would often stop by our row and thank me for having such a “good” baby and it was true–I can’t remember a flight where she cried. She was a calm infant seemingly heavenly sent to balance my sometimes nomadic, almost always (slightly) chaotic life. Once she was on her feet and ready for preschool, we made our way home to my second city, New York.
Since then, Isoke’s life has triangulated around three places: my hometown Detroit (where she began flying alone to visit her grandparents and cousins), Martha’s Vineyard (a sanctuary I began visiting when she was a newborn) and New York, where she learned to take the subway train to the bus by the age of eleven. When she was very young, just two, I saved myself from what could’ve been a postpartum spiral by taking ten days by myself at a resort in Agadir, Morocco. But I’ve always planned to be purposeful with my daughter’s international travel. I didn’t want some magical trip to some historic place to be only a vague, vaporous memory for her because she was too young to fully remember. Our Caribbean vacations are like that for her; she knows she’s been to Puerto Rico a half dozen times–and that because of this she prefers the kinds of coconuts a man in a machete wheels down the street in shopping carts to the boxed kinds so popular now–but she doesn’t have a real recollection of specific trips to the island.
I’d always dreamed her first real, international trip would be a voyage to Africa. When I was 20, a woman I call my aunt and who is one of my many “mothers” and elder friends, invited me to Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. She’d been to the continent dozens of times since the 70s. The trip was affordable because she was transitioning into her second career as a tour agent and room, board and flights were deeply discounted. That same “aunt” invited my daughter and I to Egypt last August. At 15, I considered my daughter ready.
Egypt would not have been and still isn’t the country I recommend to people wishing to visit Africa travel to first. But my aunt, who offered to pay for my daughter’s trip altogether, made Egypt irresistible. I’d never been, so I’d be seeing it with new eyes, just like my daughter. Growing up in Detroit, I had no illusions about the complicated, sometimes racist interactions between Blacks and Arabs, so I had no expectations of the “homecoming” feeling I’d actually felt in countries like Ghana and South Africa. We were traveling to Cairo less than six months after the insurrection in Tahir Square. In fact, we arrived as both Ramadan and Mubarak’s trial were beginning. My daughter used to beg me to allow her join me when I fasted for Ramadan when she was a child, so she knew about this self-sacrificial period. Still, it was amazing to be in a country where almost everyone was refusing breakfast and lunch. Restaurants that would have only been serving tourists, were nearly empty as the month long protests had kept most tourists away. The cafes in Egypt were open later than they would be if it weren’t Ramadan, some well into the night, which made for beautiful midnight writing excursions for me while my daughter slept in the hotel with my aunt.
Isoke most enjoyed traveling south to Lower Egypt on the Nile by boat. We came as tourists and were shameless in walking around with ancient maps on a guided tour with cameras. There were countless teachable moment opportunities to talk to her about the exploitative tourist industry—men and boys outside the ancient temples were equally shameless in their demanding begging, which involves lots of uncomfortable circling and crowding. I was pleased that my daughter’s usual grace remained intact and that she was receptive to hearing me try to unpack the complicated and contradictory nature of Americans traveling abroad. She rushed to our tour bus when I stopped to curse out a man who offered to buy my daughter. I know that he considered it a compliment, but since he wanted to engage in a bit of cultural exchange, I offered him an earful.
For years I’d insisted to my daughter that her school’s world history lessons were incomplete because they began in Greece, excising modern civilization’s ancient roots along the Nile’s eleven countries. I’d never been more grateful for Tony Browder’s “Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization” which I made required reading for us both. Our tour guide was sticking to a script that took much of the African out of Egypt. His description of Queen Nefertari as “beautiful, even though she was Nubian” became a teachable moment for us all. Mostly, Egypt was magical. Isoke took amazing pictures and has clear lifelong memories of her two weeks in Africa.
Six months later we traveled to London for her spring break. It was her “sweet sixteen” present from me, one made affordable by accumulating thousands of miles from business travel. A lifelong Harry Potter nerd and a more recent Oscar Wilde acolyte, she was more excited about this trip then she was about Egypt. As with Egypt, I’d never been to London either. I’ve managed to keep my European travel tethered to Italy and France. We rode double decker buses, exploring the relatively small city with our guide maps. We connected with friends, one was in London from Brooklyn traveling, another had transplanted from Detroit and I connected with two writers whom I admire.
Isoke was duly impressed that my wide network of friends reduced the world to a place where a friend is a phone call away. She left London wanting to live there one day. Ultimately, that is the lesson I’d like her to learn from traveling. That there are no borders to where a life can be built. Few people from my neighborhood on the east side of Detroit ever left the city. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Rootedness and connectedness to my hometown made me move back here three years ago, but I wanted my daughter to experience the world a wide open option as she imagines her life. Some places she visits will be only memories, others may one day be home, if only for awhile.
dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She’s a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.