"I refuse to let anyone stop me from experiencing what is also mine."

By Jacqueline Gifford
June 05, 2020
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I first met Kellee Edwards three years ago at an event in New York City, where we were able to have frank conversations about gender, race, and navigating our planet. I listened to her, learned from her, and we stayed in touch, as both our careers took us to new and exciting places.

As Travel + Leisure prepared to launch Let’s Go Together, a podcast celebrating diversity in travel, I immediately thought of Kellee. A licensed pilot, an adventurer who has visited more than 50 countries, a scuba diver, the host of a Travel Channel series, Mysterious Islands, Kellee is fearless, and fearlessly dedicated to exploring the world in a way that is mindful and inquisitive, always with an open heart.

The other thing that I know to be true about Kellee: she is a kind human being. Her smile is infectious and joyful. She asks the right questions. As the host of a podcast where we ask others to be vulnerable and share their personal stories, those are crucial and necessary qualities. We’ve had this podcast in the works for several months before COVID-19 hit the United States. After the pandemic made travel a challenge, Kellee graciously recorded the series remotely in her home.

As the host, however, her own story wouldn’t be told to our readers and listeners in the same way. I caught up with Kellee over the phone — she is in Los Angeles, while I am in New York City — so that she could voice her experiences as a Black traveler.

Black lives matter. Black stories matter. They are so often not told, particularly in the world of travel journalism, and our brand is committed to telling more of them.

What gave you the travel bug?

I’m originally from the south side of Chicago, but I grew up in San Bernardino, California. The very first time I saw mountains was leaving from Chicago to come to California as a young child. The fact that I was able to see a different landscape, different cities, the desert, mountains: it was profound for me. When I saw a mountain for the first time, I pointed to them and asked my mother, “Is that a Brontosaurus?” I thought the mountain looked like that because of the hump.

When my mom married my dad, he did this beautiful thing by exposing me to different things I hadn’t seen. My dad was the first person I saw swim in the ocean. He took us camping. My mom got her driver’s license in her mid-20s, and we took road trips on the Pacific Coast Highway. We went to Hearst Castle. I couldn’t believe it. People live like this, like kings and queens? Taking my experience from camping and being in the outdoors — and growing up as an only child you have to entertain yourself — I became really fascinated with being outside.

When I got older, I wanted to see more of the world. I didn’t get on an airplane to travel outside of this country until after college. There were no spring break trips where I was going to Mexico or to Washington D.C. with your class. My parents couldn’t afford to do those things. When I took my first solo trip to Bangkok, I had two feelings: Anxiety, after I got there and realized I couldn’t read anything, and pure elation because it was amazing to be so far from home. I said: “Oh my gosh, I made it.”

It introduced me to the power of travel. To interact with cultures where you don’t speak the same language, but a smile and body language and certain hand gestures show warmth and welcoming. Especially as a young Black woman traversing this planet because you don’t know how you will be received in other parts of the world. I don’t have to worry about how I am perceived, just in America. I have to also be concerned about that around the world. Travel is the bug I will never kill.

Courtesy of Kellee Edwards

Talk about the experience of being a Black female traveler.

I specialize in adventure travel, so I’m in more remote places, more off the grid places. I’m often probably the first Black person that some have ever seen. I remember being on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in a small area outside of Merida. Children were getting out of school as I was going to interview someone about Mayan ruins, and kids on the street had never seen someone who looked like me. One girl was crying. I smiled, and it was OK. I did my best to make the situation better for her. With children, you have to get down on their level, and I talked to her.

It took a lot to get here. I want to give the best impression of my community, for you to take it going forward. Television does a lot of negative things for me and my race. These stereotypes are put out there that aren’t necessarily true. I’ve had a lot of great experiences, and the ones that haven’t been as good, I’ve done my best to educate people with my actions. When I summit a mountain and people are stopping in their tracks because they’ve never seen a young Black woman getting her gear together, I don’t have to say anything. I will see you at the top of the mountain. When I see you at base camp, and you smile at me, that wasn’t the same look you gave me earlier: you realize that I can do it too. That’s all I need to know.

I personally have not been in situations where I fear for my life because of my race. It’s more because I was a woman and I’ve been around a lot of men. I will never be as strong as a man I encounter. There is, however, a connotation around the world that Black women are prostitutes. People have mistaken my presence as a solicitation when that is far from the truth, and that is an issue. As a Black woman, I have to think about a few things. I have to think about my safety because of my gender, my safety because of my race, and my presence, period. That’s why I learned to do so many things. I choose to be strong not because I am, but because I don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice when I traverse this world to show up weak because it could cost me. And I refuse to let anyone stop me from experiencing what is also mine. This is planet Earth, the world, it doesn’t have any race as a prefix to what it is. It is all of ours. I am very passionate about letting people who know, who look like me and who don’t look like me, to go out and explore. And if you see someone that looks like me, and it’s your first time, welcome me into that space. And even if you don’t, I still have a right to be there. It’s as simple as that.

Talk to me about solo travel.

Solo travel is important and necessary in my life. It’s something I encourage others to do, especially women. It’s important to challenge yourself, to see what you are made of. If we stay in such a comfortable position, what have you truly experienced in life, when they don’t realize that everything you want is on the other side of fear? It’s true. For me, stepping into foreign cities, towns, and countries, that has taught me who I am as Kellee Edwards. It’s taught me how to be hyper-aware, accepting, and not be judgmental. I worry about myself as a global citizen and how I approach the world. One of the things that I have found that quickly disarms people is the smile that I put on my face. When I smile at people, even if they don’t smile at me, they say, “Oh, she’s approachable.” Have discernment, especially as a woman, stand your ground. Walk with your head up. You can also be approachable. We can sense danger, even if we aren’t paying attention, our body changes. The chills, the uncomfortableness, the tightness. You can address those and move accordingly. But most people I would like to believe are not bad.

I had my most beautiful and scary experience in the same place, in Istanbul, Turkey. I was staying in a hostel, and I would walk out and often pass this restaurant. One time the owner and his nephew waved me over, and they asked, “What brings you here?” I said, “I’m traveling, I’m here to experience your city and country.” I want people to know that I ate for free the entire trip. They fed me from their family restaurants, that one and the one across town. I had the most beautiful experience with this family. They were so welcoming to me. On the other hand, in Istanbul, people like to offer tea and coffee. I met with a man at his carpet store, and he invited me for coffee to show me his carpet. And because I’m friendly, he took that to mean something different and was mad when I said I wouldn’t go on the date with him. And I feared for my safety. Do I still think Istanbul is a beautiful place? Absolutely.

What did you learn from interviewing individuals for our podcast? (For more information about Let's Go Together, click here).

The one thing that I was made hyper-aware of, is that the people I talked to, there was all some sort of plight, even some things that as an African American woman, I had not experienced. There are so many nuances in the different cultures and races that we all need to be more understanding of. When I spoke to Kumu Micah Kamohoali'I from Maui and Alyssa London who is Tlingit from Alaska, there was something very important about respecting the land. I’ve been there and seen how the community reacts when you don’t respect the land.

I was also made very aware of my own ability to be able-bodied—putting two feet on the ground and walking where you want to go. I was amazed to see [Jesse Billauer] surf—to even get on the board. I’ve been surfing before, it’s hard. You need lots of dedication and experience. He was still out there to pursue his passion, with determination, and that’s why I have little tolerance for people who say I can’t.

What can travel companies and brands do better?

I had a large brand ask me, “How do we know when it’s enough?” The answer is simple: it’s enough when diversity and inclusion are displayed and within the company where we don’t have to ask about it. So, for all the travel hospitality adventure brands, if you want to be more inclusive, we don’t want to hear it anymore — we want to see it. We want you to connect with changemakers and influencers and voices who would be happy to collaborate with you. If they are so concerned with the profits and buying power, you are missing out on a huge market. The African American community spent over $60 billion — with a B, not with an M — and we want to see ourselves reflected in your work. We want you to do it.

People are scared because they are concerned about their immediate circles. You have to be comfortable with getting uncomfortable. There will always be people who are unhappy with the work you are doing, to be on the right side of things. It should not be profit over people. That’s why people need to first understand, because of the history and the facts of this country and their destruction of the African American community, the history is long, and it has spilled over generation after generation. That is the truth. If you want to be better, you don’t always have to talk to us, but you need to talk to each other. Also, why are you asking us to bear the burden and be the teacher? Do people not have morals and values of their own? I would love to think that people were raised better. At some point, you have to take responsibility for your own thoughts, even if you weren’t raised or taught to do so.