One of an occasional series introducing black travelers and their Web sites
Our newest entrant in the Out There series is a native of Guyana who moved to Canada, then promptly fell in love with Mexico and Central America.
Up next: a trek that will take him the length of the Spanish-speaking Americas.
The Greek philosopher Diogenes — or as he’s known by his full name, Diogenes the Cynic — used to walk around with a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man.
When he’s not traveling on foot through Latin America, Joel Duncan spends a lot of time in cyberspace, looking for other black folks who enjoy backpacking the way he does.
So far, the smart money’s on Diogenes, but Joel isn’t done looking — or backpacking.
In a very real sense, he’s grown up on the road:
“I guess you could say that I grew up traveling. I was born in Guyana, moved to Barbados at age seven, returned to Guyana about a year later, moved to Canada at age 10, moved back to Guyana, and finally back to Canada for my last year of high-school and university. Yep, I did a lot of moving about.
Call it the way I was brought up, but after that I could not stop moving.”
These days, he’s out to make his mark in the travel industry not merely as a travel writer, but as that rarest of commodities — a black outdoors writer.
Ask him what got him so hooked on travel at a young age and he responds with a single word: “NEW.”
“I love expecting the unexpected. I love trying new dishes, meeting new people, seeing new things in nature and feeling new emotions from all of the newness around me.
I am not a stamp collector; I don’t visit a country to get a stamp in my passport or take a snapshot of a popular landmark. I travel out of a sickening desire to discover as much as I can about this beautiful planet that God has given me only one opportunity to enjoy.”
Nor does he shy away from the more unpleasant realities of life that he journeys often reveal to him, especially when it comes to things like poverty, a state in which much of the world lives:
“I am able to appreciate how big and beautiful the world is and how blessed I am to live in a time when the whole world is within my reach. I am thankful for everything that I have because I am more aware of how little others have and will ever get. Travel makes me have a greater appreciation of the gift of life.”
Coming out of university, he got a different sort of gift from his father, a two-week post-graduation trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was supposed to be a vacation and a good time, but it turned into a lot more than that.
It changed his life:
“I instantly fell in love with the country and its people. Everyone was so friendly and they actually said hello and good morning (“Hola! Buenos Dias!”). Waking up with the beach only steps away and watching kids play happily in the streets without the assistance of a Sony Playstation, I thought to myself, ‘I could live here.’ “
And so, for a time, he did:
“Eight months later and (with) $600 in my pocket, I moved to Mexico and began working as a tour guide in the jungle. I spent two years there, eating new food, meeting new people and falling in love with an entirely new culture.”
It was wonderful, he says. But it wasn’t nearly enough:
“New, new, new – the travel bug had burrowed so deep inside me that its infection had become chronic and I craved more ‘new.’ After about six years of feeding this obsession, returning to Mexico year after year, I headed to Costa Rica, a nature and adventure travel mecca.
“The experience was like falling in love all over again, except this time it was with a different person.”
What Joel does is hardly unique anymore. You see young university students and recent grads trekking cheerfully and fearlessly all over the planet.
You just don’t see many black ones, something Joel would love to help change:
“Whenever I am fishing, camping in the back-country, or adventuring outside urban areas, I often ask myself, Why I am the only face of color (black) to be seen? It isn’t like we as a people would evaporate off the face of the planet if concrete and asphalt weren’t nearby.”
He has his own Web site, “AdventureJo,” in which he talks about his travels through Mexico and offers advice on how to safely and successfully enjoy a vacation there.
Now, after having fallen head over heels for Mexico, Joel Duncan is on the verge of romancing a continent.
Sometime next month, Joel will leave home in Toronto on his latest trek— across Mexico, Central and finally South America:
“More new and more love. I cannot wait.”
BLACK and BROWN
There’s a good deal of talk “out there” in the urban jungle about hostility between blacks and Latinos, specifically Mexicans — enough to make some black folks think that the very notion of spending time south of the U.S. border must surely border on madness.
Joel Duncan begs to differ.
“If there is one time when I can say, “I am so happy I am black”, it is when I am traveling in Mexico and Central America. In rural regions, many people stare for quite a while because I am the first black person they had ever seen, other than on the TV. I have been asked by random strangers and groups of giggling women (more times than I can count) to take a photograph with them.
I have been told that my skin is beautiful, called 2Pac and Kobe, and ushered inside of nightclubs without having to join a line or pay a cover charge. I won’t lie – it feels great.”
So what’s the secret to his success in Mexico? The answer, he says is familiar to any fan of Aretha Franklin — R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
“The most important thing is to show respect for the people and their country. Nothing is wrong with being proud of your country, but being a loud show-off with a superiority complex is a sure-fire way to make enemies. “
His other advice: Hable a little español, even if your entire Spanish vocabulary could fit on one tortilla chip.
“Your Spanish doesn’t have to be great. As a matter of fact, you would be surprised how far the words ‘hola’ (hello) and ‘buenos dias’ (good day) will take you.”
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