When I first started traveling 16 years ago, it wasn’t solely because I wanted to see other parts of the world. Yes, I was fascinated by foreign countries I had only seen on TV and cities I’d read about in school, but the real reason is because I was ashamed of where I came from.
I grew up in the Southside of Kansas City, Missouri, a poor and violent neighborhood. We were raised on food stamps and second hand everything. I saw the rich and successful doing things like traveling to Europe, China, and Africa and I envied that. I resented that I came from “the dirt.” No one around me had traveled abroad, let alone owned a passport, and I wanted to change that. I remember taking the Sunday morning newspaper, grabbing the Travel section, and splaying it all across the living room floor as I looked at all of the airline deals. Roundtrip flights to London were cheap! They were not astronomical like I thought they were. International travel wasn’t for the rich and I intended to be on an airplane as soon as I could.
When I took my first trip abroad to Europe, it was so eye opening. Seeing people of different races speaking in different accents, eating different food, and having a different way of life was mind blowing. “Wow, these are places that I remember reading about, seeing pictures of in my social studies class, and watching in movies. I am here!” Being there…. I still remember it and will never forget it. When I came back home, I felt a little different. Yes, I had been in a foreign country and was still reeling from everything I had experienced, but I also had a little arrogance about me as well.
As I began to travel throughout Spain, Costa Rica, and Panama, I began to think I was better than those who didn’t. I read somewhere a man had said, “Don’t listen to anyone who has never traveled.” I liked that; it seemed true to me. How are you going to try and tell me about life, about the world when your viewpoint is small. You ain’t even left your city yet! I had my nose up in the air at people who didn’t travel and looked at them with disdain. I couldn’t understand why people would rather buy a car, go shopping, or do anything other than visit Paris, Amsterdam, or Peru. There is so much to see and do, I would say! I felt the more and more I traveled, the farther away I moved from the ghetto and who LeRon Barton was.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that I had a change of heart. I had been backpacking through Central America, going from Costa Rica back to Nicaragua when I began to look around and truly take everything in. I was in this beautiful country, eating well, and meeting great people, but I had to ask myself, “What are you really traveling for?” I paused and thought about it as the beautiful architecture of Granada sat in the background. When people would ask me this, I would first say, “Because of the stories,” with a slight smile. The answer turned into “Because I wanted to be more than what I was.” I thought about that – “More than what I was.” And what was I? A man? A Black man? A young ghetto kid from Kansas City? A young uncultured ghetto kid from Southside Kansas City? No, a kid who was ashamed for growing up poor. That is why I was trying to see everything: I was overcompensating. I always felt like I was missing something, that I wasn’t good enough. So I scrapped and fought for everything I got. I wanted to be in the room where it happens where no one could ever tell I was born into poverty. That is where all this came from. It was a mix of bootstrapping and shame and at that moment, I was ashamed for that.
When I arrived back in the States from my backpacking jaunt, I began to shed many of the insecurities of who I was and I stopped shaming people who had not traveled. I realized that many do not have the opportunities that I had – that is the gist. Some folks may not be able to move as freely as I can, for whatever reason. That does not mean it’s okay to look down on them. To quote my friend David, to some folks, “Passport means money,” so you are shaming folks on a whole ‘nother level and that has never been okay. Some people may not even want to travel and that is fine. Traveling maybe a must for me, but at the end of the day it is a past time; a luxury. It’s not like you are curing cancer, you just have the ability to buy an airplane ticket and visit somewhere, that’s it. Not traveling abroad won’t kill you.
Today, if you were to ask me why I travel, I would give you two answers. One, for the stories to tell people – I love to recount the tales of my trips! I would like to think I am the latest in the long line of raconteurs in my family (although my Grandfather is the best) and secondly, to finish what my friend Anh who died recently started. She and I met “on the road” and I vowed to myself that I would see as many places in the world for her. Traveling in 2018 has nothing to do with wanting to be better than who I was. Yes, travel can open your mind and offer you a new perspective on things, but it shouldn’t allow you to think you are better than anyone. If it does, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.