To be honest, the term “travel guidebook” kind of hits an Old Man Jenkins-meets-Mad Men vibe in 2021. Which is cool. But we’ve also moved past the cathedral-drooling, Eurotrip-centric guides of daddi Rick Steves (whom we luv), and into an era of chasing hashtag trails to lunch. We crave the kinds of organic, personable experiences that can breadcrumb us, if we’re lucky, to a lunch spot in New Orleans that we know is serving the best clams on Wednesdays. As travelers, and as tourists, we’re moving away from a trip centered on an arbitrary bucket list. We’re looking for an experience that connects us, and sees us—which is a whole different game when you’re not white, and not straight. And that’s where Khanyisa Mnyaka’s book, Traveling While Black and Lesbian (released initially in 2018, and now in its second edition in 2021), takes the wheel.
“I have been traveling for some 10 years,” the author tells us by phone from her home in Seattle, “I started off as an English teacher in South Korea, and that turned into teaching in Malaysia, which turned into studying in Costa Rica, and then a move to the Philippines, and so on. But I’m from a small town called Cala in South Africa. My name actually means 'light' in is Xhosa, which is also the language they speak in Black Panther. But growing up, I didn’t really have any frame of reference for all things queer, or words like 'feminism,' as I was finding my place in the world. And I saw those parts of me develop [in tandem] with my love of travel.”
Mnyaka has both been a tourist—or, as she says, “a guest”—and worked in the tourism industry abroad. She’s a woman, she’s Black, and she’s a lesbian, and she says she just “never saw something quite like what I went through” on a travel section bookshelf, so she penned her own experiences to give young people, and especially young, Black queer people, the guidance, the friendship, and the understanding they need before deciding where to travel.
We asked her about where she’s felt the best abroad, and what preconceived notions to shed as a tourist; we chatted budgets, safety, drag scenes, and why sometimes you just need to go to South Korea and pretend to be Shane from The L Word.
VICE: Firstly, congratulations on the release of your book. What drove the decision to not only curate a YouTube channel about your experiences, but to then publish those experiences in a book?
Khanyisa Mnyaka: I came out when I was 27, which is really old. And I came out to my grandmother two years ago and she was just like, “Well, I don’t understand what this is.” There’s this collision of the cultural and the religious expectations of what being a Black Cosa woman means—which is its own identity within Blackness, and has such a strong sense of tradition—and, well, how I kind of failed at all of that [laughs], and what it means when you’re traveling.
That’s why I wrote the book. I remember a few years ago one of my university friends I met in Cape Town—a born-again Christian—she was like, “Oh, I’m still in church” and was having this saucy affair with her girlfriend in the church, and it was really sad. She couldn’t really be out. And I have so many friends from that time of my life when I was really in the church who text me and say, I can’t [come out], and I’m like, well, yes you can. You can do it. You’re just scared, and that’s fine too, but it is possible.
What advice would you give to a young, Black, queer person who wants to travel but doesn’t know where to begin?
I would say travel with a group tour when you start. They provide safety, and you make friends. And you get to really know the places through a well-designed tour. If you’re young and queer, that can be an amazing first step. But know that you still have to do the research on a place on your own, even when you’re with a tour group. You can’t just show up. I’ve been to places after not doing that and, well, let me tell you—you have to educate yourself. You have to listen. It’s scary, when you first start traveling. I was scared to go to South Korea when I was young, and I ended up in some small town next to North Korea where I could hear drills happening by the DMZ line, and that’s on my part for not doing my research.
Let’s talk budget. How much do people realistically need to go on a worldly bender?
I think people really underestimate budgeting. Make time to seriously plan. If you’re going through Southeast Asia for a few months, sure, you can do that with $10,000 and be fine. But you’re not going to take that same amount and survive in Europe for three months.
You also talk a lot about what you had to “unlearn” as you traveled.
[Consider] when I moved to South Korea. I look at pictures of myself from back then, in skirts with the little purses and think, Who is this? What did I think I was doing? I was super closeted. And it wasn’t until a friend said, “You know, you can be anyone you want to be here now. You can start fresh.”
Photo: Courtesy of Khanyisa Mnyaka
Would you say travel helped you find a new identity?
Well, I didn’t become who I wanted to be when I traveled, I just became more of who I am. And that was someone who I hadn’t been in a really long time. It felt like a return to self, rather than an introduction to this new person. That’s what traveling did for me. That moment with my friend gave me a permission slip to go be myself, to go be great, and authentic. I took it and I ran with it. I remember the first time I put on a suit and tie—it was the best time of my life.
I watch a lot of The L Word—like, a lot—and I just decided I was [the character] Shane in South Korea. Which makes no damn sense, but I was just hitting the clubs with my Shane energy thinking, yeah, all the girls want me, I’m Shane. It was the energy I wanted to work with, and it worked. Traveling gave me the courage to explore and experience myself without being afraid that someone would catch me. Because I wasn’t ready to come out.
What places would you recommend for travel in the United States for people who are Black and queer?
Atlanta. When it comes to the US, I love Atlanta. It's so beautiful. There’s a huge queer, Black, and POC community. The drag culture is amazing, the hospitality—it honestly felt a lot like home to me, back in South Africa, where everyone talks to everyone and is genuinely curious. It’s also not so expensive. I love New York, but it’s too expensive. I get too hungry there!
Anywhere on the West Coast?
I really liked Los Angeles. We went twice, my partner and I, and we had some sexy times there. But I think when you are traveling within cities in America, you are generally good [as a Black or queer person], and I say this because my partner is from Texas and we went to visit her family a few months ago in Austin—another dope city—and everyone was like, “Ugh, Texas is terrible. The South is so racist.” And while I had those preconceived ideas as well about Texas, there’s more to it than that. It is [important to recognize] that [racism] exists there, but you know what? It’s also right here in Seattle. If I drive a bit outside of the city, I’m in big Trump sign territory. The same thing goes for New York City.
I think you can’t make generalizations about entire states for that reason when you’re traveling, although some cities and towns will be more progressive than others. But the big-city exposure is so important when you’re gay.
Yeah. A gay friend called me recently, because he’s about to leave our small hometown. He said he needed to be his, “best, big-city gay self.”
Yes. Even in small towns that are pretty progressive, the locals might not understand a couple with two femme lesbians. They’re going to be looking for who is the “man” and “woman.” Big cities have more happening outside of such heteronormativity. And a lot of us queer people still try to fit into the realm of what is acceptable that can model or mimic heteronormativity. Even the way we have monogamous relationships. The question is, how can we have queer relationships, and queer experiences that are not informed by heterosexuality or heteronormativity? And where can we have them?
Where would you recommend queer Black people vacation outside of the United States?
Thailand. For me, it just felt like the Thai people didn’t care if I was gay or Black or not. It felt very safe. Very peaceful. The culture is amazing, and there are gay bars everywhere. The city of Chiang Mai, I love. Phuket is great; so is Koh Tao.
Here’s the thing about Blackness, though. I was with my ex-partner in Bali, Indonesia, and I thought Oh, cool, no one cares [that we’re Black]. It’s great to be here. But when I returned with my current white partner, I was shocked at how differently we were treated. People were really unwelcoming. I thought I was imagining it until I watched a clip of Trevor Noah talking about the same thing.
How do those moments impact your travel plans and philosophy?
You know, I’ve made videos about where and how to travel safely when you’re Black, but another thing I can’t say enough is that you should still go. Go! You should still travel. Be safe, and know what you’re getting into, but know that you can travel.
Read the blogs. Learn the language. Do the research, and talk to people who have been there or are from there. They’ll open their hearts to you.
If you’re looking to book a group vacation, check out the Black-owned Girls Vacation Club, which leads vacations throughout New Orleans, the Caribbean, and more. (Girls Vacation Club is a Black-owned business selected as part of Black+, an initiative by VICE Media Group and The National Urban League to support Black Entrepreneurs with free marketing and mentorship opportunities.) Or start planning vacations for under $1,000—and even under $500—with some of our best budgeting tips, and all the deets on where vaccinated Americans can travel right now.