As a young woman growing up in Rockford, Ill., Charlotte Simpson did not know a lot of Black people who traveled for pleasure, outside of trips for family reunions and the like.
She recalls one well-to-do couple who drove to Las Vegas being the talk of the town but beyond that, Black people and wanderlust were not synonymous in her young mind. For many Black people living in America, word of mouth and tools like the Green Book were how you knew where it was safe to wander off to, and international travel for most was the stuff of dreams and fantasy.
Today, Simpson has defied those earlier expectations having traveled all over the world, first with her husband of 30 years and for the last 10 solo as the Traveling Black Widow. Of her independent excursions she says India is at the top of the list: “It is the most fascinating place on Earth.”
We caught up with the jet-setting former guidance counselor to learn about her philosophy on exploration and how she’s coped during COVID.
You and your husband traveled to so many places when you all were married and despite him no longer being here, you’ve continued in that same spirit on these solo adventures. What was it like the first time you went out on your own?
Of course, it was very lonely at first and very physically demanding because when you’re with your husband, you’re used to him carrying the bags and getting the taxi and all that. I sometimes think that’s why some women don’t want to travel alone. On my first international trip alone, my luggage got lost and there were so many hassles with that, that I really wish someone had been along to hold my spot in line… everything is on you. The first time I thought, “Why am I doing this? It is so not fun.” The first few days I was actually sad and I had to get myself together. I was in Italy and it was beautiful and I was wearing this same outfit over and over. I just had to snap out of it. It was too beautiful for me to spend time whining and having a pity party.
Well, whatever self-talk you did worked because now you’ve gone on so many excursions by yourself all over the world. How many would you say you’ve taken so far?
Wow… trips? I don’t know. Let’s see… I take about three to four trips a year and it’s been over the last 10 years so maybe 40? I didn’t think it would be that many but I guess it probably is!
That’s quite a few! I’m curious to know: What are some of your dos and don’ts for traveling alone, particularly as a Black woman?
I don’t know that they’re uniquely because I’m Black, but I try to be safe. That’s the number one concern. I don’t do risky types of things like venturing out to a club at night by myself. I always check in at the front desk of the hotel or if there’s a travel guide and find out if places are safe to go by myself. And then I always rely on my intuition because you can be walking along someplace that seems relatively safe and then something comes over you and says turn around and go back.
I once heard Martha Stewart say to someone about a trip she was going on, “It’s not about who I’m going with, but about who I’ll meet when I get there.” What are your thoughts on that whole concept of meeting new friends on the road?
I agree with her 100 percent. I have met so many friends all over the world and it has been such fun. I don’t think I met anyone with my husband that we kept in touch with or even on trips with my girlfriends. If anything one of them would meet a guy.
But alone, I meet people all over the place. In England, I met a girl who was from Tasmania traveling alone. About four years later, I was in Australia and I hadn’t planned to go to Tasmania. She came up to Sydney and spent the day with me and it was so much fun. She’d lived there before and took me around to some local neighborhoods I never would’ve seen just as a tourist.
My Facebook is probably 50 percent people I’ve met traveling. I met a lady from Ohio in Cuba and we got along so well and we stayed in touch. I told her I wanted to go to Japan the next year to see cherry blossoms and then we ended up meeting there. While we were there on our last night, I told her I’d planned to go to Kenya and Tanzania that fall. Right there at dinner, she took out her phone and booked the trip. So we ended up meeting up in Kenya and had a great, great time.
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I envy Millennials’ and GenZ’s passion and determination for self employment. I stand in awe of your entrepreneurial spirit. It never seriously occurred to me and most of my friends as young adults to own a business. As part of the first generation of Blacks to graduate from college is record numbers, we tended to seek job security, benefits, and most importantly FINANCIAL SECURITY. My husband and I preached to our daughter to major in something that would enable her to be self-employed if she chose to, after our suffering the woes of working “for the man”. As an educator, I strongly encouraged my Black students to acquire vocational skills or educational degrees that offered an option of self-employment. It’s absolutely HEARTWARMING to see you all grinding, slaying and killing it FOR YOUR OWN BUSINESS. OMG!! I pray you’ll succeed and NEVER have to “work for the man” if you don’t choose to. Love you guys, Auntie!!
That’s so inspiring. I know we’re all tired of talking about it, but, COVID-19 has disrupted so many of our plans. What were you looking forward to doing this year and how have you coped with that loss? Also, what destination is at the top of your list for when the world opens back up?
I had a trip booked, the final trip on my bucket list, and that was to the Holy Land. I was supposed to go on March 19.
One day, watching the news I hear that they closed the Church of the Nativity. I called the travel company just to see if I could reschedule. They called back that afternoon to tell us that flights from the US to Israel were being turned around in the air. Everything was canceled and I was thankful because I got my money back. I was relieved that I didn’t end up stuck in quarantine in Israel and losing all my money, so I didn’t mind that it was canceled.
After things went into lockdown I was so consumed by being in the house and not allowed to go anywhere so I thought how can I make the most of this? That’s just how I am. I’ve got these lemons how can I make lemonade and some other things that can be made with lemons. People probably think it’s an exaggeration, but outside of one day of having a meltdown from not being able to go to church, which is a huge part of my life and my Sunday routine, I was ok. There’s nothing I can do about it so I can’t waste my psychic energy. I try to tell my friends diplomatically, it’s not like I was singled out to miss a trip.
Nearly everyone who had travel plans from March until now has missed their trips. This is happening to everyone so I don’t need to get myself all worked up about it. I’ve put the Holy Land on the back burner until a group of likeminded Christian people are going that I can go with. I’d prefer to travel to Asia, Africa, and South America while I’m as young as I am.
What advice would you give to aspiring travelers who haven’t struck out yet?
If it’s financial, you really have to make travel a priority. I do my own hair, I don’t eat out a lot and I shop for bargains on clothes and am very frugal. I have a savings account for travel and money goes there every month. As far as fears go, I would say look at fears that you’ve already overcome like maybe confronting a friend for example. It was very awkward and uncomfortable but you did it. So do the same thing with travel. Start off small. Maybe drive from Indy to Chicago and do something you’ve seen from TV or a movie. Take one step at a time and do it.
Your Instagram @travelingblackwidow is #goals, seriously! I love your photos and the inspirational captions you share. What are your thoughts on being a woman of a certain age on social media?
I’m glad people are inspired. If not, there wouldn’t be a point to just be on there showing pictures of me traveling. That would be kind of self-indulgent. I think the sole purpose is being fulfilled. I didn’t even know what Instagram was before getting started. My daughter set it up and showed me how to use it and maybe a month later, I got featured in Travel Noire and then all these people started following me and I got to know some of them.
I’m one of the only Black women my age on there showing travel stuff. I like how it keeps me in touch with younger people and what’s on their mind. Just the drive and the passion they have to live their best life… I don’t think my generation thought about that at their age.