Tulum, with its white sand beaches and turquoise waves, has long been a popular vacation destination. Now, with the help of a new Facebook group, Black in Tulum, Black people in America are traveling to the Mexican city in droves. Seeking short or longer term reprieves from the current state of affairs, Black travelers are leveraging the community to build connections, seek recommendations, and share experiences of their time in the city.
Black in Tulum ballooned from 25 members to 3,000 in just a couple of months this past summer, and it’s not the only Facebook community for Black travelers that provides resources and information to help assist with transitions from America to other countries. The group’s founder Nubia Younge is also the co-founder of another group called Blaxit Tribe—Black Americans Who Want to Exit the US & Move Abroad, which boasts more than 7,000 members. In promoting the Blaxit group to her Black in Tulum community, Younge wrote, “If I could, I’d pack all ya’ll up and move you out of the Un-united States.”
Three years ago, Younge packed up the seemingly American Dream lifestyle she’d built in Fairfax, Virginia for a full-blown digital nomad existence. Through her Facebook communities, she’s helping lead the way for other Black travelers looking to exit the country in pursuit of different lives.
Black women, particularly, are finding that leaving the U.S. benefits their overall mental and physical health. Other countries like Portugal and Colombia offer lifestyle changes and easier access to affordable healthcare. Younge knows this first hand.
“My mental health was on the line,” said Younge, a Black mother of two young adults, of her decision to leave the country. “I had a lot of stress going on. I was a single parent. I had a toxic relationship with my kids’ father and even my mother. I dealt a lot with depression – seasonal depression specifically.”
There were also other factors at play for Younge that contributed to her stress. “I was overweight at one point,” she said. “When most members of my family got to 35 or older, they developed Type II diabetes. And, I was on that track.”
Mental health, particularly for Black people, often manifests as physical ailments, according to psychiatrist Dr. Aminata Cisse, who has a background in cultural and cross-cultural psychiatry.
“Your mental state can definitely impact your physical state, especially with people of color dealing with a lot of stress, dealing with racial trauma,” said Dr. Cisse. “Many Black people don’t even realize that they are depressed, but they will be able to say I have body pain because their body will demonstrate the emotional hurt that they are experiencing.”
For Black women, extended exposure to stress and its accompanying hormone cortisol often lead to both physical and mental ailments such as heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, the American healthcare experience has been less than ideal for Black women, often becoming a matter of life and death.
Now, an unprecedented global pandemic and continued police shootings that often claim the lives of innocent Black people is worsening matters for the health of Black Americans. These realities have further exposed grave inequities within America’s healthcare system, particularly for Black women who are oftentimes not believed and ignored when requesting medical care.
Despite struggling with her mental health, Younge said high insurance costs, difficulty finding someone she could relate to, and a general lack of access to mental health care kept her from pursuing professional therapy.
Black women turning to alternative options to therapy is not out of the ordinary.
“I see Black women revisiting things like Mother Nature or ancestors, even a return to natural hair is wellness and healing,” said Miami-based psychologist Dr. Michelle Wiltshire, whose multi-prong approach to healing has attracted predominantly Black female patients. “Unlike some other groups, we require healing at every layer of our being due to all of those years of oppression. Almost anything that we do that allows us to heal is alternative. Of course, there’s your typical things like yoga, meditation, or more Eastern practices.”
For Younge, she turned to travel for healing.
“It was like this overwhelming sense of I’m tired,” she said. “I just needed to do me. That was the point where everything just started. It was like a domino effect.”
Like Younge, a growing number of Black women in America are taking their health into their own hands by opting to leave the country for foreign lands. Younge set her sights on Asia in pursuit of healing.
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“Changing your environment can affect your mental health,” said Dr. Cisse of seasonal depression. “It’s good to look for places that have great weather or where it feels more comfortable and self-edifying as a person of color.”
Younge’s intended, few-months long trip to Thailand evolved into a long-term overseas stay. She quickly began to notice changes. With easier access to fresh food and coconut water, she lost weight, and the Vitamin D from the sun improved both her mental and physical health. “Waking up to the sun, I felt like I was getting all of the things that I didn’t realize that I was missing without having to try,” she said.
Not all Black women choosing to leave the country share the same level of stress as Younge. When health-reform lawyer turned digital nomad and fitness coach Sharita Jennings decided to leave in September 2018, she was simply looking for a sense of adventure and wanderlust.
“I made the decision because I was following this very strict path,” Jennings explained. “I wanted to be a big attorney or in politics when I was in high school and college so I said, ‘Okay, I’m on a timeline. I have to go to school. I have to go to law school.’ I was checking off all my boxes. I think I had been practicing for five or six years, and it just hit me that if I didn’t change anything, that I would never have a chance to make a big change in my life.”
“It’s not that I had this dying passion to not live in the United States,” Jennings added. “I had a passion to see more of the world. It just occurred to me that the easiest way to do that would be to stop working full time and just try something risky and kind of crazy. Now, it doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.”
Jennings’s travels have taken her to several countries, including Colombia, Peru, and Portugal. She currently lives in Mexico and spends time in cities including Tulum, Playa Del Carmen, and Bacalar. Initially, health was not particularly top of mind.
“I did do research to make sure healthcare was affordable, and I could find a good hospital,” said Jennings. “I wasn’t too concerned about it.”
She was surprised by the positive experiences with the healthcare systems she interacted with while abroad.
“It’s just crazy because here I was warned about going to Colombia and Portugal,” Jennings said. “My best experience was in Portugal.”
Prior to jetting off to Portugal, Jennings returned home to spend time with her family during the holidays and purposefully put off her medical appointments because access to good healthcare in the U.S. is often unaffordable.
“Instead of worrying about subpar care, I waited to do all my appointments in Europe, “ she said. “I bought traveler’s insurance and paid out of pocket. I paid $150 for blood work, ultrasounds, and a pap smear, which would have been astronomical in the States.”
Of her routine gynecological exam, she recalled that the Portugese doctor did both an ultrasound and a pap smear, which is standard in Portugal. “I had never had an ultrasound before. One second after it happened, she said you have a fibroid, it was literally one second.”
“If I were in the States, I wouldn’t have found out about it until I was in pain or if I had horrible symptoms,” Jennings predicted. “I was lucky. It was just shocking, and I had to go all the way to Portugal for the easiest, smoothest experience.”
If she needs surgery in the future, Jennings would go back to Portugal. “I would feel more comfortable,” she explained. “I hear so many stories of you having to beg for care, especially as a Black woman in America. [There], they give you everything you need without question.”
Not having to beg for care and simply being believed resonates with tech lawyer turned career break coach Roshida Dowe. Formerly based in Oakland, California, Dowe took a career break and visited Mexico and France among others. Now based temporarily in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Dowe plans to move back to Mexico City once she feels safe to travel again.
“I did all of the basic maintenance that I needed abroad while I traveled,” Dowe said. “I have autoimmune issues, so I’m used to treating them with a doctor’s help for two decades. I know what I need to treat them.” While abroad, Dowe experienced easier access to the medication she needed. “In the U.S., I would’ve had to go to the doctor more frequently to get the prescription. [Abroad], a lot of the medications that I need, I can get over the counter. I don’t have to prove that I am in pain.”
Now with COVID-19, American residents and citizens are barred from entering many countries across the world. With over 200,000 confirmed casualties, the U.S. has more coronavirus deaths than any other country, and, according to a recent Pew Research survey, about 62 percent of Americans believe that the U.S.’s response to the pandemic has been less effective in comparison to other wealthy nations. For Black women who left before the pandemic, their decision to seek a better sense of mental and physical well-being outside the U.S. seems especially prescient.
When asked if they had plans to return to the U.S. permanently, Jennings and Dowe explained that they’d likely return intermittently for visits. As for Younge, she simply laughed.
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