Travel influencer Jessica Nabongo on living life abroad: ‘Get past fear’

EXCLUSIVE: 'I think a lot of people are just waiting for permission, and you're the only person that can give you that,' Nabongo says

Jessica Nabongo knows a thing or two about travel.

The influencer is only 37 years old and has already visited every country on Earth, lived full-time in the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan, and launched several travel brands, including The Catch Me If You Can and The Catch, that keep her globe-trotting throughout the year.

Now based in her hometown of Detroit, Nabongo says that anyone could live the type of life she was built for herself—if they’d only stop living in fear.

“For me, it’s all about manifesting, right?…Because I’m like, if I can dream it, I can have it,” Nabongo shares exclusively with theGrio. “The biggest thing I would say is get past fear. Stop asking for permission. When people are like, ‘Well, how do I afford travel?’ You afford travel by paying for travel, you know that. You know you have to work to get money to buy a plane ticket. The question they’re asking me, it’s coming from a place of fear.”

“What are you afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? I really want people to start asking themselves what’s the worst that can happen? Am I gonna die? Probably not. So just do it. I think safety nets are always important, but the biggest thing is just get past fear and just dream big and live out your wildest dreams.”

Nabongo’s applied this philosophy to her own life at every turn, traveling for leisure throughout her childhood and young adult years before deciding to move to Japan to teach in 2008. From there, she moved to London to earn her masters degree at the London School of Economics. Most recently, she decided to visit every country on Earth, which was not an easy feat.

“I think for me, honestly, so much of it is my personality,” Nabongo said about accomplishing her goal, which she did in 2019. “I just feel like I’m someone who doesn’t need permission. I think a lot of people are just waiting for permission, and you’re the only person that can give you that permission. So when I first moved to Japan, I quit a really high-paying job right at the start of the economic collapse.”

“I was working for a pharmaceutical company, and they had laid off 20,000 people, and I didn’t get laid off. I subsequently quit my job. …I think for me, I was kind of like, ‘I can always go back to my job. I can always come back to the U.S.’ I just took that leap. I moved to Japan, which is culturally just so different from the U.S., but I just did it. Because I think for me, I always think what’s the worst that can happen? Like, I don’t like it. There’s still planes that fly. I can always come back, you know?”

The travel influencer life seems enchanting, with high-definition photos of colorful beaches and dinners, but it isn’t all glitz and glam, Nabongo says. The soon-to-be author, who has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram, has had to sacrifice relationships, experiences, time with loved ones and more to achieve her dreams.

“You’re watching a highlight reel. …I think a lot of times, it can be lonely in many ways,” she explains. “I have tons of friends, but especially when I was living abroad, it’s like out of sight, out of mind. So it’s hard to maintain those friendships. I also had friends where I was [abroad], so that was great, but sometimes there’s language barriers. Sometimes you want to fully express something and you may not be able to, or you just long for having a conversation with someone who’s known you since you were 12. So I think some people think it’s much easier than it is.”

Nabongo has also experienced racism on the road as a Black traveler, but she’s never let it deter her and encourages others to do the same. The former expat believes that the Black community would be better served focusing on the positive during their travels and making genuine relationships, with both Black and non-Black travelers and natives.

“I think racism in the U.S. is a very particular thing,” she says. “I think what we have to try to do as Black Americans is release that when we travel abroad. Because I think any little slight that you have abroad, you’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m Black.’ That’s not always true. And so, I think we have to release it. I’ve been to every country in the world and have I had some racist things happen to me? Yeah, sure, of course. But I’ve also just experienced rudeness that I don’t think was based on race.”

She adds that when she travels abroad, she’s “looking to get a local experience,” connecting with people from all races and walks of life.

“I’m a very free flowing person. I think that [not being open to different cultures] sort of makes you fall into a comfort zone [when traveling]. So you moved to London and now all your friends are Black American [expats]? Why live in London? Why not just stay in the U.S.? You see what I mean? I think it’s really important that we stretch ourselves.”

Nabongo tells theGrio that dating internationally can also be a source of joy for Black women, who might be apprehensive about finding someone abroad. The blogger hasn’t had any trouble finding romance, she shares, but also cautions Black American and African women to watch out for those who might fetishize them and their Blackness.

“Of course, there are opportunities for dating,” she explains. “There’s [also] a lot of fetishization going on there. Part of this is me being African as opposed to Black—and I think that’s a very important distinction—because there are two very different experiences when you’re African appearing vs. Black American appearing, whatever that means. Like, I ran into people thinking I was a prostitute when I lived in Italy, which was nuts, because I was dressed going to my job at the United Nations.”

“But, I think, in general when you travel, I believe that people are much more open. And so if you’re open, then there’s gonna be a lot more opportunities to meet people and hang out and [date] and have flings.”

And while Nabongo has no intentions on stopping her travels anytime soon, she’s happy to be putting down roots in Detroit. Originally forced to stay in the U.S. due to the pandemic, the businesswoman has found beauty in the stability.

“The crazy thing is I was like, ‘I want to move. I want to move. I want to move.’ But then I got this unit upstairs and it has this amazing water view, and I bought it and then I started renovating it, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ So I’m committing to moving this summer after I finish writing my book,” she explains.

“In 2019, I took 170 flights. In 2020, I took 44. That’s a huge change in lifestyle for me, and I’ve been loving it. I bought a desk. I have a desktop computer. I am obsessed with this slow pace of life. While I’m ready to go outside and put on clothes, I don’t want the world to go back to where it was in terms of all these events and things like that. So [moving home] and doing the renovations, for me, has been really grounding. Getting to pick everything out, from the tile to the hardware for my cabinets and everything, it’s just been a really beautiful experience. I’m excited to do it in a new city.”

Fans can follow Nabongo’s journey on her Instagram or visit her blog, The Catch Me If You Can. Her photography book, published by National Geographic, is slated for release in May 2022.

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