Ep. 36: Jessica Nabongo: the first black woman to travel every country in the world - Empowered Health | A Podcast with Emily Kumler
In October 2019, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to travel to every country in the world. Not only is Nabongo an expert traveler, but she has a wealth of knowledge on international tourism and development. Between her Master’s degree from the London School of Economics, being employed by the UN, starting two tourism-focused companies, and hitting all 195 counties in the world, Nabongo is going to give us the scoop on how to be the ultimate female jetsetter.
Photo by Elton Anderson.
Emily Kumler: I’m Emily Kumler and this is Empowered Health. I love to travel. I feel like it’s really a chance to get out of your comfort zone. When you explore the world, you often feel much more connected. I feel like the world community is something that’s so powerful and it’s so often we get stuck in our own sort of little microcosm and we don’t go out and we don’t explore. And I always joke that as somebody who’s always kept a journal, whenever I’m traveling, I write like 20 times more than I do at any other point. Part of that is obviously that I have time, but I also think that there’s just something so inspiring about being in another place and seeing how other people live and talking to people and seeing what customs are different. And so our guest this week is somebody who I am totally inspired by and quasi-obsessed with because I’ve been following her on Instagram. She is the first African American woman to travel to every country in the world. So she’s going to be able to tell us what her favorites were, what her least favorites were, and why. And also why it’s so important that we all sort of think of ourselves as citizens of the world. As a woman traveling on our own, oftentimes people feel scared or they feel like they should be scared, I guess. She’s going to tell us not to be scared and that this isn’t even really about being brave or not. This is just about being yourself and being open to other people and other cultures and really wanting to have a sense of adventure about learning more. Because when you’re out in a new place, things smell different, they look different, they taste different. Your senses become really alive in a way that they just don’t when you’re experiencing the same thing day in and day out. So we’re going to talk to Jessica, but before we do, I’m going to give a little plug for the show, which is to remind you all to donate through Patreon. So if you go to Patreon.com/empoweredhealth, you can donate to the show there, which will ensure that we get to sort of keep doing what we’re doing and that everybody is paid for their hard work. These episodes take hours and hours of not just interviews, but editing, and formatting, and all kinds of stuff. So we would really appreciate your support so that we can keep doing what we love and what hopefully you all appreciate. So without further ado, here is our world traveler, Jessica Nabongo.
Jessica Nabongo: Hey everyone. My name is Jessica Nabongo and I consider myself to be a global citizen, a world traveler, and an entrepreneur. And I feel like I’ve lived 12 lifetimes. That’s what I always joke and say, starting from being raised in Detroit, Michigan by Ugandan immigrants, graduating from undergrad and doing the corporate thing for two years, teaching English in Japan, traveling the world, studying at the London School of Economics, working for the United Nation. And then ultimately, there were a couple more jobs in there, but ultimately deciding that I wanted to do my own thing via entrepreneurship. So in 2015, I launched my boutique travel agency, which is called Jet Black and we focus on tourism to Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean because having my background in international development and having worked for the UN, I really felt like charity wasn’t the answer and I felt like if we’re really going to see economic growth in low income countries, it’s really about supporting small and medium enterprises through private sector partnerships. That’s why I decided to start my travel agency and I focus on making sure that when we’re working with vendors, they are vendors that are based in the countries that we’re visiting. We go to restaurants that are owned by local people and really making sure that I’m giving my clients a deep dive into culture, but also, you know, great accommodations, luxury accommodations as well. And recently, I launched The Catch, which is an eCommerce platform, which houses my luxury lifestyle brand, where basically I get to travel around the world and shop and bring these goodies to you. So we pay the artisans for the items that we’re buying from them, but then we take 20% of the profits and we pay like children’s school fees and we pay for health care for the community and things of that nature, really to make sure that as we’re shopping in these lower income countries, we’re also bringing economic value to them. And lastly, and the reason that a lot of people recently have come to know me, I recently finished traveling to all 195 countries, which made me the first black woman to visit every country in the world.
Emily Kumler: Congratulations on that. That’s a big one.
Jessica Nabongo: Thank you so much.
Emily Kumler: One of the things that I’m always interested in when I talk to people who have sort of learned from working within a system and then have found ways that they think they can be more efficient outside of the system, which I think you fit into that category, you know, what sort of was the impetus or like what was it that inspired you to say, you know what? I can do this on my own and actually maybe it’s tourism that could be the sort of stimulation in the local economy level to help make change that we’re not able to do when we try to do these sort of big global charities or initiatives?
Jessica Nabongo: I love data. I’m a numbers person. And like all of the research in the international development space shows that the UN and a lot of these other organizations, they’re really top heavy. And so much of the budget goes to the cost of staff. And you know, I was living in Rome, I was making a good salary. They paid for my housing. I lived like maybe a block and a half from the Coliseum. I was living a really good life. But then for me, I think about, you know, when I went on trips for work or like just when I travel I’m like, okay, so I’m making this money and I’m doing these things but is it really affecting the people that are meant to be effected? And so because travel has been such a huge part of my life since I was young, thanks to my mom and dad, I really decided on travel and tourism because that is an economy or like a vertical, if you will, that affects so many people. So when you have an increase in tourism, there are more people using taxis, there are more people shopping in markets, there are more people staying in hotels. So then you know, there are more people who are able to be housekeepers, work the front desk, be managers, serve in restaurants, and all that. So I just feel like tourism is an amazing sector for any country just because of the amount of people that are affected by a single tourist visit.
Emily Kumler: It sounds like you’re going to all of these places and then you’re kind of coming up with, here’s what the itinerary should be like, here are the restaurants that we recommend. How much research do you have to do for a trip like that? I mean like let’s just, you could pick any country I guess, and sort of tell me a little bit about what that process is like. Because I feel like as somebody who really loves to travel myself, I also feel like I’m willing to take risks. Right? And like I’ll go try eating in a bunch of places that other people might not want to try. So, you know, sort of trying to make those, I guess judgment calls along the way, and you clearly are an expert traveler, so you probably have figured out all kinds of tricks that I’ve never even thought of that I would love to hear.
Jessica Nabongo: Well, yeah, I mean I think the biggest thing is that I have been to every country. And so when I decide to do trips somewhere, it’s because I went to that place and I loved it. So in 2015, our first trip, was actually to Haiti. A lot of people are like, what? Haiti for tourism? Not voluntourism or like mission trips and all of this other stuff? And I’m like, no, pure tourism. And we actually had an issue with a girl on one of our trips because she brought shoes to give away. And I told her, I’m like, we’re not doing that if you want to do that, you do that on another trip. And so there was a little friction there just because for me I’m like, no, we’re purely tourists in this space. Do you want to help the local economy? Tip your waiters, tip your drivers, tip your housekeepers tip all of those people. But as far as like how I find where to go and what to do, I always manage to connect with local people on the ground and that is incredibly useful as far as where to eat and things like that. And then for trips that we’re launching in 2020, but also, okay, so let me talk about Cuba. Cuba is a place I’ve been four times because I’m obsessed with it. I love it.
Emily Kumler: I’ve always wanted to go.
Jessica Nabongo: It’s so amazing and I’ll give you all the tips later. But, what I love about it is like I’ve gone there and I’ve done trial and error with the restaurants. So now anytime I go and I’m hosting a trip or if I plan a trip for clients, I give them a restaurant list because in Havana, food can be very, very hit or miss. But I give them a list of restaurants that I have personally eaten at. So now as we’re launching our next group of trips for 2020, I’m taking people to some of my favorite countries and then they’re going to get to eat some of my favorite restaurants that I’ve actually eaten at. And if there’s something outside of that where I haven’t eaten, and again, it’s those local connections that I have, and I use my local contacts for guidance.
Emily Kumler: So when you were doing all of this traveling, were you developing contacts with the idea that you would be expanding your sort of travel services to those places?
Jessica Nabongo: No, I wasn’t, because the thing is a lot of places end up surprising me. Like, actually, this is the first time I’m saying it, but the first trip we’re launching for 2020 is Jordan. I just became obsessed with Jordan, only after I went. So before I never would have thought, oh, I’m going to plan a trip to Jordan for Jet Black. Largely because when we initially launched, we were only doing Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. But now we’re opening up to the whole world. But still, not certain places, like I’ll never do a trip to Thailand because Thailand is overrun with tourists, but a country like Jordan, which does get its fair share of tourism, but I think it deserves a much bigger piece of the pie. You know, I never would have thought that I would have been a trip there, but after I went there, I became obsessed just because of like all of the diversity of things you can do. You have Amman, which is a really cool city with great restaurants and amazing hotel options. You have the Dead Sea, you have the Red Sea, you have Wadi Rum, which is like an otherworldly desert. You have Petra, which is one of the world wonders. So it just has so much to offer, and I love the people, so I was like, okay, I have to do a Jet Black trip here.
Emily Kumler: I love that. So that is sort of like an inspiration. And then as a woman traveling in Jordan, I’ve traveled around the Middle East like alone, which was I think scarier for everybody back home than it was actually for me. But I’m curious, you know, do you have any sort of recommendations about places that you feel like are way more friendly or open to, you know, women, even Western women, than the conventional wisdom sort of suggests? And then also, I would love to know if there are places where you felt it was more hostile than you had expected.
Jessica Nabongo: I love that question. So, I think the world, generally, is pretty safe. It’s funny because I was talking to someone earlier and they had the same thing where they were traveling to the Middle East solo and their family was going crazy. I actually find Muslim countries to be some of the best for solo female travel, which I think a lot of people wouldn’t consider that. But that has been my experience. Some of my best experiences being alone as a woman, have been in the Muslim world, so Jordan, which is the safest place in the Middle East, is a great place to start. Largely I would say because they’re a little more liberal compared to their neighbors and they also produce some amazing red wines if you’re interested in that.
Emily Kumler: Well, so you can drink there, too? Because a lot of countries in the Middle East you cannot.
Jessica Nabongo: Yup, exactly. That’s why I mentioned that. You can absolutely drink there. Yeah. Like there are no barriers anywhere that I’ve seen Jordan. I actually went to an event when I was there, sponsored by of their wine companies, the Jordan River Wine Company. They had this amazing outdoor event when I was there last year. And it’s nice because it’s a little more liberal. You don’t have to cover your head. But you know, anytime you’re in a Muslim country, I definitely think err on the side of conservative as far as dress. And that’s what I would recommend throughout the Middle East. Even those places that seem a little more liberal, you just want to make sure that you’re being very respectful of the country. Because as long as it’s a Muslim majority country, even though some people are liberal, you still have very conservative people and you want to be careful not to offend anyone. Because for me, as long as I’m a visitor in your country, I’m going to adhere to your rules and make sure that I’m not offending you. Obviously there are some countries like Iran or Somalia where you have to cover your head 100% of the time. Saudi has changed. You don’t have to anymore. But always, definitely lean toward the conservative side. But as far as like hostile towards women or where I felt uncomfortable purely because of my gender, I would say India is probably the only place where I felt like as a woman. I just simply felt uncomfortable.
Emily Kumler: Well and they’re having some major problems with rape.
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. Gang rapes on buses. Pretty awful. Throwing acid on women. Yeah. I mean I don’t know enough about Indian culture or the history to understand what on earth is going on there, but some pretty scary stuff, and what I find fascinating, because I also, well obviously, I went to Pakistan. India is amazing, right? India has some amazing places to visit. Like Udaipur and Jaipur and Agra with Taj Mahal and Delhi and all the colors and spices and everything. India is amazing for those things. But as far as being a solo female traveler, I recommend Pakistan. If you want to go to that South Asia region, I think that Pakistan is just a bit better if you’re a woman traveling alone.
Emily Kumler: Why is that you think?
Jessica Nabongo: I think religion. I think Islam plays a huge role. And I think Islam gets a bad rap. And obviously there are some bad people who are Muslims in the same way that there are bad people who are Christian, right? But you can’t ascribe that bad behavior to the religion because Islam is very respectful of women. And what I found in Pakistan, let me tell you from the moment I was in Oman and I was boarding a flight to Islamabad, there were only men in line at check in. I was like, oh my God, I felt so uncomfortable. And so when I got to the counter I was like, hey, can you give me a seat by myself? I just don’t want to be surrounded by men on the plane. And they gave me a whole row, you know? And no one did anything to me. But I think as a woman, our little spidey senses go crazy when we’re the only woman in a space, right? As women, we’re socialized to be afraid of men in some regards. Or we’re like always trying to protect ourselves and make sure we don’t get assaulted or whatever. But you know what? Everyone was so nice. And like even when I got off the plane, men were very respectful. They would step to the side, me walk in front. One man, he said, oh, you’re traveling alone. Do you need any help? Like what are you here for? And I said, tourism, just, you know, very polite conversation. I was sitting there waiting for my luggage. He brought me a luggage cart. I didn’t even request it, but you know, and like even when I was leaving, he said, you know, I hope you have a great time in the country. And that was the experience I had throughout Pakistan. So I did Islamabad, and I did Lahore and I did like a road trip. I ended up taking a private car, but even Pakistani women were like, oh, you can just take the bus. Like it’s fine. Pakistan is a very safe country, I find, for female travelers. And again, this is like, I knew Pakistani women who were telling me what to do. And I met many Pakistani men who I hung out with who were photographers. And I felt completely safe the entire time. I never felt like people were, you know, ogling me or anything like that. So that’s why I highly recommend Pakistan.
Emily Kumler: And then was there any place that you felt uncomfortable? I mean, I guess you said India would be the one that you would sort of say, which is so hard because it’s such a big country too, right? That it’s probably like there are different regions that would be more hostile towards women. Although, I don’t know, Dehli is such a big city and I feel like there’s constantly news coming out of Delhi that’s scary.
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. So I mean, I haven’t been to the South, so a lot of people talk about Kerala, Goa, and the people are way more chill. You know, I think anybody who lives near the ocean or any body of water, they tend to just be more relaxed.
Emily Kumler: Oh my God, I love that. And as somebody who’s traveled to every country in the entire world, you should know that really cool observation.
Jessica Nabongo: It’s very real. Like island behavior is the same. It doesn’t matter which country in the world, like people who live on islands or near bodies of water, they tend to be way more like relaxed and chill.
Emily Kumler: Okay. So speaking of which, you have a great sort of vignette of swimming with whales in the South Pacific. Can you tell me about that? That’s like a fantasy of mine.
Jessica Nabongo: The thing is I didn’t even know it was happening. You know, I was traveling at such a rapid pace, I didn’t have a ton of time to do any research. What’s awesome is like I work with really dope hotel partners and so I stayed at Fafa Island Resort, which was super nice and very beautiful and they were like, well, do you want to go swimming with whales? It’s the season. Then I’m like, yeah? I didn’t know what it entailed. But I was like, yeah, sign me up. So the first day that we went out, we didn’t swim with any whales and it was kind of disappointing. Like we had an amazing time being on the water and like we went to a deserted island and that was great. And I got great drone footage. But we didn’t get to swim with any whales. We saw them in the distance, but you’re basically chasing them. And some of them are like, okay cool, I’ll hang out with you. And some of them are like, no, I don’t want to play today. So that’s what happened the first day. And the second day I decided, I said, you know what? I’m going to just go again and make it happen. It’s obviously not super cheap. But I said, I’m going to go again, and it was incredible, because you spot the whale, but then you have to kind of hang out and see if they want to hang out and play. And this one whale we were with wanting to just stay and play all day and it was incredible because they come pretty close.
Emily Kumler: Is that scary? I mean, I feel like, how big was it? Do you know what kind of whale it was?
Jessica Nabongo: Oh, it was a Humpback. It’s huge.
Emily Kumler: I mean, that’s kind of terrifying, right? Because like one slap of the tail and like. . .
Jessica Nabongo: Oh, exactly. It’s bigger than the boat that you’re on. And so when I first got in, like in the video clip, you’ll see me, I’m kinda like, ah. And then I got much more comfortable as we kept going in and out. Because they’re like turning, the one we were with, she was like turning around and you can kind of, I don’t know if they’re waving, but you know, they’re definitely aware of you. And they know that they’re there and they’re playing with you and they’re enjoying it. So it’s really cool, yeah.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. And then the other place I wanted to ask you about, because I think there was a quote that I read where you talked about visiting North Korea and it not really being that different.
Jessica Nabongo: So I spent six days in North Korea. I always say, what was the weirdest thing was how normal it felt. So, there was no advertisements. So that’s quite different, right? There’s not that sensory overload of flashing lights or whatever and there’s not that many like storefronts. So that is definitely totally different. But from the “normal” side of things, like you see people on the subway going to work, you see the couples sitting in the park. We ran into a group of college kids that we chatted with like outside of a library. You see kids that are on field trips at like some of the monuments we went to. We saw a wedding taking place, like you know, people doing wedding pictures. And so I think, you know, this is a place that we don’t know much about and it’s a place that in the Western world at least, the images that we see have nothing to do with like the people living their normal lives. Right? Same with Iran, same thing with Saudi Arabia. We don’t really get a sense of what is a normal life there because people are living normal lives everywhere in the world, despite like war and everything. There are people like just living and working every single day. And what I loved about this journey to every country in the world is that I got to see that. But not only did I get to see it, but my followers got to see it as well.
Emily Kumler: And so did you have to have any special handlers or like was it really hard to get a visa or how did you manage all those details?
Jessica Nabongo: Nope. For me it was super easy. If you’re an American, it is not easy because the U.S. Government has made it illegal for American citizens to travel to North Korea. I’m also Ugandan citizen. So, you basically find like a travel agency. I went with a company called Koryo I think. And yeah, like they do the visa for you, you pay your money, they do your visa, you show up like the day before in Beijing to get like a bit of a briefing and then you fly all together from Beijing. And then you have like a Western tour guide. Mine was American, Irish American. And then you have a North Korean tour guide. Well we had two. And then there was someone who was kind of doing an internship.
Emily Kumler: And so are there any ways around that? I mean, I know people who want to come to the United States for like a wedding or an event or whatever often like go through other countries so that they’re not coming from, let’s say Syria, right? They’re coming from Jordan and that’s easier to get from Jordan to the United States than it is from Syria. So they like go spend a month in Jordan and get their visa from there to here. Are there work arounds like that for Americans?
Jessica Nabongo: Nope. It is the United States Government that has made it illegal for their citizens to travel to North Korea. So there is no work around. North Korea doesn’t care.
Emily Kumler: That’s so interesting.
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. I mean they say like you as citizens are in danger of detention and death. That is not true, because they knew I was a U.S. citizen as well, because I was going back to Beijing, so, even though I came to North Korea on my Ugandan passport, I had to show my American passport because my Chinese visa was in my American passport. So they knew that I was both, but they don’t care.
Emily Kumler: Iran is the same way, right?
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. So Iran, Americans can go to Iran, but government hasn’t made it illegal. I’ve heard that it’s difficult for Americans to get visas, but you have to go through a travel agency. Luckily as a Ugandan, we get visas on arrival and we can stay in the country for 15 days, which is awesome.
Emily Kumler: Wow. I mean, there’s something so, I guess surprising is not really the right word, but it sort of sums it up of like as an American, people think like, oh, I live in the country of the free, I can go do all these things. And actually like having a Ugandan passport allows you access to more places.
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. And so the thing is, well, not more places but different places. So there’s this really amazing website that I love called Passport Index. And basically what it allowed me to do was to put in both the U.S. And Uganda and then it compares it to every country in the world. And I can very easily see which countries I have access to with which passport. So, with the U.S. passport I have access to 170 countries, either visa free or visa on arrival. And with Uganda, it’s only 73. But the one reason that I chose to use my Ugandan passport where I could, where it was relatively easy, like apples to apples if like I had to apply for a visa and it’s the same whether you’re Ugandan or American, then I would try to apply with my Ugandan passport. And the reason I did that is because I want to show travelers coming from, you know, weak passport countries, which Uganda would be considered one, that you can still travel the world. So I think I traveled to like 49 countries or something around there on my Ugandan passport, which is more than most Ugandans will ever travel to in their lifetimes. So when I do talks on the continent, a lot of people complain about the visa thing and I’m like, well why don’t you go to countries that don’t require you to have a visa? You know, a lot of people want to go to Europe and they want to go to the U.S., and obviously I’m coming from a position of privilege where I can access those places, but I’m like, if you just want to travel more and you are spending a ton of money on visas, go where you have visa free access.
Emily Kumler: Well yeah and I think it’s just such an interesting point to make, right, too, that the way the world is set up right now, if you don’t have dual citizenship, you actually can’t go to every country in the world.
Jessica Nabongo: No, you cannot. You can’t.
Emily Kumler: Taking that one step farther, were there places that you felt like, would be really great for Americans to experience that Americans are not generally experiencing?
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah. I mean I loved Iran. Like Iran is definitely one of my favorite countries. It’s one of the most beautiful, the people are absolutely amazing and I think a lot of Americans don’t experience because they’re afraid, right? They hear the word Iran and they’re like, ah, terrorism or whatever other figments of their imagination they come up with. And one thing that I’ve tried to do with my platform through this journey is I’m like, a lot of it is like trying to help change the narrative around a lot of these countries. A lot of people are anti Saudi Arabia now because of what happened with Khashoggi who was murdered in Turkey, which was absolutely horrendous and horrific, period. That was horrendous, horrific. I feel like, you know, we sort of like swept that under the rug on our side, even though he was a U.S. citizen. And so I’ve seen like a lot of people firing back at influencers because Saudi Arabia is now for the first time trying to open up completely to tourism. I was there in December 2018. It was the first time they gave any tourist visas and it was linked to, their formula E car race. And now they’re opening up. And I saw a lot of criticism because influencers were going there and being paid to be there and people were saying, oh, this government, you know, murdered this journalist, which is horrendous. But to that I say, what about what the U.S. government is doing? The U.S. government is putting children in cages. So do you suggest that everyone stop traveling to the U.S. for tourism? Like, you know, like there’s so many governments in the world that are doing such horrendous things. And for me, politics and the government exist on a different plane than tourism, because even like what I recently, you know, the U.S. government has stopped all travel to Cuba except to Havana because they’re trying to put a squeeze on the government. When you stop traveling, when you use economic sanctions against governments, it only hurts the, like regular people. These governments, they’re corrupt. They have access to money. So when you stop economic activity in a country, you’re squeezing the pockets of regular, everyday people. That’s why, and I have a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. I’ve studied international development. I’ve worked for the UN. I really understand what this looks like on the ground and it’s just not a good tool. And I also just don’t understand why we’re still on this whole Cuba, anti-Cuba thing. But yeah, and Cuba is another place I’ve been four times. I’m mildly obsessed with it. It’s another place where Americans have a lot of hurdles in order to visit it.
Emily Kumler: Right. And I feel like you do have such a wealth of knowledge about this from so many different angles, which other people don’t have. Is there a remedy that you think would be better than the economic sanctions? Because I tend to agree that like, you know, when you squeeze the average person, you’re also more likely to increase all kinds of corruption and violence and extremism and all this stuff that we don’t want. So what is the solution? Not to put it all on you, but I’m curious. I’m sure you’ve thought about it.
Jessica Nabongo: Well, my big solution would be mind your own damn business. I think, you know, the way that the world has evolved since World War II is such that the Western world feels like it has the right to be involved in other people’s business. And that’s really what we’re seeing. And I just feel like what gives you the right to go in and monitor someone’s elections when no one is coming here and monitoring our elections. So you know, what I would love to see, honestly, is like the G-100, which is like basically developing countries versus like the G-7 as most people know. I would like to see them sort of stand up to the West and say no. Like we’re going to mind our business, our domestic business, and you mind your domestic business and we’ll see where we land on that. You know, we can be trade partners, you know, we can do tourism between our countries and we can do that. But as far as domestic affairs, I do think to some extent we sort of need to let people handle it on their own because the thing is like everything is political and everything is about economics. So it’s not like, you know, Cuba is not doing anything to anybody. Like literally, I read the letter that the secretary of state sent to the secretary of transportation. It’s like, oh, because the leaders of Cuba are supporting the leaders of Venezuela. What? What do you mean? Our leadership is essentially supporting Russia. What if countries said, okay, we’re stopping all flights to the U.S. because you support Russia? That doesn’t even make sense.
Emily Kumler: Well, no, but it’s muscle, right? It’s just like, it’s throwing some muscle around and like getting your way. I mean, I feel like I just recently read about how tourism in the United States is down from China for like the first time in a really, really long time. And people like in New York are freaking out because the Chinese not only were, you know, a big part of the tourism population, but they spent more money than everybody else. You know, the reason for that is because of the trade war and I think because of the Trump stuff, right? And so I thought that was really interesting because I was sort of like, well this is probably like something that happens all the time in other countries, right? Where the U.S. threatens them with something or whatever and then it affects their other industries. And for us we don’t, we’re sort of big enough that we can weather some of that. But if the Chinese stop coming to the United States, that will be significant.
Jessica Nabongo: The times will change. Because even when the Muslim ban happened, it was actually I think the CEO of Marriott who spoke out, because people from the Middle East, while they hadn’t banned like Qatar and Kuwait and Bahrain and UAE, where they have all the money in the Gulf. A lot of their nannies and other staff are from countries that were part of the Muslim ban. Like the hotel industry, they felt it because they’re like, wait, these people from the Gulf aren’t coming and like buying out an entire floor for two months just to come shop and do whatever else they do in New York City. And so it was one of the CEOs, I think it was Marriott, and he spoke out because he’s like, no, we need to get rid of this Muslim ban because it’s affecting our bottom line. And so, I think more and more of that is going to start happening. Like China is a big player now and I think for a long time the U S didn’t have someone balancing their economic power. Now China is that. The Gulf region is that. And so I think it’s going to be really fascinating within the next 10 years how things will change. In particular because unfortunately, we have a president in office who I personally don’t feel like he, or anyone around him, really understands geopolitics as it relates to like the global economy. So I’m really, I’m fascinated just from that perspective to see how the world starts to change.
Emily Kumler: Yeah, no, I actually had somebody at USTR, which is like the trade representatives office, tell me on background that if you want to know about the sort of geopolitics behind Trump, and certainly all the trade stuff, just watch the interview he did with Oprah. And it’s like in the 80s and he’s talking about Japan, but they were like, that’s his entire education when it comes to trade. And it’s like kind of, if you’re interested in like sort of profiling people, it’s a fascinating interview because it is archaic. Like it’s not relevant anymore in this global economy, but it was how it was and so you could kind of like threaten and bully and do all this stuff. But now, it’s like most people don’t realize that like the reason NAFTA is so important is because Mexico has trade agreements with everybody. So you can ship out from Mexico, have a factory in Mexico, ship out from there. It’s not because the labor is so much cheaper, right? Like that’s the narrative everybody gets here, but it’s because they’ve been really proactive with their trade agreements. I feel like all that stuff has become so much more complex and I totally agree with you. I just think that there’s like a general lack of understanding or knowledge about that kind of stuff. But to bring it back down to sort of the personal travel level, I feel like you and I could talk for hours. One of the things that I’m really curious about is, I was in Peru this summer. You know, everybody sort of tells you to bargain, right? And that like, you know, you go to these markets and they have all these beautiful things for sale and you want to bring them home and they’re all very inexpensive, right? And most of the people, I was traveling with the Q’ero Indians, so I was like in remote areas and a lot of times at the hotels we were staying at, there would be like two women who are selling the things that they have made by hand, right, and that they’re using to support their whole village. And I, a couple days into the trip, got really upset about the idea that I as a, you know, middle-class or whatever Western woman who could afford to go on this trip, I was going to haggle with two women who were supporting their entire village. And people were like, well, you have to do it because otherwise like they’ll take advantage. And I got really annoyed because I was like, they’re not going to take advantage of me. Like, I could actually help them. But then I sort of realized that I was disrupting a system. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I kind of felt like, you know, I wanted to help them. Like, I talked to many of those women, I like sat and talked to them for a long time and I liked them. Do you know what I mean? So if I could help them in some way, I wanted to, but I also realized that I was like going up against something that was probably in place for a reason. And I’m sort of curious like when it comes to bargaining or tipping or any of that kind of stuff, if somebody does want to help a local economy, I know you mentioned earlier like tip your drivers, but how do you feel about that kind of stuff?
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, so I think tipping is great. I think over paying for goods in the market disrupts the market. Because say like someone else in the market hasn’t had a woman like you who is like paying five times the price of a good because you’re like, oh well in my context it is still cheap. I handle all the time. It’s one of my favorite sports. I think I’ve won the Olympic gold in it. But yeah, I think you have to find a fine balance. You can’t go into a place and give one person $100. That’s not helping really anyone. It really truly is disrupting the market. You’ll never know the price of things, but when you haggle, no one is ever going to give it to you less than cost. That is never going to happen. I’ve definitely done it and people are like, no. And I’m like, oh, okay. I went too far. Okay here, give it to me for this. And they’re like, okay, we can do that. So that’s the one thing to start with. They’re never going to give it to you for a price less than they paid for it. They’re just not like not, that’s just never ever going to happen. Great example, we were in Morocco, and we wanted these poufs, like little Ottomans or whatever you want to call them. I call them poufs.
Emily Kumler: I know exactly what a pouf is.
Jessica Nabongo: Yes. I’m looking at three of them in my house right now. We went to this one place and I think they were trying to charge, let’s call it 50 USD, right? And so we had all haggled down, but we were starting from such a high price point and we were like, oh, okay. And then, maybe not 50 maybe like 30 or something. And then we all bought a bunch of stuff and then we go to another place and the stuff is like 20% of the cost that we all just paid. We’re like, what? So some of us, me and my friend, like my one friend, he was just so angry because he paid a lot. He overpaid a lot and so we went back and we demanded our money back because we’re like, no, like absolutely not. Like these are just simply not the prices. And we got our money back. But you have to haggle because the fact of the matter is they are going to take advantage of you because they’re like, okay, you don’t speak my language, you’re a foreigner, you have more money because you’re coming from either the U.S. or Europe, and they do take advantage of that. So I think you just have to temper it. I think negotiating is important. Try to understand local pricing. So I rely on like if I’m with a taxi driver or I’m with a guide, you know, I’m like, okay, well what would you pay for it? Now I’ll pay more than what a local would pay, because that makes sense, right? It makes sense that I’m paying a premium, but I’m not paying like five times the price because that just doesn’t make sense. You have to find a place where you’re comfortable but you can’t disrupt the local market, either.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. It’s so interesting, though, because I feel like, so I went to high school for a year in Rome. Portaportese was like my favorite thing to do on a Sunday morning, was like over to the market.
Jessica Nabongo: I know it very well.
Emily Kumler: And I had so many jeans that I got from Portaportese. And I loved haggling there. It didn’t feel the same as like being in a really rural area with really poor people and like fighting with them over like what, 50 cents? You know what I mean? Like that seemed, it just, it honestly like it felt like cruel to me in a way, where it’s like, I don’t care if it’s $5 or $10, like this is beautiful handmade scarf or whatever. And like I totally respect what you’re saying. And like I, I’ll have to think more about it a little bit I think for myself because like it’s not a charity donation, but I do feel like, especially like when people, like women are making things and it takes them like a whole day to make something, right? And it’s like less than I would pay for my latte.
Jessica Nabongo: No, for sure. But then you have to think, how much do they need per day to live? Right. They probably need less than the cost of your latte on an everyday basis. You know what I mean? So the context matters. It’s funny because I think about another example. I used to live in rural Benin. Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world. And I lived there for six months. I was working there. And so I would take a zemidjan, which is a motorcycle taxi, every day. So then I would have to do the negotiation thing. And like, yeah, at that point, I’m literally negotiating around like five to 10 cents USD. But I’m like, no, I’m not going to pay more than a local person because then like it disrupts the market for all of us.
Emily Kumler: Well, yeah, I think it’s different if you’re living in a place, too, right, because then you also will be labeled like the sucker for everything.
Jessica Nabongo: Right, right, right. Yeah, I think you just have to find balance and understanding context is important. I think the best thing you can do is if you’re with a local guide, ask them for cues, ask them what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense. That’s really what I do. I always do a temperature check with a local person. That’s the best advice I can give.
Emily Kumler: And so along those same lines, did you have ways, like I know is it like Airbnb or like Meetup or whatever, like there’s all these sites now that have these sort of like activities you can sign up for, and obviously they’re not going to be in every country, but did you have ways of like linking up with other tourists as a way of going and checking stuff out or making new friends or whatever that you would recommend to people?
Jessica Nabongo: So I don’t like linking up with other tourists when I’m traveling. I think Airbnb is great. Airbnb Experiences is great in terms of like really getting a local experience. I’ve done it in China and Jordan I think in Lebanon. I don’t know, I’ve done it a few places. Like In New York, like they have really great experiences that’ll give you a deep dive into local culture. But for me, luckily because I have my platform on Instagram, every time I would travel I would just post and I would say, hey guys, I’m going to Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Who is here, who should I connect with? And then people would come in and like recommend people for me to connect with. Or people would send me messages and say, hey, I’m here. I’d love to host you. And that’s really how I made a lot of my local contacts.
Emily Kumler: I guess this is my sort of last question. What’s it like to be home?
Jessica Nabongo: It’s been great in many ways because this is the first time in two and a half years that I’ve spent more than two weeks in my home. Yeah. And I’m trying to take it slow. It hasn’t worked out the way that I thought it would because I just launched The Catch and I just spoke at Forbes under 30. I have a TEDx talk that I am doing in a week, so it hasn’t been like totally relaxing. I haven’t left my house today. I don’t plan on leaving my house for at least the next two days. Yeah. It’s been strange. Like part of me is like, oh, I want to go somewhere. But the other part of me is like, this is really nice. I don’t have to think about packing. So I don’t know, it’s a bit strange, but I’m looking forward to getting used to staying still and being still for a while. I mean, I’m traveling again in like two weeks. The one thing I’d like to add is how plastic is destroying the world. And I think it’s really important as individuals that we are aware of our use of single use plastic, and we try to reduce it where we can, and we try to hold companies accountable. I love Blue Apron and I tweeted them the other day and I’m like, hey, could you stop using all of this plastic in your packaging? It is wholly unnecessary and it’s single use. So that is one thing that I really champion. When I travel, I take a reusable cup. So if you think about a flight from like Detroit to Amsterdam, that’s eight hours, it’s at least three drink services and that’s three cups times at least 300 people. That’s 900 cups that are wasted. Whereas like, if you don’t take your own cup, just keep your one cup for the service for the entire flight and then boom, like you’re saving on all the plastic waste.
Emily Kumler: So that’s great advice. I think my glass straw made a little clink in the middle of our interview, so I’m totally on board for getting rid of all the straws, too. I feel like it’s just terrible when you look at those pictures of the whales.
Jessica Nabongo: Exactly. Exactly.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. So I mean, I feel like it’s so great to talk to you and you’re really like such an inspiration. I’m somebody who really loves to travel and I don’t get to do it as much as I would like to, but I feel like when I look at things like your Instagram feed or hear what you’re up to, it really does inspire me. We’re all citizens of the world and I feel like it’s really important for people to feel like they can access other places because it’s such a wonderful way to learn about people and like how similar we all are in so many ways. Right?
Jessica Nabongo: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s like one of the biggest learning lessons from this journey for me was that we’re more similar than we are different. I really, I agree with you. I want people to understand that. And one thing I say is like, we’re all equal shareholders as citizens of this world. You can’t buy more shares. It’s like no. 7 billion people, everyone only has one share on this planet. So I think as long as we remember that, like we’re all human beings, no matter race, or gender, or economic status, or any of those things, like we’re all just people. We all want the same things and you know, let’s all just live and let live and be kind to each other.
Emily Kumler: I’m Emily Kumler and that was Empowered Health. Thanks for joining us. Don’t forget to check out our website at empoweredhealthshow.com for all the show notes, links to everything that was mentioned in the episode, as well as a chance to sign up for our newsletter and get some extra fun tidbits. See you next week.