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British-Nigerian Destynee Onwochei works in the world of corporate finance and, though her job frequently takes her between London and New York, she soon found that her own travel aspirations were not so easily fulfilled. This is the story of one woman who hopes to use her love and experiences of travel to inspire an entire generation.
Tobias the Dream Adventurer is a new book aimed at children, following the exploits of Tobias, a young boy who wants to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his friend Nalah. The fantastical adventure at the heart of the story is based on one that the book’s author, Onwochei, undertook herself as part of her 30 before 30 challenge.
“I was on a weekend getaway with one of my closest friends; we had just landed in Marrakesh for a fun little girls’ trip, walking through the airport after clearing customs, when she asked me if I would ever try to get to 30 countries before I turned 30,” Onwochei explains to Culture Trip, when asked about how the idea originally came about.
“My answer was a simple ‘no’, because I had only been to a few countries at the time, and according to my calculations, I’d have less than two years to get to 19 more.”
But that wasn’t enough to dissuade her from tackling the challenge – in fact, it was the beginning of the journey.
The next hurdle came in the form of Onwochei’s childhood fear of flying. Although it had become milder with age, she remained a nervous flyer – and to achieve her goal, she’d have to get on rather a lot of planes in a short amount of time.
“Once I got back to London [from Morocco] after accepting the challenge and needing to map out another 19 countries, I decided to take a solo weekend trip to Stockholm, Sweden.”
This first trip was also a big deal as it meant Onwochei would have to confront one of the other fears that many people from around the world still face.
“Although not very far, [the trip to Sweden] was a big deal for me, as I was quite apprehensive about… travelling solo as a black woman.” Onwochei explains. “I had heard some horror stories from other black people, but I don’t like to take others’ experiences as my own. So I went, and I was pleasantly surprised. Stockholm was cold but picturesque. I enjoyed the weekend there and would definitely go again.”
But that didn’t mean travelling solo as a black woman wasn’t without its challenges. As Onwochei discovered, its implications were impossible to ignore.
“I have been aware of my blackness in many countries,” she says. “In some countries I have been looked at in sheer wonderment. Some cultures do not often get exposed to black people, except via what they see in the media. I have even been mistaken for being a celebrity in some places.
“In other places, being reminded of my blackness has definitely been a challenge. Not only am I reminded that I am black, I’m reminded that I am a women, too, which sometimes feels like a double dose of disregard. I have been overlooked when checking into hotels because it’s assumed that I can’t afford to be staying there. I’ve been the last to be served, even if I am ahead in a queue, when there are others who don’t look like me around. If by the odd chance I am not the only black person travelling or waiting to be attended to, I am often assumed to be with the other black people around, when they’re strangers to me. That being said, I am also very careful when going out alone. It’s important to be safety-conscious as a solo traveller – but add being black and a woman, and safety and alertness become imperative.”
These depressing examples are ones that many non-white travellers face, and the predominantly white gaze of mainstream travel writing doesn’t help. Thankfully, Onwochei plans to change that in her own way.
Documenting international travel has become a pastime for many, with most books and travel writing focussing on the experiences of the author, and giving readers an idea what to expect from a destination. So why did Onwochei choose to write a book for children?
“I started travelling and really exploring the world at 28 years old. I really wish I had started much earlier – more specifically with my family – but it wasn’t a luxury we could afford when I was younger. My hope is that now I am older and have travelled to 78 out of the world’s 195 countries, I can encourage young children to be open to new people and cultures which they ordinarily wouldn’t encounter.
“I want to help spark interest and intrigue at an early stage.” she says, “I really found myself through travel. Imagine all the amazing life learnings I would have had if I’d started much earlier! As cliché as it is to say, children are the future, so exposing them to amazing things about the world will help to build wilful acceptance and inclusion that can only lead to a more harmonious world for everyone.”
The book is set to be the first of a series, and it’s something that the author is looking forward to completing.
“I enjoy writing the Tobias the Dream Adventurer books, all of which are based on my personal experiences. Being able to use these experiences and turn them into magical stories is a dream for me. I get to relive my own reality through the eyes of a child, while adding a bit of magic and mystery.
“I want Tobias to go to every country I have been to, which means that the series has the potential to take him to 78 different countries, within 78 different books.”
Onwochei was keen for her travel challenge not just to be a box-ticking exercise, but rather a chance to see and do things she wanted to experience for herself. When asked for her favourite memories, two very different places stand out.
“I remember being on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at night – we began our trek at about 3.30am, and it was pitch black and cold, about -13C. After feeling like death was nigh, the most amazing sunrise began. The bountiful colours peeking over the clouds and nearby mountain peak had me lost in a momentary feeling of warmth and timelessness. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The other moment that sticks out in the adventurer’s mind is one that many people have heard about.
“I went to Tromso in Norway for a few days to chase the Northern Lights. On the first night, there they were, and I felt like I had seen what I came for – I even joked that I could turn around and go home. But I was naïve to think that, and later that night – on a boat cruise – they really came out in all their wonder.
“It was unreal. It felt like a dream, as if my eyes were playing tricks on me. The lights literally dance across the sky – darting around in circles, jumping around as if to show off their glory. I knew I wanted to experience seeing the Northern Lights, but my expectations were way too low compared to what I witnessed. I can’t encourage your readers enough – if you haven’t, please go and see the lights. And if they don’t come out first time, try again until they do. You will not be disappointed.”
Onwochei is also acutely aware that people of colour rarely get a chance to see the world as she has managed to do.
“There are various barriers for people of colour, and often it starts with their not being able to afford the luxury of travel,” she explains.
“When [people of colour] do travel, it’s often to go back to the countries of our heritage to see family, or enjoy a good top-up dose of our roots. But I’d encourage everyone to travel as much as you can – go to places you have only dreamed of. Do different things and explore the entire world. It’s here for us in all the same ways it is for anyone else. The more we travel and explore, the more accustomed other cultures will be to seeing us do so, and the more we will see the similarities we all have as humans. We are not as different as we think we are.”
Onwochei’s own travels are far from over; in fact, she has set herself another challenge.
“It is my goal to get to all seven continents, so my last one is Antarctica. Once the coronavirus has well and truly gone, or is at least under control, it will be one of my next stops. I also want to get to as many countries in the world as possible, so I literally have every destination in mind! What an amazing travel journey it would be to say I’ve been to every country in the world. I will aim for this, while being grateful for wherever I do manage to go.”