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Almost two years ago, in order to fascillitate a dialogue about identity and belonging and find out more about who I am, I started this blog and went travelling.

For so long I didn’t have a clear perspective on my own identity. I had love and stability in my childhood, but no understanding of who I really was, and why I was black, in a white family. Well-meaning whiteness scrubbed out a large part of me, but it wasn’t something I could ever really speak about until my Dad died.

Taking a DNA test had always been on my mind, but it’s something I could never bring myself to do as a child.

After my Dad’s death, the questions and anxiety I’d spent so long ignoring suddenly became more pertinent than ever. Was I related to him? If not, who was I related to? How were we so close if he wasn’t really my dad? Should I be taking a DNA test to find out more about my blackness? My Dad’s death left a grief-shaped crevasse in my life, but it also ripped open a wound that had always been there: a wound relating to where I belonged.

Taking a DNA test

At the start of 2018, I was in Mexico and Cuba and was approached by the genetic testing company, MyHeritage, who provided me with a DNA test to give me answers about my genetic makeup. We made a video of my story which you can watch below:

After years of being somewhat raceless, of flirting with multiple identities and becoming comfortable in a space of racial ambiguity, a few weeks after this video, I finally found out the origins of my blackness.

In a tiny apartment in Nicaragua where I was travelling at the time, I logged into the MyHeritage site on a disconcertingly sunny morning and discovered that genetic makeup is, apparently, quite simple.

The DNA test results

I am black because I am Nigerian. 

MyHeritage says 43% of my DNA is from there. And then there’s 1% from Kenya, and the rest from Great Britain and Ireland (55%), as well as eastern Europe (1%).

I remember shaking as I scanned the digital map on the website. My shock was so palpable I felt I could hold it in my hand. After so long of being told I looked east African, or mixed with multiple countries, I couldn’t get my head around finally having a clear racial identity on paper. It was nearly a 50:50 split.

Although I had been identifying as mixed-race since around 16 years-old, it was mainly to appease the questions of others.  I never knew what I was mixed with. I’d spent so much of my life living in the projected shadows of others, I’d simply taken to splitting myself in two: when I was with those who knew me, I was raceless; without a clear identity, or white because that’s how I was racialised by my family and some of my friends. But when I was meeting new people, or wanting to avoid a line of questioning that I couldn’t answer, I called myself mixed, and would ascribe whatever country I thought would get me through the conversation the most easily.

If people saw me as East African, I could nod and smile and say one of my parents was from Eritrea. If they thought I looked half-black, Jamaica became the go-to explanation, because the Caribbean is much more palatable than Africa, right?

My own internalised anti-blackness, coupled with the ways in which others dictated my identity resulted in a variety of stories that led to me living in racial ambiguity for most of my life. And I became accustomed to it.

The test results are the end of that chapter, but the beginning of a totally new one.

I returned to London in the middle of 2017 to write a column in the Guardian and to continue searching for answers on who I am. That meant quizzing my Mum about my biological dad, going to therapy and examining what sites like MyHeritage can really tell us about who we are.

What does taking a DNA test mean for your identity?

Since getting the results of the test, I’ve been grappling with what that means for how I identify moving forward. Firstly, because of the science behind the tests themselves, which is complicated but interesting.

As I wrote in the Guardian in August 2018, these DNA testing companies deliberately conflate the the terms race and ethnicity. These sites won’t tell you that your “race” is Nigerian, or Swedish, or French, but they will tell you that your “ancestry” is “estimated” to derive from Nigeria/Sweden/France, or wherever.

Why? Well to give you a percentage breakdown of your “ancestry”, DNA companies analyse some markers, or snippets, in your DNA and compare them to others who are said to be good representatives for specific regions or ethnicities around the world.

Taking a dna test
Taking a dna test: The Myheritage ethnicity estimate

But all the databases from these companies are based on living populations. So for someone looking to find out with certainty where their family was from hundreds of years ago, these tests are only comparing your genetic info to that of others who are are alive and in the system.

A white person, with two white parents who wants to know more about their history from hundreds of years ago won’t know where they are “from” after taking a test because the data is all on those who are currently alive.

An “ethnicity estimate” will vary depending on what website you use too, as each database is based on different samples. I put my details into another site and got a different result containing more East African and less West African for example. Obviously these totally wrecked my head again.

There’s also the issue of how the databases are compiled;  an individual’s “ethnicity” is  based on their own perception of cultural and social traits, not which geopolitical borders they were born between. Borders of course, change all the time; someone who reported themselves as French today, might have been considered German 100 years ago. 

And as Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London pointed out to me when I did my Guardian piece, there are no universal genetic traits within certain groups anyway.

This means there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all French people, or Nigerians, or Swedes. And the genetic markers we pass on to each other aren’t even consistent – there might be a lot of genetic markers Nigerians share, for example, but they could also be found in Kenyans, or Finnish, or Spanish people. 

Mark Thomas basically told me that taking a DNA test to find out more about your genetic makeup, race, or ethnicity are pretty much a waste of time.

How to identify after taking a DNA test

Knowing all this now, and also growing up with no cultural knowledge of what it means to “be” part-Nigerian means that I’ve definitely found it hard to assert myself as a mixed-race, part-black, part-Irish, English-born woman. 

I can be Nigerian on paper of course, but does the answer to the ubiquitous “where are you from?” question lie in the dubious science of a DNA testing kit? Or is it about how I move through the world now, and what culture I claim today?

That’s something I’m working on getting to grips with myself. And I’ve realised that I’m not alone in my struggles; my writing has brought me into contact with a whole bunch of people who have endured similar experiences, people of colour who have found that things have become more complicated after taking a DNA test.

I’m talking to others and working on a project that encompasses this modern-day phenomena of feeling raceless, experiencing a shift in how you identify as a person of colour.  For some people, a racial identity can change frequently as you move through the world, depending on your circumstances, upbringing and perception.

I know that race is fluid and contextual for many people of colour, but I also know that the economic, social and political implications of race are not. 

Even though it’s long been accepted that racial classifications have no grounding in science or genetics, we know that the parameters by which they force us to live our lives are quite clearly defined.

Changing one’s race overnight, or cherry-picking a race will always be highly problematic, especially when it’s a white person doing the picking. (Step forward RD). At first, the idea of claiming Nigeria as my own didn’t sit well with me, because I didn’t want others to think that is what I was doing; choosing to be Nigerian  when I had no knowledge of what that really meant.

Taking a DNA test and filming in Mexico
Taking a DNA test and filming in Mexico

I thought that I knew nothing of the broad, British-Nigerian experience. I don’t know if I have the right to insert myself in a cultural identity that means to so much to so many people without feeling disingenuous, or maybe even offending others. 

But then I thought that my very mixed-up British-Nigerian experience can still sit alongside that of anyone else; those with two Nigerian parents, those with Nigerian in their blood from way back.

Since taking the test, I’ve also come into contact with my first black relative on MyHeritage – it’s a distant match (a fourth cousin) but she’s British-Nigerian, with parents from there, which seems to corroborate the findings from MyHeritage about my own genetic makeup. 

Her very existence has made me feel more comfortable with the idea of accepting myself as part Nigerian, even if the science behind the tests is still questionable.

It kind of reminds me of the idea that I read a while back, which is that a person’s identity is made up of three parts: how you view yourself, how others view yourself, and the biological reality.

Of course decoding my DNA is only one chapter of my story.  I don’t regret taking a DNA test to help me uncover more about my genetics, but I won’t let it define everything about my narrative and I’m determined to get to a place where I’m totally at ease with each and every part of me.

Have you considered taking a DNA test for answers around your heritage? Or do you have questions about my experiences? Get in contact below or drop me an email 🙂

When I think long and hard about it, I must have shared bathrooms, bedrooms, leftover food, travel tips, (and countless germs) with well over 1,000 people.

My travels have meant I’ve experienced staying in a hostel in places like Colombia, Thailand, Morocco, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico and others.

The largest hostel I stayed in was a room of 24 (I just so happened to get food poisoning  so bad I was hallucinating, so all I can remember of that hostel experience is feeling as if I was on a submarine, I was that out of it).  And when travelling Colombia, I bounced around hostels for three whole months by myself.

Hostels are a great way of meeting people and saving some serious money when travelling solo.

I’ve always used Hostelworld (affiliate link) as I’ve found that it’s the easier to use and seems to be more popular than its main rival, Hostelbookers. There are reviews, plenty of photos, information about how to get to each spot from the main airports and bus stations, and your money is protected by the site when booking.

And even though I’ve recently taken a few trips with friends where we’ve opted for the comfort of an Airbnb (Lisbon) or private accommodation (Sri Lanka), if I was to go solo travelling again, I’d definitely revert back to the hostel life – the social butterfly in me just loves it.

Here are the pros and cons of staying in a hostel which I discovered on my year of  solo travel.

In March 2018, I headed to Sri Lanka with Emma, one of my best friends from university, for almost three weeks.

My excitement should have been radiating from within. I should have been OTT hyped.  It was the first trip I was about to take in over a year with a friend, and one of the first I had organised myself in around the same time. I wouldn’t be doing any writing, or blogging, or social media. I wasn’t indebted to a brand or company. It was to be my time, and mine alone.

But I was still really nervous. What if I’d forgotten how to travel with someone else?

I was also anxious about the possibility that my moods would ruin the trip. I’d spent the first three months of the year wallowing in a deep, dark well of depression that I just couldn’t seem to leave behind me.

I’d tried herbal medicines, upped the ante on my exercise regime, and considered anti-depressants. But this persistent fog crept into my brain and clouded my vision, turning my technicolour world totally grey. What if this follows me to Sri Lanka? I thought.

The idea of attributing social capital to race has been around for centuries.

It’s impossible to deny that where ingrained and structural inequality exists, racism is sure to follow. But understanding the type of discrimination that links power and privilege to a particular skin shade within black and brown communities, requires a more nuanced analysis.

In the past few years, the spotlight has been cast over this very issue, known as colourism, which allows us to examine what it really means to be the darkest of the dark in a society obsessed with fair skin, and the real-life implications of this as a woman.

I’m stumbling over the scattered rocks and pebbles of the cobbled streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja) with my mouth wide open. Apartment blocks stacked on top of each other like old cardboard boxes are bathed in the last of the evening’s lilac light.
Paint from the crumbling casas flakes from the walls like dry skin. Shirtless teenagers are kicking a battered football around the street as the heat slowly loosens its chokehold on the city.

Everything is worth watching, each moment, a scene from a telenovela. I am travelling Cuba solo.

Choosing to leave London in April 2016 in favour of a year of work and travel around the globe was so far, the best adult life decision I’ve ever made. What started out as a journey of escapism evolved into a series of trips that each allowed me to build on my career as a writer in different ways – and which led to plenty of free travel opportunities. So can everyone do it?

It is actually possible to travel the world for free as a writer, marketer or blogger?

Well in short, yes.  But it takes a lot of hustle, planning and persistence.

Travel writing sounds dreamy so it’s no wonder everyone wants to travel the world for free in this way.
Most people reckon it’s just centred around jetting off to exotic climes where your only task is sitting in a hammock/hotel lobby to complete a few assignments before spending the rest of the day exploring and socialising with your new friends on a beach.

Nicaragua has ended up being a firm favourite of mine for backpacking but admittedly, it didn’t begin like that. Indeed when I first decided to travel to the Central American country that borders  Honduras and Guetemala, I expected something a little different.

Despite the fact that half my friends hadn’t ever heard of Nicaragua, I’d found some really interesting volunteering jobs prior to booking my plane ticket. However, at the last minute, I decided that I wanted to see the country as a tourist instead. And I definitely didn’t come to regret my decision.

What I didn’t expect was for the country to be SO beautiful in terms of scenery and natural resources; volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, mountains — Nicaragua has the lot. And it’s really cheap, too  (general costs listed below).

I also didn’t expect the culture to be quite as conservative. After trips to Cuba and Colombia, I assumed things would be a little more…open like they are in other parts of the Caribbean and South America. In fact, the first day I touched down in the city of Leon, I remember that wandering around in shorts got me stared at a lot.

travel to nicaragua
Leon

Despite this however, I’d return to the country in a heartbeat.

And once you adjust to the local charm, you’ll realise why this naturally stunning location is only  now emerging as a backpacker haven after a the end of a bloody revolution which raged from 1978-1990.

Not only is Nicaragua recognised as one of the safest Latin American spots for travellers, but it’s also easy to travel around, find hostels, meet other travellers and plan activities to suit whatever mood or budget you’re in.

Here’s what to expect — and what to check out  — when you travel to Nicaragua; a super-cheap, incredibly beautiful,  country with Caribbean vibes on the coast and Latin life on the mainland.

Culture & Cost

If you travel to Nicaragua and speak Spanish, you’ll find that it’s generally pretty “clear” for someone who’s trying to learn. Nicaraguan’s take their time getting their words out and are generally pretty patient.  Internal travel is also easy and generally safe (although watch yourself in the capital, Managua at night-time) and getting around via the local “chicken” buses is normal for backpackers. Failing that you can easily arrange private gringo mini buses from hostels to get around the country but I did the former and always felt safe. Plus, it was an experience.

travel to Nicaragua
Nicaragua is great for market shopping

Travel to Nicaragua is also incredibly wallet friendly, hence the increasing number of tourists. Here are some typical costs:

  • Two-hour local bus from Managua to Rivas, 70 cordoba (£1.80)
  • Cafe lunch of salad and omelette in Ometepe, 90 cordoba (£2.30)
  • 1 night’s dorm accommodation in Granada, 200 cordoba (£5.20)
  • Toña beer, 30 cordoba (0.80p)
  • 1 night’s private accommodation at a B&B on the Corn Islands, 446 cordoba (£12)

When it comes to Nicaraguan culture, I generally found it to be friendly but  pretty conservative. When it was 35 degrees in Leon for example, local girls were wandering around in *actual trousers* and so as tourists clad in shorts,  me and my friends often attracted plenty of stares and whistles, which got old pretty quick. In fact, if you’re a woman planning travel to Nicaragua, get prepared for some of the worst cat-calling you will ever experience in Leon. Sorry.

I also spoke to a local NGO in Leon for an article I was writing and learnt that violence against women and femicide in rural areas, still occurs far too regularly. I went to a feminist rights protest in Leon and discovered that many Nica women are extremely displeased with their government’s protection of women and how the heavily patriarchal society can discriminate against working women and those who are unmarried. So although it’s very safe to travel around solo, female backpackers should be aware of some aspects to the culture.

Here’s what to check out when travelling around though…

Leon
GO FOR: volcano boarding, exploring

A colorful street in Leon, Nicaragua

Leon

The city of León is famed for its volcano boarding – and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like.

For $20-25 you’ll be whisked up to the (dormant) Cerro Negro volcano by a local guide who will provide you with a seriously unsexy boiler suit and show you how to slide down the

But if that’s not your thing, wandering around the colonial city of León will create plenty of photo ops (the yellow Iglesia La Recolección church, for one). And you’ll find plenty of cute cafes, (French bakery, Paz De Luna being the best) and lots of Nica beer flowing freely from the main backpacker hostels, too.

I spent three weeks in León to learn Spanish with the well-run Metropolis Spanish School in the city centre and really enjoyed it.

For $230 a week I received four hours of tutoring with a skilled local teacher, all meals and board with a friendly Nicaraguan family and two local excursions and you can read more about my Nicaraguan home-stay  experience here.

Ometepe
GO FOR: Waterfalls, volcanos, hiking

 Ometepe is an island of outstanding natural beauty that will satisfy your activity fix.
travel to nicaragua
Hotel Omaja’s amazing pool in Ometepe

Accessible from the mainland by ferry, Ometepe houses two volcanoes — and climbing these isn’t for the faint of heart. The largest, Volcano Concepción, will take up to 11 hours round trip, and Volcano Maderas, the smaller, eight hours.

Both cost upwards of $30 to hike with a mandatory guide, but if you’re lazy like me, get a few pictures with the volcano in the background and opt for the almost as impressive San Ramon waterfall trek instead, which is just under 4 miles walking in total.

Ometepe island is deceptively large and it’s a good idea to rent mopeds or motorbikes to explore the whole thing in its entirety. But if you fall off within the first five minutes like I did and get banned from driving one (so embarrassing), almost all hostels and hotels will rent you a bicycle, too.

A backpacker favourite, Ometepe has an abundance of “hippy hostels,” but with all that activity you’re going to want to relax somewhere tranquil and gorgeous, like Hotel Omaja, which is 20 minutes from the waterfall and luxury at a good price.

GRANADA
GO FOR: More volcanos, Lake trips

Buildings rise above the trees in Grenada, Nicaragua

Georgina Lawton

Even though I contracted food poisoning from some street food here (not fun), Granada was a favourite Nica location of mine. I stayed in the very backpacker-y De Boca En Boca, rated the best hostel in the city and loved it because it was cheap and included eggs for breakfast.

With its gorgeous colonial architecture, palm tree-lined streets and a thriving artsy and backpacker community, I found it easy to meet people and arrange really fun activities here.

A night tour of the live Masaya volcano (yep, another one) was epic, as the lava glowed visibly in the dark and I also explored the serene and scenic Lake Nicaragua by boat ($30 for both with English-speaking guides from a company called Allah Tours, in the centre of the city).

CORN ISLANDS
GO FOR: Beaches, partying

Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Travel to Nicaragua wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the crystalline waters and constant sunshine on the Corn Islands.

When you’re done with the mainland, return to Managua for your flights to the Caribbean side of the country, comprised of two islands, Big and Little  Corn. Chilling out is practically mandatory and lobster is available everywhere.

Book your flights with La Costena (around $170 return) and be prepared to completely fall in love with this coconut tree-lined paradise where locals speak Spanish, English, Creole and a local Indian language among the Mestizo people.

Both islands are just now opening up to tourism, but the smaller one, known as Little Corn, is more popular with travellers due to its abundance of buzzing beach bars and barefoot-all-day vibe. (It reminded me of a less commercialised Thai island).

For gorgeous beachfront views and amazing food on Little Corn, stay at the stunning Las Palmeras Hotel, where you’re guaranteed delicious bar food, fun late-night convos with the two Canadian managers and a tranquil swim on their beautiful beach.

Most tourists also head to Desideri for delicious Western and local food in the day and later, kick the night’s partying off at Tranquilo, where the whole island starts drinking before branching off into one or two of the larger ‘clubs’ later.

Big Corn

However, if you like your beaches quiet, you’ve got more chance of having one to yourself on the larger of the two islands, Big Corn, which is inhabited mainly by locals who make their money from fishing lobster most of the year and where tourists often only crash for a night or two.

Diving and paddle boarding is the main tourist activity on Big Corn and can be arranged through the Dos Tiburones dive shop, where the expert instructors will take you out on the crystalline waters and show you a selection of tropical fish.

And for the best food on the larger island, check the traditional Caribbean dishes at Seaside Grill,  Danet’s place, or G&G where you can get lobster or a “ron-don” dish (a Caribbean stew comprised of fish, plantain, shrimp and lobster) for less than £8.

What I wish I did…

  • I never checked out the “Sunday Funday” beach party and pool crawl tour in San Juan del Sur. It has a notorious reputation among backpackers as the best party in the country for tourists, but I didn’t head there.
  • I wish I visited the Surfing Turtle Lodge, just outside of Leon because during turtle season you can help them nest — and that apparently involves setting baby ones free INTO THE SEA moments after they are born!
  • I also wish I hadn’t got stuck on the Corn Islands for so long (actual weeks) because during rainy season, it’s hard to get off! Saying that, there are worse places to pass the time…

When are you going to travel to Nicaragua? Need any tips or fancy sharing your experience?  Comment below!

A version of this article appeared on Elite Daily

As I write this now, a man has plonked himself down on the couch next to me, asking me if I’m new to the area, and what time this cafe  closes.

I can feel my body tensing up, my eyes quickly darting down towards my laptop because I can’t be arsed for the next line of questioning, which I know will inevitably be related to my race.

It always goes this way and I won’t know what to say. Or he won’t accept my answer.  Answering  where are you from?  will satisfy the curiosity. But it won’t make the discussion any less awkward for me, because I don’t have an answer for why I really look the way that I do and I don’t know if I ever will.

My trip to the Dominican Republic in March 2017  came at just the right time. After almost two months of living and working on the Corn Islands, off the coast of Nicaragua (which was slowly gnawing at my soul and driving me to insanity), I was craving a more frenetic pace of living with access to more than one nightclub.

I still wanted a culture infused with Latin and African influences, but I didn’t want to spend too much money  or get island-fever ever again. I needed people and space and a city in which to breathe — even if it was going to be more heavily polluted air than I was accustomed to. So I booked a one-way trip to Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s once-dangerous capital, knowing relatively little about the city or the  country I was planning to spend a month in, but excited all the same.

So you haven’t yet got your Cuba itinerary and you’re not really sure what’s waiting for you on the Caribbean island. So allow me to set the scene…
Retro cars racing through a melting, orange, Havana sunset.
Sultry teenagers tapping their toes to an infectious salsa-beat.
The distant clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage on cobbled streets.
Thick, sweet cigar smoke billowing from the mouths of elderly locals…

Welcome to Cuba.

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