"Still to Find Butter Chicken as Good as Agra's": Ella Paradis

Ella Paradis in Burano, Italy, Photo Credit: heyparadis/Instagram

The writer-editor tells us why she'll back in India despite a negative first experience and why she decided to start a magazine specifically for Black voices

Prannay Pathak
March 13 , 2021
14 Min Read

When the pandemic first struck the world last year, one of the first pressing concerns of those with enough privilege was—how are we gonna travel now? Can't blame anyone, really. With each year that passes, travel becomes more of a cultural phenomenon, a class indicator and the panacea for the crushing side-effects of our generation's obsession with material success.

Quite unsurprisingly, then, there is no dearth of information and content on the internet to ensure that travel keeps getting back on its feet no matter what. What movies to watch, what books to read, what songs to listen to, whose videos to watch—optimism isn't a choice, it's a necessity. Too often, you stop scrolling to read that nice article about five explorers to read about to inspire yourself to be the next Sir Francis Drake. You see names from all over the world—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, James Cook, Charles Lindbergh...

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Even in the case of those closer to us in terms of time, the list is dominated by the members of the Western world. Modern-day travel writing and journalism are comprised mainly of European and American voices or by others co-opted within the same gamut. How often do you read about the prolific explorer Matthew Henson? We may swoon over Amelia Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic—but how many of us know about Bessie Coleman? 

The Black Explorer founder Ella Paradis, on a stop while journeying on Route 66

With the Black Lives Matter movement quickly picking up in the US and also serving as the inspiration for other minority groups all over the world to assert their identities and cultures, we decided to catch up Ella Paradis, a pioneer of the black travel movement—an iceberg whose top is a fast expanding network of black hiking and adventure travel groups. Paradis, just 30, is the editor of The Black Explorer, a unique travel publication that's working to undo the erasure of black exploration and the marginalisation of Black voices in travel. Excerpts:

Do you agree that travel is still largely a privilege? What can we do to address it?
Leisure travel is definitely a privilege. There are many ways that people travel around the world that have nothing to do with leisure, I'd even argue that non-leisurely travel accounts for the vast majority. To be honest, I don't know how to address this. The best thing I know how to do is be grateful for the privilege that I have moving into this world and to give you back as much as I can.

As the editor of The Black Explorer, what do you do differently with each issue that comes out? Is there an established pattern or trend that you constantly seek to upset?
Each issue is built around a central theme that acts as a guiding line for all the content that I commission. The focus is much more narrative. A type of article you will never find in the magazine for example is something along the lines of "The 10 Best Restaurants to Eat at in Paris", there's plenty of that out there already. Rather I look for stories that really give us a look into the person writing them. Travel is often the background of many life discoveries, experiences, realisations and so much more. The way I try to explain it is that, The Black Explorer magazine isn't a travel magazine as much as it is a magazine about travellers. This is not a magazine about destinations, locations, things to do and see. It's about the people that travel, why they decide to make the jump, go, what they pick up on the road, how destinations and experiences change them, add to them, teach them about themselves, change their worldview.

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A post shared by The Black Explorer Magazine (@blackexplorermag)

So all the stories I try to commission all have a very human and personal core. Everything else you learn about a destination or a place along the way is completely secondary. And of course, I exclusively commission Black and Brown writers, because we also need to normalise the face of the traveller not solely being white. Because it's not, and looking at travel media and publications you'd be forgiven to think that it was. 

In an earlier interview, you recall experiencing harassment and negative reception in India. It was deeply unfortunate, but would you like to travel to the country again despite what happened?
When I first came back home from India, I did vow never to return because of how deeply scarring the experience was for me. Over the years, having matured both as a woman and a traveller, I've come to realise that I could have controlled much more of the situations that unfolded during that trip had I been prepared for what was coming. I went to India after my first solo trip around Thailand which, though it had some hiccups, went great overall. So I thought I knew what I was signing up for. But for better or worse, India is like no other place I had ever been to or have ever been to since. It's so insanely unique, vibrant, and loud. 

So now that I know that yes, I will be back in India one day because there are so many wondrous places there that I'd love to experience. I just won't return with the same expectations as before. Plus, I still haven't found a butter chicken as good as the one I tasted in Agra.

Read: India is at the Top of My List: Khyber Khan

Ella takes a dip in the English Channel - near Isle of Wight, United KIngdom

Which places or cities have you found the most accepting — and, of course, safe, as a woman? 
Portugal and more particularly Lisbon is one of the easiest places for me to be and just move around without feeling like I have to constantly be on the lookout or watching over my shoulders. Lisbon is probably the one city I have returned most to, with Florence, Italy coming a close second. These are both cities, where I naturally wake up early and can just walk around unafraid to get lost. That's my favourite way to explore and I love cities and places that make me feel like I can do just that, especially as a Black woman.

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How important do you feel is it to document and extensively cover women's travel stories? 
To me, and probably because I am a woman, it goes without saying that it's important to see my gender and my race reflected in the spaces I move in every day. So for me, there isn't even an argument to be made for just sharing the stories of literally 50% of the world's population. 

The vast majority of my contributors are women and I'm so insanely proud and lucky that they trust me every day to share and amplify their stories. To create a space that values those stories as authentically as possible, for me is a bit part of why I've dug myself into this project. 

I can't speak to how important it is, because the importance can't be measured when something is just an integral part of who you are. The only answer to someone asking why we should be sharing women's travel stories, is why the f*ck not?

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A post shared by The Black Explorer Magazine (@blackexplorermag)

Read: "I Think India Knows How to Welcome Black People"

When and why did you decide to start The Black Explorer mag? 
The idea for the mag is something I had been toying with since 2018 and I had a version of it ready for release for the end of March 2020, but then COVID-19 hit and the lockdown measures started at the beginning of March last year.

At the time, I completely shelved the idea because I thought it didn't make sense to launch a travel magazine at a time when travel was grounded worldwide. But then with George Floyd's murder and all of the emotions it forced us all to reckon with, I needed to do something to deal with those feelings of powerlessness, fear and hopelessness that were drowning me. The world seemed ever hopeless and I was so sad that I couldn't wave a magic wand or something and just fix it, especially for my own, for my people. 

And then I remembered, this magazine I was working on to amplify our voices in this space that I am deeply passionate about. So I went back to the drawing board and started working on it again, but this time not as a cute hobby, but as my form of activism. This was my chance to affect change, albeit in a small sphere, but change nonetheless and I keep working on it in the hopes that some butterfly effect takes places and this little thing I'm doing on my end will eventually lead to some bigger change. I don't know if it will, but I have to hold onto the hope because not having hope is one of the hardest feelings to live through.

Athlete and artist Brooklyn Bell

You just turned 30. Thoughts on spearheading a publication that's quite significant to the state of the world currently?
Haha, I am nervous, scared, terrified even. Every day I question whether I am the right one for the job, I question why I decided to not only do this but also pour everything I have into it. I cry at least twice a week because of the multitude of issues that arise every day, the rejections, the fact that I don't have any experience in the publishing industry and I'm just making it all up as I go and just trusting my gut along the way. I am making an insane amount of mistakes because I don't have the resources yet to manage all of this the way I want to, and of course I beat myself up for not knowing better. The journey is not easy at all right now and honestly, there are days where I wish I could just vanish from existence, just one day I'm here and the next I'm snapped away by Thanos as it were. Hahaha, that's a bit grim, but it's the truth. 

But then I cry it out and get back to work, trying to balance the days where I only manage to read and reply to one email with the days I feel like I'm on roll and manage to get through half of my to-do list. It's all about balance, right?

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A post shared by Ella (@heyparadis)

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Where do you think the world of travel is headed currently with the pandemic still very much a part of the world? 
I think sadly that people in general will have a short memory. Especially now with the vaccines rolling out around the world, people will be excited to get out again and there will certainly be a rush for travel again. Mass tourism will make a resounding come back with all the implications that that has for the world we live in. That said, there are enough of us out there now who have seen and who know that we can't go all the way back to how things were before.

Whether it is in regard to the issues of diversity in travel or sustainability when it comes to travel experiences, there are many more people out there who are making it their priority and life missions to create a better travel industry. And it will be up to us to keep these discussions front and centre as the world slowly starts to find it's footing again. I know I plan on stepping on some necks along the way too.

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