The Black Traveler: Two "Hood Hippies" Started An International Catering Business
Michele Simmons and Eboni Washington decided they were leaving America the night Sandra Bland was murdered. Eight months later, they quit their jobs and moved to Asia, developing their business, Vegan Traphouse, along the way.
We spoke to Michele and Eboni about their experience traveling the world. Here's what they had to say.
Melanin Is Life: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
Michele and Eboni: We are Michele Simmons and Eboni Washington from DC and NY respectively. We call ourselves hood hippies. We like to walk in nature and watch documentaries. We still eat for fun! We genuinely enjoy going to museums and learning the histories of other places. Fun facts: Michele plays five instruments and can sing. We both do poetry at open mics and love dancing. Eboni likes to observe insects and is trying to convince Michele to get an ant farm lol.
Melanin Is Life: Tell EVERYTHING you think people should know about your business. The more the better!
Michele and Eboni: FIrst and foremost, it’s awesome lol. Vegan Traphouse developed organically. We started by cooking Sunday dinners for our friends. It was a really heartfelt endeavor rooted in the desire to see our people thrive. Veganism is important to us and our business is just a reflection of that passion. It wasn’t a money move until we started making money.
Vegan Traphouse is just the two of us so it travels the world with us. We plant a seed in each city we go to. So far we’ve popped up in two countries and done dozens of events since starting a little over a year ago in August 2017. We do pretty much everything from creating our recipes to food preparation and cooking for our events to social media advertising. Most importantly, we really focus on finding the healthiest and most affordable products wherever we go and share that with our customers at our events.
Our first event was a Ladies’ Brunch at our house in Chiang Mai. We had a set menu and between 25-30 people came. After that, most of our business came from people reaching out to us and asking us to take over the kitchen in their restaurants, sell our food at festivals, and catering weddings and parties. We were even the only vegan caterer at a TEDx talk in Chiang Mai. We also wrote, edited, did the layout, and self-published our cookbook, all while traveling and being in grad school online.
Melanin Is Life: What is your philosophy of life? How has traveling and living in other countries while running an awesome business influenced your philosophy of life?
Michele and Eboni: Keep calm and live your best life. It sounds corny and typical but focus on your dream, follow it and try to live in the moment. For us, traveling was the catalyst that helped us become entrepreneurs and this process of starting a business has been transformational, especially without the every two week regular paycheck as back up.
Traveling, the most striking thing we saw that influenced how we live our lives was seeing the number of small, family run businesses in Southeast Asia. After you see women making and selling whole dinners from bicycles and carts you realize that you can use what you have to start your business.
Traveling and living abroad has also tempered us. It helps you really move into alignment and go with the natural flow of things. Culturally, in SE Asia, things move slower and life is more community based. Living here has definitely helped us develop an appreciation for the interconnectedness of people. We need each other to thrive.
Melanin Is Life: What was the “bump this” moment that made you decide to pack up and move to another country? (Please be as detailed as possible. The more raw, the better!)
Michele and Eboni: Eboni was teaching and Michele was a counselor in SE, DC when Sandra Bland was murdered. We decided that we were leaving that night and 8 months later we quit our jobs and in May 2016 we left the US on a plane to Bangkok. We sat down and really talked about what America had to offer and decided it was lacking.
Our safety was at risk. The food was overpriced and poisonous. Them people were spraying our air aka chemtrails. We were unhappy at work because of the poor public school system and the general problems that resound in kids from impoverished inner city communities. We felt like we were doing so much and not doing enough at the same time; burning the candle at both ends, stressed af, all of that. We were spending lots of money on our students trying to make their environments better in small ways. We were also spending exorbitant amounts on weed, wine and food just trying to maintain our emotional stability. We knew it was too much but we were determined to stick it out. We could see the differences that we were making but when we compared small incremental changes to what really NEEDED to happen in the hood we were frustrated.
Before we left, we had been in the process of pitching a non-profit program that focused on suspended students and also applying for grants. Sandra Bland was the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak; her death was where institutional racism and brutality battered the desire for growth and progress. What it symbolized to us was that racism in America wasn’t our cross to bear or problem to solve. It was something to be escaped. We went from in the trenches to out of the country in less than a year. It was that sudden.
Melanin Is Life: What country do you currently live in? What was your first impression when you arrived in that country?
Michele and Eboni: Vietnam and we loved it as soon as we touched down in Saigon! The vibe in HCMC is similar to the vibe up and down the east coast at home. People were extra friendly and curious in a way that wasn’t offensive or annoying. It’s one of the first times as an Afr-Amer traveler that Michele allowed people to touch her hair other than the kids in Thailand when we were teaching. We liked it immediately. It gave us ratchet feels lol. We felt at home. We had a similar feeling when we landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Our second favorite SE Asian country.
Melanin Is Life: Many people believe that living in another country is expensive. How do you afford to live in another country? What do you do for money?
Michele and Eboni: HAHAHAHA!!! Getting to another country is expensive but living in it is most certainly not. We really want to help dispel that notion. When we eat out, we order ridiculous amounts of food and probably spend about 20 usd for five different entrees and an appetizer.
Our rent in Chiang Mai was 400 usd a month for a fully furnished two bathroom, two bedroom, two kitchen house with a yard and carport. Our water bill, and we love a long hot shower and were cooking for folks, was never even 10 usd a month. Our rent in Vietnam is 330 usd for a whole apartment, with a bathtub and kitchen. We can afford to live in other countries because life is affordable most places overseas lol.
What about money? We work. We are full time entrepreneurs but before that we taught English online and did private tutoring. We have friends with real regular jobs though like secretaries, etc… A major misconception is that you have to be wealthy or you have to teach but whatever skill you have in the US can be valuable overseas. Are you a nurse? They got hospitals. Sanitation? They got trash, plenty of it actually. You wanna sing? There is a bar and band and some dollars out here just waiting for you to come collect them. It is not impossible to find work abroad if you don’t have passive income and aren’t interested in teaching.
Melanin Is Life: How did the Vegan Traphouse start?
Michele and Eboni: Our non-vegan friends kept telling us that if they could buy our food they would eat healthier. Literally, almost every time we cooked, someone told us that we should sell our food. So, we did.
We had been calling our house the Traphouse because we are unapologetic and proud of being from urban areas like DC and NY and also, because we have natural business acumen and are multi-talented. We started it as a joke in juxtaposition to our friends’ spot called the Healing House where they have an Open Mic every Friday and the vibe is real earthy. Dinners at our house were definitely different. We played trap music or go-go, reggae and afro-beats. #issaparty We take that vibe wherever we go and people started to expect it plus our food is good. Once word got out, Vegan Traphouse as a business really started to morph and grow.
Melanin Is Life: What has been your experience with running a business while living outside the country. How do you do it?
Michele and Eboni: This is our first business separate or together. The learning curve is real but it’s been awesome. We’ve discovered a multitude of talents not related to cooking. Being overseas you really learn to rely on yourself but also when to ask for help. It’s a balancing act. It’s also important to be aware of the laws regarding doing business in other countries so that you don’t end up getting fined and losing money.
We’ve really learned to trust ourselves and follow our instincts. It has also helped us to better communicate as a couple and helped us learn to be assertive and really speak up for ourselves without getting angry or taking the actions of other people personally. We’ve run into a few scammers abroad and they are more ruthless than the scammers at home because they think that you don’t have any recourse but we’re resourceful and it really is a matter of listening to your heart and trusting your gut.
On a more mundane level, we budget our time and money wisely. We often put our earnings right back into our business, especially in the initial phases and when we were completing the cookbook. You just have to make the decision that a successful business is what you want and go get it.
Melanin Is Life: It’s your first day in a new country. What’s the first thing you do after you’ve settled into your accommodation? Why?
Michele and Eboni: We generally already know where and probably even what we are going to eat before we touch down. So honestly, after we sage our new space, we find the weed and nearest natural or historic attraction. Eboni was diagnosed Lupus and Glaucoma so it is very necessary to find marijuana first because it’s an important part of her health regime. We’ve been in situations without it and her health suffers for it so we’ve learned to prioritize finding it while traveling.
If we haven’t done a lot of prior research on the city or country, after we hit the J, we watch a documentary about the country and hit the streets. Maybe find some vegan snacks next and find out how to kick it with the locals. It’s a part of being hood hippies and it helps us to feel at home no matter where we are.
Melanin Is Life: What is a day in your life like?
Michele and Eboni: As Russell Simmons would say, “Don’t do shit before you meditate.” We meditate and drink water every single morning. After that, every day is different. Sometimes our days are active and exploratory. Sometimes they’re contemplative and meditative. Other times we are in a creative rush making ads and recipes. Other times we are running around trying to create online content for our YouTube channel and social media pages. It just depends. We aren’t really schedule people so we go with the flow.
Melanin Is Life: Traveling can be scary for some people. Have you ever been nervous before or while traveling? If so, why were you nervous and how did you get over it?
Michele and Eboni: For both of us, the first trip to Phrae, Thailand, where we taught for 11 months, was a bit nerve wracking. It was a 12 hour van ride through the mountains of Thailand. We discussed what we would do if this teaching position turned out to be a guise for human trafficking. We were ready for anything lol. It helped to alleviate the nervousness because we had each other but we can’t stress enough how much you need to be attuned to your higher self and your instincts.
A lot of the time, especially when doing something new, our brains start to relay old programming scaring us with everything that could go wrong. Check in and ask yourself: Why are you nervous? Are you safe? Take a second to breathe and remember the reasons why you want to do what you are doing.
Melanin Is Life: What advice would you give someone who is nervous about traveling somewhere they have never been?
Michele and Eboni: Don’t be. Take a few deep breaths. Ground yourself. Stay present. Keep it moving. And if you need help, just ask. We’ve met some of the nicest people while traveling. People have helped us that didn’t even speak our language. We had to learn that it’s ok to talk to strangers overseas. Also, remember that English is a universal language. Most of the time someone nearby speaks English or they know someone that does and will be ever so proud to show it off and help you out. Just smile and start talking. The point is no need to be nervous, help is closer than you think.
Melanin Is Life: While traveling and/or living in another country, what have you discovered that shocked you to the core?
Michele and Eboni: I don’t know if anything has shocked us to the core. When you understand the nature of the societies that we’ve all been born into it’s hard to really be shocked. We’re concerned about the pervasiveness of anti-black beauty standards. We felt informed and further dissociated from the US when we learned more about the American War aka The War on Vietnam. We were both disarmed and enlightened by learning about the sheer multitude of fatal accidents abroad.
But the most alarming thing was for sure finding out that majority of the chicken in the United States, specifically to KFC, gets shipped to the US from Thailand. That’s a 24 hour flight from SE Asia where food safety standards are non-existent. Majority of the bathrooms in Thailand don’t have hand soap or toilet paper but they are allowed to fly your food in on a cargo plane that ain’t nobody inspecting. The rats and bugs in Thailand are mutant size by the way. Let that marinate. We’re good luv. Enjoy.
Melanin Is Life: Tell us about your BEST travel experience.
Michele and Eboni: In June 2017 we toured Cambodia. It was our second time in Cambodia but we wanted to see more of the country this time and we planned on meeting up with some friends at the beaches in Sihanoukville. We decided to make our way from the top to the bottom. We saw five cities in two weeks.
We landed in Siem Reap, rented e-bikes and drove to and all around Angkor Wat. We ate some bomb ass food at Vibe Café and an Italian vegan-friendly restaurant with terrible cheesecake but incredible lasagna. After that we went to Battambang where there is a huge statue of revered black man in the middle of town. We were traveling during their election time so we witnessed protests and learned more about the “post” Khmer Rouge government and finally really grasped the generational oppression of the Khmer people since the Killing Fields. The energy was indescribable. We saw old women with determined faces and jaded disinterested youth. It was unforgettable.
After Battambang, we went to Phnom Penh. We love Cambodia’s capital city and always enjoy numerous extra happy mango smoothies at Happy Pizza. Our next stop was the beach where we met up with our two homegirls, beach hopped, sunbathed, blew it down and were just generally lit before heading back up to Kampot. Kampot is a very small town with the best pepper in the world, certified. We spent about 100 dollars for a few grams but it’s worth it. It’s like somebody seasoned and marinated the pepper before they put it in your food. We had never had anything like it. We tasted it the first time we went to Cambodia and we knew we had to have it. We were only in Kampot for an evening before we headed back up to Phnom Penh to catch a flight back to Chiang Mai, our home base at the time.
It was hectic and amazing. We had some of the best food and saw some of the most beautiful places. Hands down our best travel experience.
Melanin Is Life: Tell us about your absolute WORST travel experience.
Michele and Eboni: We knew we were going to crash. We were in a van flying up a mountain. We were so tired and on our way to an English camp in Chiang Rai, a city in northern Thailand. We didn’t talk about it until afterwards but we were both thinking the same thing. We are going to crash. We sat, riding silently, swerving and speeding up a mountain road with no railing. We crashed.
Michele flew into the aisle and got sandwiched between the van door and the seats. Eboni flew into the seat in front of her, barely missing the tree that had penetrated the windshield and was now inside of the van. The driver had swerved off of the road to avoid hitting the car ahead and flipped the van over onto its side. The tree stopped us from tumbling down the side of a mountain. Every passenger was hurt. Multiple ambulances rushed passengers to the nearest hospital. We were lucky. Eboni was scratched up and sore. Michele dislocated her shoulder and took the next six months to recover.
The lesson we learned though was to always follow your instincts and speak up. The next time we were in a situation, we asked the bus driver to slow down. When he didn’t, we got off and found a private taxi. After that, let’s just say we decided that we wouldn’t do anymore bus or van transportation around Thailand.
Melanin Is Life: What are your top 3 travel tips for blacks living outside the US?
Michele and Eboni:
- Be prepared to get stared at. Don’t get too angry or it can ruin your trip and it happens ALOT. Enjoy your moment of celebrity. Smile and wave.
- Get a passport card. Make multiple copies. Anything can happen especially when you are moving from place to place.
- Walk. It’s the best way to see and absorb the place that you are in. And when in doubt, if the locals are doing it, do it too.
Melanin Is Life: What are your top 3 travel tips for blacks thinking about starting a business?
Michele and Eboni:
- Use what you have. Don’t wait for more capital or more resources. You don’t need to go into debt trying to start. It’s ok to start small and grow.
- Look outside of your circle of family and friends for support or validation about your new venture. Maybe even make moves in silence. It’s more harmful than you realize to share your dreams with people who may not believe in them as strongly as you do.
- Progress can be a slow process. Don’t give up. And know that traveling can be the catalyst to finding your passion and monetizing it so just go.
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Melanin Is Life: How do you meet people when traveling?
Michele and Eboni: Randomly to be totally honest. We try to go out and be social but we are both fairly introverted so it doesn’t always happen that way. Most often, we find that people who are of like minds just vibrate over to us. Since traveling, we’ve met all of our friends just being out and about. It’s been totally organic. Also, travel groups are important. S/O to Blackpackers Connect in SE Asia. We also try to go to black events whenever we see them posted online or around town to try and fellowship with some beautiful brown people.
Melanin Is Life: What would you tell your younger self about traveling & starting a business?
Michele and Eboni: Study abroad. Do it now and don’t allow anyone to scare you away from accomplishing your goals.
Melanin Is Life: Have you ever been homesick? What motivates you to continue traveling and/or living in another country?
Michele and Eboni: We don’t really get homesick. There’s an app for that lol; Between Facetime and Facebook and Skype we can see everybody. We’re nomads who cherish each city and each different cultural experience. There isn’t a single place on earth that we don’t want to visit and that’s what keeps us motivated. Once we started we were like, “Oh...we bout this travel life.” The more you travel the bigger the world gets because you realize just how much there is to see. We miss people from home but we really hope that one day they miss us enough to come visit us.
Melanin Is Life: Is there anything else you think people should know? Tips, hacks, advice?
Michele and Eboni: Travel light and know what your essentials are. For us it’s herbal supplements and oils because we focus on our physical and spiritual health but it is different for everybody. Www.happycow.com is the best site for vegan and vegan friendly restaurants in literally every part of the world. Facebook groups are much better search engines for finding long and short term rentals for the low while traveling and when moving from country to country. Facebook groups are actually probably one of the better resources for finding ANYTHING that you need while overseas.
Melanin Is Life: Where can people find you? What’s your website and/or social media handles?
Michele and Eboni:
FB: Vegan Traphouse
IG: @vegantraphouseofficial, @vegantrapqueen_eb, @vegantrapqueen_chele
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