“I think the universe has a way of responding and if your intentions are ‘I want to explore. I want to connect to more of humanity,’ then I think the reward outweighs the risk.” -Ashley Company
Once upon a time Ashley Company was an inexperienced solo traveler exploring Latin America, where she bungee jumped on accident in Costa Rica, found herself with nowhere to stay one night in Nicaragua, and discovered an authentic African town in Colombia. Eventually Ashley made her way to Africa, where she now leads wildly popular travel excursions full of authentic interactions and purpose-driven fun. Listen in for laughs, inspiration and so many useful travel hacks.
Ashley Company is a social entrepreneur who's traveled more than half the world to 100+ countries. As an inspirational author and storyteller, she is known for delivering impactful talks about Black identity, Africa tourism, cultural competence, and women in leadership. Ashley is the founder of Jelani Travel and the non-profit Jelani gives, which curate life changing experiences for Black women and girls, and impact thousands of people across the globe through purpose driven travel.
Today on Travel Itch
[00:00] - Intro
[01:16] - ‘Travel saved me,” breaking a family cycle
[04:06] - Ashley finds out that to travel, she must first go alone
[09:48] - Ashley gets stuck in the rain at night in Nicaragua with no where to stay
[13:00] - Ashley bungee jumps on accident
[16:33] - Traveling Africa can be difficult, Ashley’s sets out to make it accessible
[19:32] - A Kenyan restaurant in North Carolina is her launch point to a new career
[23:14] - Ashley’s ideal Africa travel itinerary
[27:46] - Ashley’ shares 3 of her favorite travel hacks
[30:53] - Bringing to live her travel companies, Jelani Travel and Jelani Gives
[33:39] - What’s next for Ashley Company and her travel companies?
Ashley’s Quotable Moments
“I believe that when we change the way that we see Africa, we can change the way that we see ourselves.”
“I knew that there was more. Once you show somebody that there's something more out there, they have something more to fight for and to be motivated and inspired by. That is why I say travel changed me.”
“I was like, well, if I'm going to go do this by myself then I want to pick the friendliest place in the world. I literally Googled it and it said Costa Rica.”
“I found Afro Mexicans, Afro Peruvians, Afro Ecuadorians. Even though Black people were in all these places, Black Americans were not. I didn’t see one other person like me in all that time I traveled.”
“There are so many things you can do in order to travel without being rich because I've been to over half the world's countries and I'm not rich.”
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ASH: I technically bungee jumped on accident. I did not expect that drop. I did not want that drop. I did not love hearing this six-foot, 300-pound man scream to the top of his lungs that went before me.
VO: Coming up on Travel Itch, travel expert Ashley Company talks about her early days as a traveling newbie, when her spotty Spanish language skills left her swinging from a bridge, when an outdated guidebook left her in the rain with nowhere to stay, and how she turned her passion for adventure into two thriving travel businesses.[:
VO: I’m Jennifer John, the founder of eco-friendly travel wear brand Pang Wangle. Our clothes repel insects so you can have more fun outside, bite free. Welcome to our Pang Wangle Podcast: Travel Itch. Are you looking for adventure, right this way…
JEN We are so glad that you're here with us. Welcome.
ASH:: Thank you so much.[:
JEN: Let's go back to your youth.You developed a love of travel early on. Can you tell us about that?
Ash: Sure. Yes. I'm actually a third-generation military family. My grandparents
were in the Air Force, retired Air Force, and my mom, she retired Army. I also served
eight years in the Army Reserve.[: [:
VO: Adana is a large and growing city in southern Turkey, thirty miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the center of the Turkish cotton industry and sits about 600 miles southeast of Istanbul, near the border with Syria.[:
My neighbors were from Turkey and I wanted to play with them. I was like, seven.
I remember having to learn how to speak in Turkish, at least count to 10 because I wanted to play hide and seek. That's one of my very memorable times where I was like, "This is really interesting. If I want to play, if I want to connect, I have to learn their language." I became really passionate about wanting to connect with people in that way. Some of the ways that I learned empathy, which is a core value in the service projects that we do with my company, happened at a young age, seeing a different side of the world and people who had more economic disadvantages than myself.[:
VO: It takes about three hours to go by ferry from South Korea to Japan. Three ferry lines run back and forth every day.[:
I learned quickly being able to see how people live and the culture ---- I just love traveling,I just love traveling, truly immersive experiences [and] truly immersive experiences.[:
JEN: I read on your blog that you wrote that travel saved you. What do you mean by that?
Ash: My grandmother had my mom at 15 and my mom had me at 18. As a result of teenage pregnancies with limited support, they were trying to figure out a way to break the generational cycle of poverty. The military helped with that with stabilizing paycheck and a career path. It helped to get my grandmother to a better place where she could help my mom. Once my mom had me, she joined the military.[:
ASH: I say travel saved me because without them making that decision and having those duty stations where they had to go to Turkey or Korea, it instilled in me at a very young age to do something different. [03:57] I knew that there was more. Once you show somebody that there's something more out there, they have something more to fight for and to be motivated and inspired by. That is why I say travel changed me.[:
VO: Ashley studied business and landed a big corporate job right out of college. But soon after, in 2012, Ashley’s wanderlust took her in a different direction - and then many different directions.
JEN: Let's go back to your personal travel experiences. You went to college, where'd you go, what'd you major in?[:
ASH: I went to Hampton University in Virginia and I majored in sport management, which is essentially, this is a pretty new major but it's essentially business management with the emphasis on sports. I actually thought maybe I'd start some type of nonprofit helping kids through sports. But once I graduated and I had this really great opportunity for this corporate hire program with Pepsi.[:
I went to working for the first time and you finally have some money. You remember the travel experiences from being a military child, but now you're, "What's a vacation look like?" I remember it was my 25th birthday and I had my two best friends and we had our plans to go to Dominican Republic. Had never been there before we found a good deal for a resort, very excited. I'm 25, the milestone birthday, two days before the trip, they both had to cancel within two or three days. Very legitimate reasons. I still tease them about that to this day, but it was legitimate. They were doing some great things and something came up.[:
I understood, but here I am, I'm running a district in Raleigh, North Carolina in our Carolina's region. Don't know anybody there, this is a big day. I'm like, "Will I just sit in North Carolina? I'm far away from family. What do I do?" I said, okay, I think I'm going to go. I was a little scared, but I'm like I'm going to go because I'll just literally sit on the resort. Even if I don't move a muscle, at least I know I'll be safe because I'm just sitting there. And at least I'm sitting there instead of in my house in North Carolina.[:
So I did. That changed everything because that was my first true time traveling solo. I fell in love with Latin culture. I met friends there who were local. That's why I was like, I got to learn this language just like I needed to learn the language when I was seven in Turkey. Because I really wanted to connect and I just started teaching myself Spanish every day, communicating with the friends I met. That was the first time there on that resort that I learned how to dance salsa. I came back, I took a salsa class I was struggling with some other things and salsa dance really distracted me from that, really supported me and my mental health. I was just really getting into the Latin culture and I was like, okay, I'm coming back.[: [:
VO: The Happy Planet Index ranks Costa Rica as one of the happiest and most sustainable countries in the world. It also has a life expectancy age of 80, which is higher than in the United States.[:
JEN: Wow. On your solo, first of all, deciding to do something solo, that seems– I've never done it. I think that seems like a big decision. Was it simply because you couldn't find anybody who was willing to take a year of their life off with you or did you really want to go solo?
ASH: That's what made me start the company. You ask really good questions. I knew that it wasn't realistic for people to take a year because that's not just, just not America. It's not ingrained in America's culture. People have to work and they don't get a lot of vacation time. I did think that while I was gone, people would meet me. You come, you friend come for a week. You friend come for two weeks or whatever you have, nobody came. I learned two things in that really big travel experience was one that there were literally Black people everywhere. I was well educated, but I missed that part.[: [: [:
VO: But before Ashley built a thriving travel business, she was a backpacking twenty-something with an outdated guidebook, determined to spend a year exploring before going back to school for an MBA.
JEN: When I thought about solo traveling through Latin America, I was like, what if I get to a place and then I realize I don't have a place to stay that night? What do I do?[:
ASH: That happened to me.
JEN: Okay. That's what I'm wondering. There's a lot of serendipity. here's a lot of things moving parts. Tell me about your experience.[:
ASH: When I think about some of the things I've been through, I'm like that probably I don't know that could have been crazy, but I made it through. Even that particular example, when I didn't have a place to stay. Back then before like all of the blogs and definitely for Instagram and everything was going crazy, I was you had to use Lonely Planet or something like that book which that book can be outdated and a new edition is coming out and in the works. If a hostel closes down or something you wouldn't know until you get there. That's essentially what happened.[:
I was on my way from Costa Rica to Nicaragua I was like, "Okay, oh, I'll get on the bus by myself there. I know I'm going to meet more people at the hostel. I did. Even like the guy that ended up sitting next to me, he was like, yes, I'm going to this part of Nicaragua too. We're getting off on the same stop. He was from Belgium and he was really nice. As we got there, we got there at night, it was raining.
I had my Lonely Planet book. I saw he was reading his, he had a newer edition. He saw where I was going. He was like, oh, that's not there anymore. Look in this new book. That's closed down. I'm staying here. You probably want to look at this one. I was like, oh, that looks good. Great. We'll walk together.[: [:
JEN: With you and your new boyfriend.
ASH: Exactly my new Belgium boyfriend. That was a crazy story. He happened to be a perfect gentleman and we had so much fun and he slept on the floor. Calling my mom and explaining that to her, she would have just gone crazy. Even when I look back on it, I'm like, ah, but without that risk, I wouldn't have had the reward to see that he was actually a really great person, just a great story to tell.[:
He was a photographer so we ended up traveling the next day and now we're familiar and he was like, now that we know each other's not crazy, we could actually save money if we move into a double so now that we have two beds, now that they have availability. We actually shared space and walked around and took cool pictures and there was an experience
As you know, there's always just new learnings, new experiences, new possibilities when you can just exercise trust in the universe and in yourself, and then just make sure that it makes sense and then see what happens.[:
ASH: I think the universe has a way of responding and if your intentions are I want to explore, I want to connect to more of humanity. I think the reward outweighs the risk.[:
VO: You’re listening to Travel Itch. Feed your restless soul with stories from around the globe. Brought to you by Pang Wangle. Travel wear that is bug repellent and eco-friendly so you can go far, bite-free.[:
JEN: What was the best adventure you had in Latin America?
ASH: I don't know if I would call this the best, but I think it's interesting that I technically bungee jumped on accident. Anybody who knows me they think I'm so adventurous because, and I am, but not that type of adventure. I don't want to jump off of a perfectly good bridge and I don't want to jump out of a perfectly healthy plane. That's not my thing. My thing is go find a hostel at the last minute in the middle of nowhere, that's my level of risk.[: [: [:
JEN: Tell me about Colombia. Take me there. What does it feel like? What does it smell like?
ASH:The first time I went there was 10 years ago backpacking, but I've since lived there, and so there's mountains. One of my favorite areas is Medellin and there's beach. The people are friendly, the food is good, especially on the coast and I really am drawn by places that are rich in the African diaspora. I'm always fascinated by the resilience and the way that we have been able to keep some of our culture because a lot of it wasn't allowed, to keep our names, to keep our language and so many of our traditions, but some things made it through.[: [:
ASH: I just really want people who are not ready to yet travel to Africa for whatever obstacles they feel and maybe it's too far, the flight is more expensive because it's farther away, come to Colombia because it's truly amazing and you can get a glimpse of it.[:
JEN: I feel like I could talk about Latin America forever, but I know that you're, I guess is it right to say your heart's in Africa?
ASH: Honestly, my heart is with the world. I love to travel, but when it comes to being a world travel expert, when I focus on Africa travel experiences, it's mainly because ----It can be difficult to travel Africa. I've made it my mission to make Africa travel easy,[: [: [: [: [:
JEN: Tell me the story about how you ended up going to Africa the first time?
ASH: I was in North Carolina working and my district was through Chapel Hill and Durham. And I kept passing this Kenyan restaurant, and because I'm always driving through and checking on stores, I would try to figure out, "Okay where I'm going to eat today." I like to try to eat at different places. That definitely came from living in Korea, living in Turkey, things like that. I'm like, "Kenyan?" I had never heard of any African food and hadn't seen any restaurants like that before.[: [: [: [: [: [:
JEN: What would you say was the most eye-opening thing that you saw or did in Kenya?
ASH: The safari experience was incredible, but it was this holistic experience about how we could be in the home of a shanty or a shack and then to see that they would still be just as hospitable to give whatever it is that they have.Those memories left deep impressions. Then we would go into somebody's mansion and it would still be the same offering of like, "Here's your tea. Here are the nuts. Here's the mandazis." It was the same setup. It just looked way different.[:
JEN: I looked at your website and next year you've got eight trips that people can sign up for. If you were going to take us on one of those tours, can you just take us, I'm going with you? Where would you want to take, of one of those eight places and what would we do there, and what's your recommendation for that location?
ASH: Let's see. If you were going–[:
JEN: Pick Seychelles. I'm just kidding. [chuckles] I looked at you're-- I looked it up because I was like, "Wait, I don't know much about this place." I was like, "I need to know about this place." I don't know, I have not been to Africa, so there's a lot to learn for me, but I'd never really thought about Seychelles.[: [: [: [: [:
ASH: There's excursions where you could swim with the sea turtles. There's a full moon party, a beach party that happens depending on the cycle, or the schedule of the calendar. If not, they still party, anyway, on the beach and we do traditional dhow cruises. On the boat, at sunset, have drummers on the boat and you just set sail and then they'll park the boat far off the shore and we can dive and just swim and just have a good time with the music and just each other in connection with each other.[: [: [: [: [: [: [:
VO: Find more of Ashley’s travel hacks, plus pictures from her favorite adventures on pangwangle.com.[: [: [: [: [: [:
JEN: That must be rewarding for you.
JEN: It's like the reason behind everything.
ASH: Yes. It's really why. I'm really focused on helping us reimagine our greatness. I know that there are a lot of ways to do that. There's band camps and sport camps and STEM camps, but I think there's a piece around increasing our cultural competencies that would help just literally-- not to sound cliche, but make the world a better place if we were able to understand and celebrate our differences.[:
JEN: What's next for you and Jelani Travel, and you, Ashley company?
ASH: We have these destinations, we do have a few surprise new destinations that'll be launched soon. I definitely encourage people to follow us on Instagram at Jelani Travel. Then for me, personally, I do have some things in the work that I'm very excited about announcing that's completely out of the box from any of the stories that you've heard already. A new adventure that, definitely, I'll be making that announcement soon. You can follow me at @ashleyncompany_ .[:
JEN: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate you sharing all your stories. Is there any other parting thought that youhave for people who are thinking like, "I would like to travel, but I just can't figure it out?”[: [:
Ashley: We'll be happy to curate an experience for you. I think you would love it!
JEN: I know I would, I know I would. Thank you.
ASH: You’re welcome![: [: