Smiling family standing in threshold of RV door.
Credit: James Jackman
The Way We Eat

Meet Kay Akpan, the Full-Time RVer Building a Safer Community for Black Travelers

updated May 14, 2021
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Name: Karen “Kay” Akpan
Location: Everywhere and nowhere (she’s a digital nomad)
Number of people that eat together in your RV: Three — Kay; her husband Sylvester; and their son Aiden, 8.
Avoidances: Kay hates pineapple and bananas.

How’s this for timing? In February 2020, Kay and her husband Sylvester sold their home in Southern California and bought a recreational vehicle. The plan: Take their son Aiden on an epic American road trip, with no end in sight. 

Then one week later, everything shut down.

“People were freaking out!” exclaims Kay. “Nobody knew what was happening. Mortgage lenders weren’t giving loans; our house could have sat on that market forever, and we’d be stuck paying for it. I was so relieved we didn’t have to deal with that.”

Kay is the digital content creator behind The MOM Trotter, a budget-friendly family travel blog with popular Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube communities. She also co-founded Black Kids Do Travel, an indispensable resource for Black families to share their personal travel experiences. 

Since Kay & Co. were already spending half of the year on the road, visiting countries as varied as China, Cuba, and Morocco, they wondered, ‘Why have a house at all?’ Aiden was accustomed to roadschooling, so the transition to full-time RV life would be fairly seamless.

The family spent the last year tooling around the country, taking pandemic cautions at every turn. They toured Navajo slot canyons in Arizona, kayaked the crystalline waters of Rock Springs, Florida, and romped across gleaming-white gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Usually it’s just the three of them adventuring, but sometimes the family is joined by Aiden’s cousins Milania, Ethan, and Avery. You could say it’s a full house — er, mobile home?

We caught up with Kay at an RV park near Orlando last month to chat about gas station snacks, the kitchen essentials her family cannot live without, and the Nigerian soup her son could eat three times a day.

Credit: James Jackman

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cameroon, but moved to the U.S. at age 14. My mom, my sister, and I had all come on  vacation, because my mom’s sister lived in California. Though my mom and dad still live in West Africa, we decided that I would stay and attend school here. 

Do you have any fond food memories from your childhood?
Yeah, oh my god. I ate all Cameroonian food growing up and that’s most of what we eat now — literally 99 percent African food. My mother made so many good dishes. There was one called koki corn [a Cameroonian take on fresh corn tamales], and another called eru, a vegetable you cook with different kinds of meat. 

Did your mom teach you how to cook?
I learned a lot from watching her, but I also learned a lot watching YouTube videos, crazily enough. And right now I cook a lot more Nigerian food because my husband is Nigerian.

What are some staple dishes you’ve been making? 
Egusi soup. It’s basically pumpkin seeds, but Nigerians and Cameroonians cook it in subtly different ways. When I cook it the Nigerian way, I add tomatoes and bell peppers and fry my egusi in red palm oil. We eat it with fufu, which is like pounded yam. It has a similar texture to a mochi ball. That’s our staple — I always have egusi soup in the RV.

Is it difficult to find the ingredients you need for these dishes when traveling?
My mom actually sends me a lot of [the ingredients]. But when we drive through a big city, we’ll usually stop at an African grocery store and go shopping. 

What are some of Aiden’s favorite foods?
Egusi soup, for sure. He eats it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In fact, it was the first meal he ate after weaning. 

Do you make it in batches and freeze it?
Yeah. I put goat meat in it, tripe, smoked turkey, smoked fish … all those things take a long time to cook. It’s a labor-of-love kind of meal — and really good! You’ve gotta try it.

Credit: James Jackman

Looking back, when did you realize you wanted travel to be such a big part of Aiden’s upbringing?
The minute I gave birth to my son. Really. They placed him in my hands after my C-section and I just looked at him and thought, Wow, it’s my job as a mother to teach him everything. I was so thankful to be able to guide him and show him the world, and to make sure that he understands how important it is to respect people and cultures.

Were you and Sylvester already passionate travelers before you had Aiden? 
We traveled to Europe for our honeymoon, but no. We didn’t really travel. We met, got married … I knew I liked to travel and go places; I just hadn’t done much.

What do you consider Aiden’s first big trip? Or at least the most pivotal?
We’ve been traveling with him since he was six months old; he’s been to 33 countries now, so he’s taken a lot of big trips! And each one has offered us a different opportunity to bond as a family and to learn something new about other cultures. But, okay okay: When Aiden was five, we took him to Cameroon and Nigeria, where he attended school for a week and visited the village where his grandparents live, meeting them for the first time. It was very significant.

Credit: James Jackman

So tell me what first started you on The MOM Trotter path.
When I started The MOM Trotter, Aiden and I were traveling as a family and I was always finding fare deals. I kept getting questions like, ‘How do you guys do it? Travel is so expensive! We can’t afford it.’ I heard that so many times. I’m like, we’re not rich! We barely have any money yet we’re making it work because I’m able to find really cheap deals. So I’m like, if I write this somewhere instead of messaging everybody one by one, people can go on that platform and read about it. That’s how the blog started.

What inspired you to launch Black Kids Do Travel
I was traveling somewhere and asked one of my private Facebook travel groups if it was safe. The group was predominantly white and everybody acted like I was crazy for being worried. It blew my mind. I was so upset. Aiden sometimes asks, ‘Where are all the Black and brown people when we travel?’ So I created this group because I wanted a place for families to connect and share knowledge. 

If you’re going to Orlando and another Black family is traveling to Orlando and you want to connect with them, this is a safe space for you to do that. This is also a place where somebody can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to China with my child. Is it safe? Am I going to be OK? What do I need to know before I go?’ And honestly, I don’t feel like anybody can tell you that unless they’re Black [and speaking] from a Black perspective. Even traveling in an RV right now, there’s certain RV parks we go to and I’m like, ‘I don’t feel safe here. We need to leave.’ I wanted to give people a safe space where they can share those experiences and not be judged; nobody will gaslight them or make them feel crazy for feeling like they do. Having that sounding board is essential. 

What are some things you wonder about a place when you’re thinking of bringing your family there? 
I’m a very open person. Even if somebody says, ‘Don’t go here, because they treat Black people [badly],’ I like to form my own thoughts about a place. And that’s one thing I’ve always taught Aiden: ‘Don’t let anybody tell you ‘don’t go here’ as a Black person or ‘don’t do that’ as a Black person. I want you to experience it for yourself and then be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been here, and this was my personal experience.’ 

For example: I was trying to book an Airbnb somewhere in Scandinavia — I think it was Copenhagen — and every single request was denied for no reason. When I posted about this in my [white-dominant Facebook] travel group, everyone was like, ‘We had no issue booking.’ And I’m like, am I going crazy? But when I posted the same thing to my Black travel group, everybody’s like ‘Oh my god, me too!’ So I’m like, see?! I’m not crazy. 

But did that stop me from going there? No. My husband and I took all four kids — Aiden and our three nieces and nephews — and we had a great time. We met so many amazing people. So yeah. We’re not going to judge a place based on a few people who wouldn’t rent an Airbnb to us. 

Is there anywhere in the world that worries you?
To be very honest, here. We’ve experienced way more racism in the U.S. than out of it. Way more. It’s something we have to deal with while RVing full-time. A lot of Black people message me and say, ‘Hey, I heard you’re driving through this place. Be careful out there.’ It’s true. When we get to an RV park, the first thing I do is look around to see who the neighbors are and if it feels safe. 

Credit: James Jackman

We could talk about travel all day, but let’s get back to food. What’s a typical weekday breakfast?
We don’t really eat breakfast. But if we did, it would be toast and eggs, a croissant, or oatmeal. And Aiden loves Malt-O-Meal and waffles. He is the waffle chef!

Wait, you have a waffle maker in the RV?
Oh yes, we do. He puts on his apron and makes waffles from scratch, topping them with whipped cream.

Wow, I’m impressed. What other kitchen gadgets are you able to squeeze in the RV?
We have a Breville coffee maker, because my husband is coffee-obsessed and grinds his own beans every morning. We have an orange squeezer, because we love fresh orange juice and there’s no compromising on that. And we have an Instant Pot. 

Credit: James Jackman

What’s a typical lunch or dinner?
Rice and stew or something simple like egusi and fufu. We like to eat American stuff, too. We love grilling steaks and whole fish with pepper sauce. I also make my own spice mix with oregano, black pepper, white pepper, onion powder, garlic, and Parmesan. Mmm.

Does anyone in the family have a sweet tooth?
I like desserts more than anybody else. My favorite is red velvet cake, but I just buy that [at the grocery store]. It’s hard to bake in the RV, though sometimes I’ll make cookies. 

Do you have any go-to road snacks, like something you always seek out at gas stations? 
Any snacks we buy come from the African store. We’re very picky about what we eat, so we make sure there is no high-fructose corn syrup and no Red Dye 40 or other food colorings in anything we buy.

Credit: James Jackman

What about drinks — any favorites?
That would be Malta. It’s something we grew up drinking in Cameroon and Nigeria. It’s made by Guinness, but it’s non-alcoholic. My husband loves wine, and we make cocktails with alcohol we buy at Costco. But I’m a lightweight, so I like Mike’s Hard Lemonade. 

Aiden is such a little foodie. He’s reading nutritional labels, which a lot of adults don’t even do. He’s learning how to cook, which he documents through his @kidfoodieboss Instagram. He has clearly absorbed your love of good food. What’s it like as a parent to watch that evolution? 
I wanted him to learn about African culture and the way we eat, so when he was little, we’d only cook African foods at home. But that actually backfired on me because then when I’d travel with him, he wouldn’t eat anything else! I would have to travel with [homemade] food or find an African restaurant. But around three years old, he started loosening up a bit and eating more American foods like pizza.

It’s also important that he sees Sylvester cooking. In most African cultures, men are hardly ever in the kitchen. So I love that he sees my husband in there and knows it’s OK for boys to cook. 

What is Sylvester’s signature dish?
Oxtail stew with tomatoes and bell peppers. It takes him all day and Aiden just loves it. 

So when you travel to a place like China with Aiden, is he open to trying local foods?
He prides himself on trying new things; it’s why he calls himself a foodie. He’s even tried goat head before and tells everybody, ‘Do you know I’ve eaten a goat brain? Goat heart, too!’ [Laughs] Seriously. That’s why I love traveling with Aiden — he’ll eat anything, anywhere, just put it in front of him.

I realize you’re cooking a lot in the RV, especially amid the pandemic, but have you fallen in love with any regional dishes since you started traveling around the country?
Most of the states we’re visiting now — Arizona, Florida — we’ve already visited four or five times. The only thing I can think of is Nashville hot chicken. We had never tried it before and I knew it’s some kind of staple. I ordered the hottest one at Hattie B’s, called Shut the Cluck Up, and the lady looks at me like, ‘Are you sure about that?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I eat spicy food all the time; I’ll be fine.’ Well, I’ll tell you — I was in tears! 

Credit: James Jackman

What are the rest of your travel plans for 2021?
We’ve already done the West Coast so now we’re going to drive up the East Coast, all the way to Maine. 

Anything international, once it’s safe to go?
We want to visit Aruba and the Bahamas. Portugal has been on my mind forever, too. When we traveled to Asia, we visited Macau, which was colonized by Portugal. They have a lot of Portuguese food and speak both Mandarin and Portuguese. It was intriguing. And we definitely want to go back to Cameroon and Nigeria. Those are high on our list. 

When you’re on a long-haul flight like that, do you eat the airline meals or pack your own food?
Oh, we pack so much food. [Laughs] We come prepared with rice, stew, and thermoses to keep everything warm. 

So when you land in a brand-new place, how do you decide where to eat?
Ask the locals, of course. My first question is always, ‘Where do you like to eat?’ Then I say, ‘No, don’t tell me where Americans go, tell me where you go.’ Then that’s where we go!

Thanks so much for talking with us, Kay! Follow her and her family on Instagram.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.