How I Budget To Travel The World

As my six months of backing in Latin America wrap up, I thought I’d start sharing ways I can afford to travel. I used to make money blogging on the side, but now I don’t do that because I’m over paying taxes on already low pay that most bloggers deal with. Now I fund my travels with credit card points, and I wanted to share how I do it with you. I’ll start with the number one question I’ve been asked during my trip:

“How have you not run out of money yet?”

Two things:

  1. Much of the time, I don’t use money. I use credit card points.
  2. Travel is my #1 priority, and my budget reflects that

On my 6 month backpacking trip to Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico, I spent less than $6,400. That might seem like a lot, but at $700 a month to live with four roommates in a house in the outskirts of Washington DC, in 6 months, I would have paid $4,200 just to EXIST with a roof over my head-which is exactly what I used to do. Now I work as a tour guide in the summers and don’t pay rent because I travel so much for work that it would be a waste of money (unless I owned my place, and I haven’t found a city where I would invest that kind of housing in yet).

So, back to points. I racked up 50k points by opening the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and Capital One Venture cards, and 40k with the United Explorer Card as well as with the American Airlines AAAdvantage Citi Card. All of those cards came with no annual fees in the first year, and I was able to reach the minimum spending limits for those bonus offers through my work expenses that I’d get reimbursed for.

During my trip, I made sure to use my points selectively. I’d scour different websites from Airbnb to Hotels.com to my Chase Sapphire Rewards portal to see which hostel would be the cheapest to stay in. I rarely stay in hotels with my points because you can go so much farther with your points by staying in dorm rooms in hostels.

In terms of budgeting, every night, I enter my expenses into a detailed spreadsheet, and I’d round the dollar amounts up to the nearest dollar so that my bank account would always have more money than it would according to my spreadsheet. It’s a low pressure activity at the end of the day that lets me reflect on my spending, and let’s me think about whether or not that crop top I bought was worth $10 (yes, yes it was). I’m not good at sticking with fixed budgets. Initially, I intended to spend $600 a month on my trip, but I only reached that goal once in Colombia because my Couchsurfing host let me stay for several weeks at her house, so I didn’t spend much on lodging that month. Colombia is also an affordable country compared to Uruguay or Chile, and the people are the most welcoming of any country I’ve been to. It’s my favorite country, with Mexico coming in at a close second because of my cultural ties to Mexico.

char

I still enjoy the consistency of entering my expenses at night, and I check my bank account and credit card account daily because it gives me a sense of control over my finances. That’s just me, though.

So, what about those four credit cards I opened last year? Stay tuned for how I decided which card to pay an annual fee for.

A Love Letter to Bogotá

Ah, Bogotá. 

Every day, the thought of your cloudy skies and rainy streets permeate my mind. I never thought either of those things would appeal to me, not now they’re forever preserved in amber in my memory.  

In July of 2016, I flew into you, not knowing much more about you other than the fact that you’re bursting with about eight million people.

The hum of Pillar Point’s Dove oozing from my headphones, I gazed out onto the hazy, emerald mountains outside my scratched, undersized window. I’d watched Kia Labeija voguing through Bogotá each day before visiting you, each time my soul building with anticipation to wander La Candelaria’s cobblestoned streets. 

 

I couldn’t wait to see your jarring contrast of skyscrapers and Montserrat’s looming presence with my own eyes. I wanted to feel as free as the uncaged Kia.

As soon as I arrived, I felt disoriented. Which way was North? I wondered countless times. My obsession with order was flipped on its head. I’m usually quick to orient myself, but with mountains on all sides, it was hard to do so.

Which way is up? I might as well have wondered. I was vulnerable in a most basic sense, but I’ve learned to grow from this discomfort.

I was nervous and thrilled, but with you, this excitement was different. I’d returned somewhere I’d never visited. I felt as if you’d been waiting patiently for me all these years, trusting I’d walk in the door eventually. Like a dormant volcano whose crater filled with water over millennia, you basked in waiting.

What was the rush?

I’d meet you in due time. Now, as I write this, I realize how much I miss you. I miss the cool air that put my blankets to use. I miss wearing jeans without sweating and layering my clothes. I miss the peppery smell emanating from food carts selling warm empanadas.

“Beef or chicken?” the vendor asked me.

“Mmm…One of each, please. Oh, and do you not have salsa?”

“Como no,” he said, and he placed the magical ingredients in a brown paper bag.

I felt inspired during the Bogota Graffiti Tour. I’d learned of the artists from Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand who’ve made this place their second home, and now I wanted to join them.

 

 

A Reptilian monster wrapped itself around buildings’ unassuming walls, and an indigenous woman looked to the sky, averting her gaze from us mortals. I’d learned of the artist the police had shot, then of the subsequent police barrier protecting Justin Beiber while he stained your walls. Once the police left, your artists reclaimed your wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved the atmosphere of change. Of recuperation from trauma of a violent, capitalist-driven cocaine trade. Just like with any trauma, I’ve never completely recovered from mine. I constantly seek to explore my traumas and the effects they’ve had on me, and writing has been my saving grace in that process.

Bogota-Street-Art

On your walls, people explore their traumas or those of humans no longer with us. This homeless man was beaten to death and one artist commemorated him.

I was only there for three days, yet I was blessed with being able to queer it up during the LGBTQ Pride Parade. Just like Pride in Managua, Nicaragua, you haven’t sold out to corporate interests. Instead of free t-shirts, I got kisses on the cheek from new friends. We floated past the rainbow banners in between patches of sunlight that the skyscrapers’ granted us. I took my sweater off and put it back on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I danced the night away at the immensely fabulous gay club, Theatron, then on the taxi ride home, I fell into darkness. It could’ve happened anywhere, and I’ve learned just how resilient I am since it happened.  

I wanted to stay. You know, I really do love museums. It’s how I get to know a place intimately. I wanted to dive further into you, to explore your history in its glory, sadness, and tumult. I still want to know you. I felt the heaviness in my heart one feels when they’re not ready to leave a place. This feeling reminds me of Iranian author Azar Nafisi’s words about leaving:

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place… like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” – Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

I miss who I was when I was with you, Bogota. Now you know. I can’t wait to explore you again.

Love,

Char.

I’m as Migratory as a Monarch Butterfly

Dear friends,

I wanted to share a journal entry I wrote in 2011 during a family visit to Morelia and Leon, Mexico. While I’m a little late, the message of migration still rings true, and most importantly, of embracing change. I’ve been back to Mexico a few times since, and one of the things I look forward to the most is staying with my grandma and enjoying her company and the delicious tacos, menudo, and pastries of León, Guanajuato.

When I think of my top ten favorite places in the world, I think of her kitchen. It’s a place where we can sit and peruse her family albums. It’s during one of our memory recovery sessions that I found one of my favorite pictures of my family (the cover photo). Having albums is a tradition I wish my generation continued with as well, but with facebook, we’re leaving our memories online, and who is to say they will be preserved there forever?

 

 

 

 

I’m dedicating this post to the Monarch butterflies which I was lucky enough to see in the state of Michoacan in November 2016. I was born in Morelia, Michoacan, but it wasn’t until I finished my Peace Corps Nicaragua service at age 26 that I ventured by land up to Mexico to finally witness the millions of butterflies swarming around and coating the trees in what at first glance looked like leaves–but no, they were butterflies.

 

 

 

Change has always been a part of my life. At three, I emigrated to Washington State. At 17, I moved across the country to Boston because that’s where it was the cheapest place for me to go to college. At 18, I came out as a lesbian. At 21, I became a U.S. citizen. At 24, I moved to Nicaragua. At 27, I swam at the edge of Victoria Falls, hiked Table Mountain in South Africa, and finally ran on Ipanema Beach in Brazil. I underwent top surgery due to gender dysphoria and am exploring the fluidity of my gender identity.  2017 was scary, but it taught me so much and I learned that I have much to look forward to. This month, I just took the GRE (after 6 years of self-doubt) and am considering getting an MBA.

 

This year will be just as stressful as it is exciting. I know it. The butterflies remind me of how easily they accept change and migrate with this intense, innate sense of purpose that I like to think that I share with them. My goal is to just accept things for how they are, and not as they should be, just as the Monarch butterflies do.

Enjoy!


December, 2011

I flew to Mexico and arrived in Morelia, Michoacan my birth town, at about midnight. Finally. It had been two years and I’m always restless to go back to Mexico. I stayed there for about 4 days and saw family, hiked, and basked in the sun that I missed so much. It was hard to believe that the beating, hot sun down here is the same one that teases us in Boston, where it begins to set at 3:30 pm.

One restaurant that stuck out to me was the San Miguelito, where my aunt and cousin went. It’s famous for basically being a museum to San Antonio, the saint that women turn over so that they can find boyfriends. There was even a life-sized one there, turned on its head, accompanied by several advertisements of women seeking good men to marry. All of my photos of the place seem annoyingly upside down. I looked at the menu and decided to try Huitlacoche, which is the cooked fungus that grows on corn. It’s a delicacy there, but after a bite of some in my quesadilla, it tasted and looked just like cooked spinach.

The day before I left, I took a stroll past the huge aqueduct through the historic downtown, which has been around since the 1500s. I really missed the concept of a town plaza where people go to sit and relax, as they listen to the constant flow of water ebbing from the fountains-or children crying loudly, asking their parents to buy them that unnecessarily large sized tweetie balloon. I was basking in the 70 degree weather, and everyone could tell I was not from there because I was making a conscious effort to sit in the sun while they wore their hats and long sleeved shirts. “No, I’m not cold,” I’d say to them. “Your winter is my summer!”

Then came the bus ride to Leon. I thought I loved to recline in my seat but these Mexicans had me beat. Halfway there, I turned and saw half of them knocked out, reclining one after another like dominos. There was a movie about a cave playing (the only actor I recognized was the man who blew the whistle at the end of Titanic in search of survivors) but I lost interest after the only female lead died. How Wellesley (my women’s college) of me.

My favorite part of the 2.5 hour long journey to León is the ride over Lake Cuitzeo. It’s this large expanse of grayish blueish water teeming with white herons all over it, and the road glides right through the middle of it. The environmental studies side of me wonders how badly contaminated it is at this point, as there weren’t many fishermen out there at all.

I should stop here in order to describe León in its deserved detail, but I’ll leave with one thought. This morning I heated up my egg, tortilla and salsa and broke my fast with abuelita (grandma). Somehow the topic of the monarch butterflies emerged, and she marveled at the way in which four generations of them migrate each year from Canada to Michoacan (the state I was just in).

She lamented at the fact that deforestation is leaving them with less places to land, and how blood has been lost over the land that these creatures deserve to call home. On a brighter note, she asked me “¿Como deben saber a donde ir, año tras año, desde Canada hasta aqui?¿Que maravilloso, no?” (“How do they know where to go, year after year, from Canada all the way here? Isn’t it marvelous?”).

Well, the monarch butterlfies are just like me, I thought. They always just want to come back to Mexico.

I don’t know why, but I’m as restless as any one of those Monarch butterflies to leave the North for a while and join family here and there, and ultimately to stay at my grandma’s house for a while. I thought by now this urge would die down, but it seems just as strong as ever.

 

 

My First Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I hope this works. I hope this works!

I held up my Smithsonian contractor badge to the National Museum of African American History’s guards, expecting to be turned down. I passed through the staff entrance, and the second guard waved me in to go ahead.

FINALLY.

I was glowing.  Washington, D.C. has been my home for two months, but I still couldn’t get a ticket. I was allowed to be inside, at last! How competitive is it to get into this museum that opened in in September of 2016?

Well, here’s part of their “things to know” part of their website:

“Same-day, timed passes are available online only, beginning at 6:30 a.m. daily.  A limited number of walk-up passes are available at the Museum on weekdays, beginning at 1 p.m.”

I’ve heard friends mention how lucky they were not only go be able to get a timed ticket, but to be able to take time off work in order to do so. Tour buses load people here every day, and I can only imagine how much in advance they must reserve their tickets.

So, how did I get in? Since I’m giving walking tours at the American History Museum, I have a Smithsonian employee badge that grants me employee access (and a sweet discount at the gift shops and food courts!).

I’d finally made it after weeks of cycling past with my bike tours, only being able to explain the NMAAHC’s design from the outside. Tourists cannot help but wonder what this building is, its corona-like, multilevel design and brown color standing in stark contrast to the white monuments. Even the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is made up of a Chinese, white stone (of hope).

Sir David F. Adjaye, a Ghanaian British Architect, modeled The NMAAHC’ after crowns worn by the people of the Yoruban culture. Step closer, and it looks as if each panel is carved in the most intricate way. It reminded me of the intricate design that gates have in Mexico. They are ornate and functional.

The museum closes at 5:30 daily, and since I’d just gotten off work, I only had two hours. I began my visit at the the amazing Sweet Home Café, and as I expected, I had to wait in line. This museum is still so crowded that they can only let in a few folks at a time. Luckily, the menu was waiting outside with me as I decided what to get. There was regional food from places like the Creole Coast: Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S.C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso. There was corn bread and there were collard greens.

Sweet-Home-Cafe

I went with The Agricultural South’s BBQ pork sandwich, slaw, pickled okra, baked mac & cheese, and a lemon bar.

I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be alone for long. I walked my tray over to a table in the middle of the huge cafeteria. As I bit into my mac and cheese, Franklin E. McCain’s piercing gaze met mine. His seriousness under his thick, black rimmed glasses reminded me that while yes, I was here to enjoy the food, that I shouldn’t take my decision to sit wherever I wanted to for granted.

Greensboro-sit-in-nmaahc

Franklin was one of four African American college students who, in 1960, sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but after being rejected, they didn’t budge. Their passive resistance sparked a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South-and the world.

Soon enough, an older African American couple with hot dogs and orange Fantas on their trays sat down with me. I was frustrated by the fact that while this café had a variety of Southern comfort foods on display, hot dogs were the most affordable, filling items on the menu for them. The older woman and I started talking about the prices. She said “Can you believe it costs $7 for two sodas? Do you know how many sodas I could buy at the grocery store with that?”

I felt comfortable yet unsure of just exactly how accessible this museum really was. Maybe they have to offset the costs because this is a free museum, after all. One reason I love the Smithsonian Institute is that their initial endowment was given with the assurance that they would continue the dissemination of knowledge and that this would be free to the public-forever.

Soon enough, the granddaughter, who was in town for an interview, came and sat with us. I told her this was my first time here, and she mentioned the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which is also one of the country’s 19 Smithsonian museums. Her mom rolled grandma up on her wheelchair and offered everyone yams, green beans, and fried fish on little plates. They were from North Carolina, D.C., all over. I could relate to them on that level.

It was nice to sit and chat with a family while enjoying rich, stick-to-your ribs food. “Who wants some potato salad?” Mom said, as she looked at me, and only me, knowing I’d accept. I giggled and spooned some on my plate, mentioning that I was not on a diet.

I only had an hour to explore, and the suggested I start from the bottom floor (there are two floors below and three above ground) because the journey begins with the slave trade and is, needless to say, an emotional one. I was already feeling so many different emotions just while enjoying a sandwich.

As I walked down the elevator, I saw something I thought I’d never see in this museum: Just another white, teenage boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt. Other than the sweatshirt, he looked like just another boy on a field trip. What is he doing here? Did his teacher make him come? What is he thinking? I was confused, then relieved, that he was at least in a space like this that would hopefully make him question what the phrase on his sweatshirt even meant, once he’d realize that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 609 slaves.

As a guard lowered myself and other guests down in an oversized elevator, he dismissed us with “I hope you have a kleenex. You’ll need one!”

And so, the journey began, past the miniature shackles used for children crossing the Atlantic-if they survived at all- and into Brazil, Jamaica, Virginia…

Nmaahc-slave-trade-women

“I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” -William Cowper, you just explained Colonialism in a nutshell.

Then came the exhibit on the American Revolution. For the first time, I’d seen an image of Boston King, a former slave turned Loyalist soldier. That’s how both the British and Americans recruited black men–by offering their freedom, if they didn’t die from smallpox or musket fire. It was so powerful to see images of men like Boston and Crispus Attucks (this runaway slave was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, which partially led to The American Revolution) being represented along with the countless other images of white men serving in the war that we’ve all seen.

Boston-King-British-Loyalist

Boston King, a former American slave-turned British Loyalist who, after fighting in the American Revolution, peaced out to Canada then Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown.. Painting by John Singleton Copley.

The next room was one of my favorites. It exposed Thomas Jefferson’s faults. While, yes, he was an intelligent white man, inventor, Vice President, writer, and more, he also owned slaves. He wasn’t as enlightened as we think. Presidents would continue to hve had slave ownership up until Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, the general who helped the Union win The Civil War owned a slave at one point in his life. I knew Jefferson had slaves, but I hadn’t known that the children he’d had with one of his slaves (starting when she was 17), all inherited the same title as their mother. All men aren’t created so equal, are they?

As I was processing this, a young black girl stood between her mother and a glass case with shackles for slaves inside of them.

“Those were to make sure that the slaves wouldn’t escape” the mother explained to her little girl. “They even put them around their ankles?” she asked, innocently. “Mmhmm, even around their ankles,” mom said, cooly.

As a white presenting Mexican with a white presenting Mexican mother, I would never have been able to feel that sense of “This could have been me” in the way that this mother and her daughter probably felt and were used to feeling.

I barely made it to the section with Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in bringing slaves up North through The Underground Railroad, when a guard told us the museum was closing. I hadn’t even made it past this floor before it was time to go. So, just like everyone else, I walked intentionally slowly so that I could savor my final seconds in this revealing place.

Finally, the National Museum of African American History’s was giving me what I needed: Real Talk. Real History. I’ll be back for more.

Featured image of the NMAAH by Flickr user cmfgu.

5 Couchsurfing Tips Solo Women Travelers Need

Featured image credit to Pixabay

Are you a solo woman traveler who is thinking about Couchsurfing? First, let’s break down what Couchsurfing is.

According to Urban Dictionary, Couchsurfing is:

“What someone who can’t afford rent on their own and/or can’t find roommates quick enough does when they are “between” places.”

While yes, not having to pay is a great perk, Couchsurfing is so much more than finding a place to crash for free. It’s a site for meeting and staying with locals all over the world. This was a great way for me to meet people while traveling on a budget in Colombia. I’d only met up with one person through Couchsurfing before, in 2009. I’d I met up with a family of Chicano descent in Bakersfield, California. The father, Jesus, had found me and invited me for dinner with his family because his oldest daughter was thinking of going to Wellesley College, my alma mater. She didn’t end up going, but her younger sister did (and won the hoop rolling tradition).

Couchsurfing was one of the best choices I made while traveling in Colombia, and I was very intentional about how I used the site. Here are my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers (or anyone else who finds them useful) and here’s how I applied them to make wonderful friends in Cartagena, Colombia. I even stayed an extra day with them and missed out on the biggest lesbian-themed night of the Pride Festival in Bogotá (I’d queer it up in Bogotá eventually, anyway!). Follow my advice for the best experience.

cartagena-couchsurfing

1. Post on a Facebook Couchsurfing group.

Since people are more likely to be checking Facebook than Couchsurfing, most large cities have active Facebook groups. I introduced myself, said I was traveling alone, and was looking for people to meet and a place to stay for three days. Shortly enough, the group’s leader invited me to a language exchange meetup. One woman my age named Angie, who lives in Medellin and was visiting a friend in Cartagena also replied to my post. She invited me to join her and her friends at Playa Barú (La Playa Blanca), which is famous for its white, sandy beaches.

2. Post a public trip.

The Couchsurfing application lets you post the details of your trip. Do this as far in advance as possible. I did this before coming to Cartagena so that people either in or from the city would know about my trip. I even had someone from Seattle message me who was traveling to Cartagena at the same time. He wanted to get drinks, but I was more interested in meeting locals and learning Colombian slang. I was only in the country for two weeks, and wanted to immerse myself as much as possible, no matter how vulnerable I’d feel.

couchsurfing-cartagena-colombia

3. Reserve a place to stay in advance.

My biggest concern as a solo woman traveler while Couchsurfing in Colombia is definitely safety. I had reserved an Airbnb apartment for three days, but since I hadn’t yet bought my flight out from Cartagena to Bogota, I was open to staying longer. I also felt safer having a place to stay and being able to feel someone’s energy out before crashing with them.

As a solo woman traveler, it’s better to have a backup plan, even if it’s an $8 dorm room in a hostel when you can’t Couchsurf. If you’re not feeling someone, you have the right to discontinue seeing them and to put your safety first. Or, it’s nice to have a backup plan if your host cancels on you at the last minute.

4. Use your phone.

When you don’t know anyone in the area, it’s not as easy as it would be to let your friends know your whereabouts. I should have given my Airbnb host, Libi, a heads up that I was going outside of the city and with whom. I didn’t even have a working phone in Colombia, since I didn’t even bother buying a chip to put in my phone, but in retrospect, I should have. I merely relied on phone booths in the street.

After my taxi-related sexual assault later in Bogotá, I would buy a smartphone in Panama so that I could use Uber and other apps to hold my drivers more accountable. Check out this video I made with my trusted taxi driver, Hugo, in Managua, where he helps me explain why it’s important to have a taxi’s number on speed dial!

5. Travel safely yet vulnerably.

If I had been nervous about not being liked, then I wouldn’t have met up with anyone. I knew that if I didn’t hit it off with someone, that I could choose to no longer meet up with them. It’s that simple. After having lived in Nicaragua for two years, I’ve become a much more open and patient person. I’m also an introvert who judges a situation, a conversation, and people carefully before jumping in. To some, I may come across as quiet. Around others, I’m a non-stop giggler.

I’ve also become used to being an outsider so that I’m used to being uncomfortable. Growing from discomfort makes me excited about travel. The discomfort teaches me that I have preconceived notions about a place, just as I did about Medellin and Cartagena. These notions are both positive and negative, but traveling helps me break down where this notions come from in the first place, deconstruct them, and rebuild them for myself.

Above all, share your culture and ask questions about your hosts’. Ask them about their slang, their music, their customs, their passions, their food, and anything else you’d like to know as long as you’re respectful. Treating your hosts to thank them is always a good idea, whether you’re buying drinks or writing them thoughtful thank you note (or blog post dedicated to them!).

I hope my Couchsurfing tips for solo women travelers inspired you to use this option on your next trip. Do you have any other tips? Share in the comments!

Traveling While Undocumented on Election Night 2016

“Does anyone else see what’s going on?!” I wanted to scream in Palenque, Mexico’s bus station. It was election night, and Trump was winning.

A sea of red spilled over the U.S. map on my iPad while Miguel and I waited for our overnight bus to Mérida. We found a shiny, round, metal table where we could rest our bodies and backpacks under the fluorescent lighting. Miguel and I had three things in common: we loved drawing, we were born in Mexico, and we came here to explore Mexico after growing up in the USA. I had traveled up from Nicaragua after serving there with the Peace Corps for two years, and he’d flown down from Chicago. We met by chance in Oaxaca and we were traveling up the Yucatán Peninsula together.

“Stop looking at that thing,” he said, side eyeing my iPad. I couldn’t. He scribbled Mayan artwork  into his black sketchbook, but I wondered if he was screaming inside, too. “I’m not surprised he’s winning,” he said. “Americans are racist.”

My mom thought Obama wouldn’t win in 2008 because of this racism, but he was elected. Twice. I desperately hoped that this sort of irony would unfold once more. I slumped in my seat and drank my cactus, pineapple, and celery flavored Activia drinkable yogurt. White, European-looking backpackers played cards next to us, as if it were just another day.

I looked more like them than I looked like Miguel. My family is made up of Mexican-born European and American immigrants. When I was little, I asked my dad why we couldn’t go back to Mexico to visit my dying grandfather. “If we go, we might not be able to come back. You were born in Mexico, but don’t tell people that. Tell them you were born in L.A.,” my dad and his blue eyes told me. He’d try to hide our identity in public, but as a homeschooled kid, he’d often teach me in Spanish. I had no idea then how much my white skin, last name and accent would shelter me until much later.

Miguel kept drawing, his eyes fixated on the thick, white paper that needed the stories from his imagination. His drawings reminded me to look further within my creative self and to be present. He sipped his NesCafé as he did every night to go to sleep, and I took a dramamine pill I’d saved from my Peace Corps service. It would make me less motion sick, but I don’t really get motion sick. I just wanted to numb everything and deny the fascist takeover at “home.”

As our bus pulled in, I read a friend’s Facebook status: “At least California did it’s fucking job.” I hoped other States would do their fucking jobs too, but all I could do was recline my seat and wait for my panic to subside.

At 6 a.m., my anxiety and the city of Mérida greeted me as we rolled in on the carretera. “I think Trump won,” said Miguel, “I haven’t checked but I have friends telling me that whatever happens, they’ve got my back.”

You see, Miguel and I were both undocumented immigrants. The only difference between our status was that at age 21, after living in the U.S. for eighteen years, I became a citizen. Miguel, though, moved to Chicago at age twelve, and over a decade later, despite lacking U.S. citizenship, he returned to Mexico with an Advanced Parole travel document under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Miguel planned to return to the states the day before Trump would be sworn into office as the 45th president. I felt petrified. Not for myself, but for Miguel and all of my friends of color whose fear I will never feel at the thought of what Trump might do. I still don’t think he’ll build a wall, but what would he do? Hopefully he’d be too distracted by learning about checks and balances and adjusting to life in a house that’s not named after him to worry about Miguel.

We pulled into the bus station, stretched our legs, and sat down to stare at our phones in disbelief. The U.S. had just elected a tweeting fascist who brags about sexually assaulting women and who called Mexicans “rapists.” It was as if Moses Lake, my conservative hometown in Washington State, invaded America to spite those of us existing outside of the white heteropatriarchy for eight years under a black president. Those confederate flags waving from my high school classmates’ trucks were a testament to many white people’s fear of becoming outnumbered in a land that was never theirs to begin with.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, we checked into our hostel in Mérida. The staff asked us if we were friends because they offered for us to stay in a private room as opposed to the dorm beds we’d booked. As a lesbian who is used to traveling alone, this was a new situation for me. We jokingly called each other “babe” because everyone assumed we were together. If they only knew that I hadn’t dated a boy in over ten years.

Miguel and I stumbled into our room, exhausted, blasting the air conditioning to combat the intense humidity that made our clothes cling to our sweaty skin. Out the window, people crossed the Cathedral’s plaza and went about their days as usual. I just stared out at them, imagining them wondering “Does anyone else see what’s going on?!” There they were, calm on the outside, but I wondered if they screamed on the inside. Not just here, but in all the streets in every city.

Near the end of our journey together, Miguel and I spent a few nights in Tulum, Cancun’s sleepy neighbor. Nighttime crept up on us, and Miguel wanted to go for a bike ride. “Isn’t that dangerous? What if we hit something we don’t see?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s going to happen.”

So, we rode into the beachside road past the Mayan pyramids which were dozing off in The Caribbean’s salty humidity. It was surreal to feel the cool air brushing against my once sweaty skin as we floated by.

The hum of our pedals broke the stillness, and we sang along to Manu Chao’s Clandestino:

Soy una raya en el mar,

Fantasma en la ciudad,

Mi vida va prohibida,

Dice la autoridad.

I couldn’t help but feel afraid for Miguel’s future as we sang along. After he left Tulum, I went swimming under the stars and the orange supermoon.

The moon’s light reflected on the white sand, but not onto the shaded road back to my hostel. I got on my bike anyway, because there was no point to worry. Then, a sparkle in a tree to my right. Another to my left. Hundreds of sparkles.

Fireflies illuminated my path, and they, like Miguel, reminded me not to fear riding into the darkness.

A Day in Cartagena, Colombia

Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!

Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).

Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.

When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:

“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”

“It’s more expensive than Miami.”

“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”

On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.

Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.

The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.

I packed up my bags, triple-checked that I had my passport with me, and took a bus for the Medellin airport. While waiting for my flight, I went inside my new favorite store, Velez Leather. Since I couldn’t afford their gorgeous $200 backpacks, I settled for two $9 bracelets. I’m not much of a bracelet or a leather person, but I just had to have some of that high quality leather, even in miniscule form.

As I sat in the terminal, I hopped onto my Couchsurfing application and put in a public trip. I explained that I was a queer woman traveling to Cartagena for certain dates, and that if anyone wanted to host me or just go to the beach with me, that I’d appreciate it. Again, I didn’t know anyone, but with this feature, I was confident that I’d eventually meet someone.

For each city I’d go to, I would post a public trip. I also posted the same thing on the Cartagena Couchsurfing facebook group. Then within a few hours or days, I’d get someone from that city message me. Even though I was openly gay on my profile, it was interesting that 95% of the people who offered to host me were men. To be clear that I wasn’t looking to hook up, I’d ask if they had queer friends or if they knew about LGBT spots. I’d also see if they had hosted other solo women before. There’s only so much verifying you can do online, but these strategies brought me more peace of mind. Since I was traveling alone, I would only stay with a man if they were living with a partner or if they were gay.

Around 7:20 p.m., I walked down my airplane’s staircase and a wall of humidity hit me. As I waited for me suitcase, I was nervous because of what I’d heard about Cartagena as a drug capital. I felt tense like Chimamanda N. Adichie felt in her Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk,  before she traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, which she thought was going to be a drug cartel warzone. When she realized it was just like any other city, with people going about their daily lives, she checked herself.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the suitcases spilling onto the belt have been filled with drugs over the years. I couldn’t believe how tense I felt in this tiny airport. I’m sure that JFK has had way more drugs slide through. I needed to stop thinking like I was a drug mule for Johhny Depp in Blow. I needed to experience Cartagena for myself. I wasn’t here for a drug trip—traveling alone in a new country is exhilarating enough.  

Libi and her friend from Bogota met me outside. Libi is a small, friendly woman who made me feel like I was her host daughter. We walked for about ten minutes into the Crespo neighborhood and she showed me the apartment. It had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and deliciously cool air conditioning. Cartagena averages about 80 degrees (F) a day, but it has a humidity index of 90%. So at night, things don’t cool down too much.

A few minutes later, Libi’s mom walked in. She was timeless. Maybe it was her naturally jet black hair, or the fact that she still goes out dancing in her 70s. Maybe it was her intriguing, sparkling eyes that were even darker than her hair.

When I looked into them, I thought of what Nobel Prize winner and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had said about magical realism in the Caribbean: 

It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination. 

“Do you want to know why keeps me looking and feeling young? Berro (watercress). It’s really good for your health. I haven’t had to dye my hair because of it.” Libi’s mom told me, as she tapped her long fingernails on the couch and nodded her head, matter-of-factly.

I was still pretty nervous about being alone in what people made me think would be a cocaine expo, and beauty tips weren’t first on my list. “What places should I avoid?” I asked Libi. She named off a few neighborhoods, then interrupted herself.

“Why don’t we talk about the places you should see, instead?” she asked, in a firm yet reassuring tone. Guests probably ask her this all the time. She recommended that I visit la ciudad amurallada (Cartagena’s walled city and fortress), a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for having the most extensive fortifications in South America. Libi’s mom mentioned a restaurant, La Mulatta, where I would find regional dishes.

img_5377

This was the view from my $20 Airbnb apartment rental. I recommend staying at Libi’s in the Crespo neighborhood!

Libi and her mom invited me to grab a drink the following night, and I asked if her mother enjoyed dancing. “My mom can go dancing longer than I can. She loves to go out!” The older woman laughed and nodded in agreement. Her eyes glowed like diamonds lost in the depths of a coal mine.

Also, the women in my family age well, but still- I should look into berro

The next morning, I woke up and went to the corner store for breakfast. The family who owned it was attended to hungry customers sitting at plastic tables in plastic chairs just like the ones in my house. I asked for an agg arepa, and the cook carefully slid a raw egg into the empanada-like arepa. Then, he deep fried it with the other arepas floating in their oil jacuzzi. I mistakenly ordered two. Oops! After eating the first one with the deliciously spicy home made salsa they stored in used plastic jars, I was full. I took the other back home in its oil-stained brown paper bag and left it on top of the fridge as a snack.

After take two of leaving my apartment, I grabbed a taxi headed for the walled city. A black woman sat in the front seat, and she and the driver asked me where I was from. I gave my long story about how I was born in Mexico, grew up in the states, and have been volunteering in Nicaragua for two years, and that I’m traveling alone in Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. I mentioned how friendly Colombians were (honestly, I’ve never been in a Latin American country with an more rude locals than friendly ones).

“Somos mas saludables que el Alka Seltzer,” the driver added, his hand making a dropping motion into an imaginary glass. In English, this literally translates to “we’re healthier than Alka Seltzer” but instead of “healthy” it’s meant to be taken as “wholesome/friendly.”

“With lime!” I added, and we all laughed. I thought of the way my Nicaraguan host grandmother would pinch her nose as she showed me how to take a shot of Alka Seltzer with lime whenever my stomach hurt. She calls herself La Curandera (the healer) for a reason. The driver took me all the way to the center of the walled city, and I saved his number because I felt safe around him. It was only around 9 a.m., but humidity was brutal.

gertrudis-colombia

In the Walled City’s Plaza de Santa Domingo, I met Gertrudis, a sculpture by Colombian Artist Fernando Botero. This voluptuous, powerful woman rests there for all to see and to interact with.

One could easily spend the day wandering around the walled city and its many shops. I found respite from the heat by entering stores and by eating kiwi-flavored popsicles. These popsicle stores seem to be all the rage now. After going into too many stores selling $300 purses, I decided to hit up the more affordable stores in the perimeter. One of my favorites was Seven Seven. Almost everything was 75% off, so that has something to do with it.

 

I hopped around to different department stores that had DJs set up with their own booths blasting vallenato, bachata, and merengue music nonstop. The staff at these stores were super helpful. As soon as I walked in, they attended to me and even waited for me to try on clothes in case I needed a different size. Then they’d go look for the sizes I’d ask for. One woman did such an excellent job that I tipped her, and I’ve never tipped someone in a clothing store before. She seemed as surprised as I was by her service when I handed her the money. Tipping isn’t nearly as expected in the Latin American countries I’ve been to as it is in the states. 

dsc03023

In hot cities like this one, I like to pretend that I’m in a video game where I will stay alive in shady areas. For every patch of sun I hit, I lose life. I didn’t understand how people could come up with such sexy, sweat-free glamour shots in the streets of Cartagena. Maybe it’s magical realism that blesses everyone except me. I was dying and constantly going inside of stores I didn’t want to go inside of. Well, I did enjoy the Cuban menswear boutique more than I thought I would…

Once the sun’s rays relented a tiny bit, I walked to the non-air-conditioned modern art museum. Outside in the plaza, locals were selling hats, mangos-in-a-bag, and the nicest-looking counterfeit Ray Bans I’ve ever seen. A woman wearing a colorful dress sat on a bench talking to an old white guy. His wife was smiling as she took a photo of the two. I felt strange seeing this type of staged interaction-I hope they paid the woman.

The couple looked so happy, but I can only imagine how this counted as their deepest interaction with the locals. I have to remember that not everyone speaks fluent Spanish, though, so it’s hard to have cross-cultural interactions with people when you can’t even converse with them in the first place.

As I thought about the implications of this scene, I paid my entrance fee at the Modern Art Museum’s front desk. The museum was a tiny, two story building-it sure wasn’t the Museum of Antioquia by any means. I’m not much of a modern art fan, but I did enjoy the pieces. Each room had huge fans blowing the hot air around to make the rooms a tad less stuffy, but I forget about the heat as I finally sat down.

I love museums because you can rest your mind and your feet at the same time. I love it when museums are as empty as the benches placed in front of paintings. It’s like an invitation to contemplate exactly what’s in front of you. My tired, hot feet appreciated the break.  My mind appreciated the opportunity to construct Cartagena from my experience and not from the preconceived notions I’d built up of this city.

 

The next morning, I’d meet two women who, like the city had done, show me the meaning of La Fantastica. They’d profoundly shape my love for Cartagena and Colombia. 

The featured image above is an ink pen and colored pencil drawing I did. Shout out to my girl Gertrudis for being an excellent model!

Why There’s More to Medellin Than Escobar

“Whatever you do, please don’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. That would be very indignant for me,” Gina said to me. Gina was my host in El Retiro, a sleepy, crisp-weathered, mountainous town an hour outside of Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia. I had just flown into Medellin that night from Nicaragua, and Gina had been kind enough to pick me up from the airport during an important soccer game. She was helping me plan for what to see and what to avoid. When I told friends I was visiting Medellin, most of them innocently referenced Pablo Escobar, a drug lord whose ruthless chokehold on Colombia’s cocaine supply left Medellin victim to decades of violence.

We stopped at a typical paisa (a term representative of the northwest region’s people and culture) restaurant. In between glimpses of the Colombia vs. Chile world cup game, she broke down the political, economic, and cultural history of the region for me. The waiter asked if I wanted sugar in my guayaba juice, and I was surprised that I had an option. I don’t even remember what I chose.

She asked me what I knew about Medellin. “Well, I know that Escobar was a very violent man…” I trailed off, embarrassed that I didn’t do my research. Gina clarified that there was more to life in Antioquia than Escobar. I listened eagerly as I poked into some crunchy fried pork rinds with a toothpick.

Medellin, she explained, was Colombia’s center for textile production in the first half of the 20th century. The city of over three million people even boasts a skyscraper called the Coltejer Building, which is shaped like a needle. Today, Medellin’s economic legacy includes high-quality coffee production and it’s famous for beautiful leather products. Oh, and Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda. I should have taken advantage of the sales at the Velez leather outlet while I had the chance.

Once Escobar’s drug cartel took over, Medellin became as violent as Beirut, Gina explained, shaking her head. Car bombs went off frequently in the city. She grew up being used to the violence. Once Escobar died in 1993, the violence decreased. I felt safer in Medellin than I did in Nicaragua. Gina suggested that we go for a walk when it was dark, and I wondered if it was safe to do so. In Nicaragua, once the sun goes down, it’s usually time to head home and lock the doors. Gang violence isn’t as prevalent there as it is in Guatemala, but petty thefts and muggings in isolated areas after dark are common.

Unfortunately, it was drizzling, so we couldn’t go for a walk. Instead, we went to bed early and I slept like a rock. When I’m in a new place, my mind feels the need to rest up as much as possible in order to absorb its surroundings when it is ready to.

I decided that in order to understand the region’s history, that I would eventually go to the Museo de Antioquia. I walked to the bus stop in El Retiro, and spoke with other people waiting to confirm that my bus was the one going to Medellin. Five minutes later, a woman honked her horn and asked if I were headed to Medellin. This was the first time a woman had offered to give me a ride, but I declined. In retrospect, I wish I’d done it, but I didn’t do it, and I was safe.

I spent the day in Medellin with a fellow Wellesley alum, Vero, who graduated with me, but who I had never met. Thanks to a mutual friend, we were able to meet and to reminisce about our college days. We also bonded over how driven Wellesley women are, and about how we just cannot seem to sit still. We always need to be doing something and doing what some people call “overachieving.” To us, it’s just “achieving.” That’s what happens when you are privileged enough to go to school with some of the most driven, independent, and intelligent women in the world. It was nice to be with someone who got me. I didn’t have to really explain why I was spending three weeks traveling alone.

Eventually, I made it to the Museo de Antioquia. As a child, I dreaded museums. I thought they were the most boring, lifeless places. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I began to appreciate museums, especially art museums, for being portals into a region’s history. These histories are never completely inclusive of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender identities, but that’s why I allow myself to be critical of these spaces in the first place.

Medellin-Transportation

In February 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellín as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development, beating out NYC and Tel Aviv. The metro is spotless. People aren’t even allowed to eat on it! Riding the metro here reminded me of riding the spotless, quiet, efficient metro in Tokyo.

Continue reading

I Think I Was Sexually Assaulted

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault/Assault.

The “I think” is why I’m writing about sexual assault.

On July 4th, around 1:30 a.m., I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver on my way home on Pride Night in Bogotá. This post is not to scare people from visiting Bogotá. This could’ve happened anywhere, and every day I feel a pull to return to this city because of its vibrant street art, its organized chaos, and its communities or artists and activists. I can’t wait to write about how inspired I felt there, and I won’t let this incident erase that sense of freedom.

I’m writing this post is because, since this happened, of all of the times that I said “I think I was sexually assaulted” instead of saying “I was sexually assaulted.” It took me two weeks to report the incident to my safety and security officer, and when I did, he said, “Yes, that was definitely a sexual assault.” In no way did he blame me for the incident or for waiting so long to report it. He has been 100% supportive.

When I’d pictured what a sexual assault looked like, I imagine either A. a rape or B. someone running up and grabbing a woman’s boobs or crotch. Both of these things do happen and should never happen. Ever. However, everything else to me is grey area, and it shouldn’t be. That night, a taxi driver invaded my personal space without my consent, grabbed me, and tried to kiss me. I told him to stop, and he did.

Once I got home, I felt shocked and unsafe in ways that I’d felt after I was assaulted at knife point on a run on November 30th, 2015. Only this time, I felt disgusting. I was shaking and crying because I’d been violated in ways I never have before. I immediately felt the shame that our patriarchal society wants me to feel. That it was “my fault” and that it could have been prevented.

Well, guess what. A person should be able to go out at night and to ride in taxis without the fear of sexual assault. What happened, happened, and blaming me, the victim, won’t do anything to fix it. So before you blame the victim, check yourself and know that if you do, your actions are the reason why so many women never come forward and admit what happened to them. After the incident I bought a smartphone and I used apps like Uber to hold my drivers more accountable.

After talking with other women about what happened, they’ve revealed to me that they realized they’ve also been sexually assaulted and never thought to report it because of they don’t feel comfortable doing so, and because of the “I think” piece that trivializes the assault in the first place.

I have the privilege of talking about what happened to me without fear of social repercussions, so that’s why I’m doing this. I also have access to free counseling with the Peace Corps, which I’ve used throughout my service after a long-distance breakup, then after my assault, and after the Orlando shooting. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to come forward and to talk about what happened. I know that reporting it won’t erase the damage, but it’s the first step in exposing what happened.

If you or someone you care about has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. I am not alone and it’s by talking with survivors of different gender identities to know I am not alone.

I’ve talked to the Peace Corps medical officers about it and was given the option of a medical evacuation or respite leave. I spoke to a Peace Corps Counselor based in Washington D.C., and I answered a few questions. On a scale of 1 to 4, I answered questions like “How often do you have flashbacks and nightmares after your incident? Very frequently, frequently, infrequently, never.” I don’t have nightmares after my incident (so far) but I do have flashbacks every day. Every day, I have the natural reaction to go over it and think about what I “could have” or “should have” done instead. Then, I remind myself that I’m not to blame and that this could’ve happened anywhere.

I was granted 14 days of respite leave, so the Peace Corps paid for my flight home and will give me a stipend to sustain myself. They are not paying for housing, so luckily, I can stay with my mom in Moses Lake, Washington for free. Recovering in a familiar place is something I wish I could have done after my assault last year. Volunteers are given the option to request respite leave 30 days after they report an incident.

This is a new policy that I hope volunteers are aware of in case something happens to them. I haven’t been home in two years, so I am very happy I was given this option. If the Peace Corps weren’t paying for it, I wouldn’t have been able to come home before the end of my service (After rent I get $200 a month which I must use to feed myself, work, take care of myself, and just…live).

Below is the description I sent to my Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer of the sexual assault.

Continue reading

What I Learned From Teaching in Marseille, France

When I read Alexandra Tracy’s piece about working while studying abroad in France, our similar yet vastly different experiences struck me. I also wanted to learn more about teaching in Marseille.

As Latinas, both of us have studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence (I went for five months in 2011). Other than that, we spent our time differently. I had a short stay, so I took university courses, I didn’t find a job and I spent most of my free time traveling or watching Anthony Bourdain episodes. I had an insanely generous program that gave me a monthly stipend, and while I loved every second of traveling, I didn’t meet as many locals as I could’ve. By teaching in Marseille for eight months, Alexandra integrated into French culture in profound ways. She also saw a less exposed side of France:

The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim.

When you think of France, government housing, immigrants, and niquing la police aren’t the first things that come to mind. In college, I’d seen movies like La Haine, which expose crime and police brutality in the outskirts of Paris. Again, why would you bother exploring these topics when it’s easier to fantasize about macaroons, Chanel handbags (do you know how many tacos you can buy with that?), and l’amour? Because it reveals how every country oppresses and uplifts its people.

I wanted to learn more about what it was like teaching youth of color in Marseille, which many French people and tourists dismiss as dirty and crime-ridden. Teaching abroad has its challenges, but it also gave Alexandra a unique chance to see Marseille as so much more. Learn more about how teaching there made her appreciate a less glamorized, yet still beautiful, city in France.

How did you end up teaching in Marseille?

I got an interview to teach English from a Colombian-French friend who was teaching Spanish at another similar school. He organized the interview for me with the Elementary school principal. He also explained how easy and fast it was to take the bus to the location. It was about a 30-40 minute bus ride from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille with only a few stops since it was an express/direct bus.

Travel-Latina-Marseille

Adorable Fassouil at a talent show.

What were the challenges of teaching in France?

The biggest challenge for me was to deal with disciplining the kids in an effective way because I don’t think I was trained properly for that. Sometimes I was left alone with the kids, and they would do whatever they wanted. All of the foreign language teachers had their own separate room, so I was left alone there sometimes.

I don’t think it’s because they were inherently badly behaved, I think it had more to do with how I was supposed to deal with it. Toward the end of my time there, the teachers would help me more and they let me hold lessons in their classroom while they sat at their desk doing other things, and would chime in when I needed help with students who were “out of line.”

What were the successes of teaching abroad?

My successes had more to do with the discussions I had with students as a group or individually. They were so curious about my world and where I came from. They would constantly ask me questions about the U.S. and about Colombia. It was heart-warming to see them get to a point where they trusted me and genuinely liked me. I had very sweet relationships with some of the girls who made sure to give me hugs during their recess times.

Recess! They had four recesses a day at least! We need to do that more often.

Travel-Latina-Teach-Abroad

Yes, I have a fish on my face. With my other little CE1 kid.

What was the age range of your students? What was their racial and ethnic makeup like?

My kids were about 1st-3rd grade, so about six to eight years old. The majority of students were African, which was split in half between North Africans and West Africans. North Africans were mostly from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. The West African students were mostly from Senegal or Mali. There were maybe one or two students who had the lightest skin of the whole school, and they looked stereotypically European. I later found out that those students were “Gypsies,” as many of the teachers referred to them (though this term is considered a racial slur). Those students most likely had an Eastern European background.

Were school staff racist against students? Was there racism between the students?

Aside from teachers referring to certain students as “Gypsies”(a racial slur) or making side comments about Islam (or religion in general), I didn’t notice much else. The school did a great job of creating a culture of acceptance. I think the racism that happened was more outside of school. The area was rough, and you could tell students didn’t have a lot of clothing to wear, came to school tired, or lashed out with bad behavior.

I know the French are very discriminatory against Africans and Middle Easterners, so I am sure it was hard on their families. Though I would argue that the social services available to immigrants are better there than in the US, that doesn’t mean that there was better access to certain jobs or better areas to live in. Many times you would hear of people getting kicked out of stores, or not accepted into certain bars or restaurants because of the “dress code.”

My French host dad was a kind man, but he said that Marseille is dirty because of all the immigrants and that gypsies wander and steal everything. What did other French people think about you teaching your kids?

A lot of French people I knew talked about Marseille as if it “isn’t real France,” as dirty, crime-ridden, and poor. It was really sad to see this attitude since I loved Marseille’s charm. I went to visit at least once every month or two outside of going for work. I don’t remember what French people thought about me working there since I didn’t really know many outside of work, and the few I did know were my age and very progressive.

I actually hardly remember sharing with French people about what I did. My co-workers were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. The best part was to see that a school, in what is considered a bad neighborhood, had such beautiful murals all around, had access to foreign language classes, dance, art, maybe some music (though I don’t remember). They probably still weren’t as good as middle class schools in France, but they sure were almost as good as my U.S. elementary school I attended.

 

Teaching-Marseille-France

My co-workers (like Monsieur Michel) were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. Unfortunately, the only teachers of color were the foreign language teachers, who were majority Latinx (Brazilian, Colombian, and I). Hopefully more people of color can be inspired to teach abroad in communities where the students can have teachers who are reflections of them.

Teaching youth of color in Marseille is for someone who…

Is open and willing to teach and love students who are treated badly by French or European society. They sometimes need more attention than the mainstream French student. You will connect with them in a way that involves a constant exchange of cultural norms and practices, an interesting aspect to your job that you won’t find anywhere else. It will never be boring, and you will constantly feel like you are breaking barriers in the most positive way imaginable.

-Alexandra

Teaching-Marseille

La Banlieue, the government projects in Marseille

Do you have questions about teaching abroad? Share in the comments.