Why Settle When You Can Find Someone To Run Wild With?

After nearly 6 years of being together, I realized one very important thing about me and my fiancé: we had never taken a trip together, just the two of us. See, I got pregnant within about six months of our relationship. Our first trip was to Miami to visit my family for a weekend. After our son was born, we had a few trips home for the holidays. When we moved to Florida, we started going on some family trips—St. Martin/St. Maarten and Cuba with our kids, road trips to Memphis and across the Southeastern US. We’d even taken trips without each other—I have been to a few conferences for work, he went to London for his birthday, I also went to London for my birthday (though this was at a different time). Still, newly engaged, I wanted to take some time to be with my man, just the two of us.

I scoured Groupon Getaways and Living Social Escapes, searching for a deal that could fit within our salaries while also not taking away too much time from our respective jobs. I didn’t have too many specifications. I just wanted to visit a place neither of us had ever been to, preferably in another country. Low and behold, a deal to Costa Rica came up. I immediately booked the 4 day, 3 night trip, and paid for it all upfront (there’s really nothing like a sunk cost). Luckily, my fiancé’s mother graciously offered to babysit the kids while we were away. After a few months, it was finally time for our Valentine’s Weekend trip.

The first day of the trip started at 3:00 AM. We decided to fly out of Ft. Lauderdale airport, a 4.5 hour drive away from our home. Most people would look at that time and refuse, but as seasoned road warriors, we simply saw it as a way to save $400 in plane tickets. We arrived to the airport with plenty of time to spare, lugging a couple of backpacks filled with basic essentials for our weekend.

The flight itself was short and pleasant. We flew Spirit airlines… and we liked it. Expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised by the polite flight crew and clean aircraft. We ordered some cocktails and toasted to our new found freedom. It was the first time we had flown somewhere together and not had to worry about crayons and coloring books and story time and snacks and who was hitting who. We could just be. I read an old paper back that had been sitting on my shelf for way too long while he listened to some new mixtapes he’d been meaning to get to.

Adventure Nerds

Just a couple of nerds ready to find some adventure. 

We arrived in the afternoon in San José, ready to get to the rental car station. After an hour wait through customs, we made it to the agency with fresh stamps in our passports and a desire to venture into the city after a long day of sitting. We ate lunch near a casino at the recommendation of one of the agency’s employees then set off to our destination, a boutique hotel just outside of Jacó. We arrived just after dusk, the winding roads trailing off into dirt trails and pulled into the hotel’s parking lot. Behind us, the ocean roared against the wind, while just across the lot was a herd of cattle grazing in the moonlight. We checked in, changed into our swim suits, and ate, drank, and swam beneath the stars. Once we’d had our fill, we rested in our room, the ocean beckoning us to sleep.

Monkey Jungle Kayak Tour

Ready… set… kayak!

The next morning we set out early to drive up to Quepos where we took a kayaking tour of the monkey jungle. I was reminded of my Florida childhood, paddling around mangroves while watching crabs scuttle off tree trunks as birds pecked around. Then, towards the end of our tour, we came across a troop of white-faced monkeys (also known as Capuchins). Though my fiancé attempted to take a few pictures, his slippery camera case made it difficult. We then realized this was a sort of blessing, to be forced to experience this moment without the need for immediate documentation. The monkeys snacked on discarded bits of lime and watermelon thrown into the canal by the local humans. We smiled as we paddled on, thanking our guide as we drove into Quepos looking for a hearty meal after the two hour tour.

We found a restaurant that again reminded me of the sort of place I’d eat at near a beach in Florida. I ordered a delicious meal of rice and seafood while he ordered a burger. We sipped (or rather chugged) sangria. After our meal, we rented a cabana on the beach so we could soak up the sun, napping and drinking, holding hands and swimming. We watched the sunset, something we can rarely do living on the east coast. We then packed our belongings and survived the seemingly treacherous roads back to Jacó.

 

That night, we decided to tour a few of the local bars, stopping in at a kitschy tiki bar that was hosting a reggae night. The cocktails were delicious and we admired a bridal party that danced while bathed in indigo and lavender light. The band sang many songs I grew up with, and their rendition of “Could You Be Loved” took my back to my childhood, sitting in my papi’s Jeep while we drove down to the Keys for our weekend camping trips. Once again we drove back towards the hotel, the ocean drawing us towards a restful slumber we were rarely afforded with two children under 5.

 

Upon waking, we ate a hearty breakfast. Our last full day in Costa Rica, we were going to take our very first surfing lessons. Sure, surfing is a fairly popular sport in North Florida, but given our busy schedules, we rarely had time to do something as extravagant as spending two hours surfing. Our instructor taught us the basics, helping my clumsy self find various ways to pop up on the board. After about 20 minutes, we were off, clumsily scraping our legs against board and sand, finding our rhythm in the natural sanctuary. Ever the athlete, my fiancé was standing on his board in no time, riding waves like he’d been born near the ocean. I on the other hand… struggled. My lack of coordination and larger size made balancing a challenge. I could get my knees on the board, but I couldn’t stand up in time to catch a wave before I found myself toppling over. Then, after switching out my board and teaching me some breathing techniques, it clicked. I stood up, listened as locals cheered me on, jumped off my board and popped back up to find smiling faces. After two hours, several scraps across my legs and thighs, and a deepening exhaustion in my bones, we finally called it quits, thanking our instructor as we limped to our car, looking for a meal and hydration.

Sushi with a view

Sushi with a View

We stopped at a local restaurant that served all kinds of fare. I settled on sushi that had thin slices of maduros (sweet plantains) on top. It was surprisingly delicious. We ate and drank in a little booth on the beach, beneath a shady tree and umbrella, our bodies cooled by a refreshing breeze. We watched local surfers chase waves, their friends huddled under makeshift huts. After a couple of hours, we limped our way back towards the car and called it an early night, our sore muscles demanding an evening of rest.

That last morning, before our flight, we ate our breakfast while facing Playa Hermosa, where our hotel stood. We breathed in the fresh air, enjoyed our final meal of rice and beans, maduros, eggs, and sausage. We checked out of the hotel and made the drive to the airport, being sure to stop at a road-side “Soda” (small restaurant) to pick up some snacks before our flight. After turning in our car and clearing security, we sat at a gastropub near our gate, immediately making plans for our honeymoon and vowing to take a trip like this, just the two of us, at least once a year.

Perhaps our trips won’t always be whirlwind international getaways. And they probably won’t consist of any more tropical locales for a while. But we will make time for each other, just each other, running wild across the world, with love in our hearts and passports in our pockets.

 

Street Art in Latin America

Street art has become a huge part of Latin America’s urban areas. For many it is a way to express themselves on different societal topics like politics, race, and culture.

All over Latin America you can come across lively neighborhoods with unique homes, cobbled streets, and art. Lots of it! The great thing about street art is that you do not need to go to a gallery to appreciate it.

Main city centers have historical pieces such as murals by Diego Rivera in Mexico, or  “The Presence of Latin America” by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena in Chile. The largest street mural in the world “Etnias” (Ethnicities) by Eduardo Kobra is located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The following are some street art locations and murals you can check out while in Latin America:

Beco do Batman -São Paulo, Brazil

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bh33xQPl1t6/?taken-by=agnaldomirage


Vila Madalena – São Paulo, Brazil


Calle 26 – Bogota, Colombia


Bellavista – Santiago, Chile

https://www.instagram.com/p/BeUWM_2HC-V/?tagged=bellavistasantiago


Cerro Concepción – Valparaiso, Chile


La Boca – Buenos Aires, Argentina


Ataco – Ahuachapan, El Salvador


La Roma – Mexico City, Mexico

Do you know of any other art murals or towns that should be included on this list? Let us know in the comments below.

My Narrative as an Afro-Latina Peace Corps Volunteer

After only being back in the States for a few weeks, I was planning on writing something nostalgic to express what my Peace Corps service has done for me and what it symbolizes in my life because it has truly been a life-changing, and eye-opening experience that I will never forget. I’ve made the most amazing friends and long lasting relationships with Nicaraguans and Americans. Sadly, however, the first thing that I’m going to write about is the present, heartbreaking reality that is weighing on me: our society needs a huge change.

I recently posted a picture of some friends and I standing in solidarity in response to the violence and systematic-mass killings that have taken place against people of color in the United States. For Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) of color worldwide, it is painful to watch what is happening from abroad, and frustrating because we feel so helpless; we watch from afar as countless numbers of our people are murdered.  The picture was our way of standing strong together and showing solidarity for all Peace Corps Volunteers of color all over the globe, as well as fellow our Americans back home.

You see, while serving in the Peace Corps, we deal with racism and prejudice due to a lack of understanding of diversity. This is something we feel on two levels: in our communities and in our PCV cohorts. In our communities, on a daily basis, we are having conversations and interacting with others to try to dispel myths and stereotypes of Black people that we know aren’t true. We are the living, walking examples that these negative stereotypes are false and upsetting. Every day we are confronted with the reality of defending our livelihood and educating the communities we serve, and every day, although we smile, it hurts. Deeply. A cab driver once said to me, “Isn’t New York City dangerous because of all those black people? They’re always killing and stealing!” My heart still sinks when I think about those words. I know that it has to do with the media and how it portrays Blacks and Latinos, but it aches when people feel that they can open up to me about their beliefs because they don’t think I identify as black; I am on the lighter side, and my Afro-Latina roots aren’t very physically visible. I always have to explain that not only did I grow up with Black people, but some of my best friends are Black, and I am also Black. My father, grandfather, uncles and aunts, cousins are Black, and none of them steal or kill.

Then we are confronted with the other reality; the reality of being with other volunteers that don’t understand our culture, our plight, or the history of our country; sadly, our fellow PCVs aren’t always that much more aware or appreciative of U.S. diversity than our host country nationals. As PCVs, when we are together, we should feel safe to be ourselves and put our guard down. However, that is not the case. Too often we find ourselves still wearing a “mask” to accommodate our peer so they don’t feel uncomfortable or wrongly judge us. We never really feel free to be our true selves or have the ability to express our grievances. It’s like we’re considered “other” because we’re the Americans in our communities, and yet, still the “other” even when among other white, Americans Peace Corps Volunteers.

I know for myself, sometimes I’m afraid to be me around other’s who don’t know me because I am afraid they will judge me for being different instead of wanting to learning and celebrating the diversity that exist in the nation that we serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. I had one experience when we had just finished working a camp and a group of us were together celebrating and hanging out with a few fellas of color we had met. We danced to a few dancehall songs, some bachata and some salsa, nothing crazy. But, by the morning, it had gotten around that we had been dancing FOR these guys and not WITH them. What seemed like a harmless and fun night of dancing with dudes that actually know how to get down was suddenly misconstrued and interpreted as the Black Peace Corps volunteers dancing like hoes for the attention of men because they were “shaking their butts”.

This experience taught me that, even though volunteers are taught to be open-minded about the culture we are living in, some volunteers fail to acknowledge the importance of being just as open-minded of the cultures of their PCV peers. After this incident, I realized I wasn’t free to be myself; this is just a little taste of what it’s like to be a volunteer of color.

The recent incidents that have been going on just add to it. So you can imagine how it feels when I post a picture of myself and other PCVs showing black solidarity in a Facebook group for PCVs and RPCVs and suddenly there is backlash of negative comments that make it seem as though what we feel is nothing and that we are only seeking to pursue a “political movement.” Fortunately, many RPCVs and PCVs supported us through their comments and responses to the antagonistic comments. Despite the previous pain, intentionally or unintentionally caused by my PCV peers because of identity, it was very powerful to see other volunteers sympathize with our pain and suffering.

However, the negative comments and criticisms reveal the real issues of our society, that, to some, our voice doesn’t matter. It’s the lack of respect for our feelings and our anguish, as if we have no right to express it, or to demand equality, that is disheartening. We, as volunteers, are expected to share our American values and cultures as if it is perfect, yet how can we do that when our people are being systematically killed and when I’m being silenced? How can I be expected to represent a country that lawfully doesn’t want to acknowledge my rights or my voice? I am and always will be a proud RPCV, but as an agent of the United States of America, I deserve to stand for something better.

The Nicaraguan Cigar Tour that Rekindled my Mexican Memories

I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.

I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.

I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.

During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.

One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.

This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.

We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.

Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.

Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.

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Interacting with the murals in Esteli, Nicaragua.

I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.

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Conceptually, this was my favorite mural. How much more metaphysical can you get?

I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.

At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.

Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.

We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.

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Rollin’.

Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.

We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.

After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.

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I wonder if I’ll ever see my grandfather again. This Pearl Harbor veteran-turned Mexican is in his nineties now, but I can still smell the smell of his cigars.

The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.

The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.

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The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.

No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.

I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.  

 

One Week in Costa Rica

When talking about Costa Rica one must mention the famous phrase pura vida. People always told me that the only way to understand its meaning was by visiting; after several invitations, from a Tica-Panamanian friend, I decided to take a week to visit this country (“Tica” or “Tico” is what Costa Ricans call themselves).

Traveling between Costa Rica and Panama can be done in about 13 hours by bus, but we found a deal on flights, so we took the chance on a flight of less than an hour and a half, I saw how Panama City turned into Costa Rica.

These are the sights and curiosities that Costa Rica gave me in a week.

1. San José

I had no expectations about San José. I’d decided to let this place speak on its own, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that it is full of tiny but very interesting places. Basically, we went through San José by taxi, bus and Uber without any problems. One of the nicest aspects about the city is the green landscape that surrounds the city, I recommend visits to museums like the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold with a really interesting exhibition, National Theatre and street markets which can be really interesting for those who enjoy collecting things or Central American culture.

 

 

As for the nightlife, I visited many places like La Concha de La LoraEl Cuartel de la Boca Del Monte and La Calle de la Amargura, most of them had all kinds of live music and people dancing. One of the places I liked was the Jazz Café where we saw a really good reggae band.

We also had the opportunity to visit the restaurant Ram Luna at Aserrí, where we had a spectacular view of San José and other places; at this restaurant we enjoyed typical Costa Rican food and show for 40$.

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Mirador Ram Luna

 

2. Locals 

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Costa Rican people are so friendly, that they are one of the many reasons to come back.  Ileana was the person who welcomed me into her home for that week and I still cannot believe how nice she was to us. Besides being so nice,  her cooking skills are so delicious that we barely visited restaurants. All Costa Ricans with whom I spoke were very open, cheerful and warm, while there was a table with food and drinks, as well as plenty of conversation flowing.

On the other hand I loved many words from their vocabulary,  I visited Costa Rica looking for Pura Vida, and end up delighted with tuanis, ¡qué chiva!, ¡Diay! and other expressions. Ticos call my afro “Colochos”, so there’s another great way to call naturally curly hair.

 

3. Regresar Rodando

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Chifrijo

Eating in Costa Rica is kind of a big deal, there was A LOT of food in every table. I kept thinking that I would end up rolling back to Panamá. The food is so delicious, that it delayed my schedule sometimes. I tried the famous Gallo Pinto, which although delicious was totally strange for me to eat rice for breakfast. Another dish that was recommended was Chifrijo, so as a good Latina, I loved it.

On the other hand I tried Costa Rican coffee and beers; I was invited to taste Chiliguaro (several times) a ​drink that seems to be made with tomato juice and a few other things that I invite you to experience yourself.

 

No soy una persona de tantos postres pero debo decir que la Torta Chilena en Spoon, it’s a thing!

4. Colores and Landscapes

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Camino a Laguna Botos

Everyone tells me how lucky I am to have met the Poas Volcano clear. The plan was to go from San José to Alajuela and from there to the volcano but we missed the only bus that goes by day, so we had to go up by taxi. We had the view of the crater and Laguna Botos. The pictures speak for themselves.

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Laguna Botos

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La vista era linda para todos

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Volcán Poás

We also visited the Baldi Hot Springs Hotel, at the foot of the Arenal Volcano, a beautiful place with 25 pools of hot spring and of course overlooking the Arenal.

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Cueva en Baldi Hot Springs

 

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Baldi Hot Springs Hotel

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This and so much more can be done in Costa Rica for a week! I will definitely come back to visit the places that I missed.

 

Descubriendo Mis Raíces/Discovering My Roots

It is the summer of 2012. I had just ended my third year of college and was preparing for my first independent trip abroad. When I first told my family that I would be going to El Salvador that summer to study at La Universidad de El Salvador (UES) they were completely against it. They feared for my safety and did not like the idea that I would be getting myself too involved in the country’s political sphere. I could not blame them for having those thoughts though. My parents fled El Salvador’s Civil War in 1984. By that time the country had been at war for five years and with seven more intense years ahead of it. Between 70,000 – 80,000 people lost their lives, 550,000 people were internally displaced, and about 500,000 people sought refuge in different parts of the world. Growing up, my parents did not speak about the country’s history or their experience through the war. Once again, I don’t blame them for this for it was a traumatic experience for them. All I knew about being Salvadoran was pupusas, cumbias, and our blue and white flag. That all changed when I began college at the University of California Santa Barbara and I joined a student organization, La Union Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (a.k.a. USEU). It was through this organization and other Latin American studies classes that I learned more about El Salvador’s history, politics, and culture. When the summer of 2012 came and we were told the organizing for USEU’s annual study abroad program was beginning I signed up for the trip. I knew this would be a life changing experience. 

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El Tazumal – Mayan Ruins

I still remember the different emotions that I felt when I landed at Comalapa Airport in San Salvador that summer. I was so excited to be taking this trip with some of my closest friends. I had been to El Salvador a few times as a child but always headed straight to San Miguel where my family is from. This time around my trip would be based in the country’s capital, San Salvador. We stayed at a comfortable hostel which was a walking distance from the university. La Universidad de El Salvador is the country’s oldest university and a very important part of the country’s war history. A lot of student organizing against the war occurred on this campus. Unfortunately because of the strong student resistance, military and police oppression also took place. On July 30, 1975 hundreds of students peacefully marched the streets outside of the university demanding for human rights and their rights to protect the UES from military take over. Hundreds of students died on that day when militant shots were fired when the march was crossing under a bridge.  Having the opportunity to study at a university that has such an important history of student organizing was something surreal for me. I actually recognized different university locations from history book pictures. There are a lot of monuments and art murals pertaining to history, as well as current events, all over campus. Being able to take classes with Salvadoran students was also a beautiful experience. We got to learn about their reality as university students, talk and compare our struggles and lifestyles, and learn about their dreams and goals. They were more than happy to show us around their campus, the city, and share with us important knowledge.

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UES friends showing us around campus

During the weekends we took trips to different tourist locations as well as towns located in rural part of the country. One of the most inspiring trips we took was our visit to the departamento of Chalatenango. Chalate is located on the northern side of the country and borders with Honduras. We took a road up a mountain where we visited the towns of San Antonio Los Ranchos, San Jose de Las Flores, and Guarjila.  At San Antonio Los Ranchos, we visited “El Centro Cultural Jon Cortina.” The community center focuses on different art forms for children and adolescents. The arts classes aim to promote creativity as well as consciousness. In Guarjila, we visited the “Casa Museo Jon Cortina.” Jon Cortina was a Jesuit priest whom dedicated his life to helping Salvadorans during and after the civil war. He founded the organization Pro-Busqueda, which dedicates its efforts to searching for missing children from the civil war. When we got to the center we walked in right as the group of Pro-Busqueda was having a discussion, sharing how their life was before the civil war and remembering their children. We got to hear from a man whom had recently got in touch with his child, whom was taken away from him during the war and given up for adoption to an Italian couple. He said his story with so much joy, tears of happiness were running down his face. In San Jose de Las Flores we visited a town that is 100% community driven. This town was dislocated and forced out of their land during the civil war. When the war ended the people went back to their land and reconstructed their homes from the bottom up. The people of the town work together on different social programs, ranging from agriculture to education, which aid children, adolescents, and adults. The communal vibe was definitely present everywhere around us.

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Admiring the beauty of El Salvador

Other trips we took were to Lago Coatepeque, La Puerta del Diablo, El Volcan Izalco, Las Ruinas de San Andres y Las Ruinas de Tazumal, and another personal favorite La Ruta de Las Flores where we visited different indigenous towns. We also had the opportunity to speak to important political activists, political representatives, and visit various FMLN (The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front is the current political party governing El Salvador) community centers whom allowed us to join in on their meetings.

This trip to El Salvador transformed pictures and words read into reality. I learned about my history, my roots, and current events.  While the media only chooses to display the violence of my country I saw a whole other side that involves love, dedication, and community organizing for the better good. I heard stories from war survivors which touched every part of my soul. I learned the importance of preserving our country’s historic memory. I saw the natural beauty that El Salvador has to offer and most importantly I connected and learned from all different types of people. My love and passion for travel was discovered because of this trip. I remember sitting at my tia’s house in El Salvador filling out study abroad application to Brazil and my mother saying, “tu me quieres matar con tus locuras!” It has been a non-stop travel journey from then but I never forget the trip that began it all and I always carry a piece of El Salvador in my heart.