No Te Puedes Ir Sola: Misconceptions about Traveling Alone

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“Tu no te puedes ir sola….”

Infamous words of my abuela. Whether it be to the store late at night, or across the world on my travels, I should never go alone. “¿Y Porqué?” –  frustrated that I was always being told this.

“Por que eres una niña.”

Why does my gender suddenly make me incapable of protecting myself? Why is it taboo for me to be out alone, or travel alone, just because I am female. Men face just as much of a risk taking the train at 2 am. Men have been victimized abroad. So why are we a target, just because we are girls?

Screw that.

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Essaouira, Morocco

It’s not just abuela who worries. I’ve had friends and even strangers ask me, “but aren’t you scared/worried/afraid?” Absolutely not! Who’s to say something can’t happen to me in my own neighborhood? Why should that fear stop me from exploring and learning?

Don’t get me wrong, I️ have been followed, harassed, even gotten garbage thrown at me. My big mouth has gotten me into trouble more than I️ can count. So maybe don’t follow in my footsteps exactly. I’m the type of girl that will curse out cat-callers (and it’s not the smartest reaction, especially abroad!).

In an ideal world, men would understand to respect a woman and her body, that we are not objects or property. If anyone finds this perfect world, let me know how to buy my ticket! Chicas, let me tell you NOTHING you do, say, or wear will make you more or less of a target! Let me give you an example:

I went out one night with a group from my riad in Morocco. One girl in the group was wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. Nothing revealing, nothing tight-fitting, but she was blessed with curves. A man approached us very nicely and asked if we wanted to sit down and have tea in his café.  No, but thank you, we replied. This. Dude. Went. Off.

“How dare you come to my country dressed like that”

“How dare you walk on the street”

“You whore, you should be ashamed”

Um… what!?

Now you may be saying, “Well that story doesn’t make me feel better about traveling alone!” Yeah, I see what you mean, but I want tshow that you can follow customs, not try and draw attention to yourself, take all precautions necessary, or not. At the end of the day, you have to be aware of your surroundings and try and make smart decisions in case of uncomfortable situations.

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Machu Picchu, Peru (that llama followed me around for 15 mins!)

Abuela was raised in a different time, and I understand her concerns come from a good place. More and more women are following their heart to travel solo and realizing the rewarding experience it is! I’m a strong believer that you should be able to be comfortable alone. Traveling alone is an eye-opening experience, it allows you to truly push yourself out of your comfort zone. Plus, traveling alone means you can do and see whatever is on your list, without having to worry about compromising with a travel buddy!

Book that flight and explore that country you have always wanted to! Don’t ever let other peoples fears dictate your life, dreams, and goals. And if you don’t feel comfortable traveling alone, let me know why, or better yet TAKE ME WITH YOU!

 

My First Solo Trip

Why does being single, going out to dinner alone, or a movie by yourself seem so taboo? Is this just generational thinking in our society? I suppose it took me a while to be OK with things like that, but traveling alone was something I had yet to explore. With no real preparation, it sort of just happened one day on what started as a week vacation to Jaco, Costa Rica. I had recently broken up with my partner of 5 years so I was ready to get away for a bit.

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Jaco Beach by our Hotel

We had a blast in Costa Rica. We went on a boat tour to visit come crocs with the Crocodile Man Tour.

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Playing with the giant crocs

We went to visit the Arenal Volcano.

Manuel Antonio Park and Beaches

ATV Riding

Deep Sea Fishing – Stung by a jelly fish but still enjoyed beer.

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Deep Sea Fishing

There was one day in particular that made me question all of my life’s decisions. In Manuel Antonio, there is a small secluded beach called Playa Hemelas and I was sitting there looking out into the gorgeous blue ocean, listening to the waves crashing, I had my epiphany. It hit me hard, and I knew it just felt right. I knew at that moment that I just couldn’t go back to my old boring office job and that lifestyle. I had experienced freedom like I had never known and I wanted more.

My life wasn’t horrible back home, but I wasn’t fully satisfied either. So it was then I made my decision to quit my job and stay in Costa Rica for a while longer. It was crazy I know. But it felt so right. I didn’t really care about my boring job, I was single, I had some savings and I was already in Central America. It felt like perfect timing. I had dreamt about just quitting my job and escaping somewhere far but until then I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

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Jaco Beach

It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I had never traveled alone to a foreign country. I would never be the same after this experience and I was excited and terrified all at the same time. Was I out of my mind? I basically quit my whole life as I knew it to start something new, something I had dreamt about my whole life.

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Exploring Playa Hermosa

I enjoyed just exploring on my own, no real plan, just getting know the area and the locals.

I was finally happy! Super 100% without a doubt, genuinely happy!

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Playa Hemelas

After spending a couple of weeks in Costa Rica, I decided I still wasn’t ready to go back home. This new found freedom was addicting.

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Deep Sea Fishing

Next country was Belize. I made my way along the “Gringo Trail” in Central America. No longer afraid to be alone, completely dependent on me, myself and I, and the freedom to come and go on my schedule, I was hungry to visit as many places as I could.

 

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Xunantunich Ruins entrance

I planned on visiting some of the ancient ruins near by. I had to take a bus and walk to the draw bridge that was the entrance to Xunantunich Ruins.

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Lost in thought at the ruins

I realized I was on a journey of self discovery.

I spent several months backpacking around Central America visiting BelizeGuatemala and Mexico. There is no experience like traveling alone in a foreign country, completely dependent on yourself. I highly recommend it at least once. It changes you. You really learn about yourself. I kind of felt invincible.

Let me know about your solo travel experiences.

Source article at rgreatescape.com

Around the World Beauty by Stephanie Flor

Stephanie Flor, Make-Up Artist and Digital Creator
By day, Stephanie is a NYC-based makeup artist with Ecuadorian and Costa Rican roots who works with some of the most influential celebs out there from Mariah Carey to Sting and brands who focus on global beauty like Shea Moisture, Clinique and many others.. After hours she’s a bona fide #BeautyTraveler who’s traveled to the tip of India to take part in the Ayurvedic way of living, and through the heights of South America where she climbed Machu Piccu – you know – just to get a closer look at the sun. Stephanie is the host of “Journey to Beauty,” a regular beauty and travel series on vivala.com and her global beauty tips have been featured in O, the Oprah Magazine, on travelchannel.com, allure.com, cosmopolitan.com, and more. She’s also been named as one of Latina Magazine’s “Beauty Vanguards” a trailblazer in Marie Claire Magazine and was featured in Glamour and Skyla’s “Making Her Mark” campaign.

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Stephanie Flor

Stephanie created Around the World Beauty because of her passion for culture and travel. She wanted to find a way to combine her career in the beauty industry with adventure, while also breaking out of the norms of what we think beauty is. Beauty is an adventure, getting outside the comfort zone, and seeing from the heart. To see from the heart, it takes being with yourself, taking risks, and willing to trust others. Travel is truly the only way to discover who you really are.

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Around the World Beauty reveals beauty rituals and traditions that are practiced by women all over the globe. Our mission is to inspire women to reconnect with their ancestral beauty path. Ancient old beauty remedies passed down from generations that celebrate the beauty of women in all different cultures.  

Discover Your Beauty Roots
1) A call to explore the history of global beauty, which spans from the beginning of time.
2) The demand to uncover the beauty traditions of one’s ethnic heritage.

ATW has offered trips to India and Ecuador in the past. We’ve ventured into the Amazon, and meditated next to the ganges under the Himalayas. It’s been a beautiful journey expanding to new locations, and making women travel to locations off the beaten path, full of inner and outer beauty.

Peru Beauty Journey (November 15th-24th, 2018)
Experience the land of Pacha Mama, the mountains of the Incas and Sacred Valley that holds an abundance of Beauty Energies. This journey brings us to Peru to discover the deeper meaning of beauty. Together we will immerse into the true spirit of holistic wellness while we #BeautyExplore two days in the ancient city of Cusco, six days in the Sacred Valley at Willka T’ika Retreat Center, and spend two days at the mysterious Machu Picchu. We will be special guests of Willka T’ika, the luxury full-service retreat center situated at the feet of the Andean Peaks in the Sacred Valley. Experience cultural and traditional Incan ceremonies with healers, musical celebrations, vibrant Chakra Gardens, and the delicious organic gourmet vegetarian cuisine.  There will also be plenty of free time for Andean Spa Treatments, and to be immersed in the spiritual essence of the Andean world. Here, you will be surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, the magic of ancient civilizations and transformational energy which can only be found in the lands of Pachamama. Alchemy with the Elements, Beauty Rituals, Chakra Gardens, Ceremonies, Mystical Temples, Sacred Sites, Pristine Mountains and Sacred Lakes, Q’ero Wisdom, Beauty Give Back, Textile Shopping, Solar Bathing, Andean Spa Treatments.

 

The retreat is designed to accommodate 10-15 women. We bring women together in a safe, spiritual space to learn about the meaning of different beauty rituals, the source of #BeautyCulture from Around The World. Our following is a niche group of nomadic and conscious beauty lovers who care about the world of beauty around us, and changing the way we see and share in beauty.

ATW’s Journeys explore the deeper meaning of beauty and the passed down rituals of our ancestors to celebrate and empower younger generations through wellness and beauty from the source. Let us inspire you to make a beauty discovery of your own! Join our next Beauty Journey to Peru 2018.

 

A Note on the Deposit and Instalments
The initial non-refundable deposit is $1,150. You are able to pay as you go for this trip until September.
The full price for this trip is $4,250 but she’s offering $150 off if you use the code: TravelXLatina.

 

The Introvert’s Travel Guide

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Seattle, Washington

Traveling can often seem like an extrovert’s game; new places full of new people and never a shortage of unavoidable social interactions between airports, hotels and tourist traps. Still, they’re all necessary to enjoy the reasons to travel in the first place.

Introversion and traveling might seem at odds with each other, but traveling is a customizable experience and the way I travel has allowed those two qualities to work together. PRME.jpg

Finding a method of travel that fits with your personality means you get the most out of your trip instead of losing some of that joy to stress and emotional exhaustion. I’ll be sharing the traveling method I’ve crafted that allows me to really enjoy a trip while mitigating some of the more tiring aspects, leaving plenty of time to recharge.

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Trois Pitons, Dominica

I try to travel whenever the opportunity arises because it’s one of the most effective tools for challenging yourself to reassess your worldview while also building up your tolerance for unpredictability. Honing these abilities translates into a higher capacity for keeping yourself together under pressure and more successfully managing your everyday stress.

So here’s my travel guide for introverts — because seeing the world doesn’t have to come at the expense of your wellbeing!

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Miami Beach, Florida

I’m starting off with accommodations first because this is the part of my traveling method that’s transformed my experience the most. Using the service I do has completely altered both the type of trips I take as well as my experience on those trips. Check out my video where I explain how I’ve managed to completely cut out the cost of accommodations from traveling

Using this new method, I’ve been staying in people’s homes while they’re away traveling themselves, which means I get the luxury (and privacy) of an entire home to myself for the duration of my trip. I can’t recommend this enough if you’re like me and need that time at home to ponder the day’s events and recharge after a day of extroversion, but can’t actually afford to rent out an entire home during your trip. Part of what makes traveling a tiresome endeavor is the impersonal feel of hotel after hotel; not to mention regardless of how nice your hotel is, you’re not planning to spend that much time in it when every night costs you.

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Portland, Oregon

Using the method I explain in the video, I’m able to take way longer trips than I could ever afford previously when I had to pay for accommodations. Now that I don’t pay for where I’m staying, I can extend my trips to lengths that allow me to feel less rushed and under pressure to get so much done in a short span of time. This means I can take a few days throughout my trip to just relax and process my experience within the privacy and comfort of a lovely home; a major difference in how quickly my extroversion fuel reserves begin to dwindle.

Flights & Airports

This is undoubtedly the hardest part of traveling. I’ve taken 10-hour flights, 2-hour flights, indirect flights and I’ve even missed flights. All of these are draining experiences in and of themselves, nevermind the added layer of having to be around crowds of strangers coughing around you and wondering if you’ll attract the TSA’s attention. Flying comes with its own set of routine activities that rapidly grate an introvert’s patience into dust.

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En Route to Vermont

However, there are a few things you can do to make this part of your trip as painless as possible that I only began to consider recently.

  • Don’t immediately reach for the cheapest flight available.

This is something I’ve done out of budget cconsciousness for the majority of my traveling that finally came back to bite me when I needed to reschedule a flight. Most of us don’t question whether we want to pay extra for a “premium” economy ticket; we just want the cheapest flight available. Sometimes though, that price difference is as little as $25 and thus at least worth contemplating. If your flight is going to be stressful in one aspect (duration, connections, etc), you should really consider whether that premium ticket isn’t worth the extra space you’ll get from being able to choose a window seat. There’s nothing more unnerving for someone that values their space than having it invaded by foreign elbows for several hours straight. Plus, if you fly more than just 3 times a year, a refundable ticket will save you eventually, as it has for me.

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En route to Seattle, Washington

  • Don’t assume airport lounges are completely out of your reach.

While it’s definitely not the most accessible of all my tips for introverted travel, if you have the means or just hate airports enough, you should look into getting a credit card that will give you access to the calmer and less crowded sky lounges. Of course, the cards that offer this benefit come with an annual fee. So far the least offensive of the fees is Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business card from American Express: $195 a year will get you discounted access to Delta’s Sky Club (as long as you’re flying Delta). Normally the rate for entrance is $59, so if used often enough, the discount can cover the cost of the card.

This article breaks down a list of the best credit cards for sky lounge access.

Locations

Every traveler has the must-sees like Paris and Rome on their travel to-do list, but as an introvert, there’s another world of travel open to you. Big cities and tourist-laden locations are kind of the antithesis of an introvert’s playground, so don’t forget to consider the destinations that lie beyond the beaten path.

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Shi Shi Beach in the Olympic Peninsula, Washington

While other people might balk at your plans to visit a quaint town in Eastern Europe, they’re not the ones taking that trip, you are. Craft your travel plans in line with what inspires and restores you. As someone that gets worn down by fast-paced and overcrowded destinations, what is a “boring” trip to others will feel like a vacation in paradise for you.

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Cape Flattery hiking trail in the Olympic Peninsula, WA

From my own experience, I decided to take a trip more in line with my solitary nature: 3 weeks in the mountainside of rural Vermont. Some of my friends thought I might’ve been losing it, but what’s hell for one person is heaven for another, and that trip turned out to be nothing short of heavenly for me.

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Roxbury, Vermont

Don’t feel compelled to follow the typical travel itinerary of seeing all the most famous cities of the world; that’s an extremely long list and its fame doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll love it. Choosing your destinations comes down to deciding whether you’re trying to satisfy a checklist of famous sites or seeking to explore places that truly interest you. The latter will always yield a more meaningful experience.

Introvert-Friendly Sightseeing

Having a long list of crowded sights to see while traveling can start to suck the fun out of a trip, especially if you’re particularly crowd-averse. I’ve changed the way I do my sightseeing to a method that’s helped to not only keep my sanity intact but given me a unique traveling experience that’s tailored to my personality.

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Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon

While you shouldn’t let the crowds keep you away from the world’s wonders (sometimes they’re crowded for good reason), you definitely should seek out some sights that are more in tune with your introverted nature. Creating a balanced itinerary will keep your stress down, which means your travel experience will feel less like a checklist of expectations to meet and more like an actual vacation.

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Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic Peninsula, WA

Here is my list of sights to add to your travel to-do list that will help maintain a balance between extroversion and introversion during your trip.

• Libraries

• Local tea rooms and cafes

• Historic building tours

• Day trips to a rural area if staying in a city

• Hiking trails

• Picnic at a local park

• Independent theaters showing local or indie films

• Museums

• Botanical gardens

• Local theatre companies for plays

Adding in a mix of introvert-centric travel stops helps to slow down the rate at which you become emotionally over-spent, which means more time used really enjoying your trip.

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Rooftop of El Convento in Viejo San Juan, PR

I use as much of these methods for introvert-friendly traveling whenever I can and they really make a difference in my traveling experience. Going from a time where my trips followed the more traditional, sightseeing-packed-week-in-a-1-room-hotel method, I can feel the reduction in stress and the higher levels of enjoyment I now have when traveling.

I’ve come to realize that the best trips are not always on the top 10 list destinations, but instead are the ones you’ve customized to fit your personality.

What’s your experience as an introverted traveler? Do you get worn down and how do you deal with that? I’d love to know your thoughts – share them with me on social media here and here!

Salomé Luna Gemme

Yoga & Wellness Retreats by Brenda & Argentina

Brenda and Argentina are both Latina yoga instructors based in New York City. They met while practicing and teaching at a studio in Harlem, NY. Their mission in partnering together and leading yoga retreats is to build a broader yoga community, one that is more inclusive and welcoming.  

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Argentina Rosado
Argentina was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and moved to the U.S. at the age of 15, along with her mom and three siblings. She began practicing yoga and meditation as a way to cope with the changes of moving to a different country, learning a new language, and fitting in with the culture.

After graduating college and then working in the pharmaceutical drug industry for years, she decided that she wanted to contribute to people’s health and wellbeing in a more holistic way. Argentina is now a full-time yoga instructor and has been studying and practicing holistic healing practices such as Reiki, Yoga Nidra, and various meditation techniques. Her classes are breath-centered, challenging yet accessible and never competitive. Off the mat, she loves to spend time with her dog Rocky and volunteering back home in the Dominican Republic.

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Argentina in the Dominican Republic, her motherland

Brenda Umana, MPH
Brenda stumbled upon yoga in a corporate wellness class while working in the Financial District in San Francisco, CA. At the time she didn’t realize the amount of emotional distress she carried with her, which yoga somehow slowly began to relieve. After many attempts at different corporate jobs, Brenda is now a full-time yoga instructor and committed to making yoga accessible to everyone.  When she’s not doing yoga, she’s enjoying some wine, curled up reading a book, or out and about in the city.

Brenda’s family is originally from El Salvador, and she was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. Throughout her childhood she spent many summers travelling back to El Salvador to visit her extended family.

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Brenda in El Salvador, her motherland

Both Argentina and Brenda have been traveling from an early age because of their family and historical roots. They have a passion for culture, food, and community.

August 2018 Yoga Retreat in Santa Marta, Colombia
Together, Argentina and Brenda set out to co-lead their first yoga retreat in 2018. They started the year with organizing and teaching at the Spring Awakening Yoga Retreat in Nicaragua which was a huge success with a group of 12 people taking on the adventure. Check out the hashtag #SpringAwakeningYogaRetreat for some colorful photos, like:

 

Brenda and Argentina are now hosting their second international yoga retreat on the beautiful Caribbean Coast of Santa Marta, Colombia on August 15-20, 2018. The retreat will include an unforgettable six days and five nights of yoga and meditation at an eco-chic beachfront resort. There are plenty of self-care activities planned including themed workshops to deepen your practice and journaling activities for self-awareness and discovery. There will be two day trips scheduled (natural parks, coffee farms, local markets, nature hikes, sacred pools, waterfalls, river tubing, etc). Oh, and tons of free time to take for your sweet self. The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is the world’s tallest coastal mountain range. This area is referred to as the Heart of the World for its geographical location but most importantly because every single ecosystem exists and thrives in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The adventures in Santa Marta will allow some time to learn about the Indigenous cultures protecting the Heart of the World. The four existing indigenous tribes (Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo people) are ancestors of the pre-Hispanic Civilization, known as the Tayrona. They still practice and follow the Tayrona belief of “Aluna”, which is the belief that all reality is created by thought.

 

Without a doubt, you’ll be making memorable connections, and so much more, we can’t describe it all here! Click on this link to see the full itinerary, to place a deposit down and list of what’s included

A Note About Instalment Payments
Brenda & Argentina realize that although these experiences are once in a lifetime, there are budget realities. Many people that attended the past Spring Awakening Yoga Retreat in Nicaragua decided to take a payment plan option after the initial deposit. They sent in payments of $50s here and $100s there until they completed their final balance before the trip. Paying a large lump sum of money at once can be challenging, but for this reason Brenda & Argentina are offering a payment plan option where anyone can submit small amounts towards the total balance. The total balance is required to be paid by August 1, 2018.

As yoga teachers, Brenda & Argentina don’t exactly teach to make the big bucks. Once they both decided to turn the corner away from the corporate world, their income drastically decreased and they found themselves planning out their budgets more often, goal-setting, and saving money over time to do the things they are passionate about. They are striving to really make this inclusive. We are all deserving of these experiences.

Pricing
Initial non-refundable deposit $300
Standard Triple Bungalow – $1,874 Early Bird (Expires May 13, 2018)
Standard Triple Bungalow – $1,974 Regular Price (After May 13, 2018)
Double Bungalow Suites- $1,974 Early Bird (Expires May 13, 2018)
Double Bungalow Suites- $2,074 Early Bird (Expires May 13, 2018)

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.

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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…

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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!