I’m a travel writer, trip director, communications specialist, and diversity trainer who is passionate about the intersection of social justice and technology.
My appreciation for women’s empowerment stems from graduating from Wellesley College, where women’s aspirations, and accomplishments were valued. I’ve studied in France and I’ve taught in public schools in Boston and San Antonio.
In 2016, I finished 27 months of service with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, where I worked as an LGBT diversity trainer, social media manager, TEFL teacher trainer, and fundraised thousands of dollars for gender empowerment camps. Now, you might see me giving bike tours on the National Mall with DC Bike and Roll!
I’m currently a Trip Director for Insider Expeditions in DC. I do translation work, editing, research, and social media consulting work consistently and quickly. Whenever I work, I make sure everything I post goes the distance. I know the value of consistency, communication, and creativity. Everyone has a story to tell. Not only will I help you tell your story, I’ll make sure it is heard.
2017 was been quite an unpredictable year, and China was not on the list at all. In January, I was going through my post-Peace Corps period of depression that came in part from moving from a sunny, tropical country to single digit temperatures in Washington State. I was adjusting to a new country all over again, in much the same way that Americans are adjusting to a new country ever since the election happened. It still feels like I’m adjusting to a new country that isn’t quite how it was when I left it.
2017 has also been a year of disappointment. After getting rejected from my second Fulbright Application to study arts therapy in South Africa, I had booked a one-way ticket to Cape Town from Seattle through Gotogate.com, hoping to see a new place for about a month starting on January 18th. The Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle was closed due to a snowstorm, so I drove 6 hours nonstop around the highway through snow and freezing rain, and I still missed my nonrefundable flight. So, I decided to move to Washington D.C. the next day because of the strong Wellesley and Peace Corps networks there. I had been planning to move to D.C. eventually, just not right after getting a $150 yellow fever shot intended for my South Africa trip or with only two carry-ons with my Hawaiian shirts. That’s how it worked out.
2017 has also been the year of surprises. China had never been on my list of places to see. The only Asian country I’d been to was Japan, and I’ve always wanted to travel to The Philippines or Southeast Asia, not China. Why would I bother getting a visa?
Then, I was given the chance to go on a freelance work trip. I applied for a rush visa on Monday morning after waiting outside of the Chinese Consulate at 7 a.m., then I picked it up on Thursday morning. That night, I took my ten-year visa with me on a flight from JFK Airport to Shanghai with my new coworkers. I had no expectations. I just knew that this was a wonderful chance to immerse myself in a new language and culture.
During this whirlwind trip, we flew to four different cities in one week. I didn’t even know what day of the week it was, and that’s how I like it.
A post shared by Charleen Johnson Stoever (@vulnerabletraveler) on
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the culture, and more specifically, the food. I expected the food to be decent, but not worthy of dedicating an entire article to it. I’ve heard people say that the food in China isn’t good, but that couldn’t be farther from my experience. I love trying new foods. I love exploring the textures of different foods and I love the memories and emotions they bring. It’s a sort of exploration that was absent during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, where beans and rice were eaten three times a day. People ate to survive there. I’m privileged because I am have the economic advantage of seeing food as an experience, not as fuel for survival. I’m lucky.
Now, about the best meal of my life. The dinner in Changzhou was an otherworldly experience, and I must tell you about it because it reminded me of why humans bother putting effort into the food they prepare and present in the first place. From the moment the first dish arrived on our spinning, glass table to the last scoop of our chopsticks, he entire process was art.
It began. We sat down in our private, white-walled room and waited with anticipation for the operatic spectacle to commence in all of its glorious sensation.
Alan, one of my new coworkers, ordered in Mandarin. I couldn’t understand any of it. To me, Mandarin sounds like a harsh language. He and the waitress sounded so annoyed with each other, but my perception was just based off of the tones of this language so different from my own. In China, the people sounded as if they about to get into a fist fight until, all of a sudden, they’d burst out laughing. I’d feel relieved after that. In college, though, I remember some of my white friends telling me that myself and my Latina friends would sound loud and upset, but then I’d clarify that that’s just how we spoke to one another. To me, it was normal to speak with emotion. The tone of my voice definitely changes when I speak in English vs. Spanish.
Once Alan ordered, we’d wait for a minute or two for the hostess to take her stylus and tablet back to the kitchen. First, some cold dishes would arrive so that we wouldn’t have to worry about small talk. Green, hose-like noodles. What’s this? I asked, countless times. Mussels with vermicelli. Pork belly. Buttered shrimp. More butter—this time, mushrooms in a buttery broth. Spicy soup with peppercorns. After this, I wanted to cook everything in peppercorns.
This was a meal to remember, and it just needed a soundtrack. So, I imagined Vivaldi’s “Winter” to accompany my euphoria. In between bites, I’d pause and watch Gia pick up a mussel with her chopsticks and spoon. Wayne took his chopsticks and jabbed at some greens, scooping them up like a heron catching a fish with its beak. The tapping of the chopsticks on the porcelain plates and the clinking of a beer bottle against the rims of the wine glasses broke the silence.
Not all of the food was unforgettable. The sliced, brown jellyfish tasted bland. It was gelatinous and crunchy, but without much flavor. I’ll never forget its magnificent presentation over ice, though. If my tongue couldn’t enjoy it, my eyes would.
My favorite dish? The pig lungs. They came so thinly sliced and beautifully spiced. Each slice melted on my tongue, as if I’d finally tasted the most expensive cut of meat imaginable. The chile it was marinated in reminded me of some sort of Mexican chile (maybe guajillo), bringing in a foreign familiarity to it.
“Ganpei” I said, after we poured Snow Beer into our wine glasses and clinked them together. We spun the glass table around and around to make sure no one would emerge dissatisfied. I loved the equitable feel of not only the round table, but also of the round spinning wheel. If someone wanted some steamed buns across the table, you just had to spin the table yourself or ask someone else to spin it for you. Eventually, you’d get a taste of each dish anyway.
I wish every meal would be this communal. Growing up, my nuclear family made it a point to eat together. Now, my friends have replaced much of my nuclear family. I’m used to eating alone and traveling alone, but in this moment, I was happy I was doing none of those things. My temporary, adoptive family took me by the chopstick and helped me navigate this new world, this new country I had had no desire to explore until it swept me away. These people didn’t seem like strangers much anymore.
This meal reminded me of the artistry involved in presenting the simplest foods, whether they be noodles or pig lungs. I wanted to stare at the food instead of poking at its elegance. Nonetheless, hunger always wins and consumes all in its path. I was so full. I thought I’d explode, but it wasn’t the fullness in the American sense of being fed horse troughs of unreasonable proportions. Contentment, appreciation, and gratitude filled my being.
What a heavenly, otherworldly, sublime meal. The feast of my life that reminded me that life is good. Life is forgiing. Life is a rollercoaster. La vida es un carnaval, como dice Celia Cruz.
The next day, as I sat in the airplane on the smoggy descent into Beijing, an old man in a golf cap sat in front of me and stared out the window like a little boy who had never flown before. China, and this meal, made me feel like I was flying for the first time all over again.
Looking for things to do this Spring in Washington, DC?
Whether you live a few metro stops away from DC, or you’re flying across 11 time zones to see Dorothy’s Ruby Red slippers at The American History Smithsonian, I wanted to let you know about some fun things to do around DC this spring. There’s something for everyone here, from the solo spring breaker to the family of nine. After leading bike tours on the National Mall since March with Bike and Roll DC, I’ve had lots of fun meeting families from all over the world and showing them the countless wonders of the U.S. Capital.
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?
“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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Bike tours are some of the best ways to get to know a city, especially one as historical as Washington, DC. This Spring we’re offering Cherry Blossom tours, and I’ve enjoyed learning the history about these beautiful trees found in DC.
The Japanese sent about 3,000 trees to DC in 1912 as a diplomatic gift to the U.S. and many of them have lived twice as long as their expected lifespans of forty years! While 3% die each year, saplings with the original trees’ DNA are kept in the National Arboretum. We’ve actually donated trees back to Japan when they lost them due to flooding in the ’50s and ’80s.
I learned all of this as I prep to lead Cherry Blossoms bike tours with Bike and Roll DC -check us out when you’re in town!
I’m so honored to be featured on the XX, Will Travel Podcast for independent women travelers. On International Women’s Day, I’m talking about how I grew from vulnerability abroad, learned to normalize self care, and how that’s impacted my life as a woman today.
As travelers, we constantly put ourselves in vulnerable positions by exploring unfamiliar languages, cultures, social mores and even physical terrain. Char Stoever is an LGBT diversity trainer and Peace Corps alum assigned to Nicaragua who coined the term “vulnerable traveler.” She joins us to talk about how to view vulnerability as a learning tool and relationship builder instead of as a weakness. Opening up is never easy and does require care, particularly for members of marginalized groups. But, as Char discusses, the rewards often outweigh the risks and can lead to a more authentic travel experience. We also touch on self care while traveling and avoiding the “1000 Things to See Before You Die” trap.
This week’s episode features Char Stoever. Char is a Mexican-American bacon lover, travel writer, and diversity trainer with a passion for the intersection between social justice and technology. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is grateful to have attended a women’s college where women’s opinions, aspirations, and accomplishments were valued. In 2011, she studied abroad in France, and after graduating in 2012, she taught in public schools in Boston and San Antonio.
In 2016, she finished 27 months of service with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, where she worked as an LGBT diversity trainer, social media manager, and fundraiser for gender empowerment camps. She’s currently Wanderful’s social media intern and has written about travel, LGBTQ issues, mental health, and women’s empowerment for sites like Go Abroad and Travel Latina.