Ever since I was a kid, I have had vivid dreams of flying over the lush African landscape, and about flying over and around Victoria falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”). Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world. The Devil’s Pool, at the falls’ edge, hadn’t been in the picture—yet.
Since I was homeschooled for a few years during my childhood, I’d wake up, eat my mom’s eggs with jitomate and tortillas, and watch Discovery Kids with my brother before our dad gave us his classes, ranging from French to the functions of the liver.
My favorite Discovery Kids episodes showcased Amazonian animals or the creatures you’d see on an African Safari. I grew up wanting to study and work with animals. Whether I’d be a veterinarian, or study marine biology, I didn’t know. Then I actually took biology in high school. Learning about the parts of the cell didn’t excite me as much as history class, so plans of studying life forms in far off lands went on the back burner—but thoughts of going to Africa didn’t. When my mind would wander during my classes, I’d stare at the globe we probably bought from Costco, wondering what it would be like across the world—what in the world is Africa really like?
I suppose being born in Mexico and having family far away made me aware of how big the world was and that I needed to see it.
Fast forward to September 1, 2017, when I was laid off unexpectedly. While it was a shock, I had been saving money in case such a thing would ever happen. I toyed with the idea of finding another job, but after speaking with my friend Damaly, who reminded me to live my truth, as scary as that may be, I made plans to find a subletter for a few months, and I booked a one way ticket from DC to Victoria Falls. I connected in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (since I was flying on Ethiopian airlines), and didn’t know what to expect of this continent I’ve heard of all my life but that I just had to see for myself. I’ve been couchsurfing and staying with a great host here in Zimbabwe named Martin for the past few days.
I’d always known I needed to see Victoria Falls. It was only until I arrived that I realized that it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Not only did I need to see it, but I needed to swim in it—at it’s edge. This is where the “Devil’s Pool” comes in. The Zambezi River drops quite a bit during the dry season, and from about mid August to mid January, one can walk along the falls’ lip on the Zambian side.
The Devil’s Pool is what you may think of as the ultimate infinity pool, as it formed on the very edge of the fall’s drop. Swimming in it was one of the top 10 most memorable experiences of my life, and I hope that if it’s possible for you to experience it for yourself, that you are even more prepared for it than I was. Here are some things you need to know before sliding in (I know, my title was misleading, but our guide didn’t let us jump)!
The cost of swimming in the Devil’s Pool
I don’t normally spend too much money on outdoor activities. I enjoy hiking and biking, but those activities have not been too expensive for me. The last outdoor activity I splurged on was to go ziplining near Puerto Vallarta, and that cost $50. Booking a tour from the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls (in the city named after the falls) was too expensive for me. Some tour companies charged anywhere from $110–$165, and the cheapest time slots were usually in the morning. These slots were booked up several days in advance.
I decided to cross the Zimbabwean border into Zambia on foot, which took about an hour. I paid $20 to enter Zambia with a U.S. passport, then paid another $20 to enter the Victoria Falls Park on the Zambian side. At the entrance of the park was a woman named Patience who was helping two young German men book a trip to the Devil’s Pool. I asked about the price, and it cost $75 to be taken up with a guide. I made it in time for the last slot at 2:15.
What to wear to The Devil’s Pool
During my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, I wore my Teva sandals about 95% of the time. These, or Chaco’s are a sturdy brand, and are comfortable, especially for swimming and hiking in relatively flat areas. Since we were already at the level of the lip of the falls, we didn’t have to hike much uphill. We had to walk over rocks that are normally covered with water during the wet season, and there were some sharp rocks too. We also had to swim for about 3 minutes to get to the Devil’s Pool, making me wish that I’d brought my sandals or booties instead of my tennis shoes.
It gets quite dusty out here, which is why I didn’t want to ruin my only pair of sneakers any further by swimming with them on. I wore board shorts and a sports bra and was fine. You’ll be fine with a swimming suit, and you are given time to change.
Bring a waterproof camera if possible
I highly suggest this. While my guide, David, had a waterproof bag for us to put our cameras in, the Devil’s Pool area is full of mist and spray from the falls. I brought my Go Pro Camera in its waterproof case, and I’m glad I left my iphone out of the area.
Our guides are well versed in bringing groups out and in taking photos. We didn’t even really have to ask them to take photos of us. They suggested different poses and places where we could take our photos. If anything, I think they took too many photos of me….which leads me to my next point.
At least with the guides we went with. Since there are so many groups going up to see it, the guides respect the other groups’ time and make it very clear that the swim is a quick one. Instead of worrying about if the photos were turning out okay, in retrospect, after taking 3 photos, I would have let the guides know that I didn’t need any more.
There are small fish that will gently bite you!
I’m glad I had read about this in preparation. I had no idea the fish would be so persistent. I never saw them, but I felt them. I am someone who can spend all day swimming in a lake, of which the bottom I will never see, but I’e never been greeted so persistently by fish in my entire life. These weren’t cute, little pedicure-type fish. These were the kind of fish that kept biting at my feet until I raised them up—which only made the water push me forward more easily, adding to the adrenaline rush!
You may tear up as you look over and to the bottom of Victoria Falls
I did. Through the mist, you could see dozens of mini waterfalls trickling down, each in their own world. It was like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Seeing this, along with having the feeling that the Zambezi River could push you over if it wished, was exhilarating. I trust water more than I trust humans sometimes.
I’m so grateful for this experience. For being a human living on the planet at this moment and for trusting myself enough to know that I would make it happen. It was as if all of those mundane, excel spreadsheet–filled days at the office had evaporated into thin air and provided me with this. I felt blessed and lucky to witness it.
David, our guide, grabbed my feet and tried pushing me even further along the edge as we were laying on our stomachs, but I said “Nope, I’m good!” He was very understanding. My life was in his hands. It felt like a huge lesson in trust. David and another guide who joined us at the pools, kept us safe, telling us which way to swim and where to sit the whole time. Hearing the deafening explosion of spray, and witnessing it as close as one possibly could without a harness or helicopter, was unforgettable. I’m proud of myself for being patient with myself and waiting for the right moment to let this happen.
When life didn’t work out at the start of the month, I ended up fulfilling my childhood dream. Not only did I see Victoria Falls, but I swam at its edge. I hope that one day you can experience the Devil’s Pool in Zambia.
If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.
Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.
Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.
We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.
Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.
An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.
To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”→
The Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan department don’t usually make it on most travelers’ itineraries. The Solentiname archipelago lies at the southeastern corner of the massive Lake Nicaragua, and the islanders experienced a liberation theology movement led by the priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Ernesto built a church on Mancarron Island and inspired the locals to create landscape paintings and artisanry that are so endemic to the islands.
After having been in Nicaragua for nearly two years, I hadn’t even visited this area because of how far away Solentiname was. The seemingly inconsistent boat schedules also deterred me. I was dying to visit a place with fellow painters because times are rough where I am. It’s been hard to find other artists who I could share my work with. Luckily, my time to visit came when my boss asked me to observe Stacey, another TEFL volunteer living in the region.
I woke up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning without drinking water as I’m used to doing. I needed to dehydrate myself for the seven hour bus ride. The Rio San Juan department is so far away that it borders Costa Rica, but Nicaraguans proudly call the 119-mile river of the same name theirs. Stickers boasting “The San Juan River is ours!” are pasted on buses here.
I took a taxi to Managua’s Mayoreo terminal, then I hopped on the bus at 5:30. It cost 150 cordobas, which at the time was about $5.30. Since it was Sunday, not many people were traveling, so I could have easily gotten a seat right before the bus left at 6 AM. Vicente Fernandez, a famous Mexican singer, crooned over the speakers in the bus.
Vendors boarded the bus. A woman in a crisp, white polo and white sneakers glided through the aisle, saying “rosquillas, rosquillas” (baked corn cakes that taste like salty cardboard, but they’re great when you’re hungry). She had only three bags left in her hand and I’m sure she sold them quickly. A man came in and offered apples shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam plates.
The engine rumbled to a start, and my nervous excitement kicked in as I felt the slight tremor under my feet. I’d finally go somewhere new! The Rio San Juan, Nueva Segovia, and the RAAN (which is off-limits for Peace Corps volunteers) are the only departments I hadn’t been to.
I’m glad I packed National Geographic magazines and my Moon guidebook to Nicaragua. As the bus cruised along, I was transported to the world of Kinshasa, Congo’s chaotic, creative capital. I read about the city’s relentlessly passionate artists, like Chéri Chérin, who paint next to lanterns at night because most of the city’s power goes out at night. While I get annoyed that the water runs out for days on end here, I still have a consistent supply of electricity.
San Carlos is a tiny, clean port town with not much else other than restaurants, bars, and a fortress. I decided that I didn’t feel like I needed more time to explore the town, so I boarded a boat to Solentiname. I paid $10 for the Transol ride. Every day at 3 PM, boats leave San Carlos for Solentiname. The cheaper boats cost about $3.50, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought it would be worth the investment, and I’d have two days in Solentiname anyway.
I called Hostal Vanessaon San Fernando (or Elvis Chavarría) Island, Solentiname’s second biggest island. José, or Chepe, reserved my private room with a bathroom ($12). I was lucky he answered my call since cell service is so spotty out there. He happened to be on the biggest island, Mancarron, when I’d called.
San Fernando Island, Solentiname
My motorboat pulled out of the dock into Lake Nicaragua, which was at an all-time low because of the insanely dry summer. I saw a man walking in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t believe it at first. The lake is Central America’s largest, but it’s definitely not the deepest. As I put on my lifejacket, I looked out at the never-ending water and could see Solentiname in the distance. It felt like I was in ocean.
After about an hour, the boat dropped me off at San Fernando, where Chepe was waiting for me. He even helpeded me onto the dock! The islands were so small and I must have been one of only a handful of tourists. He knew exactly who I was just from our phone conversation. Chepe showed me to my room, and I asked him if Ernesto Cardenal were around, but he said that he was in Managua. I might be able to meet him at the Casa de los Tres Mundos Art Gallery. Ernesto only visits the islands about four times a year.
As we spoke, one word came to mind: solitude.
Not the miserable kind of loneliness, but the solitude of hearing only birds chirping and the slightest rumble of the boats chugging along. There was no smog, no ambulances wailing, and no motorcycles screeching to a halt. All of these things characterize my city. While I love being in a city, it felt incredibly calm here.
There was a hammock right outside my room, and I knew we would be getting to know each other soon. I asked Chepe if it were safe for a woman to walk around, and he said that there have never been reports of rape or violence against foreigners. Since there aren’t many people on the islands, there’s much less anonymity and a sense of safety that I didn’t know I’d miss so much.
As soon as I showed Chepe my paintings, he showed me around the island to visit his friends and family members who also paint. Almost everyone is an artist here. His wife showed me her artwork. My favorite was the painting of the islands at sunset, with the water dyed a bright orange.
Chepe and I walked along the narrow path to Albergue Celentiname (email@example.com), a hotel overlooking the water that is owned by Doña Maria Guevara, a painter who fled to Costa Rica for two years to work with the likes of Gioconda Belli to feed the flames of the revolution. She returned in 1979, when the populist movement ousted The Dictator, Somoza.
Maria wore a bright pink dress and sat in a chair-like hammock. Chepe introduced me to her, and we talked about painting, the revolution, and gender roles. “Women are responsible for educating men, since men come from women,” she said. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but I respected her. We shared the warm, humid air between us and I was fascinated by her story.
“I haven’t even left yet, and I know I want to come back! I knew that I had to come here to meet you,” I said to her. She thanked me and said that it was lovely meeting me as well.
For dinner, I went to one of the few if not the only restaurant on the island, and paid 140 cordobas (around $5) for a simple plate of tostones (friend, smashed plantains), rice, chicken, and avocado. That plate on the mainland would cost half as much, but because of the time and money it takes to ship goods out here, everything costs more. The chicken was the best I’d had in the country—the meat wasn’t overly cooked, and it was marinated in citrus. The crown jewel was the locally-grown avocado, though. The massive, green wedges tasted like butter.
The nighttime was insanely hot. Since many hotels and homes are solar-powered, the electricity only ran at night in my room. I was so tired that I went to bed at 7 and my fan shut off by 4 AM because the solar energy ran out. I was nervous to sleep with the window open because I was alone, and there was a simple screen covering it, so I shut myself in and delt with the heat. I got my towel and handkerchief wet and lay them over my nacked body to cool down even the slightest bit.
In the morning, I found out that Chepe had left the island to help build a school on Mancarron. He’d told me the day before that he’d show me where I could get cell service, but since he was gone, I found a replacement.
Then, I came back to Maria’s to show her my paintings from my ipad. Both of her scarlet macaws were sitting on the floor, eating their food from bowls. They looked like dogs. Maria scrolled through my acrylic portraits, and she liked them because they don’t involve just the faces of the people I paint—the portraits are about the movement of the people, whether they are cooking, washing, or playing with cats. I asked her for advice, and she suggested that I make the background behind my main subject darker so that the subject could pop out more.
Maria and I spent the entire morning together. She told me about the very first painting she ever did, which was of a tree, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it until she painted it. Ernesto then took it to sell it in Managua for $400, and she was crushed despite the hefty earnings she’d unintentionally made. “That painting was mine, and there was nothing else that existed for me at the time. I haven’t seen the painting since.” We snacked on some granola bars I’d packed as she told me her stories.
She brought out her binoculars to watch the different species of herons, egrets, and songbirds flutter by and crash onto the branches. Although it was insanely hot, humid, and dry, I could imagine how green and vivid the islands must look in the rainy season. The air was so hot that I didn’t want to move, so Maria told me to lay down in a hammock and relax. Like me, I could tell that she likes to stay busy. She went in and out of the kitchen to prepare some beans for her guests.
I felt more at peace than I’d felt in a while. Spending an entire morning with a stranger and laying in their hammock isn’t something I would have done in the states, but here it is normal. I like this kind of normal.
After lunch at the same restaurant, I made my way back the one path to the artisanry museum, the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname($1), which unfortunately was closed for Labor Day. I did, however, stumble upon an artisanal workshop, where I bought the most well-made earrings I’ve seen here. The woman with the key to the shop, Marielos, saw me coming up the stairs and introduced herself. She then opened the doors, and I couldn’t believe the amount of painted birds, fish, and turtles there were, either laying on the tables or hanging from the mobiles. I bought meticulously painted tucan, parrot, and fish-shaped earrings made of light driftwood.
As I tried each of the earrings on, I got to know Marielos, who flipped through the paintings I had stored in my ipad. She asked me if I’d heard from Mateo, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who’d spent three years on the islands, and left in 2000. “He used to stay in touch with us, but then he got married and stopped talking to us. I wonder if something happened to him when the twin towers collapsed.” I tried comforting her, telling her that not everyone is very good at keeping in touch.
By 4 PM, I returned yet again to Maria’s hotel so that I could catch a boat ride to Mancarron for 150 cordobas. It was ten minutes away. One of the men who worked for her, Daniel, took myself and a Costa Rican couple. We walked along the path through town, and I saw the colorful stained-glass windows of the church that was locked shut. We stopped through different houses, gazing at the wood carvings and paintings of the local flora and fauna. Some people owned parrots, and a green parrot looked down at my group, softly whispering “hola.” It was nice seeing a different island, but I was happy I was staying on San Fernando.
That night, I paid Estelbina, Chepe’s wife, the $24 for both nights at Hostal Vanessa, and since Chepe would be running the boat to San Carlos in the morning, I paid for the 90 cordoba fare for that, too.
Chepe had told me that the boat stops by at 5:30 AM, but Estelbina’s sister advised me to be ready by five. The spotty schedules made me nervous, so I woke up at 4:45 (after having slept with the window open) and I was at the dock early. By 5:15, the boat pulled in. I jumped in and we were out of the port by 5:20. It’s a good thing I’d gotten ready early.
The boat sailed slowly over the water. I peered out at the different islands, and tried to guess at which one was Zapotillo, which once housed an orphanage and a pedophile Evangelist priest who was eventually chased into Costa Rica. Costa Rica was so close that if it weren’t so hazy, I would’ve been able to see the Arenal Volcano to the south.
I was filled with so much happiness that I’d finally found a community of painters with whom I could share my art. I’d love to return to Solentiname during the rainy season so that I no longer need to imagine the potential of its beauty.
Is there anything you’d like to know about Solentiname? Share in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
In July 2015, the CEO of Wanderful, Beth Santos, connected me with Casey and Bill Morton, owners of Soma Surf Resort in Popoyo, Nicaragua, where I would go on my first press trip.
Soma means “South of Managua”, and it is quite the opposite of the mountainous region of Matagalpa that I call home. I headed to Soma to capture the spirit of this amazing place, and walked away with a new appreciation of surfing. I had never been to a surf resort. I felt vulnerable.
Just as I quickly learned to stand up on a surf board, I learned that you don’t have to surf to enjoy a surf resort.
Soma offers something for everyone, whether you enjoy taking a yoga class or sipping watermelon mint coolers by an infinity pool. Soma is a place that makes visitors disconnect with the stressors of the workplace. There are no televisions in the rooms, coaxing guests to socialize with one another over shared meals after exhilarating surf sessions.
Casey and Bill Morton both grew from vulnerable travel. I interviewed them to find out more about what made them leave the comforts of their from their small town, to moving to California, to opening up a Surf Resort in Nicaragua. Find out what travel was like for them, and how it’s changed.
Where are you both from originally?
Casey: We are from West Seneca, NY, outside Buffallo. It was a very small, tight knit community. It was always freezing cold, but we never let the weather get in the way. We would go to “Toboggan parties” with our friends.
How did you meet?
Bill: We were high school sweethearts. I was on the basketball team. Casey was a cheerleader. We met at a Christmas party. Casey had gone with my friend Steve, but then he got sick at the party. So, I asked him if I could take her home. We sat and talked on her stoop, and we went on eight dates before we went steady. The day Steve puked was the luckiest day of my life. We’ve been together for 45 years and married for 40 years.
It was 1970, and men were getting drafted to go to Vietnam. I had a higher lottery number, 256, so I wasn’t as worried about getting drafted. We went to a public school, so our friends were getting drafted right and left. I was learning how to sow and cook with the girls in home economics class, and the boys were in wood shop class. Could you imagine sitting in one of those classes, waiting to be called? That’s how it was for us.
Some of our friends went to Canada. Nixon eventually pardoned them. It was the only war where soldiers went and returned to protest. The protested on college campuses and in DC. Jane Fonda even came to speak at our progressive Jesuit college. It was a politically active time! Now, you don’t really see veterans protesting. It’s insane that at 18, you could be sent to war, but you couldn’t drink or vote.
There was an external political dynamic going on. There were riots on Detroit. Our parents on the other hand, were just happy to have a solid job, a car, and a dog. Then in 15 years, everyone questioned everything.
Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?
“We had both flown before in college, but the morning after our wedding, we boarded our plane to LA. We were the first people out of our class of 120 to leave. It was a blue collar town in the rest belt of America. Car part plants were closing, and we knew we had to leave.
Casey was a queen. She cried as soon as we sat down on the plane. The airplane staff asked if she was okay, then the pilot told her to control herself. I just thought “Does anyone have some Valium?”
Casey: I was bawling, thinking “What have I just done? Have I lost my mind?”
Bill: Soon enough, the fear stopped. We found strength in ourselves and each other. We both had an adventurous spirit. We had to focus on paying the bills, so we went job searching.
Casey: The LA employment office listed jobs on index cards on peg boards
Char: like the coupons at grocery store entrances?!
Casey: Yes! I had a degree in Sociology, and I went into Marketing. I found a job posting for Halston in the LA Times. I was one of 300 applicants. My interviewer asked me to meet him at his house, but I refused. So, he interviewed me at Hamburger Hamlet. I got the job.
Char: What made him pick you out of 300 applicants?
Casey: I stood out because of my passion. I was hungry for work.
Bill: The move to LA strengthened our relationship. We raised each other. This move formulated our move to Nicaragua.
Where else have you lived?
Casey: We moved around because of my job. We lived in Laguna Beach for 17 years, then we moved to San Francisco where I did marketing for Calvin Klein. Bill worked in schools as a speech pathologist.
What did your loved ones think about your travels?
Bill: My mom didn’t speak to us for five years after we left New York. In her Polish culture, she was used to living in a tight knit family. Leaving wasn’t an option. She was angry at me, and took it personally. We reconciled eventually.
Casey: My dad was sad to see us go, but he said “It’s your life. It’s what we raised you for, and we’re here to support you.”
Bill: our friends thought we were crazy. They visited sometimes, but we changed in a different way. We moved around, but we had the choice to.
How do you think your son, Bill, perceives living abroad?
Casey: Billy has been traveling since he was nine months old. He went to Indonesia and Java when he was five, and Macchu Picchu at seven.
Bill: I remember when Billy was nine and we were hiking the half dome in Yosemite. All of a sudden, he stopped and yelled “Why can’t we just go to Disney? Why do we have to do all this hard shit?” I said “It’s just a little farther. Once we got to the top, everyone there clapped for him.
Casey: Billy has always been at ease going places. He could be anywhere, whether it’s the Ritz Carlton or a village. Traveling gave him early exposure to different lifestyles and religions. He understood that people could be Christian or Jewish, and that it was okay to be gay. Once, we had friends who were a gay couple come over. “Why does one of them wear a skirt?” Billy asked. I just said “It’s because they want to.” And Billy would just say “Okay.” Billy is still pretty traditional in some ways . He takes his grandma to church.
How do you think social media has framed how we view travel?
Casey: People travel more now. We are more connected and can google anything. This makes the world easier to access. Back then though, we were more adventurous. We had outdated guidebooks. There was more of the unknown. I remember going to Africa alone for work. I bought a ticket through the newspaper. When I got to the airport in Paris, the FBI was waiting for me. It was a forged ticket! I had to repurchase my ticket and get my attorney on board. I went to Tanzania anyway, and climbed Kilamanjaro.
Bill: Surfing was also different back then. We used to meet at 6 AM and go look at the waves. There were no “surf cameras” so it was more exciting. There was more of a “renegade surfer attitude”. We might have spent three hours looking for the right waves, then ended up at In & Out. We would say things like “Let’s go to Costa Rica and figure it out.”
Where in the world are you now? Where will you go next?
Bill: Ideally, we would keep this place. We have a unique product. At the same time though, we’d like to spend more time back home. Both of our moms are about 90 years old. Billy is probably going to get married and have kids.
Casey: The point is that there is nothing for us to do there. We’re in our 60’s. What could we do? In the U.S., there’s not a place for older people. They’re neglected in the workforce, but their talent is untapped. In Nicaragua, elders are respected and cared for. Since the 2008 stock market crash happened, we know people who lost their jobs and ended up unemployed. In Nicaragua, the cost of living is low. There’s decent health care and interesting people.
Bill: At Soma, we’ve always been a step ahead. We were the first folks here to offer surf lessons. I came here on a surfing trip with Billy, and someone casually mentioned that this property was for sale. When I came back a year later, the price has dropped. The area was rustic and plain, but I knew that it was on the verge of exploding.
Casey and Bill show that traveling is worth the risk taking. As travelers, it was worth placing themselves in a vulnerable situation, because they eventually realized the potential in their travel plans.
They left what they knew behind and supported one another as travelers in order to make their dream of opening up a boutique surf resort a reality.
Stay tuned for a behind the scenese look at Soma’s restaurant!
On a map, Big and Little Corn Island are unassuming specks in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. They are unforgettable gems for the budget traveler.
I decided to go to the Corn Islands because I’ve heard so many other Peace Corps volunteers rave about them. When the $165-200 round trip flight from Managua equates to roughly the same as our monthly earnings, and they still go, then it must be worth it, right? Since my mom had already spent $1,200 on her flight from Pasco, Washington, I dug into my savings to buy our round trip tickets. We were on a budget because we were traveling to the Apoyo Lagoon after this.
You probably haven’t heard of Big and Little Corn Island because they are so small. Why are they named after a golden vegetable? Some say that it’s because of the wild corn that grows on the island. Others attribute the name to phonetics: pronounce “corn” in a Caribbean accent, and it sounds like “carne”, the Spanish word for meat. The islands were known for the cattle that grazed the land and whose meat fed the British pirates and colonizers in the 17th century. Most of the people who live there are the descendants of escaped slaves of Afro-Caribbean descent.
I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I’d explore gorgeous beaches and that I’d hear locals of Afro-Caribbean descent switch seamlessly from English Kreole to Spanish (or English). I’d only been to the NiCaribbean coast once in August, when I led a classroom management workshop for English teachers at the ANPI (Asociacion Nicaraguense de Profesores de Ingles) conference in Bluefields. ANPI paid for my flight and lodging, and some meals. When my meals weren’t covered, I was happy to sit in the park and share a $1 loaf of dense Coconut Breadwith Amilcar, a friendly cab driver I met and came out to. I was excited to return to one of the few parts of the world where the language and culture of Latin American fuses beautifully with that of the Caribbean.
Day 1 Managua to Big Corn Island: 216 miles, or 1.5 hours via La Costeña Airlines. A cheaper option is to take a boat from Bluefields (a much longer trip)
It was a hot, humid Christmas Day. My mom and I woke up at 5 AM, then sat for three hours on a refurbished school bus from Matagalpa to the Managua Airport ($3). Luckily, our flight to Big Corn Island would only take half the time. We boarded around 11 AM. Our tiny airplane took off, and we shook and wobbled with the slightest gust of wind. Nervous excitement and tourists filled the plane. My ears plugged painfully as the cabin pressure changed. We cruised over the Atlantic Ocean. I was enamored by the way the puffy, small clouds cast dark blue shadows over the crystalline Caribbean Sea. Each cloud caste its own imaginary island on the water. The shallow water revealed undulating sand dunes underneath it. A flooded Sahara Desert. I could hear passengers chatting and pointing out the window, but my ears were too plugged to make out the words. I opened and closed my mouth to no avail.
After 30 minutes of flying over the massive, blue Dalmatian’s coat, the plane’s nose tipped down and we dove for a landing strip that divided Big Corn Island in two. We skidded to a stop, zooming past turquoise and orange houses on stilts. Three black children, resting under the shade of a massive palm tree, pointed at our plane, immediately distinguishing the locals from the tourists.
I was the last one who exited the plane on the staircase. The tropical wall of breezy, yet sweltering humidity hit me. My mom and I took a cab for less than $1 to our hotel, the Tropical Dreams Hotel. I’d found it on Airbnb, and the rooms were $20 a night.
Our room was sweltering hot, and had no air conditioning. For 97% of my Peace Corps service, I’ve been used to relying on fans to cool off. Air conditioning is a luxury to me. The amount of mosquitoes quickly made us regret not bringing a full can of bug spray. My mom ended up upgrading us to a room with air conditioning and far less mosquitoes for the two following nights. The upgrade brought the room up to $60 with breakfast included (cereal, instant coffee, and toasted coconut bread). Our hosts were super friendly, as was the dog, Gretchen. If you go, watch out for this puppy’s warm, friendly licks!
On the budgetary bright side, our stay included a 10% discount at Marlene’s “Relax” Restaurant next door. Marlene has won several cooking competitions for her Caribbean concoctions, like Rondon (a coconut stew) and freshly caught lobster in garlic sauce. We ended up spending most of out meals there. The prices were double what I’m used to on the mainland, but it does cost more to ship everything out here.
Tropical Dreams Hotel to the Beach: A five-minute walk
The beach had peach-colored sand, coconuts laying around like easter eggs, and palm trees anchored into the sand. Their thin, emerald leaves rustled in the wind. The only other people there were two mestizo women and a handful of prepubescent boys. They splashed around near the shore, careful not to get swept away by the sneaky current. I’m a strong swimmer, but this was one of the strongest currents I’ve ever felt. It pulled me to my right as I faced out toward Africa. Then, I heard a “chh chh” sound. A 12-year-old boy waved me over to talk to him. His friend was already chatting next to my mom, who preferred to enjoy the beach by sitting on a log rather than swimming against the current.
As soon as I was close enough, the boy told me how beautiful I was. He grabbed my arm and traced it with his finger, as if assessing my level of beauty according to my whiteness. “Ohhh, yeah! You are pretty. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No, I’m a lesbian.” His three friends came by to listen in. I was trying to fight the waves. It’s hard to have a learning moment when you’re getting slapped in the face by salt water and tossed around like a doll in a washing machine.
“Oh! So you’re a dyke!” the boy responded. His friends laughed. Calmly, I responded: “I don’t like being called that. It’s not nice. What if I came up to you and called you an idiot?” His friends laughed. “But he is an idiot!” one of his friends piped up. More laughter. “Well, I’m not going to say that because I don’t know you” I explained. “Well, how do you say it then?” the little flirt asked. “Les-bi-an-a” I responded. This interaction reminded of coming out on the bus to a surprised older man. I’ve never come out to so many curious strangers as I have in Nicaragua.
I’m not sure if this boy really understood what the word lesbian meant, since he proceeded to ask me for a kiss on the cheek before he had to go. I said no, and that I didn’t want to. He had been touching my arms and looked me up and down. “Why not?” he asked. “That’s not nice. What if I came up to you and starting touching you where you wouldn’t want to be touched?” He looked down, then waved goodbye as he ran back to shore.
He was very persistent for a 12-year-old, and I wonder how much I impacted him, if at all. As I thought about what forces made this prepubescent child feel the need to seduce women at such an early age, I thought of queer blogger Bani Amor’s post about the flipside: when white women assault men of color. This article made me extremely uncomfortable at first, but it brings up a point no one talks about. I had never thought of white women as the perpetrators of these crimes, but now I think more critically of where I position myself as a queer, Mexican, white woman in Nicaragua. At first, I selfishly thought, well, maybe there are male victims, but the rate is not as high as it is for women. The rates are not the point. The fact that men of color are victimized for their skin tone, and that few people know about this, is the problem. Oh, Bani. You’re always making me challenge my own assumptions.
Then, came dinner at Marlene’s. I had a chicken taco (which resembles a fried, Mexican flauta) and a lobster taco rolled in a flour tortilla ($3 each). It was pan friend in coconut oil-I recognized the taste of the oil I’ve grown to cook with. I could’ve eaten four of them, but I was saving money for the trip to Little Corn Island the next day. I’d been convinced to leave one paradise for another after reading Big World Small Pocket’s 20 Things to Do on Little Corn Island. She is a great budget travel blogger-I recommend subscribing to her posts. Little Corn was also featured in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island
Distance: 45 minutes on a speed boat. Articles of clothing soaked: All of them. Number of waves that made us wish we hadn’t taken the panga: All of them.
After moving our things to the air-conditioned room, we took a cab to Briggs Bay. Our panga (speed boat) would leave for Little Corn Island at 10:30 AM. We paid $6 for our huge, laminated boarding passes, then waited for everyone to climb in first. We put on our neon orange life jackets. My mom sat next to a mestizo Nicaraguan, Alejandro, who was on vacation. Luckily for her, he also had a seat cushion to share with her.
I was sandwiched between the edge of the seat cushion and a backpacker with a manbun. He had thick, long, dark eyelashes and began to peel an orange as if he were on a picnic. The zest filled my nostrils while the peels filled the floor. He picked them up as the boat picked up speed. We abandoned the tranquil, turquoise waters and became acquainted with the Caribbean on a windy day- and the 20-foot waves that came with it.
Other than “Sorry!” I didn’t exchange a word with Mr. Manbun. I grabbed his forearm twice. The boat climbed up and over each wave, and slammed down to transform the water into concrete.
It was the longest, cheapest roller coaster ride of my life. If you’re ever had a spinal or neck injury, stay on Big Corn Island-this ride is not for you!
After 45 minutes of the slamming and splashing, we reached sand. Mr. Manbun climbed out and turned around from the dock, making a peace sign with his fingers back toward the boat. I’m not sure if he was looking at me or at the captain, so I just waved back and smiled.
We didn’t have an agenda for Little Corn. Alejandro advised us to hike to the radio tower for a great view. I was in the mood for a mojito, after what we’d gone through. I had my mind set on finding the Little Corn Beach Bungalow, a Peace Corps favorite. I had no idea it would be so hard to find. There are no paved roads on Little Corn, but the amount of white hipsters, yogis, and coffee shops reminded me of Portland. So this is where all the young white people go, I thought. Most of the tourists we saw on Big Corn were older. After having survived the boat ride, I understand why. The millenials lounged about, reading novels on their beach chairs. Books replaced teddy bears for the sleepy hammock-goers.
As my mom and I kept walking, a gorgeous, young black woman sang “Excuse me!” as she passed by on her bicycle. I wonder how annoying all of these tourists are for the locals. The island isn’t developed very much, aside from the posh cafés and restaurants. I wonder how different Little Corn Island was 50 years ago.
It felt like a tight-knit community. Locals smiled at us and said “Mornin’”. On our walk, it began raining, and a generous homeowner waved at us to come find shelter from the five-minute sprinkle. His dog sat next to me while I scratched his ear. We thanked the owner and pressed on.
We walked for hours along the beach, and in the wrong direction. One woman told us where the Bungalow was, but she ended up pointing us to a private farm. The farm’s annoyed, yet understanding owner finally gave us the correct directions. We walked past yards decorated with empty soda bottles strewn on strings, and heard people clapping their hands at a church overlooking the sea. One girl was dressed up in a pink dress walked to church with her brothers holding on to her hands.
We walked past swamps and trudged through beachside paths that were filled with water from the high tide. We finally reached the Bungalow. It was the very last hotel on the way there. As we looked at the map of Little Corn, we realized that we could have made it from the dock in a 10-minute straight shot. Well, at least the walk back would involve less water.
I ate grilled cheese sliders with onion rings ($4), and my mom ate some fries. I doused everything in a dark green, curry-like sauce in an old rum bottle. “What sauce is this!? It’s so good!” I asked the waitress. “Oh, that is just a vegetable and spice sauce” she said, in her melodic Caribbean accent. “They sell it everywhere. It’s called Lizano.” I thought Lizano was just a hot sauce, but yes, they do in fact sell it everywhere. I bought a bottle after that and the taste reminds me of how tired I felt after finally having found the place. Not to mention it takes me back to those greasy, cheesy sliders.
After lunch, we sat by the water. The Bungalow is more of a high-end resort. It’s a neat business that is pretty eco-friendly and is involved in the community. The resort has lots of neat sustainability initiatives, such as a spaying and neutering campaign. Normally, guests can be found scuba diving and snorkeling nearby, but the wind was so strong that the normally clear, blue water turned murky. We took the path we should have taken all along back to the center, and hiked to the radio tower. Mom climbed up the ladder rungs to the lookout point first, and I followed her. We had a panoramic view of the little island. Big Corn Island jutted out to the south. “Climbing up is always easier than climbing down”, mom said. I decided to count the number of ladder rungs in order to stay busy instead of nervous. There were 36 rungs.
On the way back to the dock, we stopped to buy coconut bread from an older woman. The smell of freshly baked Coconut bread is more memorable than the taste, but not by much. I told my mom about the time I ate coconut bread in Bluefields with a stick of margarine after my Amilcar suggested that it was the best way to enjoy it. “We have margarine”, the baker’s husband chimed in. “It’s the day after Christmas and I’m on a diet,” I joked. He laughed and pat my shoulder. We walked out, sharing ripped pieces of the fluffly, warm bread. “It doesn’t taste like anything”, mom said. I just smiled because the taste wasn’t what I was after. It was the smell and the experience of buying it. Since I’ve left the states, I’ve come to appreciate the process of buying a product rather than the product itself.
A five-year old boy extended his hand and asked me for a piece of my huge loaf. I ripped of a piece and handed it to him. Instead of a “thank you” he bit into it, as if this were his price for sharing his little island with me. Then, we passed by the little boy who had asked me for a kiss the day before. “Adios”, I said to him, as he walked by with an older man. Only the man said “adios” back to me. Mom and I had some time to kill, so we waited on the beach. I jumped in and swam to cool off.
Only now do I realize that Johnny Depp’s eyeliner must have been very, very waterproof for it to stay on after all of the perspiration one excretes in the Caribbean.
Our boat back to Big Corn Island was supposed to leave at 4 PM, but the captain didn’t even show up until 4:15. This reminded me of the time my friend Jen and I boarded a bus to hike Cosiguina Volcano, only to sit inside of it for over an hour in 90-degree heat before it departed. It was just another day of hurrying up and waiting, as she’d say. The Captain strolled lackadaisically from the beach onto the dock, then boarded the boat. It was as if he were disappointed that passengers even showed up. The tourists loaded up first, carrying their waterproof nikons and snorkeling kits. Locals loaded up bags of rice and an ice cream cart.
We set out at 4:30. I was mentally preparing myself for another round of getting slammed by the sea, but this never happened. Our boat turned out to be the large, gentle, two-hour ferry. One woman leaned against the ice cream cart and took a nap. How different things were now! As, we sat there, realizing we had more time than we thought to look out into the ocean instead of nearly pissing ourselves, I thought of one of my favorite travel writing passages, Mark Schatzker’s description of the ocean in A Tale of Two Crossings:
“It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can’t imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed…an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile- as if to say, “What else you gonna do out here?”
That morning on the treacherous panga ride, I had my own existential crisis. By the time we pulled back into Briggs Bay, the ocean was just another animal, slumbering under the twinkling stars above. I was relieved. We reached shore, and we had no more oceanic panga rides planned. Ever again.
We climbed into a cab that was headed in the opposite way of our hotel. I expected the driver to turn around as soon as we climbed in, but when I told him this, he mumbled that he was taking the other way around. He then turned up Pitbull’s timelessly tacky Taxi to keep us from bothering him. We came home at the same time after having driven the opposite way. Big Corn Island is not so big. Two lobster tacos later, I was ready for bed in our air-conditioned room.
What a great day to not ride the panga! This was our last full day on Big Corn Island. My mom and I set out to walk around and end up at Picnic Center, which we’d heard was the most swimmable beach. We passed past crab crossing signs and houses on stilts that blasted country music from their porches.
We stopped by this cozy little green shack for some fresh coconuts in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood. The owners, Sidney and Adele, have been married for 40 years. They were the most warm, relaxed hosts. 40-cents later, we were sipping on a fresh coconut through a straw. Then, Sidney hacked it in half. We scooped out the gelatinous, white pulp. We giggled because of how good it was. I felt like a kid again. If only I’d had some chile and lime to put on it. I left Mexico when I was three, but one of the few things I do remember was seeing roadside stands selling fresh coconut doused in lime and chile powder. I also thought of how straws are called “popotes” in Mexico. Here, they are “pajillas”. This is just one example of the many linguistic differences between Latin American countries. I wanted to stay there forever, but my mom rightfully pulled me away. We ended up coming back the next day and I found out why Adele has never left the island.
We pressed on along the road. The hot, humid air started to make my neck unbearably itchy. I’ve had eczema all of my life, but for the past two years, my neck has been the only itchy spot on my body. Dermatogologists don’t know what to do with me, other than prescribing a rotating list of ineffective lotions and harmful steroid creams. I’ve even taken prednisone to stop the itching before. We were downtown, and my neck felt as if it were on fire. I bought a gallon of water and tub of Vaseline, then went outside and splashed my neck. I put on some Vaseline, which helped a bit. We took a cab to the Picnic Center beach, and the burning started to die down. We ordered beers and I asked for a bag of ice to press on my neck. The burning died down, and I jumped into the endless, still infinity pool of the ocean.
The beach was nearly deserted- and this was the “high season.” We walked back to town and spun around to see just another airplane glide over us. This time, we were the ones pointing at it. A troupe of young men played soccer on the beach. Other men welcomed us to the island and asked if we wanted to buy a conch. I thought they were selling us conches for ceviche, and replied “No thanks. I’m full.” My mom playfully clarified: “It’s not to eat. They want to sell you the shells!” “Oops!” I said, laughing.
Taxis honked at us, as if to ask “Why are you white people walking? You don’t know where you’re going!”
We weren’t in a rush to go to the hotel, though. Luckily, the only bus on Corn Island approached. It was a blue van with a huge decal in bubble letters that said “My Bus” on the windshield. We waved it down and stepped in. Dancehall music blasted from inside. It cost 40 cents to ride anywhere on the circuitous route. We took the “long” way back to Tropical Dreams. About 12 minutes later, we stopped by Marlene’s to place an order for Rondon ($11), a local specialty.
Two hours later, we sat down at the restaurant and were each served immediately. The staff placed a big, bony fish cooked in coconut milk in front of us. We daintily picked out the bones from each steaming forkful, and then came another offering: a huge bowl of plantains, malanga, yucca, shrimp, and green bananas cooked in coconut milk and spices. My favorite part was the broth. It tasted like gravy.
The Rondon took two hours to prepare, and 45 minutes to eat. The vegetables were tougher than I expected, but the fish was perfect-after we drizzled lime juice onto it.
Panza llena, corazon contenta (Full stomach, happy heart) is a common saying here. My heart was definitely happy, as I sat there in a food coma. It was not bad for a final NiCaribbean dinner on Big Corn Island.
Day 4 Big Corn Island to Managua Distance: The blink of an eye.
I had booked our flight out at 12:45. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave paradise first thing in the morning. Our alarm, a half-grown rooster shrieking outside, woke us up. I’m used to the feeling of waking up in a zoo, but my mom isn’t. I don’t pay much attention to the dogs yelping at 2 AM anymore. The only thing that I’ll never get used to is the BANG of cats landing on my tin roof. We walked one last time to Adele’s and filled up on more fresh coconut juice. We then tip toed in between washed up sea urchins, sea weed, and coconuts on the beach.
We took a cab to the three-room airport. We paid our $2 exit tax and I received a massive wooden boarding pass for the both of us. It could’ve replaced a cutting board.
An officer stood in the corner with his black, drug sniffing lab next to him. “Sentáte”, he said. The pooch quickly sat down and looked up at his master with eager eyes. I sat next to a young couple from Vancouver in the waiting room. They asked about my Peace Corps experience. I explained the negatives and positives of living away from home for 27 months. A skinny woman with a bob sat in front of us. She kept turning around to listen in. I mentioned that yes, it’s safe here. I’ve been assaulted, but that could have happened anywhere. I referred to Nicaragua as a “peaceful country”, and when the woman in front heard this, she whipped around. “Excuse me? Did you just say this is a peaceful country?” she asked me. “Yes, it is, compared to other countries,” I responded. “Oh okay, in the day-to-day, you mean.” “Yes, it’s not the 1980’s anymore.” “Oh yeah, I was going to say…” she nodded and turned back around.
What does peaceful even mean? It’s such a relative term. I had just gone running while listening to music on the island, something I’m still afraid to do again on the mainland after my assault on a run a month ago. I felt very safe on the island, but it does depend so heavily on tourism. Everyone knows everyone. I still see the mainland as peaceful, in its own way. Petty crimes are common, but there’s not as much gang-based violence or mass shootings as there are in the United States.
Peaceful is a relative term. As I pondered the meaning of a word that makes up my job title, we boarded the plane. Again, I was relieved to find out that this plane was much larger than the last one. Our ride back was much less bumpy. The Corn Islands were testing us during our first panga and plane rides, then forgave us with a tranquil voyage back. It was a predictably refreshing trip, and surprising in other ways.
Big and Little Corn Island are familiarly Nicaraguan, but distinctly Caribbean. I came knowing I’d be in a peaceful place, but left wondering what exactly peaceful means. What does it mean to you?
For New Year’s weekend, I stayed at the Paradiso Resort at the Apoyo Lagoon in Nicaragua. It’s a Peace Corps favorite because we can afford the dorm rooms and the food on our $150-$200 monthly earnings. The fact that the resort lies on the beaches of a clean, warm volcanic crater lake isn’t too shabby, either.Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and the resort was insanely busy with even more guests coming in with day passes. There were Americans, Nicaraguans, Canadians, and Germans, among others.
As I was swimming in the dark blue, deep water, I saw a kayak capsize. The Nicaraguan couple next to it didn’t know how to swim, but they at least had their life jackets on. Many people have drowned here because they don’t know how to swim, and the lagoon gets deep very quickly. I swam over to them and pulled the woman back to the kayak. She didn’t know how to kick. We were about 100 meters from shore.
I wondered how long it would take me pull them back to shore. Then, came Luis, this staff member, coming to our rescue on a paddle board. He was soaking in his jeans and white polo, but that didn’t bother him. He pulled the couple back to safety to a nearby raft, and sent them on their way. This was just another rescue to him.
“I once saved an Argentinian man. He was drowning. I pulled him back onto shore, did CPR, turned him sideways, and he spit out the water. I don’t know how many people I’ve pulled out of the water,” Luis says.
As I sat on my rainbow beach chair, I saw Luis, running back and forth along the shore as if he were in a relay race. His jeans soaked as he pulled kayakers and inner tubing locals and tourists away from the rocks. He hauled abandoned kayaks back to shore. He wasn’t the only staff member toiling away. There were around 7 waiters serving hundreds of people, picking up after them, bringing them mojitos and piña coladas, calling out animals like “Gecko!” Or “Whale!” To find the people whose day passes had the matching animals on them. These were some of the hardest working hotel staff I’ve ever seen.
Luis is a 33-year old father of two boys. He has been married for nine years. His five year-old-son does mixed martial arts. He gets his energy from his father. Luis is a gardener, repairman, groundskeeper, bartender, waiter, and a lifeguard in jeans.
As this New Year begins, I wanted to thank all of the hotel staff who have taken care of us during the holidays. I also wanted to thank you all in advance for taking care of us long after the Holidays end. Thank you for taking care of travelers like me 365 days a year.
I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?
1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?
My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.
My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.
I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.
When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.
2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?
Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.
3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?
I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.
My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.
4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?
Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.
We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.
We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!
My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.
I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!
5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?
I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.
Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.
In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!
There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.
6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?
I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.
7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?
Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!
8. How and why were you able to travel so much?
Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.
9. Where are you now? What’s next?
I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.
Traveling (and then working abroad) has been very enriching for us intellectually, socially, financially.
We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.
Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.
Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!
Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.