2017 In Scary Moments and What I Learned From Them

2017 In Scary Moments and What I Learned From Them

2017 was a scary year. From getting an IUD, to traveling solo to 3 countries for nearly 3 months, to getting a mastectomy, these scary moments taught me to make the most of each situation. Here’s a breakdown of the year by month and what I learned from each.

January

I learned that it is possible to miss a flight and not get your money back. I had bought a one-way ticket from Seattle to Cape Town through Gotogate.com for about $600, which had seemed too good to be true. On the day of my flight, I had to drive from Moses Lake, WA to the Seattle airport (a 3 hour drive). It turned out that massive amounts of snow, freezing rain, and ice would shut down the highway. I drove my blue Subaru Outback the roundabout way for about 7 hours straight, and I still missed my flight. Gotogate.com refused to put me on another flight. Needless to say, I’m never doing business with them again.

That night, I booked a ticket to DC instead, and moved there. Shout out to my Wellesley fam for hosting me for months while I job searched! Oh, and while moving to DC on inauguration was not fun, the Women’s March made it all worth it.

February

I learned that getting the types of jobs I am qualified for on paper without a master’s degree in DC is ROUGH. Almost everyone I know here has a master’s, and while I often made it to the final rounds of interviews, I was told I didn’t get several jobs various recruiters simply because the other candidates had master’s degrees and I didn’t. This is why I’ve started studying for the GRE and I plan to take it by February. It’s something concrete that I feel like I’ve needed to work on.

Meanwhile, I applied to work as a bike tour guide for DC Bike and Roll. After having been on a Bogota Graffiti Tour last year, I was inspired to become a tour guide. I had just moved to DC and I became Bike and Roll’s first hire of the year.

March

I learned that the cherry blossoms were scheduled to bloom the first week of April, but that they would bloom around Mid March this year. I also learned that taking three bike tours in one day through the cherry blossom festival was just about as stressful as a day of teaching (shout out to all the teachers for doing what I couldn’t do for very long).

April

I learned that Facebook can be life changing and that the best meal of my life was in China. A friend had tagged me in a Facebook post asking for someone to go on a last-minute work trip to recruit high schoolers to enroll in American schools, and I sent in my resume. Before I knew it, I was lining up at the Chinese consulate in DC at 7:30 AM, applying for a rush visa, and getting a 10-year visa with a glowing Great Wall of China stamped into my passport.

The only other Asian country I’d visited was Japan in 2013, so I was excited to go some place new. This was also the first time that I’d be flown to a different country for work. Boy, did we fly. We went to four different cities in a week, but it was still unforgettable.

May

I learned that it is possible to still feel like a woman but to feel gender dysphoria in the sense of no longer wanting breasts. In 2011, when I was studying abroad in France, a doctor had even signed off on my breast reduction. I wasn’t quite ready to undergo the process yet, so I tabled that desire. In DC, where I felt comfortable exploring my dysphoria again, I began seeing a therapist, my primary care physician, and a breast surgeon. Initially I had just gone in for a reduction, but deep down I felt that I wanted a mastectomy, but that society wouldn’t be ready for it. Then, after speaking with a friend who had undergone top surgery, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I don’t need to ask society’s permission.

I also began a full time job, which taught me that it takes a LONG time to plan trips in advance. I also learned about the wonders of nitro coffee, which my workplace supplied on tap.

June

I learned that the Wellesley College reunion, which only lasts 3 days, needs to last 3 weeks. Before going, I was scared that everyone would be asking me about my ten-year plan. That was not the case.

I saw so many people I hadn’t seen in five years that I wished I really had more time with them. When I did catch up with the amazing people at this predominantly women’s college, I also realized how grateful I was to be in a place where people would look me in the eye while talking to me, and they would focus on the ideas I was saying instead of focusing on how I looked or what I was wearing. It was so nice to be around such amazing people and to not worry nearly as much as I thought I would about explaining where I was in my career.

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Can't wait for @wellesleycollege reunion 2022. 😍

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July

I learned that getting an IUD to control my periods is something I should have done ten years ago. Yes, it was an uncomfortable process, but the pain of one hour was nothing compared to the accumulated pain of having periods. While getting heavy periods was a motivator, I was also motivated to get one before this presidency makes it illegal to do so. By now, my periods are super light and much more manageable.

Also, since I don’t had a photo of the IUD, I’ll add one and a fun fact I learned about myself: Whenever I have friends visit, I always want to get a diet coke with them (caffeine free, please, because I am actually a 99-year-old woman who cannot afford feeling heart palpitations in the afternoon).

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After salads we get diet cokes and get engayged. Again. 💍

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August

I learned what all the buzz was about with solar eclipses. Once I saw the magic in the Pacific Northwestern Sky I grew up under, even if for two brief minutes, I stopped assuming eclipses were just something privileged white people make a big deal about.

September

I learned that anything really can change in an instant. On September 1st, being the confident Virgo that I am, I wrote on Facebook: “It’s virgoing to be a great month.” Minutes later, I was laid off. I packed up my Wellesley Poster and newly purchased succulent plant from Trader Joe’s, and took an Uber from my office. I was in shock, then denial, then felt relieved. Something told me this was my second chance to go to South Africa. I decided I’d leave for 2.5 months, so I subletted my room for exactly that amount of time, and bought another one-way ticket, this time from DC to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

On September 15th, I was flying on Ethiopian airlines with a row of seats entirely to myself, and surrounded by Ethiopian families chatting happily. I made it to Victoria Falls, and my Zimbabwean roommate in DC, Anesu, set me up with some friends in Vic Falls who picked me up from the airport. I ended up Couchsurfing with a man named Martin who is no stranger to Couchsurfing and I appreciate him putting me up for nearly a week.

A few days later, I ended up walking across the nearby border to Zambia to save money on my only outdoor activity in the country, and still paying over $100 to swim at The Devil’s Pool, a small natural pool at the top of Victoria Falls. While I didn’t go on a safari after paying this much to jump in a pool of water, I have no regrets. That was one of the proudest, most exhilarating moments of my life! I’ll never forget looking over at the other side of the falls and seeing the hundreds of little waterfalls that had formed from the falls’ spray. I heard them singing to me and I teared up.

October

I learned that I would finally make it to South Africa after the third try (Oh yes! I had applied to research Art Therapy in Cape Town through the Fulbright program but was rejected in 2015), and that being there was just what I needed to learn about its complex history.

Speaking of history, in you’re ever in South Africa, please don’t just go to Cape Town. If you have time, Johannesburg is worth a visit. The Apartheid Museum was one of my favorites, and tells a story that everyone should learn about. The fact that Nelson Mandela was in prison for as long as I’ve been alive (27 years) is still something I still struggle to wrap my head around. He was an incredible leader.

Anyway, Cape Town really is as stunning as everyone says it is. The views from Table Mountain are incredible, but the hike itself was not. I wish I’d taken my time on the hike up. The “trail” consists of rocks I spend over two hours climbing up. It’s not a pleasant, leisurely hike. Shortly after hiking Table Mountain, I found out that my Medicaid approved me for getting my mastectomy, and I booked my surgery date for December 15th. At the end of October, I also booked my one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.

November

I learned that getting my Mexican passport in September was the best decision I’d made in order to avoid the visa process and fees that U.S. citizens deal with when they go to Brazil. In September, I didn’t know I’d be traveling to Brazil, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a Mexican Passport just in case.

As a kid, I’d always wanted to see South Africa, Brazil, and Russia. Since I’d made part of my childhood dreams come true, why not keep going? I had the money I’d saved from riding my bike and cooking consistently over the years, so the money was the only thing stopping me.

I ended up staying in Rio, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador, all big cities and all very different from one another.

Geographically, Rio is the prettiest city I’ve ever laid eyes on. Belo Horizonte was covered in street art and was the easiest city to find hosts in (I ended up staying with 4 different hosts). Salvador radiated with a sense of black power that I wish all of my friends, especially my black friends, could see.

I was in Salvador during the month of black consciousness, so my Couchsurfing host, Claudiane, took me to a march and a concert, where I was easily the whitest person there, but it wasn’t about me. Not at all. I felt welcome the entire time I was there. Thank you, Claudiane, for hosting me. Thank you for showing me the photo of you with your graduating class. I assumed all of your classmates were black, since most of the people in the city are black, but once I saw your photo, you were the only black woman in a class of about 50. You’re an inspiration.

Last, I already new that people don’t want to others to assume things about them, but  appreciated the time my host brother reminded me of how much he wants others to know Brazil for more than just beaches and Carnival.

December

I learned how difficult it would have been to recover from surgery without the support of my amazing friends. Having friends show up and put straws in my drinks, or take out the trash because my t-rex arms can’t handle it yet, has made a world of a difference during my recovery process.

I’m excited to be able to work out again. I still cannot lift much at all, so walking is as much activity as my body can handle right now. It still feels strange to walk around without a bra. I’m barely two weeks post-op, but I’m excited for what’s to come. I’m excited to go on a run without a bra, to buy new clothes, and to never have to go bra shopping ever again.

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It’s done! Shout out to Amy Huang for signing me out, taking me home, and making sure I have food and things at waist length so I can reach them. I appreciate it. The only thing I’ll miss about having boobs is being able to hide my credit card and cell phone in a bra at the club, but other than that, it was such a relief to no longer feel the instinctive need to hunch over when I look in the mirror. The dysphoria was real and has affected my posture over the years. I remember going for a night run on the National Mall and not wearing a shirt over my sports bra. I was imagining what it would feel like to run without a bra, and I remember feeling so at peace with this idea. Doing this at night also helped me feel more free-like it was something I was testing out for myself and only for myself, much more free from the stares. I’m finally flat chested and am excited about the results! In the days leading up to the surgery, I was nervous and scared, but all of a sudden I began being hyper aware of what foods I’m putting in my body and I was taking care of my body more, and I was even more motivated to work out because I felt like I was getting ready to meet my new body. Thank you to everyone who has made their own posts about breast reductions and top surgeries. It’s thanks to you that this scary undertaking was normalized for me enough to pursue it. Thank you to everyone who has been checking in with me and for those who have been able to donate to my meal train while I am getting ready for the full time job search soon. She/her pronouns are still fine for now, but I say “for now” because I know things can change. When I first came out as a gay cisgender woman at 18 (aside from the days/weeks/months inside the travel closet), I thought I had myself figured out. Nearly ten years later, I’ve opened myself up to the possibility for change. Not being afraid of change is something I strive for now more than ever.

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With that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

-Georgia O’Keefe

Bring on all of the scary moments, 2018!

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The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

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.

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🦄 🌈

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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.

The Devil’s Pool swim only lasts about 15 minutes

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.

 

A Love Letter to Bogotá

A Love Letter to Bogotá

Ah, Bogotá.

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

I flew into you, knowing little more about you than the fact that you’re bursting with about eight million people.

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

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

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

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

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

What was the rush?

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

“Beef or chicken?” the vendor asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Char.

5 Couchsurfing Tips Solo Women Travelers Need

5 Couchsurfing Tips Solo Women Travelers Need

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.

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.

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!

#SoloTravel: Making Couchsurfing Friends in Cartagena, Colombia!

#SoloTravel: Making Couchsurfing Friends in Cartagena, Colombia!

Day 1: Meeting new friends for my first Couchsurfing experience in Cartagena, Colombia.

I had traveled solo to Cartagena, Colombia, and I’d spent a day wandering the streets of the walled city. I’d also posted on the Couchsurfing facebook group to ask if anyone wanted to meet up. Couchsurfing is so much more than finding a place to crash for free. It’s a site for meeting and/or staying with locals all over the world, and it’s a great way to meet people while traveling solo.  A woman my age named Angie, who was visiting from Madellin, responded to my facebook post and invited me to a nearby beach,  La Playa Blanca on Isla Baru, with her and her friends.

Since I hadn’t couchsurfed with anyone in seven years, I knew that I just needed to be vulnerable and eager to learn about my new friends. In the morning of my beach trip, I met up with Angie, who is originally from the coast. She lives in Medellin and was visiting Cartagena. She wore the prettiest, most colorful sundress and then I met her friend Marticela (Marti), who is also a Caribeña living in Medellin. She was taking care of her parents’ house for the week. Marticela’s cousin and friend joined.

On the car ride to the beach, I was sitting in the backseat, surrounded by strangers who were basically asking me “So…who are you?” I explained that I was volunteering as an English teacher in Nicaragua, but that my interests have shifted from education to the women’s travel industry. Having a social media presence helped me show them about my passion for travel through my blog and instagram.

They asked me what I thought about Colombia, and I shared that I wanted to come back even though I hadn’t even left yet. There was so much to see and do. I told them that a lot of my friends made stereotypical cocaine reference before I came here. Heck, I even made a cocaine reference to a Colombian classmate of mine in college. I was ignorant of the fact that making a reference like this is insulting to someone whose country has suffered so much and is now recovering from its violent past.

“Oh, you didn’t know? It’s going to be a big drug fest at the beach,” they joked. We laughed and stopped for the most delicious gas station breakfast: beef empanadas with salsa. We drank tinto (coffee) from our small styrofoam cups, loaded up on snacks, and pressed on.

We got to the beach early and it wasn’t so crowded. We paid to rent an umbrella and some beach chairs and I slathered on my sunscreen. Vendors sold anything from seashell necklaces, to Club Colombia beer, to coconut oil all stopped by. I jumped in the water, and a  jet ski pulled a team of bouncing kids on a banana boat. All I could think of was Jaws. Just as I had harbored ridiculous images of the impending drug cartel war I’d imagined I’d experience in Colombia, I was irrationally thinking about sharks.

After swimming in the tranquil, light blue Caribbean, I came back to my new friends. We drank Club Clasica (which we tried to make sure had been sitting in a fridge that was at least turned on this morning) and got to know each other. I learned that Angie had experience hosting other couchsurfers before and that she enjoyed meeting foreigners.

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Hi, new friends I just met an hour ago!

Continue reading “#SoloTravel: Making Couchsurfing Friends in Cartagena, Colombia!”

A Day in Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica

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.

Continue reading “A Day in Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica”

I’m Wanderful’s Social Media Intern!

Last Monday, I came back from my three-week solo travel trip through Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica to a Wanderful email account! Wanderful is an international membership community of independent, adventurous, globally minded women who travel. They have over 20 chapters around the world, and every year, they organize the Women in Travel Summit.

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I joined Wanderful as a blogging cohort member over a year ago and am now their social media intern. Initially, I debated applying to the internship because I didn’t think I was qualified. Then I thought of how bought in I am to Wanderful’s mission of empowering women travelers, and of how much I’ve promoted the site because I believe in it. “Would a man be so hesitant to apply?” I told myself. So, I applied and got the position.

Wanderful exists because we still need spaces for women to feel empowered enough to believe in themselves, whether it’s to apply for their dream job or to take on traveling to a new place.