Some pieces are harder than others to create. This one was the most difficult because of the lighting. I took a picture of Saviera, the daughter of one of my high school's secretaries, in March. She always has a smile on her face, and bounces around from room to room with a mischievous smile, as if she's up to something. I wanted to capture that look and give it my own spin.
I've taken time to figure out what it means for me to give my paintings my own spin. After having spoken to Andrea, I've figured out a theme for my art.
There's beauty in vulnerability.
In both my art and my writing, I'm interested in exposing that vulnerability isn't weakness. Traveling has made me an incredibly vulnerable person, since I'm constantly being thrust into new situations. It's this vulnerability that makes me accept the challenges that come my way, pushing me to ask "What can I learn? What do I have control over?"
Accepting vulnerability all about seeking out optimism in challenging circumstances, and showing that there's beauty in exposing oneself. When we expose ourselves, we show the world that we don't fear rejection.
The biggest lesson I've learned from painting Saviera is that I shouldn't fear rejection, either. This painting has taken me months to complete, because I wanted it to be "perfect". This was the first piece I'd done where I completely scratched he first draft and threw it away. The lighting of the original picture was so hard for me to capture, especially since I enjoy using vivid colors in my work. Eventually, I accepted it for what it was: not a realistic replica, but a representation of how I saw her.
How is Saviera vulnerable?
The picture clearly illustrates the situation of the Nicaraguan public school system: this room has no working lights, and there are old, decrepit desks strewn about. Despite it all, Saviera still looks delighted to be alive.
She captures the Nicaraguan spirit of optimism despite everyday challenges that come with being in Latin America's most impoverished nation. You'd never guess it from seeing the glimmer in her eye, though.
What counts as ‘authentic’ travel to you? Last week Kristen posted this question on Wanderful’s facebook page:
“Hey everyone, I’m hoping you can help me with a question about finding places to travel and write about. What sort of research/where do you look to find “authentic” experiences? What counts as “authentic” travel to you?”
I was in my Caribbean Dream Hotel room in Bluefields, a city on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. It was my first time there, so my senses were on overload, trying to understand everything. My room smelled just like my grandma’s house in Mexico...
Keep reading my latest She's Wanderful post here!
When people think of Nicaragua, they often ask where is that again? I only remember it has something to do with an Iran-Contra affair. I was one of those people. When I received an email from the Peace Corps saying “INVITATION!” I opened it up to see Nicaragua in bold. I was disappointed that it didn’t say Guatemala, just because I had heard more about Guatemala. I then googled it to make sure I knew exactly where in Central America I would be living. I pictured jungles, and beaches, but the idea of swimming down a canyon was the farthest adventure from my mind.
Somoto Canyon is a little-known jewel of Nicaragua. I don’t think I ever would have heard of it if I hadn’t lived here. It opened up to tourism ten years ago, and it lies on the border of Honduras. My friend Jen and I had wanted to go for a while, and we decided to go to celebrate our one year anniversary in Nicaragua (and her birthday!). We decided to go for the $30 long tour with Namancambre Tours. The tour included a private guide, lunch, and a stay at the hostel.
Before going, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I tried steering away from comparing it to the Grand Canyon and getting my hopes up of rafting down wild rapids. I had seen pictures on facebook of other Peace Corps volunteers happily floating down the river in red life jackets. It looked like a pretty tame experience.
Jen and I arrived in Somoto after 4.5 hours on a bus. I could feel how far up north we were. As soon as we got to the bus station, I smiled and said to Jen: “It’s like we’re in the Alaska of Nicaragua!” Gonzalo, the owner of Namancambre, found us took us to the hostel. Somoto has about 20,00 people, and I could see that it was a pretty quiet town as we drove through the streets. It’s pretty flat, which contrasts against the surrounding emerald mountains that hug Somoto. It was a rainy, cool evening. Jen and I went to dinner. After a day of riding on refurbished school buses, one is bound to get hangry (angry+hungry).
We walked a few blocks down the street and ran into the Karniboro Restauraunt. I had seen it on the news. I saw footage of the owner grilling huge, glorious chunks of meat over an open flame, and thought we should check it out. I don’t eat meat nearly as often here as I did in the states, just because it’s relatively expensive. Beans and rice give you similar amounts of nutrition and protein with less chemicals. Jen and I stood outside, peering in and giggling. We looked like 16-year-olds with our fake IDs, deciding whether we should enter a bar or not. Despite being underdressed, we went inside. I wore a flannel shirt and Jen wore a Notre Dame sweater. It reminded me of my dad because that’s where he went to college. The bar had wine, which means that it was a fancy place, no matter what kind of wine. Pristine, white cloths covered the tables, and vibrant artwork dotted the walls. Flamenco music filled the air. I drank sangria that surely came out of a box, and ate a thin piece of steak with fries and chimichurri. It was good, but the portions were small and I knew I’d still be hungry. We paid for flavor, not to fill our stomachs.
When we got back to the hostel, there was a wedding reception next door. They were blasting bachata, cumbia, and pop music, so obviously I danced in our room. I wanted to save my energy for the next day, so I thought it would be wiser to stay in but still dance a bit. Jen and I ended the night by watching America’s Next Top Model, the college edition. We laughed at how ridiculous the models were (which is the point of the show). I shook my head as the girls on the show said “I miss my boyfriend” or “I miss my mom”. After having been away from my mom for a year and after having been in long distance relationships where I’ve gone for months without seeing my significant others, I thought: Oh, honey. You have no idea. I was jealous that they would only go for a few weeks without seeing their loved ones.
Day 2: The Tour
Ding, dong. Ding, dong. It was 5:30 and the church bells were already going off. I took out my earplugs and got dressed. By now, I’m used to only setting an alarm as a habit I’ve brought from the states. I should stop, though, since a rooster, dog barking, car alarm, church bells, or music, will always wake me up before. That’s why I go to bed by 10.
Jen and I went downstairs and met Alvaro, our guide. Since I wasn’t sure what we would be doing exactly, or what to bring, I just showed him my bag of snacks, water, and extra clothes. We held my Chaco sandals and said they would be fine, os I took off my tennis shoes. My Chacos have been one of my bet investments as a volunteer. They have lasted through hot beach trips, long school days, and hikes to volcanic lagoons. Surely I could trust them to trek through the canyon. Alvaro put our things in two plastic bags, then put that combination into a water proof sack. I was ready to say goodbye to my phone, in case of a leak. Good thing it was a $14 “chiclero”.
“We have to get a taxi to the entrance of the canyon”, Alvaro said. “It will cost $1”. I thought that we’d get a ride to the entrance, but this was me after having spent last month at a surf resort. This would be a different kind of tour. We walked about 15 minutes on the side of the road. We found a bus stop, where a cab driver was waiting for people who were bound for Honduras. We could tag along, since the entrance was on the way. Alvaro said we needed to wait to fill the taxi up, so we waited. About 2 minutes later, he said “Muchacha! (Young woman) How about we pay him a few cents more to take us now?” I nodded my head, then as we loaded our things, I said “My name is Charleen”, with a a smile. He seemed confused, but I didn’t want to be called Muchacha. It’s ok if my friends jokingly call me that, but I explained to him that too many men who don’t know me catcall me using that word, and I don’t like how aggressive they sound when they say it. Then, he understood.
On the way to the entrace, Jen and I silently gazed at the mountains around us. I was so happy to see a new part of this small country. We got out of the cab and started walking through a town called La Playa (The beach). The only “beach” is the colorful rocky formations along the river. It smelled like manure. Roosters crowed and cows chomped on their grassy breakfasts. We made it to the entrance of the canyon. The beige and brown canyon walls were maybe 70 feet high. They reminded me f the basalt formations I grew up with in Eastern Washington State.
We walked over slippery rocks, and Alvaro put down our things. He set the life jackets on the floor and cheerfully said “Well, put on your life jackets and get in the water!”. The water was chilly. Again, it reminded me of home. The river was about 15 feet wide in some parts, and we swam to keep moving. The current wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d thought. I liked it. This meant we could go at our own pace.
As we floated along the quiet river, I felt like I was reliving a dream I’d had years ago. In my dream, I was moving calmly through mangroves and rocky formations without a destination. There was something so unique about the ways in which I moved past the rocks in the water. Right now, it seems so silly for me to tell you this, but in my dream I felt like I belonged in that place so much. I felt similarly in Somoto Canyon.
We kept floating on, quietly. Alvaro didn’t say much, but when he did, I could tell that he loved nature. See those black sacks hanging there? Those are bats! Jen didn’t believe him, so he splashed some water their way, and their little black winged bodies flew away. “Are those vampire bats? I asked him. No, because if they were, they would have already got you! I chuckled at his sass. We were both similar because we didn’t say much, but when we did, we could be sassy. I’m used to having tour guides that like to talk on and on about every little thing they see, but Alvaro wasn’t like that. At first I was wondering if I should be asking him to tell us more about the history of the area, but then I was just fine. I wanted to experience the place for myself. If I had questions, he answered them.
The Canyon is a geologist’s dream come true. I didn’t expect to see so many different colored rocks. There were smooth rocks in colors like burnt orange, pink, red, and light purple. I had to tell myself to look up so that I wouldn’t end up staring down at the beautiful rocks the whole time. At one point, Alvaro stopped and pointed to a grassy hill. That’s Honduras, he said. I explained that as Peace Corps Nicaragua Volunteers, we’re not allowed to go to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador (even though all of those countries host volunteers). Those three countries are said to be less safe because of gang violence. I still want to visit them after my service, though.
Right before the halfway point, I tripped and fell on my back. No amount of insanity workouts and core tightening could prepare me for walking over mossy, slippery rocks in my sandals. I flipped over because I would have rather fallen on my back than on my face. At least I think that’s what explains it. “Let me know if you need a hand”, Alvaro kept saying throughout the tour. I never asked him for help-I was a strong, independent woman after all. Why would I need help? Alvaro noticed my attitude and would comment on it later. Jen knew how stubborn I am, and she helped me up without me asking. I felt silly for falling, and even sillier for not wanting help.
Halfway through, we stopped to snack on Oreos, bananas, and rosquillas (baked corn cakes). We hadn’t seen any other humans until this point. Soon enough, there was a family of Europeans that passed us. The father wore blue, Hawaiian style board shorts and his daughter ran over the rocks in the water. She and her brother couldn’t have been more than 10. The mom smiled at us and chatted away with her kids in a language I craved to understand. I don’t eavesdrop, but the language nerd in me always wants to figure out at least part of what foreigners are talking about. That’s why my mind is so happy in places like Barcelona, where one can’t walk to a bakery without hearing 2 or 3 languages being spoken in the street.
The halfway point is where other tours usually begin. Behind and in front of us I could see hordes of Nicaraguans walking over the rocks, hugging their black inner tubes. We were walking and swimming down the canyon, while this huge group would take a more relaxing route. We pressed on. I realized that my life jacket served me more to serve as a cushion when I fell, and not to swim in, so I took it off. I Nicaraguan woman my age swam next to me, and we chatted. She was from Esteli. Her lipstick was insanely bright red, despite having swam with it on. My lipstick usually fades away by the time I walk from my house to class. Her friend wore a cute fedora and swam behind us. They looked really good for being on an outdoor excursion. I was in my sports bra and spandex shorts and was more concerned with not falling again. After I took off my life jacket, the first women said “you’re taking it off?” concerned. “Yup, I can swim!” I nodded with a smile.
Then came the cliff diving part. I was nervous. I stood there, wondering what would happen to me if something went wrong. “Don’t be scared. Hold on to me”, Alvaro said. I held on to his shoulder and hand. At this point I felt comforted, as if he were my dad, encouraging me on just another one of our lake days. The last time I did anything outdoorsy with my actual dad was when I was 14. We hiked 10 miles up to Entiat Glacier in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. That was the only time my dad approved of me eating as many Snickers bars as I wanted. Just now, do I realize how much this contrasts ironically with the jug of V8 vegetable juice he stuck in his backpack. He will probably outlive me.
While I debated taking the baby jump, Jen climbed up the rocks to take the 18-meter jump. “It’s at your own risk”, Alvaro warned her. Jen nodded and looked as calm as if she were just running to the store to buy chips. I was scared. So was Alvaro. “Don’t worry”, I comforted him. “She’s gone skydiving”. “Oh, ok”, he said. “With a parachute” I added. “Oh, well with a parachute it’s different!” he added. I knew she would be fine, as long as she didn’t land on her back. Sure enough, Jen jump right off the rock, waving her hands and screaming. By the last second, she landed on her back. I was scared she wouldn’t come up. Thankfully, her head popped out of the water, and another man helped her swim to the nearest rock. Then, I jumped of the 5 meter. It’s funny how reassuring it can be to see someone else do something scary. It makes it less scary. I don’t think I’ll ever have the guts to do the 18-meter jump though.
Several hours into our tour, we all started to get cold. We were in the shade, but we started to swim again to warm up. We reached the end of the canyon, and a man in a rowboat picked us up along with other tourists. During our ride back to shore, I stuck my hand in the water, feeling the ripples, as if saying goodbye to the experience I was still processing. A girl behind me started talking about how she wanted a Starbucks drink with her Spanish companion. Oh, honey. You have no idea.
We hopped onto shore, and would be waling for 30 more minutes before lunch. It felt like a mass exodus of tourists, both Nicaraguan and white people. As we trudged past fields with horses and people staring how out of place we all looked in our outdoor gear, Alvaro began opening up.
“I look up to Americans because in your culture, you are used to doing exercise and being fit. You also do things on your own and you don’t ask for help. Like when you tripped, you didn’t ask for help, and I admire that”.
Interesting. I replied that “Well, it depends. The people who visit this place are in shape. And yes, I am independent and don’t like asking for help, but in my culture, that can be bad. That can lead to mental health issues because we are so used to doing everything on our own. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help here.”
We then talked about how Nicaragua is more community and family based compared to my experiences back home. Families spend more time together, and they stay together. There’s less mobility. Then we talked about retirement homes. “Sending your parents to a retirement home is wrong. In our culture, you need to honor your parents. My parents live with me and I take care of them”. When he said this, I thought that I wouldn’t expect my kids to take care of me. I would want them to live their own lives, because everyone should be responsible for their own lives. I’m also 24, and the prospect of needing anyone to spoon-feed me oatmeal is so far away.
Then, Alvaro surprised me. “If I were your father, I wouldn’t let you leave the country”, he said. I knew this was how a lot of fathers might feel, but that restricting your daughter’s mobility isn’t okay. “If everyone thought like you, then you wouldn’t have met us”. He grinned. I could tell we were changing his mind. I’d gone from telling him I wasn’t a “muchacha” to having him say “well, if I knew who my daughters were going with, then it would be ok”.
We walked on, our heads filled with thoughts about the canyon, and his head probably filled with thoughts about why women would travel alone. We stopped by a house in a field, and Alvaro greeted the owner. I ate a typical dish of beans and rice, chicken, cabbage, juice, and malanga chips. The malanga chips tasted just like potato chips, but the purple specks on them made them prettier than potato chips. I told the owner that they were my favorite part of the meal.
Our unexpected cross-cultural exchange continued. We talked about work. In Nicaragua, there are many more holidays and festivals than in the states. Businesses close down on Sundays in order to make room for family time. “My Dad worked in Miami. He said that over there, you work as much as one should work. They squeeze everything they can out of you”. Jen and I knew this was true, but she added “But what are we working for?” I told him about how I worked 50 hours a week in Boston to pay for an apartment I was never inside. Weekends for me were just an excuse to lay in bed and watch movies. The workweek was always a constant countdown to Friday. In Nicaragua, I make less than half of what I paid for rent in Boston, but here, I need less to live comfortably.
Alvaro nodded and listened. I enjoyed being able to explore an off-the-beaten-path part of the country I’ve lived in for a year. It was a nice treat to be able to deconstruct what Alvaro thought of the U.S. Yes, we are known to work hard. Yes, we can be independent, but at what cost? Thank you, Somoto Canyon, Alvaro, and Namancambre Tours, for reminding me why I came to live in Nicaragua in the first place: to experience a different culture, and to share my own.
How have you exchanged your cultural viewpoints with someone in an unexpected way?
Find out what I mean when I say I miss surfing and chocolate crack here.
My 3rd She's Wanderful Travel Network Post is up!
To celebrate the first year of my Peace Corps service, I wanted to incorporate another Peace Corps volunteer’s story into my column. I asked Ali Rucker, a fellow Wellesley College alum and Peace Corps Tanzania volunteer, to guest post because, while both of us are queer women volunteering abroad, we have vastly different experiences in terms of staying in and out of the travel closet. I’m privileged enough to live in a large, relatively progressive city in Nicaragua, and while I’ve had to go into the “travel closet” for my own safety in certain situations, I am mostly out in my country. Read about Ali’s fearless attitude and how she navigates being an LGBTQ advocate in Tanzania here!
The other day, I read this email. I agreed to answer the questions to help Elisabeth out, then I realized that I loved answering the questions. They pushed me to reflect a lot on my experience, not only as a female traveler, but as a solo traveler and Peace Corps volunteer.
1. Your Wanderful bio references your realisation that being a solo female traveller is empowering. Can you elaborate on that?
I have felt the most empowered as not only a female traveler, but as a solo female traveler. When I was going to Europe alone during spring break, my coworkers at school would ask "Why? Aren't you scared to go alone?". I was surprised that highly formally educated women, who were amazingly confident and talented teachers that I hoped to be like one day, asked me this. I answered that no, I wasn't scared, because I've traveled by myself before when I studied abroad. Then, I realized that while women have made strides in the workplace, we still have this idea that we need to be with friends or our boyfriends to keep us safe. I'm working to debunk this myth. I explained to them that I'd also gone to Japan alone without having known the language, and nothing bad every happened to me.
I enjoy traveling alone because I'm empowered to do whatever I want to do in any given moment. If I want to stare at a Dali painting for 5 minutes in the Vatican museum, I can. If I want to eat nothing but Turkish kebab for lunch while I'm in Paris, I can. If I want to sit on a park bench and draw a cathedral in a Nicaraguan park, I can.
It's this sense of "I can" that is magnified when I travel alone, because I have no one telling me otherwise.
When I travel, I realize what my interest are, whether it's going to art museums, skipping the sports bars, or just walking around for the sake of walking around. No one can tell me otherwise. I feel free to do as I please.
Some people might argue: "Well, doing what you want is great, but don't you get lonely? Don't you want to share your experiences with someone?". Yes and yes. I know I will get lonely at some point, so that's why I reach out to my Facebook friends, the Wellesley alumnae network, or the She's Wanderful Travel Network to find a local contact. As for sharing my experiences, I'd rather share them with all of my friends rather than with one or two. That's why I blog. When I blog, I write about the sights, sounds, smells, and costs of my travels, so that people have a better sense of what it was like for me to travel.
Some people aren't as privileged as I am to travel, so I want them to feel connected to my experiences through my writing.
I will usually jot down short words and quotes in my journal during my travels, then when it's time to blog, those words serve as "triggers" for those memories for me to write about.
2. Was there a significant moment/event in your travels where you first experienced this feeling of empowerment?
I was dead scared of traveling alone for the first time. This was when I was 15. I had lived in the U.S. As an undocumented immigrant from age 3-14, and I would be traveling back to Mexico, alone to visit (and basically meet) my family in León, Guanajuato and Morelia, Michoacan. I had always flown with my family, but this was the first time I'd fly alone. I told a family friend about how scared I was to navigate an airport alone. She assuredly me that I'd be fine, and she told me to "just follow the signs". She was right. The experience was so worth it.
I remember flying into Mexico on Christmas Eve. Then going to a family gathering, where we would wait until midnight to eat beans, rice, tacos, codfish, and meat marinated in coca cola. Right at midnight, everyone got up to kiss each other on the cheek. I was in such shock to have strangers hug and kiss me- they treated me so much more differently from the Anglo, libertarian, reserved people I grew up with in rural Washington state.
Since then, I've always "just followed the signs". It's true, if do this, you will be fine. If you can't, then you ask for help. For every person who hasn't helped me, there have been 1,000 who have.
3. Do you think there is a special significance to traveling/moving abroad as a young woman?
Every woman who is interested and able, should do it before they get tied down. It's easier said than done, especially when you have relationships that may tie you down. I have had romantic relationships end miserably after I have moved to different states or countries, but looking back, I have never regretted following my passion of experiencing different places. I'm a restless person who craves mobility and adapting to different settings, and I can't see myself settling down. As I write this, I realize who privileged I am to be able to do what I want without worrying about how others will be affected. I have no one to take care of, and I know that it may not always be this way, so I travel.
Living abroad is also refreshing. I have lived in France and am currently in Nicaragua, and I'm so much physically healthier than I was in the states. I walk around a lot in my hilly city, and while my food consists of simple foods like beans, rice, fried eggs and plantains, my portions are smaller, and the food isn't laden with chemicals. It's not as processed. I also am not chained to a desk and constantly counting down the days until Friday. I teach English I design my own projects, and I've led LGBTQ safe space trainings for Peace Corps staff. I also have found time to paint portraits.
4. What brought about the decision to become a Peace Corps volunteer?
It seemed like a no brainier to me- who wouldn't want to live and work abroad for 27 months, especially after realizing how ironically unproductive and stifling the 40-hour U.S. Workweek can be? I love learning languages, and I wanted to possibly learn a new language through the Peace Corps. I didn't learn Spanish in Nicaragua, since I've spoken it all my life, so knowing Spanish has allowed me to integrate and get right to work in my community more easily. I've also enjoyed learning the differences between Nicaraguan and Mexican Culture. the language is tweaked, and the food is quite different. Nicaraguans don't like spicy food. Which was strange for me, since I'm used to pouring hot sauce over everything that isn't dessert!
5. How did you find out about Wanderful and what made you want to apply for your blogging program? What has that experience been like so far?
I read about Wanderful on the Wellesley Center For Work And Service's "Where are they now?" Alumnae spotlight. Beth Santos, the founder, was featured. I appreciated her honesty in talking about how she didn't have a rigid life plan right after graduation, as many Wellesley alums feel pressured to have, but she still traveled. She even waited tables so that she could make ends meet and do what she loved, which ultimately ended up being creating the travel network. To me, the travel network is an extension of the Wellesley network: it's a safe place for driven, independent women to come together and empower one another to grow their comfort zones in terms of travel. Wanderful exists because in the year 2015, women are still asking one another if they are scared to travel alone. Would a man ask another man that if they are scared to travel alone?
I wanted to apply to the blogging program because Nicaragua has allowed me so much time to grow as a writer. I'm privileged to speak the language and to integrate in that way, but my experience is still gendered and queered. When I walk down the street, I have to think about whether I want to put headphones in so that I will primarily get less catcalls-music is a second priority. When taxi drivers as me if I have a boyfriend, I have to think twice about wondering how they'd react if I told them that I'm gay. Being queer made me nervous to come to Nicaragua. I had people tell me that I'd have to grow my hair out so that I'd appear less masculine, or that I wouldn't be able to tell anyone I was gay, but my love of travel made me want to join the Peace Corps anyway. It hasn't been 100% perfect experience, but life is a roller coaster wherever you are. I joined the cohort to encourage more queer people to live and work abroad, because there is still his sense of fear, which is very well founded, but that shouldn't prevent people from experiencing life abroad.
So far, I love being a part of the blogging cohort, because I've learned so much about writing and social media. I've learned about making cross cultural human connections in the Peace Corps and I've applied these lessons to my work in the cohort. Every month, I get to skype and share ideas with my cohort. And again, it reminds me of my time at Wellesley, where I learned so much from driven, independent women who want to make a difference in the world.
6. How have your identities as a queer woman and Mexican-American intersected with your travels/identity as a traveller? Do you think it is important to connect with other travellers who are female, queer, Latin@, in particular?
No matter where I go in the world, whenever I tell people I was born in Mexico, I'm usually met with this response: "But where are your parents from?". I've taken this as a polite way of asking "But which one of your parents is white?". While yes, they are both light skinned, they were both born and raised in Mexico. My light skin has brought me privilege. In the street, men call out to myself and my white friends: "adios chelas bellas!" (Goodbye pretty white women!). People assume I'm wealthy because of my light skin. Speaking Spanish fluently has also helped me navigate my work life here.
In terms of challenges, my queer identity is what sets me apart from most Peace Corps volunteers in my sector, since most of them identify as white and straight. During my shorter travels abroad, I didn't consider being queer as a large part of my identity. However, after having lived in Nicaragua, it has affected my work and personal life in ways I hadn't expected. As volunteers, we are required to live with host families. I chose to stay in the closet with my first two families, because I didn't feel as if I could talk to them about how I was in a long distance relationship with a woman back home. When I first came to Nicaragua, I had a staff member suggest that I could have a photo of a fake boyfriend and refer to it whenever my family asked. That didn't feel right, but since it was my first time being in the country, I accepted this as a viable strategy. My Spanish facilitator would make comments that assumed that I was straight such as "are you texting your boyfriend?". I felt awkward but didn't tell the truth because I was new to the country.
Now, since Peace Corps Nicaragua team is working to host their first same sex couple, I have helped lead LGBTQ safe space trainings for staff. Durst these trainings, I love explaining the differences between gender and gender expression. Many Nicaraguan staff members are in their 50s, yet they haven't had the chance to ask what the difference between transgender and gay is. I realized that staff members didn't acknowledge any non-heterosexual identities when I first arrived, because they didn't know how to. Through my trainings, I've helped equip staff with the understanding and strategies they can use to create safe spaces for all of their volunteers they are supporting.
It's important for me to connect with other travelers, especially if they are queer and latin@s. I want more people of color to travel. One friend asked me "Where did you learn to dance bachata? gringos do t know how to dance to it". I explained that I was part of a latin@ organization in college, and that we would go out dancing to Latin music. Nicaraguans have a perception of all Americans being of white, European descent, and that's false. After Nicaraguan families hosted my Dominican and Jamaican-American friends, they've realized that the U.S. Is diverse and that people of color make up so much of American culture, whether it's through music, the media, workforce, or literature.
7. I appreciate your openness about mental health and difficulties faced while in the Peace Corps such as going through a long-distance break-up. Do you think that vulnerability is a natural part of many people’s narratives of growth resulting from travel?
Whether people acknowledge their vulnerability or not is up to them, but it depends on the situation. I've grown from uncomfortable situations where I wasn't necessarily vulnerable, but more often than not, by being conscious of and embracing my own vulnerability, I've been able to grow more. Travel makes you confront yourself by putting you in situations you never thought you'd be in, and in that sense, I believe that we can learn so much from our own vulnerability.
It depends on your identity. My guy friends will never think about which side of the street they have to walk on. I do because I don't want to deal with catcalls, even if most men genuinely catcall because they think they are flattering us. As a woman who deals with catcalls, I'm able to relate to other women's vulnerability and understand how my women of color friends here and back home feel when they are objectified. In Boston, I'd almost never get cat called, whereas I've heard skeezy men say "Mmm, chocolate!" To my black friends while walking down the street with me. Their bodies are racialized and objectified in ways that I didn't understand until I came to Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, the tables have turned because I'm seen as exotic and objectified because I'm white, so men feel the need to compliment my whiteness and comment on it, when it's not flattering-it's offensive because it reduces me to a woman who is valuable only because of her looks.
8. Do you think online networks connecting travellers can help with mental health struggles? Do you think currently they don’t address the issue enough?
I know I personally am a bit worried about the adjustment period following when I return home after my 15 months abroad – I think reading travel blogs could make it worse!
Yes, Online networks can provide the anonymity and convenience of connecting travelers with free mental health resources. I can't say that online networks aren't doing it enough, because I haven't looked into what they're doing, but after writing several blog posts on mental health, I still feel that there's a sense of "taboo" when it comes to talking about mental health. That's why I started being very open about my personal experience with my long distance breakup. I had more to gain than I had to lose, and I didn't want travelers or volunteers to go through as much anxiety and guilt as I felt before reaching out for help. Since then, I've had friends, acquaintances, and strangers thank me for being so real and for helping them feel less alone. I don't tell me stories because I want sympathy-I tell them so that others can feel less alone. The only way we can help each other is by talking about mental health, and to do that, we need to be okay with being vulnerable. That's easier said than done in most societies, which stigmatize reaching out for mental health resources.
Growing up, I was told that only "rich, crazy people" had psychologists. I now realize that poorer communities stigmatize talking about mental health because they simply cannot afford the resources, so they end up dismissing people who are depressed as "weak" or "crazy". It's interesting to note that in a country as impoverished as Nicaragua, NGOs do a better job of offering free individual and group therapy options than in the states. This is mind blowing to me, and emphasizes how even the most developed countries perpetuate mental health resources as something only the rich can benefit from.
August 11th, 2015
“My flight’s been cancelled”, I said to you, in disbelief and annoyance. It was August 8th, 2014. I sat in the passenger’s seat of your silver Toyota Camry, the perfect mom car. We drove 3 hours from Moses Lake to Seattle so that I could catch my flight to Peace Corps Staging in D.C. It felt like just another trip to Seattle, where we would go every so often so that we could experience city life. This included watching aproned fishmongers throw King Salmon at one another at Pike’s Market. We’d then walk around the mall and maybe go to Starbucks. We always finished our voyage into the city with a trip to Costco so that we could hop from one sample table to another. We always went there last so that our frozen shrimp would be somewhat cold by the time we got home.
That day, we’d arrived pretty early to avoid any extra airport stress and to eat food we couldn’t get in Moses, so we pulled up in front of a Thai Restaurant near the South Center mall. We sat down at a booth. I devoured a plate of spicy Pad Thai with shrimp. Little did I know that this was not only the last Thai food I’d eat, but that it would be one of the only handful of meals I’d eat in air conditioning for the next year two years.
We bounced in our seats, sprinkling lime juice and chile on our food and gasping for air because nos habiamos enchilado (had too much spicy food). I thought of how you have always been there for me before my big trips.
You were the one who dropped off your innocent, athletic, long-haired17-year-old daughter at the Spokane airport before I studied abroad at lady college in Boston. I say “abroad” because a Bostonian women’s college is as different as it gets from sunny, dry, rural, Republican Eastern Washington. I still can’t believe it was cheaper for me to get my Bachelor’s across the country than it was for me to stay in state. Que suerte.
A year later, you were the one who drove me down to Bakersfield, California. Remember when I stuck my camera out the car window to take pictures, and it flew out of my hand? “We’re saving the memory card!!”, you yelled, swerving to the side of the road. We looked so silly, scouring the dry roadside for my memory card. My camera had been crushed to a pulp, but the memory card left unscathed. Mensa, you called me, for not having used the wristband. I’ll never stop sticking my head out the car window like a dog with it’s tongue flapping in the air, but now I appreciate the wrist band. I would be interning at the Sequoia National Forest as a “recreation intern”. I thought I’d be leading rafting tours. I ended up following rangers around, watching them power wash toilets. Occasionally I’d translate for them when they asked the Spanish-speaking guests for their camping permits. It was a lonely summer, but I’ll never forget my solo road trips to L.A. and San Diego and driving through wine country while listening to the Eagles’ Tequila Sunrise.
You were the one who comforted my anxious self before I studied abroad in France for only 4 months. That was the last time I saw Sammy, my brother. We were driving to Seattle after New Year’s in 2011, and my bratty self cried “I’m tired of traveling”. I was really just tired of seeking a sense of belonging in a series of unsuccessful romances. I’d gone through a rough first semester of my Junior Year. I had tried growing out my hair and died it with a bright red streak in the back (that faded into an ugly orange after 3 days). I looked like a skunk but at the time I thought I was cool.
You had been to France on your honeymoon before, and you assured me of what a great experience it would be, and that to the French, the U.S. is just another obscure country. I would see what it’s like to live in another country, and I’d understand that the U.S. isn’t the center of the universe. You were right. I lost some weight in France, had zero relationships with anyone but myself, and I traveled solo through Spain, Scotland, Italy, and the Czech Republic. I cooked for myself and began travel blogging. For the first time, I enjoyed just sitting by myself on a bench to absorb the smell of freshly baked bread from across the street and the “sh-sh” sound of French people conversing. They would be wrapped up in their scarves while I sat there in my cut off jean shorts that I’d cut myself with Shadae, my roommate. She inspired me to blog and to make epic fashion choices like these-only she’s always been fashionable.
You were the one who said “it’s humongous” as you peered out the airplane window at Houston, Texas, on a starry night. I giggled as I held my ex-girlfriend’s hand. I’d just graduated college and would be visiting her hometown before I went off to San Antonio to tutor at-hope public high schoolers at Burbank High School. I wanted to live in a Latin@ community, and what I ended up in was definitely as far from Boston as I’d been dreamt of. I was tired of Boston’s frigid personalities and academic elitism.
You were the one who, again, drove me to the Seattle airport a year later to catch my flight to Boston. I ended up returning because I just didn’t fit into Texan life. I realized that yes, Boston is freaking cold, but I had turned into a northern, no-bullshit, restless city girl. “Charleen, this is one of the most bizarre decisions you’ve every made”, you told me, shaking your head. You made fun of how much I’d complained about Boston.I’d just never felt as out of place as I had in Texas. The barbeque and mashed potatoes were sinfully delicious, but I didn’t like watching sports and I didn’t understand why people would “smile in your face and spit in your tea”. Maybe it was just bad timing, and my less than ideal situation. I’ve actually thought of moving back there to see if I could “do it right”-maybe if I just had a different job and situation. Back then, it was the most emotionally draining year of my life. It felt as if I was in a different country where I could understand the language, but not the nuances. I’m still making sense of it.
So, here we were, gasping for air because we put too much chile on our noodles. I thought I’d go to the airport to catch an earlier flight, if possible, and it turned out that we were so early that my wish came true. I would connect in Portland and North Carolina. I’d still arrive in D.C. at 11 am the next day, but I was ecstatic to get three days to brunch with my friends at to have bottomless sangria with them at Nando’s. You were as calm and collected as ever, now fully used to my adventures. It didn’t feel like I’d be leaving her for 27 months. The longest we’ve been apart is 10 months.
Little did I know that the next time I’d see you, 16 months would go by. I can’t wait for you to visit me in December. I can’t wait to show you how similar yet different Nicaraguan and Mexican culture is. I can’t wait to show you how much Nicaraguans love Mexican ranchera music, but how adverse they are to the idea of drenching their tacos and sandwiches in salsa and chile. I can’t wait for you to visit my little house and to meet my host family next door, and to enjoy the sunny, constant temperature in the 70’s.
One year into my two-year service in Nicaragua, I wanted to say thank you, mama, for being the one who has driven me to the airport. I can’t wait to put too much lime and chile on our food again!
Nicaragua is known as the “land of lakes and volcanoes”. It’s as small as New York State, but even though I’ve been here for a year, I still haven’t seen it all. When Beth Santos, the founder of The She's Wanderful Travel Network, which I write for, asked if I could go on a press trip to Soma Surf Resort on the Pacific Coast, I jumped at the chance. I emailed California native and owner Casey Morton to introduce myself. I admitted that I’d had a few scrapes from trying to surf ridiculous waves a month ago with minimal experience, but that I was excited to try again. Surfing wasn’t something I though about every day.
I was excited and nervous. Before my trip, I anxiously wrote down 2 questions in my journal:
10. Surfing: Soma was the first surfing resort to offer lessons in the area, a trend that other resorts have followed. When I went, there were 2 guides for the 3 of us women. Since the low season happens when it’s summer in the states, we had a lot of individualized attention. We were all newbies. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stand up and that I wouldn’t be “good at it”. Before I knew it, I couldn’t stop jumping back on the board and riding the whitewater (the gentler, post-wave water). Our two guides were Milkey from Nicaragua, and Andrew from Australia. They patiently steered us into the correct waves and coached us on our form. They also laughed with us when we wiped out, encouraging us to just “jump back on your board!” with a smile. I was so sore from the first day’s session that I couldn’t go the next morning, but with some ibuprofen and adrenaline, I was riding even bigger waves the next afternoon.
9. The Owners’ Story: Casey and Bill Morton began their project in 2007 and completed the resort in 2011. Bill has worked in Speech Pathology, and Casey worked in Marketing for Calvin Klein for 14 years before pursuing consulting. Building a resort amidst the 2008 stock market crash is a bold move. Isn’t it unsafe there? “Aren’t you afraid of losing everything?” people would ask the Mortons. Bill their son, William, have surfed in Popoyo, Nicaragua for years, and they knew the area well. It’s a safe, well-knit community of people who make a living through tourism, raising livestock, and fishing. The entire resort was built by the neighboring townspeople who they continue to have trusting relationships with. As for “losing everything”, Casey reminded me that people lost their jobs and homes back home. By focusing on an up-and-coming place outside the U.S. in terms of tourism potential, their move wasn’t as risky as others had thought.
8. Caramel Chocolate Crack: Soma’s open restaurant features coconut pancakes, blue cheese hamburgers, and fajitas with fish caught that day from the beach. The huge selection made it hard for me to choose what to eat, but there’s only one thing that I had to have twice: Crack. The menu reads: “Yes, crack, as in made with crackers, due to the addictive nature of this stuff. The crackers are dipped in caramel, chocolate, and almond slices. They are later served with vanilla ice cream that’s gracefully adorned with a chocolate swirl”. Yup, my mouth is watering too.
7. It Feels like Camp: I felt like I was in California’s dry, sunny wine country. There are no TVS in the rooms, just Wi-fi. This is intentional. Instead of being sucked into watching a Spanish-dubbed version of Transformers, I socialized with other guests at the dinner table. It’s an intimate atmosphere. We laughed about how we survived near whiplash from those waves we ducked under just in time, or how we couldn’t stop eating crack (see #8). There are only three tables, each with a view of the neighboring rosebushes and mountains, so you’re bound to get to know the other guests. Also, don’t be surprised if, while you’re basking by the infinity pool, Jack and Jill (AKA the “thunder puppies”) come to cuddle with you.
6. Surfing levels the Playing Field: As Casey says, the camp-like feel of the resort levels the playing field. “We have guests from all backgrounds-doctors, teachers, lawyers. But when you’re out on the water, none of that matters.” After a day of surviving the waves and sharing those “I can’t believe I’m still on this board!” looks with each other, what you do or how much you make at home doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
5. You Don’t Have to Touch a Surf Board: Soma’s mission is to show you the wonders of Nicaragua, whether or not that involves surfing. One couple from L.A. passed through and stayed for 4 nights on their honeymoon. They didn’t surf at all. Instead, the hotel’s trusted cab driver took them on a tour of the Mombacho Volcano and the Chocolate Museum in colonial Granada City. They ended the day with massages and cocktails. Not bad. Other guests have enjoyed yoga classes, cow-milking tours, and tortilla-making tours. I also enjoyed other non-surfing attractions, like the local hot springs. After an intense day of surfing, I slowly lowered myself into the springs, and felt as if the thermal water enveloped me in a long, warm hug that soothed my sore muscles.
4. Soma Feels Like an Art Gallery: Soma boasts large, colorful paintings by Nicaraguan Artist Augusto Silva on its walls. There were Pollock-style yet cheery paintings in my room. Silva’s work is heavily influenced by Nicaragua’s Afro-Caribbean culture of the Atlantic Coast. In the bathroom hangs a beautiful red banner with a profile of a howler monkey-you can’t miss it. Miskito Women from the Atlantic Coast chewed the gum tree bark that was used to create the canvas for the banner.
3. It’s Solo Traveler Heaven: I wasn’t alone. I took beginners’ surf lessons with two other solo female travelers. One of them came from NYC for a 4-day work break. Another woman my age came from LA. to enjoy her summer break. She was on her first solo trip, and although she was nervous at first, she realized that solo travel wasn’t as intimidating as it sounded. She told me this after her massage, so it’s easy to believe her when she said she was having a great time.
2. Casey is a She’s Wanderful Fan: She’s passionate about its mission to encourage women to travel, whether in groups, pairs, or solo. One night, when a storm knocked out the Wi-fi connection, I asked her what she’d say to a woman who is nervous about traveling to Nicaragua for the first time, whether they are accompanied or alone: “Remember who you are. Be yourself. Nicaragua gives you the time and space to discover who you really are. By being here, you’ll realize that you are not your job, your makeup, or your spouse”.
1. Soma Will Change How You See Surfing: So, did I find out what a surf resort was? Definitely. I am now a surfing addict, despite the scrapes on my leg for thinking those rocks on the beach weren’t as hard as rocks. I didn’t think much of surf culture before, but now, that’s changed. Soma is an intimate, relaxing, and challenging place. Surfing taught me to look at perseverance in a new way. There’s something unique about not knowing exactly when that perfect wave will come along, and the brief regret you’ll feel for missing it. Surfing gives you hope that the next perfect wave will come along eventually. By the time you catch it, all of the salt water up your nose and hair you have to wipe out of your face will be worth it. And then it will end. You will probably be floundering around searching for your board, and then you will go right back into the waves and do it again, because not knowing what will happen is exhillirating. Isn’t that what traveling is all about anyway?
Can’t Surf? No Problem. Join the Tribe:
Facebook: Soma Surf Resort- Nicaragua
I’m writing this at 3:20 am. It’s been one of those nights where I wake up in the middle in the night with an urge to express myself. I’ve had these kinds of nights all my life, except in Boston, where my college and teaching life required every ounce of sleep I could get. I’m sure you’ve had one of those nights, too, where you just wake up and don’t know what to do with myself. When I came to Nicaragua, I began to understand what these nights mean for me. They are times when my mind feels as if it can’t wait until morning to express itself. So, for now, I write. Once I save up some more money to buy my plastic table and chair set for my new casita (little house), I’ll spend these kinds of nights painting. In the meantime, I’ll keep painting on my host family’s dining room table when they open up their house. We have separate houses, but during the day I spend most of my time with them, since they are awesome, after all.
Why am I choosing to blog about painting before the sun comes up? Because in Nicaragua, I’ve realized that painting is one of the few things that makes me happy. It’s taken me almost a year into my service to claim happiness as something I deserve purely for myself. Last month, after I’d gone through a breakup and sought out mental health days, Martha, my doctor, asked me what made me happy. I said: “I’ve been here for 9 months, and I have so much free time, but I still don’t know what makes me happy. Making other people makes me happy”. I’ve realized this is how many other social justice workers find happiness-by helping others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s our only source of happiness, we are losing out on life. In order to make others happy, we need to take care of ourselves first.
I’ve always enjoyed drawing. When I was five, my parents bought me the most beautiful “How to Draw Disney Characters” books from the Disney Store. They even came with their own pencils. I treasured those shiny, oversized books. My mom started out showing me how to draw. I can still remember how perfectly she drew Mickey Mouse’s round face and ears. I wanted to draw like that. So, I kept practicing. I wondered why someone would draw the ¾ view of Mickey Mouse’s head turned to the side. It looked harder, so I started drawing that view as well. My goal in life was to draw just as well as my mom had drawn Mickey Mouse’s head.
Soon enough, I was churning out near exact replicas of Minnie Mouse, Pluto, and Donald Duck. I was eager to show my drawings to everyone I could so that they could catch a glimpse of the joys and frustrations I’d experienced from drawing. My dad was the most critical of my drawings. He always congratulated me first, then advised me to check the proportions and shading of that Dog’s ear I’d drawn, or the Genie’s belly that should be darker because it’s turned away from the light. Of course, when you’re a kid, it’s hard for you to appreciate constructive criticism. It shows someone actually wants you to improve. Instead of working to draw Mickey like my mom had done, I was now working to satisfy my dad, hoping that one day, he would tell me that my drawing was perfect, and that my work was done. I’m glad he never said that to me.
When I was 10, I discovered Lee Hammond’s “How to Draw” books. I can’t believe I still remember her name, but that goes to show how important those books were for me. I remember flipping through her books with my dad, showing him how perfectly she shaded a squirrel’s fluffy tail. How did she make shading look so effortless, I wondered? We quickly found out her secret: tortillions. These are simple stumps of paper, rolled into cones at the ends, that she used to shade the hardest of pencils strokes and blurr them into reality. I needed to draw the squirrel the way she did, with it’s fluffy, perfectly shaded tail. Lee revealed yet another monumental secret to her ways: using a kneaded eraser. In order to make white hair strokes look more real, you could mold an eraser into a thin shape and use wispy strokes to create negative space. I hadn’t realized that by erasing a drawing, you could add to it. It took two or three tries, but eventually, I recreated the squirrel, almost as perfect as hers. That squirrel is probably in my nightstand somewhere in my room, buried underneath old Pokémon cards and a graphing calculator. Back then, the squirrel won first place in my section at the annual Grant County Fair, and put a whopping $13 in my pocket. I was so proud!
Now that I think of when I first began painting, I think of all of the oil-based paint-by-numbers of horses that I’d do. There was something strangely soothing about staying in the lines, making sure that my brush strokes were calm and contained, but that even if I did mess up, I needn’t worry, because you can paint over oils. I remember listening to my Dad explain that “the good thing about oil paint is that if you make a mistake, you can paint over it”. I was more than happy to fix my mistakes, if that meant making him happy.
Only now when write this do I realize that I used art as a way to please my dad. I was homeschooled from age 8-11, and I can’t think of all the times I felt inadequate. I never seemed to understand math nearly as quickly as he wanted me to. Fractions scared me. Long division was always a mental marathon. My brother studied books on web site design and was finding the surface area of cones, while I was still struggling to add fractions. He was 2 years older than me, after all, and ended up studying Astrophysics at Cornell. I studied French and Women’s Studies at a Wellesley and ended up tutoring and teaching math two years out of college. It’s funny how things work out. I didn’t know things would work out this way, so in the meantime, the only leg up I had on my brother was that I could draw. If my lack of mathematical understanding couldn’t please my dad, then my drawings could.
The point of writing about art was to show that it makes just me happy, but it’s interesting to think of the point at which art became something for myself, and not for my dad. During my teens, I barely drew at all. I was more concerned with adjusting to public school life after having my brother be my only friend for 3 years during out homeschooling. I thought that through art, I could please potential friends, so I ended up drawing Disney characters for my classmates. I would even ask them when they needed them by. I remember one classmate sucking on a lollipop, with a puzzled look on her face, then matter-of-factly saying “by Wednesday”. I turned them in diligently, hoping to make new friends this way.
Drawings didn’t help me make friends. Instead, I quickly immersed myself in the negativity of teenage drama, dating, and insecurity, hoping that with that $60 Abercrombie sweater, I could be normal. Normal is such a distorted concept when you’re in middle school, especially when you’re a white-looking Mexican girl with braces who has to explain to everyone that she’s lived in the same town as you since she was 3, but that she was homeschooled. Thankfully, I integrated through sports. I played volleyball and basketball, and ended up making more friends that way.
Once high school began, my parents divorced and my dad moved back to Mexico. By then, art wasn’t a part of my life-I just saw it as something I did to pass the time. I was more focused on playing tennis, eating pizza sticks, and acquiring my permanent residency so that I could finally visit Mexico. You would never suspect it from my appearance and last name (Johnson Stoever), but I was an undocumented immigrant until age 15. I’ve only been a U.S. citizen since 2011. I need to write a book about that.
In college, art had no real significance for me either. I distracted myself from the stresses of grade deflation by rowing with the crew team, going to the gym, and learning to dance to bachata at Ryles. I saw the art students as these foreign, intellectual women who I envied for having continued their passion, while I had left art on the backburner. I felt more useful learning Italian, welcoming the first generation Latin@ students to the pseudo-ivy leagues, and wondering which white person came up with the alternative to the “brownie”: a “blondie”. The only art class I took was a 2D design course. We had students from the Olin school of Engineering in our class, The things they knew about cropping and negative space intimidated me. People in Boston took art seriously.
The only time I impressed my classmates was during our typography section. I could meticulously copy any font that I saw perfectly, while the Olin students slaved away at creating stencils to trace. For my final project, I presented a painting I’d done of the countries that mattered to me and the phrases I associated with them. The endearing greeting “cou cou”! hovered above France. I researched font styles and replicated them. One Olin student shook his head in disbelief at my perfect, free-handed letters, saying “I don’t understand how you do that so well, without a stencil or anything!”. I beamed inside. For once, I had beat the Northeastern, elitist, academic environment that had kicked my ass for 4 years.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I painted anything. After a trip to the art galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with my mom, I was inspired to paint again. I loved how the artists transformed simple, burnt orange adobe houses into colorful structures. I understood why painters flocked to that chilly desert. The lighting from the vast blue sky lit everything up in a particular way, just as the light shines here in Nicaragua. I remember bursting into to the Blick Art store near the Boston Symphony building on a freezing January day, scouting out an acrylic paint set that I could finally put to use. I sat in my freezing, poorly insulated apartment in Roxbury with the light streaming in, as if to remind me of the light that had inspired me to paint. I painted two adobe houses on canvas and mailed them to my mom. A few months later, I painted a VW beetle driving into the distance and sent it to my Aunt Monica in San Antonio. That year as a teacher was exhausting for me, but I felt so at peace and in my element when I painted.
Now, I’m in Nicaragua, and I’ve painted three portraits. I’m no longer replicating art work, but painting from the photographs of the Nicaraguan women I meet. My first portrait was of my friend Doña Abigail, who paints piggy banks in the park. I couldn’t get over how majestic she looked in the photo I’d taken of her in April, holding her brush to her Piggy Bank. I had thought about painting her for a while, but I was nervous to paint a human. I’d never painted a portrait before. Sure enough, it took me two days, and I proved to myself that I could do it. I realized that I had my own style. As long as the eyes were just right, I told myself, the painting would come together. I gave Abigail the painting. Her reaction? “I’m scared. I don’t know what to say! Wow”. She ended up keeping the painting in a bag next to her on her bench, eagerly showing it to her many friends who would pass by for the next couple of days.
The next portrait was of my friend Doris’ daughter, Elena, for her birthday (above). This painting was a bit more challenging for me, but only because I felt pressured to make it look great for her special day. Also, her face was slightly tilted, which was a challenged that I overcame by consistently trying to see the picture in quadrants and to focus on the shapes and shades. I’ve trained myself to paint shades and shapes, instead of telling myself things like “ok, this is a nose. Paint a nose”. I’ve realized how subjective painting can be. After this painting, my mom urged me to keep painting because I have a unique style. I love using the bright, vibrant colors I’m immersed in each day, whether I’m walking to buy rice and beans or looking at a palm tree from my backyard. It’s still funny for me to think that I actually live in a place with palm trees.
So, now does painting make me happy? Yes. It takes me to the present and keeps me there. Being present is such an important part of the day. Ever since reading The Power of Now, I’ve realized how much I used to worry about the past and future. Painting grounds me in the now. For mental health’s sake, everyone needs one thing that grounds them in the now. When we’re present, we worry less about other things or other people outside our control. When I concentrate on painting, I feel as if I’m in control. While I like to get things done right, painting reminds me me that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve adopted acrylics instead of oils because like oils, you can paint over your mistakes. Unlike oils, acrylics dry faster. You can also dilute them with water to create a watercolor effect. I like to have a blend of light, watered down strokes of the background with the precise strokes required to paint the eyes.
You may have noticed that while I have claimed painting as something for myself, I still give away all of my work. Logistically, it makes sense. I don’t want to worry about packing all of my paintings when I move. I’m a nomad. I’m always thinking of keeping only what I need. What I need is the experience of painting, not so much the result. Yes, I still paint to make other people happy, but now it’s more so that they can share in my joy and frustrations. Sharing these key human emotions was the most important reason for showing people my first drawings of Mickey Mouse in the first place.
What place has art had in your life?
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