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.