Go Abroad’s Mental Health & Self-Care E-Book is FREE to download!

I’m thrilled to announce that this e-book about mental health and navigating mental illness while abroad is out!

This GoAbroad.com e-book features three articles I wrote. One talks about navigating mental illness abroad and another talks about how to support a friend abroad with a mental illness. The last discusses practicing self-care abroad.

Thank you so much, Sylvia D., for emailing me to introduce yourself after having read my self care article a while back. Little did I know you’d come to be an integral part of helping me with these next posts and to continue the never ending conversation about mental health abroad after we skyped in August for three hours.

I still think about our conversation and about how much you taught me about breaking the ice about this important topic that too many people feel uncomfortable talking about.

The more we talk about it, the more we normalize discussions about mental health and navigating mental illnesses abroad.

Gift Guide for Women Travelers

Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us. It’s time to start making your gifting checklist for the women travelers in your life.

Whether you’re in #treatyoself mode or perusing options for that special travelista you know, there’s no better time than now.

Wondering what to get your sister who travels with her family of four? Do you have a burnt-out coworker who could use a bit of travel inspo? Or what about your best friend and her solo adventures?

Check out my gift guide for women who travel on Wanderful!

I’m as Migratory as a Monarch Butterfly

Dear friends,

This is an entry  I wrote on December, 2011, during a family visit to Mexico. I was in my senior year of college. I hadn’t published it until now, so while I’m a little late, the message still rings true. This week I’ve been staying with my grandma and enjoying her company and the delicious tacos, menudo, and pastries of León, Guanajuato.

I hope to finally see the Monarch butterflies when I go to Morelia on Tuesday. Enjoy!


I flew to Mexico and arrived in Morelia, Michoacan my birth town, at about midnight. Finally. It had been two years and I’m always restless to go back to Mexico. I stayed there for about 4 days and saw family, hiked, and basked in the sun that I missed so much. It was hard to believe that the beating, hot sun down here is the same one that teases us in Boston, where it begins to set at 3:30.

One restaurant that stuck out to me was the San Miguelito, where my aunt and cousin went. It’s famous for basically being a museum to San Antonio, the saint that women turn over so that they can find boyfriends. There was even a life-sized one there, turned on its head, accompanied by several advertisements of women seeking good men to marry. All of my photos of the place seem annoyingly upside down. I looked at the menu and decided to try Huitlacoche, which is the cooked fungus that grows on corn. It’s a delicacy there, but after a bite of some in my quesadilla, it tasted and looked just like cooked spinach.

The day before I left, I took a stroll past the huge aqueduct through the historic downtown, which has been around since the 1500s. I really missed the concept of a town plaza where people go to sit and relax, as they listen to the constant flow of water ebbing from the fountains-or children crying loudly, asking their parents to buy them that unnecessarily large sized tweetie balloon. I was basking in the 70 degree weather, and everyone could tell I was not from there because I was making a conscious effort to sit in the sun while they wore their hats and long sleeved shirts. “No, I’m not cold,” I’d say to them. “Your winter is my summer!”

Then came the bus ride to Leon. I thought I loved to recline in my seat but these Mexicans had me beat. Halfway there, I turned and saw half of them knocked out, reclining one after another like dominos. There was a movie about a cave playing (the only actor I recognized was the man who blew the whistle at the end of Titanic in search of survivors) but I lost interest after the only female lead died. How Wellesley of me. My favorite part of the 2.5 hour long journey to León is the ride over Lake Cuitzeo. It’s this large expanse of grayish blueish water teeming with white herons all over it, and the road glides right through the middle of it. The environmental studies side of me wonders how badly contaminated it is at this point, as there weren’t many fishermen out there at all.

I should stop here in order to describe León in its deserved detail, but I’ll leave with one thought. This morning I heated up my egg, tortilla and salsa and broke my fast with abuelita (grandma). Somehow the topic of the monarch butterflies emerged, and she marveled at the way in which four generations of them migrate each year from Canada to Michoacan (the state I was just in).

She lamented at the fact that deforestation is leaving them with less places to land, and how blood has been lost over the land that these creatures deserve to call home. On a brighter note, she asked me “¿Como deben saber a donde ir, año tras año, desde Canada hasta aqui?¿Que maravilloso, no?” (“How do they know where to go, year after year, from Canada all the way here? Isn’t it marvelous?”).

Well, the monarch butterlfies are just like me, I thought. They always just want to come back to Mexico.

I don’t know why, but I’m as restless as any one of those Monarch butterflies to leave the North for a while and join family here and there, and ultimately to stay at my grandma’s house for a while. I thought by now this urge would die down, but it seems just as strong as ever.

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.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay! Here’s how you can help Nicaragua’s Hope Bilingual Academy.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay!

As part of the GoAbroad.com Writer’s Academy I completed, my final assignment was to write about a piece for the GoAbroad Foundation‘s blog. I pitched to write about the Hope Bilingual Academy because of the amazing work Patricia Shronce has done with her retirement money to fund an entire school public school.

Read all about what makes Patricia a one woman army and how you can help here!

It’s no wonder she’s the Philanthropist of the Month. Corey Haynes, TEFL 64, invited me to come write about the school months ago, and I’ve continued to write about it because I haven’t found any other schools quite like it. Hope is the Go Abroad Foundation’s Pledge Beneficiary of October, which means any donations that go through this blog post will go to the school. We’ve all have amazing teachers we haven’t thanked enough, and here’s a chance to help out an amazing teacher, principal, mother, and more! Anything is appreciated! Thank you <3

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!

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!”

Top 5 Cities (Besides Mexico City) to Study Abroad in Mexico

Mexico City seems to have become the mecca of study abroad in México. While, yes, it is the birthplace of Frida Kahlo and is a microcosm of Mexico, let’s not leave the rest of the country out of the picture! There’s a lot more to fall in love with outside of the (former) D.F. Mexico in the world’s most populated Spanish speaking country; not to mention, each one of its citizens has a different story to tell about what makes the country special. Whether you study intensive Spanish in Cuernavaca or realize how little you knew about Mayan culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, studying abroad in Mexico will teach you that there is always more to learn.

My latest piece on Go Abroad is live. Check it out!

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”

How to Integrate in Your Community While Teaching Abroad

It’s tough being the new kid in town, especially when you’re teaching abroad. You no longer have your best friends on speed dial to join your Game of Thrones binge watching sessions, so you have to start from scratch. If only there was friendship speed dating in every corner of the world. For now, you’ve got to go forth, where plenty of teachers have gone before, and integrate into your community. Read my latest Go Abroad post here!