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.

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!

There’s More to Medellin Than Escobar

“Whatever you do, please don’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. That would be very indignant for me,” Gina said to me. Gina was my host in El Retiro, a sleepy, crisp-weathered, mountainous town an hour outside of Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia. I had just flown into Medellin that night from Nicaragua, and Gina had been kind enough to pick me up from the airport during an important soccer game. She was helping me plan for what to see and what to avoid. When I told friends I was visiting Medellin, most of them innocently referenced Pablo Escobar, a drug lord whose ruthless chokehold on Colombia’s cocaine supply left Medellin victim to decades of violence.

We stopped at a typical paisa (a term representative of the northwest region’s people and culture) restaurant. In between glimpses of the Colombia vs. Chile world cup game, she broke down the political, economic, and cultural history of the region for me. The waiter asked if I wanted sugar in my guayaba juice, and I was surprised that I had an option. I don’t even remember what I chose.

She asked me what I knew about Medellin. “Well, I know that Escobar was a very violent man…” I trailed off, embarrassed that I didn’t do my research. Gina clarified that there was more to life in Antioquia than Escobar. I listened eagerly as I poked into some crunchy fried pork rinds with a toothpick.

Medellin, she explained, was Colombia’s center for textile production in the first half of the 20th century. The city of over three million people even boasts a skyscraper called the Coltejer Building, which is shaped like a needle. Today, Medellin’s economic legacy includes high-quality coffee production and it’s famous for beautiful leather products. Oh, and Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda. I should have taken advantage of the sales at the Velez leather outlet while I had the chance.

Once Escobar’s drug cartel took over, Medellin became as violent as Beirut, Gina explained, shaking her head. Car bombs went off frequently in the city. She grew up being used to the violence. Once Escobar died in 1993, the violence decreased. I felt safer in Medellin than I did in Nicaragua. Gina suggested that we go for a walk when it was dark, and I wondered if it was safe to do so. In Nicaragua, once the sun goes down, it’s usually time to head home and lock the doors. Gang violence isn’t as prevalent there as it is in Guatemala, but petty thefts and muggings in isolated areas after dark are common.

Unfortunately, it was drizzling, so we couldn’t go for a walk. Instead, we went to bed early and I slept like a rock. When I’m in a new place, my mind feels the need to rest up as much as possible in order to absorb its surroundings when it is ready to.

I decided that in order to understand the region’s history, that I would eventually go to the Museo de Antioquia. I walked to the bus stop in El Retiro, and spoke with other people waiting to confirm that my bus was the one going to Medellin. Five minutes later, a woman honked her horn and asked if I were headed to Medellin. This was the first time a woman had offered to give me a ride, but I declined. In retrospect, I wish I’d done it, but I didn’t do it, and I was safe.

I spent the day in Medellin with a fellow Wellesley alum, Vero, who graduated with me, but who I had never met. Thanks to a mutual friend, we were able to meet and to reminisce about our college days. We also bonded over how driven Wellesley women are, and about how we just cannot seem to sit still. We always need to be doing something and doing what some people call “overachieving.” To us, it’s just “achieving.” That’s what happens when you are privileged enough to go to school with some of the most driven, independent, and intelligent women in the world. It was nice to be with someone who got me. I didn’t have to really explain why I was spending three weeks traveling alone.

Eventually, I made it to the Museo de Antioquia. As a child, I dreaded museums. I thought they were the most boring, lifeless places. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I began to appreciate museums, especially art museums, for being portals into a region’s history. These histories are never completely inclusive of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender identities, but that’s why I allow myself to be critical of these spaces in the first place.

In February 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellín as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development, beating out NYC and Tel Aviv. The metro is spotless. People aren’t even allowed to eat on it! Riding the metro here reminded me of riding the spotless, quiet, efficient metro in Tokyo.

Continue reading “There’s More to Medellin Than Escobar”

Mita’s Secrets to Long-Distance Love

I don’t often do creative writing, but when I do, I’m a Nicaraguan grandmother (a “mita”) giving Peace Corps Nicaragua volunteers advice through my column in the Va Pué volunteer magazine. Here, I answer this question:

Querida Mita,

What is the key to a long distance relationship? I have never had to do one before, but I am about to.

Querida Muchacha,

Fijese que…

There’s an old saying that goes amor de lejos, amor de pendejos. Why would you do that to yourself? Oh well, chavalos y chavalas these days are moving so much que andan como pata de perro that I understand why you’re doing a long distance relationship.

In my 73 years, I’ve seen my family and those of my neighbors separated because Continue reading “Mita’s Secrets to Long-Distance Love”

How to Blog About Your Meaningful Travel Experience

How do you start a blog and get people to read it? What’s the difference between blogging about an internship versus blogging about studying abroad?

Read my latest from Go Abroad for my tips.

A Two-Year Old Letter and $20 Bill to Myself

I came to Nicaragua on August 13th, 2014, and after three months of Peace Corps training, we wrote letters to ourselves that we would not open until two years later.

Our boss recommended that we put a few dollars inside, and I’m glad I did. After having  $200 a month to spend on feeding and taking care of myself, $20 feels like a fortune! At our Close of Service Conference, during which we begin to wrap up our service, we just opened up our time capsules with letters to ourselves. It’s interesting to see what I was thinking two years ago. Here’s what my letter said.

“October 31st, 2014.

Dear Char,

Congratulations on making it through training. It may feel as if you didn’t make a difference in three months, but after having talked to your youth group, you did. Elena, on of your students, reminded you that it’s not the English you taught, but the self confidence you gave them. You made the idea of learning English less scary.

Also, you came here thinking you’d have to be closeted and you know that’s not true after having been in Matagalpa. There’s lots of work to be done, and you already have people there who are missing you.

During tough times, just think of how much you’ve grown after having lived here. In ten years, you’ll be so happy you decided to move here. It’s great feeling useful here, just for being able to speak English. You’ve also already given a workshop on Gender and Equitable Teaching to your teammates, and you rapped in Spanish for your ‘Ready to Serve’ presentation at the end of training.

You’ve hiked a volcano, hiked down to a volcanic crater and swam in its lagoon twice, you’ve swam in the Pacific Ocean after teaching three different classes for the first time in León, and you’ve cooked bacon twice. You’ve met up with Raquel Saenz, who inspires you to keep traveling, learning, and teaching.

Keep up your spirit of adventure and positive attitude. Keep blogging to let the world know what it’s really like. Keep working for the kids, teachers, queer people, and people of Nicaragua. It’s not all about you even if it feels that way.”

I didn’t think I’d keep blogging, and I also didn’t think I’d shift from having a career in teaching to pursuing a career in social media marketing within the travel industry. It’s been a wild ride for the past two years and I’ve grown so much. I’ll be ending my Peace Corps Nicaragua service sometime around October 25th, 2016.