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.

Medellin-Transportation
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.

 

The Importance of Practicing Self-Care While Studying Abroad

There’s a very extroverted, go-getter narrative in travel and international education, and why shouldn’t there be? 

Studying abroad takes guts, and it requires you to jump into the unknown. With all of the travel apps, Facebook groups, and travel guides out there, it has become easier than ever to know what to expect from traveling before you even go abroad.

Taking care of your mental health while studying abroad is as important as knowing what to pack or how to speak the language, but it isn’t so easy to anticipate what low points will look and feel like. Find out how to practice self care in my latest Go Abroad piece.

I’m Wanderful’s Social Media Intern!

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

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

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

What I learned from teaching in Marseille, France

When I read Alexandra Tracy’s piece about working while studying abroad in France on Travel Latina, our similar yet vastly different experiences struck me. I also wanted to learn more about teaching in Marseille.

As Latinas, both of us have studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence (I went for five months in 2011). Other than that, we spent our time differently. I had a short stay, so I took university courses, I didn’t find a job and I spent most of my free time traveling or watching Anthony Bourdain episodes. I had an insanely generous program that gave me a monthly stipend, and while I loved every second of traveling, I didn’t meet as many locals as I could’ve. By teaching in Marseille for eight months, Alexandra integrated into French culture in profound ways. Find out what it was like for her to teach youth of color in Marseille. Teaching-Marseille-France

I Think I was Sexually Assaulted

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault/Assault.

The “I think” is why I’m writing about sexual assault.

On July 4th, around 1:30 a.m., I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver on my way home on Pride Night in Bogotá. This post is not to scare people from visiting Bogotá. This could’ve happened anywhere, and every day I feel a pull to return to this city because of its vibrant street art, its organized chaos, and its communities or artists and activists. I can’t wait to write about how inspired I felt there, and I won’t let this incident erase that sense of freedom.

I’m writing this post is because, since this happened, of all of the times that I said “I think I was sexually assaulted” instead of saying “I was sexually assaulted.” It took me two weeks to report the incident to my safety and security officer, and when I did, he said, “Yes, that was definitely a sexual assault.” In no way did he blame me for the incident or for waiting so long to report it. He has been 100% supportive.

When I’d pictured what a sexual assault looked like, I imagine either A. a rape or B. someone running up and grabbing a woman’s boobs or crotch. Both of these things do happen and should never happen. Ever. However, everything else to me is grey area, and it shouldn’t be. That night, a taxi driver invaded my personal space without my consent, grabbed me, and tried to kiss me. I told him to stop, and he did.

Once I got home, I felt shocked and unsafe in ways that I’d felt after I was assaulted at knife point on a run on November 30th, 2015. Only this time, I felt disgusting. I was shaking and crying because I’d been violated in ways I never have before. I immediately felt the shame that our patriarchal society wants me to feel. That it was “my fault” and that it could have been prevented.

Well, guess what. A person should be able to go out at night and to ride in taxis without the fear of sexual assault. What happened, happened, and blaming me, the victim, won’t do anything to fix it. So before you blame the victim, check yourself and know that if you do, your actions are the reason why so many women never come forward and admit what happened to them. After the incident I bought a smartphone and I used apps like Uber to hold my drivers more accountable.

After talking with other women about what happened, they’ve revealed to me that they realized they’ve also been sexually assaulted and never thought to report it because of they don’t feel comfortable doing so, and because of the “I think” piece that trivializes the assault in the first place.

I have the privilege of talking about what happened to me without fear of social repercussions, so that’s why I’m doing this. I also have access to free counseling with the Peace Corps, which I’ve used throughout my service after a long-distance breakup, then after my assault, and after the Orlando shooting. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to come forward and to talk about what happened. I know that reporting it won’t erase the damage, but it’s the first step in exposing what happened.

If you or someone you care about has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. I am not alone and it’s by talking with survivors of different gender identities to know I am not alone.

I’ve talked to the Peace Corps medical officers about it and was given the option of a medical evacuation or respite leave. I am considering taking the 14-day respite leave to go home and recover in a familiar place, which is something I wish I could have done after my assault last year. Volunteers are given the option to request respite leave 30 days after they report an incident. This is a new policy that I hope volunteers are aware of in case something happens to them.

Below is the description I sent to my Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer of the sexual assault.

Continue reading “I Think I was Sexually Assaulted”

Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa

If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.

Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.

Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.

We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.

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Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.

An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.

To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”

Self-Esteem, Straight Up: Confessions of a Nicaraguan College Student

I met Romy two years ago when I was helping out in an ACCESS English class. ACCESS is a micro scholarship program that prepares high schoolers to learn English. Romy is now in her first year of college and she works at a coffee shop to pay the bills. She’s an incredibly intelligent, kind young woman who also speaks better English than most Nicaraguans I’ve ever met.

One day, I stopped by the coffee shop for breakfast and Romy and I ended up chatting about self-esteem, which is a topic that I didn’t think would be of such interest to people until I came to Nicaragua. Find out what it’s like to for a young woman to navigate societal pressures, and learn from the advice she gives about avoiding toxic relationships.

Char: So, after you saw my blog post about my Japanese painting, you told me you wanted to blog about self-esteem. Why is self-esteem so important to you?

Romy: I’ve talked to lots of girls about this, and it’s a huge issue. It’s about seeing both your flaws and qualities and accepting yourself. It’s about how you show yourself to the world. If you have low self-self esteem, then people will see you in a negative light. Your self-esteem is the first thing people notice about you.

Char: When I first came to Nicaragua, I asked my youth group to choose a workshop topic. Out of all the topics, like HIV/AIDS prevention and goal setting, they chose self-esteem. I had no idea it was so important to people here. What affects self-esteem?

Romy: What your family thinks of you. You might have trouble at home and your family members might be affecting you in negative ways, but you might not talk about it with them. Negative people are often unaware of how they make others feel powerless. You have to know that it’s not your fault, and that you can’t solve everyone’s problems.

Not everyone tells me I’m “smart” and “mature” as you do, Char. Sometimes I’m around people who make me feel like I’m not enough, and that lowers my self-esteem.

Char: A lot of people gain self-esteem from other people. Do you agree with this? Continue reading “Self-Esteem, Straight Up: Confessions of a Nicaraguan College Student”