The Candle that Burns at Both Ends


It seems unbelievable, but another year has gone by. It’s 2016! And I think, after all I’ve experienced in the last two years, that I can safely say that I have no idea what this year will hold. In any case, it’s time for my yearly tradition of writing myself a letter about the past year and my hopes for the next. For the last two letters, click here and here.

You’re still here. No small feat, that. Another year gone and you continue to stretch the limits of who you think you are, to challenge your own beliefs, and take apart your own assumptions. You continue to fight tooth and nail for what you want and yet you’ve allowed yourself the flexibility to change the object of your desire as necessary. When the world treats you poorly or life doesn’t unfold as you’d planned, your first instinct isn’t to blame the world, but rather to dissect your perception of the world, although you’re not afraid to place blame where it belongs. This year has been difficult in many ways, ways you mostly didn’t foresee, but you have emerged on the other side stronger, better, and more aware.

It’s hard to believe you’ve been in South America for fifteen months, not counting the three months you spent at home tying up loose ends. That time was spent in a kind of holding pattern. You couldn’t really get on with your life in California because all you could think about was picking up the strings of the life you left back in Ecuador. Eventually you made it back and spent the next couple of months wandering about, second-guessing your choice. So few things are ever easy. So few things are impermeable to doubt. But then you started the job you thought you always wanted, and soon after fell into the job you never considered you might be meant for. Connections came together as if they were meant to be (though you don’t believe that). You met people who irrevocably altered your time in Ecuador, and all for the absolute better. You laughed more this year than you maybe ever have. You loved harder and danced with less restraint than you had ever allowed yourself to do before. You nurtured the flame that burns so brightly within you. Continue to grow, to diffuse your limitations, to open up. Continue to follow–and emulate–the sun.

This year was quite literally a dream, yet it was also a challenge. You resent how the amount of harassment you experience on a daily basis fills you with a kind of oily, residual anger that makes you want to lash out at any strange man that says hello or tries to touch you. You daydream about screaming at them, about pushing or kicking the ones who touch you without invitation. Find a way to channel that anger in a meaningful way. Don’t let it make you bitter. Don’t let it make you blind to all the good men there are in the world. But also don’t let it make you smaller. Don’t change who you are in the hopes that they’ll notice you less. Be whoever the fuck you want to be. Show as much or as little of yourself as you want. Just make sure it’s on your own terms, and not subject to the whim or approval of some nameless other.

The state of the world has also made you angry and, at times, despondent. It seems the -isms are taking over. Don’t let yourself become numb. Don’t fool yourself into believing you can’t make some kind of difference, no matter how big or small. You can. You will. You just have to be brave enough to try.

Take what you’ve learned about yourself this year and hold it close. You’ve finally realized that what you crave above all else–in friendship, in romance, etc.–is intimacy. Don’t settle for less. The withdrawal, the sense of having cheated yourself out of something worthwhile, is too strong and too unpleasant. Work to forge the relationship you want and need from the building blocks of what you’re traditionally allowed. Burn down the cathedral if need be. No one knows what is best for you, what you are capable of, more than you yourself. You contain multitudes. Don’t let yourself be simplified.

In the coming year, you’ll once again be home, in a place that has become more and more worthy of that word. Don’t lose your sense of adventure. Pay off your debts. Cut off any ties that are not worthy of holding you in place, while simultaneously strengthening the bonds that are. Do everything you can to figure out what you want from the next few years of your life. After a year, will you stay or will you go? If you decide on the former, don’t be afraid to put down roots. You can always pull them up again if you have to. If it’s the latter, that’s OK too. Your instincts have led you well so far. Listen to them. Save money while you’re figuring it out, so that when the decision is made you will already have taken the first step.

Continue to work on being kinder. Allow for the weaknesses in others as they allow for yours. Be humble, yet willing to sing your own praises if no one else will. As C. S. Lewis said, “Being humble isn’t about thinking less of yourself, but thinking about yourself less.” Remember that when someone doesn’t want you, it’s only because they can’t see that which is valuable in you. Don’t judge others. When you have a negative thought about someone you don’t even know, remember that your perception is colored by your experience, and you don’t have the right to thrust this perception on those around you. Be authentic with your words–there are enough empty ones in the world without your contribution. Possibly the greatest lesson you’ve learned in Ecuador is how to say “no.” Hold on to that. Use it as both shield and weapon. You’re allowed to use it as often as you please.

It seems as if you’ve finally started writing something. Keep going. Don’t fear failure. Don’t fear that it will be less than a masterpiece. It probably will be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Pursue the things you love, the things that make you feel free. Take dance classes. Learn one of the many instruments you’re interested in. Take French lessons, or Arabic, or Portuguese. Never, ever stop trying to learn.

In closing, you’re so near to being everything you ever hoped you would be. Go on. Keep moving forward. Your candle may burn at both ends, but it casts that much more light for doing so. You deserve everything you want, and more. I love you.






10 Things a Bookish, Modern Woman Should Never Travel Without


I’ve been in South America for well over a year now and I continue to be amazed by the sheer variety of life and the experiences that come with it. It seems I fall in and out of love with people and places constantly and without warning. In some ways, I’m so ready to go home and yet I also strive to hold on to each day as tightly as possible, to remind myself that I am actually, truly living a dream. I’ve learned a lot, about myself most of all, but also about travel itself, and I’ve come up with a few things that I think should be on most women’s list of things to bring when traveling — things I haven’t seen on many other lists. So here you go! If you have comments or would add something, let me know!


1. An IUD (Intrauterine Device): Yeah, I said it. It’s no secret that a lot of shenanigans happen while traveling — in hostels, on exotic beaches, in showers — and guess what? It’s better to be prepared, and I think the IUD is about as prepared as you can get. There’s a lot of misplaced fear about this form of birth control because of some shoddy models in the 70s, but since then the IUD has come to be scientifically accepted as one of the safest and the most effective option. The Pill is great, but sometimes traveling is hectic, and it’s easy to forget to take one. Just consider this: if you were to accidentally get pregnant while in the middle of a months long trip through South America, Asia, or Africa especially, it may be nigh on impossible to get the kind of care you might need (the day-after pill, abortions, etc.). For more details, check out this world map of abortion laws.

Where you’re traveling can also determine whether condoms are affordable or even available, and that’s not a risk you need to be taking. Travel is all about calculated risk, not haphazard, drunken ones! That said, you should also bring as many condoms with you as you can, since IUDs only protect against pregnancy, not STIs or STDs. Another bonus of IUDs (specifically the Mirena) is that it makes your period lighter. In all the time I’ve been abroad, I’ve only gone through half a box of tampons!

Check with your health provider to see about your options. Many insurance plans provide IUDs for free and, depending which one you choose, they last from 5 to 10 years! That’s a decade of minimal unplanned pregnancy worries…


2. A Laptop: If you’re a working girl, laptops come in mighty handy. You can teach English classes online, write travel articles for various websites, or do a myriad of other small jobs which can help fund and thereby extend your travels. Also, Netflix sometimes provides a much-needed hiatus from travel frenzy.



Me actually doing work poolside in Peru.

3. A Kindle or Similar Tablet: I have the Kindle Fire and let me tell ya, I don’t know what I would have done without it. Pre-travel I was one of those book nerds who ranted about how Kindles would never replace real books because, like, book smells! But while traveling, real books literally weigh you down. I generally have around 10 different books downloaded on my Kindle at any given time, which in real life would add a lot of extra weight to my backpack. No bueno. But besides reading, Kindles can do soooo much more. I’ve used mine to edit manuscripts, input grades for my ESL students, and write blog posts (PDF reader and a word processor, say what!), as a music player for long bus rides, and as an alarm clock, among other things. This is also a great option if you don’t want to bring your laptop, either because you don’t want the extra weight or in case it gets lost or stolen. Kindles are much cheaper to replace.


4. A Library Card: Huh? Yes. You heard me right. Here’s what you do: Download the Overdrive App and verify that your local library is a participant. Then, if you haven’t already, go open an account at your library. But wait… I’m going to be traveling. Why would I need a library account at home? Here’s why: Overdrive allows you to check digital copies of books out from your home library regardless of where in the world you are. Mic drop. Instead of spending valuable dollars on buying books from Amazon or at the rare English bookstore (although do go in these too while traveling — it’s fun), you can do this for absolutely nothing. Depending on the library, you can generally check up to 30 books out at a time, for up to 3 weeks, and then renew as often as necessary. This. Changed. My. Little. Bookish. Life.


5. A Filtering Water Bottle: Backpacking is all about saving money wherever possible in order to be able to do the epic treks or go scuba diving with hammerheads in the Galápagos. Even the small stuff, like buying water, adds up. Reusable water bottles that come with filters are a great way to avoid this. When hard-pressed, you can get water from virtually anywhere (though again, calculated risks are the name of the game) and the filter will make the water drinkable. They tend to run at around $50, but it’s a worthwhile investment. For a list of some of the most popular brands, click here.


6. Probiotic Pills and Emergency Diarrhea Medication: I have a stomach of steel, luckily, and so I’ve never gotten truly sick from anything I’ve eaten (and I eat everything), but just in case, I never travel anywhere without these two things. Probiotics are simple supplements that help your digestion and I take these for a few days whenever my stomach is unhappy. In cases where you’re having to run to the bathroom every few minutes though (as happened to a friend in Colombia once, unfortunately in a hostel where everyone could hear everything), it’s smart to have some more hard-core drugs on hand. If they don’t cure you, they’ll at least slow things down till you can get to a doctor.


7. An Expired Passport or ID Card: I’m going to pat myself on the back here, but this is seriously genius. A lot of people will bring copies of passports around with them when going out to a club, but I’ve also seen them get rejected. I have an expired Driver’s License that I take out with me and it’s worked every time. If you lose it, it’s not a big deal, but it’s official enough that it probably won’t ever get questioned. (Disclaimer: my experience is limited to South and Central America. Not sure how well this would work elsewhere. It would rarely work in the States for example.)


8. Double of Everything You Can’t Live Without (Within Reason): Bringing a nice camera with you on your travels? A laptop? A Kindle? It’s smart to double-up on things like batteries, chargers, etc. Why? Because there’s a good chance they’ll get lost, blown out by power surges, or stolen, and buying them in a foreign country is often a lot more expensive than buying them back home. Just make sure you keep them in separate places, in case of theft or loss. Otherwise you might find yourself carrying around a fancy gadget that doesn’t work. It sucks, let me just tell you.



9. A Second Backpack: Sometimes you see people walking around with a huge backpack behind them and a smaller one on their chest like some kind of hunchbacked marsupial. They didn’t overpack; they’re just smart. I always bring a small, closeable bag with me whenever I travel and this is where I keep anything valuable (passport, money, gadgets, etc.). When you take long bus rides, your bags go under the bus and out of sight and sometimes things disappear mysteriously. It’s better to keep this small bag with you at all times. On your lap is the best place for it. I’ve seen many a bag stolen from overhead racks and even pilfered from between a person’s legs. It’s a great place to store valuables, but that also means they’re all in one place, so beware. It also serves the double-purpose of being a day bag when you don’t need to carry all your belongings with you.


10. A Piece of Jewelry, Article of Clothing, or Talisman that Makes You Feel Bad Ass: This, in my opinion, is a lot more important (and less silly) than it sounds. You’re going to find yourself in uncomfortable situations while traveling. Maybe you got on the wrong bus, or are in a place where men stare at you in a less than friendly way, or you’re nervous about flying. In any case, even a small boost of confidence helps, and I’ve found that wearing something, visible or not, that gives you that feeling is invaluable.

In my case, whenever I’m moving from one place to another I always wear a quartz stone necklace that my mom bought me in Salento, Colombia. I don’t strictly believe in this kind of stuff, but quartz is supposed to protect you. I always wear two bracelets: an engraved one from my best friend and one my dad gave me that says “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” These help remind me that there are people out there who love me at those moments when I feel particularly lonely or sad. And whenever I’m feeling especially pissed off about the seemingly omnipresent male gaze or just want to seem a little tougher than I actually am, I have a shirt that says “Fuck Your Macho Bullshit” and it makes me feel better. They’re small things, but believe me, they’re something. Even little comforts go a long way when you’re traveling by yourself.



Bonus Tip: An Understanding that You Are Fierce, Powerful, and Moreover Extremely Privileged to Be Doing What You’re Doing: It’s easy to fall into a pattern of complaining. Yeah, the WiFi sucks sometimes, there are really big bugs in the jungle, and the bus drivers don’t always let you use the toilet, but you are part of the 1% of the entire global population that gets to travel for fun. The people you meet in those small South American towns? They wish they could be you, traveling without a care in the world. Be aware of that. Be grateful. And always, always remember that just the fact that you’re leaving comfort and security behind to venture into the unknown makes you one bad ass lady.

La Güera in Her Labyrinth


I’ve been abroad for more than a year now, and in that time I’ve seen and done amazing things, things even my dreams would have fallen short of. In some ways the world is not so very different, regardless of which square foot of space you are regarding it from. We get up in the morning, we find a way to make money, we feed ourselves. Hopefully, we laugh and love and revel in the midst of doing what’s necessary (though these things are necessary also). But there are lessons to be learned by leaving one’s home and the people that give that word meaning. Travel is the most effective teacher I’ve ever known. It is both the ruler rapping knuckles and the reward of having your good work acknowledged as such. It is being named Prom Queen and getting your period without knowing it in P.E. I have learned many things in the last year — of the strength of bonds between people, of the importance of openness and tolerance, of fear, of how following dirt roads in the dark of night sometimes leads to paradise, and of the power of that moment in which your whole being is screaming at you, fight or flight!?, and you choose to fight, thus learning simultaneously the extent of your vulnerability and the transcendence of your strength. But just as in the macrocosm that is life, in the microcosm of travel the lesson is never ending.

People who know me see many things. I like to think that what they see is generally positive, but I am not so near-sighted that I could even for a moment convince myself that that is all they see. More than once, people who I wouldn’t have thought knew me very well have said something to me that shows just how useless it is to try to hide our weaknesses. It is not an insult, not a criticism, this thing they say, but rather an observation, and it is one I know to be true: I keep people at a distance.

I consider myself an open person. I try my hardest not to judge people on their beliefs (though I will judge them by their actions); at the very least I try to understand before I allow myself to form a judgment. But I spent so long as a child and a young adult hardening myself that it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that now, at 27, there aren’t a labyrinth’s worth of road-blocks, dead ends, and trapdoors I have erected on the path that leads to my heart. In some ways I am the story of Jason and the Minotaur flipped on its head. I, or at least the truest, most open part of me, has for years stood in the middle, trembling at the sound of cloven hooves on stone.

When I set off for South America last year, I made goals for myself, some of which are evident in my first post on this blog. But there was one that I did not write about, because it was evidence of what I see as my biggest weakness. The goal was simply this, to consciously and lovingly attempt to knock down the self-created barriers to my heart, from the inside out. The patriarchy tells women that the right man will make them whole, will heal their hurts. This is beautiful and saccharine-sweet, but it is a lie. If anything, the right person or people might be able to create a detour and circumvent our barriers, but this does not assuage our fears or heal our wounds. Only we can do that. And so I set out into the world in order to find my vulnerability.

I think I did, but I think it’s true name is strength.

I found physical vulnerability in my trek to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia as well as in the attempted muggings in Bogotá (for some of that harrowing tale, click here). In these cases, I looked within myself and found strength I didn’t know I had. But it wasn’t only physical strength that helped me overcome these two very different challenges. I have a wonderful, capable body, but behind that is a level of determination, of will, that is more beautiful, and more lasting, than even my physical self.

In the end (and I am far from the end, but at least up until this point), it was this same determination, that same iron will, which allowed me to begin to be emotionally vulnerable as well. With my head on my lover’s chest, I whispered him a poem I had memorized, which like a needle served to pierce the marble veneer encasing my heart, allowing him to see me in a slightly deeper sense. Even with an end date already near at the beginning, I allowed myself to feel, to be emotionally challenged, to have layers of protection and heart-padding stripped away, until I stood before him, more clearly myself than I have virtually ever been. I have a long way to go, and I know that I will never wear my heart on my sleeve (as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I like people and I like them to like me, but I wear my heart where God put it, on the inside.”) but for me, this is a major accomplishment, one which would have been nigh on impossible without the already heightened level of vulnerability that travel, but especially solo travel, brings.

Even with this achievement, however, the lessons that travel, that living abroad has planned for me are without end. Living, traveling, experiencing… it is all wonderful, the good and the bad. Sometimes we try to hold on to the good so tightly that we fail to see that it withers and becomes wraith-like in our embrace. As a traveler, you constantly meet new people. You find best friends from countries you’ve never been to, guides in unexpected places, and, with a little luck and a lot of openness, even love. Sometimes these things have infinitesimal lives within our own incredibly brief lives, a candlelight compared to a roaring bonfire. (“…It cannot last the night/ but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/ it gives a lovely light.”) To travel is to acknowledge that everything is fleeting. You say goodbye, sometimes promising to meet again, but most likely you never will (although of course there are many exceptions). This brings me to my latest travel lesson…

If you are a successful traveler, you will not only learn to make room in your heart for new people, places, and experiences, unthinkingly filing them into the amaranthine vaults of memory, but you will also learn one of the hardest lessons of all… that in order to keep those good things beautiful and free (while always maintaining in your heart the possibility that one day they will come once again into your life), you must be able to let them go.

La Güerita Takes On Cultural Appropriation

'Miley Cyrus Cultural Appropriation Paper Doll’ by AlexandraDal

Cultural appropriation: the act of taking an image, tradition, or aesthetic from its cultural context and repurposing it in a way (generally as a style or decorative item) that has no ties to its original meaning within a cultural tradition. This is a term you may have heard a lot recently, especially in pop culture. Iggy Azalea is constantly under fire for being a white rapper who appropriates black style and sound, while Taylor Swift has gotten into trouble as a result of her new music video which seems to celebrate the glory days of white colonialism in Africa. Miley Cyrus, who many would highlight as the face of cultural appropriation, uses black women as stage props, “whitesplains” Nicki Minaj, and wears dreadlocks on national television. Cultural appropriation tends to be a sin of the dominant culture, the one historically most responsible for exploitation and colonialism — white culture.

I have always felt cultural appropriation to be a highly problematic idea on both sides of the argument. On the side of those who feel appropriated, I can see why. White settlers decimated Native American populations in a genocide rarely called by its true name, and now young whites dress up in headdresses and warpaint for parties, football games, and music festivals. As certain tribes scalped their victims and displayed them as badges of courage, now we wear the symbols of those we virtually destroyed. After centuries of enslavement and debilitating enslavement in Africa, Urban Outfitters sells tribal prints at a premium price and TV personalities cornrow their hair. While presidential candidates build their platforms on the shameful dirt of mass deportation, costume companies make serious money off selling culturally insensitive costumes involving ponchos, sombreros, and stick-on mustaches and people get wasted on Cinco del Mayo. The argument against cultural appropriation is this: by choosing to wear symbols taken from systematically exploited cultures while remaining ignorant of the symbols’ value or meaning, we perpetuate violence. I can agree with that.

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

However, there are certain oft-mentioned examples of cultural appropriation that I do have trouble getting on board with, the most obvious being dreadlock, cornrows, and braids. Black culture states that these hairstyles are traditionally black, necessary because of the unique texture of black hair. Understood. And yet I have a hard time believing that a hairstyle is a truly defensible part of any culture. Granted, the white person on whom cornrows or dreads look good is rare, and yet they also have hair, which may have a difficult texture or length to easily manage. While traveling South America, I’ve met many people with dreads, from Sweden and South Africa and Australia. Why? Because, aside from shaving one’s head, dreads are the easiest hairstyle to care for when showers are anything but guaranteed. Long hair in hot weather begs to be braided and put up, regardless of the skin color of the scalp it’s attached to. If the argument is that braids are intrinsically black, then what about the braided styles based in the cultures of indigenous America or the Alps or the cold northern lands of the ancient Vikings? We all have hair, so I don’t think anyone, regardless of culture, can copyright its style.

In the big heaving morass that is cultural appropriation, the real question for me is where the line is between appropriating someone’s culture and having the right (or privilege) to wear or otherwise display a cultural symbol. So it’s probably insensitive to buy bindis and tribal print dresses at Urban Outfitters, but what if you buy something directly from the culture, one that makes its living off of selling traditional jewelry or clothing to tourists? Is it wrong of them to sell it? Or only wrong of consumers to buy it? In Ecuador, the country I’ve been living in for a year now, the indigenous people of the northern town of Otavalo have become one of the most successful indigenous groups in the world because they have so effectively marketed their beautiful alpaca-wool hand-woven fabrics. I bought an insanely soft scarf to protect me from the Andean chill. If I wear it, am I wrongfully appropriating Otavaleño culture? When I was in Kenya, I bought an intricately beaded necklace from a Masai woman. Is the fact that it hangs on my wall a sign of my cultural insensitivity? I’ve spent most of my life learning Spanish, spent years living and traveling in Central and South America, immersing myself in their complex, wonderful cultures. Are my Mexican folk art-based tattoos an act of violence?

My views on cultural appropriation are an incipient snarl of thoughts and feelings which I have a really hard time sublimating into a coherent argument. Nonetheless, I am aware that I hold a position of immense privilege as a young, white woman, but even with this potential bias forever in the forefront of my mind, I can not reconcile my own beliefs with the far-reaching tenets of the arguments around cultural appropriation. But my goal with this post is not to take a side, not to say who is right and who is wrong, but rather to open into a discussion a topic that has long been pushed under the rug by the “guilty” party — white culture. While it’s common to hear celebrities get slammed for cultural appropriation, we rarely hear a thoughtful response from them or anyone else. An argument in which only one side is participating is not an argument but a diatribe, and a diatribe, while not necessarily lacking in validity, will not bring about change.

A Mexicana Goes South of the Border, Cuckolds Mexico for Chile

Quihubo, amigos!? Despite living in Ecuador, I’ve been working so much that La Güera hasn’t gotten many chances to stretch her legs, but good things are brewing so stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s a guest post from a very close friend, Michelle Plascencia. She and I met while working together at a hostel in San Francisco, and since then have gotten ourselves into many an adventure, from terrorizing the quiet redwoods of Big Sur to bar-hopping in San Francisco’s Mission District and everything in between. I even followed her through South America (or at least as far as Peru) without ever actually catching up to her. She’s a wanderlust soul sister to the fullest extent. 

On February 6th, 2014, I boarded a one-way flight for Bogotá, Colombia, with an open mind and heart, ready to let the spirit of travel guide me. I was an anxious twenty-something filled with wanderlust, but I was in many ways ready for this aimless journey.

Little did I know that I would have a love affair like none I had ever known — with Chile: its culture, its people, the landscapes, the lovers, friends, and connections that were so indescribable. You know that feeling when your stomach is filled with butterflies? Chile filled me with this unexpected fluttering for four months.

Cuenca, Ecuador

South America is filled with culture and beauty. Each country has its own spice and flavor. As I made my way south through Colombia,  I was fortunate enough to meet Elliott, in Popayán. I instantly felt a bond with Elliot, a connection that was refreshing to a solo female traveler. I was nervous about crossing the border alone into Ecuador, but Elliot — a male, Chilean, travel guru — held my hand as we stepped from one country into another.  He understood why I was traveling alone, but was also compassionate about my fear. We parted ways again in Quito, from which I continued on to Baños in the south. I was thankful for Elliott’s guidance and had faith that I would be blessed with more characters like him on my trip.

I made it to Baños, the moment I like to refer to as the pinnacle of my trip. This is when I first felt it — the loneliness of traveling, the excitement and hesitation, the frustrations felt at times when I didn’t know what to eat or where I would feel safe. Transylvania Hostel became my home for seven days. This is where I met my great friend Camila, my roommate in the dorm, and another solo twenty-something female. Camila, born and raised in Santiago, Chile, understood my love for travel. She also understood why I was doing so alone, why I wanted to be alone. The hostel was filled with solo travelers, groups of Chileans, dudes from Argentina, France, and the U.S., including sweet Alex from Indiana. We were a mixture of everywhere. We shared many moments together, surrounded by the mountains in Baños, but we all knew what every traveler knows: that the journey continues. Camila and I parted ways and exchanged information so we could keep in touch, but what does keeping in touch really mean?

I made my way down to Máncora, a beautiful coastal town in northern Peru, accompanied by Alex. After a few days of partying and lounging oceanside, it was time yet again to say goodbye. I parted ways with Alex and boarded my 17-hour bus ride from Máncora to Lima, Peru’s capital. The bus ride was filled with emotion, excitement, and loneliness, the latter of which overcame me when I realized I was saying goodbye to a lover that I would probably never see again. Sure, we can keep in touch, but will that spark, that bond that we once shared, be the same?


I stepped off the bus in Lima and was immediately bombarded by taxi drivers clamoring to take me here or there. I didn’t even have my backpack yet, but I already had 15 offers for cab rides. This is when I met Indira and Sebastián. When they noticed my overwhelmed facial expression, they immediately asked where I was going. It turned out we were going to the same hostel, so we walked away from the terminal and the gaggle of taxi drivers together. They were a vibrant, friendly Chilean couple. Indira was a calm spirit, while Sebastián was a louder, macho kind of guy.

I quickly became the third wheel while traveling with this kooky couple, but I felt more like a friend to these new companions who were on the same travel high as me. They would smooch on each other here and there but then they would get into screaming battles while I simply observed, simultaneously taking it in and losing myself in my own thoughts. Their relationship was close to home, as my parents are professionals at yelling battles and making up. Being around them was comforting. We traveled together to Arica, Chile, where they were taking a flight back to Santiago — the same place I was going, only on a thirty-hour bus ride. I was supposed to meet a dear friend of mine there. Indira and Seba walked me through everything: where to find reasonable bus tickets, what to do when I got there, etc. They gave me their addresses and phone numbers for when I arrived, before making sure that I got on the bus and waving goodbye from a distance. Indira and Sebastián… what a whirlwind of love they were.

I finally arrived in Santiago and felt like I was home. I stayed with Camila (my roomie from Baños) and was as welcome as if we had been friends for years!

I later met up with Indira and Seba, and it was as if we were on foreign lands together again. They welcomed me into their homes where  we ate almuerzos, laughed, and later smoked a porro (joint) in Barrio Brasil.

Keeping in touch had a new meaning to me now. It was a real thing. We actually did and still do keep in touch.

As always, the journey continued, and I soon found myself in Punta Arenas, Chile, very unprepared to trek Torres del Paine. Full of ambition, I went to the well-known Erratic Rock to get some pointers for the hike. I was fortunate to cross paths with Osvaldo and Keko, two Chileans who were also prepping for the big hike.

“¿Vas sola?” they asked.

“Yes,” I responded hesitantly, “I am going to rent some gear.”

“Ven con nosotros, po!”

“¿En serio?”

“¡Claro! Nomás vamos nosotros dos y tenemos todo. Nomás traete tu comida. Aquí nos vemos a las 6 a.m. mañana.”

Torres del Paine

Five days later, we returned with endless stories, laughs, memories, and experiences that the three of us would always share: the moments we trekked in the rain, wind, snow, and sunshine and even rotated who would sleep in the middle to keep warm. The memories that created the kinship I instantly felt with them. The hike wouldn’t have been the same alone. As I hiked eight hours a day with Osvaldo and Keko, I imagined doing it alone. The magical moments of the breathtaking landscape would have been the same, but the happiness I felt as we approached Glacier Grey wouldn’t have been as magical if I had been alone. Sharing these moments with strangers felt wholesome. Once we got back, I headed back up north while they continued south into Argentina. As always we urged each other, “Keep in touch!” We embraced and parted ways.

I was finally heading out of Chile and into Bolivia. I stopped in Pisco Elqui, Valle de Elqui, Chile, a small town tucked away in the Andes. I attended a yoga class at Centro Tierra Pura, a holistic healing center, and was mesmerized by the energy there. I felt as though every moment prior to my arrival had been aligned to guide me to Pisco Elqui. After gushing about my instant love of Pisco to Loto, the owner, she immediately offered me a room to stay in in exchange for helping her while she traveled for work. I was a solo female wanderer, no plan or itinerary, and everything that I had experienced in Chile had brought me here, so I said yes. I was able to participate in meditation ceremonies, yoga, and other holistic healing practices.

The times spent in Pisco Elqui enriched my relationship with myself and opened my mind to the encounters that life has to offer if you’re paying attention. I learned to embrace the present moment and understand that every moment, happy or sorrowful, is a gift. Sulking in what ifs, would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves tend to bring regret and cause us to forget to live in the present, creating a domino effect that takes away from the enjoyment of the now.

valle de elqui

These few encounters that I’ve mentioned here are only a handful of the Chilean people that made me feel at home, made me feel like I could always go back to Chile and be welcome. All these encounters led me to my home in Pisco Elqui at a time and place that I cherish deep within my heart, remembering the moments as if they were dreams.

A surfer in Pichilemu, Chile, told me that there is no such thing as one soulmate. As humans, we are fascinated by the connection we share with an individual. Whether it’s for an hour, a day, or a month, sometimes you feel a connection and sharing those moments together are far more meaningful than waiting and longing for ONE soulmate.

Throughout my trip I came across many soulmates, individuals that enlightened me with their spirit and who allowed my presence to enlighten theirs. We shared special moments and conversations, stared at the breathtaking landscapes of Chile, ate together, drank, hugged, laughed, or simply sat in pleasant silence. Although I don’t keep in touch with all of them, they are all part of the person I have become. They are part of the love affair I had, and will forever have, with Chile.

Michelle is a full-time wanderer and film enthusiast who’s almost always simultaneously training for a long-distance run. After working various film festivals and supporting arts education in San Francisco, California, for five years, she decided to take a leave of absence from her routine lifestyle in the States. Her recent trip to South America sparked a new and unexpected interest — to teach English abroad. Low and behold you can now find her in Incheon, South Korea, teaching energetic preschoolers. It has been a whirlwind of cultural differences and adjustments, but that’s part of the thrill of living abroad, especially in a country that rarely sees a brown-skinned woman. The students, of course, never hesitate to ask why her skin is darker than theirs.

Grasping Bills in Sweaty Fists, We March Towards Isolation

A mural depicting the disparities of wealth in Bogota, Colombia

A mural depicting the disparities of wealth in Bogota, Colombia

The other day I went to cash a check at a bank branch in Cuenca I had never been to before. I stood awkwardly in the doorway for a few heartbeats, confused. Like any other bank, there was the security guard standing in front of the impersonal faces of ATMs, there the counter with its leashed pens for signing checks or filling in any of various blanks, and there the bivouac of people waiting to talk to a teller, taught from infancy how to stand silently in line… but where were the tellers? What were these slack-faced people waiting for? I did a double take–at one of the ATMs in front of which a customer was standing, a face peered out of a screen in the top left. She was talking and signaling to the person at the machine, and I watched as the latter put their documents into a tube, sealed it, and stuck it into a receptacle, which then also sealed itself before disappearing. These weren’t ATMs, these were the tellers, but instead of face to face contact, all communication was mediated through a video screen.

I had never seen this, let alone heard about it, which is kind of surprising because, knowing the U.S., it would be one of the first places to implement a system like this. And yet I’m glad I haven’t seen it before and frankly, I hope not to see it again. I’d never considered it before, really. Most of us don’t consciously value the salutations and admittedly superficial pleasantries we exchange with those people we interact so briefly with: bank tellers, waiters, grocery store clerks. And yet in this experience at the bank, I starkly felt the absence of something I had always taken for granted.

I believe one of the universal truths of our humanity is the need for human contact–physical human contact. We live in an age where so much can and has been digitized. Fifty years ago I would have only been able to communicate with my family back in California by mail. Any correspondence would have been in transit for weeks or even months, and, considering that Ecuador’s postal system is lacking even today, would have had a good chance of never arriving in the first place. Now I can talk to friends and family within seconds and I can even see their faces. But I can’t hug them or squeeze their hand or smack them gently on the shoulder in loving antagonism. They can’t comfort me when I’m ill. Lovers can not feel each other’s skin over Skype. Mothers can not kiss their children over FaceTime. Words can travel through the ether of space, but the warmth of our bodies, the unique smell of our skin and hair and breath, and the authenticity of our whole selves are completely lost in it.

It’s the thought of all this that bothers me and leaves me cold when I go to a bank and speak only to a machine, where once I had an exchange with a person, however fleeting and thoughtless. If human contact is one of the most important factors of our most basic levels of happiness and well-being, what does it say about us that little by little we are taking it away from ourselves? What, exactly, is the point of it? It’s simple, unfortunately. It’s done for money, for the care and keeping of it. Money is the how and the why, the justification for that removal of person from person. If human contact is a basic ingredient to our existence, then money is its anathema.

One reason that people travel, in my opinion, is to connect with others. Of course, those who never stray far from where they’ve lived their entire lives connect with people daily too, and yet it is a kind of homogeneous connection, one of comfort, of the surety that comes with an innate familiarity with your surroundings. While traveling, that comfort and surety is stripped away, leaving us bare and raw, vulnerable to the intentions of others. Without the insulation of home, our interactions with others are necessarily more open. We are not standing on solid ground when we strike up a conversation on a bus or in a hostel, especially if the person with whom we are trying to connect does not share our primary language. And yet I think it is because of the fragility of the situation that sometimes the connections we make on the road burn brighter and more fiercely than the majority of those we make at home, even if these connections last no longer than an hour, a day, a week. Just like with love, we have to open ourselves up to an excruciating extent in order to experience more deeply what we have in common with one another.

This is not all travel. This is the kind young people do most commonly, with a backpack and a few thousand dollars and little else, besides a tenuous hope that the time ahead of them will be filled with the many permutations of truth and that they will find their lives filled with a conscious kind of intention they hadn’t known before. But there is also the travel that older and more affluent people tend to do, the kind that includes words like all-inclusive and itinerary and package deal. In my mind this kind of travel is like a bubble. You step into it and then float through foreign places like in a dream, because all real connection and experience bounces off this effervescent barrier you have created around yourself with the help of money, whether this is out of fear or jejune ignorance or willful blindness. These people are often not interested in the infinite connections to be made with people from different backgrounds, belief systems, and socioeconomic underworlds, but rather travel as if they were in a zoo, interested only in the strangeness of the exhibits, but both very aware and very grateful for the bars that keep that strangeness from truly touching them. I believe that what they fear in these would-be encounters is that the world view they’ve built their life around may be challenged and irreparable chinks may begin to appear in a belief system that once seemed so solid. It is easier to keep any such threats at a physical remove.

Money is capable of many things. It can open up vast vistas of opportunity and fight off death and old age (though not for long), it can buy comfort and style, but one thing it has never done–because it is antithetical to its very nature–is bring people closer together. Instead it creates walls between us, invisible strata that separate us from one another. It was with the intent of protecting money that someone came up with the idea to have bank tellers sit in undecorated, impersonal rooms and talk to customers through a video screen, pushing money into space-age tubes of plastic in exchange for documents, and sending them to the other side through bulletproof glass, because in the eyes of those who consider the true currency of life to be monetary, it is those flimsy bills that need to be protected and valued, as opposed to the emotional, marvelous beings on either side of the barrier.

Solitude as Sustenance, or, Singing the Pain


The United States has always boasted a highly individualistic culture. Children generally move out of their parents’ home once they reach 18, people are encouraged more and more to pursue their own goals (men have enjoyed this privilege for ages–women only recently), etc. It is not at all like Ecuador where being single, for example, is regarded as anomalous or where the heteronormative trajectory of life is all but holy writ (i.e. get married, have kids, live life for said kids, rinse and repeat). But even in the country that coined the term “rugged individualism”, the idea of solitude, of being alone, remains a point of fear for many; so much so that they would rather settle for mediocrity–in relationships, in jobs–than risk ever being or feeling alone.

But for me, solitude is something I crave, something necessary in order to maintain a sense of balance in my life. I’m a very social person–there are few things I enjoy more than sitting with friends, talking and laughing without restraint. But there are days, like today, where I wake up and think “Today I want no one’s company but my own.” It is in this state of solitude in which I am at my most productive. I write, read, cook… I even clean. The solitude fills in the cracks I hadn’t even noticed and makes me feel level. This has worked for me in many different stages of my life and in many ways allowed me to become the (arguably) whole and sane person I am.


During the Dark Ages (high school era), I would often go to the beach at night, alone. Sometimes I wrote angsty, hormone-riddled poems (and sometimes good ones) or cry or punch the steering wheel, or open the window and close my eyes while breathing in the salt-tinged air and listening only to the ceaselessly crashing waves. The ocean always made me feel small and, consequently, enacted the same magic on the size of my problems. I did this at moments when I thought I might burst from the tension, anger, heartbreak, and sense of betrayal that shaped those years and so severely warped the way I interacted with those around me, making me question who I thought I was. True solitude can be so difficult to find as a teenager, and yet if I hadn’t found a way to do so, I would have been lost.

Years later, in another–possibly darker–period, I would wander alone through the streets of San Francisco. I went to movies by myself, to restaurants I had wanted to try, to coffee shops, bookstores, and bars, both upscale and divey. In these places I watched other people as they often watched me, the young, pretty girl sitting alone over a latte gone cold or a half-eaten plate of bolognese. I tried to read in the lines of their faces and the shapes of their bodies whether they had the same scars as I and, if so, how they had moved on from the point of injury. I allowed food and leftover pain pills and the laughter of strangers and the penumbra of empty movie theaters to fill the yawning emptiness inside of me. This brand of solitude didn’t heal me, but there are times in life when distraction is salvation, and it gave me that.


Solo travel takes solitude to an entirely different level. It becomes unavoidable–interminable bus rides, rooms in hostels in strange border towns, the knowledge that you are carrying all you need with you on your own back with no one’s help. This kind of solitude is one of the greatest of life’s teachers. Nothing else will tell you so much and with so much brutal honesty about your strengths and weaknesses. It breaks you and then puts you back together, like a bone, stronger at the site of the break. It is the scariest and most rewarding kind of solitude I can think of–a drug that never leaves your system.

But the solitude I woke up seeking today was of an entirely different strain. If that latter period of my life was darkness, this one is pure light. I am putting every fiber of myself towards finding contentment and joy and my spot in the world. I am beta-testing dreams I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I’m pushing the boundaries of my own independence by living unsupported and unfettered in a foreign country. I have people in my life, both new and well-established, who love and accept my most authentic self and I theirs. My moments of solitude now are not about holding myself together but about letting the world in and allowing myself to be grateful for everything I have been given and have gotten for myself. They are moments of quiet joy, of tactile pleasures, of enjoying the capabilities of my own flesh, of acknowledging my own inherent power in creating and defining my own experience. Solitude is finding my center and using it as a baseboard for launching myself once again into the unpredictable nebula of the next moment.

How to Make a Güera: an Origin Story in Prose Poetry


I come from piles and piles of books, from black tea and toast spread thickly with peanut butter, from black bean soup and tamale pie.

I come from windows thrown open and carefully cultivated gardens, from cool tile floors and rope swings, from grudgingly shared bunk beds and community pools.

I come from orange trees, both legendary and remembered, from lavender crushed between fingertips and basil breathed deeply, from fields of sunflowers and hillsides bursting with sweet peas.

I come from Easters of resurrection replaced with fried chicken and strawberries dipped in whipped cream, from minds open to change and error, from Crowleys, Larkins, and Davises alike.

I come from closely concealed and jealously guarded pain and from forgiveness freely given, from histories created to wound, and from burning memories singed with unwanted truths.

I come from the knowledge that life is brief and beautiful, that worth is created from within rather than rewarded from without,  and that one can’t hope to know the world by staying within the realm of the comfortable.

I come from a religion that occupies no church but of which the god is compassion and tolerance and wisdom, and in which there is neither heaven nor hell, but only the present.

I come from the rocky and foam-studded coast of California, from its palm trees and redwoods, its deserts and rivers and snow-capped mountains. But beyond that, I come from the emerald hills and enchanted woods of Ireland.

I come from pasta with ham and peas, from pecan pie, and fresh coffee.

I come from my mother’s stories of broken teeth and my father’s encounter with an aggressive elbow, from an uncle’s drug-induced catastrophe, and from my grandmother’s tales of sadness transformed.

I come from the photos and home videos that have immortalized certain realities and disguised the darkness that invisibly cut at our ankles.

I come from Brönte and Whitman and Tolkien and Twain and from a chain of stories and individuals that stretches back beyond memory.

From all of this and more I come, but into what I go I cannot tell, until the day when there is no more to see but what came before.

A Map of Blood and Skin: A Curated Glimpse into the Heart

It is nearly impossible to travel without falling haphazardly into the world of maps. You find yourself struggling to make sense of them, to translate them to the necessary scope and scale, even in the current age of technology. A wealth of pertinent information, nevertheless a map shows only what is essentially superficial. Maps are only shades of truth, man-made markings designed to orient you in the unfamiliar. You can never hope to know a country by simply looking at its one-dimensional cartographic representation; there is no chance that you will understand the struggles and victories of a country’s people or get any true idea of its beauty. Few worthwhile endeavors are so easy. That which is hidden, the secrets behind the easily accessible façades, will only be revealed when the time is taken to truly look, to ask the right questions and listen to the answers, even if they aren’t exactly what was expected. In the same way that a map conceals the secrets of any given place, tattoos do the same for the human body.


A hundred years ago, tattoos were the markers of sailors, criminals. or otherwise unsavory members of society. Today, they have become a form of expression, a manner of flipping your skin inside out to show the world (if the world knows how and where to look) who we are and where we have come from. But tattoos are a language in themselves, and the language changes depending on the body and on the soul that resides within.

If you take the time to understand them, you will find most people’s tattoos to be the maps of the psyche. If you could read mine, you would see and understand some of the most important events in my life. From a gilded birdcage with its door hung open, a swallow sailing skyward, you would see a young girl escaping from the smoldering ruins of a story that wasn’t her own, a refugee of a nuclear blast from which even fourteen years later evidence of radiation surfaces now and again. From a Mexican-style calavera with the wings of a monarch, you would understand the love an even younger girl felt for someone who was lost, but whose presence has never left her, and whose face she sees in the markings of every monarch butterfly that rides the currents of air around her. The simple Latin stretched over the frail bones of my foot are an illusion that hide a meaning deeper than one might think: of searching for and arriving disappointed in religion, of being dissatisfied with the hierarchies of society, of accepting that happiness would not be found in molding myself to the roles that others might urge me into, but rather that I had to find my own way, in spite of the hazards, and of embracing the fierceness of my independence. In short, if you were to take your finger and trail it along my body chronologically from tattoo to tattoo, you would be incomprehendingly tracing the path of a life, from a girl around the age of nine or ten to the person she has become today. Although many see tattoos as a way to seem tough or impermeable, they are actually a sign of extreme vulnerability. Most people do not carry their lives around for strangers to witness, but that is exactly what tattoos are: imprints of experiences exposed.


Not everyone thinks this way. Many still see them as unseemly, unsophisticated, unprofessional. One of the most important people in my life often urges me to stop covering parts of myself with ink, with manifestations of successes and failures, of love and pain. I understand. I see that in her eyes I am tracing over the perfect skin that I was born with and that I will die with. She looks into my future and sees regret in my heart when I look at the sagging and wrinkled portrayals of youth. In part, she sees it as a diminishment of beauty, as opposed to an augmentation of it. This is one of the only things we disagree on and, in part, this entry is an attempt to show her how I see tattoos–my own and those that belong to other bodies, both familiar and foreign.

For one, my tattoos anchor me in my own body. They have had a large role in helping me to accept and love myself, to realize that there is worth in the shape of my body, that in spite of the fact that my thighs spill over the sides of the mold society prescribes for them and that my bones do not create good handholds for other people’s notions of beauty to grab onto, I am beautiful regardless. When I look in the mirror and take myself in–hair, skin, largish nose, love handles, tattoos–I do not feel regret, and be it illusion, artifice, or truth, I see beauty in my reflection.


The tattoos that are now as my own body are reminders, promises, prayers. They are comfort etched into my skin so that I will never truly be bereft. They are the map that guides me home when I am lost and full of panic and anxiety. I know I can’t see the future; I know I can’t guarantee that when the colors of my tattoos have faded and my skin has grown loose and mottled with age that I won’t feel regret. But I am no stranger to regret–I have come to recognize it from afar. And if what some say is true and I do one day feel regret, I think that upon arriving at the end of my life and finding that these pretty marks are my biggest regret–if that comes to pass, I think it’s safe to say I will have lived a magnificent life. But what I do know is this: we are given precious few chances to make choices that will stay with us forever. The people we choose to have in our lives will one day be gone. The things we love may one day be unrecognizable… but my tattoos will stay with me until my last breath, until my body becomes nothing more than the vessel for the biological imperatives of lower life forms, until I am well beyond the grasping reach of regret. That has to be enough.

Let Them Eat Cake, or, the Slap in the Ass that is International Women’s Day

Sometimes — often — I wish I could be a man for a day. I honestly believe that it must be as different as different can be. What must it feel like to be born into the most powerful place of privilege in the world? To walk out of your house each day knowing that, in all likelihood, no one is going to talk down to you or hiss or catcall or roll their eyes down your body as if you were a particularly appetizing treat just waiting to be unwrapped and devoured? To know that no stranger is going to call you “baby” or “little girl” or “princess” during the course of a normal conversation?

It was International Women’s Day this week, and although I kind of dropped the ball on having a post ready, I think it’s worth posting one late. Why do we still have these days anyway? Why do we have Black History Month or Labor Day or Veteran’s Day? I’m not trying to downplay the importance of any of the groups these days are supposedly commemorating. Quite the opposite — there shouldn’t be one day a year to remind us to value the roles black people or vets have played in our country and the world; it should be something we strive to value and remember every day. These pseudo-holidays are consolation prizes, the power structure’s way of pretending it hasn’t systematically ignored and undercut the needs of these social groups. Women’s Day? That’s a fucking joke. Think about this for a second: why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?

Women make up over half the world’s population and yet we are consistently valued less than men. I don’t hate men in any way. That whole man-hating feminist trope is passé. But I do hate that my rights are constantly under threat by the international patriarchy. I hate the fact that both the country I was born in and the country I have chosen to live in teach women how not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape. I hate the fact that there are men who see my confidence, both sexual and otherwise, as a threat to their masculinity, who see my tendency to wear clothes that sometimes show my legs or my shoulders or a moon-slice of my stomach as an invitation to lewdness and eye-fucking. And what I truly hate is the fact that somewhere, far beneath my confidence and surety and independence, in the deep, dark place where we keep the things we hate to admit even to ourselves, there is a tiny piece of me that urges me to adhere just a little more closely to the feminine mold society has soldered for me because one day, somewhere, a man might do me harm, might subject me to violence because of the woman I’ve chosen to be, the woman I am. I hate the fact that I know this feeling to not be ridiculous, because of the number of women I know who have been subjected to this kind of violence, and have, moreover, been made to feel ashamed or as though they bear the main brunt of guilt. I resent that the patriarchy has instilled that fear in me and in other women, even if I choose to live my life my own way in spite of this fear.

Women have the right to be whomever they want to be, the right to be with anyone, do anything, say anything, and wear whatever they want, and they have the right to do this without having to fear the way this autonomy might cause men to react to them. If they so chose, women (and anyone else for that matter) should have the right to be naked without strangers feeling that their nakedness was an invitation to be touched. I want to live in a world where any expression of self, precluding expression harmful to other beings, is accepted and, if not appreciated, tolerated. Women, like men, should be able to walk down a street without being subjected to any kind of harassment.

People tend to laugh off feminists — to label us as angry, humorless, a kind of caricature. We should be angry. Millennia have passed and we are still paid less than men, our opinions valued less, our ability to make our own decisions about our lives and our bodies questioned and often denied. People will say we have come a long way, but I say that it is not enough. It is not enough when jokes about women being in the kitchen or cleaning or being raped are still traded like currency. It is not enough when women are having acid thrown on their faces for rejecting a man, when young girls are kept out of school during their periods or are forced to marry and bear children before their bodies are ready, when women are put in jail for having natural miscarriages or stillbirths. It is not enough.

I am just one woman, one voice, with a blog read by fewer people than could fit into a modest high school auditorium. You may have noticed that I didn’t speak much about Ecuador in particular, considering this is a travel blog, but I am extremely wary of assuming that I know what other women’s lives are like, especially women from other walks of life, from cultures and backgrounds as foreign to me as mine must seem to them. But I believe that if each gender-identified woman could find her unique platform and fill it with her individual voice, telling her own inimitable story, I think we as a social group would find that we have enough power to make the world into exactly the kind of place we would all deserve to live in.