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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Dark and Damp Undersides of Bravery

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Traveling for me is such an overwhelmingly positive experience that the brief moments of negativity maintain a tenuous hold at most when I look back.  My memory barely snags on the missed flights, the fear-induced sleeplessness, the tearful goodbyes. Years from now, when my restlessness has been tamed (by infirmity most likely), I will reflect on my wild youth and remember people I met once and never again, night skies gazed upon from the bottom of a canoe, the pleasure of fulfillment and freedom, of living a life so open I could not touch its edges if I stretched my arms to their limit.

This is not to say that I do not feel the full weight of those few less than happy moments that are so inevitable.

I finally made it back to Cuenca after three months at home and although throughout the entire trip (which included two layovers and a five-hour bus ride) I felt proud and excited, once my bags were unpacked and I had stopped moving, I was rendered practically catatonic by a feeling of dread, of loss. Suddenly there was a marquee invading the darkness behind my eyes that read in bold, jagged script: “What have you done!?” And behind the marquee trailed a caravan, each vehicle carrying its own individual anxiety — not enough money! No family! No backup plan! On and on around a circular track in my brain this caravan went, depriving me of my confidence, my courage, even sleep.

But somewhere in me there is also a spark that speaks rationally, and it told me that this was just a reaction to odyssey, that it had happened before and will again. It reminded me that I am living my life by my own rules and that even the bravest sometimes shrink from the shadow they themselves cast. And so I let the negative feelings wash through until all that was left was a residue of caution, something necessary to any adventure.

Each day that I live my life like this I am carving myself, my identity, out of the clay, so that one day, decades hence, when adventure lives mostly in my muscle memory, I will know exactly who I am and how I came to be.

A Woman of Non-Color Momentarily Experiences Otherness

604123_10101221298385158_3499986577985883661_nAlmost daily I am asked for stories and anecdotes from my trip. I find myself telling the same ones again and again– what my favorite parts were, why I liked Ecuador so much, was I ever afraid, etc. People are interested in my answers. They want to touch a small piece of a life that isn’t theirs (but could be!). They want to feel a shade of the emotions I felt, live vicariously through my reactions towards certain experiences. What did you do when you realized you were standing next to an über-poisonous snake in the jungle? What was it like to take buses across countries? How did you get that scar on your knee? But the story I tell most often, the story to which people have the strongest reactions, is the story about how I was mugged twice within a week in Bogotá, Colombia, but more so, how I managed to defend myself against not one but both attempts and lose nothing of my own.

I have told this story to strangers and friends, to other women who felt threatened or anxious while traveling alone. I spoke of how the attacks seemed like manifestations of the pervasive feeling of otherness that I experienced while in South America. With my white skin, my blonde hair, and my tall body, I was as other as I could be compared to the generally darker skinned and haired, and of shorter stature, people I encountered on my travels. I spoke in previous entries of how that made me feel, how it made me empathize more with people who live with this feeling of otherness every day of their lives. But the experience never truly connected me with these “others” until a couple of nights ago at a bar with some friends. My friend and I were talking to a couple at the bar, a young English woman and an American man, and somehow my friend mentioned my mugging experience. The man turned to me and asked me about it, and I told him how I hadn’t been surprised that it had happened, how wherever I went I felt people’s eyes on me, in appraisal or interest, with curiosity, and sometimes with malice. He looked at me jokingly and said “I don’t know how that feels,” to which I laughed unthinkingly. His smile faded as he added that actually he felt that every day of his life, as a black man living in Orange County. I looked at him and then away. Then I said, “I never thought of it that way. I have never had to think of it that way. But that’s a terrible way to feel.” He nodded and we began to speak of other things.

I forgot about that conversation for a couple days, until it suddenly resurfaced and knocked the wind out of me. I struggle to be constantly aware of the way I treat people. I believe that we are the same where it matters, but that social constructions have had centuries to create striations of worth pertaining to color and religion and gender– anything really that is different from those who control the power structures. But I am white; privileged; most days I even consider myself beautiful. I occupy the pinnacle of the privilege pyramid. And although theoretically I understand that privilege and what it would mean to not have it, I never would have experienced it for myself if I had not left Orange County, California, the United States behind me to step into the shoes of the “other”. I never would have felt, even for a moment, what it feels like to be different than the majority and victimized because of it.

I may have been attacked even if I had looked like everyone else on Avenida Jiménez in Bogotá, but the reality of my difference made my chances much, much higher. A white person in this country can be wrongfully killed by the police, sentenced to a life in prison for minor offenses, subjected to prejudice and racial hate, but it is so much less likely to happen to them because they are a fragment of the majority, a stone, however insignificant, in the power structure of this country. To me, my experience in Bogotá felt almost exotic. It had never happened to me at home in San Francisco, although I worked in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods. I was mugged and I fought back, emerging unscathed though perhaps a little wiser. But to a vast part of the American population, what felt like an isolated and exotic (though terrifying) experience is something that is dealt with daily, something to be survived.

I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well, if I’m successfully relaying to you, reader, what this experience felt like to me. It was this man’s reaction to my story more than my experience of the mugging itself that floored and humbled me. Regardless of what I do, because of who I am and how I was raised and the world into which I was born (by luck, by chance), I can not write or express myself but from a place of privilege. I have acknowledged and accepted this reality, and I use this position to attempt to understand the lives of others whom chance has placed in lives or bodies so very different from mine. It is awkward and uncomfortable for me to talk about this in some ways, but I believe that it is in talking about the problems in this world, by starting conversations with others, that we can hope to change the status quo.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing like being outside of your comfort zone and accosted with the realities lived by others to make you just a little bit more compassionate, an ounce more loving and understanding of the people who share the world with you. Sometimes it feels like progress is slow, if it’s happening at all. But I think the man at the bar, sitting next to the white woman who was his date, is an emblem of progress in himself, if looked at from the perspective of the ramifications of such a thing fifty years ago. For his sake, and mine, and for the sakes of everyone trying to live this infinitesimal sliver of time we have been given, I hope that within our lifetime he will no longer feel like the other in Southern California, or even better, that people will have realized that this practice of relegating those who are different into the sphere of “otherness” serves no purpose other than to create more distance between human beings, and that to acknowledge the “humanness” of each and every one of us is so much more powerful.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco… And London: Finding Home

Hello friends and fellow viajeros! I’m working as hard as I can to get pan-continental again, but in the meantime I have asked a few people who share my passion for travel to write about their own experiences, so there will be some guest posts intermixed with my own. I thought some fresh voices and perspectives would be just the thing. This week’s entry is a topic near and dear to my heart, written by a friend even nearer and dearer. Enjoy!


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Having lived in one place until I was an adult meant that, as a teenager, I had yet to experience home as an abstract term. It was a literal thing, nestled in the hills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Though I traveled quite a bit as a child, I never found that indescribable feeling I now know as harmony — that feeling of being connected to a city without knowing how or why. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco when I was eighteen that I experienced the sheer joy of falling in love with a place. Sometimes I tell myself that perhaps it was because I was on my own for the first time, or because I’d found the quintessential group of friends. But I know deep down that the “City by the Bay” captured my heart in more ways than just perfect timing and quality people — it was my home, and I still very much consider it that. But soon after moving to San Francisco, I inexplicably found myself at home again… in London.

Let me add that I’ve had the great fortune of traveling to a wide variety of cities: Lima, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Prague, Tel Aviv, Paris, Krakow, Copenhagen, and Venice, to name a few. All of these places were wonderful in their own way. However, upon arrival to each of these cities, I did not feel that same heart-stopping, adrenaline-inducing, starry-eyed wonder that I felt my first day in San Francisco or London. It was almost painful, this feeling of connectivity to a certain place, almost — dare I say — déjà vu (side note: I do believe in reincarnation, so I suppose it’s entirely possible that I have been to these places in a past life). When someone describes déjà vu to me, I immediately think of my first days in those two cities. Is it possible, then, to find home in a place you’ve never physically been before? The soul is capable of many things — reincarnation being one of them — so maybe that’s what this feeling, this kinship towards a geographical location, is. What is it about a place that envelops you so wholly — grounds you so completely — in its gritty, unfamiliar arms?

When I studied abroad, I’d chosen London as a destination without ever having traveled there. Whenever people asked why, I always replied that I’d been strangely drawn to London. It had been a sudden love affair. I wasn’t expecting to love everything about it, but I had. And not only that: I felt as though I was home. Which, having never been there before, was hard to explain to myself, let alone other people. London drew me in and never let go. Even now, thinking of the foggy parks, the cobblestoned streets, the smoke billowing from chimneys in the winter, the wild geese, the smell of diesel — it brings forth a very emotional nostalgia for a place that I called home for four months, a place I still consider one of my homes. I belonged, truly belonged, in London. I haven’t felt that same sense of belonging since I left.

Flying into London last summer after having been away for two years brought tears to my eyes. Joyful, exuberant tears. The man next to me on the plane noticed. He asked me if I was returning home. My answer? Something like that. London, a place I’ve been four whole times, was my city. Can you explain that? I can’t. Driving up the 101 Freeway into San Francisco, glimpsing the well-known cityscape, navigating the streets so familiar that I could drive them with my eyes closed: emotional, heart-warming, my home. I am home. That’s what I tell myself upon arrival to both of these cities. I am home, I am home, I am home.

Why doesn’t Los Angeles feel like home any more? It physically is; it’s where I grew up, where my parents still live in the house I grew up in. It’s important to note that I love it here. The Los Angeles I live in now is entirely different than the city I grew up in. Maybe it’s just that. I am evolved now, and I have given my heart to other cities, and there is no room left for my hometown. I have so much love for these other cities that there is nothing left to give Los Angeles other than the half-hearted nod that I give to everyone who asks if I like living here. Yes, I do like living here. Sometimes I think I might love it here. Los Angeles is like a familiar friend: comforting, routine, and complacent. Given my history, I should have room within me to accept it as my home, a label I’ve given to two other cities. And maybe one day I will think of it as such. But for now, I can keep dreaming of returning home — to my heart— in San Francisco and London. I left a piece of myself in each of those cities. I won’t feel whole until I go back.


Amanda Richardson lives in Los Angeles, California, with her fiancé and two cats. She is the author of one published romance novel, The Foretelling, with another in the process of being so. She enjoys binge-watching Friends, reading, and playing Scrabble while drinking wine. She travels every chance she gets and spends her idle hours surfing for cheap international flights that she can max out her credit cards on. She and la Güera met when they were thrown together by chance as roommates in the freshman dorms in San Francisco. The rest is history. 

The Wayfaring Güerita Contemplates Risks and Romance

IMG_2649Romance and love: two of the most fraught and picked-over words in the history of language. Most of us spend our lives looking for these things, hoping only that once we find them our search will end, that we will have truly found love and not some cheap copy with an expiration date. But when I’m constantly consumed with thoughts of where to go next, is there room in there for love? Is it even something to be desired? When you have decided to be rootless, how will you ever stay still long enough to intertwine yourself with another? Physically restless is one thing, complicated enough in itself, but when you’re emotionally and mentally restless… is there any hope at all?

Traveling, I inevitably meet new people every day, few (percentage-wise) in whom I see something which interests me in a more-than-platonic way. Within this small group of people are the rare individuals in whom I see something which goes beyond the physical. Often these people are travelers like myself, attuned to some silent call powerful enough to make us leave comfort and stable jobs and loved ones behind in the search for something even we ourselves can not succinctly identify. Any shared attraction between us is like the indelible but fleeting joining of two forces of nature, like hurricanes sharing an epicenter for an instant before darting off towards their eventual reintegration into the atmosphere from whence they came. The moment takes the form of a word, a look, a brushing together of bodies, and yet this moment– in a different life or with a different set of decisions– could easily be the beginning of something.

Traveling aside, it has been a pattern in my life to meet people or discover feelings for old people (old as in familiar, not aged) when I am on the cusp of departure. It’s like the universe, time and time again, as I’m running full-speed towards some destination, throws someone unexpected into my path, someone that disallows me from setting off without just the tiniest tinge of regret: “Have fun!” the universe seems to say. “But don’t forget that there are always things you could have had back at home, too!”

For me it is always a choice: freedom or love. I can’t seem to reconcile them. I am always wary of comfort zones. I believe that to grow and develop as people we must sometimes willfully leave our comfort zones behind. People tend to choose what they’re familiar with, and having never been in love myself, there is more fear in choosing love than in finding myself on dark streets in countries with unintelligible languages or in adventure-derived accidents far from the protection and care of those who love me. This brings up a potentially troubling question: is it possible that unfettered freedom is my comfort zone??

Possibilities constantly swirl around us like dust motes in a sunbeam– what would happen if I said yes to someone else for once instead of always saying yes only to myself? Or is it a problem that I am unable to think of love without envisioning burying parts of myself that would not mesh with a life lived in one place with one person?

I have talked myself down from many a leap of faith when it came to my heart and I know that I am afraid– of missing out, of settling, of complacency. I know that what was once a coping mechanism has become a self-imposed barrier, but that knowledge in itself does not provide a clue to said barrier’s demolition. All I know is that the roads of the world lead into and back out of my very bones. Would I ever want to cut those ties to allow for an actual person to establish holds on my heart?

I have fought off potential muggers with my bare hands, cut off my hair on a whim, traveled to countries where no one I’ve ever known has ever been, but can I be open to this most basic of human needs? I am afraid of relatively little: of fainting, of chronic pain, of helplessness. But I am afraid of nothing more than perceived chains, of cages, regardless how beautiful and comfortable. Can I overcome fear, and welcome love? Can I tap into this courage that so many seem to be amazed at and finally take one of the only risks I’ve ever avoided, a danger not to my body, but to my heart?