La Güera Dreams, Despierta, Makes Lists

It’s 6:01 a.m. In reality, it’s 5:01, but that strange human invention, Daylight Savings Time, starts today. This is not a time of day in which a güera is generally awake, let alone productive. But I was dreaming…

Of work.

Yet I woke up as if from a nightmare–hyperaware and breathing fast. I tried to go back to sleep for a while, but my mind continued to race. It was like my brain was trying to use the limited information it had to figure out why I had woken up the way I did. It felt like it does when there’s an earthquake, or someone’s calling your name, or something is happening that shouldn’t be, and your brain is sending emergency signals to your body to WAKEUPWAKEUPWAKEUP, but the body is slow to answer, wrapped too heavily in shroud-like sleep.

What had happened?

Then it hit me, and the possibility of sleep sailed away on a silent wind.

I’ve been home for a year. Today.

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If that was me then, who am I now?

Let me break it down.

Things I like: dancing, roller skating, hot dogs, scars, kissing, strong coffee, stronger beer, belly laughter, my body, artistic expression, 90s fashion, being underwater, the word “fuck”, people watching, friendship, honesty, hirsute men, tattoos, language.

Things I don’t like: shaving, high intensity workouts, the disparity in effort to orgasm between the sexes, applications, standardized testing, things that look unlived in, disrespect, intolerance, gratuitous violence, abuse of power, debt, ignorance.

Things I like: shirts that say things, costume jewelry, lying in bed, lying in bed with books, lying in bed with boys, religious art, leather jackets, outdoor markets, intelligent conversation, lingerie, driving, spontaneity, baking, chicken wings, playing sports.

Things I don’t like: sports fans, traffic, diminutive pet names given by strangers, catcalling, shaming, religion, the word “nut butter”, romance (mostly), the absence of critical thought, pain, malls, small talk, cages (generally), alarms, being afraid of–


So, who am I, a year after coming home?

I’m very much myself, a little less afraid than I was before, less inclined to be “nice” and “accommodating”, a little more sure of where I might be heading. I’m also more aware of my weaknesses, my strengths, and also that nebulous area where the two blend seamlessly together.

I’ve been very close to the bottom several times since I’ve been home, but here, at dawn, a year from stepping off the plane from Colombia, a year from dancing alone in the rain in the middle of thousands of people, a year from racing down the streets of Bogotá both thrilled and horrified that my taxi driver ran every red light…

I’d say things are coming up roses.

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Lines Written in the Days of Fading Brightness

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I am fast approaching the end of all this, having arrived at the sodden tea leaves swirling round the bottom of my cup. I eye them half-heartedly. But as much as we would like a roadmap, such things belong in stories and not here, on this cynical–though wondrous–plane we inhabit. Home and all it entails is looming once again on the horizon. I sit here, or rather, I wander slowly back along the road I arrived by, and watch its approach. When it hits me I’ll know it’s time to squeeze who I’ve become back into the Kaelyn-sized space I left, knocking down walls and splitting seams in the process. Another paradigm shift in the making, another cliff’s edge that in all seriousness I should be toeing anxiously, despite my travel-tested wings, yet all I want at the moment is to lie in a hammock with my book and order some delivery Thai (beautiful dream). In the shadow of big changes, it’s the small appetites we turn to and seek to sate.

I started this journey from behind a desk, ducking my head whenever the boss went by lest his dreadful vulture’s eye fall on me. I will be ending it back in the city of fears realized–Bogotá, Colombia, where I was once mugged twice in a week. But so much has happened in the meantime. For one thing, I think I’ve had my fill of reggaeton for the rest of my life; also light beer; also the Ecuadorian tax system; machismo; Zhumir–the small and inconsequent gripes that accumulate after any longish amount of time in one place.  But the good, the wondrous: I’ve found soulmates and peace and friendships, flames that will be rekindled in different places around the world again and again; the scent of palo santo; the new meaning of the word chola, which now evokes ebony velvet braids and swinging skirts; a lit match will always bring to mind three women from three different parts of the world whose laughter rang through Cuenca’s cobblestone streets. Now, a day after I’ve finally left Cuenca, and all the things that have made up my daily life, I’m in a place called Mindo, where it’s raining so hard it seems the river is going to rush through my windows and maybe wash it all away. It has me thinking about endings. All things end, and all begin, but it is what comes between that makes things what they are.

I’ve left and come back home so many times now that I could do it without thinking. But I do. Think, I mean. It’s like finding my old racing suit and being surprised, bemusedly so, that although tighter in some places, it still fits, still serves its purpose. It hurts though, in a subphysical kind of way–hurts because, without even noticing, you’ve expanded and become so much greater since you’ve been away, and then you’re home and in the same size space you left, and all the beauty and all the substance you’ve brought with you must struggle to make a place for itself.

Homecoming hurts, but it no longer feels like a punishment, an event requiring a large inhalation of breath and a considerable lung capacity to hold it until the worst is over. I left that baggage along the roadside somewhere, along with my penchant for over-processed white bread and glitter eye shadow. Homecoming has alchemized into something less sinister, not quite gold but far from lead. It is a sloughing off of one set of responsibilities and a shouldering of another. It is family dinners and small comforts, it is a sense of no longer having to look over my shoulder quite as often, a brushing off of whatever remnants of projected cultural shame have managed to settle into my hair and skin. Home is where fewer, though by no means no one, question who I’ve chosen to be.

I have no idea what kinds of things I will begin, continue with, and end this year. No idea what version of myself I will be when I look back a year from now. I don’t feel anxious or fearful, but nor do I feel excited, exactly. I think the overriding feeling is curiosity. I can predict only slightly more about this next phase of my life than I could when I decided to travel South America, and later live there. In spite of having lived most of my life in California, anything could happen there, just as anything could, could have, and sometimes did happen in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

At the risk of an excess of imagery, permit me one more. Coming home after an extended absence is a bit like jumping out of a plane—you’re pretty confident the terrain will be familiar on landing , having been an unwitting (oft unwilling) student all your life, and you’re reasonably sure your parachute will open at the appropriate time. Yet there is still risk, still a palpable tinge of uncertainty, albeit wearing the home team’s colors. We cannot know what exactly will be waiting for us when our feet once again sink into the soil of home. We cannot know if the person we have become is quite as willing to live among the ghosts of the people we were before.

The tea leaves can’t tell me anything. I can’t tell the future. I can’t even objectively analyze the past. But I have myself, my will, and I continue, as always, to cling relentlessly and with immeasurable force to the ever-changing form of my dreams.

“And therefore
Who would cry out

To the petals on the ground
To stay,
Knowing as we must,
How the vivacity of what was is married

To the vitality of what will be?”
-Mary Oliver

 

La Güera Gets Drunk, Takes on the Patriarchy

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Weekends in Cuenca are not in general very exciting. We drink the same beers, go to the same bars, talk and flirt with the same people, reminisce (or remind) each other about what happened the night before, rinse and repeat. I am a woman who thrives on variety and thus have trouble with the sameness of it all. And perhaps, in my boredom, I made a mistake–I got really, really drunk. I mean the say-everything-in-my-mind, sloppy, falling down kind of drunk. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t aspire to it. And I’m not proud of it. But my personal sense of having overindulged and made a fool of myself is not what has me so angry.

As happens when one was drunk and doing annoying/entertaining/astonishing things, people have been coming up to me to tell me of my antics. I may have tried to crowdsurf, I may have told someone I just met that girls with purple hair do it better, and I may have been overagressive with some party foam, but what I was not doing was asking for it. So many people have asked me what would have happened if someone had taken advantage of me in my state, what if some man had managed to get me alone, what if I had been raped? They say, “You shouldn’t drink so much. You’re making yourself vulnerable to bad men who want to hurt you.” I’m lucky I have good friends that didn’t leave me alone, because I can’t even imagine what I would be feeling if I had been raped or otherwise assaulted, but you know what? Regardless of my state of inebrity, it wouldn’t have been my fault. 

I don’t care if I’m walking alone at night on a deserted street. If I’m wearing a short skirt or a low-cut dress. If I’m drunk and friendlier than usual. I refuse to conform to a set of standards designed to keep me from being raped, while men are not taught how to conform to standards that would keep them from raping. If I were a man, no one would tell me not to get so drunk because of the possibility of sexual assault. If I were a man, people would tell me not to get drunk because I was annoying or belligerent or just because it’s not good for my liver–not because someone might force themselves upon me and against my will defile the only thing I have any real claim to in life: my body.

In the absolutely devastating possibility that I had been raped, you know what people would have said to me? “How absolutely horrible. I’m so sorry. But you shouldn’t have been so drunk. You opened yourself up to the possibility.” In what kind of fucked-up world is that what you say to someone who has been raped? What kind of horrifically backwards world tells women they’re “lucky” when they don’t get sexually assaulted?

I go out for drinks fairly often. I like to go to clubs and dance. I like to wear clothes others consider revealing. I like to make out with cute boys in public places. Sometimes I go home with them. I say what I’m thinking and I am who I say I am. Very rarely, I drink more than I should. None of this qualifies anyone to make the decision that I would be “asking for it” or even more disgustingly “deserve it”. But you know what? I shouldn’t have to justify myself. Unless I am saying “yes” with all my mental faculties intact, don’t have sex with me. Don’t. Fucking. Rape. And for the rest of you, never tell a woman that she should behave herself in order to not get raped, because all you’re doing is making the woman feel ashamed of herself and thereby perpetuating the incredibly harmful belief that it is a woman’s job to not get raped rather than a man’s job to not rape

I drank too much this weekend. I won’t be doing it again anytime soon. But never in my life will I agree with a culture that tells me the reason I shouldn’t do so is for my own sexual protection.

The Candle that Burns at Both Ends

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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

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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 most-needed hiatus from travel frenzy.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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?