How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

How to Camp on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Here’s a breakdown of camping along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, which is hands down my favorite country in the world. The landscapes, the people, the language, and relative affordability make this a great place to travel and camp.

This is my first time camping internationally with my one person Passage 1 tent from REI, which is light and has an excellent rain cover that has served me well as a tour guide who has camped all over the United States and its National Parks.

I started my backpacking trip two weeks ago by flying into Santa Marta, Colombia. This is my second visit to Colombia, and since I have already been to Cartagena, I decided to start my trip in Santa Marta. I plan to travel throughout the entire country, heading south, for the next few months on my 90 day tourist visa.

Before starting, I had no idea how accessible it would be to camp. Not only is it cheaper than paying for a dorm room in a hostel, I also find it to be quieter since there are rarely any people snoring next to me. I’m a light sleeper, so a quiet place to sleep is muy importante.

I hope these tips inspire you to camp in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast!

Santa Marta, Colombia

Hostal Chimila: $3/night including a light breakfast

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Day 3 of camping 🇨🇴

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I initially wanted to do the $350, 4-day hike to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), but since I came to the country in the peak of the rainy season that lasts from September to December, I decided against it. I spent a week at Chimila, which costs $1 round trip via bus to get into the city of Santa Marta. They also rent out bikes for free for the first two hours, but since it’s so hot here, I only rode the bike into the city once. It also located a bit far from the Rodadero Beach, so taking a bus is also a good idea.

Pros: The pool and the many friendly, mostly Venezuelan volunteers/staff. The atmosphere was incredibly relaxing, too. I don’t consider myself a homebody, but damn, this place made me want to stay forever! When I talked to one of the awesome Venezuelan staff members, Kelly, over breakfast, she mentioned that this place had served as a spiritual retreat for priests who would come here. Their positive energy has definitely stayed. I definitely made use of the hammock and the lounge chairs by the pool.

Cons: Lots of mosquitos, so buy Nopikex bug spray. I ended up lending a bunch of my handy spray to the staff in the evenings! There are also no roofed camping areas which can be a problem if you don’t have a solid rainfly.

Santa Marta wasn’t my favorite city. It’s very hot and dusty and full of tourists who seem to be on the prowl for drugs and sex. There was a great natural food cafe in the Parque de los Novios, which had a killer ceviche made with green apples, and the street art was impressive, but I wouldn’t go back. Santa Marta is more of a jumping off point to explore the neighboring activities , like Parque Tayrona or scuba diving in Taganga.

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En el parque de los novios con mi novia, Ceviche. ❤️

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Parque Tayrona

Eco Hostal Yuluka: $11/Night for a dorm room (no camping), breakfast included

Since Yuluka doesn’t have camping, I went all bougie and boked a dorm room at this relaxing hostel a few minutes away from the entrance to Parque Tayrona, and I’m glad I did. I went hiking into the park to see if I wanted to camp there, but because of all the mud, I’m glad I decided not to.

Pros: Friendly staff, cooler weather than Santa Marta, the best patacones (tostones) of life, a refreshing pool, and a free morning shuttle to the Park Entrance.

Cons: No camping, pricer food, a tiny pool, very few Colombians stayed here when I was here. Most of the guests were Dutch so I didn’t practice much of my Spanish outside of speaking with the staff.

Parque Tayrona: This is one of Colombia’s most famous parks. The jungle borders the ocean and if you’re lucky, you can spot monkeys on your hike down to the beaches. Again, I went during rainy season, so I didn’t want to lug my gear through the mud pits to camp. The hike from the entrance to Cabo San Juan del Guia, the most popular beach for backpackers, took about 3 hours and I was almost knee-high in mud. It was an adventure but not one I’d repeat, especially not with my camping gear!

Cost for a day pass: 61,000 COP ($20 USD). Camping spots cost $10+ USD, depending on where you book.

Palomino

El Arbol Ecolodges: Camping for $5/night without breakfast

Palomino is an odd mix between a sleepy, agricultural town and mecca for partygoing backpackers. Not a place I’d return to because it’s tourist central, but it was a decent halfway point with a beach between Parque Tayrona and Riohacha. I ate lunch at Sua Restaurant, which has great salads.

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Después de tanta fritanga, viene la ensalada.

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Pros: The cutest, cuddliest cats roam the property. There’s a hammock and a roof over the camp sites. The neighboring little food stall sells great falafel and arepas de huevo. For all you yoga lovers, there’s 9 AM yoga in the morning. The beach is a ten minute walk away.

Cons: No breakfast and there were tons of mosquitoes.

Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira

Analaüli Hospedaje Y Restaurante: $2 for a roofed camping spot without breakfast

La Guajira is Colombia and South America’s northernmost point. It’s rugged terrain, where the resilient Wayuu people have resisted colonization from the English, Dutch, and Spanish for centuries. You can book tours from Santa Marta, Riohacha, and more places, but since I speak Spanish and wanted to save money, I decided to wing it and head out there on my own.

I took a shared taxi from Riohacha to the town of Uribia, where I waited for nearly an hour for a shared 4 x 4 jeep to make the 2-3 hour journey to Cabo de la Vela, a remote fishing village to the north. I began chatting with Reiner, a local who took my to his aunt’s hostel. A group of Colombians from Bogota were also making the trip. The road to Cabo was muddy, and our land rover got stuck in the mud multiple times that day, so we had to call other drivers to pull us out of the mud with a makeshift belt and hook.

Once at the hostel, I tried the lobster for $10 which was really good. Just ask for some lime to sprinkle on it since it’s a little dry. The hostel was bare bones- we had to ask for toilet paper and there was no running water. Bucket baths cost a little less than $1. I paid Reiner about $33 USD for an excursion that night to the lighthouse and surrounding beaches, and my fare would also cover the boat ride to and from Punta Gallinas, an excursion to the beaches there, and the ride back to Uribia. It was a pretty sweet deal considering the distances traveled.

Pros: The camping spot is right near the beach, where kite surfers of all levels are gliding on (or crashing into) the shallow water.

Cons: No running water and I wish I’d brought my own toilet paper, but hey, it WAS only $2 and we were in the middle of a coastal desert, yo. I also wish I’d brought more snacks. Shout out to the Colombians who shared their snacks with me!

Punta Gallinas

Hospedaje Alexandra: $3.50 for a camping spot, not including breakfast

Punta Gallinas is the stunning northernmost point of South America. To get there, we took a 5 am boat through the choppy water for two hours. Hospedaje Alexandra is pretty much the only place to stay and is right up the steps from the port. We had a $3 USD breakfast of an arepa with eggs around 9 am, then from 10 am to 2 pm, we went on an included tour of the surrounding beaches and view points.

On the way there, we passed by goats that weaved their way through the cacti to chomp down on the greenest grass the region has seen in five years, which is how long the area went without rain. Our guide told us that one farmer had 200 goats, but by the end of the drought, he only had 50 left. I’m glad the Wayuu finally had some much deserved rain.

My favorite part of the tour was the final leg, during which we were dropped off at the base of a massive sand dune we scaled, then ran down and plunged into the neighboring sea. It was magic.

Pros: Hammocks galore at the Hospedaje. The fried fish they serve is massive. I decided to try their vegetrian lunch instead, which turned out to be a tasty lentil soup with friend plantains and salad.

Cons: Bathing in stored seawater was not my favorite, but again, it is remote desert! It’s a small price to pay for stunning scenery.

I hope my tips for camping in Colombia’s Caribbean coast have been useful! If there’s anything else you’d like to know, drop a line in the comments.

-Charlie

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2017 In Scary Moments and What I Learned From Them

2017 In Scary Moments and What I Learned From Them

2017 was a scary year. From getting an IUD, to traveling solo to 3 countries for nearly 3 months, to getting a mastectomy, these scary moments taught me to make the most of each situation. Here’s a breakdown of the year by month and what I learned from each.

January

I learned that it is possible to miss a flight and not get your money back. I had bought a one-way ticket from Seattle to Cape Town through Gotogate.com for about $600, which had seemed too good to be true. On the day of my flight, I had to drive from Moses Lake, WA to the Seattle airport (a 3 hour drive). It turned out that massive amounts of snow, freezing rain, and ice would shut down the highway. I drove my blue Subaru Outback the roundabout way for about 7 hours straight, and I still missed my flight. Gotogate.com refused to put me on another flight. Needless to say, I’m never doing business with them again.

That night, I booked a ticket to DC instead, and moved there. Shout out to my Wellesley fam for hosting me for months while I job searched! Oh, and while moving to DC on inauguration was not fun, the Women’s March made it all worth it.

February

I learned that getting the types of jobs I am qualified for on paper without a master’s degree in DC is ROUGH. Almost everyone I know here has a master’s, and while I often made it to the final rounds of interviews, I was told I didn’t get several jobs various recruiters simply because the other candidates had master’s degrees and I didn’t. This is why I’ve started studying for the GRE and I plan to take it by February. It’s something concrete that I feel like I’ve needed to work on.

Meanwhile, I applied to work as a bike tour guide for DC Bike and Roll. After having been on a Bogota Graffiti Tour last year, I was inspired to become a tour guide. I had just moved to DC and I became Bike and Roll’s first hire of the year.

March

I learned that the cherry blossoms were scheduled to bloom the first week of April, but that they would bloom around Mid March this year. I also learned that taking three bike tours in one day through the cherry blossom festival was just about as stressful as a day of teaching (shout out to all the teachers for doing what I couldn’t do for very long).

April

I learned that Facebook can be life changing and that the best meal of my life was in China. A friend had tagged me in a Facebook post asking for someone to go on a last-minute work trip to recruit high schoolers to enroll in American schools, and I sent in my resume. Before I knew it, I was lining up at the Chinese consulate in DC at 7:30 AM, applying for a rush visa, and getting a 10-year visa with a glowing Great Wall of China stamped into my passport.

The only other Asian country I’d visited was Japan in 2013, so I was excited to go some place new. This was also the first time that I’d be flown to a different country for work. Boy, did we fly. We went to four different cities in a week, but it was still unforgettable.

May

I learned that it is possible to still feel like a woman but to feel gender dysphoria in the sense of no longer wanting breasts. In 2011, when I was studying abroad in France, a doctor had even signed off on my breast reduction. I wasn’t quite ready to undergo the process yet, so I tabled that desire. In DC, where I felt comfortable exploring my dysphoria again, I began seeing a therapist, my primary care physician, and a breast surgeon. Initially I had just gone in for a reduction, but deep down I felt that I wanted a mastectomy, but that society wouldn’t be ready for it. Then, after speaking with a friend who had undergone top surgery, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I don’t need to ask society’s permission.

I also began a full time job, which taught me that it takes a LONG time to plan trips in advance. I also learned about the wonders of nitro coffee, which my workplace supplied on tap.

June

I learned that the Wellesley College reunion, which only lasts 3 days, needs to last 3 weeks. Before going, I was scared that everyone would be asking me about my ten-year plan. That was not the case.

I saw so many people I hadn’t seen in five years that I wished I really had more time with them. When I did catch up with the amazing people at this predominantly women’s college, I also realized how grateful I was to be in a place where people would look me in the eye while talking to me, and they would focus on the ideas I was saying instead of focusing on how I looked or what I was wearing. It was so nice to be around such amazing people and to not worry nearly as much as I thought I would about explaining where I was in my career.

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Can't wait for @wellesleycollege reunion 2022. 😍

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July

I learned that getting an IUD to control my periods is something I should have done ten years ago. Yes, it was an uncomfortable process, but the pain of one hour was nothing compared to the accumulated pain of having periods. While getting heavy periods was a motivator, I was also motivated to get one before this presidency makes it illegal to do so. By now, my periods are super light and much more manageable.

Also, since I don’t had a photo of the IUD, I’ll add one and a fun fact I learned about myself: Whenever I have friends visit, I always want to get a diet coke with them (caffeine free, please, because I am actually a 99-year-old woman who cannot afford feeling heart palpitations in the afternoon).

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After salads we get diet cokes and get engayged. Again. 💍

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August

I learned what all the buzz was about with solar eclipses. Once I saw the magic in the Pacific Northwestern Sky I grew up under, even if for two brief minutes, I stopped assuming eclipses were just something privileged white people make a big deal about.

September

I learned that anything really can change in an instant. On September 1st, being the confident Virgo that I am, I wrote on Facebook: “It’s virgoing to be a great month.” Minutes later, I was laid off. I packed up my Wellesley Poster and newly purchased succulent plant from Trader Joe’s, and took an Uber from my office. I was in shock, then denial, then felt relieved. Something told me this was my second chance to go to South Africa. I decided I’d leave for 2.5 months, so I subletted my room for exactly that amount of time, and bought another one-way ticket, this time from DC to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

On September 15th, I was flying on Ethiopian airlines with a row of seats entirely to myself, and surrounded by Ethiopian families chatting happily. I made it to Victoria Falls, and my Zimbabwean roommate in DC, Anesu, set me up with some friends in Vic Falls who picked me up from the airport. I ended up Couchsurfing with a man named Martin who is no stranger to Couchsurfing and I appreciate him putting me up for nearly a week.

A few days later, I ended up walking across the nearby border to Zambia to save money on my only outdoor activity in the country, and still paying over $100 to swim at The Devil’s Pool, a small natural pool at the top of Victoria Falls. While I didn’t go on a safari after paying this much to jump in a pool of water, I have no regrets. That was one of the proudest, most exhilarating moments of my life! I’ll never forget looking over at the other side of the falls and seeing the hundreds of little waterfalls that had formed from the falls’ spray. I heard them singing to me and I teared up.

October

I learned that I would finally make it to South Africa after the third try (Oh yes! I had applied to research Art Therapy in Cape Town through the Fulbright program but was rejected in 2015), and that being there was just what I needed to learn about its complex history.

Speaking of history, in you’re ever in South Africa, please don’t just go to Cape Town. If you have time, Johannesburg is worth a visit. The Apartheid Museum was one of my favorites, and tells a story that everyone should learn about. The fact that Nelson Mandela was in prison for as long as I’ve been alive (27 years) is still something I still struggle to wrap my head around. He was an incredible leader.

Anyway, Cape Town really is as stunning as everyone says it is. The views from Table Mountain are incredible, but the hike itself was not. I wish I’d taken my time on the hike up. The “trail” consists of rocks I spend over two hours climbing up. It’s not a pleasant, leisurely hike. Shortly after hiking Table Mountain, I found out that my Medicaid approved me for getting my mastectomy, and I booked my surgery date for December 15th. At the end of October, I also booked my one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.

November

I learned that getting my Mexican passport in September was the best decision I’d made in order to avoid the visa process and fees that U.S. citizens deal with when they go to Brazil. In September, I didn’t know I’d be traveling to Brazil, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a Mexican Passport just in case.

As a kid, I’d always wanted to see South Africa, Brazil, and Russia. Since I’d made part of my childhood dreams come true, why not keep going? I had the money I’d saved from riding my bike and cooking consistently over the years, so the money was the only thing stopping me.

I ended up staying in Rio, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador, all big cities and all very different from one another.

Geographically, Rio is the prettiest city I’ve ever laid eyes on. Belo Horizonte was covered in street art and was the easiest city to find hosts in (I ended up staying with 4 different hosts). Salvador radiated with a sense of black power that I wish all of my friends, especially my black friends, could see.

I was in Salvador during the month of black consciousness, so my Couchsurfing host, Claudiane, took me to a march and a concert, where I was easily the whitest person there, but it wasn’t about me. Not at all. I felt welcome the entire time I was there. Thank you, Claudiane, for hosting me. Thank you for showing me the photo of you with your graduating class. I assumed all of your classmates were black, since most of the people in the city are black, but once I saw your photo, you were the only black woman in a class of about 50. You’re an inspiration.

Last, I already new that people don’t want to others to assume things about them, but  appreciated the time my host brother reminded me of how much he wants others to know Brazil for more than just beaches and Carnival.

December

I learned how difficult it would have been to recover from surgery without the support of my amazing friends. Having friends show up and put straws in my drinks, or take out the trash because my t-rex arms can’t handle it yet, has made a world of a difference during my recovery process.

I’m excited to be able to work out again. I still cannot lift much at all, so walking is as much activity as my body can handle right now. It still feels strange to walk around without a bra. I’m barely two weeks post-op, but I’m excited for what’s to come. I’m excited to go on a run without a bra, to buy new clothes, and to never have to go bra shopping ever again.

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It’s done! Shout out to Amy Huang for signing me out, taking me home, and making sure I have food and things at waist length so I can reach them. I appreciate it. The only thing I’ll miss about having boobs is being able to hide my credit card and cell phone in a bra at the club, but other than that, it was such a relief to no longer feel the instinctive need to hunch over when I look in the mirror. The dysphoria was real and has affected my posture over the years. I remember going for a night run on the National Mall and not wearing a shirt over my sports bra. I was imagining what it would feel like to run without a bra, and I remember feeling so at peace with this idea. Doing this at night also helped me feel more free-like it was something I was testing out for myself and only for myself, much more free from the stares. I’m finally flat chested and am excited about the results! In the days leading up to the surgery, I was nervous and scared, but all of a sudden I began being hyper aware of what foods I’m putting in my body and I was taking care of my body more, and I was even more motivated to work out because I felt like I was getting ready to meet my new body. Thank you to everyone who has made their own posts about breast reductions and top surgeries. It’s thanks to you that this scary undertaking was normalized for me enough to pursue it. Thank you to everyone who has been checking in with me and for those who have been able to donate to my meal train while I am getting ready for the full time job search soon. She/her pronouns are still fine for now, but I say “for now” because I know things can change. When I first came out as a gay cisgender woman at 18 (aside from the days/weeks/months inside the travel closet), I thought I had myself figured out. Nearly ten years later, I’ve opened myself up to the possibility for change. Not being afraid of change is something I strive for now more than ever.

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With that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

-Georgia O’Keefe

Bring on all of the scary moments, 2018!

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

The Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls: What To Know Before Jumping In!

Ever since I was a kid, I have had vivid dreams of flying over the lush African landscape, and about flying over and around Victoria falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”). Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world. The Devil’s Pool, at the falls’ edge, hadn’t been in the picture—yet.

Since I was homeschooled for a few years during my childhood, I’d wake up, eat my mom’s eggs with jitomate and tortillas, and watch Discovery Kids with my brother before our dad gave us his classes, ranging from French to the functions of the liver.

My favorite Discovery Kids episodes showcased Amazonian animals or the creatures you’d see on an African Safari. I grew up wanting to study and work with animals. Whether I’d be a veterinarian, or study marine biology, I didn’t know. Then I actually took biology in high school. Learning about the parts of the cell didn’t excite me as much as history class, so plans of studying life forms in far off lands went on the back burner—but thoughts of going to Africa didn’t. When my mind would wander during my classes, I’d stare at the globe we probably bought from Costco, wondering what it would be like across the world—what in the world is Africa really like?

I suppose being born in Mexico and having family far away made me aware of how big the world was and that I needed to see it.

Fast forward to September 1, 2017, when I was laid off unexpectedly. While it was a shock, I had been saving money in case such a thing would ever happen. I toyed with the idea of finding another job, but after speaking with my friend Damaly, who reminded me to live my truth, as scary as that may be, I made plans to find a subletter for a few months, and I booked a one way ticket from DC to Victoria Falls. I connected in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (since I was flying on Ethiopian airlines), and didn’t know what to expect of this continent I’ve heard of all my life but that I just had to see for myself. I’ve been couchsurfing and staying with a great host here in Zimbabwe named Martin for the past few days.

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🦄 🌈

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I’d always known I needed to see Victoria Falls. It was only until I arrived that I realized that it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Not only did I need to see it, but I needed to swim in it—at it’s edge. This is where the “Devil’s Pool” comes in. The Zambezi River drops quite a bit during the dry season, and from about mid August to mid January,  one can walk along the falls’ lip on the Zambian side.

The Devil’s Pool is what you may think of as the ultimate infinity pool, as it formed on the very edge of the fall’s drop. Swimming in it was one of the top 10 most memorable experiences of my life, and I hope that if it’s possible for you to experience it for yourself, that you are even more prepared for it than I was. Here are some things you need to know before sliding in (I know, my title was misleading, but our guide didn’t let us jump)!

The cost of swimming in the Devil’s Pool

 

I don’t normally spend too much money on outdoor activities. I enjoy hiking and biking, but those activities have not been too expensive for me. The last outdoor activity I splurged on was to go ziplining near Puerto Vallarta, and that cost $50. Booking a tour from the Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls (in the city named after the falls) was too expensive for me. Some tour companies charged anywhere from $110–$165, and the cheapest time slots were usually in the morning. These slots were booked up several days in advance.

I decided to cross the Zimbabwean border into Zambia on foot, which took about an hour. I paid $20 to enter Zambia with a U.S. passport, then paid another $20 to enter the Victoria Falls Park on the Zambian side. At the entrance of the park was a woman named Patience who was helping two young German men book a trip to the Devil’s Pool. I asked about the price, and it cost $75 to be taken up with a guide. I made it in time for the last slot at 2:15.

What to wear to The Devil’s Pool

During my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, I wore my Teva sandals about 95% of the time. These, or Chaco’s are a sturdy brand, and are comfortable, especially for swimming and hiking in relatively flat areas. Since we were already at the level of the lip of the falls, we didn’t have to hike much uphill. We had to walk over rocks that are normally covered with water during the wet season, and there were some sharp rocks too. We also had to swim for about 3 minutes to get to the Devil’s Pool, making me wish that I’d brought my sandals or booties instead of my tennis shoes.

It gets quite dusty out here, which is why I didn’t want to ruin my only pair of sneakers any further by swimming with them on. I wore board shorts and a sports bra and was fine. You’ll be fine with a swimming suit, and you are given time to change.

Bring a waterproof camera if possible

I highly suggest this. While my guide, David, had a waterproof bag for us to put our cameras in, the Devil’s Pool area is full of mist and spray from the falls. I brought my Go Pro Camera in its waterproof case, and I’m glad I left my iphone out of the area.

Our guides are well versed in bringing groups out and in taking photos. We didn’t even really have to ask them to take photos of us. They suggested different poses and places where we could take our photos. If anything, I think they took too many photos of me….which leads me to my next point.

The Devil’s Pool swim only lasts about 15 minutes

At least with the guides we went with. Since there are so many groups going up to see it, the guides respect the other groups’ time and make it very clear that the swim is a quick one. Instead of worrying about if the photos were turning out okay, in retrospect, after taking 3 photos, I would have let the guides know that I didn’t need any more.

There are small fish that will gently bite you!

I’m glad I had read about this in preparation. I had no idea the fish would be so persistent. I never saw them, but I felt them. I am someone who can spend all day swimming in a lake, of which the bottom I will never see, but I’e never been greeted so persistently by fish in my entire life. These weren’t cute, little pedicure-type fish. These were the kind of fish that kept biting at my feet until I raised them up—which only made the water push me forward more easily, adding to the adrenaline rush!

You may tear up as you look over and to the bottom of Victoria Falls

I did. Through the mist, you could see dozens of mini waterfalls trickling down, each in their own world. It was like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Seeing this, along with having the feeling that the Zambezi River could push you over if it wished, was exhilarating. I trust water more than I trust humans sometimes.

I’m so grateful for this experience. For being a human living on the planet at this moment and for trusting myself enough to know that I would make it happen. It was as if all of those mundane, excel spreadsheet–filled days at the office had evaporated into thin air and provided me with this. I felt blessed and lucky to witness it.

David, our guide, grabbed my feet and tried pushing me even further along the edge as we were laying on our stomachs, but I said “Nope, I’m good!” He was very understanding. My life was in his hands. It felt like a huge lesson in trust. David and another guide who joined us at the pools, kept us safe, telling us which way to swim and where to sit the whole time. Hearing the deafening explosion of spray, and witnessing it as close as one possibly could without a harness or helicopter, was unforgettable. I’m proud of myself for being patient with myself and waiting for the right moment to let this happen.

When life didn’t work out at the start of the month, I ended up fulfilling my childhood dream. Not only did I see Victoria Falls, but I swam at its edge. I hope that one day you can experience the Devil’s Pool in Zambia.

 

The Best Meal of My Life was in China

The Best Meal of My Life was in China

2017 was been quite an unpredictable year, and China was not on the list at all. In January, I was going through my post-Peace Corps period of depression that came in part from moving from a sunny, tropical country to single digit temperatures in Washington State. I was adjusting to a new country all over again, in much the same way that Americans are adjusting to a new country ever since the election happened. It still feels like I’m adjusting to a new country that isn’t quite how it was when I left it.

2017 has also been a year of disappointment. After getting rejected from my second Fulbright Application to study arts therapy in South Africa, I had booked a one-way ticket to Cape Town from Seattle through Gotogate.com, hoping to see a new place for about a month starting on January 18th. The Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle was closed due to a snowstorm, so I drove 6 hours nonstop around the highway through snow and freezing rain, and I still missed my nonrefundable flight. So, I decided to move to Washington D.C. the next day because of the strong Wellesley and Peace Corps networks there. I had been planning to move to D.C. eventually, just not right after getting a $150 yellow fever shot intended for my South Africa trip or with only two carry-ons with my Hawaiian shirts. That’s how it worked out.

2017 has also been the year of surprises. China had never been on my list of places to see. The only Asian country I’d been to was Japan, and I’ve always wanted to travel to The Philippines or Southeast Asia, not China. Why would I bother getting a visa?

Then, I was given the chance to go on a freelance work trip. I applied for a rush visa on Monday morning after waiting outside of the Chinese Consulate at 7 a.m., then I picked it up on Thursday morning. That night, I took my ten-year visa with me on a flight from JFK Airport to Shanghai with my new coworkers. I had no expectations. I just knew that this was a wonderful chance to immerse myself in a new language and culture.

During this whirlwind trip, we flew to four different cities in one week. I didn’t even know what day of the week it was, and that’s how I like it.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the culture, and more specifically, the food. I expected the food to be decent, but not worthy of dedicating an entire article to it. I’ve heard people say that the food in China isn’t good, but that couldn’t be farther from my experience. I love trying new foods. I love exploring the textures of different foods and I love the memories and emotions they bring. It’s a sort of exploration that was absent during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, where beans and rice were eaten three times a day. People ate to survive there. I’m privileged because I am have the economic advantage of seeing food as an experience, not as fuel for survival. I’m lucky.

Now, about the best meal of my life. The dinner in Changzhou was an otherworldly experience, and I must tell you about it because it reminded me of why humans bother putting effort into the food they prepare and present in the first place. From the moment the first dish arrived on our spinning, glass table to the last scoop of our chopsticks, he entire process was art.

It began. We sat down in our private, white-walled room and waited with anticipation for the operatic spectacle to commence in all of its glorious sensation.

Alan, one of my new coworkers, ordered in Mandarin. I couldn’t understand any of it. To me, Mandarin sounds like a harsh language. He and the waitress sounded so annoyed with each other, but my perception was just based off of the tones of this language so different from my own. In China, the people sounded as if they about to get into a fist fight until, all of a sudden, they’d burst out laughing. I’d feel relieved after that. In college, though, I remember some of my white friends telling me that myself and my Latina friends would sound loud and upset, but then I’d clarify that that’s just how we spoke to one another. To me, it was normal to speak with emotion. The tone of my voice definitely changes when I speak in English vs. Spanish.

Once Alan ordered, we’d wait for a minute or two for the hostess to take her stylus and tablet back to the kitchen. First, some cold dishes would arrive so that we wouldn’t have to worry about small talk. Green, hose-like noodles. What’s this? I asked, countless times. Mussels with vermicelli. Pork belly. Buttered shrimp. More butter—this time, mushrooms in a buttery broth. Spicy soup with peppercorns. After this, I wanted to cook everything in peppercorns.

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This was a meal to remember, and it just needed a soundtrack. So, I imagined Vivaldi’s “Winter”  to accompany my euphoria. In between bites, I’d pause and watch Gia pick up a mussel with her chopsticks and spoon. Wayne took his chopsticks and jabbed at some greens, scooping them up like a heron catching a fish with its beak. The tapping of the chopsticks on the porcelain plates and the clinking of a beer bottle against the rims of the wine glasses broke the silence.

Not all of the food was unforgettable. The sliced, brown jellyfish tasted bland. It was gelatinous and crunchy, but without much flavor. I’ll never forget its magnificent presentation over ice, though.  If my tongue couldn’t enjoy it, my eyes would.

My favorite dish? The pig lungs. They came so thinly sliced and beautifully spiced. Each slice melted on my tongue, as if I’d finally tasted the most expensive cut of meat imaginable. The chile it was marinated in reminded me of some sort of Mexican chile (maybe guajillo), bringing in a foreign familiarity to it.

“Ganpei” I said, after we poured Snow Beer into our wine glasses and clinked them together. We spun the glass table around and around to make sure no one would emerge dissatisfied. I loved the equitable feel of not only the round table, but also of the round spinning wheel. If someone wanted some steamed buns across the table, you just had to spin the table yourself or ask someone else to spin it for you. Eventually, you’d get a taste of each dish anyway.

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Our waitress brought us this intricately designed, big, black and red bowl with bubbling fish and squid swimming in red chiles. Absolutely divine. Everyone just kept going at it, eating as if this meal were their last.

I wish every meal would be this communal. Growing up, my nuclear family made it a point to eat together. Now, my friends have replaced much of my nuclear family. I’m used to eating alone and traveling alone, but in this moment, I was happy I was doing none of those things. My temporary, adoptive family took me by the chopstick and helped me navigate this new world, this new country I had had no desire to explore until it swept me away. These people didn’t seem like strangers much anymore.

This meal reminded me of the artistry involved in presenting the simplest foods, whether they be noodles or pig lungs. I wanted to stare at the food instead of poking at its elegance. Nonetheless, hunger always wins and consumes all in its path. I was so full. I thought I’d explode, but it wasn’t the fullness in the American sense of being fed horse troughs of unreasonable proportions. Contentment, appreciation, and gratitude filled my being.

What a heavenly, otherworldly, sublime meal. The feast of my life that reminded me that life is good. Life is forgiing. Life is a rollercoaster. La vida es un carnaval, como dice Celia Cruz.

The next day, as I sat in the airplane on the smoggy descent into Beijing, an old man in a golf cap sat in front of me and stared out the window like a little boy who had never flown before. China, and this meal, made me feel like I was flying for the first time all over again.

Spring in DC: 5 Things to Do

Spring in DC: 5 Things to Do

Looking for things to do this Spring in Washington, DC?

Whether you live a few metro stops away from DC, or you’re flying across 11 time zones to see Dorothy’s Ruby Red slippers at The American History Smithsonian, I wanted to let you know about some fun things to do around DC this spring. There’s something for everyone here, from the solo spring breaker to the family of nine. After leading bike tours on the National Mall since March with Bike and Roll DC, I’ve had lots of fun meeting families from all over the world and showing them the countless wonders of the U.S. Capital.

Spring is in full swing, so check out my list of things to do in my first Bike and Roll DC piece!

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That moment when a family from St. Louis comes up to you during your Bike and Roll DC tour at the Vietnam War Memorial, asking how they can sign up for a tour and they hop onto yours two days later! DC is big but small at the same time.

 

Reflections on the National Museum of African American History: Visit One

Reflections on the National Museum of African American History: Visit One

I hope this works. I hope this works!

I held up my Smithsonian contractor badge to the National Museum of African American History’s guards, expecting to be turned down. I passed through the staff entrance, and the second guard waved me in to go ahead.

FINALLY.

I was glowing.  Washington, D.C. has been my home for two months, but I still couldn’t get a ticket. I was allowed to be inside, at last! How competitive is it to get into this museum that opened in in September of 2016?

Well, here’s part of their “things to know” part of their website:

“Same-day, timed passes are available online only, beginning at 6:30 a.m. daily.  A limited number of walk-up passes are available at the Museum on weekdays, beginning at 1 p.m.”

I’ve heard friends mention how lucky they were not only go be able to get a timed ticket, but to be able to take time off work in order to do so. Tour buses load people here every day, and I can only imagine how much in advance they must reserve their tickets.

So, how did I get in? Since I’m giving walking tours at the American History Museum, I have a Smithsonian employee badge that grants me employee access (and a sweet discount at the gift shops and food courts!).

I’d finally made it after weeks of cycling past with my bike tours, only being able to explain the NMAAHC’s design from the outside. Tourists cannot help but wonder what this building is, its corona-like, multilevel design and brown color standing in stark contrast to the white monuments. Even the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is made up of a Chinese, white stone (of hope).

Sir David F. Adjaye, a Ghanaian British Architect, modeled The NMAAHC’ after crowns worn by the people of the Yoruban culture. Step closer, and it looks as if each panel is carved in the most intricate way. It reminded me of the intricate design that gates have in Mexico. They are ornate and functional.

The museum closes at 5:30 daily, and since I’d just gotten off work, I only had two hours. I began my visit at the the amazing Sweet Home Café, and as I expected, I had to wait in line. This museum is still so crowded that they can only let in a few folks at a time. Luckily, the menu was waiting outside with me as I decided what to get. There was regional food from places like the Creole Coast: Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S.C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso. There was corn bread and there were collard greens.

Sweet-Home-Cafe
I went with The Agricultural South’s BBQ pork sandwich, slaw, pickled okra, baked mac & cheese, and a lemon bar.

I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be alone for long. I walked my tray over to a table in the middle of the huge cafeteria. As I bit into my mac and cheese, Franklin E. McCain’s piercing gaze met mine. His seriousness under his thick, black rimmed glasses reminded me that while yes, I was here to enjoy the food, that I shouldn’t take my decision to sit wherever I wanted to for granted.

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Franklin was one of four African American college students who, in 1960, sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but after being rejected, they didn’t budge. Their passive resistance sparked a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South-and the world.

Soon enough, an older African American couple with hot dogs and orange Fantas on their trays sat down with me. I was frustrated by the fact that while this café had a variety of Southern comfort foods on display, hot dogs were the most affordable, filling items on the menu for them. The older woman and I started talking about the prices. She said “Can you believe it costs $7 for two sodas? Do you know how many sodas I could buy at the grocery store with that?”

I felt comfortable yet unsure of just exactly how accessible this museum really was. Maybe they have to offset the costs because this is a free museum, after all. One reason I love the Smithsonian Institute is that their initial endowment was given with the assurance that they would continue the dissemination of knowledge and that this would be free to the public-forever.

Soon enough, the granddaughter, who was in town for an interview, came and sat with us. I told her this was my first time here, and she mentioned the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which is also one of the country’s 19 Smithsonian museums. Her mom rolled grandma up on her wheelchair and offered everyone yams, green beans, and fried fish on little plates. They were from North Carolina, D.C., all over. I could relate to them on that level.

It was nice to sit and chat with a family while enjoying rich, stick-to-your ribs food. “Who wants some potato salad?” Mom said, as she looked at me, and only me, knowing I’d accept. I giggled and spooned some on my plate, mentioning that I was not on a diet.

I only had an hour to explore, and the suggested I start from the bottom floor (there are two floors below and three above ground) because the journey begins with the slave trade and is, needless to say, an emotional one. I was already feeling so many different emotions just while enjoying a sandwich.

As I walked down the elevator, I saw something I thought I’d never see in this museum: Just another white, teenage boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt. Other than the sweatshirt, he looked like just another boy on a field trip. What is he doing here? Did his teacher make him come? What is he thinking? I was confused, then relieved, that he was at least in a space like this that would hopefully make him question what the phrase on his sweatshirt even meant, once he’d realize that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 609 slaves.

As a guard lowered myself and other guests down in an oversized elevator, he dismissed us with “I hope you have a kleenex. You’ll need one!”

And so, the journey began, past the miniature shackles used for children crossing the Atlantic-if they survived at all- and into Brazil, Jamaica, Virginia…

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“I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” -William Cowper, you just explained Colonialism in a nutshell.

Then came the exhibit on the American Revolution. For the first time, I’d seen an image of Boston King, a former slave turned Loyalist soldier. That’s how both the British and Americans recruited black men–by offering their freedom, if they didn’t die from smallpox or musket fire. It was so powerful to see images of men like Boston and Crispus Attucks (this runaway slave was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, which partially led to The American Revolution) being represented along with the countless other images of white men serving in the war that we’ve all seen.

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Boston King, a former American slave-turned British Loyalist who, after fighting in the American Revolution, peaced out to Canada then Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown.. Painting by John Singleton Copley.

The next room was one of my favorites. It exposed Thomas Jefferson’s faults. While, yes, he was an intelligent white man, inventor, Vice President, writer, and more, he also owned slaves. He wasn’t as enlightened as we think. Presidents would continue to hve had slave ownership up until Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, the general who helped the Union win The Civil War owned a slave at one point in his life. I knew Jefferson had slaves, but I hadn’t known that the children he’d had with one of his slaves (starting when she was 17), all inherited the same title as their mother. All men aren’t created so equal, are they?

As I was processing this, a young black girl stood between her mother and a glass case with shackles for slaves inside of them.

“Those were to make sure that the slaves wouldn’t escape” the mother explained to her little girl. “They even put them around their ankles?” she asked, innocently. “Mmhmm, even around their ankles,” mom said, cooly.

As a white presenting Mexican with a white presenting Mexican mother, I would never have been able to feel that sense of “This could have been me” in the way that this mother and her daughter probably felt and were used to feeling.

I barely made it to the section with Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in bringing slaves up North through The Underground Railroad, when a guard told us the museum was closing. I hadn’t even made it past this floor before it was time to go. So, just like everyone else, I walked intentionally slowly so that I could savor my final seconds in this revealing place.

Finally, the National Museum of African American History’s was giving me what I needed: Real Talk. Real History. I’ll be back for more.

Featured image of the NMAAH by Flickr user cmfgu.

Come with me on a Bike and Roll Cherry Blossom Tour!

Bike tours are some of the best ways to get to know a city, especially one as historical as Washington, DC. This Spring we’re offering Cherry Blossom tours, and I’ve enjoyed learning the history about these beautiful trees found in DC.

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I’ve never been much of a watercolor paint fan until I painted this piece. You can’t mention spring in DC without mentioning the cherry blossoms!

 

The Japanese sent about 3,000 trees to DC in 1912 as a diplomatic gift to the U.S. and many of them have lived twice as long as their expected lifespans of forty years! While 3% die each year, saplings with the original trees’ DNA are kept in the National Arboretum. We’ve actually donated trees back to Japan when they lost them due to flooding in the ’50s and ’80s.

I learned all of this as I prep to lead Cherry Blossoms bike tours with Bike and Roll DC -check us out when you’re in town!