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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.
I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.
I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.
During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.
One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.
This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.
We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.
Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.
Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.
I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.
I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.
At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.
Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.
We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.
Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.
We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.
After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.
The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.
The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.
The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.
No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.
I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.
On a map, Big and Little Corn Island are unassuming specks in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. They are unforgettable gems for the budget traveler.
I decided to go to the Corn Islands because I’ve heard so many other Peace Corps volunteers rave about them. When the $165-200 round trip flight from Managua equates to roughly the same as our monthly earnings, and they still go, then it must be worth it, right? Since my mom had already spent $1,200 on her flight from Pasco, Washington, I dug into my savings to buy our round trip tickets. We were on a budget because we were traveling to the Apoyo Lagoon after this.
You probably haven’t heard of Big and Little Corn Island because they are so small. Why are they named after a golden vegetable? Some say that it’s because of the wild corn that grows on the island. Others attribute the name to phonetics: pronounce “corn” in a Caribbean accent, and it sounds like “carne”, the Spanish word for meat. The islands were known for the cattle that grazed the land and whose meat fed the British pirates and colonizers in the 17th century. Most of the people who live there are the descendants of escaped slaves of Afro-Caribbean descent.
I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I’d explore gorgeous beaches and that I’d hear locals of Afro-Caribbean descent switch seamlessly from English Kreole to Spanish (or English). I’d only been to the NiCaribbean coast once in August, when I led a classroom management workshop for English teachers at the ANPI (Asociacion Nicaraguense de Profesores de Ingles) conference in Bluefields. ANPI paid for my flight and lodging, and some meals. When my meals weren’t covered, I was happy to sit in the park and share a $1 loaf of dense Coconut Breadwith Amilcar, a friendly cab driver I met and came out to. I was excited to return to one of the few parts of the world where the language and culture of Latin American fuses beautifully with that of the Caribbean.
Day 1 Managua to Big Corn Island: 216 miles, or 1.5 hours via La Costeña Airlines. A cheaper option is to take a boat from Bluefields (a much longer trip)
It was a hot, humid Christmas Day. My mom and I woke up at 5 AM, then sat for three hours on a refurbished school bus from Matagalpa to the Managua Airport ($3). Luckily, our flight to Big Corn Island would only take half the time. We boarded around 11 AM. Our tiny airplane took off, and we shook and wobbled with the slightest gust of wind. Nervous excitement and tourists filled the plane. My ears plugged painfully as the cabin pressure changed. We cruised over the Atlantic Ocean. I was enamored by the way the puffy, small clouds cast dark blue shadows over the crystalline Caribbean Sea. Each cloud caste its own imaginary island on the water. The shallow water revealed undulating sand dunes underneath it. A flooded Sahara Desert. I could hear passengers chatting and pointing out the window, but my ears were too plugged to make out the words. I opened and closed my mouth to no avail.
After 30 minutes of flying over the massive, blue Dalmatian’s coat, the plane’s nose tipped down and we dove for a landing strip that divided Big Corn Island in two. We skidded to a stop, zooming past turquoise and orange houses on stilts. Three black children, resting under the shade of a massive palm tree, pointed at our plane, immediately distinguishing the locals from the tourists.
I was the last one who exited the plane on the staircase. The tropical wall of breezy, yet sweltering humidity hit me. My mom and I took a cab for less than $1 to our hotel, the Tropical Dreams Hotel. I’d found it on Airbnb, and the rooms were $20 a night.
Our room was sweltering hot, and had no air conditioning. For 97% of my Peace Corps service, I’ve been used to relying on fans to cool off. Air conditioning is a luxury to me. The amount of mosquitoes quickly made us regret not bringing a full can of bug spray. My mom ended up upgrading us to a room with air conditioning and far less mosquitoes for the two following nights. The upgrade brought the room up to $60 with breakfast included (cereal, instant coffee, and toasted coconut bread). Our hosts were super friendly, as was the dog, Gretchen. If you go, watch out for this puppy’s warm, friendly licks!
On the budgetary bright side, our stay included a 10% discount at Marlene’s “Relax” Restaurant next door. Marlene has won several cooking competitions for her Caribbean concoctions, like Rondon (a coconut stew) and freshly caught lobster in garlic sauce. We ended up spending most of out meals there. The prices were double what I’m used to on the mainland, but it does cost more to ship everything out here.
Tropical Dreams Hotel to the Beach: A five-minute walk
The beach had peach-colored sand, coconuts laying around like easter eggs, and palm trees anchored into the sand. Their thin, emerald leaves rustled in the wind. The only other people there were two mestizo women and a handful of prepubescent boys. They splashed around near the shore, careful not to get swept away by the sneaky current. I’m a strong swimmer, but this was one of the strongest currents I’ve ever felt. It pulled me to my right as I faced out toward Africa. Then, I heard a “chh chh” sound. A 12-year-old boy waved me over to talk to him. His friend was already chatting next to my mom, who preferred to enjoy the beach by sitting on a log rather than swimming against the current.
As soon as I was close enough, the boy told me how beautiful I was. He grabbed my arm and traced it with his finger, as if assessing my level of beauty according to my whiteness. “Ohhh, yeah! You are pretty. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No, I’m a lesbian.” His three friends came by to listen in. I was trying to fight the waves. It’s hard to have a learning moment when you’re getting slapped in the face by salt water and tossed around like a doll in a washing machine.
“Oh! So you’re a dyke!” the boy responded. His friends laughed. Calmly, I responded: “I don’t like being called that. It’s not nice. What if I came up to you and called you an idiot?” His friends laughed. “But he is an idiot!” one of his friends piped up. More laughter. “Well, I’m not going to say that because I don’t know you” I explained. “Well, how do you say it then?” the little flirt asked. “Les-bi-an-a” I responded. This interaction reminded of coming out on the bus to a surprised older man. I’ve never come out to so many curious strangers as I have in Nicaragua.
I’m not sure if this boy really understood what the word lesbian meant, since he proceeded to ask me for a kiss on the cheek before he had to go. I said no, and that I didn’t want to. He had been touching my arms and looked me up and down. “Why not?” he asked. “That’s not nice. What if I came up to you and starting touching you where you wouldn’t want to be touched?” He looked down, then waved goodbye as he ran back to shore.
He was very persistent for a 12-year-old, and I wonder how much I impacted him, if at all. As I thought about what forces made this prepubescent child feel the need to seduce women at such an early age, I thought of queer blogger Bani Amor’s post about the flipside: when white women assault men of color. This article made me extremely uncomfortable at first, but it brings up a point no one talks about. I had never thought of white women as the perpetrators of these crimes, but now I think more critically of where I position myself as a queer, Mexican, white woman in Nicaragua. At first, I selfishly thought, well, maybe there are male victims, but the rate is not as high as it is for women. The rates are not the point. The fact that men of color are victimized for their skin tone, and that few people know about this, is the problem. Oh, Bani. You’re always making me challenge my own assumptions.
Then, came dinner at Marlene’s. I had a chicken taco (which resembles a fried, Mexican flauta) and a lobster taco rolled in a flour tortilla ($3 each). It was pan friend in coconut oil-I recognized the taste of the oil I’ve grown to cook with. I could’ve eaten four of them, but I was saving money for the trip to Little Corn Island the next day. I’d been convinced to leave one paradise for another after reading Big World Small Pocket’s 20 Things to Do on Little Corn Island. She is a great budget travel blogger-I recommend subscribing to her posts. Little Corn was also featured in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island
Distance: 45 minutes on a speed boat. Articles of clothing soaked: All of them. Number of waves that made us wish we hadn’t taken the panga: All of them.
After moving our things to the air-conditioned room, we took a cab to Briggs Bay. Our panga (speed boat) would leave for Little Corn Island at 10:30 AM. We paid $6 for our huge, laminated boarding passes, then waited for everyone to climb in first. We put on our neon orange life jackets. My mom sat next to a mestizo Nicaraguan, Alejandro, who was on vacation. Luckily for her, he also had a seat cushion to share with her.
I was sandwiched between the edge of the seat cushion and a backpacker with a manbun. He had thick, long, dark eyelashes and began to peel an orange as if he were on a picnic. The zest filled my nostrils while the peels filled the floor. He picked them up as the boat picked up speed. We abandoned the tranquil, turquoise waters and became acquainted with the Caribbean on a windy day- and the 20-foot waves that came with it.
Other than “Sorry!” I didn’t exchange a word with Mr. Manbun. I grabbed his forearm twice. The boat climbed up and over each wave, and slammed down to transform the water into concrete.
It was the longest, cheapest roller coaster ride of my life. If you’re ever had a spinal or neck injury, stay on Big Corn Island-this ride is not for you!
After 45 minutes of the slamming and splashing, we reached sand. Mr. Manbun climbed out and turned around from the dock, making a peace sign with his fingers back toward the boat. I’m not sure if he was looking at me or at the captain, so I just waved back and smiled.
We didn’t have an agenda for Little Corn. Alejandro advised us to hike to the radio tower for a great view. I was in the mood for a mojito, after what we’d gone through. I had my mind set on finding the Little Corn Beach Bungalow, a Peace Corps favorite. I had no idea it would be so hard to find. There are no paved roads on Little Corn, but the amount of white hipsters, yogis, and coffee shops reminded me of Portland. So this is where all the young white people go, I thought. Most of the tourists we saw on Big Corn were older. After having survived the boat ride, I understand why. The millenials lounged about, reading novels on their beach chairs. Books replaced teddy bears for the sleepy hammock-goers.
As my mom and I kept walking, a gorgeous, young black woman sang “Excuse me!” as she passed by on her bicycle. I wonder how annoying all of these tourists are for the locals. The island isn’t developed very much, aside from the posh cafés and restaurants. I wonder how different Little Corn Island was 50 years ago.
It felt like a tight-knit community. Locals smiled at us and said “Mornin’”. On our walk, it began raining, and a generous homeowner waved at us to come find shelter from the five-minute sprinkle. His dog sat next to me while I scratched his ear. We thanked the owner and pressed on.
We walked for hours along the beach, and in the wrong direction. One woman told us where the Bungalow was, but she ended up pointing us to a private farm. The farm’s annoyed, yet understanding owner finally gave us the correct directions. We walked past yards decorated with empty soda bottles strewn on strings, and heard people clapping their hands at a church overlooking the sea. One girl was dressed up in a pink dress walked to church with her brothers holding on to her hands.
We walked past swamps and trudged through beachside paths that were filled with water from the high tide. We finally reached the Bungalow. It was the very last hotel on the way there. As we looked at the map of Little Corn, we realized that we could have made it from the dock in a 10-minute straight shot. Well, at least the walk back would involve less water.
I ate grilled cheese sliders with onion rings ($4), and my mom ate some fries. I doused everything in a dark green, curry-like sauce in an old rum bottle. “What sauce is this!? It’s so good!” I asked the waitress. “Oh, that is just a vegetable and spice sauce” she said, in her melodic Caribbean accent. “They sell it everywhere. It’s called Lizano.” I thought Lizano was just a hot sauce, but yes, they do in fact sell it everywhere. I bought a bottle after that and the taste reminds me of how tired I felt after finally having found the place. Not to mention it takes me back to those greasy, cheesy sliders.
After lunch, we sat by the water. The Bungalow is more of a high-end resort. It’s a neat business that is pretty eco-friendly and is involved in the community. The resort has lots of neat sustainability initiatives, such as a spaying and neutering campaign. Normally, guests can be found scuba diving and snorkeling nearby, but the wind was so strong that the normally clear, blue water turned murky. We took the path we should have taken all along back to the center, and hiked to the radio tower. Mom climbed up the ladder rungs to the lookout point first, and I followed her. We had a panoramic view of the little island. Big Corn Island jutted out to the south. “Climbing up is always easier than climbing down”, mom said. I decided to count the number of ladder rungs in order to stay busy instead of nervous. There were 36 rungs.
On the way back to the dock, we stopped to buy coconut bread from an older woman. The smell of freshly baked Coconut bread is more memorable than the taste, but not by much. I told my mom about the time I ate coconut bread in Bluefields with a stick of margarine after my Amilcar suggested that it was the best way to enjoy it. “We have margarine”, the baker’s husband chimed in. “It’s the day after Christmas and I’m on a diet,” I joked. He laughed and pat my shoulder. We walked out, sharing ripped pieces of the fluffly, warm bread. “It doesn’t taste like anything”, mom said. I just smiled because the taste wasn’t what I was after. It was the smell and the experience of buying it. Since I’ve left the states, I’ve come to appreciate the process of buying a product rather than the product itself.
A five-year old boy extended his hand and asked me for a piece of my huge loaf. I ripped of a piece and handed it to him. Instead of a “thank you” he bit into it, as if this were his price for sharing his little island with me. Then, we passed by the little boy who had asked me for a kiss the day before. “Adios”, I said to him, as he walked by with an older man. Only the man said “adios” back to me. Mom and I had some time to kill, so we waited on the beach. I jumped in and swam to cool off.
Only now do I realize that Johnny Depp’s eyeliner must have been very, very waterproof for it to stay on after all of the perspiration one excretes in the Caribbean.
Our boat back to Big Corn Island was supposed to leave at 4 PM, but the captain didn’t even show up until 4:15. This reminded me of the time my friend Jen and I boarded a bus to hike Cosiguina Volcano, only to sit inside of it for over an hour in 90-degree heat before it departed. It was just another day of hurrying up and waiting, as she’d say. The Captain strolled lackadaisically from the beach onto the dock, then boarded the boat. It was as if he were disappointed that passengers even showed up. The tourists loaded up first, carrying their waterproof nikons and snorkeling kits. Locals loaded up bags of rice and an ice cream cart.
We set out at 4:30. I was mentally preparing myself for another round of getting slammed by the sea, but this never happened. Our boat turned out to be the large, gentle, two-hour ferry. One woman leaned against the ice cream cart and took a nap. How different things were now! As, we sat there, realizing we had more time than we thought to look out into the ocean instead of nearly pissing ourselves, I thought of one of my favorite travel writing passages, Mark Schatzker’s description of the ocean in A Tale of Two Crossings:
“It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can’t imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed…an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile- as if to say, “What else you gonna do out here?”
That morning on the treacherous panga ride, I had my own existential crisis. By the time we pulled back into Briggs Bay, the ocean was just another animal, slumbering under the twinkling stars above. I was relieved. We reached shore, and we had no more oceanic panga rides planned. Ever again.
We climbed into a cab that was headed in the opposite way of our hotel. I expected the driver to turn around as soon as we climbed in, but when I told him this, he mumbled that he was taking the other way around. He then turned up Pitbull’s timelessly tacky Taxi to keep us from bothering him. We came home at the same time after having driven the opposite way. Big Corn Island is not so big. Two lobster tacos later, I was ready for bed in our air-conditioned room.
What a great day to not ride the panga! This was our last full day on Big Corn Island. My mom and I set out to walk around and end up at Picnic Center, which we’d heard was the most swimmable beach. We passed past crab crossing signs and houses on stilts that blasted country music from their porches.
We stopped by this cozy little green shack for some fresh coconuts in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood. The owners, Sidney and Adele, have been married for 40 years. They were the most warm, relaxed hosts. 40-cents later, we were sipping on a fresh coconut through a straw. Then, Sidney hacked it in half. We scooped out the gelatinous, white pulp. We giggled because of how good it was. I felt like a kid again. If only I’d had some chile and lime to put on it. I left Mexico when I was three, but one of the few things I do remember was seeing roadside stands selling fresh coconut doused in lime and chile powder. I also thought of how straws are called “popotes” in Mexico. Here, they are “pajillas”. This is just one example of the many linguistic differences between Latin American countries. I wanted to stay there forever, but my mom rightfully pulled me away. We ended up coming back the next day and I found out why Adele has never left the island.
We pressed on along the road. The hot, humid air started to make my neck unbearably itchy. I’ve had eczema all of my life, but for the past two years, my neck has been the only itchy spot on my body. Dermatogologists don’t know what to do with me, other than prescribing a rotating list of ineffective lotions and harmful steroid creams. I’ve even taken prednisone to stop the itching before. We were downtown, and my neck felt as if it were on fire. I bought a gallon of water and tub of Vaseline, then went outside and splashed my neck. I put on some Vaseline, which helped a bit. We took a cab to the Picnic Center beach, and the burning started to die down. We ordered beers and I asked for a bag of ice to press on my neck. The burning died down, and I jumped into the endless, still infinity pool of the ocean.
The beach was nearly deserted- and this was the “high season.” We walked back to town and spun around to see just another airplane glide over us. This time, we were the ones pointing at it. A troupe of young men played soccer on the beach. Other men welcomed us to the island and asked if we wanted to buy a conch. I thought they were selling us conches for ceviche, and replied “No thanks. I’m full.” My mom playfully clarified: “It’s not to eat. They want to sell you the shells!” “Oops!” I said, laughing.
Taxis honked at us, as if to ask “Why are you white people walking? You don’t know where you’re going!”
We weren’t in a rush to go to the hotel, though. Luckily, the only bus on Corn Island approached. It was a blue van with a huge decal in bubble letters that said “My Bus” on the windshield. We waved it down and stepped in. Dancehall music blasted from inside. It cost 40 cents to ride anywhere on the circuitous route. We took the “long” way back to Tropical Dreams. About 12 minutes later, we stopped by Marlene’s to place an order for Rondon ($11), a local specialty.
Two hours later, we sat down at the restaurant and were each served immediately. The staff placed a big, bony fish cooked in coconut milk in front of us. We daintily picked out the bones from each steaming forkful, and then came another offering: a huge bowl of plantains, malanga, yucca, shrimp, and green bananas cooked in coconut milk and spices. My favorite part was the broth. It tasted like gravy.
The Rondon took two hours to prepare, and 45 minutes to eat. The vegetables were tougher than I expected, but the fish was perfect-after we drizzled lime juice onto it.
Panza llena, corazon contenta (Full stomach, happy heart) is a common saying here. My heart was definitely happy, as I sat there in a food coma. It was not bad for a final NiCaribbean dinner on Big Corn Island.
Day 4 Big Corn Island to Managua Distance: The blink of an eye.
I had booked our flight out at 12:45. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave paradise first thing in the morning. Our alarm, a half-grown rooster shrieking outside, woke us up. I’m used to the feeling of waking up in a zoo, but my mom isn’t. I don’t pay much attention to the dogs yelping at 2 AM anymore. The only thing that I’ll never get used to is the BANG of cats landing on my tin roof. We walked one last time to Adele’s and filled up on more fresh coconut juice. We then tip toed in between washed up sea urchins, sea weed, and coconuts on the beach.
We took a cab to the three-room airport. We paid our $2 exit tax and I received a massive wooden boarding pass for the both of us. It could’ve replaced a cutting board.
An officer stood in the corner with his black, drug sniffing lab next to him. “Sentáte”, he said. The pooch quickly sat down and looked up at his master with eager eyes. I sat next to a young couple from Vancouver in the waiting room. They asked about my Peace Corps experience. I explained the negatives and positives of living away from home for 27 months. A skinny woman with a bob sat in front of us. She kept turning around to listen in. I mentioned that yes, it’s safe here. I’ve been assaulted, but that could have happened anywhere. I referred to Nicaragua as a “peaceful country”, and when the woman in front heard this, she whipped around. “Excuse me? Did you just say this is a peaceful country?” she asked me. “Yes, it is, compared to other countries,” I responded. “Oh okay, in the day-to-day, you mean.” “Yes, it’s not the 1980’s anymore.” “Oh yeah, I was going to say…” she nodded and turned back around.
What does peaceful even mean? It’s such a relative term. I had just gone running while listening to music on the island, something I’m still afraid to do again on the mainland after my assault on a run a month ago. I felt very safe on the island, but it does depend so heavily on tourism. Everyone knows everyone. I still see the mainland as peaceful, in its own way. Petty crimes are common, but there’s not as much gang-based violence or mass shootings as there are in the United States.
Peaceful is a relative term. As I pondered the meaning of a word that makes up my job title, we boarded the plane. Again, I was relieved to find out that this plane was much larger than the last one. Our ride back was much less bumpy. The Corn Islands were testing us during our first panga and plane rides, then forgave us with a tranquil voyage back. It was a predictably refreshing trip, and surprising in other ways.
Big and Little Corn Island are familiarly Nicaraguan, but distinctly Caribbean. I came knowing I’d be in a peaceful place, but left wondering what exactly peaceful means. What does it mean to you?
As a traveler, I’m used to constantly changing how I view the world. It isn’t something I feel as if I have to stick to-it just happens naturally for me. This year, as a traveler, I’ve begun to have more conversations with the people I run into on the day-to-day. I’m starting to ask them more about them instead of telling them about myself.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of explaining who I am and where I came from, especially since I am seen as a foreigner in Nicaragua, the place I have taught English for with the Peace Corps the past 17 months.
I’d gone 17 months without seeing my mom. Luckily, over the holidays, she came to visit me. I used the money I’ve earned writing travel-based articles to buy her and myself a ticket to Corn Island, an island off Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. I didn’t know what to expect, because it is a small place, and has not been completely overrun by tourists. I’d only heard good things from other volunteers, so we made it out there.
On our third day there, my mom and I decided to go for a walk around the tiny island. We heard black men speaking in English Kreole to one another. Country music was blasting from one house. A group of men were sitting outside. I said “excellent music choice!” and gave a thumbs up to them. Listening to country music reminded me of home. “Come in and sit down, sweetheart!” one man said.
When I heard Kreole, though, It was strange for me to be in a land so close to my own, but I couldn’t understand the language. Luckily for us, people also spoke English and Spanish there. Sometimes we’d speak to people in Spanish and be responded to in Spanish, and vice-versa.
We stopped by this tiny little coconut shack on the north side of the island. We met Sidney, the shack’s owner, and my mom enjoyed a fresh coconut for about 40 cents. She sipped the fresh juice from a straw, then Sidney hacked it open with a knife. We ate the delicious, young pulp, and told Sidney we’d be back the next day. Meet Sidney on my facebook page!
Sure enough, my mom and I returned the following morning before our flight back to semi-reality. This time, Sidney’s wife, Adele, watched as my mom and I giggled at each other sipping from the coconut. We also took selfies by the bus stop that had a giant manta ray placed on top.
I wanted to know more about Adele. I told her that id I lived there, right by the beach like she and Sidney did, then I would never leave. “Do you ever leave?” I asked her.
“Only for visits. I have been to Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, to all kinds of places. There is no where like home, though.”
Adele had such a calm, reassuring presence. She didn’t say much more than was necessary, yet she let us enjoy ourselves, soaking up the view and the breeze while sitting on her red, plastic chairs.
I never wanted to leave. I’m glad I met Adele and chatted with her for a bit on Big Corn Island. In 2016, I hope to spend more time asking people more about themselves during my travels.
This article is featured in the January edition of the Wanderlust Life Magazine. Interested in travel and wellness? Subscribe for free here and visit our facebook page!