Insta Inspiration: Portrait of a Working Japanese Woman

Insta Inspiration: Portrait of a Working Japanese Woman

Whoever said that Instagram is only a place to post poolside selfies and photos of deliciously greasy In-and-out burgers hasn’t discovered the creative potential of this application.

While I, too, post selfies and pictures of papaya and chile smoothies I make on my @vulnerabletraveler account, I’ve connected with other travelers I otherwise wouldn’t have met through it. Instagram helps me connect with others and with myself, since the photos I post are so personal to me and reflect the roller coaster ride that is Peace Corps Nicaragua.

I also use instagram to be more creative in a non-creative environment. While I teach art classes and enjoy sketching alongside my students, there isn’t much of an artistic community in my city. While there are remnants of murals along the city walls, there are no galleries or art museums—only private studios. I can, however, connect with other people who share my interests online, whether they’re artists or not. Since I use hashtags like #travel, my posts make the feeds people from anywhere in the world can peruse.

One of my followers, @zorrathexplorer, found me and liked and commented on my photos. I looked through the photos of a two-week trip she’d taken with her ex-girlfriend to Japan, and an unassuming photo stopped me in my tracks. It was of an older Japanese woman, sitting by a metal grill in an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima.

Her confident yet resigned pose left me spellbound. She rested one arm on her lap and her other elbow rested on top of the table. Something about the way she didn’t feel compelled to smile gave the photo a raw feeling. Her vermillion apron juxtaposed playfully with the drab, nearly mechanical background. The photo had not the quality of a dream, but of the memory of a dream. It was foreign yet familiar.

I hadn’t painted anything in three months (the last being a portrait of my mother), but within three seconds, I knew I had to paint this woman. I expressed this interest in the comments, and Ally emailed me the original. We also chatted about her travels, and she gave me the story behind the photo, explaining that she’d taken it on her iphone 4.

This was one of the most detailed paintings I’d ever done. I’d done portraits of Nicaraguans before, and I tend to focus more on the shades and shapes I see rather than the details in my subjects. For my Japanese painting, the squares and straight edges of the kitchen’s tables, frames, and coffee machine called for me to use a ruler. It was fitting to be accurate and precise in a painting set in Japan. When I visited Tokyo and Kyoto in 2013, I marveled at how organized everything seemed. I didn’t see a single piece of garbage on the floor, and the metro ran impeccably smoothly. My painting brought this appreciation to life.

Three weeks of painting later, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the result. On a trip to the Solentiname Islands’ artist colonies, I showed the portrait to Maria Guevara, a painter and owner of the Hotel Celentiname and asked for her feedback. She liked how my portrait depicted the woman at rest in her surroundings. “The only thing I’d change is that I’d make the background darker so that she pops out more. Does that make sense?” When I looked at Maria’s landscape paintings, I noticed that the areas behind the houses she created were very dark, and this effect gave the houses a three dimensional effect.

Japanese Woman Painting
“This particular restaurant was on like the fourth floor of a building with an arcade on the first floor and it only had four seats total. These two ladies made the pancake, which I wish I still had a photo of and just sort of gestured a bunch at us to see what we wanted in it… I am salivating even now thinking about it. If you have never traveled to Japan I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to get back there!” -Ally.

Now this painting is sitting in my kitchen. This unapologetic working woman reminds me not only of Japan, but of how social media has connected me with others and with my sense of creativity.

This article is featured in June’s creativity issue of Wanderlust life magazine.

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The Joy of Handwashing My Clothes

The Joy of Handwashing My Clothes

Before joining the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I imagined I’d be roughing it. I even bought a solar-powered shower that was on sale because I thought I’d be camping in a hut for 27 months.

I knew there would be mosquitoes, humidity, and delicious mangoes in a bag, but there wasn’t much else I knew to expect– just like anyone who is about to jump into a new life.

I knew Nicaragua is Latin America’s most impoverished nation, so I assumed there were things like cooking that I’d be doing myself. I loved cooking anyway, so it would be no problem for me to whip up breakfast tacos or pasta (little did I know that my host family would prepare pasta with rice on the side). I didn’t expect my host family to cook my meals-I wanted to be in control of what I ate.

While I did expect to cook my own meals, I didn’t expect to wash all of my clothes by hand. When I was a teenager, my mom taught me how to hand wash a shirt here or there on top of which I might’ve spilled some mustard. I can still remember that bright pink bar of soap and how she taught me to squeeze out all of the soap from my shirt after I scrubbed and rinsed it. Then, we’d stick it in the dryer. Drying our clothes outside for most of the year in Washington State was a joke. 99.9% of the time, we relied on our washer and dryer.

Washing clothes by hand may seem like a hassle, but I’ve grown to accept it as a mundane task I don’t mind doing. It’s meditative. I’m in full control of how and when my clothes are washed in my washbasin. Well, I’m not actually in full control of when I can wash my clothes–that depends on when there is running water. Although I live in one of the largest Peace Corps sites, my host family and I frequently go for two to three days without any water, especially during the dry season. I never imagined I’d live in a place where the water that washed my clothes depended on the rainfall.

Sometimes, as we wait patiently for water, we’ll leave the water valve twisted open, even though no water comes out. Eventually, it will. We’ll sit and watch trashy telenovelas (soap operas) when suddenly, we hear the trickle of water droplets falling.

Ya llego el agua!

The water’s on!

Then, it’s a mad rush to fill every bucket, barrel, and empty 2-liter Coke bottle with water. We hear our neighbors doing the same. It turns into a big cleaning party, and I channel my inner Cinderella as I wash my clothes and mop my tile floor.

Que alegre que hay agua!

How nice that the water’s on!

My host grandma, Mita, reminds me of the little joys in life when she says this. The water comes and goes, and washing my clothes myself becomes so much more than a mundane task. It becomes an exciting routine that makes me appreciate running water–something I’ll never take for granted again in the states.

And no, I have not used that solar-powered shower once in the Peace Corps. When I’ll leave, I’ll give it to my host family, and they will probably bestow some sort of practicality upon it, like using it to store beans.

Featured image by Unsplash user Caspar Rubin. Posted originally on Wanderlust Life Wellness Magazine

To The Wheelchair Dancer

Dear woman in the wheelchair last night,

Last night I went out at Caramanchel in Managua, and there you were, on the dance floor in a wheelchair, surrounded by your friends. I fell in love with the way in which your wheelchair essentially disappeared.

Your friends took turns spinning you around and dancing for you. Your face was lit up as you jived to the beat. I went up and danced with you, then high fived you. I asked if it was your birthday. It looked like such a celebration. “No, it’s my coworker’s birthday!” I think you said. I couldn’t hear much, and as I write this, my ears are still ringing from the music.

Then, I shared a cold Heineken with you, which you passed off to your friend. She promptly it held against her cheek to cool off.

What a beautiful sight. Being here has taught me that even when you cannot stand, you can still dance.

That Time We Spoke About Street Harassment on the Nicaraguan Radio

That Time We Spoke About Street Harassment on the Nicaraguan Radio

Last week, I walked to the Women’s Collective of Matagalpa, which I’ve been to multiple times for their spontaneous theater shows. The collective has a theater program, health and education outreach, and a radio station.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. April 10-16 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week, so I thought I’d see if the collective was having an event to raise awareness. I’d just written about kick-ass organizations in Egypt, Mexico, the U.S., and India fighting against street harassment, so I thought I’d ask.

I asked Machú, a woman who works there and documents all of the spontaneous theater shows. “No, we haven’t planned anything, but maybe you could talk to Argentina. She’s running the radio program right now since Leo is in Europe on the theater tour.”

Fanny, one of my the most expressive, lively actresses, happened to be there and listened in. She said hello to me with the typical kiss on the cheek and jokingly said, “Hi, Charlotte-I mean, Charleen!” because it took her a while to get my name right. We giggled, then she walked me over to the radio station, where I spoke with Argentina about my spontaneous question-turned-project.

“We don’t have anything planned to raise awareness, but street harassment happens every day, not just one week of the year. I can reserve a slot for you to come chat at 8 AM on Monday if you’d like. It would be good if you brought a friend who is from here.” I agreed that it would be important for a Nicaraguan woman to talk about it, so I called my friend Rosa right away. She agreed to send her daughter, Amy, whose quinceañera (15th birthday party) my mom and I attended last Christmas Eve.

Fanny’s son, Marlon, was also there, and I asked if he could come. He agreed because street harassment affects everyone, not just women. In November 2015, Gerardo Cruz was stabbed and killed in San José, Costa Rica after he caught a perverted man following a woman from behind and filming up her skirt. The video went viral, but he lost his life for speaking against street harassment.

Street harassment affects everyone. It’s so important to talk to boys as well as girls about actions that dismantle gender equity. These kinds of workshops will be done at Peace Corps Camp CHACA for boys in Nicaragua this July.

Street harassment also hurts economies. I often wonder how much more tourism dollars a country’s people could earn if women weren’t afraid of traveling because of feeling uncomfortable in public. I’ve decided against traveling down the street or to different countries because I don’t want to be hissed at or groped in public.

On Monday, I walked with Amy to The Collective. “Are you nervous to be on the radio?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “Well, I am! I’m glad you’re not nervous. What you’re doing is so important because many people don’t have a chance to share their opinions and to be heard. I’m nervous, but excited” I replied. I’d been on the radio before in Ecuador when I went with La Poderosa Media Project in 2011, but that time, I just spoke about who I was and where I was from. This time, it would be a more meaningful topic that I’d hoped would begin more much-needed conversations about unintentional (and intentional) gender oppression.

Amy and I got to the station and arrived before Argentina did. I don’t know about Amy, but I was squirming in my seat! In order to kill time, we chatted about her experiences with harassment.

Then, it was time to start once Argentina and Meyling arrived. We introduced ourselves and Argentina began the interview. She talked about how street harassment is becoming a more violent issue. The older men she’s talked to say that back in the day, they used to “seduce” women in the street by saying “sweet” things to them (las enamoraban), but never being disrespectful to them. Now, men are being more and more vulgar, forward, and disrespectful. With that background knowledge about the history of cat calling, we began.

Argentina (our host): How does street harassment make you feel?

Meyling: If you walk down into the city, and on the way down, you hear ten cat calls, then on the way back up, you’ll hear them ten times again. It’s exhausting for women to feel like they are constantly being objectified, or worse, groped. If men yell vulgarities at me, like “hey mamacita, you look delicious today,” then I tell them that what they’re doing is punishable by the Ley 779, and that I have the right to report them to the police. Once, a man in the street threatened to beat me up because I didn’t like him! He tried hugging me to feel my chest, but I had to use a self-defense move I learned in a jiu jitsu class on him.”

Meyling ended up thrusting her palm against his chin, causing him to fall back as she ran away.

Me: When men cat call me a “delicious white woman” in the street, I feel uncomfortable and objectified. I’m not a coconut popsicle! (The women in the room covered their mouths and laughed at this one) I’m not a food. I’m not an object. I’m a person. It’s interesting to point out that back in the day, men talking to women in the street was seen as a civilized, polite affair. Enamoraban a las mujeres (They seduced women).

“Enamorar” has the most positive connotation. Then, it was and is called “cat-calling”, or tirar piropos. We cannot see it as this innocent act any more. It’s violent, it’s unsolicited, and so we need to call it what it is: street harassment.

Amy explained that she’s experienced street harassment for as long as she could remember, and she brought up the important issue of child raising. By sharing her experience about her father trying to get her brother to talk to women as a boy, she made it clear that we need to think about how we raise our children. We need to teach our children how to be respectful to others.

Break time rolled along. My Nicaraguan counterpart teacher, Claudia, tapped on the door and came in a bit late because she’d gotten lost. Claudia and I are runners, so we both know what it’s like to have our workout routines disrupted by harassment. I was assaulted on a run last year because I wore headphones to avoid harassment, and my attacker thought I had a shiny iphone in my pocket, but I didn’t. I simply wore headphones to trick men into thinking I couldn’t hear them, but I still experienced physical violence. I’ve mostly recovered from it, as I ran a 10k later, but it’s undeniable that street harassment has shaped my experience here.

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“I’m #Wanderful because I still ran a 10K race after I was assaulted on a run last year.” April is sexual assault awareness month. Safety is such a huge issue for women, and I wanted to show how I bounced back from my assault on a run. It wasn't sexual, but it was still an assault. It wasn’t a perfect recovery, but I proved to myself that I won’t stop running. The 10K is organized every year in San Rafael del Norte, Nicaragua, and is dedicated to Odorico D’Andrea, a Catholic priest who passed away a long time ago, but he is still very much revered in the community. I ran the race last year, but this year it was a much more meaningful experience because I proved to myself that I wouldn’t let an assault prevent me from running. Last year, it was the first 10K I’d ever done. I saw it as a time to explore the northern area of Nicaragua while bonding with other volunteers. It was more of a diversion. I’d run a lot to prepare for it, and ran it in an hour. I got a 3rd place medal in the international women’s category (there weren’t very many of us there, but I still felt special). This year, I saw the race as a way to show myself and my attacker that I wouldn’t stop running. I was assaulted on a run on November 30th, 2015, and after that, I ran a lot less frequently. In order to prepare for the race, I ran 1-2 times a week, and did Insanity workouts indoors in order to train in a way that felt safe for me. I felt more safe than usual running in this race as opposed to in my city. There were lots of other people running with me, and people would step outside of their houses to watch me. Even then, I was still more on guard. When I felt someone running behind me, I was reminded of the way in which my attacker crept up behind me and tried stealing an iphone I didn’t have. Nothing happened to me during the race except for a muscle cramp while going uphill. After crossing the victory line, I did a victory dance to the cumbia music blasting from the oversized speakers. After I rubbed my legs with muscle ointment, a policeman fist bumped me. I’d proved it myself that I could do it.

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Claudia goes running at 5 AM to avoid the crowds. Once, on a run, a man began to take of his clothes and masturbated in front of her. She threatened to report him if he ever did that again, but the next day, she was too shaken up to go running.

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Claudia, my Nicaraguan counterpart teacher: "The truth is that I like to run in the mornings. Sometimes, as women, we have to dress uncomfortably since men in the streets sometimes say vulgar things to us. So, to avoid those kinds of “catcalls”, like they say, we cover ourselves up more so that they don’t tell us such vulgarities or look at us as if we were pieces of meat passing by.” Claudia joined me this morning to talk on Radio Vos' weekly radio show, "Ahora yo tengo la palabra" on 101.7, which runs every Monday at 8 AM. Today we talked about how and why to end street harassment. I know I've definitely kept from running sometimes to avoid harassment, but when I do go out, I experience it (no matter how baggy my clothes are). Have you ever decided to stay in because of #streetharassment?

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After Claudia shared, Argentina asked our listeners whether they thought cat-calls were innocent compliments or harassment. No one called in to participate, but oh well- the five of us had more than enough to say! We moved on to talking about how women dress. No matter how you dress, you’ll get attention. Harassers seem to think that women dress in order to please the men, not themselves.

“I’m a lesbian, so I’m not attracted to men,” I shared. “If I wear shorts it’s because it’s hot outside and I want to avoid sweating profusely (It’s always in the 80s and humid around here). I don’t wear shorts to please men.”

I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I was afraid of having to be in the closet, but here I was, coming out on the radio!

Before we knew it, it was 9 AM. We wrapped it up, and I gave a shout out to Amy’s mom, Rosa, for sending her brave daughter along to chat about street harassment. We’d all been pretty nervous to be on the air, but as the show progressed, we ended up laughing, giggling, and nodding our heads at one another.

We didn’t feel alone that morning, and I’m sure our listeners didn’t either. By having conversations like these about the misconceptions and effects of street harassment, maybe someday we’ll put an end to it.

Amy was such a boss that Argentina asked for her contact info to come back for another show!

Have you experienced street harassment? If not, do you know someone who has? How has it affected you or them?

The Serendipity of Travel: Meeting a Nicaraguan Nurse

Serendipity means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise.” In my travels, I have come across many pleasant surprises. I love the serendipitous moments that lead me to meeting new people abroad.

Even if serendipity is nothing more than chance, it has led me to meeting many fascinating Nicaraguans during my travels in this special Central American country.

One of the Nicaraguans I will never forget is Zulema, nurse who works each year at ACCESS camp, a weeklong, intensive English summer camp for Nicaraguan students. Read more about the camp on the Maywesuggest.org blog, a site by two Peace Corps Volunteers and my blogging buddies.

Each group of campers was given a state name in order to create team spirit. I was the camp counselor for 36 high schoolers in the “Virginia” Team.  I would go to bed at midnight and wake up at 5 AM in order to make sure my campers were awake. You can imagine how much coffee I needed to stay awake!

I was in charge of 36 Nicaraguan English students during ACCESS camp. Zulema was in charge of all 320 students!
I was in charge of 36 Nicaraguan English students during ACCESS camp. Zulema was in charge of all 320 students!

I went into the supply room for a quick afternoon coffee break, and I overheard Zulema encouraging a student who wasn’t feeling well to feel better. She is a nurse in charge of 320 kids at ACCESS Camp, a weeklong camp for Nicaragua’s best English students. “Sometimes, you have to pump yourself up even when you’re feeling tired. It’s all about your attitude. Sometimes I see teenagers feeling sad about the slightest thing, but then I tell them that they need to take advantage of the opportunities that they have and make the most of them. It’s important to work hard and to accept any challenge that comes your way.”

Zulema traveled six hours via bus to take care of 320 summer ACCESS campers.
Zulema traveled six hours via bus to take care of 320 summer ACCESS campers.

Zulema is a nurse from Nueva Segovia, which is the farthest department in the North. It borders Honduras. It takes her six hours on a bus to get to Managua, and the bus only makes one stop. “How did you end up working here in Managua?” I asked her. “Well, I would always go to my daughter’s ACCESS meetings dressed in white because I’m a nurse. One day, one of the ACCESS supervisors noticed this and asked me to work at the camp. This is my third camp so far!”

I didn’t expect to meet such a radiant, optimistic mother as I drank coffee from my styrofoam cup, but I’m grateful it happened.

Zulema is the Nicaraguan nurse I’ll always remember. I love the serendipitous moments that come with travel.

My "Virginia" team with the American Ambassador to Nicaragua at the ACCESS camp closing ceremony.
My “Virginia” team with the American Ambassador to Nicaragua at the ACCESS camp closing ceremony.

Is there someone memorable you’ve met by chance in your travels? Share in the comments!

This story is featured in the 2016 issue of Wanderlust Life Magazine. Subscribe here for this free wellness magazine!

A Budget Travel Guide: The Big and Little Corn Islands

A Budget Travel Guide: The Big and Little Corn Islands

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 Bread with 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.

Corn-Island-Travel-Nicaragua-Tips

Day 1
Managua to Big Corn Island: 216 miles, or 1.5 hours via La Costeña AirlinesA 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.

Corn-Island-Nicaragua-Travel-Caribbean-Tips
Big Corn Island is pretty small, with a comically massive dock jutting out of its south end.

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.

Food-Corn-Island-Travel-Tips
Lobster tacos and conch ceviche at Merlene’s Relax Restaurant.

Day 2
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.

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The back of the boat gets the most water, and the front is the bumpiest. We were in the middle. “Bumpy” is an understatement.

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.

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A Little Corn Islander

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.

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It was strangely soothing to count up, instead of wondering what my obituary would say.

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.

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Day 3
Tropical Dreams Hotel to Picnic Center Beach
Distance: Just a walk and a cab ride away.

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.

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Stand next to a crab crossing sign: check.

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.

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Rondon: A Caribbean Coconut Stew paired with fresh fish cooked in coconut milk. Check out my travel photos here!

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.

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I wonder how long it would take this sprout to grow into just another towering palm tree. Maybe when I come back, it will still be there, and I won’t even recognize it.

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.

Yes, this is a boarding pass.

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?

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A Beach in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood.

Adele: The Sweetheart of Big Corn Island

Adele: The Sweetheart of Big Corn Island

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!

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Adele and her husband have been married for 40 years. They sell coconuts and jam by the beach. Sounds like a perpetual honeymoon to me!

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.

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Yes, that is a manta ray on top of a bus stop. Only on Big Corn Island.

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.”

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“I like your bag,” said Adele, complimenting mom.

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.

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Adele carved out the sweet, gelatinous coconut pulp for us.

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!