Go Abroad’s Mental Health & Self-Care E-Book is FREE to download!

I’m thrilled to announce that this e-book about mental health and navigating mental illness while abroad is out!

This GoAbroad.com e-book features three articles I wrote. One talks about navigating mental illness abroad and another talks about how to support a friend abroad with a mental illness. The last discusses practicing self-care abroad.

Thank you so much, Sylvia D., for emailing me to introduce yourself after having read my self care article a while back. Little did I know you’d come to be an integral part of helping me with these next posts and to continue the never ending conversation about mental health abroad after we skyped in August for three hours.

I still think about our conversation and about how much you taught me about breaking the ice about this important topic that too many people feel uncomfortable talking about.

The more we talk about it, the more we normalize discussions about mental health and navigating mental illnesses abroad.

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The Importance of Practicing Self-Care While Studying Abroad

The Importance of Practicing Self-Care While Studying Abroad

There’s a very extroverted, go-getter narrative in travel and international education, and why shouldn’t there be? 

Studying abroad takes guts, and it requires you to jump into the unknown. With all of the travel apps, Facebook groups, and travel guides out there, it has become easier than ever to know what to expect from traveling before you even go abroad.

Taking care of your mental health while studying abroad is as important as knowing what to pack or how to speak the language, but it isn’t so easy to anticipate what low points will look and feel like. Find out how to practice self care in my latest Go Abroad piece.

I Think I was Sexually Assaulted

I Think I was Sexually Assaulted

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault/Assault.

The “I think” is why I’m writing about sexual assault.

On July 4th, around 1:30 a.m., I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver on my way home on Pride Night in Bogotá. This post is not to scare people from visiting Bogotá. This could’ve happened anywhere, and every day I feel a pull to return to this city because of its vibrant street art, its organized chaos, and its communities or artists and activists. I can’t wait to write about how inspired I felt there, and I won’t let this incident erase that sense of freedom.

I’m writing this post is because, since this happened, of all of the times that I said “I think I was sexually assaulted” instead of saying “I was sexually assaulted.” It took me two weeks to report the incident to my safety and security officer, and when I did, he said, “Yes, that was definitely a sexual assault.” In no way did he blame me for the incident or for waiting so long to report it. He has been 100% supportive.

When I’d pictured what a sexual assault looked like, I imagine either A. a rape or B. someone running up and grabbing a woman’s boobs or crotch. Both of these things do happen and should never happen. Ever. However, everything else to me is grey area, and it shouldn’t be. That night, a taxi driver invaded my personal space without my consent, grabbed me, and tried to kiss me. I told him to stop, and he did.

Once I got home, I felt shocked and unsafe in ways that I’d felt after I was assaulted at knife point on a run on November 30th, 2015. Only this time, I felt disgusting. I was shaking and crying because I’d been violated in ways I never have before. I immediately felt the shame that our patriarchal society wants me to feel. That it was “my fault” and that it could have been prevented.

Well, guess what. A person should be able to go out at night and to ride in taxis without the fear of sexual assault. What happened, happened, and blaming me, the victim, won’t do anything to fix it. So before you blame the victim, check yourself and know that if you do, your actions are the reason why so many women never come forward and admit what happened to them. After the incident I bought a smartphone and I used apps like Uber to hold my drivers more accountable.

After talking with other women about what happened, they’ve revealed to me that they realized they’ve also been sexually assaulted and never thought to report it because of they don’t feel comfortable doing so, and because of the “I think” piece that trivializes the assault in the first place.

I have the privilege of talking about what happened to me without fear of social repercussions, so that’s why I’m doing this. I also have access to free counseling with the Peace Corps, which I’ve used throughout my service after a long-distance breakup, then after my assault, and after the Orlando shooting. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to come forward and to talk about what happened. I know that reporting it won’t erase the damage, but it’s the first step in exposing what happened.

If you or someone you care about has been sexually assaulted, you are not alone. I am not alone and it’s by talking with survivors of different gender identities to know I am not alone.

I’ve talked to the Peace Corps medical officers about it and was given the option of a medical evacuation or respite leave. I am considering taking the 14-day respite leave to go home and recover in a familiar place, which is something I wish I could have done after my assault last year. Volunteers are given the option to request respite leave 30 days after they report an incident. This is a new policy that I hope volunteers are aware of in case something happens to them.

Below is the description I sent to my Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer of the sexual assault.

Continue reading “I Think I was Sexually Assaulted”

Self-Esteem, Straight Up: Confessions of a Nicaraguan College Student

Self-Esteem, Straight Up: Confessions of a Nicaraguan College Student

I met Romy two years ago when I was helping out in an ACCESS English class. ACCESS is a micro scholarship program that prepares high schoolers to learn English. Romy is now in her first year of college and she works at a coffee shop to pay the bills. She’s an incredibly intelligent, kind young woman who also speaks better English than most Nicaraguans I’ve ever met.

One day, I stopped by the coffee shop for breakfast and Romy and I ended up chatting about self-esteem, which is a topic that I didn’t think would be of such interest to people until I came to Nicaragua. Find out what it’s like to for a young woman to navigate societal pressures, and learn from the advice she gives about avoiding toxic relationships.

Char: So, after you saw my blog post about my Japanese painting, you told me you wanted to blog about self-esteem. Why is self-esteem so important to you?

Romy: I’ve talked to lots of girls about this, and it’s a huge issue. It’s about seeing both your flaws and qualities and accepting yourself. It’s about how you show yourself to the world. If you have low self-self esteem, then people will see you in a negative light. Your self-esteem is the first thing people notice about you.

Char: When I first came to Nicaragua, I asked my youth group to choose a workshop topic. Out of all the topics, like HIV/AIDS prevention and goal setting, they chose self-esteem. I had no idea it was so important to people here. What affects self-esteem?

Romy: What your family thinks of you. You might have trouble at home and your family members might be affecting you in negative ways, but you might not talk about it with them. Negative people are often unaware of how they make others feel powerless. You have to know that it’s not your fault, and that you can’t solve everyone’s problems.

Not everyone tells me I’m “smart” and “mature” as you do, Char. Sometimes I’m around people who make me feel like I’m not enough, and that lowers my self-esteem.

Char: A lot of people gain self-esteem from other people. Do you agree with this? Continue reading “Self-Esteem, Straight Up: Confessions of a Nicaraguan College Student”

7 Tips for Coming Out to Your Host Family Abroad

7 Tips for Coming Out to Your Host Family Abroad

As someone who is out of the closet to only a few of my host family members, I know how confusing it can be to break the ice about LGBT issues abroad.

If you’re not straight and/or cisgendered (you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth), your sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity (or lack thereof) make the already difficult feat of traveling even more challenging.

For LGBT and non-binary people, traveling becomes more than just getting over jetlag. One’s sexual orientation can affect one’s safety. Many people think that coming out of the closet is a one-time deal, but for LGBT people, it’s a never-ending process that depends on where they are and how safe they feel exposing their sexuality.

Here are some tips that have helped me navigate being queer while living with the wonderful people who take care of me during my service via my latest Go Abroad piece!

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?

When I Was Assaulted Abroad, Here Are the Steps Steps I Took to Heal Myself

Trigger Warning: Assault

As non-male travelers, we live uniquely gendered experiences. No matter where we are, women’s safety is an ever-relevant topic. Thanks to technology, we are more connected to information about traveling to different parts of the world.

From deciding to go to Israel to attending protests abroad, safety matters to all of us. But how do we prevent or avoid smaller, more targeted crimes, like assault or petty thefts?

I had never been assaulted until I came to Nicaragua, the safest country in Central America.

I have traveled to several different countries and put myself in much riskier situations, so I did not expect to be assaulted at knife point in the morning as I ran up the huge hill.

I was wearing headphones, as I do on my typical morning runs, but I had no electronics with me. I wear headphones to avoid catcalls, so men will think I can’t hear their sexual and lewd comments.

Read what happened in November and what I’ve done to recover on my latest Wanderful post.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and April 10-16 is International Anti-Street Harassment week.