Last Monday, I came back from my three-week solo travel trip through Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica to a Wanderful email account! Wanderful is an international membership community of independent, adventurous, globally minded women who travel. They have over 20 chapters around the world, and every year, they organize the Women in Travel Summit.
I joined Wanderful as a blogging cohort member over a year ago and am now their social media intern. Initially, I debated applying to the internship because I didn’t think I was qualified. Then I thought of how bought in I am to Wanderful’s mission of empowering women travelers, and of how much I’ve promoted the site because I believe in it. “Would a man be so hesitant to apply?” I told myself. So, I applied and got the position.
Wanderful exists because we still need spaces for women to feel empowered enough to believe in themselves, whether it’s to apply for their dream job or to take on traveling to a new place.
Our rights can change with the stamp of a passport. LGBT travelers have a heightened awareness of safe spaces, whether at home or abroad, and for good reason. Safe spaces can be as simple as bathrooms. In Tennessee, a lesbian was kicked out of a girl’s bathroom for “looking like a boy.”
While being gay is legal has been legal in Nicaragua since 2008 (yay?) and I’ve come out to countless strangers here, homophobia still exists. I’ve still been called a cochona (dyke) in the street after I’ve shaved the sides of my head, and I’ve heard my male students call each other cochones (fags) for wearing earrings or growing their hair out. It’s not until I explain to people (Peace Corps staff included) about how these terms are offensive that they think twice about using them.
On a trip to El Castillo, Nicaragua (population: 1,500), which is a seven-hour bus ride and surreal three-hour boat ride from Managua, I didn’t expect to find any queers. I expected to see a remote part of the country, and tour the Spanish Castle built centuries ago to guard the area from pirates.
I stumbled upon an unexpected treasure, though: Yamil, the dazzling, kind, and vivacious owner of Border’s Café. He cooks the best vegetable curry in the country and makes deliciously creamy mango milkshakes. He also happens to be openly gay, and has survived multiple assaults because of it.
Why would an assault survivor stay in a rural community and run an LGBT-friendly business? I asked myself when I met him. This interview will show you the definition of resiliency, and will inspire you to support LGBT friendly businesses. They aren’t just found in cities.
Where are you from and where have you been? Tell me about yourself.
Yamil: My mother (in featured image above), and owner of the local Nena Lodge, adopted me when I was 11 years old. When I was a student, I was ambitious—in good and bad ways. I didn’t get the best grades, but I always wanted to open up a bar, a café, or a restaurant. My mom told me that I had to learn to be responsible, and that if I got my grades up, she’d send me to study architecture in Panama. I bumped my grades up to 85%, and went there. I’ve also lived in Costa Rica. It’s not so homophobic over there.
The Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan department don’t usually make it on most travelers’ itineraries. The Solentiname archipelago lies at the southeastern corner of the massive Lake Nicaragua, and the islanders experienced a liberation theology movement led by the priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Ernesto built a church on Mancarron Island and inspired the locals to create landscape paintings and artisanry that are so endemic to the islands.
After having been in Nicaragua for nearly two years, I hadn’t even visited this area because of how far away Solentiname was. The seemingly inconsistent boat schedules also deterred me. I was dying to visit a place with fellow painters because times are rough where I am. It’s been hard to find other artists who I could share my work with. Luckily, my time to visit came when my boss asked me to observe Stacey, another TEFL volunteer living in the region.
I woke up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning without drinking water as I’m used to doing. I needed to dehydrate myself for the seven hour bus ride. The Rio San Juan department is so far away that it borders Costa Rica, but Nicaraguans proudly call the 119-mile river of the same name theirs. Stickers boasting “The San Juan River is ours!” are pasted on buses here.
I took a taxi to Managua’s Mayoreo terminal, then I hopped on the bus at 5:30. It cost 150 cordobas, which at the time was about $5.30. Since it was Sunday, not many people were traveling, so I could have easily gotten a seat right before the bus left at 6 AM. Vicente Fernandez, a famous Mexican singer, crooned over the speakers in the bus.
Vendors boarded the bus. A woman in a crisp, white polo and white sneakers glided through the aisle, saying “rosquillas, rosquillas” (baked corn cakes that taste like salty cardboard, but they’re great when you’re hungry). She had only three bags left in her hand and I’m sure she sold them quickly. A man came in and offered apples shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam plates.
The engine rumbled to a start, and my nervous excitement kicked in as I felt the slight tremor under my feet. I’d finally go somewhere new! The Rio San Juan, Nueva Segovia, and the RAAN (which is off-limits for Peace Corps volunteers) are the only departments I hadn’t been to.
I’m glad I packed National Geographic magazines and my Moon guidebook to Nicaragua. As the bus cruised along, I was transported to the world of Kinshasa, Congo’s chaotic, creative capital. I read about the city’s relentlessly passionate artists, like Chéri Chérin, who paint next to lanterns at night because most of the city’s power goes out at night. While I get annoyed that the water runs out for days on end here, I still have a consistent supply of electricity.
San Carlos is a tiny, clean port town with not much else other than restaurants, bars, and a fortress. I decided that I didn’t feel like I needed more time to explore the town, so I boarded a boat to Solentiname. I paid $10 for the Transol ride. Every day at 3 PM, boats leave San Carlos for Solentiname. The cheaper boats cost about $3.50, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought it would be worth the investment, and I’d have two days in Solentiname anyway.
I called Hostal Vanessaon San Fernando (or Elvis Chavarría) Island, Solentiname’s second biggest island. José, or Chepe, reserved my private room with a bathroom ($12). I was lucky he answered my call since cell service is so spotty out there. He happened to be on the biggest island, Mancarron, when I’d called.
San Fernando Island, Solentiname
My motorboat pulled out of the dock into Lake Nicaragua, which was at an all-time low because of the insanely dry summer. I saw a man walking in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t believe it at first. The lake is Central America’s largest, but it’s definitely not the deepest. As I put on my lifejacket, I looked out at the never-ending water and could see Solentiname in the distance. It felt like I was in ocean.
After about an hour, the boat dropped me off at San Fernando, where Chepe was waiting for me. He even helpeded me onto the dock! The islands were so small and I must have been one of only a handful of tourists. He knew exactly who I was just from our phone conversation. Chepe showed me to my room, and I asked him if Ernesto Cardenal were around, but he said that he was in Managua. I might be able to meet him at the Casa de los Tres Mundos Art Gallery. Ernesto only visits the islands about four times a year.
As we spoke, one word came to mind: solitude.
Not the miserable kind of loneliness, but the solitude of hearing only birds chirping and the slightest rumble of the boats chugging along. There was no smog, no ambulances wailing, and no motorcycles screeching to a halt. All of these things characterize my city. While I love being in a city, it felt incredibly calm here.
There was a hammock right outside my room, and I knew we would be getting to know each other soon. I asked Chepe if it were safe for a woman to walk around, and he said that there have never been reports of rape or violence against foreigners. Since there aren’t many people on the islands, there’s much less anonymity and a sense of safety that I didn’t know I’d miss so much.
As soon as I showed Chepe my paintings, he showed me around the island to visit his friends and family members who also paint. Almost everyone is an artist here. His wife showed me her artwork. My favorite was the painting of the islands at sunset, with the water dyed a bright orange.
Chepe and I walked along the narrow path to Albergue Celentiname (email@example.com), a hotel overlooking the water that is owned by Doña Maria Guevara, a painter who fled to Costa Rica for two years to work with the likes of Gioconda Belli to feed the flames of the revolution. She returned in 1979, when the populist movement ousted The Dictator, Somoza.
Maria wore a bright pink dress and sat in a chair-like hammock. Chepe introduced me to her, and we talked about painting, the revolution, and gender roles. “Women are responsible for educating men, since men come from women,” she said. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but I respected her. We shared the warm, humid air between us and I was fascinated by her story.
“I haven’t even left yet, and I know I want to come back! I knew that I had to come here to meet you,” I said to her. She thanked me and said that it was lovely meeting me as well.
For dinner, I went to one of the few if not the only restaurant on the island, and paid 140 cordobas (around $5) for a simple plate of tostones (friend, smashed plantains), rice, chicken, and avocado. That plate on the mainland would cost half as much, but because of the time and money it takes to ship goods out here, everything costs more. The chicken was the best I’d had in the country—the meat wasn’t overly cooked, and it was marinated in citrus. The crown jewel was the locally-grown avocado, though. The massive, green wedges tasted like butter.
The nighttime was insanely hot. Since many hotels and homes are solar-powered, the electricity only ran at night in my room. I was so tired that I went to bed at 7 and my fan shut off by 4 AM because the solar energy ran out. I was nervous to sleep with the window open because I was alone, and there was a simple screen covering it, so I shut myself in and delt with the heat. I got my towel and handkerchief wet and lay them over my nacked body to cool down even the slightest bit.
In the morning, I found out that Chepe had left the island to help build a school on Mancarron. He’d told me the day before that he’d show me where I could get cell service, but since he was gone, I found a replacement.
Then, I came back to Maria’s to show her my paintings from my ipad. Both of her scarlet macaws were sitting on the floor, eating their food from bowls. They looked like dogs. Maria scrolled through my acrylic portraits, and she liked them because they don’t involve just the faces of the people I paint—the portraits are about the movement of the people, whether they are cooking, washing, or playing with cats. I asked her for advice, and she suggested that I make the background behind my main subject darker so that the subject could pop out more.
Maria and I spent the entire morning together. She told me about the very first painting she ever did, which was of a tree, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it until she painted it. Ernesto then took it to sell it in Managua for $400, and she was crushed despite the hefty earnings she’d unintentionally made. “That painting was mine, and there was nothing else that existed for me at the time. I haven’t seen the painting since.” We snacked on some granola bars I’d packed as she told me her stories.
She brought out her binoculars to watch the different species of herons, egrets, and songbirds flutter by and crash onto the branches. Although it was insanely hot, humid, and dry, I could imagine how green and vivid the islands must look in the rainy season. The air was so hot that I didn’t want to move, so Maria told me to lay down in a hammock and relax. Like me, I could tell that she likes to stay busy. She went in and out of the kitchen to prepare some beans for her guests.
I felt more at peace than I’d felt in a while. Spending an entire morning with a stranger and laying in their hammock isn’t something I would have done in the states, but here it is normal. I like this kind of normal.
After lunch at the same restaurant, I made my way back the one path to the artisanry museum, the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname($1), which unfortunately was closed for Labor Day. I did, however, stumble upon an artisanal workshop, where I bought the most well-made earrings I’ve seen here. The woman with the key to the shop, Marielos, saw me coming up the stairs and introduced herself. She then opened the doors, and I couldn’t believe the amount of painted birds, fish, and turtles there were, either laying on the tables or hanging from the mobiles. I bought meticulously painted tucan, parrot, and fish-shaped earrings made of light driftwood.
As I tried each of the earrings on, I got to know Marielos, who flipped through the paintings I had stored in my ipad. She asked me if I’d heard from Mateo, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who’d spent three years on the islands, and left in 2000. “He used to stay in touch with us, but then he got married and stopped talking to us. I wonder if something happened to him when the twin towers collapsed.” I tried comforting her, telling her that not everyone is very good at keeping in touch.
By 4 PM, I returned yet again to Maria’s hotel so that I could catch a boat ride to Mancarron for 150 cordobas. It was ten minutes away. One of the men who worked for her, Daniel, took myself and a Costa Rican couple. We walked along the path through town, and I saw the colorful stained-glass windows of the church that was locked shut. We stopped through different houses, gazing at the wood carvings and paintings of the local flora and fauna. Some people owned parrots, and a green parrot looked down at my group, softly whispering “hola.” It was nice seeing a different island, but I was happy I was staying on San Fernando.
That night, I paid Estelbina, Chepe’s wife, the $24 for both nights at Hostal Vanessa, and since Chepe would be running the boat to San Carlos in the morning, I paid for the 90 cordoba fare for that, too.
Chepe had told me that the boat stops by at 5:30 AM, but Estelbina’s sister advised me to be ready by five. The spotty schedules made me nervous, so I woke up at 4:45 (after having slept with the window open) and I was at the dock early. By 5:15, the boat pulled in. I jumped in and we were out of the port by 5:20. It’s a good thing I’d gotten ready early.
The boat sailed slowly over the water. I peered out at the different islands, and tried to guess at which one was Zapotillo, which once housed an orphanage and a pedophile Evangelist priest who was eventually chased into Costa Rica. Costa Rica was so close that if it weren’t so hazy, I would’ve been able to see the Arenal Volcano to the south.
I was filled with so much happiness that I’d finally found a community of painters with whom I could share my art. I’d love to return to Solentiname during the rainy season so that I no longer need to imagine the potential of its beauty.
Is there anything you’d like to know about Solentiname? Share in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Out of all the markets, restaurants, bridges, and museums, my spot was a bench. I had just arrived in Tokyo on a solo trip, and it was my first time in Asia. I had chosen to travel to Japan because I’d just spent ten months working at a high school in Texas. I’d finished an unhealthy job and saw the demise of a once enriching long distance relationship.
I needed a fresh start. I was exhausted. Adjusting to an 11 hour time difference didn’t help. I’d also spent over a year trying to make a career and relationship work in a place where I was supposed to have been able to understand the language and the people. Maybe I’d have better luck in a place where I couldn’t understand it all.
It was June 2013, and I can still remember the cool humidity. My hand brushed the water off of my bench before I sat down in Hibiya park. My bench overlooked a carp-filled pond that was shaded by an enormous tree. Its branches extended 20 feet over the water. A dove flew right toward me and veered off at the last second to perch beside me. Sorry, birdie, but this lady had no stale bread to offer, I thought.
About 40 feet away stood a Japanese businessman wearing a black suit and a bowl hat. He puffed away at his cigar while feeding bread to a turtle. The oversized, golden carp swam about, snapping at the bread and water bugs that skimmed the surface. Drops of water fell from the branches above and landed on my face.
Hibiya was built as Tokyo’s only westernized park and it was my favorite place in the city. Sometimes, you just know you’re in the right place at the right time. The air was cool and misty. All of the plants were relishing in all the moisture. The weather was such a contrast to the heat I felt from driving across the Southwestern U.S. All I wanted to do while driving through New Mexico was blast my air conditioner in the hundred degree heat, but I didn’t want to kill my low battery.
Now, I was walking through paradise with my umbrella. There were cats everywhere in Hibiya Park. Why? Where did they come from? They glared at me as I snapped their pictures.
Cities that are bursting with people need calm, green havens like this one. Just as Central Park can numb the sound of ambulance sirens in NYC, Hibiya can, too. It was so green here-as if the trees invited you in and begged for you to breathe their cool air. I journaled for a bit, closed my eyes, and soaked in the calm. There was no place I would have rather been, especially after making the mistake of wandering into the overwhelming Sega Video Game Arcade I’d popped into earlier. I appreciated Tokyo’s introverted side more than its technological, flashy side.
After a moment of stillness in my green spot, I got up and headed for the frenzy of the bustling Shibuya district. It’s a clean version of Times Square that is famous for its diagonal crosswalk. I stood in front of this intersection and witnessed the masses flowing through, like red blood vessels being pumped in and out of a heart. Each time the light turned red, the pedestrians piled up and waited at the starting line. Once the light said “walk”, waves of people raced to the other side, as if it were 6 a.m. at a Macy’s on Black Friday.
While green parks are calming to me, places like sprawling city centers are strangely soothing to me as well. Commercials were blasting on oversized TV’s, rich kids sipped on strawberry cheesecake frapuccinos, and a girl dressed as Alice in Wonderland walked by.
Tokyo led me from a green space of tranquility to one of concrete tranquility.
Can’t wait until March? Thanks to our chapter organizers, Travel Massive, and WITS 2016, we have been hosting the On the Road to WITS happy hour series throughout the U.S. and Canada. The goal? Give you the chance to network with other influential women travelers and feel more connected to our global sisterhood of travelers!
Our On the Road to WITS speakers are smart, powerful women, and all have noticed challenges that women travelers face. Think: deciding if and how to travel, not knowing our rights, and needing a hand to boost our blogs.
And as smart, powerful women who love helping others, these speakers dedicate their careers to solving the issues that other travelers face.
Our 6 On the Road to WITS speakers empower women to see travel as life-changing and accessible. Find out why they’re passionate about their work in my latest post!