“Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!
Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).
Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.
When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:
“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”
“It’s more expensive than Miami.”
“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”
On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.
Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.
The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.
“Whatever you do, please don’t do the Pablo Escobar tour. That would be very indignant for me,” Gina said to me. Gina was my host in El Retiro, a sleepy, crisp-weathered, mountainous town an hour outside of Medellin, Antioquia, Colombia. I had just flown into Medellin that night from Nicaragua, and Gina had been kind enough to pick me up from the airport during an important soccer game. She was helping me plan for what to see and what to avoid. When I told friends I was visiting Medellin, most of them innocently referenced Pablo Escobar, a drug lord whose ruthless chokehold on Colombia’s cocaine supply left Medellin victim to decades of violence.
We stopped at a typical paisa (a term representative of the northwest region’s people and culture) restaurant. In between glimpses of the Colombia vs. Chile world cup game, she broke down the political, economic, and cultural history of the region for me. The waiter asked if I wanted sugar in my guayaba juice, and I was surprised that I had an option. I don’t even remember what I chose.
She asked me what I knew about Medellin. “Well, I know that Escobar was a very violent man…” I trailed off, embarrassed that I didn’t do my research. Gina clarified that there was more to life in Antioquia than Escobar. I listened eagerly as I poked into some crunchy fried pork rinds with a toothpick.
Medellin, she explained, was Colombia’s center for textile production in the first half of the 20th century. The city of over three million people even boasts a skyscraper called the Coltejer Building, which is shaped like a needle. Today, Medellin’s economic legacy includes high-quality coffee production and it’s famous for beautiful leather products. Oh, and Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda. I should have taken advantage of the sales at the Velez leather outlet while I had the chance.
Once Escobar’s drug cartel took over, Medellin became as violent as Beirut, Gina explained, shaking her head. Car bombs went off frequently in the city. She grew up being used to the violence. Once Escobar died in 1993, the violence decreased. I felt safer in Medellin than I did in Nicaragua. Gina suggested that we go for a walk when it was dark, and I wondered if it was safe to do so. In Nicaragua, once the sun goes down, it’s usually time to head home and lock the doors. Gang violence isn’t as prevalent there as it is in Guatemala, but petty thefts and muggings in isolated areas after dark are common.
Unfortunately, it was drizzling, so we couldn’t go for a walk. Instead, we went to bed early and I slept like a rock. When I’m in a new place, my mind feels the need to rest up as much as possible in order to absorb its surroundings when it is ready to.
I decided that in order to understand the region’s history, that I would eventually go to the Museo de Antioquia. I walked to the bus stop in El Retiro, and spoke with other people waiting to confirm that my bus was the one going to Medellin. Five minutes later, a woman honked her horn and asked if I were headed to Medellin. This was the first time a woman had offered to give me a ride, but I declined. In retrospect, I wish I’d done it, but I didn’t do it, and I was safe.
I spent the day in Medellin with a fellow Wellesley alum, Vero, who graduated with me, but who I had never met. Thanks to a mutual friend, we were able to meet and to reminisce about our college days. We also bonded over how driven Wellesley women are, and about how we just cannot seem to sit still. We always need to be doing something and doing what some people call “overachieving.” To us, it’s just “achieving.” That’s what happens when you are privileged enough to go to school with some of the most driven, independent, and intelligent women in the world. It was nice to be with someone who got me. I didn’t have to really explain why I was spending three weeks traveling alone.
Eventually, I made it to the Museo de Antioquia. As a child, I dreaded museums. I thought they were the most boring, lifeless places. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in France that I began to appreciate museums, especially art museums, for being portals into a region’s history. These histories are never completely inclusive of different racial, socioeconomic, and gender identities, but that’s why I allow myself to be critical of these spaces in the first place.
I came to Nicaragua on August 13th, 2014, and after three months of Peace Corps training, we wrote letters to ourselves that we would not open until two years later.
Our boss recommended that we put a few dollars inside, and I’m glad I did. After having $200 a month to spend on feeding and taking care of myself, $20 feels like a fortune! At our Close of Service Conference, during which we begin to wrap up our service, we just opened up our time capsules with letters to ourselves. It’s interesting to see what I was thinking two years ago. Here’s what my letter said.
“October 31st, 2014.
Congratulations on making it through training. It may feel as if you didn’t make a difference in three months, but after having talked to your youth group, you did. Elena, on of your students, reminded you that it’s not the English you taught, but the self confidence you gave them. You made the idea of learning English less scary.
Also, you came here thinking you’d have to be closeted and you know that’s not true after having been in Matagalpa. There’s lots of work to be done, and you already have people there who are missing you.
During tough times, just think of how much you’ve grown after having lived here. In ten years, you’ll be so happy you decided to move here. It’s great feeling useful here, just for being able to speak English. You’ve also already given a workshop on Gender and Equitable Teaching to your teammates, and you rapped in Spanish for your ‘Ready to Serve’ presentation at the end of training.
You’ve hiked a volcano, hiked down to a volcanic crater and swam in its lagoon twice, you’ve swam in the Pacific Ocean after teaching three different classes for the first time in León, and you’ve cooked bacon twice. You’ve met up with Raquel Saenz, who inspires you to keep traveling, learning, and teaching.
Keep up your spirit of adventure and positive attitude. Keep blogging to let the world know what it’s really like. Keep working for the kids, teachers, queer people, and people of Nicaragua. It’s not all about you even if it feels that way.”
I didn’t think I’d keep blogging, and I also didn’t think I’d shift from having a career in teaching to pursuing a career in social media marketing within the travel industry. It’s been a wild ride for the past two years and I’ve grown so much. I’ll be ending my Peace Corps Nicaragua service sometime around October 25th, 2016.
If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.
Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.
Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.
We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.
Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.
An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.
To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”→
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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!