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.
It’s no wonder she’s the Philanthropist of the Month. Corey Haynes, TEFL 64, invited me to come write about the school months ago, and I’ve continued to write about it because I haven’t found any other schools quite like it. Hope is the Go Abroad Foundation’s Pledge Beneficiary of October, which means any donations that go through this blog post will go to the school. We’ve all have amazing teachers we haven’t thanked enough, and here’s a chance to help out an amazing teacher, principal, mother, and more! Anything is appreciated! Thank you ❤
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.
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.
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.
“I missed my raging sunsets, the green entanglement of treetops, the verdant ravines, and the furious downpours [in Nicaragua]. Costa Rica seemed too shallow and tame: like the light, interminable rain that kept falling over San José.”
Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin
As I traveled through Nicaragua’s Remote Rio San Juan area, Belli’s vision of an untamed Nicaragua spoke to this region best.
I had just returned from my trip to the Solentiname Islands, and now I was on the 3:30 PM slow boat from San Carlos to El Castillo (The Castle). It costs 90 cordobas for the slow boat and 140 cordobas for the fast boat.
Sharing the boat with myself and 30 other passengers was a young, balding man who refused to put on his life jacket as everyone else had done. “C’mon, man, just put it on so we can get out of here!” yelled my boat’s driver to him. He finally put it on, and the dock’s inspector let us to take off.
Riding The Surreal Rio San Juan
As soon as the boat coasted into the massive river, everyone took their life jackets off and stored them overhead. To our left sat another long boat filled to the brim with cattle. “And their lifejackets?!” I asked, making the men around me giggle and nod at me.
This was my first time in the Rio San Juan, and I couldn’t help but think of how long it had been since I’d seen a river deep enough to boat in. This was the driest the river had been in thirty years, but I couldn’t believe it. Many towns here, like my own, have “rivers,” but they are just dry riverbeds with bridges built over them so people don’t get their feet wet in the rainy season.
I braced myself for the three hour ride, wishing I hadn’t sat in the very back because of the noise from the motor. The clouds began to blanket the sky, slowly cooling the humid air little by little. I stuck my hand in the shockingly warm water. It was as if someone had just taken it off the boil a few minutes ago. The motor’s loud rumble evolved into a trivial hum.
This was what I thought Nicaragua would be like before I came here. Egrets waded in the water, insects of all types buzzed about, and the trees. The trees brought Belli’s description of the “entanglement of treetops” to life. They shot up from the earth and mercilessly enveloped one another. The mangroves below them formed perches for kingfishers while they scanned the brown water for lunch.
The land was so clean, too. In a country where people regularly toss plastic wrappers out the bus window, it was incredibly refreshing to see unspoiled land—until we passed signs of human life. As soon as we pulled up to docks to let people off, the plastic Coke bottles and Doritos wrappers dotted the river’s edge, a sobering reminder of “civilization.” I had never been so disappointed to run into signs of humanity as I was on that ride. The desolation we encountered in between made me feel as if we were traveling back in time, and the garbage was the only thing to snap me back to the frustrating reality about the lack of foresight we have about protecting nature.
Lightning bolts crashed on both sides of us, but the motor’s hum and water’s warmth soothed me. A man next to me asked me if I was scared of the lightning. His friend was scared, and he wanted help calming him down. I just said “No, if we die, we die.” The man nodded, but didn’t seem convinced. To soften my fatalistic response, I said that I feel more scared when I’m riding on the highways and the bus drivers are holding a corn on the cob in one hand and waving at oncoming traffic with the other. This version of my sass was more to their liking, as they laughed and nodded once more.
How ironic, I thought, that I was a solo woman comforting a group of grown men on a boat in the middle of a thunderstorm. Many people here don’t know how to kick, much less swim, in the water (even with life jackets on, as I discovered at the Apoyo Lagoon). I’d survived countless crashes in my inner tubing and water-skiing days, so I wasn’t intimidated. The rain poured over us, forcing the man in front of me to bring down the plastic screen to cover the boat’s sides. The driver stuck his head out into the rain in order to see. Radar? Please. There’s nothing like the sense of sight in a rainstorm!
Garbage and lightning aside, the ride was mystical. The scorched river had begged for the cool rain, and it puffed out plumes of vapor to show its relief. Suddenly, we sped right into a beautiful cloud of billions of orange flies. The mischievous flies sped alongside us, while others stayed put. Their mesmerizing mix of motion and stability transfixed me. All of a sudden, magical realism seemed more real than ever.
Two hours into the ride, we pulled into the first large town, Boca de Sáballos. A large, hulking man who looked like the actor Danny Trejo turned around and asked me where I was from. He wore a black jean jacket and white cowboy hat with a pink string tied around it. I explained that it was my first time in the area, and that I thought it was beautiful.
“Si te gusta ésto, te vas a enamorar del Castillo.”
“If you like this, you’re going to fall in love with El Castillo”
I felt safe with this man and his kind eyes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he looked like Machete.
After this jaw-dropping ride, my eyes widened further as a boat pulled up next to ours, and a woman jumped right onto it, as if she were stepping off the sidewalk. A man next to me couldn’t contain himself, waving his finger at me and shaking his head, as if to say: “That’s nothing. You’re definitely new around here. I’m just going to use gestures since you don’t speak Spanish.” The excitement the locals felt for me was endearing. I was excited that they were excited for me.
Dusk drew closer, and the sun turned bright pink as we sped away from it. This raging sunset was unlike any other I’d seen. The vertical streak of bright pink reflected on the huge river, only to be interrupted by the rocky rapids, logs, and palm trees in between us. Even though it’s a freshwater river, it smelled salty like the ocean it would lead into seven hours later. I couldn’t believe how lush the jungle was. This wasn’t the loud, deforested, and smoggy country I’ve lived in.
Around 6:30 PM, El Castillo’s twinkling lights welcomed us. El Castillo is named after its famous fortress, which was once run by the Spanish to protect Lake Nicaragua from pirates that would sneak in through the river’s Atlantic mouth. Instead of watching out for honking taxis, I quickly saved myself from stepping on the frogs. Just like their cousins did in Solentiname, they hopped all over the paths without the slightest fear of human feet or bicycle wheels. I couldn’t wait to see this place in the daytime. After all of this magic, I deeply questioned how much of García Marquez’s fictitious village, Macondo, was imagined after all.
Machete was right—as soon as I go to El Castillo, I fell in love with it. It was unlike any other town I’d seen here. In fact, it reminded me of the Germanic town of Leavenworth in northern Washington State. The rapids flanked the town’s left side, and cozy houses and hotels on stilts advertised their tours and restaurants with hand-carved, wooden signs.
I dropped off my things at the LGBT-friendly, family-owned Nena Lodge ($10 for a private room with a shared bathroom). It’s a basic resting place with creaky wooden floors. From the balcony, you could see the river while swaying in a hammock. You could also see people walking from both sides of the street, but they could also see you–and exactly which room you’re sleeping in.
Nena’s takes a lack of privacy to a new level. The rooms have open ceiling spaces characteristic of Nicaraguan homes that maximize airflow and minimize privacy. You can hear everything that goes on in the next rooms until you blast the fan. My bed had a much-needed mosquito net, a towel, and a fan. I was glad I’d brought my repellant.
The family that owned it was very sweet and quiet, showing me where I could go for dinner. Peace Corps volunteers implored me to try the veggie curry at Border’s Café, and they told me to keep walking to the right along the main path. I mentioned that Nena’s is LGBT-friendly because I found this out from the warm, determined, and incredibly resilient gay owner of Borders, Yamil, whose mere existence despite multiple assaults in this small town is a testament to human adversity. I’d meet him that night and hear his full story in the morning.
But first, I needed to rest. I couldn’t stop thinking about how surreal the boat ride was. This makes me think of Rushdie’s interpretation of the lines between fantasy and reality.
“When people use the term magic realism, usually they only mean ‘magic’ and they don’t hear ‘realism’, whereas the way in which magic realism actually works is for the magic to be rooted in the real. It’s both things. It’s not just a fairytale moment. It’s the surrealism that arises out of the real.”
Before visiting the San Juan River, I had only read about magical realism. Now, I had lived it, and El Castillo would grant me an otherworldly adventure.
Have you ever experienced a magical place before? Where was it?
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.