The stereotypical female traveller

During my travels around Mexico and Guatemala I’ve seen a surprisingly large amount of female travellers either in small groups or alone, which is something I’m proud and grateful to see as a solo female traveller myself.

One thing I’ve come to notice on my travels is that people tend to have a very stereotypical image of the ‘female traveller’. Think young hippy with dreads, tattoos, piercings, and no make-up, probably smoking a joint. Having just written that, I’m clearly guilty of paying too much attention to the stereotypes. However, it’s made me realise that this image of the traveller doesn’t quite exist anymore. (Whether it fully existed in the first place.) Any version of the female traveller stereotype shouldn’t exist any longer, as it only fuels the general stereotype of how a woman should appear to society.

There is this concept that as a traveller, whether male or female, you completely lose all sense of cleanliness and hygiene, not showering for a few days, wearing the same dirty clothes all week, and using the excuse that you’re on your gap year. The idea is stressed more within women who are supposed to look neat and prim and make more of an effort with their appearance, so gender norms tell us.

As I was sat outside my homestay this morning painting my nails with a strengthening polish – my nails are so brittle due to the chlorine in the tap water here – I received some pretty judgemental comments with the energy being that as I’m staying in San José, a small, rural fishing village, and as a traveller wanting to learn more about the community, I’m not supposed to take a little pride in my appearance. (Honestly, you should see my nails, they are nothing to be proud of anyway.)

I’m guilty of looking at some obvious travellers and judging them slightly in that they’re so well dressed, their makeup is perfect, and they generally look like they’ve got their shit together. I just assume that they’re in their first few days of their trip. Maybe they look at me and assume correctly, that I’m near the end of my travels, or judge me as the stereotypical female traveller, or don’t judge at all.

I do live up to some of the female traveller stereotypes in that I have tattoos and piercings, can’t remember the last time I wore makeup (not that I wear much anyway), and only this morning realised that I hadn’t shaved my legs for about four days.

But what does that matter? Whether I’m here travelling or back home at uni, I’m pretty much the same. I decide whether or not I want to go through the slight pain of threading my face, or whether I would rather spend an extra five minutes in bed than put makeup on. I shouldn’t be made to feel bad for doing these things, or not, either when I’m travelling or when I’m back home. It’s my time, my body, and my image. No one else’s.

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Life without electricity, a stable job or education

For the past week I’ve been staying with a Mayan family in the small fishing village of San José on El Lago Petén Itzá in El Petén. Doris, Samuel and their two boys, Fredi and Rene, are part of La Danta Project, a very new, still patchy programme run by a gringo who provides travellers like me the chance to learn about the Mayan community whilst giving back to the families who are living in minor poverty. The family have welcomed me with open arms and the experience has been enriching for both parties in numerous ways.

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Doris (27) has always lived without electricity, so not financially having the option to pay a monthly cost for electricity hasn’t been a problem. She was brought up to use the sun as a natural clock, meaning days here for the family are pushed forward in comparison to what we as Westeners are used to. The cockerels in their garden start screaming at around 4AM, about the time that Doris wakes up to start making tortillas (using a comal and a proper wood fire) for her husband to take to work. Samuel’s job at a finca isn’t stable. His job depends on the season and his boss who doesn’t always require his skills. Therefore, financial security within the family is virtually unheard of.

To stay with the family, La Danta requires that we pay our host families 20 quetzales (Q) for the night and 15Q per meal, so in a day that adds up to 65Q (around £6). While they receive this money – extremely humbly I might add – I’m lucky enough to see how this family lives on a daily basis. Helping Doris in the kitchen making tortillas, playing with the tiny kittens and the two boys, and learning about the array of fresh produce they proudly grow in their garden from chaya to papayas. Doris and I have exchanged a lot of stories, her curiosity leading me to reminisce about life in Mexico and back home. I’ve heard about her childhood, her lack of education due to a drunk, abusive teacher which led her to quit at a very young age, her falling off the wagon slightly but then finding God again, the struggles of not knowing if you’ll have enough money to buy the week’s groceries, and her determination to progress and succeed in a free adult education course run by the Guatemalan government. (Whenever she speaks about her studies or tells me something new she has learnt and put into practice, her face lights up. It’s wonderful.)

Doris kindly invited me to church one evening and the morning after I was sat with the sisters helping them make tamales which they then sold to people around the town. Unfortunately they’d used chicken so I didn’t get a taste, but dios mio they smelt great. The money they’ve raised selling these fluffy parcels of corn dough will go towards reconstructing the church which is currently a set of benches outside under a corrugated roof. Her belief in God is strong and enlightening. Even though I don’t consider myself religious, nor believe in the Christian concept of God, the thought of having a symbol there to guide you, to make a path for you and help you in your struggles seems kinda nice. When she fell ill a few times she restrained against medicine and let God do the work, so to speak. She strongly believes that God decides your fate, and you have to let Him do so, and not curb the path.

My time with Doris and her family has given me a lot of food for thought. Sustainability, family, education, religion and spirituality have been on my mind and they’re aspects of my life that I’m going to pay more attention to, respect more, and educate myself about.

 

 

Travelling troubles

Travelling is taking its toll on my health. I knew this would happen now just like it did over my Christmas but I’m feeling it a lot more this time with regard to eating habits, achy body, fatigue and a feeling of not being very rooted. That last point is a given with regard to travelling and I’ve always liked that initial feeling of being a stranger exploring a new city, but when you’re coming up to your 13th place in the space of six weeks it becomes a little tiring.

I’m currently in Flores in Guatemala and now on my own as my brother has to go back to London for work. This stop-over wasn’t planned. A night before my trip here of two shuttle buses (five hours in total) and a coach (eight hours) I violently threw up what was actually a really lovely last dinner with my brother. It wasn’t pleasant. Lucky for the other nine people in our hostel room, I spared them the horror of waking up to my barfing by walking down to another bathroom. As you can imagine, with a sensitive stomach like that I was dreading the bus journeys I’d booked for the following day. The initial plan was to arrive here at 6AM and get a chicken bus straight away to San José on the other side of the island to begin my one-month stay with La Danta Project. So instead I checked into a hostel and splashed out a little bit to have my own room and bathroom. Definitely a good idea.

I know exactly why I threw up that night. I ate far too much and the pizza had a couple of really rich cheeses on it that my body completely rejected. As I’m transitioning to veganism, I’m not drinking cow’s milk and have really cut down on all other dairy products, especially cheese. For these reasons, I have a strong feeling that my body just isn’t used to digesting these foods anymore. Again, overeating and hating seeing food go to waste has been my enemy. I’m working on it.

Secondly, my body feels knackered. Bus journeys up winding roads with awful bumps really puts a strain on your body, messing with your posture, giving you awful neck and back pain, and generally not letting your body rest. Back in Colima in my last couple of months there I started a pretty decent routine of yoga, stretches and skipping every morning, and I honestly felt so good when I’d finished. Beginning the day in a productive way like that really helped me during the end of my stay there. But staying in hostels and not getting up at the same time every day has messed up my exercise and chill-out routine meaning I’ve only done a couple of yoga poses while I’ve been sharing rooms in hostels.

When I get to San José tomorrow I’ll be there for just under a month, hopefully being able to stay in the one accommodation set-up rather than move around. It’ll be nice to stay in the same place for a longer period of time, getting to know one area really well, and integrating with the community (mainly Mayan and Spanish-speaking).

London for a month will see me being quite busy catching up with friends and family, hopefully getting some shifts at my old waitressing job, and getting things ready for final year. So although I’m looking forward to that, I’m probably more looking forward to settling in to final year in Southampton where I’ll be rooted for longer and in a proper routine, and will hopefully be able to work hard and well enough to graduate with good marks.

Solidarity and political energy in Chiapas

During a 14-hour coach journey from Mérida (Yucatán) to San Cristóbal de Las Casas (Chiapas), our driver failed to warn us that we would not be entering the city but would instead be left at Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. It was only when I inquired as to why it was taking so long that he told us we would have to follow further instructions in Tuxtla to get to our final destination. The reason for all the faff and confusion was the number of blockades on major motorways used as a sign of protest by teachers in the southern states of Mexico.

On 19th June six people were killed during violent clashes between the police and protesters rallying against education reform and colleagues’ arrests. Two of these people had ties to the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE). Since then, unionised teachers have blockaded streets, a shopping centre and even train tracks in the western state of Michoacán. They have also forced some bus lines to cancel trips to Oaxaca and blocked a highway. In Oaxaca City, protesting teachers have set up an encampment in the city’s main square. (More info here.)

This whole uprising began in Oaxaca to bring light to the injustice and violence brought about by a corrupt government and the police service. But solidarity has spread all over Mexico, including Chiapas, its neighbouring state. So as we were making our way into the state of Chiapas, we had to walk through some of these new blockades, organised by other teachers and unions.

With our backpacks we walked through people camping with their families, men and women selling food to the protesters making sure they knew they were being supported, and taxi and combi drivers helping people like us get to our destinations. I only had a chance to speak to one teacher to see if she could help us, thanked her for her instructions and wished her good luck. I should have stopped to talk to some of the other teachers in more depth to get a real opinion about what’s going on. It’s hard to find proper facts and opinions about political occurrences in Mexico due to the country’s corruption.

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After 20 hours of travelling we eventually made it into San Cristóbal with very little problem. As we were walking around the city centre, one I had fallen in love with during my Christmas travels,  it was obvious that the population were yet again displeased, angered and losing faith in its country’s institutions. Political graffiti is sprawled across parts of the centre, declaring “todo el mundo odia la policía”.  I also came across a market vendor selling products like bags and t-shirts spreading revolutionary political messages, and projected onto the exterior wall of the city’s main cathedral were videos showing footage of the protests and blockades with information about the educational reforms.

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With all that has happened in Oaxaca, it’s definitely not the best time to be going into the state. One fellow traveller we met was trying to get into Oaxaca on his motorbike but has been spending the last couple of days trying to find an open gas station as the majority are out of use due to lack of fuel deliveries as a result of the blockades.

Everything seems okay in Chiapas; just a lot of political energy. We may have a little trouble getting into Guatemala on Saturday if we come across any blockades, but we should arrive safe and sound.