On Leaving

April 30, 2016

Yesterday, after packing up all my things and moving them out of my spacious upstairs bedroom at the residence of 46 McClellan Street, I paused at the door and looked back at my now empty room. I stood there, observing this room for the last time, reflecting and remembering, gathering up my memories from that house over the last 2-3 years, where they were stashed in dusty corners or forgotten under piles of books. In that moment, I wanted to remember what I forgot, and to again appreciate what I took for granted. I took with me my treasured memories from that house, and what I left behind were cards for all of my adoring, lovely, wonderful roommates and a hand-written sign on the kitchen door that read, “I ❤ you all so much.”

It’s a time of transition. I moved out of my house in preparation for my 6-month long backpacking trip through Central and South America, which starts tomorrow(!!). The next six months (and beyond) feel like a vast, expansive wasteland of the unknown. It’s not really a wasteland, I know. It’s one that will be full of adventure, spontaneity, new experiences, different people, challenging moments. I will be forced to grow in ways I haven’t yet fathomed. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t yet know everything that I will do. But I do know that the last month has been very weird for me. Especially in the past week, things have slowed down, seeming like a dream. I am leaving tomorrow to go backpacking, but the whole idea seems surreal. I already bought my plane ticket. My bag is (mostly) packed. I’ve moved out of my house in Amherst. My last day of work was Thursday. All of these things have happened, and yet my mind is in denial mode. It’s not really happening, is it?

My nerves have overcome me. Over the last month, when friends and family have asked me, “So are you super excited to leave soon?!” internally I squealed. Yes, of course I’m excited, but the nerves, and the total state of groundlessness that I’m about to throw myself into, is overwhelming. I will have no real security, support, or place of comfort. I will find and build those things along the way, with new people that I meet, but damn, that’s scary. It is an exhilarating experience, which is why I’m pushing myself to do it. I live for those moments of fear and uncertainty, because with those moments come new experiences, fresh perspectives, personal growth. I live for that shit! The adrenaline gets me.

When I first started telling people about my trip back in the fall, and whenever I’ve talked about it since, I receive one of two responses, unfailingly, every time I talk about it with someone new. Either the person is overly ecstatic and excited and impressed by my bravery, or they are fearful, nervous, and unconvinced of my confidence (one person actually laughed in my face when I told her I was going alone). I want to talk about this second group for a minute, because these reactions, though expected, have bothered me quite a bit.

There are some layers I need to dissect here. Part of the reason I get this second response is because of where I will be traveling – through Central and South America. To countries with brown people. To places that are considered “third-world” or “underdeveloped.” To destinations that many white Americans generally associate with kidnappings, murderers, rapists, robberies, drug lords, and corruption, based on the few news stories their media has told them about one or two specific instances in one or two of those countries. And, I would also argue, these assumptions are largely formed around (unconscious) racist ideologies in which white people fear black and brown people, not ones founded from actual lived experience. I’ve noticed in these conversations that most or all of the countries in Latin America get grouped into one negative stereotype or experience, and then projected onto me so that I am “aware” of what I’m getting myself into. As if all Latin American countries (and all regions within them) are the same. As if the giant amorphous blob that is perceived to be Latin America has nothing of value to offer. These interactions feel very racist to me, and also feel really condescending. As if I haven’t already thought a lot about what I’m about to do. As if my last several months researching and planning my trip wasn’t enough. As if I should have only one narrow view of the world based on a few examples shown in the media, rather than having an open mind about the people and places I’m about to visit.

I am not only traveling to places assumed to be inherently dangerous, but I am a woman traveling to these places, which means talking about my trip can be even more frustrating. Because some people assume I am not strong enough or smart enough to protect myself and make good decisions. They assume that I am naive, that they need to tell me random negative facts about no real place in particular because they think I’m not conscious or aware of where I am going. And I get that underlying this need to tell me to be careful and to watch out for this or that is really just a concern for my well-being and their way of trying to help. I get it. But I know for a fact if I was traveling to Europe, I would get very different responses. Folks would be less racist. They would assume that I would be safe. They would be comfortable with my destination of choice. They would focus on the fun of my trip, rather than dampen my spirits by focusing on the negative. And if I were a man, I would also get very different responses. People would express more confidence in my capabilities. People would automatically assume that I know what I’m doing. They wouldn’t tell me to be careful, or ask me how I’m going to protect myself. And all that really bothers me – it’s just kind of shitty to make unfounded assumptions like that, because it not only undermines all of the effort that I’ve put into planning for my trip, but it also discounts entire nations of people whose histories go mostly unrecognized by the Western world.

A frequent question I receive from this group of people who don’t really believe in what I’m doing, is “So..why did you decide to go there?” in a way that clearly demonstrates through their tone and the look in their eyes that they think I’m bonkers. A look that says there are certain travel destinations in the world that should be prioritized over others, and the ones I picked shouldn’t be on my list, least of all if I’m traveling alone. Why would I ever want to go to Guatemala, for example? What is even there, besides poverty and crime? Well, there is some amazing natural beauty and also ancient Mayan ruins, just to name a couple! There are cities I want to see, and volcanoes to climb, and cultures to learn about. And I want to speak Spanish! What better place to do that then an entire region of countries that all speak the language I want to learn! Wow, so convenient. And guess what, Guatemala is cheap – and guess what else, I’m on a limited budget.

There are so many amazing things that both locals and travelers have done in Latin America, so many incredible sights and experiences and things to learn about that the mainstream media never mentions. There is so much good, so much possibility, and yet so many folks I’ve talked to seem only to see one thing when I tell them where I am going, and that is danger. Of course there may be some danger. I’m not denying that. But, I also believe that most people in the world want to do good, and want to help others. And I also think that if I use my brain, stay aware of my surroundings, educate myself about the places I am visiting and show respect for the people that live there, I will probably be just fine.

These encounters were pretty exhausting, made me second-guess my decision, and just all around made me feel kinda shitty. I also want to say that the conversations I highlighted above were not the majority. There were a lot of people who were even more excited than me, sometimes rejuvenating me in my most nerve-wrecking moments. Many folks have expressed their confidence in me and their happiness with my decision to go backpacking solo. And all of those people were so so helpful. I’m eternally greatful for their support and encouragement. And as for the former, I will take their words with a grain of salt because I refuse to let fear of the unknown or fear of danger dampen my adventurous spirit. I refuse to let other people’s racist assumptions inhibit my urge to travel. And I’m certainly not going to listen to anyone who thinks that because I’m a woman, I’m less capable of taking risks, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and exploring foreign places due to the threat of danger. Everywhere in the world women are taught to be fearful, including the United States. I ain’t about that life! With that being said, I’m also going to keep my guard up – but I’ll be doing so with an open mind, a curious heart, and a lust for new life experiences. 

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