The New Latina Guide to a Fabulous 2011 Year! is a collection of insights and tips from a group of talented Latinas (and one Latino) on how to live life to the fullest. Today, we feature Dharma E. Cortés’ piece, on traveling on your own. To download the free New Latina Guide, click here.
Don’t you sometimes get tired of being with yourself? I do. That is one of the reasons why I travel: to take a break from myself, to forget about myself, to disconnect from myself, to become someone else, to be no one else, to experience “the other” instead of being “the other” (who I happened to be—strangely enough— as a Latina living in the United States). Ironically, the best way I achieve this “forgetting about myself” state of mind is traveling sola.
To me, traveling is suspended, preternatural, unreal time. The moment I board the plane I enter a pod that will deposit me in either a strange or familiar place. Once on the plane, there is no place to go, I have to stay put and wait for that door to open and see what’s on the other side.
Great Wall, Beijing, China
In those rare instances in which my plane lands on the runway, my senses start to work full gear immediately upon arrival. What do I smell when the door opens? How does the air feel: cold, warm, humid, dry? Is it dark, bright? What are those sounds? In the Caribbean, I have smelled the ocean breeze; in India, burned wood combined with diesel and many other unfamiliar smells. When I arrive in Puerto Rico, regardless of the time of the year, it is always warm, and my hair immediately reacts to the humid air. Arriving in Morocco, walking through the runway, the sun burned my eyes as it shone through tall palm trees. The United States and Japan are always quiet whereas places like China and Vietnam are loud and animated. Descending from the plane into the runway in Siem Reap, Cambodia all my senses signaled my brain that I have landed in tropical land.
I have traveled to more than 30 countries, and to all but six states in the United States. I was bitten by the travel bug at age thirteen when my father’s six-week stint in Brussels offered the whole family the opportunity to join him. My brother and I traveled from Puerto Rico to Brussels via Madrid, with a very apprehensive mother who had never traveled abroad and fearful of planes. Looking back, I venture to say that she was very brave. From Brussels, we took a train to Amsterdam, then flew to Paris and from there to Madrid. I remember looking down the Gran Vía in Madrid from my hotel room’s window and seeing a sea of people walking across the street when the traffic light changed. It was the first time I witnessed life in a big cosmopolitan city and was immediately captured by its allure.
Rice field, Tamil Nadu, India
Jizos (honoring unborn children), Kamakura, Japan
Ever since that first trip to Europe, traveling has offered me the opportunity to witness how the world is lived differently in different parts of planet Earth, rather than how people in other parts of the world live differently compared to me. I favor traveling to seemingly chaotic, crowded, noisy cities and places in the world. I must admit that when I travel to these places poverty, chaos, dirt, noises unknowingly disappear from my view while people and life lived differently and my “self” become one. More recently, my inclination for photography has added another dimension to the experience of traveling. The camera is the medium through which I take in what is in front of me. Through its lens I see colors, light, faces, and details that otherwise may go unnoticed. Proof of this is hearing Rodolfo, my husband, say “I did not see that,” as we look at the photographs I have taken during those infrequent instances in which he has accepted my invitation to travel with me.
Motherly love, Tamil Nadu, India
The camera provides opportunities to connect with local people. When I show interest in capturing their taken-for-granted surroundings, their inquisitive “why are you taking a photograph of that” kind of faces say it all and offer opportunities to start a conversation even when we do not speak the same language. When they either allow me to take photographs of them or ask me to do that, it offers even greater opportunities to connect. Thanks to the magic of digital cameras, I show them their images right there which I usually send via snail mail or email once I get home.
During my travels sola, or when I travel with Roger (my fellow photographer and best travel buddy in the world), many women I meet ask the same questions: what’s your name? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? If I am with Roger, they usually ask if he is my husband. When I tell them that he is not, that I left my husband home taking care of our dog Frida, they usually laugh nervously thinking that I am lying, which I am not. Many times, these conversations have led to spur-of-the-moment invitations to their homes that I have accepted, but every time I say goodbye to them I am reminded that chances are I won’t see them ever again. When I travel, I like to do it economically, modestly, and with a generous and respectful attitude. I am lucky to manage my own work schedule and that gives me flexibility to travel when airfares are low.
Once abroad, I respect local etiquette, do not wear flashy clothes or jewelry, and usually give away my shoes, most of my clothes, toiletries, pens, pencils, and any other items I carry that catch the attention of children, young men, and women I have met during my trips.
Merzouga, Morocco (I am the one sitting on the very last camel! I took that photo)
Tamil Nadu, India
Although this account may seem a romantic idea of travel, it is rather the result of well-thought planning, the key to most enjoyable travel experiences. Planning a trip involves sketching realistic itineraries, setting up a budget, booking flights and hotels, checking the weather, knowing whether is better to bring cash or use credit cards, as well as applying for visas, and getting inoculations depending where you go, among many other tasks.
Machu Picchu, Perú
Once you arrive to your destination there are other things to keep in mind. You want to feel and be safe. So, ask yourself if it is OK to ride on a motorbike in New Delhi, for example. Is it safe to walk alone at night? Can I drink tap water? Should I befriend strangers as I travel sola? Is it safe to eat raw vegetables and fruits that I do not peel myself? These and other precautions will keep malos ratos at bay while away from home.
Atrévete, travel sola. The unfamiliar surroundings, a journal, a camera, a mini laptop will be your quiet and best travel companions ever.
Dharma E. Cortés, Ph.D., a native of Puerto Rico, is a public health researcher with multidisciplinary training in psychology, sociology, and medical anthropology. She has been conducting community-based research with Latinos in the United States for more than twenty years. Her work has focused on the study of culture, acculturation, mental and physical health, health literacy, and health and mental health service utilization research.
Dharma moved to the United States from her native Puerto Rico more than 25 years ago. She loves to travel, art and photography. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and Frida Flor del Rosario, their locally rescued Puerto Rican mini-dachsund with a hint of sato pedigree. At home, they communicate in español.
All photos by author