When considering where to book a Spanish home stay in Central America a couple of weeks back, I found myself really spoilt for choice, which is only a good thing when it comes to travel plans, I reckon.
I’d heard from friends and other backpackers, that Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were all great places to learn the language and stay with locals, but I couldn’t decide where to fly to.
To me, throwing myself into a stranger’s house to learn a language wasn’t a scary prospect, so that part would be the same, where-ever I chose to go. If it was going to be awkward, or isolating I was prepared for that to happen in any country.
But I love travelling local and I love travelling authentic so with the money and the fear factored out, I had to look at other elements to help me decide where I wanted to learn.
Viet Nam long held this wonderful allure for me; I backpacked around the country for three weeks in 2013 and more recently, I was invited on a trip in September 2016 with Topdeck Travel and was ecstatic to return. Travelling Viet Nam whilst black seems to be a bit of a concern for many travellers (there are quite a few negative experiences floating about online) but in the main part, I’ve loved my time there. There are a few little cultural nuances to be aware of if you’re planning a trip there as a black or brown person, however.
I’ve now been in Nicaragua for a week. I decided to leave the frenetic city of New York in favour of the slower pace of life on-the-go. That sounds ironic but New York really doesn’t sleep. Plus, I was lonely, it was getting fucking cold, I wasn’t making enough money to stay and realised: WAIT WHY PUT MYSELF THROUGH THIS? I can do freelance work online in place with a much lower cost of living.
For now at least, an office 9-5 just isn’t what I want to do. Nope. I want to explore, grow and work as I move about, building my own brand not someone elses’. So knowing that I (kind of) had enough contacts and freelance work from working in London and NYC, I thought I’d take that chance.
When it comes to searching online, loneliness whilst travelling isn’t too much of a hot topic. I suppose it’s because most travel bloggers and travel writers are paid to sell, sell, SELL that dream! And loneliness, (much like death) just doesn’t sell much at all unless you’re a (dead) creative genius.
Because who really wants to hear about the sad part of your vay-cay? It’s also kind of hard to feel sorry for someone who is sipping cocktails on the beach if you’re at home viewing their (seemingly perfect) holiday pictures from your work computer. Sympathy will be in short supply there, you can be sure.
I don’t want to moan. This isn’t a moany post. But it’s an honest one. Travelling solo can be the most isolating thing in the world. And if you’re not prepared to roll with the punches when it hits, loneliness can knock you out and send you home. For real.
Hoi An is an unbelievably atmospheric town. Dripping in culture and wrapped up in rice paper, a stop-off during a jaunt to Viet Nam is well worth it. Once a major shipping port, today Hoi An is today known for its meandering lantern-lit streets and its beguiling riverside restaurants (a beer in one of these costs just £0.75/$1).
Locals get around on long-boats which are often piled high with produce for the markets. Tourists flock to the area to empty their pockets in one of the town’s high quality shops, many of which offer tailor-made outfits for rock bottom prices (I got two dresses for £28/$37, yo). Add to the mix the colourful French-colonial buildings, Japanese pagodas and Chinese temples and you’ve got a cultural melting pot of Asian opulence that commands your attention at every turn.
Now I’ve lived in Brooklyn for five months, I know that any other area I move to will always pale in comparison. After my first week-long visit here in 2015, I just knew Brooklyn was where I had to live for a while. I’d never experienced city-FOMO before, but the area lingered in my mind long after I’d returned to London. And when it didn’t wear off, I decided to move here. Living in NYC as a Brit is practically impossible without bending a few visa rules which I’ll come clean about soon. But obviously…no regrets. The buzz in NYC’s most sought-after borough is unparalleled compared to everywhere else I’ve ever visited and there are countless distractions and things to do in Brooklyn. (Luckily most of them are free, though).
I’m not quite over my Central American experience. As in, I’m currently thirsting for more. I flew to Costa Rica from the States in August 2016 to do the whole digital nomad thing, which is basically combining travel and work, when your work is digital and can be done from laptop.
You know that awkward part of the day when you’re backpacking but you’ve hit a brick wall? You’ve been kayaking or cave-exploring or iguana-spotting but it’s not quite dinner time, so you can’t really justify going out for fish and chips, Mexican style. You want to start drinking, but you’re too hungover and sun-stroked from earlier, so you consider napping, only, there are 64 other people in your room, rummaging around in their lockers, making it sound like there’s a live steel drum band in your room. Defeated, you return to your hammock, feeling guilty for not doing more but also wondering: why the hell am I so tired?
Yeah, that part of the day, from around 4-8pm, I filled with working.
In 2015, I spent three months travelling Colombia and I actually would sell my soul to repeat the experience – it was that good. The country is incredibly underrated by tourists looking for the Latin vibe – most of them head to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina or Peru instead. But don’t sleep on Colombia – there’s so much beauty there. From the vibrant annual carnival in Barranquilla (in February) to the colourful, culture-soaked colonial wonders of the Caribbean coast with some of the whitest beaches I’ve ever seen (Palamino, Parque de Tayrona). Not to mention the crazy-good salsa skills that seem to possess every single Colombian person once they hit the dance-floor.
Colombia is stunningly diverse in culture and its people are often voted the happiest (and friendliest) in the world; there’s really not much to dislike.
But because of the country’s troubled history, there are more than a few misconceptions floating around. Backpackers visiting for the first time are concerned about their safety, how they’ll be received by locals and the level of violence in the country. And as minority woman, before I booked my flights last year, I was concerned about whether or not I’d feel at risk on my own.
I needn’t have worried; the country surpassed all my expectations. But based on my experience of travelling around Colombia as a solo brown gal, I’ve summarised my findings about all of that stuff below.
Is Colombia dangerous?
Criminal activity peaked during the drug wars of the 1970s and ’80s in Colombia, but the effects still reverberate through the existence of social and class divisions, rebel groups and the heavy military presence everywhere. Like any country, there are always going to be shady spots. Generally speaking, I felt more at risk walking around New York City at night than I did Medellin. Most of the time, Colombia felt very safe to me. Also, what most people don’t realise is that due to Colombia’s growing attraction as a backpacker haven, most popular spots are now gringo-proof. Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Santa Marta all have their risky areas, but chances are, unless you go looking for trouble, you’ll be treading familiar traveller ground.
The only times I felt on edge in three months was in Urriba (an area in the North with very little tourism) and the city of Cali. On the way to Cali, our bus passed a cartel shoot-out with police hours before it unfolded, and quite a few people were killed. And once we got into the city, it just felt shadier than other areas. Bogota too, has a high crime rate and you have to watch your back as a tourist – especially at night. Thefts were incredibly common in La Candalaria (the main backpacker area there) and I got my phone jacked from my pocket in the middle of the day. Boo.
How are tourists treated?
From my experience travelling Colombia, thee people are incredibly friendly and eager to learn more about the people visiting their country. The average monthly salary is below £1000 a month and most people have never left their native land, but are curious about tourists. Overall, the warmth and openness with which Colombians treated me has been incomparable, since I’ve travelled elsewhere. I remember trying to practice my Spanish in a small clothes shop in the tiny town of Amaga outside Medellin. The shop assistant spent 20 minutes chatting and trying to teach me how to roll my R’s (I still can’t do it). And the many welcome greetings In smaller towns such as this, you can’t walk down the street without being greeted with a friendly ‘buenos’ and a smile.
Are there black people in Colombia? How is travelling Colombia as a black person?
Colombia is super mixed; but tune into their telenovelas or watch their news channels and you wouldn’t think so. There’s only one dominant image of a Colombian woman after all: hour-glass figure, long dark hair and barely tanned in complexion. Although I never experienced any racism, darker-skinned travellers (men) sometimes told me they felt uneasy in certain areas. It’s strange because black women saturate Colombia, especially the Caribbean coast but there does seem to be an absence of dialogue on ghettoised areas (where most black people live in Medellin) and general racism.
Is Colombia Westernised?
Obviously that depends on what constitutes ‘Westernised’, for you. If your definition is based on availability of flushing toilets and clean water, then the country is extremely similar to Europe/the US. There’s clean water, clean streets and I didn’t poo in a hole once. On the other hand, I was pleasantly shocked at how little English was spoken throughout the country, even in the big cities. Colombia is the perfect spot to improve your Spanish skills and I was offered a job as an English teacher on more than one occasion. It was also hard to find clubs that didn’t play salsa, bachata or merengue. And one time I remember the kids in Medellin didn’t know who Beyonce was. Like how often does that happen?
Are there drugs everywhere in Colombia?
This is hard to answer objectively. Not least of all because I wrote this. Now, I think about the part I played in propagating the very media image Colombia is trying so hard to shake off and if I visited again, I’m not sure if I would repeat the article.
During my time in Colombia, I met countless tourists who were just there to party, dabble and get prostitutes. Drugs are readily available in Colombia, but you still have to seek them out somewhat and I don’t think I was ever offered anything in the street during my three months.
Is English widely spoken? Do I need Spanish?
No and yes. I was surprised that English isn’t really understood, or taught well in Colombia. Locals in Amaga, where I volunteered at a school, told me that Colombia is lacking competent English teachers. (I was offered work on more than one occasion and for anyone seeking an ESL position, I would advise simply turning up and asking around). Having basic Spanish will certainly make your life easier in Colombia; if anything, you’ll pay less for everything if you’ve mastered the art of haggling. Colombia is a great country to practice your language skills, but be warned; usually once a Colombian gets wind that you have even very basic Spanish, they’ll engage in a full-blown conversation and assume you’re fluent.
I am on sip number three of vodka lemonade number two, when he tilts his head and asks: what is it exactly, that I love so much about New York City? And I have so much to say, but no real way of explaining myself without sounding crazy. Not in this small, dark bar, that’s made for even smaller talk with strangers, anyway.
What I want to say, is that I like how the air hangs low and heavy with noises that I didn’t even know existed before I came here; sounds so loud they cut through my headphones. Sounds so surreal I want to slice them up and ship them off to my friends and family back home, so they know just what I mean when I say:
New York City is just so noisy.
I’d play them the almighty roar of fire-truck engines in the evening. And the slow, steely yawn of the heavy doors that guard the city’s biggest buildings. I’d let them hear the bump-and-rattle of the laundry carts on the side-walk, groaning under the weight of somebody’s clothes in summer. And the determined thwack of a snow shovel, slicing through the ice in winter. I’d explain that yes, NYC hums the same late-night lullaby for everyone; sirens and shouting, bachata and rap. But that when I listen closely, I’m certain it’s conducting a special symphony, just for me, above the din.