The Evolution of Love. Spark. Fire.

Without a clear intent or purpose, I found myself in Central America with a bag bursting with beautiful, intricate, bold jewelry I’d collected, this time around, from three countries. I loved speaking with the vendors, hearing their stories and watching the care they took in making their crafts. I was amazed at the art people could make out of natural materials, like coconut, seeds, hemp, and local gems.

Recoleta Market by Chris Edmonds

Open-air markets, like the renowned Recoleta in Buenos Aires, are what first inspired me to collect jewelry

And then, as I walked down the corridor of the international airport in Panama, it hit me. I would import these wearable works of art from Latin America to the US for two reasons. Firstly, it would allow people who were not able to travel to have access to the unique jewelry I had discovered on the road. Secondly, it would allow me to forge closer bonds with people in Latin America, and also give me an excuse to return more frequently to my most-loved region in the world.

The creation of Love. Spark. Fire. Jewelry was my first entrepreneurial endeavor, and, having sworn never to start my own business, my own fervor surprised me. I carefully chose these three words to signify the following:

LOVE: The connection of all beings through nature; compassion and acceptance for what you know and have yet to learn.

SPARK: Inspiration and enlightenment; a beautiful, serendipitous moment in life.

FIRE: An inner light that resides within us all; the will to reach our own individual potential and make each day unique.

I poured countless hours each day into starting a website, photographing each of the pieces, reaching out to potential clients, and individually wrapping each piece with care to whomever made a purchase.

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Getting a traditional Panamanean bracelet woven in La Ciudad Perdida

There was nothing better than seeing the marvel on people’s faces when they first saw the crafts that others had made by hand in different parts of the world. Or the excited smiles on people’s faces when they unwrapped their gifts- gifts that were possible not only because of artisans’ hard work, but also because I had traveled to a destination they may not have known, carefully choosing designs, patterns, and shapes that the U.S. had yet to see. Pieces of the utmost quality whose mere existence told a story.

At the time, I was living in San Diego, getting my Master’s in Latin American Studies. A close, creative, hairstylist friend of mine (and also responsible for the kick-ass, colorful hair I had in that epoch) suggested that I start selling my jewelry at a local bar known for its up-and-coming bands. Shortly thereafter, after drawing a hideous, Costco-size sign to draw attention, I began forging bonds, telling and listening to travel tales, and bringing in a generous amount of sales. Not a bad gig, especially due to the perks of sipping on whiskey and cokes and listening to raw Rock n’ Roll on the job.

selling jewelry

Selling jewelry at one of my favorite bars in San Diego

Soon enough, I was showing my jewelry collection at fairs, parties, and class gatherings. It was much, much more than about shopping- or, in my case, selling merchandise. It was about crossing boundaries, bringing cultural understanding from one place to another through works of art and past travels, and mainly human connection. It’s kind of beautiful how a material object can transcend into something much more important when shared.

Through this entrepreneurial effort, I reaped many more benefits than being able to save up to go on more trips throughout Latin America– though this was undeniably a feat in and of itself. I was able to receive and give joy on many levels, with many people, and for that I am forever grateful. I learned how many earn an arduous, yet precarious living, and also what obstacles and fears hold others back from travel. I delved back into that artistic part of me that I had forgotten, and realized an industrious part of myself that I hadn’t yet known. I began to make my own jewelry. I started to recognize the cojones of having one’s own business. It was an enriching, invaluable adventure that I will continue to carry with me throughout my years, no matter where my feet rest.

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Serendipitous Christmas Party Shopping

But every epoch has its end, every warranty has its expiry date. After attending this year’s Travel Writers and Photographers Conference at Book Passage, many things have become clear. I know what my direction is, and the focus that begs my attention. It’s been a beautiful run, and creating Love. Spark. Fire. Jewelry brought me so many unforgettable experiences and profound relationships that otherwise would have been nearly impossible. Nonetheless, it’s time to move on. My travel writing begs me like never before, and, for the life of me, I must obey its howl.

With that, so many gorgeous artisanal works from Latin America and beyond still surround me, searching for a home. As every day passes, they grow in their magical candor, beauty, and ability to transport one throughout physical space and time. They are sacred treasures to me, but they must be released into the world in order for me to embrace the next phase of my life. A phase in which I focus on something that has been welling, bubbling, surging within me for years: writing my first travel memoir. Now more than ever, I know that I must dedicate my time and energy to completing this ode to travel, Latin America, the craziness of life, and ultimately who I have become.

Flash Sale

From now until these pieces of art each find a home, I am offering an indefinite sale of buying one item, getting another (for equal or lesser value) for free. This includes all jewelry, jewelry boxes, purses, and so on. If you spend more than $100 USD, I will ship to you for free- no matter where in the world you reside. Please refer to my Facebook page for more information, and let me know if you have any questions.

The next chapter beckons!

Reykjavik’s Ubiquitous Street Art

Street art. While some people see it as defacing public property, I beg to differ. Street art is a massive statement of the city’s people, not only claiming the city as their own, but adding their own personal or social experience to the place’s visual appearance.

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When I was studying Latin American Art History in graduate school, I unexpectedly fell in love with street art. I learned about the struggles of the people and how muralism spread throughout the region in the 1920s as artists, such as Diego Rivera, portrayed the everyday difficulties people in his community endured. At this time, the way that I traveled morphed. Not only was I more interested in the politics and history behind each country, each city, and each municipality I visited, I actively sought out street art while exploring. During this time, I found the beauty of graffiti, street art, and everything in between in the streets of Sao Paulo, Managua, Panama City, and many other places. This practice has stuck with me through the years as I’ve entered different continents and gotten to know a variety of cultures.

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Upon first arriving in Reykjavik this winter, jet lagged, blurry eyed, and bundled up, I was taken aback with the amount of street art the city boasted. It seemed that everywhere I turned, my eyes were met with bright colors and funky designs. There were unnameable monsters, surreal elephants, whimsical birds, words I didn’t quite understand, people in strange suits, and so much more for my eyes to absorb. Art was everywhere. It didn’t matter if the medium was a person’s house, a public building, a construction site, a café, or a store- it was covered.

Bird house

Polar BearsCafe Babalu

But for the world’s most peaceful country- and a city where I undoubtedly felt safer than I had ever been- I couldn’t understand what propelled the ubiquitous street art. People here have it so good, I thought. Unemployment is crazy low. People leave their babies to nap in their strollers outside of coffee shops while they leisurely sip on a cup of joe. From what I saw, there wasn’t really any amount of oppression or exploitation going on. So, why all of the street art?

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Dracula

PArking lot art

My personal opinion, after staying five weeks in the northern-most capital of the world, is that Icelanders are just very expressive people. They might not have the crime that other countries experience, but that is not to say that they don’t deal with their own hardships. While the landscape throughout the country is otherworldly, it is this way because nature is so harsh. For practically half of the year, the sun doesn’t come out but a mere few hours a day, rain, snow, hail, and face-numbing cold make outdoor work nearly unbearable- and aside from tourism, most people make a living fishing or farming. But even for those who stay indoors, having to deal with constant darkness as well as a society that is changing all too quickly due to unprecedented amounts of tourism, life isn’t always easy living on a distant island.

Mushrooms- Houses

Zapatista house

I decided that I would stop trying to pin a sociopolitical program onto Reykjavik’s vast, intricate street art and simply enjoy it for what it was. After all, Icelanders are crafty beings who are constantly expressing themselves through various mediums of art. Perhaps street art is just a widely accepted practice, another beautiful hobby, and that’s it. As long as it exists, that’s reason enough for me.

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If you’re heading to Reykjavik soon, I’d highly recommend staying at The Loft, a centrally-located boutique hostel with all of the amenities. It even has an upstairs bar, where they regularly host live music.

Tuesday Twitter Chat: Mexico

Today’s twitter chat was a blast! After all, it is Tuesday, and that’s the best time to talk about travel, right? I was approached by CheapOair a few weeks ago in regard to being a guest on their Tuesday Twitter Chat. I have participated in plenty of twitter chats, but this was my first time being the featured expert. As I am a fan of the website, and have used it in the past to book international flights, I didn’t hesitate to jump on board.

The best thing of all? The topic was Mexico. I have been to Mexico several times for vacation, as part of my Master’s program, to visit family, for my brother’s wedding, chasing love, and (my favorite) to backpack on a solo trip to countless gorgeous cities and ruins. Half of my heritage comes from Mexico, so with good reason, the country is dear to my heart. With these experiences, I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my knowledge of different areas with those who joined the chat. It was quite a success! I was able to connect with several new travelers, hear their ideas, and even get my ego stroked a bit: “You know so much about Mexico!” one tweeter said. That definitely made me happy. Not only that, I was able to support an airfare website that has allowed me- and countless other budget travelers- the opportunity to get to my destination without breaking the piggy bank.

If you missed out on the chat, here is a recap of what the conversation looked like (handles and hashtags included!):

1. @CheapOair: What are some travel essentials for a trip to #Mexico? #CheapOairChat

Chronicles of a Travel addict (aka @TravelChronicle): Travel essentials for #Mexico: Swimwear, sunscreen, @Teva sandals, @SteriPEN, camera, warms layers and a HUGE appetite! #CheapOairChat

2. @CheapOair: What’s #MexicoCity’s number one must-see attraction? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: There’s PLENTY to do in #DF, but you can’t miss the nearby @UNESCO site: #Teotihuacan and its Pre-Colombian #pyramids! #CheapOairChat

Teotihuacan, just a short drive from Mexico City

Teotihuacan, just a short drive from Mexico City

3. @CheapOair: What’s your favorite adventure travel activity to do in #Mexico? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: #Adventure abounds in #Mexico. There’s rock climbing, snorkeling & #tequila tasting, but my fave so far is #parasailing! #CheapOairChat

4. @CheapOair: What are some good locations for photographers to visit in #Zacatecas, #Mexico? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: In #Zacatecas, #photographers should go to: Cerro La Bufa for panoramic city views, Rafael Coronel Museum & La Quemada. #CheapOairChat

La Toma de Zacatecas Museum, which holds remnants of the Mexican Revolution, and honors key figures like Pancho Villa. View from La Bufa.

La Toma de Zacatecas Museum, which holds remnants of the Mexican Revolution, and honors key figures like Pancho Villa. View from La Bufa.

5. @CheapOair: When’s the best time to visit #Guanajuato, #Mexico, events-wise? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: Renowned for its @cervantino #festival, #Guanajuato gathers world #travelers each October to celebrate #DonQuixote. #CheapOairChat

Statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Guanajuato. Every October, travelers all over the world gather here to celebrate Cervantes.

Statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Guanajuato. Every October, travelers all over the world gather here to celebrate Cervantes.

6.  @CheapOair: What spots in #Cancun, #Mexico you would recommend to tourists? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: While staying in gorgeous #Cancun, don’t miss #Tulum, nearby #IslaMujeres, #Xcaret, and the world wonder, #ChichenItza! #CheapOairChat

7. @CheapOair: Other than #Cancun, where are #Mexico’s best beaches? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: If you’re not into touristy #beach towns, head to #Zihuatanejo, #Guayabitos, or #BahiaConcepcion. ALWAYS ask the locals! #CheapOairChat

View of the beachscape in Zihuatanejo.

View of the beachscape in Zihuatanejo.

8. @CheapOair: What’s your favorite thing about #Puebla, #Mexico? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: My #Puebla faves: #azulejos (blue tiles) used in architecture, handmade #art, markets, and #dulces (sweets). #Mexico #CheapOairChat

Fountain in Puebla, demonstrating one of the many ways azulejos are used in architecture.

Fountain in Puebla, demonstrating one of the many ways azulejos are used in architecture.

9. @CheapOair: Which accommodations would you recommend for a stay in #Queretaro, #Mexico? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: In #Queretaro, I’d recommend staying at #BlueBicycleHostel for those on a #budget & @GranHotelQro for a bit of #luxury. #CheapOairChat

10. @CheapOair: Last but not least, how would you describe #Mexico in one word? #CheapOairChat

@TravelChronicle: I connect with #Mexico on so many levels- family, friends, art, food, nature & vibrant culture. The word would be #home. #CheapOairChat

Me, sitting happily at the Casa Azul in Coyoacan. This was Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's house!

Me, sitting happily at the Casa Azul in Coyoacan. This was Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house!

@CheapOair: That wraps this week’s #CheapOairChat! A big thanks to @TravelChronicle for being our guest! Join us next Tues. at 1 PM EST for another!

@TravelChronicle: Thank you to @CheapOair for having me! It was a pleasure, and I hope you all visit #Mexico soon!

If you are looking to buy a flight, and are a budget traveler like me, I highly recommend checking out CheapOair. If you want to participate in their next Tuesday Twitter Chat, just look up the hashtag “CheapOairChat.” Thanks to everyone who participated!

What do you think? What is your favorite city in Mexico? Is there anything you would add to my answers? (Being limited to 140 characters had its challenges!) What does Mexico mean to you? I’d love to hear your input!

Five Places Where I’ve Left My Heart- and Must Return

The more I travel, the more I perceive the world as vast, complex, intriguing, yet somehow closely woven . Over the past 11 years- since I began traveling- I’ve been to 22 countries and easily more than 250 cities. Some of these places were memorable, some gave me horror stories to tell for a lifetime, and others were simply pleasant to have visited. It is rare, however, that a city or town has given me that certain feeling of connection. It’s a spark similar to meeting someone you swear you’ve met before, or with whom you immediately click. These places, for one reason or another, stick with you long after you set foot on their soil. They surface in dreams, manifest in sporadic urges to return, and leave you reminiscing over your photos at midnight, with a sense of homesickness in your heart.

There are many locations that I’ve seen and never will again, and I’m okay with that. However, there are a few special cities that tug at me constantly, begging me to return. They are as follows:

1. Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo's Asahi Flame, aka

Tokyo’s Asahi Flame, aka “The Golden Turd,” across the Sumida River

In 2006, I made a decision to start exploring the world outside of Latin America. I was absolutely obsessed. Every single country I’d been to at that time was Spanish-speaking, and in the Americas. I needed to force myself out of my comfort zone, and so a friend and I planned a trip to Japan, China, and India.

Eventually, India was dropped from the list and an altogether different friend decided to come along for the ride. I was living in San Francisco, CA at the time, and spent a few nights a week after work studying Japanese. After about four months of drawing my best Hiragana characters and my roommates tiring of hearing phrases like “So, desu ne,” I had a working, yet extremely elementary vocabulary.

Arriving in Tokyo was like doing a head stand and having my brain whirl around in my skull. This was a land of extremes. Extreme fashion, extreme politeness, extreme efficiency, and extremely large, brightly-lit buildings. Flash, flash, flash! Look HERE! No, look HERE! No, no, look THERE!!! This put Las Vegas to shame. It was the City of Sin on steroids to the infinite power. AND they had beer for sale in vending machines. I hardly blinked the whole time I was there. My mind was warped and my self-suspected Adult ADD was in full effect. This was so different from anything I’d ever experienced. Could this be real?

I need to return to Tokyo, first of all, because I was only there for about five days total. That is way too short of a time for such a fascinating, enigmatic city. Secondly, I was on a budget when I went. I want to go with at least two months and $10 grand to spend, because I know that Tokyo has much more to offer than what my measly wallet allowed me to experience. Thirdly, this was the first country I’d ever been to that gave me culture shock. To this day, I think my mind has never been blown as much as the day I first set foot in Japan- and that’s a lasting feeling. I want to go back, knowing what to expect, yet hoping for more. I want to take all of those amazing, intense experiences, and see how far Tokyo can push them.

2. Taipei, Taiwan

Listening to live salsa music at Brown Sugar in Taipei, Taiwan

Listening to live salsa music at Brown Sugar in Taipei, Taiwan

Last year, in 2013, I had the unexpected opportunity to volunteer teaching English in Taiwan. At first, I admittedly wasn’t that excited about Taiwan, since I thought it would be a mini-version of China. (Don’t get me wrong; I loved the month I’d spent in China, but I wasn’t necessarily  dying to go back.) I stood absolutely corrected. Taiwan was, well, a completely distinct country. The language was less cacophonous, the people friendlier, the food much healthier (this is one of the best places to travel as a vegetarian/vegan!), and a more peaceful feel overall.

I was assigned to teach in Chu-Pei, Taiwan, which is about an hour southwest of Taipei. I loved the place where I taught, even though it was more of a city-like, suburban location. I wasn’t able to visit the capital of the country until my teaching session was over, and due to filming a documentary in Borneo the following week, I only had two nights in Taipei.

The short time I had, however, stuck with me. The food was impeccable, the nightlife amazing, and the set-up of the city was organized and teeming with activity. Taipei was also uber-international- the two days I was there, I met people from England, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cambodia, and the U.S. It was a perfect conglomeration of everything a world traveler looks for in a city. I would love to return to Taipei, further explore the city, learn more of the Taiwanese dialect, and possibly even live there for a while.

3. Sao Paulo, Brazil

Graffiti Art in Sao Paulo

Graffiti Art by Ciro in Sao Paulo

Oh, Brazil, how I love and miss you! It’s not often that you arrive in a country and immediately mesh with the culture, the people, and the vibes. Brazil was this place for me. For my Master’s degree in Latin American Studies, I had to learn a second Latin American language, and I opted for Portuguese. After taking two semesters’ worth of classes, I was doing rather well. Still, I knew from experience that nothing compared to being immersed in a culture in order to obtain fluency.

The summer of 2008, I headed off to Belo Horizonte-where my Portuguese professor was from- to begin an intensive six-week Brazilian Language and Culture course in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. Coincidentally, the lady who was subletting my room in San Diego happened to be friends with a Paulista, and I met up with him the first day I arrived in Sao Paulo. He was the first Latin American vegetarian I’d ever met, and was also an artist who’d lived in Taiwan.

I was fortunate to get to know Sao Paulo from a local’s perspective- and one who shared many interests of mine. Perhaps this was the reason I fell in love with the city, but I suspect that there is much more. I’m a huge fan of large metropolises with thriving art scenes. It seemed that everyone I met there was a progressive individual, striving for more beyond themselves, focusing on positivity, and generating a ton of creative energy through poetry, art, acting, meditation, and so on. This is exactly the kind of environment that cultivates and stimulates me.

I feel a deep connection to Sao Paulo because I believe I was able to see into its artistic heart. Walking down the streets and avenues, in-your-face street art met my eyes on walls, doors, gates, and any other flat surfaces. This is the land of Os Gemeos, Binho, Ciro, and of Tikka! Art is everywhere; it seems to be in the air you breathe and the food you eat. Plus, their caipirinhas are damn tasty. A big piece of my heart was definitely left in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

4. Managua, Nicaragua

The Catedral de Santiago, in La Plaza de Revolucion, still stands in Mangua's Old City Center, ridden with bullets

The Catedral de Santiago, in La Plaza de Revolucion, still stands in Mangua’s Old City Center, ridden with bullets

Managua is a stunning place of vast contradictions. Everywhere you turn, you see lush greenery, rolling mountains, and spectacular natural landscapes. The food is delicious, the music contagious, and the people incredibly warm and affectionate. Nonetheless, it is still the second poorest country in Latin America,and it shows. Countless homeless people have set up camp throughout the city, taking shelter under tarps and garbage bags. When I was there in 2007, the unemployment rate was 50%. It is a city still scarred visually and economically by years of civil war.

While volunteering in Nicaragua, I taught English, helped out at the library, and mostly did art projects with children at La Chureca- which was the city dump. My first impression was that it was a place of squander, drugs, disease, and sadness. Seeing children the age of four- malnourished, hands and faces dirty- chasing down trucks early in the am in order to find the best recyclables, instantly depressed me. They played in and drank from the same murky water where skeletal horses and pigs defecated. At the top of the hill, just beyond their make-shift homes of metal, wood, cardboard, and posters, you could see beyond to El Lago de Managua- a stunningly blue body of water bordered with forest green hills. It was taunting, this vision. To live in such squalor and be able to see a fairy tale of life, just across the way- it was at times too much for me to handle.

You can’t take experiences like this back. I will never unsee this kind of poverty, but still, something else was more even more overwhelming: It was the children’s sense of pure optimism. The faces that I saw on a daily basis in La Chureca were so happy and excited, so trusting and loving, that I looked forward to seeing them every morning. Nonetheless, every afternoon when I went home, my clothes were dirty and my shoes caked with mud. I was emotionally exhausted. I kept imagining these children as my own. I would give anything to provide just one child the opportunity to have resources like I’d had growing up.

Managua, Nicaragua was a city that shook me in many ways, and the country become one of my absolute favorites. It changed me. I had previously seen vast poverty throughout South America, but this was different. I got to know the names, faces, and stories behind these individuals’ lives. I do not exaggerate when I say that I owe part of who I am to my experiences in Managua. Partially because of that, I need to return. I want to see who these children have grown to be, to reunite with the friends I made there, and hopefully to glimpse a positive change in economy and distribution of resources.

5. Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Casa Rosada, or the president's house, during a protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Casa Rosada, the president’s house, during a protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Oh, Buenos Aires, the “Paris” of Latin America- how did I ever become entangled in your snare? My whole plan when finishing high school was to move to Spain and to become fluent in Spanish. Alas, that plan was abolished and instead, at my parents’ urging, I went straight to college. During the next four years, between Argentinean classmates in Spanish class, the Argentinean empanada stand at Venice Beach, and other little signs here and there, my mind shifted gears. In 2004, I purchased a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Politically ill from Little Bush’s decisions and the wars that had just commenced, I wanted nothing to do with the U.S. I had no intention of coming back.

I may have looked like an argentina, but my obviously non-Argentinean accent soon gave me away. People tried to relate to me by referencing McDonald’s and Mickey Mouse. I suppose this was just as annoying as Argentinean people coming to the U.S. and people asking them if they worshipped Eva Peron, drank mate, or danced the tango.

Nonetheless, it was here that I relearned Spanish… errr… castellano, and started to become the person I am today. I met people from all over the Spanish-speaking world, overwhelming myself to the point where Spanish words floated around my head at night like incessant, pesky butterflies. I’m sure that I would have become fluent in Spanish no matter if I’d moved to Spain or Argentina, but I wouldn’t have been the same. It was here that I became interested in politics, had my first solo travel experience, and began to invest a huge portion of my life in Latin America.

I desperately want to return to Argentina not only to visit the friends I made that still live there, but also to retrace the steps that the early twenty-something version of myself made. I want to see how the city has changed, and how much I have changed as well. After having traveled to various other countries, and gaining ten years’ worth of life experience, I am sure to view the city from a whole different perspective. And, after all, Buenos Aires is where my obsession began; Argentina is embedded in my travel roots.

Are there any cities you’ve been to and long to return? Have you left your heart somewhere on the other side of the globe? I’d love to hear about them!

33 Goals, Desires, and Aspirations for My 33rd Year

world in my hands

Do I over-analyze age? Is it, really, just a number? In my opinion, it is not. Through the decades of our lives, we go through a variety of different stages. If we are living as we should be, we experience many things that throw us up to the highest altitudes and the lowest depths (hopefully literally, as well as figuratively).

As a solo traveler, and simply as a crazy travel addict seeking adventure, there have been many times I had a good, scraping, petrifying encounter with death. Being brushed by haphazardly-driven buses in Buenos Aires, getting lost for hours by myself in the Pantanal of Brazil, spinning ceaselessly in the ocean’s undertow in Costa Rica, and panicking underneath a raft while being asphyxiated by a damn GoPro that had been strapped to my helmet while whitewater rafting in the Padas River, Borneo- these are only a few of the examples. This is not to mention the many people I’ve loved- young and old- whom I have lost over the years.

Point being- our time is borrowed. It is so easy to take our lives for granted and put off what we really want until x, y, or z has been accomplished. Fuck that noise. The time is now. We will never have today or yesterday again. At age 33, I am more comfortable being who I am than ever before. I know what I want, am not sorry for the decisions I have made pursuing my Personal Legend, and trust even more that my path is leading me where I need to be. That being said, I am not getting any younger. My parents are aging, the majority of my friends are married and/or raising children, and I still contemplate the fantasy of living in a parallel universe.

These are facts of life I cannot change, but I do have control of my pursuits. As Tom Petty sang, “Well I won’t back down/ no, I won’t back down/ You can stand me up at the gates of hell/ but I won’t back down/ Gonna stand my ground/ won’t be turned around…” And so, the 33 goals and aspirations I have for the coming year are as follows:

  1. Spend as much time with my parents and family as possible.
  2. Get back into shape.
  3. Move to Barcelona, Spain.
  4. Travel to at least two more continents and 10+ countries.
  5. Improve my photography skills.
  6. Increasingly support eco-living- less consumption, less waste.
  7. Finally see my musical/poetic hero- Bob Dylan- in concert.
  8. Continue the pursuit of a minimalistic lifestyle.
  9. Explore as much of Portland (and Oregon) as I can.
  10. Go on a cross-country road trip.
  11. Learn a fourth language.
  12. Take my advocacy for animal and human rights to a new level.
  13. Start writing poetry, and doing poetry readings, again.
  14. Volunteer more both in the U.S. and abroad.
  15. Go skydiving.
  16. Spend (waste) less time on social media.
  17. Save more money.
  18. Finish writing my first travel memoir.
  19. Start playing soccer (futbol/football) again.
  20. Meditate daily.
  21. Run a half-marathon.
  22. Rock climb in the great outdoors.
  23. Read at least 33 books, including Ulysses.
  24. Put Portland Travel Massive on the map in a major way.
  25. Backpack to the remaining countries in Latin America I haven’t seen.
  26. Inspire as many people as I can to live the lives they dream of.
  27. Trek the Camino de Santiago.
  28. Interview homeless people around the world to gain a better understanding.
  29. Head to Tanzania, volunteer with refugees, and head to Uganda to trek gorillas.
  30. Start drawing and painting again.
  31. Become permanently location-independent.
  32. Sail the seas (instead of relying on flights and over-land transportation).
  33. Love.

What about you? What are your aspirations for this year of your life?

Birthday Wishes

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Another year of my life has come and gone, filled with hopes, aspirations, daydreams, adventure, and a whole lot of hard work. It’s hard to believe that I’m 33, when I still feel like I’m 27. Nonetheless, if years are representative of what one learns, explores, sees, and accomplishes, then bring them on. As long as my life is filled with travel, writing, and love, then I will be happy.

Tattoos and Travel

The relationship between tattoos and travel has been on my mind for quite sometime. Do people tend to get body art while on vacation because they’re actually embracing the moment, feel out of character and able to do anything they want, or because they’ve had a few too many margaritas? (Come on, I know a good percentage of people who got tribal tattoos, or dolphin/butterfly tramp stamps during their one week stay in Hawaii, Mexico, or [insert another tropical location].)

I get it; I have a tendency toward impulsiveness. But I’ve also always worried about regret. I think I even had a nightmare once where I’d tattooed “Thug Life” across my stomach in a drunken stupor. (Tupac either would’ve been proud or laughed his ass off at how far from a thug I am.) My first tattoo was a semi-coiled snake on my left hip that I had spent over three years researching and drawing. I got it about a week after turning eighteen- when my abs were still solidly defined and hadn’t known the perils of being a whiskey girl. This was the only tattoo I ever got while I wasn’t traveling, and to this day it represents so much of who I used to be- so innocent, so inexperienced in life, like a baby snake alone in fields of grass yet to be discovered.

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

My second tattoo best embodies that whimsical desire to permanently mark oneself while on foreign soil. I was 23 years old, and had been living in Buenos Aires and backpacking throughout South America the previous eight months. It was my last week in Argentina and I’d been wanting to get a tattoo that represented my time in the southern hemisphere. One of the guys who lived in our residencia was only eighteen and already had sleeves on both of his arms. My Ecuadorian roommate had stated that she would never get a tattoo, but if she did, it would just be a dot to represent the vastness and nothingness of this world. I told her, “If you get a tattoo, I’ll get one, too.” This was the second to the last night of my stay in Buenos Aires. She agreed, and the whole night I racked my brain on how to put all of my experiences into one little tattoo. Much of the Incan and indigenous cultures in South America believed in the power of four- a perfectly balanced number representative of the cardinal points, elements, sacred animals, and so on. In a haste, I decided to draw a square within a square- a symbol of strength and solidity- and fill in the middle square with purple. This would represent the third eye chakra, allowing me to see clearly and envision life as it should unfold as I returned to the United States. Sounds cool, right? I love what the tattoo stands for, but aesthetically…

In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

Getting my second tattoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

I didn’t get another tattoo for another nine or so years. Oh, I definitely thought about it and researched designs and tattoo studios. Maybe I was traumatized by my $8 USD tattoo that quite a few people teased me about being a permanent club stamp. Instead, I played around with different hair colors- blue, red, pink, orange, maroon, and so on- and a slew of different piercings.

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

While I had been traveling throughout that nine-year period, I simply decided to abstain from any more ink. And then, I found myself in a situation that I’d never expected myself to be in, something that would make me see permanency and the concept of “forever” in a new light. A serious relationship ended, and I awoke, realizing that nothing was for certain, and that I would not have to die stuck in my hometown after all (a great fear of mine). Soon after, I was on the road with one of my best friends headed north from San Jose, California (my hometown). I had always wanted to explore the northern west coast, but up until then, I had always driven up and down the lengths of California.

The main purpose for the trip was to explore Portland to see if it was right for me as a new home base, but we also went to Seattle and Vancouver, BC, Canada. One day, my friend and I were walking around SE Hawthorne, exploring the cute, quirky, Haight-Ashbury-ish feel of the neighborhood. We had been talking tattoos on the whole drive up. We had just eaten brunch at Bread and Ink Cafe and after a couple of blocks I looked up to the left and noticed a Victorian-style building. One the main door, there was a sign that read “Martian Arts Tattoos.” The name intrigued me, and my friend agreed to go in. From the sound of the bells on the door, to the creak of the stairs, to the purple walls adorned with Buddhist kitsch and funky, colorful paintings, I knew that this was the place. The owners, Joanne and Jerry Martian, greeted us with warm vibes and smiles as the sound of buzzing needles permeated my being. I started to get excited. I knew exactly what I wanted; I had been pondering over flowers and a simple, yet powerful, word for years. As I looked through Joanne’s portfolio, I fell in love with her mastery of precision, her impeccable line work and range of creativity. “Do you have any openings today?” I asked, debit card burning in my wallet.

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

A couple of hours later, drawings were done, locations decided upon, and I was in the much-estranged tattoo chair once again. I had taken a Vicodin to numb the pain, and my words sluggishly rolled off my tongue as I talked to Joanne about relationships, writing, art, travel, and so much more. The time slipped away like a warped Salvador clock ticking erratically. Soon, I would look in the mirror and see the most beautiful tattoo that represented my life as it was- in full bloom.

I couldn't have been- and still couldn't be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I've gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

I couldn’t have been- and still couldn’t be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I’ve gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

And this, no one could ever take away. I was enduring a major transformation in life, and this ink served to remind me of the interconnectedness of life. Everything comes full circle; with the bad always comes the good. It is a symbol of constantly striving to reach my potential, to love myself, and to never compromise who I am or what I believe for another human being.

Since I was so happy with Joanne’s artwork, I asked her if I could get another tattoo that same night. This one had been churning in my thoughts for about eight years. The only thing that had stopped me (aside from not knowing a competent artist), was that I already had my crappy box tattoo on the inside of my right wrist. Here was the idea: I am a writer. I love, yearn, bleed, and weep words. The purpose for my presence on this earth is to write, to spread awareness and knowledge, and help others in any way possible. Therefore, my right hand was meant to write. By tattooing “escribir” on my inner wrist, I made a promise to myself that I would never stray from writing. If there ever is a day where feel like quitting (and honestly, there are), I look down at my wrist and resolve myself to cease the foolishness. It is also a nod to my infatuation with the Spanish language and Latin American culture.

“Escribir” means “to write” in Spanish. It’s easy to tell good art from bad, no?

Not three months later, I found myself in Malaysian Borneo- Kuching, Sarawak, to be exact. I had just finished volunteering teaching English in Chupei, Taiwan, and decided to head out to Malaysia when I saw how cheap the flights were. I had been dreaming about volunteering with orangutans in Borneo since I was a teenager-or possibly a preteen. It was amazing to me how serendipitous life could be. It was almost like my farthest-flung dreams were coming true without much effort. Maybe it was just the culmination of all my hard work that year coming to fruition. All I knew is that I didn’t think I’d ever actually step foot in Borneo, and there I was.

The day I arrived in Kuching, I set my bags down in the hostel room, starved, and headed downstairs to grab a bite to eat. I ran into the hostel’s front desk attendant, and I noticed his tattoos right away. He had a sweet tribal throat piece, which signified having triumphed an extremely challenging moment in life, as well as tribal flowers on both shoulders. These represented the transition from boyhood into manhood. Humbly, he thanked me. I asked him who had done his art, and he said that there was a shop just across the street called Borneo Headhunter Tattoo and Piercing Studio. My host’s friend Ernesto had done his tattoos there. I wouldn’t realize until I walked into the shop that Ernesto Kalum was a world-renowned tattoo artist who had traveled the world providing people- “average” tattoo enthusiasts and celebrities alike- with gorgeous Iban tribal ink. I was floored.

Can you say

Can you say “badass?!” Notice the skulls in the case? Yeah, Ibans weren’t called “head hunters” for no reason.

There was no way I was leaving Borneo without a tattoo, and, doubtlessly, I had found the place. Everything about Borneo Headhunters impressed me- the studio’s artwork and energy, Ernesto’s portfolio, and especially his humility. I decided that I wanted an owl tattoo on my upper back, and he immediately got to sketching. While his first version wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I went back to the hostel and scoured the internet for designs that were more my style.

Not two hours later, I was laying on the floor in the back of the studio. On a bamboo mat, Ernesto and Robin- another tattoo artist working there- I was being prepped for the tattoo. What was different about this tattoo was that it would be my first time going under a bamboo stick rather than a mechanized needle. My nerves were getting the best of me. How much more would this hurt than a regular tattoo? Well, a hell of a lot more. Robin stretched the skin on my back while Ernesto went to work for over three hours. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Ok, Cristina, remember to breathe, I told myself. I inhaled as much oxygen as my lungs could hold, and the pain continued. I had to take a break about 3/4 of the way through. This was not for amateurs. I asked Ernesto how much longer it would take to finish. He said all was done except for the head. An owl without a head wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I contemplated. No, it had to be finished.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I'd earn my owl.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I’d earn my owl.

About half an hour to 45 minutes of pain, questioning what the hell I was doing, deciding never to bear children, swearing to myself never to any old-school method tattoos ever again, and just plain swearing, I was done. Skin freshly swollen, the results were breathtaking. Given the traditional technique, which offered a large margin for error, the lines were crisp and precise. I’d endured the process and would forever have something to remind me of the tenacity and bravery I possessed- not just for getting this tattoo, but also for so much more.

The final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

The fresh, final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

Afterwards, Ernesto and Robin invited me to hang out while they played guitar, smoked cigarettes, and joked around with each other. Still in pain, I reveled in how getting a tattoo brings you closer to the artist. There’s just something about the transformation, and their ability to bring you to that next level, that is quite remarkable. I listened in awe as they sang free-style and strummed the chords of their guitars effortlessly. I laughed with them, feeling so fortunate to be having such an incredible experience with these talented individuals. We were from opposite sides of the globe, but in that moment, I felt that they were like family who I’d just so happened to never have met beforehand.

All in all, I feel pretty damn lucky with all of the experiences I have had with the tattoos that I’ve gotten, and most have been while on the road. There is an inexplicable, yet undeniable relationship between the transformation that occurs while traveling and being tattooed. One emerges a different person after each experience, hopefully achieving a higher sense of oneself. Although the changes that occur while wandering the globe are mostly internal, perhaps tattoos are an external revelation of that change. They are unfaltering souvenirs, constant reminders of where we have been and who we have become with time and experience. In this sense, tattoos and travel are absolutely complementary; they are a sensible fusion for those who roam this earth, searching for self-discovery and interminable development.

What do you think? Have you gotten tattoos while on the road, and what have your experiences been? 

Buenos Aires: A Time of Struggle, Awakening, and Transformation

When I moved to Argentina, there was much I had to learn not only about the country and the Latin American region, but also myself. At the romantic, idealistic age of twenty-two, I bought my one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. I was prepared to volunteer teaching English, finish the novel I’d started the year before, become fluent in Spanish, and shed the “American” skin I was born into.

I was 22, having one of my first going-away parties (and celebrating my mom's birthday, too), and absolutely ecstatic for what Buenos Aires held in store for me. This photo makes me so nostalgic!

I was 22, having one of my first going-away parties, and absolutely ecstatic for what Buenos Aires held in store for me.

Sure, I had skimmed through a few books on Argentina. Aside from fantasies of learning the tango a la Gardel, visiting Eva Peron’s grave, strolling down the colorful alleyways of El Caminito de La Boca, soaking in the nostalgia for Maradona’s heyday, I really didn’t know much. Maybe I just wanted to adopt a new identity within a big city, recreate myself within South America’s Paris.

Three of Argentina's most beloved people- Carlos Gardel, Eva Peron, and Diego Maradona- honored in La Boca, Buenos Aires

Three of Argentina’s most beloved people- Carlos Gardel, Eva Peron, and Diego Maradona- honored in La Boca, Buenos Aires

Ironically enough, that is just what happened, but not in the magical, without-a-hiccup, insta-transformative way I’d imagined. Within weeks of being in Buenos Aires, I dumped my volunteer position (which was actually a pathetically disguised “travel company” used to fund the owner’s personal travels), and decided to do Buenos Aires my own way. This meant taking Jorge Luis Borges classes, getting lost in most neighborhoods, weekly conversations with a language partner, eating an unimaginable amount of alfajores and empanadas, and, of course, partying it up in the boliches at least four nights a week, learning the Salsa, Cumbia, and awkward Argentinean affinity for the 80s.

My 23rd Birthday

Celebrating my 23rd birthday with my beautiful friends from Argentina, Ecuador, the U.S., and Spain. (Also, getting my fix or Mexican food!)

Quickly, I made friends from all over the Spanish-speaking world: Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, Spain, and, of course, Argentina. I surrounded myself with these beautiful souls, struggling to understand their differing accents, learning all sorts of slang, and which countries it’s okay to use “coger” as “to take” instead of “to fuck” and “acabar” as “to finish” instead of “to cum.” I went to bed each night with phrases, words, and questions about the Spanish language whirling in a mind like a deranged roller coaster. I wanted nothing more than to speak like a native- any native. At this point, I just wanted to speak, understand and write like an educated person from any fucking Spanish-speaking country. This yearning was so deep that it brought me to gut-wrenching sobs more than I’d like to admit.

I took refuge in the pages of my journal, scribbling poems, stories, sketches, and reflections written in depth- as much as I could- in my imperfect Spanish. I never wanted anything so bad in my life; nor had I ever worked harder at something so seemingly unobtainable. Perfection lingered over my head, taunting me, promising me that in just a few weeks, months, maybe years (?), it would happen. I made a habit of reading the English-Spanish dictionary every morning and night (okay, every afternoon when I awoke and every early morning when I finally went to bed), and maniacally posting this words all over my room. My two roommates, with whom I’d become good friends to this day- one from Quito, Ecuador and the other from Los Angeles, CA- must have thought I was crazy. I didn’t care.

Roommates in BsAs

My roommates and me in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Generally, I kept the friends I’d made in Argentina from the U.S. at a distance. I didn’t want to speak English; that was not the dream, not the goal.

Continuing on this path, I discovered so much about the world that I’d otherwise never have realized. Sure, the Argentine peso was worth 1/3 of the American dollar, which was great for me, but what did it mean to the Argentinos? Walking the streets of Nuevo Palermo, I witnessed middle-school-aged kids tucked away on the stairs of the subte (subway), huffing paint out of paper bags, their mouths stained grey, their eyes distant, glazed. When I began exploring the country, I realized that, the farther I traveled out of Buenos Aires, the darker the pigment of the skin. This was especially true of Northern Argentina. Was it coincidental that Buenos Aires was so, well, white?

Guarani woman and child

A Guarani woman (indigenous to Argentina and Brazil), holds her baby in a village close to Iguazu Falls, in northeastern Argentina

Conversations with my Latin American friends perpetually flashed light bulbs in my tiny, naïve brain. I learned of Los Deseparecidos, of Menem, of corruption, of genocides, of exploitation, trafficking, and people being played with and then tossed out like an old, deflated soccer ball. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the lack of resources and autonomy, and the surmounting poverty, people lived with on a daily basis. Especially when I started traveling into poorer countries, I was smacked in the face with the reality of inequality. This was all the shit that was swept under the rugs of my high school classrooms. I never realized how politics actually impacted people. I felt like an idiot, and rightfully so.

From that point on, I shifted my focus from fiction to history and non-fiction. I reanalyzed my place and purpose on this earth, the opportunities I’d been given dawning on me like anvils. While I continued working on my novel, which took place in the U.S. and Mexico, I wrote from a deeper place. My time living in Buenos Aires was not just a fling with Latin America.This was merely the beginning of a heavily-rooted obsession with Spanish, Latin America, politics, political art, and supporter of human rights.

tatuaje

My last night in Argentina, I got a permanent souvenir to remind me of the transformative time I spent in South America. This tattoo is a constant reminder to follow my dreams, keep traveling, and stay focused.

Nearly eight months after first setting foot on South American soul, I left a different person. I’d seen and learned more in that time than I had while getting my Bachelor’s at UCLA. I spoke Spanish fluently. I left with such sorrow, I couldn’t suppress the tears on the last leg of my flight back to my homeland, from San Salvador, El Salvador, to San Francisco, CA. And while I returned to work (for a much larger wage in the U.S.), I was miserable. I hated my native culture. No one got how much I had seen or changed, and all my friends and family were exactly the same.

It wouldn’t be too long, however, until I was off to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, chasing another crazy dream, unraveling cavernous layers of delusion…

A 14-year-old’s Life Goals

I recently took a trip to California to surprise my Dad for his 70th birthday. In between spending time with family, I stayed up late a couple of nights just reading previous journals and essays from high school. (I love to reminisce.) It baffles me how different my view on life was back then, and it also surprises me how long I’ve had the same ambitions.  Here is what I wrote in September of 1996, when I was 14 years old:

I do not know what exactly I will do for a profession, but I know it has to be something I enjoy. I’d love to be an artist or a photographer, because that is what I love doing. Having a big modern house would be wonderful, but I do not want to live in only one place in my lifetime. I have never been out of California except for a visit to Oregon when I was six or seven. I want to go to college and graduate school someplace in the US besides California. Afterward, I yearn to travel around the world, but especially South America, Europe, and Australia. I would live in an apartment for at least a few years in each place. The reason I’d like to live, instead of visit, these places is that the culture cannot be totally absorbed in a brief period of time. Some other things I want to do while traveling are sky dive, bungee jump, and mountain climb.

The crazy thing is, I hated Oregon when I was a child. This is the last state I’d imagined myself living in, and here I am in Portland! Moreover, I absolutely love it! It trips me out how my life has unfolded in such a way I foresaw as a young teenager. True, I have yet to visit Europe and Australia, but I suppose I was born with gypsy dreams. I couldn’t be more grateful that I’ve fulfilled so many of my ambitions and have stuck with what I love in life.

The Wild Horses of Cotopaxi

Wild Horses of Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Wild Horses of Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The first time I went to Ecuador, I was on a massive road trip across South America. At this point, my experience with horses had been limited to seeing ponies at fairs when I was a child, and a scary horse ride in Northern Argentina. However, when I was in Ecuador later on in the year, about to embark on a challenging quest to scale Cotopaxi, I got to see wild horses for the first time ever. It was one of the most beautiful sights- to not see these horses tied to carriages, stuffed inside stables, or forced to participate in greed-based races.

Cotopaxi is one of the region’s largest, active volcanoes. My attempt to ascend this part of the Andes was pathetic at best, including a great deal of fog and altitude sickness. Oh well, at least I was able to see horses as they are supposed to be- free, and absolutely untamed.