When buying an iPhone charger resembles a drug deal

If you’re an iPhone owner in Latin America and you lose your charger, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. I tend to lose lots of things, so I’m shit out of luck very often.

Since Apple is not really a thing in Latin America, but Apple products still exist in the world, the Latin American market has produced variations of Apple product knockoffs, including chargers. I’ve bought a number of these and have experienced similar patterns; the charger will work for a period of time, and then a few weeks down the line will mysteriously lose its charging power, like a piece of tape that loses its stickiness with multiple use. The ones that do continue to work generally do so through fits of seizures.

Because of the rarity of iPhone chargers in Latin American, and the varying quality of the product, purchasing one sometimes resembles the motions of a drug deal.

For example, I recently lost an iPhone charger in Mexico. I happened to notice its glaring absence in Mérida, as my phone reminded me that I had 10% batter left and accusingly asked me if I would like to set it to low battery mode. After cursing my frequent spacy-ness for the umpteenth time, I admitted defeat and asked the hostel reception where I could find an iPhone charger.

“I know a guy. I’ll take you to him,” said Eric, one of the hostel receptionists. Perfect.

We walked the colonial streets of Mérida on a busy Tuesday night, heading toward the Plaza de Tecnología. Upon entering, we were blasted by the aggressively bright lights and stark white walls that seem to signify the presence of technology nearly everywhere in the world. Walking through the indoor “Plaza,” salespeople standing guard over various counters laden with chargers, phones, cameras and more implored us,

“Hey, what are you looking for?”

“I’ve got what you need.”

We passed them by, dozens of salespeople popping HD-bright against the white lights as Eric made a beeline for “his guy” with the iPhone chargers.

We came upon a counter that looked like all the rest… white shelves and counter with glass casing displaying his wares. The man behind the counter was young, smallish, and looked like he could haggle the white off rice.

When we requested the iPhone charger, he began pulling various counterfeits from the walls, expounding on quality and pricing.

“This one is two meters long. This one is coated in water-resistant plastic. This one is pink.”

“Do you have any real iPhone chargers?” I ventured.

The man gave me a knowing smirk, and commenced to pull out boxes and cartons of technological goods. Then, the holy grail: an original iPhone charger. He opened the box and held out the elusive piece of technology like he was opening a clam to reveal the pearl inside.

For this rare specimen, the price was 200 Mexican Pesos, about $10. However, the counterfeit, non-water-resistant, non-pink charger was 80 Mexican Pesos, about $4.

By now I’m an old pro at counterfeit iPhone charger purchases and I know that you NEVER make a purchase without first sampling the product. No one likes the bad trip of iPhone seizures.

“Can I try this one?” I asked, indicating the counterfeit one. Before you get all high and mighty and point out that it’s only a $6 difference, remember that I’m on a backpacker’s budget.

Eric and I watched silently as the product was tested for quality. The man took my iPhone and the charger, and plugged it into the wall. Would the battery symbol turn green? WOULD IT?

In the next moment, the battery symbol lit up. The product was legit. I exchanged dinero for goods and we walked out of the electric light of Plaza de Tecnología, the world of counterfeit technology closing neatly behind us. But one day I will walk back into that dazzling world again with a 10% battery and a pocket full of foreign currency, ready to do this song and dance again.

 

 

 

The world is not a scary place.

Before I began long-term travel, I remember having conversations with fellow Americans whose consensus was generally that the world outside of the US was a very scary place. Some could not comprehend the desire to do such a thing, and many expressed fear that I, a 5’3” female, should want to travel alone.

Still, sometimes when I tell people this, I get a response that indicates I must have been dropped on my head as a baby. Incidentally, this is true. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve encountered, more than not, the kindest, most generous, giving people in my world travels, who would offer me tea and cookies rather than rob me of my valuables. Sometimes the generosity reaches a point that embarrasses me. As a US citizen, I am not conditioned to this kind of giving nature and unassuming kindness.

But the hype is strong, and fear is a powerful emotion. It’s an essential one, too, since it can sometimes be the difference between being robbed in an unsafe area, and arriving home unharmed. Even though 99.9% of my travel experiences have been wonderful ones, I’m still on guard and I sometimes still believe that the world is indeed a scary place – especially when I arrive in a new, unknown country.

I recently arrived in Guatemala – a country I’ve heard amazing things about, but also a country I’ve heard has a history of violence and has a track record of femicide – the killing of women because they are women. As you can imagine, this is an unsettling thought for a solo female traveler. But two recent incidents got me thinking about the veneer of fear that travel is often wrapped in, and the nature of goodness that is normally obscured behind it.

Namely, I was hit over the head in Guatemala twice in the span of three days (possibly giving more fuel to my naysayers?). Let me explain.

Head injury #1:

After a night of partying in the capital, Guatemala City, my friend and I board one of the infamous chicken buses to return to Chichicastenango, where I’m currently living with aforementioned friend. The chicken bus always makes my friend antsy when we’re still in the capital, because the city is well-known for robberies. Just as a reference point, we were told by a taxi driver in Guatemala City to keep the windows rolled up because of incidents of robbery-at-gunpoint through rolled down windows. Yeah, it’s like that.

Hungover, and dreading the three-hour journey through winding roads on a bus with very little suspension, I put on my head phones and prepare to nod off so that my breakfast will stay where I left it.

A while later, I’m hit over the head – hard enough to make my neck crunch. In the split second this happens, I think,

“Welp, that’s it. It’s finally happening. I’ve had a good run so far… a pretty good track record of safety and, well, not being knocked out and robbed, but this is clearly what’s happening right now.”

The next split second makes me realize that I’m actually still conscious, so I take the opportunity to turn around and see what has happened.

I see a kindly, elder indigenous women picking up a heavy bag that has fallen from the overhead compartment. She turns to me and apologizes profusely for the bag that has fallen on my head. I smile and tell her it’s okay while my hangover headache reaches a screaming pitch from the fresh abuse to my body.

Head injury #2:

A couple days later, my friend and I are walking through the famous Chichicastenango market, when something, yet again, hits me on the head. I stop, confused, and see the same confusion on my friend’s face. To make matters worse, locals selling wares in the market stalls have begun laughing, conspicuously looking in my direction.

I feel a hard ball of fear and indignation form in my stomach. Has someone targeted me because I’m not from here? Am I not welcome here?

Then my friend sees what hit me and starts laughing too. It’s a hollowed-out egg filled with confetti. Having lived here for a few months, she is somewhat familiar with the customs, and she explains that the locals throw these eggs at one another during times of celebration. Right now is the carnival season, so naturally,       people are celebrating.

Although I’m still sure that the kid who threw it thought it would be funny to hit the gringa with a confetti egg, this new knowledge still shifts the scene for me. Suddenly the locals’ laughter seems playful rather than malicious, and I feel welcomed rather than shunned.

Twice I was hit over the head, and twice I reacted in fear – an understandable response I would say. But these knocks to my head also woke me up to the reality of fear that many of us live in, and the reality that many people refuse to travel because of the belief that the world is a menacing place, filled with dark alleys and shadowy corners where people wait to harm you. The reality is that the world is mostly a beautiful place, and the people who live there mostly just want to exist.

Urban survivalist savvy on a 6-hour layover in Panama City

I’m in the Panama City airport on a six-hour layover from Colombia to Guatemala and I have some shit to do. I’ve just exchanged the last of my Colombian Pesos for American dollars (Panama uses American currency) so I can buy a pair of headphones. My last few pairs were $3 sets that couldn’t wait to fall apart as soon as they were released from the packaging. It was like undoing a corset and letting everything hang loose as soon as the binding was undone.

I had gone to the exchange counter and, in a fit of chattiness with a dash of desire to practice my Spanish, I explained the headphones situation to the woman working there. She turned out to be nothing short of an airport saint and an exchange rate wizard. With my 103,000 Colombian pesos, I had enough to buy the set of $24 (US dollar) Sony headphones that had beckoned to me, promising deep bass and pristine melodies. However, with the exchange commission, it wouldn’t be enough. But as I mentioned before, this woman was a wizard with math. Tweaking the numbers, she turned “not enough” into “just enough” and off I went to get my boredom-saving headphones with a profusion of “muchisimas gracias!” to the woman who saved the day.

At the electronics shop, I watch as the clerk puts my newly-purchased headphones in a large plastic bag, and I almost object. Instead, I see clear as day, the wet bathing suits or towels, leaky shampoo or cooking oil bottles the bag could hold, or the makeshift garbage bag it could become, and I remember Rule #11 on the road: never underestimate the possibilities of an empty bag.

I was now faced with a new airport challenge. Having spent all my cash on a pair of headphones, there was no money left to buy a water bottle. But, alas, I still had purification drops from my recent excursion into the wilderness. Rule #3 on the road: always have a water back up plan.

I go to the crowded airport bathroom and fill my empty water bottle with questionable Panamanian airport water. The woman washing her hands and checking her airport-chic outfit in the mirror next to me says, “No debes tomar este agua.”

I check my own reflection; worn black leggings, a sweater with a pattern like I’m going to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party as soon as I arrive in Guatemala City, and hiking boots still scuffed with mud. I also have a doozy of a sunburn from the day before spent on Lake Guatape in the green hillsides of central-western Colombia.

“Está bien,” I respond reassuringly. “Tengo gotas de purificacion.” To further reassure, I pull out the purification drops themselves and add exactly three turquoise drops to the airport water solution. The look she gives me either says, “look at this fucking gringa” or “I am impressed with your urban survivalist savvy.” I take it to be the latter and decide that, since I’m already in the bathroom, why not use it for what it’s for? I enter the stall and notice with mounting anticlimax that the toilet paper dispenser is devoid of its namesake. But I always keep a roll in my day pack for more-common-than-not situations like these. I retrace my steps to the sink where I discover a soap drought amongst the soap dispensers. But I also carry hand sanitizer with me because rules number 4 and 15 on the road are: always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Exiting the bathroom, I find a corner that has a wall socket, get comfortable on the floor, plug in my phone with another dubious piece of electronics that I’ve bought in Colombia, and pull out all manner of devices (designed to entertain and please!) as I settle in for the six-hour wait. My phone appears to be fighting for life on a charger that is siphoning off power instead of supplying it.

Through the rows of airport chairs and fellow backpackers asleep on the floor, I see two strangers strike up a conversation after both plugging their phones into the same wall socket. As I watch them happily find commonalities, in broken English and Spanish, hunger sets in. The cheesy bread and instant coffee supplied by Avianca airlines on the flight from Bogota to Panama City at least ensured that I wasn’t running completely on empty, but there’s only so much it can do when faced with an extended layover.

I pull out my food bag – rule #11 on the road: always travel with food – and see what I can turn into an airport floor picnic. A bread roll, an apple, a slightly bruised banana, dried lentils, dried oats, dried quinoa, cooking oil, a jar of peanut butter, a spoon. I eat the apple and make a bread, banana, and peanut butter sandwich which will hold me over until the next airline culinary feat of cheesy bread or bag-of-crackers that the connecting flight serves up.

I have my picnic leaning against the backpack that has become home for the past 14 months, listening to MØ with my new headphones fulfilling their promises of deep bass and pristine melodies. I wait, contented, for the next flight to take me to Costa Rica and then to my destination in Guatemala. Tonight I will sleep at the most convenient hostel, take a shower, and eat a real meal. And tomorrow, I will get to know Guatemala.

One Story We Can All Relate To

I lay in my hostel bunkbed, listening to the girl across from me, wanting to both soak in every word, and put my hands over my ears at the same time.

The girl was raised in Australia, but had Syrian origins, including family who still resided in the war-torn country. She visited them nearly every year, although recently her visits had become more infrequent, for obvious reasons. This year she had gone again, despite the bombs dropped from jets sporting various flags, aimed at different groups according to the beliefs of the owners of those bombs.

My interest was piqued when she mentioned that she had just come from Syria where she had been to visit family. Eager to have a conversation outside of the usual “where are you from, how long are you traveling for” traveler formula, I asked her about Syria. I had never met anyone with Syrian origins before and I was keen on getting her perspective. However, I had heard one story, or at least one version of multiple stories for so long that it soon became clear to me that what I wanted to hear wasn’t her perspective. I wanted her to agree with me.

The thing was, I hadn’t even imagined that she wouldn’t say the things that I had heard from numerous talking heads on dozens of news stations for years. These stories were so ingrained into me, I hadn’t even imagined that there was another story.

But there was, and I heard it from this Syrian-Australian woman that night. As she talked, I felt like I was looking at the negatives of a reel of film, or listening to a record backwards. Things I had believed to be true started looking twisted and had all the wrong colors and sounds. The slap-on-the-wrist guilt I had tentatively accorded to my country for bungling foreign relations issues in the past swelled in size and weight until it had its own gravitational pull on other previously-held beliefs. Honestly, this story made me feel sick to my stomach.

I suddenly felt an outrageous sense of righteousness and an overwhelming need to defend my country that I’ve rarely experienced before. It was a sudden and harsh reflex to something foreign, like when the body rejects an organ transplant.

But at the same time, this new gravitational orbit was pulling in old beliefs and swallowing them whole. I felt sick not only because I was attempting to reject this new information, but because I was trying to assimilate it simultaneously. As I started feeling the new shape of this other story, I also felt helpless at the hands of a nation that only tells one story.

But I realized later, after I had recovered, that the story she told me was complementary to the story I already knew. It had a similar plotline and facts, but it was told by authors with different experiences than my own. Each word she laid down only worked to give substance and dimension to a previously one-dimensional story.

At the end of our conversation, I conceded that the only way to really know the truth is to go there and see it for yourself. Again, a reverted back to the only story I knew; one of violence and intolerance. I mused out loud that I would fear for my safety as an American in the Middle East, to which the woman responded,

“They would welcome you with open arms. These are a people who understand what it means to be judged by the politics and the stereotypes of their nation.” Is this not something we can all relate to?

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week two: The Danger of a Single Story.

 

 

 

 

When Everywhere Is Home

A year ago, I met a boy in Cambodia who could belt out “Since You’ve Been Gone” just as powerfully as Kelly Clarkson herself. He did it with a smile and a satisfaction that told you he knew how good he was.

He was an employee at a convenience store on the notorious party island, Koh Rong. Pardon me, he was the employee at the convenience store. He had come from the north of Cambodia where there were few job prospects and had found himself gainful employment on the island. The owners of the little beachfront store left him to singing songs from the west while he worked all day every day, selling beer and mosquito repellent to westerners who came and went as quickly as the tide changed.

He snapped his singing to an abrupt stop and started chatting animatedly when I stepped up to the cash register. I discovered he wanted to go to Rome and make a new life for himself in the glittering gem of the west.

I told him, naively, “Cool! You should go. It’s really nice there.”

The story continued. He wanted to go there because he’d seen pictures and thought it was beautiful. He wanted to learn Italian and become a famous designer. He laid out these ambitions like he was discussing the storyline of his favorite show; something real in his mind but intangible from behind the counter of the convenience store.

As the story spooled out, I could see visible cracks in the plot. He worked endlessly at the convenience store and sent every cent he earned to his family in the north. The owners of the store provided him with accommodation and food, so he never had to spend a penny, even if he had any. He had never even seen the other side of the island that he now called home.

After I had paid for my water bottle, I booked it to catch the boat back to the mainland. I was off to a new adventure; I could go wherever I wanted and do whatever my heart desired. I was free; a citizen of the world, so to speak.

But the more I travel, the more I realize that the only thing that makes me a citizen of the world is my American passport. My passport is a skeleton key, able to open nearly every door on the planet. For others, their passports are more akin to an ankle monitor, designed to keep them where they are.

I’ve seen it many times since then. Introducing myself to a goat herder in southern India, he proclaims his honor at having an American standing in his goat field. In Nepal, a man’s eyes light up at the mention of my origins and swears he will one day make it to the land of the free. On buses in South America, the immigration police ask for everyone’s papers, but their eyes slip right over my fair hair and skin. I am a world citizen because of circumstance.

Mainly I am a world citizen because I am an American citizen. The concept has changed for me over the past year, starting out as an undeniable fact of life; this is where I come from, these are my roots, this is who I am. Over time, I’ve watched the fact of my citizenship closely, as if it were an entity of its own, which is sometimes how it feels. Out in the great big world, the concept of citizenship blurs around the edges, like saying a word repeatedly until it loses all meaning. But sometimes the recognition that I’m an American, instead of an individual in the world, snaps up at me out of the clear blue sky, and I remember everything that it means.

It means I can travel nearly anywhere in the world either without a visa, or with very few visa requirements. It means that me and my spending power are welcomed with open arms across almost every border without a question. It means I get to be a world citizen if I so choose.

I haven’t stopped traveling because of this. The truth is, I still glow when someone asks me how long I’m traveling for and I can say, “I don’t know.” These three words carry with them the weight of new unknown adventures as vast and limitless as the horizons that I strive toward. The not knowing is an incredible freedom. It’s acknowledging that I will be welcomed in nearly every corner of the world, like all those corners simply make up the cozy shape of my living room. Every place is my home and I feel at home everywhere.

But every time I head off into the horizon, my departure underscores the differences between myself and the people that I leave behind, and I realize that as much power as I have to be able to traverse the globe, I’m powerless to give this opportunity to others. As a community of global wanderers, we need to take notice of this, and remember what a powerful, unique, and privileged thing it is to be able to call home wherever we put our backpacks down.

This post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Years Blog Challenge, week one: Global Citizenship.

 

 

A Counter-Cultural Shock

All I had wanted to do was buy some new gauges (the type of ear jewelry that stretches your ear piercings) that didn’t feature your standard marijuana leaf and Playboy bunny designs. I hadn’t planned on shocking the bejesus out of my conservative, devout Catholic, Ecuadorian host mother in the meantime. But you know… life happens and all that.

I had bought a pair of beautiful white elephant hangers (the type of ear gauges that hang down) to replace other “going out” hangers that I’ve lost in the past from too much head whipping action on the dance floor. But later that night I was admiring my new elephant hangers in the mirror when I noticed that a key element of elephant-ness was amiss in my new ear bling. One of the elephants had no trunk.

I was determined to find the shop and swap the ear gear STAT. The next day, after spending hours wandering the clean, busy streets of Cuenca with a pace that spoke of resolution, I had to admit defeat and head on over to a lunch date with my host family and fellow volunteer. Over soup, avocado, rice, maduro, and pork, I told them of my distress. I described the plaza where the shop was located and, god bless them, they knew instantly the place that I was looking for – only three blocks away from where we sat at that very moment.

Soon after, we made a family outing to the tattoo and piercing shop. I entered, and in followed my fellow volunteer and my extremely conservative, devout host mother.

As I stood explaining the case of the missing elephant trunk to the shop attendant, my host mother grew eyes as wide as saucers as she gazed around the very first tattoo/piercing shop I believe she had ever seen in her 64 years of life. I watched in mild horror and amusement as her now dinner plate-sized eyes drank in the anatomically correct models of phalluses and labia complete with glinting steel piercings. Her expression said that her eyes were only reserved for Jesus, and that nowhere in the Bible did they mention genital piercings.

Here I am trying to have a cultural experience and I unwittingly end up giving my Ecuadorian host mother the counter-cultural shock of her life. Well, what is cultural exchange if not shocking?

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at the US Election from Abroad

I was determined to do my civic duty abroad. I found the online ballot, downloaded it, printed it, and filled it out to elect the first woman president of the United States. California law does not permit voters to send their ballots through email, so my other two options were to mail it in, or to fax it.

I don’t know if you know this, but mailing something, even five pages spelling out a possible political future, is really expensive from Colombia. I also don’t know if you know this, because California leaders seem to have missed it, but fax machines are all but obsolete. Searching Bogotá for a fax machine was like searching for a democrat in Texas. They just don’t exist.

My Colombian friend, Cesar, and I scoured the streets of Colombia. We went to libraries, photocopy centers, and internet cafes. In every scenario, we received quizzical looks. Then I had to explain. I was an American and I needed to vote in this election. The responses were the same across the board. The quizzical expressions melted into wide-eyed stares and they were compelled into political commentary. Trump, they insisted, couldn’t possibly win. They were sorry they couldn’t help me.

This was not the first time I had run into this Trump-aversion outside the US. In Cambodia, India, Nepal, Taiwan, and Thailand, I always had to answer for Trump. European, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American backpackers abroad would catch a whiff of my all-American accent and question me about the absurd possibility of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. How could I explain something so incomprehensible? How could I possibly explain that the United States that Trump described, one of bigotry, sexism, hatred, and fear, was not the United States that I came from. How could I separate myself from the vulgarity that spewed from his puckered mouth? Now that he’s been elected president, the trickle of questions have become a river.

When I finally figured out how to vote at the US embassy, I found myself on US soil abroad with other Americans attempting to derail the impending train wreck of a Trump presidency. Most were Colombian immigrants, the very same people that our new President wants to keep out of the country. The sentiments inside the building were strong. Many were worried for their families, and how their rights would change if Trump were elected. Some were small business owners who resented the billionaire’s tax avoidance and refusal to pay the businesses that he hired. These were the immigrants that he insulted and the “little guys” that he swore to look out for, doing their civic duty to keep this duplicitous man out of power.

After I cast my ballot, I checked into a hostel. I overheard English, Dutch, and Scottish backpackers discussing the election. They brushed off the possibility of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, despite the creeping red line on the election polls. All that night I bit my finger nails and watched as the red Republican line representing Trump came closer and closer to closing the presidential gap. But I wasn’t the only one. The Scottish and Canadian girls in my dorm room also kept a live feed of the polls. I heard one of them wake the other up at 3am to announce the results, and this is how I found out.

I don’t think those who voted for Trump realize the extent to which the world is affected by his presidency. I don’t think they’ve considered how his exclusion, vulgar words and actions, unthoughtful policies, and overall poor character, has made the world a sadder place.

Wednesday, November 9th started just like any other day in Bogotá. Cold, rainy, and cloudy. For once it seemed to match the mood of the travelers in the hostel. Backpackers from Malaysia, Scotland, France, Canada, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and more gathered at the breakfast table and expressed disbelief, sadness, and incredulity. The Venezuelan woman asked if I was okay. Being no stranger to appalling leadership herself, we commiserated together.

Traveling has not only given me a broader understanding of the world, it has changed my understanding of what it means to be an American. I often run into criticism from other backpackers who expect me to be vulgar, loud-mouthed, and keep bad politics. I meet others who expect me to be friendly and kind. I’ve found myself in the middle of a cow pasture in India awkwardly accepting thanks from a villager who was honored to have a real-life American in his pasture. In any scenario, we always have a lot to answer for. And this, among many other things, is what makes me feel so disappointed with this election. The way my country voted today tells the world that we favor fear-mongering, hate, and vulgarity above everything else.

Today I carried on as normal. I wrote and I socialized and I cooked and sometimes I would forget that my country has taken a step back from progress. But then I would look at my Facebook feed, or receive a message from a friend or family member. Women dreaded the rights to their bodies being violated, people of color feared violence and racism, the LGBT community were in terror of having their rights rolled back. And then I would remember and I would feel empty.

It is inconceivable to me that one man who causes so much fear and pain is now my president and that this man who threatens so much freedom is now the leader of the free world.

Let’s stick together, stay safe, and spread love not hate.