“Smile” is Synonymous for Survival

Hi friends,

Some good news– This piece I wrote was awarded 2nd place in The Nasiona’s micro-nonfiction/poetry tournament recently:

I feel like all women (travelers or not) can unfortunately relate to this. And the emotions it brings are so complex, aren’t they? A mixture of anger, fear, shame, helplessness… Wanting to stand up for yourself but not knowing how, & being so scared it could backfire. 

Let me know what you think of the piece, or how you respond to this type of harassment, in the comments 💛

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My Top 10 Traveling Items

Though it feels weird to post this in a time when hardly any of us are traveling, I’ve been asked this question quite a few times, and I’m hoping this will be useful to other female travelers.

*Keep in mind I’m a very low maintenance traveler. I don’t bring hair products or styling tools, and haven’t found neck pillows or eye masks to be necessary. That’s just my personal preference. Also, things like your passport, visas, money, phone, camera, etc. go without saying.*

Without further ado, here are some of the things I always bring with me on my trips:

1. A reusable water bottle

This is a must. I’ve definitely been guilty of buying a bottle of water right after getting through security before– don’t be like me.

Here’s what I use:

Not even just reusable, this water bottle is also collapsible. This is compact, and will save you (and the environment!) lots in the long run.

2. Teva sandals

I wear these constantly. They are so comfortable for walking cobblestone streets and yes– sturdy enough that I often hike in them, too!

I typically opt for the black, which matches with everything.

3. Portable charger

This shouldn’t come as a surprise- we need to stay connected on the go.

The power bank I have (shown above) has been a lifesaver in many situations where I couldn’t get to a power source. Make sure to charge ahead of time.

4. Black leggings

Go ahead and roll your eyes, but leggings are: A. stretchy and comfortable B. suitable for most weather C. easy to pack and D. again, black goes with everything, and you can easily dress it up.

I love these ones because they are high waisted, lightweight, and even come with a pocket! (Ask any female, they will tell you how exciting it is to have pockets in clothing.)

5. Packing cubes

Because organization is important, and so is saving all your precious carry-on space (and your sanity when you’re trying to find the stuff you’ve packed). These come in all sizes and colors.

I just got these ones last year for Christmas and am obsessed with the teal!

6. Lightweight Jacket

Your girl gets super chilled, super fast. Layers are always key, and even in temperate weather, you never know how fast it could turn.

I love this one, (with a hood!) perfect for walking around European cities in the fall:

And typically use this (waterproof!) one for more outdoor adventures:

* Even for warmer climates, don’t forget a shawl or scarf, especially in countries that require modest covering (i.e. entering temples in Thailand).

7. Daypack

It’s important to have some kind of smaller luggage for hiking, day trips, or any type of adventure you may find yourself on.

Gregory is one of my favorite brands, but this Osprey one is great as well.

8. While we’re on the subject of bags and backpacks, let’s talk purses.

This is an anti-theft cross body bag with tons of storage space, even for umbrellas or water bottles!

If that isn’t really your style, and you’re looking for something smaller and more sleek, I’d recommend this:

There’s also some pretty cool infinity scarves that have hidden travel pockets like these:

9. Adapter

This is obviously an absolute must if you are traveling internationally where plugins are different. Try to aim for one that has extra USB ports, so you can maximize charging time with minimal space.

Here is what I use:

Honestly, it doesn’t hurt to have two!

10. Personal safety alarms

As a solo female traveler, there are (unfortunately) extra precautions that are necessary to take. However, that shouldn’t hold you back from your dream of traveling. Here are some items that may help your peace of mind:

These loud alarms have LED lights and come in packs- great for women, kids, or elders- so there’s one for everyone in your family.

Pepper spray (above) and key whistles (below).

What’s great is that these come in multiples as well.

(If you’re forgetful or lose things like me, this will certainly come in handy.)

..And for bonus #11: A mask!!!

Be sure to follow all COVID-19 guidelines and be aware of the measures and rules in place before you get to your destinaton.

This list can go on and on, but I’ll stop there.

I’m forever interested in helpful gadgets, space-savers, and all things cute, practical, and safe to take on my trips. What’s something you always take with you? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe,

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*Disclosure: Please note that some of the links listed above are affiliate links. This is to no extra cost to you- as an Amazon affiliate I may earn a commission from qualifying purchases.*

Life’s A Trip Podcast

As much as I can take issue with social media sometimes, it has allowed me to meet and connect with so many incredible people. Many of these new friends are doing such impressive and exciting things. Edher in Peru reached out to me for the Cinnamon Traveler Chats, and Gyovanna (who currently lives in Germany) invited me to be on her podcast, Life’s A Trip. This was my first podcast experience! I’ll admit I was nervous, but Gyovanna and I had so much fun and could’ve talked forever. We actually ended up continuing our convo another hour after we stopped recording!

We covered solo travel and traveling as a woman, of course, but also dove deeper into mental health (not only anxiety and depression, but also excoriation disorder/dermatillomania), the story of how I got my pacemaker, and even poetry. You can listen to the episode here on Spotify. or wherever you get your podcasts.

This was the first time I’ve really openly discussed my BFRB (body-focused repetitive behavior) and though I felt so vulnerable, I wanted to share my story with others in hopes that either 1.) it resonates with someone else who is also struggling and/or 2.) it shines a light on these disorders so that others can understand them, which will only help remove the stigma that surrounds them.

I can’t thank her enough for having me, and hope you’ll tune in. She always has wonderful guests on, covering all types of interesting topics. And the name “Life’s A Trip” couldn’t be more spot on this year, can it?

Can’t wait to hear what you think,

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P.S. To anyone wanting to understand more about dermatillomania, I cannot recommend this Ted talk by Liz Atkin enough: https://youtu.be/mlt3o6dnGqA

This is actually how I found out that skin picking had a name! Also, there are tons of different BFRBs, and resources/websites for them. Here are some favorites of mine:
TLC Foundation for BFRBs: https://www.bfrb.org/
Picking Me Foundation NFP: https://pickingme.org/

Michigan’s Finest

From Saugatuck Dunes and windmills in Holland to sandboarding to Sleeping Bear to homemade cherry pie to Traverse City and drop-off cliffs and teal waters to the best fudge I’ve ever tasted on Mackinac Island to weird birds and crystal clear springs to drinking blueberries to sunsets and rainstorms and Pictured Rocks cruises to my first pasty to Ann Arbor and tiny surprises to all the waterfalls chased and miles driven home- here’s some of Michigan’s finest with my family.

Day One:

Drove to the Saugatuck Sand Dunes & took a buggy ride, watched the most gorgeous sunset over the water, visited Mt. Baldhead Park

Day Two:

Visited the cute town of Holland & Windmill Island Gardens (next best thing if you can’t visit the Netherlands!), Ottawa Beach, spotted Big Red Lighthouse against some dark blue skies, hit up Tunnel Park, went sandboarding at Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Inspiration Point, Sleeping Bear Dunes State Park

Day Three:

Stopped through Traverse City and had some cherry pie, drove to Old Mission Peninsula to see the Old Mission Point Park & Lighthouse, admired the blue hues of Torch Lake, and cruised through the scenic Tunnel of Trees

Day Four:

Stayed the night in Mackinaw City, caught an early morning ferry to Mackinac Island to awe over Arch Rock, indulge in the best fudge, and Sanders hot fudge cream puff. This is a car-free island, so no motorized vehicles, and a lot of horse drawn carriages. Simply beautiful.


Day Four/Five:

Left the city for Kitch-iti-Kipi, Manistique. The most beautiful teal water, and watching the fish swim below your feet!

Day Five:

One of our bucketlist items: Pictured Rocks National Landshore. Still stunned this place is real. We finished our outing just as the rain started falling. Obviously one of the highlights of our trip!

Day Six:

Tahquamenon Falls State Park (nicknamed “Root Beer Falls” for a good reason!), and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Day Seven:

We started our venture back home. Stopped at the Cross in the Woods, Stepping Stone Falls, Ann Arbor & Graffiti Alley, enjoyed some blueberry beer to toast to a wonderful trip!

If you live in the beautiful state of Michigan, how lucky you are! It was so good to get out and explore this beautiful state and make memories with my family after months of being cooped up. I feel very grateful to experience such natural beauty & calm my restless soul for a bit.

xoxo,

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Exploring Closer to Home

So now that we’re all experts at navigating the path between the refrigerator and the couch, what about some outside trails?

I recently came back to be with my parents in rural Pennsylvania, and there’s not much to do here in our small town. (Not that I’m out painting the town, anyway. I’m staying home!) However, I was getting restless for new scenery, and a lot of the local parks/attractions I’d already been to. That is, except for Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Ohio.

We opted to spend a weekend out in nature, and who knew Ohio was keeping this gem hidden? I loved climbing over these giant rocks, squeezing myself between crevices, hiking all the paths to waterfalls.

Two weekends later, we woke up on a Sunday and decided to go for a drive. My mom had heard about Freedom Falls in Pennsylvania, and we ended up there. We parked on the dirt road and walked down to the falls, where there as only one other person there. I was amazed at how clear and crystal blue the water was. The gentleman that was there told us the falls weren’t as impressive as they usually are due to the lack of rain we’ve had this year, but I was still blown away by this little teal paradise in the middle of nowhere. We hiked down the river to the furnace and the tunnel, taking some nearby trails. Honestly, it was awesome.

There were also many covered bridges along the way:

Where have you explored lately? Any secret spots that are a close drive from northeast PA? Let me know- I’d love to hear!

                                                          Until then, stay home & stay healthy,

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The Cinnamon Traveler Chats

Since creating my public Instagram account (@fromthissideofthesun) to showcase my travel adventures and writing, I’ve made so many connections & found friends in like-minded individuals. I’m so grateful that one of them, Edher, AKA The Cinnamon Traveler (find him on Instagram, and his Facebook page) asked to interview me on his YouTube channel.

Edher lives in Cusco, Peru and has conducted several interviews with travelers, bloggers, and more that I’ve found to be both fascinating and inspiring. He’s one of the most genuine people I’ve met, (which says a lot seeing as how we’ve only “met” a couple months ago, and have yet to meet in person!) and I’m so glad he shared his platform with me for me to tell my story as a solo female traveler.

I’m super awkward and there were some technical difficulties on my end, but I had such an amazing time chatting with him! Check out the full interview here.

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Safe travels to the fridge and back for now,

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Wanderful

It’s no secret that I’m all about empowering women to travel (and especially solo). So when I came across Wanderful, I was immediately interested in being involved. From their site:

Wanderful is the world’s homesharing network and travel community for women, helping women travel safely and confidently through an online platform that connects them with their greatest asset – each other.

Writing Portfolio — Isabel K Thottam

Wanderful is a community of adventurous, independent women travelers that strive to connect with one another, get involved and live globally. Visit the sisterhood at sheswanderful.com.

And- I’m delighted to announce that I’m a new Wanderlust scholar! So excited to be a member of this awesome community, and looking forward to connecting with kickass women all over the world. They offer local chapters & meetups, homesharing, events & trips, and so much more.

All my ladies, check them out here.

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Love in the Time of Corona

If you can move past this admittedly trite title, I’d like to invite you to stay with me a while—

Here, in my small, one bedroom apartment, in a Pittsburgh neighborhood that is all too quiet tonight. I’m sitting on the couch I got off of Craigslist five years ago, in sweatpants (although I did wash my hair today!), a silver spoon resting in a jar of edible cookie dough (obviously an essential) that I picked up on my final grocery haul beside me, and nothing but the light from this laptop screen in front of me.

I’m alone. I’m used to it. I live alone, I travel alone, I take care of myself. (Well, sort of.) But in the midst of a pandemic sweeping our nation, I feel alone.

I know that as I write this, coronavirus is carving out its place in history. The world as I know it is changing, the economy is diving headfirst into disaster, people are getting sick, some people are dying. Many people are panicked, some are rolling their eyes. But nobody knows what the fuck is going on, or what to do. How long it will last. What this mess will look like after it’s over. When they discuss 2020 in history books years and years from now, what will they say? Will we have learned anything by this?

I honestly don’t know a lot about the world. I’m a small town girl who went to a liberal arts college. I admittedly find out a lot of my news via social media. But I do know some things: like how I believe in basic human rights. And that the amount of mass shootings in the country I live in is outrageous and unacceptable. And I know that right now, due to the spreading of COVID-19 and hopes to slow it, schools are closed, gyms are closed, bars and restaurants are closed. Countless events are canceled.  Countries are on lockdown. International and domestic travel bans are in place. I’ve read the word “quarantine” more in the last week than I ever have in my life.

This is something I never could have imagined. I come from a generation that uses humor as a way to understand, to heal, and to process. (I mean, we basically communicate with memes.) I come from a generation that some people think is entitled, selfish, and stupid. I come from a generation that I think, as a whole, also genuinely cares about what’s happening to the planet, and all its people— regardless of age, race, etc. I come from a generation that realizes they aren’t experts, but still gives a shit– toilet paper in stock or not.

In what feels like a bizarre parent-child role play, I’m now pleading with my mother to stay in. I’m thinking of who is going to take care of my grandmother, now that my parents aren’t only a mile down the road to help her. I’m thinking of the students I support who can’t see their families, or have the great commencement they were expecting, especially those who are first generation international students. I’m thinking of my friend who just had a newborn baby, and the one who is currently six months pregnant. I’m thinking of my fellow writer friends who had upcoming readings scheduled and book launches they wanted to celebrate. I’m thinking of the artists and performers that prepared endlessly, who had to cancel shows, and the heartbroken fans who worked extra to save up for tickets and counted down the days to the event. I’m thinking of my fellow travelers who are stranded in airports, or out hundreds of dollars, trying to figure out what to do next in the chaos of a foreign place. I’m thinking of my friend who is knee-deep in training for a marathon that now may or may not happen- all the miles running into a question mark. I’m thinking of my friend who has an upcoming wedding, and all the planning that went into what was supposed to be the perfect day. I’m thinking of the kind, bright-eyed woman that bags my groceries, how she tells me she’s afraid for her family. How she doesn’t have a choice. I’m thinking of the parents who are worried they will lose their jobs, and for the ones who already have. The schools that close their doors, the children that need meals. The families scrambling to find arrangements and answers for what to do next. I’m thinking of the teachers who are navigating a new world of online classes and a now jumbled course plan. The janitor I usually see every day at 2 p.m. in my office wing, who always tells me to have a nice day. I’m thinking of the elderly, who matter. I’m thinking of the immunocompromised, who matter. And I’m thinking of those closest to them, who are terrified for them, trying to be careful and cautious with every action. I’m thinking of those struggling with mental health who soldier on, their battles intensified by this crisis, but still invisible to most. I’m thinking of the small businesses who are on the brink of collapse, trying to crunch numbers, just trying to stay afloat. Employers who cut corners to ensure they don’t have to cut the wages of their employees. I’m thinking of those who have already lost their lives to this, all around the world, of their families and friends still reeling in the wake of a sudden absence. I’m thinking of those who are currently experiencing symptoms and scared, suffering. I’m thinking of those who don’t have health insurance. Those that don’t have the ability to work from home. Those that don’t have someone to help them. Those that don’t have the money or resources. And I’m thinking of, and especially grateful for, those in the health care industry that are putting tireless and thankless hours in, risking their own health, separating from their own families, and more— working to help fight this.

So yes, right now, I am just a girl in sweatpants, sitting on my couch. It’s the least I can do to not put myself and others at risk. I am embracing self-isolation fully, freely, and openly. Before all of this, I was desperately needing time to myself. Now that I have some, I feel the pull to be productive…to write, to work on new projects, etc. With that, I am also feeling the heavy guilt that comes with not constantly doing or accomplishing something. But fuck that.

We aren’t machines. I need to remember that I am human, and especially as someone who struggles with her mental health, I am learning to just be. Not cross off every to-do list or bucket list item, just for one moment! Breathe in, and just be here. That’s absolutely enough, especially right now.

Since Monday, I’ve been working from home and will be for the next unknown amount of time. It’s both strange and wonderful. Today, I hopped on a video conference call with two of my dearest friends/colleagues, Holly and Chloë, and almost cried because I missed seeing them in the hallways of the university we work at, or taking our regular lunch break walks together.

Tonight, I FaceTimed with my family- who are all together at my brother’s house in Florida. Him, his wife, their two daughters, and my parents. While I’m so grateful for the technology that makes these 963 miles between us feel closer, and although I will say that this is one time in my life I am so glad to not be traveling… damn. I miss them. Those candy-sticky hands and full hearts, my dad’s quiet presence, my sister-in-law’s radiant smile, my brother’s contagious laugh, my mother’s undeniable warmth.

Earlier this evening, I read a book cover to cover. I can’t tell you how long it has been  since I’ve done that. I’m going through old notebooks of poetry. I’m retracing steps in my travel photos. I’m letting myself binge a little Netflix. I’m resting.

I know I said I’ve been feeling alone, but I’ve also never felt so connected. I say it every time, so I don’t know why I’m still surprised that when some form of tragedy happens, it always seems to bring people together. This continues to amaze me. The people volunteering their time, those offering online services free of charge, those raising money, those stepping up and showing up in all corners of the universe. And the connections from my circle- love that flows through telephone wires with a long distance friend, the FaceTime with family, e-mail chains with my Madwomen writing group, “meeting” new people on Instagram and Twitter. What’s more, I’m connecting to myself again, using the time I’ve been given to get back to the thing that always has nurtured me most: the written word.

So, hang in there, friends. We will rise together.

Sending you love and light,

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A Glimpse of Guatemala

February 27- March 2, 2020

Them: “Why would you want to go there?”

Me: “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I?”

Them: “Well, isn’t it dangerous?”

That’s what I heard, almost every time I told somebody that I was traveling to Guatemala. And while it’s true that there is a high crime rate here, it should not stop you from seeing this incredible country!

But let’s be honest– I hear that reaction often, no matter the destination. As a young(ish) woman, going alone isn’t (or hasn’t always been) common.  But luckily, all the solo female travelers I know and have met are breaking that mold wide open, saying to hell with the stereotypes. Some do it to prove to others that they can, but a lot of us started traveling solo to prove it to ourselves that we could. And then we became hooked and never stopped.

Also, look at what’s happening here in my country! Terrible things can happen even at home. So anyway, back to Guatemala.

As always, do your research before visiting, (stay away from hot spots in Guatemala City), avoid traveling at night, make sure someone back home knows your location/itinerary, use licensed taxis & book transport in advance, do not carry expensive items, and be especially mindful of your belongings when out & about.

This was one of my weekend warrior travel adventures- a quick 3-4 days in the beautiful country.

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A peaceful afternoon reflection, Tanque La Unión.

I stayed in Antigua during the duration of my short trip, because it was 1. the most charming town, and 2. an easy departure point for a lot of popular day trips and other excursions. There are a lot of options for getting from the La Aurora International Airport to Antigua. For time and safety’s sake, I chose to pre-book a shuttle. There was one other woman on the shuttle, and we became quick friends. I’ll never forget both of our reactions when we first arrived in this quaint town.

You’ve probably seen the famous landmark, Santa Catalina Arch, shown below:

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Santa Catalina Archway was built in the 1800s and is a bright landmark in the town.

Cerro de la Cruz was a beautiful and totally manageable hike from the center of town. You can easily get there using your phone’s GPS, a map, or just following the signs. You have a clear view of the whole city and Volcán de Agua in front. Also, volcanoes Acatenango & Fuego will be to the side when you look out, so be sure to watch for frequent eruptions! Together, the volcano complex is known as La Horqueta.

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As far as food goes, Rincón Típico is hands down a great choice for delicious authentic food! Go early to get a spot. You’ll see women out front making tortillas. The serving size is plentiful, comes with a natural juice, and is budget-friendly.

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I don’t even have to tell you that the coffee and the chocolate from this country is just the bestttttttt. Some favorite cafes:

-Fernando’s Kaffee is delightful, with the owner’s spotlight-stealing friendly cat, Misha, who soaks in the sun

-Café La Parada, which isn’t as lovely on the inside, but has some great coffee!

-Antigua Brewing Company, because who doesn’t want to sit on a rooftop & enjoy some craft brews?

-Cafe No Se, perfect atmosphere for cocktails, great vibe & even better Mezcal

Make sure you check out a restaurant/bar with rooftop views (see photo 3, above), and try fresh mango which you can buy on nearly any street corner, and enjoy it while you people watch at Parque Central (photo 4).

Other captivating highlights include: Convento Capuchinas, Antigua Cathedral, Santo Domingo (look out for parrots!), and the ChocoMuseo!

For my day trips:

Pacaya Volcano: This was an early start, and you get the option to take a horse up if you’d like, but I chose to hike up with new friends: Susan from Australia, and Sohil & Hammad who live in Canada. It was a truly awesome group, and we watched the sun set against the lava flow & eruption clouds. Note: If you have more time, I’d definitely check out Acatenango Volcano and do an overnight tour/hike!

It’s amazing how fast that sun sinks, but isn’t it breathtaking at every point in the day/night?

Lake Atitlán & surrounding villages: I had a couple friends who stayed at the lake, and had I had more time, I probably would’ve done the same.

We visited San Pedro, San Juan, and Santiago. Our departure point was Panajachel. Be prepared for bold colored crafts, blue stretch of water as far as you can see, and sweeping views of Atitlán volcano. We all loved visiting here.

A really incredible experience was watching this woman wrap her hair. We were told to time how long it took her, and I did- under 2 minutes! Her hands were steady, her smile welcoming, and her story was amazing. Pictured on the Guatemalan centavo coin is Concepción Ramírez, a peace activist. Her portrait is referred to as the “woman of the choca.” Here I am pictured wearing a tocoyal. (They aren’t light- and I could never wrap this myself, so kudos, as usual, to these amazing women.)

As you can see, I squeezed as much as I could out of my time in Guatemala. I also couldn’t get to Tikal, which is one of the most famous ancient ruin sites. There is always more to see, slower travel to savor, and shared memories to make.

And, in the way that travel does,  it flirts with you. So this was just a little taste. I’m so grateful I went when I could because it was right before COVID-19 swept through our world and borders closed.

Until next time, stay craving adventure in whatever shape it takes, even if it’s keeping you grounded—

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