Hello everyone! Welcome to Travelers.Connect on The Rissa Rissa Blog where we will be featuring fellow travelers from across the world and from different walks of life. I have created this segment to inspire those who wish to travel, want to make traveling a career, or for those who are seasoned travelers and want to gain more insight on what other travelers are doing.
Hey, hey fam! I know it's been a minute since our last interview, but, you all know how it goes. Working full time, taking on more creative projects, traveling, and fulfilling goals planned out from the beginning of the year have been keeping me occupied the past few months. However, I am back and sooooo thrilled to be introducing you all to Ana. I promise you, the long wait is worth it for Ana has some great travel insight and wisdom for us. I want to give a big thanks to my mom for introducing us! When I saw Ana's travel pictures and upbeat energy, I knew I had to reach out and have her join us! Above is one my favorite pictures of her walking happily and aimlessly through Roma, Italia.
Ana, it is such a pleasure having you on Travelers.Connect! We are all curious to learn more about you and your travel background. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi, I am honored to be featured on Travelers.Connect! I think this is such a wonderful way to get dialogue started about travel experiences. So, thank you!
Through high school, I lived with my brother sister and parents in the house I call home, on the north side of Chicago. I’ve spent every summer that I can remember, living abroad, mostly in Spanish-speaking countries. The past 6 years, I’ve lived as a university student and then as a teacher in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I studied Elementary Education there at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and will be starting my third year as a 4th grade Dual Language (Spanish/English) classroom teacher in the Urbana School District this August. The time I have spent teaching has made me more and more fascinated by the creativity, empowerment, and inspiration that learning makes possible.
Other than my love of travel, I also enjoy running and walking outdoors, swimming, writing, getting to know others, exploring new spaces, and trying new things. At home, you’ll likely find me practicing my headstands, reading, or eating peanut butter by the spoonful.
"Without electricity, I was thankful for the battery powered light I brought with me, so I could journal during the torrential rain storm we could hear hitting our tin roof."
That is awesome Ana! I can tell that you are very passionate about what you do! Now when was travel first introduced to you? How did your first trip impact your continuous desire to travel?
I don’t remember being introduced to travel. I grew up with the understanding that the world is big, and I’m living in a little part of it. I think that traveling was made second nature to me because of the choice my parents made for my siblings and me to spend our summers abroad. Summers as a kid were never in the same place, and usually, abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. With my parents’ desire that my brother, sister, and I become fluent in Spanish, summer was get-the-kids-fluent-in-Spanish time. That meant we spent our summer months in class at a school in a Spanish-speaking country. In high school, our trips as a family ended because my siblings and I typically had conflicting summer jobs or activities. Still, if we weren’t working, it was just assumed, I think, that we would travel. Reflecting on it now, I think it was an expectation subconsciously imposed on us by my dad, but I always loved it, so I looked forward to it, and didn’t mind saving money to do so! One particular summer, for example, I went to Buenos Aires alone and stayed at the homes of the families of my classmates whom I would meet when it was time to move in with them.
In my home in Chicago, my parents offered the extra bedroom in our house with open arms to people from all over the world. This meant that I often lived with an international relative, family friend, or guest whom one of my parents knew or knew of through someone. Some stayed for months, while others came for only weeks or days. I was accustomed to sharing a home and eating dinner with them as part of our family every night.
Furthermore, the adults that had a big influence in my life did a lot of traveling; my father grew up in Argentina and spent the years between age 17 and 35 following opportunities that brought him around the world, my mom studied abroad, my aunt lived in the Czech Republic in the Peace Corps, my uncle was back and forth from Kenya and Tanzania for work, half of my dad’s side of the family was living in Argentina, and it seemed as though every few months I was hearing about my grandparents’ latest adventure to another corner of the world.
I don’t think I ever understood travel as a concept on its own until college when a dialogue around travel seemed to have erupted. Study abroad opportunities became extremely prevalently advertised, I started getting a lot of questions and attention from people from all parts of my life about my experiences abroad, and travel became a very common topic of conversation. Until it was reflected to me in these ways, I hadn’t consciously understood that traveling was a big part of my upbringing and childhood experiences.
"Without electricity, I was thankful for the battery powered light I brought with me, so I could journal during the torrential rain storm we could hear hitting our tin roof."
I love the fact that your family encouraged learning Spanish as well as sharing your space and food with others visiting from different places. I can see how this made an impact on your approach with your travels. Would you say your travels have also played a role in your decision to choose your career as a dual language teacher? Has your career allowed you to travel?
For as long as I can remember, I have always possessed and continue to possess a thirst and curiosity about people, places, cultures, and how and why societies work the way they do. My experiences abroad must have influenced me to have these interests and I think it’s those interests that brought me to the Dual Language classroom.
A few reasons I chose to be a Dual Language teacher, were because (1) I wanted to use my Spanish professionally, (2) I wanted to be surrounded by people who were growing up bilingual, like I did (I didn’t know many bilingual children growing up like me when I was a kid), (3) I thought having a Dual Language classroom would organically promote a globally-minded classroom culture, which was very important to me, (4) I wanted to facilitate a space where culture was valued, which I felt a Dual Language classroom had the most potential for, and (5) I knew from my experience growing up bilingual that a child’s ability to learn a language was entirely dependent on the environment they were immersed in, and a Dual Language classroom required that they be immersed in both languages, equally. I always lost a bit of my Spanish during the school year in the US. A running joke in our family was that we (siblings) needed just “one more month in Argentina” and we’ll be fluent in Spanish. That’s what my dad would always say to any of the three of us, no matter how well we spoke or how many times we went to Argentina, took classes, or were immersed in the language. This instilled in me the importance of living surrounded by a language if you want to learn it well.
While no experience abroad made me realize I wanted to teach in a Dual Language classroom, I think that living abroad affected my values and interests in a big way. These values and interests are what motivated me to pursue a profession in bilingual education.
In a more concrete way, I am confident that traveling directly influenced my ability to get the job! Had I not spent the time I did in Spanish-speaking countries, my Spanish language ability would not be sufficient for the responsibilities of the job.
In terms of how I teach, my experience with travel has influenced the extent to which I chose and am able to create a globally conscious classroom environment.
"Visiting the classroom of a friend that taught high school English in Verona. I conversed with this great group of students as we shared about different cultural observations and played a few games!"
"I had the opportunity to visit a school near Buenos Aires in Villa Tesei, Argentina"
Wow! You are very fortunate to have had these experiences help guide you in career today. So all together, what are the countries you have traveled to so far? Is there one that you enjoyed the most? If so, why?
Okay, so I get pretty uncomfortable with this question. I’ve “been to” a lot of countries. I can list them, and I will below, but I want to share about the discomfort I have in doing so because it’s important for me to share that I think our desire for the list itself actually ineffectively sets up the discourse for a conversation about a travel experience.
The travel experiences that I’m most grateful for were the ones that allowed me to feel the most personal growth, get pushed out of my comfort zone in a safe way, gain a new perspective, and connect with people from the country. One of these experiences that comes to mind is my experience traveling to Verona, Italy in the spring of 2016 during the last 2 months of my senior year of college.
I think the experience was so beneficial and enjoyable for me because I was immersed and required to live successfully in an unfamiliar language and culture for the first time, I was away from family, I was given responsibility (teaching children in an elementary school), I learned I loved languages, I met some of the women I will hold dear to my heart as mentors, friends, colleagues and role models for the rest of my life, I was inspired by what I was observing in the school where I taught and in the culture I was living in, and I was traveling with a small group of classmates that I connected with wonderfully despite going into the experience barely knowing them. I was supported, felt safe, and given responsibility and independence in an environment I was enamored by.
I have been back to Italy both of my summer breaks to explore the country, re-connect with friends, and practice my Italian. I hope to be back again as soon as I can!
The countries I’ve been to are: Argentina, Bahamas, Brasil, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, France, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Paraguay, Portugal, Spain, Scotland, USA, and Ethiopia
Thank you for sharing your discomfort in this question. You have brought in a perspective that I have not thought about. I will make sure to rephrase this question for my next interviews. Let's now talk about what country is next on your bucket list and why?
I tend to figure out where I’m going next based on where in the world I have friends that I’d like to visit! Maybe India! I have a friend from college who is from India and went back to live there after college. I’ve wanted to visit since hearing about my father’s experience there for a portion of his life, seeing the movie Eat Pray Love, and studying a bit about the country’s education systems. Maybe Germany! I made a friend at the hostel where I stayed in Rome this month, who is from Germany, and I would love to see her again. Maybe Chile! I have a friend moving to Chile for a year and have never been there! Or, maybe an opportunity will come up to go to a country I haven’t even considered! We’ll see when I have the next opportunity to travel and what that opportunity looks like. ;)
"Train station waiting. Had lots of opportunities to create entertainment during otherwise boring random wait time 😜"
I must say, it is definitely a plus to have friends all over the world! There is that comfort of a familiar face and the perk of seeing a country from a local perspective. What are some of the most memorable experiences you had during your travels?
I’ve had so many! It seems as though unforgettable moments travelling are so much easier to come by than they are when I’m not traveling, but I’ve wondered if that’s because I’m more open to experiencing memorable moments when I’m travelling.
I’ll share one of my favorite:
When I was living in Verona, Italy during June and July of 2017, I took two weeks in the middle of July to visit friends in Bilbao, Basque Country where I had studied one summer in college. I had a flight from Verona to Madrid and one from Madrid to Bilbao. I got to the airport in Verona early, as usual, and as I was waiting at the gate, heard an announcement that the flight would be 20 minutes delayed. I made eye contact with a woman near me and we shared a frustrated smile. I had heard her speaking Spanish with her husband. So, when she came and sat near me, I struck up a conversation with her in Spanish. When we finally got on the flight, we learned it was another hour and a half delayed, and that we would not be allowed to get off of the plane. I remember the vibe of anger and frustration that filled the cabin. Suddenly lots of big bodies crammed near the cockpit yelling at the flight attendants and pilot. I remember loud grunting, arguing, and scolding. Trying to stay calm and positive, I was managing a bit of anxiety because I was worried about missing my flight to Bilbao from Madrid, and overwhelmed by the sudden shift in overall mood in the plane. In trying to make my way to the bathroom, I passed the woman and her husband in their seats. They assured me that I’d make my flight. When we arrived in Madrid I had 20 minutes before my flight to Bilbao would be taking off. I had no idea what terminal I was in or how to get to my gate and figuring it out would have required reading lots of signs, which I did not have time for. The woman on the flight with me, said to me, “Follow me, sweetheart” (in Spanish) and blew my mind with the vigor and determination with which she grabbed my luggage and hers and ran me through the airport, leaving her husband so far behind us I wondered how they’d reconnect. I ran, hopped, and tripped through the crowds of people, panting out of breath making sure not to lose her. I was awe-struck by the responsibility she took on so generously of getting me to my flight. She got me to a terminal exit and told me I’d need to take this bus (she pointed and made sure I got on) and told me where I’d need to take it. As the bus was taking off, she yelled, “Here’s my phone number! If you get stuck here, you can sleep at my house tonight!” I did, in fact, miss my flight, and the next one was not until the next morning at 6am. So, I considered my options. I wondered if I felt safe staying with her and her husband that night. It felt a bit risky. I remembered that I also kind of knew a woman who lived in Madrid. I considered calling her, but I didn’t know where she lived in Madrid, hadn’t talked to her in a year, and she didn’t know I was in Spain. She would be shocked and I didn’t want to impose myself. I considered staying in the airport those 10 hours and just sleeping on the floor. That seemed like the safest option. Nonetheless, something made me choose to take the chance and I called the woman on the airplane to ask her for her address. 10 minutes later, I was in the taxi, at 11pm, driving through Madrid, headed to this woman’s home. When I got there, I was greeted by a man about 2 years older than me, carrying his dog the size of his palm out of the elevator, walking towards me. He had one pink eyebrow, one blue and was wearing a leather jacket that was way above my level of fashion sense. “Come sweetie. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m the son”, he said as he opened the elevator door for me and brought me upstairs where, on the counter was his wig-making workshop on the counter! How cool! The woman then brought me to a room, said, “it’s yours for the night! Feel at home!” gave me a towel, and told me that when I was out of the shower, I should come eat the Thai food they had just ordered, with them. I remember feeling so awed, lucky, and loved by this family that didn’t know me at all as we sat together eating dinner at the dining room table. The next morning, we shared a taxi back to the airport at 5am, where they boarded their flight to the south of Spain for a wedding and I successfully boarded mine to Bilbao. We’ve kept in touch, but barely, over WhatsApp since then and I still think of them with such a big smile.
Left Picture: "Dinner on our first night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!"
Right Picture: "Met a man that took us for an impromptu food tour in Harar, Ethiopia. We arrived at a market and sat while this woman made and served this food for us. It was delicious!"
Just to think, if a conversation was not initiated, you would have not had this experience! It's nice to know that there are good people out there. What are some of the most difficult experiences you had during your travels? What did you take away from them?
Great question! I think the most difficult experiences we have traveling, if we come out safe, end up being lessons we don’t forget! Many of my difficult experiences have been the result of a lack of planning. For example, many times this presented itself as my phone running out of battery in the middle of transport and trying to communicate with somebody (sometimes in gestures) to ask them if I could please use their phone, find an outlet to charge my phone, or ask for directions. In Trieste, Italia, I misread the time on a ticket and made my friend and I miss our train. So, I ended up having to pay for both of us to get tickets on the next train. That was unfortunate!
A challenge I faced traveling in Ethiopia this past June allowed me to gain a new perspective on the way I perceive daily routines. I remember sensing discomfort randomly and consistently. I sensed that I was dirty and that everything around me was, too, while simultaneously judging myself for being elitist for feeling this way. The reality was that the lack of infrastructure, lack of a system of waste, and overall extremely different visual stimuli than I was accustomed to, paired with the numerous times I took a step forward and got stuck in the mud, or urinated over a hole instead of a toilet, made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to avoid any of these experiences; there was also immense beauty in all of it, but I felt uncomfortable, and feeling uncomfortable is … uncomfortable. It’s awkward. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult. One particular example of this that I captured the visual image of was when I was being directed to the bathroom at a restaurant.
The four walls of the bathroom were some planks of wood layered on top of each other to create a small square space around a particular section of mud that lay meters away from the kitchen. I stepped slowly, looking around with just enough light from the sun that came through between the wood planks to see and wondering where the hole was to go to the bathroom as my rain boots caked on another layer of mud with each step. There were flies everywhere. In my head, I could hear the voice of my doctor back in the doctor’s office in Champaign telling me “Wear bug repellant” and felt flustered. This felt even less sanitary than the non-restroom parts of the compound. But I had to pee, and I wasn’t going to find somewhere else to do it. So, I awed at the reality of the difference between what I was used to and what, say, the little 5 year old girl standing on the other side of the layered wood planks was used to, realized yet again that there was no real harm in going to the bathroom in a dirty place, and sucked it up as I judged myself again for being so obnoxiously needy. Days later, I remembered that as just another experience going to the bathroom during my time visiting my brother in Ethiopia. I guess the worst that could have happened was getting sick, right? It went through my head, but then I didn’t get sick.
All to say that the need for cleanliness was in my head, really. I appreciated this experience and others similar because they pushed me slightly out of my comfort zone. They helped me realize what I don’t have to be neurotic about. I don’t have to be as clean as I feel comfortable being. I don’t have to be as “put together” as I’m comfortable with when I leave the house. I don’t have to see a tile floor when I go to the bathroom. The experience helped me recognize the difference between what I need and what I want and that I’m capable of living without all the comforts that my environment in the US provides me. Urinating over a hole in the ground with the toilet paper strategically placed between my arm and torso isn’t actually so much different than urinating comfortably sitting on a toilet seat with toilet paper conveniently placed on a mechanism on the wall next to me that allows me to roll it out easily.
"Manual toilet flushing when there was a toilet bowl in Addis Abbaba! We learned quickly that flushing the toilet meant getting water from the tub outside the stall and pouring it down the toilet bowl."
I really like your idea of learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is something that all travelers should embrace. Since we are in the topic of comfortability? How would you describe your travel style?
• I LOVE to get lost on foot.
• I like to understand the context of what I’m seeing in time and in relation to their political, financial climate, and therefore like to read about the country a bit before going.
• I don’t like to rush from attraction to attraction when I’m traveling.
• I like to strike up conversations with the people I come across (waiters, hostel friends, owners and employees, friends, friends of friends, etc.) and learn about the culture from them.
• I travel on a budget and am typically not super organized so I don’t plan days in advance what I’m doing every day while I’m in a city, but to feel safe and content, I need to know where I’m staying and how to get there. I usually talk to people or use travel blogs to get suggestions about what to do once I’m there.
• I prefer to spend money to see places as apposed to spending it to eat the food in that place. I figure I’ll have to eat, and I’ll be eating “their” food. So, I don’t make plans based on the ability to eat typical cultural foods. This is also because I like to be active and don’t tend to want to sit in a restaurant for hours.
• I like to explore places with beautiful scenery, where I can feel lost (realistically, I usually get lost) in the nature. I also have a love of natural bodies of water. I go swimming wherever I can.
"Here is a spice markert in Harar."
How do you prepare for your trips?
• I like to research a bit about the country’s history and current events to have a context for walking into the country with.
• I make sure I’ve solidified a place to stay.
• I make sure I know how to get from where I’m landing/getting dropped off in the city to wherever I’m staying. I’ve learned to screenshot the directions because I was once caught when travelling a few years ago with my sister in Lisbon, between the hours of 4am and 9am looking for our hostel because the taxi dropped us off in the wrong place. I was walking around completely lost, carrying my heavy suitcase in my arms through the steep streets. That was an experience I try to avoid now!
• In terms of packing, I tend to think of important packing items a few weeks before leaving and create a list on my phone. I continue adding to it until I’m ready to start packing. I now have a “bare-bones” packing list I keep on my phone for adding on to for the next trip I go on. There are a couple of things I always bring, which I’ve only learned to bring after having travelled a bit. The first is thank-you cards because I felt in need of them multiple times when somebody helped me (a hostel manager, a host stay family, a friend I met that invited me somewhere), extra plastic bags because I always find use for them either for something liquid that will spill, or dirty shoes that I want to put in my luggage, or pieces of something that need to be kept together, and a deck of playing cards!
• Other important ways to prepare are to cover any required bases for your (1) passport, (2) shots/medicines required, (3) visa for entering the country, (4) phone service, (5) travel notification for credit card if you’re planning to use it abroad, and (6) making sure you have at least a little bit of cash in the local currency of that country before landing there.
Left Picture: "A selfie in the elevator of my home in Verona at 6am leaving my home in Verona feeling the need to capture how much I was about to carry on my mile walk to the train station to catch my train to Rome. I managed to get (mostly) over my discomfort taking selfies while traveling alone."
Right Picture: "Got stuck in a huge rainstorm 20 minutes away from home on a run around Verona. I got home soaking wet and super happy from the impromptu fun it was for me! "
One of the things I noticed that hold people back from traveling is finances? How do you go about budgeting your travels?
Luckily, I have a full-time job as a teacher and can save a little bit of money each paycheck! I set aside the exact same amount of money from every paycheck during the 9 months that I’m working and put it into a separate account for traveling.
In terms of keeping my travel experience such that I can do the most with as little money as possible, I do a few things:
• I use Hostelworld to book a hostel and always choose the cheapest hostel making sure that I’m comfortable with the reviews specific to location and cleanliness.
• I try to spend money on only one meal per day and then buy snacks for the other two meals. I tend to eat a lot of fruit when I travel, ha! It’s cheap and healthy! Fruterias are my favorites!
• I also tend to travel places where I know somebody that lives there, which helps with some of the financial burden because I have a place to stay and can make food with them.
If you were asked to catch a flight last minute for a trip, what three things would you bring with you?
Can we assume I already have my phone and wallet with me? ;)
My running shoes that double as walking shoes
"We were told that feeding hyenas was a “must-do” in Harar, Ethiopia! It went from me feeding the hyena from a stick, to this before I could figure out what was happening. I found out later it was the man’s attempt to prove to me that the hyena wouldn’t hurt me!"
In conclusion to our interview, I would like to ask you if you have any advice for fellow female travelers. It could be something that you learned on your own or that another female traveler shared with you.
1. Push your comfort zone little by little, always using your intuition and common sense.
2. Don’t take somebody up on an opportunity if you think there’s a safer approach.
When I arrived in Rome at 6am having slept awfully, and anxious to get to my hostel, I was approached by a man in a tuxedo immediately upon exiting the airport, who was saying, “Taxi? Taxi?” Exactly what I needed! I’m accustomed to taxis being in a particular place at the airport pick-up though, and that the driver be in the car. Knowing this, I asked him, “Where is your taxi?” and he pointed to a black limo-looking car parked several meters away. It didn’t seem so fishy. I’d heard of private limo companies, but still wasn’t convinced. I looked at his jacket to see if it had a company name on it. It didn’t. So, that was another red flag to me. I then told him I only had a credit card and that I needed to be able to pay that way. He responded, “We can stop at an ATM in the city center”. That seemed strange. Most taxi companies I know have the capacity for accepting a credit card. I then asked him how much it would cost to get to where I was going and he gave me a price that was two times as much as I had expected. That was another red flag. When I gave him the address of the hostel I needed to get to, he didn’t recognize the street name and looked up directions on his phone GPS which also seemed strange. So, I said, “No thanks” and walked away as he followed me. Minutes later I found exactly the taxi line I was looking for.
"Facturas being brought to the bakery in the early morning hours in Buenos Aires!"
3. Just as society teaches men to interact in certain ways, I think women are taught to interact with certain mannerisms. For me, that is to be submissive, to smile, to follow instead of lead, and to be agreeable, to name some. These forms of interacting actually worked against me traveling alone. I didn’t realize that smiling made people (especially men) take me less seriously. I experienced that men were excessively friendly with me often, and after quite a bit of confusion, frustration, and conversations with friends, I realized it was because I was smiling without recognizing I was and this was interpreted as a sign of romantic or sexual interest on my behalf. It took me some time to realize that I had to get comfortable with my unnatural “game face” as my sister and I would refer to it as we travelled in Ethiopia. I learned that if I want to be heard, make my own choices, and avoid being taken advantage of, the way I’m perceived (and this is different in each respective culture) is critical and that my outward appearance and body language, unfortunately, affects this. I encourage any woman traveling alone to similarly reflect on if and how society’s messages have affected their ways of interacting and to be conscious of this when navigating in a foreign culture.
"Exploring the spices market in Harar, Ethiopia with my brother, sister, and the man who offered to take us for a tour around the town that morning!"
4. Be aware of the fact that, as women, (and, I’ve found, especially in other countries – most tend to be less progressive than the US), we cannot rely on safety and respect from others to the extent that men tend to be able to. Always prioritize your safety when you make choices in travel. Know how to get where you’re going or make sure you’re with somebody you trust who knows. If you’re going somewhere make sure you’ll be able to get back to where you’re staying safely, and be careful about how much information you want to give somebody about yourself.
"Walking around my brother’s home town with him in Ethiopia. "
5. Be aware. Use your common sense. Always ere on the side of safety. If something feels fishy, consider the possibility of a better option.
6. Learn about the cultural norms of communication in the culture where you plan to immerse yourself, to feel more comfortable
Left Picture: "These public water fountains saved my health AND mood in the hot, hot, heat as I walked all over Rome! "
Right Picture: "Admiring my favorite spot in Roma - Fontana Trevi :-D"
Ana, it has been such a pleasure having you on Travelers.Connect. One can really tell that you are very passionate about traveling, learning, and embracing life to the fullest by just reading your interview. I seriously wish I would have met you before my solo trips because your advice would have been so helpful to know. I know for a fact that our readers will take away something from your experiences. Again, thank you so much! Fellow readers, if you have any questions for Ana or want to know more the countries she has been too, please feel free to send me a message on Instagram at @cafecito_y_cultura or on Facebook under Rissa Rivera. Talk to you all soon!