The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Category: On Being Twenty-Something (page 2 of 3)

Interviewin’ A Badass Series: VANESSA ALVARADO

Vanessa Alvarado is another stellar member of the #LoudLadies community who lives a life full of passion and creativity. Her blog, Thrift Core, is one of the most interesting spots on the world wide web, where she shares inspiration for living a life outside of the status quo. Plus, she’s the only herbalist I’ve met with an affinity for both anime AND cephalopods. Let’s learn some more about this awesome ex-pat #loudlady!

Thank you so much for appearing on my blog! Can you give my readers a summary of what your current projects are?

Right now I’m finishing my studies to become a certified herbalist and loving it! I’m working with my mom and boyfriend to launch a line of natural body care products and plotting behind-the-scenes on some fresh re-branding for my blog. I was selling vintage and taking clients for random projects but cleared most of that from my plate. I’ve stopped trying to do one million projects at once…for now!

Phew! That’s a lot of awesome projects! And WHERE are you right now?

I’m in the best apartment in Riverside, Jacksonville, Florida with my best friend and boyfriend 😀 But you probably meant in life? I’m feeling dizzy from the array of choices I have with my two big projects right now and just trying to buckle down, focus, and make them the best they can be.

Ms. Vanessa herself, in a hotel in Tampa rather than in her lovely apartment.

Ms. Vanessa herself, in a hotel in Tampa rather than in her lovely apartment.

Your life location AND physical location both sound pretty dang great. Mmm, Florida! I’ve only ever visited Fort Myers, and that was for a wild whirlwind vacation with my girlfriends where I think all of us technically got married on the beach. So you were raised in Naples, Italy and Jacksonville, Florida. Did you split your time between both places, or spend a set number of years in each place?

My dad was in the Navy so we moved around a little bit. I was born in Norfolk Virgina. We moved to Naples, Italy where I only spent four years. We then moved to South Carolina for two years. After that we moved to Jacksonville, Florida where I’ve remained ever since. It’s been two decades since I’ve lived in Italy and I still miss it.

What is your mother tongue, and where else do you consider home?

I’m half Mexican (mom) and half Puerto Rican (dad) but my parents raised my brothers and I to speak English and only English. They said we rejected Spanish completely by about age 3 and refused to speak it. I consider my eclectic bohemian neighborhood (Riverside, Jacksonville) home but I have severe wanderlust and love to explore everywhere and everything. I want to travel the U.S.A in an RV and travel the world from there!

USA by RV is also one of my travel goals. I salivate thinking about exploring the Wild West that way. Do you travel much during the year to new places, or do you mostly make the rounds to visit family and friends in the same spots across the globe?

I visit family in Puerto Rico sporadically, they live in the Southern part (Ponce) away from the tourist scene so I get to indulge in the “real” Puerto Rico. We rarely explore the island outside of that, but try to. Otherwise, I try to go somewhere new in my area at least once a week or go on weekend trips to areas that are 2-5 hours away. My friends and I have a big calendar of explorations booked for the summer and I’m saving up for future, farther trips!

Caracoles, La Parguera, Puerto Rico

Caracoles, La Parguera, Puerto Rico, where you get dropped off via boat to reach one of the tinier Caribbean Islands.

What is something you’ve learned about travel the HARD way that you can share with my readers?

Really be alert when planning your trips and when you’re on your trips. I had a friend book a trip to Key West for us and he accidentally booked the hotel one hour away from Key West. We had to drive an hour each time we wanted to see more in the key! Also, pay close attention in the airport. I had a fast connector flight from Tokyo to Washington and didn’t hear that I got to skip ahead in the customs line for it. I had to dash across the airport and nearly missed my flight!

Just hearing about your near-miss at the airport made my heart rate spike. That’s really good advice, especially about double-checking your hotel bookings. RyanAir in Europe likes to make their own airports, claiming they’re in a city like Barcelona, for instance, and then when you land there you realize you’re actually an hour outside of Barcelona and have to spend even more money to get to the freaking city you wanted in the first place. SIGH. But, moving on…

You have a self-proclaimed love for cephalopods. Would you still love them so much if you woke up with an oversized, creepy, bottom-of-the-sea-feeder, electric blue mollusk poised to suction cup itself to your face?

I really would.

That’s so creepy. Have you ever been deep-sea diving and/or handled a mollusk? If not, can we try it together?

Nope, but it’s been a childhood dream. Let’s do it!

You’re one of the nerdy website girls of the late 90’s, like I was. Most of my time between ages 11 and 15 was spent teaching myself HTML so I could perfect the frames on my Hanson fansite (yes, yes, I know…) What were your websites about, and did you ever use Angelfire?

Haha, no shame. I had two of their CDs and my friends had wall-to-wall Hanson “wallpaper” (pages ripped out of teen magazines.) All the eyes everywhere made it terrifying to attempt sleep! I made several different anime fan-sites on Angelfire before switching to hosting them off my own domain name in the future! Oh, memories! I was sucked in and addicted from my very first Angelfire website. I had stupidly long URLS and abused the animated gifs.

The animated GIF’s! Ahh, what great times with those!

What is the biggest lesson you learned from your time spent as a corporate copywriter? And how do you use that experience to direct your freelancing career?

It would be hard to narrow it down to one! I value the search engine optimization tricks I learned, but learning how to phrase things to sell is my favorite lesson. The importance of communicating value was practiced and refined during my time in an office.

And those aren’t easy things to learn or refine! I certainly could stand to learn more about it (so I’ll probably let you know when I need a crash course sometime down the road…)

What’s your favorite non-American recipe? Share as much details as possible, because I want to make it like, tonight.

A classic comfort food staple I learned to make in Italy was a classic Italian-style Caprece salad with fresh buffalo mozzarella. It’s very healthy and fresh, a beautiful reflection of “real” Italian food, which is lighter and fresher than the Italian-American counterpart. You cube ripe tomatoes, cube fresh buffalo mozzarella from the market, julienne freshly picked basil and toss it all with extra virgin olive oil. Top with a dash of sea salt. Simple. Perfection. Makes your mouth very happy and takes very little time, too!

Dinner tonight = ready. Thanks for joining us, Vanessa! Don’t forget to check out her blog, Thrift Core!

The Enraged Beeping of the E-Word

During Heather’s first full day in Rishikesh, I had planned a mini-excursion to the famous ‘Beatles Ashram’ with a couple friends I’d made while in town. The day was bright and hot, perfect for a mid-day hike into the forests of the Himalayan foothills.

The ashram sat less than a ten-minute walk from Parmarth Niketan, which provided a pleasant sunny walk full of interesting conversations as we made our way to the gates of the legendary place.

The ‘Beatles Ashram’ is no longer operational, and has since been taken over by wild overgrowth of the Himalayan jungle. Even still, a ‘guard’ sits at the gate to demand an entry fee. This person is not hired or paid by the state, and from what I’ve heard, is simply a sadhu (or otherwise) who sits at the entrance to demand bribe money to be let into the complex.

We paid the equivalent of 100 rupees, or roughly $1.50, per person to get past the gates. According to other travelers, there is a way to get inside without bribe money, but it involves hiking a bit and scaling walls, both of which are activities I’m happy to bypass in exchange for only $1.50 USD.

Once inside, the true splendor of the ashram could be felt, despite the overgrowth and the abandonment. Stone paths arched up into the depths of the establishment, lined with dense foliage. Interesting tee-pee huts made of stone dotted the sidelines as we walked further. Without a guide or any real information about the arena other than “the Beatles were here”, we were left to speculate and wonder about what much of the buildings had been previously used for.

Climbing the path, deeper in to the ashram...

Climbing the path, deeper in to the ashram…

Inside a strange, decrepit building, with ancient exposed wires hanging from the ceiling and cement walls in every stage of disrepair, I whipped out my cellphone to share a tidbit of interesting information I’d opened earlier about the general history of the Beatles’ involvement at the ashram. After a theatrical presentation about the fallout between John Lennon and the guru in residence at the time, the talk turned to an interesting tidbit included at the end of the TripAdvisor summary.

That of the wild tigers, monkeys, and elephants that can sometimes be found mingling amongst the foliage of the ashram.

Huddling in a small circle around the exposed wires in the ceiling of the building, our conversation took a turn for the fascinating and horrifying. With all the feel of a group of kids sharing stories over a campfire, my companions took turns telling tales about things they’d heard regarding the wildlife.

About the large number of tigers and elephants that are found roaming freely through the grounds of the ashram.

About the way tigers aren’t the dangerous ones, it’s actually the elephants to be afraid of.

About how elephants never forget and their long history of poor interactions with humans had led to something of a grudge being held against us all. Regardless of our intents.

About the tourist that had been squashed to death by an elephant only the week before. Within the very walls of the ashram we were currently visiting.

“Well,” I squeaked, my good mood disappearing as quickly as water droplets in the sun, “if we ran into an elephant we could take refuge in a place like this, right?” I gestured around us. Fear began uncoiling, hot and malicious, through the limbs of my body.

“Not really,” was the response. “An elephant could easily knock down the walls and attack anyway.”

Well great. We had officially entered elephant-tiger-and-monkey’s den with literally nowhere to hide.

The only thing that we could rely on was luck. Or maybe a lack thereof.

When finally we decided to stop talking about all the horrifying things that could happen at the hands of wild animals that may or may not have been stalking us since we set foot inside the ashram, I emerged shaky and watchful from the building.

I had never even considered that a surprise encounter with an elephant would be on the agenda for this bright and sunny day. I had never imagined that the terrors could go so far beyond that of monkeys tapping at my window at night.

The visit to the ashram from there on was tinged with a distinct sense of dread. Maybe this was how it would all end, I thought – coming face to face with an elephant after rounding a corner, meeting it’s enraged gaze, and finding my final breath under its wide, unrelenting foot.

I could already imagine the fodder this might provide for my hometown newspaper (“Ohio Girls Stepped On By Elephant in India, Nobody Saw It Coming”). I thought of all the things I had yet to do with my life – all the children I wanted to bear, all the summers I had left to spend with my family in Ohio, all the years left to live out at the side of my partner.

What if that was all wiped out by one enraged elephant in Rishikesh?

What if I had actually bribed a sadhu in order to find my own death?

As you can tell, this was a highly stressful existential moment in the former ashram, made alternately worse and better by the spiritual work that myself and those around me partake in. One minute I felt content with my fate – well, even if we’re squashed by elephants today, it’s happened where it’s supposed to happen, at the moment it’s supposed to occur – and the next minute completely terrified that my future children might never be spawned, that my parents and friends would never get a goodbye note, that my partner would be left mourning by himself in South America.

Yet we plunged deeper in the ashram, dodging piles of mostly-fresh elephant poop as we did so. Piles of poop that completely destroyed my rationalization that elephants probably didn’t pass through very frequently.

Talk about a head trip amongst the ghosts of ashrams past!

Every rustle and twig snap made my heart skip a beat. At one point, Heather came back from exploring a far corner with the quiet statement, “I think I heard something over there”, which nearly triggered a heart attack. Every three minutes or so, I would revise and update my Emergency Elephant Contingency Plan, which basically involved mapping a visual path to the nearest tiny space (since climbing trees were out of the question, since their Enraged Elephant Trunks can reach high spaces without issue).

Confronting various forms of potential death in the Beatles Ashram...

Confronting various forms of potential death in the Beatles Ashram…

When it was just us four, wandering through the ashram in the relative silence of the Himalayan foothills, we joked plenty about the possibility of an elephant showing up, maybe as a way to relieve the tension of the unknown. But after a certain point, I thought it best not to continue mentioning it by name – and therefore, we would just refer to it as the ‘E-Word’.

More tourists eventually showed up, which somehow relived the tension a bit. I’m not sure why – maybe the presence of other people made me feel less like we were trespassing in the elephants’ literal stomping ground (which we were), and more like we were just regular people at a regular, sanctioned tourist activity.

Even when we stumbled into the abandoned warehouse that had been decorated with all types of interesting graffiti and artwork, I knew that the E-Word could still ravage the building.

Exploring the surprise art gallery inside the ashram

Exploring the surprise art gallery inside the ashram

Enraged E-Words could do a lot of damage when they wanted to, I now knew.

On our way back to the front gates, Heather and I overheard a strange, rhythmic beeping coming from somewhere. There were scant tourists around us; nothing mechanical or even powered to be found within the confines of the ashram. So what was it?

It could only be the beeping of an enraged E-Word. Come to claim what was truly and finally his.

Luckily, the E-Word never found us or anyone else in the ashram that day. I feel very badly for the family of the visitor who was squashed to death, and I know that freak accidents occur all the time, whether during chance encounters between human and wildlife, mishaps in nature, society gone awry, and much more.

Despite the threat of the E-Word, we had a great time at the ashram. The weather was perfect, the sights were lush and beautiful, and the entire place held a calm and peaceful energy that even the E-Word couldn’t destroy.

And the acute threat of the E-Word held within it a powerful reminder, one that seemed wholly appropriate for a visit to India, to Rishikesh, to the ashram that inspired the White Album: we’re all going to die. We never know when. It’s the only sure thing in this life.

Sometimes that eventuality is easier to ignore, like when we’re safe inside our routines and familiar spaces.

And other times, that nervousness comes roaring to life unexpectedly, even when there are plenty of other things occurring in your daily life that might pose a greater risk of death (like traveling in traffic in India, for example).

The amount of impact that fear has in our life is entirely up to us. Wandering into an elephant’s den is a choice we make for ourselves (although it’s preferable to make that choice prior to entering a place known for wild e-words). But the way we let that fear affect us is within our control.

Even if it means developing lots of contingency plans, practicing calming breath, and just knowing that it’s all gonna be okay.

Beatles Art Gallery Rishikesh

11 Reasons Why I Literally Only Wear Leggings


  1. Because they’re the most comfortable
  2. Because you never have to worry about overeating at lunch and needing to unbutton your pants in front of work colleagues and let out that embarrassing groan once the restricted flesh is released
  3. Because they have the highest return on investment (ROI) of any article of clothing, ever. $9 will last you a year, minimum
  4. Because fuck it
  5. Because they actually go with everything: winter boots, spring dresses, workout clothes, etc.
  6. Because the thought of having to wear jeans again makes me more inclined to peel off a full layer of skin in the hopes of avoiding that crunchy, stiff, grating fabric
  7. Because reason #4, again
  8. Because I can go to yoga in them, and go to a fancy event in them, and wear them to work, and be a bum in them, and society can’t say anything about it
  9. Because it strikes that balance between sexy and comfortable that is all too appealing to my twenty-something quarter-life crisis that wants to both look good but expend little to no effort
  10. Because they’re the only form of clothing that allows me to get into a full lotus in public while still remaining socially acceptable and/or avoiding inevitable crotch flash
  11. Because #4 again


LEGGINGS! [Photo Credit:]

LEGGINGS! [Photo Credit:]

The Biggest Tourist of Them All

For years, I considered myself “a real backpacker”. This was a very serious designation to me in my early twenties. It meant that I used only hostels, hand-washed my clothing, chose the cheapest forms of transportation imaginable on the face of the earth, and constantly danced that fine line between nourishment and intestinal infection.

This designation also meant that I eschewed anything viewed as “touristy”, as the Tourist label was inherently fatal to my sense of adventure. There existed a rift between Backpackers and Tourists in my mind then, which I found to be quite common amongst the hostel crowds through Central America in 2008. Somehow, though we were all foreigners and technically touristing around, it didn’t mean we were tourists, for god’s sake.

Throughout my early 20s and even through my late 20s, I’ve mostly avoided hiring tour guides. It started as a moral issue – I’m a real backpacker therefore I don’t need guides – and eventually morphed into a money issue – a guide would be nice but money’s pretty tight right now.

At any rate, I prided myself on the fact that I could explore a new and strange city by myself. If I climbed a pyramid, I was alone, breezing past the tour groups stalled at a particular lookout point, trapped in monotone conversation about the surroundings. Being able to navigate around the cosmos with only my Lonely Planet Guide and a couple hundred dollars was, for me, the biggest indicator that I had succeeded.

And the opposite of success? Being crammed into turibuses with the foreign masses, all the 5’8”+ frames squeezed behind too-small seats, blonde hair ablaze, or worse yet, being part of the uniformed tour groups ambling stoically through pyramids.

But then I went to Copan in 2008, as part of a 3 month jaunt through Central America as a single female real backpacker. I was 21 at the time – a bit too young to realize some of the actual perils that awaited someone like me on such a trip – but damnit, I had my Lonely Planet and a couple hundred dollars and an appreciation for history that could have reincarnated an ancient Mayan if I tried hard enough.

[photo credit:]

COPAN! [photo credit:]

Copan is a hallmark stop on the Mayan Trail. I was prepared to wander the ruins myself, per usual, but the night before my visit to the ancient ruins, I met a man named Chozo, who worked as a tour guide at the site itself.  On picnic tables in the balmy Honduran night air at my dirt-cheap hostel, over cigarettes and jewelry bits, he regaled me with stories about the ruins. I was practically salivating on this stranger as he expanded upon basically everything that had ever interested me about Mayan History.  I was American Putty in his Palm.

It didn’t take long for me to beg that he be my personal tour guide the next day.

He agreed.

The next day, Chozo and I met at the central plaza and made our way toward the ruins. He showed me tombs, explained the significance of their alignment, pointed out political references in the stonework, highlighted exactly where the ancient elite took their concubines for their “appointments”, helped me up when I slid in the mud, led me through underground tunnels, and, most importantly, shared his wealth of knowledge about the ancient Mayans.

He also showed me the plant-based material the Mayans used to use to stain clothing and skin. I rubbed it onto my forearm, feeling insanely primal and alive. It was, and perhaps still is, one of the most exciting moments of my life.

As a freshly graduated Ancient Civilization Enthusiast, the experience left me breathless and itching to jump into a time machine. I had hired a tour guide, and I had hired a good one.

Chozo in Copan

Chozo: The First and the Best

If you would have passed by us on that particular day in Copan, I was the gape-mouthed girl towering over the squat Honduran man, eyes sliding back and forth from the ruins to his face. I could have listened to him for days, even under the scorching Honduran sun. A new feeling bubbled in my gut: Chozo had taken what would have been an incredible-by-default visit to Copan and turned it into a holy-crap-amazing visit to ANCIENT Copan.

What had I missed on my other visits on the Mayan trail?

I had assumed that simply seeing the ancient ruins was fascinating enough – inhaling their essence, sneaking into former tombs, stealing discrete touches of ancient stone. Wrong. Learning the secrets behind them was a whole new level of fascinating. Not out of a book, but in real time, while choking on the humidity of the jungle, hearing it all in articulate, melodious Spanish from a man who knew what the hell he was talking about.

We’ve all had the sub-par tour guide experience, right? The package more interested in lumping tourists into one big manageable group, as opposed to really imparting knowledge and fascination. I lucked out with Chozo, and I knew it then, and I still know it.

The lesson I learned via Chozo was two-fold.

Despite the “tourist” title hanging heavy over my head throughout Copan, I realized the label was what I made of it. Chozo wasn’t – nor any guide, really – any threat to my backpacker esteem, because no good traveler will ever pass up the chance to earn about a foreign culture or history more deeply.

Furthermore, that day I realized that hiring a tour guide has no say in whether or not one is a tourist. We are all mf’ing tourists when we’re on the road, despite our personal classifications, despite what our ego wants to think, despite what our grandest intentions are for the trip.

As long as we are passing through – backpacking, flashpacking, slow travel, long travel, vacationing or otherwise – we are simply tourists.

But that doesn’t have to have to negative connotation it did for me at 21 years old.

Tourism is what you make of it.

Tourist Shannon in 2009, at the Eiffel Tower. Without a guide.

Tourist Shannon in 2009, at the Eiffel Tower. Without a guide.

And according to this article in Wikipedia, throughout my decade of traveling the world, I stand accused of the following types of tourism:

Creative Tourism: Tourism related to the active participation of travellers in the culture of the host community, through interactive workshops and informal learning experiences. (Editor’s Note: Such as, living in Mexico in 2006; in Guatemala in 2008.)

Experiential Tourism: or “immersion travel”  (Editor’s Note: This constitutes the bulk of my existence these days.)

Dark Tourism:  This type of tourism involves visits to “dark” sites, such as battlegrounds, scenes of horrific crimes or acts of genocide, for example: concentration camps. Dark tourism remains a small niche market, driven by varied motivations, such as mourning, remembrance, education, macabre curiosity or even entertainment. (Editor’s Note: Part of my reason for traveling to Europe in 2009 was to visit concentration camps…though I would call it for educational and remembrance purposes, not entertainment.)

Social Tourism: Social tourism is the extension of the benefits of tourism to disadvantaged people who otherwise could not afford to travel for their education of recreation. It includes youth hostels and low-priced holiday accommodation run by church and voluntary organisations, trade unions, or in Communist times publicly owned enterprises. (Editor’s Note: Pretty much all of my trips ever. Minus the Communist times part.)

Our early 20’s are there precisely for learning these distinctions in life – that there are no actual distinctions except the ones we arbitrarily assign. We’re just people, doing things that interest us, in ways that feel most comfortable or right at the time. And that’s okay. It’s what you want to do, and that’s okay.

I don’t know that you’ll ever catch me in a big group of foreigners wandering in well-timed tour groups throughout the notable sights of any particular country. You might still find me on the fringe, debating over the tour guide, wondering if I have enough money to afford the hostel and that expensive bottle of wine I wanted to get later…but you WON’T find me sneering at the tour group like I used to in my relative youth.

Let’s explore the world, people. It’s a huge place, and there’s room for all of us. However you want to see the world.

Just go do it.


Paris Tours

5 Money Saving Tips That You Won’t Like At All

Whether your goal is travel, debt relief, buying a new house or just saving up for that inevitable crisis, there are a few tiny changes you can make in your life right now to begin accumulating that cash.

Most articles with similar titles tend to feature flashy and intriguing suggestions that are easy enough to implement into your lifestyle. They might leave you feeling inspired, like maybe there’s a few new things to add to the ol’ daily routine.

But my tips? Mine are a total drag, but they work like a charm. These are not flashy, or glamorous. But they save you some damn money. I’ve extracted these tips directly from the fleshy meat of my own lifestyle, so I know these are extremely effective.

[Editor’s Note: I am not responsible for any unintended side effects of these tips, other than saving money. I take full responsibility for that.]

  1. Wear the same clothes almost every day. My friends have always made fun of me for my ‘uniform’, but as I near 30, I’ll finally admit it, it’s my freaking uniform. I wear leggings everyday. And I don’t even care. I mend my leggings as they rip, so I only have to buy like, three pairs in a year. DEAL. This usually is paired with a couple different tops that I rotate. I have like, a token sweater that I always wear as well. THAT’S MY WARDROBE. Money saved through lack of buying new clothing = insane.

    Behold, the Token Sweater!

    Behold, the Token Sweater!

  2. Don’t ever update your phone. This means you have to take extra good care of your phone while you use it, and by no means can you lose it, drop it in the toilet, or get it stolen during a trip. I’ve been using the same iPhone 4 (FOUR. NO ‘S’ AFTER THAT, D’JA SEE?) for over two years which I think is a sin according to Apple. But it works great. I was only remotely considering upgrading within a year’s time because I was under the impression that iPhones could not technically last this long because there was some mechanism that made them spontaneously crack after 12 months of use. We’ll see how long I can push my luck.
  3. Refuse to purchase health insurance. This is not wise. I repeat, this is not wise. However, I can’t afford insurance in the USA, and I don’t live there, so I don’t have it. I take care of my health costs in whatever country I’m living in. I’m pretty healthy (says everyone just before the unexpected mystery infection that almost kills them), so I’m more than able to pay for my routine yearly check-ups out of pocket. It always ends up being way cheaper than if I lived in the USA and HAD insurance. Imagine that.
  4. Get rid of your car. This tip is helped by the fact that I moved out of the USA and could not physically bring my car on the airplane with me. Also, I was sick of owning one and maintaining it. I don’t want to get into the bottomless pit that is a gas tank or car maintenance. Oh, you’ve owned a car and are currently spending $8,000 on [insert random mechanical failure nobody’s heard of]?? Yeah. Thought so.
  5. Choose your vices carefully. I used to spend a lot of money on going out, in another time of my life. But after some recent backpacking left my bank account gasping and writhing, I realized I had to buckle down. So I stopped leaving the apartment for anything that was not strictly related to feeding myself, exercise, or wandering to steal flowers. (Seriously – I found the best day lilies dumpster diving the other day.) It’s been a good time to focus more seriously on my work, and to reduce the amount of money flying out of my wallet.

Choose Your Vice

In the effort of full disclosure, a lot of these money-saving tips are possible for me because of my lifestyle, or perhaps a result of it. Though my partner and I will settle for a time in a city or specific country, we always end up piling our shit into one backpack and moving on. So it makes it easier to whittle down what isn’t really needed in life – like all those new shirts you bought and never wore, or the million pairs of shoes, or, you know, the health insurance.

We could all stand to save a little money, especially for the rainy day fund. My father always used to advise me to save a little bit of money each paycheck, to “pay yourself first”.

I still try to do this, no matter my level of income. And sometimes, paying myself first means that I have to mend these leggings for the twelfth time.

As long as my token sweater covers up the snare in the butt of my leggings, everything will be fine.
                                     Happy Camper


You Can Have Dreads AND a 401(k)!

Once upon a time, everyone who heard of my plan to put dreadlocks in my hair had a specific piece of advice to give. Usually they were tips based on second-and-third-hand experiences; other times, they were warnings about my future. They sounded like this:

“Oh, god, you can never wash your hair again! Did you know that?”

“You’ll have to shave your head afterward. Did you know that?”

“Everyone will think you smoke weed and are a loser pot head. Did you know that?”

“You won’t be able find a job. Did you KNOW that?!”

Ahhh, blanket statements about stereotypes! How snug and comforting they all feel, being hurled by well-meaning friends! I didn’t really care about these warnings. I had a firm game plan: put dreads in, and see what happens. I was positive I could wash my hair with dreads; I knew that shaving my head wasn’t the end of the world like some people seem to think, and actually is something I plan to do someday; and furthermore, being a non-loser, I was firm enough into my personal identity to not care what perfect strangers might assume about me because, hi, a small percentage of people are always going to think SOMEthing negative about you despite your best efforts.

Bottom line was: did I want the well-meaning but misguided advice of my social network (and beyond) to influence something that was a dream I’d had for years and years and years?

I can see the benefit to intervening in a loved one’s life choice if it involved something like, oh, I don’t know, deciding to become a private escort, or picking up a sleek new heroin habit.

But changing my hairstyle? Come on. Let’s reserve the stiff-lipped life advice for things that really matter, like procreating, earth stewarding, and ethical dilemmas.

Five years into the dreadlocks, I am happy to report that none of the advice I was given ever came into fruition. Well, almost none of the advice.

Bugs did not nest in my scalp, nor did all of my dreadlocks merge into one huge unmanageable hippie cranial cord. I do not smell — bad, that is, because my dreads are quite fragrant. People don’t assume I’m a loser — though some assume I smoke weed and tend to ask me in public spaces while traveling if I have any (sorry, guys). A small percentage of people assume I’m Rastafari (I’m not) and that my allegience has been pledged to Jah (it hasn’t).

The big one for me, though, was the job thing.

I get a lot of people who come to me wild-eyed and salivating, wanting dreads so desperately but too afraid to take the leap into locking up for fear of ruining any and all future job prospects. 

“If I put dreadlocks in my hair, I just won’t be able to find any jobs,” they tell me, eyes suddenly misty and contemplating the horizon. Somehow, they know the certainty of this. I’m not sure if they have a crystal ball or a time-warping capabilities forged from a black hole in their basement, but they know.

To be fair, some of the job prospect outlook depends on what you want to do with your life. I never had dreams of being a versatile hair model, an employee where neat, carbon-copy business attire rules over anything else, or working someplace where machines whir and spin at high speeds and could therefore catch my dreadlock by the tip and pull me into the complex, crushing gears of a truffle-making machine.

My post-graduate goals were speak Spanish and help people. I figured I could do that AND have dreadlocks, right?

More than right. Not only did I have dreadlocks, I had multiple jobs with multiple bosses and multiple career opportunities.

*collective gasp from the audience*

*a couple theater-goers look around in shock, trying to locate the source of that scream*

*someone tries to recoup their spilled popcorn from the floor before their friend notices*

In the past five years, the opportunities and experiences have been diverse.

I worked as a bartender with dreadlocks. I worked in retail with dreadlocks. I worked at a finance company with dreadlocks. I worked as an interpreter with dreadlocks. I worked at a health clinic with dreadlocks. I ran an OB-GYN office with dreadlocks. And finally, I had health insurance and a very-responsible-sounding 401(k) with dreadlocks.

You know what didn’t happen?

Nobody judged me for having them. Nobody said, man, you’d be a much better employee if you didn’t have hair like that. Nobody tried to demote me because of my hair. And probably most interestingly, not a single person has said, God, those are hideous and you look like a loser.

Curtain of Dreads.

Curtain of Dreads.

(Editor’s Note: Someone once DID tell me that I can’t have dreadlocks while not Rastarfari, since that is ‘what dreadlocks mean’. I directed them to educate themselves about the multiple and multicultural histories of dreadlocks around the world, which includes a wide variety of uses, methods, and meanings.)

I can’t speak for all people that have dreads, of course. Maybe some people have them in an effort to distance themselves from things like office jobs and traditional savings accounts. Maybe others prefer that marginalization that sometimes accompanies knee jerk reactions to the choice to lock up.

But I don’t believe that dreadlocks inherently equates to anything other than what it means for the person wearing them. In fact, the more people there are with visible “alternative choices” in terms of physical appearance that prove themselves to be intelligent and valuable human beings in general, the better.

Any chance to break down stereotypes is a welcome one. I’m excited for the day when people look at me and, instead of thinking “Wow, that’s a white girl with dreadlocks, she must be X and Y”, they instead think, “There’s a person I’d like to learn more about”, free from assumptions and pre-conceived notions.

We would all do well to remember this about every person that crosses our paths, as well.


Life Lessons Learned through Laptops

Or, Thoughts About Self-Employment-Type-Stuff from a 20-Something Who’s Still Figuring It Out

America is a nation of brand identity and advertising. If we aren’t feeling superior based on our deodorant choice, or that our selection of cereal somehow means something about how serious we are about heath or fighting types of cancers, then we aren’t doing it right.

My soup choice means something...right?

My soup choice means something…right?

Even though we all logically know this is a heaping pile of poopy alpaca crap, on some level it permeates. Advertising is designed to permeate without our consent – that’s the genius part about how effective it is, right? – and if it were something we could opt out of without throwing the television in the garbage, well, then, this world would be a much different place.

But what can our brand loyalties teach us, other than the fact that we’re slavishly supporting a corporation that is probably making millions of dollars off of our misplaced and overly-idealized allegiances?

I began owning and utilizing laptops of my own accord around age 18. After several laptop purchases had come and gone, I realized that my choice was always Sony Vaio.

I loved everything about them. The shape, the style, the power, the logo. I liked associating myself with Sony – “I’m a Sony girl”, “Oh trust me, I’d never get anything other than a Sony” – and I began to delude myself, to a certain extent, that this was some sort of basic, unalterable truth about me. It was something that I had chosen for myself, and as a burgeoning adult, it felt good to identify with something bigger than me.

I am Shannon. I am Sony Girl.

Years came and went under the unblinking eye of Vaio laptops. Even when one of them died and I was forced to receive whatever replacement laptop I could get within a week’s time before I left the country, it was a Sony Vaio. (I swear, I didn’t plan that.)

But then a time came when I had to face a hard and somewhat unpleasant truth about my beloved company. Sony’s customer service had left me high and dry in a time of need. As an American living abroad, I utilize my laptop as my sole source of income generation. In other words, I live and die by my computer now.

OK, so it's not exactly like this...but wouldn't it be cool??

OK, so it’s not exactly like this…but wouldn’t it be cool??
[Image Credit:]

Not only is it the vehicle for income earning for three different jobs, my laptop is also my primary means of writing, blogging, organizing my life, and keeping in touch with literally every single person I know. I must have a computer that works. And this Vaio stopped working 9 months into our relationship, without any sort of warning that it had been dissatisfied or seeking a different arrangement.

I sent that baby in, and Sony told me the motherboard had corroded. Despite still being under that automatic one-year warranty, this issue wasn’t covered. My $1k investment was worthless and they wouldn’t be replacing it. The warranty didn’t cover ‘spills’, even though the cause of my laptop’s death was 100% not related to any spill. There was no arguing, no way out. I had a very expensive piece of garbage.

Sure, I'll just throw this money in the toilet...

Sure, I’ll just throw this money in the toilet…

I couldn’t afford this scenario again. Though I’ll vehemently deny that I ever spilled anything on that laptop until the day I die, the incident taught me some lessons that are important to consider at any stage in the self-employed/ex-patriot/young professional/20-something-wanderer/anybody with a passion and need for computer lifestyle. These also apply very well to almost any other arena of life. Here they are:

Take your work equipment seriously. As in, insure it seriously. If you live and die by a piece of equipment, then you better be sure that it is covered in all moments of life and death. And this means buying extra warranties, extra spill coverage, extra drop protection, and whatever else those MF’ers are offering you. (Haay, tax deductions!)

  • EXTRAPOLATED LIFE LESSON: Take a bunch of other stuff seriously, like your health, and your home. Insure that shit, and be prepared for those moments you think might never come but always do when you least expect it.

Feedback is key. As I began the hunt for The Next Laptop. I felt obliged to remain loyal to my brand – after all, I was a VAIO GIRL – but I was feeling the burn from the recent mishap. Did I want to trust them to protect me again? What if something like that had happened while I was abroad? What other models could they offer where the same thing wouldn’t happen? After researching thoroughly online (as opposed to blindly following my brand loyalty), I found that most actual Vaio Users had a similar complaint: the customer service is shit. That’s a big deal when you suddenly find yourself in a position where you need a helping hand. And in my hunt for The Next Laptop, I began to look seriously at companies’ customer service ranking, not to mention losing hours of my life sifting through personal experiences in computer forums.

  • EXTRAPOLATED LIFE LESSON: Listen to others that have been there. Seek counsel. The experience of others can be extremely useful or extremely useless as you make your own decisions — but knowing more is always better.

Be honest about what’s out there. Before I found my current work laptop, my number one priority for the laptop was that it was a Vaio. I’m not even kidding. Second and third on my list were color (white) and size (ultra-light). I was essentially seeking a Macbook with Windows but struggled to remain loyal to my Vaio roots. After the warranty burn with Vaio, I slowly and painfully began to research other brands. I didn’t even know where to begin, and had all sorts of extremely outdated judgments about other laptops (Acer is CRAP; Dell is UGLY; Toshiba is only for ROCK CLIMBERS). But once I began narrowing my most important attributes – lightweight because I travel a lot, but not extremely small because I write a lot, fast enough to multitask like the multitasking ninja I am, etc – I began to have a more reasonable pool of options. From there, I went onto the lesser important details, like *cough* similarities to MacBook.

  • EXTRAPOLATED LIFE LESSON: Don’t kid yourself about any aspect of your life. Our expectations and fantasies can color our realities, so be real about whats actually in front of you: whether it be a job, a relationship, a financial situation, etc.

Be prepared for losses at any time. Being that I maintain a bi-coastal existence (part of the year in South America, part in North America), my crap is pretty spread out. I have a hard drive with all of my important information from Ever in North America, and then a portable one with more recent backups that travels with me. But when the Vaio motherboard went on hiatus, and then later my gifted laptop came down with a registry error disease while I was backpacking and unable to fix it, I realized something very stark and very painful: have your shit backed up at all times. There’s plenty of businesses out there strictly aimed at this, so finding some sort of cloud backup or on-the-go reserve isn’t a hard task. For me, it was more about learning to take it seriously. Like insuring my equipment in any and all circumstances. Thankfully, I haven’t lost anything irreplaceable. But I have lost plenty of hilarious and otherwise great first drafts of articles and stories that I would pay a pretty penny to have back in my hands.

  • EXTRAPOLATED LIFE LESSON: Losses come in many forms, and as morbid as it may sound, they’re waiting for all of us. Loss of material possessions, loved ones, health, even our own memories… Know that it is part of life, and just be as prepared as you can be for when the loss eventually arrives.

Lessons come where they can, I suppose, extrapolated and otherwise. For someone who began programming a Commodore 64 at age 7 and spends a disproportionately high number of hours staring at a screen comprised of pixels, it only makes sense that some of my learnings came via laptop. And as I sit comfortable and content behind my super skinny, super light, white, touchscreen Acer Aspire s7, I can’t help but think that the constantly visible Aspire brand might have had something to do with this piece, this inspiration, or maybe something about who I am as a person overall.

But no – I am no longer a girl of any one company, much less an Acer girl. I am simply Shannon. But I certainly love using this Acer, and for anyone interested in buying, I give this baby a full two thumbs up.

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