Tag Archives: travel

El Colacho takes leap of faith in Spanish festival

When you ask 17-year-old Estafania Gonzalez about the time her parents laid her down on a mattress in the middle of the town square for a man dressed as the devil to jump over her, the details might get a little hazy.

“It was good although I can’t remember it because I was a baby,” she coolly tells me in an interview conducted in Spanish.

Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t. If it weren’t for the event’s holy Catholic ties, this could be the sort of thing that haunts you for years.

At the El Colacho festival in Castrillo de Murcia, Spain, the discordant clanging of church bells overhead and a single foreboding drum can’t hush the wails of infants dressed in their laciest bonnets and softest onesies.

Parents tenderly coo and cradle, but not much can be done. What’s seen cannot be unseen. After more than seven hours of preparatory festivities leading up to the main event, the babies know what — or rather, who — is coming. It’s time for a dance with the devil.

El Colacho babies
All  participating babies are less than a year old but are wise and wary about what’s in store.

Getting myself into something

Prior to leaving for Europe, when curious friends asked me to rattle off the festivals I’m attending this summer, I’d always say something along the lines of, “Oh you know, Running of the Bulls, La Tomatina, a baby-jumping festival … ” I could never get farther in my list without first clarifying what I meant by “baby-jumping.”

“Like, a festival where a bunch of babies jump?” some would ask.

No, no sillies, that wouldn’t make much sense, now would it? Babies don’t have the motor skills for that.

I only confused them more when I went into further explanation. The only fact I could really offer up is that families in this tiny Spanish village cleanse their children of original sin and protect them against childhood illnesses by having a man dressed as the devil, or “El Colacho,” leap over them. The ceremony falls on the same week as their baptism.

To be honest, I didn’t know much more than that. For a festival that’s been around since 1621, not much information can be gleaned from the web aside from a sparse Wikipedia page and the same wire story.

With a population of about 300 people, Castrillo de Murcia isn’t exactly a happening place. There are no hotels, no markets. The village used to have a school when there were actually enough children who lived there. Nowadays, a book cart will occasionally pop by in the summer to provide some entertainment.

The village is located in northern Spain, about 19 miles away from Burgos as the crow flies. On Corpus Christi Sunday, the only ways to get there are by taxi or by rental car, the latter of which is out of the question for someone who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Terrified of what I was getting myself into, I obsessively emailed the owner of my Burgos hostel asking if he had any tips about getting to the festival or knew of anyone else going.

Even he had never heard of it and only had so much advice to offer. “We can find you a taxi to get there, but don’t forget you’ll need to get back,” he wrote.

(I envisioned El Colacho to be a testament to my capabilities as a solo-traveler. If I could make to and from Castrillo de Murcia alive, I could survive anywhere else.)

Of course, the hostel owner didn’t know of anyone else going either. That is until an Italian photographer, who was also staying in my hostel, said he was going, too.

I was relieved to have company for the day and not to be slapped with an $136 cab fare for a round-trip ride. I learned later we’d be among only a dozen or so other non-Spaniards attending the event.

From the moment we arrived to the town, I felt as though my presence was a surprise to locals. Wearing jeans, Nike sneakers and mammoth of a camera bag strapped across my body, I clearly didn’t know what I’m getting myself into.

But I don’t have much time to be self-conscious about my laughably textbook American appearance. As black birds loom overhead, I begin to hear the beat of single drum, its pulse stirring whoever could hear it into frantic shuffle out of its way.

Then, a canary yellow figure appears. Its mask features a menacing black smile, furrowed brow and two red circles dotting the cheeks. He has no eyes and holds a whip in his hands. I swear I’ve seen this guy in a nightmare before.

It’s 11:30 a.m. and El Colacho and La Cofradía, or the church’s black-cloaked brotherhood, make one of the first of many saunters around the village.

El Colacho lunges forth,  repetitively swatting at those who taunt where it hurts most, and he does not care if takes out a few openly fearful and innocent bystanders either.

Wise village elders scatter out of the way.

Local teenagers with their surging testosterone linger a little longer, pushing their luck and El Colacho’s patience.

“El Colacho está boracho,” they shout, playfully accusing the masked figure of being drunk.

As for me, I just run.

But American Amy de la Fuente, whose husband is originally from the village, tells me the taunts are all a part of the fun. She took me under her wing after spotting my reusable water bottle, very American.

“There are certain chants they will say, so basically it’s kind of like, ‘Na-na-nana-nah, you can’t get me,'” de la Fuente says, who lives in Chicago, Ill. but visits Spain with her family every year.

“You see how close you can dance to him and how fast you can run away before he gets you.”

Taunting the devil
El Colacho spares no one from his whip. Those who tease get especially harsh lashings.


A family affair

As a fellow American, I’m fascinated by de la Fuente’s love for the festival. When her children, now 11 and 9, were babies, she made it very clear to her husband that she, too, wanted them to be jumped by El Colacho.

De la Fuente said the festival provides her the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than herself. She believes traditions can sometimes get watered down in the United States.

“I feel like with my heritage, I didn’t grow up with my mom’s side of the family, so when we went to visit, there were things that we did. But because we didn’t visit all the time, it was just occasional,” she says.

“And with my dad’s side of the family, there wasn’t really any tradition.”

Was she scared before El Colacho jumped over her children? A tiny bit, but her husband’s aunts reassured her that no baby had been injured in all of its history.

In fact, everyone I asked about injuries at the festival was proud to reiterate that fact.

“No, nunca ha pasado.”

“No.”

“No, nunca.”

When I’ve mentioned the festival to those who have never heard of it, they sometimes have scoffed at the seemingly reckless disregard for health and safety regulations.

In recent years, even Pope Benedict XIV has encouraged Spanish Catholic leaders to not become involved with the festival.

But to those who have been partaking for years, the day’s rituals still hold deeply religious meaning entrenched in greater family bonds.

Estephania Gonzalez’s younger brother, 16-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, is finally getting his chance to play devil, a goal held among many of the younger local boys.

It’s his first year dressing up as El Colacho, and he can’t wipe the smile off his face now that he’s among a rank of men wearing the notorious yellow mask.

Carlos Gonzalez
The opportunity to become El Colacho is a privilege granted by La Cofradía of the church.

Though he can’t jump over the babies until he’s older, he seems content enough running about the streets in a deviant manner while whipping revelers with his hand broom. And he’s is learning what it takes to be a good Colacho, if there can be such a thing:

“Well, he is tall, fast and drinks lots of milk.”

He just has to look to those born before him if he’s in need of pointers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather have played the role as El Colacho, his mother, Marife Gonzalez, says.

In many ways, I begin to feel as though I’m a part of the Gonzalez family, the de la Fuente family and all the families I speak with.

After learning that I only brought a bag of peanuts to satiate my growling stomach, Amy de la Fuente invites me into her father-in-law’s home to make me a sandwich.

Though I’m sure she would say a croissant filled with cold cuts and cheese is nothing, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to home-cooked meal in the five weeks I’ve been traveling. In this moment, it tastes like the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

And as my tongue messily fumbles over my interview questions, those I converse with in Spanish with answered me with a great amount of patience despite the language barrier.

El salto

Following the day’s earlier pageantry and church service, the village settles down for a mid-afternoon siesta, and I retreat to the fleeting shade to wait three hours for the festivities to continue.

All at once, Castrillo de Murcia springs to life again as women hang their finest linens outside their balconies and adorn them with roses. Originally a pagan festival, the people have sought to make it a more consecrated, Catholic one.

Four mattresses dressed in pastel sheets appear in the town square, and the crowd is abuzz with excitement. Soon, the babies are set in their places. They can wiggle all they want, but they won’t get far.

After taking pictures with their children to commemorate the moment, parents retreat to the sidelines with the exception of a couple of mothers who can’t will their bodies to leave the bedside of their babies.

After another few beats of a drum, quiet falls over the crowd. Before your mind can process that the jump, known as “El salto,” is about to happen, it does.

Two colachos this time take running leaps from the staircase descending from the churchyard, heading right towards the babies. Their sneakers, a blur against the pavement. Their masks, off  thank God.

It is believed that as the colachos make mighty leap after leap, so do the evil spirits from the souls of the babies.

In order to be eligible to jump, the men must be from the village himself or married to a woman from the village.
In order to jump, the man must be from the village or married to a woman from the village.

There aren’t any gasps from the crowd, only cheers with every successful jump. Within seconds, it’s over. Make that 393 years without an injury. To anyone who comes to this festival year after year, it comes as no surprise.

Girls recently confirmed into the church throw petals over the babies, and the priest blesses each of them.

To the American eye, the festival seems strange, yes. But for the people of Castrillo de Murcia, El Colacho is just a day in the life,  a day that recognizes just how fleeting, sacred — and yes, odd — this very life can be.

PHOTO GALLERY:

 

Strangers Like Me: Meet 24-year-old Maryam

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me,” but this week comes with a twist. I’ve met so many interesting people in Barcelona, so choosing a person to profile was a challenge. But as it turns out, serendipity had a very specific person in mind I should interview.

On Wednesday, my friend Gabriella and I trekked up to Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical dream of a place, Parc Güel, where we met Maryam, a dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. Due to some ticketing issues and time constraints, Gabriella and I couldn’t actually go inside the main part of the park. (No worries, we’re saving it for another day.) This meant we had to quickly bid farewell to our new friend after only having met her just moments before.

A few hours and a couple of pit stops later, I found myself getting off at the same Metro stop as Maryam on the way back to my hostel! For city with 1.62 million people with a big tourist pull, what are the chances?

Now generally, I only interview the strangers-turned-friends I meet in hostels, but rules are meant to be broken. Afterall, Maryam is traveler too and a pretty cool one at that. We both came from somewhere and we’re both going somewhere. She might have been a stranger. But then I realized she’s a stranger … like me.

Maryam

Meet Maryam from Dallas, Texas

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
Having just finished up her second year of dental school, she doesn’t get a lot of free time. Now that she’s on a month-long break, the longest she’s had in a while, Maryam decided to travel all over Europe instead of returning home to Texas.

Where else would she most like to go?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Where is she happiest?
“I don’t think it’s like actually a place that I’m happiest. It’s more like the people around me and the things that I’m doing that make me really happy. When I was younger, my home, Dallas, used to be my happiest place ever, but then I moved around and  went to college, and I went to grad school. Everywhere I go and the people I meet, that becomes my new happy place, if that makes sense. My happy place is really anywhere that I’m happy.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Well, I feel like people’s bucket lists are huge things like skydiving, which is also on (my) list and ziplining. I want to zipline in a really amazing, beautiful place. But another thing that is small but I really want to do  because I’ve always lived in big cities  I want go somewhere where there are no lights and stargaze. I just want to spend the whole night stargazing because I love stars and I never get to see them that well at night. It’s so small, but I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Let her tell you about her family’s unlucky luggage.
“Well, this doesn’t happen to me anymore, but I’ve been traveling since I was younger to Pakistan because my grandma and my other family lives there and other places. Every time we would travel, every single time, our luggage would get lost. No matter what. We plan for it, like, ‘Our luggage is going to get lost.’ Every time I travel with my mom and my brother together as a family, our luggage gets lost.”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 28-year-old Heejung

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Heejung
Meet Heejung from Seoul, South Korea

Where’d I meet her?
Seville, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
She’s taking a break from monotony of work to travel Europe.

Where does she find happiness?
“Turkey  the town is Kas  it’s on the seaside. The reason is, I met my Turkish boyfriend there one month ago, and l loved it so much.”

What makes her happy?
“I love to see the natural places, not the city. I love the natural places, the trees, the mountains, the seaside. It’s so strange because happiness, it’s so small. So like, you give me some chocolate, and it makes me so happy. I think happiness is so small, so I can find happiness always.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Actually, I didn’t write a bucket list, but I’m always doing a year plan, just for the year. This year my plan changed because I met my boyfriend in Turkey. So, I’ll come back to Korea, and maybe I’ll come back to Turkey again and stay there.”

Let her tell you about her couchsurfing miscommunication.
“I’m a couchsurfer, so in Tatvan, Turkey, I stayed in my friend’s home, and my friend has a flatmate, so there are two boys living there. One of the boys, he can’t speak English, so we met in Burger King together, and the host can speak English. The friend wanted to talk to me, and he (tried to tell) me, “Let’s go.” He is not good at speaking English, so he (accidentally) told me to get out. It was funny. He’s a good person  it’s just that he can’t speak English.”

Photo Gallery: Symmetry and sunburns in Seville

After nearly three weeks in the United Kingdom, I continued my journey to Spain, where I’ll be staying for about a month. My first stop? Hot, hot Seville. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees the first few days I was there, making me feel like I was right back in the South.

Even better, I kept recognizing familiar faces of other travelers in the city’s quaint streets where everyone strolls at a slower pace. I wish the same could be said about the way Sevillianos talk, but alas, my ears were given a major workout trying to understand the Spanish spoken by quick Andalusian tongues.

Despite some messy miscommunications, I loved it all. Pay a visit. But first, check out my favorite pictures from the trip:

Strangers Like Me: Meet 19-year-old Fergus

Happy Thursday! I’m rolling out a new weekly segment that features (just some of) the interesting people I meet during my European travels. Though it might not have the same photographic merit, think of it as an international version of “Humans of New York” that focuses specifically on people’s bucket lists and their definition of happiness.

By attending and writing about cultural festivals, you get to learn a lot about what locals value in life, but those traveling among you have just as interesting of stories to tell. That’s why, for now, this segment will solely focus on the people I meet in hostels.

Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

IMG_9916

Meet Fergus from Christchurch, New Zealand

Where’d I meet him?
London, United Kingdom

Why is he traveling? 
He’s taking a gap year and volunteering on a farm in France.

Where else does he want to go? 
Athens, Greece and Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

What was the happiest day of his life? 
“Probably in Queenstown, and it was like two days before New Year’s. We rented out this huge house, like a holiday home. Me and this guy were skating down this huge hill, and I broke my arm, which sucked. But it was still one of the best days of my life because we were just hanging out and going to the hospital. We were drinking, obviously, like a little, not too much. I don’t know, it was just such a good day because we were just hanging out and being carefree, I guess.”

What does he want to do before he dies?
“Skydive, 100 percent. I want to swim with a great white shark and dolphins and a manta ray, like a really big manta ray. I want to go to all seven continents. If I could visit every single country, (I would), but definitely all seven continents. I want to live in Asia with the people there.”

Let him tell you about his milkshake tattoo. 
“Me and my friend were going to go get some money out from some ATM, and then we start walking there. Because I’m in Bali, people just come up to you on the street like, ‘Come to my store, come to my store.’ People hand out business cards, and (a man) gave us his business card and around the back it said ‘tattoo.’ We were talking about tattoos, and we were like ‘F–k, we should get tattoos.’ So we ended up walking down this back alley, which seemed a little bit dodgy, to this tattoo studio, and it was called ‘Panda’s Tattoos.’ So this Indonesian guy at the Panda was like, ‘What do you want done? I’ll do whatever you want.’ So we started drawing, and obviously I drew a milkshake or a doughnut, and then I flipped a coin, and it was a milkshake.”

Photo Gallery: Tales from Morocco’s blue cities

There are cities that look great in every tourist’s photos, and then there are cities so beautiful that no photo, no matter how expertly taken, could do a justice. After visiting Morocco this weekend, I feel the country’s emblematically blue cities of Chefchaouen and Asilah are a lot like that.

As Americans we hear a lot about Islamic countries, how frightening and different they can be, but we rarely experience them for ourselves. While I did feel a bit of culture shock while visiting, many of the Moroccans I met were wonderful, complex and kind.

I’m thankful that they shared a bit of their hometowns’ beauty with me, and I only wish I had more time to get to know them better. There’s always next time, I suppose. Here are a few of my favorite photos from my adventures:

In England, broken bones all for the sake of cheese

Aside from his electric blue hair, there are few parts of Dave Munro’s body that aren’t covered in mud. The entire back of his jeans is caked with an unfortunate hue of brown, and his hands look as if they had been tilling a field for days. A gash slowly seeps blood from his left arm, which cradles a bottle of Stella Artois cider that will soon nurse the pain.

Actually and rather remarkably, Munro, who hails from Perth, Scotland, isn’t all that bent out of sorts, but you should see the other guys.

The hill he stands on, a nearly vertical, 600-foot tall behemoth, is littered with dozens of thrill-seeking masochists who are strung out in all sorts of shapes.

Camera crews crowd around a man with his teeth furiously sunk into a cloth as a few men  call them Sherpas this side of Mt. Everest  escort him down after he breaks his leg.

There are murmurs that someone might be unconscious.

A little while earlier a woman was carried off for a broken neck after doing a somersault, after somersault, after somersault, after …

It’s May 26, a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, and I’m in Gloucestershire, England for the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, a sleepy-town tradition dating back to the 19th century.

Today, just as in the past couple of hundreds of years, dozens of competitors play a game of chance roulette in which they will take an adrenaline-fueled plummet down one of the steepest hills southwestern England has to offer  and there’s no pretty or delicate way to do it.

Some run, some slide, some tumble, but no matter their technique of choice, all face imminent doom. Everyone will be bounced around just like the ball of the game they have signed over their fates to.

What will they incur? Some bruises? A good head-bang? An obliterated pelvis?

Luck isn’t exactly on their side. Though the number of injuries has fallen in the past few years, the stakes are still high. 1997 had the most injuries, 33.

If it’s not broken or dislocated, something will get bruised.

But you see, there’s this cheese. And while most children dream of becoming the next Wimbledon champ or Manchester United’s next superstar, hopes of snagging that coveted roll of homegrown savory Double Gloucester are just as valid in this town.

(There’s a whole crop of boys and girls under the age of 14 who compete in uphill races in preparation for perhaps one day taking on the downhill competition.)

Sure, the payoff isn’t that great and the reasoning behind competing isn’t always the most well thought out, yet tradition persists.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet,” Munro said. “I can’t lie.”

To the curious outsider, the event doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet. I can’t lie.”

Competitors risk snapping their limbs and necks in two as they make a disorderly attempt to catch  and win  an elusive roll of cheese that isn’t in the best shape after its bumpy, muddy descent.

Even to locals, the whole thing is head-scratching, but that doesn’t stop them from watching. They turn up in droves every year for reasons even they have difficulty explaining.

Just ask Paul Templeman, a resident of Brockworth, why he’s been dozens of times since he was a child. He can only offer up this sentiment: “It’s local. It’s just a bit of fun.”

As for why he has never competed once despite all the times he’s been, Templeman’s answer is much clearer. “‘Cause I’m not that stupid,” he says with a playful huff.

But after all, if there were no competitors, there’d be nothing worth watching.

An estimated 5,000 people attended this year’s event, leaving me to wonder where exactly all the locals were hiding when I arrived the day prior.

A fortuitously bleak sky greeted me upon my arrival at Gloucester’s bus station in the central part of the village that Sunday.

My 45-minute trek on foot to my hotel was not the most scenic of routes. With its abandoned business parks and parking lots overrun by weeds, Gloucestershire initially struck me as the sort of area where the local kids are forced to make their own fun.

Aside from Storage King and a BP service station, where I combed my way through aisles of soggy quiche and oily hummus that I lived off of for three days, my hotel was in the middle of nowhere.

The village of Gloucester has a few bragging rights. Scenes of the first, second and sixth Harry Potter movies were filmed in Gloucester Cathedral. One of its churches, St. Oswald’s Priory, dates back to the 880s or 890s. Other than that, it isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of England. 

But for one reason or another, the cheese-rolling competition has given the city an international pull, with some people traveling as far as Australia wishing for a taste of victory.

Taste of victory
A spectator poses with one of the event’s famous rolls of Double Gloucester cheese.

All the recent attention has local authorities cracking down on the tradition.

What once was an official town event until 2010 has recently been viewed as reckless debauchery that caters to outlaws   or freedom fighters, depending on how you look at them.

Police have even warned local cheese-makers who provide the dairy for the race that they might be liable for any injuries that occur.

Competitors and spectators have their unique reasons for skirting around the road closures, jumping the fences, ignoring the warning signs and enduring a long hike up several other hills before Cooper’s Hill.

But one thing remains clear: There’s no love for the establishment here.

“(I do it for) tradition, fun and a disregard for our government who says kids can’t play conkers anymore,” says hometown competitor Leighton Grealis, referring to the popular but increasingly banned British school-yard game that involves whacking chestnuts tied to string against one another.

At one point during the competition, police helicopters began to fly overhead, temporarily disrupting the festivities. Whether the spectators knew the helicopter belonged to the police or mistook it for that of a TV station, everyone began to wave to it as a soared above, a cheeky British salute as if to say “catch us if you can.”

Just 7 minutes prior to the event’s kick-off at noon, it began to drizzle in true English fashion, softening the rugged land just slightly for the bums about to go down it.

The event consists of five main races: three downhill men’s races, a downhill women’s race, a free-for-all downhill race. There are also three uphill races, two of which are for children.

Shortly after a loud proclamation made on the megaphone, a tiny blur of white can be seen falling down the hill. It’s the 8-pound cheese striped with red and blue and a reminder to the competitors about how much more they have left to go.

Then a couple dozen men come barrelling down after it. Each bump they encounter on the hill is met with an uproar of laughter from the crowd. There goes a man dressed as Axl Rose. Did I just see Super Mario? There’s no web that can save Spider-Man here. Once you’re in the race, you’re in it until the rocky end.

Spider-Man
Spider-Man makes an appearance at Cooper’s Hill, but isn’t so graceful without his webs.

Any techniques? “No, no. Just run like hell,” Munro says. “Run like hell.”

Munro joked after the race that he had been tossing miniature rolls of Babybel cheese down his home’s staircase to practice the week prior. At the end of the day’s festivities, he kindly handed me one.

But in order to win the race, you must finish it. While it’s impossible to look graceful, those who fare well have a more calculated approach: Pick up speed when you can, slack where needed.

It’s certainly a talent the hometown competitors have picked up on. All but one of the races was won by a competitor from Gloucestershire.

People on the sidelines almost seem to be suffering sympathy pains for those they watch. With each blow a competitor takes comes a collective gasp from the audience.

“You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

As a means of self-preservation, some competitors won’t allow themselves to process what is happening during the race.

“I was trying not to think, to be fair,” Grealis says. “You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

Maybe we think too much before we do things. Maybe the best traditions are the ones that don’t make any sense at all.

As for blue-haired Munro, would he do it again? “Of course.”

He still needs to catch that cheese.

PHOTO GALLERY: 

Photo Gallery: From London, with love

With views like these, London is one tough city to leave. Love you forever, miss you always, London. Now it’s onto Edinburgh, but I’ll be back in a week. Expect a post about Gloucester’s cheese-rolling races in the next couple of days! I’ve got a 9-hour bus ride ahead of me, and tons of thoughts to put to paper err, blog.

#YesAllWomen endure sexism abroad, at home

Saturday marked my fifth day in London, and it was bound to be a pleasant one. I was ecstatic to have a familiar face, my friend Chelsea, accompany me for a few days of my 110-day journey through Europe, during which I will mostly be by myself.

We spent the afternoon at Tower Bridge, and as cliché as it might be, it is one of my favorite spots to head to on a warm day. But the tourist hangout also brings with it one of my least favorite parts about the city: the rude, pushy men dressed in costumes who try to get you take pictures with them and then demand payment.

While living here, you develop a certain skill set in avoiding these men. Put on a stone cold face, don’t make eye contact, become intensely aware of the whereabouts of your belongings and ignore, ignore, ignore. If they get too close, tell them to back off.

I’m very familiar of the game, but what one performer did to me Saturday was beyond anything I could have prepared myself for.

As Chelsea and I headed over to the Tower of London, a man in black and white face paint, who was masquerading as Charlie Chaplin took his prop cane and lewdly smacked it across my backside and smirked at me while he did so.

By the time I was able to process what had happened in order to speak up, he was gone, but I was left to deal with the humiliation that comes with being sexually harassed.

When I told others of the opportunity I landed to travel this summer, I was greeted with excited faces. But when adding that I, a woman, would be doing it alone, eyebrows would raise skeptically.

I’ve heard the question “Are you really going to do this?” more times than I can count. Upon arriving in London, a woman who noticed my backpack approached me on the Tube, and warned me to “watch my back.” Some friends have called me brave for what I’m doing.

Most mean well when they say these things, but I don’t like to be called brave for being a female solo-traveler. It only reinforces the notion that traveling alone as a woman is — and should remain — the exception, not the rule.

Women can read maps just as easily as men. Men find themselves lost as often as women. When we’re abroad, we all fumble over the same messy pronunciations of words our tongues just don’t seem to be built for.

I know there are tons of women who would love to be in my position, and if I didn’t receive this scholarship, I would only be daydreaming, too. But I fear that even if all women were offered this same opportunity, many would still turn it down due to the threat of violence against our gender that pervades our consciousness every single day.

And though it did require a bit of bravery to get on that plane, I do live in fear here. All these “pinch me, I’m dreaming” moments come along with the terrifying reality that I might be harassed or assaulted while I’m just pursuing what I love.

I’ve greatly enjoyed and appreciated my time here — but to the fullest? I don’t know if I ever will be able to due to the fear I feel as a female solo-traveler, but I try my hardest. While travel brings with it certain anxieties about lost passports and missed trains, the daily fear of being raped or killed shouldn’t be one of them.

I want to be able to take a late-night stroll alongside Westminster Pier by myself.

I’d like to not have to worry about whether I’ll be the only woman staying in my 12-person hostel room.

And when a friendly man asked me out on a date after a warm 45-minute conversation, I wish I had felt comfortable enough to say yes and trust that his intentions were innocent.

But here’s the thing: Though I’ve become hypervigilant of my safety as a woman in unfamiliar Europe, I still live in fear about sexual violence when I’m back home in the United States.

We tend to blame rape on “the other.” We conjure up these images of rapists being strange men who don’t speak the same language as us and lure us into an alleyway of a foreign city.

But if it’s other countries with the gender-based violence problems, talk to me about how the United States has the highest rate of spousal homicide of any developed nation.

Tell me why consent doesn’t even become a talking point in educational programs until college.

How do you explain a man could go on a killing rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., leaving six people dead because “girls have never been attracted to (him)” and he felt he should punish them for it?

We’re good at pointing out what we find to be misogynistic in other cultures, but we rarely recognize our own failures. We flippantly dismiss the use of headscarves among Muslim women as blatant oppression, but we’re dumbfounded as to how alcohol-facilitated sexual assault could get so out of control on our hallowed college campuses, as if our culture doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Statistics demonstrate a small percentage of men are repeat perpetrators of gender-based violence. So, most men are good people, but the bottom line is that men are most often the perpetrators of sexual assault, and this type of violence occurs all the time and to so many women.

Just as a female survivor of sexual violence is somebody’s sister, daughter or mother, a male perpetrator of violence is somebody’s brother, son or father. These men live among us, speaking the same language, strolling along the same familiar streets of our hometowns. We bear the responsibility of teaching them about decency, respect and equality.

It’s time we stop dismissing gender-based violence as someone else’s issue. How many other terrible events need to occur before we recognize it is a problem and it is ours?

Ending the violence starts with us, no matter where we’re located on the map. And when women do travel by themselves, we shouldn’t be questioning them but instead questioning those who hurt them and — perhaps, most importantly — ourselves for giving rise to a culture that makes it OK for gender-based violence to exist in the first place.

For the love of weirdness

I believe love is a choice. We actively decide who we keep in our lives and who we let go. Though we don’t have control over every circumstance life throws our way, we have a choice to love what we’re doing or stop doing it, a choice to love the place we’re in or leave it.

It’s a beautiful yet terrifying notion, choice. It demands we be uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable while reckoning with the fears of what could go wrong. Then we’re perhaps unsettled when something does go wrong on the rare occasion. With this lack of comfort comes weirdness.

We don’t just shy away from weirdness, we vehemently avoid it. We’re told to. How else would we have survived our middle school hallways?

When we try to avoid being weird, we lose ourselves in translation. Recently, I’ve wondered what would happen if we were to always actively pursue the weird.

This summer, I’ve made the choice to go on international quest for weirdness. Thanks to a travel scholarship from UNC, a pipe dream of mine is actually happening.

I will be traveling to about a dozen countries to attend some of Europe’s craziest and most unusual festivals and to ask people about what is on their bucket lists.

While in Spain, I can be found at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Buñol’s La Tomatina and Castrillo de Murcia’s El Colacho, a festival in which men dressed as the devil jump over mattresses filled with babies in the hopes of purifying their souls.

Later, I’ll be in the Netherlands, which became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 1999, as others celebrate love simply being love at Amsterdam’s gay pride festival.

But first, come Monday, I’ll be in Gloucester, England for Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake at which competitors chase an 8-pound roll of cheese down a 600-foot hill.

I don’t know much about these people who wake up in the morning and say without pause, “Hey, I think I’m going to go chase some cheese or be chased by a bull today.” But I think I’ll be in good company.

You see, love and weirdness aren’t mutually exclusive.

When we connect with someone, our synapses spark and make us subconsciously say, “Hey, I like this human.” We call them friends even though they have knobby knees and pronounce certain words weirdly and fart about 14 times a day, statistics show. (Except you, right? Because you personally don’t fart.)

The same can be said about places. How else do we fall in love with cities without first embracing them for their weird, messy worth? I don’t really think we can truly love without first getting a little weird.

How appropriate that I kick off this quest for silliness in the city I first learned to love when studying abroad here last spring.

London is a city that is dreadfully rain-prone but also where I learned to embrace umbrella-less walks to class, drenched shoes, frozen fingers and all.

This is the city where people gather to hear weird people talk about weird things at Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner every Sunday.

As I learned while visiting the Museum of London Wednesday, London is also the place where pious citizens once believed the Great Fire of 1666 must have been caused by sinful gluttony because the fire ironically started at Pudding Lane and allegedly went out at Pye (or Pie) Corner.

A bunch of people erected a statue of a “prodigiously fat” boy warning of such gluttony, and it is known as The Golden Boy of Pye Corner. Naturally, I spent a greater portion of my Wednesday afternoon being the strange, lost woman in London searching for this pudgy little guy.

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner
The Pye Corner statue recognizes one of most catastrophic events to ever occur in the city.

Basically, I think if the statue were created with today’s obesity rate in mind, he’d be a lot fatter because his belly looked my post-dinner food baby after it’s had a couple of hours to settle. Oh well.

I love this city.

Here’s to hoping I fall in love with more cities. Here’s to believing that fortune favors the weird. (And I’m going to need a lot of fortune because I don’t really know how to get around most of these cities or how to speak any language including my own or how to not trip on any of Europe’s old staircases.)

Let’s get weird,
Katie