Our differences are what makes each of us special, and traveling allows us to gain exposure to differing and opposing perspectives. In this episode, Jazmin from Travel To Blank shares why it is important to represent, understand, and accept cultural diversity while traveling. We speak about consciousness of other cultures, empathy and respect towards different world views and sustainability in travel.
- 04:40: The travel bug and languages
- 13:05: Diversity in Travel
- 19:55: Respect and empathy to perspectives
- 25:15: Being conscious of your thoughts and judgements
- 28:10: Traveling with others
- 30:35: Creating representation
- 37:15: Consistently exploring and discovering
- 41:45: Travel blogging to create awareness
- 45:45: Different languages for more audience
- 47:45: How pandemic changed things
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Tell us more about yourself and and Steve.
Yeah, I apologize for that. Steve is working; he has a full-time job and just got called into a meeting. But I will tell you a bit about us. I’m Jasmine; I was born and raised in Ecuador. I have been traveling full-time since 2015. Before that, I traveled often, but not as a full-time job. I have visited about 70 countries worldwide and been to over 200 destinations. We currently live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Steve works. I have two dogs and one hedgehog.
On the other hand, Steve was born and raised in Boston, we met in college, and we got married after a month of knowing each other. Well, we got engaged after a month of knowing each other and married after a year. He loves coming with me on trips, but unfortunately, he can only join me on vacations, holidays, or weekends.
You got engaged after knowing each other for a month?
Yeah, it was crazy. My whole family was freaking out. I remember calling my mom, dad, and my cousins. They thought I was crazy; the longest relationship I’d had was two months. I knew he was the one. But they’re thought, no, this is another one, don’t rush in. But when you know, you know, and we have been happily married for eight years. So it worked out for us.
How did you get started with traveling?
When I was two years old, I remember my first trip was to the United States. My parents took me to Disney. I was amazed by planes after that. I was always planning a trip and talking to my teddy bears in a backpack about where we would go. My mom and dad are not nature lovers in the same way that I am; their trips were more to cities. I love going to national parks, camping, enjoying the outdoors. I started doing that once I turned 18. I was exposed to more traveling experiences when I went to college. By the time I was 18, I had already been in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. So I always had a passion for traveling and discovering new cultures.
I went to China for three weeks. I barely spoke English at that time, and I don’t speak any Mandarin. We were in Shanghai, and my mom felt tired; it had been a long trip. She needed to sleep, but we were only there for two days. I was 16 years old; I left the hotel, took the first bus, and got lost in the middle of Shanghai, where I could barely understand anything going on. I took some photos, visited temples, and tried different foods. I got back to the hotel around midnight, and my mom was hysterical. We didn’t have cell phones as we do now. She was so worried, but I wasn’t. When I got back home, I took Mandarin classes. Unfortunately, I’m awful at languages. I remember always having that passion. My mom told me I couldn’t build my life around traveling. But I knew one day I was going to prove her wrong. And little by little, I think I am.
How do learning local languages help you connect better with the cultures and societies?
The best connection you can have in a city is by letting people express their emotions and language. You get a more authentic experience. They use words that mean something to them. It is more impactful when you use a word from their vocabulary. So my favorite way of learning a little bit of a new language is by watching TV shows in other languages. It helps you get used to different languages and rhythms in accents. So that’s a tip on how to be connected, watch tv shows in other languages with subtitles on. Language has a lot of power, and it’s more impactful when you get it from the locals in their language. One of my favorite things about speaking Spanish is that I can go to so many different countries and communicate and build a stronger relationship. It gives an added value. French is a language I’ve been trying to learn for a long time, and I cannot get the accents. My mom lived in France when she was little. She can speak French pretty well and would talk in French with my aunt, and I didn’t understand.
How does diversity play a part in what you see and do when you travel?
Diversity is a big, broad word that means so many things. I was invited to a conference that I’m going to give next week, to talk with the Tourism Board of North Carolina. It is a big conference, and I’m talking about diversity. One of the things that I always say about diversity is it’s not just about race; it’s not just about being white, black, Latino, or Asian. It’s also about being religious if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Mormon. It entitles so much; it’s such a powerful word that contains so much meaning. So for me, what I like doing when I’m traveling, is visiting memorials and Holocaust memorials. For me, as someone who’s married to a Jew, seeing things from a Jewish perspective changed my life. It made me see how important it is to embrace differences in us. Even though we might be different, we are all the same. We’re humans, and hate towards what you don’t know or someone that looks different from you can end in something as awful as the Holocaust. So I always try to visit memorials, museums, or statues just as a reminder that we need to embrace diversity when traveling. It’s something that speaks to me. One of the things that I have encountered as a Latina and Italian Arab when talking to people that look more stereotypical of those communities is that I am lucky not to look like that. I did not receive the same amount of racism towards me; it’s not about being lucky. I wish I could look more Latino because I’m proud of my heritage. I wish I could look more Arab or more Italian because that’s who I am; that’s part of who I am. It has helped me understand that it doesn’t mean it’s not happening if you don’t experience something. For the longest time, I thought there was no racism towards Latinas in the United States because I didn’t experience it myself. It was not until I moved to the South that when people heard my accent, I started seeing that they are racist towards me when they listen to me talk. Racism was there; it does exist. So it’s just making it more apparent that we have to fight these stereotypes.
We do need to say we are different, but at the same time, we are all the same. We’re humans, we all suffer, we all have joys, we’re healthy, we’re sick. Our appearances might look different, but in the end, we’re the same, and it needs to be respected and embraced. We can bring so much to the table, regardless of where we come from; coming from different places means we can bring more to the table. One of the things that we tried to do for my husband and me is he wears his Kippah. A Kippah is a little hat that Jews were above their head. In a lot of places, it’s not safe to do so.
We committed that my husband would start wearing it. It’s essential to show people that we are here and we won’t get bullied, and that’s the same thing with other diverse people. We need to have a presence. I know it’s hard because some people are afraid for their safety, and I understand where those fears come from. But it is essential to make a stand and to show that we are there, and for that, you need to represent yourself in those locations. Of course, we’re always aware. But people realize that racism is an issue that many people are getting hurt by it. With travel, it is essential because I have heard awful stories that have happened to some of my black friends in Europe. To started change, we all need to be part of it. We need to make people change. We need them to understand that we’re here, we’re not going away, and they need to respect us. We have the same amount of money to spend on travel; we have the same right to enjoy nature.
Put yourselves out there. It’s not easy, but it’s needed. I always say there are good people and bad people, regardless of their race, religion, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation, or gender. You cannot judge a whole community from one encounter you have had with someone who might not have been the nicest person. I invite people to be more open and learn from other people and show respect. The best way to start opening your mind is by not convincing them that their practices are wrong; your beliefs are correct. Try to understand why they think that way and show respect even if you disagree. Respect is the basis for a good relationship; it is the basis for success; it is the basis for becoming more humans.
I’m going to give you a quick example of something that happened to me. I remember talking to one of my friends; she’s black. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, significantly North Carolina, did I had more contact with the black community. One of the things that she told me while talking is that she hated when people touch her hair. I could not understand why people would be feeling her hair; no one touches mine. She said people touch her hair because she is black and feels different. But I couldn’t understand why someone would reach out to your hair; it’s disrespectful, weird, odd, and awkward. I wanted to see if that was just her experience, so whenever I talked to someone of color, I asked her if she had experienced the same. I wanted to know if it was true or not, and that’s when you need to go out of your comfort zone. If you’re going to understand where someone’s coming from, put yourself in their shoes and try to find out their experiences. So every time I went out, and I saw someone of color and talked, I asked them the question. Is this true?
I kept getting yeses and yeses and yeses and yeses. I couldn’t believe it; this is something that everyone experiences. It often started when they were little until they got fed up as an adult and told people to respect their space. That was a wake-up call for me to realize that many things are going on. They aren’t overreacting. They aren’t exaggerating. It is essential to listen to people and their stories and see where they come from. It’s critical to show empathy and be nicer to people around you, even if they do not look like you.
How can people change their thinking and make an effort to listen and be non judgemental?
I feel like travel does that to you because you are the stranger wherever you go. When I went to China, I remember the first day people looked the same because I wasn’t accustomed to the location. But after I had been there ten days, I was more accustomed to seeing people and seeing differences. The same thing happened to me when I went to Norway for the first time. Everyone was so super white, and I wasn’t used to seeing lots of white people. The problem is people think that that’s racist, and that’s part of being racist. But the only way you can fight that is by acknowledging what happens and becoming aware. So get out of your community and try to interact with different people, expand your mind. That’s what I love about traveling, being out of your comfort zone, being aware of things that you say or do, and the way you behave. To me, that’s priceless. That’s an experience you can’t get from university or at home. You need to experience it by going out of your comfort zone.
When you travel with your husband, do you feel you learn more and see more than traveling alone?
I do, and it’s because we travel differently. When I travel alone, I do whatever I want. When I travel with him, there are things that we tried to keep, for instance, keeping kosher. It’s a different experience. We have other interests, and the best way to go on a trip with many people is to compromise. So it’s trying to be respectful to the other people you’re traveling with and trying to be open-minded. Not let your difference pull you apart, but get you together and enrich your travel experience.
What tips would you share for people worried about standing up for diversity?
I would say, be smart and be careful. It’s not easy to take a stand, and I don’t want anyone’s life to be in danger. Unfortunately, against racism, your life could be in danger. When we went to Norway, we always stayed in the Arab area because it was cheaper. We didn’t know that for a Jew, it could be dangerous. Steve was wearing his Kippah, and we were lucky enough not to encounter any ill-treatment or violence. But when we talked to a Rabbi from Oslo, Norway, he told us he had to dress differently to go to that area because it’s so dangerous.
Be smart, do your research. Avoid specific neighborhoods or sectors. Go where there’s a lot of people. I cannot tell you precisely what to do because it also depends on why you’re going there. Your experience in Norway will differ depending on whether you’re going for tourism, work, or visiting family. Your experiences with be different if you are black, Jewish, Arab, or Latino. It’s complex. Try to research a place where you want to go, and ask people questions representing your community. Speak to people on Instagram; it’s straightforward to connect with people and ask questions.
Ask how their experience was there? Would they recommend going there? Did you feel safe while you were in this particular destination? Once you’ve gained this information, you can make safe and intelligent decisions. Above everything, ask more than one person because someone might get lucky, so ask a bunch of people and always do research. I always say do not be afraid of visiting a place unless your life would be entirely in danger. But do not put your life at risk. It’s just not worth it.
Which areas do you focus on in terms of sustainable tourism ?
We started a travel blog, and we created walking guides because we think that the best way to explore is walking. Plus, you’re not contaminating the environment when you’re not using a car. One of the things that I recommend if you go to a big city, walk or take public transportation. It’s cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about parking. You’re helping have less traffic and emissions. That’s one of the ways that we tried to focus our sustainability. Another way that we tried to focus on neighborhood sustainability is by promoting destinations that are not well known. So I’ll give you an example. Nashville, Tennessee, is a beautiful city with lots to offer. But only 30 minutes away is Franklin, Tennessee, another great city with a lot of history. It is one of the most pet-friendly cities in the world. We try to highlight those secondary cities. We’re trying to give you options to go to more beautiful towns that still have a lot of history and unique experiences without overpopulating or overcrowding. You can help the local communities in the other cities.
Do you find there is a tricky balance between discovering new places and keeping destinations as hidden gems?
Finding new places is one of our missions. I’m always looking for new places to visit, not only cities but also nature. We adore national parks; they’re gorgeous. We also like going to State Parks which aren’t as visited and famous as National Parks. Many people don’t know they exist, but they are beautiful. By creating more impulse tourism, you need to be on the lookout for new destinations to write about and take photos of. If you go to my Instagram, you will see a mixture of images. So looking beautiful with a gorgeous background, and others are thrown together.
We want to remind people that traveling is about the experience; it’s about enjoying the moment and not so much about the photos. We try to remind people that traveling is not just Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok. It’s about getting to know the culture, enjoying delicious food, and relaxing; that’s what travel is about. It’s about enjoying the free time and making it a moment for you to grow as a person. So try to find those spots that aren’t overcrowded; it takes time and effort, but it’s worth doing it if traveling is your passion and committed to it.
Tell me about your travel blog and the story behind Travel to Blank?
Honestly, it was the only name we found available with the travel blog. There’s no specific reason for it. The thing with Travel to Blank is when we got engaged by the end of that year, my visa had expired, and it was a student visa for the United States. We decided to go on a road trip around the United States for three months. We didn’t kill each other by camping and not showering every day and not having the food we wanted each day. We thought if we can overcome these, we can overcome marriage, so we did it. We ended a road trip by getting married in Florida. The next day, we flew back to Ecuador, where we were supposed to settle, but we had difficulty finding a job for Steve because he didn’t speak Spanish. It was even harder to find a job because I got used to making money in America. You make a lot of money compared to Ecuador. It was hard for me to adjust. Steve wrote about his experience living in Ecuador as an American. Then he started generating traffic to his website. Then he got the idea to start writing a guide of our journey, kind of a diary.
We struggled to find a username. We realized that the way we traveled depended on the availability, prices, and mode of transportation. So we traveled to, I don’t know, blank. We look it up, and it was available. And that’s how the name came. Then we just started working on it. When we move to Europe for a Master’s degree, we start traveling more around Europe and creating more content. That’s when we started developing the walking guides. In Ecuador, we mostly made road trips, but in Europe, we walked all the cities. It all adds up together. It wasn’t that we were planning on it, and we weren’t looking for a niche.
What is your blog audience demographic? Why did you decide to write in both English and Spanish?
The demographics of our readers are predominantly the United States, Ecuador, Colombia, the UK, and Canada. We started writing in English because Steve was the one who was writing it and editing it. I would do a draft, and then he would make sure it was in proper English. We wrote in Spanish because I wanted to share the blogs with my people, with my community. I wanted to share it with Latinos, Hispanics in general, encourage them to travel more, and go to all these places they might not know. It became more of a personal thing for me. I’m not going to say that I’m the only one writing in Spanish. It takes a little more time to translate the content, but it’s not twice the work because the contents are already there.
Do you do anything differently in terms of SEO?
It is like writing a new post but with a draft in English if that makes sense. What is fantastic for me is that I rank higher in my Spanish posts than in English posts.
How did the pandemic affect you guys and blog?
The pandemic pretty much destroyed us. Our income decreased, our traffic went down by 60%. It was awful. But at the same time, I was grateful that Steve had a different job. We weren’t struggling like other people were in the tourism industry. Even though it was harder for us to got by, sharing our content was still doable. I didn’t focus on how much money I was making but more about bringing people to these places. At the beginning of the pandemic, no one was thinking about traveling. People were at home, with their kids, and working a lot. There was a lot of stress in the environment, so I shared my videos, trying to take people out of their homes for one minute and to a new place. I tried doing that on Twitter, posting something every day; a video of a new destination I was going and people appreciated it a lot on my Twitter. People thanked me for reminding them that there are cool things out there that they will get back to it at some point. It was a tough time; it is still challenging. But we’re just leaving that behind, and with the vaccines coming and more available to everyone.
I think that it brought us together more as humans. It made us realize that it doesn’t matter where you are from; we were all facing one significant threat together. So my intake from the pandemic was more of a humble one; it was more about being thankful that no one directly from my family died. It was more about valuing what I have; my husband, dogs, family, and not being between suitcases, even though I love it. I would not trade it for anything in the world. It made me realize the importance of having a home; I don’t mean a house, I mean having that support system. When you are traveling because there are so many exciting things going on, you take for granted that sometimes you even forget about calling home. It was a year that I learned a lot as a human. I’m not thankful for the pandemic, but I’m grateful for being alive. I’m thankful for making the best from the worst of the pandemic because I feel like there was more worse than good. But there was some good out of it. Seeing that and not losing anyone makes me appreciate life more and be thankful to God for my opportunities. The blessing of opportunity, but the gift of not losing.
Do you have any new directions or new ideas from the pandemic?
I have always tried to do different projects; now, I’m selling some of my photos on Etsy. I’m writing a book, and we’re in the crowdfunding stage. If you go to my Instagram, you can see the link there for my book. In that book, I share my experiences and ten different trips that I did, and ten different lessons that I learned on the trips. I’m not thinking much about my blog, I don’t see me switching to lifestyle, but I want to share what I have learned from my travels through my lens, photos, or book. I’m looking into the extremes to diversify my business, but not the focus of my brand.