We met Sunny and Karin on a lonely playa along Bahia de Concepcion.
A few makeshift palapas littered the beach, casting their shade on what otherwise was nothing but a stretch of sand and magnificent tropical waterfowl. They invited those of us who’d managed to find the place on this particular evening over to a fire at their slice of sand, and we went from there.
These days, they’re somewhere further south than Baja California, having made the trek to the bottom of Central America and back, with a few ups and downs–both literally along the map and figuratively along the way.
“It has been the best and most terrifying decision of our lives,” Sunny writes from Costa Rica. Or maybe Nicaragua. Or Panama. It’s hard to keep up these days. “Every day,” she continues, “Neither the confidence in our decision nor the absolute horror of it have changed.”
The couple left Nashville around a year and a half or so ago to head south. When we met them, and asked how far south that might entail, they simply replied, “Until it’s not fun anymore.”
That was sometime in February of 2016. One might wonder how–nearly a year and a half later, still living in a rooftop tent on a 1997 Landcruiser 80-series while traversing Central America as a young, lesbian couple–things have progressed.
“Ahhhh,” she replies, “we want to go forever! To the ends of the earth! And that is our plan.”
Karin and Sunny made it all the way to Panama, which, if you’re not hip to geography, means they hit the southmost country in North America. And then they pulled off a U-turn, hopefully in some dramatic skid the brakes kind of way, and pointed themselves northward again.
“We desperately need to make money…but haven’t been very good at it,” Sunny testifies.
“I still have a working law firm at home but all of my clients now go to other attorneys.” She says that sometimes she snags a referral fee every now and then, and still does some remote legal work–largely with estate planning for gay couples–but for the most part, a practicing lawyer who isn’t physically present and, you know, practicing, well, it just isn’t panning out for the moment.
“But that,” referring to the occasional referral, “mostly just pays the expense of keeping my name on the door.”
She goes on, though, to speak to how this trip has changed them, compared to who they used to be…and what part of that they still are.
“Karin and I are not great at being frugal. Obviously, our lives have changed a lot and our need for ‘stuff’ has gone down to virtually nothing compared to our former spendy lives but we still like a roof and warm bed, we still appreciate good food, restaurants and mojitos. After Mexico, those things took a financial toll. At home, we were both successful. I am a criminal defense attorney by trade and Karin is a systems engineer.”
Maybe not your typical vagabonds–or Vagabroads as they go by on social media–but certainly a couple who seems to defy the stereotypes of defense attorney and systems engineer. A couple, I’d say, who even defies not only the idea that women cannot travel for safety reasons, but that they can do so even in a largely Catholic culture, as a same sex couple, without any particularly massive fears.
I mean, there are burly biker dudes out there who’ve knocked out as many teeth as they’re missing but who still won’t dream of going to Mexico, let alone think about making that El Salvador crossing.
So when it comes to career, maybe they’ve lost a little. Or maybe not.
“Its funny,” she tells, “at home, we are both really useful and sought after,” a pause, “but on the road, you couldn’t have picked two less important professions to have.” She goes on to talk about how this trip has changed their approach to life as a whole, though.
“My career used to mean everything to me. All I wanted to be my entire life was an attorney–a modern day, female Atticus Finch. Karin is incredibly disciplined at work and has always thrived based upon her skill and reputation. Now, all either of us wants,” or needs, she adds, “is to be location independent. Now, we spend half of our time researching and learning ways to make that happen.”
So maybe they’re not you’re “average overlander.” A couple of well to do women who had a bank of cash and can even still pull a few bucks in now and then. Wait. Two women, though, traveling around Mexico? And beyond? Surely though, that’s…you know..dangerous.
Sunny laughs louder than a howler monkey partying away the last Saturday’s 4am on a beach during Semana Santa. “No,” she confesses, “Seriously, we were inundated with it–I even bought it at first. I was so afraid one or both of us would be…as Natasha so eloquently put it… ‘roofmuraped’.” Natasha is one half of another traveling couple we interview this time around, and ‘roofmuraped’ is apparently the hottest new portmanteau for being roofied, murdered and/or raped all in one swift blow. Personally, that Sunny and Karin live in a rooftop tent, it seemed all the more appropriate a concern for a couple from Nashville, Tennessee to consider before making plans for such an adventure.
“I had anxiety attacks for the couple of weeks right before we left,” she admits. “Now, I completely believe that not only have we not been in any more peril than our male or mixed-sex counterparts but I now believe are safer than say, two guys would be doing it…maybe in a small bit more jeopardy than a heterosexual couple but we have only felt that in one country,” she doesn’t pause, “Belize.”
“The two women thing has just not been an issue except for Belize–and even there, it was minor.” She believes that Latin American men are perhaps even more protective of them, a trait that seems to multiply as the men age. “We have had random men go out of their way to make sure we are cool and feel safe and comfortable in different situations. We have had cab drivers wait to make sure we got where we were going safely before driving off and others stand and wait with us for a cab to arrive.”
Okay so they’re successful young women traveling around, safely through Central America. But surely, the idea that they’re a same sex couple in a largely Catholic world is creating problems.
“Mexico was great,” Sunny says, “in the cities, incredibly gay-friendly and in smaller towns, super big on minding their own business.” She admits that they’ve shown more precautions in some places than others, but seems happy to identify that “We have felt the most comfortable being ourselves in Mexico and in Costa Rica. By far, the only place we were downright in the closet was Belize. And what’s crazy about that is we found the harder we tried to be in the closet, the more obvious it seemed we were. The more we tried to not interact like a couple the more aware I was of how difficult that is. Religion is pervasive and an important part of the culture down here, for sure–but it’s not the same as it is in the States–evangelism isn’t quite as…evangelistic.”
She goes on to state that perhaps she’s somewhat biased towards Belize. As a straight man writing this article, and who has spent multiple months lately in Belize, I can tell you that we watched several teachers’ strikes and other gatherings where the majority of the participants were there to protest “anything gay”. Anti-protesters to this cause were not obvious, certainly not abundant, and I believe non-existent. We witnessed this from Placencia to San Ignacio, and several places in between.
I mention this all not because I want to say, “I can verify the following,” but in hopes that anyone who might read her first words about bias and, perhaps, be a bit more than just “biased” themselves, understands this as a real thing.
“You may have picked up on my bias towards Belize,” she continues, “I’m not even sure it’s all deserved. What I know is this–Belize was the last country in Central America to have anti-gay laws on the books. Even though the majority of them have been struck down by the Belizean Supreme Court,” recently, she notes, while they were actually right there in the country. “It is still, to this day, illegal to enter Belize as a foreign national who identifies as homosexual. Karin and I agonized over whether or not to go to Belize. Did we want to give our money to a country with these kinds of beliefs? Would we be physically safe? Would we end up in Belizean jail?
“What if, what if, what if?”
Should someone want to find this information, Google would reveal their love for one another as two women, instantly. You know, because they are two people in love on a rad adventure who write about their lives. Because they’ve been together for over five years, married for two. Because they share their story.
“Our website and Facebook is written on our car. It was justified paranoia, especially with the trans killings that have taken place in the last few years. In the end, I actually think the sketchy things we experienced in Belize were more about us being women than us being gay women.” They believe sexism runs deep in the country. Still, “With all of that said, I have hope for Belize. There is a growing gay community there–they are courageous and despite serious danger, they are outspoken. Progress is happening. It always will.”
Belize is but one of seven countries in Central America, though (not including Mexico).
“Costa Rica is the most accepting of any place we have gone, by far.” She says they’re incredibly progressive. “Beyond a ‘live and let live’ attitude there is real, honest acceptance. We weren’t in Costa Rica for an hour before we saw two gay men walking down the street holding hands. No one seemed to blink an eye. The hardest part for us has really been self-imposed, but necessary. It is difficult to not just ‘be’ as a couple. Karin and I are really in-tune with one another and naturally very affectionate. To have to watch that, tone it down…it’s demoralizing. Sometimes, it’s not a big deal–other times, it weighs on you.”
Sunny tells of a time in El Salvador when they were reminded that, wherever they go, this feeling of cautiousness pervades.
“We were camped at El Tunco Beach,” she recalls, “and in the same day, one of the couples we were camping with got up and started to dance with each other in the middle of the campground…which was pretty exposed to the public. Later that night, we all went out to a local bar and our coupled friends started dancing with each other and making out a little. Karin and I immediately knew we could do neither of those things. And it sucks. It isn’t fair and it absolutely affects our experience.” She speaks directly to my wife and I then, “Think about every time you two have been on a romantic beach somewhere watching the sunset and wanted to cuddle or hold onto each other and take it in…we have to be careful with that. It’s stifling.”
My wife and I literally roll around half naked on the beaches of Mexico. Occassionally, perhaps, we had a thought about perhaps her skirt was too short for the local old ladies club, but we didn’t change a thing. That is the very real difference between these interactions that, for those of us who are straight, won’t likely ever even take into consideration, let alone have to deal with.
Sunny and Karin have not allowed it to define what they can do though, as far as travel. Some people might be afraid of being murdered, or breaking down, or not understanding the language and getting into some sketchy situation, but they’ve conquered what they can for now, and are making their next plans.
“For now, we are heading north.” They’re leaving Nashville as we speak, flirting with Guatemala as I write this, and–according to their plans–hope to be in Nashville again in a couple of months.
“But with one goal in mind,” she reveals, “to get back on the road and figure out how to live this way more sustainably.” They are clearly bitten by the travel bug, the addiction that sets in for many of us, and it’s unlikely they’ll be signing a lease any time soon. Or at least that’s the plan this week. You tend to learn to be flexible after several months of hop, skip and jumping around foreign country after foreign country.
“Our current plan is to buy a school bus, convert it into a tiny house, live in it for awhile while we recoup our savings and then rent it out–to produce monthly passive income. We think of it as moving in circles.”
She harkens back to that initial conversation we had with them, one that they’ve likely had several dozen times during their trip.
“The problem with going back is that this is still fun.
“Every day is still brand new. This just hasn’t become monotonous–I keep expecting it to but it doesn’t. We are struggling with going back to Nashville. I can’t even call it ‘going home’ because the road has become our home. We have our road-family, our road-routine…we have realized that to live this way…is our birthright.”
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