Interview with Jennifer De Leon

This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor has published fiction, poetry, and essays in Ms, Poets & Writers, Kweli, and Guernica, and has won fellowships from Bread Loaf and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop: Jennifer De Leon. Although she calls Boston home, Guatemala is her motherland.

When did you first hit the road? How did it go?

I was sixteen years old when I responded to a flyer hanging on the wall of my high school guidance department. Summer Programs! France! Italy! South America! Africa! Immediately I inserted a Jennifer De Leonquarter into the payphone (yes, I was in high school when we still had payphones) and I called the number. I was told that the tuition for the summer program in Kenya (the one I wanted) was $4,000. This fee did not include the price of the ticket (another $2000). Surprisingly, Judy Levine, Director of Summer Camp and Trip Resources, didn’t hang up when I told her I had about twenty dollars, more if I returned the jeans I just bought at the Gap. Judy came to my house the following Saturday. My mom put out Ritz crackers on an oval plate and my dad made iced tea. We talked. We continued to meet this way, after school, on weekends, and over the phone for the next eight months. On July 4th, my parents drove me to the JFK airport in New York City and waved goodbye to their daughter as I boarded a flight to Zimbabwe. The year was 1996. It took a hell of a lot of ganas to pull that one off—fundraising, letter writing, convincing my parents to let me go, borrowing camping gear—but that quarter I used in the guidance department was worth it. That flyer changed my life. After Zimbabwe came Quebec, then Vietnam, Paris, Nigeria, Ghana, Germany, Spain, Costa Rica, and of course, Guatemala. In many ways, I feel I’ve never returned from that first journey abroad.

mangos

Which travel writers or books have been especially inspirational to you?

I can’t explain why or how specifically, but I remember folding the corners of several pages in a book called A Journey of One’s Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler (Eighth Mountain Press). It was inspiring to read about other female travelers embracing the adventure and solitude that traveling alone provides.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?

That’s easy. That I must leave in order to realize what I have at home.

Tajamulco

Do you have any pre-travel rites or rituals?

At three in the morning before an early flight, I sit at the kitchen table and write hand-written letters to loved ones. The letters aren’t written in a morbid kind of way—I am aware that my heart could stop beating at this very moment and so traveling does not invite death in the way some might see it—but more, I write these letters in a spiritual, even cathartic way. I write down the unspoken in even the closest of relationships. I express gratitude. And I reassure my loved ones that I am, as Henry David Thoreau put it, living the life I imagined. Somehow, this act of writing letters is a healthy concrete reminder that life is short and full of so many possibilities. Travel—wait, let me back up—preparing to travel is magical in that it forces me to prioritize and be present in a way that can often be challenging in general day-to-day life. At least for me. At least when I’m not going to yoga regularly. Okay, most of the time. Apart from the well wishes and kind thoughts I write to my friends and family in these letters, in many ways they are also prayers I’m putting out to the universe. Let me go. Take care of me. Help me come home if only to go again.

Jennifer De Leon

Comments

  1. I’m thirty-seven and just now finding the ganas to really get out there in the world – good for you living the life you have imagined since such an early age, Jennifer! We are currently caretaking on the Cape, and I recently spent a couple of weeks sitting in Cambridge. I imagine Boston is a great place to call home. I look forward to finding out more about you and your travels through more of your writing : )

  2. Thank you for sharing your letter-writing ritual! What a beautiful thing.

  3. I’ve been reading your blog once in a while and decided to reply for the first time, thank you for writing all of this.
    love it!

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