For this installment of Spotlight Traveler, I’d like to introduce you to Lola Méndez. The more I learn about her, the more impressed I am by what Lola’s accomplished in her short time on the planet. Yes, she’s a world traveler who’s visited fifty-plus countries. But that’s not all. Lola is an advocate for global gender equality. She works hard in the realm of ethical travel and promotes experiences that benefit local communities. Plus she documents it all so beautifully on her blog: Miss Filatelista. (We’ll get to the meaning behind the blog name later.) And since she’s the best narrator of her own story, let’s get on with it! Please meet Miss Filatelista: Writer, Traveler & Women’s Empowerment Advocate.
How long have you been traveling?
I’ve actually been traveling my whole life. My first trips were across the border to Mexico as my mother loved to go shopping for fresh produce in Tijuana instead of at home in San Diego, California. When I was three I made my first trip over the equator when we moved to Uruguay, my father’s homeland.
Growing up in an international Uruguayan-American family exposed me to travel at a young age and resulted in my compulsive sense of wanderlust which has percolated throughout my life. These experiences made me fearless and curious. I didn’t hesitate to move from Kansas City, where I grew up, to Los Angeles alone at age 17. I had never been to New York City but I moved there alone at 19 and when I was 25 I resigned from a life and career I loved in NYC to head out to explore the world.
Where are you based these days?
I am currently spending two months in one of my favorite places in the world, Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’ve rented a studio on Airbnb with my boyfriend, who joined me on the road full-time this summer. I wrote more about our relationship in a post I published this summer: Confession, I’m No Longer a Solo Female Traveler. We plan to stay in Southeast Asia for at least the next six months.
And when did you launch your website?
I launched Miss Filatelista almost three years ago when I left NYC to travel but didn’t start sharing my unique travel experiences on a frequent basis until this past summer. I had hopes that I’d blog about each city I visited but got caught up in actually enjoying the places I visited and hustling with work between trips to maintain my lifestyle. That was before I transitioned into becoming a travel writer and was still working with clients in the marketing and branding realms.
I love that the name of your website is an homage to your grandfather. Can you tell me a little bit about him and how his voyages inspired you?
Miss Filatelista is an homage to my late maternal grandfather. He was a true stamp collector, of the postage variety and passport sort. He was also an experienced voyager. During WWII he was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, which took him around the globe. His desire to explore lasted long after the war ended, and my entire childhood I recall hearing stories of his adventures to far off locales and the fascinating people he met along the way. I traveled with my grandpa often when I was a child and vaguely recall a road trip to Oklahoma City and train trip to Jefferson City from Kansas City where we lived.
Cruising the Americas
Our most memorable joint adventure was a one-month cruise around Latin America when I was 19. I was transferring colleges from Los Angeles to New York City, had the time off between semesters, and was his only granddaughter that was old enough to travel who spoke some Spanish. That month was wild in so many ways. I was by far the youngest person on the ship and was bored out of my mind a lot of the days we spent out at sea. Now, almost a decade later I despise cruise-ship travel and think it’s quite unethical.
Regardless, I will always cherish the moments I spent with my grandfather on that voyage, especially now that he’s gone. A favorite memory from that trip was waking up at 5 a.m. to cross the Panama Canal and hearing his memories of making the crossing while he was in the U.S. Navy.
I chose to use the Spanish spelling of philatelist to be able to also honor my father’s side of the family. Rather than postal stamps, I am “collecting” passport stamps and have explored 53 countries thus far.
Meet the Stamp Collectors
Country counting often gets shamed as being a race or spending a mere day in a nation and acting as if you’ve explored it in its entirety. This is not at all my case. I tend to stay in a country for the entire length of the tourist visa and often revisit places I’ve loved. Even if I spent a decade there, I don’t believe I could ever truly know a place in its entirety! I have a series on my site, Meet The Stamp Collectors, where I interview other travelers who’ve reached over 50 countries in order to share their experiences with others.
Sometimes I regret the name of my website as most people don’t understand what it means, and can’t spell it. I actually am thinking about doing an IG-stories highlight explaining it on @MissFilatelista. The meaning is so special to me and represents who I am and the family I grew up in, which led me to this lifestyle of full-time travel. But Livin’ La Vida Lola probably would have been easier for people to remember and recognize. Should I rebrand? Probably not.
How has growing up in an Uruguayan-American family shaped your view of the world?
Growing up in an Uruguayan-American family has shaped every aspect of who I am as an individual, even beyond my view of the world. Specifically, I think my father’s plight to the States from Uruguay is what developed my sense of understanding, compassion, and eagerness to get to know other vulnerable communities and ideally help share their unique stories.
My father was a political refugee exiled from Uruguay where he was repeatedly physically tortured by the military junta. He was 24 when he escaped in the middle of the night and began a four-month quest on foot across the continent of Latin America. I have always had an irresistible desire to help others like so many helped him.
Persons of Color in America
Being biracial or a POC in America is no easy feat. It was especially challenging to grow up in the Midwest where there weren’t many other Latino families. Sometimes I think my mother struggled the most as she had difficulty answering questions about the hateful things people would say to us. After all, my mother is a fourth-generation light-eyed and light-haired American. She actually would face criticism in Uruguay and often be asked if she was our nanny. Racism is alive and well all over the world.
As a child, I would get called a spic or be asked about when my father was coming to mow someone’s lawn. These statements never made sense to me. More often than not the kid who’d be insulting me would be the son of a White landscape designer.
My father had a very successful bicycle business and was very well known. These insults had nothing to do with me or my family but everything to do with people’s perception of Latino stereotypes. Recognizing this has made me a better traveler as I can separate western ideas about a community or society and instead seek out locals to learn about their culture directly from them.
The Importance of a Written History
In addition, I know so little about my Uruguayan roots. We are descendants of the native tribal ethnic group, Charrua. My paternal grandmother was mestizo, half native, half Spanish. There is so little information online about this nearly extinct group of people. Also, my father can’t remember where his father was born–perhaps the Canary Islands in Spain, or maybe Argentina, or maybe Uruguay. This has shown me how important it is to have a written history, especially amongst cultures that are at risk of fading away.
I travel to learn about these histories directly from native people and share them whenever possible. Recently I visited the tattooed-faced women of the tribal villages in the Chin state of Myanmar. These women are almost all over 80 and the tradition and history will likely die with them as the government has banned the face-tattooing practice. Almost everything I had read online about the custom and the tattoos was completely wrong. Soon I will share on my website the meaning of the tattoos, which I learned directly from the women who wear them.
What have you learned from your time in Madrid?
I don’t have anything memorable to say about Madrid as I did not love living there, but I did love going on day trips away from Madrid. I am grateful that I met my boyfriend in Madrid and that it was a great base for exploring Europe. Spain has a deeply fucked up history just like the rest of the world and is shamefully racist today, both internally (re: Catalonia crisis) and externally mostly towards Latin Americans as well as African and Middle Eastern migrants. I would like to live in Spain again someday, likely in Andalusia where my boyfriend is from. The Mediterranean lifestyle is a much better fit for me and is similar to the rhythm of life in Uruguay.
And what have you learned from your time in New York?
It’s hard for me to summarize my nearly seven years in NYC into a few sentences. As Patti Smith once said —
I truly feel that I became a woman in the city, after all I moved there when I was just a kid at 19. I went through all the typical struggles and witnessed some horrendous things. But mostly I formed wonderful friendships and had unforgettable experiences. I enjoyed a robust career in the extremely competitive fashion industry and am forever grateful for the lessons I learned from my peers.
Do you speak other languages apart from Spanish and English?
I actually don’t speak Spanish fluently and discuss this in a post on my site: Stop Questioning me When I Say I am Latina. Honestly, this is my biggest shame, mostly because it is something I know I could easily fix. So no, I don’t speak any other languages. I think some people have a mind for linguistics, and others don’t. My sister is fluent in three languages, my father six, and my mother two. My boyfriend can say phrases in many different dialects.
As far as perfecting my Spanish goes I just lack the momentum to sit down and study. I even travel and live with my Spanish boyfriend so the learning opportunities are endless. My lack of interest in perfecting my linguistic Spanish skills is rooted in being a perfectionist and secondly being teased about my accent as a child from family members that had good intentions.
My parents allowed me to drop out of Spanish classes in middle school as I was struggling to conform to the expectations that I’d speak using a Mexican pronunciation instead of my native Uruguayan tongue. Around the same time we also stopped speaking Spanish at home.
I can get by in spoken and written conversations in Spanish and am slowly getting more confident in my abilities thanks to my boyfriend. I will be certain that my children are bilingual.
How has being a communications specialist and published travel journalist with a BBA in marketing given you an advantage in paving your online presence?
I think my career has helped pave my way to becoming a travel writer in a variety of ways. First and foremost as a publicist I was already writing and creating content on a daily basis but from a corporate perspective rather than in a creative way. I always say publicists should receive more credit when it comes to trends and what you see on the pages of a magazine, or these days on the body of an influencer.
Without a publicist dictating what the trends are through press releases, media alerts, and style pitches, the editors wouldn’t have much to go off of. Publicists decide all of these factors alongside designers months and months before fashion week — before a magazine is printed or a piece of clothing is actually produced.
My work in branding has given me an edge in developing my own personal brand and sticking to who I am and what I stand for. I have an understanding of what brands want, and also what consumers want. This has given me an advantage in forming relationships with travel brands who’ve sponsored posts on my site or hosted me in exchange for branded content.
My understanding of media, branding, and trend forecasting has also helped me with pitching stories to outlets. I understand the need to write to a publications style, voice, and audience and can alter my words to fit a client’s parameters.
A Traveler Through and Through
Ultimately, I am a traveler first. I don’t follow many of the social media guidelines or advice I’d given clients in the past. I break all the Instagram rules by posting several times a day, using 30 hashtags, back-posting, and long form captions. My travel website and my work as a freelance writer support my lifestyle as a traveler and not vice versa.
If the internet disappeared tomorrow, which seems increasingly possible with net neutrality biting the dust, I would still be a traveler even if I couldn’t publish my experiences. I meet many travel writers who are often skipping out on travels that they haven’t been assigned to write about as they say it’s no longer viable. I find this deeply disturbing and hope I’ll never travel simply to earn money based on confirmed paid assignments.
Can you tell me a bit about your work with women’s empowerment NGOs?
Through my previous career in fashion I worked on several social enterprises including The Lady Godiva Program and Empowered by You. At Lividini & Co, where I was a Senior Account Manager, we supported WINNYC pro bono. I pitched media stories to support the shelter and created a closet so that the women living there would have access to interview-appropriate clothing when they were ready to enter the professional world.
When I was living in Los Angeles and New York City I volunteered at homeless shelters preparing meals and making greeting cards with women who suffer from mental disabilities. At Covenant House in New York City I would conduct creative activities for the young mothers.
A Passion for Women’s Empowerment
Through these various philanthropic projects I discovered that I was passionate about gender equality. I wanted to volunteer with a group that focuses on awareness and development opportunities for girls and women via education and motivation. I realized that my background in communications could be of help to an NGO and spent a year researching women’s empowerment nonprofits in India before finally accepting a pro-bono role as a communications officer at Sambhali Trust.
During my three months at Sambhali Trust I contributed by supporting their sustainable long-term initiatives through press outreach, social media development, website adjustments, and workshops for beneficiaries. I do not support voluntourism or unqualified English teachers and think it is important to note that I was offering a high-level skill that hopefully gave the NGO the tools to continue the work I started after I left.
I was at Sambhali Trust during the Women’s March, the largest protest that mankind has ever seen. In order to show these women that the whole world was standing up for them and for every mother, sister, daughter, and wife around the world, I created a workshop about empowerment that I shared at each of the Sambhali Trust projects. I published the results of the workshop in detail on the Sambhali Trust Blog: Lessons from the Women’s March at Sambhali Trust.
Community-Based, Sustainable Travel
Through my travels, I also try to support NGOs, especially those that work with at-risk women and girls. Most of the articles I’ve published, and almost all content on my site focuses on community-based tourism and social/eco-sustainability. When I travel I try to see the way of life of the locals and support social enterprises through cultural activities.
Some of my most transformative travel experiences have been a Sri Lankan cooking lesson with nonprofit EcoWave, camping in the Moroccan Sahara Desert with the Khamlia Association, and discovering Borneo’s incredible wildlife in a responsible way. I have a dedicated page on my site for Responsible Travel which includes posts detailing my personal tips and advice from other mindful travelers.
What are your goals for the future?
I hope to continue to debunk the myth that responsible travel is costly and unattainable through the stories I publish on my site and other platforms. My professional goal for the next year is to continue sharing stories of unique cultural phenomenon on established media sites.
So far the majority of the stories I’ve published I secured through networking and personal recommendations. So I’ll be venturing into cold pitching outlets with story ideas that I think will be enticing to an outlet’s audience. This is both exciting and terrifying as I know that many of my emails will go without a response. But I am hopeful for the new opportunities that will result from this strategy. If you’re interested in becoming a travel writer, don’t miss this post.
What advice would you have for others trying to follow creative endeavors or pursue a life of travel?
My advice to others who want to pursue creative endeavors is to always be confident in your abilities and to offer something entirely unique to prospective clients, buyers, etc. Confidence will shine through your work and make others feel confident in working with you. Honesty and vulnerability is equally important to confidence.
The most-read post on my site, with 53,000 page views, is titled: A Sexual Predator Changed the Way I Travel. I sat on this story for a year as I was afraid of how it would be received by my audience. I never expected it to go so viral. Each and every comment and reaction I’ve received has been incredibly positive and healing. So many other women have told me that hearing my story has helped them in their own struggles. And they’ve even used it as a conversation starter to broach the uncomfortable subject with loved ones.
Want to know the destinations featured in Lola's beautiful pictures? Be sure to follow her on Instagram!
“Don’t Limit Yourself by Societal Standards”
Don’t limit yourself by societal standards. I never thought anyone would take a fashion girl seriously in the humanitarian, travel, or journalistic fields. I needed to remember some advice that I’d given a group of students at Georgetown where I was invited to speak at the Women in Leadership summit. During that summit I’d been invited to hold a panel about the fashion industry, and about 100 Ivy-League students attended.
Their biggest concern was breaking into the fashion industry as they’d all interned in public offices, Fortune-500 corporations, and nonprofits. I was absolutely shocked that they doubted their abilities; these young women are the future of business in America. My message to them was that no matter what sector they had worked in it was the experiences they had that mattered most and that they could alter their know-how to whatever field they hoped to enter.
This is true for each and every one of us, even if our professional experience only goes as far as nannying gigs. Do you know how many skills you acquire as a caregiver? You have to be nimble, organized, calm, practical, and have the ability to think on your feet in a crisis. Any company would thrive by having a team member with those sorts of skills on board.
Thank you for joining us for this edition of Spotlight Traveler. That wraps up our discussion with the inspiring Lola Méndez. Do you have any follow-up questions, feedback, or stories of your own to share? Please let us know in the comments section!
In previous Spotlight-Traveler features, we spoke with the outspoken Kiona, who specializes in how not to travel like a basic bitch. We also delved into the life of a digital nomad with both buns and brains. He's made it his life's mission to escape the comfort-zone doldrums -- in quite creative ways. Follow Postcards from Stef on Facebook so as not to miss a feature! 😊