‘I want women to know that they can marry a mountain’: An interview with Marinel de Jesus

Sep 17, 2021

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As a woman, I’m well aware of the apprehension that women feel when they consider traveling alone for the first time. Family, friends and even complete strangers will express their own internal fears surrounding your safety, attempting to discourage you from exploring the world by yourself.

But the idea that women are inherently unsafe while traveling is outdated and simply not true. Women travel solo every day and experience the world in completely different ways while doing so. From taking a solo trip around the world and joining a group as a solo traveler to a mom taking time for herself, women traveling solo has become a travel style all its own. And TPG Diversity Panel member Marinel de Jesus is traveling in a way most people probably wouldn’t dare.

Related: 9 of the best destinations for women to travel solo — now or in the future

Marinel is a social entrepreneur and the owner of Brown Gal Trekker, Equity Global Treks and The Porter Voice Collective, all of which in one form or another serve to further Marinel’s mission of elevating the roles and statuses of women in the trekking tourism industry.

I interviewed Marinel for Solo Travel Week because she has an amazing story. She is a global nomad who mountain treks full time — she even spent 294 days in Mongolia last year during the pandemic, an experience she says reinforced her belief that when you travel solo, you’re never actually alone.

I had a lot of questions when I came across Marinel’s profile online — the first of which being, what in the world is trekking? But as we got to talking, I learned not only what trekking was and what makes it different from hiking or camping, but also how Marinel fell in love with mountains. I left our conversation feeling inspired by Marinel’s words and how she sees the world, and more interested in being outdoors than ever before.

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An interview with Marinel de Jesus

Marinel de Jesus standing next to a llama.
(Photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus)

Marinel is currently based in Peru, so my only option for conducting this interview was through Zoom — a staple of our never-ending work-from-home lifestyle.

I had less than a handful of formal questions to ask her, as I’d hoped the conversation would be more organic than organized. As someone who is generally against outdoor activities that don’t involve the beach and a lounge chair, my first question was obvious: What is trekking and how does it compare to hiking or camping?

Marinel’s face lit up, her obvious passion for the outdoors expressed by the energy she exuded through the screen at the opportunity to teach me.

She explained walking, hiking, camping and trekking in simple terms. Walking is what you can expect to do in a park, while hiking is still leisurely but could involve a mountain.

Camping might include a hike in addition to the one or several nights you would spend outdoors. But trekking — interestingly referred to as “tramping” in places like New Zealand — is a combination of hiking and camping over multiple days and would include multiple campsites.

Trekking somehow feels both intimidating and appealing at the same time. After over a year of being home with a toddler and a baby, being alone and possibly lost up a mountain intrigued me.

Loving the mountains from a young age

My next question was probably more for me than anyone else: How did you get into trekking? The word felt heavy now, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Marinel was going to share a secret to life with me.

Photo of mountain peaks and lake.
(Photo by ramesh iyanswamy/Getty Images)

I was surprised when she told me that she didn’t grow up outdoors. In fact, Marinel immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was 13 years old. She described that time in her life as being too preoccupied with survival to include a hobby like hiking.

Before leaving Manila, her only exposure to mountains was visiting her grandparents on summer vacations. Marinel describes the 10-hour bus ride on a curvy road as scary and not-so-fun — frankly, she didn’t want to be there. “I thought, ‘This is not civilization,’” she told me.

Even still, she remembers feeling happy to be there with her grandparents, with the mountains in the background. She told me that she didn’t know then what she knows now — that she felt stress-free in those mountains; her stress kind of just went away when she was there. After all, the scenery was a dramatic contrast to the hustle and bustle of Manila.

But it would be a long time before Marinel would return to nature and remember the bliss she felt when visiting her grandparents in the mountains.

At 24 years old and working in civil rights law in Washington, D.C., Marinel found her way back to the outdoors looking for a way to decompress from her high-stress job. First, it was small hikes around D.C. with a group of people she connected with on meetup.com. From there, she found herself wanting to learn more about nature through overseas travel so she visited places like Guatemala, where she hiked up a volcano.

After that hike — which she described as both difficult and beautiful — the rest is history.

Virunga Mountains and Volcanoes in Rwanda
(Photo by stellalevi/Getty Images)

Marinel and I began to discuss what it means to spend time outdoors as a woman and person of color. I wanted to know what, if any, challenges she faced in balancing these identities while hiking and trekking — a traditionally white, male space, especially when Marinel first took up the hobby in the late 1990s.

She shared with me that she used to feel lonely hiking as a person of color but that a lot has changed. When she started, there weren’t even many places for women to find backpacks that fit them, unlike now where there’s no shortage of equipment, clothing and gear for both genders.

Marinel eventually found a group of hikers that she could relate to and began leading her own group hikes. She started by taking groups to local spots like Shenandoah National Park outside of D.C. before venturing further, eventually hosting treks overseas.

Related: 9 of the best national parks to visit in the fall

Don’t grade destinations as ‘all or nothing’

Marinel has taken groups all over the world through her trekking company Equity Global Treks, and I wanted to know what places made her feel the most welcome. Note that I didn’t ask her where she felt safest, and I clarified that when we were speaking. A place can be considered safe easily enough, but as a global nomad like Marinel, I was curious to know where she’d traveled that felt the most inclusive.

Beautiful sunset in Mongolia.
(Photo by Kriangkrai Thitimakorn/Getty Images)

She told me that a place that never disappoints as far as beauty is Nepal and the Himalayas. There is no shortage of peaks, including Mount Everest, and there are trails for every level of trekker.

Further, New Zealand is special because the whole country is “outdoorsy,” even though it’s a small country with not a lot of mountains.

The country that she says was a pleasant surprise is Georgia. She told me that the people are very hospitable and tourism hasn’t seemed to reach the country yet, which she said is refreshing.

Before Marinel and I began our interview, she’d mentioned to me in an email that she’d spent 294 days in Mongolia during the pandemic. Most people don’t think about what they’d do if they found themselves unable to return home while traveling but that’s exactly what happened.

When describing her almost 10 months in Mongolia, she told me, “I felt how it would be, like, if you were to discover a place and they’ve never seen a tourist before.” Marinel felt like everybody looked out for one another and looked out for her despite her being an outsider. “(Everyone) wants to help a traveler who stopped to get back home, and that’s how I felt when in Mongolia. Everyone I met was trying to get me somewhere and I felt the sense of connectedness — like we’re all in it together.”

Related: Dreaming of Mongolia: How I’ll book my bucket-list trip after the pandemic

In reference to which places felt the most inclusive, Marinel explained to me that she doesn’t grade the places she’s visited as all or nothing. She says that she’s visited places that treat her very well, but they may not be kind to people of another race, etc.

She suggests that people travel with an open mind and without judgment. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to keep up with all of the places that you need to avoid. Instead, she chooses to remember all of the people and the places that have really taken care of her as she’s traveled solo and trekked across the globe.

And when she finds herself in less-than-ideal situations, she asks herself if responding is worth the effort or if the person she’s interacting with will just make matters worse. She said that her days of arguing with people — that’s the lawyer in her — are over. “Whatever you focus on is going to be your reality,” so why spend time on negativity and negative people?

Use your privilege for good

Marinel de Jesus standing on the top if a mountain with the sun in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus)

Then, we spoke a bit about Marinel’s companies: Brown Gal Trekker and Equity Global Treks.

Equity Global Treks works to bring workforce equity to porters around the world. Marinel works to hold tourism companies in places like Peru, Tanzania, Nepal and Bhutan accountable for abuse and exploitation of indigenous laborers within their employment.

Marinel shared with me that there are 8,000 porters for the Inca Trail in Peru that have fought for their rights for 50 years — since the opening of the trail.

When I asked her how we can be better travelers, she said that we need to ask questions and let the companies know that we’re watching. We must do our part to elevate the lives of each porter by pointing out things we notice that don’t seem right, like sleeping conditions and broken equipment.

A simple way to use our privilege for good.

‘You can marry a mountain’

Near the end of the call, I had one last question: For women who are thinking about spending more time in nature, what do you want them to know about trekking, in particular?

“That you can marry a mountain,” Marinel said to me, with the confidence of a woman who was exactly where she was meant to be. She said she feels like she’s married to mountains because everywhere she goes, there they are. Nature showed her unconditional love, because you eventually learn to love yourself living in the mountains.

She shared that it’s okay if you’re afraid at first — in fact, she said that fear is a good sign. She says that behind fear is almost always a reward, something amazing that could change your life. “Rest assured that if there is fear, there’s going to be something brilliant on the other side.”

Featured photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus.

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