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Georgina Miranda | 07.01.2019

In a word, Marinel de Jesus is tenacious. Her story is one of following your heart and gut by leaving behind a successful litigating career in Washington, D.C., for the mountains of Peru and trekking around the world. The founder of Peak Explorations and Brown Gal Trekker has become an unwavering voice of support for the indigenous community in the trekker tourism industry, and women in particular, encouraging travelers to be conscious of their spending dollars to support local communities and equality on and off trail.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

The limits in our lives are set by no one else but ourselves. Start with yourself. Ignore those voices outside of you. Cultivate your voice and amplify it yourself so you no longer hear the preaching of others, but your own.

—Marinel de Jesus

 

In this interview, we talk to Marinel de Jesus about the decision to leave a lucrative career in law, pursuing a higher calling, and the love that keeps her moving forward. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Georgina Miranda: Tell us about Marinel de Jesus. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors/adventure either professionally or through other pursuits today?

Marinel de Jesus: I fell in love with the mountains, so I made them my home forever. Everything I do now involves the mountains and trekking. It’s a classic story of turning one’s passion into a calling, and more—from a lawyer to a global mountain nomad—while breaking down stereotypes and societal expectations in pursuit of true joy and self-love.

GM: Tell us more about Peak Explorations & Brown Gal Trekker. Were you always drawn to a life of the outdoors? How did your journey get you to where you are today?

MdJ: I didn’t discover the outdoors until much later on in life. I was in my late 20s and already practicing as an attorney when I first discovered the outdoors. I was born in the Philippines and grew up in Manila. At 13 years old, my family and I migrated to the U.S. My childhood was devoid of any experience with the outdoors, as my family didn’t have the financial means or time to take the kids on leisurely get-togethers or travels.

Due to the high level of stress I experienced as a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., I started exploring new hobbies to create balance in my life. That’s when I accidentally discovered the outdoors in 2004. What started out as hiking turned into overnight wilderness backpacking. Soon, I was leading treks worldwide via Meetup.com, and over 12 years later I have taken fellow hikers to over 35 countries.

In 2014, I managed to trek solo for a year in 21 countries. That’s when my love for hiking was solidified. I returned to Washington, D.C., in 2015 with the intention to start my path toward living a nomadic lifestyle. In 2016, I launched Peak Explorations, LLC, and Brown Gal Trekker with the mission to create inclusion for local/indigenous women in the trekking tourism industry as guides and porters worldwide.

This mission emanated from my 12-plus years of trekking, whereby women all over the world shared with me their stories about patriarchy, sexism, and inequities on the mountain trails. I found myself experiencing the same obstacles as a woman, and I knew I wanted to change that. In May of 2017, my mother’s unexpected passing prompted me to leave my 15-year career as a prosecutor to fully focus on my enterprises. I’ve been a global nomad since then. Currently, I am basing myself in the Andes mountains of Peru to expand and advocate for our women empowerment projects with the Quechua women.

GM: How can people support your work or join you on an adventure?

MdJ: Peak Explorations offers treks worldwide, some of which are for women only. You can support our mission to create inclusion for local and indigenous women in the trekking tourism industry by joining us on one of our treks. We also are always looking for partners (individuals or organizations/companies) that align with our mission to create inclusion for women. Our mediums for advocacy include storytelling and content creation.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on?

MdJ: We have created trekking itineraries that are led by local/indigenous women guides and porters to achieve our mission to create inclusion for women in the trekking tourism industry. We also continue to advocate for change in the industry by way of partnering with media entities to write about the issues and stories of the female guides and porters worldwide.

Currently, we are seeking individuals and organizations who can support our work toward creating a documentary that will highlight the female trail leaders in Peru and the current issues that exist in the industry worldwide.

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your time?

MdJ: Initially, I started out traveling the world and later discovered the outdoors. My pursuits have been a decision made internally rather than following the footsteps of so-called mentors or inspirational figures. In fact, being a woman of color and an immigrant, I didn’t really have many options in terms of mentors. Despite that, I made a conscious decision to pave my own unique path of adventure—one that led me to quit a traditional prosecutor career in Washington, D.C., of 15 years to become a global mountain nomad, social entrepreneur, and a writer.

When my mother passed away unexpectedly in 2017, her passing became the strongest source of motivation for me to fully live an authentic life and pursue my love for the outdoors. Many women of color and immigrants like myself may find it difficult to follow our real desires without a mentor, especially when the notion of survival has been ingrained in our minds from the start. Yet, based on my experience, I realized you really don’t need a mentor. You can be your own mentor. Being a mentor for yourself means trusting and believing in your own voice.

GM: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

MdJ: Trusting the journey and my intuition has been the biggest challenge in life, both personally and professionally. How does one trust life? By being open to pain, lessons, challenges, hardships, and all the unpleasant experiences we try to avoid. Embracing these moments fully will yield a version of ourselves that is more trusting of life. Then, upon reaching that point, you find that you are indestructible.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues?

MdJ: The lack of open doors for women to partake in opportunities in the outdoor and travel industry remains an issue. As women, we cannot rely on the current status quo or existing institutions to make the change. If we wish to see women included in male-dominated industries, then we need to create that change ourselves. That is exactly what Peak Explorations and Brown Gal Trekker are aiming to create.

My goal is to have the biggest impact in the trekking tourism industry by:

  • Normalizing the roles of women as guides and porters;
  • Establishing best practices for porters that will create humane working conditions such as providing proper tents, meals, working hours, better wages, strict adherence to maximum baggage weight carried by each porter, and equal pay for both men and women;
  • Empowering women personally and financially;
  • Reducing incidences of domestic violence in local/indigenous communities through empowerment of women;
  • Creating a new generation of women that will assume entrepreneurial and leadership roles in the trekking tourism industry.

GM: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like OP do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

MdJ: The trekking tourism industry heavily focuses on the consumer and traveler when it comes to telling one’s experiences or viewpoints. However, the women who work in the industry, such as the guides and porters, especially from indigenous communities, remain unheard. Their stories are equally important as those of the travelers/tourists. Why do we continue to ignore their voices and predicaments?

Right now, women in the trekking tourist industry continue to experience inequities, patriarchal, colonial, and sexist paradigms that continue to deprive them of full access to the opportunities that proliferate the trekking tourism industry. OP and all major media entities should use their resources and networks to amplify the voices of these women because hardly do they have the power and leverage to do so for themselves.

Second, OP should ask: Are we willing to commit to this cause long-term and become a true ally? Commitment and being an ally herein require long-term monitoring of the situation, educating oneself of the systematic issues while educating others of the problems and assertively seeking answers to create solutions. This also means identifying allies who are creating solutions to the problem and ensuring that these allies are supported.

OP and others should take action with the voices of the women you’re advocating for as the primary driving force for your advocacy. Do not advocate from your viewpoint as a media publication. Instead, advocate for the women in their own voices.

GM: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time?

MdJ: Love is what keeps my pursuits going. Love in this manner is about waking up each day knowing I can make life a bit better for another human being even if it means taking a small mundane step toward it. With that motivation internally, I am able to sustain my enterprise through creative-design thinking, collaborating with allies, being resourceful, and forging lasting partnerships with entities that share my mission.

Minimalism is the means to sustain this lifestyle. In order to have enough funds to invest in my business, I made a conscious decision to minimize my lifestyle and live a simple life. Hence, I moved to Urubamba, Cusco, Peru, where the cost of living is much lower. As a social entrepreneur, most of my finances are devoted toward the mission of my enterprise.

To get here, I had to sell or donate my possessions, including a 10-year-old house, quit my 15 year career as a prosecutor, and leave behind family and friends. Arriving at this type of lifestyle took over a decade long process where I had to immerse myself in extensive travels (over 60 countries to date) and take a year off my profession as a lawyer to live a nomadic life in 21 countries.

After that one-year solo trekking travel worldwide from 2014 to 2015 visiting 21 countries, I made the decision to become a global mountain nomad. This works well with running my adventure trekking enterprise as I immerse myself in the local communities that I’m trying to support. At the age of 40, I decided marriage is not meant for me; neither is having kids, so I can fully focus on my enterprise and mission. In the process, I also decided to give up the chance to eventually become a judge. Instead, in 2016, true to my desires, I officially registered Peak Explorations as an LLC and chose to live an unconventional life as I ventured into becoming a full-time mountain nomad. To date, I have no regrets. It was the most authentic decision I ever made in my life.

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

MdJ: “Make use of the power of permission.” This advice has tremendously shaped my journey. Permission is the starting point of any pursuit.

In my case, I had to give myself plenty of permission. Permission to leave a 15-year career because it was no longer aligned with my calling. Permission to leave the U.S. so I can work on my mission in a more authentic manner. Permission to be my true self. Permission to ignore my critics. Permission to be free from judgments and societal pressure. Permission to leave the world of child abuse and trauma as I grew up with a mentally ill parent who inflicted mental, emotional, and physical abuse for most of my life. Permission to recreate myself to the person I wish to become. Permission to write on a blank page a new life for myself—one that is full of joy, peace, and love. Permission is truly the start of it all.

To my younger self, I would only convey one thing: Love has always been with you; give yourself permission to experience it.

GM: Any other tips/advice/encouragement do you have for women looking to embark on a similar career or path or wanting to make a difference in the world?

MdJ: Every journey is unique to the individual. Gather your facts and information to guide you with your decisions. However, ultimately, ask yourself and not anyone else which path to take. The real answer that will lead you to your true joy lies solely within you.

GM: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase “adventure like you give a damn,” which refers to putting effort into responsible recreation. This can come through volunteering with a local conservation group that stewards an area you care about or helping getting an underserved community into the outdoors; educating others on Leave No Trace practices; packing out some extra trash; or even doing things at home that help protect the environment and nature like reducing use of plastics. How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

MdJ: Adventure like you give a damn aptly describes my current life now. I moved to the Andes of Peru to be in nature for my own personal healing and joy. At the same time, I am conscious of the impact that I have on the land and people in my current mountain home. My plan is to stay here temporarily and for as long as my mission dictates, yet I always ensure that I give back equally, if not more, to the communities around me. A specific example of giving in this scenario is my advocacy work in the trekking tourism industry whereby I write, speak and advocate for the viewpoints and needs of the indigenous women in this mountain region. I identify allies and partners who can advance our mission. I educate travelers of the power they have to create change in the trekking tourism industry, by demanding of local or foreign operators to normalize the roles of women as guides and porters in a male dominated trekking tourism industry. Where they spend their money matters. 

As we empower the indigenous or local women, these women themselves will cultivate a new generation of changemakers and leaders who will advocate for a trekking tourism industry that operates based on the notions of equity and inclusion. It’s equally important to decolonize the industry so as to give the ownership and control of it back to the local community. These efforts I hope will also be mirrored by the clients/travelers who book treks with us. By joining our treks, they learn a new way of sustaining the trekking industry by including women in the equation. They can then proceed with this knowledge to further our cause by acting as our allies and advocates toward the inclusion of women, thereby creating a long-lasting systemic change in the industry.

At Peak Explorations, we are transforming “adventuring” into a multi-faceted form of advocacy.

GM: What’s been your favorite outdoor/indoor adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

MdJ: I have trekked and traveled in over 60 countries to date. Out of all the adventures I have done, the most meaningful was my solo trekking in Asia and Europe within a span of a year. In China, I spent 3 months solo hiking on holy trails in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Such time was extraordinary as I did not see Western tourists on the trails I hiked. In Europe, I spent time hiking in lesser visited trekking destinations such as Albania, Montenegro, Mallorca, Canary Islands, and Croatia.

Hiking solo in off-the-beaten-path areas taught me to become more confident and mindful as a trekker/adventurer. It also built up my courage to become a full-time global mountain nomad, which leads me to the biggest adventure of my life: moving to the Sacred Valley in the Andes of Peru by myself with my two 14-year-old cats in February of 2019.

What’s the next big adventure? You have to follow Brown Gal Trekker to find out.

GM: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general? Or what is a story you hope to tell in your lifetime?

MdJ: The limits in our lives are set by no one else but ourselves. Start with yourself. Ignore those voices outside of you. Cultivate your voice and amplify it yourself so you no longer hear the preaching of others, but your own. Don’t let unconventional dreams scare you. Embrace them because they exist within you for a purpose that is uniquely yours. And when you do, the only thing you will be afraid of is fear itself. Cliché, yes, but damn… it’s so true.

GM: You are being featured in some upcoming shows... Tell us more about that!

MdJ: VICE Media’s “Second Act” has documented my career transition and life as part of a series of mini-documentaries on entrepreneurs. It is scheduled to air on July 22, 2019. Then Discovery Channel/HGTV just finished filming my life as an expat abroad in Peru for House Hunters International. This episode is set to air in late 2019.

Want to hear more from Marinel de Jesus? Read more online at She Explores, Vox, and Backpacker. Interested in an international trek? Check out Peak Explorations for unique treks in Peru, Patagonia, the Himalayas, and elsewhere. Join her in March of 2020, when Marinel will organize the very first women-only nomadic migration with indigenous women nomads and eagle huntresses in Mongolia to celebrate Women’s History Month (only eight spots). Applications are now open. Follow her online at Brown Gal Trekker, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. For more inspiring interviews and articles, head on over to Women in the Wild 2019.

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