Why I Went To South America and The Gifts It Gave Me

24 Feb

I want to talk about what my South America trip meant for me and why it was important to go.  A lot of people thought I walked away from my life because I didn’t want to work, or that I was this erratic, free-spirit who just impulsively took a chance.  However, one doesn’t dismantle six years of a life’s work in complete carelessness, despite how the decision may look to the world.

Deep within me sat the knowledge that I had built my life based upon the person that I had been six years ago.  This person was uncertain, insecure, depressed, wounded and confused.  She had some sense of self-worth, enough to leave negative circumstances in Chicago, but everything else, goals, dreams were covered in Fog; it’s no surprise that I ended up in a city known for it.

It took me six years to heal myself, in fact, I am still working on it.  As I moved through jobs and apartments, I discovered Yoga, talked with friends and therapists, cried and forgave a lot.

I also learned what nourished my self-worth and happiness; what inspired me; where my boundaries sat and what kind of life I wanted to live.

However, transformation is not just one leap to the next.  It’s a slow evolution that’s often painful and sacrificial.  It’s a willingness to set life (or yourself) on fire, to let it burn and then to build up from the ashes.  My trip was my pyre.

I had to let go everything to make space for what was to come next.  I knew that without this space the cycles I was in would keep repeating themselves: apartment, job, relationship, job, apartment, relationship, and that these things would always fall apart because I wanted to be on a different cycle.

Of course, I wanted to have fun, but I also wanted to distance myself from everything to increase my own perspective on my country, culture and society.  To understand the small dot that was myself in relation to the unfamiliar and  challenging.  I was reaching for challenges that I thought were constructive instead of letting them just come to me.  To test my boundaries for growth – not just because I was rebelling against the structures that I had built for myself or running away.

Now I am sitting here, in a Studio in beautiful Boulder, CO, enjoying my own space. I have taken on a project that I believe in and often times I cannot believe that what I’m actually doing is called work.  This opportunity came to me because I started to move away from situations that did not align with what I truly want to do with my life, and because I am not frantically scrambling or searching for some safety net to cocoon a potential fall.

In the past month, I have gone snow-mobiling, snow-shoe hiking, met a Zen Buddhist Priest and climbed another mountain.  All these activities were pursued because of what my travels brought me, which was a constant practice of constructive challenge.  A way to keep life interesting with growth.

The situation I am in is temporary, and I have a responsibility to myself to begin planning my next move.  But I am allowing that move to unfold with patience.  I’m not letting other people pressure me with all of their, “Shoulds.”

I don’t have all the answers, though I am confident that I can look within myself to hear where my heart is leading me.  That is what South America gave me to me, as I knew it would.  

My Father’s Battle

21 Feb

I know that every time I walk away from my family I am leaving a Father who’s slowly dying.  I knew this when I chose to move to San Francisco in 2008, I knew this when I left for South America and I know this as I type this from my studio in Boulder.

Of course, we are all slowly dying, though we don’t like to think about it.  People, in jest, always say, “well I could get hit by a car crossing the street,” but the truth of that is it’s actually true.  Anyone’s life could end in the next five minutes, and probably somewhere in the world someone has died as I’ve typed this blog.

I first experienced loss when I was nine.  My best friend, Rebecca, got hit by a car and became mentally retarded.  She experienced a living death that I did not quite understand.   As a child, life felt like it was forever, and there I was standing across from my disfigured friend trying to be brave.

From that point on I lived with a fear that haunted me for years.  I was afraid to leave my parents because I thought that they would die if they weren’t in my sight.  I refused to be separated from them, and they began to get angry; they didn’t understand my need to be sewn together.

Eventually we went on vacation, and I began sobbing in a restaurant in Florida, “Didn’t they know a Hurricane could come and sweep us away?”

My Mother took me aside and said, “Samantha if you don’t knock it off we are going home.  And if we are going home, you are going to be locked in your room for the rest of the year.”  That’s when I began hiding my fear of loss.  I sang songs to myself, carried trinkets of comfort and wore a watch so I would always know the time.

Years began to pass and I got older.  Suddenly, I wasn’t a child anymore, but an unhappy teen who desperately wanted to life live on her own terms.  Loss slowly faded from my mind because I had so much ahead of me.  Everyone around me was focused on the/ir future, and I could not wait to get started on mine.

I did what I was told to do.  I got accepted into a good, if not prestigious University, and created a happy life for myself within my student bubble.  I made friends, volunteered with children, got a job at Hollister and maintained a high GPA.

When I turned 19 things began to change.  I was home for the summer, from University, and heard my Mother’s scream from the laundry room.

“This is the worst thing that could have happened to us.”  That is how I found out my Father had epilepsy and had lost his job because of it. Epilepsy turned into degenerative strokes turned into congestive heart failure turned into lupus anticoagulant turned into something I don’t even know the name of.  Now my Father takes 42 pills a day.

Every employer I’ve ever worked for has seen me fall apart over my Father.  Each time I was convinced that he wouldn’t live long and his Doctors agreed with me.  One of his doctors recently told him “it’s a miracle that you’re still alive,” though I think his determination to live is what’s really miraculous.

We are always faced with choices in life – both obvious and subtle.  I’ve found that the most important choices are usually the ones that are most difficult to make; these are the choices that define our lives.

This past summer I flew back to Chicago to take care of my Father and my family told me that I should, “Go LIVE!”

This is how I cultivated the courage to quit my job, with no back-up plan, and travel South America.  And I knew then, as I left, that I was completely liberated from my fear of loss; that even if I felt afraid (and I was terrified) that it wouldn’t stop me from living.

The reason I’m sharing all of this is because me living with the daily possibility of loss is no different than anyone else; it’s just my possibility is more obvious.

My Father’s suffering causes me pain, and I know that losing him will hurt more than I can imagine.  But I know he fights to live because he wants to; that’s his choice.  I support his battle to the best of my ability, but if I sacrificed my opportunities on the alter of his health he would stop fighting.

Happiness starts arriving in our lives when we make space for it; when we have the courage to be true to how we believe we should live no matter what we might lose.  After losing so much, more than I can share in this too-long blog; after living with loss since childhood, the only thing I am certain of is that we must go on.  That no matter what happiness is always possible, even in the midst of tragedy.

My Last Night in South America

25 Jan

When I arrived in Montevideo, I walked into an inescapable heat that covered the entire city.  It was close to midnight when I hailed the cab that took me to the Will Fogg hostel.  A kind man greeted me and told me that I had arrived just in time!

“In time for what?” I asked.

“For the BBQ,” he said, “I can’t believe how perfect your timing is!”

“Thank goodness!” I said,  “I’m starving.”

“Take your time,” he reassured.  “This is Uruguay, there is no hurry.”

I dumped my bag in my room and quickly put on jean shorts and a white, woven tank-top.  I threw on some make-up to cover up my utter exhaustion after two nights without any real sleep and made my way to the large terrace that wrapped around the hostel.

Chorizo, steak and beef lay on the open flame, and people snacked on cubed, cheddar cheese and salami.  The tables were covered with every kind of alcohol that one could desire, as well as a special mixture of Uruguayan wine, champagne and something else that seemed like a guaranteed headache.

I didn’t drink my last night in South America, though I was constantly encouraged to.  The hostel was full of young men who stared and fluttered about, while they reigned in their courage to come talk to me.  I was told that I was, “the most beautiful woman in all of South America,” and I laughed because I was the only single, female at this particular party.

For a long while ,I chatted with an attractive blonde, Belgium (the only other female) who had fallen in love with a Uruguayan and was working in the hostel.

She told me her love story, and I told her about my Buenos Aires romance, though I could see she was too young and naive in the ways of the world to understand how a temporary romance could be worth it; could be just as beautiful and important as love.

“You don’t seem sad that you just said goodbye to him,” she said, and I told her it was because I wasn’t sad.  I was grateful.

I wanted her to understand that one can’t be sad in such a state of beauty and constant change; that the heat burned away everything; that the sweet moments we had together were deeply healing; that to feel such a coming together isn’t something one should ever weep over.

Though I left all these things unsaid and took a moment to look up at the full moon and mull over my ridiculous, lingering regrets.

“Of course there are regrets,” I thought to myself.  “The apartment with pool we didn’t get, the lack of dancing, the extra cups of wine and exhaustion,” but I knew it was the fleeting time; that the regrets were there because time wasn’t endless; because I wasn’t completely free.

“But this is how life is,” I thought.  “A limiting hourglass with grains of sand falling from top to bottom,” and I saw myself on top of a mountain of sand, at the bottom of my glass, begging for more, scrambling not to be buried beneath the last falling moments of my goodbye.

And the Uruguayan moon shone with arrogance, full as it ever was.  I stared at it on the terrace until five in the morning, stretching myself out on the overturned bed with the thin cushion that served as couch.

Behind me, on a lounge chair, lay the gorgeous, dark, 20-year-old Parisian who had tried to kiss me earlier.  He was pretending to read in the dark and eventually fell asleep.

When he had corned me, I turned away and told him, “I can’t kiss everyone.”

“What does that mean?” he demanded, and I choose not to explain.  For how does one tell a stranger that there was another; that I cannot just give myself to anyone who wants me.

Alone, I stared at the moon, and gathered up my bags as the sun was rising.  Out the window of my cab, I tried to soak in the small, proud and quiet city, for I knew it was my last and only look.

And I wished that my flight was leaving Monday, and I wished that I had danced with the boy who I said goodbye to the day before, and I wished  that I didn’t wish anything because then I wouldn’t have met the wonderful people who made my last night in South America so special – who admired my courage to set off on my own.

Who told me that I should be proud of myself, who stood on the steps in front of the hostel and waved goodbye, who shouted again and again, “Buen Viaje!”

A Tribute: What My Grandpa Inspired In Me

12 Dec

When I was 23 years old I picked myself up off the bathroom floor, bleeding, and made a vow to myself to change my life.  I knew then that I was becoming a person I wasn’t very proud of, and I knew that I could do better; that I was smarter and stronger than the circumstances I found myself in, even though there were things that happened in shadows and behind closed doors that had lead me to that very moment.

I don’t know how long I lay in that position but I do know that everyone I had ever loved lay there with me.  Some people had caused me to be there, while others had already walked away because they didn’t want to witness it.  However, the majority of those that I loved had no idea I was struggling.

Yet, one face rose above all other’s and it was my Grandfather’s.  The man who had loved me since birth; who read me the Sunday comics and told me any dish I didn’t want to try was especially made for Samantha.  Who tucked a giant Mikey Mouse in his bag when he returned from Florida so I could leap at it’s obvious discovery.

The man who filled photo albums of every silly play that I was ever in and who kept his old baby blue 1950 Thunderbird for years so we could drive around in it.  Who special ordered clay for our art projects and  who gave me my first camera.

He was the one who made me a necklace with one of his prized coins from the 1800s and was the first person who taught me the meaning of volunteering, taking me to the preschool where he gave his time and then filling with pride as  the children, “followed her around like ducks.”

He was the one who celebrated my love of books with recommendations and special editions and kept every letter I ever sent him.

His love for me was unquestionable, but even more importantly, I knew he believed in me.  It wasn’t that I felt the weight of his expectations, but that he had so continuously nurtured my curiosity, creativity, intelligence and passion for life.

I knew that I could not give into lying on the floor or any challenges that life had gifted me; that I had to get up because I could only face my Grandpa by looking him in the eyes standing up – even if I couldn’t at that very moment.

So I crawled out of the bathroom, and into the very slow, and humbling, process of transforming my entire life.  A month later I was on a plane, in a new city, and everything was so much harder than my 23 year old self could have predicted, but naivety is one of youth’s blessings.

Suddenly it’s years later, and I’m at another, less dramatic crossroads. Again my Grandfather flashed through my mind.

Per usual, he was telling me a story about a young man who rode his bicycle through France.  He said that, “he always wished he had done something like that,” and I knew in his way he was giving me advice about what he dreamed for me.

I hadn’t realized that I had carried that story with me for years, and when it came time to make a decision, deep in my heart I knew leaving SF and traveling was the right answer.

But now he’s gone and I’m so far away that I can’t attend the funeral.  A part of me cannot help but see this as meant to be because it was his stories, his traveling of the world, his sense of adventure that he cultivated in me that got me here in the first place.

So this is what I can do for him.  I can tell all of you that my Grandfather was the type of man that got people up off the floor; that gave them the support whether financial, or otherwise (though volunteering) that they could make something more of their lives.

That he opened up the world for others, through his art and stories,and that he fueled those he touched imaginations.

That there was no question of his love, integrity or friendship, and that he was easily loved and respected in return.

That the world is less without him and more for having him here.  And I know that any good I have inside of me, any inner strength, or anything that I achieve has been nourished by the person that he was and the gift of his love that I will always carry with me.

Hospitals and Thanksgiving in Ecuador

30 Nov

Ecuador was a country that I wasn’t planning on visiting before my trip.  I had thought that I could fly straight from Colombia to Lima on the cheap.  Having done no prior research this was a somewhat delusional thought, and after weeks in Colombia I ended up on a bus crossing the border into Ecuador.

I had very low expectations of the country.  I had heard the capital, “Quito sucked,” and I didn’t know what else there was to see.  Though, looking out my bus window, I knew that I was wrong to expect so little.  The country had the immediate beauty of endless green rolling hills and Andean mountains, and so I decided to stay longer than just a few days.

It is now Thanksgiving, marking (I believe) my third week in Ecuador.  This was not part of my plan, nor was my plan to spend Thanksgiving alone in a hostal in Banos where I have also been for about a week.

I wasn’t even sure about visiting Banos.  It was in the North, and I had impulsively gone South with two Spanish guys – Felipe and Conrad.  We had spent two nights in Quito and it didn’t suck at all, though our hostals did.

The Old Colonial City of Quito had been restored to its former glory, complete with narrow, cobblestone streets that invoked Europe.  The city parks were crowded with people playing music, working out and performing, such as the comedian who made fun of The United States once he spotted me in the crowd.

After we returned to our smelly hostal full of people who seemed like they would not be allowed in other hostals we made plans to go out that evening.  Felipe invited an obese man with a scar on his forehead that wasn’t sure how he got it because he was, “so drunk,” to lead the way.

It wasn’t a complete surprise that this man lead us to a bar called Tequila and reminded me of the places my friends and I would sneak into when we were underage.

The next day we departed for Montanita, the town I  couldn’t leave,  It’s a cloudy, tiny, surf town complete with endless booths of artisans and cocktails.  There was even a street named Cocktail Alley lined with booths selling any kind of tropical cocktail one can dream of for $2.

Montanita was endlessly cloudy, and I believe I received about 50 mosquito bites while I there.   This number is not an exaggeration.

Occasionally, I wonder, “Why did I stay in Montanita for five days?”  Yes, I was frequently hungover but not every day.  Yes, I did make friends with a group of Israelis and yes one of them gave me a tour of the area on his motorcycle, and let me tell you there is nothing like zipping down a deserted beach on the back of the bike.

Of course, a boy leaned in to kiss me on a beach as the sunset and yes he was kind, but that still wasn’t it.

Truthfully, I got lazy, but on the fifth morning I couldn’t take the monotony and so I set off for Lima, or Banos, and booked hostels in both cities even though Lima was in Peru and Banos was in the complete opposite direction in Northern Ecuador.

It wasn’t until I got to the bus stain in Guayaquil that I decided Banos just seemed right, and right I was because after about five minutes of being there I heard my name being called out a window, and I looked up to see my friend Tom.

For the next two days I hiked, recovered from the hike and went to the thermal baths.  I reveled in the mountain air and lack of mosquitoes and wondered why every other store was a candy shop.

I woke up on day three with a 100 degree fever.  I thought, “oh I had too much fun in Montanita,” but then things got worse.

The extraordinarily kind Argentinan couple staying in my room said, “we’re taking you to the Doctor tomorrow,” and this is how I ended up in an Ecuadorian emergency room.  No insurance needed.

There wasn’t really a waiting room.  Just this kind of indoor/outdoor space with two chairs.  I found out it was more crowded than usual because there had been a bad accident earlier that day and some laborers got hurt.

While I wasn’t happy to hear people were hurt, I felt reassured that all the people wearing filthy, torn clothing, coming in and out of the emergency room weren’t the people who were going to treat me.

However, reassured was the last thing I should have been feeling because an hour later I am face down with my pants off and a nurse is plunging a needle into my ass – medicine unknown.

At this point I am in hysterics.  Not only did I need to be convinced by three different people to accept this shot, but at the first attempt I stop the nurse and begin trying to negotiate a way out of it.

Sobbing I feel the slight prick and then a burning.  Afterward I’m prescribed three different medicines of doom, as all three just made everything worse.

Yes, the hospital prescribed me the wrong medicine, and it wasn’t until it was clear nothing was changing that I went private.  Again the kind couple took me and again the waiting room confused me, as it managed to be both in & outdoors.  The Argentinians spoke for me, and later the character of a doctor told me had he known I was from the US he would’ve charged me triple.

Five dollars later and shot free, I finally have the proper prescriptions in hand.

So now I’ve been in beautiful Banos for over a week now, celebrating Thanksgiving with barely eaten pumpkin soup and two strangers who watched Friends reruns with me, though these strangers are now more friends.

You know, I thought I couldn’t leave Montanita, but never could I have envisioned Banos.

The Realities of Home While Traveling

14 Nov

You keep moving because you have to.  You can’t stop to think about the call you received in the beautiful hostel in Otavalo.  Ten dollars a night to sleep in a gorgeous wooden hacienda with beds to sink in.  Plush chairs hang from the ceilings, and a small indigenous woman, wearing a white Mexacali blouse serves you fresh fruit and muesli for breakfast.

It is outrageous to be receiving such a call in such a place, especially after a 20 hour bus-ride.  To be smacked in the face with unhappiness seems indecent.

But this is the life you do not talk about; the one with ill parents and a dying Grandfather.  You don’t discuss the night you drank an entire bottle of wine and coughed until you puked in Medellin after the four hour conversation with your Aunt.  You can’t explain to your new friends what happened in the past, why you can’t return, despite the fact that the world would probably send you back if they knew the truth of what was going on at home.

The morning after you find out your Grandfather is going into hospice care you hike up and around a stunning lake in the picturesque Andean countryside where rolling green mountains make you want to sing the Sound of Music, and so you do because this moment is your reality now.

Does it make what you can’t return to ache less?  Does it make you less guilty for being able to be where you are?  Does it make you understand why when your life, your own personal life, is unfolding your family’s is falling apart?

No.  And you want to dump the contents of yourself out to your new friends, the entire story of your life so they’ll understand why you can’t return, but you know that’s just inappropriate.

So you think, “breathe, breathe,” as your pounding heart reacts to the 3,000 meters above sea-level and the ache in your legs starts to feel good.

Because what’s behind you, or existing with you, doesn’t take away from each and every encounter, friend and wondrous moment that is going on presently.  And each and every momentous moment doesn’t lessen the pain; it’s just there.

So the two co-exist and sit with each other.  They stand with while you gaze upon the stately, colonial Churches of Ecuador, they are with you while you Salsa in Quito, and both joy and guilt cradle you in the hostel that smells like a molded cat.

It is in this hostel when you receive the email from your Father asking for your return, “how can you stay away?” he writes  “if you do not understand then I have done a terrible job raising and my life does not mean much anymore.”

You want him to understand all the things he can’t, you want things that you will never get, so as gently and kindly as you can you say that returning won’t fix or change anything because that’s the truth as well.

Before you lays Montanita, Cueno and the border crossing to Peru; before you lays the life of happiness that you’ve never stopped trying to weave for yourself, and you know, as you look at the fading past, and the dying present, only you can make this world for yourself.

That there is little mercy; that the tin shacks that sit on the rivers of Colombia still collapse in storms and that your little life is nothing to the mountains.

Palomino Beach – deepening my relationship with nature

11 Nov

It starts with green, every shade: jungle, emerald, yellow, sea and grass.  The leaves shimmer with green and the Palms sway.  The sea reflects back both blue and green and they blend into each other.  This is the scenery that is waiting to welcome us, as we, Jenny, Christy and I, bus to the Northern Coast of Colombia.

Catching buses can be a special Colombian challenge.  One stands beside a road and hopes that a bus will pass.  When one does, a Walnut man leans out a window to shout destinations.  The bus never fully stops, while  bags and people are thrown on.

The three of us receive special Gringa treatment and are charged double the other passengers.  Despite our arguments, we’re forced to pay.

But, it’s hard to stay angry when faced with such scenery and the knowledge that each minute brings us closer to the beach.

When we arrive we’re encouraged to take motos to the hostel.  Christy hops on one, but Jenny and I decide to walk.

Ten minutes later we find out that we’re going in the wrong direction.  We’re told to take a turn down some road and walk through town.

The road has no name so we guess and we’re rewarded with Palomino’s residential district: small shacks with thatched roofs and groups of gawking children.  (Later I find out that there’s only enough teachers to have school three days a week; that’s why so many children are free.)

It’s clear that we still have no real idea of where we’re going so a kind local woman, on incredible platforms sandals (and purple mascara), happily navigates the rocks and shows us the road that leads to the beach.

That’s where all the hostels sit and many are empty.  The beaches of Palomino are calling the tourists.  What was once a forgotten place is now becoming a destination.

The locals are worried.  This what I hear when a thunderstorm traps a new friend and I at a hostel down the road.

It’s not really a hostel, but a place to stay for those who are interested in Yoga and living with the land.  While I prefer the pools of our hostel (aptly named the Dreamer), I cannot resist the daily Yoga classes.  Marta, the owner, is a serious Yogi who is interested in the community; it’s why she left her life in Toronto to root back down to her roots as soon as she could.

She owns an adorable puppy who falls asleep in my arms, making it impossible for me to leave.  As I cradle the cutest thing I have ever seen, I realize that I am overhearing a passionate discussion on how to best mange the influx of tourists and maintain the integrity of the community.  I learn that the politicians could care less and Marta is leading the way for local involvement.

Since I am not a local, I know it’s time to silently leave, and so I do – celebrations await.

It’s Halloween, but half the hostel doesn’t care as they’re not American.  Sadly, the only costume I can put together is an “American flag,” though I’m fooling no one.  My red dress with stars and blue bandanna makes me look like a confused version of Rosie the Riveter.

Fire-dancers come, perform tricks and ask for money.  Afterward, I sit at an exclusively Spanish-speaking table and entertain my new friends with stories from my trip. We sit and drink terrible Colombian wine until sun exhaustion drags us all into bed.

Though, before we all go our separate ways the entire hostel decides to go tubing down an unnamed river.

All 22 of us rent large, black rubber tires, hop on the back of motos, grip onto our driver with one hand, hold our tube in the other and roll up to the beginning of what will be another unfortunate hiking experience for me.

We’re told it’s a 20 minute walk to the mouth of the river.  This is a lie.  It is at least twice as long, over rocks, mud and uneven ground. Indigenous people pass us leading donkeys and each time they do we all have to scramble to the side of the brush.

Laura, my new Colombian friend who is just as tiny as me, ends up carrying my tube because I am too busy clutching my mud-slick sandals and crawling on all fours.

Again, I see a donkey, and I yell, “Fuck that fucking donkey!!”

Of course, right behind the donkey is an indigenous woman dressed entirely in a white sheet, and of course I know we are really intruding on her land.  Ashamed, I apologize and tell the woman, “really I love donkeys,” as if this makes sense.

Eventually the frigid river appears and all 22 of us plop down our tubes and hop on.  Most link feet, drink beer and float on.  A few get flung around, frantically kick and stay sober.

While beer wasn’t my goal, neither was continued frustration.  However, in time I equalize  and look up to see that I am surrounded by majestic trees; that I am floating down a jungle river on a tube, so really, what’s my problem?

As I catch up with the others I hear one man yell, “I am a Wizard,” and I see that he has found a big stick, or as he fondly named it, his Wizard staff.

This is how I know most others have finished their beer.

The Wizard continues to wonder about many things in life, such as, “Why do tattoos have meaning?” and “Why do we have to get off our tubes before we hit the ocean?”

Luckily, for all of us, the Wizard’s girlfriend saves him from getting swept away and we begin the long walk back down the white beach, carrying black tubes, wondering just how long we can really stay.

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